Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Midwinter migration

Christmas is over, and I had a much happier one than I evidently deserved. Now Paris has entered that strange period between Christmas and New Years, where the mood is somewhere between giddy and hungover. No one is in the Métro at rush hour, but the subway entrances on the Champs-Elysées are backed up onto the pavement from noon until midnight. Christmas lights are still dripping from the boughs of bare winter branches along the avenues, or gathered in constellations around the glass entrances of pastry shops. Those who bother to go to work show up at ten and leave at half-past five.

True Parisians are gone, apartment buildings are empty, and parking spots are to be had even in the densest arrondissements. I've lived here for six years and I must I admit I still don't know where everyone goes. The suburbs? The islands? Old family houses lost in the French countryside? Chic vacation homes in Normandy? It is too early for the ski holidays, too late for the Côte d'Azur. I wonder how many Parisian children are staring morosely out the window at grand-mère's house, watching the sun set at four-thirty and wishing they'd remembered to pack their game consoles.

Meanwhile, unlike in the dead of August, Paris is far from empty. On the Champs-Elysées, you can hear more Italian and Russian spoken than French. Tourists are everywhere, unfolding their maps on street corners, puzzling out addresses in guidebooks, hesitantly counting out Métro stops. A midwinter migratory flock of non-Parisian French has landed, making their yearly visit to urban relatives.

"Maman!" an embarrassed urbanite daughter exclaims in the train, "You know you have to keep your ticket until we get out!"

"Ah bon? I have it here somewhere," answers the flustered mother, searching vainly in her coat pockets.

"We get off here, don't we?" asks the father, pointing at the lighted display above their heads. The daughter sighs and gently herds them out the sliding doors in front of her.

There are more tourists in the hallway, walking four abreast down the corridor, standing to the right and to the left of the escalator at random. I force myself to slow down, to avoid swinging my backpack, to make myself small, to stop rushing. I hurry out of habit, and putting my autopilot on tourist speed takes some effort, but I don't want to be rude. Our reputation as Parisians is bad enough already. I expect the same consideration this summer, when our car with its Parisian license plates inevitably gets lost in the sinuous streets of a village somewhere.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I realized something this year: Christmas is not my favorite holiday.

I love the lights in the trees outside, I love the music, I love the cookies, and I especially love my mother-in-law's homemade foie gras. But more than any other holiday, I find that Christmas is a minefield of unreasonable expectations, and by the time the 24th of December rolls around, I've had my fill of stress and I'm ready to be done with it all.

First, there are all the trappings of celebration: the tree, the stockings, the wrapping paper, the lights. We have no room for a Christmas tree in our apartment. Le petit is still too small to care, luckily, but I feel a bit sad about it, and more than a little jealous when my father- and brother-in-law compare their trees for size, color, bushiness, and price, trying to determine who got the most magnificent specimen or the better deal or both this year.

"We don't have room," I state, almost defiantly, and tell myself that I don't need the dead, dry needles or the extra vaccuming anyway.

Our Christmas decorations are minimalist. We have a crèche, hidden behind glass in the china cabinet so that le Petit won't play with it, a small assortment of ornaments that le Petit enjoyed hanging from drawers and doorknobs, and three stockings. Our presents are still hidden away in nooks and crannies, awaiting hurried wrapping tonight.

That's next on my list of Christmas grievances: the presents. I start worrying about them in October, or earlier. With a little luck, I hit on the prefect present for one or two people in my list, but the rest I agonize over before finally scrambling to purchage some last-minute compromise. Most people do the same for me, and so on December 26th I find myself with a pile of unwanted things I now have to find some way to fit into my crowded apartment. A few people, like my husband, reliably get me something unexpected and wonderful, but it all seems like a lot of effort and stress.

Finally, there's far-flung family and the impossibility of seeing them all on one day. We made the choice years ago to spend Christmas with my husband's family, and I'm mostly OK with that. Transatlantic travel is stressful enough without trying to fit it into a rushed two weeks of winter vacation, and the holidays are stressful enough without taking the circus on the road. But I miss my family. On the brief calls I make back home on Christmas day the nine hour time difference conspires to make the distance seem all the greater. We've finished Christmas lunch, had a nap, taken a walk through the calm streets of downtown Troyes in the dark of an early winter night, and my parents are just waking up and making a leisurely breakfast. Are we really sharing the same holiday?

This year I've been in a rotten mood for at least a week. Other things -- my quest for a driver's license, work, Le petit's sudden case of the two-and-a-halfs -- have been frustrating me, and I've been short-tempered and ill-humored. My husband loves Christmas, and accused me last night of ruining it for him. He may be right.

As I started to write this post, the CD I was listening to of the Nutcracker Suite decided to start to skip. Annoyed, I had to get up and turn it off, and as I got up, I knocked over my mug and spilled tea all over the couch. I think the Ghost of Christmas Present is having its revenge.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow day

Today, to my great surprise, a genuine snow storm hit Paris. I heard about it on the radio before I bothered looking out the window, and then hastily changed clothes to jeans and sneakers, the better to brave the elements and the slippery sidewalks.

I waited almost a half an hour on the frigid train platform, waiting for the train from Saint Lazare whose ETA kept jumping back by five or ten minutes while I wasn't watching the information screen. Paris today was caught in a mass-transit perfect storm: the RER A commuter train had been on strike for a week, with only one train out of two during rush hour and none the rest of the day. Métro drivers had just gone on strike as well, in solidarity with their RER colleagues, I assumed, or perhaps to finish up last-minute Christmas shopping (online or on foot, one assumes). Every other mode of transport was halted or thrown severely off-schedule by the snow. The roads were even worse for car commuters: my boss sent an e-mail at around 1 o'clock to let us know that after advancing approximately 10 kilometers in three hours, he gave up and returned home, where he would be taking the day off.

I'd made plans to go for a run at lunch, but as I picked my way down the slushy steps from the Saint-Germain-en-Laye RER station I decided I was nuts. Sure, I used to run through snow and sub-zero temperatures in Boston, but I was older and wiser now, right? But once inside my warm, nearly deserted office, I said hello to my colleague and running partner, one of the few people who'd managed to make the trek this morning.

"So, at lunch, what are you doing?" he asked.

"Uhm, I dunno... I mean, it isn't too reasonable to run, is it?"

"I don't know," he said with a dare in his voice. I remembered that he's Breton, and born to laugh at the elements.

"Well, when I used to live in Boston I ran in snow all the time..." I decided. "If you're crazy enough, then I'm crazy enough."

"Let's go, then!"

Two hours later, our footprints were among the very first through the freshly fallen snow in the Forêt de Saint Germain. A hawk swooped through the trees above us, and a small flock of bullfinches settled like leaves on the ground. It was real snow, several inches deep even on the path, not the slushy gray soup of Paris' streets that shrug off winter as if it were an insult. The snow brought with it the still, velvet silence that I used to love in snow-covered Massachusetts forests.

The snow stopped falling in the afternoon, and the streets were left wet and bare. I left work at five o'clock, climbed aboard a sluggish RER that was resentfully crawling its way back underground. The Métro line 2 was late and packed with people, and I held onto my backpack tight and tried to make myself as small as possible under my big winter hat. As I crossed the square between our apartment and the Métro station, I smiled at a mother and daughter scraping up icy snowballs from the corners of flowerbeds and hurling them at each other, doubled over with laughter.

Monday, December 14, 2009


I have a terrible confession to make.

It turns out I didn't really miss le Petit during our weekend getaway to Burgundy. I knew he was in good hands, cared for by people who would probably have more patience than I would for snail-paced trips to the park by tricycle and endlessly read and re-read story books. I was more concerned that my in-laws would be worn out and exhausted by the time we got back than I was about le Petit.

It felt a little strange at first, after we left, just the two of us, with no chirping commentary from the back seat and no children's music on the car CD player. By the time we reached Beaune I felt slightly buzzed on the flagrant ducking of responsibility, like a high school student skipping class and hopping a bus for downtown. Replace "I'm 16, and I should be in chemistry class," with "I'm a mommy, and somewhere my toddler is eating his fourth cookie and terrifying his grandmother by tumbling head first from the couch."

We got to eat at fabulous restaurants, savor the wine and tarry at the table for hours. That night, we left the restaurant three and a half hours after we'd arrived. I felt I discussed more with my husband in two days than over the previous three months. I hadn't realized just how the background process of taking care of a toddler takes up so much of our brain and leaves little room, even after le Petit is asleep, for meaningful adult conversation.

So I realized, with great guilt, that for those brief two days I didn't miss le Petit that much after all. And now I'm admitting it on my blog. The guilt hit me when I woke up in the middle of the night, heart racing, having just dreamt that we'd forgotten le Petit in a parking lot. Mère indigne! Unworthy mother! Then as we were driving back on Sunday night I peeked over my shoulder at the empty car seat and felt an odd wave of panic.

I was relieved to find that le Petit didn't seem to miss us much, either. He greeted us nonchalantly with a grin when his grandparents dropped him off. But he woke up three times in the middle of the night, a very rare occurrence these days, and I wondered, is it our fault? Am I the only one who beats herself up about these sorts of things?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Weekend à deux

"So, little guy, this weekend will be a special weekend for you."

My introduction went something like that, as I tried to gently inform le Petit that Mommy and Daddy would be going away for an overnight trip without him for the very first time.

"Do you know who's coming over tomorrow?"

He played with his blocks without looking up, so I continued.

"Grandma and Grandpa are coming over! And they will take you to the park, and play with you, and... little guy?"

"Grandpa and... Gramby!" Le petit stated excitedly.

"No, Grandpa and Gramby are far away right now. We'd have to take a plane to see them. But they're thinking of you I'm sure. Tomorrow you'll see Grandpa G and Grandma F..."

He quickly lost interest again. The love and attention of local grandparents is much less exciting than that of the exotic, transatlantic variety.

"...they'll feed you lunch, and then it'll be nap time," I hesitated and corrected, "Uhhhh, it'll be nap time if you guys decide it'll be nap time, that is..."

I knew all too well that nap time would probably be skipped, a hassle and a hurdle no one short of our nanny or my husband seems able to handle these days, including myself.

"...and then you'll eat dinner, and take a bath, and then you'll go to bed, and Grandma and Grandpa will sleep in Mommy and Daddy's bed in case you need them in the middle of the night, so you'll never be alone. Because Mommy and Daddy will be going on a special trip tomorrow, we'll be taking Daddy's car and driving to a nice place. But Mommy and Daddy will come back, because we wouldn't leave you for too long, I promise."

Le Petit kept looking down at his toys, so I asked him again, "Who is coming tomorrow?"

He didn't respond. I started to doubt that anything I'd said had penetrated the enigmatic toddler consciousness when he repeated, slowly, carefully, pleased with himself, "Mommy and Daddy on SPE-CIAL trip!"

Special indeed. We're off to Beaune in the heart of Burgundy tomorrow, where a bed and breakfast (and its hammam!) awaits, along with wine tastings and a birthday dinner at the sort of restaurant where I wouldn't dare walk in with a toddler. I will be able to sleep in late without negotiation, eat meals without interruption, and spend a full 36 hours without once reading Curious George. I can't wait.

But we'll miss le Petit, and maybe more, I suspect, than he will miss us.

Monday, December 07, 2009

To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate

Paola was wondering why we decided to vaccinate le Petit against the H1N1 virus. The truth is, we hesitated a long time before making up our minds. If a vaccine exists for something, I'm likely to want to be the first in line for it, and doubly so if it's for le Petit health (even if the line is, ahem, five hours long). My husband, on the other hand, is somewhat vaccine-skeptical. Not that he's opposed to the normal series of vaccines against childhood illnesses, and he certainly doesn't believe any of the bizarre urban legend/conspiracy theories floating around linking, for example, the MMR vaccine to autism. But I had to work hard to convince him to vaccine le Petit for hepatitis B -- an optional vaccination in France, generally proposed for older infants -- and he does rather anxiously check for potential side effects in the days following any shots. So when I started lobbying for the H1N1 shot it was an uphill battle, and I, too, was skeptical at first.

Although I haven't seen the latest numbers, I would guess that in France at least half of the population has no intention of getting the H1N1 flu shot. My husband isn't planning to. I, however, will as soon as I can. We both agreed to vaccinate le Petit, and here's what decided us, in no particular order:

  • I take public transportation every day during rush hour, when "standing room only" on the RER A means "breathing room barely." I figure that if there's a flu virus out there it probably has my name on it, and I don't want to give it to le Petit or the ten-month-old baby that shares our nanny and plays at our house every day.

  • Dr. Sears had a post on their site which I interpreted as pro-vaccine. I'm far from an unconditional Dr. Sears fan, but I know that they tend to be vaccine-conservative, so I figured that if they were more or less in favor of the H1N1 flu vaccine, it probably was for a good reason.

  • Our much-trusted pediatrician recommended it. He also assured me that kids under 10 would be vaccinated with the non-adjuvant form, which I've heard is better tested in young children.

  • Although I don't have complete confidence in either the government or the pharmaceutical companies, I trust both of them far more than I trust a virus.
Finally, having spent one scary evening in the emergency room when le Petit suffered from an unexplained high fever, I can all too easily imagine finding myself in the same position again. Add breathing difficulties, an unknown pandemic, and I shudder at the regrets I might have. So, I decided the risk I wanted to take was to trust that the vaccine was safe and effective, and that le Petit wouldn't have any problematic side effects (he hasn't).

I understand and repect parents who choose not to vaccinate for H1N1, of course.

I think it is interesting, however, to see how people evaluate risk: poorly, generally. We are terrified of flying, but think nothing of getting behind the wheel of a car. We worry about chemical contaminants and genetically-modified foods, but without any real idea of the data that might support our anxiety. Cloud wrote about this quite eloquently. I'm no better than anyone else -- I'm a computer geek, not a scientist -- but for once, I did at least read the official information provided by the ministry of health. The infamous Guillan Barre Syndrome, the only dangerous flu vaccine side effect I've heard about so far, was mentioned, and the chances of contracting it were estimated at one in one million. I told my husband he'd do better to worry that le Petit and I would cross the street safely on our way to the vaccination center. That didn't stop him from nervously calling and texting us all afternoon.

Le Petit was just fine. I based this assessment on the soundest measure of his health that I know: he refused typically, stubbornly and categorically to nap. Take that, swine flu!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

How do you say "gentlemen, start your engines" in French?

Today was a big day.

Today I overcame fear, dread and six years of dithering and finally did it: I enrolled in a driving school. It will cost a lot of money, and it will be more than a simple formality -- the French driving test is notoriously tricky and I have barely been behind the wheel in almost five years -- but it shouldn't be insurmountable. With a little perseverance and a lot of parallel parking practice, I will hopefully be once again licensed to drive in around six months.

Today I also endured the five-hour ordeal of getting le Petit vaccinated against the H1N1 flu. We waited two hours (2!) outside in the cold on the sidewalk, and over two more hours (2! More!) inside the local PMI children's heath center. The staff were overwhelmed and doing the best they could, given they it was the first day the vaccine was locally available to children and they were the only center open (and only on Wednesdays) for the entire town.

Le Petit was extraordinarily patient, in part thanks to the bright idea I had to pull out my MP3 player. I have several albums of children's music stored on it, leftover from the plane trip to Seattle. Never again will I complain when "La pêche aux moules" or "Ainsi font font font" comes on during a jog between Dave Matthew and Stone Temple Pilots: I never know when it might save my hide.

I was impressed by everyone's generosity and good humor in such a difficult situation. Parents laughed together, passed around boxes of cookies for the kids, shared books and toys, and generally did their best to look out for one another. Le Petit was "adopted" by two little girls, probably around 6 and 8 years old, who were in line just in front of us and spent much of their time playing with and "mothering" him. When we finally made it inside the building and le Petit collapsed into fearful tears upon entering a new, crowded space, the two little girls rushed up, consoled and distracted him with a new toy. I was grateful.

We have to go back for the second injection in three weeks. Here's hoping the governmental powers-that-be will have smoothed out the process by then.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thoughts on child care, or how I got it all wrong

Something I wrote a while back has been bothering me. Back in fall 2007, a few months after le Petit was born, I chronicled our disappointment at not getting a spot in the local municipal day care center. Given the scarcity and cost of private centers, our only options were to either find an in-home provider or a share a nanny with another family. Since there is a limit of three children per in-home provider imposed by the government licensing authority, the solutions were functionally similar. We chose the latter option, after I took an extended nine-month parental leave, since serendipity had it that a neighbor of my in-laws with a baby le Petit's age had already found a nanny and was looking to share.

Many months before this happy solution landed in my lap, I recounted here my frustrating meeting with an official at city hall:
I explained, my French and my confidence faltering, that I was not interested in a nanny. I didn't -- and couldn't -- justify why, because nannies are the number one solution for parents of young children in Paris. Most are assistantes maternelles who work out of their home and watch one, two or three small children at a time. They are licensed by the state and monitored for quality by official neighborhood early childhood centers (although I've learned that, like many things "official" in France, the monitoring exists more on paper than in practice). Yet as in most of the western world, and France is no exception, child care is undervalued, and it appears to me that most nannies in Paris have chosen their profession by necessity rather than choice. Many are recent immigrants who have received very little formal education or training and have few other careers available to them; although hiring a nanny is expensive for parents, their salaries are still relatively low. How can one place a price on mothering, especially in the first year?

I shudder when I read it now. It was classist, disrespectful, and could be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-immigrant, too (something that, as an immigrant myself, but one who largely escapes the anti-immigrant discrimination in France, I'm growing more sensitive to). What exactly did I mean by "price on mothering?" Why did I assume that the only reason someone would want to choose child care as a profession is because no other options were open to them? Taking care of small children is hard work, and although the salary isn't truly equal to the importance and the strain of the job, the pay is honest. In France, employing a nanny includes paying into the state benefit system, so that they have the right to the same state-sponsored health and retirement coverage as all other employees. And generous subsidies and tax credits help make paying a fair wage affordable for families like ours -- not much more expensive, in fact, than a public day care center when a nanny is hired jointly by two families.

And for that well-spent money, I leave le Petit with someone who is consistently there for him every day I'm not, and who knows him so well after one and a half years that she can decipher his ever-changing toddler moods or detect the first flush of a fever as accurately as I can. Le Petit rushes to the door to welcome her when she rings the bell in the morning, yelling, "C'est M!" She has introduced him to more neighborhood children than I have (they've got a regular social network at the local park) and convinced him when I couldn't to overcome his fear of the merry-go-round. I leave for work confident that he's in good hands, and suspecting I won't be missed for a moment until I walk back through the front door.

Of course, there are good nannies and there are not-so-good nannies, just like in every profession, and there's a higher risk of a bad experience when you decide to trust the entire task of caring for your child to one person instead of a team. However, I am now convinced that the rewards are higher, too. Le Petit had the chance to bond with one trusted, loving caregiver in a calm environment. M is his "home base" when Mommy and Daddy aren't around, and this was especially important when he was an infant.

M was also able to understand him and adapt her routine to meet his needs, even as she was far better than I at organizing a solid routine, thanks to her years of experience. She got le Petit to nap in his crib at nine months old when no one else could by calmly staying close and rubbing his back until he fell asleep, a feat I can't imagine possible in a day care center where a single staff member is responsible for up to five children. And during the very first days after I went back to work when both le Petit and I cried and cried non-stop, M never lost her calm, empathetic patience when most day care centers would have kicked us both out on the street.

I'm so happy, in fact, that next time around (a subject that's on my mind a lot about lately), I probably won't even request a spot in municipal day care. Alas, I have no guarantee that M will be free to take care of a potential numéro deux, since I'm planning to take a year of maternity leave, and with the glowing reference I will give I'm sure M will be employed again immediately after le Petit starts full-day public nursery school next September.

Above all, I am grateful that I have the options I do here in France: extended parental leave, subsidized child care, free public nursery school from age three. And I formally apologize to all the people who work so hard taking care of small children every day. I maintain that it is a job that isn't justly appreciated, since it can't be measured in palpable terms, in numbers or results or return on investment. That may be why choosing day center-based care seems like a safer bet to parents like me: it feels controlled, standardized, "industrialized" in a certain sense. There are other reasons of course: cost (nannies are often prohibitively expensive in the US), convenience, logistics. But for me, choosing one person to take care of my child meant taking a leap of faith and trusting a human rather than an institution for the most human of tasks. Looking back, I wonder why it was so hard.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I feel guiltily pleased to have skipped Thanksgiving this year. As I confessed to a friend in an e-mail message, I feel lighter because of it, and no, not just because I'll be consuming a few thousand fewer calories than my compatriots will be today.

"Take that, cranberry sauce!" I wrote. "Take that, pumpkin-in-a-can! Maybe next year I'll offer asylum to some American turkeys." Six years ago, when Thanksgiving came just three months after I moved to France, it was different. I ordered a turkey from the volailler weeks ahead of time; I kept my eyes peeled for rare acorn squash and fresh cranberries at the supermarket; I trekked across Paris to the Grande Epicerie to spend 5 euros on a precious imported can of Libby's pumpkin. I hoarded stale baguette to make my father's delicious savory stuffing. I was a discouraged when my giant American turkey roasting pan wouldn't fit in my French-sized oven, but I improvised. I was quite proud of myself.

Since then, I've made efforts of varying degrees, but never with the same enthusiasm. I've hosted family, which I loved, but I focused more on their visit than on providing a proper American feast. Some years my (coincidentally also American) sister-in-law has put together a turkey dinner for the whole family on the weekend. Some years I've baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies to share with my colleagues at work -- not exactly the tradition, but they loved them and didn't know any better. This year I did nothing. I felt bad admitting it to my mother over the phone last night because Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, but it felt... freeing.

Here, Thanksgiving is just another work day.

Here, taken out of its proper cultural context, stuffing oneself with six side dishes at one meal feels ridiculous. Especially if, because Thanksgiving is just another work day, you most likely must plan to do it over the weekend, a day or two late, when you have time to cook.

Here, thanks to RTT, four day weekends are no big deal.

And here, of course, there's no American football.

My husband has an American colleague who recently moved here from California and is spending his first Thanksgiving in Paris. His enthusiasm mirrors mine that first year. He had a friend back home send him a box of Stovetop and a football DVD. He looked up how big a turkey to buy on the Butterball website, and duly went to order a 6 kg bird.

"For how many people?" the volailler asked, incredulous.

"For six."

"For six people, you don't want anything bigger than 1.2 kilos," he assured. "Besides, we don't have giant hormone-laden birds like that here in France."

"And anyway," I thought when I heard the story, "good luck fitting it in your oven."

The colleague, for his part, found it curious that we had abandoned any effort to honor the most important of American traditions. "Just wait six years, you'll do the same," my husband told him. But there is one tradition I love, and I'm sticking with: giving thanks.

Thanks for my family. My French husband, who loves pumpkin pie, and my half-French toddler, who is currently skeptical of any food that is the color orange. My parents, who love me even when I do let them down and pass on the turkey.

Thanks for my job. Although I spent Thanksgiving doing the most tedious task of the year -- or so I hope -- it was made better by my colleagues' sense of humor. And while I don't exactly feel useful, I do feel appreciated.

Thanks for my health. Thanks for my home, my cozy, packed, bordelique, almost-Parisian apartment. Thanks for two+ years of parenthood, 8+ years of marriage, and the feeling that both are even more fun with each passing year.

Now I feel all warm and Thanksgiving fuzzy, and I haven't even watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Maybe I will bake a pumpkin pie this year if I find some time over the weekend. But shhhh, don't tell...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

(Une) comédie française

Wednesday night, Molière's L'avare at the Comédie Française. I waited for my husband between the columns of the portico of the Palais Royal, fumbling with my cell phone keypad, occasionally looking up across the cobblestones, which were luminescent from the rain and the Paris street lamps.

"You parisiennes have a look," my husband said after he found me, "And telling you apart isn't easy."

"You mean we're all standing on the sidewalk dressed in black winter coats and shouting into our phones?" I teased.

"Now, you're all elegant, a certain je ne sais quoi," he said, taking on a mocking faux-American accent with the last phrase, which is almost never used by the French, and giving me a kiss.

We made our way to the entrance, and were momentarily blinded by chandeliers and polished marble as we blinked the November night from our eyes. We were just behind a group of middle school students who seemed even more dazzled. "Hey, that's Molière, isn't it!" shouted a boy to his friends as he passed in front of a bust that dominated the vestibule, then added proudly, "I recognized him, you see." Three teachers silently herded them all up the stairs.

A long windowed corridor on the second floor had more busts, facing off from their marble pillars at regular intervals. Three blond students were grouped around a large glass display case at the end. I couldn't see what it contained, but I heard them exclaim excitedly, "Is it really?"

"Yes, the real one."

"Can't be."

We wandered back and forth, up and down stairs, staring at our tickets like a hidden treasure map, trying to figure out where exactly we were going. When we doubled back in front of the glass case, the students were gone and inside I could see a simple chair covered with tattered leather of an indeterminate age and color.

"It says that this is the chair where Molière died on stage while playing Le Malade Imaginaire," my husband said.

"I thought that was a myth," I said skeptically, and shuddered. Under the chandeliers and behind the glass the chair suddenly took on the creepy aspect of an electric chair.

We finally found our seats and I glanced around the theater, furtively assessing the crowd. There were lots of students, some college kids uncomfortably dressed up to impress their dates, some high school and middle school kids in jeans and sneakers. There were nondescript professional Parisian couples like ourselves wearing what they'd worn to work. There were older well-to-do couples, the women with their hair meticulously arranged to show off fur collars and large earrings, the men like drab birds in uniform dark gray and black. The lights went down, the curtain went up, and all disappeared into the abstraction of rustling programs and intermittent coughs.

When the lights came on at intermission, the audience was gripped by a group reflex to stand, stretch, and search in pockets and purses for a cell phone. News of the 1-0 lead held by Ireland in the soccer World Cup qualifying match started murmuring its way through the crowd. My husband thumbed at his BlackBerry and confirmed. Harpagon ceded the stage to Thierry Henry.

We were among the first to enter the salon with the bar, a stunning mirrored room with a high ceiling and palatial windows facing the street. While we debated what to order, a small flock of adolescent girls rushed across the room and alighted at the bar, giggling and discussing loudly. I observed the jeunes parisiennes, noting that for once this foreign-to-me species had pushed their voluminous bangs back from their foreheads to reveal an expertly-applied excess of dark eye makeup. Strange plumage, indeed. I suddenly felt rather old.

"Check out that hair!" my husband hissed in my ear.

"What hair?" I asked.

"La bourgeoise behind you. You can't miss it!"

I turned around discreetly and saw a short woman with gray hair that was puffed up, rigidly and perfectly symmetrically, and pulled into a large bun. It almost doubled the volume of her head, and was seemingly shellacked into place by some grandiose post-war hairdresser.

"How does she do that?" my husband asked.

"Better living through chemistry?" I giggled. "And she must not wash it often..."

As my husband tried to fight his way to the bar, which was by then mobbed from one end to the other, I stood self-consciously alone in the middle of the crowded room, clutching my purse. I tried not to stare at a twenty-something man sitting by the window with a bored look on his face. He had on a crisp dress shirt, unbuttoned slightly, a pale blue sweater thrown over his shoulders, and his arms were draped over the back of a neighboring chair with studied ease. His neighbor had a similarly tailored dress shirt and wavy, perfectly styled chin-length hair. An attractive and expensively-dressed young woman leaned ostentatiously into his shoulder.

Must make sure my husband sees the Neuilly UMP fan club over there, I thought with disdain. Then I looked up at more busts on marble pillars, just tall enough to be a head above everyone in the crowd. Molière and Corneille were staring down on us with crooked stony smiles. Oh, what comédie humaine has been acted out below them through the years, I thought. I wonder what they think of me.

My husband had been standing patiently near the bar for some time waiting for his turn to place an order, when a short, shrill woman elbowed her way past and loudly hailed the bartender. My husband glared at her, which she pretended not to notice, then shrugged and maneuvered to wait behind her.

"Madame," called a stern voice from behind, "That shows an utter lack of savoir vivre."

She feigned not to hear, paid for her drink, and disappeared.

"I saw that you were there first," assured the bartender, "But with people like that, it's best to just serve them quickly and get rid of them." My husband agreed with an amused nod, then clutching two glasses of white wine, wove his way back across the room to meet me, chuckling.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Speak as I say, not as I does do

After six years in France, my mother tongue appears to be deserting me, while my French isn't getting any better. On the phone yesterday with my father, I stumbled over my words and fell flat on my face.

"The subject hasn't been bridged," I told him. It didn't sound quite right, so I corrected myself. "Uh, the subject hasn't been breeched, that is." I laughed and added, "What's wrong with me? I can't speak English anymore!"

"I think the word you're looking for is broached," my dad suggested gently.

I shudder when I realize that the future English language literacy of the family's next generation is in my hands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The wall

I meant to post yesterday, but my husband was on a quest to buy a new microwave and monopolized the computer the entire evening. We'll call it the triumph of consumer capitalism.

Twenty years ago I walked into my middle school history classroom and took my seat at a desk, just like every other day. But my teacher, who had been studiously helping us plod our way through a semester's worth of official Washington State history, did not call us to order and launch into his lecture. Instead, he waited quietly for us to settle down, leaned back on the edge of his own desk, looked at us meaningfully and weighed his words for the impact he hoped they'd have on a roomful of kids too young to remember Khrushchev.

"Do you know what happened yesterday?" he asked.

"The Berlin Wall fell," we answered. We weren't so ignorant. Our parents watched CNN, and we payed some attention. We knew that yesterday we'd witnessed news on a different scale.

"Do you know what that means?" he continued.

I'm not sure anyone had any meaningful answer. I know I didn't. I only grasped the importance in an abstract way. I knew that a city had been unhappily divided and would be so no longer; I knew that all over the world, the notion of "us" and "them" so salient for my parents' generation was disappearing and that "we" were winning.

I figured that some day I would want to remember where I was when I'd heard the news. But did I have more than the foggiest notion of how the two Germanys had come to be? Could I have found Berlin on a map? I'm not sure. I was twelve years old, and Seattle was a long way away from anywhere that seemed to carry the weight of history.

My husband was a year out of high school and suffering through pre-college preparatory classes. He followed what was going on with the euphoria of an eighteen-year-old just awake to the larger world, and at any moment he was ready to jump on the next train to Berlin. Instead he stayed home, and studied the news more religiously than his math textbooks.

I, however, two decades older and an ocean closer to the event, am struck by how little I understood at the time. I felt and still feel like I sat down in a theater during the last act of a play, and at the conclusion of the last scene, was still trying in vain to decipher the main characters.

Much younger, during one of the Reagan/Gorbachev summits, I remember watching a television news report in my grandmother's living room.

"I like him!" I said, pointing out Gorbachev. ("...better than the other guy," I may even have added, indoctrinated as I was by my staunchly Democratic parents.)

"You can't like him," my grandmother said quickly and categorically.

"Why not?" I asked, surprised.

"Because he's the bad guy."

I didn't buy it. Even in elementary school, with no real knowledge of geography much less geopolitics, I knew enough to feel certain that my world would be safer than my parents', or that at least I wouldn't face the same fears and dangers. November 9, 1989 confirmed this, and as the wall fell, a weight was lifted from my generation's shoulders. Even if -- does anything feel real in middle school? -- we grasped it only partially.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Being maman is great. When I get home from work, there's a stampede of little feet, and then I'm hit with a hip-high embrace, tiny chin tipped up, smiling. It's a red-carpet welcome, and I am a VIP in my own home.

There are moments when it's a bit tough to be so popular, however. Like Saturday mornings, when I get my own personal wake-up call. Sometimes I'm lucky, and le Petit will wait patiently for me to make an appearance, singing and telling himself stories in his crib while I doze in the other room. Eventually, however, he remembers that it is a new day and somebody is missing.

"Maman! MAMAN!"

I roll over in bed and poke my husband. "You'd better go get him." He usually gets up without complaint, knowing well that he'll be able to climb right back in bed a moment later, since this strategy invariably buys me no more than two extra minutes.

If I don't take my cue and get up, le Petit comes into our bedroom, grabs my arm and pulls. "Read a book, read a book!" or "On va marcher [we're going to walk]," he insists.

"Maman dodo," I protest. Mommy's sleeping. He pulls on my arm harder, then starts stripping the sheets off the bed. If that doesn't work, he yanks the pillow out from under my head.

Once I'm awake and ambulatory, I'd better take a few minutes to sit on the couch with le Petit and read a story or help with a puzzle. A moment alone with Mommy at the beginning of the day helps the rest of the morning go smoothly. I usually enjoy it, too, even if I do beg a second to go put a pot of coffee on the stove.

"On va mettre les chaussons!" On mornings when we're having just too much fun together for Mommy to leave, le Petit brings me my slippers and insists I put them on. Mommy in chaussons means Mommy's not going to work. Very smart, my fan club.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Playing house

Although I've stopped counting the nicks and scratches on our hardwood floor, I still notice where the paint on the walls we so painstakingly repainted four years ago is marked up or rubbed away. My futon, a leftover from college days, has a cover so stained with baby drool and chocolate that repeated washings no longer seem to make a difference.

Most of our furniture is Ikea vintage 1998: a good year, I must say, and sturdy enough to take quite a lot of abuse. One of the "good" pieces, my beloved coffee table chest from Crate and Barrel, has the corners taped over with adhesive foam. I'm not entirely sure if, when, or how I'll ever remove it.

My brother- and sister-in-law have a new apartment in Paris, tastefully decorated with modern furniture, some of it quite expensive, all of it carefully selected. They have custom curtains and upholstered dining room chairs; I have curtains that I recently noticed were filthy from hanging in front of the sliding door, and dining room chairs I clean with a scrub sponge.

They also do not have kids, although as far as I know they are planning to some day.

"Isn't it silly that [my in-laws] bought such nice furniture before having kids?" I asked my husband today, after completing my weekly vacuuming of the apartment (and finding myself in the accompanying weekly bad mood).

"Uh-huh," my husband said without looking up from his book, knowing where I was headed.

"I'm glad our furniture is not fancy." Then I abandoned my falsely positive tone. "By not fancy, I mean old. And beat-up. And crappy. You know?"


"Aren't you glad? It's so much easier than having nice stuff, really, when you have kids."

"Our stuff is great."

"Find me something that isn't old, crappy, or beat up."

"Nothing is old, crappy, or beat-up."

"Yes it is. All of it."

"Well, then, I like it because it is old, crappy, and beat-up."

These conversations are useless, I admit it. I grew up in a house that had beautiful furniture, so part of me feels that now that I'm an adult, if my furniture isn't nice too, I'm a fraud. Silly, no? That aside, is it that strange to dream of a nicer home, with inviting bedrooms with mountains of perfectly-pressed pillows (instead of my mountains of laundry to fold) and a living room with an empty coffee table and an overstuffed couch (instead of my futon and the baskets of toys on my floor)? I dream Pottery Barn in an Ikea-in-a-shoebox reality.

Another part of me is happy, however, that unlike my parents, I don't have to constantly worry about protecting a bunch of valuable, fragile objects within the Toddler Destruction Zone. Le Petit can play soccer in the hallway or ride his red car into the dining room table and it doesn't phase me at all. Living in a museum never made me too happy as a child, and I certainly don't have the energy for it as a parent.

I just need to own the choice. And be a little less obnoxious about it, especially after vacuuming.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Potty, schmotty

I know I said I wouldn't share any potty training stories, but this one is both too good to skip and passes the I-wouldn't-hesitate-telling-it-to-a-potential-daughter-in-law test.

We are currently in the constant-polling phase of potty training. I propose, and often le Petit is willing to go--it still hasn't lost its novelty--but the idea doesn't occur to him on his own. So I ask and sometimes he agrees, if he isn't already doing something he finds more interesting than sitting on a blue plastic ducky seat perched on the "big potty," meditating on bodily functions and waiting, listening to maman's encouragement while singing songs and playing with the handle of the toilet plunger.

Here's an extract from a recent conversation:

"Hey, Little Guy, would you like to go pee on the potty?"

His refusal was clear: "Ca va pas, non!"

That was a very fluent and very français way of telling me to go, err, flush.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


This morning we looked out over the Seine from between the green metal bars of a bridge's sidewalk. I crouched beside the stroller and counted out loud the trains that sped across a nearby railroad bridge, and le Petit laughed with joy each time one disappeared behind the buildings on the far bank. I pointed out the barges that passed below us.

"Trains and trucks and boats all at once. And look, there's a crane!" I felt like a hero, the coolest mom in the world, even as passersby stared as they stepped around us.

I reminded myself to write down how much I love age two.

When le Petit brings me a book and tugs me over to the couch; when I hear him shouting with joy "C'est maman!" behind the door when I arrive home from work; when I listen to him repeating stories and songs in his crib just after he wakes up, I'm certain: there's no better age than age two.

Then there are the objects strewn on the floor. The food dumped from the high chair, then eaten off the floor before I can manage to sweep it up. The protests at mealtime, at bathtime, at potty time, when five minutes later he's perfectly happy and protesting the next transition. Drinking glasses are dumped with precision on the floor the second I'm not looking. Bathwater is gulped down in the instant I turn my head. There are crashes and bumps and screams of refusal from seven or eight in the morning to around nine-thirty at night, when (with luck) we close the door of his bedroom for the night. Some days there is two hours' respite at nap time. Some days, like today, there isn't.

This is as it should be. It is hard work, just hard enough that I'm always demanded just a little more than I think I can handle with grace. I'm lucky to have a husband who does more than his share, so the rare week like this one, when he's away on business for three nights, feels especially hard. But I got le Petit fed, bathed, and off to bed in good order three nights in a row, so I'm in good shape.

And it is so fun watching le Petit start to understand his world as a child instead of as a baby. After the bridge, we went to the park and watched two men with a cherry picker hang Christmas lights in the trees. Le Petit never would have been so interested before. He constantly comments on what he's seen (although to my great frustration, I don't always understand). We're still treated to monologues on our adventures on vacation this summer.

So here's to two: to screams of joy and dismay, to abandoned naps, to I-must-do-it-all-by-myself, to pulling the refrigerator door open with purpose and running off with the milk bottle, to counting new things, to singing new songs, and to tossing an entire bowl of lentils on the floor with gusto.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I'm in a much-anticipated Oracle Database Administrator training course this week. For those of you lucky enough to maintain a comfortable distance from the world of information technology, this probably doesn't mean much. I've discovered, however, that I am still enough of a computer geek to be loving it. The mysterious data-storing black box that I've interacted with for years as a software developer is suddenly revealing its secrets.

It is making me seriously consider changing career tracks to position myself as an intermediary between database expert and software architect. Developers rarely master the database side of things, which leads all too often to illogical designs, rotten performance, and security holes. I'd be half plumber and half Sherpa. And finally useful.

Anyway. My first goal is to pass the OCA certification, mostly to prove to my management that I'm serious about this. Bets are now open on whether I'll be Oracle certified before I'm licensed to drive in France.

[And here ends a random and relatively uninteresting brain dump, with my apologies.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Writing your child's story

I've been posting a little less often lately, and it isn't for lack of things to write about. Le Petit has been doing more amazing and wonderful things than ever, and much of it is worthy of recording, at least in my biased opinion. But at the same time, as he grows and asserts his independence, I'm reminded that in some ways, his story isn't mine to tell.

When he was an infant and our identities were strangely and temporarily intermeshed, I had no trouble writing about him even in the first person. Now I worry what he'll think when he's teenager and he reclaims my narrative. I know there are some things I can't write about, like potty training, no matter how funny and noteworthy they seem to me right now. There are other things that I think will be OK -- his firsts, his language acquisition -- but how do I know?

I've stumbled across a lot of discussion about this issue around the web, I can't always remember where, but one of the most thoughtful posts I found here. That particular blogger writes eloquently about her family's two open adoptions, and our family story is less complex, with fewer actors, but some her concerns are mine. I too try to assume that everyone I write about will some day read what I've written. Including le Petit. Especially le Petit.

What I want him to take away from my blog when he reads it all those years in the future is that I felt excited and privileged to watch as he grew, learned about the world, and discovered the amazing person he is. It sounds pretty cheesy typed like that, but I'm not sure how else to say it. This blog is the diary of his biggest fan.

What I don't want him to feel is that I packaged his childhood for mass consumption, that I took the best bits and marketed them to an anonymous Internet audience. But I guess I'm doing that, too. After all, I write posts to be funny, or to resonate with other moms, and I relish the comments and feedback I get.

I'm walking a fine line, and as le Petit gets older, I'll have to make even more of an effort to err on the side of keeping my mouth shut. Alas, this is not something that comes naturally to me, either in text or in 'real life.' I need to remember to keep this blog about me. I write for myself. I write about le Petit as I'd want someone to write about me. Though perhaps it's a good thing there were no blogs around in 1976.

I know many of my readers are blogging mothers, too, or spend time reading other moms' blogs. What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Name that tune

My husband has taught le Petit to sing Céline Dion. Now during bath time he belts out "All By Myself" with all his heart and soul. He does it in perfect imitation of my husband, off-tune, with a heavy French accent and a few extra syllables missing in the original recording. It sounds something like "All-eh by my self-eh, don-tuh wanna be, all-eh by my-SEEEEELLLLLF!"

I don't know whether either or both of them exaggerate the accent for effect, but the result is loud, passionate cacophony. I pointed out that it makes me want very much to be all by myself for a change.

"He was singing all day long today," the nanny reported, amused, when I came home from on Monday. "But not a kid's song. A chanson des grands."

"It must've been Céline Dion, no? 'All by myself...? His dad taught him that."

"No it was... I think it was Bob Marley."

Sure enough, le Petit also sings Bob Marley's Get Up, Stand Up. I started singing it to him when he was six months old and in the jack-in-the-box phase of pulling up to his feet in our laps whenever we'd hold his hands. Now I chuckle when I hear my gloriously headstrong, "no"-obsessed two-year-old singing "Stand up for your rights." It certainly wasn't meant to be an anthem to toddler angst, but it almost works.

Le Petit absorbs songs, stories and even randomly overheard phrases like a sponge right now. He listens to our singing and storytelling until he knows the words by heart, then repeats it all back much later according to his own logic and inspiration. He can repeat his favorite stories practically word for word without even looking at the pages. He hears sirens and sings "Au feu les pompiers." He sees a boat and sings "Maman les petits bateaux."

I'm often startled by the connections he makes. On Monday night, I called him to the table and put him in his high chair. "'Come and get it!' cries the cook at noon," he recited from Cowboy Small, a book we hadn't read together for a couple of weeks.

The two-year-old mind is a fascinating, beautiful thing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Strange moments in transatlantic romance

Recently, my husband was in a meeting at work with an American Big Boss who despite having spent considerable time in France as an ex-pat, wasn't altogether comfortable working in French. My husband happily agreed to make his presentation in English. He never misses an opportunity to show off his fluent and American slang-laden English, which he perfected over the eight years he lived in the States.

"No problem," he offered casually.

"It's easy for him," his direct boss added, "His wife is American."

Outed! My husband thought. So much for impressing anyone.

The Big Boss looked at him oddly.

"So you married an American, huh?" he asked, then paused and added cryptically, "Now why on Earth would you do that?"

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about physical beauty. I spent much of my life feeling like an ugly duckling, never sure how to dress, how to wear my hair, how to put on make-up, how to feel comfortable in my own skin. When I hit adolescence I was readily cast as the awkward, pimply computer geek. Even after college, when my skin (mostly) cleared and I bought cute skirts and sexy sweaters to replace the long, ratty t-shirts and jeans I wore to the computer lab, an assumed identity as a unattractive nerd was anchored in my head.

Then I hit thirty and had a baby, and decided that it was high time to start loving my face and body as they were. After all, we'd been through so much together. Instead of lamenting the zits that still plagued me occasionally, I thought, "This body looks great, can you believe it once carried a baby?" or "Don't you feel great after that long run?" or "Who's that attractive stranger reflected in the shop window?"

Still, I often felt unsure of how I looked, and rarely felt good about how I dressed. So, since I live in Paris and Parisian women are masters of looking perfectly put together, I decided to observe and learn. At first I compared myself and constantly came up short. My morning commute in the Métro was a parade of designer coats, blouses and skirts as perfectly coordinated as they were pressed, and shoes! Beautiful, spotless, uncomfortable shoes. I couldn't imagine how they -- or their perfectly pedicured owners -- managed to survive a daily commute. I was ashamed of my own skuffed footwear, with low heels in case I missed the bus.

It was disheartening.

Then I realized that I only noticed the women whose style and good taste stood out. The vast majority of women I ran across were like me; dressing with more or less success depending on the day, sometimes accessorizing a bit too optimistically ("This necklace goes with this, right?"), sometimes defaulting to black when no colors seemed to go, and usually wearing sensible shoes.

I felt so much better.

Then I started to dissect what did work for women and why. Instead of saying to myself, "She's so much prettier than I could ever be," I said, "She's beautiful. Why?" Sometimes it was just the clothes, or a haircut that worked particularly well, or a fashion model's build, or the fine-grained skin of lucky genetics. Sometimes it was the bourgeois address: a lot of stylish, perfectly groomed women get on the number 2 line between Monceau and Etoile. Sometimes it was something harder to grasp: some women, the rarest kind, had nothing special about them at all that I could identify and yet they looked more beautiful than the rest.

What do I mean?

I've been observing carefully, and I have decided that the most beautiful woman at work is a colleague in her mid-fifties. I'm sure she has more wrinkles than the twenty-somethings who gather to giggle and smoke outside the front door. She's slim, but not willowy like the receptionist who wears tight-fitting black to show off her curves. Her clothes are not expensive, as far as I can tell; she wears no obvious fashion labels, no expensive shoes. And yet she lights up the room when she walks up to the coffee machine, and men half her age turn to stare.

She smiles warmly, directs her attention equally, asks how everyone is doing and listens with genuine interest. I observe her hair while she talks. I've finally decided that the color is probably not completely natural, but it suits her so perfectly, it glows just like she does. She dresses in bright colors, not so much coordinated as harmonized from head to toe. She wears just enough make-up in just the right shade.

She always seems happy. When she walks down the hallway, she stops to say hello and chat briefly with everyone, even to the people like me that she doesn't know well. I can be having a terrible day spent griping to any and all about some problem or another, it doesn't matter. When I talk to her I find I'm happy, too.

That's true beauty. I'm sure it can't all be learned, but if I can grasp just a bit of her secret, imagine!

I think I've learned a few things, and I'll share them. But, dear women readers, I'm sure I'm not alone. What do you do to feel beautiful inside and out, or as they say in French "être bien dans sa peau" -- feel comfortable in your skin, and confident?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Love à la française

While back home in Seattle, I found myself in the foreign travel section of the local Barnes and Noble, or maybe it was the relationship section. I can't remember. Wherever it was and however I got there, I found myself staring at the spine of a book with an irresistible title: French Women Don't Sleep Alone.

I was almost embarrassed to take it off the shelf -- I even made sure that le Petit wasn't watching from his stroller -- but I discreetly skimmed the blurb on the back, then cracked it open to take a quick look. The subject isn't exactly ground-breaking: much ink has been spilled, mostly in between glossy covers with curlicue letters in bleu, blanc et rouge, explaining the French to Americans, and particularly explaining how French women eat, cook, argue, shop, dress, think, and simply be so mysteriously French.

(I'll admit right now that I can't stand the genre. I think that writing as an ex-pat expert earns you credibility a bit too easily. After all, you only write from where you stand, which for most ex-pats is in a tiny urbanized slice of an incredibly diverse country. I should know. But if I ever get a book deal I'll eat my words.)

As I held the book in my hands like a hot potato, I chuckled to myself. The premise, as I determined in one very brief minute of flipping through the pages, was that French women are all highly successful in matters of the heart. They know the secrets of ensnaring a man, of fanning the flames of passion, of choosing when to leave and how. They can shrug philosophically when they discover they've been cheated on; they can face years of singlehood without tears because they do so on their own terms. That's what I gleaned, at any rate, but let me be clear: I didn't actually read more than a few sentences of the book, and this is by no means a review. What had me rolling my eyes and mentally preparing a blog post was that while one could argue that French women are slimmer, more fashionable, better cooks or choosier eaters than their American sisters, nothing in my experience proves they are happier or luckier in love.

See, I've cried with heartbroken girlfriends over bottles of wine in dimly-lit Parisian cafés. Dimly-lit Parisian cafés are among the best places to cry out heartbreak, and I think that is the only advantage lovelorn parisiennes have over lovelorn Americans.

So, is there anything at all mysterious about romance à la française?

Over lunch today I discussed the mechanics of American flirting with two female colleagues. I explained that in the US, flirting isn't the same game that it is in France. Over there, the stakes are high; you flirt when you mean it, and when you want a result. Flirting can be insulting or it can be welcome but it is rarely innocuous. Here in France, two-thirds of flirting is (mostly) innocent conversation, with no outcome sought, no assumptions made. You're dressed nicely, so the door is held open for you just a second longer than usual while eyes stray and you catch a smile. You feel happy, pretty, or you just bought a new dress, and a colleague notices and compliments you. No one pretends to forget that the world is divided into men and women: everyone remembers and revels in it.

I'll admit that I'm still oblivious to 90% of the flirting that takes place around me (or is even directed at me, I fear). So when three men absorbed in a conversation in French about the mechanics of flirting sat down next to me on the RER this afternoon, I'll admit I guiltily put down my book, closed my eyes, and feigned sleep... all the better to eavesdrop and learn.

I only caught a few small pieces, alas.

"...And [a girl's name], she's cute, isn't she?"

"...the new one on the third floor?"

"Yes, her!"

"Very cute."

(I think to myself that elle est très mignonne sounds so much classier than "she's so cute, man.")

"So I saw her at the coffee machine and..."


"...yes, and she looked over and I just caught her eye, and..."

(Some very interesting details were disclosed that I missed entirely.)

"...and there's [another girl] on the top floor and I think that she thinks..."

"...really? You think? But, [skeptically] how old is she?"


"Oh, well that explains it. If she's only 20, she just flirts with you because all the men in suits still look alike to her."

I kept my eyes closed and did my best to keep the corners of my mouth from curling into an incriminating smile. Soon the men changed subjects to talk of cell phones and I stopped listening so intently. As amusing and mostly innocent as the conversation was to overhear, I'm glad I'm not one of the women they were comparing -- and I'm glad I'm happily married and not playing the French flirting game to win. But maybe there is still some new material out there for some single ex-pat writer to fully research, after all.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Air France, je t'aime

We're back home. We actually got home on Sunday morning, but although adjusting to the jet lag has proved easier for everyone in the family in this direction (Le Petit naps! And sleeps in in the morning!) , I have been exhausted. I took a bit of a nap with le Petit this afternoon (read: pried myself off the floor next to the crib after he'd been sleeping for thirty minutes) and feel energetic enough to write a blog entry.

Or actually more of a love letter to Air France.

Everyone has noticed that air travel is getting progressively more unpleasant. We arrive hours and hours before our flights, wait in line multiple times, remove shoes and belts and shuffle in our socks through security check-points with our pants falling down. We can't even bring a bottle of wine in our carry-ons anymore, and instead have to bury it in the suitcase and hope it arrives intact without staining all our spare trousers a shade of burgundy. The seats are smaller, the meals are less appealing, and you have to pay for everything.

And I find myself living half a world away from my family that I so dearly miss, with no option but to board a plane to go see them, now with a toddler in tow.

Thank heavens for Air France and their direct flight between Paris and Seattle. Our flight back from Seattle this weekend showed me once again why I love this airline.

We arrived with two giant suitcases and a case of wine to check. One suitcase was seven pounds over the bag weight limit, the other was two, and I was prepared to unpack, unload and rebalance in the middle of the check-in line and if necessary throw together another carry-on of books just to avoid paying a fee. "Don't worry," my husband said, "This is Air France. They're usually cool." Sure enough, they let it pass.

On our way to the gate, I was struggling up a non-functioning escalator with my carseat/backpack/rolling cart contraption and my husband, with le Petit on his back and his own carry-on, was unable to help when an Air France gate agent came to my rescue. "Tenez, madame!" he said and lifted the whole heavy thing out of my arms.

On the plane, a flight attendant came by during the meal to ask "Is everything going well?" like she meant it, and she stayed to hear our thoughts on toddler meals and le Petit's refusal to eat his chicken nuggets. Meanwhile, he gobbled up our adult meals instead.

Which brings me to food. Air France food is good! Not gastronomy, but probably the best cuisine you'll be offered anywhere in the skies why flying coach, and certainly better than many a tourist trap restaurant in the heart of Paris. Plus there's real bread and free wine and champagne.

But when I wanted to hug the entire plane crew, and when I knew just how to entitle this post, was when an exhausted le Petit started screaming in the middle of the flight. We knew he needed to nap but couldn't for the life of us figure out how to convince him; I was doing all I could to avoid noticing any dirty looks from the passengers around us. Then, two flight attendants appeared, not to scold us, but to offer their support.

"It's okay if he needs to express himself, but maybe he'd be happier walking around with us in back?"

We were dragged from our embarrassed-toddler-parent paralysis, my husband unsnapped le Petit from his car seat and off they went. While I sobbed silently into my arm rest -- the flight was long and I was at my breaking point -- I saw le Petit out of the corner of my eye trotting up and down the aisles, followed closely by my husband. Twenty minutes later they came back to our seats. Le Petit had been showered with Air France freebie toys, at least three times the normal "ration," and was proudly clutching a new set of colored plastic keys.

They'd been searching for the exit, my husband explained, and once le Petit understood that there was no way to get off the plane before we arrived, he agreed to try and take a nap. He climbed back into his car seat, my husband read him a story, and he quietly fell asleep and slept the remaining three and a half hours until we landed.

So it was that in an age when flying is generally classed alongside dentist visits as necessary, self-inflicted torture, a flight across an ocean and a continent with a very active toddler turned out to be a positive -- if not always easy or pleasant -- experience. Who says France is the land of bad customer service?

Air France, je t'aime!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The coast

We just got back from four days on Washington's Pacific coast, at a resort in the tiny town of Moclips. Seattle doesn't face the Pacific proprement dit, but instead is guilty of a sort of maritime navel-gazing into its own Puget Sound, the long, twisted arm of salty Pacific water that curls around from the north. It forgets the true coast, which is separated from the city by water, then mountains, then forests of giant Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar swathed in moss and dripping with rain. The coast has more gnarled logs than beach-goers, and you can wander for miles without counting more than a half-dozen human souls all dressed in boots and Gore-Tex.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Washington's Pacific coast suits me, which must be why I so loved Brittany's coast this summer. I love that the rain falls there like an everyday blessing, and that sun is an almost unusual surprise. I love that there are probably more salmon running in the streams and rivers than cars passing on highway 101. My husband, a connoisseur of the ends of the earth, humors me. He enjoys trekking through the rain forest or running along the deserted beach, but I suspect he still counted the days until our return to civilization.

When we foraged for food, morning, noon and night, our comparisons with France were not always flattering. We had two excellent meals at the resort, but went to a chain motel dining room on the third night, where we waited (and waited, and waited) for food with an impatient toddler before giving up and walking out. So much for exceptional American customer service.

Breakfast at the resort was good but heavy, and the leisurely start to the day incompatible with our plan to hit the trail early on our second day. So we looked for coffee, fresh fruit, and (preferably unshrinkwrapped) pastries at a grocery store on the road. My husband came back with four apples in sorry condition and a package of Chips Ahoy cookies.

"Do you know what's in these things?" I started to read off the long list of ingredients while a famished le Petit gobbled down three cookies in a row and cried for more. My husband spit out his first bite of apple in disgust and declared it inedible. I whined until we finally found coffee: only in Washington State can you get a good cup of espresso at a bait and tackle shop.

As we polished off the coffee, we turned off the paved road and started up a gravel track to the trailhead. We weren't there to eat, after all; that wasn't what made me homesick. Leaving the car at the very end of the road, we started hiking up the north fork of the Quinault River. I savored pronouncing 'Quinault' the American way, 'kwin-awlt', landing on all the consonants.

We followed the rocky riverbed and hiked between old-growth tree trunks meters in diameter. I pointed out lacy western hemlock, sturdy salal bushes, fragrant red cedar, and sun-dappled vine maple to my husband and if I were introducing him to old friends. We stopped to let le Petit splash and run about the sandier parts of the stream, and apprehensively pointed out fresh bear and elk tracks in the mud. Three startled mergansers noisily flew off, and I watched an osprey dive down from its perch in a dead snag. It was sunny, there wasn't a cloud overhead; the 'rain was in remission,' as our fabulous guidebook described it. I drank in the scent of the forest and the sound of the gushing water, knowing it would have to quench my thirst for this place months, maybe years.

"There's nothing like this in France," I said obviously, uselessly.

I vowed to spend as much time as possible on our infrequent trips back home hiking and exploring Western Washington's wilderness. I love this land with a visceral familiarity, and no other landscape on Earth feels so much like home. I want le Petit to feel the same way.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Séjour linguistique

At the ripe age of two years and two months, le Petit is starting the new academic year with a month of study abroad. My in-laws joked that he was heading on his very own toddler séjour linguistique a dozen years ahead of his peers. While he already understands English well from hearing me speak it at home all the time, I think I've noticed a marked improvement in his spoken English since we've arrived in the US.

He's learned what any tourist knows: master the culinary vocabularly first. On our trip to the farmers' market today he asked for "more strawberry" instead of "more fraises," and at lunch and dinner he demanded "more meat!" And a delicious new treat has entered his vocabulary: a-ni-mal cwa-kers (s'il te plait).

He says 'big step' then spontaneously translates it to 'grosse marche' when his Daddy doesn't immediately understand.

He screams 'wanna get out' instead of 'descendre' to leave his crib at nap time, hoping that I'll understand.

He exclaims 'Oh my goodness!' convincingly.

He says 'no' instead of 'non,' and with the accent and whiny conviction of an American high school student.

He protests with 'I don't want' as well as 'Tu ne veux pas'.

He repeats everything he overhears. I pleaded with him to give up a bit of his two-year-old negativity, reminding him that his favorite guy President Obama says 'Yes We Can.' Sure enough, le Petit promptly repeated, 'Yes we can.' It was adorable. Now if only I could get him to say it like he meant it at nap time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Getting here from there

We made it back home. Jetlag and the daunting prospect of typing again on an American keyboard has made me temporarily neglect my blog, but I owe a quick check-in and brief description of the trip that had me fretting for months. Especially since I might not have worked up the nerve to fly back home from Paris alone with le Petit if I hadn't had the encouragement from you, dear readers.

I was terribly anxious, and in my anxiety I had everything calculated, with toys organized into sacks in my neatly-packed carry-on, enough diapers and toddler snacks to mount an expedition to cross the Alps on foot, two changes of clothes for the little one, one change of clothes for me. Our brand-new car seat was strapped onto a folding luggage cart with a backpack on top; I wore a compact travel purse over my shoulder and le Petit in a sling on my hip. I had crayons, Legos, books, blocks, and an MP3-player loaded with French children's songs. I made lists, I packed and repacked, I felt like I was preparing for combat.

On the day we left, I finally found some inner calm. In twelve hours it would be over, and I was fairly certain that French, American, and international law prohibited throwing a woman and her two-year-old from a plane.

It ended up going remarkably well. Still, there were a few moments when I feared all would fall apart in front of my eyes. Three days before we left, for example, when le Petit came down with a cold and I lay awake convinced it was the swine flu and we'd be quarantined. Or in line to board the plane, when le Petit struggled out of the sling and started screaming in front of a planeful of waiting passengers each wondering who would be lucky enough to be seated in our row. Or boarding the plane, when I discovered that although I'd carefully verified that our car seat would fit in the airplane seat, I'd neglected to check if it would wheel down the aisle of the plane. I found myself stuck at the beginning of the coach section with a heavy backpack and seat I couldn't lift up and a line of impatient passengers behind me, while le Petit gleefully ran off ahead of me. Or when I arrived in Seattle and the immigration agent squinted at my passport.

"How are you doing, ma'am."

"Pretty well! I just survived a solo transatlantic flight with a toddler."

There was a long pause, then: "Your passport seems to be expired."

I caught my breath, briefly saw myself marched back onto the plane along with le Petit and only half our ration of diapers, then insisted, "It should be good until November."

He flipped again through the pages. "Oh... that's right. Welcome home, then."

As usual, the things I most worried over were not a problem. I had plenty of toys, and le Petit spent most of the trip playing with a small handful of Legos I'd had the presence of mind to grab before we left. He fell asleep without complaint and napped for almost two hours. He was even complimented on his good behavior by a couple seated behind us (although the people in front of us, whose seats I unsuccessfully tried to keep le Petit from kicking, overheard and said nothing). I even did find a way to use the bathroom en route, a detail I'd lost some sleep fretting over, believe it or not. And aside from one tantrum while boarding and another in the immigration line, le Petit kept his cool.

Everywhere people came forward with their kindness. They pulled, pushed or stowed my luggage, they smiled and engaged with le Petit, they told me I was doing just fine. And when I arrived, just as I'd hoped, my dad and stepmom were there to give us huge hugs and let us collapse into their car, take over and take care of everything.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Le Petit and I were standing in line at the bakery and I was idly commenting aloud on bread and shopping lists when I noticed that in front of us a young boy, no older than five, was staring at me fixedly. He tugged on his mother's hand and whispered something to her without taking his eyes off of me.

"I don't know, I didn't hear her speaking," responded his mother in French to a question I didn't overhear. "Maybe she was speaking English. Why don't you ask?"

The boy continued to stare at me timidly with his mouth clamped shut, so I cheerfully answered in French, "Yes, I was speaking English. I am American, so my son's learning both English and French.

His mother and I fell into a conversation about raising bilingual children, and she effused how wonderful it was that le Petit was picking up such a useful second language. I explained that while I only spoke English at home, my husband spoke French, so le Petit was getting a good opportunity from the beginning to master both. Meanwhile her son, who was still too scared to say a word to me, looked up at his mother.

"I'm glad we only speak French chez nous, maman," he said to her with relief.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The house in Blanc

August 26, 2009
Blanc, Aveyron, France

The house where we are staying has doors and windows edged with pink stone. The rough-hewn blocks impose order on the chunks of dark gray gneiss that compose the rest of the wall, which are irregular, piled on top of one another and set with a thick mortar. Back when these buildings were functional and never turned the head of a tourist, the gneiss was likely covered with plaster, and only the pink blocks were visible. Only “noble stone” that could be carved into blocks and domesticated was worth revealing. Now authenticity and postcard photographs dictate that stones be bare and shown off.

The house where we are staying was once the rectory, then the schoolhouse when the village outgrew the smaller schoolhouse that stands just beyond. The priest still lived on the top floor but accessed his room by climbing a ladder to the window, to conform to propriety while living under the same roof as the schoolmistress.

The ground floor is still paved with flagstones. I open the kitchen door and sweep out the crumbs of our meals. A family of field mice has taken up residence somewhere between the rafters of the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floor. They scurry around at night, and led my husband on a frantic ghost chase through the upstairs bedrooms the evening we arrived.

The walls are thick. The front door is recessed two feet from the living room. The windows are small; in the heat of the afternoon, the living room is cool and dark.

The roof of the house blew off in last winter’s wind storm that tore through the southwest of France. I imagined our hosts in their ruined tenth-century castle at the edge of a cliff, hearing the wind rip at the stones and wondering what scene would greet them in the morning. I suppose that when stones have stood for centuries there is some assurance they’ll remain, even after sun and wind and rain and ice have done their best in the cycle of yet another season.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Where the road ends in the middle

August 26, 2009
Blanc, Aveyron, France

You can go searching for the end of the world and miss it, finding yourself instead next to busloads of tourists at an alpine overlook, snapping pictures together at a disappearing glacier. Or the end of the world can sneak up on you. In August, as Europe’s cities empty and urban dwellers snarl traffic from Hamburg to Seville in search of tranquility, I didn’t expect to find ourselves alone in the middle of France. Yet here I am.

Where is the Aveyron? Where the Massif Central meets the Mediterranean ranges, where southwest France meets southern France, and Paris is light-years away. We followed the autoroute 75 south from Clermont-Ferrand and exited at Millau, just after the famous Viaduc de Millau, the giant cable-stayed bridge completed a few years ago and already a Michelin three-star attraction. I have to agree with Michelin: the audacity of building such a monument to progress, half five-masted ship and half spaceship, in the middle of nowhere merits more than a detour. But I’m not here looking for progress.

We took the road to Saint Affrique. It was late, eight o’clock, and the inhabitants were beginning their Saturday evening with a drink on the terrace cafés of the main road through town. I imagined their eyes on us and our Paris license plates. It certainly looked like a southwestern town, with plane trees lining the sidewalk and posters announcing the headlines of the latest Dépêche du Midi. I called up the owners of the house we were renting to announce our arrival. “You’re in Saint Affrique? You’ve got another 45 minutes, then.” I looked at the map, and although we were less than twenty miles away as the crow flies, the road twisted and climbed in an unpromising fashion. In the southeast corner of the Aveyron, the limestone plateau of the Grands Causses gives way to wide, red valleys and slate cliffs, and nowhere is close to anywhere. We passed a broken-down tractor with “Non au McDo[nalds]” spray painted on the side; a little farther along, another scrawled message called cryptically for “Down with GMOs, not with union membership.” I remembered we were in the land of José Bové. We were also a few miles away from Roquefort, home of the famous blue cheese: Bové may rail against globalization, but his cheese is exported across the globe.

When I say we weren’t looking for the end of the world, I’m lying a bit: the village where we were staying was an abandoned village on a rocky escarpment, deserted after the Second World War. It was recently purchased and partially restored by a British couple, who took up residence in the ruins of the 10th century fortified castle and restored the schoolhouse and the rectory as rental properties. It was twilight when we arrived, and I could just glimpse the village church clinging to a cliff below the road.

In the morning, it looked like paradise. A stony path led up to the church at the end of the cliff. Our house was nestled back in a grove of plum trees. The early sun turned the hillside facing us golden. But aside from lazing the day away in one of the hammocks strung between the trees, there wasn’t much to do, certainly no discernible economic activity. The hills were mostly forested, and many seemed to steep for livestock. The valleys had some small-scale agriculture, a few lonely cows or scattered hayfields. The towns we ventured into had disaffected textile factories and defunct thermal bathhouses, and the only thriving businesses in town seemed to be the grocery store, bakery and bistro. Half the houses leaning into one another looked abandoned under their cracked plaster, but the others looked alive, inhabited. People sat outside on terraces overlooking the river to eat lunch. What could people possibly live from here, we wondered.

Thanks to Parcours Romans en Rouergue, a fascinating local history book my husband found, the history and geography of the region began to come to life. We learned that in the 14th century, there were 42 families living in the abandoned village where we were staying. Now there was one, plus room for two seasonal vagabonds like ourselves. Why build here -- and painfully, stone by irregular stone – in the middle of the forest? We found a photograph from the beginning of the century, and it turns out that the forest didn’t exist. The steep hills were covered with meadows, and the local residents lived as shepherds, as they presumably had since before the Romans arrived. In the rural exodus that followed the war the land was given up, and beech, chestnut and oak rapidly moved in, blurring the landscape of centuries.

“We’re here for a week,” my husband said to the local grocer as they chatted over the cheese counter.

“And you… you like it?”

“Oh yes.”

“Because there isn’t a lot to do here, you know. A lot of people find it rather far from everything.”

My husband assured him that that was exactly what we were looking for. He bought Roquefort, some organic yogurt, and a small, round, fresh sheep’s milk cheese called pérail. The grocer explained that it was a cheese made seasonally from the excess milk not used up to make Roquefort. He confidentially added that it was quite appreciated by the locals. “We love it so much, we eat it without bread.” Eating a cheese without bread is a high compliment from a Frenchman.

We quickly learned that going anywhere was an afternoon or morning’s endeavor. There simply was no way to get anywhere fast on the mountain roads. But staying at the house, reading and lazing in one of the hammocks strung between the trees was not an option, since we had to chase behind le Petit as he raced up gravel paths and down grassy embankments. So we hiked up the mountains with le Petit on my husband’s back, stopping to gather blackberries. Or we followed the roads to the hidden vestiges of abbeys and castles and raced back in time for naptime. I’ve had my fill of off the beaten path for now. Although I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to fight my way to work in a packed RER on Monday morning, I am hoping to carry just a little bit of the infinite calm of this place with me when we go back home.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tidal horror show

I found the bleached skeletons piled up at the foot of the cliff, broken and mangled, some torn apart by the waves, others dashed to pieces against the rocks. All the colors of life were now faded and pale, and the hollow remains rattled with each gust of wind. Further away survivors clung to the rocks, exposed to the elements, waiting helplessly for the tide. Some were half-drowned already, flailing their limbs in the freezing water or advancing painfully amid the slippery weeds. I could only save so few. I grabbed hold of those I could and held them tight, preciously.

I always have loved collecting seashells.

Looking for Brittany

August 19, 2009
Missillac, Brittany, France

There are regions that hold you at arm’s length. Brittany’s coast of twisted bays and knotted granite cliffs defies casual exploration by summer tourists. The peninsula that you see faintly at the other side of the water may be an hour’s drive away or it may be three, or it may be on an island accessible only by boat. There are chateaux and thatched cottages hidden here and there, but all you see from the main road are identical modern houses, white and square as elsewhere in France, though stamped with traditional Breton granite lintels and slate roofs as a sign of geographic solidarity.

We are staying near Nantes, just north of the Loire estuary, on the edge of the Brière marsh, our destination chosen on a whim after watching an episode of Des racines et des ailes, a French documentary series. We’re on the edge of the region, and Brittany as I thought I knew it (having never before visited the region) is north, or northwest, as my husband corrects me. So far, we’ve spent our days wandering everywhere but the Brière – inaccessible except by boat, we’ve learned. We turn to the ocean instead.

But it is surprisingly difficult to approach the sea. It is everywhere, and the coastline snakes up riverbeds to meet villages and plays hide-and-seek among the salt beds and sand dunes. Yet even my husband, who is obsessed with maps since childhood, seems anxious when he tries to pinpoint the best place to land. Between sandy beach, muddy tide flat, windy cliff, forest-ringed cove with silent green water, you must navigate carefully. I can guess the terrain well enough from the detailed IGN maps my husband brought along, but the distances between ports and inland villages still deceive. We are mariners searching the horizon for blue water and not for dry land.

Tréhegieur was our first port of call, a village on the southern bank of the Vilaine river where it widens into the sea. There were working boats in the port, equipped with mussel farming gear, mechanical arms to pull the clusters of shells from their poles. In my constant, frivolous quest for authenticity, I was happy to see that a large, old granite house with carved window frames stood across from the port. A small stone chapel nearby was converted into a shop selling local seafood and seemed to do a brisk business. The tide was out and I breathed in the smell of salt- and sun-soaked mud.

We then headed for Pénestin, weaving our way up around the headland to the south of the Vilaine, where there were more identical white beach cottages. We thought we’d gotten lost in the looping subdivisions when we saw the parking lot for the beach. It was half-past seven in the evening, the time when all self-respecting French vacationers are heading back to start the barbecue and open up a chilled bottle of rosé, so we were swimming upstream against the crowd as we hiked down to the beach. We stripped le Petit down to his diaper and t-shirt and ran alongside him as he went off to splash in the water.

With a sandy cliff behind us and granite stacks of rocks just beyond the edge of the surf, the beach looked just like home to me. It could have been any beach along Washington’s Pacific coast, except that the lapping waves apparently couldn’t be counted on to move gnarled driftwood tree trunks and, I noted with surprise, the water was warm. The sand was fine, gray, muddy, and punctuated with rocks covered with seaweed and mussels. I was in love. “All the beaches in Brittany are like this, I’m afraid,” my husband sighed, as le Petit ran around and gleefully jumped in the puddles left by the tide.

The next morning was market day in Pénestin. We parked as best we could just out of town and followed the flood of tourists pushing strollers and carrying shopping baskets into downtown. It was a summer market like in every other coastal town in France, with stalls hawking sandals and cheap t-shirts, others local honey and sea salt caramel, fresh fish, local cheese or imported olives, or piles of bright ripe peaches, tomatoes, and apricots. I was bewildered, a tourist lost in the herd, but my husband found Breton artichokes, peppers and fresh beans to buy, stocked up on apricots for le Petit and fresh goat cheese for me. It was well past one o’clock when we got back to the house we’d rented, and by the time we’d eaten lunch it was le Petit’s long, late naptime.

We studied the map. There was a beach near the port of La Turballe, a long, westward-facing stretch of sand that according to the guide was beautiful at sunset. When we arrived it was well-past seven and the beach was nearly empty. As with most difficult to access beaches in France, the furthest reaches were clothing-optional; prudishly American as I am, I averted my eyes as we hiked well to the modest side of the “Beyond this point correct apparel is required” sign. “This is a real beach,” my husband approved, “With sand dunes and pines. No mud. No rocks.” All the beaches of my husband’s childhood were reached by sandy paths through pine forests. Le Petit and I were less convinced; it was beautiful but windy, and we both shivered when we left the water, but the sunset painted the sand a warm gold.

The next day we headed west to where the Pointe de Penvins jutted out into a calm sea and lobster boats dropped traps into the water. It was hard to imagine the shipwreck in the aftermath of which a chapel was erected on the grassy point. The beach stretched away to one side in a crescent, and we could just see the château of Suscinio behind the dunes at the far end of the cove. We’d planned to hike to it, but le Petit had other ideas, so we set down our backpack and let le Petit play for an hour in the surf. We later spied the château from the car, a half-ruined fortified castle rising above the salt marsh.

In the evening we drove to the small point of Pen-Lan on the northern edge of the mouth of the Vilaine, where a demur lighthouse kept a lower profile than the granite steeple of the village church, also shaped remarkably like a lighthouse, probably to confound tourists. I went for a run along the trail up the river while my husband hiked with le Petit on his back. We stopped together at a rocky beach ringed with tide pools.

On Tuesday we headed north (no, west!) to the far edge of the Golfe du Morbihan, an enclosed bay studded with countless islands and carved by small, winding coastal rivers. The road kept frustratingly far away from the coast, and I had the feeling of visiting the bay without ever seeing it. We hiked up the side of a salty riverbed from the river port of Bono on a path shaded by oak and pine. We passed egrets and herons, several rotting half-drowned rowboats, a château and an old tidal-powered mill rumored to have once housed pirates.

We had lunch at a crêperie in Baden, and enjoyed crispy buckwheat crepes so rich they seemed to sweat butter. Le Petit ate his crepe with his hands, delighted to pull it apart and find ham inside. My husband ate his with a fork, and was no less delighted with the combination of tripe sausage and apples. I shrugged; to each his own. We ordered sweet crepes for dessert, caramel apple and calvados-drenched pear, and ice cream for le Petit, which he refused to eat. Naptime was on the road, and we crept up one peninsula after another while le Petit slept: Locmariaquer, La Trinité-sur-Mer, Quiberon. We drove through the fields of prehistoric menhirs, slowing to a crawl to admire the rows of granite boulders from the car window.

Somewhere near the isthmus of Quiberon le Petit woke up. After some bickering, we decided to stop at the beach. A good choice: between running up and down the beach as fast as he could, splashing in the surf, endlessly refilling the moat of a sandcastle and playing in the waves with my husband, le Petit seemed to have never had such fun. It dawned on me that not since I was a kid had I enjoyed the beach so much myself.

Today was market day in Guérande. The fortified city, aloof, surveys the ocean at a conservative distance from behind its marshy salt fields. Bags of traditionally-produced salt were for sale, along with striped Breton sailor shirts, caramel and shortbread cookies, and all the usual tourist delights. We bought le Petit a blue and cream-colored striped shirt that he refused to try on in the shop. The bright colors of the market seemed out of step with the severe granite façades, and the whole had the look of a high school play staged with a borrowed set. I imagined the same scene in winter, when the souvenir shops would be deserted.

It is Wednesday, and we’ll be leaving in three days. I realize that I’ve just started to discover a hundred kilometers of Brittany’s southern coast, which is nothing at all. I can sketch the real Brittany with the faintest of lines now, but with the map spread out in front of me I see what’s left: west to the islands of the Finisterre, north to the channel coast, the highlands and forests inland, and everywhere bays, inlets, mountains. There are worse things than feeling obliged to come back.