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.