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,


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


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.]


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.