Friday, April 29, 2011

Even Big Girls Love a Princess

Admit it. You watched. The dreamy yet of-the-moment dress, the horse-drawn carriage, the pomp and circumstance of days gone by. The tragedy-turned-fairytale of a young prince, left motherless at the age of 15, choosing his beautiful bride and riding literally into a palace to live happily ever after.

Even cynics must admit: it was fun to watch.

But why, exactly? We know it's unlikely to be "happily ever after," because even if William and Kate are truly in love, real life will intercede. The made-for-television (and the British tourism industry) spectacle will give way to daily life and what it really takes to make marriage work. Plus, royal marriages are famously fraught alliances historically ending in quiet estrangement, scandal or even beheading.

And yet, we want to believe it's possible. For a brief moment, the "Royal Wedding" provided what felt like a much-needed distraction. World news is grim, to put it mildly. Oil prices are high and getting higher, numerous countries are at war -- civil and otherwise -- and thousands upon thousands are being killed by what feel like freakish acts of nature. Donald Trump is even mulling a run for President. The news is bad and getting worse.

So for today, there is a prince and a princess and a chance to forget all that is ill in our world and indulge in fantasy that we recognize to be just that.

I know I'm not alone. Facebook "Friends" have announced wedding watching parties across time zones, complete with champagne, crumpets and watercress sandwiches. Even here in Paris (where sneering at Brits is a time-honored tradition), there are signs of Royal Wedding fever. On, France's preeminent newspaper, one could watch the wedding proceedings live. Le Figaro proclaimed the impending nuptials of "Le Petit Prince" and provided coverage of wedding celebrations around the city. As the bells tolled across the pond at Westminster Abbey, Paris felt oddly quiet.

And who can blame us? Like it or not, princess fascination often begins early.

When my daughter's love of princesses began around age 3, I reacted with predictably feminist horror. I amended story endings, ("And they lived happily ever after...after the prince decided to put his career on hold and accompany the princess to a new city where she completed her medical residency..."). I bought PC books -- Paperbag Princess, anyone? I talked a lot about the importance of strength and self-reliance.

But none of it dimmed her fascination with all things princess. She begged for a Sleeping Beauty costume (to my mind the most odious of the princess tales), donned sparkly crowns and played "wedding." She went through what felt like an interminable period where pants were flatly refused in favor of skirts or dresses. Snow on the ground, temps below freezing, she insisted on wearing fluffy things that twirled about her thighs. She even expressed frustration at my own daily uniform of jeans and sweater/t-shirt, and showed genuine delight when I donned a skirt or -- joy of joys -- a dress.

Newly four, I recently asked her what it is about princesses that she finds so fascinating. "Because they are so b000-tee-ful, Mommy," was her reply. Well, yes.

At some point, I decided to give in. After all, what was so wrong with childish fantasy and imaginary play? Wasn't that really all it was? My son fantasizes about being a dinosaur or shooting bad guys, and I've never seriously worried that he would one day take up eating herbivores or make headlines following a rage-filled shooting spree. As he wisely explained to me, "But Mommy, we're just playing."

Of course they are. And for a silly, fantasy-filled morning of royalty, outlandish hats, and a flowing white lace dress, so was I.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

French Lessons

When we decided to move to France, one of our first considerations was where to send the kids to school. Paris, like most big cities, has a mind-boggling number of choices. International bilingual? (Too expensive) Private Catholic? (Too Catholic). American Montessori? (Too American). Public French school? (Perhaps...too French?)

In the end, we opted for total immersion in our neighborhood maternelle, the French equivalent of preschool + K. Reticent at first, I was persuaded by Greg's argument that this would be the best way for us to really integrate -- to make fiends who lived nearby (rather than spread all over the city), and for the kids to learn French, as quickly as possible.

And best of all? French preschool is 100% FREE.

This would mean extra money for our travel budget and more opportunity to do what we came here for: teach the kids about other cultures and introduce them to the world beyond our shores. It meant no more paying $800 per month for our three-year-old to attend morning preschool. No more monthly kindergarten fee (even at the local public school). No, this would be free. It was hard to imagine.

Because we live in the tony 7th arrondissement, we felt confident that the school would be "good," if a bit rigid, as is the French way. What we've found has been a cultural education in itself, surprising, at times maddening and enlightening all at once.

La Menu de la Semaine

At our first enrollment meeting, seated across the paper strewn desk of the school's motorcycle-riding director, a top concern became immediately clear.

Would both Cole and Adele participate in la cantine? (the state-sponsored lunch service). And if so, how many days per week?

Yes, we said, they would eat at school everyday, thinking it would be a great way for the kids to learn about the essence of French culture: its food.

"Ah, bon!" he said with a toss of his head, flipping the wind-blown hair from his eyes. "Would they like to start tomorrow?"

Tomorrow? Not two weeks or a month from now after we produce reams of paper on every aspect of the kids' young lives, sign innumerable documents and have everything notarized? Twice?

No, they could start immediately, it would seem, with nary an inquiry about their previous schooling, language skills or aptitudes. The classes would be full, he said, nearly 30 students in each. Mais bon, ca va allez.

And so our French school adventure began. Cole entered what's called grand section, for kids born in 2005; Adele, the petite section, for 2007 birthdays. Simple enough -- no arbitrary "cut-off date" for parents to circumvent; no waiting for the age of 2.9 to start pre-school. Kids go to school, parents go to work. But more on that later.

Day one was a big success. I arrived at the designated pick-up hour (4:30pm!?) to find Cole and Adele smiling broadly and surrounded by their French comrades. "Il est mon ami!" declared one of Cole's classmates, his little arm stretched across Cole's shoulders. Adele ran toward me hand-in-hand with a new pal, another Adele, in whom she had found a kindred spirit.

Among their peers, Cole and Adele's American-ness made them something of a curiosity, especially Cole who had no trouble initiating play that rendered verbal communication superfluous. Chasing, growling and wrestling required little more than a grin and before long, he was greeted each morning by excited shrieks of, "Cole! Attrapes-nous!" (Catch us!)

It was the lunch service ("la cantine") that surprised and delighted Greg and me most with weekly menus rivaling those of many Michelin-approved restaurants. A sample daily menu, including four courses, might include:

Salade de pomme de terre/tomates
Escalope de poulet à la crème

Duo carottes / salsifis

Yaourt aromatisé Poire

Pain / fromage
Jus de pomme

At least one day per week would be strictly bio (organic). And no menu would be complete without the daily "suggestion du soir," the recommended dinner selection to prepare at home to appropriately complement that day's dejeuner. Groups of kids sat at small round tables, place settings complete with porcelain plates, bowls and glasses. They spent no less than 45 minutes a day a table. This was going to be interesting.

Ah, Non!

The French style of teaching is indeed rigid and their disciplinary style would have most American parents filing suit. I've observed little arms being tugged and heard teachers yell commands like they're training a litter of puppies. A commonly heard phrase, "Tu n'as pas le droit de faire ca!" (literally, you don't have the right to do that), applies to many an activity, from snacking on the playground to loitering in the entry hall. On the playground, the teachers (like French parents) mostly hang back and intercede only to deliver admonishments or yank a misbehaving child over to an obliging bench.

But thus far, Cole and Adele have reported no incidents to merit concern and have begun to acquire the language skills that they'll need to thrive. Cole asks regularly about the meaning of various phrases, often revealing more about his day than he perhaps intends.

"Mommy, what does, 'On ne fait pas ca!' mean?" (Translation: "We don't do that..")

"And how about, 'Ca c'est le deuxieme fois!'" (Translation: "That's the second time!")


Simple skills and phrases are coming quickly now, like "ca c'est a moi," (that's mine) and Cole's personal favorite, "A L'ATTAQUE!" (Attack!) which he yells while brandishing a styrofoam sword, careening down the halls of our apartment.

Our poor neighbors; the Americans have arrived.

The kids' classes have taken several sorties scholaires (field trips) that have been impressive and enriching: The Pompidou Center; Musee Bourdelle (including a visit to the on-site atelier where the kids created their own sculptures); and a nearby school for the deaf where students were introduced to learning for special needs. Parents are asked to make nominal monetary contributions for these outings but nothing is required.

Bon. So far, so good for the Frost kids in Paris, whose French lessons have only just begun.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bienvenue a Bord

Deja vu, the feeling of having been somewhere before. In French, literally, "already seen."

That's me, living in Paris for the second time. Round one occurred about ten years ago and lasted for three years. Now I'm back -- husband and two kids in tow -- with fresh eyes and new experiences to share about the city we now call "home."

What you'll find here: A peek into daily life for a native Californian in Paris. A mom closing in on "a certain age" with a family, a dreamy apartment and somewhat limited prospects for gainful employment. Mostly, it will be about what happens when one decides to leave the comforts of home in pursuit of better food, better shoes and a renewed sense of adventure. Tips on where to go, what to eat and what to wear, with (and without) kids in Paris.

I'll attempt to cover some of the good and the bad of living out this particular kind of American dream. But, let's face it, it's mostly pretty good.

What you won't find here: Dull cliches about expatriate life, grumbling about "the French" (well, maybe just a little) and not a single usage of the phrase "City of Light" (really). I won't overuse exclamation points (I promise!!), or post endless images of my kids' art work. If I discover a great spot, a new restaurant or must-visit shop, you'll read about it here. Ideas for places to stay, things to see and what to read may also make their way in. Pictures and links will render life as it is here, a la francaise.

The Cast:

Me. One-time political consultant and non-profit fundraiser turned freelance writer and professional pastry taster. Years ago, I dusted the Santa Monica beach sand from my feet and headed to San Francisco where I met Greg Frost and began a life-changing journey to Paris via Boston and back again. My two sisters are my dearest friends and the fact that they don't live here is the thing I dislike most about Paris. My kids have changed my life from the inside out. I often wonder how I got so lucky.

Greg. Husband of almost 11 years, born in New York, raised in Paris & London. More French than many Parisians, he is now "home," except for that pernicious habit of running several miles each morning while most locals are still enjoying their grasse matinee. Thanks to him, I live here now and have had a life that I never dreamed possible. He's a writer/journalist/communications guy who can answer just about any trivia question thrown his way and cook an unforgettable rack of lamb.

Cole: First-born son, light of my life. Smart as a whip, sensitive and thoughtful, he can tell you the name of just about any dinosaur and build a mean spaceship out of Legos. He kissed his first French girl about a week ago. He's five.

Adele: Sheer exuberance in a four-year old body, Adele is silly, adorable (thanks, Dad), and entirely her own person. She likes nothing better than to be barefoot, covered in dirt. Hilarious, independent and a pint-sized lover of Camembert cheese.

Thanks for joining me. Alors, on y va?