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


"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.