Straightening the Spine: The Risk, Cost and Necessity of Change

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

— W. H. Auden

Barbie as you've never seen her

Barbie, posing post scoliosis surgery. Mock-up for the full-body cast my mom wore for 9 months.

One whiff of isopropyl alcohol, and I am hurtled back to the summer of 1974, the year I learned my first lessons about the costs of change. Though I was too young to know it then, I was destined to learn that summer and over the years to follow, just how necessary to our survival ––but how painful, risky and costly––change is.

Those were hard and tactile lessons, as hard as the shoulder-to-groin body cast my mother wore for nine months, and as tactile as her waxy scars she allowed me to touch. Her “Frankenstein scars” as she called them, came from traction rods that had run through her knees, and from the four screws that had been drilled into her skull. The longer, purplish incisions that snaked down her spine and all over her torso came from surgical scalpels.

My nightly job was to swab with big wads of cotton the visible scars that were still healing, as well as the sore patches of skin around my mom’s arms, hips and at her jaw line.  These were being rubbed raw by every one of her awkward movements against the pumice-stone edge of plaster.

Mom’s change was no figure of speech. Her change was her figure, literally. She had undergone a complete restructuring of her spine to correct severe scoliosis, which series of surgeries that I’ll describe here, if you have the stomach for them, saved her life.  Straightforward as that.

scoli charts

The collapsing and twisting of her spine (begun at puberty and exacerbated by four pregnancies) was far more than some mere cosmetic bother. No, she couldn’t wear most clothes from stores, as they didn’t fit her curved back.  And no, she couldn’t sit in a normal church pew without shoving two hymnals under the hip that was three inches higher than the other.  The real problem was that the scoliosis had advanced to where her lungs and other internal organs were severely compromised. Even her thoracic cavity was showing signs of being cramped.  She didn’t have full use of both lungs.  There was pressure on her heart. Doctors vigorously encouraged intervention.

But this, remember, was the ‘70’s.  The surgical procedures for correcting spinal collapse were still experimental. Surgery was risky. And my parents, university instructors, were of modest means.  Surgery was also costly. But the risks and costs of not undergoing the change were greater than the risks and costs of not making the change at all.

Off to grandmas house with my baby brother, Aaron

Off to grandma’s house with my baby brother, Aaron. Note the length of my Mom’s kaftan.

And so this was going to be our Summer of Change.  My mom was going to be rebuilt.  Lee Majors was The Bionic Man on TV at the same time, and so the idea of a Bionic Mom was appealing.  We four children were farmed out to relatives, and my dad and mom drove to Minneapolis, tugging a camper trailer across the ominous aridity of America’s Midwest.  In St. Paul, my mom was admitted to the hospital.

legs scoli

There, on July 1st, she was put in traction. This meant that she lay flat on her back, skewered through the knees with steel rods, to which a pulley system threaded overhead was attached. At the end of the system were tied progressively heavy sand bags. They stretched her downward, toward the foot of her bed.  At the same time, she was fitted with a metal halo, literally screwed into her skull at four points, and to that halo, another pulley contraption was tethered, and sandbags stretched her to the top of the bed.

traction

For six weeks she lay in traction. She never lifted or turned her head. Never twisted to her side without two nurses’ assistance. Never went to a toilet or looked out her window or shook out her hair. Never as much as bent her legs or reached down to scratch her shin. Immobility tested her patience, if not her sanity. The threat of blood clots was constant. But in recounting those long weeks, she focuses on watching (through pulley cords and from a mirror positioned above her hospital bed) Nixon’s televised resignation and his famous waving departure on a helicopter. “He looked as miserable as I felt at the time,” she said, “but more stiff.”

From that lateral position and after six weeks, she was hoisted directly onto a mobile operating table, wheeled into the O.R., and surgeons made a long curving incision across her rib cage. They removed a rib, ground it up, and like master chefs, kept the ground rib to the side like a bowl of dry oatmeal.  For later mixing.

Then they made another incision, this time along the crest of her pelvis. From there, they dug and scraped, harvesting more meal. That bowl they also set aside. They would need her own bone mortar for packing in around the base of her spine when they performed the final and major reconstructive surgery.  It involved making a long incision down the entire length of her spinal column, laying the flesh open, then packing like sand in a sand castle her own bone meal in and around the lumbar region of her spine, then bolting two long and delicate titanium (Harrington) rods to her spine and, in essence, jacking her up like a car on lifts.

Risk accompanied every phase of this surgery.  Just how serious the risk was, was brought home dramatically when sirens went off in her hospital room.  Her roommate, just returned from the same surgery mom was to undergo the next morning, had gone into cardiac arrest. Surrounded by screaming family and frantic but ultimately helpless doctors and nurses, the roommate died. Mom was surreptitiously wheeled out of her own room.

In the hallway that night, against the accompaniment of wailing and thick terror, my parents determined that in spite of every known risk, Mom would still undergo the surgery.

rib scar

back scar

Chrysalis, anyone?

Chrysalis, anyone?

I recall when my Mom came home. She was wearing a jersey red polka top and white pants grown suddenly too short, under which fit that bulky full body cast with its chin-high collar. The airplane crew drove her to us in one of those golf carts in which she sat primly, robotically, artificially erect. She was taller, thinner, weaker.

welcome home

But she was stronger. She was changed. And although to this very day her bionic spine sets off the occasional airport security system everywhere she travels, she travels. She’s around to do so. If you were to ask her now, on what is nearly the 40th anniversary of our Summer of Change, I am certain she would say that every fear and every violet scar was more than worth it.

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the worlds' most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

The same kaftan, four inches shorter. And the world’s most sullen blonde teenager. Whut?

Reflecting on the changes I’ve faced in my life, I’m drawn to Auden’s keen assertion that, for the most part, we’d rather be ruined (let our spines collapse within us) than be changed (undergo risk-laden and costly improvement.) Many of us, myself included, sometimes accept the deadly or deadening way-things-are, only because change fills us with dread. Or it’s at least kinda scary. We’d rather die of the kind of fear that cramps the torso, leaving us only one lung-full of air, and room for only half a heart, than climb the “cross of the moment” and discover new life.

I didn’t know back when I was rubbing my mom’s chafe-marks with medicinal alcohol that one day I’d inherit a vertebrae or two of her bionic spine.  But I see I have.  We are anticipating our own Summer of Change. No life-altering surgeries (we can only hope) but some big realignments, including launching another book, sending a returned missionary daughter back to university, saying goodbye to a son when he heads off on a 2-year volunteer mission, and, yes, taking a new job in a new country.

I’m stiffening that spine. And if things get rough, sniffing isopropyl alcohol.

Less sullen then, but less strong

Less sullen then, but also less strong

My Daughter And The Mafia: 10 Reasons I Love My Church’s Missionary Program

Ragusa, Sicily.  Find it on a map, and you see it’s not even part of Italy’s proverbial boot.  Not even the boot’s toe. It’s more like the southernmost point on the underside of some clot kicked westward by the toe of that boot.  As far south as you can possibly go without hitting ocean and swimming as fast as you can to Malta.

Like any fleeing Mafioso.

Solreela Bradford and her group fo missionaries, learning Italian in the Missionary Training Center

Sorella Bradford and her group of fellow missionaries, learning Italian in the Missionary Training Center

Little, quiet hilltop Ragusa is reputedly Italian Mafia headquarters, where the narrow streets seem eerily tame.  That is, except when the ticked-off fruit vendor and irritated barber yell at each other in Sicilian (the region’s spicy dialect), and their insults ricochet off walls like bundles of barbed wire tumbling and scratching away at the dusty limestone.

This is where our daughter Claire (aka Sorella Bradford) earned her Sicilian stripes by beginning her full-time voluntary service as a Mormon missionary. It’s from here that she sent weekly letters that describe missionary life as it is: challenging, educational, humbling, exhilarating, hilarious, rough, purifying. Work.

Sorella Bradford and her first companion, Sorella Dall

Sorella Bradford and her first companion, Sorella Dall

Today I’m particularly grateful for the work of people like Claire.  For the past two months, we’ve had missionaries (who’ve served here in Switzerland, who’ve served in Italy, Finland, Japan, the U.S.) and their families visiting in our home.  Our conversations have revolved often around lessons learned, lives changed and reservoirs of gratitude filled for the life-altering work missionary service can be.

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So before Wednesday comes – the day when we exchange our weekly emails with our missionary – I’m listing 10 (of the 100) reasons why I love that Claire, recently transferred to Rome, has taken 18 moths off of university studies to serve her God and His good Italian people.

10 REASONS I LOVE MISSIONS

1- Missionaries are expected to live within the world (“Mom, we worked the Ragusa ghetto today, and taught English to 41 refugees tonight,”), but to hold themselves outside of what can be vulgar, trendy and materially distracting.

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2- Missionary work is about focusing on the wellbeing of others. The ego is reduced, the heart enlarged. 

3-Prolonged immersion in another culture can forever alter one’s world view. These kids learn a new language to the level of functional, fluent, and in some cases, near-native mastery. Cultural immersion can be rough, and such roughness can smooth corners of xenophobia, bigotry, lop-sided patriotism, and cultural smugness.

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4-Missionaries get to penetrate and observe the heart of any culture: the home.  Visiting homes lets young people learn at close range what works and what doesn’t in family relationships.  Some homes are models. Some are real-life cautionary tales.

5-This kind of work is rigorous training toward independence and self-motivation. Missionaries don’t simply opt out of a day of work because they’re tired or crampy or have swollen ankles.   Or if they have a bad companionship…

6-Because missionaries are always assigned to a companion (you don’t choose where or with whom you serve; these are considered sacred assignments and you learn to make the best of everything),  they learn to compromise, communicate, work as a team, and plan in tandem.  They might also learn why someone else finds them obnoxious. Great prep for any future relationship.

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7-Ever met more ridiculously optimistic young people? Missionaries, with their focus directed outside of themselves, wanting to bring joy to others, are brought on a daily basis to the sometimes painful interior of others’ lives.  And they are happy. Claire’s letters have more exclamation points than any other punctuation.  I’ve never known her so “up”, so fulfilled.

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8- Unpaid and sometimes ridiculed (“So today this lady on the bus screamed at us and tried to rip off my nametag! No one takes my TAG”), or even stoned (“They were just bored gypsy boys, Mom, but when that rock hit my companion, my tiger side kicked in”), missionaries are liberated from the natural tendency toward selfishness. At 18-22 years old, that’s a sheer miracle.

9-Right when many are sowing wild oats, testing (bucking) boundaries, deceiving parents and institutions and perfecting the popular sardonic posturing of the rising generation, missionaries are committing themselves to a life based on deep principles, high values, moral discipline, volunteer service and a world view that extends far beyond YOLO.

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10-At the heart of this all is love.  To learn to love – differences, others, God, self, truth, life, prayer, work, sacrifice, eating raw octopus, being stoned by gypsies, seeing a human heart and a whole life change – is, for me, the essence of the miracle of a mission.

In the words that ended Sorella Bradford’s last letter: I LOVE THE MISSION!!!!!…!!…!!!…!

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**

What pluses would you add to this list?

What experiences, missionary or non-missionary, have you had that have resulted in similar pluses?

What questions do you have about this whole missionary program that Sorella might answer herself?

(I’ll share this post and all your comments with Sorella Bradford. Go ahead. Write in Italian, if you wish.)

Moved Around, Ripped Out, Messed Up: Has This International Life Damaged My Children?

This year it hit me broadside.

Standing in my entryway, eagerly opening up holiday greeting cards from around the world, I held a family Christmas collage from a friend in my hands. There they were: the crowds of folks gathered for one child’s wedding; a smiling circle cheering another child’s academic achievement; lines of friends there for another child’s community concert. I skimmed the lines about neighbors and friends who rushed in when there was a crisis, and wiped my forehead, now pumping hot blood, astonished by my gut reaction.

Pain. Pain for my children.

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I knew my friend was only sharing her normal, everyday life.  What I read wasn’t shimmering with the exceptional, not in her mind, I’m sure.  It was an obviously normal life to her, probably, a life spent in one spot with lifelong connections, familial solidarity and children held sturdy by that kind of  ballast.  Skimming, though, I saw strong, bold lines that plumb through layers and layers of years and years of rock solid support and shared common experience.

Then, as if someone pulled the plug on the parquet floor beneath me, that sensation hit. And I sank.

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It’s there, in that sunken place, that I developed a T.I.C.K.

Or at least I developed the concept of one and made up the acronym for it.

T.I.C.K.? You’ve probably never heard of it, although maybe you’ve heard of a TCK, or a Third Culture Kid. That’s a child who’s spent the dominant portion of her upbringing in a culture/language/geography other than that of her parents.

TICK is something else, and may be a little more complicated than a TCK. A TICK is a Transient International Composite Kid.

That, ladies and gentlemen, would be my bundle.

Of joy.

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Not only are my kids TCKs, (they’ve spent virtually all  their developmental years in a culture/language/geography other than their parents’ native one), but they’re TICKs, too, having spent their entire lives moving and moving. And moving again. And not merely from one side of a city to another. Nor from one side of a state nor side of one country to another.  They’ve moved from one side of the cultural spectrum to another: Hong Kong, Norway, two different locations in France, America, Germany, Singapore, and now Switzerland.

What does that kind of perpetual and far-flung transience mean for a child? For a teenager? For a young adult? It means multilingual proficiency (about which I’ve just written.)  It means adaptability, flexibility, courage, ability to make friends with your corner lamp post. It means resilience. It means, as many TICKs will tell you, an unusually tight bond as a family. (You’ve gone through quite a lot together). It can mean various positives like increased tolerance, motivation, independence. It can mean you know many things firsthand that others know only virtually.

Unquestionably, there’s a lot gained from traipsing through so much diversity and upheaval. But lately. . . I am tallying the costs. And they are painful to me.

What might those costs be?

Let me give you an idea by showcasing just one of our four, Dalton Haakon Bradford.

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Dalton is now seventeen, a “Year 12” in his international bilingual school here on outskirts of Geneva, or, according to the US system, a high school junior.  In these 17 years, he’s attended a Norwegian preschool…

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A French bilingual preschool…

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An American international kindergarten, an American public 1st grade, a French bilingual primary school…

073A German international school…

088a Singapore-based American international school, and now the Swiss bilingual school from which he will graduate a year from now.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m adding up 8 different approaches to academic instruction, and 4 distinct classroom languages. What you can’t see in that tally are all the friends made and lost. All the homes adapted to and emptied. All the programs begun yet suddenly dropped. All the teachers who had to get to know this kid from ground up, who didn’t know his strength or quirks or particular needs. All the opportunities to audition or compete or enter, lost because, whooops, we can’t promise we’ll be here for that. All the essential secrets held under the coat like a vat of churning lava, because there is no gathered context out of which strangers can interpret him.

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

June 2007, last vacation where the kids were all together in Provence

Those kinds of costs. Let’s let our TICK speak about them for himself.

So, Dalton Bradford: What, in your opinion, have been the costs of this nomadic, international life? 

1) I’ve forfeited familiarity and comfort. More times than I can count, I’ve been the only new kid (or one of the few) in my class, and that has sometimes meant the only one not quite yet speaking the language of instruction. Seems I’m always in the figuring-out phase, just getting my mind organized in a new culture, not to mention a whole new school system and student body. This means my ramp-up time to becoming efficient in a new school costs me academic and social ease.

Versailles, France.

Versailles, France.

2) I’ve had to say goodbye to dozens of friends. Over a dozen times.  This is just hard. It’s gotten easier to keep in touch via FB and Skype, but still virtual’s not the same.  They just aren’t here with me. This repeated separation makes it harder to invest in relationships. I always know either I or they will eventually be leaving. OR, I feel I have to invest in relationships super quickly, because I never know how much time I’ll have. In my current school where there’s only a 7% turnover in the student body from year to year, I’m one of the few who hasn’t been here for most of my education, even all 12 years. That’s danged hard to penetrate.

Croissy-sur Seine, France

Croissy-sur-Seine, France

3) It’s so hard to get academic traction. When you’re not certain how long you’re going to stay in a country, it’s hard to plan on your academic curriculum.  When you can’t plan, you can’t count on completing courses or taking them through their end with certain teachers, then you also can’t commit to being around the next year for certain activities. This was so hard when we moved from Singapore, because I’d just made real strides in the theater department, had a fabulous French instructor, was cruising in Mandarin, and then we suddenly left. I’d banked on being  heavily involved in theater, French and Mandarin the next year. There’s hardly a theater department where I am now. And now I’m the one who helps tutor Mandarin.

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

Cosima Schwimmbad, München, Deutschland

4) Sometimes others hold back from investing in a friendship with you because they know you’ll be leaving anyway. I’ve heard this in church and school, that others who are locals expect we’ll leave soon anyway, and so why get close? Because of this, they sometimes keep their distance.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

5) Sometimes I question my identity. Am I American? European? International?  Who am I? I don’t know the first  thing about American TV, football, baseball, even a lot of the daily slang. But I carry a US passport and English is my mother tongue.  Where do I fit in, and where can I count on being understood? Where will my life experiences be valued and not criticized or pigeonholed? Some people who’ve never lived internationally assume all sorts of things about this “luxurious”, “pampered”, “exotic” lifestyle, and they also question your patriotism. (Once, I had to explain to a kid that an expatriate was not an ex-patriot. Yeah, like that was cool.)

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

Berchtesgaden, Deutschland

6) Unlike kids who grow up their whole lives in one place, I struggle to advance and establish myself in extra curricular activities. For example, coaches or instructors or music teachers need to have known you from the year before in order to put you on a team or cast you in the play or in the orchestra.  I’ve been the new kid so much, I get passed up and can’t compete with the ones who’ve established themselves with coaches and mentors over years.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

7) Depending on where you go to University, you might get slammed with major culture shock. I remember how disoriented Claire [my older sister] was her first year at university.  She had a great time eventually, but she talked about always feeling she was looking at the experience from the outside-in. There were attitudes and even language usage she did not “get” at all.  After a year, thanks to a great roommate and some key professors, she had a positive experience. I wonder what the adjustment will be like for me.

Nesøya, Norge

Nesøya, Norge

8) You miss on certain maturation experiences growing up like this. Because I don’t live in one place, I can’t apply for summer jobs in the place in the US where I usually vacation only three weeks per year, so I don’t learn about that kind of responsibility like punching a time card, taking orders, reporting to a boss, earning and saving money. I won’t have  a driver’s license until way after the normal US kid has his, so sometimes when I visit the US I feel less mature than all those kids who’ve been driving and holding down jobs since they were 16. Some even get cars when they’re 16! That’s completely unthinkable in my world. (Getting a license in Europe takes private schooling, loads of money, and buying a car is many times more expensive that doing so in the US.)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton's 16th birthday)

Maasai village, Tanzania (Dalton’s 16th birthday)

Dancing through the night of his Sweet Sixteen, with the Maasai

Dancing with the Maasai through the night of his Sweet Sixteen

9) My life experiences – learning languages, working through serial major changes, gaining cultural fluency, whatever– don’t necessarily translate into high college entrance exam scores. And my schools grade much much harder than most public US schools do. The classes are literally like college classes, and getting an “A” is rare, even for top students. What I’ve spent a lot of energy managing has at times been a distraction from the basics of schooling. It takes a lot of work just figuring out your life again after moving to a new country – finding the right teachers, getting the right group of friends, I’ve done math in three different academic styles with their different approaches to graphing stuff, even – and when you slap on top of that the fact that you’re being schooled in a whole new language, it’s…Well it’s just so much more complicated and demanding.  But you can’t explain all that on the SAT.

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

Making friends, Maasai village, Tanzania

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Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

Translator at juvenile detention center. Arusha, Tanzania

10)My major loss is a secret to nearly everyone I know now.  When I was 11 years old I lost my oldest brother, Parker. I was there in the ICU when he took his last breath.  This huge part of who I am was unknown to the kids at the German school I walked into 2 weeks after my brother’s funeral. Ever since then, I’ve carried this loss with me, always among strangers. That is one of the hardest things in my life, and it hurts me every day in some way, even today, almost six years later.

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 9, Dalton 2, Claire 7

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

Parker 15, Dalton 8, Luc 4, Claire 13

It’s just so hard when the people all around you don’t know your story. I think sometimes about other kids who’ve lived in one place and who’ve lost favorite siblings, and what it must be like to just know that people around you know. They understand things about you that are the very core of who you are.  I’m so jealous of that. This thing that’s enormous for me is hidden from everyone in my surroundings. I hate that. An example: This year (another new school, right?), my English teacher announced a surprise writing assignment that had to do with death.  I totally choked. I froze and couldn’t even think straight.  I felt fuzzy and nauseated.  Normally, I’m a really strong writer – it’s my gift, many teachers say – but I went totally blank and cold.  I had to leave the room. Who can blame my teacher, though?

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Brønnøya, Norge, June 2006

Like who can blame the biology teacher that first month Claire [my older sister] arrived at our new school in Germany? He held this big class-long debate on the ethical implications of sustaining life on a ventilator when a patient is in a deep coma. The debate went on and on, with students (who didn’t know Claire or her story) really getting into it. Didn’t Claire have to run out of the class, Mom, and throw up in the closest bathroom?

Yeah. Right. She did. You can say there are hard aspects.

**

Our two children still at home.

Our two children still at home.

It was February when I finally stored away my holiday greeting cards this year. I’d read through them a couple of times, mesmerized by the tokens of those distant, stable lifestyles my children will never know.  I took a breath. I put them away.  And just when that parquet entry floor began feeling a little sturdier beneath my feet, I discovered that what I’d thought were normal adolescent blips, were actually signs that my boys were having significant (read: what have we done moving our kids here?!) adjustment issues. These concerns shook our world so much, my entry parquet floor practically sprouted grooves.

I think I’ll have to write a sequel to Global Mom: A Memoir.

TICK Mom: A Confession

**

What else could you add to this list of costs of a TICK lifestyle?

What suggestions would you make to a TICK like Dalton?

What suggestions would you make to the parent of a TICK?

Do any of these costs surprise you? What do they reveal about what we know or don’t know about another’s life?

Wise Words on Words: Talking About Multilingualism

How many languages do you think are represented in this group shot with my friends?

How many languages do you think are represented in this group shot with my  friends?

In my recent post about How To Raise A Multilingual Child, I described a bit of our family’s 20 years of living in many different countries where, for the sake of survival as well as for integration (which is ever my goal; I always want to be mistaken for a native), we have learned to speak a number of languages.

This is no big deal. At all. Hardly worth licking your lips at when you’re a European or Asian or African.  My friends from those cultures just nod (and yawn) as I tick off what few tongues we’ve learned to speak. Why? Because they’re all speaking four or five as a matter of course.

Mmmm. Vegetarian Roti Prata at my favorite dive in Singapore.

Mmmm. Vegetarian roti prata at my favorite dive in Singapore.

(My dearest Indonesian friend back in Singapore speaks Bahasa and six other distinct Indonesian dialects.  She also makes her way through in Mandarin. And Hokkien.  To boot, our relationship is in English.)

In such a broad world context, there’s simply no getting snooty about speaking a couple of languages. In truth, these friends of mine from all over the place wonder out loud why my Mandarin isn’t a whole lot better.

The Yu Gong, or old men, gathered in Singapore's Chinatown.

The Yu Gong, or old men, gathered in Singapore’s Chinatown.

Back Camera

Disclaimer: I’m finding it hard to keep encircled by a Mandarin-speaking community while living here in French-speaking Switzerland.  And while in Singapore, I never lived in full Mandarin immersion. Yeah. That’s right. I have this whole long fancy list of excuses!

Cute hiking buddy (but poor conversation partners) on Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore

Cute hiking buddy (but poor conversation partner) on Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore

While I whip up some more posts on the pluses and minuses of multilingualism and nomadic multicultural living, you might want to stop in at Ute’s lovely blog

If you are serious about investigating expatriate life and learning what its foundational demands and rewards are; if you are a parent who longs to offer a broad world view to your children; if you just want to dialogue with someone who is a seasoned world citizen, then I suggest you stop in and chat with Ute.

Otherwise, there’s me. I love your visits, too!

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

Heard Yet? Global Mom and Global Mom Are Splitting Up

With my new Facebook Page devoted exclusively to Global Mom: A Memoir, (release date: July 15th), I’m happy to be able to declare this website the space dedicated to things. . .

Global Mom: A Melissa.

Global Mom writes. . . of passage

Global Mom writes. . . of passage

Curious about the release of the book? Then go here, to Global Mom on Facebook, where this coming week I’m starting a vlog visit series with a string of other global moms. They have vastly contrasting stories, have lived in all corners of the planet, and have survived to tell you about it.

lunchin' bunch o' global moms

lunchin’ bunch o’ global moms

I’m also keeping you updated there on the ins and outs of recording the audio version of the book.  Go to that address to be updated on all other booky stuff. Love your visits and appreciate your comments!

Then come here (like. . . truly, literally here-here, no hyperlink needed) for conversations with me about, yes, writing and being a global mom, but beyond that, what touches me as a person in this writing/living/nomadding lifetsyle. . .and everything else.

And there’s a bit of “else.”

Events, ideas, struggles, disappointments, mini-triumphs, local travel and on-the-ground responsibilities – all aspects of my behind-the-book personal life. This is the gamut of writing I’ve not adequately shared with you while I’ve been posting excerpts of the book or otherwise introducing you to the crew (publisher, editors, PR people) teaming up for Global Mom’s release.

What is “everything else”? Things related to:

1) Integrating in French-speaking Switzerland (Want to see why Switzerland is so clean? I’ll show you live footage of the guts of its garbage disposal system.)

summer over Lac Léman

summer over Lac Léman

Canton de Vaud, countryside

Canton de Vaud, countryside

2) Negotiating yet another new school system (Who wants a seasoned insider’s peek at international schools? And do you want a quick-‘n’-dirty on the famed International Baccalaureate degree? What’s it like to educate your kids multilingually?)

German, French, Italian, English. But where's the Romansch?

German, French, Italian, English. But hold on – where’s the Romansch?

3) Raising teenaged boys on the global road (Make that a bumpy global road lately. . .I’ve been seriously wondering what in the world we were thinking signing up for this, and what we’ve done to our children.)

Luc takes up snowboarding

Luc takes up snowboarding

4) Having our daughter serve as a full-time missionary in Italy (From run-ins with the local Mafia in Sicily, to gypsies stoning her in Rome. Santa patata and honest to Pete.)

Sorella (Sister) Bradford (r.) with missionary companion at Trevi Fountain, Rome

Sorella (Sister) Bradford (r.) with missionary companion at Trevi Fountain, Rome

Sorella with friend

Sorella with friend

Modern Christianity in Italy

Modern Christianity in Italy

5) Continuing the lifelong adaptation that follows having buried our oldest son. (It just never ends, my friends. Never. But then, neither does life.)

Our four

Our precious, irreplaceable four

Those kinds of things.

It’s here I can share and process all that, and I am truly hoping you’ll help me through.

Then there are the other things:

6) Travels to farther destinations. (Didn’t I mention Paris? Watch very soon.)

heading through our old neighborhood

Our old neighborhood

7) Visitors from abroad. If you follow me on Twitter (MDBGlobalMom), you know I just had some favorite relatives here. And soon I’ll host a whole gang of favorite friends.  (One ultra-talented visitor will be here shooting the trailer for my book.)

8) My volunteer service overseeing a delightful group of the local leaders and adolescent girls of our church, all through the Geneva region and into parts of France. (Google-map it: from Chambéry, France, to Morges, Switzerland).

9) The signed contract to write a book with Randall on Strengthening Long Distance Marriages. (Coming in 2014)

10) And finally – and most sweetly – the signed contract to bring you my substantial book on Grief & Grace. (Watch for it: Memorial Day 2014)

See you here!

Or there?

Or everywhere.

Global Mom: Fête de la Musique

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Split Between Two Different Countries”…)

**

After being accepted and receiving a scholarship to a small liberal arts college, after dancing all night at Senior Prom, after graduation ceremonies and packing up his room and drums and sports equipment, and after having said his final goodbyes to the Greek and Lebanese and Tunisian and French restaurant owners around town who knew him well and always gave him extra large portions although he had a running tab, and after emotional goodbyes to school faculty as well as his dozens of friends also heading off to universities in many different countries, Parker was ready to leave Paris.

pianobleu

pianobleu

But not before one last night. It was the night of the Fête de la Musique. Throughout that June night, Paris vibrates with its annual city- wide festival of music, when musicians of every sort—madrigal choirs, rap artists, reggae bands, orchestras, flamenco guitarists, string chamber ensembles—are free to make their music any place they want in the streets or in concert venues and for as long as they can hold out.

fetedelamusique

fetedelamusique

facebook.com

facebook.com

 

linternaute

linternaute

 

rtl.fr

rtl.fr

As the name Fête de la Musique says, it’s a music party; but fête is pronounced just like faites, the imperative form of to do, making of the title a typically French jeu des mots or play on words: “Do music!”

mondial.infos

mondial.infos

Nothing could have suited our firstborn better. Parker, who as I’ve written was part of a circle of local percussionists, met with them on the Pont des Arts for many hours of pure drumming explosion.

linternaute

linternaute

Walking toward that bridge, you could feel the electricity thrumming in surging beats already in the ground and through the air. Crowds had already packed the bridge, so the children couldn’t see over all the heads, and Randall and I couldn’t see around all the bodies to find Parker. But we knew he was there somewhere. Maybe listening. Maybe hanging out with friends one last time.

As we moved closer, Dalton and Luc, who could see under people’s arms and between their knees, spotted their big brother. “Hey, Parker!” Luc yelled. But the drum beating was so thick, you couldn’t hear your own voice as it left your own mouth, let alone hear the voice of a waify seven-year-old.

Luc pulled me by my hand toward the crowd, then motioned to Randall to hoist him on his shoulders. “The crowd!” I yelled over the din, “there must be hundreds!” At least four or five hundred people on that one bridge alone, and they split apart just enough so we could edge our way toward the source. And there he sat, djembe between his knees, the white boy with blue-gray eyes, his hair cropped very short to his well-shaped skull, the American boy (but who would have ever known?) named “Par Coeur” by the likes of Shafik, his closest Tunisian drumming buddy, and five others all of African descent. There they all were, swaying and pulsing to the pounding of their own djembes and large tub drums, or rocking, eyes closed, as they pummeled their instruments together.

The energy could just about lift you off your feet. It made the bridge tremble and sway. And standing there in the push of all these people, I sensed I had to hold myself together, had to keep myself from throwing my arms in the air and spinning for sheer delirium. This was a Paris I understood, a place where millions of people sing their songs and beat their rhythms but do it all at once. Somehow, it’s not cacophonic but something beyond it, a grand intimacy and intimate grandiosity strung along the river and its several bridges.

Over those bridges, under those bridges, behind the museums, in front of the Metro stops. Children, old people, all colors, all persuasions, tourists, policemen, the homeless, the political elite. Everyone on one night crowding the skies with their music. In the center of this—really in the physical center—sat my boy, the one who’d banged into pieces my big Tupperware bowls on linoleum in New Jersey and broken to splinters my mixing spoons on the wooden kitchen floor in Norway. Who’d gotten his first drum set from a retiring musician down the street on our island and had beaten the sticks to a pulp. Who every Thursday late afternoon and in the fifteenth arrondissement of this city, had shown up for his drum lessons from a French percussionist with a long gray beard tied neatly with a red macramé bow. There was this son, shoulder to shoulder with the world, whamming and jamming with his people—all people, everyone and anyone who would stamp and clap and catch the hem of his rhythm.

064 copy

“Dad?” I heard Dalton trying to raise his voice to get Randall’s attention through the noise. “Dad?” our blonde and reticent eleven-year-old was standing, a bit self-conscious, awed, visibly, by his brother. Not as comfortable yet in his skin as this muscular drummer was, but every bit as thoughtful as your average fifty-year-old.

“Yes, Dalton?” Randall crouched down to hear better.

“Dad,” Dalton was watching the movement ripple through crowd encircling the place where the seven drummers sat, feeling the surge of the drums’ cadence. “Dad, do you think . . . heaven’s anything like this?”

Randall and I laughed a bit then smiled. But Dalton was sober, stone cold serious.

I’ve held those words as if in plaster in my mind. And I have had to wonder.

**

(Hold that image.  To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Split Between Two Different Countries

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continuing from last post, “Ceiling Talk”…)

**

Despite the fact that Munich as a location was in many ways an ideal spot to drop us (we had roots there, as I’ve mentioned before, and were both German speakers), no one, including myself, could imagine leaving Paris. We had dug some serious grooves, as Kristiina Sorensen put it when I told her the news, and what place on earth could ever suit us as well as this place now did? So from that point in the early fall until the end of the school year, we conducted a test to see if living in one country—France— and working in another—Germany—would be not merely feasible, but preferable in terms of stability and consistency for the children. Randall lived during the weeks in a small hotel room outside of Munich, and I managed during the weeks with our four children and their four worlds of needs. We texted and called and emailed, stitched together our family with fiber optics, dangled in a world wide web.

kmmatrimony

kmmatrimony

Living in two different countries. One country for the employed person, another for the family, the occasional weekend together, if we were so lucky. More often, it turns into monthly or quarterly visits. Writing that today sounds so ludicrous it makes my fingers go rigid. But many families deliberately choose to do exactly what we were considering doing, and for the long haul. As I already knew from my circle of expatriate friends, more and more companies seemed to tacitly encourage such a thing. After all, with no family around to go home to, their employee could be counted on to work until or after midnight, could take international conference calls throughout the night, and be back at the office at 6:00 a.m., on Saturdays, on Sunday, on holidays.

Friends like the Sorensens and others from church and school and the neighborhood helped fill in some of the gaps when one has an absent father, and Parker, now an inch taller than Randall, became my right- hand man; a trusted, loving, fun and easy-going friend. Not a surrogate spouse, but my man-on-site who took care, literally, of some of the heavy lifting. He picked up brothers from their Parc Monceau school, carted heavy things up from the dusty cave, hauled the Christmas tree across town and up our building’s entry steps, and hauled it out again in January.

With the volleyball and basketball teams at school, Parker had to make his way by train or plane to sports trips all around Europe, the Mediterranean, and northern Africa, and at the same time he was pushing his way through the college application process. We saw Dad nearly every weekend for twenty-four or forty-eight hours, connected daily by every technological means known at the time, and kept extremely busy. Life was spinning as quickly as I had ever experienced it, the hum was rising, the date, June, 2007, drawing us ahead.

(Next post, we’re heading into the unknown. . .)

Global Mom: La Grande Gare Centrale

flickr

flickr

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.

**

 

mylearningtrains

mylearning

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.

 

wikipedia

wikipedia

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.

bigfooty

bigfooty

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.

redbubble

redbubble

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. . .)

Global Mom: Toot-a-Loo!

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part II”)

etsy.com

etsy.com

It was late April. The whole world descends on Paris in April. Throngs walk the wrong way up the wrong roads on the banks of the Seine, missing the Musée d’Orsay entirely. They walk with maps flapping out of their back pockets or unfolded and held so high they miss steps and fall over poles or into potholes and get injured. They maneuver through the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, dodging other visitors who, on tippy toe and with upstretched arms, point their camera periscopes over the shuffling masses. They get pushed in the crowd past the Winged Victory and practically into the Mona Lisa and always seem to lean a few inches too close to the Delacroix or the Ingres or the Corot so the guards, hot and bothered with swollen ankles, have to lunge from their seats and bark a reprimand.

And who can blame a single soul for wanting to be a tourist? Paris, from April through September, is magnificent beyond what you’d ever imagine. It is because it is magnificent, and because everyone (including myself) is telling you it is, that everyone comes to Paris right then. And all of this can make this magnificent town miserable.

You can count on Paris being like this except in August, (again, a forewarning) when the residents of Paris go on vacation. Restaurants are closed, the cousin from Basel has stepped in to man the carousel in the Luxembourg gardens, the only good meal is at a tired fast food chain with lethargic-eyed, part-time fill-ins and napkins made of recycled mothballs. Streets are almost quiet compared to their September crush, which is called la rentrée—the school re-entry—and that school restart means the business restart which means the traffic restart when means the stress restart.

The sogginess of early April has evaporated, leaving the trees in front of the Église Americaine fluffy and bright, with splotches of sunlight dancing on the cobblestones upon which I am strolling. I’m strolling in head-to-toe seafoam green—heels and a linen suit—as an exception to my normal wardrobe, (jeans and ballet flats or black Converses) because I’ve just come home from an important appointment. It is barely chilly enough to wear a silk scarf. I’m in this linen outfit with its matching shoes and matching scarf, and I am strolling. Strolling our doggy Josephine, strolling la-dee-dah-dee-dahing je ne sais quoi-ing in full sun-speckled springtime ease along the Parisian sidewalks of my neighborhood.

condenaststore

condenaststore

This is one of those harmonious moments when I ache to grab those few people who hate Paris (or hate the French or French politics or what those folks claim is “snooty” politeness or “snotty” elegance or “pungent” crudeness) and, with my arms stretched wide above my head, say, “See? This is what we mean! Enraptured. Don’t tell me you’re not.”

Next thing, I hear voices. Loud voices. Voices speaking English. Fog-horning English.

The voices belong to two grown women. I see them approaching me. As I hear them and watch them, I keep walking my pooch and prancing delicately in my green heels, if you remember. And oh, did I forget to mention the large black sunglasses? While I promenade keeping a low sunglassed profile, I hear the amplified ladies coming closer. My breathing quickens. I zoom in on a particular cobblestone and whisper to Joey, “C’mon girl, do your business and let’s split.” Joey, though, has leisurely bowels. I turn my back to them as their voices approach. And when I do, I feel an essential part of me start to shift. But before things shift completely, I listen.

“Chill out! You never did get to reading maps right. Now look right here. Look! You listening? Look: this right here says Ei. Fel. Tow. Er. Eiffel Tower. Now I’m telling you, it’s somewhere close. Real close.” This woman yanks the map from the other woman, muttering just loudly enough for me to hear, “Should have never let you hold this thing in the first place.”

I focus on Joey, my canine distraction, twirling her leash around one hand, and put my cell phone to my ear pretending to be engrossed in the most important call of my life. They come closer. I’m lipping a fake conversation, trying to avoid that uncomfortable moment of being witness to fraternal street violence. I’m just not dressed for breaking up an assault.

“What you mean should have never let me hold this thing? I swear you’re the one got us all lost up in those streets by Noter Damn. Think I’m going leave it up to you this time getting us to the Eiffel Tower? No way, girl. No. Way.

They are acting like sisters. Or at least they’re dressed as such: both in tennis shorts in a pale color, and both in T-shirts with capped sleeves. Neon colored fanny packs. White, terry-cloth lined visors. The last three items listed, all with American flags that glittered. One of the sisters, the one who has spoken first, has nails I can see from this distance. A huge part of me wants to swoop in and strut with them arm-in-arm right down the street and to the Champs de Mars. But their anger at Paris seems beyond repair. Anything I might say will be rebuffed, useless.

I’d like to write that I considered a few approaches; “Hiya. You two look lost. Can I help?” or, “Hey, ladies, if you’re looking for the Eiffel Tower, I’d be happy—”

Those don’t enter my mind.

I straighten my shoulders, adjust my scarf, loosen my clench on Joey’s leash, drop my fake phone call into my handbag.

“’Ello?” I make my voice small and perfumy. The two stop bickering into their map and look up. “I am zo zorree,” I sing, “but I am zeeing you are een. . . trubbéll? I may ’elp you, non?”

“You. . .you from here? You French?” one woman asks, quieted.

“But oui!”, answers la Parisienne, who, smiling, extends her hand, stepping lightly in heels and pulling her Cockér with her. “Juste ovair zair! Zees ees my, ’ow you say?, neighbor-’ood? I zink? We are veree, veree luckee, are we not? We find each uzair?”

I smile. One of them smiles. Joey tilts her head. Seriously?

You see, I had this French thing down pat. I’d practiced this accent every time I’d found myself at a dinner table where language acquisition came up in the conversation (which happened in every single multicultural gathering), and friends occasionally gave their light jabs at the typical, broad, American accent with its cardboard corners and vowels as vast as the prairie. I just loved it when, at about the moment things got sufficiently mockful with people mimicking the wrooowerly broahwerly American accent, I could slip into the conversation in an English with the thickest Inspector Clouseau accent. Hardly comprehensible for all its curlicues deep in the throat, the impossible “th” sound, zee veree, veree, veree tight, uh, ’ow you say? wowel sounds, non? And I would then explain that I had yet to come across a full-blooded Frenchman, even among my friends who are ridiculously gifted linguists, who spoke English absolutely sans trace—without a trace—of a French accent.

So I am perfectly rehearsed for this street performer moment. In less time than it takes to spread a crêpe, I’ve made the fatal shift, consciously positioning myself to do one thing and one thing only: make these two fellow Americans fall desperately in love with this city, this country, with all things French. Even, if necessary, with moi.

“And-uh,” la Parisienne asks, escorting them to a bench, “Where-uh eez eet zat you bose leev? Amaireeca, I ’ope?”

We sit down together. I ’elp zem fold zeir map. Joey whimpers. “We’re from Detroit. Michigan. Know it? Here just a couple of days, you know, doing all of Europe in three—”

“Meecheegan? Detwah? But zees eez a veree, veree wondairful place. But, zut!, I do not know eet. I ’ave only been to, oh, ’ow you call eet? Zee Floreed? To Miameeee.” I slap both hands on my lap hoping they love Florida.

They nod, looking me a bit up and down. “We go to Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale, mostly.”

“Ah, yes, zee Floreed. I love your countree, love zee peepel. Zo wondairful, zo friendlee”

The woman closest to me has fingernails, I can now see, with miniature frescoes painted on them, each an emblem of the U.S.A.: the Statute of Liberty; the Liberty Bell; the Flag; The first line of the constitution, “We the People. . .”

“Hiya, poochie,” she says, “you only speak French huh, sweets?” and she reaches down to Joey, petting her head, which makes my heart trill a bit. The other woman is retying her Reeboks.

“Oh, yes, yes, oui, oui, I weel show you zee Tour Eefell. Eet eez veree close,” and I walk them to the corner, right under the windows of our apartment, down to the intersection of Rue de l’Universtié, then point. Joey drags her hind legs.

“You go-uh, ’ow you say een Eengleesh? straight on an zen, at zee end of zees road, you turn zee right. Voilà! You weel zee your Tour Eefell.”

By now both women are cooing at Joey while barraging me with questions about what the French think of America, Do they all hate us, they ask, is French food really so good, have I tasted snails, where can one get a good milkshake? Which questioning is just as well with me, since I am trying to keep my side of the conversation really low, knowing that at any moment a neighbor, Monsieur B. for instance, might walk out on the street for his afternoon promenade and bump right into me, la Poseur Parisienne.

Sweating under my scarf, I’m feeling duplicitous and conniving on one level, but patriotic and conniving on another. I know, as I walk these two endearing women to the corner, that I am doing my two countries, the U.S. of A. and la France, a magnanimous service.

“Ladeez, wen you come to zee end of zee road, I weel teach you zum zeeng I learned in Miamee. You know zees zeeng you zay een Engleesh, ‘toot-a-loo’?”

They nod, “Toot-a-loo, yeah.”

“Eet eez from zee Frensh! Een Frensh wee zay, ‘À tout à l’heure,’ weech eez to zay, ‘Zee you een zee ’our.’”

“No kidding! Ha! Toot-a-loo comes from France?”

“Now. Leesen: Wen you are to turn zee right-uh, you weel zay to me, “‘A tout a l’heure’.  An zen I weel zay to you, ‘toot-a-loo.’ Good?”

I watch, nauseated and nervous with glee-guilt, as the two women saunter down Jean Nicot. There they go: fanny packs, Reeboks, visors, right past our boulangerie, past Luc’s best friend’s apartment across the street, all the way down to Rue St. Dominique.

All anyone can hear as they walk down the street bumping each other and laughing is the two of them hollering, “À tout à l’heure! À tout à l’heure!”

When they turn the corner, I am still standing there as I promised, my Joséphine on the leash, my scarf draped just so, my heels nipped neatly together, my arm waving and waving. “Toot-a-loo!” I sing to the women of Detroit. “Toooooot-a-looooooo!”

letthedogsseetherabbit

letthedogsseetherabbit