Westport couple ‘play house’ in Provence
Published 3:17 pm, Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Who among us hasn’t fantasized about turning a vacation into an extended living experience?
Going from tourist to local in Provence is what Mary-Lou Weisman and her husband, Larry, longed to do a decade ago with a plan to sink deeper roots in the celebrated French region. They decided to rent a house for a monthlong stay each year, from 2003 to 2006, complete with daily language lessons.
Mary-Lou shares the experience in her new book, “Playing House in Provence: How Two Americans Became a Little French” (iUniverse), which can serve as either a good armchair travel read or as a rallying cry for readers to go and do likewise. On one level, the book is a very detailed love letter to Provence country life, but the lessons learned by the couple — about themselves and extended travel — can be applied to any reader’s favorite places.
As we follow Mary-Lou’s and Larry’s adventures, the author writes about the couple’s lifelong evolution as travelers, from their backpacking youth to a desire for more comfort in their journeys away from home in Westport. Ironically, the easiest way to feel like you’re part of a place you’re visiting is to have no money, Weisman writes of her early trips to Europe: “Poverty is a reliable way to find your way into a culture without even trying. It ensures that you will have experiences denied to most tourists. Still with the accumulation of money, age and an increased desire for creature comforts, poverty has lost its charms. We no longer like to shower in public or sleep outdoors in a bag.”
The author believes sometimes the race to see as many of the designated historic and cultural sites can get in the way of deeply experiencing a foreign country.
“Working as journalist in Moscow I got so much out of that experience, but I never saw Lenin’s tomb,” she says in a phone interview. “Of course, if you just wander aimlessly as a tourist that’s not a good thing either — you’ll have a very thin experience.”
The couple zeroed in on Provence for their deeper travel experience because of a shared love of the region and the fact they each had a few years of high school French under their belts. Studying the language was a crucial part of their plan to fit in with locals during their stays. The book finds humor in the idea of AARP-qualifying students studying French every day. “... I am now trying to learn a foreign language at the same time I am forgetting words in my native tongue ...,” Weisman writes.
The author does believe taking a course or attending a class during a trip is always a good idea, though. “You learn something and in the course of that, something unpredictable happens,” she says. “The fact that you are slightly vulnerable can also be good.”
Being in a new place long enough to experience day-to-day living can make you see the value and joy in mundane chores. Weisman writes of her unexpected happiness simply hanging laundry on a line behind their first Provence rental.
“Laundry was an ecstatic experience,” she says, with a chuckle. “But I think if I had been there six months I wouldn’t have been so ecstatic. ... It also reminded me of being a mother’s helper years earlier. It was wonderful nostalgia.”
Part of what is exciting about settling into a foreign country “is the newness of everything,” Weisman says. “You’re in that magical place of belonging and not belonging at the same time.”
A trip sometimes can take a traveler back to the unpredictable excitement of childhood. “Adults can get very organized and unhappy. But children at play are very happy people,” she says.
Weisman thinks travelers should try to forget about electronic devices that can keep them tethered to home. She believes the study that found looking at work email while on vacation can immediately undercut the physical and spiritual benefits of being away from routines. In a chapter near the end of the book, “Larry Takes a Mistress,” the author and her husband argue over his accessing his work email in Provence (the “mistress” is his BlackBerry).
Eventually, Larry is convinced to trade in his BlackBerry for an international cellphone with no texting capacity. He learns people will text at the drop of a hat, but are more respectful of interrupting a vacation with a phone call.
“... in time, the addiction loosens its grip,” Weisman writes. “Sometimes Larry will flip his cellphone open to give himself a quick hit of its dull yellow light, but essentially the crisis is over. The marriage is saved.”
The Weismans are planning their next travel adventure in Italy where they have applied to teach English for a month next year in exchange for room and board.
“We’re waiting to see if they approve our application,” Mary-Lou says, sounding full of wanderlust.
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