Sunday, November 27, 2011

You might be an Expat if...

...on the Sunday after the fourth Thursday in November you find yourself up at one a.m. making cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie from scratch, and ripping up bread cubes.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The one where I finally get the driver's license

Ca y est.

The République française, represented by a cheerful, bespectacled test inspector, has deemed me competent to operate a motor vehicle.

I can hardly believe it.  Especially since I don't have the paper in my hands yet, I've so far only received an overjoyed call from my driving instructor yesterday.  The driving school got the results, which, as the secretary explained to me when I later went in, are theoretically supposed to be transmitted directly to the school headquarters unopened.  But, V, my instructor, is like a kid and can't wait.  He discreetly opens up the results and then calls his students to share the good news.

It wasn't such a sure thing, you see.

Tuesday was my second attempt to pass the driver's exam.  The stress had been eating at me for weeks, making me grumpy with the kids, absentminded at work, even slowing me down during my lunch hour run with my colleagues.  I didn't want to blog about it for fear of jinxing or simply humiliating myself.  So I stopped blogging, more or less.  As the date came closer, my appetite even started to suffer.

Out of proportion?  Ridiculous?  Embarrassingly so?  Yes, yes, and yes.  It was like my head was stuck in gear and my foot was slipping and I was going to lurch forward and stall out and...


V was determined to help me pass.  He was encouraging, and almost endearing in an odd way, if of a bit of a nervous temperament. After having my confidence ground to a pulp by the first two instructors I encountered, I found V supportive, sympathetic and practical, and I quickly decided I'd stick with him to the end even though he systematically tuned the car radio to RMC, a low-brow French talk radio station.  He still yelled at me to shift gears differently or brake more slowly or why the hell was I in neutral already, but, you know, nicely.  And I had to laugh -- to myself, in between silent tears of frustration -- when he bellowed at me to accelerate:  "Accelère, fort! FORT!"

On Tuesday morning, I met V at the driving school and we left for two hours of driving in circles around the Paris suburb where my test would be held.  The rough edges of the warehouses and tattered apartment buildings were softened by a thick morning fog.  I fumbled with the fog lights.  We drove down the streets that were starting to become familiar, the scene of my previous humiliation in May when I first tried to pass the test, when in a moment of nervous inattention I cut off someone at a stop sign.  This being France, and this being the Paris region, I had to wait six whole months to schedule another exam.  (There aren't enough inspectors, you see.  And then they went on strike. To protest the fact that there aren't enough inspectors.)  As we turned through the fog, I tried to memorize the treacherous "Do Not Enter" signs and tame the butterflies in my stomach.

Why is something as simple as driving so hard, you ask?  I wish I knew.  All I know is that the driving test looms large in the personal experience of most French.  If they passed on the first try, they're ridiculously proud of it.  If they didn't -- which is the majority, I would guess -- they can precisely recount the details of their initial failure decades later.

We parked along the designated sidewalk and waited for the inspector, who arrived early.  He took his place in the front passenger seat and V took his place behind.  I started the car.  We crossed one intersection, then another, and then, carefully checking my blind spot for bicycles or scooters just as I'd been taught, I slowly turned right into a narrow street and firmly hit the edge of the curb with my right tire.

The inspector cringed and sucked in his breath.  I did, too. V grimaced helplessly in the back seat.  Don't lose your cool, I told myself.  I kept going. There were no other mishaps, although the inspector once made a comment about my choice once to downshift to first.  The guy was nice, mentioning that I was in a one-way street before he asked me to make a left turn (one-way streets are not always obvious in Europe), and asking me to take a right "as soon as possible" to subtly warn me to be extra vigilant about Do Not Enter signs.  When he asked me to parallel park, he even chose a spot with no car behind.

"You have plenty of room," he said kindly.

I still messed up on my first try.  I was that nervous.  As calmly as I could manage, I re-positioned the car and tried again.  V made discreet hand motions to clue me when to turn the wheel.

Then, in twenty short minutes, the test was over.  "Stop next to the curb, and that's it," the inspector instructed matter-of-factly.

"How long have you been in France?" he asked as we pulled up.

"Eight years," I answered.

"You're not close to losing your accent, are you?" he remarked with a smile in his voice.

"No, that, I doubt it."  I laughed.  I'm more likely to master parallel parking.

After I stepped out of the car, V and the inspector spent a long moment chatting inside.  The inspectors don't give the results immediately, so I stood on the sidewalk wondering, worrying, deciding that because of the little curb incident and my poor parking skills I was surely sunk.  The test also seemed suspiciously short.  Oh, well.  Though I couldn't explain why, a second failure suddenly didn't seem as catastrophic as it had before.

"I guess we'll be seeing more of each other," I joked after the inspector left and V got out of the car to join me.

He was more optimistic. "Je crois que c'est bon."  I think it's okay, he assured me.  "On verra."  

I was still practically shivering with residual adrenaline when I climbed into the passenger seat, but I felt lighter, almost giddy.  I insisted lightheartedly that I wanted good news.  For Thanksgiving.

Yesterday, after getting V's phone call, I took the kids across town to the driving school to see the results with my own eyes, even though I'll be receiving them soon at home in the mail.  The envelope had been resealed already, but I did pick up my bumper sticker with a big red "A" that will designate me as an apprentice driver for the next three years.  Le Petit watched me place it carefully, like precious relic, in the pocket of Mademoiselle's stroller.  "I'm so-o-o happy!" he exclaimed, imitating me and jumping up and down.

Sittin' pretty

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!  A real post follows this one -- yes, you read that right, a real post, from me, remember me? But first, I have a quick question.  Have any of you out there had any experience with those portable high chairs that attach to the side of a table top?  The whole family will be heading to Seattle for Christmas this year, and my stepmother has graciously proposed to find one of those new-fangled gadgets to use when we're all out celebrating pre-Christmas Eve dinner at the Space Needle.  And, of course, to take back home with us afterward.  My question is, is there a particular brand or style to look for?  Mademoiselle is getting big now, and will be one year old in a week (I know, I can hardly believe it either...), so it has to be something that will hold up to a toddler's squirming.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Noted, sleepily

My husband is in Madrid for the week for work, and I'm holding the fort with the kids.  I should be in bed, since I have to wake up to go to work in six hours which may feel like five minutes but will give Mademoiselle ample time to wake me up a few times, I'm sure.  It took me from when the kids were asleep until roughly twenty minutes ago to do dishes and laundry and organize things for tomorrow.  And as always when I've got this kind of temporary superwoman gig, I'm filled with awe for parents who do it solo all or much of the time.

Today, Wednesday, was my day "off." I put "off" in quotes the same way I put "working" in quotes to describe what my husband is doing in Madrid, because I spent all day running around and he's at a tech conference, after all (which, to be fair, isn't devoid of irritation and annoying colleagues, but hey, he gets to sleep through the night.)  It's crazy, and I'm exhausted, but a few things made me smile, and I have to write them down.

So far this week, I've noticed that,

1) You shouldn't turn your back, even for a few seconds, on a baby with a high chair tray spread with raspberries.  If I could take the bits that ended up on the floor and in the hair and on the face on all ALL all over the clothes and reassemble them, I'm pretty sure I'd have more than the five raspberries I presented her with, and I can't explain this.

2)  I can still utterly fail to understand when someone on the phone is asking me to spell my last name in French. Even when they repeat themselves twice.

3) The four-year-old, not the baby, puts the strangest and most disgusting things in his mouth when we're outside.

4) It is very hard to read "Fox in Socks" and prevent a daredevil baby from climbing onto a table at the same time.

5) If le Petit is hungry enough, he will eat raw broccoli dipped in store-bought gazpacho. Of his own initiative.  [Le Petit digging through the fridge while I was making dinner: "Mommy, can broccoli be eaten raw?" Me to myself, "Who are you and what have you done with my son?"]

6) I can keep my cool during a supermarket checkout line temper tantrum ("But Mommy! I only want to put MY things in MY bag!") by assuming that if people are staring, it's either in appreciation of my calm yet firm (if punctually slightly ineffective) parenting style or in wonder that my son is bilingual.

7) Few things feel quite as nice as le Petit's head leaning against my shoulder as I read him a bedtime story.

8) It may be way past Mademoiselle's bedtime, but she may still stop nursing, start babbling to herself, and clap joyfully in the dark. And I'll find this cute, though irritating when I think of the pile of dishes waiting for me.

9) Few things feel quite as nice as Mademoiselle (finally) drifting off to sleep in my arms.