December 28, 2016
We missed Paris, but we saw Barcelona. Well, we didn’t see much of Paris, arriving late in the evening, just enough time to grab a bite and walk the edges of the Latin Quarter a mite. But Barcelona, we saw its night and day. And though we opted out of the nightlife bar scene, we did tour el centro de la ciudad, walked a good swath of the city from Barcelona cathedral to Sangria de familia cathedral, and spent hours admiring Picasso’s seemingly endless transformational creativity at el museo de Picasso.
We rest heavily, sinking into the cushions of our bullet train seats to nap, write, tune out and glance out the window to see the pastels of fading light cast over the Pyrenees. Over eating, over walking and over sightseeing depletes us like the satiety of a sumptuous meal oh too much. We smile in our pain. That sums up the entire trip so far for me.
It occurred to me upon taking a certain step down an unknown curb on a forgotten street in the center of a city recently eye-soaked that there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s my life. Had I encountered half the snafu’s we did on this trip back home, my blood pressure would have ripped my skull open in a gusher of anger and frustration. I’m thin triggered. Not always, but too often. And nothing truly ruffled me this trip, despite jet lag, sleeplessness, homelessness and digestion disasters.
Maybe I’m finally there–finally. I’ve reached the center of where it’s at and glimpsed what it could be.
The year wanes, eroded like my patience today. How many times can you be reminded to take your passport, tag your bags, get to the train station on time, get up by 8 or you’ll miss all to see in the city and eat your spinach, all in three waking hours?
Yes, she means well. She needs antidepressants. Or I do. Life gives us both anxiety, but she panics unceasingly whereas I do less often. Her fear outpaces mine by leagues. “Can we breathe more in 2017?” I asked her son that moments ago.
The daughters plugged in and tuned out almost immediately upon finding our seats, an ordeal of considerable magnitude as we had to walk over the seatless encampment of refugees between cars, the one we circled going up and down levels, forward and back aisles, squeezing through the narrow corridors of human passage to find our way through the maze.
How hard could it be? Cabin number and seat number. It took ten minutes of mind boggling math and engineering to finally land at the last quad of seats in back of coche 15.
A child’s English words catch my attention. The adults respond in French. Flocks of birds circle sporadic homes peppering the rural landscape whizzing by. The TGV doesn’t bullet the way it usually does, like when we flashed by kilometers from Paris to Narbonne 15 years ago. Perhaps after our stop in Perpignan, the train will pick up speed, dashing us to Barcelona.
half lit yellowed leaves grasping the source in vain, walks
me, a mere golem,
tossed together as fruit of the earth,
loins of my father,
breast of my mother,
soulless moving matter, sleep-walk,
intoning the roots.
Truth burns above my brows.
Song of my song,
word of my word,
cants mutely to the calving herds ruminating
chewing the cud’s omnipotent gold.
When beast holds dominion,
Adam mows fields with his teeth,
shorn of heart,
his nostrils flared low inside the earth,
while Lilith shrieks pious,
her vacant urge hung limp like gilt pocket watches
seeping through barren tree limbs.
Ten times ten thousand vowels howl endlessly,
lies whistling through carrion clean picked skulls,
empty as before,
when flesh adorned hollow garments,
animus sans luminous sight–no reason, no right.
Midnight mass in the 12th century cathedral at Narbonne rounded out the Christmas dinner of way too much food–lamb, salad, haricot vert, cassoulet beans, potatoes, figs, foie gras, du pain, pain, pain!–and drink (wine and champagne). It was lovely to walk the stone streets in the brisk, windy night, bundled in heavy winter coats, wool hats and thick scarves, all five of us, into the dank, solemn air of the ancient worship ground and gathering.
The sound of angelic choruses vibrating with the enormous, ancient, wood-piped organ created a majestic mood, and the parishioners seated in centuries old pews facing the gold-plated, ornate altar where mysterious rites of chanting, bells and smoke took place.
The wine helped open up my heart and lungs. I was moved. I stood, sat, stood, sang, sat, stood, sang…for two hours. I sang Christmas songs loudly-passionately (catching the echoes inside the mile high ceiling) in French, a few Gloria’s and hallelujah’s, and all was grateful and grand.
The experience for my children might have been less engaging. They fidgeted less than I did, but they were clearly unmoved. Having worked in a Catholic high school for four years, I at least was familiar with the procession. They went panicked blank when the offering plate was passed in front of them. They’re obviously not Catholic.
And their eyes widened in surprise and then ironic glee to see their father line up to take communion–a first sight for their two decades or so of life. When he and his mother returned to their seats, the universal let’s get out of here side glance and nod of the head had us heading for the doors at midnight–into the cold, then into our impossibly compact car, driving back past the canals and into the dark, lampless, skeletal vineyard lined lane to home.
L’Aude is a river that houses three main regions here down south, Salelles d’Aude being one of them along the canals in the South of France. The canals are one of Napoleon’s bright ideas for moving trade through the southern country. That big idea and expanding Paris boulevards and thoroughfares wide and far-reaching were revolutionary, practical and enduring.
Today, after last minute shopping in a quiet mall outside downtown Narbonne, some to-go sushi from the supermarché, and an espresso in the cafe by the mall exit, we ventured to a small hamlet close to Salelles called le Somail, one of the three divisions resting on the Aude. The sleepy port town boasts a tea house and ancient book store, the former closed for Christmas and the latter open for our roaming eyes and feet. Much of the tiny town is closed for winter.
The ancient musty chill air inside the book store reminded us of winters, many of them passed through, wind and rain soaking the stone walls of this tiny librairie tucked alongside the river of moored houseboats, cacophonous ducks and romping dogs–just before the stone bridge. The cool wind hurried our leisurely walk.
The town, abandoned by tourists and inhabitants alike, stood as contrast to bustling downtown Narbonne with its courtyard restaurants a-brew with ale and crepes, narrow boutique-lined lanes, stately cathedrale de Narbonne, and street music. We spent a fine-weather, blue-skied day sightseeing, shopping and eating crepes, croque monsieur, and macarons along the outside booths and stands of the market. Inside the farmer’s market, we crammed all five of us into a tiny tapas bistro of four long bar tables, where we ate duck and scallop brochettes, planchas drenched in olive oil and garlic, and grilled aubergine and courgettes, washed down with local white wine for us and orangeina for the kids.
We are gaining weight in kilos but will be losing it in pounds when we return, so it should be easy. Right?
Like most days this week, I start out of a disrupted sleep, having lain way past a decent hour. I awaken late morning French time most days and go to bed early evening California time. My iPad tells French time and my laptop refuses to leave California. I work late into the French night completing blog posts for my employer on Miami time. Time spins nauseatingly.
Yesterday, after awakening around 11:30 French time and playing musical transformer and usb chords (Who has the Samsung/iPhone charger??!!), I swallowed a bite of pain au chocolat and quick coffee to motor off to Carcassonne, the Medieval fortress and castle, which also sports a lovely restaurant rated by a tire company (yes, I know it’s a coincidence that restaurant raters and tires have the same name).
After eating a sumptuous lunch of creative concoctions like foie gras coated in sweet wine emulsion merengue on a pop sickle stick (wtf, right?), and drinking too many Kir Royals and local white wine, we walked through the castle entry via a narrow cobble stone street filled with souvenir shops.
And when my oldest daughter ran into one shop walled with medieval swords and daggers, I knew it wouldn’t be long before her father was paying for two Game of Thrones John Snow swords. I warned them that drunken purchases never look good in the morning, to no avail.
But the day was lovely, the castle impressive and our spirits high. Captive momentarily to another time, another dimension really (Can you believe this was all built manually over decades?), I quietly absorbed every loose stone in the dirt path, every brilliantly green blade of grass, every cotton cloud in the sky, and every skip, hop and climb of my scampering daughters up and down castle walls and walkways.
The drive home along pine and canal-lined country lanes that often slowed us into narrow cobble stone alley towns squeezed between sugar cube cafes and cursive patisseries, in the quiet cold darkness just after dusk was peaceful. Four phones, two iPhones and two Samsungs, ran out of juice (and GPS), so we had to feel our way home, through every roundabout.
Home: Medieval dust still lingering on our clothes, in our breath, we each retired to our places, the girls to their room with stolen chargers to resurrect their connections to Snapchat, Twitter and California life time, me to my laptop and work, and mother and son to the telly to watch lame French game shows.
And the next day: do it all over again in a new town, new castle or cathedral, casting our lines into a timeless sea of changing faces, feasts and facades, our feet in neither and both worlds, floating, lost and leisurely.
Astronomically the one rule calculable, luminosity.
Dry canals flicker bark-pitch under sky blanketed grey.
New boots, half price at the border, shorten my step
Planted, enmired, mud-suctioned to hay and rock.
It’s 15:22 though the sky cares less for numbers than I.
Clouds shake their breath off with wispy shoulder
Disregarding walkers below, lost in foreign shades,
We the burdened, the calamitous, the retuned notes
Cast eyes to a dimming horizon slunk atop dead branches.
It’s winter, her solstice slowing time at the axis,
And happily so, no rush, no filter, just stragglers in exile
For a time, while the light slants low, configuring us
Country-free, wanderers, timed projections sur les Pyrenees.
What mother hasn’t asked herself what it is to be a mother? Cradling fragile life in the palms of your heart, ever on your mind, on your breast, in your nose, wearing them like perfume, you ask yourself how you could possibly keep yourself from hurting them. You ask yourself how you ever lived without them, as if that time before them barely existed. At least I wondered how.
And even now as their floating circumference widens, their sights set on spaces and places far from the core (and corps)–deliberately so–I question my hand, the child crafter’s touch. Did I spoil them too much, under-prepare them for a world I could not have conceived let alone predicted? Have I taught them healthy respect for life, theirs and others’, as well as their fellow planetary inhabitants? If I built their core properly, they will stand.
I’ve learned in yoga that a strong core lies behind every movement, every asana. Such is life. I think of that time a mommy just like me commented that my two-year old seemed to have a strong core. I recall few complimentary words about my mothering worth noting. That one I remember.
My own mother stands symbolically now, like a white alabaster Greek statue, only emaciated rather than plump-full eternally life. Death could not come slower. But she stands (still, sometimes) rickety and frail, tremulous, palsied, but awake somehow–a matriarchal stance to life. Just.don’t.give.up. Your children live for, through, by and despite you. Even after-breath.
We’ve done our part, passing on the genetic code, dicing up human destiny somehow. We’ll rest soon and long.
Happy birthday Mom. I’ll never give you up.
What a thing to do, this getting away to change the scenery. Being on a family trip to France and Spain has brought not only refreshment to a pretty stale when it wasn’t toxic year, even years (I’ve had some years), but also a much needed perspective check. Seeing new lands, even if they’re the old ones, helps shift awareness into the absorbing/observing mode and backed out of the constant spewing mode.
The women I travel with, my daughters, are entwined in memory and making memories. My mother in law’s home is filled with childhood memories, flashbacks and glimpses: one was six and the other three the last time we visited. It was summer then. But this time they’ve brought themselves to their mamie’s house: inquisitive, cynical, wry and wondering. They’re excited but skeptical about this new outlook they were promised in this more socially conscious historically and gustatorily fermented with history country. It’s all about food, everywhere, every day.
They want to believe this land holds lure, romance–and it does–but they’re wise enough to know, despite the language barrier, that their 82 year old grandmother can sound as narrow-minded, silly, prejudiced, stereotypical and judgmental as any American. It’s both a national and a family thing. Their mamie is…well, their mamie. She is all of France and all of her. They love and hate to see themselves in her.
And yet, the strangeness and familiarity of it all gives them, us, the comfort and discomfort to sit back and play compare and contrast, and practice some serious appreciation. They have options to be part of the world, not just their world.
Oh, and internet access is sketch at best. The better to see their sometimes scowling, sometimes intent, oftentimes laughing faces.
The French. So cool, so unconcerned, yet not really affected. They just do their thing.
We traveled heavy, 8 huge pieces of luggage on wheels yet wholly unwieldy. And lugging that shit through the train stations, all in a line, cramming the already small corridors even smaller. But confused as we were, a passerby gave as an unsolicited direction or tip, all while zipping along, pace unthwarted by our unsightly clogging of the turnstiles and escalators.
It’s a rapid-fire city, yet I don’t feel the anxiety or aggression I find in my suburban hometown. My country is ravaged with anger and hopelessness. I’m glad to be away to de-steam and gain perspective.
Food. That’s all there is to say. Even the ordinary corner brasserie offers the finest. I had cod in a buerre-blanc sauce with sautéed spinach after fresh oysters with mignonette sauce, so fresh and gorgeously good, rounded off nicely with pear Creme brûlée. The pinot was soft and lovely, and the espresso brilliant not bitter. Pure coffee.
I dream of French espresso at night in my beach town US home. Small pleasures.
After a bustling, crowded brasserie scene, we ventured on Rue San Michel, passed the Pantheon where Napoleon lies buried spying on his beloved city, the one he masterminded. It’s the Latin Quarter, full of students on their last days before holiday. The night is crisp, probably low 50’s but still and clear. The old gibbous moon casts a striated glow across the tip of Norte Dame’s buttressed topmost spiral. Our lady peers above the city telegraphing disapproval of burgeoning modernity–and us tourists–clear across town to the tomb. I feel her.
And the 16th century church featuring Bach every Saturday stood eerily sandwiched between stone and masonry, dwelling and commerce. On a brisk night, throat to boot warmed by French Pinot, Paris welcomed us aimless wanderers soaking in the hate sanctuary.
The south threads vineyard to the right to oyster farms to the left as we travel the country road tracking miles of cordoned sea, rhythmic cages to the tide. Down the road thirty to forty minutes from the airport, we stopped at a petit village paper napkin restaurant serving fresh oysters, mussels, cod, clams and conch. Plateau de fruits de mer. Fruits of the sea, so fresh. Farmed local oysters keep the region’s salt locked deep inside the shells. Paris oysters frown upon their peasantry, I’m sure.
We’ll stay in a Spanish red tile roof and white stucco house facing acres of vineyards, dry now in winter. They belong to the nephew now, my children’s great aunt having cuddled up next to her husband’s burial plot. When the children were 3 and 6, we spent a few weeks in summer here when the swimming pool was a chicken coop next to the German Shepherds’ pen. And a pig too. My oldest wondered at a brown pig. Aren’t all pigs pink?
We had fresh laid eggs, brown and imperfect, but full gamey flavor, and we rode bikes and horses along the canals. We opened the loch for one huge sloop half moon house boat of fine resin pine shellacked to shine. An American woman piloted it and invited us on board for a slow-going mile or so. We folded up the stroller and boarded. She was supposed to be spending six months with her husband navigating these canals throughout France after his retirement. But he died instead. The 17th century Canals du Midi persist without him.
The winter before that summer in 2001, we spent a Christmas reunion here, the three brothers together again after twenty years. Three families, the grandchildren from 3 to 21 years old. And mamie cooked a feast as is her wont: oysters and lobster and foie gras and lamb, gratin, frommage, chocolats, table wine unending from the local vineyard, local muscat for the foie gras, and rich, aromatic coffee and creme brule to finish. We laughed and ate.
I see the pictures around the house from that winter. Everyone smiles broadly into the camera, even the brother who disappeared directly after that event, never to be heard from again. He does that. Just disconnects from the family he loves but mostly hates. No one can explain it so I can understand. My smile, as ever, is only half formed.
And now, looking over the land, lush green as ever, only now it’s punctuated with commerce and industry where only horses and cows peppered the open fields. Now there’s a supermarket walking distance where only a ten minute bike ride away tiny corner market serviced this small stretch of street just inside the borders of Salelles d’aude. It’s rural–but not as isolated.
Inside the house, I smile at the pastel green stools lining the green, blue and white tile counter where I once fed my little one in bib and baby seat gripped to the tile to float that nearly 20 pound near toddler at our first Christmas visit. Her mamie planted a Christmas tree, a sapling then. It towers above us stately now, twenty years later.
And six yeas after her first visit, she and her three year old sister, perched perilously atop those high stools, snacked on la vache qui rit cheese and yoplait yogurt. The house looks the same as it did then, only more cluttered. Because its owner has finally slowed. I thought it would never happen, this whirlwind of endless hyperactive cooking, cleaning and chattering. She’s been dying since I know her, 37 years now, except when I see her. She could outrun me in a foot race, I always imagined. But she’s 82 now, and moves slower, like a 68 year old.
I’m older too. The travel is no less painful since I don’t sleep on planes, upright and cabined tightly. But now I feel the aftermath of the struggle in my back and neck, having desperately tried to drift at angles suspended in air. I ache. But somehow I’m less grouchy than those other times. Perhaps it’s the growing up, my kids, now adults, and me, seasoned with too much obligation and not enough appreciation. My kids have taken up the grouch mantle. My mother in law blames me for their grouchiness when they’re tired. No one’s good enough for her son. As it should be.
A humble meal of vegetable soup, brown grainy, country bread, ratatouille, lamb cutlet (for the carnivores) and frommage paired with a young Saint Emilion filled us to sleeping, even after our late hours long naps. Hopefully jet lag lags a little less tomorrow. The chef and her son watch Miss France beauty pageant while the children suck up the wireless they’ve been missing for far too long, at least a day.