Sep 20 2013

Homing In

We went from being homeless to holding the keys to three apartments. The friend who loaned us our first temporary apartment in Barcelona decided to delay her return – for romance – so we didn’t have to rush out of her place. We moved to a second temporary apartment, but I still needed to return and pick up a few things I’d left at the first one and give it a good cleaning. chairs_in_salonThe signing of the lease on what is our official apartment was a friendly procedure, though De-facto and I took our time and scrutinized the fine print. We’d waited an extra weekend to move in, we figured our new landlord could take an extra hour or two to make sure we understood all the terms of the lease. I walked out of that meeting with three sets of keys jangling together in my purse.

We have a found a place to live.

We have just enough mattresses to sleep on. There are not quite enough chairs. Those at the dining table get moved to our desks during the day, to the girls’ work-table when it’s time for their homework and back to the table for dinner. The dishes and cooking utensils that came from Paris are just the basics: plates and bowls and cutlery, a few fry-pans and pots, a soup/pasta boiling pot and a casserole dish. The only glasses I brought were wine glasses. I’ve made a few purchases to equip the kitchen, but otherwise we’re living lean until we can make the next trek to Paris and return with more of our dishes and cooking tools. The new cupboards are slowly getting stocked with food, but still seem bare compared to those in Paris, stuffed with bags of lima beans and boxes of rare grains and spices left by friends and guests. I can never bring myself to throw those food-stuffs out, convincing myself that maybe I could use that 4-year old bag of red beans for a winter stew that somehow never materializes. It’s rather nice to be liberated from the cramped cupboards and old boxes of dated food. Though there are adjustments to be made: food shopping is different in our new neighborhood. The products are unfamiliar, the stores are smaller and sparser, the hours of operation, slightly inconvenient.

I knew that even after we found an apartment, even after we moved in, there would still be tests. You can’t get internet service until you have a bank account. In order to get a bank account, you need a special number. Actually you can get a bank account without that number, but you still need that number in order to get internet service, or anything else for that matter. But you have to make an appointment on-line in order to get a special number, which you can’t do, if you don’t have internet. None of this is a surprise. The same conundrums and catch-22s existed in Paris when I first moved there, and are endemic to any bureaucratic system, anywhere in the plugged_inworld. You have to home in on the key obstacles and figure out how to overcome them, one at a time. In our case, kind Canadian neighbors below us with boosters on their wifi are generously loaning us their signal until we can get our own.

There is a constant churn, the feeling of going around again and again without making progress. My inefficiency astounds me. Destabilized by our busy departure and the uncertainty that plagued our first weeks here, I am too slowly getting my bearings in this new city. The temporary quality of our life is palliated now by the fact that we did manage to get the apartment we loved and have moved our two van-loads of possessions out of storage and into our new home, but we are still far from settled.

These days I long for the Camino. That bliss of nothing to do each day except walk from here to the next place, a place designated solely by my whim or fatigue. Late, quiet afternoons to write, read, rest without any obscure children’s school supplies to buy in a foreign language in a city you don’t yet know by heart. Everything slow and deliberate, one boot in front of the other. It was easy, then, to be centered and calm.

It’s been harder to keep that spirit in the midst of finding a home, still a challenge as we work to set it up, all the while trying to be empathetic to the girls as they adjust to their new teachers with new classmates and new languages. I am afraid I’m failing on that front. I pick the girls up at school and ask the right questions, but I’m not always fully present with them, not really hearing their answers. There’s too much chatter in my own brain, keeping track of the tasks I have before me, my own professional obligations to address while still running about the city opening bank accounts, buying shower curtains and drinking glasses, returning again and again, and again to the Vodaphone store to activate a Spanish phone number that for some reason refuses to function and yet despite that, has a contract that cannot be cancelled. The dirty clothes were piling up and I couldn’t find a single laundromat. Another trip out the door with the Visa card in hand, a new washer and dryer finally delivered yesterday, the washing machine has been churning ever since.

This morning Buddy-roo complained of a stomachache. She averted her eyes, making that face she makes when she wants me to know she’s unhappy. Yesterday she went to the nurse’s office at school because of her tummy. I don’t think she’s faking it – though that’s not beyond her – I think it’s the stress of a new school and a new environment. Short-pants appears to enjoy the new school more than her sister, but she still has frequent melt-downs. Yesterday she couldn’t find her Spanish classroom, and became so upset that the surveillant at the school office made her sit down and have a cup of tea. The day before, she stayed after school for theater only to discover the class wouldn’t start until October. She left the building so flustered that she got lost on the way home.

Last night the full moon streamed through the shutters of my window, painting short stripes on the floor beside the bed. There were some noisy kids outside. The moonlight was too bright, or its energy was tugging at me. I laid awake, restless, or worried, or overtired – or all of the above, wondering if I would grow to regret this decision to move. I slid out of bed and into the living room and sat in the dark, in one of the comforting green armchairs that used to be in my mother’s house. I listened to the night noises of our new apartment and thought about the night noises of our place in Paris, the death-rattle of our on-its-last-leg refrigerator, the scampering of mice from underneath the cupboards, the sound of our neighbors on their joy_doorcreaky staircase. Funny how I miss those noises. I miss my life in Paris.

But that’s part of the ride. It’s easy to focus on all the bits that are difficult about moving house and moving to a new country. I’ve done this before and I know that I need to keep my eye on the prize, to remember what happens if I keep looking the right direction: new friends and expanding experiences. I need to start homing on what’s in store for us here, all the things that are new and possible, and just around the corner.


Sep 8 2013

Finding your Place

The huge green gate swung open and the dozens of moms and dads, congregated to fetch their children after the first day of school, plowed into the courtyard. The children stood in a clump, all of them slightly hunched over from the weight of backpacks that contain every school book they own. The first parents through the gate created a tall wall that made it nearly impossible to find your own in the mob of children waiting to be claimed. I paced back and forth behind the crowd of parents, craning my neck to locate Buddy-roo. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t find her, but more concerned that she would panic not having been found. The school is so much larger than our little corner primary school in Paris. There were so many kids, and as many adults. I stood for nearly ten minutes looking for her.

Then that moment. It happens at every school pick-up, and warms my heart each time. It was ten times more robust on this day, the end of her first day at a new school. I saw her and she saw me and her face exploded into a huge grin. My whole body sighed with relief. She’s happy. It went well. She inched through the swarm of people to reach me.

“I made five friends today!”

She is a voraciously social creature; achieving new friends is her measure of success.
paris_in_heart
“And I love my teacher!”

I didn’t expect her to have difficulty, but I know it’s not easy, adjusting to a new school and a new life in a new city. That morning, standing outside the school with her, I felt as though we were alone in the sea of families greeting each other warmly, catching up with their friends after the long summer vacation. I pictured us in the courtyard of our school in Paris, where we’d be hugging our friends and chatting and laughing, all of it too loud and the directrice would have to remind us, repeatedly, to be quiet as she called out the name of each student. A sharp dagger of regret not to be there with our friends instead of here amongst these strangers. I let it wash over me, not accepting it, not fighting it either. In moments of unfamiliarity, the familiar always has a halo. You will find your place here, I told myself. So will they.

~ ~ ~

The van we’d rented was stuffed to the gills. Every space was used. Boxes and suitcases stuffed to the ceiling, rendering the rear view mirror useless. De-facto even unpacked some of the smaller bags I’d prepared, breaking my father’s cardinal rule of nothing without a handle – sage guidelines always appreciated when unpacking – and stuffed the girls shoes and T-shirts into the nooks and crannies. The front passenger seat was pushed so far forward that only Buddy-roo could sit comfortably in it. Half of the back seat was given to storage so Short-pants and I squeezed in the other half. We were like the Clampetts, riding toward Beverly Hills in an overloaded jalopy.

Moving sucks. Even if you have a moving company with a big truck coming to transport your life in cartons to your new doorstep, it’s brutal. I wanted to hire such a mover. I pictured those muscled men hoisting our boxes away and then miraculously appearing again at the other end to carry each box in, placing it where I’d point. De-Facto, being a scrapper, resisted the idea, reminding me not only of the unnecessary expense – we aren’t taking that much furniture – but also how when you have just a small load they try to pack you in with other larger shipments and you end up at their mercy. It took weeks to coordinate a delivery date for the small shipment from my mother’s house, about the same amount as we are taking to Barcelona, and it was not without surprise charges and additional headaches. So our plan: take a load of stuff with us, find our apartment, unload it and then De-facto would drive back to France for our second load, the pack for later load. Anything else could wait until the fall school holiday, when we could make a third trip to get any other longed-for items. The plan was not to move our entire home – we have a renter in Paris who’s counting on most of our furniture – but to take just what we’d need.
barcelona_road_sign
Things were going along according to plan. We hit the ground running, saw a fabulous apartment on the first day and three more very livable options the next. At each apartment we visited, Buddy-roo and Short-pants would run off to explore the bedrooms while De-facto and I inspected the main rooms and kitchen. They’d sprint back with a report on who’d claimed which room. They moved into every apartment, in their imaginations, instantly.

Then, last Monday, we found it. A slightly eccentric apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open against a balustrade, giving the effect of being indoors and yet on a terrace. It’s a duplex, too, so the girls can keep their upstairs universe, only this time with more headroom than in our attic apartment in Paris. De-facto and I have agreed, more or less, on the viability of all the apartments we’d seen, but now we turned to each other and it was obvious: this one. We made an offer – with the rental market as it is in Barcelona it wouldn’t be sane to pay the asking price – and negotiation started. On Tuesday we reached a verbal agreement. Conceivably, the contract could be signed mid-week and we could move in on the weekend, which would give us time to move out of our temporary digs and leave them in mint condition for the return of the friend who was loaning her apartment to us while she went to Burning Man.

On Wednesday the owner, our potential landlord, wanted more information, requesting financial documents that we never guessed we’d need and had left packed away. Our new tenant in Paris – fortunately a good friend – was heroic in his willingness to scavenge for these papers and scan and send them to us. This would delay the signing, but we still had time. That afternoon, however, the small side window of our van was smashed and we were robbed. In broad daylight. We’d had the sense not to leave our most important possessions in the van, there were just boxes of sheets and towels, toiletries, a large suitcase of De-facto’s clothing (I actually wish they’d taken that), some books and papers. There was nothing of demonstrable value except the one item we’d forgotten to bring in because it was hidden in a secret floor compartment that the thief managed to find: the small black bag with our video camera. I could care less about the camera, we stopped filming years ago. It was that all our cassettes were in the same bag. Every video of Short-pants and Buddy-roo, coming home from the hospital, kicking in their highchair, learning to walk, playing at the beach. All of them surely tossed in a garbage bin somewhere in Barcelona.

“It’s okay,” I consoled a tearful Buddy-roo. She’d been watching the videos just last week, relishing the images of her own childhood. “I had no videos of my childhood and but I still remember it was a happy one.”

It was time for Plan B. We moved everything that was left in the van into our tiny temporary apartment, and De-facto, worried that a stack_of_gripsvehicle with a broken window would only invite another theft, decided to drive it back to Paris, that night. He’d return it and get another van – a bigger one even – and on the way back he’d stop off at the country house to pick up a few pieces of furniture, returning to Barcelona on Friday. Our heroic friend and renter even volunteered to drive back with him; an extra muscle to move things, a co-pilot and relief driver, and in general good company. In the meantime, I’d sign the lease and we’d move everything in on Saturday.

Except on Friday, while De-facto sped down the autoroute toward Spain, I got a call informing me that the landlord wouldn’t schedule an appointment until he could review our tax returns, which meant not until Monday. I should mention that the night before I noticed that Short-pants was scratching her head and a close inspection confirmed that she had lice, and so did Buddy-roo. We were up until after midnight combing out their hair. The only saving grace is that the metal long-tooth combs and tea-tree oil were in the box of toiletries we’d been forced to bring in from the van after the theft. This, probably my lowest moment of the move, so far: operating on four hours of sleep, a van of our belongings on their way to Barcelona, another van’s worth of boxes and suitcases in our tiny temporary apartment that we needed to vacate before Sunday, and no apartment until at least Monday, or later.

I was never thrilled about plan B. I’d have waited until we signed a lease before making a trip back to Paris. But De-facto had valid reasons for pressing forward this way, and when he wants to get something done he’s tenacious. Or he trusts that if things go wrong, he can solve that problem later. It’s foolish, sometimes, what we get ourselves into. It does keep our problem solving skills in sharp order. It’s definitely not boring. But now I had to devise a plan C. There, on the ground, and fast.

I asked our real estate agent for a list of the best storage units, and with his advice, managed to contact one and make a reservation. I’d already been scanning Air BnB apartments to rent in case our homelessness stretched beyond the weekend. I sent a bunch of messages inquiring about places to rent for a few days, or up to a week. I met the girls at school and tried to be cheerful as I explained that we’d have to wait until Monday to find out about our apartment. I think they’re used to this “suspended” situation we are in; they just shrugged and asked for a snack.

~ ~ ~

Night fell around us as we sat on the balcony at the home of new friends introduced to us by our friend/tenant who’d accompanied De-facto to Barcelona with our things, new friends who’s daughter happens to be, by chance, in the same class as Short-pants. While we’d driven the van to the storage unit and unpacked it – how reassuring to see my grandmother’s two velvet fauteuils ready to be in our new home, wherever we make it – these friends cooked up a paella and set the table on their terrace. In the course of dinner conversation, we acquired the name and number of a cousin in Barcelona who has an apartment we can rent a day at a time until we get our own. A crisp glass of white wine, children playing together happily inside, the night air warm and easy, it felt like things had somehow turned around. A few angels here and there, a helpful friend, a generous stranger. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was just the wine: we even started to laugh at our own situation.
palm_trees
You learn a lot about your decisions when you think about undoing them. There’ve been many moments this week when I thought about how much easier it’d be if we’d just stayed in Paris. But after each flash of frustration or fatigue, I’d looked around and notice something like a palm tree in front of the school and remind myself that we came here for a reason, even if I don’t know what it is yet. As for the apartment: we like the other ones on our list well enough, but we love this one. The thought of not giving it one or two more days to come together feels short-sighted. Perhaps tomorrow things will fall into place and we’ll have a new home. If not, we’ll have to concoct a plan D.

As I write this, De-facto and the girls are in the other room, crowded around his computer, laughing out loud at a string of videos: two little girls singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” the kids playing poker with their uncle in the back yard of the country house, footage from our stay in Cambodia. As it turns out, he’d archived some of those early family videos on his hard drive. A few motion pictures of the girls’ charmed childhoods still exist. Seeing the videos reminds me of all the places we’ve been, how happy we’ve been in all of them, and how we just have to give it some time before we all find our place here in Barcelona.


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.
barcelona_gate
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.

.

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.
on_our_way_down
“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.
eiffel_towers
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.


Jun 24 2013

Surviving June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 30 2013

In-Flight Etiquette

She side-stepped through the aisle with a young child in one hand, another child in her arms, both her shoulders burdened with multiple bags: a purse, a carry-on, a diaper pouch, a bag of toys and books. The standing child, maybe four years old, stared at me with round, brown eyes. The carried child was kicking wildly and had already started to fuss. The woman inched toward her designated seats just as these precariously perched bags fell to her elbow and the child in her arm began to cry.
eye_up
Like many people, I roll my eyes when a family with kids comes down the aisle, willing them to continue past my row and far beyond to the nether regions of the plane. A beat later I remind myself what it was like, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo were young babies and we toted them with us to the states to see family or to go on some wild adventure. Short-pants took her first consecutive steps – becoming an official toddler – in the Charles de Gaulle airport lounge while waiting to board a flight to Johannesburg. De-facto and I were determined that having small children wouldn’t hamper our travel habit, so we were those parents, the ones dragging their children on flights to far-flung places, the source of many eye-rolls by many other passengers, I’m sure.

That’s how our girls learned to be good travelers. But even the best-behaved children reach a threshold on an airplane. I survived many long flights because of the kindness of strangers who’d entertain one child while I took the other back to the bathroom, or who just played peek-a-boo for five minutes so I could manage a few bites of my dinner. This is why, after I permit myself the inward groan with the rest of the passengers, I swallow hard and offer up a big smile that’s meant to entertain the child and reassure the parent. Or, as I did on last week’s flight when I discovered the woman with the two children in tow was seated behind me, I stand up and offer to help stow bags or distract the kids while the parents, already visibly exasperated, settle in.

~ ~ ~

The man sitting directly in front of me pushed his seat back so abruptly that my papers and books fell to the floor and I am certain that had my laptop been open on the tray, it would have snapped in half. My belongings spilled beneath the seat and across the aisle. He was oblivious to the chaos he’d created. I stood up to gather my things and tapped him on the arm.

“Sir,” I said, “You have every right to put your seat back, but it would be nice if you’d turn around and check with me first, so I could be prepared.”
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His grunted apology was half-hearted. But I’d won the respect of the passengers around us and after this I noticed several lovely social exchanges occurring, brief but civilized acknowledgments and non-verbal negotiation of your-space-and-mine prior to seats pushing back to a reclining position.

If I ran an airline I would make etiquette part of the flight attendant’s on-the-runway security announcements. I’d include a segment on how to share space in the overhead luggage racks, and how to remove bags from those compartments in a non-hazardous manner. It would include where to put your elbows and how to share a row with other passengers. It would also include extremely specific instructions about make eye contact with the passenger in the seat behind you before pushing your seat into a reclining position. I might also add this: Be nice to parents traveling with children; they feel worse about their crying child than you do.

(I’d also tell the pilot and the purser to be short and sharp with their intercom interruptions, especially if it has to happen in two languages. I don’t need a rundown of the duty free boutique specials, nor do I care to hear a long-winded explanation of our flight path. Just shut up please so I can get back to my in-flight movie.)

~ ~ ~

An Australian friend used to make a yearly trip back and forth between Perth and Paris with her young children. Once she and her husband were assigned three seats together and one solo seat ten rows further back. She’d asked a passenger if he would switch seats so they might sit in two pairs, one adult with one child. Her offer was an aisle seat for an aisle seat, and still, the young man refused to move.
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“Look at me.” She spoke politely, but insisted he make eye contact with her. “I understand that you don’t want to move, and that’s okay. But someday, if you ever have children of your own, I just want you to remember me.”

Ten minutes later he came up and tapped her on the shoulder and agreed to change seats.

I relish the lengthy, quiet privacy my trans-Atlantic flights permit, and I am so glad I don’t have to travel with toddlers anymore. But I open my heart to parents enduring long flights with their young children, and do my best to support them, even if it’s only with a smile to convey that I am not annoyed, even if maybe I would prefer not to have screaming kids nearby. It occurred to me too late on the last flight – but it might come in handy next time – I could help one of these frenzied moms by offering to take her fussing child on my lap, and let him kick away to his heart’s delight, right against the seat back reclined just in front of me.


Nov 24 2012

The Best Sandwich

Up until now, November 21st was a date I thought I’d never ever forget, the way you remember the birthdays of your siblings or a wedding anniversary. Every year, slouching into the shorter, darker days of November, I’d anticipate the anniversary and think about where I was and what happened – and what could have happened – on that day eight years ago. But this year, the day came and went without a thought of it. Not until yesterday, when I was describing to a friend what for me is the very best part of Thanksgiving: the turkey sandwiches the day after.

The day before Sunday, November 21, 2004, I kissed the girls goodbye, checked the long note I’d left for the babysitter and made my way to the airport to fly to New York. De-facto’s family was congregating for my mother-in-love’s 75th birthday party. Much preparation had been done, decorations, food and drink, a parody Playbill has been produced to honor her theatrical career. It wasn’t just the family who’d come for the event, a huge crowd of friends had RSVP’d affirmatively to attend the celebration.

The morning of the party, we learned, through a series of disturbing phone calls from Paris, that Short-pants had fallen into a coma. An ambulance had come and taken her to the hospital. A CAT scan and MRI had revealed a tumor the size of an orange in the right frontal lobe of her brain. Surgery was required, urgently.

“Could she die?” I asked my friend, who’d dropped everything to accompany Short-pants to the hospital. A long silence before she answered, “Yes, she could.”

Within hours we were on our way to JFK and back to Paris. You might imagine the agony of that overnight flight. A telephone conversation with the surgeon, competing with the boarding announcements, informed us that she’d survived the surgery, but the doctor didn’t sound optimistic. His words before hanging up, and he switched to English to be sure I understood, “You’ll want to come directly to the hospital after you land.”

Which we did. The news was grim. The MRI images horrifying, the foreign mass in her brain like a hurricane on a weather map. The surgeon believed it was a cancerous tumor, and he’d tell us how to treat it when the lab tests came back. Much of his medical terminology was too much for me to consume and comprehend, my brain at its breaking point from the cocktail of shock, fear and jet-lag.

~ ~ ~

The waiting room of the neurosurgical intensive care unit was a tiny windowless room with dull textured wallpaper and mismatched furniture. On every wall, children’s drawings were mounted in black picture frames, the subject matter and brush stroke typical kindergarten genre: houses with happy smoke puffing out of chimneys, round green tree-tops, bold yellow suns in the corner of every picture. This did little to cheer the parents who spent hours in that room every day, when the nurses would ask us to leave our children so they could wash them, perform some procedure or medical test. Waiting out a surgery – that was the worst to endure, and the hardest to witness. The look of worry and fatigue on a parent’s face in a moment like that is heartbreaking.

Two days after our first meeting with the surgeon, he came to find us in that waiting room. He motioned for us to follow him to an empty office nearby, asked the nurse who occupied it to leave, and ushered us in.

“It is a great mystery to me,” he said, “but this is not cancer.” According to the lab report it was an abscess, an infection in her brain. This was an entirely different prognosis. No cancer. No radiation. No chemo-therapy. It required a long antiobiotic treatment, but there was a 99% chance of full recovery.

We occupied ourselves at Short-pants’ bedside for all the hours that the ICU nurses would permit us to be at her side, even though she was in a coma. Getting a turkey was the last thing our minds and our neighbors – the same ones who had gone with her that terrible Sunday – knew this and invited us to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner. De-facto and I reluctantly left the hospital early and joined them. I remember staring at my plate, piled with turkey and all the obligatory trimmings, listening to the laughter of everyone around the table, reminding myself that I had much to be thankful for: that the babysitter called the ambulance in time, that the surgeon had saved Short-pants’ life, that the illness she struggled with was not fatal and that she would recover – a miracle, given how perilous her condition had been just four days before.

But she was still in a coma, still in a lonely hospital room, and there were still so many questions. What caused it? How long would it take for the drugs to work? Would she have any brain damage as a result of the trauma? Would she be different? I was relieved for what I had to be thankful for, yet my gratitude was tempered by worry.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the nurses came to fetch us from the waiting room with good news. Short-pants had moved her fingers. She was starting to come out of the coma. De-facto and I sat beside her, chatting with her, hoping she could hear us, feeling hope for the first time. When we were asked to leave her room so they could change the bandages on her head, we found our friends waiting for us with two large shopping bags filled with foil-wrapped packages. In each one, the perfect turkey sandwich: a blend of white and dark meat, leftover stuffing, cranberry sauce, all squeezed between two thick slabs of bread. The waiting room was packed with other parents, many of whom we’d come to know during the hours of waiting and wondering in that room. How quickly these bonds had formed, as we suffered together, waiting out long surgeries, reeling from the doctor’s reports, waiting for a the nurses to come call for us to return to our children’s bedsides.

There were dozens of sandwiches, so we passed them out, explaining the tradition of the American Thanksgiving and how the cold turkey sandwich is as coveted by some as the feast itself. For a moment, the long faces in the room lightened, and there was chatter and laughter, as everyone tasted the homemade sandwiches, certainly an improvement over the hospital cantine. My appetite during this hospital adventure was particularly un-vigorous, but I do remember enjoying that sandwich. Maybe I finally believed that Short-pants really was going to get better. Maybe it was breaking bread with some strangers who had become friends by way an intense shared experience in the waiting room of the ICU. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it was the best turkey sandwich I ever tasted.


Oct 7 2012

A Little Edgy

I know it’s not a becoming word, the f-word. I manage to avoid its use in the presence of clients. It’s harder to edit myself in the more relaxed company of close colleagues or at a bar with friends. Of course I try to refrain from saying it in front of my children, but often the bodies attached to those innocent ears are the source of irritation and rage that elicits the use of the very word I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid.

I suppose this is a serious #fail as a mother. Not that it’s so frequent; it’s still a surprise when it happens and the kids still look at me in shock. Of course I immediately acknowledge that I’ve used a bad word, apologizing and instructing them, please, not to repeat it. Inside I’m kicking myself because I know they’re likely to use it sooner because of my carelessness. I don’t mean to be a foul-mouthed mom. I never heard my mother using the f-word, ever. I think the worst curse I ever heard from her was Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, or maybe an occasional Oh shit. At least here’s one example of me not turning into my own mother.

The thing is, I like the f-word. It’s expressive. It’s fun to say. It starts off all furry. Then there’s a deliberately passionless vowel. And it ends with the sharp bite of ck. It sounds like what it means. I’m not so wild about its use as a verb, but as a general expletive, it’s unsurpassed in its efficient expression of annoyance. It is the pinnacle of curse words.

~ ~ ~

It’s usually the high point of the day for me, watching the Daily Show. After De-facto marches the kids out the door to go to school, I refresh my coffee mug and set myself in front of the previous night’s episode. Sometimes I’ll wait until he returns from the school-run to watch it. If it’s an especially busy day I’ll hold off until bedtime; tucked into our covers with pillows propped behind us, we’ll open my computer to the web page – living abroad we can only view the show via the Internet – and sit back for 20 minutes of funny.

He’s a hero of mine, Jon Stewart, pointing out the absurdities in the news and revealing the illogical policies and practices of Republicans. He makes fun of the Democrats, too, but these days there have been more reasons to ridicule the Republicans. Until this week, that is.

The girls had gone to bed; the house was quiet. I suggested a viewing of the Daily Show before lights out and De-facto agreed. The episode that opened for us was the one in which Stewart reported on the Presidential debates that had aired the night before.

Everything he said about President Obama’s lackluster performance was true. It was a stellar job of poking fun at the campaign and calling out the shockingly sedate stance of the incumbent candidate during this political exercise. De-facto was laughing out loud. I knew it was funny, but I couldn’t laugh. I was too agitated.

I remember when I was little, watching the I Love Lucy show. Lucy would get herself in such a pickle, I’d get too nervous and I’d have to leave the study, where we watched television, and run through all the rooms of the house, several times, ultimately ending up in the hallway sitting on the stairs too upset to return to the TV show. Even though I knew it was just a TV program, it wound me up too much. I had to physically leave the room.

“I can’t look at it anymore,” I told De-facto, before bounding out of bed. I paced around the kitchen and the living room, on edge, cursing. I let the f-bombs fly.

I thought everyone was asleep. I thought wrong. My string of obscenities prompted Short-pants to run down the stairs to see what was the matter.

“What wrong, mama?” She looked alarmed.

“Your future!” I screeched.

I walked her back upstairs and told her my fears about what might happen if President Obama wasn’t re-elected and why I think we need him now, perhaps more than ever. I reminded her of previous discussions we’ve had about women’s rights. I talked about the growing anti-science stance of the extremists in the other party. I tried to explain the impact on the Supreme Court if Mr. Romney were to appoint the next two justices. Thoughts of the latter, almost provoking another f-bomb out of me right there in her presence.

“But I don’t have to worry,” she said. “I live in France.”

“That might not always be the case,” I said, thinking of the modest but consistent donations I’ve started making to my alma mater just in case she wants to go to university in the States.

I’ve become rather invested in the Obama campaign. I haven’t donated just $5 or $41; I’ve attended fundraising events here in Paris that require writing larger checks, the most recent, a Paris fashion-week event hosted by Anna Wintour and Scarlett Johansson. (Mick Jagger even came by.) I worry, daily, about the outcome of the Presidential election. I read Politico and The Dish religiously. Nate Silver is my second hero, after Jon Stewart.

I went to sleep last Wednesday night hopeful for at least an uneventful debate, or at best, a trouncing of the challenger. Thursday morning I scanned the emails from all the news services to which I subscribe, each subject heading more discouraging than the previous. I felt myself shrinking, message by message, until I had to close my laptop computer. I couldn’t read any more. Nobody was home with me, so I just said it out loud without apology: fuck.

~ ~ ~

Last night at the dinner table, after some light-humored nudging about using silverware instead of fingers and napkins instead of sleeves, Short-pants, in a gesture of turnabout-is-fair-play, told our dinner guest, a school friend of Buddy-roo, about how sometimes I let a curse word slip out, and how the other night I was downstairs circling the kitchen island in the dark when I used the f-word. Everyone at the table looked at me like I was the crazy woman that I guess I am.

Some things you can’t lie about, so I owned up to my mistake. But following this political race so closely, I guess I’ve been learning a little about spin.

“Listen,” I said, “ten years from now you’ll think I’m cool. You’ll be able to tell your friends that your mom’s got a little edge.”

“That’s right,” Short-pants smiled broadly, showing the food in her braces. “I’ll say, ‘My mom’s a little edgy.'”

Yeah, okay, maybe not.


Sep 22 2012

The Devoir

I pressed my knees together and wedged them under the tiny desk, perfectly sized for a nine-year old but more than a tight squeeze for me. The other parents, their long legs jutting out into the aisle and chairs pushed back to accommodate adult-sized thighs and bottoms, looked just as uncomfortable. I suppose hosting the parent-teacher meeting in the children’s classroom gives us a sense of their day-to-day environment, but it does put parents at a disadvantage. Hunched over and stuffed into hobbit-sized furniture, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in school, cowering under the teacher’s strict supervision.

I remember in grade school, every year, on a night in early autumn, my parents would go to school after dinner for a meeting with my new teacher. During the day, we’d have been given a few minutes to arrange our books in our desks and we’d all work to tidy up the classroom. My father would always return from these meetings shaking his head with feigned disappointment. “Your desk was a terrible mess!” he’d say. The next day, I’d find my notebooks and papers turned sideways and mixed around, the handiwork of my father. Somehow I can’t picture his long legs bent under my primary school desk – I think it was more of a standing around, open-house kind of meeting – but I can picture the smile on his face while he was making mischief inside my desk to complete what was his very predictable annual prank.

These school meetings are important because you actually get to see and hear the teacher. French schools are very much drop-your-kids-at-the-door-and-stay-out-of-our-way. Last year, aside from the initial school meetings, Short-pants’ teacher never once spoke to me, and Buddy-roo’s rather humorless teacher and I had only a handful of exchanges, mostly about logistics. At these meetings you also get data that you might not otherwise pick-up, like how that sheet of paper that you thought was scrap and almost threw out is actually the assignment to research and prepare an oral presentation on Vikings, due next Monday. And with some assurance, you get to see that the other parents – even the fully French ones – are just as overwhelmed by it all as you are.

As the teacher described the work that would be required for each subject, I sank lower and lower in Buddy-roo’s already low-to-the-ground chair. The school meeting is like the door to summer slamming shut behind you. Gone are the blissful evenings of after-dinner walks for ice-cream and a family game of Mille Borne. Now our nights will be spent conjugating verbs, memorizing math tables and reading about Merovingians and Carolingians. The curious what-do-you-feel-like-doing-tonight? is replaced with the commanding fait tes devoirs. The word devoir means to have to, an auxiliary verb that means must or ought. When used as a noun, it can signify an obligation or a duty, or, as in this case, homework. Plenty of it, despite everyone’s complaints and the feeble call to ban it.

So far Buddy-roo’s devoir has been rather reasonable. But supervision is still required. Not so much on the three math problems due for tomorrow, but on the tricky “look-ahead” assignments: the test for next Wednesday which requires more than Tuesday night’s review, or the poetry every other week, which takes several evenings of practice to be able to recite by heart. It is still beyond the capacity of my 9-year-old to take responsibility for anticipating the due dates of these longer-terms assignments. As far as she’s concerned, next week is ages away.

Every evening, then, after a compact day of anticipating my own deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time, I find myself having to anticipate their deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time. I must survey Buddy-roo’s agenda and manage her homework, pressing her to start memorizing earlier rather than later, to cement her appreciation of Clovis and Pepin the Short and Charlemagne and to place them via historic timeline and accomplishment tonight, even though the test isn’t until next week.

Short-pants is more self-reliant, but she still needs nudging. Her speech on someone she admires wouldn’t have been completed in time had I not elbowed her, twice, to get started on the script. Her science report, identifying and describing the three types of tree leaves she was asked to collect, requires a decent amount of research and it was at my behest that she got started early. I get to be the raised eyebrow behind them both, with my new mantra, “I know it’s not due until next week, but you need to do a little every night…”

Some of the assignments seem, to me, beyond Buddy-roo’s capacity to be finished independently. Then it really starts to feel like homework for me. Maybe I should leave her alone, and let her sputter through and suffer the consequences of failing, but that’s not going to teach her how to do the assignment or help her learn the content. So I give in and help, always starting out as the facilitator, “Why don’t you read those paragraphs and then tell me how you’d summarize it in your own language?” Two hours later, I end up not-so-gently suggesting the answer so we can just get on with it and go to bed.

My greatest concern, beyond the burden this puts on me or De-facto, is the lack of time and freedom for them to imagine, invent and play. I remember coming home from school when I was in 4th grade and going for walks in the woods, playing with neighbors, making up stories and games, reading for pleasure. I rarely had homework at that age, unless it was a special report or project. My mother was happy to help because it happened once a month, not every night. My daughters, in contrast, sit at desks and work all day long, and then are compelled to use their evenings to do the same – and my evenings too.

I’m buoyed by the fact that Buddy-roo’s new teacher exudes warmth and compassion – a welcome change after the last year – and I think her classroom is going to be a much friendlier learning environment. But there are still a lot of musts that come along with the rules of a French classroom, so even though I considered re-arranging the books in Buddy-roo’s desk, just to mess the order up a bit and follow a family tradition, I decided, for her sake, I really musn’t.


Jul 5 2012

All that Bull

As promised, just after eleven o’clock, they arrived. I heard the signature barking-dog alert, and looked up from my barstool to see a round, blue bull pedaling by on a vélib’, the rentable bicycles in Paris. A few moments later, the Fiesta Nazi arrived with the robust bull at her side, and a small crew from Kukuxumusu, who’d come to film her because she’s been designated as this year’s Guiri del Año of San Fermĺn. It’s been thirty years that she’s been going to Pamplona, and it’s fitting that this honor, bestowed each year upon a favorite fiesta foreigner would go to her.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love, all donning red pañuelos, came to the café, along with a gang of other friends, to await their arrival. The Fiesta Nazi habitually avoids publicity, so assembling a familiar crowd at the bar helped keep it silly rather than serious. Not that a Disney-character-styled blue bull is that serious, but we showed up to make it feel like a party rather than an interview. The girls loved the bull, aka Mister Testis, and hugged him him like a long lost friend. When he finally de-costumed, they took turns trying on his head and poking each other with his horns.

De-facto had some errands to run, but showed up after the interview to say hello. He could not contain his curiosity about the bull costume, which was crumpled on the floor like a passed-out drunk after an all-night binge. He wanted to try it on. The Kukuxumusu guys did not protest at all, helping him slip his long skinny legs into the suit that was measured for someone not quite so tall as he, and turning him and zipping him up into the costume.

I looked on with admiration as De-facto appropriated the costume and ran out of the café to interact with people in the street. He has never been to the fiesta San Fermĺn. It has always been my annual week-away-with-my-girlfriends, and when I first started going, I needed that week away. Now it is not as critical to my sanity but the rituals have been put in place and he does not complain about the arrangements I make to go there. In recent years, I have more than hinted that he should come to Pamplona, too, even if just for a few days. So far, he’s opted to let it be mine, apart from the family. That he can leave the fiesta to me, and yet celebrate some of its foolishness when it happens to come close to home; this is just another reason to appreciate his role as my partner, and the long leash that I enjoy.

Buddy-roo, however, wasn’t delighted as I was by his willingness to try out the bull’s suit for a jaunt in the neighborhood. She burst into angry tears.

“No Papa, don’t!” She screeched at him and stomped her feet. “You look ridiculous!”

De-facto bolted out into the street, skipping down the sidewalk in the bulky blue suit, nodding at strangers, enchanting the passers-by who gawked and laughed, and taunting those who pretended not to notice that there was a foolish blue bull dancing down the street toward them.

~ ~ ~

The TGV from Paris to Hendaye is one of my favorite train trips. It’s the first leg of the voyage to Pamplona, slicing through the French countryside to the Spanish border. The days leading up to get on this train are never easy, I wind myself up getting the family packed and on the road to the country house, and my compulsion to get everything else in my life in order before I go doesn’t help. But the moment that my suitcases are stowed in the luggage rack, and I plop down in the crushed-velvet seat and heave a huge sigh of relief, then I know there’s only fun and fiesta ahead.

It’s always good to start the five hour trip with a nap, but eventually the legs need a stretching and there really isn’t any place to walk other than to the bar car. The train is divided into two sections, Zen and Zap; when you book your ticket you choose an ambiance. The Fiesta Nazi and I usually book a seat in Zen, because you can always get a little Zap by strolling to the bar car, though I must say we found it to be a bit too quiet for our mood. A little rosé later, we persuaded the barman to plug my iPod into the speaker on the bar, and raised the volume on a playlist of our Pamplona favorites. There were a few other people in the bar car, pretending not to notice that we had started dancing. Soon they left, but we kept dancing, because the music is the kind of music that compels you to dance and we were, after all, ramping up to go to one of the best dance parties in the world.

The barmen, amused by our impromptu party but unwilling to participate, went about their business cashing out the register, cleaning and clearing the bar of its inventory as we approached the last stop. We raised the volume and kept on dancing. This was of great interest to two pre-teenaged girls who’d come to the bar car for a soda and found instead a disco. They stood at a distance, watching us as if were from another planet. I danced my way over to them.

“This is what joy looks like,” I said to them.

It was then, dancing in the TGV bar car, the Fiesta Nazi and I turning and twisting and laughing at each other and not even caring what anybody thought, that I understood exactly why De-facto is so accommodating about my trips to to Pamplona. He knows that something happens to me while I’m dancing like a fool with my fiesta friends, something that makes me feel especially alive. He knows I need it, and he knows why. He gets it, and I will never take that for granted.

Moments later, the two girls returned to the bar car, holding their smart phones as if to be texting, but I suspected they were snapping photos or videos. I danced back over to where they were standing, which was as far away from us as possible.

“You can take all the photos you want,” I said, “but promise me that when you’re my age – and I’m fifty – you’ll let yourself dance in a train someday, just like this.”

They nodded their heads, agreeing. What else could they do?

~ ~ ~

Such foolishness will continue for days. In Pamplona, at noon on the sixth of July, the rocket will go off and church bells will ring and champagne corks will pop and the days and nights of the next week will be filled with more laughter and foolishness than most people get in a whole year. There is joy to be had – at the fiesta it’s called alegria – and nobody gives it to you or does it for you, and it probably won’t happen unless you’re willing to be foolish. And much to Buddy-roo’s chagrin, both her parents are absolutely willing, and that’s no bull.