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.
balloons_in_air
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.
the_elixir
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.
endrina_landscape
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.
tea_service
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.


Dec 25 2010

Bloody Mary Christmas

I’m not sure how this became a tradition in our family, but it endures.

I like to imagine that my parents started making Bloody Marys just to survive the clamor and chaos of Christmas morning. With kids up at the crack of dawn, pulling presents out from under the tree, ripping the wrapping off and losing the tags, that would inspire the need for a bit of fortification. By the time I started remembering Christmas, such things were entirely under control, but the ritual had been established. Sometime around mid-day, after a good half-dozen rounds of gift opening – we’d always open them one-by-one – my father would call a pause to what he referred to as the oh, isn’t that lovely! show and disappear into the kitchen and my mother would follow. I remember this short respite as a moment of absolute joy. The day was young but already we had discovered Santa’s booty, and the first presents to have been opened were new and exciting but there were still many thrilling gifts under the tree yet to be unpackaged.

After about a quarter of an hour, my parents would return in tandem, my father holding a black tray with his famous Bloody Marys in their signature glasses and my mother carrying a cutting board with crackers piled artfully around a cheese ball. I couldn’t imbibe in the cocktails until I was older, and this in itself was a rite of passage, but I always admired the glasses – eventually I inherited them – and I loved the spirited nature of this mid-morning snack.

Decades later, Christmas evolves. For years I boycotted the family experience, not for any reason except I needed to do something different, to break away. Then I had my own family, and found myself enacting, with inane precision, all the rituals my parents had unintentionally embedded within me. The best one, without doubt, the habit of a Bloody Mary pause at about halftime of the opening of the presents.

But what are rituals if they are not shared?

So my Christmas present to you, indulgent readers, is the simple but absolutely-tested recipe for the Bloody Mary my father used to make, as recorded by my mother in her inimitable fashion, organized in an excel spread sheet with exact measures for varying amount of servings (from two to twelve). These are not reserved only for the holidays, but this is when we love them most.

Christmas Bloody Mary (6 servings)

18 oz tomato juice
3 oz lemon juice
3/4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons horseradish
6 dashes of salt and 6 dashes of pepper
6 jiggers of vodka
tall stalks of washed celery

It won’t surprise most of you that I add a wee bit more vodka and as many dashes of Tabasco as Worcestershire. But of course all of these family traditions are meant to be adapted.

And with that, I’ll take this chance to wish a happy Christmas to all of you. Whether you like your Mary virgin or bloody, I hope it’s a good one.


Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

Summer is when routines get interrupted. The daily grind of getting little girls to school is suspended. The constant rigor of a weekly schedule is relaxed. Bedtime is fudged, partly because in France the sun sets so impossibly late during the months before and after the summer solstice that the kids won’t believe that it’s time to go to sleep. Mornings, for the most part, are easy going: we wake up when we wake up. De-facto and I have very little work. Only our uncivilized American clients schedule projects in July or August and we do our best to minimize our participation in such gainful activity when it’s summertime.

Yet within our routine-less summer we quickly develop routines. I go to Pamplona every July. Then I join De-facto and the girls at the country house for the rest of the month. We return home to catch up with our on-line lives, take advantage of the Plage and the quiet of Paris in August. The real truth: we come home so we don’t miss out (too much) on what has become a big routine in our building: the infamous courtyard lunches.

Most of the owners and tenants go away for most of the summer, and those who stay are congenial or at least cooperative and don’t mind that nearly every other weekend, it seems, Ricky and Lucy host a courtyard lunch. Their apartment opens directly on to the courtyard, and their adjustable table is easily moved outside and strategically positioned near the stone wall of a raised flower bed, making for extra seats to compensate for their lack of chairs. Ricky is the most expressive cook among us and happily carries the burden of providing eats. He can do things with tomatoes and olive oil that would drive any foodie to brink of ecstasy.

There’s nothing as pleasant as those very first moments, when people arrive: Ricky sweats over hot burners in his kitchen, stepping out to the courtyard and greeting guests with a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. A glass of something, usually bubbly, is thrust into your hand and then one by one, plates appear on the table with delicate combinations of Mediterranean ingredients. There’s always a little surprise: mint replaces the basil on a tomato bruschetta, a spoon of virgin olive oil teases the essence out of the canteloupe. These intriguing flavor blends generate no shortage of oohs and ahhhs around the courtyard table.

The champagne – though this past weekend the aperitif was a watermelon cocktail with a vodka kick, and then we had champagne – is eventually replaced by wine, often rosé in color, and this flows steadily. Just when we think Ricky has fed us already too well, he’ll produce a risotto or something with seasoning and ballast that nobody has room for but nobody dares to miss. It’ll be too good.

Neighbors who pass through the courtyard on their way in are spontaneously invited to join us. Those on their way out are inspired to return, and often do after stopping at a local wine seller to contribute to the table. In this fashion, the lunch that starts at 1:30 or 2:00 often bleeds into the evening; sometime around 8:30 or 9:00 Ricky disappears again into his magic kitchenette and produces some kind of pasta concoction, a bit of sustenance – or absorption if you like – to carry on.

It’s rare that a courtyard lunch finishes before midnight.

While all this is going on, our children are not totally forgotten. When she’s not dancing around the courtyard, Short-pants plays waitress and has been known to carry around a sign that says “Please give me some work to do.” Buddy-roo hides out in the bedroom loft, watching consecutive Barbie movies that she’s only allowed to watch one-at-a-time, once-a-day under normal circumstances. Sometimes that big doll makes an appearance and everybody groans but she keeps the girls occupied and this is only one of many reasons that I have not yet found a way to make her disappear from our lives.

There is a moment, however, that marks the true spirit of the courtyard lunch. It’s around 5:00 in the afternoon when the oven begins to emit the most remarkable aroma, a sweeter-than-anything-your-grandmother-ever-baked perfume that makes everyone stop their bantering and storytelling. Hush Sweet Jesus the toaster oven is on bake. We all turn to Lucy. She nods her head affirmatively – smugly in fact – and the courtyard erupts into cheers, “Cake in a Bag!”

Of course Ricky’s culinary prowess is admired and appreciated – even lauded. His effort is the cornerstone of courtyard lunches. But Cake in a Bag, it’s too divine to describe. Lucy makes it all seem so…effortless. After all, it is: open the bag, pour in the pan (okay, and add her secret ingredients) and bake.

Ricky sighs, shakes his head, throws the dirty linen tea towel over his shoulder and shuffles into the kitchen to brood. But his theatrics last only for a moment before he returns to the fold of his friends and he is once again in the routine of the charming host, offering us more wine or a strong shot of espresso. He always comes back, and sometimes he’ll even eat a piece of cake.

If there’s any left.


Jul 16 2010

Running Rituals

The alarm goes off, but we have already been awakened by someone on the street buzzing our door to come up for the encierro. Our balcony overlooks Calle Estafeta, where we can see the bulls on the street below as they run by, so we extend invitations to various friends (and occasional strangers) to come up to watch the ritual running of the bulls. Our instructions are precise: come at the last possible moment, minutes before 7:00 when the street is blocked off for cleaning before the run begins at 8:00. The drop key, permanently tied to a long white string, is lowered through the stairwell to allow our guests to pass the locked door at the bottom of the five flights of stairs to our apartment. We usher them out to our balcony so they can watch the street as it’s prepared for the run, and we go back to bed. That extra twenty minutes of sleep can mean everything.

But before 8:00, we, too, must be up, dressed and ready to run. Not with the bulls, but between our living room, where we can see the bull-run on the television, and the balcony, where we charge out as the bulls turn the corner to run up our street. Their broad brown backs rush forward, the bells on the steers that accompany them make the soundtrack to their morning run. On a good day, the bulls are still packed together with the steers as they run toward the corrida, and a few skilled (or lucky) runners sprint ahead of them, just off to the side of their horns.

After the instant replay of the encierro and ensuing TV commentary, we rush our guests out the door and head to the Bar Txoko where many of the runners we know go to swap stories and drink ritual morning drink: Kaiku y Cognac, a sweet vanilla milk mixed with a double-shot of cognac. It so happens that the street cleaners choose that moment to clean the very patch of the Plaza de Castillo where we stand, so we are forever maneuvering our conversations around to accommodate the sweepers and hose-masters who are kindly cleaning up after the previous night’s party, only part of the party that goes on for nine days. These guys are the true heroes of the fiesta, constantly cleaning the streets of the gray goop that is a mixture of beer and wine and urine and puke that accumulates during the week.

A quick drive-by to greet the brothers Carmelo and Fermín at the newsstand where we buy a paper with the photographs of the previous day’s bullrun and bullfight, and then on to our breakfast club, a long table set up in the street where friends meet to eat greasy eggs or pochas or bull stew. Such nourishment can be acquired anywhere, but we always take it here to be in the company of a few very distinctive jota singers who serenade us with traditional Navarran ballads with poignant lyrics (like wishing to be an ivy vine in order to crawl up to your window just to watch you sleep).

The midday rituals have some variation, but might include a long meander through the city streets in search of the Gigantes, a troupe of eight giant figures that represent the kings and queens of the different continents of the world. This year I saw them no less than a half-dozen times, their towering figures turning side-to-side in an enchanting dance in step to the music of the high pitched txistulari pipers. The Gigantes are at least three times the size of the men who carry and spin them for hours every morning; occasionally you see the figures stop and appear to stand still in the street as the men slip out from under the robes and duck into a nearby bar for a rest and a drink. In the meantime, parents carry their toddlers up close to examine the clumps of pacifiers that dangle from the wrists of the giants. When Pamplonese children are ready to stop using their binkies, they give them up to the Gigantes. This is a ritual I find priceless; I can imagine the conversations between the child and parents as the fiesta approaches, the building up to the ceremonial hand-off of the prized pacifier, tying it to the enormous hand of their chosen Gigante. I had a fine childhood, but if I could do it over, I’d do it in Pamplona.

This is the moment that seems to have become a ritual for me, when I wonder why Short-pants and Buddy-roo and De-facto are not there with me, swallowed by the sea of white and red and music and magic. I have kept the fiesta San Fermín as my annual escape, but each year I wonder, how can I not share this with them? For how long should it remain my getaway with my girlfriends and my “Pamplona friends?”

The fiesta is embedded with rituals, those offered up by the proud Basque culture, the noble Taurino traditions, not to mention those that my friends and I have invented for ourselves in the years we’ve been attending. Like our Hemingwayesque ritual of taking two days in the green Navarran countryside just prior to the start of the fiesta, when my girlfriends and I stay at our favorite B&B. Here we slide into the Basque culture, nibbling our favorite asparagus and drinking homemade Patxaran. We retire early and sleep in, padding the sleep bank before the fiesta quickly depletes it. In the morning, we take over a table to create masterpieces of jewelry we bead together with small plastic bulls that have been borrowed from Tequila bottles from a Mexican Kmart. Our own spontaneous designs that every year we make, wear and give away: the running of the bull-earrings.

Each day in Pamplona, a brief afternoon nap rejuvenates us to make the run for sandwiches and cookies (and a chilled bottle of Rosado) to carry into the corrida for the post third bull snack. The bullfight itself is a remarkable ritual, a 3-act drama of skill, bravery and intimacy. Though I am far from an aficionada, there was one moment this year that moved me to tears: the matador raised his hand to stop his cuadrilla as they came to his aide. He knew he had done his work well, the bull was ready to die, and so he stood back with his hand raised, and waited for the bull to fall. It happened swiftly; a good death, with grace and honor, the kind we all hope for. It made me think of my mother, of course, how nobly she fought during the last year of her life, and the dignity of how she finally let go.

Each year I painfully extract myself from my friends and the festivities and leave to be with Short-pants to celebrate her birthday, which falls the day before the end of the fiesta. I could have gotten a pass this year, I suppose, having done my duty with the big party last month, except that I want to be with her on her birthday. As hard as it is to leave the fiesta early, the return is always a relief. This year was no exception: I was as glad as ever to see De-facto and the girls waiting for me at the train station, waving wildly when they spotted me.

“I missed you so much,” cried Short-pants, throwing her long arms around me. “Where did you get those white shoes?” said Buddy-roo, who notices everything, especially if it has to do with new items of clothing or jewelry.

Over the last few days, the final post-fiesta rituals have been enacted without fail: the detoxification, the redepositing of sleep in the bank; the gradual removal of those haggard circles under my eyes; the return to an exercise regime to address the abnormal number of carbohydrates consumed at the fiesta; the washing of the whites, which requires the special formula of
bleach and Coca-Cola (this tip given to us by a Spanish grandmother we met in the supermarket) to get that gray goop off the bottom of all my white jeans; the telling of stories (only mildly toned down) and the fierce expression of gratitude toward De-facto, who always lets me run just as far as I need.


Jul 3 2010

Fiesta

My suitcase is stuffed with everything white. White pants and skirts. White T-shirts and tank tops. White jean jackets (I have two) and several pair of white sneakers. Where I’m going, it’s all about wearing white and just a splash of red. A red pañuelo around the neck and a red sash at the belt. This is the uniform of San Fermín.

The fiesta San Fermín in Pamplona has become my ritualized get-away with the girls. Not my two little girls, Short-pants and Buddy-roo, but two older girls, my wanderlusting girlfriends, otherwise known, during the coming week especially, as Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. (I’m called Whim of Iron.) Every year we meet up in Pamplona for one of the wildest parties in the world, the fiesta that Hemingway made famous in The Sun Also Rises.

I think the post I wrote last year on the eve of my departure, The Mom Also Rises, pretty much sums up perfectly why I go to Pamplona every year. If you’re ever going to dig into my archives, this is a good one to read.

I love the fiesta. I love the encierro, though I’ll never be among those who run with the bulls; I watch from a balcony above the route. I love the party that goes on day and night and the cast of characters I meet up with every year. I love the perpetual music in the streets, and the parade of peñas making their way toward the bullring every afternoon at 6:00. I love the corrida, for the drama of the bullfight as much as the sandwich after the third bull. And what’s not to love about the rear view of the matador and his cuadrilla?

What I love most about the fiesta is the feeling of being lost in the present moment. It is the perfect place to be here now, to move through the crowds in the street without any particular direction, to be drawn into a bar because the musicians who’ve taken it over call you in, and after a few laughs, some dancing and a cold caña, moving on to the next impromptu party around the next corner, at another bar, the back room of an eating club, in the park, at a long table set-up in the street, with strangers waiting outside the bullring – anywhere you turn there is a spirited party in progress. Pamplona, for me, means no duties and no to-do list, only the spontaneous delight of following my whim of iron, wherever it takes me.

(Photo Credit: The matador shot is by Jim Hollander, 2009. It’s worth noting that Jimmy’s published a beautiful book of his fiesta photographs, but for a long time has contemplated producing one called “Bull Butts” with more pictures like this. Don’t you think he should?)


Jul 16 2009

Red Right Return

They poured me into the taxi. Waved goodbye, wistfully, as they do every year – my gang of fiesta friends – chagrined that I must leave when there are still two more days of San Fermin to go. But I have never stayed until the pobre de mi at midnight on the 14th of July. It’s not that I have to rush across the border to celebrate the French national holiday, it’s that Short-pants’ birthday is the 13th of July, and this is an occasion I choose not to miss.

I had good long cry as Juan-Jose, my annual driver, navigated the taxi out of Pamplona, consoling me, “Don’t cry, next year will come quick!” My Spanish isn’t sufficient to explain to him the complexity of my tears; a mix of sadness and utter exhaustion, but also gratitude and joy. “They are not all bad tears,” I told him, “es alegria.” He threw his head back and smiled; now he understood.
panuelo
Alegria is a Spanish word that, like many words between languages, doesn’t have an exact translation. The best I can offer, my personal interpretation, is a moment of feeling unfettered bliss.

Later in the TGV train hurtling through the French countryside, I reluctantly removed from my neck my red pañuelo, the uniform of the fiesta, and tucked it in my bag. I nodded in and out of sleep, hoping to recover as much as I could before the reunion with my family. One year I booked my departure for the morning of the 13th, figuring at least I wouldn’t miss her whole birthday; I’d get home in time for a dinner celebration. I was barely awake for the meal and collapsed into a sweaty, detoxifying sleep immediately after cake and presents. Since then, I’ve made it a practice to leave Pamplona on the day prior to the famous birthday.

As the train approached Angouleme — the stop closest to our country house where I would meet up with my peeps — I heard the conductor’s announcement forbidding anyone to depart from the train. I rushed through the corridor, car by car, to find him. “But you have purchased a round-trip ticket to Paris,” he scolded me, “why would you want to get off here?” I tried to explain that I didn’t think it would a problem just to get off the train early. “But in order to take advantage of your inexpensive ticket, you may not change your destination. It’s not permitted.”

If I played by his rules, I’d have two more hot, sticky hours on the train to Paris, with slim chances of making a U-turn on a train back to Angouleme the same night. The actual birthday wasn’t until the next day, but after leaving the fiesta early, damn it, I wasn’t planning to miss even a minute of her celebration.

“But I have to be there for my daughter’s birthday. I cannot miss it.” The tears that came now, no longer the result of alegria, but of exasperation – and admittedly, some artistry. The conductor, a peculiarly precise man, reviewed my ticket, shook his head from side-to-side more than once, but finally agreed to let me off the train if I paid a penalty fee, for which he even gave me a receipt. He accompanied me to the door and used a special key to unlock it and let me off the train. He did, at least, help me with my luggage.

De-facto shaved during my 10-day absence, so it was like being greeted by a young, new lover. Without his goatée, his smile seemed wider, broader. Another man might be grumpy about his girl going solo to the world’s greatest party. But he’s not another man. And he managed to get a few days biking with a friend, courtesy of a well-timed visit by his mother.

A hundred questions on the drive home. How were the girls? Good. How were the bulls? Good. We took turns telling stories about our week apart. Did I tone my tales down, not to sound like I was having too much fun?
table_setMaybe a little. But I also didn’t tell him about the hard part: that lonely wave that hits me every year, mid-fiesta, where in a fit of excess and fatigue, I lay in bed too drunk and too tired to sleep and in that moment I’m sure that I have forsaken my family for this fiesta and nobody in Pamplona likes me either. The boom-boom-boom that goes all night in the street makes quieting this discourse impossible. I’ve come to learn that it’s just a passage; in the morning, in the sunlight, I’m greeted at the Bar Txoko or at breakfast on the Calle de la Merced by one of many friends – old and new – who remind me that I am not alone in this world.

When my daughters heard the car pull up in front of our old run-down stone farmhouse, they ran toward it at full speed, laughing and screaming, jubilantly, “Mama, Mama! You’re home! We missed you!” I was pummeled with kisses and hugs, all of which helped to remind me that the San Fermin fiesta is not the only source of alegria.


Jul 3 2009

The Mom Also Rises

Every day I deal with consequences. My life is filled with them. Having little people to look after creates a profound sense of responsibility. There are always things to be done – dinner, laundry, getting them to school, coaxing them into the bath, writing notes to the teacher, buying the present for one of a dozen birthday parties – the list feels endless. But who else will help them accomplish these tasks? As much as I dream of being a slacker, knowing that those two creatures count on me makes it hard for me to be anything but responsible.

But not this week. This week, I get a break. This week, I am accountable to no one. I am responsible only for myself.

Each year, in early July, I join a couple of my favorite gal pals and make the trek to Spain, to Pamplona, for the Fiesta San Fermin. It’s become a tradition; this year will be my sixth consecutive appearance. The friend who introduced me to the bulls – we call her the Fiesta Nazi – hasn’t missed a fiesta in more than 25 years. Another friend, affectionately nicknamed Mother Theresa, has been going for 10 years. (My fiesta nickname, by the way, is Whim of Iron.)

De-facto is a total sport about letting me escape. He knows that I occasionally need a week of unencumbered spontaneity. And that’s exactly what I get in Pamplona.

No, I do not run with the bulls. Yes, I will go to the bullfight. No, it’s not cruel; it’s noble. Yes, I will be exhausted at the end of the week. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

During the fiesta, in any given moment, I may do whatever I please. I may wake up with my friends and watch the encierro – the running of the bulls – or I can hide my head under the pillow and sleep in. If I choose, I’ll go to eat greasy eggs and listen to jota ballads with the gang at the breakfast club, or I can disappear with a good friend and take a quiet walk to the plaza de toros to watch them sort the bulls for that afternoon’s bullfight. There are people I meet up with every year in Pamplona, and with them I can meander the streets, hopping from one bar to another, sampling tapas at each one, or I can skip the hot afternoon sun, find my way back to the apartment, shut the curtains and take a much-needed nap. I can stay out all night dancing, I can have “just one more drink,” or I can navigate the smelly, crowded streets and make my way home early.

I don’t need to call anyone. I don’t need to negotiate when I go out or when I come home. I don’t need to stop the fun I’m having to pick up some small person or respond to a client request. I am about to go into joyful oblivion. And I can’t wait. It is the craziest, freest, most festive, tolerant, joyous party on earth. Hemingway described it famously:

The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during the fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.

It’s my week away. For one week, I am beholden to nobody – not even the Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. Even though I know there are people at home waiting for me, missing me, wondering about me. Even though I’ll be missing them like crazy. I will pretend, for my own amusement – at least for just this week – that there are no consequences.

That’s the fiesta.


Mar 29 2009

Technology to Boot

Unzipping a long leather boot should be an alluring act, unless of course, the zipper happens to get stuck and not only jams, but breaks teeth. This is the technological challenge that greeted me the other night when our neighbors invited us down for a quick coup de champagne. The occasion? Let’s just say Ricky and Lucy are the best kind of neighbors, the kind that invite you for champagne simply because it’s a Friday night. But there was a price: I had to fuss with the mangled zipper of Lucy’s boot, stuck mid-calf. After some struggle, I managed to zip it all the way up, but I couldn’t zip it back down.

Our children climbed up and down the ladder to the bedroom loft, falling into their own game while the flutes were filled and refilled and the adults discussed the events of the week. Beyond the zipper caper, we talked politics and the economy before the conversation turned – as most conversations these days – to Twitter.

Ricky said he didn’t really get it, so I took out my phone and pulled up Twitterific (the iPhone app) to show him. This surprised De-facto, who didn’t even know I was twittering. Well, not that I do it very often (twice a week). For me, Twitter isn’t as much of a social networking activity as it is a killing-time-while-waiting-in-line kind of activity. About 140 characters is all the distraction you need until it’s your turn to face the slowest bank tellers known to mankind (they all seem to work at my bank).

For you Facebook users, I’ll bet what you enjoy most are the status updates. All the other applications (like Funwall — not that fun) were a novelty at first but quickly became tiresome. The barrage of applications you were forced to add every time a friend wanted to send you something new finally compelled you to join one of those silly non-active groups, Stop sending me applications that force me to see a friends score, right? After a few weeks, I shut them all off so I could focus on what I like about Facebook: the peripheral awareness that comes without any effort about what my friends are up to. I have clever friends, so their updates are, well, clever.

This is what Twitter is. It’s Facebook’s status updates without the rest of the noise. That’s why it’s taking off. (It’s also why Facebook’s latest re-vamp looks more and more like Twitter.)

Two years ago, while facilitating a meeting about data security and identity theft – which probably should have scared me off social networking – I listened to experts commenting about teenagers using MySpace and Facebook. This was frightening. It dawned on me that I had no clue what they were talking about. After that meeting, I signed up for Facebook, just to keep up with it for my kids. Ditto for Twitter.
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I’ve made my share of snide remarks about Twitter. I won’t defend it: Twitter is silly. I’m afraid some people spend so much time documenting their lives that they forget to live them. It’s like the white-sneakered tourists who walk around Paris behind their video cameras, never really seeing or experiencing the beauty of this city with their naked eye.

But I think that the consequences of participating in Twitter are not nearly as grave as those of not joining in: being locked out of understanding a technology that will no doubt dominate the lives of my children when they are 14-years old. Better to understand the ins and outs of this beast so I can help them navigate it smartly. True, by the time Short-pants is a teenager, there will have been (at least) thirty more iterations of social networking technology. But I think it might be hard to catch up if I haven’t witnessed the incremental changes that get us wherever we end up. And then there’s this: What if it’s not so silly? Who knows what Twitter will become?

If I were a dedicated Twitterer, I suppose you could have gotten the whole leather boot story in real time:

Lucy can’t zip up and she can’t zip down.

The boots are many years old so it doesn’t matter if we rip them. Is Lucy rationalizing or what?

Lucy is already thinking about the boots that will replace these.

Ricky has no interest in dealing with the unzippable boot, now or later tonight when they return home.

De-Facto has the WD40 out.

That boot is not going anywhere.

Facebook or Twitter, MySpace, Amazon, Ning… Hundreds of social networking sites – some entirely customizable – are out there to connect and distract us. You can view them as fad of the thumb-generation, another burdensome internet activity to challenge you and waste your time. Or you can see them as a technological tools that help us figure out who we are in relation to the people around us. I suppose it’s all about how you use them.

And If you’re wondering about the boot, did it come off and when, well, you’ll just have to follow me on Twitter, then, won’t you?


Mar 8 2009

Moderate Drinking

The front and center headache that woke me up at 6:30 am this morning is milder now, and reminds me of the fun I had last night. A couple of glasses of white with early evening oysters, something robust and red to accompany dinner. champagne And after a rather meandering walk home, a final flute of champagne with good friends who live in the building. You can’t say I wasn’t lubricated.

I like the taste of alcohol. I like the buzz. I like to belly up to a bar, it’s a place I feel at home socializing. In my youth (mostly) I tried other vices but my preference is the legal one. I drink often in moderation and on occasion in excess. Don’t worry, sometimes I deliberately don’t drink. But the point is: I like to.

That’s why Anna Fricke’s post, Moderation and the Modern Mom, in the New York Times blog Proof got my attention by combining two pet subjects at once: alcohol and motherhood.

I could have written that post. Not nearly as well as she did. What I mean to say is that I could, like many women, substitute a few of my anecdotes with hers and describe the same experience. Not that stepping up on a narrow bar only to fall into a fortuitously placed barman’s arms was a brilliant idea. (But it is a good story.)

Fricke candidly chronicles an important passage in the life of a modern mother. We used to party indiscriminately – now we must discriminate. The reasons for prudence change as the children age: Concern for the health of the fetus is replaced with fear of contaminating breast milk, is replaced with the necessity to avoid the 7 am agony, when the kids come bounding into the bedroom expecting you to be as well-rested and hydrated as they are. Then there’s our own health to consider. Or the stamina that we seem to have lost. For good reasons, nobody parties like we used to.

In the end, it’s not the alcohol that Fricke misses:

It’s the immaturity. The selfishness. The wasted days frittered away recuperating from the wasted nights. It all turned around so quickly. I wasn’t prepared to be this person.

And that was one of the key points of her post. It’s not the booze; it’s the feeling of being able to be spontaneously foolish and careless. Most of us rally to the responsibility that momhood requires, and it’s not like we don’t reap the benefits of having these little loving beings in our lives. But once in a while I need to say it out loud: I never really wanted to grow up.

But oh, a rush of comments. Lots of readers, like me, empathized or identified with her and lauded her exceedingly honest reflection. Not everyone was so supportive. It’s no surprise that some people would be uncomfortable with her candor, she ‘fessed up to some embarrassing things that have to do with serious subjects: alcohol abuse and drunk driving. But I was stunned at the righteousness from people who either weren’t impressed with her ultimate self-actualization or simply didn’t get it. Some AA-ish advice was gently offered with good intention, but many comments were accusatory, acerbic and frankly, mean spirited. That she herself was making a case for not drinking (the other key point of the post) was lost on these people, who used the comment section to feel superior or project their own painful experiences on to her.
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Well, like I said, alcoholism is a touchy subject, not one to be handled lightly. And motherhood is an equally hot-button topic. Everyone has an opinion about what pregnant women and nursing mothers – any mother for that matter – should feel and do. Mix the two together and I guess you have a lethal cocktail.