Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Voluminous Package

The notice in our mailbox said that while we were out, we had received a "packet volumineux.” This sounded promising, since our mailbox is quite large. We'd actually been at home when the postman rang at 7 pm on a Monday, but we’d ignored the bell, not wanting to descend five flights for nothing, figuring someone must have leaned on it by accident. It's not like we have a ton of friends here, and none who would spontaneously drop by. 

There was no checked box on the notice to indicate that there would be any attempt to re-deliver the package. Instead, there was note saying that it would be left for us to pick up at either the Bonne Nouvelle or the Strasbourg Saint Denis Poste in two days. That either/or threw me. But we live equidistant between them, and I figured that if I picked wrong, they’d simply redirect me.

Max and I went to Bonne Nouvelle after school on the day specified on the notice. He was pretty excited to pick up the box, certain that it was going to contain presents for him—a safe bet.

"Bonjour," I said, hoping I’d picked the right post office.

A man in a yellow poste vest took my notice and typed a long code of numbers into his computer, then tilted his head as he clucked his tongue.  "Ah non. It's not here," he said.

"So it's at Strasbourg Saint Denis?" 

"Non," he said.  "It hasn't arrived yet."

"Arrived from where? I don't understand." 

He took this to mean that his French was beyond my grasp, making a louder clucking sound of disapproval. “It hasn’t come in,” he repeated.

"But we live down the block, and it was already delivered to us. And this is today's date." I pointed at the bottom of the slip.

"Maybe it'll arrive later."  His eyes searched beyond me to the next customer in line. 


“Maybe,” he said, and then—clearly eager to get rid of me—“yes, I think tomorrow. Be sure to bring your identity card to claim it.”

Max was disappointed, but I told him we’d return right after school the next day, further tormenting him by dragging him to get some groceries, since we weren’t going to have to carry a heavy box up five flights after all.

When we went back the next day, a new poste employee was handling customer service, a smiling woman in a yellow vest. Before even typing the numbers into her screen, she asked to see my ID, and I was ready with my driver’s license.

“Ah non. What is this?” she said.  “La Californie?” She sounded suspicious, like I was trying to pull of some heist.

“It's my driver’s license,” I said. “The man yesterday told me to bring an identity card.”

“But this is not a valid identity card here. This serves no purpose here.”

“It’s the same name." I showed her the slip. “The man yesterday told me to come back today with an ID, and I'd be able to pick up my package.”

"But you need your passport!" 

"He didn't say passport."

“Ohlala,” she shook her head and grudgingly entered the code into the computer.  “Well, it doesn't matter because it’s not here." She seemed almost pleased.

“Where is it?” I said. “I live one block away. Where did the package go after it left our apartment three days ago?”

She shrugged, but then she disappeared into some back room, and a few minutes later she returned carrying an Amazon box that held a single paperback. 

“I found it,” she said, eyeing me warily before handing it over.

“Do you know why the postman didn’t just leave this in our box?” 

“It says right here: packet volumineux.” She smiled that maddening smile again. “I’ll let you take it today. But next time, you'll have to show your passport.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Melancholy Muggles

We finished reading the last Harry Potter to Max last night, and today I've been walking around in a sad hangover state.  Colors seem duller.  Time is creeping by.  Max has been edgy, too, pushing my buttons, hard to please.  We've been ejected from the world that we've been dipping into (okay, drowning in) all fall.  We aren't sure what to do with ourselves now, where to go next.

I used to mock adults who got sucked into the Pottersphere.  Grown-ups "queing" outside bookstores all night to get their hands on the latest doorstop.  Warlocks (little did I know) and soccer in the sky?  Not for me.  I'd read the first Harry Potter fifteen years ago when I was living in Japan, and I found it juvenile, not especially thrilling and more than a little geeky, smelling of Ren Faire, a new take on "Magic The Gathering."

But I'd heard that the books in the series get better, and enough people whose opinions I respect loved the series that I figured it was worth another try once Max was ready.  By the time he was six, we'd read everything by Roald Dahl, and I was getting damn sick of The Magic Treehouse, an unbelievably dull series of like 75 books in which a robotic brother and sister named Jack and Annie travel through time to play a part (Forest Gump-like) at key historical moments.  It was while reading these books that I realized can read a whole book aloud without processing a single word of it.  It made me feel as robotic as Jack and Annie, and also sorry that I couldn't be reading something better, something to make Max understand why a book can be more engrossing and affecting than a TV show.  Also, I wanted to get some pleasure out of the time I was spending reading to him, as did Matt.

We had a copy of Harry Potter in the bookshelf, and both of us would occasionally try to coax him into listening to a chapter, though he resisted at first.  The lack of pictures made it seem over his head, and that first book has quite a slow start--as do many of the others, for that matter.  It takes a while to get used to Rowling's lackadaisical pacing.  The point is to enter and then dwell in that world, and since the episodic plot spans 4000 pages, sometimes it takes two or three hundred pages to get to the "inciting incident" in any particular novel.  But little by little, he got sucked in--all three of us did.  We started Book 1 in early November, and finished Book 7 in mid-February, which means that it took only 4 months to read the 7 books--approximately 1000 pages per month.  It wasn't until I started drafting this--my eulogy for the series, it feels like--that I realize how well they've kept us company through the major transitions of the fall.

We read Book 2 aloud on the drive up to Oregon for Thanksgiving, where we were leaving our car with my mom before departing, a month later, for France.  We spent the majority of a rainy day all tucked in bed, reading the book until we finished it, then "celebrating" by watching the video.  (Which became our ritual, upon completing a book).  We hurried to a bookstore on the way to the airport and bought Book 3, which was a good thing since our flight back to San Francisco got delayed until 2 am, so we read about 100 pages while lying on the ground in a weird little oasis of a deserted pub at the Eugene airport, where there wa a standing lamp that provided the perfect reading light.

We kept reading Book 3 while walking down South Van Ness every morning, as a way to motivate Max to trek the mile to school without complaint.  (No more car).  The power to read while walking is one I honed as a kid, and it returned to serve me well.  Sometimes we'd get to his school early, and duck into Carlin's, the cafe on the corner, to read another 10 pages before he had to head off to kindergarten.  We were always a little sorry when the clock said 8:15 and we had to stop, and he'd make me promise not to read while I walked back home.

We read Book 4 on the trip to Paris.  We were only about 200 pages into it when we left, and it should have taken at least a couple of weeks to read the next 400 pages, except that our trip went so terribly wrong and we ended up having that 35 hour journey by plane and bus instead of the 8 hour one it was supposed to be to get here.  Harry Potter made the extra 11 hours on the bus from Zurich more than bearable--enjoyable even.  But by the time we got to our apartment, we were at the end.

Disaster!  Somehow, in the packing, we'd brought Books 6 and 7 but not 5.  My mom was rapidly dispatched to send the missing volume.  We got the email saying that it was on the way and should reach Paris in a week.  But suddenly, a week seemed interminable.  We were having fun exploring Paris, but it was cold and different and we were exhausted at the end of each day, which is when we always cap things off with a book in bed.  Max had this new home and language to get used to, no familiar friends to play with, and he really missed Harry Potter.  I mention these things to justify what I did next.

After discovering that Ms. Rowling's books are not available in thrifty e-versions (clever billionaire) I did the quickest of searches to see if there might be a bootleg version available for download.  I know that as a writer, I shouldn't even have considered such a thing.  I had never previously downloaded a book, but some teens I worked with did it often.  And we were really jonesing for a fix.  Lo and behold!  Victoire!  Ten minutes later, I'd found a link, and shunted the downloaded PDF over to ibooks, where the 600 page document opened without a hitch on my ipad.

I felt slightly guilty but mostly rather pleased with myself as I lay beside Max for the next few nights to read to him from Book 5: The Order of the Phoenix.  I'd told my visiting mother-in-law that these books were actually very well written, with great pacing and characters but also wonderful language, especially when read aloud, and so she sat in the little couch at the base of Max's bunkbed to listen along while I read this long scene in which Harry and Dudley make up and become buddies after watching a Monty Python marathon.  This was weird.  Rowling didn't usually make pop culture references--part of the charm of Hogwarts is that it's apart from all that, contemporary and yet timeless, "relatable" but magical.  There was also a weird line that I remember about how Hedwig, Harry's owl, looked mangled, "as if she'd flown into the garbage disposal."  As far as I knew, there were no garbage disposals at Hogwarts.

I have no idea who wrote the alternate Book 5 that I downloaded, but they were just good enough that it took 50 pages before I realized that I was reading fanfiction.  That's how far I'd come from being the person who mocked adults for reading Harry Potter.  I was downloading bootlegs of fanfiction.

Book 5 arrived shortly, and kept us good company--along with 6 and finally 7--through our first two months here in Paris.  For me (and many others, I know) the charm and success of the series is the way that it creates and sustains an entire world, that has a lot in common with ours but lots more possibilities.  Who wouldn't want to be able to cast these spells and curses?  The characters are remarkably (some might say impossibly) consistent, always recognizably themselves even though you see them grow up over the course of 7 years.  Being a "late adopter," I got to watch them grow up and save the world in fast forward.  I can sort of understand those people waiting all night to finally get their hands on the next sequel.  What's amazing to me is how she wrote the books without ever dumbing down the language or the story, so that they can appeal to her (millions of geeky) adult readers, who can never guess how things are going to go, but they are just as interesting to a six-year-old kid.  Max actually surpassed our ability to keep the plot points straight.  The only thing he objected to mildly was the kissing, and there were only about 15 pages of romance out of 4000 total.

Over the past four months, we've been in San Francisco, Oregon, Paris and Switzerland, and we've always had these books as a way to make the time pass on long journeys going from one spot to another, never quite sure where exactly we'd land upon our arrival, but always relatively certain of what we'd find in those pages.  Rowling's magic worked on Max, like it has on so many kids.  He now understands that a good book is a kind of home, better in a way than any real one, because it can come with you wherever you go.  But now that we're done with the last book, I'm afraid we are all going to feel homeless for a little while.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ma Poule

Max came home from first grade a week ago with a fifteen line poem tucked into his red cahier. "Ma Poule" is about a chicken that wears a lot of different colored hats for different occasions and in different kinds of weather. His teacher’s instructions were that he should copy it in French cursive and then memorize it, so that he could recite it in front of his class. 

He had no French at all when we got here, and contrary to what people said, that he'd "pick up in weeks," it hasn't been nearly that instantaneous. After two months, he has learned how to say, “Un poulet, s’il vous plait,” to the man who sells the roasted chickens on our corner. He’s got “bonjour,” “au revoir,” and “merci," and the basic numbers. And that's about it.

He's going to a tiny bilingual school where the first three hours of the day are taught in English and the afternoon three in French. The school’s aim is to follow the standard national French curriculum, so that the kids can join their classmates at grade level if they choose to go to a regular French school later on. Memorizing and reciting poetry is part of the standard French curriculum, and so is taking dictation in “French cursive.”

Knowing that Max would be returning to the States after this year, his teachers here gave him the choice of learning French cursive or continuing to write in American print letters. But in spite of the fact that the kid still struggles to hold a pencil correctly, often jabbing little holes into the page, Max chose to learn French cursive, partly to fit in, but also I think because it sounds fancier. And it is. Matt insists that it’s no different from any other cursive, but that’s because he never had to suffer through being tested on its finer nuances. The e requires the pen to skip ahead before forming a perfect loop. The t should never be crossed. The l only bulges on the right. The upper case q is a beast that I never got down.

I was about Max’s age when I learned French cursive. My elementary school in San Francisco had a similar aim to the school he’s attending here. It was a French school that was following the national curriculum as strictly as possible, so that the majority--expat kids from France--could eventually reenter their own system when their families returned home.

One of the reasons we didn’t send Max to a French public school here is that, in my memory at least, this school was kind of Dickensian. I didn't hate it, but it made a lasting impression. The teachers thought nothing of spanking kids in front of the class—pants down—and they'd read our report cards aloud at the end of each term, and then seat us according to our grades: A students in front and D students in back. Kids were routinely mocked by teachers, made examples of and humiliated. Monsieur LeJeune had his own son in our third grade class, and he would regularly call him “la mauvaise graine,” or “the bad seed.” When the boy cried, we consoled him. All of this sounds awful, but it was also a little bit thrilling to unite against injustice, to feel righteous and innocent, like the heroes of our favorite books. Sometimes I wonder what the products of American progressive education will find to write about. 

Before this year, Max was never asked to do any rote memorization. He didn't get homework at his American school, and there were no tests or grades. Knowledge is supposed to be its own reward, I get it, and I understand why bribes are a no-no. So I prefer to think of the children’s fountain pen that I bought Max as an incentive to do his homework here. And honestly, all those loops and flourishes in French cursive are totally wasted in ball point. Once I was at the stationer, I couldn’t resist buying a fountain pen for myself as well, and an extra cahier too. I vividly remembered learning to shape my French cursive in one of those notebooks ruled with tiny, pale blue horizontal lines within which to position each element of every letter.

The fountain pen held Max’s interest for few days, but writing (of any kind) remains a source of frustration. His ideas far surpass his ability to put them to paper. Who can’t relate?

The rote memorization of French poetry, however, has proven surprisingly fun. Within a couple of days, he’d managed to learn all fifteen lines of Ma Poule. While he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, he gets the gist of it, and I can tell that he likes the way the words roll off his tongue, the way that he sounds far more competent than he is.

I was just a little older than Max when my grandfather, our family’s first and most ardent Francophile, paid me one dollar to memorize his favorite Apollinaire poem.

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la seine et nos amours…

Like Max, I couldn’t have given you a word-for-word translation, but I loved the cadence of the language, the rhythm of the poem, and I definitely knew that I was saying something far more beautiful than I had it in me to express. It was rote memorization, not especially creative, but it gave me something to reach for. Not to mention a whole dollar. And thirty years later, I still remember it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Cats of Belleville

We were walking into the Parc de Belleville when I saw them: more cats than I could count: black-and-white, calico, ginger, but mostly a tribe of gray tigers, streaking from under bushes and benches, darting from behind trees to coil around the ankles of two older women who were bundled against the chill of the first Saturday in February.

That morning, we’d woken to the percussive sound of rain pelting the courtyard of our apartment building, and almost abandoned our plan to walk to Belleville.  Every Saturday, the three of us go for a long and purposeless walk--flaneur-style.  We start in the late morning and don't get home until dinnertime, without much of an appetite, since we stop for food whenever we pass something that looks good, which is altogether too often.  For the past three weeks, we’d ended up taking more or less the same route: past the Pompidou, across the bridge covered in locks behind Notre Dame, down to the cobblestoned bank of the Seine where Max can't really ride his scooter, following it until it turns into the smoother bike lane leading to the Berge, where Max always insists on a long break in his favorite inflatable tent, and finally to the base of the Eiffel Tower, where there's a free craft class every Saturday afternoon at the American library, during which parents can do their own thing for an hour. 

Max loves a ritual.  So do I.  But it's easy for a ritual to turn into a rut.  The whole point of being a flaneur is to wander off chart, to make observations and discoveries that are more likely if you deviate from routine and get a little lost.  I was beginning to see Matt’s point: it's a shame to hide in a tent from which you can't even see the Seine flowing by outside.  So when the rain finally cleared around noon on Saturday, we set out in the opposite direction from usual, up the hill to Belleville, a "transitioning" neighborhood known as “the other Chinatown,” although apparently this is not a PC term here, where foreigners are supposed to assimilate (if only it were that easy to "become" French).

We lured Max out into the cold, up the steep incline toward Belleville, by telling him that we were on our way to a playground ranked #2 in the world, according to some website that we’ve subsequently failed to find again.  This website had showed pictures of a playground designed by a famous architect, with slides carved right into the hillside.  The longer we had to climb, the steeper these slides became, as we described them to a whining Max.  So it was a big blow when we finally reached this mythic playground and found the gate to the slides locked, apparently due to the bad weather--according to one bystander--even though the sun had finally come out.  Max was on the verge of a meltdown when the cats started streaming in all directions, toward the two women carrying tote bags.

“Look!” I said.  Max and I both ran forward and the cats scattered. 

“Ils sont timides,” one woman informed me.  They’re timid.

I apologized, explaining that Max misses his cat, Bowie, who we had to leave in America.

“You just left him?” she asked reproachfully, lifting an eyebrow.

“With his grandmother,” I hastened to add.  “Just for this year, while we’re here.”    

“Ah.”  Her tone softened and as she started taking tins of catfood out of her bag, popping one open to dump it into a blue bowl.  One by one, the cats returned, each receiving its own special dish, which the two women placed at intervals along the path.  

Just the day before, Max and I had been talking about how we hadn’t seen a single cat since arriving in France.  Dogs are a different story.  According to a woman who moved here with her Lab, French landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against renters with dogs.  Apparently owning one is a human right, while cleaning up after one is optional.  The streets are an obstacle course of shivery little dogs and their startlingly large turds.  Maybe the dogs keep the cats away.  

Max is a cat person to the core.  Ever since he was a baby, he has recoiled from the jerky movements and slobbery tongues of dogs, touched their fur with great hesitancy, only when coaxed.  This can be embarrassing, especially when the dogs that cause him to cower are teacup poodles.  I remember when he was still a toddler and we were staying at the home of friends with a dog, trying to explain that dogs are traditionally considered “Man’s best friend.”

“They're not mine,” he said, shrieking with fear as the Labradoodle tried to give him a "kiss," and announcing that he had a mouth like a wolf. 

Maybe it's hereditary.  Matt and I are both cat people too.  Matt’s first cat, which he got when he was in kindergarten, lived to be 25 years old—still kicking (or creeping arthritically, by all accounts) when Matt turned thirty.  Max loves to hear stories of the legendary, ill-tempered Sylvester, who bit the neighbor’s cat in the butt, leaving a tooth behind.  I also got my first cat when I was five.  Our landlord forbade pets, but for some reason my parents finally gave in to my begging, with the bizarre condition that I had to give my kitten a French name.  We’d had Pierre August Renoir for just a week when he was sunning on the windowsill of our third floor flat, he rolled over and tipped out.  I remember bolting downstairs, my stomach cramped with the certainty that I was going to find him flat on the sidewalk.  But when I opened the front door, he was standing as calm as can be, all four paws intact, looking up at me like: what’s the big deal, lady?

You can chalk it up to biology--apparently cats can dislocate their joints in midair--but I'm convinced that cats are at least a little bit magical.  The Ancient Egyptians agreed.  At the Louvre recently, Max and I were checking out the Egyptian gallery when we came upon a glass case of carved stone animals labeled, “Spirit Familiars.”  Not a dog in signt, Max pointed out, adding that dogs wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough to assist in spell work.  (Nor could he, but that's beside the point).

As a cat person, it’s easy to recognize others from the tribe.  I felt an instant sense of kinship with the cat ladies of Belleville, watching as they pulled innumerable tins of cat food from their seemingly bottomless tote bags, calling each cat by name.

One of the women was tall and thin, wearing a long tweed coat and a beret (which Max calls "a hobo hat").  She had a look of smeared elegance, as if she’d walked straight out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.  This could have had something to do with her bruised eye.  She’d made the other one up with purple eye shadow to match. 

“I fell down yesterday and hurt myself,” she said.   “I feel that I must explain, lest you think…”  She laughed with obvious embarrassment, and I wondered if she was telling the truth.  "Viens Vanille," she called out to a jet black cat.  "Come and get your lunch!"

“Are these cats yours?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said.  “Ils sont sauvages.”  They're wild.  "We just feed them."

“Every day?” I asked, and she nodded.

“Antoinette and I have been feeding them every day for twenty years,” she said, gesturing at her friend, who had remained silent.  “There’s another woman, Josephine, who comes too.”  She looked around, as if searching for her.  “She’s very old, and she can’t manage the stairs as easily as she used to, but she never misses a day.  Not even Christmas.”

“Lucky cats,” I said.

“Not so lucky," she said.  “These poor cats have nowhere to get out of the rain.  For the ones born here in the park, it’s not so bad.  They’re like tigers in the jungle—they know nothing else.  But the ones whose owners went on vacation and dumped them?”  Her expression darkened.

“Look, Helene,” the other woman spoke up at last.  “There’s something wrong with Vanille’s paw!”   The two of them eyed the black cat with concern as he limped away.  “Perhaps we’d better call the vet,” they agreed.  

"I thought they were wild," I said, amazed to learn that there is something like socialized veterinary care here.  Every year, a municipal employee comes to trap all of the kittens born in the park, taking them to a vet to have them spayed before releasing them again.  The same vet will come if a cat seems badly hurt.

“Here comes our favorite,” Antoinette said, pointing to a bushy gray cat now eating swiftly from a yellow bowl.  “Look how she loves the seafood I brought her!  What a gourmand!”

The cat was preoccupied enough by this meal to let Max crouch beside her and pet her, which amazed the women.

“Il est mignon, l’enfant,” the elegant woman—Helene—said to her friend, Antoinette, who eyed Max appraisingly before finally nodding curtly.  "Oui," she said at last.  "He's pretty cute."  I got the sense that she felt about children the way Max feels about dogs, but might make this one grudging exception, since he was being gentle with her favorite cat.

“Our son misses our cat,” I said again.  "They've always slept together, since he was a baby."

“Do you have a picture?” Antoinette asked.  It felt like a test, and I was relieved to remember that my mom had just emailed a shot of Bowie, curled up on her lap.  It was easily retrieved from the inbox on my ipad, and as I showed it off, the cat ladies gushed over him.  

“He looks very well fed!” they agreed.  “What a handsome boy!”

The metaphorical ice was broken.  I'd proven that I was one of them--or so it felt.   For a good fifteen minutes, we sat in the unexpected sunshine, chatting while Max and Matt explored the park.  Antoinette noticed that I was carrying a pastry box from a Belleville bakery called 140.  “Le meilleur baguette de Paris!” she said, a claim to fame also printed on the bag.  “The pastries there cost maybe one euro more than elsewhere, but they are at least three times better!”  She gave me directions to an Algerian restaurant in the neighborhood, where apparently they make their own couscous daily, and where a whole lunch, “not at all greasy!” costs only seven euros. 

“You should come back,” Helene said, when we finally got ready to go.  “It’s the most beautiful park in Paris, always in flower except two or three weeks of the winter.  Unfortunately, that happens to be right now.  Come in spring!”

“Maybe we’ll see you again,” I said.

“We’re here every day,” she reminded me.   “After all, without us, these cats would starve!” 

That would take a while, I thought, surveying the decidedly plump cats, each licking the bottom of its own special bowl.

We were all a little sorry to leave, not knowing when we'd return, or if we'd ever see these cats--and cat ladies--again.  But on our way home, we had the good luck to stumble upon a lion, performing a ritual dance outside a new Chinese restaurant for the new year.