Tuesday, June 28, 2011

But How's Your Underwear?

After moving to Paris the first time, I quickly realized I had a problem.

My underwear had to go.

The cotton panties, the athletic bras, the no longer new, yet rarely-worn lacy thongs that matched poorly with my sad selection of everyday bras. The stuff was so bad that Greg had a nickname for the shriveled, over washed underthings that emerged from my dryer: the insects (thanks to their resemblance to those crusty dead little creatures you find on window sills...)

Not exactly sexy.

Moving to Paris was the perfect chance for a fresh start. Because, as everyone knows, the French are crazy about lingerie. In fact, I used to joke that unless I overhauled my underwear drawer, the Frenchies simply wouldn't let me stay.

The Parisian obsession with small stretchy pieces of lace -- embroidered, embellished and often painfully uncomfortable -- is apparent everywhere you go. From the ubiquitous soft lit advertisements featuring headless, amply-endowed torsos, to the city's hundreds of boutiques devoted exclusively to under garments, you realize quickly that lingerie here is serious business.

I remember shopping for some new lingerie and being offered "help" by a Parisian saleswoman. I held up the scrunched bundle of panties I had selected and said I was ready to pay. But where were the matching bras? she asked, clearly horrified that I might buy the underwear alone. Wearing a bra and panties that aren't part of a set? Mais, ce n'est pas possible.

The love of lingerie extends to sleepwear as well. No Parisian woman worth her Repetto ballet flats would reserve the good stuff only for special occasions (like anniversaries) and sport men's t-shirts to bed the rest of the year. Sacre bleu! They don their lacy best every day (and night) of the year and coordinate it with the same care they devote to the rest of their artfully-crafted looks. Nice lingerie is un plaisir, after all, and isn't pleasure what life is all about?

Le Flirting

This leads me to another topic about Paris life that I find endlessly fascinating: the game of seduction between men and women. I'm not talking about dating or love and certainly not marriage. Just the pervasive flirtatious rapport that men and women expect from one another. Sure it's a cliche but honestly, it's as much a part of life here as fresh baguettes. It's part of what makes Paris the world's most romantic city; that thing that draws lovers and aspiring romantics and lingers in our imaginations long after we depart.

French men are taught to appreciate feminine beauty (and not just in women under 30) and women believe it's their job to provide it. They expect to be openly regarded by men and take no offense at being complimented on their appearance. Au contraire! Le flirting is a game that underlies most exchanges between men and women. And most of the time, it's entirely harmless. Men liberally deliver appraising looks or gentle compliments. Women work hard to garner them and appreciate being admired. No one takes offense or feels demeaned. And strangely, it almost never feels gross or worse, dangerous. Despite its size and dark cobbled streets aplenty, I can honestly say I've never felt unsafe in Paris.

So, the flirting. Confusing sometimes, but also, fun! Having entered adulthood in the post-Anita Hill era, I expected (and sought) male attention only in certain settings. In the States, open leering or construction-worker style cat calling is a big no-no. And in the workplace? Hello, lawsuit.

Single American men and women flirt at parties or bars (and now, online and via text, so I've heard...) Married people do not flirt at all unless they're scumbags who routinely cheat (or want to cheat) on their spouses, right?

Not in Paris. I once had a French friend flirt openly with my husband. We were at a dinner party with a large group and all enjoying multiple verres du vin. I watched (glared?) across the table as she laughed at his jokes, stroked his arm, even talked about how "beau" he is. Hmm. Being the loyal gentleman he is, he was flattered by her attention but claimed not to really notice. "Flirting with me?" he said later. "No waaaay...."

It was only later, after coming to understand Paris, that I realized her gestures were entirely harmless. Just an expected part of the male/female rapport. And as time goes on, I figure, why not? From within the happy realm of a committed relationship, why not enjoy some harmless attention and appreciation from someone else? Whose ego couldn't use a little boost? A reminder of what it felt like before wedding bells, midnight feedings and preschool play dates?

As long as it doesn't go too far, of course, vive le flirting. As my French friend explained it, "It's just for 'le fun!'"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

La Bonne Maman? Mothering in Paris


When we decided to move to France, I knew I’d find plenty of differences between me and my Parisian counterparts. They'd have more kids (France has the second highest birth rate in the EU), look more stylish at the playground and overdress their offspring for a romp in the bac a sable.


But when it comes to parenting, I've been amazed to discover just how different we are.

As a parent (or as anything, for that matter), I am far from perfect. I'm probably too lenient and emphasize fun over firm. I abhor the sound of my kids’ distress to such an extent that I often go to great lengths to forestall it.

I tend to fall victim to flavor-of-the-month parenting, trying one approach after another to confront the ever-changing challenges the kids present. A believer in "positive discipline," I struggle to find logical consequences for undesirable behavior and find myself uttering bizarre phrases like, "No, you cannot have that flashlight on the toilet," and "If you don't go brush your teeth now, I'm taking away Big Monkey." Huh?


If you’re a parent – or an American parent, anyway – chances are, you’ve tried different approaches. From “attachment parenting” replete with a family bed to tough love “Tiger Mother"-ing, there’s always something new out there and with it someone to remind us that we could be doing better.


We have so many worries and precious little social support to help tackle them. Should I "go back to work" after the baby is born or should I stay home? How will either choice affect my child? Will she grow up resentful of a mom who wasn't there 100% or benefit by my example of hard work outside the home? And if I want to continue working, will my salary be eaten up by childcare? Is my child being bullied? Or worse, bullying? Am I protecting them from harmful chemicals? Sunburns? Are they taking enough classes (and are they the right ones?) Will they end up in therapy because I yelled when they spilled their milk? Or be scarred for life because I just threatened to "go back to work and hire a nanny?"


French mothers do not share many of these worries. They don't fret over their "parenting style" because here there is only one: tough. They don't worry about what other parents will think of them or agonize over the choice to work or stay home. Breastfeeding for a year is inconceivable as is the idea of schlepping a breast pump to work (or anywhere else). By law, mothers are guaranteed sixteen weeks paid maternity leave (considerably longer the more children they have) with the promise that their job will be waiting. When they decide to go back (and most do), quality daycare is available for free and is structured to accommodate the realities of a real working schedule. Families even receive monthly compensation for each child they have, which increases significantly if you have three or more.


Guilt -- an emotion most American mothers are intimately acquainted with -- isn't really part of their repertoire. In fact, a comparable word for “guilt” (of the emotional variety) doesn’t really exist in French. And why should they feel guilty? Weekends are largely devoted to family and because people aren’t expected to work 24/7, they don’t spend that time distracted by a beeping Blackberry. Plentiful national holidays (observed by schools as well as businesses) and the customary six weeks annual vacation mean lots of quality time with the kids and often grandparents, too.


Of course, I’m making big generalizations. But it's undeniable that French mothers are less burdened than we are. They take time for themselves without apologizing for it and don’t feel the need to over-manage every aspect of their children’s lives. I have a French friend (with three kids) who recently returned from a 5-day spa trip by herself. Bravo. They trust the schools (and to a certain extent, the state and other parents) to help them along.


French women aren’t big on self-doubt and have no concept of self-deprecation. The idea of cutting to oneself for the sake of humor or another’s comfort would strike them as utterly ridiculous. I have never once heard a French mother describe herself as a “bad mom” because she forgot to restock the diaper bag or allowed her child to nap in her stroller rather than her crib. Kids here routinely use pacifiers until they’re three and tote dirty loveys (“dou-dous,” a term my kids particularly enjoy) wherever they go. They have no problem dolling out sugary snacks (including their beloved "bon bons") at any hour. The consumption of chocolate is so pervasive, it’s practically a sanctioned food group. And why not? C'est un plaisir...


Helicopter parenting is another concept they don’t get, preferring to remain on the sidelines until (and unless) a problem crops up. They don’t dig in sandboxes and climb jungle gyms. I have yet to see a French mom on a slide or actively manage interactions between children. Although my days on the climber are now behind me, I'm not above a good game of chase or building the occasional sandcastle, (despite the bizarre looks it occasionally attracts.)


Maybe this is because this time is so fleeting – an idea American moms seem utterly in touch with. This precious window when we are our children’s favorite playmate is so very brief that we seek to take advantage of every tiny moment. We know the day is just around the corner when our outstretched hand will grasp only air and that toddler who once ate from your spoon will proudly fill (and refill) his own cereal bowl.


Observing it all has made me wonder: why are we, American mothers, so terribly hard on ourselves? Why are we so hard on each other? Why are we so obsessed with being “perfect” when none of us really even knows what that means? It’s as if we’re striving to follow a set of prescribed parenting rules but no one seems to know who set them.


Despite their outward appearance of confidence, French moms, like us, are far from perfect. It’s not unusual to see a mom smoke while pushing a stroller. Yelling is a completely sanctioned parenting technique as is the occasional swat (in public). Behavior that I find surprising often goes overlooked while minor transgressions merit an outsized response. A toddler who wants his bucket back from another child is told by his mother, “Prends-le!” (“Take it!”) rather than encouraged to share. But a youngster who deliberately whacks another may be met with a shrug of indifference.


None of this is to suggest that the French love their kids any less. It’s just that their parenting seems intent on producing a different outcome, namely an independent, well-educated, well-mannered young Frenchman (or woman) who understands the rules and abides by them. They will rarely admit to error (as children or adults) because they learned early on that mistakes are dealt with harshly. They prize respect above overt affection and assume parental intimidation is the way to achieve it. Sometimes it seems we're so busy being pals with our kids that we forget to foster the autonomy they will so desperately need.


For now, I’m just observing and marveling at the differences. Mostly, it’s made me see that we American moms are a pretty amazing lot – dedicated, creative and always striving to do better. I just wish more of us knew it.