Saturday, October 15, 2011

Family Values

I had a friend who used to say to me, "You and me, we're family. Whatever happens, we'll always be family."

Back then, I thought I knew what "family" meant; that peculiar little word was a stand-in for all kinds of ideas, including "comfort," "security," "permanence," and especially "love." Not surprisingly, that relationship went sour, and unlike "real" family, who generally remain family forever whether you like it or not, this person has evaporated into the ether, and it's unlikely we'll ever meet again.

At roughly the same time the relationship with my family-facsimile was reaching its conclusion, a strange new, actual family member materialized from virtually nowhere. Turns out that, in addition to having a real-life younger brother, I also have a real-life older sister.

Our father, who art in heaven (or wherever you go when you die)

My mother was 20 and my father was 50 when I was born. The man who supplied half of my DNA had been married once before to a much younger woman, and that marriage produced a first daughter. She grew up in Southern California, not far from where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. She is the same age as my own mother.

We met in a fated fashion literally days before my move to Paris. For the last 20 years, we'd been living within 10 miles of each other, she in Marin county, where she and her husband, both psychologists, cohabitate with an old dog in a beautifully manicured home, and I in San Francisco, in a well-worn but lovable old Western Addition apartment shared with a dog and human partner.

Separated by decades and oceans, but sisters just the same.

After a brief email exchange followed by a phone call, then a face-to-face meeting, we packed in as much socializing and getting-to-know-each-othering as possible in the span of a few days, which was all I had to spare before cramming everything into a giant "to-go" container and setting off on our overseas adventure. Our time together was spent poring over old photos and artwork (our father was a painter), comparing personal histories, staring at each other's faces searching for resemblances, and trying to define the idea of "family" within the context of our newly formed shared experience.

Portrait of an artist as a young man

My sister and her husband came to Paris last week. It had been 15 years since their last visit here, and my sense was that they wanted to fall under the City of Light's fabled romantic spell a deux. Their temporary home was a fifth-floor walk-up in the thick of the Marais. Over seven days we shared several meals together, in restaurants and at our home in the dingy northwest of Paris, where we attempted to fortify our long-distance connection over Indian and Ethiopian food, and seal it tightly for safekeeping.

Yes, I dragged everyone to Chettinadu for my beloved thali

This relationship, like so many others that have been formed and broken over the years, feels tentative. Will our freshly soldered bond remain intact simply because we share some DNA and a mutual love of art and travel? Is our connection not susceptible to the same sorts of fissures, fractures, and even deaths that the standard-issue friendships are prone to?

What does "family" mean to you, and who falls under that sheltered definition?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Monsoon Wedding

In two short weeks, I'll be embarking on a long, 14-hour plane journey from Paris to Chennai, India. I'm delighted and terrified. Delighted because I'm going for a special occassion: a wedding. And not just any wedding, but a Hindu wedding; the groom is my favorite waiter at my favorite Paris restaurant. I (half-) jokingly say that if we ever move, what I'll miss most about Paris are the thalis at Chenninadu.

The terror part comes into play when I think about the sort of stamina one needs to travel in India. I'm not sure I'm as mentally or emotionally resilient as I was the last time I visited nearly 10 years ago. France is, for all its senseless, seemingly endless bureaucratic rigmarole and language- and culture-oriented challenges, a tame slice of Wonder bread in comparison to the colorful chaos of the subcontinent.

India used to be one of my favorite places to travel. I took my first trip in 1995 and it changed my life completely. Simply surviving the Air India flight seemed an accomplishment worth celebrating, but looking back, the entire experience was rather like going to boot camp or passing some other sort of endurance test. Yes! I conquered Delhi--it did NOT conquer me! And that little bus crash in Goa? I came out unscathed, right? In Varanasi, I did a slow slip-and-slide into the filthy (albeit holy) Ganges, but, by golly, I pulled myself out again, didn't I? And how about that langur monkey in Pushkar? Luckily, he didn't try to yank my hair out. ("That one's really got it out for me," I heard the woman in the room next say shakily, after said monkey reached a long arm out to give her tresses a good tug.) When that first trip was over, my self-esteem had blossomed like a lotus flower.

Dirty, beautiful, mysterious, delicious, warm, crowded, exhilarating--after five (?--I've lost count) visits, I can say with conviction that India is the most exciting country I've ever experienced. I now know to expect welcoming, smiling people, the possibility of wild animals sneaking into my bathroom at night (rodents, monkeys, lizard-beasts and anteater-type creatures have moseyed through my quarters in years past), and most surely a sore throat or lung-ache if I am to spend any time in one of the big cities.

Z--the nicest guy in the 10e and a happy groom-to-be

The last time we spoke with Z at the restaurant, he told us about his two-year plan, which begins with a wedding and ends with a baby. Sandwiched in between is an immigration-and-education process for his soon-to-be wife. After discussing Operation Baby 2013, Z asked a rather pointed question:

"Why don't you have children?"

"Well, we tried once, and it didn't work out, and we never really made a conscious effort after that. And besides, we're too old now," I said, not wanting to fully elaborate on the level of heartache a miscarriage can cause, or the fact that Jeff has never been keen on bringing kids into the world, or my fears of being a horrible parent.

"Oh, c'mon--technology can help you out!" replied Z. "I have relatives who've gone the high-tech route, and now they have children. There's hope for you!"

"Yeah, I don't know," I responded sheepishly.

"Nonsense! I'm going to talk to my cousin about getting you an appointment to see a fertility specialist when you're in Chennai."

Oh, god. Really? And why am I not saying "no" and instead, nodding my head "OK"?

Outside Chettindu the morning of la Fete du Ganesh

Two days ago, Z called me. He's arranged an appointment for me to see a doctor on the 5th of November in Chennai, smack in the middle of the northeast monsoon season. I'm still surprised by my lack of courage--courage to decline his kind offer when there was still time to back out without much fuss, and courage to tell him I was really hoping to be on train headed to Kerala on that day. Could it be, deep down, that a child is something I'm still open to considering?

Well, if anything, I suppose the journalist in me is curious to see how the medical system has improved (or hasn't) since getting horribly feverish and verge-of-death-y in Rishikesh one year. Seeking pain relief and comfort, I crawled my way into a pay-what-you-can clinic where a doctor looked at me briefly and determined I had "allergies" before sending me on my way with a Tylenol facsimile. I'm guessing this next experience will be an improvement. Photos and first-hand reporting to follow!