Wednesday, July 28, 2010
While I was gone, I missed each one of my friendships so very, very much. I had the interweb, of course, and even that magic free phone line from the Bastide, and we slowly got to know our lovely multinational gaggle of new friends. "Make new friends, but keep the old," we all sang back in Girl Scouts. "One is silver and the other's gold." But the further I tipped towards feeling connected there, the harder it felt for me to cross the ocean of absence and feel close to my golden girls. My everyday stories felt too flip, the good stuff was already in the blog, and the bigger, harder topics sometimes felt too hard to broach. It wasn't just the fact that Skype kept freezing that made it hard to connect. It was also that I was changing, and so were they, and the old patterns needed to be revised.
As I discovered on my five-state tour of sleepovers these last few weeks, there is nothing like 24-hour contact to bring you back in sync with somebody you have seriously missed. Spending an hour or so over morning coffee, with my face all smushy and hair unwashed, seems way more intimate than getting together for dinner. I've borrowed my friends' showers, their towels, their shampoo, drunk their beer and luxuriated in their A/C on sweltering nights. I've been invited into their inner sanctums, the places where they are most themselves, and where they have let me do the same. I've seen their housekeeping way up close, checking out their choices in tile and carpet and sheets. I swear, I'm not just being nosy. Renovation is always on my mind these days, and I sort of can't think about anything else.
(That Sleepover Hussy, I'm sure you're thinking, bragging about how many invites she has scored herself. So when is she gonna just show up at my house and use my good shampoo without asking?)
The sleepover level of intense intimacy in friendships among adults can feel the tiniest bit complicated. As much as I love each one of these women -- truly, madly, deeply, differently -- it's a little weird to just insert myself so fully into their domestic spaces. Sometimes I worry (as I am wont to do) that I'm overstepping, oversharing, or being boring by repeating random details from the New York Times or retelling some France story I've already beat to death. I want to talk about what is most important without stepping on any of the sore points that might sting. I don't want to wake up too early or sleep too late or make noise at bad times. I want to read for at least an hour every day (I go nuts if I don't) but not be too anti-social. I want to play with their kids or their pets or their stuff without throwing off the routine. I want to give my friends their space and still greedily gobble up their presence. I don't want to stay too long. I don't want to leave.
Presumably there is a reason that grownups with their own homes don't generally go on quite as many sleepovers as I have these past few weeks. We need our private spaces, even in the context of our closest friendships, and the best and most lasting friendships of our adult lives have at least a few good fences we respect by keeping in good repair.
But mostly all these days and nights with my friends have been reminding me, yet again, that I am seriously, seriously blessed in the friendship department. I've spent all this time away, and they welcome me back. I've spent all those years being overworked and under-attentive, yet these people I love still love me back. Enough to make me strong coffee with milk in the morning before I have brushed my teeth. Enough to give me a set of spare keys and tell me I can come back whenever I want. Enough to let me see how beautiful the simplest things of life can be when you really look closely, far too late in the evening, and in the brightest early morning light.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Now that Bill is back to himself, all is right in our house. He's back to playing bass riffs on his bass guitar, and creating elaborate plans for New Hampshire adventures, and finding pleasure in runs and swimming and the taste of food. But for awhile there, things weren't so simple. Bill was in crisis, in mourning, in a sort of eddy of culture shock that took him weeks to escape.
At the time, it was too raw to write about. It's not exactly the kind of thing you want to write to the world: my formerly dear husband is miserable and behaving like a Eurobrat. I pretty much clammed up myself back in January when the miserable one was me. When it comes to writing, the past tense makes it easier -- "he was in a phase," rather than "he is in a state." He was in a state -- New Hampshire, the one he loves more than any other -- but it wasn't helping. He missed those other hills and valleys of home.
When somebody's in a bad mood, they're always casting around for reasons why. If that somebody is me, I tend to try to pin the mood on just about anything other than the actual cause of my distress. For example, maybe the weather is making me miserable, and I blame it on the Bush administration. Most days I choose the things and people closest to hand to blame, just one of the lovely qualities that make me such a wonderful wife and mother. Only rarely, and in retrospect, can I figure out what was causing all that chafing.
After we got back, Bill kept trying to find the pebble in his shoe. For awhile it was me, and then it was the impending threat of returning to employment after all the months of happy sloth. But soon enough, we hit on the real culprit: Var Withdrawl. He couldn't really be happy here in this world while he was missing that other one.
Var Withdrawl looked at first like plain old snobbery: France was Great. America was Gross. Like the night we went to get soft ice cream cones. You would think that a trip to the Dairy Twirl would remind one of everything wonderful about America. This one has adorable high-school girls scooping ice-cream, including a flavor called Moose Tracks, and two different colors of sprinkles for the cones. We've always loved this place, so familiar and wholesome.
We parked, then ordered up "smalls," smug in the way we have downsized our appetites over the course of the year. Still, the cones were three times the size of any of the cones we were served Over There.
The cones were mushy-delicious, soft-serve, but all of the sudden it felt all wrong. First, we were eating standing up, in an enormous lake of asphalt parking lot. Second, the people around us seemed very strange. One couple was eating while standing right next to their enormous Sport Utility Vehicle. The car was on, with the radio booming. They were wearing something like pajamas or athletic clothing, although from the bulgy girth of their bodies it was clear they did not actually own these togs for the purpose of anything like exercise.
But what really got Bill's goat about this pair? Well, they appeared to be sharing their enormous buckets of ice cream (no "small" sizes for this couple) with their dog, a Great Dane. They would take a huge bite, then hold it up to the back window so that Marmaduke could stick his head out of the A/C and take a lick of his own.
I just sort of chuckled at the scene of gross over-consumption, but I thought Bill was going to melt down into a puddle of chocolate goo.
This was not an isolated incident. The next day, he walked into town and came back raving. "It was three in the afternoon, yet the town was full of all these people walking around sucking on things. Coolattas, donuts, bagels, hotdogs. Every single person there looked like a giant hungry baby, their maws full of nipple-topped bottles. Why can't Americans grow up and eat like normal people? French people? At a table. At mealtimes. Without their dogs???"
For a few weeks, all his pro-Var, anti-American screeds were getting on my nerves. Or, more accurately, his nerves were getting on my nerves. Everything was bad, and therefore we were somehow bad, for being happy here. I might have felt lost in the supermarket. He was lost just about everywhere, a stranger in his own home.
But like I said, up above, things are better now. The world has righted itself, and Bill is back to his multi-national affection for this big old goofy weird world. In honor of his return to "normal," I thought I would interview him and ask him to tell us all about what he misses most.
Launa: So, you miss the food.
Bill: Yes. No. It's more than that. I really mostly miss sitting down at meals for more than twenty minutes. It's very difficult to get this to happen. I've tried this on several occasions, by cooking big delicious meals for people, and it seems that inevitably they have already had a hefty snack on their way over. Or they want to lay on the sofa while they eat. Or sit in a car. Even at restaurants: they're already setting the table for the next people while you're still digesting what you ordered.
At my family's famous Family fourth of July, all I wanted to do was have everybody sit down at a long table and have a nice long eating and drinking session. Instead, I was American Bill, and led multiple games of capture the flag, softball, croquet, tag, swimming. I love both places, but I didn't like being torn. I also just wanted the kids to go off on their own, like they do in France.
Launa: Well, not all Americans "get" to spend as much time with their kids as we have with ours. When you're back to work, you won't necessarily want them to go away.
Bill: I know. That will change. Probably. But remember those French parents, who only got involved if a child was bleeding? That seemed so sane.
I also really really miss all of the personal interactions when buying things: I particularly miss my Lady at the Vineyard. That long, cool, lovely earthy woman who would sell me that incredible red wine. I don't remember her name, but her whole persona is entangled with the taste of Domaine de St. Jean de Villecroze Reserve 2007. I miss Chateau Beatrice, too -- that range of red wine that is cheap, but good. Not fancy.
The farmer's market was a huge bummer here. My mother was being really nice, and took me to the Farmer's Market in town so we could pretend to be at the Marché, but the Farmer's Market there seemed to be missing food. There was lots of little jars of canned stuff, but I missed the Artisan Rotisserie. And the dinde, (turkey.) Remember the lunch we would have? Dinde, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits. Goat cheese. Beaufort? Herbs?
Launa: Yes, sweetheart. I remember. I just had it a few weeks ago. With some rosé.
Bill: Speaking of rosé, what happened to drinking in the middle of the day? I miss that too.
Launa: I know. You hate it that Americans dress like babies and suck on bottles, but you really want your nap.
Bill: Here, in America, there seem to be no naps for anybody over the age of 2. This makes people crankier than they should be, and pretty much kills the concept of a carafe of wine at lunch. We used to have a nice two-hour lunch in the middle of the day, have a few glasses of wine, and then go to sleep.
Everybody in the world feels tired then, but only the French people do the logical thing and just lie down. Even when we are by ourselves out here all day, and still unemployed, we can't seem to do that. We don't eat the long lunch and go to sleep.
And that's because we have to be Americans here.
Launa: I know, sweetie. It's true. We're Americans. It says so in our passports.
Bill: I even really miss the hiking there. It's just different. I miss the fit between the manmade stuff and the nature: there is a different fit between people and the environment there. Not necessarily better, but a Tetris like connection. Like, when there should be a tower on a hill in the Var, somebody has had the sense to build one. The Tower is exactly where it should be put. And the things are made of the materials from the place. All the colors are very similar.
I miss looking at Moissac, because it fits perfectly into the hillside that it is on.
I miss all the fresh water everywhere. Drinking fountains. Lavoirs. The Var is blessed with an abundance of delicious fresh water, free in the center of every town.
Launa: But do you miss the open sewers? Even in fancy towns, like Arles? That was so gross.
Bill: (pausing, longer than you might imagine, to think.) No, strangely. I do miss the other smells. It doesn't smell here, unless they are cutting the grass.
I even miss the town planning. When I go to a town, I'd like there to be a parking lot and a nice bathroom and cold spring water right there. Put the car away, go to the bathroom, get a drink. And you can do this on both ends of the town.
Why do we have fountains here you can't actually drink from?
I sort of in an odd way miss the spooky stuff from the Var, too. I got into the habit of sneaking up on the stray cats and trying to scare them on my way home. I miss the guy with the accordion with the cat leashed to his neck.
There were definitely more bizarre characters there. The Puppet Lady. The jolly vegetable man and his wife. The beautiful earthy lady who ran the agricultural coop, her husband David, and their daughter Alice.
People had that great habit of stooping down, pulling up, and eating things right out of the ground - asparagus, raspberries, rocket, dandelion greens, chestnuts, wild onions, wild garlic, rosemary, thyme. Or Gerard's truffles.
At this point in the interview, I was called away by some child or another, probably to fetch yet another snack, which was definitely not made of truffles. I thought perhaps we would resume the interview later, but Bill grabbed the computer and started typing his own memories, in the form of a free-associative list. And here I do apologize. If you haven't been there, this isn't going to make a whole lot of sense. If you have, just take a nice deep draw of this bong-hit of Bill-style Provençal memories:
I miss: (Bill wrote)
The Music. Our trips to L'Endroit. Dancing with Cyril, the only Rastafarian for miles. My funk-a-delic bass teacher Janique. My rock/folk band with the Communist Town Mayor on lead guitar.
Paris. And just about everything associated with it.
The Animals. Hundreds of stray cats. The white Pyrenee Alpha-sheepherding dog. Also the smart little black and white sheepherding dogs. Come to think of it, I even miss the French-dog-naughty-I-am-escaping-fast-trot they do when they know they have been bad.
French tempests in a teapot: Should we cancel bisous to fight H1N1? Should we outlaw smoking entirely? What is the proper way to make pastis? Where should we go in Morocco? What's the best way to cook duck?
The Towns. The Offices de Tourisme. The old guys with the blue high-visibility Capri pants who sit in front of the church. All the medieval stone buildings. The plane trees that look like old women's hands reaching out of the grave. The recurring fete with different names: tastings of specialities of the regions, traditional dancing, wine, endless hanging out, important elders milling about.
All those Places. Lac St. Croix. Grand Bessillon and Petit Bessillon. The historical monuments dotted all around the Var, mostly to the dead teenagers in 1919, or the Maquisard Resistance fighters of WWII. Caves and troglodyte dwellings. Scary religious shrines tucked away everywhere. Variations in geography - the Mountains, the Med, the Camargue, the Luberon, the Massif Centrale, Les Gorges du Verdon all within reach of Aups. Les Cretes. The small windy Var roads with death ditches on either side. Why are our roads so fat and straight with giant shoulders? Are we stupid? Can't we drive? Do we think we are going to live forever anyway?
The ruined fort/chapel up the hill from Bastide de la Loge. The Bastide and everything in it and about it. I loved living inside all that Collins family history and the incredible collection and taste of Liz and Jessica.
The Food. Again, and of course. Fresh eggs, rabbit, goose from Gerard and Jessica. The consistently delicious mid-level brasserie meal to be found everywhere. Salade de Berger. CHEESE. The crazy hippie farm with the dead animal sculptures. Or Aperitifs, like kir, super strong homemade fruit and berry liqueurs - we don't seem to have these.
Our friends. Weekend days at Jess and Gerard or Laurent and Mathilde. Those endless hours laughing and talking with Anna-Maria and Dermot and Lajla and Paula at the Marché. All the children.
And, almost with every breath, I miss the incredible air.
And, with that, Bill put down the computer, somehow cleansed. Since writing that list, about a week ago, he's been even more himself. He's still a little testy now and then when people won't sit down to a real meal, but he's started to love this home just as well as his memories of the old one.
Perhaps it just took awhile to get it out of his system, and writing it all down felt a little like detox. For Bill, there was definitely an addictive edge to all those long draws of Provençal memories: smelling the rosemary, the thyme, the air. Eating olives, going out and looking at the sunset. Drinking a beer or three with Dermot. Hanging out at Jess and Gerard's house eating goat face. And flirting with the lady selling peaches.
I'm missing France, too, but mostly I'm glad to have my husband back all to myself. Perhaps world travelers get used to this feeling -- of being comfortable everywhere, and yet a stranger at the same time. Bill's theory is that our brains, deep down, just aren't able to adapt to the pace of modern travel. The lizard brain buried deep inside all that cortex takes days, or weeks, or months to fully absorb the subtle changes in light and heat and landscape. Until that happens, until the deepest structures of ourselves catch up with the pace of change, we remain strangers. Even to ourselves.
So now that we've got that out of the way, who's up for a visit to Dairy Twirl?
Saturday, July 17, 2010
As we drove to Brooklyn on Tuesday, I illegally sent a text from my phone to Abigail's best school friend's mom. We were coming into town for a few days, and could Abigail and Viveca spend the day together?
Viveca's mom is pretty much the portrait of mommy cool, so I didn't worry too much about the last minute notice. And Viveca is pretty much the coolest friend an eight year old could imagine, so I hoped she would be free. If only for my sake, because it was time for a long-overdue day of little girl fun.
Abigail hadn't seen Viveca in over six months. Most eight year old kids don't have email, so it's not like they would be able to manage to keep in touch awfully well through mere words. Kids need presence to connect, and Skype doesn't really do it. Abigail had been asking for this, in more or less patient language, for an awfully long time.
I've wracked my brain on this, but I am pretty sure that I have never spent an entire day just enjoying being with Abigail and another kid, with nothing at all else to do. Shocking, I know, and perhaps horrifying for those parents who find ways to make themselves more available to their children. So it was long overdue in this sense as well -- nearly nine years overdue.
Viveca was in fact free, and so were Abigail and I, and so the three of us set off. We went shoe shopping, bought Gatorades, run through the sprinklers in the park, found and re-purposed an abandoned scooter, ate at the local cool pizza place, saw a funky movie, and ultimately finished the day with a swim in the local school pool. They traded silly bandz and opinions on Justin Bieber. We went to the paint store and I let them take as many paint swatches as they wanted while I sought out exactly the perfect shade of peachy yellow for the living room (Benjamin Moore Lighthouse 2018-60, if you're wondering.) They begged me like crazy to let them ride the mechanized horse outside of the candy store and the mechanized alligator outside of the pizza place. And I let them.
In exchange, they laughed at all my jokes and good-naturedly berated me for my bad parenting manners. They made me the happiest mother in America, just for this normal nothing of a day.
Our day together had all the hallmarks of the best parenting moments: it was everything, and it was nothing, all wrapped up into one. The kids knew it was special ("This is the best playdate we've ever had!" VIveca very nicely gushed at one point) but it wasn't so out of the ordinary that they couldn't just be their goofy selves.
I think I'm going to like this next phase of my life. I know there will be awful moments of child rudeness, and crushingly boring moments of not-enough-to-do. I'll have to negotiate the unfamiliar social landscapes of the Parents' Association, the food co-op, the subtle ways in which people greet and ignore one another at pick-up time at school.
But if my day with two excellent nearly-third graders is any sign, being a stay at home mom back in the city that I love is really going to be great. A little like the languor of my year off and away, but with more happening. Better movies. Stores with terrific shoes. More English. It's been a long wait, Abigail -- but you and me, we're almost home.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All / I take a box / And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens...
--Randall Jarrell, "Next Day"
"I'm all lost in the supermarket. I can not longer shop happily."
-- The Clash
I should have known that this day would come. Like the Clash and the nameless speaker of "Next Day," one of my all-time favorite poems about middle-age, I have lost my claim to mindless happy shopping -- the birthright of all Americans. What's worse, I have given it away in exchange for a hunk of cheese, and thus have nobody but myself to blame.
Flash back twelve months. July 2009, Bill and I had recently extracted our family from Brooklyn, where the only grocery options are Bleak, Bleaker, and the Byzantine systems of the Park Slope Food Coop. There are terrific greenmarkets, certainly, and the Fairway over in Red Hook, but those both demand a major commitment of time and planning. For the greenmarket, you can only buy what you can carry on the subway, and they don't sell Cheer, or Joy, or All. And for Fairway, you have to drive, park, negotiate the chaos of other crazed shoppers, shuttle your grocery bags up multiple flights of stairs, and then re-park the damn car somewhere in the neighborhood. Hardly something you can do every day when you just need a few pork chops and some peaches.
So when we got to New Hampshire's Upper Valley, home of the Hanover Food Coop, we thought we had died and gone to homemaker heaven. They had everything you can buy in America, and lots of it. They had little specialty sections, and a bulk food aisle, fancy artisanal dairy products and real beef. Unlike the Key Food on 7th Avenue, the store didn't smell like a long-abandoned port-a-san. And unlike the Park Slope Co-op, you didn't have to sign your life away to join.
And so we spent last summer in happy shopping bliss, grazing the snow peas, the clover honey, the organic soda spritzers, and the freeze-dried edamame pods and the polenta chips that taste like Bugles with a Ph.D.
And then came France. I stumbled there as a shopper, hard. Nothing in the supermarket looked familiar, and nothing came in an extra-large. All the words for things were different, so that it took me forever to find horseradish (raifort) and sour cream (crème fraiche, but only sort of) and toilet bowl cleaner (bleach is, I think, javel, although I left without ever being sure.) Do you miss those early days of this blog as much as I do? Yes? Well then, click here and take a stroll down Aisle Six of memory lane.
As the year unfolded, I learned a whole new way of living, which of course included a whole new way of shopping. Which of course required forgetting my old life and its ways, at least in part. Which leads me back to the disconnect I felt today.
I thought I had readjusted to the U.S. unscathed, but as it turns out, I was only pretending. You see, last weekend I went back to France. I know, it sounds ridiculous, just to jet off to France for four nights (one of them spent crammed into seat 42C on a British Airways 747) but it was terrific. I'm still working on writing about all of the nuances of this little tidbit of France, but the upshot was that I went there for Jessica and Gerard's wedding -- perhaps one of the most joyful celebrations I've ever attended, (aside from your wedding, of course, which was every bit as nice, except without a gypsy band, a circus tent, raspberries in the champagne, and a cheese course.)
I went back to Aups by myself, leaving Bill and the girls back home, and in between the parties and catching up with friends, I spent a lot of time just wandering my old haunts. The road up from the Bastide, where I would pick thyme and rosemary to put in the dinner. The marché, where I would get fresh apricots and asparagus and beets and carrots and dinde: food all the way through the vegetable alphabet. The boulangerie, the spice store, the place that sold only olive oil and wine.
And the Intermarché, which I eventually memorized. I nearly burst into tears when I saw all that rosé and chocolate and cheese. I waved my carte du fidelite and picked up a little wine and candy to take home in my luggage, plus a mushy round of Banon cheese, all runny and wrapped in oak leaves, and then ate the whole thing with a baguette in the courtyard of my hotel.
I had never realized it then, but I think I spent nearly every moment outside of the house that year procuring some particularly delicious sort of food from some specific place. I thought I was going to France, when really I was going grocery shopping.
But then I had to come back. It's nice to be here, and while we're still not back in Brooklyn, it feels a lot more settled to be here with no other major trips planned for the foreseeable future. In fact, it's not just nice. It's deeply, deeply good in a settled and happy way I had hoped it might be. Perhaps this is just because the kids are in camp, and I have some time -- and Bill -- all to myself, but I think this sense of bien-etre, wellbeing, has to do with the sense of being at home.
(Even so, Abigail keeps checking with us on this: "We're going to stay here, right Mommy?" She will even try to guilt us into letting her watch T.V. rather than go swimming, in the middle of a heatwave. "But I don't want to go to the Pond and swim! This family moves around way too much." We took her to France as a sweet little pixie of a seven-year old, and we brought back a master manipulator.)
So we're home, but there remains the business of adjusting back to shopping reality. The Hanover Food Co-op is just as wonderful as it ever was. It's me who has changed.
All the vegetables were stacked up in their usual, hopeful way, but for some reason they all just seemed cold and uninviting, as though none of them had ever seen a real farm. Fruit that could sit in my fridge for a week and move straight from unripe to pointless without ever aquiring flavor. Industrial-strength cucumbers. There was a bounty of choice, (plenty of it in plastic bags) but no straw panniers to put it in. I started to get a little disoriented.
I left, looking for sanctuary in the wine section. I said to Bill, "I'll just go over here to the wines and pick up a rosé."
He warned me in a gentle, coaxing voice, having already tried this, "There won't be any, sweetheart."
"OF COURSE there is rosé, I said," as though saying would make it so, and then set off to find it.
I kept pacing back and forth in front of the ports and shirazes and merlots, certain that if I scanned hard enough, that nice bottle of rosé would float off the shelf and into my waiting arms. It's only about 92 degrees here today, (not a life-threatening 103, like in New York) but is there anything else that anybody else wants to drink when it feels like this?
(Those of you who knew me when must be wondering: what happened to Launa, the Queen of Beer Drinkers? Dear old Launa, whose last name rhymes with Budweiser? Can't she just pull a Stella out of the fridge for old time's sake and just can it with this snobby rosé stuff? Short answer: no. At least not yet.)
I finally saw something pink, but then looked at the label and saw it was just some awful old Zinfandel. I had a nasty run-in with that stuff in the early 1990's, and it will never again cross my lips. I recoiled from the bottle as though from a semi-poisonous snake.
In the wine section I came up short, but in just about any other aisle I could hardly breathe. There were simply way too many options among packaged foods. I know that Americans are known to thrive on super sizing and rampant variety. I used to be that person. And now, when I look at all those different things, it makes my head hurt. All that Cheer. All that Joy. All that All.
All I wanted? A little clarity. A little less process. As Jarrell's poem goes on to say, quoting William James, "Wisdom is learning what to overlook." I would like the edicts of a thousand years of French culture to swoop in and organize the foodstuffs in a particular and specific way, and help me to wisely overlook.
I want fewer options.
I'm all lost.
It's a phase, I tell myself with one soothing, reassuring voice. Corn syrup and I had a vibrant, thriving relationship before, and we can rebuild that again. Jarred salsa is my friend. Olives are not the only fruit.
I'm all lost.
"FOOOOOOD SNOOOOOB!!!" some other awful voice shouts at me from within my own head. "You're full of pommes de terre and foolishness juice! Snap out of it, and pick up some of this nice guacamole for dinner!! Get yourself down to the store and buy some of America's favorite tropical fruit: Guar." (This voice is very bossy.)
I'm all lost.
The sanest, quietest voice tells me this: Get a grip, and make a little spaghetti with red sauce. There is no ill on this earth that can not be addressed with a nice plate of pasta.
I'm back. It's just my tummy that still hasn't quite returned.