It was the house really that brought me there. While the Normandy countryside was bitter sweet in its lush green fields of early summer poppies and sandy brown wheat which grows wildly everywhere and I couldn’t help but remember the times by the roadside where I had thumbed my way across roads and fields just like these twenty years before, it was my friend’s house that brought me back even further in time.
I learned that it belonged to her grandparents and at the time, was considered the “country home”, the place of serenity they would escape to when Paris became too hot, too crowded and just too much to bear. They would come out on bikes, something that took us an hour and a half to drive, simply because they had no car at the time and it was a faster alternative to walking.
The place was musty when we entered the living room, the main bowels of the house. It reminded me of the smell our summer camp had after being bottled up all winter except stronger, as if it had been bottled up for six seasons not one. Apparently they visit the place to maintain it but it’s no longer the escape pad from the city for weeks at a time like it once was for the previous two generations.
The furniture remained as it was from its likely upgrade sometime in the mid-forties. Two matching vinyl black chairs with ottomans, a tiger throw, and a retro glass table loaded with trinkets and those thick glass ashtrays of the time that you could find on any of your grandparent’s side tables. The only thing missing was a bowl of hard candies which I later discovered at a restaurant entrance in the main town, a five minute drive away. The table too was vinyl or looked like it had a layer of it on the top of its a partial wood base and trinkets were scattered across it, a table that today would have housed a full stereo and TV system.
This country getaway house had no TV however, nor did it have a phone or entertainment system – the closest thing I found was an old black transistor radio, with its antenna still extended as if it was actually used the last time someone stayed here.
The first thing I did was open the French windows in the main room to let the air and sunshine in to warm our bones before we were about to venture on several hours of yard work. The kitchen was as retro as it gets and reminded me of my great Aunt Betty’s house, where no room appeared to have changed since they moved in as young lovers when they first married.
Upstairs, a room half the size of an old fashioned closet was made into a half shower and sink, which only delivered hot water so you had to duck in and out quickly to avoid getting scorched. Downstairs was only cold water and a separate room for a toilet, which is common in France.
Two bedrooms joined each other, both with sitting tables and side drawers for jewelry, brushes and make-up. Not unlike the childhood bedroom on my Adirondack lake, on the paneled walls, there were old slightly faded prints of lakes, trees and birds nestled inside brown wooden frames. An olive green retro chair sat in the corner, alongside the bed was yet another transistor radio, a small framed picture and a cross that probably hung somewhere in the room once upon a time.
The carpet was rust as was the itchy woolen throws that acted as duvet covers on top of the beds. The pillows like so many in early French homes, were those long thin rolls that spread across the width of the bed. They were wide enough just to fit under the arch of your neck and often in materials that displayed colorful checks, swirls, flowers or stripes.
The curtains were just dark enough not to see through yet thin enough to be only a grade above sheer. Dark but peppy blue melted into layers of pink and purple, none of which really went with the rust carpet or the bright yellow pillow that resembled a modern day dog pillow, and didn’t really have a place in the room.
Lamps throughout bore modern and bright colors in an overly retro design and felt out of place against everything else in the house; it was as if Don Draper’s Megan had picked them out herself before the rest of the house was thrown together. I marveled at the purple glass and white plastic design hanging above me with its matt silver shimmering fixtures that held it in place from the middle of the ceiling.
The kitchen cannot be overlooked as it reminded me of my own mother’s kitchen in many ways, which was where I first listened to stories across generations from the top of the stairs late at night when the adults thought I was sleeping. I sometimes perched myself half way down the stairs if I couldn’t hear clearly enough and other times, remained hidden under the tables, curled up like a ball holding my breath to avoid being seen.
Below if you look carefully, you’ll see the old fashioned toaster I used to brown my French loaf which I coated with homemade Rhubarb jam.
It was that same kitchen we prepared the dishes for the following day which included hours of eating, drinking and sharing over paella, French champagne, cheese, Bordeaux, and fresh salads.
During my early visits to France, I first learned the art of storytelling and the importance of the textures that make up people’s stories, a mere expression of their lives. Their pains, tribulations, and unspoken truths of which there were so many at the time. I learned what women held dear and what they didn’t share with their husbands and how some of them had to finagle their finances merely to survive.
Others spoke of miscarriages and how they planned to carry their family forward after their husband got laid off from the “plant.” I learned about cigars, cars, whiskey and gambling from sitting quietly under the desk in the den, where the men would retreat when the women washed dishes after a group meal.
The once country had become more of a suburbia town, but a small one which now integrated what was once a village. The most obvious thing that made it feel still “country” was the amount of birds who played with your senses early in the morning, such as the early morning visits by the coukou’s and morning doves and later in the day by the white and black magpies, who had built a nest in the backyard.
They were loud and countless enough to sing like a chorus, something you never hear the textures of in a city and rarely in a small town. Birds bring me back to another reality, a spiritual one in which the physical world doesn’t exist.
It’s as if their singing and chirping is nothing short of the raw joy they feel to be alive and how they celebrate in unison every morning before taking the day on, not unlike children do before they learn that the external world ‘should’ hold more value than the internal joy they simply feel from being, listening, partaking and experiencing. In other words, before they are forced by society to move into the world of thinking which sadly in western societies drives our decisions more than does our hearts.
As I perched myself up against the wall in the bedroom with two single beds and looked out the open French windows, while I couldn’t see them, I felt as if they wanted to make sure I heard them even in my dreams before I awoke. I couldn’t help but thank Normandy for bringing me back in time to a place where every day you could wake up to a day of joy, just like children do and the birds of Normandy do, grateful for the trees they call home for the summer season. The trees, the air and the sunshine were enough for them just as they are enough for children, a reminder of the things in our lives that truly bring us joy, rather than ill substitutes for happiness.
Normandy is a different life and frankly, so is Paris. While my Paris counterparts who work at start-ups tend to put in long hours, when they turn off, they really turn off, taking retreats to the south of France, northern Normandy, wine country or a family member’s house in Corsica. And social life is truly that, social. Laptops and cell phones don’t turn on nor are they dominant or even integral to a conversation over dinner or in a café.
As I relished in the sound of the birds, I couldn’t help but wonder how long we have before other societies turn to technology as the driving force in our lives just as they have in Silicon Valley, other American urban centers and parts of Asia.
Once the sounds of cell phones take our attention more than the birds do off in the distance, I also wondered if the birds would want to visit anymore. At first, they might be curious as they watched from above. Below, the human race turning into zombies before their eyes, so unaware of their natural surroundings that they can no longer participate in their own chorus, just as the birds continue to do…as naturally today as they did 1,000 years ago.