Thursday, May 31, 2018

Like riding a bicycle

Thursday seemed as good a time to set aside as any other.  One of the keys to my life right now is making a plan and mechanically sticking to it, even when I don’t know what I’m doing.  Set a date.  Take the first step, and the next will surely be obvious after that.  

Once upon a time I wrote, a lot.  It felt natural, and it felt important.  Even at home with an infant, then even after I went back to work, I found time to write.  Then a second child came along, and the quiet time I had with my own thoughts was harder to find, and then when the time finally came back the words didn’t.  I’d fallen terribly out of practice.

There’s a place along my drive home from work, four traffic lights from the turn into our parking garage, where I often have great ideas.  I estimate that at least twice a week I have a brilliant start for a blog entry, or an essay, or maybe even a short story.  Maybe it’s because there I’m on the crest of a hill over a highway overpass, and when the Paris rain or pollution doesn’t obscure it I can see all the way to the chateau, so I’m caught up in the grandeur or something. I convince myself I have one good paragraph, at least, while sitting behind the wheel of my Citroen waiting for the light to turn green.

When I get home, maybe it’s the task of maneuvering into my parking spot, or the overwhelming noise which greets me when I open the door, or the effort of thinking about making dinner (the thinking being far worse than the doing), and poof! Inspiration and motivation is gone.

Way, way back, in the distant pre-child past, I took a drawing class at the Levallois municipal art school.  It was in a converted warehouse next to the train tracks, and I felt very young, hip, and creative going there with my portfolio under my arm.  At first I felt pretty accomplished, too — I could sketch a decent still life in pastel, my charcoal nude sketches actually looked like human forms, and so on.  But at some point I got hung up on perfection, which I was far from achieving, and comparing myself to the other people in the class, which was far from validating.  So I quit.

Two years ago, on a rainy Spring day, I was trying to keep the children quietly occupied indoors when I got out a set of school-quality watercolors. The kids painted clouds and buildings and trees.  I painted a quick still life of a vase of tulips that happened to be on the kitchen counter and was amazed at how it turned out.  It looked… worthy of going back to. I’d learned the basics of watercolor in high school… and if I tried again?  I bought paper, a nice set of paints and brushes, and eventually enrolled in a weekly class near my house. 

It turned out it was still there, this ability to see things and record them on paper, and by age 40 I’d managed to learn that I didn’t need to be perfect.  In fact, it was doing something imperfectly yet mindfully, repeatedly, which would make me improve. (That’s probably why the other folks in my class all those years ago were so good in the first place, right?). 
It had been there all along.

So I’m hoping writing will be the same way.  

From now on, every Thursday.  

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Quelle mouche l'a piquée

Friday, August 4th

I won’t miss the flies. 

Four or five of them are cruising the living room as I type, landing on my fingers, knees, and the top of my sandalled feet. As Paris empties in July and August, rural flies wait in ambush for urban vacationers with as much as anticipation as the proprietors of seaside souvenir stalls, or so I imagine.
Our family took three weeks of vacation this summer.  The normal duration in France, or precisely enough to make my father in America roll his eyes over FaceTime.  The first week we spent in Ile de Ré, a flat island of salt marshes and sandy beaches halfway down the French Atlantic coast.  There are pine forests and whitewashed villages with hollyhocks lining picturesque lanes, and a healthy population of flies.

I often dream of abandoning our (sub)urban apartment life and moving to the country.  I’d have a stone farmhouse and a vegetable garden, and a patio with a giant table to host the sorts of wine- and food-fuelled joyful gatherings one is supposed to host on a patio in the French countryside in the summer.  There’d be a grapevine winding up a trellis and most likely a small fountain. “But you don’t know what life in the country is like in the winter,” my husband tells me, claiming cold and damp and loneliness.  And anyway, our jobs are in the Paris region, our kids’ beloved school is in our neighborhood, and the logistics of giving it all up to negotiate a full-time work-from-home contract with a slowish internet connection make me readily accept reality.

It isn’t Ile de Ré I dream of anyway — good thing, too, since the house prices are enough to make even my imagination seem too dear.  No, I imagine a stone farmhouse in the southwest of France, at the end of a winding road, nestled between meadows and forests of chestnut, beech and fir with a view of rolling hills in every direction.  We spent a week this year in the Tarn and another in the Aveyron, and I got to try on my dream for size.

Complete with flies.  And horse flies, spiders, wasps, hornets, mosquitoes, giant moths, and crickets, to cite merely the critters who made it inside.  My 6-year-old daughter started begging us to accompany her to the bathroom in our vacation rental for fear of the “bêtes” she might encounter.  I’ve been waking up lazily at eight-thirty or nine to chinks of light coming through the shutters and flies landing repeatedly on my shoulders and back.

“Why don’t the French believe in window screens?” I asked my husband.  “After all, other modern technology has made it out here to the country; you’ve got washing machines and iPhones.”  Occasionally butcher shops or bakeries will have a swinging curtain of velvet snakes in front of the door presumably to confound insects, or a humming blue-light insect trap in the back.  But houses never seem to have anything to keep the outside world outside, except flyswatters, which are standard equipment.  In the last rental I failed to find them at first, and sent my husband to the grocery store with instructions to purchase some.  “Two-for-one!” he announced proudly when he came back, but the Made in China plastic started disintegrating after a few swipes.  I’m pretty sure the flies laughed.  Back at the store today, our last full day on vacation, I noticed a different model.  “Made in the Aveyron, in Brusque!” Brusque is the village closest to where we are staying, and despite an gravel quarry, a café, and a grocery store, it hardly seems prosperous enough for such an operation. Did I somehow miss a flyswatter factory amongst the shuttered garages and disaffected furniture workshops?

“…bought one of those, she told me it is merde, starts falling apart as soon as you use it.” I overheard the two guys behind us in the checkout line talking and gesturing toward the Aveyronnais flyswatter display. 

“Yes, but you’ve got to support local businesses, right?”

“When I have my house in the country, I’ll have screens,” I explained to my husband when we were back in the car.  “I’ll make them myself,” I clarified when he sounded doubtful, since a hypothetical improbable country house must be protected from insects in a credible fashion.  “Just like the ones I made back in Levallois,” remembering the ersatz screens made with nylon netting and adhesive velcro that we briefly installed in our old apartment.

“You mean the ones that I made?” He corrected.

“Yes, to my specifications.” 

We both agreed that our current apartment, though lacking a fountain, a patio, a vegetable garden, a sweeping view and a grapevine, at least is remarkably free of mosquitoes.  

“I’m ready to go home,” I had declared earlier, almost believing myself.  We leave tomorrow, so starting tomorrow night I will sleep in my own bed, bathe in my own bathroom, and live once again without quite so many insects. Maybe that’s the true purpose of the flies of July and August: to convince us city-dwellers that heading back isn’t all that bad after all.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

New World/Old World

I can't help but wonder if the timing was off to re-brand themselves les Républicains.  But that's a singularly American way to look at things: beyond the similar spelling and pronunciation, the center-right French party shares little with the party of Lincoln, never mind the party of Trump.  Still, after five years of the hapless presidency of the Socialist François Hollande, they were supposed to easily win the presidential contest in May, but that was before their candidate François Fillon was accused of arranging a fraudulent work contract for his wife while he was a member of the National Assembly.  The practice is apparently not uncommon -- just French politics as usual, I've been told -- but Fillon had presented himself as a common-sense, fiscally and socially conservative candidate who wanted to cut hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs.  His wife, legitimately employed or not, was reportedly paid unemployment at the end of her contract.  Though he vows to continue his campaign, Fillon's polls have plummeted since the news broke, and we're left anxiously wondering who of the remaining candidates might effectively fight the far-right Marine Le Pen.

The mainstream French political landscape used to be binary, the center-left Socialists versus the center-right Gaullists.  The Communists had considerable clout after WWII but never enough to challenge the presidency of the 5th Republic, which was established in 1958.  The then-devised two-round presidential election, in which only the two candidates with the strongest showing continue to the second round, was put in place to keep extreme parties in check. But now French politics appear to be carved into rough quarters, the most solid one belonging to the far right National Front party whose extreme platform would cut immigration and take France out of the Euro Zone.  Mainstream right and left fight to divide the middle fifty percent, and a heterogeneous far left roughly claims the rest.  This is why although Marine Le Pen is the current frontrunner in the election, many doubt her chances of winning: in the second round, it is assumed more will be mobilized to vote against her than for her. 

This schema of fourths was described today on L'Esprit public, a political show on the national radio station France Culture.  I've been listening to France Culture on my commute somewhat obsessively since the American election.  When the news is catastrophic, I find it helps to hear intelligent people describe it calmly even if nothing they have to say is particularly reassuring.  I tuned in in the middle of the day on Sunday and discovered L'Esprit public, which not only took the same sane and measured tone, but managed to sound to me exactly like Meet the Press or the PBS News Hour, shows which were regular background noise in my childhood living room.  Back then, I assumed the world was run by rational adults who would do their best not to destroy it. I was too young to have practiced duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, and the Berlin Wall fell when I was middle school. I fell into an auditory cocoon of comforting nostalgia.

The commentators segued from French politics to the first month of the Trump administration, which was somewhat rattling despite the PBS-like voices.  As the Economist pointed out, much of Trump's talk is nothing new to Europeans.  But the America they suddenly have to engage with is utterly new.  It was noted that the checks and balances in the United States were beginning to function, both formally though the judiciary and popularly in the street.  One commentator rushed to say something close to "maybe it will all be okay" when another interrupted to anxiously wonder about America's new chaotic diplomatic policies. 

I'm trying to stay calm, inform myself enough (but not so much that I'm obsessing) from the right sources, and recognize the limits of my control over this suddenly crazy world.  Two months until the French election and counting.  

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


On an afternoon in early September I decided to park the car in the garage and pick up the kids on foot.  The school is only a ten minute walk from our apartment, but most days I take the easy option of swinging by in my car on my way home which saves me some time and some kid-herding.  But on this particular day the late summer sun was shining and I decided a block or two under the neat rows of linden trees would do me good. Mademoiselle had just started CP, the French equivalent of first grade and thus her first year in primary school.  Le Petit had just started CM1, the equivalent of fourth grade.  I suddenly had two big kids.  If I could make time slow down for a walk home from school, I'd take it.  

Once the car was in the garage, I left the building and started down the sidewalk, walking briskly since I was slightly late, swimming upstream while most of the other folks were heading back home.  I crossed a father and his three kids, neighbors in our building, and said hello.  I greeted another kids and his mother.  I nodded and smiled at another neighbor.  And just before I crossed the street, I saw one of Le Petit's friends, walking home on his own.  

When I got to the school, I realised I'd never before lived anywhere when I could walk down the street and recognise and be recognised by so many people.  Even back in the US, my life was from house to car to office, and the neighbors I knew by name could be counted on one hand. When I lived in the dense suburbs just outside of Paris, I hid in the anonymity of urban life and rarely exchanged more than a brief "Bonjour" with anyone.  Now in Versailles I felt like I belonged, which both startled and pleased me. 

For this I can probably thank Mademoiselle and Le Petit, who seem to know all the kids who go to their elementary school and a good number of their parents, and who fill me in when I'm clueless.  I'm an introvert, and I doubt I would've gotten here on my own.  But I also marvel that I've finally found a village for myself, in the suburbs of a city in another country on the other side of the world.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Five Views of Mount Rainier

When we got off the plane, finally, and through the immigration line (with a child still suffering from motion sickness, which expedited things), and stumbled up the escalator to the Sea-Tac terminal where we picked up our luggage for the second time, my father was waiting with a giant smile and hugs.  The kids were still trying to decide which language to speak; Le Petit was making a good effort with hesitant English, and Mademoiselle was mostly choosing not to speak at all.  We found restrooms, then the car in the parking garage, and headed on the back roads down to Olympia.  I-5 traffic, my dad explained.

We'd followed the sun from Paris to Seattle but it was hot and brilliant and didn't seem to be holding our unnatural pursuit against us. I noted sleepily to myself that the douglas fir encircling backyards and parking lots now looked exotic: you never see a douglas fir in the Paris region and rarely in France.  Maybe in the Morvan in Burgundy or the darker places of the Massif Central, and there they're expats, like me.

Then there was a break in the trees.  Le Petit and my husband saw it first.

"There it is! Look! Mount Rainier."

On some clear days in Seattle, the mountain appears out of nowhere, white glaciers silk-screened on the blue of the sky.  The white isn't anchored to anything, the blue surrounds it entirely, and you have to take it on faith that the mountain is anchored to foothills and to the rest of the Earth.  On other clear days the mountain is missing entirely.  In my family we say "the mountain is out," as if it were the moon or the stars.  I love how that makes it sound celestial, when it is in fact a place you can get in your car and drive to in a few hours.  And if you drive there, to Mount Rainier National Park, you may choose to stop at Sunrise or Paradise: what better place names for a floating peak?  The mountain ducked out of view again, and the kids drifted in and out of sleep; we were soon in Olympia.


My favorite view of Mount Rainier is from I-5, at the long bend the freeway takes after crossing the Nisqually River.  When I was around Mademoiselle's age, my parents already worked in Seattle and Olympia respectively and we spent a lot of time driving between the two cities.  I decided that the Nisqually River was my sister and Mount Rainier my brother, and would announce it every time we crossed the freeway's twin steel trestle bridges.  When I share this anecdote with my children now at my father's insistence, they just stare, and I don't know if they're having doubts about their understanding of the story in English or of their mother's sanity.  And after all, unlike me, they're not only children. Why invent siblings?

This summer, after a week's acclimatization in the sun on the back deck and shoreline at the house in Olympia, we went backpacking near Mount Rainier.  We camped at Sheep Lake, a gem of a mountain lake with alpine forest, meadows of wildflowers, frolicking marmots, and... no view of any significant mountains.  You have to hike an hour up to Sourdough Gap to see first Mount Baker and then Mount Rainier itself.  They can be remarkably discreet, those volcanoes.


This year I started watercolor painting, and decided to keep a illustrated travel journal of our trip to Seattle.  I began on the morning after we arrived with a couple of less-than-satisfactory views of East Bay (I blame the jetlag), then moved on in the following days to shorebirds.  I worked mostly from photographs my husband and Le Petit enthusiastically supplied.  I managed a convincing marmot, a spritely nuthatch.  I rendered a realistic enough sunset over the Sound.  Then, a few days before we left for France, I painted Mount Rainier.

When Le Petit looked at in the morning, his jaw dropped.  It looked like it was silk-screened on the blue sky.  I thought it would be impossible to paint a recognizable mountain, especially my mountain, but it turns out that I'm a better geological portrait painter than I thought.  I painted another view for my father, with a ridge lined with tiny fir trees in the foreground.  Brushstroke by brushstroke, it was a declaration of love for home.

I couldn't sleep on the plane.  I couldn't watch movies either.  Somewhere over Iceland, I gave up trying to focus on my Kindle, and instead took out some sketching paper and colored pencils, found a half-decent shot from the camping trip on my telephone, and proceeded to draw Mount Rainier again.  When I showed it to my husband two seats down I could see his Oh of impressed surprise.


Back home in Versailles, I loaded three weeks of virtual film on our computer and set up my paint.  The first time the sky was too dark: it turns out the precise blue of the sky is more complicated than you'd think, and something gets lost between the pixels on the screen and the agonizing choice between aquamarine and cadmium.  The second try was better, and choosing the same picture I'd used on the plane, I painted the sweep of a wooded meadow up to a ridge above Crystal Lake, a short hike over from Sheep Lake.  Mount Rainier peers from above, reigning over firs which look a bit like feather dusters if I'm entirely honest with myself.  I'm taking a watercolor class this year; clearly I've got some technique yet to learn.

Now three weeks have passed and I'm wrapped up again in my life in France, homesickness mostly at bay. The kids are back in school as of last week, my project at work has restarted full-steam and behind schedule.  I keep telling myself that some weekend soon I'll take my paints over to the park at the Chateau. For the moment, the last portrait of Mount Rainier is sitting in our entryway, between a lighthouse on Belle Ile in Brittany and a forest clearing in the Aveyron.

The mountain is out in Versailles.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Le nouvel an

Sharing wishes for the new year is important in France.  Here's a simplified schedule for a typical January:

Midnight, January 1st: Send a text message to all your hip friends who are still awake. If you are still awake, that is.  Why does it get harder with each passing year? Watch B-list celebrities watching magicians and cancan dancers on television and wonder why it is you don't have anything better to do.

Noon, January 1st: Watch the Vienna New Year's Concert on television, then remember to call grand-mère.

Morning of January 2nd: You're all out of the only thing that sounds good to eat after a week of culinary excess, something like plain white rice or minestrone soup.  Good thing the supermarket is open again today.  Run into a neighbor on the street and wish them bonne année. Oh that's right, it is the new year already! Smile broadly and congratulate yourself on remembering.

First Monday back at work: Scrupulously say bonne année to everyone who crosses your path, in the hallway, at the coffee machine, in the parking garage. This is the one day of the year you are unlikely to avoid cheek kissing, so be warned.

First two weeks back at work: Try to remember who you haven't yet corresponded with in the new year so you can append flowery well-wishes to your emails accordingly.  Wish happiness and success.  If success seems unlikely, emphasize good health.

Sometime after January 6th: Your boss brings a galette des rois, or kings' cake, to work.  If you find the fève in your slice, you'll have the headache of choosing a king or queen to reign with you from among your unenthusiastic colleagues while you calculate how soon you can get away with taking off your paper crown.


Your boss doesn't bother to bring a galette this year, and you're unreasonably resentful.  After all your hard work it's the least he can do.  Plus you love almond paste and puff pastry and can never get enough of it.  You'll just have to pick one up on the way home and split it with your family. You're hungry, so you pretend the only ones left at the bakery were for eight.

Sometime after January 20th: What, another galette? Seriously?  Does no one have any better ideas for dessert this month?

January 15th: You've wished bonne année to approximately half the people you know, at work, in your apartment building, at your children's school, and now you can no longer keep track.  Do you risk wishing someone happy new year twice?  Or does it make you look worse if you forget entirely? When in doubt, mumble something unintelligible and then ask if they have any plans for the February school vacation.

January 25th:  The month is almost over and you increasingly suspect you've never managed to exchange bonne annnées with your next door neighbor.  You sneak out of your apartment in the morning like a thief after listening behind the door, call for the elevator with a glance behind you, and hope you can make it to February without any social awkwardness.

January 31st: You finally run into your neighbor and they apparently can't remember either. You both laugh and present your excuses and talk about the weather.

February 2nd: January is over, finally.  Now it's la chandeleur, and you get to eat crêpes.  This year your even manage to flip them one-handed while clutching a two-Euro coin.  Some traditions are easier than others.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Half Full

Sometime in mid-October my boss called me into his office.

"Ce n'est rien de grave," he said straight off. No big deal.

Just a project which was ill-defined and desperately behind schedule, the team so understaffed that they were calling me in as a reinforcement to do web development, a technical muscle I hadn't flexed for eight years or before I left on my first maternity leave.  I made sure to look concerned and serious, but inwardly I was overjoyed: finally something different, something interesting, something important enough to upend my schedule and abruptly hand off my current responsibilities.  I'd been doing the same thing for far too long and getting good enough at it to be bored.  Now... well, there were many possible outcomes, but boredom was unlikely to be one of them.  The project was slated for delivery by the end of the year.  I told my boss I was willing and even excited to give it a go (to the extent I had a choice), but made sure to set the expectations sensibly low: I reminded him I had no experience with the current technologies, the learning curve would be steep, the analysis had to be rethought from the beginning, and did I mention I had no experience?  He shrugged and told me I had the right attitude, with his own somewhere between flattery and resignation.

I was motivated and determined to succeed from the beginning. Then in mid-November came what are referred to here now as the "events", and I now suspect that part of my coping strategy in the emotional days that followed was to hunker down and immerse myself in work.  I threw myself into the requirements analysis, and when the only thing left to do was to start writing code, I started taking it one slow step at a time.  A simple page took me a day, a page with some basic functionality a week, and I often felt that I averaged one web search for technical help or clarification for every five lines of code.  At one point one of my colleagues from another team, who also happens to be one of the best developers we have, came by my office to chat and survey my progress.

"I don't understand why they gave that to you," he said flatly.  I responded with a mix of sarcasm and indignation which made him explain himself.

"I don't understand why they gave that you given they want it in less than a month," he amended.  Then he explained helpfully that while the average developer can put together a page in one to three days, an inexperienced web developer should expect to spend five or more.  Which reassured me more than it offended, since it corresponded to what I was figuring out painfully for myself... so I hastened to repeat his assessment to my boss.

He shrugged again and said something like, "If we had any choice." I kept plugging along, increasingly determined to prove everyone wrong.  I started working from home many nights and weekends, and slowly the pages started displaying correctly, then working more or less when tested independently, and I could see the day when the whole thing just might function from beginning to end and write something useful to the database.  I wasn't the only one: my office mate had been given another piece to develop and was almost equally inexperienced with the technology.  We complained about it together and threw up our hands or rolled our eyes, it would never be done in time.

And yet.

The day of the demo arrived and I had something -- we all had something -- which worked.  Most of the time.  OK, some of the time.  Under very controlled conditions.  And it wasn't exactly pretty or intuitive, but I was still over the moon.  I did it after all!  I wanted to yell it from the rooftops.

When I arrived at work the next day exhausted but satisfied, the reception was cool.  The boss -- who had spent much of the night before preparing the demo and testing and landing on bug after bug -- was unimpressed, and didn't make any attempt to hide it.  The project lead was equally unimpressed, and looked panicked and deeply disappointed by turns.

"If they'd only started out with 'I can see you made a big effort and got a lot of things working, and that's great,' they could have gone on to tell me it was a piece of shit, I honestly wouldn't have minded," I later told a friend.  "I just needed the first part.  The first sentence.  The piece of shit part may be true, but give me something.  Anything."

I've been working in France for almost twelve years now, I should have known better.  People do not manage here by positivity. Praise is rare. Pessimism is omnipresent. Not just in business but everywhere.

"You know why the French national bird is the rooster?" a French friend once asked me back in Boston, thrilled to have landed in a country where no one yet knew the old joke. "Because it's the only bird which sings while standing in its own merde!"  I laughed politely, unsure of the etiquette to apply when foreigners mock their country of origin, but I didn't get the joke then and I still don't get it now.  Unjustifiably proud of a pile of shit? Really? If you ask me, the French never seem to see how good they have things.  Education and health care which work and work well for the most part, a land of striking natural and historical beauty, and the best damn cuisine in the world, yet all you hear talk of is unemployment, economic stagnancy, and the French football team.

"The problem with the French is they're just so damn negative."

It was early December and I'd met my American sister-in-law for dinner in Paris.  She has been living in France for over a decade as I have.  We'd gotten together for a cathartic girls' night out.  My train had been late, my project panned in a meeting that week, my mood atrocious.

"I just can't stand all the complaining.  All the time.  Nothing else."

And so we gaily went on, two American chicks in an old-style Parisian brasserie, interrupting our tirade only to smile politely at the waiter when he came by and ineptly flirted with us in English.  I don't remember if we managed to turn the conversation around to happier subjects that evening or not, but I remember feeling better when I left, noting not for the first time that I prefer French pessimism to naive American optimism even if it isn't my native tongue.

I let up on the work in mid-December, having discovered that while being invested is good, there is a law of diminishing returns.  Then I took a week's vacation over the holidays. I came back refreshed and detached.  Three alpha versions into the project, I see how much I've learned and how much faster I am at developing and reworking the code, and also at adjusting my reactions to feedback to the reality I live in.  Meanwhile, my boss is starting to be happy with the end result.  By version two, he smiled and said, "Now that actually looks like a user interface."  With the latest, he told me it looked "done," and I had no doubt that it was (something like) high praise.

"On y arrive quand même," I said modestly: we're managing after all. No sense making a big deal of it all, I say, since as I see now, it could always be better.