Friday, December 18, 2009

Frozen water

Mummy's got funny skis.

Lucky girl

Helmet rental costs more than the goggles.

I've been to French ski school.

Hat head doesn't matter when you've got this in front of you.



I'm pullin' the sled.

Okay, your turn.

Chalet dancing.

Ski school pickup.

Sorry Vermont.

View from the bedroom window.

Chalet envy.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Novembre est sombre

This image is like a dream I had. I dreamed I was all alone, I repeat, ALL ALONE, at sunrise in a beautiful European city, just wandering in whichever direction I was pulled, rive droit, rive gauche, rive droit, rive gauche. I've had harder, much less pleasant, decisions to make.

That river and that city are feeling very far away at the moment. I'm back in my quiet, creepily so, little village where the shutters close at dusk, shutting out any trace of warm light within.

This is the hardest thing for me.

One of the things I love about New England in the winter, one of the few comforts I have, other than a blanket of fresh snow, is driving or walking past houses and looking through their windows into warmly-lit living rooms. Seeing someone reading in their favorite chair, watching TV, families moving about, eating dinner, bringing glasses to their lips, laughing, kids doing homework, someone at their computer even.

It is encouraging to see and know, even if you are going back to your own dark house, that you are not alone in this dark world.

But here in France, in this labrynth of a stone village, the houses are like fortresses. Once the people go inside, you don’t see, hear or feel any sign of their presence. They disappear into the depths of their caves and don’t emerge again until their stomachs urge them back to the baker for more bread in the morning.

Occasionally, in summer months, you see someone standing in their open kitchen door, or upstairs window, talking to a friend on the street, taking time to chat and visit, but not in winter. It’s hibernation time.

I’m still trying to figure out how a person can go from completely giddy, neck-deep in puppy- love pond, beer-goggle-wearing worshipper of her surroundings, smelly cheese and all, to whining, complaining, muttering under her breath about everything from having to park the bloody car against people’s kitchen windows to having to pick up my kid at noon for lunch everyday, curser of her surroundings. Pas bon.

Whatever the opposite of beer goggles is, I'm wearing them. And I can't figure out how to get them off.

It goes beyond the simple fact that France has been stripped, by a persistent cold breeze and just a few driving rains, of her fancy, gauzy, fragrant, billowy gown and the anorexic boniness of her figure has been fully exposed.

To be more specific, it’s not France, it’s rural, small- town Burgundy-- the tiny, forgotten village, with its boarded up shops and hotels, which even at the height of summer has never seen a sidewalk buzz-- that has been robbed of the only thing that kept me feeling hopeful about it: physical beauty. (The irony is, this is exactly how so many people, not passionate about snow, not rooted by seven generations of Vermonters before them, feel about winters in Vermont.)

To be even more specific, the fact that I have no real connection to this place, it was a hastily- chosen crash pad, a halfway house to rest in before we moved into the farmhouse, ha, has finally sunken through the porous layer of top soil and is sitting, stagnant, on my bedrock brain.

It’s just like falling in love, or thinking you’re in love, with a beautiful person whom you don’t even know. There is a risk of getting to know them, marrying them even, making wild promises to them, and, waking up one day to find them lying beside you, and wanting to scream.

Okay I’m exaggerating. I don’t find this place repulsive, not at all, just depressing, shabby and devoid of warmth.

I’m lying now. Because our neighbors on many sides, aside from the Grumps, the ones that smile at me and some who even attempt to engage me in conversation, despite the fact that I most often reply in smiles and present-tense, monosyllabic grunts--I am the mute, smiling American-- are truly warm.

And my friends, those who I’ve grown to know and like, Gail, Bridgett and Mandy and their families, send shards of bright light searing through my otherwise estranged existence, cut me open and help me to feel anything but numb. But the difference between me and them is they have laid down roots here, I have not. I am a transient passer through. It's like an affliction, like living behind glass.

There are days when I'm downright giddy with elation and smugness at this strange new life we've made for ourselves here. Then there are other days.

This can happen anywhere. No?

There are some benefits to being a foreigner when it comes to the stories your kids tell about you.

Disclaimer: The author of this blog is prone to irrational bouts of mild depression-- exacerbated by stress and change, and lack of exercise-- and her words, thoughts, sentiments cannot be trusted, or expected to remain truth, for longer than one day at a time. In other words, I'm having another sad day. For lighter, less stodgy fare, Try again tomorrow, or in my lazy-ass case, next month.

Monday, September 21, 2009

They're so beautiful when they sleep

Don't tell Isla, but she's wearing pants.

Go away!

The house we still haven't moved into.

Where we would pee if we did.

Tonight, putting Isla to bed, the breeze was strong enough to send the neighbor’s shutters clattering open and shut. Made me feel like I lived in a western ghost town.

Sometimes I get that feeling as if we’re alone here, even though we are surrounded by people on all sides. The French seem quiet, and private, and these thick stone houses help keep them insulated all the more. Insular. I am amazed, and sometimes alarmed, by how devastatingly quiet it is sometimes. Where on earth is everyone?

Last night Esther had a friend sleep over, and Isla was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our room. When I went in to bed, I turned on the light, got into my bed and started to try to read the French newspaper. Reading all those incomprehensible, impossible to pronounce French words is very inducive to sleep. I want to sleep just to make it go away.

Before I turned out the light, I looked up and the sight of Isla, sleeping so soundly, on her side, facing me, caught me by surprise. She was so beautiful. She looked posed. Her features were so soft and perfect. Those puffed out still baby lips, the shy, perfectly rounded nose, (Looked just like a two-lane tunnel from my angle.) the dark, long eyelashes that curl up, like fringe, delicately attached to the ends of her translucent eyelids.

All sleeping children are beautiful, I’ve had this same experience with Esther, but what really got me was how much like Ian she looked. She looks like her Daddy, little Isla.

I can’t describe it exactly, but something about the way her narrow face comes to a point at the chin, her forehead, her small mouth, even her eyes. She looks just like the sweet, charming little boy in many of Ian’s baby pictures. She is carrying more than a piece of her daddy with her. And I am glad of that.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bring me a suppository

Down by the riverside.

Bothering daddy at work.

Going berry picking after dinner.

Tick, tick, tick. Does anyone else hear that? Why is it that the clock, on its constant sweep of time, gets so much louder at the end of summer?

Something is in the air. Perhaps the end of summer approaching. These Frenchies are trying to milk every drop of what’s left of the long hot days, to suck the light right out of the sky.

While I was putting the girls to bed, dutifully, before the witching hour of nine, the other night. I could hear what sounded like the whole town still up partying. Damn those French!

One child was barking, howling, at his mum for dinner. Another family was just sitting down in their front garden for their nightly meal; kids laughing, glasses clinking, forks dropping on kitchen floors (sounds remarkably the same as a fork dropping on a kitchen floor in America), grownups chatting, cats mewling.

We were going to bed.

As I read Pocahontas, in French, to Isla, she’s not a stickler for pronounciation, I could hear the monotonous thump, thump of distant techno music. It was coming from the local fete, across town, that was just getting started.

I knew that fireworks were supposed to start sometime close to ten and chose to keep it secret from Esther and Isla because they just haven’t achieved the level of stamina that these French children have.

After they fell asleep, I snuck downstairs, planning to grab my French book and get into bed and conjugate some verbs. The music seemed louder. My curiosity grew. Who, in this small town, would go to a fete at almost ten o’clock at night? Certainly no one with kids. Ha.

I told Ian I was taking a walk and headed up to the train station to do some spying. When I got there I saw a mini carnival in full swing. Loud music, candy floss, bumper cars, a merry-go round, and a large handful of parents and small children milling around. There, I thought. Silly French people. Why can’t they start a party early enough for people to actually go to it?

I stood around watching the bumper cars for a few more minutes, then stopped to talk to a Brit couple, who have grown kids, who were waiting for the fire works.

Just fifteen minutes later, it must have been 10:30, as I was leaving, people started steadily filtering in. Not just people, but families--moms, dads, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, grade schoolers....

And not a single child was crying, or whining, or misbehaving. They just quietly clung to their mommies’ hands, or sat in their strollers, and waited to get there.

And they just kept coming. As I walked towards home through the dark streets, it was like the family-friendly verson of Dawn of the Dead. Family after family walked, slowly, methodically, in the opposite direction as I did. I had the strangest sensation that I was an alien, a different species from these people.

Am I the only person in this entire country whose kids fall apart when they're tired? Is there something I'm missing here? Is this why no one wants to talk about all the nuclear reactors?

It makes me feel like I’m an overprotective mom. I need to take a chill pill. A suppository, perhaps, and let go of this need to control everything, including my kids shedules?

Seeing these families, happily together, just an hour before midnight while mine were tucked safe in their beds, makes me feel like a fun-averse prude.

I considered, for a passing moment, waking Esther and Isla up and surprising them with a midnight firework, cotton- candy treat.

Ian was watching a movie when I got back. I sat down in the chair next to him and watched the screen.

When the blast and crack of not-so-distant fireworks, crashed through the night air, I ran upstairs and closed the girls' bedroom window so they wouldn't hear.

When the fireworks went quiet, I stretched my ears in hopes of hearing the sound of some crying children. It was totally quiet.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cave dwellers

One of these days I'm going to learn how to post pictures that don't come up first. Don't laugh. I really don't know how.

I'm sitting in hour new rented home away from home, which is about a three minutes walk, down to the other end of the street and on the other side, the river side, of the road, from our old home away from home. All the shutters are shut and it is delightfully, coolly cave-like in here. I suppose that is the point. The French love to build houses with all the windows on one side, leaving vast expanses of stone with no windows on the other side. So, when you enter the house, it feels like entering a cave.

With the intense heat these past few days have brought I am content to be a cave dweller.

The girls are upstairs, each with a playdate. There is a certain amount of bickering going on, as always, but generally they are content as well.

Esther is talking in her faux British accent, for the benefit of her Brit/French friend. They had a sleepover last night and I can hear Esther's fatigue coming through her voice.

Isla is giggling with her little friend. Since her little friend is one year younger than her, and learning two languages at once, she is very quiet and their fights are much more physical, and easier to break up, than those of Esther and her friend.

I'm finding parenting in France to be more challenging than parenting in America. Nothing to do with the country, everything to do with the fact that the mere foreign-ness, the daily challenge of adapting to that which is different, a new language, a new culture, taps what last reserves my children have before they are completely done.

Where once I could predict how much they could handle before they needed to be sent to their corners, think boxing, for a powwow with the coach, here I'm often blindsided by the meltdowns. Food for thought.

We spent the day up at the farmhouse yesterday and Esther and Isla played with some French kids, mostly grandchildren of the neighbors. It's so fun to see them interact, watch them communicate. Esther learned how to say, "climb a tree" in French. Isla just kept kissing this one little girl on the cheek. She fits right in here.

She's come to think many of the women in our town are named "Madame," since we say "Bonjour Madame," whenever we see them.

More TMI can be read over here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Things I forget to remember

So much to say, today.

The girls are both at "camp." Camp is a euphemism for daycare. I like to think of it as total French immersion.

Isla is going to an African village to make masks. Esther is off to Tonnere to watch a stage of the Tour de France. She's probably yelling "allez, allez, allez!" right now, and waving one of those giant foam fingers, as I write this.

I'm sitting here, in the kitchen of the farmhouse, alone, listening to the ticking, and regular chiming, of the kitchen wall clock. The clock, made of lovely carved wood, belongs to the woman next door. She grew up in this house, and her mother was born in this house.

I'm also listening to the incessant trickling of the leaky old toilet which hides in the corner behind a shower curtain. Have I mentioned the French habit of always locating their one and only toilet directly off the kitchen? No need to leave the dinner conversation behind just because you have to wee, or whatever.

I'm struggling to make the best possible use of my free time when all I really want to do is go out back, lie down in the reclining lawn chair, and feel the warm sun on my face and listen to the crickets and birds and occasional, loud, conversation of the neighbors.

They aren't really shouting. Not all of them. It just sounds that way. Especially since I don't really understand what they are saying. But the farmer, a huge man, seems to be hard of hearing so he technically is shouting. For a while I thought he had Tourette's or something, but I'm pretty sure he's just deaf from years of driving tractors. He comes over to visit with our neighbor every morning, has a cup of coffee and shouts at her for fifteen minutes or so, then walks back to his barn.

I love hearing him yell at his cows at milking time.

The neighborhood boy, Theo, isn't hear to pester me since he's at the same camp as Isla. I hope he's being nice.

Ian has gone to Avallon, a nearby town, which I would call a city, but folks around here are very picky about nomenclature--there's hamlet, village, town and city--in Vermont they're all towns, no matter how few or how many people live in them. He's there to find out about insurance. It seems he's always trying to find out about insurance.

It's probably a good thing since I seem to be dying of strep throat. Okay, so I'm not dying, but I've had a debilitating sore throat, and accompanying ear ache, for 10 days now. I've been to the doctor twice and twice have I been instructed to "take ibuprofen and aspirin together, stay away from drafts, and wait it out."

The fact that the doctor actually takes time to chat, despite our language problems, he often consults his French-English dictionary, then only asks for 20 Euros, makes me want to trust him. I told him that in America, I would be charged close to 70 Euros, or is it more, once all was said and done. He put his hands over his ears.

But I'm getting tired of waiting. And I'm tired of wondering how much ibuprofen I can take before my kidneys fail. Anyone know?

In the meantime, you can read about my recent nasty bout with the grass- is- greener syndrome, or was it just your basic case of whinitis?

And, just to prove I am indeed enjoying the moment, or each moment as it comes, I've included some snippets.

One of my favorite views.

You go first.

On the school steps at the end-of-year Kermesse.

Pink roses and pink peeling paint.

Bouquets from Esther.

Yes, they do still make, sell, and wear house dresses in France.

We don't care if it's bedtime. We're not ready to go.

Little girls at the big-kid school.

Ridiculous views.

At the cafe in Auxerre.

Ceramic lettuce head.

A girl and her bear.

Monday, July 06, 2009

soap opera

Every time I see another lovely, forgotten lavoir (communal washing place) here in rural France I can't help but wonder if there was a time when women might possibly have looked forward to laundry day simply because it offered a chance to get together with the girls and chat.

These places ooze history. Walking into them, I feel as if I'm entering a museum or cathedral. A place of worship. A place to worship women and mothers.

Oh how I would love to go back in time and sit in a cool, shady corner of one of these gorgeous structures -- listening to the trickling water, the rubbing of fabric against stone, and the running mouths of women.

And where were the children? Strapped to their backs? Lying in baskets in the shade? Splashing about in the waste water?

I hear so much about how vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and washing machines have served to liberate women-- shaving hours off our workday-- yet I when I see the lavoirs, I have to wonder: What exactly are we doing with that free time and how come I still feel so disconnected?

Why is it that I am at my worst when doing laundry or pushing a vacuum around my house? It's the isolation of the task. It's the reality of tedium. It's the imagining that everyone else in the world is doing something more interesting, more worthwhile, than I am that very moment in time.

While communal housecleaning isn't really an option, getting together to do laundry could be the solution. Book clubs be damned. Perhaps it's time for me to find a laundromat?

"As running water and modern appliances became standard in French homes after World War II, the lavoirs were abandoned, and with them three hundred years of women’s gathering and conversation."

From a description of the book, Lavoirs: Washouses of Rural France, by Mireille Roddier.

Anyhow............. none of this makes a lick of difference when it comes to getting my kids to bed before midnight.

Friday, June 26, 2009

breaking the spell

my new office chair
random building which looks like it belongs at the beach
Esther is headed towards her last day of school before summer break. I wish she could keep going because her French is just starting to really take. I can feel it, I can hear it, I can smell it. She's exuding escargot and frogs legs.

I don't want to break the spell.

I will miss our mornings walking over this bridge to school. I feel so smug ever time we do it, thinking of all the people in their cars during morning rush hour.

Of course we'll still walk over the bridge, just not with so much purpose, apprehension or smugness.

We had an afternoon thunderstorm here. Loud, crashing thunder, lightning flashes, heavy rain. I loved it. Isla was on the couch with me, watching Babar ala Neige. I'm force feeding my children French, one video at a time.

Listening to the cars swish by, slishy- sloshy sluice, makes me feel like I'm living in a city. I've always secretly wanted to live in a city but never had the gumption. It's never too late, to get your gumption, I guess.

New post over at BabyCenter about our evolving TV viewing habits.