Mar 4 2014

Into the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”


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.
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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.


Jul 16 2012

Toro Suelto

Every fiesta morning at eight o’clock, a rocket fires and six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona to run toward the bullring. They do not run alone. They are accompanied by a pack of steers, whose docile influence hopefully keeps the bulls running close together. Also running beside them are thousands of people who’ve been waiting in the street for the chance to run with the bulls even for just a few moments. This is the encierro.

I have been to the Fiesta San Fermín nine times and have never ever considered running with the bulls. It is a dangerous tradition that I respect, from our balcony. I’m told it started when the shopkeepers along the route, having closed their doors while the bulls run by, decided to join in, with the permission of the pastores who herd the pack of animals to the bullring. It grew into a local ritual. Hemingway made the fiesta popular among foreigners, who joined the party and the run. I’m privileged enough to be friends with some of the foreigners who are loved and respected by the local bull runners, for whom the encierro is an art and a serious sport. These are men easily distinguished from the drunken college students who show up and know nothing about the bulls or the run and whose presence in the street is often the greatest danger of all.

A good encierro is a fast run. It can take less than three minutes to cover the 800-meter distance. It’s a good run if the pack of bulls and steers stick together, if the bulls remain focused on running forward and pay little attention to the throngs of people running beside them, trying to maneuver their way to the plum running spot, just ahead of one of the horns. It’s not such a good run when a bull gets separated from the pack because he falls behind or literally falls down, and when he gets up he’s lost his mates. The toro suelto, a loose bull, stops and spins around, charging at any runner who happens to be in front of him. Usually a green-shirted pastore will appear with his long herding stick, a stick sometimes used to whack idiot runners, and redirects the bull forward to join the others at the end of the run. Sometimes it’s up to a courageous bull runner – the experienced ones know how and will dare – to turn the bull around and provoke it forward, before getting out of the way.

The entire encierro is broadcast, so the parts I cannot view from my balcony on the calle Estafeta I can see on television. It’s something to see the toro suelto stopped and spun around, confused. The bulls are so beautiful and noble; it’s perplexing to see them out of sorts.

~ ~ ~

Each and every fiesta I have my own suelto moment. The week starts out bright and convivial, with champagne and cheer and old friends greeting, music and dancing in the street, a whole week of unscheduled wildness ahead. But midway through the fiesta there’s a dip, from lack of sleep, too much drink, getting fed up with the gray sludge in the streets and the constant press of people. I always have one restless night when my mind won’t shut down and my train of thought is only of the dark side. I become convinced that everyone I know, in Pamplona and elsewhere, merely indulges me and that I’m a terrible mother abandoning my family to come to this sloppy party. It’s a lonely moment, laying in the dark, unable to sleep, the dull roar of constant revelers in the street audible even with the best of earplugs. It’s the moment I feel out of the pack, and turned around, but fortunately, too tired to charge.

It’s remarkable to me that even in the company of so many fun-loving, open-hearted fiesta-thriving people – anyone you meet in the street will nod and smile at you – that such a lonely moment can prevail. The only thing to do is ride it out; the mid-fiesta plunge always passes and with the rising of the sun, the spirited alegria of the fiesta returns.

~ ~ ~

Another always: how I leave Pamplona before the fiesta ends. Two days of incessant partying remain, but I never finish with my friends. There have been years when I lamented my early departure. Other years, like this one, I felt ready to leave. My farewell breakfast included some beautiful jotas, a reprise of singing attention from Puchero, hugs and kisses and goodbyes, followed by the sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement to my last bar in town, where the taxi meets me. It’s just over an hour’s ride to the train that takes me to France and to my family. I always keep my pañuelo and my faja on for the entire ride. I’m the only one in white and red, the suelto amongst a train full of people dressed in blue jeans and regular colors.

At the other end of the train ride, De-facto – donned in white pants and T-shirt and a thin red pañuelo bearing the name of a cheapest brand of patxaran, something I must have left behind after a previous fiesta return – swept me into the car and on winding roads through villages, fields and forests to our country house. Short-pants, Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love cheered my arrival and sang a song they’d rehearsed for my return. There were fierce hugs from my not-as-little people, both of whom had grown taller since I last saw them. Dinner was waiting on the table. Ten days of stories were flying at me from every direction. I looked around, stunned, not unhappy to be in their presence, but somehow not quite in sync, not yet facing their direction. Like the toro suelto, I’d been somewhere else, out of the pack, loose and turned around.

~ ~ ~

A few days pass and I am back in step with my herd. Little by little I take up the routines that we follow here: writing in the morning, a run to the store before midday, pruning grapevines and rose bushes and attempting to keep up with the laundry. My dirty white clothes, soaked for two days in a mix of Coca-cola and bleach before they were washed – a secret recipe for removing the gray sludge – are now draped across every clothesline, drying in the sun. Long, thick nights of sleep, deeper because of the country quiet, restore my energy and return my attention to my family. I was away from them for three weeks to walk the Camino, and another ten days before and during the fiesta. I’ve had plenty of time away from my pack. But that’s something I need, that time away, and it’s exactly what makes it feels so good to be back, running side-by-side with them now.