Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Time, and Travel

What does one do all day at Les Baumes? Well, for starters, sleep until 9:00 AM. Bill may wake you up at 6:30 AM (he never sleeps late when he’s gone to bed early.) Eventually he will kiss you back to sleep, make breakfast for himself, and then go for a long walk around the fields. So get up, make a big bowl of hot chocolate to drink while you look at the sun rise over the mountain, then just go back to sleep.

Wake up in a room with wide-open windows and the bluest sky you can imagine. Abigail is right beside you under a thin sheet and a little mauve coverlet, and with her eyes closed and her pretty eyelashes, she looks like an angel. After all this travelling, you are exhausted, so doze off and wake back up until you can’t possibly keep your eyes shut anymore. You’ve gotten up early your whole life, girl. Go ahead, be unconscious with the sun rising high in the sky. Live a little.

Grace will bang around in her room and probably not be able to open the door to the bathroom. Soon enough she will come in to the room, quietly if you can imagine it, with the very sweet idea of making breakfast in bed for Abigail. Since this has never, ever, been Grace’s idea before, get excited. It’s always been Abigail making breakfast in bed for someone else, never Grace for Abigail. Grace’s face is smushed-lovely with sleepiness, and eager to do something kind. She decides on Rice Krispies, orange juice, hot cocoa and a little glass cup of vanilla yogurt. On the way to actually delivering the breakfast, she stopped to eat her own cereal and drink her own juice, but no matter. Abigail is duly delighted by its delivery.

Breakfast will be on the open deck, where the sun is already shining full force. Bill will come back from his walk, and instantly try to engage the whole family on the topic of the 40 foot waterfall, the rope swing, the extremely dangerous hike to said rope swing, and whether or not we should all try it… right now. In a surprise move, you sidestep your usual “is it safe?” part of this debate – going on now for the last twenty years – and tell him that it’s all up to him. As long as he thinks it’s safe, it’s OK with you. He will look befuddled not to have you do your part of the dance, and the girls will turn away from you and expectantly towards Bill. (Brilliant move on your part, may I add. Almost as brilliant as the sleeping late, and just as satisfying. You may just be learning something, my dear.)

Given how hard it becomes to get the family out of the house this morning, it’s nearly unimaginable that all four members and so many of their belongings got all this way. There is a terrible argument about getting ready for swimming, some difficulty getting the laundry started, and it seems to take forever to get the breakfast dishes done (until you just give in, dammit, and do them yourself. So much for teaching the children good habits a the new context.) There is no sunscreen (better get some at the grocery store) and nobody can find their swimsuits until you find them.

There will be swimming, and a trip to the grocery store for you. (Details of this misadventure in a different post.) Bill will heat up leftovers for the kids for lunch, which you will skip in favor of a peach and a Stella in a stupidly teeny French bottle. The laundry will be washed in a washing machine just as small as the Stella bottle that nonetheless seems to take in plenty of laundry. It will dry on the clothesline in the intense midday heat. It occurs to you briefly that perhaps you never needed that extra beer in the bottle or that extra room in the laundry machine anyway. Maybe you didn’t even need a drier all this time (although honestly, is it ever this dry when it is hot in Brooklyn? Has there ever been this much sun?)

The highlight of the day, for all four of you, will be the hike to a plunge in a blue-green, silty bottomed, clear water natural pool at the base of a waterfall. There has been a general agreement to try out the first pool, the safer one with a few two foot waterfalls and no rope swing. You will all put on bathing suits (again, the nearly insurmountable difficulty of everyone leaving the house at the same time) but then walk through the tall grass together.

Every blade of grass is covered with tiny white snails, smaller than a quarter of a fingernail, curved neatly into a spiral and clinging powerfully to a blade of tall grass. There are no snails on the lawn, or by the shrubs by the pool. Yet they are here in the field by the hundreds, thousands, millions perhaps if you added them up across the many many fields. The sun is scorching hot on your shoulders (oops, you forgot to buy that sunscreen.) Olive trees are planted in a grove in lines, and bunches of lavender are drying in lines just beyond the olives.

You all jump into the pool, Bill with genuine enthusiasm, you with faked enthusiasm that eventually becomes relaxation and relief, and the girls bravely overcoming their full-on fear. In a few days you’ll all get used to the cold, the strange taste of the water, and the odd chunks of moss that gather at the edges of the pool. The pool is shaded on the banks and sunny on the water, with stones you can climb up onto the banks. You’ll all jump in without a second thought, clamber up the rocks and jump again. It’s an unaccustomed sensation, being able to fear something that does not already have a warning sign. Everything back home has been litigated and locked up, every slippery slope marked as dangerous.

Around midafternoon, the lack of warning signs, the tiny washing machine, the sparse contents of the house and the laundry on the line will generalize into a familiar sensation. You’ve been here before. It’s not so much a memory of France, from the mid-80’s when you went to France as a teenager (although that early morning bowl of hot chocolate has certainly not occurred to you since then.) It’s certainly not the landscape, as it is nothing like any place you’ve ever been. Instead it’s a sensation from earlier on, from childhood. You’re back in the 1970’s, a child again.

It’s the ethos of a familiar time rather than a place or a nation. It’s 1970’s World all over the place. Appliances are old but insubstantial at the same time. Back then, like now, it was hot in the summer, the heat never broken by air conditioning in a house or in a car. Laundry dried on a line, not in a machine. People went swimming in real swimming holes without worrying so damn much about safety. It is a relief to name this familiarity, which suddenly attaches itself to everything unfamiliar or strange.

Back then, most cars you ever rode in were lame (like the brand new Renault parked in the driveway that looks like a real car, but drives like a lawnmower.) Houses were not stuffed full of designed things, but rather stocked with objects you might actually need, in places you might actually them at hand. Instead of thirty five exotic spices in matching stainless steel cases, purchased at William Sonoma as a wedding gift and hardly ever used, there is one little dish of herbes de provence, a mismatched salt shaker and pepper grinder. Astonishingly, they do the trick just fine. No posh down comforters or high-thread count linens, but a thin little polyfill comforter and mismatched sheets on the bed, but you slept better than ever. The sheets were softer, in fact, having been washed and dried on the line so many times. No fancy cappuccino maker, no bread maker, no ice-cream maker. Just a kitchen with a lame old little electric stovetop and oven, and the world’s tiniest microwave and refrigerator. Still, because it is fresh and was grown nearby, like it was when you were a kid, the food tastes incredible.

Just before you flew here, your horoscope predicted that soon your life would “pass before your eyes,” not because you were about to die (you found this a reassuring thought before a plane flight) but rather because you were about to come into contact with a magical power that could be yours. Perhaps this incredibly sensory and wonderful life is what you were seeking, before you knew it would be here. 1977 is flashing everywhere, the years before warning signs, overwhelming comfort and protection plus high-end design took on the feeling of a cultural edict.

A hot sun in the morning. A deep pool of cool blue water in the afternoon, just for you. Peaches, beer, yogurt, then chicken and potatoes for dinner. Laundry pinned to the line with wooden clothespins. Open windows in the evening, with a praying mantis flying in to taste the light and land on the sturdy stone walls. Little glass jars of pickles, olives, and orange soda. Laughing and laughing over dinner with your family until your sides ache and you have to beg them not to speak another word until you can regain your composure. They delight in not complying, and making you laugh harder and harder.

Now it is dark, and the horizon is light and the sky full of stars. It is quiet, and the world is calm. Before bed, you will read with the light on and the window open to get the sensation of cool air sweeping in and falling in puddles on the floor of the warm room. Dragonflies will zoom into the open window, and a praying mantis will perch itself on the wall. It’s been years since you saw one. You shut off the light, hoping to keep more bugs out, and then the mantis comes over to perch on your lighted computer screen. Soon the day will draw itself up for a last breath, and you will get into bed, stretch under the soft sheets, and sleep again just as you did a child on a hot, quiet summer’s night.

No comments:

Post a Comment