Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tartines, or Eggs and Toast

The girls spent the day playing with the rather remarkable children of the American family staying next door. Together the girls walked down to the waterfall, climbing over the pocked rocks and walking up and down right on the edge where the water spilled over. They each wanted to catch a minnow, or perhaps even a fish, and kept besting one another with how far they could reach, how high they could climb in pursuit of each other. Of course one fell in, scrabbling around in the blue water frantically until her dad pulled her out. They loved being with these sweet little girls, and played happily all day. Grace and the oldest girl decided mid-morning that they could be second best friends to one another. They spent the rest of the day playing with Grace’s favorite toy: the multi-track recorder of Garage Band on our laptop. They took their mission quite seriously, and ended up with a few great tunes. At one point, Grace announced to me, quite solemnly, “I’m really not a techno sort of person.” She is defining herself musically as well as socially.

The three littler girls gathered the figs that are dropping themselves on the driveway. They picked huge green leaves from the low branches of trees, and wrapped the figs inside, making “soap” for their moms. They pulled together a big pile of heavy sticks and stacked them in a square formation to make a fort. They jumped in and out of the pool, splashing one another and seeing who could make the biggest splash or send the droplets the highest in the sky. I loved watching them play together, the effortless and conflict-free way that the two groups of sisters meshed into one another.

During my stilted extended conversation with the beautiful Russian woman who did my nails, I ventured that French families do a better job of sticking close together as a unit. We saw these tight groups on the beaches and in the towns; they only split up at le portail September third. Perhaps this was why they find la Rentreé so traumatic. In America, I explained, families are always headed in different directions: Dad goes here, Mom somewhere else, and the kids are forever off to different activities. The kids stay with other kids, moms with moms, and dads with dads. Today, when we got together with the Americans next door, we did exactly that. The kids absorbed themselves in games, the Dads had their own tasks to do, and the moms bonded and gabbed at the pool, then went together off to the grocery store to buy our very American groceries: breakfast cereal, eggs, milk and the wrapped cheese slices I bought for Abigail's first day of school and which have been in great demand ever since.

After the family’s younger boys finished their naps, all the kids came over here to play tea party (with warm water, milk, and honey.) The Dads sat on the stone of the kitchen floor, looking out into the sandy, stony driveway and talking about their jobs. The other mom and I helped each other stack our groceries on the counter, then bag them up at the other end. It felt so familiar.

There are many things that our two families have in common. All four grown ups grew up grounded in American small towns, married a long time ago, and have ended up pretty much by choice in European places far away from where we were born. We all have realized that taking care of kids and having two full time working parents is probably not worth it, and we moms chose to give up our professional leadership goals, at least for the time being, for another kind of life. We discipline our kids with time outs when they need it, which is actually not that often. We all think that American television news is garbage, and seek out our news in other places. Our families are full of tough, smart girls. We try not to let the kids watch garbage T.V. or eat too much sugar, but give in now and again for a cookie (or three) and a movie.

As the kids were playing, these things seemed to matter so much more than our differences. I have never flown a plane, and I haven’t marched in a line since high school band. They are both career military officers who have managed extraordinary responsibilities during a time of war.I have two kids, ran my kids’ school and stayed put for a dozen years; they have five (six in December), they homeschool, and have lived in seven different places in nine years. Halloween is our family’s very favorite holiday, but according to their oldest daughter, their family does not celebrate it, for religious reasons. Their mom runs Vacation Bible School classes.  I internally edit hymns as I sing them.  If I had to guess, I would wager that we may have different political views, although both parents were far too polite and wise to bring that up.

After I was blathering on for quite sometime about how much I loved the museum of prehistory in Quinson, I was suddenly and deeply chagrined to remember that not everyone in the world shares my overwhelming enthusiasm for evolutionary science as the way to best explain the creation of the world. And, to be frank, their parenting skills are so far beyond mine that I have perked up my ears to learn a thing or two about how they corral their five children to apply to my two.

As the girls were walking back from the waterfall, I overheard this conversation. Their oldest daughter sweetly asked Grace, “Do you have religion?” Grace answered quickly and certainly, “Christian.” The girl asked “Catholic or Protestant?” and Grace launched into a complex and utterly false explanation of our family’s religious makeup. “Well, you see, it's complicated in my family, since my Mom is Catholic, and my Dad is Protestant,” she started.

I piped up to correct her, “Nope, Grace. Not quite.”

She tried again, a little less certain, “Well, my Dad is Catholic, and my Mom is Protestant.”

Again, I said, “Nope, not true. Try again.”

Grace made a final attempt, with a question in her voice, “Um, Maybe Dad’s Jewish?” 

She’s right that our family is a little strange and divided about religion, but it’s not as easy to explain. But we certainly haven’t brought up the girls around a central pole of spiritual belief; my somewhat idiosyncratic religious faith and our family’s secular humanist ethics and values are a lot more eclectic and up for discussion than may be easy for a ten year old to understand, much less for her to explain to another child.

I always thought that religion, occupation, and politics mattered more than just about anything else. The two little families who have washed up here in Provence likely could be drawn to represent the Red State / Blue State divide that is stoked by talk radio, then dramatized each night on the evening news in the matter of a civil cold war. But having kids and being American in a foreign place makes me realize that I have so much more in common with this minivan-driving, Bible-studying, homeschooling great big Air Force pilot-and-navigator family than I could ever have expected before we spent the day together. We certainly have far more in common than I may ever be able to claim with my French neighbors. When we eat a bowl of coffee and a tartine for breakfast, it is a put-on, foreign food. Eggs and toast at a diner will always evoke the deeper feelings of home.

I wonder how the girls will feel about this place when they are grown. What will the word “Provence” signify? When I see this unbelievably beautiful orange, green and blue landscape, I feel that I have escaped to the moon. I wonder if they are young enough that the sounds, smells, snails, language and sensory life of this place will become a part of them. I wonder if tartines will someday become a breakfast that makes them sigh and feel the cozy crush of childhood memory.

It was only after a full long day of happy playing that we pried the kids apart and went back to our separate existences. We watched an old Star Trek episode (actually Bill, Grace, and Abigail watched the episode, while I sat in the gathering dark and wrote about our day.) Our friends next door made the unmistakable sounds of going off towards bed; as I wrote, I heard the sweet little murmurings from the littlest boys, and the calls to brush teeth and put on pajamas.

In my emails home, I have been signing off "the little French family," but my day with our fellow Americans showed me that is not the case. Instead, we have brought our American family to France, and we may change in very different ways than I had predicted.

On our way back and forth to Aups, we almost always sing together, but it's not in French. Instead, we roll down the windows and put all of our emotion and gusto into our best heartfelt rendition of our favorite corny John Denver song:

Country road, take me home to the place where I belong

West Virginia, Mountain Mama

Take me home, country road

I'm suddenly not sure where we are singing about. At first, we were singing wistfully about going home -- the roads back to the Farm in Vermont, perhaps, or the driveway from DeGraff Road to Nona and Pops's house. But now that we sing the same song each time we travel that stretch of road, it is becoming the country road taking us home, back to the little house in the olive trees with its huge windows open to the impossibly blue sky.

Our trip here has brought us face to face with a whole new world, one that is gradually working its way into the new people we are becoming. Before we arrived, we had a Big Idea of France. We talked about it ad nauseum with everyone we met, and served as the repository for other people's dreams as well as our own unfounded fears. Now all those ideas recede in the overpowering realness of the place. Now we live the color of the stones and the sky, the feel of the dust, the smell of cheese and spices at the market, the sound of the bats flying and the cats calling in the night.

But at the same time, leaving New York and living here in France has also revealed to us what it means to be American, and how deeply we share that identity with the other 250 million back home. We can feel how deeply we love where we've come from, and just how fully that place marks everything we know and are. It's as though the mirrors are different here somehow -- it's not just France that is so different, it's also that we that see ourselves so differently now that we are here. It's not just in our speech -- it's in the way we eat and smile and talk and shop and drive, in how we say hello and say goodbye.

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