Friday, December 19, 2008

Bonnes fêtes, et à bientôt

Tomorrow morning, well before dawn, C will take me to the airport to begin the three-flight journey to my hometown. He and the girls will follow the next day. The dogs are going to spend the holidays with Madame Puppies (who just got a new puppy; I expect Wendy and Alice to sleep for half of January). I've cleaned off the terraces--put away the porch furniture, tucked the gardening tools into their chest, cut back the geraniums. I've got three more errands to run this afternoon. And, oh, yes, I've got to pack.

We've not been Stateside for well over a year. It's lots of longests: the longest we've ever been abroad continually, the longest we've ever gone without seeing C's family (not the whole time; just the last six months), the longest I've ever gone without staying in my mother's house. As long as it's been for us, it's longer, proportionally, for E and G, a longer stretch out of their shorter lives. E is so excited she can hardly finish a sentence. Myself, I haven't slept through the night in days. I wake up around 4 and listen for the church bells, and run through lists until I doze again. We're looking forward to being with our famille éloignée, of which there is a lot, we hope to have a moment with everyone.

One of the disorienting things about living overseas is that, although you're living, in our case, at least, in a place saturated with history, your own history fades a bit. The places that inhabit your memory are out of sight, and the people who remind you of your past are missing. Of course there's our immediate family, but they are immediate, of the present, now, what's the right verb form for this sentence and do we need buttermilk? There's not a lot that reminds us of our past, and the present demands our full attention.

This week, L's grandmother died. She was of a venerable age and has been failing for a long time. I've been on the phone and in email contact with L more since her grandmother died than in the last six weeks, sorting out travel plans and funeral arrangements. The service will be where L's grandmother lived, in my hometown which is also L's, and, through this trick of fate, C and the girls and I will be able to attend it. I've known L's family since I was the girls' age, even before. Many of the people I'll see at the service that day, and at dinners and on walks and over cups of tea on the other days, will have known me since I was my daughters' age, or before. They'll remember things about me that I've forgotten myself. I'll remember things about them, too, moments from two decades ago when they knocked over the dessert table while reaching for the banana pudding (you know who you are), or when they went on vacation and left the front door open (note to self), or when they said to me and my husband and my babies: Come see us any time. We'd love to have you. Away this long from my identity and history as the daughter of a Southern family in a Southern town, I'll walk back into it, like putting on a coat that already has lip balm in the right pocket.

The French, you know, are famous for taking their vacations. C's colleagues have weeks and weeks of vacation every year, six or seven or eight. His office here will close, computers off, lights out, doors locked, for the span of the holidays. Taking vacations is serious business. Following the French method, I'll be closing up La Bastiole for a couple of weeks. I want my extended family to be able to relax around me and not worry that I'm going to write about them later that day (I'll wait a while, and change the names). But I'll be back, long about January 5. Whatever you celebrate between now and then--and I hope you do celebrate something, regardless of what you believe, even if you don't believe; it's dark and cold outside, and it's better to be inside in light and warmth, and better still in light and warmth with people you love and someone's family recipe for something--I hope you celebrate it well. We'll be marking Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year's, a lot of occasions, but then, we've a lot to celebrate, a lot to say thank you for.

And I'll be back in January. Come by any time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I listened to the church bells strike seven this morning and knew it was almost time to get out of bed. In a couple of minutes, they struck the hour again, and I threw back the comforter. When we first moved in to La Bastiole, we were puzzled by the church bell phenomenon. It was strange enough, we thought, that we could hear the village church striking the hour, every hour, every day; why, though, did we hear the hour struck twice? Seven strikes, or twelve, or two, two or three minutes, and then, seven or twelve or two strikes again.

For a week we were certain that we were hearing two different clocks. La Bastiole sits on a hillside below one village and along from another. Each village has a church with a tower, bien sûr, and so we decided that the two clocks were not quite synchronized. Then one day we walked up the hill to our village and heard the bells strike, then, turning back towards home, we heard the same hour struck but from the opposite direction. The sounds were distant enough from each other that we realized that we could not be hearing both clocks from our house.

That left one explanation: the same tower was striking the hour twice. Seven o'clock; two minutes; seven o'clock again. It suggests a different notion of time, n'est pas? C is forever setting all of our clocks, watches, computers, ovens, telephones to the atomic clock, or Greenwich, or some international official this is what time it really is clock. He will wait until the second hand is at 59 and then ease the minute hand over, and then give a satisfied nod: one piece of the universe controlled. We come from people who are terminally punctual. They arrive on time. Our lives in America were punctual lives. Five minutes earlier or later was the difference between sitting an extra half hour in traffic.

So the matter of seven o'clock happening twice was mind-bending. It can only be seven o'clock once. Which time is correct? If you miss the first chiming, then won't your hour end up with only 58 minutes in it? While I find that my hours often have more or less than the standard 60 minutes, I did find it puzzling that the clock should strike the hour twice. And it wasn't just the clock we could hear: I found that in other villages the church clocks did the same thing.

I asked Olivier. At first, he looked confused at my question. Pourquoi les cloches sonnent-elles deux fois? Why do the church bells strike twice? He looked a little suspicious, like I might be trying to trick him with this silly question. Then he remembered that my French wasn't that good. In his best imitation of Yves Montand, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged. C'est comme ça, he said. It's like that.

I've never gotten another answer, and I've asked the question many times. I don't wonder about it so much any more. These days, when I hear the bells chime, I sometimes forget to count all the way to the end. Then I wait until they sound again, and start over. It's about nine o'clock. Time to think about taking a walk.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Douce nuit

I sing in an English choir--English language, and, pour la plupart, English passports. I've sung in choirs off and on for years, in college and graduate school, and then an interval of working and child rearing, and now again. It's something that I often can muster no more than ambivalent feelings about, and yet I keep showing up at rehearsals. I think it's the distraction--when you are singing in harmony, you can't make grocery lists or worry about Detroit's Big 3--and the people--second sopranos tend, in my experience, to be solid, dependable, generous sorts--and then the moments when all the parts come in at the right time and in the right key and you are for a moment inside the music, inside the sound.

The Christmas concerts were this weekend. The Christmas carols that the choir sang this year were English (Here We Come A-Wassailing) and more English (Past Three O'Clock), with a couple of French (Quelle Est Cette Odeur Agréable, which means just what it sounds like it might) thrown in to show that geographical respect. The concerts were in the local village church, built in the early 1200s: plain, unadorned stone, a few windows high up in the walls, almost Shaker in its simplicity. The combination of stone and ridiculously high ceilings would make any music sound full and soaring.

Saturday night C and the girls came to the concert. We all know the more obscure English carols, down to the third or fourth verses, because of a Christmas party we've gone to in my hometown for all of the girls' lives and more than half of mine. At that party everyone brings food--and in our memory, it's the same food every year, brought by the same people: fudge from the University chaplain, pound cake from the retired superintendent of schools, ham from the political science professor. After drinking--spiced cider and wine---and eating, it's time to sing carols. Not just the standard American ones, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and O Come All Ye Faithful, but ones you don't hear constantly, Good King Wenceslas and Of the Father's Love Begotten. The hosts are teachers, and so everything proceeds according to lesson plan. The carols have been photocopied, collated, numbered and stapled. The guest who is a piano teacher takes her place and numbers are called out. The same carols, every year. The same jokes, the same silliness, the same people who take the harmony at the same measure.

Our plane won't land in time for that party this year, and so this Christmas concert was our chance to sing all those carols. Silent Night was on the list, sung in French and in English. I've never liked Silent Night. The melody isn't interesting, and the words make me think of the third-rate art on grocery store Christmas cards. As the congregation stood and the opening bars reminded them of the tune, I looked down the aisle of the church and saw a little girl slip out of a pew towards the back and stand, shifting from foot to foot, watching the choir and the congregation. Her mother had careful hold of the strap of the little girl's pinafore dress. The child--four or five years old--had blond curls to her shoulders, pinned up and away from her forehead in a sparkly barrette. She danced a little unevenly to the music as everyone began to sing.

My girls were up front, where I'd saved them seats. When they were that child's age, I had, more than once, set them out into the aisle so that they could see the choir, buying a little more time that way, keeping them entertained a little longer. Now they stood seriously by their father, reading the words as they sang.

Douce nuit, sainte nuit.
Dans les cieux l'astre luit.

Le mystère annoncé s'accomplit.

Cet enfant sur la paille endormit,

C'est l'amour infini,

C'est l'amour infini !

For a moment all the Christmases were present at once, when I was my girls' age and singing this carol, when they were babies and little girls in the aisle, all the years of pound cake and spiced cider and our friend Jonathan singing Good King Wenceslas in his exaggerated bass voice, and this very Christmas, in the old church in the old country, all of us and all of those Christmases together. T. S. Eliot calls it "the accumulated memories of annual emotion." The melody built, and I took a breath to finish out the chorus and swallowed my cough drop whole. Tears leaked out of my eyes and ran down my cheeks: tears that come from a lot of eucalyptus flavoring stuck in your throat all at once, but also of all those accumulated memories.

The carol ended and everyone sat down. C found my eyes and asked if I were okay. Yes, I gave a small nod. Yes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Let my foie gras go

I've been out doing our Christmas shopping this week--nothing too grandiose; the good thing about going back to the States for Christmas is that I could give dish washing soap that was lavender scented and had a label written in French and it would look chic--and I have observed that, along with all the hanging Santas and lopsided light displays (which I love; they feel so much less like an attempt to open my wallet) this: there is an awful lot of foie gras for sale. Foie gras and champagne. And chocolates, big flat boxes of assortments, named after Parisian sites. The box someone gave us is a Champs-Elysées. I've also seen a Place Vendôme.

But that's a query for another day. Today is foie gras day here at La Bastiole, because this morning I heard a story about The Origins of Foie Gras.

Before I tell you the story I heard, think about where you think foie gras came from (and I mean that culturally, not in terms of Jemima Puddleduck and Lucy Goosey). Have you ever thought about it? I think that, if pressed, I would have devised some origin myth about the court of a French Renaissance king, somebody like François I, and it might have included a farmer who was ennobled after he served the king...etc. etc.

I would have been wrong. Here's the origin myth told me today as gospel truth by an actual française. It wasn't the French at all, and it was long before the Renaissance.

It was the Egyptians. 7000 years ago. They discovered that migratory birds tasted better when hunted just before their migrations, and that, en plus, their foie tasted really, really good then. Aha, thought Hamenophtet. This is because the birds have stuffed themselves to last the journey. And the reason the liver tastes really good then? Because it made the birds more aerodynamic if they ate lots of food that caused their livers to engorge, thus making the liver, at the center of their bodies, heavier, and their bodies more evenly weighted. (Foie gras: the result of millennia of evolution.) The Egyptians figured out that they could force-feed the migratory birds on figs to get pre-migration quality foie gras year round, corn not yet being available since, remember, it's 7000 years ago and no one's sailed across the Atlantic yet. (No one knows about the Atlantic yet, much less about maize, which is what the French use now.)

So the Egyptians went swanning along, force-feeding their geese and ducks, for a few centuries. And then one day there was a slave uprising and several unpleasant events, like a plague of locusts and frogs falling out of the sky--and then the slaves, they upped and left.

And do you know what those slaves took with them, according to my friend? (This is my favorite part.) Not just the matzah. Les juifs ont pris la recette du foie gras, she said. Tu sais, le foie gras, c'est casher. The Jews took with them the recipe for foie gras. You know, foie gras is kosher. Like that explains everything.

All those years Moses was growing up in the Pharaoh's palace? It wasn't just grapes and olives and roast pheasant. He was having a little foie gras as an apéro.

Moses trying to get the Israelites to leave the land of bondage: Really, come on, come with me into the desert, I know it's all going to work out, just trust me on this one. If we come with you, will you show us how to do that thing to our geese?

And when he came down from Mount Sinai, was it just with the tablets, or did he sweeten the deal a little? Maybe a little foie gras poêlé for everybody who agreed not to covet their neighbor's ox?

Okay, I'll stop now.

What I love about this origin myth--and who am I to call it a myth? maybe I'm just the last person to hear about it--is that the French never give any one else credit for anything. Democracy? French. Metric system? French. Religious tolerance? French. Internet? French. (Really.) Minority rights? French. Denim fabric? French. (It came from Nîmes. De Nîmes.) Photography? French. Anything innovative or interesting or important, you'll find, always, the French at the front of the line, saying, Us, oui, us, that came from us.

But foie gras, that cornerstone of French civilization, for that they do not take credit. (I guess that would be like saying that Jesus was actually born in Béziers, and that Bethelem is just a corruption of the original French word.) Foie gras is too important to have been stumbed upon by some chef outside Chambord 400 years ago. Its origins had to have a deeper explanation, a richer and more profound story. And how much more profound does it get than the flight from Egypt? It's interesting that my friend's story doesn't credit the Egyptians with disseminating foie gras. It credits the Jews, and links the spread of foie gras to what is arguably the moment when Judeo-Christian civilization was born: the moment when the Israelites stopped being a bunch of slaves from the next desert over and began to think of themselves as a people.

A people with a set of commandments and a really good recipe.

Of course, the French do claim credit for perfecting it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I passed my driving test.

It took me two tries. The first time, two months ago, I prepared for days--months, actually--and was in a state of grim panic for the test itself. Then I failed. You're allowed to mix up to five out of 40 questions; I missed six. As 'Arry said when I saw him afterward, It's like that sometimes.

This time, I spent the morning taking practice tests. And failing them. 32, 34, 33 out of 40. The practice tests I was taking--from the new dvd of practice tests that the School of French Driving has issued--had questions like:

If I am driving in heavy traffic and my car is approaching an intersection at which the cars entering from the right have priority, and there is a car sitting in the road to my right (where it would normallement have priority), but the driver looks for all the world like he has come to a complete stop and is even reading a map--do I: A. stop (and yield to the driver on my right, who's stopped his car and is reading his map, and, in stopping, run the risk of the car that is immediately behind me rear-ending me) or B. keep going (since the car to my right is practically parked, I mean, he's reading a map at the wheel, for god's sake)?

Yep. A.

So after lunch I walked the dogs and then drove over to Charm City, the depressed market town where the driving test is given, to take the test. I parked in the garage where, when I leave the car there, I feel marginally less likely to be mugged, and which smells less like urine, than the other parking garage in the centre ville. I walked up the hill and through the unmarked doors that lead to the corridor and the staircase to the Salle des Augustins, where the test is given.

It's called the Salle des Augustins because the building it's in stands on the site of a former Augustinian monastery. The room is miserable in the way that bureaucratic rooms the world over are miserable: it's dirty, it smells like anxiety and cigarette smoke (and French teenager), the dropped ceiling has large water stains, the curtains are askew and don't close properly. In a weird nod to Provence, the walls are yellow and the curtains are blue. It's like provençal hell.

Augustin, the church father who gave his name to the Augustinian order, had particular theories about humanity and salvation. He believed that there was nothing that we could do on our own initiative to be saved. The only route toward salvation, toward living a holy life, lay through divine grace. We could read, write, struggle, study for days and weeks--but only if God reached out to us, extended grace to us, could we hope to be saved.

Thirty or so teenagers and I filed into the exam room. The proctor explained how the test would be administered, and warned us that if he caught us cheating, or appearing to cheat, we would be forbidden to take the test for five years. Then he turned out the lights and turned on the computer, and the questions were projected on the screen.

These were easier questions than those in my practice tests. If it was a question about yielding to traffic entering from the right, for instance, then it showed the driver of the car on the right leaning forward, making eye contact, poised to enter the roadway. I answered each question, inhaled, exhaled, pressed the key to validate my answer, and then answered the next question. Forty times.

And then it was over. The woman from the School of French Driving met our cohort (me and six teenagers) outside in the equally grimy hallway and gave us our results. Two of us had failed. The rest had passed. This time, I was in the second group.

After I failed the test the first time, I had thought about the Salle des Augustins, and about the bizarre theological cum bureaucratic appropriateness of taking the épreuve théoretique in a room named for Saint Augustin. 'Arry had told us, several times, that he would count himself lucky to find 35 questions that he could answer correctly on any given test. We could prepare and prepare, he said, and still there could be one question too many that we got wrong.

I took the inverse of that advice for my guide, the second time around: I had prepared for months, and it didn't matter if I prepared any more. Either I would find 35 questions I could answer or I wouldn't. It was, to a disorienting degree, out of my control. But the Augustinian god of French bureaucracy smiled on me this time, extended his ball point pen of grace in my direction, and I passed.

This time. Now I have to take the road test.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Christmas billboards are going up: the pépineries are advertising Christmas trees, the hardware stores are advertising drills, and La Halle, a Targetesque department store, is advertising lingerie. On the billboard across from the Collège des vignes, in considerably larger than life size living color, a woman with dark, flowing locks poses in a black satin bustier, matching panties, and stockings held up by matching garters. She gazes frankly--the standard model blank stare--into the camera. To her right is the price: €14,99. In the lower corner is the name of the store and their Christmas slogan: Et si c'était vous qui rendiez le monde plus beau? What if you were what made the world more beautiful?

We leave the house for school in the mornings at 7.40. It's been cold recently--coats, gloves, scarves--and of course this time of year, the sun is just coming up. Traffic backs up outside the school as the gendarme stops traffic for the kids to cross the street, so that gives us plenty of time to contemplate the woman in her bustier. For me, it means that I think about women's images in the media every morning before my tea has had a chance to kick in, and I worry, beyond whether the girls have remembered all their books and notebooks and done all their homework and prepared for all their interrogations, about whether I'm giving them the tools they need to cope with these kinds of images.

When C and I were in the car going to town for Christmas shopping this weekend, we passed another billboard from the same series. This one shows a woman in bra and panties, holding her hair up on the top of her head while she kneels inside a clear Christmas ornament ball. (This ensemble is cheaper, only €7,99.) I mentioned the billboard by the collège, and C said he'd seen it. He took the girls to school the other day, and it's hard to miss.

Did you talk about it? I asked, hoping that he would say that they had, and he had said all the things that my Women's Studies professor would have wanted him to.

I said I thought she looked cold.

What did the girls say? I really wanted there to be more to the story.

They weren't paying attention.

Are they paying attention? Or are they, too, thinking over their homework and backpacks and lunch and who's going to sit where? Do I point it out, pull the car over and give them five minutes on the objectification of women, or do I let it go? If I let it go, is that condoning it, letting my daughters think that it's fine for women to be Christmas ornaments? Or is 7.55 on a Thursday morning not the time to talk about sexism?

I think--though I'm not sure--that you only get it when you're ready to get it, that you can only hear the answer after you've asked the question for yourself. Until the girls run smack into the wall of sexism--and they will--all I say to them about the woman in the bustier will sound like so much Mom talking. They'll listen, they'll take it in, they might even file it away somewhere, but it won't mean much.

Maybe. Two more weeks til the Christmas holidays, so I don't have to decide yet.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Piping him in

Our neighbors down the street are the most English couple in the world. He used to be on Fleet Street, which is English for he was a journalist, and she was a midwife in Kensington, which is like being a midwife on the Upper East Side, if wealthy American women used midwives.

But I'm getting away from myself. Their house, which is very southern French on the outside, all peach stucco and wrought iron and clay roof tiles, is all English on the inside: the family silver sits out on the family sideboard, porcelain figurines decorate side tables, and the bookcase in the sitting room (not a living room, a sitting room) is full of first editions of Orwell and Waugh.

I frequently pass Horatio in the lane. He walks their dog, ZsaZsa, at around the same times of day that I take the girls to and from school. Horatio cultivates a persona that stops somewhere just this side of eccentricity: in the spring and summer, he sports a weather beaten panama hat and a blazer with bermuda shorts, lace-up dress shoes, and dark socks. He always has a quick word and a pun at the ready.

Last weekend Horatio went back to the U.K. for the funeral of an old friend. When he came home, I passed him and ZsaZsa in the lane and stopped. I put down the car window and asked how the funeral had gone.

Oh, we gave him a good send-off, Horatio said. There were more than a hundred people at the service, and afterwards, the newspaper association gave a buffet lunch. But the service was really lovely. We piped him in, really nice.

Piped him in? I tilted my head a little, trying to sort that particular English-ism out. Perhaps the service had been at a crematorium, and they had sent the casket down the chute during it? But wouldn't that be piped him up? Or out? And wouldn't that be...strange? Or maybe they had had a recording of the dead man's voice, and they had piped that recording in during the service. Also, though, a little...strange?

Horatio saw my confusion. With bagpipes, my dear, he said, and promptly did a credible pantomime of a bag piper, complete with pumping arms and a low drone.

Two peoples divided by a common language, indeed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The patron saint of Thanksgiving

I volunteered to run a weekly atelier d'anglais, an English Club, at the Collège des vignes. The club was to meet for forty minutes during the Monday lunch break; 17 children signed up. The first meeting was scheduled to take place the Monday before Thanksgiving.

So I prepared a Thanksgiving lesson. I made a list of Thanksgiving vocabulary words; I found paintings and photos of Thanksgiving activities online and in books; I read through stories of the first Thanksgiving. I planned to give the kids a lesson in American culture (15 minutes), teach them some vocabulary (another 15), and then do a Thanksgiving word search (10).

All 17 of the children showed up. Desks were lined up in rows the width of the room. At the front of the room, the teacher's desk sat on an elevated platform in front of a white board. I took my place on the platform. The children looked at me.

I spoke in slow, non-idiomatic English. Do you know what holiday Americans celebrate this week?

Blank looks. A few whispered comments in French.

I tried again. In America this week there is a holiday, une fête. Do you know what it is?

The French word seemed to get their attention, and they knew the word America. America, holiday. A few suggested, timidly, Noël?

I gave up and translated: Savez-vous quelle fête célébreront les Américains cette semaine?

Now they understood, and it was clear they had no clue. (10 minutes gone.) I decided to move on: C'est Thanksgiving, I said. It's Thanksgiving.

Ah, oui, le Thanksgiving, they said, nodding, like it had been on the tip of their tongues the whole time.

And what does Thanksgiving celebrate? I asked.

Hands went up. At last I was getting somewhere, I thought. I called on one of the younger boys in the class.

Le Thanksgiving, he said, tripping over his words in his eagerness to show what he knew, c'est pour célébrer quand le Saint Patrick a chassé les serpentes d'Irlande. Thanksgiving celebrates when Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. He subsided, pleased with himself for giving what he clearly believed was a perfect answer.

I smiled encouragingly, although I imagine I looked a little bewildered, and said, No, it's not for Saint Patrick. Does anyone else know?

An older boy raised his hand. Mrs, Mrs, he said. (French schoolchildren, when they want their teacher's attention, say Madame, Madame instead of the American Ummmm. My student was translating.) I called on him and he spoke in clear, non-idiomatic French.

Le Thanksgiving, he said slowly, articulating each word carefully for my non-French ears, célèbre le travail du Saint Patrick. Saint Patrick a chassé les serpentes d'Irlande.
Clearly, he seemed to think, the first boy's French had been too much for me, because otherwise, why would I have dismissed the well-known origins of Thanksgiving? He was merely restating the obvious.

I shook my head. C'est pas le fête du Saint Patrick, I said. It's not the feast of Saint Patrick. It celebrates--il célèbre--the first harvest--la première récolte--of the Pilgrims--des Protestants.

C'est quoi, someone said, les protestants? What's a protestant?

I began to despair of ever getting to the word search.

I was the only person in the room getting a lesson in culture. While, statistically, most of these children did not come from religious families, they had spent their lives in a culture that was imbued in the traditions and presence of Catholicism, from the village church towers that struck the hour to the firemen's calenders with their saint's days to the school canteen that served fish on Fridays. French holidays either commemorate a national event--like the fall of the Bastille, or the end of World War II--or mark a day in the church year--like Chandeleur, or Pentecost, or Christmas. In the French national story, everyone is French. And in the residual Catholic culture of the country, everyone is Catholic.

The notion that I was trying unsuccessfully to convey, of a national holiday that commemorates an event held by a specific and minority religious group--leaving aside, of course, the relatively minor problem of language--was unthinkable for these kids. Holidays are holy days, and a fête is a feast day, and for a feast day and a holy day, you have to have a patron saint. That's the way it works. Nothing else made sense to them. There was nothing in their experience that they could draw on. Where Saint Patrick came from I have no idea, unless it's that Miss Clavell, English teacher and head of the Section internationale, has a thing for Ireland and has been known to throw parties for Saint Patrick's Day at school. In March. They knew that there was a holiday for Saint Patrick's Day somewhere in the anglophone world, so that must be what I was talking about. And as for protestants: that was truly beyond the pale. What's a protestant?

I went home and wished, for a while, that the brain cells that store all that information about the Reformation had, instead, something to offer on teaching English to French children.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Encore des jumelles

When we watched the Bastille Day fireworks with our friends S and G from the beach in Nice this summer, we joked about the possibility that they would end up as the fathers of twin girls. S and G met our girls 12 years ago; they were talking about children of their own then, and I remember the fascination and delight with which they watched E and G toddle around, and all the questions they had for us. While we picnicked on the beach in Nice, their surrogate mother was at home in California with her family. S and G would go with her for the first sonogram when they returned home. This Thanksgiving weekend, S and G welcomed their identical twin girls. They've had a long journey to get to this birth. Our journey, by comparison, was ridiculously easy.

We were finishing graduate school. C found a fellowship that would give him work to do in France, so that I could be in France to carry on with my research. When we arrived, I was a few months' pregnant. The plan--we have always been big into plans--was to have the baby and tote it around Europe in a back pack for a couple of years before we went back to the States and dug in to our grown-up lives. I needed an obstetrician, of course, and one was referred to us. I made an appointment and one afternoon we drove into Nice to meet Docteur Xavier.

His office was in a grand belle époque building, brass name plates on the doors outside, a winding marble staircase leading up from an elegantly proportioned foyer. The office was up a flight, and, inside, the waiting room was sleek and modern, deep rose leather banquettes lining the walls, soft lighting, lots of mirrors. C was the only father to be in the room; everyone else was female.

Until Dr Xavier came to get us. He was in his late forties, greying, in a tailored tweed jacket and those wide-wale corduroys that look frumpy on American men but make French men look like they just got up from a long morning settling the château's royal accounts. He ushered us into his high-ceilinged office. There was a soft carpet on the floor, lamps throwing flattering light, and a huge window looking down into the street. Da Vinci prints and tasteful photographs of the doctor's children lined the walls.

C and I sat down in Louis XV armchairs in front of the doctor's antique desk. He took my medical history and then got up and led me into the small, state of the art examining room that opened off of the office. I undressed, put on the robe (I remember that there was a robe, or, at least, I don't remember that there wasn't one), and laid down on the examining table. He began the routine as C stood beside me.

Then the doctor stopped. He shook his head. Your dates are not right, he said. You are much further along than you think you are.

I frowned. How typically French, I thought, to assume that I do not even know how long I have been pregnant. I said, No, I think I'm right about the dates. (What else do you say at that point?)

He shook his head again. We shall make an échographie to know.

Dr Xavier rolled a small sonogram machine over to the examining table and turned it on. I had never had a sonogram before.

He ran the wand over my belly. A blinking image appeared on the small screen. It showed a mirror image, what I took to be the right side and the left side of a 16 week old fetus. How clever, I thought, that the sonogram can show both sides. I wonder how it does that.

That was the last thought of that part of my life.

Then Dr Xavier said, with a touch of satisfaction in his voice, There are two babies.

C reached out and grabbed a stirrup. I had the advantage, as I was already lying down. C said to no one and everyone: Are you sure?

The doctor looked at me. Sure? he said. What is sure? Our conversation had been in English and in French, and we had just reached the limit of his English.

Certain, I explained. Vous êtes certain?

Certain? Mais bien sûr je suis certain, he said. This is not the first échographie I have made.

While I was getting dressed, Dr Xavier took C back out into his office. They sat down across from each other, C in his fauteuil and the doctor behind his desk. Then he leaned forward and said to C: Sometimes, there are three.

Suddenly our plans were changed. We spent the next week wondering if this was going to be one of those times--I mean, if there can suddenly be two babies, the universe can surely bend enough for there to be three--but the radiologist Dr Xavier sent us to see was certain there were only two. Jumelles, twin girls, deux filles, he announced, it not having crossed his mind that we might want to keep the gender a surprise. We didn't. At that point we wanted to know everything we could. We had always been good students, and thought that more information would somehow give us more control over the situation. We were wrong, of course. We were now in a process and regardless of what we knew or found out, the only way out was through.

Which is what I remembered when I looked at the pictures of S and G's girls Saturday night. Two little girl babies, wrapped in the same American hospital receiving blankets that our own little girls babies were swaddled in. American blankets, in the American hospital where they were born. We couldn't figure out a way to carry two babies around Europe in backpacks, and so, after a few more months, we went home.

And then we came back. It took over a decade, but we found our way back, and nothing has changed and everything has changed. Everything--the images on Dr Xavier's screen can now empty the dishwasher and speak two languages--and nothing--we are here, lighting candles for the supper table, making plans and trying to figure out how to gather enough information to exert some control.

The French say bonne chance et bon courage. The first is easy to translate: it means good luck. The second is harder to translate: it's good courage, literally, but it's also be brave; in my head, it echoes the Psalmic be of good courage. Good luck has had a lot to do with getting our girls this far--all the trees that didn't fall over, all the planes that stayed in the sky, the researcher who invented Augmentin--but so has good courage, what Garrison Keillor calls the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. It's what I wish for S and G and their little ones: bonne chance et bon courage.