Monday, September 7, 2009

A Moth to the Spectacle

Today went just about as well as a day could go and still be real life.

The ridiculously dorky activities fair in our newly-adopted town was, as I expected, totally 7th grade. There was a booth for the Lion’s Club (the sign was in English and I had flashbacks to 4H) that also somehow overlapped with the booth for the veterans of the wars in North Africa. There was Judo (of course) and the Association for the Socialization of the Old People. At another booth they were actually making anchovy paste by hand, and had a small written sign inviting us to join in this grand patromoine (big heritage) of our new home. This project was an activity of the Aups neighborhood association. According to our new friend Gerard, this group’s most vital function is to tell people where they can and cannot put their garbage cans, but maybe he hasn't heard about the anchovy paste thing yet. Bill has either read or heard that associations in French are crucial to village social life, and he firmly believes that the activities we learn about at this fair are the way we will find friends. He was so excited by these many opportunities that I had to keep telling him that he could NOT ask to join the Algerian veterans group, although it was the one that most intrigued him. He did not wish to join any of the five dance schools, which included ballroom, hip-hop, ballet, “Sarabande” and just plain scary weirdo.

Grace has been begging us endlessly for guitar lessons since the minute the plane took off from Logan airport. Incredibly enough, they are offered for kids her age on Mondays, just one town over. Bill can drive her there, as he will also be taking bass lessons, with the hopes of turning into John Entwhistle by the time we return to Brooklyn. Although individual lessons certainly aren't social, they will certainly keep us usefully occupied. Check, and check.

And remember when I wrote that maybe they’d be looking for backup singers or someone who could do a mean downward dog? THEY ARE. It’s a lame little small-town totally strangely nerdy French version of both things, but maybe I have found the start to a group of people I could befriend. Or at least the group that will lead me to the group I will actually befriend.

A woman from the next town over will run yoga classes on Tuesdays starting October 6. (They need a LONG time here to get used to the back-to-school routine before starting anything stressful, like yoga.) She’s going to teach the full-of-breathing kind, rather than the athletic and challenging kind that I like, but at least it’s a start.

AND, in terms of backup singing, there is a town group that puts on zany madcap musical reviews several times a year. Their booth was by far the most colorful. It was womanned by two Cougars – one with too-short too-red hair, and the other wearing far too much lipliner. I goaded Bill into asking for more information, and they took to him right away, as he is just the sort of guy on whom a hungry cougar would most wish to pounce. They assured him that singing is one of the best ways to learn a foreign language. The lipliner Cougar, once she realized that our French wasn’t so good, added gestures, mime, and slow, exacting movements of her mouth to get us to understand her speech. Apparently, there would be a SPECTACLE (pronounced “spek-tack-luh”) next VENDREDI (Friday) at 20:30 heures, at which we could see the troubadours actually SINGING. I was instantly torn between sick curiosity and queasy aversion. I wished both that I already had iron-clad plans for that night and that I could sit in the front row, record the whole show, then watch it on an endless loop on my iphone.

The booth had a number of photos tacked to a board, and a video of their most recent show, showing a marginally skilled soloist singing in front of several utterly hopeless and untalented backup singers. I could fit right in! The silly photos and the Cougar's reiteration of the word spek-tack-luh reminded me of an occasion I had utterly forgotten from my visit to France at age 15. When my French family was on vacation in Chamonix that summer, my French sister and I spent several days in preparation for un spek-tack-luh. A cruise director sort of person did his best to gather us all together and teach us little songs and related movements and hand out embarrassing costumes. At age 15, I was game for just about any performance opportunity. (OK, let’s be honest: I am pretty much the same way at age 39.) It was embarrassing in the extreme, and a whole lot of fun. While we were performing, the whole audience started clapping squarely along on the 1 and the 3. (For non-musicians out there, this means that they clapped ONE two THREE four, instead of the cooler American other way around, one TWO three FOUR. If you still don’t get it, put on some hip hop and try the square way for yourself; unless you are yourself hopelessly European in your sense of rhythm, you should hear the problem.)

Even at age 15, I could not for the life of me believe that there were such deeply unhip people in the world as were these pasty vacationing Europeans spending their vacation time preparing an amateur spek-tack-luh for one another. But they were, they did, and I joined right in.

And here the opportunity poses itself to me again. I don’t know whether I am more afraid that I might be a little lonely and bored this year, or that Bill and I might somehow join the group in a misguided fit of enthusiasm and actually have a great time. How weird would it be if we traveled a quarter-way around the world to this astonishingly compelling natural landscape to spend several hours a week preparing to perform a French version of “Uptown Girl” wearing matching motorcycle jackets?

The booth reminded me of Waiting for Guffman, averaged with High School Musical, plus thirty years, then multiplied by La Vie En Rose. Rank amateur adults performing are always deeply sad, until they happen to be transcendent, like Susan Boyle on British Idol. Sometimes this sort of performance is also hopelessly funny, but when that is the case, it is almost never aware of its own being so. Perhaps to smirk a little bit behind my hand like this is an act of unspeakable cruelty. Or perhaps it is just what goes around, since everybody else probably does it to me when I stand up and sing backup in my 40-something rock band.

So we came away from the Activities Fair with some actual things we will certainly do, as well as one attractively terrifying possible disaster area. A small town definitely has its limits, and no, quiet relaxation once a week at the Judo center will not give me the workouts I got at Park Slope Yoga Center. No, the 30 minute lessons at the Salernes music studio are not the same as Brooklyn’s Willie Mae Rock Band Camp for Girls. It was all very tawdry, with folding tables set up in the dust under the plane trees in front of the Mairie, and two little Frenchy muscle cars parked by the sign inviting new sponsors for what I would assume is a local French NASCAR offshoot. But it’s where we live now, and these are the seeds of how we might meet other real-life French people.

We went from there to our third outdoor extended afternoon Provençal picnic in so many weeks. This was as delightfully hip and relaxed as the Activities Fair was unstylish and trying-too-hard. There were no dogs romping around this particular picnic, but we did once again have incredible food, and sat for hours in the welcoming shade of a big leafy tree while sipping multiple bottles of wine. These nothing-to-do afternoons remind me of dinners with the city aunts, uncles and cousins back home. We would all make something delicious on a Saturday afternoon, the kids would play like animals, and we would drink and laugh and feel at ease with one another. This time, our angel Jessica took us to her friends’ house. As with the yoga and back-up singing opportunities I had written about only a day before, this was another wish come true. Apparently, all I have to do is write it, and it becomes so. Jess just opened up her 7th grade friend list and handed it over, no questions asked. She got invited to a party, and generously brought us all along.

Everyone was very kind and warm. Once you actually meet someone French and share bisous, the smiles open up and the laughter runs free. Still, it was painfully and horribly clear to me that my French simply isn’t up to the challenge of extended conversation. I spent much of the day with my eyes glued desperately to the mouth of whomever was speaking, hoping that somehow more than 15% of the words would come clear to me so that I could follow their meaning. When I had to say something, I rehearsed the first few words inside my head, but then always got marooned mid-sentence, hoping to be rescued by a stronger swimmer. But Laurent and Mathilde were as generous with their English as they were with their food, wine, and little crunchy snacks. They had both lived in the U.S. as adults, and we could share our wistful affection for New York and San Francisco openly and without pretense. Jessica moves smoothly and swiftly between the two languages, and while her partner Gerard doesn’t speak English, I can sometimes follow his rueful and very funny jokes.

While we drank our rosé and shared stories (mine in Caveman-language), the kids created their own spek-tack-luh for the adults, with the five-year-old girl juggling two red boulles, the four year old doing flips on the mini-trapeeze, and Grace bouncing a ball on a racket while singing the entire Marseillaise. I wish I could say I were just the tiniest bit blasé about this achievement of hers, but it was all that I could do not to burst with pride as she hit the crucial phrases with r’s a rolling and a closed-mouth “ehew” sound. Even the laconic and confident Laurent had to comment that Grace could sing his national anthem much better than he could sing The Star Spangled Banner.

I suppose that this means that he will not be showing up to the Musical Theater club. Tant pis.

Lunch ended with bisous all around, and all of us sloshing back home to finish up the kids' homework. We held the Leftover Olympics at dinner to see who could do in the potato salad that has made far too many appearances in the last few days. And once again as it got dark, I settled in to write, which I have come to love almost as much as breathing.

I’m sort of having a strangely hard time admitting this to myself, and now sharing it in written form as well, but my life here is making me incredibly, reliably, and quite fully happy. Peaceful, settled happiness is perhaps the most taboo topic one can discuss, particularly if it feels like the deep and real kind. How can you not sound like a horrible jerk telling somebody how happy you are? Usually it’s a kind of pathetic bragging, a masking of some deeper well of loneliness when somebody goes on and on about how happy they are, how at peace.

But here it is: peace in my life, after a long and difficult absence when I had managed to forget what it could even feel like. I was plenty happy a lot of the time, certainly moved and often deeply shaken. But now all that movement has stilled. Perhaps this peace comes from the distance I feel from the world, and my new closeness to my family. No doubt it is the lack of gainful employment (tomorrow is Labor Day, but that don’t matter none here.) Perhaps this feeling is the deep relief that follows when all of one’s fears are dispelled and one’s fondest hopes come true. It comes floating in the windows at night on the cool air and is reflected back and forth between the huge sun in the day and the equally enormous moon at night. It’s what I was waiting for, and here it is.

1 comment:

  1. Grace sang La Marseillaise??! Wow! That is so very impressive!