Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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


Jan 5 2014

The Adaptation

The nose of the plane dips under the cloud cover as the pilot makes an announcement, first in Spanish and then in French, alerting us that we are preparing to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. I watch the patchwork of fields growing larger beneath us, buildings and roads coming into focus as the plane descends. In the airport, the familiar chimes of Air France alert passengers to upcoming flights. I breeze by the luggage carousels, confidently pulling my rollaway behind me. I know my way through this airport by heart. Earlier this morning I got turned around in the Barcelona airport, a beautiful, modern and efficient hub still foreign to me; I walked in a circle twice before finding the hallway to my gate. At CDG I easily found the escalator to the RER train and made my way into Paris, nearly sleepwalking, as though it’s a commute I make every day.
eiffel_tower_rosey
It’s become a commute I make every month. Since we have moved to Barcelona last September, I have returned to Paris four times. Each time with an explicit reason, or at least a good enough excuse: a meeting with a potential client, a check-up with a doctor or a dentist appointment. I manage to plan enough in advance to get reasonably priced tickets, or to include the leg in a trip elsewhere at negligible cost to the client. Each time in Paris I attend to essential personal errands, see a friend or two and, most important, I get to walk down my street and around the corner toward my favorite local café where I am always welcomed with gusto. If the corner stool is empty I can happily sit there for hours and chat with the barmen and nod at all the regulars who come and go. This, for me, is a perfect moment. Some people get their bliss from meditation or from the endorphins of exercise. It happens to me when that corner stool is mine and from it I can watch the world go by.

~ ~ ~

When the girls were babies we enrolled them in the halte garderie, a state-subsidized nursery service that takes care of babies as young as 6 months. We waited until the girls were a year old, but took advantage of this quality, cost effective care option for several afternoons each week. It meant we could put the kids in the company of other children, and with native French speaking caretakers. It also allowed us to begin to understand the system of childcare and schooling in France.

Some mothers are sad about putting their children in someone else’s care. I couldn’t wait to drop them off and have a few hours to myself. Since it wasn’t an all-day-every-day routine, I wasn’t afraid of “missing” any stage in their development. For me it was a chance to take a shower and brush my teeth in peace, or grab a few hours in my studio to scratch out a few pages of my manuscript. We weren’t eligible for the crèche, which is reserved for parents with full-time jobs. The halte garderie and its twice or thrice weekly schedule was all we could get, but we took it.
colored_handprints
You had to tow the line there: parking a certain way in the room designated for strollers, donning the obligatory shoe covers before entering the playroom – too often I found them still over my shoes out on the street on my way back home – keeping to the correct time for dropping your child off and retrieving them at the end of your morning or afternoon session, tolerating the snooty director who’s name I always managed to mispronounce. And then there’s the system of adaptation – how you got your kids started at the garderie, which is meticulously regimented.

The initial visits lasted only an hour, and a parent is required to stay the entire time and sit and play with her child. This way the little being gets accustomed to the new environment and new playmates with a familiar and comforting parent close by. After two visits, you bring your child and stay with them for 15 minutes – and then you leave, but only for 30 minutes or an hour, so the child is there without a parent for only a short time. Each successive visit the parent’s disappearance is extended, until after about two or three weeks it becomes just a matter of dropping off and picking up four hours later. It makes perfect sense to ease the children into their day care situation and though it doesn’t eliminate drama – both Short-pants and Buddy-roo cried for 20 minutes after we left the first few times – it probably minimizes the pain and anyway it just seems kinder and gentler.

I used to love the pick-up at the end of the day – not that I was always ready to shift back into mothering gear, I could always have used a few more hours – but because I could peek in the window and watch the kids playing and being their own little selves without interacting with me. I’d stand there for 10 minutes observing them bob around with the other bobble-headed toddlers. And then, of course, once I walked in and they’d look up and see that the parent who’d just arrived was there to fetch them, this exclamation of glee always so affirming. Parenting is a shit-load of work but those wildly enthusiastic greetings are part of the payoff.

~ ~ ~

Remarkably, Short-pants seems to have adapted the quickest to Barcelona. In Paris, her classmates indulged her quirky, introverted habits, but she was often the target of some teasing by older kids in the courtyard. I worried about how she would fare in the new school. We talked about what behaviors might have caused the kids to pick on her, and how with this move she had a chance to deliberately re-think them.

“Mama, I understand the consequences,” she said, “but I like walking around the courtyard talking to myself.”

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I didn’t. But she must have internalized a little bit of our conversation because I think she’s not doing the things (as much) that attracted the teasing and in fact has made a real effort to extend herself and make new friends. She’s even part of a small “gang” of girls, much different than her social life in Paris. She’s plunged into the new languages and excelled at school; this semester she landed her best report card ever, with felicitations. (In a French school system, that’s really good.)
walkin_in_the_woods
De-facto, too, has taken an immediate shine to our Barcelona life. The location suits him. Unlike in Paris, where we were in thick of things urban, our new home is in a quieter part of the city, and just 100 yards from nature. Nearly every day, he hops on his mountain bike and peddles up the steep hill to the Carretera des Aigües, a winding dirt trail where you can walk, run and bike with a full view of the entire city and the Mediterranean sea beyond it.

Then there’s Buddy-roo, for whom the jury is still out. Because she’s usually brimming with energy and life, it’s easy to forget that she’s actually a bit shy when she first encounters new people and things. I wouldn’t classify her as miserable; she has made a few good friends and she’s thrilled about the bunk beds in her room in our new home. But Buddy-roo’s the one who misses Paris the most, her friends there, her last year’s teacher – even though she wouldn’t be her teacher this year – our neighbor’s dog and her rock band.

“Nobody asked me if I wanted to move to Barcelona,” she says, in those moments when she’s feeling particularly low. We actually did ask her, and she was very enthusiastic. I reminded her of this, but it didn’t seem to help her mood much. Now I just shrug and draw her close for a hug. No use trying to talk someone out of their feelings.

~ ~ ~

My monthly visits to Paris are sort of a reverse adaptation. It would have seemed brutal to be cut off from my Parisian life completely, to have packed up all of our things and cleared out, closing the door abruptly on that long and lovely chapter. The fact that I can stick my toe back in the Seine every once in a while, see friends, speak French, eat a real croissant, stock up on my favorite French products, take care of my hair, and sit at my favorite bar in the whole damn world makes it easier for me to adjust to my new life somewhere else. I don’t really miss Paris, because I get to go back regularly. I probably should take Buddy-roo with me on one of these visits, to ease her transition, too.
sagrada_in_tiles
Eventually, if Barcelona is a place we decide to stay, I’ll be compelled to find local doctors and a dentist and an aesthetician. Surely there are capable practitioners there. One day I may have to ween myself from the artist who cuts my hair every trip to Paris. That will be harder; he’s given me a distinctive look and I trust him like no other hairdresser I’ve known. Replacing my favorite bar is probably the tallest order, and may never happen. But there are still plenty of fine watering holes around Barcelona and maybe someday one of them will even feel like “mine.”

For now, I like straddling the two cities, exploring the new options and opportunities that Barcelona offers me while staying connected to the rituals of my Paris. Keeping the thread to my old home is comforting, and makes for a nearly painless transition. I know on some level I won’t have fully embraced our life in Barcelona until I let go. But for now, I guess, I’m still in the middle of my adaptation.


Nov 17 2013

In Other Words

She stood at the foot of the bed, pleased with herself. Short-pants had just brought in two cups of coffee with frothy milk for De-facto and me. Some traditions have been carried from Paris to Barcelona, Sunday morning coffee-in-bed service the best among them.

“Are you ready for the word of the day?” She shifted her weight from her left foot to right foot and back, her quirky gesture when she’s nervous or very excited. Today because she was excited; she loves her new job, augmenting our Spanish vocabulary.
spell_it_out
Tijeras.”

De-facto and I, obedient pupils, repeated the word, in tandem.

“Know what it means?”

We sipped our coffees, waiting for the answer. She gave us a clue. “At the end of knitting, you need them.”

“Knots?” I asked.

She shook her head. Using her fingers, she made a cutting motion.

“Scissors!”

“Yes. And do you remember yesterday’s word?”

Derecha,” De-facto shouted, exaggerating each syllable. It’s a bit of a caricature, his foreign accent, which is the same whether he’s speaking French or trying out Italian or Spanish.

Derecho,” Short-pants corrected.

“Right,” he said, “derecho.”

!” She beamed.

We ran through all the words we’d learned this week, courtesy of her tutelage: reloj (watch), bigote (mustache), roncar (to snore), hombro (shoulder, not to be confused with hombre, man or hambre, hunger) and a personal favorite: semafaro (traffic light). She stood at the edge of the bed smiling at us, our proud teacher, pleased with our progress.

It doesn’t surprise us that Short-pants is the purveyor of words and language in our household. She is the most avid reader, reading and re-reading several books a week. Her trophy from last year’s spelling bee victory is a prized possession, one of the few personal objects she brought from her Paris bedroom. At school she’s plunged into both of the local languages, Castellano and Catalan, and she’s always happy to practice with us.

Her sister, Buddy-roo: not so much. Sometimes I’ll initiate a conversation with her in Spanish and she’ll bark at me.

“Mama, I don’t speak Spanish!”

Her resistance doesn’t trouble me. It’s all around her and she’ll pick it up. One day she’ll just let it rip, and she’ll speak it better than all of us.

I’m far from fluent. My three years of high school Spanish (and embarrassingly, two years in junior high before that) are buried somewhere deep in my brain. Little by little, phrases and grammar constructions seep to the surface, triggered by the day-to-day Spanish that surrounds me. My annual jaunts to Pamplona and the trek on the Camino last year have helped only a little. I have miles to go before I speak Spanish comfortably or articulately.
persona_de_pocas_palabras
I have my excuses. A heavy itinerary of professional travel this fall has made havoc of any routine I might have tried to establish in our new home city. It’s hard to keep up with the regular demands of life – most of them administrative – with this kind of travel schedule, let alone making time for consistent language instruction. I can navigate at the market and handle simple restaurant encounters with barmaids and waiters. Last week I successfully deposited money in the bank, bought stamps and took my sweaters in to be dry-cleaned. But I can’t convey who I am or what know in this language, and I’m still lost when I have to speak it on the telephone. This is when I ask myself why do I do this? Why do I choose to live in a place, once again, where I have to start from scratch – or nearly from scratch – to speak the language?

It doesn’t take me long to get to the answer. When given the choice between easy and different, I usually choose different. Although some might argue that Spanish isn’t such a different language, and what I should be studying is something not so easy, like Mandarin. But my goal is to get truly operative in Spanish, and to open that door for our daughters as well. Madrid or any other Spanish city might have been a better place for that, given the Catalan bias here, but it was Barcelona that called to us, and so here we are, struggling one word at a time, to put our thoughts and feelings into other words from other languages.


Nov 7 2013

Home Away from Home

I needed a knife to test the cake, to see if it was done. The oven door open, I reached behind me, to the top middle drawer in the kitchen island, an automatic gesture after using that kitchen for twelve years. My hand landed on cardboard boxes of biscuits, crackers and grains instead of the cutlery tray I expected to find. The drawer is no longer the silverware drawer. I had to clear the old memory and replace it with new information. Our tenant has made himself at home in our apartment, as he should. Part of that includes organizing the kitchen to fit his logic. I don’t mind and many of his alterations are improvements. But even after several days of operating in the re-arranged kitchen, I couldn’t override my old habits. I kept reaching into drawers and cupboards and finding something other than what I’d reached for. Those mental pathways are etched in my brain like deep ravines.
red_autumn_leaves
We’d driven into Paris in the late morning, managing to avoid the rush hour and also to get to our street before it was infested with the pedestrian tourists that accumulate around lunch time, making it impassible. It was all familiar: turning the key in the street door that opens into the cobblestone corridor with the leafy courtyard – now with red leaves that I love to see every year at this time – up four flights of stairs to our door and into the apartment that for so many years, until two months ago, we called home.

Because our tenant is heroic and also a good friend, he understands that from time to time we want to come back to Paris, to see people and stay connected. He organized a trip last week that would coincide with our desire to come visit, so we could stay in the apartment while he was gone. One of our objectives: to collect another van-load of personal possessions to move to Barcelona. Buddy-roo was thrilled because it meant that she could celebrate her birthday with her old gang of Paris friends. She’d had a very small party with a few Barcelona friends before the school break, involving hot dogs and pony rides. We had a family celebration at the country house; she’d been a good sport about spending most of her actual birthday in a car. She’d been missing her Parisian friends – me, too – so I organized for her a little boum (that’s a French dance party) and invited not only a handful of her friends, but their parents too.

By the time we carried our things up to the apartment, I had only a few hours to run errands and shop, decorate for the party, set up the music playlist and bake a cake. I found myself running at the familiar Parisian pace: a brisk walk without time to spare, to the department store, the pharmacy and the grocery, before running home to crack eggs in a bowl and cook up a cake. The cake pan wasn’t anywhere to be found, not even in its usual spot, so I had to rifle through a box of kitchen stuff stashed behind the couch. Luckily I’d hidden the birthday candles on the top shelf of an obscure cupboard, so Buddy-roo’s cake had candles to blow out.

We were still downloading Ylvis from iTunes and blowing up balloons when the doorbell started ringing. The younger guests batted the balloons around the room while the older guests congregated around the kitchen island drinking wine and telling stories (completely unaware that the contents of its drawers were completely changed). It felt good to be withpeace_flowers old friends, good to touch base and stay in their circle. It felt natural to be there; and why shouldn’t it? It was our home until just recently. We haven’t been gone long enough, really, to feel like strangers when we return. Yet standing there I knew something had already shifted. It still felt like home, but I knew it really wasn’t.

The rest of the week ran at the same pace, with dozens of errands and appointments. I saw the beauty nurse and my coiffeur. The girls saw their pediatrician – a gentle, lovely man who is part Groucho Marx and part Ghandi – because we needed a health certificate from him for their Spanish residency. It was worth the two hours spent in his waiting room because he is a wonderful man and the girls love him so. And it never hurts to have a check-up. If we stay in Barcelona, we’ll need to find new doctors and care-takers, but for now it’s good to inject a little of the familiar into all the change and tumult in our lives these last months.

Moving is a messy experience and doing it as we have, in small bites, a trip at a time, has its benefits except each time is just as messy as the last. By the end of the week, the apartment was turned upside down, again, with boxes and bubble wrap strewn about, several packing tasks concurrently half-completed and the clock ticking down fast before the return of our tenant and our departure back to Spain. There wasn’t enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do – my ambition to sort through that office cabinet or empty that medicine cupboard was greater than the time allotted. Or I stopped trying to do it all and just let it rest while I slipped out to my favorite café to sit on the corner stool and smile at the barmen while my children paraded around the bar in their thrown-together Halloween costumes.

De-facto can pack a car like nobody’s business, and in his usual fashion he bull-dogged every box and basket and table and chair that had been designated for this trip into the small van we’d hired. The girls are used to it. They don’t even blink at being squeezed into the back seat with suitcases stuffed beneath their feet. Nine hours later, they took their places in assembly-line form, unpacking the car and getting things on the street, into the elevator and into our apartment. bottles_cans_in_order

It must have been after 10 pm when we’d brought in the final box, and though I’d risen at 6 am that morning to finish packing and cleaning what used to be home in Paris, I had to start unpacking right away. I needed to put the kitchen right, adding the second wave of dishes and utensils that hadn’t been essential when we moved two months ago – things like my mother’s pancake-batter bowl, my favorite serving platters, the champagne flutes – but now would make the kitchen complete. This snowballed into an entire kitchen cupboard re-org, but when I was done, later than midnight, I had the feeling that the kitchen wasn’t so funky after all and maybe it was starting to feel a little bit like home.

There’s still a lot to do to pull our apartment together, furniture to purchase, pictures to hang and shelves to fill with books and objects d’art. But for the first time I had the feeling that this apartment in Barcelona could be home, that it felt good to be here, good to be at home away from home.


Sep 20 2013

Homing In

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

We have a found a place to live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 8 2013

Finding your Place

The huge green gate swung open and the dozens of moms and dads, congregated to fetch their children after the first day of school, plowed into the courtyard. The children stood in a clump, all of them slightly hunched over from the weight of backpacks that contain every school book they own. The first parents through the gate created a tall wall that made it nearly impossible to find your own in the mob of children waiting to be claimed. I paced back and forth behind the crowd of parents, craning my neck to locate Buddy-roo. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t find her, but more concerned that she would panic not having been found. The school is so much larger than our little corner primary school in Paris. There were so many kids, and as many adults. I stood for nearly ten minutes looking for her.

Then that moment. It happens at every school pick-up, and warms my heart each time. It was ten times more robust on this day, the end of her first day at a new school. I saw her and she saw me and her face exploded into a huge grin. My whole body sighed with relief. She’s happy. It went well. She inched through the swarm of people to reach me.

“I made five friends today!”

She is a voraciously social creature; achieving new friends is her measure of success.
paris_in_heart
“And I love my teacher!”

I didn’t expect her to have difficulty, but I know it’s not easy, adjusting to a new school and a new life in a new city. That morning, standing outside the school with her, I felt as though we were alone in the sea of families greeting each other warmly, catching up with their friends after the long summer vacation. I pictured us in the courtyard of our school in Paris, where we’d be hugging our friends and chatting and laughing, all of it too loud and the directrice would have to remind us, repeatedly, to be quiet as she called out the name of each student. A sharp dagger of regret not to be there with our friends instead of here amongst these strangers. I let it wash over me, not accepting it, not fighting it either. In moments of unfamiliarity, the familiar always has a halo. You will find your place here, I told myself. So will they.

~ ~ ~

The van we’d rented was stuffed to the gills. Every space was used. Boxes and suitcases stuffed to the ceiling, rendering the rear view mirror useless. De-facto even unpacked some of the smaller bags I’d prepared, breaking my father’s cardinal rule of nothing without a handle – sage guidelines always appreciated when unpacking – and stuffed the girls shoes and T-shirts into the nooks and crannies. The front passenger seat was pushed so far forward that only Buddy-roo could sit comfortably in it. Half of the back seat was given to storage so Short-pants and I squeezed in the other half. We were like the Clampetts, riding toward Beverly Hills in an overloaded jalopy.

Moving sucks. Even if you have a moving company with a big truck coming to transport your life in cartons to your new doorstep, it’s brutal. I wanted to hire such a mover. I pictured those muscled men hoisting our boxes away and then miraculously appearing again at the other end to carry each box in, placing it where I’d point. De-Facto, being a scrapper, resisted the idea, reminding me not only of the unnecessary expense – we aren’t taking that much furniture – but also how when you have just a small load they try to pack you in with other larger shipments and you end up at their mercy. It took weeks to coordinate a delivery date for the small shipment from my mother’s house, about the same amount as we are taking to Barcelona, and it was not without surprise charges and additional headaches. So our plan: take a load of stuff with us, find our apartment, unload it and then De-facto would drive back to France for our second load, the pack for later load. Anything else could wait until the fall school holiday, when we could make a third trip to get any other longed-for items. The plan was not to move our entire home – we have a renter in Paris who’s counting on most of our furniture – but to take just what we’d need.
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Things were going along according to plan. We hit the ground running, saw a fabulous apartment on the first day and three more very livable options the next. At each apartment we visited, Buddy-roo and Short-pants would run off to explore the bedrooms while De-facto and I inspected the main rooms and kitchen. They’d sprint back with a report on who’d claimed which room. They moved into every apartment, in their imaginations, instantly.

Then, last Monday, we found it. A slightly eccentric apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open against a balustrade, giving the effect of being indoors and yet on a terrace. It’s a duplex, too, so the girls can keep their upstairs universe, only this time with more headroom than in our attic apartment in Paris. De-facto and I have agreed, more or less, on the viability of all the apartments we’d seen, but now we turned to each other and it was obvious: this one. We made an offer – with the rental market as it is in Barcelona it wouldn’t be sane to pay the asking price – and negotiation started. On Tuesday we reached a verbal agreement. Conceivably, the contract could be signed mid-week and we could move in on the weekend, which would give us time to move out of our temporary digs and leave them in mint condition for the return of the friend who was loaning her apartment to us while she went to Burning Man.

On Wednesday the owner, our potential landlord, wanted more information, requesting financial documents that we never guessed we’d need and had left packed away. Our new tenant in Paris – fortunately a good friend – was heroic in his willingness to scavenge for these papers and scan and send them to us. This would delay the signing, but we still had time. That afternoon, however, the small side window of our van was smashed and we were robbed. In broad daylight. We’d had the sense not to leave our most important possessions in the van, there were just boxes of sheets and towels, toiletries, a large suitcase of De-facto’s clothing (I actually wish they’d taken that), some books and papers. There was nothing of demonstrable value except the one item we’d forgotten to bring in because it was hidden in a secret floor compartment that the thief managed to find: the small black bag with our video camera. I could care less about the camera, we stopped filming years ago. It was that all our cassettes were in the same bag. Every video of Short-pants and Buddy-roo, coming home from the hospital, kicking in their highchair, learning to walk, playing at the beach. All of them surely tossed in a garbage bin somewhere in Barcelona.

“It’s okay,” I consoled a tearful Buddy-roo. She’d been watching the videos just last week, relishing the images of her own childhood. “I had no videos of my childhood and but I still remember it was a happy one.”

It was time for Plan B. We moved everything that was left in the van into our tiny temporary apartment, and De-facto, worried that a stack_of_gripsvehicle with a broken window would only invite another theft, decided to drive it back to Paris, that night. He’d return it and get another van – a bigger one even – and on the way back he’d stop off at the country house to pick up a few pieces of furniture, returning to Barcelona on Friday. Our heroic friend and renter even volunteered to drive back with him; an extra muscle to move things, a co-pilot and relief driver, and in general good company. In the meantime, I’d sign the lease and we’d move everything in on Saturday.

Except on Friday, while De-facto sped down the autoroute toward Spain, I got a call informing me that the landlord wouldn’t schedule an appointment until he could review our tax returns, which meant not until Monday. I should mention that the night before I noticed that Short-pants was scratching her head and a close inspection confirmed that she had lice, and so did Buddy-roo. We were up until after midnight combing out their hair. The only saving grace is that the metal long-tooth combs and tea-tree oil were in the box of toiletries we’d been forced to bring in from the van after the theft. This, probably my lowest moment of the move, so far: operating on four hours of sleep, a van of our belongings on their way to Barcelona, another van’s worth of boxes and suitcases in our tiny temporary apartment that we needed to vacate before Sunday, and no apartment until at least Monday, or later.

I was never thrilled about plan B. I’d have waited until we signed a lease before making a trip back to Paris. But De-facto had valid reasons for pressing forward this way, and when he wants to get something done he’s tenacious. Or he trusts that if things go wrong, he can solve that problem later. It’s foolish, sometimes, what we get ourselves into. It does keep our problem solving skills in sharp order. It’s definitely not boring. But now I had to devise a plan C. There, on the ground, and fast.

I asked our real estate agent for a list of the best storage units, and with his advice, managed to contact one and make a reservation. I’d already been scanning Air BnB apartments to rent in case our homelessness stretched beyond the weekend. I sent a bunch of messages inquiring about places to rent for a few days, or up to a week. I met the girls at school and tried to be cheerful as I explained that we’d have to wait until Monday to find out about our apartment. I think they’re used to this “suspended” situation we are in; they just shrugged and asked for a snack.

~ ~ ~

Night fell around us as we sat on the balcony at the home of new friends introduced to us by our friend/tenant who’d accompanied De-facto to Barcelona with our things, new friends who’s daughter happens to be, by chance, in the same class as Short-pants. While we’d driven the van to the storage unit and unpacked it – how reassuring to see my grandmother’s two velvet fauteuils ready to be in our new home, wherever we make it – these friends cooked up a paella and set the table on their terrace. In the course of dinner conversation, we acquired the name and number of a cousin in Barcelona who has an apartment we can rent a day at a time until we get our own. A crisp glass of white wine, children playing together happily inside, the night air warm and easy, it felt like things had somehow turned around. A few angels here and there, a helpful friend, a generous stranger. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was just the wine: we even started to laugh at our own situation.
palm_trees
You learn a lot about your decisions when you think about undoing them. There’ve been many moments this week when I thought about how much easier it’d be if we’d just stayed in Paris. But after each flash of frustration or fatigue, I’d looked around and notice something like a palm tree in front of the school and remind myself that we came here for a reason, even if I don’t know what it is yet. As for the apartment: we like the other ones on our list well enough, but we love this one. The thought of not giving it one or two more days to come together feels short-sighted. Perhaps tomorrow things will fall into place and we’ll have a new home. If not, we’ll have to concoct a plan D.

As I write this, De-facto and the girls are in the other room, crowded around his computer, laughing out loud at a string of videos: two little girls singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” the kids playing poker with their uncle in the back yard of the country house, footage from our stay in Cambodia. As it turns out, he’d archived some of those early family videos on his hard drive. A few motion pictures of the girls’ charmed childhoods still exist. Seeing the videos reminds me of all the places we’ve been, how happy we’ve been in all of them, and how we just have to give it some time before we all find our place here in Barcelona.


Aug 23 2013

Pack for Later

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

“Try ironing.”

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

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

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