Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Petit papa noël

Last Christmas passed in a sleep-deprived fog: le Petit and his little cousin were five months old, and although the huge family gathering in Troyes was festive and fun, it was more about the adults than the kids. Le Petit was more interested in the wrapping paper than the presents, and was years away from understanding complex Christmas concepts like the nativity or Santa Claus.

This year was different. This year was the first Christmas of the next generation.

I stayed up until past midnight on the eve of Christmas Eve embroidering le Petit and his cousin's initials on two handmade stockings while my husband slowly wrapped a heap of presents spread out on the floor. On the morning of the 24th, we packed up the car and headed for Troyes to celebrate with the same gaggle of family that was there last year. Eleven adults, two toddlers, one tiny and cozy family house, a giant dinner table, a Christmas tree and far too many presents: all the elements were all in place.

When we arrived, Grandpa joyfully grabbed le Petit from his car seat and whisked him into the house while my husband and I started to unload the car. I ran inside to the sound of le Petit screaming. It had been three months since he'd last seen the house in Troyes and far longer since he'd seen many of the members of the family, so when he found himself in a strange place with a bunch of strange people and no mom or dad, he was terrified. He remained skeptical of the proceedings through lunch, but then settled down easily for a nap. Once he was asleep and the house started to empty out as people disappeared for last-minute shopping, my husband, his parents and aunt and I started preparing le Petit's Christmas.

In my husband's family, we open presents after dinner on Christmas Eve. In true French style, dinner usually takes three hours and by the time we start exchanging gifts it is past midnight. This year we hoped le Petit would be asleep, so we decided that the père noël, or Santa Claus, would come by for the children before dinner. My father-in-law dug up the thirty-five-plus year old Santa suit that I'd seen pictured in photos from my husband's childhood, and my brother-in-law was chosen to play the lead role.

We were stacking up presents for le Petit and his cousin under the tree when I saw it: the present that made me cry. It was a bright red ride-and-push-along car, styled like a 1950s Ferrari. My in-laws had found it after a good month of searching through all the toy shops in Paris and Troyes. It was straight out of a little boy's Christmas dream, big and shiny and perfect, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Suddenly there I was, thousands of miles and decades away from Christmas morning in Olympia, Washington, but I could still see the presents laid out for me. There was the doll house with the same wallpaper and carpet as our house and the picture of me in a gold frame over the little fireplace. There was the Brio train on the hand-painted train board, with the tiny wooden signposts that my grandfather made just for me. Le Petit will probably not remember this Christmas, but I'd already filed it alongside so many of my own happy memories.

Later in the evening, Santa finally made his appearance, with camcorders rolling and cameras flashing. Le Petit's cousin was scared and buried her face in her mother's shoulder, but le Petit was unimpressed. He was quite ready to stare down the big guy in a red suit, with a beard and a cane and a face half hidden by a hood. With much prompting he opened two presents, then slid off my lap, grabbed my hand and led me to his high chair, letting me know that Christmas Eve or not, it was dinner time. We gave him a cookie and he munched and watched as my brother-in-law struggled to unwrap the red car.

Much to our surprise, he fell asleep easily that evening and slept well despite the din of the adults downstairs feasting into the wee hours. On Christmas morning he opened the rest of his presents over breakfast, taking time to examine each one carefully. His favorite -- and my least favorite -- was a plastic train that whistles and plays music as it chugs along.

At noon on Christmas Day we all regathered at my husband's aunt's apartment for the second big meal, and le Petit scooted around the place before and after a long nap. Dazed with too much wine and food, we took our traditional early Christmas evening walk through the quiet streets of downtown Troyes with le Petit bundled up in his stroller. We stopped in front of the town hall to admire the centerpiece of the holiday decorations, an animated polar bear family. "Bear!" said le Petit. We took him into the cathedral to admire the crèche. "Baby!" I said, and crouched next to him to explain the story. He squirmed and whined so we headed for the door; they'll be plenty of time for that next year.

On the 23rd I was frantic, my presents were unwrapped, half my to-do list was undone, and I was worried that our Christmas would fall apart because le Petit would refuse to sleep. On the evening of the 25th, I realized that everything was close to perfect after all, and that le Petit had given me the gift of the first real Christmas I've had since I grew up.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Not that I'm taking it personally

Le Petit says "dada," "baby," "bear," "boat," "au revoir," "encore," "bain," "à plus tard," "all done," "star," "lolo," "chat," "coco," "dodo," "ding dang dong," "croco," "arc-en-ciel" and probably a few other words I've forgotten.

But he does not say "mama." Or "maman." Or "mommy," or anything that refers to me. I briefly thought I might be "baba," but I'm pretty sure I'm just "that woman over there who's been hanging with me since I was born."

I'm surprisingly okay with this. He knows how to get my attention when he needs to, usually by coming up to me and grabbing my finger and guiding me somewhere or leaning on my legs and reaching up with his arms. Or, less often, he heads for something off-limits like the (blocked) wall outlet and grabs at it, smiling mischeviously and watching to see if I'm paying attention.

I like to pretend that it's because I'm usually there when he needs me, so he doesn't have to get my name down just yet. Implausible, you say? Too bad, I'm going with it.

My pride is more damaged when he clamps his hands over his ears while I sing to him while he's sitting on my lap. He doesn't want to me stop singing -- he turns the pages of his songbook and insists "encore!" -- but he plugs his ears tight. I've tried singing more softly, but he does it anyway. Is my voice that bad?

I tell myself that it's just a developmental thing, and he's exploring the sensory experience of muffling sounds. But just in case, I'm holding on to my day job.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The magic word

Le Petit's language skills have been taking off. I think he's been averaging one new word a day for the last couple weeks. Today he said chat, or cat, for the first time, and yesterday he pointed at a Christmas ornament hanging from the door frame and said "star," albeit with a silent S. Just after pronouncing a new word, he looks at us, very proud of himself, and starts to clap. Sometimes he says "bra bra bra" in imitation of the "bravo!" we say to congratulate him.

He's like one of those television studio applause signs, but cuter.

Early this week, he learned the best new word since Dada: encore. At first it was just another two syllables repeated randomly, but when he started to practice it in earnest, amazing things started to happen.

Grandma scooped tasty spoonfuls of rice into his mouth more quickly than usual.

Mommy continued dancing and singing Sur le Pont D'Avignon until she collapsed with exhaustion.

Daddy sliced more pieces of pear.

Mommy lifted him up yet again to play with the light switch.

Forget "abracadabra," folks. This is the real deal.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Birthday

Today is my birthday, and le Petit decided to give me a well-deserved present. Employing his new-found fascination with dials and buttons, he discovered how to turn down the volume on our alarm clock radio until it was silent. So instead of waking up to Radio Classique announcing the latest news of the global economic downturn, I woke up to le Petit babbling to himself over the baby monitor.

"Funny, he's up early today," I thought to myself, for we are blessed with a child who regularly sleeps in. Then I rolled over and looked at the clock. Merde. Eight-thirty! I prodded my husband, who tried to convince me that it was Sunday.

"No, it's jeudi!" I insisted. "Err, I mean mardi!" Five years in France and I still get the words for Tuesday and Thursday mixed up.

Luckily, things are calm at work at the moment and my boss was amused when I called to tell him I'd be late. So it really was a present.

During my run at lunch in the Forêt de Saint Germain, I waxed poetic about the joys of parenthood. "I firmly believe," I explained to my colleague and running partner, "That our children are sent to teach us. We learn as much from them as they do from us, in some ways." He remarked how happy I seemed since le Petit's birth, and I confirmed it.

I floated in on this cloud of contentment when I arrived to pick le Petit up from the nanny, and I was met with a wall of toddler resistance. I was there to frustrate his plans, to prevent him from escaping into the hallway or pressing the buttons on the stove. He threw himself on the floor and started wailing in desperation. As I tried to carry him off to the door, I discovered that 25 pounds of uncooperative 17-month-old can be very difficult to pick up. Just where do they learn to arch their backs and go limp simultaneously?

We dropped by my in-laws' apartment, where all went swimmingly until le Petit and I disagreed about the urgency of a diaper change. He would have nothing of it. Fine, I told him, but that meant we were headed home, and with the aid of my mother-in-law, I somehow overruled his veto of his winter jacket.

My husband was at his weekly German class, so when we arrived home I faced a dramatic solo diaper change. While a half-naked le Petit decided he would flip over and attempt to crawl off the changing table, I tried to keep us both clear of an impressive quantity of uncontained poop as I realized with horror that I was still wearing my brand-new Banana Republic cashmere sweater dress.

"Could you please STOP! I can't deal with this right now," I scolded, then whined, "It's my birthday, you know..."

The rest of the evening went better. Le Petit mastered spoon feeding himself for the first time -- I prudently changed out of my dress before dinner time -- and cooperatively went to bath and bed. He even said a new word: "other."

Part of what gets me about this parenting gig is just how much it challenges me to be a grown up. I'm thirty-two this year, but I feel like I earned fifteen of those years in the last 17 months. I am more giving, more understanding, and I have access to depths of patience I never knew before le Petit was born. I also see more clearly how I am still selfish, thoughtless, or ignorant. It's as if the fog has lifted and I see the path ahead of me.

At the same time, being a grown up has suddenly seemed like less and less of a meaningful qualification. The so-called grown-ups of the world -- of which, as I tread further into my thirties, I'm incontestably a member, alas -- have given us the sub-prime mess, global warming, and the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

So I'm sticking with my statement that I've got as much to learn from le Petit as he has from me, on this birthday, and probably many more to come.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A short treatise on pie crust

Roughly ten years ago, returning from a fall apple picking excursion, I stood in my tiny apartment kitchen in Marlborough, Massachusetts and stared at my brand-new copy of The Joy of Cooking. It was open to page 859, the recipe for Flaky Pastry Dough.

The resulting apple pie was enough of a flop that I remember it still. The apples were juicy and sweet, the spices just right, but the crust was as hard as concrete. I chalked up my failure to using pure butter and not Crisco, an error I rectified in later attempts. By the time we left Boston, I could make a respectable pie crust, one even my mother would be proud of.

Then we moved to France. No more Crisco! Not only could I not find it or anything resembling it in the supermarket, but the whole idea of a white, tasteless, odorless vegetable fat was suddenly revolting to my husband’s French palate. I had no choice but to go back to butter.

Much to my surprise, the results were good, light, and tastier than my old 100% trans-fat version. It definitely wasn’t concrete. But it still wasn’t flaky.

I was happy enough, until I tasted my husband’s aunt’s crust and I knew that pastry perfection could yet be attained.

Read closely, because I am going to share with you the French secret to a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth butter pie crust.

You know how all the cookbooks tell you to make sure to keep all the ingredients cold until the moment you use them? According to the Joy, this is “age-old advice.” Forget it. My husband’s aunt takes the butter out of the fridge a good half an hour before starting to make the dough. In cold weather, she leaves it sitting on the radiator. You see, it must be soft enough to work into the flour. She cuts it in with a knife (I use a pastry blender) and then finishes working it in by rubbing it between her fingers. Once the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, she adds ice cold water to bind it.

After it is formed and pressed into a ball, the crust should be chilled for at least fifteen minutes before it is rolled out. Soft butter, cold water, chilled crust: that’s all you need to know.

This weekend I made a tarte tatin for my in-laws using this method, and I once again wondered why it took me five years to defy the Joy and try it out. Pastry heaven, I tell you!

I apologize that it’s a little late for Thanksgiving, but try it out at Christmas and let me know what you think.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Comptines

"Il était un petit navire. . . il était un petit navire. . . qui n'avait ja- ja- jamais navigué, qui n'avait ja- ja- jamais navigué, o-hé, o-hé !"

I don't think I actually sang out loud, but I'm not certain I didn't hum the song stuck in an endless loop in my head this morning at the office.

You see, recently le Petit has been absorbed by his book of comptines, or French children's songs, that my husband bought for him when he was less than a month old. Although he likes to flip through the pages and study the pictures by himself, he's happiest when someone sings to him from it. He loves to bring the book over and clamber onto our laps for a private music lesson.

Alas, I'm at a significant disadvantage, since other than Frère Jacques, none of the songs were familiar to me before I had a French child. Now I've more or less memorized Petit Navire (a song about a boat), Promenons-nous dans le bois (a song about a forest and a wolf), Malbrough (about an Englishman who met an unfortunate end in battle in France), and le bon roi Dagobert (about a king with his pants on backwards) to cite just a few of my favorites.

I sing poorly, I get the tune wrong, and my verb conjugation is all over the map. My husband often has to step in and correct me. Le Petit, on the other hand, is an appreciative and patient audience. His attention span is impressive and he seems to be learning a lot. He even chimes in with "Ding Dang Dong!" when he sees the page with Frère Jacques and his brother monks.

Yet I feel like a bit of a fraud. I'm happy to say that help is on the way. My father is on a quest for an American songbook.

In the meantime, if someone can explain to me how exactly a green mouse is supposed to turn into a nice and warm escargot when dropped in oil and water, I would be grateful.

Just for my culture générale, you know.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Time for a (diaper) change?

This week everything seems a little off-kilter.

Work is frustrating and dull, which is nothing new, but after a month of remaining cheerful about it, it has started weighing on me again.

My Wednesday at home with le Petit, which is ordinarily my favorite day of the week, hasn't been going smoothly, either. It's rainy and cold outside so we couldn't go to the park this morning, and some errands I had to run pushed us off schedule. He's currently tearing apart the living room before my eyes while I write a whiny blog entry.

I have nothing really to complain about. I'm just tired and I feel like I need a change somewhere in my job, in my routine, or just in my point of view.

Speaking of change, today I've had four poopy diapers to change (so far) and no nap. That pretty much sums it up.

But! My mother-in-law is coming over in fifteen minutes to babysit while I sew some Christmas stockings for le Petit and his cousin, and le Petit has just toddled up to me with a storybook to read. So what the heck am I complaining about? I've got work to do.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Ouch (You know you're still a mom when...)

When I woke up one day last week with a tender spot between my eyes, I couldn't think what it could possibly be.

My imagination?

One of the enormous stealth zits that have been plaguing me since my hormones started creaking back into gear a month or so ago?

Then I remembered.

The day before, I had tried to extract an economy-sized package of Number 5 diapers from a store display. The packages were surprisingly heavy and precariously balanced on the third shelf up. I must have made a false maneuver, for before I knew it three packages came down and hit me square in the face, knocking my glasses to the floor.

It was embarrassing. And it hurt, darn it.

Sleepless nights, labor pains, those I knew I'd signed up for. But as I rubbed my forehead in the middle of the supermarket aisle, it dawned on me that some of the ways we suffer for our children are entirely unexpected.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

An open letter to the French people

To my fellow citizens,

I have lived on your soil for over five years, four of them as a bone fide French citizen. I have followed your soccer matches, I have sampled your cheeses. I have absorbed your language thoroughly enough to make idiotic mistakes in my mother tongue, like adding an extra "p" to apartment or inserting unnecessary spaces before semicolons and exclamation marks. I have even learned to swear and may be unwittingly transmitting this skill to the next generation.

I have read up on your history, and I know when the Capetien Dynasty gave way to the Valois and the Valois to the Bourbon. Although my understanding of the events of the Revolution may still be rudimentary, it isn't for lack of study.

I vote. I laugh at Louis de Funes' films. I eat foie gras at Christmas and drink rosé in August. When abroad, I defend your cuisine and your politics, even if some specialties are best enjoyed without a close examination of all of the ingredients.

I not only understand the phrase métro-boulot-dodo, but am oddly grateful that I get to consider the Parisian daily grind my own.

I am a food snob who would make Brillat-Savarin proud. I haven't eaten at a McDonalds since 1997, and I eschew the frozen food marvels of Picard Surgelés. Last Wednesday I made my own madeleines from scratch. From scratch!

So I humbly ask, when will you stop switching mid-sentence to a labored English when your hear me utter two words in French? When will you stop asking me "where do you live?" and look so surprised by my response? I know you're just trying to be friendly and helpful. I know that if I live here until I'm ninety I will never lose my petit accent. Yet with your best intentions, you're making me fumble too many conversations in boutiques and supermarkets and I'm getting tired of it.

You see, my heavily-accented but fluent French is usually much better than your serviceable high school English. Yet to avoid offending you, I continue in English and I end up embarrassing myself because -- believe it or not -- I don't know the script. Merci beaucoup, bonne journée, au revoir roll off my tongue so much more easily here than an artificial "thanks, good bye!" I feel like I'm playing the part of a tourist, but I assure you, I've gone native.

Go ahead and chuckle, if you must, when I flatten your Rs and your Us and confound the genders of your nouns. But keep it to yourself and keep talking with me in French, and I'll do my best to pretend not to notice.

Your faithful concitoyenne,

Parisienne

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Goodnight, Daddy

Every night the bedtime ritual is the same: bath, pajamas, story, lolo. As le Petit snuggles in the big chair with Mommy and the lights are turned off, Daddy comes back in at least one last time to say goodnight. When he does, le Petit leans backward and cranes his neck to see the familiar silhouette appear in the dim light of the doorway.

"Dada! DADA!" If my husband doesn't appear quickly enough, le Petit starts to insist. If necessary, I chime in and our calls ring through the apartment. Daddy is often in the kitchen cleaning up the residual chaos of a toddler mealtime, but he always shows up eventually.

When he arrives, my husband leans over to cuddle le Petit and tenderly wish him a bonne nuit. He repeats "dada dada dada! Au revoir!" as I intone "Good night, Daddy! See you tomorrow." Le Petit responds with his own round of murmured "dadas." Lately he's added a timid "aurvoi." I can't see his face in the dark but I know he's smiling widely. His words made Daddy come back and he must be thinking, finally, a practical application for all this language stuff. Magic!

Daddy curtain calls are frequent. With such an audience, who could resist?

Another linguistic accomplishment

My husband was born in Toulouse. As the stereotype goes, this means that he peppers his French with a certain colorful vocabulary.

Putain (a woman of ill-repute) and con (a common insult inadequately translated as moron) are Toulousain punctuation. A Parisian will swear to make a point, but a Toulousain will swear to give directions to the post office.

So my admonitions to pay attention to our usage of language around the tender ears of le Petit mostly fell upon my husband's deaf ones. "If he doesn't learn it from me, he'll learn it at school," he'd say with a shrug. Perhaps, I admitted, but I'd rather it not be my kid teaching the others.

Then on Sunday night, le Petit started to repeat a new sound: "pe-ta, pe-ta, pe-ta, pe-ta, pe-ta." I feared for the worst.

"Listen to him! I told you to be careful of what you said around him, and now it's too late!"

"He's not saying putain, putain! He's saying pe-ta!" my husband said, irritated. I burst out laughing. Le Petit observed us quietly, taking notes.

On Monday evening, le Petit and I dropped by my mother-in-law's house. I told her the story as le Petit played quietly in a corner. When I finished and before we even had a chance to chuckle together at my husband's naiveté, le Petit added his take on the situation.

He said something that for all the world sounded like "et putain." My mother-in-law and I looked at each other, first with our jaws dropped, then trying hard not to laugh.

It may have been an accident. For the moment, I'm going to leave those syllables unclassified and do my best to show no reaction if I hear them again. But at least my husband believes me now. . .

Monday, November 24, 2008

Parlez-vous Petit?

I was expecting le Petit's first word to be a very, very big deal.

I kept waiting for the moment he would look at us, open his mouth, and gesticulating meaningfully at something, utter an identifiable grouping of syllables. Instead, his babbling slowly settled into patterns that seemed to mean something some of the time but most of the time were just, well, sounds.

Progress was slow and I began to fret. Yet through the babbling le Petit was busy acquiring his two languages, and behind the random "cocos" and "da da das" there was hard work going on. And so it was that sometime between August and October "da da da" became "dada" and was firmly enough assigned to my husband that even I was able to admit it:

Le Petit had a first word! In English! Alas, I don't have a date to record in the baby book.

Once he had one word down there was no stopping him. He now can say baby and "lolo" (milk), bain (bath) and bras (arm). Naturally, his first sentence was in Franglish. Recently, as we looked through a picture book before bed, he turned to a page with a baby in a bathtub and said "Baby bain!"

But his biggest linguistic accomplishment came on his sixteen-month birthday. We were at the airport in Nice preparing to give back the rental car as le Petit waited patiently in his car seat. Once the agent finished inspecting the car, she waved at him and said "au revoir." Le Petit waved back and repeated quite clearly "aurvoi!"

My heart swelled with pride, but I fear that before long he'll be pronouncing that French "r" better than I can.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nice

Try as I might, the only image I could bring to mind when I pictured the Côte d'Azur was the backdrop of my high school's production of The Boy Friend. If I recall the decor correctly from nearly fifteen years ago, our minimalist hand painted set had a strip of sand, a red and white striped beach cabin and two bright blue bands of ocean and sky. It left a lot to the imagination, so when I finally set foot in Nice, there were plenty of details left to fill in.

My first surprise was that Nice is as much about the mountains as it is about the sea. The Côte d'Azur is where the Alps tumble abruptly into the Mediterranean with hardly a glance backward. Vieux Nice, the Promenade des Anglais along the beach, and a corridor along the river are flat, but the rest of city is forced to mount quickly into the surrounding hills.

The first hotels and the opera house have their main entrances facing inland. The nineteenth century aristocrats that shaped the city turned their backs on the sea. They came for the mild winter climate; stretching out all day in the sun in the heat of August is a 20th century invention.

Tucked at one end of the wide boulevard of the Promenade des Anglais is the village that became Vieux Nice. On our first evening in town, we wandered past the tourist shops selling identical bars of soap and jars of olive oil and tried to imagine Nice as a backwater without even a deep-water harbor to its name. It was easier when night fell and the shops started rolling down their shutters and dimming their lights and the narrow streets and modest buildings came to life.

I was glad I'd visited for the first time in the middle of November in the deadest part of the year. It felt like we had the beaches and the streets of town to ourselves, or close.

We stayed with my husband's uncle and aunt in their apartment in the Cimiez neighborhood in the first ring of hills above downtown. As in much of the city, nineteenth century hotels and villas are interspersed with 1960s and 70s apartment buildings. To my eye, the large, modern balconies with their concrete and tinted glass had nothing on the wrought-iron lace-lined windows of the Belle Epoque, but I learned that most Niçois thought the contrary. Everyone wants a big balcony, and they simply don't exist in older buildings.

I kept feeling like I was seeing three moments in time in overlay: a Mediterranean village a bit too well-restored to be timeless; the spendthrift escapism of two centuries ago; the democratic tourism of fifty years ago. In five days, I didn't have enough time to discover which one was closest to reality.

Not that I tried too hard. We wandered and I filled up on sunshine for the Parisian winter and planned to spend the time to take a closer look next time.

Because now that I'm back in the gray and the rain in Paris, I'm already thinking of my first trip back.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hachesse (and a glimpse of Menton)

"Ca va? You look completely wiped out."

My husband looked troubled by my apparent exhaustion as we started winding back down the streets of Vieux Menton. Like many villages on the Côte d'Azur, the old part of town is perched on a rocky hill well above the sea. With le Petit on my back in the Ergo baby carrier, we'd climbed up to where we had an impressive view of the cliffs of the Moyenne Corniche above us, the Mediterranean beyond the rooftops below us, the first capes on the Italian coast to one side, and the first high-rise apartment buildings of Monaco to the other.

At the summit we wandered among the graves of the international aristocrats of a century past. The cemetary was densely packed with tombs, many ostentatiously marked concession perpétuelle to remind future generations that the bereaved had paid enough to prevent their loved one from being unearthed and moved to make room for new graves, a common practice in France. Some of the marble headstones were cracked and their letters indecipherable, but the view was still the very best money could buy. Even in death here there is fierce competition for choice real estate.

As we started back down between the brightly-colored houses that clung at all angles to the hillside, I started to drag my feet and my husband worried about me out loud.

I was a bit tired, but still alert enough for an epiphany.

"Oh! That's what that means! Hachesse is really H. S.!"

I'd suddenly realized that the French term for 'wiped out' that my husband had used was an abbreviation of hors service, or 'out of order.' No matter how fluent I think I am, I still have moments when I realize that I've been hearing something completely wrong for years and I have to adjust my mental subtitling.

Now that I know what the word means, maybe I'll dare to employ it myself. I had hesitated all this time because I figured the "esse" at the end made it a feminine adjective and I wasn't sure what the masculine form could be. It couldn't possibly be haché (ground, as in steak haché), after all. . .

(More on our trip to Nice shortly!)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Gentleman thief

There is a piece of paper taped to the back wall of the refrigerator at work. It is half-covered with a layer of permafrost, but you can still make out the start of the message:

"The person who borrowed the bottle of Champagne is kindly asked to..."

I shudder to think that I work at a place where such a crime can go unsolved.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Et ça se fête

On my return to work on Thursday I threw a pot to celebrate Obama's victory.

A pot, an informal get-together involving alcoholic beverages, is one of those gems of vocabulary that you have to live on French soil to learn. At my office, alas, the most common pots are pots de départ which are organized when someone leaves the company. My colleagues have held pots to celebrate their new babies, and theoretically at least, new colleagues are supposed to throw a pot d'arrivé.

I, however, break with tradition and sometimes throw a pot just for the heck of it. A few years back I put together a Fourth of July pot complete with coleslaw, pasta salad, chocolate chip cookies and beer. When I do a pot I believe in doing it right, and forgo the usual chips, peanuts and cheese puffs to bring at least some real, homemade food. So when I announced many months before the election that if Obama's then-long shot victory became a reality I would put together a pot, my colleagues made sure I didn't forget my campaign promise.

I made brownies on Wednesday, carefully making sure to cut out a third of the sugar called for by the Joy of Cooking as I've learned the hard way that the French aren't nearly as sweet-toothed as Americans. I brought apples and mandarins, fancy appéritif crackers, dried fruit and nuts, and toast spread with fig-walnut cream cheese. Throughout the day on Thursday I spread the word, and by five o'clock I had a dozen people gathered around my desk.

I popped the cork on a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux, then liberally poured the sparkling wine into plastic cups. I had mentioned Champagne back in September, but decided that we were now in an economic crisis so I wouldn't spring for the expensive stuff after all. Maybe in 2012.

The brownies were a smash success, and my colleagues munched appreciatively as they listened to me explain the electoral college. Most understood the significance of what had taken place in the US at least as much as I do, half a world away. I was amused when many of them repeated in halting English, "Yes we can!" when they'd crossed me earlier in the day in the hallway.

"Yes we could!" I corrected.

Now that some of the post-election euphoria has worn off, however, I'm a little hesitant to use the past tense. I think the tough part is just beginning for Obama.

Let's just say I'm waiting in the wings for more reasons to celebrate.

************************************************************

One of the lesser-known reasons to cheer an Obama victory is that I will no longer have to hear my colleagues make lame jokes about les frites McCain.

I vaguely remember that there is a company named McCain that makes frozen potato products in the US, but since I don't tend to buy frozen potato products, I never gave it much thought.

Apparently, however, the maker of oven-ready french fries is quite famous in France. They ran an ad campaign in the 1980s involving a cowboy and a logger. Both had grating American accents. I had to hear many an amateur imitation this year, and I did my best each time to pretend to laugh.

*************************************************************

We're off to Nice tomorrow to visit two of my husband's uncles and see a corner of France where I have so far never set foot. Tuesday is Armistice Day and a holiday here, so we're taking Monday off and coming back late on Wednesday. Just in case you all will miss me (ha!) I've set something short and funny to autopost on Monday morning.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Democracy in America

Le Petit obligingly woke us up at 4:30 Paris time this morning, just in time for us to catch the first results of the election. As I got up to help le Petit fall back asleep, my husband ran off to peek at the television. I waited for him to relay the news, curled up with le Petit in the big chair in his bedroom and trying my best not to be too nervous.

When I crawled back into bed at a little after five o'clock, it took me a moment to realize that the strange glow bathing the bedroom came from my husband's Blackberry. He was huddled under the covers checking news sites.

"Did Obama win?" I asked anxiously.

"They haven't called it yet. But McCain can no longer mathematically win. They should call it soon."

He crept back to the living room and I fell asleep, reassured, but this morning I regretted not staying awake with my husband to watch the acceptance and concession speeches. Although I voted for Obama and I wanted desperately for him to win, I have great respect for McCain as well. From the excerpts I saw on CNN this morning it seems like they were both at their very best last night.

We woke up to Radio Classique announcing the news with jubilation. A little later the phone rang: my father had stayed up to call me. "You're waking up to a new world," he announced.
His declaration was almost drowned out by the screech of our answering machine which my husband and I, still half-asleep, fumbled with looking for the "off" button.

I got the message anyway.

I would have given just about anything to be back home celebrating with him.

Not since the fall of the Berlin wall have I lived through a moment of such optimism. A race which in many ways has brought out the best in American democracy has ended with the election of the first African-American president in history. Beyond that, Obama has channeled and focused so much optimism and hope, and I think that this quintessential faith in the future is our greatest strength as a country. I am so proud to be an American today.

Are these reflections too trite? Or simply true? Or are they just the result of a night of fitful sleep? I can't say now, but I'm writing this because I want le Petit to know how I and so many other folks felt on the morning of November 5, 2008.

Meanwhile here in France, where the overwhelming majority of people supported Obama, the country is expressing the same pride and relief that a father might feel when his daughter announces her engagement to a favorite potential son-in-law. Radio Classique has been playing Copeland and Bernstein all day long in celebration.

My father made me promise to explain to le Petit what has happened -- even if he is far too little to understand -- and to give him a flag to wave today. It just so happens that we have a flag courtesy of the American Consultate in Paris.

Obama will be taking office shortly not only with the largest challenges a president has faced in my lifetime, but with the weight of the world's wildest hopes on his shoulders. I wish him luck.

What would de Tocqueville think? I can't help but think that France, our sister nation born of the Enlightenment, will learn from us this time around.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween à la française

Several holidays have all but disappeared from my life since I moved to Paris. Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are unknown in France, and despite the best efforts of Disneyland Paris, the French are still reluctant to embrace Halloween. One wonders why, since a holiday whose principal traditions are dressing in something ridiculous and eating sickening amounts of bad candy should catch on here, right?

[Cue lightning flash and the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower against a full moon.]

Buahahaha!

But like a holiday amputee, at the right times of year I continue to feel the itch to celebrate, even if I can't figure out the logistics of procuring a pumpkin in Paris or of cooking a turkey dinner with all the fixings on a workday Thursday afternoon.

The urge to celebrate was terrible on Friday, since the weather was just right for Halloween: dark and gray with a persistent, cold drizzle that would discourage anyone from staying outside too long. Anyone, that is, but a determined trick-or-treater.

Just like I remember.

On the bus on the way to work, I treated a politely interested colleague to memories of Halloweens past.

"There was the year when the pumpkin my father and I had spent so much time carving was found smashed against the front door the next morning. Oh, and the year when, dressed in my brand-new cat costume, I was mistaken for a rabbit..."

A little later around the coffee machine, my colleagues with children discussed the Halloween phenomenon, a little bemused. They had put in an effort and bought costumes for the kids, and one had even carved a small, thick-fleshed organic potiron squash one year since it was the closest thing to a pumpkin she could get her hands on. "It wasn't easy to carve," she complained. But it appears that interest in Halloween has leveled off recently, and although some kids still dress up and trawl the neighborhood for candy, it is once more a non-holiday.

It was different back in 2003 when I moved to Paris. Stores everywhere were advertising costumes and decorations. Our town's city hall printed fliers encouraging neighbors to prepare for trick-or-treaters. I bought a bag of candy and enthusiastically made up an orange-and-black construction paper sign with a pumpkin and a "Bienvenue Trick-or-Treaters" and taped it to our apartment door.

That year, no one came. Not a single ring at the door. Since then we've spent a Halloween or two at the family house in Troyes where my in-laws always manage to find pumpkins to carve. One year I carved a drunk jack-o-lantern with a jovial expression and the glowing outline of a bottle and glass of Champagne (the terroir of Troyes, after all). The small group of children who stopped by were more impressed by our gourd artistry than by the candy we managed to dig up.

Our trio of jack-o-lanterns, with mine upper left.
Note the Champagne cork nose.


Last year my father and stepmother bought le Petit a baby pumpkin suit, and I couldn't resist propping him up on the couch for a picture next to a jack-o-lantern that I carved for the occasion. This year my father found le Petit a costume at Costco, and I duly dressed him up after we arrived back home from the nanny's yesterday evening. Le Petit hadn't the slightest clue what the late-day wardrobe change was about, but once distracted, didn't much care. As he ran around the apartment dressed as a honey bee and spreading tufts of black nylon fur behind him, we took pictures for posterity.

A little bit later, le Petit was eating dinner, his costume was hidden under an IKEA industrial-strength baby bib, and I had all but forgotten what day it was when we were startled by our wake-the-dead doorbell. A group of trick-or-treaters had shown up after all, and we had absolutely nothing to give them.

I entertained them at the door while my husband rifled through the kitchen cabinets looking for candy.

"Oh, I see two fantômes, a sorcière, and a... princess?" I hazarded. The girl smiled broadly and shook her head. I didn't even try to identify the pint-sized superheros accompanying them. Meanwhile, my husband eventually produced two granola bars that I'd picked up after the Paris-Versailles road race last month. Faces dropped, but the bars were reluctantly accepted anyway.

Clearly, we're part of the problem. With such miserable trick-or-treat offerings, the holiday will never catch on.

"Uhh, I'm sorry, we're not very well-prepared this year," I apologized lamely. "But come back next year and we'll have something better, I promise you!"

But they had already shifted their focus to the apartment across the hall where they might have better luck. There is at least one advantage to a Parisian Halloween: the takings may be small, but the distance from doorbell-to-doorbell is short.

And you don't even have to trudge through piles of soggy leaves in the dark with a flashlight.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Haircut angst

I need a haircut badly. Alas, I haven't had a single good haircut since I moved to France, and I've tried salons all over Paris, in all price ranges, from Left Bank to Right.

What to do? I guess I'm back at the beginning of the endless cycle of pay little > get bad haircut > decide to pay a lot > get bad haircut > decide I might as well not pay a lot because it doesn't seem to make a difference. So I'll go to the Camille Albane chain salon in the neighborhood and get a bad haircut tomorrow, unless anyone has a better suggestion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Talking points

Le Petit has started to talk.

Or, more precisely, he's started to speak our language, since he's babbled for some time in a language known only to him.*

I'm fairly sure he's started to talk, anyway.

Since he was thirteen months old, he's occasionally referred to my husband as "dada." But there are so many other things designated "dada" and so many other situations when the syllable "da!" was expressed, I wasn't sure if it was a true word.

Then we went on vacation and stayed on a farm with a flock of chickens. "'Cocorico!' says the rooster," we explained, and soon the rooster and the hens were "coco." But just when I was ready to officially designate "coco" a first word, it took on a broader and undefined meaning: all birds were "coco," or all animals, or maybe a selection of seemingly unrelated objects.

Last Wednesday we walked past a butcher shop in town that has a wooden sign with a rooster out front on the sidewalk. Le Petit pointed at it and said "coco!" That's it! I thought. Then, on our way back home, we passed in front of a lamppost. "Coco!" le Petit announced.

If I point at a rooster in a book or a picture of my husband taped to the wall, le Petit will often come up with the right word. But if I ask him to find the "coco" on a page, he points to different animals randomly, or if I ask him to find my husband in a group photo, he stares blankly.

It must be clearer than this, I thought. I waited for that "aha!" moment when I would suddenly know that he was speaking for real.

Meanwhile, le Petit became fascinated with a couple of carved wooden crocodiles at my in-law's apartment. Whenever we visit, he runs up to the shelf where they are displayed and demands to see them with a "Croco!" (It sounds an awful lot like "coco" to me, but I've no mastery of the subtle French "R".)

Recently le Petit and I examined a drawing of a family eating dinner in one of his bedtime storybooks.

"Baby," I indicated the elements of the picture with my index finger. "Mommy. Daddy. Food. Table." I then asked him to find them. "Where's the baby? Where's Mommy? Where's Daddy?"

He hesistated until the last question, when he pointed not at the book but out his bedroom door to the hallway where my husband had just disappeared.

"Dada!" he said, pleased with himself.

"That's right, Daddy!"

I guess that counts, doesn't it?

* His "best friend," the other baby who shares his nanny, seems to understand le Petit perfectly well. I've observed them babbling together and it looks for all the world like a real conversation. If only I had the Baby Rosetta Stone.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What they really mean when they say your life will never be the same

First it was the sleep deprivation.

Now it is the ambient chaos.

I believe I spend half of my waking hours putting things back where they belong.

Yesterday I surprised le Petit walking into the bathroom with a potato in each hand. I later caught him walking out of the bathroom with a foot scrubber. We find toys under the pillows of our bed and pot lids under the coffee table.

He pulls books off the shelf until he finds the one he wants to read. He walks into the bedroom while we're folding laundry and pulls the folded stacks of clothes to the floor. At naptime, le Petit reaches around from his crib to open the top drawer of his changing table and empties the contents onto the rug.

I've renounced any Martha Stewart-inspired delusions of decor and order. I just sweep through the apartment continuously, shoving some things back onto shelves and dumping others in baskets and boxes and call it Good Enough For Now.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ici meme

I was tagged by Sophie at Inzaburbs for a meme last week. My very first meme! I was rather excited about this because just a year ago my blog was being read by perhaps a grand total of a half a dozen people, all of whom know me in real life. This felt like my first fifteen minutes of blog-fame! Or something.

Anyway, the deal is to choose the sixth picture out of your sixth album and blog about it. I'm defining this loosely because a) I'm not nearly organized enough to have six albums sorted and classified on my computer and b) I don't post any recognizable pictures of myself or my family on my blog.

So instead of following the meme to the letter, I started with the sixth day of pictures we took with our digital camera and counted sequentially from there, chosing the first picture where no person is pictured.

I found this:


It is a view of the château of La Roche-Guyon, an historic village in the far northwestern corner of Ile de France and the starting point of one of my favorite hikes in the region. The old castle above is perched on one of the chalk cliffs which line the Seine here as it twists and winds toward Normandy.

The picture was taken on the 5th of June 2004 on what must have been our first time hiking here. The trail takes you up the cliff to a spectacular view of the Seine Valley, then continues through the forest and fields behind. In May and early June there are orchids and songbirds everywhere.

I know enough French history to know that fortifications like this here are the result of centuries of border disputes with the Normands, not fairy tales. But the American in me can't help but look at this picture and think storybook castle nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

J'ai deux pays dans mon coeur

As I was combing through the toy stores at La Défense after work one evening searching in vain for the Magic Toy That Will Keep a Toddler Occupied for an Entire Plane Flight [tm]*, I happened upon a children's book with a title written for me.

"J'ai deux pays dans mon coeur."

I have two countries in my heart.

It was in fact written for young first-generation children of immigrants to France. I took it off the shelf and flipped through it briefly, wondering if it would contain anything that would describe me or le Petit.

It talked of special summer visits home to see the grandparents, of speaking different languages at home and outside, and of having two countries that feel like home. But the families were, logically enough, African, Arab, or Vietnamese, and the book also talked of discrimination and of feeling and looking different from others. Le Petit is lucky. These are not challenges he will face. I put the book back on the shelf, glad that it existed, but still looking for the book that will help me explain to le Petit what is in my heart.

As we flew back from Seattle, the distance that separates me from Back Home became more real to me than ever before. It may be that for the first time I had no choice but to stay awake for the entire flight. Le Petit slept curled up in my lap for 45 minutes while I tried to doze off myself, but the rest of the time my husband and I were busy keeping him happy, entertained and contained outside of our neighbors' personal space. I have to admit, however, that the flight itself was much better than I expected, and a non-stop Air France flight from Paris to Seattle is now for me the only way to go.

"I know that it must be hard for you, my living so far away," I confided to my dad on the way back from our trip together to Babies R Us. "Now that I'm a mom, I can begin to imagine."

He told me that as long as he knew I was happy, it was worth it. It is hard. My dad didn't have to tell me. I just had to admit it to myself.

I love my country of adoption. It has been five years now since I moved, and after the initial periods of elation, depression, comparison and integration, I've weighed where I am and I like it. There are practical reasons for this -- affordable child care, universal health coverage, flexibility for working moms -- and then there are the emotional ones, the links that I've forged with my husband's family, and the French savoir vivre I try so hard to imitate. I fell in love with a country and a culture at the same time that I fell in love with a person, and that casts a powerful spell.

But I tend to try and forget what I left behind. I pretend that I can't imagine a life in the US when the truth is that I can picture it all too clearly.

Back home in Seattle, we visited Discovery Park three times. It is one of my favorite places in the city, and typically Northwest. Nowhere in France is there anything vaguely resembling its fir-forested cliffs that descend abruptly to Puget Sound. One of my earliest memories is of playing with a kelp bulb on the beach, so it is as familiar to me a landscape as I can imagine.

The neighborhood of Magnolia that surrounds it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Seattle, too. As we drove down quiet streets of wooden bungalow-style houses, I started to picture my parallel life, the one that by all odds I should be living. In this life I live in a brightly-colored house with a front porch and a graying cedar shake roof. Le Petit has his own giant bedroom and a playroom in the attic. We spend our weekends hiking in the Cascades or gardening, and every morning I go for a run in Discovery park and watch the fog lift over the Sound. And the other grandparents, the ones who speak English, are the ones who look after le Petit from time to time and watch him grow a little more every month.

The irony of feeling depressed about such a happy choice doesn't escape me. I am blessed to get to choose where I live, and le Petit is blessed to have grandparents who love him in France and in the US. In the end, it comes down to the stupid truth that I've gotta choose. No matter where I live now the other half of my heart will ache, and there is no way to escape it.

* I have verified that such a toy does not in fact exist, but whoever invents it will become very, very rich. In the meantime, The Fishies Musical Mobile comes close. More about that secret weapon coming soon!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Back home

Yesterday morning we arrived home in Paris safe and sound. Today passed in a jetlagged haze, and even though the house is post-voyage disorganized mess, I am ready to crawl off to bed. As soon as I do the dishes and fold the pile of laundry that is burying our bed, that is.

I have much to write in the next few days, about our trip, le Petit's language learning, and even my very first meme. So stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Le Petit joins the table

Yesterday evening my father and stepmother hosted a dinner for us and two of their friends. Pacific northwest dry-smoked salmon, lobster risotto, rack of lamb, mozzarella, basil and the last of this year's garden tomatoes, some excellent Washington wine: it was a true feast. Le Petit raced around the house during the appetizers, stopping at my feet every once in a while to be picked up and join the grown-ups' conversation.

We gave him a taste of the smoked salmon and he was hooked. He reached for the tray with an insistent "aaaahhhh!" as I distractedly held him back.

"I don't know what you want!" I told him and everyone laughed.

"I think it is pretty clear what he wants," my husband corrected, so I gave in and gave le Petit another bite which he gobbled up.

"Must be his northwest genes expressing themselves," commented one of the guests. I had to admit, as annoyed as I was that he kept me from eating any salmon myself, I was pretty proud of him.

Le Petit sat attentively and patiently in his high chair through the first part of dinner, which much impressed my father and stepmother. Unusual for a 15-month-old was their take, and my husband was filled with fatherly pride.

"There's no bigger compliment for a French child," he told me later, "Than being told they know how to stay patiently seated at the table."

Le Petit has a refined palate and excellent table manners. As with so much else, I am wary of giving myself any credit.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Safety net

A young sales clerk came up to me as I dug through a neatly-stacked pile of men's dress shirts at a downtown Seattle department store.

"I'm sorry," I said in embarrassment, "I don't mean to mess up your entire display."

"Don't worry," he said with a genuine smile, then added confidentially, "It isn't so bad to have a little job security."

I've been doing quite a bit of shopping since I've been back home. I've been looking forward to it for months. I brought a half-empty suitcase and jokingly called it my Economic Stimulus Package. Clothes are far cheaper in the US than in France and I have my favorite brands here, so I permit myself a once-a-year-or-less splurge. But since we've been on vacation the world economy has continued to slide to the brink, and I can't help but feel as if I'm feasting as the Titanic goes down.

A French colleague recently asked me what the crisis felt like to Americans and if it was as bad as had been reported in the French press. This was just after Lehman Brothers failed but before the 700 billion dollar bail-out plan brought headlines of "Wall Street versus Main Street" to the front page of every newspaper. I shrugged and said that I thought that it wasn't yet affecting the average American so much, but that it made me nervous.

Yet right now, here in Seattle, it feels different, more serious. I have no numbers, and not even that much anecdotal evidence, but I can feel the anxiety. It is in the questions friends ask when they see us, the deferring of plans, the uncertainty when folks try and extrapolate their lives into next year or the year after.

We won't be spared the coming recession in Europe. The same gloom and doom is talked about over coffee between colleagues in Paris and in New York. But in France, I don't have to worry about losing my job from one day to the next, or surviving without health coverage, or paying for my son's education.

I know just how lucky I am to have this safety net.

When I gathered up my finds and left the fitting room at Banana Republic, a cheerful, twenty-something employee asked me if I wanted to sign up for the store credit card. I declined and explained that I lived in France and that while every time I visited home I stocked up on clothes, I didn't shop there that often.

"You live in France, huh? It must be nice to live there... what with everything wrong with our country right now."

"Yes," I answered after a pause, "Yes, yes it is."

I thanked her and left, feeling grateful and sad and not daring to say anything else.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The best of both worlds

What I miss about the States:

1) Canned chicken broth. Do French home chefs really content themselves with freeze-dried cubes, or do they have way more time on their hands to boil down chicken parts than I do?

2) The in-sink garbage disposal. Or mange-merde, as much husband prefers to call it.

3) National Public Radio. Even if my visit home just happens to fall during a pledge drive.

4) Neighborhood restaurants that serve brunch. Eggs Benedict, hash browned potatoes, and yes, I would like a warm up on my coffee, thank you.

5) Banana Republic. I am a victim of my fashion demographic, perhaps, but at least in Paris I'm the only thirty-something wearing the merino top of the season.

6) Ice cream. For some reason, the French cannot produce decent supermarket ice cream. Just why this is is a mystery, since there is an entire aisle of delicious yogurt with every flavor under the sun.

7) Brightly-colored wooden houses. They would never look right in a neighborhood of Versailles and most French I've met are skeptical of their solidity, but you just can't build a front porch with stuccoed cinder blocks.

8) Good microbrewed beer. If it exists in Paris, do let me know.

9) Room to grow. I love my six-hundred square-foot apartment and it is big by Parisian standards, but oh! to have another bedroom. And a bigger kitchen. And an office. And...

10) American comfort food. If exceptional resourcefulness is required to scrounge up corn on the cob, bake a pumpkin pie, or put together a truly tasty burger, it just isn't the same.

What I would miss most if I ever left France:

1) Cheap, wholesome bread. One Euro, four ingredients, and nothing I can't pronounce on the label.

2) Fancy washing machines. Where's the precision in hot/warm, warm/cold, and cold/cold?

3) A separate room for the toilet. Not only is it more attractive, it helps limit household traffic jams.

4) Practical public transportation. Seattle specializes in useless mass transit: the monorail, the bus tunnel, and a tramway to nowhere. They're trying harder than most American cities, at least.

5) Shutters that aren't just decorative. Sometimes, cocooned away in his pitch-dark bedroom, le Petit sleeps until eight-thirty or nine. Try getting that with Levalors.

6) Appetizing jarred baby food. Le Petit is just not a Gerber Baby, and he would miss his Bledichef couscous dinners terribly.

7) Market Day. The Pike Place Market is fun for tourists, but how many folks here are lucky enough to have a street market within walking distance of their home? Which brings me to:

8) Walking everywhere. I don't drive in France and most of the time I don't miss it. Everything I need is a walk or a Metro ride away.

9) Really fast trains. I don't take the TGV often, but it is darn cool to know that I can cross the country in mere hours.

10) Having Europe at my doorstep. Shall we go to Germany or Spain this year? Or maybe Italy? And thanks to those really fast trains, we can spend a weekend in Amsterdam on in London on a whim.

Now, dear readers, what would you most miss if you left home?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Baby jet lag

Poor le Petit doesn't know what time it is.

Right now it is 4 o'clock in the afternoon in Paris and 7 a.m. in Seattle. Le Petit woke up twice during the night, once at half-past midnight and once again at four-thirty. Each time the only way I could calm him down was by nursing him and letting him doze in my arms, and the minute I put him down he screamed just like when he was a newborn.

The first time he woke up we got him back to sleep by two-thirty. The second time he dozed until five-thirty, but would not fall into a deep enough sleep to be put back in his crib. We eventually gave up the fight, and I was up and clutching my coffee by six.

All things considered, I think he's doing pretty well. He only woke up once the first night. He has been napping for two to three hours in the afternoon. Yesterday we were optimistic that he'd be over the jet lag quickly. But we can see that he isn't himself. When he wakes up in the afternoon, he stumbles around as if the fatigue has robbed him of all of his recently acquired coordination. He won't eat much at dinner, and instead nibbles at his bread and sleepily rubs baby food into his eyes.

I was selfishly afraid of what his jet lag would do to my sleep. It turns out that I am just fine: I'm in the coffee mecca of the United States, after all, so early mornings are bearable, and I have nothing better to do in the evenings than turn in early. But when le Petit wakes up screaming in the middle of the night like he hasn't for months I feel terrible.

I'm hoping he'll be on Seattle time soon and that the transition back to Paris time in two weeks won't be as tough. In the meantime, we're trying to get him outside as much as we can in the mornings when he's at his best, and let sunshine and some fresh Northwest fall air do its good work.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Geographic vertigo

I'm sitting at the window of my stepmother's 23rd floor apartment in downtown Seattle with a very American view at my feet. There are skyscrapers, the hum of Interstate 5, and cranes rising above half-finished concrete buildings. It feels like home and always will, but the familiarity is that of a comfy, well-worn sweater found lost in the back of the closet that when you put it on doesn't quite fit like it used to.

I find myself staring at the small, detailed license plates on cars or noticing the toilet is in the same room as the shower. Some sentences come more naturally to me in French than in English, and I am having a terrible time typing on an American keyboard. Small reminders that I am a little less at home here each time I return.

Or maybe it's the jet lag catching up with me already.

The flight with a toddler was as long and as painful as I'd been warned, but we had quite a bit of luck, too: our immediate neighbor was a very kind and understanding woman who assured us that she appreciated the distraction we provided, since she hated to fly. The row in front of us was occupied by a family with a two-year-old, so they understood when I wasn't always able to keep le Petit from kicking the back of the seat. And no one made any comments when we brought out the musical toys in desperation.

Two hours into the ten-hour flight, when the main course of my lunch ended up on my lap, I started to loudly wonder just what had possessed us to sign up for such a mad pilgrimage. But when le Petit finally fell asleep in the Ergo after I paced and danced around the aisle, and I eased back into my seat to enjoy his warm, sleeping weight on my chest, I started to come around. The hours counted down oh-so-slowly, but at the end of the flight, my anxiety had mostly lifted.

As we circled in for a landing, I chatted with the woman across the aisle as my husband entertained le Petit. All of sudden, le Petit burst into laughter and none of us were entirely sure why. It probably was a nearby passenger who started making funny faces, or perhaps just le Petit sensing our suddenly jovial mood. It certainly couldn't have been his imminent landing on terra firma in his mother's country of birth. But it made me so happy that his first moments back home were of unrestrained joy.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paris-Versailles

Tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock Paris time I'll be shivering at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and waiting my turn to cross the starting line of the 31st annual Paris-Versailles race.

Newly installed in Paris back in September 2003, I ran the 16 kilometer race for the first time. I loved the race, but don't know what disappointed me more: discovering the finish line arrived well short of the château, or admitting that I couldn't possibly be following the route taken by the angry revolutionaries that stormed the palace at the end of the Ancien Regime. ("Try running it with a pitchfork!" my father suggested.)

My disappointment subsided once my husband treated me to a lunch at a sidewalk café after the race. Duck confit, red wine and potatoes sautéed as only the French know how: what could be a better post-race recovery meal?

My husband I ran the race together in 2005, and despite what I considered his relative lack of training, he powered up the famous Côte des Gardes hill with ease as I scrambled to keep up. We have a framed picture of the two of us crossing the finish line hand in hand.

I've recently gotten back into a regular running routine after le Petit's birth. I run in the Forêt de Saint-Germain with a colleague twice a week during my lunch break, and run once alone near home over the weekend. Now that I'm a mother, I find my priorities have shifted; time is scarce, and I'm no longer motivated by vanity or some misplaced sense of female macho. I run because it feels good -- or I hold onto the hope that it will eventually feel good if I keep at it.

I'm happy to report that recently it has been feeling good, at least most of the time. I'm looking forward to the race tomorrow, even though I'm not likely to break any personal records. I'll be taking it slow, enjoying what promises to be a gorgeously sunny fall day and reclaiming a piece of an old pre-Petit me that I've been missing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Le Petit's library

"No! We don't throw books! We pick out one book, we read it, and when we're done, we put it back and choose another!" I grabbed le Petit's hands and assembled the patience to explain for the tenth time today the principles of good library management. Le Petit, ignoring me, wriggled free from my grasp and continued tossing his entire collection of picture books onto the floor.

My strategy of shoving the books back onto the shelf as soon as they hit the ground was clearly failing. He was too fast and I was too weary of this particular battle. So once again I found myself in the Choose Your Own Adventure that is parenting.

"You are faced with a recalcitrant toddler and a growing heap of picture books. You choose to:

1) Pick him up while he still has a book in hand, carry him to the couch and plop him on your lap, saying "Oh, that's a wonderful book to read with Mommy!" with all the enthusiasm you can muster and wait for him to squirm away after two pages;

2) Try to barricade the bookshelf with furniture, then watch as the barricade is meticulously disassembled. Rescue and console a crying toddler who has wedged himself between the couch and the coffee table;

3) Let him gleefully empty the shelf as you leaf through a magazine nearby, disregarding the far-flung repercussions of a lax and inconsistent discipline strategy."

Over the course of the morning I tried all three.

We easily own over a thousand books. Eight-hundred left Boston with us and we have acquired many more since, with barely a care for what might be a reasonable library for a 600 square foot Parisian apartment. Yet le Petit, whose growing love of books is our source of pride, doesn't always treat this great repository of knowledge and culture with the respect it deserves. We've blocked access to our most precious volumes, but we simply can't keep him away from all the shelves all the time. He has his own shelf with a growing collection of his very own books, and I'm torn. Do I let him have it at it, whether here's in the mood to studiously flip pages or more to throw and stomp? If we ration his reading material, are we losing the Golden Teaching Opportunity to foster a love of books?

He may love to throw, but he also loves to read. And there's almost nothing I love more than gathering him into my lap when he toddles up to me with a book. I've been reading to him since he was tiny. At first, I stuck to the story and turned the pages in order. When he was two months old, he was a passive audience and I wasn't entirely sure that I even held the book correctly in his limited field of vision. Now reading is an interactive affair. Le Petit holds the book and turns the pages himself, thank you very much, and he has favorite pages in many books that flips through deliberately to find.

One book, 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle, has a particularly captivating page with an embedded button under a drawing of a rubber duck that squeaks when pressed. Le Petit is still not strong enough to make it work himself, but has learned to grab my index finger and place it on the button so that I can do it for him. He eventually tried to use my finger to press other duck pictures on other pages, and I dutifully voiced a "squeak" or "quack" as needed.

Now the game has been expanded to include other books. He has a bedtime book with a picture of a baby in pajamas. As soon as I turn to the page he grabs for my finger, then presses it to the paper repeatedly to hear me say "pajamas!" over and over again.

As he does it he has his inimitable half smile and a look of concentration that makes me melt every time.

Today we read a book about babies. "Baby!" I said as he pressed my finger to the first page. On the second was a large picture of a smiling baby's face. We found baby's eyes, and mouth, and then he planted my finger right in the middle in the page.

"Nose! Baby's nose!" I said. Le Petit picked my finger back up off the page and touched his own nose.

I could barely contain my excitement and surprise. I called my husband to come look, and I coaxed le Petit to repeat the demonstration of his erudition.

"Did you see that? He knows what 'nose' means!" I gushed. I've known for some time that le Petit understands the general sense of what we say to him, but this was my first proof that he understands a word as an abstract concept and can make the leap from page to reality.

My husband was impressed, and as he pointed out almost as a compliment, the first word we are certain he understands is in English.

He truly is bilingual.

That, to this mom, is worth picking up many a heap of books on the floor.

Wednesday mom

Lumps of butternut squash ground into the rug. Brown rice confetti on the floor. Half of a day-old baguette under the high chair, well-nibbled on both ends. Toys everywhere but the playpen, torn magazines strewn about in a corner, lunch dishes on the table, pots and pans in the sink. After putting le Petit down for a nap, I surveyed the debris of the morning before gathering the courage to start picking it all up. Again.

"As much as I'm glad I only work four days a week," I sighed to myself as I started attacking the dishes, "I'm glad I work four days a week."

I love Wednesday. We make a good team, le Petit and I, and from our homemade lunch à deux to our run, run, run, RUN! outings in the park, there are very many reasons my day off is special. But seven days a week, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year? I don't know if I have it in me.

I applaud you, stay-at-home moms. And if you have any hard-won secrets, please share them with me. In the meantime, my blogging break is over, and it's time to try to check another item off the naptime to-do list before it's too late.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Vendange

At quarter-past five this evening I rounded up a couple of my colleagues and ostentatiously left the office early. Together we climbed up the sidewalks and flights of stone steps that lead from our office building to the garden of the Château de Saint-Germain. Leaving the leafy suburb of Le Pecq behind, we slid back three centuries to the time of Louis XIV. My boss, still leaning over his computer, didn't notice or care we were gone.

There isn't much left of the garden built by Le Nôtre, the master gardener and genius of Versailles, but the main terrace he created still stretches out from the former site of the Château Neuf before knotting itself neatly into a small circle of trees and disappearing into the forest two and a half kilometers away. The gardens no longer stairstep down to the river, and modern apartment buildings, a supermarket and our office building clutter the view from above. Yet something of the majesty remains in the unique view of Paris, draped with a green mantle of trees between the meanders of the Seine.

Today was the fête du vendange, the grape harvest festival. A small parcel of grapevines is tucked between the terrace wall and the town below, and every year the municipalities of le Pecq and Saint-Germain-en-Laye harvest the grapes to make wine. The practice is a nod to a local winemaking tradition that disappeared, as in many French regions, in the early 20th century, a victim of the Phyloxera epidemic.

We leaned against the iron balustrade and watched local schoolchildren gather grapes below us. They were dressed in blue aprons and brandished wicker baskets and pruning shears. Their progress was painfully slow, and as many grapes were eaten as were contributed to the cuvée 2008. We shivered in the cool September evening air. After a half an hour of waiting, one of my colleagues abandoned us and went home.

Eventually things started to get animated. A crowd of retirees, parents, children and local politicians started to amass around a grouping of white tents. We pushed our way over to a tent and grabbed handfuls of grapes from a basket. As we munched, the mayors took turns giving speeches. We tried to ignore our growling stomachs and the tables laden with hors d'oeuvres.

A few minutes later, I lifted a plastic goblet to my lips and tasted not the grape juice I expected but a respectable, if unremarkable, Pinot Noir. In the two years since I'd last attended, they'd made a lot of progress.

We haunted the tents until we'd surreptiously snagged enough mini sandwiches to stifle our hunger, then drifted away to enjoy the view. This is what I love most about France, I thought. A sunny terrace and an ounce of history is an excuse to plant vines. The renaissance of a vineyard is an excuse to make wine. And wine is an excuse to hold a party in Louis XIV's garden on a sunny September day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Transatlantique

In less than three weeks le Petit will set foot in the United States for the first time. As much as I'm looking forward to introducing him to his motherland, I'm dreading the trip over. Eleven hours in a plane, nine hours of jetlag, a fourteen month old baby. . . I'm expecting the worst. But it is a direct flight, mercifully, so when we arrive we'll have nothing more complicated to do than take le Petit and his two passports through immigration, claim our bags, and collapse into my mother's station wagon.

I can't wait to show le Petit my other home, to see him run up to a douglas fir tree and explore the crevassed bark with his fingers. I'll let him run along the beach on Puget Sound and pick up pebbles. We'll lift up barnacle-covered rocks together and watch the little crabs scuttle for cover. I'll take him to the parks I remember from when I was small. He'll stay in the last house I grew up in, and he'll crawl up the same carpeted stairs I ran down so often as a teenager. He'll play in the dirt in the garden where once, a very long time ago, I planted rose bushes.

He's too little for it to mean much to him, I know. But I still imagine that it will trace in some lines on his internal map of the world. This is where Mommy grew up: curious forests of tall evergreen trees, colored houses made entirely of wood, giant cars and buildings, beaches littered with twisted tree trunks, and rivers where salmon still find their way back from the sea.

But right now I'm fearing I'll relate a little too well to those poor salmon fighting their way upstream for the sake of their offspring when I arrive at Sea-tac International Airport.

Does anyone have any advice about traveling with small children, or getting them adjusted to jet lag? Yes, we were too cheap -- ur, frugal -- to buy him his own seat on the plane, we won't be traveling with our own car seat, and we weren't about to splurge for business class. So, given those parameters, what can we do to make the trip bearable and avoid any major diplomatic incidents? And what should we under no circumstances forget to pack in our carry-on luggage?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Little

"You're my little guy," I often say to le Petit. "You're not as little a little guy as you used to be. Now you're big. Or bigger. But even when you're big and taller than Mommy you'll still be my little guy."

He says nothing but smiles at the attention, and I wonder just when the day will come that he shudders at hearing my favorite of his nicknames.

"You're my little guy," I told him today, "But I love you this big!" and I spread my arms as wide apart as I can.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Big

When I was a little girl, my grandparents brought me back a baby doll from their trip to Italy. Since he was a little Italian baby, they baptized him Roberto. He was lifelike and bald and smelled faintly of talcum powder, and was just the right size to fit in any real baby clothes I could scrounge up. For weeks was a devoted mommy and dragged Roberto with me wherever I went.

My grandmother gave me my father's old baby book for Roberto. She had only filled in a few of the details of my father's babyhood, since with my grandfather stationed away during World War II she undoubtedly hadn't had much time for such things. I happily started filling in the details of Roberto's life alongside them in my childish hand.

When I got to "first teeth" and "first steps" my heart sank. Peering as best I could into Roberto's plastic mouth, I verified that he had no teeth. There was no way his bowlegged baby legs could walk, either. He would never grow hair, would never go off to school, and I could never complete his baby book. No matter how much I loved him and cared for him and fed him imaginary spoonfuls of baby food, he would never be big.

In tears, I explained my heartbreak to my mother. She shrugged at my chagrin. That's the problem with baby dolls, she explained lamely.

Yesterday I had a lump in my throat as I sorted though le Petit's clothes for those he's outgrown. We already have three full boxes of his old clothing in the basement, carefully packed away for a future brother or sister. Filling them up always risks making me cry.

It is all too much, too fast.

The bookshelf behind the dining room table is plastered with pictures from the first year of le Petit's life. Often, after le Petit is asleep and my husband and I finally sit down to eat dinner together, I look them over in amazement.

"Can you ever believe he was that tiny?" I ask my husband yet again, "Look at the one where he's sitting in your lap! Or the one where he's nursing, only a few days old. Those tiny fists curled up against my chest!"

Now, not-so-tiny le Petit is agile enough to climb up the couch. He has a mouthful of teeth, including all four canines and a molar. He doesn't just walk now, but runs. "You're so big!" I tell him when I hoist him up off the floor and notice his sudden heft, or put him in his car seat and see his head has inched closer to the top.

When I'm up at four a.m. or I'm cleaning under the high chair for the third time in a day, I don't see it. But when I open the baby book that I'm struggling to keep up to date, it overwhelms me.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

That famous Parisian politesse

As my RER commuter train pulled into the station on Thursday morning, I caught a glimpse of a number 21 bus still parked on a nearby street.

I was quite late, and the morning had already seemed far too long. My husband had left at five a.m. for a business trip to Switzerland so getting the grumpy and stuffy-nosed le Petit ready and out the door was all my responsibility. After wrestling him into clean diapers and clothes and unsuccessfully trying to feed him his blueberry yogurt for breakfast (I gave up and he ate chunks of swiss cheese and brioche instead), I left him in tears with the nanny (where he has suddenly decided he no longer wants to be) and headed for work, a half an hour behind schedule.

After nine o'clock, buses are rare and I often end up trudging the fifteen minutes from the train station to my office on foot. So I was thankful to have something finally go right that morning as I ran up the stairs to the bus stop and hopped on board.

"Bonjour!" I said to the driver with as much cheerfulness as I could manage. "What time are you leaving?" Since the train station is the first and last stop on the line, the driver could be on break and the bus wasn't necessarily leaving immediately, so I thought it best to check.

"You don't know what time I'm leaving? You haven't looked at the schedule?" he growled. It was so unexpected that I was unsure that I'd understood and made him repeat himself.

For a second, I had no idea what to say. I've had too many buses pull away right under my nose to have risked taking the extra moment to glance at the scheduled taped to the bus shelter. And even if I had spare neurons for memorizing such things, the schedule changes quarterly.

"Well, um, I'm running late today, so no, I don't know what the schedule is."

"Well, then," he said as if explaining the consequences to a recalcitrant schoolchild, "You are going to be even later, then, because I don't leave until 10:03."

"10:03?" I murmured and glanced at my watch. It was 9:45.

"Yes, madame." As I quickly did an about face and stepped out of the bus he added, sneering, as if someone as clueless as I couldn't possible know the day of the week, "And it's Thursday today!"

Americans sometimes ask me why Parisians are so rude to foreigners. They asked for help at a department store, or made a small request in a restaurant, or simply tried to get some information from a bus driver and they got brushed off or insulted. I always answer that Parisians are rude to everyone, even and especially other Parisians. A certain aggressiveness is part and parcel of daily interaction. That veneer of niceness so familiar back home, that "how can I help you today?" and the smiles, genuine or not, that we distribute right and left, is simply absent.

That doesn't mean that Parisians can't be helpful or kind, or go out of their way to assist you. But it isn't automatic. It is more common to let everyone suffer your bad mood, to loudly remark upon those who have affronted you, to cut in line, to shove for a place in the Métro, and to pretend not to notice when your dog is busy decorating the sidewalk.

I think it is a symptom of urban living and not unique to the French, who as I've mentioned before, take politeness seriously. And things are different outside of Paris. Yet there is a very French tendency to express oneself with no fear of what others may think especially if it means getting the last word, and that makes it worse.

I've always been bad at getting the last word. Even in English I craft the perfect comeback ten minutes too late, so in French I don't stand a chance. So for now, I grumble and stew as I walk to work and come up with the perfect blog entry instead.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In guise of a post

I'm two weeks into la rentrée and without much to say here. Or too much to say, and not enough time. Le Petit has a slight cold and his stuffy nose is keeping him from sleeping or nursing well, much to our collective frustration. But today a gray Wednesday morning metamorphosed into a golden September afternoon, just as I love them. Le Petit and I went to the park, where he picked up sticks and pebbles and chased dogs and joggers and I did my best to keep up with him.

Was this really only a year ago?

My husband has a business meeting in Switzerland which will have him leaving for the airport at five a.m., so the Baby Road Show is all mine tomorrow morning. The dinner dishes are still in the sink and there's no guarantee that my poor, stuffy-nosed baby will sleep through the night, so I'll leave you with a couple of "you know you're a mom when" moments:

You involuntarily hum "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" for most of the morning.

You dig your hands into your pockets at work and discover a wadded up pair of baby socks.

Your evenings are a blur of day care pick ups, dinner preparation, and cleaning up underneath a high chair, but when you see a mother in front of your office building with her toddler's head leaning sleepily against her shoulder you absolutely cannot wait to get home.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

For all I know

To the person who landed on my blog by asking the all-knowing Google "Can a baby be too stubborn to nap?":

Signs point to yes.

I am amused by, and can certainly commiserate with, the handful of people who stumble on this post looking for strategies to combat baby nap refusal. They are probably as stunned and discouraged as I was to find out that no, they don't all spend the first months of life dozing in a baby car seat. A year of parenthood has given me new appreciation for human diversity and individuality, and I know now that no two babies are alike and there are those that refuse to sleep no matter what you do. So put down the sleep expert book and give yourself a break.

You could try this. Or if you are looking for some real sleep advice, look here. It may encourage you to know that le Petit is now an excellent napper: we put him in his crib, and after a brief protest, he plays happily by himself until he falls asleep. (It may dishearten you to know that it took us thirteen months to get to this point, but anyway.)

To the person who found my site by asking Google for "dogs eating pine cones": I'm sorry, but I can't help you there.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Le Petit expresses himself

One thing has been clear from birth: le Petit has plenty to say.

At first, when he wasn't exactly where he wanted to be, which was asleep at mom's breast twenty-four seven, he screamed. Loudly enough to get remarks from the veteran children's nurse at the maternity ward. Le Petit was disturbing the other babies and my weary husband, who was just trying to change a diaper, was scolded.

I'm very happy to report that gale-force howling is now a rare occurance. Le Petit is a happy guy, and aside from fussing a bit when we put him to bed or lodging a complaint when we put him in his playpen, he hardly ever cries.

That doesn't mean things have quieted down chez Petit. The register has simply changed, and as I've mentioned before, we've left behind sobbing for the high-pitched shriek. I've been assured this phase is brief, so I'm holding onto my eardrums and waiting for true language skills to emerge. Meanwhile, I listen to mothers who brag that their babies mastered "Mama," "Papa" and "caca" at ten months old with envy and impatience.

I've heard that bilingual children often take longer to talk and it makes sense. He's been immersed since birth in two languages, Mommy's and Daddy's (and Daddy's spoken by Mommy with an odd accent, and vice versa), so it is no surprise to me that it takes some time to sift though and classify. I'm frankly amazed that the human brain is capable of it at all.

Le Petit has responded to his tiny tower of Babel by vocalizing early, often, and loudly. He loves to interrupt our conversations with a forcefully declared "Da da da da da!" It works. We stop talking and parrot his "sentence" back to him with a "that's right!" or "I agree entirely!" at the end. Now our house is tri-lingual.

The vocalizations are slowly settling into patterns, if not yet what I would qualify as words. I've been pushing "dada" as a first word, for it would flatter both my husband (Daddy!) and myself (a first word from his mother tongue!). He's got the "da" down, and sometimes my husband seems to be "da da," but other times "da da" ambiguously refers to an animal, or is murmured softly in a state of deep concentration.

While we were on vacation, we stayed at a farm in the Gers with chickens that roamed freely around the garden. Le Petit loved to chase them, and when the roosters sang, we translated their song into an English "cock-a-doodle-doo!" or a French "cocorico!" By the end of the trip, le Petit started to chirp "cococo" when he heard a rooster. (I took this as further proof of his brilliance. A future actor? Writer? Member of the Académie Française?)

Of course, when he has something urgent to communicate, like an objection to the closing of the kitchen door or the desire to grab something just beyond his reach, he resorts to shrieking. He has shrieks of boredom, shrieks of frustration, shrieks of excitement, and shrieks of let's see how my voice echoes in the apartment corridor.

In France, where children are still often required to be seen and not heard, these shrieks can be a bit embarassing. I don't know what to do other than gently "shhhhh" and remind le Petit in a calm voice that we are indoors, or get down to his eye level and try to ask him what he wants. Often I just ignore the shrieks and the stares and continue with my business, playing the Bad Mom and Oblivious Foreigner.

What else is there to do? He's thirteen months old and he's just discovered he has a lot to explain to the world at large, so he's starting now. At the top of his lungs. In the supermarket. After pulling both his socks off for the tenth time in the last half an hour.

Some day, he will be able to clearly and coherently explain to me just what I've done to wrong or embarass him. In the meantime, I stand in the produce aisle with a barefoot baby who is shrieking the angst of being confined to a stroller.

"Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" He takes a breath and arches his back. "Aie aie aie!"

"Ah, I understand, your feet must be cold!" I grab a foot and wrestle on a sock soaked with baby drool.

At least for now the translations are up to me.