Global Mom: Je Craque

Newly-tinted cover for Global Mom

It felt like I was constantly running, constantly having to gear up for the daily basics. There were a million daily inconveniences — not just broken feet, flooded basements, fire ant invasions, bat bombings and the like, but countless other picayune demands  like connecting the phone, getting a French driver’s license, buying nine bags of government-approved schools supplies, filling the house’s subterranean fuel tank, all that I had to execute, 1) in French, which I could not possibly learn fast enough, 2) with a child lugging a plaster leg perched on my hip and, 3) alone.

Randall was traveling from Monday to Friday to places I had to look up on the map, and so I had no on-site back up.  No reprieve.  When Randall was in the country, (which was less than 20% of the time), we were in and out of conferences — for Parker and Claire on a weekly basis over three months, trying to help them adapt to a new language and school system: American.  For Dalton we were in just as frequently, but to help him adapt to these things in French. When Randall was away (the whole month of October he was hopping between three continents and eight time zones and dropping in at home for five dinners only), I had the rich task of single-handedly getting my kids speedily up to American and French speed.  I was sleeping three hours a night, eating three real meals a week, going gray in hair and skin, my eyes and clothing were sagging.

It only became clear to me, at the end of one especially long evening of tutoring and coaching, how little our two eldest knew about things their American teachers and you, Anglophone reader, probably take for granted.  I’d gone through some simple math problems with Parker and had left him on his own at the far end of our long table to finish the rest.  Meanwhile, I was singing for Claire a bunch of stock American nursery rhymes (“Ring Around The Rosie”, “Humpty Dumpty”), for a writing project she had to do, since she only knew Norwegian equivalents like songs about wild mushrooms and ditties about trolls.  From the other end of the table, Parker was showing signs of tetchiness:

Parker less than thrilled with the Marché de Versailles

“I can’t do this one, Mom.  I just don’t get it,” he grunted.  “How am I supposed to do this?  It’s impossible to understand.”

“Just. . .please. . .just finish it up,” I said, head in hands and eyes closed. I was fighting a headache and I felt something like what I imagined an ulcer must feel like forming under my belt.  “And please, please just quit grumbling. Okay Claire, let’s try this one more time from the top: Here we go loopty loo, here we go loopty lie. ..

I was so worn out and threadbare, you could hear my soul through the shredded fabric of my voice. Claire had her forehead in her hands, singing monotone to the table top; “”Loopty lie, loopty — this is such a dumb song.”

He took out his frustrations in the basement on his drums

A minute later, my son’s head-shaking visible in my peripherals, I perked up in my best answering machine voice:

“Don’t keep telling yourself you cannot do it, Parker. You’re smart, honey. You can.” I extended a hand to touch his shoulder, rub the nape of his neck, “I just know you can.”

“Yeah, Parker. You can do it,” Claire backed me up, although her voice was flat and she was still staring at the table.

He shook off my hand and snapped, “I can not!!”  then slammed his pencil down on the table so hard, it went flying off into the far wall. “I don’t even know what they’re talking about in this stooopid math book!!”

His pencil rolled along the floor as he sat there, huffing, looking straight ahead, not at me.  I looked at that round nose, nostrils so small but flaring.  His chin, puckering and twitching while he ground his teeth.

I just stared at him. I’d totally run out of options. Why in moments like these did I feel resentment skitter across the floor of my brain like a greasy rat? It wasn’t resentment at my children, but resentment at Randall. Absent Randall.  I chased it out sometimes, that skittering rat, with a brusque clearing of my throat. But there were times when that rat hovered, flicking his scrawny paws in a dark corner, squeaking in a faint rat voice that That Husband of Mine, well, he should be here helping me.  And as soon as I’d paid even that much attention to the squeak, the rat began gnawing at the dry wall of  my brain.  Squeak: He’s probably in a four-star restaurant somewhere right now.  Squeak-squeak: Or he’s in an airplane reading to his heart’s content. There were times I had to whack my hands together or stamp my feet to scare that rat out of my mind.

After all, I knew it was just a rat.

And I knew Randall.  He wasn’t one.

Parker was now making steady, moist, bull snort sounds.  I looked down the table to Claire. She gave me the eye and the sh-h-h sign.

Then Parker’s hoarse voice came from behind his fisted hands covering his mouth: “So. . .what are deem-ahs . . . and kwahr-tairs. . . anyway?”

“What?”

He looked down at his workbook lying open on the table.  With one finger poking up from a fist, he signaled a general place on one of the pages. “Deem-ahs,” he dropped his head, fist on forehead and mumbled,“and kwahr-tairs.”

“Let me see this thing,” and I dragged the manual over to where I sat.  I looked at the page.  I swallowed.  I closed my eyes and shook my head.

I looked back up at my glaring, nostril-flaring, confused son.  I looked back at the book and re-crossed my legs in my son’s direction.

Then I scootched much, much closer to him and put my hand on his arm.

Deem-ahs are what you get when you are Norwegian and read the English word dime.

Kwahr-tairs is what you get when you read quarter.

Back then, when we’d first come to France, my nine-year-old had never dealt with American currency. How was he supposed to figure out a math word problem based on U.S. coinage?

“Hey, sweetie. So, does your teacher know you don’t know what these words mean?”

“No.  I haven’t told her all the things I don’t understand.”

So guess what.  I did.  I went back into the school and tried to make it clear to that teacher and to the others who worked with him that we were building from ground up. I even brought the math workbook and pronounced the whole problem as if reading it as a  Norwegian child would with no idea of English phonetics or coinage.  From all of them, except for one administrator, I got nods of recognition and kind encouragement. That was enough to keep me this side of nutso for a while.

When not doing read-a thons and math-a thons in English to help Parker and Claire integrate, we were doing the same in French, to help Dalton do the same. There was an evening (I could have really used you there) when I had one child chanting, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”; another child worried sick about a boy named Jack who’s broken his crown; another belting “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”

In between them all, my soul was pushed on its knees in a pray-a-thon, begging for all the heavenly intervention I knew without which our whole family would most certainly be deported.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: La Bureaucratie

Bureaucratie is a French word, of course, and France won’t let you forget it.  Getting Dalton into French school was not my first experience with French bureaucracy, though. As soon as we’d landed in Versailles (a Friday), unpacked our suitcases in a hotel (on Saturday), gone to church (a Sunday), and Randall had flown off on an extended trip to Karachi, Pakistan (Monday), all my days thereafter, it seemed, were filled with sorting through French forms.

New American family moves into Rue René Aubert. There goes the neighborhood.

Just a detail: I did not speak French.  I had not studied French law. I had no background in governmental negotiations, neither did I have any one to help me peel off those pesky official royal wax stamps without losing the whole middle paragraph in the process. I had three young children, no child care, twelve suitcases and, the week we finally moved into our home, I had a flooded basement that turned to mulch thirty-four cartons of precious, irreplaceable belongings. For that baptism by basement flood, I had a skinny Portuguese plumber with his Polish Sancho Panza. How the two ever understood each other, how I ever understood them, how they ever understood me enough to clean out the mess without being electrocuted by the live wires dangling above the soupy reservoir that just the day before I’d stocked with all my storage, remains to this day one of the weirder mysteries of my life.

I also had a deadline. There were two weeks before school start for me to get everything up and running. For those two weeks, Randall would be absent, establishing his first connections with his direct reports in the Middle East, an area which, along with Europe and all of Africa, comprised his new area of professional responsibility.  If I ever wondered how he was doing in Islamabad, Karachi, Cairo, Beirut and couldn’t reach him, I just turned on the news. As you know, interesting things were going on there. And as you can guess, this was not the Calm Pill a wife and mother needed.  Ah, but he had gone to that two-week-long personal security course at Langley, near Washington.  There, he’d learned how to effectively wield a kubaton, how to identify a sniper and roll for cover, and how to drive a get-away car at high speeds and from the floor of the passenger side with only one hand on the pedals.  And that was supposed to make us all feel much more secure.

All this on my mind, I’d find myself taking those forms in a big folder to an endless string of offices, dragging three restless bodies with me, essentially crawling through French legalese with the help of a frayed dictionary and flailing arms.  Mine and the children’s. One of these many offices, I was sure, held the mystical keys to unlock the entrance to this new world.  It seemed they didn’t want me there, these alarmingly uncharming French.  Well, unless I was willing to be their circus pooch and fling myself through the endless hoops to jump.  My three children, my stressed-out self, hopping through hoops, standing in offices, beseeching what felt like a whole pageant of unsmiling officials behind glass walls in cigarette smoke-filled bureau after bureau after bureau.

Today I wish I’d kept a tally to share with you how many times I arrived at some office, a sweaty wad of forms in hand, barking children at my ankles, ready to get the coveted stamp so I could proceed to the next stamp-dispensing venue, only to be told I was missing one signature, one blood sample or a birth certificate. (And this was just to install a clothes dryer.) The American in me who values convenience and accessibility, the German in me who prizes efficiency and order, and the Norwegian in me who extols simplicity and cooperation, balked in one groaning triad at the convolutions of our new host culture.

The children took the big tangle of inconvenience in stride, though, only because they were too young, probably, to realize what we were doing fingerprinting them every week.  Then Parker had his own run-in with bureaucracy when he discovered the basketball hoops in a sport center in Rue Remilly around the corner from our home in Rue René Aubert. Parker loved nothing as much as he loved basketball, and was going crazy not playing.  So I was almost ready to let him scale the fence to shoot some hoops there once in a while in the middle of the night.  But the fence was high and there’s an after midnight no-noise law for Versailles and I’m a rule-keeper, so we waited until we saw a live person inside the gymnasium one extremely hot August day.  Then we went straight in for shade and to plead our case.

Parker shooting hoops

“Bonjour, Monsieur,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster without donning combat gear.  The middle-aged gentleman in a small office at the entrance of Gymnase de Remilly looked up at me, nodded, released a puff of smoke, and flicked the ashes from the end of his cigarette.

“Bonjour Madame, jeune homme.”  It was Boris Karloff’s long lost French cousin, I swear it.

I’d brought Parker, my jeune homme, to help me plead and, if necessary, to impress the court keepers with a three pointer from the back court with his eyes closed. To convince a potential person in authority or stamp dispenser of just how much this boy really loved basketball and how, maybe, his engagement in their Versailles Club de Basket (I’d seen a sign advertising try-outs) would benefit them as much as it would him.

Grown Parker, playing the game

“Excuse me. I disturb you,” I start in, taking the same lines I’d first used on Britt at barnepark, only in French, not Norwegian, and with slight modification. “We are Americans.  We inhabit house not far. ” I say this pushing nine-year-old Parker in front of me. “We are hot.”

Which is not the right thing to say.  In French, it, meaning the weather, makes hot. But you are not hot. No decent Mormon mother of three, at least, is hot or announces that she is.  And not on a first encounter with Karloff’s cousin.

“And you have the air,” the man responds, his face as unmoved as the heavy heat wave that is making parts of me, like my brain, liquefy.

I have the air? Well, in fact, I don’t have the air.  I have none. Which is why I think I’m going to faint on the spot.  I don’t have enough air, that’s for sure, but this guy, the guy who’s smoking and therefore giving me less air, is accusing me of having it. Only weeks later do I learn he’d just been saying, “You sure look like it.” But right now and because I have to be a wee bit obsequious, I tell him what any hot, needy newcomer would; “I’m terribly, horribly desolated.”

Things in that moment aren’t going precisely as I’d hoped, and I begin aching for a woman with half a red jumpsuit and a coffee thermos to walk in from around some corner back there and sing, “Hurrah! Komm in!”

But there’s a door. And it has a plaque. And the plaque has a title.  And all this, I think, belongs to this cigarette-smoking man who’s clearly leaving me to my own devices.

“My son plays on the basket,” I bulldoze indelicately over my string of unwitting French faux pas, trying to recall the phrases I’d written on Post Its and studied on the walk here.  “Is it that you have perhaps a place for him, Monsieur?”

“S’il vous plait?” Parker peeps.

The man then lifts himself from the chair, tossing his cigarette into a trashcan, and stretching his shoulders. “Shwee pah coach,”he says with a shrug. Which means nothing at all to me for a full minute.

Then a light goes on, and it has to do with what I now see are the man’s janitor’s clothes and the broom he reaches for.  I now know. I’m not the coach, he’s told me.

The coach, when we did meet him on our next visit, was animated, even gregarious, and completely keyed about an American boy named Parker  like “Tony Parker!”  he shouted, who’d himself grown up playing basketball in Versailles. The coach shook the hand of the nine-year-old boy who’d just moved in around the corner, the one who had a Norwegian mom, (the coach thought this forever), the boy who loved more than anything, Le Basket.

But being France, there was a certain protocol. Only after several forms, mug shots, blood tests and fingerprinting, was Parker allowed to wander in there as he pleased and shoot away.  Some months later, he would become a full -fledged member of the Versailles CB (Club du Basket) where he played three times a week on a team of resolute French players who spoke no English except the essentials even I could understand: “dribble” (pronounced “dreeebl”) and “Parker,” pronounced “Par Coeur”, as in “by heart.”   The motivation to make that switch from Norwegian to French got some traction. And in no time, he improved his game while picking up loads of local basketball lingo.  Alright, so not quite French of the court of Versailles. But French of a court of Versailles.

Parker, grown again, teaching his brothers and sister how to play Le Basket

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: From the Garden of Eden to Les Jardins de Versailles

Moving from Norway to France meant trading in one splendid extreme for another equally splendid, but strikingly antithetical one. It was a move from north to south. . .

From Nordic to Latin; from a calm island to the bustling Île de France. . .

From the tundra to the Tuileries; from craggy fjords to the sleek Seine. . .

From the untamed spirituality of Brønnøya. . .

to the crafted symmetry of the Jardins de Versailles;

From the Land of the Midnight Sun. . .

To the Land of the Sun King. . .

From stark homogeneity. . .

To vibrating variety; from two kinds of cheese to 378+; from hot dogs and dried fish. . .

To haute cuisine and patisseries. . .

From IKEA to Louis XVI; from the comfy lilt of the economic Norwegian tongue to the highly stylized lavishness of le Français; from cooperation to competition. . .

From the community to the moi; from rigorous obedience to la Révolution; from no-nonsense androgyny. . .

To the religion called la Beauté; from muddy park dress. . .

To starched parochial uniforms; from Birkenstock sandals to Charles Jourdan stiletto pumps.

From innocence. . .

To experience. . .

From Eden. . .

To the World. . .

Or more specifically, to the old world, since we began our French years in Versailles.

**

You know of Versailles.  I had known, too. I thought.  But I had not known that for the French, “Versailles” is as much a concept as it is a city or a château. When the French refer to Versailles, they are referring to la vieille France—the old France—and all that implies; nobility, Catholicism, traditions, and families who today live in the same home their ancestors built back when the Place Hoche had a guillotine for public executions.  “Versailles” as concept means both the extravagantly gilded and velvet-heavy furnishing (things overwrought yet serious about it are très Versaillais), and so are the five or six children dressed in navy skirts or knickers and white knee socks, trailing a mother with a practical chin-length bob locked in place by a navy hair band.  That phenomenon is also what my neighbor, in a whisper, called très Catho, or übercatholic.  Versaillais implies le patrimoine, which has much to do with the preservation of historic France as it has to do with lineage, which is signaled by the family names beginning with “du”.  The city’s slogan, if you asked me to come up with one, would be, “What was, is.”  As commoner newcomers to the kings’ court, we were about to learn what “was” was.

Around the corner from the rive droite train station, was a renovated turn-of-the-century home with a white stucco facade and an oval window smack dab on its front. If you opened up the navy blue double front door, you could look directly through the depth of the house (it was one room deep) into an enclosed backyard with four small round bushes placed like thumb tacks in each corner of a table cloth of green.  The house had a bright white interior with emerald green trim throughout and tasteful tiles in all its four bathrooms, a kitchen with glossy yellow walls that reminded of Provence, a side view straight onto the dome of the Église de Sainte Jean d’Arc, and a back view onto the local synagogue.

  It was a fifteen-minute walk to the Place du Marché where the bi-weekly open market had stood since the thirteenth century. And only a fifteen-minute jog down Boulevard de la Reine, crossing Boulevard du Roi, and through the gilded gates of the sprawling Château de Versailles and its even sprawlinger Jardins du Château de Versailles.

Like a movie set. Except for the hoards of white-athletic-shoed tourists who could have been extras out of costume in an otherwise period film.  They came directly from the train station or in enormous buses that parked in what used to be the Royal Horse Stables.

With time, everything in Versailles turned out to be a former “royal.”

The home was also directly across the street from the private Catholic (or catho, if you insist) École Hulst.  From all appearances, this was the most prim and trafficked preschool in toute la France. Fascinated, I peered through my kitchen window, gulping and plotting, rubbing my hands together guardedly, hidden behind my kitchen window the way I’d been hidden behind the steering wheel of my car looking over Blakstad barnepark.  I applied my same methods of observation, wanting to be part of it all and could have sent little Dalton there, until I learned I would have had to have put his name on the waiting list the hour I thought that maybe I might want to get pregnant with him.

Okay, so Hulst was in demand.

But it was also demanding. At least for a loosey-goosey fresh-from-barnepark mother and child duo like us.  Watching the children scooting in and out every morning, I could have sworn they all came from the same navy blue gene pool.  Dalton, in contrast, (and myself, for that matter), seemed to lack that certain oui-oui chromosome needed to slip in without causing a tide change.

Granted, that could have all been in my perception.  But to be honest, I was too intimidated by what I observed as the school’s “was-ness” — its exacting French A-lines, the one boy in a blazer and burgundy velvet knickers, all that crispness  — to enroll my son. Not without at least a few months in a preliminary crisper.

I went around the corner and down the Rue Remilly to l’École Maternelle Richard Mique, which was public, ecumenical, and visibly less crisp — comfortably wilted, let’s say — and set my sights on enrolling Dalton there.  Following my barnepark method of attack, I stalked the Richard Mique premises in off hours. I then loitered at corners during drop-off and pick-up, noting the habits of local adults.  I listed the children’s gear, shoe styles, hair cuts, behavior.  I then made eye contact, greeted mothers and fathers, took Dalton there by the hand twice, just to practice the trek. And to build nerve.

Eventually, I dared approaching a real person on the street to question her about the school.  I’d selected her, actually, over a few days scoping for The Most Open Face in Versailles. Her name was Rita. She was wonderful. She became a friend.  With four young children herself and relatively new to Versailles, too, she could instruct me in Annie Sullivan French about applying a month late to the school, as I was doing.  And wouldn’t you know it? Like Johanne from Norway, Rita told me to go directly to the main office the next day and request a place for Dalton.  “Mais vite, vite”—but hurry!—her wide eyes insisted.

There was no chain link fence around Richard Mique as had been around Blakstad barnepark. But there were serious-looking walls and gates that were padlocked at all hours but the 15 minute intervals at morning drop-off, lunchtime pick-up and drop -ff, and afternoon pick-up.  Timing it precisely, I was able to enter and find the directrice’s office, where I was greeted by a brunette woman who resembled in no way but hair color our dear tante Britt.  There was no snow-blown look or red  front-zip barnepark jumpsuit.  No thermos of coffee.  No messy hair and ruddy cheeks.  Instead, this delicate woman wore perfume. And pearls.  And a fitted skirt.  And heels.  And she sat behind a large desk sipping a porcelain cup of tea.  I felt myself suck in my gusto and make myself as absolutely  French as physically possible without turning a shade of puce, and approached her with soft, alluring steps.  She was not ready, I’ll bet, for the slaughter I made of French, but she was genteel and was used to working with people a tenth her age, so when she spoke at me with single syllable words and those large semaphore movements, I was able to discern just enough to know what she told me.

Rendez-vouz.  Need of one.  Speak with school director.  Come back  with another faith.

(Whuh?)

Oh. Right.  Come back another time.

To this day I still wonder if those red cowboy boots might have grabbed her attention, upped my chances somehow of getting a slot right off.

As it was, I smiled, thanked Madame profusely, scooted spritely on my way, and went home to re-wax my legs and knuckles, starch even my underclothing, and prepare my speech and posture for the next morning’s private audience with Madame directrice.
**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: Snow Angels

As promised, a short teaser for Global Mom.

This comes from early in the book, soon after we have moved from the Bright Lights of Broadway to the Northern Lights of Norway.  Randall has been invited with his new team at work to attend a week of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer.  I am with four-year-old Parker and two-year-old Claire, holed up in a snug wooden home in the mountains west of Oslo.  There, I’m learning two basics for becoming Norwegian:

Snow and Speech.

***

This, from my journal:

I spent over two hours shoveling snow in the middle of a major snowstorm this morning.  While Parker and Claire stared on from the safe warmth of the house, their rosy faces pushed against the window next to the front door, I snorted and huffed away like a rabid mastodon packed into neck-to-ankle lycra.  The craziest thing about this is that everyone else on the street was doing the same thing, although perhaps not in lycra. Not a one of us exchanged as much as a greeting, and in silent, sober duty we jammed our shovels, heaved the weight, and moved mountains.  Half sissy, half Sisyphus, I clenched my jaw, doing my part to build neighborly solidarity. 

As another meter of snow fell (and we all knew another two more were forecast for that night), we scooped and piled, scooped and piled for a couple of hours at least.  Our monuments grew much taller than the tallest man I could spy at the bottom of our hill, digging and lobbing in the unbroken rhythm of jab-heave-heave-hurl, jab-heave-heave-hurl.

I’m not sure exactly what it is yet that I am learning in this new lifestyle, but I think it has something to do with discovering the inherent significance buried in the mundane. I’ll keep digging.

Photo credit: UK Telegraph

Sometime after that storm blew over, the sun shone brightly for an exceptional six days straight. This was just long enough to cause a crisis when the ice started to thaw. One morning, I found that the entryway ceiling was streaming in several synchronized tributaries onto the floor.  Seems I’d been distracted by snow removal from the shoulder down, and hadn’t noted the glacier accumulating on the roof.

I should have known to climb on the roof and shovel off the weight, my tall neighbor from the bottom of the road announced flatly as he took to the roof in two long strides (the snow was so high it met the bottom edge of the rafters) and, in a dozen or so brusque gestures, attacked the slushy beast with a pick and spade.  A couple of muscular kicks with the toe of his hunting boots and my roof was dripless.

“Always clear the roof”, he offered in an accent I now recognized as coming from northern Norway, and he stabbed the shovel into a snow mound before leaning his bony elbow on the pick.  “Next time the whole roof could fall right on your children and—” he made a fierce sound like a polar bear winning at Go Fish.

You can bet that after every storm that followed I was the first from my neighborhood to shimmy up the drain pipe: The Shoveler on the Roof.

This was at about the same time Randall was on something euphemistically called a regional business retreat at the Olympic Games.  He called often from Lillehammer, feeding me with color commentary and cultural play-by-plays, always spilling over with details about this high-pitched initiation into the Norwegian spirit. At noon, he’d be yelling to me over the explosions of cheering spectators right and left; at midnight, he’d whisper like a spy, reporting dispassionately below the rowdy drinking choruses gurgling in the background on whoever was at that moment spread out cold under the table.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I took copious notes.  I envisioned the scenes.  Breathlessly, I’d pummel him with questions and prod him for more.  And I hung a bit, I’m embarrassed but not too proud to admit, on those calls. There was a big world out there.

Not that I wasn’t keeping very busy in my small world at home.  I used that week to invite over a steady string of little friends—Jesper, Eirik, Knut, Karolina, Per-Ole, Louisa—to the Bradford house.  Bringing Norwegian under our roof in galloping, knee-high form was, as I’d hoped it would be, better then Berlitz. I was the half-mute kneeling hostess, crawling everywhere the conversation went, hungrily watching the kids’ lips, mouthing sounds with my brows furrowed, questioning kiddies on every expression, every turn of phrase.  I tell you, I never want to know what those children told their own parents about that new mother who mostly crawled and wrote down every word they said. Because most of the time they’d  look at me with their noses crunched in a bundle, and say, “So. . .you’re not Norwegian, are you? Because you do speak a little weird, you know that?”

That tots who couldn’t even pull on their own mittens could spew flawless phrases like that in Norwegian kept me on my knees.  I was their humble boot-licker.

Photo credit: Kim Rormark

During a few of those uncharacteristically sunny hours in early February, I hosted our own preschool Olympics.  With ten guests I staged an activity that left my whole backside plastered with snow that fell off in slabs when I lurched into the house to grab Randall’s telephone call. I’d been in the yard with a dozen children making snow angels. I was pooped. The sun was fading (it was almost two o’clock, dusk in a Norwegian winter), which meant we’d soon be coming inside.  The very thought of undressing the whole fleet of mushy astronauts made my spine go floppy but my jaw go rigid.

“You wouldn’t believe it, sweetheart” Randall laughed, “but there are trolls everywhere here. Huge troll statues, little troll dolls, troll sweatshirts, troll oven-mits, troll bumper stickers. It’s a total troll-o-rama.  Wish you could see the poor guy we saw in head-to-toe troll gear grilling meatballs. Incredible!”

I tried to conjure the picture.  Jesper needed to go to the toilet and had to be totally undressed.  Hard, with a phone pinched between ear and shoulder.

Randall kept feeding me images:

“And we just passed the biggest ice sculpture I’ve ever seen.  Solid ice.  Gorgeous. Mammoth. A Viking ship.  Or a polar bear or something, I think.”

“Not a troll?” I asked, unzipping Jesper who now lies flat on his back on my kitchen floor, and I don’t have the Norwegian words for, “Me your slave?”, and I’m tugging at his rock solid Cherox snow boots so I can then pull off a couple of layers so he can now waddle, dripping a trail of snow, to the toilet.

“No, a moose, maybe.  Anyway, I’m thinking winter’s not so bad here after all if you can do it like this every time:  the press, the cameras, the celebrities, the perfect blue skies.  I guess—“

I couldn’t’ make out the rest of his words for all the noise on his end.

“Where are you?  What’s all the yelling?” I wondered as I adjusted the phone in hand, mopping up Jesper’s mush tracks with a rag under my foot, all the while keeping an eye on the happy scene of several very sweet angels indeed, including my two, flapping and chortling outside on a mantle of diamonds.

Randall was on someone’s cell at the ice hockey rink where he was sitting only rows—“only rows, honey!”— behind Hilary Clinton, who’d swung through Norway to support the U.S. hockey team.

Up to that point I was smiling, though sweating, on my end of the conversation.  But in an instant something stung and deeply.  The collision in my mind of those two scenes–the Olympic, versus the Neighborhood Games—pinched a nerve in me.  Just then, the hockey team made a goal and pandemonium from that end of the line covered the silence on my end.

Jesper was now standing forlorn in the kitchen doorway.  His below-the-waist bareness and wide open stare said he needed toilet paper.

“Mel?  Hon? You still there?  Hey, I got you a great sweater. Please tell the kids I’ll bring them back real troll hair.”  (Laughter.  A roar for a missed goal.) “Honey?. . . Mel?”

Some moments say more than one can grasp in the instant they strike. This was one of those moments.  There I was in bigger-than-life Norway, the momentary focal point of the globe. Important people were discussing important things; and even if they weren’t, at least they were discussing something.  It was then that I feared what loomed on the horizon: that our two geographies, Randall’s and Melissa’s, would from thenceforth be cloven down the middle, distinctly and necessarily disjointed. Just like the bucket seats of our very first, poor student car, a V.W. bug: Driver (gear shift, and) Passenger. Instead of sharing that joint adventure with Randall, I was afraid I’d only get the adventure second hand, across a gear shift or through the irritating filter of a cell phone exchange. Instead of being there, I was here.

“Thanks, sweetheart, for the sweater,” I said. And I meant it.

But he hadn’t heard my words over the hockey rink bedlam.  The Finns had just made a goal.  And I was busy handing a roll of toilet paper to Jesper.

“Well, can’t hear you so well,” Randall yelled,  “So if you can hear me, Thanks, hon.  I miss you here!

Click.

On the raw pine floor, a puddle of snowmelt spread in a dark pool round my boots.  Lillehammer was only two hours’ drive away.  But impossibly far from my world where tottering, snow-encased trolls were now lined up outside along the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window smashing their pug noses and smearing slime on a frosty pane that barely muffled the new music of Norwegian banter.

Photo credit: norskogarchiv notam02

I watched a row of children, soft faces pressed to transparency, mouths and nostrils expelling little gusts of spirit that clung to glass like ragged circles of moist gauze.  Their shrieks and pantomime jarred my stupor, and I waved back as they turned into the sunlight, plopping into their custom angel prints.  It was only then I noticed this amazing thing: Parker and Claire,  heads bobbing naturally while their mouths spoke simple Norwegian phrases, mixing in with these others from whom they are virtually indistinguishable, those small bodies weaving in and out of light and shadows.

Like all births, the births of my two were at once common and astounding events, universal and unique. Now I knew I needed to turn my focus to the everyday protracted labor of rebirthing them—these two,  these extremely important people — into a new world.

Actually, no.

What I first needed was to turn my focus to boiling a dozen hot dogs.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.