Happiness in the Calm – A Week in the Boondocks

Free from my stint of homelessness, I passed the following week with my aunt and French family in Auvergne. Deep in the center of France, there lives a series of small villages tucked away in between an expanse of mountains and valleys. Brioude, the community where my family lives, is built on top of what used to be volcanoes. The area is quiet but beautiful. In view of the region’s emptiness, I expected my week to be of the same rapport… However, it quickly proved to be a colorful experience.

The interaction between my aunt and her young children, Lucas and Clarisse, provided me not only with fear but also with a whole new vocabulary. On a daily basis I learned different ways to say, “I’ve had it up to here with you!” and “You’re a pain in my ass!” My two oh-so French cousins can be a handful, to say the least, and with Lucas, the rambunctious 11-year-old, constantly poking my gadgets and expecting them to poke back, and his hyperactive 8-year-old sister, Clarisse, running around, it’s no wonder my aunt had to whip out some harsh, but richly idiomatic French slang. Here’s a small list of expressions I picked up:

T’es chiant! You’re a bloody pain! Alternative: You’re super boring.
C’est pas marrant. It’s not funny/amusing.
J’en ai marre! I’m fed up!
Petit coquin You little rascal!
Je suis crevé. I’m spent.
Tu fous de ma gueule? Are you bullshitting me?
(You don’t even want to know the literal translation…)

In addition to spending time with my cousins, I also met several interesting characters that seemed from a different world. When I went with Katherine to her neighbor’s farm, for instance, I was bombarded by a fleshy woman with smoke-stained teeth and a phlegmy cough. She was a cow farmer with oversized overalls, and when she saw me she quickly grabbed me, thrusted me into her bosom, and prompted me to give not 2, but 3 kisses on the cheek. She led me into the kitchen where I met the grandmother, an older version of the farmer who kept telling my aunt how cute I was. Okay Granny, stop hitting on me! Once in the kitchen, the tracks of cow dung on the kitchen floor quickly turned my stomach. I couldn’t help but think, how does this family possibly cook here with the stench and sight of fertilizer around?

And remember my wish to milk a cow over winter break? Well, when I went to see the cows in the stable, I was met with a firm, manure-encrusted handshake from CowLady’s husband. He was a male replica of her – with matching overalls and hair in all the wrong spots except where it should have been. They seemed like fine people, and apparently their livestock’s milk was the freshest in town, but I couldn’t stop looking at their filth-stained hands and consider how that is one sure-fire way to get pink eye.

I also met Didi, a local wine grower, at his vineyard. He showed us his underground cave where he produces and stores his wine and gave me a few cupfuls of red. I asked how strong it was, to which replied that it 17% alcohol and that when my older sister visited a few years back, she got sufficiently wasted.

The last person I met was Jean Paul, a peach seller and a friend of my uncle Hubert. As we sat around the kitchen table one night, we got to talking about life in “la France profonde” (Deep France). Stroking his scruffy beard, Jean Paul gave me a sound piece of advice: “Il faut trouver le bonheur en la calme,” which means: “We need to find happiness in the calm.”

My week in Auvergne was exactly that — happiness in the calm. I spent 7 days eating vegetarian, reading French children’s books with Clarisse, taking hikes to nearby villages, and trying local cheeses (Saint-Nectaire was my favorite). Of course, it came with some difficulties, such as my experience with CowLady and having to poo in a bucket and cover it with odor-reducing woodchips. Yet, life out of the fast line was a nice change. It was my first Christmas spent away from my nuclear family and appropriately, I received a copy of Into the Wild, a pocketknife (with wine opener), and a sketchbook. On Christmas Day when I Skyped with family in Pennsylvania, they asked if I was homesick. Taking a breath, I said, “No, I’m not homesick. I miss you guys, but I’m not homesick.”

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