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


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.  


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.