Archive for October, 2009

Le Haut/Up

October 27, 2009

This won’t be a movie review, because the movie was in French and, as I think is clear by now, my French is pretty weak. I now warn those of you who haven’t seen the film that I will be spoiling the entire thing by relating the plot as I understood it. Some things need no direct translation: the pursuit of a life dream, the discovery of the essential life adventure, kindness, love.

From the day we arrived in Saint Araille, the children have been seeing flyers for Le Haut, or Up, the animated Disney film, which was scheduled to play as the community center’s once-a-month feature on a Tuesday night. (Remember, there’s no school here on Wednesdays.) James, having been traumatized last year back in Vermont by a very scary preview that was completely inappropriate for an audience of small children waiting to see Ratatouille, has since been afraid to go to any movie in a theater and chooses to stay at the château with Susan and watch a DVD. Izzy and I have a date.

After school on Tuesday afternoon, we play outside with the dogs, then go in to dinner, clean up the dishes and take our showers. The movie doesn’t start until 9 p.m., late even for me. I keep offering Izzy the chance to opt out, to stay home and watch the DVD with James, but she—our night owl—is determined to go out. Even though children seem to stay up later in France than the States, I find it hard to believe that there will be many at a 9:00 movie on a Tuesday night. I remind Izzy that the whole thing will be in French so we won’t understand many of the words. “I’m ready to go,” she says, dressed in her leopard-print skirt and black leggings, buttoning her favorite sweater. We tromp down the ancient wooden stairway, pick up a flashlight, unlock and take the key out of the door, and leave it with a note for Pete on the bottom newal post, as usual: Pete, Izzy and I have gone out to the movie in the village. We have our key. Don’t lock us out! T. The door won’t open from the outside if there is a key in the lock inside.

Clouds block the stars and a warm wind rustles the drying leaves. We crunch down the long white-stone driveway hand in hand. “Mom,” Izzy says, looking up at me, “it’s fun to have you to myself for a change. I almost never get to do things just with you.” I squeeze her hand and thank her for coming on a date to the movies with me. We can see the lights at the community center in the village on the next hilltop. “I like France,” she says, “a little.” I think about her tears at the school drop-offs. “It’s fun to be here with you,” she says.

“Me too,” I reply. “I’m glad to be here with you, on an adventure.”

We cross the main road, hug the shoulder for ten yards, then turn downhill into the shortcut to the village. We speculate about the movie. “Do you think we’ll be able to understand it?” I ask. Izzy shrugs. “Sometimes the pictures are enough to figure out the story,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “Like that library book you read us.” It had been in French, something about a little girl named Manon who fancied herself a detective and whose cat loved marshmallows—choumouloo. The three of us had memorized that word. I had understood about a tenth of the words, but I still read the whole thing aloud, stopping at the end of each page to try to figure out what had happened with the kids. “Sometimes you can guess from the words and sometimes the pictures,” she comments. She pauses. “Mom, do you think they’ll have candy at the movie?”

I laugh. “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what it will be like.” We reach the bottom of the gully and start climbing to the community center, joining the lane that leads to the village. “If there are treats,” I say, “we’ll get some.”

“Yum!” Izzy laughs with me.

Ahead of us, a single torch bobs in the darkness, someone else walking to the movies. Cars pass us, slowing when I wave our light. We can hear laughter at the top of the hill.

“Did anyone in your class talk about going to the movies tonight?” I ask. “The cinéma?”

“No,” she says, then pauses. “Well, I don’t exactly know. I don’t really understand them.”

We can see about twenty cars in the parking lot. The steep drive makes us breathe harder, or maybe it’s the anticipation of the movie. I silently rehearse my bon soir and un enfant, un adult. I wish I had asked Susan the word for adult. I check my pocket for my money.

We enter the same building where the fête was held, the big room now set up with the plastic chairs in rows facing the stage where a large white screen has been lowered into place. At the entrance is a table where a woman I recognize from the village or the school or the fête—I can’t remember—is selling tickets. The snack bar is open to my left, and a small group of adults are buying espresso or cups of wine. Bon soir! The ticket seller smiles at me. Bon soir! I put my hand on Izzy’s head, gesture to myself, and hold out my money. “Un enfant a un adult,” I say with a little shrug, an apology for my English, and she smiles. “Oui. Huit,” she replies. I hand over ten euros and glance down.

A small pack of little girls are standing at the table, grinning at Izzy. “Bon soir, Isabelle,” they say. One, a girl I recognize from Mme. P.’s class holds out her hand to Izzy.

Izzy stares, then looks up at me.

“This girl is from your class at school, isn’t she?” I say. “Bon soir! I greet the girls, who all say hello. I bend and put my hands on my knees. “Say bon soir, sweetie. Say hello.” Izzy mumbles bon soir. The little girl is still holding out her hand. “I think she wants you to come play with them,” I say. “Why don’t you go along? I’ll just get a seat right over here.”

And so she smiles, shrugs off her jacket, gives it to me, and runs off with the pack. They race in a circle around the chairs, across the front, around the empty back of the room. I see a couple of other children I recognize from the schoolyard. A couple of boys jump off the bench seats that line the walls over and over again, laughing. There are more three- and four-year-olds than I expect to see at such a late hour. Izzy comes back to sit beside me for a few minutes.

“That was nice,” I say, hugging her. “Did you have fun?”

“Yes,” she says. “But I don’t know what they’re saying.”

“Did it matter?” I ask. “You knew they wanted you to come with them. They seem very nice.”

Izzy shrugs. “Yeah.” We watch them running around the room. We identify a boy sitting with his mother a couple of rows up as Max, a big boy in Mme. P.’s class. There are perhaps thirty adults and twenty children in the hall. A young man sits alone in the row behind me. A group of youngish mothers sit together, laughing. Men lean on the snack counter. Couples chat. Kids roam and play. The girls return, holding out their hands to Izzy. She looks at me.

“You can go play if you want,” I say. “So long as you stay in the hall.”

And so she goes again. The man behind me smiles. I sneak glances back now and then, and see them talking animatedly to her, gesturing, introducing her to other girls. She nods now and then. They hold her hands and lead her to the glass window in the back where the camera operator is setting up. Finally, the lights dim, and the children all rush to the front, to a large open area in front of the stage, and sit on the floor. Izzy returns to me. “Do you want to sit with the other kids?” I ask.

She shakes her head no. “I’m on a date with you, Mom,” she says. She climbs into my lap to see better.

An animated short precedes the feature. In it, storks deliver babies—human and animal—to earth from the clouds. There are no words at all. The story doesn’t need them. Each stork flies up to a anthropomorphized cloud, puffy and funny-faced, who whips up an infant shape from cloud puffs and brings it to life with a little lightening flash. One stork seems to be stuck with a cloud who keeps making difficult babies: an alligator baby that bites the stork; a porcupine baby whose quills poke through the diaper; an electric eel baby that shocks the stork. Our poor bedraggled stork looks longingly at other clouds—those who make kittens and puppies and baby chicks—for their storks. One cloud creates a football-playing infant, complete with a ball, helmet and pads. Another creates a giraffe whose neck and legs sprawl out of the blanket. Finally, our bedraggled stork flies off to a different cloud. Our cloud grows dark and weeps rain, rejected. But what’s this? The stork returns, wearing football pads and a helmet, protective gear! Of course he remains true to his own cloud, even though he creates difficult babies. We all laugh. No language needed.

I know the basic idea of Up (translated into le haut, literally “top”) from previews in the States, as does Izzy. A man decides to pursue his life-long dream of going to South America by tying a zillion balloons to his house and floating there, along with a small boy.

The movie begins with a boy, Carl Fredrickson, at the movies, watching a news-reel about a famous explorer who travels in a zeppelin with his dogs, making important discoveries. The boy in the theater idolizes the explorer, who, it turns out, is disgraced when one of his discoveries is announced to be a fraud. The explorer disappears and is presumed dead. The little boy is devastated. We get all this, of course, from the visuals. The film is in French. There is no lip reading of the original English in a dubbed animated film. But it’s not a problem. Whenever I whisper some explanation of a plot point to Izzy, a word or phrase that I can translate, she shushes me. “I know, Mom.”

The little boy, with his favorite balloon, meets a little girl who shares his passion for the explorer. She shows him a scrap-book she’s made titled Mon Livre d’Aventure. I forget that livre is “book” (“My Adventure Book”) and mistakenly translate this as “My Life’s Great Adventure,” which I continue to think throughout the movie. In it, the girl, Ellie, has pasted a picture of a house on top of a Peruvian mountain next to a dramatic waterfall. The couple grow up and get married, Carl becomes a balloon salesman and Ellie a zookeeper, and they buy a little old house, which they paint to look like the picture in the scrapbook. A doctor tells them they can’t have children, and they are sad, but they determine to redirect their goals toward the trip to South America, the house on top of the Peruvian mountain. They save money in a jar toward the goal, but, as for us all, little life crises—a broken car, a tree falling through the roof—intervene. Carl wakes up one day to discover that they are old. He buys tickets for long-delayed trip to South America, but Ellie falls ill and eventually dies before they can fulfill the dream of her scrapbook, Mon Livre d’Aventure. It’s a sad moment. Soft-hearted little Izzy sniffles and hugs my neck. “Why did she have to die, Mom?” she asks. I don’t have to answer; she knows: it’s the final destination of life’s great adventure.

This is a Disney film, so the tone turns quickly. Mr. Fredrickson seems lonely. His house, still exactly as his wife left it and filled with memories of her and their life together, is gradually surrounded by skyscrapers, a huge construction site. We all laugh at the old man’s daily routine, the stair climbing elevator that gets stuck, his walker with the yellow tennis balls on the feet. A little boy in a Scout uniform, Russell, shows up at the door, trying to earn his last merit badge. He has no father to help him, we understand, but he’s trying hard to be a good scout. This is a common theme in movies for children—fatherlessness. It’s especially poignant for James and Izzy in their special situation—two moms, no dad. I’ve learned to anticipate this theme in popular culture, and I often wonder, as I do watching Le Haut this night, if fatherlessness is one of those commonalities of life that crosses cultures. Do we all fear it? Why does the loss of the father, the missing masculine in our lives, mean so much to us? What exactly is missing? Could it be, rather, that this absence itself is a fact of life with which we must all learn to live? Maybe it’s a kind of love we all instinctively seek because it is not assured in the biological way of a mother’s love. Maybe learning to father ourselves and learning to find love are part of life’s great adventure.

The old man turns the little scout away, but he’s persistent, returning to his door again and again. When one of the construction vehicles pushes over the old man’s mailbox, still hand-printed by his wife’s palm, Mr. Fredrickson pushes the driver, who suffers a cut on the head. The evil construction people—clearly the villains, even in French—sue. The adversary—modernity or progress in Up, the thing that inspires us to change and get going—is necessary in life’s great adventure, is it not?

Mr. Fredrickson is summoned to the courts, where he is ordered to vacate his home and move into a retirement village. But when the orderlies show up to cart him away, he shuts the door in their faces, goes to his fireplace and releases a giant bunch of balloons through the chimney, which pull the house up off its foundations and into the city sky. He’s off on l’Aventure. Rebellion! Flying (literally) in the face of conventional wisdom, refusal to accept the easy path, the desire to buck the status quo. This story surpasses language. It is, I think there in the dark, the hero’s journey to take on the challenge.

A knock on the door. What’s this? Mr. Fredrickson hoists himself from his easy chair with his walker and opens the door. Beyond the porch are clouds and blue sky. He looks left, he looks right. The little scout, clinging to the windowsill. Of course Mr. Fredrickson must invite Russell inside; he has no choice. Rebellion meets persistence. Need meets need; lack meets lack. It’s not an easy alliance, but they are stuck with each other, le haut, floating to Peru. Mon Livre d’Aventure.

And then the reel runs out. The lights come up, adults stretch, and the children at the front of the room rush the snack bar and restrooms. Izzy’s little friends return, hold out their hands, and, in a daisy-chain, shepherd her to the back of the hall where they can watch the camera operator change the reel through the window. I see the man behind me smiling at the girls. I wonder if Izzy wants an Orangina. The woman who sold the tickets and couple of pre-teens circulate through the room with trays filled with sweets, offering them to everyone. I take one. Merci.

The girls materialize beside me, drawn by the treat tray. Izzy, confused, I think, doesn’t take one before the woman moves on. The girls follow her. “Don’t you want a treat?” I ask.

“Well,” she says. “I would like to try those ones that look like berries.”

“Okay,” I say, “come on.” We track the sweets trays to the snack bar window, and the woman there, smiling, lifts one down for Izzy to choose from. She selects a berry treat, then at the woman’s urging, a wrapped toffee and a chocolate and mint layered petit four.

“Merci,” she says to the woman, meeting her eyes. “Merci beaucoup!” My heart swells.

The lights dim and we make our way back to our seats. “Wow, Izzy,” I say. “You said that so well.”

“Yeah,” she says, shrugging. “That’s what you always say when somebody gives you candy.” Of course.

The rest of the movie is more exciting. After a harrowing thunderstorm, the house lands (what a coincidence!) within site of the exact mountain-top with waterfall in the photo pasted into the scrapbook. There aren’t enough balloons to re-launch the house, so Mr. Fredrickson and his Scout friend, Russell, must drag it by its tethers through the jungle and up. They encounter a strange huge bird being hunted by a pack of dogs that seem to be able to speak (French) through devices attached to their collars. Most of their dialogue is completely lost on me, but the important fact is that the leader is a Doberman whose collar translator makes his voice squeaky and silly. Everyone laughs. A silly voice is silly in any language.

One of the dogs—not a hunter, a misfit obsessed with the tennis balls on the feet of Mr. Fredrickson’s walker—befriends the boy, old man and bird. The pack of dogs corrals them into a cave where (what do you know?) the missing disgraced explorer idolized by the old man, with his zeppelin, have been living all these years, apparently trying to track down the strange, huge bird, which is almost the last of its kind. The dogs are his.

What happens? Well, the scout refuses to abandon the bird to the explorer, who turns out to be our second villain (first villain, the capitalist builder; second villain, the ruthless anti-environmentalist explorer—Up is a decidedly 21st century film). Mr. Fredrickson and Russell part ways, cranky old Carl determined to see his dream to its fruition, dragging his house held up by balloons toward the top of the mountain. He takes another look at Mon Livre d’Aventure, his departed wife’s scrapbook. Pages fall open that he’s not noticed before: pictures of the life the couple had together. And she’s written him a final message at the end: Thank you for being my life’s great adventure. Mon Livre d’Aventure . Well, of course Mr. Fredrickson gets it—he lets go of the house, which floats off into the clouds, grabs some balloons and drifts off to the rescue of the boy and the bird from the evil explorer in the zeppelin. Some hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat antics, the explorer plunging to earth, the bird reunited with his mate, a batch of chicks scurrying into the jungle, and the clouds part to reveal the little house, settled of it’s own accord in the very spot Mr. Fredrickson and Ellie imagined it. Voila! In the final scene, our little scout stands on stage alone next to the other scouts with their dads, who pin on their merit badges. Mr. x shuffles in from the wings, the stand-in for the missing dad. In the final credits, we see photos of Carl and Russell doing things together, a new Mon Livre d’Aventure. Izzy turns on my lap and hugs me.

In Saint Araille, everyone stays for the credits. After all, there’s only the one movie every month. The lights come up. It’s after 11 p.m. We get our jackets and flashlights and exit, bidding each other au revoir. Izzy and I head down the hill. The fellow who was sitting behind us, thirty-something, dark curly hair, walks beside us with his own torch. He smiles and says something in French.

I shrug apologetically and respond: “Je ne comprends pas.

He laughs. “It’s nice that there is someone else walking home in the dark,” he says in English.

And Izzy and I agree. “Yes,” and, “the stars are beautiful here.” He peels off at the first left—Au revoir!—and we walk on up, toward the château.

“Merci, Maman,” Izzy says. “Thanks for taking me to the movies. That was fun.”

I squeeze her hand in the dark. “Merci, Isabelle,” I respond. “Thank you for going with me.”

Epilogue: My Life’s Great Adventure, or, This is a Fine Pickle

The château is locked, the key is in the lock inside. Izzy and I are locked out. It is after 11 on a Tuesday night. The ground-floor doors and windows are shuttered and grated, all locked from the inside. The walls are stone, a foot thick, rising up five stories overhead. We step back into the driveway and look up. There is one light on at the top floor of the tower, occupied for the month of October by a nice couple from New Zealand, Jo and John. At least it isn’t raining.

First, I knock gently on the big wooden door. We listen. Nothing. The wind rattles the dry leaves.

“I guess we’ll have to wake someone up.” I ring the bell once, long enough for someone to hear, I think. We can hear it ring inside the wide stairway that goes up to the tower past Rosie and Pete’s wing and our wing. No dogs bark. No one comes to the door. I ring the bell again, three long times. We wait. It would take someone a bit of time to get down the stairs, I think. “This is a fine pickle,” I say to Izzy. I explain the idiom while we wait on the doorstep, listening.

“No Mom,” Izzy says, laughing. “It’s an adventure.” This is what we always say to the children when we’re lost on the road, or when we set off for an unfamiliar destination or when a plan goes awry.

There’s a pretty good semblance of light-heartedness in my laugh, I think. I ring the bell again. And again. It’s probably nearly midnight.

“I’m tired, Mom,” Izzy says. “I don’t want to have to sleep out here.” She looks around. “The chickens always poop here,” she notes.

I chuckle, pounding on the door with my fists now and ringing the bell in long bursts. “The chickens poop everywhere.”

We step out and look up again. The light at the top of the tower goes out. “Hello!” I shout. “Open the door! We’re locked out!” I flash the light at the windows, waving it around to attract attention. No one comes to the door. The windows above stay dark.

Izzy takes a turn on the bell while I pound harder on the wooden door. The fortifications of the château are pretty good, I think. We both stand back and yell, Izzy screaming and laughing at the same time, “Open the door! I’m sleepy! I want to go to bed!” Not a sound inside.

I’m getting a little worried. I don’t even know the phone number here, not that it’s likely that I could find a place from which to call. The lights at the community center in the village on the next hilltop have been turned out. The cars will be locked, and I’m not sure how we’ll fare if we have to sleep outside. It’s chilly. There are fox and wild boar and weasels here.

I imagine the marauding infidels or crusaders trying to get into the castle, the monks and peasants huddled inside with the sheep and cattle and grain stores, praying. Or sleeping. Apparently, they wouldn’t even hear the invaders at the door….

“Okay,” I say. “Come on. We’ll throw stones at Mommie’s window until she wakes up.” I’ll break one if I have to, I think. Izzy follows me and the flashlight around the side of the château, past the wooden doors, closed and locked, over the French doors that lead to the patio, down the steps toward the back room where I know Susan is sleeping. I start by flashing the light on the big window with a little balcony railing. It’s about thirty feet up, but maybe she’ll see the light on the ceiling, in the rafters. Maybe our wall-mouse will be gnawing, keeping her up. Izzy and I yell. “Hey, Susan! Wake up! We’re locked out! Hey!”

It works! The light comes on. Susan opens the window and looks down, back-lit and pale. She’s never looked more beautiful to me. What a relief. What a pickle. What a great life adventure.


L’Ecole: Part Two

October 23, 2009

Today is Tuesday, James and Izzy’s fourth day of school. Already everything is better. As Madame P said, “mieux et  mieux, petite à petite”; “Better and better, little by little.”

On the weekend, we tried harder to speak French at home, and it seems to have helped some. We play French Scrabble Junior and French Monopoly Junior. I model for the children, asking Susan, in front of the children, how to say almost everything in French: Qu’est-ce que c’est? I ask the children to speak to me in French, to help me learn French. Poor old Mom is a little slow, you know. I need you to help me. I buck up my courage and ask for help from the cranky woman at the gas station while the children watch. I practice my most important phrases aloud: S’il vous plait. Pardon. Je ne compre pas. Parlez vous English? Je ne parle Francais. I try to read road signs and advertisements and children’s books aloud in French, talking through the ways I try to decipher the language. Susan makes more flashcards. She asks the children what they need to be able to say and tries to help them remember the phrases.  James wants a turn on the scooters at recess, but we cannot find the French word for scooter in our dictionary. He says he does not want to play soccer, but that the kids follow him around at recess asking him to play. This seems to make him angry. He is intimidated. But by the end of Friday, he reports that he’s been making faces and snoring sounds with a blond boy named Louis, and he laughs hysterically in the re-telling of this. Louis might be a friend. Izzy says that she went with a group of girls for a little while and watched them twirling and lifting each other. She smiles and laughs.

On Monday, we had another small scene at the after-lunch drop-off. The children don’t want to go to a new class. They like Madame P. They don’t want to be with the littler kids. “I’m embarrassed,” James wails. But we leave them, and Madame C. shepherds them off, and by the end of the day at 5:00, they report that it was fun. They get to have a whole third recess, and they both got to ride the scooters as much as they wanted—no competition from the big kids. They sang songs, including “Baa Baa Black Sheep” in English. Plus there was a snack time and Madame C. gave them each two containers of applesauce.  James’ notebook includes completed worksheets on the “ou” sound, on which Madame P. has written Très bien! Izzy reports that she now has three friends. Both kids have suddenly realized that attendance at their birthday party (coming up at the end of November) will be sparse if they do not make friends, and so they are motivated. And Wednesday is a day off from school, right in the middle of the week!

We know we will have more dramas. The vacation will surely set us back, and we don’t even want to speculate about the first day of eating in the cantine or the first bus ride, but, for now, we have cleared this hurdle. Mieux et mieux, petite à petite.

The Grotte

October 23, 2009

We get lost on our way to visit the grotte. The grotte isn’t actually our original destination. We set out on Sunday afternoon at about 1:30 with the goal of just finding something to see, something to do, something to take the kids’ minds off school on Monday, our first real free journey into the countryside with the car at our disposal without a practical objective like groceries or school supplies and the pressure to get back home on time for something. Perhaps we will find a market. Perhaps a village bar or café where we can sit and drink coffee and watch the world go by. Perhaps a playground or church or walk or circus. And so we turn left rather than right at the end of the château drive and head more or less east. And immediately get lost.

First problem, no map. We have a guidebook, but it is for the region slightly east of the Haute Garonne, where the château is located and about which little is written—one of the problems of being in a relatively undiscovered tourist destination. We plan to buy a map, but, of course, everything is closed from noon until 3 in France. So we just drive where we please, choosing a left or a right at whim, heading for the area that is covered by the guidebook we have. Roads in rural France, however, rarely keep to the same direction. The land is curved and hilly, and roads follow ancient paths connecting this village to that town to this short-cut to that monastery. Signs at every crossroads point to the next village, but few of these are large enough to spark any recognition, at least in us only a week or so into our stay.

Susan drives and I read aloud about sites we might visit. The turreted medieval city of Carcasonne is on our list, but it seems too far for this day. Toulouse is close, but it also seems to deserve a full day’s visit. The guidebook mentions a prehistoric cave that seems relatively close—50 k—the grotte called Mas D’Azil. The children, big fans of the Ice Age movies, say yes, that sounds good. And so that becomes our goal, that and some food.

Susan and the kids are pictured for scale

Susan and the kids are pictured for scale

The children read books in the backseat. At first it is fun. We look at the changing countryside. We see our first French McDonalds (where we refuse to stop), pass an Ikea, watch for signs. We sing songs and practice our French phrases. The children grow restless, cranky, hungry. We find a sign with a map and pull out to consult it. We find the route to the grotte. I sketch a rough version into my notebook. It is 3:30 and has become obvious that no stores are going to open on Sunday afternoon at all.

In Pamiers, we find a playground while trying to figure out which road to take. Time for a break. The children run around, trying out all of the equipment, and snack on the cheese puffs, bananas and crackers we had thankfully brought along. The day is cool and the sun warm. Old ladies stroll by, arm-in-arm. Other families and children stop to play. The Pyrenees seem to loom close before an azure sky. As we pack up to press on, I spot another road map beside the bridge. I forget my notebook but have my pen, so I jot the names of towns and highway numbers on my palm. We are back on the trail of the cave.

A half hour later, we twist and turn uphill and down into a valley carved by a small river, pass through the very sweet village of Mas d’Azil, and follow the waterway into a canyon headed straight for a rocky mountain wall. The cave opens suddenly before us, more massive than I can comprehend at first. Huge. Taller than basketball coliseum. The road goes right through it, twisting and small in the expanse, the ceiling high overhead, the other wall far across the little river.


“Wow!” the kids say again and again. “Whoa! This is so cool!” A more modern drawing of entwined snake-like design appears on the ceiling over the river. The light from the other end of the cave yawns open, even bigger, and we emerge into the light. We pull over into the roadside parking lot with the other tourists and get out to walk back the way we had come.

The guidebook says the Grotte Mas d’Azil is 420 meters long and averages 50 meters wide (about 1400 x 164 feet). It was probably inhabited by extinct cave bears, which weighed about 500-600 kg (that’s about 1200 lbs, for you Americans). The caves were also the home of prehistoric people—cavemen—probably whole clans or colonies of them. “This is so cool,” James says, his voice echoing as we walk along the sidewalk into the dark. And it is. I imagine that I can feel something very old here, the presence of some very early, very tenuous existence. It’s a little scary in the dark. It’s humbling. People have been using this cave for nearly 20,000 years. What is my little life in all that time? Why am I writing about it? How can one life matter at all to anyone else?

About halfway back along the road, the footpath crosses over to a main side opening where an adult ticket, which includes entry into the little museum back in the village, costs 5 Euros. Our kids, at five, are free. We climb the rocks and some rough steps away from the road and up into the dark walls of limestone. The walk is spooky, made spookier by a modern art light and sound installation that’s on this month. A weird place for modern art, a kind of meeting of distant worlds.

In one side cave are bearded mannequins with heavy prefrontal lobes arranged as if early humans gathered around a fire. In another, spotlights shine on a replica of an early painting that has been removed to the museum for safe-keeping. One huge cavern was a refuge during several religious wars—the Cathars and the Protestants—and a hiding place during World War II, and here are statues of saints and the Virgin, another meeting of distant worlds. Showcases in one cavern room hold bone and flint tools, like a white needle for sewing together those fur tunics Fred Flintstone always wears. The trail circles around through one tunnel that is so low we have to stoop, and where the sound effects of drumming are so loud that James and Susan must turn back. Izzy and I make it through, her little hand squeezing mine damply, and we meet them again back at the beginning.


How difficult it must have been to survive then, all of those thousands of years ago, to live in this dark safe place with so many others. We return into the light, motorcycles buzzing past us on the road, and talk about those hand prints on the walls, those animal paintings. How did we humans come from that to this? This place where we can get into an automobile fueled by refined swamps and dinosaurs and speed off at 60 kilometers an hour down a highway, still not sure how to get back to the château, thousands of miles and an ocean from home?

Bam-bam and his sister return to squabbling and complaining about hunger in the backseat, and Susan pedals the BMW station wagon west.

Part of me remains back in that cave, though, in the dark with the drums and the smells of all those people and animals that have come before me. I am still a little there as I write this at 5 a.m., safe in the château. What made them paint? What inspired them to create? What were their stories around the campfire? Were theirs, like mine, attempts to make meaning of the journey, the maplessness of existence? I wonder what inspires any of us, any time, any world. I wonder: Are we not always a little bit lost?

The Village Fête

October 23, 2009

In this part of rural France, each village celebrates with a fête during the fall, dating back, I suspect, to a sort of harvest festival. The earth of the farmlands has been turned in rich brown clumps, lines and rectangles extending over nearly every hill and valley, broken by woodlands and villages and farmhouses here and there, on and on to the white caps of the Pyrenees and the horizon beyond. The days are still warm, but the mornings crisp. Some days a cold wind blows in off the mountains. In our second week, the first frost whitens green grasses on the shaded western sides of hills until the morning sun rises high enough to melt it away. The children wear coats to school and drag them along the ground in the afternoon. Fall is coming, slowly but surely. Our village, Saint Araille, celebrates its fête on our second weekend after arrival. The main event will be the village feast on Saturday night, a casual affair, Rosie and Pete tell us, attended by everyone from miles around, including children and the mayor and those who have come home for the occasion. “There are only 200 people in the commune,” says Pete, “but at least three hundred people will attend.” Do we want to come along? Of course we do.

On Saturday evening, just after sunset at about 8:20, the children bathed and all of us in fresh clothes, Rosie and Pete, Jo and John, who are staying in the tower apartment this month, and us, the queer little American family, pack plates and utensils and glasses in our backpacks and baskets, and stroll down the long stony driveway from the chateau to the main road. Jupiter and the Big Dipper pop out in the dark sky of the new moon, and the Milky Way begins to twinkle. The yellow holiday strings of lights of Saint Araille on the next hilltop beckon, and car headlights seem to swarm all in that direction. We flash our torches to slow those cars that pass us in the dark, and we chat as we walk down, then up, then down, then up again. James asks, “Mom, what is a fête anyway?” And I tell him that it’s a kind of town party, like the barbeques on the green at home in Newfane. We are joined by other groups with flashlights converging from side roads uphill to the community center, where one truck for the band is backed in and two midway game wagons are parked. James is disappointed: no bounce-house.

We line up, Rosie and Pete and others greeting friends, hugs and les bises all around us. Though the attire is mostly casual, even the blue jeans are ironed and everyone’s hair freshly coifed or combed neatly. All ages are represented. This part of France is a farming community, perhaps even more so than our home in Newfane, Vermont. Most of these people are farmers or agricultural workers or the support for those folks. They seem comfortable, neither poor nor rich, and friendly. Their faces are tanned. No one seems inclined to pretense or rudeness, so far as we have noticed, and the politics in this area are generally liberal. This crowd seems much like one we might encounter on the green in Newfane.

Inside the hall—a huge post-and-beam room open to the rafters, a band on the stage at the front—tables with white plastic cloths are tightly packed in long rows, seating for more than two hundred. Many chairs are already taken, and many more are tilted up, reserved. The mayor’s section is center front. We finally find a group of eight together at the far wall near the back. The hall fills quickly, and we all unpack our dinnerware. Behind us, a mother slaps her child across the face for some infraction. Susan and I exchange glances. Here is a difference between Saint Araille and Newfane.

Soon waiters—local volunteers, I think—bring huge baskets of fresh bread to the tables. James and Izzy and Susan and I take the bench seat against the wall with Pete—Rosie and Jo and John in chairs on the other side—and the kids, starving at so late an hour, dig in to the bread. We try to chat with Jo and John about their grandchildren and about their home in New Zealand, but it is loud in the hall and first James and then Izzy need to visit the restroom, a long journey of winding through tables and around waiters. The aperitif is served, a white wine with a liqueur in it, and bottles of water and a local red wine and a local rose are distributed liberally down the long tables. We all pore and drink. The first course is a green salad with strips of salami and dried meats. James likes it; Izzy sticks with bread.

We watch the crowd, often catching others watching us, the English speakers, but mostly people laugh and converse with their table-mates, friends and neighbors. Rosie engages the young man next to her in conversation in French. He has just bought the house down the road. He is a repairman or handyman of some sort. He is with his wife and two other couples, one with a young son. My own children are starting to flag—it must be well after 9 p.m.—but the little boy down the table is playing a game with his food. It is the next course, slabs of what I think is cold galantina (something like mortadella) and a strong brie-like cheese. James likes the meat. Izzy tastes both meat and cheese, wrinkles her nose, and asks for more bread.

Wine bottles are replenished as fast as they are emptied, and the mood lightens even more. The laughter and voices grow louder, cheeks glowing in the warmth of so many people together and so much drink. Pete tells us that dancing on top of the tables is not unheard of. The band onstage plays quiet background music. The waiters approach with the main course, a platter of potatoes and another of beef in a dark stew. Izzy’s plate is full with her uneaten previous courses, though Pete and I have each taken portions onto our own plates. Pete takes Izzy’s plate and dumps the whole thing directly onto the plastic tablecloth in the center. Izzy looks at me, eyebrows lifted. Is this done? I shrug back at her, smiling. The waiter serves up the beef and potatoes. James takes a big bite, chews, considers. “Mom,” he says, “this is good but it smells too much like wine.” The beef and sauce are delicious, rich and dark, the golden potatoes steaming. Izzy sniffs it and tastes, then asks for more bread. Pete and I gladly clean her plate for her.

The last course is coffee with a plastic cup of chocolate or coffee-flavored mousse. I decline the coffee, but we all eat the mousse. A teenager at the next table stacks a tower of empty mousse cups, and, as everyone finishes, we pass ours over to add. It topples, of course, and everyone laughs. Susan gives James her mousse and Pete gives Izzy his so that each have two servings.

Everyone scrapes their plates onto the centers of the tables and pack away the dirty plates, glasses and utensils into baskets and backpacks. The band swings into a louder, peppier tune. Folks sitting in chairs begin to stand, and everyone helps to turn the edges of the plastic tablecloths in to the center and roll them up, leftover food inside, down the long lengths of the tables to the ends where they are dumped into garbage barrels. Voila. Chairs are stacked in short order, the tables folded and stacked out of sight, and before we are quite aware of what’s happening, couples are dancing the polka.

James and Izzy have been itching to get outside to the two games wagons, eager to spend our Euros on ring-toss and the like for the prize of a plastic toy. It’s the only game in town, literally. Susan takes them out for a bit, and I stay for a few minutes to watch the dancing.

The band consists of four thirty-something men, all dressed in white shirts and Capri-length white pants, playing electric guitars and singing. The repertoire ranges from traditional waltzes to the Macarena. Three women, who serve as back-up singers and dancers, join them for the vocals. The women wear white dresses a little like those in Saturday Night Fever. My favorite number is “Copacabana,” a real 70s flashback, the whole troop moving in sych on stage, the white triangles of the women’s skirts swishing in time, complete with revolving disco ball. And almost everyone dances, from a really polished older couple—he in a red shirt and white slacks and she in black nylon blouse and slacks—to a little girl with her Dora the Explorer blow-up doll—won, no doubt, at the midway game outside—to a couple of teenaged boys—goofing but not in a mean or homophobic way—to some middle-aged women couples—probably just women without men (or without men who would dance) rather than lesbians, though one woman stares at us enough to make our gaydar detectors quiver.

The dinner lasted nearly three hours. The dancing will go on until much later. Back home in Newfane, everyone—and especially the children—would have been home in bed almost before dinner would have started here in Saint Araille. Back home in Newfane, fewer people would have danced, though apparently the steps of the Macarena are universally known.

The children are exhausted but still on their feet at midnight, hugging their plastic blow-up prizes: an oversized bat for James and a cheetah for Izzy. Teenagers in cars begin to arrive. Smokers congregate outside in the parking lot.  A few people with children pack up to leave; some still congregate at the game wagons. We four—the queer little American family—turn on our flashlight and walk home, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill, up the hill to the chateau, under the Milky Way.

“So that’s a fête,” James says as we reach the door. Indeed. It is.


October 22, 2009


Imagine that you are five and a half. Imagine that you have spoken only English your whole five and a half years. Imagine that you are bright, that you have done well in pre-school, have had two successful months of kindergarten, and that you have many friends. Now imagine being lifted up and transported across an ocean to a new school with different rules and different children in a new country. Imagine that you don’t know what anyone is saying—not the teacher, not the other children, not the words on the blackboard or in the books you are given. Imagine that your mothers deliver you to the iron gate at 9:30 on a chilly October morning and into the hands of a nice lady—who speaks to you in French, of course—while dozens of boys and girls you don’t know and who are all speaking French crowd around you, and your mothers turn to leave. What do you do? You burst into tears, of course. You try to climb the fence, of course.

And if you’re the mother? Well, your heart wrings in actual pain. You know that you are a terrible parent, having brought your children to this. What were you thinking? What should you do? What can you do? This is the only way they will make friends in France, and it will be a long ten months if the children have no friends. Even sadder than this first day of school.

Life is full of first days, all terrifying and exciting in their strangeness, most necessary in some way. What if we always stood still, stayed safe with what is known and comfortable? We would cease to grow. We would stop evolving.  Surely there is something deep within us—some of us, anyway—that drives us to seek out change, adventure. Maybe it’s a leftover from our earliest drives as humans—we had to seek out the new in order to survive, to light those first fires, invent those first wheels, create that first masterpiece on the ceiling of a chapel—but this move to France is not for survival, exactly. It is for the challenge itself, the adventure.

Think of the children!

Think of the children!

On the first day of school in France (and in many days that follow), I wonder if it is fair or right to force this challenge on the children. I was a child born ready for adventure, I think. I wanted to go to school when I was three. I remember standing at the window and watching the big kids walk to school. I remember crying because I wasn’t old enough. I have always sought adventure, change, challenge, even when it frightened me, even when I felt most alone.

I’m sure it is different for James and Isabelle, for they are different people, of course. They have never been alone, really, because they are twins. And perhaps that makes them less independent on some deep level. But they are adventurous in other ways. James determined that he would cross the monkey bars that were six feet off the ground when he was three, and before he was four, he did. Izzy led a gang of girls into the woods at the preschool to play every day. We were afraid they would be bored in school because their birthday put them at the eldest edge of admission to kindergarten. Both were reading and writing and doing basic math. Learning another language would be a good challenge, we reasoned before the trip. And they seemed to be learning French fine at home with our flashcards and play. But here, now, on the first day of attending a French village school, it seems too much. Susan and I are terrified that we have made a huge mistake.

Just over a week after our arrival, on a Monday, we all went down to the school to meet the teacher and see the classroom. The school is in Sénarens, the next village over from Saint Araille, down a gully and back up, atop the next hill, about a ten-minute drive. We can see the bell wall of the village from the chateau. We could walk it—with much effort up the steep hill—in about forty minutes. But the distance for James and Izzy seems a continent and ocean—and a whole language and culture—away.

Before we visit the school, Susan and I sit down and read (rather, she reads and translates for me) the Carnet de correspondance, a small laminated handbook of rules and procedures, important dates and times that the children will keep in their backpacks all the time. There is a section in the back where the teacher can jot notes home to the parents, and the parents can write notes to the teacher. It is written that we must check this section, CHAQUE JOUR (every day)! There is a section where we are to indicate whether the child will be eating lunch in the school cantine or coming home for lunch. Children must not be late to school. Children must behave. No toys or jewelry or candy are allowed at school. For lunch in the cantine, children must bring a clean cloth serviette with their name on it on Monday and take it home for washing on Friday. There are rules about transport (and forms to complete); there are rules about déjeuner (and forms to complete); there are rules about vaccines (and forms to complete).  There is a lengthy and precise list of school supplies each child must have, some of which we cannot translate. The parents must sign the Carnet de correspondance signifying their agreement to all of the rules. We sign.

Carnet de correspondance

Carnet de correspondance

We gathered all our papers, borrowed Rosie’s car, and drove down the hill and up the hill and parked at the school at 4:45 on a warm Monday afternoon under brilliant blue skies. Another car soon pulled up and parked, and another, parents began to assemble at the iron gate, and then two large vans—the school buses—pulled in and disgorged eight or ten children from the upper elementary school in yet another village. The school in Sénarens that James and Izzy will attend houses the maternelle, or pre-school, and the first few grades of what Americans would consider grammar school, up to about age seven, called CP and CE1. There are only two classrooms and two teachers here—Madame C. for the maternelle and Madame P. for the three levels of grade school. James and Izzy will be in the first level of the grade school with Madame P. in the mornings, and with a small group of five other children in the upper end of the maternelle in the afternoons, a relaxed way to improve their vocabulary skills in French. On this first afternoon, we are to meet Mme. P., though, of course, we are introduced to everyone: Mme. C., who is also the directrice of the school, and the two women who are assistants. There is another woman who works during lunches, who we will meet another day.

The school itself consists of three buildings—a large cantine that also serves as an indoor play-space on some days—and two smaller buildings, one for each classroom. There is a fence separating the paved play area from the parking lot, with an iron gate. A small grassy hill topped by a large spreading oak rises up to the side within the play area, the whole compound ringed by trees and fence. Under a large porch roof are a dozen three-wheeled scooters and a couple of small two-wheeled bikes, as well as other play equipment. A concrete pipe is the sole fixed playground equipment at our little school, though we observe more elaborate play structures at schools in larger towns and villages.

An assistant holds the gate open for the older children who spill off of one of the buses (each of which also has a driver and an assistant for perhaps sixteen luxurious high-backed seats with seat-belts) this afternoon. Some kids go into the yard to play while others greet their parents and climb into cars. Another assistant and Madame C. open the door of the maternelle classroom and lead an orderly line of littler kids to the gate. Most are helped onto the buses; a few are met by waiting parents. Another line of about fifteen children appears, following Madame P. (whom we know from a photograph Rosie kindly emailed to us in Vermont), from around the corner of the cantine. They are laughing, hauling on their backpacks and jackets, staying more-or-less in their double lines. Madame leads them to the gate and opens it, and they board the buses or greet parents. Bonjour, Madame! We introduce James and Izzy and ourselves over the fence, and then we are permitted to enter the gate.

Madame P. is young and blond and beautiful, very self-confident, clearly in control of her classroom and teaching, but she is also relaxed and kind. She smiles a lot. She wears jeans most days, which Susan and I take as a good sign, having heard and read about the strict discipline and regimented curriculum of French schools, so strict that every school classroom at the same level in the entire country (!) does the exactly same work on each day of the year. Mme. P. speaks some English and is teaching some English to her class, she says. We pass the restrooms at the rear of the canteen building and enter Madame P.’s class cabin through a small hallway lined with coat hooks at child-level and decorated with colorful student paintings. The classroom itself is basically square, a white board at the front and windows on both sides. Three rows of square desks and chairs, arranged in pairs and separated slightly into three groups—one for each of the grade levels in the class—fill the front half of the room. In the rear are a bank of six computers, a small library and reading area, and a sink and counter for science, I think. Madame P. points out the section of desks where James and Izzy will be seated, and she asks them a few questions. They are shy, though they give it their best effort, both in their little bit of French and in English. Madame turns to Susan, who needs to clarify the details of the supplies list, the plan for lunches, the children’s own list of questions, and to try to get an idea of the curriculum. Mme. P. is tired, the end of a long day. She says that the children need to be able to count to 100 by the end of the year. Susan translates for James and Izzy. “You can already do that in English!” she says. “I know you can learn to do it in French.”

James and Izzy and I explore the classroom. James drifts to the bookshelf, where he finds a Dr. Suess book in French. He knows the pictures, he says, “but the words are in French!” There is a note of dismay in his voice. He’s worried about this. He likes to be perfect, to know what’s going on. Madame P. points to the computers. “When the children finish their work, they can play on the ordinateurs,” she says. I note a very large rack of educational computer games beside the bookshelf. Susan tells the teacher, in French, that the children are very worried about starting school in France, that she stopped teaching them French after awhile because it seemed to make them so stressed out. Susan asks Madame P. if she has ever taught children whose first language is not French. Non. She asks Madame if she has ever taught children from a family with two mothers. Non. Ah, well, it’s all new then, Susan says, in French. They both look at the children and me. Oui.

Izzy and James and I examine the globe, tracing our route from Vermont to Paris and Toulouse. We try out seats in the CP section of the classroom and practice reading the numbers and colors on the wall in French: un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six…. I note the lessons in cursive handwriting on the easel at the front. James and Izzy can’t even recognize the letters of the alphabet in cursive in English. I note a lesson in words with the “ou” sound on the white board: nous, vous, ours, fou, tout; I can recognize about three of the twenty words. I look through an easy-reader and am pleased to find that I can understand most of it. Susan’s conversation in French with Madame P., however, is almost completely beyond me. I am not sure I could handle kindergarten in French. James and Izzy seem restless and dazed, unnaturally quiet. They too are trying to listen to the conversation.

Bon. It is decided. James and Izzy will attend the morning session on Thursday and Friday with Madame P. after we take the official papers to from the mayor of Saint Araille to the mayor of Sénarens (villages two kilometers apart) tomorrow (Tuesday). The following week, we will try all day, mornings with Madame P., and afternoons with the younger group and Madame C. to improve their vocabulary. They will come home for lunch in between that week; one must sign up for lunches at the cantine (where nearly all of the children eat) on Monday a week in advance. Then will come the vacation (a week and a half off for Toussaint, All Souls Day, which is also the end of the first school quarter). After the vacation, the children will attend all day, including staying for lunch, and, we hope, they will ride the bus as well. All of these trips back and forth to school are complicated by our sharing of Rosie’s car until they leave for their trip to Australia. This will be the children’s regular schedule: 9:30-5 on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesdays are a day off, and many children attend music or other lessons and play on sports clubs. Ours might take music or dance if we can find a class, or they may just explore southern France with us. The quarterly vacations are also slightly longer than those in the States—usually a week and a half or two weeks—plus two weeks at Christmas. It is a very civilized schedule, though the four days will be long for James and Izzy.

We take our papers to the mayor of Sénarens. We buy school supplies: three-ring binders with five dividers; pencils; pens in blue, green, red and black; two highlighters each; colored markers; a calendar for noting down their homework assignments. We try to play all day on Wednesday, settling their frequent anxiety storms and getting them to bed early that night. No one sleeps well.

And then it is the first day. We pull into the lot at 9:20 after a hearty oatmeal breakfast. Parents are not permitted inside the iron gate. A cold wind is blowing, and we have not yet unpacked James and Izzy’s winter coats, so they are shivering.  The other children rush the fence, a mob, staring at us: the Americans with two mothers. The assistant says Bonjour, smiling, and the gate squawks open. James hugs Susan’s thighs and Izzy starts sniffling. “I don’t want to go, Mommy!” James says. “They don’t understand me.” “I want you to come with me,” sniffles Izzy.

“It will be fine,” we say. “You have to go to school. It’s only a few hours. We’ll be right here waiting at lunch-time. You can do this. You’re going to be fine. Do you see? These other children want to meet you? Can you say Bonjour? Can you say hello? And look, here’s Madame P.!”

Big hugs. Les bises. “Have a great day!” forcing cheer into our voices. And they go inside the gate. It clangs shut.

Susan and I walk away. Don’t look back, I think, don’t look back. But in the car, I do. Izzy is crying. James is trying to climb the fence. And then Madame P. takes their hands and leads them with the other children toward the classroom, and we drive away. It is the hardest first day of my life.

The Mayor Meets an American Princess

October 19, 2009

Izzy now wants to be called Isabelle—“my French name,” she says. She has been carrying a silver and jeweled plastic crown for a month now, won as a prize on the midway at the Guilford County Fair back in Vermont. We cannot believe that it has not yet been broken. She dresses on our first Saturday in Saint Araille in her prettiest blue and white dress, white stockings, and black shoes, with the crown, for our scheduled visit to meet the mayor of Saint Araille. Princess Isabelle.


We are all dressed nicely, of course. James’ cowlick is plastered down. I’ve put on an ironed shirt and cords rather than jeans. We are all nervous. I have promised treats to the children as reward for good behavior. Saturday afternoon is the Mairie’s (mayor’s office) weekly open session, and we must present ourselves and the children to request that they be allowed to attend the local school. Susan has her briefcase full of papers—passports with visas, the children’s birth certificates, the school registration paperwork, immunization records, our civil union certificate from Vermont. I have dot-to-dot books and pencils to entertain the children. We have all practiced: Bonjour, monsieur! Ça va? Oui merci. Et vous? This is where my part of the conversation will likely end.

Rosie drives us to the village, no more than five minutes’ walk down the lane from the chateau. Two men and a woman are hanging a banner across the road announcing next weekend’s town fête—a sort of homecoming dinner and village feast, as Rosie and Pete have described it—which we will attend. The village itself is nothing more than the town hall and two or three other buildings, a wall plastered with adverts for entertainments and classes, yoga and such, all the same yellowish stucco, shuttered windows and red tile roofs, a French village as one imagines it should be. A girl of about twelve follows us into the parking lot, peeking curiously around the edge of the building to see the American family that has arrived. We enter the Mairie and wait in a dusky room with one curtained voting booth, a long formica table and plastic chairs, and walls lined with pictures of all the French presidents. I only recognize three of the stern-faced fellows. No women Presidents here yet either.

The previous appointment leaves, and we cross the narrow hallway to greet the mayor. Rosie is friendly with him, clearly joking, and introduces us. Bonjour, monseiur. We all sit, Rosie, then me, then Susan, before the mayor’s desk, and the children in two plastic chairs to the side. They open their workbooks and take out pencils. Princess Isabelle’s crown keeps sliding into her eyes.

Rosie conducts her own business with the mayor first. He shuffles through the mound of papers on his desk and pulls out French cartes de séjours with Rosie’s and Pete’s photos on them. French driver’s licenses are apparently quite difficult to obtain. They joke some more, something about Pete’s driving. The mayor stamps the documents—and others—with several of the rubber stamps collected to his right—Wham! Wham! Wham!—and Rosie stands. Bon. Merci. D’accord. She will drive home and we will walk back to the chateau when we are finished. Au revoir.

The mayor, a small dark man with high cheekbones and a sharp chin who looks remarkably like an American character actor I can’t quite place, turns to us, the Americans. Susan takes out her papers. I follow the conversation as best I can. Mr. Mayor reaches for his cigarettes, taps one out, and lights up. Isabelle tips up her crown, wrinkles her nose at the smoke, and scowls her disapproval at him. Luckily, she is a bit behind him.

Where are we from? Vermont. Our capital? Montpelier—French but not French. Susan pronounces it both as a French word and in the American way. He shrugs and says what I interpret to be, Whoa, that’s weird or Those cloutish Americans. He says something about the redskins, apparently confusing our state with one in the wild west. He comments on the day’s news: Obama has been given the Nobel Prize. He establishes his credentials: “Je suis socialiste,  anarchist, y anti-religieux.” Even I can understand that. He asks if we like our new President. Or are we for Bush? “Non! Non!“ We protest, laughing. “No Bush!” Of course not.

Papers are exchanged. Who is the mother? Susan doesn’t miss a beat. We both are their mothers, officialement. He blinks. I have no problem with that, he says, “Pas de problème.” What else can he—socialist, anarchist, anti-religious—say?

Madame Flavian,” he shouts. “Vous venez.” Clomp, clomp, clomp—the sound of heels on wooden floor and a young woman appears from behind the curtain. He asks her questions. She answers, explaining to Susan the procedures for the children’s schooling. We have our paperwork. Madame Flavian disappears. The mayor asks for our passports, examines them. “Madame Flavian!” he shouts. Clomp, clomp, clomp. She appears again. Izzy tips her crown up out of her eyes to observe. He waves the passports at the secretary and gives an order. She takes them to the copy machine in the corner and Xeroxes them, returns the documents to the mayor. Izzy watches. Madame Flavian returns to her room behind the curtain. The mayor chooses an official rubber stamp from his collection. Wham. Wham. Wham. He signs the papers with a flourish. He drags on his cigarette, the air now blue with smoke, and squints. The passports are passed back across the desk. He asks Susan a question. She answers, asking him another question. “Madame Flavian!” he shouts. Clomp, clomp, clomp. He relays the question to Madame Flavian, who has clearly heard every word from her station not a dozen steps away behind the curtain. She nods and answers Susan’s question. The mayor hands us some papers. We will need to take these to another Mairie in the village a mile away where the school is located, Sénarens. Permission for our children to attend from this village. We will need to complete the permission to transport form for the bus. We will need to complete the form requesting lunch in the cantine. We will need to meet the teacher and the headmistress and buy the supplies listed in the student rule booklet. The parents must sign that we agree to the school rules. Bon. We have accomplished something. Madame Flavian disappears behind the curtain. The mayor stabs out his cigarette, stands. Susan gathers her papers and briefcase and we stand. I signal the children, who slide off their seats.

Izzy tips her crown back up, and the mayor stops to smile at her. He says something, a question. Susan answers, laughing, something about a princesse. He laughs, charmed. Izzy frowns. The mayor extends his hand to her and she takes it. He says something to her, gives her a half-bow, and that is that. The princess has met the mayor. We strangers have arrived.

First Days at the “Shabby Chateau”

October 16, 2009

It is decidedly not shabby. Indeed, Latour des Feuillants is elegant. It rises from the top of a hill near the village of Saint Araille, south of Toulouse, stately and yet part of the land, a watchtower, a country mansion and a farmhouse all in one. The worked stone and stucco walls, freshly plastered and whitewashed, are beamed across with massive tree trunks over which wooden floors are planked, recently sanded clean. All of the windows have been replaced, opening wide to 360° view of the plowed hills and sheep-dotted valleys all the way to the Pyrennes to the south. A tower of about 30×30 feet rises up four or five floors at the front entry. A two-story wing extends north behind the massive stairway and tower for about 50 feet, and another to the west side the same distance. A massive stable—now two kitchens, a laundry room, an open storage area and chicken coop—completes the building’s footprint. The whole is roofed with red terracotta tiles, like nearly every other farmhouse, barn and chateau across the countryside. It is glorious. Rosie and Pete have made it new again (with all the modern conveniences) while still retaining the integrity of its storied past.

chateau with kids

Latour was built in the 11th century as a fortified lookout and grainery. This part of France was tribal then, and raiders—infidels and Christains alike—from England, Italy, Africa, and nearby Spain were also not uncommon. Bloody skirmishes were likely fought to secure the monks, villagers and farmers who hid here. Susan dreams of fighting, of knights and swords and castles, Rosie tells the tale of an exorcist who visited some time back, who cast out some evil from the rooms here.

The château was for a long time a stronghold for a local monastery of the order of St. John. We can see the abbey on another hill from the east end of the garden, a brisk 40 minute walk away. The château was primarily used as a grainery, storage for wheat and corn and animals, the most valuable provisions to be protected from marauders, and the monks themselves also lived here. They did not eat meat. They did not talk. They were not allowed shoes but for one pair of thin sandals in winter. They slept on wooden planks without blankets. “Not allowed much of anything,” Peter says, laughing, “except all the whipping one cared for.”

Our rooms for the month of October extend back on the second floor in the north wing of the building. We enter through a small bedroom with an inaccessible loft used for storage. Tthis room will be James and Izzy’s. A small hallway flanked on one side by two shower-and-sink lavs and on the other by a toilet room opens into what will be our sitting room and make-shift kitchen for this month, furnished with hotplate, convection oven, and fridge, a long table and then chairs and coffee table around a rug. Rosie and Pete have bought an electric keyboard especially because they heard of the children’s interest in music. This room is large, perhaps 30×15, open to the cross-beamed ceiling and lit by three small windows, two to the east and one to the west. The room at the end, perhaps 15’ square is also lofty and beamed, with windows on three sides, and Susan and I claim it as our bedroom. We set up the desk table facing a window north, where I now sit looking over the countryside past an enormous sycamore tree, its leaves just turning yellow at the edges. After dark, the sky is dark enough to see the Milky Way—Jupiter out the western window and Mars out the eastern—but Toulouse brightens the fringe. The sun rises at about 8 now, though the roosters begin crowing well before dawn, an orange fire beyond the garden and fruit trees.

The lawns green out to the east and west, primarily, following the tumbling walls of long-demolished portions of the château. It is easy to see that the building was once even bigger than its current expanse. The walls are green with vines and rose bushes, and there are ponds with small golden carp. James delights in picking pears and plums and figs, and Izzy collects shiny brown horse-chestnuts to brew into potions. We scare up a mouse in the turned earth of a pasture, find an old nest woven into the long grasses, follow the chickens into the brambles, gather three eggs a day from the stone coop at the end of the stable, and play fetch endlessly with Poppet and Pattie, the very sweet border collies.


Latour des Feuillants means, roughly, the tower of breaking into leaf or foliage. We left Vermont at the peak of the leaf-season, our little valley of Newfane flaming with oranges and reds and golds, the air crisp and skies blue, tourists everywhere. Here at the house of foliage, we seem to have stepped back a month. The air is warm and skies blue, but there has been no frost yet. The garden is still lush with zucchini and tomatoes, and the leaves are only slightly tinged with gold. The fields have been harvested and turned, and winter will come even here, but it will not be so cold, we think, except that the château is huge and the ceilings high, and we will heat with wood. We will plant a winter garden soon so that we can eat vegetables into the spring. Broccoli will grow even with the day or three of snow they normally get here. The light is strong, filtered through purpled clouds, and the air supremely fresh. So much oxygen. So much color—brown earth, green woods, blue skies, the black-and-white dogs and glistening rainbow hues of the chickens. This area is off the beaten path—no tourists here—though there are a few rural gites for rent and some British ex-pats like Rosie and Pete. We have removed from one farmland, one foliage season, to another. For what purpose, really, but in search of change, the beauty of change?

chateau drawing

Isabelle's drawing of the château

This house is huge where the one we left was small. This climate is warmer, that one colder. These people speak French, those American English. There we lived in a valley; here we’re perched atop a hill. And both here and there, it strikes me now, we are the same: an absolutely ordinary queer little family. Living this one season in an ancient house of turning foliage

Hello world!

October 13, 2009

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