First, a note to my readers. As we advance toward the official release date set now for mid-July, I am pacing my posts in order to give you regular excerpts from the manuscript itself, updates on the publication process of Global Mom (the book), and vlogs featuring Global Mom (the Mom). The latter is to share with you what it’s like to navigate the many constant and weighty demands of this lifestyle we’ve chosen, which in this phase includes parenting the two youngest of our four (now high schoolers), integrating and trying to make a valuable contribution in yet another geography/culture/school system/place-we-call-home.
These are crowded but invigorating weeks ahead as we ready for the book to take off. So I’m strapped in, tray table in upright position, stuff stowed in the overhead. Very glad you’re my seat partner, by the way, and not some snoring stranger.
Alright. Back to the book:
From Global Mom: A Memoir
Continued from two posts ago, “Toot-a-loo!”, where our family is now sinking deep into our years living in the heart of Paris.
Out of 365 days on our family’s kitchen calendar, 281 were marked with visitors who stayed in our apartment. That’s not bragging. That’s fessing up. Our place turned into la Grande Gare Centrale, with its constant stream of bodies, roll-on suit-cases, extra mattresses, and fat stacks of Paris maps. Despite what that kind of traffic meant for predictable bed times and bathroom rights, the children learned to share their space, we made delightful connections with people from all over the world, and others got to experience Paris.
As is typical in many Parisian apartment buildings, ours was outfitted with rooftop garrets, or, in French, chambres de bonnes, or maids’ quarters. Our apartment was allocated two such rooms, hardly bigger than a walk-in closet each, but enough room for one set of bunk beds, a chair and a sink. In them we kept our frequent houseguests or visiting missionaries from our church. We grew especially close with some of these missionaries, who missed their families and homes and often ate around our long Norwegian table, hung out with and became like siblings to our teenagers, spent holidays with us, even went Christmas caroling with us to the homeless sleeping in tents along the Seine.
When missionaries were using the garrets, then other visitors were necessarily crammed into a back room with pink walls, a red futon, and access to a bathroom the size of a Parisian elevator, which sort of elevator is suited only for solo trips, not some convention of two.
If someone was abruptly left homeless, as happened to a newly arrived family of five from Boston, we took them in. The Sorensens had been jerked around, as is often the case, by Parisian real estate capriciousness. Translated, that means they’d found one apartment, signed a contract, and were geared to move in, then the owner changed his mind. So they found another apartment, signed a contract, were geared to move in, then this owner changed his mind. A cosmic joke? To the Sorensens it felt like one. But when I told the story to my drycleaner down Rue Malar, he hardly blinked. “I know,” he shrugged, “slippery as eels, these apartments,” and went on to ka-ching-ka-ching up my bill.
So the Sorensens (Greg, Kristiina, Rachel, Caroline, and Sam) were understandably less than charmed by Paris, and were repacking their bags to head back to Stockholm where they’d previously tried living Scandinavianly in a peaceful yellow country house on a quiet lake with a green row boat and a family of ducks. They rowed to the other shore to pick up fresh eggs, fresh milk, fresh gooseberries. They opened up their shutters to the sight of field flowers and climbing roses. They sun bathed on their quiet balcony.
This Parisian apartment yanking thing felt, well, yanky, if not uncongenial. But we convinced them to stick it out a bit longer—“Paris isn’t really hostile; she’s just playing hard to get. It’s a tactic.” And to help them stick it out, we took them in for a few weeks. This was a legitimate tactic, actually, to get them to move into our neighborhood, across our itsy bitsy street. When that actually happened, it was as improbable as it was magical. Our children conveniently matched in ages, and Kristiina and I discovered that we were suited to be more than friends; we were more like long lost sisters.
From [our] … tight corner of Paris and for what would be over four full years we lived there, we ventured broadly across and deeply into the town. The children found their favorite places to buy crêpes and gallettes (in Montmartre at the foot of the hill of Sacre Coeur and at the same crêperie every single time), where to grab the best ice cream cone, where to buy toys and CDs and shoes. I knew where to get great art supplies, kitchen ware, second-hand French books, fresh-cut hortensias, a decent hair trim, and where I could meet a friend for rose petal tea. I knew, above all, where to let myself get lost looking, for instance, for Gertrude Stein’s, Hemingway’s, Cole Porter’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, or Rudolf Nureyev’s apartments.
Randall found the ideal tennis partner, who rode a Vespa, too. They met at a court early Saturday mornings. When the season came, Randall enjoyed taking the children to the French Open at Roland Garros, the court-side tickets gifts from a generous friend. The boys knew every corner of the Jardin d’Acclimitation, Palais de Tokyo, the Esplanade des Invalides where they roller bladed and walked Joey. The man who ran the peddled racecar track tucked in corner of the Champs de Mars knew the boys by sight. We’d found the best comic book store in the Latin Quarter, the best art movies theaters the Reflet des Medicis or the Balzac, and knew what new releases in their VO or version originale were showing at the big Gaumont houses on the Champs Élysées. We knew how many steps it was to walk past Harry Winston’s windows to Fendi, or from Dior and Chanel, all on our walks to school up the Avenue Montaigne. That we did when weather was just the right shade of warm and Paris at her most ebullient.
At the bottom of that Avenue Montaigne, right next to what had been Marlene Dietrich’s apartment, was the clean white facade of le Theâtre du Champs Élysées, where Randall and I went every so often with or without the children to concerts. René Fleming. Cecilia Bartoli. Kurt Masur conducting. Sylvie Guillaume dancing. Or we went to the Salles Gaveau or Pleyel to hear Jessie Norman, J. J. Milteau and his jazz harmonica, the King Singers, or African percussion.
Not only were we delving into the city, but we were crisscrossing the country. With visiting relatives and sometimes friends, we made our way to the castles and beaches of Normandy. Then we discovered Brittany, with its seaside fishing villages and ramparts. With my parents as enthused travel partners trailing us in a rented green Punto, we penetrated the Charentes, Perigord, Dordogne, Bordeaux, the Pyrenées, and the Loire. We lodged, as you can in France, in troglodyte hotels, working farms, renovated monasteries, erstwhile castles, and some bring-your- own-toilet-paper youth hostels. There was almost no region of France we didn’t visit, and yet we always felt we’d scarcely scratched the surface.
All of this was an investment in our children who, at eighteen, sixteen, eleven and seven, could appreciate the things they were seeing and experiencing. They loved, of all the places we traveled, the late springs and early summers of Provence. That was a relaxed existence, slow and warm like the landscape and the light, unlike Paris where our teenagers had to learn to be alert and capable of managing the complexities of the big city on their own. Parker was especially fearless when it came to physically navigating the buses and rail systems in the city. He and Claire stuck together mostly if they went out on a Friday or Saturday evening, but if the occasion ever presented itself when Claire was somewhere in town alone, the two had a habit of texting each other non-stop.
Like my teenagers, I was also navigating a convoluted and intoxicating city. I’d long since conquered parallel parking in a spot which by all physical measures was too small for my vehicle, and I knew exactly which underground parking lots in town would accommodate my Renault van. I also knew which ones would leave me wedged inextricably in a corner, nine other motorists stacked up behind me, unable to turn in any direction at all, so I finally had to exit my car and walk from driver’s window to driver’s window, asking if, one-by-one, they could reverse into the street so I finally could, too.
I relished, at this point, swirling several times around the Étoile, or the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe that is an enormous vehicular vortex of twelve converging roads like spokes on a wheel, or rays from a star. It was my favorite place to drive in all the city. Why? Because it embodied the French concept, the “Système D,” “D” being short for débrouiller, which means to manage – or better, to slug one’s way through. I was debrouillling well, so to speak, and was so grateful to see my family was, too. Given the learning curve we’d ascended, this was plain gratifying.
(Stay tuned for more Paris. . .)