Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Parisienne Mais Presque a voté

This weekend was my first opportunity to vote in a French presidential election, and I took to the polls thrilled to do my duty as an adoptive French citizen.

I felt like I was actually participating in the political process far more than I have in years. In the US, I've been a Democrat by default since elementary school. I remember proudly voting for Mondale in the third-grade mock elections when all my classmates voted for Reagan, not an easy stance to take in suburban Washington State. (Okay, so we followed our parents advice; there's a reason eight-year-olds aren't eligible to vote.) I've never really questioned my politics, always finding my point of view relatively easily among American liberals, and never really seriously considering any Republican candidate. Despite one protest vote for the Green party when I was in college, I think I've always voted Democrat for just about everything without feeling particularly strongly about it. It just seemed, and still seems, the obvious choice.

When I moved to France, I suddenly had no personal political tradition to fall back on and had to seriously reflect on my choices. What's more, in France there are far more choices than in the US, and the political continuum both stretches wider and is more fluid than what I'm used to. In addition to the mainstream parties, there are a multitude of fringe groups which taken together seriously affect the outcome of most elections. There's a Communist party and there are Trotskyist parties that are actually to the left of the Communist party; there's a Green party; there's a "rural values" party that defends hunting, fishing and "tradition;" and there are a host of other parties that are more cult of personality than well-defined ideology. Alas, there is also an extreme-right fascist party that famously came in second in the 2002 presidential election, thus advancing to the second round. All this makes for a political picture that resembles not at all the two-party, big money scene I'm familiar with in America.

It all seems rather... well, amateurish to me, somehow. There are no televised political ads, banned as they thankfully are from French television. Instead, the candidates jump from issue to issue to snag air time, one week concentrating on homelessness, the next on job delocalization or insecurity in the troubled suburbs. Some event will show up in the news, like the squatters camped out in tents along Paris' Canal Saint Martin last fall, and the candidates will wage a battle of sound bites for a few days before abandoning the subject as if by common agreement.

In the first round, there are simply too many candidates for anyone to agree to a full debate, so dialog is pretty much confined to informal talk shows and news interviews during which the candidates come across as less polished, perhaps more true to life, but certainly less "packaged" than their American counterparts. It's no easier for me to find out what they stand for or what they might actually do in office, however. And I admit that I haven't been paying nearly enough attention.

Along with a third of the French electorate, I didn't make up my mind until a few weeks before the election. As friends of mine of all political persuasions are reading this, I won't disclose my vote. Readers of my blog are too few and therefore too precious for me to lose them over politics...

So imagine me instead, my French passport and electoral card in hand, heading to the polls last Sunday. I find the whole process quaint and old-fashioned, and can almost imagine French revolutionaries staging it for the first time in powdered wigs. I arrive, show my papers to a volunteer seated a table, and he checks my name off a list and hands me an envelope. The table is spread with twelve piles of squares of paper, each with the name of a candidate. Tradition and good citizenship dictate that you take several different names regardless of who you plan to vote for. I took Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, François Bayrou, the centrist candidate, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the Gaullist candidate on the right, the three mainstream choices. No Green party or Trotskyists for me; mine will be a useful vote, the vote utile.

I go to the voting booth, select a name, double-check that I've correctly put just one in the envelope, and throw the two others in the curiously empty wastebasket. I wonder, am I the only good citizen that afternoon?

Now things get tricky and I'm nervous, because the only other time I voted I messed up the next part of the script. Three more people are seated at another table, and I give my passport and electoral card to the first. She looks me up on a list and recites a number. The second person looks up that number and calls out: "[Your faithful correspondent's mispronounced full maiden name] peut voter!" It's official, I have the right to vote! By now, having rushed my cue, I've already placed my envelope in the closed slot on top of the plexiglass ballot box. The third person whose job it is to pull the lever on the ballot box does so, and my envelope falls to join a pile of other identical blue envelopes in the bottom. "[Your faithful correspondent's mispronounced full maiden name] a voté!" is called out. I've done it! I'm almost giddy. I start to walk out when I'm called back to the table with "Madame! Vos papiers!" and I realize I've forgotten my passport.

I'll get another chance to do it all again in two weeks when I'll vote in the second round: Ségolène versus Sarkozy, a classic right-wing/left-wing contest. Should be fun to watch... and this time, maybe I'll get the hang of the ballot box.

Comme au pays... or almost

Tonight my husband is at a company dinner function, so I'm enjoying what's probably one of the last nights I can sit at home in an old t-shirt and waste time as tranquilly as I used to back in my college days. All the freedom of being a single girl at home, and what do I do? I make myself a hamburger.

My husband doesn't hate hamburgers, and he's even become American enough to have a theory on the best way to extract ketchup from a glass Heinz bottle: give it a good tap with the palm of your hand right on the "57" logo on the neck of the bottle. I've tried it, and it works. However, as with most of the other American classics in my cooking repertoire, he always has some other idea when I suggest it. "It's not that I don't like them," he'll tell me, "It's just they're overcooked. And the bread. Do you have to use that horrible, squishy pain de mie?" I offer to make him a nice, rare burger in between slices of baguette and he still hesitates. Since there are plenty of other things I make which I know he'll appreciate far more, I rarely insist.

So tonight I wasn't missing my chance. I dropped by the store after work and bought a hamburger patty (they come in individual packages here, what convenience!), some good old-fashioned American-brand [sic] hamburger buns, a package of frozen french fries, a bottle of Heinz, and some tasteless, imported tomatoes. Bliss.

Unfortunately, my pregnancy diet dictates that I cook the hell out of all meat products, ground beef in particular. The gray, dry, and crumbly result didn't marry too well with the squishy bun despite a generous slice of tomato, and the Maille dijon mustard made the ketchup taste a little too sweet. The cornichons were a nice touch, but the end result couldn't be saved. Oh, for a nice, juicy, medium-rare charcoal-grilled burger with a nice slice of melted Vermont cheddar!

Homesick? Nah. But barbecue season is going to be tough this year, I assure you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Thinking (too much) for two

My six-almost-seventh month checkup at the hospital was last week. As usual, I felt as if most of it could have been taken care of by filling out a web form: no, I'm not experiencing this symptom and that symptom; yes, I feel the baby moving. Spending an hour at the hospital hardly seemed worth it for a simple blood pressure test, urine check and pelvic exam, and the quick 30-second listen to baby's heartbeat. I supposed it's just that a normal pregnancy is so routine to the hospital staff that it's difficult to do anything but hurry this sort of simple checkup along. Of course for me everything is new, and I feel like an hour-long in-depth discussion of everything from my pregnancy Pilates workout to where and when the baby is kicking wouldn't be out of place. As it is, I manage to wring out five to ten minutes at the end of the visit with a few well-planned questions, and always leave feeling there's something important I'd wanted to say but forgot.

My biggest concern last week was whether I would be able to make the pain management choices I wanted during labor. I have never been particularly frightened of labor -- I keep repeating that it's the twenty years that follow that really have me worried! -- but I kept wondering if the fear would catch up with me. Before I was pregnant, I figured that finding out that I was would make me realize that I'd put something into motion that would end in this strange, scary, unplannable event. But no, even after getting the news I wasn't worried. I thought perhaps it was simply too far away to seem real at the beginning, but even now, with only three months to go, I'm honestly not much more anxious. I'm just convinced that this is something my body is designed to do, and beyond preparing and informing myself as much as possible, I simply have to trust my body and the hospital staff to do their jobs. The most important thing I can do is stay calm.

I liken it to preparing for the Paris Marathon, which I ran two years ago: I'll prepare, I'll ask as many people as I can for advice, and I'll remember that mental preparation is at least as important as physical preparation. I know that I'll very likely feel pain at some point, but it will be the kind of exhilarating pain that is quickly forgotten: it will all be so worth it at the end. I also suspect there's much I simply can't prepare for, and all the advice, all the anticipation, will mean little as the experience takes its own course.

I also can't help thinking, I'm tough, I'm fit, I can run 42 kilometers, bring it on!

[Skeptics in the audience are kindly asked to keep any comments to themselves.]

The problem is, I think this is a fairly unusual approach to childbirth. I've been trying to find myself somewhere in the two prevailing philosophies, and failing. You see, I find people are of one of two schools of thought:

The majority seem to think that all the tools of modern medicine are necessary for a tolerable, if far from pain-free, delivery. Many people ask if I plan on having an epidural. No, I'd rather avoid it, I say, for they are not without risks, and the idea of giving myself and my baby a non-negligable dose of opiates at the moment they come into the world depresses me. Perhaps I'm being silly, but I like to imagine my child first opening his eyes to the world outside with a clear head, and I'd prefer to have an unfoggy memory of the event myself. "What, no epidural?" is the response, "But it will hurt... you can't imagine..." and then I see them mentally write me off as a wacko.

The minority, including a dear friend of mine, think that natural childbirth is not only possible but preferable. I started reading a book she recommended about a preparation method based on self-hypnosis. It's seductive, and largely convincing. The key idea is that childbirth is natural, that women's bodies are designed for it, and most of the pain conventionally accepted as inevitable comes from the unnecessary fear childbirth inspires. Control the fear, plus practice the breathing exercises and visualizations, and you'll have one of the picture-perfect, pain-free births described in the numerous letters published in the book. The only problem is that reading between the lines I've gathered (and perhaps I'm reading too much) that if you don't have a perfect birth you weren't zen enough, you didn't empty your head of negative emotions, you didn't properly breathe: in other words, you failed. I'm all for empowerment, but I believe that one of the most important steps is understanding that not everything is under your control.

Where's the middle ground, then? It's difficult for me to find. My biggest concern at the moment is that the hospital staff accept my somewhat unconventional approach. I talked about epidurals with my (British) gynecologist at the hospital, and she said that whether I'd be able to avoid one depended in large part on which midwife I ended up with. Some of them are willing to work with you, but as "this is France, and birth is overmedicalized," I should be aware that I might be so hooked up to monitoring equipment that I'd have trouble moving around and working through my labor.

I know they can't and wouldn't force me to have an epidural against my will, but I imagine some bossy midwife explaining to me, "but madame, of course you are in pain, but it was your choice," with more self-righteousness than compassion.

I realized that for now all this must fall into the realm of things I can't control, and my fears should be at least somewhat addressed when I'm on my pre-maternity leave at the end of next month and can finally attend some childbirth classes. In the meantime, I'll try and keep in mind my mother-in-law's advice, one of the only women who seems to share my point of view on the whole thing. She showed me some breathing techniques (easier for her that for me, with her background as a professional opera singer), described matter-of-factly her two, largely painless labors, and said "De toute façon, don't listen to what I or anyone else has to say about it, since every labor is different. And all those women, they exaggerate. It isn't such a big deal."

Or my British gynecologist's favorite phrase: "Just get on with it!"

Yeah. That's my way of thinking.