Aug 10 2014

We Leave at Dawn

I take it back. All that mush I wrote in the last post about our little adventure. The family car tour across the United States is taking its toll. Too many consecutive days of too many consecutive hours crushed together in an automobile makes it hard to forget about the misery of too much proximity. The constant call of the kids from the backseat, the packing, unpacking and packing again of the suitcases, the smushed stale or soggy sandwiches from the cooler, the cracker and pretzel crumbs all over the car, the overall organization required to keep a disorganized crew on the road and heading east. Nothing like a little adventure to tire you out.
on_route
Yes, we’ve seen some amazing places and reunited with old friends who’ve taken us in and given us luxurious shelter, tasty and nourishing food and a healthy supply of hooch. Yes, we’ve seen the beauty of America. There have been remarkable moments that I’m sure we’ll never forget. But there have been just as many moments when I wanted to lean over and strangle those who purport to be the people I love most in the world.

~ ~ ~

We left at dawn (again). That meant being up before sunrise, packing the cooler, nudging Buddy-roo, the professional sleeper, and her sister to wake up enough to walk themselves to the car, but not to wake so much that they’d stay that way for the first leg of the long drive. My mother-in-love, despite our admonition, set her alarm to coincide with our early departure to help us with the last of our preparations. Clothes had been selected and placed in the car in the girls’ designated seats – Buddy-roo has claimed the long back seat of our roomy 4WD Buick Enclave and Short-pants is content to read in the middle row bucket-seat – and all other luggage, except the dopp kits, had been stowed in the vehicle the night before.

My mother-in-love, wrapped in her white bathrobe, watched us with eyes both delighted for our visit and dismayed at our departure. Though our 5-day stay with her in Santa Fee is the longest place we plan to stay stationary on this trip, it didn’t seem long enough. She is in fantastic health for a woman in her 80s, spry and alert and more active than most women my age (me, for example) so chances are extremely good that I’ll see her many times again in our lives. But I’m still mindful of the surprises life throws at us when it comes to our parents’ generation, so I always take in a deep-breath mental photograph of her whenever we part company. She waved goodbye with that happy/sad face and even without a stitch of make-up on, and her still-sleepy eyes, she was as pretty as I’ve ever seen her.

Earlier, in Arizona, we’d driven along Route 66, where we’d stopped for lunch and achieved a classic roadside diner experience. In New Mexico, we took Route 56, which hovers beside the Santa Fe trail, another classic American passageway. The risks of a national route are slower traffic and multiple stoplights, but the reward is a distinctly scenic ride with charming windwheel_sftrailtowns, authentic roadside watering holes, kitsch historical points of interest and, to De-facto‘s delight, cheaper gas.

We saw the sun rise on the Santa Fe trail, and made good time – better than we expected – on the road much less traveled. The lack of trucks and traffic in general – we went for miles without seeing another vehicle – and the awe-inspiring western vistas kept us from killing each other on the 12.5 hour drive, our longest of the trip. Well, 12-hour drive; De-facto permitted us a 1/2-hour lunch break at a picnic table near the Edwards County, Kansas Sod House and Museum, apparently 1,561 miles from both New York and San Francisco, a veritable halfway point for our US trip, in both distance and duration. His rush: he’d made a hotel reservation in Kansas City. He had a fantasy about putting the girls to bed and going to a Casino with me on his arm.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” he kept shouting, from the driver’s seat, in his best mid-western hillbilly accent. Mostly to tease me, since I have expressed on many occasions my lack of enthusiasm for the activity of gambling, and even more for the despairing spirit one encounters in an American casino. The windowless tombs with all the flashing lights, the unrelenting noise of the slot machines and the longing, lonely look of people hoping for that elusive big win. But De-facto’s a charmer and it’s a rare thing to see him part with his money so frivolously, so how could I not agree to go along?

I was raised with James Bond movies so I pulled out a dressier dress from the bottom of my suitcase and opened my jewelry bag for the first time in weeks and even donned my nude patent-leather heeled sandals. After so many consecutive days in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, standard road trip wear, it felt good to get duded up a little. We were the best-dressed people in the joint. Everyone else was in jeans, or even shorts and tank-tops – as the Kansas City casino crowd is slightly different than the Casino on La Croisette in Cannes. We may have looked good, but we bet poorly, so it took us about an hour to lose all our chips. We were up by 60% early on, but De-facto was having too much fun watching me throw the dice to cash in. “We’re just hittin’ our stride,” De-facto said, in his gambling-guy accent. I was rolling lucky at the craps table, for a while, but it was the Black Jack that really did us in.
in_the_car
The next day wasn’t quite a dawn departure, but we couldn’t dilly-dally. Friends were to congregate to meet us at a bar on the north side of Chicago at 7:00, so we needed to make another long slog, this time from Kansas City to the Windy City. There were non-interstate routes that might have been more appealing, but because we hadn’t gotten up at dawn again, we had a tighter schedule. It was raining. The highways weren’t as well kept as those we’d traversed previously. The truckers taunted us by pulling out and passing each other, making it hard for us to make up any lost time. We ate leftover pizza from the night before, rolling along at 75 mph.

~ ~ ~

In pretty much every state, it’s possible to find a radio station that’s a time machine, propelling De-facto and me back to our youth. One song after another, each tethered to a high school memory. Journey, Aerosmith, The Cars, Van Halen, Bad Company, ACDC, Tom Petty, Creedence, Steve Miller, Heart, The Who, The Stones, Zeppelin. You know this kind of station, the classic rock station. You kind of hate it because it’s so dated, but you kind of love it because you know the words to every song. And after you’ve been penned up in a box on wheels for six-plus hours, and you’re just a little bit punchy, it’s easy to get a bit over-excited. Rock’n’roll anthem Stairway to Heaven is a song that used to make me groan – I worked at a rock radio station and it was overplayed – but I caught myself cheering when I heard the opening chords. De-facto lowered the volume long enough to tell the girls that this was a rock’n’roll classic, commanding them to listen to the lyrics. Then he cranked the sound back up and we sang along, word for word.

“This isn’t rock’n’roll,” Buddy-roo said.

“It’s a ballad at the start,” I said. “Just wait, it’ll kick in.”

When it did, we were singing along at the top of our lungs and dancing like head-bangers in our seats. Buddy-roo, disgusted by our behavior, took the fleece she’d been using as a pillow and wrapped it around her head to drown out the noise and to keep from having to look at her stupid parents. This only inspired us to continue. She did get the last laugh; De-facto and I were so caught up in the music that we missed our exit. We had to turn around and backtrack to get back on the right road. It’s happened to us several times on the trip. We get lost in the music, and nearly get lost.

~ ~ ~

“Girls, look! We’re about to cross the mighty Mississippi!” De-facto, our own Clark Griswald, shouted it exuberantly, his fist in the air. Short-pants barely raised her head from her book, Buddy-roo re-arranged her feet against the back of the seat in front of her, their tandem sign language for who cares. I’m afraid they are saturated with national parks, 4-H styled museums the_Beanand points of interest, or just tired of being hitched to our wagon on this cross country tour, that their best defense is to ignore us. But we keep nudging them along. At every stop, Buddy-roo begs to stay just one more day. The most recent host becomes her new best friend, and that stop, the best on the trip. Both girls moaned about being dragged into Chicago, until they discovered the fountain and the Bean at Millennium Park. We couldn’t linger too long, though, as friends were expecting us at our next stop, in Ohio, and the heavy city traffic had already slowed us down.

We’ve been on the road twenty days, crossed ten states and we’ve still many miles to go. But the Atlantic draws near and another city beckons, with more family and friends waiting to see us. The road calls, whether we like it or not. Tomorrow, once again, we leave at dawn.


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.


Sep 22 2010

In Between

Listening to the French passengers waiting to board the airplane, I feel a kinship with them. They are leaving the land of large portions and loud talkers to return to the subtler world of degrees of humor and real cheese. It sounds like they’ve all had a pleasant holiday, but most of them look relieved to be returning to more familiar soil.

I love the lyrical sound of the banter between them. French is a language I can understand, but only if I am listening deliberately. If I choose to zone out, conversations can swirl around me without penetrating my consciousness. This is impossible in my mother tongue of American English; I am too easily distracted by peripheral conversations which, in French, are more like background music.

Each time I visit the United States, I am initially assaulted by this capacity to understand everything I hear. I become an unwilling eavesdropper. I don’t want to hear how much that guy had to drink last night or how much she spent on her Manolo Blahniks but I am obliged, not only because of the volume of these not-necessarily-nearby discussions but due to the fact that I understand them instantly: it’s all in my mother tongue.

Yet back in France, surrounded by the less optimistic language of French with its more subtle nuances and accompanying gestures of skepticism – the French shrug for one – I tire of never-quite-fully understanding everything, or on the other hand, the need of certain French speakers to explain things to me so thoroughly without noticing that I got the point a whole paragraph ago. In France, I feel other and yet sitting in this American airport lounge, waiting to board an overnight flight, I feel a solidarity. I’m one of them and we are going home.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo have their unique appreciation of the two languages. Passport carrying Americans they are, but they move between French and English with ease, just as they navigate the cultural nuances. Short-pants’ command of the language is correct, this becomes more apparent each year as her automatic capacity to align nouns with their feminine or masculine articles puts me to shame. She and I have reached an agreement: I am delighted for her corrections as long as they are gentle admonishments offered privately in the spirit of assistance rather than in public with embarrassed disdain. She’ll touch my arm softly and whisper, “Mama, you said un and it should be une.” I am honestly grateful for her assistance when offered in this fashion. I’m pretty sure Buddy-roo will not follow suit. My charming little mistakes will be the cause of eye-rolls and giggling behind cupped-hands with all of her French-speaking friends.

Our girls are native speakers, even with English as their mother tongue. Since it’s not the primary language spoken in our home, their French vocabulary is a bit behind that of their classmates, but their pronunciation is native. This assured by attending French schools since the tender-eared age of three. What a gift we give them. Even if we were to leave France next week to live somewhere else (a new adventure is always in our minds, but to where?) they will always be able to speak French like a local. Twenty years on it might require a small amount of study to recall the sentence structure and vocabulary, but the accent has been embedded. They will always sound French.

Beyond language, though, what nationality are they? Born on French soil, but of American blood, they ultimately get the right to be both, if they choose. I once asked Buddy-roo if she felt more American or French. “Française,” she said, turning on her toes and sauntering out of the room. (She seems to have mastered the French art of being a coquette.)

Having lived outside my own country for eighteen years, I find myself in the occasionally awkward stance of feeling in between cultures. I am an American. At the core of my beliefs is the idea that you can do whatever you dream if you set yourself to it, that one is not bound by class or caste to any destiny, that a little ingenuity and perseverance will get you where you need to go. Americans don’t own this mindset uniquely (nor is it a truth for everyone in our country), but perhaps we aspire to it more organically than other cultures. But I think I’ve become an American of another generation, that having left the county a week before Bill Clinton was elected President (though I did vote, absentee), I feel out of touch with a lot of what’s happening now in the United States. I don’t understand the vitriol of our political discourse. I can’t believe the problem with obesity or the number of drug stores per capita. I’m stunned by the absolute consumerism and dismayed by the circus that is television news. It’s not the America I pledged allegiance to every morning in school, when I was growing up, and I’m not entirely sure it’s the America I’d want the girls to call their home.

So I am in between. Often in transit.
I can take advantage of my American passport to enter my home country more swiftly than international tourists. But once beyond the customs agent, I do sometimes feel other. This is not an angst-ridden other; I enjoy visiting and I appreciate my home country as much as I’m perplexed by it. But it means I’m not entirely rooted anywhere, which is a bit liberating. I’m hoping our girls can absorb this, to see the benefits and drawbacks of both of their cultures – of any culture they hope to visit – and to study them as interesting rather than judging them as superior or inferior. This is the opportunity of living in between, the capacity to observe and appreciate everything: French, American, or other.