Tuesday, March 31, 2009

France as we know it

My husband is watching a documentary on television and I'm paying intermittent attention to the old newsreel footage that is jerkily flashing across the screen. It's France in 1945, and like most narratives of French history, the backdrop of ninety percent of the story is Paris, and that Paris looks remarkably like the Paris I know.

The buildings haven't changed, unsurprisingly, since little in the heart of Paris is new since Haussmann. The cars are different, the people in the street are dressed formally and soberly, the women's hairstyles are 1940s waves with prim little hats. The buildings are grimy and the stone facades are almost black. It looks like a country that just came through a war, but it isn't unfamiliar. It's more like leafing through an old high school yearbook than receiving a postcard from an foreign land.

The last five minutes showed the French countryside, and that is a different story altogether. A group of ten people dressed in white buttoned shirts and brown suspendered pants harvest wheat by hand, aided by some contraption I cannot name which is pulled by two horses. The footage is in color, but it looks far older than the black-and-white films of GIs crowding into theatres and clubs in Paris.

If I were dropped blindfolded into Paris sixty years ago I could probably find my way around, and would certainly eventually stumble upon a familiar Métro station. If you dropped me in my beloved Gers, however, I'm not sure I'd have any idea where I'd landed.

Monday, March 30, 2009

So close, so far

The first farmhouse we visited looked perfect when viewed from the front garden outside. The walls were restored so that just enough sandstone was exposed and a neat walkway led up to a front door framed by a clematis vine. I held my breath, expecting to fall in love.

When we walked inside, the main room was spacious and cool. As typical of old houses in the southwest of France, the windows were small to keep precious heat in in the winter and equally precious shade in in the summer. There were oak rafters on the ceiling and dark red irregular tiles on the floor. A giant fireplace dominated the center of the room. I couldn't have dreamed it better.

This was it, my farmhouse in the Gers. I thought I'd have to wait until I was retired, and even then only assuming the dollar stabilized and the predicted crashes of Social Security and la Sécurité Sociale didn't come to pass. In moments of optimism I thought perhaps I'd eventually become indispensable enough to my company to negotiate an ongoing telecommuting arrangement, but I had to admit that it would most likely never happen, certainly not in the near term. And was it truly prudent to consider buying a vacation home an eight hour drive away from Paris?

Yet here I was with a real estate agent, and with very little information, I'd just made an offer. We walked through the main room to the kitchen where we had a view of the garden out back. The view from the window above the sink looked as stunning as I'd expected and I was already imagining cooking up the fruits of my labor in the vegetable garden when I realized something was quite wrong.

The garden ended abruptly in a cliff. There was a fence, a few tufts of grass, and then a drop-off that would give Wile E. Coyote vertigo. I turned to the real estate agent and started to panic. Was it too late to back out?

I started to explain that we had a toddler and that such a backyard would never be safe; that I came from a land of abundant rain and frequent landslides and I wasn't sure most homeowners insurance would cover a building disappearing in a storm. She claimed she understood in the insincere way real estate agents agree with everything you say, but at the same time looked ready to wage a fight. In the meantime, my husband got a call from the bank. They wouldn't approve the loan and we could legally back out. We were saved.

Without missing a beat, the agent said she could show us something else, something more in our budget. It was an historic townhouse in Lectoure, with a first floor in stone and a second half-timbered, just beyond the town wall and with a sweeping view of the valley. I knew just the house she was referring to, for I'd noticed it on our last trip. It was one of those houses that from just a few stolen glimpses through windows you can imagine yourself living in down to the details of where you'd place flower boxes and how you'd orient the dining room table. It was my house, and it would finally be mine.

"We'll go take a look," I said, trying to hide my enthusiasm. I could see Lectoure on its hill in the distance, and knew we'd be there in minutes. I could be signing a letter of intention to buy in an hour. My husband and I exchanged a meaningful look. We were in agreement.

We were in the car winding closer to now-hidden Lectoure -- roads in the Gers are never straight, and one grows accustomed to seeing a destination appear and disappear behind small wooded hills and rows of grapevines -- and I knew we couldn't be far. Then, suddenly --

"Maman! Ma-MAN!"

Heh? What? The car disappeared, the fields disappeared, the grapevines were gone in the time it took to blink my eyes open and see le Petit standing in his crib next to our bed. We weren't in the Gers, we were in the tiny family house in Troyes, and it was quarter to seven in the morning.

"Maman!"

I wasn't getting up quickly enough. Le Petit had no idea I was hauling myself back up the autoroute A20 and in my confused half-awake state had barely reached Limoges. My head arrived as my bare feet hit the cold wooden floor.

Yet another case of parenthood anchoring me firmly to reality.

Nature or nurture?

I don't know if Proust would approve, but le Petit eats his madeleines hump-first. Sometimes he just nibbles off the hump and gives the rest to me.

Le Petit is always excited when we walk into the bakery. He doesn't understand why we have to stand in line, and starts to yell "pain!" "pain!" with increasing intensity. I remind him to use his indoor voice, but it is more for form than for anything else. Once outside I rip off an end of the baguette, hand it to him and watch him devour it hungrily.

He already drinks the watery stuff from the top of the petit suisse yogurt containers. How long will it be before he's calculating the correct angle for slicing camembert and expertly wielding a pair cornichon tongs?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Urgences

First, no need to worry, this ends well.

It has got to be a rite of passage for a parent, one that they should list in the accompanying notice of home pregnancy tests. That's what I told myself, at least, as we crossed town on the short drive to the emergency room.

Yesterday le Petit woke up from his nap listless and hot with fever, and spent the rest of the afternoon lying in my arms like when he was a newborn. I kept calling but couldn't get back through to my pediatrician's office and I was getting more worried by the hour. When my husband got home we quickly decided to call the urgences pediatriques at the local hospital, not expecting they would tell us to come in.

So I found myself holding a limp and glassy-eyed le Petit in my arms in a crowded waiting room for hours last night. The triage nurse saw us quickly and announced le Petit's temperature to be 40.3° C (104.5° F), then instructed us to strip him down to his onesie and wait, making him drink as much water in the meantime as possible.

The four hours went by quickly, bizarrely enough. Waiting forever in an emergency room reassures you, at least, that your condition is not considered serious. The doctor saw us and ordered bloodwork and a chest x-ray. My husband stood next to le Petit as a giant mechanical arm swung down and his tiny ribcage appeared on a television screen, as I had flashbacks of my second-trimester ultrasound.

"It isn't every day you get to see yourself on TV!" I told him in encouragement from behind a glass screen. He didn't share my feigned enthusiasm, but he did deal with the x-ray much better than the blood test. The mask of nitrous oxide my husband held to his mouth had absolutely no effect, and he screamed at the top of his lungs as two nurses gently held him down on the examination table and I stroked his legs.
Fever or no, he was ready to make it clear that he was very unhappy and quite skeptical of medical science.

As the fever reducing medicine they gave him when we arrived started to kick in, le Petit was more alert but hardly any more comfortable. I held him and walked him around the room slowly until he caught sight of my husband and asked with increasing insistence for "Dada!" My husband picked him up and he immediately asked for "maman," which made everyone in the waiting room laugh. He eventually fell asleep in my arms.

The tests came back all clear and le Petit's fever was declared to be viral, with no better treatment than time and rest. We got a stamp in his government health book and were waved out the door, making me once more grateful to be living in the land of socialized medicine.

We arrived home late, relieved and exhausted. Le Petit was doing a lot better today, still feverish and with little appetite, but playing and interacting and seeming more himself, thankfully.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Maman!

Le Petit has got one of those fever-and-no-other-symptoms things that are both so worrying and yet so common in under-twos.

I worked from home yesterday to take care of him, and found that with my current light workload at the office, I can get a full day's work done in five-to-twenty minute chunks after all. The secret is to turn away from the computer as quickly as possible when le Petit comes up to me with a book or a toy, for the quicker he's distracted and happy, the easier it to get back to whatever I was doing without a tantrum. I'm just grateful I don't have any conference calls until Friday.

His fever is higher today and I'm waiting somewhat anxiously for my pediatrician's office to open so I can confirm that no, there isn't any reason to worry just yet. He doesn't want to eat anything but "appuh" (applesauce) and he doesn't want to let me out of his sight.

I made the mistake of going for a run yesterday evening and leaving him with my in-laws. When I was at the farthest possible point on my running route from home I got a call that he was hysterical and could I come home right away, please? I guess that's one way to get in a good high-intensity cardio workout.

He woke up twice in the first part of the night yelling for maman. It breaks my heart. I wish I could make it better. This afternoon he fell asleep at an unprecedented 12:30 and I'm hoping he'll nap for a good, long time.

On a brighter note, yesterday I handed him his milk and, without any prompting, he casually said "merci." That's toddler savoir vivre for you.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The latest from Le Petit

A few things I must note before I forget:

Le Petit is working hard at mastering eating utensils. For the moment he's ambidextrous, and wields a spoon and a fork with equal enthusiasm (if not exactly ease) with either hand. He likes to try to eat things with a fork, all sorts of things including water and applesauce, with varying success.

---

Le Petit has just figured out how to open doors with straight handles. I was talking to the nanny last week at pick-up time while le Petit and the other baby played just beyond us in the hallway, when suddenly things were a bit too quiet. Le Petit had opened the front door of the apartment and, partners in crime, both of them had escaped (not far, and the nanny is careful to lock the door now!)

---

Le Petit loves to sing with us, and we have songbooks in both English and in French. Alas, there are quite a few songs that I haven't yet learned, and I've taken to telling le Petit when we turn to one I don't know, "Mommy doesn't know that one. You'll have to ask Grandma." Grandma is the reference for French songs and nursery rhymes in our house.

Yesterday we were looking through the English songbook and we found a few songs I didn't know. "I don't know that one," I said apologetically. Le Petit looked at me disappointed.

"Brandma?" he asked, almost with a sigh.

I laughed. "No, honey, Grandma only knows the French songs. You'll have to ask Grandpa G when he comes to visit."

I was floored by the association of ideas, though.

---

My husband brought home a box of simple jigsaw puzzles for ages two and up, different animals with 4, 6 or 8 pieces. I was skeptical that le Petit at 20 months would find anything but frustration, but I was wrong. He loves it, and can put together the two 4-piece puzzles and one of the 6-piece puzzles all by himself. I love watching him concentrate and learn. He's gone from barely understanding how to manipulate the pieces to being fluent in jigsaw theory in a couple of weeks.

He still doesn't really get matching visual patterns, and when he makes a mistake he tends to rip apart the entire puzzle and start over. I'm trying to encourage his efforts as much as his successes. And he does get a bit frustrated with himself. Still. Jigsaw puzzles at such a tender age? Wow.

Unsurprisingly his favorite puzzle is -- you guessed it -- the crocodile.

---

Yesterday, while le Petit was absorbed in fitting his toy train tracks together, I fired up my work portable computer to check my e-mail. Le Petit, who associates computers with animations and nursery rhymes rather than Outlook and Oracle, eventually came over and climbed on my lap.

"Croco?" he asked. His favorite web page has a song about crocodiles.

"No, this computer is for working, not for croco."

"Croco!" he insisted. He then pulled the screen shut as if to say, well, if it isn't for playing with me, then this just isn't the time, maman.

I opened the computer and had him shut it on me three more times before I managed to send my mail. It was just like when I've tried to convince him to hand over an off-limits object. Turn about is fair play?

---

Yesterday we went to a park along the Seine with a view of both passing barges and the railway bridge. Le Petit was happy to see both trains and "boap." He ran straight up to a grandmother who was watching her grandson on his bike and babbled something to her in his excitement. I made out one word, train, but the enthusiasm was easy enough to understand.

---

Le Petit is already conversing more easily with the neighbors than I am, apparently. We walked into the elevator this evening and ran into another neighbor.

"Bonsoir," I politely said.

"Bonsoir," she answered.

"Bon...jour!" chirped le Petit's tiny voice. He only just learned to say it today.

I'm so proud of my boy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Incomprehension

I speak French fluently, and it's a good thing, since I'm working on my six year living in Paris.

Yet often I still get that look of incomprehension when I open my mouth. Not from the people who know me well, my colleagues, family and friends, or the nanny, who are used to my accent and my Americanisms. The random people I cross on a daily basis, though, often wrinkle their foreheads and lean an ear ever-so-slightly in my direction in an effort to understand.

When I see it happen it drives me nuts. Worse, it is embarrassing and disconcerting enough that I tend to either talk more softly or lose my train of thought, neither of which helps mutual comprehension any.

This stupid situation often happens to me in the elevator of my apartment building. Here it is particularly annoying because I rarely have time to correct any misunderstandings before we reach my floor. Tonight my neighbor, the one who already must think much of my parenting skills, made small talk about le Petit.

"He must be talking a lot now."

"Yes, he is. In two languages," I said proudly.

"So he's bilingual?"

"Yes, and..."

(I was floundering for something intelligent to say, and wishing I had the nerve to bring up the subject I was really wondering about, which is whether his due-in-April baby boy might share our nanny, since the other family is moving to Belgium this summer.)

"...and soon he'll be correcting both me and my husband!"

He said nothing for a moment, and I could tell he was sorting through the words he understood and trying to classify them into coherence.

"So he'll be learning three languages?" he finally asked.

"Yes!" I agreed. We were passing the fourth floor and I had no time to do anything but go along with it.

After all, it is kind of true. Le Petit is learning English, French, and maman-speak, apparently.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The pursuit of happiness

These days I often find myself meditating on a terrible what if: if I were suddenly gone, what would I want le Petit to know about me, his mother? If I had to enumerate the reasons I blog, this would be high on my list.

This isn't as morbid a preoccupation as it might sound. Sure, I could be hit by a runaway RATP bus tomorrow or fall victim to a freak dog poop accident, hypothetical dangers in the life of a Parisian. Seriously, life is uncertain, and if I were on a plane spiraling into the Atlantic I would want to know that le Petit had a record of who I am and how much he is loved. But I fully expect to be around to continue the conversation when le Petit is ten, twenty, or thirty years old, and I'm taking notes now to accompany him through an eventual midlife crisis.

So it's more complicated. I expect that there will be times in his life when we communicate better than others. There will be times when I'm not sure I can adequately tell him how much I love him, or describe how that love has evolved and grown throughout his childhood. There may be times when he's so frustrated with me that for a moment he secretly wishes I would step outside and be hit by an RATP bus. I figure that if I write what I feel now while the words come easily, it will be there for him when he needs it but we're both too distant or frustrated to know what to say.

Lately, I've been spending more time than I'd like to admit surfing the web, most of it reading "mommy blogs" and an excellent parenting advice column. It turns out we mothers have a lot to write about, and unsurprisingly, what we write tends to complaint and commiseration. It makes sense, because mothering is hard. I've found it can even be the hardest thing I've ever tried to do, as I admitted when I sobbed into the telephone to my husband in the middle of my first day at home alone with the newborn le Petit. There are sleepless nights, raging temper tantrums (both yours and your child's), fear and worry and continual, endless questioning of your own decisions. And I'm just describing infancy and toddlerhood: as le Petit grows, I will have less and less control over his environment, over his choices, over his path. I can only imagine what it must feel like for parents when their child sits behind the wheel of a car for the first time.

Becoming a mother was the biggest act of faith of my life. I leaped, knowing I was ready to not be ready, knowing I was starting down a road with no idea of my destination. When people asked me my thoughts about childbirth when I was pregnant with le Petit, I told them that I wasn't nervous about it. It was the twenty years that would follow the birth that terrified me. Everyone chuckled and parents nodded, but parents of adult children corrected me that even after twenty years, the story wouldn't be over.

All that anxiety did not serve me well, for when le Petit actually arrived I was still utterly unprepared. As it turned out, I wasn't even all that prepared to be unprepared. He turned my world upside down and backwards. Not since Sputnik had something so small and weighing so little caused such concern and upheaval.

When the pieces started settling in to place -- and they did, quickly -- I saw that my life had taken a drastically different form. There was a new pattern, and that pattern was joy. I had been happy before, but I also had my share of miscalculated priorities, fear, and even anxiety and depression. But when le Petit arrived, negative things that I had been unable to move for years simply shifted to make room for him.

I don't want to give le Petit credit for making me happy, for not only is that a huge burden to place on such tiny shoulders, but it isn't strictly true. There was certainly something in the new shape of our family that triggered it, in the natural teamwork that has developed between me and my husband. Some of it was suddenly having the landscape of my priorities thrown into clear relief. Some of it was just the wonder of watching a child grow, learn and metamorphosize from a tiny baby to a running, talking toddler in less than two years. Some of it was the smile. Is there any more powerful drug than your own child's smile? There may be: when they whisper "mama" and open their arms wide.

No one has words for this, which may be why no one talks about it. It makes me a bit sad, just as it makes me sad that no one talks about how wonderful marriage can be. I'm no Pollyanna (I've actually got a reputation as a pessimist, which may be why I've integrated so well into French society), but I've just gotta say it: becoming a mother (and getting married, for that matter) has made me so very happy, and I want le Petit to know that some day.

Here's other half of the secret: it isn't always the case. Not in the moment. It took me two months to feel it for the first time. I still don't feel too joyful sitting on the couch waiting for le Petit's parka-induced temper tantrum to subside, and I'm far from ecstatic at five a.m. when I've been awake for three hours. I also still have bouts of anxiety, some more painful now that I'm worrying for two.

I also know that I am blessed as a mother with a top-notch support team of a super-involved husband, helpful and (in part) local friends and family, and a nanny I trust. Few women are so lucky. So I understand that this happiness isn't automatic, sign-up-for-a-baby-and-happily-ever-after for everyone.

Yet I've come to understand that for me this happiness now forms a sort of baseline. I walk around smiling at least part of the day most every day. If something -- my job, my lack of sleep, a lame attempt to Do Everything or Be Perfect -- disrupts this, I know to make the adjustments I need to to find it again. And when I start worrying about whether I'm making the right decisions for le Petit, whether I'm disciplining him too much or not enough, whether I have chosen the right moment to wean, if he's eating properly or getting to bed early enough or whatever the parenting concern du jour, I tell myself that if I feel this much joy I must be doing something right.

Because whether by osmosis, by imitation, or by just plain keeping on being exactly who he is, I'm pretty sure that le Petit feels it, too.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hello, My Name Is

Le Petit said his name for the first time today. When he was still a tiny baby, his grandmother bought wooden letters decorated with teddy bears to spell his name and we stuck them to the door of his bedroom. I used to stop in front of them all the time and point out the letters to him one by one:

"L-E P-E-T-I-T. Le Petit!"

(The real version is better, I assure you.)

I hadn't done it for a long time, but did so for some reason today. I think I was looking for a diversion before carrying him to the changing table. Le Petit listened attentively, repeated the letters veeeeeeery approximately -- I may have recognized an L in all the babbling -- and then clearly repeated his name.

It startled me to hear his own name in his own voice, a "whoa, he can do that?" moment almost like when he took his first steps. Yet for all I know he's been thinking of himself by his name for months now and what sounded huge to me represents no change in his mental landscape at all. Not that it mattered: he could tell I was proud of him, regardless.

It got me thinking, why is it that the very first thing they teach you when you're learning a foreign language is some overly complex formula for introducing yourself? Later on, when you actually live in a country where you speak the language daily, you almost never need to use it. I utter "Bonjour, je m'appelle..." only once every six months, if that.

Of course, I don't get out much or meet new people these days, but when I do, a simple handshake-and-state-your-name usually suffices.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Un air de famille

"Qu'est-ce qu'il ressemble à votre épouse!" "How he looks like your wife!" exclaimed a neighbor as my husband and le Petit got into the elevator one weekday morning. Le Petit, realizing that once again he was the center of attention, looked up at the neighbor in question and pointed at a model ship kit he was holding.

"Boap! [boat]" declared le Petit, never one to miss a chance to show off his ever-expanding
vocabulary.

"Et il parle comme votre épouse aussi," remarked the neighbor with a laugh. "He sounds like your wife, too."

The neighbor's wife, who was standing next to him in the elevator, glared at him for bringing up what she must have judged a delicate topic. My husband just smiled and nodded, not at all offended, of course. When he told me about the encounter later that evening I thought it was wonderful.

"Boap!" So much easier to say than "bateau." That's my boy.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The wilds of Ile de France

"Twee!" declared le Petit. "Tree," I agreed.

I stood at the side of the trail next to a large oak tree with my back turned to the trunk to let le Petit reach out and touch the bark. From his perch in the Ergo he was as excited as Nicolas Hulot in his latest contraption for exploring the Amazonian rain forest canopy.

"Bark," I told him. I love that I can get away with one-word explanations for most things at le Petit's age. I can say "hot," "dangerous," "bye," and "boom" with such authority, it's a shame my credibility will only diminish as he gets older and I'm forced to come up with longer-winded explanations. For now, however, le Petit was satisfied.

"Bak," he repeated approximately.

"Oak. Oak trees have rough bark, that's how we know this is an oak tree. Oak."

"Auwk," he said with a look of concentration after a brief pause. As usual when he repeats a new word, le Petit had a twinkle in his eyes and a clever half-smile on his face as if to say, "Hey, betcha didn't think I could say that!" We duly congratulated him. I started to head back down the trail when le Petit called out, "Beh-bye, twee," and gave a slight wave, just like we'd taught him.

We were on a hike in a forest on the outskirts of Paris. The sun was shining bright, almost warm, and busy burning through the last of the morning fog as if it wanted to chase February off once and for all. We were on one of the weekend hikes that my husband started organizing two years ago when I had to give up running early in my pregnancy and was desperate for some exercise. Now, armed with guidebooks and detailed IGN maps, we head off the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse, the villages near the Forêt de Saint-Germain, or similar forested corners of Ile de France every weekend when time and the weather permit. This weekend we hiked on both Saturday and Sunday.

Although his 11+ kilograms are starting to add up, le Petit only wants to ride on my back and not my husband's, whose wide shoulders obstruct his view of the road ahead. Thankfully, the Ergo carrier distributes his weight well enough that I hardly notice the extra load except when we're climbing uphill. My husband entertains le Petit by giving him sticks and leaves to hold. "Baton! Baton!" le Petit demands, then throws them on the ground when he gets bored with a "baton boom." More than once we've had to fish moss and pieces of leaves out of his mouth, but I chalk it up to his first attempts at field research.

I love feeling le Petit sway back and forth with my stride, or lean back to look up at the branches above, or lean in to snuggle. Sometimes he peers around to one side and waits for me to look back at him over my shoulder, then grins at me and giggles and swings to the other side. He can continue this game far longer than I can. If he feels neglected because our adult discussions of office politics and recession have left him out, he yells "Dada!" and "Maman!" until we pay attention.

"Ah ha ha! Look what Papa's found!" Suddenly the typical Francilian oak and chestnut forest gave way to pine trees. My husband found a pine cone and offered it to le Petit, who greedily grabbed it from his hand.

"Pin," my husband explained.

"Pain," le Petit repeated.

I started to worry that since the words for pine and bread in French are phonetically indistinguishable, le Petit might get the wrong idea. My husband apparently had the same thought.

"It's not pain to eat," he hastened to add, "It's a different pin. A pomme de pin. Oh, wait..."

The linguistic complexities of apples, bread, pine cones and trees were not to bluff le Petit, however.

"Dada! Beudoh! Cooka!"

No ambiguity there whatsoever.

As we finished our hike, he chowed down on cookies and we sang Dans la forêt lointaine and I hoped to myself that he'd still enjoy our walks one year, five years, and ten years from now. We'll see. For now I'm working on his forest vocabulary, with the odd lesson on sustainability and respect for natural resources, and pointing out all the birds and flowers I can name.