Thursday, October 22, 2009


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.

1 comment:

  1. We were just talking about this last night in my class at the Sorbonne--the fact that the U.S. has, from the start, always been open and welcoming, whereas France, not so much. It's not a quality that is built into the fabric here. Bummer. And obviously, we want the private post. :)