Fête de la Musique: Making Music and Memorializing

February is my memorial month, four weeks of sifting through archives of dozens of journal entries, hundreds of emails, multiple early book drafts, and other previously unpublished writings so that I can remember, reconnect, literally re-collect, and offer something valuable to you.

It’s a tender and unpredictable process. In spite of my especially heavy professional and private schedule this month, I’ve found myself at my computer in the middle of the night more times than I can count, often listing with longing, tears blurring my vision (or streaming freely) as I return to pieces of writing and living that have shaped me profoundly, and to others I’d somehow forgotten.

Here’s a photo I found in my midnight rummaging. The accompanying text is from Global Mom, where I bring you here, the Pont des Arts, a bridge over the Seine where the music of life is pulsing over the Cit of Light. These are the last lines before the lights go out and his pulse stops under a bridge in an irrigation canal in rural Idaho.

1910570_12449255356_6703_n

 

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. 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!”

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.

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.

“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.

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

I know.  I vowed I’d be the dutiful blogger and complete in tidy fashion my series on swimming in the digital ocean. Rest assured, that ocean’s not going anywhere so I’ll get to it.  But that might take a while.  Keep reading, and I’ll explain.

Nautilus_shell

Photo: © pretoperola/123RF

My change in direction has something to do with  this. (Go ahead a read there after you’ve let me have my little say here, please.) It’s the first of my pieces for Inspirelle, a white-hot new webmag based in Paris, which is a “woman’s guide to life in Paris and beyond.”

(I believe in Paris, in the beyond, in women, in guiding, and in life. So it’s a great fit.)

So … back to oceans, back to life:

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Those words, (meaning “tossed but not sunk”), are glowing right now at the base of the blue-white-red illuminated Eiffel Tower. They shine in bold response to the terrorist attacks in Paris this month.  We can also apply them universally, to all acts of terrorism — Beirut, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria … a catalogue that can, if you’re not steadied, unhinge your sanity.

I also apply those words to the many terrors broad or private that punctuate the human experience. I’ve known some directly, and am observing all sorts in others’ lives, in your lives. Our voyages are different, but the ocean that holds humanity is the same, and none will cross without being thoroughly — and sometimes violently — shaken.

Major recent events in the world at large and in my immediate sphere have struck some deep plates. “Upheaval” doesn’t fairly describe it; “cataclysm” comes closer.  These strikes have accentuated divisions between nations, whose boundaries I can trace with my finger and whose leaders names I’ve memorized, as well as among real friends whose names and faces and stories I know by heart. Peoples — and specific people — have been struck and destabilized.

Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_A_Disaster_at_Sea_-_Google_Art_Project

Painting: Joseph M.W. Turner; “A Disaster at Sea”

That Sinking Feeling

In all this, there’s a temptation to claim we’re sinking, en masse, and with one inevitable glunk-glunk-glunk. But that mindset can breed hysteria (not good on the deck of any ship), or the slump of torpor. It can even increase violence.

Though fractures crack across the planet and through the core of my community, and though I often feel I’m straddling chunks of Pangea, her landmasses groaning and shifting, plate tectonics making a wild ripple ride of the face of things, I’m choosing (albeit sometimes shakily) to fight to stay afloat.  I know I can’t merely float.

Floating (false bravado, whistling in the dark, pretending immunity, retreating in a bubble, or following popular tides including those of nihilism and cynicism) — they all make us much more vulnerable to the ferocious downward suction of our times.

Reaching Deep, Reaching Up, Reaching Out

Is there a way out of that downward suction? Here’s an idea: Reach deep, reach up, and reach out. Elsewhere on this blog, and subsequently in my second book, On Loss and Living Onward, I’ve described these three reaches with different descriptors (steadiness, illumination and love), and how reaching in all three ways helps when our private world is in turmoil. These times we inhabit are volatile, requiring a far richer, more stable inner life than ever before necessary. I sense I need devotion to something larger than my fickle, earthbound, egocentric self. And I need increased service and compassion to my fellow passengers with whom I share this turbulent voyage.

Where do I start? Here. I start right here with writing. And while at times it’s fitting to write about the landscape of the digital ocean (screen time, filters, stuff we haven’t even thought of yet), other times, like right now, I only want to write about the ocean writ large. When terror roils and the earth moans, when fear rules and humankind grieves and keens, compartmentalized themes feel irrelevant, even irreverent.

So here’s to increased reverence. Thanks for allowing me to reach deeper in the next posts. With luck, we’ll remain buoyant together.

 

 

 

 

 

Parisian, Peruvian, Mexican, American: Multicultural Mom Writes a Strong Review

Your nationality might be easier to pin down than is Maria’s.  Born to a spicy combination of Peruvian and Mexican parents, educated in the U.S., married to a Frenchman and raising young (trilingual) children in the swoon-worthy countryside west of Paris, Maria Olivares Babin is a real global mom. An expert on mingling cultures and nurturing a family while straddling linguistic and geographic borders, she also keeps on top of a blog that is as lively, lovely and photogenic as is her family.

The four Babin children

The four Babin children (Image: Maria Babin)

(Image: Maria Babin)

(Image: Maria Babin)

Dad Babin and youngest (Image: Maria Babin)

Papa Babin and youngest (Image: Maria Babin)

Maria with the three who can eat solids, like pizza. (Image: La Famille Babin)

Maria with the three who can eat solids.  Like pizza.

How does someone planted in Normandy, France stumble across another writer-mother-nomad living near the banks of Lake Geneva, Switzerland? You can guess it was not on a morning stroll.  The story’s a bit more involved than that.

(Part of) la Famille Babin

(Part of) la famille Babin

The story is bitter-sweet, too, and I won’t share it all here because for today, I want to focus on the kind of happiness and deliberate joy Maria radiates, as you’ll soon discover, right off the computer screen.  But I’ll reveal this: a few weeks after we lost our oldest son to a tragic drowning accident, my husband and I were invited to speak at a large conference in Versailles, France.  Maria and her family, recently installed in their French life, happened to be in attendance.

(Image: S. Furner)

(Image: S. Furner)

(Image: S. Furner)

(Image: S. Furner)

Montmartre Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

Montmartre, Paris Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

More Montmartre Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

More Montmartre Montage (Image: Maria Babin)

Years passed, and our family moved, as we tend to do – Munich, Singapore, Geneva – while Maria and her Babins dug into that legendarily mulchy soil that grows France’s best apples and produces that country’s richest dairy products.  The parents (or was it the fertile soil?) continued to expand their family.  Along these two divergent routes of two global mothers, I continued to hear stories of the Babins.  I asked always for updates, marveling at Maria’s graceful mastery at integration.

Maria and daughter in the heart of the City of Light

Maria and daughter in the heart of the City of Light

Should I admit? I was fascinated – FAscinated! – by this exotic yet grounded woman, whose rich background complemented her quiet gumption. She was the Whole Multicultural Shabang.

Emphasis on the Bang.

Still only part of la grande famille Babin. . .

Still only part of la grande famille Babin. . .(Maria to the right in red sweater)

Now you can read her voice.  

Enjoy this generous review of Global Mom, written by another global mom.

I’m sure you’ll understand why it’s such an honor for me to merit her time and reflection.  Just thanks, Maria.

Global Mom: Madame, Vos Trésors!!

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Fête de la Musique”)

**

Dear Mom and Dad,

I write from a hotel where I’m staying as of today until Monday when I fly to Munich. Packed the house all week. Sent off Kristiina and her kids Thursday morning. Hard goodbye for me. R will flee with the kids to Zaki’s in Provence while I finish up all the messy boring moving details here. Cleaned and spackled today, walked around an echoing apartment and remembered 4 years ago arriving alone to an echoing apartment, the ordeal of getting our Norwegian table through the windows, the crazy and hilarious moving team, the growth in our family, the depths of my friendships here, and I realized all the things I have learned during these critical 4 years, the gifts of wisdom I hardly deserve. Before they left, R and the children and I knelt in the middle of our empty living room, so strange, to offer a prayer of thanks for the gift of that home, of the years we were blessed to spend there. All the miracles. You know some of them. I’m giving the main sermon in church tomorrow (on seeking for wisdom and not for riches), then will do the official apartment walk-through on Monday morning. I’ll ship Parker’s big African drum to you after that, please be watching for it; he’ll want it at university if he can play it and not get in trouble for the disturbance. That thing is loud! After that, I’m thinking I’ll probably walk the streets feeling wistful, so wistful I can hardly formulate words. Then I’ll fly to Munich late afternoon because goods arrive Tuesday morning and we unpack all week . . . and so forth and so forth until I fly to meet up with all of you and the kids in Utah on July 14th. Have been overwhelmed with work for so many weeks (months?) now, that I haven’t really allowed myself to feel very much about this departure. Now I’m so completely clotted with warm fluid feelings. I think my earlobes are waterlogged.

Love you both always and see you very soon!

 

Grandma visiting, Parker, Claire, the Sorenson children, Kristiina

Grandma visiting Parker, Claire, the Sorensons, including Kristiina

And so that late Parisian June evening of the Fête de la Musique, I had been standing with my family on a bridge. A day later, I found myself alone, standing at a crossroads. It was a literal crossroads, the moment I am describing now, since I was standing in front of our building, which stands at an intersection, and the extra-large moving truck with its forty- cubic-meter container was parked there, too. We were leaving an epoch, a densely blessed whirring Camelot of a time, we all knew it, and I was balancing all that emotion with the practical necessity of overseeing the countless details of clearing out our apartment and making sure every last gram of our material lives was packed into a box that would roll out the very next morning heading for Munich, Germany.

I’d sent Randall and the children off in the car to say neighborhood goodbyes and pick up baguettes still hot and crusty from Secco, our local boulangerie. They timed it so they would show up to see off our moving crew, a spicy mix from the banlieue of Paris, headed by a great, burly fellow whose charm and salt-and-pepper eyebrows were equally luxuriant.

As that leader clamped shut the massive lock on our container parked in teeny Rue du Colonel Combes, he raised his voice and arms in a dramatic flourish, smacked the hind end of the trailer, and pronounced to the skies, “Madame, vos trésors!!” Madame, your treasures. In that very same instant, Randall rounded the corner in the Renault, kids hanging out windows wielding baguettes, waving, whooping, “Bonjour, Maman!!” like a chorus of French school children.

“Non, Monsieur,” I responded, an eye on the family van, “Voici mes trésors.” No, sir. These are my treasures.

In that serendipitously choreographed moment, I truly felt what I was saying as it caught in my throat, and I thought I knew just how completely those gangling arms and hoarse voices were my true treasures. I knew that if my forty-cubic-foot, padlocked trunk of treasures drowned in the blue black of some ocean, I’d survive it well because I knew what was most precious. And what’s more, I had it. Precious and irreplaceable. My treasure. My treasured family. I had every last one of them.

 

070

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: Ceiling Talk. . .Munich?

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “La Grande Gare Centrale”)

**

flickr

flickr

“And what about the smaller apartment in the 17th? Three bedrooms? Fifth floor? Not far from John and Renée? Should I make an appointment and see it? We ready for that?” That was me speaking from where I lay, covers tucked up under my arms, hands crossed thoughtfully on my abdomen, staring at the lights filtering through our drapes. This dialogue was happening nearly every night. It was Ceiling Talk as you know, and this was September 2006, and this was Randall and Melissa considering, as we had done in Norway, to just stay. To settle. To buy. To go native.

Randall was thriving at work and he could call this the end of his career and “coast on out,” as he put it. I was busy volunteering at our children’s two schools, singing in various venues, and seeing to the needs of the teenage girls and their teachers of our church in the greater Parisian area. This meant I was regularly going to Normandy, Chartres, and the small congregations throughout the city. In addition, I was writing small pieces for an international journal and compiling chapters of my own book. I had the application forms on my desk for taking courses at the Sorbonne. We were looking ahead to having Parker graduate and head off to college that June, and Claire was cruising along beautifully at ASP, too, with her locker right under her brother’s, a spatial closeness that symbolized nicely their unusually strong relationship. Dalton and Luc were gathering friends at EAB, fencing, singing in French choirs, collecting marbles, writing screen plays based on the Louvre. And Joey — may my crazy vet be praised — was finally, finally house trained.

So why move?

etsy

etsy

Unless the company, in October, approaches with a reorganization that would bump Randall from his position overseeing the French subsidiary to another post in the regional offices based in Munich from where he would oversee his function for all of Europe. Could he move immediately?

“No,” Randall said into the receiver. “We can’t move right now. The school year has just begun, our oldest child is a senior in high school; he has to finish out in this program. But,” he eyed me for the go-ahead nod from across our bedroom where he was receiving the phone call from headquarters, “I can move. I’ll move. Melissa and the kids will finish out the school year and follow to Munich in the summer. That is, if the family follows at all.”

parisgo

parisgo

(Come back tomorrow for our last months in Paris…)

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

Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part II

From Global Mom: A Memoir

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

. . .[Monsieur B.] heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

**

credit: parisperfect

credit: parisperfect

. . .We returned to our apartments Monsieur B. and Madame B., those parallel universes split by a sliver of flooring. Against a backdrop of the Monsieur’s serenity, my native country’s vibrating map of red and blue “moral values” throbbed a garish neon nuisance across my mind—a mind already fuzzy from weeks of breath- holding over teetering politics, months of being on the global political alert.

That night in the Bradford’s cosmos, life felt so slightly perilous and slap-dash, with our six jostling bodies whirring like asteroids, weaving and whipping through what should have been a bedtime routine – our night time orbit — but which felt to me, at least, more like an enactment of chaos theory. Certainly the galaxy was off kilter, the Milky Way curdling, I thought, with our earth stuck in a hiccup rather than expelling her usual steady breaths. How could Monsieur B. just shrug off the recent events as “mere politics” when, as I was convinced, the whole globe was convulsing and reeling toward ruin?

credit: retinacandy

credit: retinacandy

Then, at nine on the dot, the Monsieur’s street shutters rattled their regular racket. Our Grandfather Clock incarnate chimed. A wad of laundry in my arms, I stopped for an instant to absorb the ritual beneath my feet, that common constancy like so many other banal patterns in a day, which, when noted anew, pin infinity in place and set fretting aright. In his cozy retreat from the world, Monsieur must have at least believed he was invulnerable to it, I reflected. And at his age, I thought, what else? Lining the level above his, all our shutters were agape as they always were, allowing our garrulous glow to flood the streets, whatever part of our private lives was not under wraps.

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

He’d watched foreigners come and go, Monsieur B. He’d seen the old open market that was once supplied by the boatmen delivering goods on the banks of the Seine one block northward razed to make way for the Senegalese Embassy and the Erik Satie music conservatory. He’d watched an adjacent villa converted into the bland headquarters of the American University in Paris and had heard the choir rehearsals, aerobic classes and karaoke nights through the wide-open stained glass windows of the American Church across the street. He’d heard more and more English-speakers just outside his windows asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower, (two blocks that way) or Napoleons’ tomb (two blocks the other way). He’d witnessed the high-pitched spectacle of four sweat-slippery men cursing in chorus at each other and at their weave of pulleys and cables holding our dangling long table which was to be hoisted through our windows. He’d quietly tolerated restrained ruckus, my occasional high-heeled prancing and Parker’s gym-shoed thudding overhead, and had graciously avoided even the most subtly judgmental political commentary as Franco-American tensions simmered and at times passed the boiling-over point. And he didn’t grow the least bit hysterical when his own French presidential elections kicked up dust in our own neighborhood, where camera crews interviewed candidates, pundits, the local political in crowd. There I was, practically salivating with curiosity at the whole scene, and there was Monsieur B. watching silently from his window, his ascot tucked in his camel blazer, a cup of coffee held in the right hand, the saucer in his left.

Stalking our flat that late autumn night, tidying room after room, I was ashamed that our comparatively super-sized portion of dwelling space was super-imposed, squat, right over the head of this frugal Frenchman. I cringed, feeling personally responsible for the astronomical U.S. deficit. Then I also thought of the thriving terrorist cell, which French intelligence had just exposed and exploded in a northeastern sector of Paris, eight Metro stops from our door.

To what end, shutters? To what end, self-imposed blinds? Was this gracious neighbor, this truly gentle man, what U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had in mind with his pejorative, “Old Europe”? And did French foreign minister, Michel Barnier have a chance at realizing a “New Day” in Franco-American relations, where an alliance wasn’t always tantamount to absolute allegiance, but where mutual respect reigns, and where, as Monsieur B. once said, “we value one another in a community?”

credit: parisiensalon

credit: parisiensalon

To be sure, in a few hours some version of the next day would break, and I’d be counting on the 8:00 a.m. downbeat from Monsieur B.

(To be continued. . .)