Monday, May 31, 2010

Oxygen Tank

For the last nine and a half months we four have all been explorers, pushing again and again into new places and languages and cultures, adding place after place to our list of conquered territories. Now we voyage back to the familiar.

Just this afternoon, we finally closed the giant circle of the trip. It started back on August 10 as we boarded a Dartmouth Coach bus in front of the Hanover Inn, bound for Logan Airport. We landed back in New York last Tuesday, and since then have been working our way slowly North back to that same exact place.

On our way here, we have stayed with friends, then with my parents to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary. Last night we stayed in a dorm room for a reunion at the college where Bill and I met and fell in love. But today as I drove into Hanover and past the bus stop, I finally brought us all back full circle to where we began.

42 weeks away from then till now, which is the same number of weeks I counted and waited until Grace was born.

Now we're diving back down into the lives we left, learning what has changed and what still remains. While Thomas Wolfe (You Can't Go Home Again) and Bon Jovi ("Who Says You Can't Go Home?") disagree on what happens to the concept of home once you've been gone a long time, the jury is still out for me.

Complicating things is the fact that we've taken the year away, and we're back, but we're not actually home just yet. The philosophical question -- what is "home?" -- is a literal one as well, since the home we left eleven months ago is now completely ripped apart, under construction in the process of being put back together.

We rented out our house in Brooklyn for the first part of our trip, but since the tenants didn't want to commit to a full year, we came up with what seemed like such a wonderfully practical idea: once they left, we'd renovate the house while we were away. We'd move our furniture into storage and hire contractors to fix all the broken stuff and reconfigure the house to fit our new stage of our family's life.

It was a good idea, and totally practical in terms of timing. But psychologically, for two little girls weary of being dragged from place to place, returning here without a place to land was perhaps not so very straightforward. Right now they're excited to be back, but also jetlagged and not a little bit confused.

So this week, we're circling around that desired-for feeling of home like little bugs around a light, relying on the places and the people we love to keep us warm and fed and safe. They have not let us down, but instead keep filling me with exactly the things I most desired.

My friends and family are giving so generously to me, which means I have more to give to the girls. As we've been traveling -- on the train, and then on the airplane, and then even on the familiar streets of Brooklyn, or on the path to Memorial Hill at college, the girls have been sticking closely to my side. They are too big for this, I suppose, but they actually hold my hand when we walk, leaning a little on my arms. They keep finding ways to lean their little heads on my shoulder, and when it's time to go to bed, they want to snuggle up close to my body. "I love you so much, Mom," Abigail will breathe into my hair. I know she means it with all of her heart, but what she's also saying is, "So much is changing. This feels weird. Please keep telling me that I'm going to be OK."

I am an oxygen tank for them, full of the air of home. I've learned to distill the essence of home to fit it here in this tiny vessel of myself. I've also learning how to refill myself, so now when they need me I know how to charm the tiniest little circle and give them that feeling of place, even when things are rocky, or uncertain, or strange. Or even French.

It took me awhile to recognize that I could do this for them. But now I see it so clearly -- I feel it in their little hands grabbing onto mine. Whenever we make a change from one place to the next, the girls suddenly need my undivided attention, my care and watching. I open up the regulator on the tank, and give them as much of myself as I can. They breathe in home, they breathe in confidence, they breathe in the feeling that they themselves can make their way.

Because comforting them is not the whole point. It's lovely, really, to have such sweet girls holding my hands and breathing into my ear how much I am loved. But my aim is always to give them what they need so that they can do whatever we are up to more independently. This extra air builds them up so that they can strike out on their own. Gradually they adjust to each new atmosphere, and start to stay away for longer stretches. WhereverWeGo, home travels in me, and then suffuses into them. They breathe the air of home, and then they go back out again -- strengthened, older, stronger -- into the world that awaits.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The First Americans We Encountered on the Way Home

Dear American Family in Room 206 at the Paris Charles DeGaulle Best Western,

Hey there, it's us over here next door in Room 208. Yeah, we were sleeping, actually, but you know, as they say in France, ce n'est pas grave.

First, I just want to say how sorry I am for you guys that you got in so late. Getting to your hotel at 2 in the morning must have been a huge bummer, as the two of you parents pointed out to one another. Several times.

Since you so nicely raised your voices so that we could hear the lengthy conversation you had following your arrival, I'm just going to weigh in on a few things.

For instance, I tend to agree with Mom, that it really wasn't her fault that you got there so late. But Dad was right when he said thirty-eight times that a continental breakfast doesn't usually include scrambled eggs. So you see, no need to argue -- particularly at 2 in the morning. Sometimes she's right, and sometimes he is. Just put in your order, trust the breakfast gods, tuck yourselves in, and call it a night.

Because you know, actually the rest of us were sleeping. I mean, until you got there.

And just because I could hear you so well, I thought I might offer a tiny bit of parenting feedback. When you stick two kids in the bath at that hour, sometimes it's a good idea to sort of hang out in there with them and help them calm down. You know, sing a sweet little (quiet) song or something, keep things moving along. If you stay in the hotel room and argue about the scrambled eggs and how you're going to get to "check your *&^%$* e-mail, goddamnit, Roger" the kids do tend to get a little out of control.

Also, you might not have noticed yourself doing this (you know, we've all been there) but you told the kids "Five minutes left in the bath, I mean it" no less than four times, at about eight-minute intervals. So next time you could just say, " 32 minutes left in the bath, I mean it!" And then mean it.

And if you already have an opinion on whether they should wear their jammies or their clothing to bed, it's best not to ask them which they would rather wear.

You know, eventually I started to think that it would have been more fun if we had opened the balsa wood door between our rooms and decided to have a huge American Battle of the Grumpy Families from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. Not to brag, but we would totally have kicked your butts, as we are the original Bickersons. We're kind of like the F15 figher plane in this area - we've never been beaten in open battle with another family. As a matter of fact, we only shoot each other down.

But you know, I'm sure you wanted your privacy. You didn't want some other family all up in your business, bickering. So we just lay in our beds quietly. And seethed at you.

So finally I also wanted to say how sorry I am that you had to get up again at 6:30 to catch your flight. Huge bummer right there. It did seem a little hard for you to get those little kiddos out of the p.j.'s they so badly wanted to wear. (Just speaking as a mom with a little more experience: sometimes when we stay someplace and have to get up super-early in the morning, I just pretend I didn't bring the jammies with me at all.)

It must have been a pretty big disappointment when those scrambled eggs didn't come (as you told Roger) but I really don't think it's his fault either. You know, the French and all. At least you got your morning coffee, even if you still couldn't work the *&^&^%! email.

And just so you know, I also totally heard him say you didn't have to leave until 7:30, so he probably shouldn't have been rushing you out at 7:15.

But like I said, we've all been there.

So, anyway, safe travels. We'll see you back in the U.S. But let us know when you're traveling next, so we can be sure to book the room a few more doors down.

Thanks so much for reminding us why we're so excited to get back home.

Best Wishes,

The sleepy family in Room 208

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Making New Friends

Learning the delicate dance of making friends in a new place has been one of the more dizzying experiences of our time here. At first I blamed all my troubles on the place. But now with my special 20/20 hindsight glasses, certain things have become crystal clear.

When we first arrived, I was continually taken aback that nobody greeted my massive people-pleasing American smiles with anything but a glazed, distant hauteur. I tried to be friendly at the portail, the big green gate dividing school from home, but I couldn't find anyone there who would meet my gaze. It was as though I didn't exist.

Making the classic rookie error of interpreting another culture through my own assumptions, I assumed that I had done something shun-worthy, or that nearly everyone we met was massively stuck up. For awhile I imagined that I were walking around with spinach in my teeth.

Had we stayed here on a vacation of only ten days or so, I would have left with the typical Anglo-American complaint about the French. (Stand-offish. Pretentious. You know, French.)

But then I figured out Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number One: Strangers are treated differently in different places, so it's not a great idea to confuse the friendliness of strangers for real intimacy. When I got here, I was so down on the whole place for being so unfriendly, when in reality, it was just that I had chosen to surround myself with strangers. They were behaving the way one behaves towards strangers here, which is to keep one's polite and respectful distance.

But once I did make friends here, I had plenty of people to kiss on both cheeks and invite over for dinner. So what if the good people of Aups walk around looking as though all of their cats just died? If that's how they do it here, who am I to judge?

Which leads me to Hard-Won Travel Socializing Lesson Number Two: when you live somewhere long enough, the "weird world" you inhabit starts to make sense, and you realize that it's you who is not fitting in. It's not their blank stares that were odd. It was my big American grin. Now that I've been here long enough, I can totally spot an American tourist. They are wearing oddly bland clothing. They have safe, symmetrical haircuts and have good teeth, which you can see because they are smiling like total idiots. That was me, nine months ago (and will be, again, as soon as I'm safely back on American soil.)

Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number three: I feel like smacking myself hard in the forehead for this one, because Bill was right. I really shoulda, woulda, coulda learned French. The language barrier and my own lack of preparation only made things worse where friendships were concerned. Even if some French someone did turn up with a friendly, engaging smile, I would usually respond with something like "I like your cheese," or "Weather good now in town think I hope." I missed my own ability to articulate anything other than a pleasantry or a poorly-conjugated literal translation of a banal observation. Back home, I kept wanting to tell people, folks thought I was smart. And funny. Only I didn't know the words for any of that. Who knows how many lovely new people I could have made had my French been less awful.

(Oh, and then something I learned from watching the contrast of Bill and Abigail: once you can speak another language, it's best to do so as freely and un-self-consciously as you possibly can. Bill may have made some mistakes now and then, but they were never, ever begrudged. Abigail spoke French mostly to her American Girl dolls, in secret. Felicity and Elizabeth may have benefitted from the tutoring, but that didn't help her to get the real flesh-and-blood kind of friends.)

Now that I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever taken the time back home to befriend someone whose English wasn't already serviceable. And what's worse, I'm not sure I ever even though of it this way before now, after nine months as a babelfish out of English waters. Now that I think about it, that may be Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number Four: to have a friend, you have to be a friend, particularly in a second language. I think I'll try a whole lot harder after what I learned this year.

OK, down to the last two lessons. Remember how before I said I stood there at the school gate (le portail) and smiled, assuming that would be the place to make friends? Well, it turns out that ended up just not being the right place. I've felt only icky vibes there, pretty much all year. Back in the U.S., nearly every friend I have made since having children has been a parent from our kids' school. In fact, schools across the U.S. are social hubs for parents as well as for the students themselves.

However, that turned out just not to be the case here. Our friendships developed around café and dining room tables, not around "playdates," weekend soccer games and children's birthday parties. They were private family moments rather than public occasions. So Hard-won Travel Socializing Lesson Number Five: you might have to look somewhere other than where you are used to to find friends.

A lot of things changed as we got to know Jessica and Gerard. Although Jessica grew up in France, deep down she's English, with an extra dose of devil-may-care spontaneity and pretty exceptional hospitality skills. (This means that you can go over to her house for dinner every two weeks or so for a whole year, as we have done, and never be fed the same thing twice, even though everything was so good you wouldn't have minded a repeat.) She was kind right away, and quickly welcomed us in to her life. Her fiancé Gerard, so open-hearted and welcoming and deeply human, became our first real French friend.

Over the course of the year, they have welcomed not just us, but also our visiting friends and our family to their farmhouse. Jess seems to think nothing of whipping up a seriously large batch of several dishes to serve over the course of hours to her happy, comfortable guests. We've eaten lamb sausage, chocolate mousse, stewed rabbit, perfectly cooked duck, (and that ain't the half of it. ) She has given me endless translations, multiple assists on school quandries, and many, many glasses of red wine. She and Gerard have become true friends.

And, what's more, they -- along with Anna-Maria and Dermot, who we met our second night in town -- have introduced us to lots of other people who have also become our friends.

Ready for Hard-won travel Lesson Number Six? Here it is: if you're a lonely American traveler, go out and listen for someone who speaks with a pleasant lilt. Colonialism maybe wasn't such a great thing, but the upside is that the world is dotted with all different sorts of lovely, friendly people, and a whole lot of them seem to be British.

But I'll finish up with a story that taught me one final thing: one that wasn't so much a hard-won lesson as a pleasant surprise: Whereveryougo, however long it takes to meet them, Friends are Friends are Friends. And here's how I know.

Twice in the past week Jess and Gerard invited us up to their beautiful farm, which is perched right on the ridge between the rolling hills to the south and the craggier bigger peaks of the Alpes-de-Haut-Provence. First they had a mechoui, with three goat kids roasted all afternoon long on spits. Gerard had made a sort of herbal broom out of branches of rosemary, thyme and other herbs he plucked out of the field, and swabbed at the little beasties all afternoon as they turned slowly via a contraption run by a windshield wiper motor. It was attached to a tractor battery, and he had adjusted it precisely so that the spits would turn slowly, but not too slowly. Gerard is like some kind of MacGuyver for food.

We ate goat ribs, goat legs, goat cheeks, and even the goat head. We ate our friend Paula's guacamole and boiled quail eggs, some lovely anchovy paste, as well as cauliflower and spicy sausages (yes, even the children ate all that) and finished up with brownies and Grace's now-famous choux-cremes. The only thing better than the food was the warm and friendly conversation.

The mechoui, like the bouilliabaisse party we attended a few weeks ago was mostly Francophones, but really smart engineering sort of ones who can speak plenty of English when they choose. A passel of exceptionally adorable children vacillated between joyfully frolicking about and ruthlessly smacking one another in the head, but none of the parents paid all that much attention (pas des helicopter parents here in France, bien sûr.) The kids would be kids, the grownups stuck close to the table, and everyone had a perfectly lovely time.

And, perhaps because our kids knew that leaving was safely on the horizon, they played too. This will amaze habitual readers of the blog, who know that generally at the social events we have attended this year, Abigail circles the periphery and waits for somebody to put on a movie, while Grace chooses the place furthest away from all the other kids, and either knits or reads a book.

But that day, they jumped right into the fray -- quite literally, as they were bouncing on a real-life trampoline. They spent the whole day with all the other kids, and then at the end of the day, asked us if we all could stay even longer.

Then, a few nights later, Jess and Gerard invited us over again, with just the littler crowd of our closer friends that have sort of congealed together in our year here. We are a loose group of five British, American, and French families who get together to switch back and forth between two languages, drink red wine, laugh, and let the kids run wild together. Once again we sat outside at a long wooden table for hours while Gerard made everybody pizza after pizza after delicious wood-fired gorgonzola-pesto-sausage-olive-mozzarella pizza dinner. The ashtrays gradually filled up with cigarette butts and olive pits, as we laughed and talked and ate Gerard's incredible food.

After awhile, I looked up the hill, and there they were -- eleven of them -- a passel of happy kids bouncing around inside the netted trampoline. There were Spike and Toby, Elise and Clement, Zach, and Cameron and Louise. And then, holding Layla's two hands, on either side of her, were Grace and Abigail. Seamus was too little, so he just stood clinging on to the net, watching the grand drama unfold.

I watched them all hold hands and jump in a charmed circle. They all -- each one of them -- spoke some sort of combination of two languages, and understood one another perfectly.

I swear it was just the setting sun in my eyes that made me tear up just then.

Perhaps as a result of nearly a full year of being around me 24/7, Bill has been awfully attuned to my moods lately. He saw me looking at the happily playing kids, he came over and hugged my shoulder as we watched the kids jump and laugh. "Now they have some European cousins."

As I walked back to the table, Mathilde and Laurent presented us with a bottle of something that looked like magic gold elixir. It was marked with the name of their home and the succulent words, "huile d'olive": olive oil pressed from the fruit of their very own trees. Now the bottle is sitting in a place of honor on our mantlepiece, ready to be packed with exceptional care so we can bring it home. Then, when we need a little golden drop of Provence (or, more likely, a huge swig of flavor) we'll have it.

I put the bottle away in the car for safekeeping. The kids kept leaping, while we grown-ups settled back into the serious eating and drinking. After awhile, Dermot -- the charismatic one of our mini-clique -- stood up. "Before anybody has to go, we have something to give Bill and Launa." He pulled out a framed photo that everybody had signed (even the under-five set.) He had photoshopped pictures of the four families to look as though they were grinning at us from inside the fountain in the center of town.

Just then, one of the kids wandered by and suddenly grabbed me around my midsection, in an American-style hug rather than the usual French bisous. Perhaps it had taken a lot longer than I had suspected initially, but once somebody's kid hugs you for no apparent reason, you no longer have to wonder if you've really become friends.

Then of course, I was standing with my back to the sunset, so I had nothing but joy to blame for my pesky tears.

Yes, it can be done better

Pardon this last-minute rant on the superiority of the French approach to the social contract. Those of you whose flesh crawls when I start to talk about politics should probably skip this one.

No, I mean it. It's not worth the irritation, as this one isn't even particularly funny. Just look at the pretty food picture, and enjoy today's other post, the heartwarming one. We'll all be happier that way.

OK, now we're down to the socialists, liberals and independents still reading. With no further ado, here is my list of things that France does way better:

1.) Travel. The whole time we were building all those big fancy cars, the French were putting in high speed rail. The trains arrive on time. They are clean and shiny and super-fast. They aren't exactly cheap, but that seems worth it when you're going 200 miles an hour through gorgeous scenery. Who cares if you have to drive a silly little two-door Twingo around town, if you can travel the long distances in comfort and style?

2.) Shipping. To get our stuff mailed over here via Fed-Ex cost an ungodly amount of money, and took pretty much forever. Customs hassled us like crazy so that we could be reunited with our winter coats, extra hats and American Girl dolls.

Here, we bought about ten nicely-constructed little boxes, each one about 40 euros. We filled each one of them up with seven kilos of our stuff, and then just dropped them off at the post office, where the woman at the desk was super nice to us. (Did you hear that, Park Slopers? Nice postal workers?) The boxes arrived yesterday at Bill's parents' house, about five days later, zero hassle. I heart La Poste.

3.) Basic Medical Care. Here, the doctors see you as soon as you call, they give you a referral right away, and you see the next medical specialist soon after, until they figure out what's wrong with you. An E.R. visit cost us sixty bucks, and resulted in an accurate diagnosis and a speedy solution to the presenting problem, served up with total professionalism.

If you get a test done, you get a letter with the test results delivered to your house the next day.

Look, if I'm going to contract some horribly rare disease, I would rather be able to be treated by the super-geniuses at some incredible teaching hospital in the center of Manhattan. But it's not like most of America's sick people get anything like that level of rarefied treatment.

So, for the basic stuff we're all more likely to suffer, how great is it not to have to fight with the doctor's secretary over whether they accept BlueCare Plus or CrossHeart Freedom Plan Extra?

Show up, see a doctor, get medicine from the smart and adorable pharmacist, and feel better. Go back to living your life.

4.) Local, fresh food that actually tastes like something. And is frequently served with butter sauce.

5.) Fresh spring water pouring out of fountains centrally located in every town. Back home, we have two choices: gross water fountains or bottled water. Here, you just cup your hands and gulp. Hooray for the Romans and their ancient aqueducts, and hooray for the French for knowing a good thing when they drink it.

6.) Nuclear power. Somewhere back there in time, the U.S. took a wrong turn on the way we power up. We cut off the tops of mountains in West Virginia and pulverize them to extract coal, then fill in the valleys with the remaining bits of chopped up rock.

And now, we've got an oil slick the size of Kansas spreading into the open ocean, and no particularly bright ideas for how to make it stop spilling.

Only history will show which of us made the better choice. But so far, France's history of nuclear safety seems to kick the ass of our search for more and more dead dinosaur carbon.

7.) A real social contract. Look, I don't relish the idea of giving half of my paycheck to the government. That's money I could be using to buy Cheetos and Coke (oh, and paying to health insurance companies.) But if I were paying high taxes with the idea that that money would be used for things to make my life and the lives of my fellow citizens more pleasant, secure, and fulfilling, I don't think I would complain all that much.

On the flip side, it would be easy to argue that part of the reason France can spend its citizen's money this way is that it doesn't have to spend such a huge percentage on its military. For some awful reason, the U.S. has ended up as the N.Y.P.D. for the entire planet, charged with protecting and serving all of Western Europe. But, I guess, good for them for figuring out how to sponge off the military largesse we seem so eager to provide.

OK, rant officially over. No matter where you live, dear reader, you can now go back to enjoying the things your own country does best, and complaining about the things that really could be done a whole lot better.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Last Day of School

The other day I wrote that I was trying not to count the (three) days we have left in Provence. I'm torn between feeling excited to go home and being woebegone we're leaving.

Well, I'm torn between those two things, and also the lurking fear that the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano will spew straight at our airplane while it is midway across the Atlantic. But that's just the new form of the same old anxiety. If it's not a blizzard, it's a volcano or a guy with explosives in his shoe. When you get right down to it, I'm just afraid of planes.

At any rate, it's another one of those transitions, and as any reader of this blog knows, we're just not great at them. We're travelers who do OK as long as we don't have to move.

These days, between school and eating and sitting in the sun that has finally shown its face, we're either being sent off or sending ourselves off. We've said goodbye to the three French teachers, to the tennis pro who taught Grace to play, to the bass teacher in Lorgues, to the guitar teacher. We've given away the sewing machine I used twice, the bass amp, the clothes the girls outgrew between then and now. If any readers happen to be nearby in the Var and want a few used hamster cages or a couple of kids' size tennis rackets, you know who to call.

Bill and I are being all melancholy and sad about it, and are mourning the silliest little things.

But the girls, particularly Abigail, couldn't possibly be happier.

Today is her last day of school. Last week in her backpack we received the Great Ceremonial Conferring of the Official Letter allowing her to move on to French 3rd grade. When I translated the letter for her, she looked at me positively stricken, as though we were about to snatch away the Promised Land of her old school in Brooklyn. I had to swear -- immediately and in no uncertain terms -- that just because France was ready to send her to French 3rd grade (CE2), that didn't mean that we were. It just meant that she had passed. She had survived. She had won. She smiled then, but still warily. Abigail has become the Missouri of children, always saying "Show me." I think she won't truly relax once the plane settles back down onto the familiar runway at JFK.

And then, a few minutes later, she'll start asking me for magret de canard. Mark my words. This is Abigail I'm talking about, the girl permanently perched on a knife's edge.

And while I'm going to have to kill you once you read this paragraph (skip down past the italicized bits if you'd prefer to live) the girls have finally been inducted into the inner sanctum of our secret traveling adventure society. Bill devised a super-hokey candlelit ceremony to mark the occasion involving all sorts of little rituals, the scent of lavender, and the taste of honey. The Elders of the Secret Society (which may or may not be yours truly) wrote up official certificates in fancy antiquey-looking fonts for each of the girls. Grace received special commendation for several of her more remarkable achievements, including

A trip to the Emergency Medical Department in a Foreign Land

Learning French from a demented professor, and

Conquering a fear of flying by facing down an Historic Blizzard,

then walking through three foot snow drifts at four in the morning.

For her part, our little uber-patriotic American Abigail was duly recognized for

Nine months of attending school in a Foreign and Often Hostile Land

Learning French in Dread Secret with an enviable Accent Provençal, and

Eating lapin, âne, sangliers, grenouilles, escargots

(special citation for sheer amount of Tome de Pyrennes consumed)

It was clear to me that Abigail couldn't decide whether or not to be mortified while we were doing this funny mumbo-jumbo to try to more dramatically mark the end of our adventure. Part of her wanted to be flattered as we recognized her bravery and flexibility, but mostly she was just hoping to get some bling or at least a cookie out of the event. She was happiest when I put a little necklace on her, with a heart charm that I told her was the amulet of compassion, which would protect her from all harm. I'm pretty sure that she didn't register the subliminal message in my gift, but she certainly was glad to get a present.

The poor kid. She hates weird things, and seemed to be mortified that we were doing little secret handshakes and talking about her achievements like she were becoming a Jedi Knight. If any totally normal parents out there have a weird kid and would like to trade her for Abigail for a weekend every now and then, I'm sure that she would be totally grateful. Stuck in this oddball family, she feels like a round peg surrounded by squares, and often seems to be wishing we'd just settle down in suburbia, buy all our clothes at J.C. Penney, and get respectable jobs.

Grace, however, got right in on the fun, and immediately adopted a faux-serious British accent to give a sort of Hogwartsian dignity to the proceedings. As we read her certificate, she laughed in all the right places and fairly glowed with pride.

Afterwards we tried to roast marshmallows in celebration, but as usual Bill's stack of firewood was more ambitious than it needed to be for the size of the firepit. As the flames leapt into the air towards the little plastic roof that covers part of the terrace, I got more and more nervous, and eventually ran into the house to get a bucket. By the time I was back, even Bill had gotten scared, and we threw a gallon of pool water on his raging inferno. That pretty much wrecked the fire, ruined the mood, and made Bill really sad, so we just gave in to Abigail's impulses and snuggled around the warm hearth of the Disney Channel for a bit. Another classic example of the way we roll.

So our bags are packed. Lessons are finished, and our more thrilling travel adventures are all (hopefully) in the past. I pick up Abigail from school in twenty minutes, at which point she will have spent more time immersed in the French language than any of us all.

Congratulations, Abigail. As soon as we get back home, the next trip to the American Girl store is on me. I'll turn off my usual rant about girly-girl commercialism, and let you revel in the totally familiar and totally normal. We will have tea and buy overpriced plastic things and wave wildly the American flag.

This hasn't been easy for you, our sweet-and-sour little girl, and you won't let us forget that for a minute. But watching your flinty stubbornness hone itself on the challenges of this year has made me so very proud. You've grown more than any of us will ever know.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bonne Anniversaire

To my soulmate,

The much-loved father of my children,

My traveling companion in good times and bad,

The most wonderful man in the world.

I love you so very much, and I always have. But now, I have so many more reasons why. I will always be grateful that you dragged us out of our old life and into this remarkable new world. Let's never forget a minute of this year we gave each other.

I remain in awe of your enthusiasm for new places, for new experiences, for new tastes, for music, for being outdoors, for thinking, and for living our lives with the volume turned up high.

Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bon Voyage (or, Getting to “Bah, Oui”)

Today's post is the final one of five inspired by the five for ten challenge. If you like this one, inspired by the word Yes, read more at

The sun comes up and I wake up without an alarm clock. I open my eyes once more in this remarkable house. It’s not mine, but I am so at home here, so at peace. During the day, we four are à table together three times, with learning, writing, walking, talking, and looking at the flowers in between. Late in the evening, the sun sets, now off in the northwest rather than straight on from the windows. The garden gets quiet, and the white roses that have spent the day blooming are luminescent in the dusk.

Another day gone, another day truly lived. For this moment, I have everything I need, and I'm trying very hard not to count how many more of these days I have left.

A few years ago I decided to try to adopt this motto for my life: want what you have. I coined this little phrase as I was writing a toast for my father's 70th birthday party, trying to distill the essence of this wise and remarkable man. Dad never said this phrase to me in so many words, but rather enacted it on a daily basis.

During the times in my life since then when I have been able to follow this example, I have been happy. But as with any goal, sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I fail. "What Would David Do?" Bill often asks me when I'm making myself nuts with worry. He's reminding me to model myself on my dad's steady positive nature and to want what's right in front of my face. But like any normal, non-David-like human being, I can't always do it. Often I find myself consumed with desire, sometimes bordering on lust, for something distinctly impossible, something I not only do not have now, but could not have ever. Now and again this drives me forward to the next big thing, but mostly it just drives me crazy.

Like about a month ago, when we decided to leave here somewhat earlier than we had planned. I was full of distress and regret (or as full of regret as one can be when one is also full of baguettes and nice cheeses) because I hadn't mastered much French, because Abigail was so stubbornly resisting anything French that was not a meat product, and because the girls hadn't really made friends.

We were frustrated that our girls still hadn't gotten comfortable enough to just walk into our little town, to take themselves outside to play, or to strike up a conversation in a park with a new kid. Part of me felt that we had failed -- failed them and ourselves. And we were tired of cheering them onward to a place they didn't want to go.

So we rebooked our tickets, skipping the big culminating tour de France we had planned, and decided that when our time in Aups was Up, we'd call it a day. We told Abigail that we were going to stop asking her speak French at home. The forced march aspects of the adventure would be over and done, and we would send ourselves packing. Bon Voyage.

It was a regretful, deflated little yes. Feeling defeated and not a little loserish, we said yes to our tired, cranky children (rather than the No we use more frequently and reflexively.) It wasn't a particularly loving yes. It was not a particularly patient yes, but it did the trick.

Everybody relaxed.

Without some faraway finish line to cross (we will all speak perfect French, we will all love France all the time, we will all embrace this place and one another in joyful kum-ba-ya harmony) our sense of being on an impossible mission evaporated. Or, to put it in a more positive, David-like way, we realized that our mission had already been accomplished.

And suddenly, in this last month here, a whole bunch of tiny victories started to unfold.

One day the sun came out on a Wednesday Market Day, and some of the little girls in the town rounded up our kids and convinced them to go play. The girls had asked before, but our kids had always been too shy. But this time, much to our surprise, they both said yes. Bill and I sat at one of the little tables and drank our breakfast beers with Dermot and Anna-Maria, and the girls went off with some kids to play. It was lovely. We had friends. They had friends. They were off on their own in the market square on a sunny midweek morning. Family victory number one.

One day Grace came to me and asked me, quite out of the blue, how she might get Abigail to respect her. She had real concern on her face, and actually listened to my answer, which was that she might first try to actually like her sister. We talked about it awhile, and she seemed to understand that there were things that she could do herself to improve their relationship, rather than waiting for her little sister to magically be less annoying.

The biggest fight between the girls is always about who gets to talk, when. Grace has a hard time waiting for Abigail to finish a thought, and Abigail has a hard time getting her words out fast enough to finish her sentences and her stories. When Grace asked me what specific things she could try, I suggested that she work on trying to be patient with her sister while the words form in her sweet little brain. And then suddenly, after eight and a half years of unabated poisonous sibling rivalry, Grace is taking actual steps to listen to her sister and show her a little love. She's saying yes. Family victory number two.

And in response? Well, a few nights ago Abigail told a long and involved story. For once, nobody interrupted. The story got longer and more detailed, and then slowly drew to an end. She finished up, looked right at Grace, and said, "Would you like to speak now? I'd like to hear what you have to say." Abigail finally had gotten her thought out completely, then politely asked whether her big sister would like to contribute. We all stared at one another in astonishment and surprise: one of us had actually finished a complete thought, then ceded the floor voluntarily. Family victory number three.

And then, one day (with fewer than ten school days to go) Abigail just woke herself up in the morning, put on her backpack without any fuss at all, and skipped all the way to school. That afternoon, she came home from school, made her own snack, and immediately sat down at the kitchen table to do her own homework. The homework consisted of conjugating partir and danser in the future, and multiplying big numbers by little numbers, so it wasn't baby stuff like coloring in a worksheet. And when Bill came into the kitchen to ask her a question, she answered, without any effort at all, "Bah, Oui, Papa." She didn't even hear herself speaking a foreign language as she said yes.

Once she was relieved of the fear of losing America, once she was certain we'd be going home, she let the words that had piled up inside of her come spilling out. I'd say that this was family victory number four, but this one was all hers.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Bah, Oui, Papa. When you decide to want what you have, the messages you hear from all around sound a whole lot more like yes.

(Happy Birthday, Dad -- I know that you already know how much I love you, how much we loved having you and Mom here in France with us, and how much your support of this bon voyage has meant to all of us.)

Monday, May 17, 2010


Sometimes the sky itself is full of desire.

But sometimes, lust is a little less lofty. This post is in response to day four of's series, Five for Ten. I want to give massive thanks to the women behind Five for Ten, as I've found the thematic inspiration and conversation inspiring. But they didn't make it easy. While the first three 5-for-10 topics were Courage, Happiness and Memory, for the fourth, they've suggested that participants write about Lust.

I wrote this one, I put it up, then I took it back down. Now it's back. (But really, Mom, this racy post is here only because all the other kids are doing it. I swear.)

France is great, don't get me wrong. We love the food, we love the scenery. We love the time we have had together as a family, and boy do we love all the new meats (read all the way to the end for a full list of the ones we have tried. Just FYI: we have only eight days to go, and still nobody has consumed any horses.)

But even a place as terrific as this one has its downsides.

One particularly enormous drawback of this year away is that I'm getting hardly any flirt love here. Aside from one guy, who seems to flirt with everyone, I'm getting nothing. Nada. I know I'm 40, sure, but I don't think that means that I'm dead. Back in NYC, 40 is like the new 25 or something, which means I'm only a few years out of college, even without the aid of Botox. I have it on very good authority that a head or two still turns my way when I'm on my game. Just not, apparently, here in France.

Bill, however, is on fire. He gets flirted with at dinner parties, while walking Abigail to school, or even at the grocery store when the clerk gives him his change. The woman standing at the cash register tends to hold his hand in her two, just for an extra moment or so, and say, "Merci, Monsieur" in her most suggestive tones. (I know this because he likes telling this story. When I'm standing in line next to him, she is perfectly discreet.)

His favorite vineyard is the one with the beautiful and attentive caveiste, a snazzy dresser who apparently was put on this planet to stand in a damp underground space and pour glass after glass for her male patrons. She gazes lovingly into each man's eyes and compliments his excellent taste in reds and rosé. (I know this because he's taken all of our male visitors there, and they invariably come back with a half-dozen bottles of wine and a dreamy expression on their faces, a look that can't entirely be attributed to the effects of their degustations.)

I can joke about this (and I'm quite sure I'm joking, really I am) because Bill is just not the flirty type. Back in Brooklyn, a borough chock full of male hotties from all over the world – at least some of them heterosexual— he barely earns a glance or two a day. He certainly doesn't invite female attention particularly aggressively, but here in France he has to fight them off with a stick.

As for me, I might as well be wearing a fanny pack, a brown paper bag, or a nun's habit. It doesn't matter whether I wear the jeans and high heeled boots, or sport a little extra lipgloss. Now and then some old guy with his sweater tucked into his pants might smile my way in an avuncular way, but the rest of the time it's as though I don't exist. Not at 25, not at 40.

Apparently, I'm not even qualified to be a cougar.

One (large) part of me would like to have some sort of horrible freak out about the sharp waning in my formerly powerful charisma where men are concerned. It's not like I'm going to use it for anything in particular; it's just that I'd like it not to be gone.

So instead, I've attributed this sharp decline in the strength of my man-magnetism to cultural differences. I've chosen to deal with this by theorizing that the mechanisms of attraction work differently here from what we're used to back home.

I've decided to believe that lust -- just like everything else -- is culturally determined.

So how are things different here? To make one massive overgeneralization, the women are drastically more attractive than are the men.

This is of course a matter of taste, and you are free to disagree with me as strenuously as you'd like. See Big Little Wolf on French Men for a terrific counterpoint. But when we first got here, Bill and I would often see a French couple walking together, and then quietly sing to one another a few lines of the Joe Jackson classic, "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" Now, we're just used to it. No offense, French guys: from where I sit, you're just not all that in the way the ladies tend to be. I have felt my jaw drop upon seeing a French guy precisely three times all year long. Probably only one of them was straight, and two of them were in Paris.

You would think that this disparity between French and American men would mean that I would get more attention, rather than less. That the not-so-hot men would be grateful to encounter a friendly blonde like myself. But mostly it means that the attractiveness ratio between Bill and me has been redrawn. Bill is just a whole lot more attractive, relatively, than he was back home in the States, which throws things off between the two of us.

Plus, in contrast, French women are generally relatively pretty. They don’t tend to go all droopy and soft in the middle, or turn all skeletally work-out-obsessed, but instead hold onto their tidy little shapes.

Then, they really extend whatever they've got by tarting it up. They don't wear exercise pants in public. They don't slouch around in sweatshirts or wear anything functional like backpacks, hiking boots, or warm wool hats. I’m quite certain that French women are issued a set of beautiful flimsy silk scarves by the national government, and never leave the house without one knotted smartly around their necks. (The scarf phenomenon is also true for Parisian men, but not of the men out here in the countryside.)

French women work the makeup and tight pants pretty hard, and they have really terrific hair. Beauty products are serious business here, sold in medicinal-looking packages by fully-qualified pharmacists, rather than stacked offhand in bins in a grocery aisle. Women either have either a bold cascade of hair in a messy-sexy “I just copulated” sort of updo, or a super-chic short crop that says, "I am the gamine of your Breathless dreams." They often wear a leather jacket and boots, plus a long, tight sweater, (a "butt-hugger" as Bill calls it.) Very infrequently they will choose an unfortunate oversized blouse and some strange I-dream-of-genie pants with an oddly distended crotch. But usually it's tarty-sexy all the way.

There is simply no way that I could ever keep up.

So there’s the shift in the attractiveness ratio. But also, if our limited frame of reference is any sign, the women tend to do the flirting, rather than the men, or rather than the mutual way we're used to back home. French women appear to initiate most of the bisous, their eyes do the lingering, and they stoke the little fires that lead to minor social dramas.

The men seem to hang back -- cool and detached and barely breathing. Perhaps they are just used to being wooed, or desired, or getting to date women drastically more attractive than themselves. 'Cause if my eyes don't deceive me, there's something going wrong around here.

Of course, the more likely interpretation is not so much that this world is weird, but that we – the newcomers and outsiders – just have no idea how to read the cultural signals. Perhaps here in France, female coquettishness is simply required. Perhaps it means much less than it does back home. Perhaps, like bisous, all these women apparently flirting with my husband mean nothing more than, “Hey, nice to see ya!” Perhaps that caveiste is just getting a really hefty commission on all the wine she sells. Perhaps I'm getting so little interest because I'm just not feeling the lust, myself (except for that terrific American man who lives in my house.)

Because it’s almost too disturbing to interpret French flirting (or lack thereof) at face value. That would mean that things here operated by a particularly louche and unfamiliar set of rules. That this world was not just weird, but actually threatening in some way. That maybe I should leave not just in eight days, but now, on the next plane out once the volcanic ash clears.

To understand what's really going on, in my real life and in France, I often turn to books. Edith Wharton is one of the American women I have used as a guide to France, despite the fact that she's been dead for decades. Wharton had a whole series of fascinating things to say about France (including the caution that one should not write off-the-cuff massively generalizing armchair anthropology, as I am doing in this post.) But it seems she traveled to Paris mostly to have the first sexually satisfying relationship of her entire life. Her hot stuff was with an American businessman, not with a French guy, but they seemed to use perceived French morality as a convenient excuse.

In her book, French Ways and Their Meaning,” she tells her American readership that French marriages are made for stabilizing families, rather than for love. According to Edith, French husbands and wives simply assume that they will find their life-sustaining passions in affairs, rather than in one another. When I first read this, I assumed that she was looking to explain away her own shady behavior. But then, all those cute scarves and longing looks and messy up-dos got me wondering whether she was more right than I first wanted to admit.

Some aspects of France we’ve taken in as fully as we can: the visual beauty, the remarkable smells, sights and sounds. And certainly the food. As of today, we’ve eaten a veritable ABC's of animal products: andouiette, beef, canard, donkey, eggs, frogs, goat, huitres, lamb, oeufs, pork, quail eggs, rabbit, snails, tête de veau, veal, wild boar, and at least forty different kinds of cheese. If this post were about gluttony rather than lust, I’d have tales to tell that would make you blush.

But other parts of the French experience might just have to go unexplored, certain lines clearly drawn. Bill can soak up the attention he's getting, and I'll just assume that in some other country, I'm still all that. But, like steaks made of horse meat, lust à la français is one mystery I think we’re both pretty happy not to plumb any deeper than the very surface.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Poppies and Memory, Another View

Back home, in the Walmart Parking Lot, or out in front of the VFW Hall, Veterans sell little paper poppies to help us remember. Here, real poppies are growing wild everywhere we look.

On our drives through Provence, we have seen a war memorial in every single tiny town. The roadsides are dotted in these little nowhere-places with memorials to the Maquisard Resistance, decorated with French Flags and plastic flowers. Bronze plaques list the names of the men from that place who died fighting or resisting the two world wars fought here not all that long ago.

American soldiers killed in those same wars are buried in tidy lines in enormous cemeteries all over Europe.

Nearly nine-hundred American soldiers killed in August, 1944, are buried at the Rhone Valley American Cemetery. They died in Operation Dragoon, a sort of Provençal D-Day, and were buried just outside of Draguignan, a few miles from here.

They landed here on the southern coast of France instead of the coast of Italy, the beaches of Normandy, or the fields of Flanders.

We're headed home in a few weeks, but they will always be here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bon Temps de Vieux, or The Good Old Days

I tell myself that I won't forget this. And this, and this, and then, oh, also this. I won't forget the way Abigail's hair smells when she crushes in for a hug. I won't forget the shine of Grace's face as she was driving the boat, fishtailing back and forth through the Gorge de Verdun.

I won't forget the way that millions of wild poppies have just started to bloom all along the roadsides, on top of stone walls, and interspersed with the grasses of the fields. They grow at random, apparently unplanted, so astonishing in their color and in the fragility of their papery petals.

By writing a moment, or taking its photograph then posting it here, I somehow reassure myself that I have preserved it for some imaginary someday. For some Launa yet to be, somewhere else. So aware of the fact that we are leaving, Bill and I have been sorting through our belongings and scraps of paper, looking for what to save and what to cull. Which old ticket, or to-do list, or tiny shell from the beach will help us to remember how we have lived here, what we did, how we felt?

What could possibly remind us just how sweet the air smells?

I won't hang on to everything, of course, because those who live too powerfully in memory can't truly live in the present. If everything becomes a souvenir the moment we experience it, we merely curate our lives, rather than living them.

And, more importantly, the biggest memories, the ones that endure, are rarely the ones we stow away so consciously. Who knows, from day to day, which chance encounter or bold move will grow into our defining legend, shaping all the living we have yet to do?

As Bill and I have been packing, we also have been absorbed in the mystery of what our girls will remember from this deeply different year we've lived together. What will they tell their friends about this experience -- so separate and so distinct from their tiny pasts and their vast futures? What smells will they remember? What tastes will they crave? What will become their Proustian madeliene and bring their France spilling back?

We parents are in the Memory Business, but we have no idea which ones will stick. We provide the stage for our children's experiences, we tell them their own stories, and then have to spend the rest of our lives living down our inevitable mistakes. But although we live in the same houses, share the same days with one another, our children's memories are only their own, vastly more unpredictable than the ones we stash away for ourselves.

To totally oversimplify their reactions, I can say that Grace has loved this year, and Abigail has resisted it every step of the way, even as its challenges and sensations have seeped in to become a part of her. (Now, when she plays with her American Girl dolls, she is likely to be speaking to them entirely in French, as long as she thinks we're not listening.)

When I asked them today at breakfast what they would remember from the year, that was pretty much how they called it. "This is the year I became amazing," Grace told me. "This is the year to which I will never return," countered Abigail. But I'm not so sure that those are the stories that will endure.

I say this because memory is tricky. For example, Grace and I totally hated Disneyworld when we went there a year and a half ago. There were meltdowns, and we both got totally overwhelmed by the crowds. Abigail, who thrived on all that (godawful) sensory stimulation, still slowly fell into a horrible mood over the course of our few days there. She greedily took it all in, but by the end of it, she was so down and numb that she wasn't even sure whether she was hungry or full.

But then, just a few months later, they were both maintaining, to our shock and surprise, that it was the best vacation of their lives. They narrate stories about the fireworks and the Flume Ride and even the expensive, nearly inedible chicken dinner at our hotel as though they had visited Valhalla itself, wearing mouse ears instead of Viking Helmets, little warriors armed with a deathless supply of Fast Passes.

Even as I am here, partly still living our adventure, partly packing it away in its boxes, and into this blog, I am also realizing that we are here, in large part, because of at least two generations of family memories. We dreamed up this trip in part to echo trips taken years and years ago, trips I can only remember through other people's stories.

As we drive up and down the A8, I think of my Dad, in a VW beetle, on his legendary post-college trip fifty years ago with three (yes, three!) girls. I think of Uncle Kim and Aunt Maria, Experimenters in International Living, who met fifty junes ago on a ship bound for Europe, and then told one another that if they were meant to be, they would meet on September 3 under the Arc de Triomphe. They later lived in France with their young children for two and a half years that became the stuff of family legend.

Bill's parents lived overseas as well, and he started telling me about his memories of his own family's overseas sabbatical almost as soon as we met. In fact, one of the reasons I fell so deeply in love with him was the way he loved to tell me stories about his happiest of childhoods. Back in college, we would lie together on the (filthy) futon in his dorm room and he would unspool his life for me, story by story. I heard all about Vermont, and his sister and his cousins. About his parents, his Grandma Mil, and Inky the dog. But a lot of the time I heard about his family's year in England when he was in the second grade.

You could say that our entire family was born out of those early hours of storytelling. When he told me those stories, I felt safe and warm and loved. I heard the echo of my own happy childhood. Those stories convinced me that Bill was a man with whom I could build a life.

Years later, when we decided to get married, I promised him that someday we would get a dog, and that we would take our kids to live overseas. It was a decade before we made good on those promises, but the dog we found looks a lot like Inky, and the trip we planned was built on the model of the stories he remembered. This is the kind of adventure I would never dream up all on my own; it has had Bill scrawled all over it from the start.

But now I'm the one who has written it down. And the girls are the ones who have lived it, and will decide -- either consciously or by chance -- what to make of it all.

Now at the end of this year of being so deeply enmeshed within this little family of mine, I realize our memories are interwoven. I have my own distinct universe of memory, for sure, but now so many of the memories that shape my life in the present are shared.

Some memories are all our own. We keep them deep inside, all to ourselves. They form the deepest core of who we are; each individual's web of memories is no more and no less than her soul.

But other memories travel along the lines of generations -- through parents to children, then on to the children who may become parents themselves. It's just that we can never truly predict the paths that those memories will take, as they snake themselves forward in time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A few things that won't fit in our bags and boxes

I spent yesterday packing ten boxes to mail home. I packed the books we couldn't bear to part with, along with Bill's headlamp, Grace's craft supplies, and all six of Abigail's American Girl dolls. None of it is worth the money we paid to la Poste to mail it home for us, but it's all stuff we would rather not live without.

But some things won't fit in our bags and boxes to go home. So I took the camera around the house to make a record of the things I don't want to forget:

The enormous earthen pots of herbs growing just outside the front door,

The key to Diesel Liesel, best damn car on the planet: my trusty companion, navigator, and fellow traveler for eight happy months,

The t-shirt Abigail wore nonstop, even when it wasn't such a perfect day,

The small ceramic platter with the scary warning, on which she kept her barrettes,

The enormous housekey,

The big stacks of cookbooks and serving bowls (Ripailles, published en français, is coming home in one of the ten boxes.)

The oils, salts and spices sitting on a piece of marble next to the stove where I learned to cook,

Wildflowers bunched in Bill's hand, (we are taking the hand back with us),

Just a few of the books I read during the cold months of winter,

And the little piles of fresh herbs Abigail is always leaving around the house.