Friday, September 10, 2010

Validation!

For anyone who thought I might be exaggerating about the French educational system on my last post, take a look at this article in The Telegraph. Sheesh.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

First Day of School for the First Time

So, last Thursday my three-year old started school.

My three-year old. Started school.

Okay, there’s no need for me to be dramatic about it. It’s just nursery school. He’ll go 4 times per week for 3 hours a day. And yet in the weeks leading up to his first day, I felt as anxious as a mom sending her kid off to college. Thinking about it, I see two reasons behind my nervousness.

First of all, I’ve been fretting about what school to send LK to since, well, before he was born. I went to the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade, and I loved it. My school was a small, warm community that had truly creative teachers who knew how to make students think. To this day, I feel the effects of this education, particularly with respect to my love of literature and writing.

In the French educational system, the emphasis is not on independent thought. Creativity is generally discouraged. And I have never, ever heard a French person say that he or she loved school. From what I understand, school is something to be endured. Teachers motivate through negative reinforcement; that is, they try to shame students into performing better. This ideology could not be further from my experience and it’s nothing I want for my children. My husband, who attended a wonderful German-American school in Berlin, agrees.

We opted for a bilingual Montessori school in the hopes that the Montessori philosophy of “self-directed learning” will override the French cookie-cutter approach to learning. But still…I’ve heard stories of young children being called “null” (nothing) by their teachers after making a mistake and of kids that are stymied by the idea of formulating their own opinion in a school context. (This from friends with kids in the system and friends that have taught or tutored young French students). So, even though I have confidence in the Montessori philosophy, I remain slightly worried about Frenchiness creeping into LK’s education. I’ll go ballistic if anyone in a position of authority ever calls him ‘null.’ That’s the first reason I was nervous about LK starting school.

The second reason I was nervous was because I didn’t know what to wear on his first day.

Hey – don’t laugh. These things are important in Paris. I learned that early on, when LK was just a tot and I took him to play in the sandbox without getting a pedicure first. That was humiliating. Let me tell you, French moms are not like American moms. I don’t care how young your baby is, or how little sleep you’ve gotten: if you’re in public, you better look good. There’s no rolling out of bed, throwing on sweats and taking the kids to school with your hair all over the place. And you don’t wear sneakers unless you’re jogging (ha!) or they’re Converse high-tops and you’re in the Marais.* It just doesn’t happen.

I changed my clothes three times on that first morning and got all panicky when I couldn’t find a decent pair of shoes. By the time, I left the house (wearing make-up, dressed in a faux-African print dress, heeled strappy sandals, and a light brown cape), I felt ridiculously tarty. But when I got to school, it was clear I made the right choice. All of the parents dropping off their kids looked as if they had been invited to a late summer picnic whose dress code was “casual chic.” Only nannies wore jeans – and since I am frequently mistaken for a nanny (definitely a subject for another post), I was glad that made myself stand out as a parent.

So, now that LK and I both have two days under our belt with this new school, we’re both feeling pretty good about it. LK is happy. The teachers seem sweet and caring. The parents are friendly enough for being French.** And I have a good excuse to hit the stores for some chic Fall clothes.

_______________

*Case in point: On Friday, I took the kids to the playground at the Place des Vosges and observed that not one single mother perched on the edge of the sandpit was wearing sneakers. The mom next to me was wearing black patent leather pumps, another wore camel-colored suede boots and a mini-dress, and yet another wore pointy-toed hot-pink suede sling backs. No joke. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I was wearing scuffed black ballerina flats.

**This is not meant to be an insult to French people. Americans are far more open and friendly with strangers than the French. That’s just the way it is. Only one mom introduced herself to me, and I startled another mother by introducing myself and asking about her child (this was at pick-up). But the general air was of friendliness.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Homeward Bound

Well, I'm off tomorrow with the two youngsters on my own. Though I'm dreading the thought of 8-hours in an airplane with two active toddlers, I am looking forward to going home. In addition to seeing my family, here's what I'm looking forward to the most:

1. Seedless grapes.

2. Inexpensive blueberries

3. Warm summer nights.

4. Knowing that I will be able to wear the little summer dresses and cute sandals that I've packed. (In Paris, summer weather is so capricious that one never knows)

5. Whole Foods

6. Not being terrified of driving in the city.

7. Seeing my kids with my family, in my city, in my country.

8. 4th of July fireworks

9. Chesapeake Bay Crabs/Crabcake sandwiches

10. U.S. shopping (the Soldes are kind of a joke in the face of a Macy's Spectacular Saturday Sale where half the store is 70% off)

11. The concept of customer service

13. The abundance of cheddar cheese

14. Life cereal

15. SPEAKING ENGLISH!!


But I'll miss France, too. Apart from my husband (and the nanny), here's what I'll miss the most:

1. That I won't be able to tell who won the latest World Cup match just by listening to what language is being shouted in the streets.

2. Poker night.

3. Champagne.

4. Grocery shopping on foot (I hate lugging the kids in and out of the car everytime I need to go to the store.)

5. Umm.... I think it's been too long since my last visit home because I can't think of anything else I'll miss about Paris right now. I should probably do a post about "what I'm looking forward the most about coming back to Paris." I like Paris best after I've been away for awhile.

What do you look forward to when you go home?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Sweetest Sorrow

When I was about six months pregnant with my oldest son, I started dating again.

Before you shout Whore! and click away from my pages, let me explain: I started dating women. Other moms. Think: MBW ISO BFF.

Here's how the mom-dating scene in Paris goes: You meet someone through an online expat Anglophone mother’s forum. If you have enough in common online (usually that being children around the same age and living roughly in the same neighborhood), you agree to meet in real life. You describe yourselves in an email so that you'll recognize each other in whatever café or park we chose. And then you meet, filling awkward silences with polite chat about your pregnancies and/or kids if it was a bad date, or laughing hysterically about life in France, books you've read, your husbands, swollen ankles or whatever, if it was a good date.

Just like in the pre-marriage dating world, most dates were just OK. You liked the other person well enough, but you’re pretty sure that you won’t be spending the rest of your lives together. In the pre-marriage dating world, depending on your age, you might stop the relationship right there (like a 20-something), or you might go on a couple more dates to make sure that you’re not missing something (a 30-something). When you’re an expat, you find yourself a lot less choosy about friendships, and so as long as you got along reasonably well, chances are you’ll have a couple more dates before the connection fizzles or you establish a comfortable, though not life-changing relationship.

And every now and then, you make a really great connection with someone. Your kids get along, your husbands like each other, and when you get together you can’t stop blabbing. Slowly, she begins to feel a hole that is created by your expat existence. A family-shaped hole.

And then, what often happens is, she moves away.

I hate this part of being an expat: saying goodbye to dear friends – or people who were on their way to being dear friends, but now you’ll never really know because although you have every intention of keeping in touch, you don’t know how you will because she’s moved somewhere in the world that you probably won’t visit because you already have so many other dear friends and family scattered all over the world and you only have so much time and money to visit everybody.

Since moving to Paris, I’ve lost dear friends to South Africa, Montreal, Barcelona, California, Hong Kong, and Rhode Island. Just two days ago, I just lost a second pair of dear friends to Rhode Island – but happily, they moved to the same city as the other friends (with whom we’ve managed to remain close) so that boosts the chance that we’ll visit there and won’t just be “Christmas Card” friends. People who aren’t expat say how lucky I am to have friends all over the world. But I don’t feel lucky. I want my friends here with me.

There’s not much that can be done about this dilemma, except to avoid short-timers and build friendships with locals. After suffering a string of losses just around the time of LK’s first birthday, for a long time whenever I met someone new, one of my first questions was: “So, how long will you be here?” If the answer was less than two years, even we had everything in common apart from our parents, I lost interest. Buh-bye.

As the good-bye I said on Sunday was my first goodbye in a long time, I think I’ve been pretty successful in recent years in avoiding relationships with Paris short-timers. But I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. The friends that just left really enriched my life here in multiple ways, even though our friendship only solidified in the last 2 years. I would never regret our friendship even though it means that now, for a long while, I will continue to look for them in places that they will not be.

So, what’s an expat to do? Keep going on dates, hoping to find The One and pray she doesn't leave me? Blow off relationships that could be great for the short-term but bittersweet in the long-term? Keep everyone at a distance? Or take friendship in whatever form it comes and resign myself to the inevitable sweet sorrow of saying goodbye?

What do you do?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reason #432 that I'm grateful for my expat life

Since having kids, I haven’t had a chance to enjoy the main thing I loved about being an expat in Europe: the travel opportunities. Most of our vacations are spent shuttling back and forth between our families in Germany and the U.S. – and as most expat parents know, much as one loves seeing family and friends, visits home are hardly vacations at all.

Anyway, last week a good friend did me the solid of marrying her boyfriend down in Basque Country, an absolutely gorgeous, green, hilly part of southwest France that shares a culture with northeast Spain. Driving down south with my kids sleeping (or vomiting or crying or whatever) in the backseat, I felt flooded with the excitement that road trips brings – and especially road trips in Europe bring.

When traveling by car in Europe, there’s no need to stay at some skanky hotel/motel off the highway. Why should you, when for almost the same price you can stay in a castle!


I admit, I’m kind of a castle-whore. If there’s ever an opportunity for me to bed down in one, I will. There’s just something about those turrets…

The Chateau de Cherveux is a 15th century castle mid-way between Paris and Biarritz, near Niort. It was built by Robert de Cunningham, a Scot who had been a captain of an artillery squad for France during the Hundred Years war. Over the years the castle was besieged many times, and it is clear that it was not merely the kind of decorative chateau you find in the Loire Valley: this chateau was a fortress, complete with a moat, drawbridge, battlements, and arrow loop (those narrow windows from which arrows could be fired). The drawbridge is gone, but you can see the rest on a tour of the castle.

Like most people visiting a castle, I try my best to travel back in time while there. I place my hand on a stone wall or an original wooden door, trying to imagine the hand of some 15th century person resting on that exact spot. Climbing the staircases, my mind catches a glimpse of the dirty hem of some servant’s robe as she carries a tray up to her master. I won’t say that I force these images – it’s easy to summon the past in such an old place. But my experience at the Chateau was somewhat different. Staying there was a bit like having the past recreated. It was as if we were travelers of yore, arriving at an inn mid-journey. We were hot, tired and dusty from the road, seeking only a filling meal and comfortable bed (and some water for the horses) so that we might continue our travels the next day.

Upon arriving, the Chateau owner greeted us warmly and showed us to our room, which was a large sage-green chamber with views of the castle’s courtyard and grass-filled moat. I fell in love with the appointments of the room, including the two massive oak armoires, the wrought-iron canopy bed (sans canopy) and old-fashioned candle holder that would be perfect for wandering the castle’s halls at night. Even the bathroom was charming – the tub was built under a high stone arch.

Like many B&B-type establishments in France, the Chateau offered a table d’hôte, which means that they serve their guests a homemade dinner at a communal table. Rather than trying to find a restaurant after a long drive with two small kids, we opted to eat at the Chateau. We were the only guests at the castle that night, so the four of us ate a deceptively simple dinner of goat-cheese quiche, roast chicken and boiled potatoes in a cozy high-ceilinged dining room. We poured our wine and water from pitchers into heavy glass goblets. For dessert, the Chateau owner brought us a bowl heaped with fresh strawberries. When we praised the excellence of her cooking (I saw her in the kitchen messing about with copper pots on an Aga), she told us that all the products were organic and from the Chateau’s farm, except for the chicken which came from the neighboring farm. She also said when there were ten or more guests, her brother-in-law prepares medieval dinners with recipes from Jeanne Bourin's cookbook "Cuisine Medievale."

After dinner, we took our wine glasses into the small courtyard and watched the kids chase after a soccer ball as the setting sun turned the castle’s walls to gold. And then, we went upstairs to bed. And even that bed was everything that it should have been. It was as if the Chateau owners had given up their own bed for us. It was that comfortable.

The next morning, the magic of the castle persisted and we had a lovely breakfast of crusty baguettes, sesame bread, croissants, fresh butter and homemade apricot-ginger jam. It was hard to leave. We made noises about moving in. The Chateau owner laughed as she peeled our fingers off of the castle’s gate.

I have had the good fortune to stay in many wonderful hotels, B&Bs and even a few castles in my life, but thanks to the warmth, discretion and incomparable taste of the Chateau owners, this place will always stand out in my memory.

If you can, go there.



Saturday, May 8, 2010

Manners, Shmanners

A few days ago, I read this blog post by Adrian Leeds about the “murder” of the American Hamburger in France and nearly killed myself laughing. If you don’t have time to click on the link, let me sum it up: the French don’t pick up hamburgers with their hands to eat them – they don’t even put the top part of the bun on the rest of the burger – they eat them very daintily with a knife and fork. Leed’s description is spot-on and is something I’ve observed many times with a sort of awed incredulity.

The French are trained at a very young age to eat just about everything with a knife and fork. While I believe that this is generally a good thing (do people even use knives in the U.S. anymore?), sometimes when I watch them struggling to eat some down-home finger-lickin' food with a knife and fork, I feel sorry for them.

Last New Year’s Eve, I got a hankering for some crab legs (I grew up near a wharf) and so my husband and I bought some King Crab legs to ring in the New Year. The way I grew up eating them, you steam them hot, douse ‘em with Old Bay seasoning, then crack them with either your hands or - if you're a lightweight – a nutcracker. Next, you swirl the crab meat around in some melted butter, pop it in your mouth and go: mmmmmm. It’s not fancy eating. Butter dribbles down your chin. Your hands get sticky with crab juice and seasoning. The table is littered with shells. But who cares? As far as I'm concerned, the process of eating crab legs is just as soul-satisfying as the taste.

Anyway, we invited a French couple over to share in these goodies. When I plopped the platter of legs on the table, they looked slightly alarmed -- they had never eaten crab legs before -- but then tucked in bravely. While Dawg and I messily eschewed the nutcracker in favor of our hands, our friends quickly figured out how to use the nutcracker to crack the legs, used their knives to extract the meat, used their forks to dip the meat in the butter and then ate the meat tidily with their forks and knives. I kept having to repress a smile at this glaring cultural difference. But I had no urge to be French about it.

Didn’t look like as much fun.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

To Asparagus, With Love

As anyone reading this blog can tell, I am sometimes conflicted about being an International Mama. On the one hand, I love that my kids will (hold thumbs, touch wood) be trilingual and have a broad view of life and the world. On the other hand, I am afraid that they may feel rootless and on the periphery of all cultures, as I often do.

This weekend, though, I felt a renewed joy at being an International Mama. All because of a bunch of asparagus.

When I first arrived in Paris from NYC in May 2001, I dropped off my bags at the apartment my law firm had rented for me and then jetted off to work on a case in Frankfurt, Germany, where I would remain for the next two weeks. I remember those two weeks in Frankfurt as being cold and gray, but I was enchanted anyway. I was in Europe! I was going to live in Paris! Everything was delightful and strange –the way people actually sat down and had lunch together (instead of eating alone at your desk as we did in NYC), the heavy, old-fashioned room key that opened the door to my hotel room, the excessively long, impossible to pronounce street names. But the weirdest, most wonderful thing I recall about these first two weeks in Europe was that I happened to arrive in the thick of asparagus season.

Before that time, I don’t think I ever gave a thought to asparagus having a season. Hell, before that, I didn’t give a thought to any food having a season, except for maybe cantaloupe and watermelon. But if you ever spend time in Germany in late April and May, you’ll not soon forget spargel season. It seemed like a festival. Asparagus was everywhere, on every menu, overflowing on every market stand. Mostly the thick white variety, but also slim green stalks too. I ate it with pasta, on pizza, and drizzled with butter. At the end of my first week, my new boss took me to a restaurant that offered a spargel special, where your appetizer, main course, and dessert all featured asparagus. Out of curiosity (mainly about the dessert), I ordered it. It was asparagus cream soup, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, and asparagus sorbet. It was all fairly tasty but that was it for me and spargel. I did not eat another stalk of asparagus for the rest of the season.

Anyway, last Saturday, I was grocery shopping with my kids on the fabulous rue Montorgueil (another reason I’m happy to be an International Mama), when I saw the market shelves loaded with asparagus. I felt a burst of happiness. Instantly they transported me back to those days when Europe was so new to me, like a gift I had just unwrapped. They reminded me of how (before culture-shock set in) I was eager to immerse myself in new cultures and new languages. They reminded me that I chose this confusing, exhausting and exhilarating expat life. Most of all, they reminded me that I’m not just standing on the periphery of someone else's culture, looking in from the outside. So many aspects of German and French culture - like looking forward to eating asparagus in the spring -have seeped into my life and become a treasured part of it. I may not be fully integrated into French or German culture (or American culture for that matter) – but I am creating a family culture that draws from all three of the countries that influences our lives. This gives me hope that my kids will be the global citizens that everyone insists that they will be, finding strong roots in their hodgepodge family culture.

I bought three bunches of asparagus that day. Later, when my husband saw them in the refrigerator, he shouted joyfully “Spargel!” like a little kid who wakes up remembering that it’s his favorite holiday. I cooked them that night (steamed with olive oil, parsley and a chopped hard-boiled egg) and together, my family and I savored the taste of spring.

Friday, April 16, 2010

International Maman?

So. The last time I checked in, I was 7 months pregnant, had just put LK in a French garderie, and was all teary and anxious about him growing away from me into a French world that I know nothing about.

These days, the baby on the inside has been outside for 8 months old. LK adores the garderie. And I am happy and proud that my son comes home singing French songs that I don't know. But something happened yesterday that got me feeling reflective and moody about our international life.

It was a small something. Really small. All that happened was that the baby (Pup) grabbed ahold of my pant leg to pull himself up and LK, who still gets a bit jealous, pushed at Pup's hands, shouting, "Ne touche pas Maman!" (Don't touch mama!)

For a moment, I was filled with pride (well, not about the pushing and shouting part). This was the first time I'd heard LK say a full sentence in that wasn't just a repeat of something he'd heard at the garderie. Then two things hit me: (i) he was speaking to his little brother in French, and (ii) he had referred to me Maman.

It's not so surprising that LK spoke in French to his brother. After all, French is the language he hears spoken to little kids the most and it's the one (I assume) he speaks with his peers. Still, it was both awesome and strange to think that my boys' chosen language might be the tongue of neither my husband nor myself. But even odder was hearing myself referred to as Maman. 'Cause I gotta to say, while it amuses me to think they might choose to speak French between them: I don't want to be Maman.

There are many lovely things about being a mother, but one of the things I love best is hearing LK call me, "Mama." I never tire of it. Even when he's calling "Mama!" at 3am. Even when he's screaming, "No, Mama!" in the middle of tantrum. Even when I'm on the telephone and suddenly he needs my attention urgently, and says, "Mama? Mama? Mama? Mama? Excuse me...Mama?"

To him, I suppose, it's just my name. But to me, it feels like an endearment. A verbal hug and kiss. But hearing Maman on the other hand....I feel nothing. He might as well call me Mary or Julie or some other name that isn't mine. If he called Maman! in the middle of the night, I suppose I'd still get up. But I also might just poke Dawg and say, "Your turn."

Seriously though, I doubt that the boys will ever end up calling me Maman. But when they speak in French, they might think of me as Maman. They won't think it sounds bizarre as applied to me. It'll just be what they call Mama in French. This makes my brain whirl. It seems so odd to me that they will have some emotional connection to the word Maman, when I - the person they're referring to - has none.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

La Rentrée

Hello? Anybody there?

* blows dust off of blog *

I'm coming back.