Chante encor, gente grive, sur le rameau défeuillé,
Chant encor gentil oiseau, j’écoute tes accords,
Et, en son debut de règne, le vieil Hiver,
Entendant tes airs joyeux,
Déride son front soucieux.”
Robert Burns Journal Champêtre d’Edith Holden (translated into French)
Sonnet On Hearing A Thrush Sing
Sing on, sweet thrush, upon the leafless bough,
Sing on, sweet bird, I listen to thy strain,
See aged Winter, ‘mid his surly reign,
At thy blythe carol, clears his furrowed brow.
Thus in bleak Poverty’s dominion drear,
Sits meek Content with light, unanxious heart;
Welcomes the rapid moments, bids them part,
Nor asks if they bring ought to hope or fear.
I thank thee, Author of this opening day!
Thou whose bright sun now gilds yon orient skies!
Riches denied, thy boon was purer joys –
What wealth could never give nor take away!
But come, thou child of poverty and care,
The mite high heav’n bestow’d, that mite with thee I’ll share.
I feel a great sense of liberty after all the challenges of late: separating from my French partner and re-establishing myself and my daughter in the nearby town of Céret. Having responsibility for a child has changed both my outlook and practical requirements, and ‘stepping out on our own’ has also brought many new experiences that have been converted to ‘feathers in my cap’.
This week we have high-speed internet connected and it is a complete joy! Communication becomes so important when we are away from friends and family. In such a civilised country, it may be hard to imagine that there are many situations when the internet does not function well. There were times, while living with satellite reception on the mountain, that it was down just because there were clouds. Often it was out of service for weeks, and at all times very slow. So many of my posts or photos were lost midway that I had to learn to be very patient. Contrast allows us to appreciate what we have, so I can be very grateful to turn the corner.
And as it is now easier to express myself, I need to sing after a long silence, so please bear with me…
I find I am in the position of re-creating my life without many of the practical items or creature comforts I have always been used to. In making the decision to move my ‘worldly goods’ to France, by ship, I had to part with many of the items that served me very well over the years (and reduce my library, significantly, which for me was the greatest challenge). I also had to come to terms with letting go of my work – doing what I absolutely loved. I had evolved to the point of being completely happy with my occupation (for it didn’t even feel like work), and creative pursuits.
When we reach a certain stage in mid-life, we already have all the basics, and are more used to ‘upgrading’ as we either renovate, unite with another or our needs alter. Rather than coming to France (as many Antipodeans do) and setting up a secondary residence – where it is natural to furnish and embellish the property of choice and continue to live from an external income – aspects of ‘permanently residing’ aren’t always that comfortable. I felt like I had downgraded certain aspects and had to adjust, as much as it was exciting to embrace the new.
I cannot help but make comparisons – not criticisms – I am considering the differences I have perceived and making a sweeping generalisation…
The lifestyle I was accustomed to – the spirit of enthusiasm and ‘Kiwi’ or Australian ingenuity or entrepreneurial ethic, and affluence that flows, is far from what flows here in this part of the South. Of course there is money: old money; an influx from tourism; new arrivals from larger cities; those financially independent, retired or with an international income live independently to ‘local conditions’.
Yet there is also a lack of opportunity or power to earn: a precedent of extremely low wages and seasonal-based employment, mainly in tourism, hospitality and agriculture. Each year the population augments with an influx from other regions in France, many seeking a little more sun and warmth, and with migrant workers fleeing the crisis elsewhere. There is a growing population of SDF ‘sans domicile fixe’ who live on the streets. Savings accounts yield 1% interest, so it is easy to see why credit is widely utilised – there is little reward for setting funds aside. Statistics reveal some of the highest unemployment figures in France.
How can there be ‘true growth’ in these conditions?
The French social system supports and gives, but so few give back… there is simply no incentive to rise beyond or to seek more. I have been astounded by the level of complacency or ‘functionality with detachment’ here, as so many choose to live on an unemployment benefit or work ‘just to make ends meet’ rather than follow their dreams or passions. A ‘lack of motivation’ to either improve conditions or step outside of the square also seems to stem from the need to ‘collect points’ towards retirement, biding time, because this is what is demanded. I have encountered inflexibility, and as I come from a society that is built on giving things a go, or giving a helping hand, and is the most part geared towards always finding a solution, I have set myself the task of overcoming this resistance and rising above the circumstances that surround me, and whilst accepting the advantages of becoming part of the social system, am conscious of giving back or contributing.
“It’s not how things are done here”. “Why not?”
Each time I have been faced with what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, I have tackled it with enthusiasm. If one path was blocked I would seek another. If I still wasn’t getting anywhere I would change tack completely and find another channel. Yet reassuringly, as ‘nature is change’, there has also been a general shift in consciousness that has penetrated, and many ensuing reforms, since my arrival four years ago.
Initially, the welcome for ‘étrangers’ or strangers, outside the European Union or Community, was ‘far from what I may have expected’… involving queuing from the wee hours of the morning in a narrow lane that smelt of the above description; waiting with other hopefuls to secure a precious ticket for entry to the Prefecture. There were fights, paid stand-ins and deals, metal barriers and security guards. Even though I was heavily pregnant, I sat in on the road and waited for my turn. The procedure of renewal for the necessary ‘Titre de Séjour’ has luckily been automated and now we receive an email with an appointment!
I have never focused on reporting this side of entry into France… there were so many ‘character-building’ moments, that anyone changing residency experiences to lesser or greater degrees. It is because of all of this that I have such a sense of achievement now, at having come thus far!
And since I am here, I may as well continue the journey, for it is not the destination but what we learn along the way that shapes us. I can now say “I have never been so happy to vacuum, or to iron or do the washing!” Many appliances we take for granted are indeed labour-saving devices, and even though they don’t usually rate as the most exciting purchases, they permit a certain quality of life.
I am immensely grateful to be aided in my hour of need and to be accepted under the wing of France – it is reassuring to know that there are measures in place to help people with a wide range of circumstances, even if they are officially known as ‘strangers’. And as life is always full of surprises (Célestine was one of them, a miracle), if it wasn’t for the fact that I am now ‘the mother of a French citizen’, I would not even have the right to stay.
My new fridge arrives in a week and it will be filled with pork cuts (from helping make artisanal charcuterie) and wonderful fresh produce from the market (and soon, goat’s cheese). I will learn to relax, following the seasonal rhythm and do what everyone does: turn with the sun’s rays, and to move heaven and earth to eat with hearty appreciation of all that is good. But more importantly, I shall remember how far I have come, appreciating everything I have – plenty – and sharing it, in whatever way I can.