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.