Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paris-Versailles

Tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock Paris time I'll be shivering at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and waiting my turn to cross the starting line of the 31st annual Paris-Versailles race.

Newly installed in Paris back in September 2003, I ran the 16 kilometer race for the first time. I loved the race, but don't know what disappointed me more: discovering the finish line arrived well short of the château, or admitting that I couldn't possibly be following the route taken by the angry revolutionaries that stormed the palace at the end of the Ancien Regime. ("Try running it with a pitchfork!" my father suggested.)

My disappointment subsided once my husband treated me to a lunch at a sidewalk café after the race. Duck confit, red wine and potatoes sautéed as only the French know how: what could be a better post-race recovery meal?

My husband I ran the race together in 2005, and despite what I considered his relative lack of training, he powered up the famous Côte des Gardes hill with ease as I scrambled to keep up. We have a framed picture of the two of us crossing the finish line hand in hand.

I've recently gotten back into a regular running routine after le Petit's birth. I run in the Forêt de Saint-Germain with a colleague twice a week during my lunch break, and run once alone near home over the weekend. Now that I'm a mother, I find my priorities have shifted; time is scarce, and I'm no longer motivated by vanity or some misplaced sense of female macho. I run because it feels good -- or I hold onto the hope that it will eventually feel good if I keep at it.

I'm happy to report that recently it has been feeling good, at least most of the time. I'm looking forward to the race tomorrow, even though I'm not likely to break any personal records. I'll be taking it slow, enjoying what promises to be a gorgeously sunny fall day and reclaiming a piece of an old pre-Petit me that I've been missing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Le Petit's library

"No! We don't throw books! We pick out one book, we read it, and when we're done, we put it back and choose another!" I grabbed le Petit's hands and assembled the patience to explain for the tenth time today the principles of good library management. Le Petit, ignoring me, wriggled free from my grasp and continued tossing his entire collection of picture books onto the floor.

My strategy of shoving the books back onto the shelf as soon as they hit the ground was clearly failing. He was too fast and I was too weary of this particular battle. So once again I found myself in the Choose Your Own Adventure that is parenting.

"You are faced with a recalcitrant toddler and a growing heap of picture books. You choose to:

1) Pick him up while he still has a book in hand, carry him to the couch and plop him on your lap, saying "Oh, that's a wonderful book to read with Mommy!" with all the enthusiasm you can muster and wait for him to squirm away after two pages;

2) Try to barricade the bookshelf with furniture, then watch as the barricade is meticulously disassembled. Rescue and console a crying toddler who has wedged himself between the couch and the coffee table;

3) Let him gleefully empty the shelf as you leaf through a magazine nearby, disregarding the far-flung repercussions of a lax and inconsistent discipline strategy."

Over the course of the morning I tried all three.

We easily own over a thousand books. Eight-hundred left Boston with us and we have acquired many more since, with barely a care for what might be a reasonable library for a 600 square foot Parisian apartment. Yet le Petit, whose growing love of books is our source of pride, doesn't always treat this great repository of knowledge and culture with the respect it deserves. We've blocked access to our most precious volumes, but we simply can't keep him away from all the shelves all the time. He has his own shelf with a growing collection of his very own books, and I'm torn. Do I let him have it at it, whether here's in the mood to studiously flip pages or more to throw and stomp? If we ration his reading material, are we losing the Golden Teaching Opportunity to foster a love of books?

He may love to throw, but he also loves to read. And there's almost nothing I love more than gathering him into my lap when he toddles up to me with a book. I've been reading to him since he was tiny. At first, I stuck to the story and turned the pages in order. When he was two months old, he was a passive audience and I wasn't entirely sure that I even held the book correctly in his limited field of vision. Now reading is an interactive affair. Le Petit holds the book and turns the pages himself, thank you very much, and he has favorite pages in many books that flips through deliberately to find.

One book, 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle, has a particularly captivating page with an embedded button under a drawing of a rubber duck that squeaks when pressed. Le Petit is still not strong enough to make it work himself, but has learned to grab my index finger and place it on the button so that I can do it for him. He eventually tried to use my finger to press other duck pictures on other pages, and I dutifully voiced a "squeak" or "quack" as needed.

Now the game has been expanded to include other books. He has a bedtime book with a picture of a baby in pajamas. As soon as I turn to the page he grabs for my finger, then presses it to the paper repeatedly to hear me say "pajamas!" over and over again.

As he does it he has his inimitable half smile and a look of concentration that makes me melt every time.

Today we read a book about babies. "Baby!" I said as he pressed my finger to the first page. On the second was a large picture of a smiling baby's face. We found baby's eyes, and mouth, and then he planted my finger right in the middle in the page.

"Nose! Baby's nose!" I said. Le Petit picked my finger back up off the page and touched his own nose.

I could barely contain my excitement and surprise. I called my husband to come look, and I coaxed le Petit to repeat the demonstration of his erudition.

"Did you see that? He knows what 'nose' means!" I gushed. I've known for some time that le Petit understands the general sense of what we say to him, but this was my first proof that he understands a word as an abstract concept and can make the leap from page to reality.

My husband was impressed, and as he pointed out almost as a compliment, the first word we are certain he understands is in English.

He truly is bilingual.

That, to this mom, is worth picking up many a heap of books on the floor.

Wednesday mom

Lumps of butternut squash ground into the rug. Brown rice confetti on the floor. Half of a day-old baguette under the high chair, well-nibbled on both ends. Toys everywhere but the playpen, torn magazines strewn about in a corner, lunch dishes on the table, pots and pans in the sink. After putting le Petit down for a nap, I surveyed the debris of the morning before gathering the courage to start picking it all up. Again.

"As much as I'm glad I only work four days a week," I sighed to myself as I started attacking the dishes, "I'm glad I work four days a week."

I love Wednesday. We make a good team, le Petit and I, and from our homemade lunch à deux to our run, run, run, RUN! outings in the park, there are very many reasons my day off is special. But seven days a week, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year? I don't know if I have it in me.

I applaud you, stay-at-home moms. And if you have any hard-won secrets, please share them with me. In the meantime, my blogging break is over, and it's time to try to check another item off the naptime to-do list before it's too late.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Vendange

At quarter-past five this evening I rounded up a couple of my colleagues and ostentatiously left the office early. Together we climbed up the sidewalks and flights of stone steps that lead from our office building to the garden of the Château de Saint-Germain. Leaving the leafy suburb of Le Pecq behind, we slid back three centuries to the time of Louis XIV. My boss, still leaning over his computer, didn't notice or care we were gone.

There isn't much left of the garden built by Le Nôtre, the master gardener and genius of Versailles, but the main terrace he created still stretches out from the former site of the Château Neuf before knotting itself neatly into a small circle of trees and disappearing into the forest two and a half kilometers away. The gardens no longer stairstep down to the river, and modern apartment buildings, a supermarket and our office building clutter the view from above. Yet something of the majesty remains in the unique view of Paris, draped with a green mantle of trees between the meanders of the Seine.

Today was the fête du vendange, the grape harvest festival. A small parcel of grapevines is tucked between the terrace wall and the town below, and every year the municipalities of le Pecq and Saint-Germain-en-Laye harvest the grapes to make wine. The practice is a nod to a local winemaking tradition that disappeared, as in many French regions, in the early 20th century, a victim of the Phyloxera epidemic.

We leaned against the iron balustrade and watched local schoolchildren gather grapes below us. They were dressed in blue aprons and brandished wicker baskets and pruning shears. Their progress was painfully slow, and as many grapes were eaten as were contributed to the cuvée 2008. We shivered in the cool September evening air. After a half an hour of waiting, one of my colleagues abandoned us and went home.

Eventually things started to get animated. A crowd of retirees, parents, children and local politicians started to amass around a grouping of white tents. We pushed our way over to a tent and grabbed handfuls of grapes from a basket. As we munched, the mayors took turns giving speeches. We tried to ignore our growling stomachs and the tables laden with hors d'oeuvres.

A few minutes later, I lifted a plastic goblet to my lips and tasted not the grape juice I expected but a respectable, if unremarkable, Pinot Noir. In the two years since I'd last attended, they'd made a lot of progress.

We haunted the tents until we'd surreptiously snagged enough mini sandwiches to stifle our hunger, then drifted away to enjoy the view. This is what I love most about France, I thought. A sunny terrace and an ounce of history is an excuse to plant vines. The renaissance of a vineyard is an excuse to make wine. And wine is an excuse to hold a party in Louis XIV's garden on a sunny September day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Transatlantique

In less than three weeks le Petit will set foot in the United States for the first time. As much as I'm looking forward to introducing him to his motherland, I'm dreading the trip over. Eleven hours in a plane, nine hours of jetlag, a fourteen month old baby. . . I'm expecting the worst. But it is a direct flight, mercifully, so when we arrive we'll have nothing more complicated to do than take le Petit and his two passports through immigration, claim our bags, and collapse into my mother's station wagon.

I can't wait to show le Petit my other home, to see him run up to a douglas fir tree and explore the crevassed bark with his fingers. I'll let him run along the beach on Puget Sound and pick up pebbles. We'll lift up barnacle-covered rocks together and watch the little crabs scuttle for cover. I'll take him to the parks I remember from when I was small. He'll stay in the last house I grew up in, and he'll crawl up the same carpeted stairs I ran down so often as a teenager. He'll play in the dirt in the garden where once, a very long time ago, I planted rose bushes.

He's too little for it to mean much to him, I know. But I still imagine that it will trace in some lines on his internal map of the world. This is where Mommy grew up: curious forests of tall evergreen trees, colored houses made entirely of wood, giant cars and buildings, beaches littered with twisted tree trunks, and rivers where salmon still find their way back from the sea.

But right now I'm fearing I'll relate a little too well to those poor salmon fighting their way upstream for the sake of their offspring when I arrive at Sea-tac International Airport.

Does anyone have any advice about traveling with small children, or getting them adjusted to jet lag? Yes, we were too cheap -- ur, frugal -- to buy him his own seat on the plane, we won't be traveling with our own car seat, and we weren't about to splurge for business class. So, given those parameters, what can we do to make the trip bearable and avoid any major diplomatic incidents? And what should we under no circumstances forget to pack in our carry-on luggage?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Little

"You're my little guy," I often say to le Petit. "You're not as little a little guy as you used to be. Now you're big. Or bigger. But even when you're big and taller than Mommy you'll still be my little guy."

He says nothing but smiles at the attention, and I wonder just when the day will come that he shudders at hearing my favorite of his nicknames.

"You're my little guy," I told him today, "But I love you this big!" and I spread my arms as wide apart as I can.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Big

When I was a little girl, my grandparents brought me back a baby doll from their trip to Italy. Since he was a little Italian baby, they baptized him Roberto. He was lifelike and bald and smelled faintly of talcum powder, and was just the right size to fit in any real baby clothes I could scrounge up. For weeks was a devoted mommy and dragged Roberto with me wherever I went.

My grandmother gave me my father's old baby book for Roberto. She had only filled in a few of the details of my father's babyhood, since with my grandfather stationed away during World War II she undoubtedly hadn't had much time for such things. I happily started filling in the details of Roberto's life alongside them in my childish hand.

When I got to "first teeth" and "first steps" my heart sank. Peering as best I could into Roberto's plastic mouth, I verified that he had no teeth. There was no way his bowlegged baby legs could walk, either. He would never grow hair, would never go off to school, and I could never complete his baby book. No matter how much I loved him and cared for him and fed him imaginary spoonfuls of baby food, he would never be big.

In tears, I explained my heartbreak to my mother. She shrugged at my chagrin. That's the problem with baby dolls, she explained lamely.

Yesterday I had a lump in my throat as I sorted though le Petit's clothes for those he's outgrown. We already have three full boxes of his old clothing in the basement, carefully packed away for a future brother or sister. Filling them up always risks making me cry.

It is all too much, too fast.

The bookshelf behind the dining room table is plastered with pictures from the first year of le Petit's life. Often, after le Petit is asleep and my husband and I finally sit down to eat dinner together, I look them over in amazement.

"Can you ever believe he was that tiny?" I ask my husband yet again, "Look at the one where he's sitting in your lap! Or the one where he's nursing, only a few days old. Those tiny fists curled up against my chest!"

Now, not-so-tiny le Petit is agile enough to climb up the couch. He has a mouthful of teeth, including all four canines and a molar. He doesn't just walk now, but runs. "You're so big!" I tell him when I hoist him up off the floor and notice his sudden heft, or put him in his car seat and see his head has inched closer to the top.

When I'm up at four a.m. or I'm cleaning under the high chair for the third time in a day, I don't see it. But when I open the baby book that I'm struggling to keep up to date, it overwhelms me.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

That famous Parisian politesse

As my RER commuter train pulled into the station on Thursday morning, I caught a glimpse of a number 21 bus still parked on a nearby street.

I was quite late, and the morning had already seemed far too long. My husband had left at five a.m. for a business trip to Switzerland so getting the grumpy and stuffy-nosed le Petit ready and out the door was all my responsibility. After wrestling him into clean diapers and clothes and unsuccessfully trying to feed him his blueberry yogurt for breakfast (I gave up and he ate chunks of swiss cheese and brioche instead), I left him in tears with the nanny (where he has suddenly decided he no longer wants to be) and headed for work, a half an hour behind schedule.

After nine o'clock, buses are rare and I often end up trudging the fifteen minutes from the train station to my office on foot. So I was thankful to have something finally go right that morning as I ran up the stairs to the bus stop and hopped on board.

"Bonjour!" I said to the driver with as much cheerfulness as I could manage. "What time are you leaving?" Since the train station is the first and last stop on the line, the driver could be on break and the bus wasn't necessarily leaving immediately, so I thought it best to check.

"You don't know what time I'm leaving? You haven't looked at the schedule?" he growled. It was so unexpected that I was unsure that I'd understood and made him repeat himself.

For a second, I had no idea what to say. I've had too many buses pull away right under my nose to have risked taking the extra moment to glance at the scheduled taped to the bus shelter. And even if I had spare neurons for memorizing such things, the schedule changes quarterly.

"Well, um, I'm running late today, so no, I don't know what the schedule is."

"Well, then," he said as if explaining the consequences to a recalcitrant schoolchild, "You are going to be even later, then, because I don't leave until 10:03."

"10:03?" I murmured and glanced at my watch. It was 9:45.

"Yes, madame." As I quickly did an about face and stepped out of the bus he added, sneering, as if someone as clueless as I couldn't possible know the day of the week, "And it's Thursday today!"

Americans sometimes ask me why Parisians are so rude to foreigners. They asked for help at a department store, or made a small request in a restaurant, or simply tried to get some information from a bus driver and they got brushed off or insulted. I always answer that Parisians are rude to everyone, even and especially other Parisians. A certain aggressiveness is part and parcel of daily interaction. That veneer of niceness so familiar back home, that "how can I help you today?" and the smiles, genuine or not, that we distribute right and left, is simply absent.

That doesn't mean that Parisians can't be helpful or kind, or go out of their way to assist you. But it isn't automatic. It is more common to let everyone suffer your bad mood, to loudly remark upon those who have affronted you, to cut in line, to shove for a place in the Métro, and to pretend not to notice when your dog is busy decorating the sidewalk.

I think it is a symptom of urban living and not unique to the French, who as I've mentioned before, take politeness seriously. And things are different outside of Paris. Yet there is a very French tendency to express oneself with no fear of what others may think especially if it means getting the last word, and that makes it worse.

I've always been bad at getting the last word. Even in English I craft the perfect comeback ten minutes too late, so in French I don't stand a chance. So for now, I grumble and stew as I walk to work and come up with the perfect blog entry instead.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In guise of a post

I'm two weeks into la rentrée and without much to say here. Or too much to say, and not enough time. Le Petit has a slight cold and his stuffy nose is keeping him from sleeping or nursing well, much to our collective frustration. But today a gray Wednesday morning metamorphosed into a golden September afternoon, just as I love them. Le Petit and I went to the park, where he picked up sticks and pebbles and chased dogs and joggers and I did my best to keep up with him.

Was this really only a year ago?

My husband has a business meeting in Switzerland which will have him leaving for the airport at five a.m., so the Baby Road Show is all mine tomorrow morning. The dinner dishes are still in the sink and there's no guarantee that my poor, stuffy-nosed baby will sleep through the night, so I'll leave you with a couple of "you know you're a mom when" moments:

You involuntarily hum "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" for most of the morning.

You dig your hands into your pockets at work and discover a wadded up pair of baby socks.

Your evenings are a blur of day care pick ups, dinner preparation, and cleaning up underneath a high chair, but when you see a mother in front of your office building with her toddler's head leaning sleepily against her shoulder you absolutely cannot wait to get home.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

For all I know

To the person who landed on my blog by asking the all-knowing Google "Can a baby be too stubborn to nap?":

Signs point to yes.

I am amused by, and can certainly commiserate with, the handful of people who stumble on this post looking for strategies to combat baby nap refusal. They are probably as stunned and discouraged as I was to find out that no, they don't all spend the first months of life dozing in a baby car seat. A year of parenthood has given me new appreciation for human diversity and individuality, and I know now that no two babies are alike and there are those that refuse to sleep no matter what you do. So put down the sleep expert book and give yourself a break.

You could try this. Or if you are looking for some real sleep advice, look here. It may encourage you to know that le Petit is now an excellent napper: we put him in his crib, and after a brief protest, he plays happily by himself until he falls asleep. (It may dishearten you to know that it took us thirteen months to get to this point, but anyway.)

To the person who found my site by asking Google for "dogs eating pine cones": I'm sorry, but I can't help you there.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Le Petit expresses himself

One thing has been clear from birth: le Petit has plenty to say.

At first, when he wasn't exactly where he wanted to be, which was asleep at mom's breast twenty-four seven, he screamed. Loudly enough to get remarks from the veteran children's nurse at the maternity ward. Le Petit was disturbing the other babies and my weary husband, who was just trying to change a diaper, was scolded.

I'm very happy to report that gale-force howling is now a rare occurance. Le Petit is a happy guy, and aside from fussing a bit when we put him to bed or lodging a complaint when we put him in his playpen, he hardly ever cries.

That doesn't mean things have quieted down chez Petit. The register has simply changed, and as I've mentioned before, we've left behind sobbing for the high-pitched shriek. I've been assured this phase is brief, so I'm holding onto my eardrums and waiting for true language skills to emerge. Meanwhile, I listen to mothers who brag that their babies mastered "Mama," "Papa" and "caca" at ten months old with envy and impatience.

I've heard that bilingual children often take longer to talk and it makes sense. He's been immersed since birth in two languages, Mommy's and Daddy's (and Daddy's spoken by Mommy with an odd accent, and vice versa), so it is no surprise to me that it takes some time to sift though and classify. I'm frankly amazed that the human brain is capable of it at all.

Le Petit has responded to his tiny tower of Babel by vocalizing early, often, and loudly. He loves to interrupt our conversations with a forcefully declared "Da da da da da!" It works. We stop talking and parrot his "sentence" back to him with a "that's right!" or "I agree entirely!" at the end. Now our house is tri-lingual.

The vocalizations are slowly settling into patterns, if not yet what I would qualify as words. I've been pushing "dada" as a first word, for it would flatter both my husband (Daddy!) and myself (a first word from his mother tongue!). He's got the "da" down, and sometimes my husband seems to be "da da," but other times "da da" ambiguously refers to an animal, or is murmured softly in a state of deep concentration.

While we were on vacation, we stayed at a farm in the Gers with chickens that roamed freely around the garden. Le Petit loved to chase them, and when the roosters sang, we translated their song into an English "cock-a-doodle-doo!" or a French "cocorico!" By the end of the trip, le Petit started to chirp "cococo" when he heard a rooster. (I took this as further proof of his brilliance. A future actor? Writer? Member of the Académie Française?)

Of course, when he has something urgent to communicate, like an objection to the closing of the kitchen door or the desire to grab something just beyond his reach, he resorts to shrieking. He has shrieks of boredom, shrieks of frustration, shrieks of excitement, and shrieks of let's see how my voice echoes in the apartment corridor.

In France, where children are still often required to be seen and not heard, these shrieks can be a bit embarassing. I don't know what to do other than gently "shhhhh" and remind le Petit in a calm voice that we are indoors, or get down to his eye level and try to ask him what he wants. Often I just ignore the shrieks and the stares and continue with my business, playing the Bad Mom and Oblivious Foreigner.

What else is there to do? He's thirteen months old and he's just discovered he has a lot to explain to the world at large, so he's starting now. At the top of his lungs. In the supermarket. After pulling both his socks off for the tenth time in the last half an hour.

Some day, he will be able to clearly and coherently explain to me just what I've done to wrong or embarass him. In the meantime, I stand in the produce aisle with a barefoot baby who is shrieking the angst of being confined to a stroller.

"Aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" He takes a breath and arches his back. "Aie aie aie!"

"Ah, I understand, your feet must be cold!" I grab a foot and wrestle on a sock soaked with baby drool.

At least for now the translations are up to me.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Then again

I'm having second thoughts about my last post.

I wouldn't want someone else to judge my ability to care for le Petit and do my job. Why should I judge Palin? If she believes she can balance five children including one in infancy and a theoretical presidency, who am I to second guess? It is an unflattering position for a feminist, and more than a little condescending. After all, I know nothing about the dynamics of her family or what kind of help she may have.

I suppose I just feel like presidential and VP candidates should be beyond the stress and worries of early parenthood. Parenting an infant is the single most rewarding but also the hardest thing I've ever tried to do.

I place myself a little too quickly in Palin's shoes, I think.

President Mom?

I'm back! More about my fabulously long vacation shortly, I promise.

I don't intend to talk much about American politics on my blog, but McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a VP running mate took me and the rest of the country enough by surprise that I had to comment.

I tend to vote Democrat, and I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't manage to vote in the primary election this year. It was partly because I was too lazy to get around to registering to vote overseas by this spring, and partly because I was presented with a difficult choice. Obama's intelligence and eloquence are indisputable, and his candidacy alone makes me feel more optimistic about the direction my country is heading in than any event in a very long time. But Hillary is a strong, opinionated, intelligent woman, and she represents all that my mother's generation fought so hard to earn for their daughters.

Since le Petit's birth, one other fact weighed heavily in Hillary's favor in my mind. She's a mom. I started to wonder just what might change for the better, in education, health care, even foreign policy, if a mother were in the White House.

It is fairly clear that McCain chose Palin as a running mate to rip off the band-aid hastily placed the gender issue after the Democratic primaries. Like most of the country, I know next to nothing about her. Our political beliefs differ sharply and she seems painfully short on experience, but I will not pass judgment on her character or abilities.

One thing hits me, though. Her youngest child was born in April, which will make him nine months old if she is sworn in in January. I personally cannot imagine being simultaneously a seventy-two-year-old's heartbeat away from the presidency and the sleep-deprived mother of an infant or toddler. When le Petit treats us to a rough night, I can barely find matching socks in the morning, so I cannot picture making national policy decisions, authorizing military movements or meeting with world leaders. The most sophisticated diplomatic negotation of my day is keeping le Petit from grabbing the spoon full of prune applesauce from my hands.

Patience, diplomacy, the crafting of a measured reaction, the art of balancing needs, all these skills we learn as moms would serve a world leader well. If a president saw the children of the world with the empathy of a mother, I think a different, more human, set of national priorities might emerge.

And yet, when the nine month sleep regression coincides with the first month in office or the toddler hits a clingy stage during a national crisis, I just can't see how a President Mom wouldn't be stretched to the breaking point. Or a President Dad, for that matter.

So my advice to future candidates is to wait until your children are in kindergarten. Then, put your hard-earned experience in the trenches of parenthood to good use, and I'll consider giving you my vote.

If I'm well-rested enough to figure out how to punch the hole in the ballot correctly, that is.