Thursday, March 24, 2011

Backyard funeral

Esther came running into the kitchen yesterday afternoon, breathless and rosy, to tell me the funeral was about to start.

"What funeral?" I asked.

"For the bird that Jesse killed," she said.

Jesse, is the neighbor's cat. She spends a lot of time in this house, skulking around corners, crawling into drawers as if she lives here. I am forever shooing her out of the house and am amazed at how indignant she acts, as if I am in the wrong. I'm not a cat hater, by any means. But I'm also not a cat lover. Cat hair makes my eyes itch. Cat hair makes Isla's eyes itch, and water, and stuffs up her nose and causes her to wheeze. Allergies speak louder than lazy, strokeable cuteness.

And then there is that annoying tendency cats have to hunt beautiful animals, like birds, simply for the sport of it. Instinct aside, I have never found this little quirk all that attractive. And how to explain murderous feline behavior to my children, without turning them into cat haters--no creature deserves hate, except, perhaps, the Lyme-carrying deer tick--proves challenging.

Esther is angry at Jesse for killing the bird. When she and her friend Oliver, who owns the cat,  spotted Jesse with the bird in her proud mouth, Oliver kicked a soccer ball at her to scare her away. When they got to the bird, Esther discovered it was too late.

When I got there, Essie and Oliver had already dug a hole, placed the bird in it, sprinkled it with wild violets, and were waiting for the mourners to come. Isla and I arrived, then Gail, Oliver's mom showed up. Just as we were ready to begin, Ian came around the corner, just home from work.

We stood, silent and reverent, around the mourning children, as they took turns covering the bird with soft earth. Isla kept letting out these sympathetic, disappointed, tongue clucks. "Poor poor birdy."

Since it was a French bird, we guessed, the rites were read in French.

"Dors bien, petit Oiseau."(Sleep well, little bird.)

"Dors bien."

Friday, March 18, 2011

The birthday that never really got off the ground

It’s been exactly two years since we left America. Two years away from home. Two years in Europe.

Two years in France. And we're still not French. I'm okay with that.

Two years of rootlessness. Two years of no dishwasher or clothes dryer. This is possibly the most amazing thing: That I have survived two years of hanging clothes up to dry all over the house, and outside when the weather permitted, without losing my mind. How pathetic is that? How pathetic is our dependence on a clothes dryer. I have, however, avoided ironing, even still. Yea me.

I have probably broken fifty dishes that don't belong to me in the past two years, including glasses. We have a ceramic sink, things drop out of the overcrowded dish drainer, fall into the sink, and break what they land on, before breaking itself.

Things break.

But we’re not broken, yet. No. We’re good.

It was Ian’s birthday last Friday.

We’re not broken, but we are a bit broke. I knew he would get angry if I spent money on him, so my present to him was a bag of Mars’ Bars. I did buy some champagne as well, but it's still in the fridge. Waiting for the right time. You don't open a bottle of champagne, straight from Champagne, France, unless you are committed to finishing the bottle.

Isla’s gift to Ian was sleeping all night. Miracle. She came out of her room at around 6, went to the toilet, then went back into her room and shut the door. Unheard of. And sort of creepy.

Ian called me at 11 a.m. on his birthday and asked me to meet him for lunch at a cafe in the next village. I was tempted to say "no" simply because I had work to do but quickly realized "no" was not an option.

We had a really delicious lunch. I had Oeufs Meurette for the first time since coming to Burgundy. If I could go back and do it again, I would have had Oeufs Meurette every day of the week. Holy crap it is delicious, even if it looks a bit scrotum like on the plate. It is eggs poached in red wine, with onions and mushrooms, all sitting on a perfect bread raft.

I missed dinner, after wasting my time at a school meeting, which I only attended out of guilt, and which I didn’t understand one word of.

Okay I understood some words-- Kermesse, Carnaval, Spectacle, Ros矇 pampelmouse-- but mostly I sat, just on the periphery of a tight circle of mothers all talking at once in what was to me a whole lot of mumbo jumbo. I can listen to the radio. I can have okay conversations with the doctor, or anyone, one on one. But groups... I just can't do it. It didn’t help that I am almost totally deaf in my left ear as a result of my ongoing sinus infection. I just listened, not catching much, and smiled and tried to laugh at the right time.

I did make Ian a cake after dinner, while the girls watched.

They sat at the dinner table making birthday cards and arguing and listened to me swearing, not so under my breath, at every little thing. I spilled flour, burned butter, dropped eggs, almost knocked another jar of Molasses on the floor, and kept turning on the wrong burner when trying to make the lemon curd.

I am the model of domestic dysfunction. I will surely give my daughters, by example, my aversion to the kitchen, not to mention a potty mouth. Note to self: Don’t bake in front of the children.

Isla is already fond of saying "Shit, shit, shit!" quite a lot lately. Her timing, tone and emphasis are perfect.

Ian poured himself a vodka orange juice,  he never does that, and they all watched me as if I was some sort of spectacle. The potty-mouthed Mommy show.

I put the girls to bed. Ian had tried, earlier to get Isla to bed but she rejected him, as she does, and I found her crying, redfaced, sitting up in her bed.  She is so impossible, then acts all innocent when shouted at, as if she has no clue why we are shouting.

Esther's card was sweet. She fashioned a book out of recycled cardboard and string, tying in several little love notes. She had me write one, she wrote one herself, and she wrote one for Esther.

Her note read:

"Of all daddys my daddy is the best. I love my daddy and no he loves me too. Happy birthday daddy, I hope you had a grat day."

On the outside envelope, she wrote, "For Ian, the best daddy and hasbind in the worlde."

Her heart is pure, but we do have work to do when it comes to English spelling.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Missing friends in Japan

I'm worried sick.

My 12-year career as a professional snowboarder took me to Japan four, or was it five, times. It's a mystical, frantic place, overwhelming in its embrace of modern technology, and beautiful in its ability to maintain ancient culture, tradition and rituals.

I regret that I was often a typical American when I was there, complaining about the omnipresence of fish, even for breakfast,  and the inability to even read road signs.  I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms, feeling alien and displaced, much like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

But I won't forget sitting in an outdoor onsen, a Japanese bath, the lone white woman in a sea of beautifully exotic, to me, Asian women, as steam rose off the pleasantly hot water and up into the freezing mountain air.

I will also never forget my friend and teammate, Masami. A sweet girl/woman I trained with, and competed with, on and off throughout my career. Her name, Masami, means beautiful river. At least that is what I remember she told me.

And I hope she has forgiven me, and some other teammates, for teaching her some less-than-ladylike ways to describe the weather in English, as we stood on the top of Breckenridge in 30-mile-an-hour winds, waiting our turn to go down the giant slalom course our coach had set for us.

Masami became so fond of one particular expression, after we had assured her it was "perfectly appropriate," she used it when my mother came to see us in our hotel room. When my mom attempted to make small talk with her about the weather, Masami sweetly responded to my mother's observation that it was cold,  with a jaunty "Yes. Fahcking cold!" 

Where is Masami now? I don't know, but I remember her telling me she lived near the coast somewhere.

And then there is Motoki, the other Japanese rider on our team. Motoki is a man who cannot hide he has been drinking because he turns red as a beet with the slightest sip of alcohol. His favorite thing to say in English was, "People are kindly."

Do they have children? I'm guessing yes.

Are they safe? Are their friends and family safe? I do not know. And it is difficult to find out. But I'm working on it.
As far as I know, neither Masami or Motoki has a Facebook page. And whenever I type their names into Google, I get a bunch of pages, unreadable to me, in Japanese.

And I hate wondering about them. I hate all of this. The world, sometimes, is not kindly. Not kindly at all.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Never try to high five a Brit

Being married to a British man is amusing.

There are certain things, quintessentially-American things, Ian just doesn't get and certainly won’t stoop to.

Baseball hats, for example. He sees them as the socially-acceptable security blanket for the American man. He's speaking, of course, of those types who essentially wear their hats from the minute they wake up, to the moment they get in bed. There are more than a few of those types in Vermont.  I have yet to find any here in France.

So I'm not sure why I was surprised when, the other night, I tried to get him to high five me in the kitchen, after we had pulled off an amazingly-efficient, after- dinner -party cleanup--a stellar demonstration of the power of teamwork (another American concept)-- and he sheepishly put out his fist, rather than his whole hand.

The look on his face was one of awkward embarrassment, along with a dash of disapproval. Clearly, I had crossed the line.

I was acting, like an American.

Rather than call him on his rigid cultural restraint and possibly start an argument, I simply said,

“You married an American girl, you know.   I just need to remind you of that, now and again, lest you forget.”

My next reminder might be to call a "family meeting" to discuss our "goals, issues and priorities."

Friday, March 04, 2011

Learning how to walk together

"How about you and I go to Paris tomorrow, just us?” I asked Esther, just before bedtime.

Her eyes opened wide, and I could hear the echo of a  scream bouncing around her throat before it even made it to her lips.
“Shhhhh,” I said, putting my finger to my lips, and smiling, "Don’t wake up Isla.”

She channeled the scream into an impressive vertical leap, then a little dance, a few suppressed yelps got out, and she threw her arms around me.

“Oh, Mommy,” she said. “I’ve been waiting.”

I set my alarm for 6:15, but woke at 5:45. I lay there in the darkness, feeling tired, and wondering if I was up for the task of escorting a 9 -year- old girl around a large, famously- overwhelming city.

“Don’t be stupid,” my inner bold traveler said. “Of course you are.”

We headed out into the frosty, black morning to catch the train. The excitement of what we were doing, running away to Paris, just she and I, was not lost on me. Running away by train makes it all the more romantic.

Esther held tightly to my hand. Our footsteps echoed hollowly off the sleeping stone houses.

“I’m so happy,” she said.

“So am I,” I answered, with a squeeze of my hand.

We were ten minutes early for the first morning train. When the click clack came echoing through the frozen air, Esther jumped up and ran to the side of the tracks to look.
“It’s still a ways off,” I said. “The sound travels far.”

But she stayed standing, waiting, and eventually the headlight of the train came into view. Our stomachs lurched in unison.

“Here it is,” Esther sang.

We stepped into the nearly-empty car and found a seat. A digital message board in the front of the car flashed, "Paris Bercy." It might as well have said, "the moon."

It’s like going to another planet. In under two hours.

The conductor boarded about four stops down the line, and asked for our tickets. We needed to buy them so he sat down across from us and took my credit card.

I fared well during the exchange but then, as he handed me the ticket, and told me something about getting it validated on the return, he lost me.

As soon as he left, I turned to Essie and said, “What did he say?”

“He said if you have a problem validating the ticket, tell the guy on the train that you just bought the ticket this morning.”

She knew she was relaying very important information. It’s not every day she gets to do this, but living in France has given her more responsibility since she is often my translator.

The train moved swiftly. We tried to look out the window, but saw only our reflections. We looked like we had giant heads. This made us laugh. After an hour, I sent a text to Ian. Esther pulled out her handmade, cardboard cell phone and pretended to write a text as well.

“This thing is great, it’s teaching me how to spell,” she said, tapping away on the penciled -in keyboard she had drawn just the night before.

Slowly, the daylight sucked up the darkness and we could see beyond ourselves.

We got to Paris and found the bus we wanted to take wasn’t coming for another 25 minutes. “We could walk a bit,” I suggested.

“Sure,” she said.

So we walked, and we talked. And we held hands. And we spotted lots of ladies in super high heels.

This has always been a fun pastime of ours. When you live in the country, some things never stop looking weird to you. High heels, and women walking in them, seemingly at ease, but sometimes in obvious pain, is one of those things.

Esther trotted to keep up with me. I reluctantly adjusted my pace. I also had to adjust our body spacing, continually, to avoid whacking arms, or, ouch, knuckles with her as we walked.

Esther and I have always managed to move awkwardly together. I don’t know what it is, but I have endless memories of her hard toddler head slamming into mine, and my sharp elbows jamming into her nose, at every turn. We can’t seem to get out of each other’s way.

It’s always tricky reacting to these collisions.

Especially when I am the injured victim, the one whose jaw bone gets rammed full bore by her hard-rock head, to the point where I fear fracture, or bite my tongue to bleeding. I let out a helpless yelp, which triggers Esther’s guilt, followed by defensiveness, which causes me to back pedal, despite my pain, and I find myself apologizing, for whatever reason. And having to explain: I’m not angry, I’m just hurt.

I’m still wondering at what age children start to understand the concept of personal space. Esther hasn’t quite gotten there yet.( Isla is regressing.)

I am forever having to tell both of them, as gently as I can, and sometimes not gently at all, sometimes in anger, that they are too close, hovering too much. In my face.

Essie's a bit like a lumbering puppy dog-- in that paws-too-big, teenage stage,-- who's getting quite big, but is still so obviously an ungainly pup. Always underfoot, tripping me, tripping herself, as she lopes along, trying to keep up, trying to contain her excitement. Her joy.

And this day, on the beautiful streets of Paris, I had to tell her, once again, that I can’t walk properly when she is walking so close to me. I need room to swing my arms. To fill out my space with nothing but me. To be free.

Is a mama allowed these things? Did my mother have to ask me to take a few steps back, or to the side, whenever we walked?

Later, in the lucious greenhouse, the first stop on our long list of stops, it was like stepping into another climate, another land, another world. We wandered slowly along the boardwalk, the huge, moist, leafy green trees drawing our eyes ever upward.

A family was just in front of us. Mom, dad and two small children. I noticed the mom bending over the older child, a toddler. Then I heard the mother yelp in pain and I saw her hand fly up to her chin.

The child looked confused, rubbed her head, and was consoled by daddy. The mother was left to navigate her pain, and her reaction to it, and her child’s reaction to it, all by herself.

Though I didn’t see it, I knew exactly what happened. And I knew exactly how she felt.

So much of motherhood, I've learned, is universal.