In 2009 Launa and Bill Schweizer carried through on a promise they had made to each other many years earlier: Someday, when they had children, they would live overseas. Successful professionals in their late thirties with two small children, they quit their jobs, found renters for their Brooklyn house, and moved to the south of France for a year. Home Away: A Year of Misapprehensions, Transformations, and Rosé at Lunch is a loving record of the colors, smells, tastes, and cultural adjustments of taking up residence in the tiny village of Aups.
The writing is lovely and the author doesn’t shrink from describing their frequent difficulties, due in part to how little French any of them knew. Despite settling into an enviable work-free routine of delectable meals, wines, and eventually some good friends, it wasn’t all rosé and croissants. Bill had a baguette theory of French social life—“crusty on the outside, soft and mushy within”—but for Launa and their daughters, that crust proved impenetrable much of the time.
The girls paid a price for their parents’ adventure, the older one eventually needing to be home-schooled after much turmoil (not an insurmountable problem, as the author’s work in New York was as an elementary-school principal) and the younger managing to stay just this side of miserable, unable to connect with the French-speaking kids around her or even to pick up much French herself, aside from mastering the accent.
Whereas Americans tend to see happiness as an escape from routine, for the French it lies in routine itself.
Whereas Americans tend to see happiness as an escape from routine, for the French it lies in routine itself. Not to mention the differing political realities: “How many leisurely lunches could we enjoy in our lives,” she asks, “if we weren’t struggling to hold onto our health insurance or pay off supersized mortgages and enormous college loans?”
She’s certainly on to something here. According to the Journal of Happiness Studies—and doesn’t it make you happy just knowing that such a thing exists?—Americans define happiness in terms of personal achievement, best predicted by self-esteem. In East Asia, for example, happiness is defined in terms of interpersonal connectedness, best predicted by how embedded one feels in a social relationship (vol. 5, 2004).
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Sleepless Nights that “your first discovery when you travel is that you do not exist.” Your touchstones are gone; the question is whether you will replace them with discomfort and anxiety or with new touchstones. As American travelers, we may be helped by knowing that our sense of personal achievement and self-esteem might conflict with the norms for happiness in a new land.