Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Little Joie de Vivre

I often wish I could bottle my children’s passion for living. When they are excited, every ounce of their bodies seems to shake with glee; when they are sad, you would think the whole world had crumbled at their feet. Perhaps as adults, we can’t get that excited because we simply can't get that depressed— we’re supposed to achieve some level of perspective, but the happy part doesn’t sound so bad.

In some ways, being a tourist is much like being a child; You see everything for the first time, find even the most mundane details interesting and dress for comfort, instead of style (at least to some degree).

I’ve lived in Paris twice now and been a “tourist” here many times in between, but having lived here first, I never really experienced the city as a tourist. I spent all my time trying to fit in— wanting to look, speak and act the role of a Parisian. I did it quite well, actually, but only recently did I realize I missed something.

So, in order to give real tourism a try, I bought a ticket and boarded the cheesy tourist boats that make their way up and down the Seine every day. I couldn’t think of anything more "touristy"- and they didn’t let me down.

As we made our way down the river (the guide giving his pathetically brief description of the world’s most treasured monuments), a funny thing started to happen. I noticed that after every description, the whole crowd started clicking their digital cameras. At first I scoffed at them. Wouldn’t it be so much better to buy a reprint of an image by a talented professional who wasn’t bobbing up and down the river as they clicked away? And then I realized that it wasn’t about having the best picture—or even a great picture. Instead, it was about being free to think everything was beautiful, new and interesting—and also about capturing the memory of that freedom. Shortly thereafter, I started clicking away. It felt very child-like. It felt good.

Now, whenever I see that look of excitement cross my children’s faces, I not only recognize it, but I understand it, too. In fact, I'm even a bit envious of it. Perhaps joie de vivre is a French thing or perhaps it is a gift of childhood; either way I truly hope I preserved a bit of it with the clicks of my camera. If not, perhaps a little red burgundy will inspire me.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Curiosity Killed the Afternoon

They say Curiosity Killed the Cat and, if so, I probably should have died a good half-dozen times by now. My deep curiosity seems to land me in some... precarious situations. It recently landed me in Paris' Museum of Curiosity and Magic. What could be more perfect?

The guidebook said it was great for kids- there was a show and lots to see. Given my quest to find the best activities for toddlers, it seemed ideal. Pulling bunnies out of hats and colorful scarves out of a sleeve would keep anyone captivated-- even a toddler!

Walking down into the museum, however, I was acutely aware that I was entering a cave and hoped desperately they weren't going to try me as an escape artist once I got inside. The museum itself was probably quite interesting in the 1980s when it opened, but would have more accurately been called a museum of the history of magic. There were many antique magic tricks encased in glass with French descriptions and a few that moved but, frankly, nothing my toddlers were so interested in seeing. On top of that, the show was more descriptive than "show" and was again, naturally, in French. I spent the afternoon in the magic museum rather similar to how I would spend it at the Louvre- chasing the kids, saying "don't touch," and trying to figure out why I had thought this was a good idea in the first place.

Re-emerging into the daylight, we made our way to a park and had a great time running, climbing and sliding. I quickly realized that curiosity should have killed this museum long ago. It certainly nearly killed our afternoon.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Stalking Cinderella

Having toddlers around means sometimes doing things you would never otherwise do. I occasionally swing on swings, read board books and I’ve been known to attend imaginary tea parties. I know the names of all the Thomas trains and can sing at least a dozen Laurie Berkner songs by heart. Having young children not only gives you the opportunity to do these things, it actually gives you license to relive a bit of your childhood. To that end, my husband and I recently found ourselves on the RER line headed towards Euro Disney. It wasn’t that we had always dreamed of going, nor that our children had been begging for it. It more seemed like one of those experiences that would bring out the child in each of us.

Arriving at the gates was fully reminiscent of the gates at Disney parks in the U.S. The magic of Disney seemed to emanate from each and every corner and I found myself becoming almost giddy as we made our way inside. We did all the toddler-friendly activities we could find— ate lunch at Buzz Lightyear’s Pizza Planet, toured “It’s a Small World,” met Tigger and Baloo and tried removing the sword from Excalibur’s stone. The thing that was really going to leave an impression on me, however, was meeting Cinderella— or, more to the point— almost not meeting Cinderella.

When we arrived in France, my 2-year-old daughter, Kate, had no interest in anything feminine. It remained that way until the day she happened to see the movie Cinderella— the music, the animals, the dresses, she was fascinated with it all. I went from having the perfect little tomboy to a pretty, pretty princess practically overnight— all due to the power of Cinderella.

The line to meet Cinderella was an hour long, which is a lifetime in toddler speak. I sat there weighing the drawback of spending an entire hour trying to keep Kate in line against the joy of making her dream come true. I didn’t want to be one of those moms who torture her children for a “fun experience” but I convinced myself this was different. I decided to go for it.

About half way through our wait, I noticed some activity up ahead and realized the princesses were trading out. Suddenly an hour waiting to meet Cinderella became an hour to meet Jasmine. In no time at all my Mickey Mouse ears came off and I became a calculating opportunist focused exclusively on making sure my daughter (who certainly won’t remember this watershed event) met Cinderella. I was one of those moms, after all. In fact, I probably bore a strong resemblance to some of the cheerleader moms that appear on the evening news, but I digress. With Kate under my arm and my camera in hand, I ran for it.

Thankfully there was a crowd gathering around Cinderella, so she wasn’t moving too quickly. I knew that getting in the midst of the crowd would get me nowhere fast, so I ran around the crowd and put myself directly in her path. She noticed us (how could she not?) and gave us a half smile while explaining that she could not stop. I snapped a couple pictures as we walked, but more importantly, Kate got to meet her.

In the end, Kate was thrilled to meet her, though it probably wasn’t worth the guerilla tactics used to get us there. As for me, well my Mickey Mouse ears are now firmly back in place and I can cross meeting Cinderella off my “to do” list. Perhaps I should just replace it with stalking her, though. At least that would be accurate.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Confessions on a Dance Floor

Considering that we all have toddlers and aren’t very good penpals (virtual or otherwise), my girlfriends and I have done a surprisingly good job of staying in touch while we’ve been apart these past few months. Still, nothing beats quality time together and I’ve been longing for a night out with the girls. Last week, for better or worse, my wish came true!

Three of my best friends—all strong, intelligent and unique women—decided rather spontaneously to take a trip to Paris. By the time they decided, it was only a few weeks until they arrived so I began compiling a list of activities. In some ways, their trip took shape much like our conversations— without any real structure or a massive list "to do" list. Instead, we pooled our ideas and our guidebooks to create a somewhat unorthodox itinerary.

Since it was a girls' getaway, it seemed appropriate to splurge a bit and they stayed at the oh-so-famous Hotel de Crillon (in many ways similar to the old Plaza Hotel in New York). It is a traditional luxury hotel, known as home to an elite group (including Madonna when she is in town) which meant it came complete with plush robes and slippers- essentials for a girls’ getaway.

Throughout the week, we ate well and drank even better- talking and laughing as we made our way through the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and a rather impressive assortment of boutiques. The most read newspaper in Paris, Le Parisien, actually did a brief article about us about our luxury shopping, but that's a story for another day. (Had they found my Visa bill? I suddenly felt guilty!). For the most part our activities were pretty benign- all that is, except one night that is the basis for my Confession.

It started, as all our evenings did, in their suite at the Crillon. They had the foresight to select and chill a lovely champagne. From there we went to Buddha Bar- a great restaurant serving carefully prepared French-Asian fusion dishes and an intriguing ambiance. After a wonderful seared tuna, and great conversation, we made our way to the Moulin Rouge for their "early show." I had been there once before and frankly hadn’t found it especially inspiring, but thought it might be fun in a group. Not only was it fun to be there together, and funny to see my husband with 4 dates (was it a dream come true or a torture chamber? I'm still not sure), but it was an excellent show- snake lady, horses and all!

We left the Moulin Rouge around 11 :30p and walked around briefly before bidding adieu to my husband (someone had to relieve the babysitter, afterall!) and heading back to watch the scene unfold at Buddha Bar. As it turned out, the scene had already largely unfolded. The peaceful restaurant we had left just a couple hours before was now filled with great music (available for 40 euros at the door) and an eclectic mix of people, every one of them clammoring to get one of the bar-level tables. It didn’t take four women long to secure a table, however, and we spent a couple hours watching people pick-up dates, other people trying to forget theirs and still others drowning themselves after a bad one.

After a couple hours, though, we’d had our fill and decided to call it a night- or so I naively thought. As we stepped outside, however, they asked where we were going next! As the only one not suffering from jet lag, I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell them I was too tired, so I offered up a dance club I’d wanted to try, but for which I had never been awake (since it didn’t open until 2a.m.- Yes, it was now 2 a.m.) To make a long story short, we found the club and danced ourselves to sleep barefoot atop a bed of broken champagne flutes (literally, but accidentally, of course) finally returning to the Crillon around 5:30a.m.

I don’t know that I would recommend trying a club that doesn’t even open ‘til 2a.m., and I would highly advise against dancing barefoot on broken glass (my foot took over a week to recover!), but it was an unforgettable night with an unforgettable group of women. Perhaps this is how Madonna's "Confessions on a Dance Floor" was born- perhaps even on the same dance floor; it is how my Confessions on a Dance Floor will end.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What a Wonderful World

I live on a mostly pedestrian street in Paris, which means there are people walking on it at nearly every moment of the day and night. Occasionally street musicians wander up the street, filling our apartment with old Edith Piaf and Louis Armstrong tunes.

A few days ago, after several near 100 degree days, I was snapped out of a good book by a loud, random sound- like someone repeatedly slamming cupboard doors outside. The noise was the result of shutters caught in the now somewhat forceful wind. You could almost feel the thunderstorm descending on the city.

I watched as the tourists continued on their way, completely unaware that their path was about to become a river. And then it happened, it started to pour. Suddenly, these peaceful, carefree tourists were scurrying for cover, throwing their bags of souvenirs over their heads until they found the haven of a well-placed awning. And then they waited. And waited. About 5 minutes later it was still pouring and everyone began to realize they may not be able to wait it out.

Suddenly, these same tourists who were peacefully meandering through the streets just minutes before had reverted to their fast-paced day-to-day mentality. They saw a problem and took action. They were almost all now in a dead run towards their next haven. They had no prayer of staying dry, but they had every intention of getting dry quickly. Was it a race? If so, they were going to win.

And then there were the others. They left the safety of the awnings with smiles on their faces. They didn't cover their heads or scamper about. They walked and, yes, they got wet (very wet, actually), but they had fun doing it. They continued strolling down the street, laughing at themselves, laughing at the predicament and knowing they would be dry soon enough. When life hands out lemons, some people make lemonade. It looked sweet and delicious.

In the end, they say beauty is skin-deep, but it seems like some vacations are only skin-deep, too. Some people go through the motions of vacation, all the while multitasking about their next major purchase or career move, ready to run should some raindrops fall. Others let go of everyday life and take some time to enjoy what the day brings, whether it's a nostalgic Louis Armstrong tune or a bucket of rain- oh, what a wonderful world.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Top 10 Toddler Travel Tips

When we brought our toddlers to France nearly 6 months ago, it was with very careful planning and a well-rehearsed mantra of "this too will pass." It actually didn't go too badly and, as it is summer travel season, I thought I'd give a list of the top 10 things that saved us- or, perhaps more to the point, saved me- from a complete meltdown at 30,000 feet.

1. Tide-to-go: Bless the Mom who came up with this portable stain remover. It is as perfect for the melted candy bar as it is for the spilled red wine. Bring one in your carry on and an extra in your suitcase for long trips.

2. Velcro: If you pre-cut a strip of velcro into small squares, you can apply it to anything that might roll away (i.e. crayons, markers, balls, etc.) before they have a chance to get away.

3. Baby wipes: I know this sounds a bit obvious, but it isn't just for diaper changes, anymore. Use it to wipe off the tray table, the pacifier that fell on the ground or your child's hands that just discovered cool black goo under the chair.

4. Anti-bacterial hand cleanser: Follow up on the now-clean hands by killing any bacteria that were thriving in the yet-undefined black goo. Then clean your own hands for good measure.

5. Crayola ColorWonder: No smell, no stains. Need I say more? PS- As previously noted, this isn't available around the world, so pack an extra ColorWonder coloring book for the trip home.

6. Inflatable beach ball: This one isn't my idea, though I don't remember where I first heard it. It is small, lightweight and you can blow it up during the layover. It can't hurt anyone, won't go through a window and is easy to find if it gets sent down the concourse.

7. Outlet safety plugs: This may sound a bit strange but every quiet corner I've ever found in an airport has an open outlet. While this is good for business travelers, it is not good for toddlers running off steam during a layover. Inevitably, the kids will try to fit the cute pipecleaner animals into the perfect, small holes. Not good.

8. Dark, thin blanket: The local craft or fabric store will sell black fleece by the yard. It is perfect to sit on during a layover, to block any unnecessary light when you're trying to get your child to sleep on the plane (in which case it can be used in conjunction with the velcro!), and then later to prop up your own head.

9. Sippy cups: My all-time favorite. Sippy cups do as they are told, even when everything else is going wrong. Perfect and dependable. What could be better?

10.Child-size backpack: The kids can carry their own carry-on starting at 2 (at least that's when I tried it). I'm not big on making kids pull their own weight, but this seemed to make them feel like an important part of the team and saved me from multiple carry-ons. 6 months later, they are packing their own toys and putting the backpacks on themselves.

The last one didn't make the top 10 because it depends on your trip. Like most parents, we went out and bought the best-of-the-best carseats when our children were born and, unfortunately, that means the seats are large and expensive. What that means for travel is they won't fit in a standard airline seat, and we wouldn't want to ditch them mid-trip only to replace them when we got home. In the end, we purchased new, inexpensive car seats specifically for the trip. We used them when we needed them, and left them when it became too complicated. It worked beautifully.

Best of luck with your summer travel plans. Bon voyage!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Live at your Own Risk

A few weeks ago, I visited a castle with my children just outside Strasbourg. I noticed that while the castle had been recently renovated (truly- it was amazing), the new-and-improved castle came without the safety features that would be required in the U.S. On the drawbridge, one missed step would have landed my 3 year old squarely in the (now waterless) moat. When we later reached the top of the castle, I leaned my head out the window and was impressed by the view, but was acutely aware it was a long, long way down should your feet slip. The window wasn't covered in plexiglass to protect the modern idiots (me) from... themselves. It wasn't covered and neither was I.

As we descended the mountain, there was a sign for Monkey Mountain. I was completely intrigued- I've always loved animals, especially monkeys. Needless to say, we made a detour, hoping to see one or two monkeys, but in the end we must have seen 100. At one point, I became acutely aware that when we walked through the door, we had basically walked into an enormous monkey cage in which we were now wandering, popcorn in hand (monkeys like to eat popcorn- go figure). One had to wonder whether they were our entertainment, or if we were theirs. As the tide began to change, however, and two monkeys began to fight, we quickly made our escape through the door marked EXIT.

In each of these cases, there were small signs absolving the management of any and all responsibility. The signs also kindly handed over full responsibility to the parents.

Then yesterday, I took the kids to a CineAquarium in Paris. No, we didn't swim with the sharks, but we did pet the fish. My 2 and 3 year olds literally stuck their hands (their arms, actually) into the designated fish tank and "pet" the Koi goldfish totally unsupervised by staff. It wasn't dangerous, of course, but at home, someone would have complained that people could have endangered or hurt the fish. Someone else would have sued, claiming to have been bit by the goldfish.

It seems odd, but I'm not used to thinking for myself anymore. The U.S. is so regulated, that we no longer need to use common sense in everyday life- if there is anything unsafe about an activity, you aren't be allowed to do it. It's a bit ironic that we raise children never having to make decisions about their safety and then scoff at the teenagers who do something dangerous. If they've never had the opportunity to determine what is safe, how do we expect them to know? Perhaps we should put a bumper sticker on their cars saying "Drive at Your Own Risk" or better yet, we could put a sign on everyones doors saying "Live at Your Own Risk." The only question, then, is to whom we can hand responsibility... Uncle Sam? And the cycle continues.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Turn the Other Cheek

As a good, Midwestern girl, I’m not supposed to do anything too big, flashy or revealing. We Scandinavians are a quiet, subtle people— have you ever heard of “Minnesota nice” or Garrison Keillor? I like to think that my world is a bit bigger and perhaps a little more sophisticated than the stereotype suggests but, as the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.”

It is not by coincidence that the private, conservative Scandinavians live in the North whereas the more flashy, revealing Italians, for example, live in the South. The Scandinavians cover their skin because it is cold— the Italians do not because it is hot. It is survival of the fittest, not rocket science. The interesting part, though, is that it seems to be as tangible as it is psychological. The Scandinavians also cover up many other aspects of their lives whereas the Latin cultures seem to be much more comfortable revealing theirs.

As with most stereotypes, this one is most amusing at the extremes. It is 97 degrees in France today and the beach is packed.

Being the good Midwestern girl that I am, I dutifully put my bikini away at 25 and resolved myself to the standard black one piece. However, I knew very well that summertime in France was going to require something a little more... interesting, so I ventured out of my shell and bought a new 2-piece. As I stood in my room looking at my two swimsuits- the cool, conservative one-piece or the green string bikini, I had to make a decision. My instinct, of course, was to go for the 1 piece— this twice-pregnant body hadn’t seen a 2 piece in quite some time. Yet, I’ve been trying new things in France and, hey, if I didn’t do it now, when would I? I quickly put the bikini on before I could change my mind and made my way to the beach.

When I got there, I was happy with my decision. Less than 1 percent of the women had 1-piece swimsuits. In addition, nearly a quarter of the women were topless. I was far from flashy—in fact, I blended in (every Scandinavian’s dream!).

Looking back, it seems a bit ironic that I thought anyone would care. Was it egocentric to assume that someone would actually notice me? Probably. Did I think the French women would all look better than me? Of course I did. (Though I have to say not all the women were a "perfect," curveless size 2 and many of them actually had stretch marks themselves.) Besides, even if they did notice, I could just put on my best “Minnesota nice” smile and turn the other cheek— so to speak, of course.

PS- No, there will be no photo accompanying this article. Ever. I'm still Scandinavian, after all. :)

Monday, July 24, 2006


I spent this morning at an art fair in Montparnasse. More than 100 artists had their creativity on display- an incredible pool of personalities, colors and talent. There were painters , sculptors, jewelry designers and still others I could not begin to define, but they all had a passion for perfection that impressed me.

It occurred to me that while we can`t all be artists, there is something to be learned from their quest to perfect. The French as a whole seem to have learned it quite well, in fact. As the saying goes, what they do, they do well.

For example, anyone who has been to France will acknowledge that the French have nearly perfected the art of making bread. One of the most famous of the French bakeries is Poilane which first opened its doors in 1932. It is now the baker`s granddaughter who is CEO and even though she is only 19, she continues to perfect her family`s techniques, while staying true to the traditional recipes.

Then, of course, there are the pursuits of wine, chcolate, cheese and fashion (what a wonderful country it is!). The connossieurs of each of these trades should rightly be called artists for they have truly transformed their professions into an art.

And as the world well knows (thanks to the youth riots this past Spring) the French choose not only a profession, but a job for life. Perhaps it stands to reason, then, that if you know you will be doing the same thing for the next 30 years, your focus must be on perfecting it (whereas Americans, by comparison, seems more focused on mastering a job before moving on to the next).

There is, of course, no wrong or right, but I am profoundly grateful that both systems exist in this world. This way, I can continue in my American, multitasking ways while enjoying an absolutely perfect , warm chocolate croissant. To me, that really is perfection.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Just Say "Non"

The French are known for having a lovely language. When I took French in high school, I remember people asking me to say something just so they could listen to the beautiful sounds (and remember this is high school—my French was anything but beautiful). The French also have a wonderfully extensive, colorful vocabulary. In fact, I always find it rather ironic when the French/English movie translations bring an entire section of English text into just a few words of French since there are certainly more elegant, eloquent ways to translate the material. Translation, of course, should involve translating the meaning of each word but also, more importantly perhaps, the general meaning of the communicator. What does it say about us if Americans require so much verbosity to grasp a concept while the French can understand quite quickly? While it may say that we, too, enjoy using a colorful vocabulary, it certainly doesn't say much for efficiency!

Take, for example, an American flight. Anyone who has flown in the U.S. could most likely recite the FAA smoking regulations by heart, lengthy though they are:

We are pleased to offer you today a non-smoking flight. Smoking is not permitted in the cabin, aisles or lavatories. Interfering with, tampering with or disabling smoke detectors is a violation of Federal Law.

It sounds familiar, right? The question is whether anyone ever noticed how they then translate the extensive regulations for French-speaking passengers on transatlantic flights:

Ce vol est non fumeur. (Literally: This flight is non smoking).

That’s it- just 5 words and the French understand the policy whereas the Americans require 34 words and may even then spend a minute trying to find a loophole in the vernacular. I laugh out loud nearly every time I hear it.

Another illustration is how childre receive instruction. I tend to do a lot of explaining when I am talking to my children—partly to stave off the rebuttals, partly to help them discover there is logic and reason behind rules (at least in theory). When they want to run across the park barefoot, I try to explain there may be glass that could cut their foot. When they want to stand behind the swing set, I explain how quickly they would get knocked over. When they want to eat the pretty berries, I remind them about tummy aches.

French Moms seem to be much less descriptive. When a little boy recently tried to ride his bike in the sandbox, his Mom simply said “Non.” The child stopped – I was impressed. On another occasion, a little girl was “borrowing” someone’s bike. Her mother said “Non”, and she gave it back. It`s not that my own children refuse to obey if I don`t explain (well OK, maybe a little), but rather that I`m confused by this acceptance of policy by both French children and adults. If you don`t ever question the status quo, how can you improve upon it?

In addition, it occurred to me that economy with words was once considered a great attribute, so why have Americans turned verbosity into necessity and, more importantly, who is right? Does the babbling mother have a point or did Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign have a broader purpose? In other words, do you miss an opportunity to help your children think for themselves if you don’t offer explanations- or, are we raising a new generation of travelers who will need a 100-word airline safety speech?

As with most things, it seems that balance is best. Yes, I do want to help my children start to reason for themselves, but sometimes No is just No. Perhaps Nancy Reagan had it right after all.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A Little Imagination

One of my most beloved pastimes in this country is “people watching.” It is perhaps more enjoyable here because there is a certain ambiance associated with it—you sit at a café, sip an espresso and watch the world go by. From young to old, presidents to paupers and great aunt Mimi to Kate Moss, you see it all.

Since I’ve been here for awhile now, I’ve gotten to know a few of the local characters—there’s the angry old man that actually smiles around kids, the woman who walks around talking to no one in rather elegant French and then there’s Madame Rousseau.

Madame Rousseau is an 85 year old French woman. She is sweet and kind. She is revered by adults as the local sage and adored by kids for her unending candy supply. She has white hair, a ready smile and—if you catch her in just the right light—a bit of a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

I was on a walk with the kids recently when I saw her on the street. She was quick to hand out more than a daily allotment of cookies to which Kate said “thank you.” I told Kate she should say merci to Madame Rousseau since she speaks French, but Madame looked at me, indicated she understood and said “Thank you very much” in English!

I was astounded—I’d spent a fair amount of time talking with her and she hadn’t indicated that she knew English. I never would have guessed why this dear old woman knew those few words of English.

She proceeded to explain that after the war, she “hooked up” with an American G.I. who used to say “thank you very much” afterwards. Had this wise, proper Frenchwoman really said she slept with an American soldier in such an off-the-cuff way? Indeed she had. By the time I had translated what she had said, it was too late to react. I said au revoir and continued with my walk.

A couple weeks later, we had a party in the garden to which Madame Rousseau was invited. We had also invited a number of people who were instrumental in organizing our time here—people we wanted to impress and thank. One of those people was my husband’s boss.

After a round of drinks, I noticed a conversation developing between Madame Rousseau and Mr. Boss. Insanely curious, and a bit worried, I walked over to see what they were discussing. To my horror, Madame was recounting her story about the American G.I. Apparently a couple glasses of wine leads to an even more detailed description than I had received the first time.

Thankfully, instead of being shocked or embarrassed by the story (as I was), Mr. Boss simply said she should have married him—then she could have gone to live in the U.S. To this, my kind, sweet, 85 year old Madame just laughed “But I was already married!”

What more is there to say? Voila- la vie en rose. Perhaps I’ll go back to people watching at sidewalk cafés where a little something is still left to the imagination.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

French Women Don't Get Fat II (a.k.a. The Sweet Life)

The other reason I disagree with researchers regarding the lack of French obesity is that the French do eat more! The French tend to eat all three meals (unlike Americans) and also tend to eat three courses at mealtime—the entrée, main course and dessert. American meals always, naturally, have a main course, but the entrée is optional and dessert is almost, ironically perhaps, a faux pas.

When a group of Americans are out to dinner, it is becoming more and more popular for people to decline dessert. In fact, it is quickly approaching a peer pressure phenomenon. I fail to understand it— is the crème brulee just not good enough? Does the chocolate mousse give them nightmares? Do they not know that declining dessert makes everyone else think they should decline, as well? Even I (a dessert gourmande perhaps) find myself occassionally declining profiteroles at the end of a lovely meal.

Perhaps this is our answer to the lack of walking; perhaps it is because dessert is inefficient or perhaps it is simply because we are so eager to get to the next thing. For myself, however, I plan to keep ordering those profiteroles— maybe I’ll walk home to even the score.

French Women Don't Get Fat

I recently read an advertisement for the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” It said (loosely translated):

Yes; yes. They are talking about us. You didn’t know it, but the French have a reputation for staying thin.

Seriously, they didn’t know it? The whole world knows it— how could the French be the ones who were in the dark? Even academia has gotten in on it— I recently read the results of a research study that studied the same topic for several years. Their conclusion, surprisingly, is that the French simply don’t eat as much.

After having spent a number of months here, however, I have to at least partially disagree. The French don’t eat less and they don’t necessarily exercise more (at least not in the American sense)— they simply spend all day walking!

Life in the U.S. runs on a foundation of “time is money,” which means one must live rather efficiently to survive— we work efficiently, play efficiently and travel efficiently. And the most efficient means of transport is almost never your own two feet. As a result, Americans simply don’t walk! There are noted exceptions to this theory, of course, the most obvious being New York City, but if you think about it, New Yorkers walk because it is more efficient than taking a car!

The French, on the other hand, seem to function on a foundation of “quality over quantity.” It doesn’t stand in direct opposition to the “time is money” concept, of course, but it isn’t always compatible, either. The most “quality” way to get from point A to point B generally is your own two feet.

For myself, I currently spend a minimum of 2 hours per day walking (a total of 1/4 of the average American workday!). My son’s school is a mere 15 minutes on foot, but that is one half hour round-trip and I make the trip four times a day (drop off in the morning, pick up for lunch, drop off in the afternoon and pick up at the end of the day). I know it sounds a bit excessive and I would have complained bitterly, but it is what all the French parents do and I couldn’t really complain just because my American legs weren’t used to walking!

Now, after a few months, it all seems rather natural. In fact, I rather miss the walk on Wednesdays and Sundays when he doesn’t have school. I do believe there are two parents who (more true to the American tradition) drive their cars to pick up their children, but I have to believe that they work far away. Perhaps those French Moms actually will get fat... inquiring researchers want to know.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The City of Love

I wonder what I'll remember about today 20 years from now. Will it be the look on her face when we bought her first necklace, or watching her mouth contort at lunch as she tried to eat the large penne noodles? Perhaps I will remember watching the ice cream drip down her hand as she gleefully ate a single scoop of real French Vanilla. The thing I know I'll never forget, though, is the sensation of falling in love with her. It was magical- almost palpable. Paris does that to you.

Kate is the second, my baby, though she is quick to remind all she is a "big girl." She is exuberant, beautiful and passionate. When she is happy, her laughter is contagious; when she is not, the world seems to melt with her tears.

Kate and I spent the last few days having a mother-daughter weekend in Paris. It was perfect, if not a bit indulgent. It never occurred to me before, but the City of Love isn't only for lovers; it is truly the perfect place to bring anyone you love. Here are some of our highlights:

Eating perfect, warm croissants and drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice / coffee as we watched the world go by on the famous Champs Elysees. It was a wonderful breakfast accompanied by great, classy service, in an outstanding location.

All mother-daughter weekends simply must include tea—whether the Plaza Hotel’s High Tea in New York or a visit to Angelina’s 19th century tearoom in Paris. At Angelina’s, however, it is the hot chocolate (not the tea) that is the drink of necessity. Picture a melted chocolate bar with whipped cream to lighten it up. Watch out for the hot chocolate “mustache” that can sometimes follow.

Tuileries Gardens
This picture-perfect garden located between the Champs Elysees and the Louvre is a wonderful mid-day break. It has a wonderful children’s area including jumping mats (trampolines for toddlers) and a carrousel, as well as stands with a fantastic assortment of ice cream. We tried—and thoroughly enjoyed—them all.

Pet Stores or Animaleries
I never knew they existed in Paris, but leave it to a toddler to find them. Along the river on the right bank, there is a row of pet stores- five or six of them- featuring everything from traditional kittens and goldfish to more exotic roosters and ferrets.

Luxembourg Gardens
While elegant and open, this garden is also very user-friendly. It is one of the few parks in Paris where you can walk on the grass (if accompanied by a child) and the children’s area is second to none. Take a pony ride and swing in the double swings. Watch your daughter glow with happiness.

The most well known of the mother-daughter pastimes, shopping in Paris just can’t be beat. Kate and I found some pretty (and inexpensive) necklaces in the Latin Quarter, as well as lip glosses at Sephora and a Cinderella doll at the Disney Store. Ooh la la!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Through the Looking Glass

I recently attended a lecture by Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker staff member who writes about Paris. He published the New York Times Bestseller Paris to the Moon a few years ago and his lecture, entitled "Americans in Paris," focused on the love affair Amerians have with the city.

In short, he believes Americans are not in love with the city of Paris, but rather an illusion of Paris. He also believes a sense of illusion is a healthy- and even necessary- part of any romance (including romantic love, hmmm...). Following the lecture, as I walked down the Champs Elysees, I tried to see things as they truly are, without the looking glass of my own illusions.

It occurred to me that when I am in Paris, I always live well. I am in lovely, manicured gardens with blooming flowers and flowing fountains; I am in shops where shopkeepers take great pride in knowing their merchandise and helping you find what you need; I am in restaurants where chefs prepare culinary works of art. In short, life in Paris is always filled with beauty, elegance and peace. Ironically, perhaps, life in Paris is not filled with balanced and I believe that is the basis for the illusion.

Life in the U.S. tends to be all work, punctuated by brief moments of play. One might imagine that in the U.S., the opposite of an efficient, productive life is a lazy life. Yet the opposite of productive seems to be anything that doesn't directly relate to productivity. As a result, anything one does to slow life down a bit is seen as counterproductive. Think about it- if someone wants to take the afternoon off to attend their daughter's school concert, go to a museum or get a massage does anyone applaud them? Not really. In the end, however, these very things could actually help productivity (albeit in a roundabout way) by making the individual happier, more balanced and ready to work.

So, how does one live an efficient, productive life AND find balance WITHOUT feeling like life is a constant tug-of-war? I don't know. It isn't a very good answer, but it is because I believe the answer is different for everyone. For myself, I become balanced by experiencing life in France.

Tomorrow morning, my 2 year old daughter and I will take a train to Paris for a few days "just the girls." I can't wait to take her on our first mother-daughter trip even though she certainly won't remember any of it ten years from now. The memories of playing in the gardens, eating breakfast on the Champs Elysees and having wonderful hot chocolate at my favorite tea house, will all be my memories. Perhaps, if I weave the stories carefully enough, though, I can start to teach her about the beauty of Paris, of the importance of balance and of life through the looking glass.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Word about Wine

I am not a wine connoisseur by any extent of the imagination, but I feel like I know my way around a wine list with some sense of dignity. I was rather humbled, however, when I recently read a description of wines so informative and yet so obvious, I was left scrambling.

In short it stated that American wines are generally classified by the grape (such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir), whereas French wines are classified by the region in which they’re grown (such as Champagne or Bordeaux).

While an extremely straight-forward description, it rather confused me because for the first time I realized ordering a red Bordeaux was a rather generic request, asking for something from that area of France, without knowing the taste or grape that was used. Simply stated, you would never buy caviar without knowing the type of fish from which it came (just for the record, I have never bought caviar myself- it was just the best, high ticket price example I could come up with).

What I discovered is that there are rather strict laws on many French products including, of course, wine. It seems there are only a few grapes that can be used in a given region, so there shouldn’t be great variance in the taste. In other words, in order to be a white Bordeaux, the winemaker must have a combination of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle grapes, though the specific amount of each varies. And, to that end, ordering a Napa Valley Bordeaux means all bets are off because Bordeaux should identify where it was grown (and Bordeaux is, naturally, a region in France).

As I said, I am not an expert (though I am thoroughly enjoying improving my palate while I’m here), so this is all at a rather basic level. If you want a more detailed description, I found a website that was rather helpful in sifting through all this.


In the end, of course, it is always about what you like. And to that I say cheers!

The World without Sippy Cups (and other happy conveniences)

Sippy cups are, at least to my way of thinking, one of the finest inventions of the past century. They are durable, efficient and user-friendly, and they save me from an almost inevitable daily disaster in my home.

It is amazing to me then, that France—a country whose homes are filled with beautiful wood floors and priceless antiques- does not have them. I have asked multiple people in various ways (which coincidentally, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Think about it- how would you describe a sippy cup to someone who has never seen one?), but always received the same response: "That doesn't exist here." It absolutely confounds me that I am living in France- a rather sophisticated Western country- where one simply accepts the fact that something doesn't exist. Here are some other items that "don't exist:"

White eggs. Someone actually told me that I should try going to Italy for white eggs. It doesn't matter, of course, except when you’re trying to dye them for Easter.

Swiffer. My self-wringing mop hands could use a night off. See “DIY Girl” blog.

Pepsi. Poor Coca-Cola doesn’t have anyone to fight with. I actually prefer a Coke, but I also believe in healthy competition.

A bag of ice. How are you supposed to keep drinks cold at a party? I actually went to the local Indian Restaurant and begged for a bag. I’m sure they thought I was crazy.

Easy Mac. I know Easy Mac is perhaps one of the most cheesy (pardon the pun) American products on the planet, but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. My kids love it and, therefore, so do I.

Bleach & Stain Removal Pens. Given that there is chocolate ice cream on every corner in this country, you might think that they would be interested in removing it from their children’s clothes. Apparently not- I’ve imported it with every relative that visits.

Crayola ColorWonder. Crayola exists here, so why not their ColorWonder line? It only colors on the special paper with which it comes- no “tomato red” on our teal velvet sofa.

Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas originated just on the other side of the English Channel. If High speed trains can make the trip why can't this enduring little steam engine?

Ranch dressing. I finally understand the name Hidden Valley.

A good martini. When all is said and done, one martini perfectly chilled and shaken martini goes a long way in diplomacy.

At the end of a day without cheap, modern conveniences like sippy cups, Easy Mac, ColorWonder and bleach pens, you would think everyone would appreciate a really good martini. Oh well, what’s a girl to do? Perhaps a glass of Bordeaux will suffice.

P.S.- This list is based on results achieved by asking five or more people where to find the items mentioned. If you know that these items can be found here, PLEASE let me know.

UPDATE: After three years back in the US, I have returned to France to discover the following:

- Swiffer has now fully installed itself in France. From the dry and wet mops to the glove-style dusters, cleaning has become quite a bit easier!

- Pepsi has also started making it's way into the world of Coke! Diet Pepsi is still nowhere to be seen, but you can't have everything.

- A good martini-- even a great one-- can be had in Paris, but for a price. If you're in search, try the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz. It will cost a pretty centime, but be worth every one.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Cinderella's Night at the Embassy

One of my favorite walks in Paris is from the Louvre to Le Madrigal, a café on the Champs Elysees. It begins at the Louvre’s glass pyramid (recently of Da Vinci Code fame), passes through the Tuileries Gardens, past the Hotel de Crillon and the Palais d’Elysees (the French White House). There are beautiful gardens, sidewalk crepe stands and several amazing buildings. The one that has always intrigued me the most, however, is the American Embassy. Perhaps I’m intrigued because I think I have a right to it as an American citizen or perhaps it is because it always seems so forbidden behind the guards and gates. Regardless, I’ve always wanted to find a reason to go inside. Yesterday, I had one.

The invitation arrived two weeks ago. It was on beautiful stationery with the governmental seal embossed in gold and, in French, an invitation to a party at the Embassy Residence, hosted by the Ambassador and his wife. I was thrilled and called to R.S.V.P. before even mentioning it to my husband. I “Googled” the Ambassador to learn more about his situation, looked up the appropriate protocol in Emily Post and then raided my closet to see if there was something appropriate to wear. We made train reservations, hotel reservations, babysitter arrangements and bought my husband a new suit.
On the day of the party, we boarded the train for Paris and found ourselves, for the first time in a long time, without kids (thanks to his parents who graciously offered to care for their grandchildren on their vacation). My husband and I talked, we rested, we laughed and then we were there. We took a taxi to the hotel, freshened up and set out. Dressed to the 7s (not quite the 9s—it wasn’t black tie, after all), we decided to absorb as much of Paris as we could and walked to the party.

We arrived exactly on time and, after a few security screenings, made our way into the Residence. The ceilings were high, the walls were gold-gilded and the chandeliers sparkled. It was perfect. In the parlor, we found a lovely assortment of hors d’oeuvres and and drinks. I commented to the garcon that all the products were French and he smiled, “But of course. They are the best after all.” It’s true—and only the best was on display that night.

As the other guests filed in, I was amazed at the diversity. They spanned 60 years of academic exchange between the two countries in everything from music to mathematics. There were artists, historians, and chemical engineers—and nearly all of them spoke both fluent French and English. I felt like Cinderella in my dress and pearls, spending an evening without the children, mingling with lawyers and opera singers alike. Eventually, however, the proverbial clock always strikes midnight. We said goodnight to everyone and bid the embassy adieu.

I walked home feeling like the world was mine (being a mother of two toddlers, it isn’t a feeling I have often, so I treasured it enormously). And in the morning, I woke up in a lovely hotel before catching a train back to Strasbourg. Unlike Cinderella, however, I woke up with my Prince at my side. Sometimes fairytales are even better in real life.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Art of Persuasion

I have just committed one of the most grave sins a daughter-in-law can commit. I screwed up my in-laws’ hotel reservation for their upcoming visit. I didn’t do it on purpose, of course, and it wasn’t even subconscious (I really like my in-laws), but nonetheless, the deed was done.

I informed them by email (sin #2) because of the time change and the fact that they were leaving for France shortly after I discovered it. I don’t think this was wise as it was a lengthy email and apparently they didn’t read it in its entirety.

So, I did what any scared, loving, moderately attractive daughter-in-law would do. I put on my most pathetic face, prepared to shed a few tears and went to the hotel to beg. The French are rather susceptible to this type of persuasion, I’ve found. In fact, I once used it to get into the country without a passport, but that’s another story.

In the end, it worked. They arrived at the hotel none the wiser and frankly, I’m a little flattered that I still have what it takes. I am happy to report that the art of persuasion is alive and well in this country. So is my ego.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Rules of Having Fun

My husband and I wanted to throw a party—a nice, simple garden party for a few friends. I was rather uncomfortable when he first mentioned the idea. For a while in our “bachelor” days (that is to say our child-free days), we hosted a monthly party. We actually got pretty good at it, but neither of us had ever thrown a party in France, and throwing a party where your guests are experts on a few of the main party ingredients (wine and cheese) was a bit intimidating. Nevertheless, we decided to go for it.

Since I needed to at least please the experts, I knew I needed some experts of my own. I went to the local fromagerie and the woman there kindly helped me decide on a selection of cheeses. I then went to the wine shop where the man helped me select key bottles of wine. After adding olives, crackers, nuts and a few other morsels, my confidence had returned.

Perhaps I got too confident. Perhaps I was making the party too American. Perhaps I forgot I was in France. I was about to be humbled.

Standing in front of my shabby chic garden tables, on a perfect summer evening, I have to admit I felt a sense of accomplishment. The tables looked lovely, inviting and, more importantly, delicious. I was, therefore, dumbfounded and confused when I later realized that none of my guests were eating. When I say “no one” I don’t mean they were just nibbling, I mean there were now 30 people in my garden and NO ONE was going near the food. I couldn’t imagine what I’d forgotten—surely they were hungry. I started reviewing my mental checklist one last time when someone whispered, “You must cut the cheese before they will eat.” I had actually wanted to cut the cheeses, but realized I didn't know how they were to be cut- surely the guests could cut them better than I- but she proceeded to slice each of the ten cheeses. I walked over to the wine table to help myself.

When I turned around, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The guests had descended upon the table like ravaged beasts. They were devouring the cheeses, the breads, the olives—the whole table, in fact, and I couldn’t have been happier. The party was, once again, a success. And so, therefore, was I.

I felt back in control when I later went to serve the cakes. I put them on the table and (now that I knew to pre-cut), began to slice into it when someone grabbed my arm mid-slice (the cheese slicing lady, of course). I was jolted and embarrassed, feeling like a novice and suddenly wishing the party was over. What could I have done, now? A cake, I was informed, was to be cut to the recipient’s preferences. All right, I can do that. Trying to pull my confidence out of my pocket, I turned and asked the most respected man at the party (I did know some level of protocol afterall), my husband’s boss per se, if he would like some cake.

He looked at me as though I had offered cream and sugar for his wine and I desperately wanted to sink into a hole. “But the women are always served first.” Honestly, I should have thought of that- and probably would have if I hadn't have been so flustered. Seriously, though, my self-confidence was on the line here. Couldn’t he give a girl a hand? So I proceeded to ask the most respected woman at the party (take 2, in case you're counting) if she would like some cake. She said, “But you must ask the invited guests first!” This was becoming ridiculous. I wanted to ask her what exactly she was, but thought better of it. Why hadn’t I come up with some kind of excuse when Paul first mentioned the party? Was it too late to feign a headache? I was quickly sinking into my proverbial hole when I reached out to one last woman (who turned out to be Russian—perhaps she didn’t know all the protocol rules, either) and she said yes. I was thrilled—I wanted to give her a hug, but realized I couldn’t even remember her name. Before I knew it, I had a line of about ten people waiting to be served.

I don’t think Emily Post ever covered French protocol, and I haven’t found anyone yet who can actually explain it, so I may never understand all the rules of having fun in this country, but it seems that there is one global party rule—good food and good wine always trump everything else. Bon Appetite!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Just in Time Life

Just in Time was intended, I believe, to be a manufacturing philosophy. In short it states that in order to save storage space and therefore money, one should buy basic supplies just before they are used.

Today, it is hard to envision modern life without Just in Time. I buy groceries online for delivery the following day. I glean parenting tips from the Internet only when a problem arises. And, in perhaps the most perfect fulfillment of this philosophy, I order Chinese food to be delivered not two minutes before dinnertime. At least, that was how I lived—when I lived in the U.S. I was curious to see whether Just in Time was an American idea, wrapped up in the whole “time is money” concept or if it could be more global.

I’ve discovered that life in France is very Just in Time, but for very different reasons. I buy a week’s worth of milk because (1) it doesn't have to stay in the refrigerator to stay good and (2) it is, quite literally, all my arms can carry. I buy bread at the bakery every day because if I try to feed my kids day-old bread, they may lose a tooth. I buy meat at the butcher shop the day I will cook it because I only have room in the refrigerator for one or two upcoming meals.

In the end it seems that the ability to have things just in time makes modern life livable. I simply don’t have a saltcellar with enough food to last the next ten years. Frankly, who cares about the next ten years, anyway? I can only think about getting through the next ten minutes—Just in Time to make lunch.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Translating "DIY girl" into French

I have to admit to being a “do it yourself” kind of girl. Thanks to Martha Stewart, Oprah, Home Depot and Nigella Lawson, I’ve found I can do almost anything. I rather enjoy getting my hands dirty—or, rather, I enjoyed getting my hands dirty.

Shortly after saying adieu to American life, I remembered why I like it so much; In the U.S., it's easy to keep my hands clean because everything is so automated. At home, DIY is a hobby, not a lifestyle. I push a button and my oven becomes a toasty 375 degrees. Another button and my dishwasher runs at “hum” level so as not to disturb my morning coffee and, speaking of coffee, it grinds its own beans, at 7 a.m. daily, without me pushing anything!

Living in France has reminded this happy, modern woman of what non-automated life is like. I live in a rather typical, French, non-bourgeoisie apartment. The oven is not self-cleaning, nor self-lighting. There is no dryer for the clothes and I am the in-house dishwasher. The mop drips until I personally, literally wring it out and the freezer (which is the size of shoebox) requires me to defrost it every 2 weeks or so.

The first few days here I tried to be the happy, 1950s homemaker. Since it would only be for a few months, I thought it might be fun. I was wrong. Once the initial novelty had passed, I found myself standing, mop in-hand, in utter denial that modern life could be so non-user-friendly. Shortly thereafter, however, I decided to figure out how to translate "DIY girl" into French. I set my browser to marthastewart.com, turned on Peggy Lee, and rolled up my sleeves.

To be fair, I still have many Sarah McLaughlin days when I simply refuse to spend time wringing out the mop (seriously, doesn’t Swiffer know there’s an entire world out there?). And after exhaustive research, I discovered a Domino’s Pizza just down the road. I’ve also found a great babysitter who speaks English AND does the dishes. Life here is still DIY, but it in a more occasional, modern, “me” kind of way.

I may have permanently said au revoir to the clothes drier, though. There’s something so quaint and carefree about watching your clothes blowing in the summer sun. I wonder what I’ll do come winter.

My Nightstand

Finding English reading material in France is sometimes easier said than done, so the books on my nightstand are actually being read (at least occassionally). Here they are, in no particular order:

1. French-English dictionary
2. Things I Want My Daughters to Know, by Alexandra Stoddard
3. Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes
4. French Cheese
5. Essential Ayurveda, by S. Krishan
6. O Magazine’s Things I Know for Sure, by Oprah
7. Real Simple
8. What Color Is Your Parachute?, by R. Bolles
9. Holy Bible
10. The Martha Rules, by Martha Stewart

Sunny Strasbourg

We are spending most of our sabbatical in Strasbourg, a city about 4 hours east of Paris near the Swiss and German borders. It is a city with a fascinating history, a truly unique architecture and good public transit.

In the third week of our stay, on the twelfth consecutive cold and rainy day, I went online to the tourism office to try to figure out what people do in a city where you can never be outside and this is what I found:

“The reputation of Strasbourg as a cold and rainy region is totally unfounded. To convince you of it, just look at the pictures below…”

There was one picture below, and all it proved was that there was at least one sunny day in Strasbourg since the website was created in 2000. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it always catches me off-guard when organizations meant to help people so blatantly lie. Just for the record, it is now June. It snowed here yesterday.

Strasbourg Department of Tourism:

The Best Lie I Ever Told

To be fair, I don’t really know it was a lie—I’m just not sure it was the whole truth. It was Mother’s Day in France (which, coincidentally, is not the same day as Mother’s Day in the U.S.). My husband had organized a lovely day for me. Suddenly, my 3 year old sent forth a blood-curdling scream. I ran into his room to find him in bed, in obvious pain. It was his ear.

Of course it was his ear. His nose had been running for a week and the worse the cold got, the more he wanted his pacifier. Now I know that if you go to a doctor, they tell you that it is unrelated, but it simply isn’t true. Just like when they tell you that sugar intake has no effect on your child’s behavior. OK, doc, I’ll give you $1,000 to be a preschool teacher the day after Halloween.

We’re in France. We don’t have a pediatrician here, so I called our pediatrician in the U.S. Just when I was starting to think he was going to send a prescription, he said the dreaded words: “He really needs to be seen by somebody.” I tried to tell him that it was impossible, that France shuts down on each and every Sunday and this was Mother’s Day besides, but my son’s tearful plea confirmed that I had no choice.

Considering that I was trying to explain my son’s medical history—in French—to a doctor who was trying to lip-read over the sound of my (kicking and) screaming son, it went pretty well. He diagnosed an ear infection and gave us a prescription. Alex would shortly be on the mend, but I had had enough.

When we got back, I declared war. My children had loved their pacifiers from day 1. The pacifiers had saved me (a number of times), and that is why they were still welcome in my home, but it was over. I told my children that the pacifiers had hurt Alex’s ears and then I boldly cut the tip off each and every one of them.

I was scared. I had no idea if this was going to work. I had no idea if I was ever going to sleep through the night again. But, worse, it was Sunday and if it didn’t work, there would be no stores open to buy more.

I may have lied to my children, but we’ve had no ER visits since. Maybe, if you really believe it, it isn’t a lie after all… especially on Mother’s Day.

UPDATE: They say that fear is one of the best motivators (for better or worse) and, apprently, it is true. The fear of going back to the doctor, of extreme pain in the ear, and lots of really bad medicine was motivation enough. There was a logic to it, three year old logic that is, so he actually seems to have accepted it. Every once in a while Kate, my youngest, will ask for one but when she discovers the tip is gone, she gives it back and says "Mommy, you take it- it's broken." A month later, it is still the best lie I ever told.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Similar, but Not the Same

The drawback to traveling anywhere with toddlers is, in order to keep everyone happy, it is necessary to go to children’s museums, McDonald’s and parks—in other words, to do the same things you would do at home. Why would you torture yourself by traveling half way around the world to do the exact same things?

They are the same things, but they are not the same. Taking the kids to play in the Luxembourg Gardens is like stepping into a Parisian painting. Yes, it is a playground where they run and jump and climb, but they do so in a sophisticated, symmetrical garden lined with trees and carefully placed flowers. They play with the young, well-dressed French children and discover you don’t need a common language to climb together.

We took our kids to the Luxembourg Gardens, but also to the Pompidou Centre, a bona fide museum, where there was an exhibition on faces. The 15 minutes of entertainment probably wasn’t worth the 15-euro entrance fee, but they went and they had fun!

We rode around in taxis, took the elevators up the Eiffel Tower and walked and walked and walked (with them in the stroller, of course). We visited toy stores, ate ice cream and generally enjoyed ourselves. In some ways, you could argue that Paris was meant to be savored with all the curiosity, eagerness and exuberance of a child.

In the evenings, my husband and I had time alone (thanks to the babysitter who stayed the week). We went to our favorite restaurants, ate, drank and reminisced about falling in love in the city of love. We reconnected with waiters we knew and restaurants we cherished.

Paris with children was an colorful journey filled with sweet, simple pleasures, but as a couple we also reconnected with the stunning, sophisticated city we knew and loved. It was similar to trips we took alone, but it was not the same. It was even better.

Paris for the Babar crowd

Flying around the world with toddlers is not for the faint-of-heart. It requires great planning, an abundance of patience and a large quantity of sedatives, if available. I spent a fair amount of time planning; I brought their favorite toys, their blankies, special in-flight surprises and, in case all else failed, Baby Benadryl. I bought car seats to confine them and then hired our babysitter to fly with me. What could go wrong?

We first flew to Detroit where we stopped, had dinner and a bad glass of wine, let the kids run and play and then boarded the plane for the trans-Atlantic flight to Paris. The kids were excited; I was excited, yet I was also fully cognizant that the next few hours could be some of the worst of my life. Alex played for a few minutes and then fell asleep. Kate could not relax and did not sleep. We spent hours trying to get her to do so. I had a black blanket to block out the overhead lights. She was snuggled to her blankie and had a healthy dose of Benadryl. I gave her all the tricks in my proverbial bag and still she cried.

The honeymooners a couple seats over were glaring at me- wondering how I could have possibly thought this was a good idea. They must not have seen the article in The New York Times a few days prior that announced Paris was a great destination for the "Babar crowd." Too bad they probably didn't know who Babar was.

We did eventually land in Paris- once all the planning, patience, and sedatives were spent. At least now we could commiserate over a good glass of wine- a really good glass of wine.

Packing up your life

Settling the affairs of one's life is actually, ironically perhpas, a bit unsettling. It feels like the type of thing that should only be done once you have departed this Earth and- to that end- it should only done by other people. Going on sabbatical, however, requires you to do so. It requires that you tie up the loose ends and, generally, put everything on hold while you start over... at least for awhile.

We have, my husband and I, packed up our two and three year old for a semester-long sabbatical in France. I think Paul has been preparing for this since we last lived here 10 years ago. Alexandre, the three year old, spent the last 6 months learning French (for one hour per week). Kate... well, she's only two. For myself, I have been hoping to spend time in France since we first had an opportunity for a sabbatical about three years ago. I'm hoping this time gives me a chance to spend quality time with the kids, romantic evenings out with my husband and to spend some rather intesive time reflecting on what I want out of life after we return.

Here's to "la vie en rose!"