Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A la mode

France has been enjoying weeks of unseasonably warm weather. Our recent trip to La Rochelle and the Tarn was an illicit April glimpse of summer vacation. The karma will probably swing back and it will rain all August just like it did in 2007, but I don't care at the moment.

And le Petit discovered ice cream.

It's not as if we'd been trying to keep it from him all these years. I'd offered it to him plenty of times, even the deluxe stuff from Berthillon, but he regarded it suspiciously as if it were steamed broccoli and refused to try so much as a spoonful. In one memorable parenting moment in the summer of 2009, he even threw a fit in a crêperie when we dared to order him a sundae from the dessert menu.

Strange, yes, but I made peace with it. I decided it just meant more dessert for me, and was that such a bad thing?

Then my in-laws offered to take us to a trendy ice cream shop on our visit to Ile de Ré, an island across from La Rochelle, midway down France's Atlantic coast. It is the French equivalent of Martha's Vineyard, with cute million-Euro cottages, expensive boutiques, calm beaches, salt marshes and kilometers of bike trails. In May, hollyhocks bloom along every whitewashed village wall, and from Easter vacation through September, the tourists line up to eat real ice cream at the port in Saint-Martin.

"I don't want ice cream," le Petit whined. And in impeccable three-year-old logic, if he doesn't want it, no one else should want it either. So I tried to change his mind.

"But they have ice cream cones, just like in your book."

"Ice cream... in a cone?" Le Petit was suddenly intrigued. His favorite book right now is a German picture book with detailed scenes of a village in the summer. There's an ice cream vendor, and children and even a dog are enjoying ice cream cones. So although ice cream was out, an ice cream cone was a whole other matter. Once at the counter, he informed Grandma that he wanted raspberry ice cream because it was pink, his favorite color. He then ate his cone with great concentration and without allowing himself to be distracted, like a Michelin reviewer at a starred restaurant. And he loved it. Three stars for sure. The next day, when we drove back to Ile de Ré, he started asking for another ice cream cone at ten o'clock in the morning, though he had to wait more or less patiently until after lunch.

A week later, my husband and the kids and I were in Puycelsi, a fortified medieval village in the Tarn near Gaillac, in southwestern France. We fell in love with Puycelsi, with its lovingly restored houses perched on a hill with a sweeping view of forest, field and vines. I'll admit it's perhaps just a tad over-restored, with expensive cars with foreign plates parked all about, but it would be hypocritical of me to care too much: I'd be that rich expat, if I only had the means. My husband and I fell in love with the biscuiterie on the main square that made spiced butter cookies, apple cakes and fresh bread. To keep le Petit happy during our slow stroll through the streets, we promised him an ice cream cone. But when we finally got back to the café that advertised ice cream, we discovered it was closed.

The owner was out front doing work on his patio, and when he saw le Petit's face fall at the news he'd have no ice cream that day despite Daddy's solemn promise, he stopped and offered to go in and put an ice cream cone together after all. I was almost more giddy than le Petit was, for there's nothing better than seeing the world turn unexpectedly magic for your child. The raspberry sorbet was made on a local farm, and though I didn't get a bite, it looked delicious.

A few days later we were back in La Rochelle. We couldn't walk past the ice cream shop in the center of town on our way to the port without demands for more pink ice cream. Grandma obligingly bought a pint to take back to the apartment, and even bought a cone to go with it. Le Petit insisted on eating the ice cream before his dinner--his "growing food," in the family parlance--and I was too tired and lazy and amused to fight it.

"Mommy, is ice cream growing food?" Grandpa had helpfully suggested that it was, but le Petit, covered with pink sticky stains from cheek to cheek, wanted to double-check.

"Um, not really. But you know what? That's OK."

The next day, once we decided we'd go back to Ile de Ré, le Petit was determined to get yet more ice cream. It was Easter Sunday, and the lines at the ice cream vendor were even longer than before. Le Petit hugged my leg as we waited our turn.

"I want the green one, Mommy," he said, pointing at the pistachio bin in the freezer case. My mother-in-law was skeptical, knowing le Petit's infamous reluctance for novelty.

"Plutôt framboise, non?" she asked, urging raspberry.

"Oui, framboise!" he answered with enthusiasm. But once he got his cone he burst into tears because he'd wanted raspberry and pistachio, and the world was suddenly entirely unjust. Luckily I had a second scoop of pistachio on my cone, and I quickly spooned it onto le Petit's. Tantrum averted. We all licked and munched pensively, and when le Petit's cone was all gone, he tugged on my arm.

"Next time we'll get red and green ice cream," he said resolutely.

Then he tugged again a minute later.

"Mommy, I want another ice cream cone!"

"No, hon," I laughed, "You only get one."

"But I want another!"

We walked slowly around the port.

"You know, you can't have too many ice cream cones at once. If you do, you'll get sick."

"But I want to get sick!"

A few rogue clouds were slinking across the sky plotting showers, but the sun was magically bright in the late afternoon. Le Petit kept repeating his request.

"You know, ice cream is 'sometimes food,'" I said finally with my best wise parent impersonation.

"But Mommy, I want 'sometimes food' all the time!"

And I thought, I just want to hold hands with my kid and walk along slowly having these illogical conversations, ice cream optional. And although le Petit kept on asking for ice cream, he didn't seem too unhappy just talking, either.

The cloud just above us started leaking sparse, heavy drops onto our heads, but no one seemed to care.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Do the locomotion

Let it be known for posterity that on Friday, April 8th, 2011, Mademoiselle flipped over from her back to her tummy.

We'd been waiting for this for a long time. She'd almost make it over, and then foiled one too many times by that pesky arm, she would seem to give up to work on other things, like grasping objects and directing them to her mouth. But flipping over was still on her to-do list, and like that final annoying item you only attack when you have no further excuse to avoid it, she'd redouble her efforts when she was already tired, annoyed, and frustrated. Inevitably she'd end up shrieking and crying.

I couldn't quite understand her motivation, to be honest. If I were her, I'd be resting on my laurels in my comfy baby chair, content to smile at people and gum soft plastic objects. But I always did want children with more ambition than I have.

On Friday afternoon, I was trying to get both kids out of the door, le Petit to my mother-in-law's, and Mademoiselle with me to her monthly pediatrician's appointment. I put Mademoiselle down in her bed to assemble the ten trillion items that accompany such expeditions: diaper bag, change of clothes, checkbook, health record book, vaccines, le Petit's helmet and scooter. Most likely le Petit's inability--err--refusal to put on his own shoes slowed us down further. (I'm thinking of you with pity, all you second-born children, cursed to wait while your older siblings dawdle.) My mother-in-law kept checking on Mademoiselle, and when she started to cry, told me not to worry, just let her fuss a little bit. When we finally got back to her, O my patient youngest child, she was on her tummy in her crib, with back arched, arms bent to each side, and head raised high in startled indignation.

We cheered. And picked her up and righted her, promptly. The pediatrician was duly impressed and told me this is usually a five or six month milestone. That's my girl. Of course, it wreaked havoc on her naps and she woke up three times last night, but it's hard to live in proximity to genius.

She seemed to spend all weekend and all day today working on this newly acquired skill. When I went to look for a diaper and left her for a moment in her crib, she flipped over and scooted herself a full foot down to the far end as if she were in combat training. An early crawler, perhaps? A new recruit for the French foreign legion?

On Sunday, we took the family to the Parc de Sceaux for an afternoon stroll. In a calculus I can't entirely explain, the gardens, the canal, the fountains, the immense lawns and the shaded forest paths of this park add up to magic for me more than another other. It isn't Versailles; it isn't even Vaux le Vicomte, and to the best of my knowledge, it was never the object of particular intrigue or envy. Just another French-style park and garden, rescued from the Revolution and now invaded by the third estate and company on weekends. Located not far from working-class Parisian suburbs, it is packed with people of all ages and backgrounds. There are joggers, picnickers, young couples arms in arm, and children positively everywhere. The first time we discovered it was early March 2010 when the weather was unseasonably cold, and as we walked up the grassy hill to the chateau I felt like a pathetically inadequate parent, since le Petit couldn't possibly be dressed warmly enough. The winter sun still seemed to make everything sparkle. We went back in May for a picnic under the cherry blossoms, and just barely missed a sudden rain shower.

This Sunday, in the midst of the summery April that has hit Paris this year, the park was filled with people like I'd never seen it before. Unlike most Parisian parks, however, the crowds weren't oppressive, just festive. Or maybe it was my mood. There were new spring-green leaves under a sun worthy of July. My husband carried Mademoiselle in the Bjorn, facing out, taking it all in. I planned to chase le Petit but ended up instead cajoling him into walking as best I could by scolding, pleading, inventing games, and instructing my husband to play hide-and-seek behind trees. Halfway around the canal, I started getting seriously frustrated with his stubbornness -- he wanted to go his way to the fountain, not ours, which I eventually accepted if he would just start walking at a reasonable pace already -- I realized that we'd expected him to walk six or seven kilometers. That's a long way for such a little guy, and he was doing pretty well!

(The next time you happen to be wandering greater Paris and you see two parents, one of them carrying a baby, walking diagonally while linked together by sticks held by a three year old with the mother making "choo choo" noises and pretending to be a train, that's probably us. If you can picture that at all, that is.)

I'm like Mademoiselle flipping over and scooting her way to the end of the bed with this post: I don't have any idea where I'm going, but I keep moving.

My husband is in Germany on a business trip this week, and I feel like super mom because I managed to get both kids fed, bathed, and asleep in bed all by myself tonight, with minimal crying from Mademoiselle (that's life as a second-born) and no crying from le Petit, or even myself. Yay! Tomorrow my feat will be to pack up the family for our first vacation. It may sound small, but we take more stuff on vacation that Napoleon when he invaded Russia (though hopefully with greater success). On Wednesday, my in-laws are taking me and the kids to La Rochelle for three days of fresh salt air and -- hear my plea, Météo France -- sun. My husband will meet us at the end of the week and we'll head off for the Tarn where I will discover a new corner of France's southwest.

And with a little luck, my driving school should be calling me to schedule an April or May date to finally take the driver's license exam.

We're moving here, I'm telling ya.

[Brief note: y'all know I love reading your comments, right? Even if I rarely have the wherewithal to write a comment back, because either my brain is fried from lack of sleep or the computer has been requisitioned by Elmo. So please, keep commenting, because reading what you have to say makes my day!]

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Because how can I sleep, Mom, when I've just found my own feet?

Sleep has been kind of touch and go here at chez parisienne. The kids are happy enough to sleep, but on their own terms.

This weekend we went to Troyes, our first trip as a family of four. Or make that seven, for we joined my mother- and father-in-law and my husband's aunt. As my husband rightly predicted, it was just the adult/child ratio I needed, recovering as I was from some the same flu-like crud that le Petit brought home from school last week. (For the record, when he told me that his tummy felt "funny" and his throat hurt, it turned out to be a very apt description.)

We'd planned to sleep upstairs in the two attic bedrooms, with le Petit in one of the very same cozy twin beds my husband had slept in as a child, my husband and me in a double bed under the eaves, and Mademoiselle in a pack-n-play. Le Petit, who is always skeptical of novelty, was game at first, then for some reason that was never elucidated but must've been blindingly rational to a three-year-old, he changed his mind. Right before bedtime.

We, of course, decided to make it into a You-Have-To-Because-We're-The-Parents teachable moment that lasted a total of two hours. We tried bad cop/good cop, then switched roles as we got nowhere and frustrated. As I was nursing Mademoiselle to sleep, I heard my husband speaking remarkably calmly with le Petit, trying and failing to find out just what the heck the problem was.

"Why don't you want to sleep here? Are you afraid of something?"

"Yes. The light in the stairway."

"OK, I'll hide that. Anything else?"

"Yes, that." Le Petit was apparently pointing at something on the wall.

I listened as my husband fixed up the room taking all the pictures off the wall, methodically hiding objects and turning frames around per le Petit's instructions. I alternately thought "I could handle this so much better" and "better him than me." I knew I should and later would find this oh-so-amusing. I also suspected there was something we were supposed to be learning here, some new parenting skill that we couldn't acquire any other way. Trial by caprice.

The two solutions we offered -- either sleep with Mommy, Daddy and Mademoiselle upstairs, or sleep on a mattress on the floor next to Grandma and Grandpa's bed downstairs -- were entirely unacceptable. Le Petit was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open, but he kept whining the good whine, fighting for his cause. "Tout le monde en BAS," he insisted, then repeated, "Everyone DOWNstairs," in English, for good measure. Meanwhile, Mademoiselle woke up.

That was when we realized we'd lost, and we moved the entire family downstairs. My father-in-law carefully negotiated the narrow stairs with one of the twin mattresses as my mother-in-law graciously changed everyone's sheets, and neither complained of their exile to the attic. Le Petit was soon snoring like a freight train in the middle of the floor, where I had to grumpily tiptoe around him after nursing Mademoiselle down for the second and then the third and last time that night.

Sometimes you've gotta give in, I guess. Lesson learned: better to do it earlier, before you feel like a complete idiot and before an excellent pot-au-feu is cold.

Troyes was otherwise fantastic, and just the break I needed. Mademoiselle was wide-eyed with surprise most of the time as if we'd taken her to another planet. For a baby born in the dead of winter, a warm afternoon spent in a garden watching nodding yellow and red tulip blooms can be a bit overwhelming, I suppose. She wasn't sure what she thought of the pack-n-play and napped only reluctantly. Meanwhile, le Petit ran around the garden with the watering can, enthusiastically dousing plants. He was overjoyed when he figured out how to turn on the outdoor faucet and flood the path to the front door. He planted carrots and peas with preschool-sized handfuls, and when we tried to show him how to sow in lines he formed precise mounds of seeds instead.

Now, back in Paris, poor Mademoiselle still can't always nap, since yesterday I made the mistake of having a cup of real coffee in the morning. I'd been suspecting the caffeine hypothesis I'd made back in December was just superstition, and got the bright idea to test it. On a Wednesday, when le Petit was home all day from school, as I'd later regret. As a result, Mademoiselle didn't nap from 10:30 in the morning until four o'clock in the afternoon, and I guiltily put the whole family in front of the television to zone out to BBC nature DVDs. This morning, under what was perhaps still the lingering effects of her unwitting café au lait binge, Mademoiselle was up for the day at five-thirty in the morning.

Or maybe it's all just foot-related excitement. Mademoiselle, now allowed to be barefoot regularly for the first time in her life thanks to the balmy spring weather, has found her feet. She can grab them! And feel the toes! And they seem to be attached, which makes them so much more convenient than all those other toys that keep disappearing mysteriously! And whenever she grabs them, there's Mommy cooing and cheering and taking pictures. What could be more exciting than that?

I'm sure that if I were in her bare feet, I would hardly be able to sleep, either.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Because you've got to be tough to bake real bread

When I dropped into the local bakery this evening to buy a loaf of bread the baker himself was at the counter instead of one of his cashier assistants. I've noticed the guy before when he occasionally stopped to serve customers between shoving clattering baking sheets in and out the oven, and remarked how ill he fits the American stereotype of a French baker. Young, muscled, and with two bare arms covered with elaborate tatoos, I think he'd look more at home as a drummer in a rock band.

Tonight, as he politely wished Mademoiselle and me bonsoir and served us our baguette, my eyes wandered to patterns decorating his forearms. He had Chinese characters on one, what looked like geometric forms on another, and across the back of one hand the letters P-A-I-N.

So I left wondering: is this an English word, a badass emblem of his toughness?

Or is it French pain, a homage to his calling?

The French take their bread seriously enough that the second possibility just might be the case, but I doubt I'll have the nerve to ask next time and find out.