Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

I feel guiltily pleased to have skipped Thanksgiving this year. As I confessed to a friend in an e-mail message, I feel lighter because of it, and no, not just because I'll be consuming a few thousand fewer calories than my compatriots will be today.

"Take that, cranberry sauce!" I wrote. "Take that, pumpkin-in-a-can! Maybe next year I'll offer asylum to some American turkeys." Six years ago, when Thanksgiving came just three months after I moved to France, it was different. I ordered a turkey from the volailler weeks ahead of time; I kept my eyes peeled for rare acorn squash and fresh cranberries at the supermarket; I trekked across Paris to the Grande Epicerie to spend 5 euros on a precious imported can of Libby's pumpkin. I hoarded stale baguette to make my father's delicious savory stuffing. I was a discouraged when my giant American turkey roasting pan wouldn't fit in my French-sized oven, but I improvised. I was quite proud of myself.

Since then, I've made efforts of varying degrees, but never with the same enthusiasm. I've hosted family, which I loved, but I focused more on their visit than on providing a proper American feast. Some years my (coincidentally also American) sister-in-law has put together a turkey dinner for the whole family on the weekend. Some years I've baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies to share with my colleagues at work -- not exactly the tradition, but they loved them and didn't know any better. This year I did nothing. I felt bad admitting it to my mother over the phone last night because Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday, but it felt... freeing.

Here, Thanksgiving is just another work day.

Here, taken out of its proper cultural context, stuffing oneself with six side dishes at one meal feels ridiculous. Especially if, because Thanksgiving is just another work day, you most likely must plan to do it over the weekend, a day or two late, when you have time to cook.

Here, thanks to RTT, four day weekends are no big deal.

And here, of course, there's no American football.

My husband has an American colleague who recently moved here from California and is spending his first Thanksgiving in Paris. His enthusiasm mirrors mine that first year. He had a friend back home send him a box of Stovetop and a football DVD. He looked up how big a turkey to buy on the Butterball website, and duly went to order a 6 kg bird.

"For how many people?" the volailler asked, incredulous.

"For six."

"For six people, you don't want anything bigger than 1.2 kilos," he assured. "Besides, we don't have giant hormone-laden birds like that here in France."

"And anyway," I thought when I heard the story, "good luck fitting it in your oven."

The colleague, for his part, found it curious that we had abandoned any effort to honor the most important of American traditions. "Just wait six years, you'll do the same," my husband told him. But there is one tradition I love, and I'm sticking with: giving thanks.

Thanks for my family. My French husband, who loves pumpkin pie, and my half-French toddler, who is currently skeptical of any food that is the color orange. My parents, who love me even when I do let them down and pass on the turkey.

Thanks for my job. Although I spent Thanksgiving doing the most tedious task of the year -- or so I hope -- it was made better by my colleagues' sense of humor. And while I don't exactly feel useful, I do feel appreciated.

Thanks for my health. Thanks for my home, my cozy, packed, bordelique, almost-Parisian apartment. Thanks for two+ years of parenthood, 8+ years of marriage, and the feeling that both are even more fun with each passing year.

Now I feel all warm and Thanksgiving fuzzy, and I haven't even watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Maybe I will bake a pumpkin pie this year if I find some time over the weekend. But shhhh, don't tell...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

(Une) comédie française

Wednesday night, Molière's L'avare at the Comédie Française. I waited for my husband between the columns of the portico of the Palais Royal, fumbling with my cell phone keypad, occasionally looking up across the cobblestones, which were luminescent from the rain and the Paris street lamps.

"You parisiennes have a look," my husband said after he found me, "And telling you apart isn't easy."

"You mean we're all standing on the sidewalk dressed in black winter coats and shouting into our phones?" I teased.

"Now, you're all elegant, a certain je ne sais quoi," he said, taking on a mocking faux-American accent with the last phrase, which is almost never used by the French, and giving me a kiss.

We made our way to the entrance, and were momentarily blinded by chandeliers and polished marble as we blinked the November night from our eyes. We were just behind a group of middle school students who seemed even more dazzled. "Hey, that's Molière, isn't it!" shouted a boy to his friends as he passed in front of a bust that dominated the vestibule, then added proudly, "I recognized him, you see." Three teachers silently herded them all up the stairs.

A long windowed corridor on the second floor had more busts, facing off from their marble pillars at regular intervals. Three blond students were grouped around a large glass display case at the end. I couldn't see what it contained, but I heard them exclaim excitedly, "Is it really?"

"Yes, the real one."

"Can't be."

We wandered back and forth, up and down stairs, staring at our tickets like a hidden treasure map, trying to figure out where exactly we were going. When we doubled back in front of the glass case, the students were gone and inside I could see a simple chair covered with tattered leather of an indeterminate age and color.

"It says that this is the chair where Molière died on stage while playing Le Malade Imaginaire," my husband said.

"I thought that was a myth," I said skeptically, and shuddered. Under the chandeliers and behind the glass the chair suddenly took on the creepy aspect of an electric chair.

We finally found our seats and I glanced around the theater, furtively assessing the crowd. There were lots of students, some college kids uncomfortably dressed up to impress their dates, some high school and middle school kids in jeans and sneakers. There were nondescript professional Parisian couples like ourselves wearing what they'd worn to work. There were older well-to-do couples, the women with their hair meticulously arranged to show off fur collars and large earrings, the men like drab birds in uniform dark gray and black. The lights went down, the curtain went up, and all disappeared into the abstraction of rustling programs and intermittent coughs.

When the lights came on at intermission, the audience was gripped by a group reflex to stand, stretch, and search in pockets and purses for a cell phone. News of the 1-0 lead held by Ireland in the soccer World Cup qualifying match started murmuring its way through the crowd. My husband thumbed at his BlackBerry and confirmed. Harpagon ceded the stage to Thierry Henry.

We were among the first to enter the salon with the bar, a stunning mirrored room with a high ceiling and palatial windows facing the street. While we debated what to order, a small flock of adolescent girls rushed across the room and alighted at the bar, giggling and discussing loudly. I observed the jeunes parisiennes, noting that for once this foreign-to-me species had pushed their voluminous bangs back from their foreheads to reveal an expertly-applied excess of dark eye makeup. Strange plumage, indeed. I suddenly felt rather old.

"Check out that hair!" my husband hissed in my ear.

"What hair?" I asked.

"La bourgeoise behind you. You can't miss it!"

I turned around discreetly and saw a short woman with gray hair that was puffed up, rigidly and perfectly symmetrically, and pulled into a large bun. It almost doubled the volume of her head, and was seemingly shellacked into place by some grandiose post-war hairdresser.

"How does she do that?" my husband asked.

"Better living through chemistry?" I giggled. "And she must not wash it often..."

As my husband tried to fight his way to the bar, which was by then mobbed from one end to the other, I stood self-consciously alone in the middle of the crowded room, clutching my purse. I tried not to stare at a twenty-something man sitting by the window with a bored look on his face. He had on a crisp dress shirt, unbuttoned slightly, a pale blue sweater thrown over his shoulders, and his arms were draped over the back of a neighboring chair with studied ease. His neighbor had a similarly tailored dress shirt and wavy, perfectly styled chin-length hair. An attractive and expensively-dressed young woman leaned ostentatiously into his shoulder.

Must make sure my husband sees the Neuilly UMP fan club over there, I thought with disdain. Then I looked up at more busts on marble pillars, just tall enough to be a head above everyone in the crowd. Molière and Corneille were staring down on us with crooked stony smiles. Oh, what comédie humaine has been acted out below them through the years, I thought. I wonder what they think of me.

My husband had been standing patiently near the bar for some time waiting for his turn to place an order, when a short, shrill woman elbowed her way past and loudly hailed the bartender. My husband glared at her, which she pretended not to notice, then shrugged and maneuvered to wait behind her.

"Madame," called a stern voice from behind, "That shows an utter lack of savoir vivre."

She feigned not to hear, paid for her drink, and disappeared.

"I saw that you were there first," assured the bartender, "But with people like that, it's best to just serve them quickly and get rid of them." My husband agreed with an amused nod, then clutching two glasses of white wine, wove his way back across the room to meet me, chuckling.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Speak as I say, not as I does do

After six years in France, my mother tongue appears to be deserting me, while my French isn't getting any better. On the phone yesterday with my father, I stumbled over my words and fell flat on my face.

"The subject hasn't been bridged," I told him. It didn't sound quite right, so I corrected myself. "Uh, the subject hasn't been breeched, that is." I laughed and added, "What's wrong with me? I can't speak English anymore!"

"I think the word you're looking for is broached," my dad suggested gently.

I shudder when I realize that the future English language literacy of the family's next generation is in my hands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The wall

I meant to post yesterday, but my husband was on a quest to buy a new microwave and monopolized the computer the entire evening. We'll call it the triumph of consumer capitalism.

Twenty years ago I walked into my middle school history classroom and took my seat at a desk, just like every other day. But my teacher, who had been studiously helping us plod our way through a semester's worth of official Washington State history, did not call us to order and launch into his lecture. Instead, he waited quietly for us to settle down, leaned back on the edge of his own desk, looked at us meaningfully and weighed his words for the impact he hoped they'd have on a roomful of kids too young to remember Khrushchev.

"Do you know what happened yesterday?" he asked.

"The Berlin Wall fell," we answered. We weren't so ignorant. Our parents watched CNN, and we payed some attention. We knew that yesterday we'd witnessed news on a different scale.

"Do you know what that means?" he continued.

I'm not sure anyone had any meaningful answer. I know I didn't. I only grasped the importance in an abstract way. I knew that a city had been unhappily divided and would be so no longer; I knew that all over the world, the notion of "us" and "them" so salient for my parents' generation was disappearing and that "we" were winning.

I figured that some day I would want to remember where I was when I'd heard the news. But did I have more than the foggiest notion of how the two Germanys had come to be? Could I have found Berlin on a map? I'm not sure. I was twelve years old, and Seattle was a long way away from anywhere that seemed to carry the weight of history.

My husband was a year out of high school and suffering through pre-college preparatory classes. He followed what was going on with the euphoria of an eighteen-year-old just awake to the larger world, and at any moment he was ready to jump on the next train to Berlin. Instead he stayed home, and studied the news more religiously than his math textbooks.

I, however, two decades older and an ocean closer to the event, am struck by how little I understood at the time. I felt and still feel like I sat down in a theater during the last act of a play, and at the conclusion of the last scene, was still trying in vain to decipher the main characters.

Much younger, during one of the Reagan/Gorbachev summits, I remember watching a television news report in my grandmother's living room.

"I like him!" I said, pointing out Gorbachev. ("...better than the other guy," I may even have added, indoctrinated as I was by my staunchly Democratic parents.)

"You can't like him," my grandmother said quickly and categorically.

"Why not?" I asked, surprised.

"Because he's the bad guy."

I didn't buy it. Even in elementary school, with no real knowledge of geography much less geopolitics, I knew enough to feel certain that my world would be safer than my parents', or that at least I wouldn't face the same fears and dangers. November 9, 1989 confirmed this, and as the wall fell, a weight was lifted from my generation's shoulders. Even if -- does anything feel real in middle school? -- we grasped it only partially.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Slippers

Being maman is great. When I get home from work, there's a stampede of little feet, and then I'm hit with a hip-high embrace, tiny chin tipped up, smiling. It's a red-carpet welcome, and I am a VIP in my own home.

There are moments when it's a bit tough to be so popular, however. Like Saturday mornings, when I get my own personal wake-up call. Sometimes I'm lucky, and le Petit will wait patiently for me to make an appearance, singing and telling himself stories in his crib while I doze in the other room. Eventually, however, he remembers that it is a new day and somebody is missing.

"Maman! MAMAN!"

I roll over in bed and poke my husband. "You'd better go get him." He usually gets up without complaint, knowing well that he'll be able to climb right back in bed a moment later, since this strategy invariably buys me no more than two extra minutes.

If I don't take my cue and get up, le Petit comes into our bedroom, grabs my arm and pulls. "Read a book, read a book!" or "On va marcher [we're going to walk]," he insists.

"Maman dodo," I protest. Mommy's sleeping. He pulls on my arm harder, then starts stripping the sheets off the bed. If that doesn't work, he yanks the pillow out from under my head.

Once I'm awake and ambulatory, I'd better take a few minutes to sit on the couch with le Petit and read a story or help with a puzzle. A moment alone with Mommy at the beginning of the day helps the rest of the morning go smoothly. I usually enjoy it, too, even if I do beg a second to go put a pot of coffee on the stove.

"On va mettre les chaussons!" On mornings when we're having just too much fun together for Mommy to leave, le Petit brings me my slippers and insists I put them on. Mommy in chaussons means Mommy's not going to work. Very smart, my fan club.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Playing house

Although I've stopped counting the nicks and scratches on our hardwood floor, I still notice where the paint on the walls we so painstakingly repainted four years ago is marked up or rubbed away. My futon, a leftover from college days, has a cover so stained with baby drool and chocolate that repeated washings no longer seem to make a difference.

Most of our furniture is Ikea vintage 1998: a good year, I must say, and sturdy enough to take quite a lot of abuse. One of the "good" pieces, my beloved coffee table chest from Crate and Barrel, has the corners taped over with adhesive foam. I'm not entirely sure if, when, or how I'll ever remove it.

My brother- and sister-in-law have a new apartment in Paris, tastefully decorated with modern furniture, some of it quite expensive, all of it carefully selected. They have custom curtains and upholstered dining room chairs; I have curtains that I recently noticed were filthy from hanging in front of the sliding door, and dining room chairs I clean with a scrub sponge.

They also do not have kids, although as far as I know they are planning to some day.

"Isn't it silly that [my in-laws] bought such nice furniture before having kids?" I asked my husband today, after completing my weekly vacuuming of the apartment (and finding myself in the accompanying weekly bad mood).

"Uh-huh," my husband said without looking up from his book, knowing where I was headed.

"I'm glad our furniture is not fancy." Then I abandoned my falsely positive tone. "By not fancy, I mean old. And beat-up. And crappy. You know?"

"Mmmm."

"Aren't you glad? It's so much easier than having nice stuff, really, when you have kids."

"Our stuff is great."

"Find me something that isn't old, crappy, or beat up."

"Nothing is old, crappy, or beat-up."

"Yes it is. All of it."

"Well, then, I like it because it is old, crappy, and beat-up."

These conversations are useless, I admit it. I grew up in a house that had beautiful furniture, so part of me feels that now that I'm an adult, if my furniture isn't nice too, I'm a fraud. Silly, no? That aside, is it that strange to dream of a nicer home, with inviting bedrooms with mountains of perfectly-pressed pillows (instead of my mountains of laundry to fold) and a living room with an empty coffee table and an overstuffed couch (instead of my futon and the baskets of toys on my floor)? I dream Pottery Barn in an Ikea-in-a-shoebox reality.

Another part of me is happy, however, that unlike my parents, I don't have to constantly worry about protecting a bunch of valuable, fragile objects within the Toddler Destruction Zone. Le Petit can play soccer in the hallway or ride his red car into the dining room table and it doesn't phase me at all. Living in a museum never made me too happy as a child, and I certainly don't have the energy for it as a parent.

I just need to own the choice. And be a little less obnoxious about it, especially after vacuuming.