29 October 2009

Intégration, et une mort lente

Je suppose que c'est ça, la fameuse intégration dont on parle tant dans le cadre du débat sur l'immigration et les immigrants en France. People coming to live in France need to speak French, respect French laws and customs, and, on some level, blend into, or at least become part of, the local society.

This past week has been an exercise in, and proof of, our integration into local life and French society. When somebody dies, are you part of the ritual, the commemoration, the funeral ceremonies? Or do you keep your distance, and live apart from your neighbors and other local people? Or do you participate, interact?

Fall color in the vineyards near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

It's ironic that a friend's passing turns into the first time you really feel a part of the life of the community, and not just your neighborhood. You go to a funeral and you recognize many of the attendees. You see and greet your plumber, the Peugeot dealer, your deceased friends father, the grape-grower/winery owner who has what is very likely the biggest business concern in the village... not to mention the mayor, who is your neighbor, to whom you say tu and not vous, and whom you greet with the famous cheek-kisses called les bises.

An apple a day, off the tree, has become
part of my morning routine

So much of it has to do with language. If you can't communicate with the people around you in their language, you remain an outsider. When you can communicate, you're still an outsider, but at least you have one foot in the other society. You can tell people about yourself, what brought you here, why you like the place, what you do with your days. They can start to get an idea of who you are.

Callie out in the vineyard on a very foggy morning

I've been thinking about why Jean-Luc's passing was so significant for me. We weren't the closest friends, but we did like each other. He had grown up in Paris, in the same neighborhoods I lived in, and at about the same time (30 to 35 years ago). When I first met Jean-Luc on July 14 — Bastille Day — in 2003, I thought to myself: "Okay, here's is the guy who is obviously a Parisian, and he lives here. If he can be happy living in Saint-Aignan, so can Walt and I."

He and our neighbors made us feel welcome here, at home. But he was somebody I could relate to even more than to my neighbors, who are all a generation older than I am. They have children and grandchildren, and they've never lived anywhere but here. Jean-Luc was a little younger than me, a little older than Walt, and he had lived many years in the urban environment that is the center of Paris. I'll miss that contact with the Paris of the 1970s and '80s.

The fact that Jean-Luc's companion, S., is an Englishwoman is also important. She has lived in this part of France for 20 years or more, speaks French well, and has a lot of friends here. But now she has to decide whether to stay in France or return to the U.K. "A lot of expats go home to die," she told me. "It's a well-known phenomenon."

A dog's eye view of a fall walk in the Touraine vineyard

The other thing about Jean-Luc's death is that he died exactly the same way my father did, 20 years ago. He spent a perfectly normal day, though he felt tired and run down. He went to bed at his usual hour, and then he never woke up. That's a good way to go, I'm sure, but not when you are 53, like Jean-Luc, or 64, like my father. I guess I figure that's how I'll die, one day — but I don't know when.

Walt's father also died of a heart attack, and at age 44! There you have some of the reasons that convinced us to abandon the stresses of the working world, the California traffic jams, and big city life. We figured we might as well go ahead and do something we really wanted to do — move to France and live in the country — before it was too late.

This might sound morbid, but I came to France to die. To die, yes, « ...mais de mort lente », as the singer/poet Georges Brassens said in one of his songs. A slow death, enjoying each day that goes by before the last one comes.


  1. This is perhaps your best blog entry ever. I'm stunned. Both the sentiment and insight expressed and the grace of the writing are just wonderful. It really hit a nerve with me. Thank you!

    The pictures were fantastic as well...I love the Fall colors and to see them in France as beautiful as New England made me really long for life in France. French lessons here we come!

    Before my recent trip, some here told me that I couldn't do it. I told them that I wouldn't mind a headstone that read "BORN DULUTH, MINNESOTA, DIED PARIS, FRANCE". I may yet get that stone.

  2. my sentiments exactly...i keep thinking i'd better hurry up & get to france while i still have some time to enjoy it!!!!! You all are so lucky to have been able to be there......and lucky to have such welcoming neighbors

  3. Well said, I fail to understand why anyone would want to live in France and not want desperately to learn the language and be accepted by the local community.

    I'm sure your friendship will help S to decide what she wants to do. I imagine that if she has lived in St-Aignan for all that time then there is not much left in England for her.

    I can relate completely to your feelings about escaping the rat race and living and dying in France. We spend a lot of our time planning how we can do the same.

  4. The lesson you learned during Jean-Luc's funeral is that you are fully integrated and accepted. You are where you are supposed to be and make the best of it, and you do. I am sure your neighbors love you and most importantly, respect you and Walt. Your happiness shines through your daily stories, your photos. France should be happy and wish all expats should adapt, integrate the way you both did. You guys never complain about the differences between France and the US (and there are many). I can't remember of an instance of you whining or being a "victim" because you are American. Yes you must both have a great personalities, easy going, but really, it is honor that you chose France and the French should be grateful you guys did.

  5. "So much of it has to do with language". No truer words were ever "spoken". I miss so much because, although I can speak, read and write French, I simply cannot understand it when it is spoken. I haven't given up, I'm still trying, but it now seems hopeless.

  6. Starman, I agree with you that listening comprehension is the most crucial skill. You can always make yourself understood, get your point across, but if you don't understand the French person speaking to you, you are sunk. It takes years of effort and practice. Don't give up, and listen a lot. Can you get French TV? That's easier than radio.

  7. It must be reassuring to know that you are living the life you really want to live,instead of the life others expect you to live.Few people get to do this because of family,job,economics.It is the simplicity of your everyday routine that appeals to me...

  8. I agree with Bill and the others here- this was an extraordinary post- the photos all matched. Even that apple fit in somehow with the theme, a slice of life in France.

    Jean Luc helped in your adjustment to your new retirement in France. I know you will miss him just like others in his community that you are a part of now.

    Bill, I wouldn't mind if my headstone read "BORN IN LOUISVILLE, KY, DIED IN PARIS or maybe even ST CHAMANT, FRANCE.

  9. Dear Ken, you have indeed turned a corner in your quest to make France and St. Aignan your home. And it's wonderful to see how all the energy you've invested in connecting with your community and learning the nuances of its culture are bearing fruit. I suspect that you're accepted in the community because you've accepted the community as your own. It's been a privilege to watch the transformation of a couple of American ex-pats living in France to Frenchmen.

    Lovely post.


  10. What a beautiful post. Thank you, Ken. Your closing reminded me of the lyrics one of my favorite songwriters, Robert Earl Keen, wrote in his song "Dreadful Selfish Crime" (the dreadful selfish crime is wasting precious time):

    "One thing I’ve found
    there’s just two ways to go
    it all comes down
    to living fast or dying slow"


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