Monday, January 26, 2009

Le Petit's Lexicon

It's not easy for me to make myself understood these days. My parents are catching on slowly, but I think even they will admit that I'm learning to understand them a lot faster than they're learning to understand me. They could make more of an effort. After all, I'm learning two languages, Daddy's français and Mommy's English, and they've only got my single, simple le Petit's franglish to master. But they're old and I don't expect much, which is why I've put together this short vocabulary list to help them along.

encore: "More," "again," or by extension, "I want." One of the most common words at chez Petit, I used it to iterate through the objects on the dining room table during mealtimes until my clueless parents figure out just what I'm asking for from my high chair.

Dada: The imperative form of "Daddy." The more subtle "papa" is saved for less urgent occasions.

beudoh: Or un peu d'eau, if you will. Indicates I want more water in my sippy cup, either to drink or to dribble on the floor.

Stha: Or chat, for cat. I rarely see real cats, but I can sure recognize pictures in books and the cat-shaped refrigerator magnet.

Dog: One of those scruffy four-legged things that follow Parisians around everywhere.

Am: Ham, one of my favorite things to eat, and so much easier to pronounce than jambon.

Beah: We have lots of these at home, big ones, small ones, soft ones, and cuddly ones. One of my favorites is dark brown with a wide, flat face, a small red felt mouth and tiny hole in his chest where the stuffing shows through. Mommy tells me his name is "Brown Beah" and that after many years of loyal service he has earned his retirement, but I drag him to the park by his ears anyway.

Oputah: Mommy says "octopus." I say close enough.

Shish: I have a book about shish that I read in the bath, all about how they live in the ocean with the oputahes.

Boap: "Row, row, row your boap, gently down the stream."

Cah: One of those big, shiny four-wheeled machines I see everywhere. I've just learned the difference between a "cah" and a "tuck."

In-te-di: Interdit, a very pretty word which means something like "if I try to do this again someone will most likely come and stop me." When Mommy starts to growl "in-ter..." while I'm emptying a bookshelf, I smile and fill in the last syllable for her, since she's clearly forgotten it.

Sock: I've been pulling these strange objects off my feet almost since I was born, but I just recently figured out how to name them.

Baby: A small person who looks a bit like me.

Coco: Anything that flies and some things that don't. Birds, mostly, or any unclassified animal.

Croco: A crocodile, of course!

Pipi and poop: I just figured out what these are about, and there has been much talk of a mysterious object called a "potty." I think I'll be hearing more about all this soon.

Maman: This one I save for very special occasions. Mommy knows I know who she is.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


"Ca y est, l'investiture, c'est aujourd'hui!" announced my boss when I arrived at the office today. So it was that I learned another French word today, for here in Paris as everywhere else, Obama's inauguration was all anyone was talking about.

When colleagues asked me about the "big day," I laughed and told them how I was happily picturing Bush watching his last, useless hours in the Oval Office tick by while sitting alone at his desk sharpening pencils. "History will redeem me!" he was muttering in my imagination while grinding down yellow number 2s one by one.

I was proud of the moment and proud to be an American, but anxious as well. For as I kept uselessly explaining to anyone willing to listen, the easy part was behind Obama. Becoming president was trivial compared to the work he has ahead of him. Judging from the hopes and expectations of a few random people in an office in the suburbs of Paris, the world has placed more on his shoulders than on those of practically any individual in history.

I was still at my own desk when Obama took the oath of office. Thanks to my brand-new walkman, I could at least tune into the audio and I found a news station just in time for Obama to place his hand on the Lincoln bible. It was hard for me to seize everything in Obama's speech, since I was busy hurriedly finishing up the last things I needed to do before leaving for home and listening to a simultaneous French translation added to my distraction. But I got the essence: he said some hard, necessary things, but he said them in a way that was both inspiring and true.

By the time the translator, who was doing an admirable job translating at top speed phrases and concepts that often had no French equivalent, had reached a breathless "Et Dieu bénit les Etats Unis" for Obama's concluding "God Bless America," I had tears in my eyes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

J'aime la galette, savez-vous comment?

It is January, and the only thing left to celebrate here in Paris, between the train strikes and the economic crisis, is the fête des rois. So instead of limiting the celebration of the arrival of the three kings to Epiphany on January 6th, we keep on celebrating -- and eating delicious kings cakes -- for the entire month.

In northern France, the traditional cakes or galettes des rois are made of puff pastry and filled with almond paste. Somewhere inside is hidden the fève, a small porcelain trinket roughly the size of its namesake fava bean. Whoever gets the slice with the hidden fève is declared king or queen and gets to wear a paper crown provided by the bakery for the occasion.

I love galettes, and I've bought two so far this year to share with my husband. Neither one had a fève! As long as there's plenty of almond paste I'm happy, but my husband was outraged. So I decided to timidly complain at the bakery when I came by for my daily baguette.

The young guy behind the counter shrugged. "It happens all the time," he explained, then offered me a fève if I wanted. I'd been hoping for an entire cake, so I declined.

"That's ok," I said, looking for a way to politely end my embarrassing query, "I guess it's a republic at our house."

Monday, January 12, 2009

18 months

Today is le Petit's 18 month birthday.

This momentous occasion was almost forgotten in the chaos that followed his waking up, screaming, at 6:40 this morning. The morning routine was turned upside down, and it was only thanks to my husband's brilliant improvisation that I was able to get ready and out the door in a relatively calm and orderly fashion amidst le Petit's tired and cranky clinginess. I would even have gotten to work early, had the Métro and RER not conspired against me.

But at some point after I reached the office I realized that it was the 12th of January. 18 months ago -- the length of two pregnancies! -- le Petit came into our lives, nine minutes before his much-anticipated due date.

18 months is hard. It's hard for le Petit, and it's hard for us. I can see him hesitating on the threshold between babyhood and childhood. Some moments he's big: he can do so many things that he couldn't do just weeks ago. He uses new words all the time, he opens doors and presses buttons and manipulates fragile objects like CDs and books with care. But he's still so little, and frustration sneaks up on him constantly: in a split second he's a screaming mess, throwing himself on the floor and wailing in despair. The puzzle piece won't fit. The new word isn't understood. The book has clattered to the ground. Or most frustratingly of all, someone big has decided to thwart his efforts to control his world.

I was warned that his sleep might suffer at around this age. Sure enough, after months of long, restful nights, we're suddenly back to arduous bedtimes and wee-hour wake-ups. I know that once upon a time I thought nothing of dragging my tired self out of bed once a night to coax a baby back to sleep, but my patience is waning. (I admit this with apologies to those readers -- notably caramama -- who'd give anything for a toddler who sleeps as well as le Petit still does most of the time.)

Meanwhile, during the day I have to be more and more vigilant, because he is into everything. He has very strong ideas about What Happens When that relegates diaper changes to "Never." Almost every change becomes a wrestling match that I'm bound to lose. I'm exhausted. I don't know what I'd do without my husband, who has taken over half the tasks and more. I'm grateful, even as I feel a touch incompetent.

I can't blame le Petit for the difficult stuff, though. Growing up is hard work. His understanding of the world is advancing by leaps and bounds, and when I think of the effort that must take, I am astounded. He understands both English and French, and my husband and I were amazed yesterday when after overhearing us talk about jambon, he started to excitedly repeat "ham!" (one of his favorite foods). He understands what happens when and how in his daily routine, and imitates us in our big person tasks. He grabs keys and heads to unlock the front door (unsuccessfully so far), brings me a shoehorn to help me put on my shoes, and holds my husband's electric razor to his face to pretend to shave.

Yesterday he insisted on keeping his teddy bear with him in his high chair during dinner. He fed Bear slices of orange, then meticulously wiped his mouth with a cotton square, just like we do for him.

"Good job! Way to take good care of Bear!" I told him, and added, with a nod to my husband, "You'll make a good daddy when you grow up."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Market Day

I have a confession to make.

I hate going to the outdoor market.

When I first moved to France, I was enthusiastic about it. Stands of gorgeous fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, even a poultry vendor where the chickens and ducks still had heads and tail feathers attached. Back in our neighborhood in Boston, we didn't have a local farmer's market so we did all our shopping at the supermarket. I was thrilled to finally have an alternative.

Now, five years later, I avoid the market whenever I can. Don't get me wrong: I love the high quality products, and I send my husband, who actually enjoys going, in my stead. But I don't like waiting in line in the cold, or being jostled and pushed by ladies with yappy dogs and handcarts, or prospecting for the best price, or leaving with the (often correct) suspicion that I've been had.

But this week my husband's winter jacket finally and definitively fell apart and he had to make an emergency outing to the winter department store sales to get a new one. So I bundled up le Petit in his stroller and headed for the Saturday morning market a block away from our apartment.

Le Petit was patient at first, and quietly watched the passersby while I choose from an appetizing display of winter vegetables. So far, so good, I thought, then noticed as I paid that he was busy trying to grab and rip apart a container of green beans.

We quickly moved on to the poultry vendor, where a long line was forming. Le Petit started to get restless and struggled to get out of the stroller. I gave him a pair of mittens to play with, and when he lost interest, gave him a package of face wipes to empty. I knew that would give me another five minutes. By the time we got to the front of the line, I'd almost run out of tricks and had resorted to singing and miming Little Bunny Foo Foo.

It was finally my turn. I stopped singing to order a guinea hen and some roast beef. Le Petit started to whine, then shout "Dada!" as loud as he could.

"Dada is out shopping," I explained.

"Dada! Dada! Dada!" he replied.

The vendor, who recognized le Petit from his frequent trips to the market with my husband, came around the stand to say hello.

"Ca va?" He crouched over the stroller and le Petit promptly stopped complaining and flashed him his best smile. "Tiens, c'est pour toi," he said, and handed le Petit a cold chicken nugget.

"I think he's a little small for that!" I started to protest, but the vendor insisted, "Mais non!" and le Petit, who knows a tasty treat when he's offered one, started to stuff it into his mouth.

"Say merci, then," I finally said to le Petit.

It was the moment I'd been dreading since we started taking le Petit to the market when he was a newborn. The friendly poultry vendor hands out cold, fully-cooked chicken nuggets out to all the neighborhood children, in between chopping apart raw chickens and slicing raw pieces of steak and without, of course, washing his hands. All my American fears about hygiene and food handling safety were assaulting me. It was soon too late, the nugget was eaten and le Petit was starting to insist "Encore! Encore!"

"No, that's it, only one," I explained to him gently while I waited impatiently to pay and leave. He continued and eventually caught the vendor's eye.

"Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" he asked, then handed me another nugget that I reluctantly gave to a very pleased le Petit.

I guess I should be happy I have a child who will eat almost anything.

I thought about the expression my mother-in-law taught me: "on n'engraisse pas les cochons à l'eau claire," or "You don't fatten pigs with fresh water," and declared the experience a French rite of passage.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The curious side of teenage romance

The Métro is plastered with posters for the new teenage heartthrob vampire movie, Twilight. "A Romeo and Juliette fantastique that has astonished the world," promises the blurb, and on every train platform the pale, innocent heroine is locked in an embrace with the even paler and tormented-looking hero.

It amuses me quite a bit that the latest romance taking Paris by storm is set in Forks, Washington. I've been to Forks a number of times on my way to Olympic National Park, and I can't say it ever made much of an impression on me. It's the kind of place where you'd briefly stop for coffee and groceries when headed for a hike on the coast, a perpetually cloudy, down-at-the-heels logging town.

When I was thirteen years old, I was obsessed with the oh-so-Parisian Phantom of the Opera. I dreamed of treading the marble staircase of the Opéra Garnier and hearing mysterious footsteps behind me or catching the shadow of a black cape out of the corner of my eye. Are pre-adolescent Parisiennes now dreaming of attending Forks High School? Or of midnight romantic rendez-vous amidst moss-draped cedar trees?

Perhaps the "in a land far, far away" part is the key to Prince Charming's allure.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Paris on Ice

It snowed here in Paris on Monday. Not much, just enough to coat trees, grass and cars and stick here and there to the shady parts of the sidewalk, but temperatures promptly dropped well below freezing and welded it all into an icy mess.

On Tuesday morning I missed my bus and decided that instead of waiting in the cold for twenty minutes I'd walk the rest of the way to work. I was wearing chic knee-high leather boots and within a block I could feel the smooth soles skidding dangerously on the unavoidable patches of ice. Tightly holding my brand-new Sony Walkman MP3-player in one hand and my gloves in the other, I carefully made my way down the sidewalk. I felt like an idiot for being so unprepared, but all the other people I passed were advancing just as slowly and wearing just as impractical footwear.

Ah, Parisians. We don't do winter.

I eventually slipped and fell and landed on my rear in a drift of snow at the foot of a plane tree. Then I had a bright idea. Why hadn't it occurred to me before? I was carrying a backpack of running stuff in the vain hope of escaping outside for a run during lunch. I took out my running shoes, took off my stylish boots, and walked the rest of the way with ease.

I didn't change back into the boots until I was at my desk, secretly hoping that my colleagues would comment on my exchange of stylishness for surefootedness. But to my disappointment, nobody noticed.

Today was clear and the sky was a crystalline blue, and the sun worked as hard as it could at melting the ice. But temperatures are still firmly negative and instead of disappearing, the snow is turning into the kind of slushy, muddy, half-frozen mess I remember fondly from March in Boston.

I wore a pair of discreet black sneakers to work and took the bus this morning, just in case.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Le Petit's Manifesto

I have been on this planet for 17 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. I have learned to crawl, to walk and to run. I have mastered the magic words "encore" and "dada" and know a dozen more in two languages. I understand more than you think, and I know exactly what you're saying when you talk about me over my head. I have sharp eyes, sharper ears, strong arms and legs, and I'm even starting to grow a real head of hair.

To put it bluntly, I wasn't born yesterday, and I'm here to tell you, the world as I've observed it so far is not exactly fair.

Let's start with the incessant interdictions. I've been watching you for months, and I'm pretty sure I can manage some of the simpler household tasks. If there's a button to push, laundry to empty out of the machine, a door to unlock or shoes to put on, I've got it covered. So why do you pull me away when I'm about to turn on the stove? Why do you grab the CD from my hands when I'm about to put it in the stereo? And why, just when I've discovered how to use the chairs to climb onto the dining room table, do you put all the interesting things away?

I am big! I truly am! You saw me pick up the sharp knife in one hand and the grapefruit in the other, ready to peel it apart just like Daddy. So why, maman, did you gasp and yell and swoop in and end my fun?

I've also discovered that there's a time for everything, and it is never my time. I want to run around the apartment in my pajamas, and you change my diaper and dress me for the day. I want to sing songs, and you put me down for a nap. I want to rip a roll of paper towels into shreds, and you want to spoon something green and runny and smelling of spinach into my mouth.

This has to end.

This is a new year, and we need a new understanding. So I'll let you in on few things, in terms that even a big person like you, maman, can understand.

1) When I want Daddy, I want Daddy. You'll know this because I'll yell dada right in your ear.

2) When I want you, I'll cry and throw myself at your feet. Just because I said maman once doesn't mean I'll be using it regularly just yet, so quit looking hurt and asking me "And who am I?"

3) Singing "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" does makes some tasks easier, so keep it up.

4) Down is down. Up is up. When I want up, I want up. When I want down, I want down. Is that so complicated?

5) It takes us a good fifteen minutes to get organized and bundled up to go outside to the park. Do you honestly expect me to keep the goal in mind for that long? I would be patient, but half the time I can't remember why you're trying to stuff me into the snowsuit.

6) The other side of the closed door is always the most interesting.

7) When you say "no," I understand "I have one more try before she comes and stops me."

8) Throwing myself on the ground and howling helps. It just feels so huge, you see, the chagrin of not being able to do what I want. I want to show everyone what that feels like by pounding out my frustration.

9) Falling asleep is hard. I've just discovered that the world is vast and my powers are great, but everywhere my attempts to master it all are foiled. Imagine trying to wind down from days of such highs and lows.

10) I love you and I know you love me. Even when tears are streaming down my cheeks and I'm struggling with all my might to escape from your grasp because you're trying to put on my pajamas or my coat or subject me to some similarly intolerable injustice.

As hard as it is for you, it is even harder for me. You know that it will be over in a month or so, and that this is neither the last nor the hardest challenge waiting for us.

Imagine what it's like for me.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Pâtisserie: A cautionary tale

For as long as I've lived in France, I've wanted to make my very own bûche de noël, the traditional roll cake served at Christmas. I was tired of being disappointed by store-bought bûches, which are almost always as dry and heavy as they are elaborate and gorgeous. Year after year, I drooled over the pictures in my cookbooks and wondered to myself, and if this year I gave it a try?

It was the ultimate pastry challenge. But then I looked closely at the recipe and despaired. There was no way I'd find the time to make and assemble génoise, butter cream, and chestnut mousse for 11 people by the 24th of December.

So 2008 was going to end without me fulfilling my pastry-making dream. We were planning a very small celebration for New Year's Eve, just me, my husband, a friend and a bottle (or two!) of Champagne. New Year's Eve is a big deal in France, however, and even those of us who are too old and lazy to party on the Champs Elysées or even stay up much beyond midnight still make an effort to do something special.

After waiting in line for thirty minutes at the overcrowded fish market to buy scandalously expensive monkfish, narrowly averting a le Petit meltdown at the end by singing and pantomiming "Little Bunny Foo Foo," I took one look at the line outside the boulangerie and thought the hell with it, I'll just make chocolate pots de crème. But once le Petit was down for his nap and I stood in my kitchen leafing through a pile of cookbooks, I couldn't resist.

The time had come for me to throw caution to the wind. I had the eggs. I had the chocolate. I was ready.

The most promising recipe looked to be in one of my French cookbooks, but I didn't have any idea what one of the ingredients, fécule, could be. So instead of opening up a dictionary, I opened up the Joy of Cooking and started following an American recipe. It was only once the batter was mixed and pan lined and buttered that I realized I had a problem: my American jelly roll pan, just the right size for the recipe, was too big to fit in my French oven.

I took out my French cookie sheet, a good three inches shorter than the American version, and lined it with parchment paper. I eyeballed the correct amount of batter, eating most of the excess, and then popped it into the oven. It came out looking about right. Close enough, I figured.

My husband came home.

"Something smells burnt."

"It's not burnt, it's génoise," I replied, hurt.

"Maybe it smells more like pâte à choux. Like my grandmother used to make. What are you filling it with?"

Since I didn't have time for butter cream, I'd been planning on making a simple whipped cream filling. My husband talked me into attempting a chestnut mousse. It sounded simple enough, until I came to the ambiguous instruction to "faire fondre la gélatine dans un peu d'eau."

Melt the gelatin in un peu of water. How much is un peu? Apparently a little less than I used, because my mousse soon turned to soup.

"It won't be a problem," I insisted, "There's gelatin, so it'll harden." I dribbled a layer of the mousse on top of the génoise. "This the moment of truth. It's time to roll."

My husband and I hovered nervously above the cake pan. We lifted a corner, bended it slightly.

"It isn't going to roll," my husband announced.


"It's breaking apart."

Sure enough, the génoise appeared to have the consistency of cardboard.

"Oh, no! That's it, c'est foutu!" That was it, everything was lost, my dessert, my honor, a full can of chestnut paste and six eggs. I started yelling at my husband for no good reason while we debated the fate of my dessert.

"We'll put it in the refrigerator, maybe that'll help," my husband said hopefully.

"No, I tell you, it's ruined!" I was in tears.

"Why don't you cut it carefully in squares and stack it? It can be a millefeuille."

"I don't want a millefeuille! I've waited five years to make a bûche, and it is going to roll, dammit!"

And so, while my husband protested and the startled le Petit looked on, I grabbed the cake and started to roll it. Or fold it, really, as it broke in three pieces and chestnut mousse oozed out the sides. I sobbed, and swore, and yelled at the top of my lungs that I couldn't possibly serve this disaster.

"It's not so bad," my husband tried to console me. "It looks like a pyramid."

"It does not! It looks like a merde de vache!"

"But at least it tastes good."

My husband spooned mousse over the flattened bûche and I threatened to throw it out the window. But by the time my friend arrived, I'd started to see the humor in the situation.

"You see, I've learned that the art of pâtisserie is all in the presentation," I told her as I opened the refrigerator and showed off my creation.

After a few glasses of champagne we waxed poetic. "It looks like an iceberg! All that's missing is a tiny almond paste polar bear. It's a cake to build awareness of global warming. The Al Gore bûche!

We ate it. It was edible, if a big heavy, and the chestnut mousse was actually tasty.

There are still leftovers in my refrigerator if anyone is interested.

Bonne année 2009, everyone!