September 25, 2009

Sisterhood is one thing… …but an Yves St. Laurent is an Yves St. Laurent.

Not having anything to wear is seldom a condition I suffer from. I have always been a quick and efficient packer. Handbag and carry-on, no matter how long the trip. For this trip to Paris, I had brought all easy clothes. We were to celebrate two “milestone” birthdays. Mona’s and mine. Very quiet with lots of food and drink. Therefore, I was not overjoyed when I found out that our friend had other plans. I would need an evening dress, and I needed it on the night of my arrival. We were to attend a very formal reception. No “black tie optional.” When a very formal reception is involved, the French do not fool around. It would be a four-fork occasion with more gold braid, medals, ribbons, drummers, and smart turns than Veteran’s Day at Arlington National Cemetery. I looked around his apartment. The dressiest outfit I could find was a riding outfit, and I had no skills to make anything out of the draperies.

Friend to the rescue. It was 4 P.M. It was going to be a short, hard afternoon. I put on comfortable cloth a.k.a. “going shopping battle fatigues”. Grabbed the Plastique, and off we went. Outside on the street, we squinted into the sunlight of the limestone facades and mansard roofs of the 16th Arrondissement, took a right onto Boulevard Victor Hugo, and headed for the Etoile, rushed by Lenotre, the Cartier of calories, without stopping. Major sacrifice! It occurred to me, that when in Paris, I never hear anyone say “calories,” or “cholesterol,” or even “arterial plaque.” The French do not season their food with regret. I admire their savior faire. Next to kiss and tell, I hate eat and talk.

Slipping into a familiar pattern, I studied the women walking towards us. When a man does what I am doing, it’s called being on the make. When a woman does it, it’s called testing the competition. I had consummated at least ten such encounters before we got into a cab and my friend said, “Mendes, 65 Rue Montmartre.” How does he know these things? The results of my womanizing are, as usual, inconclusive. I am no closer identifying that certain je ne sais quoi that French woman have. Many years ago, I did however gain some insight into the equivalent mystique of the French man. It had to do with the way he rolled a cigarette around between his lips with his tongue, and nipped it once or twice gently with his teeth, before he settled into smoking it. It made Marlboro Country look like Disney World.

Once in the store and in the dressing area, I tried to find a hook on the wall, which was the best way to stake a claim at Mendes, the Parisians answer to Loehmann’s, except that at Mendes, clothing by Yves St. Laurent and Lavin was routine, whereas at Loehmann’s you’re euphoric if you find a Calvin Klein.

Mendes had a punitive air about it as if wanting to shop there was a dubious activity that should be made as humiliating as possible. A reluctant shopper to begin, this did not make me any more willing to undergo the torture. However, my friend would not let me escape. He sat in the lobby with that well rehearsed look of a resigned, long-suffering male. Inside the dressing area a feeling of scarcity and urgency prevailed, a fear that there might not be enough merchandise to go around. This creates an adversarial wariness among the woman. Forget sisterhood in clothing stores.

I decided I should try to find a long black skirt and maybe a white silk blouse-something practical-and headed for the rack that was ablaze with silks and velvets. Some part of me that does not wish me well was hell-bent on making what could be a genuine spree into a joyless exercise in abnegation. It was true enough that I did not need another formal dress-I had three at home-but applying the same reasoning, what made me think I needed a black skirt and white blouse ever again? I was not a harpist with the Philharmonic.

I observed a woman looking through a rack of evening dresses . She meandered through row upon row of designer clothes. The slides of hangers on the metal racks, like beads on an abacus, and an occasional exchange of excusez-moi were the only sounds that accompanied this universal female ritual called shopping.

I sized up the woman. She was thick of waist, heavy of upper arm, and exceedingly broad of beam. She pulled out a dress by Ives St. Laurent, when I saw it I knew instantly; this was the one for me. It was gorgeous, probably too expensive, and I deserved it. None of this registered with Ms. France; she just slithered into the dress and transformed herself into a goddess. She stepped into her high heels, (this woman would never wear sneakers, she would have her legs amputated first) pirouetted and admired herself in front of the mirror, then marched out into the waiting room to search for endorsement.

As my friend caught sight of her with me following close behind, he instantly registered that this was the dress I wanted. She placed herself in front of him, exuding a musk of amour propre more French than Chanel No. 5.  I, who just moments ago, had seen every bulge on her looked at her with admiration. The dress had transformed her. It was a grand seduction in haute couture.

Venus on the half-shell dewy, expectant, ask my friend “L’aimez-vous?”

“Ce n’est pas grand-chose,” he replied carelessly, letting her know he thought the dress was no great shakes.

She turned on her heels, returned to the dressing room, disappointment written all over her face, she took of the dress, slammed it back onto the rack, dressed, and left the store.

The dress was mine.
Thank you my friend
merci Monsieur St. Laurent pour transformer nous dans les déesses.

September 21, 2009

Here we go again, it’s time for re-entry

The calendar reads September and, at least for me, it already seems as though it is the month that immediately followed June. The summer has come and gone, almost as if it never happened. In fact, it’s little more than a distant haze, filed away somewhere to be recalled on grey winter afternoons. The French call this transition la rentree, the return, and as part of this return, there is, of course, a kind of renewal as well.

When I traveled in Europe this summer I tried to observe if the nations had come closer of turning the continent into some kind of unified entity. Some of the problems, like the adoption of a single currency or the removal of border controls, may be administrative nightmares, but ultimately manageable. Others, however, present much greater difficulties, the kind that may take decades to work out if they can be worked out at all. There is, just to cite one aspect, the sticky matter of national identity, which runs wide and deep and reaches to the very soul of each country.

It is possible or even reasonable to assume that these nations will ever actually think of themselves as Europeans first. Will they ever be able to put aside regional or national self-interest in favor of the greater good-the way, for example, that Southerners think of themselves as Americans first and Southerners second? Many people are still skeptical, believing that the threads of national character and personality are simply woven too tightly into the fabric of each country.

To understand the problem, it is helpful to look at the countries individually, to consider the distinct likes, habits, and eccentricities of each people. For what really separates the French from, say the Italians, is to a large degree the sum of the little things: the kind of food they eat, their attitudes about sex, how they drive, what they wear, the kind of entertainment they like, and their social customs. Though these things might seem trivial, the whole created by these small parts distinguishes one national identity from another. A German from an Englishman. Overall, there is probably less dissension over global issues than there is on what should be served at a dinner party.

Charles, after we had an in-depth conversation on the subject, shared with me a book that examines a piece of the French personality. Written by New York Times correspondent Richard Bernstein, Fragile Glory: a Portrait of France and the French, is funny, insightful, and deeply felt. Bernstein’s observations are based, primarily, on the time he spent as New York Times bureau chief in Paris. “For me the French have always had a special cachet as people that have made a powerful impression on the rest of the world,” says Bernstein, who has logged many years abroad reporting from Africa, Asia, and various countries in Europe.

“Because they have such an important global reputation, the French are often seen as abstractions rather than realities-among the abstractions are that the French are arrogant, stylish, they don’t like us, they’re anti-Semitic-and I wanted to penetrate the abstractions. It was an obsession of mine to get under their skin.” After reading the book, I can say that Bernstein has succeeded.

I also observed Clive settling into life in Europe with ease and confidence. Not as an isolated expatriate, but as an interwoven part of a whole (some) group of young people, that view borders as economic necessities, and languages not as barriers but something to be explored and absorbed. So, as the summer of 2009 comes to a close, perhaps the best renewal is this last paragraph.

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September 13, 2009

Hello Ike, goodbye “Cay” life.

Hurricane Ike slowly gathered strength over the Atlantic while everybody braced for a repeat of the latest episode of America’s skydiving adventure.
Turks and Caicos, had been until now, spared from hurricanes.  
I was on my way from the boat to the house. The Cay felt suddenly like an old-fashioned out-of-season sea resort. The silhouettes of palm trees were already bending in the gale.

The best thing about the islands has always been the wind. It blows at you from the fast expanse of sea. It diffuses the light on the beach with dust and salt. It smells of all the scented flowers of the Caribbean. It wakes you up and empties your head. I climbed over the dunes and battled my way back to the house. Suddenly the storm took hold and knocked me off my feet. I grabbed hold of some railings like the nannies from Mary Poppins and made it back to the house.

The windows bent inwards and a weird pressure built up that made your ears pop. It is at moments like this that all the windows in a room can dramatically shatter. The builder had promised that ours were hurricane resistant; for once, he was right. Ike moaned, shrieked, and hammered at them but they stood their ground. The lights flickered and cut out. After a few minutes, the phone went dead. Now I was all alone. Soon after Ike reached his peak with a thunderous medley of micro-tornados, at which point the roof of the house lifted off and bounced toward the ocean with the furniture in hot pursuit leaving a skeleton of a place. There was nothing to do but wait. As I sat on the basement floor under the disintegrating house I felt completely detached.

Finally, the storm was over. All was silent.

No wind. No birds. No house. No boat. No voices, and the sea was calm and I was whole and standing. Breathtakingly lucky, once again.

The Cay was trashed. The sight reminded me of pictures I have seen of Germany after WWII. Destruction was everywhere. When night fell, darkness spread like a blanket all over the area.

Rescue crews arrived to shuttle everybody to Providenciales. There, for the first time, I saw Branko waiting at the airport, looking worried.
“You want to assess damages?” the authorities ask. No assessment needed. This will not be the place I retire to after all.

“Never make plans far ahead”, Branko advised. “And the best retirement place in the world,” he continued, “is an airplane. You can just pack-up and take-off when trouble comes your way.”

Not bad advice, unless you get airsick when you are three feet of the ground.

So, after the first week of September 2008, I had to part with an old friend, the idea of a retirement place and a much-loved boat. I knew it was time to cut my losses and leave.

On September 7th., 2008 Ike arrived as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 145 mph and swept over the Turks and Caicos Islands. Ike was the third most destructive hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. It was the ninth named storm, fifth hurricane, and third major hurricane of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season. Ike was blamed for at least 195 deaths and $500 million in the Turks and Caicos, amounting to a total of $32 billion in damages. Ike was the third costliest Atlantic hurricane of all time, behind Hurricane Andrew of 1992 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005. With Ike, the eye of the storm passed directly over the islands.

Remembering the terrible seventh.

September 11, 2009

Clive’s lucky bag

Of all the disciplinary problems we had to solve, what makes us the proudest is how we finally taught Clive to keep his room neat and his toys and other belongings in order.

For many months, this had been a challenge. Clive just had no sense of responsibility about his possessions. He would leave his toys on the floor or wherever they happened to be when he was finished playing with them. It seemed to be against his rules of fair play to put anything back on a shelf or in a drawer. At the end of the day, Larissa and I would have to clean up after him.

And it didn't do a bit of good to scold Clive about his untidy habits, or to point out to him that the simplest method of keeping his rooms neat was to play with one toy at a time, and put it back on the shelf before selecting another one. "Yes, Mommy," or "Yes, Doris," he would answer as he took another armful of toys off the shelf and dumped them on the floor.

"We'll just have to do something to teach him to be neat!" Larissa said to me one evening when she was in Clive's room, hunting under the bed for a lost toy. "I can't go through this routine the rest of my life."

"I have an idea," I said. "Why don't we put the Lucky Bag system into effect?"

"What on earth is that?" asked Larissa.

I reminded her that when we were in boarding school, Sister Gertrude had what she referred to as a "Lucky Bag" in the locker. Whenever she found any of our belongings lying around, she would impound them and put them in the Lucky Bag, and there they would remain until the end of the month, when they would be redeemable on request.

"That's a marvelous idea!" exclaimed Larissa. Before she tucked Clive in that evening, she explained to him how the Lucky Bag system worked.

"From now on," Larissa warned him, "any toys we find that haven't been put away in their proper places will be picked up and put in the Lucky Bag. Mommy's closet will be the Lucky Bag. And you won't get them back until the end of the month, either: Is that clear?"

"Yes, Mommy."

I'll admit that the first few days of the new regime were pretty hard on him. He couldn't seem to get it through his little heads that if he left a toy around untended, it was going to be gobbled up by the big bad Lucky Bag.

I'll never forget the first time Clive made the discovery that something of his was missing. "I can't find my bike," he came crying . "There must be robbers in Malibu."

"There aren't any robbers, dear," explained Larissa patiently.

"You left your bike on the front lawn, so I had to put it in the Lucky Bag." (Fortunately for Larissa, she had a large closet.)

Oh, guy!" exclaimed Clive, bursting into tears.

He was extremely shocked and surprised, too, when he discovered that his football was in the Lucky Bag. After he threatened to run away from home, we began to wonder if the Lucky Bag system was too harsh on him. But Larissa convinced me that it was teaching him a much-needed lesson.

There was one slight drawback. Clive wasn't learning the lesson as quickly as we would have liked him to, considering the size of our closets.

By the end of two weeks, Larissa's closet was filled to capacity, and I was getting the overflow, which consisted of Clive’s entire electric train setup, complete with tunnels, station and power pack, his punching bag, erector set, nine Hardy Boys mystery books, and a live frog in a glass jar.

By the end of two and a half weeks, my closet was full and so was the guest closet in the front hall. We were running out of places to use for a Lucky Bag.

"I know it hasn't been a month yet," I suggested to Larissa one night, "but now that he got the idea, why don't we let him have all his toys back now and he can start over with a clean slate?"

"Good idea," Larissa agreed. "I can't wait to get my closet cleaned out. I've been looking for some things for a whole week."

Knowing he'd be delirious with joy, we called Clive, and told him he could have his toys back.

"But it's only been two and a half weeks," Clive protested. "I don't really deserve to-"

"I know how long it's been," I said, admiring his integrity.

"But your mother and I are letting you off the hook early this time because we feel sorry for you. But next time we're going to make you stick it out for the whole month, so be careful. Now go on and take your toys back."

A pained expression crossed Clive's face as he said, "I'd just as soon wait, if you don't mind, Doris. My room's kind of crowded now."

"Crowded? With what?"

"My rock collection. I've got my rocks spread out all over the shelves."

Obviously, it would have been very bad strategy to make him take his toys back against his will at this point, but we were determined not to let him get away with any such nonsense at the end of the month. The toys belonged to him, and he would just have to take them off our hands when the time came, rock collection or not.

Meanwhile, we took great pains to stay out of Clive’s room, for fear we might find more fodder for the Lucky Bag. And when we did have to trespass in his quarters for some reason, we made certain not to notice the many toys, to say nothing of the small boulders belonging in his rock collection, that were strewn around the room.

However, it wasn't always easy to overlook his slovenly habits -not with him being as genuinely co-operative about the Lucky Bag. One evening, for instance, I tripped over a toy truck in the front hall. I had no choice but to ignore it as I picked myself up from the floor and headed for the first-aid kit. But Clive chased me to the end of the hall, shoved the truck into my hands, and said, "Here, Doris you forgot to put this in the Lucky Bag."

"I didn't forget it," I said. "There just isn't any more room in the closets. As it is, I have my cloth hanging up in the bathroom-on the shower-curtain pole."

"You could keep your cloth in my closet," suggested Clive.

"There's plenty of room in there now that there aren't so many toys."

"That's a good idea," said Larissa. "Do you mind if I put a few of my dresses in there, too?"

It was inconvenient, of course, having to walk clear down the hall to Clive's room every time I needed a dress. But, it was worth it, for it enabled us to follow through with the punishment we'd meted out, thereby demonstrating to Clive, once again, what brilliant disciplinarians we were.