Monday, August 31, 2009

It's the Food, Stupid

When we talked about leaving to come to France, everyone said, "Wow. The food. You'll eat so well." I wish I could say something more complicated than this, but it's just true. We are eating so well.

Jessica, my lovely singing French teacher friend of the very cute dogs, is also a serious foodie. After she, Nick and Bill came back from the market in Salernes, she whipped up a raspberry tart with no apparent effort. She can work an iphone just as well as she wields a wire whisk, and so was able to download recipes from as she walked through the market and picked out the most perfectly ripe raspberries that were then available on this planet. I really admire the girl's skills.

While I pulled lunch together, Jess and Nick whipped up the two-level tart (regular old tart batter on the bottom, and super-delicious crème freche tart batter floating on the top.) Grace carefully set the raspberries into place in a swirly pattern, and Jess popped it into the oven to become perfection. Ever the tech goddess, she even set her iphone as a timer. This amazed me, as I have so much learn about baking. And iphones. And French, for that matter, but you already know that.

While the tart baked, we sat out on the picnic table on the lawn and ate salad, cheese, bread, twisty pesto pasta, and sausage that Nick found that combined the magic of meat with the sorcery that is Gorgonzola. I served my new favorite lemony white wine, and Nick, the uber-wine guy (though never, ever, the wine snob) brought us a bottle of Beaujolais to have afterwards. Nick has a blog, too, which you can get through to here

After lunch, Bill spent nearly the whole afternoon cleaning up, while the rest of us all threw ourselves, stuffed, on our various beds. Eating cheese and tarts while drinking wine at noon in the sun can make a girl pretty tired. I can only use the word "sinful" to describe just how good it was to eat like that in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in such a beautiful place.

When I was a kid, Sunday lunch was the one meal of the week that my sister and I foraged for and prepared on our own. We would come home from church, and Dad would instantly put on his work clothes and go outside to do some sort of fascinating manual labor. Mom would get right down to the same indoors. Gaela and I would heat up a can of ravioli or cook a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and watch Soul Train. It was a great ritual, as we loved both things -- the rare opportunity to eat processed food, and the even rarer opportunity to watch somebody be funky. When I was growing up, we ate the most delicious food -- nearly all of it grown on our farm or on the farms within five or six miles from our house. I wasn't fully aware that you might even want to buy meat in a store until I was about twelve. At the time, I had no idea how rare that was, or how lucky we were. Many citified hipsters would give their left arm and all their Keen sandals to eat as locally now as we did then.

Since this whole trip so far has had a back to the 70's theme, it's only appropriate that I get to eat similarly fresh, unprocessed, and beautiful food here. Tomatoes. Zucchini. Peaches. Beans. Raspberries. Heaven.

But our day of food was by no means done after lunch. Before our mid-day meal was even over, before the food coma, using the magic of iphones, Nick and Jess looked for restaurants nearby for dinner. Several were full, or closed, even when Jessica called back in her best real-French-person accent and asked for une table.

Les Chenes Vertes ("The Green Oaks," according to Google Translate) was, happily upon happily, open, with a table for six at seven. We drove up the twisty road to Tourtour, the bells tolling in Villecroze just as we drove through the center of town. We sat at a huge table on a veranda overlooking the valley below. Each of the three sections of the table could have seated six at a restaurant in Brooklyn. We joked to one another in our best arch pooh-dee-dooh highbrow voices, "Please pass the salt!"

The Menu de Degustation ("Tasting Menu") involved the combination of dozens, likely hundreds of specific ingredients combined in exacting proportions, using precise techniques, and resulting in life-altering flavors. I suppose that people who eat fancy all the time might have found it just OK (only one star, as opposed to three) but as a former Kraft-Mac-and-Cheese girl who has since honed her palate in the multi-culti eateries of early 21st century Brooklyn, it was a revelation.

(Warning: what follows is a shameful episode of explicit food pornography. Cue the cheesy music, lower the lights, and sit back for some prose to get your gall bladder racing. This passage is not for the faint of heart, for self-righteous vegetarians, or for anybody who is serious about their Marxism or prone to angry fits of bitter jealousy, although non-self-righteous vegetarians should be OK. And kids, if your mom is reading you this blog aloud, you should know that "pornography" is a very fancy and complicated form of Victorian poetry that you will have to go to college to understand. Don't worry; your Aunt Launa is an English teacher, and some day I will tell you more about it, along with Villanelles, Haiku, and Sesinas. When you're a lot older.)

First, the chef came out to ask us all what we might like to eat, including the girls. We adults would taste ourselves into oblivion with eight teeny little courses. (Eight!) The girls could elect a little simply prepared chicken, some fish or beef. Jessica nicely stepped in as the girls' translator and restaurant godmother, asking for more water peqillante or apple juice when they needed it, but they did all their own "Merci-s."

Course #1. The waiter brought us double-size glass shot glasses filled with a rainbow of layered fruit purees. He set the glasses in front of each of us, then stood proudly at the head of the table to announce the name and ingredients of the dish, as though he were introducing visiting titled European dignitaries at a ball. Puree of Watermelon. Kiwi. Canteloupe. Tomato. On the top was a little frothy white meringue (froth of various kinds would figure prominently in the entire meal) and a sprig of mint. This little surprise totally baffled the girls -- cold layered soup? Weird! -- but delighted the rest of us. I was torn between wanting somehow to taste every fruit separately and wanting to mix it together into a sort of off-green sludgy looking best smoothie ever. I tried it, and loved it, both ways.

Course #2. "Fleur de Courgette en Beignet." I translate this literally as "Zucchini Flower Donuts," each just one blossom dipped in batter and fried into a three-petaled little fritter. With my translation, these could really catch on back home at County Fairs in Upstate New York, but they would have to be served in multiples rather than one at a time. Big grey salt crystals clung to the fried batter. Rather than stress out over the appropriate way to eat it, I picked it up in my fingers and chewed on the petals. While I learned everything I needed to know about fried stuff on the Midway next to the Tilt-A-Whirl, Brooklyn has taught me a thing or two about not being overwhelmingly anxious about how your manners may appear to others.

In case you're wondering, salty fried flowers go over big with little girls.

Course #3 was the appetizer that we got to choose. Jessica and I each had a very carefully composed salad topped with a perky little cooked crayfish with its head split down the middle, tail and little grabby claws intact. The salad was crab and tomato shaped into a circle in the middle of the plate, acting as a stand on which the crayfish could vogue. At the bottom of the plate was a hard boiled quail egg, an arrangement of several perfectly cooked asparagus spears, and two tiny raw white almonds that someone had actually taken the time to peel. At the very top of the dish was a little savory stacked snowman: a (peeled) cherry tomato, an anchovy wrapped into a little scarf around that layer, then as a head the most amazing salty black olive I have ever had. At first I thought that the anchovy might mean that I should forego the snowman food stack, but when Jessica bravely decided to eat it, I did too. I shared the little bits of crayfish with the girls, who believed the little guy to be the world's most adorable lobster.

At the same time that Jess and I were unraveling the mysteries of the crabmeat appetizer, Nick was eating a sort of escargot pot pie, puff pastry covering snails suspended in an eggy, garlicky soufflé. Bill had ordered tete de veau, a dish that should properly be spelled with several accents I still don't know how to produce on my computer. It disappeared before any of us could even ask how he was enjoying it. He later described the dish as tasting "like meat butter," and looking "very anatomical." It looked like a dissected slice of the little calf's neck, and he could see where the vertebrae would have been. Surrounded in a horseradishy mayo, this dish could have been a total ethical and gustatorial gross-out. But for my Food Crusader Bill, it was bliss.

It's important at meals like this not to think too hard about what PETA might think, or exactly what part of what animal is being served. Better to keep asking one another, as you crack up, "Please pass the salt," and wait eagerly for the next little treat that comes your way.

I can't promise you that I have not mixed up the order of the next two courses, but I believe that Course #4 was a few lovely ounces of sea bass floating in artichoke foam along with a little piece of roasted fennel and a tomato that had been prepared in a way I have never before encountered. This was the same fish that Grace ordered and described as "the best fish I've ever had," although she was spared the foam and the fennel. Thanks, wise Mr. Chef, for keeping it simple.

Course #5 brought us face to face with even more little crayfish attitude, as each plate arrived with the top half of a little orange crustacean staring us down. This was crayfish flan (I know! Flan!) sitting on a bed of about 35 carefully counted then spiraled spaghetti noodles covered in green zucchini sauce. There was also an orange something over the top called "jus de carcasse." Unfortunately, we could not come up with any way to translate this other than "Carcass Juice." You would not necessarily think that something made of crayfish foam, mushed up cooked zucchini and carcass would be my favorite moment of the day, but it really was transcendent. I do so love my starchy sides.

Course #6 was actual dinner, our second choice of the evening. I had grilled gigot d'agneau, in honor of the two little romping lambs we saw on the road just before reaching the restaurant. It was served in two tiny little pieces, each hugely flavorful. On the top of the plate was a tomato crusted in a melted blue cheese. On either side were two swoops of sauce, a yin and yang made with one side horseradish, the other side mint. Jessica and Nick each had "Bresse" chicken with foie gras, piled on top of a dark, rich sauce and a little bundle of risotto wrapped in a leaf that none of us could identify or translate.

Bill, as is his wont, had the duck, this time in a honey sauce. Once again, he offered nobody any bites from his plate, and only a two word review in a perfect Jon Stewart minor-third singsong tone: "Nailed it."

Course #7 involved more honey. As though to bring us down safely from the flavor-high of the main dish and ease us towards the "Grand Dessert," this course offered a little bland circle of panna cotta topped with honey and another unidentifiable treatment of tomato. When the waiter announced this one, he sounded a little bit like he felt that the Ex-Sub-Arch Countess of a very small Dutchy had arrived at the party, rather than the flashier Princesses from Monaco and Flanders who had come earlier. I believe that Aspic was involved. None of us was able accurately to identify what Aspic is, but let's still not call PETA, OK?

You'd think that by now we all would be wholly gorged. Impossible to tempt with dessert, no matter how wafer thin. Sure, each of the courses was just a few luscious bites. But there were so damn many of them. I assumed that dessert would be a little piece of chocolate cake, perhaps, or some flowery fruit made into yet another boulle of mega-flavored glace. To tell you the truth, I usually am not a huge dessert fan, and rarely get quite as excited about the sweet part of the meal as I do about the starchy sides.

I was not prepared for what was to come.

Each of us, all six of us, received a plate with individual bites of FIVE different kinds of dessert. Plus a little separate dish of a three-tablespoon portion of chocolate mousse on the side. For those of you who prefer to have someone else do your math, that was a total of thirty-six desserts served to our table. Bill called this the "Dessert Gatling Gun," created to mow down any part of your palate still standing. Top left hand corner of each plate was an almond macaroon. Top right was sliced poached pears with chocolate on the top and some lovely mushy sweet white stuff underneath. Bottom right was a thin cookie shaped into a basket full of arranged cut fruits and a vaguely cinnamonny cream filling. Bottom left was a caramelized apple plus whipped cream. And dead center was the world's tiniest and most intense melty chocolate cake, cooked around a slice of banana. I generally find bananas in dessert to be a wholly mistaken idea, but in this case the three bites nearly made me cry.

Just after he set down our plates (and the wholly unnecessary additional plates of semisweet chocolate mousse, garnished by a sugar-glazed mint leaf) the world's most gracious watier also brought two little towers of additional cookies and a basket of fruit. "Just in case," he joked. On the tower, Grace found the new meaning of her life in the form of cream puffs, each about the size of a big marble. She put one in her mouth, and immediately exclaimed, "Why didn't I taste one of these when I was younger?" as though the first decade of her life was time wasted, so far from the delights of cream and puff.

We rolled back into our two cars, and slithered back down the hill from Tourtour. By the time we got home, there was no reason even to continue to converse. Eight courses worth of dinner had had the last word.

As a good friend wrote to me over email today, we will on our trip no doubt run headlong into a moment "when you realize that there is more to life than drinking wine and wondering whether to buy figs or melon for dessert." Yes, that day will come, and stay stay tuned for gory details of my upcoming existential crisis. But, to paraphrase Aragon from The Lord of The Rings, that day was not yesterday.

Before yesterday, I had no idea that there was, anywhere in this world, an alternate reality where there would not even be a reason to choose figs vs. melon for dessert. I could have tastes of seven of the most delicious courses imaginable, followed by six desserts -- plus cookies and yes, even figs. Yesterday was day-long, full-on food hedonism, and I am forever indebted to Jessica and Nick for making it all happen. I appreciated every sliver of every taste offered up for me to try.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On the Brink

It’s Sunday. A day to go to the market, a day to cook, to buy good wine, to stretch out the day under the shade of the trees and to eat ripe fruit. We have visitors this weekend, Jess and Nick, wonderful friends from home. They are smart and funny and kind, and bring with them everything that is great about home, and they still know more about French, more about food, and a hell of a lot more about technology and wine than we will learn all year. PLUS they brought their sweet dogs, Graham and Winnie, pure therapy for all four of us.

Jessica, Bill and I became friends when we sang together last year in my living room in Park Slope, old Bluestockings tunes that she re-arranged for SATB. Our singing project, named after the Amherst College area code, attempted to connect Bill's sawing bass up through my own flutey whistle with kickass Amherst-grad altos and 1st street neighbors singing the tenor and bass lines in the middle range. Jess is also a lower and middle school language teacher who worked some with our girls and even agreed to come over for dinners where we would do our best only to speak French. Jessica is a great traveling partner, as I realized on my way to and from Amherst this May. J’adore Jess. She and her equally excellent husband Nick are here enroute from Milan to Paris, where she will continue her Middlebury Master's degree, and Nick will continue to learn everything there is to know (and then some) about wine as he joins the Beaujolais harvest as it begins next week. They're a dose of Park Slope, Amherst College, and the Adirondacks all in one, as Nick hails from Plattsburg, and we can share stories of our upstate childhoods.

It's going to be another great day. Mostly, I can't wait to see what we will eat at the two huge meals we have planned to share.

Yet, because I am me, I also have a little drama cooking in the back of my mind. I realize that this break from the world we knew has not only allowed me to forget the clock, but even has encouraged me at times to forget the number of the date. But we now have an obvious countdown to when the girls start school. If today is Sunday, and school starts on Thursday, the days are fewer than the fingers on my hand, and there is no way to ignore it any longer.

On French talk radio, the drumbeat continues. La Rentreé. Back to School. It's time. The whole country is in a funk. And here is my strange and paradoxical drama: I am trying to decide whether or not I am as worried as the situation warrants. If actual French people, who live here and all speak French are all talking about this, why am I leaving positively everything up to chance, feeling so blithe and so free when so much is at stake?

I am sending my two children into a totally unknown situation without adequate language skills. They worked with Jessica a good number of times, but our crazy Brooklyn schedules never allowed us to get them together as seriously as we should have. Nearly everyone we know has expressed concern about our kids and their fates, particularly those who have reason to know better, like people whose children have actually lived overseas, or actually learned a second language. The books we have read about being a family abroad have told us, in great detail, that what we are doing is going to be valuable in the long term for our kids, but will be extremely difficult in the short term. The books instructed us to hire tutors, to be familiar with the curriculum and figure out, ahead of time, what they should wear, and in what sort of paper they should wrap their textbooks.

We did no such thing. I know only that they probably should speak a lot more French. Instead of attaining this goal, we spent the summer seeing friends, lying in the grass, watching old TV on our ipods, and jumping in and out of bodies of water from the Great Lakes to Vermont to the Mediterranean sea. On the ice cream tour of New England and Europe, we discovered boulles in many remarkable flavors. But we still cannot read in the language they will need all year.

Almost no French. No friends. Their teachers may be saints or monsters. They can ask to go to the bathroom, but we have no idea if this is even a question that French children ask. The school in Aups looks fine from the outside, but we've never been in. I don't know the class size. I don't know the math curriculum. I hope, but don't know for sure, that at least part of their day will be required English lessons, the one time of the day when they will be superstars. The nice woman who registered them at the Mairie told us all would be well; they need only to bring a pencil case and a backpack.

I already know that we have let them down in the language department, even as I am confident that we gave them what we thought they needed in lots of other ways.

We have fortified them emotionally, with ice creams and downtime and baguettes and lots of dunks in the pool. And love. Lots and lots of the best kinds of love we’ve got.

And thus I am strangely sanguine.

I am sanguine in part because we have only three goals for the girls. First, we want them to learn to speak a second language while they are here, and learn simply how to be in French school. There is no magic to French. It is not obviously useful, like Arabic or Spanish or Mandarin. But it seems a worthy end in itself to speak something else, and to learn to be in a new place. To see, and to truly hear, that the world does not run in only one way. We want them to sustain themselves in the face of not knowing, and thus to become stronger and more confident people. This is also, of course, the goal I have set for myself. And it seems that the only, and best, way to achieve this goal is actually to be someplace where there is no other choice.

Second, I want each of them to make at least one friend. Of course, there are many, many things I could have done to make this more likely. Finding children to force on them would have been the most obvious. However, that would be me making them a friend, rather than letting them make their own. And, as Bill discovered once during his own family trip overseas when his very loving father graciously offered to pay another child to play with him, it’s probably best to find a friend yourself. Once again, the best way for them to achieve this goal is to go in cold and see what happens.

As an educator, I know quite well where they stand relative to the curriculum back home, and I won’t let them fall behind. We will read and write in English at home, and I will be sure keep their math skills in decent shape. So my third goal, which I don’t worry over too much, is merely to keep them on track in math. They are smart little girls, and their academic development will keep pace.

Thus I have just three goals, the last one of which I will be sure to carry out myself. But the other two are things that they must do on their own. Anything that happens above and beyond those three goals we will see as nicely herbal Provençal gravy.

I realize now that I have gone from knowing absolutely everything about their school experience, actually running their school, to knowing absolutely nothing. Back home, even before they would walk in the doors in September, I knew more about their teachers, the curriculum, and the ins and outs of the lives of the other children in their classes than the most eagerly over-involved parent could ever fully process.

Then, I still had the same child-rearing philosophy as I have today: hands off. Trust the school, and leave education to the professionals, who care about it more deeply and more subtly than parents can know. In that vein, I only got concerned when the teachers specifically asked me to do so (as I may have mentioned, ours are not the simplest and most straightforward of children.) But I never for a minute was concerned that the curriculum, the teacher, the other children, the classroom, or the anything at all wasn't just as it should be. Or, even when I knew that something wasn't exactly fine, I was confident that my strong and capable girls would, could, and should find their way.

Knowing everything that I did about their school, my challenge then was to do what I could to stay out of the way. I never achieved this goal quite as well as I might have liked (just ask the kids’ teachers, who will likely tell you all ways that I meddled because I couldn’t help myself. I always trusted the girls' teachers to more than make up for my errors and meddling, and they invariably did.)

But what we are up to this year is perhaps the ultimate experiment in hands-off parenting, in let-them-learn-it-themselves. The die is cast. The kids are registered at school. We live here, we don't live there anymore. We know nothing. We have done less than we should have to prepare them. But our kids are going to be better than OK. They are going to thrive. And here is how I know.

First, I learned a lesson from my own Mom and Dad. When we were kids -- a whole generation of us, now functional adults -- our parents did not worry themselves about school. They put us on the bus in the morning, a situation as close to a Hobbsean state of nature as we would ever find again. They either picked us up, if they had to, or let us walk home from school alone. They asked us to do our homework, but no self-respecting adult I knew in the 70’s or 80’s would have done homework for a child, much less meddled overmuch at school.

When things went wrong there, they typically gave us the excellent advice to listen and show respect to our teachers. They were properly chagrined when we got in trouble, and properly outraged when some other kid was mean to us. If somebody gave somebody else a bloody nose, for example, there would definitely be a phone call, maybe even a talking to. That generation of parents let us be, and we came out all the better for it.

I also know the kids will be fine, because I watch my girls carefully these days, and I am eternally amazed by what they can do. This morning, Nick, Jess and Bill went off to the market in Salernes to gather up things for us to eat and drink later under the trees. As soon as they walked out the door, their little pumpkin-colored spaniel Graham began to whine and cry. He was inconsolable, rushing back and forth between their bedroom and the door, trying to shove his little body under the door to follow Nick and Jess wherever they had gone.

The girls instantly rallied. They picked the dogs up, they held them on their laps. They found the best places to rub Graham's tummy, and they cooed away his fears. They realized that if they put their faces very close to his, he would lick them and in this way stop crying. Gradually, his eyes calmed. His little body calmed. He settled into their warm, confident arms and let himself relax and stop squealing for a few minutes at a time. They put them in their little dog crate in Jess and Nick’s room, recognizing that when you’re feeling lost, the best thing to do is to snuggle Mom’s pillow in a safe place. Then they went back to their individual pursuits, confident that they had done well by the pups. I was so proud of them. If they can help someone else, even if that someone is a little auburn-headed dog, they have the compassion and sensitivity they need – alongside their more obvious toughness – to survive and to thrive in such a new and unknown place.

So for now, I’m going (or trying to go) with a verdict of Not Worried. It won’t last. By this time next week, mark my words, I may be miserable and self-doubting and wondering what in the hell we’ve gotten our children into. But for now, I trust the French teachers and the educational system they have devised. I trust the myself and the kids. They are strong. They are tough and willful and smart and generous, and they can learn what they need to know. Bring on your rentreé. Let’s see what you’ve got.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thinking Small

Nothing Doing

The girls and I spent the day firmly in the grip of our own need to do nothing. Somewhere on our tramp into and out of old Antibes the previous day, Grace re-sprained, or perhaps just re-strained, her right ankle. When she realized that we thought she was faking, she suddenly faked much harder, and wouldn't allow herself to put the foot on the ground. She jumped and stumped around the house, her left foot landing with a booming crash. So it would be a full day on the sofa for Grace, foot planted on two big pillows, plowing through Harry Potter, occasionally getting up for a hunk of bread with olives or this amazing homemade peanut butter from the market in Aups.

When I was around, she was sure to limp ever harder, but when she didn't know I was looking, she dropped the limp and went back to wandering around the kitchen or her bedroom. It seemed as though she needed even more downtime than these last seriously idle two weeks have provided her. Something is hurting her, certainly, but I'm not sure it's her ankle, at least not quite as seriously as she would like us to believe.

Still, we usually find that actually treating the ankle does wonders for whatever else is bothering her. We get an ace bandage, get her a bag of ice, require her to stay still, and fetch her whatever she asks for. She can read, read, read, and lie and stare into space without being interrupted by our demands and requests. She does not need to make her bed, or to pick up the clothes she dropped on the floor. I put her dishes away for her without comment. I squeezed fresh oranges for her juice, and rubbed her back. All in all, a little ankle strain is good for her, because then she can really, truly, rest.

Abigail, of course, was more than thrilled to have a good excuse to lie on her bed and read the book of reworked Grimm's fairytales she found at the English bookstore. Or talk to her American girl dolls. Or watch yet another episode of Xena on my old ipod. We made one brief foray out to the pool, but Abigail spent the whole time obsessed with the dead millipedes that have covered things since Wednesday night's rainstorm. I skimmed a good quarter cup of them off the surface of the pool, but there were lots more on the bottom. Abby used the giant pool skimmer to try to dislodge them all, with very great effort, and very little success. She then required that we double dog dare her before she would actually jump in, at which point she nearly flew, all tense and grossed out, to the ladder to hop out. She jumped in just twice, then we all packed it in back for the house.

It was a day that reminded me of summer when I was a kid. Serious, world-class idleness. Not even the pressure of having to find a pattern in the clouds, just lots of time inside reading. Although we did plenty of other stuff when we were kids, there was also a lot of happily pointless and empty time. I didn't even cook a real breakfast or a real lunch today; we just scavenged around the kitchen at random moments of the long empty day.

So here I am, around the other side of the world, and I spend an entire day just sending a few emails, shuffling around in my yoga outfit (not actually doing a single pose) and putting a load or two of laundry in the machine, then on the line. No French was learned. No sights were seen. I did no work, earned precisely no money for my family's future. While the girls did a little math online, the day was not about learning, either. Time neither flew nor lagged, but smoothly flowed off the edges of the clock and dripped down into the well of the passing day.

No adventures. No challenges. No dangers conquered. Nothing done. I can't even believe I am writing this, but it was a day well spent.

Bill drove off to Aix with two endeavors in mind: to buy a new electric bass, and to get Grace her mind-clearing ace bandage. A bass and a brace. Bill's much-loved bass guitar had been stolen when we were in New Hampshire, and we could never manage to be in the right place to buy him a replacement to bring over here. After tons of research online, he found Troc Roc, a music store over an hour away. It would close at noon, but re-open at 14:00.

Most importantly, Bill was ripe for a little solo adventure. On the way home from Antibes, he was cranky and tired of me relying on him. I was cranky and tired of him ignoring my requests for help. Our trusty, tried-and-true 20-year argument, grounded in our basic personalities, will never truly change, and rises up to engulf us at fairly predictable intervals. This time, we have been in one another's presence, without the distractions of work, nonstop since July 25. And since August 10, we have had only one another for companionship. So it was not a bad idea for us all to split up into our little separate worlds for a long, slow day. Metaphorically, I was back in the hammock, but this time I was not running away from anything in particular. Instead, I was just truly lazy. It felt great.

When we all came back together at day's end, everybody was rested and ready once again to be human and humane to one another. Rather than exhausted, irritated, hungry, and needy, we all felt full and open.

Bill's guitar is awesome, perhaps the only one in the store that was neither for jazz nor tinny, and badly-made for rock. He also brought Grace a special air brace, recommended by the very concerned and highly trained pharmacist in Barjols (we love the pharmacies and their invariably attractive and neatly turned out nice pharmacy ladies.) He put the brace gently on her little leg, and she pulled on some jeans to cover it up. Her sneaker didn't fit, so she put on mine, which was in itself quite a thrill. She was excited to be literally in my shoes. Instantly the limp disappeared and her smile returned at full wattage. (Health care update: this morning, she woke up and told us that her leg was "completely healed." It's a miracle.)

I had planned yet another meal of little leftovers, but Bill surprised us by offering a trip to the Hotel Bien-Etre, the aptly named Hotel Well-Being (or, as I prefer to translate, Hotel Good To Be.) We had been turned away from its restaurant on our first Monday at lunch, before we knew what was open when. Now we knew for sure it would open its broad terrace to us.

Abigail was on fire at dinner, full of witty comments and a new gustatory curiosity. She loved the peach syrup in her iced tea. She loved the melon, her kid's size piece of grilled chicken, and even the anchovy-flavored mayonnaise on toast. Anchovies! She adored Grace's escargots, and ate them all when Grace decided she'd stick with the plain pasta. "Thank God for snails," she said. "They are so cool when they are alive, and they taste so good when they are dead." She was full of these funny little rejoinders, taking her dad to task in a gentle and newly arch way. She memorized the right way to ask how to find the bathroom, then went off entirely on her own to ask, to seek, and to find... all in French. The other day, she scrape her forehead in the pool coming up from a dive. The scrape is healing, but still forms a graceful little sweep coming off of her sweet little eyebrow. She is incredibly tough, but in the most girly of ways. She is tall and lanky and beautiful, and suddenly, just a few weeks early, seems all of eight years old.

This is an important moment, for eight is the end of early childhood, the beginning of the middle. Since Grace is not yet surging ahead into anything tweeny, we have two kids together in one developmental stage. Part of our hope in coming here when we did was the idea that this year would extend the time that Grace allows herself to remain a little girl. I would hate to jinx things, but watching them play Miss Mary Mack on the grassy terrace of the restaurant made me think that maybe, just maybe, they are on the same page. Maybe they are even learning to love one another with even just a sliver of the depth with which we love them both individually. They are both in a remarkably good place.

And I for one was ready for the best meal we've eaten thus far, and to order it all myself, grammatical errors be damned. We had the nicest waitress in the world, gentle and smiling and warm. Her toddler, Laura, came out to greet us "Bon Soir," and then wished to show us her coloring books. I warmed up my French on the smiling two year old, only vaguely nostalgic for my old neighbors in Nursery A. I decided that rather than order safely, boringly, I would order only things that I didn't recognize on the menu, and to say yes to whatever was brought my way.

First came an aperitif special to the restaurant, a magical elixir made of violet syrup, orange rind, and champagne. I don't know whose brilliant idea it was to put together the scent of flowers and the taste of wine, but big fat kudos to them. Then I ordered a "veloutte," which turned out to be an orangey seafood soup with little garlic croutons floating on top. Coquilles St. Jacques were little rounds of something seafood -- I will have to guess that they were scallops, because I didn't look it up in the phrasebook, just ate and enjoyed. Each was topped with a tiny bit of chopped nicoise olive. They surrounded a bed of vaguely coconutty risotto and a leaf shaped out of grated parmesan cheese.

The wine that the waitress recommended came from a vineyard 200 meters from the restaurant, and smelled like honey and lavender. It was simple, easy, cool, and crisp in its flavor, and I couldn't stop smelling it, trying to name the perfume more precisely. Finally, I had a big old crème bruleé, but flavored with pistachios, sitting next to a tiny dish of sliced peaches and deep pink grapefruit sorbet.

Nothing in the meal was an old favorite. Most of it smelled even more luscious than it tasted, aside from the cheese Bill ordered for dessert. There's no way we can afford to eat like this all the time while we're here. Euro math makes even a sweet little unsophisticated countryside restaurant cost more than a blowout dinner at Blue Ribbon back home. But for this one night, the four of us could not have been happier to be together, to have each other as companions and friends. We admitted to one another that not only had we conquered our homesickness, but also we weren't even too dogsick anymore. We all knew that Samson was happily sleeping nights on Bill's childhood bed, spending his days following Linda from room to room. And, awful as it is to say, when Bill mentioned our hamster Squirmy, we all had to admit that it had been weeks since any of us even remembered he exists.

Today we will have visitors who we love coming to stay for two nights. We will scramble off to the market, and make real meals that stretch our cooking skills. We will learn new things about wine and practice French in preparation for school next week. We will clean the house, and go for a hike and do much more travel-like things, maybe drive off to some new place and get frustrated and lost in a new roundabout. We will get back to life, and back to the serious business of being strangers with paltry language skills and so much more to learn.

For the first time in forever, I feel fully both rested and ready to learn something new, with my mind and heart open wide. No hard won truth in my yesterday, only the smallest and most obvious lesson, one I knew so long ago as a kid, and then somehow forgot in all the getting and spending and work of Brooklyn. A day you give away, even in the service of nothing, is not the same as a day you lose.

Friday, August 28, 2009

More Geography at the Scale of Launa, or: The Metric System is Weird

Each time we stretch the boundary of the known, there is inevitably a moment when one of us has some sort of unattractive freak out (over a toll booth, a confusing sign at a roundabout, or maybe just our inability to procure the right sort of food as immediately as one or more members of our clan would like.) If you know us well, you might be surprised to know that the one freaking out is not always me.

But once we've been past that freak out, the new place becomes familiar territory. Ours in a way. We've added to our places the museum of prehistory in Quinson, as well as a beautiful road on a high plain between there and Riez. (see photos below.) The road was planted with rows of lavender that had been harvested. Some fields had been plowed under, mounds of deep orange earth. In one field, a goatherd and his three big shaggy dogs were, as his job title would imply, herding goats. He also had some sheep with him, so he and the dogs were shepherding as well, multitasking. A huge herd/flock, and no fence, just dogs. The goats had curving, pointed horns like some strange African deer, and one of the dogs looked like a polar bear. To master our way to that beautiful road, we had to take two wrong turns and snake into the snail-shell centers of two mountain towns, Fox-Amphoux and Montagnac-Montpezat. I couldn't quite believe that the roads would lead me out as well as in, but they so graciously and wisely did.

Today, we went to Antibes, for a swim in the Mediterranean. The daily freakout had to do with parking, for driving into Antibes in late August is a lot like showing up in Vineyard Haven and expecting there to be a spot right in front of The Black Dog. Bill did the navigating while I tried not to hit anything, and he brought us straight to a lot that beamed, in promising flashing letters and several languages, "Ouvert." "Open." I was cheered, and we took a ticket and drove in. But the sign meant theoretically, rather than actually, open. There were no places, and plenty of cars rolling around looking for them. When one would open up, all the nearby cars would muscle their ways in, although nobody had any real room to move.

After twenty minutes of this non-driving, non-parking activity, a tiny little Toyotamobile pulled out of a space directly next to our car, and I was halfway in the space when a tall blonde girl came and stood in it. I shouted, "NON! C'est la mien!" while she crossed her hands in front of her chest, looking hateful and resolute. When I shouted again, she gave me the finger. Perhaps 10 feet and only the windshield separated our angry little faces. Bill did not (to his credit) use what he refers to as the "Nuclear Option" which involves a phrase that he learned from Buck back home and I desperately hope he will never repeat in public. Blonde girl was simply too mean to be moved, so I gave up. But I started to shake as I continued to circle the lot and she and Bill continued to shout at each other each time I passed her and her folded arms. As she sauntered out with her weasel boyfriend, pointing threateningly at our car, I realized that she had an ugly back tattoo and two rotten-looking dogs, one of which had a muzzle. Bill kept muttering, "I could take that guy," as though he ever would. All of these things were frightening to me, but particularly scary to Grace, who had never before seen anything quite like this. And she's from Brooklyn.

Eventually we decided to give up on that "Ouvert" lot entirely. But in a French parking situation, you don't pay at the exit. You pay elsewhere, then bring your ticket to the gate to be let out. (To me this is as Byzantine as the system at the Park Slope Food Coop.) So once Bill gave up, and left to get the ticket validated, of course I found a space. I pulled in, so proud and pleased. But we quickly realized that there would be no way to get another ticket, as the one we had had already been paid and cancelled. We drove out, defeated, and then managed to route ourselves once again into some impossibly narrow streets. The streets of the old town got sick of us and wisely spit us up on the Ramparts overlooking the sea, where we rolled down towards another set of beaches.

The first parking lot for the public beach looked just as crowded as the one in town, but more nicely landscaped. It had no promising signs, and no system for taking a ticket. But we drove about 30 yards, and there was a wide, Escalade-sized parking space directly on the boardwalk adjacent to the sand. It was cheap, too, as three Euros would get us from now (lunch) to 19:00 (7:00 PM).

The key to having good parking karma is to pay homage the parking gods for every single space they provide, no matter how long it takes to find, or how far it is from where you thought you might wish to park initially. This space was so good that it demanded that we sacrifice a small animal; I was suddenly chagrined that I had not boosted a goat back in Riez. Luckily, the walls of our house here in Sillans-la-Cascade filled up with gross black millipedes after the rainstorm two nights ago. We squished them with pink toilet paper in a frenzy this morning, so perhaps that will gratify the forces responsible for our earlier good fortunes.

Little by little, freak out by freak out, we learn the tiniest bit about being here in a new place. So now I know how to park in Antibes, and slaughter millipedes in the house. I know that the chevre on the road to Riez comes from real goats. I know not to mess with badass girls with back tattoos and chiens mechants. I deftly used a "toilette" in Antibes that was just two places to put my feet and a little hole in the floor. (Bill taught me that when asking for directions to the bathroom in France, you refer to "les toilettes" in the plural; however, it seems strange to ask for something in the plural that turns out to be almost nothing at all. Even worse when that plural nothing costs a Euro to enter.) On Tuesday we somehow couldn't even manage the tolls on the A8. But today, we had the two Euro coin all ready, and knew we would get 60 cents in return.

I am quite aware that these victories of mine are all so paltry; they also are largely incomplete and poorly translated. For example, I'm quite sure that the word is not "cents," but I just call the money "bucks" and "cents" anyway. As in, "Billy, gimme a buck forty for this toll." Bill knows what I mean, and there are never any French people in the car to correct me, so it works. Ça marche. Ça roule. Many more accents are involved to write those phrases properly, but I'm doing things well enough for now.

The conversion of Euros to Dollars, 19:00 to 7:00 PM, and the entire metric system still are mysteries of computation for my little brain. I don't have calculator mind, and so I am still relying on a fairly vague sense of quantity in dealing with Euros, Kilometers, and Celsius. A euro I get; everything here is marked in Euros a it would be in New York if Euros were dollars. The problem we face is that a euro is equivalent to $1.40, so that "buck forty" in Euros is actually a $2.00 toll.

In this vague quantitative way, I keep a rough and relatively inaccurate analogy that goes something like this. Dollar is to Euro as Kilometer is to Mile. It's confusing because in one analogy the European thing is bigger, and in the other it is littler. Everything costs a lot more, and is a lot quicker to get to. Even Paris, 840K away from here, can be reached by car in fewer than eight hours. Since it would often take us that long to get from Brooklyn to Katie's lake house on the far edge of New York State, this feels like no big deal.

When I drive in the U.S. on long trips, a mile is a minute, give or take. Translating from kilometers to miles, however, requires that I use the computer, so I'm never quite sure when we will arrive somewhere. When I did the calculations this morning, I realized that given current exchange rates, the more accurate analogy is that mile is to a kilometer as a pound Sterling is to a dollar. 1.6, and $1.60. As it turns out, miles are more expensive, and kilometers even cheaper than I knew.

I learned the true weight of a pound sterling yesterday as well. Our best stop of the day was in the English bookstore in Antibes. I walked in out of the blazing sun into its shaded cave, and it was as though I had been transported back to Catherine's Community Bookstore in Park Slope. The beautiful woman at the counter greeted me in English, and all the titles were familiar. We each poured over the possibilities, hungrily reading a paragraph here, a book jacket there. Each of us selected a pile before we registered that the prices were marked in pounds. By the time the prices for dix-huit (18) books were added up by their individual prices, then converted into lighter-weight Euros, then we did the Euro to puny Dollar conversion in our own minds, the word-to-dollar ratio grew enormous.

If I were more agile with all of these conversions, I would be able to determine whether we would have been wiser to buy all of our English words back at Catherine's and ship them Fed-Ex. If I could do faster math, I would know that 79K home from Antibes before dinner gets me in at 19:45, just in time for a swim in a pool full of floating dead millipedes. I would know the Farenheit translation for the near-perfect daily swing between 20 degrees and 30 degrees, between slightly cool evenings and warmly toasty afternoons.

Back home, if you started out at 1:00 to drive 100 miles with the temperature at 30 degrees and spent $50.00, the trip would be long and pretty cheap, and with good luck and well-salted roads you would arrive at 2:30 in the afternoon. Here, a 1:00, 100K trip at 30 degrees on which you spent 50 Euros would be short and expensive, and you would get to your destination, feeling very sweaty, a little before 2 A.M. Except we are six hours ahead here, so you see why it sometimes feels complicated for us even to leave the house.

As I fell asleep, my mind filled with more of these math problems I will never solve. How many strangely-antlered goats to make a tiny ball of costly chevre? How many legs on all of those floating millipedes floating in how many thousands of liters of clear water? How many snails per olive in the field? How many tens of thousands of years did it take for Provence's cavemen to evolve alongside this complex and beautiful place where the natural world fits into the human world so beautifully, but the plumbing is still so famously dodgy?

And finally, the question that rolled itself over and over as I closed my eyes on the waxing half moon and drifted off in the cool night: what rate and ratio could ever quantify our gradually decreasing homesickness and ever-increasing feeling of rootedness and familiarity?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On the Road from Riez

Out of the Hammock

When I was a teenager living with my host family in the Loire valley, I could think in French a few weeks into the visit. I listened to French music, pouring over written lyrics, and listened over and over to one particularly beautiful love song, trying to learn all the words. I got my French sister to translate its poetry literally and then figuratively. "Elle as Les Yeux Revolver" is burned into my memory, and I can still recall the meaning of every sad, lovely phrase about a woman so incredible that her very glance destroys the tortured singer: "Elle as le regard qui tue… Elle as tirer la premier… ma touché et c'est foutou…"

Thematically, I was way out of my depth with that song. I was only 15, and had never killed or even wounded anyone with a glance (aside from, perhaps, my first and fifth grade teachers, both of whom suffered mightily during their years trapped with me.) But the music of that song resonated so powerfully and romantically that summer. I wanted to be grown-up, I wanted to be the kind of woman who inspired that kind of sentiment, and I put the needle back on the start of the song again and again. I loved it so much that I am sure I learned whatever is most authentic in my accent by singing back to that poor wounded crooner.

Yet on the way to feeling fluent, I was frustrated and angry some of the time, and particularly hated when my French father would correct my many errors in pronunciation. I made foolish, childish mistakes, mixing up genders and botching verb tenses left and right, a gauche et a droit. I irritated shop owners and had a terrible time covering my errors when we played cards. During one particularly embarrassing exchange, my French sister was convinced I was cheating when I was convinced I was following the rules. She was sick of me by then, and I was sick of trying so hard. I fled back to my room in tears, wishing I could leave right then. I had no refuge, no private place away from the language I could still not fully understand.

I had a few Agatha Christie mysteries to read, and wrote and mailed letters to my friends. I kept a journal, making a list of 100 differences I perceived between France and what I then knew of America. But I spoke to nobody in English until the last week I was there, when an older and much more sophisticated American teenager drove her host family’s car over to our house. She looked approvingly over the large room and the television I had to myself, and complained in an entitled way about her host family. She shared unnecessary and mean gossip about my French sister. I don’t know why I even believed her, but immediately wished she hadn’t said it. Only later I realized that, although she was older and oh-so-much cooler, I wished she hadn’t even come.

It never occurred to me to turn on the TV she found so impressive. These were the days before cable, and I could find nothing worth watching on the family TV downstairs. (Of course, now that I do have cable, I still find almost nothing.) And watching TV alone just seemed lonely. So for the five weeks, it was just me and my French family, who fed me generously, put up with my immaturity, corrected my mistakes and wished sincerely for me to love their country as much as they did. It was their patience, and my youthful inability to do anything but try my hardest that helped me make the shift into a new tongue.

During that visit, my family and my youthful openness were what allowed me learn. So far this visit, my family and my now hardened perfectionistic tendencies have shielded me from even trying much French. This trip is, after all, Bill’s idea, I tell myself, and he’s the one who spent 100 hours in July in an intensive French language program while I was off at summer camp singing folk songs and canoeing and pretending this trip would never become real. Now, when I’m unsure of myself, I push him ahead to speak for me. Thus I have become a girl who has put herself in a big plastic bubble, and have spoken precisely one successful French sentence outside of a commercial exchange. While I understand people the third time they repeat something for me, as long as they do it slowly and without too much irritation, my spoken French is pretty much right where it was when I left New York: halting at best. Apparently simply breathing French air does little for one’s language skills; one must actually speak, and be spoken to. It is courage, rather than the past imperfect, that I have lost and need to regain.

Today we visited a museum of prehistoric archaeology near the Gorges du Verdon. People and brutish semi-people have lived in this area for nearly a million years, and they left behind enough sharpened arrowheads, cave paintings and carefully buried skeletons to fill a pretty excellent museum. Admission came with headphones in several languages. To hear things in English, you set the headphones on “2.” I could understand the museum’s ticket lady’s directions about the headphones just fine. But when I pulled them off to listen to the museum's narration in French, dissociated from text or from a human face, it sounded just like what Grace described: “Blah blah, le blah blah blah.”

As a classic visual learner, I need to see something to really get it, and have wisely arranged my adult life to be sure that this is always the case. Since that summer of 1985, I have become a person who can do nearly anything I choose. My trick has been choosing mainly things I can be good at fairly quickly. In case you're wondering, I eventually learned to kill with my eyes, and can still do so when I wish; I just choose not to. Instead I use les yeux to conquer things I want to learn.

Thus, I'm unaccustomed to playing in the spheres of my weakness, and would no more listen to language tapes than I would practice my godawful swing at a batting cage before my yearly humiliation at the Fourth of July softball game with Bill's family. When I was a younger woman, I bravely soldiered on through the whole game, but now that I am older (wiser?), I put in a few innings then slink off to lie in the hammock. My team is largely grateful, and it is only the opposing team who misses me. But if I do that with French, I'm looking at an entire year of hammock time.

The girls will have no such choice once school arrives, and this fact is starting to dawn on them. Twice today Abigail sought out other kids. She and Grace have been stuck together so long that they've actually given in and established a serviceably sisterly bond. But Abigail wants to branch out. At the playground near the museum, she eyed a group of brothers. She wisely tried a few of her best climbing and acrobatic tricks to get their attention (she, the kinesthetic learner.) I taught her to say, “Would you like to play tag with me?” and she shyly edged their way. But as it turned out, it was the boys who spoke first, all quickness and confidence. Stricken that she could not understand a word, and paralyzed out of saying her one trusty sentence, she came slinking back to my bench.

Later, outside a café, she was drawn to two tanned, skinny little girls wearing bra-sized tops who seemed to have the run of the place. They sat on a swinging bench next to our table and drank their citron sodas in fancy funny glasses. Again Abigail memorized a sentence to try out on them, but when the girls spoke and she did not understand, she crumpled. She assumed that they were laughing at her – and given the way they were flaunting bigger-girl attitude, perhaps they were.

Bill then tried to coordinate Grace’s and Abigail’s strengths so that they could help each other out. “You speak French,” he told Grace, the language whiz, “And you, Abigail, know how to approach people.” The strategy was that Grace would introduce her sister, (“ma soeur,” Grace practiced) and Abigail would actually do the socializing part of things. When it came right down to talking to the girls, it was Grace who chickened out, first wanting a pit stop, so they practiced how to ask for les toilettes. (Bill informed me, after I told them the wrong way to say it, that one always asks for toilettes in the plural.) By the time they returned, the saucy girls had split.

Abigail spent the rest of dinner curled up on my lap. She was not used to anything but social success, and I think she has finally realized that school is going to be hard. Really hard. Grace, more accustomed to orbiting the world in her own sphere, is much less worried about French. To listen to her, those two weeks of French camp gave her all the confidence and basic skills she needs. Mostly just misses her best friend back at home, and just as sadly, her dog. We finished dinner by talking about strategies for helping the kids survive the first few weeks of school. At the end of the meal, Grace laughed at me. “You’re going to be in trouble, Mom,” she said. “You’re going to be the only one not speaking French."

Her comment got under my skin. Mostly because she was right. So this morning, it’s out of the comfy hammock, and off to the market. On my own. I will take my killer eyes and my trusty green shopping bag (shout out to Brooke back home and the sisterhood of the traveling lime-colored, multi-pocketed bag.) I will return with several kilos of over-ripe red peppers, I am sure, or entirely too much of the wrong kind of cheese. I will get my car boxed into the wrong parking space. I’m sure that the merchants will lose patience with me, and do that irritating thing of picking the money out of my hand rather than waiting for me to get the math right.

I am likely being more self-conscious than the situation warrants, for at this time of year everyone’s a tourist, and even the Parisians are a little out of their element. It’s time to get out of my bubble and get my family some green beans, dammit. I will turn off my steady aural diet of hip hop mashups and put on romantic french pop songs for the trip. Today Bill can stay home and sweep and fold the laundry, and I can get out there and forage for food. Perhaps a little necessity, even self-imposed necessity, can be the mother of courage, and give this mother the courage she needs to grow young and unfinished once again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dogs, Driving, and other Imaginary Dangers

On Sunday, we had our first guests, an American and British couple who live a few hours away here in France. Zaro and Gareth had stayed with us in Brooklyn a few times while visiting Zaro's daughter, and seeing them here in France felt like a small miracle. Real people we know and love! Suddenly it was clear that our old world still exists, and not just in digital form. These smiling, friendly souls came bearing delicious wine, two remarkable American friends of theirs, and – to the delight of our girls – two seven month old Aussie sheepdog puppies, Clementine and Spot. I was thrilled for the afternoon to be able to relax my no smiling guideline, and just beam all day long. We sat at a picnic table under a tree and ate for hours: pesto pasta, Ratatouille, Epoisse cheese recommended by my Brooklyn friend over Facebook, and the transcendent peaches, strawberries, and grapes Bill found at the market in Salernes that morning.

Although the breeze blew up the valley from the olive trees and past the table, everyone was hot, including the dogs. Clementine jumped in the pool right away, while her brother Spot looked for dry, shady places under the tablecloth. At first we thought Clementine enjoyed swimming herself, but then we realized that she might actually be guarding the pool, because it made her completely nuts whenever anyone else tried to swim. Immediately following the splash of one of the kids jumping in, she would start barking and circling the pool fence, sounding the unending alarm that someone needed to be protected – someone must be protected, now. When we walked down to the waterfall, she kept trotting back and forth along the column of walkers, from Bill and Gareth up ahead, to Abigail in her usual place, trailing along slowly at the rear and singing vaguely to herself. At the waterfall, Gareth dove in and Clementine immediately lept after him, scrabbling her little sheepdog claws along his back as he grinned and paddled up and down in the cold, clear water. There was no stopping her; it was just instinct.

We all mused about whether sheepdogs feel pleasure in their enthusiastic protective work, or whether they feel simply compelled. Her puppy pal, Spot, was much more relaxed about letting things unfold. He would perk up his ears when he heard a big splash, but was clearly saving his instincts for a real herding emergency. He circled the pool of the waterfall, watching Gareth carefully, but was not about to get wet for no good reason. He had all his instincts in check; he would do his duty, but never over-do.

It was a great day. We had a serious fix of nearly everything we had been lacking: dogs, new and old friends, seriously ripe and perfect fruit, and adult conversation that ranged far beyond our typical trifecta of topics: (“What delicious fresh food should we eat next?” “What should we do today?” and “What the hell are we doing here?”)

To be fair, I should add that one of the reasons this France trip is a good idea is that our new three topics are more compelling than our three main topics of conversation were back home: “What should I do about this unsolvable problem at work?” “What should we put in the girls’ lunchboxes so they will eat tomorrow?” and “What should we be for Halloween?”

During our restoratively social lunch with our friends and their puppies, our little family all gathered up enough energy to feel as though today should be another outing. We like a predictable pattern – one or two days of rest and consolidation followed by another day of pushing the envelope – a new town, a new highway, a new life skill, or a new sort of strange French cheese. It took us forever to decide exactly where we were heading before we set off for Lac St. Cassien, a little over an hour’s drive back to the A8 highway and then north at the exit for Fayence.

In case you were wondering, things that should be simple are still pretty difficult. Easy little trip to the beach for the afternoon, right? Sure, as long as you are someone other than, say, me. As we left the house, Bill grabbed a fistful of tiny chocolate bars that sparked a full-family argument about whether and how the melty chocolate could be eaten without being spread all over the inside of the car.

We then couldn’t quite manage to get the ipod to play more than one song at a time. This year off is not only the year we learn French and become a more functional and deeply connected family… ideally it will also be the year we learn to use the basic technology that everyone else has been using for the last decade while we two spazzes have been running our sorry selves ragged at our jobs and raising girls.

And for the life of us, we could not get the toll roads right without a lot of thought. Either we used the wrong lane, or had the wrong change, or couldn’t quite figure out where to poke in the ticket and the coins. At one point we nearly got on the highway, then realized we hadn’t a centime in the car aside from the euro I like to keep in the glove compartment to unlock the carts at Casino. Tolls are serious business here. Every short stretch costs about as much as driving back and forth over the Verrazano for the same number of miles. We turned around, headed back to Les Arcs, and spent at least 40 minutes walking about looking for an ATM, withering and recriminating glances darting back and forth between me and Bill. Whose job is it to have tolls ready and waiting? Whose little brain has the energy left to remember everything we’ve forgotten – and also to cook, move and drive all in a foreign tongue. Apparently, neither of us. To our credit, I can only say that we did not raid either child’s allowance.

The day was sunny, warm, and perfectly pleasant. But I couldn’t just fully relax. The roads here do not allow you simply to shut down and drive. Every few kilometers you are faced with another roundabout with several possible directions spoking off. As Bill describes it, quoting School of Rock, when you drive in France, you need to use your head, and your brain, and your mind. The signs are clear enough, but require much more attention than I am used to using. I memorized most of I-95, I-91, and even the BQE five or six years ago, and since then driving in and out of New York City has become for me nearly as calming and meditative as walking a Labyrinth.

But here, I have yet to make anything at all automatic. Signs immediately preceeding a roundabout show you the directions from which you will choose. But they show you just once, while you are moving at high speed, and you must memorize the proper angle, or at least count which one of the right turns is yours. If you forget, halfway around, which one you were meant to take, it is possible, but not always reliably true, that the arrow poking down that road will match what you remember from the earlier sign. If the new word that shows up on a sign is unprounceable, it might distract you just enough that you have to circle around a few more times before plunging in.

Then, there are the roads between the roundabouts. At home, you can lull yourself into drifting along the wide, banked, guard-railed and deeply shouldered highways that go on for miles and miles. I tend to sing a lot while I am driving, or get into long conversations. At times this past summer I even texted while driving, until I was roundly shamed out of it. Here, there are almost no highways, but lots of tiny, two-lane roads that do not clearly indicate to me whether or not they are one-way. I can barely breathe, much less talk, sing, or compose witty three-line phrases with my thumbs. This lack of oxygen makes it doubly hard for me to read the roadsigns.

The roads are about as wide as a single narrow little European car, so when a truck drives by (or even a particularly wide Mercedes sedan) there is no room for error. Drivers of little lawnmower-like Fiats and silly Renaults like mine seem to believe they are in contention for a Formula 500 championship, dipping in and out of their own lanes and into yours as they slide around the mountain corners. Usually there is no shoulder, just two inches of white dashes and then a deep ditch, presumably put there helpfully to catch your wheels for you should you sneeze. So far I have found just one straightaway, the road between Sillans-la-Cascade and Aups, and that’s where we all drag race, apparently. The other day I thought I was at top speed on this narrow corridor, and a guy in a pickup truck tailed and then passed me like he was the Little Nash Rambler and I was standing still. As he zipped by, I saw that his truckbed was piled with unsecured big ochre rocks, and instantly imagined the crack and crash if one of them dislodged and fell on my windshield and into my lap.

I asked our friends over lunch about my terror on the roads. I think I was hoping to hear that I was overreacting, more anxious than I need be. This is usually what I hear when I ask people for reassurance, since I worry just the tiniest bit more than your average person. Or even your above-average worried person, possibly even more than the A+ of worried people. It’s one of my least favorite things about myself, but apparently is both genetic and unshakeable. As it is, I just do my best to keep it on the leeward side of sane.

Gareth gave me just the opposite of what I had hoped for, right away and point blank. Oh yes, he told me. It’s true! It’s awful, quite unsafe. But you should have seen it five years ago! The death rate has dropped a great deal. So things are much better now. I was grateful for his honesty, but this marginal improvement in French road safety brought me cold comfort on our beach jaunt. The Fiats largely behaved themselves this afternoon, but several motorcycles on the roads were bent on their own destruction, and ours, zipping around my backside at twice my speed, or hanging out in their passing lane (that’s my lane, dearie, I wished to remind them) when I was actually using it.

I wish I could say that I fully relaxed at the beach. Bill is thrilled about the laissez-faire attitude of the French lakeshores we have visited. He made me take a photograph of him standing, big goofy thumbs up, next to a sign that said, in English “Bathing Without Surveyance.” Women wear bikinis, sometimes even both pieces. Dogs run around the beach off their leashes, or fetch sticks the size of logs that people throw at them. No rules are posted, only the price of beer and wine at the snack bar. Bill’s favorite feature is that there are no little ropes penning in the swimmers and confining them irritatingly close to the shore. Free range, baby, free range.

Over in the bushes, where Bill was attempting discreetly to change into his bathing suit, (there are of course no changing areas for visiting American prudes) he saw the corner of a sign poking out from behind a scrubby bush. He pulled back the branches to discover a sign explaining that we all were swimming in an area of grave danger and should beware. Because of the hydroelectric dam on Lac St. Cassion, the water abruptly rises without warning. The sign included dying stick figures, looking super-surprised at the sudden end to their happy afternoon of half-naked swimming with their dogs and their wine.

Bill wisely kept this sign a secret, and filled me in only much later in the day. The girls spent the afternoon playing their favorite swimming game and mine, “See How Long You Can Stay Underwater and Look Dead.” After lots of pathetic whining from Grace, Bill finally rented a paddleboat with a slide on the top of it. He and the two girls shoved off for the windy middle of the lake, of course with no lifejackets. The kids would slide down the six-foot slide, plunge deep into the water, then shriek and dog paddle desperately towards the paddle boat, which was floating away. I talked to a friend on my iphone (three whole bars at the beach!) and tried really hard not to look worried. Or to look at all.

None of us put on any sunscreen. What’s the point of thinking about hypothetical skin cancer years from now, when drowning, car crashes, or angry unleashed dogs could finish you off in the present tense? Plus, here at the end of August, we’re all as tanned as we get – which is to say, not very.

When Clementine ran around the pool fence, barking her head off, we all tried to console her. We tried to distract her. We all could see from the picnic table that Abigail was perfectly fine, and did not need saving. She would not benefit from Clementine’s batty doggy instincts. From the outside, Clementine looked sweet, just awfully paranoid. We all casually and calmly reached for another peach, another melting gob of Epoisses, another sip of Gigondes to carry us into the pleasure of more conversation under the quiet shade of the trees.

But Clementine was having none of it. She was not to be patronized or denied her fervent and desperate emergency.

I wish I could say that I am somehow clearly different from this alert Australian Shepherd. However, it seems a matter of instinct for me to worry, to fret, to watch, to plan. I am happiest, and at my best storing up fruit, little chocolate, and jams from the Casino. I keep up with the laundry, and make Ratatouille ahead of time. For years tried to plan parent association meetings that would not only respond to, but ideally stave off, a schoolwide crisis du jour. It wasn’t enough for me to pay close attention; I thought somehow I should be responsible to prevent problems before they began. When I see my children in peril, even the vaguest of my own imagined dangers – or perhaps while Bill happily swims the entire width of the lake – I am compelled beyond reason. I can not look away. I’m not sure exactly what I would do if one of them went down for another round of hold-your-breath-and-play-dead, and then disappeared under the murky water. But I am constantly alert for the possibility.

It sounds nuts, as crazy as poor dear Clementine circling the pool and barking her head off. But it is still impossible for me to tell, from my flawed and imperfect vantage point here on the edge of French society and traffic conventions, what is truly dangerous, and what is merely the way things are around here.

Yesterday I read a headline in The Times online that a girl somewhere back in the Northeast was swallowed by a wave while she was out watching the surf from Hurricane Bill. I did not click on the article, because it’s probably best for me not to read salacious accident news. According to our friends, French news simply doesn’t report on automobile accidents, random drownings, or people who fall off cliffs and other high places. They are perceived – rightly Bill would surely say – as accidents. Pointless. Nothing to see here. Presumably French sheepdogs just sit calmly at the edge of their flocks, smoking a Galoise cigarette and sipping espresso, and the sheep either live out their lives to later become gigots d’agneau and warm socks, or are pulled apart by wolves. If so, tant pis.

Today I had my first real conversation with a French person. As Grace, Abigail and I shuffled through the dust back to the car after our swim, (Bill was back off in the bushes getting presentable) a huge black Newfoundland came bounding up to me, a crazed look on his face. After the many “Chien Mechant” signs I saw earlier in the day on our huffy walk into Les Arcs, you’d have thought I would have been cautious. But we are all even more dogsick than we are homesick, so I began talking nonsense to him, the kind of kootchy-koo baby talk we reserve for animals. His people – a gaggle of moms and babies – called him off me and the girls, and assured me, “Il est gentil,” – he is gentle. It was only after their reassurance registered that I realized I narrowly missed yet another occasion to fear something harmless.

Il est beau.” I spoke. They looked puzzled. “Ton chien,” I explained. Your dog is beautiful. The girls and their babies grinned at me, either pleased by the compliment or happy that the Newfie hadn’t ripped me into little bleeding pieces. I beamed with pride. I had spoken a non-essential, non-commercial sentence to a real life French person. She had smiled.

I had shepherded my family through yet another day.