Nov 25 2011

Tout Turkey

It’s not like you can just walk into any grocery store and select a Butterball from the shelf. If you want to do Thanksgiving in France, you have to order a turkey in advance. Not that it is obligatory to celebrate. We could easily sneak by the holiday without any mention. It’s business as usual here on what is the quietest Thursday in America; quiet but for the sound of pots and pans in the kitchen, cutlery and crystal at the table and the blaring of the football games on televisions across the entire country.

Except that it’s a ritual that reminds us, pleasantly, of our childhoods, and we like the gratitude part. The idea of having a designated dinner party to express our thanks, deliberately, seems like a good thing to pass along to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, so each year we fashion some facsimile of a Thanksgiving feast, hobbled together with fine French products and a little American ingenuity (and nostalgia).

Just down the street from where my tailor used to work there is a brightly lit boucherie that I pass whenever I’m walking the girls to or from school. Its floor is covered with saw-dust. Red slabs of meat hang on hooks from the ceiling above the glass refrigerator cases that display even more raw meat and poultry. Two hefty men in long white aprons stand behind the counter, shouting and smiling at the same time, bantering with each other like talk-show hosts, entertaining themselves as much as their customers.

Bonjour,” I said, entering the shop. This is a required salutation in France. Too many Americans walk into Parisian shops without any kind of a greeting, so their first utterance to the shop-keeper is “how much is this?” The French, rightly, take this is an insult. We’ve tried it in that states, too; it’s amazing how just saying hello to someone before asking them for help can pave the way for a more productive encounter.

Bonjour!” The butchers, one of them with a thick mop of gray hair, the other with fine white hair that hangs over the top of his wire glasses, answered in unison.

I asked if I could order a turkey.

En entier?” The gray haired one was surprised that I wanted a whole turkey.

Oui,” I shrugged, “Je vais faire le Thanksgiving Americain.”

Mais, non,” said the white haired one, “C’est en Decembre!”

I politely informed him that Thanksgiving always falls on the last Thursday in November. He continued to disagree with me, defiantly sure of the wrong month. I explained that just as (some of) the French celebrate the Beaujoulais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November, we Americans have our special fête on the last Thursday in November.

Je n’y crois pas,” he said. He still didn’t believe me.

Monsieur, pardonnez-moi,” and then I switched to English, “I know it’s in November. I’m an American. I’m sure of it.”

The two of them looked at each other, in disbelief.

“Would you like to see my passport?”

“Okay, she wants a turkey, she’ll have it,” one said to the other in heavily accented English. Now I really did feel like a guest on their talk show. They interrupted and corrected each other, comically, as we went back and forth about my order. Pinning them down on an exact weight or price was impossible. Even the delivery date was sketchy. But this isn’t unique to this shop. De-facto used to schlep over to a butcher on rue Montorgeuil that had been recommended to us for turkeys at this time of year; he went through the same song and dance. He’d come home cursing with a bird 2 kilos and 20 euros more than we’d hoped for.

Those of you in the homeland are already digesting yesterday’s big feast, you’ve already gobbled the rogue turkey sandwich late last night – maybe you’re already sick of the leftovers. But since French businesses and schools stop for no American holiday, we opted to postpone our Thanksgiving a day. So this morning I stuck my head in the butcher shop to pick up the bird that I’d reserved.

“We sold it to someone else,” the white-haired butcher said. “Anyway, your Thanksgiving was yesterday. It’s too late.”

“That’s okay,” I told him. “I ordered a turkey down the street, just in case.”

“Touché,” said the other one, pulling the enormous bird out of the chrome refrigerator.

I braced myself for the weighing part. The turkey barely fit on the scale, and it registered 7.6 kilos (nearly 17 lbs). At the cash register, I feigned a Fred Sanford heart attack while handing over my carte bleu. Sure enough, 2 kilos and 20 euros more than I ordered. But it was butchered especially for me, and it’s even kosher.

Plus it’s cooking right now, smelling up the whole place like dozens of November Thursday afternoons embedded in my memory, that savory roasting aroma, the comforting smell of gratitude, everything that turkey is to me. Happy Thanksgiving everyone…


Oct 29 2011

That Part

“Is this the marriage part?” Buddy-roo asked. We were congregated on the beach, greenish hills in front of us, the Pacific ocean at our backs. A few white folding chairs created a half moon, upon these chairs sat the elder family and friends while the rest of us stood behind them, making a tight circle in the sand before the couple. The vows were completely customized, except for an occasional dearly beloved and by the power vested in me, inserted for charm and humor rather than tradition. The barefoot bride, my sister-in-love, wore a dark pumpkin orange dress, her groom sported a similarly orange tie with a black suit, the trousers of which would later be folded up as he trampled around the surf with their two little boys, tow-headed like their uncles had been, tow-headed like my daughters once were, still young enough to have no clear idea about the meaning of the ceremony their parents had just constructed, more interested in the piles of sand than the people assembled.

The weekend was filled with wedding party and extended wedding party activities, dinners and picnic lunches, family football challenges on the beach, informal gatherings of cousins and friends of the bride and groom. Each occasion prompted the question from Buddy-roo, who was eager to witness the marriage part and didn’t quite understand all of the other moments of revelry leading up to it.

These are always a bit sticky, these wedding moments, as the nature of our non-wedded status becomes a topic of conversation that has its tender touch points. I brace myself for the inevitable and impertinent question, “so when will the two of you tie the knot?” It’s posed by loving and curious family or friends who aren’t privy to the quiet discussions that De-facto and I have had about the subject. We have morphed in and out of agreement and disagreement on our status, a negotiation which is moot given the inextricable intertwining that results naturally from having children while engaged in pre-marital coitus.

There’s an argument in favor of maintaining this unmarried position, railing against the conspiracy of marriage. Allegedly we are not lulled into the convenient malaise that comes with the “security” of a legal union. When there is no official agreement to rely upon to hold you together, there is no relaxing of the vigilance to the relationship. No lazy couples survive; we’re here facing each other every day, on purpose.

Still, some days I ache because we have not crossed a threshold of ritualizing our feelings for each other. It’s not the big wedding or the formal doo-dah, I know the headaches that accompany the planning and production of such an affair. It’s about stating deliberately to each other: I am here, on purpose, and I mean it, and doing so with a few family and friends not only to witness such proclamations, but to celebrate them, too.

Standing in the sand with the sun upon my back I recalled my failed marriage and the mild embarrassment I carry for having entered into such a public contract only to break it four years later. I take some pride in the amicability of that parting, not that there weren’t arguments and angry words launched between us during the height of its unraveling, but that ultimately, once the threads of our couple were untangled, my ex-husband and I were civil and caring toward each other. Elegant is how I’ve often described my divorce but I’m probably framing it with an aura of revisionist history. But okay, if that makes it easier, so be it: elegant.

There are a number of reasons De-facto and I aren’t married, most of them a defense against some fear that each of us harbors. Me, perhaps, that I will fail again and be twice divorced. Him, that such a traditional label of wife will push me away rather than draw me to him, that the formalization of our commitment would serve only to eat way at the commitment which has organically taken shape as our initial attraction and affection led to a couple in residence, which created one child and then another. Not by accident, the children part: we deliberately pulled the goalie for Short-pants and though Buddy-roo was a surprise, it was only the timing of her arrival and not the fact of it. We knew we wanted to parent together, although I can not for the life of me imagine why he would want me to mother his children as I surely exhibited no maternal finesse whatsoever while we were courting.

What cycles we have been through: one of us resisting, both of us inclined, then more resistance, or apathy. It should not be taken as a sign of rejection that we are not united in holy matrimony, but more an ambivalence about the institution itself and by whom we are given permission to be official. Having said that, the disappointment of having not chosen that path seems to rise out of its invisible resting place from time to time, usually when there is somebody else’s wedding to attend, and it falls upon me like an soft, worn blanket, that old throw that ought to be given away to the good will but for some reason it stays draped on the armchair. Why do we keep that old ratty thing around? Familiarity, perhaps. It wraps around me as I stand there in the sand, with all the others who celebrate the beautiful union of these two awesomely lovely, in-love-with-each-other people face to face before us, poignantly itemizing their life promises to each other. The tears that tip-toe down my cheeks are tears of joy for their happiness, and also tears of disappointment at my own, that I have everything they have – indeed – except the marriage part.

(The last image in this post is artwork by RubySpam.)


Oct 7 2011

Little Vermin

The little vermin choose always the most inopportune time to visit, when things are busy and De-facto’s out of town. I’m speaking of lice. It’s inescapable. Every year, once the girls are back in school, one of them starts scratching repeatedly and absent-mindedly and I put my aging eyes to work to inspect a scalp for tiny parasites. Before long, the other one is scratching, too.

I remember being horrified the first time they got lice. Somehow, I escaped this childhood pestilence, so it seemed even more plague-like to encounter it with my own children. How was I supposed to get rid of it? How did they even get it? Was it a reflection on our hygiene at home? After some intense Googling, I learned that lice do not discriminate: they like all heads, dirty or clean. Maybe even the clean ones are more alluring, like being the first to move into a new cul-de-sac of McMansions.

“Bad news, mama,” Buddy-roo said to me, running into my arms outside the school, “I have les poux!”

This news made my heart sink. In a flash, I saw ahead of me an entirely new itinerary for the evening. It didn’t matter that I’d planned to do a little clothes-shopping together and guide them through their homework while preparing dinner before an out-of-town-guest arrived. The entire night was now hijacked. A panicked trip to the pharmacy to pick up the latest and least-toxic-as-possible de-lousing treatment, sheets and pillowcases stripped off the beds and thrown into the hottest-water wash, and hours of picking over the head and behind the ears, through every strand of hair with the metal-toothed comb. The quiche I intended to bake would become a call to Pink Flamingo Pizza. Homework would get pushed until after dinner and bedtime delayed. Wine consumption would, no doubt, increase. Those few little things I didn’t get to today, but I hoped to take care after the kids were in bed and the dinner guest was gone: they’d never get gotten to. Once the children were horizontal, that’s all I’d have stamina to achieve myself.

Buddy-roo deserves much credit, though. It is most unpleasant to have little bugs crawling in your hair and just as awful to sit still for the hours it takes to have an oily product combed through repetitively and the nits and bugs removed one-by-one, or as in her apparently advanced case, bunch-by-bunch. Somehow we hadn’t noticed the scratching, which had probably been going on for days because she was seriously infested. She remained unusually un-dramatic, a very good thing because there were so many lice in her hair that I was nauseous – and I usually handle bugs and spiders fearlessly. I was so overwhelmed by the volume of lice and nits that it took every ounce of control not to drop my head and sob in despair. How will I ever get it all out? is what I kept thinking to myself. “You’re doing great,” is what I said out loud to her, in my chirpiest voice, “we just gotta keep at it.”

Hours later, empty pizza boxes lay open on the counter, a second bottle of wine had been uncorked by my friend and Buddy-roo toiled away at the homework she couldn’t write while I’d been working on her head. It was late and she was tired, but she plodded through and finished it all. A double dessert was volunteered for her good spirit, and once (or twice) consumed, teeth were brushed and I went to tuck her into the guest-bed, with its yet-un-loused sheets that I could wash the following day, in case I hadn’t managed to get every single nit out of her hair.

I sat on the edge of the bed, caressing her bare arms as they stretched over the covers, complimenting her on how she’d been such a great sport through the whole ordeal. “But maybe,” I suggested, “it’s not such a good idea to come into my bed in the morning.” It usually takes a few comb-throughs to catch all the lice, I didn’t want to any stragglers to be deposited on my sheets until I’ve checked her a few more times.

“I don’t so much need the morning cuddle anymore, Mama,” she said, “I just do it sometimes because I know you like it.”

Oh.

I knew this moment would come, didn’t I? But I didn’t expect it so soon. She’s only seven. And after I just spent two long hours in a back-breaking position with my fingers in her louse-ridden hair, risking my own contamination, putting on a happy it’s-all-gonna-be-fine face so as not to distress her, gently goading her on while she otherwise lollygagged through her homework so that her humorless and unsympathetic French teacher wouldn’t punish her. This is when she chooses to inform me that she doesn’t need the morning cuddle anymore? Like it’s all been some kind of favor when she crawls in bed with me and De-facto in the morning – much less frequently it occurs to me now that she’s mentioned it – she’s been merely gracing us with her cuddling presence?

“I suppose this is as good a time as any to change our routines,” I said, swallowing a lump I’d discovered in my throat. “But you know, you’re always welcome. For the morning cuddle. If you change your mind.”

Little vermin. Doesn’t she know I’m not ready to get her out of my hair?


Jul 3 2011

Get out of Town

It’s never easy. The last days before leaving for a trip always get ugly. No matter how I try to plan ahead, think ahead, and even pack ahead, there is no avoiding the inevitable frenzy and departure stress. Finishing up work projects so the hanging threads are at least minimized. Getting De-facto and the girls packed in the car and on their way to the country house. Setting in order the details of the household: bills paid, last minute errands, picking up dry cleaning, running by the post to drop some birthday cards in the mail, baskets of white clothes to be washed and ironed, suitcase packed. Get that last invoice out, answer those emails sulking in the bottom of the inbox. Stop by the bank to get cash for the trip, find a moment to shop for a new pair of cheap shoes for trudging through the gray silt of the upcoming Pamplona party. The list would not end, and the series of bullet-pointed colored Post-it notes plastered over the kitchen island seemed to multiply despite the fact that I plowed through the list industriously, barely stopping to eat or sleep, let alone to put my feet up.

There was a pedicure – a must before any summer trip and of course the visit to the beauty nurse to deal with the hair you don’t want, but then to the coiffeur to deal with the hair you do want. If only there’d been time for a facial. De-facto laughs at me when I run around at pre-voyage pace, stressed about my to-do list, on which a third of the items are beauty treatments, which he considers lavish. But I’m telling you this not a luxury; at my age, it’s called maintenance.

My usual start-of-summer departure stress was compounded this year by the necessary packing or purging of all bottles, boxes, tubes and personal toiletry items on every shelf of our bathroom and our w.c. We have arranged for both to be gutted and renovated during our absence, which meant a last-minute consultation with the contractor, some dashing about to pick up the new shower fixture and special-order lamps which meant I completely spaced out about a conference call I was supposed to join.

I’d turned the corner from frenzied to flakey.

But wait, there’s more: I knew this was not the ideal moment to wipe out my hard-drive and upgrade to a new operating system, however my recently-sluggish computer decided to freeze, upgrading this task from would-be-nice-if-you-get-to-it to the must-do-it-now status. The installation was more complicated than it should have been, requiring a manual reassembly of my document files, photos, browser preferences and email accounts. The good news is I had a fresh backup from which to work. The bad news: it still took hours. I was up restructuring my library files until three a.m.

It would help if I wasn’t so hell-bent on leaving home with everything in order. I cannot leave the house with perishable food in the fridge. The laundry needs to be put away and the tables cleared and chairs pushed in, the dishwasher emptied. I want beds made and the shoes put away, papers and books and things put away and out of sight. I like to leave the house in such a way that it’s a relief to come home. This adds a number of possibly superfluous tasks to my cluster of Post-it notes, but it does pay off. The return home is always smoother for this painful frenzy of preparation.

Keep your eye on the prize. This is the mantra I kept repeating to myself all week. Soon I’d be in the green of the hills of the Basque country at a favorite little hotel, sipping rosé and eating asparagus de Navarra. Just a few days later, I’ll be clinking champagne flutes in a room full of friends dressed in white (with a splash of red) in the middle of an entire city full of people dressed in white (with a splash of red) where for exactly one week I will be lost in the revelry and reverie that is the fiesta of San Fermín. The days ahead are days I dream of all year long: when I am beholden to nobody, when there is no end-of-day-deadline because I have to pick up the kids, no promises to keep, no paperwork to submit, no phone call to forget. These are the days spent wandering with purposeful abandon in an non-stop-impromptu parade with a posse of good friends, days where I am free to float, un-tethered and in the moment, subject only to my own whim of iron. These are the days I’ve been waiting for all year, and oh yes, they’re just ahead – if I can just get out of town.


Apr 22 2011

Country Rhythm

She set up the chairs at the edge of the property, just as the sun bent low in the sky. The sunset was ahead and she wanted a front row seat. The invitation was so clear, so soft, and because it was issued without whining words or direct demand, all the more irresistible. The dishes could wait. The evening chores – scanning the lawn for tools left out, closing barn doors and latching the shutters – this could happen later. There’d be plenty of time before it got dark. There was a moment, there, waiting: Please sit with me, she said without words. Please sit with me and say goodbye to the sun and to this beautiful day.

The rhythm of the country house is a welcome break from the hectic pace at home in Paris and the creative chaos of last week at CREA. Here we slow down. There are fewer interruptions. We are alone as a family. We are focused on the basics, occupying ourselves with simpler concerns: What to eat? Are you warm enough? Shall we go for a walk? The kids are even freer here than last week, the country provides fields and forests for exploring and escaping. They run in and out of the house, down the road to see the sheep or the neighbor’s dog without the chaperone that is required in the city. This is freedom for De-facto and me, too; since we are not needed as escorts, we are left to finish that long chapter or nod off into a late afternoon nap.

Oh but if the country house were just that: long lunches and lazy afternoons, reading thick volumes and dozing off mid-sentence. That is the ideal country house, one that might be pictured in Homes & Gardens: replete with perfectly distressed tables and painted wicker chairs. But anyone who owns a country house – not just a second house or a vacation home – but a fixer-upper country house, knows that there’s little time to rest and repose. A country house is mostly work.

This morning, the blinding sun on the staircase reveals the fact that I have not swept since last October. The mice who’ve so kindly kept an eye on things since we were here in February left us many little presents on the shelves where we store the plates and glassware. All must be washed and replaced, I’ll clean it now but I know this task will be repeated in July. The lawn is knee-high and the lawnmower needs to be repaired. The garden is to be tilled and planted, the weeds plucked from the back stone terrace. The cobwebs cleared from every corner of every room in the house.

Then there’s the laundry. Several loads from the suitcases we brought from Italy. Three more loads of clothes and sheets we could not wash last winter because it was too cold and damp for them to dry. In the wash now, a load of blankets that smelled of fireplace smoke after the long, locked-in winter. If I had to choose my Sisyphean task, I know what it would be; in front of me all the laundry to do, and more laundry.

We have no dryer at the country house, so doing the wash requires meteorological knowledge. On a warm sunny day, it takes 3-4 hours for clothes to dry on the line, an hour less if there’s a brisk wind. When it rains, the drying time could be up to 3 days – and in the meantime the cumbersome and not particularly aesthetic drying rack becomes the centerpiece of the house. Some say make hay while the sun shines, I say wash clothes. Five loads yesterday. More today.

Buddy-roo runs into the kitchen, screeching with glee after making a trip to the neighbors to feed their chickens. In her outstretched hand, a large brown egg, hatched overnight, a gift that will become a fresh omelet. Short-pants returns after an hour in her forest; she’s been sitting on the discussion bench (she named it) knitting, and she returns to show me her work. She’s getting good, the rows of purple yarn are entirely uniform; I can’t see even one dropped stitch. It is the beginning of a hat, she says, and for the first time I see it could be something to wear.

I can hear De-facto in the loft of the “new room,” a hopeful room we’ve been renovating for years. He’s fashioning a windowsill out of an old slab of oak he found in the barn, telling the girls how reusing this piece of wood means we didn’t have to kill any more trees. They run to the barn to find more wood that might save a tree, but on the way they forget their mission, caught up instead in the chasing of dandelion fuzz that is dancing with the gusts of wind. The breeze is brisk, it stirs up the pollen and makes us all sneeze, but it sure to dry the laundry well and fast. This might even leave me some time to read and rest.

This post is about nothing, really. It has no point to make. It’s about the day-to-day of the country house. It’s about simple tasks and basic pleasures. It’s about being in nature. It’s about the kind of manual labor that frees the mind to wander. It’s about being away from the distractions of the world and folding into my family. It’s about no other moment than this one, this moment now, taking its place in the string of moments and memories that will always be part of our peaceful escapes to the country.

Or maybe that is the point.


Dec 25 2010

Bloody Mary Christmas

I’m not sure how this became a tradition in our family, but it endures.

I like to imagine that my parents started making Bloody Marys just to survive the clamor and chaos of Christmas morning. With kids up at the crack of dawn, pulling presents out from under the tree, ripping the wrapping off and losing the tags, that would inspire the need for a bit of fortification. By the time I started remembering Christmas, such things were entirely under control, but the ritual had been established. Sometime around mid-day, after a good half-dozen rounds of gift opening – we’d always open them one-by-one – my father would call a pause to what he referred to as the oh, isn’t that lovely! show and disappear into the kitchen and my mother would follow. I remember this short respite as a moment of absolute joy. The day was young but already we had discovered Santa’s booty, and the first presents to have been opened were new and exciting but there were still many thrilling gifts under the tree yet to be unpackaged.

After about a quarter of an hour, my parents would return in tandem, my father holding a black tray with his famous Bloody Marys in their signature glasses and my mother carrying a cutting board with crackers piled artfully around a cheese ball. I couldn’t imbibe in the cocktails until I was older, and this in itself was a rite of passage, but I always admired the glasses – eventually I inherited them – and I loved the spirited nature of this mid-morning snack.

Decades later, Christmas evolves. For years I boycotted the family experience, not for any reason except I needed to do something different, to break away. Then I had my own family, and found myself enacting, with inane precision, all the rituals my parents had unintentionally embedded within me. The best one, without doubt, the habit of a Bloody Mary pause at about halftime of the opening of the presents.

But what are rituals if they are not shared?

So my Christmas present to you, indulgent readers, is the simple but absolutely-tested recipe for the Bloody Mary my father used to make, as recorded by my mother in her inimitable fashion, organized in an excel spread sheet with exact measures for varying amount of servings (from two to twelve). These are not reserved only for the holidays, but this is when we love them most.

Christmas Bloody Mary (6 servings)

18 oz tomato juice
3 oz lemon juice
3/4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons horseradish
6 dashes of salt and 6 dashes of pepper
6 jiggers of vodka
tall stalks of washed celery

It won’t surprise most of you that I add a wee bit more vodka and as many dashes of Tabasco as Worcestershire. But of course all of these family traditions are meant to be adapted.

And with that, I’ll take this chance to wish a happy Christmas to all of you. Whether you like your Mary virgin or bloody, I hope it’s a good one.


Dec 24 2010

Hard to Believe

The holidays, though filled with beautiful moments, have their fair share of hard parts that make you want to slowly, quietly lock the bathroom door and sit on the side of the tub and have a good cry, ignoring any small fists that rap on the door calling your name. It can be for any kind of reason, general fatigue or specific disappointment. It doesn’t help that expectations get artificially raised at this time of the year, and I happen to be susceptible to their augmentation, despite annual proclamations that this year will be otherwise.

The holidays are a little bit hard for me because I always think of my father, who died a week before Christmas, twenty-some years ago. Losing him so close to the holiday painted a shade of blue around all the red and green. I remember Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas on the radio while I was riding in the town car behind the hearse on the way to the cemetery. The driver was the father of a school friend, at her slumber parties he used to sit at the kitchen table and laugh out loud with us. I could see his eyes in the rear view mirror and they were red and wet with tears. Everybody loved my father and nobody could believe he was gone.

It’s easier now, time helps, though I still cry a little when I hear that song.

The holidays are hard because it’s a lot of work. Even if you think ahead, and I do: when I travel throughout the year, I pick up indigenous specialties and earmark them as gifts for the following Christmas. Living overseas inspired my organization: I needed, just once, to wait in the long line at the post office the week before Christmas only to learn that the charge to ship the presents to my family so that they’d arrive before the 25th would cost more than the gifts themselves. Now everything gets wrapped by mid-November and shipped to the U.S. at a reasonable cost or sent home by a visiting courier.

But even with this apparently organized approach, Christmas creeps up and crowds the calendar. I still find myself with last minute shopping that thrusts me into the throngs of crazed shoppers. Somehow I’m still up at 2 am baking cookies for the school party or to give to the neighbors or just to have around the house. I do this because that’s what my mother did. I make her recipe, I use the same cookie cutters (I inherited hers), I frost and sugar the trees, stars, angels, bells and Santas the same way she did. And I work myself into the same frenzy that puzzled me so when I watched her as child.

The holidays are hard because they’re over commercialized, and somewhere along the way I bought into it. I agreed to the Santa and presents and lights and tinsel deal, hook line and sinker, and now I don’t know how to backtrack my way out of it. Here’s how ridiculous I am: I buy special “Santa” wrapping paper – the goofy, tacky kind that I would never otherwise use to wrap presents – and this paper is designated for gifts from Santa only. I’ve been doing this for years, but seriously, have they ever said (or thought): “Oh, those presents that just arrived under the tree last night have their own distinctive wrapping paper fashioned by Santa’s elves?” I’m sure I’m the only one who gets it.

Last week while wrapping a few gifts for the girls, presents not from Santa, but from me and De-facto, and I ran out of the classy, heavier-stock wrapping paper I prefer. All that was left was the end of the roll for Santa’s presents, which have already been wrapped and hidden away. Mid-way through cutting a piece of this cheesy paper I thought to myself, “What am I doing? This paper’s for Santa’s presents, I can’t use it on ours. They’ll know.”

What if they do? I’m tired of this whole Santa ruse, anyway. It’s hard work perpetuating this little lie (about which I have only mild guilt) but most of all I’m tired of doing all the work for which Père Noël gets all the credit. I want them to stop believing, but it’s too hard to tell them – and certainly not right now, days before Christmas – though I am starting to get impatient for them to figure it all out. For this reason, I went ahead and used the tacky paper to wrap the not-from-Santa presents. We’ll see if anybody notices.

I did get a question, a few weeks ago. Apparently someone in the school courtyard claimed there was no Santa Claus and the girls asked me if that was true. I could have said, well guys, actually, your friend in the courtyard is right. It would have eased the burden, moved us into the next phase of celebrating Christmas which means family holidays in a place with palm trees and drinks with little umbrellas in them, much easier to enact once the concern about how Santa will find us doesn’t have to be addressed and a full suitcase of Santa’s gifts needn’t be carried along.

But I chickened out. “What do you think?” I answered with a question. They both tipped their heads to the side, waiting, until Short-pants said, “I still believe.” Buddy-roo agreed. “Well there you have it,” I said, shooting myself in the foot.

Because even with its hard parts, I still love Christmas. I love the rituals: the smell of the sapin de Noël and how it transforms when we string up the lights and hang the ornaments. I love the Christmas carols (with the exception of the monotonous Twelve Days of Christmas) and the decorations in the stores and on the street. I love selecting beautiful wrapping paper and folding it evenly and taping it invisibly and tying ribbons into fat bows to make beautiful packages. I love the quiet that falls upon the world as business closes on Christmas eve, the cozying in and gathering ‘round and being with family. I love the way the children run to bed, knowing that the sooner they go to sleep, the sooner morning will come.

I love all our holiday traditions. I realize, especially now, that these are the things that have kept my father alive in our hearts – and will keep my mother there too – which is, no doubt, the reason that I insist upon continuing them so diligently. Christmas is hard work but it’s also comforting, a regression to a previous place and posture that for me, is the heart of my childhood.

Tomorrow, Christmas day, my sister will phone me and say, “Did he come?” And I will say, “Yes, he came.” And in that short exchange, an exchange that happens every year in exactly the same way – the same question and the same response – everything we know and believe about Christmas is captured: everything that’s hard and sad and also magical and joyful. That’s when the hard parts of the holiday season fade away and it’s easy just to let it go and really mean it when you whisper back Merry Christmas.


Dec 16 2010

The Posse

Over the years, gradually, it’s grown – this gang of girls. We share in common an extraordinary event, the best party of the year, every July, and although the duration of our stay in Pamplona varies depending on finances and family or work commitments, that moment – when the gun goes off and the champagne flows and the cathedral bells ring – is a precious moment when we are reunited and ready for anything to happen. Others start their new year on the first of January or in September with the new school season. The PPP (the Pamplona Pussy Posse) starts its year on July 6th at noon o’clock, and with a bang.

Dressed in white with red sashes and panuelos, we have our daily rituals, borrowed or invented over the years. We all know the general schedule (the Fiesta Nazi has done her best to train us) so if for some reason you don’t make it home or if you get distracted and pulled off to lunch with other friends, or you need a nap, or to put your feet up, you still know where to go, and at what time, in order to rejoin the posse. We are predictable that way, and yet within our rhythm there is deviation and surprise: a new favorite barman, a newly discovered out-of-the-way restaurant, a place to better view the fireworks.

The founding members of the posse are, though we don’t dwell on it, on the other side of forty. The younger members of the PPP are in their twenties and there’s a thirty-something amongst us, too. Together, we represent a range of the feminine experience. Young, daring, sexy things becoming thoughtful beauties and turning into witty, wiser (and still rather wanton) women. I’d like to think that when we’re out and about, we blend together. I know I’ve got a few more wrinkles and lot less stamina, but every one of us is laughing loud from the belly, dancing deep from the heart. These days, the younger ones get more attention, but I don’t mind as long as somebody buys us a drink while they’re flirting with our younger friends.

The posse experiences the fiesta fully. We watch the encierro every morning, vigilant for our friends who are running. At the corrida we bite our knuckles, shedding tears and/or applauding if it’s beautifully fought. We dance anyplace where there is music to dance (which is everyplace), turning strangers into friends at each stop. We befriend barmen, street cleaners and pastores. But there’s something that happens between us, in the middle of the non-stop revelry, when we look around and recognize how absolutely privileged we are to be here in the midst of it this madness, and to be in each other’s wild company.

In the wee morning hours (or else in the high heat of the day after a siesta) we’re splayed on the couch in the one air-conditioned room of our rented apartment, feet up on the table or soaking in a tub of ice-water, telling our stories. Funny stories about what’s happened to us at the fiesta morph into other stories about things in our lives outside the Pamplona party that we share, things that drive us, inspire us, annoy us, or amuse us. I love these talks. You can’t plan them; they happen spontaneously.

I couldn’t plan this, either – I wasn’t even aware of it until I was in the middle of writing this post – what I would gain from being part of this circle of women of disparate ages and life experiences. It’s one thing to be friendly with a few younger women who are at different places in their life, to be a colleague, or a mentor. It’s a whole different ballgame to go through what we go through in Pamplona, the intense highs and lows, moments of elation and disappointment back-to-back, feeling free and wild and strong, and then feeling instantly vulnerable as a result.

Knowing these women this way – and letting them know me – gives me a perspective about the curve of my own life. Who was I when I was at that age and stage? Who will they be, when they are in my place? And who and what are we all becoming? (Besides a little bit too drunk and really overtired.)

Those heart-to-heart late-night talks could happen anywhere, I suppose, but the exchange – and that’s the operative word, exchange – is somehow made more intense by the backdrop of the world’s greatest party, the boom-boom-boom of the music and people living out loud in the street, the constant roar all week long, all-day and all-night, these phenomenal moments when we get to be free, we get to be foolish, we get to be fierce, we get to be with friends, when we get to be the posse.

Photo credit, for the middle shot: Jim Hollander. (I have no idea who took the other two pictures.)


Oct 29 2010

Just the Doing of It

We arrived in the dark. Not the optimal time to get started at the country house. There was everything to do as dusk turned to night, fumbling with rusty skeleton keys to open the doors, switching on the electricity, venturing out to the yard to uncover the water pump to open its valves, visiting each tap in and around the house to turn off what had been left on to prevent pipes freezing, unpacking the car, stocking the fridge with groceries we purchased at lightening speed at the hypermarket ½-hour away, its closing hour pressing in on us as we raced to the check-out. De-facto set to light the wood stove, which took forever to start burning and once lit, seemed to take forever to heat the room framed by the stone walls that have assumed the outside temperatures that get cooler with each passing day.

We huddled over our dinner, shivering. Without hot water (it takes hours for the heater to deliver) we left the dishes for the mice and the morning and bracing ourselves, headed upstairs to the unheated bedrooms. Quickly stretching the cold, clean sheets over dusty mattresses, we fell into our beds waiting for the warmth and dreams to come. In the morning, frost inside the windows, and a light layer of white on the meadow across the road, but the sky blue and clear and fresh and that feeling of how good it is to be here á la campagne.

I rose and wrapped my icy hands around a warm bowl of café-au-lait and slid into my wellies and out to the yard to inspect my grapes. Take note of the possessive pronoun that has been assigned to these eleven stalks inherited when we purchased the property. I share ownership of this house with De-facto and his brother, but the grapes – they are mine. I’ve assumed the role of vineyard caretaker. Last year’s vendange managed to produce a single, but thrilling, crate of grapes. It took several years of cutting and caressing the abandoned vines, but finally, I’d found the right result. The crop was small, but it informed and inspired my approach for the year to follow: Last winter I cut them back more than ever before. In April, new wires secured the vines. In July, suckering and pruning revealed bunches and bunches of baby grapes, and the promise of a robust harvest.

Only September took us to far away places that made a quick weekend trip to the country house impossible. Our first opportunity comes now, with the school half-term break otherwise known as La Toussaint. A bit late for harvesting, but I held out some hope that at least a portion of the grapes could be salvaged. My inspection grew more discouraging with each vine. The birds had picked them over, they’d fallen to the ground, or a skeletal bunch of grapes remained, scrawny raisins, taunting me.

I came too late to harvest anything significant – anything at all, for that matter.

Today, clippers in hand, a deeply inhaled breath of country air and I started pruning and clearing. The work is not easy. Some vines have crawled up into the trees and require a tug-of-war to pull them down. (I am somewhat lenient with them, otherwise they’d be trimmed and thinned but since I am not here for months at a time, they grow with a wildness that a disciplined viticulturist would not permit.) The long serpentine limbs fall to the ground and I cut them into smaller pieces, one at a time, to be hauled away to the compost. The thicker vines I separate and cut into kindling, taking them to the stable to dry to be burned in future winters. I pull out the thorny weeds and dry grasses that have grown wild at the base of the stalk, raking again and again until all I can see is a soft bed of the terroir. The vines look relieved, freed of the weight of their long branches and leaves. They stand spry and lithe, my knobby, skinny friends, unburdened and smiling at me.

The girls, dressed in a hodgepodge of old clothes and torn fleeces that we keep here – a wardrobe that can get dirty and ripped and who cares – kick their toes upward to the sky, swinging together so hard that I wonder if the old swing set will topple. They run back and forth from house to garden, woods to field, shaking sticks and making up songs and stories. The swing set transforms into a pirate ship or a schoolhouse, whatever they require as a backdrop. Their play is as temporary as anything can be – made-up games in a made-up world that are made-up in the moment. There is no practice for this; no preparation for a final performance, and no expectation of an outcome. This is play in its purest form, just for the doing of it. They play with passion and zeal until a new story is offered up or something else distracts them in that moment, like a neighbor passing by with a sheep dog, or my mother-in-love calling to them from the house, “hot chocolate!” which instantly frees them from this moment, without a measure of its value, and they move on to the next.

Clippers in hand, the rake rested against the thick stone wall of the house, I look around at the lawn cluttered with leaves and cuttings and consider my story with the grapes. It’s futile, really. Given the amount of time I can devote to these vines, given their ill placement with insufficient sunlight, given my real knowledge of anything beyond what I learned as a seasonal worker during school vacations, I will never be a great grape grower. I will never make a fine wine. It is the silliest, most pointless work I do, year-in and year-out, work that will never be successful. And yet I toil for hours, my hands raw despite the protective gloves, my back aching from the bending and scooping and hauling and carrying.

Buddy-roo spies the old wheelbarrow and asks if she can help. During our first year here, we bought a shiny new metal one and its wheel broke off after just a year of use. The old rickety wooden one that we found in the stable has a lot more character and still rolls strong.

“Can I be the horsie?”
“Sure.”
“Tie me in.”
“I don’t have any rope.”
“You can use the imaginary rope I have right here.” She reaches out, as if to hand it to me.

This is my play, I guess, here at the country house, to tend the grapes. Even though it turns out just to be an agricultural exercise, even if there’s no harvest, I find it immensely satisfying. It’s all worth it, to love just the doing of it, regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure this is the trick to most things: being present with the doing of it, deliberately enacting the tiny tasks of life, one vine at a time. It’s just not always easy for me to cultivate this attitude of a mindful life. It takes the simplest of tasks and a playful child to remind me how.

I make the motions of harnessing Buddy-roo to the wooden cart. She provides the sound effects: Chtck. Ctchk. I fill the wagon to the brim with vines and leaves. She neighs, kicks the ground, and then gallops toward the compost pile with glee.


Sep 1 2010

Morning Questions

Now that they are older, they wake up at a reasonable hour, something later than eight o’clock and occasionally after nine in the morning. (Well, until school starts tomorrow.) They totter down the stairs with that first-steps-in-the-day stiffness; their thumping like a gentle alarm clock alerting me that they are awake and they are coming my way. Then appears one of them – it could be either of the girls, though Short-pants is prone to rising earlier – pushing open the door to our bedroom, which sticks and sometimes requires serious muscle. A little sprite appears, donning just a pair of pink Cinderella underwear, lifts up the white comforter cover and crawls in between the sheets for the morning cuddle. It might be moments later – or as long as an hour – when the other one arrives and squeezes into the bed on the other side of me.

These cuddles are mostly wordless, except for the three questions:
Did you sleep well?
Did you have any good dreams?
Did you wake up feeling loved?
Short-pants adores the ritual of this Q&A, and answers each one with a deliberate “Yesssss,” letting the s stretch out for emphasis. I rarely ask Buddy-roo; before I even finish the first question she interrupts, “I don’t want you to ask me those questions.” I’ve asked her why not, dozens of times. The best I can get out of her is that she just doesn’t like them. So we cuddle in silence.

I’m struck by how the character of the morning cuddle has transformed over the years. When they were babies, this was the moment when they took my breast for the first meal of the day while I savored those last minutes of precious sleep. Then they were toddlers and we were constantly at war, fighting to keep them out of our bed until the sun had risen (our line in the sand), when the morning cuddle revealed the true pyrrhic nature of all those little battles we’d won the night before. This morphed into another stage in which their arguing, despite our admonishments, would crescendo into tearful screaming matches about who got to be on what side of the bed next to which parent – a prize that was hard to predict because De-facto and I never knew which of us was the coveted parent and we could fall out of favor at the drop of a hat.

Until now, a new phase, when they seem very content to wake up slowly, rising softly and silently and joining us in bed with little expectation of conversation, just the warmth and comfort of their parents and another twenty minutes of dream-time and morning slumber. (This is a great phase.)

I came across a photograph of my mother that I took a little over a year ago. Aware of her impending departure, I tried to capture little vignettes of her – things I wanted to remember – like the expression on her face while she washed the dishes (I snapped this without her noticing, from outside the window above her kitchen sink), or seeing her seated in her designated place at the head of the dining room table or curled on the couch watching television with her eyes closed. One morning I even photographed her sleeping in her bed, with her back toward me. I realized I didn’t have a strong memory of her sleeping alone in her bed; when I lived at home my father was usually beside her. Then there’s this: she was always up earlier than me. I never saw her sleeping in. Until that morning.

I took note of the details: the color of her tousled hair, the lace trim of the familiar nightgown against the skin on the back of her neck, her hand raised next to her pillow, clutching a piece of Kleenex. After I took the photo, I lifted the covers and slipped into bed beside her and put my arm around her. I wished somebody else was there to take a picture of the two of us in our morning cuddle so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

Instead I told them about it, which I suppose is even better because they had to conjure up their own image of the occasion in their minds. This prompted an inquisition: When you cuddled with Grammy, did she ask you the morning questions? No. Why not? I made them up for you. You made them up for us? Yes. Why? I don’t know. But why? I guess maybe to ease gently into using words after a long sleep. Gently? Why gently? (You see where this is going.)

This morning, they arrived within minutes of each other, their long, lithe bodies quickly snapping up the covers and diving into bed with us. We dozed in and out of the velvet pocket of morning sleep. When it felt like enough time had passed for words, I ran through the three questions with Short-pants. She answered with an emphatic and serpent-like “Yesssss,” pulling her arms tighter around me with each response.

I know Buddy-roo hates the questions but I keep thinking maybe someday she’ll change her mind and share this little ritual with us, and remember it later in her life as a good moment in her childhood. So occasionally I try them out on her anyway. This morning I braced myself for her usual scorn, but instead – surprisingly – she answered me.

Did you have a good sleep? It was okay, except it was too hot in my bed. Do you have any good dreams? I don’t remember if I dreamt or not. Did you wake up feeling loved? Maybe, if there are pancakes for breakfast.

Not so gentle, but not a bad way to start.