Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Daughters, Mutters, Grandmothers

After I posted my sad little confession about how much I dislike downhill skiing, I got a whole bunch of very nice electronic messages in solidarity. Over and over, I heard “yeah, I hate to ski, too.” I also learned that there is a real name for what I called “snowsickness.” It’s plain old vertigo, but a winter rather than an Alfred Hitchock sort, caused by something called “flat light.”

So now I know. I was quite relieved to discover that I am not left alone with the poofy-haired Lodge Moms in hating on the sport everyone else finds so cool. I’m also not alone in this weird form of nausea.

It’s nice not to be alone. But quite frankly, the very best day of my vacation was the day I was. It was the first day I have spent truly alone in longer than I can remember – at least since mid-summer.

But first I had to earn it. I had a little mothering to do, trying to do what I could to heal my sad littlest girl. Back in late January, laid low with that rotten cold, Abigail had started to fall apart into sick, homesick shreds of her former self. We plied her with the comfort foods she begged for, we got boxes and boxes of macaroni and cheese in the mail. But nothing really seemed to work. She would rally a little, then sink into a sullen funk. She was needy and difficult in hairpin turns, spending a stretch of time huddled under my wing, and then turning on a dime to spit anger my way. She was excited to see Milena, a real-live American friend, but knew she had no choice but to be a third wheel in the situation, relative to her inevitable nemesis/companion Grace.

So after our day at the big fancy ski resort, I decided to spend a few days indulging her little-girl whims on her terms, rather than forcing her to fall in line with the team. I mean, we robbed the poor kid of her whole world – couldn’t I give her a few days of getting to set the agenda? I flattered myself that perhaps I could rescue this vacation for her with a little Mother-Daughter time. Because, as I learned from my own wise mother, there is almost no form of distress that can’t be ameliorated with a little shopping and a nice hot lunch.

So Abigail and I took two days off to do nothing but what she thought would be fun. We walked to the mall and bought some small plastic toys that she seemed to desire more than life itself. Never one to forget to share her good fortune, she also carefully selected presents she knew Grace would want for her birthday. We ate at Burger King (her choice), where even though I spaz-spilled an entire cup of coke onto her pink snowpants, (they don’t put lids on the soft drinks at Euro-BK) she forgave me, then relished every last one of her King Pommes.

Later, we went back to the warm, cozy room, where she spent a solidly enraptured three hours playing with her spoils – Poly Pockets and Littlest Pet Shop figurines – while I read. I can’t say for sure which of the two of us enjoyed this most.

Following this good long stretch of quiet, we decided to try a little skating. The man renting skates and shoveling snow off the ice was the only person I encountered in Austria who didn’t speak Tourist English. Even the Burger King counter-person’s English was way better than my French. I was able to rent us some ice-skates using only my fingers, plus "danke," ("thank you") and "bitte," ("please," or maybe "you're welcome")* and the numbers one through ten, which I can’t spell properly, but pronounced as my grandmother taught us, as her grandmother would have: ein, svi, dri, fear, fimf, sex, seben, oct, noin, and zane. I ordered "dri-fifmf" skates for Abigail, and "dri-oct" skates for me, and lo-and-behold, they fit us both just fine. Happily, Euros are Euros in most Europlaces (except Switzerland, with its dollar-sized francs, and England, with its heavy pounds of sterling) so our buck fifty held up just as well at the Austrian rink as it might have back here in Aups. We had the rink to ourselves, and circled there, happy as little frozen clams, in a soft, slow snowfall.

The next day, we went further into the city, wandering aimlessly in and out of the little tourist shops, pondering in turn an Alpine hat with a feather, or a Norwegian sweater, or a bravura display of cuckoo clocks. Provence’s shops of this sort have invented tons of ways to package and sell things made of olive, lavender, and honey. Austria’s shops all specialize in things that are best described (all apologies to any Austrian readers and friends out there) as twee. Little wooden dolls with long braids. Smiling dog puppets. Edelweiss embroidered on an astonishing array of items. It was as though The Sound of Music had exploded due to the force of its own raging earnestness, spattering beagle marionettes, chintz pinafores and little leather shorts with suspenders all over the insides of the shops.

We were particularly taken with the store, right on the main square, that sold beautiful, high-quality Heidi wear. Should you wish (and we did, if only fleetingly) to dress yourself in a lace-up bodice, a flowing velvet cloak, and a long dirndl skirt, this would be the place you could do so, at the highest quality, and for a seriously pretty centime. While I can’t for the life of me say why they might, men could choose to get themselves up like Robin Hood or William Tell. But based on the fact that this store was so definitively in business, I had to imagine that somewhere, somebody must be wearing super-expensive leather shorts, getting married in a medieval princess wedding dress, or otherwise impersonating the salt-of-the-Earth Tyrolean royalty of the vague pre-modern past.

I learned later that there is an entire industry devoted to the design and creation of this stuff, known as “Trachtenmode.” But other than the older citizens walking through town dressed almost exactly like my German-American grandparents, all in loden wool tweed and Bavarian hats, the rest of the Austrians we met dressed just like regular old Americans. Thin Americans, mind you – but otherwise, Americans.

You would never mistake a standard-issue gaggle of French people (even if they were being quiet for the moment and you didn’t hear them speak) for Americans. The Swiss we saw were a little too well-put-together to be schlumpfy Americans. And while the Italian rest stop we visited might as well have been Bay Ridge, the people there were still notably different from the white folks you might see shuffling through a mall in suburban Ohio.

Not so Austria. First of all, the Austrians greeted our eyes, and smiled, for no reason in particular – aside, perhaps, from their feeling pleased about their nation’s per capita GDP of $43,570 a year, and their score of .955 on the Human Development Index, just a thousandth of a point different from the U.S. score. The Austrians did their hair in American-looking ways, particularly the middle-aged women, who all seemed to have adopted the same short permed pouf sported by American moms of a certain age and upbringing. They wore jeans and sweaters and sweatshirts with their sneakers. They wore nondescript winter coats, and could easily have passed for the Caucasian demographic of standard-issue Pennsylvania suburbanites. I guess it’s only in their dreams (or on YouTube) that they reenact their noble heritage of shepherding and hiking in full Alpine Tracht, topped with one of those cool hats with a feather.

But I digress. I was going to write about the day I spent alone, in my own snowy Alpine fantasy, decked out in my own fancy outfit of black polarfleece, head to toe.

But in case you were still worried about Abigail, I’ll let you know that these two days of quiet, doing nothing, were just what she seemed to need. After a lunch of salmon (her favorite), after I let her win about eight-hundred games of Pippi Longstocking Concentration, after many, many hours of snuggling close to my side, and many other hours of her playing with her little plastic figurines, she had righted herself.

So well that on that our last day in Austria, when the bright sun came out, she skipped off with the ski-studs to do some more downhill, and I hopped a postal bus to Mutter Alm, where I hoped to ski on my own terms. On the horizontal.

When I was in elementary school, in the years leading up to Lake Placid’s hosting of the winter Olympic games, my whole family was caught up in a totally uncharacteristic sporty impulse, to learn cross-country skiing. I can still picture the skiis under the tree on Christmas morning, and how excited I was to stick the funny stiff boots onto those three little metal spikes, snap down the lever to catch on the metal prong, and start off around the cornfield. It seemed to take forever for me to learn to lift my heel and kick-glide, kick-glide along, rather than trudge, trudge, trudge. But once I got the hang of it, I realized that I had found an extremely rare phenomenon: a sport that I enjoyed. Loved, in fact. Adored.

I can’t explain why, exactly, but while every other sport I tried made me break out in anxious hives, this felt peaceful, soothing. Even fun. A few years later, I won the only athletics-related trophy of my life, a first-place in the Galway Winter Carnival cross-country skiing race for girls my age (I even beat the one boy who entered the race, believe it or not. Sorry, Kevin: I’m sure that was embarrassing for you.) During the years I taught at a certain sports-powerhouse urban high school with an entire room dedicated to its tireless pursuit of big shiny trophies, I used to keep the pint-size statuette on my desk, as a little joke at my own expense.

Anyway, I love cross-country skiing even more than I hate downhill. Still, since I was setting out for the first time in a new place, with hardly any information, and no language skills at my disposal beyond the words for one through ten, I bumbled through the usual comedy of errors on my way to an actual groomed trail.

I set off towards the bus station, and nearly ran smack into a woman who might as well have been my German-counting Grandmother, Elenora. Elenora was not Austrian, but rather German-American to her core. But somehow, she shared a wardrobe, a hairdo, and a tidy, sturdy physicality with the old woman sweeping the snow on the street just down from our hotel.

Then, as I walked on a little further, there she was again, in yet another wool blazer, a cardigan sweater and sensible A-line skirt. This time she was striding purposefully, doing her marketing and wearing a Tyrolean hat. I was cheered to see her again (it has been years since any of us were able to see her in real life) and this made me suddenly even happier to be in Austria.

Like the guy at the McDonald’s counter, the bus driver spoke terrific English. I must have asked him sixteen times whether I was headed in the right direction. He was a young guy, not more than 25, with a top-quality Upstate New York mullet haircut. (Business in the front; party in the back.) He was endlessly patient with me and with the two Japanese tourists who shared my concerns. Again and again he went out of his way to promise me I was on the right track. We chugged up the switchbacks through Natters (translated as “Snakes”) to Mutters (“Mothers.”) I swear I am not making up these names, paired Biblical metonyms for earthly evil, and earthly good. Both Snakes and Mothers were adorable little towns with carved wooden balconies and pretty tromp l’oeil murals on the walls.

Sweet Mr. Driver dropped me off at the base lodge of Mutter Alm, the resort that had been advertised online as having Nordic Skiing. And in fact, there in the open field below the ski lifts was a series of groomed trails with a few people kick-glide, kick-gliding around.

The man at the rentals place spoke great English, but just shook his head sympathetically when I asked about Nordic skiis, then mimed a little kick-glide and pole action by way of further explanation. Nothing doing, nope, nada. Out of luck. So close, and yet so far away. And no, he had no idea where else I might try.

I dashed back out to the bus, hoping to catch the nice young bus driver who had been so reassuring, before he drove back downhill. I was ready to head home to Innsbruck to spend some more time cruising the Tracht stores, if that’s what fate held in store.

He looked at me with curiosity as I tried to explain my predicament, and then frowned, his brow furrowing with concern, as though I had been seriously wronged. He actually turned off his bus, hopped out of the door, and started jogging for the door of the rental shop. Before I could tell him no, really it was OK, don’t make such a fuss, he was championing my right to rent skiis. He and the rental guy went at it, chattering along in German, trying to work out exactly how I might be granted the precise sort of pointy equipment I desired.

(Just as an aside: I cannot possibly imagine a random French stranger jumping in like this to come to my aid. Last week, when I lost Abigail’s coat in Quinson and walked around the town the next day looking for it, I got only bored annoyance from the shopkeepers and museum people I politely queried for assistance.

You could put it a different way, emphasizing that the French excel in laissez-faire, and the Germanic peoples can be a little too bossy in their “helpful” attitudes. Still, I was quite touched on this particular occasion to have a Knight-in-a-Shining-Mullet come to my aid.)

Still, despite his righteous intervention, the required equipment was not to be provided at Mutteralm. I had seen a rental shop down in Mothers, and I asked him if I might try that, since it was on the way back down anyway. He invited me to hop back on the bus (for free, saving me the 2 euros 30) and then dropped me off, helpfully pointing me down to the place by the fountain where the road curved downhill.

I set off, all hopeful, almost whistling as I walked. It’s amazing how carefree I can feel when I am lost on my own, when I am not overwhelmed by the sensation that I’m falling down an endless flight of stairs, dragging my poor children along behind me. When it’s just me fumbling around, the stakes drop enormously. I don’t have to worry about somebody suddenly demanding a bathroom at an inopportune time. I can get by all day with the one Twix bar in my pocket.

As I walked and whistled down the street, there she was, again. Grandma Elenora sweeping another sidewalk in the tiny town, just up the street from the churchyard where one old man was getting ready to bury another. The still-living old man was digging the grave with a tiny backhoe just like the one Grandpa used to have. The churchyard was frozen solid, and the backhoe scraped into it and slowly pulled out a pile of dark earth, bit by bit. Above him, above us all, the green church spire pointed straight up to the blue heavens.

The store I had seen earlier turned out not only to have cross-country skiis, but also to be staffed by exceptionally efficient people who spoke Tourist English and Tourist French in addition to their regular old German. I was grateful not to have to use Grandma’s numbers to get the right size, and was even more grateful to be in and out in ten minutes, kitted out with the latest in funky Nordic boots. As pleased as they were to give me my sticks and hold on to my hiking boots for me, they were a little vague on where exactly the Mothers-to-Snakes trail might be found, and sent me up to the Tourist Office.

Which was, of course, closed. Why might the Tourist Office in a ski town be open on a Friday morning in February? I wandered around town, toting my pointy sticks, and happened on a big map posted on a wall. I located a few promising-looking trails, but my nonexistent map-reading skills made it awfully hard for me to imagine how I might find them, relative to where I was standing. When finding my way, I have ready access to left, right, up and down. But not so much to North, South, East or West. So if the map happens not to be facing the same way I am, and also to be lying on the ground, I might as well be looking at patterns in tea leaves to find my way.

I picked a likely direction, (LEFT!) and started off. The first Austrian man I ran into smiled (thanks, Austria) so I asked him if I was heading the right way to get to the skiing trail to Natters. He pointed back the way I came. I tried the direction he suggested, but the road seemed to have no relationship to the map I had seen. I walked down the street, past a cowbarn, towards an open field. Upon reaching the end of the houses, I just decided to strike out on my own, as though I were ten again and back home, circling the rows of harvested corn stalks.

And suddenly there I was, back in the kick-glide, kick-glide. I reached out with my poles, pushing forward. No scary ski lift. No teenagers zooming by on their snowboards. Gravity held me to the earth, but didn’t seem too greedy to have me go anywhere I didn’t myself choose to be. I frog-kicked up the little hills, then went straight down (still plenty slow) the other side.

The snow wasn’t too deep, just enough to keep the skiis off the ground and slipping along. In the bright sunlight, huge crystals glittered in the snow. I pushed along in a rhythm, eventually finding the old track of someone else who had had my idea a day or so before. I followed my imaginary friend across the field, down a little hill, past some woods, and towards a set of train tracks. Just as I approached the tracks, a tiny red tram appeared out of the empty woods. It was the same tram as the ones downtown, puttering slowly through the trees way here up in the hill.

How cool is a city where you could hop on a tram downtown, carrying your skiis, then hop off in a snowy field a half hour later? These people sure know how to commute. I kept going, striking up a hill alongside the tiny road, going nowhere. The tall green spire of the church in Mothers was back behind me, and I assumed it was as likely as anything else that I was headed toward Snakes, with or without benefit of a cleared trail. It’s not like if I went off-piste I would tumble off a foggy cliff.

I forged along a track of my own making, generally as uphill as I could go. I vastly prefer the feeling of working my way up to the loss of control of heading down. Close to the top of one hill, I saw through the treeline another open field ahead. I took off my skiis, hopped over a tiny running stream, and pushed through the pines.

Coming out the other side, I looked up to see, in a field eighty times bigger than Dad’s old cornfield, a wide and groomed track, with three or four other skiers scattered around its edges. I crossed the narrow country lane, walked past the little shepherd huts and the big wrapped bales of hay, and zipped down to the groomed trail.

If Grandma had in fact gone to Austria when she left us, I can see exactly why she would have chosen this as her particular vision of heaven. The field was ringed by tall fir trees rising up to one side, and by Alps on the other. A low band of clouds sat bunched around the sides of the mountains, and as the sun burned it away, the mountains gradually revealed themselves from the top down, jagged tops first. I moved faster: kick-glide, kick-glide, but not nearly as fast as the Austrians who would now and again come up behind me and kick-glide past. Most of them, mind you, were in their sixties at least. But I was alone. In the sunshine. In the mountains, on a trail that somebody – some Mother or some Snake – had groomed just for me, just so.

I spent a few hours out there, not worried about anybody else’s demands or feelings or fears. The track spun out ahead of me. I passed more barns, more trees, and then a little roadside shrine sheltering an icon of the patron saint of something or other. Just behind it was an enormous tower carrying high tension wires. If I stood in just the right place, I could make the tower into a steeple for the shrine, lining up the two forms of higher power. Off in the distance, I started to see the spire of the church in Natters, the green sibling of the blue one back where I began. I curved around towards town, took a long hard look at another utterly unhelpful trail map, then started back, following the groomed trail, then the trail I had made in the morning.

I slid down the slope I had climbed, back into the field. I took the skiis back off and walked back past the cowbarn. The grave was dug now, the pile of earth at its side covered in a tidy piece of astroturf. It was waiting for the body who would be brought to this place of rest, just outside that church I imagine he had attended all his life. The same Elenora-alike had finished her sweeping, and was sitting in a chair in the sunshine. She nodded me another good day, then we both looked together up at the blue sky, at the mountains and the trees and all that glittering snow.

I had all but forgotten the time, so I didn’t know that I had just missed the bus down the hill. I didn’t know that it wouldn’t actually have mattered anyway, since the store where I had to return my skiis and retrieve my boots was closed and locked, and wouldn’t open again for another hour or so. I didn’t know that my back would go into angry, open revolt the next morning, no doubt to punish me for forgetting I am 40 and out of shape, for pretending I was 10 and invincible. I was happy to see her. Happy to have spent the day outdoors. Happy to be alone in a place like heaven.

*thanks to Paris Jessica for fixing my German as well as my French.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Old Friends

Now Is the Time in Tyrol When We Ski

Back in January, Abigail missed the first week of school because of Bill’s busted back. Then at the start of February, she missed almost another full week because of her rotten cold and bout of homesick misery. Still, there we were, just a week into February, granted yet another massive two-week vacation. Like La Touissant in October, then Christmas break, here was yet another huge chunk of non-school time, starting less than a month after the Christmas break had ended. Time for a little sports franglais: faire du ski.

Boy do these French people know how to live. The government even staggers everybody’s winter vacations, breaking the country up into three different regions with slightly different schedules – rotating each year for fairness – so that the mountains don’t get overcrowded when hundreds of thousands of people take off for a week on the slopes.

I know it’s not even remotely possible that everybody French goes skiing. But while I am no sociologist, it seems to me that taking a full week away for skiing appears to be a much more widespread practice here than it is back on the East Coast. It’s seems almost as common as taking the whole of August off so that you can splash around at the coast avec toute la famille.

I cannot explain why exactly France has decreed that so many of its citizens should go skiing, but geez, they made it super easy and pleasant. At least for people who actually enjoy skiing.

First, they have these incredible mountains. I don't know whether any non-European geography geniuses have figured this out, but all those Olympic venues outside of the Northern Hemisphere -- Innsbruck, Chamonix, Turin/Torino, Albertville -- they are basically all the same place. If you could just hop mountaintop to mountaintop, as the snow flies, the farthest two spots are only about 100 miles apart. Still, the nations have graciously split up these wonder mountains into the French/Swiss/Austrian/Italian Alps.

The whole right hand side of that region calls itself Tyrol, and people there yodel for fun, in no less than five languages, including Tourist English. Here you find impossibly beautiful and enormous mountains where it never gets all that cold, where tons and tons of natural snow falls, and where people start learning to ski when they are tiny little Tyrolean children in leiderhosen and puffy ski jackets.

Ski trails in the Alps are steep, and long. They are mostly above treeline, (often even above cloudline) and there are lots of them, served by an incredible wealth of lifts. This, combined with the carefully staggered vacay schedule means no lines. However, they are not for the casual beginner. Or – in my case – the lifelong beginner. At the two resorts I’ve seen, the “Easy” trails are longer and more challenging than the intermediates back home on the East Coast. The nice man at the ski rental store assured me that Abigail and I would do a few runs on the bunny slope, then we’d both be just fine to head to the top and schuss down the enormous mountain. Apparently, he has never met anybody quite as cautious as Abigail or as poorly coordinated as I am, because he simply couldn’t dream of a reality in which one would spend the whole day up and down at the T bar. In terms of trails, an Austrian “Easy” = our “Way Too Scary.”

But for a strong skier? As long as you dig fondue and leather knickers, Tyrol = Paradise.

Europe has also made skiing just as democratically convenient as its mountains are massive. Equipment rentals (at least for downhill skiis) are cheap and easy, particularly via internet. There are perfectly lovely little hotels that wish nothing more than to feed you and make your bed on a daily basis while you are enjoying this government-encouraged ski vacation. You can book a year, a week, or a month in advance, and find exactly what you might be seeking.

Back in the U.S., skiing always seemed to require a much more significant commitment. You’d get up at the crack of dawn and drive for hours to a hill covered mainly in ice. Or take a murderous President's Day weekend trip in awful weather to Killington, where you would pay $82.00 for a day’s worth of fighting the crowds and standing in lines. Or yank the kids out of school and shell out big bucks for a condo in Salt Lake.

Here, skiing on perfect and natural packed powder -- like delicious baguettes or delicious wine, or simply time to breathe and enjoy your family – unfolds (again – for people who like to ski) with such ease and simplicity. In the U.S., skiing always seemed to me like yet another privilege afforded only to the Very Lucky. You know -- stuff like housing, or health care.

This is funny, that I am going on and on like the Tyrolean Board of Tourism about how nice France is to let you ski. Because, as it turns out, I actually hate to ski. Enjoying things like control, and warmth, and extreme forms of adventure-avoidance, I prefer a life lived by the hearth, preferably with a good book, or at least a fairly fresh copy of The New Yorker. If I am going to put sticks on my feet and clomp around in the snow, I like to do it under my own steam, rather than taking my chances with gravity. (I'll make like NBC and give you a Winter Sports Teaser: I'll post about my transcendent day of Nordic skiing in a day or two.)

But -- married as I am to Mr. Outdoor Adventure Man, and having spawned snow bunnies -- I have had to make my accommodations to those of you who like to slide down the sides of things when it is cold and snowy. When you get right down to it, my accommodations were modest in the extreme. I was happy enough to drive my family through Switzerland, through Lichtenstein and into Autriche, to get them to a big tall mountain.

(Yes, Virginia, there is a Lichtenstein -- we were there for all of fifteen minutes, spending ten of those minutes lost and circling, looking for a way to let ourselves out of its Ausfhart.)

I’m not complaining here, mind you. There were plenty of other joys to tempt me. I was mostly motivated by the chance to see real live New Yorker friends Michael, Lucia, and Milena for five days. Michael, a chef and foodwriter, promised we'd get to try real Sacher Torte, at the Hotel Sacher. I was also curious about seeing the land of my ancestral home, where my last name appears on the walls of buildings and on the postal bus. But I was also pretty enthusiastic about the fact that somebody else would be cooking, cleaning up, and making the beds for a solid week.

Before this trip, I always blamed my hatred of skiing on weather conditions, or excessive expense, or something external to me. This time, since the conditions were well-nigh perfect (a meter of packed powder, a wealth of gorgeously manicured trails, a steady temperature just above and below freezing, with no wind to speak of, absolutely no lines whatsoever, and delicious food available at the well-designed restaurant at the top) I can finally admit the truth: when it comes to skiing, it is me, rather than the ski resort, that is broken.

I’ve never spent this much time worrying about the fact that I don’t like bowling all that much. Or embroidery, rollerdisco, or even yodeling, for that matter. But since I was a teenager, cool people have been telling me that skiing is cool. Thus, it’s taken me a very long time to admit to myself that in this – as in so many other ways – I am not cool. More like lukewarm.

I finally came to this conclusion by spending one day on downhill skiis in Alpine Ski Perfection World, Austrian Version. On the first day, I joined in with our little crowd -- renting all the pointy equipment and taking the lifts in an attempt to enjoy things that normal folks find enjoyable. I did my best, but could barely tumble myself down the slope during my one run.

We all took the big lift to the lodge at the top of Axamer Lizum (“The Magic Mountains”) for lunch – even Abigail, who was still mastering the T-bar. Getting to lunch required that we clamber into a sort of zig-zag shaped little train, which carried us up the mountain on a track that was not quite as rickety or scary as the one that carries the Coney Island Cyclone. I don’t know what the Austrians called this funny lift (I can only hope the name includes the syllable “fahrt”) but I think the technical term would be “funicular.” I called it the Es-ski-lator.

Bill named it Villy Villikins, personifying it as the Possessed Little Austrian Engine That Could… kill everyone on board. “I Seenk I can, I Seenk I can” he would chortle, in Villy’s childlike, evil imaginary voice. "I Seenk I can kill you all..."

For those of you used to rinky-dink Eastern seaboard hillside ski spots, it would be impossible for me to overstate the difference between that experience and this. Back home, a “ski trail” is an icy chute between swaths of heavy forest. Generally, a snow gun has filled it up with "packed granular," (read: ice cubes), leaving the edges bare and sad.

Here, a trail – called a “piste” is not quite as rigidly defined. To paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, I'd say it's more of a guideline – little poles stuck on the far edges of an enormous field of snow, with another set of poles a few meters on the outside edges to mark places where it would be actually dangerous to go. You can actually ski pretty much anywhere you please – on the perfectly groomed trail, or in the whipped-cream piles of powder on the edges. That is, of course, if you like that sort of thing.

And there is almost no parity between a lodge back home and the sleek glass-and- sandalwood modern restaurant perched at an impossible angle at the top of this mountain. The Hoadlhaus (yodel like you mean it, Jens) overlooks two steep sides of the mountain. While it is built with a flat floor (thank god), it is architecturally designed to appear as though it is about to tumble off the edge. On sunny days, the entire roof retracts so that the happy skiers inside can be roasted, as though in a solar easy-bake-oven, while they drink their enormous steins of beer and pack away various kinds of schnitzel and fresh salads. For dessert, they serve more amazing tortes than you could possibly burn off calorie-wise, even in a long day’s worth of hard skiing.

I stuck to the goulash soup (way less gross than it sounds, more like a sloppy joe without the roll) and a small beer, although a small Austrian beer is bigger than the biggest ones France is ever able to pour. After lunch, Bill took our kids back down in Villy, while Milena and Michael zoomed away like professional athletes onto the pistes where they held the '64 Olympics. My very patient friend Lucia, who is both personally inclined to be kind, and also professionally skilled in the art of making people feel better about themselves, agreed to shepherd me down the mountain’s very easiest real run.

She led me to the brink of the hill. I suddenly felt like one of those indoor housecats who is taken outdoors for the first time; the field of snow was so scarily open that I wanted to crouch down and melt into the ground. No such luck. Once I went back from housepet to rational, I realized that there was no way down but down. I hazarded precisely one turn's worth of my best Suzie Chapstick imitation, but quickly fell back into a panicky snowplow. You would think that going one-and-a-half miles per hour would be fairly leisurely, but by the time I was down the first steep part, I was sweating like I had just run the Kentucky Derby. While carrying a jockey.

Lucia kept coaxing and coaching me, nicely, as though I were a toddler trying to get down the big kids’ slide for the first time. Except the slide was about as wide as a football field, with sheer cliffs on each side. There I go again, trying to blame the mountain, but I have to keep remembering the problem was me; nobody else there looked like she was about to cry.

I also kept experiencing a very weird phenomenon going on with the light, the snow, my goggles, and the cloud of fog at the top of the hill. Somehow the poor visibility, the light falling snow, and/or the altitude conspired to make me actually feel something like carsick. Everybody else was zooming down on snowboards like Shaun White at a million miles an hour, but I crept along, just trying really hard not to vomit.

I’m used to being off-kilter with the rest of the world, but I actually get snowsick? What a weirdo.

I have never been quite so pleased to see my family, or to come to a safe stop on a level surface so that I could gracefully fall down in a pile and rest, panting and worshiping the sheer levelness of the ground and the neighboring buildings. Abigail was still busy conquering the bunny slope, but Bill and Grace came bounding up to me, nearly frothing at the mouth. “Wasn’t it great!? Didn’t you love it!? I bet you can’t wait to go back up in Villy the Es-ski-lator!”

Yet again, not on the same page. Hardly on the same planet.

So what's today's life lesson? I'll give you my takeaway: being a real grownup does not simply require you simply to be old. Instead, you must also be able to recognize what you actual enjoy, and what makes you inexplicably nauseous.

And then a real grownup decides to do something useful with that realization. So, as David Foster Wallace put it, about his own seasick voyage on a cruise ship: here is yet another supposedly fun thing I will never do again.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Towards an explanation

I think I have said this about two godjillion times before, but how strange is it that two people who have such a hard time traveling together are so hungry to have their family continue to move around the planet?

I note on the front page of this blog that we are here in France for reasons I have yet to fully explain. But one emerging reason is that I would like finally to solve the following puzzle in the remaining months of our time away, together:

What, exactly, kept us from just staying still, nicely and quietly, on First Street? And, since we’re now far away, why do we keep falling into homesickness, craving the familiar? Why did we come all this way simply to long for what we left behind?

Some weird and powerful force that I still cannot name keeps driving us towards parts of the world we don't know. At the same time another force pulls us back, like gravity, to the familiar. These equal and opposite forces each seem to promise enlightenment, as though we could find the meaning of life in sameness or difference. Instead, our little family finds itself -- again and again -- simply in motion between the two.

So why – just at the moment we can hardly take another day without a bagel and some mac and cheese – do we elect to take off on a week-long exploration of four unfamiliar cities in five different countries, where the signs are all posted in foreign languages we don’t speak at all?

Well, for one reason, we’re doing it all together. And also, we’re learning things, now and again. But also, as often as not, we’re discombobulated. Confused, mistaken, ill-at-ease. Or even freaking right the heck out, as we try to establish some sort of equilibrium from which to proceed -- either forward and out or back and in.

You would think that Bill would always be the driving force for traveling and chaos, and I would always be the homebody gravity. But strangely enough, we find ourselves switching roles all the time. Sometimes I’m the one arguing for some new expansion of the boundaries, and he’s miserable and moody, wanting nothing more than to go back home. But we are rarely both fully on the same page at the same time, which can lead to the instability and conflict that makes this blog occasionally mortifying, occasionally funny, and sometimes both at the same time.

I should be more ashamed of this awful quality in our family: this tendency to fall apart when we're traveling. It's hardly the sort of thing one should announce to whomever happens to be listening, on a travel blog for god’s sake, but then again, the only people likely to be reading this blog are our friends and family (who know us, too well, already) and utter strangers (who could not possibly care, and might just find all of this entertaining.) Any enemies and haters I have rightfully earned in the course of my forty years might happen onto this page and get to revel in this horrible weakness of mine, but I am sure that the rest of you will just chalk this up to human frailty.

So back to my central question: why are we – such unlikely and ungainly travelers – doing what we’re doing?

Sometimes I see this year as an elaborate attempt to understand my own family before the kids are grown up and off on their own. In this narrative, our being away, and facing the challenges of loneliness and confusion is an elaborate plot to bring us closer together.

Other times we glorify this year away with the lofty title of “Sabbatical,” and I’m sure that’s how I’ll explain it on my resume for years to come. In this narrative of the trip, we’re here to Learn Something about the world. French, I suppose – although we’ve been shamefully ineffectual at getting to know actual French people. But during our week traveling through several countries we know very little about, we almost could not help but to learn and to grow.

But often enough, the year appears more like an endless loop of National Lampoon’s European Family Vacation: four silly people doing pointless and ill-fated things while moving along an inexplicable itinerary.

For example, over the course of the last two weeks, we found ourselves driving the wrong way on a cobblestone pedestrian-only street, then lost in a subdivision in Lichtenstein. We circled a construction zone in Geneva no less than five times, confused by whether the streets were one way or two, looking unsuccessfully for our hotel and shouting directions and recriminations at one another. We learned that “exit” in German is “Ausfahrt,” a word that brought us no end of adolescent-level laughs. We suffered through the usual slapstick comedy as we four spazzy people all tried to carry our skiis and poles the wrong way through narrow doors.

We’ve even unwittingly aided and abetted visiting friends into to crashing the funeral of one of the most important matriarchs in this small town. We are now probably known as "Those Stupid Americans Who Sent Their Friends to Madame ______'s Funeral."

So on out trip, we have had Family Togetherness by the bucketful: often more than we can handle with equanimity. We have had Cultural Exploration, by way of stumbling into situations, then piecing together the meanings later on. But always lurking there in the side of the frame -- is some Foolish Slapstick humor.

You may note that our tendency towards the ridiculous generally emerges right at the moment that our travels might be threatening to get fancy or impressive. It is not an accident that we were at our most ridiculous in St. Tropez.

Being the classic over-writer I am, I can’t fit two weeks worth of deep emotional revelations, cultural revelations/oversimplifications and silly episodes into one blog, so over the next few days, maybe I can hit one or two of the few highlights of our recent adventures.

Should it please you, stay tuned.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Welcome to France. But we’re Fermé.

When I invited Stephanie and her family over to visit us in Aups, I really really hoped they would come, but couldn’t really believe that they would be able to make it. Unlike in France, where pretty much everybody goes skiing in February, and pretty much everybody can count on seven weeks paid vacation, family vacations are a precious commodity in the U.S., not to be easily squandered.

But then again, friendships like mine with Stephanie don’t just happen every day. They take decades. Stephanie and I became friends when we were the same age as our two youngest girls are now. She remained my very best friend, whether or not I deserved it, through all of middle school, and every glorious and awful day of high school. We passed notes in class, marched together in our blue polyester band uniforms, we shared details of every new life-altering crush, or every crushing social defeat.

Throughout my life, we’ve been on parallel tracks. We both left our little town for the colleges of our dreams. She ran fast; I sang loud. Both of us the oldest girls in our families, we always maintained at least the appearance of doing everything right (even when we were happily indulging together in some well-deserved mischief or another.)

We both met our eventual husbands early in our lives, then were married within a year of one another, wearing bridesmaid dresses of a very similar blue in photos both taken in Congress Park. Miracle of miracles, we eventually ended up in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, living even closer to one another than when we were kids.

When Grace was born, eleven years ago, Stephanie – also pregnant with her first child – was there to help me through the final, deeply awful hours of labor. And then, when Nicholas was born, three months later, I drove her and Jason to the hospital, and stayed to do what I could to help her as she had helped me. Our second children were born just ten days apart, weeks after September 11, 2001. And now our husbands and both pairs of kids have formed their own friendships.

All of this sounds very heavy, I’m sure – and we have certainly born not just children, but also some pretty heavy burdens together. But mostly when I think about Stephanie, I think of how hard we have been laughing – always together, and loudly – for over thirty years now. For Stephanie is not only one of the best mothers, and friends, I know – she’s also one of the most consistently joyful and grateful people I’ve ever met.

She and Jason flew to Paris last Friday, with Nicholas (10) and Sydney (8) in tow. They would spend three days in Paris, then take the TGV down to Aix-en-Provence to spend three days with us. What is the French word for “Yippee!!!???”

So today I am once again at the big oak kitchen table, interviewing Stephanie and Jason about their adventures here in France. We’re drinking French tea (menthe and verviene), and nibbling on French bread, and trying to make sense of a world that is just about opposite to the one we left in the city that never sleeps.

Because back home, everything is for sale, all the time. Restaurants will even deliver just about anything you might want, at any time of the day or night. But since Steph and Jason arrived here in France, everything seems to be closed. Fermé.

Launa: So Jason, maybe you could tell me about your time in Paris.

Jason: No, have Stephanie start! Tell your McDonald’s story!

Launa: Oh, you mean when first every single one of the crepes stands were closed? And then the McDonald’s, too?

Stephanie: No, the McDonald’s was open! Everything else I went to on Tuesday morning was closed, but the McDonald’s was actually open. I remember on our school trip to Paris when I was fifteen being so excited that we could order beer at the McDonald’s, and I wanted to go back.

Launa: For a breakfast beer?

Stephanie: No! Just breakfast. So the cashier took my order for Trois Eggs McMuffin, on which I expected trés bon bacon.

Jason: “Jambon,” you mean.

Steph: Yes. Tres bon jambon. So I gave the order, and the cashier started to put it into the computer. But then, out of nowhere, a man – un garcon – came sweeping over to me. He was this little guy, but definitely had a sweeping presence about him, and he said, sweepingly and definitively and certainly, “FERMÉ!”

Launa: This was what time?

Stephanie: 9:30. In the morning. Around the time you have Egg McMuffins.

Jason: And it was a week day. A Tuesday morning. Not even a weekend.

Launa: Was there any explanation? Was there a jambon strike? Did the hens stop laying McEggs? Did the French finally decide to close all their McDonalds permanently in an attempt to get rid of all the American tourists?

Steph: No. Nothing of the sort. Or at least nothing I could figure out. I gave the universal shrug and hands up , and repeated, totally incredulous, “Fermé???”

And in unison, they both now said, “Fermé.”

But I had another question:

(You will notice, as I did early on, that Stephanie is not one to just let things go…)

I said, “Quelle heure Egg McMuffin?

And I got, once again in unison, “Fermé!” But this time they turned, in unison, like some despotic French drill team, and walked away. There was nobody else in the store, so it seemed pretty final to me.

Launa: But France is such a hospitable, clearly-organized, friendly and sensible country! There couldn’t have been anything else closed, or difficult to get into! That would be so strange!

Stephanie: Well, as we learned, the restaurants on Valentines’ day were also pretty darn fermé.

Jason: When there was nobody in them, except for one other table.

Stephanie: Based on our unfortunate experiences, I highly recommend a reservation in the City of Love on St. Valentine’s Day.

Jason: Even when – no wait, especially when -- the restaurants are trés empty.

Launa: How many did you visit?

Stephanie: We were coming from the Louvre, and we were cold, hungry, and tired. Eight of us. We had met up with another family from Brooklyn, and we were determined to use our guidebook, which was part of the problem. We were going to find something on the list. I mean, we’re New Yorkers. If it was on the list, we needed to go to it.

Jason: And our friend Joe, in particular, insisted on Le Grand Colbert, because he likes Steven Colbert.

Launa: Wait, Is Steven Colbert French?

(This was news to me.)

Jason: Well, yes. Or at least his name is.

And here Jason whipped out his Blackberry to read me a text message. Jason’s colleagues will be gratified to know that his Blackberry never left his side, even in our most festive and debauched moments over wine-and-cheese…

Jason: Here is the text message from our friend, who finally got in: “Went to Colbert last night, and words can not do it justice. Lucy ate her pasta with escargot tongs.”

Stephanie: I think they could not handle the fact that we did not have a reservation, because they can’t move people in and out in an hour and a half. There was definitely a misunderstanding in our purpose: we promised “Vite! Vite!” and they still said “Non. No reservation.”

Launa: Wait. You must have gotten some food eventually! The suspense is killing me!

Stephanie: We went to about six restaurants. And in each one we got the same very sad faces. Well, actually they weren’t that sad – just matter of fact. No reservation? Fermé.

Launa: Well, fermé to you at least. What did you eventually get to eat?

(You will notice that Launa is not one to let things go easily, either…)

Stephanie: We went to a German Restaurant…

Jason: (correcting her) Alsatian. It’s the French part of Germany. Or the German part of France.

Stephanie: OK, Alsatian. I don’t think our high school French teacher taught us that. But in lots of other things, Mr. Allen taught me well. Like I knew exactly what they meant when they said “Fermé!”

Launa: Oh really? Care to comment specifically on things you remember from French class?

Stephanie was extremely quiet for a minute, as though she were searching for the nicest way to say something potentially not very nice. Then she said, “Well, I remember you questioning Mr. Allen and Mr. Allen sneering back at you, super irritated. But then again, you did that to a lot of teachers.”

I then decided we’d had enough about me. Back to the Alsatian dinner.

Stephanie: I stuck with the Risotto. But Jason was much more adventurous.

Jason: What did I order? It started with a “c.” Not cassoulet.

Stephanie: You called it heart attack on a plate.

Jason: I thought the c-word meant “Quiche,” or casserole or something which is what I thought I was getting. With sauerkraut.

Launa, (incredulous): I know your family is French and German, but you ordered a sauerkraut quiche??

Jason: I knew it wasn’t quiche, but I thought it was a casserole. Joe got the same thing, but with fish. It looked better. Mine was one big pig knuckle, plus three different kinds of sausages. Tres grands sausages. And the French bacon. I’m not a big fan of French bacon: way too thick. No human could eat the amount of food that was there. I didn’t even touch the pig knuckle.

Stephanie: It was a pretty ugly knuckle. Did we take a picture of that?

(The picture had, in fact, been taken. Ugly, as charged.)

Launa: OK, So at least today you had a peaceful experience heading to our local church in Aups. Right? I mean, Bill went to the Mairie, like a good host, to ask about how you could get ashes on Ash Wednesday, right?

Stephanie: Well, today is what you call a holy day of obligation. Because today is Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church. And Catholic means “Universal.” So I assumed I would go to a Catholic Church and get ashes on my forehead.

And, yes, our very nice host, Bill , had gone in the day before to ask about Ash Wednesday, and the woman behind the desk at the town hall said, “Something very special was happening on Wednesday , at 3 PM.”

And here, I must break away from this interview to include the entire text of the e-mail that Stephanie later sent to her French friends, her family and mine, and the advisor of her Parish’s religious education program. Because it is just so much better coming straight from her:

To All (French friends, family, and Oratory advisor)

We are all having quite the adventure in this medieval southern French town. As I look out I see buildings dating back to 1200, olive trees, vineyards, wild thyme, rosemary, and terraces of cultivated land. It's hard to believe I have a computer in front of me and can ask this question instantaneously to anyone who knows....

What is worse to crash in a foreign country - a wedding or a funeral?

Today Jason and I walked to the village church at 2:45 PM, looking for ashes, thinking that Catholic traditions were universal -- even in medieval towns in southern France. We followed an elderly woman in a purple beret right to the church where others were wandering in.

I thought, how interesting! All things are universal, and we are all heading to the same place for ashes. (But then, Uhum, I thought. Why so many bouquets of flowers in the back of the church?) Jason noted that everyone in the church was not only over 80, but also that they fill the church from the middle of the church to the back, just like in the US. We had some interesting glances/stares at us sitting in the back and way to the right, even though we thought we were out of the way and won't be noticed. At 2:50 the music started.

I wondered: music on Ash Wednesday? Next was the procession of all the townspeople. The front and back of church and standing room area are filled.

Then, next: a casket with bouquets. I was fascinated – what an interesting commemoration of the death of Jesus!

Then as the procession continued flowing in with people wiping their weeping eyes it hit me- WE ARE NOT HERE FOR ASHES. WE ARE AT A VILLAGE FUNERAL. Of course our French is not bien enough for Jason and me to have figured this out earlier, but yes we were at a funeral. Les enfants, la mere, the familie and Jason and I, right here in this ancient Catholic Church.

Oh Mon Dieu!! Where in God's name were the ashes for this Good Catholic Girl and obedient husband who escorted me to town on our vacation?

But I still had high hopes. We couldn't ask the 90 year old with cane and three umbrellas to move so we could run out of the church. So we sit it out for the entire mass. I tried to receive communion (why not, we were there in God's good graces), but I was boxed out by an elderly French woman.

But we knew when it was time to go: when the entire village went up to sprinkle oil on the casket. That was the limit for me (and Jason, who could have sortie a la port from the beginning.)

Outside of the enormous church double doors and across a tiny street at the cafe/bar were all the rest of the townspeople who could not fit in the church during this service. Perhaps because there were intruders taking up valuable sitting space?

But I just couldn't stop there. I had to know where the ashes were. There was not one forehead marked with the sign of the cross in this village. Nada. No one. The priest(s) I was going to ask were leading the procession of villagers and a casket in a flower adorned, merlot-colored VW minivan through the town to the burial place.... so that was out.

The villagers were spilling out of the church. Some remained in the procession and some headed over to the bar across the street. But I was not about to give up on the ashes. I asked a policeman, two elderly, two middle aged people, a shop-keeper, and finally a mom with two small boys about “Ashes du Mercredi” in my best French possible. And from them all I got was a very blank stare and “Je ne sais pas??” They had no idea what I was talking about. Blank stare after blank stare. Then one said, "You speak Englais?" "Oui," I said, eagerly, thinking I will get my answer and my ashes. She replied, "Oh, I don't know. And I don't go." (to church, I’m sure she meant.)

Back to the house and Wikipedia. We learned that it's actually “Mecredi des Cendres” translated properly. In a text from our friend Jeanmarie, back in Paris, we learned that ashes do not exist in any part of France. She even tried to get them at Sacre Coeur in Paris!

Any one have any info for us?

Amen if you do!

(And here, we will return to the interview…)

Launa: (wiping her eyes with hysterical laughter) Oh, I wish I had been there.

Jason: So she was laughing in the middle of Church.

Launa: (still laughing, though not in Church) When did she start laughing?

Jason: When she saw the coffin. And the people crying. There comes the casket! And I said, “Oh, Mon Merde!”

Stephanie; I think that means “Oh My Shit.”

Jason: You know, just about everyone in town was there. Bill had noted everything was “Fermé -- They were all at the funeral, that’s why. Except you!

Stephanie: The guy in front of us was a 80 year old man whose jacket said Lucky Jeans.

Launa: Maybe he felt lucky not to be dead. Because that other guy? Talk about Fermé.

So Welcome to France, my dear friend. No Egg McMuffin. No reservations on Valentine’s Day.

And, I’m sad to say, no ashes on Ash Wednesday in France.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Catching up

First, an enormous Happy Birthday to Grace. We love our brilliant, creative, beautiful, loving, independent and deep-thinking girl, and can't quite believe she is eleven.

Second, an apology for being away so long. In the interim since I last had time to write, we have been to Geneva, Zurich, Lichtenstein (for 15 minutes), and Innsbruck. Our visits there gave us just enough time to confirm our stereotypes: "Wow, Swiss people really are super-organized!" and "Whoa, could those Italians be any more friendly? Or loud?"

We also visited with friends from back home in three different cities, and all of us (including yours truly) have gone skiing in the Austrian Alps. We drove through the Brenner Pass on our way through Italy to France, and celebrated Valentine's Day in a hotel in Genoa.

And, perhaps as payback for all my guilty gratitude when Bill threw out his back, mine has gone out in quite a spectacularly painful fashion. It has been humbling to feel myself moving just as slowly and awkwardly as he was doing, just about a month ago.

But Stephanie, my best friend from elementary school, arrives with her family on the TGV in a few hours. And since it's Grace's birthday, Bill and I will somehow bake a yellow cake with chocolate frosting in the interim. I'll read the recipe, measure the ingredients, and he can do all the beating and heavy lifting (like, for example, the egg cartons and the little litre-sized bag of flour.)

Home, sick.

We often rely on Abigail, the littlest one in the family, to be the sturdiest of us all. Of course, it's only in the context of the family that she's smallest, and at the rate she's growing, she won't be for long.

She's our gyroscope, spinning powerful energy inward rather than dispersing it out into the world, maintaining her balance despite constant dipping and weaving. This furious spinning keeps her upright and steady on in the face of all sorts of difficulties. This year, she spins mostly to duck and deflect the lightning bolts we keep hurling at her.

I've moaned plenty about how hard it was for me to give up houses, jobs, friends, music, home -- but the truth is that Bill, Grace and I gained at least as much in the leaving as we lost. For Abigail, it's so much harder, as she had the most to lose, and feels that she has gained almost nothing.

Grace has homeschool, which suits her to a tee. Bill and I have the freedom to become the parents we've always wanted to be, and all of France spread out at our doorstep. Abigail's the only one of the four of us who craves America nonstop. And she is also the only one who spends significant chunks of time each day interacting with people who speak only French. Despite her incredible accent, she's only at the start of comprehending much of anything at all. Rather than giving in and trying to speak, she seems to be holding on, spinning inward, white-knuckling it, just waiting for this all to be over.

Abigail had a few breakthroughs of late, but then the Monday of the last week before winter vacation, she came down with a rotten cold. It was the kind that makes your throat creaky, then steals all your energy before packing your head with green snot. It slowed down her spinning and she started to list and tumble and fall.

As the default small-g gods of our children's worlds, we don't just hand out umbrellas to keep their heads dry on their dark days; if we're to be honest with ourselves, we must remember that we make the weather. We build them a world, hoping that it gives them joy, but we also must take our places as the authors of their misery.

This is the case from their perspective, but it's also true in an absolute sense as well. We, Abigail's ostensibly loving parents, have ripped her away from everything she knew, and promised her she would understand the language a lot sooner than this. And we have been wrong.

When the cold knocked her feet out from under her, it no longer mattered that she had raised her hand in class and made a friend. Once la rhume took away all her little girl fighting energy, she felt beaten down by all those incomprehensible words at school. The kids who might be talking to her, might also be teasing her. The adults -- being French -- never ever seem to smile, and never so much as throw her a bone. She once again hated school, and despite the wine, cheese, bread, and terrific health care, France became the worst place on this big blue marble.

Raising kids is like that. One step forward, two steps back, until it seems they've lost every hard-won thing. They plunge into the depths of a rising current, and you -- realizing that the rain you sent their way is what has been flooding the streets -- you plunge in after them, swimming hard against the cold and the current to catch them before they slip into something even worse.

And then, all the sudden, they're out of the water, and sprinting out and away, faster than you could ever run. And you're the one feeling lost, and soaked to the bone. Proud, of course -- because whose kids are as tough as yours? -- but lost just the same.

Parenting gives you just the tiniest taste of what it might feel like to be God. I'll add to my life's tally of heretical statements by admitting that I'm embarrassed to say just how often of late I've started to feel really sorry for Him.

I should have known that Abigail wasn't feeling well when she started to be afraid of the dark. Nearly every night, she'd sneak into our room, and tell me, in her quiet night-mouse voice, "Mommy. I'm afraid again." She might spend her days independent and resourceful, but she needed me close at night to ward away the intolerable uncertainty that lurks in all of our darkened corners.

After a few nights of fighting the cold and the monsters in her bedroom, one morning she faded -- hard and fast. She got up quickly enough, but balked at every step of getting-ready-for-school. Suddenly we were back at square one from the fall, hardly able to get her to put one foot in front of the other. When she stared with dread and hatred at her breakfast cereal, burst into snot-dripping tears, and crawled into a ball on my lap, it was clear that she was in no shape for school.

She was sick enough to stay home, well enough to learn. With a few paracetamols in her system (French Tylenol) she could read Farmer Boy and add big numbers together. Poor kid -- when home is school, mom makes you learn even when you're sick. So she got double doses of chicken broth and multiplication.

Later that afternoon, we researched Switzerland and Austria, hoping to teach one another enough to make things recognizable when we took off for our ski trip. Abigail and I took on Switzerland, and found a video on the government website extolling the virtues of Swiss neutrality and tolerance. Bill and Grace had dibs on Austria, and showed us you tube footage of some extremely Tyrolean people yodeling and doing a strange sort of series of knee-slapping moves called "Schuplattler," the world's whitest step dance. Yet more evidence that Bill and Grace are more fun than Abby and I are.

And yet more evidence that this world is weird.

Despite her drippy nose, she seemed in decent shape. The next day, we took off for Marseilles, where she could run and play and eat shrimp without apparent difficulty. But all was still not well in the world of Abigail. For in the car on the way home, she really broke down, crying to Bill in a torrent of feeling, anger, and distress. She was hating France, hating school. She wanted to go home, she wanted to see her friends.

But mostly -- it came out after a time -- she wanted a burger. And a bagel. Even more than her friends and her grandparents, she told us she needed American food. Demanded it. Craved it, even angrily so. She missed ketchup for her fries. Bright orange macaroni and cheese, from a box.

But mostly, bagels. Of all the differences between the U.S. and rural France, it is the bagels she misses most loudly and frequently. She has pointed out on perhaps a thousand occasions that the French are exceptionally deprived in the bagels department.

Bill, left alone in the car with this dervish of sadness, went so far as to pull the car over to the side of the road and pretend to call his parents to ask them to mail her bagels and a few blue boxes. This seemed to calm the worst of her distress, but left us in an awkward place: having promised we would give her what she had asked for, how would we get her a decent burger? Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner? Or -- the least likely of all -- fresh bagels?

Well, invention -- yo mamma's a big fat necessity. So that is how this upstate New York recovering-non-cook waspy girl found herself in a Provence supermarket using pantomime and pidgin French to learn from the courtesy clerk the French word for "yeast." I first tried the Joy of Cooking recipe, and way overcooked the first batch, earning only Abigail's most grudging thanks for the effort. With the second batch -- not overcooked, but sadly unseasoned, she tried one, and while she said it was "OK," she really wanted her usual -- an Everything.

Let it not be said that Abigail sets her sights low. When it comes to my little girl, it is Everything, or Nothing. But here is where I wish I had access to a little divine wisdom to go along with my power over my children: what does God say when someone gets down on her knees and asks, pretty please, could she have Everything?

Lacking anything like omnipotence, I made recourse to my usual tactic: an internet search, followed by a trip to the Intermarché. First I went online to find a recipe for Montreal Bagels, which I would argue to the death are the best kind in the world. I ate these bagels on trips to visit the boyfriend I dated my sophomore year of college. We'd eat them in between hockey games and walks in that cold, dark city with all of its malls tucked underground. Luckily for both of us, he had the foresight to break up with me just a few weeks before I was destined to get together with Bill. But not before I developed a serious affection for the bagels from his hometown.

I went back to the store, and found grains de pavot (poppy seeds) and sesame (duh, sesame) as well as some powdered ail and oignon. I threw on a little celery salt as my own little addition to the mix, since this family would probably eat dirt if I put enough salt on it. Once the dough had been kneaded and left to rise, I shaped it, let it rise again, shaped the mush into eighteen little Saturn-rings, then boiled them in water and honey. I dried them off for a minute, dumped them in the pile of Everything, then put them on the metal sheet to bake.

I will spare you any false modesty and just tell you, straight up, I could do this for a living. My ecumenical bagels were just this side of our border with Amazing. Chalk up another one for Launa in the column of small culinary victories.

If you are lucky, as I am, you should be careful what you wish for, as often you will get it. Because then, just as I was pulling our Everythings out of the oven, what showed up in a care package from back home? A valentine, from Nona and Pops. With Baking Powder, so we could make pancakes, and New York State Maple Syrup to put on the top.

And FIVE boxes (two of them family-sized) of bright orange macaroni and cheese. This felt a whole lot like divine intervention, if not on a holy, then on a wholly human scale. Clearly, my parents have been practicing their parenting a lot longer than I have. They've got a collective seventy-six kid years to their credit, whereas I have only eighteen.

I can never remember whether it's "feed a fever, starve a cold," or the other way around. For homesickness, the only cure is familiar food -- starch -- and lots of it. So when the kids feel rotten, I just bend all the rules, and let them eat what they want.

So there we sat, at our big oak table, in a Provençal kitchen that would make Martha Stewart a lovely teal-blue-green with envy. Eating Everything Montreal bagels and day-glo orange mac and cheese.