Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sex in the City

When my aunt and her friends were visiting a couple of weeks ago, I had them over for dinner on my terrace. We had a delightful rooftop dinner, all 7 of us squeezed around my not-big-enough-for-a-dinner-party table, laughing and telling stories as we ate our salmon salad, drank a lovely white from Cassis, and watched the southern sky turn it’s midnight blue.

Afterwards, each of them remarked over and over how magic the evening was. None of them had ever been to a soirée on a rooftop terrace overlooking a city (all are Midwesterners) and they were charmed by the experience.

I too am captivated by this place that I live. All my life I have lived in a house, with a big yard and plenty of privacy, and though I loved that as well, this is new…. and wonderful. But I have to tell you; some of the charm is wearing off.

In my building there are only 5 or 6 apartments. All the apartments on all 4 stories are positioned overlooking a small court. It’s not a beautiful court…really just a place for the people on the first floor to hang their laundry, but a court all the same. I imagine this building was designed this way for tax reasons because in the old days in France (actually this still continues) people were taxed by the number of windows they had facing the street. By putting most of the windows on a court, this little problem is effectively eliminated.

But this fiscally prudent configuration causes a very exhausting dilemma. This court acts as a sort of megaphone for sound. When someone is talking at the bottom of the court, it is as if they are in your living room. I always have to remind my visitors to speak softly while coming and going from my apartment because I am well aware of how the sound carries from the stairway and the courtyard into the other apartments.

Because of this phenomenon, I REALLY know my neighbors even though I’ve never met them. The people on the first floor have a new baby and for the first month of this sweet thing’s life, it’s cry sounded just like that of a seagull. This is not a good thing. Seagulls make a horrible sound. I kept looking out my window, wondering what this water bird was doing in the court until I finally realized it was a baby. Luckily for this poor petite, her or his cry has now begun to sound human and it doesn’t bother me. In fact I sort of like it.

But I’ve got a bigger predicament. The young man below me has a new girlfriend. I’ve never seen her before but I tell you what, if I were to meet her on the street, all she would have to do is open her mouth and I would KNOW who she is. This woman has a voice that could grate cheese.

These two are completely enamored of each other and thus they faire l’amour comme les lapins! (make love like rabbits) Yes siree bob,  5 or 6 times per day (obviously they are young)!  And they (she) are not quiet about it!  With windows open and bed just under the window, they practice their gymnastics routine for all the world to hear.

At first it was amusing, then it was fatiguing, then it moved on to frustrating (I’m single after all). I mean, it’s like we’re sharing a bedroom, and truly...I can hear everything

Now, however, I’m just really ticked off.

He’s a musician, so they return home around midnight or 1 am. I can hear them coming up the stairs, talking and laughing as if nobody exists but them. And by 2 am, they are practicing their rabbit routine…. around 4:30 am they practice again. They might throw another practice session in at 8 am (when I’m finally getting some sleep). Mornings are quiet, but eventually they wake up and realize…oh my goodness…we’ve gone a good 8 hours…and they’re back at it (just about the time I’m trying to take a much needed siesta because I didn’t sleep the night before).

I found myself wishing they would just have a fight. They did. But you know what that means. They have to make up. My friends say all this is good for my vocabulary…learning words one never learns in school. However, their vocabulary during these endless trysts is decidedly limited.

Around midnight last night, I heard them coming home. Oh, it had been so deliciously silent and I had been able to get in a 2 hour nap (one needs to prepare for a night of no sleep). But rather than commencing their usual routine, they began to fight. One of those screaming, spitting, over-the-top fights, obviously spurred by jealousy and alcohol. FINALLY she announced she was leaving. Yippee! I heard her go down the stairs (him following, begging her to stay), out the main door and listened to her heels click-clacking on the cobblestones as she made her way to. …well nowhere…because 5 minutes later I heard those heels returning. Merde!

And they simply resumed the fight where they had left off. After 3 hours of high volume screaming, accusations, pleadings, explanations, a slap, tears from her, more screaming, and finally a dramatic 45 minute sob session compliments of him…and her subsequent petting and consoling, they made up for a good hour.

By 6 am they seemed to feel they had recemented their relationship, and I could sleep.

I use earplugs and have 4 pillows to put over my head, all of which only help. But it’s steaming hot here right now and it’s impossible to close the windows. Besides, is it really my responsibility to close the windows? This morning, I woke up at 8 am, tired and crabby. I found a sound file on my computer of a rooster crowing, hooked it up to my speakers, and began to play it at full volume. I did the dishes loudly, slammed doors and drawers, did a little hammering on the floor just above their bedroom and now I’ve got my radio on full blast, right next to the window. The problem is, as stated before, they’re young. They can sleep through anything. Particularly in their exhausted state.

I just got back from talking to the landlords, who, by the way, also have circles under their eyes. They promised to talk to him today and remarked about how wonderful it was that I made so much noise this morning. Well, big whoopdy doo!  Just take care of it!

I’m becoming very familiar with my lovely terrace and the midnight blue sky since that is where I’ve been spending most of my time during the night.  Its high wall blocks some of the night sounds. Yes, it’s magic… but needless to say, city living is losing its shine. As am I.


Monday, June 28, 2010

July 4th

Monday Memories again....I wrote this last year at this time. This holiday is approaching and once again, I'm deep in thought. After I wrote this article last year, my mother called and told me how happy she was to hear that I really planned on coming back. In fact, I'm much less sure of coming back than I was last year. I don't know why. And it's sure that my mom will not be happy after she reads this!

I have spent many important days away from my home base. I have missed family birthdays, I have been absent for the birth of friends’ babies, and the funerals of loved ones. I have spent Christmas in the Caribbean, Easter in England, and Thanksgiving in Canada.  Being away at such times is never easy.

But as I was contemplating what to do on Saturday, I realized that I have never in my entire life spent the 4th of July outside of my own country. And when you’re not in the U.S. on this particular day, you really celebrate alone.

Generally on the 4th of July, I spend the weekend with family at my mother’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin, or I spend it camping with close friends. Either way, it involves food, beverage, chatter, camaraderie, fireworks and a day off work.  Not always however, has it involved much reflection. I mean, let’s face it. We all sometimes tend to take for granted what we have and how we came to get it.

So on this day, as I made an arrangement of white flowers in a blue Provencal pitcher and stuck my tiny American flag in it, I thought about my country, which I have chosen to leave for awhile, and what I love about it and what others love (or don’t love) about it.

The French love to TALK about everything and everywhere you go you hear them discussing politics, religion, art, music and philosophy. This is one of the things I find charming about them and also something I find very frustrating at times. However, the subject of my country has come up often and I am always curious to hear their thoughts even if I don’t agree with everything that is said. There is always value in discourse, isn’t there?

Of course there are criticisms of the U.S., some valid and some more a result of the caricature of the United States built on the back of American films, television and media coverage.

The general criticism of my country is its arrogance. The way America and Americans often seem to think that no matter where we are in the world, it belongs to us.

We are sometimes referred to (not kindly) as “les gendarmes du la monde” or policemen of the world.

They think we are a consuming monster much of the time (And we are. I am continually amazed by the way people here manage with tiny cars, smaller homes, less land, fewer belongings and clothes and how they have succeeded in incorporating so many energy saving tricks in their daily lives).

Some think we’re bossy, egotistical, warmongering and secluded and uninformed about the rest of the world.

All of these criticisms hold some grain of truth…some more than others (as do our criticisms of the French) but that’s not what I want to write about. That's another article. Today I want to think about what is loved about where I come from.

So what do they love about us? In fact, they love a lot of things, even if they don’t always admit it (a French friend of mine says they’re just jealous). They love our spirit and our exuberance and attitude that all things are possible. They are thankful for our strength (on D-Day a French friend called me just to say thank you) and they love our inventiveness and our entrepreneurship.

Another French friend of mine likened his country and the rest of Europe to “an elderly person”. I, in turn, compared my country to a teenager. Those of you who have had teenagers (at least teenage boys, which are my only experience) know of what I speak. They eat all the time, they take long, water and heat consuming showers, they sleep too long, stay up too late, they bounce off the walls and trip over their own feet. They are egocentric and not always very cognizant of how their actions affect others and what kind of havoc they can cause in their wake.  They are always right. They have a short history and though on the verge of adulthood, they don’t always have the wisdom of years. 

On the other hand, they are excited about something all the time, they are full of ideas and hope, they are sure they can accomplish all of their grandiose ideas, no matter how off the wall they might seem. No is not a word they seem to understand nor is “you can’t do that” or ” that’s not possible”. They are physically strong and are still not really sure of the best way to use that power. But they have faith that their future is promising and bright. They are both charming and hateful but completely lovable.

I have come from a country that is still experiencing its teens. With all the charms and foibles that accompany those burgeoning years. And right now I’m visiting an elderly neighbor. You know the one…. you love to visit her home and share coffee and a pastry. You chat and listen to the stories of days gone by and look at her collections of old, beautiful things. You love to hear about what she’s learned through the years and you hope to gain wisdom from her mistakes and her triumphs. You listen patiently (but you’re slightly annoyed) as she explains how things used to be and how uncultured today’s generation is. You agree in many ways but you also know that today’s generation has it’s own wonderful and unique qualities that you wouldn’t trade for anything. You nod your head and smile because she is delightful and wise in many ways, in spite of  some of her exasperating opinions.

But sometimes, she just spends a lot of time complaining about almost everything, seems a little resigned to the way things have turned out and she talks a lot but doesn’t seem to get much done.

So I’m still having coffee at the neighbor’s. I’m having a lovely time and enjoying every minute of it and our conversation is not over yet. But the life that I know, back in the good, old US of A, is still the one I will return to…after the coffee klatch is over. And when that time comes, it will be good to be home.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Liver Crisis

I wrote this article yesterday for my newspaper column and I was late getting it in. My editor waited for it all morning and what had I been doing? Sleeping!  But I have a great excuse. A very French excuse. I’m in the throes of a Liver Crisis!

The first time I heard that term…it’s Crise de Foie in French…I was really confused. I mean, what is a liver crisis? Hepatitis? Cirrhosis? WHAT?? And if it is one of these horrible conditions, why do so many French people seem to suffer from it?

And it’s always explained to me that it’s when your liver has just had too much…too much rich food, too much alcohol, too much coffee…and too little of all the things it needs to stay out of a crisis. The French are very close to their livers. They talk about them all the time. I’ve never met an American who had such a personal relationship with his or her liver.

I spent this past weekend in the Camargue with my girlfriends and we had a wonderful girl-weekend. An article about this special area called the Camargue is upcoming but, as I said, I’ve been thwarted by my liver. In any case, we spent the weekend eating (in large quantities…at least in my case) mussels in oil and garlic, salmon tartare, tellines in cream and butter (another local shellfish), bouillabaisse (a local fish soup), strawberry gateau, American chocolate chip cookies, pizza…I’m sure there’s more. Of course, this is France and we added champagne with ginger, red wine, white wine and rosé, Suze (a type of local liquor) some other type of local liqueur whose name escapes me, and lots of coffee because we spent too much time laughing and talking and not enough time sleeping. You get the drift. All wonderful and not to be missed but certainly not our habitual lifestyle (really…it isn’t!). And the only exercise we got was shopping. Which is certainly not all that strenuous except on the wallet. Soooo….

My friend Claire, who is French, kept remarking that she was sure that this was going to turn into a Crise de Foie. She also tried to explain what it was but I eventually looked up a French web site on the subject and translated it.

“Bloating, nausea, vomiting, heaviness, headache, heartburn, burping or flatulence…. these manifestations of liver crisis often occur after the holiday meal”

So in fact, this is just plain old indigestion with possibly a hangover added for good measure and has nothing whatsoever to do with the liver. But don’t tell the French that! Believe me, that’s been tried and nobody is buying it. As a matter of fact, with a full-fledged liver crisis you can go to your friendly, local pharmacist, who is everybody’s best friend, explain your symptoms and even though he or she knows it’s really not a liver problem, it will still be described that way and you can load up on all sorts of powders and potions. There are a number of websites that give advice on how to deal with this disaster after the fact, as well as how to prepare for the event that is sure to cause the crisis in the first place.

All I know is that my crise hit me in the car about halfway home on Sunday night. And I’m still feeling the effects.  I’ve perused all the websites and I know that I’m supposed to eat only vegetables and soup, avoid coffee, alcohol and cigarettes, drink lots of tea, possible take a syrup called Hepatoum and get lots of sleep. Which is what I’m doing....mostly. Because I’m in France…and by golly, I’m in crisis!  I do have to say however…it was well worth it!


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Le Feu de la St. Jean

I'm a wee bit tardy, since it's not Monday here anymore....nevertheless, it's Monday somewhere and this is another Monday Memory...same time last year. Perfectly timed since today is the Summer Solstice.

I just want to make it clear right now, I did not jump over the fire!

Saturday morning, my friend Holly and I climbed on the bus and headed up to her house in the little village of Peypin d’Aigue in the Vancluse region of the Luberon Valley. After picking up her newly leased car in Pertuis (that’s another story in itself…a tried and true New Yorker who hasn’t really driven since 1983, relearning in France!) and buying some groceries, we headed to Peypin. I have been here before and it’s rural and small with a population of about 500 souls. Holly is the only foreigner here which is rather unusual for the Luberon because it’s such a desired location to buy holiday and retirement property. But this makes it all the more fun. As she said to me before we left, “you’re going to have to speak French this weekend, honey. There ain’t nothing else!”

As we drove the last little road into the village, past the farms and vineyards and under the final canopy of lush, green trees, I could feel the heaviness of the summer heat dissipate and I was beginning to see what all the fuss is about.

We had come this particular weekend because Holly’s local friend Sylvie had told her there was to be a village barbeque and bonfire. That sounded like so much fun and we certainly didn’t want to miss this opportunity. She told us to wear our “baskets” (tennis shoes) and to bring some meat and a dish to pass. That’s all we would need. We skipped the tennis shoes but spent the afternoon preparing the other necessary items.

As it turned out, we had arrived for Le Feu de la St. Jean or The Fire of St. John.

This festival is ancient, with its origins in pagan rituals, but as with many such festivals, the church made it it’s own many hundreds of years ago. It is celebrated in other countries as well, with slightly different traditions. For the church, it’s the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, but the French people mark it as the beginning of summer because it’s always held at the time of the summer solstice. In France, the celebration died out in many places after World War II but is being slowly revived. In Peypin d’Aigue, it never went away.

And so we arrived, food in hand and we made merry. Huge communal grills were set up and we all took the meat that we had brought with us and gathered around them to cook. Large tables were set up along the edge of the field and family groups gathered at the tables with their salads, desserts and Pastis. Another large table held boxes of wine provided by the village (yes, I hate to break it to you but they drink wine in boxes here too) and the leftover crudités from yesterday’s party at the school.  People surrounded the “bar” with their pitchers in hand and sometimes actually got back to their table with the pitcher still full. A little jazz band played on the corner and the village children were allowed to sing whenever the spirit moved them.

I had made a potato salad and some tzaziki and I just want to brag that both were a huge hit. Not exactly an American version of potato salad, but it had potatoes and a dressing so that counts.

Just beside all the tables, in the center of a nice, dry field, on the edge of the village overlooking a valley of vineyards, the villagers had laid a giant fire in preparation for the evenings festivities. A tiny “fire truck” (actually just a little truck with a tank and a big hose in the bed) had arrived which made me a little more relaxed about the nice, dry field. And as darkness enveloped the daylight, and after the fireworks were finished, the fire was lit to clapping and cheers from both  young and old. The idea is that you should be able to see the fire from neighboring villages and I’m quite sure that was possible. It was huge and brilliant and burning up all of the nice, dry field!  Not to worry, they’ve been doing this for a long time. The job of the man with the “fire truck” is to continuously wet down the grass around the fire so that we can begin the customary ritual…the reason we were told to wear our tennis shoes.

Over time there have been all kinds of rituals surrounding the fires of St. John, but I was only told of one that night.  Tradition has it that one needs to jump the fire and if you’re successful, you’ll be married within one year. I asked what happens if you’re not successful. “ You’ll become Joan of Arc, was the reply.

Now you can see why I abstained. Either option is unacceptable! As it turned out, no adults actually jumped the fire. Guess they didn't like the options either! But they did pull some embers from the larger blaze and made a smaller fire for the children to jump. And they jumped and they jumped and they jumped…sparks on their heels, parents urging them on and me gasping for breath wondering when we were going to have to call in the burn unit, which I’m sure would be impossible considering there is not even a grocery store in this town. Finally about midnight, people began to wander to their respective houses, or continue, as we did, at the home of a new friend for coffee and the remains of our cake.

The next morning we lounged around and finally wandered over to the village square. People were gathered under the trees next to the fountain, enjoying coffee and conversation and we sat down to enjoy the ambiance. Coffee turned to wine as more friends arrived to while away the beautiful afternoon. My potato salad from the night before was complimented again by people I’m sure I’ve never met, and we toasted Erik’s 52nd and Gille’s 48th birthdays. In spite of the fact that this little bar (the only one in Peypin) serves food, it’s perfectly okay to bring your own. So I went back to the house, piled up a plate with fresh vegetables and cheese, filled a bowl with the leftover tzaziki, tucked a baquette under my arm and we feasted again. Under the giant chestnut tree in the square next to the fountain with the dappled sunlight stippling our perfectly content faces, Holly and I marveled at the fact that we actually live here. And we can come back next weekend and the weekend after although considering the tiny population, we’ll probably run out of Baptists and birthdays soon and will have to find something else to celebrate.

Holly has an apartment in Aix as well as the house in Peypin d’Aigue and always rents one property out while she stays in the other. But Peypin d’Aigue has become her summer retreat and she no longer wants to share it with “the intruders” during its most glorious months. So she will spend the summer there, and I will get to visit whenever I want. Thank you Holly and Peypin d'Aigue for sharing your treasure with me.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Je suis desolée…c’est le fromage!

 Or…I’m sorry,  it’s the cheese!

This is a public apology. And apology to all my visitors who have made the trip already, as well as to those who plan to come and visit me here in France in the days to come.  There’s nothing I can do about this grave problem, I can’t change the fact that it exists…nor do I really want to, but I need to express my contrition.

The problem…. is… the cheese. First of all, while I’m begging forgiveness, I must apologize to all the milk producers and cheese makers in my home states of Wisconsin and Minnesota before I say this…but…the cheese in France is the bomb! It is said that there are enough varieties of French cheese to try a new one each day of the year, but in fact, that’s false. According the French milk producers web site, there are more than 1000 varieties of cheese in this country. Cheese is made with cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk and it is often covered with mold or filled with mold, which adds to it’s flavor.  Much of the cheese is non-pasteurized which is why Americans cannot buy many varieties of “real” French cheese. It is against the law to sell it in the United States.

Cheese is revered here. Not only are there 8 separate “families” of cheese, there are actually “protected” cheeses and cheeses with special appellations…. like wine…which is also revered. We have fresh cheese, pressed cheese, soft cheese, unpasteurized aged cheese, northern cheeses, southern cheese, cheese wrapped in leaves or covered in ashes, artisanal cheeses...and yes, even cheese squares wrapped in plastic (quelle horreur!)

We eat soft, fresh cheeses as spreads or in a bowl with a little sugar or fruit as you would eat yogurt for dessert. We use cheese in cooking, to make a lovely sauce or to make a gratin of potatoes or vegetables. But most importantly, we follow every dinner with the cheese course. This comes before dessert and though I thought it was strange and a little bit of overkill when I first got here, I now always save room for it and am disappointed when it’s not served for some reason.

And like good wine, it can be the subject of conversation around the dinner table. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago, and the subject of conversation at the table was the fabulous and most horrible smelling cheese that we were going to be served after dinner. The host had found it in Corsica, and was so excited for us to try it…. and smell it. It was exquisite, by the way.

Which leads me the subject at hand. My visitors have been subjected to the odor of French cheese, over and over. I always insist on taking some bread and cheese in the car when we travel. The ensuing smell isn’t too much for me and though I notice it, it is more of an appetite stimulant than anything. But my sister threatened to upchuck the first time she opened the car door after we had left the cheese inside. She insisted that she wouldn’t be able to eat something that smelled like…. well, let’s just say...excrement, although she didn’t use that word!

“Oh it does not, Jennie! Get over it!”

My youngest son, although he loved the taste of the cheese, was just as repulsed. He was a little kinder but a similar sentence slipped from his mouth.

“I’m sorry to tell you this mom, but your refrigerator smells like…excrement” (not his exact word either)!

I kept insisting it wasn’t that bad and that he needed to just get used to it. I poo- pooed him (no pun intended).

My oldest son was not even nice about it.

“ GEEZ MOM, what’s that horrible smell? It smells like …excrement!  (We’ve established that this was not the  word used). I can’t stand it!”

I had an especially ripe Munster in the fridge at the time. When I told him it was cheese, he couldn’t believe it.

 “You really eat something that smells like that? No WAY! Shut the fridge! Throw it away!”

I told him yes, I eat it and you will too. It’s not so bad. It tastes completely different than it smells.

In spite of all my chastising and insistence that he try it…he just couldn’t get it past his nose.l (he’s always had a sensitive sniffer). And I made fun of him and his obviously over-sensitive snout.

So last night, I smelled cheese. I was surprised because when my son was here he had insisted that I cover all the cheese or put it in a plastic bag (I told him this is not good for the cheese…it needs to breath…but I accommodated him). The smell of cheese got stronger and I couldn’t figure out why. I checked the refrigerator for uncovered cheese.  I tested the zip-locks on the bags and the seal on the Glad Press-n-Seal. All were in perfect working order. Nope, no holes in the bags either. I thought I must have dropped some and searched all over the kitchen for a runaway hunk of fromage. No luck.  I finally decided maybe a neighbor had purchased some particularly intense cheese and it's odor had just permeated my apartment. I let it go at that.

Until I was on the floor trying to find a pen I had dropped. I was searching for it around the cat box. The smell of cheese became especially strong. I looked in the cat box and saw that the cat had deposited a fresh crotte. And with my nose in the cat box, I realized….at that moment… that in fact, no matter how much I love it,  no matter how much I reprimand and ridicule my visitors for their obvious lack of taste and refinement, no matter how much I hate to admit it...French cheese really does smell like shit!


Monday, June 14, 2010

Carte de Sejour

Time for Monday Memories again. Another of a long series of last year's bureaucratic nightmares that seem to be the norm here in least for Americans living here. The crazy thing is, I am now actually starting to get used to it!

Obtaining my long-term Visa so I could move to France was difficult. I had to apply, in person, at the French Consulate in Chicago and had to make the appointment more than a month in advance. Other people’s horror stories encouraged me to make the appointment in September to assure that I would get it before my planned New Year’s Day departure, even though they assure you it will take less than a month. Then I had to begin gathering together all the papers on the list provided. I needed attestations from my bank saying I had enough money to live, divorce papers, proof of income, proof of health insurance and employment (which I obviously was no longer going to have after moving to France but this didn’t seem to be important), fingerprints and FBI records (I'm clean...whew!) and a long series of other papers. I then had to find someone to translate them all into French. They were to be copied 3 times, once in French and twice in English and stacked in a very particular order.

I took a vacation day and drove the 5 1/2 hours to Chicago for my 9:30 am appointment, so nervous that once I got there they would ask for something I didn’t have…or perhaps it would be noticed that a few of my papers were slightly “fudged”! Once there, I presented my documents, surrendered my passport, and crossed my fingers. The actual appointment in Chicago took no longer than 5 minutes at which point I climbed back in my car and drove the 5 1/2 hours back to Eau Claire. This process was supposed to allow me my year in Provence.

When I was approved (after a very nerve-wracking 6 weeks) and my passport with it's new Visa sent back to me, there was a little note inside that said:

"The visa you have been issued is valid for 3 months only. This is NOT a mistake. It IS a long stay visa. It will allow you to ENTER the French Territory within the dates stated on it and to apply for a residence permit once you get to France. Within one week of entry into France, you will need to go to the Préfecture to apply for the residence permit (called Carte de Sejour). This carte de sejour will REPLACE the visa and will be valid for one year, renewable in France." (the capitalization is theirs, not mine)

Très simple! Pas de problème! I have already written about how this really went down and after several visits to the local préfecture and much agony, I ended up with an appointment in Marseille 5 months later. And I now have a new list of things I must provide. A brand new (dated no less than 1 month before the appointment) birth certificate, newly dated bank papers, newly dated divorce papers, a letter stating I will not work in France (in French) and other assorted nonsense. 

I had to find a notary to stamp everything and then an "official traducteur" (translator) to make it all official. I spoke with many people who have had to do this same process, researched it on-line and knew that, even though I had been provided a list, there was sure to be more that I needed.

I completed most of this busy work before my Grand Tour with my mom and my sister but still had to get the translations done. I found a traducteur who translated in English and took my papers to the office the Monday before my Thursday appointment. The very unhappy woman (I would be unhappy too if I worked in that hot, dirty, dismal office) at the desk spoke some English and all seemed well. The papers, she said, would not arrive by post on time but would be faxed to the office and I could pick them up Thursday morning before my 2:15 appointment in Marseille. That will be 150 Euros. What??? For 4 paragraphs? I've got to learn to speak French soon because I know how I'm going to make my living! And I've been here long enough to already know this will not go as planned.

And, of course, it didn't.

The kids were visiting at the time and we planned to rent our car that morning, go to Marseille for the appointment and then go to the beach. I worked in the morning, and then ran to the traducteur's office. I walked in and asked the gentleman, in English, if my papers were ready. He replied, in French, "I don't speak English. You must speak in French."  I am not kidding you! This is a translator's office! If I hadn’t been so stunned I would have crumpled to the floor in a fit of hysterical laughter. However, people don’t take kindly to that sort of display so I played the game.  I asked him the same question in French.... my version. He said he would go look. He disappeared and I waited. Eventually, the unhappy woman from my previous visit, whom I have dubbed "The Escargot” slothed her way out to the front desk and said, in English "What do you want?".

 So much for customer service. I asked her for my papers.

"Did we call you?" she said.

 No, you said they would be here Thursday morning.

 'If we didn't call you, they aren't here."

I've been perfecting my sad damsel in distress face and I tried it out on The Escargot. Just a minute, she said. Let me call the translator's wife. She did and informed me that the papers would be faxed that afternoon. I thanked her (don't burn any bridges), told her that would be too late, and shuffled sadly out the door.

Now I have to cancel my appointment and make a new one. But if French is difficult in person, it’s virtually impossible on the phone; especially when it concerns  “official” business. I ran to a nearby friend’s house and asked him to make the call for me. However, it was exactly noon, and everything closes for 2 hours at noon. That’s lunchtime, after all! So he wrote out everything I should say, had me practice it and I called the kids and told them we didn’t have to rush.

At 12:55 The Escargot phoned me and said the papers had just been faxed but they would only be open until 1:00. I ran back to her office, picked them up (I was so excited I nearly hugged The Escargot and the non-English speaking man…. they actually smiled at me), called the kids and told them to be ready in 5 minutes, ran back home, picked them up, ran to the rental car agency, tried to open the door and…. it didn’t move  Of course! It’s 1:15. Everyone is still on lunch break. At that point, I just leaned against the window, (breathless), banging my head on the door in frustration and trying desperately not to cry. The door began to move and I looked up to see the BEAUTIFUL young man inside who said he was willing to open and get me my car.  I was so happy and grateful that he smiled at me.

The kids and I piled in the car, raced to Marseille, got lost, raced around some more, walked 3 miles, arrived at the Prefecture just in time…..and I waited for 2 hours for my 2:15 appointment that I had made 5 months ago. When my name was finally called and I arrived at the window for English speakers only, the non-English speaking women went through all my papers, asked me questions that I tried to answer, made small talk, and presented me with…tada… Carte de Sejour. Or at least the temporary version. The real one would arrive soon at my local prefecture. I asked her if it was real. I asked her if she needed any more papers. I asked her again if it was truly real. I kissed it. If there had not been glass between us I would have kissed her. She smiled at me too.

What a great day!  I’ve had 3 smiles and a workout and now I have this little piece of paper decorated with my photo that entitles me to ….absolutely nothing. But I have it. And in just 9 more months I will  begin gathering papers again because I get to do this every single year!


Friday, June 11, 2010


I actually wrote this article last Monday for my weekly newspaper column and couldn't decide if I wanted to post it. I just decided.

The kids are gone, the French boyfriend (that's such a dumb word for people over 50!) is history, and in spite of a week of semi-mourning, I’m feeling pretty darned good.  The apartment is cleaned, my lavender has blossomed, and the guy in the neighboring building is singing reggae…incessantly. Summer has finally decided it’s here to stay and I can say that I’m welcoming my perpetual sweat.

My oldest son was supposed to visit me last year. I gave him the promise of a ticket the Christmas before I left for what was supposed to be my one year in France. He didn’t come. His life got in the way and I sensed he wasn’t all that interested in a visit to France. This year, he finally made the trip but it seemed pretty clear to me that it was more out of guilt than anything else. I didn’t care what his reasons were, when he expressed an interest, I immediately bought the ticket and committed him.

Ryan is almost 25 years old and he is my silent child. The one who is difficult to reach… private with his emotions, distant in many ways. You know…the one you worry about because he would never let on if there were something really wrong.

So I worried about his visit. Would he enjoy himself? Would he be happy? Would he regret his choice to come here this year when he has so many other things going on in his life?

And once again, I was given a gift. This gift was time… time with my son that we haven’t had in years. REAL time.

When children hit adolescence, their world moves outside the family circle and you really only have them for brief moments between activities and friends and all the other really important things that make up their lives. And you know it has to be like that. It’s part of the circle…. the cycle… the beginning of the end of your lives together…and the debut of their lives as adults. It is our job as parents to see that this progression happens smoothly (okay, anyone who has raised teenagers knows it never happens smoothly) and we let it happen…however reluctantly.

So it has been at least 10 years since I’ve spent truly quality time with my son. As the days progressed and we got used to each other again, we remembered the things we like about each other and the things that really tick us off!  But as we settled into a 24/7 world as a family, I fell in love with him all over again.

As much as we often wish our babies wouldn’t have to grow up and as much as we also often wished they’d just get out of our hair for a little while, there are wonderful advantages to being “stuck” with one’s grown up child. With the help of his lovely girlfriend Katie who made the trip with him and who is the conversation initiator, Ryan learned more about my life…my real life…not just the “mother life”…and I learned more about his life…not the “my child life” but the life of an adult man trying to make his way in the world.

We spent our days wandering, talking, eating, being silent on the terrace, discussing the past and the future, sharing memories and telling secrets that couldn’t be told before now. We visited the Loumarin Valley and he was happy to just drive around, observe and take photos. We went to the beach in Cassis and spent the day on the rocks like old turtles in the sun. I cut his hair…the first time it’s been cut since I left. We wandered the streets of Marseille and visited my favorite Savonerie (soap factory). We went to the Camargue and went horseback riding, taking photos of the famous white Camargue horses and the pink flamingos.  He witnessed a somewhat ugly and bizarre break-up. We talked about the history of the Roman civilization in this part of the world and how amazing and old everything is. He attempted to teach me the finer points of photography. We discussed his observations about France and the differences in the two cultures. We just lived…together…in the world that is now mine…and I reconnected with my son.

The most wonderful thing about him being here and spending that amount of time with me is that now, we share a common memory of this place. The place and the culture in which I have chosen to live but which was before, completely foreign and unreachable to him. It’s amazing how that seems to bridge the gap of time and space that has separated us for so long. He now has a reference point of where his runaway mom lives and how she lives. And I now have a reference point ….a place to jump off…in the life of my first-born, who is now…a man.

Just before he left, he gave me a beautiful (and far too expensive) necklace that I had admired in a shop window. Through my tears and my protests, he put his arm around me and said, “mom, it’s okay. You deserve it. And it feels really good to finally be able to give you something special”. 

With or without the necklace…. he most certainly gave his mother something very, very special.