Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Winter Menus

After a solid week of sunshine, I was starting to get back into the game. Well, to be honest – it required that week of sunshine, a whole lot of undeserved kindness from Bill and snuggles from the girls, and a few really long “exercise is good for you” forced marches. I walked along in that full, beautiful sun at the grim pace of a grouchy girl trying her darndest to turn herself into someone a little more pleasant.

My plan also required the serious comfort of friends, dogs, and food -- including a number of shaved, grated, intense-smelling tuber melanosporum that a golden retriever named Goya found in the roots of oak trees in Jessica and Gerard’s back yard. You wouldn’t think that a fungus could do so much for simple comfort food like stuffing and scrambled eggs. But then, you’d be wrong.

I also had some birthday cake, (served at a different meal than were the truffles.) For some happy reason, my life seems to be populated with people whose birthdays sit here on the friendly cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius. And, lucky us, we had two of them come to visit just last week.

First, Zaro and Gareth came by for a night on their way to Italy for six weeks. They’ve lived in the south of France a lot longer than we have, and they realized long ago that while spring, summer, and fall here pretty much can’t be beat, winter ain’t really much to write home about, unless perhaps you’re Inuit who hates snow. They bought a Peugeot with some extra room in the trunk, packed up Clementine and Spot in the backseat, and set off for Italy, via Aups. We were their first hosts, before they lit out to visit Nice, Cinque Terre, and eventually Vatican City, to see what Michelangelo has been up to these last few centuries.

To celebrate barely-Aquarian Zaro’s birthday, we decided that a big heavy French winter meal would probably beat the whole clown-and-balloons routine. So we roasted chicken the way Abigail likes it best, in olive oil pressed just over the hill and a whole bunch of dried herbs de Provence. Alongside we served roasted squash and a creamy, mushroomy risotto that I invented for my mom and dad and can now cook from memory.

Bill’s not crazy about mushrooms, so I save this recipe for when company comes, so that their enjoyment can drown out his vague displeasure. When it comes to cooking – like writing -- know your audience. Or at least stack the deck with guests (or readers) you know might like what’s being served up hot.

We had chocolate for dessert, a light cinnamony cake out of The Joy of Cooking enrobed in a super-heavy, super-dark, super-sweet and super-thick glaze that might as well have been chocolate siding. Somewhat at a loss for how to decorate it, I got the idea to cut out a paper stencil of a great big Z, stuck it on the cake, and then powder the top with confectioner’s sugar. I pulled the paper away, et Voila! We had no real birthday candles, but stuck a big huge regular one on the top. At least she could make one really heavy-duty wish for the year ahead.

But the best part of the meal was – as is often the case – the company. We told stories about our recent travels to places far from France, we caught up on the friends we hold dearly in common, and we all took turns patting Clem and Spot as they brushed up against our legs under the table. Bill built a roaring fire in the fireplace, and we all lolled on the sofas for awhile before we got too tired to move.

As Bill’s paternal grandmother, or my own, might have said, even when there was no seafood served, “It was a Real Nice Clambake.”

A few days later, Paris Jessica and Nick came down on the train for another food-heavy visit, also nicely leavened with their dogs, Winnie and Graham. By the time Jess and Nick arrived, we were already four days into a pretty astonishingly sunny stretch. I’m fondest of Aups when it is sunny. This is when I am fondest, really, of the planet itself. Fickle, heartless woman am I, expecting so much sunshine, and so ungrateful for the rain. I was glad to be able to show Aups off at its sunny best to our visitors – as though Provence is something for which I am responsible, or can take credit. Since Nick and Jess were escaping a cold and gloomy Parisian winter, I was glad we had something to offer, aside from whatever vegetables we could scrounge in the winter-sad Marché.

Winnie turned 35 (in dog years) on Wednesday, then it was Nick’s birthday on Thursday, the day after Zaro’s.  While I did quickly consider turning the Z stencil on its side to make him an N cake, sloth got the better of me, and I just made a big pot of vegetable soup instead. We had big plans for Saturday dinner, involving a partial reprise of the Thanksgiving spread that had been so successful, so it didn’t seem like a good idea to fire all the big guns right away. Plus, Jess is such a great baker, it seemed criminal to sully our plates with my second best.

(True confessions time: my penchant for throwing in a little bit of this and a little bit of that – damn the measuring cups and actual called-for ingredients – has served me pretty well as a budding cook. However, baking requires a rather more precise touch, and frankly I don’t think I have the patience to measure things all that often. I do my best – and that over-heavy chocolate frosting/siding really wasn’t half bad – but really I should stick to meat, potatoes, veggies and butter-laden cream sauces with improvised seasonings.)

Nick, a fairly regular reader of my formerly-regular blog, had been duly impressed by my account of the truffle-laden chestnut stuffed goose we served for Thanksgiving this November. In his honor, we requisitioned another large dead bird in his honor, which Gerard and Jess killed, plucked, cleaned, and delivered to our door in a big steel pan, with two black truffles and a pot of goose fat on the side.

There was some concern about this goose, as it had been killed (or at least stopped in its tracks) with a bullet, the location of which could not be determined. Jess called to instruct us to eat it carefully, as either biting down on or swallowing a lead shot would be deeply unpleasant. Apparently, Gerard had shot the one goose, and another one, several meters away, had also fallen down dead. There were a number of theories about how the second goose had perished (A ricocheting bullet? Heart attack from the surprise?) but while a bullet could be found in neither one, there was no denying the body count. Our request for a dead goose to cook had actually resulted in collateral damages.

We spent most of Saturday planning, preparing, chopping, cooking and then finally eating a roast goose feast. Nick found pumpkins, fennel, and ginger at the marché, and Jess found pears. He turned his ingredients into a remarkably smooth, savory and creamy soup, and whipped up a killer gratin Dauphinoise for good measure. Jessica found a pear cake recipe on her magic iphone, then topped it with a gooey pear-and-sugar glaze that I would have eaten on cardboard had it been offered to me that way.

For my part, I mentally juggled the Joy of Cooking Roast Goose recipe (giblet gravy, stuffing, and roast bird) with a recipe I found online for chestnut and truffle stuffing. The stuffing included a huge variety of kinds of decadence (pork sausage, foie gras, chunks of toasted white bread, and crumbled-up chestnuts from a can.) It took way longer than I wanted it to take, but the end result was incredible. Nick sliced and diced up one of the black truffles, and we mixed it in with all the other yummies.

I yanked all the organs that had been stashed in the goosie’s midsection and tossed them (except for the liver, which we saved for the gravy) into a pot with some red wine, vegetables, and a little water. We boiled this, along with the horrible-looking long neck, for hours and hours to make a dark, flavorful stock. I re-filled the empty goose with the stuffing mix, and we stuck it in the oven to roast for a few hours.

This was, of course, the time to crack open one of the several great bottles of wine that Nick had brought us on the train. Both a sommelier and a caveiste (words I find myself unable to precisely define) Nick knows his way around vintages and varietals. He decanted an old, bold red that was far too special to just slurp with a meal, then everybody but me tried a really great sparkling wine (oddly enough, champagne seems to make me even crankier than does January.)

We all had a glass or two. Then, once the cake was out of the oven, and the bird was in, Jessica, Bill, and I then pulled a fast one on Nick, taking off for a walk in the sunshine and leaving him in the house with two kids, the lazier of the two dogs, and a slowly roasting goose in the oven, in need of frequent basting. As soon as we left, Abigail tormented him into making some deviled eggs (Nick didn’t need too much convincing, as he wanted to try making them with some of the truffles we hadn’t yet used.) By now, we had dirtied pretty much every dish, pan, and knife in the kitchen. We had used measuring cups and spoons and scales of every persuasion, from ounces to grams to micromilliunits. I hadn’t served a real meal for hours, so by the time dinner was served, we were all ravenous. And – despite the wine we had been drinking – still thirsty.

There was no bullet to be found. But the meal killed us anyway, and once again, we poured ourselves into bed, having eaten and enjoyed our way through another wintery menu. The only remotely light food on the menu – a spinach salad with vinagrette-soaked beets – remained largely uneaten, while we all gorged on creamy soup and heavy giblet gravy and the fatty bounty of a bird designed by evolution to float and keep itself warm in cold water. Jessica’s pear cake – baked with her usual precision, with help from the timer function on the iphone – was perfect, as usual. It managed to combine light and heavy in a way that evoked all the best that “comfort food” has to offer.

I slept just as soundly as that second dead goose. Only I was a whole lot warmer.

After all that heavy cooking, I assumed we had already eaten the main meal of the weekend. However, Aups – and Jessica and Gerard -- had a rather impressive trick up their sleeves for Sunday. We did not exactly jump out of bed on Sunday morning, but eventually got our acts together enough to roll down the hill into town. Saturday had been the marché, but Sunday was to be the Fete des Truffes here in Aups.

I assumed that this would be the usual smalltown Var event: a few scattered card tables, lavender soap for sale, and a lot of the usual suspects meandering around the town square, frowning at one another. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to see a crowd that nearly rivaled the throngs of midsummer. There were little knots of tourists for the first time in months. The crazy Varoise accordion-playing cat man even showed up, (his cat sits perched on his neck as he plays, attached to him by a leash connected to his own neck. The only explanation we can come up with to account for this bizarre and unpleasant situation masquerading as entertainment is that the poor cat has been drugged.)

For the Fete, the central square in front of the Mairie was full of local truffle farmers, wine merchants, and jam ladies hawking their wares. There were card tables, certainly, but most were covered much more convincingly than usual. There were lots and lots of little stacked piles of black truffles, and truffles boxed up with eggs so that the eggs could soak up their scent through their shells. The air smelled like a mushroomy version of heaven. Every time the air wafted his way, Bill would inhale obscenely deeply and sort of groan. For a guy who hates mushrooms, he sure loves truffles.

Also on sale were scrawny-looking oak trees – chenes – which under the right (or perhaps wrong) conditions become the unhappy hosts for the fungal malady that results in truffles. Apparently, when you are looking for truffles – with your dog or your pig or your close attention to particular sorts of flies – the best place to look is under the scrawniest and most pathetic looking oaks. Truffles are a sort of athlete’s foot for the roots of trees, but with more dire effects for the trees. Apparently, you can buy scrawny oaks at this festival, plant them, dig up a fortune years later, and sell them at your own fabric-covered card table.

It was so crowded that it was actually hard to move around and see everything. Yet another real nice clambake, but this time with fungus, and a whole lot more French people gathered in one place than you usually see in these parts in the middle of winter.

When we first were researching where we should live in France, I came across a photo of “villagers” in Aups wearing “traditional dress,” doing a sort of square dance sort of thing. The women had white caps and mismatched floral dresses with long aprons. The men were bareheaded, with white shirts open at the neck. They looked very picturesque, and should have been my first clue that I was actually moving to a foreign country, not just to the part of Cobble Hill with all those bistros.

No such “villagers” have presented themselves to us since we arrived. I assumed that perhaps the native dress patterns had shifted away from peasant chic. Now, the women all seemed to wear boots, skin-tight leggings, and butt-hugger sweaters with a fussy jacket and a sour frown. The men tend to look a little more jovial, but significantly less fashionable – an enormous and bright-colored wool sweater tucked into filthy cargo pants.

But there they suddenly were at the Truffle Fest: those traditional villagers from the photo. But now I recognized them all: the women who buy their bread and meat early, walking alongside the men who sit by the Church. The boy who comes tearing out of school at 11:30, heading at a full run into town, and the girl who quickly befriended, then just as quickly dumped Grace as a friend. Looking all 19th century French.

The whole group was being led by some older gentlemen playing penny whistles with one hand and beating a very somber tattoo on a drum with the other. They moved slowly, marching in gendered pairs, with the kids up in front and the grandparents in back. My generation seemed entirely absent from the procession, which was probably a good idea. Nothing says “I’m 40 and miserable about it” like a headscarf and a full-length calico skirt.

After awhile, the kids in the group started to dance, a joyless kind of shuffle done to no discernable rhythm whatsoever. I had a hard time with the idea that those “traditional” villagers in the photo were these people I now sort of knew. I guess I liked the dancing villagers a lot less when I actually knew who they were – when I and my poor children had been regularly stared down by them on my little lonely ambles through the town. Perhaps the tourists in town enjoyed the dance more than I did. But as somebody who lives here, I’ve seen just how little fun the more upstanding, traditionally-dressing citizens of the town seem to allow themselves – or the rest of us.

Which was why, once we had had our fill of all that nice truffle-y air and the traditional frowny dance, I was so excited to get in the car and drive up to Jess and Gerard’s mountaintop. I've learned where the fun is had, and it's rarely at the Mairie. The very idea of introducing Paris Jessica to Aups Jessica just seemed exciting in itself: would the two namesake language savants, so crucial to keeping me sane and happy here in France, simply combust into antimatter once they came into contact? But moreso, I knew that more food (and more good wine) would await us there. It always does.

This time, we ate lots and lots of truffles. Truffles in scrambled eggs, and shaved on toast, and then more scrambled eggs on top of that. Truffles on top of rabbit, cooked in a rich and heavy cream sauce. Even truffles layered into a melty, creamy big round of cheese. There were no truffles in the dessert, just almond flour and lots of oranges. Which by then was likely a good thing. I can't quite imagine truffles improving cake.

After lunch, Gerard took us out to show us where all this bounty came from. Goya, the retriever, loped along close by his side, encouraged by the smell of sausage in his right-hand pocket. She knew her job, and knew she would be rewarded for doing it well. She sniffed along the ground, encouraged on by his kind, gentle tone. “Cherche. Cherche, Goya,” he intoned, serious and certain, but quieter and calmer than his usual jovial voice. We walked around by the scrubby, rattier-looking oaks with their tiny leaves. They were almost like miniatures of the oaks back home – leaves that would have been bigger than my palm on the oaks I knew at home were just an inch or two long.

It was cold outside, and the air was clear and sweet. After not too long, Goya stopped and pawed the ground. Gerard knelt down with a pickaxe and dug up some earth so that she could root around a little more. She stuck her nose deep in the ground, snorting and snuffling against the red dirt. She pawed a little more, then Gerard pulled up a handful of dirt for us to smell, too. It was redolent of the truffle buried just six inches or so under the surface. He found the truffle, about the size of a horse chestnut, and tossed it up to Bill. Goya got a bite of sausage.

She kept going, even once she had had her fill of sausage. She found truffle after truffle buried in the earth, even under rocks sometimes. It might take Gerard some time to dig it out, but there was a truffle there, every time. Smaller ones than he was hoping to find, but then it has been cold. And really enormous ones – like that first one we tried back in the early winter – aren’t so easy to come by.

The sky started to fill up with those puffy clouds that foretell snow. We went back inside for more wine, enough so that I couldn’t follow the conversation as well as I wanted to. I let it flow away from me with the rest of the afternoon light.


You can say what you will about the generally grouchy tone of the people who live in our small town – and of my own sad and sorry self these last few weeks. There is way too much grumpy to go around, given all the sunshine in the sky of the Var.

A behavioral scientist in Britain, after coming up with a complicated mathematical equation taking weather, economics, and the schedule of holidays into account, recently named the third Monday in January the "most depressing day of the year." So perhaps this is a little broader than Var-wide.

But despite the general frowny town tone, the actual friends we have made here are among the most warm and generous and open-hearted people I have had the honor to know.

They feed me, they are unfailingly funny and nice to my kids, and they gamely put up with my poor French skills, and the worse ones of my still mono-lingual children. They do so even when all I can seem to say is “Please you would to pass me meat now please if you will. That is good to being.” For some reason I can’t quite fathom, and don’t feel like I deserve, they kindly help me limp along, even when I can barely follow the topics of conversation.

Sometimes when I’m a solid ten minutes into not being able to catch hold of a thread of conversation, I feel like I’m a retired champion swimmer suddenly drowning in an unfamiliar sea. Having spent my whole life in language – reading, writing, listening, and barely shutting up for five minutes at a time unless I’m asleep – I am suddenly so often at a loss for the deeper meanings of things. I went years having all kinds of in-depth conversations on everything that floated through the transom of my head. Now, even when I can follow what is being discussed, I don’t often have something useful to add, aside from a head nod and a hopefully encouraging “Oui! Bien sur!”

It’s been shocking to me how much this dependency in conversations has changed my sense of self. When I first named this blog, I assumed that my old self would just come along for the ride, and I would enjoy life and torment myself in all the usual old ways. I wasn’t counting on how different it would feel to be me, but in a different language.

I almost had attained a sort of rough fluency, back in December. But those lovely three weeks in Brooklyn took the wind out of my sails. Mostly these days, I feel just quiet. In a peaceful sort of way. I listen more now, and more intently, if only to figure out what’s going on and what I am supposed to do. 

But I also feel a whole lot less smart, which is interesting. Doctors and public servants and even the cashiers in stores talk to me as though I am an imbecile.

Bill has not suffered this fate. Both more courageous and more skilled than I am, he has forced himself out into the world with greater confidence. I'm not used to being the stay-at-home anything, much less the dependent helpmeet back home watching the kids while he stays out at band practice. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago I was the one belting out the tunes?

Before this year, I built a whole life out of being somebody completely comfortable with language, and now I’m so damn awkward. But I find that rather than frustrated, I’m generally quite relieved a lot of the time. It reminds me of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there's a pair of us?

Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one's name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

In my old life, I was a particularly public Somebody, a sort of decent-sized fish in a medium-sized pond largely of my own making. I made my living, and my relationships, out of talking about books and ideas and even more talking. I could rarely leave the house without running into somebody with whom I had a history and could trade witty remarks. But while the Bog wasn’t really dreary, it wasn’t always particularly admiring, either.

Now I’ve built a cozy, quiet little Nobody of a self here in a new place and a new context.  I am out of work, and out of my element linguistically. I leave the house and say nothing at all aside from "Bonne Journée" or "Bon Soir." Instead of talking to the Bog, I write to the blog. Even at home, with the people I love, I can go entire days without talking about much of anything aside from adding fractions, have-you-made-the-bed, and what’s for dinner.

And here's what's weirdest: most days I can’t say I mind it a bit.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pits and Peaks

Reader warning: It seems prudent for me to mention, before you start reading, that Bill has completely approved the following message.

Diesel Liesel let us down once again. Once bitten, twice shy, you would think; but apparently when we go somewhere new, she still can surprise us with her shattering betrayals. This weekend, as we were on our way to go skiing in the Alps, she set us off on a literal road to nowhere, with promises of happy endings just around every corner. But around the last corner, fewer than 20 kilometers from Pra-Loup, was a road marked "Fermé."

This just proves yet once again that when you're dealing with a German, you'd do well to listen to Reagan's dictum: "Trust, but verify."

You can blame Liesel, I suppose, but I really could only blame me. And, at least a little bit, the recently fired navigator, Bill. I had driven her straight into a mountain pass in the Alps, past literally thirty different signs that might have suggested this was a bad idea. Before we started following Liesel, Bill had been navigating with his usual fair-minded approach: "You could go this way, sure. But you could also go this other way." If I started querying him about his reasoning for one way, the other, or either, he would then come up with yet another possible route.

Relentlessly positive, eager to pretend anything can work, and willing to consider literally any possibility, Bill makes a great adventurer, but a crummy navigator. He finds it impossible to decide among a wild goose chase, a flight of fancy, and an actual road that might lead somewhere in a reasonable amount of time.

(In that spirit: here's a fun game for you folks out there in Internet-world: go below to the comments section, and post your favorite story of the time Bill's enthusiasm nearly got you killed -- either in the wilderness, or even on a walk to the supermarket. I'll just give you a few suggestions to get you started: Thunderstorm on the top of Mt. Washington? Senior Week Snowstorm in the Whites? Hypothermia in the Smokies?)

Being somebody who really likes clear answers to practical questions, I quickly became frustrated by his diffident, all-roads-probably-lead-pretty-much-to-Rome-eventually approach. So I decided to fire him as navigator, and follow instead the most certain-sounding voice in the car. Liesel's.

To be honest, Bill seemed just as happy as I was to have someone decide on a route. So as we drove on and on, our desire to follow the car's lead would outweigh anything as rational as our attending to French road signs.

If you've ever driven in France, you know that their signs don't trifle. In general, French people don't get all overcautious about driving. So if there is a sign posted advising you not to take a turn at any speed above 70 kph, that's probably literally the fastest even Mario Andretti would take it. We also particularly enjoy the French falling rocks signs, usually found next to piles of actual fallen rocks.

But we ignored them all, and tuned in instead to Liesel's counsel. We drove deeper and deeper into the only bleak-looking area of the entire Alpine wonderland; it looked like the place Heidi might have moved had she been kicked out of her cozy bucolic farmhouse and taken up residence in a Tyrolean Motorhome Park, right next to a guy who makes his living boiling up crystal meth from decongestant.

Some of the signs we passed indicated "Verglass Frequent," which means that the road gets icy a lot. As we drove higher and higher into the mountains, these signs multiplied, then their multiples had little frozen babies. The temperature was hovering between 1.5 and 4 degrees Celcius, prime icemaking conditions, but we hadn't yet slid off any of the cliffs. Yet.

Then one sign remarked, strangely, "Do not attempt to drive this road without special equipment." We wondered aloud whether Liesel possessed such equipment, but pressed on, undeterred. We then even ignored the lit-up ones warning that two passes were closed. We were momentarily confused, but then we were cheered by all the cars, even buses zooming at us from the other direction; certainly the closed passes couldn't be on our road, we reasoned, if all those cars kept coming from somewhere else. So we went forward, heedless of all warnings, until it was impossible to continue to do so. Until the whole damn road was "Fermé." Covered over in snow.

There is some sort of life lesson buried here, but I'm still trying to decipher it. Fill me in if you figure it out first. Below, I'll take just a few stabs at the truth.

As generations of our much more sensible ancestors might point out to us, (if they were still alive, of course, and spoke English) it's completely pathetic that we rely on our car to tell us how to get places. A number of our Swiss and/or German ancestors knew a thing or two about mountain passes in the Alps, but apparently we have lost their Gnostic mountain knowledge, and must learn everything ourselves through trial and error. On days like this, it's clear to me that Bill and I sometimes just straight up copeless as a couple. Everything that should be easy becomes somehow impossible for us to achieve.

If you happen to live inside Bill's head, you might see any of our perceived difficulties with practical matters simply as my over-reactions to the necessary messiness of living. Inside Bill's head, there are mountains to reach, dammit, and no amount of difficulty, stress, or human suffering can get in the way of his noble quest to their heights.

Living, as I do, in my own head, I tend to see our copelessness as his fault, at least at first. Eventually I come round to seeing everything as my fault as well, but perhaps only for marrying his sweet self in the first place.

If there were some third, uninterested party somehow involved in every stupid detail of our marriage who could referee this issue, perhaps we could get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately for the truth, but fortunately for us, this is not the case. As anybody who knows us would attest, there is no way either of us could handle the truth. Our heads might explode.

As is the case in every other marriage I have ever known, no matter how deep the love that binds the parties together, each person is locked in his or her own perspective. Perhaps the most perfect of partners learn eventually to read one another's minds, and never suffer the inevitable disappointments and misunderstandings to which the rest of us fall prey. But I am quite certain that we are not the only couple who -- while still remaining deeply in love -- also remain completely opaque to one another on at least a few key issues.

Oddly enough for a couple who has chosen to spend an entire year traveling overseas, travel is one of our (few?) key issues. If you weren't me, you would think that it would be fairly simple to make a hotel reservation then go skiing in the French Alps for the weekend. Or at least if that doesn't seem simple, it might seem romantic, or cool in some way.

When you hear the phrase "Station du Ski," perhaps you picture a dashingly thin French person shusshing down a mountainside in a cleverly belted one-piece snowsuit. He or she may not be smoking at the time, but has just finished doing so, or is just about to light up. A carafe of wine has been consumed by this rakish figure at lunch, and another carafe or three will disappear at dinner. There will be a romantic assignation at some point, perhaps over a hot fire or a pot of fondue. The skier may not do anything as obvious as, say, smiling to indicate the massive pleasure being taken in the holiday. But pleasure will be taken nonetheless.

Skiing in the French Alps was not to be so, at least for us. At least for me. Apparently when Bill and I take a little weekend family ski vacation, we first drive three hours north, then come to the end of a road (a mountain pass, closed because of meters and meters of snow blocking it) and then go back the way we came. Then we drive way, way west, before driving north again.

On our trip, there is a fair amount of nasty bickering (and not just in the backseat) and a few roadside potty stops, without actual potties. Our wrong turn makes the trip take five hours, and I forgot the snacks, so we all get insanely hungry before arriving at the hotel we booked, which seems to be located at the wrong end of the resort. We eat decent pizza and lukewarm lasagna for dinner at the restaurant that nobody else is so foolish to chose, while "The Simpsons" plays, dubbed in French, on a television hanging from the ceiling.

On our trip, rather than all the romance and the mystery, there is only drama about driving the last few meters of the road, which really was verglass, and which Liesel found quite challenging. Then the anti-drama of parking, and unpacking everything in the places where I will be able to find it later, when somebody whines, "Mom, where's my hat /underpants /American Girl book /water/ toothbrush/ backpack/ snood?"

At night, the heat is turned up so high that none of us can breathe, much less sleep, and Abigail has an awful nightmare about her parents turning into murderous mice and attacking her. She wakes me up and spends the rest of the night clinging to my neck, trying her damndest not to go back to sleep. She certainly was effective in preventing me from doing so.

All this, and we haven't yet rented skiis.

I'm writing about our ski trip here, and all the minor perils that befell us on our way. In retrospect, all this can be narrated in such a way that it might sound funny to those of you who weren't there. Who weren't living in either of our heads. And weren't so unlucky to be our children.

But really what I want to write about is how Bill has a really hard time putting up with me in January. To tell the truth, I can barely put up with myself. My January grouchiness makes all the usual issues (planning, travel, practicalities, transitions, and the rest of it, which we don't do so easily in the best of circumstances) suddenly a whole lot more challenging. For both of us. And since we are now each other's only daily companions…. Well, perhaps you get the picture.

For years now, I've fallen into a pit -- sometimes a great big one, sometimes just a little roadside dip -- every winter. Just after the holidays (which always seem to me, to come way too soon) and until the middle of March, I moon about, I want to be asleep more than I want to be awake, and I am irritable and impossible to please, even beyond my usual baseline level of cranky. The first few years this would surprise me every time. By now, it's just wallpaper. Really really awful wallpaper, sometimes even the yellow kind you end up wanting to tear off the wall.

They call this little pit a seasonal depression, and I know all the usual tricks to heave myself back out of the depths. (No need to fill me in in the comments section about Prozac or light therapy or the like; save it for good stories about dangerous things Bill has done.) But when you're inside one of these things, it's difficult to look up at the world and imagine that it's the same friendly place it was when you were back on solid ground. It doesn't matter how quickly you recognize what is going on, or how quickly you intellectualize it all. From the bottom of a pit that your brain makes for you to sit in for awhile, it's easier to believe that it is the world, rather than you, that is all wrong.

To best illustrate how I feel these days: when I see French people I don't know, with their habitually frowny-faces, they suddenly seem accurate, rather than ridiculous.

A better person -- by which I mean a person not viewing life from the vantage point of her little pit -- might really have enjoyed a nice trip to the Alps with her family. As it was, I was a little too gripped with my bizarrely amped-up variety of fears and irritations. When it snowed on Sunday morning, I was afraid to drive the car. Even when I pumped the brakes like crazy, Liesel continued to slide, and slide, and slide down the hill next to the hotel. Anticipating the many, many hills I would have to descend, then ascend (precious few of them equipped with anything like a guard rail) I froze and even cried. Suddenly, this all seemed like a huge disaster, and everybody else's fault. And since Bill was the human being sitting closest to me, it seemed particularly to be his.

(Of course, if you know Bill, it really sort of was. A more reasonable person might have seen that I was not in any shape to be driving around the mountains, and found me a nice cozy place to spend the next two months. But when it comes to Bill and mountains, there is nothing he will not do to get closer to their tops.

He simply can't pass by a mountain range without developing an insane desire to get to the top of one, regardless of the cost and regardless of what anyone else wants. I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't been in the car when we got to that road that was "Fermé," he would have tried just to drive through the snowy pass. If the kids hadn't been there, he probably would have just have pulled the suitcases out and tried to walk it.)

All the French drivers zipped around me up and down the hills, the back ends of their cars nonchalantly slipping out to the sides. I suddenly hated them all. Bill tried to talk "reason," but it was quite clear to me (from my view down there in the pit) that all he wanted to do was to get to the mountain so that he could find other ways to endanger our children.

Like skiing, for example, or gondolas or pommel lifts or trails that led down to a huge variety of places for them to get lost or fly off cliffs. This cruel man wanted to take my only two children skiing, for god's sake. Once I got where we were going, I was so tense and angry I was sort of out of my mind. I finally pulled the car into an open space (free of cars, but full of slippery snow) and put down my head and sobbed.

This is what I believe is called, in parenting, "setting a really great example" for one's children. The only upside was that for once, instead of sitting there like bumps on a log, they couldn't wait to get out of the car. Terrified -- presumably of me -- they even made the unprecedented offer to carry their own stuff.

Truth be told, I had really only come with them, rather than staying back in the hot hotel room to read, because I had imagined that the resort would have a big lodge with a roaring fire. After helping to get them to the mountain, with their skiis on, I could pull off my wet boots and stick my toes up on a plush ottoman and read my new book all morning. Bill said he would ski with both girls and then we could meet up for lunch, after which I could go back to my reading. This imaginary day sounded sort of like heaven for somebody who needed a little solitude to clear her head, and to stop being asked to find other people's mittens.

As it turned out, the area where I ended up was more like an outdoor mall than a lodge. No fires, no big open room to sit in, no anonymous nowhere to sit. You could go into a café, certainly, and set up shop, but for some reason I didn't feel right about taking up a table for three hours. We discovered much later that the lodge was actually halfway up the mountain -- and had I clued into this fact, I could have purchased a "walker" pass, ridden the gondola up, and sat in a heated solarium overlooking the lift all day long. Which is what the other (non-crazy) non-skiing French mothers would do.

In the U.S. we have always called the sorts of people who provide elaborate forms of assistance at ski resorts "Lodge Moms," which we pronounced with a harsh Long Island accent as "Laaahdge Maaahms." Lodge Moms exist solely as life-support for their skiing children and husbands. They make little sandwiches, they buckle a variety of buckles and keep all the stuff together, and sit and read a romance novel in the short intervals between which they are needed. They sit around in their Mom Jeans (high waist, bigger in the thigh than in the calf) and their fair-isle sweaters and make themselves useful. They are the winter equivalent of Soccer Moms, only more wealthy. I have never aspired to be a Lodge Mom, and we have always made ruthless fun of them. If you are a Lodge Mom, and offended by this description of the way you spend your miserable Saturdays, I can't even apologize. I am so not sorry.

Probably in France, the mothers sitting in the lodges (far up the hills) were much more well-dressed. They certainly weren't sitting there waiting to be needed, but rather were enjoying a nice smoke and a snifter of brandy with their morning coffees.

But for me, the displaced super-grouchy American weirdo? I spent the day as a sort of pissed-off Lodge Mom without a Lodge. I just hovered off to the side and watched the kids zip up and down the little bunny slope. The temperature was just above zero, with no wind at all down at the bottom of the hill, so it didn't feel cold. I found ways to make myself useful -- mainly fetching gloves and holding extra layers and zipping up people and carrying skis. Later in the morning, I found an empty chair outside and sat for an hour or so with my cup of coffee, then I brought them all a tablet of chocolate to share. When I got there, they didn't want any.

One of my family-of-origin's unofficial mottos might be this: if you can't be happy, you might as well be useful. So while I hadn't been able to cobble together much of a day for myself, I threw myself into the project of being a decent Sherpa for the away team.

Sherpa, I said. I was so not a Lodge Mom.

In the afternoon, driven ostensibly by his desire to get Grace on a more challenging trail, but more accurately by his craving for greater and greater heights, Bill took Gracie up the big lift to the white fields far above the treeline. This made me incredibly nervous, since the green trails looked a whol lot harder than anything Grace had skiied in the past, and there was no all-green path leading down from the top. I also was pretty sure that if he turned his head for a minute, he would lose her. Based on some of his experiences on the unmarked tops of mountains, (some of you may recall his Getting Lost in the Rahwahs Story, Summer 1989) I had no real faith that he would not in fact lose himself. They ignored my stupid anxiety the best they could, and went anyway.

Thinking presumably of the corollary to my self-abnegation, they made a great call. If they weren't going to be useful, at least they could have fun.

I stood in my now-sopping boots and watched Abigail take endless runs up and down the pommel lift, then down the slope-that-was-barely-a-slope. She appeared to love this activity, and never lost her enthusiasm for it the whole day. She cheerfully ignored my suggestions -- both that she learn to grab for the lift herself (rather than stand like a sheep and be helped on by the attendant) and that she try the slightly longer lift to the slightly slope-ier slope. Nothing doing. She was the only kid who spent the entire day on that lift, happy as a clam, just doing her little thing over and over and over.

When Bill and Grace came back, he had her totally exhausted, and himself completely exhilarated. He was so high, in fact, that I pressed him to go off and ski by himself for the rest of the afternoon. Resigned to my chosen role as Sherpa, I would drive and fetch and watch and make myself useful. He hesitated for the usual length of time, perhaps realizing that if he ditched me with the kids, he would only have to pay later on. (Bill is gradually wising up to my winter-depression antics.) But the call of the mountain was too strong. Neither wind nor rain nor threat of massive lightning storms, avalanches or potential civil unrest will keep Bill from his appointed rounds at the tops of tall mountains.

We made a plan, and he was off, while I stayed firmly planted in my own little grouchy ditch. Not for the first time, the surrounding geography perfectly matched our own emotional landscape. Bill flying high through crystal white Elysian fields. Me with my soggy socks, standing there weighed down by everybody's extra coats.

Splitting up proved to be a good idea for everyone involved. For instead of stupidly battling it out over which parent could be the most self-sacrificing, we could just focus on one thing at a time. For me, this was watching the girls zip up and down the hill. For Bill, it was to ride a variety of particularly steep and (actually) dangerous lifts, schusshing through endless powder and acting for all the world like that dashing French person of your imagination. His favorite lift was completely covered in warning signs, and yanked him straight up a particularly vertiginous cliff at a 60° grade.

Only much later, after we had driven home and had it out with one another, did he tell me this funny story about the final adventure of his afternoon. To spare me another drive to pick him up, he volunteered to hike home across a path set aside for that purpose. Of course he represented this as though he were making a big sacrifice for the family, but anybody who knows Bill will realize that he was really just scheming a way to spend more time communing with the hills.

He started off across a gorgeous Alpine headwall back to the hotel. He left in the early evening, which could be construed as somewhat dangerous. The first sign he saw said "Run Fast," and he panicked immediately, due to our previous experience with road signs. He did in fact start to run, thinking how much it would suck if he proved my anxious worrying right by dying in an avalanche. The next sign he saw, however, said "Touch Your Toes Ten Times." He then immediately realized that his pristinely adventurous hike was just one of those dorky European excer-paths you find everywhere here.

I waited there at the Bunny Hill until the kids were both exhausted. I sherped all their stuff for them, then took them back to the hotel to check out the indoor pool. They liked it, but got a little chilly; it was of course just my luck that the jaccuzi tub was, like the mountain pass, Fermé. We went back to our overheated room, where I sat on the bed and read Prince Caspian to them while they took turns lolling around in a hot bath.

There was, that night, a very cheery dinner, at which everybody ordered something delicious, and Bill got to have the fondue of his 1970's skiing memories. The girls were funny and adorable, and finished their dinners without an argument. I had wicked bad hat-head, and Bill cauterized part of his lip on the fondue skewer, but other than that, the evening was both safe and fun, all at the same time.

We slept late the next day, then drove home along the same roads that had so terrorized me on our trip up, two nights before in the gathering dark. We decided to tell Liesel to shut up, thank you very much, and followed our own wits to get home. The car's thermometer registered just a few degrees below zero, and there were still plenty of those damn verglass signs and little piles of fallen rock, but for some reason, the road home always feel safer to me than any road into the wild.

The kids sat quietly in the backseat for once, either tired out from all the skiing and swimming, or perhaps merely pacified by a few cans of Pringles. Bill and I weren't really talking either. I was still angry about the way that his mountain lust had pushed aside everything in its way. I had been just one more obstacle he had to blast through to get to the top. He -- having finally gotten his way with those luscious powdery hills -- was irritated with me for being such a giant wet blanket, and thus making him feel guilty about his conquest. Weren't we the pair.

On the way home, we drove along the shoulders of the mountains. On the open, sunny sides, we were blasted with full sun like you couldn't believe. This is going to sound ridiculous, but the snow in the fields literally glittered, like diamonds. But then, as we zoomed into the dark side behind each mountain, we were plunged into a deep, unrelenting shadow.

The sunshine was so bright, the sky so very blue. But each time we went back into the shadow, it was as if the sun had never before risen.

This is what it's like to be married sometimes. You find yourself constantly connected to somebody so deeply familiar, but so very different from yourself. You can be there, one minute, in your own bright reality, then dragged just as suddenly into somebody else's dark shadow. Or, you might be enjoying your quiet little patch of darkness, and then find yourself yanked blinkingly into an unfamiliar sky, one far too bright. You want so badly to be together, but there is no middle ground to be found.

I hate to wish away a single day of this year. A year we have set aside for our marriage, for our family, for the mountains and the sunshine. And even to fully feel the weight of the shadows.

But standing down here, in the pit of this year's January, I feel like February still can't come a day too soon.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thrown out backs and broken hearts

It's really not very nice to be super grateful when someone you love is in pain.

But this was the dilemma the girls and I faced early last week. Once Bill threw his back out, so definitively and spectacularly on the floor of our kitchen, on the morning of our scheduled return flight to Nice, via Heathrow -- how could we not be at least the tiniest bit thrilled that his sudden incapacitation had bought us all a few extra days in Brooklyn?

Here's what it looked like: Bill and I were shuffling around the apartment, packing things up and gradually getting ready for the day ahead, when he bent over to pick up something inconsequential from the floor. Suddenly, he called out in an awful and seriously pained howl, and went crashing down the rest of the way to the ground, his knees slowly buckling as he fell.

He slumped on top of his own open piece of luggage, half-on and half-off, and went totally still.

I asked, in my quietest voice, "You OK, honey?"

He was even quieter. "It's my back. I'm fine but I'm going to have to live here on the floor from now on. Without moving. We can figure out the details of how I will eat and drink later."

His back has "gone out" in a similar sort of way in the past. But never quite so completely that he literally couldn't (perhaps more like wouldn't) move from the position in which he found himself.

I am embarrassed to say that I did not react quite as quickly and helpfully as I might have, for several reasons.

First, I was too calm. I had popped an Ativan first thing that morning to cut down on the awful pre-flight anxiety from which I suffer, and which I so cruelly inflict on anybody who gets in my way. A herd of elephants running through the room would certainly have gotten my attention just then, but perhaps not triggered a whole lot of alarm or emotion. So this man quietly whimpering on the floor didn't register the usual 11 on the Launa-Richeter scale.

But second, I really was not at all ready to leave, and instantly recognized this temporary back problem as just the reprieve I needed. There had been too much emotion, too much love, too much of just about everything during our two weeks home. Although we knew we needed to get back for Abigail to go to school, not one of us wanted to go. So while I felt awfully bad that his back hurt so much, particularly at that specific moment, I knew that back spasms aren't permanently disabling.

I loved our time back in Brooklyn, and before he fell down, had been furious with some unnamable force responsible for having scheduled the return flight. (Of course, that would be me.)  So let's be clear here; I wasn't exactly cruel. Just conflicted.  We never questioned that he would be OK eventually, just not quickly enough for us to get on the plane that evening.

Which brought me to the third reason I did not at first show adequate distress at his plight. The fact that he was lying so still on the floor meant that I would not have to spend that particular evening on an airplane. For me, that is the definition of relief: Not flying. Or, if I am flying, having said flight land safely to its final destination.

So while I hope I was nice enough to him, this perfect man who had so surprised and floored me just the night before at the birthday party, I could not be 100% disappointed by this awful state in which he found himself, a different sort of floored.

"You'll be OK, sweetie," I said, in my relieved, druggy calm.

A quiet whimper came from the floor. "Can you just find me some Advil?"

A few days later, after some rest, and a number of carefully chosen exercises and painkillers, he was good as new. We changed our tickets so that we would arrive a week later than we had planned, and spent the week taking the kids to museums, movies, and playdates.

So if I like it so much in the Var, why all the sadness about returning? Here is the answer, as far as I can tell: As stellar as the domestic and physical landscapes of the Var, the world of Brooklyn is equally so. Being around all those people I've loved these past 40 years made me happy, then oh-so-sad to say goodbye for another six months.

The day before, I had worked myself into racking, choking sobs just pulling down the strings of white lights hung so carefully by Katie and Toni. I had cried leaving Jackie's house after the party, knowing I wouldn't see her for months. I cried watching Grace and Amelia struggle with their goodbyes, knowing they were both our victims. I cried again watching the girls say goodbye to the dog, aware that I was putting them through this sadness for reasons I could not promise were all for their own good. I cried even harder hugging my mother goodbye.

After all that crying, it felt like a pretty super reprieve -- at least for the three of us who were not injured -- not to have a single thing to cry about. Bill fell to the floor, and bought us a week we hadn't expected. We worried about him, but all felt guilt knowing that we were rejoicing a whole lot more than we were worrying.

I will also admit to you and the small handful of strangers who might stumble onto this sentence that Bill and I spent a lot of our time in Brooklyn wondering about the wisdom of our family's crazy adventure -- the one I had fought so hard over the summer, had refused so hard to believe could be good. The same adventure that had changed all of us so completely, and had opened us up a whole range of new and different flavors of joy. 

The first week or so back in Brooklyn, we described the trip in such glowing terms.  But after enough time back in the Brooklyn mindset, enough pointed questions directed our way, things didn't seem so clear. In a place that values work and education over all else, it was hard to explain a year in which neither one was at the center of our worlds. Away from the Var, away from the way that things make sense there, it all seemed so random, and possibly even hurtful to the girls to ask so much of them, and to take them so far away from everything they love. What if we were actually making them hate France, we started to wonder?

Taking this year away from our lives had first seemed so horrible, and then so terrific, then impossibly hard, then liberating. So perhaps not surprisingly, it now was feeling simply, purely ridiculous. Why would we leave a place -- and leave people -- we love so much?

I say this, also having recognized, through hard-won experience, that the members of our little nuclear family are not such likely characters for an upheaval of the size we have chosen this year.

Since May, we have sold one house, rented out another, quit two jobs, slept in at least a dozen different places, and all learned to negotiate an unfamiliar country in an unfamiliar tongue. After having spent our children's entire childhood before this year both working pretty much full time, we remade our lives with both of us staying home for the time being. And after having both girls as students of one school -- mine -- we then sent them to a rural French school we knew nothing about, then just as suddenly took up homeschooling.

You can call this all "flexibility," and our actions since putting ourselves in this mess "responding to a compelling challenge." Or you can just call it strange and stupid.

This is particularly strange, and particularly stupid, since it takes the four of us much more time than it takes normal humans to get ready to go in the mornings. We rarely leave the house without a tussle of one sort or another. Leaving for big trips is even worse. When we travel, Bill always wants us to get together and hold hands and say why we are thankful for what we've experienced, and what we are most looking forward to in the next step of our journey. Usually at that sort of moment of packing up our stuff and trying to get everybody the hell out the door, I don't want to hold hands. Instead, I usually am so tense that I want to strangle him with a wire.

If you were using the language of early childhood educators, you might say that our family does not transition awfully well.

Katie brought this fact up with me as I was weeping on her sofa one afternoon just before the back-throwing-out episode. I was conscious that we had to leave, and I wasn't ready to go. Katie's daughter and mine had also been having a difficult time with the fact that they would be apart, and had spent several hours fighting, and also weeping, and overwhelmed by the fact that they would not see one another for many months. Months might as well be years, for kids their age. They were sad, and I was sad too. In fact, I was almost too sad to even be much help to them. I was a big puddle of mixed emotions. I was not handling this well at all.

Wise Katie to the rescue, for the perspective shift with a half twist: "Why does everybody so value being able to handle transitions well? Why is that such a great thing? Isn't it good to really be able to feel sad when something is ending? Not just to shove it under the rug, but to really think about what you're losing and gaining in the change?"

Katie is very smart. I had never thought of it this way, as I was always so focused on trying to be the sort of person I was not. The person who breezes through transitions. The person who always looks ahead, never behind. Who is sure that it will all work out in the end. The person who has no need for Ativan, no sudden urges to strangle her beloved husband. Ever.

I am not this person. I stress the small stuff. I get overwhelmed; I weep; I snap at the people to whom I should be the most kind. Often these weeks, it has been the good things that have overwhelmed me, but the hard truths can make me fall apart as well: the lurking guilt, the wondering-if-we're-doing-the-right-thing. I despise my own sheer fear of getting back in an airplane. (And this time -- no thanks to the diaper bomb terrorist -- probably with even kookier new travel restrictions and skittish flight crews. Could they really make us fly all night without any blankets?)

It doesn't matter that I know that my regular life would also have had me sweating, wondering, full of self-recriminations, what-if's and petty distress. Had we kept our jobs, stayed in New York, things almost certainly would have been significantly more challenging for all of us than they are now. Even school would have been hard this year for the girls if we had stayed home. Why? Because while we adults persistently misremember what it was like to be a kid, school is always hard. Not intolerably hard, but hard in a way that life is hard. We've traded one sort of hard for another. It's just that this one is happening so very far away.

So I knew, in the rational part of my brain that sometimes gets control of things, that taking the girls somewhere new for a year was not too hard for them, even if sometimes they felt sad or uncertain or afraid. Because, as I had seen on so many other occasions, it was also, and often, really really really great for them to experience life in this new way, with us right alongside, cheering them on.  

We have scheduled ourselves for the first open flight we could get for the same price as the cancelled tickets: a night flight that arrives at Heathrow late morning on Monday, landing in Nice in the afternoon. It's already tomorrow in France, a new day getting itself ready for us.

So here I am, writing to you from the waiting area at Terminal 8, Gate 4 at JFK. Dutiful travelers, we arrived three hours early, and got our selves and our stuff so thoroughly scanned. We sat in the food court, and ate snackfoods of all the kinds we are most likely to miss while we are gone: junk pizza, cali roll sushi, lo mein, pretzels, fried chicken. It tasted pretty yucky, but not as yucky as junk food had tasted us when we had just arrived from France. Our taste buds, as well as our tongues, fully adjusted back to the old ways.

All four of us soaked up our spare week, saw friends we had missed, and took our leisurely time enjoying our old world. Our French fell away completely, and we no longer needed to translate in and out and up and down to get from what we wished to say to what could be understood. During that time, as France faded away, and Brooklyn took hold in us, the doubts that had crept in grew and multiplied.

I imagined that the extra week would calm us all down, but it isn't any bit easier to leave this time around than it was in August. In August, we had filled the kids' heads with all kinds of fantasy stories about how cool everything would be. Now they are going back to an experience they know, warts and all, and their parents can no longer even pretend to pull the wool over their eyes.

And in some ways, even though I was so thoroughly enchanted by what we discovered in France, it is worse for me as well. The contrast between the social joy of these three weeks home, in contrast with the difficulties of living in a foreign world now feel so very stark.

So why are we leaving? Why are we getting on this plane? I guess it is because we have a vague sort of faith -- faith that when we get there, when the relief of a safe landing sets in, and we climb back into the Renault, we will find ourselves glad. Glad like we were before, glad like we will be again. Glad for the challenges as well as for the time we have left together to have adventures. Bill feels this the most powerfully, and is using all of his mighty enthusiasm to propel us forward, as we drag our six feet against his tide.

He is in fact the only one of all of us excited to be heading back, or at least he's the best at reciting the articles of faith: we will have adventures. We will learn more French. We will enjoy being together. We have so much more to see. He keeps reassuring us, leaning over the seats to tell us how happy he is that we're on phase deux of the big adventure.

But it's not nice to be grateful while someone you love is in pain.

This time around, it's Bill who feels gratitude while the rest of us are hurting.  I can only assume that, like his thrown out back, our heartbreak won't be permanent. It's even possible that the pain of the transition will evaporate, every bit of it, as we get back to our routine and recall all the beauty, time, and experiences that we can't seem to call to mind while in Brooklyn.

I wish I could say this with his confidence, but I'm not yet convinced.

And since this hurts more than I had thought it would, all I want to do is lie here and try to keep from moving.  

(End of the day update for any other worrywarts out there: we flew from NYC to London, from London to Nice with precisely no incident whatsoever. All flights on time, no turbulence to speak of, all of our panic out of the way early on. From one home to another, safe and sound.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Don't Let Anybody Tell You That You Didn't Deserve This"

Reader warning: This post has nothing whatsoever to do with France. Aside from the great Brooklyn fashion you should imagine everyone wearing, this whole birthday story could have unfolded in Peoria or Buffalo or Cleveland. If you find yourself missing France references too much, make a strong cup of espresso, give yourself a nice haughty Gallic glare in the mirror, and wait just a few days; we'll be back (home?) soon. And by then maybe I won't be so darn giddy.

I've never been one to downplay my birthday. I am the sort of person who resorts to pesky tactics like writing my own birthday on other people's calendars. Or writing entire blogs reflecting on/lamenting the fact that I'm turning 40, as though yet another year of life on this planet is not itself the greatest gift imaginable.

Born just a few days after New Year's, I often celebrated my birthday on the first day back to school after a long break -- the biggest bummer Monday of the year. Thus I had to toot my own party horn if I was going to get any birthday wishes at all. And I will readily admit to liking birthday wishes, ideally in multiples, and covered in cream-cheese frosting.

When I was a kid, I would send out party invitations in December, way before vacation started, but the birthday sledding fests I imagined would inevitably be canceled because of some awful Carter-era snowstorm: six foot snowdrifts and winds gusting to 80 miles per hour. My classmates' parents would be (sensibly) scared to drive their cars into our arctic tundra driveway, so I would spend the afternoon pouting before we quietly ate Mom's delicious big yellow cake with chocolate frosting, which would help me get over it.

But this year more than made up for any parties I missed in my youth. For the people I love threw and attended not just one, but two pretty stellar birthday celebrations. After all that top-shelf partying, I should actually now be 80 years old, rather than 40. Which might not be the worst idea: I'm no Jennifer Aniston or Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I sure would be one hot octogenarian.

We scheduled our family's trip to Brooklyn in the middle of our year away in part to have Christmas at home, but also so that I could spend this milestone surrounded by friends and family. We've been celebrating a ton of 40th birthdays these last few years. Fairly good-size birthday parties, complete with toasts and re-written rock song lyrics seem to have taken the place of weddings as the must-attend events of the decade. (Funerals, happily, not so much. Miles to go before we sleep.) While I stopped short of tattooing 1-5-10 backwards on everybody's foreheads, I was not at all shy in asking for help crossing over into the furrowed, forgetful land of Middle Age. I don't care if 40 is the new 30, 25, or even 15 for that matter. It's a big deal.

Not surprisingly, the first friend to come through, bigtime, was Jackie. If you've ever met -- or even heard of -- Jackie, you know that she is a fierce force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. She throws a party with the same enthusiasm and skill with which I can only throw a fit of pique. (Of course, when she's the one throwing, everybody has a great time. I tend just to clear the room.) Back in October, when she was visiting us, she started her planning, and then kept it up even when it turned out that she would be changing jobs the day before the day we had chosen.

And not just changing jobs: changing from one enormous job to another, even bigger one. She's helping to run a whole city right now, and I am so not exaggerating. So she really could have bowed out, and I still would have loved her forever, no questions asked. But Jackie is nothing if not loyal, and she and I have been celebrating our birthdays together for almost 20 years. So thanks to her dedication and friendship, I had that to look forward to, the night before our scheduled return flight.

(We are, as I write this, still in fact here in the states, a full week hence. But more on that later.)

At the same time, Bill had his own (very sweetly crazy) ideas, and once he got Buck and Katie in on the planning, they decided that they would throw a dual-purpose Getting Old party for Sean and me -- complete with appearances from several important local rock, country, surf, and teeny-bopper bands. Unlike Jackie's party, which would be elegant and perfect, this one would be rough-around-the-edges. And also perfect.

Like I said in the earlier post, I was coated in swirling fairy dust of luck, everywhere I turned. As it was in fact impossible to deserve this much attention, I just decided to appreciate it all as deeply as I could. This is not my usual mode -- joyful, unquestioning appreciation of things -- but I've spent big swaths of this year trying to teach my old dog self that new trick. Because damn, if you can't be happy with a whole year off from work, living in a villa in Provence, with healthy kids and a healthy family, you ain't never gonna be happy, sister.

The Sean-and-Rock party would happen first. We drove back to Brooklyn after Christmas with my folks, and immediately started in on rehearsals in Buck and Beth's basement. Once Bill and Katie started the ball rolling, the congenitally enthusiastic Buck had been pulling bands and set lists and plans together for months over email. So there were lots of songs to be learned.

Our old band, "Love Handel," had morphed in our absence into a much more tightly professional-sounding surf-rock group, which seemed to be named both "The Tiki Brothers" and "Scorpion Bowl." Sean would join the re-formed old band lineup, doubling Bill on bass, when Love Handel translated itself to "Les Poigneés d'Amour" and reprised half the set list of our Bastille Day concert, 2009.

The M&M's would harmonize on some beautiful country-themed songs (including a never-before-imagined C&W version of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There.") The Fifth Street Band, a classy quasi-pro outfit if I have ever had the chance to sing with one, very graciously prepared a bunch of songs on which I could sing lead or harmonize.

Amelia, Grace's best friend and Sean's daughter, pulled together Pigeon Wing. I know for certain that I am exaggerating like a proud mom when I tell you that they are the coolest group of ten-year-olds you can imagine. Backed by their four dads, Janet, Lily, Amelia and Grace would not only sing beautifully, but also get to feel like real rock stars.

Many of my life's best moments are a result of things spinning just the tiniest bit out of control in just the right direction, and I am glad to say that the first birthday party, in the noisy basement of our second-favorite bar, Union Hall, spun in just that way. Toni decorated with Katie, who had found a great caterer, Sean's family came in from out of town, and the room filled up with cheerful, happy people, some of whom were not even in the bands. The staff looked pretty grouchy about having eight excited and therefore unruly children running around and playing with the microphones, (it was, after all, a bar, mostly full of actual grownups, all dressed just as Brooklyn-hip as you might imagine them) but I certainly felt that the kids certainly added nicely to all the happy chaos.

That night I got to celebrate Sean's birthday with his family, but I also got to see a great motley assortment of friends. In no particular order: a number of my kids' friends' parents who I really adore; old friends from work who came from Way Up North in Manhattan and from Jersey, bringing me a (40 oz) jug of Budweiser; the friend from whom I inherited my old job; and also the lucky soul who inherited it in turn from me. Old and new friends from our block. My former high school students, themselves creeping up towards 30.

(If you want to feel suddenly aware of the passage of time, here's a funny little formula: have your daughter perform in a rock band in front of some successful lawyers and bankers and actors who were your Eleventh Grade English students when she was in utero. Weird for them, and worse for you.)

I also liked -- no, make that loved -- all the singing I got to do, ripping into "The Weight," "White Rabbit," and "Brass in Pocket," and singing harmony with the Tiki Brothers on "Don't Pass Me By," the song that had rescued my sanity the day Grace had that awful, scary asthma attack. "Les Poignées" reprised the satirically faux-angry Love Handel anti-Food Co-op anthem, "Keep On Shopping at the Key Food," much to the amusement of members and non-members alike. (Hypocracy alert: that song may someday be my downfall when I need to come back from Brooklyn and can't figure out where else I can buy the quality of food I learned to love overseas.)

But the highlight of the evening, at least for me, had to be the Pigeon Wing set, during which the four ten year old girls sounded indescribably innocent and joyful and sweet. They sang "Unwritten," with Lily driving the beat forward on her drums and Amelia belting out the melody that spiraled up and up and up; it was a perfect song for girls so young and creative and alive. Katie had also picked out a Flight of the Conchords song, "Friends," which despite its off-color references, was the perfect song for them to sing. (You really should listen to it. Right now. Here.) The girls sang a Taylor Swift song, reworking the words so that Amelia could sing to her Dad, and Grace could sing to me. For days and days afterwards, I could hear them singing the chorus so earnestly, in soprano unison: "I know that I had the best day. With you. Today."

As you might be able to imagine, there was significant joyful weeping from me as they sang. Enough that I felt pretty embarrassed. But by and large, birthday parties tend to be pretty friendly and forgiving occasions, at least for the people having the birthday. If anybody found me ridiculous in my pride and joy, they kept it nicely to themselves. You, dear reader, are entitled to snigger behind your hand if you wish; I'm not sitting next to you as you read, so go right ahead.

At the end of the evening, I was exhausted, and just the teeniest bit tipsy, and happy as all heck. I had in fact had the best day. With you. Today.

The rest of the week brought with it a new year, a new decade, a late-night NYE dance party, and a lot of quiet afternoons and evenings soaking up time with the friends we had missed so much while we were away. Living there in Brooklyn, with my newly-developed slow amble and new eyes -- more open to the beauty of light and color, and grateful for all the open American faces -- I experienced the old places as though I hadn't seen them before. We took Samson for long walks. We ordered takeout in every flavor except French. We got together with old friends for long conversations over coffee or tea or a big glass of Malbec, and reminded ourselves of the comfort and intimacy you can only find talking one-on-one with a trusted bosom friend.

And then all the sudden it was time to bookend the week with yet another big chorus of Happy Birthday. I was more than a little embarrassed by all my riches. (But I got over it. Once again, the cake really helped.)

As I mentioned above, Jackie's parties are fairly legendary, so I shouldn't have been so surprised by how many people managed to get themselves to Brooklyn and find willing babysitters on a holiday weekend. There were beach friends, and band friends, Brooklyn friends, a heavy contingent of college friends, and my parallel-life best friend from elementary and high school. Several of my friends' parents (after twenty years now, my friends as well) came. And Mom and Dad, Gaela and Jim came down on the train from Albany, too, even though they had just seen us for the Holiday Olympics of 2009.

Jackie had cooked all week long: homemade Gravlax and handmade sushi. Little light cheesey Gourgettes prepared in advance and then puffed on the spot, two colors of olive tapenade, three kinds of little tarts, and four kinds of my new favorite French cheeses. She had even made peppermint marshmallows -- from scratch: did you know people could even do that? -- in honor of our Guy Savoy lunch back in October. The larger miracle is that she and Loni actually continued smiling while turning out treat after treat after treat for the grateful guests. If this whole running the city business ever gets old, she could go pro.

Jackie delegated to my Dad the important job of photographing me with all of the guests as they arrived. If you know my father, you will realize that he takes any job that he is given very seriously. He kept tabs on the few people who managed to slip past me at the door, tracking them down like a hunter to snap them later on. A skilled marksman never misses. Between Jackie and Loni and Dad, with Jim and Gaela on drinks patrol, this party was really cooking with gas.

Then, as the evening was really getting underway, I noticed a minor commotion over the shoulder of the friend I was talking to. As far as I could tell, everyone who was coming was already there, but there seemed to be a whole bunch of new guests at the door. I assumed that Dad would immediately call me to the door for a few more smiles and hugs.

But then I realized, with an emotion so powerful I am still having trouble finding a noun for it, that these were not more of the guests I had expected, but a past life walking in the door. Fourteen of them, to be exact, all incredibly beautiful. All wearing black.

So you might know that I really, really, really love to sing. In college, most of my singing took the form of the particularly goofy genre of collegiate a cappella singing. If you're not familiar with the form, imagine a small glee club crossed with a cover band crossed with a sorority. Some fellow sophomores and I, having all been rejected from our college's other women's group, started our own group, The Amherst College Bluestockings. We spent hours and hours every week rehearsing, trying to get the sound, the humor, the attitude and even the choreography exactly right. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done.

I had met some of the recent graduates of the group in the last year or so (through the multi-talented Paris Jessica) and so I immediately recognized them as they walked in the door into Jackie's apartment, smiling as though they had all eaten a great big bunch of canaries.

There were current Sox as well, young women much closer in age to Grace than to me. So all the sudden there were a huge big bunch of them in Jackie's dining room, all there to sing. They looked like goddesses, and they sounded absolutely beautiful.

My favorite Bluestockings song is one that we never actually sang when I was in college, but which we sang together on the stage of Buckley at the group's 20th anniversary reunion last year. It's a Sweet Honey in the Rock song, called On Children. When I heard Sweet Honey sing it, back in college, I just thought it was a pretty song. But as a parent, I understand just how true are its admonitions and promises:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself.

They come through you, but they are not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you.

You can give them your love, but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts.

You can house their bodies, but not their souls, for their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow that you can not visit, not even in your dreams.

You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.

I can't even think about the words to that song without getting weepy. So although they didn't sing that particular song that night (instead they actually went to the trouble of unearthing and then learning two of the group's oldest songs -- ones I knew way back when -- and then sang from their most stellar current repertoire) it was the one I kept thinking of as they sang with such enormous joy in the familiar arc of black dresses.

In starting this group back in college, we silly sophomores had given birth to something that would last long beyond ourselves. We had started something rich and wonderful that would take on a life of its own, and which we could not visit, not even in our dreams. And then, here they were, visiting my life, as unbidden as all the other good luck.

I was so aware of being a part of the group in that funny over-time way, (not surprisingly, I was also wearing a black dress) but also aware of the fact that many of the women standing there hadn't even been born when we held our first few hesitant and hopeful rehearsals in one of the small, dark practice rooms of Buckley Hall.

Suddenly, things were once again spinning just that little bit out of control, in the best possible way. So yes, I was surprised. And yes, Bill had arranged the surprise.

But I was not just surprised. I was moved. I was flabbergasted. I was astonished. I was once again in grateful tears, and could have listened to them sing all night. I could have sung In My Life to any number of the people gathered in the room that evening, but now, as way back then, it's really all about Bill:

Although I will not lose affection for people and things that went before, you know I'll stop and think about you.

In my life, I love you more.

The Bluestockings had also learned Amazing Grace, the first arrangement Rebekah and I ever did for the group; for all our years in the group, it was our closing song, and it was why I named my older daughter as I did.

(So here's yet another great little formula for reckoning with the passage of time: perform a twenty-year-old song, in harmony with your twenty-year-old dopplegangers, just once and without rehearsal, for your parents, your friends, and your daughter, whom you named after that very song. Amazing. Grace. Weird, but this time probably weird mostly just for me.)

While 1-5-10 was still a few days off, halfway through that song came the moment I finally decided to be 40. And I ain't looking back. Keep your damn 20's, even your 30's. I like the view from way up here in the big numbers. When Jackie lit the candles on the carrot cake, I was finally ready to be that new great big number. Forty is the new ecstatic.

So how had Bill pulled it all off? As I learned later, he had wisely pitched his idea to the group's business manager as a romantic gift to me, and the ones who would be in New York anyway agreed to come and sing. When some of the New York area alumni got wind of it, they joined in, ready to enjoy the chance to do a little singing as well. (Apparently I'm not the only person I know who likes the chance to stand up in front of a room full of people and belt out old Aretha tunes.)

"You Are What You Love," I read in my horoscope this week. These parties brought together nearly everything I have ever loved, and everything of which I will make the life ahead of me. I love my girls. I love my family. I love my friends, the very best ones the world over. And while we routinely drive one another positively crazy, I love my remarkable, surprising, wonderful husband with his crazy schemes that launch us into the edges of the possible. And I loved, loved, loved that party.

As one of my friends was leaving that night, he leaned in and gave me a big French bisou.

"This was a really great party," he pronounced. I had attended a number of his family's most memorable and important events, which were always pretty swank and memorable affairs. So I recognized this as the opinion of a true party connoisseur.

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "Don't let anyone tell you that you didn’t deserve this." He was laughing, of course, at the way life's turkeys try to get you down. And also poking gentle, smiling fun at the idea that I -- or anybody for that matter -- could deserve the kind of good feeling and good fortune engendered by a party quite like that one.

But really, he was giving me just the right sort of advice for that moment. Because of all the people I know, I am the big fat turkey most likely to wonder whether I could have deserved it all. It's good to have wise friends who remind you to soak up the great moments, particularly when they are delivered so movingly and dramatically into your lap. With cake, in several flavors.

It's good to be lucky. But it's even better to make yourself a world populated with people you can love, the loving of whom makes you the self you then become.

I love you in my life.