Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Midwinter migration

Christmas is over, and I had a much happier one than I evidently deserved. Now Paris has entered that strange period between Christmas and New Years, where the mood is somewhere between giddy and hungover. No one is in the Métro at rush hour, but the subway entrances on the Champs-Elysées are backed up onto the pavement from noon until midnight. Christmas lights are still dripping from the boughs of bare winter branches along the avenues, or gathered in constellations around the glass entrances of pastry shops. Those who bother to go to work show up at ten and leave at half-past five.

True Parisians are gone, apartment buildings are empty, and parking spots are to be had even in the densest arrondissements. I've lived here for six years and I must I admit I still don't know where everyone goes. The suburbs? The islands? Old family houses lost in the French countryside? Chic vacation homes in Normandy? It is too early for the ski holidays, too late for the Côte d'Azur. I wonder how many Parisian children are staring morosely out the window at grand-mère's house, watching the sun set at four-thirty and wishing they'd remembered to pack their game consoles.

Meanwhile, unlike in the dead of August, Paris is far from empty. On the Champs-Elysées, you can hear more Italian and Russian spoken than French. Tourists are everywhere, unfolding their maps on street corners, puzzling out addresses in guidebooks, hesitantly counting out Métro stops. A midwinter migratory flock of non-Parisian French has landed, making their yearly visit to urban relatives.

"Maman!" an embarrassed urbanite daughter exclaims in the train, "You know you have to keep your ticket until we get out!"

"Ah bon? I have it here somewhere," answers the flustered mother, searching vainly in her coat pockets.

"We get off here, don't we?" asks the father, pointing at the lighted display above their heads. The daughter sighs and gently herds them out the sliding doors in front of her.

There are more tourists in the hallway, walking four abreast down the corridor, standing to the right and to the left of the escalator at random. I force myself to slow down, to avoid swinging my backpack, to make myself small, to stop rushing. I hurry out of habit, and putting my autopilot on tourist speed takes some effort, but I don't want to be rude. Our reputation as Parisians is bad enough already. I expect the same consideration this summer, when our car with its Parisian license plates inevitably gets lost in the sinuous streets of a village somewhere.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scrooge

I realized something this year: Christmas is not my favorite holiday.

I love the lights in the trees outside, I love the music, I love the cookies, and I especially love my mother-in-law's homemade foie gras. But more than any other holiday, I find that Christmas is a minefield of unreasonable expectations, and by the time the 24th of December rolls around, I've had my fill of stress and I'm ready to be done with it all.

First, there are all the trappings of celebration: the tree, the stockings, the wrapping paper, the lights. We have no room for a Christmas tree in our apartment. Le petit is still too small to care, luckily, but I feel a bit sad about it, and more than a little jealous when my father- and brother-in-law compare their trees for size, color, bushiness, and price, trying to determine who got the most magnificent specimen or the better deal or both this year.

"We don't have room," I state, almost defiantly, and tell myself that I don't need the dead, dry needles or the extra vaccuming anyway.

Our Christmas decorations are minimalist. We have a crèche, hidden behind glass in the china cabinet so that le Petit won't play with it, a small assortment of ornaments that le Petit enjoyed hanging from drawers and doorknobs, and three stockings. Our presents are still hidden away in nooks and crannies, awaiting hurried wrapping tonight.

That's next on my list of Christmas grievances: the presents. I start worrying about them in October, or earlier. With a little luck, I hit on the prefect present for one or two people in my list, but the rest I agonize over before finally scrambling to purchage some last-minute compromise. Most people do the same for me, and so on December 26th I find myself with a pile of unwanted things I now have to find some way to fit into my crowded apartment. A few people, like my husband, reliably get me something unexpected and wonderful, but it all seems like a lot of effort and stress.

Finally, there's far-flung family and the impossibility of seeing them all on one day. We made the choice years ago to spend Christmas with my husband's family, and I'm mostly OK with that. Transatlantic travel is stressful enough without trying to fit it into a rushed two weeks of winter vacation, and the holidays are stressful enough without taking the circus on the road. But I miss my family. On the brief calls I make back home on Christmas day the nine hour time difference conspires to make the distance seem all the greater. We've finished Christmas lunch, had a nap, taken a walk through the calm streets of downtown Troyes in the dark of an early winter night, and my parents are just waking up and making a leisurely breakfast. Are we really sharing the same holiday?

This year I've been in a rotten mood for at least a week. Other things -- my quest for a driver's license, work, Le petit's sudden case of the two-and-a-halfs -- have been frustrating me, and I've been short-tempered and ill-humored. My husband loves Christmas, and accused me last night of ruining it for him. He may be right.

As I started to write this post, the CD I was listening to of the Nutcracker Suite decided to start to skip. Annoyed, I had to get up and turn it off, and as I got up, I knocked over my mug and spilled tea all over the couch. I think the Ghost of Christmas Present is having its revenge.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Snow day

Today, to my great surprise, a genuine snow storm hit Paris. I heard about it on the radio before I bothered looking out the window, and then hastily changed clothes to jeans and sneakers, the better to brave the elements and the slippery sidewalks.

I waited almost a half an hour on the frigid train platform, waiting for the train from Saint Lazare whose ETA kept jumping back by five or ten minutes while I wasn't watching the information screen. Paris today was caught in a mass-transit perfect storm: the RER A commuter train had been on strike for a week, with only one train out of two during rush hour and none the rest of the day. Métro drivers had just gone on strike as well, in solidarity with their RER colleagues, I assumed, or perhaps to finish up last-minute Christmas shopping (online or on foot, one assumes). Every other mode of transport was halted or thrown severely off-schedule by the snow. The roads were even worse for car commuters: my boss sent an e-mail at around 1 o'clock to let us know that after advancing approximately 10 kilometers in three hours, he gave up and returned home, where he would be taking the day off.

I'd made plans to go for a run at lunch, but as I picked my way down the slushy steps from the Saint-Germain-en-Laye RER station I decided I was nuts. Sure, I used to run through snow and sub-zero temperatures in Boston, but I was older and wiser now, right? But once inside my warm, nearly deserted office, I said hello to my colleague and running partner, one of the few people who'd managed to make the trek this morning.

"So, at lunch, what are you doing?" he asked.

"Uhm, I dunno... I mean, it isn't too reasonable to run, is it?"

"I don't know," he said with a dare in his voice. I remembered that he's Breton, and born to laugh at the elements.

"Well, when I used to live in Boston I ran in snow all the time..." I decided. "If you're crazy enough, then I'm crazy enough."

"Let's go, then!"

Two hours later, our footprints were among the very first through the freshly fallen snow in the Forêt de Saint Germain. A hawk swooped through the trees above us, and a small flock of bullfinches settled like leaves on the ground. It was real snow, several inches deep even on the path, not the slushy gray soup of Paris' streets that shrug off winter as if it were an insult. The snow brought with it the still, velvet silence that I used to love in snow-covered Massachusetts forests.

The snow stopped falling in the afternoon, and the streets were left wet and bare. I left work at five o'clock, climbed aboard a sluggish RER that was resentfully crawling its way back underground. The Métro line 2 was late and packed with people, and I held onto my backpack tight and tried to make myself as small as possible under my big winter hat. As I crossed the square between our apartment and the Métro station, I smiled at a mother and daughter scraping up icy snowballs from the corners of flowerbeds and hurling them at each other, doubled over with laughter.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Guilt

I have a terrible confession to make.

It turns out I didn't really miss le Petit during our weekend getaway to Burgundy. I knew he was in good hands, cared for by people who would probably have more patience than I would for snail-paced trips to the park by tricycle and endlessly read and re-read story books. I was more concerned that my in-laws would be worn out and exhausted by the time we got back than I was about le Petit.

It felt a little strange at first, after we left, just the two of us, with no chirping commentary from the back seat and no children's music on the car CD player. By the time we reached Beaune I felt slightly buzzed on the flagrant ducking of responsibility, like a high school student skipping class and hopping a bus for downtown. Replace "I'm 16, and I should be in chemistry class," with "I'm a mommy, and somewhere my toddler is eating his fourth cookie and terrifying his grandmother by tumbling head first from the couch."

We got to eat at fabulous restaurants, savor the wine and tarry at the table for hours. That night, we left the restaurant three and a half hours after we'd arrived. I felt I discussed more with my husband in two days than over the previous three months. I hadn't realized just how the background process of taking care of a toddler takes up so much of our brain and leaves little room, even after le Petit is asleep, for meaningful adult conversation.

So I realized, with great guilt, that for those brief two days I didn't miss le Petit that much after all. And now I'm admitting it on my blog. The guilt hit me when I woke up in the middle of the night, heart racing, having just dreamt that we'd forgotten le Petit in a parking lot. Mère indigne! Unworthy mother! Then as we were driving back on Sunday night I peeked over my shoulder at the empty car seat and felt an odd wave of panic.

I was relieved to find that le Petit didn't seem to miss us much, either. He greeted us nonchalantly with a grin when his grandparents dropped him off. But he woke up three times in the middle of the night, a very rare occurrence these days, and I wondered, is it our fault? Am I the only one who beats herself up about these sorts of things?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Weekend à deux

"So, little guy, this weekend will be a special weekend for you."

My introduction went something like that, as I tried to gently inform le Petit that Mommy and Daddy would be going away for an overnight trip without him for the very first time.

"Do you know who's coming over tomorrow?"

He played with his blocks without looking up, so I continued.

"Grandma and Grandpa are coming over! And they will take you to the park, and play with you, and... little guy?"

"Grandpa and... Gramby!" Le petit stated excitedly.

"No, Grandpa and Gramby are far away right now. We'd have to take a plane to see them. But they're thinking of you I'm sure. Tomorrow you'll see Grandpa G and Grandma F..."

He quickly lost interest again. The love and attention of local grandparents is much less exciting than that of the exotic, transatlantic variety.

"...they'll feed you lunch, and then it'll be nap time," I hesitated and corrected, "Uhhhh, it'll be nap time if you guys decide it'll be nap time, that is..."

I knew all too well that nap time would probably be skipped, a hassle and a hurdle no one short of our nanny or my husband seems able to handle these days, including myself.

"...and then you'll eat dinner, and take a bath, and then you'll go to bed, and Grandma and Grandpa will sleep in Mommy and Daddy's bed in case you need them in the middle of the night, so you'll never be alone. Because Mommy and Daddy will be going on a special trip tomorrow, we'll be taking Daddy's car and driving to a nice place. But Mommy and Daddy will come back, because we wouldn't leave you for too long, I promise."

Le Petit kept looking down at his toys, so I asked him again, "Who is coming tomorrow?"

He didn't respond. I started to doubt that anything I'd said had penetrated the enigmatic toddler consciousness when he repeated, slowly, carefully, pleased with himself, "Mommy and Daddy on SPE-CIAL trip!"

Special indeed. We're off to Beaune in the heart of Burgundy tomorrow, where a bed and breakfast (and its hammam!) awaits, along with wine tastings and a birthday dinner at the sort of restaurant where I wouldn't dare walk in with a toddler. I will be able to sleep in late without negotiation, eat meals without interruption, and spend a full 36 hours without once reading Curious George. I can't wait.

But we'll miss le Petit, and maybe more, I suspect, than he will miss us.

Monday, December 07, 2009

To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate

Paola was wondering why we decided to vaccinate le Petit against the H1N1 virus. The truth is, we hesitated a long time before making up our minds. If a vaccine exists for something, I'm likely to want to be the first in line for it, and doubly so if it's for le Petit health (even if the line is, ahem, five hours long). My husband, on the other hand, is somewhat vaccine-skeptical. Not that he's opposed to the normal series of vaccines against childhood illnesses, and he certainly doesn't believe any of the bizarre urban legend/conspiracy theories floating around linking, for example, the MMR vaccine to autism. But I had to work hard to convince him to vaccine le Petit for hepatitis B -- an optional vaccination in France, generally proposed for older infants -- and he does rather anxiously check for potential side effects in the days following any shots. So when I started lobbying for the H1N1 shot it was an uphill battle, and I, too, was skeptical at first.

Although I haven't seen the latest numbers, I would guess that in France at least half of the population has no intention of getting the H1N1 flu shot. My husband isn't planning to. I, however, will as soon as I can. We both agreed to vaccinate le Petit, and here's what decided us, in no particular order:

  • I take public transportation every day during rush hour, when "standing room only" on the RER A means "breathing room barely." I figure that if there's a flu virus out there it probably has my name on it, and I don't want to give it to le Petit or the ten-month-old baby that shares our nanny and plays at our house every day.

  • Dr. Sears had a post on their site which I interpreted as pro-vaccine. I'm far from an unconditional Dr. Sears fan, but I know that they tend to be vaccine-conservative, so I figured that if they were more or less in favor of the H1N1 flu vaccine, it probably was for a good reason.

  • Our much-trusted pediatrician recommended it. He also assured me that kids under 10 would be vaccinated with the non-adjuvant form, which I've heard is better tested in young children.

  • Although I don't have complete confidence in either the government or the pharmaceutical companies, I trust both of them far more than I trust a virus.
Finally, having spent one scary evening in the emergency room when le Petit suffered from an unexplained high fever, I can all too easily imagine finding myself in the same position again. Add breathing difficulties, an unknown pandemic, and I shudder at the regrets I might have. So, I decided the risk I wanted to take was to trust that the vaccine was safe and effective, and that le Petit wouldn't have any problematic side effects (he hasn't).

I understand and repect parents who choose not to vaccinate for H1N1, of course.

I think it is interesting, however, to see how people evaluate risk: poorly, generally. We are terrified of flying, but think nothing of getting behind the wheel of a car. We worry about chemical contaminants and genetically-modified foods, but without any real idea of the data that might support our anxiety. Cloud wrote about this quite eloquently. I'm no better than anyone else -- I'm a computer geek, not a scientist -- but for once, I did at least read the official information provided by the ministry of health. The infamous Guillan Barre Syndrome, the only dangerous flu vaccine side effect I've heard about so far, was mentioned, and the chances of contracting it were estimated at one in one million. I told my husband he'd do better to worry that le Petit and I would cross the street safely on our way to the vaccination center. That didn't stop him from nervously calling and texting us all afternoon.

Le Petit was just fine. I based this assessment on the soundest measure of his health that I know: he refused typically, stubbornly and categorically to nap. Take that, swine flu!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

How do you say "gentlemen, start your engines" in French?

Today was a big day.

Today I overcame fear, dread and six years of dithering and finally did it: I enrolled in a driving school. It will cost a lot of money, and it will be more than a simple formality -- the French driving test is notoriously tricky and I have barely been behind the wheel in almost five years -- but it shouldn't be insurmountable. With a little perseverance and a lot of parallel parking practice, I will hopefully be once again licensed to drive in around six months.

Today I also endured the five-hour ordeal of getting le Petit vaccinated against the H1N1 flu. We waited two hours (2!) outside in the cold on the sidewalk, and over two more hours (2! More!) inside the local PMI children's heath center. The staff were overwhelmed and doing the best they could, given they it was the first day the vaccine was locally available to children and they were the only center open (and only on Wednesdays) for the entire town.

Le Petit was extraordinarily patient, in part thanks to the bright idea I had to pull out my MP3 player. I have several albums of children's music stored on it, leftover from the plane trip to Seattle. Never again will I complain when "La pêche aux moules" or "Ainsi font font font" comes on during a jog between Dave Matthew and Stone Temple Pilots: I never know when it might save my hide.

I was impressed by everyone's generosity and good humor in such a difficult situation. Parents laughed together, passed around boxes of cookies for the kids, shared books and toys, and generally did their best to look out for one another. Le Petit was "adopted" by two little girls, probably around 6 and 8 years old, who were in line just in front of us and spent much of their time playing with and "mothering" him. When we finally made it inside the building and le Petit collapsed into fearful tears upon entering a new, crowded space, the two little girls rushed up, consoled and distracted him with a new toy. I was grateful.

We have to go back for the second injection in three weeks. Here's hoping the governmental powers-that-be will have smoothed out the process by then.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thoughts on child care, or how I got it all wrong

Something I wrote a while back has been bothering me. Back in fall 2007, a few months after le Petit was born, I chronicled our disappointment at not getting a spot in the local municipal day care center. Given the scarcity and cost of private centers, our only options were to either find an in-home provider or a share a nanny with another family. Since there is a limit of three children per in-home provider imposed by the government licensing authority, the solutions were functionally similar. We chose the latter option, after I took an extended nine-month parental leave, since serendipity had it that a neighbor of my in-laws with a baby le Petit's age had already found a nanny and was looking to share.

Many months before this happy solution landed in my lap, I recounted here my frustrating meeting with an official at city hall:
I explained, my French and my confidence faltering, that I was not interested in a nanny. I didn't -- and couldn't -- justify why, because nannies are the number one solution for parents of young children in Paris. Most are assistantes maternelles who work out of their home and watch one, two or three small children at a time. They are licensed by the state and monitored for quality by official neighborhood early childhood centers (although I've learned that, like many things "official" in France, the monitoring exists more on paper than in practice). Yet as in most of the western world, and France is no exception, child care is undervalued, and it appears to me that most nannies in Paris have chosen their profession by necessity rather than choice. Many are recent immigrants who have received very little formal education or training and have few other careers available to them; although hiring a nanny is expensive for parents, their salaries are still relatively low. How can one place a price on mothering, especially in the first year?

I shudder when I read it now. It was classist, disrespectful, and could be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-immigrant, too (something that, as an immigrant myself, but one who largely escapes the anti-immigrant discrimination in France, I'm growing more sensitive to). What exactly did I mean by "price on mothering?" Why did I assume that the only reason someone would want to choose child care as a profession is because no other options were open to them? Taking care of small children is hard work, and although the salary isn't truly equal to the importance and the strain of the job, the pay is honest. In France, employing a nanny includes paying into the state benefit system, so that they have the right to the same state-sponsored health and retirement coverage as all other employees. And generous subsidies and tax credits help make paying a fair wage affordable for families like ours -- not much more expensive, in fact, than a public day care center when a nanny is hired jointly by two families.

And for that well-spent money, I leave le Petit with someone who is consistently there for him every day I'm not, and who knows him so well after one and a half years that she can decipher his ever-changing toddler moods or detect the first flush of a fever as accurately as I can. Le Petit rushes to the door to welcome her when she rings the bell in the morning, yelling, "C'est M!" She has introduced him to more neighborhood children than I have (they've got a regular social network at the local park) and convinced him when I couldn't to overcome his fear of the merry-go-round. I leave for work confident that he's in good hands, and suspecting I won't be missed for a moment until I walk back through the front door.

Of course, there are good nannies and there are not-so-good nannies, just like in every profession, and there's a higher risk of a bad experience when you decide to trust the entire task of caring for your child to one person instead of a team. However, I am now convinced that the rewards are higher, too. Le Petit had the chance to bond with one trusted, loving caregiver in a calm environment. M is his "home base" when Mommy and Daddy aren't around, and this was especially important when he was an infant.

M was also able to understand him and adapt her routine to meet his needs, even as she was far better than I at organizing a solid routine, thanks to her years of experience. She got le Petit to nap in his crib at nine months old when no one else could by calmly staying close and rubbing his back until he fell asleep, a feat I can't imagine possible in a day care center where a single staff member is responsible for up to five children. And during the very first days after I went back to work when both le Petit and I cried and cried non-stop, M never lost her calm, empathetic patience when most day care centers would have kicked us both out on the street.

I'm so happy, in fact, that next time around (a subject that's on my mind a lot about lately), I probably won't even request a spot in municipal day care. Alas, I have no guarantee that M will be free to take care of a potential numéro deux, since I'm planning to take a year of maternity leave, and with the glowing reference I will give I'm sure M will be employed again immediately after le Petit starts full-day public nursery school next September.

Above all, I am grateful that I have the options I do here in France: extended parental leave, subsidized child care, free public nursery school from age three. And I formally apologize to all the people who work so hard taking care of small children every day. I maintain that it is a job that isn't justly appreciated, since it can't be measured in palpable terms, in numbers or results or return on investment. That may be why choosing day center-based care seems like a safer bet to parents like me: it feels controlled, standardized, "industrialized" in a certain sense. There are other reasons of course: cost (nannies are often prohibitively expensive in the US), convenience, logistics. But for me, choosing one person to take care of my child meant taking a leap of faith and trusting a human rather than an institution for the most human of tasks. Looking back, I wonder why it was so hard.