I’ve been back from France for a bit more than a month now.
It was a strange trip overall. Not exactly pleasant. Not horrible either. Still, not a fun one. But a necessary one. I needed to spend time with my parents, they needed to see their grandkids. It was too long, though. In the past, three weeks was the minimum length I could think of for a trip to France. This time, it was too long.
It was too long for my parents to have us in their house (funny how I said “their” house and not “my” house as I would have said in the past, more on that later). It was too long for my kids to be without their mom (my daughter did okay, my son not so much, he missed her a lot). The truth is that my parents have passed that threshold; they are “old people” now. They just couldn’t easily adapt to the changes that having us staying in the house entailed. Many times, when a problem arose, my mom’s answer was “Well, this is how I usually do, so…” and I would answer, “Yes Mom, but usually it’s just you and Dad in the house, not five people including two kids.”
Another example of them being elders now is the previous time we went to France, back in 2017. My mom had prepared lots of activities for the kids, and she played with them a lot (she used to do the same when visiting us). This time, she wanted to play with them of course, but she just waited for them to take the initiative, almost blaming them for not doing it, complaining that all they did in the house was watch TV and play with their Nintendo Switch. I knew my daughter wanted to play with my mom, she really wanted to paint with her (it’s my mom’s main hobby). She had fond memories of doing it a lot with her grandma every time they spent time together before. And my daughter didn’t understand why this was not happening this time, so she watched TV and played with her Switch instead. What else could she do?
And it was only when I figured out what was going on, that I got both my mother and my daughter to tell me their thoughts, that it could be fixed. In the end, I had to arrange play dates between them.
There’s also my son – quite a picky eater – who had trouble with French food, and my mom insisting on making a new and different dish almost every meal for some reason – that reason probably being that we were guests in her mind, so she HAD TO cook special dishes because she had guests and that’s what she thinks is the proper thing to do when she has guests. I could repeat to her many times that simple dishes were a better choice (and less work for her) and that eating several times the dishes that my son did like was a good idea, but she wouldn’t listen. I don’t blame her, it’s an age thing. I know she means well, but it has become almost impossible to change her preconceived ideas about this or that.
The thing is that most families (who are in contact) see each other changing, getting old, growing… We hadn’t seen each other in three years, so all those changes (my parents becoming “elders”, my daughter knocking on the door of teenagehood, my son not being a toddler anymore, and so on) hit us all, all at once.
The good news is that what triggered this trip in the first place was that I was very concerned that my dad was indeed becoming too old (understand “senile”). Every time we talked online for the past few months, he gave me that impression.
Well, he’s still okay. Older, of course (he’ll be 83 this week), and he’s never been a good communicator, but overall he’s still the same.
Maybe one day I’ll talk more about him. We have a complex relationship, probably like many fathers and sons who are different from each other, I assume… I love him, but I regret that we’ve never been closer. We were not close when I was young and I lived in France. We could be now, we’ve been from time to time, but the distance prevents it from really happening.
One thing I want to talk about that’s related to him now is my… his… my parents’ house.
It’s “my” house too. It’s the house where I grew up, where I walked my first steps, and where I lived most of the years I lived in France (19 years full-time, and seven more years “part-time”). It remained my permanent address until I moved to Japan.
However, this trip made me realize that it’s not my house anymore. For the first time, it felt different. It’s still mostly the same. Some parts of the house haven’t changed in decades. But, enough things have changed that it feels different enough not to feel like my home anymore.
All houses change with time, but I feel that this house does it more than average. It has to do with my dad. Growing up, I thought it was normal, that it was the way things worked. Later, I realized that my dad was a bit intense on the matter. What am I talking about? Well, when he buys something, when he installs something, he just can’t have it the way it is “out at the box.” He will make changes, he will tweak things, add things, remove things, etc…
It happens with new things but with old things too. His love for customization and DYI means that the house has always been evolving, and mutating. Every few years some more or less major changes happen, and small changes are a constant feature. Once again, when you live in the house, you don’t see it evolving, but after five years away, it now looks different enough to give me an uncanny feeling. It is the same house and… it’s not…
You know the thing about the cells of our body supposedly replacing themselves constantly and it means that our body is completely different every seven years or something like that? Well, I don’t know if it’s true for the human body, but it’s close to the truth with my childhood house. I think the walls are the only things that haven’t changed in it since I was born.
The result is that last month, it felt like I was in a parallel universe. It was the house where I grew up, it had this familiarity that no other place in the world has, but it also looked just different enough for me to feel weird. As if I had entered the Twilight Zone.
When my grandma died (in the 1980s, I was 15), my cousin, who was already an adult, and a young dad, moved into her house. It was the house where my dad grew up. While keeping the outside of the house mostly unchanged, my cousin has done enough renovation and made enough changes inside that it now looks completely different from what I remembered as a child.
I always wondered how my dad felt about it. He never mentioned it (did I tell you he was not a great communicator?) It’s probably a different feeling, as my parents still live in “my” house. They’re the ones making the changes, not other people. Gosh, I can’t imagine other people living in this house. What am I going to do with it when my parents are gone has been a lingering question that doesn’t have an answer yet. (the later the better)
So yeah, the weather wasn’t great – it was expected in March – and there was that other thing – I’ll talk about it after. As a result, we ended up spending a long time in my house. It allowed me to go down many memory lanes, find old artifacts (toys, books, CDs) and rediscover many old pictures. Pictures from my 20s – the scary part is that they’re starting to look like “old pictures” – and also some from my childhood, but also some very old pictures, from before I was born. I brought a few back with me, and my mom said that she’ll send me more. I will need to organize them. I may share some online sooner or later.
As I just said, I spent a long time in the house because of the weather, but also because of that other thing…
What other thing?
Are you familiar with the concept of “reverse culture shock”?
In short, a regular culture shock is when you go to a foreign place, one that’s very different from what you know and it can be difficult to navigate and handle at times. Pretty much everyone spending a certain amount of time in an unfamiliar cultural setting (usually foreign countries) will experience some sort of culture shock. Its strength will greatly vary depending on many factors, but almost everyone will experience one. Most people who are at least vaguely aware of the concept of cultural differences know that and expect it.
What few people expect, is that when you spend enough time in a different culture, you slowly start to adapt to the foreign environment (or if you can’t, you usually go back home). That environment becomes less and less foreign and more and more “normal” over time. You change too with time.
And when you return home, it’s what had always been familiar that suddenly becomes foreign (a bit like what I described with my house) and it can lead to a reverse culture shock.
It sometimes can be more difficult to handle than a “regular” culture shock because you’re rarely prepared for it. Most people are not even aware that such a thing exists.
Well, having lived in and out of France for the past 25 years, I’ve had several chances to become aware of it and experience it. But you know what? I still can’t predict how it’s going to hit me every time I return home.
There are a lot of physical changes (shops, streets, new everyday life objects, familiar everyday life objects that are gone) but those are usually not a big deal. It really hits you with the more abstract things. Various events that happened and that you’re barely aware of. New habits have emerged, hot conversation topics are completely foreign to you, and similar intangible things. Five years ago, I don’t remember a big reverse culture shock (except for that part of my hometown that has seriously been developed).
This time it was different. There was a big difference. That difference has a name that will all know.
It’s called the Covid 19 pandemic.
On a completely unrelated matter, a few weeks ago, I asked my English native-speaking friends what the difference between gaslighting and good old lying to someone’s face was.
Well, their explanation, came in very handy to describe what is happening in France (and in most of the Western world, I’m afraid).
Gaslighting on a national (continental? civilizational?) scale is happening. And almost everyone seems to be gaslighting almost everyone else.
The way the entire nation has stopped caring about the pandemic is dumbfounding.
I saw one or two people a day who wore a mask on average. I saw a total of four people who were younger than 60 wearing one. (yes, I counted, it was that shocking).
Some places had signs saying that wearing a mask was recommended and… not even the staff wore a mask in those places!
And the looks … A whole family with masks! We stood out, and not just a little. My kids were the only kids wearing masks in the entire city, possibly more.
There have been two situations when people spoke to us in English! I guess it was inconceivable in their mind that we could be French (my kids, while half-Asian, are White-passing, so that was not the reason).
The saddest part – and I get it – is that I’m sure that among the people not wearing masks some are aware that they really should, but the social pressure from everyone around them must be untenable. (and how many people I didn’t see, because they have no other choice but to remove themselves from society?)
That’s where the gaslighting part comes into play. In just three weeks there, I started to question reality. Was I crazy? Was the pandemic really over in France?
Well, I looked at the available data as soon as I could and it definitely wasn’t over.
No, the reality is that millions and millions of people are lying to themselves and each other because the truth and facts are inconvenient.
“Ignorance is bliss” has never been a truer saying.
People don’t want to accept that the pre-pandemic world is gone, so they all collectively pretend that it’s magically back, willingly blind to the truth. Literally. When I talk with French people about it (mostly online, I avoided the issue when in France), their knowledge about the virus and the pandemic is the one they had almost two years ago. It hasn’t changed since, because they have stopped informing themselves and learning about it. Some people genuinely think it’s a thing of the past. The others don’t care and have an “I won’t change my habits for a mere virus” kind of attitude.
Very few people have learned the lessons that this pandemic has been teaching us, even basic things like the importance of clean air. It seems so obvious in retrospect. Not to them. And it’s just an example among others.
So, yes I get why some people who want to keep a mask on end up dropping it. It was difficult for me to deal with these looks for three weeks, it must be unbearable when it’s a constant thing. The alternative is removing yourself from all social life, and I’m afraid that some people have been doing just that. How many? Will they get any sympathy? Knowing my compatriots, I’m not holding my breath, unfortunately.
I only stayed in France for three weeks, but it was enough to put me in untenable situations. Very soon after seeing what was happening, I pretty much retrenched in my parents’ house most of the time. I didn’t contact any friends or visited any family members.
Very few visited me.
Some knew I was in France and they invited me. They’re the ones who put me in that untenable situation.
I didn’t respond to their invitation. I didn’t want to respond with something along the lines of “Are you crazy to invite me to have dinner? And spend time in a closed space without masks on? What’s wrong with you?” or “I’ll only come to your house if you wear a mask at all time!”
Either response would have been very rude of me.
That’s the thing. I would have been rude if I had responded, and I ended up being rude for not responding. I haven’t spoken to any of these friends and family members since I returned to Japan. I may have upset them, I don’t know, I don’t want to know.
The truth is that it makes me sad, but also angry.
Yes, I have a lot of resentment against them for putting me in such a situation in the first place. They’re the ones who created a situation where there was no way out for me. Put me and my kids in danger or be an asshole.
How unfair of them!
The worst part is that they probably didn’t even realize that they were doing this. I can see them “Why didn’t David respond? What’s wrong with him?”
Yes, I went through some difficult times when in France because of all of these people, all of these strangers, but also those friends and family members.
However, I also have so much love and respect for this one friend and his family who came to my house, they were okay with staying outside, and wore a mask, by default without even asking…
You know who you are. It’s not by chance that we’re still in touch after all these years.
The other way out of this nightmare was the countryside.
It’s always been my favorite part of France anyway. It was more refreshing than ever to go on these country roads and go see some of the most beautiful landscapes and areas that France has to offer, visit their medieval castles and towns, as well as the prehistorical caves. I’ll blog about them in due time.
And because it was off-season, he even had a few places petty much to ourselves.
These places are the France that I love, the timeless France where I can forget the country’s present, be it the national gaslighting with Covid, the dire political situation, and all of these depressing things.
For me, there are two France(s). Every day France with its good and its bad. It’s the one that changes every time I visit the country, the one that makes me experience reverse culture shocks, and the one that really gave me a hard time this year.
And then, there is this timeless France. It may not be a side of the country that’s relevant for most French people, but for me, it is my anchor to this country. It is what I love about it. All those things that existed before me, and that will survive me. Every time I return to France, I make a point to go visit at least a few of these places (not nearly enough, unfortunately).
And despite all of the troubles of this past trip, I was happy I could go there. I was happy I could (re)introduce these places to my kids. They’re still a bit young to appreciate them (I don’t think I fully did until I was much older), but they’re now on their mental map. I hope they’ll have the chance to rediscover them as adults with or without me.
I hope I get to show them to you soon.
Stay tuned (and thanks for reading)
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And just like my other entries about this trip to France, if you read until the end, here is a song that has had its importance at some point in my life (hint: West Virginia)
Fun fact: Did you know that this song is famous in Japan (it’s not in France)? It even has Japanese lyrics. I need to investigate about this.