Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Road rage II

As some of you may recall, I swore up and down that I would avoid getting behind the wheel in France, both for my safety as well as everyone else’s. But that was before I had a baby, who is growing at lightning speed and will be in driving school himself before I know it, which would be super embarrassing. Actually, the truth is that he goes to day care twice a week now, and the place is almost 20 minutes away by foot. This isn’t a problem when the sun is out; it’s a lovely walk, and hey—I’m sporty. But when the nice weather heads south and we’re stuck with the nasty, those 20 minutes feel a lot like 40 (you try pushing a stroller while holding an umbrella). So enough of that. Plus, we’re suburbanites now. I have clients to meet. Babykins has little friends to visit. The car was bound to become an issue sooner or later.

So I bit the proverbial bullet and signed up for driver’s ed—for the second time in my life. The first time, I was 15 years old and I think it cost my parents something like $300. This time, I’m much, much older and it cost—I kid you not—six times more (and my parents aren’t paying). I think this kind of blatant extortion heavy-handed pricing would spark a revolution in the US, but as I don’t live there anymore, and my Californian license is worth exactly rien to the French, my options were either to go (back) to driving school or find alternative means of mother-and-baby locomotion. There are a few, but they all seem inordinately cumbersome and/or life-threatening:

The bike: dangerous
The caboose: stupid-looking and dangerous
The rickshaw: unwieldy, stupid-looking, and dangerous

None of these being an acceptable alternative to the car (bonus: we already have one), I accepted the price tag, expensed it (obviously), and moved on to worrying about what I had just committed myself to. Because even after years of experiencing the French highway as a terrified passenger, it still strikes me as complex, overly aggressive and fraught with seemingly arbitrary, totally un-American rules like sidewalk parking and la priorité à droite. Perhaps worst of all (for me), automatic shift is as rare in France as it is ubiquitous in the US. But what do you do, go buy a fake permit online? Hey wait—

In France, as in the US, one can obtain a driver’s license (legally) only after passing a written test, followed by a practical test. But here, the written test is electronic. It’s based on a series of screen shots intended to simulate various situations one might encounter while driving, each accompanied by a multiple choice question. Preparation for the written test consists in taking practice test after practice test after practice test until one has pretty much memorized every possible question that could ever come up on the real test. For example:

How many points is this guy worth?

I can hardly wait for the practical part.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Comfort me with apples

Teething sucks. I can’t remember my own, but so far as I can tell from my 15-month-old son, it ranks right up there with stomach flu in the “fun” department. Poor baby; he first began sleeping soundly through the night at 6 weeks, and I distinctly recall our naive hope that we could all just take up residence in the Land of Uninterrupted Dreams. Little did we suspect that the teething demons would swoop down and steal our collective slumber away for weeks—nay, months!—on end. In fact, I would venture to say that it has been one year since our teething troubles began. A full year! And do you know how many teeth Babykins has to show for it? Four and two halves, minus a chip. Sigh.

Gnarly teeth run in my family. After five years of braces, a pretty unpleasant headgear episode, and numerous visits to the oral surgeon, I have exactly 24 of them left in my mouth, as opposed to the standard 32. My husband, on the other hand, has these tiny little naturally straight teeth, so I was kinda hoping our son would inherit his chompers from THAT end of the gene pool. Alas, reality seems to have chosen otherwise.

Yours truly at age 13.* Note large teeth and nascent patriotism.

I had no idea that teething would take so damn long. If it were up to me, they’d all just come in at once and we could move on to losing sleep over something else. But it’s one of the universal “joys” of babyhood, so we may as well accept it. Yet judging from certain third party reactions, one might think that teething is some rare disease. We’ve been told on multiple occasions by well-meaning folks with the utmost gravity in their voices, “Votre fils a très mal aux dents” (your son’s teeth really hurt). To which I always reply with an “indeed” and one of those nervous half-laughs I do when I’m totally uncomfortable. What am I supposed to say? “REALLY? Is that what those white things in his mouth are?” “Should we have him hospitalized?” “Do they make children’s morphine in France?”

But tonight, while we were celebrating Monday with our traditional apéritif du lundi, I stumbled haphazardly upon a surprising source of comfort. Baby was in his high chair, an array of strategically-chosen toys at his disposal, yet still doing that glass-shattering wail he does when we aren’t personally entertaining him—adult conversations at our home these days are a creative mix of shouting and lip-reading—when I had a revelation: give him an apple. And you know what? It worked like a mute button! He didn’t utter a peep for the next hour. Perfectly content, he gnawed that thing into oblivion, barely allowing me a chance to remove the stem and seeds before it all went down the hatch. And then he went and fell fast asleep without a fuss, and is still dozing peacefully—truly a rare, write-this-down phenomenon!

Perhaps as a nod to his mother’s country roots, that apple may have been just what his poor, sore little gums needed. And here I was loading him up on teething rings, tamarind gum paste, homeopathic moon drops and the like. How’s that parental learning curve going...?

*Photo by Bill Benson

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yes we can

For those of you who don’t believe in miracles, check this out: my son is now 14 months old, meaning that despite my incapacity to sustain most forms of plant and animal life, child rearing is surprisingly doable.

I can’t say it’s been easy learning to parent while working from home, keeping said home passably tidy and maintaining at least a solid B in personal hygiene, but I’ve never been one to shrink from a challenge, especially in the face of naysayers. Our pediatrician comes to mind: “You’ll never get anything done” was her retort when I informed her of my intention to forgo childcare until our son had turned one. Well, she was wrong; I get stuff done. It just takes me 10 times longer than it used to.

Something I discovered in my first year as a mother is that no-you-can’t-ers abound; our pediatrician is but one example. And it’s not just that. Too many sources of parenting information, be they first or second-hand, are either needlessly negative or straight up alarmist—the apparent goal being to keep parents in a perpetual state of borderline panic. From SIDS risk to vaccination hype to choking hazards, the underlying message is that at any given moment, we are but one accident away from infanticide. Why, it seems every baby product out there bears a warning label tantamount to If you don’t use this product exactly as intended, your child may very well die (and it will be all your fault, you poor incapable fool). And here I thought pregnancy was stressful.

OK, some specifications are warranted.

That may be why I’m so delighted to have passed the 1-year mark unscathed. I’m also delighted to have discovered just how wrong so many people are about raising babies. Even before ours was born, we began receiving all manner of seriously jaded, totally unsolicited advice, often from perfect strangers. For example, “Enjoy your pregnancy; it’s the last time you’ll be able to do what you want for a long time.” (How is one to respond? Thank you?) Since our son’s birth, we’ve been advised to avoid restaurants, museums, and weddings; to protect him from honey, public changing tables, and the sun; to have him fed, bathed, and lying in an empty crib—on his back only—by 8:00 pm; and for heaven’s sake, to never leave those little feet bare. But my favorite piece of advice, and one that apparently has no expiration date, is to “cherish this age while it lasts” (insinuation: because man, are you gonna hate the next one).

Coming soon.

Incidentally, this is all garbage. We may be the only ones around doing it, but we take our son absolutely everywhere. He’s traveled with us by plane, train and automobile. He’s visited five countries, including both coasts of the United States, and dipped his adorable baby toes into the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea. We’ve taken him to museums, cathedrals, art gallery openings and classy restaurants (and a wedding). He doesn’t have a fixed bedtime and no, he doesn’t like socks—so just STOP already with the tisk-tisking! Yes, there have been some extreme situations (a diaper change at 1,500 meters atop Puy de Dôme, for example), but so far, so good. Babies need stimulation, which we’re happy to provide. And you know what? He’s doing beautifully.

Maybe that’s why I’m such a die-hard Obama fan. However history ultimately remembers him, he had me at Yes We Can. As a new mom, I cannot fathom why, amid the cascades of parenting advice out there, none is anywhere as encouraging as that simple notion: yes you can. Of course it’s hard; everything worthwhile is. But a whole lot of people, many far less apt than we, have managed it. So as we ease into our second year as parents, we do so with renewed confidence in our own instincts—which have turned out to be of far greater worth than all that other advice combined.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Champignons de Paris

Those of you who have been following me have probably figured out by now that I most emphatically do not have a green thumb (but even if I did, it would still have no prints). That used to be a source of deep personal anxiety, as I had once heard somewhere that if you can keep from killing your houseplants, then you can move on to domestic animals; if you can keep from killing them, then you can go ahead and procreate. Well, in the big Pass/Fail that is gardening, I have so far scored a big fat F. I’ve owned all manner of plants, and have managed to over or under water/heat/love virtually all of them into oblivion, but that certainly did not stop me from having a baby and HE is perfect, thank you very much (crazy parents notwithstanding).

So about those plants. After the death of our cactus, we decided to replace it with a Pachira Aquatica, which Wikipedia says is a “tropical wetland tree native to Central and South America, where it grows in swamps.” What it was doing at our local Ikea is beyond me, but we bought it—primarily because it’s fun-looking, which is as good a reason as any.

See? Fun.

I somehow managed to knock a good third of its foliage off between the store and the car, but we got it home in one piece (sort of) and it seemed to be happy enough in our living room for a few weeks. But then it started to look a bit sad, so I gave it extra water and put it out on the balcony to get some sunlight (just like a South American swamp! Right? Right?). However, that turned out to be too much for it, so I took it back inside and figured to hell with the sunlight—I’d just stick to watering. Then, the other day, I was bending over to pick something off the floor next to the tree, when I noticed that an entire colony of mushrooms had spontaneously sprouted out of its pot. Beyond what that says about my ability to care for plant life, it begs the question: why do mushrooms seem to follow me from one apartment to the next?

Like this, only way less cute.

Because they do follow me, you know. My first Paris apartment, which was a 1-bedroom dive (albeit a “big” 1-bedroom dive) in the northern 18ème arrondissement, had this funky bathroom that I painted yellow. And repainted yellow. And repainted yellow again—all in a vain attempt to cover up the scary black mold spots that kept materializing on the walls every few months. One day I went into the yellow bathroom to take a shower and found a full-sized mushroom growing straight out of the caulking around the shower door. I took a photo and sent it to my parents—you know, to reassure them about my life abroad. Then there were our infamous ceiling fungus issues in the 15ème arrondissement, which I shant get into here, namely because I’ve moved on with my life, but in case you’re interested, I wrote all about it here and here.

And now this family of ‘shrooms in an otherwise hot, dry environment. Maybe they’re a desert subspecies. Interestingly, they are different from my old shower mushrooms, which indicates that interior fungi are surprisingly diverse here! But in all seriousness, what’s the deal with the mushrooms in Paris, or rather, in my Paris? Is this a karmic thing? Is it metaphorical? And if so, what does it mean that I have champignons growing in what is otherwise known as a “Money Tree”? Maybe it’s the universe telling me to leave gardening to the bees and embrace the wide world of fake plants (thereby saving mucho Euro-dollars by not having to replace them all every six months).

Come to think of it, why stop at fake plants?

The timing is actually pretty good, as this weekend I was intending to go buy a bunch of spring flowers for the balcony. Do you suppose fake geraniums exist? Actually, about the only plant of ours that seems to be thriving IS a geranium—a real one—that was lobbed at our balcony in the middle of the night about a month after we moved in (no doubt a token of friendship from our new neighbors). In an illustration of the well-known adage, “When life chucks a geranium at you, plant it,” we did, and now it’s blooming away. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Almond joy

I’ve never been a huge fan of lunch. Breakfast, yes; dinner, definitely; but lunch ... meh. Uninspiring. I’d even dare say depressing. Just something we do in the middle of the day because our bodies demand nourishment. I realize this anti-lunch attitude is very un-French of me, but considering that I will never actually be French, I’m OK with that. So is my distaste for the midday meal an American thing? The running perception on this side of the world is, after all, that we Americans don’t eat lunch, or at least don’t eat anything worthy of being called “lunch.” We’re supposedly more of a sandwich-at-the-keyboard kind of culture. I’d try to argue otherwise, but since I obviously cannot cite myself as a counterexample, what’s the point?

Actually, that looks pretty good!

My parents aren’t big lunch people, either, which is probably where my lack of enthusiasm began. Lunch at their house is, for want of a better word, “nonexistent.” If one happens to be hungry in the middle of the day, one opens the refrigerator and forages. Possible finds include salad greens in various stages of decay, giant Costco cheese blocks, ancient tortillas that no one will ever eat, and an astounding—no, a stupefying—array of condiments. In the freezer are raw cranberries and a year’s supply of nuts. But again, since no one in my family eats lunch, the lack of actual food in the kitchen is worrisome only to my husband, who, being French and all, has no desire to subsist entirely on inferior cheese and frozen almonds until dinnertime (which is also pretty sparse). I say, where’s his sense of intercultural appreciation? At least there’s no need to worry about any holiday weight gain!

We are what we eat.

I will acknowledge that living in France has helped me to take lunch more seriously, even if I still don’t necessarily enjoy it. When I was a regular employee, I appreciated the midday breather that la pause déjeuner represented, as well as the proximity and variety of solutions to those pesky hunger pangs. But now that I’m my own boss, I’ve kind of returned to my ambivalent roots. Lunchtime rolls around, I’m hungry, and I have neither inspiration nor patience. Happily, there is an obvious choice: I really like cheese, which, France being the alpha and the omega of dairy products, we have aplenty. I also really like this pre-sliced packaged bread called Harry’s “American Sandwich” (which is actually quite popular among the French, who are more open-minded about bread than one might imagine).

Maybe it’s the American spin that my subconscious finds comforting, or maybe I’m just lazy, but I can’t get enough of the stuff! It probably accounts for about a third of my daily caloric intake. I do opt for the “whole wheat” variety, so I figure it’s not so bad. I mean, yeah, I’m eating straight up industrial bread in France, but hey—it’s from a French supermarket.

Plus you can’t do that with a baguette.

To make a long story short, I eat a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches: way more than I ever ate while living in the US, actually. I use coconut oil instead of butter (virtuous), real cheddar cheese (semi-virtuous), and Harry’s bread (it’s whole wheat!). I know I should eat some veggies with that, but when it’s already 3:00 pm and Babykins could go into meltdown mode at any minute, I don’t have the presence of mind to go concocting some amazing salad of organic produce, which I would have carefully selected that morning from a quaint farmers’ market while humming “Little Town” from Beauty and the Beast. So instead I eat a tomato. Whole. Like an apple (less cutlery to wash). Ironically, I often do this while watching reruns of Masterchef or Top Chef or some other cooking-related show, whose participants would probably be horrified by my dietary deconstructionism. But I figure watching real food being prepared counterbalances what’s actually on my plate and besides, it beats frozen almonds.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Climate change

I spent the better part of my young adult years living in drafty apartments. The drafts didn’t matter much when I was in college, mainly because my college was in Texas and the winters didn’t last that long to begin with. Then I moved to Paris, where draftiness is a way of life, so I sucked it up and shivered along with everybody else. Winter after winter I would turn on my crappy electric wall heaters, complain about their inefficiency, then get that first electric bill of the season and decide that I’d rather just freeze. At some point I went and bought a portable space heater, which I would aim at my feet while hunkering over a bowl of coffee in the morning and then cuddle up with on the couch in the evening. Then I met G., who is a sort of human radiator, which helped (somewhat). But hey, winter in Paris only lasts what, six months? Eight at the most?

But who’s counting?

Then we moved to the suburbs and discovered collective heating. Gone are the hefty electric bills, as it’s simply factored into our rent, and the day it was turned on my memories of being even remotely cold indoors instantly vanished. Why? Because our floorboards kick out so much heat that we could pretty much dress in swimwear all winter long and be just fine. Our jar of Nutella has melted for Pete’s sake. I don’t know who exactly decides what temperature our apartment is heated to, but I suspect our neighbors across the landing. They’ve had it in for us ever since that first week when my husband pounded one little nail into a piece of Ikea furniture at midnight. Look, we’re sorry we woke up your daughter, OK? No need to try to slowly roast us into moving. Besides, it won’t work; I LIKE the heat. I think it’s exotic living in a subtropical microclimate while freezing rain pelts the windows. Seriously, we could grow palm trees in here.

Heatwave! This is our island in the sun...

Which is why I was surprised when our pet cactus up and died on us. One would think the constant dry heat would be ideal for desert plants. Alas, no. We felt bad disposing of it, as it was our first living purchase since moving into our new home and all. But much like a Christmas tree in February, its time had come. And much like a Christmas tree in February, getting rid of it was no easy task. You can’t just throw out a giant cactus, at least not around this town. We have a neighbor who actually refers to herself, with pride, as La Responsable Poubelles (“Trashcan Manager”). She rang our doorbell at 9:00 am two days after our arrival, just to point out that we newcomers obviously didn’t know how to handle our trash properly (our empty cardboard boxes were soi-disant taking up too much room in the recycling bin). Our own real-life Oscar the Grouch. Neat.

What did you expect, a fruit basket?

Anyway, so not wanting to elicit the wrath of Madame Trashcan, we didn’t dare just chuck the cactus into the communal bin. Luckily, we didn’t have to: in a flash of insight, I recalled an incident from days long ago, when I had had to resort to hacking the limbs off a long-dead Christmas tree using a pair of desk scissors in order to fit it down the trash chute. I thus decided that pocket-sawing the cactus into smaller pieces and then bagging them Dexter-style could be a possibility. It was a gruesome task, what with the dull saw, frothy cactus juice spatters and my conscience, but it’s been a week and no knock on the door, so I dare say we got away with it. Besides, does she really want to go head to head with a scantily-clad American chick who has no fingerprints (read: who could be a professional assassin if she were more discreet)? I didn’t think so.