“There’s a new disease in the world, and it can kill you,” announced Ilsa’s friend J, a blond German girl with whom Ilsa speaks a mixture of French and English. “Yes, I know; swine flu,” I smile, reassuringly. But the discussion, complete with wide eyes and grand statements, continues.

“The internet says you’re not allowed to hug and kiss people anymore,” says J, “so you can’t kiss your brother anymore.” This announcement causes Ilsa to jump on Abel and kiss him wildly. Normally, 12 year old boy/girl twins don’t kiss anymore. Long gone are the days when they’d spontaneously hold hands and kiss each other and announce how much they loved each other, how when they grew up they were going to marry each other. Now that same love is shown in annoyance, in tricks, in teasing. Now if I tell them how they used to be, I get faux vomiting.

The children discuss this international news item. “In which country it started?” asks the girl. “I know it is in Spain now, which is close to Morocco, but it is not in Morocco…yet,” she adds ominously. She tells us that her 8 year-old sister was sobbing last night, because she thought she could no longer hug her mother.

I point out that the kids won’t have to greet French parents politely, with a kiss on each cheek. “You’ll like that.” For some reason, the kids have imbued enough American culture to be embarrassed by this, which has always made me a little sad. I love it when I see their friends at school and they practically line up to kiss me, so polite. My mind wanders a bit…I could see something like this being the death knell to a cultural practice that has no doubt endured for centuries. (My brief google search did not turn up a lot of history, although I did find a fascinating study on how many kisses to give depending on what region of France you’re in) Maybe the French will stop kissing in greeting during the pandemic (should it continue), and it’ll never really come back. I hope not.

“ I wonder if it will be something like the Black Death, and claim a ton of lives,” says Ilsa a bit ghoulishly, pulling me back to the current discussion. Abel demurs. “No! Nowadays we have medicine!”

“If you have it, you have it! There’s no medicine.” J smiles, defiantly. “That is why I’m scaarredd!” She says it triumphantly. Although these kids are worried (“We haven’t even lived half our lives!” says Ilsa, which leads to a discussion of how long lives are. “I’m too young to die!” says Abel, and I think, sadly, no), there’s something grand and fearless in their discussion of this reality too terrible to be imagined. I remember similar discussions from my own childhood, about nuclear bombs and, once, the possibility of a flash flood; the fear and the grown-up feeling of importance and the disbelief all rolled into one emotion.

The children are not the only ones discussing potential pandemics. I run into Ismail  and we end up chatting for a good 20 minutes, an occupational hazard of our front gate. “Have you heard of this grippe porcine?“ he asks me. He tells me that Morocco will no longer allow importation of pork meat, which is available here only in the bigger supermarkets, small wizened chorizo sausages imported from Spain and very expensive. I bought bacon for Donn’s birthday in September, one piece each for the family and 3 for him, and it cost me $12.

Ismail believes swine flu is a punishment from God on people who eat pork, but I explain no, it’s airborne. “Even those who don’t eat pig meat could die,” I tell him. This makes him nervous. Later that night, I make pepperoni pizza with the last of our pork meat from our February visit to Spain, and I think of Ismail as I eat.

This afternoon is bright and breezy, and Ilsa has 3 friends over to celebrate her birthday. It’s a quiet celebration; lots of giggling and music and the girls eat only a little cake and not the potato chips. The cake fell apart (it was still too warm) but fresh strawberries can cover a multitude of sins.

I’m used to kid parties; this transitional year of 12 is a bit tricky. I hope they’re having a good time. It’s nice to sit here and type, instead of herding and worrying and coming up with games. The girls sit on the wall and talk. I eavesdrop from the balcony, camera in hand. We do an impromptu photo shoot after the opening of presents; after each click, the girls demand to see. “Oh I look terrible!” they moan in unison, these girls who can’t see their own beauty. “I look like a moron!”

Today, thoughts of pandemics and plagues are far from their minds; they sit in the sun, heads tilted back, hands weaving stories of school days and mean teachers and best friends. In the living room, a breeze from an open window wafts a balloon silently across the floor.

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