Jun 18 2013

High Tea, Sloe Berry

Some mothers are really good at birthday parties. They effortlessly host a dozen screeching kids and don’t seem to mind the pack of them running around and trashing the house. They make props and invent games that fill an entire afternoon. They bake elaborate cakes with towers and flags and multi-colors of frosting topped with decorative elements you can eat. They seem to enjoy the party as much as the birthday boy or girl.
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I’m not one of those mothers.

I still make a big fuss all day long, and there are cards and presents and colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. A cake gets baked and decorated. But it’s usually just a family affair, with maybe a friend or a neighbor included. I’m not a complete grinch: we’ve thrown the occasional gang-of-kids party, but we’ve successfully minimized that sort of hullabaloo, generally keeping birthdays small and quiet.

Inventiveness is still required. Last fall, I tracked down Buddy-roo’s favorite busker, and invited him over for our family party. She was entirely surprised. He gave a little concert, including a live acoustic guitar version of happy birthday as she blew out the candles. He stayed for cake. She was over the moon.

When one of my sweetest friend, the Pastry Ace, was hired to start up the new Rose Bakery Tea Room at the Bon Marché department store, it clicked that this could be the perfect place to pay homage to Short-pants’ birthday this year, once again avoiding an elaborate in-house production. I presented to her the idea of high tea at a chic address, and she bit. We did an advance trip in early May. All the pieces fit.

~ ~ ~

When I weaned Short-pants, just after her first birthday, I left town to make it easier on the both of us. I escaped with my girlfriends to the hills of Navarra, the culture of the Basques and their local drink, patxaran. Because I was no longer breast feeding, I imbibed with abandon, and fell in love with the deep red liqueur. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup, but without the medicinal aftertaste. A little bit of fire water, patxaran is an elixir that aides digestion, revs up your libido and leaves you with a syrupy smile.
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That trip turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the north of Spain. Soon after, a pilgrimage to Pamplona was incorporated into my every-summer routine. Each year, I replenish my patxaran supply, bringing several bottles home to Paris to last until the following July. I mentioned to the Fiesta Nazi that I really wanted to get my own endrina bush – this is the Spanish name for the berries that produce patxaran – so I could brew my own. All the lovely Basque men I’ve met brag about their mother-in-law’s home-made patxaran. I see myself as the kind of woman who makes hooch for her beloved son-in-law. But I need some practice before the girls come of marrying age.

We asked every respectable (and frankly, non-respectable) Spanish person we knew in Pamplona about where might I get my hands on an endrina bush. It became apparent that it’s not something you go and buy at a nursery and plant in your garden. It was impossible to get a specific answer about where to find it or even what it looked like. The response was always something like, “It’s just…you find it…around.” Then I realized the endrina is a weed.

Last summer, the Pastry Ace visited us at the country house. It was the end of August and a string of warm, sunny, dry days inspired us to pull our mattresses out to the back terrace so we could sleep out – all of us together – under the stars. She made us cakes and pies and one night cooked up a mean ratatouille; her talents stretch beyond things pastry and chocolate. We’d go for long morning walks and she’d point out the different trees and herbs and organic goodies that a chef perpetually looking for ingredients can’t help but see and that I had missed altogether, though I walk these same roads and trails every summer. She discovered a mirabelle tree, covered with fruit, on the other side of our barn. We’ve owned this house for seven years, and we’d never harvested its fruit. We didn’t even know it existed.
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One afternoon, Pastry Ace walked into the kitchen with a smug smile on her face and some blueish berries in her hand. She knew of my hunt for endrinas, and was even able to help me name them in English: sloe berries. She’d found them growing wild by the side of a nearby dirt road. She’s also found some growing in a hedge, on the edge of our property. Can you imagine my bliss? Endrina bushes growing on my land.

The berries were immediately harvested and transported back to Paris, where I scoured the Internet for tips on making patxaran, and wrote to my Spanish Facebook friends for advice. I once visited a patxaran factory, I remembered this detail from that tour: mix the berries with good alcohol, don’t use the cheap stuff. I stocked up on some quality anís to mix with my precious endrinas, which means my home-made brew has nothing to do with saving money by making it yourself, but everything to do with the craft of distillation and the pride of its provenance.

~ ~ ~

Every July I rush back from the fiesta in time for Short-pants’ birthday party, though I’m not necessarily in the best of shape, usually recovering from many consecutive days of patxaran consumption. This year, she asked if we could have an early party in June, too, so she could include a few school mates. Last Saturday we made another excursion to the Rose Bakery Tea Room, this time with friends, and her sister, in tow.
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Because we were VIP guests of the chef, we were received like royalty, seated at the best table, coddled and catered to. The girls ordered white hot chocolate and it came with an extra pot of whipped cream on the side. Short-pants licked the little bowl clean. The tea service trays were presented with aplomb, stacked with savory finger sandwiches, bite-sized scones with clotted cream, tasty cakes, pastries and custards. Everyone started with wide eyes and finished with sticky fingers.

Short-pants beamed the entire time. She’s always a good sport about the the fact that her birthday parties are rather modest, and perhaps because of that, she appreciated the fuss of this tea party that much more. I enjoyed it too, especially when the elaborately ornamented chocolate birthday cake was placed in front of her, and I hadn’t been required to bake it.

~ ~ ~

The collection of hermetically sealed glass jars were wrapped in opaque plastic bags and stowed in the back of my closet. I’d learned that when endrinas are transforming into patxaran, light is an inhibitor, so I kept them stashed in the dark. Every week, I’d pull the jars out and turn them upside down for a minute, re-mixing the contents gently, before setting them upright back in their dark corner. Some people talk to their plants; I’d talk to my berries, encouraging them through their cocoon phase.

The distilling was sufficiently completed in March, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found the right moment to filter and bottle my home brew. bottling_patxaran Short-pants was reading on the couch when I stripped the black plastic from around the jars, revealing the rose-colored liquid. Maneuvering the 3-liter glass container over the sieve required more than two hands, so I called her over.

“Honey, can you help your mama make her hooch over here?”

She sprang up and ran to help. I gave her the metal strainer and she held it steady, catching the berries as I poured the liquid through it. The smell of the alcohol was strong; the aroma of fermented berries filled the kitchen. There we stood, mother and daughter together, stirring up a concoction that in any other kitchen would have been a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake. Instead, I was teaching my daughter how to make moonshine, because, well, I’m one of those kinds of mothers.


May 31 2012

Camino Interruptus

I heard the sound of a car horn, honking at a random rhythm. Then I saw two heads sticking up above the windshield, and two sets of arms waving wildly as the little car sped down the country road. De-facto, it turns out, had rented a convertible to drive to Spain, and permitted the girls to unbuckle and stand for the last 100 meters in order to make a memorable arrival. It was cocktail hour on the terrace of my favorite casa rural, in one of my favorite places in the world, and many of my friends and family had already had glass in hand, kicking off the weekend celebration. It felt like the party had really started when Short-pants and Buddy-roo paraded in, and the enthusiasm that powered them from the car to my arms was loud and heartfelt.

I’d been kidnapped the day before, estuve secuestrada, by the Fiesta Nazi and two other friends, a.k.a. the pit crew. They’d reserved a triple in the same hotel as I had a single, we giggled through dinner and the next morning I hit the road for another day’s walk and they stayed on to visit the chicken church and other touristy things while I marched 23k to the next town, Belorado, from where they fetched me and brought me backwards to Navarra to the small village of Urdax where, remarkably to me most of all, I’d managed during the last few months to organize a big birthday bash that would last the whole weekend, with friends and family who willingly made their way to the north of Spain to celebrate with me.

In retrospect, this kidnapping was a smart strategy. Had I made my way back to the birthday gathering all alone, I might have been stunned by the sudden shock of so much company all at once. Easing back into a social scene with the pit crew made for a transition – with a crescendoing dose of hilarity – that was a manageable first step. Even so, when all my guests started to assemble, I was a bit shell shocked.

I did very little to organize the weekend, except for the Saturday night festivities – cocktails, dinner, DJ – but the weekend filled up fast. Groups formed organically, for hiking, shopping and wine tasting. People roamed and mingled, chatted and napped, rested up for the dining and dancing that appeared to please everyone but surely I was the most delighted. There was a moment, last winter, when I was so overloaded with work assignments and responsibilities that the idea of walking the Camino and also throwing a birthday bash seemed doomed to be only that, a good idea. Some force beyond me prompted me to start planning it anyway, and once the wheels were in motion it fell into place. The party raged. I stumbled into bed just before sunrise – not bad for a fifty-year-old bat – and prouder still that I rallied the next day to hike 9k with a gang of friends.

Not just the gang. In honor of this Camino birthday theme, the whole family hiked. That is to say De-facto insisted, without resistance from me, that the girls come with us on the group hike. Buddy-roo was game, and ended up walking in the front of the pack with the other 15 or 16 members of our hiking party, no doubt chatting the whole way. Short-pants was not so interested in this exercise, protesting that she wanted to stay in her room at the B&B and do homework and read. This is her comfort zone, she loves to write and work and getting her to do physical activity isn’t so easy. De-facto gets her on the basketball court on Sundays, inspires her to do pull ups on the bar in our hallway and gets an occasional sun salute out of her, but she is rather bookish. As she put it, “hiking is not my thing.”

We insisted. She made her Munch face and cried. She crossed her arms and pushed her lower lip out to a pout. But when she saw no other option, she put her shoes on and came along. Wordless at the beginning, we gave her space to seethe. Soon, she softened, still sad but no longer glaring at us. Conversations meandered, as did the pack of hikers, morphing into different clumps and pairs as the trail curved up and around. When Short-pants was tired, we stopped to rest. When she moaned that it was too hot, we plied her with water. When her feet hurt, we stopped and had raisins. When she wanted to turn back, we reminded her that it was a loop and we’d already gone halfway.

And then at one point, not long after the halfway point, she turned to me and smiled. “I’m actually enjoying this,” she said. “Now I know why you’re walking the Camino.”

It’s the thing you think you can’t do, that when you do it, makes you feel bigger inside. She was so proud of herself, at the end, when she’d done the whole hike. It made me even prouder of her. And I knew how she felt.

~ ~ ~

On Monday, after a weekend-long birthday fiesta, I hoisted my pack on my back and walked from our hotel to a little bridge where a yellow arrow points left (antes del puente, a la izquierda) and puts you on a Camino Baztan, a trail that goes from Bayonne to Pamplona where it joins the Camino Frances. Eventually a bus would be necessary to get me back to Belorado where I’d left off, but the joy of leaving that beautiful weekend on foot appealed to me.
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De-facto and the girls and a few other lingering friends saw me off, though the girls didn’t wave as wildly as when they arrived. A college friend who’d flown all the way from New York to attend the party, walked with me for the first hour or so before turning back to make her departure and leaving me alone, once again, on the yellow-arrowed trail.

This part of the Camino is the road much less traveled, I didn’t pass another pilgrim all day. I loved that there was nobody around, that I could sing and talk to myself out loud as I trampled through the green fields and forests, marveling at the beauty of Navarra, which is lusher and hillier than the part of the Camino I’d hiked last week and would soon return to. Then I heard the familiar sound of a sharp, high-pitched dog bark, executed on an inhale rather than an exhale, the signature call of the Fiesta Nazi. Sitting in the grass, waiting for me to pass – the car was parked ahead out of sight – two of my pit crew pals waited for me with a warm tortilla sandwich and a cool bottle of water. Stalking me one last time, they saved the day, as it was Pentecost Monday, and all of the cafes in the villages I walked through were shut and locked.

The next day, a bus from Elizondo to Pamplona and another bus that stopped in all the towns I’ve slept in on the Camino: Puente la Reina, Estella, Los Arcos, Logroño, Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Belorado, a redux of my walk so far. If you added a deep voice it could be like the opening credits of an HBO serial program, “Previously, on my Camino…” I saw bridges I’d crossed, roads I walked beside, a bar with wi-fi where I checked email, a clump of trees where I peed one day. It was a perfect way to return to the Camino.

Starting in again, I passed many strangers on the path, people who’ve been walking as long as I have but started later. It’s like you’re in a class of pilgrims, matriculating from town to town together, until you stop for a day, or five, and join a different class. This is my third time joining the Camino. All the familiar faces I came to know are ahead of me now. My shy side comes out each time, and it makes me think of the friends who came to my party knowing only me or my family, but who took the risk and put themselves out and ended up fitting in just fine with the rest of gang assembled. There’s a hesitation, a fear that is unfounded but nonetheless present, a social risk zone. I was grateful for the presence of these friends at my party, which informs me how the Camino might be grateful for mine if I’d just put myself out.

~ ~ ~

The terrain is new again: Where do I go? Will there be shade? Is there a fountain ahead or should I refill now? Will my feet be okay? When should I eat? Where should I sleep? The social aspect of the terrain is new, too. Who are these people and why are they walking? Will they be as friendly as the last set of pilgrim friends, and the set before? I’ve come to value the balance of being alone on the Camino, relishing it, and also appreciating the camaraderie with the others in this path, nursing their own feet and mulling over their own questions. The shared experience with fellow pilgrims is just as inspiring as the time alone to reflect.

I’m glad to be walking again. I spent the first day just getting into the rhythm with my legs, listening to the crunch of my boots on the stones of the path, the sound of my scallop shell slapping against my pack with each step. I’d exchange a simple, “Buen Camino!” with other pilgrims, but avoided any real conversations, wanting to get back in sync with myself. But when I came upon a Romanian woman wearing a broad and constant smile, it felt right to walk and talk together for a while. We started with the standard prelude: Where did you start the Camino? Where did you start off today? Until where will you go?

And then I asked her, “Are you walking alone?”

“No,” she said, seeming very content. “I’m walking with myself.”

Yeah, I thought, me too.


May 25 2012

Walking into Fifty

The Camino rises and falls from the hills of Navarra into Rioja, and my mood follows suit. The swing from elation or the simplest contentment – Camino bliss – to feelings of regret or frustration is a pendulum wide. What is it about me that thinks my Camino has to be perfect? I do this in the rest of my life, too, set up these grand expectations and then kick myself along the way for not doing it well enough, whatever it is. I forget that as a rule, things in my life are pretty damn good. Good enough, and then some.
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I arrived at the edge of a small town – it was Los Arcos – after walking 20k in the steady rain, steady when it wasn’t torrential, which it was on a few different occasions during the day. I was drenched, even with good rain gear, but not yet tired. I debated whether to keep going to Torres del Rio, about 7k further. As I came into the center of town, another downpour drowned out all thoughts of continuing. I’d reserved a sweet single room, it had a shared bathroom, but that’s why it was only 20€, this was a good deal not to be passed up and besides, even if I wasn’t weary, I was wet.

The room was the size of a postage stamp, with a narrow chastity bed like I had in my college dorm. Its best feature was a brand-spanking new space heater, over which I could drape my wet clothes for quick drying. After a hot shower, I sat on the bed and thought, what am I doing here? I should have kept walking. I didn’t feel like writing, reading or napping. I was restless, even angry at myself for stopping. It descended upon me, that sort of funk, the four walls of the already too tiny room closing in on me. So I did what any pilgrim who’s logged 20k during a day does, went out to walk some more, around the town.

A church bell rang, so I followed the sound to the main square. I pressed the door tentatively, not knowing if it was open or not – many are only open in the evenings for mass – and it swung inward and allowed me to enter. The first thing in view as you enter the church, its elaborate organ, the pipes painted blue and gold. My mouth gaped at the sight of it. In another church, on another day, I heard the organ being tuned. I wondered if this one sounded as rich as it looked. I walked to my customary place, 1/3 of the way back from the altar, to the left, and took a seat.

And then, tears. For no particular reason. Maybe for every reason. Tears for all those people gone, but not forgotten. Tears for all my disappointments, and for the people I’ve disappointed. Tears for the things I didn’t become, and for the things that don’t become me. Tears for being alone. Even though I mean to be alone, I like to be alone, these are tears that remind me, despite all the good company on the Camino, and in my life, I am alone – we are all alone with ourselves.

It’s been ages since I cried like that, with the floodgates wide open. It made me feel so much better.

Maybe all I needed was a good cry.

~ ~ ~

After all that contemplative crap, I needed a beer. There was a bar across the square from the church. The cast of characters inside a gang of pilgrims, people I recognized from walking, but hadn’t yet talked with and wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Heavy rock music was blaring, boisterous men strained to talk over it, mostly about themselves. I regretted the decision to stop there, but I’d already ordered. I read the blackboard beside the bar, advertising a pilgrim menu for 12€. I debated whether to stay for it or not. The rain outside made the decision for me.

A rope across the doorway leading to the cave of the bar was unhooked, and the assembled pilgrims filed down the narrow staircase one by one to the dining room. I took a seat at a random table and was joined by five others. Miraculously, the boisterous men opted out of the pilgrim meal service, or sat elsewhere. My table was a mix of nationalities, two lovely German women who would become important touchstones for me over the next days, a gentle Australian who’d walked the Mekong, two other German men, one of whom was an 81-year-old retired ship captain celebrating his rebirthday. Nineteen years ago – to the day – he’d fallen in the ice-cold water between two boats, and it had taken fifteen minutes before either crew realized he was not on either ship. He’d been rescued, and he remains in a state of gratitude, even after all these years, for what he called his second life.
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We alternated between private conversations and full table storytelling, and the dinner was accompanied by good questions, thoughtful answers and general spirit of conviviality. The ship captain wanted to treat us all to an after dinner digestive, I suggested the local (we were still in Navarra) specialty, my favorite patxaran. Our round red glasses klinked together festively, overriding any of my earlier angst about stopping and staying here for the night.

~ ~ ~

Each day a different path with different views, different thoughts, different moods. Up and down and around into another dusty town, backpacks laid in a row next to a fountain where pilgrims rest their feet and fill their water bottles, village cafes brimming with friendly hikers. Over the next days I would run into those dinner companions and check in. How are you feeling? How are your feet? How is your Camino? I’d stop and chat for a while, but walk on alone, and let my mind wander – I prefer to walk by myself – although once I spent a good part of the day’s kilometers beside a thoughtful Irishman, swapping stories. It wasn’t so much that we were talking, more like we were thinking out loud with each other, reflecting on reflections otherwise interior. It was one of my nicest days walking the Camino.
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Except they’re all nice. In the rain, in the sun, the cool morning or the brutal late afternoon heat. Every day is good, even when it’s not so good. You get where you’re going, and the right things happen to you when you get there.

Yesterday, another church stop, a needed break from the midday sun. As I stepped inside I heard music – often there is some kind of classical or choral soundtrack piped in – but this one was slightly imperfect, like someone was practicing. In one of the pews, an open guitar case lay just beside a pilgrim’s pack, and in the back of the church, in the dark, someone strumming. I sat, where I always go to sit, and listened, as the guitarist played song after song and then he started to sing. Sometimes, when I knew the words, I sang along, in harmony with him.

Tears came again, fast now; I am tender these days. The walk, the time this walk has given me, puts my real person closer to the surface. She is touched more easily, her joy comes as instantly as her pain. But I have made this walk just for this, to access her. This time, I can report, the tears were glad ones: I was so fucking happy, in that perfect little moment, the one I didn’t orchestrate or expect.

~ ~ ~

Today I turn fifty. Such a bold number, and it came up on me like lightening. The two digits sit beside me, not quite smirking, grinning. I grin back. I started the Camino with a question, something like how might I make the most out of the rest of my life. Along the way, thoughts about how to make less of it, how to simplify, weed out the unnecessary, make room for the things that deserve to be made the most of. Coming now to another turn, wondering how to make nothing of it, and let it make itself. I’m not even halfway through the Camino, but just starting to open up to what it has to show me. But I am right where I’m supposed to be, and I think understanding that is perfectly good enough.


May 12 2012

There and Back

There it was, just at the moment I’d started to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn, the discreet yellow arrow pointing the way. If the trail is in an open field, scaling a steep hill or snaking through a forest, it’s hard to lose it. When the Camino winds through a town – even a tiny pueblo – the arrows can be tricky to spot. You have to pay attention. Not that much could go wrong. Some local would spot you – pilgrims, with their fat backpacks, wide-brimmed hats and walking sticks, stand out – and would gently correct your course. If not, enough time would pass without a yellow arrow or one of the blue-and-yellow shells marking the trail, and you’d retrace your steps easily. The Camino is well indicated. No compass required.

Before leaving, the Fiesta Nazi gave me a copy of the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (a.k.a. Dear Sugar), a memoir about a 3-month trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. This was a journey. She hiked from the southern part of California to the Washington state border, alone, carrying on her back a tent, sleeping bag, water filters, cooking gear, food rations and water. Her pack, much more than double what mine weighed. She had to make camp every night and cook for herself, and her trail was truly in the wild, with bears and rattlesnakes, and not so plentifully marked, often requiring mountaineering skills to determine if she was on course or not. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a luxury tour in comparison.

There was some irony in the presentation of the book, an inch-plus-thick hard cover volume (with a heartfelt inscription) handed over just as she was about to inspect the clothing and travel items I’d laid out on my bed. I had two long-sleeved shirts ready to pack. “Only one,” she said. I held up my nightgown. “Sleep in your clothes.” I tried to hide the travel-sized canister of hairstyling mousse and a half filled tub of sticky hair gel under a pile of socks, but she discovered them. “Can’t you get by with only one of these?”

She is, I might add, a card carrying member of Overpackers Anonymous; when we travel together each summer to Pamplona, her suitcase is packed until the seams stretch. But she is also a seasoned trekker, and along with another friend who guides and is no stranger to the Camino, gave me invaluable counsel to go as light as possible. I think that even with a full load of water (I could carry 3 liters) and any fruit or lunch I carried, I never had more than 9 kilos on my back. I managed to wear every piece of clothing I took, and never once wished for something I hadn’t brought.

Even if the Camino isn’t roughing it like hiking in the wilderness, it’s not without rigor. The first leg, a 25K trek over one of the Pyrenees mountains, is an early test. Climbing it is hard on the heels, the descent taxes the toes. About 6K of this I navigated in the rain, but I didn’t even mind. Already in the rhythm of one foot then another, I watched the sky quench the ground’s thirst, stepping over thick black slugs and keeping a lookout for little yellow arrows.

I learned when to start off each morning, not so early as to be with the throngs of up-and-out eager hikers, but not so late that I’d lose those precious cool morning hours. Around 8:30, I’d fall in with the slow trickle of pilgrims, moving along one-by-one or two-by-two. I’d find myself happily alone on the trail for long stretches, until I might come upon a couple of hikers, or else I’d be passed by someone with a faster gait than I, and we’d exchange a quick, friendly greeting, “Buen Camino!” and keep on at our own pace.

Once in a while it feels right to stay in step with a fellow pilgrim. The conversation usually includes banal but anchoring facts: Where are you from? Where did you start the Camino? How far will you go? Sometimes we’d divulge the reasons we’d come to do the Camino: the expectations, reflections, questions and decisions we carry with us as we walk. After a while, a stop under a shady tree for a rest, a snack, a drink of water, and one of us would move on, alone, without apology. There is a constant weaving in and out of being alone and having company, of solitude and camaraderie.

In the evenings I’d hunt down a café-bar on a small side street for a beer and a bite. If I wanted a little company, I knew I could stroll to the main square and spot the faces of pilgrims I’d passed or whom I’d chatted with briefly at a village fountain while replenishing our water bottles. I didn’t know most of their names, but after several days I started to recognize the cast of characters now so familiar and friendly, my pilgrim family. There’d be a sense of relief to see them, like oh good, you made it today, too. Everyone is rooting for you. And you for them, too.

We’d chat about the terrain, the scenery, the heat, our sore feet and other body parts not accustomed to 20+ kilometers a day for successive days. It was good to have the companionship, and also good to leave the laughing crowd behind and stroll to my pensione, usually a modest place, luxurious because it had its own bathroom (I haven’t opted for the dormitory-styled albergues, yet). I’d take the things I’d hand-washed and hung to dry in the late afternoon sun on my matchbook-sized balcony, and hum to myself as I prepared my pack for the next day, a day that, like the one before and the one to follow, had only one errand: to walk from one place to another. And even then, I could walk as slow or fast as I pleased, and I could change the location of my stopping off point at any moment along the way.

After five days and 115 kilometers, I’d probably just found my stride on the Camino, but I was preparing to leave it. All week I’d been answering the same questions, how I’d started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, how I hoped to do the entire Camino in several chunks this spring and next fall, how this first leg would last only a week, to Estella, after which I would return home to Paris for Short-pants‘ orchestra performance. I heard myself say this, again and again, noting that it was without resignation, and possibly even with a bit of pride, that I announced this priority.

“Is your daughter renown?” asked one hiker, surprised that I would interrupt my walk on the Camino to attend a concert.

“To me she is,” I said.

A few years ago I probably would have made the same decision, but not without complaint. Now it feels like it’s just a natural part of my Camino, to return to Paris for Short-pants’ recital, and then to go back and pick up where I left off.

So I am home. My feet are sore, but only mildly blistered. My legs tired, but stronger. My dirty laundry, washed and hanging to dry. The long day of travel – by bus to train to plane – well worth it to be greeted with the enthusiastic hugs of Short-pants and Buddy-roo (and De-facto, too). The concert: the string ensemble played three lovely arrangements. Quick and sweet. Not-always-in-tune or in-time, but as far as I’m concerned, a renown performance.


Aug 19 2011

Sand Wishes

If she were alive, my mother would have celebrated her 80th birthday today. Short-pants left her a message in the sand, made with love.


May 29 2011

A Special Equation

“Mama,” she whispered, “in that sugar-morning voice, “Can I watch Gulli before school?”

I’m not super keen on the cartoon channel and I dislike the noise of the television so early in the morning, but she’d asked me so nicely. The night before she’d done all her homework without complaint, and I had a lot to do to get ready to get out the door at the same time as the girls, so I acquiesced. “If you get dressed and get your cartable together, then yes.”

De-facto walked into the living room and saw her forking her scrambled eggs without removing her eyes from the screen. “What’s this?”

It’s usually De-facto who’s slightly more liberal about TV permissions, though he has taken to making Buddy-roo earn minutes in front of her coveted kids channel based on the number of words for her dictée that she can spell correctly.

“It’s a special equation,” said Buddy-roo, “Mama said I could.”

Thirty minutes later we were walking down the stairs en famille, Buddy-roo giggling with glee because both her mom and dad were walking her and her sister to school, something that usually happens only on the first day of the school year.

“It really is a special equation!” Buddy-roo repeated.

“Occasion,” Short-pants corrected her, “and it is a special occasion. It’s mama’s birthday!” She parroted something she’s heard me say more than once in the last few weeks: “it’s her very first 49th birthday.” I suppose that qualifies as a special equation.

The girls started singing happy birthday, again. We’d celebrated as a family the night before and I’d done my best “how lovely!” shtick after opening Buddy-roo’s gift, a wooden box she’d painted – part of an arts & crafts kit she’d gotten for her birthday – wrapped in an Air France baby blanket left over from one of their first trans-Atlantic voyages and now used for swaddling their dolls. I remember that, as a child, the not-quite-panicked-but-urgent press to give a gift but having no means or money to obtain one. I’d scan my bedroom for something I liked enough but wouldn’t mind not having anymore and present it with hopes that it would please. I think the best “Oh, this is lovely” performance was by my sister, who once made an enormously satisfying fuss over a piece of cotton in a small white box.

Modeling such graciousness is key, how else will they learn to accept all gifts with tact, focusing on the gesture and not just the gizmo? Not that it’s always easy (that’s another post, someday) but one must at least try.

Getting to school on time was slightly more complicated since De-facto and I were pushing bikes with us. The plan, unveiled to me in its semi-entirety only that morning, was that after dropping the kids at school I would be whisked away on an overnight to celebrate. The first stop: Gare de Lyon, the train station for the southeast gate of Paris. There we bulldogged our bikes onto the train that took us out of the city, to Fountainbleau, where we rode for a bit through the forest before stopping to tour the chateau there, a venerable museum of secret doors and French royal history. Then a picnic in the gardens there before we set out for the final destination, which turned out to be a 2-hour bike ride away, to a many-starred luxury hotel, Chateau d’Augerville.

The trip wasn’t a total surprise. De-facto had been watching my Google calendar to be sure I didn’t have anything scheduled, although we have differing accounts of when he informed me of the excursion and how much preparatory information was relayed. He’d arranged a patchwork plan that was part-babysitter-part-neighbor to cover child-care, though I felt compelled to intervene just a little to make sure all bases were covered, getting little people to and from rehearsals and recitals that made being out of town on this particular day slightly more complicated. But there have been enough butchered birthdays in the past for me to appreciate the complex level of scheming and planning he’d gone to just to assure that I felt celebrated on my birthday. That in itself is the best gift.

Though there were moments that I wondered whether the birthday trip was more for him than for me. Like when the hill I was pedaling up grew steeper and steeper and just when you thought it would crest it kept going and I wondered why I was on the 3-speed city bike with two of our three packs and he was on the mountain bike (albeit aging) with 15 gears. We’d borrowed bicyles from neighbors and friends – I don’t own one anymore because I Velib’ around Paris and the bike I gave him for his birthday last year is still a coupon in his desk drawer, despite my occasional nagging to redeem it – and he somehow ended up on the lighter more suitable-for-countryside-hills model. This was probably the lowest moment of my birthday and I let loose a few snarling expletives under my breath so that when he circled back to check on me I was able to keep the promise I’d made to myself to be appreciative at all costs.

Once we switched bikes, I sped by him while his gangly knees pumped up and down on the front-basketed Elvira-Gulch bicycle and my mood improved instantly.

Like every bike trip, there were highs and lows. Pedaling carefree along forested lanes, there’s nothing like the weee! of being on a bike in motion or happening upon the haunting ruins of an old cathedral, open to the sky. But also those typical rough moments: the one kilometer you’re obliged to travel (with a head wind) on a route nationale with 18-wheelers rushing past and nearly topping you off the shoulder, or the I-think-we-took-a-wrong-turn and that means we have to ride back up that hill we just raced down in a full weee! state of mind. Or the plan to stop at a café in the next village except the next three villages don’t have a café and your water bottle is empty and you’re parched but saving that orange in your pack for a real emergency. But if you know this about bike trips, you ride it out – pun intended – and in the end, when you pull into an elegant chateau and sit on the terrace with a cold draught beer, looking forward to a nap, a shower and a gastronomic dinner, well, then it’s all worth it. It makes for a very very special equation, no matter how you’re counting your birthdays.


Jun 23 2010

Birthday Courage

The party invitations pile in, Fêtez mon anniversaire! It feels like almost every weekend we’re taking one of our children here from 2-5, the other there from 3-6. The hardest part has been the confounding decision of what kind of present to buy for a young schoolmate (hoping always to avoid being the parent who adds more little pieces of plastic to the ever mounting pile that every mother hates) or the negotiation with De-facto about who delivers and who does the pick-up. Each time we arrive at an apartment that is tidied and decorated, snacks are set out in a neat line of little bowls, the arts & crafts table is prepared and poised to stimulate little imaginations. The parents are fresh and enthusiastic, calmly noting our portable phone numbers just in case. Smiles and see you in three hours. Or more. One party last month lasted from 1 until 6. Lord, that woman had courage.

When we return to retrieve whichever child we’d dropped off for the afternoon celebration, that same apartment is bouleversé with children scrambling around in a sugar-frenzy. Haggard parents open the door, patience tested, tempers suppressed. Our child is then thrust in our arms with a quick gift bag and thank-yous all around. Occasionally, a glass of wine or champagne is served as we come to reclaim our offspring; a celebration of the party’s end – or perhaps the methodology for endurance.

De-facto and I have long managed to avoid the party-with-a-dozen-friends racket. Short-pants’ July birthday always falls during the summer, when everyone is out of Paris and so are we, and Buddy-roo’s October birth date conveniently falls during the 2-week autumn school break, called Toussaints, another moment in the year when we leave the city to spend time at our country house.

We’ve still celebrated our children’s birthdays with a party, but it’s always been a small one, with just the four of us and an aunt or grandmother who might be handy, and the two neighbor kids who live on the farm down the road. Well, and just to make it pleasant, the four or five adults who live nearby. In truth: we’ve been throwing parties for us, adapted to include the birthday in question.

This year, Short-pants has more than hinted at her desire to have a full-on birthday party with her school friends – not just the convenient neighbors – and she is getting too old and too clever to accept “it’s summer vacation” as an excuse. We could no longer delay this parental duty. It’s been a good ride, we got away with being slackers on the birthday thing for a long time. But now it’s time to rise to the occasion.

Today, school lets out at noon (it’s Wednesday) and at two o’clock there will be twelve invited guests under the age of nine assembled together playfully in this rooftop apartment. Pray for good weather, so we can divide and conquer, move some kids down to the courtyard for games, rotate them around for different activities. (Some of our “workshop choreography” may come into play.)

De-facto, the guy who’s normally up for any kind of shake-up, keeps toning down the plans that Short-pants and I have dreamed up for the party. Last weekend she and I brainstormed a bunch of activities and games that might fit in with the theme she has selected for the party: mandalas. When we went to choose among all our ideas (one per post-it), De-facto weighed in heavily with simplicity as his primary criterion. I know he’s right. But the mandala-pizzas were such a good idea! And covering the entire floor with paper and drawing a mandala mural: Brilliant!

Have I mentioned how over the moon Short-pants is about her mandala birthday party?

About this I have mixed emotions. There is obvious delight that comes with witnessing her anticipation of the event. Each morning this week she rises smiling, counting the days until her party. She cannot contain her excitement, yesterday she was nearly jumping out of her skin. At the same time, I wonder, why do we make such a big fuss about birthdays? Is it appropriate to want to be pampered? Or do we just raise expectations that lead to later disappointment? Or else that’s just my story; I hope this is not something she inherits from me.

As much as I’m dreading it – having all these kids under foot at one time, anticipating the decibel level of 12+ sets of enthusiastic vocal cords, preparing for the inevitable re-arrangement of entire home – I know how much this means to her. She is everything an 8-year-old going on nine should be, her enchantment and excitement, leading up to the party, is worth every moment of pain and sacrifice we will endure.

And who knows, maybe we’ll even have fun?


May 25 2010

The Other Barbie

Birthdays are not to be shared. It’s the one single day you get to yourself, the day you were born – the day you opted into this planet. It’s your day. There’s no reason to be magnanimous about it.

I know this because the double birthday party I celebrated years ago with Debbie West was an exercise in being gracious, a task that was really too advanced for my consciousness at the time. Her mother made the most elaborate gingerbread house cake with colorful jellybean trimming. The sixteen candles – our ages added together – dispersed across its roof were too hard to blow out in tandem, the song lengthened uncomfortably at the point of our names. Debbie’s, of course, came first.

Most of the gifts we received were identical – the same duets of birthday wrapping paper folded around matching puzzles, coloring books and Spirograph kits. Except the Barbie Dolls that Susan Olsen brought: Each gift tag was carefully labeled with one of our names in the fine, formal handwriting I recognized as Mrs. Olsen’s, but obviously her mom must have randomly assigned the boxes which were packed with fraternal twin Barbies.

Debbie got the blonde doll. But she was a brunette. Shouldn’t she have gotten the doll with the matching hair? I opened my box in sync with her, noticing the hair color instantly. Before I could stop myself the words popped out, “but I want that one!” The doll in question, of course, the one in her hands, not the one in mine.

I’m pretty sure that everybody heard me, but it was as though each and every person – young and old – tacitly agreed to ignore what I had blurted out. My 8-year old self was too young to be gracious was nevertheless old enough to know that this was not the appropriately thankful response to a gift. I stared at the doll and pretended to love her, knowing the eyes of a roomful of good girls were upon me. But I could not contain the tears that naturally manifest after such a disappointment, tears which burst out from me at full volume.

“It must be too much excitement,” I heard my mother say, “all these girls and all these gifts.”

This is why when Buddy-roo has a moment like this, I redirect her frustration as a good parent should, but inside: mountains of empathy. I suppose if you asked De-facto for his point of view on my birthday spirit, he might suggest not that much has changed.

But birthdays are something. You gotta make them happy, or else they’ll make you sad.

Later at home, after the party, my mother placed the doll prominently on my shelf. I let it sit there, untouched and unloved, eventually letting it fall to the back of the queue of dolls and stuffed animals, neglected, rejected – the other Barbie.