Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in Paris

After nine years here, Thanksgiving in France for me is finally just another Thursday.  Today I managed to go to work, go for a run at lunch, eat a less appetizing than usual meal in the cafeteria, then come home and make pasta for dinner without feeling like I should be frantically preparing a turkey or dozing on the couch in front of the Macy's parade instead.*  

This is actually new.

Thanksgiving is more exceptional even than Christmas in the US because everyone has a reason, or finds a reason, to celebrate.  With so little in common otherwise, we all eat the same meal on the same day -- turkey, or turkey-inspired tofu, or something with squash.  And most everyone has a whole four days off in a row, which in itself is remarkable in an otherwise vacation-starved country.  For years, not having this special episode at the end of November felt strange and unnatural.  

My husband's company's CEO sent out a cheesy Thanksgiving e-mail, either ignorant or deliberately ignoring that most of the world has no idea what it's all about.  A time for reflection, he claimed, but he didn't reflect that his company is a large multinational company... based in Europe. Not that anyone did more than shrug, I'm sure.

I helped throw a small party at my office in honor of Thanksgiving and (informally) to celebrate Obama's victory.  A colleague of mine wanted to celebrate his recent full-time hiring, so we co-hosted a lunch earlier this week. I made pumpkin muffins and wild rice and cranberry salad, and I stayed up until one a.m. preparing it all. He brought Moroccan pastries, carried back from his weekend trip home to Casablanca.  We bought cheese, meats, fruit, pretzels, sparkling wine, orange juice, and spread it all out in the middle of the open space.  The whole floor came, at least thirty or forty people.  It felt sort of subversive, this Thanksgiving-hiring-left-wing-victory lunch, with Halal meats for some and Spanish Cava for others, thrown by two proud immigrants.

"Joyeux Thanksgiving!" I was wished repeatedly, then asked what exactly Thanksgiving was all about.  "Thank you, thank you!" many said earnestly and exaggeratedly, figuring the thanking was the key part.  

"It's an entirely invented holiday -- une fête créée de toute pièce," I explained, happy that my authority wouldn't be questioned, "But they teach us this stuff about les colons et les indiens." 
Though I hadn't thought about it in years, I then pictured my kindergarten class with our construction paper costumes, little paper feather headdresses and rigid white bonnets.  The story seemed so unquestionably true back then, and universal.  

Now here I was, in France, explaining to a gathering of amused colleagues that no, it wasn't the salad but the rice that was sauvage, that it was not really rice at all in fact, and that no, it probably wasn't GMO.

"En tout cas, c'est bon."  The salad disappeared but for a few grains, and the muffins were devoured as well.  A few asked why I didn't bring a turkey.

That's what I like best about Thanksgiving: that everyone takes it and turns it into what they want.  Sure, within a family one is often irritatingly constrained by tradition.  There's the side dish that no one eats year after year, the football game that no one wants to watch, the feeling that if you deviate from the script you'll be cheating or offending someone.  But on the scale of the whole country, this most national holiday is really whatever you want to make it.  That's what I love about it, and that's why I still consider it mine.

Even when it's just another Thursday in November.

*We're actually going to celebrate properly this weekend with another French-American couple and their two kids.  They're making a turkey and I'm making a pumpkin pie. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Democracy in America Part I: Absentee Ballot Blues

I'm a nervous wreck on American presidential election nights.  I've been this way ever since I moved away from the West Coast and lost the luxury of going to sleep relatively certain of the outcome.  It was already bad in Boston, where I was forced to go to bed before the states in the West could be called. I remember too well a restless election night in 2000 which turned into weeks of hand-wringing.  Not even PST would have saved me that strife, of course, but anyway. Now I live in Paris.  And now election night is much, much worse.

I doubt that I'll offend or surprise my extensive (!) blog readership by admitting that I'm an ardent Democrat.  One of the things I most love about being an expat is the tacit assumption that everyone around me is an Obama supporter, too.  Obama is popular in Europe, widely seen as the face of reasonableness in a country of baffling extremes.  Since the mainstream right in France is actually to the left of the Democratic Party on many issues, most everyone here can relate to him politically, at least when he's compared to a Bush or a Romney.  Consequently I feel like I can speak my mind here, and I do... maybe more than I should.

At work today I was an anxious mess, pontificating by the coffee machine (in retrospect, maybe coffee wasn't such a good idea today), grumbling at my desk.  All conversations with me led to the election.  My colleagues were amused, or indifferent, or irritated, but they were also remarkably patient.  The two that accompanied me on a run at lunch let me drag them at a sustained pace on the route through the forest, the one with steep hills that I thought would help me work through the stress. While we ran I went on and on about politics, both American and French.  I actually stopped at one point to scream at the trees.

I don't know why I still have such a desperate and visceral response to the American election since I now live removed from most of its direct consequences.  I already enjoy universal health care, after all.  Education, defense spending, tax rates in the US: these aren't my issues; not now, and not within the next four years.  Although I don't rule it out, I doubt I'll ever move back home.

"I don't know why I care, after all, it's not like it affects me," I told my boss today, trying to play it cool after he flippantly predicted a Romney victory.

"Now you're wrong there," he assured me swiftly and seriously.  It's true: the American president has an influence on the world so great that I almost regard it as unfair that citizens of other countries don't get to weigh in.  I freely admit it's a ridiculous thought, but consider the impact of a president that denies climate change, for example.  What can a country like France, or even all the countries of the EU, do to counterbalance (y'know, hypothetically) an American veto of the Kyoto Agreement?  Just think of the US as a giant swing state in the global electoral college.

I personally do get to vote, of course, by absentee ballot in my former state of residence, Massachusetts.   I mailed it in a few weeks ago.   That done, I now get to try to let go.  Maybe think instead of François Hollande and how uninvested I am in French politics.  That's the bizarre thing, you see.  I'm now a French citizen as well as an American one, and I'm proud to be able to vote here, so much so that I am loath to miss a single election.  Yet here I'm a swing voter, that odd creature that I never have understood in an American context.  I voted for Hollande, after making up my mind definitively in the last weeks before the election.  I like him.  But he's not my man.

Right now I'm hiding in the bedroom because my husband is channel surfing for election news and there's nowhere else in our apartment where I can escape the tyranny of CNN.   To him (though he loves the US deeply) it's just a spectator sport.  To me it's a desperate battle for the future.  I'm going to bed now and I'll try to fall asleep, reminding myself that thankfully we're both probably wrong.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Where in the world

When we walk down the street together and he's distracted by something long enough for him to stray behind, I'm almost certain Le Petit has found a map.  There is no map that escapes his notice, from the transit maps on the back of bus shelters to emergency evacuation plans posted in public buildings.  A few weeks ago he stopped abruptly and stared straight down at the sidewalk, his eyes riveted to a trampled flyer.  "What in the world...?" I wondered for a moment. Then I saw the schematic road map with directions to a car dealership. 

Oh, of course.

"Maman, where is this?" he asked, and when I named the town, I seem to recall that he came up with a coherent description of how to get there.  

"I have a GPS," he's fond of telling me.  "And," he adds proudly, "It's better than Daddy's GPS, because his is only in the car, but mine is with me all the time."  Judging from his dizzying knowledge of the highway network in France, the assertion may come close to the truth. He knows the major modern autoroutes and the cities they link, and has a fetish about certain routes nationales, or the French equivalent of the old US Highway system.  While we were on summer vacation I bought him a laminated spiral-bound Michelin French road atlas.  I thought he might enjoy following along while we drove, learning to translate the dynamic images on the GPS screen to the old fashioned paper version.  The atlas is now his favorite "toy," and except on road trips, it never leaves the living room.  He spends hours bent over it absorbed, reluctantly abandoning it to come to the dinner table.

Makes sense, perhaps, for a child of a mother with an aggravated geographic identity crisis.  I suffer intermittently from what I call geographic vertigo, the disquieting sensation of feeling in your gut that you're one place and knowing in your head that you're in another.  It happens when I land at Seatac and the signs are no longer in French, and the announcements on the loudspeaker are in Pacific Northwest English -- not an official accent or anything, but I know it when I hear it -- and I'm so jetlagged and disoriented that the language either doesn't process or processes too well, and I'm left almost lightheaded.  It happens when I hear a sound or taste some flavor that is associated, profoundly and subconsciously, with either Here or There. 

Recently I was trying to fall asleep when a wave of anxiety hit me. It was the kind of anxiety that leads to nothing useful, just a string of horrible What Ifs and an urgent mental to-do list that evaporates as soon as I finally lose consciousness.  Then I heard the sound of a car driving over a manhole cover in the street below our apartment.  A muffled whoosh-clunk-clunk.  The anxiety immediately disappeared.  Every home has its orchestra of sounds, of creaky and squeaky floors and doors and street noises and wind, the hum of appliances and the gurgling of plumbing, and no two places sound alike.  This whoosh-clunk-clunk belonged to my bedroom in my mom's house in Seattle and the specific manhole cover in the middle of the intersection three houses down, and I swear I've never heard it here in Paris either before or since.  The feeling that washed over me when I heard it was that of being a child again, of being taken care of, of no longer being in charge.  Of being somewhere where things would never change, where a year still took a long time to elapse, and the future was a comforting and frustrating long way away.

I've lived in our apartment here in France for nine years now.  It is, I realized recently with equal parts pride and disappointment, the place where I've lived the longest in my entire life.  When I start thinking of it as temporary now, of a move as imminent, this fact punches me in the stomach.  It is also the only home Le Petit or Mademoiselle have known, which may matter more to me now than to them.

The Seine is a block from our house, and there are two busy roads that flank it: the D1 and the D7, as Le Petit would explain.  When he explains an itinerary, he traces the route in the air, expecting you to follow.  He can see it in front of his eyes, just like he sees the Great Lakes in a chain of sauce stains on his dinner plate or Lake Geneva in a puddle.  He points out with joy and wonder, this is where we are and this is where we could be, the macro and the micro that form patterns and indicate directions, like the steps of a dance.  He knows that the Saône leads to the Rhone and on to the Mediterranean, that the Danube flows through Vienna on its way to the Black Sea.  He can read the forms of countries and the traced paths of rivers without yet being able to read the words beside them.  He's learning to decipher words through maps: he knows which cities are where, and afterwards attempts to make the letters fit.

As we drive down the road, he puzzles out street signs, incorrectly, mostly: "Toutes directions" becomes "Toulouse."  No matter: he'll get it eventually.  The only thing more marvelous that knowing where you are, you see, is knowing where you might go from there.