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.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Good To Be Home

I'm back in Paris, after a trip to the US that was so short that I'm not convinced I ever fully got over the jetlag, waking up so many times each night that I felt fuzzy every day. My first night back here, I fell into a deep and uninterrupted sleep and woke up when Max came into our room at 6:30. It's almost like I never left, except that things seem more normal now, less foreign.

For the first two months that we were here, I got hopelessly lost covering the four blocks from the Strasbourg Saint-Denis metro stop to our apartment's red front door on Rue de l'Echiquier. I mean, I got out of that metro at least once a day--so sixty times, minimum--and every single time, I managed to get turned around on the way home. In my defense, the metro station has half a dozen different exits that spit you out onto different sides of streets that seem to have been planned by a blind sadist. All of the neighborhood landmarks--the KFC's, the Carrefours, the cafes with hammered brass tables, the Turkish sandwich shops, Muslim butchers, and countless African beauty salons--repeat so often that they don't really help you get oriented.

When you're lost, windows full of go-go wigs on styrofoam heads are the stuff of nightmares.

Still, sometimes I feel like the blind person.

So I couldn't believe it when I got off a ten hour flight (scrunched in the middle seat), successfully navigated the RER from the airport, transfered to the right metro without consulting the map, and then found the way to our apartment--for the first time ever--without getting lost. The good thing about being as directionally challenged as I am is that it gives you the right to celebrate small victories.

It may have taken me 2 months, but I did it!

In my absence, Max and Matt fared just fine, although poor Matt got saddled with a lot of solo childcare as I happened to leave for my trip right when Max was on one of his "vacances scolaires." Again in my defense, when I booked these dates, it didn't cross my mind that Max might have a 2 week vacation just a month and a half after the end of the winter holidays. I wasn't yet aware that he'd be getting 2 weeks off every 6 weeks. Given this fact, the odds were good that my trip might overlap with one of these vacations. But Freud says that there are no accidents, and he might be right in this case. (I mean I could have checked the school calendar...) While I missed both Matt and Max a lot, a week away from your 6 year old is definitely a vacation, even when you're on a work trip. And a school vacation counts as hard work for the parent left behind to entertain him.

Paris is notoriously dreary in February. Most of the families in Max's class left France for the break, in pursuit of sun or snow. Since the rain made playgrounds impossible many days, Matt and Max spent a lot of time at museums. Max took a 2 hour perfume-making class ("I'm not sure why there weren't more boys in it," he said afterwards, sounding genuinely baffled), and another 2 hour class at the Louvre called "mimer la sculpture," that I'd signed him up for weeks earlier. Max loves making art, and was excited to get to work with clay, but apparently my translation skills need some work. I thought it would be a sculpture class, but it turned out to be a class in which the kids wandered around the museum and "mimed" the sculpture--posing like statues.  How French.

The boys fared just fine without me, with one exception. On a trip to a kids' science museum, Max fell over backwards in his chair and hit his head on the marble floor, which necessitated a visit to the French ER resulting in three stitches.

Note to self: never make the mistake of callously suggesting that head wounds bleed a lot, so maybe these three stitches weren't necessary. Never laugh (nervously) at the righteous indignation of the parent who had to experience the trauma of all that bloodshed and sit through the interminable ER visit. Never suggest that said visit was probably so long because they had to attend to serious injuries first.

Max, over Skype, in a wobbly little voice: "Are you laughing at my wound, Mommy?")

I grew up with a doctor in the house. All injuries were minor compared to whatever gory surgery my father had performed that day, and his attitude rubbed off. I also couldn't help thinking back to when Max was 4, and he became frantically convinced that a bug had flown into his ear, that he could still hear it "clicking around" in there. We spent three hours at St. Luke's, after which an attending shone a light in his ear and charged us $800 for the insight that a bug might have flown in and out. Or maybe he'd imagined it.

Later this week, we arre supposed to go to the doctor to have Max's stitches removed, but I've done a little research on the internet and it seems pretty easy to snip each loop and pull them out. Only scissors and a pair of tweezers needed! I'm frankly a little offended that Max, who hates going to the doctor with a passion, told me that he'd rather see a professional.

"I am a professional," I said.

"A professional what?" he asked.

Instead of answering, I told him that our friend Danielle (also a doctor's daughter) actually removed her own cast with a saw.

He didn't seem reassured, but he said, "If you think you can do it, then Mommy I'll let you try."

It's good to be home.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Voluminous Package

The notice in our mailbox said that while we were out, we had received a "packet volumineux.” This sounded promising, since our mailbox is quite large. We'd actually been at home when the postman rang at 7 pm on a Monday, but we’d ignored the bell, not wanting to descend five flights for nothing, figuring someone must have leaned on it by accident. It's not like we have a ton of friends here, and none who would spontaneously drop by. 

There was no checked box on the notice to indicate that there would be any attempt to re-deliver the package. Instead, there was note saying that it would be left for us to pick up at either the Bonne Nouvelle or the Strasbourg Saint Denis Poste in two days. That either/or threw me. But we live equidistant between them, and I figured that if I picked wrong, they’d simply redirect me.

Max and I went to Bonne Nouvelle after school on the day specified on the notice. He was pretty excited to pick up the box, certain that it was going to contain presents for him—a safe bet.

"Bonjour," I said, hoping I’d picked the right post office.

A man in a yellow poste vest took my notice and typed a long code of numbers into his computer, then tilted his head as he clucked his tongue.  "Ah non. It's not here," he said.

"So it's at Strasbourg Saint Denis?" 

"Non," he said.  "It hasn't arrived yet."

"Arrived from where? I don't understand." 

He took this to mean that his French was beyond my grasp, making a louder clucking sound of disapproval. “It hasn’t come in,” he repeated.

"But we live down the block, and it was already delivered to us. And this is today's date." I pointed at the bottom of the slip.

"Maybe it'll arrive later."  His eyes searched beyond me to the next customer in line. 


“Maybe,” he said, and then—clearly eager to get rid of me—“yes, I think tomorrow. Be sure to bring your identity card to claim it.”

Max was disappointed, but I told him we’d return right after school the next day, further tormenting him by dragging him to get some groceries, since we weren’t going to have to carry a heavy box up five flights after all.

When we went back the next day, a new poste employee was handling customer service, a smiling woman in a yellow vest. Before even typing the numbers into her screen, she asked to see my ID, and I was ready with my driver’s license.

“Ah non. What is this?” she said.  “La Californie?” She sounded suspicious, like I was trying to pull of some heist.

“It's my driver’s license,” I said. “The man yesterday told me to bring an identity card.”

“But this is not a valid identity card here. This serves no purpose here.”

“It’s the same name." I showed her the slip. “The man yesterday told me to come back today with an ID, and I'd be able to pick up my package.”

"But you need your passport!" 

"He didn't say passport."

“Ohlala,” she shook her head and grudgingly entered the code into the computer.  “Well, it doesn't matter because it’s not here." She seemed almost pleased.

“Where is it?” I said. “I live one block away. Where did the package go after it left our apartment three days ago?”

She shrugged, but then she disappeared into some back room, and a few minutes later she returned carrying an Amazon box that held a single paperback. 

“I found it,” she said, eyeing me warily before handing it over.

“Do you know why the postman didn’t just leave this in our box?” 

“It says right here: packet volumineux.” She smiled that maddening smile again. “I’ll let you take it today. But next time, you'll have to show your passport.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Melancholy Muggles

We finished reading the last Harry Potter to Max last night, and today I've been walking around in a sad hangover state.  Colors seem duller.  Time is creeping by.  Max has been edgy, too, pushing my buttons, hard to please.  We've been ejected from the world that we've been dipping into (okay, drowning in) all fall.  We aren't sure what to do with ourselves now, where to go next.

I used to mock adults who got sucked into the Pottersphere.  Grown-ups "queing" outside bookstores all night to get their hands on the latest doorstop.  Warlocks (little did I know) and soccer in the sky?  Not for me.  I'd read the first Harry Potter fifteen years ago when I was living in Japan, and I found it juvenile, not especially thrilling and more than a little geeky, smelling of Ren Faire, a new take on "Magic The Gathering."

But I'd heard that the books in the series get better, and enough people whose opinions I respect loved the series that I figured it was worth another try once Max was ready.  By the time he was six, we'd read everything by Roald Dahl, and I was getting damn sick of The Magic Treehouse, an unbelievably dull series of like 75 books in which a robotic brother and sister named Jack and Annie travel through time to play a part (Forest Gump-like) at key historical moments.  It was while reading these books that I realized can read a whole book aloud without processing a single word of it.  It made me feel as robotic as Jack and Annie, and also sorry that I couldn't be reading something better, something to make Max understand why a book can be more engrossing and affecting than a TV show.  Also, I wanted to get some pleasure out of the time I was spending reading to him, as did Matt.

We had a copy of Harry Potter in the bookshelf, and both of us would occasionally try to coax him into listening to a chapter, though he resisted at first.  The lack of pictures made it seem over his head, and that first book has quite a slow start--as do many of the others, for that matter.  It takes a while to get used to Rowling's lackadaisical pacing.  The point is to enter and then dwell in that world, and since the episodic plot spans 4000 pages, sometimes it takes two or three hundred pages to get to the "inciting incident" in any particular novel.  But little by little, he got sucked in--all three of us did.  We started Book 1 in early November, and finished Book 7 in mid-February, which means that it took only 4 months to read the 7 books--approximately 1000 pages per month.  It wasn't until I started drafting this--my eulogy for the series, it feels like--that I realize how well they've kept us company through the major transitions of the fall.

We read Book 2 aloud on the drive up to Oregon for Thanksgiving, where we were leaving our car with my mom before departing, a month later, for France.  We spent the majority of a rainy day all tucked in bed, reading the book until we finished it, then "celebrating" by watching the video.  (Which became our ritual, upon completing a book).  We hurried to a bookstore on the way to the airport and bought Book 3, which was a good thing since our flight back to San Francisco got delayed until 2 am, so we read about 100 pages while lying on the ground in a weird little oasis of a deserted pub at the Eugene airport, where there wa a standing lamp that provided the perfect reading light.

We kept reading Book 3 while walking down South Van Ness every morning, as a way to motivate Max to trek the mile to school without complaint.  (No more car).  The power to read while walking is one I honed as a kid, and it returned to serve me well.  Sometimes we'd get to his school early, and duck into Carlin's, the cafe on the corner, to read another 10 pages before he had to head off to kindergarten.  We were always a little sorry when the clock said 8:15 and we had to stop, and he'd make me promise not to read while I walked back home.

We read Book 4 on the trip to Paris.  We were only about 200 pages into it when we left, and it should have taken at least a couple of weeks to read the next 400 pages, except that our trip went so terribly wrong and we ended up having that 35 hour journey by plane and bus instead of the 8 hour one it was supposed to be to get here.  Harry Potter made the extra 11 hours on the bus from Zurich more than bearable--enjoyable even.  But by the time we got to our apartment, we were at the end.

Disaster!  Somehow, in the packing, we'd brought Books 6 and 7 but not 5.  My mom was rapidly dispatched to send the missing volume.  We got the email saying that it was on the way and should reach Paris in a week.  But suddenly, a week seemed interminable.  We were having fun exploring Paris, but it was cold and different and we were exhausted at the end of each day, which is when we always cap things off with a book in bed.  Max had this new home and language to get used to, no familiar friends to play with, and he really missed Harry Potter.  I mention these things to justify what I did next.

After discovering that Ms. Rowling's books are not available in thrifty e-versions (clever billionaire) I did the quickest of searches to see if there might be a bootleg version available for download.  I know that as a writer, I shouldn't even have considered such a thing.  I had never previously downloaded a book, but some teens I worked with did it often.  And we were really jonesing for a fix.  Lo and behold!  Victoire!  Ten minutes later, I'd found a link, and shunted the downloaded PDF over to ibooks, where the 600 page document opened without a hitch on my ipad.

I felt slightly guilty but mostly rather pleased with myself as I lay beside Max for the next few nights to read to him from Book 5: The Order of the Phoenix.  I'd told my visiting mother-in-law that these books were actually very well written, with great pacing and characters but also wonderful language, especially when read aloud, and so she sat in the little couch at the base of Max's bunkbed to listen along while I read this long scene in which Harry and Dudley make up and become buddies after watching a Monty Python marathon.  This was weird.  Rowling didn't usually make pop culture references--part of the charm of Hogwarts is that it's apart from all that, contemporary and yet timeless, "relatable" but magical.  There was also a weird line that I remember about how Hedwig, Harry's owl, looked mangled, "as if she'd flown into the garbage disposal."  As far as I knew, there were no garbage disposals at Hogwarts.

I have no idea who wrote the alternate Book 5 that I downloaded, but they were just good enough that it took 50 pages before I realized that I was reading fanfiction.  That's how far I'd come from being the person who mocked adults for reading Harry Potter.  I was downloading bootlegs of fanfiction.

Book 5 arrived shortly, and kept us good company--along with 6 and finally 7--through our first two months here in Paris.  For me (and many others, I know) the charm and success of the series is the way that it creates and sustains an entire world, that has a lot in common with ours but lots more possibilities.  Who wouldn't want to be able to cast these spells and curses?  The characters are remarkably (some might say impossibly) consistent, always recognizably themselves even though you see them grow up over the course of 7 years.  Being a "late adopter," I got to watch them grow up and save the world in fast forward.  I can sort of understand those people waiting all night to finally get their hands on the next sequel.  What's amazing to me is how she wrote the books without ever dumbing down the language or the story, so that they can appeal to her (millions of geeky) adult readers, who can never guess how things are going to go, but they are just as interesting to a six-year-old kid.  Max actually surpassed our ability to keep the plot points straight.  The only thing he objected to mildly was the kissing, and there were only about 15 pages of romance out of 4000 total.

Over the past four months, we've been in San Francisco, Oregon, Paris and Switzerland, and we've always had these books as a way to make the time pass on long journeys going from one spot to another, never quite sure where exactly we'd land upon our arrival, but always relatively certain of what we'd find in those pages.  Rowling's magic worked on Max, like it has on so many kids.  He now understands that a good book is a kind of home, better in a way than any real one, because it can come with you wherever you go.  But now that we're done with the last book, I'm afraid we are all going to feel homeless for a little while.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ma Poule

Max came home from first grade a week ago with a fifteen line poem tucked into his red cahier. "Ma Poule" is about a chicken that wears a lot of different colored hats for different occasions and in different kinds of weather. His teacher’s instructions were that he should copy it in French cursive and then memorize it, so that he could recite it in front of his class. 

He had no French at all when we got here, and contrary to what people said, that he'd "pick up in weeks," it hasn't been nearly that instantaneous. After two months, he has learned how to say, “Un poulet, s’il vous plait,” to the man who sells the roasted chickens on our corner. He’s got “bonjour,” “au revoir,” and “merci," and the basic numbers. And that's about it.

He's going to a tiny bilingual school where the first three hours of the day are taught in English and the afternoon three in French. The school’s aim is to follow the standard national French curriculum, so that the kids can join their classmates at grade level if they choose to go to a regular French school later on. Memorizing and reciting poetry is part of the standard French curriculum, and so is taking dictation in “French cursive.”

Knowing that Max would be returning to the States after this year, his teachers here gave him the choice of learning French cursive or continuing to write in American print letters. But in spite of the fact that the kid still struggles to hold a pencil correctly, often jabbing little holes into the page, Max chose to learn French cursive, partly to fit in, but also I think because it sounds fancier. And it is. Matt insists that it’s no different from any other cursive, but that’s because he never had to suffer through being tested on its finer nuances. The e requires the pen to skip ahead before forming a perfect loop. The t should never be crossed. The l only bulges on the right. The upper case q is a beast that I never got down.

I was about Max’s age when I learned French cursive. My elementary school in San Francisco had a similar aim to the school he’s attending here. It was a French school that was following the national curriculum as strictly as possible, so that the majority--expat kids from France--could eventually reenter their own system when their families returned home.

One of the reasons we didn’t send Max to a French public school here is that, in my memory at least, this school was kind of Dickensian. I didn't hate it, but it made a lasting impression. The teachers thought nothing of spanking kids in front of the class—pants down—and they'd read our report cards aloud at the end of each term, and then seat us according to our grades: A students in front and D students in back. Kids were routinely mocked by teachers, made examples of and humiliated. Monsieur LeJeune had his own son in our third grade class, and he would regularly call him “la mauvaise graine,” or “the bad seed.” When the boy cried, we consoled him. All of this sounds awful, but it was also a little bit thrilling to unite against injustice, to feel righteous and innocent, like the heroes of our favorite books. Sometimes I wonder what the products of American progressive education will find to write about. 

Before this year, Max was never asked to do any rote memorization. He didn't get homework at his American school, and there were no tests or grades. Knowledge is supposed to be its own reward, I get it, and I understand why bribes are a no-no. So I prefer to think of the children’s fountain pen that I bought Max as an incentive to do his homework here. And honestly, all those loops and flourishes in French cursive are totally wasted in ball point. Once I was at the stationer, I couldn’t resist buying a fountain pen for myself as well, and an extra cahier too. I vividly remembered learning to shape my French cursive in one of those notebooks ruled with tiny, pale blue horizontal lines within which to position each element of every letter.

The fountain pen held Max’s interest for few days, but writing (of any kind) remains a source of frustration. His ideas far surpass his ability to put them to paper. Who can’t relate?

The rote memorization of French poetry, however, has proven surprisingly fun. Within a couple of days, he’d managed to learn all fifteen lines of Ma Poule. While he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, he gets the gist of it, and I can tell that he likes the way the words roll off his tongue, the way that he sounds far more competent than he is.

I was just a little older than Max when my grandfather, our family’s first and most ardent Francophile, paid me one dollar to memorize his favorite Apollinaire poem.

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la seine et nos amours…

Like Max, I couldn’t have given you a word-for-word translation, but I loved the cadence of the language, the rhythm of the poem, and I definitely knew that I was saying something far more beautiful than I had it in me to express. It was rote memorization, not especially creative, but it gave me something to reach for. Not to mention a whole dollar. And thirty years later, I still remember it.