Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The part about the kiss

This is part 2 of how I met my husband. Part 1 is available here.

"A" pulled into the parking lot of my depressing suburban apartment complex right on time to pick me up. The week had been long, and I was grateful for the evening's distraction, to say the least. Most of my recent evenings had been spent by myself sitting on the couch of my sad one-bedroom, where despite the months that had passed since I'd moved in, there were still books piled on the floor and no pictures hung on the walls.

I was learning that suburban America is no place to be single, or even functionally single, as I increasingly felt. Beyond hitting the supermarket on my drive home, my time outside of work was distressingly unoccupied. When I moved into my new apartment, I stubbornly hadn't ordered cable, figuring I'd simply waste my evenings in front of the television. So I listened to NPR, rented videos, spent hours on the phone with my parents in Seattle and my best friend in Delaware, and lived my time alone wishing I could escape. This is not what I'd expected life after college to be like.

And what of the fiancé, you ask? I'm sure he was around from time to time. Tellingly, neither one of us had been eager to move in together right away after I graduated. So we kept separate apartments not far from one another, but I can't remember now how much time we actually spent together. I do know he had no clue how lonely I felt.

The few local friends I managed to find were used to getting last-minute pleas to go out. No one seemed to know where to go out, since we all lived in a sleepy town forty-five minutes from Boston, with one seedy bar and not so much as a decent coffee shop. Yet tonight there was "A", with the courage to drive into Cambridge -- I was still too fearful of driving in Boston to cross route 128 -- and he was waiting to take me with him. He even had tricks for finding a parking spot when we arrived. I was beginning to realize just how much I'd miss him when he moved back to Paris.

He took me to a Mexican restaurant just off of Harvard Square. It was mobbed with loud students waving half-empty margarita glasses, but we managed to find a relatively quiet table downstairs, and soon fell to talking as if we were the only people in the world. I can't remember what we discussed, whether it was superficial or deep, or whether we talked about my loneliness and the similar loneliness that had pushed his decision to move back to France. I do know that I felt I was finally getting to know "A" and could from that moment on consider him a real friend, perhaps the first I'd made since I graduated. I complained loudly that it didn't seem fair.

He held my hands, looked into my eyes, and said pointedly, "I know. Me too."

Uh-oh, I thought, a bit concerned, a bit flattered. I was at such a painful point in my non-relationship with my fiancé that I relished any attention I got from other men. I suspected there was more to it than that, though, but didn't quite let myself pursue the thought. "A" seemed to be so many things my fiancé wasn't: exotic and well-traveled, for one (my fiancé was a Massachusetts boy who hadn't been south of Philadelphia except once on a childhood trip to Disney World), interested in many things beyond work, and intent on listening to what I had to say until he understood me. Eventually it was time for the long drive home, and I was afraid I'd be even more lonely when he left me at my apartment than I had been before.

We sat for a long time in his car after he pulled into my parking lot. We recited our goodbyes and promises to keep in touch for the second time, and when there was nothing left to say, he said with finality, "I will kiss you, then, like we do in France."

There is nothing more common in France than a kiss on the cheek. Family members, friends and colleagues greet each other with one (or, more accurately, two) every day. In certain small villages where everyone knows everyone, it is even the accepted way to greet most passersby. Even in urban, impersonal Paris, friends of friends exchange la bise at the end of an evening together.

I didn't know this, of course, and "A" knew that I didn't know this. So I still wonder just how calculated it was when he gently grabbed hold of my shoulders and, leaning forward, slowly and purposefully kissed one, then the other of my cheeks.

He had to know that it would make me melt into nervous laughter the minute I went up the stairs alone and closed my apartment door. He had to know that my cheeks would burn the rest of the night, and that in my imagination I'd memorize the exact square inch where he'd kissed me. A Frenchman can't live in the US for as long as he did -- almost three and a half years, at that point -- without gaining some notion of the effect of his French-ness on a sentimental young américaine. I never dared ask, but I think that he did it on purpose, and that he had some vague plan from the start, but was too concerned about breaking my heart to put it fully into motion.

He was sincere in his goodbye, but he left a question in that kiss, just in case.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

One upon a time in a computer lab

No one in France ever asks me how my husband and I met. I suspect it is a cultural convention, since private life is very, well, private here. But I often offer the information anyway. After all, it is the logical segue between "Where are you from?" and "Why are you here?", both of which are questions considered far less delicate to ask.

Whenever I'm back in the US, however, I'm asked it all the time. Which is just as well, for it's a story I love to tell. So here is the long version, not the three-liner I give at the coffee machine at work, offered in its multiple-post entirety just in case you, too, were curious.

Longer ago than seems possible now, I was a very timid young student in her senior year at Mount Holyoke College, when a job interview brought me to a computer hardware company in the suburbs of Boston. As my future boss gave me the grand tour, he brought me to visit the computer lab. When we opened the door, rock music blared and a lone young engineer hopped up and scrambled to turn the volume down on the stereo.

"No no, it's ok," my future boss insisted. "They like to play music here sometimes while they work," he said apologetically, little suspecting that in my book, Stone Temple Pilots was a pretty good recruitment advertising. He then pointed out the servers and the sea of cables, and I nodded appreciatively and left without exchanging more than a brief smile with the timid guy behind one of the screens. The music isn't bad, I thought to myself as we closed the door, so maybe they aren't just a bunch of geeks here, after all.

Three months later it was my first day of work, and I was disappointed to find that what felt like the Biggest Day Of My Life Ever barely made my new colleagues look up from their keyboards. People nodded, mumbled, and weakly shook hands as I was shown around by my boss after I arrived, but only one person bothered to come to my cubicle to welcome me.

With his accent I only understood one word out of five, but his warmth needed no translation as he introduced himself and handed me a corporate t-shirt he'd just brought back from a conference.

"I thought you might like this. I brought it back from L.A." He pushed his gift into my hands as I blushed.

I didn't recognize him as the engineer in the lab at my interview months ago.

I couldn't know he was my future husband.

I didn't even catch his name.

This became quite embarrassing when a couple weeks later, as I was working alone in the lab, the phone rang.

"Could I please talk to A," the caller asked.

"A?" Though I was slowly sorting out my colleagues' names by then, I'd never heard of A. What's more, "A" sounded like no first name I'd ever heard in my life, more like syllables pushed through a potato masher.

"A. You know, the French guy. He works in the lab a lot."

I had the caller repeat the name then spell out the letters, and with a post-it note in hand, I sheepishly went off to find someone who could interpret. When I tried to read back what I'd written, I inversed the vowels and slammed down hard on the normally silent final consonant. I'd studied Spanish, and hadn't the slightest clue about French pronunciation.

Once I knew who he was (and learned to pronounce his name correctly), "A" and I started spending lots of time chatting together in the lab as we ran tests and disassembled computers. He listened patiently to my sighing complaints about my boyfriend, and consoled me as my first summer in the real world veered from elation to depression. Then one day I learned that he would be leaving the company. It turned out that the very week I'd started working he'd accepted a job offer with a company in Paris.

The going away party was a traditional software geek affair. We took him out for lunch at a local brewery, gave him a baseball cap and a glass beer mug, praised him in rambling speeches and bought him more pints of beer than was entirely reasonable at noon on a weekday. We split the bill equally, and I remember grumbling that I'd have to pay $20 for a burger when I hadn't even had anything to drink.

That afternoon we said goodbye to each other and made the standard empty promise to keep in touch. "Maybe we'll see each other again if you're ever, you know, in Paris," he offered. I agreed, thinking secretly that there was nothing more appealing or more absurd. In Paris? Me?

As "A" headed to the parking lot, the contents of his cubicle in a cardboard box, he hesitated just before turning in his badge at the reception desk.

He was moving back to Paris, and was honestly relieved to be leaving the US, a place where he'd been lonely and unhappy ever since he'd graduated from the University of Connecticut and started working. And from our long conversations in the lab, he knew that I was just as lonely and unhappy, but I was also in a relationship and engaged to be married. It couldn't work. It was stupid and senseless to think otherwise. But if he didn't try, he knew he would wonder for the rest of his life What If.

It was much later when I learned all that, of course. All I knew was that less than five minutes after saying goodbye, "A" was back in my cubicle, mumbling and staring at his feet while asking me if I'd like to go out to dinner with him before he left town. I accepted with the unexpected relief of someone who moments ago thought they'd said goodbye forever. A dinner out with a good friend. An excuse to try a new Mexican restaurant in Cambridge. With a little luck, a chance to make my neglectful fiancé a little jealous. All excellent reasons to say yes. There was no reason to think that it would lead anywhere, or delay our goodbye more than one evening. There was no reason to think that his what-if wager would become a serious twist of our respective fates.

I don't know if it was the extra pints of beer that gave him the nerve to do it, but if so, it was the best $20 I'll ever spend in my life.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reason enough for me

Back before le Petit was born, my husband and I would travel France as often as we could, and frequently escape on weekends to any corner of the countryside within driving distance of Paris. We explored Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Normandy (until our car was visited on a trip to Mont Saint Michel), and the lesser-known haunts of Champagne and Picardy. A typical program would involve one night in a bed and breakfast and a dinner for two at whichever local restaurant in our price range was deemed most worthy by the Pudlo or the Gault Millau.

Am I a bit nostalgic? Anyway.

We spent one long weekend in November visiting l'Aisne and northern Champagne, and on our last night we ate dinner at the highest-rated restaurant in Epernay. It was a traditional place in a traditional provincial town; the decor was tasteful but a decade behind the times, and the cuisine deliciously well-executed but conservative. Nothing about the place was edgy or nouvelle cuisine but everything was impeccable, and we shared the dining room with a cast of local functionaries in their Sunday best.

Our waiter fell all over himself with a formal script of veuillez madame and je vous en prie, but minus the jacket and tie he looked as if he'd be just as at home serving us drinks at the bar of the local PMU pub. Meanwhile, for him a young American woman accompanied by a laid-back Toulousan was clearly a break from the aging local bourgeoisie. By the time we got to the cheese course we'd managed to chip away at his professional facade, and he chatted with us easily while refilling our wine glasses. He asked me where I was from, and nodded appreciatively when I mentioned the ever-exotic "See-ah-tul."

"I love French cheeses," I told him after timidly choosing several for him to portion out and serve on my plate. "I think, in fact, that French cheeses are why I moved to France."

He looked at me for a second before replying, genuinely shocked but extraordinarily polite, "If you will permit me, madame... I think the real reason you moved to France is for monsieur."

My husband laughed and I blushed a red to match the glass of pinot noir in front of me.

I'm not sure what the Gault Millau would think of such indiscretion, but I remember it more fondly than anything we were served from the menu that night.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stating the obvious

Le Petit is working on a whole new level of linguistic skills. His recent sentences are more complex, he correctly conjugates verbs much of the time, and he assigns the "le," "la" and "les" articles in French with considerable accuracy. His English is similarly improving, although French is still his language of choice.

To obtain these new skills, he's paying very close attention to everything we say. He's listening to us so closely, in fact, that he repeats something from almost every sentence he overhears. We've got a pint-sized echo in the house, and one that thankfully isn't offended when we can't help but laugh at him.

Today he brought my husband a book with pull-out tabbed pages to repair. The book is intended for ages three and up, and we now know why, for every single page has a rip or tear and the hidden panels have all been pried free and scattered about the house. My husband's conversation with le Petit went something like this:

Le Petit: "C'est cassé. Papa, réparer, s'il te plaît."
[It's broken. Daddy, repair, please.]

Daddy: "Oui, c'est cassé, et je me demande qui l'a cassé."
[Yes, it's broken, and I wonder just who broke it.]

Le Petit: "Qui l'a cassé! Qui l'a cassé!"

Daddy: Tiens, papa va le réparer."
[Give it to me, Daddy will fix it.]

Le Petit: "Va le réparer."

Daddy: "Oui, je vais le réparer. Voilà. Mais ne tire pas trop fort."
[Yes, I'll fix it. Here you go. But don't pull too hard.]

Le Petit (tugging with all his might on the fixed page): "Trop fort! (Predictably, the page pulls free and he hands it back to my husband.)"Réparer! Trop fort! Trop fort!"

Daddy (laughing and fixing the page again): "Oui, c'est trop fort. Tu as tiré trop fort."

Le Petit (grinning and pulling the fixed page back apart): "J'ai tiré trop fort! Trop fort! Papa, réparer?"

The game lasted for good five minutes and I watched on, laughing out loud and wondering if it was worth trying to find the camera and film it. Le Petit has clearly learned the verbs casser [to break], tomber [to fall] and réparer [to repair]. He's even learned spin, and can tailor his account of an accident to dissimulate compromising facts. After throwing his plate on the floor at lunch time, he looked at us innocently and pointed.

"C'est tombé! C'est tombé!" he announced.

"It didn't fall," I corrected, "You threw it."

"Tu l'as fait tombé." "You made it fall," added my husband.

"Tombé! Tombé!" Le Petit repeated.

Some linguistic nuances that may take longer to master than others.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two!

"Happy Birthday to you!" I made sure to sing to le Petit first thing when he woke up, before even pulling open the shutters of our hotel room. In a few years I'll make sure to tell him that we spent July 12, 2009 in a medieval castle in the foothills of the Catalonian Pyrenees. He'll imagine we were trying on armor and preparing to fight dragons; I'll neglect to mention that we were staying in the Parador of Cardona and took an elevator to our reach our air-conditioned room.

"Hap-PY birf-DAY!" repeated le Petit. Two years old already! I could hardly believe it.

Lucky for us, two years old is still too young for him to have any strong ideas about what constitutes a proper birthday celebration, so we unilaterally decided to head to nearby Solsona and visit the museum where we'd could see in person some of Catalonia's most famous pre-Romanesque frescoes. My in-laws were accompanying us, and with four adults, we could let le Petit run around the deserted museum and take turns chasing after him in between absorbing some of the culture.

Outside the museum there was music. A street festival, with brass instruments playing one of le Petit's favorite songs, la Pitxuri. We escaped the cool, quiet museum to the blistering heat of the town outside and we were in the middle of a gathering of giants. They stood in two parallel lines, their paper-mâché faces fixed in wild grins, crowns on their heads, scarves around their necks, or roses in their teeth. There was the Moor, the King, the Peasant, the Jew, the Knight, the Infant, the Wet Nurse, the Dragon, the Politician, the Politician's Wife: Spain, modern, past and imagined, gathered in the town square, towering to second-story balconies and ready to dance.

Le Petit was terrified like I've rarely seen him. He clung to me and made it clear that he would not go any further than the edge of the shadow thrown by the portico at the far end of the square. Each time I inched forward with him, he threw his head back, shrieked, and pointed violently in the other direction. Grandpa, Grandma, and Daddy all took turns explaining and cajoling him, but he would not budge.

Then the music got going and the crowd began to dance. We swayed back and forth and pointed at the giants who, two by two, left their lines to dance together in slow circles. "See, they're nice giants! They're friendly! See the people who are hiding underneath? Look at that little boy over there, he's not afraid..."

Le Petit was first reassured, then absorbed by the spectacle. From a new perch on my husband's shoulders he could see everything. He pointed out saxophones, clarinets and drums, and he clapped to the beat. We watched for a long time as each pair of giants had a turn dancing, and then the party took to the streets.

My childhood experience of town festivals is of Fourth of July parades with taped-off barricades, disciplined marching bands on one side and spectators in lawn chairs on the other. In this parade the spectators and the performers were one in their chaos, falling into a winding procession that expanded and contracted as it snaked through the stone streets. People turned around and snapped pictures, danced and clapped, pushed strollers and chased small children or thumbed text messages on their BlackBerrys. Le Petit, well over his fear by now, joined in marching behind a band of saxophone players clad in red t-shirts.

The parade eventually reached a modern, treeless square where crowd dissipated and the giants were immobilized under the hot sun. It was nearly two o'clock. As we walked back in search of a sidewalk café for lunch, streets emptied and the town entered an eerie, Spanish midday hibernation.

Our plan for le Petit's nap was a long drive up the nearby Pyrenees into the Lavansa i Fornolls Valley. It worked like a charm, for after the excitement of the morning, the winding mountain roads lulled him to sleep immediately. That was when we realized we were running low on gas. None of the tiny mountain villages we'd pass through would have a gas station, and even if they did, stopping would reliably wake le Petit up.

I started to watch the digital gage tick down the kilometers of gas left with one eye and the map with the other. We'd detour to the nearby town of Seu d'Urgell, we decided; it was far enough away for a long nap, but close enough that we'd surely make it.

I relaxed and started to fall under the valley's spell. Black-green pine forests and golden-green pocket meadows. Angular cliffs and the symmetry of rounded bales of hay. Stony slopes of wild marjoram and lavender, and nodding clusters of wildflowers along the steepest edges of the road. An occasional village grew up almost like a geological formation on the crest of a hill, the culminating point the steeple of a church and not one of the construction cranes omnipresent elsewhere in Spain. Here and there on the gentler slopes someone, a very long time ago, had seen fit to pile innumerable stones into terraces that had since fallen into disrepair. I wanted to stop and run to the end of a path, gather stones or pick armfuls of sweet-smelling flowers to bring back to Paris, but we dutifully kept driving until le Petit woke up.

Finding a gas station in the Seu d'Urgell turned out to be tricky. Of course, I thought, for there's plenty of cheap gas just across the border in Andorra. We eventually found a sleepy station with ancient gas pumps on the main road heading out of town. We were too far away to wind back into the valley the way we'd come, it was too late for an afternoon hike, and it was beginning to feel like the entire trip had been a mirage. Resigned, we'd take the straight, modern road back to the Parador.

Then my in-laws called. We'd split up earlier and they were off on their own, at the end of a dirt road deep in the valley on a hike to visit an isolated 11th century church. It took me some time to understand that they had hiked down too far and weren't sure they'd easily make it back to the car, and they were hoping we'd come to rescue them. After consulting, we found a new road that looked navigable, if barely, according to our Michelin map. We were ready to give it a try when we noticed that the names of several of the towns had been crossed out on the signs indicating the turn off. Too risky. We recalculated our itinerary; we wouldn't arrive for at least an hour and a half.

The sun crept down the rings of peaks, turning the bare stone gold and the treetops copper. It was getting late, but even eastern Spain steals hours of extra daylight in the summer by scoffing at Greenwich. We called my in-laws to check in whenever we ducked out of small valleys and regained cell phone coverage. By the time we got to the last pass, they'd made it back to their car. Relieved, we decided to stop ourselves. We took pictures. I picked three stems of lavender and three of marjoram, one for each of us, and tucked them into my purse.

Back at the Parador, with the entire family reunited over drinks on the rooftop, the Pyrenees seemed oddly distant on the horizon. Celebrating together in the dining room later I felt like one of the giants, a head above and oblivious to the crowd. Maybe it was the champagne, or the bottle of wine that quickly followed -- birthdays are taken seriously and "watered" accordingly in my husband's family -- or maybe it was the Pyrenean air, but for the first time, I didn't care about le Petit's behavior in the restaurant, which was irreproachable for a two-year-old anyway.

In the years to come, I'm sure le Petit will think his parents are a little crazy for joining street festivals outside of museums or chasing across mountain valleys to find abandoned churches. I kind of hope so. I also hope he'll be impressed that we manage to create memorable days despite ourselves: Two. The birthday of lavender and marjoram, of churches and trumpets, of giants and mountains.

Monday, July 13, 2009

If it's not one thing

I'm writing this post from a balcony on the Costa Brava overlooking the Mediterranean, listening to cicadas and watching seagulls glide past. My husband is inside trying to convince le Petit to settle down for a nap. Before you get too jealous, however, know that there is a terrible rock sitting in my stomach that feels about as substantial as the ocre sea cliff in front of me.

I'm worrying about our child care situation. As I mentioned before, the family who shared our nanny has just moved to Brussels, and I'm looking more and more desperately for a replacement. At first I thought, "gee, we have a great nanny, the hard part is taken care of, this shouldn't be too tough." It turns out that everyone thinks that: as I started perusing online ads for nanny shares, I quickly discovered that 70% are for families that already have "une super nounou."

To further complicate this complicated situation, our nanny is leaving for six weeks to go back home to Côte d'Ivoire to take care of some administrative issues concerning some property she owns. Since it is far cheaper to travel in late August and September, that's when she's leaving -- she more or less put us in front of the fait accompli. Since le Petit is attached to her and we are, too, we figured we would adapt.

The problem is, this is France, and everything happens at la rentrée or the Great Collective Return from Vacation at the beginning of September. We're looking for a family for the beginning of October. Until we find someone, we have to pay the nanny's entire salary. We can swing it for a few months, so I feel like I shouldn't complain -- but the cost is high enough that longer than that, it just doesn't make financial sense.

I've contacted dozens of families and put up online and real-life ads, but aside from one mother who took the trouble to meet with me and who hasn't called me back since, nothing. No leads. What to do?

I'm sure a solution will present itself. Until then, though, I'm going to be worrying about it uselessly and constantly. The stupidest thing is that I know I'm privileged; I have access to high-quality child care and I could also conceivable choose to stay home for a while. This makes me luckier than, say, 99% of mothers, I'd guess. Not that there wouldn't be trade-offs, and honestly, I'm not sure I'm made of enough patience to keep track of a toddler seven days a week.

It will work out.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Au revoir, R

There are a lot of firsts we look forward to as parents: first steps, first words, first day of school. There are others we dread, like the first solo driving trip, although le Petit still has many years to go before we confront that, thankfully. But there are also a whole lot of difficult firsts that don't even occur to us to worry about until we get there.

Today le Petit said goodbye to his first friend. Ever since I went back to work when he was nine months old, le Petit has spent four days a week in the care of his nanny and in the company of R, a little boy four months his junior. I've watched R progress from a baby-chair-bound infant to a determined crawler fighting back for the toys le Petit grabbed to the running, climbing, perfectly-matched playmate he is now. Watching them interact has fascinated me, for although they constantly steal each others' toys and wrestle each other to the ground, they do it with love. I'm not exaggerating. It is a sight to behold.

They've even developed their own language. Back when they were pre-verbal, they'd hold detailed discussions in squeals and coos. Now that they've both learned to speak, only one word of their primitive baby-speak remains: "ta-TA." That's how they still call for one another. "Il est où, ta-TA?" le Petit asked me this evening. "Ta-TA is right over there!" I told him, pointing to the corner where R was hiding. R ran up and yelled "ta-TA!" and gave le Petit a hug.

R's family is moving to Brussels, and today was the last day the two children will spend together. R's mother recently gave the nanny a disposable camera to take pictures of the kids during a typical day, and she brought me the prints today. In one shot the two boys are at the park, lined up together at the top of the slide. In another they are on either side of a miniature seesaw. In a third they are following each other across a rope bridge, wearing expressions as serious as if they were completing Army Basic Training. There are two pictures of them at home standing up in le Petit's crib, both shirtless. They're jumping on the mattress and smiling, though it looks a bit like an ultra-featherweight boxing match.

Over the last few weeks I've talked to le Petit about R's upcoming departure. I've told him that R and his family will be moving far away, where they'll have a nice, new house and be very happy, but R will be too far away to come and play with him every day. Le Petit listens but is too little to understand, of course.

"Bye-bye!" le Petit said brightly as R left with his mother and sister, just like on any other day. He gave everyone kisses as prompted. We promised to try and catch up with occasional play dates when R's family comes back to visit Paris, but I'm afraid that may not be as simple as it seems. I know that at first every time le Petit sees his nanny he'll ask about R. Then slowly he'll forget, and meet new children, until eventually his friendship with R is just a cute story that Mommy mentions from time.

Silly as it sounds, during many a recent night I've laid awake feeling sad about it. Le Petit will be just fine, of course, but when R's mother and I said "au revoir" tonight we both had tears in our eyes.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Organization

I currently feel like half of my waking hours are passed picking toys up off the floor, especially jigsaw puzzle pieces. One of the (few) positive sides of having a tiny apartment is it forces me to put things away immediately, and that keeps me from feeling like I'm drowning in clutter. As soon as le Petit goes to bed, the toys get picked up off the floor.

I'd like to organize my blog a bit, too, and here's where I need your help. My "Favorite Posts" list has been gathering dust lately and I'd like to update it, but the idea of going back through all my blog posts to put together a new list feels too daunting. And who am I to choose, anyway?

So, the nominations are open: what posts do you think most worthy of sitting on my sidebar? You can leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

(Oh, and to help with the uncluttering of my living room, does anyone in the greater Paris area have a basement or attic that could accommodate my neglected floor loom? You have no idea how happy that would make me.)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pardon his French

Le Petit is in the sponge phase of language acquisition. When my husband and I hold a conversation while le Petit is nearby, without even looking up from his puzzle or his blocks, he distractedly repeats words and phrases he overhears. The context doesn't seem to matter; he picks words for their complexity, their music or their unusualness. Who knows? He's storing it all for later. So what if right now his biggest preoccupation is learning the names of the colors? Some day he'll have to know what "à bon eschient" means, and then he'll drag it out of the depths of his memory and ask us, "Why...?"

We're not there yet. But we still should be watching our tongues. I'm doing my best to moderate my language, an effort I could already see paying off last week when I yelled, "Oh, SHH--SHH--SHOOT!" Le Petit ran off down the hallway repeating me. He repeated it again a few days later, with the proper emphasis and intonation. I was glad I'd had the presence of mind to catch the "I".

My husband, as I've mentioned before, makes much less of an effort. One of his favorite expressions, "casser les c---lles," which he never uses directly when talking to le Petit but often uses within his earshot, literally translates in English to "break my balls." Accurately translated, it means to annoy, to bore, to torment, to frustrate. A long, unnecessary meeting at work, a difficult colleague, a sink full of dirty dishes, an bowl of green peas spilled onto the dining room floor: all of these things can (and frequently are in our household, and usually at the top of the lungs) described as "ça, ça me casse les c---lles!"

Le Petit has been paying attention. And one night, after my ordinarily understanding and patient husband roared at le Petit to go back to sleep at half-past two in the morning, I held him in my arms and heard him say clearly between sobs, "Casser les c---lles!"

The phrase resurfaced regularly after that. Whenever voices were raised for whatever reason, le Petit would interject. The argument would be suspended and, trying not to laugh, I'd explain to le Petit in a neutral voice that "we don't say that. We say ennervé."

Needless to say, my strategy didn't work. I warned my mother-in-law (as much as a cautionary tale as anything, since her language is almost as "vert" as my husband's), so no one was entirely surprised when in the middle of one of the heated, inconsequential dinner arguments frequent at my in-laws' table, a tiny voice weighed in.

All conversation stopped. My mother- and father-in-law covered their mouths with their napkins and tried so hard not to laugh that they cried. My husband intermittently yelped in laughter and gasped for air. Across the table from one another, they couldn't meet each others' gaze. Le Petit repeated himself, and the hilarious feedback loop continued. Only I managed barely to remain calm and repeat to le Petit "we don't say that. What is it we say instead?" but an uncontrollable smile pulled at the edges of my mouth. Meanwhile, le Petit sat there, pleased with himself, triumph on his face.

A week later, we had just closed the front door of my apartment and my mother-in-law was digging in her purse for the keys. "Merde!" she murmured reflexively.

"Merde!" declared le Petit from his stroller.

"We don't say that, we say mince," I admonished.

"We don't say that, we say zut," my mother-in-law said simultaneously.

Get your lines straight, thought le Petit. But upon hearing "we don't say that," he said with a grin, "Casser les c---lles!"

It echoed down the hallway, passing through paper-thin doors to once again impress our neighbors.

And that was when I decided to give up once and for all.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Our Lady of the Business Plan

On Monday, after my disturbing appointment with Dr. Porsche, I spent the rest of my day off wandering around Paris. Though I trek through the Paris Métro every weekday on my way to and from work, unfortunately spending time above ground in Paris has become somewhat of a luxury.

It was a beautiful day, clear and hot. I went to the BHV first, the venerable department/hardware/everything store on the Rue de Rivoli across from the Hôtel de Ville. Only an American in Paris would hit the annual sales exclusively at the BHV, the opposite of chic -- and leave with lingerie and a new bathing suit, no less.

Leaving the BHV, I crossed the esplanade of the Hôtel de Ville, headed toward the Seine, my target the tourist heart of the city. I fished my pocket map from my purse, since my memory of Paris geography is still approximate. Sure enough, if I walked straight, I'd arrive right in front of Notre-Dame.

I joined a long line of tourists snaking out from the entrance. It was moving quickly enough and I was in no hurry. I'm always a bit overwhelmed by Notre Dame de Paris; the crowds and the souvenir shops for blocks around, the feeling that you can't move but blunder into someone's vacation photo. I prefer churches where, outside the hours of mass, footsteps echo and dropping 50 centimes into an old automatic light switch will let you admire some sculpture overlooked by the Michelin guidebook. In Notre-Dame, there's no silence, and you have to fight for room for quiet contemplation.

But I suspect that an empty cathedral would be more of an anachronism. This urban Gothic monument was probably mobbed even before its construction was completed, and although the 12th century crowd wore more clothing and fewer Gucci sunglasses than the crowd in June 2009, the press of tourists and the murmur of innumerable foreign languages was the same.

Two American college students joined the line behind me.

"Is this the line for tickets to get in?" one asked.

"It's the line to get in, but it's free."

"That's too bad. They should make people pay," said one of the students to the other. "It makes no sense. How are they going to pay for the upkeep if everyone gets in free?"

"You're always thinking like an MBA," said the other with a laugh.

"Yeah, but the business plan makes no sense."

"Don't worry," I turned to add, "The French government more than pays for it, I'm sure."

"But that's the problem."

"Well, they do charge to go up to the tower," I offered.

"And if only the people who were willing to pay could go inside," he continued, "then everyone else would get out of my way."

I should have pointed out that the Louvre is just as packed with ambivalent tourists more than willing to pay for an expensive ticket just to check the Mona Lisa off their to-see list, so his reasoning may be flawed. Instead I protested, "But it's a church!"

Then I admitted than in Spain and Italy you sometimes did have to pay to visit churches, except, of course, to attend mass.

"Hey, that's what we need. I could go for free! I'll just let them know I'm part of the club," said student number one.

"That's right! You're Catholic!" said student number two. "Don't you guys have, like, a secret handshake or something?"

"If we do, we wouldn't learn it until confirmation, at least. I dunno. I don't remember. What would a secret Catholic handshake be like? Two hi-fives over the head, maybe?"

More like a secret genuflection, I thought with a smile, but said nothing. We separated as we reached the entrance and, ducking into the sombre stone interior, were greeted by a flurry of flashbulbs.