As a kid, I couldn’t seem to understand what made adults, well, adults. I studied them in secret for a long time, peeking up from under the dinner table at a sea of knees, slyly eavesdropping all the while—and eventually came to realize one thing.
Adults seemed to just...not care.
“Look at this amazing rock!” the four-year-old me would exclaim. “Isn’t it so shiny and majestic?”
“Yeah, uh huh, sure honey.”
Those little everyday miracles that happened so often seemed to mean nothing to adults. Was it possible that they couldn’t see the world for what it was—magical, enthralling, simple, and yet so very complex?
I turned to my grandma for advice. She just muttered something in Arabic, grunted, and turned on the TV.
“You can never have too much butter…”
Julia Child’s face was swimming on the television screen: beaming, playful, happy. Now here was an adult I could understand. What was her secret? How did she seem to be immune to apathy, so much happier and freer than all the other adults I had ever encountered so far?
I was the first in my bloodline born in America, a shining new hope for a family based in the Middle East. Raised speaking English and Arabic to a Syrian family with limited finances, there was often little joy to be found around the house. When spoken by a native, Arabic almost sounds like hoarse German: guttural, loud, frantic. The stress and daily realities of my mom trying to provide for four children were lost on me back then. Arguments erupted daily, filled my ears each morning. Money this, money that. Everyone was always yelling. Why couldn’t we all just bake a cake and get along?
In a world fueled by olive oil, I dared to dream of butter. I dreamt of a simpler, more meaningful life, a happier life free of the constraints of modern society that made adults so very old.
I wanted a life free of fighting, shrieking, and daily arguments; free of anger, slammed doors, and the struggle of living penny to penny. Everyone was too busy worrying about how we were going to “make it,” how we were going to pay next month’s rent, how we had to cut down more on day to day spending, and do away with allowances.
My house was full of so much anger—the anger that came with the desperation of poverty—that no one could stop for a second if only to just appreciate the beauty of simple things, like a blossoming flower in the yard.
I didn’t know it then, but it turned out that I had been dreaming of France for a very, very long time.
When I first stepped foot in the small town of Malaucène, located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in Southeastern France, at age twenty-four, I was slightly terrified.
After three years of dating, I was finally set to meet my boyfriend Arthur’s extended family, the Lassalles. Their quaint little house was a gift to Arthur’s grandparents, Leonard and Melinda, from their children, who had teamed up to buy the house for them some twenty odd years ago.
There it was, in all its glory: the Lassalle family house. Located at the foot of the mighty Mont Ventoux, this small little building had housed generations of Lassalles, each more beautiful than the next. Many of them worked all over Europe as actors, models, production designers, and writers—and nearly every member of the family was a talented artist, too. Having been taught how to paint, sculpt, and cook at young ages, everyone had come to develop a deep, intrinsic passion for creating.
The nearest village, a small cluster of about ten or fifteen shops, was a fifteen-minute drive away. The house itself was so very naked: no TV, no visible means of internet or computers. Instead, it was filled with mountains of spice jars, paintings and books accumulated over the years, pots and pans, a pottery station, and garden. Tall trees and shrubs leaped out at me, filling the air with green. Great big lavender bushes popped out at every angle.
I grinned nervously.
“Is this...it?” I asked my new fianceé, Arthur.
“Yup,” he replied, grinning from ear to ear. “Welcome to France.”
I was a kid raised on media. With four kids in the house and little money, competition for technology was always at an all-time high. The internet was a magical thing back then. I still remember when AOL first came out with their CDs—remember the awful, crunching mechanical grinding noise it made as it dialed out, and then the ever-familiar “you’ve got mail” greeting.
But mostly, I remember fighting a lot over who would get to use the one computer we had in the living room. The desire to connect with others through technology was a deep part of my life and childhood, so much so that it followed me later into my career as a writer and social media marketer.
Eventually, without noticing it, I somehow came to realize that it had become difficult to pull myself away from my phone. It was difficult, weird even, to sit on a bus without at least glancing at my phone, or ride an elevator going up two floors without taking a peek. Somehow, the little work habits had spilled over into my personal life.
If the entirety of my waking attention was confined to a three-by-five-inch screen, what else was I missing?
It was time to head out to the daily Saturday market in Malaucène.
Years of meticulously watching the Food Network and Travel Channel couldn’t prepare me for this. The market was alive: so rich, so vibrant, bursting with so many sights and sounds that I hardly knew what to do with myself.
The smell of tender, slow roasted chicken on a spit wafted through the street and enticed me as I walked from stall to stall. I could hear vendors shouting prices, kids laughing as they ran past the crooked cobblestones, dogs barking away happily. Meanwhile, all the other smells of the market were successfully working their magic, bringing me to the right vendors without fail.
I eyed the table of saucisson giddily, trying to decide how many I could fit into my purse without arousing any unusual glances. As I looked around the street, I noticed a couple sitting together under an umbrella at a nearby cafe, lazily enjoying some ice cream and laughing.
I felt like a little kid again.
“How about we stop at the patisserie for some sweets first, then head out and explore the rest of the market?” Arthur suggested.
Pastries? Sweets? Chocolate? My mind whirred with the possibilities.
I’ve been in love with chocolate for a long, long time.
One day when I was about two years old (busy with my duties as any toddler would be), I fell asleep face-forward in a plate of spaghetti on my high chair.
The video that my mother so lovingly recorded will then show you her many attempts to wake me up.
“Jenny, wake up please,” my mother pleaded in vain. “Finish your dinner.”
A family friend chimed in, still talking to my unconscious body:
“Yeah Jenny, look! There’s pizza!”
“How about some fries?”
Finally, someone said, “Look, Jenny, there’s chocolate cake!”
Instantly, my head flew up out of my plate of spaghetti as my eyes landed on my mom, twinkling with perfect innocence.
Who knew you could pack so much joy into one cobbled little street?
At the market, great hulks of cheeses were laid out in front of so many stands, in nearly every color, too: red for sun dried tomato, green for pesto flavored, blue for—hell, I don’t know. For all I know, the cheese could have been put there just to dazzle me. There were signs saying “Truffes, Fraiches” (Fresh Truffles) everywhere and my mind started feeling wildly excited. How is everyone here so calm? I could barely contain my excitement and ran around from booth to booth like an excited puppy.
“LOOK, LOOK!” I exclaimed.
The rotisserie chicken hung to the left of the stand with a giant, fifty-pound bowl full of paella, the chicken turning and twisting oh-so-gently and yellow umbrellas gleaming in the light. Right by that was another stand where truffles the size of my fist were lined up from end to end on a table. There was even a vendor called “Chez Fanny,” and I couldn’t help but giggle a little on the inside.
Further down the lane ahead, I saw a stand full of glimmering silk dresses, and immediately ran over to buy myself a red and gold one because it was just so pretty. Aisles filled with baskets of colorful, beautiful vegetables seemed to scream my name as I walked past. After ending up with about a kilo of garlic from a cute French vendor, I also quickly learned the art of haggling.
I was with Arthur, his chef brother Samuel, and his kid Ezra, who was probably around a year and a half old. Ezra and I were both positively radiant with excitement.
It was finally time to go to the pâtisserie. My first French pâtisserie.
This must be the closest thing to heaven I will ever get to on earth, I thought.
It was a simple pâtisserie, nothing too fancy. At its most basic, a pâtisserie is a type of bakery in France that specializes in sweet goods. Think éclairs, little fancy cakes, petit fours, decadent gateau atop piles of puff pastry, and mountains of whipped cream. This was a moment I had been dreaming of my whole life.
The multitude of cakes taunted me. From gorgeous creations topped with meringue and berries to coffee glazed éclairs, and thick, decadent custards, it was almost impossible to decide.
I chose to follow my heart and ordered a chocolate éclair and a cake called “Herisson,” which was composed of rich, chocolate filling atop a buttery tart. I didn’t think of it until much later, but Googling this world yielded many pictures of hedgehogs, so I’m inclined to think it was a “Sonic cake.”
I was trying so hard to keep it in. I wanted to be sleek and sophisticated, the essence of classy, just like my new, glamorous French family. But in the end, I melted into a silly mess of happiness. I just couldn’t wait, and so I unsheathed the pastries from their box as soon as I stepped foot outside the door.
Luckily enough, Arthur happened to capture that exact moment on camera. It looked a little something like this:
I don’t honestly remember ever looking so happy.
Meals with Arthur’s family weren’t at all like meals at my house. At my place, it was pretty common to do the age old American thing, funnily enough: eating dinner on our laps on the couch as we watched TV, more or less ignoring each other all the while.
Dinner with Arthur’s family, however, was another thing entirely.
It was an evening long affair, the kind of thing where everyone pitched in to help. The younger kids stirred sauces while the adults put the meat on the grill. At a table nearby, I watched the scene unfold around me as Arthur’s father Richard added in some harissa to the mussels, then took them to the grill to steam with some wine. Rice was made and fluffed. Fish were delicately deboned and laid out decadently with lemon slices, zesty herbs, and piquant touches of fresh pepper crushed alongside.
Those dinners were some of the simplest, most intimate experiences I’d ever shared, with each meal being more beautiful than the last. Everything served at the family table was savored, appreciated, loved. The vegetables were grown in the garden, the olive oil was made in a village a few minutes away, and even the garlic was bought from a nearby market. Everyone smiled as they ran around preparing the meals, and I couldn’t help but smile with them, too.
To know that such a place existed—to know that one day I would reach out and touch it, after so many years of dreaming of it felt too good to be true, unreal somehow. What had I ever done to deserve something so beautiful? I felt my heart ache with gratitude as I looked at the home I had dreamed of for so long. As wave after wave of appreciation washed over me, I took a moment to take it all in.
I finally felt like I truly belonged to something: that I was safe, loved, wanted as much as anyone else.
After so many years of being called a silly daydreamer, I felt at home in France in a way I never had in America. I had found the quiet comforts that everyone back home seemed to forget about so easily. Adults in France weren’t the same kind of adults I grew up around. The adults in France were free, truly free from the banal death at the hands of modernity that those of us in the city felt so closely. Getting stuck in traffic, missing the bus, paying taxes, working overtime, struggling, hustling to survive for every minute of every day. It took its toll.
I had finally found time for hand-holding and long night drives. The air was clean and crisp and hummed with the quiet symphony of a thousand crickets. It was so beautiful that Arthur and I decided to take a quick stroll together after dinner.
“I can actually see the stars here! Oh my god,” I uttered breathlessly to Arthur.
“You’ve never seen them like this before, have you?”
“Not like this before, no. They’re beautiful.”
I hope I never forget what they look like.
Photo used with copyright permission.
Janelle Albukhari is a freelance travel and entertainment writer with an insatiable appetite for adventure. Currently based in Portland, OR, she's also an avid content marketer, foodie and amateur chef. You can catch more tales of her adventures over at the Insomniac blog, where she writes about electronic dance music culture.
Social media handle: Twitter @jenkhari