Transforming Quadrupel

Tonight, it’s Le Capsule, a 50-brilliant-beers-on-tap bar, the sort which I’ll never find back home. S gave me the evening off because I keep having miniature panic attacks, and I really ought to be soul-searching, trying to divine the root cause of my anxiety. Instead, I’m getting blitzed on Le Trappe Quadrupel, a beer so rich it might as well be Scotch. There is currently a fruit fly floating in my foam, though, and I’m trying not to turn that into a metaphor because (a) it’s a lousy, Alanis-calibre analogy, and (b) it’s getting too late in the trip for this kind of shit.

The end of our sabbatical is abruptly, jarringly in sight. When we left Cape Breton last June – first for a summer of intricate, international travel, then settling in France for a longer sojourn – we didn’t bother to choose a return date. We figured we’d probably head home in early July, after P’s French school year wrapped up. But then P and French school parted ways, making that arbitrary date even arbitrarier.

So we rolled it back two months, to the end of April. Our rationale: try to squeeze in a couple of months of Canadian kindergarten before summer strikes. Otherwise, P would end up going for eight months straight without seeing the inside of a classroom – ample time, perhaps, to unlearn any rules of civility she might have begun to acquire. If she can’t hack it for two months in public school, we’ll spend the summer looking for other options, because the one thing I can’t hack is more homeschooling.

It shouldn’t be so hard. I’m mostly a good parent, and I’m mostly a good teacher, but bring the two roles together and I’m lost – blanking on tactics, quick to frustration, unable to chart progress. It’s partly the whiplash incurred after a decade of teaching university students – grown-ass adults, at least in theory. P is bright, but she lacks the capacity to learn as adults do – her attention span, critical thinking skills, and especially her will to take responsibility. It’s useless explaining to her why literacy matters; her brain hasn’t forged the pathways to allow for that kind of long-term planning.

But my stumbling blocks are not merely pedagogical; it’s about stakes. I rarely get invested in my students’ success. It’s not that I don’t want them to succeed, it’s more like: they’re 18 or whatever, they’re going to thrive in some areas and fail in others, and in ten years it’ll all be a blur anyhow. When a student fails my Acting class, it’s (a) not the end of their world, and (b) SO not the end of mine. If, on the other hand, I fail to instruct my five-year-old at this crucial phase in her cognitive development…well, I don’t want to sound classist, but let’s just say visions of trailer parks loom large when I consider the outcome.

I know that’s foolish, fallacious. Worse still, it’s altogether French. After all, this is a nation that believes one’s capacity for self-reliance, higher reasoning, maybe even empathy, all comes down to whether or not one holds one’s pencil properly. Even now, as I sit at the bar writing in my journal, I feel aware of the eyes of others. The French would consider my education woefully sub-par, my dubious professional status a direct result of my dubious penmanship. Plus, here I am, drinking alone on a Tuesday night. It all adds up.

I tried to come to France without a fixed goal. I knew myself, and I knew France well enough, to know I’d get distracted by beer and coffee and chocolate, and even by writing – other projects always pop up to eclipse whatever I’m “supposed” to be working on. Late in the game, I doubled down on myself by trying to merge those various distractions. Maybe I could write beer reviews for a living? (Spoiler: no.) Or perhaps some magical, boozy experience will launch my bestselling novel? (Spoiler: not tonight.) It’s part of my restless personality; I’m always pushing, resisting the dimensions of my own lifestyle, the complacency of privilege. It doesn’t help that I have the most supportive and accommodating wife in the world. I could announce tomorrow that I’ve decided to farm armadillos, and S would start researching breeding licenses.

The twist in the tale is that I brought my goal with me to France, and I just didn’t notice. The goal is five years old, precocious and boisterous and queer as a sack of rainbows. She lives the games and adventures I planted in her fecund imagination. She doesn’t understand how to make friends, or finish what she started, or how to sit and focus on a single voice for hours on end, and honestly that’s probably because I still don’t really get them either. I’m an introvert, a multitasker, a chronic false-starter. My cardinal folly has been assuming that ten (or eight) months in a foreign country could wash those habits out of me. La Trappe Quadrupel is strong stuff, but no beer is panacea for my personality.

There’s hope for her, though. P has already proven, via yards of pink chiffon, that she needn’t follow in her father’s footsteps. And a few months of homeschooling isn’t going to change her trajectory in any fundamental way. She’ll grow up, make friends, find role models with better habits. I’ll head home, loosen the noose of parenthood a little, and go back to my regular scheduled existential crisis.

For now, though, the girl is the goal. Or – to be more generous – the family. We have another six weeks of sabbatical remaining, and it doesn’t matter if she learns to read before May, any more than it matters whether I manage to sample all 11 Trappist beers. (Spoiler: I totally will.) What matters is doing it together, helping each other along, and celebrating each other’s triumphs and experiences. The fly in the beer is not homeschooling, nor is it family. The beer is family. The fly is being here, by myself, expecting transformation to find me inside a capsule.

Yup; called it; shitty metaphor. Time to pay the bill and stumble home.

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