I learned yesterday what a Thello is.
It’s a train company that runs night trains (with sleeper cars) from Paris Gare de Lyon (an hour north of our house), with a stop in Dijon (half an hour south of our house), before traveling through the night to Milan and all of northern Italy. Lots of folks around here just call it “the Venice night train.” That has a nice ring to it. Go to sleep in Paris, wake up in Venice. I’m turning it into a verb today: I think that we will Thello very soon.
These are the kinds of things you discover when one of your hobbies is dreaming (via computer) of an amazing life that is now within your grasp. We’re getting close to the day when we can dedicate a portion of every week to deciding where we’re going to go, and how fast we can get there.
Spring is still officially six days away, and there’s snow in the forecast this weekend. But the whole of the Bourgogne countryside has the look and feel of a fertile time bomb, and any minute all manner of flora and fauna look to explode into life. It’s about time.
For Paula and me, this moment feels monumental – really, like the first spring of our lives. Of course, it isn’t. Paula grew up in Michigan and I was raised in Colorado. So we obviously experienced spring at some point. But it hardly qualified as its own season in New Orleans, where we spent most of our lives.
This feels a lot different. Partly, it’s because it’s been a particularly difficult winter in France. And partly, because it’s been a scary winter for us. I’ll spare you the gory details, except to say that we arrived in France in late August, got our furniture in September, and by the first week in October I was suffering a fatigue so deep I could not get out of bed – indeed, could barely lift my head. At about the same time, I started losing feeling in my hands and feet.
In the ensuing five months, we made three trips back to the United States for multiple tests and lab work; an ultrasound that looked like cancer; an MRI that showed it wasn’t; a blood test that looked like cancer; another test a few months later that showed it wasn’t; and a torture-like diagnostics-by-electrocution that showed a suite of minor, non-life-threatening nerve issues to contend with. That, and the residual effects of a winter of fear.
While all of this was happening, France was having its rainiest winter in 58 years, a fact that no one who followed me on social media could miss. Like drunks in a New Orleans marching krewe, a series of disturbances stumbled across Europe and plunged the continent into a wet, gray mood for nine endless weeks. The French were even more cranky than normal. It was enough to depress even a healthy, unterrified person. A concerned friend who had been reading my Facebook posts came by one day with a sun lamp specially designed for battling SAD – seasonal affective disorder. She said I sounded like I needed it more than she did, and I should try it for a week.
Seven days later, I bought my own.
And during all this, our old dog Bear died. He was 16, and we knew it was coming. But it didn’t make the winter any easier to lose our close friend. He was the reason we couldn’t just flee the rain and find a sunny space.
It all played out like a bad country and western song.
It’s not like we needed this warning shot from the universe to know that no day is guaranteed to us, that we should never take a moment for granted, that the only way to live is in a constant state of gratitude. I’m 15 years older today than my mom, my dad and my brother were when they died. But the universe seems to want us to grasp the concept on a more profound level. We’re trying to listen, and do the work. Let me just say, mindfulness may be all the rage these days, but most days it’s hard work.
Today was easier. It dawned clear and warm. In the valleys it was 15°C (about 60°F), and people in Flavigny flung open their windows, because after a long winter it was colder in their 400-year-old stone houses than it was outside. For everyone, it felt like coming out of a long night into the light. The grocery stores are stocked with flower and vegetable seeds. The walled gardens around the edge of the village are showing off their freshly turned earth. The clatter of pruning shears fills the cool morning air.
We took off late morning on one of our favorite walks, a loop that goes about six miles through farms and forests, and showcases the beauty of the northern Bourgogne countryside. The tractors were out in force, spraying and sowing the wide expanses. We saw the first butterflies of the season, and the first flower. We passed a friend of ours from the village, a lifelong Flavignian who lives and works in Paris and has traveled the world. He said after all his years and all his journeys, he still marvels at the simple, breathtaking beauty of the rolling green Burgundian hills. We knew what he meant.
Paula and I are still struggling to find a synchronicity on these long walks. The sun and the air seem to force a fast, healthy pace that promotes fitness. That’s the voice that Paula hears most often. But the earth is always saying to me, “Slow down, listen, feel the wind, watch, learn.”
One thing I’ve learned while slow-walking the French countryside is that those dreams you have about being able to fly, and how fun it is? Those are true. The hawks teach us this. The countryside is thick with them at this time of the year. The other day, there were six of them working the updrafts along the ridges, their red tails flashing in the sun as they glided effortlessly, carving graceful turns with the tiniest flick of a wing feather. They were having a blast.
When we moved to France, we dreamed of a life where Europe, the Mediterranean, northern Africa were all at our doorstep, accessible for a comparative song. That life is by no means guaranteed to us. But after a long winter that seemed determined to make sure our gratitude never wavered, we’re going to give it a go.
I’m moving over by the window now. The Bourgogne sun is setting behind the hills that rise from the valley right below our house, and I don’t want to miss it. But I’m taking the laptop with me. There’s a fare sale going for the Venice night train.