Tuesday, December 25, 2012


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.