March 30, 2007

Pillow fight

In what sounds like a terrific blogger meet-up, two of my blogging friends recently went hiking in the National Park with Fantastic Waterfalls and at Least One Mouse, and they've been writing blog posts about their experiences. One of the funny stories that they both told reminded me of something that happened on a camping trip years ago.

I was camping with my husband at the Campsite in the Midwest With Big Sand Dunes. My daughter was four, and Boy in Black, who was in those days Boy in Diaper, was two, and I was pregnant with Shaggy Hair Boy. We'd chosen a site off by itself, a sandy area that backed up to the sand dunes, and at night after the fire burned down, we would sit by the red coals and watch raccoons come down the hills, their eyes glowing, to scamper through the campgrounds in search of food.

We slept on the floor of our small domed tent, sharing a couple of old quilts and using pillowcases stuffed with dirty clothes as pillows. As we settled down for the night, we could hear the raccoons outside the tent, walking on the picnic table, knocking over the dishes I had left to dry, clattering through all of our stuff.

"Those raccoons seem awfully brave," my husband said. "What if they get into the tent?" The tone of his voice indicated that he was not thrilled about the idea of sharing the tent with these furry creatures.

I laughed at him. "Don't be ridiculous."

My husband had never gone camping – ever – before he met me, so whenever we went camping, which was pretty often, I felt smug and superior. Not that I showed it, of course. I was never the least big condescending.

"I know what I'm doing," I said to him. "I locked all the food in the car. I'm not stupid enough to bring food into the tent."

"They sound awfully close."

"The tent is zipped up." That statement, I felt, settled the issue.

I couldn't believe he was bringing up such a silly idea. Maybe he hadn't camped as a kid, but we'd done lots of camping during the first six years of our marriage. And he was still afraid of wild creatures getting into the tent? Sigh.

I couldn't remember raccoons, actually, from any of the places I'd always camped in the northeast, but I could remember the black bears that sometimes came through the campgrounds in the mountains when I was a kid. They never hurt anyone; they just came through and dumped over trash cans and rummaged for scraps. I don't remember them ever going inside a tent, although come to think of it, one did go inside the women's restroom once, emerging from a stall to give the woman who was washing her hands the scare of her life. I told some of these stories to my husband as we snuggled the two kids to get them to go to sleep. Somehow I thought the bear stories would reassure him that I was the experienced camper who knew what the hell I was doing.

Once two-year-old Boy in Diaper was asleep, I stole the pillow from under his head. I needed it for myself because I had already used my own pillow to help shift my pregnant body into a more comfortable position on the tent floor. Little kids get clothes dirty quickly because they are always spilling food on themselves, and the pillow case was already stuffed with shirts that smelled like melted ice cream and juice and french fries, and all the unhealthy crap we used to let the kids eat on long car drives just to keep them quiet. I figured by the next night, we'd have another pillowcase full of dirty clothes and Boy in Diaper could have a pillow. As I drifted to sleep, I was conscious of the raccoons climbing about the picnic table just on the other side of the mesh window, my soundly sleeping son next to me, and my husband still lying awake, staring into the dark nervously.

I'm a sound sleeper, and it was getting light out when I woke up. I wasn't really awake, but in that drowsy, half-awake state. My two-year-old had shifted his position, and had pulled the pillow away from me.

I didn't want to wake up. I pulled the pillow back. My son pulled it again. I pulled it back. My eyes were still closed, and my sleepy brain was still following the kind of fuzzy logic that says a two-year-old doesn't need a pillow, especially if he always ends up sprawled on his mother instead. I was pregnant, and I deserved that comfy laundry bag pillow. I had given birth to this kid, breastfeed him for two years. The least he could do was let me have the pillow.

The tug-of-war continued. He gave the pillow a yank, stumbled against me, and I felt fur rub against my face. Fur? Since when did my two-year-old have fur?

I sat up, suddenly. The raccoon I 'd been fighting with, a big raccoon about the size of my two-year-old, turned and raced over the sleeping bodies of my family and out through the open tent door.

March 29, 2007

Struggle

Sometimes the most difficult boxes to break from
are simply lines made of shadow and light.

Shadow box

March 27, 2007

Sky blue pink

"What's your favourite colour?" I would ask my grandmother.

"Sky blue pink," she'd say.

I would rummage through the coffee can of broken crayons, looking for blue and pink and gold that I could use to draw a sunset. The paper we used was a strange texture, with a weave like fabric, and it came in a big roll. We called it Joe's paper. We'd cut off pieces as we needed it, sometimes all of us kids hunching over a six-foot piece to make a holiday mural. Long Halloween murals, with haunted houses and cornfields and black cats, were our specialty. Someone – well, I'm guessing his name might have been Joe – had given us the heavy roll of paper, more than a foot in diameter, and even though we spent all kinds of time drawing, it took us years to use it up.

When my grandmother and aunt came to visit, they'd stay for a few days, and every afternoon, they'd sit at the kitchen table long after lunch was over to play Scrabble or make clay figures or draw on Joe's paper. My mother, washing dishes at the sink, would put the kettle on because Aunt Seashell loved a cup of tea. We'd eat homemade cookies and drink tea during those lazy afternoons while we kids scribbled on paper with crayons and the three women filled the room above our heads with comfortable chatter that swirled like cigarette smoke. I rarely said a word, or even looked up from under my hair while I rolled clay into snakes (the only thing I could ever really make), but I listened carefully, loving the rhythm of dialogue among three women who have a shared history and shared accent. I can still remember the way my grandmother told a funny story, with a dramatic pause just before the punchline. My youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, tells a story in much the same way, even though my grandmother died when she was still a toddler, which makes me wonder if story-telling has some kind of genetic component.

For years, I didn't understand my grandmother's favorite colour. The sunsets I loved were summer sunsets at our camp, which looks west across the River That Runs Between Two Countries, brilliant red sunsets with vivid streaks of purple spread across the ripples of the bay. It's been forty years, probably, since she tried to explain why she loved that colour. But as I've gotten older, closer and closer each year to the age my grandmother was when I knew her, I've come to appreciate the more subtle colours of the sunset just outside my door in early spring, those soft colours, sky blue pink.


Sky blue pink

My front yard. The colours, unfortunately, don't look the same once I uploaded the photo to Flickr and posted it to my blog – something got lost in the process. Or maybe, really, the colours can be seen only in person.

March 26, 2007

Moody

We get rain, hours and hours of drenching rain, until the ditches overflow and muddy water creeps across roads, and then sometimes the sun comes bursting from behind the clouds, even as the rain comes dancing down into puddles and warm white mist rises from the melting banks of snow. All afternoon we had flashes of lightning, snapping through the windows as if some drunkenly happy giant was taking photos of my house. I love a good thunderstorm, even though a low pressure systems can give me a migraine, or perhaps I love that a thunderstorm often releases the pressure in my head. Up at camp in the summer, storms come chugging and crashing up the river, gathering strength as they travel toward us. When I am lying in a small nylon tent, I savor the rush of night air bending the flimsy walls of the tent, swooshing the branches of pine trees outside the tent, and the crash of thunder smashing up against sky with all that incredible of power.

During the muffled white quietness of winter, the only sound I hear at night comes from the wind chimes on my porch, a quiet melody played by the wind. Spring, on the other hand, comes barging into this part of the world like a teenage boy who moves restlessly from drum set to piano – swinging drum sticks, hitting cymbals, fingers racing over keys – and then switching on lights, opening the refrigerator, leaping back to the drum set, pouring juice, sliding onto the piano bench, changing his mind every ten seconds, his energy filling the spaces around him with big swirling crashes of music and rainlight and mud.

Sky

March 25, 2007

Wicked

On a rainy afternoon, with the woods outside my window cold and muddy, I retreated to the bathroom, locking myself in so that I could relax in a tub of hot water, taking time to myself to read by the grey afternoon light. From below, I could hear piano music and drumming and the muted voices of teenage boys talking and laughing. But in the little room at the top of the stairs, heat began blowing out of the register as the furnace clicked on, a soothing noise that drowned out the sounds of the household.

Warm water caressed my legs and my belly as I shifted into a comfortable spot, admiring the way my skin looks silky when it's wet, soaping up my hands to swish my body clean, and then wiping my hands dry on a towel before I picked up the book that I had set on the floor. While the steamy heat released the tension in my lower back, I disappeared into a world where powerful women cast spells, where animals have voices and souls, and a yellow brick road leads to the Emerald City.

A long afternoon bath, filled with the scent of lavender and purple-grey afternoon light, strengthens me. When I stepped from the bathtub to wrap myself in a worn, soft towel, I felt ready to return to the work week, ready to read the newspaper with its depressing stories, ready to a culture in which strong, confident, powerful women are often ignored and scorned, where a person who speaks the truth is often called wicked.

Wicked

March 24, 2007

Mud-luscious

"It's the smell," said one of my students.

I think he's right. A couple days of steady rain has washed away much of the snow, leaving icy trails where snow was stomped hard and mounds of dirty white along roads and parking lots. Big expanses of wet brown grass have been exposed to the air for the first time in months. The breeze carries the scent of rotting leaves and flattened weeds and new mud. It smells like spring.

My students have started talking about kayaking and fishing, and plans for summer internships. My own boys have abandoned the melting snow ramp in the front yard to play Ultimate Frisbee in the field across the street. When they come in from a game, their clothes are splattered with mud and their hands red with cold.

We begin each winter with four snow shovels. But no matter how often I remind the kids to put them back up against the house, inevitably a shovel gets left in a snow bank, where it falls over and disappears beneath the next snowfall. By March, we are down to one shovel usually, and we're missing all kinds of things: plastic toboggans, snow skates, a recycling bin, a whole picnic table. The first hard rain of spring melts the snow that has kept them hidden. I found logs, too, and pieces of plywood out near the road, used last month during an effort to get a car out of the ditch.

When the rain stops and afternoon sunlight moves across our backyard, the phragmites and trees seem to reach for that light. Soft old snow retreats into the low shadows near the kids' tree fort. The sun reaches into the woods, awakening plants and creatures. It's the smell, perhaps, or the angle of the light, but somehow, we all know. Within a week or so, the ice will disappear from the pond, the peepers will begin their familiar song, and winter will be over.


Afternoon Sun

March 23, 2007

Where music comes from

While With-a-Why is at his piano lesson, I have 30 minutes of free time in the piano studio. Sometimes I bring my laptop along and write a blog post. Sometimes I'll grade some papers. Sometimes I'll read the newspaper or a book I've brought along.

Other times, I'll inch my chair over to a spot where the sun is falling through the big picture windows and soak in the warmth, relaxing and daydreaming. Bits of piano music will come drifting from under the two doors behind me, mixed with the murmur of voices as teachers talk to students. I'll watch the sun slanting off the different pianos – sleek black pianos, old wooden ones with intricate carvings, battered wooden benches, and shining new wood pianos. Sometimes the lids will be propped open, and I can walk around to peer inside these instruments, at the little wooden hammers and the metal strings and the red bits of felt, and try to figure out where that music comes from.

Where music comes from

March 22, 2007

Almost

My body is imprinted with all kinds of memories. That scar on my elbow reminds me of a summer day more than thirty years ago when, while I was bike riding near my parents' house, I collided with a dog in order to avoid a collision with a car and slammed my body against the pavement. The scars on my fingers remind me of the time I was investigating a trap door with a bunch of other teenagers, and the door slammed shut on my fingers. We never did get to see what was on the other side of the door. When it rains, my left leg aches, and I remember weeks of lying on my side with my leg in a long cast, my children playing on my bed and the floor beside me while I healed. The stretch marks on my breasts come from that summer between seventh grade and eighth, when my body grew like magic.

For the last two months, I've been conscious, every day, almost every minute, of my right knee, a body part that, to be honest, I don't usually spend much time thinking about. During the month of February, the knee injury throbbed at night, waking me up during the darkest hours of the night, spinning me into the dreadful introspection that happens during long winter nights. And during daylight hours, I had to think carefully about everything I did, planning my route around campus, for instance, so that I would get to elevators instead of stairs. I had to stop doing the things I usually did without thinking – like the simple act of stamping my feet to rid them of snow and slush when I walk into a building on campus.

The healing has been frustratingly slow. I've had to make deliberate choices every day, figuring out things I could do so that I wouldn't go crazy without physical releases like hiking, snowboarding, skiing, or belly dancing. I spent more time by the fire, more time doing reiki, more time talking to friends on the phone or writing long emails.

And gradually, the knee has gotten better. One day I noticed that I could walk normally again, without having to keep my leg stiff. Another day, I found myself walking down the stairs without pain. I'd wake up in the morning sometimes and realize that I had slept through the night. Sometimes I'd go for whole stretches of time without thinking about the knee at all.

I don't know yet whether the pain will completely disappear. Sometimes if I've been sitting too long in one position and get up quickly, a spasm of pain will remind me of the injury. My students invited me to go hiking with them in the mountains, and I don't think I can yet do that kind of upward climbing on an uneven trail. I think the knee still needs more time; I don't think I have yet gone through the last cycle of pain and healing. And I wonder, too, if some echo might not remain, like the other scars on my body, like the aches in other body parts, some twinge that will remind me of this winter, the year that I was 45 years old, with my kids growing up fast, my daughter overseas, and me at the threshold of a new stage in my life.

March 20, 2007

Vernal Equinox

My body is confused.

Just a few weeks ago, when I was in the Southern City Where Creative Writing Conference Was Held, I spent an afternoon in a botanical garden where pink blossoms were unfolding on the trees. When I was visiting the European City Where My Daughter is Spending the Semester, I walked through a park wearing only a t-shirt. (Yes, of course, I had pants on, too. This is a country where acting proper is quite important. I mean that I didn't have on mittens or a hat or a winter coat.) In the City of Patisseries That Smell Wonderful, we walked through sunshine in parks where the gardens were already filled with little flowers.

I've watched spring arrive at least three times already, in three different parts of the world. So even though snow this time of year is perfectly normal where I live, I keep looking out in my backyard and wondering – what is it doing there?

Backyard on the last day of winter

My backyard on the last day of winter.

March 19, 2007

Au Revoir

One of the first things I did when I got to City Where Both Men and Women Wear Bright Scarves was buy a scarf so that I would blend right in with the rest of the population. I figured that the scarf could hide the fact that I was wearing sneakers instead of the dark shoes that everyone else had on. Of course, I was also wearing a red fleece, which seemed out of place in the sea of black coats. (Hey, a fleece is handy when you travel; you can use it as a pillow.) I was also carrying a map. And I kept taking out my camera. Then there's my accent, and my mannerisms, and the way that I have to stop and look at everything and exclaim about how cool it is. So it is possible that one or two people might have suspected I was an American.

When we got to our hotel in the City Where Young Men Who Reminded Me of Boy In Black Played Their Guitars in Metro Tunnels, my daughter took charge and talked to the hotel manager in French. After a glance at me, he said, "I can speak English, if you'd like."

"No! No!" I said, "Je voudrais parler en Francais." I mean, what is the point of going to another country if you aren't going to learn the language?

He laughed, and obligingly launched into sentences of French, complete with all kinds of hand gestures. I nodded at each sentence, and waited until we got on the lift to ask my daughter, "Okay, what did he say?"

From then on, whenever we arrived or left the building, my daughter would coach me ahead of time and I'd go up to the desk and say something French. Hotel Manager would laugh like crazy and then patiently answer.

It was like that pretty much all over the City With the Musical Language. Waiters, ticket collectors, museum staff – most of them probably bilingual – were just incredibly patient with my pathetic attempts to speak the language. It helped, of course, that most of the waiters, young men the same age as my daughter, were so taken with her that they usually wanted to hang out at our cafe table and flirt with her. The young men were as funny and informal as the teenage guys who hang out at my house, and I suspect they would have teased me as much even if I did speak French fluently. When I tried to explain to one waiter that I was looking for a "non-smoking" table, he said with a grin, "Oh, you can sit here and not smoke." Our laughing just encouraged him. He took out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to my daughter.

One young man, when he figured out that my daughter could understand French and her parents couldn't, took the opportunity to flirt with her outrageously. Every time he left the table, she would translate for me. He kept asking her to go out dancing with him. She protested (in French, of course), "But I'm with my parents!" He looked at me and said, "Your mother can come. And your father can go back to the hotel and get some sleep." He kept pretending he didn't know what my husband was asking for when he said he wanted the check, and kept entertaining us with all kinds of pantomimes. When we finally left, he came to the curb and blew my daughter kisses.

Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter is very adult for her age, self-assured and confident, and living in a city for the last couple of months has only increased that. Unlike her mother, she adapts to new settings right away. In her thin black coat and boots, she fit right in with the other passengers on the train. She would glance at a train map on the wall of a station and make a decision without breaking stride; she guided us about expertly. In the afternoon, she would head off confidently by herself to explore the city while my husband and I went back to the hotel to take a nap. She'd make sure we had our metro map and knew what stop to get off, then she'd leave us with a wave.

"I guess she's a grown-up now," my husband said to me the first night.

But even adult as she is, she is still the same Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter. It was much easier saying goodbye to her this time, knowing that her semester is half over and in another seven weeks, she'll be home for the summer.

Daughter on a city street

Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter going off to explore a city street.

March 18, 2007

Home

When we went through customs in Hub City, the inspector looked at my passport and said, "Where are you flying to?"

"Snowstorm City," I said. Well, I said the real name, not the pseudonym. After eight hours on a plane, I was looking forward to going home and sleeping in my own bed.

He looked up from the document he was stamping. "Good luck with that."

What? Last time I had talked to anyone from home, I'd gotten reports of warm weather and sunshine. But it turns out that while we were flying across the ocean, a snowstorm was moving across the east coast, closing airports everywhere.

As we walked through Hub City Airport, we saw long lines of people at ticket counters, trying to get flights to someplace, anywhere. We saw people sitting on the floor, lying down on their coats to take naps. The young man in uniform at our gate said cheerfully, "We are looking for people who are willing to get bumped, but we can't put you up in a hotel – everything is booked – and we probably can't get you out of here for days."

The flight was late, but Snowstorm City Airport stayed open. That's one advantage of living in Snowstorm Region – we have the equipment for removing snow. Sixteen hours after we'd left my daughter's flat, we hit the icy runway in Snowstorm City, snow blurring the windows of the plane as it screeched to a stop. We were home.

March 17, 2007

Famous Churches

When I go to a cathedral or mosque, a temple or ceremonial hogan, I like to be a participant instead of a tourist. So one evening while we were still in the Country Where You Have to Look to the Right Before You Cross the Street and I saw a sign in a famous twelfth century church inviting us to come to Evensong, I convinced my husband that we should return for the service. I didn't know, exactly, what Evensong might be, but I just loved the name of it. (Yes, I am the kind of person who will often choose a colour in a catalog based on how poetic the name sounds.) When we returned in the evening, we were told that the service wouldn't be Evensong, but a Sung Eucharist, which turned out to be very much like the traditional Catholic Mass I grew up with, except of course without the Catholic parts.

When we arrived, coming through the heavy doors, I slipped into the side aisle, taking the chair just at the elbow of the man who was directing the choir. From that spot, I could look right into the faces of the choir, a handful of young men and about a dozen little boys, who stood solemnly in their dark red and white robes. The choir had no girls in it, but these little boys had incredibly high-pitched voices. I can remember when Shaggy Hair Boy's voice was like that – he'd have these meltdowns and he'd scream in a voice that was more piercing than a smoke alarm. I realize now that we could have taken advantage of that voice and put him into a choir.

The only woman present on the altar was a young woman who seemed to be in the role of some kind of assistant. She seemed strangely familiar with her dark curly hair and lovely British accent, but I couldn't quite place her until my husband nudged me and said, "It's Hermione reading the Scriptures."

I spent most of the service watching the choir boys, who would dart shy smiles my way when they saw me looking. They took the music very seriously, their voices rising to the old stone arches that rose high above our heads in the candle-lit dimness. With their pale skin, dark hair, and flushed cheeks, they reminded me of my own boys at that age.

I've lost track of how many famous and not-so-famous chapels and churches we have visited over the last week. I never turn down a chance to gaze at stained glass windows, climb a tower for a magnificent view, admire stone gargoyles, or analyze architecture that tries for transcendence. In each church, I would find the side chapel where the candles were, slip coins into the candle box, and light a candle. In some churches, the candles were round flat votive candles to be set on big circular grates. Other churches had the little white tapers that could be wedged into old metal holders. I love the habit of lighting candles, of a little flame dancing near other little flames, my prayers joining the prayers of others who do not even speak the same language. I lit candles for my kids, of course, for my parents and siblings and mother-in-law. In the Cathedral Dedicated to a Famous Woman, I lit a candle for a friend who was planning a difficult conversation with her mother, and another candle for a friend who is working through some painful issues from his childhood.

Even though the stone buildings were huge – and magnificent, with their high ceilings and statues and windows – the candles created intimate spaces where I felt comfortable taking the time to light a flame and then rest on an old wooden pew, sending warm energy across the ocean to those at home.

Cathedral

March 15, 2007

"Les Bateaux! Les Bateaux!"

Les Bateaux

During this trip to City Where Young Waiters Follow My Daughter to the Curb to Blow Her Kisses, we've visited museums and cemeteries, historic monuments and churches. I think I've climbed every spiral stone staircase in the city, which has been a strain on my still-recovering knee, although I will say the magnificent views have been well worth it. My favourite way to explore a city is to choose a neighborhood and walk around aimlessly. I especially love the curving streets of European cities, where anything might be around the bend: a cafe with red awnings, a fromage shop brilliantly yellow, a patisserie with fruit tarts in the window, a flower shop bursting with clusters of colour, a corner park where children play, or a cathedral where old women shuffle across the stone floor to light candles.

On sunny spring days in City Where Breakfast Includes Croissants and Pain Au Chocolat, there are all kinds of beautiful places to stop and take a rest. This morning after strolling along a canal hung with the branches of old trees and lined with trendy shops, we took the metro to the Big Gardens With Fountains Near Palace, snagged three green metal chairs, and soaked up the sun. Little kids were sailing boats in the fountain pools, carrying long sticks to push the sailboats with and yelling to each other excitedly in French. When we'd get a good gust of wind, the whole fleet of boats would glide from one side of the stone-edged pond to the other, and the kids would jump up and down, laughing.

When we got hungry, we wandered to a place Artist Friend had told me about, a dark red cafe on a sunny corner near the shadows of the palace. The Cafe Where Artist Friend Spent Many Afternoons When He Was Young juts out into a busy intersection where all kinds of people hurried past as we sat at the very corner under the red awning and ate our lunch. The young waiter teased me about being a vegetarian ("Dessert? Nous avons dessert vegetarienne.") while my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter teased me about having to have the "Artist Friend experience." A little boy on a bicycle with faulty brakes came hurtling down the sidewalk and crashed right into us.

Of course, I went inside to see what the rest of the cafe looked like. A short flight of stairs led down into the kitchen, where the waiter laughed at my curiosity and talked to me in French. Above my head, people clustered at small tables in a cosy loft-like room. To the left, a spiral staircase led down to two tiny restrooms, each about the size of the bathroom on an airplane, with a little sink in the wall for both. A few more tables were tucked up against the windows on the ground level, making use of every inch of space. I stared out at the scene in front of the cafe – students hurrying by, the high walls of the palace in the background – and tried to imagine what it would be like to be Artist Friend, sitting here on a sunny afternoon, his whole self opening to City Where Language is Music and Bright Colours Sail in Fountain Pools. As I watched, a woman sauntered by, carrying a sheaf of flowers, her long legs clad in black silk stockings.

Spring

Spring

From home, the boys report that the snowbanks are beginning to melt. Here in European City of Art Museums and Afternoon Sex, the breezes are warm already. As I walk down a narrow, winding street, flowers fall into my hair.

March 14, 2007

Little round tables

When I walk by the corner cafe in the morning, a man with a white apron is sweeping the sidewalk, calling "Bonjour" to anyone who passes. A man in a plaid dress shirt and striped orange tie sits by himself with a newspaper and coffee. A woman in a black skirt has taken a table in the sun: she turns her face towards the warmth, a cigarette dangling from her hand. A younger woman, a bright scarf wrapped around her neck, hunches over a paperback book. Two older men set briefcases on the sidewalk as they choose a table.

As the sun gets higher, the cafe begins buzzing with conversation. Every little round table holds two or three people, the dishes on the tables clinking as hungry customers jostle everything to make it all fit. The elbows and knees of strangers brush with a murmured, "Pardon." Waiters wearing black and white weave through the tables with china bowls of salad, baguette sandwiches that hang provocatively over the edge of the plate, and glasses of wine that glow red in the sunlight.

By late afternoon, sun warms the sidewalk where the tiny tables cluster sleepily. A young man with a backpack stares at the people walking by, just inches from his table. Two women with shopping bags at their feet chat. A man fiddles with his cell phone while he eats ham and cheese on baguette.

As the shadows get longer, customers inch their chairs into patches of sun. Evenings in early March are still cool. The round little tables tilt under heavy plates of warm food, the ends of cigarettes glow, and the smell of garlic and onion wafts through the crowd. The cold night air begins pushing people into the cosy tables inside, where they can drink wine, talk with their friends, and stare out the big windows.

Cafe

March 13, 2007

Faim

Patisserie

The last time I was in the City Where the Bridges and Quays Glow with Soft Light in the Evening, I was traveling with my parents and my youngest sister. My mother lent me her journal from that trip, which has been really helpful because she kept track of metro stops. The first night here, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter read the journal, and she laughed at how detailed it was. "I think Grandma wrote down every single thing she ate."

Yes, that's true. My mother is a skinny woman who eats constantly, and her travel journals are always filled with food descriptions. In her journal from the City Where People Eat Leisurely Meals at Tiny Round Tables on the Sidewalk Outside the Restaurant, she described what we ate for every meal, and especially the goodies we ate every day from the nearest patisserie, laden with rich chocolate and real cream and fresh strawberries.

My daughter and I keep talking about how much Shaggy Hair Boy would love the bread here. Even a simple green salad becomes a filling meal when it's accompanied by a fresh baguette, cut into pieces and served in a basket. Yesterday, after walking through a park where fountains shoot water high into the air, visiting a museum with long paintings of a water lily pond, and climbing an old stone arch to look at streets that radiate in all directions, we rested our feet at a round red table in the sun while we chatted about our plans for the evening and watched the people walking past us.

Baguette

March 12, 2007

Bonjour

River edge

Yesterday afternoon, we arrived in the European City Where People Speak French and Carry Phallic-shaped Sticks of Bread. We took the metro to our hotel, situated near the Famous Cemetery Where Dead Doors Singer is Buried. The afternoon sun was so warm that we didn't even need coats as we set off to explore the city. We followed the river to a Famous Cathedral Where Tourists Watch People Attend Mass, walked inside the huge stone church to light some candles, and then wandered about the two islands, stopping at one point to sit on the curb and watch a street performer who mixed comedy with juggling tricks. Corny jokes, I find, are funnier when they are in another language. My daughter helped to translate, and I found myself laughing in triumph any time I figured out what Man Who Juggles Flaming Sticks was saying.

The bridges and quays along the river were filled with people enjoying the slanting sun that lit up the fronts of old stone buildings. Many people had brought books or magazines and had found spots where they could settle against a wall and read. In the canal, a boy played with a remote control sailboat while a girl sprawled on the top of a houseboat, sketching the scene. On a rare patch of grass near a stone wall, a woman in a black tank top stretched out, sunbathing. In another patch of grass, just under the famous stone gargoyles, two men were practicing back flips. All along the edge of the river, groups of friends were gathered to chat or eat picnic lunches. A couple on a bench at the end of the island were tangled together and kissing passing passionately.

March 10, 2007

City morning

Morning street just after rain

This morning I woke up early and went out to buy juice and biscuits. I love to walk city streets in the morning, before they are crowded with people. The sidewalks were wet and glistening cleanly. Shop owners carried out boxes of fruit and racks of scarves, setting up colourful displays. Big red double-decker buses rumbled by. I wandered about happily, peering down side streets and stopping to smell bunches of cut flowers that crowded into green buckets, before buying what we needed for breakfast and going back to the flat to wake up my husband and daughter for another day of exploring the city.

International Blogger Meetup

View from the tower

Since Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter still had another day of writing midterm papers before her spring break began, my husband and I took a side trip to the Small City of Many Spires to meet one of my blogging friends. English Minister Blogging Friend and I have been plotting ways to meet ever since I told her my daughter would be spending the semester in her country.

Whenever I read the blog of the Woman Who Scores the Same as Me on the Myers-Brigg Test, I have this sense that we have parallel lives but on different sides of the ocean. Our households, our kids, our husbands, and our personalities and quirks seem oddly similar. This week, we finally had a chance to meet in person.

We walked through the busy streets and wandered through colleges, we admired architecture, we climbed the tall tower of Cathedral Named After a Woman to stand in the sun and gawk at the view. But mostly, we talked, our English and American accents weaving together as we jumped from topic to topic. My patient and introverted husband had little chance to get a word in edgewise.

When we were cold from the brisk wind that had come up, Anglican Curate Blogging Friend bought us lunch in a pub that felt wonderfully warm and cozy. We talked about her trip to India last fall, her work, her path to ordination. We talked about kids and hometowns, and the week we had planned with Smart Wonderful Beautiful Daughter.

In the women's bathroom (or the loo, as my English Friend would say), we stood together in front of a lovely mirror and tried with our cameras to get a wonderfully clever blogger photo of our reflections. Somehow, we failed to get a good shot. Maybe it's because we kept trying to change the angle so that we wouldn't get the condom/tampon dispenser in the photo. Maybe it's because we were laughing too hard. Or maybe it's that it's really hard to get a photo in a small bathroom and not show your faces at all. But at least we tried.

We ended our afternoon with tea and dessert at Cafe That Serves Spotted Dick Pudding. I first embarrassed my husband and English Blogging Friend by taking a photo of the chalkboard that held the list of desserts and then by changing tables twice. I wanted to sit at one of two little round tables in the sunlight, tucked up against the big window. No matter that two young lovers were already at the other little table, sharing a romantic meal. I mean, an empty table is an empty table, right? All is fair when it comes to restaurants and empty chairs.

My husband, sensitive to the needs of a young couple on a date, tried quietly to indicate that the shy lovers might not appreciate the presence of two giddy, talkative women, old enough to be their mothers, loudly chatting at their elbows. But his hints were too subtle and the sunshine was hard to resist, and we settled into the chairs happily. When the couple, both dressed like college students, finished their meal and were pulling money from their pockets to pay their bill, my husband reached over (it wasn't hard, they were like two inches away), grabbed the bill, and said, "We've intruded on your space, so let me at least pay your bill."

The young man, with his flushed cheeks and big eyes, looked incredulous. He sort of stammered, "Are you sure?" and then seemed to be searching for words. Finally, he looked at me and then back at my husband and said, "Are you from America then?"

That question, delivered with his lovely accent, seemed so in keeping with the moment that it quite made my day.

College courtyard

March 09, 2007

From the dessert list

Dessert list

I guess if you are going to eat hot spotted dick pudding, it's best to have it with custard.

March 08, 2007

Bench in the sun

Park

After a trip that began with three hours on the runway at Snowstorm City, while they de-iced the plane again and again, and then a long night of flying over the ocean while strangely cheerful flight attendants kept waking us up and giving us food at bizarrely inappropriate times, my husband and I were finally reunited with our daughter. How good it was to hug her at last! She seemed happy to see her overtired, drugged-with-dramamine, zombie-like parents and chatted about her semester as she guided us expertly about the city. We ate in a pub that served veggie burgers, walked through streets in Chinatown that were strung with bright red lanterns, and took a quiet evening stroll along the River That Runs Through the City to look across at the Famous Clock Tower and Equally Famous Government Buildings.

This morning, while our daughter went off to go to her classes and hand in midterm papers, my husband and I walked through the neighborhood where I lived 25 years ago. The building, in fact the whole street of tall pale buildings, is still there, looking very much the same, the lobby filled with Arab women in dark veils. A big American-based hotel has filled up the space near the train station, turning the quiet streets into a bustling area of tourist-type stores with racks of colorful scarves for sale in front. The little bakery is gone, but the pub is still there, with the same wood bar where we gathered to drink and tell stories every night.

The big green park around the corner looks the same as I remember it, with its ponds and fountains and diagonal paths. My husband and I found a bench in the sun near one of the fountains, and then I left him to write in his journal while I walked about and took photos. I came through this park practically every day as a college student, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. It was my first time — well, okay, my only time — living in a city, and I appreciated having all that green space so close by. How strange and wonderful to return 25 years later, so changed myself, a grown-up now with a daughter as old as I used to be, and find the park still here, the same paths and trees and benches in the sun.

Fountain

March 06, 2007

Finally

We leave today.

My husband has never been across the ocean. This will be his first time visiting the European City where People With Lovely Accents Buy Fish and Chips Wrapped in Newspaper. I'll be showing him the neighborhood where I lived 25 years ago, when I was a college student studying abroad. He still knows the address by heart because he wrote to me every single day that semester. (Yes, every single day. The other American students were jealous that I got so much mail from home.) I will take him to my favorite pub, which I know is still there because I googled it, and my favorite bakery, which may or may not still be there. We'll walk around the streets near Train Station With Same Name as the Bear. We'll eat afternoon tea, buy flowers at the market, and take a train to the countryside for a night.

We'll be seeing stained glass windows that shape light into vivid colour, museums full of artwork that will look familiar because we've seen it in so many books, and cathedrals where old women stoop low to light candles. We'll be eating in pubs full of British chatter and French cafes that smell of onion and garlic. We'll take the new fast train under the channel, the train that hurtles through a tunnel that did not exist when I lived there last. We'll take a boat ride at night along the River That Flows Through the City With the Famous Tower That No One Liked at First. We'll see churches older than the country we live in: we'll see bits of a medieval wall.

But most of my readers can guess what the best part of the trip will be: we'll be seeing Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter.

March 05, 2007

Practically fluent

On our date last night, as we were eating minestrone soup and salad, my husband and I discussed the trip we are taking over spring break, an overseas journey that will include four days in a country where everyone speaks French. When we planned the trip, I assured my husband that I speak French just fine. I may have exaggerated my fluency just a bit, but really, all I need are a few phrases, right?

I have a method. No matter where I am, in a cafe or in a restaurant or at the train station, I just point to someone who has the food or drink or train ticket I want and say, "la meme chose" which means "the same thing." Of course, the word meme has gained such popularity in blogging circles that the phrase has the added bonus of sounding like some kind of secret blogging signal, sort of like a blogger drawing a computer in the sand.

Last time I was in the City Where the Guillotine Was Used, I was traveling with my little sister, Urban Sophisticate. The very first morning, when we were in line to buy our metro passes, I pointed to the man next to me who was buying a pass and said confidently, "La meme chose." My sister was wildly impressed at my fluency. Of course, it wasn't long before she figured out it was just about the only phrase I knew.

See, the problem is that in high school I took Spanish, which doesn't help at all when I am in country where everyone is speaking French. (Well, to be honest, it didn't help me all that much when I visited an island where everyone spoke Spanish, but that's another story. Let's just say native speakers of Spanish talk really, really fast.) Anyhow, I always get French mixed up with Spanish. I'll say things like, "Donde esta la Louvre?" And then there is the weird thing that they do with the verbs, like saying "have" when we would say "am." For example, I was trying to be all sophisticated and worldly on the train when I sat down next to my sister and said in French, "I am hungry." The man next to me gave me such a strange look that I whispered to my sister, "What did I say?"

Well, it turns out that hunger (faim) and woman (femme) are similar sounding words. So instead of saying, "I have hunger," which is what a native speaker would have said, what I had announced to my sister, in the manner of an American, which is to say that I talked to the whole car, was, "I am woman." Which, of course, is perfectly true.

I am actually quite good at reading and writing in languages other than English, but when it comes to speaking and listening: well, let's just say that lovely musical French sounds to me just like a rushing brook. Beautiful to listen to, but I've got no idea what the words say, or even where one word ends and another begins. My husband picks up accents and languages quickly, but he, too, took Spanish in high school and nothing he said last night indicated that he was going to be much help on the trip.

"Let's see," he said, "I know how to say that I have a red pen. I can ask someone to be my friend. I can ask what time it is."

He paused. "That's about it."

Luckily, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter, who will be traveling with us, has taken five years of French. She seems to think that taking French in high school would not have helped either me or my husband anyhow, since we are both getting pretty old and senile, and high school was more than 25 years ago for us.

Her worry isn't the language barrier: she has reservations about traveling to the Romantic City of Light with her parents in tow. "You two are going to be ditching me all the time to go off and have sex."

"Mais oui," I said to her, "Je suis femme."

Or maybe it's "J'ai faim."

Eh. La meme chose.

March 04, 2007

Creative Writing Conference

For the last four days, I've been surrounded by writers. A few of them, true, fit the mold of Self-Important Famous Writer who struts about with his book to his chest like a Boy Scout badge, and I've seen a few of the Famous Writer Wannabes, who slither through the conference crowd, eyes darting this way and that, looking for Important Editors they need to suck up to. But mostly, I've met people who care passionately about writing: people who love to rearrange words on the page, who value the way a writer can live in two worlds, who feel they have something to say, or who use writing as part of their journey of self-discovery and healing. One writer talked about poetry as self-medication: another said that writing was for her, survival.

Most of the writers I've met have been funny and self-deprecating and eager to talk about their work. And they have stories to tell, in sessions and in the hallways and over leisurely dinners. One writer told me about the time he and his friends retooled a tampon machine to dispense rolls of their writing. Their original idea was to use a cigarette machine but a tampon machine was cheaper. This same group of friends once had a "cult reading" at which they served red Kool-Aid. The weirdest part is that their audience drank the Kool-Aid.

The recurring theme during conversations and sessions, the biggest battle for every writer, was how to find time to write. There's that little matter of the full-time job you need to pay the bills. Self-deprecating Fiction Writer talked about the year he held a 9 to 5 desk job that was just incredibly boring. During lulls at work he would steal time to do revisions. "I had to be sneaky, though, " he said, "The supervisor didn't like it. Someone playing solitaire on the computer for five hours straight – that was fine. But working on a novel was considered something kind of perverse."

"My son took two naps every day," said another man. "If he hadn't, I never would have finished the book." One writer I met worked as a go-go dancer. "It's good money," she said. "Pays the bills." Another did technical writing during the day and worked on his novel at night. Another writer teaches yoga and runs her own business. One writer said she keeps a Jane Austen action figure on her desk for inspiration.

Of course, many of the writers at this conference have academic jobs. Writer with Purple Hair said, "My father was a physics professor, and I noticed that he was home a lot. So I went with that. I got a PhD in history." She paused. "Try teaching the French Revolution to undergraduates for 12 years. After a while, I got bored and started making stuff up."

I think every MFA program in the country put their grad students on a train and sent them to this conference in City Where Trees Flower in Early March. The sessions were crowded with young people, who kept asking older writers and editors all kinds of questions. During one conversation, a grad student asked, "How do you balance teaching and writing?"

Experienced Writer said, "Okay, if you ask that in a job interview, I say: teaching informs my writing." But then he went on: "The reality is that teaching takes a lot of emotional energy. And grading saps your will to live."

At least he was honest.

On Friday night, I went with my friends to a late night event put on by poets who live in the Heart of Evil. We crowded into the dimlit room, sitting on the floor, crammed together with shoulders and knees touching, and listened as slam poets took the mike. That evening was the launching of a poetry festival, a gathering of writers protesting the war on Irag, an encouragement for all writers to speak up with voices of provocation and witness, a roomful of people who think that words can be a way to change the world.

March 03, 2007

Here comes the sun

Botanical garden

Today I felt the sun on my skin.

I had had a satisfying morning: chatting with colleagues, attending a panel put on by some women I admire greatly, and then eating lunch with a friend I've known for years. But by afternoon, I was exhausted from so much time spent in those big carpeted rooms with rows of chairs lined up obediently underneath glaring lights. So I sneaked away from the conference to do something I love to do: wander a strange city by myself.

For about the first mile that I walked, I was still surrounded by hotels and concrete, but the air was wonderfully warm. How good it felt to walk without hat or mittens, with no winter coat, no heavy boots. As I moved out from the shadows of the buildings, I even took my fleece off so that the sun could touch my forearms.

I saw trees finally, their branches holding up a brilliantly blue sky. I passed old houses with big porches and pillars, some with front yards full of ivy and plants and flowers. Flowers blossoming already! Some of the old houses seemed abandoned, dilapidated, but others had been restored, although mostly into offices – a doctor's office, a real estate broker, that kind of thing. One lovely house with a wide, welcoming veranda had, strangely enough, two big "No trespassing" signs tacked to two trees in the fenced-in front yard, which kind of killed the effect of gracious southern hospitality.

I passed a park where an old man sat on a bench reading a book and a mother pushed a baby in a stroller. I saw pine straw used as mulch, again and again, at the base of trees and at the edge of flower gardens. I had expected pine straw to have that kind of rich pine smell that a bed of pine needles in the woods has, but to my surprise, the pine straw seemed to have little scent. I stopped trying to smell it when I noticed that people in the park giving me strange looks.

The best part of my walk was the botanical gardens. I wandered through a big building made mostly of glass, breathing in the moist scent of all kinds of plants and incredible flowers. One building imitated a tropical rain forest, with green plants hanging down every where and a constant mist splattering down. Orchids bloomed. And little yellow birds flew about. Most of the other creatures in the building seemed made of glass: a strange mix of art and nature.

Outside, I wandered through the gardens, which were filled for some reason with garish and bright-colored sculptures made by someone who must be very into the mosaic. On one of the trees, pink flowers were beginning to unfold from buds. I breathed in air that smelled of mud and flowers, wandered about looking at plants for awhile, then found a bench near a fountain, and took a nap in the sun.

nap

March 01, 2007

Tunnel

Tunnel

Somewhere in this city, people must be buying vegetables or cooking dinner or changing diapers or watering plants, but all around me, I see only people with nametags carrying styrofoam cups of coffee, hurrying across carpeted floors beneath flourescent lights. No one actually lives in a big conference hotel; staying here is sort of like being on spaceship, with no connection to the rhythms of everyday life. Without natural light, I lose all sense of time; I get lost in the tangle of hallways and escalators and partitioned-off ballrooms that have no windows.

After a satisfying but exhausting day of going to session after session inside this gigantic hotel, I felt claustophobic, eager to see a plant, a tree, a baby – something real. When a friend and I escaped from the hotel this afternoon, it was raining hard, and the buildings that loomed high above us seemed cold and impersonal. We ended up wandering through a maze of concrete and glass that seemed promising with its lights and curving shapes but that led us ultimately, to our disappointment, to a mall.

Concrete and light

From the hotel window

My second day in Urban Heat Island City, I discovered that my students were right about the low pressure systems. I woke up to flashes of lightning dramatically bursting behind the dark silhouettes of tall hotels. Even at that early hour, lines of cars and trucks came slithering around the curve of the street, their lights shining into the gloom. I watched the traffic for a few minutes (I live on a deadend road in a rural area so urban traffic fascinates me) and did reiki in hope of warding off a migraine. By the time I wandered outside in search of breakfast, the shower had turned into a fullblown storm, with high winds and a drenching rain. I pulled up the hood of my raincoat against drops of rain that stung like hail – and felt right at home.