Tuesday, January 28, 2014
"I want to start riding a bike to pick Max up from school," I said to Matt recently, after noticing my athletic shoes lying on the closet floor, right where I'd unpacked them a month ago. "There is nothing like riding a bike around a city to make you feel completely ageless," I remarked.
"I guess that's getting increasingly important, the older we get," he observed accurately.
"I'm going to join velib," I said, ignoring his not-so-subtle hints that I might not be the best candidate for the city's almost-free bike service. It's true that I am a bit of a corner-cutter, when it comes to things like following the letter of the law. Also, I have no internal compass. If you want to get someplace, just ask me which way I think it is, and then go the opposite direction. Add to that the fact that the streets here are almost always slick with rain, and his concerns might be founded.
But I do love to ride a bike, or at least I used to. Back at home, I took a lunchtime spinning class at the gym, and while I liked working up a good sweat in under an hour, the wasted energy of all of those bodies, moving in place in a dark room, to awful music, often struck me as preposterous--especially when it was frequently sunny outside. Why don't I just go outside and ride for an hour? I'd think. But for some reason it was so much easier to motivate to go to the gym, even though all of that frenzied cycling to nowhere did seem like a bit of an obvious metaphor.
I'd had my eye on the velib bikes ever since we got here. It would be hard not to notice them. Parked side by side at hubs stationed every few blocks all over Paris, these are the world's ugliest bikes. I mean seriously, you couldn't set out to design a more hideous bike if you tried, which they must have done as a theft deterrent. The program is borderline socialist--it costs $30/year for unlimited 30 minute rides, or $39 for the enhanced "passion pass" which gets you unlimited 45 minute rides. The bikes look soviet, with their bulbous, cement-colored plastic frames. According to the French couple who came over for dinner last week, the program hasn't worked as well as the city hoped. Instead of getting more cars off the streets and people out exercising (they share our concern with growing waistlines), there are now 1/3 fewer cyclists in Paris--although honestly, how do they measure these things? People haven't stolen the bikes--it'd be pretty obvious--but there is a trend among teens of dumping the bikes in the Canal St. Martin, maybe as a show of herculean strength, because these things are as heavy as they're ugly.
In addition to needing some real exercise, I had another reason for wanting to sign up for Velib. I'm trying to fight against the more anxiety-prone parts of my nature and savor the things that make Paris, well, Paris, while we are here for this luxuriously long, yet limited, window of time. Every other time I lived in a foreign country, later I'd have a list of regrets. Why was I so stressed out when nothing was objectively wrong? Why didn't I take more advantage of what was there? Now, whenever I'm torn about something, I ask myself if I'll regret not having done it later. It seems to be working as a strategy. I also love to get something for free (or quasi-free), especially in a country where most things are so very pricey. So I logged onto the velib site, went all out for the "passion pass," and eagerly checked the mail until it arrived a week later.
Then it took a while to work up the nerve to activate the thing, suspecting--and being absolutely right--that it wouldn't be as easy as it looked to check one of these bikes out from the fully automated kiosks. At least not for me.
I have a new appreciation for the stress of the illiterate. I can read in French at maybe a fifth grade level, but that exempts how-to manuals and bureaucratese. I barely skim the fine print on that stuff, even in English. The first day that I tried to check out a bike in order to pick Max up from school, I couldn't even figure out where to jam my velib card (it turns out you set it on a flat screen that reads it) and, after asking a meter maid who told me she had no idea and would never dare to ride a bike in Paris, I finally gave up for lack of time. The next day I allowed myself an extra 20 minutes, and after a lot of trial and error (I'll spare the tedious details), as the bike was released from its metal bolt and came free in my hands, I felt a little drop in my stomach. But I couldn't back out now--especially since I couldn't figure out how to check the bike back in.
As soon as I was cycling, that ageless feeling I'd described to Matt swept over me. I don't mean that riding a bike makes me feel young, exactly, although I do remember the origin of the pleasure, as a kid, of feeling so free and so effortlessly in the moment, able to daydream while observing things, able to feel the speed of moving through space with nothing but my own legs. You don't get that feeling at a spin class. Part of the joy, for me at least, is moving toward somewhere I actually need to be. And that joy is amplified, I must say, here in Paris, where there is no ugly view. On a bike, the cold felt bracing instead of just bone-chilling. I had on one of Max's wool hats, pulled snug over my ears, and a scarf and mittens, and my cheeks stung in a good way. I did get lost a few times, or not lost so much as detoured. I found myself riding in a circle with the traffic around the big ferris wheel, amused that I'd managed to lose my way when the Seine was right there, a straight line leading to Max's school.
And after I finally figured out how to return my bike, I was only 5 minutes late to pick him up.
"Seriously, you should get a velib subscription and we can ride together," I said to Matt hopefully.
"I think Max could use one parent*," he remarked dryly*.
* Matt objects to being cast as, "the straight man," but can I help it if that's what he said?
* If you notice a newly adverbial bent to my writing, blame it on JK Rowling. We are reading Harry Potter to Max right now--on about page 3000 of the whole 4000 page oeuvre, a figure that I find shocking, both in terms of her output and how fast we've been consuming the 7 books, having started this fall and going at a clip of approximately 75 pages per night. It's amazing how much more reading you get done in a country where your Netflix subscription doesn't work. JK Rowling seems to find no line of dialogue complete without an adverb clarifying exactly how something was said. The books would be a fraction the length if she'd followed the standard rule, which is that the line itself should convey the work of that gratuitous adverb. And yet, and yet... Reading to a kid, I find myself noticing that they do help to figure out what the person is not only saying but feeling, in books where a lot of the vocabulary goes over his head. And I find myself coming around, grudgingly, gradually, if somewhat abashedly...
Posted by Malena Watrous at 5:50 AM
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Hipster Beard Prototype
"I can tell that Max is having a blast in France, but are you?"
I got this question from my friend Angela last week, a question I found disconcerting because it poked at a worry that I'd hoped was unfounded, about a condition that I hoped wasn't too glaringly obvious.
Not "Paris Syndrome," but Stockholm Syndrome: otherwise known as 'capture bonding,' in which hostages develop empathy and feelings of identification--sometimes even love--for their captors.
Before having a child, I never wanted to be That Kind of parent. The kind who uses parenting as a verb. The helicopter. The snowplow. (This is my new favorite term, referring to parents who want to cruise ahead of their kids, smoothing over every bump). I'd seen people--women usually--who seemed to forget that the concerns of early childhood (and, some might argue, little children themselves) are not objectively all that interesting, who seemed compulsively unable to stop themselves from endlessly discussing every tedious detail of their kids’ nap schedules, making potty training charts, weighing the subtle distinctions of nearly identical progressive schools, Montessori vs. Waldorf, as if any of this would make a vast difference in the end--we all wipe our butts eventually, until we can’t anymore--as if their very memory of the things that had excited them before giving birth had been wiped clean.
I never wanted to be the kind of woman who thinks of herself, let alone refers to herself--shudder--as "Mommy."
Mommy doesn't like it when you do that! Now Mommy needs another glass of wine!
But Max is on a jewelry making kick (see earlier post about gypsy rings and his love of bling), and when he recently made me a beaded bracelet with the word "mommy" spelled out in the middle of it, I didn't take it off for a week. I pretended it was an aesthetic decision. True, compared to his Femo clay necklaces--the hand-made beads so heavy, the weight of a single strand could break a person's neck--this was a bracelet I could actually wear,
simple and “objectively” good looking, with its burnt orange beads and typewriter-like font on the word spelled out in the middle. Mommy. But I also know that I wore it because I am in this mawkish state where I'm constantly aware that he's not going to be this sweet, happy, innocent little kid for that much longer, and I should enjoy these waning days of easy closeness before they're a thing of the past.
I like to think that over the past six years, I've managed to stake a little turf around the person I was before I had a child. But Angela's question made me pause, because I recognized that I have been writing an awful lot about our little outings together in Paris. About Max and our Wednesday afternoon adventures. As I’ve said, the school days are short, and these hours represent active time in the city, doing and seeing stuff. No one wants to read about me sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, much as I do back at home. But I'm also afraid that without meaning to, I've relinquished more of my own identity than I'd like to admit. I’ve become “Mommy,” as tagged by the bracelet Max conveniently made me, lest I forget my priorities. And maybe the reason why I'm scared for this period of easy closeness to end is that I know he's on the verge of not needing to be "parented" with the same intensity, and I'm not quite sure what comes next for me, who I'll be then.
In any case, I got a sneak preview on Sunday, when we went to the Louvre, where I'd managed to sign Max up for an "atelier," where an art teacher guides a group of kids to see different works on a theme (this one was "poils et plumes," or fur and feathers), and then they make their own piece of art. Struggling to make myself understood on the phone, I'd asked whether I could come too, in order to translate. "You'll have to talk to the teacher," the person told me, but I'd assumed that it would be fine, given that the class was for 4-6 year olds, and at our last "atelier" at the anthropology museum, a parent had been required to accompany each kid and keep them in line.
On Sunday morning, most of Paris seemed to be asleep. The stores were closed. The streets were quiet, scattered with cigarette butts. The only people out were walking their little dogs. The city was bathed in a pearly fog, misty but not too cold, and Max and I enjoyed our walk to the Louvre, taking detours through deserted passageways, stopping at Cafe de la Bourse where we enjoyed bowls of coffee (me) and hot chocolate (Max) and a basket of thinly sliced toast, which we covered in a dozen different spreads laid in jars on the table, sampling them all, even the weird kiwi jam and white chocolate spread. My favorite was "syrop a l'ancienne," which is an apple and pear butter that has been reduced to a tarry sludge that spreads like honey and tastes as tart and sweet as balsamic vinegar. Max, predictably, liked the chocolate. It seems that no breakfast here is complete without chocolate. Even the Special K “fiber flakes” come with chocolate “pepites.” But hey, at least it's dark chocolate, which is an anti-oxidant, right?
When we got to the museum, I felt smugly pleased to be able to bypass the extremely long line of tourists waiting to buy tickets. (Service aside: anyone who comes here for a week or two with kids should check out the “ateliers” listed on the website of every museum and try to sign up for one of these art classes, which take place every weekend and cost about $6 for two hours).
In the special back room of the Louvre where the ateliers meet, I introduced myself to the man who was going to teach this class. Since he didn't speak English, I was certain that he'd want me there to translate for Max. But he shook his head at my request and explained with Gallic gravitas that it would be too distracting if I were whispering at the back of the room, and that he preferred kids to come alone. “Oui, j’ai compris,” I said, chastened and unsure what to do. Like a good helicopter mom, I'd worked hard to secure this reservation, redialing the Louvre over and over for half an hour until I finally got through to a human being, then struggling to articulate my request and give a credit card number. Like a good snow plow parent, I was determined to make sure that Max’s experience was fun and stress-free, and he’d told us in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to do any activities that were exclusively in French. I didn't want him to miss the opportunity to take an art class at the Louvre, but I wasn't sure if he could handle being alone in this palatial museum with a group of strangers that he couldn’t understand.
"Here's the deal," I said, trying to sound encouraging. "It turns out that I can't go with you, but it's a drawing class—you probably don't need to understand much French—do you want to try?"
"Okay," he said with only a trace of apprehension, making me promise that I'd be right there at the end of the two hour class, and that we could go draw in the Egypt wing before leaving.
The kids were stuffed into green vests, and like a line of ducks they waddled after their instructor. As he walked away, Max threw a nervous glance over his shoulder, and I was reminded of his first day of preschool, when he left us without crying even though I could tell he was terrified.
Once the kids were gone, suddenly I was alone in the Louvre, with two hours and no plan.
This was my second time at the Louvre since arriving in Paris. We'd gone as a family over the holidays--Matt, Max and his grandmother and me--when the galleries were packed with so many tourists that it was hard to see over the tops of people's heads. Matt wanted to see the Robert Wilson installations, Max was only interested in Ancient Egypt, these things were at opposite sides of the palace, and our legs were already aching from having marched all over the cobblestones for days on end. "What do you want to see?" Matt had asked me, and I drew a blank. Between the pushy crowds and the whining child, I was frankly ready to leave after twenty minutes, annoyed to think of how much money we'd spent on tickets.
Do I even like going to museums anymore? I wondered.
Yes, I realized after just ten minutes of wandering by myself, as I could feel my anxiety lifting like the fog outside the windows. Of course I do. So what if Max couldn't speak French? Big deal! I thought of one of my favorite verbs. Il va se debrouiller. He'll cope. He'll figure it out. And then I stopped thinking about him, and instead I thought about what I wanted to see. Not Egypt—that was for sure. My book group had just finished Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which made me want to see the Dutch paintings up close again, so I thought I'd start there. But getting to the Dutch masters took me through paintings beginning in the French middle ages, and looking at those strange, flat, wondrous works reminded me of the medieval literature I studied in college, the way that it was so transparently artificial but contained all of this sharp insight into human nature at the same time.
Here we've got a king who had himself painted as a saint. I love the vanity not at all disguised by the gesture at humility. I also love the fey finger awkwardly pressed against the sheep's head. He doesn't look to me like he's a natural with animals. I wonder if the actual king had to pose with a sheep while his portrait was painted?
In spite of the line waiting for tickets, the Louvre seemed nearly empty that morning. I felt almost giddy, like I had the whole place to myself. I could take pictures without feeling self-conscious (or having to tiptoe to photograph over people's heads) and wander in blissful aimlessness, stumbling upon room after room of art that I'd only ever seen in books or postcards, making up stories to go with the paintings, but only for myself, and feeling as if I had all the time in the world.
Posted by Malena Watrous at 4:34 AM
Thursday, January 16, 2014
City of Darkness
A week ago, Max and I were walking home from his school along the Seine, crossing the picturesque Pont d'Alma, when a woman in front of us bent down and picked up a gleaming gold ring. Now Max happens to be on the constant lookout for golden things, motivated by an interest in ancient Egypt and affection for things relating to pirates, not to mention pure and simple greed. Having heard that my great-grandfather found no fewer than four diamond rings in his life (the stones were all set in one ring that he had made for my great-grandmother) Max is determined to beat the family record, and as a result is always walking with his head in the gutter, and driving us nuts by picking up any gleaming piece of trash--usually bottle caps or rusty hardware, tucked between dog droppings.
So when this young woman picked up a golden ring and held it out at his level, saying in accented French, "Someone dropped this and it doesn't fit me. Do you want it? Jour de chance!" it was clear that he did indeed think it was his lucky day. I was tired, burdened by bags, and confused. Was she really offering my son this ring she'd somehow found? Why? Was there any reason I should say no? I shrugged and reached out for it, at which point she asked for a few euros to buy a cup of coffee. Quickly realizing that I'd been had, I took the path of least resistance, offered her a 2 euro coin, at which point she got angry and told me that the ring was worth way more than that, yelling at me before storming off. Max wasn't exactly clear on what had just happened, and neither was I, but he no longer wanted the ring. "Maybe it has a curse," he said, echoing my exact thoughts.
The ring sat heavy in my pocket, and at home I did a quick Google search on "gypsy ring scam Paris," finding out that this is apparently a method of scamming tourists that's as old as time, and always follows the script spelled out above. The handing over of the ring is some kind of defense-weakening, trust-building exercise. It worked like a charm on me, which is why I was left feeling so irritated. I didn't care about the 2 euros, but about having been pegged for a gullible tourist before acting the part. As a matter of pride, I want to fit in! I don't want to be the obvious, bright eyed and bushy tailed American, the fool in Paris.
The last time I was an expat, I was living in Japan—the first year in a nuclear power plant town, and the second in the small provincial city of Kanazawa. I arrived speaking the barest minimum of Japanese, and immediately had to start a job for which I had almost no training and little aptitude. By contrast, living in Paris where I can keep doing my job remotely is expat-light. I feel like I have no right to complain about anything. I have my family here with me. I went to a Lycee as a kid where I learned to read in French before English. I lived in France for a year in high school, and I still speak enough French to communicate pretty much whatever needs to be said, if imperfectly. For instance, I managed to explain to the plumber who came over yesterday to see about our erratic water heater that we typically get about an inch of boiling water in the tub before the flame on the boiler sputters out. Our showers go from scalding to icy so fast that I’ve come to understand the stereotype of the unwashed and malodorous Frenchman. Max used to take a bath every night, but here in Paris, once every three days seems more than enough.
One problem with living in a 17th century building is 17th century plumbing. Apparently it’s as hard for the water to travel up the pipes as it is for me to hike up five flights of stairs at the end of the day, lugging groceries, my traveling office (laptop and books) and the backpack of a six-year-old who likes to pick up rocks wherever we go and give them to me because, “They’re heavy in my pockets.” This morning, on the jam-packed Metro, I got dirty looks from people who clearly found the number of bags I was carrying to be an affront, as if I were taking up way more than the amount of space that my 1.60 euro ticket afforded me. I would take the glares personally, but they’re being shot in every direction. One man, who crammed into the train right before the doors squeezed shut, apparently pushed another man into a pole.
“Do you have a problem with me?” he asked.
“You almost impaled me,” the other man answered. The way they bickered, neither one caving or apologizing, made me glad the gun control laws are stricter here.
Apparently, more than a handful of Japanese tourists have come down with something called, “Paris Syndrome.” This is the official term (there's an article about it in a medical journal) for the depression, veering into psychosis, that has sneaked up on Japanese tourists who've found that the City of Lights didn’t quite live up to their preconceived illusions.
According to one article, there is an expectation among the Japanese that French people epitomize refinement, the women all chic, the food universally gourmet, that this city is somehow exempt from the grind of modern urban life. “Paris Syndrome” was actually named by the French psychiatrist who was called into one hotel room after another, to treat a string of Japanese tourists suffering from anxiety and agoraphobia, waiting while their embassy arranged return flights to Japan. One man apparently refused to set foot outside after becoming convinced that he was Louis IVX. He must have been appalled by the proliferation of KFC and “Macdo.” A picture on the Pizza Hut on our block shows a pizza with tiny hamburgers somehow baked into the crust.
If I had to characterize the Parisian character, grouchy comes to mind. Maybe it’s January, but everyone seems to have PMS. The plumber, trying to arrange his schedule on the phone with his office, got into a fight with a coworker. “No, I can’t come back tomorrow,” he said in a scathing tone. “I have plans with my wife. J’ai une vie, moi aussi.” I have a life, me too. Whenever I hear one of these fights, I get the feeling that I’m eavesdropping, which makes no sense given that the people are talking in the language that everyone here understands, and making no effort to be quiet. On the contrary, people seem to enjoy telling each other off in public. Again on the Metro the other day, I was absorbed in my novel when a man standing over me said in the haughtiest of tones, “Madame, vous pouvez vous lever?” Madame, will you get up please? Somehow, that “Madame” felt like the harshest word ever. There are folding seats in the standing compartments , and this one had been pretty empty when I got on the train, and I hadn't realized that it was getting crowded. By standing up, I probably created 3 more inches of space. Even after I did what he’d asked, the man glared at me like I was dog shit on his shoe.
That was the same look that Max got at the Musee d’Art et Metiers: a museum dedicated to the history of machinery, with a special exhibit on robots. Was I crazy to think that this sounded like something geared toward kids? “Non non non!” a guard barked at him when he pressed his nose to a glass display case. That guard didn’t even deign to look at me, as if he knew that I couldn’t control my hyper child on this rainy afternoon. Not that he was wrong. “Where’s the stuff we can touch?” Max asked. I was reminded of going to the home of a childhood friend whose mother had made an elaborate Victorian dollhouse with working electricity that we were forbidden to play with.
Yesterday was our second “Adventure Wednesday.” I woke up with a sore throat and a panicky awareness of how much work I had piled up that I couldn’t possibly get through in the 2.5 hours before I'd have to pick him up from school, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to trying to figure out what to do on a cold and rainy afternoon. It’s been unbelievably dreary and cold for the past week, making me understand why people who know France well suggested that we get to Paris for the holidays, when at least the city is festively decorated, rather than at the start of January, when it’s just wet and dark all the time. But Max was excited—he’d been counting down to Wednesday afternoon since Monday morning—and since I couldn’t fathom bringing him back to the apartment that early in the day, I decided that we’d take a picnic lunch to the “berge d’hiver.”
The berge d’hiver is something that the three of us discovered on Saturday, on a walk that took us from our home to, "L’as de la falafel," in the Marais (where we had amazing falafel that definitely deserves the Lenny Kravitz seal of approval painted on the window) to the banks of the Seine, where we walked all the way to the American Library. The charming children’s librarian was holding a special “wizard and magic tricks” program that afternoon, which Max greatly enjoyed. On the way home, again walking by the Seine, we stopped to stare at a huge gray tent that seemed to be inflated rather than merely propped on the riverbank.
“Come in,” said a man at the door. “It’s free!” So we did, discovering a large communal space with heat lamps radiating warmth from the ceiling, a dozen ping pong tables, a stage area with twenty or thirty beanbag “poofs” laid out by a trunk of board games, and tables of free art supplies. There was also a coffee bar, and a long row of novels with a sign marking them as free.
After I got Max from school at noon yesterday, we walked the half hour back to the berge. I’d picked up baguette sandwiches and a “double-decker” éclair for Max—called a “religieuse,” to which he has developed a religious devotion.
“Can we eat lunch in here?” I asked the man outside the berge.
“I don’t see why not,” he said agreeably.
He also handed me a brochure about upcoming events at the berge: a free knitting class, and a “ping pong blacklight night for families,” this weekend. Later, when I suggested that we should go to this dorky but potentially fun event, Matt reflected that it’s a little weird to come to Paris and hang out in an inflatable gray tent. True. But it’s like this socialist utopia in there, a bubble in which people are exempt from the grouchy mood pervading the rest of Paris this January.
Max and I ended up hanging out there for a good two hours, cozy while the rain splattered the clear plastic sheeting overhead. I stretched out on the bean bags and even read a bizarre French translation of an American YA novel about demon possession, while he rolled around next to me and drew pictures of monsters, using the free art supplies. And as we whiled away the afternoon, I remembered why I like adventure Wednesdays. It’s nice to be forced to have a break in the middle of the week. There was nothing else I could be doing in the bubble of that tent. It had no wifi. I had no work with me. Time slowed down a little, and I forgot whatever I'd been feeling anxious about. And when we emerged from the berge, and I saw the Seine lapping at the riverbanks, the Musee d’Orsay to our right, the Louvre to our left, I couldn’t resist seizing Max by the shoulders and telling him how lucky we are to be here right now, even if it is the worst part of winter. The rain had eased up, the warmth of the berge lingered and we decided to walk home.
We were at the precipice of a bridge crossing the Seine when a squat woman with a long dark braid dropped a gold ring right in front of us.
"Non!" I barked harshly before she could begin her spiel. "Non non non!"
She looked sheepish, and let us proceed without interruption, and I felt better than I should about having snapped at her. I'd sounded positively French in my grouchiness!
Posted by Malena Watrous at 3:52 AM