Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't Know Much About History: or, The Palace with the Pops


Friday I went to Nice to pick up my parents, Nona and Pops, at the airport in Nice. Despite their long trip in the cramped seats of British Airways steerage class, they were in remarkably good spirits. They walked out the sliding mirrored doors of Terminal One with their tiny suitcases in tow, I paid my parking tab at the automatic teller, and we climbed into Diesel Liesel for the drive back up into the hills of the Var. It all unfolded as though I were some sort of skilled tourguide of the wonders of France.

It's been only two months since we arrived at that same terminal, spewed out blinking and mewing like unhappy newborn kittens into the strange place of palm trees and tanned leather faces and the very bluest kind of sky. But it feels like a lifetime has unfolded. Having my college friend Jackie here a few weeks ago brought back half my lifetime; now here are Mom and Dad to bring me the first half as well. Whenever your Mom and Dad are around, you are your grown-up self, a teenage rebel, a little kid and big old baby all at the same time. All around me, time suddenly felt elastic.

As we sped along the A8, we passed the dry, rocky hills and valleys where proto-humans lived in caves a million years ago. A few tens of thousands of years back, the first humans came along to kick some Neanderthal ass, affecting one of the first and most crucial extinctions for which our race would be responsible. Driving through Salernes, we passed the bald hillside covered with pits where those people had been buried and then burned 2,000 years before Christ.

Later in our travels, Mom and Dad and I would see the place in Avignon where the street had been dug out to reveal a chunk of first-century Roman wall below ground, right next to the soaring stone walls of the enormous Palais des Papes, from which nine Popes had ruled Christendom during the fourteenth century. In Moustiers-Ste-Marie, we would climb hundreds of stairs up to a tiny chapel clinging to a hillside, somehow built in the 1300s, where grateful soldiers had placed dated stone tablets thanking Notre Dame de Beauvoir for getting them safely home. 1919. 1943. 1945.

While there are no stone monuments to our own trips in and around these places, we brought along our own memories and stories to animate the hills.

In '59, fifty years ago, my dad sped through these same hillsides in a rented VW bug with three American girls. The girls spoke all the French and made all the arrangements, but he was 21 and could rent the car. His stories of driving in and out of Nice, down into Spain to see the Alhambra and the cave paintings, then down into Morocco, have been family legend for years, and the names Polly, Ginger and MaryAnne never failed to bring a little smile to his face and a grimace to Mom's. Of course, back in 1959, Mom was only two years older than Grace, so it's not like she was jealous. She's just heard the stories a few too many times.

As we traveled, we were here and now, and also back home on the farm where I grew up. We were with my French family in 1985, then on Bill's epic backpack of 1992. It was two months ago, then two weeks ago, and here we are in the present, driving through layers upon layers of time.

Of course, because I am who I am, I drive through those layers very carefully. It is from my parents that I inherited my deep need to get things right all the time, even and especially as I am moving through space and time over 100 kilometers per hour -- to break before the turn, then speed up as I pass through it; to anticipate the truck coming in from the exit; to never miss a turnoff. We make our plans, we arrive places on time. We avoid mistakes like they are swine flu.

I thought perhaps I would both try out my new-found travel skills, show Mom and Dad a little more of Provence, but also tempt fate just a little bit with a little overnight to Avignon. Mom and Dad have been following us every step of our journey, reading and even printing out each new blog post, and I think that they would have been just as happy to stick close to home and explore all the places I had described earlier in the blog (my epic trips to the grocery store; the wine tasting room with the beautiful vitner, the portail, the second floor.) But I wanted to stretch us a little bit, maybe even test my own travel skills, as I would be doing this one on my own, without Bill along for the ride.

Grace had a little cold, so she stayed home too. As we set out on our trip, she was up in her bed writing the same story that has absorbed her for weeks. It's getting to the point now that she and I regularly argue over who gets to spend our free time typing away with the computer. If we're going to have to fight about something, I like this topic best of all.

We set out for Avignon, planning to stop for lunch in Aix-en-Provence. Mom and Abigail sat in back, Abigail circling every other item in the American Girl catalogue that Mom had brought along for her.

Abigail is on an I Love America campaign these days. In the car, she insists on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A" or early Jackson 5. She frequently points out the many ways in which the U.S. is far superior to France, conceding only that it might be good to have "free" health care and University education. I think she would wear red white and blue every day if she could find the clothes in her limited wardrobe. It's not exactly that she's unhappy here, but she certainly would be much happier to be at home. Having her grandparents here is good medicine, although I had an even better promise for her waiting at the end of the trip -- Zaro and Gareth would be meeting us for lunch and bringing along their dogs. There is nothing like a dog.

Unlike the rest of us, swimming around in all these years of familial and world history, Abigail is a creature of the here and the now. She is untouched by the caves, the wars, the trips decades ago. Buffeted around by strange whims of her parents (Let's quit our jobs! Let's go to France! Let's leave our family dog! Let's spend the afternoon walking around an old medieval hilltown!) she must cobble together meaning where she can find it. And she found it -- in spades -- in that catalogue. There was all the normal American kid stuff of which she had been deprived -- little girl ice skates and skirts and small pink shoes.

As I drove along, she and Nona kept up a detailed discussion of all the wonderful items in the catalogue available for purchase by parents and grandparents. She has intuited from her new knowledge of the tooth fairy that Santa Clause is not to be relied upon, and is going straight to the source. If her parents can't give her America, at least they might be open to some suggestions for outfitting her American girls.

When we passed Mount St. Victoire, I tried to engage her in a conversation about Cezanne, to remind her of some of the things we had tried to teach her about the painter who rendered its sharp angles and contrasts so many hundreds of times. "Hmm, nope. Don't remember, Mom. What painter? Who?" The adults in the car were all very excited to stare and remark on its contours for the whole twenty Kilometers it was in view, but it was not until we were directly next to it that Abigail gasped in amazement. "Look at that beautiful mountain!" she insisted breathlessly, as though we hadn't all been discussing it for the last little while.

The world works best for Abigail with the volume turned up high. She likes bright colors and strong beats and fast games of tag. The other day at breakfast, she picked up a fork and stared at it at very close range, the tines sticking nearly up her nose. "Why is the world so real, Mom?" It was as though she had been zooming along with life just outside the window, minding her own business, when suddenly it loomed up at her like that big square mountain, huge and unavoidable.

We parked underground in Aix. Since my first freakout in in the Carnet car park, I've mastered the difficult skill of maneuvering through cramped little underground parking lots, and can handle them without a second thought. I walked Mom, Dad, and Abigail up the Rue D'Italie to the Cours Mirabeau, where Dad took his own American girls for lunch fifty years ago.

The street was sunny and warm, full of French people on vacation from their stressful 35-hour workweeks. It is Vacances de la Toussaint in France, which adds up to a ten-day reprieve from school. To get the same effect back home, you could string together all the fall holidays during the most glorious week and a half of mid-October Indian Summer: start off with three days straight of Jewish holidays, throw in Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving, two extra Mercredis Libre, and stick a weekend on either end. Although I can't say anybody is walking around looking exactly happy, (this is France, after all) at least they've shifted to worrying about vacation stress rather than the stress of the Rentreé, or presumably the upcoming stress of the winter holidays. If you gotta pick a stress, pick vacation stress.

We wandered from fountain to fountain, settling on a quiet indoor corner table with lots of glass to look out on the top of the Cours. On our way back down the street, we ate Amarino ice cream, Abigail's shaped into petals by the clever scoopers. "Two-flavored ice cream in the form of a rose," I told her. "They don't have that in America." I don't know why I have become France's biggest champion all of the sudden: perhaps it is my new role as a tourguide, plus all the jollying I do for the girls, getting them into the spirit of tolerating the unfamiliar over and over again.

Aix was a big hit this time around, but I'm not sure I can say the same for Avignon. I had found us a likely hotel, a little guesthouse near the Palais du Papes run by two Parisians, M. and Mme. Chocolate. I thought it was cute enough, but I should remember I never really like bed and breakfasts. The couple greeted us in English and sent us up to our little rooms as the Messieur breezed out the door. Mme. Chocolate was friendly enough, but wanted to rush me through her usual spiel of directions as she was drying her big mop of hair. She warned me off the tourist restaurants in the Place D'Horloge and towards the cute little ones around the corner.

We checked in and walked around the high stone walls of the Palais. On our way home from Zaro and Gareth's a month ago we had done a reconnaissance trip, taking as long a trip through the Palais as the kids could stand. There had been neat little cell-phone like audio-guide devices to fill us in on all the history of the years that the center of Papal authority had been in Avignon. But I don't recall a single fact I learned there. Mostly I remember Abigail complaining that her feet hurt.

The Papal Palace is not really a place for kids raised on the delights of Sesame Street and the wonders of The Pirates of the Carribean. It is a series of enormously tall bare stone rooms in which various ancient Popes made their decrees, ate their state dinners and presumably brushed their holy teeth. I could have been convinced to get into the creepy Hogwartsian Gothic spirit of the place if I had been allowed to pay attention for five minutes. But Abigail likes attractions where you can be terrified in more overt ways, like by water flumes and sharp drops and leering wax statues. To put it most obviously, she's a normal kid, and what normal kid wants to spend another morning hearing about how many chickens, boars and eggs it took to make the Cornation Meal for Pope Leonardianiotonio the Eighth.

So when she saw the soaring towers and the huge gold statue again this time, she went on strike. "No More Popes' Palace!" she begged. "Don't make me go there tomorrow!!! It's so BORING."

And suddenly as she spoke it was 1976, but Bill's life rather than mine. When Bill was in second grade, on his year abroad with his own family, they spent several weeks in April touring England. His family drove from cathedral to cathedral, flying along from buttress to buttress and nave to nave. They saw endless organs, saints, stained glass windows. After over a dozen beautiful cathedrals, Bill fell to his knees in prayer in one of the pews.

"Please, God," his parents heard him plea. "Please make my parents stop taking us to cathedrals."

He works in mysterious ways, and eventually answered Bill's plea, although perhaps not as quickly as young Bill might have liked. Now when Abigail makes a similar request, I'm happy enough to spend the time outside playing tag or scouting through store after store of Provençal tourist crapola with her. She's great at buying presents for other people, and only sometimes lobbies later to keep them for herself.

That night we watched the waxing moon rise, looking up between the huge white towers as we walked down the tiny winding streets. We ate our lovely dinner at the non-touristy restaurant, went our separate ways to sleep, then woke up early to get ready for Mom and Dad to visit the Palace, and Abigail and me to do whatever it was we were going to do.

Breakfast was nice enough, but again I was kicking myself for this whole bed-and-breakfast nonsense. Too quiet, too fussy. Little silver sugar bowl next to those awful red-wax wrapped gross little Babybel cheeses. As is the case in most bed-and-breakfasts, there were cat statues and little Victorian details everywhere. Mom seemed to think that it looked like a home for "ladies of the evening" as she put it. But in my view, the place had neither the pleasant anonymity nor the liveliness a real brothel would have offered our solemn little well-behaved party.

It was time to go be tourists again. But just as I was paying our bill, I heard Abigail from the top of the stairs. "Mom. Come quick. Something really awful has happened."

I couldn't have moved faster to look up to her. I saw her face, relieved to see that she was still breathing and not bleeding, and couldn't figure out what was the trouble. She led me by the hand into the bathroom, where the bottom beveled and mirrored frame of a huge mirror had fallen off its plywood backing and onto the floor. It hadn't shattered, she was fine, and so of course I went straight to the interrogation process.

Abigail might be prone to boredom and mischief, and she might sometimes be a little less tactful than we would all like, but she is constitutionally unable to tell anything but the full truth. "I just brushed it with my elbow" she said (it was directly next to the toilet, not ten inches from the bowl) "and it broke. Mommy, I'm so sorry." And I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that while something awful had happened, she had done nothing wrong.

M. Chocolate was in the middle of getting my change when I went downstairs to break the news. He was bewildered and confused, but I insisted he come up to see. "Ooo la la," he said, his tone far cooler and angrier than I thought it might have been warranted. "You have no idea how much this mirror is worth."

It wasn't yet nine in the morning, and there we were, in a foreign city, staring at seven years of bad luck on the floor of this tawdry little bathroom. My parents were hovering a little shocked and anxious on the edges of things, and Abigail was trying not to positively wither with embarrassment. I thought the mirror looked like an old sort of reproduction thing, its beveled pieces glued onto thin plywood. But according to M. Chocolate, they had paid dearly for its antique majesty.

And now so would we.

A bed and breakfast is not the sort of place you really want to get into a full-on argument. So I mounted my tightrope, strung tightly between protecting my family, meeting whatever reasonable obligations I had to Mr. and Mrs. Candypants, and getting the hell out of there with my daughter's sense of self intact. "What is it you need me to do?" I asked again and again, in as quiet and calm a voice as I could muster. "It was an accident and we are all very sorry." I said this series of sentences approximately eleven times as they tried again and again to get a rise out of me.

Mme. Chocolate came up to inspect the damage as well, and to aim to inflict her own. How could the child possibly have done such a thing, she wished to know. This was a terrible thing, a terrible and a horrible thing that had happened. She bitterly blamed herself (but really, me) for allowing children in the house at all. "Never, never again," she intoned. "Never will there be a child staying here." Many nasty things occurred to me to say in response, including pointing out to her that if she had any sort of policy against having children in the house, she hadn't mentioned that when I wrote -- with the girls' ages in the email of course -- to request a reservation.

"This mirror has been in my grandmother's family for generations" she told me, despite the fact that M. Chocolate had paid so much for it in the earlier version of the story. And despite the fact that plywood was not so readily available those generations ago. This mirror had clearly been around. I decided that my best role in this particular drama was the quietly boring and appeasing bad tourist. The more times I said sorry, the less I raised my voice, the more I leaned over to tell Abigail "It was an accident," the quicker we could leave.

M. and Mme Chocolate, for all of their distress, seemed unable to come up with any sort of action plan aside from wringing all sorts of guilt out of me. I must have insurance, they insisted, and I refrained from suggesting that they might as well. M. Chocolate mentioned in French to his wife that cash on the spot would be preferable, but I pretended not to hear. They directed a number of rhetorical questions Abigail's way before I decided to set up a buffer and speak in French. They could be as sour as they wanted in their own home, but I wasn't about to let it spill all over my kid. Presumably some day they would send me an inflated bill for repair, and we would negotiate and eventually I would pay some or all of it. For now, I just had to leave. I wrote down my (real) name and telephone number on a little post-it, I repeated once again my apologies, and we finally cowered our ways out the door.

The rest of the morning was a little rough. As many times as I reassured Abigail that she had done nothing wrong, tried to jostle her along with "C'est ne pas grave," (No big deal) she couldn't quite get over her hang-dog expression. I too was deflated, guilty for not standing up to them, and sick with the thought of any more contact. I kicked myself for not taking a picture of the stupid mirror, for making the reservation in the first place. Mom and Dad went through the museum on their own, perhaps wondering why their otherwise capable daughter had chosen such a strange trip and stranger hotel.

It was, as is usually the case, Bill's buoyancy that saved our day. On the phone, Bill promised that he would take care of any further communication or demands for restitution from the Chocolates. He is particularly well-suited for this sort of thing, both by profession and by personality. "When they call, I'll pretend that I can't speak English or French" he told me. "I'll get them for intentional infliction of emotional distress. I'll ask them why they hadn't affixed such a dangerous object more carefully to the wall. Don't worry honey. I'm great at flummoxing people like this." He made me laugh, and suddenly things were OK again.

Things went from OK to really great when we got to see Zaro and Gareth and their sweet shepherd puppies again. They picked out a great old-fashioned restaurant -- not the tourist kind in Place D'Horloge, and not the faux-sophisticated one Mme. Chocolate sent us to. Perfect ratatouille, a big chunk of salmon for Abigail, and lots of those great sauces for which French cooking is rightly famous. We swapped more stories, traveled some more in time. We talked children and dogs and farms and gardens and family.

Through most of lunch, Abigail was quieter than usual. There couldn't have been a politer or more gracious little girl anywhere in the world, but I could tell she would rather be running around in an open field someplace with the dogs, playing tag, jumping on the trampoline. The world is suddenly so very real, and here she is in it, trying to piece together her childhood from all these strange sounds and new smells and odd trips to boring and weird places with her nutty family. She is both open and self-contained; carefully balanced and always an inch from tipping one way or the next. A little toy top, spinning and wobbling along her way, but never falling down.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Friendly


Bill and I share sixteen trips each week to le portail, where our dramas unfold. On our way to that schoolyard gate we often are forced to reflect, in one way or another, on our current relationship to the social world of our little town.

Or, to be more accurate, our non-relationship. For we have both realized that no matter how many times we wait there for the girls, nobody is going to come over and say hello. Or talk about the weather. Or do anything but stand and stare, or just ignore us completely.

On a great day, the four of us all walk together, and play tag in the lane on the way to school. We bravely assert our own strong relationship to one another in the face of our total lack of importance to the people around us. On a bad day, nobody has the courage to face all those frowny faces. We are hobbled by our utter lack of comprehension, and we get bitter tears. It's not just the language I don't understand, I have now realized. There is a more profound disconnect that I can’t get my head around; after years of being so fully an insider, now I am a complete outsider. In a place that has no tradition or need of welcoming the outsiders in.

But whether this attitude towards our otherwise perfectly approachable and sweet family is "French" or "rural" or even simply boils down to the attitude of this particular town, I may never know.

I'm working, instead, on not caring, and focusing on the people who do matter.

Standing at school yesterday at lunchtime, waiting for the girls, I could not get the word "friendly" out of my head; I was missing friendliness. I was trying to figure out how I might explain what seemed to be missing in our trips to the portail, and that ridiculous word was all I could reach for to explain the difference. "Not very friendly," was the phrase I was trying to translate. I went back home and looked it up on Google: "amical" was the word. Or, to use the phrase above, "Ils sont peu amical," they are not very friendly.

Immediately, some other and much more austere voice inside of me demanded, "And why should they be friendly? What a bizarre attitude to expect others have towards strangers; for strangers are not in fact your friends." Suddenly my desire to have people be friendly to me struck me as ridiculous – not only not what we deserve, but also just not what’s done around here.

The people we have actually socialized with -- our lasagne party aquaintances, on the way to being friends -- are always friendly, even warm. We do the bisous and share our little ooh la las and laughter, and we smile at each other’s kids. Their "ça va?" (How's it going?) is real and open and means something. Seeing them is like catching hold of a little life raft in an otherwise pitiless sea.

So here we have again Bill's baguette theory of French social life -- crusty on the outside, soft and mushy within. This analogy has been holding up awfully well.

Until today. (Cue scary music) when I met someone about as soft and mushy as a bucket of poisoned nails. But also about whom my post will actually have to be kept under wraps, in the unlikely event that somebody in Aups actually knows (or cares) that I write about my experiences here. If you want to read that one, email me directly and I'll send it your way once it's cooked.

But first, an account of being with people who are truly, deeply, madly friendly: in fact, not just friendly, but our friends.

Last weekend we braved the TGV to go to Paris. Remembering our happy Christmas trip two and a half years ago, the girls were really really excited to be back. Remembering my own trip two weeks ago, I was even more so.

At the last minute, I emailed Hillary, an old college friend who is living in Paris, to see if we could connect. She had been a godsend over email since we moved here, teaching me about the crucial rule that people turning in from the right have the right of way. I might have been killed or driven insane without this little bit of wisdom, and she had been resolutely generous and – yes, friendly – as we battled early bouts of feeling homesick and displaced. She has lived in Paris for over a decade, and now has Stella, an absolutely adorable two-and-a-half-year old, as well as a baby on the way, due in a few months.

We met up just outside a kids’ clothing store; astonishingly, after twenty years apart, we both needed little girl boots at precisely the same moment. She led us straight to Du Pareil Au Meme, the store that my friend Lucia had recommended to me for being both stylish and not overpriced. The girls – mine, as well as Hillary’s, delighted in playing footsie dressup, trying on sparkly boots and tall boots and purple boots and flowered boots.

Later, we all sat around a big table in a café, munching on way too much sausage, some foie gras, little shavings of truffle, and a special hamburger for Stella. Seeing Hillary was a testament to the truth that character and personality don’t really change, despite changes in circumstance or place or family. She was just as full of bubble and spark and creative energy as she has always been. And it was an infusion of that generosity and kindness that we really needed.

We stayed in Paris with family of our longtime friends Joe and Emmanuelle from back home. We had met Jean-Claude and Ruth, with their lovely kids Raphael, Benjamin, and Oriana, when they stayed in our basement apartment back in Brooklyn. When they stayed with us, they came and went, visiting the city, while we came and went, over-busy with our little jobs, as we always seemed to be back in those days. We met only and finally on their last night in Brooklyn, over an epic dinner at Brooklyn Fish Camp, where the kids did their best to communicate despite the language barrier, and the grownups switched back and forth between French and English.

This visit, we would stay in their apartment in Paris. In fact, they actually gave us a whole apartment to ourselves -- the downstairs studio where their 14-year old twins sleep. At the end of our weary hours traveling on the floor of the train, we had their hospitality to catch us and warm us. They gave us perfect directions, they met us at the door, they gave even cooked us a delicious north African dinner with couscous and sweetly seasoned meat. The girls ate their usual five or six bites of dinner, then went off to play in Oriana's room with her great stash of American girl dolls, little pretend grocery shopping items, and tiny plastic pets. I'm not quite sure what games they played together, or how they overcame their language differences, but Abigail was fairly rabid to spend all her time in Paris in that room. The Louvre? The Tuileries? The Eiffel Tower? Nope, she'd rather go play with Oriana.

All weekend long, the whole family was unfailingly kind and generous, welcoming us over and over. While we had been somewhat lackluster hosts when they came to stay with us in Brooklyn ("Here's the key -- see you Thursday night,") they folded us in and made room at their table.

As a high school teacher, I have always enjoyed adolescents. While most adults find them mysterious and off-putting, I tend to enjoy getting under the radar with direct questions and actual interest. But these boys needed no such careful touch to talk seriously and openly and honestly with strange adults. As soon as we arrived, just after the bisous, they set about with great confidence and grace making us at home in their own room. They wouldn't let us carry our bags, or clear the table, or wonder even for a minute whether they minded our taking their space.

In this maturity, confidence and wit, as well as -- well, friendliness -- they reminded me of my favorite brothers ever, MD and MD, now grown up men. I have long wondered how their mother raised them to be so wonderfully generous and comfortable with adults; now I have another set of boys to study and watch and learn from.

As we prepared to sit down for dinner, Raphael sat down at the piano and began to play. Not some little Sonatina from a classical music primer. And not the themesong from High School Musical. Rather, he played a piano transcription of Dave Brubeck, legendary jazz musician. He played with real joy as well as skill, in sharing mode rather than show-off mode, and I couldn’t help myself from snapping my fingers along with the music (this is an inheritance from my grandmother Elenora that I have passed along to my own girls; we can’t hear good music without wiggling to it.)

Not to be outdone, his brother Benjamin sat down and tucked into another nearly impossible piece of piano jazz, all complex chords and rhythms and syncopation. In the way they moved around one another – setting the table, making little jokes, taking turns at the piano, delighting in one another – I could see a family in harmony. While my girls had barely been able to set the table at Chez Guillaume without hand-to-hand combat, here the children complimented their parents, and one another.

Over dinner, Ruth and Jean-Claude talked about their lives in Paris, which clearly revolves around their children and their music. Jean-Claude is physician, but in true French form, we talked less about work and more about their family’s passions. Jean-Claude is a classical and jazz music fan of the highest order, and the whole family holds rhythm and melody in the highest regard. They listened kindly to our little trials and tribulations at le portail, and suggested ways to help the girls to adapt and learn. As a teacher of foreign languages, Ruth was particularly helpful.

I also remembered, in talking with them, that it’s not just our move to France that has us all tied in knots. Because even families with nearly perfect children have their challenges and stresses. Right now Bill and I are blaming all of our difficulties on our decision to decamp so aggressively. But if we were home, or in Paris, or even sipping cocktails on the beach all day long, we would still have our little challenges. We might not sob on the way to le portail, but there would be sobs nonetheless. Wherever you go, there you are, with your whole little family in tow. You might find a moment to be happier or sadder, you might take a hike or take a nap. But when you get right down to it, your world is your world and it takes a lot more than a letter of resignation and a transatlantic flight to change who we really are.

Before we left, on Sunday morning, Oriana pulled out her instrument to play for us as well. It is a cello, and she plays it with precision and soul uncommon for such a young girl. She is a perfect combination of self-possession and youth, able to observe her surroundings completely but also to play tag with Abigail in the park. She played a slow and serious piece, then a whimsical version of a Christmas song. Hearing her play, and watching her be so patient and kind with our girls, drawing out their French and filling in with English, I was so impressed. She is a girl growing up without growing into pre-adolescent sass and sour. Just before we left, as we wandered through the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, I watched Grace actually speak French with her. Grace told me later that she had no idea what she was saying, but somehow the conversation unfolded. I was so proud of Grace for trying, but was even more grateful for Oriana’s open-hearted friendliness that allowed her to try.

On the way home, I fell back into a little Sunday night funk of the kind that always plagued me back home. All of the thrill of Friday night must become the sadness of Monday morning. Back in Aups, we would be back to the quiet disapproval of le portail. The weather has turned, and we knew we would be returning to a chilly house, in the dark.

But this little funk took a strange turn. Perhaps more than anything, I just wanted to be able to walk into a restaurant and order what I wanted – in English – and have it delivered, hot and quick, as it would have been in Brooklyn. Thai or Indian or even that great vegetarian Ruben I always order at Perch. If I couldn’t have friends nearby, or even friendliness, I just wanted some nice hot fries.

Given how much I love the food here, this was a strange sort of homesickness to overtake me. But I think it went a little deeper than my greedy stomach. Being in Paris had reminded me of the freedom of cities. You can pick your restaurants, and while you might choose badly, there is always a better one around the corner.

In a city, you can also pick and choose among the people you associate with; there is no expectation that everyone you meet will need to be friendly, and therefore you can’t possibly be offended when they are not. Hiding in those millions of people in a city are the ones who will welcome you and cook you dinner and share your perspective and show you where to find the best hot cocoa. Although the city might be bigger, somehow these people are easier to find.

At any rate, I’m incredibly indebted to our Paris pit crew for the refill – of music, of culture, of good solid advice and warm welcomes. No doubt we’ll be back.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Balance Regained


So there they are, outside on the stone terrace, giggling like crazy. They (Grace and Bill) are playing "floor pong," a game invented by Bill to take advantage of what we have (a floor, a few ping-pong paddles, and a single ball) and to ignore all the things we don't. No table? No net? No idea of the rules? No problem. The ball goes ricocheting under the chaise lounge, in and out of the enormous potted plants, just above the wall dividing courtyard from pool. And Grace keeps giggling.

This is Grace's fifth or sixth fit of full-body giggles since Thursday, the day she finally returned to school and things finally got better after several weeks of her weeping, shivering, sulking and avoiding school as hard as she could.

Last Thursday morning, we had to nearly pry her from the house to get her to school. She was crying, we were pleading, asking her to give the school, and its kids, another chance. We hadn't told her about Bill's conversation with the principal, but now it seemed like we would have to. The principal had promised, we said, that things would get better. And if they didn't, we would change something.

We remained a little vague on what that change might be -- in part because we didn't want to promise something we couldn't follow through on, and in part because we weren't sure what we actually would do if things didn't improve.

We were clear on just one thing: it was our job to fix things for her. We didn't come to France to make our kid a miserable, helpless eraser-target for French hillbillies. We didn't choose this year to put her through panic and fear.

We had brought her thousands of miles, away from everything she knows, with only vague plans for how things might work out. Based on Bill's thirty-year old stories about his social and academic successes back in England, she imagined that in France she would be popular. She would learn the language almost without a second thought. She would make up funny lies about America, and the hapless French kids would believe them: In America, the cats walk upsidedown on the ceiling! We pour cereal on our milk instead of the other way around! This would make her a smashing social success.

So much for fantasy. Here was reality, a lot more complicated and messy, and she couldn't say "ceiling" or "cereal," or even "cats." And we had been the ones to set her here. Therefore, it was up to us to give her what she needed to adapt and thrive, whether that would mean somehow being about to help her fix things at school, or bringing her back to school at home, bollocks to the consequences.

But we could not lightly make a call that would put us in the bad graces of the French school system (and possibly the French office of immigration, as we had sworn when getting our Visas that we would keep both girls in school.) So for practical reasons as well as pedagogical ones, we needed to give school another solid try. It was time for Grace to re-mount the horse that had thrown her so hard. But this time, I was back home from being away, the principal was on her side, and the little eraser-throwers had been put on notice. When we dropped her off at school, Grace was anything but convinced, but two minutes after walking through the portail on her own steam, she had already been encouraged into playing a (half-hearted) game of hopscotch. I mean, hopscotch is no floor pong, but it might do.

We picked her up at lunch, then again in the afternoon, and she was all smiles. Not only had nobody been mean, but the girls had actually decided to be friendly and include her in their games.

Who knows why. Children (like the adults they vaguely resemble) generally act ethically and kindly only in their self-interest, as hidden as that interest may be, and only as long as it continues to suit their purposes. But for some reason, it had suddenly (and at least for the moment) become a lot more exciting to be friendly to the foreign girl than it was to ignore her and give her the big arm-crossed finger-waggling blowoff. I wasn't sure whether to be more grateful to the principal or to the ten-year-old girl who had first decided that Grace was worth her while.

Then, this weekend, while we were in Paris, we all had the opportunity to be around people we knew could not fail to expand and enrich her horizons. Hot chocolate on the Rue Rivoli across from the Louvre with fairy godparents Jessica and Nick. Buying cool tall boots and holding hands with little two-year-old Stella, daughter of Hillary, a college friend who has lived in Paris for years. Grace and her sister got a pony ride in the Tuileries, and shared their own cup of Paris morning full-caffeinated coffee. It was at Starbucks, I'm sorry to say. (Ssshhh! Don't tell anybody, but we're actually Americans!)

Grace also had lots of time to try out her slowly gelling French with Oriana, a girl slightly older and about a hundred miles more mature. One morning, we took Oriana and our own girls to the old-school zoo in the Jardin Des Plantes, enjoying the opportunity to get to see snow leopards and orangutangs and camels up close without all that new-fangled zoo architecture between us and them. Nothing like a good small cage to shove those animals right up close (and pacing insanely) where you can actually see them. While we watched the girls play tag and lag behind us, we noted (with pride that we could barely contain) that Grace was pulling out all kinds of French when she really wanted to communicate. It was all I could do to just keep eavesdropping and not jump up and down in excitement.

But perhaps the most magical and restorative experience of the weekend for Grace was hearing her very first classical music concert -- a stunning tour-de-force recital by pianist Bruno Fontaine. Jean-Claude, Oriana's father and our impossibly kind and welcoming Parisian friend, had not only bought us all tickets but also had managed to reserve seats in the very front row.

When we arrived at the concert hall on the outskirts of Paris, it was already twenty-one o'clock, way past her usual bedtime. She had gotten to bed late the night before, had traveled all over Paris on foot and Metro and car and ponyback. She had eaten with three different sets of our friends, and listened to Bill and me switch back and forth between languages all day long. She leaned heavily on me as we stood in the noisy, crowded entrance hall, staring blankly into space in that way that hoplessly exhausted people sometimes do. I assumed that she would find her seat, close her eyes, and be out cold in minutes. We sat down (in the very front, in the very middle, mind you) and I just hoped that the pianist would be that sort of understanding person who doesn't mind if someone just falls dead asleep front and center while he's playing his heart out.

But it was not to be. The lights fell, the crowd quieted, and she opened her eyes a little wider. When Fontaine walked out on the stage, she sat up straighter with anticipation. He then played an evening of French composers, heavy on the Debussy. His touch on the piano was remarkably subtle and varied, and he had the ability to make notes ring or whisper or slide imperceptibly into other notes. He played with control, measure, and tact, even at his most passionate and fluid. And the longer she played, the more and more awake Grace became. By his encore at nearly eleven PM (believe it or not, a deconstructed, then reconstructed version of "Yesterday," that had me in grateful, joyful tears) she was alive and alert and happy as all get out.

She is her parents' daughter. For her, like us, music -- perhaps even more than color or line or smell or taste -- organizes her feelings and her experiences in a profound way. Following these remarkable experiences, even the terrors of the return TGV didn't seem to vex her as much. This time we had real seats, on the top floor of the train, and mine and Grace's even faced forward. She insisted on holding my hand for the first half hour, until she realized that despite the fact that we were moving faster than anything on land has a right to, she was OK.

By the time we got back to Aups last night, she was a different person. Or, to be more accurate, she had returned to herself.

Last week I concluded my sad and regretful post with a fistful of defensiveness, daring readers to ready their sharp-pointed arrows of told-you-so's. Needless to say I received nothing of the sort. My family, my friends, and even far-flung facebook folks all wrote to tell me to stay the course, or change the course -- but to do it without regret or fear or disappointment. I received heartening stories from dedicated homeschoolers, and it's-good-for-them-to-tough-it-out reminders.

One good friend even suggested more candy. I'm not sure why she didn't imagine I haven't already tried it. As a child who was potty trained by being rewarded with M & M's, I've never really shied away from bribery and straightforward conditioning, Alfie Kohn be damned.

But now I guess perhaps I should just issue my own I-told-me-so's. And then when my kids flip-flop from miserable to fine to ecstatic, then back again, I can just tell my own darn self so.

See? I can tell myself. I knew they would be all right. You just have to trust your kids. They are wiser and sturdier than you can imagine, and school is good for them, even when it's hard. But it's not that hard anymore. I told you so.

And then, SEE? I KNEW this would never work. We've got to get them out of this ridiculous situation of attending school in a foreign tongue and hearing blah blah all day long while the erasers whiz around their ears. It's just not fair. I told you so, Launa. I told you so.

As my own worst critic, I'm particularly good at this see-saw. Grace and Abigail need each other to smash each other down to the ground while they play Kill Farmer Brown. I can smash myself to bits of guilt and regret all on my lonesome, with only the tiniest bit of help from my bigger and better half.

But I also have to admit that -- perhaps despite ourselves -- Bill and I came up with some pretty good medicine for what ailed our little girl. We called in the reinforcements from our magic store of friends. We made sure there would be extra treats. We said yes to the ponies and the pastries and even the magic of a late-night concert of astonishing chords and melody. We said yes to trying again, and yes maybe someday to homeschool.

Bill invented floor pong, and I just kept up the hugs and the deep breathing and (when I could muster it) the patience. And Bill even went to the pet store today to get them each a gerbil. "Mouse" and "Gerbil to be named later" can't quite live up to everything Samson has been for us, but for now, they made the kids awfully happy.

So thanks for the well-wishes, the advice, the encouragement and perspective, but most of all the love. It's easier to keep it flowing out like a fountain when it is flowing your way through a great big cyber aqueduct.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The TVG Took My Whole Family Away

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Paris alone on the TGV, the Super-Speedy Train that makes Amtrak look like a stone-age relic.  So for my second trip, this time with my whole family, I would be traveling with a little more information, and ideally therefore a little more ease.  I could find the station, I knew how to follow the signs, and I even had 30 centimes in my pocket in case I had to use the bizarro pay-toilet that disinfects its whole self when you are done. 

So I assumed I was ready for Aix to Paris Itinerary #5:  full family style.  This time I knew exactly where we were going.  No surprises.  Easy trip.  We had a really fun weekend planned with the Sadik family, friends who had stayed with us in Brooklyn a few years ago.  They are off-the-charts friendly and generous people, and had been inviting us to stay with them since they visited us.  They also have positively lovely children, whom we knew would be kind to Grace and Abigail. 

Things have been a little (OK, a lot) rough at school lately.  It’s a little hard not to be second guessing several of our choices. So if we couldn’t easily make the small-town school a perfect fit, I knew that we  could at least go somewhere else where we would be sure to find friends.  If the Mountain would not come to Mohammed, Mohammed would go to the Mountain.  Of Paris.  At 200 miles an hour.

So why make this trip, right now? Good question. About eight years ago, Bill worked in his scrappy and virtuous non-profit with a colleague who had previously fought in Vietnam.  When they were facing the inevitable difficulties of helping impoverished mentally ill New Yorkers towards slightly more hopeful lives, the colleague used to explain a theory that he and his fellow soldiers would employ when they were under fire.  The soldiers might not be able to figure out where the bullets were coming from, but they knew that the bullets meant that somebody was unhappy with what they were doing.  So they would follow a simple pattern:  they would change something.  And then keep changing things until the shooters stopped shooting.  If they were standing up, they would sit down.  If they were marching north, they would head south.  Anything but sit tight and expect circumstances to change of their own accord. 

When Bill repeated this story, I found it to be great advice, as I am someone who responds to fight or flight situations by freezing like a stupid, scared rabbit.  (Scientists should first study me, and all those deer frozen in headlights, then add “freeze” to the other two f-word options for responding to life’s most deadly situations.)  When lost, I tend to forge ahead as though the correct road will miraculously appear for me.  When I am hungry or cold or tired or grouchy, I tend to go on grimly doing exactly the same thing that got me in that situation in the first place.

Oh yes, I’m a real fun one to travel with, I am.  Make your reservations now if you have somehow forgotten to do so already.

Now better understanding this limitation of mine, I try really hard to follow this  “try something else” advice instead.  At the very least, this idea certainly preserves one’s feeble sense of control in an otherwise random and pointlessly painful situation.  So we hoped that in this case, with all of the disappointments of school hanging heavy on us, a change would do us good.  Or at least the kids couldn’t throw erasers at Grace fast enough to catch up with a TGV.

We left Friday, right after the girls’ French lessons in Lorgues.  They skipped out of the school all happy and content, and while they still won’t perform when we beg them “Dit quelquechose en Français,” at least I could be confident that with their beautiful and sweet French teacher in charge, nobody had spent the morning teasing. 

We drove to the TGV station without incident, found Liesel a great parking space, and headed inside the station, which was inexplicably crammed – and I mean absolutely crammed – with silent, grouchy-looking travelers. 

In the U.S. when there is a minor travel emergency (planes delayed by ground fog, trains cancelled because of a power outage, the café car suddenly runs out of Heineken) Americans tend to talk a lot more than usual to one another.  They complain bitterly, or make unfunny camaraderie-building jokes at the expense of the airline or the train line or whoever could possibly be blamed.  They break out of their little privacy-bubble to share information or give unasked-for advice.  Sometimes they even look sort of happy in the sharing of a little faux-emergency.

But the French people all piled up in the Aix TGV Gare looked even grimmer and more silent than usual.  They stood like stones, staring resolutely at the departures board, despite the fact that the trains they had expected to take had been late for at least two solid hours already.  Nothing on the boards was changing, no announcements were being made, and nobody was explaining anything.  All the typical French staring-through-one-another continued unabated, just with a lot more people to stare through.

We had planned to get a little lunch in the Gare, but every chair in the brasserie was full, as were all the benches and even the little coffee tables that silent waiting people had turned into makeshift seats.  So instead, we stood around and munched on our croque-monsieur, wondering if we should just give up already and head for home. 

(And here, the wise reader will realize a flaw – aside from the most obvious one – in any analogy between my own life’s stupid little troubles and the more serious predicament of the Vietnam Vet:  how do I know when it is best to change something, and when it is most prudent and sensible to sit tight and just wait for the weather to clear.  Or, to quote the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go now?  If I stay there will be trouble; if I go there will be double?”  Aye, there’s the rub.)

We stayed.  Gradually a few trains started to arrive and sucked a few people off the benches and into fast-moving trains.  We still had no idea what was going on to cause the delay, or how long said delay would last.  Neither did the one poor SNCF employee on duty who was being pelted with questions. I think that they posted a two-hour delay only because that would keep people standing quietly, staring vaguely off into space. But since it seemed that the station was gradually clearing of passengers, we imagined that would eventually get on our train as well. 

Our train did arrive, and only about 45 minutes late.  But when it arrived, our car (number 15) was simply not attached.  There were lots of angry people still grimly and silently bustling around, and lots of contradictory information in French being announced over the loudspeakers.  We decided that perhaps the next train would be ours, when the beleaguered employee emerged to shoo us all onto the train.  But what about our seats?  I asked with real alarm.  As usual, she knew nothing, and gave me a wholly Gallic shrug.  Either we would sit or we would stand, but this was the train we were to take.  We crowded with all of our bags into car five just as the doors closed, and stood with a lot of other equally bewildered fellow travelers who appeared to have been robbed not only of their seats but of their whole train.

For it soon became clear that this train was to travel, high-speed and non-stop, with the passengers of two full trains.  Which meant more passengers than seats.  Which further meant that we four, the last to board the train car, would be sitting on the floor just outside of the rest room for the duration of the trip.  This would have been a little funny, I suppose, had Grace not been absolutely petrified of the idea of the train moving 200 miles per hour. 

I had tried to reassure her that the train would not be moving that fast, (this was one of those white lies parents have to tell to get through the day) but she was not to be reassured that easily.  As we tend to do in our family, she settled in for a long panic attack, and we started in on the slow breathing and calming down right away.  Her panic lasted until her butt got sore enough to distract her from her fear.  It’s hard to panic adequately when your butt really hurts.

Bill, on the other hand, was in some sort of high speed-induced Nirvana.  Nearly the whole trip, he was sitting on our luggage just outside the sickening smell of the train bathroom, just like the rest of us.  As the door’s air-powered doors opened and closed again and again on my back, he regaled us with stories of his Eurail glory days with Alain, the day-long trip they both slept on the floor of a slow train between Nice and Florence.  During that trip, there was nowhere to sit, and because he was then hungover, Alain really wanted to lie down.  So he placed himself in the only available real-estate, between the automatic doors, which constantly opened and shut on his head.  He did not wake up.  Bill passed the long hours in the crowded train watching this happen again and again and again.   I guess remembering that trip made it so much more fun for him to watch the doors close again and again on little old me.

Bill talks about this leg of his trip as though he is a normal person recounting a sojourn to the moon, or at least the World Series.  Bill really really really likes trains.  I might also mention that recently Bill has been positively unsinkable.  Neither one of us has any future prospects to speak of, but to be quite honest, we may never have been happier.

Happy or unhappy, my bottom was to hurt for the next three days.  And we had nothing to eat but a little bag of peanuts during the trip and an old Pago bottle filled with tap water.  But tant pis, there we were, heading for Paris, and friends and the Eiffel Tower and a big old change for the better. 

As the train slowed close to Paris, our little cabin near the bathroom (and the door) started to fill up with people who had actually enjoyed seats during the trip, and were now crowding around in hopes to be the first off the train.  This struck all four of us as totally unfair.  Last on, worst seat, should mean first off.  As the doors opened, and a man lunged forward to surge ahead of us, I snapped my arm sharply up in front of his chest. 

“You don’t understand,” he argued.  “I have a Eurostar to catch!”  Perhaps it was his use of British English, perhaps it was his utter entitlement, perhaps it was just the fact that my poor kids had spent three hours on the floor outside the bathroom.  But I snapped rudely, like I don’t usually. 

“Yes.  And I have a few children to take care for.  We sat on the floor this trip.  You can wait.”  As soon as we were all out the door, he rushed around us.  But when we got to the end of the platform, there he was, sitting down sending a text or something.  Grace was quick on her feet with the joke:  “You don’t understand,” Grace quipped.  “I have a bench to catch!”

More, tomorrow, on how much we loved our visit to the Sadik’s house, their family's music, and the chance to see all kinds of friends – old, new, and as-yet-not-even-born.  

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Being Wrong (and Not At All Happy About It)


Back in Brooklyn, when we said we were going away to France for the year, we heard two things over and over, a chorale of feedback that I somehow managed to ignore or repress.  The refrain I heard on an endless loop was how unbelievably lucky Bill and I were to have such an incredible opportunity – that we would love France, and cherish all the time we would have to spend so much time with our girls.  

The dissonant note layered into the song was how hard it was going to be for our kids to leave home and go to a French school. 

It’s one thing to be lolling about in France, age forty.  Another to be ten, in school all day long.

Way back then, I managed to find ways to deny both of these (now obvious) truths.  I thought I was going to miss Brooklyn and my job so much I wouldn’t be able to enjoy being here.  Or maybe I was so uncomfortable hearing that slight tone of envy and anxiety in other people’s voices, and tried to wish it away. 

Conventional wisdom has never been our family’s strong suit, aside from Abigail, who has it in spades. But here I will say it, with awful chagrin: your conventional wisdom has turned out to be true, damn you all.  I love, adore, cherish, and am thriving on these moments, days, and weeks here embedded in the natural world – so far from home that home, and sewn so tightly into this one, close to my family. 

And as much as I dread the new song I am going to hear from now on (“We told you so, you idiot,”) I have to tell the rest of the truth, the unhappier part.  The girls, to put it frankly, often flat-out hate school right now, in their own individual ways.  And while I think Abigail’s going to push through it, we are holding out the possibility that we might eventually be in for a change for Grace.

Today, after almost two weeks of misery, she played with the popular little girl who also speaks English, and even gave her a little present.  But not all of our days are so sanguine, and the day started in tears.  I would like to imagine that good days are the shape of what is to come, but I know that they may not last. 

You may have been reading between the lines, as hesitant as I have been to write about this directly.  But we are finding that it is proving so much harder than we had thought for them to speak French and to break into the tight social world of a small town in a foreign language.  We have made it harder for the girls by not insisting forcefully enough on their learning French in advance, and now I feel I squandered and wasted all the time this summer when they could have been doing so.

But what is worst, the children (and parents) of this small rural town have hardly embraced us, or them, and we haven’t exactly figured out how to reach out and improve the situation either.  Our usual bag of tricks, honed back home, don’t work here in a new place.

Things were pretty great to start with.  We had one first day of fear at the portail, followed by several weeks of relief and ease when Grace was immediately pulled into a little girl clique, despite having no French at her disposal.  There were two other children in her class who spoke English, and the principal pledged that they would help her out.  He insisted that they would be just fine, learning French quickly and with the generous help of the French government providing regular instruction.  Her teacher at first seemed pleasantly aloof, the kind of guy who stand around gazing benevolently while she got into the swing of things. 

It took Abigail a few more days to get with the program, but she quickly turned to her strengths (tag, mostly) to engage kids to play with at recess.  She has since employed her practical wisdom in the classroom as well, learning to sit next to our landlord’s son, an incredibly sweet boy who speaks English, and to copy everything he does.  When one boy picked on her, she fretted for a day and a half, then took care of him as swiftly and silently as Tony Soprano.  Her teacher speaks a little English with her, just enough to help her to figure out what to do, and clearly takes an interest in what Abby is learning.  Abigail’s starting to be able to pronounce French nicely when she reads.  Some days she even runs ahead to school to get a chance to be independent and strong. 

But in the last few weeks, the bloom is well off the rose, most obviously with Grace.  First the bossy girl who adopted her early on lost interest in playing with her and skipped off to other pleasures.  Then we missed the grade parent night, our only apparent opportunity to hear directly from her teacher.  (This was not sloppiness on our part, I promise you:  there was literally no official communication from the school on this one.  None.  Grace wrote “V” in her book for the date (who schedules a meeting for Friday???) but since she didn’t know what it meant, we didn’t either.) 

We found that we could never understand Grace’s homework, once the teacher stopped sending home plain old worksheets.  We also didn’t understand that the list of art supplies the teacher sent home was something for us to buy for her (as the Mairie had promised we wouldn’t need to do so) so she spent the day she could have been painting sitting still and watching.  Perhaps it was just as well, because that day her teacher ripped up the painting of another child when it displeased him.  

Art is treated with enormous reverence back home, at our old school, and Grace’s art teachers have long been her idols and gurus; the shock and contrast of somebody ripping up a child’s work was a little too much for her.  So the whole “old school” approach went overnight from being a curiosity to being just plain scary.

Additionally, Grace has never been able to bear the sound of other people coughing, her particular pet peeve.  For you, that pet peeve might be nails on a chalkboard, or cat posters, or overpowering cologne.  For Grace, it’s cold season.  So once she realized that she not only couldn’t understand any French, and no children would be willing to translate it for her or let her even see their work, she spent all of her time in class hearing only the sound of a little boy’s hacking bronchitis.  Instead of seating her next to a kid who could speak English and translate for her, they seem to have seated her next to some sort of eleven-year-old tuberculosis patient.

The French lessons that were promised have turned out to be just great, but as they started late and happen only once a week, the girls have had only a total of three so far.  The magic of foreign language immersion has yet to take hold.

But perhaps the worst thing, the possible nail in the coffin of Grace’s adjustment to school, happened when the one little girl with whom she had played for several weeks, and on whom she had pinned most of her hopes, dropped her as well, in just the sort of painful way that children (and grownups) across the globe do to one another.  She not only cast her off, but did it with that crossed armed finger waggle that we all have come to dread.  And suddenly, there she was sitting alone in the schoolyard, left wholly out of the loop.  I can’t be sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that she didn’t understand enough French ever to have any idea why. 

So here we are, the beneficiaries and victims of our grand plan, coming face to face with every single shoulda coulda woulda we heard and managed to ignore.  We shoulda chosen a bigger town.  We shoulda found a bilingual school.  We coulda pushed the French so much harder.  We woulda (if we coulda) figured out how to set up opportunities for the girls to play outside of school with other kids in their classes.   We shoulda realized that with all of the pleasures of being together as a little family unit all the time would come the social isolation of being together as a little family unit, all the time.  We coulda realized that the portail, the language barrier, and old-school French formality not only limits our ability to shape her school experience in any way at all, but prevents us from really knowing what goes on there for her.

Or, to listen to Abigail, we just never shoulda come here at all.  Just as I am finally reconciled to all of the losses we forced on ourselves in the spring (our Adirondacks house, our Brooklyn house, my job, the kids’ incredible school and their attentive and gifted teachers) and have figured out how to stay in touch with my friends, she is suddenly mourning all of it. Why did we sell the Adirondacks house?  Why did I give up my job?  She misses her school, her friends, her favorite teachers.  She is notlearning French, she insists, despite steady evidence to the contrary. 

For Grace it is even worse.  A lot of days she simply doesn’t want to go to school, or can’t get herself back there in the afternoon.  At all, despite our forceful and supportive efforts.   The boys throw erasers, and maybe even little rocks, when the teachers aren’t looking.  We never know what the homework is.  She is so busy holding it all together that not a word of French seems to be getting through all the blah blah rip-up-that-painting blah.  And when you sit alone in the schoolyard at recess, you might as well be in a jailyard. 

So we’re at a turning point.  When we came here, we told ourselves that we had just a few goals:  the kids would learn French.  They would each make just one friend.  Their math skills would not dissolve and dissipate, because we would work on that at home.   But while Abigail seems to be on her way with both French and friendship, it might be time for a change of direction for Grace.  While it’s not yet time for the quatrieme sortie and packing up to head home, I can’t see that we’ll keep going straight ahead either.

To be fair, today was a fantastic day.  We complained to the principal about the boys who were throwing erasers and little pebbles at Grace, and he seems to have convinced everyone to be extra-super nice to her.  She cried bitterly this morning, but before Bill and I had walked away from the schoolyard, she was already playing hopscotch.  She had all sorts of tales to tell us about her new friendships, and Abigail has pledged to beat the stuffing out of anyone who bothers her big sister. 

I would like to imagine that this is the roadmap for what is to come.  But up ahead, I see a familiar sign, marking a roundabout with roads leading off in different directions.  Straight ahead is stay in school, limp along, hope and pray that things stay more comfortable, and help her along the best we can.  Appeal to the principal when things get tough, and give her lots of candy and hugs at the end of each day. 

There have been years of our own lives, even as adults, when each of us has had to do just that, and we did our best to help each other through.  But we always had so many more resources available to us for those years when things just couldn’t go right.  Here, we are the resources.  Poor girl.

So off to the left is the turn we always talked about but didn’t think we would take:  bringing her back home for school.   Yes, that school: homeschool.  We would still be required to teach the French curriculum, and she would somehow still have to learn the language and make a friend.  She has already made several friends this year, just none yet her age.  But if I pull her out of a class that is clearly a terrible fit, she might learn a lot more, as she will no longer have to cry and freeze up as I force her back into the pointless exercise of listening only to other children coughing all morning. 

I am sure that if and when I post this, I will hear from you: with pity, well-meaning concern, or those dreaded I told you so-s.  Better yet, if you’ve got a few I told you so’s, enjoy the small pleasures of keeping them to yourself.  Or just head somewhere to gossip about your crazy friends Bill and Launa, and how people get what they deserve.  We’ve got enough chagrin and guilt here to last us awhile. 

Still, we are all hearty little travelers; don't lose sleep on our behalf, because we are learning how to grow stronger rather than crumble and fold as we face the world's challenges.  Stay tuned for news of which road we all take, and how exactly we will get to where we are heading. t 

Nice




Fondation Maeght




Updating my Maps


Last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the family and I toured Jackie around the glories of the Haut Var, including a trip to Aix-en-Provence, a super-fancy dinner in Tourtour, a picnic on the bank of the Lac St. Croix, and a hike up the mountain in Moustiers Ste. Marie. 

I spent most of my time playing, and talking, and shopping and walking, rather than writing, and thus left a lot of this past week undocumented.  But highlights of our time together included a visit to the Hyper Casino (hypermarkets being a clear step up from a mere supermarket) a long out-of-the-way-to-the-A8 drive courtesy of Diesel Liesel, a trip to the Market in Salernes, and delicious tiny baby chickens and tarte tatin for dinner on the terrace.

We spent time looking for spices and salts and sweets and oils in Nice, and cheese and wine here at home.  Jackie met our friendly local vitner, who enjoyed having Jackie and Bill taste wine so much that she eventually just sat down at the table to enjoy a glass right alongside them.  We went to a farm to buy chevre directly from the new age hippies who milked the goats themselves when they were not busy making strange monumental statues that look like a cross between scarecrows and something you would see at the MOMA.

During Jackie's visit, we were all thrilled to be able to show off the places we have come to know.  The kids welcomed her with sweet little cards and an apple pie.  Grace read her the story she had been working on for weeks, and Abigail had lots of hugs to go around (as usual.)  

When you know and love someone for a really long time, it’s as though you are visiting all of the parts of your life when you see her.  Jackie arrived, and suddenly I was back in Amherst, and Connecticut, and Brooklyn, all at the same time.  Jackie was half of my past life walking through the door, and a friend with whom I could share the house and the town and my kids.  And now, she would know all about the cafes of Aix, the color of the roofs in Moustiers, and the scents of the market.  And I could bring my own past into my strange and beautiful present, in a way to measure how far I have already traveled. 

Jackie may have had to work at full speed to adapt to this strange world we have created for ourselves, but if so, she took it all in stride.  Our family is not exactly, well, easy to understand.  We eat weird food, we play weird games in the car, and we disagree about as often as we draw breath.  We don't always know exactly where we are headed or how to get there.  I can only hope that she found us at least as entertaining as we are strange. 

After a few days in Aups, Diesel Liesel took Jackie and me away to Saint Paul de Vence, home of the modern art museum Fondation Maeght, and then eventually to Nice.  We left on Monday, just as the girls were heading back for another week of blah blah recess blah.  School has officially lost whatever luster it had initially, and neither child is particularly willing to go anymore.  Abigail is hanging in there, and is developing her friendships as well as her ability to read French.  But Grace is flat out miserable, hating every day of French school as much as I had feared that she might.  (Let the bitter chant of “I told you so” begin.)  

So let’s just say that both girls were quite vexed that I was ditching them thus, and made it utterly plain to me.  I promised candy and treats upon my return, but this simply was not going to fly to make it all better quite that easily.

Lots of people complain about their mothers making them feel guilty.  (Hi Mom!  I know you're reading!  Love ya!)  However, in my experience, there is nothing like the guilt that a child can evoke in a mom driving off in her little blue Audi for some fun times in Paris and Nice.  While I left them in more than capable hands, there I was, heading off to the Cote D’Azur for a few days of modern art, strolling on the boardwalk, and eating chickpea fritters and caramel ice cream in the marketplace.  As I headed off towards something great, they were still dealing with the strange and still uninviting reality of French school in a not-particularly welcoming little town.

Just as they were mourning the fact that they have no friends at school, there was my good friend showing up to enjoy things with me.  And just as they were trying desperately to survive the world in French, I was diving out of Aups, back into the world of the English that everybody speaks to the tourists in Paris and Nice. 

And if I didn’t have enough other reasons to feel guilty, there was the hotel bed in Nice.  The remarkable and undeniable pleasure of sleeping quietly and calmly in a single bed in a nice peaceful (and chic) hotel, at less than half the going rate.  (I love it when the world goes on sale.) The sheets were crisp and white.  The pillow was soft and squishy.  And I slept so soundly and well that when I woke up, the bed didn’t even need to be made.  I do love my family to the moon and the stars, but there is nothing like a full night of undisturbed rest.  So I may actually have earned their ire with my own leisure and pleasure.  

Friends are supposed to wish each other well no matter what; however, in a family – or at least in our family – there is rarely a time when someone else’s great pleasure and ease is not at the expense of the rest of the family’s well-being. 

Before Jackie and I headed to Nice, Abigail, Grace, Bill and I had gone there for an exploratory overnight: in part to give the kids and ourselves a little break from Aups, and in part to check out the big city and learn what was the what.  Although Grace had bad cold that weekend, the rest of us did a little shopping, a little walking, a little swimming in the calm, warm water of the Mediterranean Sea.  We got to see the Vielle Ville, the park on the high hill, and the famous brightly colored houses of the port. 

So when Jackie and I arrived, this was my second trip to Nice, and I realized that I had learned a few things the first time around, becoming a slightly-less-incompetent host of this French corner of the world.  I could deal with the parking garages.  I could find our hotel on the Baie des Angles, I knew where to find the market, and I had the all-important location of the ice cream store with 100 flavors.  Some of the flavors were Bubble gum, and Tomato-basil, and Chervil (you have to dig just a little too deep to get to 100 flavors) but many others were ones that Jackie and I would actually want.   And actually eat.

But as much as I enjoyed bringing my old knowledge to bear on this new trip, I learned something more crucial this time around.  And – as has become a Theme of This Blog, once again I learned this important thing by making, then reflecting on a mistake.  This time, I learned by making exactly the same mistake twice.

Or rather, by following Liesel in making the same mistake twice.  You would think that because she is guided by computers and satellites, she would rarely make a mistake.  But during my travels with Jackie, we caught her being wrong several times in just a few days. 

First, while directing Jackie and me towards Aix-en-Provence, Liesel chose the world’s windiest and stupidest path towards the A8.  Once we realized that not only were we lost, but we were also committed, Jackie and shook our heads, then forged ahead along the twisty roads towards towns for which we had no maps.  We theorized that Liesel might be trying to get back to her old home with her previous owners, the pornography dealers, who lived somewhere down in that godforsaken maze of roads below Cotignac and above La Val.  We got to Aix just fine, but it would have to depend on your perspective to decide whether we wasted the extra hour or were treated to the pastoral pleasures of the French countryside.

And then on the way from Saint Paul into Nice, Liesel said “droit” when she must have meant “gauche.” In fact, this was the same exact navigation error as she made on our first trip to Nice, directing me off to the right just as the road for the Promenade des Angles should have taken me left.  I knew that I had gotten lost right about there last time, so I hesitated just for a minute before following her lead.  This time I realized much more quickly that both she and I were ruing our decision.

Liesel asked for the phantom droite just as a big huge sign was directing us correctly in the proper direction: left to be right.  The first time, as our whole family made this error, I beat myself up horribly, nearly giving myself black eyes of remorse for taking the wrong road and getting our little family lost on their way to the Mediterranean Sea.  I then had had no idea that it was Liesel, not Launa, making the mistake.  However, this time I recognized the error even as it was happening, and quickly saw that once I was headed the wrong way, she was trying to turn me back on track in exactly the same way she had the previous time. 

I have to say this for Liesel:  she covers and recovers from her mistakes much more gracefully than I ever do.  Rather than fretting about her errors, pointing them out and amplifying them, she straightaway sets about fixing the damage, sending her driver and herself back as quickly as possible on the right course.  Sometimes she gently suggests a U-turn (only “si c’est possible,”) but usually just waits for the next roundabout and tells me to take the “quatrieme sortie,” the “fourth exit.”  It’s educative for me to see how she takes these wrong turns in stride, and now I realize that she does so in exactly the same way whether it is she or I making a wrong turn.

But here is what I learned from making that same error twice.  Trust your G.P.S. only as long as it seems to accord with what the signs are saying and with all the other things you know.  Liesel is generally a great asset, particularly when she is helping me follow a path already laid out in advance.  However, when she suddenly seems to be taking me the wrong direction, I should not assume that she’s found an awesome new shortcut.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I need to remember that it is always me driving my car, and driving my little life, no matter what kinds of expert advice comes my way.

But speaking of awesome new shortcuts, let me say a few words about Modern Art – that most excellent shortcut between representations that were merely realistic, and representations that reinvented the world.   On our way to Nice (before learning how fully unreliable Liesel could be) Jackie and I spent midday and the afternoon in Saint Paul de Vence, a tiny Medieval city that has turned itself, through the good graces of savvy art dealers Aimé and Margurete Maeght, into a paradise of incredible modern art, in a setting purpose-built to serve that art.  

The Maeght’s Museum is at the town’s core.  Not a bit of their museum is “contemporary” art.   Instead, Fondation Maeght has dedicated itself to the modern: that universe of beautiful and strange work made from the fifties to the seventies by men (and one or two women) obsessed with new ways of representing humans and animals.  While the impressionists revolutionized the representation of light and color to shift the way we look at the surface of things, the moderns took us back to our roots in cave paintings and primary colors and allowed us to see the outlines of the world anew.  They were not afraid of a wrong turn or two, but instead followed their guts to get to the soul of the world.  Bonnard, Miro, and Picasso were not waiting for G.P.S. to tell them which paint brush to choose and where to put all that black and red and blue. They had a much more personal conversation going on, one that changed not only the maps but also the actual landscape of art.

Femmes et oiseaux, (women and birds,) were clearly Miro’s favorite subjects, and he re-shaped them in sculpture, in painting, in prints, in books and in ceramics.  At the time of Jackie’s and my visit, the museum’s extensive Miro collection was on display.  The Maeght family has so much damn art that they have to rotate their collections and they tend to show just one genius at a time, with just a few little amuse-bouches from Chagall or Giacometti thrown in to remind you what else they must have lurking in their deep, deep closets.

When you’re at the Fondation, you go straight back in time to an era when it seemed like a good idea to see the women and the animals of the world in new ways.  Perhaps it is my new obsession with the cavemen of Southern France, evolving here over the centuries, but Miro’s work looked so primal, even tribal.  He didn’t ever paint a pretty woman, or a cute little bird, but rather struck at the heart of birth or flight.  There would be just the outline of a head and a beak: oiseau.  Or a sculpture of an egg sitting on a chair: femme. Centuries of decoration and depiction sliced away, leaving only essences in line and color.

This museum’s insistence on seeing the world anew extends past the art into the architecture, which uses concrete, rocks, tile, water, and glass in strange shapes and directions.  My good friend Terence used to have a funny phrase for this kind of late-60’s, early-70’s modern architecture (used to such awful effect in several of our college’s most egregious dormitories):  “Gee, let’s see what weird shapes we can make out of concrete!”)

But here, in the hills above Nice, the strange shapes of the buildings might look dated, but they never look awful like the social dorms.  They have retained the effect their architects intended back when they were built.  The whole of Fondation Maeght is rather 1970’s – not just in its strange and anti-domestic design, but also in that it is so deeply unsupervised.  No guards ward you away from the art; precious few signs mediate between you and the paintings.  So you get the nice feeling of being right up close to the droopy Giacometti dog, and the one-off Miro prints, and the incredible swirling perfection of Chagall’s monster mural-size work, La Vie.   While we were there, a few guys in regular clothes kept taking priceless Miros off the wall and walking around the museum with them, sometimes leaving them on the floor.  As we were leaving, they had even taken down the Chagall and were huddled together looking at the lower edge of the frame.  And because the Maeghts were dealers, not Museum curators, you can buy the real stuff in the gift shop, not just posters, just as long as you brought along many many thousands of Euros.

Here, the art is both new and old.  I realized there, with a stupid sort of shock, that to be “modern” is to be dated.  In most cases, it is to be older than I am. 

Jackie and I spent several sunny hours wandering around the museum, backwards through Miro’s life (I missed the sign, in French, directing me in the “sense of the visit” which was clockwise, rather than counter.)

On our way, we saw a film of Duke Ellington playing around the year I was born at the Fondation, riffs improvised on the spot and at least ostensibly inspired by Miro’s work.   The film was old and grainy, turned all blotchy with the process of digitization.  Listening to that music, under the colored light coming through a huge stained glass window, was the most movingly religious moment I have ever had in a museum.  Ellington’s music, Miro’s art, and me: all born into the world at the same moment in time.  The music, the art, and me: all growing older with the remorseless march of time.  But as I listened and I watched, I could also see that that music, that art, and (at least for now), and me: still just as alive and powerfully vibrant as the days we were created.

Change.  Growth.  Improvisation.  Adjustment.  Finding the new path out of the old patterns and places.  Everything I encounter these days speaks to putting the new into context with the old.  This new life demands that I re-examine and put aside the old habits in favor of new directions.  That I update the old maps, stay open to new twists, and trust my instincts when life shows me that it is time for a U-turn.

Being so open to change is entirely against my better judgment, the way I have lived my safe life.  It is taking me awhile to get with the program, to see the shape and the map and the context of the path Bill and I have put ourselves and our family on, and not just to flee stupidly in terror into various wrong directions.

When I got to see Jackie again, she brought with her a whole bunch of truths of our shared past.  But being here in these new places made me see all of those old things in new light.  She has shared my joys, my complaints, and my experiences since I was 18, meaning over half my life, and now here we were in the present, reveling in the new and old all at once.  We were once young together, and now we’re just as old as “modern” has become.  Which is to say, that while we both still got it going on, and are still pretty sweet little tartes tatins, we’re no longer the baby chickens we once were. 

To get where I am going, and not just plod the road well-traveled, I have to continually re-negotiate my relationship to the world in the past and in the present.

Take Liesel, for example.  She was all au courant in 2005, but now she has certain limitations, her map of the world fixed, stuck in the world of four years ago. 

I wonder about her wrong turns:  were they programmed in from the start?  Does every driver following G.P.S. instructions get diverted off the Promenade des Anglais at the crucial moment?  Does that account for all those cars making U-turns at the next set of lights?   Am I destined to do the same stupid things that everybody does when they get to the exit for 40?

Or is that wrong right turn in Nice Liesel’s private quirk?  Is she trying to route me through the world as it was when she learned it?  Maybe she’s trying to direct me around some danger that no longer exists, or past now-completed construction in Nice.  Maybe she has a faulty map, and I’m trying drive based on outdated truths.

Maybe the road to 40 that she and I are looking for doesn’t even exist anymore.

So here I am, negotiating my relationship to the world in the past and the present.  Which parts of the past do I listen to, and which ones do I not listen to?  How do I get my gut and the maps to align? 

And what do I do when I get to the edge and discover that there is no more map?  Or that I have made (yet another) wrong turn?

Here is my hope: to have the wisdom to hold on to essences: to cling to the best relationships, to my primal love for my family, and to the crucial truths, even as I gain the courage to paint and drive and learn and live in new ways.