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.