Being somewhere new is tiring. From walking to the boulangerie to get some bread (which I now have to do most days) to getting in the car to get shopping, Everything has its challenges.
There’s the language. My French is passable, but all it takes is the sight of everyone weighing their vegetables as they go around the shop to the lady at the checkout asking me ‘un ou deux?’ about my salad (apparently you don’t weigh it) for me to feel like I’m very far from home. Actually getting in a car is something I haven’t done regularly for a very long time, and now there’s the added fun of remembering not to get into a head-on collision thanks to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (yes, I know the UK is in a minority on this one).
It’s also very fun. From another perspective, it means that the tiniest, everyday activity becomes an opportunity for adventure. Me and the small one have discovered a couple of lovely walks nearby where we can poke sticks in streams and stir up soup in puddles. I spent far too long in the supermarket because it was so much fun to look at all the random products I can buy here. I made do with cafe flavoured soya yoghurt and some sort of nutty chocolate this time, but next time I’m going for the giant marshmallow teacakes and what I think was chocolate-infused tea.
The other day I decided to be brave and go further afield. It managed to be both exhausting and exhilarating. I clearly shouldn’t have used the word ‘mountain’ to describe where we were going. On arrival, she burst into tears and told me it wasn’t a mountain, that she didn’t want to go for a ‘little walk.’ So I drove around for a bit, thinking she’d sleep. When that failed we went back to where we’d started and tried again. Only I couldn’t find the charming countryside walk by the car park (I think we were in the wrong one) and my French didn’t go as far as translating the description on the leaflet I’d downloaded.
I asked a friendly stranger (well, kind of. I didn’t realise how important it was to say ‘bonjour’ before any kind of question. Lesson learned) for directions. She looked confused and said we’d have to drive. So we got back in the car, drove up the hill through a village and stopped at a rocky track. I figured this would have to do, even if it wasn’t our intended destination. After a short walk I found a map and all the criss-cross walks I’d been looking for. Success.
Even though it was cold and windy, we had our picnic anyway. A bemused-looking family wished us ‘bon appetit’ as we tucked into our crisps and sandwiches. On our walk we were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and green hills. A new destination, a new place to discover, even if it had been a challenge to get there (and get back – my phone died).
My comparably pathetic attempts at adventure were put into perspective when I read No Hurry to Get Home by Emily Hahn. It’s a collection of essays she wrote for The New Yorker. One particular section amazed me in her sheer boldness and daring. In the early 1930s she’d been in what was then the Belgian Congo. After an argument with her colonial host, she decided to set out for Lake Kivu, a place she’d always wanted to see, by herself. In a time when women doing pretty much anything solo was considered odd, I was amazed to hear her account of walking through the jungle and just assuming everything would be fine. She lived all over the world, travelled extensively and dealt with a lot of resistance because of her status as a woman, particularly as she was single when she was in the Congo. Snakes, elephants, crocodiles, using tiny boats for transport and crossing rivers on tree trunks – she took it all in her stride. Her words took me to a time where sometimes there just weren’t any roads, and you certainly couldn’t have relied on your GPS to get you to your destination.
It made me a little envious. I’ve always loved the idea of being an explorer. It’s a shame there aren’t that many places left to ‘discover,’ at least that haven’t been seen by other people. But it also made me very thankful. After all, my forays into French life during a pandemic might be tricky, but they’re not a patch on some of her more extreme activities, such as shutting yourself in a big box to avoid unpleasant eyes during transportation, or living for two years in occupied Shanghai with a small baby.
With that in mind, I will try to enjoy my dashes into the outside world in this new country, in the safe knowledge that I can have the smallest of adventures if I want them.
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