Monday, January 30, 2012

L'américain in the china shop

I've been living here for over eight years, and it still happens to me.  It's like my accent: I can't shake it, and perhaps I shouldn't even try anymore.  Yes, folks, l'américaine has stumbled and shattered a few metaphorical plates.

Maybe my transition to expatriate life was easier for me because I never felt like I "got" all the social rules, even when I lived back home.  I was painfully shy as a child, but sometime in high school I embraced the fact that I never fit it. I found my voice, and then decided to be loud, with a unsubtle sense of humor.  I was the kid whose constant commentary in English class was smart and just this side of impertinent.  Then I became a geek, and geeks can get away with ignoring most social niceties.  I wasn't... comfortable, exactly, but I mostly avoided embarrassing myself.

Then I moved to France, and the social script got a whole lot more complicated.  I didn't know when to insist, when to flatter, when to speak up (I still hesitate), when to be discreet (never my forte), or when to cheat, just a little bit.  You see, the French love rules.  They love making them, and they love breaking them.  They love making exceptions, and more than just about anything else, they love benefiting from exceptions.  The more exclusive, the better.  But breaking rules and making exceptions can't be done willy-nilly, no; there are rules for breaking rules, a sort of savoir faire.  Anyone who has ever stared down a French public servant and eventually obtained what they needed knows that there's a dance: be self-deprecating, but make your request seem important; show you understand, but don't grovel; show you care, but not too much.  Last, seal the deal with a sort of fraternal understanding between deal-maker and rule-bender. Wink, wink.

At work every day, a caterer brings freshly made hot meals and salads for lunch.  The food is delicious, and so by ten to noon there's usually a line already forming in the lunch room.  The woman who works for the caterer arrives at noon on the dot, already harried and rushed from a trip in and out of Paris to pick up the merchandise.  She unpacks as fast as she can and then faces alone a crowd of hungry, bored computer geeks.  No small feat.  She's very friendly, and knows us all by name.  She knows that many of us workout at lunch, and will put our meals aside in the fridge if we discreetly pass her a meal check.  I take advantage of this three days a week when I'm rushing off to yoga class or going out for a run.

The problem is, how to slip a meal check discreetly to someone in front a line of fidgety colleagues all craning their necks to see what's on the menu.  My American sensibilities cry out that no, I can't possibly cheat.  Look at all those people!  They're just as hungry as I am!  The least I can do is play by the rules; cheat, yes, but do it with finesse.

Today all finesse fled me.  I walked into the lunchroom, which was unusually quiet.  Twenty people were waiting, but silently.  I knew it, of course: they were looking at me, watching for my next illicit move.  I hesitated in the corner, nervously opened my purse and pretended to consult my cell phone.  The caterer caught my eye and nodded.  Nothing left but to pull off the hand off.

It seemed so blatant to me that I was cheating, so painfully obvious, that I decided I needed to mask my misdeed by saying something completely off topic.  So I brought up a do-it-yourself project I did over the weekend.  "Yeah, uh, the kitchen faucet?  I did replace it myself!"  When I said it, it came out loud and ridiculous in front of twenty people who didn't care and wanted me to just quit distracting the caterer, who of course was obliged to reply as I carried on, and who might otherwise be getting them their food.  I felt them stare at me, as they seemed to say, so you're friends, so you get special treatment? The least you can do is keep it on the low-down, you American oaf.

I tend to speak first, reflect later.  And -- and this is why I'm a blogger, of course -- I feel a great need to talk, about anything, everything; when I'm nervous, when I'm sad, when I'm laughing to myself and no one else can possibly get the joke.  Despite eight years of language immersion and a vocabulary good enough to read Proust, I'm still opening my mouth and finding something all wrong comes out.  Ce n'est pas ce que je voulais dire... but wait, that's not what I wanted to say.  Did I want to say anything at all?

French interaction is heavy with context, and the unsaid weighs as much as what is actually said out loud.  Often I've had to read between the lines in my boss' requests in order to understand that something was delicate or important.  I'm not always good at this.  I'm currently reading Balzac and despairing of my ability to ever grasp French social interaction (at least in the 19th century upper crust -- I guess I'm off the hook in real life).  In Le père Goriot, Rastignac receives a letter which ostensibly invites his mistress and her husband to a ball.  Except that when he reads it, he understands that the husband isn't actually invited.  I read the passage in the book three times in a vain attempt to understand the same thing.

Yet the French also relish being startling blunt.  They yell, they insult, they ostentatiously ignore.  Perhaps the fact that no one did this when I cut in line today means I can assume that perhaps, maybe, no one actually cared that much?

"They're all just jealous.  They know you've got a good deal.  They're just not willing to go for a ten kilometer run in the cold for the same thing," my husband said simply, and shrugged.  He's always been one to ignore etiquette.  He's an iconoclast.  Or maybe he's just not a born Parisian.  Anyway, he always does know how to make me feel better, whenever I manage to drop some china on my feet once again.

Note: I could have written "le français in the china shop" about my husband (for example) in the US.  Stomping around breaking someone else's cherished cultural rules is part of the universal expat experience.  So don't think I'm trying to paint Americans as particularly inept or anything (even if I do feel particularly inept today myself).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Staff of life

"Did you get the bread?"

The first years of our life together were more than just sweet words and 'je t'aime's.  After all, a relationship is about negotiation and responsibility.  And what bigger responsibility could there be than getting the daily baguette?

"There's no bread."

I would walk in the door from work, and with one sentence I knew one of us had to go back out on the bread mission.  It was non-negotiable, and I can tell you, it used to irritate the hell out of me.  Back in Boston, it meant jumping into the car and driving over to Whole Foods, then the only place in the neighborhood that sold anything approximating the "real" bread one might find in France.  Most day-old baguettes are deadly weapons, so it wasn't an option to just eat yesterday's leftover.

"But why do we need bread?"

Growing up we ate white sandwich bread, and dinner rolls on special occasions.  Sometimes a baguette would make it into the kitchen only to be sliced in half, smeared with garlic butter and Parmesan and toasted in the oven.  Bread was by no means considered necessary at mealtime.  We went through supermarket loaves slowly, slice by slice, storing them in the freezer and reanimating them in the toaster.

My husband, when he lived in the US, ate supermarket sandwich bread only when absolutely nothing else was available, and always whole whole grain, never white.  When I described how American children often require the crusts be trimmed off their sandwiches, he was perplexed.

"But the crust is the best part!"

You know the stereotype of the Frenchman with a beret and a baguette under his arm?  Berets are difficult to spot these days, but in Paris around 7 o'clock in the evening practically everyone is heading home with a thin loaf of bread.  Some even head out early in the morning to pick up fresh bread for breakfast.  There are often long lines in front of the boulangerie, but mercifully they usually move fast.

Before I had kids and knew true daily logistical constraints, I resented the ball-and-chain nature of daily bread.

"No, I didn't get the bread.  If you really want it, you go back out and get it.  I'm perfectly happy with just pasta."

Flour, water, yeast, salt: the only ingredients in a baguette.  I believe it is a legal standard, codified like so much else in this rule-loving country, but I could be mistaken.  That doesn't mean that all French bread is created equal, however, and in the eight years I've lived here, I've witnessed a veritable bread revolution.  Half the baguettes in Paris used to be pale yellow, soft, gummy and tasteless, indistinguishable from mass-produced supermarket loaves.  Then high-end bakeries in chic neighborhoods started selling loaves supposedly baked according to long-lost artisan tradition.  Whether it was true tradition or just good marketing, the bread was better, with a thick golden crust, an airy interior, and a smell that made you want to tear into it as soon as you walked out into the street.  Pretty soon every corner boulangerie had its own version, often developed by a national flour "brand," with a catchy name, like la rétro or la tradition. 

"Une tradition, bien blanche, s'il vous plaît."


France has always been a divided country: montagnards vs. jacobins, readers of Le Figaro vs. readers of Libération, Parisians vs. provincials.  One more division concerns baguettes, between those who like them under-baked (bien blanche) and those who prefer them over-baked (bien cuite). They regard one another with suspicion as they take turns at the counter.  "Bien cuite. Burned, even!" my mother-in-law requests emphatically.  "I don't understand," she adds with scorn, "How anyone can eat the undercooked paste they sell here usually."

The customers who file through the boulangerie on a weeknight say more about themselves than they perhaps intend.  Order one half a baguette and you're inviting pity; you're clearly single, a lone soul sharing a single helping of bread.  It's only slightly less pathetic than ordering a sandwich.

"I know, I know.  You'll get your piece, I promise!"

Mademoiselle's first solid food wasn't rice cereal or strained prunes or carrot purée but a chunk of baguette that she reached and begged for shortly before her six month birthday.  She gummed it and swallowed mushy bits while I held my breath, for this was not standard baby-rearing practice back home, and yes, probably also a potential choking hazard.  Although the experts and books and pediatricians here all say to start with mashed vegetables, I personally suspect that many a French baby has been weaned on bits of stale bread from the family table.

After all, it's perfect for teething.

"Pain! Pain!"


The French word for bread is one of Mademoiselle's first words.  After work, I swing by the bakery right after picking her up and buy our baguette.  She gets the first chunk, the pointy, crunchy end, which buys me peace as I push her home in the stroller.  At home, if someone walks through the door with a long, white paper bag under their arm she starts throwing a fit, grabbing and pointing until she gets what she wants.

There's no way we'll forget the bread now.

At seven o'clock in the evening in the countryside, eight o'clock in big cities, the bakeries all close.  If you're smart, you'll arrive at least fifteen minutes before then, however, for if not, you risk fighting over the last loaf of bread.  The baguettes are the first to run out.  The last customers often have to choose between odd specialty loaves with nuts and seeds and other non-standard attributes which they pay extra to avoid going home empty handed.  I've stood in line counting the number of loaves and the number of people in front of me, wondering if I'll have anything to show for my trouble.  And sometimes in these tight situations I remember to think about the person in line behind me.

"You have two half baguettes left, one with seeds, one whole grain?  I'll take both.  Unless... madame would like some, too... yes?  Well in that case, I'll just take one half."

That way no one has to eat cake.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The curse of being first

Last night, le Petit had his very first homework assignment.  The class mascot, a bright pink bear with a sweater and cowboy boots, spent the weekend at home with us, and Le Petit was instructed to bring "Clara Lulu" back on Monday morning with her portrait done.  On Friday afternoon, Le Petit started a rudimentary drawing at Grandma and Grandpa's house.  He traced a pink balloon-like animal with big black eyes.  It could've passed for Clara Lulu easily enough if he'd just bothered to color it in, but drawing and coloring is not le Petit's thing.  It's taken all of the teacher's efforts this year to get him to hold his crayon properly and concentrate on it at all.  From what I see tacked to the wall in his classroom, his reticence is not unique, particularly among the boys.  But I'm a mom, and I'm me, so I have to worry, and when I saw the sparse pink lines haphazardly scribbled on Clara's round belly, I felt I had to intervene.

It was his first assignment, and he was failing.

So I gently tried to get him to sit down and color with me, and when that failed I complained to my husband, who bellowed at le Petit which made me yell at him for not being a sensitive parent but seemed to work.  And then I fled in shame to the kitchen to make dinner and my husband sat down with le Petit and a new reserve of patience, and le Petit finished Clara.  After a fashion.  With more than a little hands-on help.

As I tried to fall asleep last night, my mind raced to extrapolate this scene as far into the future as possible.  Soon there would be real homework and who would be behind him to make sure it got done?  Should we be behind him at all?  Or should we instead let him turn in a picture with a few stray pink lines?  Would I have time to decide?  Would I fail as a mom?  

Poor Le Petit.  I do this to him all the time.

It began with the first long nights when Le Petit was a newborn.  We didn't know what we were doing, so like so many bleary-eyed rookie parents before us, we searched in vain for the owner's manual in the parenting section of the bookstore.  Clearly, our baby would never sleep on his own, we were certain of it.  Of course, he did eventually; the details of when, exactly, he finally slept through the night are lost to me now, as are the sometimes tender, often tedious hours spent putting him to bed.  But I still do remember, clearly, the desperation I felt in the middle of the night -- not to mention the middle of the day, as I discussed the problem over a nth cup of coffee with anyone willing to listen -- that the sleeplessness would never end.  I remember the middle-of-the-night arguments with my husband. The raised voices, the angry words to or in front of our baby that I immediately wished we could take back.  Although we muddled through and eventually figured most of the important things out, we were not always the best parents, I'm ashamed to admit.  All because we wanted to fix things, right then and there.  All because we had too little faith in our child.  

The curse of the firstborn.

Mademoiselle, on the other hand, gets battle-scarred parents who are impressed by nothing, comparatively speaking.  I'm not saying our patience is never tried, but in general we keep our cool because we have an important piece of first-hand information: children do eventually sleep though the night.  (We also know how quickly it all passes, so it all seems more tender and less tedious the second time around.)

You'd think we would have learned, so marked were we by the ordeal of sleep deprivation, but every new parenting challenge seems to throw us into the same desperate reasoning.  Potty training.  Tantrums.  Table manners.  Some significant part of me is always sure that this time we've never going to help le Petit over the hurdle.  My husband obviously often feels the same way, and some of our worst parenting moments have been when we were mired in mutual despair over something that in retrospect was no big deal.  Something that le Petit figured out on his own, despite --- not thanks to -- our best efforts to help him.

I was mulling this over yoga class today when I was supposed to be thinking of nothing at all and concentrating on my breathing.  I've spent so much of my life trying to be the Good Girl, and this segued quite naturally into trying to be the Good Parent.  And what makes a Good Parent other than the Perfect Child: proof we did everything right, which is, of course, the great lather-rinse-repeat of dysfunction.

I contorted myself into a bow-shaped pose on the floor and thought about this further.  So, some part of this was clearly ego.  And my impatience with the sleeplessness, well, there was a whole lot of selfishness there, too.  But there was more.  Why do I always want to be the Good Girl again?  Because I irrationally feel that if my conduct is beyond reproach, then everyone around me will be happy: everything will go swimmingly, the sun will shine, the dollar will go up, everyone will smile and agree with one another, and I, personally, will never be hurt.  The ever-anxious mom, I extrapolated this reasoning to le Petit.  If he could just be Good, he'd be safe from all the bumps and bruises of the world.

So what exactly does this have to do with coloring, potty training, and sleeping through the night?  Nothing much, I guess, except that at every step along the way, le Petit finds some ingenious way to teach me that I'm wrong.  Step back, Mom, lighten up.  Let go.  Trust your kid.  Trust yourself.  I've taken to asking myself if my parenting problem du jour is something I'm likely to still be dealing with in two, five, or fifteen years.  The answer is usually no.  My response (when I'm thinking clearly) is to stop and take a deep breath.

Still, I fear le Petit is going to continue taking all this collateral damage as he grows up first in the family.  My yoga teacher would say he chose his parents and birth position, long before he was born.  If that's the case, let's hope he knew what he was doing.  I'll give him a big grateful hug and an apology in advance for my inevitable missteps. 

Because after all, there are advantages to being the firstborn.  Right?

(My goal for this year is to be better at mothering, not just le Petit and Mademoiselle, but also myself.)

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Ten hours, two kids, one plane

We're back from two weeks in Seattle.  Two pleasant, worthwhile weeks which still passed too quickly for me and in somewhat of a haze, thanks to a bad head cold and the usual dose of jet lag.  I'm homesick, yet glad to be back. Mademoiselle is stuck on Pacific Standard time and waking us up for two solid hours every night, yet Le Petit has been sleeping well from his first night back in Paris.

In the wee hours of the last few nights, as I've been trying and failing to calm a jetlagged baby back to sleep, I've had a few thoughts on how to survive long-haul plane travel with small children that I thought I might share.  Just in case anyone wants to visit us here in Paris, you know.

Tips for the twelve-month-old:

  1. Any toys you bring will be far less interesting than any random non-toy objects you manage to dig up.  Mademoiselle spent roughly two minutes of the ten-hour flight playing with the bag of toys I carefully selected.  She spent at least a half an hour ripping apart the in-flight magazine.
  2. The most alluring object on the whole plane will quite possibly be your plastic water glass, and this only because it breaks into sharp pieces when mouthed.  Hide it and instead distract baby with an empty water bottle.
  3. Watch the hours tick down with optimism.  Count every ten minutes as a victory.
  4. Order the white rice, and let baby eat it off your tray in handfuls.  Avoid the marinara sauce.
  5. Nurse baby without worrying what other people may think.  Chances are they won't care, since after all, your kid isn't screaming. (And think to wear a discreet nursing top to make things easier.)
  6. Rest assured that as long as the airplane cabin is pressurized, it is physically impossible for anyone to open the exit doors and throw your family from the plane.
  7. Distribute Cheerios slowly, wisely.
  8. Smile appreciatively at anyone willing to hold baby's attention with hand motions, songs, silly games, and goofy facial expressions.  (Pay it forward: remember to make goofy facial expressions at the next grumpy baby you see in public.  Their parents will be grateful.)
  9. When things get tough, flee with Baby to galley area at the back of the plane.  There you have room to pace and bounce, and there's usually a bored flight attendant all to happy to help you distract baby.  I spent a total of a couple hours hiding out there with Mademoiselle on the flight back.
  10. Keep yourself hydrated, especially if you're nursing, and keep baby hydrated.  
  11. Fly Air France. Seriously. Flying with kids is no fun, but every time I've had to cross the Atlantic with tykes in tow, the in-flight personnel of Air France have made me feel welcome, understood, and well-taken-care-of.
  12. If all else fails, let your toddler pace up and down the aisles (following closely behind, of course).  It will annoy your fellow travelers far less than screaming, after all. 
  13. Thank your fellow passengers. Smile. 
  14. Think of it as quality time with your baby. (This may be the very best advice I ever read on the subject of flying with small children, found on some random internet forum.) Yes, you're in close quarters, at 30,000 feet, squeezed unhappily into an uncomfortable seat, but... you love this little person.  And rarely do you get to devote so much time just to keeping them happy.
  15. Remember, eventually you do land.  And then you'll only have the jet lag to contend with.
Tips for the four-and-a-half-year-old:
  1. Explain what to expect.  Make it sound exciting, but warn them that it's also a bit long.
  2. Don't promise a window seat if you're not absolutely certain you'll have a window seat.
  3. If you're bringing the iPad, spring for the full version of Elmo's ABCs and not the free "lite" version that only has the letters A, B, and C.
  4. Bring snacks.
  5. Bring water.
  6. Bring patience.
  7. Bring crayons, not markers -- no caps to lose, and they're less likely to stain your pants if they fall in between the seat cushions.
  8. You may expect them to be rational and grown-up, but they're only mostly rational and grown-up.  Expect some whining and squirming.
  9. Do your best to remain rational and grown-up yourself when faced with whining and squirming.
  10. Rest assured that as long as the airplane cabin is pressurized, it is physically impossible for anyone to open the exit doors and throw your family from the plane.
  11. Bring a kid-friendly pair of headphones, or a headband to help the airline headphones stay on your kid's head.  I didn't do this and le Petit ended up holding the headphones against his ears with his hands for most of the flight, which added to the squirming.
  12. Thank your fellow passengers.  Smile.
  13. When all your efforts to minimize seat-kicking fail, remember that as long as your kid isn't screaming, the person sitting in front of them might not mind.  (The kind person sitting in front of Le Petit on the way over said as much.)  If possible, seat your kid behind another kid.  And remember #12.
  14. Think of it as quality time with your preschooler.  Put your heads together and do some coloring.
  15. Remember, eventually you do land.  And then you'll only have the jet lag to contend with.
The flight back was far easier than the flight over, mostly because both kids slept a bit.  Unfortunately neither one of my kids can lull themselves to sleep just because the cabin lights have been dimmed, but both did sleep when it was "time" (according to the whichever time zone we were leaving).  This meant Mademoiselle had a nap on the way over and both a nap and the beginning of a night's sleep on the way back, and le Petit caught two hours of sleep at the tail end of the flight back.

I want to thank the Italian grandparents who sat across the aisle from us on the way over and kept Mademoiselle happy for the last hour of the flight with games of peek-a-boo and an involved conversation in the universal language of Baby. I am also grateful to the three flight attendants on the way back who talked for hours with me and with Mademoiselle as we hung out in the back of the plane.  One of them earns my particular recognition for bringing me a giant bottle of water, "Because," she explained, "you're nursing, madame, and you shouldn't get dehydrated."  You rock.

Anyone else have tips for traveling with small kids? 

Or for helping a baby get over jet ag? 

Or for throwing a festive impromptu family party at two o'clock in the morning because, after all, you're all awake anyway?