I feel like I just came back from another dimension. I traveled to France in the middle part of June to attend a workshop with poet Marilyn Kallet at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts satellite site in Auvillar, France. It was a surreal experience on several levels.
First, I traveled there alone. I've never traveled alone to a foreign country before. Flying 40,000 feet up over a big ocean without your spouse can give you the willies, especially in light of the last few weeks of plane crashes and pilot deaths. I kept thinking about what my husband would do if something happened to me and what he would do with my stuff. Visions of him sitting forlornly in the middle of my huge closet made me tear up at one point. Fortunately, the guy next to me was asleep. He was a really nice man traveling with his wife and daughter. They couldn't get seats together. Unfortunately, he worked for the airline industry and was glad to explain what he thought happened to Air France 447 over the Atlantic. Catastrophic failure. No time to signal distress. I was wide awake most of the crossing.
When I got to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I had to make my way by train to Orly airport on the other side of Paris for a connecting flight to Toulouse. It took a bit of tentative French to make all the right connections. I haven't spoken French in France for over 20 years. I reviewed for a couple of months before I left, but when a little stressed, my mind tends to hit the pause button too much. After a while, I got pretty good at it, though. Give me a month there, and I'd start thinking in French, which is what one really needs to do in order to function well. Yes, quite a few people speak English there, especially in the big cities, but when I travel, I like to not be such a tourist. It served me well one night at dinner when I was seated with a French couple. The wife did not speak much English, and she was gracious enough to speak French slowly. Another table mate had studied French intensively before he came, so listening to him converse with the husband in French meant that I was surrounded by this beautiful language. It tilts one's world a bit when this happens.
I was really in rarified company during the workshop. I've been writing for a long time, and I was an English professor, but the talent pool was very deep, so I was a bit uneasy about being out of my comfortable depth. I needn't have worried. Everyone was supportive and encouraging. So not only were we surrounded by French, we were deep in our own language, our private language, our inner language. We were synchronous swimmers. That doesn't always happen in writing workshops. Sometimes there are sharks. I don't think that ever happens at VCCA.
The light is different in France. The air is so clear that everything is bathed in clarity. My photos don't quite get the light, but they come close. My picture of St. Catherine's Church near the river is exquisite, and it was the first thing I saw as I walked out the door of my little rental house, or "gite" as they are called in France. I think the reason the air is so clear is because the French have dedicated themselves to alternative power sources. I saw wind turbines everywhere. One of the strangest juxtapositions was when I was driving on the interstate to Carcassonne and saw several wind farms, but one was particularly striking. It was just behind a large cathedral on a hilltop so that this ancient structure's backdrop was this modern sculptural form. Another strange pairing was the Golfech nuclear plant just down the road from Auvillar as seen from the 13th Century walls of the town. It's disconcerting to be that close to something so potentially lethal, but the French seem to be very proficient at safety. They have to be. They derive nearly 90% of their electric power from nuclear and are Europe's leading exporter of electric power.
While I was there, I did not have the allergy symptoms I have here in East Tennessee. I'm not allergic to pollen. I'm allergic to pollutants, small particulates, dust and mold, and I take two strong allergy medicines for my allergies, but while I was in France, I felt healthier. I felt like I was in one of those Clariten commercials, the one where a film is peeled away, and the world is suddenly, well, clearer: "Clariten clear." Our coal fired power plants don't allow for that kind of clear.
So I am back from my sojourn to France, back to my good and loving husband, suitcase unpacked, poems to be polished, needy cat in my lap, Kleenex box nearby. And Chilhowee Mountain stands shrouded in haze to the Southeast.