Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
road_ahead_and_feet
“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
golden_gate
San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


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 31 2014

Who’ll Get the Dog Up?

The mornings have never been easy. When she was a little toddler, Buddy-roo always woke up way too early, crawling into our bed at a pre-dawn hour and rather than dozing back to sleep in my arms, like her sister, she’d kick and fuss until we got up and put her in the saucer in front of Baby Einstein. (This explains her affection for anything with a screen.) It’d buy us 45 extra minute of sleep, not an insignificant number in those early parental days with two young toddlers.

Now it’s nearly impossible to rouse her out of bed. The morning must be choreographed with a series of steps: an early whispered call, with gentle back-rub, repeated in-person visits to get her to rise out from under her alarm_clockscozy comforter. I’ve tried a range of approaches from cooing gently in her ear, using her stuffed animals and puppets to nudge her awake. I try not to holler up at her from downstairs – this is a last resort because though it eventually moves her from bed to the breakfast table, the cranky comportment she brings with her is the wrong way for all of us to start our day. I even tried playing her favorite band One Direction at full volume, a gesture which at 7:30 in the evening brings her bounding into the living room to dance before dinner. Though it got her out of bed at 7:30 in the morning, it wasn’t her best mood ever.

And she’s only ten. Given that the sleeping habits of teenagers are even more problematic, I am looking forward to several more years of nagging in the morning. Though Short-pants, months way from being 13, is much more self-sufficient in the morning, setting her own alarm, pushing herself out of bed and dressing efficiently. I often stumble out of our bedroom, yawning and tying the belt of my robe, to find her all dressed, sitting in the living room chair reading or knitting. On the weekends, she brings us coffee in bed. But offering this up to Buddy-roo an example is futile, the comparison will only be a dis-encouragement (her term, not mine) and cause her to bury her head under the pillow for ten more minutes.

~ ~ ~

She wants a dog. She’s been asking for one for years. In Paris, we had good reason to change the subject on this conversation; our top-floor apartment wasn’t really suited for a dog – at least not the kind of canine I would allow in our home. Plus it felt like taking care of two young girls was enough. I didn’t want another creature to feed and bathe and take out for walks, too.

Still she begged. Last year we offered it as a reward for getting good grades, figuring that given her temperament it was unlikely she could earn the reward, but if indeed it motivated her to perform then she’d truly deserve it. It’s not that I don’t want a dog. When I was little we had a loyal woodchuck hound, he was the best. I’m very fond of dogs as long as they’re bigger than cats. But pets are a mess and work, and didn’t I just mention that for me mothering two young girls was enough of that?

When our Parisian neighbor Lucy acquired a Shih Tzu and offered Buddy-roo the responsibility of walking the dog after school, it took the pressure off of us. It also gave us a chance to see how long it would take Buddy-roo to get bored with the dog, as well as the job, which is useful information. It turns out she has a very special rapport with animals, and she and the dog Pierre became fast friends. There were a few afternoons where she needed to be reminded about her duties, but most of the time it was her pleasure to take care of him. Since we moved away she longs for him, anytime she sees a Shih Tzu in the street she calls out his name. She even remembered his birthday and called Lucy to leave a message for him.

In Barcelona our apartment is a bit more spacious and somehow more suited to owning a dog. We’re closer to nature, too, with a big park across the dog_mailstreet and a mountainside of terrain just a two-block walk up the hill from our door. There are plenty of places for a dog to do what a dog’s born to do: run and play. So De-facto and I are warming to the idea. A lot.

Except we’d already put the acquisition of a pet up as an incentive, and we’d realized, too late, it was probably counter productive. We try to praise the girls by complimenting the work they do to achieve their successes, not just the good outcome. The carrot-and-stick we’d offered Buddy-roo was based on being conscientious about her work, but it was also about getting a specific result. And even though she’d rallied and done the work, her grades didn’t cut it. We probably set the bar too high. Or else we’d achieved our inadvertent objective, which was to get out of getting her a dog.

But if we get one now, it’s like rewarding her even though she didn’t meet the goal. Is this a case of we made our bed, so now we lie in it? Do we have to stick to the original plan and keep pressing her to get better grades? Isn’t there some kind of work-around? The imperfections of our parenting are humbling.

Thus a new challenge has been issued: she has to continue to demonstrate her effort to be responsible for her own homework, not necessarily to place in the top of her class or ace her tests, but to be conscientious about her work between now and the end of the year, AND, she needs to show us that she can wake up consistently in the morning without our badgering her – because it will be her responsibility to walk the dog in the morning – then we could bring a dog into our family next year. Presented with this pathway to a pet, she began to dance around the room, as though a nearly dead hope had just been revived.

She asked me later, using her cute voice, “On a scale of 1 – 100, what are the chances that we will get a dog?”

I explained that if she kept up with her schoolwork – if there were no more oh-no-mama-there’s-this-thing-I-forgot-that’s-due-tomorrow panics, if she did her homework without making it a big mishigas and did her best to do well in school – and if she’d demonstrate that she could get out of bed in the morning without delay and drama, that chances were very good.

“How good?” she said.

“It’s all up to you,” I told her, “to make it a one-hundred percent.”

~ ~ ~empty_bed

The mornings are getting easier. You can tell she’s working hard to change her rising habits. This morning she had to get out of bed really early, in the dark, to get to school by 6:15 am to leave for a school trip. It helped that she’s excited about the trip, a weeklong adventure with her classmates that involves hiking and outdoor activities. It’s a French school tradition, the class verte, partly for the physical activities but also to help develop the children’s autonomy. It’s a week away from home without the parents to organize everything for them, kind of a primer for the independence they’ll be given next year in middle school. Buddy-roo bounced out of bed like a pro this morning, a sign that she can get up when she wants to. I think it’s a good chance there’s a dog in our future.


Feb 9 2014

When She Wants

I waited for her just inside the courtyard gate, watching the other kids find their parents or nannies, one by one. Buddy-roo walked out of the school dragging her feet, her heavy backpack a huge weight over her shoulders to blue_kidmatch her heavy heart. She’s a fine actress: not that she covers up her feelings but rather she can dramatize them to the fullest when it serves her purpose.

I offered an upbeat greeting, a big smile and how was your morning? in an attempt not to succumb to the gloom I knew she wanted me to see. As soon as we left the school courtyard and made it around the corner, she burst into tears.

“Today was the worstest day of my life!” She recounted, between sobs, how she’d been punished for something she didn’t know was wrong: playing games on the tablet in the media center (aka the library) when she was supposed to be using it to read a book. And that last week she had forgotten (neglected) to write down two important assignments in her agenda – two poems she had to memorize, one in French and one in Catalan – both she’d have to recite the next day. This is her biggest challenge at school, either she doesn’t pay attention when the assignments are given, or she doesn’t remember to write them down, or she doesn’t remember to do them. (Or all of the above.)

“I’ve really been trying hard to keep up with my homework but now I’ve ruined it all” she said, “and now I’m going to look stupid in front of everyone.”

She clamped her arms around me and buried her head in my coat.

“I didn’t want to move here,” she said, “Our life was just fine in Paris. The school there understood how I like to be taught. I never got yelled at. I’ve been yelled at four times already this year. And I never had so many things to memorize at once.”

“Sounds like you had a rough day,” I said, already dreading the afternoon. It was Wednesday, the day of the week she gets out of school early, so she had enough time to catch up on her homework, but I knew she’d want and need my help and I had other things I’d hoped to accomplish. Plus I’d purchased tickets for the two of us to attend the Custo show as part of Barcelona’s fashion week. She was thrilled when I surprised her with the tickets, it would be a mother-daughter outing and a special treat for her because she loves all things fashion. But if she didn’t finish the assignment, I couldn’t really justify the night out, on a school night no less. I had to be parental (I hate that).

Since Buddy-roo gets out of school just before lunch on Wednesdays, we’ve made it a ritual to stop at a favorite neighborhood cafè known for its frankfurters. This is also the moment each week that I allow her a Coca-cola. It’s always a prized moment for her: lunch alone with her mom, a hot-dog and a coke. I reminded her that this was ahead, on our way home, yellow_red_barstoolshoping it would buoy her spirits. It did help to abate her tears, and a slight spring returned to her step as we walked toward the café.

“You know,” I said, once she was halfway through her hot-dog, “you’ll need to memorize both those poems before we go to the fashion show tonight.” I braced myself for her push-back: the usual resistance accompanied by complaints about having homework and being hounded to do it.

“I know,” she said.

What? No barrage of excuses or reasons not to? Could it be that she’s starting to accept responsibility for her work? Is little Buddy-roo growing up?

Later at home I let her lollygag for fifteen minutes before pressing her to start. I know sometimes I need to fuss a bit before I plunge in to my work; a few minutes of clicking on Facebook links and reading favorite blogs stirs my brain until I am warmed up. I gave her the 5-minutes-til homework warning, anticipating again her resistance but instead she walked into my office carrying her backpack, setting it down without any exaggerated sighs or even a hint of whining and retrieved from it the books she needed. We made a list of what she had to complete by six o’clock, the time we needed to walk out the door to arrive at the event on time.

“I’m really looking forward to the fashion show tonight,” I told her, “so I hope you can finish everything so we can still go.” I saw this as a gentle threat and hoped it would make clear the ultimatum, using a more positive tactic to avoid negative finger pointing, but still drawing the line.

She did a few short written assignments first, easy tasks but this permitted her to check some things off the list quickly. She attacked her work with an unusual efficiency. I’ve seen her spend an hour on a grammar exercise with only five phrases to fix, but now she was humming right along. When she started in on her poetry, I stared at my own to-do list, wondering how I would concentrate on it with her sitting on the floor behind me, reading her lines out loud. But she was taking such initiative that I didn’t want to spoil her momentum. What I wanted to write could wait until tomorrow. Instead, I’d clean out some of the emails in my inbox, something that didn’t require full concentration. pink_elephant

If you’ve ever listened to a 10-year old memorize a poem, you know it’s a humbling moment for any of us with even the mildest aphasia. My steel-trap memory disintegrated during the production of my children’s placentas, and has never been fully recuperated. Hard facts I could once recall rapid-fire often sputter out or elude me all together. My reliance on Google search to look up things I already know is maddening. The other day I was telling De-facto about feminists I admired, and I could not for the life of me summon the name of the author of The Feminine Mystique. Only an iPhone search delivered Betty Friedan. Of course, I knew that. At a certain age, I suppose, there is a widening difference between knowing and remembering.

She started with the French poem, reading two lines out loud twice. Then she put the paper down and recited them. Two more lines, twice, and then the next. Within 20 minutes she could recite the whole poem by heart, without looking. The Catalan poem posed more of problem; she didn’t really understand what it meant, so she was mostly memorizing sounds. But her accent was impeccable, or it least it sounded sharp and confident to me. She learned the second poem almost as quickly. It wasn’t flawless, she had to peek once in a while, or ask for a one-word prompt to remember the line that followed. More important than reciting the poems perfectly – both were still a little bit bumpy – was the way she’d attacked them: vigorously and without getting distracted. It’s rare that she works so diligently. She must have really wanted to go to that fashion show.

We had quasi-VIP passes. We met my Spanish teacher – this excursion was part of a culture and language program – in front of the Mercat del Born, an old covered market that, during a renovation had revealed a tract of Roman ruins. Construction was halted and the the building was turned into an archeological museum and library. This was the location of Barcelona’s fashion week events, with a catwalk that wrapped around the dugout of ruins. We first went for some tapas at a nearby café, to go over some Spanish vocabulary pertaining to the world of la moda, fashion. When we returned, we were skirted to the front of the long line snaking outside the market, and ushered to our seats, a few rows back from the catwalk. Buddy-roo delighted at the flashing lights and the pulsing music, the models sashaying by, sporting next year’s collection. And Custo happens to be a catwalk_girlsfavorite brand of mine, even before I moved to Spain. There was a Custo store on our street in Paris; its merchandise fit well my bohemian chic taste in clothing and occupied a large part of my closet until that store closed a few years ago. Fashion savvy Buddy-roo assessed each model as she strutted by, rating each outfit by its originality and style, and of course, whether or not she’d wear it. At the end of the show, when all the models paraded by, followed by the designer himself, she turned to me with the look of supreme satisfaction.

After, the fashionista crowd gathered in a tent outside the venue. I wouldn’t have minded to stay and quench my thirst, but the next day was a school day so Buddy-roo and I made our way through the throngs of well dressed people out to the street to find our taxi home. We flagged one down and slid into its back seat together. Buddy-roo threw her arms around me and gave me a fierce hug.

“This was the bestest night of my life. I’ll never forget it!”

My father used to offer me a particular piece of unsolicited advice: how I should tone down the highs and bring up the lows, just to try to take life a bit more evenly. I never appreciated his suggestion. I liked the thrill of elation too much and was prepared to pay for it with the pendulum swing of emotions. Of course now I can understand his advice, guiding Buddy-roo through the worst day and the best night of her life, but I know better than to offer it to her.

“It was a great night, wasn’t it?” I said. “Thanks for learning your poems so we could go out.”

Right then and there, in the back of the taxi whizzing through the Barcelona streets, she recited both poems for me, flawlessly. She truly has a brilliant memory, when she wants.


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.


Dec 15 2013

Absolute Power

I pulled the basket of silverware out of the dishwasher and set it on the counter for Buddy-roo. It’s one of her assigned chores to empty it and put the silverware away in its drawer. A few of the forks had been placed with their tongs downward in the container. I took one out to inspect it and, as suspected, it was caked with food from the previous night’s dinner.

“The silverware should be put in the dishwasher with the handles down and the silver part facing up.” I announced this to the entire family with the exasperated authority that only a mother possesses. “Otherwise it doesn’t get properly washed.”
shes_got_the_power
“Your mother has just issued an edict,” said De-facto.

Short-pants had been studying French history, something to do with Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes. De-facto was reading from her notebook, quizzing her for an upcoming test.

“That means she has absolute power,” said Short-pants.

“Does she?”

The girls nodded in unison. This led to a discussion about the governance of our household. Was it really a matriarchal monarchy? Was I a cruel despot or a benevolent ruler? Should I be ousted? Would such a revolution result in anarchy?

“Actually,” said Short-pants, “it’s more of an oligarchy.” She’d plucked that word off a list for her upcoming spelling bee. We’d looked it up the day before. “Both of you get to tell us what to do.”

“That’s right,” said De-facto, “but your mother makes the rules. Like the Edict of Silver High.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I got to spend five days in Paris, without man or kids in tow. I had many errands on my list, including a routine medical check-up that I opted to have conducted in French rather than Spanish. I made visits to the beauty nurse and my coiffeur, met up with friends, even went to a party and danced until 3 am. I had a brunch date with no reason to rush home afterward, permitting me to stroll around the neighborhood window shopping, doing a bit of nothing. I stayed in my studio and enjoyed hours of solitude. I cleaned up after no-one but myself. It was reminiscent of my early days in Paris, clown_carrotbefore there was a family wanting and needing my attention.

While I was basking in my imaginary exile, I could easily envision what was happening at home with De-facto at the helm. No doubt the laundry was piling up, beds were left unmade, bikes and scooters were parked in the living room, leftovers shoved in the fridge in the pot they were cooked in with a plastic bag barely covering them. Ours is a whole different household when it’s under his patriarchal rule.

I don’t mean to assert that all fathers – or all men, for that matter – are slobs. My brother keeps his desk organized at right angles and grabs the towels for the wash before you’ve even had a chance to finish drying off. Our tenant in Paris takes good care of our apartment; he keeps it clean and in good order. But the stereotype of the messy man has evolved from some nugget of truth and De-facto could be the poster boy. My girls happen take after their father, with haphazard filing systems and dirty clothes stuffed under their beds.

I can’t complain (too much) about what happens when I’m away from home. I don’t take it for granted that I get to go away for several days at a time, that De-facto can easily function as a single parent, self-sufficiently cooking for himself and the girls, managing school runs and acting as the overlord of the homework brigade. I have friends who prepare meals and store them in the freezer, planning ahead so the family will have something to eat each day during their absence. Other friends give me the snake eye if I moan even a bit about what happens when I’m gone; they have little or no chance to escape from their kids and husbands. I get to go away on my own a lot, lingering somewhere after a job, escaping every July to the fiesta or just going off for a fun weekend alone in Paris, something they remind me is not standard practice for every couple.

~ ~ ~

They made an effort to pull the place together before my return. Carpets were straightened, dishes moved from the sink to the dishwasher. A laundry had even been endeavored, the clean clothes were draped, somewhat awkwardly, over the drying rack. Coats that were surely left on chairs all week were hung in 3_on_a_bikethe closet, shoes stashed on the shoe-rack at the last moment. Bikes had been stowed in their designated compartments. I’d been gone long enough so that the feeling of missing my family would have overpowered any discomfort at the condition of the apartment. The reunion was so joyful that they got cocky and started to boast about the carefree life under the patriarchy.

“Was it anarchy here, then?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Short-pants.

“No,” said Buddy-roo, grinning, “It was manarchy.”


Oct 8 2013

Taking Care

It wasn’t like we didn’t know we’d be uprooting ourselves, leaving the familiar routines and our favorite people. This had all been contemplated last spring before we filled in the paperwork to apply to the new school. At every social occasion, once that decision had been made, I’d survey the room and nod to myself that I would miss these people. During our last months in Paris I reviewed the routines that had become so natural to me, the morning school drop-off and coffee klatch afterward, the passages courvertesregarde_le I’d walk through on my way to the beauty nurse or to get my hair cut, the favorite bar stools at my neighborhood hangout, the friendly banter with my pharmacist or the lady at the patisserie, knowing that these would soon become part of my fond memories of Paris and I have to carve out new rituals in their place.

Nor was I naïve about losing the support network we’ve built over the years; other mothers to call when Buddy-roo forgets to bring the necessary books home for her homework, babysitters and child-care helpers to ease the after school commute home or to cover when both De-facto and I travel for work. We’d discussed rejecting any work that took us both out of town at the same time, at least for the first few months, not only to provide continuity of parental support for the girls as they adjust to the new environment, but to give us the time to find someone we could trust and who could tolerate our children for a week at a time. In Paris, the part-time nanny who’d helped when the kids were babies had moved on to another day job, but her brother could handle afternoons and she’d move right into our home when we traveled, taking over the household. She was like family; she knew the girls as if they were her own, what they liked to eat and how to manage their emotional swings. We knew this would be hard to recreate. Not impossible, but it would take time to find someone who could take care of them like that.

As quickly as we vowed not to be out of town simultaneously, the demands came. A project slated for June was rescheduled to September, in Moscow. Not a problem, until De-facto received a request to give a keynote at a conference in London that very same week. I grumbled when I found out he’d accepted; we’d agreed not to travel at the same time and my job had been in the calendar first. But keynoting is the thing he loves to do and wants to do more, so how could I grumble, really, at his plum assignment?

We hobbled together a plan involving a university student who tutors the girls in Spanish (and Catalan) and our new cleaner who speaks not a word patchesof English, so I could fly off for a week hoping the two days De-facto would be gone would go without a hitch. But the real hurdle was still ahead. Despite the proclamation not to travel at the same time, another assignment came in, a pretty juicy and interesting job one that would require the both of us to go to Altanta, together. I remember thinking it was too much and volunteering to stand down and stay at home.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” De-facto said, “this will force us to find someone.”

He was right about that. Each day that ticked by I tried to sort out how we’d manage it. I attended all the welcome coffees hosted by seasoned mothers at the school – gestures to help newcomers get acquainted with the school community and begin to make friends – putting the word out that we needed to find a reliable person to move in with our children for a whole week, and fairly soon.

I expected to be met with judgment – how could you move our children to a new city and leave them there within a month of getting settled in a new apartment with a new school? But this was only my self admonishment. The women I discussed this with were empathetic and resourceful, suggesting former nannies, possible babysitters and at least three of them volunteering to take the girls if we ended up without any other option. I was heartened by their support, but none of the solutions felt easy to orchestrate. Uprooting the girls and putting them in the house of someone they didn’t really know felt a bit harsh. It seemed an imposition to ask a family to take them in for seven full days, but the idea of cobbling together a few days with one family and then moving to another felt like a nightmare to choreograph. I’m already mildly obsessed with notes and schedules for the girls when I travel. Coordinating a mid-week hand-off with people I barely knew would require more organization than I wanted to endeavor. We needed someone to move in with the girls in our new home, for more than a week, and in only a few week’s time.

~ ~ ~

It was good to get away. De-facto walked me out to hail a cab and waved as it pulled away. I settled into the seat as the driver headed to the airport, relieved, for the first time in a long while, to be heading somewhere alone. I have always enjoyed traveling solo, and it could be said that these last months did not deliver my minimum requirements of solitude. In the airport lounge waiting for boarding call for Moscow I was almost giddy to be going somewhere, somewhere else and on my own.

I am a better mother if I get a break now and then.
st_basils_colorful
The thing about my business travel is once you get there you don’t get out much. The meetings I run are immersive and intense, and most of the day is spent inside the hotel or conference center. This trip was no different except for the view out the meeting room window, a constant reminder that we were someplace very different and that Red Square, and the babushka selling the Matryoshka nesting dolls I would buy to take home to the girls, was only a stone’s throw away.

The week sped by while I juggled the progress of the meeting with the remote organization of things at home. De-facto had left. Someone else had arrived. She’d dropped them at school. The hand-off was made. De-facto returned. The girls marched along with each step of the plan without complaint, un-phased by the changing of the guard, and a new guard at that. We’ve trained them to be flexible, or they’re remarkably resilient – or both.

~ ~ ~

While I was in Moscow I got word from an agency, one suggested to me by one of the mothers at one of those morning coffee meet-ups. They had a candidate for me to meet, a mature woman who could speak French with the kids, but Spanish if there were an emergency and even a little bit of English. She would come stay with the kids and feed them, get them to school, nudge them on their homework but go about her own jewelry-making business during the day. The price was fair, her references reliable. Then last week she came by to meet us to see if it was the right fit. Short-pants was friendly enough, but as she’s on the threshold of her teen years she decides, sometimes, not to be enthusiastic. Buddy-roo played shy girl at first, hiding in the (as yet) unfilled bookshelves of out living room and behind half open doors as I gave a tour of the apartment and shared what would be the schedule for the week we’re away. But by the time we’d made it upstairs to show off the girls’ universe, she’d come around.

“These are the Fisher Price Toys,” she boasted. “They were my mom’s but now they’re mine.”
pack_of_boys_n_dogs
Buddy-roo described the ongoing story line for each of the pieces that were set up, in play if you will, on the floor of her room. The family in the house that always has visitors, or the couple that ran away with all their things piled on the houseboat. (Sound familiar?) Then she turned to her collection of stuffed animals. The new nanny sat down on the bed as Buddy-roo introduced each one, one by one. I stepped backward out of the room, into the hall, listening to their conversation. Soon I slipped downstairs to finish my work for the day.

A half an hour later they came down, hand in hand. We went over the final details for her stay, I showed her the kitchen and told how we’d stock up with food before we left. We went over all the drop-offs and pick-ups and bed times and special perks. She seemed cool, like someone I’d hang out with. She wore gray Chuck Taylors and cool hand-made earrings, but she hadn’t hesitated to get on the floor and play with a 10-year old. When she picked up her bag and moved toward the door, Buddy-roo ran up and threw her arms around her, begging her not to go. For me, a huge relief, the dull ache I’d been carrying all month, seemingly sorted out. It’s not ideal, I wish we knew her better. I wish we’d had the chance to do a trial run. But I have a good feeling about her, and I trust Buddy-roo’s sense on this one too. And now I can go, with at least a minimized stress concern, knowing that someone can be there with the girls, taking care.


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.

.

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