Monday, October 31, 2011

Lost in Translation: A Mom in Paris

It's an odd milestone that I'm actually quite proud of: Nine months after arriving in Paris, I have not once been reduced to tears in a public place.

Not by menacing bureaucrats at the local town hall, not by the unsmiling directrice who lectured me at our son's school, not by the nasty salesgirl who mocked my French, not by the metro thief who stole my cell phone, and not by nasty commuters who offer unsolicited parenting advice on the train.

Not by anything. Until today.

Bright and early, I set out with the kids to drop them at the centre de loisirs, the neighborhood activity center housed in their school that offers programs during school vacations. After spending a great week in the country, one more week of school vacation lay ahead. With a back-log of work to do (not to mention laundry), I had planned for the kids to spend a happy day at the center.

Not so fast. Upon our arrival, I was blocked at the door by a grimacing employee waving the kids' enrollment papers. She works at the school year-round and by now knows us on sight. "Regardez, regardez!" she said aggressively, thrusting the apparently faulty forms in my face. "Vous n'avez pas pre-inscrit!" (You didn't enroll in advance!), she said. (I did. I did!)

The children would not be permitted to attend, she explained.  I had not checked the appropriate box for the appropriate day. Merde.

I looked around the far-from-full playroom and met eyes with a friendly teacher. She shrugged her shoulders and pursed her lips as if to say, "Sorry, madame, but what I can do?" I pressed my case and apologized for my oversight, certain there was a way this could be worked out. Soon I was surrounded by barking functionnaires -- state employees with lifetime job security -- explaining that I had made a grave mistake. There could be no exceptions.

The rule was the rule. You have to follow the rules, madame! Why didn't you follow the rules??

So, I did what any strong-willed, confident, successful parent would do. I started to cry.

This they were not expecting. And frankly, neither was I. Perhaps it was fatigue from more than a week of 24/7 quality time with the kids. Perhaps it was the fact that I'd spent much of the previous day picking lice and nits from Cole's head. Perhaps it's because it was Halloween and we had no real way to celebrate it.

The director of the program was called over. He levelled me with an icy look. I could try taking them to another center across town, he said. Perhaps they would accept Cole and Adele (who were getting a tad anxious) for the day. By that point I was angry and humiliated. So, I cried more.

I explained that I had a full work day ahead. My kids would be strangers at the other center -- here their friends were already calling them over to play. I abandoned all pride and started to beg.

Normally in France, begging gets you nowhere. The French respond to strength and confidence, not begging and admissions of error. I've learned that it's best to throw attitude and give as good as you get. They are loath to admit the error of their own ways (a by-product of their rigid school system) and seem baffled when confronted by this in others.

But by this point, I was desperate. After a few more minutes of pleading (and some unwanted attention from other parents), the director acquiesced and allowed them to stay. He made a great show of walking me through the enrollment process (which I understood perfectly well) and repeatedly told me this was "exceptionellement."

I broke more cultural rules by thanking him profusely for his kindness and understanding. I had hoped that before leaving, I might eek a tiny smile out of him. No such luck.

So, I kissed the kids goodbye and watched them run happily off to join their pals. I reassured the director that I'd be back this afternoon at the appointed hour.

I just have to be sure not to run late.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Free Range Kids in the Country

The sounds of my kids' play fills the small stone house in the French countryside. We have no real plans, no where we have to go. We're not rushing out the door to make it to school or soccer or ballet. We have no play dates, no commitments.

Funny thing is, they have never gotten along better.

In the five days since we arrived -- at a tiny rented gite in the French region of Champagne -- Cole and Adele have roamed free. Soon after waking, they pull on their coats and mittens and run outside, excited to do nothing more than romp and explore; to follow their imaginations in the rough-hewn grounds that surround the house.

They've picked green apples that hang from backyard trees, crushed dozens of walnuts and built a "tree house" with found twigs, logs and thatches of shrub. They've collected rocks and studied ladybugs, made bouquets out of fallen leaves and constructed play walls from moss covered bricks. 
We've taken family hikes through the trees and along wooden paths entertained by damp clusters of wild mushrooms and remnants of fallen bee hives. Healthy cows graze in the surrounding fields and oblige us when we offer fresh grass from the roadside. Along our route, we stumbled upon the remains of an ancient stone house, its crumbling walls climbing with wild foliage. We crept inside to get a closer look and peered through an old window opening, imagining the lives that animated the home hundreds of years ago.
I do not hover as they engage in this play. The grounds are mostly enclosed and passing cars are rare enough. Sure there are hazards: a muddy stream flows along the back of the yard; a miscalculated jump from tall stone piles could land us in the emergency room. There are masses of twigs and sticks for imaginary sword-play and stinging nettles in the foliage.

But I find that the longer I hang back, the better and longer they play. They take turns initiating the games and seem to take equal delight in each other's imaginings. There have been plenty of squabbles but nothing so far that has curtailed their fun for long.

I've never been a very "free range" parent myself, tending to fill our days with outings, classes and kid-centered activities. Looking back on our busy Boston days, I think about the endless singalongs, story hours and park outings. Who were they really for, anyway? Mostly me, of course. The kids would have been just as happy rolling in a pile of leaves in our backyard as they were being lugged to the toddler play gym. But I needed the company, the activity and the distraction. Without it, I might have gone totally nuts. In fact, I could hardly bear to stay at home all day and would venture out no matter the weather.

But now that they're older (four and six), they're at an age when the best toys are their own minds and open space in which to let them roam.

The other truth is that they've started to need me a bit less. They can put on their own shoes and coats, create their own games and carry them out without my help. I don't change diapers or haul sippy cups around and although I'm still a top choice playmate, I know those days are numbered, too.

So for now, I'll watch from a safe distance and occasionally manage to read (or even write) a page or two. There are still consistent calls of "Mommy, see this!" from Adele and "Look what I made!" from Cole. And for as long as it lasts, I'll stay just close enough to be part of it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Warm Coissants with Butter Cure the Paris Blues

I left the apartment in a bit of a funk this morning. The blue Paris skies had turned gray and drizzly. Brown curled leaves clustered on the sidewalks and Parisian necks were wrapped in scarves against the chill. And just like that, c'est l'hiver.

Fall in New England has been on my mind and I've been surprised by how much I miss it. Apple-picking, warm cider and sugared donuts, hayrides and pumpkins seem so far away. I'm not sure how to tell the kids that Halloween isn't quite the same here. (They're already planning their costumes, albeit with less intensity.) As much as I love Paris, I miss our little Boston town, decorating our house with cottony webs and carving jack-o-lanterns. I miss my friends, too.

To cheer myself up, I opted for a morning walk around the city, planning to stop for coffee along the way. After kissing the kids goodbye at the school entrance, I set off for nowhere in particular.

The typically hectic Paris morning was in full swing. Trench coat wearing commuters hunched over smart phones, merchants hosed down sidewalks and unfurled retractable awnings. Scooters and horns blared as boxy little cars fought their way through the morning traffic.

I found myself on the commercial boulevards around Montparnasse, not the prettiest part of the city but alive, gritty and pleasing all the same. Its bright signs, restaurant chains and movie theaters can feel more like Manhattan than Paris but sidewalk book stalls and funky not-quite antique shops quickly reminded me that I could be nowhere but here.

I stopped at a cafe for a croissant and a cafe creme. Its large terrace was mostly empty but I knew would soon be populated by Parisians having their first cigarettes of the day. I opted instead for a corner seat inside and slid into the red leather banquette facing a perfectly weathered table for two.

"Je vous ecoute, madame," said the grinning waiter who convinced me to try "La Formule Coup de Coeur," the French answer to a continental breakfast. With rain clouds gathering beyond the cafe windows, I decided to order the formule and maybe stay awhile. With free WiFi and jazz in the background, there are far worse places to spend an hour or two.

My copious petit dejeuner arrived in waves, starting with a freshly squeezed jus d'orange (served in a thin stemmed glass) and a perfectly frothy cafe creme. I swirled a packet of sugar into the heavenly foam and felt my spirits beginning to lift.

Next the waiter brought a small cloth-lined basket with two slices of toasted pain poilane and a golden croissant nestled inside. The meal was completed with a steaming soft boiled egg perched regally in a porcelain cup and a cluster of baguette slices arranged like plastic straws. A perfect round of lightly salted butter and dish of apricot jam finished it off.

It was all so tempting, I wasn't sure where to begin. The top of the brown egg had been sliced to reveal its warm, creamy center. I grabbed a piece of baguette, layered on the butter and dipped it in the yolk -- no doubt not the sanctioned French way to eat it.

The butter was so good, I decided it must go on everything -- from the toasted bread to the already decadent croissant. (Is it even legal to put butter on a croissant?)

With a full stomach and rising spirits, I looked around the still empty cafe. With it's aged tin ceilings and burnished wood bar, it was almost too picture-perfect Paris -- the quintessential cafe that Paris brings to mind. Le Select is next door and La Coupole across the street -- the cafes made famous by Hemingway and co. in the 1920's. Today, they draw mostly tourists seeking a peek into Paris's heralded literary past which of course, has long since moved on.

Authentic Paris or not, I didn't really care. As long as there's warm bread -- and French butter to go with it -- I'll be one happy not-quite Parisian. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Just Like a French Lady

"Stop doing that, Adele!" my son screeches at his younger sister. I enter their room cautiously, prepared for the worst: poster paint on the rug, her body covered in magic marker, pools of water on the parquet...

"What's happening in here?" I dare to ask.

"Adele's trying to act like a French lady," Cole says. "I want her to stop it!"

Hmm. "What does it mean to act like a French lady?" I ask, fascinated by this bit of pint-sized sociology.

I look over at Adele who is preening in front of the mirror, tilting her head and smiling coquettishly. She demonstrates by walking across the room swinging her non-existent hips and slinking down a would-be catwalk. She holds her head high and gently tosses her hair.

She is four and has lived in Paris all of six months.

"Wow, Adele," I say carefully. "So that's how a French lady walks? Why don't you show me how Mommy walks? Does Mommy walk like a French lady?"

"No!" Adele shrieks with delight. "You're not like a French lady, Mommy! You walk like this!" She spreads her pudgy legs about shoulder distance apart, looking more like she's about to tackle someone than saunter gracefully across the room. She takes one step, then another, her little feet landing heavily upon the carpet. I can't help but notice the distinctly different gait, the "Mommy walk" resembling a gorilla rather than a French gazelle.

They proceed to share some other French lady-isms that strike me both as accurate and somewhat troubling. French ladies wear skirts all the time, they tell me. And very high shoes! Sometimes they smoke stinky cigarettes and wear lots of scarves! Adele gets excited about this one and proceeds to show me how to wear the perfect French foulard. I watch in awe as she artfully twists and wraps a length of fabric around her little neck, resulting in a chic look I'm not sure I could pull off.

A friend recently told me that a "sexy" walk -- characterized by swaying hips -- is actually a cultural phenomenon. Apparently in some countries -- like her native Norway -- women walk without swaying their hips at all. She said she's actually physically incapable of swaying her hips. Unlike in France, women there just don't do it.

But here in Paris, all the world's a runway. Every sidewalk is a catwalk, everyday a fashion show. It's not about a special occasion or having somewhere in particular "to go." Leaving the house is occasion enough to don a skirt and heels, a scarf and a chic bag.

I actually admire the Parisian strut: Head held high, posture worthy of a Prima Ballerina. They carry themselves with a combination of confidence and grace that's seems quite natural -- much like that innate scarf-tying ability, I guess. Of course, if you're heading toward a strutting Parisian on a narrow sidewalk, you best be ready for a game of chicken. She is not -- I repeat not -- going to get out of your way. My advice? Chin up and hold your ground or you'll find yourself knocked into the street by a direct shot from a wayward Vuitton bag.

At this point, I'm beyond trying to be like anyone else, except I hope, the best version of myself, much less a preternaturally chic and swanky "French lady." I'm too tall, too blond, my smile much too toothy.  I'm not coquettish, like my daughter seems destined to be, and can't for the life of me conjure much mystery. I am after all, a Californian, perhaps the cultural opposite of la petite Parisienne.

Don't get me wrong -- I do love fashion and always feel better when I get dressed up for the day. Sure it's frivolous and kinda shallow. But when I dress well, I feel stronger, more confident -- just overall better. And maybe even the tiniest bit like a French lady.