Aug 23 2013

Pack for Later

Each room gets worse before it gets better. Moving is not an orderly activity. One does not simply open a cardboard box, reinforce it with masking tape and begin pulling objects from shelves and drawers, calmly placing them in the carton. Maybe one does, a professional mover, or someone who doesn’t keep mementos, someone dutiful to the touch every piece of paper once rule. That one is not me. So many pieces of my life are squirreled away in the recesses of my closets and drawers; each time I open one to empty it out, I am arrested by memories.

That’s how the mess starts. In the back of my closet, I find two delicate gray silk bags, like large envelopes – once used, I think, for keeping lingerie or something. It’s not clear, their purpose. They belonged to my grandmother. I’ve never used them. I do not want to discard them, but I won’t need them immediately. Where to put them? I carry the two silk sacks around the apartment, thinking about where they might be stored, finally creating a purgatory pile for those objects that will not be taken to the garbage or the recycling bin, but nonetheless are not necessities for the next few months, the pack for later pile.boxes_behind_bed

Emptying the bathroom cupboards, I realize a shoe box would be useful for storing such purgatorial items. In our office, under the shelves behind the guest bed, I keep a stash of boxes, just like my mother kept boxes of every size in her backroom, so we were never in need when we wanted to wrap a present. To get to this stash I must move the bed. In the process, I find a wooden crate filled with all the love letters De-facto and I exchanged in our three-year long-distance relationship before he moved to Paris. I can’t resist the urge to peek inside. The letters and cards, compressed in the box for years, fall out onto the bed, a cascade of my own tiny handwriting and his chicken scribble, all our early love packed into folded pages. Like magnets, they pull me into the mood of those heady, hopeful days, when the mail was a main link between us. I reel myself back from this dangerous chute of nostalgia, folding the letter I started to open and pressing the box to close and clamp it shut.

Behind it, another box filled with the Short-pants and Buddy-roo‘s school papers. Their primary notebooks are easier to toss, though I am compelled to skim through them, just to review the work they have done, to see the evolution of their penmanship, the precision of the French teaching methodology. I flip through each one before putting it in the recycling pile. The notebooks from maternelle (ages three to five) are harder to part with. The French pre-school is brilliant; the combination of art and learning cleverly intertwined. Oversized notebooks with pages of drawings and paintings and crafted activities, evidence of the girls first efforts at expressing themselves, too precious to part with yet. As I push that box aside, I find another one stuffed with clothes I’d forgotten about. Of course these must be laid on the bed and sorted, and actually, that sweater will fit Buddy-roo, so I take it upstairs and…

Three hours later I return to the bathroom with a shoebox. But now every room on the apartment has a cupboard or a drawer thrown open, its contents spilled onto the floor in three piles: throw away, pack for now, or pack for later.

~ ~ ~

We’ve been restless for several years. In 2008, De-facto did a reconnaissance trip to Buenos Aires, to see if it would make sense for us to move there. He came back mildly enthusiastic, but then work picked up and other things happened and we let that idea slip away. We are not unhappy in Paris. Our life is convenient and convivial. The school is close. Our friends, many of love_paristhem parents at the same school, are the right mix of worldly but down-to-earth. We live in the heart of the city and my favorite restaurants, bars and shops are all footsteps away. There is nothing wrong with our life here.

Why would we leave, then? Because we can. We are not tethered to any particular geographical coordinates for our work. De-facto and I both travel away from Paris to exercise our profession, and any preparation for our assignments happens via email and virtual meetings. As much as we love Paris, we love to explore other places and we know the difference between traveling as a tourist and immersing yourself in another culture for an extended stay. We want the girls to acquire more languages, and not to be too rooted in one culture.

Mostly, though, we’re doing it because we need to change. We need to mix it up, put ourselves in a situation where we have to start anew. It will keep our brains from shrinking. Somebody asked us about leaving and De-facto and I responded almost simultaneously, “so we don’t get old.” Taking a risk and trying something new, forcing old patterns to break and new ones to form, this seems to us a reasonable antidote to getting grumpy and stodgy and fixed in our ways.

Paris, if you love her, is a hard city to leave. So maybe it’s not for good. Maybe it’s just a year to have an experience elsewhere. This is what we’ve told the school, so that the girls could be re-enrolled. This is what we’ve told our friends as they stare back at us, mystified. This is what we’ve told ourselves, to keep from being overwhelmed by the decision and its ensuing torrent of tasks and emotions: maybe it’s just a sabbatical from our beloved Paris.

~ ~ ~

The school was the linchpin. During our visit to Barcelona last March we visited the Lycée Francais and met with the headmistress. The girls eyes widened with every step at the large, well-equipped classrooms, the tennis courts, a climbing wall. Short-pants was ecstatic about the size and mood of the library. Buddy-roo’s class year was over-inscribed and her enrollment was not guaranteed, so we applied with our fingers crossed. Word came only at the very end of June that both girls had been accepted. As long as we knew they could have an easy transition – courses will be primarily in French, just like their old school, but they’ll also have classes in English, Spanish and Catalán – we had the green light to move to Barcelona.
The obvious next step: rent an apartment. De-facto and I went there in July, pounding the pavement around the school and further afield. We returned with several intriguing options, none of which have panned out. I wanted to go back and look again, and now that we have the lay of the land, our online apartment hunting has yielded a dozen more options. But Barcelona, like Paris, shuts down for the end of August. I couldn’t schedule enough appointments to make it worth the expensive trip. So we will arrive in Barcelona, just about a week from now, without a place to live.

That’s not the hardest part. A friend has loaned us her place for a week, and there are dozens of Air BnB apartments to rent for short term stays. What’s harder is the not knowing. Not knowing if we need furniture or not. Not knowing how long we might be in temporary digs. Not knowing what has to come now, what can come later. Moving is a tumultuous experience even if you can picture the next stop. The abstract quality of our destination is my greatest challenge.

~ ~ ~

There is a frenzy of things to do. Papers to put in order, closets to empty, boxes to pack, doctors appointments to get out of the way in order to arrive with a clean bill of health and a few months to find new practitioners. I take advantage of the familiar conveniences while I can: refilling prescriptions at my pharmacy, getting my watch repaired at the shop around the corner. Friends want to see us before we go for a last lunch or dinner, a goodbye drink, a final nightcap. From the moment I rise each day until I collapse in bed near midnight, I am occupied with the preparations for our departure.

Add to that a grand list of tasks to prepare for our arrival in Barcelona. Searching for additional apartments, touching base with agents and organizing visits for when we arrive, contacting a “fixer” who will help us set up bank accounts, phone and internet service once we finally have an dresser_unpackedaddress. Checking the website of the new school to see about starting time for new classes and what books and supplies we must purchase.

There was an agility exercise we used have to do in elementary school – for the Presidential Physical Fitness test – in which you had to jump from side to side, crossing lines of masking tape laid out in intervals on the gym floor. I feel like I’m stuck in that exercise right now, stepping sideways, back and forth, cleaning here, calling there, sorting here, packing there, testing my dexterity as I transition between our current home to the next.

At some point the frenzy is too much, the packing and the sorting and the errands, the emotional weight of the goodbyes and and good luck meet-ups with local friends. I survey the mess around me, wondering how I’ll ever get it all done. This is the kind of moment when I raise my eyes to the sky at the most organized woman I ever knew, and under my breath I ask my mother, what do I do?

I close my eyes to contain the tears – she never liked criers – but I can’t hold them. Tears of sadness about leaving. Tears of exhaustion from the full-on press of activity. Tears of release. And then I hear her voice, loud and clear, in my mind, or my imagination, wherever her voice resides.

“Try ironing.”

On a dining chair, a pile of clothes is mounting. Our Wednesday child-care helper used to do the ironing for me, but we let him go because we were gone most of the summer and now we’re leaving. I told myself if I had time, maybe I’d get to it. In this messy moment, cardboard and plastic strewn about the apartment, everything up in the air: no place to live and no idea how it’ll all get sorted, I pull out the ironing board, wrench it apart, plug in the iron and wait for it to steam to life. The clothes are from the winter stash, they’d gotten too musty to pack without washing them first. I take each item, a favorite dress of Short-pants, Buddy-roo’s layered skirt, De-facto’s plaid shirts – and one by one, I iron them. I dig into the drawers for for_just_a_momentdishtowels and pillowcases, and I iron them. I breath deeply in tandem with the iron as it releases its steam each time I set it upright. Then I press it down again, ironing back and forth to smooth out the wrinkles.

At the end, a pile of pressed items rests on the arm of the couch. I feel calmer. I’ve managed to draw some small measure of order out of the chaos, taken hold of the mess around me and found one small corner of things I could iron out, a stack of laundry I can be proud of, just before I put it in the pile to pack for later.


(Photo credit: The artwork, For just a moment, everything was calm, by Dan Walker.)

Aug 14 2013

Getting Down

All of Paris was spread out before us, the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant put her in perfect view. We were halfway up the Eiffel Tower, at the Jules Verne, noted for its view as much as its gastronomic cuisine. It’s not an every-day kind of restaurant. It’s a having-a-special-experience-in-Paris destination, the kind of place you go with a friend who’s visiting from out of town, or to take your nearly young-adult children for a memorable experience in Paris – or both.

My college roommate came to spend a few days in Paris, with her daughter who is the same age as Short-pants. I remember being pregnant together; I visited her at her summer home in the south of France just a month before Short-pants’ due-date. We posed for pictures, belly-to-belly, showing the girth of our pregnant bodies, smiling at the fact that our children would be born about a month apart, imagining how they might be playmates over the years. I didn’t envision us having lunch at the Jules Verne, but here salmon_entreewe were, her daughter seated between Short-pants and Buddy-roo, the three of them looking beyond us, out the window, at the breath-taking view.

De-facto had ordered a main dish and no starter, guessing correctly that the girls would only pick at their appetizers and he could finish their plates. The gastronomic menu was a bit on the sophisticated side for their palates, though Short-pants devoured her côte de cochon (pork-shops) and whipped potatoes, and Buddy-roo relished her râble de lapin (rabbit) once I cut it into bite-size pieces for her.

We were waiting for dessert, wild strawberries with coconut shortbread and mascarpone sorbet, when my friend pointed out an annoying repetitive noise, like a microwave beeping or an oven alarm. I called the maitre’d over to ask what it was.

“It’s Al Qaeda,” he said, a joke that I didn’t find humorous. When I did not laugh, he brushed it off: just a security alarm but nothing to be concerned about. I asked if it could do something to turn it off. Now that my friend had brought it to my attention, I found it a painful accompaniment to our expensive meal. “We are working on it,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, our bottle of Mersault finished but still no dessert, the maitre’d returned to our table.

“I apologize for the joke I made earlier,” he said, this time without his sneer. “There has been a bomb threat. The entire tower is being evacuated. You have to leave, now.”

“But we haven’t had dessert yet,” I said, the way you say something stupid when you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

“You haven’t had the bill, either.”

He pointed us to the exit, and we passed other tables of empty chairs with plates of food half-eaten. Some people waited for the restaurant’s elevator, but we were ushered beyond them, to a stairway that leads to the second-level public observation deck.
“There is a larger elevator there,” one of the restaurant employees said. “Take that one, it is better not to wait.” I had a vague memory of the lift; years ago with other friends we’d eaten here and left the restaurant via the observation deck, lingering after our meal and enjoying the view. It was one of those room-sized elevators that could fit 25 or 30 people.

We walked down a flight of stairs to the public level. At the bottom we found a huge elevator, its doors stretched open while the kitchen staff, uniformed in black and white, filed into it from another stairway behind ours. They did not fill up the entire lift, so I made a gesture to collect De-facto and the girls and my friend and her daughter and pull them into the elevator as it was shutting. Every one of the restaurant staffers shook their head no and waved us away, and the doors closed, locking us out.

Cursing at the closing service elevator wouldn’t have been very assuring to the young girls, so I swore under my breath. Perhaps there was some rule, I told myself, about employees-only spaces. But do such rules apply now? Would you turn children away from an elevator that’s only two-thirds full during an emergency evacuation?

There were no throngs of people pushing or running, but the gates on the concessions and souvenir kiosks were shut and locked, the security alarm was louder than in the restaurant. It was eerie. We hunted around until we found the public elevator, a crowd waiting in front of the doors. Counting the people, I calculated that we wouldn’t fit into the next elevator, we might make the one after that; but we’d probably have to push into the crowd to hold our place. The vibe felt weird. I didn’t want to be there.

“Why did we have to leave the restaurant?” Buddy-roo whined. I told her the police wanted everyone to leave the tower so they could check it to make sure something bad wouldn’t happen. I didn’t say the word bomb. I didn’t want to alarm the kids and I didn’t want the tourists within earshot to panic. Though given the closed embassies and other security alerts this year, most people could probably guess the reason for our evacuation.
I looked at De-facto and then at my friend, “You up for going down the stairs?”

Later I checked online: there are 55 flights of stairs, roughly 700 steps, from the second level where the Jules Verne restaurant is located, to the ground. We walked them all, circling down the long staircase within the east platform of the iron tower. There was steady flow of foot traffic, an occasional bottleneck but mostly fluid. It helped to move; it felt like we were doing something, getting somewhere – getting down.

“But we didn’t have dessert.” Buddy-roo said. The girls had been asking for Slushies on their way to the restaurant, a request that was dismissed given the refined dessert that would top off our elegant lunch. Now Slushies would be dessert, offered as a reward for walking all the way down from the middle of the Eiffel Tower.

A part of me believed that this was just a scare. Another part couldn’t be so cavalier. I held the girls’ hands, tightly, as we made our way down the stairs. I kept looking back at De-facto, taking him in. I’d glance at my friend, picturing her in our wilder college days. Is this where we would all finish? No, of course not, I kept telling myself. But just in case, I kept holding tight and I kept looking back.

I can’t call this a harrowing experience. It was orderly, without panic. We all knew there was a good chance that it would turn out to be nothing. We even teased De-facto about calling in the threat, just to avoid paying the check. But there was something else, something seeping in the cracks around my logical, reasonable conclusions about what was happening: tiny shards of the terror that other souls before us have known, in a plane about to go down, eiffel_tower_evacuatedor stumbling down the stairway of the World Trade Center, or being pressed into a train headed toward a work camp. An event like this reminds me of how randomly vulnerable we are and how precious it is to feel safe and secure.

At the ground level, we walked away from the tower, relieved. The rest of the day, though, I kept thinking about how often innocent people don’t get the chance to walk away because they don’t get out, can’t get down or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The evacuation of the Eiffel Tower made the news, but the story pales in comparison to reports from war-torn conflict-zones, and stories about what war and terrorism do to children. We were lucky. Ours was a happy ending, getting down safely with a free lunch, a good story to tell – a memorable experience in Paris – and a renewed awareness of the things we should never take for granted.

Aug 5 2013

Out of my Depth

She threw her towel on the sand and sprinted to the water’s edge, halted only briefly by the shock of the cool water at her feet before she plunged forward, into the ocean. A frothy wave rolled directly at her, pushing her back toward the shore with its force. She faltered, but stood up and dove into the next wave, and again and again until she was on the other side of the wall of waves that break at the shore’s edge. Short-pants‘ fearlessness in the ocean has always surprised me. She is tentative about many things that other children dive into effortlessly; getting her to ride a bicycle requires cajoling and bribing. But the water calls to her, her courage summoned from the rhythm of its fierce waves.
I stood on the shore watching her bob in and out of the water, alternating her practice of diving under the wave and surfacing on the other side, or chest-bumping it defiantly as it rolled toward her. The tide was high and that made the surf fiercer. Several times during her ocean frolic I’d called her and motioned her to swim back into the lifeguarded zone, away from the rip tides on either side. I’d tried to do it playfully, but still, I was watching her like a hawk.

Later, back at the beach house – friends from Paris had rented it for two weeks and kindly invited us to spend a few days there with them – I told Short-pants she seemed fearless in the surf.

“Were you worried about me?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “I love to see you bold and daring like that.”

Her shoulders expanded, pride filling every cavity of her chest.

“And I also want you to be safe in the ocean. It can be dangerous.”

“In other words,” said my friend – she’s Irish and has no problem telling it like it is – “your mother was terrified.”

~ ~ ~

This is the maternal – the parental – conundrum. We want our kids to seize the world around them. We want to encourage their adventures and help them build skills, strength and confidence. But there is so much that could go wrong; so many dangers to meet, some mere obstacles to overcome, others truly life threatening. We want to steer them, guide them through the minefields of growing up without being over-protective. We know they need to fall and fail, and pick themselves up and recover. But what if they’re on the edge of something they might not recover from?

De-facto and I like to think we found the middle ground. We didn’t childproof the electric sockets; we just taught the girls not to stick their fingers in them. We didn’t put up a gate, we showed them how to crawl backwards down the stairs. We never safety-latched our cupboards; we moved the seriously toxic stuff to higher shelves and designated cupboards they could play in. When one of them fell or stubbed a toe, we’d wait a beat, and walk, not run, with words of passive concern: “You’re okay, aren’t you?” At some point we realized that Short-pants thought “okay” meant ouch because we’d said that to her every time she hurt herself.

We might have been, perhaps, a bit cavalier about her boo-boos. We thought it was just a flu, that thing that turned out to be a brain abscess, putting her in the ICU for six weeks. If there was ever a time that I felt I was truly in over my head as a mother, this was it. No parenting book can prepare you for tending to your child in a hospital, still, you can’t panic, for their sake and for yours. But even after all that – especially after that, not wanting to live in fear or make her feel fragile – we try to take bumps and bruises in stride, and despite my own terrifying memory of those moments when we thought we might lose her, to keep sending her out into the world with all its dangers.

~ ~ ~
We stood together at the water’s edge, admiring how the morning sun cast our shadows long and lean. They were nearly the same length, demonstrating that at 12 she is fast approaching my height. There were only a few other early swimmers in the water. De-facto was at a different part of the beach, taking his own surfing lesson. Buddy-roo, who’d excelled spectacularly in boogie-boarding the day before, had opted out of this morning’s beach excursion, choosing to take her opening swim in the pool back at the house.

Short-pants and I waded hand-in-hand into the water, it seemed to take forever to get beyond the shelf of the sandbar. We charged at the waves, stepping over them until they lapped against our mid-sections and then we began her favorite game of calling out “Under!” or “Over!” – one command for diving beneath the wave as it passed, the other required confronting the white foam surf and letting it splash in your face. It felt like we were the only two people in the world, frolicking in the surf, my daughter and me, laughing at the waves, diving over and rolling under.

I kept an eye on the shore – or so I thought – to keep within the distance of what had been pointed out as the safe zone. But too late I realized we’d succumbed to the longshore drift. Not only had we slipped sideways down the beach, we’d also drifted out from the shoreline. In fact, I could no longer touch bottom, which meant Short-pants couldn’t either. The current was stronger now, and I knew we were entering a danger zone.

“Why don’t we swim back toward our towels?” I said. Just then a wave pummeled us. She winced, her hair splayed over her face, spitting the salty water out of her mouth. “Take my hand, let’s swim together.” I could feel the current tugging us the direction we didn’t want to go. I pointed us diagonally, not to swim directly against it, but I knew we’d have to work hard to swim back in.

The shore seemed forever away. The waves relentless, hurling themselves at and over us. The sound of the surf was a constant roar. The swimming was hard but we were making slow progress. I also knew how quickly the surf can tire you out and I couldn’t gauge how tired Short-pants was already. We’d actually drifted into an area where there were a few surfers, one of them within shouting distance. Here was another human being, just ahead of us, and he had a floating device. I yelled to him. The surf was too loud, he paddled away.

“This is a good time to swim on your back,” I told her. We turned and kicked together. I held her hand tight; I would not lose her in this surf. It would not happen, not on my watch, the thing I dreaded, that terrified me most about her love of the sea. Moments earlier I’d marveled at the beauty of the waves cresting in front of us, blue-green walls of water, arcs perfect and smooth, like a picture window into the sea. That should have tipped me off, we’d never swum out far enough to see waves like that before. It was my fault, I’d gotten lost in the rhythm of the waves and the pleasure of being side by side with her, dancing together in the ocean.
Another surfer came within sight. We’d made headway and he was a bit closer. I called and waved, he looked up and turned his board our way. Just this gesture buoyed me. I tugged Short-pants, who was still paddling and kicking beside me – she was holding her own – toward him. Just before we reached him, my foot hit the sandy bottom. Three steps later, Short-pants could stand too.

“Okay?” he asked, seeing that we’d stopped swimming and started walking. I nodded, and thanked him. But I was thinking, ouch, that was a little too close.

We trudged onward toward the beach, still fighting the force of the waves as they withdrew from the shore to slide back into the ocean. Finally we made our way to dry sand.

“Mama, I think you overreacted, waving and calling to him for help.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the surfers in the water. “We were way out there.” Her jaw dropped as she noted the distance. I also pointed out how far down the beach we’d drifted from where we’d left our towels. “In a situation like this, you don’t realize how tired you can get, fighting the current. If there’s someone nearby, it’s a no-brainer; you should ask for help.”

We sat on the beach to rest and talk about what happened. I played down, slightly, how dangerous it might have been; I didn’t want to spoil her love of the waves. But I didn’t dismiss the danger completely. A little fear – or rather respect – for the ocean is something I was happy for her to acquire. Not that my respect for the ocean had kept us from getting in trouble, but maybe it’d had gotten us out of it in time.

“I didn’t realize,” she said. On her face, full recognition of the danger, and then the relief of having escaped it.

I’d succeeded at not panicking her during the swim back to shore, but I didn’t want this to trigger a phobia about the ocean. We walked up to the beach cafe at the top of the dune, for hot chocolate and a croissant, after which I suggested we go back into the water to do some wave-jumping before we called it a morning. She hesitated. I could see the fear taking its grip. I insisted. This experience should make her smart about the ocean, not scared of it. I took her hand and walked with her into the water. We didn’t go out as far, we weren’t quite as daring. But we got back on the horse; we rode the waves again.

~ ~ ~

blue_bird_on_yellowIt wasn’t until much later in the day, after all the vacation-house group activities – the late breakfast, the food shopping, lunch, cleaning up for the evening’s barbecue party – were finished that I had a few moments to be alone. Standing in the shower, I ran through the morning’s events, re-hashing everything we did, letting myself consider what could have happened. I leaned my head against the cool tiles, the water cleansing the salt and sweat off my body, and I wept.

I’ve managed not to beat myself up too much for this little adventure. I should have known better – I do know better – but I was in over my head, literally, forgetting my own best advice. Maybe it was useful, I told myself, that this happened. What terrified me earlier in the week was her nearly cavalier attitude about the waves. Each time I’d motion for her to come back between the lifeguards’ flags, she’d comply, but not without a groan. Making this error together, I could help her out of a pickle she might not have escaped on her own. This gave her a taste of the ocean’s formidable strength and why you shouldn’t go out of your depth, unless you know what you’re doing.

Of course, even when you think you know what you’re doing, you can still get in over your head. You can be an experienced swimmer and still make a mistake and get caught in the rip tide. Just like you can be an experienced mother, and still get out of your depth. The ocean is humbling that way, and so, I guess, is motherhood.