Jul 24 2009

Good and Hot

Man, it was hot. The sticky, close, humid kind of hot. The serious dog-days-of-summer kind of hot. And guess what came to mind? Potato salad.

The sliced onions were soaking in vinegar and I was making chunks out of potatoes and setting them to boil. I was probably pursing my lips the same way my mother does when she’s concentrating (her sister does it too) and I started to wonder about this urge of mine, inspired by the heat wave, to make a potato salad.

I remember, growing up, how we handled the heat of summer. We’d all walk around the house in our underwear – it’d be too hot wear clothes. We’d put screens in every window and pray for even a slight breeze. My brother would pull the Twister mat out of the box and take it outside, laying it flat on the small slope by the dining room window. He’d hose it down with water so my sister and I could take turns sliding down and cooling off. We’d jump up, covered with grass, running to escape a direct hit from the hose as he’d chase us around the yard. And my mother, she’d make a potato salad, chill it in the fridge all afternoon, and serve it for dinner with a thick slice of cold ham and little French’s mustard on the side. It was the perfect hot summer supper.

It makes sense, then, that I would associate potato salad with a heat wave. But what explains the urgency I felt to make it? This wasn’t a casual, “you know, it’s a bit hot, so maybe a cold potato salad would be a good option for dinner tonight.” No. It was visceral, almost instinctual, like some restless genetic coding was agitated and would not be silenced until I started peeling potatoes.

Last week, my mother-in-love cooked up a pot of homemade soup after roasting a chicken the night before. She added onions and green beans and even some fresh carrots pulled right from our country garden. The aroma filled every room in the house and made us feel hearty. When I offered Buddy-roo a bowl, she turned up her nose. I said to her, “You don’t know what’s good.” De-facto shot me a puzzled, what did you just say? kind of look. “Don’t mind me,” I told him, “just channeling my father.” That was my dad’s standard response when we didn’t appreciate his favored delicacies, like creamed tuna and peas on toast, Welsh rarebit, and gherkin pickles.
Without thinking, I say and do the same things my mother and father said and did. There’s nothing deliberate about it; it’s entirely automatic. The actions are involuntary. Or the words just trip out over my tongue. It isn’t until after they are spoken that I realize I’ve said exactly what she said, or he said, all those years ago in a very different time – but probably in the exact same circumstances.

I suppose nothing brings you closer to your parents than the act of being a parent yourself.

After a few hours in the refrigerator, my potato salad was perfectly chilled and I scooped it onto the dinner plates that Short-pants had put out when she set the table. Buddy-roo stabbed the potatoes with her fork. “What’s this?” I could tell by her expression that she was suspicious. “Potato salad,” I said, “try it.” She carved away the tiniest piece possible on the tip of her fork and tasted it. “I don’t like it,” she whined.

“You don’t know what’s good,” I told her.

But I bet she will someday – some hot, summer day – in about thirty years.

Jul 16 2009

Red Right Return

They poured me into the taxi. Waved goodbye, wistfully, as they do every year – my gang of fiesta friends – chagrined that I must leave when there are still two more days of San Fermin to go. But I have never stayed until the pobre de mi at midnight on the 14th of July. It’s not that I have to rush across the border to celebrate the French national holiday, it’s that Short-pants’ birthday is the 13th of July, and this is an occasion I choose not to miss.

I had good long cry as Juan-Jose, my annual driver, navigated the taxi out of Pamplona, consoling me, “Don’t cry, next year will come quick!” My Spanish isn’t sufficient to explain to him the complexity of my tears; a mix of sadness and utter exhaustion, but also gratitude and joy. “They are not all bad tears,” I told him, “es alegria.” He threw his head back and smiled; now he understood.
Alegria is a Spanish word that, like many words between languages, doesn’t have an exact translation. The best I can offer, my personal interpretation, is a moment of feeling unfettered bliss.

Later in the TGV train hurtling through the French countryside, I reluctantly removed from my neck my red pañuelo, the uniform of the fiesta, and tucked it in my bag. I nodded in and out of sleep, hoping to recover as much as I could before the reunion with my family. One year I booked my departure for the morning of the 13th, figuring at least I wouldn’t miss her whole birthday; I’d get home in time for a dinner celebration. I was barely awake for the meal and collapsed into a sweaty, detoxifying sleep immediately after cake and presents. Since then, I’ve made it a practice to leave Pamplona on the day prior to the famous birthday.

As the train approached Angouleme — the stop closest to our country house where I would meet up with my peeps — I heard the conductor’s announcement forbidding anyone to depart from the train. I rushed through the corridor, car by car, to find him. “But you have purchased a round-trip ticket to Paris,” he scolded me, “why would you want to get off here?” I tried to explain that I didn’t think it would a problem just to get off the train early. “But in order to take advantage of your inexpensive ticket, you may not change your destination. It’s not permitted.”

If I played by his rules, I’d have two more hot, sticky hours on the train to Paris, with slim chances of making a U-turn on a train back to Angouleme the same night. The actual birthday wasn’t until the next day, but after leaving the fiesta early, damn it, I wasn’t planning to miss even a minute of her celebration.

“But I have to be there for my daughter’s birthday. I cannot miss it.” The tears that came now, no longer the result of alegria, but of exasperation – and admittedly, some artistry. The conductor, a peculiarly precise man, reviewed my ticket, shook his head from side-to-side more than once, but finally agreed to let me off the train if I paid a penalty fee, for which he even gave me a receipt. He accompanied me to the door and used a special key to unlock it and let me off the train. He did, at least, help me with my luggage.

De-facto shaved during my 10-day absence, so it was like being greeted by a young, new lover. Without his goatée, his smile seemed wider, broader. Another man might be grumpy about his girl going solo to the world’s greatest party. But he’s not another man. And he managed to get a few days biking with a friend, courtesy of a well-timed visit by his mother.

A hundred questions on the drive home. How were the girls? Good. How were the bulls? Good. We took turns telling stories about our week apart. Did I tone my tales down, not to sound like I was having too much fun?
table_setMaybe a little. But I also didn’t tell him about the hard part: that lonely wave that hits me every year, mid-fiesta, where in a fit of excess and fatigue, I lay in bed too drunk and too tired to sleep and in that moment I’m sure that I have forsaken my family for this fiesta and nobody in Pamplona likes me either. The boom-boom-boom that goes all night in the street makes quieting this discourse impossible. I’ve come to learn that it’s just a passage; in the morning, in the sunlight, I’m greeted at the Bar Txoko or at breakfast on the Calle de la Merced by one of many friends – old and new – who remind me that I am not alone in this world.

When my daughters heard the car pull up in front of our old run-down stone farmhouse, they ran toward it at full speed, laughing and screaming, jubilantly, “Mama, Mama! You’re home! We missed you!” I was pummeled with kisses and hugs, all of which helped to remind me that the San Fermin fiesta is not the only source of alegria.

Jul 3 2009

The Mom Also Rises

Every day I deal with consequences. My life is filled with them. Having little people to look after creates a profound sense of responsibility. There are always things to be done – dinner, laundry, getting them to school, coaxing them into the bath, writing notes to the teacher, buying the present for one of a dozen birthday parties – the list feels endless. But who else will help them accomplish these tasks? As much as I dream of being a slacker, knowing that those two creatures count on me makes it hard for me to be anything but responsible.

But not this week. This week, I get a break. This week, I am accountable to no one. I am responsible only for myself.

Each year, in early July, I join a couple of my favorite gal pals and make the trek to Spain, to Pamplona, for the Fiesta San Fermin. It’s become a tradition; this year will be my sixth consecutive appearance. The friend who introduced me to the bulls – we call her the Fiesta Nazi – hasn’t missed a fiesta in more than 25 years. Another friend, affectionately nicknamed Mother Theresa, has been going for 10 years. (My fiesta nickname, by the way, is Whim of Iron.)

De-facto is a total sport about letting me escape. He knows that I occasionally need a week of unencumbered spontaneity. And that’s exactly what I get in Pamplona.

No, I do not run with the bulls. Yes, I will go to the bullfight. No, it’s not cruel; it’s noble. Yes, I will be exhausted at the end of the week. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

During the fiesta, in any given moment, I may do whatever I please. I may wake up with my friends and watch the encierro – the running of the bulls – or I can hide my head under the pillow and sleep in. If I choose, I’ll go to eat greasy eggs and listen to jota ballads with the gang at the breakfast club, or I can disappear with a good friend and take a quiet walk to the plaza de toros to watch them sort the bulls for that afternoon’s bullfight. There are people I meet up with every year in Pamplona, and with them I can meander the streets, hopping from one bar to another, sampling tapas at each one, or I can skip the hot afternoon sun, find my way back to the apartment, shut the curtains and take a much-needed nap. I can stay out all night dancing, I can have “just one more drink,” or I can navigate the smelly, crowded streets and make my way home early.

I don’t need to call anyone. I don’t need to negotiate when I go out or when I come home. I don’t need to stop the fun I’m having to pick up some small person or respond to a client request. I am about to go into joyful oblivion. And I can’t wait. It is the craziest, freest, most festive, tolerant, joyous party on earth. Hemingway described it famously:

The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during the fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.

It’s my week away. For one week, I am beholden to nobody – not even the Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. Even though I know there are people at home waiting for me, missing me, wondering about me. Even though I’ll be missing them like crazy. I will pretend, for my own amusement – at least for just this week – that there are no consequences.

That’s the fiesta.