Jun 24 2013

Surviving June

At the school drop-off, mothers and fathers congregate outside on the sidewalk. Faces look drawn, fatigued from the routine of the school year. We’ve had it with the up-in-the-morning rush to get the kids to school on time, the homework battles after school, the tests, the rushed trips to the bookstore to get that book that’s needed for tomorrow, the exposés that require parental assistance. We’re all dreaming of summer holidays, those mornings when we can sleep in, let the children rise whenever they happen jantzen_swimmerto wake up, get their own breakfast and play by themselves. Those lazy summer afternoons without lessons and classes and all the extracurricular appointments that require enthusiastic schlepping to and fro. Within reach, now, the joys of summer camp, grandparents taking over, and long holidays in the country where the children can fend for themselves.

There is, of course, another side to summer: children underfoot without the reliable 8-hour pause button known as school. At the rentrée in September, we greet each other in front the school considerably more rested, but nonetheless aggravated by the 24/7 company of our children for at least some part, if not all, of the summer. By then, we can’t wait for school to start again.

But now, we’re in June, the month of end-of-scholastic-year madness. June, with all its rites of passage: all the closing concerts, recitals, spectacles, field trips, picnics, parties, and of course the kermesse, an excruciating day of home-made carnival games, face-painting and raffles. June, when after-school commitments seem to double with the final preparations for these closing events. Nearly every evening and weekend day taken with some function, be it an extra rehearsal, a performance, a celebration or a parent-teacher meeting. Thank goodness Paris is at a latitude that enjoys long hours of daylight around the summer solstice, because the days feel endless and we need those extra hours of sunlight to fit it all in.

In the last month I have attended every kind of event: a rock’n’roll show, a dance spectacle, theater performances, several different orchestra concerts orchestra_playsand recitals. In the audience watching my offspring shine (and struggle), I’d wave back when I saw Short-pants or Buddy-roo searching for me in the crowd of parents. It made me think of the charismatically stoic look on my father’s face as he sat with arms folded, cramped in a row of uncomfortable folding chairs in a school cafeteria-turned-auditorium, my mother beside him with her perpetually-expectant smile, waiting for a one of my concerts to start. I don’t think they missed a single performance, a long tour of duty spanning the twenty years between my older brother’s first piano recital and – I’m the youngest – my last orchestra concert.

So as I complain about the burden of all these squeaky, semi-synchronized performances, I look upward – because that’s what you do when your parents are both gone – and imagine my mother and father smiling down at me with the same expressions they wore so bravely through every single recital, play or concert that they had to endure, and I think about how you never truly appreciate your own parents until you become one yourself.

It all seems a bit more intense this year because I’ve had to navigate through June as a solo parent. De-facto slyly scheduled multiple work projects that required his presence in the US and in Canada – too far to skip home for a few days and give me any relief – and so I have been wearing all the hats of valet, cook, nurse, maid, tutor, coach, stylist, chaperone, schlepper and wild applauder.
I cannot begrudge him these deplacements, three weeks straight of travel for legitimate business and to collaborate with creative colleagues. Though he is too much a gentleman to count the days that he has had to operate as a single parent while I’ve traveled for work or to walk the Camino, or to attend the fiesta, I am very aware of the responsibility he shoulders when I get to escape. Indeed, turnabout is fair play. But did he have to pick June to be out of town for nearly the whole month?

September won’t be much easier. The effort required of parents to line up and sign up for classes and extra-curricular courses, to buy books and supplies, to fill out forms in duplicate, to sort out the new routine and get the kids back into the groove of school is nearly, though not quite, as rigorous as the grind of June. It helps if both parents are present, and perhaps De-facto and I should just simply declare a moratorium on travel for the both of us in the months of September and June. That way we’d share the grief and the groans. But also, we’d witness, together, these rites of passage, the beginnings and endings of the chapters in the lives of our not-so-little-anymore girls. Their childhood is screaming by (as everybody warned me), month-by-month, year-to-year, summer-after-summer. I shouldn’t mind the heavy itinerary of June performances – deep down inside you know I’ve relished every bow stroke and dance step – but I’m readier than ever for the summer break. If I can just survive the last days of June.

Jun 18 2013

High Tea, Sloe Berry

Some mothers are really good at birthday parties. They effortlessly host a dozen screeching kids and don’t seem to mind the pack of them running around and trashing the house. They make props and invent games that fill an entire afternoon. They bake elaborate cakes with towers and flags and multi-colors of frosting topped with decorative elements you can eat. They seem to enjoy the party as much as the birthday boy or girl.
I’m not one of those mothers.

I still make a big fuss all day long, and there are cards and presents and colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. A cake gets baked and decorated. But it’s usually just a family affair, with maybe a friend or a neighbor included. I’m not a complete grinch: we’ve thrown the occasional gang-of-kids party, but we’ve successfully minimized that sort of hullabaloo, generally keeping birthdays small and quiet.

Inventiveness is still required. Last fall, I tracked down Buddy-roo’s favorite busker, and invited him over for our family party. She was entirely surprised. He gave a little concert, including a live acoustic guitar version of happy birthday as she blew out the candles. He stayed for cake. She was over the moon.

When one of my sweetest friend, the Pastry Ace, was hired to start up the new Rose Bakery Tea Room at the Bon Marché department store, it clicked that this could be the perfect place to pay homage to Short-pants’ birthday this year, once again avoiding an elaborate in-house production. I presented to her the idea of high tea at a chic address, and she bit. We did an advance trip in early May. All the pieces fit.

~ ~ ~

When I weaned Short-pants, just after her first birthday, I left town to make it easier on the both of us. I escaped with my girlfriends to the hills of Navarra, the culture of the Basques and their local drink, patxaran. Because I was no longer breast feeding, I imbibed with abandon, and fell in love with the deep red liqueur. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup, but without the medicinal aftertaste. A little bit of fire water, patxaran is an elixir that aides digestion, revs up your libido and leaves you with a syrupy smile.
That trip turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the north of Spain. Soon after, a pilgrimage to Pamplona was incorporated into my every-summer routine. Each year, I replenish my patxaran supply, bringing several bottles home to Paris to last until the following July. I mentioned to the Fiesta Nazi that I really wanted to get my own endrina bush – this is the Spanish name for the berries that produce patxaran – so I could brew my own. All the lovely Basque men I’ve met brag about their mother-in-law’s home-made patxaran. I see myself as the kind of woman who makes hooch for her beloved son-in-law. But I need some practice before the girls come of marrying age.

We asked every respectable (and frankly, non-respectable) Spanish person we knew in Pamplona about where might I get my hands on an endrina bush. It became apparent that it’s not something you go and buy at a nursery and plant in your garden. It was impossible to get a specific answer about where to find it or even what it looked like. The response was always something like, “It’s just…you find it…around.” Then I realized the endrina is a weed.

Last summer, the Pastry Ace visited us at the country house. It was the end of August and a string of warm, sunny, dry days inspired us to pull our mattresses out to the back terrace so we could sleep out – all of us together – under the stars. She made us cakes and pies and one night cooked up a mean ratatouille; her talents stretch beyond things pastry and chocolate. We’d go for long morning walks and she’d point out the different trees and herbs and organic goodies that a chef perpetually looking for ingredients can’t help but see and that I had missed altogether, though I walk these same roads and trails every summer. She discovered a mirabelle tree, covered with fruit, on the other side of our barn. We’ve owned this house for seven years, and we’d never harvested its fruit. We didn’t even know it existed.
One afternoon, Pastry Ace walked into the kitchen with a smug smile on her face and some blueish berries in her hand. She knew of my hunt for endrinas, and was even able to help me name them in English: sloe berries. She’d found them growing wild by the side of a nearby dirt road. She’s also found some growing in a hedge, on the edge of our property. Can you imagine my bliss? Endrina bushes growing on my land.

The berries were immediately harvested and transported back to Paris, where I scoured the Internet for tips on making patxaran, and wrote to my Spanish Facebook friends for advice. I once visited a patxaran factory, I remembered this detail from that tour: mix the berries with good alcohol, don’t use the cheap stuff. I stocked up on some quality anís to mix with my precious endrinas, which means my home-made brew has nothing to do with saving money by making it yourself, but everything to do with the craft of distillation and the pride of its provenance.

~ ~ ~

Every July I rush back from the fiesta in time for Short-pants’ birthday party, though I’m not necessarily in the best of shape, usually recovering from many consecutive days of patxaran consumption. This year, she asked if we could have an early party in June, too, so she could include a few school mates. Last Saturday we made another excursion to the Rose Bakery Tea Room, this time with friends, and her sister, in tow.
Because we were VIP guests of the chef, we were received like royalty, seated at the best table, coddled and catered to. The girls ordered white hot chocolate and it came with an extra pot of whipped cream on the side. Short-pants licked the little bowl clean. The tea service trays were presented with aplomb, stacked with savory finger sandwiches, bite-sized scones with clotted cream, tasty cakes, pastries and custards. Everyone started with wide eyes and finished with sticky fingers.

Short-pants beamed the entire time. She’s always a good sport about the the fact that her birthday parties are rather modest, and perhaps because of that, she appreciated the fuss of this tea party that much more. I enjoyed it too, especially when the elaborately ornamented chocolate birthday cake was placed in front of her, and I hadn’t been required to bake it.

~ ~ ~

The collection of hermetically sealed glass jars were wrapped in opaque plastic bags and stowed in the back of my closet. I’d learned that when endrinas are transforming into patxaran, light is an inhibitor, so I kept them stashed in the dark. Every week, I’d pull the jars out and turn them upside down for a minute, re-mixing the contents gently, before setting them upright back in their dark corner. Some people talk to their plants; I’d talk to my berries, encouraging them through their cocoon phase.

The distilling was sufficiently completed in March, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found the right moment to filter and bottle my home brew. bottling_patxaran Short-pants was reading on the couch when I stripped the black plastic from around the jars, revealing the rose-colored liquid. Maneuvering the 3-liter glass container over the sieve required more than two hands, so I called her over.

“Honey, can you help your mama make her hooch over here?”

She sprang up and ran to help. I gave her the metal strainer and she held it steady, catching the berries as I poured the liquid through it. The smell of the alcohol was strong; the aroma of fermented berries filled the kitchen. There we stood, mother and daughter together, stirring up a concoction that in any other kitchen would have been a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake. Instead, I was teaching my daughter how to make moonshine, because, well, I’m one of those kinds of mothers.

Jun 11 2013

Smokin’ Cool

As we walked home from school, just the two of us, Buddy-roo reached out and took my hand.

“Mama,” she said, “Is there any kind of smoking that isn’t bad for you?”

We’d just passed a lycée, where a pack of high-school students huddled together outside the entrance. Nearly every one of them held a cigarette. The guys went for the pinched between the fingers hold, the girls held their arms out in that affected way that young smokers do, trying to look cool but looking, actually, a bit silly. We pass this school and these kids frequently, and I’ve made it a point to point out to Short-pants and Buddy-roo how not only is smoking bad for your health, but it looks really stoopid too.
Her question required a moment to think about the best right answer.

“There is one kind of cigarette that some doctors prescribe to help sick people manage pain and nausea.” I deliberately avoided the word marijuana. “But it still has consequences to your health if you smoke it.”

Her facial expression was serious, almost worried.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

She hesitated, and then the words spilled out, the pitch and pace of her voice rising and quickening, bringing her to the verge of tears.

“Because I think it looks cool and I’m afraid I’m going to want to smoke and I know it’s bad for me and you’ll be mad at me if I do.”

I gulped, and then remarked, with praise, about her honesty and how I hoped she’d always feel that she could talk to me about anything, even if she knew it might make me angry. I told her it’s a choice she’ll have to make, but I hope she chooses not to, because it’s bad for you.

“Plus it makes you taste like an ashtray,” I said. “Can you imagine kissing an ashtray?”

She started to cry. My heart was breaking. I didn’t want to upset her. But I wanted to upset her.

“Listen, do you feel like lighting up right now?” I made the gesture of puffing on a cigarette.

She shook her head vehemently. “No, I’m too young.”

“Let’s not worry about this yet. Come talk to me when you get the urge to have a smoke.”

~ ~ ~

It was a gorgeous day, a scarcity in Paris since our bleak and wet winter stretched through the end of May. Despite the treasured sunshine, I spent the afternoon in a dark, windowless rock’n’roll club. One of Buddy-roo’s extra-curricular activities this term was the Park Slope Rock School. Every Thursday we’d take the Bus 69 to a further-flung arrondissement where I’d drop her at a real live recording studio for an hour and a half rehearsal with the members of her band. Two other mothers and I staked out a nearby café and it quickly became our practice to park ourselves there with a glass of wine until it was time to fetch our rock’n’roll kids. Last Saturday afternoon we all met up at the Bellevilleoise to hear the final concert.
Nine bands performed, each had been assembled and nurtured by the director of the school, a hipster from Brooklyn and rock’n’roll magician. Though some of the older bands had played together for more than one semester, Buddy-roo’s ensemble was conceived only last February, and in just over three months they learned to play, compose and perform together. Each band did a cover and an original song that they’d written together. Each band really rocked. Buddy-roo’s group – they named themselves “Shut up!” – was one of the newer bands, so they opened the show. Though their performance wasn’t without a hiccup or two, from which they always recovered, it was stellar. Buddy-roo was the front singer of “Shut up!” and despite a few nerves at the start, she found her footing on stage and was at ease holding the microphone. And her moves, well, cool. Smokin’ cool.

I dressed for the occasion in jeans, a black T-shirt and black chucks, which is what I used to wear when I went to rock concerts. After college I worked for a radio station that promoted itself as the rock’n’roll air force, so I had some experience in this sort of venue. I don’t often go to these kinds of clubs anymore, though standing there at the bar, waiting for live music to start, I wondered why I don’t take better advantage of the music Paris has to offer. In those free, coveted days-before-motherhood, I went to see live shows all the time. That was long before the smoking ban, when clubs were hazy with cigarette smoke. I’d come home, strip off my clothes and hang them on the balcony to air out; the stale scent of smokey garments piled on the clothes chair was a poison you didn’t want to face the next day.

~ ~ ~

I loved smoking. My preferred brand of tobacco was Old Holdborn, and I used to roll my own cigarettes. I had many pleasant associations with smoking: that first one of the day, with my coffee, reading the paper; the cigarette to accompany an apéritif or the one to finish a meal; after writing several difficult paragraphs, pushing my chair back, rolling a cigarette and smoking it while reviewing my work. I loved pulling out a thin paper and reaching into the pouch, pinching the moist tobacco between my fingers, spreading it along the fold and getting that first edge to tuck in and rolling it evenly. Each cigarette a chance – a test – for the perfect roll.

The night I met De-facto I persuaded him to stick around and keep me company while I “had a smoke.” Even though he’s never been a smoker, he used the opportunity to charm me. He even indulged my not-heavy-but-more-than-I-reported habit without complaint, though I’m sure he was relieved when I stopped. I quit overnight. One afternoon the pink line red_lips_glistening_teethturned blue on the home pregnancy test. The next morning I dropped a nearly full pouch of tobacco in the bin. I haven’t had one since.

I do miss the deep inhale, the drawing back, pausing, letting go and pressing the smoke out of my lungs and mouth. I don’t miss the stale breath, the morning cough, or the yellow fingers. I like tasting things, and I started enjoying food more when I quit cigarettes. I hope I knew how to smoke, but I also wonder if I looked as stoopid as those high school girls in front of the lyceé, holding arm and palm upwards in their awkward smoking stance. I don’t know if I smoked to look cool. I know that it felt cool, the experience. But it wasn’t, really. I mean when you stand back and think about it, it’s an absurd habit.

I tell Short-pants and Buddy-roo they saved my life. That getting pregnant and having little people to care for made me want to be healthier. I didn’t want to expose them to the second-hand smoke, but having them also made me think about my mortality, and how it wouldn’t be a bad idea to eliminate the things that might shorten my capacity to watch my offspring grow up.

Even with my no-smoking messages, beaten into their heads from the start, I suspect they will want to experiment with tobacco, and possibly other things that one might inhale. I used to chastise my father for smoking, leaving pictures of people with cancer of the mouth next to his dinner plate. But then, later on, my militant stance went up in smoke. Who knows if Buddy-roo will bring it up with me again, when her adolescent peers start carrying cigarettes and her urge is stronger. I hope I can stay cool, and help her see how cool she already is without having to smoke.