Nov 15 2015

Under Attack

I am not done with Paris. That conclusion I came to just over a week ago, when I was there on a last minute trip, a quick overnight visit provoked by an administrative errand. Usually I pack my schedule with lunches, drinks and dinners, taking advantage of the time on the ground to catch up with Parisian friends. This last trip I organized very few appointments. I’ve a lot of work at the moment and I didn’t metro_signwant to orchestrate every minute of my visit. I wanted to be in Paris with a bit of time on my hands. The way it used to be. Just being there.

Standing in line to board the flight, I cringed at the weather forecast: chilly, cloudy with showers. This was one of the main reasons for relocating to Barcelona. We craved a warmer, sunnier climate. The cold and gray of Paris can wear you out. But luck was with me, the forecast was inaccurate. The Paris weather was milder than predicted and the sun had only a few clouds to hide behind. Walking across the Pont Notre-Dame to the Prefecture for my appointment – one that had been assigned to me so I had no choice but to make the last minute trip – I took in the majestic vista of Paris’ bridges arching over the Seine, and all the familiar landmarks, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Conciergerie. No matter how many times I make the walk between the left and right banks, I am still struck by the stunning beauty of the city. Second only to the friendly upstate New York village where I grew up, this is the place that feels most like home. It was home, for eighteen years of my life.

~ ~ ~

Our try-a-year-in-Barcelona turned into two years (one was not enough to really get a full experience of the city and culture) which then turned into three years (it takes more than two years to feel at home) and who knows, now, how long we will stay. We’re set up comfortably, in a roomy apartment, walking distance to the school, a mere block away from a forested mountain that leads to a track where we love to run, bike and walk the dog. New friends aren’t as intimate or familiar as those we knew in Paris, but there is potential. I am not unhappy in Barcelona. Our life is lovely. But it isn’t what my life was in Paris. And I do miss that life.

De-facto was out playing basketball on Friday night and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I heaped ourselves together on the couch with Winston to watch the an episode of our latest favorite Netflix series. It was a text message from a faraway friend that alerted me to the attacks that were unfolding in Paris. I plugged into news coverage of Liberation and the BBC and Al Jazeera. I scanned my Facebook feed to see which Parisian friends were online and sharing updates – partly to hearparis_runs their perspective, mostly to confirm they hadn’t been caught in the mayhem.

It was hard to go to sleep and harder still to wake up in the morning to the tally of dead and injured and the stark images of a vibrant city shut down by terror and bloodshed. When Short-pants delivered my coffee – a Saturday morning luxury – I pulled her into bed with me for a morning hug. It made me think of the days just after 9/11 when we were glued to the TV, the altar for our grieving. I was breastfeeding Short-pants – she was only two months old – and while I watched the news, I’d glance down at her little mouth seriously at work taking in nourishment, her tiny fists banging against me and wonder what kind of world we’d brought her into. Now, fourteen years later, I held her (considerably) taller body in a long embrace and wondered, again, what kind of world she was inheriting. How will this ever go away?

~ ~ ~

It’s remarkable how a network of friends reaches out to support one another at a time like this. I was desperately texting my Parisian friends on Friday night, unable to get to sleep until I’d heard from them that they were safe. Saturday morning I woke to a full inbox myself, messages from friends who weren’t aware that we’d moved to Barcelona, or who know I often go back to Paris and that we have many close friends there who might have been hurt. It made my heart grow. In the midst of this horrible tragedy, little pockets of kindness make all the difference.

Later, at lunch, I asked the girls what they thought about what happened in Paris the night before. They both had the same first instinct: to ask why someone would want to kill so many people with such violent attacks. I struggled to respond. How to convey the complexity of such a convoluted reasoning – the perfect storm of anger, hate, disenfranchisement and indoctrination? How to share my indignation, my fear, my grief, but without fueling their prejudice and creating the fear and hatred that only perpetuates a cycle of terrorism? How to tell them the truth without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I always tell them, “Be smart, not scared,” when it comes to dealing with danger. But is that enough to keep them safe from this kind of arbitrary violence? go_paris

I am relieved that my family and I are safely away in Barcelona, that we weren’t subject to the immediate fright of it, the menace of proximity to such a massacre. And yet a part of me is aching to be there in Paris, now, to witness for myself what has happened, to be there not only in spirit but in person, showing my solidarity with some of my dearest friends and with the city that was my home for so long, and in my heart, still is.

But are we really safer here? Any European city – any city at all – might be subject to the same terror as Paris. There’s nothing to do but return to our routines, taking it all in stride, just like we numbly take off our shoes and place our liquids in plain view at airport security, running through the motions of protecting ourselves from a mid-air terror, when simply sitting at a café with friends can be just as deadly. How do I explain that to my daughters?


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.
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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 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.
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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.


Aug 23 2013

Pack for Later

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

“Try ironing.”

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

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

.

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


Aug 14 2013

Getting Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You haven’t had the bill, either.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Sep 24 2011

Le Catch-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The teacher should have given you this information.”

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

“But she must.”

“But she didn’t.”

“But why not?”

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

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

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

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

I think standing up did the trick.

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

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

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

“It’s okay mama.”

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Mar 17 2011

Bee-line

Hand in hand we walked across the bridge, oblivious to the Seine beneath us or Notre Dame’s buttresses stretching out behind us. We were too absorbed in the volley of our spelling practice. I’d pronounce a word, and Short-pants would spell it out. Another word, another spelling out.

“P-R-E-F-E-R-E-N-C-E,” she spelled, with pride, “because the vowel you prefer is an E.”

It isn’t really, and I don’t favor any letters of the alphabet in particular, but these are the sorts of devices we came up with to correct the mistaken words, funny little stories or tricks to remember the spelling. Short-pants was batting nearly a thousand, the only word she missed on the walk to the Paris Spelling Bee was the word feud, which I realized we probably hadn’t quizzed her on because it’s short and therefore ought to be easy. These are the words that get you, the ones you don’t bother to study. And feud doesn’t follow the when-two-vowels-go-walking rule, so it’s tricky.

“Do you know what feud means?” I asked her. She didn’t, so I told her, “It’s a fight that goes on for a long, long time, like a feud between two families that lasts for generations.”

“It’s like the vowels are fighting,” she said, “because the first one’s supposed to do the talking but instead the second one is.”

That’s a good way to remember it.

At the school where the preliminary competition was held, English prevailed. The French don’t really do spelling bees, and this friendly contest is organized by three anglo-oriented organizations: Gifted in France, the Roaming Schoolhouse and The American Library in Paris. That library is a resource that I forget to use. It’s too far away – across the river on the other side of town – I feel like I need to take my passport to get there.

We ran into only two acquaintances while we were waiting for the competition to start. The spelling bee is not obligatory and none of Short-pants classmates were keen to participate. But she was; her enthusiasm from participating last year had not waned, despite the fact she hadn’t made it beyond the first round. She’d been eager to sign up again and appeared to relish the occasions when we’d grill her on the words, not all of them easy. Salutatorian? Eviscerate? She’d rattle off each letter and then I’d say, “Do you know what it means?” The answer was usually no, so I’d try to make an easy definition for her, one that might help her remember the spelling. We’ve learned a lot of vocabulary over the last weeks, too.

The preliminary test was a written deal, so the students assembled were prepared to write twenty-five words and ten bonus words for tie-breaking purposes. The shortlist of finalists compete orally, in a stand-up-and-spell event which is coming up this Sunday, March 20th.

Children and parents milled around, last minute quizzing and pep talks before the students were invited to enter the classrooms for their test. I heard one woman round up a gang of girls, one can only assume that she had a couple of daughters and maybe she was chaperoning some of their friends – it was hard to tell and I hadn’t paid much attention until I heard her say, “Okay let’s rock it, girls. I didn’t come here today for nothing.”

Indeed, spelling is a competitive American sport.

My parting words to Short-pants, I’d like to think, a bit more reserved: “You’ve worked really hard. You’re ready. Go give it your best and try to have fun.”

“And relax!” she added, parroting something I said to her the night before. That was my father speaking. He’d counsel me to prepare for a test ahead of time, and then, the night before, go to a movie, just to relax. I never managed to follow this advice, but I always thought it was a good idea.

~ ~ ~

“How do you spell significant?” My sister’s response when she heard the news that Short-pants had qualified for the final round of the spelling competition.

“S-I-G-N-I-F-I-C-A-N-T.” Short-pants rattled off the letters, and this wasn’t even on the new list of words she had to memorize. Between the list for the first written round, and another list for the final oral round, Short-pants has perfected her spelling of nearly 600 words during the last two months.

My sister seemed genuinely impressed.

“Do you know why I asked?” she said. Short-pants couldn’t guess.

“I was in a spelling bee once, too. That’s the word that kept me from winning.” My sister, just like De-facto and I, had brushed close to victory in the final round of her spelling bee, but had been knocked out of the competition by a word she would then spell correctly for the rest of life.

Short-pants laughed out loud. “Oh, like mama misspelled alcohol and papa went down on crocodile.” She proceeded to spell both words without error.

~ ~ ~

I’m a long way from home. It took me 26 hours in the air and three travel days to get to New Zealand. Twelve time zones ahead, I watch the sun rise on a new today while I know it’s setting on yesterday back in Paris. I picture De-facto and the girls going through the evening routine of dinner and homework while I’m getting dressed for the day and heading to breakfast. It feels like I’m in the bow of a long, long boat, with the rest of the world aft in the mid-ships and stern. There’s even a digital delay; every morning I wake to dozens of emails that have accumulated while I slumbered. I answer them and then my computer remains quiet until the evening. It’s rather nice for concentrating and focusing. A bit eerie, though.

I’m not a whinging traveler, I take great pleasure when I’m en route and I have never minded traveling alone. This trip has put me with good colleagues and intelligent company. I’ve been on a bushwalk around the geothermal reserve park at Hells Gate (so named by George Bernard Shaw because going there shifted him from atheist to believer); I’ve been treated to a Māori hangi dinner and cultural performance that threatened to be touristy but ended up just being delightful; I saw the southern cross, and I understand now why I came this way.

But I have to admit – possibly due to the unfolding catastrophes in Japan – I’m feeling a bit uneasy. When things go haywire in the world, I think it’s a natural instinct to want to draw your loved ones around you. Only my arms won’t reach that far.

Because of the time difference and my busy agenda here, the overlap of awake and available windows for chatting with my family are narrow. I’m left to spell out my affection in emails. Because of the distance traveled, it makes sense to stay on a while (with De-facto’s blessing) to visit friends I’ve long wanted to visit. But that means I have to send my “you worked hard, give it your best” pep-talk to help Short-pants gear up for this weekend’s spelling bee via Skype. I’d rather be closer. But I’m not.

So I’m hoping you might help me out. Would you leave an encouraging word in the comments section for Short-pants, to let her know you’re rooting for her to do well at the spelling bee? A little support, advice, affection, some cheering-on, whatever comes to mind – it’ll help me feel better about missing the event, and it might give her a boost until next week, when I get to make a bee-line back home.


Jan 2 2011

Silent Sunday