November 8th 2011
On a two-week family vacation in Italy and France that overlapped with Rosh Hashanah, my parents and I meant to spend the holiday in a Jewish setting. Cavaillon has a prominent synagogue; so does Carpentras, still functioning. We weren’t planning to join for services – we are ex-Soviet Jews, and, even after 23 years in America, the spirit entices us more than the letter – but we wanted to be in a place of Jewish significance. However, on the appointed day, we were waylaid by logistics, and, as the sun sunk behind the ochre hills of Roussillon, we found ourselves dining at a decidedly second-rate brasserie in the main square; not even the festiveness of a special meal. My father was cranky about the small portions; my mother annoyed at being chastised for smoking on vacation. “To the New Year,” I said wanly in Russian, and they raised cheerless glasses of cherry beer in response.
The last time we had been in this part of Europe together was 23 years before, when we arrived in Italy as stateless refugees, in (hoped-for) transit to America. Those were the last days that, in my recollection of childhood, feel carefree. Like many other immigrant children, upon arriving in America, where I was quicker to pick up the language and byways, I became the part-time adult and ambassador of the family: Translating, advocating, appealing, all before packing off to bed by 10 because I was nine and I had to do what my parents told me. Over the last 23 years, this pattern has persisted. I plan my parents’ vacations, look up their commuter bus schedules, and dictate how to spell in the notes they write to co-workers and superiors. But the bedrock authority among us – the wisdom on how to live life – remains their claim. This has led to more than a decade of friction that, until recently, was too painful to try to understand. (As Alice Munro once said in another context, “I hated it so much I’ve never been able to write about it,” in other words to try to understand it. ).
I was anxious before our trip to Europe because we hadn’t been getting along. I don’t have enough self-control to play nice for two weeks. The last time we had traveled together was exactly 10 years before, when we landed in Lisbon on 9/11. The grim days that followed, soured by family discord as much as international terror, went so poorly that we spent the last day of our abridged vacation exploring Evora separately.
This trip’s first moments on French soil, at the Nice airport, promised the worst. As at home – but here occasioned all the more by the fact that I travel more than my parents, and have more of an aptitude for languages – I led the way. We needed to find an electronics shop to complete a download of European maps onto our GPS. We needed to find the car rental. We needed to figure out breakfast, the way to Italy, how to check in with Grandfather at home.
As a gesture of respect, I tried to ask a baggage-store clerk about the electronics shop in my minimal French. Abroad, I’ve found that even a few words go a long way, especially among a people as sensitive about this as the French. My father, who was standing behind me, listened to several seconds of the halting exchange before deciding to burst in with his brutal English.
As for the car rental, the French are not overly linear with directions. (Near Cannes, I saw a sign that promised that the tourist office was at once in two opposite directions.) Here, too, my parents waited for me to take the first stride – before my mother decided to seize the reins and bullet off in a different direction.
It shouldn’t surprise you that I was the one assigned to the wheel of our BMW Serie 3 – an inexplicable upgrade, and with Europe-wide GPS to boot – nor that I didn’t get the chance to figure out its push-button ignition, my mother accosting a stunned Sixt employee – it wasn’t even 8 AM – to show us instead.
After a sleepless flight, I could hardly understand my irritation and anxiety, but over the next two weeks, as I figured out our directions, ordered everyone’s meals, and procured extra towels from our hosts, its source became obvious. Europe, where my parents couldn’t even say “hello,” made clear something that their relatively greater aptitude in America had concealed: They wanted me to lead the way, but they still wanted to make the decisions. I got all the responsibility, and they got all the power.
They seemed to sense this as well. Their undercutting and meddling subsided. Here, they couldn’t make the decisions even if they wanted to. They listened, went along, stood behind me. I relished my new power with dark pleasure. I chewed them out for taking too long at a market. I disciplined my father for not making an effort with certain basic words. I became furious when they displaced my items. (Tony Hoagland: “If you are lucky in this life,/you will get to help your enemy/the way I got to help my mother/when she was weakened past the point of saying no.”)
My acting out, I realize now, was only partly motivated by my anger at our suddenly undeniable power-balance charade in America. That charade was unfair, but in preserving the semblance of their authority, it allowed me to preserve the illusion that I had people to look out for me, to steer me in a land that was only slightly less confusing to me than it was to them despite the far younger age at which I arrived. Now, I was left with the truth for which I was always fighting in our relationship, in lieu of the pretty lies that our family, like every other, told itself about itself. In America, I provoked them as if they didn’t have any power precisely because they had so much. But now, that lovely illusion was gone. It was awful. Like standing alone on the moon.
In Italy, I had nuzzled a cat that I had assumed belonged to our hotel, my mother trying to discourage me from a distance. (“What if he has fleas?”) I’d show her that you didn’t have to be afraid of everything in the world. The tabby – which turned out to be a stray – rubbed its scalp against my knuckles and then took my hand in its mouth, immediately raising suspicious welts. My first instinct in this Paula Fox moment was to turn to my mother, who works in a hospital. “I think you’re overreacting,” she said. I felt the most intense kind of relief until it was aborted by a thought I’d never had before: She didn’t know, even if she said that she did. I was flooded by the terrible realization – admission – that I couldn’t rely on her judgment. Not any longer. The revelations of our trip had made it impossible.
If Europe showed us just how powerless they were – more in Europe, less in America, but struggling all the same – it showed me, in a way I was never able to access in America, how much I needed them, their guidance and succor. But now, its illusion was gone.
But was it? The truth might be ugly, but sometimes it delivers a better place, though usually it isn’t the destination anyone imagined. (Sharon Olds: “Once you lose someone it is never exactly/the same person who comes back.”)
In Levanto, Italy, while my parents visited the town market, I went to a local pharmacy. I had had Google Translate translate in advance: “Un gatto mi ha graffiato.” A cat has scratched me. Turned out one of the pharmacists spoke English.
“A cat,” I said.
“Car?” she said.
“No, cat. Gatto.”
“Ah, gatto!” She slapped her hands together.
I took a deep breath. “Un gatto mi ha graffiato.”
She stared at me blankly.
“Rabbia?” I added.
Her eyes widened and she burst into laughter, waving her hands to dismiss me. Not in Levanto, apparently. Turns out my mother knew what she was talking about.
That’s what I thought about as our treyf, mediocre courses kept coming on Rosh Hashanah in Roussillon. As my father, declining to go one evening without objection to the universe, kvetched about the “kids menu” size of his portions, I thought: If Europe was, for them, America writ large, old age was their Europe. They need more sleep. They are slower on the go. They can no longer drag suitcases across continents. But they still know what they’re talking about. And I got to figure out how much I need them while they still do.
That evening, we did not honor the letter of the holiday. But we were examining ourselves and re-calibrating our place in each other’s world. We would repent. And we would keep going. As my father said during one hotel-room picnic, “The best part isn’t that you’re right or we’re right. It’s that we keep trying.” There were few other commitments with which I would’ve asked to start a new year.