Jan 27 2015

School Daze

I wrestle with the guilt. The shame that we have put our children in such a traditional school, one with the classrooms arranged in rows, facing forward, one in which they are expected to consume and memorize the expertise imparted by an authority in the front of the room, a school with teachers who never coordinate their lesson plans or homework assignments, instructing the students without (or with very little) cross-collaboration with the other teachers. A school which measures success on having the right answers rather than the right questions. A school which is old-fashioned.

I feel guilty, especially considering my profession – purveyor of creative thinking, problem solving and innovation – that I’ve settled for less than the kind of desks_rowseducation I know would be far more useful and inspiring for my children.

The French school is not a bad education. A good portion of the students at the lycée are from local Catalan families who’ve chosen it because of its fine reputation. It provides a rigorous education that prepares children well…for an earlier decade. It’s not – nor was the school they attended in Paris – the kind of school in which I would have expected to have enrolled my children. But we have not managed to find – have I looked hard enough? – a school that fulfills that progressive expectation. When we have found an institution that comes close, it is not close enough to our budget, or close enough to avoid an hour-long commute, each way, every day.

Homeschooling? I’m not that kind of mom. I need a break from them during the day and I need to throw myself into my work. Is that selfish? Or just honest?

“But they’ve lived in different cultures.” This is the protest I hear from my friends when I express out loud my disquiet. “And they already speak four languages.”

Yes, I know we’ve given them a wider horizon. I know they see the world differently living abroad and traveling the way we do. I know that learning languages is probably an advantage, it helps you understand not only the words, but the people and culture that speak with those words. This, I think, Google Translate will never achieve.

I watch them memorize facts and prepare for tests, not for life. They tick off boxes to get their homework assignments done rather than delving into projects and gobbling up the subject. Maybe that’s a tall order, that it wouldn’t feel like work, that they would relish school. Is it so far fetched? What if school was fun? What if they worked on projects in a way that explained the world to them, that taught them things they cared about? What if school seemed more relevant to their lives now? What if school engaged the students to be more creative, rather than killing their creativity?

~ ~ ~

Each September there’s a school meeting at which the teachers and administration are collected to address the assembled parents about the year ahead. I’m inevitably disappointed after this meeting, to the degree that I wonder why I even attend. I long for a visionary administrator – this is an oxymoron, I suppose, except I know it is possible – who will launch into an inspiring presentation about the education they hope to provide the educate_the_monkeystudents. I want teachers who will get up and talk about helping students learn to love to learn, to help them think and ask and be curious. Instead, meetings at the French school begin with, and rather abruptly, the rules and regulations. What time classes start. The signatures necessary for students to leave the campus. The punishment for being late. The punishment system in general. The rules about carrying backpacks and doing homework. I leave shaking my head: What am I doing, with my kids in this kind of school?

Just a few weeks ago the school sponsored a meeting for teachers and parents during which we were assigned 5-minute slots – yes, five minutes – back-to-back with each teacher. This is barely enough time to explain what’s happening, let alone to dialogue about any issues. The parents dash from classroom to classroom to keep on time, only to find themselves waiting in line because a teacher took too long with somebody else, looking bewildered and muttering to ourselves is this really the way to get meaningful parent-teacher interaction?

I made the mistake of asking, gently, one of Buddy-roo‘s teachers if there was any way she might consider adding other forms of instruction to address different learning styles of her students. The handout she’d distributed for the myth of Isis and Osiris was rather dry, not to mention that it was unintelligible because it was a photocopy of a photocopy. When I was helping Buddy-roo study for the test, it was clear she didn’t understand the story, let alone why it matters. So I gave her an assignment: go to YouTube and find five videos about Isis and Osiris and watch them. Buddy-roo transformed after watching the videos, and she could retell the story and even draw some conclusions about why it was an important myth.

Ludique? Nous n’avons pas le temps!” She explained they didn’t have the time to be playful. Her excuse: there’s a big test three years from now. They have to prepare for it, seriously.

Seriously? We can’t make learning even a tiny bit fun, or at least interesting?For a test that’s years from now?

I knew better than to press further. It was already a risk to even suggest something like this. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to see how she’d respond. On the way home I worried if she might punish Buddy-roo because of her meddling mother. I should know better than to taunt a schoolmarm. Or should I know better than to put my kids into such an old-fashioned, rigid system?
kids_at_work
~ ~ ~

Last week I attended a TEDx conference here in Barcelona, one dedicated to the topic of education. A roster of fascinating speakers paraded on stage, each one with an uplifting story: a cross-disciplinary teaching team, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial education program, or a futuristic view of how to teach our children well, for the coming century, not the last. It was all terribly inspiring, and yet I finished the daylong conference feeling even more discouraged. The evidence is there that there are better ways to teach our children, using multi-disciplinary curriculum, team teaching and technology. I know it’s happening in forward thinking school systems, in other places in the world. But the inertia in the system we have chosen is bigger than us. Or I don’t have the stamina to take it on.

As parents, De-facto and I can shore things up around the edges. We invent games for doing homework, we use Post-it notes to help them think about what to cover in their school presentations, we try to help them cultivate their imagination at home, we drag them to creativity conferences and camps. But I know it’s not reinforced at school, at least not consistently. There are some bright spots: Short-pants does have an imaginative English teacher who uses inventive methods in her class, and both the girls rave about their maths teachers. And yes, they’re learning lots of languages. But are they learning what to do with those languages?

I know it’s not easy being a teacher. I don’t think I could do it, spending the entire day with large throngs of pre-adolescents. I know they’re underpaid, even at private and semi-private schools like the Lycée Francais. I know they’re saddled with huge classes, and unruly, overly-entitled students. I know the system they’re working in is focused on testing rather than understanding. But I wonder, do they feel guilty, too? These teachers must read what I’m reading, see what I seeing on-line about schools and the future – it has to be part of the zeitgeist of the world of education. Do they feel as powerless as I do?

I’m trying to do more for the girls. Teaching them to code, rejecting the archaic gender bias and reminding them they are good at math and science, encouraging their passions, nourishing their creativity. But then every morning I send them out the door to go to a school that I’m not convinced can give them the education to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet, to enter a world that will be very different than the one I encountered after school, to solve possibly insurmountable problems that we’ve hoisted upon their generation. And what do I do? I wave goodbye and close the door, taking inhttp://www.danwalkerartworks.com/ the quiet that descends after their departure. I wrap my hands around a fresh cup of coffee, set my gaze toward my computer to plot my day, attacking my own list of things to do and learn, scrambling to keep up with my own life, let alone to envision what needs to be done for them to create theirs.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Burrowed in to our day-to-day, it’s hard to lift our heads and look at the horizon and think strategically about our lives, our work, our kids and their schooling. Until I carve out the time for that, I’m left with the guilt. Until, I guess, it gets so bad that I do something, which might be simply to decide to stop feeling guilty. They are still bright eyed, curious, open-hearted girls, and they’ll do just fine. But I keep wondering, could we do better?

(Photo credit: “You are the Bows” is artwork by Dan Walker.)


Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
winston_on_the_road
In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.


Oct 13 2014

More Than We Can Chew

They all headed out and left me to the quiet apartment, on a mission that might take several hours. This gift of time to myself, on a weekend morning is something to cherish. Not that I need to make such a distinction between weekday and weekend, except the buzz – outside in the world and inside on-line – has a different meter on a Saturday or Sunday than during the week. I closed the door behind them, wishing them well, and then, time_on_my_armthe choice: do I go to the computer and write (or fuss about on-line)? Do I climb back into bed with a good book? Do I attend to one of those projects not important enough to displace work during the week, but too hard to complete with my family underfoot?

I’m one of those people who likes to make things neat before I sit down to work. Not 90-degree order, but a modest tidiness in my immediate environment. Open drawers and cupboards annoy me. I don’t like to leave dirty dishes in the sink. I am capable of walking by the couch without adjusting the throw pillows, but if they’re askew, why not fix them? I like a bit of order before I create. Today I knew it was essential to do a bit of household organizing, picking up around the apartment. When De-facto and the girls returned, they wouldn’t be alone.

I did a sweep of the apartment. Shoes left in the hall were tucked away on shelves and in closets. School bags and leather purses perched on benches, tables and desks. Any stray little plastic toys, Pet Shop creatures or Fisher Price people – yes, they still occasionally play with these – were stowed out of sight. Once I thought I’d made a thorough survey of the apartment, I sat down to use the rest of the time for more creative pursuits. But I was ready. Or as ready as possible.

I heard the family out in the street. Buddy-roo has a distinctively sharp and opinionated voice, and with my balcony doors open – Indian Summer luxury in Barcelona – I could hear her loud and clear. They’d gone out without keys, requiring use of the interphone. The sound of the buzzer instantly followed by the fervent barking of a dog. And so it begins.

~ ~ ~

The day before, we’d hiked up to the dog pound at the base of Tibidabo mountain on the outskirts of the city. De-facto and Buddy-roo had been up there several times during the last month, meeting the animals and talking with the volunteers and even helping to walk some of the dogs to get a feelchoose me for their temperament. After each visit they’d return with tales of barking hounds and puppy-dog eyes. Buddy-roo was remarkably patient about the process, seeming not to mind that after each trip they came home empty handed. Maybe it was too hard for her to choose from among all the dogs vying to be selected by her.

Because it was her choice. She’s the one who’s been yapping at us for years about getting a dog, and she succeeded at the get-a-dog-challenge, so we knew sometime around her birthday (coming up in two weeks) we’d be adding a pet to our family. A large portion of the responsibility of caring for this dog will fall on her, but it still has to be a team effort. Given how much of the day she’s at school, that means De-facto and I will need to do some dog walking. Will I regret this? The parental leash around our necks has eased considerably in the last year: the girls can get to and from school on their own, they’re okay to be home alone for a few hours, we can go out to dinner without having to bring in a babysitter. Life was just getting easier, and here we go complicating it with the addition of a family pet. It’s a lot of work and we lead busy lives. Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

The fact that I was accompanying them to the pound meant that a decision was imminent. A few of the dogs Buddy-roo had her eye on had already been adopted by other families. Or else they had even the tiniest bit of Rottweiler in them, requiring extra paperwork and registration with the city hall, a step of administration we hoped to avoid. We strolled along the long row of cages, cueing a chorus of barking and bickering with every set of dogs we passed, peering in each cage with the hope of discovering the one who’d be our dog. We narrowed it down to the three favorites who were summoneddoggies_waiting for us and put on leashes. We’d get to walk them, with a trained volunteer, all at once. As we passed the main office, the vet came out and explained we were welcome to walk the three dogs, but two of them were already reserved. It was by that process of elimination that Buddy-roo made her choice. The mid-sized rusty-colored mostly cocker spaniel was ours, if we wanted him. We could reserve him and take 48-hours to decide for sure.

The focus of the discussion around the dinner table that night: what would we name our new dog? It didn’t surprise me that De-facto was suggesting the same names he floated back when we choosing names for our children. It’s a good thing we ended up with two daughters because we could never agree on even one boy’s name. He wanted Linus, a name I like well enough but it would have been butchered in France. I’d counter with a clever but ridiculous name, Buster. We’d volley back and forth with our favorite names, always ending at an impasse. But now, both Linus and Buster were in the running again, though both seemed more workable as canine options. Jordi, the ubiquitous Catalan name, also made the short list, as did Winston, a name the girls know of because of a song by a band called Bound Stems that gets a lot of play on our long car trips. Nothing was decided, except to wait and see how it felt when we had him on our own leash – then we’d know the right name.

~ ~ ~

The dog charged into the apartment, putting his nose to the floor and and sniffing along the baseboards to every corner and cranny, his long toenails percussive on our wooden floor.

“They said he’ll want to smell everything, at first, to get oriented,” said Buddy-roo, giggling as the dog darted wildly around the apartment. “Good boy, Winston!”

She had, apparently, decided on his name.

I knew he’d want to sniff around and scope out the territory. That’s why I’d straightened things up earlier, so he could do his scent-tour without the distraction of any stray items to chew on. The dog is 3-years old, which means we shouldn’t have a lot of puppy issues, but I also know that dogs like to chew things, usually the precious things you don’t want them to chew. And that when you take on a rescued dog, you don’t always know what you’re getting, in terms of training or behavior. I eyed the two fauteuils thatcuddling_winston had been my mother’s and my grandmother’s before her, and wondered what was to become of them with our new resident. Plus Winston was stinky, after living in a cage with three other dogs. We let him do his sniff around, and then we put him in the bathtub so we could stand to smell him.

After his bath, he was still a bit frantic, understandably. A new home, new smells, new people, a tub of hot water and soap – it’s a lot of novelty to take in after a month in a cage. Winston’s nose kept pulling him around the apartment, he had to check out every room, again. Despite my preparations, I hadn’t noticed a small pair of panties that had slipped under the bed, far enough to be out of my view, but just in the line of sight of a medium-sized, curious dog. And not just any pair of panties, a delicate pair with lace and ribbons and elegant stitching, the kind that costs no small amount of cash.

“Winston!” Buddy-roo let out a peel of laughter when she saw him trotting around with a strip of orange silk ribbon hanging out of his mouth. How fitting that the first chewing casualty from our new dog would be my favorite pair of underwear.

“Winston!” De-facto scolded, as we huddled around the dog. His teeth were clamped together, there was no pulling those panties out. He wouldn’t open his mouth, and I watched his drool drip from the dainty little bow held tight between his gums. We tried a number of strategies to get him to open his jaw, to no avail. We certainly didn’t want to reward him for this behavior, but it seemed the only way to get him to open his mouth was to offer him some food. The vet had given us a few doggie treats for the way home. Buddy-roo held one up, in front of the dog, and the moment he opened his mouth De-facto grabbed his jaw open and pulled out the panties, without getting bitten himself, and more remarkably, without tearing the lace or silk. No surprise that De-facto is expert at getting his hands on my panties.

~ ~ ~

The dog has been in our home for a week now, and I can report that he is, in the broad sense, a good and easy dog. He’s affectionate (and especially good at receiving affection). He’s calm, most of the time. We still have to manage his excitement around comings and goings, but we’ve made some progress since his arrival. He does have a fierce bark, but at least he only barks on two occasions: when it’s time to go out for a walk, or when the buzzer or the doorbell rings. We have some training to do on this front, but I have to say I appreciate his instinct.

Despite the underwear incident, it turns out he’s not much of a chewer. Our shoes remain untouched wherever we take them off. De-facto and the girls are always leaving their clothes on the floor, but Winston seems uninterested in chewing on them. He pays no attention to the family heirloom armchairs, and doesn’t jump on the table to try for our food. His thing is paper. So we’ve had to monitor the bathroom bins and toilet paper rolls, or else we find a trail of used cotton rounds and paper squares throughout the house. We are in the process of teaching him to stay out of the bathrooms and the kitchen, and to walk with us rather than to pull us along like a sled-dog. On that front, we probably need as much training as he does. So once we get our Internet connected – we are still waiting for the technician, who’s bound to cause some barking – we’ll be watching a full compliment of the Dog Whisperer videos, I’m sure.
winston_in_my_office
Okay, there’s been an occasional fracas: De-facto got bit by Winston and another dog when their sniffing turned to growling and then to fighting. We’re all getting used to each other and ritualizing our routines. Overall, Winston’s assimilation into the family has been relatively easy. He’s happy to walk up the mountain with us or go for a run, but equally content to laze around on the couch while the girls toil at their homework and we slog away at our computers. I hope he’s happy here. I hope he grows to feel like part of our family. He’s growing on me, a little more each day. As I write this, Winston is curled up beside my desk, taking an afternoon nap. I can see some rapid eye movement behind his eyelids, and his legs kick occasionally in his sleep. Maybe it’s a doggie-dream of running wild in a field, heading towards a bottomless bowl of kibbles, unencumbered by the leash and our commands to heel or sit at the crosswalk. Or maybe he’s kicking his way towards through a sea of soft, silk lingerie, sniffing around for the perfect pair of fancy lace panties, without anybody there to chew him out for it.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Jun 19 2014

The Other Man

After I’d called to arrange to see him, at his place, I felt dirty. I hadn’t been with anyone else for a long time. What would it be like? I mean, you get used to someone. Someone who knows what you like. Someone who knows how to make you feel good. Someone who knows your secrets. It’s an intimacy you develop over time. You’re with the same person for years. You build a trust. Why would you go anywhere else? It could ruin everything.
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I stared at his number, grinning up at me from the WhatsApp dialogue cloud. He spoke English and French, if that would make me more comfortable than having to do this in Spanish, a language I’m still acquiring. In fact, he was French. He’d know how to do this.

I looked carefully at myself in the mirror, fussing with my hair. There’s a kind of conversation you have in these moments, close to the mirror, face-to-face with yourself. The candid, truthful tell-it-like-it-is self-talk, where you call yourself by your last name. Are you really going through with this?

His place was in a ritzy neighborhood, near Turo Park. At least it’d be fancy. I have two friends who live on the park, but I didn’t want to see them on my way there. I didn’t even tell them I was going. I wanted to be discreet.

Later, standing before him in my robe, he combed his fingers through my hair, grabbing it and pulling it from the roots, marveling at its thickness.

“How long have you worn it this way?” he said. “It suits you.”

I thought about my coiffeur in Paris and the first time I went to see him, eight years ago. I was mired down with a too-busy-with-two-toddlers-to-care hairdo, a straight and blunt pageboy cut. He persuaded me to sport a messier, spiky hairdo. There were tears as he cut my long, even locks into layers, but in the end, there was no question that the new, wilder look worked much better. Not only that, it helped me get my mojo back. I was different after that haircut, more like my previous pre-mom self.

“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning in. “It won’t hurt.”

He put his hands on my shoulder and turned me toward a long, flat, reclining chair. He moved behind me and eased me into the black leather seat, cradling my head carefully as against the porcelain sink. I heard the water before I felt it, and his hands squeezed the water through my hair, making sure it was damp before he applied the perfumed shampoo. His strong fingers massaged my head, and I felt myself letting go.
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Sitting in front of the mirror at his table, I watched the chunks of my hair fall to the ground. He had his own way of trimming it, circling around my scalp in a quick rotation, each pass clipping off a bit more. It was different than what my usual coiffeur does, but I had no choice now. I was in the hands of this man. He would butcher my hair or, who knows, maybe he’d make it better. There was no turning back. I exhaled, nervously.

“Close your eyes,” he whispered. “You just have to trust me.”

What is it, this thing we have with our hairdressers? I know I’m not the only one. The Fiesta Nazi, one of my favoritest friends in Paris, has been going to the same woman for thirty years. My mother saw the same man for just as long. Do a survey of the women around you. I’d wager most of them have a steady hairstylist, one to whom they are fiercely loyal.

Finding the right one is like dating. You have a lot of one-night-stands where the walk of shame is just about walking out of the salon wishing you’d never gone in. You’ll go to anyone who’s recommended, politely explaining the various quirks and hairlicks you’ve lived with your whole life. It’s always about finding the right balance between their expertise and your knowledge of your own head. Once you happen upon the hairdresser who gives you a good cut, time after time, and who makes the best out of how you look from the neck up, well, you hold on tight. You only leave because you have to, or because of a very, very compelling recommendation. Which is what took me, eight years ago, to my coiffeur in Paris, the second most important man in my life.

When De-facto and I first talked about moving to Barcelona, I checked out the flight schedules to Paris. If I could think ahead and get a good fare, or fly through Paris on my way to other places, could I get back every six weeks or so? My hair grows like a field of weeds, I used to cut it every four weeks. I could stretch it if I had to, but the last days before the next appointment were sloppy ones. Remarkably, since we’ve moved to Barcelona – just under a year – I’ve managed to have legitimate reasons to travel to Paris almost every month. Each time I paid a visit to my coiffeur. Until now. It’d been 10 weeks since I sat in his chair. The mop on my head was a Medusa mess.

“Mama,” Buddy-roo shook her head at me. “Your up-hair is all down.”

She was right. No amount of product could keep my thick mop in the preferred vertical position. I’d pinch and twist it to stand up, but within 5 minutes it wilted. I looked like I’d slept with a bowl on my head.
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A number of people have noted that eventually, if we stay in Barcelona, I’ll have to find a new hairdresser. I’ve acknowledged this with a mildly-affirmative grunt. I don’t want a new hairdresser. I love my Paris coiffeur. He is the second most important man in my life. De-facto knows this and indulges my almost monthly trips to Paris to see another man, if only in a cranial sense. But he’s given me my style. He’s played with my color, moving me from blonde to red to my current shade, honey-badger. He experiments enough to keep it fresh, but not enough to ruin the look he has created for me. He’s a coiffeur coveted for his runway experience, but he’s not as hard on the wallet as you’d think, especially given the consistent quality of my color and cut.

But I feel like I cheated on him, going to see another hairdresser. Even though the other man did a perfectly fine job. He was quick and confident with his shears, he stayed true to the spirit of my original hairstyle, cutting my hair very much like my signature look. I had to wash and style it again myself the next day, but it does, mostly, what I want it to do. It’s good enough. Just good enough to carry me through until I can get to Paris again to see the second most important man in my life.


Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

They warned me. The ubiquitous voices of been-there-already parents, well-meaning strangers and card-carrying members of the cliché club. It all goes by so fast. They were referring to my children’s childhood, and how quickly it time_flieswould pass. When I was knee-deep in diapers and breast pumps, unable to find even a few minutes to brush my teeth, trying to coordinate conference calls with nap time, I’d just turn the other way and roll my eyes. Deep down I knew that someday I’d agree with them, but it didn’t make me any more receptive to their unsolicited commentary.

Now time screams by and each day the hands spin faster and faster around the clock. Those two tow-headed toddlers are long and lean. Short-pants is nearly as tall as I am. Buddy-roo is not far behind her in height. They can dress and feed themselves. They manage abstract concepts and demonstrate emotional intelligence. They are becoming interesting. Now that the extreme parenting required in those early days is – thankfully – behind me, I find myself observing my children with awe and amusement. I have to throw out an occasional bone: a reminder to set the table, help out with a complex homework question or to lob in some carefully-cloaked advice. I watch them knowing I will soon be irrelevant. They are sprinting toward a horizon that’s not mine to reach.

~ ~ ~

I don’t know why I thought that moving to a new city would give me more time. I imagined an uncluttered life, a tabula rasa, starting fresh without obligations that steal time. I must have been remembering my first year in Paris, when I’d go off on a Sunday morning and explore a different arrondissement block by block just for the sake of wandering, returning home as the sun set, nourished by the long quiet hours. I had only a few friends in the city, and fewer invitations to meet up with them. That was the mid-90s, and although I had an email address – a Compuserve number – the volume of messages in my inbox was a small fraction of what calls for a response today. The public internet existed, too, but it was nascent in its ability to eat up blocks of our time. That first year, though lonely, allowed me to stop and think about who and what I wanted to be and do. I foolishly incorporated that memory into my expectations of the move to Barcelona.

Laugh at me now. Living in a new place, everything takes longer. The errands that used to be on the way to somewhere aren’t quite as efficient. Getting around isn’t second nature. I’m operating in a different language. Spanish classes twice a week are helping with that, but these take up time, too. A move with kids adds another dimension of things to monitor and manage. I’m running faster than ever, once again on a hamster wheel but this time one of my own inadvertent design. The mantra that I hate to repeat comes too often to my lips: There’s never enough time.

~ ~ ~

Last week I spent time in Italy at the CREA conference, where I facilitated a workshop about time and creativity. It was a reprise of a 3-day workshop I’d done before, only this year, paradoxically, it was scheduled as a one-day program. The workshop wasn’t about time management, but rather an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with time and how we view it and use it. Not that I’m any kind of expert on this subject, but I took on the assignment because it’s one I need to explore over and over again. I wrote time_is_nowabout this before, when I chronicled the previous workshop, but it’s still true: we teach what we most need to learn.

Think of all the language around time: how we spend time, save time, waste time and kill time. We use time up, we take time out. Time is money, time waits for no thing and for no one. Time flies. We’re running out of time. We often talk about time in terms of Chronos, its passage in hours, days and years, counted and quantified. Contrast that with Kairos, the propitious moment of time, the opportune moment. This is the Carpe Diem approach, making the best of the now. These two notions of time dance together through our lives. While we can’t escape Chronos, we can be more deliberate about Kairos. All it takes, really, is paying attention to what’s happening right now. I had a lot of Kairos moments on the Camino, because I slowed down and paid attention. The only thing that stops me from doing that now is me. Sometimes I’m so busy keeping up, I forget to savor the little moments that, when pieced together later, are what add up to a lifetime of time well spent.

~ ~ ~

There are times when she is shy, painfully uncomfortable talking out loud in front of people. At the conference I invited Short-pants to attend a small group session with me, one where you reflect on the events of the day. She was eager to come and participate. When it was her turn to talk, though, she struggled to find the words, and even had a hard time looking up at the others in the small circle of chairs. I’m not troubled by this, she’s gregarious enough at home with family and in the company of close friends. It’s that I’m always surprised by her timing: it’s never quite logical, when she goes all shy, and when she steps up to take the stage.

On the last night of the CREA conference, a musical ensemble called Cluster performed an entertaining and interactive a cappella concert. After singing several songs and medleys, demonstrating their capacity for harmonizing and blending their voices to sound like musical instruments, they asked for three volunteers from the audience. Short-pants shot her hand up in the air, without even knowing what she was volunteering to do. Once on stage, she learned that she would conduct the singers, and that in her hands was the opportunity to go faster or slower, louder or softer. She was the youngest of the volunteer conductors, but probably the most deliberate, waving one hand to lead the singers through a version of The Beatles’ Let it Be with fierce concentration. she_conducts The audience applauded her wildly, for her courage more than her conducting prowess, and she won the opportunity to conduct a second time, as part of a competition, with the winner of another trio of volunteers. Once again she took the stage, this time the song was O Sole Mio, which she’d never heard before, but she managed to wave both arms this time and finish to more wild applause, enough to make her the victor once again. She stood tall and proud on the stage, beaming broadly, surveying the audience that had crowned her, taking in the moment fully.

From the moment she ran up to the stage until she came back to hug me when it was all over, time stopped. I didn’t think about what we’d been doing before, I didn’t wonder about what would happen after. I stood in the back of a big round room, my eyes riveted on her, my hands cupped over my mouth, feeling nervous and surprised and delighted all at once. She grabbed that moment for herself and in turn gave me one, too. That and a little elbow nudge in the side about our old friend time. It’s too easy to focus on how fast time goes by, watching your children grow up. Better just to pay attention, while it’s all happening, which is when they remind you how to seize the day.


Oct 8 2013

Taking Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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


Sep 20 2013

Homing In

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

We have a found a place to live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aug 23 2013

Pack for Later

Each room gets worse before it gets better. Moving is not an orderly activity. One does not simply open a cardboard box, reinforce it with masking tape and begin pulling objects from shelves and drawers, calmly placing them in the carton. Maybe one does, a professional mover, or someone who doesn’t keep mementos, someone dutiful to the touch every piece of paper once rule. That one is not me. So many pieces of my life are squirreled away in the recesses of my closets and drawers; each time I open one to empty it out, I am arrested by memories.

That’s how the mess starts. In the back of my closet, I find two delicate gray silk bags, like large envelopes – once used, I think, for keeping lingerie or something. It’s not clear, their purpose. They belonged to my grandmother. I’ve never used them. I do not want to discard them, but I won’t need them immediately. Where to put them? I carry the two silk sacks around the apartment, thinking about where they might be stored, finally creating a purgatory pile for those objects that will not be taken to the garbage or the recycling bin, but nonetheless are not necessities for the next few months, the pack for later pile.boxes_behind_bed

Emptying the bathroom cupboards, I realize a shoe box would be useful for storing such purgatorial items. In our office, under the shelves behind the guest bed, I keep a stash of boxes, just like my mother kept boxes of every size in her backroom, so we were never in need when we wanted to wrap a present. To get to this stash I must move the bed. In the process, I find a wooden crate filled with all the love letters De-facto and I exchanged in our three-year long-distance relationship before he moved to Paris. I can’t resist the urge to peek inside. The letters and cards, compressed in the box for years, fall out onto the bed, a cascade of my own tiny handwriting and his chicken scribble, all our early love packed into folded pages. Like magnets, they pull me into the mood of those heady, hopeful days, when the mail was a main link between us. I reel myself back from this dangerous chute of nostalgia, folding the letter I started to open and pressing the box to close and clamp it shut.

Behind it, another box filled with the Short-pants and Buddy-roo‘s school papers. Their primary notebooks are easier to toss, though I am compelled to skim through them, just to review the work they have done, to see the evolution of their penmanship, the precision of the French teaching methodology. I flip through each one before putting it in the recycling pile. The notebooks from maternelle (ages three to five) are harder to part with. The French pre-school is brilliant; the combination of art and learning cleverly intertwined. Oversized notebooks with pages of drawings and paintings and crafted activities, evidence of the girls first efforts at expressing themselves, too precious to part with yet. As I push that box aside, I find another one stuffed with clothes I’d forgotten about. Of course these must be laid on the bed and sorted, and actually, that sweater will fit Buddy-roo, so I take it upstairs and…

Three hours later I return to the bathroom with a shoebox. But now every room on the apartment has a cupboard or a drawer thrown open, its contents spilled onto the floor in three piles: throw away, pack for now, or pack for later.

~ ~ ~

We’ve been restless for several years. In 2008, De-facto did a reconnaissance trip to Buenos Aires, to see if it would make sense for us to move there. He came back mildly enthusiastic, but then work picked up and other things happened and we let that idea slip away. We are not unhappy in Paris. Our life is convenient and convivial. The school is close. Our friends, many of love_paristhem parents at the same school, are the right mix of worldly but down-to-earth. We live in the heart of the city and my favorite restaurants, bars and shops are all footsteps away. There is nothing wrong with our life here.

Why would we leave, then? Because we can. We are not tethered to any particular geographical coordinates for our work. De-facto and I both travel away from Paris to exercise our profession, and any preparation for our assignments happens via email and virtual meetings. As much as we love Paris, we love to explore other places and we know the difference between traveling as a tourist and immersing yourself in another culture for an extended stay. We want the girls to acquire more languages, and not to be too rooted in one culture.

Mostly, though, we’re doing it because we need to change. We need to mix it up, put ourselves in a situation where we have to start anew. It will keep our brains from shrinking. Somebody asked us about leaving and De-facto and I responded almost simultaneously, “so we don’t get old.” Taking a risk and trying something new, forcing old patterns to break and new ones to form, this seems to us a reasonable antidote to getting grumpy and stodgy and fixed in our ways.

Paris, if you love her, is a hard city to leave. So maybe it’s not for good. Maybe it’s just a year to have an experience elsewhere. This is what we’ve told the school, so that the girls could be re-enrolled. This is what we’ve told our friends as they stare back at us, mystified. This is what we’ve told ourselves, to keep from being overwhelmed by the decision and its ensuing torrent of tasks and emotions: maybe it’s just a sabbatical from our beloved Paris.

~ ~ ~

The school was the linchpin. During our visit to Barcelona last March we visited the Lycée Francais and met with the headmistress. The girls eyes widened with every step at the large, well-equipped classrooms, the tennis courts, a climbing wall. Short-pants was ecstatic about the size and mood of the library. Buddy-roo’s class year was over-inscribed and her enrollment was not guaranteed, so we applied with our fingers crossed. Word came only at the very end of June that both girls had been accepted. As long as we knew they could have an easy transition – courses will be primarily in French, just like their old school, but they’ll also have classes in English, Spanish and Catalán – we had the green light to move to Barcelona.
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The obvious next step: rent an apartment. De-facto and I went there in July, pounding the pavement around the school and further afield. We returned with several intriguing options, none of which have panned out. I wanted to go back and look again, and now that we have the lay of the land, our online apartment hunting has yielded a dozen more options. But Barcelona, like Paris, shuts down for the end of August. I couldn’t schedule enough appointments to make it worth the expensive trip. So we will arrive in Barcelona, just about a week from now, without a place to live.

That’s not the hardest part. A friend has loaned us her place for a week, and there are dozens of Air BnB apartments to rent for short term stays. What’s harder is the not knowing. Not knowing if we need furniture or not. Not knowing how long we might be in temporary digs. Not knowing what has to come now, what can come later. Moving is a tumultuous experience even if you can picture the next stop. The abstract quality of our destination is my greatest challenge.

~ ~ ~

There is a frenzy of things to do. Papers to put in order, closets to empty, boxes to pack, doctors appointments to get out of the way in order to arrive with a clean bill of health and a few months to find new practitioners. I take advantage of the familiar conveniences while I can: refilling prescriptions at my pharmacy, getting my watch repaired at the shop around the corner. Friends want to see us before we go for a last lunch or dinner, a goodbye drink, a final nightcap. From the moment I rise each day until I collapse in bed near midnight, I am occupied with the preparations for our departure.

Add to that a grand list of tasks to prepare for our arrival in Barcelona. Searching for additional apartments, touching base with agents and organizing visits for when we arrive, contacting a “fixer” who will help us set up bank accounts, phone and internet service once we finally have an dresser_unpackedaddress. Checking the website of the new school to see about starting time for new classes and what books and supplies we must purchase.

There was an agility exercise we used have to do in elementary school – for the Presidential Physical Fitness test – in which you had to jump from side to side, crossing lines of masking tape laid out in intervals on the gym floor. I feel like I’m stuck in that exercise right now, stepping sideways, back and forth, cleaning here, calling there, sorting here, packing there, testing my dexterity as I transition between our current home to the next.

At some point the frenzy is too much, the packing and the sorting and the errands, the emotional weight of the goodbyes and and good luck meet-ups with local friends. I survey the mess around me, wondering how I’ll ever get it all done. This is the kind of moment when I raise my eyes to the sky at the most organized woman I ever knew, and under my breath I ask my mother, what do I do?

I close my eyes to contain the tears – she never liked criers – but I can’t hold them. Tears of sadness about leaving. Tears of exhaustion from the full-on press of activity. Tears of release. And then I hear her voice, loud and clear, in my mind, or my imagination, wherever her voice resides.

“Try ironing.”

On a dining chair, a pile of clothes is mounting. Our Wednesday child-care helper used to do the ironing for me, but we let him go because we were gone most of the summer and now we’re leaving. I told myself if I had time, maybe I’d get to it. In this messy moment, cardboard and plastic strewn about the apartment, everything up in the air: no place to live and no idea how it’ll all get sorted, I pull out the ironing board, wrench it apart, plug in the iron and wait for it to steam to life. The clothes are from the winter stash, they’d gotten too musty to pack without washing them first. I take each item, a favorite dress of Short-pants, Buddy-roo’s layered skirt, De-facto’s plaid shirts – and one by one, I iron them. I dig into the drawers for for_just_a_momentdishtowels and pillowcases, and I iron them. I breath deeply in tandem with the iron as it releases its steam each time I set it upright. Then I press it down again, ironing back and forth to smooth out the wrinkles.

At the end, a pile of pressed items rests on the arm of the couch. I feel calmer. I’ve managed to draw some small measure of order out of the chaos, taken hold of the mess around me and found one small corner of things I could iron out, a stack of laundry I can be proud of, just before I put it in the pile to pack for later.

.

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


Mar 6 2013

The Ennui

I heard a long, shrieking moan from upstairs. I couldn’t tell it if was one of Short-pants‘ angry moans or the start of a crying jag. I walked to the foot of the stairs and turned the ear that wasn’t against the telephone – I was talking to my sister – to try and hear what was happening. After the initial wail, nothing. It was quiet.
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Had I not been on the telephone, I’d have called up to her or climbed up to check. But I hate it when I’m talking to someone who switches to a conversation with their kids mid-stream, often without a warning or a quick excuse me. Since there wasn’t any continuation from the original cry, I figured she’d sorted it out. If not, I knew I’d hear from her.

After the call finished, I went upstairs and found Short-pants curled up in her bed. Buddy-roo was sitting beside her, stroking her hair with a consoling air.

“She has a fever,” Buddy-roo said, somber, like a doctor pronouncing a fatal illness.

I put my hand on Short-pants’ forehead. There was nothing feverish about it.

“What’s wrong, sweet?” I asked.

“I just felt…” She paused and moaned again. “…some boredom coming on.”

I swallowed the snicker that wanted to leap out – this is one of those instances when parenting requires such suppression – trying to think of how best to address the problem of what was clearly, to Short-pants, a serious ennui. All that came to mind was oh no, here comes adolescence.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered, as if in pain, “that I’m becoming a teenager.”

~ ~ ~

I can’t remember the last time I was bored. I think I might welcome it with my own kind of moan, one of joy. How lovely to have nothing in particular to do, no tasks in the queue, no pressing items on deck. I know boredom has its drawbacks, but I’d gladly endure them for a temporary bout of it.
no_queueing
I think boredom must be good for you. In those moments of having nothing to do, or feeling like you have nothing to do, there’s reason to stop and reflect. What should I do? What do I want to do? Or even if you have a lot of things to do and it all seems tiresome – that’s a different kind of boredom – there’s an awareness that something is not quite right. It’s a signal to pay attention, a call to fix your direction, your mood, or both.

The opposite of boredom, I suppose, is being in the flow, aligned in mind and spirit with what you’re doing, so absorbed by an activity that hours pass quickly while engaged in it. It feels like this state of flow is harder and harder to achieve these days, compared to when Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first wrote about it in the ’90s, because our concentration is constantly interrupted, more than ever before.

How many of us live between boredom and flow, the purgatorial territory of just-tryin-to-keep-up? Not that it’s so terrible; there are moments of satisfaction and delight sprinting through the day-to-day. There’s even a little room for fun and laughter, just that it happens at the speed of light before turning nose back to the grindstone to attend to the oncoming deluge of professional, personal and familial tasks pressing forward. A little boredom wouldn’t hurt. More time in the flow would be ideal.

~ ~ ~

The girls are, at the moment, addicted to a game called Subway Surfer, which, thanks to the iCloud, exists on both my iPhone and iPad, so they don’t argue over who gets to play it. The app was downloaded as a reward, used only when homework and practice and chores are completed. It’s also a useful deterrent to interruptions when I have an evening conference call. In this game, the avatar – a punk kid with a spray can – is caught tagging in a train yard and must escape a captor by running along the tracks and up and over the trains, train_graffiticollecting large gold coins along the way. During the course of a single session, the more you succeed, the faster the little avatar screams along the rails, over and under barriers and zig-zagging around trains and through tunnels. Short-pants especially is adept at handling this speed with her index finger, Buddy-roo prefers her thumb but moves with agility to outrun the captor for longer than I can. My reflexes, though improving with practice, are still inferior to theirs. Or maybe I crash because it reminds me too much of my real life: things start out seeming in control, I’m buzzing along picking up coins and effortlessly jumping over obstacles. The more I seem to accomplish, the more there is to handle, and the speed of things seems to be like an avatar running out of control, crashing and burning beneath the front of an oncoming train.

~ ~ ~

She was a sweet little girl, innocent, naive, hopeful for a happy world. This is probably every mother’s elegy for a daughter on the doorstep of puberty. Having barely mastered wrestling with our own hormones, now we have to wrestle theirs, and help them with the wrestling, too. I’ve teased Short-pants, extracting promises from her not to become a rotten teenager. But it’s something we probably can’t avoid. The girl who who used to love school, who rushed to do her homework, who helped gladly with the household chores, is no longer. Okay, not entirely; her sweet smiling self is still present in our home. But she’s sometimes replaced by a quasi-grumpy girl who mopes and moans, does the bare minimum of any task assigned, school or home, and refuses to change out of her pajamas on the weekend.

She’s child/woman, not yet a teenager, but no longer little girl. One minute stomping out of the room, commanding us to leave her alone. The next, writing up a roster of fairies to use in a game of make-believe with her little sister. With all the changes going on inside that big girl/little girl body, I have no idea how on earth she could be bored. But I envy her for it. And I admire her theatrics. Let’s hope she manages all her ennui with such aplomb.