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).