Saturday, December 28, 2013

This feels like the perfect picture to start with, in spite of the fact (maybe because of it?) that Max is a tad blurry.  Who isn't a little blurry when the jet lag is fresh?  I love these stairs leading to our apartment's front door, even though I will say that I think twice before running back up them to grab something forgotten, and even though my legs are more than un peu sore a week into this adventure.  

It gives new meaning to "l'esprit de l'escalier," when you think of the perfect retort to a snarky remark once you're already on the staircase and it's too late for your comeback.

After walking 3 miles up to Sacre Coeur and back yesterday, Dana told me that her legs were so sore that she felt like a newborn colt.  The strange thing is that I swear I walked all the time in San Francisco, too, especially the past month when we didn't have a car and were walking Max to school every day.  Is it the cobblestones?  Or are these stairs to blame?  But they are beautiful, and I like imagining their installation, and the fact that they've endured since the apartment was built in 1820.  One of my favorite places is my friend Stephanie's family's vacation house on Blakely Island, an island that is only accessible by small plane or boat, where the house feels like a 60s time capsule as a result because it's so hard to get building materials and furniture on and off the island.  This 5th floor walkup reminds me of that in its 1800's way.  Need a new floorboard?  New bathroom fan?  But do you *really*?  

I can see why our landlord hasn't cleared out a lot of her family's things, and I'm grateful for her book collection.  One of my favorite things is having a limited and subjectively curated collection of books from which to choose.  When I lived in Japan, the selection in English at the local public library was: 1) The Bridges of Madison County, 2) Breakfast at Tiffany's, and 3) Alice in Wonderland.  Here at the apartment there are a lot more to choose from (thanks to the fact that we're renting from a couple of profs, one of whom is British) and it includes a few Harry Potters, PD James, Bleak House, Julian Barnes and Rentata Adler.   

Lest I seem too virtuous going on about reading and walking, let me add that Dana and I were on a "tour de pastry" as we walked, using a poorly functioning David Leibowitz "Paris Pastry" app that lets you find his favorite bakeries and read about his favorite pastries wherever in the city you are.  The lemon yuzu tart that we ate at Gontran Cherrier bakery was incredible.  In its uncloying tanginess, with a perfectly crisp yet eggshell thin butter crust, it put to shame the formerly delicious seeming lemon tart we'd bought at a nameless bakery.  We also got a pitch black squid ink baguette to take home and eat with a cheese so runny you could puncture it with your finger.  The bread was a novelty but I'll take a regular baguette next time.

I will say--I like a culture where every single time you pass a patisserie, no matter the hour of day, people are sitting in the window, eating the most beautiful pastries you've ever seen, and the bars are similarly full of people drinking wine and enjoying themselves at all hours.  My own puritan work ethic has not caught up with me yet, and I'm hoping that it doesn't find me for a while.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

First night in Paris

The Watrous-Schumaker trio (we don't all actually have a hyphenated last name, but I'm so tired that it seems shorter somehow just to go with Max's) has arrived in Paris, France after a mere...35? (again, too tired to do the calculation, but that seems about right) hours.  I was about to write "35 hours in the air" but that would also be shorthand.  In fact we spent fewer than 10 of those hours in the air.  It would be tedious to type out all of the ways in which this trip went awry.  But since I started sharing this, I will impose some of the details upon you.  

1.  On time departure from SFO.  See excited photos of Max, Malena and Matt about to embark on adventure, repeatedly saying so to Max, who is duly in the spirit/mood after having been somewhat apprehensive a while back.  2.  Easy flight to Chicago.  So far so good.  3.  On time departure scheduled from Chicago to Paris.  Chicago is where winter weather can go so wrong, right?  Things look great.  4.  Three hour delay while sitting in seats in Chicago in a plane that would've seemed vintage back in the 70s.  Ashtrays at every seat, malfunctioning flushes on the toilets, teeny TV's every 10 rows or so.  They tell us that there are 2 malfunctioning oxygen masks.  No on is in those seats, but apparently the plane can't fly if 2 masks (that--let's face it--would never save anyone's life "in the unlikely event of a water landing") aren't working.  Mechanics come on board to "fix" the masks, which means taping them up under duct tape and plastic sheeting.  We are told that this isn't good enough.  (Really?)  Mechanics come on board again.  The plane is declared good to go, but then a light malfunctions.  At one point Max is invited into the cock pit (yes, the plane is THAT old-school) where we see about 10,000 lights.  It's hard to imagine how one malfunctioning would even be noticed.  After 3 hours on the runway we take off.  They have repeatedly told us, "Our flight time is only 7 hours, which is RIDICULOUSLY short, and so none of this matters!"  5.  After about 7.5 hours, they come on to announce that Paris is having a "tornado," and we are not allowed to land at Charles De Gaulle.  NO planes are landing!  This is what they say.  They tell us that no one will miss connections since the airport is essentially shut down.  6.  An hour later we are rerouted to Zurich and told that we will be put on a bus ("with sandwiches!") and taken to Paris that way.  We are told it will be a 5 hour bus ride.  7.  I'll spare some of the more boring (what?  More boring than what we've heard so far?  Can it be?) details.  It took over 10 hours to bus across the autobahn (or whatever) into Paris.  There were indeed a lot of sandwiches.  We arrived at CGG after midnight on Christmas Eve.  We got to our apartment at 2 am, at which point Matt (mostly) lugged 9 pieces of luggage up 5 flights in our 1820 apartment.

All this said, we are here!  

And all things considered, it could have been a lot worse.  For instance, Max really was a great kid from start to finish of the journey.  (My new mantra: It's about the destination, not the journey).  He made origami star wars figures.  Read about 150 pages of Harry Potter 4.  (OK, was read to).  Ate a LOT of chocolate (first American, then Swiss, then French).  Came to understand that the word "adventure" actually means not knowing what's going to happen at any given moment.  Managed to be contained in a seat for 1.5 days without exploding (I didn't realize it was possible).

The group of humans on the 10 hour bus ride from Zurich was amazingly uncomplaining and decent.  There was even a young woman whose birthday was yesterday.  Would I have been complaining nonstop?  Absolutely.  But she just curled up and napped and at one point one of the other ladies on the bus initiated a group sing of "Happy Birthday."  Would I have been mortified?  Yes.  But this young woman video filmed it on her phone and then said that she would keep this forever.  

Arriving in our actual apartment was definitely the highlight of this "adventure."  The 5 flights of curving stairs are beautiful, especially when you're not tasked with carrying all of the luggage.  (Really, someone had to hold that child's hand, right?)  It's old in the best way, with creaky wooden floors and clanking radiators (actually, I wish they'd clank a little more right now, because it's a cold Christmas morning) and the bed felt MIGHTY comfortable last night at least.  We'll see how it feels in a less dire state of fatigue.  Max was excited to drive through our new neighborhood (the 10th) and brimming with energy, only sorry we couldn't, at 2 am, "go on 2 walks and draw the gargoyles at Notre Dame."  We had no time to grocery shop for Christmas as planned, but we have a lot of chocolate.  Things could definitely be worse.

It is the destination, not the journey!

Monday, August 26, 2013

It scared me when the woman on the plane next to Max and me told me that she was a preschool teacher at a Friends School.  She was so clearly that kind of person who announces that they're Buddhist but is obviusly seething beneath the carefully constructed zen veneer, a brittle facade that could pop off at the slightest provocation.

In this case, the provocation was Max's humming.

"Is he an unusually musical child?" she asked me, flipping her long gray hair.

"Um, I don't really know," I said, vainly believing that she was picking up on something (she had already told me that she taught preschool).  "He might be."  I strove for modesty.  "His dad is a composer, but I mean he's only 5.  He hasn't taken lessons yet or anything."  But as I yammered on, something about the way she was eyeing me started to clue me in to the fact that she might not in fact be paying me, or him, a compliment.  "Oh wait," I said.  "Is his humming bothering you?"

"These aren't noise-canceling headphones," she said, without a whiff of apology.  "He hasn't stopped humming since we boarded this plane."  (It had been 10 minutes).  "If he keeps it up, I'll have to kill myself."

That seemed a little dramatic.  At the same time, I felt both horrified and flabbergasted.  I couldn't tell if I was the asshole or if she was.  Or if Max was.  Well, probably we all were.  The funny part is, I make it a habit of never talking to my seatmates on airplanes.  In fact, I recently talked to a friend about how even if I happened to be seated next to someone I might have a great deal in common with, someone I'd even be friends with in real life, I'd rather not figure it out.  All I want to do is sit there, get absorbed in my trash magazine and overpriced snack, and not talk.  And most of the time, when I have violated this rule of mine, I've greatly regretted it.  But for some reason--actually, because this woman was reading Olive Kittredge, and I thought that anyone reading that excellent book couldn't be bad--I'd violated this rule again, and opened up the portal of conversation that then allowed her to tell me that my child's humming was going to lead to her imminent suicide.

What she didn't know was that we'd spent the past 5 days in New Jersey eating an average of 5 quarts of frozen blueberries per day, popping them mindlessly while watching vast quantities of Netflix.  My grandmother stockpiles them in the early summer, and freezes them to last the year, although after our visit she will be lucky if they last the next 3 months, since every time Max asked for "one more container," I'd say, "Oh, we really shouldn't," even as I tiptoed back downstairs to raid the freezer again.  They were highly addictive, tart little popsicles that left us (well, Max in particular) with extremely foul smelling farts, when consumed in those quantities.  And being on the plane is already a fart-inducer.  The smells emanating from his body were truly not to be believed.  And true to form, our cranky Quaker friend had to comment.

"Does he have terrible indigestion?" she asked.

"I guess," I said.  "I'm so sorry."

"Well, there's nothing you can do about it."

"Still.  Max, try not to fart so much!"

By the way, I never got those people who claimed that their own kids' diapers smelled like "buttered popcorn."  Nothing kicked in in when I had a kid that suddenly made his shit (or farts) smell any better to me than to anyone else.  It was a toxic plane ride, for sure.  But I can't say that I didn't derive a tiny bit of (mortified) pleasure from it too.

Oh, and Max starts Quaker school this week.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

This week we lost one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert.  I remember watching him as a kid, loving his humor and warmth, his verbal and corporeal excesses, as they stood out against poor Gene Siskel's comparative austerity.  

I fell in love with Roger Ebert again when he wrote his odd rice cooker cookbook, and I started reading about how he'd become a food writer (and cookbook author) after losing his tongue and jaw to cancer, how he wrote about the memory of food once he could no longer taste or digest it.  

When I lived in Japan, where there were no ovens in home kitchens, there was a "banana bread in the rice cooker" recipe that circulated among expats hungering for western food and the particular pleasure of baking.  It was very moist, a steamed cake, but I don't think I would have made it if I hadn't been forced to by reduced circumstances.  

Ebert wrote beautifully (he was always a beautiful writer) about how food remained in the present tense for him, even though eating shifted to the past tense.  

“When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was.  All is well. I am as I should be."

Recently, Matt and I were talking about what we'd do if we had a year left to live, and I found myself wondering if I would continue writing or give it up and enjoy myself--my glib phrasing.  Matt immediately said that he'd keep writing music, but I wasn't so sure.  This was a week when writing hadn't been going especially well, I had too little time for it, and I was nurturing the fantasy of what it would be like to have a life where the weekend was really a weekend, and there wasn't always that feeling of homework hanging over your head.  But reading over interviews with and articles about Roger Ebert made me reconsider.  It's clear that he used writing to stay in the present tense even as he was dying.  It's also clear how much pleasure he got from the writing itself, even as he was giving it back to others with his words.  

Such as: 

"Vincent Gallo has put a curse on my colon and a hex on my prostate. He called me a 'fat pig' in the New York Post and told the New York Observer I have 'the physique of a slave-trader.' He is angry at me because I said his 'The Brown Bunny' was the worst movie in the history of the Cannes Film Festival... it is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of 'The Brown Bunny.'"

Thank you, Roger Ebert, for reminding me what really matters.  I have no idea where you are, but if you'll indulge a moment of schmaltz, I like to imagine that you've got an unobstructed and panoramic view of this world you loved so much, and something good and spicy (maybe Indian) with a frosty rootbeer to wash it down.