Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Embracing l’Homme Vert

This is something I wrote shortly after our family moved to Geneva. While I love this place and get a suspicious facial tic at the thought of leaving, I didn't always feel this way...

“Mommy, I want to go now!”

Emma the Brave’s voice returns me to the corner of rue de la Terrassière and rue de Villereuse. I must have guided the monstrous tandem double stroller down the length of rue de Villereuse blind, deaf and numb to my surroundings. I cannot recall the journey any more than its pause among this throng of pedestrians waiting to cross the road and its busy tram tracks.

“Remember, we have to wait for l’homme vert. See?” I crouch down beside the stroller’s prized back seat to show Emma, age 3, the crosswalk sign for what feels like the hundredth time. I try to show it to Mighty Mouse, age 1, as well. Uninterested, she leans forward, blowing kisses to a passing poodle. Learning to speak French will be of no consequence to her. I am envious.

“L’homme vert,” I chime with strained enthusiasm as the crosswalk fills with pedestrians. I lean into the stroller and we enter the fray. I am so tired, so overwhelmed.

“I don’t like the grocery store, Mommy.”

I feel my jaw clench with Emma’s recurrent complaint. “I know, Sweetie, but we need food for supper.”

I have come to not like the grocery store either. We come every day, often twice, returning to the apartment with as much as I can carry over my arms and in the stroller’s small basket. For such a large stroller, its basket carries very little, a feature I had not considered seriously enough when we bought it one year ago. Of course, I could not have imagined this place even 2 months ago, let alone twelve.

A short list tacked under my thumb, we lumber into the grocery store. I pick up a small gray basket from the stacks in the entrance. Empty, its squared off handle hangs at an awkward angle over my forearm.

“Mommy, I want to walk.”

Emma is straining against the seat belt, one foot swung out of the stroller already.

“Mommy needs you to sit so we can go quick-quick.”

“But I want to walk,” she whines.

I say nothing and head for the dairy section. Emma collapses back into her seat.

Four litres of milk and the basket under the stroller is full. With a blend of curiosity and suspicion, I eye the stacks of milk labeled UHT sitting warm on the floor beside the dairy case. Sold in larger quantity, they might be my ticket to fewer grocery trips. Today I pass them by, afraid to add any more items to the list of foods that Evelyn refuses to eat. Maybe tomorrow, I think, and move on.

Yogurt, cheddar cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese, Bircher muesli, chicken breasts, and bread, each I grab in rapid succession. Soup, jam, juice, tea. I do my best to keep the stroller moving and at a safe distance from the shelves.

“Do we need to go upstairs today, Mommy?” The girls love to ride the moving sidewalk that takes us to the second level of the grocery store.

“Yep, we need toilet paper.”

“Yeah! Let’s go see the toys!”

“Yeah!” echoes Mouse. I had forgotten about the toy section.

After a record-breaking tour of the second floor, we make our descent toy-less, an eight-pack of bright turquoise toilet paper on Evelyn’s lap. Emma chose the colour, a novelty as they don’t sell coloured toilet paper back in Canada. The stroller is so laden that I cannot stop its descent. I lean backwards, praying I don’t slip as I ease it back toward the main floor. Thank God no one is in front of us.

“I want to go home now!” says Emma.

“We need some bananas and vegetables, then we can go pay.”

“But I want to go pay NOW!” She arches her back and stomps her feet in frustration, then settles down into a mercifully silent pout. Mighty Mouse, however, begins to cry.

“Come on, sweet pea, we’re almost done,” I want to sound cheery and not exasperated, but can’t.

I stuff bananas, broccoli and sweet red peppers into their respective plastic sheaths and head for the cash.

“We did it! Let’s pay!” Now there is no need for feigned enthusiasm. We’re done, at least until tomorrow. Mighty Mouse, however, will not be cajoled and cries louder.

The stiff black handle of my basket is now bowed over my forearm. I wend my way around large Easter displays that crowd the aisles with chocolate eggs and farm animals. I struggle to remember the date and can’t.

I pull into the cash with the shortest line, and unload my purchases onto the conveyor belt. Emma follows suit with her toilet paper.

“Madame, on doit les peser,” I look up to see the cashier holding up the bags of bananas and vegetables. I’ve forgotten to weigh my produce again.

At that moment, Mouse’s crying begins to upset Emma.

“That hurts my ears!” Emma, hands over the affronted organs, has yelled this louder than Mighty Mouse is crying which only incites her further. I think I might join them when the cashier stands up from her seat and deftly slips out of sight in the direction of the scales. I want to follow her but don't. Instead, I smile meekly at the line of customers forming behind me.

When she returns I apologize and thank her as profusely as my rudimentary, Quebecois French will allow.

“Cinquante sept franc quarante, s’il vous plait.”

I hand her a one hundred franc note, disregarding the ample change that is beginning to grossly misshape my wallet. I cannot distinguish the Swiss coins fast enough. I bag my groceries as quickly as possible and head back outside through the sliding glass doors.

With the first breath of fresh air, the girls’ crying stops.

“Can we go to the park now, Mommy?” Emma asks.

“No, sweetie, we need to get the groceries home and so Mommy can make dinner.”

“But I want to go to the park.”

Dear God, make the whining stop!

“You can walk now if you like.”

Her face brightens as I undo her seatbelt. She hops out and runs toward the round low fountain that sits outside the store entrance. A bird who had been bathing takes flight, startled. As I place the bags I had slung over my arms into her vacant seat, I feel a few drops of rain.

“Lets go,” I call. She runs back to the stroller and holds on to the side as we cross rue de la Terrassière. We turn to face the uphill portion of our journey home and Emma decides she doesn’t want to walk anymore.

“I’m too tired, Mommy.”

We’re all too tired. None of us have yet recovered from the trip from Toronto to Geneva. Mighty Mouse developed a terrible rash en route. Despite the efforts of two pediatricians and a pediatric dermatologist, she is undeniably miserable. She has not slept through the night since leaving Canada and, when awake, she will not be put down. The last half hour is the best she's behaved all day. Emma is surviving on milk and bananas, the only Swiss foods she claims to like. At least the Captain likes his new job.

I want to feel grateful for the furnished two-bedroom apartment which will be our temporary residence another 8 weeks. We could be in a hotel room. I could be doing our laundry in a laundromat instead of the basement buanderie. At least the stroller fits in the elevator. At least there is an elevator. Counting my blessings in the light of ‘it could be worse’ is not helping. I want to feel excited about the challenge that I’ve invited upon myself, but don’t. All I feel is naïve to have not seen this coming, ashamed that I want to run back home, and tired —bone tired.

I stop to let Emma climb back into the stroller, unloading the bags of groceries from her seat to sling them over my forearms again. As I release the brakes, the stroller rolls back toward me. I must take a step back before I can lean my weight forward to continue uphill.

Now I am grateful: l'homme vert is waiting.

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