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.

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