Friday, October 31, 2008

Haircut angst

I need a haircut badly. Alas, I haven't had a single good haircut since I moved to France, and I've tried salons all over Paris, in all price ranges, from Left Bank to Right.

What to do? I guess I'm back at the beginning of the endless cycle of pay little > get bad haircut > decide to pay a lot > get bad haircut > decide I might as well not pay a lot because it doesn't seem to make a difference. So I'll go to the Camille Albane chain salon in the neighborhood and get a bad haircut tomorrow, unless anyone has a better suggestion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Talking points

Le Petit has started to talk.

Or, more precisely, he's started to speak our language, since he's babbled for some time in a language known only to him.*

I'm fairly sure he's started to talk, anyway.

Since he was thirteen months old, he's occasionally referred to my husband as "dada." But there are so many other things designated "dada" and so many other situations when the syllable "da!" was expressed, I wasn't sure if it was a true word.

Then we went on vacation and stayed on a farm with a flock of chickens. "'Cocorico!' says the rooster," we explained, and soon the rooster and the hens were "coco." But just when I was ready to officially designate "coco" a first word, it took on a broader and undefined meaning: all birds were "coco," or all animals, or maybe a selection of seemingly unrelated objects.

Last Wednesday we walked past a butcher shop in town that has a wooden sign with a rooster out front on the sidewalk. Le Petit pointed at it and said "coco!" That's it! I thought. Then, on our way back home, we passed in front of a lamppost. "Coco!" le Petit announced.

If I point at a rooster in a book or a picture of my husband taped to the wall, le Petit will often come up with the right word. But if I ask him to find the "coco" on a page, he points to different animals randomly, or if I ask him to find my husband in a group photo, he stares blankly.

It must be clearer than this, I thought. I waited for that "aha!" moment when I would suddenly know that he was speaking for real.

Meanwhile, le Petit became fascinated with a couple of carved wooden crocodiles at my in-law's apartment. Whenever we visit, he runs up to the shelf where they are displayed and demands to see them with a "Croco!" (It sounds an awful lot like "coco" to me, but I've no mastery of the subtle French "R".)

Recently le Petit and I examined a drawing of a family eating dinner in one of his bedtime storybooks.

"Baby," I indicated the elements of the picture with my index finger. "Mommy. Daddy. Food. Table." I then asked him to find them. "Where's the baby? Where's Mommy? Where's Daddy?"

He hesistated until the last question, when he pointed not at the book but out his bedroom door to the hallway where my husband had just disappeared.

"Dada!" he said, pleased with himself.

"That's right, Daddy!"

I guess that counts, doesn't it?

* His "best friend," the other baby who shares his nanny, seems to understand le Petit perfectly well. I've observed them babbling together and it looks for all the world like a real conversation. If only I had the Baby Rosetta Stone.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What they really mean when they say your life will never be the same

First it was the sleep deprivation.

Now it is the ambient chaos.

I believe I spend half of my waking hours putting things back where they belong.

Yesterday I surprised le Petit walking into the bathroom with a potato in each hand. I later caught him walking out of the bathroom with a foot scrubber. We find toys under the pillows of our bed and pot lids under the coffee table.

He pulls books off the shelf until he finds the one he wants to read. He walks into the bedroom while we're folding laundry and pulls the folded stacks of clothes to the floor. At naptime, le Petit reaches around from his crib to open the top drawer of his changing table and empties the contents onto the rug.

I've renounced any Martha Stewart-inspired delusions of decor and order. I just sweep through the apartment continuously, shoving some things back onto shelves and dumping others in baskets and boxes and call it Good Enough For Now.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ici meme

I was tagged by Sophie at Inzaburbs for a meme last week. My very first meme! I was rather excited about this because just a year ago my blog was being read by perhaps a grand total of a half a dozen people, all of whom know me in real life. This felt like my first fifteen minutes of blog-fame! Or something.

Anyway, the deal is to choose the sixth picture out of your sixth album and blog about it. I'm defining this loosely because a) I'm not nearly organized enough to have six albums sorted and classified on my computer and b) I don't post any recognizable pictures of myself or my family on my blog.

So instead of following the meme to the letter, I started with the sixth day of pictures we took with our digital camera and counted sequentially from there, chosing the first picture where no person is pictured.

I found this:


It is a view of the château of La Roche-Guyon, an historic village in the far northwestern corner of Ile de France and the starting point of one of my favorite hikes in the region. The old castle above is perched on one of the chalk cliffs which line the Seine here as it twists and winds toward Normandy.

The picture was taken on the 5th of June 2004 on what must have been our first time hiking here. The trail takes you up the cliff to a spectacular view of the Seine Valley, then continues through the forest and fields behind. In May and early June there are orchids and songbirds everywhere.

I know enough French history to know that fortifications like this here are the result of centuries of border disputes with the Normands, not fairy tales. But the American in me can't help but look at this picture and think storybook castle nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

J'ai deux pays dans mon coeur

As I was combing through the toy stores at La Défense after work one evening searching in vain for the Magic Toy That Will Keep a Toddler Occupied for an Entire Plane Flight [tm]*, I happened upon a children's book with a title written for me.

"J'ai deux pays dans mon coeur."

I have two countries in my heart.

It was in fact written for young first-generation children of immigrants to France. I took it off the shelf and flipped through it briefly, wondering if it would contain anything that would describe me or le Petit.

It talked of special summer visits home to see the grandparents, of speaking different languages at home and outside, and of having two countries that feel like home. But the families were, logically enough, African, Arab, or Vietnamese, and the book also talked of discrimination and of feeling and looking different from others. Le Petit is lucky. These are not challenges he will face. I put the book back on the shelf, glad that it existed, but still looking for the book that will help me explain to le Petit what is in my heart.

As we flew back from Seattle, the distance that separates me from Back Home became more real to me than ever before. It may be that for the first time I had no choice but to stay awake for the entire flight. Le Petit slept curled up in my lap for 45 minutes while I tried to doze off myself, but the rest of the time my husband and I were busy keeping him happy, entertained and contained outside of our neighbors' personal space. I have to admit, however, that the flight itself was much better than I expected, and a non-stop Air France flight from Paris to Seattle is now for me the only way to go.

"I know that it must be hard for you, my living so far away," I confided to my dad on the way back from our trip together to Babies R Us. "Now that I'm a mom, I can begin to imagine."

He told me that as long as he knew I was happy, it was worth it. It is hard. My dad didn't have to tell me. I just had to admit it to myself.

I love my country of adoption. It has been five years now since I moved, and after the initial periods of elation, depression, comparison and integration, I've weighed where I am and I like it. There are practical reasons for this -- affordable child care, universal health coverage, flexibility for working moms -- and then there are the emotional ones, the links that I've forged with my husband's family, and the French savoir vivre I try so hard to imitate. I fell in love with a country and a culture at the same time that I fell in love with a person, and that casts a powerful spell.

But I tend to try and forget what I left behind. I pretend that I can't imagine a life in the US when the truth is that I can picture it all too clearly.

Back home in Seattle, we visited Discovery Park three times. It is one of my favorite places in the city, and typically Northwest. Nowhere in France is there anything vaguely resembling its fir-forested cliffs that descend abruptly to Puget Sound. One of my earliest memories is of playing with a kelp bulb on the beach, so it is as familiar to me a landscape as I can imagine.

The neighborhood of Magnolia that surrounds it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Seattle, too. As we drove down quiet streets of wooden bungalow-style houses, I started to picture my parallel life, the one that by all odds I should be living. In this life I live in a brightly-colored house with a front porch and a graying cedar shake roof. Le Petit has his own giant bedroom and a playroom in the attic. We spend our weekends hiking in the Cascades or gardening, and every morning I go for a run in Discovery park and watch the fog lift over the Sound. And the other grandparents, the ones who speak English, are the ones who look after le Petit from time to time and watch him grow a little more every month.

The irony of feeling depressed about such a happy choice doesn't escape me. I am blessed to get to choose where I live, and le Petit is blessed to have grandparents who love him in France and in the US. In the end, it comes down to the stupid truth that I've gotta choose. No matter where I live now the other half of my heart will ache, and there is no way to escape it.

* I have verified that such a toy does not in fact exist, but whoever invents it will become very, very rich. In the meantime, The Fishies Musical Mobile comes close. More about that secret weapon coming soon!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Back home

Yesterday morning we arrived home in Paris safe and sound. Today passed in a jetlagged haze, and even though the house is post-voyage disorganized mess, I am ready to crawl off to bed. As soon as I do the dishes and fold the pile of laundry that is burying our bed, that is.

I have much to write in the next few days, about our trip, le Petit's language learning, and even my very first meme. So stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Le Petit joins the table

Yesterday evening my father and stepmother hosted a dinner for us and two of their friends. Pacific northwest dry-smoked salmon, lobster risotto, rack of lamb, mozzarella, basil and the last of this year's garden tomatoes, some excellent Washington wine: it was a true feast. Le Petit raced around the house during the appetizers, stopping at my feet every once in a while to be picked up and join the grown-ups' conversation.

We gave him a taste of the smoked salmon and he was hooked. He reached for the tray with an insistent "aaaahhhh!" as I distractedly held him back.

"I don't know what you want!" I told him and everyone laughed.

"I think it is pretty clear what he wants," my husband corrected, so I gave in and gave le Petit another bite which he gobbled up.

"Must be his northwest genes expressing themselves," commented one of the guests. I had to admit, as annoyed as I was that he kept me from eating any salmon myself, I was pretty proud of him.

Le Petit sat attentively and patiently in his high chair through the first part of dinner, which much impressed my father and stepmother. Unusual for a 15-month-old was their take, and my husband was filled with fatherly pride.

"There's no bigger compliment for a French child," he told me later, "Than being told they know how to stay patiently seated at the table."

Le Petit has a refined palate and excellent table manners. As with so much else, I am wary of giving myself any credit.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Safety net

A young sales clerk came up to me as I dug through a neatly-stacked pile of men's dress shirts at a downtown Seattle department store.

"I'm sorry," I said in embarrassment, "I don't mean to mess up your entire display."

"Don't worry," he said with a genuine smile, then added confidentially, "It isn't so bad to have a little job security."

I've been doing quite a bit of shopping since I've been back home. I've been looking forward to it for months. I brought a half-empty suitcase and jokingly called it my Economic Stimulus Package. Clothes are far cheaper in the US than in France and I have my favorite brands here, so I permit myself a once-a-year-or-less splurge. But since we've been on vacation the world economy has continued to slide to the brink, and I can't help but feel as if I'm feasting as the Titanic goes down.

A French colleague recently asked me what the crisis felt like to Americans and if it was as bad as had been reported in the French press. This was just after Lehman Brothers failed but before the 700 billion dollar bail-out plan brought headlines of "Wall Street versus Main Street" to the front page of every newspaper. I shrugged and said that I thought that it wasn't yet affecting the average American so much, but that it made me nervous.

Yet right now, here in Seattle, it feels different, more serious. I have no numbers, and not even that much anecdotal evidence, but I can feel the anxiety. It is in the questions friends ask when they see us, the deferring of plans, the uncertainty when folks try and extrapolate their lives into next year or the year after.

We won't be spared the coming recession in Europe. The same gloom and doom is talked about over coffee between colleagues in Paris and in New York. But in France, I don't have to worry about losing my job from one day to the next, or surviving without health coverage, or paying for my son's education.

I know just how lucky I am to have this safety net.

When I gathered up my finds and left the fitting room at Banana Republic, a cheerful, twenty-something employee asked me if I wanted to sign up for the store credit card. I declined and explained that I lived in France and that while every time I visited home I stocked up on clothes, I didn't shop there that often.

"You live in France, huh? It must be nice to live there... what with everything wrong with our country right now."

"Yes," I answered after a pause, "Yes, yes it is."

I thanked her and left, feeling grateful and sad and not daring to say anything else.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The best of both worlds

What I miss about the States:

1) Canned chicken broth. Do French home chefs really content themselves with freeze-dried cubes, or do they have way more time on their hands to boil down chicken parts than I do?

2) The in-sink garbage disposal. Or mange-merde, as much husband prefers to call it.

3) National Public Radio. Even if my visit home just happens to fall during a pledge drive.

4) Neighborhood restaurants that serve brunch. Eggs Benedict, hash browned potatoes, and yes, I would like a warm up on my coffee, thank you.

5) Banana Republic. I am a victim of my fashion demographic, perhaps, but at least in Paris I'm the only thirty-something wearing the merino top of the season.

6) Ice cream. For some reason, the French cannot produce decent supermarket ice cream. Just why this is is a mystery, since there is an entire aisle of delicious yogurt with every flavor under the sun.

7) Brightly-colored wooden houses. They would never look right in a neighborhood of Versailles and most French I've met are skeptical of their solidity, but you just can't build a front porch with stuccoed cinder blocks.

8) Good microbrewed beer. If it exists in Paris, do let me know.

9) Room to grow. I love my six-hundred square-foot apartment and it is big by Parisian standards, but oh! to have another bedroom. And a bigger kitchen. And an office. And...

10) American comfort food. If exceptional resourcefulness is required to scrounge up corn on the cob, bake a pumpkin pie, or put together a truly tasty burger, it just isn't the same.

What I would miss most if I ever left France:

1) Cheap, wholesome bread. One Euro, four ingredients, and nothing I can't pronounce on the label.

2) Fancy washing machines. Where's the precision in hot/warm, warm/cold, and cold/cold?

3) A separate room for the toilet. Not only is it more attractive, it helps limit household traffic jams.

4) Practical public transportation. Seattle specializes in useless mass transit: the monorail, the bus tunnel, and a tramway to nowhere. They're trying harder than most American cities, at least.

5) Shutters that aren't just decorative. Sometimes, cocooned away in his pitch-dark bedroom, le Petit sleeps until eight-thirty or nine. Try getting that with Levalors.

6) Appetizing jarred baby food. Le Petit is just not a Gerber Baby, and he would miss his Bledichef couscous dinners terribly.

7) Market Day. The Pike Place Market is fun for tourists, but how many folks here are lucky enough to have a street market within walking distance of their home? Which brings me to:

8) Walking everywhere. I don't drive in France and most of the time I don't miss it. Everything I need is a walk or a Metro ride away.

9) Really fast trains. I don't take the TGV often, but it is darn cool to know that I can cross the country in mere hours.

10) Having Europe at my doorstep. Shall we go to Germany or Spain this year? Or maybe Italy? And thanks to those really fast trains, we can spend a weekend in Amsterdam on in London on a whim.

Now, dear readers, what would you most miss if you left home?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Baby jet lag

Poor le Petit doesn't know what time it is.

Right now it is 4 o'clock in the afternoon in Paris and 7 a.m. in Seattle. Le Petit woke up twice during the night, once at half-past midnight and once again at four-thirty. Each time the only way I could calm him down was by nursing him and letting him doze in my arms, and the minute I put him down he screamed just like when he was a newborn.

The first time he woke up we got him back to sleep by two-thirty. The second time he dozed until five-thirty, but would not fall into a deep enough sleep to be put back in his crib. We eventually gave up the fight, and I was up and clutching my coffee by six.

All things considered, I think he's doing pretty well. He only woke up once the first night. He has been napping for two to three hours in the afternoon. Yesterday we were optimistic that he'd be over the jet lag quickly. But we can see that he isn't himself. When he wakes up in the afternoon, he stumbles around as if the fatigue has robbed him of all of his recently acquired coordination. He won't eat much at dinner, and instead nibbles at his bread and sleepily rubs baby food into his eyes.

I was selfishly afraid of what his jet lag would do to my sleep. It turns out that I am just fine: I'm in the coffee mecca of the United States, after all, so early mornings are bearable, and I have nothing better to do in the evenings than turn in early. But when le Petit wakes up screaming in the middle of the night like he hasn't for months I feel terrible.

I'm hoping he'll be on Seattle time soon and that the transition back to Paris time in two weeks won't be as tough. In the meantime, we're trying to get him outside as much as we can in the mornings when he's at his best, and let sunshine and some fresh Northwest fall air do its good work.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Geographic vertigo

I'm sitting at the window of my stepmother's 23rd floor apartment in downtown Seattle with a very American view at my feet. There are skyscrapers, the hum of Interstate 5, and cranes rising above half-finished concrete buildings. It feels like home and always will, but the familiarity is that of a comfy, well-worn sweater found lost in the back of the closet that when you put it on doesn't quite fit like it used to.

I find myself staring at the small, detailed license plates on cars or noticing the toilet is in the same room as the shower. Some sentences come more naturally to me in French than in English, and I am having a terrible time typing on an American keyboard. Small reminders that I am a little less at home here each time I return.

Or maybe it's the jet lag catching up with me already.

The flight with a toddler was as long and as painful as I'd been warned, but we had quite a bit of luck, too: our immediate neighbor was a very kind and understanding woman who assured us that she appreciated the distraction we provided, since she hated to fly. The row in front of us was occupied by a family with a two-year-old, so they understood when I wasn't always able to keep le Petit from kicking the back of the seat. And no one made any comments when we brought out the musical toys in desperation.

Two hours into the ten-hour flight, when the main course of my lunch ended up on my lap, I started to loudly wonder just what had possessed us to sign up for such a mad pilgrimage. But when le Petit finally fell asleep in the Ergo after I paced and danced around the aisle, and I eased back into my seat to enjoy his warm, sleeping weight on my chest, I started to come around. The hours counted down oh-so-slowly, but at the end of the flight, my anxiety had mostly lifted.

As we circled in for a landing, I chatted with the woman across the aisle as my husband entertained le Petit. All of sudden, le Petit burst into laughter and none of us were entirely sure why. It probably was a nearby passenger who started making funny faces, or perhaps just le Petit sensing our suddenly jovial mood. It certainly couldn't have been his imminent landing on terra firma in his mother's country of birth. But it made me so happy that his first moments back home were of unrestrained joy.