Sunday, December 01, 2013

Mère indigne

On Saturday morning I woke up at eight to the alarm I'd scrupulously set the night before.  I first cleaned both bathrooms while simultaneously entertaining Mademoiselle and her stuffed toy squirrel; I then got Mademoiselle dressed and fed breakfast.  Before I hopped in the shower, while still in my pajamas, I got out the rubber gloves, the vinegar and baking soda and took apart and unclogged the shower drain.  I was showered, dressed, and ready to run out the door by 9:20.

I was a bit behind schedule, but I ran and arrived on time to Le Petit's school in under ten minutes, where I had signed up for an introductory first aid workshop.  Along with a dozen other conscientious parents, I learned how to do CPR and use a heart defibrillator with a volunteer from the local Red Cross.

This is me these days, trying to fit as many good deeds into a weekend as possible: cleaning, organizing, working out, thinking ahead, cooking, shopping, reading Dr. Seuss out loud, and cramming quality time with the husband and kids in between loads of laundry.  I can make homemade ice cream, play Monopoly, and survey snack time at the same time, I've discovered, thanks to our large formica kitchen table.

At the end of the training, one of the other mothers turned to me, probably feeling obliged to make small talk since we'd just spent the best part of two hours resuscitating a plastic torso together.  She had four kids, and the youngest was in Le Petit's grade: CP, the equivalent of first grade in the US.  She told me the name of her son's teacher.

"Oh, my son is in the other class," I said, "With Madame..."

And then I drew a total blank.

I couldn't remember my son's teacher's name.  I could picture her face, and clearly reassemble the classroom as I'd seen it one similar Saturday morning back in September when I and the other parents had squeezed into tiny desks in neat rows to listen to her back-to-school presentation.  I remembered her precise handwriting on the blackboard.  But I couldn't remember her name.

I started mumbling, searching lamely for some way to make it funny. Clearly I was making things worse for myself.  Even my American accent which has saved me from many an embarrassing occasion in the past was no use here. What kind of excuse could one possibly cover for such a slip?  Mère indigne, I stammered.  Bad mommy.

"But I could tell you what page they are on in their reading workbook!" I wanted to add in my defense, but instead the other mother walked away, thanked the volunteer for their time, and coolly (or so I imagined) wished me a good weekend and good day.  I said my thanks in turn and slinked out of the school building before anyone else could ask me any embarrassing questions.

Safe alone on the sidewalk, I called my husband.

"How'd it go?  Did you meet any other parents?"  he asked.

"It was... good," I paused. "Yes, I met one mom, but... she asked me Le Petit's teacher's name."


"I couldn't remember."

"You forgot Madame G---!" my husband shouted into the phone in astonishment.  Then he paused, seemed to consider it for a moment, and added, "Yeah, that's pretty bad."

He wouldn't forget of course, and so for thirty seconds I was quite angry with him (though I kept it to myself).  And he does just as much around the house, too, so so much for that as an explanation.  He drops to kids off in the morning: he offered that lamely to try and make me feel better.  Though how watching Le Petit disappear alone with his book bag into the front door of the elementary school every morning changes anything I'm not sure.

I went home, helped with lunch, did laundry, shopping, dishes, finished cleaning the apartment, played board games with the kids and helped put together a homemade Advent calendar.  And I've managed to not feel quite so stupid and embarrassed about the incident by throwing myself into all that I have to get done, and some things I probably don't.  Still, the name came to the front of my mind again and again as I was vacuuming or running around the Grand Canal: Madame G---.  Madame G---. 

"Why'd you forget Madame G---, maman?" Le Petit asked after he heard the story.  He seemed more confused than hurt, at least.  I didn't have a good excuse for him, either, but I could guarantee him, at least, that I wouldn't forget again.

Never sure how you're going to fall on your face next: I guess that's what keeps this parent gig interesting.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Late this afternoon I was desperate to get out of the house. So leaving my husband with the two kids bouncing off the walls, I jumped at the occasion to go to the mall.

There, I admitted it.

There just happens to be a mall near our apartment. Like all self-respecting malls, its self-defense system is its parking lot: it is virtually impossible to approach on foot and requires great determination to reach by bus or bicycle. We are exactly five minutes away by car, but on a Saturday afternoon it takes almost another fifteen to find a parking spot. The mall looks exactly like any mall anywhere across America: when I venture beyond my favorite department store, the BHV, or the upscale grocery store, Monoprix, and wander into the rest of the place I feel almost certain I've stepped into Seattle's Northgate shopping center. With two-tiers of clothing stores, a food court, soft innocuous music, it makes me positively dizzy with geographic vertigo.

Tonight I arrived after dark, and cars were still circling both levels of parking garage like famished vultures. This being France, half the occupied spots were technically illegal: there were cars in the crosswalks, others parallel parked along and blocking an entire lane of traffic; there was even a Land Rover perched on a high sidewalk. Naturally I took the first spot I could find, nowhere near my destination. Once I finally made it inside the Monoprix, I found the checkout lines interminable and the aisles of the supermarket almost as difficult to navigate as the parking lot. I had to run in and out to get a cart, jump repeatedly to grab items from a high shelf, wait for an elevator. When I finally slammed my trunk shut on my shopping bags -- noting in passing that a French compact car trunk is completely filled after one grocery shopping trip -- I had a sudden startling realization.

This country makes it hard to spend money.

You have to WANT to be a consumer, and want it bad.

In the US, it's the other way around.

I remember reading somewhere recently an article whose author marveled at encountering someone in a checkout line in Target with one item. One item -- in this particular case, a toilet plunger -- seemed like utopia: how could anyone walk out of Target without their cart full of crap? This, the article maintained, took truly uncommon willpower. We should all strive for the same, and our lives, our houses, and our moral well-being would only be improved as a result, but we should remain realistic: impulse buying is a fact of life.

Drive down any commercial route in the suburban US and you see the neon signs for the big box stores, the grocery superstores, the chain specialty stores, the restaurants and the banks. If you have a passion or a problem, someone somewhere along that road is ready to feed it or fix it. It is easy to pull in -- there are always plenty of parking spots -- pop in, pay, load up the car and get out. I loved it when I was back visiting on my recent trip: I could spend money, and spend it easily, and if I got hungry after all that shopping, there was always some convenient place to stop and eat.

Tonight, fighting with my runaway shopping cart in my French mall parking lot made me think about Costco. I'm not sure I could go to Costco with my little French car, if such things as Costco existed here, which of course they don't. Impulse-buying on a Costco scale wouldn't fit into my apartment. Even buying staples in bulk wouldn't work: I've nowhere to store a three-months' supply of toilet paper.

Some of this is specific to the Paris region, of course, since outside of Paris, people have larger houses, complete with such luxuries as attics, basements and garages. And yes, France's Carrefour Hypermarket is another Walmart wannabe, stocking plenty cheap junk from China designed to create a desire to spend where none existed before. Still, shops are in majority closed on Sunday everywhere in the country, and those which stay open the latest on weeknights still close their doors by eight or nine. That's a full day and six full evenings a week to think about something other than shopping. Imagine that.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Scenes from a notarial office, part I

Notarial Office, Versailles, mid-morning on a gray Monday in June. It was closing day on the apartment. We were four seated around a table big enough to seat fifteen, made of solid, ugly wood and institutional bad taste:  there was my husband and I, dressed overly nicely and cloaked in I-don't-really-belong-here anxiety; the relaxed, slick owner of the real estate agency; and a serious-looking, middle-aged woman behind an imposing pile of folders.

We were waiting for our notary.  Notaries in France handle wills, real estate transactions, and other periodic unpleasantries of life, fulfilling many of the roles of lawyers in the US.  But whereas in the US you can often bypass a lawyer for the sake of simplicity, in France notaries are unavoidable.  They pocket a large percentage of any real estate transaction they handle (although a much larger percentage of what's called the 'notary fee' goes to the state), and they drag out the process to make their added value felt.

The notary, our buyers' notary, finally arrived and sat at the head of the table with a formality that almost made me wonder if he was going to say grace.  He arranged his short stack of papers neatly in front him, then turned to the woman and addressed her gravely.

"I'm so sorry.  I heard the news."

"Yes," she said, and stared down at her files, "It was such a shock."

As they continued to talk, I pieced together that the seller's notary who had handled the preliminary contract back in February had since died of a heart attack.  The woman, another notary from the same étude, was still shaken, and understandably so, since her colleague was stricken unexpectedly while at the office.  It was clear it was a subject she didn't wish to relive or discuss, but both the other notary and the real estate agent (who seemed to know all the details -- small world, real estate in Versailles) appeared oblivious to this.

"He was young, tout de même," said the other notary with affected pathos.  "I mean, he had his little problems, like we all do," he continued with exaggerated delicacy (my husband later explained that the late notary was quite obese), "But still..."

The conversation continued.  My husband and I mimed our concern, but became more and more anxious to move on, as it became increasingly clear the woman was, too.

Then the real estate agent joined in.

"But he died onstage!" he boomed.  The woman looked at him confused.

"He died onstage!" he repeated loudly. "In the heat of the action!  He died onstage, just like Molière!"

"No, no," the woman protested quietly, "He died at the office."

She paused.

"Or actually at the hospital. The ambulance came for him, and then..."

"Don't look at each other," I thought to myself, as my husband and I were both caught in a tense silence that could have finished in either explosive laughter or a primal screen.

"But he died onstage!" the real estate agent continued after the woman finished her sad story.  He was making reference to Molière's famous apocryphal finale, with a misplaced humor and bad taste astounding even for a guy in sales.  He repeated it again, and my husband and I finally laughed politely, almost soundlessly, because it was clear that unless we acknowledged the joke he wasn't planning to stop.

And with that, the notary at the head of the table picked up his stack of papers, tapped them even against the ugly polished wood, cleared his throat, and began.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Back from a lunchtime run today, I sat in the break room and thumbed through Facebook on my phone, distractedly eating away at my data limit, when I read this:

Interesting quote from a Lars Gustafsson novel, articulated by a character who spent his life wandering the globe, remembering the small town in Sweden he was from - "And my mediocre shadow walks there, among the others. The shadow of the one who stayed at home. Or the shadow who remained. . . . There's just one thing that irritates me about that shadow. It's that it feels more real than I do". Well put.

This was posted by a friend from Bothell, Washington, currently living in New York City by way of Phoenix, London, and L.A.  He's a regular blog reader, too -- so apologies, J, if I've lost track of the geography. Now, there's assuredly an intellectual laziness (or worse) implied in drawing grand conclusions about ones life from ones Facebook feed. Still, I can't deny that it said exactly what I've never been able to find the words say.

I've been crossing shadows elsewhere on Facebook: the astrology-minded friend reposting articles on the dark changing of the seasons, the autumnal equinox and the moon in Scorpio or something like that. Veils being lifted, worlds drawing close.  I don't ever click through.  My worlds drew closer, briefly, when Europe switched back from Daylight Savings Time a week before the US.  Suddenly there were only five hours difference between Central European and Eastern Daylight Time.  The Sunday after the change I flew back from a week on the East Coast, where I'd been first in Delaware to visit with an old friend (Astrology friend, as a matter of fact), then on to DC for a college friend's wedding.  My shuttle driver in Paris blamed the time change when he was late to pick me up at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  I waited for him for twenty minutes on the sidewalk on a Monday morning at 7 o'clock, under the concrete awning at the departure level of Terminal 1, with lights too bright and a sky too gray to tell if it was night or day.

Arrival at the departure level.  Jetlagged.  Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle, which doesn't make any sense even on the best of days.

I was headed more or less straight to work, and was worried I wouldn't be able to speak French after a week immersed in English and a paltry three hours sleep on the plane.  That fear was rapidly tested when the shuttle driver, a second-generation North African, picked up our conversation where it had mercifully been left off a week before on my way to the airport.  In short: America was the promised land.  France was broken in every possible way.  I was a fool to have left.

One hour on the way there.  One and a half hours on the way back: there was morning traffic.

"If you permit me, Madame [Parisienne], you may end up moving back.  You never know.  You just may move back."

And I nodded and agreed with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, on the way there because I was counting on him to pick me up on the way back, and on the way back because I was too tired to do otherwise.

It was full October daylight by the time we arrived in Versailles, and my street was covered with soggy leaves and downed branches from a windstorm that had hit during a night which for me had never existed.  I briefly saw the kids, who jumped into my arms then scampered back to their Legos, then I showered and drove to work.  At the coffee machine with my colleagues, I laboriously found my words, immersed as I'd been in English for a week.

I suspect now that it wasn't the English immersion that got me but rather an immersion in a life that is no longer mine.  During my stay I spoke and thought American, I lived in an American house with American schedules and American rituals.  When I was introduced to someone, I said "Hi" and "Really?" and "Oh yeah, I know!" just the way I knew I was supposed to, even if the timing felt off, just a bit (perhaps discernible only to myself).

I like to tell people in France that I was born French but I was just born in the wrong place.  When I say this I'm thumbing my nose at my country of birth, a place where I feel I never quite fit in.  If I don't fit in in France, I have an excuse now, after all -- and in many ways I do fit in better, naturally, but that's a whole other discussion.

And yet.

And yet.

There's that damn shadow.

I'm at a point in my life where I see possibilities narrowing and a future becoming concrete and constrained.  There's also the veil and Scorpio and all that; the knowledge of the finite. Welcome to nearly forty, eh?  The what-ifs become all that more poignant because I know I don't have time to go back and do it over differently, even if I wanted to, which I don't given I feel that without ever having to search I ended up in the best of all possible worlds.   But (to stretch the metaphor of a Facebook post much farther than reasonable) the shadows get longer late in the day, do they not?

There was a windstorm in Seattle last week. My dad told me about it over the phone. All the leaves dropped off the trees in the space of one night.  I thought about the leaves on the ground in Versailles the morning I came back... and it was almost like I was there.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Chez nous, chez Louis (XIV)

It has been three and half months since we moved into our new apartment.  We've got a new routine that almost feels routine: the kids are both off to school in the morning with their father,while I drive a short twenty minutes to work (thanks to my mother-in-law's generous loan of her small car).  Mademoiselle's nanny, who has looked after her since I went back to work two years ago, picks her up from nursery school at 11:30 and Le Petit from elementary school at 4:30.  I get home around 5:30.  The kids and I read together, I help Le Petit with his homework, we often start making dinner, and I've even started trying to do some yoga with the kids.  My husband comes home between 6:30 and seven, and the kids are fed, bathed, and off to bed by nine.  I'm working a five-day week now, and I'm busier than I've ever been at work.  Our weekends are rushed, but in a good way: there's housework and grocery shopping, and I try to tackle a small home-improvement project per weekend (...and yet somehow there's still one moving box in our living room).  To get out and get moving with the kids, we ride bikes in the Grand Parc or take a hike in one of the forests nearby.  We spend more time than I care to admit in the local shopping mall, but always with a mission.  We cook. We run.  We chase after the kids.

It feels much more peaceful than our life did in Levallois.  We're not on top of each other, there's room to give everyone and everything a place in the new apartment, and that takes more stress out of my life than I'd expected.  We look out the windows and see green trees.  All this counts for a lot. 

And yet...

I'm not relaxed yet.  I think it will come eventually as it all grows comfortable with familiarity.  Some of my anxiety is the pinch-me effect: I can't quite believe that here we are, with a life I longed for for so long.  I'm kind of embarrassed that an extra 800-odd square feet and a shorter commute could have made such a difference in my life.  I'm I really that shallow?  Apparently.  And I'm not sure I deserve it.  Good thing that in Versailles I don't have to look far to see grander abodes than:  I find it strangely reassuring to have tangible proof that I'm still not in the one percent.

Le Petit is thrilled to live in Versailles, and is as proprietary about it as Louis XIV himself.  He knows the Grand Parc better than anyone, he claims.  He's working on a series of sketches and maps.  My favorite is below.  The original hangs proudly in the artist's bedroom, but I've got a limited-edition print taped to to the back of a file cabinet in my office.  

Today we went for a walk in the gardens after a Sunday lunch with in-laws.  As Le Petit and Mademoiselle chased one another up the path along the sculpted gardens to the Grand Parterre, what struck me is how natural they looked:  this is just their neighborhood, their backyard.  And to me, it's Versailles, and I'll always feel (as I catch my breath and tip up my head) some sort of delusional self-importance as I imagine I'm walking onto a stage or into a history book.  I imagine French (or even Seattlites) who live in New York feel the same way. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013


The farm was hidden on a hillside and surrounded by trees, in a curve in the road that could have been anywhere in the countryside of southwest France.  It was just a very small step away from the suburbs, but it turned its back on the tight rows of identical stucco houses, the treeless backyards with brown grass and bright lines of laundry, the curbs and roundabouts.  Only the steeple of a church was visible from the farm; an illusion that shifted the farm away from any concrete moment in the 21st century. 

Our car’s GPS found it without any trouble: “Lieu-dit R---“, in a village near Agen, a mid-sized French town north of Toulouse.  We were on our way to two weeks of vacation in the Gers, and my husband’s aunt had invited us to her family’s farm on the afternoon we passed by.  I didn’t know her well and knew nothing about her family, except some vague details about their connection to the Southwest.  We gladly accepted the family invitation, however, not quite knowing what to expect.

The literal translation of “lieu-dit” is “place-named”: it is a place designation from a time when people spent their lives more or less in one postal code, and every farm or outbuilding had a local name.  Along country roads throughout France, “lieu-dits” are marked by discreet signs, black-on-white or white-on-black, they figure in official addresses, and they are also clearly marked on detailed maps.   The names are often in a mostly-forgotten dialect, a local variant of Langue d’Oc here in the Southwest.  Many no longer seem to mean anything at all, but some are intelligible in modern French: la Misère or le Bout du Monde.  

We pulled down a gravel drive, parked, and a large dog came bounding out of nowhere to greet us.  My husband’s uncle and aunt arrived and whisked the kids out of the car, while I stepped out and blinked in the contrast of sun and shade.   The stone farmhouse was dominated by the grove of trees behind it and the flower garden in front; I noticed windows and a small, shady porch, but I didn’t taken in the height of the roof or the length of the building as a whole.  My focus was drawn to the ninety-year-old patriarch who greeted us on the front steps, hesitantly shaking hands and smiling kindly as we made our typically noisy entrance.  We sat down to lunch at a round table in the large, cool farmhouse kitchen.

After lunch, my husband’s aunt showed me around, an honor which I wasn’t expecting: in France, unlike in the US, guests are rarely given a grand tour.  She showed me the central sitting room, with dark rafters and a large fireplace, and old, cozy furniture layered with bright blankets and pillows.  (Although Mademoiselle curled up on the loveseat yet refused to take a nap, I would have gladly complied.)  My husband’s aunt took me up the stairs of the “new” addition to see modern rooms carved out of the attic in the 1960s.  I saw the bedroom where she grew up, and peeked into the half of the attic that was still unfinished.  The house was neat, but quite full of memories: old toys and paintings and books of all sorts, antique chests filled with homespun linens woven generations ago by the women of the house.  Then she showed me the oldest part of the house: a large room which had once served as kitchen and parlor where a 16th century fireplace dominated one wall.  Then two shady bedrooms with large walnut beds and small marble fireplaces the corner.  The whole smelled lightly of seasons-old wood smoke.  She cheerfully described her plans to renovate and modernize: she’d brought in an architect, and in the near-term work would begin for them to move in permanently. 

“It has been in my family for a long time,” she explained.  “Since 1802.  I traced the genealogy. Under Napoleon, it became possible for anyone to purchase land.  Interestingly the first person in my family to own the farm was a woman.”

I thought about the only branch of my family which has stayed anywhere close to its roots, my mother’s cousins on their farm in Indiana.  I have no idea how many generations back the family farm there can be traced, but certainly not 1802.  Then it hit me that 1803 was the Louisiana Purchase: half of my country was younger, so to speak, than this Gascon farm.

We walked up the wooded hillside to a clearing where the hay had been already harvested.  A tractor worked in the distance.  The land was rented out now to local farmers and no longer directly dependent on the farm, but this was new.  The field had been planted with grapevines until the 1970s, and the wine they’d produced had had somewhat of a local reputation.  I noticed as we walked back down the stone building where the empty barrels were still stored.   Below the farmhouse, another large stone barn housed dairy cattle up until the 1980s.  Above each stall, there were small hand-lettered slates with the half-erased names of the last bovine residents.  Blue sky peeked through the many missing tiles in the roof.

The most recent generations of the family lived now in Nice, Toulouse, or elsewhere.   They were doctors or engineers or office workers for all I knew; they lived in apartment buildings or suburbs; they commuted every day and looked forward to a long vacation in August.  In short, they were a lot like me.  Yet an invisible chain linked them to here, a lieu-dit in Gascony, on the outskirts of Agen, with its back turned on the 21st century – and I suspected, anchored them quite solidly in the present. For my part, as we drove away, I was dreamily lost in the past, and was startled to find the same rows of stucco houses, the same treeless back yards, and the same lines of laundry drying in the same summer afternoon.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rows of Linden Trees

I've come to realize that my life is in large part ruled by fear. I am afraid of making decisions (of just putting pen to paper, say) and thus engaging the possibility of mistake.  But that's just minor. The same fearful inertia keeps me from jumping fully into a project at work, or hanging a picture on a wall in our new house.  My mind starts going down the path of what-if, calculating an itinerary to some terrible destination.  I'm exaggerating, sort of.  Our move to Versailles, though, was a case in point: it made perfect sense for years before I was willing to actually follow through, and throughout the whole six months of the move I was terrified.  A month after moving day, I'm only now settling into some kind of normal. I can't judge heights and I don't trust safety nets.

When I graduated from college, I fell into a depression.  I was a perfect student, and so terrified of making mistakes that it is a wonder I learned anything at all.  I found a good job, stepped into real life, and stumbled.  I remember sitting alone on the couch in my first apartment and staring at the floor during one long evening, overwhelmed by the inertia of fear and the feeling of desperately wanting to escape myself.

It was around this time that I met my husband, and he took on the often thankless job of getting me to stop taking myself so seriously.  He's done good work, mostly, but I imagine the fear as a hard surface around me, like granite.  He chips at it from the outside and I chip at it from the inside.  Slowly familiar features appear in the stone relief -- that's me.  But granite isn't a substance which holds much definition or expression.

When I started climbing back into something that felt like equilibrium in the second half of the year after graduation, I made a little sign to put on my bathroom mirror.  "Love Not Fear" I wrote in neatly scripted letters on a piece of construction paper.  I taped it up with scotch tape, and there it was for me to grasp at mentally, every morning when I woke up and every night before I went to sleep.

Today when I think of the things I haven't dared and the decisions I haven't made (and thus made by default) I wonder how much I put love first.  I've got more perspective now, and the mineral shell is thinner after decades of chipping away, but the fear still drives me, as if it were the only mechanism through which I could exert some sort of control in my life.

This weekend we took out our bicycles and explored the Grand Parc, the park behind the garden of the Château of Versailles.  No landscapes are more ordered than a jardin à la française.  The Grand Canal stretches out its four arms to balance Trianon and forest, Apollo and the setting sun.  Stretching out from the Grand Canal in three directions, the Grand Parc is criss-crossed by aligned allées of trees: Linden trees, to be precise.  They've been in bloom the last month, with an unexpectedly heady perfume that's entered both my apartment and my subconscious (there's one tree outside our kitchen window).  The trees (these same trees? Perhaps not) were planted in Louis' time, symbols, I assume, of order and rationality emanating from the center of power.  They continue in straight lines, turning abruptly at the stone walls that delimit the park, lending majesty to both cobblestone paths and dirt tracks.  This is the eternal French countryside, idealized; I imagine I'm in the Gers, perfectly willing to lose myself in the giant trompe l'oeil.

I feel... safe.  Further removed from the fear.  The order does this for me, one tree after another, the reassuring predictability.

Louis XIV fixed with force the borders of modern-day France.  Vauban built the fortifications: the garden walls.  France with its "natural boundaries" of mountain and sea, became the ideal of a 17th-century French garden -- with a despotic ruler, yes, but a certain predictability of perspective.  Beyond the walls, the chaos of war; land to clear (pillage and burn), trees to plant.  In perfect alignment, of course.

Why, exactly, do I find this comforting?

Well:  Vauban's forts are tourist attractions; my kids run and climb around Saint-Martin-de-Ré every summer.  The gates of the Grand Parc are wide open (to bicycles and pedestrians; cars pay extra), and the Grand Canal has its own rowboat rental.  The boats and bicycles and cars are in a landscape that has changed little since 1715: there are paintings in the Grand Trianon to prove it.  The linden trees are just taller now.

Of all that Louis XIV built, the beauty remained.  The fear disappeared.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Le Tour

The 100th Tour de France just ended today, and the last leg came through Versailles.  Though cycling isn't something I care much about (or even care enough about to have noticed before today that this year was the Tour's centennial edition) I wanted to go.  The idea that something big and noisy was happening just a few blocks from home was too intriguing.

The Tour bounced around the Château's large park before heading circuitously back to Paris in time for a candlelit finish on the Champs-Elysées.  This afternoon my husband dug the bicycle pump out of the basement and filled up the tires on our bikes that had spent the last five years in the back of a dark storage closet at our old apartment.  He and Le Petit headed out to do their own tour of the park while I stayed home and Mademoiselle napped.

Twenty minutes before the coureurs were scheduled to zoom past the point closest to our apartment, I woke Mademoiselle up.

"Do you want to see the monsieurs go fast on their big bicycles?"

She was game, but told me that she wanted to take her vélo as well -- a little red Radio Flyer push toy without any pedals.

"Sure," I told her, "but you'll have to let Mommy carry it until we get to the park."

We toddled down the hot sidewalk, Mademoiselle sometimes "racing" fast enough that I had to walk briskly, me looking at my watch.  Ten minutes to go... five minutes...

"C'mon, you're my strong little girl, let's go, let's run!"

Le Petit and my husband were already among the spectators.  Le Petit wasn't tired, even after riding his too-small-for-him bike through tall grass and gravel in the scorching afternoon heat.  He reportedly had looked so determined that passersby cheered him on: "Keep going," encouraged one man, "And you'll catch the rest of the coureurs!"

Mademoiselle and I joined the crowd that was waiting by the side of the road with less than five minutes to spare.  Official cars and motorcycles were already speeding past at regular intervals.  I lifted Mademoiselle onto my shoulders.

"You let me know when you see the bicycles, and then you clap and yell 'Bravo!' OK?"  I explained.


The Tour is as much about the spectators as the athletes; a shared moment in the summer when the entire country stops looking outside its own borders and instead watches familiar countryside roll by on their television screens, at the speed of a bicycle, a chase car, or a low-flying helicopter.  The Tour on television is strangely hypnotic: there's not much action, just bent backs, bright helmets, and bobbing knees.  So the commentators comment on the scenery, naming monuments and recounting tidbits of poorly researched local history. My husband remembers this patter as the soundtrack of his childhood summers.

While watching the Tour on television is slow and mesmerizingly dull, watching it in person is rapid and pointlessly exciting.  You wait and wait, and then during approximately thirty seconds the pack of cyclists comes by.  You have to choose between photographing the moment or actually observing it.  I took pictures, and it was only when I looked through them afterwards that I noticed I'd actually seen the yellow jersey.  Mademoiselle clapped slowly on my shoulders and called out 'Bravo!', but it seemed she didn't know what to think.

Once the excitement was over, she returned to her first priority:

"Maman, can I ride my bike now?"

And so I put her down on her little red trike in the middle of the dusty path under the linden trees, where le Petit and my husband shortly found us slowly scooting along.

Back home Le Petit plopped down on the couch to watch the rest of the race.  He's fascinated with geography, and called out all the local landmarks he recognized.  We regretted not tuning in days earlier because he would've loved traveling virtually across France.  But, of course, there's always next year.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Château et dépendances

It feels palatial to me, the new chez moi. There are solid hardwood floors in herringbone (grandly called point de hongrie in French) in the living room, and two real (!) bathrooms. There are eight full-length casement windows in the guise of French doors, four on each side of the apartment.  Through them we look out over greenery on both sides: on one side the downstairs neighbor's garden, complete with a yapping dog and drying laundry.  On the other, the shared garden and entryway, with a screen of trees that filter in the afternoon light.  I can hear birds, and the occasional summer fireworks over the park of the chateau nearby.  "It feels like we're on vacation," my husband keeps repeating to me in wonder, and I agree.  In this new space we can breathe, and it isn't just the improved air quality from all the green leaves: we've gone from roughly 700 square feet to over 1200.  We've found room for ourselves, the kids, and our oversize library.  

We've found a place that resembles us.  

Meanwhile, I'm getting used to the ubiquitous remarks whenever I mention I live in Versailles.  People hint at the stereotype: large, rich Catholic families, living in the past.  Close to their money, lost in tradition.  To hear it told, the Versaillais haven't digested the Revolution or even the Enlightenment.  Better get used to it, my colleagues imply, with a wink or an eye-roll.  I'm American, so they assume I'm blind to the quirkiness, and almost certainly hopelessly naive. (For my part, I tell them I hope my children will marry well, and one best plans these things when they're young.)

Our new apartment is on a busy boulevard.  To access our unit, you pass through a nondescript 1970s entryway into an unexpected garden beyond.  Once inside you can barely hear the traffic.  I marvel now that when we'd learned the address from the real estate agency, we almost refused to visit it at all.

We're a 15 minute walk from the center of town -- our compromise to find such a large place within our budget -- and along it, there are a few flags from the Manif pour tous hanging from windows.  No more than we saw in Levallois, or in Paris, for that matter, which is sadly reassuring.  But prominently placed in another window, I also spied a homemade "Gay Friendly" sign, the first I've seen in France.

I've been watching my new neighbors warily, hoping to decipher them, hoping to fit in. True to form, we spent much time worrying about this before we even moved here.  I suspected -- hoped? -- that hidden among the traditionalists and the snobs we'd find a few eccentrics like ourselves; the sort of people who'd be immune to the idées reçues that tell us we shouldn't want to live here.  After three short weeks of close observation... I have no idea what to think.  Except that I think somehow that I fit in.

To celebrate the 14th of July Versailles had fireworks, like every self-respecting town in France.  The city hall chose the most logical location for the show, a wide, centrally-located spot free of buildings with plenty of room for spectators. 

You guessed right: the Bastille Day fireworks were fired off in front of the chateau.

I've learned already that my new home isn't afraid of a contradiction or two.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Le Village Préféré des Français

Tonight France 2 is holding the most hotly contested competition since Cannes: the election of the "favorite village of the French" (crappy translation mine). I'm in search of some mindless entertainment at the moment, so I'm sitting on the couch watching Stéphane Bern, the perennial host of feel-good French television, introduce the 22 villages.  There's one from each region and, unjustly but unsurprisingly, the one from the Paris region came in last: La Roche-Guyon, where we've often hiked along the chalk cliffs that dominate the Seine.

I love this kind of thing.  French television celebrating the French and their quirks; cows and castles, wild mushrooms and kouign aman, ramparts and low-budget medieval battle reenactments.  First a fast-paced flyover of the village to admire the chateau, gardens, and tastefully restored houses.  Then we follow a fortunate resident as they enter a local restaurant and salute the owner (with a double cheek-kiss, of course) and explain over a glass of wine or a regional dish how either their family has lived in the village for five generations or how they personally moved there after stumbling across it and falling in love: le coup de coeur.  The segment concludes with a barbecue on the town square.  

Worth paying taxes for public service television in my book.  Two of my personal favorite villages happened to be nominated this year, Conques in the Aveyron and Eguisheim in Alsace. Eguisheim won, the mayor unveiled a brass plaque and accepted a commemorative t-shirt, surrounded by the village's inhabitants dressed in traditional costumes and bearing platefuls of pretzels.  What's not to love?  And they claim there's nothing on French television. 

Portrait of the Author as a Young Girl

This weekend we cleaned out the basement storage unit. Stated like that it sounds like a wholly unromantic task, so I'll start by using the French name: cave.  No, not "cave" -- we found no bats or stalactites, although I wouldn't have been entirely surprised -- but cave, with a short 'a'.  Sounds more intriguing already.

My husband got the unenviable task of shifting out boxes by himself while I stayed upstairs with the kids.  He found boxes of VHS cassettes, ancient camping equipment, pieces of broken IKEA furniture. Much of it was directly relegated to the basement dumpster as it was unearthed, but some things needed to be sorted out so my husband dragged a dozen dusty boxes into our living room at the end of the afternoon on Saturday.  The kids and I tore into them, and as I identified items to ditch or to donate, they tried on my old hiking boots and fenced with the beaters from a forgotten Sunbeam mixer.

I was baffled that we could have held onto so much crap.  When we left Boston, did we really need to take with us dozens of New England hiking guidebooks?  Or my Thanksgiving turkey roasting pan which is too big to fit into a French stove?  And how did I ever leave the house with that hideous puffy parka? I resolved that this move would be the opportunity to clear things out without pity.

As my husband was putting the kids to bed Saturday night, I sorted through a big box of papers from his graduate school days in Connecticut.  I happened across a stack of draft love letters written to a girl who once broke his heart.  I'd come across the letters before but had never read them, first out of jealousy and later out of discretion, but this time I guiltily and somewhat gleefully stretched out on the couch and began to page through them.  When my husband emerged from the kids' room I started to make fun of him about them, too, and he took the pile our of my hands and read them himself, shaking his head.

He's keeping them, of course.  Or I hope he is, at least.

My turn to be embarrassed was not long in coming, for on Sunday afternoon I discovered two spiral-bound notebooks containing two of my short-lived stints at journaling.  One was written in August of 1994, the summer before I crossed the country to go to college.  The other was written in 2002, the year before I moved to France.

I cringed as I read them, of course.  I opened them both, read a page or two, and closed them without reading the rest.  I then tossed them briefly into the recycling. I'd written them knowing I would cringe decades later and I almost state as much: This is my shortsightedness, I seem to be saying to myself; this is my frivolous self-absorption; these are the roadblocks I can't get past now and I know it well.  I was clueless but also somehow prescient, and the writing wasn't terrible despite an overfondness for ellipses: I fished the notebooks out of the bin and read on.

In 1994 I was terrified.  I was leaving the boyfriend I loved, the first one who had ever counted for anything, and moving back east.  It was my first experience of closing my eyes and jumping.  Although the journal ends before this, reading it I remembered how at the end of that month I'd sat with my parents in a hotel room off of I-90 in Western Massachusetts and fallen apart crying.  A day later -- I just found the photo tonight to prove it -- I stood with my dad, lonely but smiling, on the campus green.

I've done it before, see, you wouldn't think I'd be so scared now...

In 2002, I had been married for a year and was still in the intoxicating phase of new love when I would not have been able to face my husband's old love letters.  I hated my job, and had fallen hard from straight-A promise in college into a mediocre career no one seemed to care about, least of all me.  I felt ugly: I wrote about my zits.  I compared myself harshly to people I judged pretty and stylish.  Then I recorded how I felt better after I went to yoga class or for a run; that my husband made me feel sexy; how I'd promised to treat myself more kindly and how sometimes I succeeded.

The first thing I noticed was how much happier I am now, how much more bien dans ma peau, comfortable in my own skin, as the French say.  My thirties are much better than my twenties despite all I was led to expect and it was nice to be reminded of that.

I decided to keep the notebooks.  First I thought that they'd be an interesting document for my kids someday, but that thought made me cringe particularly, so I abandoned it.  (Funny, I had no problem imagining the kids having a good laugh and maybe gaining insight into despair and hope from my husband's lovelorn missives, but anyway.) Then I thought that this personal archaeological dig was useful... for me.  Hidden in the strata between the boxes of Le Petit's baby clothes and my prom dress were traces of a me that I'd forgotten about.

I've concluded that it is important to leave a couple cubic meters for this kind of ad-hoc archive.  We tossed the notebooks into a big box along with a stack of cardboard bar coasters, a program from The Phantom of the Opera, three folders of my papers and exams from college, my husband's signal processing papers, and the tickets and receipts from our honeymoon in Spain.  I'm saving, preciously, a worn-out old leather jacket my dad "loaned" me in high school and a t-shirt from a long-defunct favorite coffee shop in Seattle.  My husband has printouts of the first emails he ever sent and we even have saved -- yes, yes -- a box or two of unreadable 3.5 inch floppy disks.  Space well spent, I say.

But as much as it was a difficult decision, we just resolved to toss the VHS.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pour Tous

Back in the fall of 1998, I remember sitting at my office desk and firing off an elated e-mail to a friend from high school.  It read something like this:

"I met this new guy.  He's French..."

I got an answer almost immediately: "I did, too!"

Thus began two love stories that unfolded in parallel. I met my husband in Boston the year after I graduated from college.  We moved in together the following year.  My friend met a Frenchman in Chicago while they were attending the same university, and they moved in together in the same city shortly afterward.  We all met up when we could after that, celebrating Thanksgiving together in 2001 in Boston and then New Year's in 2007 with my friend's in-laws in Western France.  In 2007 we had our first child, and they adopted theirs -- a baby girl -- in 2008.  They adopted their second child, a baby boy, in 2010, the same year Mademoiselle was born.  Now we're all in the trenches of parenting young children and juggling our careers.

With stories so similar, you'd think we might find ourselves all living in Paris.  I've long cherished the idea.  For years, however, it wasn't thinkable, because my friend is gay, and their family is therefore in a legal limbo.  My friend had no right to marry his partner and therefore no path to French immigration.  Their children complicated things further, since France did not recognize gay adoption.

This month France legalized gay marriage, or le mariage pour tous ("marriage for everyone"), as the law was named by the Socialist government.  And today, the "Manif pour tous,"  an anti-gay marriage protest group, was out again in the streets of Paris demonstrating for their lost cause.  We saw families walking back from the demonstration carrying French flags and wearing garish t-shirts with the silhouettes of a stereotypical family of four: a woman, a man, a boy, and a girl, all holding hands.

Seeing the protesters made me want to roll down the window and scream insults (though I refrained).  My husband, who feels the same way I do on the issue, pointed out that I wouldn't care so deeply if it weren't for our friends, and I acknowledged that he's probably right.  I can't help but feel this personally. If I make an effort to understand, I can "get" that the protesters are scared of something they can't picture: a new form of family that doesn't fit into anything they've seen before.  We've been there so many times in the past: the family with a mother who works.  The family with parents of different colors.  The family with different religions.  Different languages or different cultures.  But society wasn't allowed to build ramparts at the frontier of fear and intolerance then, and it will not be allowed to now.

Even beyond the fringe that's taken to the streets, the debate has divided France in a way I suspect few issues have since the Dreyfus Affair.  It is not a topic you discuss with your neighbors or colleagues, at least if you feel strongly about it, as I do.

Today I'm angry and I'm proud.  I'm proud that France did the right thing.  Intolerance is going to lose this fight, even if it takes a decade for the fight to be forgotten.  Yet I'm angry that those people carrying flags and wearing an image of an "ideal" family would exclude my friends, deny their children the right to be French, and ignore the truth: that they are just like us. Just like them. Just like me and my husband.

I've thought some about what I'd do if someone tried to hand me an opposition flyer.  Blue and pink with a picture of France's symbolic Marianne, they've been plastered all over Paris this week, and I half expected one to be foisted on me on my morning commute.  Me being me and a bit of a wimp, I'd probably just say a firm "Non" and hand it back with a shake of my head and a stern look.  Because after all, it is worth arguing with someone who's convinced enough to hand out flyers at a train station?  But when the part of my imagination that has serious guts pictures it, I do explain myself, and it goes a bit like this:

"I disagree.  And if you want to know why, let me tell you a story.  No, no, really, you should listen:  It's a love story... and it sounds a bit like my own."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Troubles of the Landed Classes

We have just over a month before we move.  I bought a pack of milk today with an expiration date past our moving day and I had an moment of excitement and panic, the same panic/excitement that's accompanied every major milestone in my adult life: going to college, graduating, moving to France, giving birth to my two children: The Milk Moment Freak Out.  It was ultrapasteurized milk this time with a long shelf life, but still. This is getting serious.

I can hardly believe it, but I have to, and also admit we're not ready.  We would be ready but every step of the process has taken longer than planned, from the bank (and God help us, they still don't have all the paperwork finalized) to the notary to, now, the choice of the moving company.

I have never purchased real estate in the US, but I gather that it is a significantly simpler process than it is here in France.  Here a "notaire" -- an august profession closer to a lawyer than the American idea of a stamp-and-sign notary -- handles the paperwork, drafting both a presale contract, which is generally signed three months before closing, and the final sale agreement at closing.  The notaire also claims a hefty percentage of the sale price, although the majority of it is collected by the government as real estate excise tax.  There is no way to avoid using a notary, and theoretically their role is to protect the interests of both the buyer and the seller.  In reality, they seem to take a long time to do not so much work, but they have a talent for making trouble if things don't go exactly as planned. To outsiders, their role seems archaic at best.  I personally suspect that they are the incarnate revenge of the Ancien Régime, here to persuade us, the peasantry, that we never should have joined the landed classes.

The day of the closing there is the signature at the notaire's office and the Transfer of the Keys.  Before the Transfer of the Keys a buyer has no right to occupy the property, and thus the root of my current difficulties: our closing to purchase is the 28th of June, and we won't have keys to the new place until, at best, that day at 3 o'clock in the afternoon.  In order to avoid an expensive bridge loan to cover the portion of our down payment we're obtaining through the sale of our current apartment, we are closing the sale at 11:30 on the same day. If you're still following me -- and I won't be shocked if you're not at this point -- that means that our current place needs to be empty of all of our (copious) crap by noon, yet there will be nowhere to unload it until at best 3 o'clock the same day.

That alone wouldn't be a problem per se, although it would cost extra in moving company overtime, if it weren't that we in our infinite naiveté chose the last business day of the month of June to schedule our move, a date which may be the biggest moving day of the entire year.  We also waited to contact moving companies (and here I'm wringing my hands) until we were more or less certain we had bank approval.  Which was stupid, stupid, STUPID.  Now I'm scrambling to find someone who is willing to work within our constraints and who seems reputable and reliable, never mind the relative high cost.

The positive side of all this, since I'm still calm and philosophical enough to find one, is that I'm learning an important new skill.  Until recently, and even after almost ten years in France, I still left most of the administrative duties to my husband.  Then I noticed this spring that he was about to crack under the pressure, while I felt like a helpless bystander.  So I took on the moving company logistics, which as a result has me making polite-yet-insistent phone calls to people who kinda scare me, grilling bank managers and notaries on details that matter, using my best administrative French to try to make sure people do their jobs.

This is empowerment, people.

And as a colleague said to me yesterday with a grin, "Whatever happens you are going to move.  It's not like you have a choice anymore."

I find that reassuring somehow, really.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Les causses (part II)

Now I’ll confess that the place I was headed was in reality rather far away from La Rochelle, as far from there as from Paris, in spirit if not in geography.  I’ve written before of the causses, the limestone plateaus in France’s center-southwest. Cut by rivers – the Lot, the Dordogne, the Tarn, the Aveyron, and their tributaries – into green valleys and steep white gorges, with a roof of dry, rocky grassland dotted with scraggly oak and juniper.  On Saturday we arrived in Blanc, an almost-abandoned village up the Sanctus river valley from the town of Brusque in the Aveyron.  No need to locate it precisely: suffice it to know that it is a lot closer to the middle of nowhere than to Millau or Albi, the closest cities of any consequence. It is also geologically halfway between the Montagnes Noires of the Hérault and the true Aveyronnais limestone plateau.  More about Blanc later.  First, Wednesday, when we went for a walk in the causse, which has long had me dreaming.

Me and Mademoiselle, lost in the causse

In August, when we’d last been here near Figeac, in the Quercy, the grass on the causse was dry and brown. The bare landscape often reminds me of southern Idaho or eastern Oregon, except here the traces of humanity are more well-worn and written everywhere in stone: the dry stone fences that crisscross the hills, the abandoned stone terraces cut into the cliff-sides, the crumbling stone huts and stables at the corners of meadows, and the villages of modest houses gathered together into stony knots.  Older mineral traces are found in prehistoric stone dolmens and sculpted menhirs.

Still, despite all that human-wrought stone, I wouldn’t have guessed that the landscape was of human making, and yet it is: where sheep have stopped grazing, forest has taken over. Here, in a radius outside Millau, pasture and grassland remain because the land is the terroir of Roquefort cheese.  When you eat that iconic French ewes-milk blue, you preserve the causse.  It’s as simple and as unexpected as that.

It is May, and I brought my family to the Aveyron to see the causse in spring.  Limestone soil means orchids, and I’m a bit of a wild orchid fanatic (albeit one with far more enthusiasm than expertise).  I love finding orchids and puzzling over their varied shapes and colors that never seem to be described or illustrated coherently in my wildflower books.  I love them because they’re often terribly difficult to find, yet I discover them in the same places year after year.  They are rare and thus are sentinels of some idea of wilderness than I can’t otherwise reach.  But I can count on them. They show up in May and June, just when I’ve emerged from a long, urban winter, when they are symbols that all is still mostly right in the world.

An orchis singe, or "monkey orchid" (Note that all of my plant identifications are approximate)

Not all orchids are as rare as all that around here, I discovered.  Along the road there are constant bright patches of orchis mâle, which one guidebook assures me is the most common orchid in all of France.  On our first walks around Blanc, they were the only orchids I could find in bloom at all.  Thus my determination to go for a walk on the causse.

My husband found the itinerary, thanks to a pile of hiking books that he brought from home and some quick research on Google.  Our first stop was by the side of a calm country road, where my husband spotted a large patch of rare Pyrenean fritillaries from the car.  They aren’t orchids, but they even more unusual than any of the orchids we’d see.  Alongside we saw orchis singe and orchis pourpre.

Frittilaire des Pyrénées

We left the car in a tiny village, and the kids were soon bounding down a track through pastureland dotted with small trees.  They both love to hike: Le Petit can be counted on to cheerfully hike as much as 12 kilometers in a day, and Mademoiselle will walk as much as her legs and our patience will allow, while the rest of the time she rides reluctantly in a backpack carrier.  Le Petit loves “climbing” mountains and running along the trail.  Mademoiselle notices bugs of all kinds and stops to lean over them in amazement.  They both know how much Mommy loves flowers. Mademoiselle just learned to say “Or-kid!” and Le Petit loves to show off his math skills by counting them along the trail.  Neither of them care much beyond that now, but I love that they have the patience to come with me. 

Le Petit on the trail

The causse was in its robe de fête, with more wildflowers than I’ve seen anywhere in recent memory: anemone pulsatille and orchis pourpre and orchis mâle, wild tulips, violets and globulaire commune, to name only those I was reasonably sure I recognized.  At first, we ran up to each patch and counted and took pictures.  I even squeezed under a barbed-wire fence to get my first good look at some anemones. But soon the marvelous was too numerous even for us.  We found a good place to picnic where we could look over the causse amid the flowers, between the macro and the micro.

Orphrys petite araignée ("little spider")

A wild tulip

Not sure what this one is, but Le Petit liked it best, because it was the only one "not pink or purple"
Anémone pulsatille

Now as I look at the photos we took I realize that each flower is its own world.

Saturday, May 04, 2013


I’m on the TGV, le train à grande vitesse, on my way to La Rochelle from Paris.  It is almost eight-thirty on a Friday night in May, and an opal daylight still lights up the countryside.  I love the way high-speed trains transport me through a landscape; I feel like I’m floating, disconnected from the land but still close to it, which makes the sensation of speed all the more thrilling.  When I was little and dreamt of flying I was always skimming the ground, just barely high enough to jump fences or maybe hurdle over the buckeye tree in my backyard.  I could truly feel I was flying, the sensation was so palpable, which left me confused and elated when I woke up. Traveling in the TGV feels just like that.

This morning, on the other hand, I felt quite tied to the ground, dragging my suitcase from bus to commuter train and finally to the office.  I’m too old for this, or too out of practice, I thought.  My suitcase was stuffed and heavy, and I also carried a backpack with two laptops, my purse, and a shoulder bag with the random perishables I’d salvaged from our refrigerator for my lunch and dinner.  I left the house after checking five times at least that the stove was off and the windows were closed, my bed neatly made and most crumbs cleared from the kitchen counter.  I was alone, the kids and my husband had left for La Rochelle days before me. When I leave for more than twenty-four hours, my OCD acts up, and I become certain that either I or my apartment will disappear while I’m gone.

In the afternoon I left the office promptly.  RER, Métro, Gare Montparnasse.  Only in Paris – maybe in London? – do the public transportation powers-that-be inflict so many stairs on the traveler dragging a rolling suitcase.  I gave thanks for having working limbs and no toddler to mind. 

I love train stations, with their high glass-and-steel ceilings that bound the heavens with a roof of progress and a 19th-century idea of modernity.  In major Paris train stations there’s a big old-fashioned sign hung from the ceiling with letters that clack loudly when they are updated.  As I watch the sign in Montparnasse, I appreciate that in this age of Twitter feeds something ‘real-time’ still takes a few seconds of well-regulated anticipation to update while I stand and watch.  ‘La Rochelle’ disappears, the cities above it whir and regroup, and then ‘La Rochelle’ reappears and coalesces into something legible and reassuring.  Train 8393: platform 4.

While I’m watching this I shout into my cell phone over the surrounding din.  My husband and mother-in-law had called to make sure that I would make my train.  Le Petit jumped into the conversation and told me about his afternoon the beach, the fossils he collected with his new rake, and the hole he dug into the center of the earth with his new shovel.  He was audibly reassured when I told him my train had been assigned a platform.

A quirk of French trains is that you have to cancel your ticket before you board by sticking it in a special machine at the train station; this indispensable step is called composter.  I do this, I find my car and my seat, I hoist my suitcase overhead, and sit down with my pile of magazines.  I’m in a daze as we leave the Paris suburbs, as we disappear in and out of tunnels.  I barely glance outside as we pass blocks of sad gray apartment buildings and warehouses.  I later note distractedly that we’ve left the city and are somewhere in the flat agricultural plains to the southeast of Paris, which at this time of year are green and mustard-yellow with young wheat and flowering colza. I don’t find this part of France picturesque.  My eyes drop back to the page I’m reading.

Gentle hills and trees started to roll by eventually, and I started to look out the window more attentively.  My idea of Paris – and my city-dweller’s apathy -- was starting to fade, when I saw a spring green field, a herd of cows, a copse of trees and behind them, a low stone building.  And I stopped and stared.
I’m not sure what it is that works its spell when you see a place, somewhere, and it works something inside you, and you recognize it. I saw those cows in that field and for some reason, I said to myself, this! And this was my France and this was my escape from everything which has been weighing on me these past months.  A revelation.  A get-out-of-jail-free-card. 

Hello, cow!

I don’t remember, but I think the cows stared fixedly at the train that raced by, as cows usually do.
I got out my laptop and began to write.

Poitiers.  First stop.  The train rolls into the station in the steep valley below the town, and on one side of the tracks there are houses built at the foot of the cliffs, with facades and abbreviated rooftops that jut out from caves hidden behind.  They look rather conventional for structures married to the natural; they share the dusty brown and grays of the stone behind them, but their windows are square and their tiles regular.  There’s a sign for a car garage and three air conditioning units stuck onto the rock. 
They still blow a whistle on the train platform right before the doors close, just like in films, and it doesn’t take much to imagine that a plume of steam also announces our departure. Outside of Poitiers there’s open country again, and just at the horizon I see a road lined with round, even trees.  In reality I can’t see the road, and only guess it is there from the line of trees, which are regularly spaced as they so often are in France.  The tree-lined country road figures prominently in my personal iconography of France.  I find them almost as reassuring as high-ceilinged train stations.

Now the landscape has flattened again, and in the time it has taken me to write this, daylight has all but disappeared.  We’re pulling into Niort, our second stop.  It is past nine-thirty.  I’ve less than an hour left before the train reaches La Rochelle, but I’m already so, so much farther away than I had imagined I’d be from where I left.

Friday, April 12, 2013


For those waiting impatiently for an update on our life, here are some of the exciting bits:

We sold the apartment in 1.5 weeks.  At a slightly lower price than we expected, but not by much, to a lovely couple who have friends in the building and weren't perturbed by the view.

As much as selling the apartment has (so far) proven much less difficult than I expected, getting a bank loan for the new apartment is proving much harder.  Between the changing details and the rates and the paperwork that keeps expanding and the medical visits and the endlessness of it all, I don't know when it will be wrapped up.  Presumably -- let's be optimistic -- sometime before we close on June 28th.  There seems to be no question that we can get a loan, since we're good credit risks, even nowadays, but neither of the two banks we're dealing with can seem to get their act together.

I don't know whether I'm reassured or concerned that everyone I've talked to has had a similar experience.  At least no one I've talked to so far is currently living under a bridge.

The only thing worse than negotiating a loan with a banker is doing it in a foreign language.  Go ahead, ask me about my taux d'endettement.

And while we're talking debt load, let's mention stress load: the ambient stress in my household is turning it into a tinderbox, and it takes pretty much nothing for my husband and I to get into a stupid, loud, useless fight.  We always get it worked out fairly quickly, since we're not mad at each other, just worn out in general and worried.  I'm glad we love and trust each other so much, because right now, I can't imagine living with anything less.

Work is crazy -- good crazy, busy crazy -- for both of us.

Given all that, I haven't thought much about packing yet.

We will have to find a new child care arrangement since our shared nanny isn't going to follow us across the Parisian suburbs.  Exactly what kind of child care is up in the air since we don't know if Mademoiselle will be potty trained in time to start nursery school in September.

When I'll be going back to work full-time.

And by which time we have been in our new place three months.

Three weeks of which we'll be away on a long-awaited vacation.

Suffice it to say that our transatlantic move ten years ago seems like a logistical walk in park compared to this.

Now, for some updates about the kids:

Mademoiselle is remarkably articulate for a two-year-old.  She speaks in very complete sentences, extended monologues, really, about what she sees and does and reasons.  It is funny to hear two-year-old thoughts come out of her mouth in Big Kid narrative.  She gets overwhelmed by the most unexpected things, like a big vase of tulips that I put on the coffee table this weekend which made her run around in circles and jump up and down.

"Ohh, flowers, they're pretty, the flowers, and and and the bees, they like the flowers. [Carefully bending a tulip and looking inside.]  Oh, oh, there aren't any bees!  There aren't any bees! The flowers are pretty, but the bees, they're not nice, and they make honey, but I don't like honey, and and and..."  Or something like that, but in French, and it went on for several minutes while we watched and laughed.

Le Petit is big enough to take responsibility for a lot, and to (almost) reliably use his fork at the table, but he daydreams and loses himself in things.  I'll find him sprawled on the floor with one shoe off and own shoe on, his jacket pulled off of one arm, absorbed in a book.  We've put in place bribery -- err, positive reinforcement -- to incite him to put his stuff away and wash his hands when he comes home without being asked five times in a row.

Sometimes I forget that he is still so little.

He loves the books I read to Mademoiselle, even the simple ones.  She loves the big kid books I read him.  They fight for room on my lap.

I try to remember to cuddle le Petit, to let him be little, to let him be himself.  I'm not sure I'm always good at this.

Spring has finally decided to come to Paris, after the longest winter I can remember.  There's gray sky and rain and more rain, and most days are still not exactly warm, but the daffodils and tulips are blooming all at once and they've turned the fountains back in the square near our apartment.

For years now, a bulb that accidentally got planted in same pot as the lopsided lemon tree on our balcony has put up dark, shiny leaves in the spring and nothing else.  For years I've thought about pulling it up, but instead left it.  This year it bloomed.  It turns out it's a white hyacinth.  With the cold weather, the flowers have been pristine now for at least two weeks.  When they notice it periodically through the sliding glass door, in between the packs of bottled water and our folded-up stroller, Mademoiselle and Le Petit are elated.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The view from here

This is the view from my apartment.  It isn't a view over Parisian zinc rooftops, and it certainly doesn't frame the Eiffel Tower.  At night you can, however, see the beam of the searchlight from the Eiffel Tower swing out from either side of the imposing concrete apartment building across the street.  That apartment building and mine are engaged in a sort of a hostile staring match across a garden, a low office building, and a quiet street. High-rise cranes sprout up briefly on the periphery of this view, and their lights wink at me at night.  I can see one church steeple and the dormered windows of Haussmanian buildings.  Our apartment is calm, remarkably so for an urban environment, and there's hardly any traffic noise. When it's quiet inside and the windows are open, I can hear trains passing over a far-off bridge on the Seine.  

When my husband first walked into our apartment back when we moved in in 2003, he thought, "Oh no, I cannot live with that view."  He took the apartment anyway -- we were renting; it was practical; what were the chances we'd stay long?  The price was right, the layout was nice, the location was almost perfect.  Almost ten years later, we bought it, and we're still here.  

I took this picture yesterday evening, at the end of a gray winter day, and with my BlackBerry telephone, so it is particularly ugly.  I took it and then noticed that even on the small telephone screen it looked far worse than reality, and that made me laugh.  We started showing the apartment to prospective buyers a little over a week ago, and most of the negative feedback we've gotten has been about the view.  I'm a little bit house-proud and sensitive, shall we say, so I was steeling myself for the deprecating comments I might overhear about the wear and tear, the small surface area, the unfortunate choice of kitchen floor tile.  Mostly none of that seems to phase anyone, or if it does, they don't mention it to the real estate agents.  But the view came back over and over and I laugh to myself since after all it is what struck us at first, too.  Now it is the one thing we almost never notice.

When you're in a space and that space is home, your perspective changes, you focus in.  It becomes a place you love in large part because the people you love happen to live there, too.  That doesn't keep you from hating some things about it, often irrationally.  I complained for years about the small size of our apartment before recently I began to (mostly) enjoy the organisational challenge of fitting in the things I love and letting go of the ones I don't, like life-sized game of Tetris.  I hate that there's no decent place to store the vacuum cleaner.  I love my kitchen, but hate the impossible-to-clean floor.  The whole became home and I learned to love it because of that, and then appreciate its qualities: the calm, the quiet, the strong morning light that streams in on clear days, the intelligent layout that keeps a family of four from tripping over each other.  In order to love it I had to change and grow into it, leaving behind very American ideas about what life and home and success were supposed to look like.  

I visited our new apartment first on my own, during a lunch break.  I took a bus across the suburbs from my office and hopped off on a busy boulevard on the outskirts of Versailles.  I went through the portal of the building to a calm inner garden, and from there to another entryway, up two floors, to a place that will soon be home.  I walked in with the realtor wearing my best poker face.  The owners were out of town, so the place was perfectly neat and clean, and more than that, it felt somehow like it was loved by those owners.  I don't know why, but I could just tell. 

I was trying to look indifferent as I visited, but it turned out I was indifferent: I inspected the rooms coolly, talked in generalities about buildings from the era, discussed the price, all without a trace of emotion.  The apartment appealed to me from the beginning but in a detached way.  I made a mental list of its qualities and it made sense.  Now I almost feel guilty, as if I'd acted like a jerk on a first date.  It's been over a month since I visited and I spend my time virtually moving-in in my head, rearranging furniture, dreaming of new things to buy some day: planning the romance.  

I am wondering which, if any, of the poker-faced visitors we have right now will choose our place.  I hope they end up loving it, and it hope it takes them less time than it took me.  In the meantime, I'm thinking a lot about the emotional and illogical side of home, about which part is imagined and which part is real, which part is fixed and which part you carry with you when you move on.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pending translation

This week marks the beginning of the my tenth year working for an American company in France and now, for almost the first time, I'm finding my status as a native English speaker is coming in handy.

The French division of my company was born of a friendly takeover by a large American firm, and for years we've had a "petit village gaulois" à la Asterix kind of vibe.  At work I've spoken in French, argued in French, written many detailed technical documents in French -- albeit with an inimitable style, according to my boss -- and learned quite a few domain-specific business terms exclusively in French.  I've hard-coded my share of cryptic application error messages in French, too.  In email, my French grammar is supposedly better than that of many of my native-born colleagues, a fact of which I'm inordinately proud.

Enter large multinational project.  Designed in the UK.  Developed in India.  Customized and deployed across the globe, in countries as diverse as Brazil and China.  As well as France, my new home.  Clearly there's no cultural complexity here, right?

My colleagues all understand some English and deciphering written text for them is no problem, but when they have to speak or, worse, understand some of the more obscure British accents over a poor conference call line, they're clearly uncomfortable.  Some are frankly lost.  When basic comprehension is so painful, the will to collaborate wanes, and pretty soon everyone on both sides is hiding behind walls of But They Just Don't Understand Over There that are so much easier to construct when there's a language/cultural barrier.  

Plus, I've been told, there are just some, err, issues between the French and the British. Ententes cordiales are not automatic.

So I get pulled in for a small part of this multinational project, and then for a larger piece when they realize that I can cover a lot of ground quickly when I'm serving as a technical and cultural translator.  Aside from the business terms that I only know in French and where I look like an idiot as I scramble for a translation, this is going smoothly.  I love it.  I feel useful.  And though it may simply be an accident of my personal and professional trajectory, for the first time I'm bringing something to the table to no one else can bring.

After pinch-hitting as a translator on a conference call a couple of weeks ago, I came home from work in an unusually good mood.  I picked up Le Petit at After Care and on our walk back tried to share some of my enthusiasm with him.  (I'm always looking for ways to motivate him to speak more English, but thus far nothing works nearly as well as  I launched into a cute "Mommy helped her colleagues and she's really proud" speech which Le Petit interrupted.

"I could do that, too, maman," he announced.

"I bet you could," I concurred proudly, "Because you speak English and French."

"...And if it were me, I'd explain to them the difference between American English and British English, too!"  he went on.

This puzzled me.  "Oh?"

"Yes.  I'd explain that in England they say 'trousers' and in America... in America, they say 'pants'!"

He's mastering cultural differences already, you see.  

I don't know if I'm going to make a big difference on this project ultimately, but there is something at about the whole thing that is exhilarating at the moment.  For the first time, too, I understand why the linguistic stakes here in France are so high, and why Le Petit's nursery school starts English instruction at age four.  Being bilingual isn't simply a skill that's nice to have, it is critical.  This is not only something I never learned in the US, but something it took me almost a decade of living overseas to fully understand.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Notre Dame de Paris got a new set bells this year.  Le Petit went to see them on Tuesday with his grandparents: for the moment they're down at human-level, not up in the ether of the belltower.  He touched them, he told me, and they made noise.

I'm sitting on the couch and watching a television program about Notre Dame, its new bells, its 850 jubilee celebration this year. 850 years and now they're busy installing the same system of locks on the doors, and transforming them into fire doors.  

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day.  My husband and I are not celebrating it for the first time since we've known each other.  At least not tomorrow.  Maybe this weekend?  Except this weekend we've planned to patch plaster and repaint the bathroom ceiling.  Tomorrow I'm dropping by the hardware store on my way home from work.  

"For Valentine's Day, I got you an apartment," my husband joked earlier, and I laughed because yeah, that's almost true.  We found an apartment in Versailles.  Our offer was accepted last week.  We're hoping to sign the paperwork that accompanies the offer next week, and start the codified process that marks real estate transactions in France.  That's why we're working on fixing up our place to sell: organizing, repainting, replacing the caulk the bathroom, carting off books to used bookstores and clothes and kitchen gadgets to donation centers.  I've been keeping my anxiety at bay by keeping busy.  I'm not sure our apartment has ever looked this neat or clean. 

Walking around our urban suburb today, my day off, I thought about the time we've spent here.  Le Petit was with me, and he ran through the park where we'd spent so many afternoons when he was tiny.  Time has gone by fast, and I realized not long ago that I've lived in this home longer than I've lived at any other address in my life.  We'll likely move in July, a month before we'd celebrate ten years here.  So it makes some sense that a new chapter is beginning now, I guess; that I'm a bit frightened, of course; that I'm astonished at the passage of time.

My husband wants to go to Notre Dame this weekend.  I do, too. To see the bells.  And to put it all in perspective.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Chez moi, chez eux, chez nous

Rectilinear buildings were what I expected and rectilinear buildings awaited me.  I met the real estate agent below the first building of la résidence, as these postwar apartment complexes are grandly named; two rows of neatly-kept buildings on the wooded hillside.  They looked imposing from the parking lot, but most were only three or four storeys, and the paved path between them was nicely landscaped.  It had just been shoveled, too, since light snow had fallen the night before.

Could I live here?  I wondered to myself, like a do every time, and I pictured myself walking the kids down this path to school in the morning or making snowmen with them in the courtyard.  I find house hunting exhausting, and not just because I'm apparently no damn good at it.  The exhaustion comes from trying to project myself into every possible place and what-if.  I can't visit an apartment but try and virtually fit my furniture inside, turning bookshelves (we have an awful lot of them) around in my head and it all gets to be too much rather quickly.  I can get invested in a place from just a few pictures in the listing. I'll literally start flagging pages in my dogeared IKEA catalog in preparation for remodeling the kitchen, and then... well, then I'll see it in person, or learn something about it I didn't expect, and all my enthusiasm will deflate.  I can't seem to maintain any sort of emotional equilibrium through the process.  My husband can't either, so we discuss endlessly and bicker intermittently and never come to a decision.

My husband, who had already visited the place, warned me that the owner was a charmer who would do his best to sell me the place.  I'd roped my father-in-law into coming with me to ask all the right questions as a disinterested party, to present me the pros and cons afterward, and also to drive since I'm now a wimp about driving in snow.

The living room was as agreeable as the building was nondescript.  There was a view out over the wooded park of small chateau, and the trees were beautiful and lacy, lined with snow.  They were showing off for a potential buyer, I was convinced, along with the birds and the squirrels.  A huge change from the view out our current windows to the gray 1950s building across the street.  The place felt small, though, smaller than the actual surface area led me to expect, and the price was far too high.  The owner kept tediously enumerating the positive details: the brand-new kitchen, the closet space, the family-friendliness of the complex.  I had a good look around the place at least twice before we asked to see the basement storage unit and the parking garage.

"How many floors in this building?" my father-in-law asked as we squeezed into the tiny elevator.  I was puzzled by what seemed like a hurried response from the owner, meant, it appeared, to cut off any further questions.

"Two. There are only two."

I thought about this briefly, and it didn't make sense.  French buildings are numbered from floor 0, the rez-de-chaussée. An American third floor is therefore called le deuxième étage, or second floor.  The unit we looked at was on the second floor; therefore, there must be two floors below it, not one.  I didn't worry about it much, though.  I didn't even wonder much at the doormat I noticed sitting incongruously in front of what I assumed to be a basement storage unit.

As we walked back to his car, my father-in-law and I discussed the merits of the place.  To my father-in-law, the only major drawback was how far it was from Paris, from the train station, and from the schools, but none of that was a surprise.  I wasn't ready to buy, but I wasn't ready to write it off yet, either.  Wait and see.

That afternoon my husband and I drove back to the same town and visited another apartment for sale in a different complex.  The price was much more reasonable, but instead of being nestled in greenery, the apartment was in a sad grouping of towers in the middle of the town center.  It seemed older, which made sense: it was built in the 1960s, while the one we'd both visited earlier was built in the mid-seventies.  It had strange details, like an elevator that opened directly into the unit.  With hardly any discussion we both knew it was a no.

Still we stood in the entryway of the building for some time after our visit discussing things with the real estate agent.  Since she was with a difference agency than the one that had shown us the first place,  I figured I might get some interesting information from her.  The town is small, the first apartment had been on the market at a number of agencies for a certain time already, and almost all the town's apartment complexes are so huge any agent in town is sure to know all their quirks.

"Oh, we have that one, too, and it's far too expensive," she told us, and we nodded in agreement to encourage her. "He'll never sell it at that price.  But he tells me it's worth it, his apartment, and he's in no hurry, so.  But he's not the first one in that résidence to try and sell high.  They all end up having to lower their prices, and..."

She looked as us confidentially and then lowered her voice.

"I shouldn't tell you this, but..."  She paused with a slight smile.  Do your job, madame, I thought to myself, and give us the dirt.

"The problem is the chambres de bonnes," she told us knowingly.  Chambres de bonnes are the maids' quarters that up until that instant I'd only associated with old Haussmanian apartments.  In 19th century buildings they are typically small rooms under the roof and sometimes they are still sold as add-ons to large bourgeois apartments.  Interior sanitation and plumbing, once it arrived, was generally shared -- as was often the case even in more spacious living quarters in the heart of Paris until I'd guess the 1970s at least.  This was the first either of us had ever heard of chambres de bonnes in a modern building, however.

Sensing our incomprehension, the agent continued her explanation.  The individual rooms, she explained, had shared bathroom facilities.  People who worked in town (working menial jobs, one assumed: cleaning other people's houses, working in checkout lines, tending gardens) rented them, claiming to be alone, but sometimes they moved in with their families.  It's no secret that Paris is riddled with substandard housing: decrepit hotels, tiny rooms with nonexistent sanitation or inadequate heating, ageing housing projects in depressed suburbs.  This was probably not exactly the same.  Still.  Up until now, I'd always imagined the problem far away from me, not in my potential backyard.

I've noticed that when people want to say something racist or xenophobic but due to some bizarre scruple they don't want to state it directly, they talk about food.  So it was with the real estate agent: as she told it, one of the biggest problems was the cooking smells.  Food from Africa, she implied, not food from here.  The problem to her was insecurity, difference, foreignness.

I realized pretty quickly that I had a problem with the situation, too, that there was no way I'd move into that apartment.  I was disturbed by the fact that I'd be just upstairs from people who were being exploited, who were living with their families in a space that was meant for one, while I was living with my family in a giant apartment and (knowing me) still finding it too small. I didn't want to run across my neighbors knowing at once that we had so much in common -- for they are most likely immigrants, as am I; teaching their kids about both their new home and back home, as am I; proudly speaking two languages, as am I -- and yet are so far apart in privilege and resources.  I would be uncomfortable, to say the least.  I would feel embarrassed and worthy of their resentment.  And yes, such a situation would feel insecure.  I would not have the slightest idea how to bridge that gap.

What difference does it make, I ask myself, if the people who are living in substandard housing live downstairs or across the street or across the city from me?  It shouldn't make any difference at all.  But clearly it's out of sight, out of mind for me.  My conscience shouldn't be so easily placated.  I shouldn't want to live in my little bubble.

I hesitated before writing this, not sure if I should be so honest about how this made me feel.  I never thought I'd stumble over something this complicated in my frivolous house hunt.  That I can hold onto that naivete just proves my privilege, I guess.