Wednesday, February 3, 2010

À Table

I have used this metaphor before, but we are still that damn shopping cart. On a typical day, three of the four of us can be said to be heading in the same direction, with just one of the four of us dragging behind, slowing down the team’s forward progress.

However, when we go to a new place, we’re more challenged than usual to get on the same track. Without a habitrail to follow, we sputter off in all directions, often working ourselves into a serious fuss. We are no longer a shopping cart, but a small and deeply unhappy group of people drawing and quartering itself.

As you may have read if you have been following our adventures, our fusses take many forms.

Bill is the most likely to lead us into a blind alley, a raging stream, or a perilous ascent, but the least likely of us to be a pain in the neck.

Abigail is the likeliest to pass out, to pitch a screetching fit, or to suddenly find herself in desperate need of candy; however, she is also the most likely to lead by skipping ahead joyfully, high ponytails flopping in the air.

Grace is the most likely to suddenly need a bathroom at a highly inopportune moment, to find a snail trail that needs following, or to wander into oncoming traffic; but she is equally likely to find the coolest piece of art in any museum.

And me? Well, you’ll have to ask my family about the strengths and deficits I bring to the team, and whether traveling with me averages out to be in the plus or the minus column. As far as I can tell, the jury is out, due to my short temper, deficient spirit of adventure, and excessive concern with safety. But since I’m the one who drives, navigates, cooks, shops, packs, and unpacks, they let me stick around.

Our specific and vibrantly craggy personalities make us the family that we are, but sometimes we four contort ourselves into the most ridiculous, awful, and uncomfortable configurations and conflagrations.

But then a table – really almost any table we’ve ever met – somehow solves all that. In the six months since our adventure started in earnest, we have, at least once every single day, found ourselves sitting in a square, facing one another and sharing a meal. And very often, it’s three times a day we call out “À table,” (“to the table”) then meet each other there.

Sitting down together acts as a reset button for the family life we share: each time we sit down, our diffused, often deeply contradictory impulses come back into alignment. We stop looking out at everything else, and are faced with one another. We sometimes bring our foul moods with us to the table, but they are very hard to sustain for long when we find ourselves face to face. We four, foursquare, means home.

I’m giving credit to the table and our position facing one another, but it’s also the food that makes us feel the love. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg in this case doesn’t matter: we’ll have a little of both, please, with salt.

We all really like to eat, and share a relatively healthy and adventurous palate. Happy omnivores, we do our best to try – and try to enjoy – new things as often as we can, without becoming hopeless food snobs, addicted to constant servings of fancy novelty foods. It is pleasure – rather than gourmet excellence – that we value. The highest praise in our family is reserved for he or she who can say “Wow, that’s delicious” the most times in any given day, about the widest variety of vittles. “I don’t like that” is for babies. Even “No, thank you” gets you a bite-sized portion, and everybody is expected to try everything.

This means that our kids eat, and appreciate, a lot of different foods. When we show up au restaurant and say “Nous sommes quatre,” (“Table for four,”) you can forget the carte d’enfant with its burger and fries, and nuggets of not-really chicken – our kids haven’t ordered off the kids’ menu in a very long time.

I love having children who ask to eat things like frog’s legs and sushi, not to mention broccoli, carrots and big glasses of milk. Like all kids, they will eat candy until it’s all gone, then immediately ask to go get more. Sometimes they are hard pressed to finish things they find unfamiliar. But they also take pride in the health and variety of their diet. Right now, they’re suddenly into smoothies, and gulp down all that yogurt and fresh fruit like it’s a big pile of Twizzlers.

(Please excuse me this rank bragging; given all the complaining I do about my children, it only seems fair that they should get a soupcon of praise when it is so clearly due.)

Before moving to France, we ate our Brooklyn dinners at home together, and knew those dinners formed the core of our life together as a family. Bill and I were well aware of just how lucky we were to have jobs that would allow us to be home in time for us all to sit down, to tell one another what we were thankful for, and eat healthy good food in one another’s warm presence.

But our dinners there were often the very first moment of the day that any of us had been granted a reprieve from the pressures of the outside world. (Here, the world has very little interest in us, so there are no pressures from which to need shelter.) Just as we sat down to eat, Bill and I would try, desperately, to talk with one another, nearly famished with the desire to share our daily woes with the only person who would really understand. At the very same moment, both girls would compete tooth and nail for both parents’ undivided attention. Eventually one or both of them would get furious with us, or with the other kid.

We also ate way too fast. By the time we sat down to eat, we would all be ravenous, gulping down the spaghetti and Fresh Direct meatballs, sometimes without even really tasting our meal. We also felt pressured to move things along – if not by Samson nudging us to set our leftovers in his food bowl, then by the knowledge that we still had to clean up, make the lunches, and get the kids in bed before we’d have any time to ourselves to think.

But here, we eat not just French food, but also in French time: slowly, deliberately, in several distinct courses. We laugh. In fact, we tell the same jokes night after night, and still laugh. We talk about the family and friends we miss from back home, conjuring them into the two empty seats at the table. We try new things, and share bites off of one another’s plates. Usually we eat together in the kitchen, with all the food spread out on the wide oak table between us. The table is so big that we have to lean forward to hold hands while we say our Thankfuls.

If we’re in a restaurant, we usually skip the Thankfuls, as Abigail finds the idea of holding hands in public utterly mortifying. But we share food rather than gratitude, and always shuffle our plates around at least once, since Abigail rarely finishes what she orders, but always likes what I choose.

We find our tables in all sorts of places. Once this year we ate lunch in an Indian Restaurant near the Gobelins Metro stop, just before we had to get on our return train to Aix. The restaurant had lost electricity, but the waiter invited us in, lit a candle on our table and brought us great korma and biryani. At the ski resort we ate at a white plastic table set outside in the sunshine, ski goggles pushed up on the girls’ heads as they tried (and loved) mayo on their fries. We love tables in French brasseries, with their red-checkered tablecloths, fussy little glasses, and standard-issue menus of pizza, salad with goat cheese, and entrecote with Roquefort and frites.

On rare occasions, we eat sitting on cushions on the floor around the wide, low Moroccan table in the living room. Tonight Bill built a roaring fire and we stuck hotdogs on a sharp stick to roast in the flames. We heated up the leftover pasta that wasn’t a bit better the second time around. The food was nothing to write home about, (despite the fact that I am in fact writing home about it) but we did enjoy hearing, from Abigail, a rare story of her most recent triumph in school.

Usually she maintains the stark division of le portail, and won’t tell us word one about what happens in school. But yesterday, she literally bubbled over with stories. Last week, she made a new friend. Then, her teacher was sick all week so she spent the week in the happy dreamstate of drawing picture after picture with markers all day long. She came home nearly every day with her hands covered in ink, and at dinner, she finally told us why.

Then, so bashful in her pride, she finally told us the story of answering math questions in class. It was clear that somehow this crazy adventure was beginning to pay her its first dividends.

Of course, if we hadn’t sat at the table for a solid forty minutes, she might never have told us the story. She might have skittered off to play more Poptropica, or buried her nose in The Dork Diaries, a gift from a friend who clearly knows more about the reading habits of contemporary 2nd graders than do I. (I just ordered the entire set of Little House books. Nothing like sitting in sunny southern France and reading about Pa digging the cows out of a wall of snow during a blizzard.)

But instead, we spent that time together. Long enough to hear her story, and to share in the joy of her victory.

We shared the (joys?) of clearing off the table and washing the dishes, then we set up Monopoly. I got the stuffing beaten out of me, but loved watching Grace giggle hysterically as I gradually bit the dust. I landed first on the British Version of Park Place (three houses) then Boardwalk (four), and had to hand over first all my cash, then my deeply mortgaged assets. I do like to win at Monopoly, but if I can’t, there’s nobody to whom I would rather lose.

So here is my toast is to the humble table: wooden or metal, square or round, large or small. Any table will do, as long as it pulls the four of us together with its gravity. Eating, playing, talking. Right where we belong.


  1. Hi, this is David from Quinson -- we met on Halloween when you were walking around our village. I recently discovered your blog, and I'm reliving our early days in France by catching up on what you've written. Wonderful stuff!

  2. Tears in my eyes. Lovely post. Thanks.