Monday, June 21, 2010

Fish seeks water

"Welcome home. Or I guess I shouldn't say that."

The day I arrived at my mother's, I'd called up a friend who's known me in both Seattle and Paris. No, Seattle is still home, I assured her, in an immutable way, that both is and isn't true. We were planning to get together for dinner the next day. All I could think about were burgers, Alaska salmon, steamed clams and the other things I would never see on a menu in Paris. She could take me anywhere in town, I told her.

I arrived at the airport on Thursday morning, sans husband and child. The ten-hour direct flight had felt almost like a guilty pleasure; I read Le Monde from cover to cover, watched two films, and slowly ate the six macarons that I'd bought at La Duree in the departure terminal. But in the days and hours before I left I had intermittently shuddered with guilt. Before I left, le Petit had just started calling me "Mommy" instead of "maman." It was like a revelation to him, the mysterious power of the word to get my attention.

"Mommy," he said.

"Yes, hon?"




"That's me."


This went on for a while. Le Petit's eyes were alight, he looked as he'd just discovered the words to a magic spell. What would he think with Mommy gone? He would be in the best of hands -- my capable and generous husband had taken on ten days of full-time kid duty extending over father's day weekend -- and I didn't worry whether he would be all right, just that I was somehow letting him down (and my husband too). We talked about the trip, about the plane, about the fact that Mommy would be home in ten days. Let's count them: one, two, three, four...

Ten days. Ten hour flight. Nine hours of jet lag. Worse than jet lag, I felt the expectation lag of not knowing what awaited me in what should be familiar territory. I called my mom and waited to be picked up at the curb at the arrival level at Sea-Tac. People took long draws on cigarettes in front of the "No Smoking" sign, and cars were parked three lanes deep despite the "No Parking, No Stopping" announcement that played over the PA system on endless loop. What had happened to my courteous, blindly law-abiding fellow Americans? Back in Paris, people were grudging adhering to the indoor smoking ban and, thanks to the ubiquitous radar controls, slowing down on the highway. If no one held to the stereotypes anymore, I'd never remember where I was.

Once home at my mom's, I took a walk up to the small shops on 15th street, searching in vain for enough sunshine to transport me to the correct time or expectation zone. The weather in Seattle was conforming to Paris, too, though a bit colder, perhaps. I was still incapable of mentally transforming Fahrenheit into Celsius. I walked into a drug store, bought some small things including a postcard of the Seattle skyline to mail to le Petit (he'd recognize the Space Needle and search for the Eiffel Tower, no doubt), and fumbled while counting out my change. Why did the currency look so strange? The Euros I had quarantined into a corner of my wallet suddenly looked like Monopoly money.

I walked back through the neighborhood, admiring the brightly-painted wooden houses, their front porches and leaded-glass bay windows, their lush green and immaculately-groomed gardens sloping down to the street. Anything can grow in Seattle as long as it can handle dripping wet from all its leaves for ten months out of the year. If I lived back home, I would live here, and I would have one of these porches, one of these gardens. Except, the Francophile Voice of Reason insisted, if you lived back home, you would never be able to afford a house here. And what about le Petit's school, and your husband's job, and health insurance, and how exactly would you expect to take a year of maternity leave? Burning with jealousy, I discreetly walked around families who were gathered chatting on the sidewalk.

The next day, I met my friend for dinner. We gossiped in French, switching to English when the waitress appeared. I was grateful I remembered the correct American script to order my meal, and was mentally jostled by her 'awesomes' and 'greats.' To her, I was a foreign tourist: when I asked to take the rest of my dessert home with me, she offered me a plastic fork, "to take back to your hotel room."

I belong neither here nor there. A fish out of water both places, although most of the time I hardly notice it. Being "other" is part of what I enjoy about living in Paris. My accent gives me away and gives me permission to be timid or make constant mistakes, something of which in truth I've always been guilty, just never with such freedom. In France, I feel more at home and more daring with this ever-present safety net. But when I am back in Seattle, I am strangely confronted with unsettling familiarity. I belong here. But I don't. And either way, I miss it terribly.

Two days later, I was getting used to being a Seattleite again. I stood at the corner of an empty intersection downtown in the drizzling rain holding my folded umbrella under my arm, waiting for the light to turn green. Although my glasses were specked with drops, I knew intuitively that this rain wasn't worth it. And as if complacency had soaked into my bones along with the rain, I didn't bother scanning to see if any cars were coming, I conformed to the local custom and waited.

What if I just stayed? The Icelandic volcano could start spewing ash again, all transatlantic air traffic could stop, or I could just decide on my own, with no natural catastrophe, not to go back. I could buy a Seattle bungalow. I would paint the cedar shingle siding blue and white. I would plant ferns in the flower beds and hang a swing on the front porch and watch the rain from my front window. Two men, umbrella-less, stood next to me on the curb, wearing their baseball caps backwards and their t-shirts hanging out of their baggy shorts. They impetuously crossed the street against the light and I followed them.

I climbed a few blocks, caught the bus, and sat meditatively as it swayed along its route back to 15th street. I got off at the stop across from the hospital where I was born, from which I walked back to my mom's house. There were no families in the front yards today, no children outside playing, just a few people in Gore-tex rain gear walking their dogs.

I called my husband to wish him him happy Father's Day. He and le Petit were staying in Troyes with my in-laws.

"What's the weather like there?" I asked.

"Cold. Rainy. Windy."

"Same here."

I talked for a while to le Petit. I slipped into French for the benefit of my mother-in-law, who was holding the phone and helping with the simultaneous translation from toddler-speak into comprehensible phone-speak. Le Petit was excited to be helping watering the plants. That's how much his grandparents love him: they let him water their plants in the rain.

"Au revoir, maman."

"You take care. I miss you, little guy, and I love you."

"I love you!" le Petit repeated. Although I tell him I love him every night before I say goodnight, this was the first time I could remember him saying it back to me, and tears almost came to my eyes.

"I love his accent!" marveled my mother-in-law.

It was true, he'd said it exactly -- exactly -- like me.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Every four years, I've got an excuse to watch soccer.

(Excuse me, I mean football.)

Every four years, despite myself and despite the depressing prospects of the French team, I am captivated by the World Cup. I start out ambivalently watching the match between France and Uruguay, and I wind up glued to the screen in front of Germany vs. Australia. I was, naturally, thrilled that the underdog American team managed a tie with England. Le Petit giggled as I sang along to the Star-spangled Banner. No other sporting event draws me in like this, and I can't explain it.

Le Petit is, for once, exposed to television for hours at a time; he runs around yelling "Il y a BUT! Il y a but?" (GOAL! There's a goal?"). After a half an hour of a tied match, however, he loses interest and asks us to put on a Jordi Savall CD.

I'm embarrassed to admit, however, that he's memorized the commercials aired on TF1 at half-time.

"Mommy is going to Seattle. Mommy is taking a plane, and a boat, and... a Toyota. Grandpa and Gramby have a Toyota. And Toyota is the official car of the équipe de France!"

While my husband was putting le Petit to bed and listening to rehashed car commercials, I was watching the second half of Italy-Paraguay, hoping against hope that Paraguay would hold onto their one point lead. (After 2006, no self-respecting French fan can stomach the thought of an Italian victory, no matter how well-deserved.)

The Italians score. The match is tied. And I feel a tentative, tiny kick somewhere in the middle of my abdomen, one of the tickles I've only started to notice in the last week.

"So you're a fan of the Italians, huh, little one?" I pat my belly. "Well, I suppose Mommy can find a way to be one, too, then."

And now you know why I've been a bit distracted lately.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Strike one

I was scheduled to take the written driver's license exam on May 27th. For the record, the written test is anything but simple: forty slides of real-life driving situations, forty associated multiple-choice questions, each of which may have multiple correct answers, all of which must be identified correctly to get the question right. A passing score is 35 out of 40. It isn't rocket science, but it still requires months of preparation.

As the date grew closer, I was alternately stressed and nonchalant. Although I still regularly missed a question or two or three (oh, those obscure questions! "How many backup lights are required on a car?" How should I know?), I figured I could manage a passing score. Getting a test date scheduled with the préfecture proved a challenge in itself: I asked my driving school to present me back in March, and the earliest date they could propose was late May. Come May, I was thoroughly fed up and ready to put it behind me.

The test session was at ten o'clock on a Thursday morning, in the lovely post-industrial suburb of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, inaccessible by public transportation except for a bus that winds its slow way between the RER C and La Défense. The driving school offered to take me, perhaps, or then again maybe not, to be confirmed at the last minute. (Clearly they were well worth the 750€ fee.) I arranged to take the day off, and started to worry. A general strike was announced for the 27th. The RER might not be running. My husband had a meeting and couldn't escape from work to drive me. I noted the number for several Parisian taxi companies and slipped the paper in my purse.

The day before, the driving school confirmed that they could take me, but only if I left from their office near the Anvers Métro station at the foot of Montmartre, 30 minutes from our apartment. I accepted gratefully. What I didn't realize was that the ride would be part of a practice driving session.

Along with two other students, I squeezed into the back of a Peugeot 207 with an "Auto-école" sign on top and "Savoir vivre, c'est savoir conduire" prominently scrolled across the side. A young girl sat confidently behind the wheel, and a bored, middle-aged driving instructor took his place in the passenger's seat. With barely a passing glance at the traffic, the girl jerkily pulled out into the street.

She crossed the entire 18th arrondissement -- narrow streets, steep slopes, speeding scooters, oblivious pedestrians -- without a care in the world, and certainly no fear of the priorité à droite.* The instructor, who thankfully had a brake pedal on his side, kept his cool but was occasionally compelled to grab the steering wheel. His advice was clear and calm, albeit largely unheeded or unnoticed, "Slow down! That truck is stopped ahead!" or "Merge to the left, the bus is pulling out. No, the left..."

We got out of Paris alive and intact, miraculously enough. "Now turn, slowly, into the parking on the right," the instructor announced. We were thrown an inch or two into the air as the car bumped off the road into a dirt parking lot. "Slowly..." the instructor repeated wearily. We parked in front of the Salle des fêtes, a 1970s windowless architectural marvel that didn't exactly put me in the mood to celebrate.

We extracted ourselves from the car and noticed a crowd milling outside. Something was wrong. We walked up to the building and read a handwritten note which was conspicuously taped to the metal side door:

"Test inspector on strike.”

My nerves were so shot by then by the anticipatory stress of the exam and the nail-biting ride I'd taken to get there that I started laughing hysterically.

The driving instructor shortly abandoned us with a vague promise that someone else from the school would be back to pick us up later.

I waited a half an hour outside in the parking lot until it started to drizzle, SMS-ing the details of my ridiculous situation to everyone and arranging with my boss to come in to work in the afternoon. Then there was a search for the bus stop, a forty-five minute bus ride to La Défense, a twenty minute wait for the RER, and of course, no bus when I arrived, so I had to walk another twenty minutes to the office. All in all, it took me two hours to get to work from Villeneuve. At least it didn't rain (hard), and at least I arrived in time for lunch.

The driving school called me a day later.

"We've contacted the préfecture, and it looks like it will be difficult to get you a new date in June."

It looks like it will be difficult. Il semble que ça va être difficile. Code for "absolutely no one is interested in your predicament."

I put off getting my French license for almost seven years out of laziness, but also because everyone had warned me that it would be a long, expensive and frustrating ordeal. When I finally signed up, I was almost worried that everyone would be proven wrong, that the process would be relatively simple and that I'd kick myself for having waited. It turns out, no, actually, it's even worse than I expected.

At least I can indulge in the classic French pastime of insulting the civil service. It's some consolation.

*The priorité à droite is the rule that governs the order of passage at intersections where there are no yield or stop signs or traffic lights (of which there are many in France). Regardless of who arrives in which order, a driver arriving from the right always passes before a driver arriving from the left. This rule is so ingrained in the psyche of the French driver that they see it as a divine right, and thus cross intersections at great speeds with barely a sidelong glance to the left. Seasoned French drivers also have a second sense when it comes to detecting cars arriving on the right so they can brake in time. To an American observer, it puts the "uncontrolled" in "uncontrolled intersection."