Dec 7 2010

Our Gang

The ceremony was short and sweet. French civil weddings have little to do with romance and everything to do with the legal, functionary details, though the Mairie IIIeme de Paris has a certain flair and managed to make this usually-dry ceremony at least a little theatrical. Outside we congregated in front of the ornate doors waiting for the bride and groom. They presented themselves in wedding-cake-ornament style, emerging to applause and showers of rose petals. “Suivez-nous!” They called us to follow them down the street. We fell in step behind them, small clusters of friends and family strolling down rue des Archives, not quite in a line, not quite together – more like a casual, clumpy parade.

They led us to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, a grand hotel particulier. It is a museum (of hunting and nature) but it is also rentable, with the right connections, for special occasions. We were directed through its magnificent rooms, replete with stuffed, mounted heads of hunted game and several wild animals revived by taxidermy – even a tiger and a giant polar bear donning elements of the bride’s veil for decorative effect – and ushered out the back doors into the garden where the black-and-white clad waiters held out trays filled with tall flutes of champagne.

It was all perfect. Perfect because the bride was stunning and the groom had style. Perfect because of the setting, the elegant backdrop of a manoir and its manicured, labyrinthed garden, the cloudless summer evening sky and the approaching sunset. Perfect because of the eclectic mix of French and English conversations. Perfect because I looked around at the friends of the bride and groom who’d assembled to celebrate, and I thought to myself, what a lovely collection of people. How lucky we are to know them.

When you live as an expatriate in a transient city like Paris, you make friends in cycles. There’s the first set, made up of anybody who’ll have you, basically, because you’re new in town. This evolves into a more deliberate circle of friends with bonds that form because of common interests. Just when those friendships seem to be cemented, someone moves away. Another friend, who was perhaps on the periphery before, steps into the place made empty by the departure and brings along other friends and the circle grows. Then people move away and it shrinks again. That couple that became your best friends, they get transferred to Cambodia or they move to Boston or return to New Zealand or god forbid they break up and the circle of friends has to adjust to accommodate the change.

This happens everywhere, to some degree. But in a foreign capital that attracts voyagers and wanderlusters, the landscape of friends shifts more often than usual. It’s like living on a fault line, with tectonic plates of friends and acquaintances in constant motion.

We do have some very affable French friends whom have warmly welcomed us to their land and their habits of wine and cheese and all-of-August-off. We are part of a cool and creative association of fine colleagues who are also good friends. But the community we most easily identify with is expatriate. We are not French, we are other, or at least in-between.

When I first used to take the girls to school, I was just a drop-off-and-go-mom: I’d cheerfully greet any familiar parents encountered but otherwise I’d hop on that velib’ and get back home. Those uninterrupted hours while they are at school seemed too scarce a commodity not to be maximized to their fullest. But De-facto, he’d hang around, waiting to watch the girls as their teachers escort them from the courtyard to the school building, waving at them as they pass two-by-two like animals marching to an ark. In the meantime, he met more parents. He chatted and went for a café. He became a regular in several overlapping coffee klatches. He made friends.

And then it happened. A group email included our addresses and we were invited to join a dinner and dancing get-together at a club. A few weeks later we got an invite to a birthday party. Next we were invited to the wedding. We’d been absorbed.

I love this community of bilingual parents. It’s not a clique of expats who cloister themselves and lament about how things are better at home. This tribe is made of couples where he’s French and she’s English, or she’s French and he’s American, or they’re both Brits but weaving their lives into the fabric of Parisian life. What binds us is just what differentiates us in our home countries: having chosen consciously to live outside the borders of our own culture and to (sometimes) struggle through this one. We worry about our kids and how they’ll survive the French school, we compare notes and help each other and laugh at ourselves as we cope. We’re also just the right amount of wild and ready for a good time. For instance, last Saturday night this very gang congregated at a small club not too far from the Bastille. Some of us were twice as old as the younger patrons but we were the ones who moved the furniture so we could dance, and we were the ones who kept shouting for more volume on the music.

To be invited to the wedding of our new friends (and incidentally, both bride and groom are French) felt like a great privilege. I looked around and thought, damn, these are fantastic people. They are like me, but they are different, and in the most interesting ways. They hold the codes of their own cultures and ways of speaking English (sometimes unintelligible though it’s the same mother tongue), but they have chosen to live this adventure in France despite the fact that it is not always easy and it puts them far away from family and childhood friends.

The cocktail hour lasted for hours. We were hungry but we started not to care. People moved around and mingled; the clusters of friends and family formed and reformed into new conversations. The waiters kept pouring champagne. The laughter of the guests grew louder, wilder. The sun lowered its head on the horizon and the indigo sky uncovered the first summer evening stars. Dinner and dancing still to come, the night was young and we were among friends.

Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If there’s any left.

Mar 23 2010

The Shiner

We walked down the stairs to the metro platform, boarding the train while eating a gouter of peanut-butter and Nutella sandwiches. Two stops later, at Chatelet, we exited the train to make our way through the tunnels to the neighboring station of Les Halles and the entrance to the Conservatory. It’s not pleasant to be underground for so long, but it’s the most direct route and it avoids waiting at crosswalks and inclement weather.

Between the two stations there are two long tunnels, both with a moving walkway to assist commuters with what feels like an endless walk. The usual rules apply; stand to the right, walk to the left. The second walkway has a rather steep ramp just at the beginning, inspiring a game that has made the tunnel journeys a bit less boring. Singing a long steady note, we hold hands and jog down the ramp, making a funny noise that gives us a good giggle. It’s kind of silly, but we invent these things to distract our children – and ourselves – from the drudgery of such a commute.

This week De-facto has business out of town, so yesterday I had both girls in tow when I took Short-pants to her music theory class. Remarkably, both of them got out of school on time and at the same time, so our journey from the school to the conservatory was made, for a change, at a reasonable pace, contrasted with the usual press required to get there by 5:00.

As we approached the ramped moving walkway, Buddy-roo let go my hand and charged ahead. There were very few people on it, so I let her go. She ran down the ramp, gleefully singing. Short-pants and I followed, in harmony. Buddy-roo was speeding right along when I realized she might need help stopping. Usually I’d be holding her hand, but because she’d rushed ahead, I wasn’t there to steady her.

She grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion. Buddy-roo’s feet tried to stop, but her hand kept going, dragging her body with it and whipping her face against the metal siding. By the time she actually fell, I was there. But it was too late. Within seconds, the side of her face, just under her eye, was swelling. A black eye had been born.

Shrieking isn’t enough of a word to describe the noise coming from her. I pulled her over to the standing lane of the walkway, held her and let her wail – what else is there to do – and watched the small red bump under her eye protrude from her cheek and spread left and right. Short-pants made a college try at consoling Buddy-roo, except the things she was saying, like, “it’s getting very red,” or “your eye is hardly open now,” served only to upset Buddy-roo further, prompting me to ask Short-pants, as nicely as I could under the circumstances, if she could just be quiet, which I managed to do a bit too firmly, it seems, so that she, too, erupted into tears.

At the end of the walkway, I steered both girls off to the side of the corridor so we could calm down and have a better look at things. This is when Buddy-roo, by now in hysterical tears, managed to gasp, “and I’m still sad about Grammy.” Buddy-roo tends toward the dramatic, and lately, any time she gets hurt or reprimanded, she falls into tears and often invokes my mother’s death as a reason. De-facto says that sometimes when you get sad it makes you think of other sad things. That is true. Sotto voce: I’m just not sure if it’s always true for Buddy-roo.

What I told her: I miss Grammy, too. What I was thinking: If my mother could see me now, squatting like an idiot in the metro tunnel, with two bawling children and now I’m crying too and I feel lost and at a loss about what to do next. (This is a perfect occasion for missing your mother, whether she’s alive or not).

And then, it hit me: Get thee to a bar. That eye needs ice. Now.

I dragged my two crying children through the metro – you can’t imagine how many turnstiles and corridors and flapping doors and escalators there were before we could find sunlight – with people staring at us, all three of us in tears, one of us with a puffy eye. “No, I didn’t hit her,” I found myself muttering under my breath, wishing I could just undo that one tiny second. If only I hadn’t let her run down that ramp. Why do I always get it wrong? I end up scolding them when I should let them play, and here I was playing when I should have been prudent. It’s like I’ve been away so much the last few months, I’ve forgotten how to mother.

I managed to deliver Short-pants to the conservatory and then Buddy-roo and I limped over to a nearby café. The barman recognized me (this is why it’s good to have a local café in every arrondissement) and did his best to restrain his reaction to the swollen eye. We lay Buddy-roo down on one of the banquettes with a towel of ice against her face. I took a deep breath.

This morning the eye was swollen and purple. Buddy-roo slammed the toilet seat down and climbed up on it to examine herself in the mirror. The tears were unavoidable. It made me remember the day I got braces, the same day as the 7th grade dance, and how I stared at my reflection, horrified by my metallic smile. Nothing anyone could say made me feel better.

So I didn’t say a thing. I gave Buddy-roo the biggest hug I could and rocked her back and forth. Which is what my mother probably did for me, that day I got those ugly braces, knowing words offered no consolation. Which is what most mothers know to do, which is why when they’re not around to soothe us with that knowing, silent hug (which is all we really need anyway) we miss them that much more.

Jun 29 2009

The Carousel Con

Each ticket costs two euros. You can buy eight tickets for ten euros. So, knowing that the summer was ahead, knowing how the girls love a good turn on a merry-go-round, fully believing that we’d absolutely use all these rides on this carousel at some point over the summer, I went for the deal. Eight white, plastic, rectangular tickets slipped toward me through the half-moon opening in the Plexiglas window. Two of them then immediately dispensed to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, who’d waited (relatively) patiently while I made the transaction.

“Hold on to the ticket until the man comes to take it from you,” I said. “And don’t lose it,” I added, injecting a little menace into their amusement. (In my defense, it is all too easy for a five-year old to manage to lose a ticket in the span of ten feet and twenty seconds.)

The children scrambled on to the carousel. When it was nearly full, and there were no other apparent riders-in-waiting, the man came out of his little ticket-selling booth and maneuvered his way around the horses, ponies and carriages, collecting a plastic token from each excited child.

I stood aside, admiring my daughters and their whole-bodied joy as the creaky, century-old menagerie began to spin around and around, eventually gaining speed. The calliope tooted and chugged like a little engine that could. At each pass, I waved to the girls like it was the first time I’d ever seen them go by.
When it slowed to a stop, a chorus of cries and pleas. “Again! Can’t we go again?” I succumbed with a firm, “just one more ride,” and they scrambled back on to the platform, rushing to select a different horse, a more coveted one, one with a pink saddle or a golden mane. (Actually, Buddy-roo chose a pink-colored pig.)

After two dizzying rides, and despite their desperate requests for another turn, I took their hands in mine and dragged them home. Later, I pulled the remaining tickets out of my pocket and put them on the shelf by the door, in a little basket that is the depository of paper clips, metro tickets, coins of minimal value, grocery receipts and other little pieces of nothing that get picked up during the day and that seem, when we clean out our pockets, too precious to discard.

That was a few months ago.

On Saturday – in a proud non-dementia moment – I rifled through that little basket and extracted the remaining unused carousel tokens as we set off to do some errands. Knowing there was a reward for good behavior, the girls dutifully followed me to the dry cleaner, the photo shop and the pharmacy, discussing all the while which animal they would mount once we arrived at the menagerie.

Since I’d broadcast the fact that I’d actually remembered to bring those leftover tickets, the girls thrust their greedy palms toward me the moment the carousel was in view. I produced the two little plastic rectangular tickets. “Hold on to them until the man comes to take them,” I yelled out after them. And then because I really can’t help myself, “hold on to your ticket!”

They ran – cheering in unison – to find a horse to ride. When the ticket-selling man left his little booth and stepped on to the platform, circling the carousel to collect the tickets that he recycles day after day, selling and retrieving them, Buddy-roo pressed her white plastic ticket into his hand.

Non,” he grunted, “Ce ne marche plus.” It’s no longer valid.

Buddy-roo turned to me, her eyes in a wide panic. I stepped up to argue with the man, protesting that I’d bought them here, on this very carousel. In fact, he was the ticket vendor who’d sold them to me.

Mais oui,” he said, holding up a handful of red plastic tickets. He explained that the carousel has changed management for the season, and they no longer honor the white tickets. Even though the same name (of the menagerie) is written on the tickets. Even though they’re identical except for the color. Even though I protested that I purchased them less than three months ago. Even though both my daughters were on the verge of tears, he shook his head without any apparent remorse.
I had no choice. You cannot vote with your feet when your children are tearfully clutching the reigns of a brightly painted wooden horse (or pig). I followed him back to the booth. “How much?” I asked.

“Two euros each. Or eight for ten euros.” He smiled, showing the gap where his teeth were missing. I pushed a crisp 10-euro note through the hole in the window and watched him count out the bright red tickets and pass them back to me.

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.
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.
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.

Apr 11 2009

But Keep the Old

I was sure it was on the rue du Perche. Or else it was rue Pastourelle. I didn’t even know its name, just an idea of the location. I’d been to this silversmith many years ago, before I learned not to put my good knives in the dishwasher. A man in a blue apron with dirty fingers flipped the silver blades back and forth in his hands and took them into his custody. A week later, when he handed back my knives, they looked like new.

Carrying a ring I inherited from my grandmother, I went searching for this silver repair shop (in French, an orfèvre) following the vague map in my memory. Everything looked different than I remembered. The rusty-gated storefronts and messy, eclectic repair shops have been replaced with a row of minimalist art galleries. I wandered up and down any of the streets that might have been where this dusty silver atelier was once (I think) located. I cursed my memory. I cursed the changing times. I cursed the gentrification of Paris. I couldn’t find it.

I asked at the nearby café and a corner grocer – both establishments have been there a long time – but the barman has only worked there for 6 months, the grocer simply shook his head no. My orfèvre had gone missing.
This is too common an occurrence these days; the neighborhood’s services are one by one disappearing. My favorite dry cleaner had to close last summer because her rent was bumped up too high. “I’m too expensive already,” she told me, “my customers can’t pay any more. I have no choice but to retire.” Same story with the little old couple who ran the fresh produce stand, the little corner convenience store, Mr. René’s (the greatest dive bar in Paris), and the sweet little bakery, Tout Au Beurre. Regular people can’t afford to do business in my neighborhood anymore. Their storefronts are being replaced with chic, trendy clothing stores, like LaCoste and Adidas. This makes me sad.

The most recent shock was the copy shop. I hadn’t been in a while – I used to go every week, in the days before my ink-jet printer was also a photocopier. When my clients required workbooks or training materials, Armand with his cobalt-blue eyes would take on the order with meticulous care. He’d adjust his reading glasses and carefully review my documents, treating them as canvasses to be framed. I once brought in a sample handbook I’d bound at some other copy shop when he was closed for August (or something preposterously French like that) and he reviewed the work with disdain. The paper was too cheap. The cover didn’t have enough weight. The plastic binding has been clamped on backwards. It was shoddy work. He scolded me, but with affection.

He had a sidekick who was as light-hearted and joke-cracking as Armand was serious. Like the guy who spins plates at the circus, he’d make copies for one client while fixing a paper-jam in the self-service machine for another, all the while sailing around the shop effortlessly, as if he were on roller-blades.

They did good work. They knew me. They knew my girls. When Short-pants was in the hospital and I’d come into make photocopies for the insurance claims, they’d refuse my coins.

But the other day the gate in front of the closed door was locked tight, the windows painted with whitewash. The sign wasn’t apparent at first, but when I found it and realized they were closed for good, I felt as if someone the neighborhood had died. And I had not had the chance to say goodbye.

At least when the dry cleaner closed I’d had notice. I brought her a good bottle of Bordeaux and had a chance to thank her for all her years of lifting out my stains. But the copy shop was a done deal. Then I remembered that once I saw Armand and his assistant eating lunch on the terrace of the café next door. I presented my case to a waiter, about my need for closure. The owner was summoned, and after my passionate explanation he gave me Armand’s cell phone number. A patron standing at the café bar shook his head in approval. “But yes,” he said, “the chance to say a proper goodbye is not just a privilege, you have the right.”

Armand said the raised rent presented him with a predicament much like my dry cleaner and so he opted to sell all his equipment and start again somewhere else. He promised to call me when he set up his new shop.

Listen to me: I’m lamenting change. It’s not easy, but change is the necessary engine of our lives. To resist it is to resist the creative process itself. But those familiar faces and places, they anchor and comfort us, weaving us into the fabric of our surroundings. The longer I’m here, the harder it is to watch them disappear. Maybe I’ve lived in this neighborhood too many years (thirteen). Maybe I haven’t been restless enough to move beyond what’s become so comfortable. Maybe I’ve forgotten to appreciate that the disappearance of one favorite place often means the opportunity to find another.

Mar 20 2009

Ungovernable Pleasure

After visiting the void – at the Centre Pompidou the other day – I strolled by another exhibit that bears mention, a cluttered and eclectic assemblage of found objects donated to the museum by the artist Daniel Cordier. Its position, immediately adjacent to the nine empty rooms of The Void, was striking. These two contrary exhibits, side by side, must have been a deliberate act.

Oh, there was stuff! An odd collection of things, natural and man-made, primitive and contemporary, cast all around, laid out on the floor and set up on musuem-ish stands. Large carved-out tree trunks, actual sugar silos from India, stood like statues on the floor. It was all very woody; I think there were even pieces of driftwood, reminding me of those silly corkscrews we made in Girl Scouts. Mounted on the wall, an array of objects of curiosity, amongst more pictures and drawings of objects of curiosity. Cordier chose to ignore the functionality of these objects and focused instead on their form, making art out of otherwise everyday items. Art that, it could be said, resembles a tag sale.

It was all a bit too interesting to take in, after digesting nine rooms of nothing.

So I turned and quietly walked out. Not in protest, just in preference.

A single sentence, buried in the middle of a text the artist had written to describe the exhibit, mounted just outside of the rooms that hosted his collection is what got my attention. Addressing the haphazard quality of his work, he wrote: “It reflects the ungovernable disorder of pleasure.”
On my way out of the museum, I tried to keep my head in those first empty rooms with their poignant memories and limitless possibility. But thoughts of the other exhibit kept encroaching, stalking me, insisting I consider this notion of pleasure and its chaotic and uncontrollable nature.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds, I realized, is the paradox of my life with children, in a nutshell.

Mar 19 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

This could be just another case of the Emperors new clothes, I told myself, riding up the escalator to see an art exhibit about nothing. De-facto took the girls to the Centre Pompidou to see it at last weekend –- a gesture to give me a few hours of coveted quiet. They returned from the museum, boisterous and enthusiastic. “There were big, empty rooms, and we ran all around,” said Buddy-roo. I gave De-facto a scratching-my-head look. “Go see it,” he said.

“Nothing seems to me to be the most potent thing in the world.” This quote from Robert Barry, an artist featured in the exhibit, “Voids. A Retrospective.” He’s one of nine “radical” artists so fascinated with nothing that they all created exhibitions made up of completely empty spaces.
The exhibit is just that: nine consecutive empty rooms. In the corridor, large panels of text describe the story of each artist’s dance with nothing. My favorite was Laurie Parsons, who in 1990 decided not to present anything for her third solo exhibition. She sent out invitations with the gallery address, but without her name or the date of the show. Eventually, she even deleted this show from her resumé, nearly erasing any trace of its existence. To respect her intentions, the exhibit literature reads, “the room devoted to her exhibition has no label.”

Because there is nothing to absorb the sound, a room with nothing in it is filled with a great quantity of noise. My footsteps echoed brightly against the empty walls. A row of spotlights hanging from the ceiling pointed at nothingdoorways1 along each wall. Without paintings or fixtures to absorb or deflect the light, it was almost blinding. I noticed, for the first time -– and I’m no stranger to this museum — the raw pattern of the parquet floors. Without anything in it, I saw the room for real: small imperfections in the walls, scuff marks on the floor, a lonely wire hanging from the ceiling.

I looked around at all the nothing. And then, something came to me.

A memory of another room –- an almost empty one -– in a building I once inhabited a long time ago, a renovated schoolhouse with long windows and cathedral ceilings. The rooms of the apartment were open to each other and filled with light. I remember just days after moving in, the man I lived with surprised me with a silver ten-speed bicycle for my birthday. We had only a few pieces of furniture, a handmade Shaker table, sideboard and a desk. I jumped on the bike right away and rode it around inside the apartment, a thin imprint from the tires marking a trail in the new carpet. When he wasn’t looking I took off all my clothes and rode the bicycle around in a circle again, in the nude, just to make him laugh. I remember how when he saw me, his head fell back and bounced upright again with a wide smile.

Well there’s a memory that came out of nowhere.

Whenever I walk through a museum, a blanket of quiet concentration wraps around me. As my eye is drawn to each work of art, the clutter of the day-to-day recedes from view, and a calm, focused state of mind sets in. It’s
room_door1like drinking a dose of culture, a thick and nourishing, aesthetic milkshake.

I found myself again in that art-altered state, but it was different. With nothing on the walls or in the empty room to draw my attention, my attention turned inward, to my own things, to my own empty.

The four bare walls in the next room stared me down, and even though they were of the same chalky white plaster as the first room, and the wood was the same strip-floor pattern, this empty room was different.

I thought about joining the empty room with my empty head. But I could not — as someone more disciplined at meditation would — turn away all the images that came to me. They seemed too precious, little gifts presented to me in empty boxes. Like the one I gave to my sister, when I was old enough to think of giving her a present for her birthday, but too young to have the means to purchase anything. I rummaged through the store of boxes my mother had stacked in the back room and found a small, square, white box with a thin bed of white cotton inside. I wrapped the box. My sister opened it, guessing, probably, as she tugged at the ribbon, that it was empty. How she marveled at the imaginary item, treating it as though it was the most treasured gift she’d ever received.
Given the excess of this decade, fueled by the shallow economy of obsolescence and the coercive vanity-inducing power of the media, an art exhibit about nothing feels like a vacation from the obligations of consumerism. Without the clutter of things, there is room to think, or room to unthink. And room to remember. There is room to count what matters. There is an unburdening.

Robert Barry described nothing as a way to be “free for a moment to think about what we are going to do.”

Another one of the empty rooms reminded me of a moment last summer. We’d cleared out our apartment – no small task with two small children – to re-plaster and re-paint after a particularly grueling roof repair that had lasted too long and damaged the ceiling in every room. When the painters were finally done, De-facto and I laid on the floor of our empty living room, holding hands and staring up at the pristine ceiling while the children ran around us in wide, noisy circles. Only the largest pieces of furniture remained in the room, draped in plastic. All the carpets had been rolled up and the little side-tables and child-sized chairs had been evacuated. An entire wall of shelves had been cleared out, all the books and pictures and objets d’art packed away in brown cardboard boxes. I felt no urgency to move the furniture back, or to unpack those cartons and restore the room to its cluttered, lived-in state. I liked its new wide-openness.

Later, two friends happened by, in the neighborhood taking their fresh new baby for a walk. We got the idea to call our friends Lucy and Ricky from downstairs, and an impromptu pasta dinner party ensued. I remember sitting at that festive table –- set up smack in the center of what was an otherwise empty room -– watching my children and listening to my friends. I remember wondering if I had the courage to never unpack those boxes, if I could just leave them and let the room rest. Empty of all the objects that I’ve acquired, there’d be nothing to distract me from what is most essential: family, friends, food and wine. Nothing beats that.

Mar 12 2009

The Assignment II

As I write this post, Short-pants is probably standing in front of her class, side-by-side with her two little colleagues, transmitting her recently honed expertise on the history of Paris. Yes, today is the exposé.

A few readers have actually inquired about the status of this assignment, which I chronicled here, so I suppose an update is in order.

Last weekend the triumvirate was assembled; Short-pants and the two boys she’s been teamed with got together to hammer out the details of their presentation. This project has had more than a few hiccups. We made no progress during the winter break. It was an arduous task to find a time when all three students and mothers could coordinate a meeting. This pushed us to the last minute. On top of that, further dialogue with the teacher revealed that the topic was not exactly the history of Paris, as we’d thought, but the gargoylehistory of Paris’ quartiers. I’m not sure what that means: how Paris came to have its little neighborhoods? Or how the nautilus of arrondissements spiraled out into what it is today? That all three mothers failed to notice this distinction in the original assignment is another satisfying indicator that I am not alone in my failings. The other mothers didn’t think it was a problem to ignore this little detail, since the kids had already bought into the idea of telling Paris’ history through famous monuments. A part of me thinks we should have readjusted; we hadn’t made much progress down the other track. But another part of me just wanted to be done with this thing. You can guess which part won that debate.

Assembled around the table, we became a study in contrasts. Edgar had already written up a 3-page report on the Eiffel Tower. Even I was intimidated by his even, deliberate handwriting on the pages of feuille quadrillée (graph paper). He’d also underlined the headings with different colored felt-tip pens. Impressive. Lucas and his mother brought a variety of colorful cards on weighty paper stock and a roll of light-brown craft paper, with an idea for the visual component of the presentation. Short-pants, well, let’s just say she’d had a lesson in Wikipedia.

Going to a French public library was just too much for me to fathom. I’m no stranger to French bureaucratic services; I’ve done my time waiting in line at the préfecture. But it’s been a cold, bleak, winter. I just couldn’t face another functionnaire.

Besides, I’m not convinced that honing the children’s library skills isn’t a bit like teaching them to speak a dead language. Sure it’s nice to know, but will they use it? I can still picture the card catalogue in my high school library, a boxy wooden piece of furniture. And those little labels, typed on the secretary’s Corona and inserted into the tiny square frame on the front of each of its long drawers. You’d flip through the index cards, worn and dirty from years of fingering by semi-curious students, all the while repeating, like a mantra, the title or author you were actually looking for, half the time forgetting and having to start over. All this to find one book, so you could look at its bibliography in order to do it all over again to get another book.
I’m not saying that knowing how to research in a library isn’t important. Or maybe I am. If Short-pants becomes a serious scholar in need of original historical texts, no doubt she’ll be forced to develop her library skills. But even that’s not certain: a friend doing PhD level research at the Bibliotèque Nationale told me he wasn’t allowed in the stacks. He was pointed to a computer connected to the library system and told to write down the titles he wanted. This list was then handed to a smug librarian, who disappeared, returning 20 minutes later with his requested books.

If you have time (an hour), it’s really worth watching the video of this lecture, A Portal to Media Literacy, by Michael Wesch. He’s an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnographer at Kansas State University and the same guy who produced the famous (and much shorter) video about Web 2.0, The Machine is Us/ing Us. Wesch wants us to test the assumptions we make about teaching students in today’s digitally powered world. Our education system was invented in a different century; it might be obsolete. This is why I believe developing a skill-set for researching on the internet is important.

Or maybe I was just too lazy to take Short-pants to the library.
Prior to this meeting of the troika, we spent about an hour Googling her monuments. She seemed to like Wikipedia the best. I explained the whole Wiki phenomenon. “Really?” she said, “Anybody can add whatever they know about Notre Dame?” That didn’t sit right with her. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s why you always have to double check the facts.” I’m sure I’ll be having this conversation with her again a few hundred times during her scholastic life.

We printed out a several pages of information for each monument. We read through them together and then I asked her what she thought were the key points to put in her report. She wasn’t sure. We read them again. She shrugged. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead before we meet with the others,” I said, sliding the printed pages in a folder. Then I had a beer.

Later I asked De-facto if he thought Short-pants ought to be able to read a few paragraphs and then summarize, or if I was expecting too much. “In my experience,” he said, “7-year olds usually plagiarize.”

The craft-paper is being put to use to create a large map of Paris, with its quartiers (aha!) outlined in dark ink. We used the colored cards to draw a notre_dame_pinkpicture of each monument (six in total), to be tacked on this map at the start of each oral report. Each child has composed his or her own texts to read. The teacher wrote in the initial assignment, “you may help them research, but do not do the work in their place.” That’s a tall order. I spent every evening this week nudging and prodding her along. I did my best not to help.

This morning, Short-pants was giddy. I asked her if she wanted to practice her presentation or just wing it. She wanted to test it out on us. Standing tall and straight, she held her notes in one hand, waving the other for emphasis. De-facto, who goes to Toastmasters, coached her a little about remembering to look at the audience, about timing, and how and when to pass out the photographs (downloaded from Google Images). She was receptive to his suggestions.

At the door, I buttoned her coat, and gave her a big good-luck hug.
“I’m excited,” she said, “and a little nervous.”
“Nervous is okay,” I said, repeating some advice my father gave me more than once, “it means you respect your audience.”
“Oh, I do,” she said.
Then she turned and headed down the stairs.

Feb 16 2009

The Assignment

A short note pasted in Short-pantsCahier de Correspondence almost escaped my attention. It’s not the first time. I often forget to check. This cahier, not to be confused with her others – the cahier de poésie, cahier du jour, cahier d’essais (the notebook of tries), cahier de leçons – is designated for, as its title suggests, correspondence. It’s where you find school announcements or notes from the teacher. It’s also a vehicle for me to send information to the teacher, for instance to ask if Short-pants can be excused early to go to the dentist. It’s a 6” x 8” inch notebook, with sheets of paper glued on page after page, announcements the teacher handed out to the children, who dutifully took out their glue stick from their pencil cases and pasted them in. I think it’d be a lot easier if we could just e-mail, but this is how it’s done. France, for all its wonders, can be terribly archaic.

The only reason I found out about the note was because one of the other mothers – one who always seems to be totally on top of everything that happens to her son at school – mentioned it to me. For anyone who has (or had) school-aged children, you know the fence or bench or tree or wherever it is that parents congregate to wait for their children to pour out that main door at the end of the day – is akin to the water cooler at the office. Show up a bit early once a week, and you get the scoop on all the school news.


Basically the note says that the children have been given an exposé, or a report, to prepare with two other students. (The topic of this report can be found in another cahier, called, more simply, l’agenda). There are all sorts of rules about how the report must be presented, type of paper, supporting materials, etc. Oh, and the students have to meet together to make a plan, which the teacher wants to approve in advance.

Turning to l’agenda, I discovered Short-pants’ topic: the history of Paris. A fascinating but broad topic to cover in a short report presented by three 7-year olds. I asked her whom she’s been assigned to work with. She didn’t remember.

Let me tell you, I put that cahier de correspondence to hard use last week. Several notes burning back and forth with the teacher enlightened me about the task ahead. Two boys, Lucas and Edgar, share this topic with my daughter. I had to ask the teacher for their phone numbers and I made the calls. To my dismay (no, let’s be honest, it was relief, at least I’m not the only one), they weren’t totally up to speed on the requirements of this exposé either.

The pressure was on, since the winter break loomed and the deep research on this project had to begin. Or at least an outline had to be made. Edgar and his mom couldn’t make a meeting before getting out of dodge for the vacances scolaire. But Lucas and his mom agreed to come over on Saturday last, at least to discuss the project and make a plan for a plan.

Can I tell you how not looking forward to this I was?

My daughter is a self-starter. She does her homework on her own, she volunteers to set the table and other chores that earn her allowance without being asked. She spontaneously initiates spectacular drawing projects or writes a story and pastes the pages together to look like a book. But frankly, this exposé is a bit beyond her capacity. She doesn’t seem to be able to conceptualize it on her own, let alone collaborate with two other kids who are equally unmotivated for the project.

When the doorbell rang, Short-pants ran to greet Lucas (whom she hardly knows, but she was still thrilled to receive him) and his mother and I shook hands cordially. We sat around the table and started to talk about the topic. They’d brought books and DVDs (we hadn’t done anything to prepare, doh!) and Lucas was keen to do something around the Eiffel Tower. Short-pants’ said her favorite building in Paris is Notre Dame. Both moms now had an idea of how we might thread this report together, but should we suggest it? How much should we help? It was clear to me – I think to her as well – that we ought to be facilitative, inspiring the children to conceive the project as well as execute it. But even in this 1½-hour meeting, getting our kids to focus on the topic at hand was a bit like herding cats.

At one point I just cradled my head in my hands and silently cursed the teacher. If the kids were 14-years old, this would be a lot of fun. (Okay, fun? Who am I kidding? But at least it would be more, say, engaging.) I just think this assignment is not age-appropriate (to use an over-used American parenting term). I looked across at Lucas’ mother. “I think this assignment is more for the parents than the kids,” I said. She nodded in full agreement.

We did our best. As the meeting went on, Lucas’ mother and I became more interested in each other, sporadically abandoning the discussion of Parisian history to share a bit of personal information about ourselves. Then we’d turn back to the kids, who’d be playing a game with their fingers, making zero progress during our tangent. We’d try to focus them again. We’d ask questions. How about this? How might you express that? What happened there? I cannot lie: by the end we were pretty much summing it up for them. It was that, or sit around the table all day.

Now we have an outline, a rough draft we will share with the third child (I’m prayin’ there’s no objection). Six of Paris’ monuments have been selected, from different periods of her history. Another meeting after the school vacation will (hopefully) pull it all together – that is, of course, after we get Edgar’s buy-in and the teachers stamp of approval.

After they left, I asked Short-pants how she felt about the meeting. “Great!” she said, her usual response. She’s generally optimistic. “How do you feel?” she asked. I reviewed the morning’s working session in my mind. Lucas was pretty sweet, drawing all the monuments as we discussed them. I really liked his mother, a lot. She seems like a cool lady.

Curse the teacher all I want, a few good things might come of this assignment after all.