Tuesday, September 30, 2008


We went on the overnight train to Rome. I told Olivier that’s how we were getting there, two days before we were leaving, and his exact words were: Ooh la la. Les trains italiens. Ooh la la. I don’t think I need to translate, do I?

But taking the overnight train to Italy: that was something that we had talked about from the get go, from the moment that L called me up and said they were moving to Paris, and I hung up and told C, and C said, well, we could go, too. (There are other, more official, stories floating around out there, but that’s the way I remember it.) We got out the maps, and C said, look, from there, we could take the train to Rome for the weekend. It’s not that we really especially wanted to go to Rome; we didn’t. It was the idea of it, the idea of boarding a train at night in a French city and getting off it in the morning in an Italian one. I think that taking the night train to Rome was one of the things that got us over here—through all the hurdles of making C’s transfer work, leaving my job, renting the house, selling the cars, preparing the children—it was the sense that if we could just pull all those things off, if we could just believe that we could pull all those things off, then we could have the kind of life that would contain such adventures.

So we decided we would go over E and G’s vacances de printemps. We asked people who knew Rome and two who didn’t even know each other recommended the same place to stay: the guesthouse of the Convent of Saint Bridget, on the Piazza Farnese. We took that as karmic instruction and made our reservations; once we got the neatly typed and hand-signed letter of confirmation back from the nun in charge of guests, we booked the train. Nice to Rome, departing Nice at 9.45 p.m., arriving Rome at 9.15 a.m. We had to go to the local gare to buy the tickets because, not so surprisingly, the French trains website and the Italian trains website did not get on well enough together to allow us to purchase tickets for a train that would go between the countries. Our hopes for the agent at the train station down the hill from the Collège des Vignes were not high, either. We have stood in enough lines in front of the guichets of French fonctionnaires to have adjusted our expectations.

We walked in, though, after lunch one day, and right up to the window. An agent appeared; we told her where we wished to go and when; she sold us the tickets. Real paper tickets in a special ticket envelope. For a moment after I put them away in my purse we felt almost dizzy: here we were, in France, buying tickets for the overnight train to Rome. Just what we had talked about doing.

And then everyone’s reaction was the same as Olivier’s: Ooh la la, Italian trains. They didn’t say a lot more than that—several did do that thing that French people do with their hand, when they hold it parallel to their waist or hips, palm facing in, and shake it up and down loosely, like they’ve just picked up a pot lid they didn’t realize had been on the stove. It means, idiomatically translated: Mmmph. Hmmph. As in, That’s a lot to manage. Or, Man, that’s tough. Or, Ooh la la, Italian trains. Once again, we adjusted our expectations. We did not expect to bump into Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint in the corridor. We took along some antibacterial disinfectant.

It wasn’t bad, though. The train station in Nice was no darker or less glamorous than usual, and the train was at the platform when we arrived. We found our cabin—four bunks; shrink-wrapped blankets and pillows (the shrink wrapping was a nice touch); a room-darkening shade on the window; a working lock. The bathroom down the hall was no worse than you would have imagined. In fact, it wasn’t as bad as you might have begun to imagine along about the fourth time someone did the hand shaking gesture. And the train left on time.

We watched as Nice and Monaco rolled by, and then as we crossed the border into Italy (alas, no agents came to check our passports) we all peered out to see some sign of cultural difference. A train station in this part of the world, though, is pretty much a train station, so after a few more rolled by we pulled down the shade and went to sleep. The girls went to sleep, that is. C and I just laid very still so as not to wake the other one and, eventually, dozed off into parental half-sleep. At four in the morning, we stopped at a station and I woke and lifted the shade a little: the sign opposite my window said Pisa. I laughed a little. We were passing through Pisa, on our way to Rome. Here we were. Now.

A few hours later we pulled into the capital. The train station was beautiful, swooping arcs of light and space, and the wonderful mysterious sounds of a foreign city: the sequence of chords that announces an announcement, voices calling eagerly to each other in sentences I could not split apart into words, luggage trolleys and the clink of spoons on porcelain in the cafés. We walked out and into a taxi, and the taxi drove us through busy streets of shops and fountains and tourists and signs and locals taking their children to school and priests in their collars and nuns in their habits to the Piazza Farnese and the Convent of Saint Bridget. We were in our hotel by 10 o’clock.

The Sisters wore full length grey habits and black veils, plain wooden crosses on a long black cord around their necks. The white wimples around their faces had a red Swedish cross on the forehead, the sign of their order with its Swedish founder. They moved up and down the corridors softly, and when we met them they stepped aside and gave us shy smiles. The building was half convent, half hotel, all clean. I’m not terribly preoccupied with cleanliness, but I have stayed in enough hotels that were—well, let’s leave it at not as clean as this was. It smelled of incense and furniture polish and capers, and I think the capers may have been my nose’s interpretation of vinegar. Our room consisted of: a foyer, with a towering carved armoire; a large tiled bathroom to one side of the foyer; and, to the other side, a bedroom and then, past the bedroom, a smaller room with two cots for E and G, and two casement windows that looked out over the Piazza. On the walls were framed bits of needlepoint showing Saint Bridget reading and writing, and the Holy Family, and then, I think, a sampler or two. The tables all had hand-made lace doilies. The furniture was solid, not hotel-issue—the sort of furniture you would imagine finding in a family home that has been lived in for decades and by successive generations, where the side table is the one that Aunt Sophie got from her first husband’s mother, the one whose brother was a cabinet maker. It radiated a sense of place. As the week went on, we felt none of the dislocation that we commonly feel, that I think everyone feels, in an anonymous hotel in a strange city where you don’t speak the language and are far from home. We felt like we were part of the city, part of the life of the city. In the breakfast room each morning we saw priests who were staying with the Sisters while they were in Rome on business; one morning, there was a table full of Austrians on pilgrimage; every morning, an elderly lady from Siena who spent the month of April with the nuns every year. And we were there, too, part of the tablescape: the American family with the lovely daughters (it’s my story, I can say it if I want to), in Rome to see the sights.

One afternoon C had gone for a run and the girls and I were setting out for a walk when we saw that the door to Saint Bridget’s chapel was open. The convent is built around the house that Bridget lived in when she was in Rome in the 1300s. She was a Swedish noblewoman, married off at a young age, who, after bearing eight children, took up the religious life for which she had, so the story goes, always longed. Revered for her piety, she became one of the King of Sweden’s most powerful advisors until she gave him some bad advice. Then she heard the call to Rome and she went there—not by overnight train, but on horseback—and spent the next thirty years, until her death, setting up her own religious order, the Brigittines, and telling the Pope what she thought of his policies. Her room, now a chapel, is at the heart of the Brigittines’ house in Rome.

A young Swedish sister who spoke perfect English took us into the chapel in all its Gothic Revival glory and told us the story of Saint Bridget. It was a small room, as you might imagine a 14th-century nun’s room would have been, but it was decorated to the teeth. We looked around at the painted ceiling, the carved wood, the backlit 19th-century stained glass. The Sister led us to one side of the room where, hanging low on the wall, was a long piece of wood a couple of feet wide, framed in ornate gold, and resting against lace and velvet. We all squatted down to look more closely, and the Sister explained that this had been the Saint’s work table and her bed; that it was on this table that she had died. We nodded and stood up. The Sister showed us a smaller reliquary, even more ornate, on the shelf above the table. This, she said, was Bridget’s hip bone. We must have looked a little confused, or she must have had a moment of uncertainty about her English, because, to make her meaning clear, she put out a hand and, timidly, patted E’s hip. There, she said.

To her credit, E did not flinch, but her eyes got big and round, and so did her sister’s. So did mine, I imagine. I told C about it later that night, seeing the Saint’s relics with the girls and the Sister. I’ve thought about it more than once since, replayed the moment in my head, the nun timidly but also, yes, a little playfully, reaching out to E. It was so profoundly strange—the hip bone in the golden box—and so profoundly human—the reaching for connection. From Saint Bridget’s room we went on to the chapel of her daughter, Saint Catherine, who came to Rome and saw to it that her mother was started on the road to canonization. When our tour was over, I thanked the young sister and we went out for our walk. The rest of the week, though, when we met her in the corridor, or saw her at the reception desk or in the dining room, she made a point of speaking to us. A few times I caught her watching G and E as they ate their breakfast, and when she saw that she had been seen, she dipped her head a little at me, and smiled. When we left to come home, she came outside and loaded us into the taxi and shook hands all around. We slid away from the convent in the early morning drizzle and I glanced back to see her still standing, her hand on the door, looking after us. I leaned back against the seat and thought: this is what it’s like to have the kind of life we wanted.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

L'esprit d'escalier

Hiking season started yesterday. The ladies all met up in the dirt parking lot down the stairs from the boulangerie, the lot where the circus pitches its tent every August, and where we paid a small fortune to see a Guignol puppet show in June. The hiking ladies are a sturdy bunch, most of them considerably further along in my decade than I am and many closer to my mother's age than mine. A flock of Scandinavian women (practical, frank, clear-eyed), a delegation of French ladies (the sort of French who are always dames, not femmes, short pixie haircuts, elegant), and then a bevy of English, less assembled than the French, less frank than the Scandinavians.

I was walking along with an Englishwoman whom I had only briefly met once before. We talked about the things women talk about when they are feeling each other out: children, a little life history, what we're cooking for dinner. When she told me the name of her village in England and I said, oh, you know, unless it's London I'm not so strong on English geography (which is not true, but I had never heard of where she came from), she came up short. You're not English? she said. No, I smiled. I'm American.

Then she said what people say: Oh! I didn't know. (Beat.) But (beat) your accent is so soft.

It's really hard on the English, that bit of conversation. Because after the but, they have to pull back from saying: you're not loud, you're not wearing a polyester track suit and a flag pin, you haven't mentioned that you're praying for me, you are so articulate, you don't seem like a person who would shoot wolves from airplanes. Because all of those things would be so un-English to say and they might make me feel (imagine) a little uncomfortable. So instead of saying those things, they remark on my accent.

My favorite American incident happened at a lunch last spring. One of the girls' friend's mums--with a name like Hyacinthe, the right word is mum, not mom--invited many of the women with children in the international section at the Collège des Vignes for lunch. She set the tables on the terrace overlooking the swimming pool and laid out grilled chicken and a half dozen different sorts of salads, and as many bottles of rosé. I arrived on time, which is to say, early, so I watched the other women come in. Each one was blonder and leaner and more tennis-English than the one before. They were all Riviera-ed out: white, gauzy, lacey sundresses, strappy sandals, big jewelery. As we ate, I talked to my nearest neighbors--about school, kids, living here, dinner tonight, all the usuals--and about a quarter hour in mentioned something about our family in the States. They both practically dropped their forks. But you're not American, they said in unison, the rosé making them unable to adjust their tone from shocked disbelief to mild surprise. You don't seem American.

One of the poems that rattles around in my head is Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Call." The man in the poem is talking to a prospective landlady on the telephone, and reveals that he is African. At the other end of the phone: Silence. Silenced transmission of /Pressurized good-breeding. She asks him how dark his skin is, and he tells her: Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see / The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet / Are a peroxide blond.

It's something I think about more than usual these days, with the election coming up and Wall Street falling off into the Atlantic. All the French I meet ask me about the candidates directly; the English, English who know my nationality and have absorbed the shock, wait a little while and broach the subject gingerly. When they find out that my opinions are, by and large, similar to theirs--that I have the same concerns they do, that the same things alarm me and keep me awake in the wee hours--they are relieved but even more puzzled by my American passport. An English friend teases me that I must actually be European and was switched at birth. I wonder myself, sometimes. My country from this distance, my country with its seeming acceptance of what can be most generously called the rampant hypocrisy of the last eight years, hypocrisy which it actually looks like it might vote into office again--that is a different place from the country that I carry in my heart. I don't recognize those people. It's like they are another branch of the family, cousins that moved away a generation ago and stopped believing in gravity, and then they show up at a family event and you have to try to find some common ground. I'm not sure I can.

But I am still American. C, with enviable esprit d'escalier, says that when an Englishwoman says how I don't seem American, I should point out that half the country voted against the Current Occupant, twice. I never think of that. I'm always trying to make the moment go away, trying to fix her discomfort and mine. Our pressurized good breeding collides, and I do not say: we're not all like that, you know. A lot of us are really quite civilized. We read Jane Austen, and we even accept evolution. Instead I say: But I am. I am American.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Île flottante

I went to lunch at the cooking school the other day. It was a floral menu, and by that I do not mean that the food was arranged on the plate to look like flowers, or that we learned how to make sugar-paste roses. We cooked with flowers; jasmine, to be specific. First course was pan-seared foie gras with sauteed leeks and a reduction of confiture de jasmin and balsamic vinegar. Main course: breast of guinea fowl stuffed with jasmin flowers and more jasmin jam. Dessert: île flottante, that Frenchiest of French desserts, the poached meringue islands floating in a sea of jasmin-scented custard. The whole meal seemed like something a courtier on the make would have served Cathérine de Médicis.

When I'm at the cooking school, my grandfather Marron is never far from my mind, and on this particular day he brought a friend along. Madame Trollat was the manager of the hotel in Paris where Grandpa Marron stayed twice a year for several weeks at a time, a dozen years in a row. He was a good customer, and I suppose that's why the hotel staff in general and Madame Trollat in particular put up with his total absence of French (French, for him, consisted of speaking English loudly) and his stealing the demi-baguette from his breakfast and making a ham sandwich for lunch in his room every day.

Once every trip--at the end of the trip--Grandpa Marron would take Madame Trollat to dinner. Not just to dinner: to the Tour d'Argent, a restaurant so famous and expensive and fancy that the recorded commentary on the bâteaux mouches still refers to it. (The dollar was stronger then.) I met Madame Trollat once, fairly late in my grandfather's career as a sometime Parisian, and I remember her as a tallish woman with strong features and a chignon--her long, carefully tinted hair done up always in a perfect, seemingly hairpinless French twist. After Grandpa Marron had called her Madame Troll (the thing that lives under the bridge) at (the preposition) for several years, she taught him how to pronounce her hame: Twah-la (rhymes with voilà). She told Grandpa Marron that when she retired from the hotel, she was going to go back to her native village in la France profonde; she already spent August there every year.

The evening of their dinner date, Madame Trollat always appeared in the foyer of the hotel wearing her fur. Grandpa Marron, the farmer's son from New Jersey, would follow her out the door and into the waiting taxi. The way he always told it, Madame was an adventurous orderer, eating all those bizarre things that Americans find so intimidating on a French menu. But she always took the same thing for dessert: île flottante. It's one of those incredibly, impossibly French concoctions of eggs and milk. The ingredients are all the same as your grandmother's custard and yet the way they are put together results in something that doesn't just keep body and soul together, it gives the soul reason to want to stick around a while longer. Grandpa Marron said he never ordered it; he was a mousse au chocolat man himself, and I always had the impression that he thought île flottante was too French for him to be able to carry off. (I can only imagine how he might have pronounced it.) But every year that's what Madame Trollat ordered.

That's what I was thinking about as I ate my dessert at the cooking school. Time was when every French daughter learned how to make île flottante, the way that Americans learn how to make scrambled eggs, or grilled cheese. It's a classic recipe, and there's really only one way to make it, so I don't imagine that my portion was very different from what Madame enjoyed 30 years ago. Except that mine was scented--ever so delicately--with jasmine.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

C'est la vie

I paid another trip to the librairie this morning, to see if the Guide du francais that the girls' French teacher requires has come in. This was visit number three or four and the answer was: non, pas encore, maybe Friday. It's a mystery to my American brain why the store--the only bookstore in the area that caters to the Collège des Vignes--cannot stock the necessary number of basic French grammar books. But as a French friend shrugs, translating directly from French into English, it's like that. C'est comme ca.

What's not yet completely comme ca for me is that when I went to ask after the grammar books this morning, I asked for them under E's name. The first time we went to buy the books and supplies for school this year, I had sent the girls up to ask for help and took myself off to the travel section to peruse the maps. Last year I couldn't have done that because they didn't speak enough French. Our trips to the bookstore were fraught with anxiety, as they stayed at my elbows while I showed the store clerks the liste des fournitures scolaires and used equal parts French and charm to communicate. This year, we hardly even spoke about it: off they went with their list, and when they needed my wallet, they came and found me.

It wasn't til we were in the parking lot that I found out that we didn't, in fact, have everything required and would have to go back again. E explained: not enough grammar books had come in, so she'd given the clerk her name and reserved two copies for when they did. That's why, this morning, I asked for the books under her name. Marron, E. Two copies.

When E was three days old, one of her tear ducts was blocked. C and I bundled her off to Urgent Care, and the pediatrician on call gave us a prescription for a tube of something to rub on her eyelid. Still a little panicked, we rushed to the pharmacy and handed in the prescription to be filled. We browsed the baby products aisle while we waited, C lugging E around in her baby bucket carseat. Why didn't we just carry her? I can't remember. What I do remember is that after a few minutes there was a voice over the store loudspeaker: Prescription ready for E Marron, it said. C and I looked at each other. It was the first time a stranger had ever used E's name. This tiny creature with the rheumy eye, slumped over in her onesie, this was E Marron. We had come up with this name--we who routinely forgot where we had parked the car, or whether we had paid that month's phone bill--and now this little creature was being called by it.

And now she's ordering books under that name, in a foreign language in a foreign country, and I am just the person who picks them up. It is a wondrous thing, this life.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Coke and a smile

G wasn't feeling well. Occasionally she gets this malaise in which her stomach is upset and she lays in the big brown armchair, too listless to read. When this happens, C and I generally huddle in the other room having whispered conversations that begin with going over what she's had to eat in the last 24 hours and end with working out how she'll be able to keep up with her schoolwork during chemotherapy. And then, the next day, she wanders into the kitchen and announces she's hungry. Another crisis passed.

This last time, though, I had the bright idea mid-crise of going up to the pharmacy and asking for advice. A pharmacie in France is not the same as a pharmacy in America. You cannot buy last Easter's Peeps on closeout. You can't buy film or have it developed. You can't buy a Happy Birthday Great-Nephew card with a handy built-in slot for cash. Nor, lest it seem that I am unfairly stacking the deck against my fellow Americans, can you buy large bottles of store-brand Tylenol or Pepto-Bismol or Motrin or Robitussin. Not, that is, without consulting the pharmacist.

A French pharmacie is designed in the way that old-fashioned general stores are always mocked up in movies: there's a counter or two, and, behind the counters, shelves of neatly arranged boxes and jars and bottles and tubes. Around the perimeter of the store, more shelves, more neatly arranged products. The lighting's always really good, bright but not harsh, and the colors are soothing greens and creams. I've never been in a pharmacy with that gross flat carpeting that American pharmacies often have--the kind that I'm pretty sure comes off the truck pre-stained with God knows what. The floors are always shiny and clean.

But the most important aspect of the French pharmacie is what lies between the counter and the cupboards: the pharmacist. At the pharmacy I frequented the year that G had strep eight times, the various overworked and undereducated technicians behind the counter would amble back to the open bins and root around for up to ten minutes trying and generally failing to find the prescription that our doctor had called in. If they did find it, we then went through the insurance card routine: I gave them the name of the patient, they looked in the computer and didn't find it, then I repeated the spelling, then, after consulting with their fellow-technician, they found the file, alphabetized under its Cyrillic transliteration. (Although there was the day that, when they told me that the name wasn't in the computer, I leaned across the counter and said: You know me. I was here yesterday. That day, they called out the real live pharmacist from his post deep behind the counter. Evidently he only comes out for incidents that require backup.)

Our pharmacie has a couple of pharmacistes, and then a couple of assistants. They all wear white coats, with their names embroidered on the left front. The women are carefully made-up, with neat, clinical but still sexy hair, and the men look like they will be doing a photo shoot later in the day for a mid-range eyeglasses designer--handsome in a clean, low-key, approachable way. The assistants generally help you with the low-rent items, the stuff on the shelves in front of the counter: face creams, sunscreens, baby supplies, lip balm. Anything more complicated that that, and you get the pharmacist. If you have a prescription, fine--she'll fill it, remark on how she wouldn't necessarily dose it quite the same way as the doctor recommended, and make sure you take it with plenty of baguette (really, she said that to me once)--and you'll hand over some pocket change and waltz out with a bon fin d'après-midi, madame ringing in your ears.

If you don't have a prescription but just an ailment, you can explain your douleurs--a cut, a headache, a bruise--and the pharmaciste will tilt her head, listen, examine the problem, and then start pulling boxes and bottles off the counter behind. That's what I expected when I went in for G's mal au ventre. I told madame la pharmaciste about the upset stomach. Is there anything that you could recommend, madame? Something that might make her stomach feel better?

Madame la pharmaciste reflected for a moment. I could see her thinking about the remedies for upset stomach, and I was waiting for her to reach behind the counter and produce some magical herbal remedy--drops to be taken after warm croissants, or maybe some balm made from the oil of lemon verbena.

Instead, she said: Avez-vous du Coca à la maison, madame? If you give her some Coca-Cola that you have stirred well, and that is pas trop froid, that will help her.

When Dr. John Pemberton invented Coke a hundred and twenty years ago, my ancestors were living about a weeks' buggy ride away from Atlanta. Anywhere in the world, beyond the world, the moon, Mars, even, America is synonymous with Coke. French people tend to assume that it's about the only thing that Americans ever drink--open a giant American refrigerator in a giant American suburban house, and it will be filled with giant bottles of Coca-Cola (and maybe some ketchup).

So when I said, No, en fait, I don't have any Coca at the house, do you know if the café next door would sell me just one can? madame's eyes widened a little bit.

Vous venez d'où? she asked.

Je suis amèricaine, I replied. La seule amèricaine who doesn't have Coke at her house. (And, I could have added, probably the only American who would forget that flat warm Coke was the universal remedy for an upset stomach.)

She smiled, and nodded. The café will probably sell you a can.

They did--although when I asked for it, that madame looked at me curiously enough (why would anyone want a can of Coke at 3 o'clock in the afternoon? was I going to walk down the street drinking it?) that I felt compelled to explain why I needed it. And we went through the whole yes-I-am-American-I-just-don't-keep-Coke-in-the-house routine. I took the Coke home, stirred it for a while, and brought it to G, still in the big chair, to sip. E, across the room on the sofa, looked up from her book for long enough to say, Wow, Coke, we never get to have that. G must really be sick.

She was fine the next day.