Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I'm nearing the age of reason

The other day, Max decided that he was going to spend the twenty euros that he had saved for several months on a remote control Fiat car that he'd seen for sale at Monoprix, which is basically a mini-Target. He'd wanted to buy this car a week before, but we were about to leave for a trip to Nice and I told him to save his money in case he saw something there that he wanted more. This led to an argument, with him insisting that nothing could be as wonderful as this junky, overpriced remote control car, and me maintaining that he shouldn't let his money "burn a hole in his pocket," a new expression for him, which he didn't appreciate much. We were also about to go to a swimming pool, and I wasn't in love with the idea of carting this car in its considerable packaging on the metro to the pool and back. I thought he would forget about it. But no. His memory is frighteningly good. The moment we returned from our trip, where did he want to go? Monoprix. For that car.

There was another reason why I wasn't dying to help make this little dream come true. The clerks at the Monoprix in our neighborhood are super surly. They all seem to hail from lands that are not France, but the fact that neither they nor I speak French as our native tongue does not endear me to them. I get no A for effort. Perhaps because they are always also making an effort, so big deal: who cares. We're foreign, but that's where our commonality ends, and we must all follow the rules of shopping in France. The rules at French stores are different. You must say hello (or good evening) when you enter. But you don't ask someone how they are or (god forbid) volunteer how you are. There's no banter exchanged, no chitchat about the weather, the crowds, the sales, etc... When we went to London recently, I was shocked by clerks calling us "Love," and wanting to talk like old friends as they rang up our purchases. There is also no attempt to speed things along at French stores. When clerks are dealing with the customer at the front of the line, they are oblivious to the crowd behind them. If you are in a hurry, maybe you shouldn't have gone shopping. 

All of this was on my mind as I brought Max to buy his car, because his savings--30 euros--was entirely in change, in an enormous and grungy ziplock bag. Much of it was his saved allowance of 6 euros per month (his age) but some he'd earned by helping carry the groceries home and up five flights. The guys at Monoprix who deliver groceries get a tip of 1 euro per bag, and I'd offered him the same rate, although I must say he complains a lot more and carries much lighter bags, and often gives up halfway home, and yet I still almost always give in and pay him, because I'm a sucker and I use him to get rid of change and lighten my wallet. As a result, much of his life savings was in the form of 10 and 20 centime coins. I considered exchanging the change for bills before we went to buy his car, but then I realized that I would be stuck with the bag of 30 euros in change, and that's about $45. You can't exchange change at the airport, nor would I want to. I needed to get rid of this money, which meant letting Max spend it.

I felt trepidation as we neared the Monoprix cash register, but I also felt ready for the challenge. I am by nature a conflict adverse wasp. I was bred to play nice. But since living here, I've gotten more and more used to the culture of debate and argument that flares up around me on a daily basis. I've come to appreciate it, and even to participate in it. At a pool recently, a cashier chided me for not bringing my identity papers to prove that I should get the residents' discount of one euro off. Rather than apologize, I informed her that as my identity paper was a passport, I was sure she could understand why I wouldn't want to risk losing it or having it stolen in a public locker. She gruffly conceded that I had a point, and I felt victorious. Arguing in French makes this bracing and fun. When Max was having issues at his school recently, not wanting to eat veal and pork in creamy sauces for lunch, the teachers telling him regularly that he couldn't eat a healthy vegetarian diet, some friends advised him to reply, "I am nearing the age of reason," before giving any argument on behalf of his budding vegetarianism. Apparently, age 7 is considered "the age of reason" here in France. It's a Catholic thing--the age when children are allowed to participate in the sacrements. I feel that I too am nearing the age of reason--a kind of finishing line that moves along with me, so that I'll never quite get there. "J'approche l'age du raison..." This runs through my head a lot, before I make any kind of argument.

In any case, knowing how long it was going to take the clerk to count our coins, I hovered near the back of Monoprix until it seemed like no one was going to come after us in line. Then I began by having the clerk ring up my groceries, for which I was paying like a normal person with a credit card. She did so in a typically surly fashion. I happened to be buying 3 packages of socks for Matt. After she rang them up, when I asked for a bag, she told me, "The bags are for clothes, not socks." The socks cost about $25 total, so it didn't seem wholly unreasonable to me that I'd want a bag for them, but I didn't fight this battle, as I was preparing myself for war. 

After I finished bagging my groceries, I put Max's car on the register. Just as she rang it in, I noticed a woman with one vial of nail polish in line behind me. Not wanting her to have to wait 10 minutes, I asked the clerk if she could go first.

"I already rang you up," she announced gruffly. "I can't cancel the transaction. You will have to pay."

"Okay," I said. "But I'm afraid this is going to take a while..." And with that, I placed Max's ziplock bag of change on the counter. My heart was hammering, my mouth dry. (Yes, these are genre novel tropes, and yet they were truly happening). 

"What is this?" she asked, with no trace of humor.

"It's his money," I said, gesturing to Max, whom she seemed to take in for the first time, looking down at him over the edge of her register.

"How did he get it?" she demanded.

"He earned it," I said. "Little by little, which is why it's in change."

"Doing what?" she asked.

"Chores," I said. "Like carrying bags of groceries..."

And suddenly, to my utter shock, her entire demeanor transformed. Usually being a kid here doesn't seem to earn you any extra points. But maybe things are different in whatever African country this woman originally came from. She was definitely moved by the fact that he was buying this thing for himself, with his own money, and more than happy to be part of the experience. 

"You earned this?" she asked him. I translated. He nodded. "Good for you," she said. "Let's count it together."

And as she spent more than 10 minutes helping him to count his change into tiny little stacks and then double-checking her math--totally oblivious to the pouting irritation of the nail polish woman behind me--I realized that sometimes the Alice in Wonderland nature of customer service here is a good thing. Cash isn't king. She could not have cared less if the next client was inconvenienced or took her business elsewhere. It's not as if she was on commission. We had her undivided attention for as long as we needed it, and I didn't even have to fight. 

And she even gave Max a bag to hold his car.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Paris Top Ten Countdown

#10: The Windows Of Our Apartment

It is a lazy Sunday in Paris. It's been rainy all weekend, chilly and muggy at the same time. The air feels heavy, almost tropical in spite of the fact that it's not remotely warm out, especially not for late June. Normally I hate the rain, but for some reason I'm not minding this rain. This morning, I braved a break in the storm and took the landlord's wheeling shopping cart out to the corner markets, where I ran into the upstairs neighbors, also wielding their wheeling shopping cart, who invited Max over to play this afternoon. That is where he is now, having "le play date" with two French children named Iris and Merlin, which is why I find myself with the time for a quick entry here, after having been too busy for a while.

It's hard to believe that we have only 2 weeks left in France. Matt and I are playing a sad little game to try and make ourselves feel better about the dwindling supply of days. Starting at about 2 months, we'd tell each other (rightfully) that for most people, 2 months in Paris would be an incredible amount of time, and that we should try to keep this in mind rather than feeling sorry that our stay was already coming to an end. The same was true at 1 month. Even 2 weeks is a good sized vacation--by workaholic American standards, in any case. But very soon we're going to have to stop deceiving ourselves, and then we're going to have to get on a plane--and lord help us, that plane will be in the American Airlines fleet, so it'll probably be another 2 weeks between when we board at Charles deGaulle and actually land. Maybe we'll land in Mexico and then come up by bus.

In the meanwhile, Matt and I keep making lists of our favorite things here: things we want to make sure to do one more time before we leave; things we don't want to forget. Since writing helps me to remember, I thought I'd use this space for 10 of my Paris favorites, and today's entry is dedicated to the windows of our apartment.

To understand why I love the windows of this apartment as much as I do, you need to know a little bit about the windows of our San Francisco apartment. 1) They're on the ground floor. Technically you mount about 8 stairs to get to the landing and front door, so we only see the tops of people's heads as they walk by on the sidewalk. Still, a very thin pane of glass separates us from the street and its (often less than savory) denizens. We have to keep the blinds drawn at all times, or else we're putting on a peep show. 2) There are probably 7 or 8 of windows total in the apartment, and all but 1 have been painted shut. The one in our bedroom opens, but there's something wrong with the weight pulley system, so it has to be propped open with a book or else it falls and slams shut. And if you do prop it open, you could literally reach out and touch people as they walk by (see issue #1). It's impossible to get a good breeze in the apartment, although the glass panes are cheap and don't seem to keep out one particle of street noise, so they might as well be wide open. Most often we hear the thumping bass of the sound systems of the cars passing by, "aural graffiti," as Matt puts it. Basically, these are the worst windows in the world.

By contrast, the windows of our apartment here are the best windows in the world. Our apartment is on the 5th floor and overlooks a courtyard. Having to mount five curving flights of stairs isn't ideal when you're out of shape from too much wine and cheese, and have bought too many groceries. However, the quiet of a fifth floor courtyard apartment can't be beat. There are huge, door-sized double windows in every single room (save the bathroom) that open to the inside. Sleeping with them open is almost like sleeping in the open air. They let in so much air and light that you can stay indoors all day without feeling any cabin fever. They also frame the sky perfectly. I discovered this one day, when I was doing a yoga video in the living room and, at the end, I lay down with my head against the wall, under the open window, and the view of the sky was like nothing I've ever seen before. That is because Paris has the best clouds I have ever seen. They are enormous, and they create a perfect wild panorama over the antique gray skyline, and I don't even know how to describe them because in the end they're just clouds, but they're also not. I've tried to take pictures of them, lying on my back in the living room, hoping that I could frame the pictures just so and have a souvenir of this view from the best windows in the world, but the pictures never come out. Matt has taken some better ones with his real camera. But still, nothing compares to the real thing. There are flower boxes in two of the windows. One of them holds the herbs that Max has learned to pick and choose to season the soups that we make. The other has flowers, including some he planted with seeds he got at an Easter event at our favorite library.

Today, the sky keeps shifting between slate gray and pale blue. When it's blue, it seems impossible that it could rain again. When it rains, the flash flood sounds like gunfire when it hits the cobblestones of the courtyard, and it seems inconceivable that the sun could come back out. Right now, because I'm alone in the apartment, I've got all the windows open. Occasionally I can hear the sound of kids laughing upstairs, and I know one of them is Max. The wind is blowing hard, and it's a little chilly, but I don't want to miss out on one minute of it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Lunch Wars

Food is a battleground. Every parent knows this. Kids all seem recognize that food--what they will and won't eat, the speed at which they will or won't eat it, their willingness to sit in their chairs, etc...--is one small area in their limited little lives in which they can exert control. And drive their parents crazy.

Before coming to France, I'd heard about the whole movement to get your kids to eat everything: "the French way." In all areas in which we Americans would like to see improvement, we tend to look to the French as our counter-example. Without a bit of our puritanism, they seem to do so much better than us in so many ways. They don't get fat, although they eat copious amounts of foie gras and triple cream fromage on bread! They age beautifully, never fighting it but somehow becoming more fetching with every new wrinkle! Their children sit obediently through three-hour lunches, polishing off every last escargot, never having a separate meal!-gasp-of something more "kid-friendly."

All of this sounded good to me. I wasn't so naive as to believe that all of these "French X don't..." books had the whole truth. But I was hopeful, especially where it came to Max's diet. Our kids never fail to surprise us in the ways that they stubbornly insist on being themselves, in spite of our genes and best efforts to train them. As a lover of pretty much all ethnic foods, spicy food, stinky food (cheese at least) and everything pungent and flavorful, I expected a kid who would take after me. Even when I was little, I'd eat hot sauce until tears streamed down my face, partly to be macho but also because I genuinely liked it, already getting high off the endorphins. Matt is not quite as much a fan of heat, but he's also got a wide palate, and our fridge is stocked with more "weird stuff" than normal. But since birth practically, Max has preferred a much more limited range. He's not quite as bad as the kid I knew who went through a phase of only eating white cheese sticks, but he likes his food simple, plain, and (preferably) raw. Given his choice, he'd live on desserts, raw vegetables, yogurt, and noodles with butter and parmesan. It's really boring, but he's also really stubborn, and I don't like fighting over food. It just doesn't seem like a battle worth waging, especially since he will happily consume heaping portions of vegetables. So before coming here, I'd largely given up.

But then he started at a school with a "composed" lunch served every day, and given no alternative, I found myself getting on board with the whole "French kids eat everything" plan. I remembered my mother saying that you have to try something 7 times before you can decide if you like it. Seems kind of quasi-scientific, but then again why not? I was happy not to have to spend the time to pack a lunch, and I liked the idea of him having this cross-cultural experience every day. I'd read (in the aforementioned get your kids to eat book) about the cloth tablecloths laid on French school children's cafeteria tables, the courses, the way that they were expected to keep their elbows off the table and their hands in sight at all times. Matt and I joked that if Max got nothing besides better table manners after this year in France, it would be well worth it.

From the start, let's just say that he didn't come home raving about his lunches. "They're very French," said one other mother, a woman from Mexico who (as Max reported to me) packs her son a lunch of rice and beans and tortillas and other items every day, because he refuses to eat the meat and fish in heavy cream sauce that the school seems to serve daily. "It was lamb again!" Max says indignantly, almost every time I ask him what was for lunch. Or else "horse hooves," although I find this very hard to believe. Or "Baby cows!" When Matt pointed out that this was called, "veal," it didn't seem to make him any more predisposed towards it.

Another big parenting term these days is "natural consequences." This is supposed to be the best form of discipline (or coercion). You let the kid hang himself, and then wait for him to find a way out of the noose. Joking aside, I do like the thought of "natural consequences," at least in principle, and hoped it might work here. Sure, he didn't like the school lunches. But since he didn't have an alternative, he'd eat them and his palate would grow more diverse and sophisticated. I thought: if he doesn't eat his lunch one day, he'll realize how hungry he was all afternoon, and the next day he'll eat it.  When this didn't seem to happen--when we picked him up and he was nearly psychopathic, and we asked what he'd had for lunch, and he snapped, "A LOT! I ate SO MANY RADISHES!"--we started to get concerned. "We have got to pack that kid some other food," Matt finally said last week, after our normally agreeable child fell apart on Friday afternoon, and then admitted that he'd eaten a "huge" lunch of beets. "Pascal gets to bring his own food. Why can't Max?"

Why indeed? Although I'd been on board with the French lunch program, Max has been in school here since January, and if he hasn't learned to love lamb and cream sauce by now, the odds are he's not going to. He's outplayed us at the natural consequences game. The natural consequence of having to put up with his vicious low blood sugar every afternoon is that we are worn down and sick of this particular battle. He won. So over the weekend, I bought a loaf of wheat bread, a jar of peanut butter and some jam. I'm willing to make him lunches, but easy ones. As far as I've seen, they don't even sell elaborate lunch boxes here.

Day 1, yesterday, all seemed fine. I explained to Anne, his Irish teacher, that I'd packed him some food because he doesn't like the school lunch (and has, in fact, decided that he is a vegetarian now) and she said that this was okay by her. At the end of the day, Max seemed much happier, and he'd polished off both sandwiches. But he also told me that Elodie, his French teacher, wasn't pleased, and that she was going to talk to me about how he couldn't bring his own lunch to school.

"Don't worry," I said to him. "It'll be fine. I'll explain to her."

But this morning, Elodie greeted me with a distinctly frosty demeanor. She didn't broach the topic, so I did, assuming it would be fine.

"In fact it is not fine," she said in French. "It is against the rules for children to bring their own food."

"But why?" I asked. I have been here long enough that, I have to admit, I'm becoming much less conflict-adverse. I'm actually kind of starting to enjoy a good verbal sparring match. I feel like I've learned a few tips from the folks here.

"It is important for all of the children to sit together and eat the same meal," she said. "They learn to eat at the table that way."

"In principle I agree," I said. "But he is impossible at the end of the day, and when we ask, he says he ate only vegetables. We can't stand his moods. He doesn't want to eat meat, and after trying to fight it for months, we are accepting that this is his choice, because what else can we do?"

"It is very difficult for a child to be vegetarian," she said. "He is too young."

"There are regions of India where everyone is vegetarian from birth," I said. (Good one! I thought) "I was vegetarian for many years. I know how to make vegetable-based proteins, and he eats a vitamin-rich diet."

"Yes," she said. "Beans are a good source of protein. But not sandwiches."

"Excuse me?" I said. We seemed to be getting to the source of her scowl.

"These sandwiches. It's very American, I know. If he has them, the other children will all want them, and it's not a proper lunch. What is in them?"

"Peanut butter. A good source of protein."

She didn't respond to this. "The school lunch has many courses. There is an entree (appetizer) and a main dish, vegetables, dessert and cheese. He doesn't have to eat the meat."

"Fine," I said. "I will pack some extra food, so he can eat it if he's still hungry or at the end of the day, and he can eat the other courses."

"No sandwiches," she said, to which I agreed.

Sometimes you have to concede the battle in order to win the war.

Max makes his feelings about roasted sheep head quite clear.

Another appealing display at our corner butcher's. (Note how the chickens seem to be clutching their own beheaded selves in horror).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Some people draw the short stick when it comes to family. I've been ridiculously lucky three times: first at birth; most recently, when I married Matt and acquired his excellent crew of loving lunatics; but in the middle, at age sixteen, when I was placed at as an exchange student in the Delaunay family for a year, in a town called Brie-Comte-Robert.

Brie-Comte-Robert is in "la grande banlieue" or the outer, outer suburbs of Paris, beyond the reach of the RER, the commuter rail. When I mention it, most French people haven't heard of it. The last train rolled in at midnight, with no bus service home at that hour. This meant that when I was in high school here, if I wanted to go into Paris for the night in the middle of the week, as I often did, there was no returning home until the following morning. My host parents were fine with this. My host-mother, Claude, would pick me up at the train station and take me straight to school. Her  only rule was that I sit through my classes and not complain about feeling tired or hungover, although both were inevitably true. You make your choices, you live with the effects, and you accept your responsibilities. That was her motto. Not a bad message to absorb as a teenager.

Because I was sixteen and American, I was more than a little clueless about a lot of things. I understood that their property was different from the others in town, and that it was beautiful, a crumbly old house behind a tall gated wall. But I didn't realize that it was the largest tract of land in Brie. The land had belonged to Claude's parents. Her mother (la Meme) still lived within the walled enclosure, in an old house of her own. Apparently one day, a few years after I returned to the States, Claude realized that the mayor had plans to turn their land into a protected zone, meaning they wouldn't be able to develop or sell it for its worth, because no one was going to want to buy a big piece of land with no option to build on it. Before that could happen, the family acted preemptively, built an apartment complex, and moved to an even smaller town called Montreal, in the south of France, where they bought a bigger, older and crumblier house (pictured above).

This week, Max had yet another school vacation, and so we got on a plane to Toulouse, the closest city to Montreal, to visit the Delaunays in their new (to me) home. I hadn't seen them in 20 years, and I was excited but nervous. So much time had passed. My life has gone through so many revolutions. I didn't know if I'd feel comfortable with them anymore, let alone with my kid in tow, who's neither perfectly behaved (particularly in the table manner department) nor conversant in French, contrary to the popular belief that, "kids are sponges! He'll be fluent in two months!" (Yeah right). But apprehension aside, I really wanted to see them. I retain extremely vivid memories of my year in France, and especially the time I spent with them. I remember weeping uncontrollably when the day came that I had to leave, feeling completely ripped apart at the thought that my time with them was over, just like that, when I had truly come to feel like a part of their family.  

Our plane from Paris to Toulouse was delayed by 2 hours, so we didn't land until almost midnight. As I waited to be picked up by Richard, my old host-brother, I wondered if I'd even recognize him. Richard was 15 the last time I saw him. My memory was of a sweet and geeky teen, who was most often to be found lying on the "poof" (beanbag) watching dubbed American action movies. Our bedrooms came one after the other, at the end of the hall. As the year progressed and we became better friends, we'd steal Claude's long, skinny "Vogue" cigarettes and smoke them out of our bedroom windows late at night, talking softly and blowing our smoke in the direction of the chicken coop.

Thanks to the delay, we happened to land at around the same time as Agnes, my old host-sister, who was 7 when I lived in their family. Agnes now lives and works in Serbia, having spent her own year as an exchange student in Russia, which started her on the Slavic track. My memory was of a pesky kid, also sweet, bright and very aware, a great mimic. "Ma petite Malena," she'd call me, which was the same thing her parents called me, almost always followed by some admonishment--which she copied as well as their chiding tone. She loooooved to correct my French, which I found very irritating coming from a child, but hilarious in retrospect. Agnes hadn't originally been intending to come home for Easter, but when she found out that Max and I were coming, as well as her older brother Charles from Guyana (he was away in the US the year I lived with the family) she decided she had to make the trip, and I was so glad that she did.

In spite of my fears, I recognized both Richard and Agnes immediately, and immediately felt a sense of deep happiness to be with them again, that persisted and grew throughout the weekend. When I lived with them, the Delaunays always made me feel like a real part of their family, and even though two decades have gone by (and I have been a terrible correspondent) that feeling came back, and grew stronger as I watched them take Max in too, and make him feel welcome despite the language barrier (and those less than perfect table manners, which did get noted).

Many (all?) of my memories of living with the Delaunays revolve around copious consumptions of very good food and wine. I don't know if they shaped the gourmande that I am today, or if I just got lucky to be placed with a family of bon-vivants. The first week that I lived with them, we spent a whole day bottling the table wine that they'd consume over the course of the year. Each adult got an allotment of 1/2 bottle per day. The wine arrived in caskets, and we used tubing to fill an army of empty bottles. The trick was to fill each bottle below the point where the cork would go, but (inevitably) I'd fill it to the brim and then have to drink that inch of excess. This was one of the first things my host-mother Claude reminded me of. "Comme tu etais soule!" How drunk you were! This became a refrain to the stories they told about my year with them. Another one, told with a bit less affection, involved the hot summer night that my Finnish friend and I bought wine from the gas station and took it to the edge what we believed to be a lake but was actually some kind of sewer, where drunken skinny dipping ensued. Reminding me of this one, Claude shook her head in disgust. I couldn't tell if she was more horrified by the fact that we'd gone swimming in the sewer or consumed gross wine FROM THE GAS STATION! L'horreur! "Didn't we teach you anything?" she demanded. "We had very good wine you could have taken!"

I was glad for once that Max's French comprehension is minimal. Although the family did their best to try and corrupt him to their decadent French ways... While this photo was staged, he did get his own (little) glass of champagne at each meal.

Only one member of the Delaunay family was missing. I remember Claude's mother, la Meme (who died five years ago) as an adventuresome white-haired woman who'd traveled the world, and declared San Francisco "the only livable part of America." She was always in an apron and blood-speckled rubber boots. There were chickens on the old property in Brie, one of which met its demise at Meme's unswerving hand every Sunday morning. It was from her that I learned that if you decapitate a chicken improperly, its feathers will remain stuck and be hard to pluck. Every Sunday, the Delaunay family spent more time preparing and eating a meal than the typical American family does on Thanksgiving. The entire day was given over to the creation and consumption of a true feast. The head chef was always Daniel, my host-father, who had run away from home at age 14 to be an apprentice chef in some of the best restaurants of Paris.

They don't have chickens at Montreal, but Daniel procured this special capon for Easter--a castrated rooster, which apparently makes them get way bigger--and you can see him here doing the beheading of the beast. Max was fascinated and horrified. Since arriving in France, the land where butchers sell all beasts complete with heads on, he has decided to be a vegetarian, abstaining (his loss) from both the capon with chestnut gravy, and Claude's homemade foie gras. Before serving the foie gras, she launched into a long tirade about how crazy Americans are to object to the practice of fattening geese, since "this is exactly what they do before their long voyage south! They live off their own liver! We just happen to harvest and eat it!"

He had no problem with the homemade french fries or the apple galette, which we made with Daniel. He was a bit protective of his incredible pate brisee, but allowed Max to do the honors of slicing and peeling the apples, and sprinkling the whole thing with pats of butter, cinnamon and brown sugar.

Agnes had recently been to Turkey and she brought back this box of Turkish Delight, which was great since Max and I had just finished reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, where the bewitched Turkish Delight gets Edmund to betray his family. Max helped to set the table, and cut these flowers from the garden to use as decorations.

Also present was a woman named Liloil, an old friend of the Delaunay family, who is a painter and an astrologer. "It's crazy how accurate her predictions of the future are," my host-mother said to me. "She sees everything about everyone except herself."

Liloil did tarot readings for all of us, myself included. She also drew a sketch of "Charlie," the knight who haunts the 500-year-old house in which the Delaunays now live. Apparently he appeared when they started doing renovations on the place, to make sure that they didn't alter the place in a way that didn't sit well with him. "For instance, he would not have let you paint that wall green," Liloil said. She is the only person who has seen Charlie, but everyone in the family has stories about him moving their things around, ripping the covers off their feet or generally toying with them. Max swears that he saw him too, but wearing white pajamas rather than the black robe and medallion that Liloil sketched.

At the end of our stay, I felt nearly as sad to be leaving as I had that first time, twenty years ago. Daniel keeps asking us to return once more before we leave France--preferably with Matt--and even though it's far, I am tempted. I definitely don't want 20 more years to go by, although we all agreed on one thing, which is that people never really change.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


On Mardi Gras, all the other kids in Max's class came in costume. We hadn't realized that it was a kind of Halloween-lite here, and Max was upset to be left out. He rolled his eyes at my suggestion that he could say he was dressed as a ninja, since he happened to be wearing a black shirt and pants.

"Look at me. I'm a witch," said his teacher Anne, a silver-haired Irish woman in her late fifties, wearing a black dress and tights. "And I'm not in costume, either."

"You're the most sarcastic teacher I know," Max said.

"I'm not sarcastic," Anne replied. "I have a dry, British sense of humor. Can you repeat that please? You have a dry, British sense of humor.

"Sarcastic!" Max repeated, rolling his eyes again--a new "skill" that he is practicing dutifully. It takes like a minute for his eyes to make the entire 180 degree sweep. My own eye sockets ache, just watching. And he's getting more sarcastic by the hour.

Until recently, Max didn't even know what sarcasm meant. I'm not sure where he first heard the term, but he now tries to drop it into every conversation. At the house of some French friends of Ward and Vivienne's who had invited us over for a lovely afternoon snack of the most amazing crepes and creme caramel I've ever tasted, he announced that he hadn't learned much French at school.

"Like, I don't even know how to say 'sarcastic' in French," he complained.

"Sarcastique," they told him. "It's the same."

This pleased him. He asked how to say homework. They told him. "J'aime les devoirs," he said. I like homework. They looked confused, not understanding that this was his attempt to demonstrate the principle of sarcasm in French. Or maybe it's just that sarcasm doesn't work in French.

Max's teacher Anne is right that her sense of humor is very British--which is probably why I find her so funny, because I generally prefer British humor. She has also been living in Paris for 40 years, married to a Frenchman. "He says I've become more French than the French," she told me. But whereas she may dress like a Parisian and observe the rules of politesse, her sense of humor remains intact.

"Sarcastique" may be the word for sarcasm in French, but it has never seemed to me to be a big part of French culture, where there is still respect for mimes and clowns. Matt wisely forbade me from signing Max up for the atelier on "le clowning" over his last school holiday, reminding me that where we come from, this is the stuff of horror, not humor. When I was a high school exchange student here, I remember feeling like my own sarcastic sense of humor didn't come across in French.

Max's bilingual montessori school here draws a hodgepodge of kids whose families have settled temporarily in Paris. Most of his classmates in his tiny class speak two languages at home, often not the same two they speak at school. These families are almost all going to go elsewhere eventually, and so they're reluctant to put their kids into the notoriously rigid French public school system. Or else they're committed to montessori education, something about which we knew little before arriving here. It's very childcentric and--if this school is representative--very earnest.

This week, after dropping Max off at school, Matt was stopped by a mother (American) who wanted to talk about something "upsetting" to her daughter, and asked if he could wait 10 minutes. With a sinking feeling he agreed, wondering what Max had done wrong this time. Well, nothing as it turned out--or nothing more than what we were already well aware of: whistling incessantly. He mastered this other new "skill" a few weeks ago, and has a particular fondness for whistling the Harry Potter theme song, a minor key ditty that repeats over and over. As with everything else, he does it at maximum volume. He has also mastered selective deafness when told to knock it off. Now apparently his teachers are as sick of listening to it as we are, and in class the other day, Anne said, "If you don't stop whistling, I'll have to put a piece of tape on your mouth."

This is what had so upset this woman's daughter that she brought it up with her mother, who then shared the story with Matt and also with the other parents in the tiny class, all of whom were adamant that we should contact the administration ASAP. "I would have been on the phone in five minutes," one told me. "I would have considered pulling my child from the school," said another.

Both Matt and I thought: really? It's not like she actually taped his mouth, and to be honest, I wouldn't have cared if she had. As a kid at the French lycee in San Francisco, I often had a piece of scotch tape covering my mouth. It was an effective solution when kids chatted with their friends in class, as I was often wont to do. I remember it being kind of irritating but not traumatic. Besides, I remain convinced that we all--well, writers at least--benefit from these small humiliations. Without them, would anyone have anything to write about later on?

"When your teacher threatened to tape your mouth if you wouldn't stop whistling, how did you feel?" we asked Max privately, trying to figure out if we should be as upset as the other parents.

He shrugged. "Okay," he said.

"Were you scared?" we asked.

"No," he said.

"Did you feel upset at all?"

"No," he said. "I have very moist lips. I could use the power of my tongue to break through the tape. Besides, she's not really going to do it. She was just being sarcastic." He grinned.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

La Politesse

Monday afternoon, Max and I were in line to buy two baguettes from the bakery near his school that we like when I realized that the folks in front of us were American.

They were immediately recognizable by the guy's baseball cap and battered athletic shoes (ie: worn for comfort not style), the woman's loud nasal voice and, most crucially, the fact that they were talking in American to the woman behind the counter. No chance of anyone mistaking these two for anything other than my countryfolk. They did not modify their speech in any way (ie: slowing it down, attempting to throw in a French word here or there as a token gesture at communicating in the language of the place where they happened to be visitors, ie: France). They were also taking an extremely long time to place their order, deliberating over pastries (in American, naturally, to each other, all but ignoring the cashier and the line that gathered behind them, then adding a few diet cokes (coca light, they should've said) at the last minute. Their total came to over 20 euros. The dude pulled out a credit card. In French, he was told that they only take cash. He looked at the woman blankly.

"Monnaie," she said. The couple shook their heads, apparently unable to understand the homonym. The cashier exhaled noisily. I hate to make cultural generalizations (ok, that's not true) but the French have the most expressive exhales of any nationality. Outside the human species, only horses use their nostrils with such gusto and flare. No need to speak a word of their language to understand that this woman was beyond annoyed.

At this point, the couple became flustered. If they'd done any research, they would have known that lots of small businesses here are still cash-only. Maybe they'd spent it all at the Eiffel Tower. They began counting out their change. It took a long time, probably because their hands were shaking as they suffered the cashier's withering stare. Together, they had less than 8 euros.

Now I could have been nice. I had the difference in my wallet, and then some. I could have loaned it to them, accompanied them to an ATM machine. But that would've been a massive hassle, I had formed a powerful dislike of them, and--more importantly--seized the opportunity to be a better kind of American, brown-noser than I am. I didn't go so far as to shake my head in apparent disbelief along with everyone else, as they slowly deliberated over which items the woman should put back. But once our turn came in line, I made a point of treating the cashier with great politesse, following the rules of the civil shop exchange in my best possible French, aware that my accent, though pretty good for an American, still betrayed me as such. I was glad. She'd see that I was a different kind of tourist, or rather not a tourist at all.

"Bonjour madame. Nous voudrons..."

If this couple had done any reading whatsoever on the etiquette of the land they were visiting, they should've known that it's considered rude here not to greet a shopkeeper with a polite hello, good morning or good evening, before placing an order. It's not that hard to pronounce these words, and effort is always appreciated. Max, after three months, has become fluent in politesse, and I must say it's taking him far. He always greets the people who sell him his beloved pain au chocolat before he requests one, and then he says, "Merci beaucoup. Bonne journee." I can't always get him to say please and thank you in English, but the difference is that he knows few other words in French, so he likes showing off where he can. He also likes the clear smile of approval that his politesse inevitably earns him. He's a bit of a brown-noser too, I guess. (Oh, and sometimes he gets an extra little treat shoved in his bag, a custardy tart at Du Pain et Des Idees, or a chouquette, these delicious eggy puffs, like profiteroles minus the cream, sprinkled with nubs of sugar).

Not long after we first got to France, I had coffee with an American woman who has been living here for years, and who wrote a guide book on moving to France. She mentioned that some of the things that had initially drawn her to Paris were growing wearisome, among them "the famous politesse." She pronounced this sarcastically. We didn't have long to talk and I didn't really get a chance to ask what she meant, but I remember thinking that I hadn't heard of this as a French quality before, that more often French people get stereotyped as rude--at least by Americans who return from visits with stories of "terrible customer service," no doubt having been about as charming as that couple in front of me at the patisserie, who all but courted rudeness in return.

After having been here for a few months, it's starting to become clearer to me that there's a thin line between politesse and rudeness--or rather it's easy to violate the rules of politesse and slip into rudeness--and to be treated in kind.

It was a glorious spring afternoon on Monday. After buying our baguettes, Max and I met up with Matt at the library where he'd been working all day, and the three of us decided to walk home. On the way, we took an unfamiliar path and stumbled upon a new bakery advertising in its window that they'd won the gold prize for the best baguette in Paris in 2013.

"The current baguette laureate!" Matt said.

Even though I already had 2 (okay, 1.25 by that point) baguettes in my bag, we decided that we couldn't possibly pass up the chance to try the reigning champion, so I popped in to buy a third baguette of the day, pleased as always by how inexpensive it was. 120 euros! Just a dollar fifty! I love the fact that baguettes have a standardized price, that the baguette laureate costs the same as a crappy baguette at Carrefour, that everyone should have the same access to bread, regardless of means. Max wanted to tear into it right away, but we overruled him (it's not actually polite to walk around eating, although people do violate this rule, earning scowls) and decided to bring it home to do a blind taste test between baguettes.

On our walk home, we passed Notre Dame and took the road next to it that cuts across a bridge between flower vendors, which was tres picturesque. We were almost at the end of the bridge when I overheard an increasingly heated exchange, in French, between a man and two flower vendors. Apparently he'd just asked them for directions somewhere.

"You're welcome!" she yelled.

"Excuse me?" he called back over his shoulder, having walked away.

"You're welcome for the directions!"

"I said thank you! I said it twice!"

"Well, there are two of us standing here, and neither of us heard you!"

"Thank you!"  He was yelling too now. "Thank you so much, madame."

"It's only polite to thank someone when they give you directions!"

I translated this for Matt, and we both found it quite funny. I don't think that French people "are rude," as Americans sometimes say. But often strengths and weaknesses are linked. It's frequently the case in writing, I've noticed, that a good thing can become too much of a good thing pretty fast. And maybe this is the case with politesse, too. Or maybe it's just that the French love a good excuse to tell someone off. Again, far be it from me to make a cultural generalization, but it's something I've noticed both when I lived here as a teenager and again on this stay.

Max and I were at a farmer's market last Wednesday, right when the vendors were closing up shop, and I happened to set my backpack on a bare wooden table to try and consolidate the things we'd bought before we headed to the Metro. A woman came at that moment to pack up the table, and man was I inconveniencing her with my backpack! "Mais c'est pas vrai!" It can't be possible! She yelled as I scrambled to shove my things in it. "Some of us have work to do! This isn't your table to use like that!" I was the ugly American that time, although her voluble irritation was so close to the surface, I almost had the feeling that I was doing her a favor, giving her someone to lash out on and scratch that itch.

I'm still trying to figure out the rules. Some rules, like greeting shopkeepers and saying goodbye before leaving the store, are clear and easy to follow. Yesterday, a man on the Metro seized the chance, as the doors opened, to drop a wrapper down in the gap onto the tracks. And another man seized the chance to tell him off. OK-don't litter. Others are murkier. Is it rude to ride your bike on the sidewalk, when the streets are crowded with traffic? I've been testing it out, and no one has told me off yet. According to a French friend, traffic laws here are "suggestions." Maybe that applies to bikes too.

Last week, I was shopping at the cluttered and grimy Franprix, carrying a ridiculously overburdened basket of food, when I happened to knock into a poorly placed display of chocolate easter eggs, one of which fell to the ground. Thinking myself unobserved (frankly, not thinking much at all) I sort of toed it back in the general vicinity of the pile. A moment later, a cashier literally came running from the registers at the front of the store (was she watching me in a mirror?), and told me off for not having picked it up.

"It's not done!" she yelled. "If you drop something, you put it back where it was!"

Fair enough, but I felt my blood begin to boil in spite of myself. "I think you can see that my hands are full," I replied in French.

"So you set your basket down," she said.

"Well excuse me," I said. "But if your store were less cluttered, that would be easier to do!"

Even though I have no doubt that she could tell by my accent exactly who--and what--I was, I didn't feel particularly American right then. We are (I think) pretty conflict adverse, gritting our teeth and smiling falsely even when we're seriously annoyed. And I have to say, it felt good to lash back at her.

We haven't been here long enough for me to tire of politesse, and I enjoy the street drama of the little fights that break out and then dissipate just as fast. It's great people watching. I also haven't tired of the baguettes. After our blind taste test, we reached the unanimous consensus that the baguette laureate was indeed and clearly superior to our former favorite baguette. So apparently these distinctions do mean something, and we're French enough to be able to tell the difference.

Friday, March 14, 2014


I just rented a Velib to go and grab a baguette.

Now that spring is here and the sun is out, I'm seizing every chance I get to bike around Paris. The bike I selected this afternoon had about 30% brake functionality. That's a good Velib, too good to risk returning at a kiosk that might then malfunction and not register that you returned your bike, as happened to me earlier this week. I'm terrified by the prospect of having to call the Velib office (I shudder even to imagine the place) and explain to someone in my halting and accented French that I did, I truly did, return the bike as per the rules. I could already hear the sigh of disbelief. I also couldn't risk returning the bike and trying to find another one when I had just half an hour before Max got home from school to bike 1.7 kilometers and back. I had promised get him a "religieuse" or double chocolate eclair, for an end of the week treat today. There are closer bakeries to our apartment. There's at least one bakery per block, sometimes two. But I wanted to visit this particular bakery, in the 9th arrondissement, because I'd learned that it won the "best baguette in Paris" contest in 2007. Having already frequented the bakeries that won the "best baguette in Paris" contests in 2003 and in 2011, I'm eager to keep going, to find out which deserves the grand prix d'or for the city.

I found the bakery in question, bought Max his eclair, a small lemon tart (because those need sampling too) and one baguette, stashed it all in the Velib's handy front basket, and biked home, making good time due to those faulty brakes, feeling damn Parisian as I watched my bread bounce around. It's a Parisian cliche matched only by the beret. But I'm not wearing "hobo headgear," as Max calls it.

Before we came to France, I went through a few dark months where the hassles of dealing with uprooting our life and plunking it down over here seemed so overwhelming that I questioned whether the move was even worth it. Everything was hard, and everything was hard twice. We had to find a subletter for our apartment back home, and find a sublet to rent over here, figure out how to pull Max out of school for a year without losing his spot, and find a school that would accept him for that long over here, convince my work that I could do my job okay from here, and convince the French government that I wasn't going to be working at all, so that we could get our long term stay visas.

My early encounters with French bureaucracy at the embassy in San Francisco were daunting, accurately foreshadowing the joys of dealing with a massive and often ineffective government. You should've seen how the woman at the embassy coquettishly laughed when we handed her our visa applications over which we'd labored for weeks, turning us away because we hadn't copied and properly collated every document into three piles and had instead created one pile for the whole family. Given that it was a family application, the mistake seemed understandable to me, but she didn't have the time to make piles! She was extremely busy! And how crazy we were not to realize that we clearly needed a third copy of our notarized promise not to seek employment in France, and our Parisian apartment's rental contract, for six-year-old Max! (Where did she think he'd be living? In a pied a terre of his own?)

I'd be lying if I said that I kept my cool either during or after that appointment, ranting about how I highly doubted we'd ever get this visa, and even if we did, were we sure we wanted to live in the country that had produced this beastly woman who seemed to derive great pleasure from showing us the error of our ways rather than helping us? Sick of listening to me complain, Matt finally said in exasperation, "To make all of this hassle feel worth it, you'd better figure out something about France that you're looking forward to, something you're really excited to discover there, even if it's only the bread."

I remember this comment because it took me by surprise. The bread? That was supposed to be the big pay off? Now Matt is not a "foodie," and bread was pretty low on his list of things he was looking forward to discovering in France. As long as the food is decent, he seems perfectly content eating more or less the same thing every day--the dietary version of his white shirt/dark jeans or black pants uniform--leaving him more time to focus on other, presumably more important things. Plus, bread had earned a bad name in our house. For about a year, we'd been trying to eat as little of it (and other starches) as possible, on the "Dukkan diet," which originated over here of all places. Well, no wonder. The results were hard to ignore. Bread does indeed make you fat, even if it's simply because it tastes so good that you can't stop eating it, whereas few people reach for yet another chicken breast.

Matt wasn't the only person who cited bread as a major plus of living in Paris. My friend Maria, who'd lived here for many years with her family, happened to be visiting San Francisco right when we were dealing with the visa nightmare, and she too mentioned that the bread here was better than anyplace else. "Or so they say," she added (herself a carb avoider).

I considered abstaining from carbs here in France. Or at least limiting them. But life is short, and our time here is shorter. Also, life in Paris is expensive, and the baguette is one notable exception to that rule (along with wine, government subsidized to keep the vintners going).

It turns out that baguettes are required to follow certain rules in order to earn the name. A law from 1933 decrees that a "baguette tradition," the beautifully irregular ones with pointy ends, can contain just 4 ingredients: flour, leavening, water and salt. They rarely cost more than 1.40 (or about $2) and usually they're just 1.20. The best way to get rid of pocket change that I know of. Max likes a pain au chocolat after school (who doesn't?) and there's a decent bakery (though no awards have come its way) halfway between the library where I work in the day and his school. On the way to pick him up, I'll often grab a baguette (or two) along with his pain au chocolat. Inevitably, we end up tearing into it long before we make it home. Sometimes finishing it.

Different people look for different things in a baguette. You can request one that's "bien cuite" (well done) or "pas trop cuite" (on the pale side). We like the one from that bakery near his school because the crust is fairly pale without being underdone, a light caramel color, and the insides are springy and moist, almost like the chewiness of a bagel but less dense. (There are bagel stores in Paris now too, but the bagels taste wrong, apparently because the French are highly reluctant to boil bread). All of this talk about something so seemingly uniform, reminds me of living in Japan, where people endlessly discussed and debated which prefecture had the best rice. I mean rice, baguettes, we're talking about the plainest, whitest foods imaginable. But Matt should understand. He of the self-imposed uniform, who derives much pleasure from noticing the distinctions between white button-down shirts that others with a less trained eye would find identical.

He knows me well, and he was characteristically prescient when he suggested that bread might just become my raison d'etre here. I mean I do think about other things, I really do, but it's fun to have a reason to take a long bike ride through Paris on a sunny afternoon, and judging by the fact that the baguette I brought home today is already gone (and it's not 5 pm yet) that bakery deserved its award.

Amusingly, I was researching baguettes when I came across two interesting facts.

1. The baguette as we know it took shape (quite literally) thanks to one of the government's many laws designed to protect workers. In October of 1919, a law was passed forbidding bakers of bread and pastry from working between ten in the evening and four in the morning. Due to its thinness, the baguette could be prepared and baked in less time than more traditional loaves.

2. Just today, the paper included a front page article about an 80 page report that came out critiquing the French government for upholding 400,000 "norms," rules that public bodies and private businesses must uphold, going to "absurd and costly" lengths and hurting the economy. They say, "The last time a French norm was scrapped was in 1789."

According to this article, one of these "norms" is the rule dictating the width of a baguette.