Nov 14 2016

Explaining the Loss

She was hunched over her computer, sitting cross-legged on the floor when I pushed open the heavy door to Short-pants‘ bedroom. Fully dressed, ready for school, her purse already draped over her shoulder as though she might need to jump up and sprint out the door at a moment’s notice, her head moved back and forth as she read from her screen.

“He’s winning,” she said, “how can he be ahead?”

De-facto sat on her bed, his hand on her shoulder. I crouched behind her and wrapped my arms around her so I could whisper the news I’d come to tell her.

“It looks like he’s going to win.”

The reality of that – the thing we all thought was impossible – hung in the air over us. It was 6:45 am, the CNN commentators – we’d been up all night with them – were scrutinizing the counties of Michigan and Wisconsin, and though the race had not yet been called in Mr. Trump’s favor, the data did not look good.broken_ideas

Short-pants bent over her screen, her shoulders heaving, letting out her signature moan, a forlorn wail of grief and disappointment.

“But, what about women’s rights? And minorities? The environment? The Supreme Court?”

I didn’t have an answer. I myself was numb with disbelief at how the red and blue graph lines had criss-crossed and grown in opposite directions, a possibility that Nate Silver never ruled out but that I hoped was an impossibility. Even over the weekend, when the polls had tightened, I just couldn’t believe that it could happen. Not in my America. We wouldn’t elect an impulsive, vulgar bully to the highest office in the land, would we?

Absent any authentic words to re-assure her, I simply rubbed her back and kissed the crown of her head.

She began to sob.

When I pushed myself up from the floor and pattered across the hall into Buddy-roo‘s room, it was still dark, just a hint of dawn’s early light squeezing through the shutters of her window. She lay motionless in bed; I crawled in to spoon behind her.

“What happened?” she mumbled, half asleep.

I didn’t answer right away, I wanted to take in the peace of the morning cuddle for an extra beat before spoiling her day.

“Hillary?” she said.

“I’m afraid Trump has pulled ahead, and will probably be the president.”

She’s a lazy riser, Buddy-roo. It takes several nudges, hugs, shoulder rubs and calls-up-the-stairway to be sure she gets out of bed every morning. This time, though, she jerked around and threw off her comforter.

“You’re joking, right?”

I shook my head to answer. She turned back and buried her head in her pillow.

~ ~ ~

The girls took an active interest in the election over the course of the summer. It was hard not to, the media circus that was our election spilled over into Europe. Plus we spent nearly a month in the United States in August, news about the Clinton-Trump red_white_stripedrace was inescapable. These last weeks I was fairly addicted to my various news feeds; by osmosis they had to pick it up on their radar.

De-facto and I lean left, and as long as we’ve known each other (20 years now) we’ve favored the same candidates. Still, we try our best to inform our daughters about politics without indoctrinating them. I know it’s impossible for any parent to hide their bias, and perhaps it is a parental right to pass on political values. But I’ve felt it was important to try to set an example: to speak respectfully, not to be vulgar, dismissive or to demonize the other party’s candidate. That was much harder to do this time around, I’m sure I couldn’t mask my truest fears about Mr. Trump’s character, which from where I sit, was hard to paint in any kind of neutral light. Still, days before the election when Buddy-roo stated emphatically that she hated Trump, I corrected her. She could dislike his ideas but hating him, personally, was not the answer. I suspect my attempt wasn’t very authentic, it was hard to hide my disgust given how he insulted women, minorities, veterans, and the disabled. His cavalier discourse brought out the worst in all of us – on both sides of the ballot.

~ ~ ~

I really want to be a good loser, to take the long view. I want to respect the democratic process. I’ve been reading about the pendulum swings of politics, how it’s going to be okay. (Or maybe it’s not all that okay.) I’ve even been willing to explore how Trump could be a good president after all. I’ve tried to take solace from conciliatory posts asking for respect between sides. Though it’s hard to imagine this when a scan of the nation’s Facebook feeds shows how polarized we are. I’m incensed by the images of racists emboldened by Trump’s election. And just as angry when anti-Trump protestors have turned violent, too.

The meme that tires me out the most is the one about being sore losers. It’s so much more than that. It’s fear. If Romney had beaten Obama four years ago, I’d have been discouraged and concerned, but I wouldn’t have been frightened. I was angry about many of the actions of the Bush administration, but I wasn’t afraid of him. I am scared of what will happen to the rule of law in our country with Mr. Trump as president. I can’t even fathom what this administration will be like to anyone who disagrees with him.

To be blunt, I’m lost. I’ve written before about how I like being other, living between cultures, understanding the codes but at the same time, escaping them. What I know, now, is that I no longer understand the codes of my home country. I don’t know how to explain to my daughters, who still identify as ask_yourselfAmerican despite never living there, when they ask what this means to their future. Even if they never set foot in the states again, they worry about the ripple effect, around the world, of a Trump presidency.

My daughters are worried and afraid. I am worried and afraid. And when they ask me how a man like that could be president of the United States, I have no answer.

How to explain that the party I identify with, a party that I truly believed was trying to do good things for our country and for the world, misunderstood or ignored the suffering and disgruntlement of the large portion of Americans who voted for Trump, or didn’t vote at all? How discouraging that so many people felt so abandoned and ignored that Trump was the candidate they chose. For their sake, I hope they haven’t been conned. Women, minorities, gays, lesbians, non-Christians – and our environment – are all going to pay the price for this decision. If rural, red America ends up getting shafted by Mr. Trump, too, if his promises to drain the swamp of elite lobbyists and cronies turns out to be campaign-speak and nothing more, we will have given up all our progress for absolutely nothing. But maybe that’s what it will take – being in the same boat of suffering and misery – to get America to work together again.


Nov 15 2015

Under Attack

I am not done with Paris. That conclusion I came to just over a week ago, when I was there on a last minute trip, a quick overnight visit provoked by an administrative errand. Usually I pack my schedule with lunches, drinks and dinners, taking advantage of the time on the ground to catch up with Parisian friends. This last trip I organized very few appointments. I’ve a lot of work at the moment and I didn’t metro_signwant to orchestrate every minute of my visit. I wanted to be in Paris with a bit of time on my hands. The way it used to be. Just being there.

Standing in line to board the flight, I cringed at the weather forecast: chilly, cloudy with showers. This was one of the main reasons for relocating to Barcelona. We craved a warmer, sunnier climate. The cold and gray of Paris can wear you out. But luck was with me, the forecast was inaccurate. The Paris weather was milder than predicted and the sun had only a few clouds to hide behind. Walking across the Pont Notre-Dame to the Prefecture for my appointment – one that had been assigned to me so I had no choice but to make the last minute trip – I took in the majestic vista of Paris’ bridges arching over the Seine, and all the familiar landmarks, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Conciergerie. No matter how many times I make the walk between the left and right banks, I am still struck by the stunning beauty of the city. Second only to the friendly upstate New York village where I grew up, this is the place that feels most like home. It was home, for eighteen years of my life.

~ ~ ~

Our try-a-year-in-Barcelona turned into two years (one was not enough to really get a full experience of the city and culture) which then turned into three years (it takes more than two years to feel at home) and who knows, now, how long we will stay. We’re set up comfortably, in a roomy apartment, walking distance to the school, a mere block away from a forested mountain that leads to a track where we love to run, bike and walk the dog. New friends aren’t as intimate or familiar as those we knew in Paris, but there is potential. I am not unhappy in Barcelona. Our life is lovely. But it isn’t what my life was in Paris. And I do miss that life.

De-facto was out playing basketball on Friday night and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I heaped ourselves together on the couch with Winston to watch the an episode of our latest favorite Netflix series. It was a text message from a faraway friend that alerted me to the attacks that were unfolding in Paris. I plugged into news coverage of Liberation and the BBC and Al Jazeera. I scanned my Facebook feed to see which Parisian friends were online and sharing updates – partly to hearparis_runs their perspective, mostly to confirm they hadn’t been caught in the mayhem.

It was hard to go to sleep and harder still to wake up in the morning to the tally of dead and injured and the stark images of a vibrant city shut down by terror and bloodshed. When Short-pants delivered my coffee – a Saturday morning luxury – I pulled her into bed with me for a morning hug. It made me think of the days just after 9/11 when we were glued to the TV, the altar for our grieving. I was breastfeeding Short-pants – she was only two months old – and while I watched the news, I’d glance down at her little mouth seriously at work taking in nourishment, her tiny fists banging against me and wonder what kind of world we’d brought her into. Now, fourteen years later, I held her (considerably) taller body in a long embrace and wondered, again, what kind of world she was inheriting. How will this ever go away?

~ ~ ~

It’s remarkable how a network of friends reaches out to support one another at a time like this. I was desperately texting my Parisian friends on Friday night, unable to get to sleep until I’d heard from them that they were safe. Saturday morning I woke to a full inbox myself, messages from friends who weren’t aware that we’d moved to Barcelona, or who know I often go back to Paris and that we have many close friends there who might have been hurt. It made my heart grow. In the midst of this horrible tragedy, little pockets of kindness make all the difference.

Later, at lunch, I asked the girls what they thought about what happened in Paris the night before. They both had the same first instinct: to ask why someone would want to kill so many people with such violent attacks. I struggled to respond. How to convey the complexity of such a convoluted reasoning – the perfect storm of anger, hate, disenfranchisement and indoctrination? How to share my indignation, my fear, my grief, but without fueling their prejudice and creating the fear and hatred that only perpetuates a cycle of terrorism? How to tell them the truth without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I always tell them, “Be smart, not scared,” when it comes to dealing with danger. But is that enough to keep them safe from this kind of arbitrary violence? go_paris

I am relieved that my family and I are safely away in Barcelona, that we weren’t subject to the immediate fright of it, the menace of proximity to such a massacre. And yet a part of me is aching to be there in Paris, now, to witness for myself what has happened, to be there not only in spirit but in person, showing my solidarity with some of my dearest friends and with the city that was my home for so long, and in my heart, still is.

But are we really safer here? Any European city – any city at all – might be subject to the same terror as Paris. There’s nothing to do but return to our routines, taking it all in stride, just like we numbly take off our shoes and place our liquids in plain view at airport security, running through the motions of protecting ourselves from a mid-air terror, when simply sitting at a café with friends can be just as deadly. How do I explain that to my daughters?


Sep 30 2014

Why Live Here

When it rains in Barcelona, it rains decisively. The morning might start out sunny, but by midday the dark clouds have slipped over the crest of the mountain, wrapping their gray billowy arms around the church perched at Tibadabo and crawling down toward the sea, dropping their contents with deliberate force. The rain might start out as a prolonged sprinkle, dotting your shoulders as you wait for the bus – and you hope it’ll hold off until you make itgray_and_sun home – but when the sky opens up, the rain teems down. Rain pounds the balconies and pelts against the big glass windows in our living room. Rain falls strong and fierce. The sky pours its soul out on the city, filling the streets with angry, wet weather.

The next day, usually, the sky is clear and sunny. Rain rarely lasts for consecutive days, like in my beloved Paris where the cloudy ceiling lingers for weeks at a time, dampening your mood and your shoes with its prolonged presence. Barcelona’s rain comes down hard and then it stops and there’s sun. That’s a good reason to live here.

~ ~ ~

The Internet-connecting technician designated to come flip a switch somewhere in our building – and that’s all he has to do since I’ve already hooked up the router to the phone and to our computer and our little home network is four-bars strong but for the fact the bars connect to nothing – was supposed to come two weeks ago. There were subsequent promises from our new provider, about an arrival between 8 am and 2 pm on one day, or 4 pm and 8 pm another, jailing us in our home for fear of missing the arrival of this man with a tool belt and a magic stroke that will connect us miraculously to the rest of the world. Each appointment has evaporated into a non-event. When I called to inquire why nobody arrived, the customer service agents seemed as confused as we were.

This weekend I went back to the store, a brave endeavor given the Saturday morning press in such a place. I lined up with the regular working chaps who can’t, like me, peek in on a less crowded Tuesday morning to buy a phone or organize their Internet. After waiting for the couple ahead of me to decide which plan to take, and to painstakingly select their new phones, it was my turn. After recounting the debacle of our hook-up, I learned the real reason for our delay: there is a problem in our sector, all the installations in our neighborhood are delayed. I was shown a long list of other new clients, wireless neighbors of mine, waiting for service to commence. yellow_circuit_boxes Apparently all the competitive service providers are still obliged to rely on Telefonica, Spain’s old state phone company, for this last technical step in the installation. And apparently, our wait for hook-up has been extended until October 20th. That would be four weeks away. Nearly two months from the start date of our contract.

For De-facto, when it rains it pours. Not only was he trapped in the house for nearly two full days last week, waiting for the mystery technicians who never showed – we’re guessing they were never going to come, it was just a ruse to get us off the phone – but his computer conked out on him, too. First the flashing screen and the hard drive grinding to a quiet, definitive halt. It’s under Applecare so will be repaired, but it’ll take two weeks – forcing him to use one of the two old machines we have on hand. Both of these computers worked dutifully for many years, but as it happens with old Macs, the rainbow colored wheel-of-doom starts to spin, programs take forever to open and web-pages load at snail speed.

De-facto doesn’t get on well with electronics to begin with. I’m the one who hooks things up and regularly goes through his laptop arranging bookmarks and filing systems and urging him to upgrade and back-up. He takes pride in being a luddite, and gave up his decade-old Ericsson regular feature phone only because it ceased to function. Part of our new Internet package includes a smart phone for him – at least that’s working – so he shouldn’t be adrift, except, well, he hasn’t quite mastered his new Android phone. This would explain the cursing and occasional pounding of the desk radiating from the office next to mine.

~ ~ ~

Soon we’ll all have telephones. Short-pants already does. When she started walking to school on her own two years ago, it seemed the right thing to do. I was afraid she’d fall into the head-down-at-her-phone crowd, but she hasn’t caught the texting bug. Occasionally I’ll get a flurry of “I love you more” texts from her, but her correspondence with friends is very limited, I think she doesn’t even know their phone numbers. I almost never see her at_the_phonewith her phone out. The phone is her tool, not the other way around.

I, too, will have a new phone. It’s on order, and when it comes in – next week I’m told – the not-so-smart phone I’ve been using for the last year will be handed down to Buddy-roo. She’s champing at the bit, eager to have what her sister has, ready to stay in closer touch with her friends. It’ll help her coordinate the after-school meet-up-to-walk-home rendezvous with her sister, and we’ll be able to reach both of them with important messages. They can’t use the phones in school, but surely she’ll be flipping them open as soon as they walk out of the gate.

If our new Internet hook-up ever becomes a reality, then our home be humming at full connectivity. At present you can only get a signal in one corner of the apartment, fortunately that’s where De-facto and I have our offices. The girls bedrooms have been wi-fi free zones, which meant they had to be under our noses when they went on line. That’s about to change (one hopes). Computers and telephones and iPads will connect in every room on both floors of our apartment, which will make our work much easier, but probably not without an impact on our family life. At dinner last night we talked about drawing up a contract covering use of electronic devices, modeled after this one (an excellent example of parenting) that made the rounds two years ago. We started a list of all the things that might be included in our agreement: no electronic devices at the table during meal times, no texting while walking, no screen time until homework is done, surfing and viewing on age-appropriate sites.

The latter is a tricky one. It’s easy to suggest that they avoid content with a lot of violence; I’ve seen Buddy-roo click away from something because she knew it would be disturbing. But how to get them to avoid the sexy stuff? The minute you mention not to look at it, they’ll want to. I have a friend who catches her daughter watching porn on the iPad, and forbidding it doesn’t seem to help. I gave it my best shot anyway, in a command I meant to be clear but it was probably a meandering way of saying “don’t watch people having sex.” Apparently De-facto, Short-pants and I were all facing Buddy-roo during this part of the conversation.

“Why’s everyone looking at me?” she said.

~ ~ ~

This morning, rain, again. A steady percussion on the little balcony outside my office. De-facto fidgets in the next room, restless in his (truly) wire-less condition. In better weather, he’d hop on his bike and troll up the mountain, or go for a run. If I had my druthers, I’d prop my pillows against the headboard and climb under the covers with the laptop and work from bed. It’s that kind of day.

Alas, there is no wifi in the bedroom, and anyway, I have a conference call on Skype which requires a stronger, more reliable connection than the one we borrow from our neighbors. I have no choice but to trek out in the sloppy weather to a umbrella_dayshared office where I’ll have desk space, creative camaraderie and resilient wifi. But on a wet day like today it’d be my preference to stay home and dry.

On the way there, I’ll go by the phone store to buy some more credit for my temporary phone. I’ll nudge them again about the technician and our Internet hook-up, just to give me the satisfaction of at least trying to do something to move things along. It’s unlikely to help, we’ll probably have to slog along with our make-shift connection for a few more weeks. But at least tomorrow the rain will stop, and the sun will shine. I keep reminding myself, that’s why I live here.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

They warned me. The ubiquitous voices of been-there-already parents, well-meaning strangers and card-carrying members of the cliché club. It all goes by so fast. They were referring to my children’s childhood, and how quickly it time_flieswould pass. When I was knee-deep in diapers and breast pumps, unable to find even a few minutes to brush my teeth, trying to coordinate conference calls with nap time, I’d just turn the other way and roll my eyes. Deep down I knew that someday I’d agree with them, but it didn’t make me any more receptive to their unsolicited commentary.

Now time screams by and each day the hands spin faster and faster around the clock. Those two tow-headed toddlers are long and lean. Short-pants is nearly as tall as I am. Buddy-roo is not far behind her in height. They can dress and feed themselves. They manage abstract concepts and demonstrate emotional intelligence. They are becoming interesting. Now that the extreme parenting required in those early days is – thankfully – behind me, I find myself observing my children with awe and amusement. I have to throw out an occasional bone: a reminder to set the table, help out with a complex homework question or to lob in some carefully-cloaked advice. I watch them knowing I will soon be irrelevant. They are sprinting toward a horizon that’s not mine to reach.

~ ~ ~

I don’t know why I thought that moving to a new city would give me more time. I imagined an uncluttered life, a tabula rasa, starting fresh without obligations that steal time. I must have been remembering my first year in Paris, when I’d go off on a Sunday morning and explore a different arrondissement block by block just for the sake of wandering, returning home as the sun set, nourished by the long quiet hours. I had only a few friends in the city, and fewer invitations to meet up with them. That was the mid-90s, and although I had an email address – a Compuserve number – the volume of messages in my inbox was a small fraction of what calls for a response today. The public internet existed, too, but it was nascent in its ability to eat up blocks of our time. That first year, though lonely, allowed me to stop and think about who and what I wanted to be and do. I foolishly incorporated that memory into my expectations of the move to Barcelona.

Laugh at me now. Living in a new place, everything takes longer. The errands that used to be on the way to somewhere aren’t quite as efficient. Getting around isn’t second nature. I’m operating in a different language. Spanish classes twice a week are helping with that, but these take up time, too. A move with kids adds another dimension of things to monitor and manage. I’m running faster than ever, once again on a hamster wheel but this time one of my own inadvertent design. The mantra that I hate to repeat comes too often to my lips: There’s never enough time.

~ ~ ~

Last week I spent time in Italy at the CREA conference, where I facilitated a workshop about time and creativity. It was a reprise of a 3-day workshop I’d done before, only this year, paradoxically, it was scheduled as a one-day program. The workshop wasn’t about time management, but rather an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with time and how we view it and use it. Not that I’m any kind of expert on this subject, but I took on the assignment because it’s one I need to explore over and over again. I wrote time_is_nowabout this before, when I chronicled the previous workshop, but it’s still true: we teach what we most need to learn.

Think of all the language around time: how we spend time, save time, waste time and kill time. We use time up, we take time out. Time is money, time waits for no thing and for no one. Time flies. We’re running out of time. We often talk about time in terms of Chronos, its passage in hours, days and years, counted and quantified. Contrast that with Kairos, the propitious moment of time, the opportune moment. This is the Carpe Diem approach, making the best of the now. These two notions of time dance together through our lives. While we can’t escape Chronos, we can be more deliberate about Kairos. All it takes, really, is paying attention to what’s happening right now. I had a lot of Kairos moments on the Camino, because I slowed down and paid attention. The only thing that stops me from doing that now is me. Sometimes I’m so busy keeping up, I forget to savor the little moments that, when pieced together later, are what add up to a lifetime of time well spent.

~ ~ ~

There are times when she is shy, painfully uncomfortable talking out loud in front of people. At the conference I invited Short-pants to attend a small group session with me, one where you reflect on the events of the day. She was eager to come and participate. When it was her turn to talk, though, she struggled to find the words, and even had a hard time looking up at the others in the small circle of chairs. I’m not troubled by this, she’s gregarious enough at home with family and in the company of close friends. It’s that I’m always surprised by her timing: it’s never quite logical, when she goes all shy, and when she steps up to take the stage.

On the last night of the CREA conference, a musical ensemble called Cluster performed an entertaining and interactive a cappella concert. After singing several songs and medleys, demonstrating their capacity for harmonizing and blending their voices to sound like musical instruments, they asked for three volunteers from the audience. Short-pants shot her hand up in the air, without even knowing what she was volunteering to do. Once on stage, she learned that she would conduct the singers, and that in her hands was the opportunity to go faster or slower, louder or softer. She was the youngest of the volunteer conductors, but probably the most deliberate, waving one hand to lead the singers through a version of The Beatles’ Let it Be with fierce concentration. she_conducts The audience applauded her wildly, for her courage more than her conducting prowess, and she won the opportunity to conduct a second time, as part of a competition, with the winner of another trio of volunteers. Once again she took the stage, this time the song was O Sole Mio, which she’d never heard before, but she managed to wave both arms this time and finish to more wild applause, enough to make her the victor once again. She stood tall and proud on the stage, beaming broadly, surveying the audience that had crowned her, taking in the moment fully.

From the moment she ran up to the stage until she came back to hug me when it was all over, time stopped. I didn’t think about what we’d been doing before, I didn’t wonder about what would happen after. I stood in the back of a big round room, my eyes riveted on her, my hands cupped over my mouth, feeling nervous and surprised and delighted all at once. She grabbed that moment for herself and in turn gave me one, too. That and a little elbow nudge in the side about our old friend time. It’s too easy to focus on how fast time goes by, watching your children grow up. Better just to pay attention, while it’s all happening, which is when they remind you how to seize the day.


Mar 13 2014

Well Stocked

It’s been more than twenty years since I moved abroad, and yet there are still some American products so cherished that I import them each time I return from a trip to the states. You don’t realize how accustomed you become to certain products until, after trying the local version,bed_head_stack you start to get homesick for your favorite brands. People ask me what I miss about the states, and of course I reply first about the people I don’t get to see enough: my family, college friends, childhood buddies. But then I have to admit that I long for simple household items, like cotton swabs and dental floss. I’ve tried to buy those innocuous but useful items in my host countries, but nothing beats a Q-tip or a string of Glide floss. There’s a list of special American brands that I prefer, and so on each trip to the states I make a quick stop at the neighborhood CVS or Walgreens and pick up a stash of my favorite brands. Many friends who come to visit have played carrier pigeon to specifically named brands of maple syrup, peanut butter and a carefully described feminine products. Anyone flying east over the Atlantic, if they are willing, comes with some goodies to keep my inventory flush.

Since our move to Barcelona, I’ve been hit with a double-whammy. Now there’s a brand new list of French products I’ve come to rely on that either have inferior replacements in Spain or don’t exist at all here. I’ve spent the last few months hunting through different markets and pharmacies in my new neighborhood and further afield, hoping to find a comparable toothpaste or hair gel – don’t even get started with me about face creams – without satisfaction.

At first, it was just about stocking up. I’d come back from a quick 2-day trip to Paris with a fresh haircut and a suitcase topped off with the favorite soaps and spices. I liked having a stash of my favorite stuff under the sink, or in that top corner cupboard. I felt comforted by the presence of my familiar products. With each trip – I end up going to Paris almost monthly, just for a day or two – I’ll do a drive-by my old local supermarket and pharmacy, and even though I have three boxes of Marvis Italian toothpaste in the cupboard in Barcelona, I feel compelled to buy another. “Who knows when I’ll be back again?” I tell myself, even though I’ve already booked the plane ticket for next month. “I might as well get some more – just in case.”
marvis_in_multiple
With each trip, my inventory grows, which prompted me to initiate a conversation with De-facto about how one behaves in the context of scarcity and abundance, how I like to keep a healthy stash of my favorite supplies. Not that I’m wasteful, but that I like the abundance so I don’t have to skimp. I’m happy when there’s a reserve.

“That’s not about abundance,” he told me, “that’s about hoarding.”

If a stranger came to my home and looked in the cupboards under my kitchen and bathroom sinks, (s)he’d certainly sense the OCD quality of my acquisitions. You can tell immediately which products I covet because there are no less than four packages of each, and often more. And if I get down to just one on deck, I must admit, I get a bit nervous.

Is this how it starts, the wacky old lady bit? I remember, growing up, how there was an eccentric old man who lived in a big house and it was said he hoarded so many things you couldn’t even walk in the rooms. Most notable was his alleged possession of every issue of the New York Times since he started to read. I’m pretty sure this was an urban myth – or a rural myth, my hometown was pretty small – but the image of him stays with me, the way he shuffled down the street, newspaper in hand. Is this my future?

My mother had a little hoarder in her. She saved every issue of Good Housekeeping, from the time she started keeping house in the 1950s, labeled in cartons in the backroom, which at one point was impenetrable. She did a lot of just-in-case saving, but she lived in that big old house so why not? It’s certainly not the reason that prompted our move, but it’s been a fringe benefit: I cleared out a lot of clutter from our Paris apartment when almond_dish_soapI prepared it for our (heroic) renter. But of course if ask you him about this, he’ll laugh. There’s still a lot left, things I haven’t figured out how to part with.

But that’s the sentimental stuff. Now I have this new compulsion, like a mad squirrel stowing things away for the winter, to keep my cabinets filled with my favorite things from not only the states, but from France, too. Is this me holding on too firmly to the life I loved in Paris? Or just an obsession with good quality or familiar products not yet replaced in the new hometown?

I was in Paris last week, and I’m about to go to the states next week, so at the moment my tendency to hoard is at an all time high. But still, if you’re coming to visit us in Barcelona, from France or from America, do let me know how much room you have in your suitcase. I’ll give you a list of just what to bring.


Mar 4 2014

Into the Woods

Any lenses we were wearing – glasses or goggles – fogged up instantly when we trudged into the lodge. Wet, heavy snow dripped off our coats and hats. We’d been skiing nearly three hours and hadn’t intended to stop, except a small squall settled in over the mountain, its steady diagonal snowfall like needles against our faces. Hot chocolate was required, to warm our hands and take a break from being battered by the icy snow.

The lodge, a chalet-styled restaurant, was packed with diners at tables with plates of steaming food, croque-monsieurs and pomme-frites, thick pieces of red meat with creamy sauces. European skiers won’t miss their appointed meal times; a plus for flexible eaters like us who’d rather snack along the way and take advantage of the short lift lines that result while the rest of the mountain’s patrons are savoring their long lunches. Now we were in their midst, standing at the bar in the dark room, cradling our cups of hot chocolate, taking a restorative pause and hoping the snow would ease up.
girls_on_skis
It did. We gulped down our last sips of chocolate and clunked out of the lodge in awkward ski-booted steps to retrieve our skis and poles, laid against a wooden fence, and headed for the nearly empty lift-line.

We’d rotated in shifts all day, skiing as a family of four, and then De-facto would ski off to explore more demanding terrain, later returning to the two gentler hills that satisfied the girls. Then we’d ski a couple of runs together, all of us, before I’d get my turn to ski off and take a few longer, more challenging runs alone. It’s fun to ski with the girls and watch them get more confident. But how I love to ski alone, at my own pace, to stop when I want – or not stop at all – revived by a few precious, private moments at the top of the mountain. I was a ski-bum for a year in my early thirties, and all the freedom associated with that period of my life comes rushing back to me in an instant, just by sitting alone on the chairlift.

While I was off on my own, De-facto tried to inspire the girls to veer off the main piste into the woods, following tracks carved out by other adventurous skiers. The narrow trails snaked on and off the main slope, quick little jaunts in and out of the forest. For heartier adventurers, you could go deeper and find steeper tracks, one of them even over a bridge with a small jump. But if you stayed at the edge, close to the slope, it was a gentler risk, exhilarating enough for Buddy-roo, who daringly followed her father into the trees and out again.

Short-pants, though older, wasn’t quite as daring. It doesn’t help that her just-about-adolescent body is gangly and spindly. But she’s always had a different kind of physical coordination, and because of this tends to avoid sports in general. Just getting her out on skis is a bit of a trial. The night before we left, she cried because we were forcing her to go skiing. After three runs the first morning, she’d forgotten the burden we’d pressed upon her to enjoy this form of winter athletics, surrendering to its pleasure. But despite De-facto’s enthusiastic encouragement, she refused to follow them into the woods, preferring to do her standard snowplow snake back and forth across the main slope.

Our four-hour passes would expire soon – we’d gone for the shorter lift-pass thinking that the kids wouldn’t want to ski longer. In the end it was De-facto and I who were aching and exhausted and ready to call it a day. I’d skied fairly hard on my last solo turn, so I nodded at him to go off and take a last run on his own. I’d do one more with the girls and ski them over to the rental shop to return the skis and meet him there.

Except Buddy-roo wanted to follow her father into the forest again, so it was agreed she’d wait for Short-pants and me at the bottom by the lift so we could make our final ride up the mountain before our passes ran out. ski_pisteThen we’d take our last run of the day, down a different slope that would take us to the rental shop. The phrase, last run of the day, always sounds ominous to me. As a young child, my sister broke her leg on the last run of the day, so I’m always cautious about making this declaration, afraid to jinx one of us to such a casted fate.

Short-pants and I started out side by side, but I soon pulled ahead, making slow, wide arcs in the fresh snow. Halfway down, I stopped to wait for her. I scanned the hill for her distinctive helmet-worn-over-the-ski-hat (her choice to wear it that way), but she was nowhere to be found. I craned my neck in every direction, on the verge of worrying, until I saw her purple coat and her lopsided helmet…in the woods.

She was just above me, so I took a dozen giant side-steps back up the mountain to get closer to her. She was stopped in her tracks, considering how to navigate forward. From where I stood, it looked like she had a choice to veer out of the woods fairly easily and ski to me, or she could continue on the trail into the woods, though then the route out would be steeper.

“Look at you, in the woods!” I shouted. I wanted to encourage her for taking the risk, though I wished she’d have done it with her father so he could coach her through it. “Hey, why don’t you take the next path out. We’ve got to get down and meet your sister.”

Either she ignored my advice or she was unable to turn her skis in the heavy snow. Although she wasn’t going fast, she was going deeper into the woods and the further she went, the ridge between her and the main slope grew steeper, as did all the little exit paths. When she realized this, she froze.

I checked my watch. Buddy-roo was no doubt waiting for us by the lift, wondering where we were. I knew our lift passes would run out soon, too, which wasn’t the end of the world except then we’d have to ski a good distance cross-country style – never fun with the girls – before walking up a steep hill to get to the rental shop.

“Come on out!” I yelled, cheerfully. “You can do it.”

She inched forward until she came to the next set of tracks leading out of the woods. When she tried to turn, her skis got caught in the heavy snow and trees_on_canvasshe fell over, landing with her skis above her. I watched her struggle to lift them; they were buried under the snow. I called to her, coaxing her to move her body above the skis so she could lift them and position herself to stand up. She couldn’t move. She didn’t have the strength.

I snapped out of my bindings and walked up into the woods to where Short-pants was laying in the snow. I couldn’t get her untangled, so I snapped her out too and we walked out of the woods, carrying her skis, back down to the slope. But now the bottoms of her ski boots were caked with packed snow, and we were still on too much of an incline to balance on one foot and scrape it off. Getting back into her skis was turning out to be a chore.

It was starting to snow again, hard. I took out my phone – De-facto and I had been texting each other to choreograph our meet-ups all day – and called him to tell him to go back to the lift and get Buddy-roo, who by now was either angry with us or terrified that we’d forgotten her. It was a stroke of luck to reach him, he’s not an always-answer-the-cell-phone kind of guy.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Short-pants kept repeating. She could sense my exasperation, without me saying a thing. She was on the verge of tears and the whole ordeal had exhausted her. I kept assuring her it was all okay, but my voice was tired, making my words hard to believe. We walked up to a more level part of the slope, where she could find her balance and we could fuss more easily with her skis and boots. Just as I managed to scrape the snow off her boots and clamp her back into her bindings, De-facto and Buddy-roo called to us from the chairlift passing overhead. Short-pants waved back as I put my skis on and shuffled up right beside her.

“My little wood nymph,” I said, planting my poles in the snow so I could let go of them and put my arms around her. “You ready to ski down?” She cracked a reluctant smile, chuckling at her new nickname.

We took off down the mountain, both of us skiing directly to the front of the lengthening lift line. I begged the pardon of a family about to enter the two_pairs_of_skiselectronic gate, explaining that our passes were about to expire and we needed to get up one more time in order to ski down to the other side of the mountain. The turnstile blinked green, letting us through. We inched forward as the chair came around behind us, scooping us up as we thumped back into it, with relief.

Swinging in the air, meters above where she’d been stuck in the snow, I asked her why she chose that moment to go into the woods, instead of going in with her father.

“I guess I just wanted to go on my own,” she said. “You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”


Jan 5 2014

The Adaptation

The nose of the plane dips under the cloud cover as the pilot makes an announcement, first in Spanish and then in French, alerting us that we are preparing to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. I watch the patchwork of fields growing larger beneath us, buildings and roads coming into focus as the plane descends. In the airport, the familiar chimes of Air France alert passengers to upcoming flights. I breeze by the luggage carousels, confidently pulling my rollaway behind me. I know my way through this airport by heart. Earlier this morning I got turned around in the Barcelona airport, a beautiful, modern and efficient hub still foreign to me; I walked in a circle twice before finding the hallway to my gate. At CDG I easily found the escalator to the RER train and made my way into Paris, nearly sleepwalking, as though it’s a commute I make every day.
eiffel_tower_rosey
It’s become a commute I make every month. Since we have moved to Barcelona last September, I have returned to Paris four times. Each time with an explicit reason, or at least a good enough excuse: a meeting with a potential client, a check-up with a doctor or a dentist appointment. I manage to plan enough in advance to get reasonably priced tickets, or to include the leg in a trip elsewhere at negligible cost to the client. Each time in Paris I attend to essential personal errands, see a friend or two and, most important, I get to walk down my street and around the corner toward my favorite local café where I am always welcomed with gusto. If the corner stool is empty I can happily sit there for hours and chat with the barmen and nod at all the regulars who come and go. This, for me, is a perfect moment. Some people get their bliss from meditation or from the endorphins of exercise. It happens to me when that corner stool is mine and from it I can watch the world go by.

~ ~ ~

When the girls were babies we enrolled them in the halte garderie, a state-subsidized nursery service that takes care of babies as young as 6 months. We waited until the girls were a year old, but took advantage of this quality, cost effective care option for several afternoons each week. It meant we could put the kids in the company of other children, and with native French speaking caretakers. It also allowed us to begin to understand the system of childcare and schooling in France.

Some mothers are sad about putting their children in someone else’s care. I couldn’t wait to drop them off and have a few hours to myself. Since it wasn’t an all-day-every-day routine, I wasn’t afraid of “missing” any stage in their development. For me it was a chance to take a shower and brush my teeth in peace, or grab a few hours in my studio to scratch out a few pages of my manuscript. We weren’t eligible for the crèche, which is reserved for parents with full-time jobs. The halte garderie and its twice or thrice weekly schedule was all we could get, but we took it.
colored_handprints
You had to tow the line there: parking a certain way in the room designated for strollers, donning the obligatory shoe covers before entering the playroom – too often I found them still over my shoes out on the street on my way back home – keeping to the correct time for dropping your child off and retrieving them at the end of your morning or afternoon session, tolerating the snooty director who’s name I always managed to mispronounce. And then there’s the system of adaptation – how you got your kids started at the garderie, which is meticulously regimented.

The initial visits lasted only an hour, and a parent is required to stay the entire time and sit and play with her child. This way the little being gets accustomed to the new environment and new playmates with a familiar and comforting parent close by. After two visits, you bring your child and stay with them for 15 minutes – and then you leave, but only for 30 minutes or an hour, so the child is there without a parent for only a short time. Each successive visit the parent’s disappearance is extended, until after about two or three weeks it becomes just a matter of dropping off and picking up four hours later. It makes perfect sense to ease the children into their day care situation and though it doesn’t eliminate drama – both Short-pants and Buddy-roo cried for 20 minutes after we left the first few times – it probably minimizes the pain and anyway it just seems kinder and gentler.

I used to love the pick-up at the end of the day – not that I was always ready to shift back into mothering gear, I could always have used a few more hours – but because I could peek in the window and watch the kids playing and being their own little selves without interacting with me. I’d stand there for 10 minutes observing them bob around with the other bobble-headed toddlers. And then, of course, once I walked in and they’d look up and see that the parent who’d just arrived was there to fetch them, this exclamation of glee always so affirming. Parenting is a shit-load of work but those wildly enthusiastic greetings are part of the payoff.

~ ~ ~

Remarkably, Short-pants seems to have adapted the quickest to Barcelona. In Paris, her classmates indulged her quirky, introverted habits, but she was often the target of some teasing by older kids in the courtyard. I worried about how she would fare in the new school. We talked about what behaviors might have caused the kids to pick on her, and how with this move she had a chance to deliberately re-think them.

“Mama, I understand the consequences,” she said, “but I like walking around the courtyard talking to myself.”

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I didn’t. But she must have internalized a little bit of our conversation because I think she’s not doing the things (as much) that attracted the teasing and in fact has made a real effort to extend herself and make new friends. She’s even part of a small “gang” of girls, much different than her social life in Paris. She’s plunged into the new languages and excelled at school; this semester she landed her best report card ever, with felicitations. (In a French school system, that’s really good.)
walkin_in_the_woods
De-facto, too, has taken an immediate shine to our Barcelona life. The location suits him. Unlike in Paris, where we were in thick of things urban, our new home is in a quieter part of the city, and just 100 yards from nature. Nearly every day, he hops on his mountain bike and peddles up the steep hill to the Carretera des Aigües, a winding dirt trail where you can walk, run and bike with a full view of the entire city and the Mediterranean sea beyond it.

Then there’s Buddy-roo, for whom the jury is still out. Because she’s usually brimming with energy and life, it’s easy to forget that she’s actually a bit shy when she first encounters new people and things. I wouldn’t classify her as miserable; she has made a few good friends and she’s thrilled about the bunk beds in her room in our new home. But Buddy-roo’s the one who misses Paris the most, her friends there, her last year’s teacher – even though she wouldn’t be her teacher this year – our neighbor’s dog and her rock band.

“Nobody asked me if I wanted to move to Barcelona,” she says, in those moments when she’s feeling particularly low. We actually did ask her, and she was very enthusiastic. I reminded her of this, but it didn’t seem to help her mood much. Now I just shrug and draw her close for a hug. No use trying to talk someone out of their feelings.

~ ~ ~

My monthly visits to Paris are sort of a reverse adaptation. It would have seemed brutal to be cut off from my Parisian life completely, to have packed up all of our things and cleared out, closing the door abruptly on that long and lovely chapter. The fact that I can stick my toe back in the Seine every once in a while, see friends, speak French, eat a real croissant, stock up on my favorite French products, take care of my hair, and sit at my favorite bar in the whole damn world makes it easier for me to adjust to my new life somewhere else. I don’t really miss Paris, because I get to go back regularly. I probably should take Buddy-roo with me on one of these visits, to ease her transition, too.
sagrada_in_tiles
Eventually, if Barcelona is a place we decide to stay, I’ll be compelled to find local doctors and a dentist and an aesthetician. Surely there are capable practitioners there. One day I may have to ween myself from the artist who cuts my hair every trip to Paris. That will be harder; he’s given me a distinctive look and I trust him like no other hairdresser I’ve known. Replacing my favorite bar is probably the tallest order, and may never happen. But there are still plenty of fine watering holes around Barcelona and maybe someday one of them will even feel like “mine.”

For now, I like straddling the two cities, exploring the new options and opportunities that Barcelona offers me while staying connected to the rituals of my Paris. Keeping the thread to my old home is comforting, and makes for a nearly painless transition. I know on some level I won’t have fully embraced our life in Barcelona until I let go. But for now, I guess, I’m still in the middle of my adaptation.


Dec 22 2013

Not that (Christmas) Mom

It must be disappointing for my daughters, how I am not particularly adept at motherly school functions. I’m not the one who volunteers to organize the parties and send emails around about baking goodies. I’m not the cheerful enthusiastic I’ll-make-costumes mom. I love those moms, headless_with_palmI’m so glad they are exist at our school. But I’m not one of them.

Call me the do-we-have-to? mom or the oh-not-again mom. Each time I get a notice about a school event or activity that requires parental assistance, I groan. It’s not that I’m not delighted by the extra-curricular school events that break up their mundane scholastic routine. I want those things to happen, and in technicolor. I just don’t want to have to do them.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I think many of us pitch in because we know we’re supposed to. It’s not that we want to be doing it, rather that we want to see it being done. But it’s taboo to say so out loud.

I could blame it on the new school. Just as the girls have had to forge new friendships here, I, too, need to put in the effort to make friends with the other mothers. This is happening to some degree: a bit of small talk waiting at the school pick-up, the exchange that happens when dropping a kid off for a play date or to work on a school project, the friendly women I’ve met at monthly coffees. But all these relationships are nascent, and still awkward. I miss what had become effortless in Paris where the school activities didn’t feel like a burden and there was always the invitation to go for a beer afterward, to catch up with pals while doing our parental duty.

But even though I may have relished the social aspect, I’ve always felt inadequate at these school functions. I’m the mom who hasn’t managed to buy the right school supplies or who doesn’t have the time to go across town to get that one book that’s on-order so my kid has to look on with another student and work from photocopies. I’m the mom that misses the parent meetings because I’m out of town on a trip or I have a conference call or because I didn’t see the note in my daughter’s cahier de correspondence. I’m the mom who doesn’t come to the Christmas choral concert because I didn’t understand that parents were invited, the mom who doesn’t quite understand the system, and manages to figure it out just a bit too late.

It’s always comes down to this: living up to the elusive perfect mom. I can picture her. When I was in my twenties imagining myself as a mother I looked just like her. Cheerful at breakfast in a business suit, shooing my heirs out the door to school and going to work, leaning in all day but simultaneously plugged in to the little lives of my children, scrutinizing their school, up-to-speed on all the goings on in their extracurricular lives. I turned out, instead, to be a lot sloppier. I’m much better at leaning back. And while I’m there, I tell myself I really should do more. I could do better.

~ ~ ~xmas_snowglobes

You know what kind of mom I am? The I-hate-Christmas mom. Every year I proclaim, to myself, and here on this blog, how I dislike what Christmas has become. I’m disturbed by the ubiquitous commercialization of the holiday. Each year it starts earlier and there are more useless things to buy not because they are special or thoughtful but because there is a marketing engine prodding us to buy more. Store shelves are stocked with unnecessary decorations and novelty gifts that have little to do with the spirit of giving and even less to do with the birth of Jesus. Except crèches are a big deal here in Catalunya, but then, of course, there are hundreds of different figurines to buy – some of them in scatalogical poses – to add to your standard manger scene.

I know we aren’t forced to buy any of this merchandise, but I hate that it’s ubiquitous. I hate that it feeds an insatiable desire in Buddy-roo, who is overwhelmed by all the gadgets on the shelves, screaming at her to want them.

Maybe I don’t hate Christmas. I do love the Christmas that we create in our family. I’m just repulsed by much of the Christmas that goes on outside our door. We try our best to keep the holiday grounded, the promises embedded in our responses to the girls’ wish-lists are carefully crafted to create reasonable expectations of the loot that Santa might bring. Though now that they know who Santa really is, they don’t buy the “Santa can only carry so much on his sleigh” argument. I keep pointing toward the family traditions. We unwrap the ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper – the same paper that my mother wrapped them in for decades – and tell the story of that angel, or that red ball with my name on it, or the ugly silver lantern-shaped ornament that always hung on the tree, albeit in the back. We have our open-one-gift-the-night-before tradition and our Bloody Marys on Christmas morning, our one-at-a-time gift opening marathon that lasts all day, and sometimes even for days as we like to take a break to stop and relish the first presents we’ve opened. There are traditions from De-facto’s family and from mine, forged into the rituals of our nuclear family, and this is what I hope my children will remember years from now. Not that they did or didn’t get the Barbie house with its own elevator (they didn’t) but that we laughed and did Christmasy things together, whether that was making cut-out cookies at home, or going someplace exotic to treat ourselves to a family Christmas adventure we could share together.

Despite my self-proclaimed deficiencies as a mother in matters of school activities, I will take credit for my resilience carrying on a certain ritual: the baking and decorating of the Christmas cut-outs. Each year as I cream the butter and sugar that cutout_cookieswill make the dough, I nod upwards at my mother who would no doubt be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at my adherence to both the tradition and her recipe. It’s a demanding process: the rolling out the dough to the right thickness and maximizing the cut-outs from each batch – using her original cookie cutters – and baking them just enough, pulling them out of the oven before they brown. Then there’s the icing, though mine is made with butter instead of Crisco – what was in that anyway? – as her carefully typed recipe card called for, and the preparation of the sugar for decorating. Two drops of food coloring in petri dishes of granular sugar, ready to be spooned on to the freshly frosted cookies. When I was little there was a definite rule to how these cooked were sugared. Angels were blue and yellow, Christmas trees were green, stars were yellow. Santas were sprinkled with red sugar and the bells were done up in blue. I suggest this guideline to the girls but never enforce it. They have too much fun designing their own color combinations. And in the end, they all taste the same.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t rain much in Barcelona but unfortunately it was raining last week on the day of the school’s Marché de Noel, which is a shame because the palm-treed courtyard is expansive and would have been a lovely venue for this Christmas market. But due to the rain, everything was scrunched together under a smaller covered area. I could feel the dread rising as I walked to the school, the rain dripping down off my umbrella. I gripped tight the Tupperware of cut-out cookies I’d brought to be sold at Buddy-roo’s class table. I wanted to be going anywhere but to this event where there’d be a hundred wild kids running around, amped up on sugary Christmas snacks, and table after table of items made by students that I’d be compelled to buy to support their effort but would end up cluttering my home and breaking any vows I’d made about buying unnecessary items just for the sake of Christmas. I disliked this activity at the other school, where I knew everyone and had my posse of moms to hang with. Going now as the new mom who hasn’t yet been integrated only made me feel more isolated.

I’m always a little lonely at Christmas. Even though it’s a time when world quiets down for the day and we cocoon as a cozy family. Even though I’m with the people I love most in the world, I always feel a little disconnected. Maybe it’s the pressure to have a lovely Christmas, when the truth is it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s walking in and out of store after store looking forSanta_Buddha something meaningful to give to people who already have everything they need, and feeling fatigued and uninspired, just ticking off the boxes. Maybe it’s that song, the one I heard too often the Christmas my father died that takes me back to that sad, disappointing holiday. Maybe it’s every Christmas that passes without my mother’s newsy year-end letter – the one I used to roll my eyes at but now I’d give anything to read it – or my grandmother’s homemade rhubarb pie. The holidays are supposed to be happy, even if they’re not.

But you can’t wallow in Christmas sorrow with kids around; their expectation for joy is a big, fat, red wake-up call. So I snap out of it and dance around the Christmas tree, break out the paper and start wrapping, and roll out another batch of cookies. Or I just grab Buddy-roo’s hand and march into that schoolyard Christmas market, head high, whistling a familiar carol, and watch her marvel at the lights, the music and the shiny offerings laid out at the gift stalls, eyes bright and wide, taking in what is, for her, all that she loves about Christmas.


Nov 17 2013

In Other Words

She stood at the foot of the bed, pleased with herself. Short-pants had just brought in two cups of coffee with frothy milk for De-facto and me. Some traditions have been carried from Paris to Barcelona, Sunday morning coffee-in-bed service the best among them.

“Are you ready for the word of the day?” She shifted her weight from her left foot to right foot and back, her quirky gesture when she’s nervous or very excited. Today because she was excited; she loves her new job, augmenting our Spanish vocabulary.
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Tijeras.”

De-facto and I, obedient pupils, repeated the word, in tandem.

“Know what it means?”

We sipped our coffees, waiting for the answer. She gave us a clue. “At the end of knitting, you need them.”

“Knots?” I asked.

She shook her head. Using her fingers, she made a cutting motion.

“Scissors!”

“Yes. And do you remember yesterday’s word?”

Derecha,” De-facto shouted, exaggerating each syllable. It’s a bit of a caricature, his foreign accent, which is the same whether he’s speaking French or trying out Italian or Spanish.

Derecho,” Short-pants corrected.

“Right,” he said, “derecho.”

!” She beamed.

We ran through all the words we’d learned this week, courtesy of her tutelage: reloj (watch), bigote (mustache), roncar (to snore), hombro (shoulder, not to be confused with hombre, man or hambre, hunger) and a personal favorite: semafaro (traffic light). She stood at the edge of the bed smiling at us, our proud teacher, pleased with our progress.

It doesn’t surprise us that Short-pants is the purveyor of words and language in our household. She is the most avid reader, reading and re-reading several books a week. Her trophy from last year’s spelling bee victory is a prized possession, one of the few personal objects she brought from her Paris bedroom. At school she’s plunged into both of the local languages, Castellano and Catalan, and she’s always happy to practice with us.

Her sister, Buddy-roo: not so much. Sometimes I’ll initiate a conversation with her in Spanish and she’ll bark at me.

“Mama, I don’t speak Spanish!”

Her resistance doesn’t trouble me. It’s all around her and she’ll pick it up. One day she’ll just let it rip, and she’ll speak it better than all of us.

I’m far from fluent. My three years of high school Spanish (and embarrassingly, two years in junior high before that) are buried somewhere deep in my brain. Little by little, phrases and grammar constructions seep to the surface, triggered by the day-to-day Spanish that surrounds me. My annual jaunts to Pamplona and the trek on the Camino last year have helped only a little. I have miles to go before I speak Spanish comfortably or articulately.
persona_de_pocas_palabras
I have my excuses. A heavy itinerary of professional travel this fall has made havoc of any routine I might have tried to establish in our new home city. It’s hard to keep up with the regular demands of life – most of them administrative – with this kind of travel schedule, let alone making time for consistent language instruction. I can navigate at the market and handle simple restaurant encounters with barmaids and waiters. Last week I successfully deposited money in the bank, bought stamps and took my sweaters in to be dry-cleaned. But I can’t convey who I am or what know in this language, and I’m still lost when I have to speak it on the telephone. This is when I ask myself why do I do this? Why do I choose to live in a place, once again, where I have to start from scratch – or nearly from scratch – to speak the language?

It doesn’t take me long to get to the answer. When given the choice between easy and different, I usually choose different. Although some might argue that Spanish isn’t such a different language, and what I should be studying is something not so easy, like Mandarin. But my goal is to get truly operative in Spanish, and to open that door for our daughters as well. Madrid or any other Spanish city might have been a better place for that, given the Catalan bias here, but it was Barcelona that called to us, and so here we are, struggling one word at a time, to put our thoughts and feelings into other words from other languages.