Monday, May 27, 2013

Swans And Butterflies


             It is a late summer day. Outside my window, the wetland is dotted with blooming pink flowers as large as saucers and lush shrubs and low-growing trees that have adapted to the brackish water. Six-hundred feet away, under cloudless blue skies, the waters of Mecox Bay sparkle in azure. Three dozen swans glide over the mirror-like surface, carving gentle wakes. Half-way between the house and the bay, a fawn shows up on a deer path cut into the phragmites. It stands still, brown eyes filled with wonder, the white spots on its back like a sprinkle of freckles across a child’s nose. The fawn’s gaze follows two large Monarch butterflies flying over its head, their large orange-colored wings flapping in a balletic circle.

            This could be a scene from the Disney-animated movie Bambi, but it is real, and it is mine. I catch the sight through almost every window of my otherwise modest house.

            Our life changed when, in 1995 our four young-adult children ganged up on us and staged a coup d’état. They had called one another from their respective colleges and universities to gather in our Fire Island home, where we had been spending summer weekends for seventeen years.

            “Enough of Fire Island. Get a place in the Hamptons,” they announced.

            “The Hamptons?” My husband, Ron, vaulted over his ongoing tirade about getting dressed up Saturday night to wait for an hour at one of the Hamptons’ notoriously crowded and expensive restaurants—only to be denied a decent meal. “No way.”

            “But you love it here,” I reminded the children. They grew here, each held his or her first job here, sometimes returning to it the following summer. Each became a part of the fabric of life in Fire Island. We all enjoyed the ferry ride with groceries across the bay, the insulation from the world in the quiet, shaded lanes that only saw the wheels of wagons and bicycles.

            But after the coup d’état weekend ended, the warmth of our hours of laughter, shared cooking, and games lingered. I sat Ron down for a talk. “Look how the children make the effort to be together. It’s a gift that all four enjoy each other’s company. Let’s spend their inheritance now—on them.”

            He looked past the sparse row of summer cottages toward the stretch of white sand lining the ocean. “Only if we can stay close to the ocean.” 

            Summer weekends on Fire Island had been an oasis from my high-powered corporate career during an era when women broke the glass ceiling—and cracking our skulls in the process. However, I had just left that world to write fiction full time. I could settle anywhere. Yes, a view of the ocean would be lovely for my new occupation, I agreed, but since we had witnessed in Fire Island enough storms and houses tumbling into the water, we should buy not right on the ocean, but across the street from it.

            Finding such a place in the Hamptons turned out to be a daunting task. A home in walking distance to the beach? Brokers showed us houses a mile away. We distilled our request: “Barefoot walk to the beach.”

            But a home across the street from the ocean required an easement through ocean-front properties, all private, thus further narrowing our options. “How about near a public beach?” we asked.

            Driving around to look at available homes, I eyed Mecox Bay and became greedy. I  wanted water in the back, too.

            With this added requirement, the offerings of both front and back water views were almost nil, and the few houses we saw were suburban homes. We wanted a beach house; our sprawling residence in Nassau County with its professional landscape required maintenance. We envisioned raw dunes dotted with beach grass, reeds and wild roses—not another manicured lawn. We only wanted to upgrade the house our Fire Island’s beachy feeling, whose kitchen cabinets had been made of lumber the contractor had slapped together.

            Instead of a house, we found a land on Dune Road in Bridgehampton with a handkerchief-size footprint permitted to build on the wetland. Yet merely “a barefoot walk” from Cameron public beach, it faced the ocean from a safe distance in the front while hugging the bay in the back. Most enticing, the two bodies of water met right past us, creating yet another water front and giving the house-to-be stunning 330-degree water views.

            Building it took only a season. The first night we slept there, with the windows opened,  we listened to the concert produced by fowls and insects in the marshes. A surround sound symphony of cracks, tweets, buzzes, squeals and pitched cries filled the night, competing with the syncopated roar of breaking ocean waves. The music magnified and traveled over the still waters of Mecox Bay. Our bedroom felt like a boat moored in the middle of nature, unencumbered by human noise, amidst nothing but land, and sea, and undisturbed fauna and flora.

            What we had never considered when first giving in to our children’s request was that this weekend abode would soon become our main residence.

            It started two days after we had settled in. One morning, a couple knocked on our door and presented us with a pie! They introduced themselves as “neighbors” although they lived a mile away around the bend. By noon, the neighbors across the street invited us for lunch at their house. The following week, another couple down the street hosted a dinner in our honor and introduced us to their local friends. Another neighbor threw a lavish party and invited everyone on the street to celebrate summer.

            In our many years on Fire Island, our social life consisted entirely of our friends from the mainland taking the ferry over. Unlike some families that moved in full-time in summer and whose young children attended camp there, Ron and I worked at our respective jobs all week while our children—often the conduit to parents’ socializing with other parents—were at day camps on the mainland and later at sleep-away camps. In seventeen years, we’d never made new local friends.

            Yet here, in the first Hamptons summer, our circle of acquaintances and new friends expanded fast. After a lecture at Guild Hall, a woman turned to me and asked what I thought about the topic. As we walked up the aisle with our husbands in tow, we all decided to go out for coffee…. When I stumbled over a store’s threshold into the arms of a mother-daughter duo, they invited Ron and me for a party at their home. During the Film Festival, while buying an extra pair of tickets from a couple, we were literally “picked up,” when they asked us to join them for dinner.

            In subsequent years, at a phase when grown children drift away, our beach house became their weekend gathering place, keeping them in our life. We biked and kayaked and swam as a group. We cooked together one main meal each day, freeing us to make social plans for another meal—except that our children often chose one another. One by one, they married, yet their friendships deepened to include new spouses.

            A few times a year, a huge bulldozer dredges up sand to create a wide tunnel that drains the overflow of Mecox Bay into the ocean. Within days, natural pools are formed, warmed by the sun. After babies began to arrive in our family—and all too soon turned into toddlers and beyond—they loved to pull a wagon to “the cut,” splash in the shallow water, build sand castles, or catch crabs with a net at the end of a pole. Often, playmates’ parents now park their cars in our driveway to take advantage of our proximity to this children’s haven. Yet again, our beach house has extended our years with our family, keeping a second generation offspring close.

            As an antidote to the hectic weekends come the quieter midweek days. We had long sold our Nassau County home and bought an apartment in the city for winter. Now we move in to the beach from spring to fall, I with my computer, Ron with his golf clubs. I’ve signed up at two local gyms, procured a library card, joined a Mah-Jongg game, and opened an account at the Sag Harbor pharmacy. We now dance to the drummers at Sagg-Main beach and attend services at the Jewish center.

            As I watch the dawn activity on the sand bar in “the cut,” where flocks of birds of dozens of species vie for a footing and nesting, I observe a few SUVs pulling onto the beach, their drivers seeking what I am fortunate to wake up to. I take my coffee thermos, don a life vest, and hoist my kayak into Mecox Bay. As I paddle into the midst of nature, the pink in the east changes to gold, the crisp air welcomes me, as do the swans.

Good morning, Home.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Au Revoir, Paris

(This blog was written at the end of my sojourn, but the long hours in class and café conversations—and even longer walks—took their toll on my poor spine and kept me away from the computer. Now at home in NY, I am struggling to recover.)

             French uses three different words for “Goodbye.” Adieu, a strong, decisive finality of parting. Au revoir, as in “see you around,” or “see you again,” and À bientôt, indicating a tight time frame of “see you in a jiff,” or at least “later today.”
            I am sitting outside a patisserie on Rue des Écoles, so named for the various Sorbonne colleges that have made this street famous. In fact, the Latin Quarter was once the home of the language that dominated the world of science. 
            In some magical way, this intellectual history should seep into my brain, the way Parisian glamour must come to inhabit my skin. But the pigeons picking at my feet, the city-lending bicycles, the passing middle-aged couples—American retirees making Paris their home for a few months—offer no hint of such osmosis. Still…. The romance of Paris is forever present, pulsating in the sights of the brasserie across the street painted in red; in the ornate carvings on the building next door, with filigree faux balconies; and in the glimpse of a man who comes out of the patisserie carrying three unwrapped baguettes.
Rue Moufftard

            Through the door left ajar behind me whiffs the voice of the chatting proprietor. The tattooed, gray-haired pig-tailed, muscular man might have been one of the students who in 1968 rebelled right on this very street, flinging cobblestones at the police. His butter-filled, flaky croissant makes the transition to the world of working middle-class adults worthwhile. 
            Today is May Day, and several blocks away at l’Odeon, one of the parades fills the streets. The French take this labor day seriously. All shops and services are closed. People buy one another the flower that symbolizes the day, Lily of the Valley, muguet. A Frenchman asked me to compare Israel’s and France’s socialism. My response: “Israel started as a socialist country but has moved away from this ideology, while France is sinking deeper into socialism.”
            It is very cold, in the upper 40s, the kind of temperature I would certainly not tolerate in NY, sitting outside with my deca crème, (decaffeinated coffee,) not even under a space heater that dries my hair but leaves my toes to freeze. This afternoon I am signed up for a walk in the path of Ernest Hemingway, but the persisting cold spring is discouraging. The urge to grab more of every moment is strong, though. There is always another public art to look at, another alley to discover, another surprising storefront not to be missed. There are prints to be leafed through at art galleries, there are French words pouring around me to be caught and mulled over. There are events, and people and blooming flowers. Did I mention shopping?
Store window--of an exterminator....
            A major debate has been raging here about what we in the US call "Same-sex marriage," but they call "Mariage pour tous," (translated: Marriage for all.) Against demonstrations and heated TV discussions, the parliament has passed the law this week. In my French conversations I explained the nuanced difference in the name: While in USA "same-sex" marriage means that two people of the same sex can (or should be allowed) to marry, "marriage for all" includes plural marriage! This oversight might have serious implications given France's growing Muslim population. Some immigrant families arrive with multiple wives, but many such unions are formed within the community in France against the law. 
            Having multiple wives in the French socialist environment that provides generous benefits for children greatly profits the man. While wives number two, three or four  appear to the authorities as single mothers and therefore are entitled to a host of benefits, the reality is that in their strict, honor-bound society these women would have been killed for just speaking with a man, let alone for bearing children out of wedlock—unless their union is indeed recognized internally by their tradition. It is left to see when these marriages will be claimed legitimate under the new law of "marriage for all."
            In forty-eight hours I will be at the airport, about to board the plane that would deliver me back to my life in New York. I came here to immerse myself in French. I took dance classes and played Mah-Jongg in French, and had been quite certain that my former fluency would pop up, the way memories resurface. But through the long hours of classes and equally long hours of conversations I came to the disappointing realization that while my language skills have indeed improved, it must be all relearned, verb by conjugated verb. My facial muscles must be retrained. (Research shows that French have a particularly strong and animated upper lip.) Had I really known all these idioms and word turns? Had I once talked as fast as the locals? Had I understood French films? These past four weeks I’ve also learned to appreciate the contribution of the two subsequent generations that have since my youth enriched the language—or butchered it, as their critics claim.
            With holes in all my socks and debilitating back pain, but light in my heart, I return home. Au revoir, Paris, but not Adieu.
Harmonie, by Antoniucci Vitori
 (To read previous Paris posts, please click  )