My childhood memories of beach vacations are somehow detached from time. The rhythm of the tides –very powerful in the Southwest of France- paced the day. Watches became obsolete and even an annoyance. They were soon left and forgotten in the drawer of a bedside table. Regular routines softened, faded and then disappeared all together. Technology, styles and modernity seemed far away; an oddity. Book-shelves were hosts to the same old-fashioned volumes year after year. The quaint, although patriarchal Babar, the antique looking Minouche, generations of Belgian comic books and when I got older the exotic adventures of Loti, Monfreid and Kessel. The plains of Afghanistan, Persia and Siberia were calling. Tintin was ready to go to the moon -when the tides permitted it. The television set was quickly forgotten on the shelf, hidden behind a perfectly shaped piece of rounded plywood.
Early adulthood took me away from those vacations but as my daughter grew from a toddler to a preschooler, this yearly beach retreat was reinstated along with the near absence of television, the poor cell phone reception and … the rhythm of the tides. These times felt as if they were stolen from society, from commerce, and were a welcome relief from consumerism. No more 6 o’clock news, no more NY Times, no more Dora the Explorer. I am not saying it was easy to remove myself and my little family from the world. I do enjoy well-scripted TV shows, a good play, a tasty restaurant meal, thought-provoking indie movies, concerts of all types, and the occasional art opening. My usual day to day activities were turned upside down. My social network was in question. I was even thinking, “What are my Facebook friends going to think? This is all so sudden!” You see, I hadn’t changed my status in over a week. But after a few jittery days, I settled into a slower pace. It felt as if my heart too was beating slower, like the sea mammal I was becoming.
A couple of weeks ago, as I got out of the car and headed for the white and blue house, I was ready to retreat, already wiping out of my mind the Michael Jackson songs I had just heard. “Sure –I thought to myself- an important figure of 20th Century music has just died, but I never really cared for him and besides, I need to jump in the water before the tide goes down. “ The evening went as expected with its bathing, sightseeing, drinking aperitif, then dinner and a long jet-lagged night.
Fast forward to the next day, as my Brooklyn-born daughter, my French parents and I are heading to the closest supermarket, a couple of miles away. My little girl is in sitting in the cart, looking around, pointing, and questioning. I pass the gigantic pâté aisle; grab a couple of “Lou Gascoun au piment d’Espelette”, the quintessential baguette of course, and cross the store pushing the cart, aiming for the promising local seafood display. And that’s when it happens, at the top of her lungs, my daughter screams “Dora! Regarde Maman, Dora!” My mouth drops in disbelief, but there she is, Dora herself: bob cut, flat face, eyes round like marbles. On the kids’ chairs, umbrellas and bags, on the beach towels, on the buckets and shovels, everywhere.
I have to explain that in preparation for the trip and to avoid the culture chock she was about to face, I had prepared Juliette for her new life during this vacation. No cheerios in sight, but the croissants are to die for. And who needs sprinklers when the ocean is right there? Salads come after the main course. It is rude to leave your hands under the table during meals. Nearly everyone will speak French, and few will be those who will bother trying to speak English… and no Dora! Instead, T’choupi, Trotro the donkey, and Petit Ours brun, but no Dora. Once passed the chock of the absence of Cheerios (which I find incomprehensible myself), she was game for the rest. But then the unforeseeable happens. Maman was wrong, Dora is here.
Despite the obvious fact that I have no personal affinity with the show Dora the Explorer (I think its content is dumbed down, its graphics are terribly stiff and boring, as if Dora herself was on Botox) but that I am not avoiding it at all costs either. I know Juliette watched it occasionally, and I was ok with that. But encountering the character’s inexpressive face on almost every single piece of little girl clothing, on every notebook, pencil case, lunch box or even diaper in the last couple of years made me develop an aversion to the mass marketing world of Dora. This is, in fact, Dora’s world, we are just living in it. Leaving for this vacation, I was looking forward to taking a break from Dora, amongst other things. And I was secretly looking forward to my daughter taking a break from her as well. I wanted her to experience the timely tides, the old fashioned comic books, the brioche and the grenadine syrup all without the disruptive appearance of a face from her past, soon to be forgotten, Dora the Explorer. A face that in her mind must be tied to the daily weekday routines, school, American stores, and television. A face that may prevent her from experiencing the full feeling of a timeless retreat I experienced at her age.
Tomorrow, the low tide is at 11am. I will take her fishing for mussels, oysters, shrimp and crabs. I guess we will have to catch enough for lunch, because I don’t feel like stopping by the supermarket.