Apr 17 2009

The Wrath of Grapes

The garden at our country house is managed by De-facto and the girls; each spring there’s a big production to plant carrots and green beans and radishes and lettuce and whatever we want to cross our fingers and hope will grow. We’re not here enough to weed and water and watch with the kind of care a good garden deserves. But we give it a shot, plant those seeds and pray there’s a balance of rain and sun until we return again. If we’re lucky we’ll get here once a month. This year we might not be back until July. So when it comes to our garden, it’s a crap shoot.

But the grapes – we have nine gnarly vines on our property – I’ve made them my business.

Behind the house where I spent my childhood in western New York State there were rows and rows of vineyards. This was where my neighbors and I played pretend spy wars and carried out imaginary pageantry. Later, as a teenager, I worked in the vineyards after school and during spring vacations, tying the thick trunks and thin canes to the wires so that as the grapes grew heavy the vine wouldn’t bend and break to the ground.

By the time I encountered those vines, they’d been pruned by someone (the vintner or his sons, suffering the cold winter with double hooded-sweatshirts under their parkas) who knew exactly how far back to cut them so they’d grow just the right amount to produce the juiciest grapes. Back then those vines yielded mostly grape juice, but now it should be said that New York State wineries produce some very surprising, refined and delighting wines. Okay, maybe it’s not the region you’d turn to first. But you can find something very drinkable there.

The grapevines we inherited when we bought this country house in France – in the Charente, north of Bordeaux – had not been tended for many years. The trunks were burdened with too many vines, their long arms stretched up into the trees above them, tendrils strangling the branches to fight for sunlight. The stalks that had been planted beside the old bergerie sent a web of canes up into the roof, wrestling the terra-cotta tiles. I spent much of the first summer we were here cursing the previous owner and disentangling
three_vinesthe mess of neglected vines and cutting them back, apologizing to them each time, reminding them it was for their own good. Last summer, our third summer here, was too cloudy and too rainy to produce anything very interesting. My vintner efforts went unanswered. I’m hoping this summer will be the breakthrough. The buds that grinned at me this week, they give me hope. All we need is a summer with some serious sun, not at all guaranteed in this green (wet) region of France, which is why it’s not one that’s known for its wine. I am waging an uphill battle.

People who see me toiling in my micro-vineyard always ask if we intend to make wine. I assure them that a few youthful years working for a neighboring winegrower hardly makes me expert at growing grapes or making wine (though I am rather experienced when it comes to drinking it). Someday I would like to make some plonk, just for the fun of it. Right now, however, I just want to grow some damn grapes.

Apr 14 2009

End Pieces

The second term report card came home last week with the grade of A- for the exposé that Short-pants and her schoolmates prepared, with a little help from the mothers. (Back-story on the assignment here and here.) Her part of the oral presentation, I’m told, was fairly smooth. She went first, because she’s a girl (a suggestion by one of the boys). Apparently the class had a lot of questions, though the only one she could remember is “Why are the buildings in Paris so old?” One slight glitch in the overall presentation: the end-of-the-day bell went off in the middle of the second part of the three-part presentation, so the report we worked so hard to choreograph together ended up happening in separate chunks. Short-pants said she did her very best to support the boys when they had to start again the next day.
The morning malaise that plagued Buddy-roo for several weeks in a row seems to have subsided. Or perhaps our absence (De-facto was also away on business while I was in Italy) made her heart grow fonder. This last week she’s been either quiet or cheerful as she slides into our bed for that first cuddle of the day. This morning, we even got a song: “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…” This makes the mornings much easier to take. Touch wood.

Short-pants had anything but a lonely lunch last week, as the mother-in-love and I met her outside of school at noon on Wednesday, went to a nearby café for lunch and delivered her back in time for theater class. She was thrilled. In a rare moment of lucidity, it occurred to me Buddy-roo might feel left out so I invited her to lunch the next day, just the two of us. I picked her up at school and we went for sandwiches at our favorite café, where her preferred drink (Grenadine and water, on the rocks) is served up automatically whenever she makes an entrance. Sitting on the bar stool next to me, eating her baguette and sausisson, she beamed. After lunch, when I let her loose in the courtyard at school, her friends circled around her and I heard her say, “it was my day to have lunch with my mother.”

Yet another school vacation brings us back to the country house, where the air is fresh, wood burns fast, children are wild and the internet is sporadic.

Apr 12 2009

Make New Friends

I was (still) on the rue Pastourelle, refusing to believe that the silversmith shop was no longer there. Like being relentless about looking for it would make it reappear. I’d finally gotten around to taking my ring to be repaired and my mission was being thwarted. I didn’t want to give up.
A few doors down from where (I think) the orfèvre used to be, I saw a sign for an atelier, some kind of metal workshop. It looked aged, like it’d been there a while. Maybe because they work with metal, they could do it. Or they’d know someone who could.

A loud buzzer opened the door and let me into an amazing world of little metal pieces. I asked about the whereabouts of
wall_of_metalthe silver shop. (Yes, it was a few doors down. No, it’s closed now.) Then I was compelled to inquire, “What exactly do you do here?” It seems I’d stumbled into an archive of metal stamps and stencils. A fantastic display of little bits of brass and metal with all manner of designs or messages used for printing and molding. Some of them even date back to the French revolution. Who knew such a place existed? And that it could employ three people?

But did they know another silversmith? There was some talk between the three of them, and then a recommendation. Down the street, just keep going straight, for many blocks, until you cross the boulevard. (Which boulevard? Just the big boulevard.) Not on rue St. Sebastian, but look for the Passage St. Sebastian.

And so I walked. The street names changed but I stayed the course and then sure enough I came to a boulevard and crossed to the other side where I saw the street I was told to avoid and hunted for the passage I was told to find, which is where I came upon a hidden city of ateliers and workshops.
Walking down the cobblestone alley I could peek in the doors of all the workshops and artesian micro-factories with their Dr. Suess-like assembly lines. Up a dirty staircase, a lime green door screamed at me, and then beyond it, another door – in a location so obscure I would never have found it had I not been directed – with the name of my destination: Cendor.

And now I know Mario. Apprenticed at 14-years old, he’s been a silversmith for more than 50 years. I showed him the broken
cendor_doorsilver ring that had been my grandmother’s. He cared about the story. I also brought along my silver medallion of San Fermin, patron saint of Pamplona, to reinforce the loop for the chain. So he switched to Spanish and he rattled on about his love for Spain, his homeland.

He offered no receipt for holding my items, and just a few gruff instructions about when to come back. But I have the feeling my silver is in good hands. I have found the orfèvre of my dreams. Not the same one I was looking for. But better.

Apr 11 2009

But Keep the Old

I was sure it was on the rue du Perche. Or else it was rue Pastourelle. I didn’t even know its name, just an idea of the location. I’d been to this silversmith many years ago, before I learned not to put my good knives in the dishwasher. A man in a blue apron with dirty fingers flipped the silver blades back and forth in his hands and took them into his custody. A week later, when he handed back my knives, they looked like new.

Carrying a ring I inherited from my grandmother, I went searching for this silver repair shop (in French, an orfèvre) following the vague map in my memory. Everything looked different than I remembered. The rusty-gated storefronts and messy, eclectic repair shops have been replaced with a row of minimalist art galleries. I wandered up and down any of the streets that might have been where this dusty silver atelier was once (I think) located. I cursed my memory. I cursed the changing times. I cursed the gentrification of Paris. I couldn’t find it.

I asked at the nearby café and a corner grocer – both establishments have been there a long time – but the barman has only worked there for 6 months, the grocer simply shook his head no. My orfèvre had gone missing.
This is too common an occurrence these days; the neighborhood’s services are one by one disappearing. My favorite dry cleaner had to close last summer because her rent was bumped up too high. “I’m too expensive already,” she told me, “my customers can’t pay any more. I have no choice but to retire.” Same story with the little old couple who ran the fresh produce stand, the little corner convenience store, Mr. René’s (the greatest dive bar in Paris), and the sweet little bakery, Tout Au Beurre. Regular people can’t afford to do business in my neighborhood anymore. Their storefronts are being replaced with chic, trendy clothing stores, like LaCoste and Adidas. This makes me sad.

The most recent shock was the copy shop. I hadn’t been in a while – I used to go every week, in the days before my ink-jet printer was also a photocopier. When my clients required workbooks or training materials, Armand with his cobalt-blue eyes would take on the order with meticulous care. He’d adjust his reading glasses and carefully review my documents, treating them as canvasses to be framed. I once brought in a sample handbook I’d bound at some other copy shop when he was closed for August (or something preposterously French like that) and he reviewed the work with disdain. The paper was too cheap. The cover didn’t have enough weight. The plastic binding has been clamped on backwards. It was shoddy work. He scolded me, but with affection.

He had a sidekick who was as light-hearted and joke-cracking as Armand was serious. Like the guy who spins plates at the circus, he’d make copies for one client while fixing a paper-jam in the self-service machine for another, all the while sailing around the shop effortlessly, as if he were on roller-blades.

They did good work. They knew me. They knew my girls. When Short-pants was in the hospital and I’d come into make photocopies for the insurance claims, they’d refuse my coins.

But the other day the gate in front of the closed door was locked tight, the windows painted with whitewash. The sign wasn’t apparent at first, but when I found it and realized they were closed for good, I felt as if someone the neighborhood had died. And I had not had the chance to say goodbye.

At least when the dry cleaner closed I’d had notice. I brought her a good bottle of Bordeaux and had a chance to thank her for all her years of lifting out my stains. But the copy shop was a done deal. Then I remembered that once I saw Armand and his assistant eating lunch on the terrace of the café next door. I presented my case to a waiter, about my need for closure. The owner was summoned, and after my passionate explanation he gave me Armand’s cell phone number. A patron standing at the café bar shook his head in approval. “But yes,” he said, “the chance to say a proper goodbye is not just a privilege, you have the right.”

Armand said the raised rent presented him with a predicament much like my dry cleaner and so he opted to sell all his equipment and start again somewhere else. He promised to call me when he set up his new shop.

Listen to me: I’m lamenting change. It’s not easy, but change is the necessary engine of our lives. To resist it is to resist the creative process itself. But those familiar faces and places, they anchor and comfort us, weaving us into the fabric of our surroundings. The longer I’m here, the harder it is to watch them disappear. Maybe I’ve lived in this neighborhood too many years (thirteen). Maybe I haven’t been restless enough to move beyond what’s become so comfortable. Maybe I’ve forgotten to appreciate that the disappearance of one favorite place often means the opportunity to find another.

Apr 7 2009

Paying the Price

I got a break. I should not complain.

I had a week off from mothering. A vacation from rushing about to get two little people from task to task. Seven straight days of being me, not being mama. By the end of it all, I missed those little girls something fierce. But I took full advantage of having a stretch of time to myself.
The conference was a success. The program I led (about arts and creative process) finished on a high note, filled with color and gratitude. I grew fond of my co-facilitators, made real bonds with some of the participants. Italy gifted me with its vibrant shades and textures. And though the departure could be likened to a breech birth – the confusion of trains or taxis, a mix-up of number of bags vs. number of kilos – I made it out, and made it home.

But then I had to pay the price.

It appears that while I was gone our apartment was hit by a fantastic tornado. The girls’ room was especially devastated; I hardly recognized it with all the debris. Books and blocks and doll clothes and little confetti-like pieces of paper and pens were everywhere. Loops of long hair in bunches had fallen to the floor in every part of the room. (Each doll had been coiffed and now wears a mullet.) The girls’ dirty clothes were rolled into balls and stuffed behind shelves and in the spaces between furniture. It was a sight to behold.

Returning from a trip like this, I must always steel myself before making that first step into the apartment. It never looks as I left it. You can’t really expect it to; nobody keeps your house the same way you do. But still, it’s stunning how completely anarchic things can get in my absence.

De-facto astutely anticipated the potential fall-out and invited our neighbors and their visiting family for dinner. One cannot throw a fit before such an audience. This is why there are doors on bathrooms, and why taps have cold hand_sestriwater for splashing on your face. They’d finished dinner, but saved plates for weary travelers (my mother-in-love returned with me). Another bottle was opened. My temperature descended. The banter and laughter around the table worked its magic. The wine helped too. By the time our friends left, I was too tired to care.

The next morning I surveyed the apartment with fresh eyes. You could tell those girls had a lot of fun while I was gone. They also had a lot to do later when they got home from school. Everybody paid the price for that week off, one way or another.

Apr 3 2009

O Sole Mio

There are no little shoes everywhere.

No toys strewn about. No little bodies crawling into bed with me. No crying in the hallway. It’s nobody’s fault about the sunrise.

All I hear is the rain outside my window. And drumming and hooting and hollering from a distant meeting room.

In Sestri-Levante, Italy, I am attending the CREA (the European Creativity Association) annual conference. The first time I was here – for the first CREA conference – was in 2003. Short-pants came too, still drinking from a bottle. Buddy-roo was just a small cantaloupe-sized creature. But she was in my belly, so she was here.

On Sunday, before I left, Short-pants asked me why I was going to Italy. When I told her I was going to CREA, she said, “but you’re going without me?” I explained that this year was different: I was going to the conference alone. Her tears were angry ones. “But I want to go. I always go.”

It’s true. This is the first year I have come to this conference – one I helped to originate and for a few years was a member of the core organizing team – without De-facto and without the girls. We’ve always come en famille.

Not that I am totally alone. I have a roommate: his mother.

I met her before I met the De-facto himself. In a rare case of really smart thinking, I chose the mother-in-love first. I met her almost twenty years ago at the parent conference to this one, the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI). So you could say that for us, creativity is a family affair.

The people who attend this conference year after year – I am among about thirty volunteer leaders – have embraced my children as their own family. We have even adopted grandfathers for the girls, two exceptional Italian men who bring to them the wisest kind of experienced playful creativity. While people here do understand why I have not brought the girls this year, they are not happy about it. You can count on a group of creativity practitioners to appreciate the expert mind of a child. Our girls are a bit like gurus here.
It’s been necessary to focus entirely on the design and delivery of the program I am facilitating, which is fairly intense. And then to go out for a beer afterward without having to check in with anyone. I am happy to have quiet catch-ups with my mother-in-love while the early light fills our room. I’m happy to be fully present for the kind of in-depth conversations that erupt so spontaneously here without that back-of-the-brain chatter: what time do I have to relieve the babysitter? What do I still have to do this and that before I get the kids? Does De-facto have them or do I need to get them…?

But this morning, as you’d expect, the mixed emotions of motherhood wash over me. It was just a tiny bit too quiet. I was actually wishing that someone would crawl into my bed wrap a small, soft arm around me and complain about the sun coming up.