Aug 25 2012

Close to the Ground

At the country house we are always close to the ground. Nature is prominently adjacent, in every direction. Walk out the door and there is grass. Behind the house a forest. Dust and dirt find a way inside, blowing in through the cracks and crevasses of old doors and windows, tracked in on little and big sized shoes. We are constantly touching the earth: tilling the garden, weeding, picking up vines and branches that have fallen or been pruned to the ground. Each day I walk to the edge of our property to contribute to the compost, grabbing with my hands piles of dirt to cover the empty vegetable peels, cantaloupe rinds and egg shells I’ve thrown on top of the pile of organic garbage. It is the opposite of our city life, where the earth is covered by pavement and half the time we are meters above the soil and the earth, where other people remove our garbage and clean our streets. In the country, we’re working all the time, our fingernails are constantly dirty, our feet always close to the ground.

This is in part due to the rustic quality of our country house, an early twentieth-century edifice, inhabited for the forty years before we purchased it by an eccentric bachelor and his pack of dogs. The price was very reasonable, though we probably still overpaid, and like all old houses it came with surprises, the kind that make you keep paying. A full septic tank needed to be emptied the first week we were here and must be replaced, according to the inspector, within the next two years. The roof leaks, floors are rotted. We knew it was a fixer-upper, but you never know how much fixing up there really is until you’re in it.

We’ve removed plaster and pointed our fieldstone walls, reconstructed floors and replaced windows – all by ourselves. Given the nature of our professions – plenty of talking, thinking, writing and planning – the chance to build or rebuild something with our hands is gratifying, if not humbling. It is hard and dirty work, digging in the ground and laying cement and molding plaster around stone. It is backbreaking work to remove beams and old boards and to mount insulation and wallboard. Though I help, and so do the girls, it is De-facto who does the bulk of this work, and mostly alone, during the weeks we are here. This is why it takes years to finish one room.

I know someday we’ll have a real kitchen, but for now ours is barely functional: a long, bare room with a narrow stove, a sink, a table and one cupboard. There is no place to put a Cuisinart or an electric milk frother. The toaster we have, inherited from a friend who left town, burns all toast unless closely observed. Our hand-me-down fridge has an interior freezer without a door, so De-facto fashioned one out of Styrofoam and packing tape. I refuse to invest in new appliances until we renovate the kitchen, so we manage somehow to function with what we have, a hodgepodge of furniture, dishes and cooking gear that remarkably turns out edible, and even occasionally delectable, meals.

I didn’t realize how valuable this was until a few summers had passed, when it became apparent to me that the renovation would not happen swiftly, when I found myself putting MacGuyveresque solutions in place for storage and other basic household functions, when I noticed that Short-pants and Buddy-roo were being equally creative. In the absence of their familiar toys and the playtime props of home, they make up games, create costumes out of leaves and ferns, toys out of sticks and stones, amusing themselves with things found in the house and outside in the fields and forest. They have the freedom to run about, of more value than most possessions, and they are connected to the ground.

An internet connection is harder to come by. Since we’re only here 10 weeks or so a year, we haven’t installed it. We walk down the lane and pilfer (with permission) from our neighbor, or ride a kilometer into the nearest village to jump on an open wifi network. Thanks to 3G, the news of the world still reaches us, but it seems more absurd than ever. We chop wood and carry water while slick politicians rant about moral issues that have little to do with how they might turn an economy around, widen the narrowing middle-class or govern a nation fairly. The rhetoric seems so far removed from anything that’s real or important. Forget Mr. Romney’s tax returns. I’d like to see him use a little elbow grease on my bathroom bowl as a measure of his character. I think every candidate should have to scrub a toilet to get on a ballot. It couldn’t hurt to remind what it’s like, close to the ground.

In a previous, potential life of mine – the one imagined in those what-if-I’d-kept-that-job or what-if-I’d-stayed-with-him moments – the second home would probably have had every comfort. Or if charmed by a house as needy as this one, architects and contractors would have been called in to complete their deeds before attempting to inhabit it. I don’t mean to assert that De-facto and I are impoverished or that our life is a trial. That’s not the case, we live comfortably. But we have made choices that prohibit a lavish life; opting to do things rather than have things. Though occasionally the longing for an ever-clean, semi-luxurious, well-appointed country house, the one where I’d lounge against plump cushions on a plush divan all afternoon before cooking up something on my La Cornue 6-burner stove is real and fierce.

In Paris, a cleaning woman comes weekly and our babysitter helps with ironing, but here, I sweep and clean and scrub and weed and patch and paint. The chores that earn the girls allowance at home are lightweight compared to the country house: here they do dishes, clean toilets, remove brush from the lawn and help with construction projects. They are expected to do their share, because there is much to be done and everyone has to pitch in. They are learning something that I think many in our generation of parents are forgetting to transmit to our kids – and I probably wouldn’t have thought to emphasize it if we didn’t have this broken-down house – how to be happy with less stuff, and how to do the dirty work that nobody likes to do. I hope that Short-pants and Buddy-roo grow up to fly high and far, but it can’t hurt them to know what it’s like to be close to the ground.

Aug 19 2012

Street Music

It could be any summer afternoon – in fact it is every summer afternoon, just about lunchtime, when it starts. The morning street, empty and fresh, fills up with people. The locals, shoppers and tourists mix together and the neighborhood comes alive. In our garret apartment there is a gentle buzz from below: the background hum of people talking and laughing and the sounds of glasses and cutlery in use at the restaurant terrace beneath our windows. An occasional motorcycle or impatient car horn breaks the white noise. Otherwise, we cease to hear it.

Until it starts: the squawking tones of an alto saxophone in the hands of a not-so-polished street musician. The moment I hear the first notes of Bésame Mucho I groan. A beautiful Mexican love song, written by a young woman who claimed never to have kissed anyone before writing it, I used to love this song, especially the Beatles’ version. Now it grates on me.

His playlist is limited and predictable. Bésame Mucho is always followed by the same bleak song, a bad rendition of a brooding melody reminiscent of old eastern Europe. Once heard, the tune remains fixed in my head for the rest of the day. Equally annoying: its title escapes me. I’m left humming the song to myself, then wondering, what is the name of this damn song?

~ ~ ~

Paris offers a menu of street music to satisfy anyone, especially tourists. The locals are too busy getting somewhere; we skirt around the upturned hat filled with suggestive coins. One avoids, if possible, those places where the cacophony of competing musicians and encircling crowds impede swift passage. The streets beside the Pompidou Centre, for instance, and the Pont Saint-Louis, the bridge spanning from Île St. Louis to Île de la Cité with its view of the Seine and Notre Dame‘s flying buttresses, these are prime locations to circumvent if you’re in a hurry or not in the mood for live music.

An unregulated métier such as this attracts a broad range of talent, from established orchestral groups with CDs for sale to a soloist accompanying music from a portable boom box by playing only the tambourine. In the summer it becomes so commonplace to see a musician or an ensemble set up on the street that it’s easy to ignore them, though harder to evade the crowd they might attract. Occasionally, though, there’s a gem. An accomplished violinist stands under the arches of the arcades surrounding Place des Vosges, her concerto echoes hauntingly and any passerby is compelled to stop and listen and watch her sway back and forth as she plays. An acoustic guitarist sits in a shaded doorway strumming you back to your best childhood memories.

Buddy-roo likes the guitarists the best, and has befriended several, somehow managing to win their favor and on occasion, finagle a free CD. She knows I’m a sucker for a good musician, so as we approach one she’ll turn to gauge my reaction. If the music makes me smile, she’ll beg me for a coin, and run over to put it in whatever basket or hat has been laid out to receive such appreciative donations. Sometimes we’ll linger, getting our money’s worth. Buddy-roo will sway beside me, or do a little dance if she’s feeling inspired.

“How do you decide which ones to give money to?” Short-pants once asked. She knows I struggle with whether or not to give money to people on the street. If I do, it’s usually to street musicians. Among these performers I have standards: some measure of talent, authenticity, and stage presence will motivate me to open my change purse.

“The ones whose music moves me the most,” I told her, “and the ones who seem really dedicated, who work the hardest.”

“Do you think I could make money playing my viola in the street?”

“Only if you keep practicing.”

~ ~ ~

It was almost eight years ago, when every morning and night for six weeks straight, De-facto and I traipsed across the Pont Saint-Louis on our way to and from the metro that took us to the children’s hospital, where we’d sit beside Short-pants for hours, waiting and watching for one of her doctors to come by and answer our questions. Each night on the way home, I’d call my brother, a doctor, to report the medical updates and he’d put them in layman’s terms for us. Once, he was describing the difference between meningitis and encephalitis, his explanation barely audible over an accordion playing La Vie en Rose.

My brother, hearing the music, stopped. “This is too surreal,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “but it’s also my sanity.”

The accordion player was there on that bridge nearly every morning and almost every night. It was December, cold and windy. And it was dark, not like the summer when daylight stretches way behind the dinner hour and crowds congregate on that same bridge eating ice-cream and watching street performers. Some nights we were the only people in sight, passing him on the bridge as his keypad swelled in and out, like it was breathing. Any coins I had in my pocket were left in the basket beside him, his earnest and constant commitment inspired my own; his music, as schmaltzy as it was, gave me hope for her recovery.

~ ~ ~

On rue Charlot, a small storefront window displays reed instruments of every type: clarinets, oboes, saxophones and other members of the woodwind family, and some flutes for good measure. The proprietor is a gentle-souled, soft-spoken man with a long face, appropriately solemn to suit the tone of the instruments he tends. I pass by often and I rarely see customers in the store, but he’s always there, diligently repairing the pads of an aging oboe or restoring the glory to an antique silver flute.

Short-pants and I walked by the other day, as he was removing the shutters from the window to open the shop. I told her I wanted to stop at the store to talk to him. He corrected me, in English. “Not a store, it’s a workshop.”

It is a workshop. Not only is the front window packed with instruments he’s repaired and refurbished for resale, there is every kind of saxophone hanging from the ceiling against every wall. Machines with clamps and fan-belts from the mid-twentieth century collect dust. Canisters of tools – some of them resembling those of a dentist – sit atop every workspace. The clutter of instruments, equipment, antique metronomes and loose sheet music is covered with a fine layer of dust. It is part factory, part studio, part museum.

We’d just come from a café up the street. A musician there, this one a trumpeter – or trying to be – had taken it upon himself to entertain the customers on its terrace. He had a little boom box with him, providing a cheesy synthesizer accompaniment. The last song he played before he was shooed away by our annoyed waiter was the very same haunting tune the alto-saxophonist beneath my window always plays after Bésame Mucho, the ear worm I can’t name.

I stepped inside the woodwind workshop, cleared my throat and hummed the melody to the craftsmen. I asked him if he knew the title.

Right away he nodded. “Shostakovich, the second waltz.”

I knew he’d know it. I thanked him profusely for answering the riddle that had been plaguing me, and quietly left a two-euro coin on his desk before slipping out the door. I hummed that waltz all the way home. It sounded different when hummed through a smiling mouth, not as melancholy – it was nearly triumphant.

Aug 2 2012

Tough Discussions

We had a rendezvous-vous at the discussion bench at 3:00, Short-pants and I. This is a designated space in what she refers to as her forest. It was built by her uncle, an artist whose work involves constructing objects as much as painting them. He visited us at the country house a few years ago and cleared some winding paths in the woods behind the house. At the end of one of these trails, he built a bench out of wooden planks he found in our barn. Short-pants decided she wanted to name it the discussion bench.

Her forest is her escape zone at the country house. She will invite Buddy-roo there to play and they have all sorts of stories that take place in those trees, but it’s mostly a place for Short-pants to find the solace and privacy she requires. And each summer, it seems, there are several moments when the two of us retire to the discussion bench to have a little talk. Sometimes it’s a discussion about how to handle her sister. Sometimes it’s just about reflecting on the events of the summer or anticipating the events we have ahead. This is my father coming through me; he had a strong connection to the seasonal rhythms and the passing of time and often summarized for us what we’d had the privilege of experiencing and what was still in store. “It’s always important,” he’d say, “to have something to look forward to.”

De-facto and many other friends agreed it was time for the talk. Short-pants is going into 6eme at the collège next year – that’d be middle school in North America – she shouldn’t be caught unaware and subject to the teasing of her school mates. We needed to tell her the truth, and the discussion bench was the place to do so.

~ ~ ~

Sometime in mid January, last winter, Short-pants came to me and told me she was ready to learn how babies were made. A few months earlier I’d given her a book – that is the most comfortable way for her to learn – called The Care and Keeping of You, and after she read it we sat down to talk about it and I asked her if she had any questions, which I answered, all of them about how a girl’s body will change and why.

“Do you want to learn how babies are made?” I asked, “Or do you want to wait a while and digest all this first?” I didn’t want to overload her with too much data at once.

“I’ll wait,” she said, looking almost relieved. “I’m not quite ready yet.”

But after Christmas she must have changed her mind, so we made a date one afternoon to meet upstairs in her bedroom while her sister was away at a friend’s house. I had another book, First Comes Love, given to us by a friend who understands Short-pants’ penchant for reading, and we read it together with my color commentary on every page.

We talked about what we’d read. Then I added a few last words about how sex is for grown-ups, there’s no reason to rush into it because with it comes responsibility and consequences. And how when she gets older and feels ready to try it, I hope she’ll always feel like she can talk to me about it. It was a pretty good spiel, an even blend of don’t-even-think-of-going-there-yet with when-you-do-let-me-help-you-do-it-smart. I had to restrain myself, though, from blurting out a closing phrase: “Oh and by the way, there’s no Santa Claus.”

~ ~ ~

The pathway to the discussion bench is a bit leafy these days, we had to hack our way through the some overgrown brush to get there. Once we were seated, we exchanged a few pleasantries, talked about how the summer was going, the weather, how the bench was holding up. I danced toward the subject at hand, reminding Short-pants of a conversation we’d had a couple of months ago about the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. The seed of doubt had been planted by an episode of the TV show Jane and the Dragon, giving me the opportunity to come clean and wipe this maternal responsibility off of my plate. Coins may still make their way under pillows in exchange for lost teeth, but the fairy ruse is over.

She’d taken it well. I thought this left the door nicely ajar for the next big conversation: about Santa Claus. Buddy-roo had extracted the truth from me last Christmas and I’d made her promise not to tell Short-pants until after the holiday. Remarkably, seven months later, she still hadn’t spilled the beans, though she frequently asked me when I planned to tell her sister.

“Now that you know there’s no Tooth Fairy, what do you think about Santa Claus?”

She contemplated this for a while – maybe 20 seconds. I waited, focusing on my breathing.

“Is it you?” she asked.

I nodded. “And Papa.”

She stretched her mouth into a wide smile, a forced smile, a smile with tears backed up against it like a dam about to burst. She wouldn’t stop grinning at me, every piece of metal on her teeth entirely visible, while I explained how Santa Claus is a beautiful myth, a metaphor for the generosity that we’re all capable of, how Santa exists in each one of us, he is the Christmas spirit, where we give gifts to the people we love, without thinking about getting anything in return.

“Except cookies and milk,” she said. And then, after some consideration, “Do you eat the cookie, too?”

“Sometimes I let Papa have a bite.”

She held her smile firmly in place. I asked if she’d been wondering about Santa, maybe she’d already guessed. Her yes wasn’t very convincing. We sat side-by-side on the discussion bench, quietly, letting it all sink in.

“I think I’d like some time on my own now,” she said, on the edge of tears.

I kissed her forehead, squeezed her hand and stood up and walked away, silently cursing at myself as I made my way out her forest. By the time I crossed the road and went to my equivalent of the discussion bench, a shady spot in a grove of trees beside three rogue grapevines, I was crying, too. I felt like I had stolen something magical and marvelous from her, that in my attempt to protect her from the presumed cruelty of her comrades at school, I’d injured her innocence. Why shouldn’t she believe in Santa Claus as long as possible? Why did I ruin her Christmas reverie? I could have at least waited for her school mates to ruin it, and been there to pick up the pieces. Except somehow, with Short-pants, I felt like that would be too hurtful; it’d be better to hear it from me. But was it?

Later, I found her in the kitchen. She was composed, though her eyes were still a little red.

“Did I do the wrong thing, by telling you?” I asked.

“I wish you hadn’t told me,” she said, “but I am glad to know.”

Little by little, the truth trickles in and myths of childhood fall by the wayside. My young girls keep growing, soon enough they’ll be little women with far more complicated preoccupations than Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Certainly there are more tough discussions to come, much tougher than this one. I suspect there are also some very interesting discussions ahead. All this, I guess, is what I have to look forward to.