Friday, November 27, 2015

Enfants de la patrie

I moved to France four days before 9/11. I remember watching the same footage of the Twin Towers over and over again from my Paris apartment, unable to believe it was real. The overwhelming horror of it only truly manifested in my mind years later, when I finally gazed down into the gaping holes of Ground Zero; only then did the tears fall.

Two weeks ago, horror came to my adopted home. Once again I was absent, having gone to Barcelona with my husband and son to celebrate the eighth anniversary of our first date. We had just finished dining on a restaurant terrace and strolling hand-in-hand through the Barri Gòtic, enjoying the unseasonably clement evening air, when the first hideous news caught up with us. Worried text messages began pouring in; friends I hadn’t heard from in ages were suddenly inquiring whether we were safe. We hunched over our tiny screens, looking to the Internet for answers. And as the minutes ticked by, the ugliness grew exponentially.

Having made sure that our family members, friends and colleagues in Paris were all out of harm’s way, we fell into an uneasy sleep and left for the airport the following morning. A chill wind and spitting rain greeted our arrival at Charles de Gaulle, where we boarded a bus into the city. We saw no armored tanks, no machine gun-wielding soldiers; only shuttered storefronts under gray skies and a handful of tourists milling about, somehow blithely unaware of the monstrosity that had taken place mere hours before. They continued to pose, grinning, before their selfie sticks—but stepping down from the bus, to me the very air had changed.

I didn’t know any of the victims of the attacks, but after nearly 15 years living in and around Paris, I sure do know the neighborhoods that were targeted. Dear friends of mine long resided in apartments located mere blocks from the shootings; I earned my graduate degree from a Grande Ecole in the very same area; and what self-respecting resident of Paris hasn’t picnicked along the nearby Canal Saint Martin on a warm summer’s eve? Day by day, the excruciating stories of the lives lost were disclosed by the media, and as they were, thoughts of that could have been me or those could have been my friends were replaced by those somehow were my friends.

Being an expatriate in France is 90% fantastic, and 10% incredibly difficult (all right, maybe 85/15). For me, much of the more difficult bit has revolved around building a sense of community, making a place for myself in a foreign land, and, more fundamentally, simply being accepted. Most if not all of us immigrants agree: feeling accepted by the French is notoriously compliqué. Yet in the wake of these barbarous murders, which have shaken Paris to its core and me along with it, I have come to the unexpected realization that amid all the delirious highs and crushing lows that have marked my love affair with this country, somewhere along the way this people became my own.

Today, as the nation bows her head in homage to those who fell on Friday the 13th, I mourn with her and for her. I mourn the loss of precious life; I mourn the appalling attack on an art de vivre as inseparable from France as Paris itself; and I join the French in giving an emphatic bras d’honneur to all those who would dare place in their evil cross hairs the simple joys of living in this vibrant, timeless city. But, as a beloved friend reminded me in recent days, devastated though we may be, wounded though we may be, this shall not end in death. This city, this country—and all of us who call it home—will come through these tragic events stronger, prouder, more unified and more in love with life than ever.

Lest the forces of darkness forget, Paris will forever be the City of Light.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The scarlet letter

For those of you who are wondering (all five of you), YES, over the summer I did indeed pass the super scary, totally intimidating, much-loathed practical portion of the French driving exam. In fact, I more than passed it: I got 31 points, which is like 107%. To be honest, I feel kind of silly now for making such a big deal out of it. I mean, I’ve been whining, complaining and generally freaking out over this thing for years now. YEARS! I’ve already written about it here, here and here, and I could easily write more. Way more.

Semi-obsessive tendencies? Absolutely. But that’s how I made it to France to begin with, so let’s keep things in perspective. In any case, according to Google Analytics, most of you reading this are not actually human, but are instead robots. Ukrainian ones especially. Therefore, if I go off on yet another driving-in-France tangent, will you care? Probably not. You’ll keep circling back and screwing with my stats regardless, so I may as well tangent away!

All right, so I have my permit. Actually, I have a piece of paper that is standing in for my permit until the real thing comes in the mail—in something like four months. The Man had better be hand-crafting that thing using some secret ancestral technique, because damn. And, réglementation oblige, I now have my very own, extremely visible “A” sticker (signifying apprenti) emblazoned on the back of our car. Now why go and stigmatize new drivers à la Hester Prynne? Because adultery in France may be no biggie, but learning to drive is serious business. Newbies have to sport the scarlet A for three years. Awesome.

At least it’s discreet.

So, equipped with the requisite paraphernalia, I am totally legit to take to the open road without anyone telling me to slow down/speed up/check my mirrors more often/sit farther back in my seat/quit driving like a Corsican granny. Only here’s the thing: my zany-but-loveable instructor may be gone, but the act of driving hasn’t become any less stressful. I thought it would instantly morph into a source of pleasure once I no longer had a sidekick commenting on my every move, but in reality solo driving is actually kind of a pain in the ass! No matter—I have been forcing myself to get out there and face the ugly traffic, negotiate the sickeningly narrow “2-way” roads, avoid the randomly parked cars, make sense of the surreal pavement markings and deal with the chronic tailgating (I have a big “A,” people! So would you please get off it?).

Here’s an amusing bit of French driving trivia: as opposed to the US, where license plates can be customized to form compelling personal statements such as TOPDAWG or LUV2SK8, France doesn’t allow any (intentional) funny business to creep into its vehicle registration. Cars are issued plates marked with a two letter-three number-two letter combination like this:

The attribution is automatic, so you have close to no say in what combination your car receives. You could end up with your own initials, or something cute like BB, or even a fun smiley like XD. But you could just as easily get stuck with something totally atrocious and thus become an object of highway ridicule. You see, as is the case with English, certain letters when pronounced in French sound a lot like whole words. Q is a perennial favorite, because it sounds just like cul, which is French for ass. See where I’m going with this?

Here are some classics, all of which I have seen while living here, alongside their US would-be equivalent (which may actually exist as well, but the DMV would have to be asleep at the wheel. Har har). Being awarded any of the following on one’s plates demands a seriously self-deprecating sense of humor or else it’s going to be a long ride, especially for the poor schmucks who find themselves stuck with two of them. Since most of this is bathroom humor, let’s begin with:

Letter combo French signification US equivalent
WC toilettes
DQ des culs
PQ papier cul
KK caca
QQ cul cul
PT péter

Yes it’s all completely sophomoric, but as car games go, one could do worse. Interestingly, France draws the line at certain potentially offensive combinations, such as SS (better late than never), meaning they cannot be issued. PD, on the other hand, which is a well-known derogatory term for homosexual, is definitely a possibility.

Here’s another tidbit: prior to 2009, the last two figures on French plates indicated the vehicle’s département. Paris is 75, for example, so cars registered in Paris had license plate numbers ending in 75. But this led to road rage being directed at specific départements: “Did you see that 62 cut me off? Typical...” Things tended to get particularly nasty between 75ers and 13ers, 13 being Marseille. Car vandalism, theft, even assault. When we bought our first car we actually had it labeled 92 instead of 75, just to be prudent (you can do that—69 is an especially popular choice).

Admit it: driving in France is a good topic.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hot town

I know I shouldn’t start off by complaining, but I just have to. Why is it so friggin’ hot around here? Because it’s July? No. July can be perfectly pleasant. I’ll tell you why: because France, despite its many charms and areas of strength and superiority, does not GET climate control. Look, I spent the better part of my youth in seriously hot places: Ramona, California, for example (go Dawgs!), followed by Dallas, Texas (go Mustangs!). And I can barely even remember sweating for any serious amount of time. Why? Because AIR. Because CONDITIONING. What is so complicated? You buy a unit, install it, and then, you don’t spend the whole summer fantasizing about running naked through a snow storm. But no, nothe French seem to totally distrust air conditioning; even those who have it are reticent to turn it on too high because they don’t want to catch a chill. Every summer I hear the same lament: “I caught a cold from the air conditioning.” We Americans don’t know what this is; the right to crank the A/C up to “subarctic” is clearly written somewhere in the Constitution. I would never call the French wusses. Except when it comes to this. I mean come on. A cold? Really?

“I told you to set it on low!”

I had to take a suburban train the other day, along with little g. (notice his promotion from baby g.), a stroller and a bunch of luggage, in 107°F heat. Do you suppose there was any climatisation installed on this PUBLIC SERVICE transportation? Hell no. Within 15 minutes I was so sopping wet radiant that a fellow passenger reached out in a touching display of empathy (or perhaps just plain pity) and handed me a kleenex. It was sort of like trying to absorb a swimming pool using one paper towel, but I appreciated the gesture. What is France WAITING FOR to jump on the air conditioning bandwagon? Were 15,000 heat-related deaths in 2003 not enough? Are they trying to add mine to the list? Here we are in 2015, with the technology to avoid such catastrophes, and yet, do you know what “action” the French government is taking this year to protect its citizens from the patently lethal heat? Encouraging them to buy fans and drink water. That’s it. They’ve even come out with an official poster. I’ve lived here for a lot of summers, and not once has drinking water or sticking my face in front of a fan done anything to render the heat any less insupportable. One might posit environmental or budgetary concerns behind it all, but I would counter with “laziness” and “apathy.


No, the only way to escape the heat without heading to Brittany is to head to the bathtub. I stuck little g. in there the other day because his sweet baby cheeks were getting all flushed, and one can only empty so many cans of pricey thermal spring water mist on one’s inappreciative toddler, right? So I gave him a good old-fashioned spray bottle and left him to go at it while I attempted to get some work done. At one point, the giggling gave way to a full minute of silence, which as any parent of a two-year-old knows, is a surefire sign of high mischief and/or imminent death. So I popped my head into the bathroom to check on him, only to find that he had gotten into my (expensive) “feminine wash,” and was happily shampooing his hair with it. I should have been angry, but I was actually kind of proud. Only two years of experience with the world and he already knows how to shampoo his own hair! How adorable is that? I think the heat is getting to me.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Road rage III

Big news: I passed the written portion of the French driving exam! Champagne!!! I’m so relieved to be done; it was very anxiety-inducing, and who needs that? Not me; I have a toddler and a business and that’s all the anxiety I need, thank you very much.

Oh, but wait—the written exam is not an end in itself, but rather, a means to an end (quite possibly my own). Thus, for the past month, I have been putting my officially solid grasp of driving theory into practice behind the wheel of my very own test car, a Citroën C3, which I have so far not crashed and have only stalled 50 times or so.

Now, as I have mentioned before, despite my owning a California driver’s license, there are basically two factors that have deterred my ever bothering to attain a French one: 1.) the stick shift 2.) la priorité à droite (priority to the right). Why? Read on.

The stick shift

Remember that scene from Big, where Tom Hanks keeps putting his hand in the air during a board meeting and saying, “I don’t get it”? That’s like me with the whole clutch thing. Try as they might, no one has ever managed to get that particular notion through my otherwise fairly well-screwed-on head. The bicycle gear metaphor is no use. YouTube videos of mechanics presenting a real clutch are no use, either (they actually make things worse by adding all kinds of insane vocabulary—flywheel? Pressure plate? Whaaa?). I don’t get it. I also don’t get why everyone keeps going on about how automatic is so boooring, while manual is so exciting! Personally, I think the “excitement” factor is simply adrenaline rushing into the bloodstream at the possibility of imminent death.

La priorité à droite

I’ve been bitching and moaning for eons about France’s priorité à droite. But now, having finally experienced its heinousness from the driver’s seat, I realize I haven’t been bitching or moaning nearly loudly enough. Just look:

I actually made this. It’s a slow day, OK?

See the orange car arriving from the right? Logic would say that he should stop instead of just careening onto the main road. That may be, but this is driving in Europe, land of roundabouts and sidewalk parking; logic has no place here. Because he is arriving from the right, the orange guy can just GO. No pause, no yield, no stop; nothing. Just go. The blue guy, on the other hand, who was driving along on the main road minding his own business, has to slam on the brakes and let that jerk gentleman on the right get through. Imagine the consequences if the blue guy’s view of the intersection were to be obstructed by foliage or who knows what. Just put up a damn stop sign, people! Stupefying.

Do you know what la priorité a droite really is? Think about it. The cars driving on the bigger, wider, faster, obviously superior road have to yield to the cars arriving from the smaller, narrower, slower, obviously crappier road ... why, it’s a microcosm of Socialism! Making life difficult for the big guys so that the little guys, however undeserving, can get ahead. It’s like formalized cutting in line. No wonder it doesn’t exist in the US.

Other than that, my lessons are going fairly well. So far, I’ve driven with two instructors: the first one is an economics fan who talks a kilometer a minute (does that expression even exist?) and is convinced that France’s economy is going to implode at any moment, that Russia, China and the US are headed for war with one another, and that those paranoid survivalists whom everyone takes for crazy are actually the only ones with any sense; the second one is a laid-back musician-looking type with a diamond-studded double piercing who keeps telling me that I seem tense.

I am supposed to take the practical portion of the driving exam after 20 hours of lessons, which seems pretty optimistic considering I still don’t actually understand what I’m doing. But no matter! I don’t have to understand something to do it right. Take parallel parking. I went to “the Google,” typed in “parallel parking,” and came across a perfectly wonderful explanation of how to do it. No theory, no opinions, just clear, concise steps to follow. As the author says, “You do not need to practice, you just need to fucking follow the directions.” Very refreshing. Now if only that kind of pragmatism could get me through the exam!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The good fight

Not to knock parenting, because it is 95% awesome, but that crappier 5% seems to be getting the better of me these days. I looked in the mirror a minute ago and realized I’m starting to resemble a White Walker: pale, gaunt, unblinking.... Now why would that be? Oh yeah—“we” are in the throes of toddlerhood and frankly, it is, as the French would say, compliqué (which is just a euphemism for “horrendous”). At 18 months, we are discovering what the “first adolescence” is all about. Basically, it involves one’s toddler responding in the negative to all questions asked, refusing to eat, refusing to sleep, and generally asserting his little self through opposition. 

Go on—ask me anything.

Here’s what meal time looks like these days:

I try to put little g. into his high chair.
Little g. says, “Non!” (He is half French after all—I obviously blame that half for all of this.)
I manage to finagle him into his seat and place food in front of him.
Little g. says, “Non!”
I try various tactics: explaining, demonstrating, bargaining, pleading, threatening, shouting, etc.
Little g. says, “Non!”

Here’s what bath time looks like:

I announce that it is bath time.
Little g. says, “Non!”
I put him into the bath and ask him to please sit down.
Little g. says, “Non!”
I finish bathing him and hold out a towel.
Little g. says, “Non!”

Diaper changes are similar, with the addition of flailing arms and legs, sometimes accompanied by bellowing—just to really drive home his message.

In addition to this first adolescence thing, we are also dealing with the dreaded “18-month sleep regression.” No one forewarned us of this of course, but it turns out that there all kinds of sleep regressions. There’s the 4-month one, the 9-month one, the 12-month one, the 15-month one, and now, the 18-month one. In between, there’s teething, sickness, separation anxiety, nightmares, and a host of other reasons why “sleeping through the night” has become a distant memory—if it ever even existed at all (it may just have been another hallucination, like pleasant meals). The irony of course is that real adolescents love to sleep, yet whoever came up with this miniature version (I think it was Satan) conveniently left that part out. Eating disorders and general defiance, yes; appreciation for sleep, dream on.

Anyone else miss high school?

I love our pediatrician’s responses to all of these issues—everything is always so obvious to her:

Me: “My son keeps waking up screaming at 2:00 am and 4:00 am.” 
Doc: “Close the door.” 

Me: “My son has discovered how to make himself gag for fun.” 
Doc: “Don’t react.” 

Me: “Should that vaccination mark still be on his arm?” 
Doc: “It will fade.” 

Well OK then. But €50 later, I get home and realize she’s either childless, or the mother of robots, because if things were that clear-cut then typing “child sleep problems” into Google would not yield 27 million results, closely followed by “child eating problems” at 26 million. Plus, close the door? I’ll let her explain that to our neighbors, who all seem to be suffering from acute noise intolerance (in addition to general intolerance).

The more compassionate say to hang in there, that this will not last forever. I don’t know why, but whenever anyone pronounces that phrase—this won’t last forever—I just want to cry. Maybe part of me doesn’t believe them: yes it will last forever! Waaaaaaah! But of course I know they’re right. So what do we do in the meantime? Enjoy it, I suppose (that’s the other thing they say). What’s truly insane is that in the midst of wondering whether I’m winning any battles, let alone the war, I’d kinda like to add another little soldier to the opposition army. Damn you, maternal instinct! I used to think you didn’t exist, and now I can’t shut you up!

Maybe I should just embrace my new look.

Leave sleep to the mortals! *Sob*