Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Coin

They are easy to spot on my morning commute: middle-aged, unkempt, too-warmly dressed, often wearing a scowl and a two-day beard. They stand in the middle of the train and repeat the same speech as the day before, starting with an insistent "mesdames et messieurs" and finishing with a plea for some change, a cigarette, or a ticket restaurant meal check. I remain in my seat with my eyes firmly planted on a page of my book, uncomfortable, and when they pass by with their hand outstretched, I do nothing.

Today there was a man I hadn't seen before. In an almost emotionless voice, he talked of his family, how they were in the street without any help, and how he had a three-month-old baby.

I would have tuned him out like I always do, but I couldn't shake those last words. I've been told often enough that such stories are scams, and I know that there is a chance that in three months' time I'll see the same man repeating the same line about a three-month-old baby. But a persistent voice in my head made me open my purse and take out a two Euro coin: What if it were true?

I see everything differently now that le Petit is in my life. Everyone's baby is linked to my baby, and so many more of the world's open wounds are visible to me now.

When the man passed by me, I quickly dropped the coin into his hand without looking up. He was holding a picture of his family, proof for skeptics like myself, but I didn't even glance at it.
Much later, as the train pulled up to my station, I thought what I wanted to say, if I had had the nerve.

I would have asked the baby's name.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pebbles and pine cones

We are staying on a small cove on the Costa Brava, where the water is calm and clear. Le Petit is a little bit scared of the sea. Curious as ever, he toddled right up to the water holding tightly onto my hand. The first waves made le Petit laugh, but the first to reach his belly made him cry out to be picked up. Balanced on my hip he clung to me and surveyed this strange new element with distrust.

I brought him out to (my) waist-deep water and showed him how he could dip a hand in the water and taste. "It's salty!" I explained. He duly tasted and seemed to approve.

Daddy came dog-paddling back to shore with a stone he'd fished off the bottom. Le Petit grabbed it from him and put it in his mouth. He soon had two stones, selected to be big enough not be swallowed, one in each hand. He still was not tempted by the water. I tried to give him to my husband so I could swim, but le Petit would have nothing of it, preferring Mommy's safe arms to Daddy's.

The beach is a short, steep walk down from our hotel along a stone path shaded by pine trees. On each trip back up we found le Petit pine cones to clutch. He loves having something in his hands, and objects from the natural world -- stones, pine cones, bark and flowers -- are his favorites. We try our best to keep him from eating any of it, but I'm sure some dust and grass end up digested anyway. I tell myself it is a toddler rite of passage.

The second day at the beach gave le Petit more confidence at first, but he slipped and fell in a wave in the two-foot span between my arms and my husbands'. Although he was scooped up and righted in a split second and was never in danger, his face was covered with sand and we felt terrible. After that, he happily sat on my lap in the shallow surf but would go no further. I admired his wisdom.

The third day at the beach the wind was high and the waves were larger. I held le Petit tightly and swung him up and out of the water when the biggest waves hit. His fear slowly disappeared. He laughed at his father coming up for air like a seal and the people playing soccer on the beach. He made conversation with a family of British tourists. He dismantled an abandoned sandcastle to pillage the prettiest pebbles.

I left him walking the shore with my husband and drifted out into the water. I could see the two of them, my tall husband in his flowered swim trunks, nearly bent over in two. Le Petit with his diapered bottom and floppy hat, skinny bare chest thrust forward, planting each footstep in the sand with more purpose than precision.

This year it is pebbles and pine cones. The salt and sand and noise and taste of the ocean are all new. What discoveries will next year hold?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vacation 2.0

Surprise! I'm on the grid! It turns out our hotel has wireless access, so here I am on our balcony overlooking a cove on the Costa Brava. Le Petit is asleep after a very long day.

When I was eighteen months old, my parents took a trip with me to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I have no memory of the trip, but my mother has often told me all she remembers about it.

"You wouldn't sit in a high chair. You had a fit and wanted to throw food on the floor. So your father and I were forced to eat at McDonalds every single meal."

To hear her tell it, it seems my willfulness wasn't just typical toddler behavior but a deliberate attempt to sabotage their vacation.

"You decided that you wouldn't go to sleep with us in the hotel room. You thought, 'Well, as long as we're all here, let's play!' So your father and I were forced to sit in the bathtub and read while we waited for you to fall asleep."

This is where I, a road-worn parent of one year, bitterly regret not giving my parents a harder time in the sleep department, since they were clearly far too soft. A year, even six months ago I would have happily slept every night in the bathtub if it had only meant that le Petit would fall asleep easily and stay asleep without my intervention.

Besides, of course I didn't want to sleep. The party was in my room for once, so let's dance! No?

Now I fumble my own way through parenthood and assemble anecdotes to share with le Petit some day, and my mother's words take on an echo of revenge. We're on the first leg of our trip, where we spend a week in the Paradores in Spain, a chain of beautiful hotels that are both luxurious and an affordable (enough) splurge. It reminds me of our honeymoon in Spain, when we traced a circle from Castilla to Granada, through Andalucia and up through the arid Extremadura, and of trips since when we crossed the Pyrenees to Rioja and back or followed the Way of Saint James by car through northern Spain to Compostella. I remember sharing tapas at tiny bars near midnight, picnics on the side of the road, detours down long paths to the beach. I remember sitting with a glass of Fino on the patio overlooking Toledo at sunset, just days after our wedding, noting the way my husband's gaze devoured my short skirt from behind the lens of his camera.

Good memories. Happy days. No kids.

Let me say now that le Petit's birth has made me happier than I ever imagined I could be. Clichéd as it is, I can only say it like it is.

And yet. Oh, how vacation was so much simpler in the days pre-Petit!

I hadn't expected it to be so complicated. After all, we'd finally gotten into a nice routine before leaving Paris, and although I expected it to be a bit challenging to translate it to living out of a suitcase in Spain, I figured it would fall into place easily enough. We might have to sacrifice our afternoons to a naptime vigil in the hotel room, but there isn't much else to do in the hottest part of the day in this country of siestas. Le Petit, like most French babies, is used to going to sleep between eight-thirty and nine, so I anticipated the worst part would be shifting him to eating with us when the hotel dining room opened at eight o'clock. Dinner time would run dangerously into the pre-bedtime meltdown hour, but we could cope.

Or so I thought. Yet I was more nervous than I realized when we showed up at the hotel dining room on the first night. I'd been told that in Spain children are treated royally, unlike in France where dogs are often welcomed more warmly in restaurants than les petits. Though as with most stereotypes, this has proved far from true in our experience, for we've been very well-received in restaurants in France. At any rate, we had no choice but to find out first-hand: the first Parador we'd be staying at was far from town and thus more casual restaurants, and the second two only accepted full room-and-board reservations in August.

True to our hopes, the wait staff were friendly and went out of their way to talk to le Petit as he presided at the table from his high chair. There was even a special baby menu. Most of the other diners were indifferent and ignored us when le Petit started squealing, throwing toys on the floor, or banging his spoon on the table. A few found him downright hilarious, especially when he let out of peals of laughter at the faces we made or some inside joke he shared only with himself. A middle-aged Englishwoman seated with her husband and teenage daughter a few tables away laughed so hard at us that she wiped away tears.

We learned a few things the first two nights. First, bread sticks are extremely useful for keeping le Petit calm, often for as much as ten minutes at a time. Second, toys that do not roll far or make a loud noise when clattering to the floor are to be favored. Third, the closer we can sit to another baby or an appreciative audience, the better. Aside from fingerpainting an entire side of the tablecloth pea green one night, there were no mishaps.

By the third night, we thought we had mealtime down. We arrived early and chose a table next to another family with a small child a little bit older than le Petit. The mother overheard our conversation and warmly said hello.

"He's named le Petit? He's named el Pequeño!" She indicated her son, who shared le Petit's name, but in Spanish. I learned that he was almost two, and seeing him sit calmly at the table with his own parents made me think that perhaps there is light at the end of the toddler restaurant tunnel after all.

Things started well, but we took our time studying the menu. We ignored le Petit's bored and tired signs, distracting him with bread sticks and spoonfuls of gazpacho. A special, homemade
bowl of baby food arrived but much too hot, and we didn't wait long enough for it to cool down before trying to give him a bite. A burning hot spoonful made him melt down, wailing, and I quickly pulled him out of the high chair and into my lap.

It was our first serious error of the evening, and an obvious one at that. I felt guilty and stupid, and le Petit, once calmed, realized we'd handed him a get out of jail free card. No more high chair! Freedom at last!

My husband tried to contain le Petit and his mixed screams of glee and indignation as I headed off to the dessert buffet. When I returned, el Pequeño's mother was trying to give my husband a hand by letting her son and le Petit stand next to one another and hold a conversation of sorts.

"Da da da da da!" said le Petit, proud of his internationally understood vocabulary. El Pequeño, less outgoing, said nothing and looked a bit scared. Soon they were both circling around the table, parents in tow, as I ate my dessert, grateful for the distraction. I finished, my husband left to get dessert, and I took over. I held onto le Petit's hand and kept his boisterous movement as close to the immediate circumference of our table as possible. I scraped together enough of my high school Spanish to say to el Pequeño's mother that twelve months old is muy dificil. She nodded her understanding.

"Señora!" From several tables away, a middle-aged man I'd hardly noticed, seated next to a dour woman with cherry red hair, started talking loudly. At first I didn't even understand that he was talking to me. Then I realized that the angry shower of Spanish that I barely understood was meant for us, le Petit and me. Especially me, the mother who didn't understand that this was a restaurant, not a jungle gym. I ignored him while trying to reign in le Petit in hopes of gathering him back up onto my lap. The man was more angry that I didn't respond, and started yelling at a nearby waiter to do something about us.

I was shocked. I knew that letting le Petit walk around the restaurant had not been a good idea, but the events had gotten away from us. And we were nowhere near the man, so his complaint was clearly out of principle, not practicality. He wanted to police the toddlers of the world starting with us.

I sat down with le Petit and stared at the floor. When my husband returned a minute later I explained that we had to go, that we were starting to get comments, and without even daring to say goodbye to el Pequeño and his parents, I walked out with le Petit and left my startled husband to ask for the check.

I was quivering with shame when I left. A former me would have cried. Yet as I held le Petit in my arms and started up to the room, I thought about my beautiful baby, all full of the energy of a one-year-old but with no way of knowing what to do with it. I thought about my husband, who took equal share in the mistakes and successes as we fumbled through parenting by trial and error. I was grateful for it all, and I realized I didn't care what the man thought, not really. Strangely, le Petit gave me freedom I'd never had before.

That didn't keep me from letting all the stress and disappointment explode when my husband came back to the room. This vacation was anything but, I complained. Dinner time was torture, and if it would continue like this, we may as well all go back to France. Much shouting ensured, but somehow le Petit ended up bathed and sleeping anyway, and we continued our discussion calmly on the hotel balcony once he was in bed.

We reviewed our mistakes. We came up with a plan for the next evening, with the rule that le Petit would not leave the high chair under any but the most pressing of circumstances. For two nights now, le Petit has been a picture of good toddler behavior at dinner, smiling at the waiters, babbling at other diners, scarfing down everything in sight, and laughing out loud for no apparent reason. We learned that if we feed him off our plate he stays happier longer. He loves peas and slurps gazpacho with gusto. There's still the occasional high-pitched shriek, but things are looking up.

Meanwhile, our dinner has been reduced to a carefully choreographed ritual. Spoon duty is handed off with military precision. Little adult conversation filters through. I watch young couples gaze at each other from across their table, lingering over the last bites of their dessert, and I miss it terribly and remind myself that some day le Petit will be old enough to spend a vacation with the grandparents.

Then I realize that, between cleaning peas and sliced peaches off the floor with a diaper wipe and trying to keep le Petit from throwing a spoon across the room, I am enjoying myself. This is the New Vacation, and it is far less glamorous, but I just think I may be learning to enjoy it, after all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

How the girl got her glasses

As you read this post, I am soaking up sun on a beach on the Spanish Mediterranean, lazily stretched out on a towel with a good book. Or I'm on the same beach running after Le Petit and doing my best to keep him from eating too much sand. Either way, I'm sporting a sexy new pair of Givenchy sunglasses that I fought for tooth and nail with my insurance company.

In March 2007 our car was "visited" and my sunglasses stolen, and it took me over a year to
work up the nerve to try and get them replaced. In theory, it was surprisingly easy: when I went to the optician, I learned that my insurance company would pay for a new pair with no questions asked and I wouldn't even have to go back to the optometrist.

In practice, I ended up facing down the monolith of apathy that is French customer service. There was some sort of a mix-up when I came back from maternity leave between my primary health insurance company and the company that handles my optical and dental coverage. The latter couldn't find me in their computer system.

Naturally, when I called one company, they sent me to the other. I was placed on hold, passed from person to person, and told to call back an hour, a day, or a week later. Yet for once, I did not give up. Every time I called I patiently repeated my story, although suspected I was recognized immediately.

"Ah, c'est encore vous!" I'd hear from an amused voice on the other end.

The petite américaine who's been calling about the same subject for weeks? Yes, that would be me.

I had plenty of opportunities to practice my best bureaucratic French as I explained, pleaded, and menaced, to no avail. I spend days with their insidious hold music in my head, a cheesy elevator remix of a pop song with a chorus of "I never meant to hurt you, I never meant to lie, so this is goodbye." Perhaps they did have a sense of humor after all?

Just when I was about to give up and send a certified letter of complaint, the arm of choice when waging war against The Establishment here in France, something miraculous happened.

The clouds parted. The computer systems communicated. And after so many tries that my optician began to laugh at me when I called, the reimbursement went through. I now have one fabulous pair of sunglasses, and just in time for vacation, too.

(Picture me pushing them up on my forehead, and with a provocative smile, winking in triumph.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fermeture annuelle

August is upon us, and hand-lettered signs are appearing in the windows of small businesses all across France with the dates of the traditional fermeture annuelle. They've closed up shop for the summer holidays, and in the meantime you'll just have to walk a little farther to find a pizza or a fresh baguette.

Here are Parisienne Mais Presque I'm obliged to follow suit, for tomorrow we're off for three plus weeks of vacation: a week in Spain split between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean coast, followed by two weeks in the Gers, with a brief visit to le Petit's great-grandmother along the way. But before you click away in disgust muttering something about those Europeans with their ridiculously long vacations, know, dear readers, that I'll be thinking of you while I'm away.

I have even written a few posts in advance that will automatically appear on the site during my absence, just in case I'm missed. (Please don't let me know if I'm flattering myself too much.) I also plan to bring along my laptop, so I'll be writing about my travels from the hotel terrace or the gîte's garden, overlooking the peaks of the Pyrenees or the rolling hills of Gascony with a glass of Fino or Madiran in my hand. While I doubt I'll be back here to post before September 1, I should have some interesting thoughts to share when I return.

(That's just me cruelly trying to make you jealous, when in reality I'll be far too busy chasing a toddler to type, much less type and sip wine at the same time. I will write, but it will be from the hotel room during le Petit's nap.)

I'll be back at the rentrée well-rested, with plenty of new blog subjects to cover including le Petit's upcoming first trip back home to Seattle.

See you soon!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Shopping à la parisienne

I woke up this morning with a purpose. I had a mission to go shopping downtown one last time before leaving on our upcoming three week vacation.

I'll let you in on a secret: I may live in the world's fashion mecca and earn my salary in Euros, but I still hate shopping. I love the finding and the buying, but the going and the searching are painful, and nowhere more so than in the grands magasins, the giant downtown Paris department stores. Whenever I make my way to Printemps or Galeries Lafayette along the boulevard Haussman I think I know exactly what I'm after, but I'm soon dazed and lost amidst the designer clothes and perfume stands, or I find myself staring uselessly at a handbag with too many buckles and a price tag equal to a month of my salary.

I always end up feeling vaguely uncool. A fake. The polar opposite of chic. It's unnervingly like being back in high school.

I still insist on going from time to time, even though I never find clothes that suit me or are within my budget, because I'm drawn by the faded promise of one-stop shopping, a rarity in Paris. I'll have to admit that I have found plenty of things to purchase over the years despite myself: cosmetics, cookware, jewelry, even a couple of remarkably uncomfortable (but oh so cute!) pairs of shoes.

Today Paris was in the doldrums of August and the only folks downtown were a few stranded foreigners. As tourists wandered around the first floor of Galeries Lafayette with their cameras, I felt almost authentic. I certainly looked less goofy than the man filming his wife trying on hats or the guy leaning backwards in the middle of the cosmetics department to snap a photo of the gilded cupola five floors above.

After a horrified browse through the accessories department at Printemps (50+ Euros for a belt? A casual belt that you're supposed to wear with jeans?), I wound up two doors away in the H&M. But once I'd crossed a few items off the me-list, I continued on to the Galeries. I was in the children's department culling the last good deals from the stale July sales when my husband called. He and le Petit were in the Jardin du Palais Royal, apparently chasing pigeons.

"Are you almost done over there?" he asked.

"Umm... well, that depends," I answered reluctantly while sorting through a rack of overalls and looking for le Petit's size.

"Things are going okay, but he's starting to get hungry. And I can't feed him here by myself."

"Mmmm-hmmm. Then maybe you guys can head home and I'll grab the Métro," I said without much sympathy. "Is he unhappy?"

"No, il est très content, all excited to be here. But I'm getting sick of trying to keep him from eating dirt, and crawling on the ground, and chasing the trash that's blowing around in the wind, and..."

Never was a conversation so perfectly calculated to make me abandon my retail aspirations for the day. Soon I was running down avenue de l'Opéra and hoping I wouldn't arrive too late, looking thoroughly uncool and no longer caring in the slightest.