Corrupting the French, un par un

When my son was still small, he was easy to thrill. A Pokemon card here, a sticker there. When it came to celebrating his good grades in kindergarten, I pulled out all the stops and announced that we were… going to McDonald’s for a happy meal!!!

I told him this when I went to pick him up from his Nounous’ house. Oh, he was thrilled as only a 6 year old can be. Going to eat fast food was actually a treat for him.

Now at Nanous’ house, they live and breath organic. This was not a new fad, this is how they lived off of their land for generations.

They have chickens, a large vegetable patch, fruit trees, nut trees AND a small vineyard. If Nanous decided that they were having soft boiled eggs, she would send him out to the chicken coop with a little basket. Want fries for lunch? Well, go help Papi dig up some potatoes. In May, he would spend a better part of his afternoons sitting in a cherry tree eating until his belly ached.

And the meals? Always three courses, bien sûr! An entrée, the main course and a dessert. All made by Nanous and 80% coming from their garden.

So my offering him fast food might have been a cheap trick, but he was still too young to realize I was pulling a fast one.

As he was jumping around her kitchen all excited, I translated to Nanous what I had offered him and suggested that she join us. Oh, at first she all well raised French people do..but when I insisted…and my son did too, she took her dishtowel off her shoulder and put it on the back of a kitchen chair.

She went into the living room to tell Papi she would be back in a bit and there was ham and cornichons in the frigo if he got hungry.

We waited for her while she freshened up in the bathroom. I was surprised that she had slipped on a dress. But ok, whatever. When we arrived at McDonald’s, Nanous did not get out of the car right away. She just sat there and observed the people coming out. Humoring her, we did not rush her. She said after a few minutes, “oh, they are wearing shorts!” This puzzled me because Nanous was the least judgemental person I know.

Anyway, we got out of the car and stepped into a busy McDonald’s. The familiar sounds and smells hit me like Proust’s madeline … While my son went happily to get a ballon, Nanous stayed close to me.

I asked her what she wanted and she asked me the same question right back. I said I would get a chicken sandwich and fries, she said she would get the same. Once we settled in at a table and sorted out the food, I was surprised at how Nanous commented everything. ” Oh, not bad..” “say, that is good.”

Until the dread hit me. “Nanous,” I asked slowly,” have you ever been to McDonald’s?”

“Oh, no” she answered as she happily took another bite of her sandwich.

“Oh no? Ohhhhhhhh no!” I was in a panic. What have I done! Did I just corrupt Nanous? The blundering American who went to the farthest reaches of the French countryside to find the last French person who had never eaten at McDonald’s…and seduced her to go there on a ruse to celebrate my son? What have I done? What have I done!

Poor Papi, no more three course meals for him! Will he join the millions who eat their dinner out of a paper bag because who wants to go through the hassle of growing your own food and then actually cooking???

I’m happy to report that I did not culturally ruin Nanous, she still cooks for Papi, and they do not eat out of brown paper bags.

Liz and me

I nervously stood in the jetway, waiting for the plane from Nice to arrive. Six weeks on the job and the Cannes Film festival was in full swing. The VIP hostesses were in a frenzy looking after the hottest stars as they flew to and from the festival through Paris.

There were only so many VIP hostesses to go around so when the telex came in from our LAX offices concerning a “VIP PAP” with a “WHCR” a “PETC” and 9 handbags… somehow that telex was passed on to me. I don’t know the reasoning… I’m American, she’s American… In any case, that is how I came to look after the one and only, Elizabeth Taylor.

Once I got over my excited OMG, the WTF OMG took over. This was huge. Ok, basically I just had to get her from point A in Terminal B to point B in Terminal C. But add in that she was in a wheelchair, had a lap dog, AND had 9 carry-ons, plus security and stairs… I was beginning to understand why the VIP girls were suddenly too busy.

When I headed to the arrival gate, I reassured myself that I would not be alone. I could count on the wheelchair assistant. HE would know what to do. These guys knew the airport like the back of their hands.

The first thing the assistant waiting at the gate said to me was that this was his first week on the job.

Great. I had seniority.

As I saw the plane taxiing to the gate I thought, ok, she is flying under another name…she will be incognito…no one will recognize her. We will get through the airport…no problems. I had even prepared a sign with the other name on it just in case she would slip past me unseen.

Oh, naive little me.

When the door opened, I saw an apparition in white. White pants, white shirt, white scarf, white dog. Oh good lord, and those eyes. It was Liz in all her splendor. My knees started to shake but when my beaming colleagues aboard helped her off the plane, I naturally reached out to offered her my arm.

Once we got her settled in her chair with her dog on her lap, I realized we were not alone. There was an entourage of about 5 people behind us waiting, all carrying handbags. So leading the charge, off we went as a pack to their next flight.

Heads started to turn so, brilliantly, I swiftly thought to hold up my sign so when the crowd would start to murmur excitedly “Ohhhooow.” As in “Gee look!” “It’s Liz Taylor!” A disappointed voice would ring out “No, it’s not… that is not what is written on the sign..” my ruse was foolproof!

We had been walking silently for about 5 minutes when I thought Liz might like a bit of chitchat. Really. I thought this might brighten her day.

The only question I remember asking was about Truman Capote. He had written an essay about her and I asked something along the lines of if she thought he had exaggerated. She looked me straight in the eye and then looked away while saying in a deep voice, “all writers exaggerate.”

We made it to the next terminal without a hitch. I was almost starting to relax until we hit security. I escorted her and her dog through passport control and the metal detector, we got her up a short escalator and back in her wheelchair when I noticed that the entourage was beginning to be held up by the x-rays machines. I turned back to Liz who was now surrounded by a middle aged Indian couple who had handed their camera to the wheelchair assistant for a picture.

I must say Elizabeth Taylor was full of old Hollywood poise, she acted as if this pleased her so much, she smiled beautifully and was gracious to the couple.

I, on the other hand was not smiling. I was panicking. I was busy trying to figure out how I could get her safely to the VIP lounge to avoid half the flight to Bombay coming over with their cameras.

Have you ever seen “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I have. And the idea that being surrounded by fans could awaken the Martha in her scared shit out of me.

But Liz had other worries on her mind.

I was surveying the scene in panic mode when I heard her famous voice behind me say, “could you come here please?” I turned and honest to God I thought she was talking to someone else. I looked behind me left. Then right. Two beats later I pointed to myself with a “who, me?” expression on my face.

That is when she started to gesture with her index finger “come here” very discreetly. Everytime she curled her finger, I inched closer. It was if she had me on a string and each gesture pulled me in, until I was standing right beside her. She continued luring me in until I was bent at the waist, my nose hovering above her breasts, so she could whisper in my ear “all my jewelry is in that bag” as she motioned towards the x-ray machine.

My eyes grew wide and I froze to the spot. Holy shit. She has one of the largest diamond collection in the world. In that bag. Being opened by the police. In front of everyone.

Since I was still bent over her lap, trying to process that information… I locked eyes with Sugar, her dog. Ever so helpful, Sugar leaned up and licked my nose.

I stood up suddenly and loudly gasped for air, not realizing that I had stopped breathing for a minute. The adrenaline started to kick in. “Right, I’ve got to hide Liz, get a fortune in diamonds through security…and my nose is wet….” What to do first? I went down to check on the bag and make sure it got through without being opened up in front of the crowd. Next I quickly got the entourage together to surround Liz.

At this point, a guardian angel showed up carrying a walkie talkie. To this day I don’t know who he was or who he was talking to but, bless him, he saved me. I asked if he could open a jetway for us. He did. I asked if he could order a special hydrologic bus that could reach the jetway to take us to the plane on the hardstand, he did. I rushed to our agents who check passports to beg them to break all protocol and check passports for me on a different jetway. Once I whispered her name, the agent followed me while straighting his tie.

And lastly. When Liz said, “oh Sugar” “Sugar will have to wait till he gets to Los Angeles” everyone turned to look at me, I turned and pleaded with my eyes to the angel, he sighed and kieek! He mumbled something into his walkie talkies, pushed a keyboard and opened the door leading down to the tarmac. (This was all pre 9/11)

One member of the entourage whipped out a bejeweled leash and carried Sugar down the stairs. And there we stood. Watching Sugar lift his leg and pee in the shadow of a 747.

When they came back up, I ushered everyone into the vehicle to wait until we would be taken to the aircraft. Everyone started to relax and the group started chatting. The leash master said at one point to Liz, “oh, that lipstick looks so good on you!!!” Everyone in the entourage grew silent and turned into bubble heads, bobbing and repeating ….good….so I started to bob my head and murmured “good” too. Later they asked me if Paris was polluted and we spoke about polluted cities in general, that voice said just one word… “Bangkok!” We all started bobbing our heads in unison…. Bangkok….

We finally made our way to the plane and before I introduced her to the crew, she turned to one of the entourage women and said, “but we never met ____, and she said my name. “That’s me! I’m _____!” Pointing to myself like an idiot. She boarded the plane, turned, looked at me with those fabulous eyes and said, “Thank you, ____.”

I looked after many a star since but there was something special about that lady. Just a true class act.

And I am sure she enjoyed the chitchat.

French Fashion Boot Camp

She stood in front of us, scanning the room…and she didn’t seem to like what she saw. We were 15 new recruits to France’s largest airline. An airline that brands itself on the best France had to offer: style, class, sophistication. And it was her job to whip us into shape.

We were issued our uniforms created by a top French designer during our first week of training. So there we sat, as stiff as our new white satin collars,

bracing ourselves to be broken down by this Parisienne in her Channel suit.

She set her designer leather handbag down, took off her silk scarf and tied it to the handles, crossed her arms and sighed.

She started in first on the uniform itself. Or actually, on the colleague who had not pressed his shirt that morning. She ridiculed him in such a way that in the 4 years I wore that navy blue dress, I religiously ironed it the night before being on duty.

She then looked out of the corner of her eye and mention that slips were “Provençale” … Loose translation… Only unsophisticated peasants from the countryside wear slips under their skirts… As discreetly as I could I tried to hitch up mine from JCPenney’s that was visibly showing.

Next: shoes. For the women, we all wore a heel. Our shoes had to be shined, I got in the habit of shining them nightly. We were told not to drive in our work heels, but to have another pair ready to slip on and off when we drove.

Hair. Rule number one: if it was long enough to touch your collar, it had to be worn up. My hair at the time reached my waist so I learned very quickly how do a chignon that would pass inspection AND that could be done with eyes half closed before the 5AM shift at the Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris.

Nails: short and trim. Flashy and long were frowned upon. Clear or nude colors were best.

Jewelry. Small and discreet were de rigueur..

Make up. To ensure that we all knew how to do our makeup, we were whisked out one by one to have an individual makeover from Lancôme, the goal was not to sell us products but to individually teach us what was the most flattering for us AND was in line with the company policy.

….smoky eyes were not an option.

The things you learn in boot camp can influence your behavior for a lifetime. To this day, I still prepare my clothes the night before and can do my makeup and hair in under 7 minutes. When you have been trained to start work at 5am and have been expected to look chic without one hair out of place…you learn to get ready…fast.

20 years on and working a corporate job in a different company, I once had a non French manager remark to another that every morning I was made up. I smiled a secret smile. Like a former soldier who still wears his hair short and presses his trousers, French women, especially former hostesses, usually have the “look.” The hair is done, the makeup is just so and there is just a je ne sais quoi of … style, class and sophistication.

Adding insult to injury

In addition to buying a trombone, another recent purchase was a pair of Nordic walking sticks. There seems to be an endless stream of purchases that can embarrass your teenager if you are so inclined.

For those who don’t know Nordic walking, from a distance, it looks like a tired cross country skier walking through a field without skis, dragging his poles behind him.

But since I tend to go walking as soon as I wake up, my teenager rarely sees me in my full Nordic walking regalia much less dragging my poles around our public park. My regalia includes old yoga pants and a corporate sweatshirt I got on a retreat, black coat and a fleece hat.

I just have to slip my orthopedic insoles into my Clark’s and strap on my poles and I am ready to go!

In my younger days, that little voice inside my head worried constantly about what other people might think. I would have never, ever been caught out in public in such a mismatched array.

But since hitting middle age, that little voice now sounds more like a heavy smoking truck driver punctuating my thoughts constantly with an “aw, fuck it.”

Luckily, since on weekdays I wake up between 5:30 and 6:00 to go walking the only people who actually see me are usually hanging off of a garbage truck.

Today was a different story. It was a long and taxing week at work and I forced myself to stay in bed after waking with a start at 6:00 am on a Saturday. I got out of bed about 10am and I ignored the urge to just sit on the couch and watch Netflix, I forced myself to get dressed and walked out the door.

Nodding to my neighbors who are used to seeing me in full makeup and high heels, I stroll on by at a healthy clip, sucking in my gut. Coming around a corner at the entrance of the park, what did I see? About 25 middle age women in sweatpants and knit caps… Strapping poles!!!

I had found my people.

They were taking a break and I didn’t think twice about approach them. Turns out they are a local Nordic walking club AND they had a trainer with them. One lady pulled out her phone and took my email address so she could send me the details. They walk together every Saturday morning. As I continued on my way, I could hear them say that they would see me next week. Either they are very friendly or they are a new cult that recruits new members via Nordic walking….

When I got home, my teenager was up…and already playing on his PS4. Since he is playing online, my motherly questions.. what time did you get up? Did you eat? How do you feel?… All come in a stage whisper. He usually just nods or emits a grunt. After I gently kissed his forehead, he actually smiled up at me, muted his mic and asked while pulling the headset off of one ear “How was your walk?” I smiled back. “Really good, … I really think I found my people.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Basements in Ohio do not have good reputations. News of discovered torture chambers across the State have been making headlines for decades.

It seems only appropriate that my parents had installed our music room in the basement.

Go practice” is forever associated with my apprehension of descending to that dark room that held my mother’s sewing machine and our standup piano.

A timer would sit by my side and tick nervously for 20 minutes like a doomsday clock while I gazed gloomily at my sheet music.

I hated to practice the trombone. Or the piano. Or any other torture instrument that was assigned to me that day.

“Someday you will thank me…” would be the words my mother would say to my back as I slinked up from the basement to go sigh dramatically in my bedroom.

Now 30 years on, I, on a Sunday afternoon, am voluntarily getting out my trombone to practice.

My inner teenager is grumbling but I know it is good for me. Like eating broccoli.

My son decided this would be a good time to escape to his room. On a positive note, my practicing in the living room seems to be the only way I can get him off of the PS4.

So. Music stand and sheet music in place… Right, now all I have to do is play. But play what?

I can’t seem to decipher any of the notes.

Since this was 2018 and not 1980, I could now cheat by searching online for an app that could help. In two minutes, I had downloaded an app called “i see notes”, took a photo of the sheet music and I had my phone play my music for me. In a very tinny way, but at least it got me started.

I’m embarrassed to say that I wrote “1” “3” and “5” above the notes… Showing me the positions on the slide. Hey, the next band practice was in 4 days and I was determined to play at least a couple bars in tune.

And so I practiced. Over and over. Until I saw a hand holding a camera around the corner. Great. I’m probably now on YouTube under “get a load of MY mom.”

I sent him up to read a book that wasn’t assigned and continued to play, loudly. Don’t mess with people from Ohio, we know how to torture.

In the Death Car

Maybe it was walking through the school yard gates that made me grip my bags a bit harder. How many girls had gripped their bag harder, bracing themselves for what awaited them through those gates? The difference was they were all under 10, I was pushing 50.

But I had liquid courage rattling in MY bag…..

A small bottle of champagne, a music stand and a trombone was all I was packing for my first band practice. I had gotten there early, hoping to warm up without too many witnesses.

Philippe, the band leader, was already there preparing the room and setting up the mics. He eagerly handed me my sheet music that he carefully prepared himself. I nodded and started to panic. It was if I was handed a document in Chinese. I couldn’t remember how to read sheet music! I had no clue what the notes were!

Oh, nightmare.. practice was starting in 20 minutes.

I quickly put my horn together and slipped out into the night. I went behind a prefabricated classroom and started to do scales. As discreetly as you can on a slide trombone… Like an elephant trying to blow its nose. Good. Scales. I remember how to play a scale. I’ll impress them with my ability to play 9 notes! Dear Lord, I’m going to die in there.

When I walked back in, the other band members had arrived. They started to take their places, so I slowly gravitated to stand near the banjo player.. hoping it would make me look good..

Luckily for me, their dedicated roadie Eve had played trombone in the past but was too shy to play on her own. So she brought her horn to practice for the first time with me. When I started to practice a scale, she looked at me in wonder and said, wow, can you show me the positions? I could have kissed her.

Everyone took their place and we started with “Monkey Man.” And we stopped after two notes. Philippe cleared his throat and walked over to us. “Fa fa so te do” he sang over and over till Eve and I got it right. Sweat was pouring down my back, trying to play it right.

The band started playing again and Eve and I started to be a bit more confident, we had that fa-fa-so-te-do down pat! Oh shit. There were other notes to play. We looked at each other and just started making up notes..and started dancing. Until Philippe walked over, playing his guitar and gave us the conductor laser eye.

If you have never played in a band, the conductor can yell at you by just raising an eyebrow. Philippe had raised two. We stopped and sheepishly went to the drink table. Philippe stopped the rehearsal and said “the trombones don’t get to drink yet.” At that point, the banjo walked across the room to stand next to the backup singers.

When a banjo abandons you, you know you are in trouble.

Dying a slow and embarrassing death, it was appropriate that the next song was “In the Death Car.” Philippe did his fa-fa-so-te-do trick again for Eve and myself, even though he didn’t seem to be singing it as cheery as Julie Andrews did in the Sound of Music. Eva seemed to play better than myself so I just started faking it, pretending to blow in my horn and move the slide… Just like in high school.

The last song that had the trombone part prepared was “Love Potion number 9.” We limped through that one OK and I was relieved when our bit was finally over. We finally could go to the drink table. I poured a large dose of champagne into a coffee cup and handed it to Eve. “Drink.” She did and then I did. Risky thing to do in flu season but screw it. We survived the death car and we were still ALIVE.

“Why are you doing this?”

I sat my son down to announce that I was leaving to go buy a trombone so that I could join a steel drum band. He pulled his gaming headset off and put his PS4 control down, and sighed. “Mom, why are doing this?”

Sometimes my son makes me feel like I am the 14 year old and he is the adult.

“What is wrong with my joining a steel drum band?” I said. “What do you want me to do, sit around here and watch Netflix?” “Yes,” he said while readjusting his gaming gear and turning his attention back to the screen.

I think sometimes he just likes me to be home… and it doesn’t matter if he is there or not. Once when he was staying at his dad’s, they stopped by unannounced to pick up a forgotten item. Surprise, surprise… I wasn’t there. When I got his, not his father’s, irate phone call, I said rather exasperatedly that I was not the fixed point in the Universe.

At least not anymore.

Understandably, for many years, I was. Cooking and baking and basically being at home looking after my family when I was not tripping on the corporate ladder. Who has time for outside interests when you are holding down a full time job and taking care of your family? (Well, French women in general, but that will be a blog post for another time.)

When the day came when I did find myself alone for the first time in years, I remembering sitting back on the couch trying to remember what “I” liked. Not the collective “we” but “I.” What books? Movies? And what did “I” like to do? Frightening how quickly one can forget.

To complicate matters, my language setting up to that point was in French. I watched French TV, listened to French radio, and I was working for one of the largest French companies where I worked mainly in, you guessed it, French. Looking back, I really only spoke English when conversing with my son.

Some time later I flew to London to stay with my host sister and I remembering the unbearable lightness of my situation. No diaper bag, toys, snacks…no one to take care of or look after except myself.

It was like I had stepped into a parallel universe, what my life would have been like if.

I remember taking a random double decker bus and rode it until it took my fancy to get off. I laid in the grass of Kensington Gardens just watching the clouds, and dreaming. I went to the theater, saw Shakespeare and Hair, and found myself in the end dancing on a West End stage, imploring until I was hoarse to let the light shine in.

And so my new life began. It is not the life I had asked for or even imagined but it’s the one I’ve got. Soccer coach, to surf lessons, to even playing trombone in a steel drum band.

So why am I doing all this?

Because why the hell not.

Black Market Brass

Before leaving the house, I sent a friend the address and phone number of my contact “just in case…”

In case what,” she replied, “he would be the trombone murderer?”

That would be my demise. Lured to a house by an announce on “Le Bon Coin,” the French equivalent of Craigslist, and be killed by a guy who has a thing for girls with a firm embouchure. Maybe that would be my saving grace… sagging lips.

When I knocked on the door, a guy in his late 20’s opened it and he was surprised that I was alone. “That’s it,” I thought, “now he’s got me.” But it turns out he was expecting my son to there too. I figured that one out when I deftly put the horn together and put it on my shoulder to test the slide. “It’s for you?” He asked incredulously. Yes, yes. Me.

I handed it back to him so he could play a few notes. The sound was good… enough. It is a Stagg, more of a practice horn than anything else, but over the din of the banjo and steel drums, would anyone even notice?

That is when he asked if I wanted to give it a try. I guess my deft handling of the horn made him believe I could really play. Well, how hard can it be? It’s like riding a bicycle, right? After I played a few notes, he cleared his throat. “Ahm, so you are going to take a few lessons?” I didn’t even dare tell him that nah, I was good to go.

After negotiating the price, I picked up the horn case and walked back to my car. The weirdest thing was, it all felt so familiar: the weight of the horn, hitting the positions of the different notes on the slide, even carrying that damn case…it just felt right.

…I’m with the band

I walked nervously into a French elementary school with a six pack of beer.

Five people were already there and the eight others that followed me in were all packing flasks, bottles… and musical instruments.

Seems I let a well kept secret slip on a business trip that in a former life I played the trombone. A colleague in my multinational corporation leaned across the boardroom table and immediately propositioned me… to join her band.

Now you have to realize that almost a month to the day I graduated high school l left Ohio, and my trombone, behind. Yup, Europe and sophistication awaited. And my future did not include buckeyes or brass instruments.

Almost 25 years had passed living a sophisticated life overseas and now like an embarrassing childhood nickname, that inelegant part of my past was being revealed.

Pretty petite girls played flute or the clarinet. The cool kids played sax, or trumpet or the ultimate cool; drums. The jokers played trombone. Who takes a trombone, or a trombone player, seriously? We called ourselves the Boners, for heaven’s sake.

(There. You have it. The nickname AND the instrument.)

I had come so far but my past of being an awkward, six foot tall teenage trombonist with an 80’s perm and braces was coming back to taunt me.

I tried putting my colleague off but she persuaded me to come to just one practice, one.

That’s how I found myself one evening walking behind her and her boyfriend through the quiet street of their Toulouse neighborhood with bottles rattling in my bag. They were carrying a flute, sax and clarinet between them, I was carrying the stash. A sophisticated roadie in a Max Mara coat and high heels.

Well, the first thing I saw when I walked into the room were the steel drums…. Then the bongos (BONGOS!) And that is when I turned to see a guy tuning his banjo. How could I not join a steel drum band … with a banjo???

Before tuning their instruments, they all poured their gin and other smooth refreshments to have close at hand. This was definitely NOT Mr. Polce’s 10th grade band practice.

My colleague introduced me to everyone as the potential brass. “Ohhhh, trombone” they all said with a gleam in their eyes… For the first time in my life it was said with admiration, almost. They had wind, and string, and percussion… they even had three back up singers … but no brass. So the stakes were high to get me to join.

They finally gathered in a circle around mics and began to play. Oh, was it good. Eclectic, and good. Brazilian Songs, French songs, Spanish songs… Zydaco to old fashioned American rock and roll. At one point when the clarinet had his solo, everyone danced a joyous, infectious gin-induced dance.

It. Was. Glorious.

During one particular song they all hummed the trombone part, taking obvious turns to try and catch my eye. I was maintaining my poker face but already projecting myself dancing wildly with my trombone in my hands casting off those hard earned years of sophistication.

But I was keeping one last dark secret close to my chest: I kind of sucked as a trombone player.

Dying water buffalo sucked.

I haplessly smiled at them in their sweet attempts to entice me to join, knowing they might come to regret this fated evening.

When rehearsal was over, like in an overenthusiastic church, they all made a point of stopping and welcoming me again. I am sure I heard a happy sigh of “brass” as one of them was packing up his instrument.

I texted my colleague the next day “thanks again for last night…very, very tempting.” She wrote back immediately, “glad to hear it 🙂 go find a trombone!”

Now where was I ever going to find a trombone in the Southwest of France?