Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The TVG Took My Baby Away

I am traveling over a hundred and fifty miles an hour through the French countryside.  Possibly faster.  The train is moving is so fast that whatever is directly next to the train (lightpoles?) blurs past like ghosts.  From my window seat, I can look out on a remarkable expanse of open and mostly cultivated space.  There are farms with rows and rows of trees, or occasionally a beat little stretch of warehouses or a solitary sad looking farmhouse.  Those lonely farmhouses make me wonder how sad their inhabitants were when the super-fast train line line was installed.  How sad they were, and how happy everybody else became when they got to ride such an awesome new train.

Just past those blurred lightpoles, there are rows of cedar trees or juniper trees, making a windbreak and marking the edge of each field.  There are big stands of aspen, with their leaves silver underneath.  Then, rising up around the bowl of the valley, are little low hills, with an ochre mountain town floating past in just a few seconds every few minutes.  Up ahead that must be Avignon; if the train stops there, I will be right.  Then, for three seconds, I see sheep; thirty or forty little tiny sheep there in a field, then they are gone.  And holy Moses, after only about 15 minutes, here we are at the Avignon TGV. 

And just as soon off again. There are windmills in the hills, directly next to the cooling towers of a Nuclear power plant.  These are nuclear facilities numbers two and three I have seen since leaving home this morning.  I remember that when I visited France as a teenager, my French father was extremely proud of France’s nuclear reactors.  But as I am much more used to my own nation’s habits of power generation and environmental degradation, I can’t help but find them creepy.  

Sure, back in the U.S. we blow up entire West Virginian hillsides to sift out the coal we burn to generate our electricity.  But here, ominous towers sit right within all of this incredible natural beauty, all of these rows of cedars and olives and grapes. They look down on the Mediterranean Sea, and on the beautiful hillside towns and the farmhouses and the fields.  It’s like leaving a grenade sitting right next to your newborn baby.  An incredibly useful grenade, and one that really never blows up because you’re so careful with it, of course, but still, a grenade. 

As I had expected, it does feel pretty damn strange to go this fast and not have the thing I am in take off into the air.  There is a little leaning feeling around the corners and I sort of can’t believe it could possibly be safe to travel this fast.  But then again, we did leave “safe” behind on purpose.  We chose instead something that would feel uncertain, but leave us the mental space to deal with that newness.  

It’s hard for me to say, anymore, what is safe, and what is dangerous.  Why are nuclear towers more inherently scary than global warming?  Why are cholesterol and alcohol and tobacco so vilified at home, and consumed in mass quantities here?  Parts of our lives have gotten a whole lot safer, while other new dangers have emerged. 

Similarly, so much ease has emerged alongside our brand new piles of difficulty.   We have, for example, made things much harder for our girls (more on that in a later post, when I can explain it better to myself and to you.)  But everyday life here – with no jobs, with no schedules, with no social obligations – is so much easier for Bill and for me.  We have only ourselves and the girls to manage, and drastically fewer responsibilities.  I can write for hours a day, and Bill is sleeping soundly for the first time in so many years.   We can spend the time we need to spend in order to eat well, to talk to one another, to get ourselves in synch with one another and with our girls.

To do so, we shucked jobs, houses, responsibilities, and obligations.  We took on a new language, landscape, location, and way of being in the world.  In the late spring, seeing all this coming, I was a whirlwind of loss, grasping on and mourning all the changes that were coming at me faster than a speeding train.  I could barely take them in as they sped past.  When people would say, “Oh, you must be so excited!” I would puzzle them with an ungrateful grimace.   I couldn’t see what was up ahead, only what I was leaving behind.  I was afraid, deeply afraid, of losing the world we had put so much into building.

But now perhaps I’m getting used to losing things, and even getting used to getting lost myself. So today when I got turned around on the way to the Aix-en-Provence TGV Gare, I found I could roll with it just fine.  We have put shed so many skins, and put ourselves through so much relative uncertainty that a few wrong turns through an office park don’t need to throw me anymore.

Diesel Liesel does mean to be helpful in these situations, but she can’t find the TGV Gare.  As a car, she tends to like to stick to the streets, and doesn’t take trains herself.  I would have to guess that this TGV station might be newer than she is, as her memory tends to be best for roads as they were way back in 2005.  I then couldn’t quite manage to follow the directions on my iphone, at least not once I got confused and the phone started directing me into the office park.  Having no sense of direction is my own personal disability; I am essentially as good as blind.

So I fell back on my strength: language.  Which meant speaking with actual people, in French.  Two kind and slow-speaking security guards appeared, then set me back on the right course.  Although I still have access only to frustratingly poor grammar when I speak French, I can follow everyday conversations with most of the people I encounter.  I have to ask them to slow down and repeat everything they are saying, but then I remember that back in New York, I do that all the time for other people straining to speak English.  After a little struggle, the words clear, and suddenly I am taking the second ronde-pointe and, who knew?  There are the signs they had promised me. There’s the station.  As Bill would say, not such a great approach to the basket, but two points nonetheless.

The Aix TGV Gare is in fact not that easy to find, as you have to believe that signs are taking you there even though they seem to be dragging you out into the woods to murder you.  It is located deep in the middle of nowhere, but a different middle of nowhere than our little town of Aups.  I am realizing that nowhere has many middles.  

I was impressed to discover that even though the roads had been built American-highway concrete-bunker style, with curbs and dividers and plenty of pay-parking, lots of people had just abandoned their Renaults and Peugeots along the sides of the roads, half on the curb and half on the road, where they didn’t belong and weren’t welcomed. In France, parking seems to be allowed everywhere it is not specifically disallowed.  I rented Liesel a nice paid space in which to wait for me for the few days I would be away. 

In the station, there were a lot of people standing around looking expectant and confused, and I wasn’t sure which platform would take me to Paris and which would whisk me at 200 m.p.h. to Nice or Barcelona or Hogwarts.  I followed my usual strategy, which is to walk around listening for people speaking or reading English.  The first man, an Australian reading the Herald Tribune and chatting adorably to his nine year old, seemed blissful in his total ignorance of the way the train worked.  The second woman was a pathetically baffled American tourist, and thus even more lost than I.   At least I am no longer a tourist, I told myself, somewhat convincingly. I live here.  I live here? 

I asked directions of a Security Guard, and he not only helped me figure out what train to take, but also brought me personally to exactly the right place to stand and wait for my car.  Perhaps I may have shown more than the typical level of Gallic friendliness, because he hung around and wouldn’t just leave me to wait in peace.  Before I could be freed to stand in my faux-reverie, I needed to hear the entire story of his educational history and emigration from Gambia, be asked lots of questions about America and New York and the English language, and be offered a little card with his full name and telephone number.  It is not likely that I will be calling John David Oglaba in the future.  I was a little freaked out by his way over-friendly approach, and couldn’t help wonder if he wanted a tip, or perhaps even a date.  Yet I was grateful for his help, and impressed with his tiny pretty handwriting. 

So once I found the right place to stand (under the big sign marked T, on Voie 4) there was my car, and there was my seat.  Facing frontwards, no less.  What luck!  Then the train started its long journey to take me away far away from my family for the first time since the middle of July.

During three months of always-togetherness, we have pestered and irritated one another on more occasions than I can count.  But we have also held together as tightly as we ever have since the girls were tiny babies, clinging together in love, in relief, in excitement, and often in fear.  The girls keep asking us to retell their birth stories, their baby stories, the stories of our travels and adventures together and apart.  We have become French in our insularity, in our insistence on staying together “tout la famille” all the time.  This was one of the biggest reasons that we came now, with the girls big enough to remember but not too big to stick close by.  We wanted to give ourselves the time and the space to fall out of love with the pursuit of various kinds of achievements, and back into love with one another. 

And now the TGV is putting kilometers between us like they are going out of style. I am thrilled to be going to Paris, to see my dear friend Jackie and her amazing mom, to check in with Jessica of the perfect tarts and excellent pitch, and Nick, master of tech and wine.  Yet I can’t believe how much I am missing Bill.  Missing Grace. Missing Abigail.  Missing being together.  A bientôt, sweet little family.  See you soon.




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