Chapter Eight: Ouin Ouin
That's French for "wah wah," and it is the right sound effect for this chapter, which is basically a ride on the wahmbulance.
OK so hallelujah, I found a house, this whole crazy thing was actually moving forward. I still had basically no real, serious, actual information about where I was going, but that didn’t stop me from trying to sell it to the kids. A few days after my offer was accepted, one afternoon after school, I gathered the two of them around the table and opened up my laptop to show them my future. “Ah ouais!” said the girl, who had just gotten her braces on. “Cool,” the boy dropped in that expertly offhanded way of 15-year-olds. They wanted to know more about the village and I told them I didn’t know much but that as soon as they could, they should come out with their mom to visit. “Is there a swimming pool?” one of them asked. “No but there are horses everywhere. We can go riding.” “Ouais!”
I am terrified of horses. When the girl was in fifth grade, I used to drop her off for her riding lessons at the Poney Club in the Parc de Vincennes just east of our house. In her tiny rubber riding boots, a borrowed helmet strapped to her skeptical head, the remains of her baby fat protruding over the waistband of her elastic pants, she didn’t seem to love them too much then either. The teacher was a scold and the animals made the girl nervous, as did almost anything she didn’t master immediately. (We are very much alike in this regard.) But now as our time together was almost at an end, we were getting sentimental and looking forward to something, anything, that seemed glamorous about Le Perche. The kids had already trained me to understand that I’d need to lure them out of Paris with activities, even if I knew they’d spend two thirds of the time sprawled on the sofa on their phones, and I wouldn’t mind a bit because of how much I would have missed them. I located the nearest lake ASAP, which turned out to be 45 minutes away by car, and told them I’d keep them posted on the progress of the renovations.
And then I just kind of fixated and worried. Once a long-held vision finally starts to take real form, you start to see the cracks, and the first lapses in your planning. And if you still have a few months of crack-and-lapse awareness before you start living your new reality, you have too much time to parse, and panic sets in. All your dumbest insecurities and status anxieties spew their hot, bad breath all over you. I’ll remind you all that the world was still very COVID-slow, even if we were no longer in that first interminable lockdown. People were still hiving themselves off in rooms while the outside world came back to life in fits and starts. Perfect opportunity to brood.
In those few short months left before the new owners moved into the Paris house, I pored constantly over the agent’s photos and my snapshots of the house. Was it, in fact, kind of dodgy? The French countryside in general is often objectively beautiful, but for the past half a century, it’s been more or less abandoned. The stone houses may be majestic but when most of the upwardly mobile jobs in the country are part of the information economy, the periphery becomes a dumping ground for those left behind. (This was the grinding motor behind the gilet jaunes.) Things aren’t so glorious once you see behind the walls, as I had discerned after 150+ house visits. If you’re a farmer with a nice chunk of land and a good operation, terrific, but if your family doesn’t have acreage or knowhow, and once worked in factories that are no longer running, living in the countryside comes with some resignation that the rest of the world is passing you by. No wonder they hate the Parisians, who pop in every weekend in luxury SUVs to preen and get impatient and remind them that the action is somewhere else. Did my village even have broadband?
And then of course I worried—it was all worrying—that this move was a way of giving up on myself, cashing in on city life and reducing expenses, because I simply couldn’t hack it in the big time anymore at my age. Never mind the big time was getting so much smaller anyway, with magazine after magazine thinning down to pamphlet size or going bust entirely. This made me yet another periphery case, even if one with a lot of expensive shoes and a graduate degree. (Which, logically, sort of undercuts the theory. But why be logical when I could be catastrophizing about my dwindling future?)
Then sometimes I rallied and reminded myself that the whole house project was a metaphor for myself: with some love and imagination and faith I could restore me. I could plant ivy out front like the manor house at the hairpin turn. I could try new kinds of creative work, or take up some restorative new study, with time and space and nobody breathing down my neck. I would slow down and grow things. I would sleep better. I would take long walks in the fresh air. I would stop judging everything so much and open up to love. Or whatever.
(I laugh in retrospect. I have been here for two years and change by now, and I have taken up absolutely no new activities. I sleep terribly. Amorous relations? What are they? Though I do take walks, and I do have a cute garden.)
Vacillating constantly between excitement and fear, I took endless virtual tours of the village, at least as far as Google maps had charted. The grouping of houses across from mine were shaggier than I remember from my first visit. One of them was legitimately falling apart. There was so much asphalt. Why did they cover up all the old cobblestones? Most of my inquietude and subsequent projection was aesthetic—would it be pretty enough for people to want to come or would they just feel sorry for me and skip it? I didn’t spend more than a second thinking about who my neighbors would be. Or how I might meet a man, once I could even stomach the thought of going out to meet them again. The people who were about to make up my future social life, whoever they would turn out to be, were an abstraction I preferred to avoid.
Like most urbanites I didn’t know most of my neighbors. They’re not really a thing in Paris, except for one day a year when, if you live in an apartment building, there’s a potluck that in my ten years in Montmartre, I never attended once. I didn’t need my neighbors except to say hello in the hallway and try to be on good terms in case somebody sprang a leak. Living with the ex and the kids in a house, we were even more isolated. The idea that we’d expend effort to get to know someone just because they lived next door was counter to our reality.
I was a creature of urban anonymity. Though the ships-passing-in-the-night thing could make me lonely—there are attractive men on every corner but nobody ever looks up from their phones—it was also a safety zone. I loved being able to have stuff everywhere, be it excellent southeastern Chinese food or obscure wine or vintage stores of all theme and disposition, shop it, pass through it, and then disappear. I loved the lack of responsibility it allowed. The lack of accountability to people who might want to see me but can’t because we’re all just so busy. I knew that once I got out to where I would end up, my circle would be very small, which would make everyone inside it more important. I knew my future neighbors, whoever they were, would have opinions of me that would actually matter because they would be the only people around. I imagined they would all find something to complain about. Being unknown at least meant not being disliked. Soon that jig would be up.
Honestly for someone who was making a move toward freedom, I was just neurotic as fuck about it. I am annoying myself reading this back now. I promise you, dear readers, that we will get out of this phase eventually.
But not yet! Please check back next week as we continue to leap forward into the unknown, and I fail my driving test.