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!"