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.


  1. Funny and true, Launa. You're so right about the lakes and what is dangerous and what's not. I'll be reading jealously!

  2. Oh, and don't forget the whole "priorité à droite" thing, by which cars coming from the right and turning onto your street have priority. Huh? Thanks for reminding me of my first trip on the highway, watching my friend/driver pay a 10 franc toll with plastic. Have fun!