Saturday, September 5, 2009


Last night, after picking up the girls from school and motivating their tired little brains through incomprehensible homework, Bill and I moved all of our stuff out the door and into a sweet and much tinier little apartment in another part of the same big old stone-walled Olive Mill. I say "much tinier," but in Manhattan, this place would be truly killer: 2 BR 2 bath duplx, EIK, expsd stone, loft. Tile floors, high ceilings, great light from two exposures. Plus the unique outdoor space. I have not yet been to anybody's place in Manhattan where you can walk outside in your bare feet, step on ripe figs that have just fallen from the tree, give a little raw hamburger to the feral kittens in the courtyard, then hike down through a field full of tiny snails past the olive trees to a deep azure pool at the base of a waterfall

Did I mention that it has rained just once in three weeks, never gets under 68 degrees, or over 88? You can keep your classic Pre-War six, because the Pre-Historic cave on our property has got to add a few thou to the asking price. Granted, it's a pretty long commute from here to just about anywhere, but that was sort of the point. We sought out a place as far from the world we knew as we could tolerate, and now we're making a new world in which to live.

So now, three weeks into our adventure, what do I do all day at Les Baumes? Since school has started, we have given up our slovenly 9:30 wakeups. More importantly, not one of us seems to need them anymore. When we first got here, we slept as though we were drugged. All four of us had been running at full speed through a desert on nothing but inertia, and suddenly we arrived at a big fat wet oasis. We soaked ourselves in sleep, in blue water, and stared at the orange dirt, the green trees, and the blue, blue sky. We buried our tired little brains in old movies and new novels. We ate a ton of ripe fruit. We did nothing of any use to anyone aside from our own little family. It has been a new definition of heaven to be so far from work, and so immersed in these tiny, human-scale, meet-able responsibilities. But now, we are ready to venture out once again into the world beyond our four selves.

And since that world now requires something of us, we no longer sleep all morning long. We have somewhere to go; or at least the girls have somewhere to go, and we have to get them there. Bill's watch alarm goes off at 7:00 AM, and we haul the girls out of their beds. There are usually one or more tanties (we don't legitimize these little family fits with the proper name of "tantrum." While legitimate anger is absolutely acceptable in our family, tanties are seen as baby stuff. Either although or because we all have them, even those of us over 30, we pooh-pooh them with a silly name.) There is hair and there are teeth to be brushed, retainers to be put away in the proper place, and breakfast to be set in front of both girls, then picked at grudgingly and eventually thrown away mostly uneaten. Then we do a combination of drag racing and playing chicken on the way to Aups. I drive extremely cautiously, and consider myself to have won in both categories as long as I am not run off the road.

On this, only their second day of school, the drop-off drama all but dissolved. Grace still hung back a little as we walked towards le portail, but she was also listing off the names of some of the kids in her class. She is some sort of language savant, has an incredible ear and can reproduce the sound of her classmates' English perfectly: "Gr-AY-AY-sse." She is also already correcting my French pronunciation, damn kid. While it won't happen literally overnight and automatically as she had hoped, learning French is simply not going to be her issue.

And any jitters Abigail had yesterday had completely vanished, and she skipped towards the gate, ready for action. Today I even had to remind her about the bisous she owed her Mama. Grace still went all grave in lifting her face to mine when it was time for the ritual kisses. I love it that le portail has doubled the number of kisses we get from our children. They then turned and walked down the ramp without a backward glance.

Both of them walked into the schoolyard, and began the important work of making friends. Abigail did exactly what the textbooks tell you that children should know to do. She stood on the edge of a group of children and watched what they were doing. She mimicked their movements. She waited for an opportune moment to join in the game. Soon enough she was on the edge of a game of tag, or perhaps a French version of the old standby "smack the foreign kid." I couldn't easily tell.

Grace, shockingly, was even more socially successful than Abigail. It's possible that in France things are just different, and that her habit of gazing blankly at people is what draws them all in. I've been told quite clearly not to smile American-ly if I want to make friends. Grace has never had this bizarre American tic. So here in France, she is collecting friends like flies, while the rest of us are languishing in social purgatory and trying too hard. Children today came up to her, took her hand and led her to interesting things going on in the schoolyard. One girl even asserted, before she could protest that she spoke English, not Spanish, that they were "Amgios." Forever.

How do I know these things about their social success, or lack therof? Well, fine. I will tell you: I spied on them, and then later interrogated them. I spied alongside the skinny, bespeckled woman I met yesterday while she was working at the Aups Tourism Office. I met her when I went in to ask if there were yoga classes nearby, and she suggested that I try the Activities Fair on the town square on Sunday to see if there is a yoga club. Bill had already seen the poster for this gathering, and has his heart set on there being a rock band club, but I'm betting it will be mostly men's football (soccer) and ladies' fabric crafts.  He keeps threatening to sign up for everything, like Jan on the Brady Bunch.  I couldn't believe that the poster really was advertising an Activities Fair; it sounded so seventh grade.

I can't for the life of me imagine such an extremely dorky thing happening in Brooklyn -- a bunch of grown-ups coming out in public all at the same time to let people know about their kickball team or their Yahtzee club. (Of course, if they did, I would immediately want to join both.) But here in France, where there appears to be no natural methods to break out of life "avec tout la famille," it seems important that they have artificial ways to create social groups. It's not as though they're going to just make friends on their own for no reason. At least, they don't seem to want to do so with me.

So while the girls were trolling for new friends down in the schoolyard, I was doing the same with the nice lady from the tourism office. At first I thought I would French-ly pretend not to recognize her, but then I realized that I had the opportunity to meet a fellow Mom, one who knows a lot about the town and had already spoken with me, if only in her professional role. Perhaps she has been trained by the French government to be kind to foreigners, because when I hovered nearby, she made her hands into binoculars then made a joke that she and I were doing "espionage." I even laughed, once she slowly repeated the joke for me.

It's clear that I will not make friends in France by being funny. It's going to be a long year of asking people to repeat their jokes, then laughing too heartily several beats too late. I am suddenly much more impressed with all the funny New Yorkers I know for whom English is a second language. It's hard enough to be funny in the language you know best; being able to play and be quick with the language you don't know? Now that's brilliance.

The nice tourism lady tired of my over-hearty laughter pretty quick, then left with a flat, "au travail," which I took to mean "Time for work." Apparently she is only required to be extra kind to boring unfunny foreigners while she is on duty. Or maybe this is what I sounded like when I had too much job and not enough time.

Although I am not (yet) making any friends here, I am engaged in a useful little project to help me keep in / get back in touch with the people I adore back home. After I dropped off the girls, I spent an hour at a café combining four separate worlds into a proper address book. In the past, I had my filofax at work, my fancy little Park Slope gift shop book of Christmas card addresses, and then a Xeroxed-and-scrawled list of telephone numbers we actually called, which was kept taped inside the pantry door. On top of that I have yet another scrap of paper listing the thirty or so phone numbers that I was keeping in the granny phone I used between the start of June and August 10, when I ran out my brief course of pre-paid texts and calls.

Somehow, these have to get melded, then put into my iphone, and despite the intuitive and fabulous design of this advice, wishing will not make it so. Unlike nearly other single human or adolescent adult I know, I have no electronic address book. I've been subsisting on my separate paper lists for years, as though I were living three distinct lives. Additionally, none of the lists are connected to either one of my email addresses. It's a pathetic situation that I finally took the time to begin to address this morning.

If you have managed to stay in touch with me over the last five years, my warm thanks and congratulations to you; it has clearly been despite, rather than because of, my ability to reciprocate.

But part of the pleasure of making a new address book is also deciding who gets the boot. Face it, the address book is just a grown-up version of the 7th grade friend list. As I drank my café au lait in the sunshine, I had the quiet thrill of crossing off people, places, and institutions that no longer held meaning for me. Specialist MD's who had long since left Brooklyn for Manhattan. The friend who told me I was becoming too bourgeois for her. The tone-deaf child psychologist someone referred my way. The baby sitter who frequently fell asleep while watching my children. The other baby sitter who called us drunk late at night to pick fights. Gone. Gone. Gone.

I added to the list my three French numbers, (one of them my own cell) with their strange two-digit morse code structure that seemed to go on forever. I sorted out what was still a part of my life, and what I could wash away forever. If I had to rewrite a whole letter's page because of the cross outs, my favorite people got put way up at the top, although I admit that I had a hard time with the "M's," as there are just so many lovely ones of you all. The "P's" were remarkably consistent. Aside from one wayward dermatologist, everyone I had written in on that page still mattered deeply to me. No such luck with J, and O was even worse.

I followed up this useful exercise by engaging in my most extended conversation in French since we arrived in Nice exactly three weeks ago. It took place on and off for over an hour. I wish I could say that I was speaking with town historian, or perhaps with a visiting author, with whom I could share a few bons mots about Balzac. I wish I could impress you by having met a local character, a funny old olive grower, or perhaps even the Mayor.

It would also be nice to say that I had coffee (or even a breakfast beer) with another mom of a child in Grace and Abigail's school, someone who could potentially become my friend. But that would require me to have broken the obvious barrier between me and anyone French who actually lives in the town.

Can I just say this: it's hard for me to imagine that someone like me would be so utterly ignored back in Brooklyn. A fairly friendly-looking (read: socially desperate) mother of two perfectly adorable children would stand alone in the schoolyard at Poly for all of thirty-five seconds before some other mother would pounce on her and start pumping her for the crucial details: kids' ages; location of family home(s); length of time living in New York; amount, absence, and type of employment of adult family members. Of course, Dads were roundly and heartily ignored. Just ask Bill.

Perhaps Aups is much more like the town where I grew up, where you had to be humble and quiet for awhile -- perhaps three or four years -- before being invited into the exciting social world of Church potluck suppers, bowling, and -- well, there isn't a third thing. I don't have three or four years at my disposal here, so I have put my great high hopes in Jessica, our super-friendly and kind English-but-almost-French landlady. Perhaps if I'm OK with her, I'll become, through the transitive property, OK with her French friends and family. Of course, it occurs to me that I am hoping for her to do the equivalent of sharing her 7th grade friend list with me, which I suppose not awfully likely.

So now the suspense is killing you? With whom did I converse for over an hour before picking up the girls? It was the beautiful Russian woman who was doing a pedicure on my feet. To be clear, this exchange still does not count in my book as truly social, because if you are paying someone something, then your verbal interchange is not necessarily something that he or she would choose otherwise to continue. But we talked, pleasantly and nicely enough, in part because there were no magazines to read like I usually do in New York. So we talked, or she talked, and then I tried to understand and reply.

It was pathetic, the way I stumbled from adjective to noun to poorly conjugated verb as though I were hopping from rock to rock in a streambed. Most of the time I could string together enough language to get from one side to another, but often I would just stand, awkward and stranded, mid-sentence. She was gentle and generous, and I must say she made my dusty and calloused summertime feet feel a whole lot less ignored. She asked friendly questions about the economy and where I had traveled in the U.S. I tried to tell her how much just over half of us love Obama, but got all tangled up and lost her interest in trying to explain the stock lefty argument about why post 9/11 anxieties led to Bush's re-election. Apparently, politics take me beyond my ability to conjugate verbs or select appropriate adjectives.

She nonetheless bravely soldiered on in being friendly, even ooing and ahh-ingn over my giraffey-looking brown and white purse. I quickly assured her that it was a fake -- I don't buy Dolce and Gabbana anything -- and told her that Chinatown was full of great knockoff purses. But I am pretty sure that by doing this, I ruined her concept of New York. I may also have ruined my chances to ever be spoken to by the town moms, as whatever I managed to say about myself during this interchange will be repeated during the next several scheduled pedicures.

When I picked up Grace and Abigail, they were fully engaged in their own social worlds, and fully disengaged from anything at all academic. They understand the clear message of French school: do the right thing, write down the correct answers, and don't ask too much of the teacher, who has no real name anyway. Abigail independently came up with the brilliant strategy of just copying off the child next to her, which she shyly revealed when I asked how she knew how to spell "cygnet" and "noix." Since the child next to her writes in cursive, which she cannot yet read, she is basically just writing shapes in the proper places on her worksheets.

Both girls are relieved that their teachers do not trouble themselves about what the students are thinking. Today the first grade teacher corrected Abigail's work in red pen today, writing "tb" on the pages she copied accurately from her neighbor, and "b" on the ones she mis-copied. (I am confident that my French-teacher friends will correct me if necessary, but I am guessing that this stands for "tout bien" and simple "bien.") While there is clearly no actual curricular "learning" going on for either of them yet, their brains and their social circles appear to be expanding exponentially. New Amigos everywhere they turn.

Then, tonight, we suddenly all made new friends. As we were walking up to the pool, an American family in a Honda minivan drove up the driveway to move into the part of the house we had just left. We knew to expect them, as our landlady Alexia had told us that a U.S. military family was coming from Germany to stay for a week. We already knew that they had lots of kids (five under the age of nine, with another on the way.) We already knew that they homeschooled. After three weeks of being ignored, I was inordinately hungry to make the acquaintance of someone I never otherwise would have met, and may never see again.

While he was being ignored in the Poly schoolyard, Bill determined that the women in a family have all the social power. He describes the way that we sniff each other, like dogs at the park, before allowing our kids to play. Tonight, I was so grateful to meet the American mom that I volunteered right away to take her kids down to the waterfall. She was so grateful just to be there, and not in the minivan anymore, that she warmed right up and started asking a million questions about the strange phenomenon of our year in France. (We have found that this idea is really not so strange to anyone we meet in France; it's only Americans who can't believe that we are going an entire year without working.) I flashed my old elementary school principal credentials to gain her trust, but I think she was so glad to have a chance to unpack in peace that that didn't matter, and she let me take her three oldest girls to an undisclosed location with a waterfall.

On the way down the steep hill, I watched the five girls tumble over one another like puppies. The oldest girl of the American family, instantly drew Grace into her confidence and started to tell her the most amazing secrets. Abigail flat-out ran down to the olive trees to pick offerings for the other kids. The two little girls, too small to be social actors in their own right, held my hand as we walked down the steep parts, and parroted smart things that their sister and mom had told them.

Without even trying, without so much as a real introduction, the five girls were fast friends. Abigail quickly hatched a plan to catch minnows in the brook.  The youngest of the five girls found a huge tarantuala-looking spider and showed all the big girls. A psychologist just published a study that revealed that little girls are afraid of spiders from birth -- not so for these five hearty explorers.  Grace and the oldest girl determined within ten minutes to be pen-pals between Germany and France, although neither of them could accurately produce their address for the other; too much recent moving around for them both.

I wish it could be so simple here. I don't know how to find a new penpal, much less someone to go minnow-fishing with. I don't say this out of any sort of absolute lack; I have way more than my share of remarkable friends in this world, out of the hundreds of thousands of people I have met in my life. I have two incredible families, Bill's and mine, each full of individual characters who I love fiercely and each so very differently.

In my nearly 40 years, I have had to shed more than a few frenemies, unmask and then unhitch more than a few poorly chosen bonds. But given the number of false social starts, it is remarkable how many of my amazing, to-die-for friends have stood the test of time and stayed, against all odds, firmly inside one or more of my address books. And burrowed even deeper in my heart.

So I don't need new friends. While I am always open to finding yet another remarkable person in the world, I didn't come to add to my friend list. It's more that I know that without friends, I won't have to talk outside of my family; I will only type. And without someone who is willing to listen to me talk, I will leave and still speak no French.

Finding British friends will be easy; without having to pun in French, we can all be as witty as hell with one another. I will also clearly spend a significant amount of time with my Russian nail lady, as this year I have already planned to waste both time and money on the health of my nails for the first time in my life.

But once we move to town, it will still be awhile --perhaps more time than I actually have --before I can converse honestly and openly in French with a real friend. Perhaps I should hope that people at one of the booths at the Aups Activities Fair will be looking for a backup singer or someone who can do a mean downward dog. In the meantime, I will have two remarkably warm new acquaintances: the military family next door, and Jessica and Gerard up on their donkey farm.  I have my amazing little family drawn around me like a shawl. And I will also have the amigos we left behind -- to be my penpals, to plan their visits, and to hold my little world together for me while I am gone.

1 comment:

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