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.


paola said...

Oh boy do I envy you having a trans-atlantic flight by yourself. What I wouldn't give to travel home without my brood. We are going home in September ( 24 hour flight, 8 hour time difference), and it will be a nightmare just like the last time. This time Zoe is 3.5. Need I say more?

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@paola - yikes, 24 HOUR flight? With a three year old? You are a braver woman than I.

We might come back next summer if the baby is laid back and a good sleeper (yeah, I know, so it's unlikely :). But otherwise I'm thinking we'll wait until le Petit is four and a half or five before we attempt another family trip.

paola said...

Oh it does depend on the 3 year old. Last time Noah was the age Zoe is now and he sat still in his seat/slept/ate/played with his cars for the WHOLE flight, without any screen entertainment. We were in the bulkhead part of the place and the entertainment unit is tucked under the seat. We didn't even know we HAD an entertainment unit until an hour out of Melbourne. Noah is whole other kettle of fish.

caramama said...

I'm trying to find something poignant to say, but I'm coming up empty. Except:

This was just a beautiful post!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@caramama - Thank you so much! Being out here is bring up lots of emotional stuff for me, and sharing it (and having sympathetic readers!) helps.

@paola - I'm hoping that number two will be more laid back about plane trips, and better with jet lag than le Petit. How do your kids do with the eight hour time difference?

Although the flight itself was the biggest stress by far, I'd underestimated how messed up the 9 hour time difference would be. Going back home was OK, but le Petit took a week or more to get on anything near his normal schedule coming out.

I'm happy to say that with me flying solo this time, jet lag has been a piece of cake. I managed to avoid napping the day I arrived, and was more or less on local time starting the next day. I've been waking up a tiny bit earlier than usual and taking advantage of it to watch the world cup.

paola said...

Honestly we had no problems with jet lag on the way there. We did arrive at bed-time so that really helped. And I think the time difference must have worked as a reboot for Zoe's sleep, 'cos she was 19 month old and went from frequent wake-ups here in Itlay to sleeping 12 hours a night for a whole month. I strongly remcommend it for bad sleepers!! Hope it works this time for us too.

However, when we got back to Italy we had a couple of hideous nights. Noah was great but Zoe was teething and I believe it was the start of her 20 month thingy. In fact her sleep took a nose dive and it never really picked up till she turned 3.

A Seattleite in Paris said...

That's sweet. I understand about being "other". Seattle is and will always be home for me, but Paris is also home although in a completely different sense.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Misty here, and it's not the SF fog. Sweet, sweet post.