Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Noël

Christmas meals were the topic last week over lunch with my colleagues.  Foie gras or oysters? Capons or turkey? Menu planning was my boss's major task for the week, and he described with considerable anticipated pride his poularde au vin jaune with morille mushrooms. You know, traditional and simple, he said.

"Are you all doing the 24th and the 25th?" I asked naively.  The entire table stared at me and blinked before answering, "Of course."

The tradition in France is to celebrate the réveillon on Christmas Eve with an elaborate late dinner and then to celebrate again on Christmas Day with a lunch that lasts the better part of the afternoon.  After over a decade of Christmases spent here in France either as a visitor or a resident, I've still not gotten entirely used to this gastronomic marathon.  This year there were major diplomatic negotiations that preceded the events because my husband's extended family had outgrown the small family house in Troyes.  Eleven adults and four children were not going to fit around a dinner table or find appropriate lodging for the night, so the tradition was revised, the band split up. 

We went to Troyes for the 22nd and the 23rd.  On the 23rd, we had a lovely stand-up-or-sit-down-finger-foods meal with the whole crowd.  As the afternoon drew to a close, Le Petit took his little cousin, a girl almost exactly his age, around the garden and gave her a guided tour while the adults drank coffee and discussed politics.  Then half of us drove back to Paris.

On the 24th, my mother-in-law hosted the réveillon at their apartment five minutes away from our own.  I'd spent the day cleaning our apartment and needless stressing over last-minute details, and I arrived in a cute red dress and an unbecoming rotten mood.  I also arrived late, after making a stink about having the whole thing start early because of my kids' bedtimes.  Not for the first time I was grateful to have a forgiving, accepting family.  We ate good food, drank excellent wine, and exchanged presents.

On the short walk back to our apartment, we crossed a family with small children who was getting into their car. "Hurry back!" they called out to us, "Le père noël is on his way!" And Le Petit, who had earlier been quite concerned that he would get back home in time to avoid accidentally running into Santa Claus before reassuring himself through detailed geographic calculations, stopped to tell them:

"No. Le père noël does two rounds! First Finland, and then Denmark, and then Germany..."

We'd explained to le Petit that Santa would take on European countries in a particular order, leaving France and Spain for last, since that's where children stay up the latest.  Le Petit, with his love of all things to do with maps, elaborated on this.  The father of the family tried to listen, but Le Petit's explanation was slow and confused and it was late. "Happy holidays!" he called before driving off.

Mademoiselle skipped back home carrying her two new treasures, a bright red flowered handbag and a small suitcase with a teddy bear.  She wore a red dress, like Mommy, and none of my bad attitude.  "Belle, belle!" she pronounced herself upon looking in the mirror in the hallway.

Santa did come by, sometime before my bedtime.  Le Petit spent most of Christmas day working on his new Lego train set, putting it together step by step with a calm determination that I certainly didn't have at his age.  I'm not sure I have it now, to tell the truth.  He also did two puzzles of the world, and I tried to contain my angst at discovering a piece was missing.  Missing pieces of things make me feel more anguished than they should.  I fumed and fretted about this one for some time.

When my in-laws showed up and the meal I'd been so worried about miraculously produced itself from my kitchen, I had to admit that all the pieces that mattered were here, anyway.

It's unseasonably warm tonight.  I'm the last one awake in the whole family.  I can hear birds singing in the garden six floors below, and the only explanation I can offer is that either they or I have been drinking too much on this Christmas night.  But in the French tradition, I stopped drinking at four o'clock in the afternoon.  So I'll turn off the Christmas lights and go to bed.

Joyeux noël everyone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

La Belle France

Le Petit brought this drawing home from After Care one afternoon last week:


Recognize it?

There's the Rhone, the Seine, the Rhine, and the Garonne.  I asked him about the Loire: he forgot. No matter: you can see the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, and the Ardennes, a row of round hills in the northeast.  Point A to point B traces the route from Paris to La Rochelle, where Le Petit likes to spend vacation with his grandparents.

As far as I know, there are no maps or atlases at After Care.  Familiar with Le Petit's geographical knowledge, I'm not entirely surprised he would draw this from memory. I scanned it at work and e-mailed it to my Dad.

"Good enough to get the downed pilots to the border!" he wrote back. I wouldn't doubt it.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Got a minute or two?

"J'ai deux minutes!" Mademoiselle announced proudly when I went to pick her up at the nanny's one evening two days before her second birthday.

"Non," insisted N, "Tu as deux ans." And Mademoiselle duly repeated after her nanny, good student that she is. I laughed.  Why correct her?  It certainly has felt like two minutes to me, from her hurried arrival until now. She's two: a blond sprite that climbs everything, runs around with a rapid cartoonish stride and speaks in complete sentences, most of which end with "moi."

When Le Petit (who isn't so petit now himself) asks for something or makes a statement, Mademoiselle repeats the same thing or the exact opposite, according to her mood.

"Je veux du pain aussi, moi."
"Je ne suis pas fatiguée, moi!"

She narrates everything: where she's going, what she's doing, what she notices around her. She speaks in sentences that I'm pretty sure are more complex than those Le Petit used at the same age.  With a soft, timid finger, she points at my eyes, my eyelashes, my lips, opens my mouth and touches my teeth, taps my shoulder.  "What's this?" she asks in French with each gesture, and I try to teach her the corresponding words in English.  She listens avidly but almost never uses any English words herself.

She's tall for her age, almost in the middle of the curve for three years old at her last checkup.  I'm short: she doesn't take after me there.  Her face is round, and I see in it my husband's and my mother-in-law's faces.  There's nothing of Le Petit's oval face, where I see my strong nose and marked chin, also my dad's and my grandfather's features.  But she reacts as I do to those around her being upset, to strongly-worded reprimands, to people's emotions.  She smiles often and visibly enjoys when people smile back.  Le Petit is reserved, often difficult to decipher, sometimes oblivious to social cues, but genuine and trusting.  Like his father.

Mademoiselle climbs to the top of the play structure by herself, the one for big kids when I have my back turned.  She's fearless.  When smaller kids don't go down the slide fast enough, she pushes them so she can have her turn.  She hits, she sometimes even bites, she loves seeing the reaction she gets; we're teaching her with some success to tap gently on a shoulder and quietly call a name instead.

In the morning, she calls for me from her crib, most of the time.  It's one of the few moments in the day when I'm (almost) indispensable.  If it's early, I take her into our bed and she snuggles next to me, sometimes gently caressing my cheek or grasping my chin.

We put up the Christmas tree today.  Le Petit and I decorated it while Mademoiselle napped and my husband went for a run.  Mademoiselle walked into the living room and beheld a bright sparkling vision, something even our morning trip to the Christmas decoration department at IKEA hadn't prepared her for: a real Christmas tree in her very home.  I can't describe what she said or exactly how, but I thought to myself that it was all that is wonderful -- in the true sense of the word -- about two years old, concentrated in a laugh and a few sing-song sentences.

When my husband came back, she took hold of his hand and pulled him over to the tree.  "Look," she said. "Un 'apin de noël!" Le Petit did it, she explained.  And Le Petit was proud.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in Paris

After nine years here, Thanksgiving in France for me is finally just another Thursday.  Today I managed to go to work, go for a run at lunch, eat a less appetizing than usual meal in the cafeteria, then come home and make pasta for dinner without feeling like I should be frantically preparing a turkey or dozing on the couch in front of the Macy's parade instead.*  

This is actually new.

Thanksgiving is more exceptional even than Christmas in the US because everyone has a reason, or finds a reason, to celebrate.  With so little in common otherwise, we all eat the same meal on the same day -- turkey, or turkey-inspired tofu, or something with squash.  And most everyone has a whole four days off in a row, which in itself is remarkable in an otherwise vacation-starved country.  For years, not having this special episode at the end of November felt strange and unnatural.  

My husband's company's CEO sent out a cheesy Thanksgiving e-mail, either ignorant or deliberately ignoring that most of the world has no idea what it's all about.  A time for reflection, he claimed, but he didn't reflect that his company is a large multinational company... based in Europe. Not that anyone did more than shrug, I'm sure.

I helped throw a small party at my office in honor of Thanksgiving and (informally) to celebrate Obama's victory.  A colleague of mine wanted to celebrate his recent full-time hiring, so we co-hosted a lunch earlier this week. I made pumpkin muffins and wild rice and cranberry salad, and I stayed up until one a.m. preparing it all. He brought Moroccan pastries, carried back from his weekend trip home to Casablanca.  We bought cheese, meats, fruit, pretzels, sparkling wine, orange juice, and spread it all out in the middle of the open space.  The whole floor came, at least thirty or forty people.  It felt sort of subversive, this Thanksgiving-hiring-left-wing-victory lunch, with Halal meats for some and Spanish Cava for others, thrown by two proud immigrants.

"Joyeux Thanksgiving!" I was wished repeatedly, then asked what exactly Thanksgiving was all about.  "Thank you, thank you!" many said earnestly and exaggeratedly, figuring the thanking was the key part.  

"It's an entirely invented holiday -- une fête créée de toute pièce," I explained, happy that my authority wouldn't be questioned, "But they teach us this stuff about les colons et les indiens." 
Though I hadn't thought about it in years, I then pictured my kindergarten class with our construction paper costumes, little paper feather headdresses and rigid white bonnets.  The story seemed so unquestionably true back then, and universal.  

Now here I was, in France, explaining to a gathering of amused colleagues that no, it wasn't the salad but the rice that was sauvage, that it was not really rice at all in fact, and that no, it probably wasn't GMO.

"En tout cas, c'est bon."  The salad disappeared but for a few grains, and the muffins were devoured as well.  A few asked why I didn't bring a turkey.

That's what I like best about Thanksgiving: that everyone takes it and turns it into what they want.  Sure, within a family one is often irritatingly constrained by tradition.  There's the side dish that no one eats year after year, the football game that no one wants to watch, the feeling that if you deviate from the script you'll be cheating or offending someone.  But on the scale of the whole country, this most national holiday is really whatever you want to make it.  That's what I love about it, and that's why I still consider it mine.

Even when it's just another Thursday in November.

*We're actually going to celebrate properly this weekend with another French-American couple and their two kids.  They're making a turkey and I'm making a pumpkin pie. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Democracy in America Part I: Absentee Ballot Blues

I'm a nervous wreck on American presidential election nights.  I've been this way ever since I moved away from the West Coast and lost the luxury of going to sleep relatively certain of the outcome.  It was already bad in Boston, where I was forced to go to bed before the states in the West could be called. I remember too well a restless election night in 2000 which turned into weeks of hand-wringing.  Not even PST would have saved me that strife, of course, but anyway. Now I live in Paris.  And now election night is much, much worse.

I doubt that I'll offend or surprise my extensive (!) blog readership by admitting that I'm an ardent Democrat.  One of the things I most love about being an expat is the tacit assumption that everyone around me is an Obama supporter, too.  Obama is popular in Europe, widely seen as the face of reasonableness in a country of baffling extremes.  Since the mainstream right in France is actually to the left of the Democratic Party on many issues, most everyone here can relate to him politically, at least when he's compared to a Bush or a Romney.  Consequently I feel like I can speak my mind here, and I do... maybe more than I should.

At work today I was an anxious mess, pontificating by the coffee machine (in retrospect, maybe coffee wasn't such a good idea today), grumbling at my desk.  All conversations with me led to the election.  My colleagues were amused, or indifferent, or irritated, but they were also remarkably patient.  The two that accompanied me on a run at lunch let me drag them at a sustained pace on the route through the forest, the one with steep hills that I thought would help me work through the stress. While we ran I went on and on about politics, both American and French.  I actually stopped at one point to scream at the trees.

I don't know why I still have such a desperate and visceral response to the American election since I now live removed from most of its direct consequences.  I already enjoy universal health care, after all.  Education, defense spending, tax rates in the US: these aren't my issues; not now, and not within the next four years.  Although I don't rule it out, I doubt I'll ever move back home.

"I don't know why I care, after all, it's not like it affects me," I told my boss today, trying to play it cool after he flippantly predicted a Romney victory.

"Now you're wrong there," he assured me swiftly and seriously.  It's true: the American president has an influence on the world so great that I almost regard it as unfair that citizens of other countries don't get to weigh in.  I freely admit it's a ridiculous thought, but consider the impact of a president that denies climate change, for example.  What can a country like France, or even all the countries of the EU, do to counterbalance (y'know, hypothetically) an American veto of the Kyoto Agreement?  Just think of the US as a giant swing state in the global electoral college.

I personally do get to vote, of course, by absentee ballot in my former state of residence, Massachusetts.   I mailed it in a few weeks ago.   That done, I now get to try to let go.  Maybe think instead of François Hollande and how uninvested I am in French politics.  That's the bizarre thing, you see.  I'm now a French citizen as well as an American one, and I'm proud to be able to vote here, so much so that I am loath to miss a single election.  Yet here I'm a swing voter, that odd creature that I never have understood in an American context.  I voted for Hollande, after making up my mind definitively in the last weeks before the election.  I like him.  But he's not my man.

Right now I'm hiding in the bedroom because my husband is channel surfing for election news and there's nowhere else in our apartment where I can escape the tyranny of CNN.   To him (though he loves the US deeply) it's just a spectator sport.  To me it's a desperate battle for the future.  I'm going to bed now and I'll try to fall asleep, reminding myself that thankfully we're both probably wrong.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Where in the world

When we walk down the street together and he's distracted by something long enough for him to stray behind, I'm almost certain Le Petit has found a map.  There is no map that escapes his notice, from the transit maps on the back of bus shelters to emergency evacuation plans posted in public buildings.  A few weeks ago he stopped abruptly and stared straight down at the sidewalk, his eyes riveted to a trampled flyer.  "What in the world...?" I wondered for a moment. Then I saw the schematic road map with directions to a car dealership. 

Oh, of course.

"Maman, where is this?" he asked, and when I named the town, I seem to recall that he came up with a coherent description of how to get there.  

"I have a GPS," he's fond of telling me.  "And," he adds proudly, "It's better than Daddy's GPS, because his is only in the car, but mine is with me all the time."  Judging from his dizzying knowledge of the highway network in France, the assertion may come close to the truth. He knows the major modern autoroutes and the cities they link, and has a fetish about certain routes nationales, or the French equivalent of the old US Highway system.  While we were on summer vacation I bought him a laminated spiral-bound Michelin French road atlas.  I thought he might enjoy following along while we drove, learning to translate the dynamic images on the GPS screen to the old fashioned paper version.  The atlas is now his favorite "toy," and except on road trips, it never leaves the living room.  He spends hours bent over it absorbed, reluctantly abandoning it to come to the dinner table.

Makes sense, perhaps, for a child of a mother with an aggravated geographic identity crisis.  I suffer intermittently from what I call geographic vertigo, the disquieting sensation of feeling in your gut that you're one place and knowing in your head that you're in another.  It happens when I land at Seatac and the signs are no longer in French, and the announcements on the loudspeaker are in Pacific Northwest English -- not an official accent or anything, but I know it when I hear it -- and I'm so jetlagged and disoriented that the language either doesn't process or processes too well, and I'm left almost lightheaded.  It happens when I hear a sound or taste some flavor that is associated, profoundly and subconsciously, with either Here or There. 

Recently I was trying to fall asleep when a wave of anxiety hit me. It was the kind of anxiety that leads to nothing useful, just a string of horrible What Ifs and an urgent mental to-do list that evaporates as soon as I finally lose consciousness.  Then I heard the sound of a car driving over a manhole cover in the street below our apartment.  A muffled whoosh-clunk-clunk.  The anxiety immediately disappeared.  Every home has its orchestra of sounds, of creaky and squeaky floors and doors and street noises and wind, the hum of appliances and the gurgling of plumbing, and no two places sound alike.  This whoosh-clunk-clunk belonged to my bedroom in my mom's house in Seattle and the specific manhole cover in the middle of the intersection three houses down, and I swear I've never heard it here in Paris either before or since.  The feeling that washed over me when I heard it was that of being a child again, of being taken care of, of no longer being in charge.  Of being somewhere where things would never change, where a year still took a long time to elapse, and the future was a comforting and frustrating long way away.

I've lived in our apartment here in France for nine years now.  It is, I realized recently with equal parts pride and disappointment, the place where I've lived the longest in my entire life.  When I start thinking of it as temporary now, of a move as imminent, this fact punches me in the stomach.  It is also the only home Le Petit or Mademoiselle have known, which may matter more to me now than to them.

The Seine is a block from our house, and there are two busy roads that flank it: the D1 and the D7, as Le Petit would explain.  When he explains an itinerary, he traces the route in the air, expecting you to follow.  He can see it in front of his eyes, just like he sees the Great Lakes in a chain of sauce stains on his dinner plate or Lake Geneva in a puddle.  He points out with joy and wonder, this is where we are and this is where we could be, the macro and the micro that form patterns and indicate directions, like the steps of a dance.  He knows that the Saône leads to the Rhone and on to the Mediterranean, that the Danube flows through Vienna on its way to the Black Sea.  He can read the forms of countries and the traced paths of rivers without yet being able to read the words beside them.  He's learning to decipher words through maps: he knows which cities are where, and afterwards attempts to make the letters fit.

As we drive down the road, he puzzles out street signs, incorrectly, mostly: "Toutes directions" becomes "Toulouse."  No matter: he'll get it eventually.  The only thing more marvelous that knowing where you are, you see, is knowing where you might go from there.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What Google thinks I need help with today


(For the record, what I was looking for was "how to choose a lamp shade.")

Monday, September 24, 2012

Que t'es belle!

"Pretty is as pretty as pretty does," my mother always said.

And I always hated it.

I was never one to feel comfortable in my own skin. No amount of doing anything, I maintained, would turn me into something I wasn't.  All pretty did, in my book, was stare back at me from the television screen or the pages of magazines, with the disdainful sneer of the popular girls in high school.  "I'm a model! The model.  Model yourself on this," she seemed to say. I saw myself -- short, imperfect skin, growing curves, unruly hair -- and I saw the model, and I felt inadequate, just like most of us do at some point.  There's the reaction we're supposed to have: spend money to attempt to conform to the unattainable.  Mine was the opposite: reject.  I hid myself in jeans and baggy t-shirts and ignored the onslaught as best I could.

I wanted to feel pretty, but I didn't know how.

When I picked up Mademoiselle tonight, I found her "brushing" her hair with a plastic bristle building block.  "That's not a brush!" laughed the nanny, but Mademoiselle smiled coquettishly and continued.  Every night, after her bath, I hold her on my lap and gently brush her fine, soft blonde curls.  "Your hair is so beautiful!" I murmur.  I want to tell her she's pretty, but often I stop myself. I want her to feel strong, powerful, capable, intelligent, but pretty?  Pretty carries heavy baggage.  The feminist in me wonders if I'm poisoning her with those words; if by telling her she's pretty, I'll make it so important to be pretty that she never feels she is.

There's a threshold age when girls start evaluating themselves and determining where they come up short.  Before that, we're all princesses, wearing twirly skirts and dancing un-self-consciously, worried only about the sequins and the colors of our dress-up costumes.  After it, we look in the mirror critically and aren't sure we like what we see.  I'm not sure when I passed it: at age ten, eleven, twelve?  If we're lucky, we pass a second threshold, there's no telling when, and then the reflection begins to finally look like ourselves.

A couple of years ago -- at age thirty-three, give or take -- I found a haircut that truly suits me.  My hair doesn't look like a shampoo commercial, but it looks cute, framing my face with soft curls that fall an inch or so short of my shoulders.  I've learned how to talk to a hairdresser, even in French, so I don't have to worry too much when I'm forced to change; wherever I go, I'm able to more or less explain what I want.

"Her hair is so beautiful, I don't want to cut it," I confessed to the nanny as we watched Mademoiselle brushing.

"Oh, but you should!" insisted the nanny.  "It'll grow back so much prettier." I pictured taking Mademoiselle to the hairdresser for her first haircut, and felt certain she'd sit cooperatively in the chair and watch with interest in the mirror.  "Belle!" I'd tell her to engage her, just like I do when we try on new clothes.

I'd have to cut off a lock before we went.  To save it for the baby book.  To save it for me.  And then I realized that maybe I didn't want to cut Mademoiselle's hair because I wanted to prolong the innocence of her baby hair, of not worrying whether it looked "right" or not.  Perfectly ridiculous nostalgia, I scolded myself.  She won't become damagingly self-conscious at two.

Even when I was at the height of my rejection of fashion, I'd occasionally find clothes that just felt right.  I remember in particular a simple black knit top I found in college that marked my waist in a flattering way.  When I looked in the mirror, I thought, "This looks good.  I feel particularly pretty in this," and it was an unusual enough feeling at the time that I still remember it now. I soon started to find long skirts that would fall nicely from my hips, and I was wearing one of them one of the days my future husband first noticed me, he later confessed.  I wasn't looking to fit to a model.  I was recognizing what fit me, and it was a different feeling altogether.

Here in Paris, women dress with reflection.  You notice it in the Métro: walking out of their houses in the morning, they want to feel pretty.  It isn't assumed that they do so to impress men, or anyone else in particular (although doing so isn't an unwelcome side effect, when the men notice respectfully -- as in my experience they mostly do).   This isn't the uniform pretty staring back from advertisements, but a multitude of different kinds of pretty, each personal and therefore true.

So this is what pretty does, after all.

I learned to feel pretty here, but in retrospect, maybe it had nothing to do with France.  Maybe I would've figured this out eventually anywhere.  Now instead of wondering how I might conform to a model, to the model, I've learned to read the pictures in the catalogs and find images of clothes that will look good on me, without self-judgment.  I see it as a game, or maybe as a puzzle.

As I pushed the stroller into the elevator on my way home with Mademoiselle, I couldn't help but glance at my reflection in the mirror.  Mirrors are like quicksand, and I still sink into the morass as I unconsciously analyze unimportant details, like dark circles and pores that are too big.  As I brushed my hair back from my face I noticed with dismay that there were more gray strands than I remembered seeing before.  Should I dye?  I always told myself I wouldn't.  But that was back when gray hair was a sometime and somewhere far far far away proposition, and not a here and now kind of thing.  When the elevator doors opened, I was still leaning in close to the glass, contemplating myself unhappily.  The irony of only now figuring out the right haircut just when I'm going gray (albeit very slowly, I hope) was not lost on me.

Mademoiselle, whose hair is so soft and golden, what would she think of me if I can't love my hair just the way it is?  What will that teach her?  The feminist in me told me sternly that I should accept myself the way I am for my daughter's sake.  And after all, I couldn't disagree that I'm much more beautiful now at thirty-five than I was at twenty-five, to say nothing of fifteen.  Who's to say the trend will reverse now?  As if too prove my point, a slim, stylish Parisienne with an elegant haircut, a silver haircut, walked by as I was considering this.

Don't get me wrong: I believe you can dye your hair and be a feminist.  But could I dye my own hair and still accept myself as I am? I wasn't sure.  For now, I resolved to leave things the way they are.

And to write all this down.  For Mademoiselle to read some day.





Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happily ever after (some assembly required)

Jeannot Lapin has taken my place at bedtime.  

Sure, it's been six months since Mademoiselle stopped nursing to sleep at night and I was no longer indispensable, but I could still read a storybook as well as Daddy.  Just like him I could hang out on the floor for an hour next to Mademoiselle's crib urging, pleading, and (in my worse moments) threatening her to sleep:

"Time for dodo now.  I'll sing!"

"Dodo, [Mademoiselle].  Want me to rub your back?"

"Dodo right now, or Mommy leaves the room!"

Nothing I did was efficient or even all that effective, but at least I wasn't any worse at it than my husband.  Meanwhile, Le Petit, who now shares a room with Mademoiselle, also stopped going to sleep without parental intervention.  Which didn't matter much beyond principle, really, since we were mostly in the room anyway...  until we'd get fed up and leave, and then he would pursue us in the living room, advocating on his sister's behalf and complaining (with reason) that he couldn't possibly sleep with his sister kicking up such a fuss.

Bedtimes became protracted.  About the only good thing for the parent directly involved was the knowledge that when they staggered out of the room an hour or more after lights out they'd be off the hook for kitchen cleanup duty. 

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my husband invented two miraculous bedtime stories. 

The first one, about a salmon named Vanille Fraise (Vanilla Strawberry), involves caves, suitcases, an ice cream truck accident, and other psychedelic details that even my husband can't explain.  The second is more straightforward.  An enchanting fairy tale saga undertaken by a rabbit: Jeannot Lapin and the Golden Carrot.  Jeannot crosses a field of birds, a fox prairie, a beaver pond, and winds up in a cave where... OK, so it isn't all that fascinating, but it has both my children spellbound, night after night.  Spellbound, calm, and more or less ready to drift off to sleep at the end.  The Golden Carrot indeed.

Tonight Le Petit invented his own postscript: 

"So Jeannot married the princess.  But then his bed was too small!  Too small to share!  So he went to IKEA in the suburbs of Carrotville, where bought a big bed, big enough for two.  He took it home, put it together, and now they can both go dodo together."

Meanwhile, Mademoiselle showed off her knowledge of ornithology. When my husband explained that birds were attacking Jeannot, not nice birds like most birds but birds who like to eat rabbits, she interrupted him with a loud cry of "Arrête!"  She then explained in her cute unconjugated way, "Aigle et vautour manger lapin!"  [Eagle and vulture eat rabbit]

Of course, Dad.  Like, be precise already.  Not just any birds.  Raptors.

During all this, I was stuck doing the dishes.  Again.

(I love you Jeannot.  Really.)

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Les causses

Oak trees, short, strong and spindly, gather on the land like flocks of sheep, and between them is a sparse brown grass on rocky ground. A checkerboard of irregular stone walls, built both (one assumes) to improve the soil and claim human order in a mineral landscape.  Houses made of the same stone, cut in large and even blocks to frame windows, doors and corners, left small and irregular for the rest.  Small flat red roof tiles on high roofs that start out steep, then bend and meet the edges of barns and farmhouses at a gentler angle.  High roofs that hide ample attics.  In this land of livestock and poor cultivated land, it is best to store plenty for the times when plenty wants.

I'm on the causses, the limestone plateaus which tumble down from the Massif Central in the east to the plains of the Garonne in the west.  The plateaus are cut into steep valleys by the network of tributaries of the Garonne: the Dordogne, the Lot, the Célé, the Tarn.  Following a river, you look up sometimes at castles that hang from cliffs, or at improbable suspended villages.  Other villages cling to the narrow strip of bright green in the bottom of the valley.  Corn and tobacco grow in little green oases, and train tracks, some abandoned, snake along beside the river.  So does the road, filled at this time of year with RVs and bicycles and foreign-registered cars.  Choosing a smaller road, we start to turn and climb and now we're looking down, down at the valley -- the bottom is hidden -- part of me expects to see mountain tops after such a climb, but no, we've simply reached the top of the causse.  And the valley disappears.

The land was once rich, and though I can't help but doubt it when I look at the poor rocky soil, the cities of Figeac and Cahors prove it beyond any question.  Medieval hôtels particuliers, the city residences of wealthy merchants, dealing in transport, wine, wool, lumber, and later steel and coal.  The causses hide their wealth now, but once it ran down the hills with the water, down the wider waterways on barges, on to Bordeaux and points beyond.  The causses are a crossroads now and always have been, linking east to west, the Cévennes almost to the Atlantic.  Pilgrims to Rocamadour there cross pilgrims to Compostelle.

In Assier, the village where we're staying, stands the one remaining wing of a Renaissance château, built by Galiot de Genoullac, François I's artillery master.  The facade of the village church, the site of his tomb, is decorated with scenes of bas-relief cannons.  On a solo run through the causse one morning I find an old stone marker that delimited his domain, with a coat of arms worn away to nothing.

The palette in August begins in the dark sober green of the oak, contrasted with ochre stone, and faded into dry grass gold.  By the time we leave the first of the oak leaves are painted with the rust orange of fall.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Vive la république "big"

Just for the record, I like big government.  Last year big government took my three-year-old off for finger painting and a crash course in social skills, with mixed results; this year big government made sure he learned to color and write his name, albeit with the S still written backwards.  Big government helps me pay my kids' nanny, and in fifteen years big government will cover my kids' college education.  Big government brought double-decker air-conditioned trains to my transit line.  Big government footed the hospital bill when I gave birth, twice.

At a time when it has become fashionable in the US to distrust government in all forms and consider "Socialist" the ultimate political insult, I want to publicly come out in favor of the nanny state.  Yes, if my family were living in the US, we could probably simply pay out of pocket for most of what the French government provides us through our tax money.  It would be harder to plan for, less certain, and contingent up on us having the same kind of lucrative employment we have here now.  But I still think we'd do fine.  We might even have more choices available in certain situations. That's not the point: it isn't about us, it's about all the other folks who aren't as privileged as we are.  I feel better knowing that when I pay my nanny's employment tax, she has access to health insurance and retirement benefits.  I feel better knowing that high-quality daycare is available to other families on a sliding scale.  Perhaps I delude myself into believing that social inequalities are attenuated more by this than they actually are.  Perhaps it keeps me from feeling guilty.  But I believe, I honestly do, that our society is a more just one as a result.

All this is not to say that it's perfect here, far from it.  I had lunch with a friend today who opened a tea room a year and a half ago.  She's having trouble breaking even even though she's generating plenty of business, simply because the economics of hiring enough staff to handle things just don't make sense.  VAT and high employment taxes make it very hard to survive in the restaurant business, she's discovered.  It's no wonder so many of the workers in the sector are paid au noir, or under the table, she observed.  

I don't have to look too far to see government waste, either: just out my window, for example, at the elaborate municipal flower beds.  We're in a global economic crisis and France, just like everyone else, is blindly spending well beyond its means.  The bloated, apathetic ranks of civil servants in some quarters here are legendary, and nearly impossible to reduce.  Any time change is proposed whichever interested constituency stands to lose something is out in the streets.  

Still, here in France we assume that government serves a purpose.  It isn't a negative, controlling force, trying to infiltrate our lives and deprive us of free choice.  It is for the people, after all these centuries, and finally by the people as well.

Perhaps we're just not intimidated by a short, balding, unassuming Socialist president who wants a little change for everyone, now.  Perhaps we know that, should we need them, there are always more cobblestones to tear up from the streets of Paris.  Perhaps after experiencing tyranny in so many forms, the French know a good thing when they see it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Vacating

A week ago Wednesday I took a feverish, miserable Mademoiselle to our family doctor.  She'd come down with a high fever with no other symptoms overnight, and although I felt a bit foolish rushing her off to the doctor so quickly, I wanted reassurance.  He examined her, found nothing, then sat down and looked at me gravely from across his desk.

"You're leaving on vacation soon, I hope?" he asked, as if counseling a particularly difficult patient.

Paris is empty this time of year. Empty. Sure, there are tourists, and the billboards in the Métro are conspicuously advertising in English to attract their tourist dollars, but they are all off snapping pictures somewhere far away from my corner of urban suburbia.  Here there are few visitors, and two-thirds of the residents have left on vacation while the other third are effusively greeting each other in shops, building entrances, and  elevators, as if they were surprised to run across another living creature. Vous? Here? In late July? What are the chances?

Inevitably one asks, "Vacation soon?" and if the answer is (as mine), "Not yet, we've got about a week to go," an acknowledgement is made of the remarkable patience still required.  If the answer is a mournful, "No, we just got back last week," a sigh and some gentle words of support are expected.

Paris without the Parisians might be altogether too pleasant.  This doesn't suit the Parisians at all, who expect that someone will keep up appearances and maintain in their absence the "stress of the capital" that they are busy complaining about in Deauville, Saint Tropez and Saint-Martin-en-Ré.  So the SNCF, ever willing to assist in providing reliable, punctual inconvenience, have put the trains on summer schedule.  Lest those who commute by car feel left out, public works departments all over the greater Paris metropolitan area have devised construction projects to capriciously block roadways.  Finally, neighborhood bakeries are closing, giving the stragglers the hint to get the hell out of Dodge while a civilized exit is still possible.

Usually I have no problem waiting until August to make my escape.  I'm still American enough to savor the fact that I have [number redacted] annual weeks of vacation and can use three of them (Three! Full! Weeks!) in the summer.  This year I've been antsy, though, and I'm not sure why.  Perhaps it is because I know exactly where we're going for two of those weeks: to the Gers, to a rented stone farmhouse with a view of Lectoure and a pool, where I'll sit and watch the pilgrims pass on their way to Santiago.

The weather in Paris has been rainy and gray this year, a protracted spring that seems to want to slide lazily into an early fall.  Mostly I don't mind: this is Seattle weather.  I love hearing the rain on my bedroom window at night. There have been a few hot, muggy days, just enough to remind me why I hate heat waves in Paris: the city becomes a white-hot stone-and-concrete furnace, and the heat seeps into our apartment all day long, despite the closed shutters.  At night we open our windows and brave the mosquitoes in order to cool off the place a measly degree or two.  Public transportation is stifling even when half the normal ridership is out of town.  Give me drizzle over that any July, I say.  But it rained hard enough to cancel some Bastille Day fireworks displays this year, and enough to discourage us from keeping le Petit up past his bedtime for our local show.  With August almost here, I'd started to feel like somehow I was missing out.


Then this weekend the weather turned perfect.  It was sunny but not unbearably hot, and this morning reminded me of the clear days of early September.  So as early as we could manage this morning we herded the kids into the car and drove out to Chevreuse, a village in a valley a short drive southwest of Paris.  We took a walk through the woods and fields, and along a narrow river lined with old stone tannery cottages.  The kids found rocks and sticks and stopped to admire any animal that stayed put long enough for them to get a good look at it: slugs, cows, horses, and ducklings were regarded with equal awe. Then we drove up to an old ruined castle on a hill overlooking the valley.  Le Petit looked for ghosts in the dungeon while Mademoiselle insisted I help her scale stone steps.  It started to rain again this afternoon, but only after we returned home.  My husband and I both marveled that it felt just like vacation.  


Already!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Toddler Standard Time

As you may have noticed, I disappeared for a few months into the rift in the space-time continuum caused by having a toddler in the house.  If I were to do a time use study in my house, I'm pretty sure I'd see a startling percentage of my time taken up by a frenetic, unrelenting cycle of laundry.  Next in the rankings, perhaps, would be sweeping the floor; then wrangling children into shoes and socks.  Also, picking up small cars and trucks: ever since Mademoiselle discovered Le Petit's collection, our apartment looks like a demolition derby. In addition, there's the hour and a half plus that bedtime takes now that Mademoiselle no longer nurses to sleep, but instead wants more intellectual company.  Singing, story-telling, cajoling, back-rubbing, more or less patient but constantly present company, preferably stretched on the mattress on the floor next to her crib.  (I've outsourced much of this to my husband lately, which means I get to do the dishes.)  

But I feel, too, that my kids are at such magic, ephemeral ages -- 19 months and 5 years, respectively -- that I need to spend as much time with them as I can, and get in sufficient sleep and self-indulgent distractions during my off time to recharge and be at my best for them.  They may not remember right now in the future, but I will.  

Meanwhile we officially gave up our project of moving house this year and instead undertook a massive reorganization of the apartment.  We even bought a real couch.  More on that later.  (I love you, IKEA.)

At some point the mere thought of keeping up with my blog was weighing on me.  So I abruptly stopped doing it, guiltily at first, then thoroughly enjoying the freedom. But now I'm back, with an overdue graphic redesign, and still plenty to talk about, I promise.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Le pont de la Défense

"La Défense! Le pont de La Défense!"  Le Petit was practically jumping up and down in excitement.

La Défense, the business district outside of Paris certainly doesn't make me dream. My husband has spent enough time working there to almost detest it.  Yet whenever we drive by Le Petit looks up at the skyscrapers, entranced.  He insists, even, that we take a certain route home from our weekend outings to the Parc de Saint Cloud so we pass at the feet of the giant towers.

It isn't far from our apartment as the crow flies or even, as I learned on Wednesday, as an almost-five-year-old pedals -- unsteadily -- on his two-wheeled bicycle.  Late in the afternoon, we left Mademoiselle with her doting grandparents and headed out on what I thought would be a short ride around an the island in the Seine near our house, but Le Petit fixed the buildings downstream and announced we were on our way to the "Pont de la Défense."  "Le pont des tours de la Défense," to use his name precisely: the La Défense towers' bridge, found on the map as the less romantic Pont de Neuilly.  I ran alongside him on the wide sidewalk, ready to help him stop at intersections or swerve around pedestrians, and decided to humor him.  Why not?  We'd go a little closer, get a better view, maybe see La Grande Arche and then go home.

Le Petit is fascinated by geography, both of the world and of Paris, his city.  He recognizes Paris landmarks with remarkable accuracy, not just the Eiffel Tower, but the Tour Saint-Jacques and the Hôtel de Ville, the Panthéon and the Palais de Chaillot.   He loves studying maps, and can find and name the five continents and all the major French cities even though he can't yet read.  He's beginning to exhibit his father's second sense for orientation; when we're out in the car, he knows exactly where we are and in which direction we're headed and whether or not we're taking the optimal route.  When he was littler, and less reasonable though no less stubborn, he threw a temper tantrum until my husband drove him through Place de la République.

We got to the bridge, where I briefly thought of turning back.  There was traffic, and traffic fumes, and I had no idea how we'd navigate the crowds of business people with Le Petit's bike. But I want to be the mom who does things on a whim, just because they're important to my kid. Improvising isn't easy with a toddler, and now about the best I can do is let Le Petit choose our itinerary when we're out on a bike ride.  Luckily for me, le Petit is at an age where wonder comes relatively effortlessly, so my creativity isn't too taxed just yet.

We pedaled and walked the bike slowly up the Esplanade de la Défense all the way to the Grande Arche, the modern mirror of the Arc de Triomphe.  We stopped for a long to admire a giant, multicolored mosaic basin with dancing fountains.  Le Petit insisted that I take a photo with my phone to send to Daddy.  Then he turned around and discovered that we had a direct view on the Arc de Triomphe. "Oooo, look!"

We took the train back, le Petit keeping close and listening to my instructions in the swirl of commuters.  We must have amused a few, him with his running commentary of the sights out the window, me with his bike over my shoulder.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Democracy in France, Volume II: The Extreme Right

The first round of the French presidential election took place two weeks ago, and Marine Le Pen, the candidate from the extreme right-wing Front National or National Front party, won almost 18% of the vote.  She came in third and was eliminated, but the score and the resulting political fallout have dominated headlines as we wait for the second round vote on May 6th. What to make of a country where almost one in five electors votes for a party that is, at its heart, xenophobic?  What to make of Sarkozy's subsequent veering to the far right in a desperate bid for those electors?  With the global economic crisis as a backdrop, this eerily recalls the 1930s.  The mainstream press is horrified, for there are ghosts here that no one wants to disturb.

The National Front is firmly rooted in the xenophobia and antisemitism that survived the war and the anti-leftist radicalization that followed, but those roots are hidden these days, mostly.  The party has been dédiabolisé, or "undemonized;" ironically made almost respectable for the mainstream electorate by the very mainstream media that fears it.  Marine Le Pen is a more sympathetic figure than her father and she's adept at maintaining her distance from the more incendiary elements of her own party.  She talks about immigration, but she also talks about the price of gas.  More than anything, she sells fear, and a bitter nostalgia for an imagined France that was once secure and prosperous but is now considered weakened and threatened by outside forces.   

Leave the Euro.  Close the borders.  France for the French.  Her message is meant to basely appeal, and to shock.  Her party rarely wins enough votes to govern; they've had most success, ironically enough, at the European Parliament, where a proportional allotment of seats earns them deputies even when they don't win a majority in the election.  Yet they speak to a slice of the French population that feels increasingly disenfranchised and abandoned, confused and threatened by immigration and globalization.  The votes the National Front wins are hotly contested by the mainstream right, who then mimics their discourse; this, in turn, both pulls public policy to the right and lends the FN further credibility and more votes.

Who votes for the FN? The National Front vote is lower- and lower-middle class, suburban yet also increasingly rural.  FN scores higher in the east and southeast of the country than in the center and west. In some areas, such as the economically depressed northeast, the vote seems to be in reaction to real job losses and economic hardship.  In many other places, however, the vote can't be explained by simple economic logic.  How to explain the majority FN vote in a small rural village where little has seemingly changed since the 1970s?

There's more than economics or crime rates at play: the National Front vote is also and increasingly an anti-establishment vote, filling in a certain sense the same role as the Tea Party in the United States.  Mainstream politicians in France, whether they hail from the right or the left, went to the same schools, live in the same rich Parisian neighborhoods, and employ the same language.  As denizens of the same ivory tower, they are regarded with equal skepticism by many French.  Enter Marine Le Pen, populist, with language that is direct and indignant, claiming to speak truths that no one else dares to address.  Press and politicians alike consider her a pariah.  Like her father before her, she parries with troubling and aggressive soundbites addressed to her audience of electors, not to the elite.  A vote for Le Pen became a vote against the other politicians, rotten, tous pourris.  A vote qui dérange, that's meant to stir up trouble; an unacceptable vote and therefore a powerful vote, not necessarily cast with much more than a desire to tear down and turn things back.

Sarkozy, in his last-ditch effort to win the election, doesn't seem to come to the same conclusion. He sees capturing Le Pen's 18% as his only chance to slide by Hollande, and he's not afraid to transparently adopt more and more of her populist, anti-immigration language.  I doubt it will work.  How could an incumbent possibly win the protest vote against the status quo?  Marine Le Pen refuses to endorse him, saying that she personally will cast a blank ballot.  Meanwhile many in the center right are distancing themselves from Sarkozy, while the extreme right is undoubtedly looking on pleased.  It has been theorized that Le Pen is waiting for the implosion so she can build up her party on the ashes of the mainstream right.  I fear in any case that the vicious circle will continue in the short term, with the FN gaining support and thus a certain inevitability and perceived acceptability.  At some point, if they continue to gain power, they will inevitably lose their credibility as outsiders.  Such a change in fortune still appears far off, alas.


I know, you're thinking "For someone who doesn't even read Le Monde, Parisienne is suddenly quite interested in French politics."  I've been making up for lost time in this election, obsessively reading Le Monde and tardily trying to make sense of the French political landscape.  For a clear explanation of some of the origins of the National Front, I highly recommend a "web documentary" put together last year by Le Monde about François Duprat, one of its founders, and the strategist behind the mainstream populism that brought FN out of the shadows.  If your French comprehension is good enough to follow the video (which are alas unsubtitled), it is well worth watching.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Democracy in France, Volume I

It's presidential election season here. All across France, they're handing out political tracts at open-air markets and train stations. Rickety metal billboards have been dragged out of municipal basements and set up in front of polling places in schools and gymnasiums, and the faces of a motley crew of candidates stare down from brightly-colored campaign posters. In addition to the two mainstream candidates, there are two Trotskyists, two fascists, an ecologist, a disgruntled centrist, a renegade Socialist, and a self-described left-leaning Gaullist with mad scientist tendencies.  Half want to either punish Wall Street or exit the Euro Zone or both. During the months leading up to the first round of the election, France has flirted with their ideas, giving them all at least some press coverage and television air time. If they made it onto the ballot, it was because they'd earned a minimum of signatures from mayors across the country, a wink of approval from the Fifth Republic.

What (mostly) keeps the French from storming the streets with their pitchforks like they did back in 1789 is this chance every few years to ferment rebellion from the ballot box. There's a fringe candidate for everyone: the chain-smoking university students in their anti-Capitalist phase, the working-class pensioners in their RVs, the provincial churchgoing bourgeoisie. The system works and the country remains intact because the fringe is so fragmented, and no one lunatic gets enough votes to undermine international credibility or national stability. There is, however, always the possibility that the electorate will get carried away and unleash dark forces beyond their control, as they did back in 2002 when the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round.

As an American, used to a fixed two-party system, the slow death march of the official party primaries, and the enshrined, incoherent electoral college, all this baffled me at first.

Here in France, the electoral procedure itself is startlingly simple: two rounds of voting, at two weeks interval; the top two candidates chosen in the first round make it to the second. There are no bubbles to fill in, no holes to punch, and no possibility of hanging chads: we vote by putting little slips of paper in envelopes and dropping them into big clear plastic ballot boxes.

A week before the election, a thick brown envelope arrives in the mailbox containing a copy of each  candidate's pamphlet, along with a stack of the little official slips of paper. On the front of each pamphlet there's a photo of the candidate along with their campaign slogan. François Hollande, the Socialist front runner, tells us "Change is now." Sitting president Sarkozy, who is rapidly slipping in the polls and was recently ditched by some of his former ministers, calls for "A Strong France."  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an independent left-wing candidate, incites us to "Take Power," and Jacques Cheminade promises "A world without the City or Wall Street." Inside, the summaries of the party platforms make for fascinating reading. Except for those of the mainstream candidates, they are written by party faithful and true believers, not political spin doctors. They are unpolished. They are often laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

Cheminade, an anti-establishment candidate who defies classification, has six simple bullet points which promise (among other admirable goals) to "build a Europe of nations to combat financial feudalism," to "provide the resources to populate the world through nuclear physics," and to "take on the challenges of African development and space exploration [sic]." He goes into detail about his plans to restore Lake Chad and to harness thermonuclear fusion.

Nathalie Arthaud, one of the two Troskyist candidates, doesn't bother with bullet points. She uses two pages of dense text to make one point, that "[t]he fundamental injustice of this society is that it is those who produce, who make everything work, who live the hardest, while the rich parasites, who don't do anything useful and, on the contrary, ruin society by speculation, amass larger and larger fortunes." She helpfully highlights the most useful phrases in yellow.

You could point out that this is all just a sideshow, and you'd be mostly correct. These outlier candidates will get single-digit percentages of the vote, if that, and then they'll disappear until they're called back in another five years to play the same bit parts on the political stage. But without them, I suspect the fragile political equilibrium of this country would be in danger. Or at least the cobblestones, favored projectiles of the citizen mob, would be less well-anchored to Parisian streets.

One of the things I most appreciate about the presidential election in France is that there are no political ads on television. They are illegal here -- look, Ma, no First Amendment! -- and their absence leaves the political season mostly vitriol-free, almost light-hearted. Instead, each candidate is allotted an equal amount of screen time to present their message on the major state-owned television networks at the end of prime time. I don't watch much TV, so I unfortunately missed the campagne officielle before Wednesday night. I watched it again tonight, and with luck, I'll catch the very last edition tomorrow.

Philippe Poutou, the other Troskyist and self-proclaimed "worker candidate," stole the show on Wednesday. In his spot, he hangs out the window of a Parisian apartment building to discuss the economic crisis with a neighbor. As more windows open, another neighbor shouts up from the paved courtyard below, What about jobs? Things are tough right now. There's plenty of money, Poutou explains good-naturedly, we just have to take it from (I paraphrase here) the Capitalist pigs who are keeping it for themselves. That's the way to save the system. Someone complains about the noise, so Philippe casually invites his neighbors to his place to talk more over coffee.

Hollande and Mélenchon wove scenes of parades, of schoolchildren, tractors and factory workers, with forcefully-delivered speeches. Hollande flashed images of the Revolution, of Jean Jaurès, Mitterand and even de Gaulle as his words crescendoed with uncharacteristic passion. Hollande usually seems so... boring.  I was surprised. Sarkozy tried the same act, but it fit less well. He should try to remember that juxtaposing crowds of mad, flag-waving supporters with anti-immigration statements is kind of creepy, just a smidge reminiscent of Berlin 1933.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, needed no flags tonight. She looked straight into the camera and explained how well she understands the plight of us French. The cost of living.  The price of gas. The dang-blasted automatic radar on the highways. The price gouging of endives.  Yes, endives.  On Wednesday she slipped at least one xenophobic message into her remarks, but tonight she talked about salad. Because of those endives, she clearly she has our best interests at heart. Vive la France!  

The first round of the election is on Sunday and once it's over, I'm afraid things will get a lot less interesting. I hope so, at any rate. Ever since the Le Pen fiasco in 2002, the French have been paying lip service to the vote utile: the "useful vote," or a vote for a mainstream candidate in the first round. How many of them are actually willing to dampen their passion and rebellion for the good of the country is hard to say, and I'll have to admit, I find neither Hollande nor Sarkozy easy to get excited about. The pollsters are legally obliged to keep mum from now until after the polls close, and I, personally, have no useful predictions.

Stayed tuned for Volume II.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Le Petit's Big Adventure

Le Petit is in La Rochelle for the school vacation.  For ten days.  Without us, his parents.  I'm not sure he's even thinking about us much, believe it or not, since he's with my in-laws.  Every day, they'll be taking him to the beach and to Ile de Ré and letting him get all covered with sand and ice cream and unconditional love.

I miss him, though the house is calmer and neater with only Mademoiselle here, especially when she takes her long afternoon nap.  There are no scuffles to keep the little sister out of the Lego corner (Mademoiselle has already dismantled everything and I've put the pieces neatly away in bins); no dada-esque preschool narratives at the dinner table.  I keep catching myself wondering where he is for a brief, terrified moment, or expecting him to pop out of the next room, before I remember he's off having fun.  The night before he left I dreamed that we'd let him wander the streets of Olympia, Washington on his own.  He went to the park and the Farmer's Market all by himself, and my nutty, anxious subconscious followed him wondering if this made me a bad parent.  I'm not making this up.  My shoulders and neck hurt for three days before he left.  My mommy-reptilian-brain has it in for me.

At the same time, my rational, conscious self is not at all concerned, because I trust my in-laws with my children more than I trust just about anyone else on earth.  My mother-in-law pushes overprotective anxiety to new limits, seeing potential accidents everywhere -- I worry about her, but not for a minute about Le Petit.  And just as my own grandparents did, le Petit's grandparents have almost endless reserves of patience and creativity to share.  He will eat his favorite foods, be consulted on the destination of every outing, be listened and read to, and basically be the center of the solar system for a week and a half.

I'm reading Anne Lamott's new book Some Assembly Required  right now.  I read Operating Instructions, her memoir of the first year of her son's life, when le Petit was a baby, and re-read it in the first months after Mademoiselle was born.  In that book, she described the joy, chaos, drudgery, terrifying uncertainty, and wonder of having a baby with an accuracy that is both hilarious and poignant.  I'm sure I not the first mother who is grateful to her for finding the words that I couldn't find myself.  In Some Assembly, that baby has grown up (or almost) and now has a baby of his own, and Lamott describes her journey as mother and grandmother.

"The job of a good parent," she writes, "Is to be dispensable.  No one remembered to tell my parents that, but I know it is true.  It's not morally right to make yourself indispensable."

I read that and the truth of it punched me in the stomach. Although she's talking about her adult son and not little kids like le Petit and Mademoiselle, I realized something important: my job here is to get out of the way. I must let my in-laws and le Petit (and Mademoiselle, too) have their own close, true relationship.

My mother-in-law brings over new dresses for Mademoiselle, and patches and re-patches up the knees in le Petit's trousers.  She knits sweaters and buys shoes and coats.  She comes over on Wednesdays to take le Petit to music class on her push scooter, and stays with Mademoiselle on weekday mornings so she can sleep in while my husband takes le Petit to school.  My father-in-law reads Babar and Mini-loup over and over and over again, colors pictures, makes special trips with le Petit to the library.  When they both babysit at night, Mademoiselle stays awake, squeezing every story and cuddle she can out of them and refusing to go to bed until we get home.  "But she'll cry if we put her down!" they explain when we walk in the door.  Mademoiselle smiles at us in triumph.

I used to see this as some validation of myself.  I felt loved because of the love they had for my kids.  Not consciously, but still.  Now I see how absurd this is.  Duh.  It's not about you, stupid.  And isn't that wonderful?  (Did I ever mention that I was a wee bit needy and self-centered at times before I had kids?)

My dad and stepmom will be in town right after le Petit gets back from La Rochelle, and it'll be their turn to shower the kids with unconditional grandparent love.  It isn't easy for them, since they live halfway around the world, but they go out of their way to make up for geography.  It seems to work, since le Petit regularly builds the Space Needle and Mount Rainier out of Legos alongside the Eiffel Tower.  Here, my job for the moment is more than to just to get out of the way: I try to make English, and Seattle, and my family and roots an important part of my kids' lives.  I won't let them forget chez maman. 

Someday, perhaps le Petit will fly as an unaccompanied minor on a transatlantic flight from Paris to Seattle.  Then I'll really freak out for sure.

In the meantime, in between the irrational anxiety that is part and parcel of parenthood, I'll remember that Le Petit and Mademoiselle are pretty lucky to be so loved, and be grateful on their behalf.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Frivolous, fabulous, feet

I was a high school nerd girl, the anti-fashionista.  Before I met my husband, I lived in oversized t-shirts and hiking boots.  Before I moved to Paris, I bought and wore one pair of shoes per season, and carried one purse until it fell apart.  Now I'm 35 years old and I still can't apply nail polish.  

But this is all changing.  It's a recent development.  I started investing in shoes a few years ago, for example, calculating the color and styles I want to add to my collection.  I approach it almost scientifically, observing the other parisiennes on my daily commute and analyzing what works and what doesn't.  A geek builds her style with an algorithm, of course.  Or maybe more of a heuristic.  And that makes it sound like it isn't any fun at all, when the truth is, I find it fascinating.  This isn't as expensive as it sounds, either, because I spend more time noticing and reflecting than I do actually buying things -- I don't have that much time to myself to go shopping, after all -- and when I do spend money, I'm much more sure of the result.

I've been working on this for a few years, but it all seemed to gel when I went back to work after Mademoiselle was born, for some reason I can't guess, because it isn't as if I had loads of free time to devote to my new look or anything.  Yet for the very first time recently, I've started to feel downright chic when I leave the house in the morning.  A couple days a week, anyway.

So, it went without saying that when sandal season rolled around I'd have to do something about my poor, neglected toes.  Running keeps me sane, and my feet keep me running (three days a week these days -- twice at lunch on weekdays, once on the weekend), so I realized that I probably should start taking care of them, at least symbolically.  No self-respecting Frenchwoman leaves the house in toe-revealing shoes without a proper coat of polish, and as I mentioned earlier, I can't apply polish myself.  Lord knows, I've tried.  I missed the window of opportunity to learn at age 14, and now it's simply too late.

Luckily I live upstairs from a day spa, or an institut de beauté as they're called here.  Neat, with discreet pink lettering on the window, it doesn't look like much from the outside, so for years I didn't pay it much attention.  But two years ago, when I was pregnant with Mademoiselle, on a whim I dared take my feet in for what was almost their very first pedicure.

The owner, J, tisk-tisked over the state of my toenails and the mess I'd made cutting them myself.  "But I can barely reach them these days!" I protested, happy for an excuse, for once.  Now I go in every couple months, and while J spends over an hour making my feet happy, we chat about French cooking.  She shares recipes for Basque Cake and clafoutis.  After a few visits, I decided I also needed to let her wax my eyebrows -- my 16-year-old nerdy self wouldn't have imagined such a process even existed -- and now they, too, look neat and worthy of a real Frenchwoman (though my husband can't tell the difference.)  My Parisian makeover is happening slowly, oui, but surely.

In the meantime, I found out that l'institut is the somewhat of a local best-kept secret.  It's very difficult to get an appointment, and a privilege when J pages through her calendar, whispering confidentially, "Let's see what we can do for you, shall we?"

Paris has been enjoying unseasonably warm March weather, and I was almost certain I wouldn't be able to get a pedicure last weekend on short notice.  But lo and behold, J snuck me in on Saturday.  Then when Saturday turned gray and cold, I walked the fifty feet back to my apartment in flip-flops to avoid smudging my perfectly polished apricot toes, hoping, as usual, that I wouldn't run into any neighbors.  No luck.  I stepped into the elevator with three stylish twenty-somethings.

"Oh, please, don't let them look at my feet," I thought.  I was the embarrassed geek again, standing there with my bizarre footwear. One of the girls looked down, then looked up at me and smiled knowingly.

"It's nice having [J's institut] right downstairs, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes!"

I felt -- no exaggeration -- like I'd passed some sort of test. That instead of the elevator floor opening up and swallowing me whole, I'd been vetted for an Elle photo shoot.  Not bad for a gal who used to carry her laptop in an army surplus backpack.

(And my feet felt heavenly, besides.)

Monday, April 02, 2012

Should I stay or should I go?

We found a fabulous apartment, perfect in almost every way: balcony overlooking a garden à la française with the chateau in the distance, a huge "parental suite" under the eaves, all located right in the neighborhood we want.  Almost perfect except (most notably) the price, which per-square-meter was outrageous, in our opinion.  We made an offer, and were laughed at.  We've decided that unless the seller gets desperate and calls us back later, or something else truly exceptional appears on the market in the next two weeks, we're staying put for another year. I cleaned our windows this weekend in celebration (?), and my husband scrubbed the balcony.  On the schedule in the next few weeks is figuring out how to fit Mademoiselle's crib -- currently next to our bed -- into le Petit's bedroom. Chez parisienne, we do anticlimactic with flair, n'est-ce pas?

And we spent the weekend hand-wringing and worrying and oh-why-oh-why-ing, intermittently griping and yelling at each other.  Are we pathetic for ended up at no decision, or wise?  I tried to maintain a sense of humor by putting on The Clash and writing up a list of the relative advantages of staying put or moving, in two columns entitled "Cool it" and "Blow."  I thought this was pretty clever.  My husband didn't.  Le Petit put his hands over his ears, while Mademoiselle bobbed her head and grooved when "Rock the Casbah" came on.

Le Petit tried to help us by drawing a map of Versailles with the château and park and a network of streets, with a big dot where our future house will be.  

"This is where we'll live.  Right here."

If only it were so simple...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

House hunting

"I want a house with a bedroom exactly like the one I have now.  Only bigger, with extra room for my Legos."  Le Petit told the real estate agent straight up what he wanted, and that much, at least, was easy to understand.

"...and I also want a little sea in the garden, where I can raise salmon and octopus," he continued.  The agent looked a bit confused at that one, but Le Petit, his usual outgoing self, cheerfully changed the subject.

"Did you know that I went to an island in the Atlantic with my grandparents?  My grandparents have a car. It's an Audi."

At that, the agent was suddenly interested in Le Petit's four-year-old chatter. "Oh, an Audi, that's a nice car.  Does your Daddy work with cars?"

"No, Daddy works with computers," we answered, cutting Le Petit short.  So much for the agent's blunt fishing for financial information from the preschooler.  He took us to see a house, the first one we visited, and it fit neither le Petit's criteria nor ours -- the garden was overgrown (and with no sea), the floor plan was odd, the paint in bad disrepair, the bathrooms and kitchen in need of major remodeling.

"Oooh, the toilet is brown, Mommy!"  Le Petit remarked.

"Yes, um, a little bit of limescale," the agent said nervously, then continued vaunting the supposed qualities of the dumpy, unremarkable house, the ugly duckling of the block.

"You're not enthusiastic," my husband whispered when we stepped out into the street.

"Nope."

And so our house hunt began.  On subsequent visits, we've tried to leave the kids with my in-laws (or at least le Petit, who hasn't mastered his real estate poker face.)  It's only been a month, but I feel worn out by it all.  I'm dreaming real estate -- no exaggeration -- visiting apartments in my sleep, buying virtual furniture, losing my way on a new imagined commute.  We've spent our evenings scrolling through the listings on the iPad; we've signed up for e-mail alerts and we send each other anxious text messages in order to schedule visits.  We're approaching this as we seem to approach everything, turning it over every which way, trying to control the imponderables and generally making it all A Very Big Deal.

We're looking for a place in Versailles.  That much we've decided upon, and it isn't exactly a new idea for us.  It's further from Paris and therefore cheaper than the suburb where we currently live.  But it has been (shall we say) appreciated by the elite for four centuries, so it isn't exactly inexpensive, either.

You can credit the Louis(es) who put the place on the map: it doesn't feel like a suburb; it doesn't feel like a village; it feels a quiet provincial city, with a monumental side.  It has a true commercial downtown, and it also has the château and its gardens, it has quiet residential neighborhoods.  The schools are excellent.  And although it has a reputation for a certain vieille France snobbishness, we're far from alone in appreciating it.  All that means, quite naturally, that nice houses and apartments (that would be "condos" for my American readers) are hard to find.

We made an offer on the second place we saw.  It was a last-floor apartment in a typically Versailles 1960s four-storey  building with a stone facade and prim rectangular windows set in a mansarded zinc roof.  It was nondescript on the outside, and I would have called it ugly once upon a time, but we fell in love the unit itself.    It belonged to a widow who had lived there for decades, and she was reluctant to leave.  While she was considering our verbal offer -- a week and a half and still no response -- we began to have second thoughts.   The deal fell through (happily enough) and we were back to square one.

Square one started to look a lot like staying where we are another year.

In Versailles, there are "modern" buildings, mostly built in the 1960s and 1970s, with elevators and parking garages but also expensive homeowner fees and strange amenities like heated marble floors.  Anyone who's hip and has enough money to spend eschews the "modern" for apartments dans l'ancien -- in historical buildings, that can be rather historic indeed, dating from the 18th or even the 17th century.  Then, you either have to get creative or buy from someone who already found a way to carve modern rooms out of giant drafty reception rooms or low-ceiling attics with thick rafters.  The result will likely be charming, but will rarely have a retrofitted elevator. Nevertheless, everyone's looking for charming, it seems.

We visited an apartment in a 19th century building with two gorgeous bedrooms, a dining, living room and kitchen that were straight from the pages of Maisons Côté Ouest magazine.  But a vertiginous staircase -- more of a ladder, really -- led to two other attic bedrooms, with little head space.  We just couldn't imagine how it could possibly work with small children.  And the price was at the veeeeery top of our budget anyway.

My husband has been doing most of the visiting, prospecting alone on Saturdays while I look after the kids.  He's seen funky old buildings with windowless dining rooms, or with bedrooms that lead from one to another; he's seen  dull 1960s places with everything from the kitchen to the electricity in bad need of an upgrade.  There's always something not quite right it seems.  He'll be taking me to revisit one last promising place tomorrow, and we've given ourselves two more weeks to find something or put off moving for another year.  From offer to closing takes a minimum of three months in France, and we want to move in the summer to coincide with the school vacation, or not at all. We're happy here, after all.  Mademoiselle has a great nanny, le Petit has another year in nursery school.  And my in-laws are within walking distance, which is priceless both for us and for the kids.

But next year it will be the same story, you point out.  Perhaps, but we've tentatively decided to move into a rental place in Versailles next year.  That way we'll be able to sell our current apartment and look for a new one without a deadline, already set up in our target home base.

Meanwhile, I ask myself how I can at the same time feel like I'm over-analyzing everything and am utterly unprepared to deal with all the possibilities.  Welcome to being a grown-up, I guess.   

Monday, March 26, 2012

Look, Ma!

Yesterday I made the optimistic mistake of taking Le Petit running with me.  Not that I expected him to keep up with me on foot, but I thought he'd at least be able to follow along on his bicycle.  We'd surely be able to manage one loop of a nearby island in the Seine. Alas, no: he still pedals one minute, stops, heaves a huge sigh and declares, "I'm tired," and waits for me to push. I oblige, we pick up some speed with me ready to grab the handlebars to avoid clipping trees or passersby, and then we stop again.  After a kilometer of this, I was through.

"We're heading home now," I grumped.  Le Petit had abandoned his bike in a park to play hide-and-seek by himself and invent an imaginary landscape loosely based on our travels in France.  "And la Lorraine is over there, and Alsace is over here..."  It was cute, I had to admit.  You're here to have fun with your son, I reminded myself, not to, you know, break a sweat or anything.  Yet I longingly watched runners striding up and down the sidewalk.

Bike ten feet, stop, push, bike another ten feet, "Hey, Mom, that runner is in the bike line!", stop, push, ten more feet, "Hey, Mom, that bike is on the sidewalk!"  Stop again.  Le Petit giggled.  I sighed and gripped my patience with both hands and my teeth.  By that time we were nearing a wide pedestrian street, when le Petit asked me out of the blue:

"Maman, et si on enlevait les petites roues?"

Yes!  He wanted to take off the training wheels!  

Ever since before I became a mom, I've had a list of milestones in my head where I projected myself to my child's side (more or less in the background, as the occasion required): graduation, wedding, first apartment, first baby.  First bike ride without the training wheels.  I pictured myself running alongside my kid, proud, breathless.  Just like my dad did when I was a kid, and I can still see him chasing me, encouraging me as I pedaled my blue Schwinn down our dead end street in Olympia as I, a little bit terrified, wondered whether this big kid bike thing was such a good idea.  From time to time I'd mentioned to Le Petit that he could take off his training wheels if he wanted, secretly hoping that I'd be the one who'd get to share the moment, but he wanted to wait.  "When I'm five years old," he insisted, and I figured I'd just have to wait until July or whenever, really.  No pressure, of course.   

But I was thrilled at yesterday's sudden reverse decision. I took the wheels off, le Petit climbed on, and we took off.  The bike is technically a bit small for him and has a low center of gravity, so he managed pretty well from the beginning.  I also credit the pedal-less bikes they play with at recess at school.  He already understood that the key to stability is speed, and unlike me, he was unafraid.

He was circling Mars, he told me, and Pluto, and Saturn, and isn't it funny that they'd changed places?  "Watch out, I'm ready to turn!" he called. And he did, and I followed, ready to steady him when he wanted to stop.  He almost didn't need me except to help get the pedals going at first.  "Look in front of you!  In front of you!" I nagged nervously, as he still tended to look down as he pedaled.  I wasn't running along to reassure him so much as to help him avoid taking out joggers or poodles.  (And yes, he was wearing a helmet, of course.)

"Je ne ferais plus jamais avec les petites roues!"  he said proudly when we stopped.  No more training wheels, ever.  And to think I was there when it happened.

Also in the "Look, Ma!" category, Mademoiselle is becoming more and more of a climber.  On Friday evening as I was putting away groceries she climbed onto the dining room chair, grabbed a ballpoint pen and started scribbling on the back of the mail.  On Saturday -- as we watched carefully this time -- she climbed from the same chair to the tabletop, where she stood up in triumph, looking like she wanted to plant a flag.  The coffee table is minor summit in comparison, but there's no keeping her off of it now, and if she thinks someone will catch her she'll walk right off the edge.  Smiling. 

When she gets the opportunity, she grabs the plastic step stool from the bathroom and, tucking it under her arm, toddles around the apartment looking for new heights to scale.  She likes to place the stool in front of the couch, stand on it and jump off, throwing herself at the couch cushions. Needless to say we spend a lot of time closing doors and confiscating stunt props, and Mademoiselle spends a lot of time in her playpen.
When it's her turn, I expect she'll skip the bicycle training wheels and go straight for the motorized stunt bike.

Maybe I'll go ahead and buy her a bike helmet now.  You never can be too careful, right?

Back to regularly scheduled (ha!*) miscellanea

I don't have another political post in me.  We're only weeks away from the first round of the presidential election here in France.  I have no idea who I'll vote for, and if I did, I probably wouldn't write about it here.  And I need to write about less heavy stuff, since I'm busy making mountains out of molehills in my free time -- looking for an apartment, notably.  I need this to be a place where I can evacuate some of that stress.  I'm not sure I have anything particularly enlightening to say, anyway.

* As if there were anything 'regularly scheduled' about this blog, right?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Backyard

Toulouse.  My husband's city.  Three children, a father. I can't help but do the mental calculation when I hear: what ages?  How many years difference with le Petit?  With Mademoiselle?  I admit with guilt that the horror resonates more when it is shadowed by the familiar.

And this isn't supposed to happen here.  

I don't watch television news and I don't read French newspapers.  My husband faults me for this, wondering how can I live here and completely ignore the French media. I answer that Le Monde and Le Nouvel Obs's navel gazing irritates me, and that I don't particularly care about whatever political or criminal scandal is l'affaire du jour.  I read our subscription to the Economist, listen to the BBC and NPR online, and distractedly scroll through the New York Time's web page a few times a week.  I'm often more aware of what's happening in Seattle than in Paris.

Of course I hear when there's a random shooting in the US.  It happens with chilling regularity.  But here in Europe we have real gun control, I remember.  Our schools don't have metal detectors at the door.  If I lived in the US... if I had to worry about such things...  and I click away, saddened, but only abstractly.  While the act itself shocks, the causes are almost predictable.  After all, I'm so far away.

I heard the news from Toulouse today from a colleague.  Extreme right or extreme left?  He wondered aloud.  The shooting today was outside a Jewish school.  The soldiers killed or wounded on Sunday were of North African and Caribbean origin.  It's rare that the latent xenophobia in France manifests itself in violence. But the causes, I wonder, in some sense, aren't they predictable too?

You can't view a society through the deranged crimes that appear on the front page, but you can't ignore them, either. Is that why I don't read the news?  Because I don't want to hear about the dark side?  

The National Front party plasters the highway underpasses with indignant slogans about French identity and the press wonders aloud what percentage of the vote they'll receive in the presidential election.  That kind of  xenophobia is mundane, familiar, domesticated, and maybe all the more pernicious for its acceptability.  Marine Le Pen shows up, smiling, on the nightly news.  Maybe it's opportunistic or paranoid to connect that to the murders in Toulouse.  

In both France and in the US,  my family and friends, whether I talk to them weekly or follow from from afar, all seem to live their lives far away from the dark edges, far from the violence and the fear.  Could this only be a mix or privilege and luck, one that could disappear?  Or am I overreacting?  Do the media just distort reality like the reflection in a rear view mirror, making the fear appear closer?   

Like the rest of France, I'm going to watch and wait and mourn and keep asking questions.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Next time I'll ask for a Citroën


I'm so stressed at work these days that I'm dreaming about database tables (when I'm not dreaming about real estate transactions, but more on that later).  My subconscious mind is evidently trying to make up for a lack of reliable, complete technical documentation, and it's doing a pretty poor job if you ask me -- but then again, Mademoiselle is still waking up a minimum of twice a night, so there's constant interruption; my conscious mind can hardly work under such conditions, either. It wouldn't bug me so much if it didn't feel so thankless.  My current project isn't considered to be of much importance to anyone.  Maybe I'm pessimistic.  But to judge from the resources and money not being thrown at it, or being actively removed from it, I have to suspect.

"It's like they want a BMW, but all they'll pay for is a Twingo," I lamented to my boss this afternoon.  The Twingo is the tiniest Renault, one of the class of cars affectionately referred to as "yogurt pots" in France.

"Well, they both can drive, what more do you want?" my boss answered with a shrug.

"OK, let me rephrase that: they want a BMW, but all they'll pay for is an hour of Velib'."  Velib is Paris' rental bicycle system.

"I'd rather have Velib' myself," a colleague chimed in.

"Much more ecological," my boss asserted.

"Better way to get exercise!" my colleague added.

I'll start pedaling, I guess.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The perfect wave

We were on a hike on Brittany's Cap Sizun last summer, following a path along the granite cliffs of le Point du Raz, when we got a clear view of the sandy beach that rings the ominously-named Baie des Trépassés.  There were no shipwrecks on that clear August afternoon.  It was calm and warm -- well, warm for Brittany -- and we regretted not bringing our swimsuits and beach gear.  Most of the people in the water were surfers, bobbing like buoys well out from shore, hugging their boards and letting wave after perfectly good wave wash over them without taking action.  I know nothing about surfing, of course, nor does my husband, but that didn't keep us as good cynical Parisians from shaking our heads and having a laugh at their expense.

They were hanging out waiting for the perfect wave, and meanwhile were evidently bored, wet, cold, and wasting their time.  How ridiculous.

I thought about this for a minute. 

"Yeah, but isn't that a bit like us?"

For years I've been talking about moving and leaving an apartment that has for different reasons never quite fit my dreams.  It has, at the same time, been perfect: the right place to rent when we arrived here from Boston, the right place to buy when the occasion presented itself.  It's on a quiet street, and the sun streams in through all the windows from morning through late afternoon.  The closets are big.  The kitchen is huge by Parisian standards.  There's a parking spot and a basement storage unit, and a grocery store a block away.

But we're feeling a little bit... root bound, with two kids, two bedrooms, and two thousand-odd books at last estimate.  Legos, CDs, stuffed animals, preschool art projects I'm too sentimental to get rid of.  Three bicycles. Four car seats.  Lots and lots of baby clothes.  

For at least two years now we've been idly following online real estate announcements, but for one reason or another it was never the right moment.  We're big on unnecessary reflection chez Parisienne: for example, we started making lists of baby names back before we were married, none of which, incidentally, came close to making the final cut.   We're also big on to-do lists before we leap into the unknown.  In order to consider a move farther out of Paris, I had to get my French driver's license: check.  We decided that it was not a good idea to move in the summer right before I started back at work at the end of my maternity leave.  Now we're wondering if we should move this summer or the next, for the former will mean that we'll have to find a new nanny for Mademoiselle.  

As wave after wave crashes on my head, I'm clinging to my board and dog paddling.  And I'm getting sick of it.

This weekend we're visiting a house and an apartment.  I doubt either will inspire us, but I'm not sure that surfers make to-do lists, either.  

Hold on folks, that may be a whitecap on the horizon.