Saturday, August 29, 2009

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.


  1. The snail quote is priceless. See you soon!

  2. This is a great description of a truly lovely day. Brings tears to my eyes and reminds me that I could probably use such a day. Thank you for the reminder.


  3. I just read Change in the Air to Nothing Doing aloud to the boy playing the silenced DS and the girl and her dolls on an imaginary trip to someplace unknown. They asked lots of questions and had lots of comments. Like Grace just needed a break and Launa is weird. My girl is planning what she is going to pack and in what bag she will bring to visit. She would also like French lessons and asked if Winter Break is far from here.

  4. Full disclosure: Grace did just need a break, and Launa is weird. Runner Girl's children are brilliant. I would also like French lessons.

  5. Beautiful Launa! You guys are superb parents. Get us an address so we can send a little birthday something to that almost 8 year old snail-lover.. maybe she'd like a tub of butter?