Dec 28 2014

The Let Down

The days leading up to Christmas are filled with such eagerness. The hidden shopping bags, do-not-enter warnings and the sound of gifts being wrapped behind a closed door. The setting up and trimming of the tree, and the moment that the decorated packages are placed beneath it. The restraint that we’d promised ourselves obviously abandoned mid-December, boxes with ribbons and bows multiply in the ramp up to Christmas. Then there’s the relished ritual of making cut-out cookies and decorating them with frosting and colored sugar, complete with festive carols blaring in the background. Ella’s Swinging Christmas maybe not the most traditional collection Santa_glasses but I’ve made sure that years from now it’s the one my girls will remember. The case of champagne – or here in Barcelona, it’s a case of cava – is carried home and the a treasure of foie-gras and special cheeses fills the refrigerator. School finishes and the shortest days of the year keep us close and home. We light the menorah, too, to celebrate the ritual of my mother’s religion, not that she practiced it piously but because it acknowledges another holiday that overlaps and shares a spirit of family and gratitude. Candles flicker, lights blink on the tree, the quiet of Christmas eve settles in and the anticipation mounts.

We can’t escape the commercialization of Christmas. It’s impossible, living the world we live in, not to absorb the materialism that has overtaken this holiday. We do our best to minimize it without taking away the delight that comes from receiving a small pile of new items that help to refresh a wardrobe, restock a bedroom bookshelf or add energy to the toy box. I remember this delight: as a child studying the Sears & Roebuck Wishbook and dreaming about what might be mine if Santa answered my pleas. I’d flip through the catalog for hours, staring at those pages so long I knew them by heart. Even now, looking at an archive of old Wishbook pages from the ’60s and ’70s, I’m stunned at how many of them I recognize. I never got everything I asked for and I knew I wouldn’t, but my mother always managed to buy enough of the most coveted items so that those first moments of Christmas morning, coming downstairs to see what toys Santa had left – unwrapped for immediate pleasure – were exalting. All the waiting had been worth it.

Then the rest of my family would arise or arrive and once breakfast and its dishes were finished, we’d sit in the living room, going around one-by-one opening our gifts with oohs and aahs. A break halfway through for Bloody Marys and cheese and crackers, and the gift opening would resume. We’d stretch it out all day, to the delight of some and distraction of others, until, finally, the space beneath the tree was evacuated of its treasures, a few stray ribbons the only evidence of the abundance that once existed there.

After the last lovely box was unwrapped, the final thank yous circulated and someone was compelled to say, “Wasn’t that best Christmas ever?” We’d nod and sigh and begin the process of tidying up, collecting the scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon that hadn’t landed in the trash bag. There was the satisfaction ofSanta_figurines a stack of new possessions, but also a sadness: Christmas was, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, the Christmas dinner was still ahead and more time together as a family. But the electricity-producing part was over. It was always a bit of a let down.

And you knew it shouldn’t be. You didn’t want it to be. But you couldn’t help it. Something hollow in your gut, no matter how your brain would explain to you that it had been a great day with beautiful gifts and favorite people around. There’d been such a build-up, and so much of it crafted by marketing masterminds. Even in those simpler Sears catalog days, it was a strong feeling. You just had to work through it. By the next morning things were fine. It had been a great Christmas, maybe the best one. But you had to move through the sad bit before you could calibrate back to normal.

I watch Buddy-roo wrestle with this. Despite all the gifts she received this year, many of them specific requests and a few things she’d admired in my presence and then forgotten about, adding to her delight as she unwrapped and re-discovered them, when we were done opening everything, she got all mopey.

“If only I’d gotten an iPad cover.”

I gave her the really? look, more of a scorn, and she ran upstairs in tears. I followed, because this is important. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings; they’re real. I also wanted to give her a reality check: you’re lucky to even have an iPad. Let alone all the new presents that just arrived. But I wanted to deliver both these messages in the right balance, because it’s complicated, even the mildest form of post-festum let down.

The thing is, I know where she gets this from. Because I had it when I was her age, and I still feel it now. Some years more than others. For different reasons. It’s the adrenalin drop after all the build-up. Even though you got truly terrific presents, it’s the not getting that one thing you kept answering with every time someone asked, what do you want for Christmas? It’s how we keep saying it’s not about the gifts, but then if that’s the truth, why is there so much hype about them? Mostly, though, it’s feeling a bit disoriented in the aftermath of all the activity and anticipation, lost and alone even though you’re with the people you love most and who love you most.

My father used to tease us, when an important event approached, like a birthday or a much-anticipated holiday, by telling us he’d heard on the radio that it’d been cancelled. winston_as_santa This is a family joke I’ve perpetuated, and Short-pants and Buddy-roo laugh and roll their eyes whenever we say it. So I don’t know if they’d believe me if I suggested that next year we cancel Christmas. I’m serious. What if we took away the merchandise and commercial part of it, that makes it so much work, and creates such expectations and disappointments, and just did something simple together? It’s not a new idea. Lots of families choose to travel rather than plunge into the trim-the-tree-open-presents-at-home routine. We’ve done it before. We spent Christmas away, in Cambodia and in Mozambique. Both times with warning that there’d be fewer presents because the trip was the gift we were giving ourselves. Yet as Christmas day approached, because the kids were young, because we’re victims of the media, we’d cave in and start shopping. Granted, the booty was contained, but it was still booty.

This seems so appealing right now. But chances are in eleven months time with the Christmas season in full stride, I’ll be sliding right into my role as executive producer of Christmas: shopping, baking, planning menus, coordinating our Christmas Eve open house. I’ll buy the extra paper so that when De-facto sticks his head in my office and says, “do you have any wrapping stuff?” I can answer affirmatively. I’ll watch the girls get excited and help them select gifts for each other and for their father. Christmas is, most of all, magic for the kids, and it’s still magic for us, watching the kids. I’d wager that the let down, if we didn’t do anything, would be more than the little let down that follows Christmas now. As long as we have kids, I think it’s a guaranteed tradition.


Oct 20 2013

Real Life Tests

I wish I could say that Buddy-roo was getting better about doing her homework, now that she’s older and in the final year of primary school. It’s never been her thing, and the battles to get her to do it are as fierce as ever. It’s especially hard to wage a battle when you don’t believe fully in the cause. I’d argue that keeping work to school hours and giving kids free time to play after school is better for their brains. Unfortunately, due to our current choice of schools, homework seems to be a regular part of the plan.

I hate the no-longer-subtle and ever-present parenting pressure of our times: if you don’t help your kids perform well in school, even at a tender age, they won’t have the optimal educational and career opportunities later in their life. We don’t want to program them like machines, but if we don’t press them there’s the nagging worry that they be outliers, destined to bepencil_graffiti slackers the rest of their lives. My parents, in no uncertain terms, expected a certain academic performance from me and I understood that meeting their standards would take me to a brighter future with lots of choices. I’m not convinced this is the truth anymore, and even if it were, nothing I tell Buddy-roo would make her believe it.

Every day after school it’s the same grind: we look at the upcoming assignments in her agenda and she spends five minutes longing for her old school. Last year’s teacher handed out a sheet of paper with the assignments, a week at a time, and Buddy-roo and her classmates would glue (French school = paper + glue stick) this into their agendas. She could anticipate upcoming tests and get ahead on homework during the weekend so the weeknights weren’t crammed with work. It didn’t make her love the work she had to do at home, but it helped her to manage it. This year – new school and new teacher – assignments are handed out more randomly, sometimes in advance, sometimes for the next day. The teacher is probably preparing her for middle school, when work piles on from every teacher without regard for the other assignments from other teachers.

“It’s like real life,” I told her. “Things get thrown at you and you figure out how to do them.”

“I don’t like real life,” she said.

During an after school inquiry last week, Buddy-roo admitted that she had a test the following day but she couldn’t remember for which subject; she hadn’t written it down. We scanned her emploi de temps, and through the process of elimination determined it was for history. Of course she hadn’t brought the history book home with her. Last year, her teacher used to write on the board a list of books to take home each night, but, to Buddy-roo’s consternation, this year’s teacher expects the kids to check their agendas and sort it out themselves. Buddy-roo also couldn’t recall the topic they’d been most recently discussing, so I started prompting her with different milestones in European history. It didn’t take long to get to the French Revolution.

“That’s it!” She started jumping up and down.

A Google search yielded several history websites for kids, we settled on one and took turns reading the text out loud. This also reinforced a pet practice: I urge the girls to study in English to prepare for their French projects, and mariannein French for their English ones, forcing them to synthesize what they’ve learn and translate it. It is my hope this will help them avoid plagiarizing in the future. We’ll see.

Little by little, we made it through what I had to guess might be covered on the test: the three estates, the Estates-General, the tennis court oath, the storming of the Bastille. After each paragraph we’d stop to talk, and put the already plain language explanations into even more colloquial terms, or to give her context she could grasp.

“Oh, like in the movie Marie Antoinette?” she said, referring to one of her favorite DVDs. Buddy-roo’s favorite scene shows the queen selecting dozens of elegant shoes, having lavish dresses made and being fitted with an enormous and elaborate wig, all to the tune of 1980’s pop-band Bow Wow Wow hit, I want Candy. “She spent all the money on whatever she wanted, and that made the people mad.”

Later, at dinner, I pop-quizzed her and she got the dates and players mostly right. The next morning on our walk to school, I asked her to tell me everything she knew about the French Revolution and she spun the story more or less accurately.

I asked her why this revolution was so important. She might flunk the test if she doesn’t remember the dates and details, but if she can answer that question, at least she’ll have gleaned some context from the exercise. She stumbled through her answer, eventually spitting out something about overthrowing a monarchy and creating a modern form of government where the common man had rights, too. The victory of democracy over tyranny. Then I tossed out a bonus question: in what ways did the U.S. Revolution contribute to the French Revolution?

We’d talked about this the night before, too, and she’d seemed to get it: the irony of how the U.S. Revolution might have inspired the French people to revolt, and yet at the same time, France’s financial aide to the rebel colonies was a contributing factor to the debt that caused the king to want to tax his subjects even more, leading to a tipping point that set off the revolution.

“That’s not going to be on the test,” Buddy-roo said. “We didn’t talk about that in class.”
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I tried to explain that school wasn’t just about learning enough to pass the test. Understanding the meaning of the French and U.S. Revolutions gives perspective to our day-to-day lives. We take for granted that we live in a democracy and can vote for things that shape our destiny. But it wasn’t always that way. Not that there isn’t a certain amount of tyranny in the U.S. democracy these days, given the recent shut-down charade, and not that governments are free from corruption.

Remember the Mahna Mahna skit from Sesame Street, where the really hip monster starts to scat and gets carried away and the back-up singers stop and stare at him like he’s lost it? Buddy-roo gave me that same kind of glare and I realized this was too much real-life talk for someone who purports not to like real life. I went back to quizzing her on the names and dates, and I threw in a few times-tables for good measure before we reached the school, where, after bending over for a good-bye kiss, I sent her into the courtyard, watching her disappear into the mob of noisy children, wishing I could go with her and take that test, too.


Jun 24 2013

Surviving June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mar 18 2013

Leaving Behind

I called out to the girls, playing in the yard. “Don’t forget I need a stone from each of you.”

They screeched in unison, remembering the task I’d assigned days ago – and reminded them of again the night before – to select a small rock from somewhere around our country house for me to carry on the Camino. My back was still tender; I wasn’t convinced that in a week’s time, especially after playing tourist in Barcelona, I’d be able to fly to León to make my way on foot to Santiago. But since the Pilates workouts I’ve been doing make my recoveries quicker, I held out some hope that I’d be up for the walk.

Short-pants ran toward me with her fist extended, opening it to reveal a small angular rock. Buddy-roo hobbled on her crutches soon after, offering me another stone, about the same size. I’d set my backpack, ready to go, on the 20130318-205137.jpg bench outside the country house so De-facto could put it in the trunk when he packed the car. I squatted down, carefully, and unzipped one of the small side pouches of my pack, saying out loud to myself where I was putting them, so I wouldn’t forget, later, where I’d stashed the two stones.

~ ~ ~

The taxi dropped me in front of the Cathedral in Astorga. I’d planned to take a cab from the León airport to the bus station in the city center and from there an hour-long ride to pick up where I left the Camino last summer. A few questions at the airport taxi stand and a little negotiation made the smarter option to go directly to my starting point in Astorga. I’d kissed the girls goodbye at 6:30 am as they slept in their beds in Barcelona. By 11:30 I was walking on the Camino Santiago de Compostela.

I stopped three times in the first kilometer to get myself situated, each time carefully removing my pack – at its heaviest with a full supply of water – shifting the tube to my water bladder from the left to the right side and moving key supplies to familiar places. Tissues and lip balm in the zipper compartment on one side, iPhone poised in camera mode on the other. Map in the left pants pocket, money in the right. I fell right back into the ergonomic system I’d worked out last year. The air was chilly but the sun was warm, my back seemed okay and my legs felt strong. I’d planned to walk just 5k, to get started. Twenty kilometers later I rolled into Rabanal, a village just before the highest point on the Camino, the Cruz de Ferro.

The next morning I looked out the window of my pensión to see the village rooftops of the covered in snow. The road was wet, though not slippery. It turned into a muddy track at the top of the village. With altitude the ground was frozen, and as I climbed higher there was snow, several inches covering the ground. The fog and the light sprinkling of falling snow 20130318-203011.jpglaid a blanket of quiet over everything. All I could hear was the sound of my boots crunching on the snow.

It’s customary for Pilgrims to leave a stone or a talisman at the Cruz de Ferro, a symbolic gesture of leaving something you’ve been carrying and no longer need. That’s why I’d asked the girls for stones. I’d been thinking, for a while, about what I’d like to let go. Something that would ease my own burden, but also that, if I really could leave it behind, would help my daughters, too. Either because I’d be happier, or because it’d model something important for them.

I dug through the compartments of my backpack to find the two stones that Short-pants and Buddy-roo had found for me and put them in my coat pocket so I could reach them easily at the right moment. One of them I’d designated as the burden of time. I have become so very tired, and bored, of thinking about time. I am allotted hours in the day that seem never to be sufficient. I became more aware of this during my stretches on the Camino last year, but I still struggle with time. I think about it, I talk about it, I complain about never having enough of it. I want to stop this.

I waste too much time catching up instead of being present – this relates to my second stone – because I am always trying to do what is (or I believe is) expected of me. To be a good girl. A good mother. A reliable colleague. A friend you can count on. None of these terrible qualities to be known for, unless achieving them cuts you off from being at ease with life and savoring it rather than rushing through it. I want to stop being good and start being true.

~ ~ ~

As I approached the Cruz de Ferro, I could barely see it because of the fog. I admired the huge mound of stones at its base, thousands of small rocks piled on top of each other, representing the prayers and requests of the pilgrims, faithful or not, who’ve passed by. I fingered the two stones in my pocket, thinking again, as I had been all morning, about what I had infused into them and what it would mean, the act of leaving them there. Not that I put so much import on a cross standing on a mound of stones at the top of a mountain along the road. Except that it can signify something, if I want it to. A wedding doesn’t ensure a lifetime as a happy couple, but it does serve as a milestone to mark your intention to be so. That is the purpose of rituals.
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The Camino itself is a ritual, and walking it doesn’t mean I will change entirely. I never expected to return home as someone new. Doing the Camino has been for me a chance to reflect upon everything I am walking in this lifetime, and I suppose, to try to be true to it.

I pulled those two rocks out of my pocket and said a few words to whatever force might be out there in the universe listening. I did this not because I necessarily believe that someone or something would answer me or grant my requests, but more because it was important for me to say my intention out loud and to hear myself say it. I don’t know if I’ll ever make peace with time. Being true instead of being good feels like a tall order. But I can try.

At first I placed the two little rocks neatly, side by side, on top of a larger flat stone. On second thought, I picked them both up and threw them haphazardly amongst the the other rocks. Now they were just part of the pile. I stared up at the cross. Prayer ties, attached to the pole, flapped in the wind.

Just beyond the Cruz de Ferro there’s a rest area with picnic tables. I wiped the wet snow off the bench, slipped out of my pack and took a seat. I pulled out a sandwich and ate it, slowly. When my feet felt rested enough or my body felt too cold – I’m not sure which – I stood up and and threaded my arms through the straps of my pack. The pinch that plagued me last week, just above my hip, was gone. I felt good. I walked away from the Cruz de Ferro and I didn’t look back.


Dec 24 2012

Flight of the Reindeer

They’ve gotten good on planes. They should be, they’ve been on enough of them. We take them back to the states every two or three years, they’ve flown around Europe and to the Caribbean. They’ve both been to Cambodia when we took an extended 5-week trip there in 2007, when it wasn’t a problem for either of them to miss school. This is Short-pants‘ third trip to Africa; Buddy-roo‘s second time. They have always done well on overnight planes and 12-hour drives. A perfect merger of nature and nurture; traveling is in their genes, and we’ve given them plenty of practice to get used to it.
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It’s a lot easier to fly away to an exotic place for the holidays when the myth of Santa Claus no longer needs to be maintained. We managed a Christmas in Cambodia, but it required an extra suitcase, a good amount of advanced planning and a tiring amount of conversation about how would Santa know where to find us? Fortunately we were staying with friends who had not one but three Christmas trees set up in their otherwise tropical apartment, which added enough magic to mask the charade. But now that the girls know about Santa, we saw the possibility of a holiday trip with only carry-on luggage, and seized it.

“Why did you have to tell me?” Buddy-roo has been giving me grief about last year’s revelation about Santa. I tried to remind her that she had asked me, no less than five times, directly, “Who puts the presents under the tree?” I tried to evade her question but it seemed clear that she already knew and to continue would be a bold-faced lie. She was almost happy to be in on the secret, at least at first. Now her short-term revisionist memory has taken over – or else she figured out she’ll get less booty now that Santa’s been outed – and she wants him back.

“I liked believing in Santa,” she said, “you ruined it for me.”

Short-pants, too, wishes out loud that we hadn’t had our discussion about Santa, but she’s gentler on her mother. Her sadness is occasionally expressed, followed by, “but it’s okay, mama.”

My sister, who still believes in Santa, in the way that adults who still love the magic of Christmas do, sent over a beautiful book, The Flight of the Reindeer, thinking it might help heal the wounds of my children’s scarred Christmas. The book is filled with evidence that someone who really wants to believe can point to as concrete. In a whimsically factual way, it winks at every reader: Sure, there’s a Santa. If you want there to be.
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It was my peace offering.

“This is a book about the magic of Santa,” I said, as they unwrapped it, “to keep his spirit alive.”

Short-pants’ eyes widened and she flipped the book open, ready to devour it. Buddy-roo studied me with pursed lips. “Why would you give us a book about Santa when you already told us he doesn’t exist?”

“I never said he doesn’t exist.”

“Yeah, Santa lives in our hearts.” She rolled her eyes. “But I want him to be real and I wish you hadn’t told us he wasn’t.”

“You can still believe,” Short-pants’ angelic voice. “I do.”

~ ~ ~

We opened all but a few of our presents early, the day before we got on the plane to Africa. We knew Buddy-roo wouldn’t stand waiting until our return after New Year’s, and we wanted to travel light. Dragging the gifts with us, even though there weren’t that many, and explaining them to various border guards between South Africa and Mozambique – our Christmas destination – felt like a hassle to avoid. We opened our gifts in rapid fire after dinner, rather than unwrapping them leisurely, with breaks for ice-skating and Bloody Marys, two of our usual Christmas day rituals. Although a few thin items were slipped in my suitcase to be opened on the 25th, it feels good to dispense with the merchandise aspect of Christmas. Maybe, we’ll just be happy to be together. Well, and being someplace warm and sunny; that’s a gift, too.

Short-pants has deliberately decided to believe again. The book from her aunt has given her permission. It’s too heavy to take along with us, but up until our departure she had her nose buried in it, reading out factoids that helped her build a case in his favor. She tried to share her revived faith with her sister, who would have none of it.

“Stop,” she’d snap. “You’re only making me miss Santa more.”

~ ~ ~

The friends we are visiting in Mozambique – the same ones we stayed with in Cambodia years ago – keep moving to far-flung places. They used to live across the street from us, and the friendship between the adults and the children of our two families has endured since they left Paris, for many reasons, but certainly aided by the fact that we keep traveling to visit them almostSanta_in_Africa everywhere they light. As we prepared for this adventure together, I brought up the subject of Santa Claus. Were there still believers amongst us?

It turns out – to my surprise – there were. Two believers, the younger one for certain, the older probably just hanging in for the gifts. I’d alleviated the problem of carrying Santa’s goodies for our kids to Africa, but now I had a new one. Would the girls spill the beans?

When I brought it up, Short-pants grinned and started hopping around, singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This was just the excuse she needed to carry on believing. Buddy-roo scowled and crossed her arms. I braced myself for the if-you-hadn’t-told-us-we-wouldn’t-have-to-pretend retort. But instead her pout turned into a smile.

“Does that mean Santa will bring me presents in Africa, too?”

~ ~ ~

The flight was long, six hours to Dubai and another ten to Johannesburg. I can’t tell you how many hours we were in a car, either driving through Kruger Park admiring wild animals, or making our way across pot-holed roads or winding in and out of the dangerously crazy Mozambique traffic to get to our friends home in Maputo. We held our breath and crossed our fingers at the Mozambique border, hoping that the valid-for-6-months passport rule we read about on-line wouldn’t keep Short-pants out of the country, since hers is a temporary one, expiring in three months. Turns out it was a non-issue, or the charm offensive worked, as everyone got a visa and made it into the country. That our load of loot was light helped a lot; we meant it when we said we had nothing to declare.

Or I might declare one or two things: That I wish every one of you a merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is warm – if not in temperature, like ours, certainly in spirit. And no matter how far Santa’s reindeer have to travel to find you, may you be there together with the people you love most.


Jul 16 2012

Toro Suelto

Every fiesta morning at eight o’clock, a rocket fires and six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona to run toward the bullring. They do not run alone. They are accompanied by a pack of steers, whose docile influence hopefully keeps the bulls running close together. Also running beside them are thousands of people who’ve been waiting in the street for the chance to run with the bulls even for just a few moments. This is the encierro.

I have been to the Fiesta San Fermín nine times and have never ever considered running with the bulls. It is a dangerous tradition that I respect, from our balcony. I’m told it started when the shopkeepers along the route, having closed their doors while the bulls run by, decided to join in, with the permission of the pastores who herd the pack of animals to the bullring. It grew into a local ritual. Hemingway made the fiesta popular among foreigners, who joined the party and the run. I’m privileged enough to be friends with some of the foreigners who are loved and respected by the local bull runners, for whom the encierro is an art and a serious sport. These are men easily distinguished from the drunken college students who show up and know nothing about the bulls or the run and whose presence in the street is often the greatest danger of all.

A good encierro is a fast run. It can take less than three minutes to cover the 800-meter distance. It’s a good run if the pack of bulls and steers stick together, if the bulls remain focused on running forward and pay little attention to the throngs of people running beside them, trying to maneuver their way to the plum running spot, just ahead of one of the horns. It’s not such a good run when a bull gets separated from the pack because he falls behind or literally falls down, and when he gets up he’s lost his mates. The toro suelto, a loose bull, stops and spins around, charging at any runner who happens to be in front of him. Usually a green-shirted pastore will appear with his long herding stick, a stick sometimes used to whack idiot runners, and redirects the bull forward to join the others at the end of the run. Sometimes it’s up to a courageous bull runner – the experienced ones know how and will dare – to turn the bull around and provoke it forward, before getting out of the way.

The entire encierro is broadcast, so the parts I cannot view from my balcony on the calle Estafeta I can see on television. It’s something to see the toro suelto stopped and spun around, confused. The bulls are so beautiful and noble; it’s perplexing to see them out of sorts.

~ ~ ~

Each and every fiesta I have my own suelto moment. The week starts out bright and convivial, with champagne and cheer and old friends greeting, music and dancing in the street, a whole week of unscheduled wildness ahead. But midway through the fiesta there’s a dip, from lack of sleep, too much drink, getting fed up with the gray sludge in the streets and the constant press of people. I always have one restless night when my mind won’t shut down and my train of thought is only of the dark side. I become convinced that everyone I know, in Pamplona and elsewhere, merely indulges me and that I’m a terrible mother abandoning my family to come to this sloppy party. It’s a lonely moment, laying in the dark, unable to sleep, the dull roar of constant revelers in the street audible even with the best of earplugs. It’s the moment I feel out of the pack, and turned around, but fortunately, too tired to charge.

It’s remarkable to me that even in the company of so many fun-loving, open-hearted fiesta-thriving people – anyone you meet in the street will nod and smile at you – that such a lonely moment can prevail. The only thing to do is ride it out; the mid-fiesta plunge always passes and with the rising of the sun, the spirited alegria of the fiesta returns.

~ ~ ~

Another always: how I leave Pamplona before the fiesta ends. Two days of incessant partying remain, but I never finish with my friends. There have been years when I lamented my early departure. Other years, like this one, I felt ready to leave. My farewell breakfast included some beautiful jotas, a reprise of singing attention from Puchero, hugs and kisses and goodbyes, followed by the sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement to my last bar in town, where the taxi meets me. It’s just over an hour’s ride to the train that takes me to France and to my family. I always keep my pañuelo and my faja on for the entire ride. I’m the only one in white and red, the suelto amongst a train full of people dressed in blue jeans and regular colors.

At the other end of the train ride, De-facto – donned in white pants and T-shirt and a thin red pañuelo bearing the name of a cheapest brand of patxaran, something I must have left behind after a previous fiesta return – swept me into the car and on winding roads through villages, fields and forests to our country house. Short-pants, Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love cheered my arrival and sang a song they’d rehearsed for my return. There were fierce hugs from my not-as-little people, both of whom had grown taller since I last saw them. Dinner was waiting on the table. Ten days of stories were flying at me from every direction. I looked around, stunned, not unhappy to be in their presence, but somehow not quite in sync, not yet facing their direction. Like the toro suelto, I’d been somewhere else, out of the pack, loose and turned around.

~ ~ ~

A few days pass and I am back in step with my herd. Little by little I take up the routines that we follow here: writing in the morning, a run to the store before midday, pruning grapevines and rose bushes and attempting to keep up with the laundry. My dirty white clothes, soaked for two days in a mix of Coca-cola and bleach before they were washed – a secret recipe for removing the gray sludge – are now draped across every clothesline, drying in the sun. Long, thick nights of sleep, deeper because of the country quiet, restore my energy and return my attention to my family. I was away from them for three weeks to walk the Camino, and another ten days before and during the fiesta. I’ve had plenty of time away from my pack. But that’s something I need, that time away, and it’s exactly what makes it feels so good to be back, running side-by-side with them now.


Jul 5 2012

All that Bull

As promised, just after eleven o’clock, they arrived. I heard the signature barking-dog alert, and looked up from my barstool to see a round, blue bull pedaling by on a vélib’, the rentable bicycles in Paris. A few moments later, the Fiesta Nazi arrived with the robust bull at her side, and a small crew from Kukuxumusu, who’d come to film her because she’s been designated as this year’s Guiri del Año of San Fermĺn. It’s been thirty years that she’s been going to Pamplona, and it’s fitting that this honor, bestowed each year upon a favorite fiesta foreigner would go to her.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love, all donning red pañuelos, came to the café, along with a gang of other friends, to await their arrival. The Fiesta Nazi habitually avoids publicity, so assembling a familiar crowd at the bar helped keep it silly rather than serious. Not that a Disney-character-styled blue bull is that serious, but we showed up to make it feel like a party rather than an interview. The girls loved the bull, aka Mister Testis, and hugged him him like a long lost friend. When he finally de-costumed, they took turns trying on his head and poking each other with his horns.

De-facto had some errands to run, but showed up after the interview to say hello. He could not contain his curiosity about the bull costume, which was crumpled on the floor like a passed-out drunk after an all-night binge. He wanted to try it on. The Kukuxumusu guys did not protest at all, helping him slip his long skinny legs into the suit that was measured for someone not quite so tall as he, and turning him and zipping him up into the costume.

I looked on with admiration as De-facto appropriated the costume and ran out of the café to interact with people in the street. He has never been to the fiesta San Fermĺn. It has always been my annual week-away-with-my-girlfriends, and when I first started going, I needed that week away. Now it is not as critical to my sanity but the rituals have been put in place and he does not complain about the arrangements I make to go there. In recent years, I have more than hinted that he should come to Pamplona, too, even if just for a few days. So far, he’s opted to let it be mine, apart from the family. That he can leave the fiesta to me, and yet celebrate some of its foolishness when it happens to come close to home; this is just another reason to appreciate his role as my partner, and the long leash that I enjoy.

Buddy-roo, however, wasn’t delighted as I was by his willingness to try out the bull’s suit for a jaunt in the neighborhood. She burst into angry tears.

“No Papa, don’t!” She screeched at him and stomped her feet. “You look ridiculous!”

De-facto bolted out into the street, skipping down the sidewalk in the bulky blue suit, nodding at strangers, enchanting the passers-by who gawked and laughed, and taunting those who pretended not to notice that there was a foolish blue bull dancing down the street toward them.

~ ~ ~

The TGV from Paris to Hendaye is one of my favorite train trips. It’s the first leg of the voyage to Pamplona, slicing through the French countryside to the Spanish border. The days leading up to get on this train are never easy, I wind myself up getting the family packed and on the road to the country house, and my compulsion to get everything else in my life in order before I go doesn’t help. But the moment that my suitcases are stowed in the luggage rack, and I plop down in the crushed-velvet seat and heave a huge sigh of relief, then I know there’s only fun and fiesta ahead.

It’s always good to start the five hour trip with a nap, but eventually the legs need a stretching and there really isn’t any place to walk other than to the bar car. The train is divided into two sections, Zen and Zap; when you book your ticket you choose an ambiance. The Fiesta Nazi and I usually book a seat in Zen, because you can always get a little Zap by strolling to the bar car, though I must say we found it to be a bit too quiet for our mood. A little rosé later, we persuaded the barman to plug my iPod into the speaker on the bar, and raised the volume on a playlist of our Pamplona favorites. There were a few other people in the bar car, pretending not to notice that we had started dancing. Soon they left, but we kept dancing, because the music is the kind of music that compels you to dance and we were, after all, ramping up to go to one of the best dance parties in the world.

The barmen, amused by our impromptu party but unwilling to participate, went about their business cashing out the register, cleaning and clearing the bar of its inventory as we approached the last stop. We raised the volume and kept on dancing. This was of great interest to two pre-teenaged girls who’d come to the bar car for a soda and found instead a disco. They stood at a distance, watching us as if were from another planet. I danced my way over to them.

“This is what joy looks like,” I said to them.

It was then, dancing in the TGV bar car, the Fiesta Nazi and I turning and twisting and laughing at each other and not even caring what anybody thought, that I understood exactly why De-facto is so accommodating about my trips to to Pamplona. He knows that something happens to me while I’m dancing like a fool with my fiesta friends, something that makes me feel especially alive. He knows I need it, and he knows why. He gets it, and I will never take that for granted.

Moments later, the two girls returned to the bar car, holding their smart phones as if to be texting, but I suspected they were snapping photos or videos. I danced back over to where they were standing, which was as far away from us as possible.

“You can take all the photos you want,” I said, “but promise me that when you’re my age – and I’m fifty – you’ll let yourself dance in a train someday, just like this.”

They nodded their heads, agreeing. What else could they do?

~ ~ ~

Such foolishness will continue for days. In Pamplona, at noon on the sixth of July, the rocket will go off and church bells will ring and champagne corks will pop and the days and nights of the next week will be filled with more laughter and foolishness than most people get in a whole year. There is joy to be had – at the fiesta it’s called alegria – and nobody gives it to you or does it for you, and it probably won’t happen unless you’re willing to be foolish. And much to Buddy-roo’s chagrin, both her parents are absolutely willing, and that’s no bull.


Feb 14 2012

Waves of Love

I waited until Short-pants and Buddy-roo were dressed and downstairs, fully involved in their breakfast. Chances were good, once they’d reached that point in the morning, they wouldn’t return to their bedrooms until after school, when I’d be long gone. I tip-toed upstairs and slipped the Valentine stickers under their pillows, each with a little heart-shaped message. I straightened the bedding thinking maybe they wouldn’t see the little gifts until it was actually time to crawl under those covers, prolonging their surprise. I’d also addressed and stamped a couple of pink and red envelopes. They were in my bag, ready to be put in the postbox at the airport, hopefully to arrive in our mailbox at home, on Valentine’s Day.

We all walked out together, De-facto carrying my suitcase down the stairs. It’s rare that the four of us are out the door at the same time in the mornings, typically only one of us (usually De-facto) accompanies the girls to school. This time, they accompanied me to the taxi-stand and issued hugs and kisses and nearly-tearful goodbyes while the driver hoisted my suitcase into his trunk. They stood there, waving, while he waited for the light to change and allow us to plunge into the traffic.

This is the custom in our family – and don’t ask how it started, it’s just what we do – when you see someone off, it’s required to stand steady and continue waving until the car that’s whisking them away is no longer visible. I think it’s a lovely way of saying we don’t want you to go, but we do want you to go. You’ll be missed, but we’re excited for you and your adventures ahead.

The light took a long time to change. The traffic was heavy and slow and unwelcoming to a new vehicle. De-facto and the girls kept standing there, waving at me. I studied them, from a distance, as they were obliged to wait and wave from the other side of a green construction barrier that framed the repair work on the sidewalk between us. There they were, those people, their lives intricately interwoven into mine, everything mixed up together: our DNA, our dirty laundry, the pile of shoes by the door. That tall guy and those two bean-sprouting girls. That’s my family. And I love them.

Hope you’ve all got good people to love. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.


Jan 21 2012

How to Flirt

“Antoine keeps dragging me.”

This is a turn of phrase I’m accustomed to hearing from my contemporaries, reporting about a wildish night out or even just what happened waiting for me to turn up at our favorite café for an afternoon beer. I didn’t expect to hear it from Buddy-roo.

Dragging is a classic example of Franglais. In this case a French word transformed into an English verb by adding -ing. My friends often do this with French words to be funny or sarcastic. Buddy-roo simply didn’t know the equivalent word in English: flirting.

This use of dragueur comes from the French cineaste Jean-Pierre Mocky and his 1959 film, Les Dragueurs, in which an unlikely pair of men, one a serial skirt-chaser, the other more reserved and eagerly seeking a wife, go out on the town in Paris, flirting with every woman they meet. It was called The Chasers when it was released to English-speaking audiences, and if you watch even a short excerpt of the film you’ll see that the title is apt.

The original verb draguer means to dredge or trawl. It’s also used to describe the task of minesweeping. But as a result of the film, the term is more commonly used to describe the act of hitting on someone. As a noun, a dragueur (or dragueuse) is the consummate flirt.

“What about Vincent?” I asked her. Last week he was Buddy-roo’s true love. “Or Ethan?” He was last year’s heartthrob, and it’s my understanding that kisses have even been exchanged between them.

“I still love them,” she shrugged, “but now I like Antoine, too.”

This all sounded too familiar to me, in that transparent, embarrassing way that your children mirror a part of yourself or your past. When I was going through the boxes I’d left in my mother’s basement, I found several diaries from when I was Buddy-roo’s age. I sat on the dusty chair under a single light bulb, reading the pages of dribble and cringing at the recounting of the romantic details of my life at age eight: how Kenny smiled at me in the lunch line, or how Billy said he loved me but I really loved Phil. Would Timmy hold my hand at the roller-skating party? Five pages later, the names were changed but the passion was just as fierce. How fickle, the flame of young love.

How do we learn about flirting? Is it something that just comes naturally? Is it observed or inherited? Short-pants can’t be bothered to think about the boys in her school as anything but classmates, while Buddy-roo intuitively creates a hierarchy of her romantic preferences. I’ve seen her in action. If those boys are dragging Buddy-roo, there’s a good chance they’re merely answering her coquettish call.

Should I talk to my daughters about flirting, its benefits and consequences? I know a bit about the subject. I was named biggest flirt in my high school senior poll and I’ve been told I’m not so bad at barstool banter. I’m a good wingman for my single friends; I’ll start a conversation and leave it for them to finish. One English summary of Les Draagueurs describes how the two bachelors think they’ve struck gold until “it becomes apparent that these two wily lasses only want someone to pay for their drinks.” That’s a motive I understand. It could be my epitaph: She only wanted him to buy her a beer.

My mother never gave me any advice about flirting. I don’t fault her for this. It wasn’t part of the logos of her generation. But I’m wondering if some kind of guidance isn’t appropriate. What would I say? How it’s fun but you have to be careful, how it can be hurtful to someone who takes you more seriously than you intend, or you can inadvertently hint at something you don’t mean to convey and get yourself in a sticky situation. How it’s a dance, but you have to be mindful how you step. Unless drawing attention to it only hastens the 50-yard dash Buddy-roo is already making toward the world of love and lust. Arming her with a bit of information could make her wiser – or just more wicked. Either way, I think we’re flirting with disaster.


Dec 28 2011

Revelation

It didn’t help that I was horizontal, trapped in bed by a gastro that’s been going around. De-facto and Short-pants were out on the last of the Christmas-eve day errands: buying bread for the foie gras, tabasco for the Christmas Day Bloody Marys and paper for the last few unwrapped boxes. Drifting in and out of sleep, I heard Buddy-roo occupying herself around the apartment, singing to her Pet-Shop animals (those Fisher Price toys have, maddeningly, still not yet arrived), pushing the baby-doll stroller around the kitchen island, or shaking the presents already placed under the tree.

I was on the mend, but I still couldn’t sit or stand upright for too long. She’d come in every fifteen minutes or so, climbing up on the bed to check on me. She’d brush my hair away from my forehead, give me an I’m-sorry-you’re-sick look; she was caressing me, I imagine, exactly as I have tended her maladies. I was grateful for her quiet company, until she broke the silence.

“Does Santa Claus really come, or is it you who gets up in the night to put his presents under the tree?”

Were I standing in the kitchen, attending to any household task, I could have looked the other way and made a light-hearted of-course-it’s Santa kind of comment to brush it away. But I was pinned like a wrestler beneath her, and she was looking me square in the eye.

“What do you think?” I said.

I’ve been conflicted about the continuation of the Santa Claus myth. The excitement he conjures up is charming, but it’s fatiguing to keep the charade going: wrapping his presents in special paper and making sure no trace is left, remembering which presents are from Santa and which are from us, the required oblique responses to questions about him, his elves and his reindeer. I’m eager for a time when the girls are non-believers and we can exchange the dozens of parcels under the tree for a family trip to somewhere warm with sand, surf and spa. Here it was, the moment to start turning this Christmas train around, and I was chicken.

“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s why I’m asking you.”

Up until now, they’ve both appeared to be believers. Short-pants diligently wrote her letter to Santa and warned her younger sister about the spying elves. When we baked and decorated my mother’s Christmas cut-out cookies, she worried out loud about which one to leave for Santa on Christmas eve. Buddy-roo seemed less devout. It was harder to get her to scribe anything to Santa; she even seemed a bit aloof. But then she told De-facto that “the best thing about Christmas is you can ask for whatever you want and it doesn’t cost anything.” She compared this with her birthday, when you didn’t know what you were going to get and somebody had to pay for the presents. So, it seemed, she still believed, too.

“Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” I told her, “he represents the magic of giving gifts without thinking about what you get back.”

I was stalling. I wanted her to find out from someone other than me, like a classmate or a cousin. Perhaps that’s what had happened and now she was coming to me for the ultimate truth.

“But who puts the presents from Santa under the tree?”

Her question was too direct. It was time to answer. Besides, I justified, this might lay the foundation for the dialogue between us in the years to come; how I handled this could be a precedent for future honest answers from her.

I told her. The truth. Then I braced myself for her response: a backlash of angry betrayal or tears of disappointment that all this magic was just a myth.

“Really?” Her eyes widened. “It’s you?

“And Papa, too.” I had to give him some credit.

She inched herself up closer to me, her smile widening. She threw her arms around my shoulders.

I wanted to say: You’re not mad at us? Instead I said: “It doesn’t mean that Santa doesn’t exist. He’s in all of us, at anytime of the year. He just comes out more generously at Christmas.”

“Who eats the cookie we leave out?” she asked.
“I do.”
“And the carrot, for the reindeer, who eats that?”
“Papa.”
“How come you get the cookie?”
“That’s how we roll.”

Now I wondered about Short-pants. She’d been doing such a fine job of believing – almost too good a job for her age – that I’d started to think maybe she was playing along to humor us. I did this: for three years I was well aware who was really putting those big-ticket gifts under the tree, but I didn’t fess up. The booty Santa brings is always more interesting. How do you think I got so many of those Fisher Price toys?

I asked her if Short-pants still believed.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “She still believes.”

“Will you give me a present, then?” I asked. She nodded solemnly, to match the tone of my request.

“Please. Don’t. Tell. Her.”

I remembered how crushed she’d been, running to her room in tears when she learned that the Bastille Day fireworks weren’t really in honor of her birthday, something De-facto and I had perpetuated as a charming story – we thought – as the fireworks in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she was born, started just a few moments after she was born.

“At least not until after this Christmas.”

Buddy-roo promised, and it was a promise she kept. In fact, she played along so well with the entire ruse that I realized that I’ve set no precedent whatsoever for any honest answers in the coming years. But we had peace at Christmas, in a festive kind of way, which is what I needed, and what I wish for all of you for the remainder of the holiday season.