I have a Wednesday rule: we leave the house by eleven. Six hundred square feet of cramped Parisian apartment is no place for a one-year-old or a thirty-one-year-old on a July day. Since le Petit was born, I've discovered that there are parks in the neighborhood. With slides and jungle gyms and other such wonders. Who'd have thought?
With le Petit just old enough to walk, we're new to the playground scene and I'm a little bit intimidated. In my ideal world, the playground would be perfectly shaded, nearly deserted, furnished with a soft, safe, and non-toxic ground covering, and frequently disinfected by men in white suits. Other children would smile at le Petit as they played nearby, but no one would bother us as we played together in our bubble of mother-son bliss.
There are at least five playgrounds nearby, but to my dismay, none of them meet my exacting standards. So with a teensy bit of apprehension, I decided this morning to take le Petit to a park along the Seine, where there is not only a playground but an amphitheater where he could practice his new stair-climbing skills.
"Look, little guy! Stairs!" I announced when we arrived. I unbuckled him from the stroller and he slid down, grabbed my hands and headed for the descent. I eyed the terrain ahead of us. There were small piles of cigarette butts and leaves in the corner of each step. "We'll look for someplace cleaner," I said reluctantly, and grabbed le Petit mid-stride and transferred him to another set of stairs across the way.
On the steps that looked so clean from afar I found more trash, including plenty of broken glass. I turned le Petit's disappointment into a lesson in civic responsibility. "Some people don't understand that babies want to play here," I told him, "So they leave icky broken glass. It's dangerous." Suspended in my arms, le Petit agitated his legs like a cartoon character who suddenly found himself in the empty air beyond a cliff.
Abandoning the amphitheater, I balanced le Petit on my hip with one arm and pushed the stroller with the other. We headed for the playground where I saw other children. Maybe we'll meet some other moms and babies, I thought, thrilled at the chance to meet other Wednesday mothers in the neighborhood. Le Petit wanted to walk, but instead of advancing he turned in circles around the stroller. The path was relatively clean and the grass freshly mowed, but I inventoried every small piece of trash. I saw danger everywhere. I hurried le Petit along to the safe haven of the enclosed play area.
We pushed the gate, stepped into the sand, and were ambushed. The mothers and babies I thought I'd seen were in fact a troop of energetic preschoolers accompanied by two tired-looking teachers. Three-year-olds surrounded us on all sides. "Un bébé ! Regarde, un bébé !" they shouted out in wonder as they pressed in to see. They reached out to grab le Petit's hands and touch his face as I imagined all manner of germs and preschool epidemics. "Don't touch his face," I protested timidly, and the teachers called out "N'embête pas le bébé !" -- don't bother the baby -- from a nearby park bench.
"Attention, madame, ils sont sauvages !" one of the teachers warned me half-seriously: be careful, they're wild. To my American ears sauvage sounds a lot like savage, and I imagined these big kids as lions or tigers ready to pounce. I remembered a time when I was so small that kindergarteners seemed to rule the earth. "They're just curious," I called back, trying to hide my worry.
Le Petit wasn't worried, he was delighted. Now I know how a professional bodyguard must feel at a Hollywood premiere. I could do nothing, for le Petit was the star of the show. He smiled and played to the audience as I was peppered with questions from his adoring fans.
There is one dialect of French that I may never understand: le français of the under-fives. I have enough trouble understanding American toddlers, but when a childish intonation is combined with my second language, I'm confined to nodding and smiling or answering simply and hoping for the best.
"Où est son papa ?" I understood from one little girl, so I answered in French, "His father is at work." "Non," she said as if I were particularly slow, "J'ai demandé pourquoi il a peur !" No, I asked why he was afraid, she repeated, patient and surprised to have encountered such a clueless adult. I'm more afraid than he is, I thought, but didn't answer.
I took le Petit to the slide in an attempt to distract him, but he obstinately insisted on following the other children around or wallowing in the sand. I sat behind him on the seesaw and soon five other kids had piled on beside us.
"He's not French, is he?" asked one little boy. "He is French," I told him, "And American. Because I'm American, and his father is French." He accepted my awkward explanation. The children themselves were all colors, and their teachers called after them with first names that sounded as African as French. I realized with pride that le Petit would grow up to be part of this exotic mix of people, a new France made up of children who, like himself, were born as part of a multicultural patchwork. How will he choose to explain his identity to his friends when he's old enough to answer?
Le Petit was soon seated in the sand with a small knot of children around him. One of them discovered that he could make him laugh by grabbing handfuls of sand and letting it slowly drift to the ground through his fingers. Soon everyone was doing it and sand was flying everywhere.
"Careful with the sand," a teacher admonished. Le Petit grabbed a handful himself and stuffed it into his mouth, provoking an astonished gasp from the assembly. "No, yucky yucky!" I told him and uselessly brushed his face.
"Why did he do that?" one child asked, and I explained that he didn't know yet that sand wasn't a good thing to eat. I used the excuse to scoop up a protesting le Petit and make our way home. "Say bye-bye to your friends!" I told le Petit, and for the benefit of the others, "Dis au revoir à tes copains !" We were accompanied to the gate and seen off with a chorus of lilting "Au revoir !" as many small hands waved us good-bye.