Thursday, October 15, 2009

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.  

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