Friday, June 24, 2011

Not from around here

My mother-in-law was chatting a few days ago with the woman across the hall and le Petit was listening in on the conversation. The woman mentioned something about how le Petit's mom is an American.

"Oui," le Petit chimed in, "And I am, too. And so is my sister, because we took her to the embassy."

He's fascinated by geography these days, and pores over the children's atlases we've purchased for him even though they're meant for children twice his age.

"Is Saint-Ouen in Europe, Mommy?" he asked me, randomly, about a suburb on the northeastern edge of Paris that we pass on our way to Troyes. Yes, I assured him, it is. I've tried to explain cities and countries and continents to him by showing progressively bigger distances between my hands. Saint-Ouen is in Europe because it is in France, and France is in Europe.

He'll often talk to me about Italy, which he explains is in Europe, and Spain, also in Europe. As we listened to the BBC streaming on the computer yesterday, I explained that it was radio from London, in the UK.

"Is the UK in Europe, Mommy?"

I assured him that it was. Later, as I was in the kitchen, the BBC switched back to Seattle's local NPR station -- I listen to the streaming of KUOW which early in the morning Seattle time is still the BBC World Service -- and le Petit told me that the radio was now 'United States radio.'

"How did you know that?" I asked amazed, wondering if he'd interpreted the change in accent (unlikely), or just overheard the station identification as Seattle and known that Seattle was in the US. He stared at me, confused, unsure how to answer. Then we were back to 'London Radio,' and as le Petit remembered from watching the royal wedding on TV, London is home to Buckingham Palace.

"Mommy," he told me excitedly, "[Mademoiselle] is in Buckingham Palace!"

I glanced at Mademoiselle, sitting in her high chair.

"And why do you say that?"

"Because, Mommy, because she's got a balcony!"

Sure enough: the high chair tray.

"And Mommy," le Petit continued, and I expected him to say something about her being a princess, "Mommy, her head is... a flag!" He giggled at the idea.

A little later, as we were eating lunch, he stopped to say with great seriousness, "Mommy, you are a-mé-ri-caine. And Daddy, Daddy is... pa-ri-si-enne [sic]!"

I texted my husband with the news, and toulousain that he is, I think he was a little bit disappointed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

At the table

Yesterday for dinner le Petit asked for magret, or duck breast. Magret cuit au four, specifically, or broiled duck breast, in le Petit-speak. And potatoes. With rice.

I ignored the rice request because I'd already made Italian black rice for lunch. It was deliciously fragrant and went quite well with the smoked salmon and steamed zucchini I'd served along with it, but I'd spent the rest of the afternoon picking errant grains up off the kitchen and living room floors, noticing that they looked disturbingly like tiny insects. Potatoes, however, I could do, and the sautéed potatoes from Richard Grausman's "At Home with the French Classics" that I serve systematically with magret are pretty much the only potatoes that le Petit will accept to eat. My husband was out of town for the night, and I felt a bit silly going out of my way to make a meal much more complicated than pasta for just me and the kids. But le Petit had asked, after all, and after a couple of recent evenings with kid duty solo, I was on sort of a supermom trip. So I fired up the broiler.

Recently, le Petit has been uncharacteristically open to new foods. He'll sometimes take a few bites of broccoli or carrot, or grab a raw piece of zucchini off of a cutting board if he's especially hungry. He'll state with seriousness, "Autrefois, je n'aimais pas ça, mais maintenant je l'aime:" I disliked that before, but now I like it. Conversely, he'll suddenly spurn some things he used to adore, saying "Autrefois, j'aimais ça, mais maintenant je ne l'aime plus." You win some, you lose some.

I estimate he's still getting only 0.9% of his daily serving of vegetables, but still, there's new variety.

He's not nearly as open to new foods as his sister is, of course. Now that Mademoiselle's six months old, we've launched into the solid food adventure, and she precipitates into her mouth anything that I place on her high chair tray. Yesterday at lunch she eagerly made disappear the same steamed zucchini her brother haughtily pushed off his plate. I found half on the floor and on the seat cushion, of course, but the rest was greedily devoured.

By the time the duck breast and the potatoes were ready last night and I'd managed to herd le Petit to the table, Mademoiselle was too fussy to stay in her play pen, so I popped her into her high chair beside us. I thought she might be happy just observing dinner, but she took one look at le Petit's plate and then looked at me, indignant.

I pulled apart a chunk of potato and dropped in on the tray in front of her. Her gaze dropped, her arms flew out in front of her, and with careful concentration, she started zeroing in on the target. She closed the potato chunk in her fist, brought it to her mouth and looked happily startled. Mmmm. As I dropped more chunks, I noted with satisfaction that I had two happy kids eating a home-cooked meal, both with such enthusiasm that neither one was using a fork. I must be a pretty good cook. Then I remembered that Mademoiselle will actually try to eat anything these days, including paper (!), plastic wrap (!!), and cloth napkins, provided it falls within her grasp. As a good friend remarked recently, she'd try to eat nuts and bolts if I put them on her plate.

I got up to get le Petit's dessert from the refrigerator, a bowl full of freshly cut strawberries with a dusting of sugar, his favorite. As I disappeared back into kitchen I heard him say to himself, his mouth full of strawberries, "This is a wonderful meal!"

What's that? My son, complementing my food? I went back to the table and asked him to repeat himself. Then, sure that I'd really understood, I planted a kiss on the top of his head and told him how happy I was to hear that the dinner I'd prepared was appreciated by the people I love.

"And, Mommy, what's your meal?" he asked oddly. Uhh... I'd been eating the duck and the potatoes with him. Was I even sure he knew what the word 'meal' meant?

Maybe he knows he has me figured out, because today, encouraged in part by the rave review I'd gotten the night before, I made le Petit's favorite risotto for lunch. (OK, Mock Risotto -- but I honestly can hardly tell the difference.) I steamed up some broccoli for myself and Mademoiselle, and le Petit even nibbled at it a bit after declaring "Autrefois, je n'aimais pas ça." Mademoiselle munched away as I handed her stalk after stalk, throwing all caution to the wind about what it might do to her poor unsuspecting digestive system. After all, this may be the last time she begs for broccoli, so I'd best take advantage of it.

I encouraged le Petit to use his plastic knife to push the risotto onto his plastic spoon, and I pretended not to notice when at the end he shoveled fistfuls into his mouth. "I like the wine in the risotto," he commented. Yes, my little food critic with the primitive table manners can tell when I have some white wine on hand to add to the chicken broth.

When lunch was over, the floor was littered with sticky rice kernels, tiny broccoli buds were spread all the way from the back of the high chair to the threshold of the kitchen, the sink and counter were covered with dirty pots and pans, and both kids were in desperate need of a good wipe down with a wet wash cloth. I wearily trekked off to start cleaning and came back to find le Petit trying to push one last broccoli stalk, salvaged from his own plate, into the mouth of one very surprised Mademoiselle.

"But Mommy, I'm trying to help her eat her broccoli!"

I intervened quickly and explained why we don't force feed vegetables.

And to think that in five hours, it'd be dinner time again.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Prendre le large

My husband turned 40 this year, and I surprised him with a long solo weekend away at les Glénans sailing school in Brittany. A few years ago he started wishing he knew how to sail, and in his typical fashion spent hours selecting just the right books to buy on the subject. Then he didn't act on it. Instead he sighed, and said what-if-one-day to himself repeatedly on each family trip to the ocean. I believe that the very best gifts are the ones that someone longs for but doesn't dare get for themselves. So tonight, after work, my husband hopped the TGV high-speed train for Vannes, and tomorrow he'll take a ferry to the Ile d'Ars in the Gulf of Morbihan and spend three days learning to sail a dinghy.

I hope he enjoys it. I hope he doesn't get too cold. He applied his minimalist packing strategy (as opposed to my just-in-case packing strategy) and I'm not sure he has enough layers. I've told him not to worry about me and the kids, so I guess I'll stop worrying about him. I just hope he comes back dreaming, because to me that's what 40 birthdays are supposed to be about: dreaming about the next half(+) of your life.

Of course, as luck would have it, Mademoiselle has been dragging along a minor cold all week, and today le Petit came down with an unexplained low-grade fever. Both were in bed in good order tonight. I got them both fed, bathed, and asleep by 8:40, which I believe may be my personal best in the solo-parenting category. And we will as usual be largely aided by my in-laws, who are taking us all to Troyes tomorrow. Picture me riding in the back of the car tomorrow morning between two car seats, a nursing pillow on my lap and my knees somewhere folded in improbable angles.

Speaking of which, can someone please explain to me why it takes multiple reasonably intelligent adults a seemingly staggering amount of time to install a car seat in the back of a vehicle? Or is it just me? Or just my car seat? We have an Isofix system (that's LATCH to you all in the US) and I just bought the latest fancy-dancy Swedish extended rear facing model for Mademoiselle, which can be installed with or without the base, and with either the Isofix anchors or a normal shoulder belt. It took my father-in-law and me thirty minutes of puzzling over it and the Swedish manual to get it installed without the base in his car with no Isofix. I almost gave up, and then dropped the base on my foot when I went to get the base out of our car. That thing is heavy, as befits the Volvo of car seats. Nothing like feeling clumsy and stupid. It's worse than those child-proof caps that no one over 12 can manipulate properly.

Mademoiselle is still waking up several times a night. Most nights I don't feel I should complain, since she usually nurses for less than 10 minutes before falling peacefully back asleep. I just pop her back in her crib and slide back down onto the pillows in my bed without hardly opening my eyes. Then, at seven o'clock, she's up for the day, which is highly reasonable for an infant, really, as I was reminded this morning when she uncharacteristically was up at 5:30. But I've gotten reckless with my own bedtime, writing blog entries or even -- the audacity -- watching the occasional movie before going to bed, so I don't get more than three hours before the first wake up. Unless she wakes up for the first time at 11, as she often does, justifying my "waiting" for her. Ugh. And on bad nights, she'll wake up as many five times, if my weary brain is counting correctly at that point. She rarely wakes up less than three times.

Mademoiselle is otherwise the picture of a mature young lady for her 6 months.
She'd still like to crawl, I think, but sitting in one place is The New Big Thing. She spends her days sitting up, alert, fussing with indignation when she unexpectedly flops over to one side. She suffers the playpen with reasonable patience, if I can keep cycling in new toys quickly enough. She is fascinated by tags and tiny details, by the texture and pattern of the rug in the hallway or the smooth surface of the hardwood floor, which she runs her tiny fingers across in rapt observation. I can no longer read while nursing her unless she's mostly asleep because she'll simply turn around and try to grab the book from my hands.

She loves sitting with us at the table in her high chair. She's started eating solid foods, and has decided that while the spoon is far more interesting than the pureed baby food it contains, she's more than happy to serve herself baked sweet potato "fries" or steamed zucchini. Because, after all, if she can pick it up herself, it must be good. I remember worrying about what and when to feed le Petit at that age, and whether he was getting enough. Now I realize that at six months, the main purpose of solid food is to keep the baby occupied so you can eat in peace. With Mademoiselle expanding her palate and le Petit still conscientiously eating most things without a fork, I may soon have to call in a street sweeper after family meals, however.

The photos from my photo shoot with Mademoiselle are now available. Although I don't want to post the pictures here to preserve the relative anonymity of my blog, if anyone would like to see them, just e-mail me and I'll send you the link. I think I look radiant and maternal, and Mademoiselle looks her usual beautiful self, even in the picture taken when she was about to have a meltdown. I think they may have photoshopped away my dark circles, but that's quite all right by me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Un après-midi aux grands magasins

Today, Mademoiselle decided she'd wake up thirty minutes into her afternoon nap. Groan. She was still tired and fussy, but her internal baby sleep timer had been reset and I knew there was no hope of getting her back down for another two hours, at least. In the meantime, she wasn't particularly interested in being parked in her playpen, even for a minute while I tried to finish my cup of coffee. Le Petit was glued to, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he needed me for something urgent and impractical to do with an infant in my arms, like rebuilding a Lego bridge.

So I did what any rational person would do: I called in the reinforcements. And then plotted my escape.

"How about if I call Grandma and we all go out?" I proposed to le Petit. "How about... we all go to the grands magasins?" I added slyly. "What would you think of that?"

The grands magasins I had in mind were the Paris flagship stores of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette which reign just behind the Opera on opposite corners of the Boulevard Haussman. Le Petit knows them well, since my mother-in-law started taking him there in the afternoons last fall when I was pregnant and on bed rest with Mademoiselle. The model of an indulgent Parisian grandmother, she'd follow him up and down the escalators to every single floor, then take the elevator up and down a few times for good measure. She'd whisk him off for an emergency potty stop. Before coming home, they'd admire the stained-glass cupola from the middle of the cosmetics department far below.

Le Petit remembered all this, and answered enthusiastically, "Yes! We'll go to the grands magasins! In the bus!" Riding the bus through Paris was part of the attraction.

I self-indulgently was planning to refresh my make-up bag with some anti-dark-circle magic. I'm no cosmetic fiend, but I'd just run out of foundation and that's not something you want to have happen when your baby isn't sleeping through the night. In the few hours of uninterrupted sleep I've been getting at night, I've been dreaming of new earrings to show off my short haircut. And also Galeries Lafayette's disproportionate women's shoe department, which takes up the entire floor of the renovated basement.

Yes, I decided, it was time for Mademoiselle's first shopping trip.

I called my mother-in-law and she was on board. Mademoiselle grew excited when she saw me put on the Moby wrap. Then the bus lulled her into a brief nap that lasted through my consultation at the Printemps make-up counter. A sweet young woman with long blond hair assured me, in her charming Quebec accent, that despite my lack of sleep I had 'bonne mine' today. I laughed.

"Well, last night, you see, she had a good night. Only woke up twice..."

She picked out a light tinted cream and a powder, and then easily talked me into also buying lip gloss and eyeshadow. Mademoiselle continued to snooze as she handed me my bag. My mother-in-law chased after le Petit, who I was momentarily grateful to forget entirely. When I finished, we headed upstairs.

"I promised him chocolate," my mother-in-law confessed. "From La Maison du Chocolat."

"Oh, boy. And have you been sage enough to deserve that?" I asked le Petit.

"Well, he's been sage ever since I mentioned it."

His nose just at the bottom of the display case, his arms stretched wide, le Petit told Grandma that he wanted all the chocolates and Grandma, obligingly, got him one of each of the dark chocolate ganaches. We'd all share, I assured the young woman who served us, worried what she'd think of such spoiling of a three-year-old. She handed over the bag, and wished us a knowing "à bientôt."

Visiting Paris with Mademoiselle and le Petit in tow is different from wandering the city alone. First, everything is slower and more complicated -- it takes longer to climb down into the Métro, longer to wind through the crowds on sidewalk on the boulevards. I have to worry about wiping hands clean, and emergency toilet stops, and whether or not I've brought sufficient water. I don't dare take both kids out alone on my own. At the same time, the typically apathetic Parisians suddenly notice me -- or us, rather -- and smile. And le Petit stops often and sees something I would never notice, like a partial view of the Eiffel Tower between buildings or a billboard on the street, and says something cute and to my biased ears, insightful.

We were in the shoe department in the Galeries when Mademoiselle started to sing, a long, loud "AaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaa," not happy but not exactly upset, as if to say "Hey, world, I'm here!" I ignored her and kept turning over shoes and blinking at the prices, but other people stared and chuckled to themselves.

"She's saying, 'All these shoes! And I can't even walk!'" I interpreted helpfully.

She kept babbling, and drooling, and grinning wide to display her two hand-won bottom teeth. I found earrings and explained to the saleswoman, "It's the first time I've taken her shopping. And somehow I doubt it'll be the last."

Friday, June 10, 2011


Today we took Mademoiselle to the American consulate in Paris to formalize her status as an American citizen and apply for her passport and her Social Security number.

We did the same for le Petit when he was only two months old. I recently took out his passport and looked at the photo where he has the serious, slightly confused look of a tiny infant. He was still too small to hold his head up, so I propped him on my lap for the passport photo, using a pillowcase draped over my chest to form a white background. Although he obviously doesn't remember the photo or the visit to the consulate now, almost four years later, he's beginning to understand what it means.

"You get to go to school in the car this morning," my husband announced as le Petit got out of bed, "Because we're taking Mademoiselle to the American consulate. That's so she can become an American, like you."

Le Petit hopped down the hallway in his pajamas, chanting happily, "Je suis américain ! Et maman aussi !" Le Petit is fascinated with geography right now, and he's beginning to grasp the concepts of continents, oceans, and countries. I'm not sure he's actually associated yet the idea of being American with the United States. I suspect his mental construct of the United States is limited to three cities: Seattle, New York, and Washington D.C. ("Where Obama lives"), a few illustrations in his children's books, and the all-important notion of "Where Grandpa and Gramby live."

We hurried to drop him off at school and then stressed and bickered our way through Paris' morning traffic, arriving ten minutes before our 9:30 appointment. It turned out there was no need to rush. We waited for an hour in a large room lined with numbered service windows, watching the "now serving" numbers pop up in mystifying disorder. There were several other couples with small children waiting for appointments, too. I struck up a conversation with a woman who, like me, was carrying an infant in a wrap carrier. She was born in France to an American family, just like le Petit and Mademoiselle were, and she identified herself as both American and French. "I'm a Parisian," she told me matter-of-factly in a flat Midwestern accent, causing me to do a double-take despite myself. Her partner was English, and they had an appointment at the British Embassy later in the day. They were registering their third child.

She had nothing good to say about the Americans at the consulate, or the process she'd gone through to register her previous children.

She told me, "When my boyfriend called up his consulate to tell them, 'My French girlfriend is pregnant, what do I do to make sure the child is British?' they just told him, 'Sir, the child already is.'"

The Americans, on the other hand, had made her jump through hoops to prove that she had enough physical presence in the US to transmit citizenship -- there's a requirement of five years, if I remember correctly -- even though she'd attended high school, college and graduate school in the country. She was most irritated that the official had implied that she somehow must have gone back to France during the brief break between quarters at her university, thus voiding five days of the school year she was claiming.

I nodded sympathetically. I theoretically understand why the physical presence test is applied, because otherwise generation upon generation born abroad could claim American citizenship without any true tie to the country. On the other hand, I get defensive when the test is actually applied to me or to my children. I lived in the US until I was 26 years old and never left the country except for brief vacations. I was soon standing in front of a consular official who was asking for details of those vacations, including specific dates and durations that I had no longer any clue about. Luckily, they let my foggy memory slide, for it was clear enough that I passed the test regardless. But I made note to myself to start saving the boarding passes for each trip I take back with the kids, just in case they need them some day.

Extremists in both France and the United States have been talking recently of making it more difficult to claim citizenship in these sorts of cases. In France, it is already reportedly difficult for children born to a foreign parent, even on French soil, to renew their identity papers. Xenophobia is hardly surprising in hard economic times, I suppose. When times are tough, who better to blame than those who came, uninvited, to take their slice of the pie? But I am saddened when I think of it, even more so now that I'm caught in the 'other,' too. My children are both French and American, and inevitably to some people that will mean that they're somehow less of each. We decided to get all their paperwork straightened out early in their lives, just in case.

I'm not complaining, not really, because I doubt that this will represent any real hardship to me or to my kids. My kids will ultimately carry both passports, it's just a question of navigating the bureaucracy. I realize as well that my children are white, upper middle class, and born in a first-world country with a claim of citizenship in another first-world country. Truly all the privilege cards are stacked their favor. But I inevitably think of other kids who were brought to the US undocumented, were educated in the US, and are are just as rightfully American as my children, yet they have no simple path to citizenship. I also think of children who were born in France with a skin color or a last name that doesn't fit in the French idea of their own identity, and may therefore be regarded skeptically for the rest of their lives.

Like it or not, the world is getting smaller, and there will be more and more children like mine. Like these. I happen to think that these are the children who will grow up to interpret things for the rest of us. Raised between two cultures, they will be able to build bridges. It's a shame that the world sees them more as a threat or as a challenging exception than as an asset.

During the interview with the consular official, there's a moment where they visibly decide if your story holds, if your paperwork is in order, and if your child is therefore worthy to become a bone fide American. They then smile and let you know you'll receive the passport in the mail in a few weeks. Even if I knew today that was all just a formality, I still let out of a sigh of relief.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Pilgrim's progress

Our house was on the modern Way of Saint James, also known as the GR 65 "grande randonnée" hiking trail that meanders south through France to the Pyrenees before changing name and number and heading across northern Spain to Santiago. A few years ago, I would have spent our week there imagining weary medieval pilgrims on horseback, or leading mules, or simply on foot, staggering down that same path centuries ago. Now I'm less naive, I know there's no particular reason that they would have come down this country road rather than another. They would, however, have likely stopped up the hill from us in the town of Lectoure, in the region known as Gascony, on their way to distant Galicia. One route, one Way -- or rather several official chemins, from Paris, Vézelay, or Le Puy -- is a modern invention, for pilgrims who plan their vacations with guidebooks, fixed dates, hostel reservations and starting points at railway stations and airports. In the distant once-upon-a-time, a pilgrim's route started quite simply at his front door.

At the house in Lectoure, our front door in Paris felt far away, and I hadn't even walked to get there. We'd sped down the A-20 motorway for a week in my current favorite place on Earth, the Gers, and I'd slept much of the way in the passenger seat.

My friends and family tease us now when we admit we're heading again to the same département that draws us back year after year. The Gers, encore? Surely we must have exhausted all the possibilities, seen all the sights, haunted all the limited tourist attractions time and again. It's true in part, since I can no longer remember exactly how many times we've visited, and feel I know the place intimately for someone who has never actually lived there. Half of each stay is spent going back to places we've already been numerous times, like the solemnly luminous Abbey of Flaran, or the round knot of stone houses that forms the bastide village of Forcés, in a sort of a personal pilgrimage. It grounds me, I guess, to know that these things are still here and that little has changed since my last visit. When I'm standing on one of the crest of any of the rolling hills of the Gers, I suspect that the landscape has endured only superficial changes in the last few centuries, and that despite the paved roads and telephone poles, modernity has used light brush strokes here. That leads me to hope that it'll be the same after I'm gone, and that even if the world threatens to crumble around me, this corner of civilization will remain. That's why I don't bother the read the daily headlines when I'm in the Gers.

But back to the Way of Saint James. My husband has dreamed of hiking to Santiago de Compostela ever since he was an adolescent and randomly read Les étoiles de Compostelle by Henri Vincenot once summer vacation. Before that, he grew up going to Spain each summer vacation, taking detours with his parents to visit churches hidden in mountain valleys. He also spent hours as a boy inking Michelin maps onto tracing paper. Before we had kids, he used to pore over obscure guidebooks, and we'd spend a good part of our vacations in Spain, Germany and France trying to locate the vestiges of Romanesque buildings in nondescript villages or isolated cow pastures. His veneer of Catholicism is thin -- he goes to mass once a year, and only because I, the Anglican, drag him -- but he's still a pilgrim born.

On this trip to the Gers, we'd rented a house that is nestled in gentle valley on the northern side of Lectoure. The stone building sits right against a narrow country road where almost as many pilgrims pass as cars, and the garden opens up down the hillside to a small hidden stream. The main building is a 13th-century water mill built by monks, now restored by a youngish retired couple who in addition to renting the adjoining house, run a bed and breakfast. I found it difficult to imagine that the valley once possessed enough hydraulic power or religious fervor to justify such a structure, but the local historical record and the Gothic-arched doorways seem to prove it. Now there's a pool, and lawn chairs, and a riot of wildflowers, tall grass and nettles. The steeple of Lectoure's cathedral is half-visible above the trees.

At this time of year, the bed and breakfast's clients are mostly pilgrims wearily arriving on foot with heavy backpacks. The Way of Saint James, once reserved for the eccentric and the devout, has gone mainstream in the last decade. It's hard to find accommodations in the high season and, I'd imagine, even harder to find deluxe accommodations such as these. We were invited by our hosts to drop by for drinks one evening, and when we arrived, the table was elegantly set for their three pilgrim guests, the first of whom descended to join us. With her white hair swept up stylishly to show off two artfully modern earrings and a silky printed shawl draped over her shoulders, she hardly looked like a backpacker.

"My husband and I aren't particularly religious," she explained to us in French. "We're walking with my sister, who's doing this out of true belief," she added with a slight smile. We questioned her about their progress, when they'd left and how far they'd come. They'd started in Le Puy, but were walking to Santiago in week-long chunks taken year-by-year, and this year were on their second leg. More and more people hike the Way in this fashion, fitting segments into their relatively short vacations. Others make the going easier by hiring a service to carry their baggage. My husband and I agree that when we do our pilgrimage, we'll do it start to finish in one go, carrying everything we need on our backs.

"We dream of doing it some day," we said with sighs, "But now, it just isn't possible." And we smiled over the heads of the children, pointing out the obvious.

A day or two later, my husband went for a run along the GR 65. On the road he passed a family of six, he told me in amazement, with kids that looked to be nine, seven, five, and two years old respectively. The older kids had small day packs with pilgrim's scallop shells attached to the back; the youngest was being carried in a backpack by his father. Mom carried the biggest pack of all, filled, I supposed, with snacks, countless changes of clothes, band-aids, face wipes, favorite loveys, and all the other indispensable gear for life with kids.

I watched them walk past our house later. I was changing Mademoiselle on a wide windowsill that overlooked the road from the second floor bedroom. They looked happy, purposeful, undeterred by the steep slope leading up to Lectoure, and no one was prodding, haranguing or bribing anyone. First the dad came by, talking with an older child and carrying the baby, and then the mom came along a few minutes later, leading each of the other children by the hand. I wanted to run outside and ask them how they did it, but I was busy wrestling a diaper onto an acrobatic six month old. Maybe the family was only out for a week's walk, or even just a long weekend. Maybe they had no intention to continue on to Santiago right now, or ever. But still: four kids! I wondered if the parents fretted about what the kids would eat, about whether a restaurant at each stop could be talked into serving ungarnished pasta, and how they responded to the inevitable pleas of "Carry me!"

Clearly, we were wimps. My husband and I admitted it jokingly to each other later. It began to eat at me, though, as the week went on and I started to get depressed at the thought of returning to Paris. "If Only" is a refrain I chant to myself each time I'm in the Gers, often when I'm staring longingly at the house with the blue shutters in central Lectoure that I pretend is destined to be mine someday. "If Only we lived in Toulouse, we could buy a second place here, we'd spend all our weekends." "If Only we could move out of Paris and both find decent jobs." "If Only I weren't stuck in a job I dislike." "If Only we lived in a bigger place... I had my driver's license... I knew exactly what I was doing with my life..." I do eventually manage to kick myself, good and hard, out of such useless and self-centered thinking, but not without feeling bitter and stupid.

In the Gers, the Pyrenees are still far away, a curtain of white peaks that, they say, are only visible on the horizon in the clear weather than precedes or follows a storm. I worry that if I were on foot heading toward them, I couldn't stare at them too long for risk of being too discouraged. After the Pyrenees, there's all of Spain to cross, including endless, sweltering Castilla, but that would still be too abstract to deter me. I know, though, that the Way takes a path that most people can cross without too much effort; a well-traveled pass was chosen in Medieval times just for that reason. And by the time most pilgrims get there, they've been walking for so long that advancing unconsciously footstep by footstep is easy... or so I've heard. So, what if the impassible mountains of "If Only" I throw up were no more difficult to cross than the Pyrenees on the trail to Santiago?

I'm not sure that I really want to move to the Gers. I'm not sure changing my job would make my life all that much more rewarding. I do know that I want a bigger apartment, eventually. I'd like to think I'll find the moment someday to pack my backpack and head to Santiago with my husband. Maybe our kids will come, too. I doubt the youngest will be as young as two. Perhaps twelve? Maybe I'll pack earrings and a shawl.

On our last day in the Gers, we went on a 16 kilometer hike on a stretch of the GR 65 around La Romieu. La Romieu is a small village with an imposing church, la collégiale de la Romieu, which stands on a hill from which it has beckoned to pilgrims along the Way forever, or close enough. Yet we managed to hike around it for four hours mostly without seeing it at all. We were always on the wrong side of a hill or forest, it seemed, and I therefore had no idea how far I had to walk to get back to our car. I carried Mademoiselle in the wrap, and my husband either chased after, pulled along, or carried le Petit. We walked for most of the afternoon, and my husband seemed to mock my tired legs when he informed me that that was still only half to two thirds of a day's voyage on the Way.

"We could do it, if we had better training," I protested.

"There's no training for Compostelle, you just do it."

"Well, we'd just do it, then."

Le Petit invented a new French word: peleriner, or "to pilgrim," when we asked where we were going and we explained that we were just walking like the other pelerins on the trail. He walked with a great deal of enthusiasm and effort, I'll have to admit, and he rode only half of the way on my husband's shoulders. I, however, was tired and thirsty -- we'd brought too little water -- and the only thing that kept me going at the end was the thought of a cool glass of fresh juice from the shop at the garden orchard where we'd parked. Then we rounded a corner, and La Romieu's steeple appeared in a break in the trees.

"Look, Mommy!" exclaimed le Petit, grabbing my arm. "Look! It's the Abbey of Flaran!"

"No, it's La Romieu," I corrected, but he would have nothing of it. Earlier that week we'd taken him to Flaran, and apparently my efforts to explain my love of the place had borne fruit. He was so excited. So he got it, even when I didn't: where you are on the path is sometimes less important than where you decide you want to be.

Le Petit loved the house in Lectoure as much as we did. He spent much of each day in the garden, and every time someone on foot passed, he ran up to the gate and called out a cheerful, "Bonjour, pelerin!" But there was no question for him of not coming back home, and he was concerned to hear us muttering our "If Only" complaints. He didn't want to miss any more school.