Wednesday, December 29, 2010

La vie en rose

I'm ashamed that I ever felt ambivalent about having a girl. Now that la Petite is here, so beautiful and so herself, I feel ashamed that I ever could have doubted, even abstractly, that I wanted her to be who she is. As her mother, I already feel a fierce feminine solidarity, ready to defend her as absolutely perfect to anything who dares say otherwise. She's been nursing well and gaining weight, and when my husband proudly pointed out her "fat," I irrationally jumped to her defense. It isn't fat, I countered, it's 100% beautiful baby! (Never mind that baby fat is actually biologically necessary.) Similiarly, when he mentioned that with her thin, short hair she looks like a boy, I protested. To me, she's obviously a girl. And a gorgeous one.

I'll have to tone down that knee-jerk response a bit as time goes on.

Before she was born, I had visions of walking out of the hospital with her wrapped tight next to me in a baby carrier, confident as I hadn't been with my firstborn. The day we actually went home, although she was snuggled up in the wrap just as I'd imagined, I was feeling shaky. Exhausted. Unsure of myself, although not nearly as much as the first time around. We walked half a block to the car and carefully buckled la Petite in her car bed, then drove ten minutes to home with her fussing in the back seat.

I cried, as I'm wont to do in such situations. My daughter was coming home. When we'd left, she was a mystery, a quantity of questions, an imminent event, a stranger. Now she was real.

And I, skeptical as I'd been of all things pink, pointed out with joy that, as we turned the last corner to our apartment building, the radio was playing "La vie en rose."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry

On the first day of Christmas, my family gave to me:

My mother-in-law's homemade foie gras

Showers, by myself, taking as long as I want in the bathroom

A chestnut bûche de noël

A chocolate-coffee mousse cake from the best little chocolate shop in Paris

A nap, while le Petit and my husband went out to run errands

Complements on my (nursing-compatible) holiday dress

...and on my shoes

Five hours of uninterrupted night sleep (thank you, Petite!)

Perfumes and creams aplenty, for when my stubborn cold departs and I can smell again

A monkfish and shellfish feast (for which my mother-in-law waited in line at the poissonnerie hour and a half)

Time to nurse and cuddle la Petite

Time to read

Time to blog

Time to make cookies

Dishes that magically get done while I'm in the other room

A statue of the Virgin Mary (the original is from the 14th century, now in the Musée Cluny in Paris) nursing the infant Jesus

The joy of watching le Petit open his presents slowly, one by one, blocking out everything to concentrate on each marvelous new thing

The nurturing I needed to emerge from the fog of the last few weeks and feel competent as a mother

* * *

This year, with la Petite still so tiny and the weather so terribly cold and unpredictable, we decided not to go to the big family celebration in Troyes and instead stay home. My mother- and father-in-law came to celebrate, bringing just about everything, from the foie gras to the bûche to the baguettes to their able hands for preparing and setting up and minding the kids and cleaning the mess. I felt like I was still a bit disconnected, unsure where I should be or what I should be doing or saying, but by the end it all clicked. Today for the first time, I felt like I've found my groove with the new baby. I still don't know how quite to say thank you. (Probably not by staying up blogging until 1 am and thus ensuring I'll be a grump tomorrow...)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sleep (and random thoughts on newborns)

I should be sleeping, but instead I'm writing about it.

Perhaps to compensate us for stealing so much of our own sleep, newborns make the most wonderful sounds in theirs. I didn't appreciate this the last time around. I was too exhausted, frustrated and desperate for my life to return to normal, but my brain still stored the sounds somewhere and now I can recall them with nostalgia anyway. La Petite's crib is next to our bed, wedged against the wall on my side so that I can lean over and scoop her up to nurse in the middle of the night. As I was falling asleep last night, I listened, reassured, to her squeaks and sighs. Newborns smack their lips as if they were dreaming of nursing, and from time to time they make a contented noise that sounds like they're simultaneously clearing their throat and purring. I should record it so that I can listen to it again, when I'm well-rested myself.

* * *

We were all convinced, from my second day at the hospital on, that la Petite was less "high needs" than her brother at the same age. She seemed to sleep better, she could be put down in her crib, and she could be soothed easily by both me and my husband. Now I wonder, however, if it is just that we're more competent this time around. When she wants to nurse three times in a row, I don't question it. When she only wants to fall asleep in my arms, I hold her, or find my baby carrier. When she wakes up four or more times at night (as she still does more nights than not), I'm unsurprised. When le Petit was born, I spent the first month desperately trying to impose a feeding schedule, to teach him self-soothe himself to sleep, or to make him fall asleep in places he didn't want to. I was bitter and exhausted, and I wondered when and if normalcy would ever return. Then I spent the second month admitting what a real newborn is like, and learning new strategies to make it work. This time that competency is already in place. I'm still waking up four or more times a night, but I sit up, pick up la Petite, lean into the mound of pillows at the head of my bed, put her to breast and close my eyes, unworried and usually very shortly asleep myself.

The broken nights are still getting to me, though. That's the other big difference, however: this time I know that it will get better soon enough.

* * *

La Petite has dark blue eyes, a thin fold line at the bridge of her nose, and a soft cap of scarce, downy hair. Her feet are delicate and proportionally tiny, and her fingers slender and surprisingly long. She looks wise when she's awake, peaceful when she's asleep, and I imagine that right now she could explain the meaning of life to me but will forget it all before she learns to talk. When she's upset, she turns red, scrunches up her eyes and nose and opens her toothless mouth as wide as she can -- but in that, she's simply like every other newborn.

(Why don't we ever think to take pictures of them crying? Are we afraid of documenting our own incompetence? Now that we've got two kids to try to simultaneously capture on film, there are a few unfortunate pictures where la Petite is noticably unhappy--or le Petit has his finger in his nose--duly documented for posterity.)

I once asked my dad if I was cute when I was born. He replied, "No, but you got cute fast." He meant well, but I was highly unsatisfied with this response. OK, I admit, I took it a bit too personally.

If my children ask, I'll tell them what I hold to be true. They weren't cute at birth. They were beautiful.

* * *

Before la Petite was born, if I tried to sleep in after le Petit and my husband were both awake, le Petit would run into our bedroom, climb onto our bed, clamber up next to me, jump on my back and yell into my ear, "Wake up!" He repeated himself loudly until I finally, reluctantly, got out of bed. He usually speaks to me in French, but for this important task he resorted to English.

Now that la Petite has arrived and is often sleeping in her crib or on my lap when le Petit wakes up, he makes a quieter entrance. He still climbs on the bed and jumps onto my back, but then he asks quietly, "Tu peux laisser [la Petite] dormir?" He wants to know, can I let her sleep without me or does she still need me? No matter how short the night seemed, I usually pull myself up and stumble off to a family breakfast, much less reluctantly than I did before.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dans le pays de maman

Le petit is sick, I'm sick, and the weather is miserable, so we're all home watching Planet Earth on blu-ray today.

The camera flies over the Rockies. "C'est le pays de maman!" my husband tells Le Petit. That's Mommy's country.

Le Petit turns to me and marvels, "Ton pays est très pointu." Your country is very pointy. My husband and I both chuckle.

"Beaucoup plus pointu que l'Alsace!" Le Petit continues. A lot pointier than Alsace (currently his only reference point for mountains).

A little bit later, he runs off to his room to build a waterfall flowing out of his bed with his blanket, and a river across the floor with his pillows. The teddy bears are fishing for salmon, he explains. He carefully places a couple of stuffed animal ducks on the river.

I have to admit, it looks just like chez moi.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Playdough year

When we planned how to space our children, we agreed that three and a half years would be perfect for our family. Le petit would be well into his first year of nursery school, and I'd have my days free to take care of the new baby. School would last until four o'clock and extended day to seven, and we duly signed Le petit up for both. I figured my infant caretaking experience would be more or less the same as last time, at least until five or six in the afternoon. On Wednesdays, a day off from school in France, I'd have both kids, but I figured I could make it work with some pinch hitting from Grandma and Grandpa.

The best laid plans, eh?

Le petit wasn't entirely ready for school in September. We went ahead with half days, and crossed our fingers that the potty and discipline issues would straighten themselves out. They did, and Le petit loves school. In the meantime, however, Le petit has definitively given up his naps, and afternoons at school are only lunch and naptime. The teachers have a lot of kids on their hands, and one who won't nap is problematic, to say the least.

I can only imagine, too, how Le petit would react to suddenly being signed up for full days, essentially kicked out of the house upon the arrival of his little sister.

So here I am, a newborn and a three-and-a-half-year-old on my hands from 11:30 to 6 on weekdays, and from 9:30 to 6 on Wednesdays. Paris is gripped by a cold spell, and at any rate, I don't dare go out on my own with both kids just yet, because what on earth do I do if a sudden tantrum hits and I need to wrangle (gently and respectfully) the preschooler? Le petit has decided that now that Mommy is back from the hospital has a lap again to sit in, he no longer wants to spend any time at Grandma's house. I go to bed as soon as La Petite is nursed down for the night in order to take advantage of her first, longest sleep stretch and thus hold onto the shreds of my sanity.

Did I mention I also have the worst cold in recent memory?

At first, I was on this super mom trip. I wouldn't use TV as a crutch. I'd engage Le petit in educational activities. His English would improve. We'd bond. That lasted one day last week, Thursday. By the end of the day, when my husband came home, I was in tears in front of Elmo on sesamestreet.com, Le petit beside me ordering me to click the mouse, La petit nursing on my lap. My mom had just called and left a message, and I had neither the strength nor the mobility to get up and answer the phone.

Now I'm using TV, and planning on ordering more Sesame Street videos. They'll be in English, and thus I console myself.

Today was hard again. I'm living a contradiction: on the one hand, I'm not attempting anything that moms everywhere haven't done before me. On the other hand, I know that this will be hard. Exhausting. Going back to work in nine months may seem like a huge break (and again, I'm counting my blessings to have that kind of parental leave). I think there will inevitably be huge rewards, bonding, and understanding if I make it, but can I really do it? Well? At all? I'm lucky that La Petite is relatively low-key at the moment, and Le Petit relatively cooperative, but still, I may not be up to it all.

Gotta go. Elmo is over, and La petite is waking up. Here we go again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Elisabeth Badinter has it (only) half right

The French feminist, intellectual and author of the recent book Le conflit: la femme et la mère argues that the pressure to breastfeed, to stay at home, and to excel as mothers is leading women in the industrialized world to renounce motherhood altogether, or at least find it less than fulfilling. According to Badinter, by setting the mothering bar so high, women are being pressured out of the workforce or forced to choose between work and parenting, often surrendering their self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, men are off the hook, not expected to be equal partners in parenting because they supposedly lack the biological equipment and mental wiring.

I read the book this spring, expecting to be irritated. And yes, her stance on breastfeeding (Oh, the pressure! Oh, the limitations of it all!) bothered me. But she has some very good points, starting with the complaint that most men still do not feel like they need to roll up their sleeves and do their fair share. Yet she wrongly blames breastfeeding, among other things, for this.

Over and over, I hear the same refrain: breastfeeding excludes dads. If you want Dad to be involved, pump your milk! Let him take a feeding! Otherwise, his attachment to the baby may suffer. I know it seems that newborns spend 24/7 on the breast (just ask me at four a.m.), but, hey, guys, there's lots more to do. There's bathing the baby. And changing diapers. And teaching her new ways to be soothed to sleep. There's taking her off for long walks when Mom just can't hack it anymore and desperately needs to nap. There's taking care of the older kids, and going grocery shopping, and if you really can't find anything else to do, there's always laundry.

There are men who want to be involved, and they will be, whether their wives breastfeed or not. There are men who, under the pretext that they've mixed up a few bottles of formula in the middle of the night, consider themselves off the hook. And then there are men who, like a colleague of my husband's, think like this:

"Is your wife breastfeeding?"

"Yes," my husband says proudly (he's become somewhat of a breastfeeding evangelist).

"Well, you're lucky, then. There's nothing for you to do."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Baby journal

La petite is, thus far, less "high needs" than her brother was as a newborn. Which is globally saving my sanity, for I don't know what I'd do with a three-year-old and a baby that will not be put down. Muddle through with my favorite baby carrier, I suppose.

The nights are easier, too, since La petite wakes up, nurses, and usually falls back asleep easily, but she's still nursing a minimum of four to five times a night. She seems to have her days and nights a little mixed up, because her naps can lengthen to three or four hours. And the old advice about "sleep when the baby sleeps" doesn't work for me right now, since Le petit is only in school until eleven-thirty, and on school days I have lunch duty plus half the day alone with both kids before Daddy comes home. I've never been one to deal well with sleep deprivation, and the fractured nights, the post-partum hormones plus a ferocious head cold have me holding on by the skin of my teeth.

But I'm in love. With both of them. When I thought I wouldn't "get" parenting a girl, I was wrong, so wrong. At eleven days old we haven't hit Disney princesses, or mean girls or Gossip girls or whatever bumps in the road may lie ahead, but I don't care, my daughter and I are a team already, I know it. And she looks absolutely adorable in pink.

When I was pregnant, I had nothing but time (and rest!), but I'd lost the inspiration to blog. Perhaps as my belly button disappeared my need to navel-gaze diminished along with it. Now that I'm once again caught in the whirlwind of infant parenting, I have so, so much to say and no time to say it. So I'm going to try to write something every day or two, most often just a few lines, quick and off the top of my head. Thoughts that come to me while I'm nursing La Petite at four in the morning. Things I want to remember, and fish out from the haze of the next few months. I won't spend much time rereading or editing, and I won't make any promises on timing -- who am I kidding, I can't find time to vacuum the floor -- but I'll work on putting out enough that you can glimpse my world right now. And I'll be able to come back and remember it later, when I'm feeling sad that it passed by so fast.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

La Petite est arrivée !

Just a very quick note to let everyone know that "la Petite" (which I'm testing out as her Official Blog Name) arrived on the evening of December 2nd. We both just got back from the hospital yesterday, and we're sleepily, joyfully settling in as a family of four. I have tons to write now and not yet the time to actually do it, but stay tuned!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still waiting

Anyone who reads me in a reader was undoubtedly confused when I posted, then deleted, something to the effect that I thought I might be going into labor. False alert -- the nausea and frequent contractions disappeared once I curled up on the couch with a few strategically placed pillows and a DVD of "The West Wing." Which is just as well, for I'd honestly like another week to rest up and relax, give my in-laws a chance fully enjoy a trip to Venise next weekend for their 40th wedding anniversary, and give my daughter the opportunity to be a Sagittarius (so we'll raise our ratio in the house).

I decided, however, that it would be prudent to do my end-of-pregnancy bloodwork ASAP, and track down the last of the items I needed from the pharmacy for my suitcase for the hospital. So, in the late afternoon, I hauled myself off the couch and out into the real world, took the Métro one stop to the medical lab, where a distracted woman asked me the very best question of the day while she labelled a series of blood vials.

"You're pregnant, madame?"

I looked down at my enormous belly and wondered if I should trust this person to find a vein.

Then I answered, simply, "Oui."

By the way, new hospital policy is to arrive wearing stockings designed, I assume, to maintain proper circulation in the legs. The only ones they had at the pharmacy were black with lace trim at the top. I'm wondering what in my late pregnancy wardrobe could possibly coordinate with these. A little black dress? Black pumps or strappy sandals? I had to chuckle just a little at the thought that I am expected to wear to the birth something perhaps more appropriate for the conception.

Only in France.

What's your favorite late pregnancy story? And anyone have any brilliant ideas for arranging pillows to avoid nighttime back pain?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sugar and Spice, part II

"Is it a girl or a boy?"

This time around, I don't hesitate to respond.

"A girl," I say with a satisfied smile. Most of the time, the person who asked knows that I already have a little boy, and I let them wrap the warm blanket of simplistic assumptions around me: 'How wonderful!' 'One of each!' 'Think of all the shopping for pretty things!' and 'No need to go for number three!'

Just after we found out we were expecting a girl, I would protest a bit at such remarks and insist that we would have been perfectly happy either way. Lately I've given that up, and whatever anyone chooses to say I nod and say warmly, "I know, we're excited," and leave it at that. They mean well. They've said nothing that I haven't said myself many times before I became a mother. I no longer add what I really think: that people don't come in two models, pink and blue; that the child I'm carrying is an individual, and thus a mystery that knowing their gender ahead of time can't change. I certainly don't admit what I've admitted here before: that having a girl intimidates me just a little bit.

There's a contradiction there, and I've spent the last months turning it over in my head.

I haven't met my daughter yet. The endearing kicks in the ribcage, the startlingly realistic 3D images on the ultrasound, they feel intimate but they tell me nothing. Nothing will teach me anything about her personality before I hear her cries, before I lull her to sleep in my arms, before I gaze into her eyes. How that personality will evolve as she grows will remain a mystery for even longer. Will I recognize my "baby" at five? At fifteen? At thirty? Le Petit is three, and while he has personality traits that I insist were there from the beginning, he still surprises me. As a parent, I want to avoid constraining him with assumptions from the past, for if I do, he loses the chance to explore and change with confidence, and I lose the chance to see him as he truly is.

Make few assumptions. Let them be who they are. Let that change over time. I don't have a parenting manifesto yet, but if I did, it just might start there.

Enter the gender card, and thus the contradiction: becoming the mother of a girl opens the door to thousands of assumptions, both positive and negative, from fears about "mean girls" and an aversion to Disney princesses to hopes about sharing rites of passage into adulthood and motherhood. I imagine myself stringing sparkling beaded necklaces or planning sewing projects with her. I dream (before telling myself not to rush too far ahead) of a daughter who might -- just might! -- consider attending Mount Holyoke, my alma mater. I imagine late-night calls when I listen, as only a mother can, as she makes important choices in her life. I wonder if we'll shop together for shoes; if she'll be ashamed of her frumpy American mother or, on the contrary, initiate me into the secrets of being chic and more authentically French.

Nonsense. All of it. I sweep it aside as best I can. She'll be who she is. It was easier to say this before le Petit was born, when I assumed that I knew nothing and that his father would just have to fill me in as we went along. Maybe this time around my husband feels the way I did back then. Yet when I remember my own experience -- an imperfect and perilous guide for any parent -- I wonder just what understanding it could possibly bring. I was a misfit, but no tomboy; my own mother chided me for throwing a baseball "like a girl." I loved sparkly things and art projects. I excelled at math. I dreamed of being a princess. I dreamed of being an architect. I climbed trees but rarely knew how to get back down. Of the millions of variations on "girl," I was but one. Unique. No guide for anyone.

I'm not sure where I'm going except to say that my goal, in these last few weeks before I give birth, is to leave some written trace of this: I'm excited to meet my daughter. Not because she's a girl, and not despite it. She will be cherished and welcomed with all my heart. She may read this and understand some day why fabric and beads and mother-daughter art projects were foisted on her at some point in her childhood, and why application to a certain women's college in rural New England was mentioned repeatedly when she turned 16. And she will hopefully forgive the baggage I carry. As two women, we will share many things, and that excites me. But I will try not to let it blind me.

And now, while no one is looking, I'll secretly look over the pink pajamas in the baby girl section of the store. Me, the girl who always hated pink. There are still some things I can't explain or justify.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Alphabet soup du jour

Le Petit is currently learning his letters and numbers. Since I happen to love to point them out to him, sometimes stopping along the street on our walks to decipher the license plates of parked cars, I'm proud to say he knows them at least as well in English and he does in French. Which still isn't all that well: he can recognize numbers a bit better than letters, but nothing yet with anything approaching real accuracy. We're in the thick of learning still, and it's fun.

He's soaking it all in, and sometimes notices letters and numbers in strange places.

The other day, it was the tiny code engraved in the beak of the stainless steel faucet in the bathroom sink.

"Five. Five is for hot water! Four is for hot water, too!" he announced as we were washing his hands (or something approaching this) and I was confused until I followed his gaze.

And that's when we spotted the letter 'A', if I remember correctly, which le Petit also pointed out to me.

"Very good! What starts with the letter 'A'?" I asked.

He thought about it for a second.

"'A' is for... pomme!"

In one sentence, his reasoning jumped from 'A' to 'apple' to 'pomme,' the French word for apple. I was amazed and proud, and just a little worried that his bilingualism was going to leave him hopelessly confused at first. We'll see.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Still here

Whoa, what a week. Make that month. Things are happening so fast I don't feel like I have time to keep up, much less sift through and analyze enough to put any of it into meaningful text. But I also feel like I should make some attempt to bring everyone up to date with my life.

So, first: Wednesday I felt that something was just not quite right, so I went to the hospital. And as in my previous pregnancy, I was prescribed immediate bed rest. I'm concerned, but I'm not terrified because the last time around le Petit waited to arrive until nine minutes before his due date. I'm hoping the same will happen this time. La Petite is expected on the fourth of December. I'm talking to her about it, selling the advantages of being a Sagittarius and having a festive holiday-season birthday. Bed rest is more complicated with a three-year-old, alas. Once again I'm grateful for my mother-in-law, because without her help I don't know what I'd do.

Meanwhile, we're still struggling with preschool. The good news is that le Petit is making great potty progress. He's also gaining new language skills and forming more complex sentences. He's showing better self-control, and we're daring to take him out to restaurants and museums, relying on him to be a grand or "big kid."

Unfortunately, all that progress is coming with considerable transitional stress, both for le Petit and for us. The teacher, concerned by several incidents of running out of the classroom or writing on the walls and one spectacular tantrum in "time out," asked us to meet with her and the school director. Our first parent-teacher conference, at three-years-old! She was also concerned that he didn't maintain eye contact with her, and rarely explained himself clearly when she asked him what happened. My interpretation is that, although le Petit is far from shy, he's intimidated by new adults and new situations. School is huge, busy, full of new rules and new people, and his teacher could, in my opinion, be a bit more warm, reassuring and understanding. I made sure that the teacher knew that we wanted to work with her and reinforce her authority, but privately, I made the promise to myself keep monitoring the situation. For the moment, le Petit loves school and literally runs to the front door in the morning. I would hate for that to change.

Meanwhile, le Petit came home from school twice in two weeks with bite wounds. I know that little kids sometimes bite, of course, but seeing it happen to my little baby is terrible. Le Petit, for his part, is stoic. He didn't even complain or explain the incident to the teacher.

I'm doing my best to keep this all in perspective. My current perspective is from the couch, stretched out on my left side, observing the world as a mother who worries perhaps just a little too much.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Life ring

Things are getting better, honestly, or so I keep repeating to myself. I still want to escape. I haven't felt this anxious to run away from everything in years. This unable to cope. It stinks. I know some of it is probably pregnancy-related anxiety, and I talked about it to my doctor at the hospital when I had my monthly check-up last week. He confirmed my suspicions and gave me a week's rest from work. It didn't solve anything directly, but it helps to be understood and it helps to have some extra time to breathe.

I had my third driving session on Saturday. It was painful. I was reminded of how hospital personnel ask you to rate your pain on a 10-point scale. Last time my anxiety was a 10, and this time it fluctuated from 7 to 8. Improvement, yes, and the good news is that the improvement came because I was learning to both integrate the important information contained in the barrage of negative comments from the instructor while at the same time maintain some of my own self-confidence.

I'm beginning to understand some things:

1) Constant negativity is the driving instructor's modus operandi. When he isn't screaming at me about my braking or my shifting gears, he's asking me why I've turned on my headlights already ("Can you see? Or do you want to be seen? Turn on the parking lights, then!"). Some of it is valid. Some of it is gratuitous. I will do my best to take the useful stuff and leave the rest. Incidentally, I'm certain I'm braking and shifting gears better than ever, even if he won't admit it.

2) This is fundamentally a good growing experience for my perfectionist, take-everything-to-heart personality. Let's face it: a thicker skin can only help me. And it is probably a good thing for me as a driver, too: if I can learn to deal with this kind of stress while driving in Paris, I'll be that much more able in everyday situations.

3) There's no way I could have dealt with this at all seven years ago. Or even, I suspect, before the birth of my first child: motherhood has taught me a few things.

4) I can do this. It won't be easy, but it will get easier.

My husband doesn't quite get why this is stressing me so much, although he's supportive. If any of my readers have gone through this process here in France and can validate any of my experience, please do so.

Meanwhile, there's le Petit's school. Which is wonderful, and stressful, and still a big huge unknown in many ways. It is wonderful because le Petit loves it. He wants to go every day, even Saturdays and Sundays. We obviously can't compete with painting and recess and all the other fun new things he's discovered. He's one of the only kids who doesn't cry at drop-off time and who doesn't rely on a lovey or pacifier. If I didn't know better, I'd give myself a big pat on the back, but I'm learning in this parenting gig to only give credit where credit is due.

It is stressful because he's still having some trouble listening to the teacher, although from her comments and le Petit's own comments I think we're making progress. Today the teacher told me that everything went well, très bien passé, those magic words, although she did mention that today he briefly hid somewhere in the classroom. I made it clear that I want to help the transition and that I fully back her authority, and I think that was all she was looking for. Le Petit, for his part, listed a bunch of rules for me that I didn't even know about: when the teacher asks, he says, he knows it's time to sit down or put away toys. Go le Petit!

I went to the parent meeting on Saturday morning and fully understood something I'd been starting to suspect: the school is great. They truly care. But they are overwhelmed with kids. There are 30 kids in each class and only two adults. Most kids stay for lunch, nap time, and after-hours extended care. Both the director and the teacher strongly encouraged any parents who could to do only mornings, the only "academic" portion of the day, and pick up their child before lunch. Given the iffyness of potty training and discipline and le Petit's general reluctance to nap, we decided that it would be better if we hired an afternoon babysitter for the three weeks I'll be at work before I go on maternity leave. This is adding a new unknown -- will we find someone good? Will it work out? -- but it feels like the right decision.

So, free government nursery school is a very good thing. But, dear Sarkozy-and-the-other-powers-that-be, why not fund another adult per class? It would make the transition to school that much easier for parents, teachers, and children, and it would make another small dent in unemployment. A good idea, no?

The seven year itch of my life in France is catching up with me more than ever. If I could do it this week, I think I'd turn tail and move back to Seattle. Find my wooden house with a front porch. But I'm far too far from that shore to think of swimming in that direction. Instead I'm clinging to my life ring and keep paddling back, in the only direction I can go.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Back to (driving) school

I almost never watch TV. I've never before followed a reality television show in either France or the US. Yet somehow over the last few weeks I've become hooked on Masterchef.

At first I thought it was somehow uniquely French, with contestants who dream not of becoming pop stars but of becoming famous chefs. Then I learned that it was invented somewhere else -- the UK, maybe? -- and France is only the third or fourth country to launch its own version. So much for the French cultural exception. Still, there's something strangely appealing about watching people from all corners and cultures of France compete to chop onions to the finest and most uniform dice, or to make the best quiche lorraine. I feel like I'm learning something. And I'm in desperate need of distraction these days.

Three judges, two of whom are Michelin-starred chefs and one a culinary journalist, arbitrate the winnowing down of the contestants. They seem to take their job quite seriously, too: their insults and belittling comments are generously distributed, both to individuals and to the group as a whole. These insults make me squirm. I'd rather see honest criticism and encouragement than self-satisfied disdain. I've been trying to decide if the harshness is part of the reality television format, or whether it is just because the show is filmed and aired in France.

As anyone who has worked in a French enterprise or gone through any part of the French school system knows, praise and criticism are seen a bit differently here. Rarely will a supervisor or a teacher explicitly mention one's strengths, but they do not hold off on "constructive" criticism. This stressed me for months when I first started working here. I kept waiting for some sort of reassurance from my boss which never came; I agonized about it until I finally asked my husband what could possibly be the problem. "But he's French," he explained. "He's not going to tell you you're doing a good job." Sure enough, he never did explicitly. Reassurance came as I was given more responsibilities, and ultimately hired full time. Now, aside from my annual review, I never hear anything directly positive from my boss and I never worry about it.

It isn't rare, however, that he tells me I'm wrong, or at least on the wrong track on something. I never (or rarely) take it personally.

School is the same way, I've heard, or worse. And driving school is the ultimate personally humiliating experience, I'm discovering. I keep repeating here (although I'm less and less certain of myself) that I know how I drive, or used to. I had a car and a license for years back in the US, many of them in Boston, which reputedly isn't the easiest place to drive in the lower 48. I never liked to drive, but I was comfortable enough behind the wheel. Now I have twenty mandatory hours with a French driving instructor to re-learn everything I've either forgotten or never knew. I've had two sessions so far, and it is grueling.

Session one: one hour, in which I learn that all along I've been braking incorrectly. I know how to drive a stick shift, thankfully, but I've always done something like this: approximately 50 feet before stopping, put in the clutch. Put the car in neutral. Brake gradually. Leave the car in neutral until starting again. I immediately learned that this made the instructor crazy. It was dangerous, WHAT THE HECK WAS I DOING? Leave the clutch alone! Brake! No, look behind you first! Stay in gear! Madame, s'il vous plaît !

I was already semi-terrified of driving in Paris, even when behind the wheel of a dual-control car, and trying to correct this bad habit on the fly was challenging. I quickly understood that since average French following distances are much, much shorter than in the US, it is important to be constantly vigilant about the rear-view mirror. Yet nothing came naturally, especially after seven years of no (none, zip, zero) time behind the wheel.

The first instructor was harsh, but not unduly so, and I left more confident than when I'd arrived. Then today I had driving session, and instructor, number two.

Comments included:

"You cannot brake like that, madame. Think of your baby!" (He'd asked me how many months pregant I was before we began.)

"You'll be rear-ended for sure."

"What exactly are you doing with the clutch? With the gears?"

"I told you not to brake like that. You say oui, oui, but you still brake like that."

"You didn't stop for the child at the crosswalk!" (Way to make me feel terrible. I did see the kid, who was standing patiently on the sidewalk, so I judged it OK to pass.)

"Why are you stopping for that pedestrian? You have a green light!" (Yes, but the woman looked to me to be about to step out anyway, and she was looking the other direction.)

"How many years of experience did you say you had?"

For two hours at the beginning of rush hour we turned around Levallois, Clichy, Saint Denis, and Villeneuve-la-Garenne, all densely urban outskirts of Paris. I did my best to navigate the construction zones, understand the confusing traffic circles and one-way streets, and anticipate the movements of the teeming pedestrians. I watched the minutes tick by slowly as the tension dried out my mouth and tied my shoulders in knots. Although I drove so slowly that cars swerved around me, I apparently stopped when I shouldn't have, didn't stop when I was supposed to, and basically screwed up.

At the end of the ordeal, the instructor accused me of being too confident. And of braking badly. And of not looking ahead far enough, or frequently enough in my rear-view mirror. But I'd still made some progress, he reluctantly added.

Confident? Me? I felt like an abject failure. And I realized, too, that at 33 years old (and as a mother, for whom every child on every sidewalk reminds me of my own), what I wanted more than anything was not my driver's license, but to honestly feel that I could drive capably and safely. I wasn't sure that this form of driving instruction was going to get me there.

My husband and mother-in-law both shrugged when I described my experience. It's their job to pull you apart, they said. Besides, I had hours more of driving practice to master what they were demanding.

As much as I think I know what to expect here in France, I'm a little bit jarred to be in yet another situation that I don't quite have the cultural reflexes to confront. How many more years will it take me? Probably as many as it will take for me to dare driving around Place de l'Etoile on my own. Which is to say, c'est pas encore gagné : it's not won yet.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sous les crayons de couleur, la plage

There’s a general strike in France today.

I'm working from home today -- taking a brief break for a blog entry -- as part of my contingency plan for the first week of maternelle. Since last Friday, le Petit has been doing half days while we assess the potty situation. He loves school. Adores it. Examines Daddy's watch in the morning to determine when it is time to leave. He runs the last block to school to arrive as fast as he can at the front door.

I was optimistic the first few days, or "cautiously exuberant," if you will. But today at eleven-thirty, along with my child, I picked up my first neatly tied plastic bag of wet clothes. This wouldn't bother me so much if le Petit hadn't had three accidents at home with us yesterday afternoon.

When I briefly asked the teacher how things went, she said nothing about the accident, but gravely told me instead that "[Le Petit] has trouble listening" and "He leaves the classroom and runs out into the hallway." I was instructed to explain to him to that this was unacceptable. I, in my typical way, took this all personally and dramatically (with the help of the mood-destabilizing pregnancy hormones that are drowning me right now) as I turned it around in my head on our way home. I would be labeled a "bad mom!" My child would be labeled a "bad seed!" This was the beginning of long-term academic failure!

As I prepared lunch, I snapped at le Petit over things that I would ordinarily handle calmly. It all ended in a teary time-out. When I’m under stress, my most respectful and effective parenting techniques fly out the window.

I don’t quite understand what I’m supposed to do, and I’m wringing my hands over this one more thing that is beyond my control. I can explain to le Petit that he needs to listen to the teacher. We talked about it on the way home as an Important Safety Issue. I went through his maternelle picture book with him before lunch and emphasized the pages that showed kids politely obeying the adults or routinely going to the potty. But there is only so much I can do to impose discipline when I’m not present, and part of me feels that it is also the teacher’s job to find a way to make sure the lesson is understood.

At the same time, I wonder to myself how the French school system, which seems rather directive and disciplinarian compared to its American counterpart, produces such an individualistic people who have almost codified flaunting the rules. Half of Paris is out in the street today, either protesting the retirement age reform or hiking their way to and from work by foot. The other half of Paris is hiding out at home, taking a day of vacation or telecommuting. It is a mess, and no one expects otherwise.

Not for the first time I’m wondering if my son will grow up to be a syndicaliste, and be out in the street pulling up paving stones and calling out to subvert all forms of oppressive authority.

He’s starting in maternelle.

To paraphrase the famous 1968 student protest battle cry and adapt it to his new generation:

“Under the Crayolas, the beach!”

Thursday, September 02, 2010

La rentrée

First day of school.

I'm a nervous wreck, le Petit is whining and knocking chairs over on the floor and refusing to eat breakfast. My husband is keeping his cool, thankfully. I'm sure this is the stuff of good memories, some day. I'll make sure to take pictures.

Le Petit is so excited he wants to walk out the door immediately and not wait another long fifteen minutes. I hope he doesn't see how useless and anxious I am. Meanwhile there's kick after kick in my suddenly imposing belly reminding me that in the not-so-distant future we'll be doing this again as experts (I hope).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ecole maternelle blues

We're lucky here in France. I know this. When I explain what makes our quality of life so great in this country, free*, high-quality education from age three to university almost tops my list.

(It comes right after government-funded health care. After working in the tech industry in the US, where I had good health insurance but also the constant fear of losing coverage because of a layoff, I cannot take this for granted.)

Yes, you got that right: free nursery school. I've been looking forward to this for the three years since le Petit was born. I thought that once we got to September 2010, we're be temporarily free of child care-related headaches, and our son would be taking his first steps on the golden road of the French educational system. We even tried to plan a second baby to arrive a few months after le Petit was well-established in his new school, so that I could take a year's mostly unpaid leave and still give an infant the same focused care I gave le Petit.

Well. You plan, and the universe laughs.

One of the requirements of French nursery school -- l'école maternelle -- is that children be propre, or potty trained. We've been working on potty training for what seems like an eternity, and making undeniable but slow progress. Unfortunately, current status is far from perfect, and not, in our executive opinion as parents, sufficient for the start of school next week. We agonized about it over our vacation, often making ourselves and le Petit miserable because of it, which was counter-productive and just plain stupid in retrospect.

So le Petit won't be starting la rentrée with the rest of the class. The current plan is for me to take my last two weeks of vacation (Reason Number 3 I'm grateful I live in France: generous vacation time) to spend two weeks at home with le Petit, enjoying one another's company and -- oh, yeah -- working on the potty thing. And if all else fails, searching for another nanny for the five weeks that will be left before my maternity leave starts. Since we'd assumed that le Petit would start school in September, our beloved nanny has found a new gig. Great for her, inconvenient for us.**

Out of respect for le Petit, who will grow up and may be, heaven forbid, embarrassed by this blog, I won't say more on the potty subject. I will say that he may come by this recalcitrance honestly. Although my parents have forgotten all the details of potty training me, they do often maliciously repeat that they were certain that I'd wear Pampers to the prom.

So, ignoring the potty training part for the moment, I'm surprised at how much ambivalence and even anxiety this is stirring up for me about school in general. Back when I was pregnant with le Petit, I predicted that having a baby in France would tie me to the country in a completely new way. It turned out not to be true: I'm no more French than I was before. But having a child in school in France, that, on the other hand, will assuredly pull me into a new part of French culture. My son will be entering a system I don't understand. In fact, he may understand it better than I do in a matter of months, and be able to decipher acronyms like CP and CE1 that still leave me puzzled. Sure, my French husband can interpret things for me, but how can I, le Petit's mother, fill my role as his advocate? Will I do things wrong? Will I embarrass him?

Other fears of mine are universal mother fears. My "baby" will be walking into a classroom with other kids his age, or older, or bigger. He'll no longer have the close, nearly one-on-one adult attention he's had until now. How will be adjust? Never mind that every child makes it through this transition and most of them grow up happier for it, I can't help but be terrified.

My husband called the school director today, who spent a long time on the phone discussing things frankly and reassuring us. In the flurry of e-mails we exchanged afterward, my husband said rightly, "The stakes are not as high as we think."

A few messages later, I wrote back:

"What stresses me is making the right decision. I should know by now that there isn’t any “right” decision in this parenting gig anyway -- or if there is, you’re spared any certainty of it in hindsight, at least if you’re honest with yourself. I’ve been second-guessing myself since the moment I chose to get an epidural ten hours before he was born, and frankly, I’m sick of it. The important thing is that he grow up happy, and he’s much more likely to do that if he doesn’t see his parents in constant cycles of stress."

Easier said than done. Right?

* University isn't free, but the cost is so low compared to the US that it seems practically free to me.

** If anyone has any good ideas for a parting gift for a nanny, I'd love to hear them. We'll be giving her a bonus (in part mandated by her contract, but still), but I'd like to give her something personal, too. But somehow "you took care of my child for two and a half years, which is priceless; here's a gift certificate" doesn't cut it for me. And gift certificates are kind of not done in France, anyway. I'm at a loss!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Le code

On Tuesday morning, after months of preparation and less-than-patient waiting, it was time for me to go back to Villeneuve la Garenne to take the written part of the French driver's license exam.

Le code.

I feel I must explain to my American readers this is, in fact, a big deal. Or at least a big pain. Back when I took the written driver's license exam in Washington State, more years ago than I care to calculate, it was trivial: a few questions about drunk driving, a question about stopping for school buses, and a picture of a big red octagonal sign ("When you see this sign, what do you do?"). I was nervous, sure, because I was 16 years old, but I passed easily.

The French written driver's exam is a different matter. Forty pictures of "real world" driving situations that you must analyze and, applying the often arcane rules of the code de la route, use to answer forty multi-part multiple choice questions. The only way to prepare is to plow through as many practice questions as possible, spending hour upon dull, humiliating hour at the driving school watching DVDs and checking A, B, C and/or D on endless pieces of paper.

I'd been at it since December. And I hated it. And by March, I was beginning to get the hang of determining the priority of passage at intersections, so I asked for a date to take the exam. The French bureaucracy being what it is, I was eventually assigned a date in May. That was the first time I'd gone to Villeneuve la Garenne, only to discover that the test inspector was on strike.

Three months later, I was back, confident that no strike would stand in my way, for in the middle of August, everyone is too busy taking vacation to be bothered with labor movements. My husband dropped me off and I joined a growing crowd of anxious adolescents who were milling about, paging through dog-eared copies of driver's manuals. I sat down on a bench in the dimly-lit basement hallway of the less-than-festive Salle des fêtes and waited. It was quarter to ten, and the last crop of hopeful drivers were just coming out of the exam room with their test results.

Three young girls excitedly hugged and congratulated each other before flocking together to the restroom. A kid in baggy pants and a scruffy sweatshirt carefully avoided smiling at his friend, who called out, "Did you get it?"

"Uh, yeah," he replied nonchalantly. "On the third try, it's easy, you know."

I felt old. And tired. And hugely pregnant. And nervous. What if I failed? What if these teenagers were smarter than me at picking out half-hidden yield signs? It was only the night before that I'd finally managed to get a perfect score on a practice exam. I was relatively confident I could get at least 35 correct out of 40, the requisite passing score, but it was far from a sure thing and I couldn't shake an ancient, adolescent fear of humiliation that was welling up inside me.

The test inspector, a gruff, stout woman in her 50s with short gray hair, came out into the hall at ten o'clock and collected stacks of manila folders from our accompanying driving school instructors. She then disappeared back into the exam room, loudly shut the door, and spent the next half an hour alone, presumably entering our personal information into her computer by hand.

The French bureaucracy isn't known for its mastery of modern technology.

Meanwhile my heart pounded, my back hurt, and I tried to look wise and relaxed while I struggled to overhear other students last-minute poring over their books and berated myself for forgetting to bring my own copy.

The test inspector reappeared at ten-thirty and began summoning us in in groups by driving school. My school was second, and among its candidates, I was first. She called out my name, which I failed to recognize. To the French bureaucracy, I am still identified by my maiden name, which is systematically mispronounced and transformed into an guttural monosyllable. The driving instructor nudged me forward, and I picked up a remote-control-like pad with six buttons and a small LCD display.

"Second row, middle seat."

I dutifully sat down and nervously examined the small room. The dim flourescent lights in the low ceiling and the dull beige paint brought back fond memories of 1980s classrooms. Two folding tables were lined up together at the front of the room, where the inspector sat behind a laptop computer, a stack of the remote-control thingys, and a odd, antiquated machine with a thick roll of what looked like cash register paper. A projector screen was deployed behind her.

Once she finished distributing the controls and barking out seating instructions, she stood up in front of us all grimly.

"You each have your response units. You will be presented with 40 questions on the screen behind me. Respond to each question on your unit, then click "validate" to save your response and move on to the next question. Make sure that the number on the display corresponds to the number on the screen. If you get behind, you'll have to catch up, and if you skip ahead, you'll have to wait. It is useless to indicate your problem to me, because I can't help you."

I was suddenly nostalgic for the low-tech pieces of paper.

"Turn off your cell phones. It is unnecessary to remind you, I'm sure, that this is an individual exam. Do not try to share your answers with those seated next to you. Anyone seen violating these rules will be asked to leave the room."

I felt like pinching myself, worried I'd fallen asleep and was trapped in a nightmare of tenth grade.

She started the DVD. The questions appeared one by one and I answered them carefully, obsessively verifying that I was on the right number. They were mostly questions that I was prepared for, not easy but reassuringly similar to the endless practice questions I'd digested over the past eight months. Some were simple: you're at a railroad crossing, the red light is blinking; do you pass? A couple were bizarre, abstract, and (I later verified) utterly absent from my textbook. I answered with an educated guess, shook my head and pressed "validate", hoping I was still afloat.

When the fortieth question faded from the screen and was replaced by the profile of Marianne, emblem of the French Republic (the words liberté, égalité, fraternité and sécurité routière got equal billing below), a collective sigh of relief was heard. The inspector solemnly began to call us individually to the front for our results. She plugged each control into the cryptic machine, which beeped with satisfaction and spit out its verdict on the reel of paper.

"C'est bon," she said to the first few candidates, pasting the results into their manila folder which she then handed to them without ceremony.

"Trop de fautes," she said to several unlucky candidates, whose faces fell. One clutched her folder and left in tears.

She called my name, which once again I didn't immediately recognize.

I scrambled to get up, and handed over my control with a lump in my throat.

"C'est bon." She offered me my folder. I wondered if I'd heard her correctly.

There was no indication of the number of mistakes I'd made, which remains a mystery, the inspector explained, in the event of a passing grade. Only those that fail know the truth. I stared at the printed label with a dot-matrix "VAL" next to my name, the big payback after months of wasted time.

Or maybe not so wasted. One of my husband's colleagues, a medieval history buff and connoisseur of esoteric ritual, claims that the French driver's exam is an rite of initiation. Arcane, seemingly useless, it nevertheless marks a passage into full membership in society; it confers a deeper understanding the rights, responsibilities, and petty annoyances of adulthood -- and of French citizenship.

I spent a few minutes mulling this over in the car as we drove away from charming Villeneuve la Garenne. I've now got twenty hours of practice driving to spend with an instructor before I can take the driving exam. An exam that will likely be easier to pass, but just as difficult to schedule with the préfecture as the written exam. And all of this could have been avoided if, instead of Massachusetts or Washington, my US license had been issued by Florida or New Hampshire. Rite of initiation, lesson one: the arbitrariness of fate at the hands of civil servants, perhaps?

I sighed and admitted one thing: at least with twenty of hours of mandatory driving practice, I might finally master parallel parking.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Becoming truly Parisian?

When Parisians are rude (which, let's face it, is common in all big cities) or just disrespectful of the rules (a favorite French pastime is the making and subsequent breaking of arbitrary regulations) and are called on it, they seem to have a standard response.

They don't deny wrongdoing, and they certainly don't apologize. They simply haughtily point out something else that is wrong with the situation.

The killer statement, usually only tangentially related to the perceived fault, is not an excuse. If it undermines the whistle blower in some way, tant mieux, but even that isn't necessary. It is simply the verbal equivalent of a disdainful shrug, a way of saying with a flourish that if everything's gone merdique anyway, why criticize little old me?

For example, a woman cuts in line at the produce stand at the local market. The vendor or another customer calls her on it. She either obstinately holds her place or shuffles to the back of the line, but in either case, she complains loudly about the poor quality of the tomatoes.

Or a car speedily rounds the corner at an intersection, narrowly missing an old lady's dog. The old lady yells out "Assassin!" and the driver calls back through an open window, "There are too goddamn many mutts in this city, anyway."

I'm thoroughly fed up with my driving school. I asked to be scheduled to take the written exam back in March. They found a free date in May, which was subsequently canceled by a strike. Now, they've finally managed to find me a new date, in two weeks. It's August now, and given that after I pass the written exam I have to fit in twenty hours of practice driving before taking the driving exam, I'll be lucky if I get my license by the new year. I understand that this isn't entirely or even primarily the school's fault -- the wait at the préfecture is unacceptable, and everyone knows it. But still, I can't help but feel I'm getting the runaround.

I'll finally be taking the written test on August 17, if all goes as planned, so last Wednesday I went down to the school for a few last in-person practice sessions. The ambiance in the exam room is very high school: people regularly make comments out loud, answer cell phones, or slink in late, despite prominently posted signs reminding them of the rules (see paragraph 1).

Sessions start hourly at five past, and I arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule. Usually by then the previous practice video is over, and the participants are sitting bored in their chairs. I went to open the door, and noticed at the last second that a new sign had been added: "Entering during a session is strictly prohibited." I noticed a second later that the video was still on question 39 of the 40-question test. I was already holding the door half open, so I shrugged and started to walk in anyway.

"Madame!" The secretary sternly called after me. "Madame! You can't do that. You can't enter while a session is in progress. You must wait outside." She had a voice like a hall monitor. A former me would have been embarrassed or something, but I was indignant: at thirty-three years old it was already irritating enough to be back in Driver's Ed, but to be treated like an unruly teenager was too much.

So I responded like a Parisian.

"Oh, so you're behind schedule today?" I said with just the right note of annoyance. Then I stonily sat down on the couch to wait.

She didn't care of course. But my husband was impressed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Cheese for real men

I love French cheese. The seemingly infinite varieties may according to de Gaulle make the country ungovernable, but what do I care? Bring on the Roquefort, Epoisses, all the cheeses that run and spread, all the round goat cheeses wrapped in chestnut leaves, and the squared-off pyramids dusted with ash.

All the cheeses, in short, that I can't eat right now.

I'm a little bit frustrated, you see. My husband does his best to track down the best of the pasteurized variety, but let's face it, it just isn't as tasty. He rightfully still buys the unpasteurized stuff for himself and le Petit.

Le Petit, meanwhile, has picked up the important question that gets asked frequently at the dinner table: "Est-ce que c'est pasteurisé ?"

He doesn't know what it means and we explain that he doesn't have to worry, that it's just a question important for Mommy and the baby in her tummy.

"You can eat this," my husband explained jokingly, "because this is cheese for real men." He said it in French, of course: fromage pour les hommes.

As we laughed over le Petit's head, he assimilated this new information, as three-year-olds do. And he apparently noticed, too, that "les hommes" is pronounced with an added Z to meld "les" and "hommes" harmoniously together, without the silent H of the singular form.

The next day, we took out the cheese and asked him which one he wanted. He pointed out a block of unpasteurized Pyrenean sheep's milk cheese and said, "I want that one. Because je suis un Zhomme, moi!"

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fermeture annuelle

So, we're off for two and a half weeks of vacation tomorrow (and how in heck do I have so much vacation these days, you ask? I'm mostly burning through it all before I go on maternity leave, so next year, I assure you, won't be so much of a party.) We'll be in Charente with family for the long Bastille Day weekend, then Brittany for one week, and the Lot for the next. I will be writing, though I doubt I'll have the ability to post anything remotely. I'll have plenty to share when I get back, I hope. We'll be back at the end of July -- just in time for the rest of Paris to disappear for the remainder of the summer.

(I know, given how rarely I've been posting these days, who'll notice my absence? I'm going for quality, not quantity. Yeah, that's it!)

Le Petit did just fine, by the way, during my trip to Seattle. He only missed me from time to time, like when I called up or when he woke up in the morning. My husband loved the one-on-one time with him, and had things running incredibly smoothly when I returned. In fact, I had to learn some of the new routines they'd put in place during my absence.

Le Petit's favorite birthday present was a new trottinette, or three-wheeled push scooter. It has a basket in front and an obnoxiously loud bicycle horn. Le Petit woke up this morning, ran to the sliding glass door in the living room, and checked that it was still out on the balcony.

"Ah, il est là!" he exclaimed. It's still there. And only then did he go back to go potty, get dressed, and eat breakfast. First things first, after all.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Three

Le Petit turned three today.

Three years ago, at approximately this time of night, I was worrying what the next hour would bring and what the next twenty years would bring, and I was pushing hard, apparently without making anything move forward into the future.

Today we took out the baby book, and I showed le Petit a picture of me with a round belly.

"See, that's Mommy, when you were in my tummy. You were itty-bitty then."

I turned the page.

"And then, three years ago today, you came out of my tummy. See, here we are at the hospital." That babyhood seems long, long behind us now.

Le Petit has grown into a little boy overnight, or perhaps over the last few weeks. I don't notice the changes until they're here. Maybe the transformation happened during my trip to Seattle. Maybe its still happening now, restricted exclusively to the days when I'm at work. Or maybe he's doing all his growing up at night, tucked into his new "big boy bed," curled up and dreaming against a wall of pillows. Wherever or however it is happening, he's growing by centimeters and by complex sentences behind my back. The pediatrician informed us that, according to the French growth charts, he has the height and weight of a four-year-old. His verbal expression is more sophisticated every day. And my husband noticed yesterday that we've hit the "whys."

Except that why, in our household, is still exclusively "pourquoi."

I may change my mind in six months, but right now I'm thrilled to have reached the whys. Bring on the endless interrogations, the chains of questioned cause and effect that will lead me to drag what little I remember of history and physics from the depths of my brain! Bring on the "Mommy, I've been wondering..."! I've been looking forward to this for three years.

This morning, for the benefit of my husband (translated into English, for 90% of le Petit's remarks are still in French):

"Why are there thunderstorms?"

My husband: "Because a mass of warm air meets of a mass of cold air."

Le Petit: "And why does a mass of warm air meet a mass of cold air?"

And for me, this evening:

"Why is the frog fountain [at Versailles, one of his current obsessions] turned off?"

Me [forgetting that the frog fountain still works, as in Louis XIV's time, without electricity]: "Because the frog fountain takes electricity and water, and we turn it off at night to save both."

Le Petit [remembering that electricity is generated by wind turbines, another one of his current obsessions, and gesturing to an imaginary mountain]: "Why are there wind turbines up there, la haut?"

Me: "We build wind turbines to make energy for lights, and music on the radio, and fountains, and other things."

It went on, the conversation circled around wind turbines and fountains and monuments, then settled into a bedtime story, and finished in a monologue that we listened to over the baby monitor as le Petit drifted off into sleep.

I know every age has its challenges, but I have a feeling that I'm going to dig three years old.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The long-haired ghost of Olympia, Washington

Nearly nine years ago, a close friend and bridesmaid got up to make a toast at my wedding with a glass of champagne in hand, and to rule out premeditation and malice, perhaps several glasses already downed, and began a monologue that made me sink into my chair and try to disappear under the tablecloth.

"Ever since I've known my friend," she began in a clear, loud, and authoritative voice, "she has been with a lot of losers." She paused for effect.

"A whole lot of losers."

My brother-in-law, who was ensuring the simultaneous translation of all English toasts into French, hesitated before repeating what he'd heard. If I remember correctly, he was merciful; "loser" became "mec" or "guy." Only a mild improvement, but he did his best.

"Lots and lots of losers."

I held my breath, wondering if my friend was planning to go into the gory details of my recent past relationships.

"So we," she motioned to the other bridesmaids seated nearby, "We were all quite relieved when she found A." They all laughed on cue. Had they known she was planning to do this to me? I edged up slightly in my chair and shot her a look, wondering if I should try to grab the microphone. But she grinned back at me and I knew she was finished. With a few more words of praise for my new husband, she raised her glass and drank. I breathed deeply and gulped my own champagne in relief, and wondered just how much of the English my new in-laws had understood.

It was true that my recent relationships, although not nearly as numerous as my friend implied, had been all wrong. The worst potential crash-and-burn was my ex-so-called fiancé, who had been easily usurped by A when he came along. But a rapid series of mistakes and narrow escapes had led to my husband, and a relationship that we both recognized instantly as The One. I was ready then to forget the painful errors I'd made to get there, and looking back now, I mostly have. Because while the "losers," as my friend so eloquently summarized, were sometimes nice guys, they were all mistaken paths or dead ends for me. There wasn't a single one with whom I could project myself into the future. One, however, did come very close: S.

S was my high school sweetheart. The prom date, the hero, the obligatory lead romantic role in any American teenage girl's life. Except that central casting didn't plan for one in the filming of my script: I was a nerd and a geek, the girl boys only talked to when they wanted help with their math homework. In the classic high school film comedy, it would have been left at that, but S and I found each other through another medium: computers. This was before Facebook, back when the Internet was restricted to academics and industry, and hapless geeky teenagers found each other behind green screens connected to local dial-up bulletin board systems. Through the reassuring anonymity of pseudonyms (S is not his real first initial, but the first initial of his 'nym), we could discuss, gossip, "geek out," and even flirt, and with enough courage, eventually arrange in groups to meet in person at a local coffee shop.

It was at such a meeting that I first saw S. His bulletin board system was in Olympia, Washington, which was an hour south of my home in Seattle. Olympia passed for a small town, and didn't even have a decent coffee shop at the time, so the local geeks met at Denny's. But my dad lived in Olympia, and I visited him regularly on the weekends, so one day I met S at Denny's on a Saturday afternoon.

He had long blond hair that fell halfway down his back in a ponytail. He had round glasses, and, to me, the look of a handsome American teenage hero, softened by an aura of geekiness. He first smiled and I melted (not that it took much at the time). In the parlance of our generation, we didn't "go out together" right away, and I can't remember when, officially, he became my boyfriend. By the end of high school, we were certain we would be together forever.

He first took me to his homecoming dance in his dad's white Toyota pickup. A year older than I was, he could already drive. I think I remember tentatively exchanging kisses, maybe our first, behind the wheel of that truck, in the muddy parking lot of a restaurant in the foggy darkness of the Port of Olympia. We circled around Olympia's downtown, all five blocks of it, to arrive in the park where he'd arranged a white-tablecloth-covered table in the gazebo. There was dessert, a red rose, and parents with cameras hopping out from behind the bushes to play amateur paparazzi. At age 16, I thought such a date couldn't be upstaged. He surpassed himself nevertheless, not just by other romantic gestures, but by always, always, being there to listen to me. He understood me in a way that no one else has understood me until A.

Soon his dad's pickup was replaced by his very own hand-me-down Volkswagen Rabbit, a gift from an uncle. It was dull chocolate brown and had a sunroof that leaked water, which was mighty practical in the Pacific Northwest, but I loved it, because it was so S. S taught me to fearlessly take apart a computer and put it back together. He introduced me to strange music, from Pink Floyd to German techno. He took me to my first and only monster truck rally, where we sat with John Deere hats pulled down low over our foreheads and watched the action, sharing our half-serious commentary with each other. While faultlessly respectful to everyone, he instinctively distrusted anyone who fit any mold, and was more comfortable than most teenagers in breaking his own. He read voraciously. When he wrote to me, or when we spent hours talking on the phone, we never ran out of things to say.

The next scenes in the film flicker by without surprise: we go off to college, at opposite ends of the country. He goes to a school a three-hour drive away, and I to a school a six-hour flight away. We promise to stay together and I break that promise. We see one another during vacations, briefly get back together a couple of times, but the distance and my immaturity and indecision are always too much for me to conquer. After graduation, I stay on the east coast while he goes back to Olympia, and we lose touch. I meet and marry A, and blush at my friend's toast. Two years later I move to France.

When I visit now, I find Olympia hasn't changed much since I left. Just as before, its status as state capital confers a certain importance and economic stability, and its status as home to the alternative Evergreen State College gives it neo-hippie cred. It has two high schools, a port, a mall, a Costco, a farmer's market, and even several good coffee shops. Perhaps I should stop thinking of it as a small town. Yet when I'm staying with my dad, I'm always amazed that my path doesn't cross S's somewhere. He must shop at the same stores, park in the same parking lots, walk down the same streets. Each time I'm in town, I look for him, not knowing how I'd introduce A or le Petit, not sure he'd want to see me, but ready to run up and tap him on the shoulder nonetheless.

I was in Olympia two weeks ago. For two days, the cold, damp curse that has held the region since spring lifted. It was warm, the sun chased away the clouds, and I finally got out the sandals I'd started to regret bringing in my luggage from Paris. The Olympic Mountains were holding vigil on the horizon, and Puget Sound was luminous in the golden early evening. After dinner I was too restless to stay inside.

I walked along the water, swinging around the end of the bay, crossing through the abandoned lots near the port where sidewalks and new projects have recently sprouted. I passed in front of the empty farmer's market, cut through the port parking lot and rejoined the boardwalk. That was when I started to look for S again. There were people everywhere on land and on water, chatting noisily on the patios of restaurants, dangling their feet over the edge of the pier, pushing strollers, paddling kayaks, throwing stones as far as they could into the still, rose-gold water. In the Northwest, sunshine draws out people like ants to spilled sugar. I felt almost certain I'd see S somewhere.

Years ago, six months before we moved to France, was when I last saw S. We were at a friend's wedding in San Francisco, and although we were both logistically solo for the occasion, we were also both happily together in life with someone else. I told S about A, about our then tentative plans to move to Paris. He told me about his fiancée. He glowed when he spoke of her. After our friend's short, simple, beautiful Quaker ceremony, S turned to me said that that was what he wanted for his wedding. Just what was really important. The essential.

I followed him into the reception hall, grateful that we were the first to arrive and alone. It was the last scene in the film. I told him something I'd heard once, something so trite it would be panned in any review, but it felt true enough to me. You only remember two loves: your first, and the love of your life. You were the first. And A is the love of my life. I wanted you to know that. I then apologized for how I'd treated him, an apology I'd guiltily kept to myself for so long, and let the gaps between the words say the rest. He nodded and squeezed my hands and looked at me in astonishment.

A few years later, I asked for news of S from our mutual friend. A rolling postscript before the credits was all I got: he'd heard from a friend of a friend that things with the fiancée didn't work out. He knew nothing more. I later found S on Facebook and became "friends," but he's apparently even more skeptical of the forum than I am, and rarely updates his status. He has no relationship data listed, but he also doesn't maintain a profile picture, both choices I have to admire. After a brief friendly message, he stopped responding to my hey-how's-life-been-treating-yous. I suppose it is just as well.

I climbed the wooden tower at the end of the boardwalk. In one direction, I could see the Capitol building, the lake, the evergreen forests that hide the greater part of town. In the other direction, the mountains and the Sound were still there, heartachingly beautiful against a sky that was now fading to violet. Such days hold all the elements to make me acutely homesick. A couple of teenagers climbed up the tower after me. The girl held a bunch of balloons and posed in front of the view of the Sound, then laughed. A boy with an earring and a camera took her picture.

I slowly started walking back to my dad's, my sandals pinching my feet. I wondered why I was so intent on accidentally bumping into S. I realized that he represents the path not taken. The me who stayed. The choices that would have kept me in Seattle, or even Olympia, and not led me willing, happy yet homesick across an ocean.

I don't regret the choices I've made, and I can't imagine life without A or le Petit. I know, too, that A is incomparable to anyone else. Certainly not the idealized high school sweetheart, who no matter how right for the role he was at age 17, is not someone I ever truly knew in the way I know A. S and I grew inexorably apart after high school and accepted the inevitable. A and I recognized each other when we met, and fought across timezones to hold onto what we knew was already written somewhere to be true. And, in the twelve years since, we've learned even more about how right we were when we took that chance.

Yet, frivolous as it is, part of me still imagines the Me That Might Have Been living on in a very different and entirely fictional happily-ever-after. It has more to do with my bittersweet, longed-for, self-imposed exile than S himself. Since I wanted S and his fiancée to incarnate that happily-ever-after, part of me is also glad that I never do manage to run into S. I picture him madly in love and married, with kids and a house and a new Volkswagen, and a story he sometimes tells of his half-forgotten first love who now lives in Paris. What would I say if I met him and it wasn't true?

As I turned round the end of the bay heading back, I saw a family of three walking toward me in the distance. The woman was wearing a baby in a Bjorn, and the father had long hair held back in a ponytail. It looked blond. I thought to myself, yes! And then, no, a few steps later I saw it was a trick of the strange late-day sunlight. He was too short to be my S, anyway. They came closer and I confirmed my mistake. I smiled maybe a little too broadly when they passed, overflowing with tenderness despite myself.

They must've thought I was crazy. I prefer to say that I'd just seen a ghost.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fish seeks water

"Welcome home. Or I guess I shouldn't say that."

The day I arrived at my mother's, I'd called up a friend who's known me in both Seattle and Paris. No, Seattle is still home, I assured her, in an immutable way, that both is and isn't true. We were planning to get together for dinner the next day. All I could think about were burgers, Alaska salmon, steamed clams and the other things I would never see on a menu in Paris. She could take me anywhere in town, I told her.

I arrived at the airport on Thursday morning, sans husband and child. The ten-hour direct flight had felt almost like a guilty pleasure; I read Le Monde from cover to cover, watched two films, and slowly ate the six macarons that I'd bought at La Duree in the departure terminal. But in the days and hours before I left I had intermittently shuddered with guilt. Before I left, le Petit had just started calling me "Mommy" instead of "maman." It was like a revelation to him, the mysterious power of the word to get my attention.

"Mommy," he said.

"Yes, hon?"

"Mommy."

"Yes?"

"Mommy."

"That's me."

"Mommy."

This went on for a while. Le Petit's eyes were alight, he looked as he'd just discovered the words to a magic spell. What would he think with Mommy gone? He would be in the best of hands -- my capable and generous husband had taken on ten days of full-time kid duty extending over father's day weekend -- and I didn't worry whether he would be all right, just that I was somehow letting him down (and my husband too). We talked about the trip, about the plane, about the fact that Mommy would be home in ten days. Let's count them: one, two, three, four...

Ten days. Ten hour flight. Nine hours of jet lag. Worse than jet lag, I felt the expectation lag of not knowing what awaited me in what should be familiar territory. I called my mom and waited to be picked up at the curb at the arrival level at Sea-Tac. People took long draws on cigarettes in front of the "No Smoking" sign, and cars were parked three lanes deep despite the "No Parking, No Stopping" announcement that played over the PA system on endless loop. What had happened to my courteous, blindly law-abiding fellow Americans? Back in Paris, people were grudging adhering to the indoor smoking ban and, thanks to the ubiquitous radar controls, slowing down on the highway. If no one held to the stereotypes anymore, I'd never remember where I was.

Once home at my mom's, I took a walk up to the small shops on 15th street, searching in vain for enough sunshine to transport me to the correct time or expectation zone. The weather in Seattle was conforming to Paris, too, though a bit colder, perhaps. I was still incapable of mentally transforming Fahrenheit into Celsius. I walked into a drug store, bought some small things including a postcard of the Seattle skyline to mail to le Petit (he'd recognize the Space Needle and search for the Eiffel Tower, no doubt), and fumbled while counting out my change. Why did the currency look so strange? The Euros I had quarantined into a corner of my wallet suddenly looked like Monopoly money.

I walked back through the neighborhood, admiring the brightly-painted wooden houses, their front porches and leaded-glass bay windows, their lush green and immaculately-groomed gardens sloping down to the street. Anything can grow in Seattle as long as it can handle dripping wet from all its leaves for ten months out of the year. If I lived back home, I would live here, and I would have one of these porches, one of these gardens. Except, the Francophile Voice of Reason insisted, if you lived back home, you would never be able to afford a house here. And what about le Petit's school, and your husband's job, and health insurance, and how exactly would you expect to take a year of maternity leave? Burning with jealousy, I discreetly walked around families who were gathered chatting on the sidewalk.

The next day, I met my friend for dinner. We gossiped in French, switching to English when the waitress appeared. I was grateful I remembered the correct American script to order my meal, and was mentally jostled by her 'awesomes' and 'greats.' To her, I was a foreign tourist: when I asked to take the rest of my dessert home with me, she offered me a plastic fork, "to take back to your hotel room."

I belong neither here nor there. A fish out of water both places, although most of the time I hardly notice it. Being "other" is part of what I enjoy about living in Paris. My accent gives me away and gives me permission to be timid or make constant mistakes, something of which in truth I've always been guilty, just never with such freedom. In France, I feel more at home and more daring with this ever-present safety net. But when I am back in Seattle, I am strangely confronted with unsettling familiarity. I belong here. But I don't. And either way, I miss it terribly.

Two days later, I was getting used to being a Seattleite again. I stood at the corner of an empty intersection downtown in the drizzling rain holding my folded umbrella under my arm, waiting for the light to turn green. Although my glasses were specked with drops, I knew intuitively that this rain wasn't worth it. And as if complacency had soaked into my bones along with the rain, I didn't bother scanning to see if any cars were coming, I conformed to the local custom and waited.

What if I just stayed? The Icelandic volcano could start spewing ash again, all transatlantic air traffic could stop, or I could just decide on my own, with no natural catastrophe, not to go back. I could buy a Seattle bungalow. I would paint the cedar shingle siding blue and white. I would plant ferns in the flower beds and hang a swing on the front porch and watch the rain from my front window. Two men, umbrella-less, stood next to me on the curb, wearing their baseball caps backwards and their t-shirts hanging out of their baggy shorts. They impetuously crossed the street against the light and I followed them.

I climbed a few blocks, caught the bus, and sat meditatively as it swayed along its route back to 15th street. I got off at the stop across from the hospital where I was born, from which I walked back to my mom's house. There were no families in the front yards today, no children outside playing, just a few people in Gore-tex rain gear walking their dogs.

I called my husband to wish him him happy Father's Day. He and le Petit were staying in Troyes with my in-laws.

"What's the weather like there?" I asked.

"Cold. Rainy. Windy."

"Same here."

I talked for a while to le Petit. I slipped into French for the benefit of my mother-in-law, who was holding the phone and helping with the simultaneous translation from toddler-speak into comprehensible phone-speak. Le Petit was excited to be helping watering the plants. That's how much his grandparents love him: they let him water their plants in the rain.

"Au revoir, maman."

"You take care. I miss you, little guy, and I love you."

"I love you!" le Petit repeated. Although I tell him I love him every night before I say goodnight, this was the first time I could remember him saying it back to me, and tears almost came to my eyes.

"I love his accent!" marveled my mother-in-law.

It was true, he'd said it exactly -- exactly -- like me.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kicking

Every four years, I've got an excuse to watch soccer.

(Excuse me, I mean football.)

Every four years, despite myself and despite the depressing prospects of the French team, I am captivated by the World Cup. I start out ambivalently watching the match between France and Uruguay, and I wind up glued to the screen in front of Germany vs. Australia. I was, naturally, thrilled that the underdog American team managed a tie with England. Le Petit giggled as I sang along to the Star-spangled Banner. No other sporting event draws me in like this, and I can't explain it.

Le Petit is, for once, exposed to television for hours at a time; he runs around yelling "Il y a BUT! Il y a but?" (GOAL! There's a goal?"). After a half an hour of a tied match, however, he loses interest and asks us to put on a Jordi Savall CD.

I'm embarrassed to admit, however, that he's memorized the commercials aired on TF1 at half-time.

"Mommy is going to Seattle. Mommy is taking a plane, and a boat, and... a Toyota. Grandpa and Gramby have a Toyota. And Toyota is the official car of the équipe de France!"

While my husband was putting le Petit to bed and listening to rehashed car commercials, I was watching the second half of Italy-Paraguay, hoping against hope that Paraguay would hold onto their one point lead. (After 2006, no self-respecting French fan can stomach the thought of an Italian victory, no matter how well-deserved.)

The Italians score. The match is tied. And I feel a tentative, tiny kick somewhere in the middle of my abdomen, one of the tickles I've only started to notice in the last week.

"So you're a fan of the Italians, huh, little one?" I pat my belly. "Well, I suppose Mommy can find a way to be one, too, then."

And now you know why I've been a bit distracted lately.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Strike one

I was scheduled to take the written driver's license exam on May 27th. For the record, the written test is anything but simple: forty slides of real-life driving situations, forty associated multiple-choice questions, each of which may have multiple correct answers, all of which must be identified correctly to get the question right. A passing score is 35 out of 40. It isn't rocket science, but it still requires months of preparation.

As the date grew closer, I was alternately stressed and nonchalant. Although I still regularly missed a question or two or three (oh, those obscure questions! "How many backup lights are required on a car?" How should I know?), I figured I could manage a passing score. Getting a test date scheduled with the préfecture proved a challenge in itself: I asked my driving school to present me back in March, and the earliest date they could propose was late May. Come May, I was thoroughly fed up and ready to put it behind me.

The test session was at ten o'clock on a Thursday morning, in the lovely post-industrial suburb of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, inaccessible by public transportation except for a bus that winds its slow way between the RER C and La Défense. The driving school offered to take me, perhaps, or then again maybe not, to be confirmed at the last minute. (Clearly they were well worth the 750€ fee.) I arranged to take the day off, and started to worry. A general strike was announced for the 27th. The RER might not be running. My husband had a meeting and couldn't escape from work to drive me. I noted the number for several Parisian taxi companies and slipped the paper in my purse.

The day before, the driving school confirmed that they could take me, but only if I left from their office near the Anvers Métro station at the foot of Montmartre, 30 minutes from our apartment. I accepted gratefully. What I didn't realize was that the ride would be part of a practice driving session.

Along with two other students, I squeezed into the back of a Peugeot 207 with an "Auto-école" sign on top and "Savoir vivre, c'est savoir conduire" prominently scrolled across the side. A young girl sat confidently behind the wheel, and a bored, middle-aged driving instructor took his place in the passenger's seat. With barely a passing glance at the traffic, the girl jerkily pulled out into the street.

She crossed the entire 18th arrondissement -- narrow streets, steep slopes, speeding scooters, oblivious pedestrians -- without a care in the world, and certainly no fear of the priorité à droite.* The instructor, who thankfully had a brake pedal on his side, kept his cool but was occasionally compelled to grab the steering wheel. His advice was clear and calm, albeit largely unheeded or unnoticed, "Slow down! That truck is stopped ahead!" or "Merge to the left, the bus is pulling out. No, the left..."

We got out of Paris alive and intact, miraculously enough. "Now turn, slowly, into the parking on the right," the instructor announced. We were thrown an inch or two into the air as the car bumped off the road into a dirt parking lot. "Slowly..." the instructor repeated wearily. We parked in front of the Salle des fêtes, a 1970s windowless architectural marvel that didn't exactly put me in the mood to celebrate.

We extracted ourselves from the car and noticed a crowd milling outside. Something was wrong. We walked up to the building and read a handwritten note which was conspicuously taped to the metal side door:



"Test inspector on strike.”

My nerves were so shot by then by the anticipatory stress of the exam and the nail-biting ride I'd taken to get there that I started laughing hysterically.

The driving instructor shortly abandoned us with a vague promise that someone else from the school would be back to pick us up later.

I waited a half an hour outside in the parking lot until it started to drizzle, SMS-ing the details of my ridiculous situation to everyone and arranging with my boss to come in to work in the afternoon. Then there was a search for the bus stop, a forty-five minute bus ride to La Défense, a twenty minute wait for the RER, and of course, no bus when I arrived, so I had to walk another twenty minutes to the office. All in all, it took me two hours to get to work from Villeneuve. At least it didn't rain (hard), and at least I arrived in time for lunch.

The driving school called me a day later.

"We've contacted the préfecture, and it looks like it will be difficult to get you a new date in June."

It looks like it will be difficult. Il semble que ça va être difficile. Code for "absolutely no one is interested in your predicament."

I put off getting my French license for almost seven years out of laziness, but also because everyone had warned me that it would be a long, expensive and frustrating ordeal. When I finally signed up, I was almost worried that everyone would be proven wrong, that the process would be relatively simple and that I'd kick myself for having waited. It turns out, no, actually, it's even worse than I expected.

At least I can indulge in the classic French pastime of insulting the civil service. It's some consolation.

*The priorité à droite is the rule that governs the order of passage at intersections where there are no yield or stop signs or traffic lights (of which there are many in France). Regardless of who arrives in which order, a driver arriving from the right always passes before a driver arriving from the left. This rule is so ingrained in the psyche of the French driver that they see it as a divine right, and thus cross intersections at great speeds with barely a sidelong glance to the left. Seasoned French drivers also have a second sense when it comes to detecting cars arriving on the right so they can brake in time. To an American observer, it puts the "uncontrolled" in "uncontrolled intersection."

Friday, May 07, 2010

L'école

Life -- in the form of head colds and deadlines and surprise visits from the Big Boss -- has been keeping me from the blog, plus we're off once again on vacation next week, but one thing needs needs to be briefly recorded for posterity.

Today was our first visit to Le Petit's new nursery school. Just thinking about it too much makes me cry, in a good way. In September, my no-longer-so-little guy will be off to the école maternelle.

Upstairs, rows of hooks with construction-paper name tags. A classroom with puzzles and toys and a play kitchen, complete, to my delight, with realistic plastic cheese, both camembert and chèvre. Rows of cots on the floor of the nap room; the director's reassurance that yes, they did know how to deal with the occasional child who (ahem) won't nap. Downstairs, the physical activity room with mats to tumble on and ropes to climb, and a cafeteria with neatly arranged toddler-sized tables and chairs. Le Petit explored it all with enthusiasm, and a little more energetically than most of his lovey-clutching peers. I was glad we'd come as a family, for there was no way I could have chased after him and listened to the director at the same time.

I'm excited. I'm not sure why, but I'm sure le Petit will love going to school from the beginning. Our only hurdle remains (sigh) potty training. The director reminded us that children are expected to be "propre," although accidents, of course, do happen. He told us that in all his years teaching "les petits," he'd only seen one student fail to potty train before the September deadline (and that was due to a stressful move and resolved itself quickly). "Summer is a great time to train," he assured us, "And they all learn. With school comes a new status, and new expectations." Right now, I'll just assume he's right.