Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Air France, je t'aime

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

Or actually more of a love letter to Air France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air France, je t'aime!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Séjour linguistique

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

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

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

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

He exclaims 'Oh my goodness!' convincingly.

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Getting here from there

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

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

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

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

"How are you doing, ma'am."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 04, 2009

Babble

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The house in Blanc

August 26, 2009
Blanc, Aveyron, France

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

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

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

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

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