Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sugar and spice

This week, for the first time ever, I met a four-year-old girl who dreams of being a fighter pilot.

One of my colleagues had forgotten about daylight savings time and overslept, missed the drop-off time at the école maternelle, and had to bring his daughter to work with him. She was outgoing, energetic, cute, of course, and rather outspoken: just what we needed on a Monday morning.

I dug up some stickers and a box full of Kinder Surprise toys for her to play with, and soon she was hanging around my desk, rearranging the magnets on my file cabinet and chatting.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked. I never know what to talk about with children. Le Petit, at his age, still isn't much for small talk, and I rarely can get a coherent narrative of anything as simple as what he had for lunch or what he did at the park. For my half of the conversation, I can still almost get away with goofy faces and funny sounds. When I talk to older kids, however, I have no idea where to begin. I assume that they either want to tell me what they enjoy about school or what they want to be when they grow up. They usually don't. I cringe, realizing I've morphed into just another boring adult.

My colleague's daughter thought about my question for a second, then answered, "I want... I want to fly a plane!"

"That's great! A big plane, with passengers, like the ones that go to California?" Earlier her father had come by my desk, and explained to her that I was from somewhere very near California. The little girl knew about California, and I watched her eyes grow wide as she asked in disbelief, "Vraiment? La Californie?" I struggled to explain the geography of the American west coast in a way that would make sense to a four year old. "Seattle. It's almost California. Colder, though. Further north... that's up, I mean. There's the same ocean, though. And big trees." I didn't do very well.

"I want to be a fighter pilot!" she announced. No boring commercial flights for her. "So I can shoot at the houses, and the apartment buildings," she continued with a smile.

My officemate and I exchanged perplexed glances. "Well, first there'd have to be a war," I said hesitantly, wondering how I could change the subject. I've been reading too much about World War I and II recently to stomach even the abstract thought of a child growing up to go off to war. Recently at the playground an older boy pointed a realistic toy gun at le Petit's head and pretended to fire. Le Petit didn't even notice -- I can't imagine he even knows what a gun is, much less what it is used for -- but I inadvertently tensed, and almost jumped up from my park bench and rushed over to pull him away, irrational as it was.

Still, I was impressed and the feminist in me was proud that this little girl, at what must be the target marketing age for Disney princesses, was telling me confidently that she wanted to be a fighter pilot. You go, girl.

"Or," she added, "I may just do what Daddy does."

"Working with computers is good, too," I assured her.

* * *

When you start talking about having a second child, you hear the same inevitable comment over and over. If you already have a boy, everyone gushes, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a girl! Then you'd have one of each!" I assume mothers of little girls get the same comment in reverse. I hate this, because if there's one thing becoming a mother has taught me it is that children don't just come in two models, male and female. Another son would not be a carbon copy of le Petit.

Still, there's part of me that sees boys as less of a mystery than girls. Although I would be just as happy to have a daughter as another son, I secretly wonder if a girl wouldn't be more of a challenge for me to figure out. This makes no sense, I know, because I'm girl myself.

I'm just not a typical one. I've always hated pink. I've never figured out how to paint my own nails or do a straight French braid. I've always been last to identify the latest trends and accumulate the accoutrements of girlhood, be it gummy bracelets in third grade, Guess jeans in middle school, or knee-high boots here in Paris. Growing up, I almost viewed other girls as extraterrestrials. I had a couple of close girlfriends, but for all my efforts to decipher their strange culture, the vast majority of girls ignored me, teased me, or excluded me. From preschool on, in self-defense, I learned to make friends with boys. My career in the software industry is a direct result of my early flight from all things feminine. I made friends with boys who were into computers, and logically became a geek myself.

Well into high school the boys, for their part, still mostly saw me as a buddy, not a girl. I despaired of ever being "asked out." Guys only seemed to notice me when they needed help with their math homework.

After high school I went to a women's college. It was a choice that surprised everyone, I think, except my parents. I surprised myself by discovering that I fit into a would that was exclusively feminine. Somehow we all were freed from the roles that I'd observed up until then: the popular girl, the nice girl, the gossip, the nerd. Solidarity outweighed self-comparison and competition. Makeup was optional. I made friends with women, and many are among my very closest friends now. It was everything that high school and middle school were not. But it felt long in coming.

I remember how my mother, one of the feminists I most admire, anxiously watched me make my way though the painful stuff as I grew up. It anguished her to see me struggle to make friends, or criticize my own body, or sigh after boys, or wonder if it wasn't such a good thing after all to be "too smart." She did her best to help, and a lot of what she told me then makes sense to me now. Back then, however, nothing she said could make it all better.

My own daughter might suffer the same way, and then what would I do?

* * *

I took the day off today. Vive les RTT, the extra vacation days given to salaried employees like myself to compensate for a more-than-35-hour work week. Ever since I went back to work after le Petit was born, I've started taking a day for myself once every couple months. I go shopping, visit museums, or stroll around Paris, and without fail, I meet my husband for lunch.

Twice, now, I've also treated myself to manicure. For me, this is a big deal, for it feels at once decadent and forbidden to take myself into the inner sanctum of French femininity, the institut de beauté. For years I walked past the day spa in my neighborhood and stared longingly inside, trying to get up the nerve to make an appointment. I was almost afraid of being rejected: with my calloused feet and bare fingernails, I obviously didn't belong to the club.

Then I discovered what French women all seem to know: the little rituals of taking care of yourself don't concern anyone but you.

I sat in the corner of the spa near the window as the manicurist trimmed my cuticles. I peered nervously down the sidewalk, hoping the nanny wouldn't pass by with le Petit. I murmured something about motherly guilt. The manicurist laughed. "I think a lot of women do exactly the same thing you're doing right now," she assured me. And they don't feel guilty about it, she implied.

Strangely, I think if I had a daughter, I wouldn't feel so guilty, because I'd know at the same time that I was being a role model.

* * *

My mother has never worn much makeup. If you ask me, she doesn't need it. She is beautiful the way she is, and eye shadow or nail polish would be incongruous with her personality. When she dresses up, she chooses jewelry and bright outfits that show off her warm complexion and her slender form. She doesn't need anything else.

My mother told me that once, when she was a sophomore in high school, a boy started a rumor that he would gladly kiss her if she would only wear lipstick. She decided that instant that she would never wear it, a vow she kept, I believe, at least until after she graduated.

The year I turned twelve, my mother went to the makeup counter at the local department store with my picture, and asked the saleswomen for advice. She came home with one of the best Christmas presents I remember ever receiving: a full set of Clinique makeup, and instructions on how to use it. It was elegant stuff, and understated, and I was probably still too young to appreciate it. It was my mom's way of acknowledging that I was growing up, and that there were ways that my identity as a woman might be very different from hers.

I'm not sure I ever properly thanked her.

* * *

When I took le Petit to the park on Wednesday, a little girl, maybe six or seven, was running around chasing after a couple of younger boys. "Bam, bam, bam!" she said, pointing her fingers like a gun. She stopped one of the boys, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I got you, just then," she said, "You need to come with me," and he reluctantly held his hands behind his back as she led him off to the corner of the playground designated "jail."

Le Petit chased after her, enchanted. He seems to have a thing for "older women," I've noticed with amusement, and little girls that are three or four years his senior particularly attract his attention. The girl didn't shoo him away, as I would have expected. Instead she asked, "Do you want to play?" and pretended to hand him something, maybe a badge, maybe his very own imaginary handgun. Le Petit didn't fully understand what she was doing, but he happily understood that he was included in the game. The chasing recommenced.

Soon the kids had all converged on a tall slide, one of the big toys I've grudgingly started letting le Petit climb up by himself. I watched as he scaled it beside the other kids twice his size, my heart in my throat. There was much jostling and pushing at the top. "Stop!" admonished the girl, "Don't push the little boy! Let him go down the slide!" The other boys dutifully let le Petit squeeze past.

So girls play cops and robbers these days, and want to become fighter pilots. It shouldn't surprise me, for I played "cars and trucks" when I was little. There's still something that looks like maternal instinct, too, although I suspect it is learned and not innate.

* * *

When I was a kid, my mother tried repeatedly to teach me to play catch.

"You throw like a girl!" she complained, and eventually gave up. Even back then, it seemed ironic to me that for once I was not supposed be "girly," and I failed. If I have a girl, and I need to teach her to throw a ball, I'm sending her to Grandma's. I'll send le Petit and any brothers, too. My mother loved sports, but was born in a generation when girls were only allowed to be cheerleaders, not basketball or baseball players.

I hated sports when I was young, and I was and still am terribly uncoordinated. I grew up to become an adept of distance running. What does "one of each" mean again?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Me and le Petit

I've thought long and hard about what advice I could provide to new parents, what hard-earned pieces of wisdom I could share from my two-years-and-nine-months in the trenches of motherhood. I realize I'm absolutely sure of at least one thing. One thing for which my insouciant life pre-motherhood had ill prepared me. One thing which agonized me for months in the beginning of le Petit's life until I figured it out. Yes, folks, in this age of breast vs. bottle, washable vs. disposable, cry-it-out vs. cosleeping, on one subject, at least, I have found The One True Way. So listen carefully.

You know those #@&! folding cribs with the mesh sides and the fabric-covered metal bars? Unfolding them is actually simple! Just block the sides one by one, and then push out the middle. When you want to fold it back up again, pull up the middle, then unblock the sides. Voilà.

(Easy enough, you'd think, but you have no idea how many frustrated hours -- ok, minutes -- I passed trying to get the hang of this. And I once fielded an SOS call from my in-laws, who were on babysitting duty and couldn't unfold the playpen, so I can't just blame it all on my clumsiness and sleep-deprivation.)

That's it. That's all the advice I can give. Pretty pathetic, no? On the other hand, I've discovered many things that work for us and for le Petit, although I doubt they'd necessarily work for any other given parent and child. They're not terribly concrete, and often not something you'll find written down in some Sacred Baby Advice Book, which is why I'm so hesitant to give advice at all. At the moment, my strategy is something like this:

1) Distract. Le Petit has a long attention span for a toddler, or so, proud mother that I am, I like to believe. This is good: he can keep himself occupied with a book or a game for long enough for me to read an article in the latest issue of Economist (sometimes, at least). This is bad: when I've thwarted some toddler impulse, he remembers and tantrums, hollers and howls beyond all reason for a startlingly long time. He doesn't just make one more run for the slide and then grudgingly accept when I start pulling him toward the playground gate. No, he goes limp, sprawls out on the ground and screams, and I have to pick him up and carry him out while he flails his arms and tries to do a back flip onto the pavement. It isn't pretty.

If I can distract him, on the other hand -- let's go see the crane! The boats on the river! The fire trucks! -- it goes much more smoothly. Unfortunately, the distraction has to be of equal interest as the forbidden activity. This is tough. Few things rival the playground, or scaling the dining room table to load a new CD into the CD player.

2) Compromise. I'd heard a lot of good things from a lot of different people about nonviolent communication between parents and children. The idea is to objectively understand where the conflict of needs lies between parties ("You want to go to the park by the river to see the boats. Mommy doesn't want to go because she is afraid you'll fall in the water.") and then come up with solutions that satisfy everyone ("I'll go with you to the park by the river, if you stay in your stroller. That way you can see the boats and I can be sure you're safe.") The problem is, although le Petit is old enough to fluently express his demands -- urrr, needs -- brainstorming mutually acceptable solutions is still pretty one-sided and mommy-driven. And although le Petit is fluent with WHAT he wants (in two languages! Yippee!), the WHY is still a little blurry. Often this approach boils down to distraction: see technique number 1.

3) Be firm. And flexible. As I stood in my bathroom three years ago staring in gleeful and terrified disbelief at the results of a home pregnancy test, among the myriad worries that flooded my brain was that I would be a mommy pushover. I assumed I would be flexible to a fault, and would have to rely on my husband to lay down the law. Surprisingly, often I find myself holding the line with le Petit often just out of principle and for no other obvious reason. I dig in my heels and proclaim (inwardly, at least) Just Because I Said So. On issues where I know adherence to the rules is important -- first and foremost safety, of course, and respect for others, including myself -- I'm firm, and I'm sure of myself, and it usually works. On other issues, where some abstract parenting principle is the only thing backing me up in my own head, I routinely lose. "I am not taking you out of your crib for a second time for a fourth bedtime story!" comes to mind. Five minutes later, I was back in his room, reading the story. It was easier than listening to the sobbing and screaming -- and after all, what's one more story?

4) Delegate. When I'm at the end of my rope, after, say, carrying an angrily protesting and rather heavy le Petit all the way back from the park in my arms, I don't hesitate to call in the reserves. Except the reserves at our house aren't really the reserves, since my husband is as hands-on a father as can be. And, bless him, he knows instinctively when I've had enough. When the pre-bath toddler round-up is underway and I just can't handle chasing a half-dressed le Petit around the living room one more time, he steps in and does it. On Wednesday afternoons, I can count on my mother-in-law. It may not take a village, but it at least takes a lieu-dit.

5) What worked today may not work tomorrow. But it's worth a try. The one truth of parenting I've discovered (aside from the crib folding trick, which I am honestly quite proud of) is that just when you've got it all figured out, the kid changes. They grow. They learn. They reason, sometimes in scary and unreasonable ways. They learn to open doors and climb, and suddenly instead of falling asleep at night you're lying awake wondering how on earth you're going to secure the medicine cabinet or block shut the sliding glass door. They evolve, they regress, they sleep or don't sleep, they eat or don't eat, they tantrum, they express themselves, they explain things to you when you thought they hadn't been paying attention. Sometimes it doesn't seem fair, for just when you've figured out the fail-proof nap schedule they're no longer napping on the weekend, or just when you bought a freezerful of a favorite vegetable they're no longer eating it. The hard-earned knowledge isn't even transferable to younger siblings, I've been told. But somehow, despite the constant change, I'm getting to know le Petit better all the time.

I have an entire shelf of parenting books that, aside from a few helpful exceptions, I'm honestly considering destroying before another baby arrives. I'm keeping the baby equipment instruction manuals, however. You never know.

By the way, I have no idea how to lead into this, so here goes nothing: a week ago last Monday, le Petit and I were in the kitchen together. I was preparing dinner and he was intently examining the washing machine. I pointed out the digital display with the number of minutes left in the cycle. "Zero, three, nine!" I told him. "Thirty-nine minutes left!" I went back to cooking and he kept looking at the display. Then two minutes later he said "Seven!" and pointed at the seven in thirty-seven. I was floored. We looked at the clock on the stove, and he could identify a handful of other numbers. Not with perfect assurance or accuracy, but still. I was -- I am -- quite proud.

I'm not quite so thrilled that tonight he figured out how to unlatch the lock on the sliding glass door to the balcony. We live on the sixth floor (that's the seventh floor for us Americans, not that that makes much of a difference) and I live in terror of a fall. Although le Petit doesn't seem to have the strength to actually push the door open, we immediately blocked it with duct tape and will be watching him veeeeery carefully near it until I can put together a more secure solution this week. To those of you with children, what potential accident scares you the most? When does the worry subside? When they're five? Fifteen? Thirty? Or, I suspect, never?

Saturday, March 13, 2010


There was something unusual happening at my driving school when I walked in one Wednesday afternoon. It was five o'clock and a written exam practice session was supposed to be starting in five minutes. Typically all is quiet in the classroom just behind the receptionist's desk; the students are taking their seats, teenage boys slumping backward in their sweatshirts, girls hunching over their cell phones to send text messages as they wait for the next forty-minute test to start on the flat screen television hanging on the wall. This time, however, I heard the booming voice of a driving instructor, with the characteristic tone of fatigued authority. Was the practice session canceled, and the classroom reserved for one of the useless théorie de la pratique classes that I'd seen advertised? I certainly wasn't sticking around for a lecture on proper tire pressure or insurance procedures and vehicle registration. Had I left le Petit with my mother-in-law and walked across town for nothing?

I looked inquiringly at the receptionist.

"Bonsoir. Is there a session now?"

"Oui, bien sûr. That's just a student who had a question about the last test, and asked for clarification from an instructor. They should be done soon."

So I grabbed an answer sheet and a clipboard, ducked into the room, and sat down. The screen showed a picture of a pedestrian just stepping out into a crosswalk. A student, with the look and demeanor of a sincere nerd, was arguing with the instructor about it. How should she know that she should stop in this situation? She needed the rule.

"But it is obvious," insisted the instructor. "Here the pedestrian is engaged in the intersection. No one is behind you [the photo showed the reflection in the rear view mirror], and common sense tells you to stop." The discussion had clearly been going on for some time. Shaking his head, the instructor turned to leave.

The "rule" the student was looking for was obvious enough to me, after sitting through innumerable practice tests. If the pedestrian in the photo is standing patiently in front of the crosswalk, you can keep going. If they have just one foot off the curb, you must stop. The photos are designed to be pretty clear on the matter. From months of iterating through question after question, I'm starting to learn a few test tricks, like how to pick out stop and yield lines painted at intersections to determine priority of passage or quickly judge if a situation is considered safe to pass. For some time now, I routinely get a passing score, and I can't believe I ever found the test so challenging at the beginning. I even have to admit that some of what I've learned may be useful in real life.

But the student was embarrassing herself, and I cringed. I could understand taking it seriously. But in front of the entire room? I didn't dare meet anyone's gaze, but I wasn't alone trying hard not to laugh out loud.

"I had the same question the other day, and the answer was the opposite! I don't understand! What if we get this on the test? What do I do then?"

The instructor had left, so a student mockingly stepped in to answer. "But Madame, there have to be trick questions. Someone's got to fall in the trap. This is France. There have to be winners and losers!"

The comment came from a twenty-something man with a two-day-old beard and a baseball cap, who was slouched in a corner against the wall.

"And here, it's easy," he continued. "It's just the written test. You're only in front of a television screen. Just wait for the driving test, when instead of a television screen, you have a dog in front of you..."

He used the word 'dog' -- chien -- with such derision, I remembered what I'd heard many times about the terrible reputation of French driving examiners. Ca ne rigole pas. But I already knew I wasn't taking my driver's exam for fun.

"But..." the first student responded, consternated, not sure if she was being teased or instead being offered practical advice.

"If I had a dog in front of me, I'd stop! I'd stop the car!"

I bit my tongue and stared out the window. The code de la route says nothing about dangers of credulity behind the wheel, fortunately enough. But I wondered if I should explain to her the "Danger: domestic animal crossing" sign just in case.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


"I have a question for you," my mother asked out of the blue on the phone this week. "What's 'Facebook'?"

"Oh... just... waste of time, really." I laughed. "It's a web site that shows you information about people you know, and lets you keep in touch by sending them messages and sharing pictures. Why do you ask?"

She'd just gotten an e-mail invitation to join Facebook from someone she'd never heard of, and as with everything computer-related, she asked for my advice, which was to ignore it.

"So, you can just sign up for this thing? And it's free?"

"Yeah, it's free. And it's kind of stupid. But it is useful for finding old friends and keeping track of what people are up to." I paused briefly, and wondered if I should confess. "Speaking of which, you'll never guess who just found me on Facebook..."

"Who?" Mom asked.

"An ex-boyfriend. L'ex. I articulated his name carefully then paused for effect, sure that it would still mean something to her seventeen years after I'd last uttered it.


"You know. L'ex. The one with the green pick-up truck?"

"Oh, l'ex!"

"...and get this, he's coming to Paris. We're going out to dinner Friday night."

I casually mentioned an event which, while not exactly looming ominously on my calendar, I'd been watching approach with apprehensive anticipation since I first learned that l'ex was moving to London. Just how much I cared or why I wouldn't admit to anyone, for it was all wounded pride. L'ex was one of a select few ex-boyfriends who had dumped me rather than the other way around. It was a very old story, and while I couldn't remember all the details, I'd held onto the essential: my poor adolescent heart had been humiliated, crushed. It was heartbreak as you can only experience it at age sixteen, when upon closing the front door or hanging up the phone you're certain your entire existence on the planet has been irreparably shattered.

The dumping kicked me hard in the stomach in the dead of winter, right after both Christmas and my sixteenth birthday, and it felt like it took me a long time to recover. Then came spring and summer, other boyfriends, prom, then another school year, and finally college far away across the country. Before long I had to admit that despite what I feared in the first cold months of 1993, my life did go on.

Now the infamous breakup, l'ex, the green pick-up truck, none of it had crossed my mind in over a decade and a half. Yet when a message from that name showed up in my Facebook inbox a year ago, asking something like "Hey, you wouldn't be the Parisienne Mais Presque, from Seattle...?" the nostalgia wasn't altogether welcome.

I answered anyway, of course. I'm polite. And curious.

It turned out that l'ex had moved to L.A. shortly after the breakup to go to film school, then had worked for ten years in the film industry, and was now moving to London to go to graduate school. He was spending some of his free time tracking down old friends on Facebook; a way, I assumed smugly, to better prepare himself for a big jump into the unknown. He assured me he'd be visiting Paris, and insisted that when he did, we must get together.

I emailed a French friend about my plans to meet l'ex and said, "Americans are strange because a) they find it perfectly normal to track down exes and b) they think that Paris is right next to London." It has never seemed very French to me to leave a relationship and look back, even briefly, even seventeen years later. The French word for breakup is rupture, which feels much more dramatic than its English equivalent, and leaves no room whatsoever for "Let's just be friends."

Then again, the only Frenchman whose personal life I've observed closely and whom I've interrogated on the subject is my husband. His exes were a subject briefly addressed at the beginning of our relationship; the book is now closed, pushed to the back of a shelf, and covered with a thick layer of dust.

I asked him how he'd feel if I met up with l'ex when he came to visit Paris. "Si ça t'amuse," he told me, which best translates as "Sure, whatever," with an indifferent Gallic shrug.

We set the date: March 5. I got to choose the restaurant, one I'd discovered with a friend almost a year ago and where I longed to go back. I figured that even if the evening was a complete loss and we couldn't figure out what to say to one another for two hours, at least I'd enjoy the food.

* * *

On Friday morning, rather than rushing for the Métro as usual, I decided to be late to work and pulled out the ironing board to press the black cotton blouse I'd picked for the night's big occasion. "You're making yourself all belle for the ex-boyfriend?" my husband teased.

"No. And yes. I picked the shirt to show off the necklace you gave me. But I do want to look good, you know. Consider it revenge," I said playfully, truthfully.

Later, I went for a run during my lunch break, despite the head cold I'd been suffering from throughout the week. I needed the physical exertion and the moment alone in the cold, clear air to work up the nerve I'd need for the evening ahead. I joined a colleague to eat after I got back, and as we sat across from one another in the deserted lunch room, I confided to him my plans.

"En fait, I'm meeting an old friend for dinner tonight," I said nonchalantly. I avoided the charged word copain, which means both friend and boyfriend, and instead said un ami du lycée, a friend from high school. No mention of exes here.

He grimaced over his yogurt. "Myself, I've never enjoyed meeting up with old schoolmates. They're always boring. All you can talk about is what happened in the past, 'Do you remember when?' and all. In fifteen minutes you've said all you have to say to each other."

"Maybe not this time. When I knew him, he was going to school part time and working at a pizza joint. Since then he went off to film school, and now he's in London."

"So at least he's somebody interesting now."

"He's probably got more to talk about than his kids and his brand-new car, unlike most of the rest of us. And if not, at least I know the restaurant we're going to is good."

At half-past six, I touched up my minimalist makeup while shutting down my computer. We wouldn't be meeting at the restaurant until eight, but since my commuter rail line has been everything but reliable lately, I left myself plenty of time. But then the RATP conspired to destroy my confidence; the train and the Métro were both on time and delivered me, helpless, twenty-five minutes early at my destination station. I hate arriving early. I shivered and pulled out a book, and hunched into one of the seats on the platform to wait.

At quarter to eight, I got up, pulled out my map and started making my way circuitously to the restaurant. I was in the heart of monumental Paris: a step to the left revealed the Eiffel Tower, a step to the right the long avenue that leads to the Invalides. The apartments were pure Haussman, and their impeccably maintained floral stonework was stark white in the streetlamps. Most windows were shuttered, but some were open and lit, and from my perspective on the street they revealed chandeliers, heavy silk curtains, and the upper half of giant gilt mirrors. Were these the famous appartements d'apparat where no one lived, and that were only used by the rich for receptions and gala dinners? Did such apartments even exist, or were they a myth? How much would one really spend to construct a facade for the rest of the world? I walked up the street and back to kill time, stopping in front of the window of a real estate agency to look at the listings.

At two minutes to eight, with still no sign of l'ex, I walked into the restaurant. I was greeted warmly by the hostess and a waiter, who rushed to take my backpack and my coat. They ushered me to a table against a wall from which I had a clear view of the front door. The waiter complimented me on my petit accent charmant, and I mumbled an incoherent response. I was nervous, and when I realized it, I chided myself for it. I looked around and started to discover the details of the place, which was everything I love in a Paris restaurant: wide windows veiled with half-length curtains on brass bars; small tables pushed together in improvised intimacy; a menu scrawled in white on a slate easel; a polished bar facing the front door. There were the sounds I love, too: the pop of a wine bottle, laughter alternating with muted conversation, the purposeful clicking of the hostess' heels on the tile floor. If this was about revenge, there was no better place for it. I thought how my sixteen-year-old self would have been consoled to picture herself sitting coolly across the table from l'ex in the warm cocoon of a Paris restaurant.

For the picture to be complete, l'ex would have to actually show up. Which he hadn't yet, and it was almost quarter after eight. As much as I detest arriving early when meeting someone, I fear even more the embarrassment of arriving late to a restaurant where I've made a reservation. At least this time it was clearly not my fault. The hostess and the waiter carefully and politely avoided meeting my gaze as I stared forlornly at the entrance. To give myself something, anything, to do, I pulled my phone out of my purse and sent a text message to my husband.

"Dude isn't here yet!" I wrote. Just after I sent it, my phone rang. I answered, discreetly turning my face to the wall. It was l'ex, of course.

"You're lost!" I meant it to be a question, but it came out as an accusation. Breathless, he explained how he'd gotten turned around on rue de Vaugirard and started walking in the wrong direction. It is easy enough to get lost in Paris, to stumble disoriented from a Métro station off down an unknown street. I do it often enough myself, but that didn't diminish my irritation. He assured me he'd arrive in ten minutes.

My husband, to whom there's no greater shame that being unable to read a map, wrote back, "Quel loser!"

"Just called," I quickly typed. "Now I suddenly remember that he'd get lost in downtown Seattle, couldn't find I-5. Ca commence bien..."

Meanwhile, around me, the restaurant started to fill up. Groups of regulars came through the door, shrugged off their coats and exchanged rapid cheek kisses with the hostess. A family with a little boy just le Petit's age came in and sat at the table next to me. The little boy called for "maman" and his toddler voice stood out from the murmur of the adults. I decided that if for some reason l'ex didn't show, I'd happily stay and eat by myself with my book for company.

It was eight-thirty. Just when I'd stopped obsessively checking, there he was, l'ex, coming across the restaurant with his coat on his arm, looking relieved. I thought the hostess and the waiter were going to applaud.

* * *

"It's been what, seventeen years?"

"Yeah, crazy, I know!"

Could there be any other way to start a conversation with l'ex than with such banalities? How long could I keep this up?

"So, tell me everything. The last time I saw you, you were going to school part time and you worked in a pizza joint..."

I waited somewhat impatiently for the hostess to bring the menu. I would be ordering a glass of wine after all, I decided; it might prove indispensable.

We each worked through our respective everything-since-high-school narratives. Then the food arrived. And the wine. I realized at once that I was actually quite interested in what l'ex had to say about his life, and that I'd forgotten all the details of our so-called teenage romance. He mentioned an episode when his mother had spied through the window blinds on our kiss on the front porch of their house. I'd completely forgotten about it. I couldn't remember when we'd started dating, or even precisely when we'd broken up. The time line was erased from my memory entirely. It was as if we were two actors discussing a play we'd performed together long ago; the once-memorized script was now a blur, and the emotions and even the actions weren't ours, but belonged wholly to the characters.

I also discovered that l'ex -- not the teenager with the green truck of my unreliable memory but the real guy, who showed up thirty minutes late because he walked the wrong way down rue de Vaugirard -- is a very interesting person.

And I presented my own narrative to prove that I, too, am a very interesting person. Look where the odd turns of life have taken me: marriage, France, motherhood, writing, a restaurant in Paris with curtains that veil half of the windows. Not just to prove it to l'ex, but also to the adolescent girl whom I'd forgotten, who walked in, seventeen years and thirty minutes late, just behind him.

Does that count as revenge?

* * *

In my e-mail message to my friend, I wrote, "The only thing that's too bad is that the guy has my blog address, so I can't blog about the experience afterward."

And then I thought about it on my way home on the Métro last night.

And then I said to myself, why not?

Monday, March 01, 2010

We want waltz

"No screen time before age 3." That's the official recommendation here in France. But give me a break: I haven't yet met a three-year-old who hasn't spent just a little time plugged into the television, especially among the not-so-into-naptime set.

Le Petit is no exception. We do try to seriously limit the amount of time he spends in front of the television, but he has a favorite DVD, just like every other two-year-old on the block. His choice is somewhat unusual, however, for instead of Dora or Thomas, le Petit only has eyes for the Vienna Philharmonic's 2008 New Year's Concert.

For some time now, we've listened to the audio CD on almost endless loop. At first, he only wanted to hear The Blue Danube and Radetsky-Marsch, and those two tracks were the entire authorized soundtrack of a recent trip home from Troyes; anything else we played was booed and, err, otherwise loudly dismissed by our music critic in the back seat. Recently (thankfully!) we've convinced le Petit to listen to the entire second disc of the two CD set. But oh, the excitement the day Daddy brought home the DVD. There was the conductor! And the violins! And the french horns! And the flowers! And the ladies dancing!

Le Petit prances around the living room to the music, clapping his hands and jumping up and down so hard he actually breaks a sweat, stopping occasionally to catch his breath and point out the different instruments. I go off to work in the morning humming Strauss and wondering when this obsession will end. We get tired of it, of course, the relentless sameness of it, but since you can't escape mind-numbing repetition with a toddler, I'd much rather have Georges Prêtre in my living room than Elmo. (Although Elmo was starting to grow on me, I'll admit, even after the 178th viewing of Elmo's Christmas Countdown, le Petit's former all-time favorite video.) I'll admit, too, that I'm happy that we can still impose our tastes on le Petit just a little bit. We like classical music, and so far, he seems to like it, too.* I don't delude myself. I know this influence can't last.

Or maybe he'll wind up directing the Vienna New Year's Concert 2038. A girl can dream, right?

In the meantime, we have a little trouble turning on the television or stereo for anything else. We put on Bach, Vivaldi, John Coltrane or 10,000 Maniacs and the result is the same: much screaming and stomping of feet, and cries for "Waltz! Waltz! Je veux waltz!!"

To which we reply:

"Ask for it nicely, please."

"Je veux waltz S'IL TE PLAIT."

How could we refuse?

*For the record, we're listening primarily to classical music lately, partly because it's the grown-up version of toddler obsession, and partly because those discs happen to be in the front of the bookshelf. But I'm no snob, and I've been trying to expand le Petit's musical horizons with some jazz and rock. Le Petit had a John Coltrane phase. And a Beatles phase, although he only dug Sergent Pepper, and screamed when I put on Abbey Road. Go figure.