Thursday, February 26, 2009

Convoi exceptionnel

Le Petit has been charming these days, all cuddles and declarations of "maman!" and "encore!" I may have to pry him away from playing with the kitchen appliances ten times a day, we may have frequent disagreements over the necessity of wearing a coat, and an impasse may be narrowly avoided at nap time, but mostly we've been having a ball together.

A trip to the pediatrician's office yesterday even went smoothly despite an hour-plus wait. There was the usual teary, indignant scene when we tried to convince le Petit to lie down on the examination table -- "His grandmother was an opera singer," my husband explained over le Petit's dramatic pathos-filled screams -- but he calmed down quickly when things were finished and even offered the doctor a triumphant smile and a wave goodbye.

So I spent the day at work meditating on the joys of motherhood and wondering if the time would soon be right to try for number two. And maybe a number three eventually, why not?

Just as I was imagining myself signing up for a minivan and a SNCF large family discount card, reality caught up with me, as usual.

I arrived to pick up le Petit at seven o'clock. It looked like I had a decent chance of sneaking away without incident, for the nanny had already dressed le Petit in his sweater and jacket. But events took a turn against me when le Petit noticed that l'élue de son coeur, the six-year-old big sister of the baby who shares his nanny, had arrived just after me. She ran up to him and gave him a huge hug and they proceeded to chase each other around the living room.

I tried to gather le Petit, the diaper bag, and the lunch bag and head for the door, but one of the three kept sliding from my grasp. By now there was a crowd in the apartment, for the baby's grandma and niece had arrived with his big sister, and le Petit is smart enough not to want to leave a good party just when it is getting started. I coaxed a half-hearted wave goodbye and carried him outside into the hallway.

He took one look at the stroller and exercised his toddler veto power, simultaneously arching his back and letting his limbs go limp so I could not force him to sit down. I pleaded. I bargained. I finally called the elevator and let him walk in, pushing the stroller behind us: anything to avoid a tantrum within earshot of the nanny.

I soon found myself in the entryway of the apartment building with an empty stroller, a diaper bag, a lunch bag, a backpack of running clothes, a purse, and a recalcitrant toddler intent on wandering away with a bottle of water held tight and clenched between his teeth.

I begged and pleaded some more, I picked him up and tried to fold him into a sitting position, all with no success.

So we left the building and started home with le Petit balanced on my hip and pushing the stroller with one hand (I intervened occasionally to steer), the diaper bag hanging from the handles, my backpack on my back, the lunch bag stuffed under and my purse draped over the seat.

"This is a very silly way to go home," I told him, "And you're heavy!" I thought (and not for the first time) that it is a darn good thing I don't worry too much about my appearance in public. That was when we crossed a nearby square and I noticed one of my shoelaces was untied.

"You stay close to Mommy," I said as I stood le Petit on the ground, "I just need to..." and before I could glance at my shoe he was off on a wild sprint to freedom. I rapidly abandoned purse and stroller to chase after him.

"You have to be careful! There are cars here!" I motioned towards the street, which was thankfully far away. "Cah!" repeated le Petit, overjoyed at the sight. I sat le Petit down on a bench and quickly tied my shoe while he was figuring out how to climb down. I swung him back on my hip. We were halfway home.

When we were within sight of our apartment building I stopped to switch hips and le Petit decided that we were on our way to the park. "Oputah!" he announced, which in le Petit-speak is "octopus" and codename for the playground where marine animals decorate the mat under the play equipment. "No, it's not time to go to the park," I told him. "Oputah! Oputah! Oputah!" he chanted louder and louder as we approached the door, unwilling to give up hope of a last-minute change of itinerary.

"Oputah" sounds an awful lot like "ah putain" I thought to myself as we passed in front of an amused neighbor who held the front door open for us.

There a shriek of joy when I let him press the button on the elevator and a shriek of despair when I hesitated letting him press the doorbell, and then we were home.

Not a moment too soon.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Singing has become critical to keeping our household on track.

I don't sing well, and until I got pregnant I no longer even sang very often, since my Paris commute by public transportation doesn't lend itself to belting out Sarah McLachlan tunes like I used to while zipping down the Mass Pike every morning. But as my belly grew so did my desire to expose le Petit to music early, even if it was just to my poor shower renditions of "You Are My Sunshine."

(Lest I be accused of neglecting the serious side of le Petit's musical education, we did play Bach's Brandenburg Concertos through headphones I held against my abdomen when I was six or seven months pregnant, but I gave it up when I realized I had no way of knowing if the sound volume was adjusted correctly. Maybe it was turned up too high and that's why he's so, err, expressive? Although if a harpsichord accompanied his tantrums you'd never hear it over the chorus.)

Now I sing morning, noon, and night, and on unfortunate occasions, in the very small hours. I sing "Rubber Ducky" at bath time and "The Wheels on the Bus" on our way home from the park. I sing "Oats, Peas, Beans" at dinner, a homage to frozen peas, le Petit's new favorite food. I sing "Little Bunny Foo Foo"--complete with hand gestures--when I need to encourage patience in line at the grocery store. I sing "Louie Louie" loudly and poorly (is there any other way to sing it?) to startle le Petit into accepting a diaper change and to annoy my husband at the same time. Two birds, one stone! And, of course, I often run through every lullaby I think of at bedtime.

Meanwhile, my repertoire of French children's songs has been growing. My husband has in turn been learning American songs, but he's more into improvisation than mastering the original lyrics. For example, his version of "Little Bunny Foo Foo" goes something like this:

"Little Bunny Foo Foo was hopping through the forest, scooping up the little mice and bumping them on the head. Bumping them on the head! Down came the good fairy and said, [doing his best impression of a New York taxi driver] 'Hey. Hey! Foo foo! I don't wanna see you do this to the little mice! I like the little mice, they are my friends."

And so on, in the very French accent I fell in love with 'the's that come out more like 'zhe's. Le Petit seems to prefer it to my more traditional version.

Le Petit is starting to learn a few songs of his own. "Ah! Les crocos," a French song about an epic battle between the crocodiles and the elephants, is his favorite. The tune is approximate and there are only two intelligible words, but it is a start. He also happily chimes in with "eee-eye-ohh" when he hears "Old MacDonald" and "Ding, ding, dong!" when he hears "Frère Jacques."

His grandparents sent him the gorgeous Glorious American Songbook for Christmas. He loves to flip through the pages and point out the songs he wants me to sing (half of which I don't know, I'm ashamed to admit. "Happy Days Are Here Again," anyone?) It feels like I'm brainwashing him with patriotic propaganda when I sing (at his request, I assure you) "My Country 'Tis of Thee" for the umpteenth time, but my heart melts when he sways back and forth to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or declares "Doodah!" when we land on the page with "Camptown Races."

Our latest discovery, courtesy of his French grandparents, is a selection of French children's songs on the web. Le Petit loves the computer now, and although we severely restrict the time he spends in front of it, our Sony Vaio notebook has been rechristened "Croco."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gone underground

On an average weekday I spend two hours in public transportation, at least one under the streets of Paris. Last Saturday I spent almost five.

I spent the afternoon exploring the Métro's tunnels, platforms, and corridors from two-thirty, when I met a group of curious fellow Parisians in the cool February sun outside the entrance to the Châtelet station at Place Sainte-Opportune, until seven-fifteen, when I climbed the steps of the abandoned Saint-Martin station into the freezing night air. The tour was organized by the Ademas and animated by three of the association's astonishingly knowledgeable public transportation geeks.

Opened in 1900, the Paris Métro may be a youngster compared to the London Underground, which has been operating since 1863, but it still has storied history. In fact, the oldest portion of subway tunnel in the world is the vaulted roof above Châtelet-Pont au Change. It dates to the 17th century, and is a recuperated portion of a gallery system originally built as flood control along the Seine. But the hundred and nine years of the Métro's history proprement dit is enough to provide several hours worth of interesting tales and detailed explanations.

Did you know that:

- The famous white beveled "subway tiles" were chosen because they efficiently reflect light. Until the 1930s the platforms were lit by dim and widely-spaced 15-watt lamps.

- The original lighting was so poor that contemporary newspapers complained that the only way to know if the woman standing next to you on the platform was attractive was to glimpse her face in the headlights of an approaching train (when, one assumes, the noise and bustle would render the discovery less than useful).

- The 12 and 13 lines were originally lines A and B of a private subway system, the Nord-Sud, built by Jean-Baptiste Berlier, the engineer passed over for the competing government-sponsored project.

- All the lines, even the ones that run on tires, are interconnected by a network of service tracks.

- All of the lines except the 10, 7 bis and 3 bis are fully automatic. The driver closes the doors and periodically presses a button to indicated his presence while the train is moving but does not drive the train, which receives stop and start signals from a centralized control system.

- Many stations were abandoned during the Occupation. A few, including Saint-Martin and Croix Rouge, were never reopened.

- In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, the stations Allemagne (the French name for Germany) and Berlin were renamed to Jaurès and Liège overnight... which goes to show that French bureaucracy can move quickly under certain circumstances.

I soaked in these and other obscure facts as best I could over the noise of passing trains. We traveled from Châtelet to Odéon on the line 4, stopping to admire the metal tube structure of Saint-Michel that was fully built onshore then sunk under the riverbed for the line's passage under the Seine. We took the Line 10 to Gare d'Austerlitz, learning that the line 10 was a "bizarre" line for reasons I can't remember but I didn't find surprising, since the French love any exception to a rule. We then took the lines 5 and 7 to Louis Blanc, where we took the 7 bis, a strange, short line that does a small loop through the eastern wilds of Paris. (I'm sure I'm remembering some of this itinerary incorrectly, but it doesn't matter.)

We stopped at Place des Fêtes, a neighborhood known for its disreputable housing projects and not the sort of place you wander by chance. The group of scruffy teenagers yelling and shoving each other at the other end of the platform probably didn't know that the station could be transformed into a fully-ventilated bomb shelter for over two thousand civilians.

This was where the tour got mysterious. We were led through a locked door up a passageway to an abandoned entrance. We got to peek up an old elevator shaft illuminated only by the daylight from a iron grill above. I took pictures with my cell phone, kicking myself for not bringing a real camera.

Abandoned entrance at Place des Fêtes

Then we were off to République, where a brief walk took us to a Métro street entrance with a short staircase leading down to doors below the sidewalk, typical except for absence of signs, the locked steel doors and the dirty appearance. I could have walked right by without noticing it, just another piece of abandoned and graffitied urban architecture. Inside, however, was Saint-Martin, one of the famous stations fantômes, or ghost stations.

The immediate inside was brightly lit and, we discovered, still regularly used by Métro maintenance staff. Two vintage tile advertisements were kept in tip-top condition.

Maizena corn meal

Is that Marianne hiding behind that brilliantly clean laundry?

Beyond a second series of locked doors things got more ghostly, however. I am not sure how the graffiti artists got in, for the station is locked and the access from the tunnel limited by high walls, but they've made much of their canvas.

We followed the tunnel to the platform where we wandered and contemplated the scene, both familiar and strange. Is this post-apocalyptic Paris? Or just a bad dream?

When the visit was over, I walked back to République a little hesitant to disappear again underground. It was five hours well spent, a guided tour I would recommend to anyone, but I wasn't entirely surprised when the next morning I woke up with a slight headache and a spotted map of Paris hovering before my eyes.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Impressing the neighbors

When I got into the elevator yesterday night with le Petit and my mother-in-law, a neighbor I vaguely recognized got in after us.

He looked at me, then looked at le Petit sitting in his stroller buried in his winter jacket and hat, and asked me pointedly, "Ca va, le Petit?"

I hesitated, debating whether to mention the case of chicken pox that le Petit was getting over this week, but decided my neighbor might not appreciate the mention of viral epidemics in such close quarters. So instead I turned the question over to le Petit, asking him in a high-pitched mommy voice, "Est-ce que ça va ? Dis 'bonjour!'" Le Petit's reflection in the elevator mirror smiled obligingly and babbled at us.

"Is he teething, maybe?" the neighbor asked with concern. I had trouble understanding him, so my mother-in-law replied instead.

"No, he already has all of his teeth!" she announced proudly, "Or at least, all the ones for his age."

"Well, then," the neighbor concluded skeptically, then changed the subject, "We just found out we're expecting a boy. In three months." I mentally sorted through the few neighbors I actually recognize, trying to remember if one was pregnant. Meanwhile, we reached the fifth floor. As my neighbor got out, I almost followed him before realizing we still had one floor to go.

Then it clicked. He was our downstairs neighbor. Directly downstairs from us, in fact, and well-placed to hear le Petit's recent early morning crying episodes that have on some occasions lasted well over an hour.

Whether it was the chicken pox, or the cold, or the 18-month developmental leap, or just that I jinxed myself by bragging about what a good sleeper he's become on my blog, we've had a few rough nights recently. We've also had some not-so-brilliant parenting moments at 3 a.m., when whatever we tried to do to calm him was wrong, when I sent in my husband when le Petit wanted me, or when I went in when I was too annoyed and frustrated to be of much help. Le Petit has always been able to cry loudly enough to create sound waves that can be palpably felt across the room -- a sensation I'd only experienced before with office fire alarms -- and as he has grown, so, incredibly, has the volume.

I can only imagine what my neighbor thinks. Not only does my child scream for hours in the middle of the night, but I am seemingly unphased by it. What a mother! Quelle mère indigne !

So, I lamely hope that he thinks that I was less than forthcoming because the belle-mère was with me. Or maybe in three months he'll have an inconsolable baby of his own and he'll understand.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I love you, Numericable

Oh, and I still have no television or internet access at home. Our provider Numericable, in the proud tradition of French customer service, unilaterally decided to cancel our service appointment last Saturday. The claimed our problems were due to an outage in the neighborhood, which unsurprisingly turned out to be unrelated.

We called and complained, twice, and they are supposedly coming this Saturday. Neither my husband nor I expect the problem to be fixed then, of course, but we'll at least have someone to yell at in person.

So that's why I'm posting infrequently and still haven't responded to tons of email messages. On the bright side, however, I've been getting to bed earlier, so there is a silver lining.

Train-train (the daily grind)

One of the decidedly unromantic sides of living in Paris is the daily commute. I love the Métro and its convenience and history, enough that I'm spending Saturday afternoon on a walking tour with the association Ademas, but I don't love the hours I spend stuffed in an overcrowded subway car acrobatically hanging onto a steel pole.

The RER A commuter train is even worse. During rush hour, trains arrive roughly every minute and half, disgorging fewer passengers than attempt to squeeze aboard at every station. Most people are trying to reach La Défense, Paris' outlying business district. I board at Etoile, the busy station under the Arc de Triomphe one stop away from La Défense. Squashed as I usually am between tall commuters fiddling with their cell phones, I try to imagine I'm elsewhere and lose myself in my book if I can still reach it.

Once we pass La Défense, I usually have a place to sit and some space to breathe. On many mornings, however, some small glitch in the saturated system throws the trains off their rapid schedule and the cars are so packed at Etoile that I can't even get on. I let train after train go by before I finally succeed in boarding, often one that isn't going to my destination, forcing me to get out and wait again a couple stations down the line.

Parisians are notably grumpy and unfriendly when confronted with transit system problems. It is every commuter for himself, with people pushing and shoving, shouting and complaining, and no cheerful camaraderie in the face of delays. Recently, when a series of events forced a complete halt of traffic at Saint-Lazare, one of Paris' busiest stations, mobs of angry commuters so menaced railway personnel that the station was closed and evacuated.

I try to remember to be respectful and patient, but it is so easy to get caught up in the pushing and shoving and grimacing and grumbling. When I've watched the fifth(!) train in a row leave the platform without me, it is hard not to shove my way into the next one in a mad Darwinian dash to survive. I have two disadvantages, for I am small and short and I tend to care too much about what other people think of my behavior, but even that doesn't stop me on some days.

I am ashamed to admit that I have wondered to myself if the economic downturn might ease the pain of my commute. After all, with all these layoffs, soon there will have to be fewer people fighting their way to the office every morning.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Midwinter misc.

Le Petit has the chicken pox. When the first spots appeared two days ago it was no great surprise, since the baby who shares his nanny came down with it two and a half weeks ago. So far le Petit doesn't appear to be suffering much, just spots and no fever beyond the "gee, I think he feels a tiny bit warmer than usual" reading on my mommysense barometer. It is only day three, though, so we'll see how it evolves.

He also has the same rotten cold that I have and is drooling so much that he must be working on his two-year molars. He's quite the trooper, despite all this.

(Ever noticed how when you ask a parent with a child under three -- especially their first child -- how said child is doing you must brace yourself for a monologue that lasts at least ten minutes and includes the most boring details of teething, potty training, first feats of all sorts, and cases of the sniffles? I used to hate this before I became a mother myself.)

I still have no internet connection at home. They're coming to look at it on Saturday. I love French customer service.

Le Petit woke up in the wee hours this morning talking to himself. Not crying, not whining, just mumbling something about "bear." My husband and I woke up, glanced at the clock, wondered if we should do anything -- I briefly worried that one of le Petit's beloved teddy bears had been tossed out of the crib -- but le Petit quickly went back to sleep. Then at seven o'clock I heard him declare "beah!" once again before rolling over and continuing to sleep. If you'd told me a year and a half ago that le Petit would wake up and talk himself back to sleep before age eighteen, I would never have believed it.

We moved our voluminous CD collection up to a shelf out of le Petit's reach over the weekend. My husband accomplished this herculean task during nap time, and when le Petit woke up he immediately noticed something was amiss. He pointed at the bookshelf where the CDs were now just beyond his reach. "Encore?" he asked and pointed, confused and annoyed, as if to say "I leave this place for two measly hours and the whole operation falls apart."

He still has the book collection to dismantle, though, which we're working hard to discourage with limited success. A typical conversation chez Petit these days goes something like this:

"Boom!" Le Petit declares proudly as he grabs a book and tosses it on the ground.

My voice shifts into mommy-warning-mode, sliding to sharp and high tones at the end of each phrase. "Books are for reading, not for throwing!" I gently grab his arm and put the book back on the shelf. "That's in-ter..."

Le Petit pulls another book to the floor with his free arm as he completes my sentence.

He just figured out how to say "book." He's also starting to take an interest in the words printed next to the pictures in his story books, and asks me to repeat them for him. He's pretty proud of himself, and I am, too.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow Day

I'm fond of explaining that strikes in Paris are a lot like "snow days" back in Boston: a predictable, periodic nuisance that you outwardly complain about but -- provided they don't occur too often -- you secretly love for how they turn your routine upside down. Anyone with very strict work hours or important things to do is seriously inconvenienced, of course. However, those who, like me, are lucky enough to have jobs with some flexibility can either work from home or heroically brave the commute, arrive late, spend much of the day scanning the web or the window for situational updates, and choose the right moment to make an early break for it.

Last Thursday was a huge day of strikes in France, and I knew that it would hardly be worth trying to catch one of the one-out-of-ten commuter trains that would be circulating on my line. So I left le Petit with the nanny (who commutes only by Métro and thus had a smoother commute) and headed off to my in-laws' house to work in peace while listening to the radio announce the latest news of the chaos that was possibly overtaking the rest of the city.

Today was a real snow day. I woke up to a neighborhood draped in several inches of pristine snow, and a light but steady shower of flakes was still visible in the streetlights below our apartment. Since I go to work by train, I had no excuse to do anything other than lace up my sensible shoes and trudge out the door. I didn't mind, and I even took a few pictures on my way to work, since it isn't every day I get to see Paris dressed in winter white.

I was so absorbed in my book that I missed my station and my bus stop. Instead I got off the train at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and walked past the château and through the snow-covered park. Northern France in winter often seems like all shades of gray to me, and today even more so, but not in a depressing way. The snow outlined a sculpted vase of flowers, a flight of stones steps, the lines of bare trees, the black iron gate. Everything was swathed in the quiet that you only hear while snow is still falling.


My internet service is out -- again -- and has been since last Thursday, and the earliest my beloved ISP can get someone out to look at it is next Saturday. So I'll be posting when I can from where I can, and likely not often. And to those loyal readers who also know me in real life and have recently sent me e-mail, know that I will respond as soon as my home connection is back up.