October 18, 2016
This week my dad and my former boss in New York both pointed me to a great piece in T Magazine on Simone de Beauvoir's early days in the south of France and her passion for the alps and hiking in this region. The article was written after the author had found a copy of de Beauvoir's The Prime of Life (La force de l'âge) in which de Beauvoir chronicled her solo treks. There is a great quote out of the book: in thinking of nothing but "the pleasurable sensation of possessing legs and lungs and a stomach." I love de Beauvoir's abandon - admire it immensely. The article cites her response when cautioned against hiking alone: "I had no intention of making my life a bore with precautions of this sort." I hope my girls will live life with a similar sense deep in their bellies.
There is nothing that brings me back to my childhood more than hiking. Coming from a family where my dad crafted itineraries for every vacation around a group of mountains (and where we famously had to try out to go on the vacation), the rhythm of breathing up a trail makes me downright homesick.
Aix-en-Provence's icon - muse for Cézanne and other artists who loved this region: La Sainte-Victoire. Since we arrived in July, I have wanted to climb this mountain. It sits there, hovering in the distance, calling. This past week I finally did, with a good friend Karine. There are many ways up the mountain - trails from all sides, long and winding or more technical with climbing routes. We started at Lac du Bimont - an emerald colored reservoir near Aix. It was about 2 hours to the top. The first part of the trail is a simple stroll toward the mountain, engulfed in typically mediterranean vegetation. Wild rosemary and thyme fill your nostrils as you hike. Fantastic. The path is limestone, rubbed smooth and slick at times. The last 1/3 of the hike is a pretty good scramble up - a lot of fun. This mountain is a pilgrimage. We hit it in October, during the week, which meant very few people; I am sure in summer months it is packed. I wanted my dad on that hike with me.
October 13, 2016
I shot this series of these two together outside - their expressions real and evocative of who they are nowadays. When we walked outside, Colette was head back, eyes closed, listening to the wind blowing through the leaves. Very seriously: "It smells leafy."
This move to France has made them friends, an idea in which we lacked confidence for most of their lives so far. They role play a lot: mama and baby. They switch characters. When Colette is mama, she always takes on a British accent. When Romy is mama, she always strokes Colette's head and says, "Be quiet my little one."
Colette has a somber side - she is still thinking a lot about death. Real life worries: when near the pool recently, I asked Romy to move away from the pool until I was ready to swim with her. Colette emphasized, "Yeah - you can fall in and you will die and then the robot will slurp you up." (Robot = pool cleaning contraption).
When going to bed, Colette gets pretty anxious about the subject. "When will papa die?" she asked one night recently. "Before or after the cats? Promise me you'll bury me, not burn me when I die?" (she talks about this a lot - her last sentence before I leave the room is often, "Remember bury me, mama!" Apparently, big sis Marguerite informed Colette that when she dies those are the two options...). I told her to try to think of a good thought and it would take the place of the worry. "OK, I will think of Grandma Rosie and Grandpa Brad." I told her I thought that was a great idea. A pause, but then, "when will Grandma Rosie die?"
Romy isn't yet worried about life’s exit, but she does have some big ambitions. Waking up from her nap yesterday she sat up in her bed - inspired - and announced, "I want to go in a big truck. When I grow up I want to be a big man!"
October 11, 2016
Wednesdays in France are special for children. School days are short, or there is no school at all. So, we’ve decided to use Wednesday as an exploration day. Recently, we headed to the beach. To the Côte d’Azur - la Plage de Sainte-Croix, to be precise. Locals say it is the best beach close to Aix. We agree - at least off-season, anyway. Sweet little sandy inlet - lighthouse on one side and a seaside chapel on the other. The girls spent the day covered in sand and toying with the water, never completely wet (recent mistral had sucked the warmth out the water and made it icy). It was a day without a lot of struggle or negotiating - a rare treat for me as a parent with these two at their ages. Colette did get a little saucy as we were leaving the beach, refusing to separate herself from the sand - rolling around every few feet as we made our way back to the car: “I just want to cuddle with the sand. It is so warm and comfy. I can’t leave it.”
October 6, 2016
Put my finger on my map of Provence and landed on Cucuron. Not far - 30 minutes or so. Also close enough to our nearby Marseille that in 1720 half the village population died from the plague, which started in Marseille and traveled north through Provence (despite a ban on travel and a "plague wall" [mur de la peste] made of stone, remnants of which can still be found in the region). I read something about it in the village and came home to read fascinating tales of the bubonic plague and its various waves in European history.
Back to Cucuron. Charming in all of Provence's ways. It is a town with some elevation, which translates to extra charm as the streets climb to picturesque vistas. The town has roped in an interesting anglo community. I saw flyers for an 'English evening' every fortnight or so. There are also several cooperatives in town - a cherry jam cooperative (!), a grain cooperative and a viticultural cooperative. Plus a couple of olive oil mills. (We are looking forward to that November adventure with our own trees).
Walking into the 14th century church - Notre Dame de Beaulieu (aptly named) is a transcendent experience. Stunning light. Detail and color that defy time. I walked away and have since craved to go back. It feels as if the light were some exotic treat and I want another taste.
September 30, 2016
School. The greatest cultural force in a country. It has been less than a month and I observe my girls imbibing their new culture each day they go to school.
The first week: Colette repeating French sentences without understanding the words: "Le lundi est tout gris”
The second week: Using French words in her English sentences. Grimace, parcours, gilet
The third week: full sentences “Je veux celle la, Papa” “Je suis dans la groupe des papillons"
Colette sounds like an American making a real effort to speak French at this point. Overplaying the ruh in the ‘r’ in her throat. It is very sweet.
She was invited to another birthday party last weekend. Xavier dropped her off, not giving any context on Colette’s current cultural position. He is easily read by strangers: 100% French. Apparently, Colette observed much of the party and then occasionally said a thing or two (sounding two years younger than she is: “Aime le train! Aime le train!"). The parents were slightly confused when Xavier picked her up. It was clear they thought she was slow. Xavier, good old Xavier, simply said merci and brought Colette home. He cracks me up. I asked why he didn’t clarify and he said that they must be slow if they didn’t understand Colette was just learning French.
Romy’s take is often more musical - French songs - phonetic, incorrect, but the sounds are all there. Zero accent when she pronounces French words. I went to pick her up the other day and she was outside with all the other children. She was hovering over something, cradling it in her hands. The kids were gathered around. She hadn’t seen me yet and I called out to her. She looked up and grinned a wide grin, “Escargot!!!” she shouted again and again. The instructors informed me she had been holding it all afternoon - coaxing it to come out of its shell - not letting anyone else touch it. So funny. She has a good friend, ‘Carla’ at school. ‘Carla’ said with a sweet French accent from little Romy.
We’ve already run into a bit of tension with Colette’s maîtresse, a very typically French teacher with posture that reflects her general approach in her classroom. She held a meeting for parents a few weeks ago. She began the meeting by taking a deep breath (almost theatrical, but not at all her style otherwise), sitting straight up and placing her two hands on the table in front of her ceremoniously - fingers taut and and in straight lines like pencils.
Then a statement about the children: “There are some children in the class who are still very “bébé” - others are clearly ready for the work of school. You know where your child stands.” She quickly proceeded to the subject of fire and earthquake drills. Then to the cantine, which she complained is completely overcrowded, hot and loud, and could we please pick up our children and feed them lunch at home from time to time? Next was “la collation" at 10:00am - snack - which is comprised of only fruits and applesauce (without any sugar added).
And then the sacred subject of writing: "I insist on a certain method of writing, of holding the tool. If the children form poor habits now, it becomes a nightmare. They lose the ability to be fluid in their cursive. Writing is a moment of calm. It is a moment where the children must be correctly installed. Take a deep breath first and have proper posture. I insist on these things.” She was the perfect visual illustration of her point.
Xavier asked a few questions throughout, which la maîtresse found rather disruptive. At some point, Xavier queried whether or not there would be field trips. She punctuated her remarks about the subject with a reproach: “And I will be choosing the parents who accompany the class on these excursions, Mr. Colette.”
Throughout I was so amused by the serious tone. I admired her professionalism and her devotion to her work. The classroom is perfectly organized, well-equipped. Her groups and programs (she outlined the cadence of the day - everything in 20 minute intervals) meticulously constructed. All in all - a very good environment for a personality like Colette’s. To that point, Colette is adapting and doing very well at this point.
Colette did make a request recently - “Can you ask the teacher if I can hold my pencil the way I want to hold it?” I cringed a bit and asked her to give it a try the teacher’s way. The second time she brought it up, Xavier and I agreed we should talk to the teacher.
Xavier went to school a bit early one morning and asked if he could have a word with la maîtrsse. He asked politely if she might allow Colette to hold her pencil they way she finds most comfortable. Direct affront. Absolutely not and her method comes straight from specific recommendations given by the French National Education System. Would Xavier accept an amateur walking into his professional domain giving advice? Of course not. Please respect her domaine.
He put up some resistance - pointed out that in the past left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand. “But Colette is not left-handed,” she responded - literal like her posture. She basically hung up the phone, in person - informed Xavier that she had a classroom to attend to, turned around and walked away from their conversation.
I was nervous to drop Colette off at school the next morning. Madame maîtresse’s posture grew even stiffer when she saw me coming (I am already somewhat awkward. I always remember my bonjour before anything else, but some parents give the teacher bisous and I will never know with whom I should share this ritual - it feels intimate, not at all impersonal).
I said bonjour and brought up the subject directly, saying I knew she and Xavier had spoken on Friday. Rigid puff of air from her. I told her I wanted to emphasize the many things in the classroom that we admire - I named 5 things specifically. I told her that Colette’s difficult transition is going very well, largely due to her efforts and accommodations. I thanked her. She softened. She even said that my words had touched her heart (unexpected). Thinking we had made some progress, I turned to Colette to say goodbye and send her off.
The maîtresse continued, “After all, it isn’t an American who will explain to me how I should run my classroom!”
I smiled and held my breath a minute. I turned back to her, “Indeed not. This is your domain.”
Took a deep breath and tried to walk away with very straight posture.