A few nights ago we had a torrential downpour here at the cabin. The phone screamed flood warnings nearly every hour all night long, and the forest became a river. Water poured from the sky and rushed along the forest floor, pushing over trees, and piling up debris that raced along in front of the torrent. Broken limbs, fallen leaves, and anything else that had been lying around was swept up as the water pushed everything along the path of least resistance.
A few days later, after the water had subsided, and the mud had dried into soft soil again, we took a long walk through the woods to see what damage might have occurred. Uprooted trees that had once towered over the landscape were pushed aside, leaning heavily against their neighbors for support. Piles of debris were in strange places where the water had pushed it into corners against some immovable object, and then left it there to rot. The grass was swept in one direction, as though a giant comb had been raked over it, giving away the direction the water had gone in its mad rush across the forest floor. The water seemed to have carried away anything that wasn’t holding on tight, deeply rooted in the soil, and even then, nothing survived untouched. The flood had left its mark.
I sit on the back porch, staring into the forest, and listen to the gentle gurgle of the stream below. Sunlight dances through the trees as the breeze moves their branches far above beneath a cloudless sky of brilliant blue. A bird sings in the distance. It is hard to look at this precious, restful scene, and think of the damage that was done just days before in this same place. How can it go so quickly from torrent to babbling brook? Those plants that held on through the storm are now blooming, rising up a little taller with each passing hour of sunshine as their roots drink in the water left behind after the storm. And it makes me wonder…
How have you weathered the storm?
Have you been swept away, caught up and ripped from your place to be carried along in a direction you didn’t want to go? Are you dashed against the rocks, and left to fend for yourself once the flood waters have subsided? Do you feel beaten, broken, and abandoned, wondering why others around you seem undamaged? Or, have you dug in, held fast to something solid that won’t let you go when the waters rage against you, and threaten to destroy? When the flood dissipates, and the storm is gone, are you a little bent, but not broken? Rising tall as the sun hits your face again, and certain you’ll remain right where you’re planted?
I’ve spent the last week loving friends who are in the midst of their storm. When it rains, it pours has been the theme of the week, it seems. I watch them fighting hard against the waves, digging in their heels against the rising floodwaters their life has become, and I am in awe. Determined, and inspired, I stand behind them, my shoulder leaning into the task as we fight to hold the water back. They won’t be swept away, they are rooted in solid ground. Their faith in God is what holds them there, certain he will rescue them even when they can’t see how. The thunder roars overhead and the wind screams in their faces, all while the water rises, but they won’t let go. Their hope is in something bigger, something that has never let them go, and so they hold on.
As I sit here listening to the stream sing its sweet song as it moves beneath the trees, I am overwhelmed with hope. Yesterday the storm raged, but today the water is back in its banks. Instead of destruction, today there is peace, and it is carried along beneath a bright blue sky. Today there is hope for those who held their ground, and the flowers bloom right where they stand beside the quiet stream as it wanders through the wood.
What are you holding onto? Will you bloom today, or be washed away?
A few have asked me if I’m still writing. I’ll admit life has been very chaotic since I published my last book. Moving to France has been more intense than I imagined, and although we’ve had some amazing moments, it is still a lot of work to create a whole new life overseas.
But, the really incredible thing is this: Northern France is the dream world I always wanted to live in. I am surrounded by things that inspire me at every turn. A wall of ivy, a set of ruins, a moss-covered pathway, fog creeping through the trees, a chateau peeking above the forest in the distance, ancient stones with faded markings… there is something new to discover every day.
And there are funny things, too, that stick in my head. For instance, the way someone looks at you when you try to explain you are moving here…on purpose. The way some words sound the same, but mean something VERY different. The odd little social rules that no one seems to realize are actual rules, but you seem to be breaking every single one. We weren’t here a week before I began to imagine myself as a character in a story that was equal parts ridiculous and adventurous. This lead me to invent other characters, people I could send off into the woods the way I wanted to be able to roam, or into a chateau where some local can embarass her and woo her all at the same time. I was writing stories in my head every day for weeks before I finally had the time to sit down and write a single word. Then, one day, my husband said, “I think it’s time for you to write. Tonight, I want you to sit down and write for a few hours. If you do that every night before we leave, you’ll have a rough draft of your next book finished.”
Okay, first of all, how lucky am I to have a guy who sees the story inside of me itching to get out and helps me prioritize that passion? I am so blessed! Secondly, I really thought I would be writing one of the two books I have slated to finish next. Instead, I found myself pouring out the first few chapters of a new contemporary romantic comedy. It’s fun to let the story take over and see where it goes. It’s so much fun to write characters who are desperate to be heard. I can’t wait for you to see a little of what life is like here in France through the eyes of my main character.
There are other stories to be told here, too. The village, the chateau, the medieval fortress, they all are fabulous settings. I can imagine Merrilyn and Justan here as I walk through the forest, and I’m eager to return to their journey with all of these beautiful scenes to help make it come alive. My mind is full of ideas to bring a troupe here to eastern France and see how the world I’ve created in the Soul Ties series takes on new dimension with the added cultures and history of Europe. I mean, just imagine a troupe of gypsies, or a scene that included the gargoyles of Notre Dame! Wouldn’t that be amazing?
There is so much writing to do here, and I’m only just getting started. So, don’t give up on me, friends. If you want to see me writing more, then share my books with your friends. Introduce them to one of my series. You can start them all for FREE! Here’s how:
The Light of Loian Series: A Light in the Darkness
The Wanderer Series: Seen
The Soul Ties Series: A Familiar Darkness
Since my last post was a little complainy, I have decided to tell you about something here I LOVE. In our little village, as in most of the small villages I’ve been through in the area, everything is quiet. The breeze may blow in the trees, rustling leaves and scattering the birds, but you won’t hear much more as you walk through the center of town. Little traffic, or none at all, and not a soul in sight makes it seem like the place is deserted. You can almost imagine you’re the only one here, especially when the fog rolls in, obscuring the view.
For a girl coming from the frantic hustle of city life, it’s a welcome change. I stop, breathe deep, and listen. Standing in the middle of the street, I stare up at the old castle walls and feel the tingle of magic that lie in forgotten places. And then…the bell rings.
It’s something you can’t quite imagine unless you’ve experienced it. Here, in this quiet village, the bells ring in the old church every fifteen minutes. At the hour, they chime their full toll of the hour, then once at a quarter after, twice at the half, and three times at a quarter till. Then, it begins again. At seven, noon, and again at seven the bells ring extra long, inviting the devout to kneel and pray. I counted one morning and after the initial seven, it rang one hundred times straight before stopping. If you’d described that to me before I came, I would have assumed it would drive me crazy. But it doesn’t. It may honestly be one of my favorite things about living here.
Maybe it’s the novelty of it. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel like a real member of the community when the bell rings to let me know it’s lunch time just like everyone else who is listening. Maybe it’s the fact that it is a tradition that has carried on for hundreds of years and my mind just loves knowing that I’m now connected to that in some small way. I don’t know, but when I hear the bells, I just can’t help but smile. It makes me want to throw open the windows and lean out to hear them clearer. (But it’s cold, so I will wait until spring.)
Someday I will miss them. I know this already. I will miss the quiet, the soft rhythm of our days and the contemplative strolls through the castle. I will miss the food that annoys me now, the way everything is a challenge with a definitive purpose, and the sound of people speaking French. I will someday miss all the new. It’s inevitable, even if we stay here forever. But these things will be stored up inside of me, treasures that can’t be taken away even if all of France is cut off to me forever. I will always remember the sound of the bells ringing on a foggy night in a quiet little village in France. Always.
There are many things about living in France that are very nearly the same as in America. In some ways, I think these are the things that challenge me most, because I assume I can master it easily. It lures me in with a false sense of security and then foils my best laid plans, usually in a public venue.
Shopping for groceries is one of these situations. I want you to imagine your supermarket. Can you see the words all around you? Signs on the door as it slides open, a stand of flyers and ads just inside the entrance, banners or other signs hanging up to welcome you, a billboard with local advertisements, signs above the aisles, and shelves filled with branding. A grocery store is filled with words, and for a foreigner, this becomes an immediate test of their vocabulary.
It seems like it would be simple, though, right? I mean, fruits and vegetables will still look the same. So, you go pick out your vegetables and put them in a plastic bag. But if you can’t read the language, you might miss the sign that says you must weigh them and print out a price sticker for the cashier. That’ll be embarrassing in a few minutes when you’re the one holding up the line and can’t even understand why the cashier is annoyed with you. Well, soups and canned goods should be easier.
Nope. They won’t have ANY of your everyday items, so you’ll have to study the shelves carefully to find the next closest item, and in the end you’ll probably give up and decide to make something else. For example, Rotel and Velveeta don’t exist here, southerners. (or in most of the northern states I’ve been in. You’ve been warned!) You could always make that cream of mushroom soup you’ve been searching for from scratch, but the Rotel or salsa you want is a lost cause. There won’t be a can of green chilis or jalapenos anywhere to be found and the produce manager will have no idea what you’re talking about when you ask for cilantro. So, you’ll have to add it to the “Must eat more than my weight in this missing food next time I’m home” list or beg someone to bring it to you when they visit.
And there’s no such thing as family sized Lipton iced tea bags. So, do you give up iced tea or make it with English Breakfast bags and just pile a handful of them in each time you want to make a pitcher? Oh, by the way, they won’t have the gallon or half-gallon sized pitchers we’re used to. How about a liter? Just make four liter pitchers, that should work. You’ll have to chill them outside on the back porch, though, because they won’t fit in your tiny fridge.
Luckily, France has an entire aisle dedicated to cheese. Unfortunately for you, most of your family will take one look and ask for cheddar. If you’re lucky, there will be some in the imported cheese section. May I suggest you slowly begin to switch them French cheese? It’s the only way to survive this crisis. At least the dairy section takes up half the store, so there is plenty of yogurt to choose from (imagine an entire aisle of yogurt!) But when you go to buy milk, you’re going to have quite a shock, so prepare yourself. There will be one little bottle of fresh, cold milk in the dairy cabinet. One. You will stare around you in confusion. Where are they hiding the milk? These people are clearly far too dairy obsessed to have only one bottle of milk! Then, while searching for something else entirely, you’ll find an aisle of milk all stacked neatly on shelves in the back of the store, unrefrigerated. The chooses will overwhelm you and you won’t want to take a single bottle home considering its sitting there on the shelf at room temperature. It will boggle the mind. You’ll watch as people tear into the neat packages of six to take out one or two individual bottles and think the village has lost its mind. What kind of uncivilized society is this?!
But the words have hardly cast a shadow in your mind before you turn the corner and … heaven appears with the sound of trumpets and angels singing. It’s the chocolate aisle. That’s right. An entire aisle of chocolate. Its rival is the bakery section where you will find hand crafted breads for just 50c a loaf and the smell will overwhelm you. You’ll suddenly realize you are STARVING. So, you go in search of something to grab for a quick snack. Only, the chocolate and bread seem to be the only thing handy other than a section of chips at the back of the store. WARNING: French chips will confound and astound you. They are less bizarre than our unfortunate run-in with Japanese chips, but still…proceed with caution. Do not hastily grab a bag simply because they look like your favorite chip from home or else you might end up with something that looks and feels like a Cheeto, but tastes like unsweet peanut butter. Or, a potato chip that claims it’s cheese flavored, but is covered in blue cheese powder so strong it will make your daughter cry. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And don’t get me started on the store loyalty card! Trying to figure out where to sign up for one feels like an exercise in futility, but they will still keep handing you cute little cards that look like you are maybe supposed to collect them to win a prize, or trade them with friends…I don’t know. I have a nice stack of star wars space shields now if any wants to trade with me. I have no idea why my grocery store thinks we will want to collect them, but at least its not a stack of smurf cards like the ones I saw in another local market. Maybe I can convince the kids they’re trading cards I bought for their Christmas stockings? It will be at least a year before they know enough French to decipher the truth.
In the end, you’ll go home with hardly enough food for two meals and a handful of products you bought just because they were too crazy to leave behind. But don’t worry, with that tiny refrigerator, you’ll get to do it all over again in 48 hours. Better grab a shopping ad on your way out the door so you can practice how to beg the produce manager for the vegetables your kids are willing to tolerate. Bon appetit!
Tonight we hosted our first dinner party in the new house. We invited our friends Mike and Rob, Mike’s parents Claude and Lili, and our new British expat friends Rosemary and Bill to help us celebrate our first week in the house. We’re also counting on them to give us some good advice on where to start in our renovations.
After much debate, we’d decided to make the evening an American dinner, but served in the French style as much as possible. So while the kids started their school work, I put a huge pan of beef into the oven to slow cook for the day and started my Grandmother’s yeast rolls so that they could rise in the warm kitchen. My plan was to create a menu that was full of southern comfort food, sticking close to our roots for this first impression. By the end of the day we’d have a big pan of sloppy beef barbecue, creamy potato salad, big fluffy yeast rolls, and homemade baked beans all washed down with a gallon of fresh brewed southern sweet tea.
But the thing is… Well, you see, we live in a giant antique. Every single part of this house is “vintage” to the extreme. My kitchen is full of appliances that don’t work and even what does work is missing half its parts. For example, my oven. If you look at the photo of my kitchen, you’ll see two ovens sitting next to each other. But only one works. It looks like they had an oven and when it stopped working, they just bought a new one and set it down next to the old one. The oven that works only has one rack, I have to light it with a match every time I use it, and sometimes the fire decides to go out for no apparent reason right in the middle of cooking.
The fridge is another story altogether. We were shocked to find a nice big American style fridge in the corner of the kitchen when we arrived. It’s more common for the French to have a small fridge like what we might use in an apartment or dorm room. But on our first day in the house, the French sisters took me around showing me how to work everything and when I asked about the fridge, their eyes lit up. Jerking open the door, they proudly showed off their collection of paper napkins and handtowels. No, the fridge doesn’t work, it’s never worked, but look how lovely it is at holding our napkins!
Are you kidding me?!
So, I store my vegetables and eggs on the shelf in the cupboard to make room for meet and cheese in the fridge and we eat the leftovers as soon as we can to keep the space open for the next shopping trip which happens every 48 hours thanks to our lack of space and the miniscule portions they sell at the store. (Sorry, that was a stupid long sentence! Lack of refrigerator space really messes with my writer brain.)
Anyway, I juggled the appliances and intense cooking schedule while simultaneously orchestrating a massive clean-up project in the house. Since this was a party and our friends first chance to see our new home, I wanted everything to look nice. We can’t do much about the peeling wallpaper or the flaking ceiling plaster, but we can clear out the excess furniture and knick-knacks. So, the kids teamed up to tackle those projects. By five o’clock the house smelled incredible and we were hanging up the last set of curtains to finish out the new look in the dining room. We set up the grand salon with apperitifs and a warm, crackling fire, set the table complete with name plates for our guests, and mixed up a set of brownies for dessert.
But here’s the thing about French dinner parties…they start late. The French in general eat later than we do in Arkansas, usually around 7pm. Our friends were all joining us after work, so we didn’t expect them to arrive until 7:30 or 8. Then, there would be about an hour of casual talk with apperitifs (appetizers). Around 9 we might move toward dinner and expect another hour there together. Then, we could expect another round of conversation (and possibly drinks) before saying goodnight. Added to this dynamic schedule was a tour of our home so that Claude, an experienced builder, could help Graham make some decisions about improving our heating system.
In all, our party lasted right at five hours, closing out at 12:30 with our final goodbyes. It was fabulous. They each brought gifts (mental note to follow this custom!), raved about the food, indulged us by tasting the sweet tea, listened to our children and included them as often as possible in the conversation, and gave us fabulous tips for French living as an expatriat. I fell into bed feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. Honestly, anyone who knows me knows how much I love to play hostess, but this night really outdid it. It was a blast from start to finish and the best part was how lovely the house looked when everyone left. I know its still a shabby mess, but its our beautiful shabby mess and as I turned out the last of the lights, I felt the magic of it all settle around me like the first flakes of a winter snow. This beautiful old home is OUR home. It’s a treasure, like a time capsule, and we’re living a life out of time. It may not last, and we may return to our modern ways as we update things along the way, but for now I’ll soak up the magic of the past wrapped in the every day beauty of a life well lived.
This week’s goal is to host a dinner party on Tuesday night and determine a list of most important projects to focus our renovation efforts. But first: courage. We start the day with a little trip into a nearby town to introduce ourselves to the local police. According to friends in the area, it helps smooth things over if you’ll go in to the local gendarmerie and introduce yourself. I won’t lie, this sounds entirely risky to me, mostly because I’ve spent my entire life trying to avoid an encounter with the police. But our friend insists it’s for the best, and we trust him, so off we go. We pull up to a very empty looking building on the back side of a quiet little town. Inside, a young officer greets us at the door with a very serious expression. He waits patiently as we stumble through our introductions in broken French. Then, just as we feared, he asks us a question.
To be honest, this is the moment we fear in EVERY conversation. As my husband puts it, “It’s not that I’m afraid to go out and try to speak French to people. It’s that I’m afraid once I do, they’ll say something back!”
But he’s a smart guy and he’s got a nifty little gadget that saves the day: his cell phone. Whipping it out of his pocket, he pushes a button and then holds the phone up to the officer, encouraging him to repeat what he’d just said. Lifting a brow, the man eyes the phone. Then, ever so slowly, he leans forward and speaks into the end of it. A moment later, the phone dings and then a voice speaks from the phone, translating his question into English! Once again we are saved by technology. This never fails to impress the locals and soon we are conversing. We answer the man’s questions while he takes notes, then hand over our passports for him to copy. Another officer comes out to meet us, carefully studying each of us before disappearing back into the other room. As we leave, there’s an audible sigh of relief from our small crew.
“I’m so glad that’s over with!” I cry.
“I bet we are the most exciting thing that’s happened there all month,” my son declares, and we all agree.
Next up, a trip north to meet with the bank. Banking has been a major hurdle since day one of this endeavor as it appears few European banks want anything to do with Americans these days. A little research on the subject seems to point back to some new regulations passed by our IRS a few years ago to control funds traveling out of the U.S. into foreign markets. It made a lot of paperwork for banks and I guess they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, so they stopped offering accounts to anyone who isn’t willing to keep a hefty fortune in their safe to make it worth their time. This sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would ignore in the news, but it has made the reality of moving to France near impossible for us. You see, it takes money to move and money to live and money to pay bills and, apparently, money to prove you’re a legitimate member of society. So, this banking thing is kind of a deal breaker. After months of trying to get a bank account online from the U.S., we finally decided it would be easier to tackle it once we were on this side of the ocean. Now…it’s not looking much easier from here.
It’s an hour drive to the bank and this is the second time we’ve driven to meet with a member of the bank to apply for our account. The first time they put us off, insisting we’d have to get paperwork situated first despite the fact we had all of our paperwork in our hands that afternoon. Now we’re hoping she’ll open the account so that we can go ahead and set up our new phones and internet service because it’s getting increasingly harder to get anything done without a real connection to the outside world. And did I mention we have a house full of teenagers? In other words, we NEED internet NoW!
But, this is France.
We arrive at the bank and discover that, surprise, the meeting has been cancelled and the account manager isn’t even at work today. The two other employees shrug, not really moved by our expressions that range quickly from shock and outrage to disappointment. But, we’ve brought a secret weapon…Mike.
Our incredible friend Mike has been a complete treasure and there’s no way we would have gotten this far without him. When Graham and I came to scout out the house in October, we rented a local home on VRBO.com and discovered that it was owned by a British couple who had relocated to France. Amazing! Not only did our hosts speak English, we could ask them what it was like to move, buy, and renovate a home in rural France. We had hundreds of questions and Mike was happy to answer them all. He has been an incredible blessing since day one, willing to help us research, introduce us to all the right people, and even call to harass people for us if necessary in French. In other words, he’s the BEST!
So, Mike steps up to the counter and offers the lady standing there his most condescending look before demanding to know exactly what she’s going to do to fix this. She says something in French which I assumed was a vague attempt at “not my job, not my problem.” But Mike was having none of it. He demanded she do something to make it right. We’d made an appointment, drove an hour, and desperately need our account in order to set up other services. She argued that it was impossible to do without a residency visa and he insisted there had to be a way. Back and forth it went until Mike finally declared that she either make it happen or find someone who could.
By this time a line was piling up in this little local office and we could hear the quiet grumbles behind us as the clerks ignored them. I was suddenly grateful we’d driven an hour to handle this and weren’t making enemies in our own village.
At last the woman returned with a phone pressed to her ear and started punching numbers into her computer. Mike leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. “It looks like she’s found a way after all. Imagine that.” He had us pull out our necessary paperwork quickly and shoved it across her desk before she could change her mind. Within minutes it was finished and we left triumphant. To celebrate, we took Mike to lunch.
“You really do have to yell at them sometimes. If they think they’ll get into trouble for doing wrong, they’ll just tell you it can’t be done and hope you go away.”
This may be our downfall. Honestly, if he hadn’t been there, we certainly would have left after the first disinterested shrug or the dismissive, “C’est impossible.” And it could have been catastrophic, because we need that account. Before long we’ll have bills to pay like water and electricity and without a bank account, we won’t be able to pay. In America, we would just give the company a credit card number if our bank account wasn’t sorted, or go down and pay cash in their office. But, that doesn’t seem to be an option. What a relief to finally be approved and an account to cover these expenses.
As we drove home, I think we were both really impressed to have tackled two major issues in one day. Every single item on our to do list here seems to be monumental and take ten times as long as we want it to, but one by one we’re still checking them off.
“Honey, I think we’re doing it,” I whisper with a smile
“We’re living in France.”
He grins and nods, his eyes set on the horizon. “Yep. We’re doing it.”
And thus begins week two. With a bit of courage, and little help from our friends, we might just make it to week three of this crazy #chateaulife.
Well, we did it. We survived an entire week in France! In an old chateau! In the middle of nowhere! I feel like we’ve just finished an episode of some strange new reality show: The Sutherlin Family Goes to France. It’s been one crazy thing after another since day one and I have a feeling we have enough material to keep this show running for a few seasons.
Today was a perfect example. We decided to rest for the day, more than a little worn out from our wild first week and the intense workout we’d had the day before. While I was in the kitchen making dinner, Evie went out to wander around in the backyard. It’s nearly two acres to explore and she’s been begging for a chance to roam free. So, off she went. About an hour later she came slamming in through the back door crying big tears.
“Mom! I put my hand down in the grass for just a second and now it burns! It stings, Mom!”
Sure enough, there were big angry welts on her hand and when I pulled it closer to see, I could feel them on her wrist, too. Turning her arm over, I counted three places where the reaction was spreading up her arm. Relieved at first that it wasn’t a spider bite, worry mixed quickly with fear in my gut. I didn’t have any medication in the house to treat an allergic reaction. What was worse, it was a Sunday and stores in the area are all closed on Sundays. AND I didn’t have a single phone number in the house for medical emergencies, not a doctor or an ambulance at all! I mean, does 911 even work in France?!
We rushed her upstairs and threw her into the shower in case it was a reaction to something on her skin. Then, I pulled out the essential oils I had brought with us. I prayed that they would be enough, mentally searching my brain for any clue to the location of the nearest hospital. As soon as she was out of the shower, I spread lavender and frankincense oil on thick across the welts. Within minutes the swelling had gone down and the redness was entirely gone. I smiled at her reassuringly and sent her off to her room to get dressed. Then, I sat on the bathroom floor and cried.
What have we done?
The words kept playing in my head, tormenting me while tears of fear poured down my cheeks. In all the planning and to do lists, I never once considered what would happen in a medical emergency. Sure, we made sure our insurance would cover us in France, but that was the extent of it. Here we are in the middle of nowhere without a reliable internet and just one cell phone, no idea who to call if one of us is dying, and no medicine or even a doctor available in our village. What if it had been anaphylaxis? What if she had died?!
*Big shuddering breath*
You know, there will always be something we’ve overlooked, something we didn’t consider, but God is good and he protected us once again. I don’t know what that thing was in the grass that made her arm react like that, but she’ll be more careful and next time I’ll be more prepared. In the end, it’s just one more incredible story of how God provides. He took care of her, protected her, and she is fine. The real challenge is to believe God is good even when everything is NOT fine. I hope I’m not reminded of that difficult truth any time soon. For now, I’ll whisper a prayer of thanksgiving to the one who saves, and then on Monday morning…I’ll find out the emergency numbers and plaster them all over the house!
You are NOT going to believe what we did today! Honestly, I can’t believe it happened, it’s surreal.
This morning we went up to the top of the village where we were told a group was planning to meet from the community to clean up the castle grounds and prepare it for the summer festival. We were a little nervous to put ourselves into another situation where we’d be the only ones who couldn’t speak French, but we were eager to meet more of our neighbors and excited to show our interest in the village and its history. The streets were quiet, an icy fog still clinging to the ground beneath the trees as we hiked to the top of the hill. There wasn’t a person in sight, but a few cars parked around the corner of one building gave us a clue and the sound of voices drifting from one of the doors confirmed it. Hesitant, we knocked on the door. The crowd inside turned to stare at us in surprise, all their excited conversation grinding to a hault as we shuffled awkwardly through the narrow door.
“We…uh, nous avons…uh…nous sommes les Americains…uh…”
“Americains?” a man in the center of the crowd asked.
We all nodded, and the room broke out in astonished cries and warm smiles.
“We have come to help,” my husband said, and the man jumped to his feet.
“Come! Come! Welcome!”
It turns out, instead of a crowd of our new neighbors, they were all medieval history enthusiasts from the city of Chaumont, nearly thirty minutes away. Together, they manage the castle grounds and host the festival here while also gathering several times a year to tour other castles, work in medieval festivals, and teach classes to local school children or scout troups on the rich history of our region. In short, we had found our kind of people. It was a little disappointing to learn that there were no local villagers involved in the group, but this fact made them all the more delighted to discover we intended to be a part of their work.
The man who greeted us turned out to speak a little more English than the others because his daughter had studied in America for a few years and he’d visited her there. He introduced us to the group, asked a lot of questions, then insisted we get a tour of the castle before we begin work. As we climbed up to the castle gates, he led us to the right. A map of the original castle hung on the wall illustrating what once had been a large fortress. Now, little remained of the Chateau Lafauche, but the team had spent the last thirty years painstakingly rebuilding the walls from the rubble with just a few willing hands each summer. As we climbed the steps to the first tower, I was amazed by what they had accomplished. It was obvious they’d gone to great trouble to restore the castle walls to their original position. He explained how the towers had been filled with trees that punctured holes in the walls of the tower and destroying the floors until there was little left but rubble inside the main structure. We learned how archers would have guarded the gates and a little about the history of French weapons compared to the English at the time.
Climbing up the outer slope of the castle, we took a moment to enjoy the breathtaking views of the landscape beyond our little village. It must have been a heady feeling for the original master of the castle to stand there and survey all that he owned. Here he would be lifted above all his peasants and his enemies as well, a constant reminder of authority.
We joined the rest of the crew where they were working to clear briars and tall grasses from the hillside. We weren’t really dressed for the work, some of us wearing tennis shoes instead of work boots and none of us with proper work gloves, but we took up our tools and got to work anyway. The thorns were vicious, tearing at our hands and ripping into our clothes. A fire burned on the hill below us, sending acrid smoke our direction every time the wind blew. It was hard work, but there was a beautiful sense of satisfaction in it, knowing we were not only joining in something so fabulous but representing ourselves well as both the Americans and now as local villagers.
A little after noon, we took a break and the entire group walked back down the slope to the front gates where we gathered for a photo to remember the day. Back inside the warm little room in the village, we gathered around the fire. The group offered us all some refreshment while their lunch finished cooking over the stove. An older man pulled out a bottle with a handwritten label on the front and began pouring out cups, much to the delight of his fellows. Our new friends explained that it was a medieval recipe made with wine, honey, and a blend of spices. The kids’ eyes grew wide as he offered them each a glass. They shook their heads fervently ‘no’ eliciting a few laughs, but the man only shrugged and moved on.
As we said goodbye, we felt a little sad to leave them, but they insisted we join them again and we intend to take them up on their invitation. We could certainly learn a lot from a group who’ve made it their hobby to learn the customs of the past and to preserve its treasures for the future. And who knows, maybe we can be helpful to them as well.
Walking back toward the house, my daughter smiled up at me. “Mom, that was awesome. They’re the same kind of nerds as us!”
I had to laugh, but it’s true. I’m grateful we keep finding such wonderful new friends everywhere we go. I know a lot of people were worried for us, leaving all of our friends and family behind in America. But with every twist and turn of this adventure we’ve been given new friends to join us on the journey. It reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age…” (Mark 10:29-30)
It’s funny that when I went to look that up so that I could quote it, I couldn’t find it at first. I was sure it said whoever left home and family for God would receive double in heaven. But once again, God is so much sweeter than we expect. He not only promises 100xs the return on our investment instead of the 2xs that I was expecting, he also doesn’t make us wait. He wants to bless us here on earth just as richly as he blesses us in eternity. Isn’t that incredible? It is certainly proving to be true for us. And in the end, we aren’t really losing all that we’ve left behind. Instead, God multiplies it, surrounding us with even more love and friendship than we had when we started this journey until overflows all around us. I hope soon our village will feel it, too.
Until then, we’ll be dreaming of castles and that gorgeous view from the top of Chateau Lafauche.
Day Five: Introductions
Well, today we get to find out how quickly news travels in a small town. This morning started with an important quest: Meet the mayor of our village. This was extremely intimidating for several reasons. In a French village, the mayor has quite a lot of responsibility and can really make life for its citizens pleasant or difficult. We are told he controls building permits, makes certain that every child is enrolled in school, and is in control of the village’s water system to name a few. So, we’ve been praying about this meeting for months!
A thin veil of fog hung over the village as we ventured out this morning. We were all bundled in our warmest clothes to walk the short distance up the hill to the mayor’s office. We decided to leave the kids behind with my sister and Mandy to keeps things simple. The town is extremely quiet, so our voices seemed loud to us as we practiced our lines in French. We’d even gone so far as to write out most of what we wanted to say in case we panicked and forgot or simply couldn’t communicate. As we climbed the steps to the office, we could hear voices in the office above. My mom turned to look at me with wide-eyes and then, with a deep breath, she opened the door.
“Bonjour!” she cried, and all eyes in the room turned to look at us as we stumbled through the doorway.
I don’t know how, but we stumbled through those first awkward sentences and managed to introduce ourselves to the mayor and his small staff. He seems kind and maybe just a little younger than we are which set me at ease for some reason. Perhaps I was envisioning some grumpy old man who prefers to keep his village just the way it is ‘sans Americains’. But, he seemed like he was probably a nice guy with a few kids at home. The rest of his staff rushed over to greet us. Two women, one older with an administrative position I couldn’t quite understand, and the other my age who is the town secretary. They seemed determined to understand us and eager to be helpful. So much so, that the mayor left us in their capable hands to go run another errand. When we hit a snag with our communication, I pulled out the list of questions we had and handed it to the secretary. She was so clever! She immediately copied it on the machine and handed the list back to me. Then, she went through our list one item at a time and helped us work through all our questions and comments. We wanted to make sure they knew that we intend to be fully a part of the community as much as they will allow, buy local products and services, and participate in community events. This was apparently the best thing we could have said, because they started inviting us to events, even calling friends to let them know that the Americans would be joining the festivities. We are now committed to a big work day tomorrow where a crew of locals will work to clean up the medieval fortress for the winter and begin preparations for the summer festival. Apparently, each summer they gather in period costume and open the fortress to tourists and other visitors. They serve medieval foods and sell other related items to the tourists like a medieval fair. It’s a huge event and the whole town works together each year to make it happen.
So, tomorrow we will go and be brave, trying our best to be helpful and make new friends as we join in the work at the castle. At the very least, it will be a chance to see the castle up close. We’re equal parts excited and nervous, but determined to be brave in these situations, no matter how awkward it is to be the only person who has no idea what is going on.
By the time our meeting was finished, the two women in the mayor’s office seemed like our new best friends. The secretary has a daughter the same age as my oldest daughter and a son just a little younger than our youngest. She talked me through the options for school and promised to help us get them enrolled when we are ready. That tiny conversation took a huge load of worry off my shoulders! I was reminded once again that God is in complete control of all of this and I need to stop worrying so much. The older woman promised to help us find firewood and they even called the trash company for us to help us negotiate a bigger bin for our home than the one already issued. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to not have to handle that myself over the phone. As we said our goodbyes, they insisted we call them if we need anything else at all. Isn’t that amazing? I think I’m in love with small town France.
We went home and said our goodbyes to my parents, sister, and friend. They went off to see Paris, all of them promising to come again soon and insisting that we take some time to rest now that we are settled in. It would have been harder to let them go if I didn’t already know my parents were coming back in three weeks. I went in and set the table for lunch, heating up the leftover soups we’ve had for the last few evenings at dinner. Lunch was a great time to have a little family meeting and check in with how the kids are handling all of this. They were excited to hear there are other kids in the village and even seemed a little excited to hear about the schools they would attend in the fall. When we told them about our plan to join in the work day they were crazy excited to hear about the medieval festival and couldn’t wait for a chance to see the castle up close and personal.
Not an hour later, a truck pulled up at the front gate. It was a young man offering to bring us firewood. He said someone had called from the mayor’s office and he was happy to help us prepare for the winter. We were thrilled! I am so grateful to already have neighbors watching out for us here in our new home. We arranged everything and he’s coming back tomorrow afternoon to deliver the wood.
At this point I have to brag on my husband. He’s so crazy brave, you guys. Seriously, how many men do you know who would move to another country where they don’t speak the language and stand there talking with someone using the few words they know, sure they’re pronouncing it wrong, and not even blush when the other person corrects them. He amazes me with his courage and his determination to soldier on. I’m so grateful to be in this adventure with him by my side.
I heard the church bells ring two o’clock and wanted to cry. I had really been hoping for a nap, but now it was time for my afternoon work in the house. Graham took one look at me and smiled. “You should curl up here on the sofa in front of the fire and sleep. You’ve worked hard enough, why don’t you take the afternoon off and just rest?”
Have I mentioned I love that man?
So, that’s exactly what I did. I curled up in front of a crackling fire and slept…for two hours! It was awesome. I woke feeling like a whole new person. Then, I took the girls to the grocery store and we chose a few items for tomorrow night’s dinner. I tried to decipher the items in the baking aisle, hoping to find the ingredients to bake cookies for our neighbors, but I couldn’t find baking soda or baking powder. In the end, we gave up and decided to bake a batch of my grandmother’s yeast rolls as a gift because I could at least find the yeast. I’ll have to do some research and find out where to buy the spices and baking ingredients I can’t seem to find here.
In the end, I’m calling this day a win. Not only did our visit to the mayor’s office go a hundred times better than I imagined, but we have hope of making friends here, we have firewood on its way, I got a long nap, and the chili I made with half translated ingredients turned out almost chili-like. That’s pretty good for the end of day five of #ChateauLife.