Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Rule of "We're Here"

May, 1992. Bill's last extended visit to Europe was when he was 23 years old, a nine-week backpacking tour via train that took him from sofa to sofa in the cities of Europe. He traveled with Alain, who was then and still is now one of his closest friends. They visited Bill's ex-girlfriend Vera in Germany and took part in an end-of-term blowout party at which the room was purposefully destroyed. They rode on the backs of mopeds driven by beautiful sisters along the Appian Way to eat a picnic in the Elysian Fields. They were the source of major social disapproval when they opened cans of tunafish in a crowded train car on the slow route from Eze to Florence in the full sun. They stayed up until the small hours of the morning at a party on the beach at Cap D'Ail, then spent the next day walking over to Monaco to pop in for a visit to Prince Albert. The Prince was not at home, but they were graciously received when they introduced themselves as fellow Amherst graduates. In Rome's Piazza Navona, they sang a cappella duets complete with choreography, putting out a hat to gather enough money for beer and ice cream.

I have heard Bill's stories of this trip so many times that I can now tell them myself (and here, I am telling them to you.) But until recently, I did not know of the rule that brought all of those stories into being. Apparently, when Bill and Alain were traveling, they lived by the rule of "We're Here."

It's a simple and completely obvious rule for travelers, particularly when you're so young. Whenever faced with an option to do something here and now, or something away and later, they chose what was present and directly in front of them. There would be no waiting, no returning, no planning to come back at the most opportune time for the moped trip, the beach party, the visit to the Royal Palace. I've seen the photos, and I know that they were rarely properly dressed for any of the occasions or places in which they found themselves. They often had disagreements over when, where and how much to eat, and they made a lot of mistakes and pissed people off. But based on what Bill has told me, it seems that their biggest regrets had to do with the moments that they broke their biggest rule and waited for all stars to align before saying yes to the there and then.

August 20, 2009. On our first trip to Aix-en-Provence (immortalized all of ten days ago in "We May Need To Start Seeing Other People") I drove our Renault past a field of drying, drooping sunflowers, their mournful heads turned all in one direction. Bill's enthusiasm alarm went off at volume 10, and he demanded that I stop the car and turn around so that he could take a photograph. But I was driving many, many kilometers per hour, with several cars just behind me. Because this is France, there was no shoulder on the road, and I was not particularly comfortable stopping. Plus, we were going to Aix that day, not photographing fields of sunflowers. "Later," I said. We would take the picture later.

If you know Bill and me, you know that this interchange is repeated perhaps hundreds of times a week. Bill gets enthusiastic about some new something, and I get focused on the thing that is To Be Done. For this, you can give both of us names that are either flattering or damning.

Her name is Launa, High Priestess of That Which Is Organized and Efficient. Little Miss Get it all Done Before Breakfast. She Who Could Not Improvise Her Way Out of a Paper Bag. Gifted Finder of the Most Effective Way. Self-Righteous Tier of Loose Ends. Our Lady of the Miracle of Perpetually Delayed Gratification.

And he is called Bill, Mr. Disorganized, Distracted, and Out of Control. The Fresh Prince of Spontaneity. That Spazzy Guy Who Can’t Seem To Get Stuff Done. Master Fun Blaster with a Capital FB. Sir Irresponsible. His Highness of Great Enthusiasms.

Choose any moniker you like, nice or nasty; it's just who we are relative to one another. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes I am; either careful planning or serendipity can create paradise or disaster. And sometimes we even switch roles, as we did earlier this summer as Bill spent hours organizing, planning, earning the elusive Visa and learning French while I drank up magic summer elixir and pretended we would never really leave home.

When things are good, we are Desi and Lucy -- genders reversed, but just as cute. When we are awful, we are the Bickersons and nobody can stand to be near us. Including ourselves.

And wherever we go, here we are. Back to August 20, 2009. Also on that first visit to Aix, we came across a place at the end of the Cours Mirabeau with enormous trampolines. Children were strapped to these crazy guy-wires and could leap up and down on the trampolines and flip over, land on their feet or their little tender heads, then do it again and again. Instantly both girls wanted to try the AcroBungie. It is in fact one of Abigail’s professional ambitions to be an Acrobat, either before or after running a hotel, being an artist, and spending eight years as President of the United States. (Since she has many career goals to achieve, she finds term limits not only attractive but practical.)

But we had just taken a ride on the world's slowest carousel, and were on our way to ice creams, so we decided to forego yet another possibly pointless and potentially dangerous Five Euro kid treaty-treat. That was also back a few weeks ago when we kept multiplying every Euro by 1.5 in our minds, which inevitably made us want to stop doing or eating anything at all. We were then on an austerity plan that extended even to kid fun. Now we have finally given into the conceit that a Euro might as well be a dollar, as long as we're thinking about small sums. It is making things much less vexed, and it’s not like we can change the exchange rate for a box of cereal through the power of sheer anxiety.

That day we smashed the rule of “We’re Here” into little pieces. "Next time you can jump on the trampolines," we promised. We would look on line to see if these trampoline contraptions were even safe before Next Time. We might even get ourselves a pediatrician, in the meantime, just in case. We would bring the right shoes next time. It was so hot we could barely stand to be standing there in the street arguing with children any longer, and wanted to get inside the ice cream parlor. We had to fairly drag the girls away, and only the carrot of Next Time got their feet moving.

September 1, 2009. Today was our last day before we dive into the world of school. When they woke up, we asked the girls what they wanted to do. Grace made pancakes from a recipe she found online, but Abigail couldn't really think of anything in particular that struck her fancy. I was distracted and worried, chewing on my nails, bustling around picking up the house and organizing our tiny number of belongings, so I was hardly the go-to-gal for fun activity planning.

Luckily, Bill had his enthusiasm generator on high, and came up with an idea. He would give everybody a camera, (he and I would share the Canon) then drive out on a random road and stop the car for any picture that anyone wanted to take. No matter what. A classic “We’re Here” day.

I felt that the plan needed a little more structure, particularly a little lunch. We ate great food at the Brasserie in Sillans, from the same government-issued menu that appears over and over everywhere for cheap. Since Bill had suggested that we drive down the road towards Barjols, and since I like to have a destination in mind, I planned to get us as far as the excellent roadside vegetable stand that has die-for peaches and flavorful orange tomatoes. We would pass the sunflowers on the way, and Bill could snap to his heart’s content.

We made our first stop in a vineyard just outside Sillans-la-Cascade. Rows of green vines. Heavy clusters of purple grapes. More tiny white snails. Blue hills in the distance. Orange earth drying towards peach. Snap. Snap. Snap.

Every town we passed, every landscape, was made up of hues of just three main colors. Orange. Blue. Green. Green Plane trees. Blue hillsides. Green vines, green trees, green grass, green plants growing out of the sides of the orange rocks. Orange houses, darker orange roofs, with shutters painted delicate and individual shades of blue and green. Snap. Snap. Snap.

Then we came on to the field of sunflowers. Rather than plants drying mournfully in the sun, there was a field of dry brown beheaded stumps. Every sunflower had been mowed down and harvested, off to become useful: a snack or some oil or perhaps just food for chickens.

So much for next time. So much for that photograph.

In our newness in France, we had assumed that everything we were encountering was permanent, the way things always are here. The sunflowers always loom over together in the same direction. That man always sits outside the café. That dog lives under the tables at the pizza place in Tourtour. There is always live flamenco music and African drumming at the Mairie on Saturday nights. The river that runs by our house and falls into the waterfall is always a perfect clear shade of turquoise blue.

Not so. Each time we have returned, assuming we would find more of the same, we find the world has changed, not always for the better. No music in Tourtour. The river turned a mucky brown by all the rain. Now it sometimes is chilly at night. The Millipedes invaded, are getting fat, and now all dying and drying up again.

The moon continues to wax and rise in a different patch of sky every evening.

So when I saw the mowed down sunflowers, (and right after admitting, in no uncertain terms, that this time Bill was the one who had been right) I hatched a plan in French with Bill. We wouldn’t just get the vegetables. We would drive all the way to Aix and put the girls in the AcroBungie. So what if Abigail was wearing a dress. We’d buy her some pants so her undies wouldn’t show when she flipped. So what if we did not have the right shoes. So what if I hadn’t showered and was wearing (heaven forbid it) aged flipflops. Aix is full of the most glamorous people I have seen since my last visit to Manhattan, and I looked smalltownishly draggy. So what. Tomorrow we register for school. Time for the AcroBungie. Time for a little We’re Here, or at least We’re On Our Way There.

It was remarkable to me how much easier it was to drive, to park, and to find where we were going. This was only our second trip (Bill’s third) but already we were a little calmer. We kept the Bungie a secret. We went to Monoprix and picked out some Rentree clothes for both girls, including a pink pair of pants Abigail could flip in. We moved ourselves gradually towards the AcroBungie.

Maybe you have already guessed what happened. We got ourselves to the far end of Cours Mirabeau, where the AcroBungie was meant to be. We were here, and even prepared. They were not. Just an empty space on the sidewalk next to the newsstand. I looked around once more –they must be here somewhere! No such luck. AcroBungies packed up and moved on to a town somewhere else in Europe, maybe that now-empty parking lot in Antibes.

The girls were no worse for this, since we had so carefully kept it a surprise. They were truly excited about their new school clothes, and scarfed down ice cream while we drank a tiny little Kir at a sidewalk café. On the drive home, we stopped to photograph many more things that were blue, orange, and green. While the sun poured its fire on the trees and the orange roofs, the cool moon rose up huge and nearly round in front of us, reflecting its white in the big blue sky.

Over dinner, Bill and I told the girls about the (botched) plan. During our ritual of thankfuls, he said that he was thankful that I had had such a good idea, and I apologized for its failure. They turned to me, sweetly grateful and almost proud that I had even had something like a whim. According to the three of them, the day was a success anyway. There had been two ice creams, not just one. And new clothes to wear to school. There was tortellini for dinner, and The Hobbit to read before bed. The girls' little cameras had run out of batteries halfway through the trip, but they took mostly pictures of themselves and each other making faces, anyway. There would be other faces to make, and almost certainly a next time.

As each of us shut down the day and dropped off to sleep, the night whispered its cool truth through our windows: you’re here. You’re here. You’re here.

1 comment:

  1. Your children DO look Dutch. Beautiful, bright, contented faces they have. And you and Bill look like you are enjoying yourselves tremendously.

    Love the story of registering the girls for school. Do headmasters really teach full time? And set up their classrooms in biking gear? Really?

    Plus you will get to move to a house just five minutes away. What a great deal you all have going for yourselves.

    I hope the start of the school year goes very well. Sounds like it will. Yeah for all of you.