We fell in love with Millau, France. Here’s why.

We decided to spend the first half of summer in Millau for three reasons.

    1. To get my French back up to speed. (I went to Le Lycée Francais de Los Angeles from 1st to 9th grade and used to speak French decently, but then I didn’t use it for 25yrs and became fluent in Spanish in recent years, so when I tried to speak French, Franish came out. It wasn’t pretty.)
    2. To sport climb the steep limestone walls of the Gorge du Tarn.                                              And the biggest reason….
    3. Soleil will be attending a Lycée Français in September, and we wanted to give her a head start on the language before we drop her into full immersion.

Mission accomplished. And then some. 

What we didn’t know before we arrived was how awesome Millau would be in its own right. First, some facts about Millau and then I’ll color them in for you. The town:

  • dates back 3000 years
  • is located at the confluence of the Tarn and Dourbie rivers in the Mid-Pyrenees of S. France
  • has a population of 22,000
  • is surrounded by the gorgeous landscapes of Gorges du Tarn, Causse du Larzac and Causse Noir (a Causse is a limestone plateau).

Then…

And now…. (note the old tower and the provincial flags)

Like so many places we’ve been in Europe, the locals speak two languages; in Millau, that means French and a form of Occitan, the Rouergat dialect. As an American, we think of French only in France, Spanish only in Spain, but that’s not how it is. These communities are much older than nation states, and the continued existence of their languages, like Catalan and Basque and Occitan, keeps those provincial roots alive.

“Words… are full of echoes, of memories, of associations – naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.” – Virginia Woolf

When the old man who makes lambskin gloves chats with the father-son duo who makes artisanal Roquefort in the nearby caves, and then jokes (flirts?) with the old woman who bakes fouace with orange blossom water, all of whom sell their goods at the open-aired market on Friday mornings, every secret word spoken, every sip of Pastis shared before dinner, is revelation of a deep regional identity. I may not speak their private language, but it’s easy to understand these people share a bond, an inherited memory that sprouts in their collective mind like the white-capped Paris mushrooms from the earth beneath their feet.

For better or worse, village life stays the same. The past informs the present. 

Even though my American lineage dates back to the Mayflower on my father’s side, there is no invisible string that tethers me to that history, guiding my thoughts and actions like a marionette. Or maybe there is. Every generation in my family moved farther west until my grandmother was born in Los Angeles, as was I. With only ocean to the west of me, I left the country. My daughter was born in Peru. 

Perhaps I inherited inertia, an American legacy. 

It’s hard to capture the nuance of a place, the way little things can make you fall in love with it. For instance, I loved the musty, thick stone stairwell on the way up to our apartment–it smelled like wet rock, last night’s cigarette smoke, and a hint of cat piss; and it felt cool and drafty, inhabited by ghosts.

And I loved watching our neighbors sit in front of their shuttered windows to knit or smoke a cigarette;

and the way the old ladies sat around the duck pond, reading quietly or quacking away. 

And, of course, I love the language, arguably the most romantic of the Romance languages. French is disciplined and beautiful, like a ballet you must train your tongue and mouth to dance so it twirls easily in the ear.

To help Soleil learn French and thereby enjoy her time more in France, we hired a nanny, Delphine, to come every day for 1.5 hrs in the morning to play with her.  The games, like Simon Says (called Jacques A Dis in French), were designed to teach her vocabulary and simple sentence structure.

Here’s two short clips of Delphine and Soleil. 

May 2017- The first one was taken our first week in France. We’re playing “market,” and then on Fridays we went to the real open-aired market to let Soleil interact with the merchants, using what she practiced at home.

June 2017- This one was only taken a month later. Over the course of 6wks, it was amazing to watch Soleil integrate all that she’d learned into a cohesive foundation. I am so proud of her. She worked so hard to learn French, I swear I saw sparks shooting out of her little head. 

Now that Soleil feels confident enough speaking French to make friends and maybe even boss them around a little (she IS a Trujillo), I don’t feel quite as nervous about putting her in Lycée this September. I’m still going to miss my baby, but I’m so excited for her, too. 

Aside from the je ne sais quoi reasons to love Millau….

…it’s also the perfect size, which, to me, means walkable. I loved winding through the narrow streets with my basket, filling it up with fresh fruits and vegetables, a round of Roquefort, a bottle of Bordeaux, and a fresh baguette. 

And check out my new French foulard (scarf)! All the ladies wear them with their skimpy jumpers and makeup-free faces–baskets in one hand, cigarette in the other. It’s crazy how many people smoke considering France has one of the top 5 life expectancies in the world (even higher than Spain). Granted, they smoke far less than I used to. Whereas I was a gluttonous pack-a-day pig, they roll their own, little pinners that appear to be more accessories than habit. And I hate to admit this, but French women still make it look kind of sexy. What is it about French women? How do they do that? 

We also had some visitors in Millau, and sharing our experience always makes it richer. 

For the first month, we still had Ari with us. Soleil’s new madrina (godmother)! If you missed the video, click here. 

Lots of art projects, silliness, and good times cooking together in the kitchen.

I’d forgotten how difficult it is to navigate a country when you don’t speak the language. One day, after a couple weeks in Millau, Ari confessed she missed having an evening toke, but she didn’t know how to go about finding any weed. I don’t smoke la weed, but I do speak French, which meant I wasn’t willing to go on a full-on l’herbe scoring mission, but I was willing to help out. First I asked Didier, our downstairs neighbor, for some, so his friend came up with a lit joint and offered her a puff, saying,”it is sheeeeeet! it is sheeeet!” She refused. Who wants shitty weed? Later we found out that’s slang for hash. Oops. Next I wrote this little cheat-sheet, taught her how to pronounce the words, and sent her out at dusk on her skateboard to ask around.  

“Hello! I don’t speak French. Sorry. But I’m looking for pot. I want to buy a little bit. Do you know where I can find weed, please?”

She had many interesting interactions involving lots of miming resembling a Cheech and Chong movie, but still no weed. Finally, one day, she caught the eye of the “cool guy” who lived in the building directly in front of us as he smoked a cigarette out his window, so she quickly mouthed the word “weed” and flashed him a coquettish smile. That worked.

I wonder how many drug deals and romances start between open shutters in France? 

I found the below drawing (propaganda?) after Ari left back to Argentina and almost peed myself laughing. Ari is a vegetarian but so far hasn’t been able to convert our little carnivore to the fork side — but not for lack of effort.

On the left, Happy Pig.                    On the right, Sad Pig.

On the bottom right, connected to the orange lines out of frame, was a gory depiction of a pig processing plant. Now Soleil says, “pobre puerco,” as she licks the bacon grease off her fingers. “Mas?” Keep trying, Ari. She’s almost there. 

Before Ari left, she gifted me with a tattoo. Soleil, who was very nervous for me when she heard that buzzing needle, stood by for moral support. But it didn’t hurt a bit. (Gracias amiga mia!!!!) 

“So it goes” is a phrase coined by Kurt Vonnegut, introduced and then repeated more than 100 times in his WWII novel Slaughter House Five. Contrary to what some people believe, it is NOT a shrug of the shoulders to denote apathy. Used whenever there is a mention of death, it is a sober acknowledgment of the fate that awaits us all. Both big Vonnegut fans, my sister and I decided last year to get his famous refrain tattooed on ourselves. For shared reasons, we’ve internalized the existential credo to accept what is, even when it’s often horrific and heartbreaking, while also embracing the charge to create meaning for ourselves in an absurd world. 

Also, the Tralfamadorians (a fictional species invented by Vonnegut in SHF) say it whenever they see a corpse. To them, death is just a bad condition at a particular moment in one’s existence, but the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. It’s not something to dwell on. As a person who struggles with death — I deeply fear losing my loved ones as well as being lost to them– it’s helpful for me to frame it like a Tralfamadorian, like death is one pinpoint on a map representing but a moment in a long string of moments here on earth. Suffice to say, it’s not a destination this nomad is eager for anyone to visit 🙂

Okay, back to lighter topics….

The Millauvois love summer –understandably so, it’s f’n cold in winter– so they make the most of the good weather. It seemed every time we left the house, something cool was happening: a bike festival, graffiti in the park, outside music concerts, the Natural Games…

For the last two weeks, Noni and Nica came all the way from the Northwest to visit us. First they stopped in Paris for a few days and climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower, enjoyed a night cruise down the Seine, took silly photos at “boring” museums and went shopping for little French dresses. Just Noni and Nica, grandmother and granddaughter. How sweet is that? 

While they were here, we mostly just enjoyed each other’s company. No agenda, just time spent together.

Every day this handsome guy took his mom out for “a special time.”  

Nica is incredible with Soleil–she’s patient and tireless, willing to play make-believe games with her for hours on end. At twelve, a tween, she seems to be enjoying the ability to tap into her child’s imagination one second, play sports another, and go shopping for dresses the next. She has the confidence to say ‘yes’ to all the facets of her budding identity, as she steps into the light of adulthood. Shine on, little rainbow. 

Meet the puppets, Monkey and Puppy. It’s been two years since we’ve seen Noni’s real hands! Or it seems like that. Noni used to be a student counselor, and it shows in the way she plays– full attention given, at kid level, child-directed. Kids feel seen and heard and understood. It’s no wonder her grandchildren adore her….

And love to tease her! 

More than anything, our time in Millau will be remembered as the time

NONI SAID BUTT! 

“I was going to take you girls out for ice-cream but…” and then she lost her train of thought. Soleil and Nica though this was the most hilarious thing that ever happened. NONI SAID BUTT! NONI SAID BUTT!!!! They laughed hysterically. Pictures were drawn. Photos were taken. Videos were made. Even Daddy couldn’t resist the fun. 

 

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Comments

  1. Our visa is approve. Now we wait the couple months to get it in hand. Then we move to just south of where your photos depict. We will travel to the town upon your Facebook recommendation. How fun is all this!

  2. Ugh I’m so jealous of your existence right now.

  3. looks like fun!

  4. I think that Sol sunshine can help Mom write a book. She might like to take the photos, or illustrate. The titles for your world travels would be so much fun to develop from a childs perspective.

  5. Amazing! I would love to go there!

  6. Aww amiga! q lindo, cuanto me emocione al recordar toda esa aventura, mil gracias! Los vecinos jaja nuestras búsquedas, grandes sabores, hermosos paisajes, aprendizajes, nuestros “hustling”, y cada cosa q sucedió en ese antiguo extraño pero inolvidable edificio de esa pequeña villa en las montañas, GRACIAS POR ESA EXPERCIENCIA, saludos family! Special kiss to my goddaughter!

  7. Love this. The face of these women! Such expression. Me encanta!

  8. Peggy Landon says:

    Just can’t get more wonderful than this…

  9. OMG….. I hope you can live through these horrible times lol… your life!!! lol Every time I see a Sprinter I think… yeah I could do it…

  10. You guys Rock!!! I love your life. You inspired me years ago with your Sprinter life and I’m getting one ( Ford Transit) in September to start traveling.

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