Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Only Way is Up

Some days those three wheels of our family shopping cart face in the same direction, and just one of us needs a little boost to roll awkwardly along with the rest.

Then, some other days, we nearly draw and quarter ourselves pulling to the four cardinal directions.

It was raining, so there was nothing to do outside. We did our final drives back and forth to school, heated up the leftovers for lunch, mooned around and picked up dead and dying millipedes. I sat in the a two foot square space still indoors but with with internet access where I could do whatever it is that I do all day long, while Bill spent hours researching used cars and putting in endless numbers of details into a sort of European Blue Book website to determine what each one was worth. It's bad enough trying to understand car language without translating it into French, sometimes in and out of British English (lots of expats selling their over-fine automobiles at the end of the summer season), and then translating prices in and out of giant-size pounds, middle weight euros, and our piddly little pint-size dollars. I was impressed with his car savvy, his French skills, and his dedication and bravery.

Our measly ration of internet kept shutting itself off whenever the wind shifted or somebody somewhere (who could that possibly be?) tried to log on to Facebook. This internet service hates Facebook even more than a middle school dean. Bill and I would surreptitiously log on while the other was in mid-something-or-other and bump one another off, only sort of by mistake.

We then realized, far too late to do anything constructive about the problem, that Bill's bass lesson began at precisely the time Grace and Abigail needed to be picked up from school. His lesson was to take place a half hour away from said school. Had it not been raining buckets and thundering in long, rolling sonic booms across the hills, I could have entertained them in Aups for a few hours while he took the car to Lorgues. But as it was, we could not solve the logic problem that was our sad and small life: If Mr. B needs to be in Town L at 4:30 P.M. and Mrs. L must be in town A to receive Misses A and G at 16:30 military time, and there is only one Car R to transport them from the HH in Town S-l-C and back, whose plan gets foiled and ends up feeling foolish and sad?

You guessed it, it was Mr. B. We missed his first (and only) appointment in about two months through poor planning and rotten rainy weather. He grumbled only slightly, tried to pin it on me only half-heartedly, and I tried to cheer him up with some leftover birthday cake (Cake update: the lopsided and strangely shaped confection was nearly gone before 10:00 a.m. E.S.T., the hour when Abigail actually emerged on September 19, 2001, the whole ten-and-a-half-pound screaming bundle of her. Happy Birthday to our Little Force of Nature.)

On our way to pick up the girls from school, the rain cleared for awhile and clouds started racing high and fast across the sky. Open blue spaces appeared in the clouds, and the sun moved in and out of them. As we drove along the drag racetrack between Sillans and Aups, high over the far hills appeared a rainbow like nothing I have ever seen. Rather than being high and semicircular, this one was low, hugging the hills, and was fat and wooly and puffy and almost flat. It was hard to see behind the dense green trees edging the road, but every once in awhile we would speed past an open patch and get a glimpse.

We mortals like to believe that signs in the sky like well-timed emerging sunshine and oddly pudgy rainbows mean things that we should attend to. A vestige of our cavemen-in-the-hills-of-Aups days, this peculiar tendency to look up to see into the future works only so well. You might think that the clearing sky and a big fat wooly caterpillar of a rainbow promised smooth sailing for the little displaced family in their speeding Renault wagon. But no, you're a better reader than that (see paragraph two, above, kids.) We might have all been in the same car, but we might as well have been speeding in rockets to different planets.

The kids were, when we picked them up, of course HUNGRY. Here in France, we only eat at meals, and even though I brought them their kid-sized chocolate treats, none of us can actually get used to the sensation of eating because we really need to, not just because we're sort of bored or distracted and Oh, Look, there's another place selling food! Please do not be impressed by our self-restraint: trust me, we would eat if there were anything to be eaten between 2:00 in the afternoon and 7:00 in the evening. We would probably even buy things with lots of corn syrup in them, too. But no such luck here in corn-starved, thin and healthy France.

The kids had also just been through two grueling three hour sessions of blah blah blah and wanted to go back home to decompress. Bill and I had been through a full day of feeling crowded and cramped back home, and sorely wanted a piece of sky. Bill had missed his Bass lesson. Abigail was longing after Brooklyn “where everyone is so joyful,” as she remembered it, and Grace couldn’t stop talking about how badly we need a guinea pig here in France to sub in for Samson. It wasn't long before someone's pathetic longings would turn into actual tears -- particularly if we put John Denver on the ipod. "Leaving on a Jet Plane" can set off any of the four of us at any moment.

So genius that I am, I tried for a plan to bring us all back together. We would drive over our favorite mountain just north of Aups, to the super-cute and pretty-colored town where it was so sunny and bright and where I had first had that rhubarb sorbet. It would be full of little things to look at, and we could have an early dinner, I would get more rhubarb, and wouldn't that really be so much fun, everyone? Keyword "mountain" pulled in Bill's vote instantaneously, while the vague promise of food staved off the girls' complaints long enough for me to turn the car hard north (my cardinal direction) towards Moustiers Ste. Marie. Mama would save the day.

The Verdun valley, so recently been rained on, showed its colors more brilliantly than usual. The orange earth glowed both darker and brighter. The rain had washed all the dust off the green trees, and the blue water of the lake was positively electric.

We wound around the corners, past the gorge. Abigail asked if she could jump off the bridge, and we briefly pondered whether she would be killed instantly, or merely maimed and then drowned in the cold water if she actually tried. The open-air restaurant on the lakeshore where we had eaten just a week before was fully closed. There were no boats out in the lake, only one or two lonely people sitting on the shore, wishing that they hadn't been so cheap and had just paid the in-season rates when planning their vacations.

There were still tourists milling about the little picture-perfect (but now chilly) town, but they were upper-middle-aged and sharply-dressed French couples, rather than in throngs from all over the world. All the Fayence stores were open, Fayence being both an outmoded technology for making fine china and Mousteire-St-Marie’s claim to fame. They have Fayence, and also the enormous gold star strung between two high mountain peaks just over the gorge and the river running through the center of town. We parked and wandered into town, looking for something to cheer us up, to distract us from our entirely minor losses of the day, and to fill up our bellies.

But no, despite the fact that the Early Birds were circling each establishment like vultures, there would be no dinner served at 5:30 P.M. And not at 6:00 or even 6:30, either. Dinner will be served, here in France, at 7:00 PM and not before. (Clever readers who saw this coming in paragraph nine can give themselves extra credit.) There is almost no amount of window-shopping in fine china shops that can distract two children and two red-blooded American adults with rumbly tummies for that long.

All at once, the four wheels of our cart tried to set off in different directions. Grace needed an immediate advance on her allowance so that she could buy yet another beaded keychain. Abigail needed to dawdle around the water fountain, and Bill set off to find the W.C. I thought that perhaps I would just pop into the store with the provençal-printed bathing suits (more out of prurient curiosity than any other reason; I won’t personally be wearing a bikini in this lifetime, no matter how long I spend in France.) The streets were a warren of little shops, galleries, and lots of closed snack shops. They were twisted and narrow so that you could only see promising signs, not actual establishments. We would look down a street and see a sign that indicated a store that might have calories or decent trinkets. We would walk down the street, hopes up high, and inevitably: fermé.

Sometimes the right of weight wins in our family. Bill took charge, and decided to pull us all along on a hike. I had on hopeless shoes for such an adventure, but the chapel high in the crook of the cliff seemed to be calling us. And somebody had to break the stalemate to get us to the magic hour of 19:00 when we would be allowed to fill our little bellies.

A few false starts to find the trailhead, and then we were climbing up pebbly stone steps into the sky. We walked past the first few stations of the cross (rendered, of course, in Fayence pottery) and then the miracle occurred. No, not a ray of sunshine or even a fuzzy rainbow. Jesus did not step out of the sky to help us sort out our petty human problems. Instead, our miracle was a little sign on a tree reading “Zone de Silence.” We suddenly had earned a free pass from whining, complaining or asking for non-existent snacks for the duration of the hike: a parent’s dream.

And, of course from the girls’ perspective, this also meant a moratorium on all those pointless things adults can’t seem to stop themselves from saying: “Hey, would you look at that amazing view?” and “Look out, you’re too close to the edge” and “Would you please stop walking on the edges of my shoes!!” Peace and quiet with our own little thoughts.

Here in France, away from our friends and fellow New Yorkers, without jobs and extracurricular activities and band practice, the four of us spend a lot of time together. A lot. Which was really the whole point of this adventure from my perspective. If you haven’t noticed, I am only glancingly interested in France itself. I love the natural environment, the food, and the freedom from work, but I could likely have found that in New Mexico, New Zealand, or New Brunswick. Instead, what has fascinated me are the inner workings our own little unit as we have set ourselves adrift here in a strange new world.

That said, as much as we love love love our little family, there are moments when we all need a nice break from so much family togetherness. We need it, and we have a hard time letting ourselves make it happen. This long stony pilgramage up to the Chapel of Notre Dame turned out to be just about the perfect ending to our day. The sign took away our need to constantly talk to, around, and at one another. Then the path took away our need to tussle over constant decisions without adequate information. With up as our own option, we would not have to fight it out over north, south, east and west.

While there is not a religious conversion in the Chapel at the end of this post, it does occur to me as I am writing that perhaps this consistently shared heavenward direction is what helps that nice American military family to get along so much better than we seem to be able to manage ourselves. Ah, well.

Here on the path, we could march along at our own pace, sometimes holding hands when we wanted a companion, and sometimes walking along alone. I could stop and look out over the hills to the lake when my shoes started to bother me. Grace could stare down at the interlacing patterns on the orange tile roofs. Bill could imagine himself into the world of J.R. Tolkien, climbing the stone steps to Mordor. Abigail could dawdle and scour the ground for fossils and sparkles and little treasures.

At the very top of the mountain, the path ended at the chapel. By the time I got there, Bill had gone into the dark stone church, lit only through six tiny stained-glass portals high on the valuted walls, while Abigail and Grace hung back and waited for me, too anxious to walk inside. There was an enormous statue of Jesus on the cross hanging on the wall midway down. At first I thought she was afraid that it might be wax (Grace hates wax statues more than anything aside from vomiting.) But as it turned out later, she found this terrifying because she was fresh from last week’s hearing of the tale of his crucifixion, in extreme gall-and-vinegar detail, from her new religious American friend next door. They took my hand and we walked inside together.

At the front of the chapel stood a gilded altar full of cabinets and cubbies and dozens of candles burning at the feet of Notre Dame, the original Supermom. Little signs on the side of the church thanked her for her protection at various points in history, mainly clustered around the two world wars. Inside was peaceful and quiet and just the tiniest bit gothically creepy. We stood together, still in grateful silence, as our eyes adjusted to the dark. Our little family, back on the path, all together and all alone.

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