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.

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