Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Playground

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.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vive l'été

It is nearly the end of July and summer has tipped past its halfway point. The Métro is emptying out and Parisians are rapidly disappearing to the beach and clogging up the highways on their way out of town. In the dead of August, the heart of Paris will be all but abandoned except for the tourists, who will be either delighted or confused to have the place to themselves.

If you're planning a summer trip to France or just wondering what we all do with five weeks of vacation, I offer you the following simplified explanation of summer à la française.

May holidays: With a little luck, the weather has turned warm and the succession of May holidays -- May Day, Victoire 1945, and Ascension -- won't fall on a weekend. On good years, a series of well-placed weekdays off gives everyone the opportunity to take a few "bridge" or even "viaduct" days and piece together very long weekends.

Roland-Garros: The best opportunity to see and be seen, entertain and impress important clients, show off your knowledge of obscure tennis trivia, and drive around the Bois de Boulogne in your convertible Mercedes. And to think that for years I called it the French Open and thought it was just some boring tennis tournament.

La fête de la musique: I'm pretty sure that since the dawn of time, the French have thrown one heck of a party on or around the solstice. It used to be la fête de Saint Jean and now it's la fête de la musique. Officially an occasion for musicians, amateur and professional, to swarm the streets until the wee hours, it is less officially another opportunity for drunken revelry. Same scene, different century. There may or may not be fewer bonfires in the modern version.

Le Tour de France: Thanks to Lance, we Americans have heard of this one. Historically a celebration of France and French identity though the spectacle of watching a bunch of crazily determined folks try and pedal around the hillier bits of the country. I think it must have been more fun to watch when they were only doped on red wine.

Le Quatorze Juillet: Bastille Day, if you prefer. Pretext for fireworks, bals populaires hosted by the local firemen, and military parades. Every town or village with three gendarmes and an enthusiastic comité des fêtes organizes their own parade, not content to simply watch on TV the big Parisian march down the Champs-Elysées.

Intervilles: You don't live in Paris, but in some forgotten provincial town far outside of the orbit of the capital? You miss the lights and the action of the big city, but you still may get the chance to appear on TV, with all of your crazy neighbors, and jump into a swimming pool with a cow in it. Yes, you read that correctly. Invented decades ago, this summer television show pits the inhabitants of two rival towns against one another in a giant outdoor game show. Cows and cream pies are always involved, but the details of the nutty competition vary.

Les grands chassés-croisés: Are you juilletiste or aoûtien? With a mere five or six weeks of vacation, minus one in December for the holidays and another in February for a ski vacation, there are only three or four to devote to summer break. Under such constraints, most folks just rent the same beach cottage or stake out the same campground year after year. Those who leave in July cross those who leave in August on the road on les week-ends de grand chassé-croisé, creating giant pan-European traffic jams. Avoid the highway rest areas at all cost.

Le Gendarme de Saint Tropez: He's been patrolling the summer television line-up since the 1960s, and although everyone knows the six films by heart, those who are still bothering to show up at the office in July and August are often humming "Do you do you do you Saint Tropez" over their morning coffee. The nudist hunt, the crazy nun in her 2CV, and Louis de Funes' wild facial expressions: what's not to love?

La rentrée: Alas, all this fun has to end, and starting in late August, la rentrée looms large. It's like back to school for adults. Class is in, the boss is back, and now everything that has been put off for months with a shrug and a "on verra à la rentrée" is top on the to do list. Suddenly the morning trains are packed again and it is impossible to make an appointment with anyone. At least the local bakery has reopened and we can once more find a good baguette.

Voilà the French summer in a nutshell. There are subtleties of course, like just when one can break open the first bottle of rosé, and whether to grill sardines or chipolata sausages on the barbecue. It will take many more years of research to get to the bottom of it all, but never fear, I'm on the case.

Bonnes vacanes, everyone!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

One man band

The transition into toddlerhood has been swift and complete. Le Petit now walks around the apartment with nonchalance, with his arms up and elbows bent for balance as if to indicate a field goal. He's a pro, and you'd never think that just weeks ago he was clinging to the china cabinet and trying to decide if he should launch himself into the unknown.

When I let him wander into the kitchen, he heads straight for the low shelf that holds the saucepans. He selects two pot lids with care and takes off with his prize, one in each hand. In deference to our long-suffering neighbors, I do my best to keep him from dropping them.

(I confess that once or twice I let le Petit throw the lids and watch them clatter and spin on the tile floor. It made him laugh, and that was worth clamping my hands over my ears. Then I remembered that we lived on the sixth floor, and the folks downstairs already know who we are.)

I usher him to the rug in the living room, where he sits down and starts to clang the lids together like cymbals. He squints his eyes shut just before each clash, anticipating the glorious noise they'll make. We'll just have to get him a drum set. He's a star in the making.

And I thought he'd only be famous for his voice.

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I bought le Petit a beach ball. I think we enjoy it even more than he does. We can bounce it down the hall with no worry about the noise, and le Petit chases after it giggling -- when he isn't distracted by the pot lids, that is.

Tonight my husband grabbed it and tossed it, and it sailed over le Petit's head and landed square in the middle of the remains of dinner on the dining room table.

He looked at me sheepishly. "Oops."

"Now I know what it means to give birth to a boy," I smiled. "I really gave birth to two boys... didn't I?"

Friday, July 18, 2008

Fireworks, sand, and a candle

When we leave the house now, whether for a week or just a weekend, we carry more equipment than Napoleon's army on campaign. Last Saturday morning before leaving for Troyes we were frantically assembling all the items on The List. I'd made a spreadsheet. There were fifty-five items, plus the baby.

We left late, naturally. I've learned a few things since becoming a mother, and one of them is to readjust my idea of an on-time departure.

I could care less about the complicated logistics or the slipped schedule, for it was The Big Day. Le Petit was a year old. We'd survived the first year! Was this walking, babbling, happy little person really the same as that tiny, loud, beautiful and incomprehensible newborn I'd met for the first time a mere twelve months ago?

I learned this year that the inconvenience of a July 12th birthday in France is that absolutely everyone is out of town and unable to celebrate. With grandparents and other family on vacation far away and a three-day Bastille Day weekend before us, we decided to head to Troyes where we could at least enjoy having the family house and garden to ourselves.

We stopped in the medieval city of Provins on our way. We waited out a rain shower with an improvised picnic in the car and then climbed up a narrow street through the ramparts to the oldest part of town. Le Petit learned what it feels like to touch a stone wall and a wooden wagon wheel, and how his voice echoes in a vaulted church.

We bought a decadent cake from my favorite chocolate shop in Troyes, a fruit and almond mousse creation that le Petit couldn't possibly eat but would be perfect for a photo op. We placed a candle in the middle and I held it in front of him while I grinned as widely as I could and tried to keep him from grabbing a handful.

On Sunday, we put together a picnic and took le Petit to a nearby lake. He decided to walk, holding firmly onto Daddy's hand, all the way to the water's edge. We let him dip in a hand and grab some pebbles, and soon we were letting him splash around up to his knees. A detour to a real beach was in order.

The beach at Géraudot on the Lac d'Orient is hardly the Côte d'Azur, but no matter. We have finally found something more marvelous in le Petit's eyes than a patch of grass. There was plenty of sand and clear, calm water, and surprisingly few people for a long weekend in July. Le Petit held onto our hands and splashed and jumped and flirted with a lifeguard.

Later, driving back from an evening stroll around downtown Troyes, we found ourselves blocked in a side street. While I fumed in the back seat and worried about missing le Petit's dinnertime, the local gendarmes, firemen, politicians and veterans marched by with trumpets, drums, and French flags trimmed with gold. We were fools to stay in the car, for when I finally hopped out with le Petit in my arms he was fascinated by the tanks, motorcycles, horses and fire engines and I realized I'd almost deprived him of his very first Bastille Day parade.

There were fireworks later. We heard them somewhere beyond the apartment building across the street, and we craned our necks in the garden to get a glimpse of them, hoping they wouldn't wake up le Petit, who was asleep in the attic bedroom.

A late, improvised, lonesome, happy, rainy and absolutely perfect first birthday weekend.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Baby Who (Still) Would Not Nap

When the history of nap time is written, it will be by the winners. I'm sitting on my couch writing, it is quarter to five, and the baby monitor is finally, blissfully silent.

The battle started at two-thirty this afternoon. We came back from a visit to the pediatrician, and le Petit was clearly wiped out from it all: the vaccine, the tantrum, the show-the-doctor-how-I-can-walk-out-with-a-grin
-almost-all-by-myself after once more screaming loudly enough to make the poor guy wonder why he went to medical school.

So I was sure that this time, for once, nap time would be a cinch.

Le Petit is, dare I admit it, sleeping well these days. I've been warned that his sleep may fall apart again in the future, but for now I am grateful. He's even napping well, up to three hours in the afternoon with the nanny, but there's still a hitch: he will not nap for mommy.

The nanny just pats him on his back until he falls asleep. My husband sings to him. My mother-in-law lays down the law, explaining to him firmly that "c'est l'heure de dormir" and then lies down beside his crib and plays dead.

Not one of these strategies works for me. I pat him on the back, he gets up and jumps up and down on the mattress. I sing to him, he screams. I play dead and he grabs for the pile of diapers on his changing table, dropping them one by one onto my head.

Wednesday, my day off, would be my favorite day of the week were it not for nap time. On more than one occasion it has ended in tears -- my tears, not just le Petit's, and a feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment at having been outsmarted by a one-year-old.

It was a war of wills, and I was losing.

So today, my strategy was that as long as he wasn't (too) upset, I would leave him in his crib as long as it took. And for my sanity, I would spend as little time in the room with him as possible.

Over the baby monitor I could hear jumping, rustling, whining, cooing, and over and over and over again the melodies of the two stuffed animal music boxes that hang from the crib. Meanwhile, in the other room I fought on the phone with my insurance company over an administrative mix-up (for you can fight a war on two fronts) and did the dishes. Whenever le Petit's fussing turned to genuine crying I went in, hugged him, sang to him, and once he was consoled, left.

When I went in at around three-thirty the entire contents of the top drawer of his dresser, which is within a short arms reach of the crib, were strewn about the floor. I stifled a giggle and tried to look businesslike, but le Petit wasn't fooled. He laughed. With me. At me.

This time, however, I was not to be had. It took two and a half hours, but the last time he cried I went in and found him on his back, eyes practically shut. I gently eased him into a comfortable position and patted him a few times, and after a last whimper of protest, he was out.

Sound the fanfare, this battle is won. For this week, at least.

Don't tell my husband, but I know exactly where he gets his stubborn streak.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Learning my lines

I've been in a training class the past two days to learn about the software that I'll be using for my new project. As boring, boring, boring a blog subject as there ever was, but before you click away, never fear, I'm going somewhere with this.

This morning I arrived late, and with no excuse since I live exactly five minutes away by foot. In the rush to get checked in at the welcome desk before sneaking into class, I wound up with the wrong kind of visitor's badge, with no account for the cafeteria. Naturally, I didn't realize this until I got to the front of the line at lunch.

Since the only perks of a training class are free food and getting out of work at five o'clock, this was, in my eyes, a serious problem. Yet with a little bit of inquiry and troubleshooting and I managed to exchange the badge, and as I finally sat down at a table with my tray loaded up with a copious free lunch, I realized something. I even admitted it to my fellow trainees.

The old me would have paid for lunch with a credit card or discreetly disappeared outside to buy a sandwich rather than face explaining the situation to someone who might help. Four or five years ago, solving the problem would have been too daunting for me. I was too unsure of myself and my language skills, and simply too timid.

Learning to function in a different culture takes more than just mastering the language. You must also learn a whole new script for day-to-day life. Everyday interactions are suddenly uncharted territory, and meeting your neighbor in the elevator, picking up a package at the post office, asking the building super for help with a repair are all impossibly complicated because you don't know your lines.

When I moved to Paris my French was decent enough to survive, and even to go on job interviews. Yet when anything out of the ordinary hit, I ran for help from my husband or my in-laws. Part of it is me. I've always been a wimp about contacting customer service or dealing with administrative hassles, even in the US. But a bigger part of it was my fear of jumping into the deep end of language comprehension and seeing if I could swim.

Now that fear is almost gone. I don't know if it slowly disappeared over five years or, as I suspect, swiftly evaporated when the responsibility of taking care of a baby gave me more courage to fend for myself. Maybe it was the years of watching my husband do it. Or maybe it was the painful experience at six weeks' pregnant of being forced to call, and call, and call maternity wards before finding one both with room to admit me and that deigned to answer the phone.

Part of it was learning the back and forth required, the je vous appelle pour un renseignement, j'ai un petit souci (I'm calling you for some information, I have a small problem), and the general and specific vocabulary needed for each task. A bigger part of it was finding the nerve to improvise and to use my petit accent as carte blanche to make it up as I went along. I only have to say two words for anyone here to know that I'm an American. From there, all I have to do is speak clearly, slowly, and distinctly and hope they will play along.

Today it worked well, for not only did I get my free lunch, but I also (almost) got a problem with my health insurance straightened out. French customer service is one rigorous linguistic training ground, so I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, indeed.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Another 'you know you're a mom when' moment

I still notice the smirks I get when I come back to my office at the end of my lunch break with an economy pack of Huggies, but it doesn't deter me. They're so much less expensive at the supermarket downstairs, you see, and after all, I'm a veteran at dragging purchases home in the Métro.

It seems that between the baby food stains and the bad-hair-and-worse-sleep days and the jumping up and down in front of the stroller to make le Petit laugh, I just have very little pride left.

Or I have lots of pride, perhaps, but not in the same things as before?

Now I'm beginning to understand why through all my I'm-so-embarrassed-I-will-shrivel-up-and-die moments in high school my mother just patted me on the back and shrugged.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Greener part II

This Sunday I renounced all intentions to do housework, laundry, or anything useful. Instead, we met up with my brother- and American-born sister-in-law for a belated Fourth of July picnic on the Champ de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. We couldn't barbecue, but a roasted chicken and pasta salad, a Loire Valley red wine and camembert reminded us of home (or both of them).

After le Petit's nap, we snuck out for late afternoon trip to Versailles. I went for a run around the Grand Canal while my husband took le Petit to a patch of grass next to the water where he could pick buttercups and clover.



At the end of the canal, I stopped to look back at the château and once again it refused to seem real to me. I wonder if le Petit, who will grow up chasing balls, riding bikes and playing in the grass here every summer, will end up taking it for granted.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

And we're off

Ca y est, le Petit walked for the first time this weekend.

He spent Saturday morning leading me around the house, upright and casually holding onto my hands. His posture is still slightly bow-legged and his gait a little jerky, but he already has the stride of a government minister, head up with confidence and self-importance, mouth slightly open as if about to make an important remark to the cameras.

He paused to lean against the china cabinet, and before I realized what was happening, he started off again without me.

"He's walking! He's walking!" I shrieked, and my husband jumped up from the couch to watch. Le Petit walked all the way from the living room across the entryway and into the hallway -- a good two or three meters -- before he toppled and landed on his diapered bottom with a thud and a look of surprise.

We cheered and congratulated him, me in English with a chorus of "Good job! You walked all by yourself!" and my husband in French with "Super ! Tu as marché tout seul !" As much as I've been reassured he'll have no trouble deciphering the tower of babel he was born into, I sometimes wonder how, but it seemed he had no trouble knowing we were proud.

As he continued down the hall holding onto my husband's hands, I started to cry.

He took a few more hesitant steps a little later, but that was all for the rest of the day, and even the rest of the weekend. In fact as far as I know, he hasn't walked by himself since. I'm glad my husband was there as a witness, because otherwise I'd be wondering if motherly pride is starting to make me imagine things.

It's as if le Petit is still trying to figure out what happened to him. But wouldn't you feel the same way if you'd just jumped off a cliff and accidentally discovered you could fly?

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When I mentioned the walking to la nounou yesterday, she told me that le Petit already taken deux petit pas, two little steps, on Friday. But I'm not counting that. They were small, after all, right?

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We seem to be headed toward many firsts, all at once. Le Petit has also figured out how to place one object inside another. We spent lots of time over the weekend stacking plastic cups or making them disappear. I said "Top!" and "In!" and "Out!" with pointed enthusiasm and he looked at me and smiled, confused. With great effort and much turning them up, down, around and over, he got three cups inside one another all by himself.

He also showed me, quite pleased, that he can drop a toy in the big empty basket in the entryway and then fish it out again by himself by tipping and reaching. I let him know that I was duly impressed.

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The only silver lining of being stuck in traffic for two and a half hours while coming back from a hike on Sunday evening was that le Petit learned how to play peek-a-boo.

I always sit next to his car seat and do my best to entertain him on long trips when he refuses to nap. I held the baby sling in front of my face and with a "Where's Mommy?" encouraged him to pull it away, which I know he loves to do. For the first time he grabbed it and held it in front of his own face.

"Where's le Petit?" I asked, and when I pulled it down to uncover his eyes, he started to giggle.

15 kilometers of laughter and stop-and-go traffic ensued, well-spent.