Tuesday, July 23, 2013
My Life in French, Instalment Three*
“Le R E R, ça marche? Le R E R, ça marche?” Every few visits to Paris, we’ll get caught in a downpour, and I will remember once again the older gentlemen in his tobacco-coloured overcoat, hurrying past us, anxiously calling his question back over his shoulder as he joined the crowds moving toward the Metro stop out of the rain: The RER trains (express trains to the suburbs), are they still running? Even in the pelting rain, I was proud to be asked (Really? Did I look like I might know something about Paris?), proud to understand his question, even proud to attempt a Gallic shrug, that distinctive moue-pff of the lips as I admitted my ignorance about the state of the potentially flooded tracks. My husband, Paul, and I were focused on splashing our two youngest, then 4 and 7, across a drenched plaza from the bookstore whose shelter we’d finally abandoned after ten minutes of watching its staff try to stop water from pouring in under the front door while more and more “customers” poured in almost as fluidly, very few of them stopping by the cash desk although they at least pretended to peruse the books.
As I wrote this post, those same “two youngest,” now grown, married, one of them a parent, were spending four days together in Bordeaux; Megan, the seven-year old in my memory of the deluge, had just sent me a stellar photo of my granddaughter Harriet, almost six months old, grinning toothlessly on her belly, with La Tour Eiffel in the background
Another photo shows Hattie on the floor of the Louvre under the all-sky-all-of-the-time glass of Pei’s pyramid. Megan’s posted the photo on Facebook, and I comment, asking if she remembers her own early tour with us through the Louvre’s crowded hallways, staircases, and galleries to stand before the anti-climax of that surprisingly small bit of canvas, the Mona Lisa. She does, she says, and for that reason has only made a quick stop here for a photo op. She’ll show Hattie some day the photos of herself in the Louvre, on the carousel at Tuileries Gardens, in front of the Eiffel Tower. . .
Time to get out my own photo albums, I think, and see how well my memories and the camera’s coincide. Before I do that, though, I pause to remember how that trip emerged out of the merry-go-round of dressing and feeding and keeping relatively safe four children, the oldest transforming our landscape by heading into high school, the youngest doing the same by moving towards kindergarten. The challenging years of sleepless nights and endless diaper changes, of hips always occupied by one toddler or another pre-schooler, of books abandoned mid-sentence to run toward a child’s scream, these were lining up behind us. The sleepless nights ahead would have us waiting up for a teenager who hadn’t made curfew, and the days were filled by activities that would have challenged a taxi dispatcher. Piano lessons, swimming lessons, school concerts, orthodontic appointments; band practice, gymnastics class, birthday parties, and soccer tournaments. Someone always had to be somewhere, and in between Paul was often away for up to a week, sometimes even ten days, at a time. Meanwhile, I swapped driving credits with other moms to get my kids to where they had to be while I was teaching piano. So when was there ever time for the idea of a European trip to emerge?
Trying to determine whence and how this idea emerged, I recognize that I was the driver of this particular dream, with Paul a willing supporter. He traveled enough for work – and, indeed, had enough challenge and adventure in his work other than travel – that he probably could have made it through the child-rearing years without feeling the need for holidays with them beyond camping and backpacking in British Columbia’s abundant wilderness complemented by road trips to visit family. His own travels before we married had been mainly powered by canoe – he’d paddled across the country with 5 buddies one summer, at 19 or 20, then stayed to work in Ottawa for several months. Another summer he and a friend had paddled for months through the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories, from Yellowknife to north of the Artic Circle, back through Great Bear Lake, many portages along the way. Remote, challenging, exciting adventure for a young man. But Europe wasn’t on his horizon as a travel destination, nor was it a place that his parents seemed to feel any connection to or urge to visit.
I, on the other hand, had been taken to England with my younger brother when I was two years old. My parents had driven us across the continent to take a ship from Montreal to England where we met my grandparents and the huge paternal clan. Then my parents' steadily expanding family (one baby followed another for a total of ten, augmented by my two foster sisters) meant my parents scarcely traveled for years. My English grandparents came to visit though, once, before my Grandfather died, and packages with Girls Own Annuals and Rupert the Bear books and marzipan-topped Christmas cake decorated with cunning wee wooden animals on springs arrived. These connections, the packages, the pale blue onion-skin airmail letters encouraged me to picture myself an English schoolgirl, an identity romanticized to exoticism in my unworldly young imagination. Then when I was 13, my Dad brought his mother, by then a widow, out for a visit, and I fell in love with her sweet self and promised to visit the next year. There was a pretense (mostly mine, I suppose, but my parents preserved my pride) that I saved the money for that trip myself, but I’m not sure how that could have been, no matter how much baby-sitting I might have done, no matter how many newspapers I delivered. However the finances were managed, I headed off to meet my English clan in 1967, solo, crossing the Atlantic on a turbo-prop charter flight that stopped to refuel in Frobisher Bay and took 19 hours from leaving Vancouver to landing in London, where I was met at the airport and taken to my aunt’s house.
That was the same trip in which I took the train by myself from north Yorkshire (Middlesbrough) to Glasgow to visit my uncle, a Jesuit priest who had set up some penpal friendships for me over the past year so that I had ready-made Scottish girlfriends on arrival. It was also the same trip when, on taking the train by myself from Glasgow back down to London, I found no one waiting to meet me at the station. Only as the classic black London cab I’d finally resorted to (blinking back my tears) drove up to the address I’d given the cockney-accented driver – 109 Sumatra Road – did I realize that no one had come to pick me up because I’d sent the instructions to the wrong address. I’d sent a gummed blue tissue-thin letter off to 109, but my aunt lived at 209. In the absence of any instructions, they’d guessed at another train station and spent hours waiting through several arrivals from the north. All was cleared up when my redirected missive showed up a day later. Meanwhile, though, I basked in the newfound confidence of a 14-year old who learns that many travel woes can be solved with a small stash of taxi cash. It’s a secret weapon that I reassure myself with to this day.
I made one more trip to England, at 18 with my five-years-younger sister, before I met and married Paul. This one also honed my sense of self as a traveler, although it also left a lifelong legacy of anxiety around plane departure times, as I managed to get ours wrong, to miss our flight, and to traumatize my parents who had too much room in the car driving home from the airport – the telegram arrived just as they parked in front of the house. Still, I did get us home for no additional charge, and I continued to think of myself as a keen and competent traveler, and as someone with a strong family connection to England. Having made a transatlantic journey three times at 18 was not at all insignificant in my class (working/middle-class, with ambitions and education), and I integrated this as an important element of my identity.
But then I bumped into early adulthood, played with the freedom a strict Catholic upbringing hadn’t allowed, met the one bad boyfriend who can take a life off-track, and by the time I got back onto a better path, it was one that didn’t detour for international travel. Still, that connection to England persisted through letters, through listening to my siblings and my parents report on their trips, and for our 10th anniversary, Paul and I somehow managed to save enough money to take two daughters (8 and 5 at the time) to meet their English relatives (We left our 2-year old behind to be spoiled by her grandparents for two weeks). Not only was I anxious to see favourite aunts, uncles, and cousins again (my grandmother had died a few years earlier), but I wanted to introduce them to Paul and to our little girls. Most importantly though, I wanted my daughters to begin to conceive of themselves as possible travelers; I wanted them to understand what seems to me the most important lesson of travel – that people and phenomena are different elsewhere, but that they are also the same in the ways that matter most.
I’m not sure how much we achieved that on our first transatlantic trip with kids, but I felt proud that we’d made it. Then we dug back in to a daily life that focused on school and piano lessons, ballet and figure skating classes, weekend hikes and soccer games, haircuts and dentist visits and shopping for new runners and trips to emergency for stitches. And my three daughters gained a little brother along the way. And we moved to another city a day's travel from our old home, making all the adjustments such a move entails. Busy, busy years. . . .
The daughters who’d been eight and five when we traveled to England together were suddenly fourteen and eleven; their younger siblings were eight and five. All were fairly capable of carrying their own small backpacks and of walking without complaint for a few miles. While Paul traveled regularly for work and he and I had managed a few getaways (New York, Ottawa, Quebec), our only family trips had been short camping adventures and longer road trips to visit family. I could see how quickly the next few years would slip through our fingers, and I wanted our eldest two to have at least one European adventure before they left home. And selfishly, I wanted one myself, not yet having made it to the Continent. So I started a Frugality program, squeezing food and clothing and entertainment budgets to create a growing travel fund. I added a few more piano students to an already crowded schedule. And I began looking for ways that might make a European vacation affordable for a family of six. My parents had spent several months backpacking through Europe in ’86, after my dad retired, and their adventures were certainly an inspiration. But I couldn’t quite imagine being so much on the move with four kids. I knew we needed a more manageable plan.
And then I read about house exchanges. . . .
But we’re out of space here, so that chapter will have to wait. . . Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your feedback on my continuing narrative of “French in/and My Life.” While your influences – even obsessions—were probably different than mine, perhaps you can also trace themes that have followed you from childhood through adulthood, from your single years through to a life with partner(s), from a carefree twenty-something to a parent of young children or energetic adolescents to wherever you might be now. Perhaps, like me, you are contemplating the path you took to get where you are now, poised, as I am, to tackle the last big randonnée of my life,”the senior years.” I’d love to hear if my musings and memories have any resonance with yours . . . Your comments are always appreciated.