Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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


Aug 19 2012

Street Music

It could be any summer afternoon – in fact it is every summer afternoon, just about lunchtime, when it starts. The morning street, empty and fresh, fills up with people. The locals, shoppers and tourists mix together and the neighborhood comes alive. In our garret apartment there is a gentle buzz from below: the background hum of people talking and laughing and the sounds of glasses and cutlery in use at the restaurant terrace beneath our windows. An occasional motorcycle or impatient car horn breaks the white noise. Otherwise, we cease to hear it.

Until it starts: the squawking tones of an alto saxophone in the hands of a not-so-polished street musician. The moment I hear the first notes of Bésame Mucho I groan. A beautiful Mexican love song, written by a young woman who claimed never to have kissed anyone before writing it, I used to love this song, especially the Beatles’ version. Now it grates on me.

His playlist is limited and predictable. Bésame Mucho is always followed by the same bleak song, a bad rendition of a brooding melody reminiscent of old eastern Europe. Once heard, the tune remains fixed in my head for the rest of the day. Equally annoying: its title escapes me. I’m left humming the song to myself, then wondering, what is the name of this damn song?

~ ~ ~

Paris offers a menu of street music to satisfy anyone, especially tourists. The locals are too busy getting somewhere; we skirt around the upturned hat filled with suggestive coins. One avoids, if possible, those places where the cacophony of competing musicians and encircling crowds impede swift passage. The streets beside the Pompidou Centre, for instance, and the Pont Saint-Louis, the bridge spanning from Île St. Louis to Île de la Cité with its view of the Seine and Notre Dame‘s flying buttresses, these are prime locations to circumvent if you’re in a hurry or not in the mood for live music.

An unregulated métier such as this attracts a broad range of talent, from established orchestral groups with CDs for sale to a soloist accompanying music from a portable boom box by playing only the tambourine. In the summer it becomes so commonplace to see a musician or an ensemble set up on the street that it’s easy to ignore them, though harder to evade the crowd they might attract. Occasionally, though, there’s a gem. An accomplished violinist stands under the arches of the arcades surrounding Place des Vosges, her concerto echoes hauntingly and any passerby is compelled to stop and listen and watch her sway back and forth as she plays. An acoustic guitarist sits in a shaded doorway strumming you back to your best childhood memories.

Buddy-roo likes the guitarists the best, and has befriended several, somehow managing to win their favor and on occasion, finagle a free CD. She knows I’m a sucker for a good musician, so as we approach one she’ll turn to gauge my reaction. If the music makes me smile, she’ll beg me for a coin, and run over to put it in whatever basket or hat has been laid out to receive such appreciative donations. Sometimes we’ll linger, getting our money’s worth. Buddy-roo will sway beside me, or do a little dance if she’s feeling inspired.

“How do you decide which ones to give money to?” Short-pants once asked. She knows I struggle with whether or not to give money to people on the street. If I do, it’s usually to street musicians. Among these performers I have standards: some measure of talent, authenticity, and stage presence will motivate me to open my change purse.

“The ones whose music moves me the most,” I told her, “and the ones who seem really dedicated, who work the hardest.”

“Do you think I could make money playing my viola in the street?”

“Only if you keep practicing.”

~ ~ ~

It was almost eight years ago, when every morning and night for six weeks straight, De-facto and I traipsed across the Pont Saint-Louis on our way to and from the metro that took us to the children’s hospital, where we’d sit beside Short-pants for hours, waiting and watching for one of her doctors to come by and answer our questions. Each night on the way home, I’d call my brother, a doctor, to report the medical updates and he’d put them in layman’s terms for us. Once, he was describing the difference between meningitis and encephalitis, his explanation barely audible over an accordion playing La Vie en Rose.

My brother, hearing the music, stopped. “This is too surreal,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “but it’s also my sanity.”

The accordion player was there on that bridge nearly every morning and almost every night. It was December, cold and windy. And it was dark, not like the summer when daylight stretches way behind the dinner hour and crowds congregate on that same bridge eating ice-cream and watching street performers. Some nights we were the only people in sight, passing him on the bridge as his keypad swelled in and out, like it was breathing. Any coins I had in my pocket were left in the basket beside him, his earnest and constant commitment inspired my own; his music, as schmaltzy as it was, gave me hope for her recovery.

~ ~ ~

On rue Charlot, a small storefront window displays reed instruments of every type: clarinets, oboes, saxophones and other members of the woodwind family, and some flutes for good measure. The proprietor is a gentle-souled, soft-spoken man with a long face, appropriately solemn to suit the tone of the instruments he tends. I pass by often and I rarely see customers in the store, but he’s always there, diligently repairing the pads of an aging oboe or restoring the glory to an antique silver flute.

Short-pants and I walked by the other day, as he was removing the shutters from the window to open the shop. I told her I wanted to stop at the store to talk to him. He corrected me, in English. “Not a store, it’s a workshop.”

It is a workshop. Not only is the front window packed with instruments he’s repaired and refurbished for resale, there is every kind of saxophone hanging from the ceiling against every wall. Machines with clamps and fan-belts from the mid-twentieth century collect dust. Canisters of tools – some of them resembling those of a dentist – sit atop every workspace. The clutter of instruments, equipment, antique metronomes and loose sheet music is covered with a fine layer of dust. It is part factory, part studio, part museum.

We’d just come from a café up the street. A musician there, this one a trumpeter – or trying to be – had taken it upon himself to entertain the customers on its terrace. He had a little boom box with him, providing a cheesy synthesizer accompaniment. The last song he played before he was shooed away by our annoyed waiter was the very same haunting tune the alto-saxophonist beneath my window always plays after Bésame Mucho, the ear worm I can’t name.

I stepped inside the woodwind workshop, cleared my throat and hummed the melody to the craftsmen. I asked him if he knew the title.

Right away he nodded. “Shostakovich, the second waltz.”

I knew he’d know it. I thanked him profusely for answering the riddle that had been plaguing me, and quietly left a two-euro coin on his desk before slipping out the door. I hummed that waltz all the way home. It sounded different when hummed through a smiling mouth, not as melancholy – it was nearly triumphant.


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 20 2011

Bidding Adieu

I’d pass the tailor’s shop every day, on my way to the bus or the metro, or to school to get the girls. He’d wave at me and step out of his shop into the street, looking a bit like Burt Lancaster as the old Doc in the Field of Dreams. His greeting was always accompanied by a sparkling-eye smile and polite cheek-to-cheek kisses, softened by his long, white beard. As warm as he was, he retained an old-world formality. He always used vous and insisted upon calling me Madame, no matter how many times I begged him to use my first name instead.

This man, Monsieur Atlan, touched me in rather intimate places. Being my tailor, he was obliged to pinch and tuck at the curves and bends of my body. He always did this with care and respect, bordering that sensual territory that is often present between a man and a woman, especially when his fingers are dancing around her waist checking for a proper fit. Yet there was never a hand misplaced, never an inappropriate gesture or remark. He’d pin everything perfectly and stand back and give me a genuine compliment, “Vous êtes vraiment belle,” and while it was an admiring comment, it had no charge. I was safe in his hands.

Comme ça?” he’d say, looking into the mirror at me, gauging the length of my pants has he folded and pinned them. Then he’d draw his fingers up the outside seam of my leg, to the waist. “Ici, ça va?” He’d pull the belt loop, revealing how much room gaped at the top, pinching it in and pinning it to show me how it would fit properly. He’d thoroughly inspect the entire garment, not satisfied to merely shorten the length to fit with my new shoes, but to be sure it fit perfectly at every seam, zipper, button or stitch.

Once I took him an old coat, a cream-colored leather-looking vinyl number, a hand-me-down from a friend who worked in the fashion industry. She’d clean out her wardrobe every season and pass some pretty fabulous things on to me. After years of loving wear, the silk lining had started to shred into strips. I wore it anyway, but not without occasional embarrassment. When I noticed a client eyeing the inside of my coat as I stretched my arms into its sleeves, I knew I had to take it to Monsieur Atlan.

He surveyed the coat carefully, taking his time to admire the workmanship of the stitching on the outside, nodding, approvingly. When he saw the inside he dropped his arms in despair at how I’d let the lining go. “Can you replace it?” I’d asked. “Mais oui,” he said, but the coat had to be cleaned first, and not just at any cleaner. “Most of them are thieves,” he said, picking up the phone and calling his preferred dry cleaner to say that I was coming and to please turn the coat around quickly and give me a fair price. Then we had a lengthy discussion about the lining, its color, pattern and the quality of material. As usual, what I’d hoped would be a 5-minute errand turned into a 25-minute in-depth discussion. But this was always the case with Monsieur Atlan. He wasn’t just a tailor, he was my tailor and he took seriously the job of taking care of my wardrobe. I think everyone who went to him felt this way.

His shop was a mess of material and thread and ancient sewing machines and an old-fashioned ironing stand. I’m sure it hadn’t been dusted or cleaned in years, you had to remember not to put your clothes over the bar that held the changing cabin’s curtain, the dust that had accumulated there would rub off on the very item you’d brought him to repair, or you’d walk out with a gray line across the front of your clothing. But as haphazard as his housekeeping may have been, his sewing was meticulous. And when you came to pick up whatever garment he’d repaired, you couldn’t just skip in quickly and grab it on the way home. He’d stop whatever he was doing to show you with pride the detail of what he’d done: the extra stitches he’d put in to reinforce it, or the care he’d taken to fix it from the inside. It was obligatory to admire his fine work. This wasn’t hard to do; he could fix even the most impossible garments and make them fit like a glove. Monsieur Atlan repaired more of my retail mistakes than I care to report.

Most of all, he loved my children. When I was pregnant, there was nobody in the neighborhood more thrilled to hear the news. He was certain of the gender, telling me each and every time I saw him that it would be a boy. When the second baby was apparent he made no further predictions, but doubled his enthusiasm. He marveled at Short-pants and Buddy-roo as they grew up walking down the street in front of his shop. He’d step out and beam at us as if we were his own family, repeating his mantra about how good health and the love of your family are what count the most. “La santé et l’amour de la famille, c’est principale.”

He was loved by everyone in the neighborhood. This must have sustained him when his health failed. Last winter he was diagnosed with cancer, what type was never revealed to me. He turned gray and hollow and though he worked as long as he could, soon he couldn’t and the occasions I would see him were only when he happened to be visiting the shop and by chance I would pass by.

“It’s a real battle,” he told me, “without your health.” He shook his head and his words trailed off. I finished the sentence for him, “but you have our love, c’est principale.”

His eyes still sparkled at that.

Last week a sign on the shop, which has been boarded up for most of the summer, announced a memorial service for him at the temple just across the street. I knew this was coming, it wasn’t a shock. Still I could not contain the tears as I stood on the street and read the words on the sign, again and again.

So much has changed in our neighborhood. Too many services and locally-run stores have moved away, forced out by high rents and the chain stores that have become, unfortunately, signature shopping in the Marais. Monsieur Atlan’s little old-fashioned shop and his thoughtful, attentive service remained steadfast as the neighborhood shifted from eclectic and ethnic to chic and trendy. His departure is another step away from the authenticity that was the hallmark of the quartier. I’m going to miss seeing him on the street. I’m going to miss his conscientious care of me and my wardrobe. I’m going to miss his warmth, his smile. But I won’t forget Monsieur Atlan, and I won’t forget his wise words: Your good health and the love of your family, c’est principale.


May 2 2011

Comparing Saturdays

She had a rehearsal, for the school play, an abridged version (thankfully) of the Wizard of Oz. Short-pants is Glinda the Good Witch of the North in one scene, and she plays the Scarecrow in another. It’s a brilliant touch, I think, to cast several children in each of the roles: it cuts down on the pressure to memorize an entire script and gives many kids a chance to star. Buddy-roo is, of course, one of the Dorothys, and has perfected the turn of the ankle that shows off the ruby-red-slippers. But that scene wasn’t being rehearsed this weekend, so I had only Short-pants to fetch.

The rehearsal, it turns out, was held at an apartment just two blocks from where I lived when I first moved to Paris. Walking along the streets of the neighborhood, a gale of memories blew in, not quite as fierce as Dorothy’s voyage through the cyclone, but just as vivid. All those familiar faces and feelings that come when you return to a place that was once yours. I had sub-let a fantastic 100-square-meter Haussman-era apartment, decorated in an arty, eclectic style that suited me perfectly. I remember moving in and feeling at home in an instant.

The residue of those early days in Paris stays with me. I used to pinch myself to make sure I was really here. I’m sure I was a lot lonelier than I ever have would have admitted to myself; the thrill of living in Paris can keep you from realizing how unhappy you might be during those first months of adjustment. In retrospect, I had my share of uneasy-and-really-alone moments. But, oh, what I wouldn’t give to be that lonely again.

Saturdays were different then. Morning started at noon, and if I happened to be awake before twelve, it was only to make coffee and slip back into bed. I read all the time. The pile of “books on deck” much more reasonable than it is now, as it spiders off my bed-table and onto the floor in multiple piles that I never seem to read through. When I’d finally venture out of the apartment, it was often with no particular destination in mind. I explored the main boulevards in each direction, wandering off side streets and into alien neighborhoods. I walked the city. I’d stop at a café simply because it looked inviting. I ate lunch or I didn’t. I’d explore until I got tired and then I’d find a metro station and make my way back home, sometimes staying out until it was late and dark, but having followed every single whim of mine, all day long.

Sometimes there’d be lunch dates, lovely long appointments without boundary. We’d linger as long as we wanted after the café had been served, then go window shopping or stop at a gallery or just walk and talk and then go somewhere else for another café or a carafe of wine. There wasn’t anything else to do. At that time, my job involved work that could be completed during the week. My workday ended when I was done with work, not when the kids were done with school; those last precious hours of productivity before a typically late dinner meant I rarely had to work on the weekend. Saturday was just a day for me. To go out, or stay home, to do nothing in particular, to do whatever I wanted. On my own clock.

These days, I’m usually trailing the kids to some activity, eyeballing those single, childless people at café tables in the midst of their extended lunches and leisurely afternoons with no small amount of envy. I can still make lunch plans with friends – and I do – but it’s different. There’s a window of time. After a few hours, as delicious as it’s been to sit out at the terrace and eat and drink and people-watch, there’s always something nagging at me. There’s a clock ticking. I need to be home by 3:15 because De-facto has something he has to do, or I promised Buddy-roo I’d do a project with her or it’s just not fair to leave one parent in charge all day long without at least touching base. I can’t remember a Saturday where there wasn’t an gnawing itch of something I ought to be handling: getting a child to a rehearsal, a play-date, a birthday party, addressing paperwork that I couldn’t get to during the week, monitoring homework, drafting that thing I’m supposed to write, cleaning out that shelf, going through that pile. There’s always something or somebody that needs taking care of.

But this Saturday actually had a tinge of something from those earlier, freer weekends. I picked up Short-pants at her rehearsal and we set out. She was on her scooter, speeding ahead, but stopping at each street crossing and waiting for me to catch up. We walked home via Lil’ Weasel, a tiny knitting store in one of Paris’ charming off-the-tourist-path passages to pick up some double point needles she’d been asking for. We meandered for a while, stopping to look in store windows. We sat at a café and shared a panini for lunch, making up stories about the people who walked by. We went by my new favorite store on rue Rambuteau, La Pistacherie, its shelves stocked with apothecary-shaped jars of nuts of every kind, each one salted or spiced or enrobé with cheese or wasabi or some eccentric ingredient. We test-tasted as many nuts and berries as the store-keeper would let us, our eyes widening at each treat he offered. We walked to Ile St Louis and sat on the curb watching a buskerer let loose enormous soap bubbles in the wind.

We ended up meeting De-facto and Buddy-roo at the school courtyard, open exceptionally this last Saturday to host a vide grenier for people who took seriously enough their spring cleaning to have brought belongings to be sold at the school-sponsored flea market. A friend visiting Paris (the spring visitor season has officially commenced) joined us and we wandered home, almost aimlessly, stopping at an ice-cream kiosk for a treat. The sky was mostly sunny blue but for that one very dark cloud hovering just above us; we had to take shelter in the doorway of a church during the 6-minute rainstorm-in-the-sun. And then, slowly, we made our way home.

It was almost like the good ol’ days. Almost. Okay not really, but at least Saturday afternoons are no longer hampered with diapers and naps and hungry melt-downs. I should know better than to compare my life now with life before; better to be present with the current reality and look forward to what’s ahead. Maybe I’ll get those lazy all-about-me Saturdays back, probably just about the time I won’t want them anymore.


Jul 23 2010

Tour de Luxe

There’s nothing luxe about our life at the country house. We have what we need: a stove with an oven, a fridge, a table and chairs. There’s a shower with hot running water, two functioning toilets attached to a septic tank. Beds with linens – albeit old ones. One set even dates from my first post-college apartment,which means they’re something like 25 years old. (They’ve never seen the inside of a dryer, which might be why they’re still in use.) It’s all livable, just not particularly luxurious. A bit rough around the edges.

The country house is a renovation in progress. This means we live beside the dust and mess and clutter that is part and parcel of do-it-yourself construction. It’s part of any type of renovation, but particularly so when achieved the snail’s pace of 2-weeks at a time, three or four times a year. But we did not buy a ready-made chateau; we bought a rundown house attached to a barn, previously inhabited, for 30 years, by an eccentric bachelor. Which means we bought into the idea of slow motion, by-our-own-hand improvements from the start. Part of the pleasure, or so De-facto tells me, is solving the puzzle of what to fix and learning how to do it as you go.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to keep things sparse. And yet the house has still become the dumping ground for every odd piece of furniture, unwanted rug, blanket, throw-pillow or lava lamp. Nothing matches; our plates are all left over from other sets of china from our past, the silverware is abundant but with very few matching place-settings. I’ve vowed not to decorate, nor to buy any furnishings or appliances until the house is closer to finished. As a result, we live with what’s been inherited or donated, a hodgepodge of eclectic furnishings and belongings.

It’s amazing what you can live with – and without.

The electricity at the country house is more or less jerry-rigged, the wiring is so ancient that they don’t make plugs to fit some of the outlets in the house. If we use the oven and the burners on the stove and try to run the washer or plug in the speakers for music, we’re likely to trip the short-switch on the fuse-box. There is no landline for a telephone. There is no cable. There is no Internet.

Which is challenge for someone like me who writes 3 blogs and conducts most of the prep work for her business on-line. There are no less than a dozen moments a day when my natural reflex to check email or Google the answer to something goes un-satiated. In order to access the rest of the world, I must walk down the road 100 meters to our neighbors, who have kindly given us the code to their wi-fi. I sit on the bench outside their kitchen door and send/receive messages and bathe in the data I can download before I feel my presence is an imposition. You can imagine this makes posting somewhat problematic; but managing an on-line conference call meeting with colleagues has to be carefully timed and executed as well.

In the mornings De-facto toils in the side room we’ve been renovating for the last three years, maneuvering a support beam in the foundation or plastering or painting. I hole up in the upstairs back bedroom and write, surfacing at noon-thirty or so, just in time to make lunch for my hungry tool-belted man and our girls. My primary chore in the country is cooking, not the easiest task when only two of the burners on the stove work and there’s hardly an inch of counter space. But that’s life in the country; you get by with less than perfect conditions and in the end, it’s perfect.

After lunch there’s always some project, the cleaning out of shelf that’s been overtaken by cobwebs in our absence, trimming the tree branches over my grapevines to keep them in the sunshine or liberating them from the ferns that spread furiously when unattended. Or laundry. The country house is a high-speed factory for dirty clothes.

And then. The Tour. The high point of the afternoon is that moment when we pull out our old 20″ television (miniature compared to current models) to watch the Tour de France. That we have no cable is a handicap, but De-facto broke down and purchased an antenna, a set of rabbit ears which if correctly configured on the table just outside the door, permits a reasonable picture, though a bit snowy – at least it’s enough to watch the cyclists in action. We turn it on around 2 o’clock and let it blare in the background as De-facto paints the ceiling or I cut back the rose bushes. As they close in for the finish of the stage, we draw closer, staring intensely at the screen with fingers crossed. This year Schleck is our favored rider; his 8-second lag behind Contador seems like an eternity.

The girls, well, they run wild. In Paris they are somewhat incarcerated, on top of each other in our apartment and requiring an adult to accompany them to go anywhere outside our building. In the country, they run unhindered. Short-pants disappears into the forest behind the house while Buddy-roo wanders down the road to visit our neighbors. They run in and out of the house at will. They are free.

When the stage is over, and the post-tour television wrap-up is completed, De-facto makes his announcement, “Family bike ride!” This is met with some protest, as Short-pants is not so fond of bicycling and Buddy-roo makes a habit out of being contrary. But eventually it gets sorted out, who rides solo and who rides on the extension attached to De-facto’s bike (which makes for a bicycle-built-for-two). We peddle down the road. Our destination: the pasture with the shaggy pony. The sky is unblemished blue. The late afternoon sun turns us into long shadows on the pavement. There’s fresh air and a little exercise and the laughter of children. What about this isn’t a tour de luxe?


Jul 20 2010

Just as Much a Mom

She was probably a neighbor, a friend of your mother, or the mother of one of your friends. She could stand in, when necessary, for any maternal exercise: tending a boo-boo, offering up an afternoon snack, tucking you in during a sleepover. Occasionally she reprimanded you – and she had the right – you may have spent as much time at her house under her supervision as you did at your own. It’s hard to describe everyone’s childhood, and it’s tricky territory because not all of us had a pleasant one. But I’d wager that most of us have at least one memory that includes this formidable female role, one that deserves its own archetype: the woman who is just as much as a mom to you as your own mother.

Mine lived across the road. Mary was a mother to five handsome, thoughtful boys (who’ve grown into handsome, thoughtful men) and, by default, just as much as a mom to my brother, sister and me while we were growing up. It was on her cement porch that I fell chin first, and I’m not sure who took me to the hospital for stitches, my mother or Mary. It was in her kitchen that her youngest boys and I removed all the bowls and dishes from the corner cupboard with the lazy-susan inside so we could spin around until we were dizzy. It was in the old boat-building workshop behind her house that I learned to ride a 2-wheel bicycle without training wheels, and it was in the abandoned chicken coop within her view that I stole my first kiss.

It was the aroma of her brownies that drew us in from the fields beyond her yard to wash and rest a moment, the only thing worthy of interrupting the hours of imaginary battles we fought and the stories we played out. When I decided to experiment as a coiffeur – unfortunately on one of her sons – Mary threatened, in the nicest way, to chop off my hair, too. When I called him nicknames that displeased her, she knew exactly which diminutive of my name to call out to cease the teasing.

In high school, when I hosted unapproved parties while my parents were away, she said nothing. But on every other occasion, she had the perfect words to offer: I still have the card she mailed to me as a freshman in college, the letter she sent when I moved abroad, the note from her when my father died. I’ve saved her poignant emails, usually a short message of only a few lines but every single word well used. She wrote to me just after my mother’s memorial service: “Sometimes when the tasks fall away, grief increases.” One short sentence that drew from me a stream of tears pent-up, her words apparently the exact key to fit that lock.

I learned last week that Mary has passed away. A memorial service held for her over the weekend, which I could not attend, was described as original and beautiful. She had chosen passages for each of her sons and their wives to read, and selected the music that should pace the event. I wept that I could not organize my schedule to be there.

There was another woman who was as much a mom to me as my mother, during my high school years. We called her by her first name, Kitty, and we called her husband Mr. Hunk (he was salt-n-pepper handsome). She deftly guided our teenaged souls through the travails of adolescence, permitting enough wildness so that we could test our mettle, but reeling us in before we embarrassed ourselves. She knew things about me that my mom didn’t, and made it her business to help me rather than tell on me – all of this, somehow, enacted without any disrespect for my mother. That’s the trick, what makes this role so important: the woman who’s as much as a mom to you is a quiet, wise advisor, a guide on the side who relates to you in ways your own mom cannot. She’s a mother without baggage. I can still picture Kitty: salt-n-pepper classy and sharper than nails. She’d hold court at her kitchen table, letting us know that she knew exactly what mischief we were up to. Her memorial service was years ago; I regret that I missed it, too.

In February when my mother died, I walked across the road to share the news with Mary. Her house was like something out of a fairy tale, cozy with crocheted blankets, elegantly cluttered with handcrafted objects d’art and pictures of grandchildren. We sat at her table. The sun streamed in the window highlighting the distinctive line of her jaw. She must have known the purpose of the visit, but waited to let me spill the words. “Well there it is,” she said, when I told her.

It meant everything to us that all five of her boys and their families came home last May to attend my mother’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen them all together in one place at one time in nearly thirty years. After the service, I stood on our porch and looked across the road at their familiar lawn, alive with people: not only the boys, as we called them, but their wives and their children – Mary’s grandchildren – running about, engaged in every kind of game. The occasion that collected them was sad, but I remember thinking how lovely for Mary to have her entire family around her. Maybe that was my mother’s last gift to her, to bring them all home together for her, one last time.

How stunning is a lifelong friendship? Mary lived across the road for all of the fifty-plus years that my mother lived in our old Victorian farmhouse on the hill overlooking the lake you can’t see anymore because the trees have grown tall and broad. She and my mother were pregnant together, they reared toddlers at the same time, they readied children for school, standing across the street with their youngsters, pushing them on to the bus with metal lunch boxes and kisses. They took turns keeping an eye on eight children running amok in the fields beyond our two homesteads, or jumping on rooftops or playing spy-ring in a dank basement. Each with her distinctive call beckoning her own children home, together a duet of discipline and encouragement that crossed the road back and forth – unlike the rest of us – without having to look both ways.

Two women raised their children together, sent them off to college at the same time, buried their husbands but kept on living; worked, retired, became grandmothers, wizened women and family matriarchs. That they died within months of each other makes perfect sense, and yet the reality of it is still a shock.

The recent process of clearing out memories of my mother produces questions, and I was hoping, on my next trip home, to cross the road, walk up the long lawn to knock on Mary’s door and sit at her table with the sun streaming in and ask her those questions that now must be answered in my imagination. Instead I’ll walk up to the tree where her ashes are resting to place a stone there to thank her for her tenderness toward our whole family, to thank her for the caring eye she kept on my mother during the last year of her life, and mostly to thank her for being just as much a mom to me.


Oct 31 2009

Le Halloween

A good thing about being Americans living abroad is that we can take advantage of the holidays celebrated in both the United States and in France. We bring our own national traditions with us: Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. But then we also get to appreciate the local celebrations such as Bastille Day, the Beaujoulais Nouveau and, like, every other Tuesday and Friday in May.

Another good thing is that many of the traditional holidays, so unfortunately over-commercialized in the United States, are less amplified here in France. Here we celebrate more modestly, in a spirit that reminds me of when I was a little girl. I’m not saying that France hasn’t succumbed to the consumerism of Christmas, or that there aren’t some materialistic aspects to this culture, but holidays are not over-marketed to the same degree as in my homeland.

Halloween, in France, is especially understated. There happens to be a school holiday the week prior and following, but this is an excuse for a mid-trimester break that coincides with Toussaints, or All Saints Day, on November 1st. But there is no serious trick-or-treating and bobbing-for-apples is unheard of. The French simply don’t do l’Alowine.
jack_o_lanterns
It’s still my favorite holiday, Halloween. I love the idea of being costumed and masked and taking on another persona. I love telling scary stories. I love carving innocent pumpkins into mischievous jack-o-lanterns.

Because Halloween is not part of the French national consciousness, I realized, when the girls were finally old enough to go trick-or-treating, that I’d have to choreograph the entire event. I wrote up a French set of instructions and distributed them to neighbors in our building, and to some of our favorite stops in the quartier: our tailor, a favorite café, the bakery. I realized that without knowing the custom, it might seem odd that we’d ask them to provide free candy for our children, so I even made little gift-bags of bonbons and handed them out along with my instructions. Basically, if you agreed to participate, all you had to do was open the door when we rang the bell. It was a ready-made system: Halloween-to-go.

We’ve left those urban Halloweens behind. We spend much of the two-week Toussaints school vacation at the country house, a place far more suitable for celebrating a spooky holiday. The ground is layered with moist brown and orange leaves. The trees are nearly bare, dancing like skeletal silhouettes along the long road we must walk, in the dark, to visit the five houses that are near enough for trick-or-treating. The British neighbors know the drill, so no additional preparation is required. Even the French neighbors caught on quickly, and seem to look forward to viewing the odd creatures who show up at their door, begging for goodies. There is one household, a strange trio of three elderly peasants who live today much like they did fifty years ago, without running water or electricity. It occurred to me, after leaving them the note and the candy, that they might not know how to read. I think they thought the candy was a gift they could keep. When we came knocking on their door, nobody answered. It was pretty scary, standing outside their dark house, knocking, listening, wondering if they’d answer. Now that’s Halloween.
hula_dancers
This year Short-pants and Buddy-roo have opted out of any witch, ghost or goblin costumes, and even turned up their nose at the idea of being princesses. (Can I mention how much that pleases me?) Inspired by some ukuleles that came home from a workshop I led last spring and a costume idea from a depression-era story that accompanied one of their American Girl dolls, they’ve both decided to be hula dancers. So, grass skirts, check. Leis, check. Candy, check. Boo!


May 18 2009

The Hundredth Hug

In an effort to get the homebodies outside over the weekend (they would stay inside in their pajamas, all day, if we let them) a challenge was issued: Could you get a hundred hugs?
free_hugs
Two years ago, De-facto filmed Short-pants and Buddy-roo at a little park around the corner and created a copy-cat version of the “Free Hugs” video that was rushing around the internet at the time. The girls still remember it; occasionally they’re inspired to scratch out calins gratuit (French for “free hugs”) on a sheet of paper and troll around the house looking for extra love. That’s why my challenge was met with enthusiasm and succeeded in propelling them outside and into the fresh air of the real world.
on_street
“Don’t be too close,” was Buddy-Roo’s command as we walked out of the building. She and her sister ran ahead, their signs held high above their heads as they solicited affection from any and all passing strangers.

I know some mothers who would frown upon this: setting two adorable little girls free in a thick crowd of tourists, Sunday shoppers and falafel-eaters (our ‘hood, being a Jewish one, is the only quartier that’s open and vibrant on a Sunday). The girls were in view, more or less, as I trailed them from a distance while they made their way through the busy streets and around the block. I admit when I was first mothering I had my worrywart moments, but I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of a longer leash – rest for me, confidence for them – and I subscribe fully to the idea of Free Range kids.

But in truth, helicopter-moms need not worry. I couldn’t get over the number of people who actually recoiled when presented with a small smiling child holding a sign offering a free hug. They’d nervously look the other way, or move deliberately to avoid the path of my love-hungry children. Hardly an invitation for abduction, it appeared that the signs actually succeeded in keeping strangers away.
waiting_for_hugs
The girls were discouraged. A grenadine at my local café-bar was in order. But as soon as they’d guzzled the red elixir, they were at it again, out on the street, signs in the air, expectant smiles at work. Though Buddy-roo tired of the effort, her older sister was relentless. A comment made by a friend at the bar: “Send her to the states in 2012, she’ll get Obama re-elected.”

Persistence pays off. The hugs started to roll in. Short-pants kept careful count, assigning each hug a number and yelling it out to me (inside) every time she received an embrace. Buddy-roo traveled back and forth to the street and hugged her sister again and again, pushing the count up toward the goal. When a hundred hugs was finally achieved (half of them between sisters), I was wondering if it might trigger some kind of cosmic tipping point and suddenly everybody in the café would start hugging each other. There was, however, no visible hundredth monkey shift.

Short-pants was supremely proud of her accomplishment. Buddy-roo was thrilled, too. I was just happy for a little break at the bar.

Then it was time to go home, eat some dinner, have a bath and get back into our pajamas. Along the way, the hugs kept coming, at least another hundred – maybe more.


Apr 12 2009

Make New Friends

I was (still) on the rue Pastourelle, refusing to believe that the silversmith shop was no longer there. Like being relentless about looking for it would make it reappear. I’d finally gotten around to taking my ring to be repaired and my mission was being thwarted. I didn’t want to give up.
estampage
A few doors down from where (I think) the orfèvre used to be, I saw a sign for an atelier, some kind of metal workshop. It looked aged, like it’d been there a while. Maybe because they work with metal, they could do it. Or they’d know someone who could.

A loud buzzer opened the door and let me into an amazing world of little metal pieces. I asked about the whereabouts of
wall_of_metalthe silver shop. (Yes, it was a few doors down. No, it’s closed now.) Then I was compelled to inquire, “What exactly do you do here?” It seems I’d stumbled into an archive of metal stamps and stencils. A fantastic display of little bits of brass and metal with all manner of designs or messages used for printing and molding. Some of them even date back to the French revolution. Who knew such a place existed? And that it could employ three people?

But did they know another silversmith? There was some talk between the three of them, and then a recommendation. Down the street, just keep going straight, for many blocks, until you cross the boulevard. (Which boulevard? Just the big boulevard.) Not on rue St. Sebastian, but look for the Passage St. Sebastian.

And so I walked. The street names changed but I stayed the course and then sure enough I came to a boulevard and crossed to the other side where I saw the street I was told to avoid and hunted for the passage I was told to find, which is where I came upon a hidden city of ateliers and workshops.
courtyard
Walking down the cobblestone alley I could peek in the doors of all the workshops and artesian micro-factories with their Dr. Suess-like assembly lines. Up a dirty staircase, a lime green door screamed at me, and then beyond it, another door – in a location so obscure I would never have found it had I not been directed – with the name of my destination: Cendor.

And now I know Mario. Apprenticed at 14-years old, he’s been a silversmith for more than 50 years. I showed him the broken
cendor_doorsilver ring that had been my grandmother’s. He cared about the story. I also brought along my silver medallion of San Fermin, patron saint of Pamplona, to reinforce the loop for the chain. So he switched to Spanish and he rattled on about his love for Spain, his homeland.

He offered no receipt for holding my items, and just a few gruff instructions about when to come back. But I have the feeling my silver is in good hands. I have found the orfèvre of my dreams. Not the same one I was looking for. But better.