Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tous des cons

In honor of President's Sarkozy's telling off of a man who refused to shake his hand at the annual Paris agricultural fair, I will introduce a key piece of everyday French vocabulary: the all-purpose insult, con.

A con (pronounced "cone," but while swallowing the "n") is a cross between an idiot and a jerk. Cons, alas, come in all shapes and sizes: there is the young, cocky jeune con, the old and stubborn vieux con, the feminine conne, and the most lamentable of creatures, the despicable sale con. If someone earns your pity and your contempt in equal measure, they are a pauvre con or a poor idiot, indeed.

Thus Sarkozy classified a man in the crowd who indignantly refused to return the presidential handshake and bonjour. Their brief exchange, which concluded with Sarkozy's "Casse-toi, pauvre con," ("Buzz off, poor idiot") before turning to continue to smile and wish bonjour to onlookers through a clench-toothed smile, was captured on film by Le Parisien daily newspaper and quickly distributed on the web in yet another example of how the Internet is raising the level of public discourse.

Con is the perfect Parisian insult, as it encompasses every shade of urban disdain. The young, indifferent waiter who ignores you is a jeune con, the woman who blithely cuts in front of you at the boulangerie is a vieille conne, the cab that almost runs you down at the crosswalk is a con de taxi, and the sidewalks are minefields thanks to our best friends, the cons de chiens. In fact, many a Parisian has exclaimed at the end of the day that the city is unlivable because of all of the cons. Tous des cons, les parisiens: idiots, Parisians, every last one.

Elsewhere in France, however, con is less insult than punctuation. In the southwest of France, around Toulouse, the birthplace of my husband, con is added to the end of sentences as a verbal exclamation point. No aggression is intended, the con is just decoration, much like the "like" that slips into conversational American English.

In the end, my favorite usage of con is the expression "être comme un con," to be embarrassed, inept, to discover yourself stuck just like an idiot. And so must Sarkozy have felt as he realized the camera was rolling during his outburst over the weekend. "Ah oui," you could almost see in his thin, forced smile, "I am comme un con once again."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Run, Baby, Run

So Moxie has launched a sixty-day challenge to do three things that improve our health. The obvious number one for me is to start running again.

I used to love running, a borderline addict, really. When I had to give it up when I was three months pregnant, I was grumpy and upset about it. But then my husband started dragging me out on hikes on the weekends, and as I discovered the hidden corners of the Parisian region's wilderness I discovered that going less than 10 km/hour has its advantages.

After I gave birth, I couldn't wait to lace back up my running shoes, but doctor's advice and pelvic floor education sessions set me back a few months. When I did tentatively run a couple of times in the fall, I was overjoyed to be back, but then it felt... well... bad, mostly. Even though I now have my doctor's blessing, I've been in no hurry to try again. After all, breastfeeding has given me the means to burn 800 calories a day while sitting on the couch. I've lost the baby weight, and my motivation.

But Paris' early spring is already warming the ground, flowers are blooming, the air is fresh and cool, and I'm looking for a way to maintain my morale and waistline as le Petit starts eating more solids, I go back to work, and we cut down on breastfeeding sessions.

My husband would like to lose some weight, so we're doing this together. We'll start slowly, just a couple of outings a week, and we'll keep our hike on the weekends.

My other two goals are to eat fresh fruit at breakfast and lunch and (for me, the most challenging) to get to bed by 11 every night.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On the move

Le Petit is all about movement. Never mind the books that explain that baby will sit first, then crawl. Le Petit will have nothing of it. Now that he's got crawling down he will sometimes stop and pull himself up to a half-sitting position, sprawled out on his side, leaning on one arm and holding a toy like a bunch of grapes at a roman feast, but that's the most effort he'll put into it.

Stasis is out. Moving forward is his obsession. He gives us approximately thirty seconds to change his diaper before flipping over and trying to crawl businesslike off the changing table as if to say, Well, it looks like we're done here, I'll just be on my way. Once he's made up his mind to go, it takes all of our efforts at distraction, not to mention a good ounce of physical strength, to keep him in place.

I've discovered that singing "Louie Louie" in a loud, nasally voice will startle him into staying put for a few critical seconds.

Along with the mania for movement, he's developed a memory. We can no longer just move things away and trust him to magically forget their existence. He'll crawl right back to the place where he just saw that alluring pair of shoes and look at me, confused. Drat, it was here just a moment ago!

He's not satisfied staying put, even in my arms. His eye catches something fascinating across the room, like a plastic bottle of water or a hanging apron, and he twists and reaches for it with short, indignant cries. Driver? Pull over there, now, please. Driver! I said over there!

Thus ends our previously tranquil existence. And the more he's pushing forward, oh how I want nothing more than to just sit still awhile myself.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Mommy Comedy Show

Here's why it's all worth it.

I just walked into le Petit's room and sneezed. He looked up at me from his crib where he'd been playing and babbling to himself, and burst into laughter like it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen or heard in his short life.

I started laughing, he laughed harder, grinning at me and showing off his dimples and all six of his teeth. I sunk down to my knees on the floor next to him, grinning back at him through the bars of his crib. It lasted a beautiful and hilarious minute.

I felt like a star.

When I grow up

Yesterday I called my boss to let him know I was planning to go back to work in mid-April. He was happy to hear from me, and unphased or at least unsurprised that I would be going back only four days a week. I don't know what I was expecting. A fight to get me to go back full-time? A "sorry, but we've learned very well how to get along without you"? Whatever I had imagined, the dread I felt evaporated and was replaced by excitement.

Yes, excitement. Soon, I will spend an entire day without spit-up stains on my clothing. I will not change a diaper or console a crying child for eight hours straight. I will write computer code, I will untangle needlessly complicated database schemas, I will interpret incomprehensible error messages.

In short, I will feel like a competent adult, instead of some bumbling fool who is faking her way through motherhood.

(Full disclaimer: as I write this, le Petit is chewing on a piece of stale baguette in his high chair in front of me. I am keeping one eye on him as I type, but I still feel guilty. Especially since he's thrown the piece of bread on the floor three times, and what do I do? Brush it off and give it back to him.)

There are days when I feel I get it, I really do, like this whole mommy thing is a cinch. Then there are days when I feel like I'm flunking. Le Petit has no schedule; he still wakes up when he wants to, naps when--err, if-- he wants to, nurses when he wants to. I'm introducing solids, and as much as I think I should at least get him on some sort of schedule for that, his meals still sort of happen when they happen. Am I a failure? Is he going to grow up to be some sort of starry-eyed drifter who can't hold down a job because I didn't give him three squares at the age of seven months? That is, if he doesn't choke on a giant breadcrumb first.

(The piece of baguette fell on the floor again and I dutifully replaced it with a proper teething ring. Le Petit looks skeptical of the substitution.)

He's wearing clothes that don't match, and a sweater stained with sweet potato, applesauce and sticky breadcrumbs. His socks are falling off. Dirty dishes have taken over the house, or at least the two rooms that haven't succumbed to dirty laundry. I need a nanny. And a housekeeper. And a majordomo. A whole team of people silently working to keep it all from falling apart at the seams.

And yet, I honestly think I'm still having fun.

Boom. The teething ring hits the floor. Gotta go.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Wrote this one up yesterday morning. The rest of the day got better, to the point where I ended the day with my heart overwhelmed with joy. And today our internet connection is back up. Go figure.

Fussy Baby + too little sleep + rainy day + broken internet access = one grumpy and tired mama.

I know that calling my ISP to complain about yet another outage is useless. If I live in this country until I die, I will never get used to customer service that is expensive, ineffective, and utterly unapologetic about their shortcomings.

I keep hoping with the Americanization of the world, France will move to a customer service model similar to the customer-centered US. The only evolution is that I occasional run into someone who is clueless yet earnest, just like back home, instead of just apathetic and hostile. But it still costs 0.33 euros/minute for nothing.

Le Petit woke up at six-thirty this morning too tired to be happy, and too awake to go back to sleep. He has barely let me put him down for five minutes since. I don’t know what to do with a baby that wants to be in my arms constantly today. The weather stinks, and I’ve explored every inch of this town on foot. So I’m complaining in a Word document and letting le Petit gum a piece of stale baguette.

Yesterday was great and the livin’ was easy. I can’t help but think that I earn my Mommy stripes on days like this, and so far today, I’m earning zilch. But le Petit looks up at me from over a drooly hunk of bread, with sparkling eyes and a wad of crumbs stuck to his nose, and smiles his snaggle-toothed grin, and I swear, it all seems worth it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lift off

A week and a day ago, le Petit finally figured out crawling.
We were visiting Troyes on our way back from Alsace (more on Alsace coming soon, I promise), and we spread a large beach towel on the floor of the bedroom. Dad, Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, and Aunt G all took turns encouraging him as he got up on all fours and tentatively lurched and hopped forward.

Then, you could almost see the proverbial light bulb appear as he suddenly understood how to coordinate arms and legs. His first floor crossings were slow but determined. He had a goal, and he had the wild-eyed look of a conquistador blazing through the jungle in search of gold as he inched across the towel to reach a plastic bag of Huggies. Once reached, he merrily slapped and grabbed at it with both hands before it magically disappeared. He thus discovered the frustrating truth of crawling: he may be mobile, but he's not as fast as Mom and Dad (yet).

By the next day, he'd already gained assurance and speed. It was as if he'd dreamed of crawling all night and woke up with a new, perfected method. He still isn't all grace and finely-tuned acceleration, however. He has the cadence of Godzilla taking on Tokyo, and undoubtedly, on a proportionally reduced scale, the same destructive power. Babyproofing is underway here at Chez Petit, but any security measures we take at the moment won't replace our constant vigilance. Le Petit tires quickly and any hard surface, even the floor, is dangerous when he starts wobbling with exhaustion.

After cheering him on for weeks, I am ambivalent about this advancement. He seems so tiny, and his newly-discovered self-propulsion opens up a whole new scary world to him. I can tell by observing him that this leap isn't just about mobility. He sees the world in a different way. Suddenly things that were on an unnoticed periphery are the focus of his attention. He's scanning the limits of what he knows, trying desperately to explore beyond them.

I realize now that the concept of horizon only occurs to us through movement. The same pull to the unknown that leads our species to Everest or the Antarctic or the moon is pushing le Petit to discover every corner of his bedroom, even and especially the marvels Mom has deemed dangerous: the wastebasket, the base of the recliner, the narrow space between his crib and the floor. It was only when he learned he could move that he dared contemplate the frontier.

I look at him crawling determinedly, so tiny yet so willful, and I know that this is the beginning of his inevitable journey away from me. I'm so proud of him, but I'm also so scared.

Le Petit, not one to rest on his laurels, has already started eying the next step: moving up. Even if pushing to his feet is just the vaguest of goals to him now, I can see the idea forming in his head daily. If only... there was a way... to reach that... if only...

Friday, February 15, 2008

La java du petit matin

Oh, how I've grown to hate four a.m.

Before le Petit arrived, four a.m. was a largely a mystery to me, a vague memory from college days when procrastination (usually) or parties (much more rarely) had me up watching the small hours tick by.

I had much more energy in my youth. And back then, I knew it was temporary. I'd finish the paper or programming project as the sun came up, or we'd all trudge home giddy and shivering to our dorm rooms. Either way, I knew I could sleep in and recuperate the next day. Now, when I see four a.m., I'm pacing a small, stuffy room with a screaming baby in my arms and I know the next day will start all too early.

When the newborn le Petit refused to sleep a large chunk of the night, my husband accused him of "faisant la java." La java is a popular dance from the beginning of the last century, and faire la java is an old-fashioned way to say having fun or throwing a party. It was weak, sleep-deprived parental irony, but it stuck.

Le Petit turned into a decent sleeper sometime after he turned two months old. I was spoiled by quick wake ups, no more than one a night, and frequently enjoyed almost painless bedtimes. It wasn't perfect, and there was the more than occasional off night, but I considered myself lucky.

Now the little guy is teething. The two bottom teeth we got back in November were just a warm up. The ones up top are the Real Deal. Last night, after an hour-long bedtime circus and an early evening wake up at nine-thirty, he was wide awake and mostly screaming from two-thirty to four.

When I tried to nurse him to calm him down, he squirmed and fussed and wouldn't stay at the breast; when I gave up on nursing and paced about the room, he howled. I was nearly reduced to tears myself. At four o'clock, he finally gave in to exhaustion and I crawled off to bed myself. When he woke up at seven-thirty, I felt utterly defeated.

And with all these new teeth so painfully won, the little guy will eat nothing but prune applesauce. It hardly seems worth the trouble.

If you, dear readers wherever you are, are awake at four o'clock Paris time, think of me and if you like, join in the java and leave me an encouraging comment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Robert Ducky

Le Petit has a bathtime song, the classic Sesame Street Rubber Ducky Song. I may be no Ernie, but I sing it enthusiastically every time we give le Petit his bath. Unable to cobble together the lyrics from a vague childhood memory, I admit I googled it, but I memorized it months ago and it's now ready to pass on to the next generation.

Le Petit has a rubber ducky for the bath to go along with the song. It's a high-tech luminescent ducky with LEDs that change color. It was a Christmas present, and although I would probably have bought him something truer to the song and actually yellow and squeaky, I have to admit that it captivates him and sometimes even keeps him from splashing us.

Over lunch last Sunday, my husband mentioned the song and the ducky to my mother-in-law.

"But I don't understand," she asked, clearly confused. "Why do you call him rubber?"

"He's made out of caoutchouc. And he's squeaky. You see?"

What followed was a who's on first conversation, only resolved when my husband and I realized that my mother-in-law understood Robert and not rubber.

The scene was repeated ten minutes later when we explained the song again to my father-in-law, at which point I started laughing uncontrollably.

Leading me to wonder, has the subtle pronunciation difference between Robert and rubber caused other problems beyond the realm of toy ducks? Translation is fraught with hidden difficulties, indeed.


Solidarity. Do we ever use the word in English? Yet solidarité is commonly employed and cherished in French.

Today, when le Petit woke up with his first fever, unhappy and unwilling to leave my arms, I called my mother-in-law. I was reluctant to worry her needlessly, but I needed her help. She was working this morning, but quickly assured me she'd be over in the afternoon. She brought lunch, moral support, grandmotherly calm and solidarité.

I've started to think of my husband, my mother-in-law and myself as the Le Petit Support Team. We're the mechanics in the pit, always on hand with knowledge as intuitive as technical, ready to do whatever it takes to keep le Petit on track. It often takes the full-time efforts of three adults to keep him and a household running. I don't know what I'd do without them.

We spent much of the day hovering over le Petit together, speculating whether his fever was due to teething or a cold. Although the fever was moderate and dropping fast, I called our pediatrician in the afternoon for advice. He must get ten similar phone calls a day, but didn't seem to mind. Reassuringly and almost jovially, he told me not to worry if le Petit seems himself and the fever remains moderate and disappears in forty-eight hours. Probably a virus, he added. I admitted I had had a cold recently, and started to feel guilty about passing it along.

"Ah, sharing cold viruses! Just a little family solidarité!" he laughed.

So solidarité it is... for better or for worse!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Off to Alsace

We're leaving tomorrow for our first vacation completely on our own with le Petit, a week in a small village near Strasbourg, in Alsace. It will be low key. We're planning to do some hiking if the weather permits, to visit local landmarks and churches, and to make a short excursion to Germany for some shopping. (I love shopping in Germany, especially now that I have an excuse to bring home German-made wooden toys.) We're renting a house where we can set up our nest and do our own cooking. Le Petit may get to see his first snow.

We have five hours of car to get there, and I'm hoping le Petit will remain patient. The car is definitely not his favorite place to be, and loud crying fits are still typical. I'll be in the back seat next to him, armed with a bag of toys and all the silly songs I can think of in two languages. Wish me luck. I should be back online a week from Sunday, and I promise I'll bring pictures.