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.


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.
barcelona_gate
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.)


Aug 14 2013

Getting Down

All of Paris was spread out before us, the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant put her in perfect view. We were halfway up the Eiffel Tower, at the Jules Verne, noted for its view as much as its gastronomic cuisine. It’s not an every-day kind of restaurant. It’s a having-a-special-experience-in-Paris destination, the kind of place you go with a friend who’s visiting from out of town, or to take your nearly young-adult children for a memorable experience in Paris – or both.

My college roommate came to spend a few days in Paris, with her daughter who is the same age as Short-pants. I remember being pregnant together; I visited her at her summer home in the south of France just a month before Short-pants’ due-date. We posed for pictures, belly-to-belly, showing the girth of our pregnant bodies, smiling at the fact that our children would be born about a month apart, imagining how they might be playmates over the years. I didn’t envision us having lunch at the Jules Verne, but here salmon_entreewe were, her daughter seated between Short-pants and Buddy-roo, the three of them looking beyond us, out the window, at the breath-taking view.

De-facto had ordered a main dish and no starter, guessing correctly that the girls would only pick at their appetizers and he could finish their plates. The gastronomic menu was a bit on the sophisticated side for their palates, though Short-pants devoured her côte de cochon (pork-shops) and whipped potatoes, and Buddy-roo relished her râble de lapin (rabbit) once I cut it into bite-size pieces for her.

We were waiting for dessert, wild strawberries with coconut shortbread and mascarpone sorbet, when my friend pointed out an annoying repetitive noise, like a microwave beeping or an oven alarm. I called the maitre’d over to ask what it was.

“It’s Al Qaeda,” he said, a joke that I didn’t find humorous. When I did not laugh, he brushed it off: just a security alarm but nothing to be concerned about. I asked if it could do something to turn it off. Now that my friend had brought it to my attention, I found it a painful accompaniment to our expensive meal. “We are working on it,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, our bottle of Mersault finished but still no dessert, the maitre’d returned to our table.

“I apologize for the joke I made earlier,” he said, this time without his sneer. “There has been a bomb threat. The entire tower is being evacuated. You have to leave, now.”

“But we haven’t had dessert yet,” I said, the way you say something stupid when you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

“You haven’t had the bill, either.”

He pointed us to the exit, and we passed other tables of empty chairs with plates of food half-eaten. Some people waited for the restaurant’s elevator, but we were ushered beyond them, to a stairway that leads to the second-level public observation deck.
on_our_way_down
“There is a larger elevator there,” one of the restaurant employees said. “Take that one, it is better not to wait.” I had a vague memory of the lift; years ago with other friends we’d eaten here and left the restaurant via the observation deck, lingering after our meal and enjoying the view. It was one of those room-sized elevators that could fit 25 or 30 people.

We walked down a flight of stairs to the public level. At the bottom we found a huge elevator, its doors stretched open while the kitchen staff, uniformed in black and white, filed into it from another stairway behind ours. They did not fill up the entire lift, so I made a gesture to collect De-facto and the girls and my friend and her daughter and pull them into the elevator as it was shutting. Every one of the restaurant staffers shook their head no and waved us away, and the doors closed, locking us out.

Cursing at the closing service elevator wouldn’t have been very assuring to the young girls, so I swore under my breath. Perhaps there was some rule, I told myself, about employees-only spaces. But do such rules apply now? Would you turn children away from an elevator that’s only two-thirds full during an emergency evacuation?

There were no throngs of people pushing or running, but the gates on the concessions and souvenir kiosks were shut and locked, the security alarm was louder than in the restaurant. It was eerie. We hunted around until we found the public elevator, a crowd waiting in front of the doors. Counting the people, I calculated that we wouldn’t fit into the next elevator, we might make the one after that; but we’d probably have to push into the crowd to hold our place. The vibe felt weird. I didn’t want to be there.

“Why did we have to leave the restaurant?” Buddy-roo whined. I told her the police wanted everyone to leave the tower so they could check it to make sure something bad wouldn’t happen. I didn’t say the word bomb. I didn’t want to alarm the kids and I didn’t want the tourists within earshot to panic. Though given the closed embassies and other security alerts this year, most people could probably guess the reason for our evacuation.
eiffel_towers
I looked at De-facto and then at my friend, “You up for going down the stairs?”

Later I checked online: there are 55 flights of stairs, roughly 700 steps, from the second level where the Jules Verne restaurant is located, to the ground. We walked them all, circling down the long staircase within the east platform of the iron tower. There was steady flow of foot traffic, an occasional bottleneck but mostly fluid. It helped to move; it felt like we were doing something, getting somewhere – getting down.

“But we didn’t have dessert.” Buddy-roo said. The girls had been asking for Slushies on their way to the restaurant, a request that was dismissed given the refined dessert that would top off our elegant lunch. Now Slushies would be dessert, offered as a reward for walking all the way down from the middle of the Eiffel Tower.

A part of me believed that this was just a scare. Another part couldn’t be so cavalier. I held the girls’ hands, tightly, as we made our way down the stairs. I kept looking back at De-facto, taking him in. I’d glance at my friend, picturing her in our wilder college days. Is this where we would all finish? No, of course not, I kept telling myself. But just in case, I kept holding tight and I kept looking back.

I can’t call this a harrowing experience. It was orderly, without panic. We all knew there was a good chance that it would turn out to be nothing. We even teased De-facto about calling in the threat, just to avoid paying the check. But there was something else, something seeping in the cracks around my logical, reasonable conclusions about what was happening: tiny shards of the terror that other souls before us have known, in a plane about to go down, eiffel_tower_evacuatedor stumbling down the stairway of the World Trade Center, or being pressed into a train headed toward a work camp. An event like this reminds me of how randomly vulnerable we are and how precious it is to feel safe and secure.

At the ground level, we walked away from the tower, relieved. The rest of the day, though, I kept thinking about how often innocent people don’t get the chance to walk away because they don’t get out, can’t get down or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The evacuation of the Eiffel Tower made the news, but the story pales in comparison to reports from war-torn conflict-zones, and stories about what war and terrorism do to children. We were lucky. Ours was a happy ending, getting down safely with a free lunch, a good story to tell – a memorable experience in Paris – and a renewed awareness of the things we should never take for granted.


Jun 24 2013

Surviving June

At the school drop-off, mothers and fathers congregate outside on the sidewalk. Faces look drawn, fatigued from the routine of the school year. We’ve had it with the up-in-the-morning rush to get the kids to school on time, the homework battles after school, the tests, the rushed trips to the bookstore to get that book that’s needed for tomorrow, the exposés that require parental assistance. We’re all dreaming of summer holidays, those mornings when we can sleep in, let the children rise whenever they happen jantzen_swimmerto wake up, get their own breakfast and play by themselves. Those lazy summer afternoons without lessons and classes and all the extracurricular appointments that require enthusiastic schlepping to and fro. Within reach, now, the joys of summer camp, grandparents taking over, and long holidays in the country where the children can fend for themselves.

There is, of course, another side to summer: children underfoot without the reliable 8-hour pause button known as school. At the rentrée in September, we greet each other in front the school considerably more rested, but nonetheless aggravated by the 24/7 company of our children for at least some part, if not all, of the summer. By then, we can’t wait for school to start again.

But now, we’re in June, the month of end-of-scholastic-year madness. June, with all its rites of passage: all the closing concerts, recitals, spectacles, field trips, picnics, parties, and of course the kermesse, an excruciating day of home-made carnival games, face-painting and raffles. June, when after-school commitments seem to double with the final preparations for these closing events. Nearly every evening and weekend day taken with some function, be it an extra rehearsal, a performance, a celebration or a parent-teacher meeting. Thank goodness Paris is at a latitude that enjoys long hours of daylight around the summer solstice, because the days feel endless and we need those extra hours of sunlight to fit it all in.

In the last month I have attended every kind of event: a rock’n’roll show, a dance spectacle, theater performances, several different orchestra concerts orchestra_playsand recitals. In the audience watching my offspring shine (and struggle), I’d wave back when I saw Short-pants or Buddy-roo searching for me in the crowd of parents. It made me think of the charismatically stoic look on my father’s face as he sat with arms folded, cramped in a row of uncomfortable folding chairs in a school cafeteria-turned-auditorium, my mother beside him with her perpetually-expectant smile, waiting for a one of my concerts to start. I don’t think they missed a single performance, a long tour of duty spanning the twenty years between my older brother’s first piano recital and – I’m the youngest – my last orchestra concert.

So as I complain about the burden of all these squeaky, semi-synchronized performances, I look upward – because that’s what you do when your parents are both gone – and imagine my mother and father smiling down at me with the same expressions they wore so bravely through every single recital, play or concert that they had to endure, and I think about how you never truly appreciate your own parents until you become one yourself.

It all seems a bit more intense this year because I’ve had to navigate through June as a solo parent. De-facto slyly scheduled multiple work projects that required his presence in the US and in Canada – too far to skip home for a few days and give me any relief – and so I have been wearing all the hats of valet, cook, nurse, maid, tutor, coach, stylist, chaperone, schlepper and wild applauder.
wheel_of_responsibility
I cannot begrudge him these deplacements, three weeks straight of travel for legitimate business and to collaborate with creative colleagues. Though he is too much a gentleman to count the days that he has had to operate as a single parent while I’ve traveled for work or to walk the Camino, or to attend the fiesta, I am very aware of the responsibility he shoulders when I get to escape. Indeed, turnabout is fair play. But did he have to pick June to be out of town for nearly the whole month?

September won’t be much easier. The effort required of parents to line up and sign up for classes and extra-curricular courses, to buy books and supplies, to fill out forms in duplicate, to sort out the new routine and get the kids back into the groove of school is nearly, though not quite, as rigorous as the grind of June. It helps if both parents are present, and perhaps De-facto and I should just simply declare a moratorium on travel for the both of us in the months of September and June. That way we’d share the grief and the groans. But also, we’d witness, together, these rites of passage, the beginnings and endings of the chapters in the lives of our not-so-little-anymore girls. Their childhood is screaming by (as everybody warned me), month-by-month, year-to-year, summer-after-summer. I shouldn’t mind the heavy itinerary of June performances – deep down inside you know I’ve relished every bow stroke and dance step – but I’m readier than ever for the summer break. If I can just survive the last days of June.


May 18 2012

In Between

This, my in-between week, between tours on the Camino, I found myself immersed in the world of errands. While I was away walking, the constant churn of the rest of my life continued, and I was met, upon my return, with a few loose ends to tie up. Like taking Short-pants to the podiatrist to replace the shoe inserts that she left at the country house last month (she’s probably outgrown by now anyway) or passing by the Conservatory, in person, to make sure that the form for her re-inscription was correctly filled out, so that she won’t be refused readmission next year based on a technicality. A trip to the pharmacy to pick up a few goodies for my backpack, like an extra pack of second-skin bandages, miniature packets of moist towelettes, toothpaste in a teeny tube, and other tiny toiletry items compressed and compact, to lessen the space they take and the weight I’ll carry. At home, the paying of bills, the folding of money into envelopes designated for various helpers or babysitters, the catching-up of laundry, the arrangements that must be made so that our household will continue in my absence, without taxing De-facto, who does me the largest birthday favor ever by going solo for the time I need to walk the Camino.

Yet I felt I was moving at a slightly different pace. Gentler, more rhythmic, with a confidence that it will all get done, and that when I return to the Camino I will feel good, having taken care of the responsibilities I’ve tabled temporarily but never fully relinquish.

In this vein I remained buoyant, even stretching my erranding to such previously procrastinated tasks as addressing household appliances that have suffered our negligence too long. The supply of vacuum bags ran out weeks ago, requiring a repeated manual emptying of the last remaining bag in order to properly clean the carpets, and the bulb in the overhead light in the bathroom has been dark for even longer. This took me the dreaded BHV, the department store you love to hate and hate to love; you can buy just about anything you want there, from designer clothing to hammers and nails, but there are consequences. It’s an enormous store that seems to always be crowded and yet within the throngs of shoppers, you feel absolutely destitute in the search for that one item you’ve come to buy, lost in a sea of commercial choices without single guide to assist you.

This is where the team of green-vested salespeople should come in handy. They are numerous and poised around the store, usually in clumps talking to each other, though you’d wish they were seeking out lost and confused customers – plentiful at BHV – but usually it’s necessary to hunt them down. Salesperson is actually misnomer, as is customer service agent, a more accurate title might be proctor or hall monitor.

Remarkably, I found exactly the vacuum bags I was looking for, almost immediately, but it occurred to me to confirm this with the proctor on duty in the department. A few meters away, a green vested man stood behind an official looking computer terminal. As I approached him, so did an older gentleman, holding in his hands a package containing a set of attachments to a vacuum cleaner.

“Do I have to buy all of these?” he asked, “because I only want this one element.” He pointed to the largest attachment, the one that really matters.

The green-vested man shrugged.

“But I don’t need all the other pieces,” the old man said.

Non,” the green-vest pouted, “it’s only sold like this.”

The old man persisted. “Isn’t it at all possible to buy just the one part I want?”

Beh, oui, if you go to the service commandé, but then you’ll pay a 20 euro fee for a special order.”

The old man walked away, muttering about the waste inherent in this entire transaction. I expected the green-vest to turn to me, and braced myself for his gruff greeting. To my surprise, he took off after the old man, yelling at him for being rude, for his unnecessary words.

Granted, the old man hadn’t been particularly polite. But the green-vest had been equally uncivilized. Having been exposed to the Stew Leonard school of customer service (Rule #1, the customer is always right. Rule #2, if the customer is wrong, refer to rule #1) I was shocked to witness a store employee actually chasing after customer in order to scold him.

I followed them. By the time I caught up, the green-vest was ripping into the old man. They both turned, looking just as surprised as I felt to be standing there with them.

“How can you speak to a customer like that?” I said to the green-vest. “It’s the purchases he makes in this store that pay your salary. He may have been impolite to you, but he doesn’t merit a response like this.” (And I can’t be sure, but I think in the storm of my indignation I still managed to use the correct conditionel form.)

Both men stared at me as if I was insane. Which I am, because it is insanity to expect kind customer service in France. Not that you can’t find it, not that there aren’t plenty of thoughtful, helpful French salespeople. It’s just that you can’t expect it.

When the green-vested man started to shout at me, I turned and walked toward the escalator, confident that the vacuum bags I’d selected would fit my machine, certain that I could buy them at a cash register on another quieter floor, perhaps closer to the light-bulb department. On the escalator, I said, out loud to myself, “he could use some customer service training.” The man beside me chuckled. “It’s probably because he didn’t like the outcome of the election.”

Later, I wondered if all those errands had dampened my take-it-as-it-comes pilgrim spirit, that I’d piled on too much, entered too far into the realm of my regular life to maintain my cooler, collected pace. It’s true that by the week’s end, the symptoms of my usual departure stress started to surface. I’m squeezing things in to clear the decks to be away again – this time for a much longer stretch – and I’m feeling the pinch. I’ve heard people say that once you’ve done the Camino, there’s a before and an after. I guess for me, it seems, I’m still in between.


Mar 26 2012

Agony of Defeat

I’m sorry,” said the judge, ringing the bell, “the correct spelling of the word is S-U-C-C-O-T-A-S-H.”

Short-pants turned to the audience of parents and siblings with a look of utter shock. The disbelief lingered on her face as she walked down the center aisle to where we were seated.

“I did better last year!” she whispered to me, near tears.

We’d been over the list so many times, and she’d always spelled succotash correctly. But it’s one thing to confidently rip through the words in the comfort of your own living room or on the familiar walk to school. Standing in front of 19 other students and their families and a table of judges is a different ballgame. Unlike the other words she’d spelled correctly before: etch, born, slave, bongo, naval, tragic, effect, flaunt, noticeable, I had a bad feeling about this one as soon as the pronouncer pronounced it.

Sure enough, she’d fallen prey to the same error that nailed her father and me in our childhood spelling contests – the a-for-an-o syndrome. Crocodile and alcohol, two words we’ve gotten wrong only once in our lives.

She sat on my lap and I folded my arms around her. There were a dozen things to say – it’s okay, you still did well, look how long you lasted, everybody really knew the words – but since the spelling bee was continuing, our good manners would save those consolations for later. Nothing I could have said would have helped anyway. The feelings of disappointment and failure won’t be swept way in one reassuring sentence. You can’t go around these are feelings, you have to pass through them.

Such a range of emotions accompanies a competition like this. For a month prior to the spelling bee, Short-pants was enthusiastic, though occasionally bored, with the task of learning the 350 words on the list. The day before the event she was nervous, which we agreed was normal. The morning of, her nervousness lingered but was accompanied by excitement.

I was so busy thinking about how to help her prepare, that I myself was unprepared. My adrenalin surged on the way there, as I flagged a cab after encountering a locked gate at the metro entrance with no buses in sight. We ended up arriving early as a result, and walked around the neighborhood, which helped calm me down and gave us a chance to go over the (very) short-list of problem words she’d missed on the run-throughs the day before.

Once she’d registered and her number was pinned to her shirt, I realized I was probably more nervous than she was. We didn’t really feel like mingling, so we hovered around the snack table, not sure quite what to do. Look at the list some more? Practice more words? Relax? Even Buddy-roo seemed on edge.

Short-pants had been invited by the organizers of the bee to do a short reading at the opening of the competition. It was an abridged excerpt from Akeelah and the Bee, by Marianne Williamson, which is often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and famous?” Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you… And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

She’d practiced the reading a few times the day before, and when she was called up to the microphone to read it, I was prouder than any parent in the room. She enunciated, emphasized and let her poise shine through. That’s when I realized that the honor of reading it meant she was no longer an anonymous number amongst the twenty children, in a way she was bringing the quotation to life. The stakes felt a bit higher.

I was on the edge of my chair. Each round, when she approached the mike, I held my breath to hear what word she’d be given to spell. I sighed with relief when she repeated the word to close her turn, having spelled it correctly. Round after round, she stood up, spoke clearly, spelled well and sat down. Then I’d relax for a few moments, until it was her turn again.

I was rooting for Short-pants, of course, but I started to develop a fondness for the other spellers as well. A little girl with a permanently terrified expression, a little guy with straight-up posture, a pair of red-headed sisters, a tall student who’s deliberate elongation of each letter, and the space between each one, made her delivery dramatic. Whenever one of the contestants misspelled a word, I was glad for a narrowing of the field which would bring us closer to a finish (it did start to feel interminable) but my heart sank for every one of them, every time. I wanted them all to win.

Short-pants’ slim little body – sitting on my lap – started to grow warm and I could feel her chest heaving. Tears of disappointment were close to the surface, and would quickly be uncontainable. I took her hand and we maneuvered through the audience to the outer reception room, where she let the tears stream down her face.

“I thought I knew that word,” she said, “I wanted to do better this year. I wanted to take home a trophy.” She started to sob.

Here’s another hard part of parenting, when you wish you could make it better, but you can’t. This was her defeat; she had to bear it. Nothing I could say would repair it, so I just held her hand.

One of the lovely red heads – she’d gone out of the competition just before, or just after, Short-pants – was visiting the snack table, and came over to console her. “Don’t feel bad,” she said, “You did so well.”

Now I was ready to cry, tears of sad and glad. Sad for Short-pants and her disappointment. Glad for kindness of this little girl, a thoughtful stranger. Her gesture was appreciated, and Short-pants managed to say so, between sobs and sniffles. But disappointment doesn’t vanish so easily, even with such sweet and thoughtful words.

“It’s okay to be disappointed,” I told her, “but I want you to know I’m proud of you.”

I told her I was proud of her initiative to even sign up for the spelling bee, proud of the perfect score that got her past the first round, proud of how diligently she’d studied her list, her willingness to practice the words (almost) every time we asked her to. Proud at how poised she’d been, reading the opening quotation. Proud of how carefully she’d spelled every word she’d been given. Proud that she’d made it to the tenth round. Proud that she could be honest about her feelings, instead of swallowing them. Proud that it really meant something to her, this spelling bee, that she cared.

“And if you’d won, of course I’d have been proud,” I said, “but I’ll be even prouder if you can lose with grace and be a good sport toward the winners.”

That wasn’t me speaking, by the way. That was me channeling my father. He used to say those kinds of things all the time, putting things in the larger perspective.

A little bit of time, a glass of water, a bite-sized muffin, and Short-pants was ready to return to watch the rest of the spelling bee. Just like last year, they’d had to go off the main list in order to bring the competition to a close. Soon the field was down to just a few students, and then to two, and then to one winner – a steady speller who deserved her trophy and smiled triumphantly as she held it in the air for her family to photograph. I know that Short-pants wanted to hold that trophy, but she found a way to smile and clap her hands. The consolation gift bag for all the participants had plenty of goodies to distract her, not to mention a medal for even making the finals.

Her enthusiasm and nervousness and excitement had given way to disappointment and then to the range of sad and angry hues that color the experience of failure. But she’d risen to the occasion, and her buoyant optimism returned. I was never really worried – I knew she’d come through it – but I felt better when she was skipping down the street on our way to lunch, laughing with her little sister. She didn’t get to taste – at least this time – the thrill of victory, but at least she’d let go of the agony of defeat.


Nov 25 2011

Tout Turkey

It’s not like you can just walk into any grocery store and select a Butterball from the shelf. If you want to do Thanksgiving in France, you have to order a turkey in advance. Not that it is obligatory to celebrate. We could easily sneak by the holiday without any mention. It’s business as usual here on what is the quietest Thursday in America; quiet but for the sound of pots and pans in the kitchen, cutlery and crystal at the table and the blaring of the football games on televisions across the entire country.

Except that it’s a ritual that reminds us, pleasantly, of our childhoods, and we like the gratitude part. The idea of having a designated dinner party to express our thanks, deliberately, seems like a good thing to pass along to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, so each year we fashion some facsimile of a Thanksgiving feast, hobbled together with fine French products and a little American ingenuity (and nostalgia).

Just down the street from where my tailor used to work there is a brightly lit boucherie that I pass whenever I’m walking the girls to or from school. Its floor is covered with saw-dust. Red slabs of meat hang on hooks from the ceiling above the glass refrigerator cases that display even more raw meat and poultry. Two hefty men in long white aprons stand behind the counter, shouting and smiling at the same time, bantering with each other like talk-show hosts, entertaining themselves as much as their customers.

Bonjour,” I said, entering the shop. This is a required salutation in France. Too many Americans walk into Parisian shops without any kind of a greeting, so their first utterance to the shop-keeper is “how much is this?” The French, rightly, take this is an insult. We’ve tried it in that states, too; it’s amazing how just saying hello to someone before asking them for help can pave the way for a more productive encounter.

Bonjour!” The butchers, one of them with a thick mop of gray hair, the other with fine white hair that hangs over the top of his wire glasses, answered in unison.

I asked if I could order a turkey.

En entier?” The gray haired one was surprised that I wanted a whole turkey.

Oui,” I shrugged, “Je vais faire le Thanksgiving Americain.”

Mais, non,” said the white haired one, “C’est en Decembre!”

I politely informed him that Thanksgiving always falls on the last Thursday in November. He continued to disagree with me, defiantly sure of the wrong month. I explained that just as (some of) the French celebrate the Beaujoulais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November, we Americans have our special fête on the last Thursday in November.

Je n’y crois pas,” he said. He still didn’t believe me.

Monsieur, pardonnez-moi,” and then I switched to English, “I know it’s in November. I’m an American. I’m sure of it.”

The two of them looked at each other, in disbelief.

“Would you like to see my passport?”

“Okay, she wants a turkey, she’ll have it,” one said to the other in heavily accented English. Now I really did feel like a guest on their talk show. They interrupted and corrected each other, comically, as we went back and forth about my order. Pinning them down on an exact weight or price was impossible. Even the delivery date was sketchy. But this isn’t unique to this shop. De-facto used to schlep over to a butcher on rue Montorgeuil that had been recommended to us for turkeys at this time of year; he went through the same song and dance. He’d come home cursing with a bird 2 kilos and 20 euros more than we’d hoped for.

Those of you in the homeland are already digesting yesterday’s big feast, you’ve already gobbled the rogue turkey sandwich late last night – maybe you’re already sick of the leftovers. But since French businesses and schools stop for no American holiday, we opted to postpone our Thanksgiving a day. So this morning I stuck my head in the butcher shop to pick up the bird that I’d reserved.

“We sold it to someone else,” the white-haired butcher said. “Anyway, your Thanksgiving was yesterday. It’s too late.”

“That’s okay,” I told him. “I ordered a turkey down the street, just in case.”

“Touché,” said the other one, pulling the enormous bird out of the chrome refrigerator.

I braced myself for the weighing part. The turkey barely fit on the scale, and it registered 7.6 kilos (nearly 17 lbs). At the cash register, I feigned a Fred Sanford heart attack while handing over my carte bleu. Sure enough, 2 kilos and 20 euros more than I ordered. But it was butchered especially for me, and it’s even kosher.

Plus it’s cooking right now, smelling up the whole place like dozens of November Thursday afternoons embedded in my memory, that savory roasting aroma, the comforting smell of gratitude, everything that turkey is to me. Happy Thanksgiving everyone…


Sep 24 2011

Le Catch-22

Living in France, one is obliged to become expert at paperwork. There is no way to avoid it. At the start of every school year, I fill out no less than four pages of paper per child, each with the same basic parental and caregiver contact information. (I actually photocopied these sheets to use next year – even scanned it to my desktop – but I bet they change all the forms.) Every year, the same copies of the same vaccination pages from the cahiers de santé are required, stuffed and sealed in special envelopes. You’d think this would be a document that could live in a file cabinet – or a computer – in the nurse’s office. Mais non.

At every turn there is more paperwork. This could be said of any country but it seems particularly burdensome in France. Yet this is where we have chosen to raise our children. Both girls were born on French soil and both possess French birth certificates, a document with its own administrative quirks. After a baby is born, you have up to (and no longer than) three days to go to the local town hall, the mairie, to register the birth and obtain an acte de naissance. The hospitals dog you to attend to this detail in a timely fashion, one wonders if they are penalized if you fail to do so.

When you need to use this birth certificate, say, three years later, in order to enroll your child in the école maternelle, it’s no longer valid. You must return to the same mairie (in the arrondissement or town where the clinic or hospital was located) and take a number and wait to be called up to the desk where you make a request for a newly signed and dated version. This updated document can be used to procure whatever additional privileges you’re seeking, as long as you use it within three months, before it, too, is deemed invalid and another trip to the mairie is required.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo are both eligible for a special kind of made-in-France-resident-card, but De-facto and I haven’t gotten around to addressing the paperwork for it. The girls were born at the American Hospital of Paris, which is actually in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it’s a bit of a schlep to out there to get a new copy of their actes de naissance. A neighbor told me it was possible to avoid the trip by making the demand on-line, and so this week I finally I forged through the website and found the form for an acte de naissance and filled in fields and scanned my own papers and pushed the button. A big red exclamation point informed me my application could not be processed unless I could provide a copy of the original birth certificate. I was able to dig out previous outdated originals and scan and attach them to the application. But isn’t it all a bit ludicrous? The very document I wanted to obtain was unobtainable unless I had a copy of it.

Maybe it’s just me, fed up with calling around to arrange this and that, weary of the forms and protocol I must fill out and follow, tired of jumping through hoops. I want to be done with the school meetings and sign-ups and last-minute school-supply runs. I feel like I’ve become a PA to my children, and I’d like to get on with my life. Plus a last-minute trip to the states – my mother’s house has finally sold and we must empty the last of its belongings – puts a press on my agenda and makes me impatient with the inefficiencies that seem to be standard practice here.

The viola teacher from the conservatory called to remind me to get an attestation d’assurance, proof of insurance, in order for Short-pants to be given an instrument. I asked her if we could have same viola as last year; it was actually a very good instrument and more importantly I already had the attestation de valeur, so getting the insurance would be easier.

“Non,” she apologized. Short-pants had grown and needed a bigger instrument. I asked if she could provide me with the name of the fabricant of the new instrument. “Mais, non,” she said, unapologetically, she didn’t have it. She didn’t know the maker or the value.

I explained that my insurance company couldn’t insure the instrument unless they knew the value. And they couldn’t know the value if I didn’t have a certificate from the maker. I’d need the name of the luthier so I could obtain this document, in order to obtain another document, in order to get the viola.

“I’m not allowed to give you the instrument until I have the attestation d’assurance,” she said.

“But I cannot get insurance,” I said, “until I have the instrument, or until you tell me the make and the exact value.”

I mean, she’s been doling out these instruments to students for years now. Doesn’t she know this?

The good news is that my insurance agency is a cozy neighborhood bureau that I’ve been going using for more than ten years. The very reasonable woman who works there immediately appreciated my conundrum and agreed to write a very general attestation of insurance for an instrument of the same value as last year’s. Then, she told me, once I could give her the real details of the new instrument, she’d adjust my policy issue a more official attestation.

Within 48 hours her letter arrived in the post, so I sent Short-pants off to her lesson with the paperwork in hand and she was given her new viola. After the lesson, the teacher nabbed me and dragged me into the office. I’d wanted to avoid any administrators, hoping I could get the official certificate first. I was leaving the next day for the week-long trip to the states, so I was deep in departure-preparation panic and not so interested in the time I would lose attending to a bureaucratic detail like this, a detail that was not at all a priority on the day before a voyage.

The viola teacher deposited me at the office and conveniently slipped away, leaving me to fend for myself across the desk from the austere and humorless functionaire who’s job it is to handle the insurance certificates for probably hundreds of music students. This can’t be fun, it might be Sisyphean, which would explain her comportment. A close inspection of the letter revealed its lack of specificity and gave her reason to remove her glasses and set them down before informing me that she couldn’t let us take the instrument if I didn’t have a more detailed letter of insurance.

I explained, again, the predicament. I have no idea how to say Catch-22 in French, but if I knew, it’s the phrase I’d have used.

“The teacher should have given you this information.”

“I asked her, several times,” I said, “but she didn’t have the name, or the value.”

“But she must.”

“But she didn’t.”

“But why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said, giving her my best French shrug.

“Well I cannot leave the instrument with you, then.”

I stood up abruptly and pushed in my chair. Short-pants looked at me wide-eyed.

“What am I supposed to do?” I said, “The requirements are impossible and all my daughter wants to do is play her viola!”

I think standing up did the trick.

She scratched “attestation provisionelle” across the top of the page in big dramatic letters, insisting I get a detailed certificate to her as soon as possible.

We walked out of that dim conservatory, squinting into the afternoon sun. Short-pants held my hand while I fumed quietly. It’s all such a waste of time. Shouldn’t each instrument come with its own attestation? Shouldn’t the conservatory have gathered this information? Why is it the mother’s job to do this paperwork? Did my mother have to do all this crazy-making organization for me?

A few blocks later, I stopped and knelt down in front of Short-pants. “I’m sorry I lost my temper with the lady at the conservatory. I could tell it frightened you.”

“It’s okay mama.”

“I’m a little bit on edge today,” I said. “Do you know why?”

“Because you have a lot to do before you go away?”

This was surely part of it, but it’s not the real source. All week I’ve been a bit impatient and emotional.

“It’s because I’m going to clean out the furniture and the final things from Grammy’s house, and I’m sad and nervous about it.”

“I understand.” She leaned in and hugged me tight. “But look, I got my viola, right?” She stepped back, raised the instrument case up into the air and smiled, victoriously.


Sep 11 2011

This Mad World

All week I’ve been mad at the world. Blame it on the rentrée, which each year feels more brutal than the previous. There is the onslaught of work that I should have done over the summer, let alone the full-time job that is getting the kids back-to-school, with the long lists of books and supplies that must be acquired precisely as indicated and the organizing of their extra curricular calendars for the year. Mothers all over the city nod at each other knowingly; a friend with whom I had a rushed lunch answered the obligatory question how goes the rentrée? with a long sigh and an eye-roll. She didn’t have to say a word.

It’s not only what you have to do, it’s how long it takes to do it. I want to minimize Short-pants’ weekly trips to the conservatory, so I went over in person to try to schedule her classes back-to-back on the same day. But nobody there could help me. An hour later I left with an email address and no certain solution. Buddy-roo is begging to take tap-dancing classes (thanks to Ann Miller and Kit Kittredge) so I rearranged several appointments in order to arrive at the dance school early enough to assure her a place on the list. That’s when I learned I that the tap-dance teacher doesn’t participate in the standard inscription process, I needed only to phone him to sign up. (Thanks for putting that in the flyer.) Once again, a reminder that I’m an outsider here. No matter how long I’ve lived here or how much as I’ve figured out how to System D on some fairly challenging tasks, I’m still slapped in the face, each and every year, with some shrugging French person who explains, “C’est comme ça.” That’s just how it is.

Sent home in Buddy-roo’s cahier de correspondance, a letter from her new teacher outlines in detail the punishment system within the classroom; no mention is made of the learning objectives or the educational climate. Oui, but it’s a traditional French school, I tell myself, why should I expect anything different? And why am I in France? These are the geo-existentialist questions that come to mind every year about this time.

So I grumble about town, muttering under my breath while running inefficient errands and waiting in line to discover I didn’t need to, feeling like the clock is ticking away while I manage all these angry details of what I wish was somebody else’s life.

~ ~ ~

Ten years ago, my mother was visiting us in Paris when some crazy men flew those airplanes into the big office towers. Like most everyone, I can tell you exactly where I was that day; just like my parents could for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or my grandparents for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Short-pants was just shy of two months old, my mother had come over to meet her. She was so tickled to see and hold that little baby; I think she’d given up on me in the grandchildren department and it was a pleasant surprise to have a new little grand-daughter but also to see me with that child in my arms. I’d sworn off children in high school, after a particularly terrorizing babysitting incident. She’d begun to believe I really meant it.

That afternoon we strapped Short-pants into her stroller and ventured out to show my mother an artist’s squat on rue de Rivoli. I’m not sure that she was so curious about the squat, an old ceilings, ornate molding and marble fireplaces that had fallen into disuse and was then inhabited by artists who collectively managed the building. The city shrugged its shoulders and allowed them to stay, letting eccentric culture win over law-and-order and by-the-book. My mother was much amused by it, each room a working space of a different artist, some set up very typically as an artist’s studio, others more daring and whimsical, showing their eclectic work under black light or with rhythmic music to set a mood. The squat is still a working studio and public gallery; in those days it was open to the public only once or twice a week.

When we returned home, I went to my computer to check email, ignoring the news item that flashed on the welcome page, something about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I dismissed it as a light-craft error, and didn’t investigate further. Short-pants was still asleep from the walk home, I wanted to take maximize my time on-line. It was not until my sister, on a business trip in China, phoned and prompted me to turn on the television that we learned the severity of this “freak accident” which wasn’t a small plane and wasn’t an accident, either. It had all been done very much on purpose.

In the days that followed we sat, stupefied, around our television watching the crumbling towers, the jumpers, the ash and dust everywhere, the heroic fireman and rescue workers, the grieving families. It was all so horrible, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away, as if I had to see it repeatedly to believe it was true. While Short-pants nursed at my breast, I’d watch those two towers fall, again and again while her little paws beat against my chest. What kind of world had I brought this little child into? Listening to the new reports as events unfolded, and subsequent anthrax scares and the fear that gripped us all so fiercely, I thought to myself – and probably out loud to De-facto – that the world had gone completely mad and that this was the beginning of the end. Would we spiral down to dystopian religious wars and Short-pants won’t live to be ten years old? I remember caressing the soft flesh on her arm, touching the tip of her nose and fingers and toes and wondering what the world would be like in 2011. Would any of us survive? I really thought the world was about to implode in a series of well-timed terrorist plots. The outlook was pretty bleak.

Three years later, when Short-pants fell sick and I was desperately searching for the reason, I wondered if breastfeeding in front of that repetitive, horrible news had put the mysterious abscess in her head.

There was, on a positive note, such a tremendous amount of good will shown toward the American community by the French on 9/11. Families opened up their homes to stranded air passengers, people in the neighborhood who knew I was American would stop me and ask if I knew anyone who’d been in the towers or at the pentagon or on any of the planes, expressing their condolences to our grieving nation. Despite the horror of what happened, it produced an element of hope from that outpouring of thoughtfulness and solidarity, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we lived in France. It was probably safer here, and people were being awfully considerate.

~ ~ ~

I had the best intentions of taking the girls to the 9/11 memorial service at Place du Trocadéro. It rained steadily all day – and poured even harder at exactly the time we would have had to leave – so I opted to stay home and commemorate the somber occasion with the television news. Neither one of them could have any memory of the event and it’s not a subject we’ve talked about other than as an explanation for why it’s necessary to practically disrobe when we go through airport security. They fired questions at me as the coverage of the ceremonies droned on in the background: Why did the plane fly into the building? Why are those people covered in dust? Why are you crying, mama?

I couldn’t really explain why. I wasn’t trying to spare them any pain that might come from the knowledge of what happened that day. I simply couldn’t find any words, or enough words, or the right words to convey what was lost that day. All those lives, lost. All the potential memories that will never happen because a parent disappeared that day, lost. The dignity that accompanies liberty and privacy, the compassion for foreigners and (what I thought was) our signature religious tolerance – if not lost, is seriously diminished. I long for the optimism we knew prior to September 11, 2001. Even though life eventually returned to a normal rhythm, something I couldn’t imagine at all during those mad, panicked days immediately following the event – it’s still not the same. It never will be.

I didn’t lose anyone that day. If anything, I was given extra time with my mother, who was grounded in Paris, and with other close family friends who happened to be visiting France that week. We huddled together and comforted each other, watching the news, non-stop. With the exception of the nuissance of airport security, my day-to-day life is more or less unscathed by 9/11. Listening to the victims’ family members as they took turns reading out loud the names of those killed, one by one, I felt pretty silly. Silly for my exasperation about the rentrée and all its inconvenient errands. Silly and sorry for those harsh words I snapped at De-facto the other night or my impatience with the girls when they pick at each other. It all seems just plain silly when you think about what these families have endured. Just like Short-pants’ hospital scare put everything in perspective, so does this occasion give me pause to remember – and relish – how absolutely lucky I am, with all of my luxurious burdens, to be alive and breathing in this mad, mad world.


Jun 2 2011

Top-Seeded

It was the sound of birds, chirping and singing – not just cooing pigeons – that woke us. The bright sun streamed in through the square skylight, hinting at the beautiful day ahead. No school. No clients. No phone. No rush. I do love waking up at the country house.

Buddy-roo, who’d opted last night for a sleeping bag at the foot of our bed rather than sharing a bed in the other room with Short-pants, slithered out of her nylon nest and climbed in between De-facto and me. She was still half-asleep, and the three of us hovered in that barely-awake state.

“Do you know how amazing it is – what’s happening in the French Open?” asked De-facto. (Okay, I’d thought we were all mostly asleep.)

“No.”

“Do you know who’s in the semi-finals?”

“No,” I said, into my pillow.

“Not one name?”

“No.”

“Come on, you can’t name one well-known tennis player?

“André Agassi.”

“No, a current champion. Can you name one?”

I couldn’t. I am not an avid spectator of sporting events, tennis and golf least of all. Since I don’t care, I don’t track on the names. My brain is so far from sticky and there’s already too much data that I’m trying to hold on to with my maternally-challenged mind, I have to push out all non-essential pieces of information. I put tennis in this category.

“You’ve never even heard of Federer?” I detected more than a hint of disdain in De-facto’s voice.

“Yes, I’ve heard of him.” This was true. I’ve heard this name volleyed about in the company of real tennis fans or on the sporting news. De-facto gave me the synopsis of his career, how he holds the record for major titles and if he wins the Open that would give him the second grand slam of his career.

Since I couldn’t come up with any other modern tennis greats, he filled me in on the other three of the four top-seeded players who’ve made it to this year’s semi-finals: Nadal, who’s aiming to tie Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles, Djokovic, who broke the winning streak record shared by MacEnroe and Lendl, two tennis players I have heard of – and the underdog Murray, who just wants to win a French Open after three near-misses. I can see why Roland Garros is the place to be this weekend, though I’m very glad to be here at the country house instead.

“Am I supposed to be listening to you guys talk,” Buddy-roo protested, “or are we going to have a morning cuddle?”

It wasn’t her admonishment that quieted us, but that De-facto and I were trying not to laugh at her irritation. I didn’t mind, though, the end of my little tennis lesson.

This weekend is a long one, due to school and bank holidays. France is famous for its pont weekends, when an official day-off falls on a Thursday, so people take the Friday off to bridge it into a long weekend. These usually happen in May; the Ascension and Pentecost guarantee two long weekends, and if labor day falls propitiously, there can be three pont weekends in one month. This year, because Easter fell so late in the year and labor day was on a Sunday, May was holiday-free and all the long weekends have been pushed into June.

We decided to take advantage of the extra days off to see how the garden we planted last April has fared in this spring’s drought. It’s a 4-hour drive to the country house, not worth it for a regular weekend but by sneaking out of Paris on Wednesday afternoon (with every other Parisian, ergo the slog of traffic we endured) we get at least four sleeps in the country air.

Short-pants hobbled in to our bedroom, her long, lean bones still creaky with morning stiffness. She slipped under the covers beside me so that I was now sandwiched between my two daughters.

“Why is there no school today?” she broke the silence that had ensued after the abrupt end to the tennis talk.

“It’s the Ascension,” I said, “or the Assumption, or some religious holiday that starts with an A.”

“The Ascension,” Buddy-roo clarified. “Because it’s when Jesus went up, like in an ascenseur.” (That’s the French word for elevator.) She went on to tell the story of Jesus rising from the dead. “He looked around and he said, ‘My work here is done, people,’ and then he went up to see his father.”

“And Murray, he’s really funny,” said De-facto. “He says, ‘if I win a tennis match, then I’m English. But if I lose, then I’m Scottish.'”

“I’m talking about Jesus,” said Buddy-roo, irritated, “I don’t want to talk about tennis.”

“What do you mean?” he said, “Jesus was a huge tennis fan!”

“Papa, they didn’t have tennis back then.”

“Are you kidding? Jesus loved tennis.” De-facto flattened his voice like a sportscaster: “Jesus goes into the corner, skidding on the clay, and he loses his sandal!”

“You’re right about one thing,” she said, “he did wear sandals. And a dress.”

“He had a wrathful backhand,” said De-facto.

“Stop!” Buddy-roo screamed. “Jesus didn’t play tennis. I’m the one who goes to Éveil Chrétien. None of you go. I’m the one who knows.” You can tell she’s still a little angry that her sister is excused from the class to go to her viola lesson.

“I used to go to Catholic religious classes, too,” I said, “and I even had to go on Saturday mornings!”

“I thought we were Jewish,” said Short-pants, “because of Grammy.”

“According to the Jewish religion you are,” said De-facto, “but your mom only celebrates when it’s convenient.”

“I grew up going to church every Sunday,” I said, “but it’s your Papa who went to a Jesuit high school, where he had priests for teachers! He knows something about Jesus.”

“How come there are so many religions?” Short-pants asked.

I explained how, over time, different people came up with different ways to believe in God, and how some people even believed that there was more than one God, and how maybe all the Gods were the same God, just with a different name – nobody knew for sure, and how unfortunately a lot of wars were fought because people thought their God should be the only one. It’s like fighting over who’s the best tennis player. They’re all good. You could just take all the top-seeded Gods and send them to Roland Garros each year to see who wins the title. It’ll always be an exciting match.

“That’s ridonculous,” Short-pants said.

“What? Fighting a war over God, or getting the Gods to play tennis?”

“Both.”

“I’m telling you,” Buddy-roo said, “Jesus did not play tennis.

Oh, but if he did.