“I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!”: AN ASSHOLE AMERICAN TAKES FRANCE BY STORM

 

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Me in France (not while driving)

In January, even though the only French words I knew were “viola” and “bordeaux,” I decided to visit a dear friend of mine who owns a gorgeous home in a remote medieval village in the South of France.  I didn’t know exactly what the logistics getting to this “remote medieval village” would entail, but my policy has always been, “Do it first, ask questions later.”  Usually the questions I ask later are (in no particular order): Where am I? Whose pants am I wearing? Was that two bottles of wine or two bottles of whiskey that I drank?  Why is there a photo of me jumping on a trampoline with a raccoon on my head?  Do I have the herp?  Am I dead?  Is this heaven?

Really, I had no reason to worry.  I’d been to Paris before, after all, and had experienced almost no mishaps, except losing my credit cards and money and getting stranded for days and having to call my ex-husband and beg him to spend thousands of dollars to buy me an emergency ticket flying me through Switzerland (where I would spend the night) to finally get home.  But other than that, my prior trip to France had been totally cool.  So I was pretty sure this one would go off without a hitch as well.

I booked a flight to Paris.  A few days before I was scheduled to leave, I thought I should at least check out a map to see exactly where my friend’s village was located.  It turns out that they call it “The South of France” because it’s in the southern part of France, which was good to know.  A little nugget to tuck into my back pocket just in case I needed it to show off at a cocktail party or cream someone in Trivial Pursuit.  I reread my friend’s last few emails to pick up important details I might have missed in my initial readings.  “THE VILLAGE IS FAR, FAR AWAY FROM PARIS. TAKE A TRAIN.  IT LEAVES RIGHT FROM THE AIRPORT.  IT’S CHEAP AND EASY.”

After going carefully over her emails, I decided to rent a car and drive the eight hours from Paris to my friend’s village.  Why?  Well, I was raised on a mostly uninhabited mountain in New Mexico.  If we had to go to the big city (Albuquerque), we drove rusty trucks with their bumpers attached using barbed wire.  Otherwise, we rode horses and/or Huffy bikes. The most fearful thing that could happen to us while traveling was getting our bicycle wheels stuck in the cattle guards.

Though I’ve traveled quite a bit of the world, and ridden my fair share of trains since then, I’ve never become completely comfortable with the concept of public transportation.  Buying tickets even when in America is always daunting for me.  Do I put my card in the machine first or press buttons, and what kind of ticket do I want, and why won’t the machine take my card, and why is the guy behind me swearing at me, and sir does your mother know you use words like that, and which piece of paper is my ticket, and oh god I have to put it in this little slot so the gate will open, and wrong slot wrong slot wrong slot, and bloody hell I should have just jumped the fucking gate.  And then trying to find the correct train?  Forget about it.

But thanks to my decades of being a groupie and following rock bands all over kingdom come, I’m perfectly fine driving billions of miles alone and sleeping in my car.  And what better way to see France than on a road trip, right?  Plus, look, I followed a band for weeks all over the U.K. once, ok?  Driving a car with the stick shift on the wrong side, at night, in a blizzard, on the wrong side of the road, in London.  No, I’m not making this up.  Yeah, sure I almost died a few hundred times, but what’s life without a little adventure?  So if I could pull that off, France would be a piece of cake.

So fast forward.  I’ve landed in France, and I’ve rented a car, and now, I’m circling the airport.  I have been circling the airport for about an hour.  I can’t find my way out of the airport.  The airport is roughly the size of Jupiter, and is composed mostly of cleverly linked roundabouts.  We don’t have roundabouts where I’m from, so they are a foreign concept to me.  And all of the signs are in French.  My GPS is pronouncing the streets to me in French, so she will say something like, “Take the 19th exit on the roundabout at Je.”  And I will pass a sign that says “Jeauxdeauxentepartmoi” and realize that most of the syllables in the word were silent, and that’s why my GPS said “Je.”  By then, my GPS will be rerouting me for the billionth time because I passed Je six f-bombs ago.  (When driving in foreign countries, I measure time by f-bombs dropped—usually one every five seconds or so.)

Finally, by some miracle of fate, I escape the airport, wipe away my tears, and turn up my music.  I’m on the freeway, baby.  It’s open road all the way from here to there, as far as I can tell by looking at my GPS.  She was an American girl raised on promises!  I’m rockin’ out, man, just like I do in the good ol’ US of A.  I glory in the fact that I’m driving in France.  I can’t speak in French, but man, can I drive in French.  And I’m driving a tiny Frenchy car, just like all these other French people, blending in completely.  I bet they think I’m a native Frenchwoman.  That’s how much I blend in.

And then, up ahead, I see a row of big, red, flashing signs.  Cars are all backed up, and even though I can’t read the words on the signs, I’ve been through enough tolls in the U.S. to know what’s happening.  No problem.  I got this.  Just roll down the window.  Wait.  Where the hell is the window roller downer?  Not on the door, though that little knob there seems to have turned on some siren sounding thing.  Not in the center console, though I’ve managed to turn on the emergency lights.  Not by the radio, though I think I’ve pushed the button that summons the demon hoards.  Oh, it’s down there, by the glove box.  Of course it is.

So I roll down the window and insert my credit card into the slot, and it keeps spitting it back out.  Again and again, the toll thingie spits my card out, and I don’t know what to do.  The people behind me are honking and saying bad things to me in French.  Finally, I press the little red button, and a woman’s voice comes over the speaker.  Speaking in French, of course.  And I have to be the asshole American who says, “I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!” very loudly over and over, hoping the repetition of the sentence will make the woman, who clearly doesn’t understand English, absorb by osmosis the meaning of my words.  She must, because finally, I hear her shouting something in French, which even though I don’t speak French, I know means, “Some asshole American is yelling at me in English.  Does anyone speak fucking English?”  Then a man comes on the speaker.  “Yes.  Can I help?”

“YES, YES.  I’M SORRY! I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH”

“I have been told.”

“OK!  WELL THE MACHINE WON’T TAKE MY CARD!”

“Yes. The American cards do not work in France. You need French card.”

“UM! OK! I’M NOT SURE WHAT TO DO!”

“Would you please lowering your voice?”

“SURE! Um, sure.” (in a whisper)  “I’m not sure what to do.”

“Quoi?”

“I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!”

“There is no need to, what you say, shout?  Please repeat what you say before?”

(Very conscious of my volume.  Too loud?  Too quiet?  Don’t reprimand me again, please, angry Frenchman. I beg of you, be merciful. I’ll cry.)  “I’m not sure what to do?”

“You have cash?”

“No.  I didn’t think to get any at the airport.”

More shouting in French about asshole Americans, and then: “Pull over to the right, please, and be going into the building, and will walk to the highest floor.”

So I go into the building and climb up like 14 flights of stairs to find a man standing behind a window.  “Credit card,” he says, his voice dripping with distain.

I push it through the slot.  He writes my information down.  I spend the whole time he’s writing trying to remember the French word for “thank you” from my last trip to France.  “Merci,” I mutter as he gives me back my card.  It sounds like “mercy.”  He rolls his eyes.

Ok, now repeat this experience about 600 times, because in France, there is a toll booth every two miles or so.  And even after I stop at a bank machine to get cash, it doesn’t matter because most of the tolls only take cards.  So I keep having to summon angry Frenchmen with my bad English to shove wads of cash at them.  They don’t give me change even when I give them 20 euro bills.  I’m fairly certain I’m being overcharged.

After several hundred kilometers of humiliation and extortion, it’s time to stop for gas.  Guess what.  French gas tanks don’t take American cards either.  And many of the stations aren’t manned.  I stop at five gas stations.  I’m frantic that I am going to run out of gas.  Does AAA work in France?  I finally find one where I can pay for gas by negotiating in loud English with a clearly disgusted French girl with blue nail polish and green hair.

And then, I have to figure out what kind of gas to put in my tank.  There are three kinds of gas, and they are all labeled in French.  I’m pretty sure if I put the wrong one in, the car will blow up.  I use some of my precious international iPhone data to Google how to figure out what kind of gas to put in your car in France.  I find out lots and lots of asshole Americans have been flummoxed by this very question.  It makes me feel better.  Asshole Americans unite.  I put gas in the fucking car.

I have to pee now, so I pull the car into a parking space and go inside.  I walk into a bathroom I’m sure had a little stick lady on the sign outside, but there are men lined up at urinals peeing.  I flee, embarrassed by this gratuitous display of man meat, only to bash into a woman entering the bathroom.  Ah, a unisex bathroom.  I forgot about this.  I play it cool and walk back past the peeing men.  I get stage fright when I try to pee because I know men are going to hear me, and what if I fart?  It takes me like 12 minutes to get a steady stream going, even though a half hour ago, I was about to wet my pants.

When I return to my car, I turn it on and try to put it in reverse.  The gear shift won’t budge.  I try again.  And again.  And again.  Nothing. The car won’t work in reverse.  I’m in tears.  I don’t know what to do.  I will never get out of this parking space, and no one can help me because I can’t ask for help because I don’t speak fucking French.

Ok, you’ve got this, Tawni.  Breathe.  You can solve problems like nobody’s business.  Solve this one.  I know!  I can go forward.  I will drive forward over the giant yellow cement thingie in front of the space and take it from there.

So I try that.  But I can’t get enough traction to get over the thingie, and my car is making this weird high pitched screaming noise, and the world smells like burning rubber, and this French guy is desperately knocking on my window.  I roll it down, and he says something emphatically in French.  “I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH!” I say.  “MY CAR IS BROKEN!”

He laughs at me.  “Not broken,” he says.  He reaches through the window and pulls up on this little rubber thingie that is under the ball on the gear shift.  “Up, see?”  He puts it in reverse.  “Not broken.”  In France, you have to lift a stupid thingie to go backward.  I totally knew that.

“Merci,” I yell as I drive away.

And that whole process, the tolls, and the gas, and the peeing men, keeps happening over and over like a recurring nightmare for eight hours, so that by the time I arrive in my friend’s village, I’m a wreck.  (Did I mention I did all this with jet lag?  I rode in first class too, so I stayed up watching movies and drinking free champagne all night, which it turns out exacerbates jet lag to an astonishing degree.)

And then, I have an amazing magical time in my friend’s village, which you can read about in other posts on this blog.

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The most beautiful village in the world

The only time my inner asshole American comes out to play during the week is when my friend, who happens to be a novelist and ambassador’s wife, asks me to put a kettle on and leaves the room.  I fill the kettle, light the stove, put the kettle on a burner, then turn to do the dishes.  The next thing I know, there is an inferno on the stove behind me.  The kettle is in flames.  Having set quite a few fires while my children were growing up, I remember what they used to do when I started a washcloth or a newspaper or my head on fire.  Throw water on it.  So I do that, and the fire fizzles and dies.  I pick up the kettle.  It has melted, and black, gooey rubber flies all over the kitchen, dousing my friend’s incredible, no doubt expensive, countertops in thick, ugly black.  Which is when she reenters.  “What happened?” she yells, horrified.

“I’m so sorry!  I just put the kettle on the stove, and it started on fire!” I say.

“It’s an electric kettle!  You don’t put electric kettles on the stove!  Haven’t you ever seen an electric kettle before?”

“No!” I say, as horrified as she is.  “No, I haven’t!  I have never seen an electric kettle!”  I am suddenly angry at my parents.  I feel as if they failed me in a huge way by not introducing me early to the concept of electric kettles.

At that point, her six-year-old daughter enters the room.  She is a brilliant and sensitive child who cherishes her parents deeply and responds emphatically to any slight against them.  She bursts into tears.  “That’s daddy’s favorite kettle!” she wails.  “Daddy will be so sad.  You’ve melted his favorite kettle.  Mummy, she’s melted Daddy’s kettle!”

And I’m starting to panic.  All of the upset and melted rubber and smoke is compounded by a thousand now that I’ve found out that this is not just any old electric kettle I have melted.  I have melted none other than the ambassador’s favorite kettle. I want to burst into tears too and wail, “I’ve melted the ambassador’s favorite kettle!  This has got to be a hanging offense in France!  I’m going to be hanged in the square for melting the ambassador’s favorite kettle!”  But I don’t because someone has to keep her wits about her, and it’s certainly not going to be me, but I can at least pretend to do so.

Anyway, eventually I peeled all the rubber off the countertops, and my gracious friends forgave me, and our week of general delight continued uninterrupted, though nobody let me anywhere near a kettle or a match again.

And then, I was driving back to Paris, pissing off toll booth people and watching men urinate and trying to negotiate gas deals in loud, insistent, asshole American English.  I had one night left in France, this time in Paris (so I would be close to the airport from hell for my flight in the morning).  As I mentioned, I had driven in London on the wrong side of the road, and was quite certain Paris would be easier.  It wasn’t.

First of all, all the signs were in French.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but I don’t speak French.  The whole city is a series of roundabouts with about twelve lanes in them.  I say “lanes” as if there are designated lanes.  If there are, I don’t know where they are.  There are no lines on the road. Cars just dart around, stopping and going in a willy nilly fashion, and every few seconds, a bus materializes from out of nowhere and tries to kill you.  It’s like playing Frogger, only if you get hit, you actually die, and there are no more yous lined up at the bottom of the screen to try hopping across the road again.  As you are pressing the gas pedal madly, trying to outrun the busses, cyclists leap out in front of your car, intent on committing hari kari, and you aren’t sure if you should slam on the breaks and let them live, thereby letting the bus behind you squish you flat, or just keep going and mow the fuckers down.  You cry and you scream obscenities, and after a while, you realize the secret to all of this is just stopping and going and turning whenever you feel like it.  And then you will blend.  Like a native Frenchwoman.

It took me about three hours to make it to my hotel, and when I finally did, I pulled up to park on the street and found that the parking meter didn’t take cash.  Of course it wouldn’t take my fucking credit card.  Also, there were ominous looking men lined up outside the hotel. I’m almost sure they had switchblades shoved in their boots.  The hotel itself looked like it was part of the set of Trainspotting, which shouldn’t have surprised me since I booked the thing online for $30.  But you know, in my defense, Travelocity gave it three stars.

I said, “Fuck this!” jumped back in my car, played the part of the frog in a Frogger game for another hour, finally made it to the outskirts of the city, where I slept in my car, just like I used to when I followed rock bands.

Confession: This bit about driving in France was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction to a humor article about my second drive through France, but it spiraled out of control. (Yes, a few months later, I rented a car to drive through France again because I clearly am a slow learner.  And yes, the second time sucked just as much as the first.  However, I had been practicing French, so I was now able to shout “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANÇAIS!”)  And then I was going to tell you how I fell down a very long flight of ancient stone steps while “mildly tipsy” and almost died climbing into a canyon in a tight red dress and high heeled boots, and was all going to be very funny, but I can see that your attention is flagging, and also, I have some chocolate and wine that needs tending to. Just know that in spite of all of the trauma, during this, my second (and much longer) visit to aforementioned medieval French village, I’m thinking of moving to France.  And yesterday, I had tea with a lovely woman who invited me to dinner with some former members of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company.  As a former actor, this thrills me. I will do my best not to set any of them (or their kettles) on fire.

P.S.  Here are Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, the band I followed all over the U.K., singing “American Girl,” along with The Gin Blossoms.  If I do anything cool enough to have a movie made about my life, please make this the theme song.  If not, please play it at my funeral.  And eat chocolate, drink wine, and dance.  And put the words “She danced.” on my headstone.  And bury me where my daddy is buried.  That’s all I ask.

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PUNCH A HIGHER FLOOR: A TRIBUTE TO PRINCE

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The streets of the village at twilight, bathed in purple.

It’s a weird day.  Prince is dead, and I’m sitting in a friend’s house in a medieval village in France, caged by gray stone walls built centuries ago.  The friend in question is an Australian novelist of some note.  She’s also an incredible human being.  In other news, she’s not here.  She’s far away on a whirlwind European tour.

I’m in this village for a few months, ostensibly editing a recently-sold novel, in reality drinking with locals and basking in the glory of the most ethereal place I’ve ever been.  It’s all cobblestone streets and quaint balconies and climbing vines.  Every time I walk outside, I feel compelled to quote Shakespeare.  Don’t ask me why.  Yes, I know he wasn’t French.  But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?  It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.  Every girl on a balcony is Juliet if you drink enough French wine before you see her.

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Yes, it’s always this pretty.  My iPhone photos don’t come close to doing it justice.

I’m staying in a cozy, no-frills studio, which I love, partially because it doesn’t offer time-sucking modern amenities like wifi, which means I can devote myself to writing, at least when I’m not drinking with some fascinating locals, which is almost never.  Today, I’m hungover, having imbibed with aforementioned locals just last night.

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Me writing in my room 
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Me in my cozy, beautiful bed here

After waking and brushing my teeth, I had a hankering for an email update, so I  wandered down the way and used the old fashioned gold key my friend gave me to open her colossal blue door, decorated with iron fists holding flowers.  Now, I don’t want to go home.  I want to stay here alone on the third floor of her paradise, staring out the window, drinking red wine, watching yellow birds flit through lilacs, worshipping twilight as it turns the world purple, because. . .

Well, Prince is dead.  And who will cry with me if I go to my internet-less apartment?  The ghosts that appeared to me in my dreams the first night I came?  Prince himself?  Who knows, but I want to be where I can commiserate with my Facebook friends.  “Enter the purple rain, baby,” I posted, an epitaph meant to send Prince on his way, along with a video of him singing.  And now, my internet friends like it and emoji-cry with me, and it’s not exactly human connection, but it’s something, isn’t it?  Is this what it sounds like when the doves cry?  Forever quiet?  In the French countryside twilight, even the birds are mute.

I don’t normally mourn dead celebrities.  What’s the point?  I didn’t know them.  They didn’t know me.  But somehow, it feels like I did know this one.  His songs were an integral part of my life for three decades.  And God, did it ever feel like he knew me, every time he sang my angst-ridden teenage heart, every time he shattered another culturally imposed illusion, every time he was unapologetically everything he was born to be, and in so doing, dared me to be me.  Maybe he was part of the reason I left behind the small town kindergarten teacher and found my true self, standing in front of all those rock shows dancing, never mind what the haters said.  Maybe he was part of the reason I walked out on gray, abusive relationships, desperate for some love alive with color.  Maybe, because I heard him scream, “When the elevator tries to break you down, go crazy!  Punch a higher floor!”  I kept trying to fly.

I found out a few hours ago, after a surreal day.  All days here are surreal.  I’m utterly convinced this place is not of this world.  When I close my eyes, I see colors bursting just on the other side of my eyelids, as if heaven is a blink away.  I’ve found myself in a cave-like bar dancing to a calypso band, pressed hard against bodies I’d never seen before but somehow felt were part of me just then.  I’ve found myself crying with an Australian stranger on a stone floor because he knew the lyrics to Tom Petty.  I’ve found myself staring through the window of a crumbling, ancient house grown over with ivy, 100% sure I could feel the spirits of the ones who built that house a thousand years ago.

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The hiking trails around the village are veritably infested with gorgeous ancient ruins. They are part of the landscape and haven’t been “museumed off” (yes, I made that up) in any way.

But this day went above and beyond in the surreal apartment.

This afternoon, having completed my internetting for the time being, I was leaving this house to return to my apartment.  I opened the door, and a woman in torn jeans was standing there on the cobblestone street, ready to knock.  I was shocked, but recovered quickly enough to explain that the person she had come to see was out of town.  After a moment, I recognized my friend’s would-be visitor.  The strong, smiling redhead was hard to forget.  I’d been introduced to her twice before, once as I was crossing the stone bridge to enter the village for the first time.

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The bridge into the village

“It’s a local tradition,” she said in beautiful, heavily accented English.  “You meet three times, you share a drink.”  So what was I to do?  I invited her home for a glass of bordeaux, of course.  She brought a dog with her, a gorgeous, delicate thing called Angel.  I thought he was a girl, but he turned out to be a boy.  My daughter and her husband recently lost a beloved dog named Angel, so the dog’s name struck a note with me, as did his deep brown eyes.  As I held his face in my hands and stroked his soft fur, the gentle creature bowed.  He stayed like that while we were having our drinks, literally doing downward facing dog, which in spite of its name, I have never seen a dog do before.  I couldn’t help but think he was humbling himself before something.  What, I didn’t know.  He never got up the whole time we talked.

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Angel doing downward facing dog

While my canine guest prostrated himself, my fascinating human guest spoke of her art.  She spoke of all the great men and women who had inhabited this village in centuries past, all the famous ones who inhabit it now.  She told me this was Naomi Watt’s mother’s dog bowing before me, determined to get in a good hour of yoga if it killed him.  I laughed.  If having Naomi Watt’s mother’s dog doing asanas in front of you isn’t a surreal and mildly pitiable brush with greatness, I don’t know what is.  We drank one glass of wine, and then two.  She told me she was worried about the dog.  He had a wound that wouldn’t heal, she said.  He wouldn’t eat.  He was depressed.  The vet said he was ok, but she didn’t think he was.  For reasons I couldn’t explain, I thought the word cancer, but didn’t say it.  Why jinx the dog?  Yes, his breath smelled wrong when I got close to his face, like sickness.  But why talk about that now?

Eventually, my guest’s cell phone rang, and she had to go, which made me sad because I liked her. When she was gone, I sauntered down the street to my friend’s house again, to check my email one last time before bed.  It was here, sitting on this well-loved couch, surrounded by stone walls, children’s drawings, and endless, unpolluted sky, that I found out Prince was no longer a pretty purple spot on Earth’s sometimes bleak, beleaguered horizon.  My dear friend Polyxeni wrote me to tell me.  “prince died,” she said.  There was no capitalization, no punctuation, which was strange for her, since she’s a fastidious librarian.  Let your English teachers say what they will about the power of punctation, but I knew my friend was frantic because of her lack of it.  It was the kind of slip-shod, punctuation-less email you send when tragedy strikes.  i have cancer the dog got hit by a car we are being evicted. I ran an internet search and found a link saying it was all a hoax.  “It’s a hoax,” I wrote back, relieved.  She replied with links to real news stories from real news outlets saying it was no hoax.  That’s when I cried.

And I thought, because I like to think things like this, that maybe that dog named Angel was bowing for Prince, escorting him out of this world.  In retrospect, that androgynous dog seemed like a canine representation of the musical virtuoso, all delicate bones and beauty and otherworldly gestures.  Even his possible sickness seemed poignant in retrospect.  A beautiful, doomed, soon to ascend thing he was.

So I ascended to the rooftop, put on “Purple Rain” and escorted Prince too, dancing with all my heart, for the boy who taught me that in this world, you’re on your own.  “When the elevator tries to break you down, go crazy.  Punch a higher floor!” I sang, never mind what the neighbors thought.  Far away, the moon dangled blue, begging to be kissed.  I pulled her close and tried.  I felt her warmth oozing through my body, drank in the scent of lilacs hanging heavy in the air, sensed something electric on my skin.  I like to believe that when a great man is leaving this realm, he says goodbye to the ones who are listening.  I like to believe that bit of electricity was what was left in the air when a soul who had the power to make the whole world his bitch said, “Sayonara, mother fuckers.”

sauve at night

Under that milky moon, on a stone roof heavy with spring and resurrection, I listened to his parting words.  Now, I speak:

To the Prince who knew all the boundaries and broke them, I raise a glass to you, here in this medieval French village I’m beginning to wish was mine for keeps, where a woman just regaled me with stories of the bonafide kings who once lived here.  Under the shade of crumbling castles, I toast your memory while it’s still hot and purple like you.  Looking out over endless rose colored roof tiles, glinting red in the moonlight, tangled in vines, I remember we all come into this world with the capacity to become royalty.  But only a few have the courage to do it.  And you did.  Now, from miles away, ancient church bells ring.  And though they do so every night, tonight, I know they are for you.

Enter the purple rain, baby.  Punch a higher floor.

Me with wine sauve

 

EMBRACING THE MOTHER IN FRANCE

The only sounds are birds and the muted rumbling of a truck on a far off road.  It seems surreal that I am here in this medieval French village, on this balcony, looking down narrow walkways framed with stone tenements built centuries ago, harboring ghosts of the past.  Four days ago, I arrived, somewhat bedraggled, in this place I will call my home for the next two months.  I visited the village in January and fell desperately in love with its cobblestone streets, colorful doors, and stone bridge arched like a stretching cat over the river that wanders through it.  I never wanted to leave.  I had to, but the universe has been kind enough to allow a series of miracles to fall into place, making it possible for me to return.

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The village as viewed from the bridge (I have been asked by some of the people who live here not to use the name of the village in my writings.)

When I was here last, it was cold.  Trees clawed the gray sky with their white, knobby fingers.  Now, they are all in bloom, bursting with purple possibility.  Their petals rode the wind in front of my car as I drove here, flurrying in time to the pounding music that accompanies me everywhere I go, songs I have saved on my iPhone, only a handful, not hundreds or thousands like most people.  I am bad at collecting things.  I always lose bits and pieces somewhere along the way.  I own only the contents of my two suitcases that rested in the back of my tiny rental car.  Both bags are uniquely ugly, one a stained red monstrosity, the other a ridiculous hot pink zebra patterned gargoyle of a thing.  It was on sale for half off.  No prizes for guessing why.  The songs made me fly, made my soul flurry like so much snow, like those petals, and in the distance, jets painted the sky with blue and red contrails, for what reasons, I couldn’t guess.  Was it a holiday?  The dancing petals seemed to think so.

I travel often.  I almost always feel panicky when I arrive in a foreign country, a desperate, lonely, trapped feeling that lasts days, sometimes even weeks.  But I didn’t feel that when I came here.  Immediately, I felt as if I were home.  I arrived late in the afternoon and pinned a note to the blue, colossal door of a neighbor I’d met during my last visit.  She’s a brilliant, beautiful Australian novelist, Martine, who lives with her wise, wonderful 11-year-old daughter, Manon.  Then I fell into bed and slept the kind of dead-man sleep only jet lag can produce.  The next morning, I woke to hear Martine and Manon pounding on my door.  I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see them standing on my steps asking me to join them on their morning walk.

Since that moment, my time here has been a blur of beauty.  I came with the intention of eating simply, hiking daily, praying often, writing always, and when the universe opened the door, interacting with the brilliant, lovely people who live here.  It’s played out more or less like that.

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Me on the balcony of my apartment

The first day I was here, I wandered to a local, one-roomed grocery and bought the basics—bread, cheese, eggs, vegetables.  My French is abysmal, but I managed to bumble my way through the transaction and left feeling secretly proud that I remembered the French words for eggs and bread.  All of these things are somehow more delicious here than they ever are in the states, maybe because they are all produced locally.  So my simple meals of bread and cheese and water taste like paradise to me.  Since my arrival, I have survived on 17 euros worth of food, and felt like a queen all the while.  And I’m not even halfway through the food I bought.

In the evening, Martine has been introducing me to the artists, musicians, and writers that populate this village.  She takes me to various events at a bar called Le Troquet Toqué, which apparently is a play on words that means Mad Bistro. I know this because I called it Chucky Chucky the first night I was here, much to her amusement.  It’s located in a stone building that resembles a white cave on the inside.  Like all of the buildings here, it was built centuries ago.  Last night, I danced to a calypso band there under that low ceiling with some of the most lovely people I have ever encountered.  I was scared to dance at first, thinking I would be subjected to the kind of scrutiny one is subjected to in the U.S. when one dances, but I quickly realized that these people dance with all of their hearts, and with little or no concern for the grace of their steps or the perfection of their movements.  For hours, I lost myself in the pounding rhythms of the drums and clarinet and tuba, in the wails of the woman who sang from a place that went much, much deeper than her diaphragm.

In the tiny room, humanity was magnified.  It smelled like food and sweat and beer.  There was nowhere to go without being crushed by bodies.  Had I been given to claustrophobia, it might have been my version of hell.  And although I was tempted to panic when I first walked through the narrow doorway into the almost-smothering embrace of ancient, rounded walls, I let go of the sensation and decided instead to become one with the magic that was happening around me.  The cavelike room became a womb, giving birth to some version of me that is just taking shape, something undefinable, something that has faced darkness and wandered back into the light.  And so a potential hell became heaven.

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Me after dancing all night (this is a t-shirt, not a bra, I pinky swear)

Speaking of heaven, yesterday, as I hiked the flowered trails sewn around the village’s edges like so much lace, I stared out over the yawning green forever of the landscape, dotted here and there with stone houses and ancient ruins, and I whispered, “I’m in heaven.”  I meant it.  At the risk of sounding trite, I feel God here.  And no one seems to mind.  At Le Troquet Toque, I spent hours talking to a local musician, a Canadian ex-pat, about God and reincarnation and the divinity of art.  In the U.S., people might scoff at these notions.  No one has scoffed here.  Maybe when you are this close to heaven, you can’t help but harbor notions of something bigger than self.

Every morning, I wake before dawn, because even though I’m normally a notorious sleeper-inner (yes, I made that up), my body clock seems to have decided this is how we are going to roll while we are here.  I make eggs and coffee and watch the sun rise from my balcony.  When it is light, I hike through the hills outside the village, gasping every time a purple blossom comes into view.  This place is alive with purple blossoms.  It is spring, and everything is purple.  I have long considered purple flowers to be the symbol of The Divine Mother.  I am surrounded by her here.  I am embraced by her.  I am embraced by this village.  I am embraced by these people.  I am embraced by a place that feels into my bones like home.image

P.S. I wrote these poems while I walked.  People often tell me I should send my poems to journals instead of publishing them online.  I sometimes do, but most of the time, I feel gushes of generosity when I create art.  I believe art is the breath of God, her way of saying “I love you” to me so I can say it to others in a language I hope they will understand.  She gives it to me, I give it back to her in the form of the woman or man or child who reads my words and feels light.  To me, the commodification of art feels disingenuous, though Lord knows I do it when I sell my novels.  But I’d rather share these while they are fresh in my heart, even if only three people read them, than hide them in a drawer for months or years, waiting for some other pair of eyes to deem them worthy of being read.

MEETING THE NAMELESS MOTHER

Awake, oh sleeper.  A song lives in those hills, past the purple flowers that grew from the seeds The Mother left in her footprints when she passed.  Lick the dawn.  Swallow the sunrise whole.  Let the branches grow, wrapping themselves around your legs, making them strong and thick.  Become the goddess you were born to be.  Let the river drown out the voices of the demons who whispered their lies in the night, who stole your eyes so you could no longer see yougodyougodyougod.

You. God.

Demons are made of dust.  They disperse in the breeze.  You fall to your knees and whisper.  Nothing.  The name of God is only hhhhhhuuuhhh.  It is only breath.  It cannot be said.  Say it, and you take away the sacred.  Make it a thing of this earth.  Or say it, but do not think when you do that God will stay within the box you have made.  Let her dance outside those walls you erected from so much breath.  Let her sing, “Death is an illusion, and stars from far away galaxies pulse the truth of the ages, which is all there is is hhhhhhuuuhhh.  You are hhhhhhuuuhhh,  You are born from stardust.  Breath.”

Breathe God in like oxygen.  Hold the stone of her on your tongue.  Taste the salt of her sweat.  Let her seep into your pores.  Make her close.  Make her you.  Even in the darkest nights, when you were sleeping in hell with those demons, she has always been, will always be, yours.

OHM

All of the love I ever wrote was just a way of saying his name a little longer.  And saying his name was just another way of saying his eyes.  And saying his eyes was just a long way of saying ________, that silent breath that God breathed when She exhaled the universe into existence, thinking it was very good.  Did God dance that day?  Did She sway to the sound of the spinning stars, wearing moons in her hair and Saturn’s rings on the tips of her toes?  Did She expose her breasts to The Sun and dare him to burn her.  I think She must have been, must be, something like us when we are at our best, that moment of brilliant, brave tipsy that comes just before drunk, right before we fall off the precipice into the abyss, slurring come-ons to boys we never remember in the morning.

I think She must have been like him, the way that dent in his throat always made everyone who ever saw it dream of licking it long after he was gone.  The songs he sang were a way of saying her name, and mine, drawing them out in forever chords and shuddering chants, and when he brought his lips to the harmonica, we felt what it meant to sleep neck deep in_______.

I have not always loved love.  Some days I have cursed him, slept shaking with his invisible name tarnishing the red of my lips, cracking and turning them brown.  His cruelty has shattered me, made me a glassless, bent window pane after the suicide bomber, left me standing in Hiroshima under a glowing mushroom cloud of death, gasping for breath, and even that sound was  __________.

Because it all meant the same thing.  It meant that the day I first saw him sway under an exploding canopy of stars was the day I first met God, was the day I first understood my own name had nothing to do with vowels but was a song She sang that day when She first gave herself to The Sun, settled beneath his heat, opened herself wide, and cried, “Burn me, break me, incinerate me, make me the embers that glow at the center of these bones, leave me shuddering and alone, clawing at my face, wailing for the home of you, calling _______.

 

THE BOOK OF HIM, A MUSING WRITTEN WHILE BEING HIT ON BY A BOY HALF MY AGE AT AWP

I know the tradition for writers who have just come home from AWP is to cleanse by writing a blog or essay about the experience.  My experience went pretty much the way you’d expect AWP to go.  I saw many beautiful faces I love, kissed them, and told them all of the fancy things that have happened to me in the past year.

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Me, my soul-sister author Jennifer Steil, and the beautiful, brilliant writer Rachel Schwerin on a rooftop during AWP.

I listened intently to some fabulous panels and tried not to sleep through others. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books, writers, and magazines in the world and stumbled through the book fair feeling ant-like, accepting offerings of bookmarks and journals and pens from other writers who were also, no doubt, feeling ant-like, staving off existential crises, wondering if their voices could ever matter in the cacophony, the way maybe drops of the ocean wonder why they ever bother trying to be part of a wave.

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The Beautiful and the Damned party.  I didn’t stay long, as it was loud, and I was tired, and unsure as to whether I really belonged there, as I’m not young enough to be entirely beautiful, and I’m not bad enough to be entirely damned.  I hear it was pure magic for those who stuck around though.

I met new faces I think will likely be part of my life forever.  I sat on rooftop bars with writers, and drank in opulent, deafening halls with writers, and talked about the pros and cons of first-person-narratives with writers.  There was whiskey and champagne and gin, and there were tarts and rellenos and lobster rolls.  All in all, it was a rollicking success.

But my favorite thing that happened to me at AWP is my muses came back to me, my poetic muses, to be specific.  I used to write two or three poems a day, and then, the well just dried up.  The well undried one day at a bar, when a boy half my age started hitting on me while I was waiting for my friends to show up.

This one goes out to the one I love.  All the ones go out to the one I love.  (I know blog readers don’t like poems.  I get it.  But sometimes a girl has to write what’s in her heart instead of what she thinks that nebulous “audience” will want to read.  Because holy hell, if there is one thing I learned at AWP, it’s that there are at least 15,000 writers out there desperately trying to write what the audience wants to read.  Today, I just want to write for him.  Because I write best when I do that anyway.)

THE BOOK OF HIM

The boy at the bar asks, “What book is that?” and I want to say:

It is the book of him, it is always the book of him, everything is the book of him. He is the cracked vodka bottle and the mangy cat and the homeless man with blighted red skin who needs the voices to SHUT THE FUCK UP.  He is the salt on these nuts and the gray at the waiter’s temple.  He is this wine as it turns my mouth the taste of the French countryside.  He is the blister on my heel.  I read him when I chose this red dress, when I painted my lips, when I outlined my eyes like Cleopatra.  I took a photo of that mural because the hand reminded me of his.  He is the shred of lettuce wilting its way back to dust on the floor and the brown spot left on the ceiling when it snows.  He is the neon sign spilling green into the walkway, the pedestrians slipping in its gunk.  He is the peonies that wanted rain and died of thirst.  If I lifted the stone at the corner of this building, I would find his name carved there, his birthdate, the secret of his never-death. I would know finally that this life was just a big Where’s Waldo game written by him, only everything is Waldo.  Waldo never hides. He is the only book I have ever read, kid, and if I read you, you will be him minus something, and I will hate you for it.  Don’t waste your money on me, Jeff, Sven, Pedro, William, Serge, Bo, Lamar, Brian, Santos, Lee you are all him, and less than him, and I promise you’ve never read my book.