Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On the road again

We're hitting the road, or the skies, tomorrow.

Xanax: check
Afrin: check
Kleenex; check

Passports: check (Essie is working on one for her bear Bernose as I write this.) "Mommy, what day was Bernose born? Was he really born in China?"

I've got some fat magic markers, some sculpting clay, and some books.
I'm still missing the candy, but I'm sure we can pick some up along the way.

But I'm mostly just hoping the video entertainment lineup is really, really enticing. Because the thought of eight mid-day hours on a plane with two kids and no daddy in sight to tag team with, scares the bee Jesus out of me.

Especially since Mommy will be pretty much despondent about leaving her other half behind. Ian and I took a ceremonial, farewell walk at the end of a beautiful, cloudless day yesterday. We walked through lush green meadows and along tidy walking paths lined with wild rhododendron and along single track trails that wound through stunning blue-bell woods. A purple carpet spread out in every direction. And, miraculously and conveniently as one can only expect from England, a strategically-placed pub in which to stop and fortify ourselves with a glass of cider.

Wish us luck.

America is still there, isn't it?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The final crossing

We are gliding through the gathering darkness towards Great Britain as I write this. The dark water looks like it's been beaten, bruised. We seem to be slowly pushing pushing towards England, leaving France behind, moving away from her inch by inch, ripple by ripple, wave by wave.

Goodbye is behind us, for now.  Our French life is back there. We are here.

The moving out of our rental house nightmare has gone undocumented, for obvious reasons.

I have been too damn demented- right- out- of -my- head busy pretending harness the chaos of our lives and wrestling the remains of our two years in France into three checkable bags-- did you know that international flights only allow one bag per person now?-- to consider actually stopping to write about what on earth it is I’m doing.

We have survived yet another good bye party. It was lovely, yet hard. It feels so awkward to be the recipient of such a gathering.

We have survived moving our stuff out of our house. If moving can’t put an otherwise happy couple on the brink of divorce, I don’t know what can?

We have survived saying goodbye, really saying goodbye, looking friends in the eyes, hugging them, and saying the words,”good bye, I will miss you, thank you for being such an amazing friend."

It is remarkably remarkable how long you can put that off. And more amazing still how cowardly it feels to finally do it, then jump in the car and flee down the street like a criminal with someone else's heart in your pocket.

We have survived a hot, late, too late, afternoon drive to a hotel near Giverny where Ian took us as a last request to see Monet’s Gardens.

Finally seeing Monet’s Gardens was rewarding. Seeing all those people lined up down the street, waiting to get in to a tremendously-talented dead man’s house and garden and parading down the street just to soak up the aura of his village, redeemed my faith in the importance, the stamina, of art.

The reality that people still crave and appreciate the permanence and the unfaltering beauty of art, in spite of how ugly and impermanent the modern world often seems today, got caught in my throat as I tried to point it out to Esther:

“Do you see that?” I asked her as we turned the corner onto Rue Claude Monet and beheld the throngs. “Do you see all those people? Do you realize what they are doing? Why they are here? It’s art. The power of art. After all this time.”

That an old French fart with tons of kids, who was obsessed with painting his Japanese bridge can still draw such a rapt audience is astounding. And marvelous. And what would he think of people lined up to buy coffee mugs and watches with his water lilies on the face?

The girls were inspired by Monet's Gardens. I bought each of them a mini sketch pad in the gift shop, the dreaded gift shop, and they wandered the riotous, flower -lined paths with their noses stuck in them, sketching furiously. Isla insisted on sitting down to draw at every new vantage point, every new flower she saw. She couldn't really care less who Claude Monet was, but she was impressed by his flowers.

The road home

They are so exhausted, my girls. The last few days have drained us all, sucked every drop of emotion and physical strength from us. Moving is a nightmare.

Being confronted, again and again, with one’s stuff, with one’s instinct to nest, to hoard, to collect, to let roots take purchase even when you know this isn’t your home, is frightening. Extricating oneself, pulling up those roots, is not easy. It takes a solid spine. Mine is feeling porous right about now.

Leaving our village was sad, but I was numbed, anaesthetized somehow, dry eyed, mostly. The sight of my children’s friends crying made water come into my eyes, but I did not do the blubbering I had expected. Dry. Esther said the same. She felt numb too.

It’s shock, I suppose.

And saying goodbye to France... I didn’t look back, really. I got on this boat and sat down at a table and immediately put my heavy head down. I could no longer hold it upright on my shoulders. It felt like an unwieldy boulder, careening up there, threatening to teeter off its perch and crush someone beneath it’s solid weight.

I don’t feel overly drawn at this very moment to stay in France. Perhaps I will miss it. I know I will miss parts of it, aspects, angles, certain profiles seen from a distance, in a certain flattering light-- like the way the sunlight had a beach quality in the mornings, and the sparkling eyes and unexpected friendly conversation of strangers on the street, and cycling past those dizzying stretches of sunflowers in July...

 But I don’t feel grief at leaving--only a strange, sheepish, slightly guilty, relief.

What does that mean? It means I have already gone home in my mind. I have checked out mentally, preparing myself for the return to my former, childhood lover. It’s always easier to leave something when you have something else waiting in the wings. I am ready to resume my old life again. My old life with my new perspective. I feel determined it will feel richer, less discontented, more whole to me now that I have had this little foreign affair. Am I kidding myself? Time will tell.

I am not ready, however, to leave Ian here. The worst is yet to come. That will require some stoic powers which are hopefully hiding deep within my hole-riddled spine.

I feel like a wild flower losing the shade and windbreak of its overhead tree. My lighthouse keeper.
I will be exposed to the elements without him.

Meanwhile, the kids on this ferry are going bonkers. It is bedtime. They are tired, hungry and bored stiff. It is mindnumbingly boring. They are renegades, unsupervised. Their parents, us included, are over it. Punch drunk from too many hours on the road entertaining needy children. We have turned our backs, closed our eyes, we see no harm in our children's energy. The children scream, they run, balls are shooting out of the ball pit at random, children are running past barefoot. The parents sip coffee, tea, beers and cocktails, anything. They are hoping they might disappear. They are praying no one will complain because they are sick and tired of scolding. An announcement comes over the intercom. "Please supervise your children," it says. We all check to see what our kids are doing, then we go back to our disappearing acts.

Essie has, in the midst of all this, met a new friend from Australia. Will the international friendships never end? 

It’s almost two hours past the kids’ bedtime. There is no bed in sight. The kids have had too little sleep for so many nights in a row now. Life feels reckless, out of control, yet I am helpless to stop the cycle. It is simply the way things are right now.

Back to normal is a given. But when?

This boat is a lawless place, like a floating parent and child frat party. We're not in France, not in England. It's no-man’s land. A boy just ran past me in Cookie Monster pajamas holding a plastic ball from the pit and laughing like a maniac. Let us off this thing.

I can see land. The lights in the distance promise we are reaching the shore. Soon there will be no more water beneath us. No more floating, drifting, but solid earth beneath our feet. Purchase.

Will I feel heavy, lacking grace, and swiftness when my feet hit the ground?

I've written more about leaving France over here at Momformation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

France has turned up the volume on her charms

I’m having all of the necessary, predictable reservations about our decision to leave.

Just like a woman who decides to leave her gorgeous, interesting, successful, but -not-exactly-right-for-her boyfriend, the finality of the decision has left me fraught with nostalgia for France’s sweet side.

Her apple and cherry blossom gauziness has returned to woo me, visually, romantically and sensually. It's as if all of Burgundy is wearing an intricate veil, making her beauty all the more intriguing. Buds have sprouted into neon-green leaves. Everywhere I look, there are flowers, gauzy, white, pink, yellow, blue flowers. The landscape has softened, after a winter of  sharpness. The very air is sweet. Doux. Why does the coming of Spring surprise me every time? I'm like that goldfish in Ani DiFranco's song,  Little plastic castle. 

Suddenly, I am insatiable for her food. A bacon, tomato and chevre sandwich on an exquisitely crusty baguette traditionne from the Avallon bakery practically seduced me last week. I ate half of it with one hand, while hurtling down the N6.

And Ian made a simple salad of shallots, petit poids and new radishes last week. The kids turned their noses up at it. I ate the entire bowl. It was if I was trying to fill a deep hole, with food.

And her people, her people: They are suddenly all so friendly and familiar.

Yesterday, at the stable, I loved France, and the Pesteau Farm, with such a fervent passion I could scarcely breathe.

Everything seemed right and perfect and preferable about it. The sun, the green hills, the fuzzy ponies offering themselves up to my eager children as a means of self discovery. First Esther, looking so capable, so confident up there on top of her favorite frisky pony, Hitouche. So centered in her seat, taking all the instructions, in French, without falter.

Then Isla, overcoming her fear of trotting, and her allergies. Smiling while trotting. Reins in one hand, her other firmly grasping the pommel, or a Kleenex, her little seat also so firm and centered, listening intently to  her teacher, smiling, letting out little squeaks of excitement laced with fear, laced with self satisfaction. Swoon.

The look on her face was mostly one of pride. Seeing my kids proud of themselves has got to be one of the most awe-inspiring, spiritual pats on the back motherhood has ever handed out.

I was crying under my sunglasses for most of the morning. Crying as Isla trotted round and round the indoor ring. Crying as Esther led Isla on her pony across the brook and through the cross country obstacles. Crying as Isla lay her head across her pony's mane an ducked under the poles. Crying as she reached into her pocket, got her own mouchoir out, and blew her nose.  I'm a mess.

And talking, again, with Eloise's mother, a woman whose name I will never learn, but who I have always enjoyed talking to. I told her we were leaving. She was surprised. Our conversation came easy, of course, now that I’m leaving.

And I was filled with regret for the time lost at ballet, which Isla also loves, but which has pulled me away from those ringside talks. I didn’t find them at the ballet studio. I definitely don’t find them at the school gates.

The most reliable place to find connection has always been African Dance. Last night was no different. No disappointment. I returned after months away, two months perhaps, and was soooo happy to be back in that room full of my people. My tribe.

Vivienne was more friendly than ever, was that my imagination? and we spoke with ease, as we lay on mats, side by side. We chatted like school girls, like old friends, as we warmed up. Why is my French pouring so readily out of my mouth, after all this time?

And the banter, and the joking and the smiling faces all around the room, so welcoming, so warm, so familiar. Forging connections in these estranged circumstances is so challenging but so incredibly rewarding.

Vivienne made sure I was coming back next week for the live drummers. I sealed the deal by paying up front. Hopefully I will stay healthy.

My winter sinus infection saga went on too long. Finally seeing the ORL was another miracle: The miracle of French health care. I felt better within 24 hours. And, as usual, my session with the doctor, the successful communication, was another feather in my cap. And the ease and accessibility and affordability of French health care glared at me with an accusing eye. Why would you trade this for American health care robbery?

I don’t know. I don't know.

It’s all bittersweet. It is all another chapter. A new chapter. Another new chapter in a book that has seemingly endless chapters. It’s time to turn the page. But wait, I just want to read that part again...

The leaving France theme is pervasive. There will be so much to miss, like French school lunches, and the sound of Isla playing in French with her friend Cassandra, and just knowing that Esther and Isla are working for world peace in their own small way. All this, and more, over at Momformation.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What, or who, we're leaving behind

Did I forget to mention Ian isn't coming back to America with us?

Not right away, anyway.  We are leaving him behind to get on with finishing, or at least somehow wrapping up, the farmhouse project--no, it's not done--while we get on with reclaiming our former life and homestead.

Daunting is not a big enough word.

And is this arrangement even sensible? I don't know. But I do know that we are ready, and Ian isn't quite, and without that monthly rent check to keep us buoyed financially, my constant suggestions we go to Paris, or the alps, anywhere but here, each and every weekend and school holiday become even more fiscally delusional than they already were. (This is not why we're coming home early, mind you, just one of the factors.)

I will readily admit to being a high maintenance wife here in France. Knowing that Paris, the Pyrennes, Brittany, and the Mediterranean, not to mention all of western Europe is just a train ride away is a constant distraction. I can see Ian's productivity tripling with us out of the picture for a few months. (No longer than four.)

I crawled into bed with Esther the other night to help her warm up her ice floe mattress--it gets so cold, the cotton sheets feel wet. We wiggled and snuggled into each other, fondling the hot water bottle with our feet, desperately willing away the frigid air under the covers and willing the heat of our bodies into the the sheets and beyond.

Finally, Esther said, “When I was in the kitchen just now, it was like a button had been pressed and suddenly I could imagine what it’s going to be like without Daddy in America with us.”

Ouch. I've been waiting for this detail to sink in. I haven’t located that button yet. I am in complete denial. I am forced to forge ahead, not think about it too much, to take whatever comes my way and hope I will rise to the occasion, tap into my inner pioneer woman, and not take my frustrations out on my kids too much.

Is it sane? This plan of ours? I don't know.

I can’t stand the thought of him here, across the ocean, and us back there. While I'm not too concerned he will go looking to the toothless, house-dress sporting widows in the area for private French lessons, I will be worried for him every day. He will be pining for us, his daughters and his trouble and strife, that's me, every day. He loves being a husband and a father. This much I know.

He came up behind Esther at the computer last night, and carefully gathered her still wet- from- bathing hair off of her neck and twisted it into a ponytail in his large hands. He said nothing.

He didn't need to.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The grade-A truth of the matter

I can go on all I want,  in overly-dramatic detail, about sense- of -place this, cultural -barrier that, and the harsher, more surprising realities of rootlessness, but the real reason we have to come home all boils down to one simple-yet-essential thing:

The indignity

  of having to rely on Canadian maple syrup,

 which costs us

about $12, for four ounces. 

Could you imagine?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Time to go home

I am a thief. The wrecker of childhood friendships. Meddler in junior international relations. 

We are going back to America. Abruptly.

After getting a depressing e-mail from our rental tenants back in Vermont, a long tale of roommate dysfunction and financial woe, I crawled into our dark bed, snuggled up next to Ian and worried.

Though he was still awake, I said nothing.

The next morning, I told him about the e-mail. With daylight the news became less and less ominous and more illuminating. Had we not been waiting for a sign about what to do next? When to call it an adventure? How to wrap up this raucous, seemingly-unending chapter of our lives up into some sort of responsible, adult ending?

Well. Here it was. 

It is getting clearer and clearer to me now that it's time. We are outliving our income here. We have not the resources, or, seemingly, the audacity to consider exploring France, or Europe, further. Not that we haven't entertained the thought, endlessly.

While I still feel unsure, if not slightly defeated, about the thought of returning back to Go, I can’t see my way through how not to return.

How and why. Why wouldn’t we return? It is our home. The mountains, the trees, the snow, the spring peepers, the bugs, my family, our friends, our dog, our lovely house, all of it. Our home. Why wouldn’t we go home?

We never intended to stay in France indefinitely. It is no weakness to recognize that a foreign land, however beautiful and culturally rich, holds no deep intrigue, no sense of belonging for you. It is wisdom. Plain and simple.

I have tried and tried to deny that I am rigid in my needs. I need snow. I need sport. I need mountains, I need movement, activity,  roots. Most of all, I need the complete connection of common language, something I don’t see happening for a long long time, if ever, here.

I need to feel my upper body sway and dance and shiver and shake in the elements but I need to feel my lower half firmly rooted to one place. How liberating it is to admit this. I want my home. I need my home. This free floating is no longer for me. Even a sea captain longs for the home he leaves behind each time he sets sail. As do I. It’s not human weakness. It is human.

There is more to excitement than simply not being at home. My life may be inherently more interesting, in a logistical way, but it's not automatically fuller, or richer, because I am in France.

It may be different. It may be challenging. But it is not full in any sense of the word. It is in ways more shallow, somehow one dimensional. Living in a foreign language, without being able to fully express oneself, is like living behind glass. Being voiceless. I want to live in 3-D again.

I need attachment. A sense of place is what has driven me all my life.

Sometimes I have run from sense of place, especially that sense of place I've always derived from my birthplace. The rest of the time I have spent searching for it, lamenting the lack of it, analysing what it is exactly. Sense of place.

Where I fit in. How the world fits around me, like a stage. My backdrop, the backdrop for my play. My life.

Now that we’ve decided to go home, everything is taking on a surreal, bittersweet, last-chance, three -months- to- live quality. I've been watching the kids, not daring yet to tell them.

But the other night, with a Guinness in hand, for courage, sitting by the glowing coals of Ian’s bonfire at dusk, the air growing cold but the birds still singing busily, I told Esther and Isla.

Esther sat next to me by the fire, then said, as if on cue, “Let’s talk about something. Something fun. What should we talk about?”

“Well,” I smiled. “How about we talk about going home?”

“Okay, she said, thinking it was the usual circular conversation we have had so many times before.

“We are going home,” I said. "Soon. Really soon. Like maybe Easter, soon.”

Esther's eyes got big. Her face registered confusion.

I explained our reasons, gave her some more details. Then we got quiet and we both stared at the fire as it took on different shapes and moods. It was filled twinkling lights, like the glowing windows of fairy homes. Then I saw what looked like the Louvre burnt down to a shell, in the coals.

Isla, in my lap, said nothing. She acted as if we were talking about the weather.

I feel bad,” Esther finally said "I feel bad for Oliver and Georgia."

“Like you know that feeling when Evelyn told me she was going to be homeschooled?”

 “Yes,” I said.

“But they will understand. They knew, on some level, you weren’t staying here forever.”

“Yea, but they didn’t know I was leaving before the school year was over."

Then, at dinner, we  talked some more, and talked about Martha. I told Isla she would be able to  go to Martha’s.

Finally, Isla tuned in.

“I’m going to Martha’s?


She got out of her chair, walked around the table, kissed me lightly on the cheek, and said, “Merci, Maman,” and walked back to her chair.

Since that day, she has asked me almost every day, "Are we going home to America today?" 

"Not today," I say. "But soon. Real soon."