It can be stressful to land in a new place, all your possessions on your back, trying to figure out directions in a strange language. So I am not making fun of the strapping young things who parade about town, jaws slack in amazement and arms tight around their backpacks, which they wear in the front.
At the same time, to take measure of a place, look at the locals. In New York, I learned to keep my bag tucked tightly under my arm, with no loose strap that could be yanked away. I learned not to make eye contact. (Though once I did, by accident. It was years ago. I reading the paper and enjoying a coffee at a sidewalk table of a small café in New York’s Soho. I sensed somebody standing in front of me so I lowered the newspaper and looked up, expecting to see the waiter. Instead, I saw a disheveled man, probably crazy and homeless. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he exhorted. I was sunk–I had made eye contact and he had spoken directly to me. I flashed him a big, friendly smile and answered, “Si fahamu.” He repeated his plea for Nadine, and I repeated, in Swahili, that I didn’t understand. He made a face that said, “this chick is crazy,” shrugged his shoulders, and sauntered off down the street.)
In Carcassonne, I see little kids, 7 or 8 years old, walking home from school unaccompanied. They aren’t everywhere, to be sure. Most kids get picked up by parents in cars, in the same horrible, car-choked scene you find in the U.S. Those who walk generally are accompanied by an adult. But I still see kids running around, including in the center of town, on errands (up the street and a few minutes later back down but carrying a baguette), riding skateboards or bikes. I like it. It feels alive and normal.
Did I let my own kid walk alone to school? Yes and no. My kid spared no words in French or English about the injustice of the forced march, PLUS from the EDGE of the village, whereas ALL THE OTHER KIDS got dropped off by their parents in CARS. We even would pass a woman (grandmother? nanny?) who would battle to get a squirmy little girl into the car for half a block. Yes. She drove half a block to school, and spent more time fighting to get the girl into the car than she did driving. Also, as I recall, it was far enough to go by car but not far enough to put the kid into a car seat with a seatbelt.
The walks to school required, at age 3, half an hour (for six blocks) in order to examine every rock, leaf and bug along the way, without stress and with time for maximum wonder. By fourth grade, the commute took three minutes, max. One day, my kid declared the end of our hand-in-hand promenades to and from school. The end of waiting by the exit with the other parents at noon and the end of the day. The declaration of independence. I was in a quandary. I wanted my kid to be independent, like the older boys who tore past us on their bikes and whom I regularly spied down in the river, fishing or exploring or whatever. Normal kids. I wanted that.
At the same time, I wanted to know without a doubt that my kid had entered the school. I couldn’t go back to work without 100% assurance. Knowing that the school probably would call after a while was no solace. In that time, where would my kid be? So, I did what any mother would do: espionage.
My kid would set off, meeting up with a pair from across the street, and off they would head to school, about six blocks away. I had insisted on a route that involved medieval streets too small for cars. Still, I waited until they had advanced down the main street, before stealing out, leaning into hedges to hide, peeking around corners. In our village, the little old ladies walk, and the little old men sit. Specifically, they sit under the plane trees in the center of the village, a vantage point that keeps them on top of what a large percentage of the population is up to. The people who live farther out, the newcomers in the lotissements, or subdivisions, are of no interest anyway.
I would glide up alongside a wall, where, crouching, I could peer unseen through the windows of parked cars all the way to the school. This was highly amusing to the old geezers, perched on a bench like so many swallows. They would nod and gesture and indicate that I could go home, that all was well. And I knew it was. Little villages are full of protectors.
In town, I see lots of little old ladies out for their commissions–their purchases of whatever they need to make the day’s meals. I deem them “old” if they use a cane or a walker; some who may have more years but who are still in good shape get categorized as just “older,” as in older than most of the folks around but not yet “old.” A teenager also is “older” than grade school kids. Everything is relative.
These little old ladies seem quite at ease, in sharp contrast with the young backpackers. They hold their canes in one hand while their boxy handbags dangle loosely from the other. I admire them for negotiating the curbs, the uneven sidewalks, the steps that are inevitable in a place that was designed in 1260. In my opinion, they always have right of way in the crush of human traffic of the market. From what I have observed, I am not alone in my thinking, although there are always some people who seem outraged to find that there are OTHER PEOPLE shopping at the market. As if!
I think of my mom, who from age 60 or so only left her house by car. Not that there were any shops in walking distance in her neighborhood. For that, Carcassonne is walkable like New York, but a lot cheaper, without the lines for everything and with much better weather.
When we were looking at properties to buy, I walked around one neighborhood in hopes of spotting details that would connect houses with places I had seen in real estate ads online. And it always was possible that I would stumble on a hand-written sign offering sale by owner. Plus, I never need much of an excuse to go walking around town.It was a sunny day, but in winter there were few people out. I spied a tiny woman working her way down the sidewalk using two canes. I figured she lived close by and probably knew everything about the quartier, so I sidled alongside her and started to chat.
She was charming. She had lived there all her life. She had fallen in her home and had just gotten out of rehab; she was out walking to get back in shape. She was 98. We ambled down the sidewalk and she told me about life. I didn’t get any real estate tips, but I had a wonderful time.
I wish I had listened more to the stories from my own mother, who died a couple of years ago at age 90. She sometimes would start to tell me about something, and I would get annoyed, because I had heard a lot of the stories many times before. Too late, I also realized she felt, tasted, smelled the memories as vividly as if they were yesterday. I was recently discussing something with my kid, and later, thinking about it and about my own experiences, I was back in the school gymnasium and could practically smell its special (hated) smell. Surely my mom wanted to connect me to such memories of her own, to share them, relive them but not alone. A Proustian journey, proffering a taste of the madeleine.
I think of my grandmothers. One was an enigma, stiff and proper. The other was completely the opposite–emotional, fierce, proud, unconditionally loving. But although I often prodded her to tell me about her childhood in Europe, she never talked about it much. Nor about anything else. What was it like to immigrate? What was school like? How did she meet my grandfather? (At a dance; he was a good dancer.) How did she, someone who loved loved loved children, have only two, and a decade apart? I suspect problems, miscarriages, maybe even illness, whether of a baby lost and never spoken of again, or herself. Although to my knowledge she was always as strong as an ox. When she was 85 and still living alone in her house, I spied big buckets of ice in her “back room”–a room with windows on two sides where she and her brood of grandchildren would sleep in summer, to get good cross-breezes, and where all those windows’ sills were lined with plants. She carried the buckets up a steep flight of stairs from the drainpipe where she caught rain or melting snow–what her flowers preferred. And one day, sitting at her kitchen table, she complained that it was going to rain because she hurt there, and she raised her leg as effortlessly as a ballerina, knee straight, as high as her head, and pointed to her ankle. I told her she had nothing to worry about. Until she was nearly 100 and rarely recognized us anymore, her hair was dyed black and she put rouge on her cheeks.
A few weeks ago, I stopped to photograph a handsomely renovated building just off the central square, Place Carnot. A passing woman looked at me, looked at the building, then stepped out of the brilliant sunshine to better admire the façade herself.“If you hadn’t been taking a picture, I wouldn’t have noticed,” she told me. “It’s beautiful.”
“Lots of buildings are getting new façades these days,” I answered, and pointed to a few other examples.
That led to nearly an hour of chatting on the street corner about everything under the sun.
I finally asked her how old she was.
“84, but that’s according to my birthday. Sometimes I feel like I’m 70; sometimes like I’m 90. Today, I feel 70,” she said.
I assured her that I had her pegged at 70. It was true. She was wearing a fluttery green top, very appropriate for the warm day, with dressy pants. Her jewelry quotient was typically française–neither too much nor too timid. She wore makeup, expertly applied, again neither too much nor timid. Her hair was dyed a slightly unnatural Lucille Ball red, and was cut in layers, neither completely straight nor curly. Did she style it or set it? Maybe. That’s typically française–maybe they made an effort or maybe not. Basically she was an older version of Jeanne Damas. No cane, no walker.
Then, she pointed to her shoes. Cork-soled high-heeled platform sandals! I am far, far younger than 84 and do Pilates and run, and I would not dare to walk on the crooked, slippery sidewalks of Carcassonne in platform shoes. I would be in the emergency room so fast.
I wanted to give her a high five, but instead, I told her I wanted to be just like her and we hugged. She said, “Today, I felt like I was 90, but I told myself I needed to get out. I said to myself that if I didn’t make an effort, soon I wouldn’t be able to make an effort.”
She added: “Il faut lutter.” You have to fight.
This is what I love about where I live: little kids run out to buy baguettes, 84-year-olds strut their stuff in platform heels, and even older ones push their walkers, with their handbags swinging and they will be all right.The title refers to the poem by the British poet Jenny Joseph (born in 1932; I hope she is rocking some purple these days, but maybe she is just “older” and not yet “old”).
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!
Also, check out this wonderful book about people finding love late in life. In French, but an easy read. Written with great sensitivity: “Le Coeur n’as pas de rides” by Marina Rozenman. (This is not sponsored!)