Tomber amoureux

To fall in love translates perfectly in French: tomber amoureux. Perhaps it is the same the world over.

The expression is apt. ‘Falling’ implies giving up control, abandoning oneself to love. You have to let go, give up a bit of yourself, to love another. Whether it is a person, a place, or a way of life.

My adventure in this country began many years ago, in my hometown Toronto, with a chance encounter in a bar. It led to a long-distance relationship, then my first stumbling steps in French, a wedding in Paris, then, a few years and a young family later, a transatlantic move.

I can’t say that falling in love was what drove my choices beyond that first encounter. Over the years my relationship with France, with the language and its people, has been as often fraught as loving. There has been frustration, connection and (mis)understanding in varying degrees, laughter and learning. But isn’t all love like that? A tapestry of emotions, each thread woven together with passion and patience to ultimately render something that is rich and nuanced, neither perfect nor uniform, but a beautiful whole nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly when it was but some time early in my life here we visited the region we’ve called home for the past ten years. The lake that stretches between France and Switzerland was on our way to and from the mountains that my Frenchman always managed to convince me to visit on holiday, even though I wasn’t a great skier and at best a reluctant mountaineer. Lake Geneva, Lac Léman to locals, has a wide plain on the French side, an area called le Bas Chablais. I know nothing of geography but I think it was carved out by the Rhône glacier. What it means is that you have a backdrop of mountains on either side and the lake in the middle, which makes for a stunning combination.

“This is more like it,” I said to my husband when we first stopped here. We stayed for a few nights in Thonon-les-Bains, visiting nearby Evian and venturing into Geneva on the Swiss side. There was swimming in the lake, pleasure boats and restaurants on the waterfront. We came back again some years later and stayed in a small medieval town called Yvoire, with cobblestone streets and an artsy feel. I fell in love with the area.

Later, when work offered up a job in Geneva, I snapped at the opportunity. My husband was already ahead of me, having relocated his business and working with clients on the Swiss side. For four years I commuted back to our family home outside of Lyon each week. Then, with both kids moving on to university, we decided to move closer to work. We looked for places to live on either side of the border, flirting with the idea of living in Switzerland. But I wasn’t ready to leave France. And when we found a lot with a lake view in the Bas Chablais, it was a no-brainer. We would build our house here. We were head over heels.

I remember the year we spent waiting for our house to come out of the ground. We’d rented an apartment in a development just behind so that we could walk over and check the construction daily. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Could this magical place really be our home?

After a few years though, the thrill began to dim. I’m not sure exactly when I fell out of love with our house, or the area we live in. But something shifted.

Not the place itself. It is still beyond beautiful. But living on the border means that you are never entirely there. You live daily in the awareness of the contrast between two places — and one begins to feel a lot more attractive than the other. And our house, while I’m proud of having built something so beautiful, needs a lot of love.

Fortunately, I did not have to cheat in deciding to leave it. My first love agrees with me. In fact, I think he fell out of love with his home country way before I did.

What is it about France? When did the dysfunctional side of things begin to weigh more heavily in the balance? Just watching the news the other day and seeing the riots and looting (yet again!) on the Champs Elysée after a win by the football team PSG. I feel beyond disgusted and discouraged.

Like you do when you fall out of love with someone, and their every fault, every flaw becomes unbearable.

Funny there is no expression for that, at least that I know of. In French it is just, ‘on ne s’aime plus.’

Forgive me, chère France.

Perhaps when I leave you, I will be able to love you again.

Bises.

Histoires d’amour

Love stories are both universal and intriguing. Irrespective of age or gender, culture or nationality, whatever alchemy makes people fall in love with each other is a mystery. And it is a beautiful one at that.

What puzzles me more, and is a question I’ve been thinking about lately, is what makes people stay together. Once that first spark fades, some couples endure, others split. There are shared values, of course, and commitments both contractual and emotional. There are financial interests. There is sexual attraction, intellectual companionship and compatibility on so many levels. Still, it is a long haul. For better or for worse.

The idea of divorce, of breaking something that has been built together over a lifetime or even a number of years, is brutal. And yet it is something that happens roughly 46% of the time in France, a figure similar to that of other countries. Which means that those who do stay together must have their reasons. Just as those who split must suffer terrible pain.

What is the glue that attracts and then holds people together? Perhaps it is some combination of complementarity in character and need that each fulfills in the other.

The love story of Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron should never have happened. Or if it happened, by all rights it should have ended when he left the high school in Amiens where she was his French and drama teacher.

Their 24-year age gap is beyond what most people can fathom and certainly what most parents can accept. Apparently Emmanuel’s parents at first objected strenuously to the relationship. They could have had Brigitte fired, even jailed. He was 15, she 39. When it became apparent that it was happening, against all reason, they accepted Brigitte. In 2006, she left the husband with whom she had born and raised three children, then married Emmanuel the following year.

Shortly after her husband turned 40 as France’s youngest-ever President, Brigitte celebrated her 65th birthday in April. Truth is surely stranger than fiction.

Lately I’ve been watching two wonderful BBC dramas about love and divorce.

The first is The Split, a dramedy about a family of female divorce lawyers with their own relationship issues. Right up my alley. And with outstanding performances from the ensemble cast led by Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan. Here’s the scoop on the production from screenwriter Abi Morgan.

The other is A Very English Scandal, directed by Stephen Frears, in which Hugh Grant memorably portrays Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe was a British politician and leader of the Liberal Party who became involved in a homosexual scandal in the late 1970s. Norman Scott, his young lover, is played by Ben Whishaw, whose performance I found even more gripping than Grant’s. The mystery here is the love story between the two men. Despite the fact that his mentor tries to have him murdered, and the scorned lover attempts to bring down the older politician in a biting yet hilarious courtroom drama, the glances between the two men reveal a very real and enduring love.

What is this thing called love? And why are we forever fascinated by it? There is something about the unlikely pairing of people that captures our imaginations and tickles our romantic hearts. Who more so than Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg?

It is perhaps no great mystery why, when a young Frenchman walked into a bar in Toronto back in 1985, this woman eight years older went home with him. What I still haven’t figured out is how we managed to bridge the gap of distance, language and culture, get married and remain together all these years.

But I’m so glad we did.

What’s your favourite love — or divorce — story?

Quand on aime, on ne compte pas

Flowers, floatingIt is said in French that in love one doesn’t count. The exact meaning of this phrase always eluded me. Does it mean that when in love we forget all rational notions of time and money and throw ourselves into unbridled passion? Or rather that in love one does not keep score about whose turn it is or who owes what to whom? Can it be applied not just to romantic love but also to the things we love?

The answer for the French is oui, oui and oui. But when it comes to me, it’s non, non, and non.

Maybe it’s my lack of Latin blood. Whether at work or at play, I simply don’t throw myself completely into things, much as I admire those who do. Like my husband, who hikes up mountains and keeps going until he reaches the top. I go a short distance, become dizzy and exhausted, and say bon, that’s enough. Husband rarely reads, but when he gets into a book he may disappear from social interactions for days at a time. And if there is something good to eat within reach, there will soon be none left.

Me, I meter out my passions in careful doses. Count my drinks and keep an eye on my calories. I don’t binge watch my favourite TV series or run marathons. I will eat just a few pieces of chocolate, then save the rest for tomorrow. Read for an hour. Sleep for seven. Moderation in all things. How boring is that?

Perhaps it’s innate to character, upbringing or genes. Whatever it is, I seem to be more at home with the English model. When Browning asks, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?” there is a calculation, a method to her madness. There is a list.

Which is not to say there isn’t love; it’s just that there is also counting. Somewhere, no matter how far back in my mind, there is always a list.

How about you? Do you keep count or live with unbridled passion?