Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

A reflection on how my Hawaii coffee farm prepared me for a life in France

Karen Kriebl

I remember coffee harvest time on the Big Island of Hawaii. The task of handpicking the fruit off of more coffee trees than we could count left us feeling a bit overwhelmed. Yet, it also provided the opportunity to quietly contemplate the subtle messages that one finds throughout one’s day if one is willing to look close enough at simple tasks. Often my thoughts drifted to my list of “things to do” or “unfinished projects” or “why the heck am I a farmer.” I was often critical of our property being so “rustic.” There was always so much to do and no matter how many coffee cherries we picked, or how long we spent battling the jungle, the work was never finished. Ever. But at some point in our 9 years on the side of that volcano on an island in the middle of the Pacific, I learned that everything does not have to be perfect or finished or meet some unrealistic, self-imposed expectation. I learned the art of patience. Taking deep breathes. And I was reminded that everything works out in the end. These are all very valuable lessons to learn for anyone desiring to live abroad. The Universe was preparing me for an adventure even more demanding than my Hawaii coffee farm.

Our Hawaii coffee farm helped us to prepare for our adventure living abroad.

Our Hawaii coffee farm helped us to prepare for our adventure living abroad.

On one of those coffee picking days, I mused about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi - the art of embracing the beauty of imperfection. Wabi means humble and sabi denotes beauty in the natural progression of time. When joined together, the words invite us to set aside our demand for perfection and learn to appreciate the beauty of simple things. The emphasis is placed on authenticity. I must admit, I was not quick to embrace the concept. But I had plenty of time and only my thoughts to keep me company as I wrangled one tree after another.

Two of our Hawaii girls - Motown and Ginger

Two of our Hawaii girls - Motown and Ginger

Wabi-sabi could be found everywhere on our farm. There were plenty of projects I wanted to take beyond “imperfection” and move into “completion.” In particular, one project was my chicken coop. I never convinced my “girls” that their wabi-sabi place of rest was a good thing. Like me, they required more comfort. The roosting pole was too high or too low. The mongoose ate their food before they had a chance. The sun didn’t hit their feathers just right in the morning. The nesting boxes weren’t as soft as my laundry basket. The coop was too wabi-sabi for their tastes. I understood. There are luxuries like indoor plumbing and workable doors that keep goats out of the pantry that I just need now in my life. It is good to know what you want. I just might have chickens again someday. And this time I will be ready with a perfectly, imperfect home that they will find comfortable albeit not as pampered as my Hawaii chicks.

I didn’t attempt to introduce wabi-sabi elements into my Hawaii coffee shack. It just happened - all too easily. The challenge was making the shift from wanting things to be “just so” to seeing things as part of the welcoming comfort of the place. And it happens more often naturally and by chance. This will be true of our restoration project in France. Stone floors have a patina to them that you just can’t recreate. It takes the passing of time. During my current property search, I have seen my share of insensitive house projects that make me cringe. Somehow putting drywall over a 16th-century stone wall in order to achieve a look that is “clean and perfect” seems sacrilegious to me. I wonder if I would embrace an ancient French farmhouse’s imperfections with the same enthusiasm that I do now without my Hawaii experience. Perhaps not. Today, I can’t get enough of imperfection when it comes to my next home. I squeal with delight when original hardware remains. Adore clearly handmade worn shelves in a cupboard, waiting for my jars of jam. Oh to find an old barn filled with discarded chairs that just need a good cleaning to be of service again. I recognize the beauty in what may seem old and ordinary. All of the skills required to live a life abroad were honed at my Hawaii coffee farm. What felt as flawed and unfinished was really the beauty of learning to live a slow life.

Wabi-sabi is . . . 

a pile of leaves from an ancient oak waiting to provide a garden with warmth from winter

  apricot jam that is more like syrup ready to have fresh French bread dipped into it

   sun-dried cotton sheets that provide an impromptu afternoon shade

    a garden bed overflowing with an abundance of mint

hens laying in an old abandoned dovecote

     fresh goat cheese spread onto toast

      worn stone floors that tell a story

      a farm sink found in a banana patch

         a fig tree growing in an apple orchard

          handmade napkins salvaged from a vintage tablecloth

           a copper pot from a brocante that has prepared countless bowls of soup

            the colors of a fall leaf found on the path and used as an impromptu bookmark

              the feel of an old basket in your hands as you gather fresh herbs from the potager

                a warm cup of chai tea with local honey and fresh ginger enjoyed with the morning light . . .

I tend to have a lot of Kusmi Tea tins . . . Perfect to reuse as a container for quick growing microgreens. France meets Hawaii in simple ways.

I tend to have a lot of Kusmi Tea tins . . . Perfect to reuse as a container for quick growing microgreens. France meets Hawaii in simple ways.

Now, I can be overwhelmed by endless amounts of paperwork instead of coffee trees. The French adore bureaucracy. There is much to do in terms of visas, business setups, taxes, all in a different language that I struggle to learn. Yet, I have more patience and faith today that it all works out. My Hawaii farm developed those character traits for me. Sticktoitiveness too. Just do the work despite how daunting the task feels. Taking big projects and dividing them into working parts. My new business plan for France is just my Hawaii farm plan adjusted. Sharing my love of vintage finds with others are like growing microgreens for market. Easy to start and quick to share. Developing my “lessons in a living a French life” are the white pineapples and papayas. Both take time to grow but are ready to create an income in just over a year’s time. Growing truffles is similar to planting fruit trees or tea plants, investing years of waiting; yet, knowing the task added to the greater good of the property long after you are not its steward.

8 years ago today . . .

8 years ago today . . .

When one decides to make a major shift in one’s life path, the uncertainty can be unnerving. Becoming an immigrant in a foreign country requires courage and tenacity. Moving to or from a remote island demands determination and wherewithal. Surprisingly, I found that the actual leaving was not as difficult as I thought. The farm prepared me and I was ready for the next adventure. What was difficult was leaving the simple daily tasks: Walking the same path each morning with the animals and grabbing a ripe guava or a handful of thimble berries. Selecting the day’s tea from the garden that I lovingly and with the use of many creative metaphors developed out of lava rock and precious found soil. Listening to the sounds of the farm whether bees at the time when the avocado trees flowered, or chickens and wild turkeys expressing their contentment with life, or even the small coqui frogs beginning their song, letting me know that the day’s work was done. No matter where I settle in my new country. No matter how beautiful the landscape and medieval village may be. No matter what my new daily tasks include. I will never share in those particular moments in that particular way - again. It seems one goes through a lovely form of grief when you offer your home to another who will recreate their own memories in the space. But the lessons will continue to serve my family and I as we create a new life in France. No doubt we’ll make plenty of mistakes, learn new things, and most importantly, appreciate the beauty of our rustic, perfectly imperfect surroundings.

Yes, I will always be grateful for the lessons of a life on a farm, on a mountain, in Hawaii.

À bientôt,


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