Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Being Wrong. And Happy About It.

Last week, before our idyll at Grenouille, I met a goofy young Brit and a polished and serious middle-aged American on two consecutive days. The Brit was quick to praise me for finding and living in Aups for the year, while the American came at me with a series of questions that quickly put me on the defensive. He saw through my “sabbatical” story and pressed me on what I was really up to. I found myself once again at the back of the field, desperately trying to keep his shots from hitting the goal.

Mainly in my own defense, I decided that he was just another work-obsessed American, all button-down shirt and shiny shoes. Unlike the American, I was freeing myself to a new and higher calling (oh the holy purity of nothing doing.) Unlike my straw man, I was seeing the true Europe, while he could only visit for his two week required vacation. And I put it up on my blog, all lip-smacking with the righteousness of the truly at ease.

You will hear it here first: Boy, was I wrong about him. Could not possibly have been wronger.

And the ways I was wrong taught me, once again, you can’t judge us Americans by our covers.

Far from being achievement-driven and obsessed with work, he turned out to be a John Entwhistle-loving, David Foster Wallace-reading, kid-appreciating, magic-trick doing uber-grandpa of four or five grandchildren who positively adore him.

Here is how I found out. When we went to do our little Monday morning shopping excursion, we walked past the outdoor café where he, his wife, and his friends were having a cup of coffee. We missed him on the way out of town, but on the way back, he saw us first, stood in the middle of the street, and asked me how my day was going. Was I still successfully up to nothing? Did I do my vegetable shopping everyday? Where could he and his friends get a decent breakfast around here, anyway? His friend joked, “Yeah, like an egg McMuffin.” At least I was pretty sure he was joking.

Up until this point in the conversation, I was hanging on to my initial impressions. But then the talk turned, slowly and with lots of warm smiles. Would we like to see his sketches from the day before? He had drawn his first cat, sitting under the plane trees with his friend Larry all afternoon.

“Trés mignon,” I told him – very cute – and he asked if mignon was cat. Had we been inside the Convent, the beautiful place in the center of town where they were staying? No? Well we would absolutely have to see it; it was unbelievable. Then wouldn’t we like to come over at six? And bring the girls? Please, it would be their absolute pleasure.

He also asked if I had had success with the blog the day before, and he hoped that I had written about them. I was instantly stricken, having in fact done just that, but not with such a mignon portrait – more a caricature of a much uglier American than the one I was facing now.

I realized that the posture I had taken as combative – all those difficult questions – was instead truly, fully curious, and perfectly friendly. He wanted to know even more today about our year away. His friend Larry was ready to move right into town, and having spent the afternoon at the café and thought over mine and Bill’s plan, he thought that idea wasn’t half bad.

I dashed home to futz a little with the blog, taking out the more hostile sentences and softening my impressions. I wondered about the ethics of what I was doing – not only smearing a complete stranger for my own purposes, but then going back later to cover my tracks with a sweeter portrait as I came to see a little more clearly. Are there rules about this kind of stuff in the blogosphere? If so, are they on some URL someplace?

At 18:00, just after we had finished an enormous after-school snack and an exciting hour of totally confusing French homework and internet math practice, we put a bottle of rose in a bag with some ice cubes and wandered over to their big wooden door. My American and his Larry were actually waiting outside for us, eager to usher us inside and show us around.

We got the grand tour, and the girls were received like princesses of the realm. Grace’s “Nice to meet you” stunned me with pride – her directness, the sweetness of her smile, the confidence in her tone and the openness of her eyes. She had transformed since last week – either because of the see-saw aspect of her relationship to Abigail (Abigail had been quite the pill of late) or because of the lingering positive effects of a weekend of being loved up by Clementine, Spot, Zaro and Gareth.

The wives of the two couples could not possibly have been nicer or more generous, welcoming us to poke around all the many, many rooms and asking us gentle, friendly questions about our plans and our experiences.

The longer I spoke with the American, the more I saw myself in his questions and his half-teasing, fully-generous curiosity. Aren’t I the one always asking the too-direct questions with an expression of total innocence and curiosity? Don’t I often skate straight over polite and into more dangerous territory without a second glance? We bantered about his children, our trip, our children, his thirty-year friendship with Larry, the beauty of the Convent. While we all shared our grimaces about the weakness of those puny sad little dollars relative to the more solid Euros we were spending, nobody referred to work, or one-upped anybody else.

The easy story of our trip is that we got here and realized that everything here was different, and so much better. The food, the schedules, the schools, the philosophy, the people. Americans are dull and boring and midwestern closeminded. It's the story that ex-pats tell themselves all the time, and often write in their romantic memoirs. The real story I'm finding myself within is much more complicated for any either-ors to really find purchase.

The longer we stayed, the more comfortable the girls got with all of their new grown-up friends. Abigail started up a game of tag with Larry and the American, causing Larry to wipe out and fall right down on the grass. The American showed the girls great magic tricks with a Euro, and Abby didn’t hold back on her giggles or her eye rolls.

Part way through the evening, my American took me aside and asked me, disarmingly and quite in earnest, if honestly our children weren’t really quite remarkably bright. He praised their self-assurance, their vocabulary, their sunny and friendly and direct way of being with adults. He was fascinated by them and spoke with them without a trace of that condescension of adults talking down to a mere kid. If he hadn’t won me over before then, I was suddenly putty in his hand after that remark.

A big long table was pulled out under an enormous spreading plane tree in the courtyard. Everybody got a glass of icy pink wine and sat down over bread and cheese. The girls plopped themselves on the laps of their brand new acquaintances to sip their Orangina. After awhile, the girls, then the girls and the grandfathers all got up and ran around while we women talked about upcoming weddings, past vacations, and our mutual dislike of too much fuss at the holidays. If we all just squinted our eyes a little bit, we could have been their children and grandchildren, and they our proud and doting parents, with somewhat more midwestern accents.

Soon the girls and their new grandfathers were playing a spirited game of boulles together under the trees. The girls would tease the grandfathers, and they would tease back, only a little more gently and warmly. The grandmothers told me stories of how wonderful Larry and the American are with their grandchildren – how the American has been telling an ongoing story to his grandchildren for the last ten years, and only now is the oldest one, at age 12 and on the cusp of adolescence, getting too old for it.

I gazed over at Grace, still grinning at the American’s magic trick with the Euro. How many more years will she be perfect like this – caught just on the wire between goofy little kid and too-cool-for-school? If we are lucky, she will somehow take her store of experiences like this one and launch herself directly and confidently into the adult world without that awkward “adults are lame” stage. Or perhaps even while she is finding me and her father unspeakably lame, overbearing, and horrible, she can still connect to the Larrys of the world: grownups like her grandparents and her teachers and her aunts and uncles, like her new friends Zaro and Gareth, who remember to talk with her directly, to take her seriously, to find her as compelling as she truly is.

I’ll say it again. I was wrong about this American, and I'm probably wrong about a lot of us. Particularly those of us who don't live in the few closed off little places I have found myself and established the walls of my comfort zone. Funny that by coming here, I'm learning a whole lot more about all the places I'm from, and what my suppositions and changing perspectives can teach me.

I like being wrong the way I’ve been wrong recently – thinking the worst of a situation or a person or a place, then having grace descend and learning that the thing I had feared or mistrusted was there to catch me all along. I know that our Americans won’t be here at their Convent for long, but I can’t help but hope we run into them again, and that they will ask me the hard questions that show they are really paying attention. I’d like to offer them another glass of rosé and hear their further impressions of their visit, just to tide us over until the real grandparents visit in a few weeks.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, you blew me away, Launa. Your stories and what you see beyond and below them move me deeply. Thank you for pointing out how often you - and we all - see and stick with the negative. How often we refuse to admit that we were and are wrong. And how much we miss out on by taking that attitude. Keep on learning and keep on writing, dear kindred spirit of mine.