Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Le Car

It took me one hour and forty-five minutes to drive to an offsite meeting this morning. I'd planned for an hour, which was more than it took me yesterday, but then there was an accident on the A13, and after thirty minutes of inching ahead I cut over to the A86 and got stuck in the tunnel under La Défense. There I sat for a long time breathing concentrated diesel fumes on an underground off-ramp in Nanterre, stuck in a single immobile lane while motorcycles and scooters zipped past me on the shoulder to the left.  My only entertainment was listening to the honking fits provoked by cars squeezing in around me at the last minute, since Chante France on my car radio ("Your favorite French songs! Sing along at least once a day!") was reduced to static.

I arrived at the off-site meeting in a terrible mood.  And yet, I have to admit the frustration was tempered with a certain satisfaction because I can drive in France.  I can not only drive in France, I can drive in Ile de France, the region around Paris.  I can even drive in Paris proper if I have to (though I'm still not sure I'm brave enough to attempt Place de l'Etoile).

There are aspects of my life now that once felt strange and are now commonplace, like firing off e-mails in French, debating French politics, or vociferously defending my design decisions to my French boss.  There are other things I do regularly but which never quite feel natural, like consulting a French doctor.  And then there are things that once upon a time in a faraway land were everyday but now feel unfamiliar. Until recently, driving was one of these foreign activities. For eight years I didn't drive at all before finally suffering though obtaining my French driver's licence.  Then we moved to Versailles, off the Métro grid, part of another suburban world.  Sure, I can still walk to get bread, or a little farther to get downtown, or to the Opera at the Château (one of my favorite places for a night out, in fact), and my husband takes the train to Paris most workdays.  But I work in another suburb a short drive away, and a car just makes more sense than relying on an infrequent bus.

In September, my mother-in-law generously loaned me their second car, an old Renault Clio which since her retirement had been sitting in an expensive municipal parking garage and not getting out much.  When my husband told me the news, he was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm.

"Don't tell me you're scared!" he scolded.

"It's not that!"  I protested.

It was that.  It was totally that.

So I reluctantly began to take the wheel each morning, more stressed out at first that I'd been with my freshly-minted Washington State licence at age 16.  By October, my heart rate was finally approaching normal on my way to and from work.  By November, I was brave enough to drive into the heart of Paris to meet my sister-in-law for dinner -- leaving the car in a handy, overpriced underground parking garage, but still, it took courage.  By February, I was going on solo runs to hardware stores and to IKEA (one of my biggest motivations for relearning to drive, I must admit).

So it was that in this age of ecology and interdependence and the Eiffel Tower disappearing behind a curtain of smog, my life was transformed for the better by the automobile.

Mid-February, I had to admit, however, that the loyal Clio had a problem.  Periodically while driving it would lurch, make a horrible noise, and drop into a lower gear.  Eventually the automatic transmission light starting coming on as well.  I got it checked out at a local garage, with the diagnosis that the transmission would need to be replaced and it would cost far more than the car was worth.

"You know, automatic transmissions... especially on French cars..." When I mentioned the situation to my colleagues, they all seemed to think I should have expected as much.  Who else but an américaine would require something so contrary to true esprit of French engineering?  That's when I would proudly explain that it was my mother-in-law's car and that *I* would have been perfectly happy to drive a manual and by-the-way-my-parents-only-had-manual-cars-so-I-had-to-learn-the-hard-way-and-it-was-uphill-both-ways.

Quickly I started shopping for a new-to-me car, thinking at first I'd buy used, then learning that with a trade-in of the Clio I could get a shiny new Citroën C3 for a very good price.  Me... in a new car.  In a new French car.  There was something enticingly exotic about the idea.  I looked at a Toyota as well, but the price and my motivation just weren't there.  Toyota is just so... California.

When I was in elementary school in the eighties we hosted a French-speaking Belgian exchange student.  The same year, Renault started marketing the less-than-iconic R9 in the US as the "Le Car." This annoyed our exchange student to no end.  "Why do they call it 'Le Car'?" he would ask, "It's ridiculous!  It isn't even le.  It's la voiture."  Naming issues aside, it wasn't a success and Renault disappeared from North America leaving nothing but a crappy reputation.

Citroën, my husband insists, is a different matter: "It's like the difference between Ford and Cadillac!" he told me, and when I looked doubtful, he cited the famous Traction and the classic DS. The cute llittle C3 which will be mine in May has compact curves that remind me a bit of the Deux chevaux, which though before my time, remains the only French car most Americans of my generation can recognize. There were plenty of C3s stuck in traffic with me this morning. I admired them, reassuring myself at the same time that when I'd ordered 'Shark Gray', I really had picked the best color.  And it'll be a manual transmission... of course.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Home improvement

I have a new obsession: home decor.  It started as a coping mechanism when we were in the midst of the interminable process of buying our apartment last spring.  I spent my theoretical spare time surfing Apartment Therapy and bringing home decorating magazines, projecting myself to a point in the future when my only concern would be paint color.  The apartment purchase and sale closed, we moved, and now we've been here nine months.  I'm still obsessed.  

"What do you think of this table?" I asked my husband, handing him my phone with the browser open to Le Bon Coin, the local equivalent of Craig's List.  My husband has learned, I think, that the best strategy is to humor me, so instead of making an noncommittal "Hmmm," he told me what he really thought.  

"Only 250€ for the table and the chairs! That'll be gone fast."

"So you like it?"  I said hopefully.

"Not really. It's too dark."  

"It's walnut.  Like that bookshelf."  I pointed to the entryway.

My husband, with remarkable diplomacy, managed to explain what he liked better about our current dining room table, a beat-up round IKEA table in pine with a central leaf that's a different color, without starting an argument.  He humors my obsession within reason, and perhaps it is because he knows I'm serious: I've picked up two chairs and a twin bed this year.  I'm ready to start selling things, too: out with the flat-box crap, in with the real stuff, I say.  If it is second-hand, all the better: the thrill of the bargain hunt, and it's ecological, too.

I come from a long line of the house-proud and decor-obsessed: my grandmother's favorite pastime was trawling garage sales and antique markets to complete or start new collections.  She once told me solemnly, "If you only remember one piece of advice from me, let it be this: if you can't find anywhere to put something, you can always hang it from the wall."  (Did she know somehow that someday I'd move to a tiny Parisian apartment?)  My father and stepmother's home is like the coziest of museums.  And I remember distinctly that as a small child I used to regularly come home from school to find that my mother had completely rearranged the furniture in the living room.  

Like all obsessions, it can be a tiny bit unhealthy.

In a couple weeks, we'll have the three bedrooms repainted (involving ripping out wallpaper and replastering, making it worth giving it to pros), new carpet put in, and new curtains.  I'm thrilled.  Meanwhile I've got a project list which involves light fixtures, refinishing chairs, building shelves, and spending a weekend of quality time cleaning grout and recaulking bathrooms.  This has replaced blogging.  This has replaced reading.  

"I think I'm trying to escape reality," I told a friend recently.  She looked surprised.  "Escape what reality exactly?"  I couldn't answer. Maybe things feel too good, so focusing on imagined imperfection at home reassures me.  Maybe things are too serious, and I need something frivolous to occupy myself.  Maybe it's the ten previous years of living in a 700 square foot apartment that are catching up with me.  Maybe I'm just, as we'd say in French, slightly grave.  

I brought home a deluxe metal window planter this evening for my new kitchen herb garden.  I invited the kids to help me fill it up with potting soil and then plant rosemary, thyme and coriander.  Dirt was all over the kitchen floor and all over the kids, and I didn't mind; I decided to count it as keeping perspective.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Plus ça change, first grade edition

After lights out, after asking for a second hug and kiss goodnight, Le Petit had something to tell me.

"En fait, maman, M doesn't want to be my friend anymore."

M was Le Petit's first close friend this year, and before when he'd talk about the games they'd invent together at recess, a true, broad smile would break across his face.  He's not the kind of kid who expresses his emotions readily, so this made an impression on me.  But M is also a girl, and M's friends tease them for playing together.  "Les amoureux!" they taunt, and they won't leave them be. In the ruthless world of the primary school playground, there are certain rules not to be broken.

Le Petit is in CP, the equivalent of first grade, and since we moved to a new town over the summer, he is the odd man out in a class of kids who all went to nursery school together and he is having a hard time making friends.  It doesn't help that he prefers geography and history to Star Wars and Spiderman, and won't play cops and robbers because he considers it "too violent."  I have a hard time picturing exactly what happens at recess, and I can't always follow the ins and outs of who plays what and where with whom and when from the recaps we get at home.  But what I know for sure is that what Le Petit recounts in brief confidences before going to sleep drags me back thirty years to a playground in Olympia, Washington.

As much as love and friendship are universal, certain strains of human stupidity are as well.

I changed schools between kindergarten and first grade, and I still remember the first awkward day when I walked into the first grade classroom and realized that everything and everyone was Different.  My first close friend that year -- the first friend who understood me, truly -- was N.  He was a boy.  It took a month or so for the other kids to catch on that this was somehow not okay, letting a boy and a girl be friends with each other.  But catch on they did.  I can still hear the chanting, the sing-song "N loves E, E loves N!" that chased us around the playground, and our vehement refusals that felt like betrayals.

I told Le Petit this, after trying my best to give him space to tell his own story.  I think it makes him feel a bit better to know that he isn't alone.  At the same time, my story isn't a particularly optimistic one, because just like M with Le Petit, I was not brave enough to continue being N's friend in the face of constant teasing.

"But you're still friends with him, right, Mom?" Le Petit asked hopefully.  And I remembered that while we were bound by a certain outcast smart kid solidarity through fifth grade, after which my family moved and I once again changed schools, I was never N's friend again.  I've wondered about him over the years, and since Olympia is a small enough town, I've managed to learn that he's moved and has a successful career as a professor somewhere in the Midwest.  I'm curious, and truly happy for him in a way I'm not for almost any of the others characters in the elementary school chapter of my life.  But none of that changes that I was a genuine wimp at the time.

I was less blunt when I answered Le Petit (I hope).  "This happens in life, it hurts bad, it isn't fair, you have no control over the choices or stupidity of others," I then said, more or less, and with a hug I tried to wordlessly assure him that life goes on.  30 years on and counting.

"The problem is, I often find myself playing all by myself at recess."

Those words felt like a kick in the stomach, and I started thinking about my productive, busy days at the office and how at the very same time my little baby is out there on the playground all alone... but I did my best to hide it.

"And what do you do when you're playing by yourself?"

"It depends... sometimes I play hopscotch!"

Le Petit jumped out of bed and gave me a demonstration, hopping on one foot across his bedroom rug.

"And... sometimes I play silly airplane!  That's a game I invented with M... you run around with your arms like this," he showed me, "...and then you run into something and you crash!"

Spinning around his room with his arms stretched out, even though it was dark and I couldn't see, I was almost certain he had that same broad smile.  Everyone survives grade school, I tell myself; that's universal too.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


My husband left for a week-long trip to Barcelona this morning, leaving me busy with two kids and feeling oddly lonely.  A long January Sunday was staring me in the face, so I made plans to meet a friend of mine near her place in Vincennes.  It was a good forty-five minutes away in a corner of the Paris suburbs I'm less than familiar with, but I thought I could swing it.  Le Petit would be coming with me, after all.

The little gray Renault Clio that my mother-in-law has generously loaned me, the car which is coaxing me into becoming a confident driver again after almost ten carless years in France, has no GPS.  This is no problem when I drive back and forth to work, which is the great majority of the kilometers I log.  This is no problem when I meticulously plan out my route ahead of time, with Google Map printouts at hand.  But I don't have my husband's sixth sense with Parisian geography, and I still need plenty of warning before heading on the white-knuckle Paris ring road called Le Périphérique, so I don't improvise.  But Le Petit has a bizarrely knack with geography.  When he's in the car with a map on his lap, I am not exaggerating, I feel more confident than when I'm using my husband's car's GPS.

I'm not sure when he started mapping out his world in his head.  By age five he was drawing maps of France at school, from memory.  The summer he turned five I bought him a laminated Michelin road atlas of France on a whim, and ever since he spends most of his time on family road trips with it open on his knees, following along with his finger and comparing his itinerary to the one displayed in the dashboard.  He knows and loves only one app on our iPad: Google Maps.  He used to spend hours following roads to all corners of the earth, especially (for some reason he has never disclosed) Siberia.  He can place all the countries in Europe on a blank map -- all the countries, from the Baltic to the Balkans.  He started to learn to read by deciphering road signs, so desperate was he to learn where roads were going.

Back in September, he went with me on a shopping trip to a nearby shopping mall.  I found myself in the wrong lane and forced to turn onto a highway going the wrong direction.  He calmly talked me through the route to turn around -- he'd done it once before, with Papa -- and the next time, when I went by myself, he wanted to make sure I'd be OK on my own.

"Because, maman, if you get lost I can't come and get you!" he'd warned.

Today before our afternoon outing we looked at the map together on Google.  The A13 to the Périphérique to the Porte Dorée, I told him, and we'd meet my friend at the Château de Vincennes for a walk in the surrounding park.  I got the kids herded down to the parking garage, buckled into their car seats, and was preparing to go when I realized I didn't have the detailed map of Paris.  I considered unpacking everyone to run back in but we were already late, so I explained my predicament to Le Petit and gave him an unhelpful map of the southwestern suburbs (we were headed southeast) and a large, undetailed map of the entire Paris region.

"Do you think you can get us there with this?" I asked.  He thought he could.

By the time we stopped for gas, five minutes later, he'd already corrected my itinerary.

"You're wrong, maman, the exit we want is Porte de Vincennes and not Porte Dorée!"  And he explained my error clearly with the help of the undetailed map.

"You're right, then."  Of course he was.

Later, as I was mustering all my nerve on the Périph amid the swerving cars and motorcycles, I asked Le Petit to advise me on the lane to stay in.

"Don't worry," he said with authority, "You won't exit soon.  First there's the A6, and then the A4, and only then will will get to the Porte Dorée and the Porte de Vincennes."

"There's Porte de Châtillon..." I said vaguely.

"You're far still. The A6 is at Porte d'Orléans."

As he told me all this, I had the distinct feeling he was telling me from familiar memory, as if he were introducing me to classmates by name.  He was not just reading off the map.

A little later, I noticed a bridge.

"We must be nearing the Seine!" I remarked, glad to have finally grasped some landmark.

"That's the bridge over the train," he corrected.  "The train for the Gare d'Austerlitz.  The Seine is just afterwards."

Oh, right.

We exited to a large boulevard and a remarkable mess, the kind that one finds at any "Porte" into Paris, this one made worse by double-parked trucks packing up a large open-air street market.

"Where do I go from here? You wouldn't happen to know, would you?"  I asked Le Petit, prepared to pull over, park and pull out my smartphone if necessary.

"Go straight!" he said, "The château is straight ahead.  You can't see it from here, but it isn't far, I promise."

That's when I remembered that he'd visited the park before -- two years ago, at age four-and-a-half.  Once after that, too, with my husband, at five-and-a-half.  That was enough for him to be certain of his way.

We met my friend, we had a grand time at the Parc Floral, playing on the giant slides and running around the garden.  The weather was mild, there were kids everywhere.  We stayed until closing, and the sun was setting as we headed back to the car.  The Périphérique was slow on the way back, so I let Le Petit choose a somewhat extravagant alternate route, the A4 to the A86 to the N12 with one emergency pee pee stop somewhere after the N118.  

I don't hide how impressed I am with my little navigator, but I try to remind him, too, that it is OK to make a mistake.  "You know, if you ever don't know where we're going, it's fine.  We'll stop and we'll figure it out.  It'll be OK."  I don't want him to think the whole world relies on his sense of direction, and I know that at the moment a good portion of his whole world is Mommy and Daddy.  Even if he knows the world map (it hangs over his bed; there's also a globe on his dresser and three or four atlases in his book shelf), he's unlikely to accurately evaluate his own place in it. It's scary being a kid.

He doesn't seem unnerved by the pressure, or if he does, he doesn't tell me.  Meanwhile, I gain confidence with every outing together, and that is strange: isn't it supposed to work the other way around?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Mère indigne

On Saturday morning I woke up at eight to the alarm I'd scrupulously set the night before.  I first cleaned both bathrooms while simultaneously entertaining Mademoiselle and her stuffed toy squirrel; I then got Mademoiselle dressed and fed breakfast.  Before I hopped in the shower, while still in my pajamas, I got out the rubber gloves, the vinegar and baking soda and took apart and unclogged the shower drain.  I was showered, dressed, and ready to run out the door by 9:20.

I was a bit behind schedule, but I ran and arrived on time to Le Petit's school in under ten minutes, where I had signed up for an introductory first aid workshop.  Along with a dozen other conscientious parents, I learned how to do CPR and use a heart defibrillator with a volunteer from the local Red Cross.

This is me these days, trying to fit as many good deeds into a weekend as possible: cleaning, organizing, working out, thinking ahead, cooking, shopping, reading Dr. Seuss out loud, and cramming quality time with the husband and kids in between loads of laundry.  I can make homemade ice cream, play Monopoly, and survey snack time at the same time, I've discovered, thanks to our large formica kitchen table.

At the end of the training, one of the other mothers turned to me, probably feeling obliged to make small talk since we'd just spent the best part of two hours resuscitating a plastic torso together.  She had four kids, and the youngest was in Le Petit's grade: CP, the equivalent of first grade in the US.  She told me the name of her son's teacher.

"Oh, my son is in the other class," I said, "With Madame..."

And then I drew a total blank.

I couldn't remember my son's teacher's name.  I could picture her face, and clearly reassemble the classroom as I'd seen it one similar Saturday morning back in September when I and the other parents had squeezed into tiny desks in neat rows to listen to her back-to-school presentation.  I remembered her precise handwriting on the blackboard.  But I couldn't remember her name.

I started mumbling, searching lamely for some way to make it funny. Clearly I was making things worse for myself.  Even my American accent which has saved me from many an embarrassing occasion in the past was no use here. What kind of excuse could one possibly cover for such a slip?  Mère indigne, I stammered.  Bad mommy.

"But I could tell you what page they are on in their reading workbook!" I wanted to add in my defense, but instead the other mother walked away, thanked the volunteer for their time, and coolly (or so I imagined) wished me a good weekend and good day.  I said my thanks in turn and slinked out of the school building before anyone else could ask me any embarrassing questions.

Safe alone on the sidewalk, I called my husband.

"How'd it go?  Did you meet any other parents?"  he asked.

"It was... good," I paused. "Yes, I met one mom, but... she asked me Le Petit's teacher's name."


"I couldn't remember."

"You forgot Madame G---!" my husband shouted into the phone in astonishment.  Then he paused, seemed to consider it for a moment, and added, "Yeah, that's pretty bad."

He wouldn't forget of course, and so for thirty seconds I was quite angry with him (though I kept it to myself).  And he does just as much around the house, too, so so much for that as an explanation.  He drops to kids off in the morning: he offered that lamely to try and make me feel better.  Though how watching Le Petit disappear alone with his book bag into the front door of the elementary school every morning changes anything I'm not sure.

I went home, helped with lunch, did laundry, shopping, dishes, finished cleaning the apartment, played board games with the kids and helped put together a homemade Advent calendar.  And I've managed to not feel quite so stupid and embarrassed about the incident by throwing myself into all that I have to get done, and some things I probably don't.  Still, the name came to the front of my mind again and again as I was vacuuming or running around the Grand Canal: Madame G---.  Madame G---. 

"Why'd you forget Madame G---, maman?" Le Petit asked after he heard the story.  He seemed more confused than hurt, at least.  I didn't have a good excuse for him, either, but I could guarantee him, at least, that I wouldn't forget again.

Never sure how you're going to fall on your face next: I guess that's what keeps this parent gig interesting.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Late this afternoon I was desperate to get out of the house. So leaving my husband with the two kids bouncing off the walls, I jumped at the occasion to go to the mall.

There, I admitted it.

There just happens to be a mall near our apartment. Like all self-respecting malls, its self-defense system is its parking lot: it is virtually impossible to approach on foot and requires great determination to reach by bus or bicycle. We are exactly five minutes away by car, but on a Saturday afternoon it takes almost another fifteen to find a parking spot. The mall looks exactly like any mall anywhere across America: when I venture beyond my favorite department store, the BHV, or the upscale grocery store, Monoprix, and wander into the rest of the place I feel almost certain I've stepped into Seattle's Northgate shopping center. With two-tiers of clothing stores, a food court, soft innocuous music, it makes me positively dizzy with geographic vertigo.

Tonight I arrived after dark, and cars were still circling both levels of parking garage like famished vultures. This being France, half the occupied spots were technically illegal: there were cars in the crosswalks, others parallel parked along and blocking an entire lane of traffic; there was even a Land Rover perched on a high sidewalk. Naturally I took the first spot I could find, nowhere near my destination. Once I finally made it inside the Monoprix, I found the checkout lines interminable and the aisles of the supermarket almost as difficult to navigate as the parking lot. I had to run in and out to get a cart, jump repeatedly to grab items from a high shelf, wait for an elevator. When I finally slammed my trunk shut on my shopping bags -- noting in passing that a French compact car trunk is completely filled after one grocery shopping trip -- I had a sudden startling realization.

This country makes it hard to spend money.

You have to WANT to be a consumer, and want it bad.

In the US, it's the other way around.

I remember reading somewhere recently an article whose author marveled at encountering someone in a checkout line in Target with one item. One item -- in this particular case, a toilet plunger -- seemed like utopia: how could anyone walk out of Target without their cart full of crap? This, the article maintained, took truly uncommon willpower. We should all strive for the same, and our lives, our houses, and our moral well-being would only be improved as a result, but we should remain realistic: impulse buying is a fact of life.

Drive down any commercial route in the suburban US and you see the neon signs for the big box stores, the grocery superstores, the chain specialty stores, the restaurants and the banks. If you have a passion or a problem, someone somewhere along that road is ready to feed it or fix it. It is easy to pull in -- there are always plenty of parking spots -- pop in, pay, load up the car and get out. I loved it when I was back visiting on my recent trip: I could spend money, and spend it easily, and if I got hungry after all that shopping, there was always some convenient place to stop and eat.

Tonight, fighting with my runaway shopping cart in my French mall parking lot made me think about Costco. I'm not sure I could go to Costco with my little French car, if such things as Costco existed here, which of course they don't. Impulse-buying on a Costco scale wouldn't fit into my apartment. Even buying staples in bulk wouldn't work: I've nowhere to store a three-months' supply of toilet paper.

Some of this is specific to the Paris region, of course, since outside of Paris, people have larger houses, complete with such luxuries as attics, basements and garages. And yes, France's Carrefour Hypermarket is another Walmart wannabe, stocking plenty cheap junk from China designed to create a desire to spend where none existed before. Still, shops are in majority closed on Sunday everywhere in the country, and those which stay open the latest on weeknights still close their doors by eight or nine. That's a full day and six full evenings a week to think about something other than shopping. Imagine that.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Scenes from a notarial office, part I

Notarial Office, Versailles, mid-morning on a gray Monday in June. It was closing day on the apartment. We were four seated around a table big enough to seat fifteen, made of solid, ugly wood and institutional bad taste:  there was my husband and I, dressed overly nicely and cloaked in I-don't-really-belong-here anxiety; the relaxed, slick owner of the real estate agency; and a serious-looking, middle-aged woman behind an imposing pile of folders.

We were waiting for our notary.  Notaries in France handle wills, real estate transactions, and other periodic unpleasantries of life, fulfilling many of the roles of lawyers in the US.  But whereas in the US you can often bypass a lawyer for the sake of simplicity, in France notaries are unavoidable.  They pocket a large percentage of any real estate transaction they handle (although a much larger percentage of what's called the 'notary fee' goes to the state), and they drag out the process to make their added value felt.

The notary, our buyers' notary, finally arrived and sat at the head of the table with a formality that almost made me wonder if he was going to say grace.  He arranged his short stack of papers neatly in front him, then turned to the woman and addressed her gravely.

"I'm so sorry.  I heard the news."

"Yes," she said, and stared down at her files, "It was such a shock."

As they continued to talk, I pieced together that the seller's notary who had handled the preliminary contract back in February had since died of a heart attack.  The woman, another notary from the same étude, was still shaken, and understandably so, since her colleague was stricken unexpectedly while at the office.  It was clear it was a subject she didn't wish to relive or discuss, but both the other notary and the real estate agent (who seemed to know all the details -- small world, real estate in Versailles) appeared oblivious to this.

"He was young, tout de même," said the other notary with affected pathos.  "I mean, he had his little problems, like we all do," he continued with exaggerated delicacy (my husband later explained that the late notary was quite obese), "But still..."

The conversation continued.  My husband and I mimed our concern, but became more and more anxious to move on, as it became increasingly clear the woman was, too.

Then the real estate agent joined in.

"But he died onstage!" he boomed.  The woman looked at him confused.

"He died onstage!" he repeated loudly. "In the heat of the action!  He died onstage, just like Molière!"

"No, no," the woman protested quietly, "He died at the office."

She paused.

"Or actually at the hospital. The ambulance came for him, and then..."

"Don't look at each other," I thought to myself, as my husband and I were both caught in a tense silence that could have finished in either explosive laughter or a primal screen.

"But he died onstage!" the real estate agent continued after the woman finished her sad story.  He was making reference to Molière's famous apocryphal finale, with a misplaced humor and bad taste astounding even for a guy in sales.  He repeated it again, and my husband and I finally laughed politely, almost soundlessly, because it was clear that unless we acknowledged the joke he wasn't planning to stop.

And with that, the notary at the head of the table picked up his stack of papers, tapped them even against the ugly polished wood, cleared his throat, and began.