Global Mom: Monsieur le Docteur

With the help of my next-door neighbor, Florence, who had heard about my unconventional wishes, I was led to Monsieur le Docteur.  His cabinet was in the center of Versailles, and he assisted births in various facilities in town, including the clinic closest to our home, Le Clinique du Château de la Maye.

Monsieur le Docteur had a slightly different approach from his Norwegian counterpart, Doktor Ø.-N.  This Frenchman was a balding intellectual with spectacles on the tip of his nose, and his cabinet was a converted maison parictuliére with a grand stone entrance through which horses and buggies would have once passed.  Once through the main portal on the street, there was stained glass at the end of a shadowy corridor and wrought iron fixtures indicating a one-man elevator installed, probably, in the early 19th century.  There was a huge walnut door on the right with the brass plaque giving le Docteur’s name.  The door was decorated with ornate carvings, and its burnished brass knob was, as is the case with these old world door knobs, right in the middle.  The door weighed even more than I always managed to weigh at full term, which means I had to lean in on that brass knob with all my force just to enter.

As you walked into the practice, you stepped from the 17th into the 20th century, but still a 20th century of the old France that was cramped and randomly geometric, and narrowed into what felt like what might have once been servants’ quarters.  A receptionist behind a modern desk set at an angle sat straight ahead under a framed Picasso sketch of Mother and Child. Le Docteur’s office itself, once I was invited to enter it, had a massive leather-topped walnut desk, deep embossed carpets in rich hues, surrounding bookshelves, gilt-framed paintings of La Chasse and low mood lighting.  I was in Sherlock Holmes’ library, not a medical facility.

“Please, Madame. . .Madame Braaaaaaaadford, tell me first about yourself.” The Docteur smiled from his side of the desk toward where I sat in a 19th century curve-backed chair with burgundy and gold petit point upholstery.  His grin had something of the Cheshire Cat to it, which caused me to feel something like Alice; teenaged, blonde, perched on a mound of ruffles and scratchy petticoats, shrinking and slipping into a hole.

So I played the expert. I was prim but relaxed, The Mother in Control, dotting my French i’s and crossing my legs tightly.

Alors, Monsieur,” I said, motioning to the stack of papers I’d handed him, “This you should immediately note is my fourth child, as I have explained in the papers there. I’m no debutante.” I smiled coolly and straightened my spine, trying not to hold my handbag too tightly on my lap, as if I needed a prop or a shield or a weapon or anything.

Ah! Une mêre d’un certain age! Charmante, charmante,” he was scanning my papers, but kept grinning and staring up at me, as if awaiting something. A mother of a certain age? And this was charming? I’d written in bold black Bic that I was thirty-seven, still very young in my book, hardly worth a comment.  For heavens sake, coltish, right?

The doctor raised one brow and smiled at me, leaning back in his leather chair, hands crossed over his middle.  Something about the setting made me feel as if the next thing that was supposed to happened was I was to jump up and sing my eight bars from “Oklahoma!” then tap dance or something. Or was I supposed to start listing my GPA and extracurricular activities for this administrator interviewing me, it seemed, for a college scholarship? I kept my school bag – I mean handbag – on my knees. I heard myself swallow.

“And you are. . .” he ruffled through the big stack of forms I had spent more than a whole hour filling out in the small red and peacock-blue waiting room with four chairs and five patients, “You are. . . an American citizen, vraiment charmante, and will deliver in April and, oh! I see you are the woman I’ve heard of, the one who wants to deliver à la scandinave. Charmante, charmante.”

“Yes, I would like to deliver as naturally—“

“Now, tell me, Madame, where did you learn to speak your lovely French?”

“In the streets, frankly. Now, to the birth: I hope to deliver with as little—“

“In the streets? Charmante! Vraiment charmante.”

And so on.

Throughout the exam that required what all prenatal gynecological exams require, there was no privacy screen, no paper gown, no nurse in the room, no professional distance. No fig leaf. No Geisha fan. No strategically placed standing fern, even.  Just your typically invasive examination performed on a vraiment charmante pregnant woman by a gentleman in a burgundy wool cardigan and a perpetually sleepy grin.

Pregnant and at the gates of the Château de Versailles with two of my best Norwegian friends ever

I got home and called a whole list of French girlfriends to ask if what I had just experienced could have possibly been standard practice. Every last one of them was surprised by my concern:

“Ah, Mélissa, it’s nothing to worry about.  I know you Americans tend to be a bit touchy about your bodies. But really, wouldn’t you rather get random compliments from your doctor than insults?”


“So, you’re telling me that even in Norway, they give you a gown for the exam? But . . but why?”


“You could do what? File a lawsuit if some nurse is not in the room with you? But I don’t see why she is even necessary.”


“A little room behind a screen? To change your clothes? Never heard of it. Charming concept, though.”


“Listen, I’d be flattered if my doctor told me I was beautiful when pregnant. My husband doesn’t.”

I began to understand that this was a cultural oddity, evidence of the deeply calcified gender roles and the ever-present tension between the male and the female that is more a part of French culture than any other place I had ever lived or spent significant time in. Yet, in spite of that sometimes creeping Alice-and-the-Cheshire-Cat feeling, and even when he told me at six months gestation that I now had to go on a strict diet (!?!!) because I had reached the official 12 kilo weight gain limit, I kept le Docteur.

Why? Because he was a fabulous discussion partner about everything besides just obstetrics; Soviet politics, Sub-Saharan water initiatives, Patagonian turtles, art, music, literature, cuisine, philosophy, world religions including (or especially) mine.  I almost –-almost – looked forward to our visits if only because I knew I’d be able to enjoin him in some sort of debate. He could not hear enough about my Mormonism, not just because of his interest in theology or my personal commitment to abstaining from alcohol and coffee and nicotine, (which he said he admired and wished his other patients could take a lesson from), but chiefly because of my belief in chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards.  Now, I was not naive; I knew that was the hottest button I could probably push, and more than once he shook his head and laughed, convinced, as he probably was, that I was lying or in denial or was living under some onerous threat. I laughed back, and the difference of opinion on that particular topic never squelched my fervor during my chats with this Frenchman.

More than for the lively conversation, though, I stuck with le Docteur because, all corporeal concerns aside, he was competent, gentle, worked right in this town, and, frankly, he was the one and the only doctor I could find after months of searching daily who vowed to let me deliver my baby as I wished.

Which meant, incidentally, without much of his help.

Under a full moon, Randall and I arrived at the looming doors of the Clinique du Château de la Maye, just a couple of blocks from our home.  We drew up the heavy cast iron doorknocker, and let it drop four times, announcing our arrival. Christine, our sage femme (or, literally, “wise woman” or earth mother or midwife) answered.  She was, as fate would gift us, a native German and the one sage femme we had already met on a previous tour of the facilities.  On that day two months previous, we’d all spoken German together, Randall, Christine and I.  We’d spoken and laughed and mused about how unlikely but wonderful it would be were she to happen to be on call the very hour we would come in for the birth.

And there she stood.  White frock and orthopedic sandals and a warm hand extended, she swung wide the door, “Einen recht schönen guten Abend, die Familie Bradford!  Hinein treten!” I knew right then it would indeed be a “really beautiful and good evening”, and so I did as she asked; I wobbled right in holding Randall’s arm.

Please appreciate the silk scarf, lipstick and up-do. I was having some significant contractions in this very moment. Randall, my love, this is where we kick in. Ready. . . ?

True to her role as a sage femme, Christine wisely escorted us through the quiet modus operandi leading up to birth. With only one exception to what I’d done in Norway where I birthed kneeling on the floor next to my big bed, I birthed here exactly as I’d requested. Granted, French law said I had to have an I.V. drip. So I rolled my eyes and let Christine poke it in and tape it down. And according to French law I also had to be on top of the birthing bed.  So Christine, the resourceful German, had hiked up the one end to a full sitting position, I’d knelt on the bed facing that upright part, grabbing the back with both arms, and then closed my eyes and began humming.  My wise woman let me do as I wished – sing, chant, rock back and forth, crochet little booties (No, I didn’t. I cannot crochet) – and afterwards, she asked me for a copy of the French hymn/lullaby I’d sung as Luc – The Luminous One – was entering the world:
Souviens-toi, mon enfant: Tes parents divins
te serraient dans leurs bras, ce temps ne’st pas loin.
Aujourd’hui, tu es là, présent merveilleux,
ton regard brille encore du reflet des cieux.
Parle-moi, mon enfant, de ces lieux bénis
car pour toi est léger le voile d’oubli.

Souviens-toi, mon enfant des bois, des cités.
Pouvons-nous ici-bas les imaginer?
Et le ciel jusqu’au soir, est-il rose ou gris ?
Le soleil attend-il la neige ou la pluie?
Conte-moi, mon enfant, la couleur des prés
et le chant des oiseaux d’un monde oublié.

Souviens-toi, mon enfant : A l’aube des temps,
nous étions des amis jouant dans le vent.
Puis un jour, dans la joie nous avons choisi
d’accepter du Seigneur le grand plan de vie.
Ce soir-là, mon enfant, nous avons promis
par l’amour, par la foi, d’être réunis.


Remember, my child : not long ago,

your divine parents held you in their arms.
Today you are here, marvelously present.
Your gaze still shines with the reflection of heaven.
Talk to me, my child, about that blessed place,
because for you the veil is still thin.

Remember, my child, the forests, the cities.
Can we down here imagine them?
And the night sky, is it rosy or gray?
Is the sun waiting for snow or rain?
Describe to me, my child, the color of the meadows
and the birdsongs of a forgotten world.

Remember, my child: at the dawn of time,
we were friends playing in the wind.
Then one day in joy we chose to accept
the Lord’s grand plan of life.
That night, my child, we promised through love,
and through faith, to be reunited.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: My Two O.B.’s

Respectable women do not make demands on the medical system. This is what I was picking up in my conversations with my neighbors who were each giving me their two centîmes on where I should go for gynecological care. This was going to be especially helpful since, a year and a half after we arrived in Versailles, we were thrilled to be pregnant with number four.

“We”, I write. By then we were apparently speaking in the royal plural, which happens, I suppose, if you’re learning the French of Versailles. I now felt comfortable in the language, which for me was an essential prerequisite to entering into the most intimate world of a culture, the world of giving birth. No way was I going to føde, (give birth) in Norway unless I could somehow manage start to finish in that language. And no way was I going to accoucher, (give birth) in France unless I could muddle through in French. It was this curious little deal I’d made between my tongue and my ovaries.

Our Luc, le petit prince, three days old and in that perambulator

I had been reading as many articles as I could on French obstetrics and gynaecology, and was concerned but somehow not surprised to find out that France ranks among the top ten countries in the world for the highest number of Cesaereans programmés, or scheduled cesarean sections. This concern I took to my girlfriend Eleanore, who was as narrow as a baguette and always smelled of lavender. She’d grown up in le Midi, or the south of France so certainly she, I thought, a girl from Aix-en-Provence, would be a naturalite and would not prefer scheduled C-sections or even epidurals, episiotomies or intravenous drips. She’d definitely give me advice on where and with whom I could deliver our baby.  I have no idea what my logic was, but I figured her perpetual scent of lavender meant she’d given birth to her two children in a field of it.  But no. She explained the same thing my other neighborhood and church friends told me. On ne fait pas ça en France. Meaning, we don’t do that “natural thing” in France.

The Clinique was housed here, and this just happened to be within a walk from our home . . . so it was practical. It was.

The ça, the “that”, was always spoken with a certain emphasis and mild wincing. My friends, their friends, and all their doctor friends refused to believe my talk of meditation instead of medication, concentration instead of caesarean sections, of walking and rocking and singing and water births, and when I told them about the simply beautiful (and natural) birth of burly Dalton, it invariably left them with a look in their eyes that was a melange of panic, pain, embarrassment and bemusement.  My fulsome praise of Ellen my Norwegian earth mother, who essentially left Randall and me alone in our private birthing room requesting only that we ring a little cow bell when everything was ready and I knew it was time to give birth, made my full grown adult French friends slap their foreheads and drag their hand over their eyes in disbelief.
“Oh yes, we’ve heard of those primitive tribal practices in Lago-Lago,” Rita told me.
And, “Those poor Nordic women are too naïve to know they have modern options. Right?” from Mathilde.
Here I came, a woman who’d had a really pleasant birth experience with a child that had weighed in at nearly 5 kilos, and what? I was still walking? They made me step back and turn around twice, all while looking me up and down and sideways, like I was Connie the Barbarian.

L’entrée principale, Clinique du Château de la Maye. We strolled there to deliver .  We strolled home when delivered.  As I said, practical.

“There is a center I once read of,” another friend Caroline whispered to me, “in Paris in the bottom of the 15th arrondissement.” She lowered her voice even more.  I had to cup my hand around my ear to hear her.  “There, you might be able to convince a clinician to assist you in such a birth.”  Caroline was glancing both ways, too, as if this place were where a branch of illegal immigrant Wiccans shared a practice with a voodoo doctor, a tarot card reader and a psychic named Esmeraldino. Aeh. The 15th was  Paris, a 20 minute drive in daytime traffic.  Too far.

The French preliminary gynecological visits themselves were nothing like what I’d experienced in Norway. There, my family doctor, Doktor Ø-N., (his actual initials), had been the designated “attending physician”, but in Norway a doctor in the delivery room was looked upon kind of like a strand of puka shells or maybe a tiara: One accessory too many. Hence, the presence of a highly skilled team of earth mothers assisting the woman in labor, and across the hall an operating room with a squad of emergency physicians who were always on hand in the hospital itself.

Doktor Ø.-N. was thoroughly Norwegian. This means he was ruggedly handsome, matter-of-fact, and dealt with his patients like he probably dealt with all living organisms from moose to mushrooms: with respect, equanimity and a certain androgyny. There was never a thing in his manner that could have been interpreted as flirtatious or even drolly suggestive. On a scale of one to ten, one being acrimonious and ten being fawning, he was a solid 5.3, courteous on all counts but never chummy or chatty about anything personal.  His job was to monitor my growing baby which was only incidentally, it seemed, housed within my uterus.

Grandmother, Claire, Parker, New Baby, and Mom in tears of joy. Less than an hour after delivery. This was our private delivery room, my delivery bed.

There was one exception to Doktor Ø.-N.’s professional distance. On a below-freezing January morning I arrived at his office with three-week-old baby Dalton bundled snugly in the car seat for his first new baby check-up. I got out of my Subaru and stepped into the eyeball-freezing cold, closed the driver’s door, and through glacial winds scuttled very carefully over the blue-gray ice to the other car door where I would take out my baby bundle. There, on the other side of the car, I discovered that that car door had either frozen shut or was jammed. I yanked and pounded on that door then shuffled quickly back to the driver’s door – also jammed or frozen –  then pounded and shook all the others then even the hatch back, but nothing opened. In that short time, everything had frozen shut.  My newborn was sitting inside this meat locker. Panicked, I ran, slipping and falling on ice all the way, to the building then up the stairs to my doctor’s office. “My baby’s locked inside my car!” I panted loudly to the woman at the reception desk, “My baby’s freezing! I’m locked out!”  Hearing me, Doctor Ø.N. stepped out of his room, already pulling on his coat, a spray can in one hand and a metal rod of sorts in the other.

Without exchanging more than four words, he and I raced down the stairs and out into the gale and to the car, then, deftly wielding the magic spray and wedging this metal rod tool under the lip of the Subaru’s hatchback, the doctor pried the back open. Then all six-foot-six feet of him  climbed into the back and over the second seat, and he got right next to the car seat of my now crying baby. He unlatched the car seat and handed it back through the hatch to me, but not before checking on Dalton who was wailing his husky self into all shades of mulberry, but who (was this even possible?) went completely silent when my doctor, still crouched and contorted in the back seat with his knees up to his ear lobes, blew one light puff of air into the baby’s face then covered the baby and the whole car seat with the thick thermal blanket I’d tucked in there for warmth and lining. With one nod of the head and  “Sakte, sakte” (slowly, slowly), my doctor sent me back inside the building carrying the car seat with my baby boy.

While I stood , infant in arms, watching from the window of his practice, this man stayed out there checking every door of my Subaru, coating the edges and lock mechanisms of each door with the spray, checking and rechecking.  After ten minutes or so, his reddish brown hair looked like a flocked wig and the back and shoulders of his coat appeared to have been dipped in glass. Only now did I see he hadn’t even put on gloves.

When he did come back inside, frost rings for nostrils, frost awnings for eyebrows, there was not a conversation, not even a word about what he’d just done for me and for my child. He just stamped off his shoes, hung his coat, shook off his hair and returned to his other waiting patient.  Just like that. Your every day, no-frills superhero M.D.

“In bad weather like this,” he explained to me during our appointment, “You can just phone a day ahead and we can organize a house call.”  At any time and for any reason, in fact, I could call him and he’d visit my baby in the comfort of our home.

Well then.  “As long as you might be stopping by, could you check the oil?  And there’s this weird clicking sound in the steering column.”

(I got him to smile with that one.)

Big and Beautiful

As for medical advice, throughout my pregnancy my doctor told me to keep eating heartily, rest if I got tired, to not go slalom skiing after, oh, maybe the seventh month, (it was a minor balance issue, he said), and to drink something called tran and another thing called Vørter øl, if I could gag them down. All the Norwegian mothers swore by them, he told me, but they might be an acquired taste, he warned, and so with typical zeal, I of course gagged down double doses every single day.

Ellen, our “earth mother” and another attending midwife.  And Dalton (look at the size of that head) Haakon

That I was putting on weight at a steady rate of two kilos (five pounds) or more a month was neither surprising nor troubling to Doktor Ø-N. “We want you to be well-nourished and your baby to be strong,” he told me. “You also need a good layer of fat to produce good milk for your child. Don’t worry, you’ll ski it off by the next year.”

Randall and our earth mother, Ellen. And 7 minute-old Dalton Haakon

He was unfazed when I tested him about actual birthing options. What if I wanted to birth, say, in a tub? Or on all fours? Or while practicing arias? He said it was my birth and my body, and given this was my third child, I should know what worked best for me.

Left in my private room for four full blissful days. Just like this.

So Norway had set the standard for giving birth.  It had proven to me how lovely – how exquisite –-the experience could be, how powerful in respects physical as well as spiritual. And now France had to follow that act.

Baerum Sykehus, Norway, where Dalton Haakon was born.

To be continued. . .

Le Château de la Maye, Versailles, France, where Luc William was born.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: La Langue

I supplemented my French learning by taking bi-weekly conversation courses at the Berlitz center in the second floor of the white refurbished 18th century building off the Avenue de St. Cloud down from the château.  On all the other days, I set up my own unofficial Let’s Go French! dot-to-dot route through all of Versailles.  It looked something like this:

Drycleaners/Teinturerie: Show lady R’s. pants. Vocab: Melted zipper, stubborn spot, hanger. Ask good shoe repair place? Cordonnerie.

Shoe Repair/Cordonnerie: Give man D’s brown shoes. Vocab: Dye dark blue. Ask remove Velcro? Add laces? Ask good hardware store? Quincaillerie.

Hardware store/Quincaillerie: Moroccan man. Vocab: Eyelet. Shoe Laces. Pliers. Power saw. Mouse trap. Bat trap. Ant poison. Word for flood:Inundation.

Photo credit: fredpanassac

And so on. For months. I filled many notebooks.  I’d make my literal or mental notes while interviewing people in the street or in their shops. It was my pattern in France the way interviewing Britt and Anna and Bente and Idar had been my pattern in Norway.  As long as I began with a tumble of apologies, (which, believe me, I really felt), for the fact that I didn’t speak French, for the fact that I was born and raised in the wrong country with the wrong language to begin with, then the way was paved to free French tutoring.   I walked flat-footed all over their Français, I’m afraid, and spoke flat-tongued all over their sacred ground, but as long as I was polite, deferent and curious, they were polite, delightful and even extravagantly complimentary.

Photo credit: bibendum84

You’ve seen examples of the opposite of this, I’ll bet. Cases where you are in some foreign country (like, say, France), and someone, a foreigner to that country, foreign like you, marches into, oh, let’s say into a McDonald’s, stares down the thin girl with a brow piercing standing behind the counter, slaps his hands together, licks his lips, then opens up rapid fire like this:

“Hey, hi, okay-ah, so me and my buddies’ll have two Big Macs with three extra large fries and four large Cokes, a double cheeseburger on the side and while you’re at it back there sunshine, why dontcha just toss in a coupla milkshakes?”

The Foreigner smiles at the girl, smiles in a very friendly way, rubs his hands together, eyebrows raised in expectation. He waits.  He waits for her answer, which, I suppose, he imagines is gong to come sailing back to him in his language.

But she’s still just standing there.

Photo credit: mikecogh

She stands there, the girl, flaccid as a refrigerated fry.  Then she lifts up one unpierced brow as if to say, “Quoi?”

The Foreigner repeats the whole monologue, this time much louder, a bit slower, with full corporeal involvement, while pointing to the panel above and behind Counter Girl’s head. He turns back and chuckles to his buddies (Will you get this chick?), then he stops for a moment to just let his last rendition sink in. Then he adds, “And we’ll be needing lotsa them little ketchup thingamajigs. Ten-four?”

Needless to say, someone in line behind The Foreigner (maybe that someone is you), leans forward right about now and suggests that the girl here, well she actually speaks another language, given that this is another country, given that in other countries people often speak languages other than English. This amazing thing: You cross a huge ocean, you get your passport stamped, and lo and behold, the people have their own language.

It ruffles us Foreigners every single time.

Photo credit: JPC24M

Or maybe you’ve seen what I did on a bus in the center of Paris. It was one of those resplendently picturesque late spring days that gives flocks of tourists just the right crystalline sun bouncing off the domes and statues and Seine to take their pictures.  The bus was full.  The hour was rush.  The bus stopped to take on a woman who was, as I cannot forget, wearing cheery yellow sear-sucker clam-diggers and a matching sun hat with a red flower on the brim. She was visibly out of breath and at the end of her rope.

Photo credit: bidenbum84

I instinctively moved my bag to make room for her so she could sit right next to me and I could fan her and maybe make soothing conversation, or I could even ask her to hop off this bus with me so I could stroll her around my neighborhood, give her a break, a glass of water and some courage. It can be rather tough to be a tourist in Paris, although that doesn’t seem to deter upwards of eight million of them from coming to the city every year.

Photo credit: Roger4336

She had a map, this one-of-eight-million, which she held crumpled in one hand as she addressed the bus driver.  He was a wiry guy with black hair and a moustache and nicotine teeth. I’d been watching the back of his head for a few blocks. He neither hated nor reveled in his job, but I’ll tell you he could have driven all the streets of this entire city with his eyes closed, he was that seasoned.

I wrote just there that the woman addressed the driver.  I was wrong.  She addressed the entire bus:

“I’m sick and tired of getting on and off, on and off these stupid French buses of yours!” she exhaled, half-laughing, like a stand-up comedienne. “Already been on, what was it? Number eighty-two?” she swung to us as if for an answer, “Then it went the wrong way, then I had to get onto, can’t remember, I think it was sixty-nine?” She was uncrumpling her map by now, trying to smooth it out on her thigh, which she was poising midair while she was grabbing on the pole with the other hand, her sun hat sliding back on her head.

Photo credit: bidenbum84

The bus driver folded his arms, watching silently.  The whole bus folded their arms, watching silently.  My anticipatory smile kind of melted right then, I have to say, into flat but pained unease.  She kept at it in a steady stream, “This system of yours is so wacked up, buddy.  You just gotta help me out here. Where the devil’s the Eiffel Tower? I’m losing my mind, I’m telling you. Losin’ it!”

There was this pause. All I heard was the sound of his poor woman’s eyes stretching wider and the bus driver’s mind winding up for a fastball. Then, in one placid movement, he put the bus in park and pulled on the emergency brake, turning deliberately in his seat to face the woman straight on. And in the most even-tempered, well-aimed, machine-gun like French ever spoken on a public bus or elsewhere in the world, this bus driver said something almost exactly like this:

“Madame.  You have climbed on my bus. This is a French bus, a bus in Paris, France. I am a Frenchman. From Paris, the city with the marvelous Eiffel Tower, which you have flown very far, I imagine, to see.  In Paris, in France, on my bus, we speak French. We do not speak English.  We have our own borders, which you’ve crossed, and our own culture, which you apparently do not respect.  If you want to see something else that is very tall but you must insist on speaking English, then you must go to London and see Westminster.  Or New York City and see whatever tall thing it is that you see in New York City.  And la Tour Eiffel” he said as the woman backed one step away from him, shrinking, “elle est juste là,” and he pointed, arm raised above her head, through the bus window.  No more than two blocks away. “You can go by foot, Madame, si vous préférez.”

Photo credit: law-keven

Photo credit: david dennis

He was civil.  He was smiling.  And he held the doors wide open for her.

As you can see, the moment seared itself into my cells.  To this day I regret that I didn’t climb off that bus with her and just stroll alongside her to the tower, translating as we went — mistranslating, actually — everything this driver had said.  Telling her how much he, too, loathed the wacked up bus system and loathed the folded city maps and loathed that the Eiffel Tower was sometimes, if you happened to be standing on the wrong corner as she had been, hidden behind trees and buildings.

How acutely I regret I did not do that. As it was, I watched her step off and huff away, her yellow sun hat with its red flower getting smaller, receding down the colonnade of leafy shadows along the avenue, the yellow like an awkward smile that one holds in place although the shame is burning, the red like a single piece of oversweet candy.  Or a little puncture wound.

Photo credit: FHKE

Language, if you turn it right, is a critical key to entering any new culture.  But in France, as experiences like this taught me, language is the critical key. And that’s why, when you turn the key of French wrong (and I did so more times than my ego can bear recounting), it was a gaffe, you were gauche, and you wanted an over-sized bag to slip over your entire being.

When you did not turn the French key at all, however — if, for instance, you did not have a miniature key like a neat little bonjour greeting, a simple pardonnez-moi key, a key the size of your diary key when you were eleven, that kind of key, hanging there on your language key chain — if you didn’t even try to turn the French key at all, then it was an affront, and yes, you were gauche, and finally, hélas, they unceremoniously directed you off their bus.

Photo credit: y.caradec

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

La Belle Suisse

To give you a short breather from Global Mom: A Memoir, and to remind myself of where I live, I stepped away from my keyboard for an hour this week. This meant peeling myself from my office with its writing chair and this laptop screen with all the words, words, words that have been my work from predawn to past midnight days and weeks on end. I needed to shake some blood into my limbs, breathe some air into my lungs, get some daylight on my face. So I took a short drive along our local jogging and biking paths.

Because I know these are beautiful paths, I also wanted to take this camera and my visiting parents (Hello, Donna and David.) Our boys Dalton and Luc were already far ahead of us on their bikes, since they know the area by now and have marked out their favorite routes.  They are quiet and postcard bucolic — not Dalton and Luc, but the routes — and I think the photos will give a better rendering of what we see when we drive, jog, bike or walk them than my words ever could. Consider this post your personal invitation to visit.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Le Crash

To their credit, the two oldest absorbed new information quickly, flooring and softening everyone.  They worked hard.  I’ll never forget their drive.  Dalton’s month in a cast somehow dried up his spitting complex. And at subsequent parent-teacher conferences, there were far fewer concerns about their academic abilities or social adjustment. In fact, at mid-semester progress reports, Claire had hopped over her reading group, and skills along with confidence and independence had improved.  Parker’s semester report described him as “conscientious and talented”, his music teacher described him as “gifted,” and his home room teacher wrote in red pen that he was “exemplary.” Dalton, the spitting teetotaler, won himself a girlfriend named Marie-Celestine.  And though these three children were always energetic and outspoken, and although the two oldest still used Norwegian idioms translated awkwardly into English, and the younger for a while made up French words like “zee cozee peellow” and “zee grand scoop d’ice cr-r-reem”,  they ended up being strong, even delightful, students.

That first autumn, then, we’d had three children enter new school systems, one in French, which meant learning a new language, and two in English, which meant relearning an old language.  We’d had a fire ant infestation that left all the children with visible welts on their bodies, a flood in our basement, (and three more that I  just don’t have the heart to write about.)  Our heater had broken down during an unseasonably early October freeze, we still had no closets, we had no personal parking places for our two cars, we all got the flu — all of the Île de France got the flu— we had a bat problem (I forgot to mention that?), I had back problems (I forgot to mention the spasms and bed confinement?), we had one broken foot that kept one child from school for a month, and we had been warned that if our oldest two didn’t “get up to speed”, they’d be expelled from their school — the only one in the entire Île de France in which we had secured places — post haste.

In the midst of all this, we’d figured out banking, basketball, baguettes, BCG. We’d found all new doctors, plumbers, fishmongers, dry cleaners.  New ways of walking, greeting, shopping, running in the gardens but not running in the streets and certainly not running into the baker’s shop, new ways of dressing, eating, breathing, existing.

It almost felt like the worst of The New was behind us.

Then winter, the dead season, started early.  Streets were slippery.  And one Sunday morning on my way to conduct meetings at church (I’d accepted an appointment in the presidency of the women’s organization of our congregation) something horrible happened. I nearly killed my children.  I’d buckled them in their seats before dashing to pick up a young American girl living as an au pair with a French family in Versailles.  She’d slept through her alarm and was calling last minute for a ride to church.  One moment of poor judgment and poor visibility, a frosted-over no left turn sign, a left turn, speed on ice, another motorist whipping up the opposing road while going over the speed limit, and the sound of metal against metal and glass splintering like a galactic trash compactor.

Our small car spun around twice, then punched its nose into a parked car.

We’d been struck broad side.  The other driver was uninjured though he’d been coming at over 50km.  My children were flung around violently in the car, Parker’s head hit the passenger side window shattering it, everyone had cuts and lacerations, and the au pair had chipped teeth, a gouged tongue and whiplash.

And me?  I only had a cold metal pole of terror and guilt punched cleanly through my abdomen.  The instant we’d hit, I’d known I was at fault. I was completely my fault. Everything (the pole started twisting) was completely my fault.

“Two weeks earlier,” the mustached police officer whispered to me in a French that was oddly crystal clear above the blur of sirens and a crowd of Sunday morning bath-robed onlookers on the street, “Just two weeks, Madame, at this very corner and at this very hour, another driver did the same as you. And he was not as lucky.”

So I was lucky?

I felt toxic, lethal. The Wormwood totem.

Emotionally, it took a while to climb out of that whole jumbled period which, in my mind, seems to lurch and grope and flash in hot, streaked colors, faster and faster, until it culminates with the hollow ice-encrusted wail of those Sunday morning ambulances behind those Versaillais onlookers in their bathrobes and leather house slippers shivering and huddling and kindly but awkwardly stroking the hair of my daughter who had red splattered down her new French church dress.

My mind slows and settles on a dark-suited line of French policemen, politely questioning my somehow stoic and suddenly French-speaking nine-year-old son. There are gashes on his forehead where he’s hit the window.  The blood drizzles into his right eye.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Je Craque

Newly-tinted cover for Global Mom

It felt like I was constantly running, constantly having to gear up for the daily basics. There were a million daily inconveniences — not just broken feet, flooded basements, fire ant invasions, bat bombings and the like, but countless other picayune demands  like connecting the phone, getting a French driver’s license, buying nine bags of government-approved schools supplies, filling the house’s subterranean fuel tank, all that I had to execute, 1) in French, which I could not possibly learn fast enough, 2) with a child lugging a plaster leg perched on my hip and, 3) alone.

Randall was traveling from Monday to Friday to places I had to look up on the map, and so I had no on-site back up.  No reprieve.  When Randall was in the country, (which was less than 20% of the time), we were in and out of conferences — for Parker and Claire on a weekly basis over three months, trying to help them adapt to a new language and school system: American.  For Dalton we were in just as frequently, but to help him adapt to these things in French. When Randall was away (the whole month of October he was hopping between three continents and eight time zones and dropping in at home for five dinners only), I had the rich task of single-handedly getting my kids speedily up to American and French speed.  I was sleeping three hours a night, eating three real meals a week, going gray in hair and skin, my eyes and clothing were sagging.

It only became clear to me, at the end of one especially long evening of tutoring and coaching, how little our two eldest knew about things their American teachers and you, Anglophone reader, probably take for granted.  I’d gone through some simple math problems with Parker and had left him on his own at the far end of our long table to finish the rest.  Meanwhile, I was singing for Claire a bunch of stock American nursery rhymes (“Ring Around The Rosie”, “Humpty Dumpty”), for a writing project she had to do, since she only knew Norwegian equivalents like songs about wild mushrooms and ditties about trolls.  From the other end of the table, Parker was showing signs of tetchiness:

Parker less than thrilled with the Marché de Versailles

“I can’t do this one, Mom.  I just don’t get it,” he grunted.  “How am I supposed to do this?  It’s impossible to understand.”

“Just. . .please. . .just finish it up,” I said, head in hands and eyes closed. I was fighting a headache and I felt something like what I imagined an ulcer must feel like forming under my belt.  “And please, please just quit grumbling. Okay Claire, let’s try this one more time from the top: Here we go loopty loo, here we go loopty lie. ..

I was so worn out and threadbare, you could hear my soul through the shredded fabric of my voice. Claire had her forehead in her hands, singing monotone to the table top; “”Loopty lie, loopty — this is such a dumb song.”

He took out his frustrations in the basement on his drums

A minute later, my son’s head-shaking visible in my peripherals, I perked up in my best answering machine voice:

“Don’t keep telling yourself you cannot do it, Parker. You’re smart, honey. You can.” I extended a hand to touch his shoulder, rub the nape of his neck, “I just know you can.”

“Yeah, Parker. You can do it,” Claire backed me up, although her voice was flat and she was still staring at the table.

He shook off my hand and snapped, “I can not!!”  then slammed his pencil down on the table so hard, it went flying off into the far wall. “I don’t even know what they’re talking about in this stooopid math book!!”

His pencil rolled along the floor as he sat there, huffing, looking straight ahead, not at me.  I looked at that round nose, nostrils so small but flaring.  His chin, puckering and twitching while he ground his teeth.

I just stared at him. I’d totally run out of options. Why in moments like these did I feel resentment skitter across the floor of my brain like a greasy rat? It wasn’t resentment at my children, but resentment at Randall. Absent Randall.  I chased it out sometimes, that skittering rat, with a brusque clearing of my throat. But there were times when that rat hovered, flicking his scrawny paws in a dark corner, squeaking in a faint rat voice that That Husband of Mine, well, he should be here helping me.  And as soon as I’d paid even that much attention to the squeak, the rat began gnawing at the dry wall of  my brain.  Squeak: He’s probably in a four-star restaurant somewhere right now.  Squeak-squeak: Or he’s in an airplane reading to his heart’s content. There were times I had to whack my hands together or stamp my feet to scare that rat out of my mind.

After all, I knew it was just a rat.

And I knew Randall.  He wasn’t one.

Parker was now making steady, moist, bull snort sounds.  I looked down the table to Claire. She gave me the eye and the sh-h-h sign.

Then Parker’s hoarse voice came from behind his fisted hands covering his mouth: “So. . .what are deem-ahs . . . and kwahr-tairs. . . anyway?”


He looked down at his workbook lying open on the table.  With one finger poking up from a fist, he signaled a general place on one of the pages. “Deem-ahs,” he dropped his head, fist on forehead and mumbled,“and kwahr-tairs.”

“Let me see this thing,” and I dragged the manual over to where I sat.  I looked at the page.  I swallowed.  I closed my eyes and shook my head.

I looked back up at my glaring, nostril-flaring, confused son.  I looked back at the book and re-crossed my legs in my son’s direction.

Then I scootched much, much closer to him and put my hand on his arm.

Deem-ahs are what you get when you are Norwegian and read the English word dime.

Kwahr-tairs is what you get when you read quarter.

Back then, when we’d first come to France, my nine-year-old had never dealt with American currency. How was he supposed to figure out a math word problem based on U.S. coinage?

“Hey, sweetie. So, does your teacher know you don’t know what these words mean?”

“No.  I haven’t told her all the things I don’t understand.”

So guess what.  I did.  I went back into the school and tried to make it clear to that teacher and to the others who worked with him that we were building from ground up. I even brought the math workbook and pronounced the whole problem as if reading it as a  Norwegian child would with no idea of English phonetics or coinage.  From all of them, except for one administrator, I got nods of recognition and kind encouragement. That was enough to keep me this side of nutso for a while.

When not doing read-a thons and math-a thons in English to help Parker and Claire integrate, we were doing the same in French, to help Dalton do the same. There was an evening (I could have really used you there) when I had one child chanting, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”; another child worried sick about a boy named Jack who’s broken his crown; another belting “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”

In between them all, my soul was pushed on its knees in a pray-a-thon, begging for all the heavenly intervention I knew without which our whole family would most certainly be deported.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Il Crache/Il Crash

La langue means the tongue, which tongue, in this context, means the French one.  And that’s exactly the part of me that was tied in a sailor’s knot when I sat staring into the large liquid brown eyes of Madame M.

Il Crache

She had called a special conference with me after school hours.  I’d spruced up, throwing on pearls, ironing a seam down the front of my pantyhose and brandishing killer heels. I came quickly, mincingly.

“Your son, Madame,” said Madame M., “Il crache aux enfants.”

He certainly LOOKS innocent enough. . .

Although the heat between us told me right off this was serious, I had no idea what “crache” meant.  So I took a stab (which you should never do in French unless you’re fencing), and guessed it meant the obvious: my child was crashing into the other children. Head butting.  My three-year-old, toe-headed fullback.

Il. . . crache?” I asked in falsetto.

“Oui, Madame,” she dropped her eyes, pain wrinkling her forehead.  It was very touching.

“Aux enfants?” I winced, burying my chin in my chest, my shoulders drawing up to my ear lobes.

“Oui, Madame.”  She exhaled audibly. “Aux enfants.”

. . .Well-mannered, legs crossed. He even wears a hat. . .

We sat for ten seconds in silence. She stared into her lap.  I stared at the part down the middle of her hair.

Vraiment?” I said, double-checking if this was true, since Dalton really wasn’t a violent boy at all. “Il—”, and I made a head-butting, fullback movement. Crashing. Into imaginary other children. “Il crache?”

Madame M. looked up at me, perplexed. Then like floodlights flipping on over a soccer pitch, she said, “Oh, non, non, non. Madame Bradford!” Then she laughed.I laughed, too, relieved. Thank heavens my son wasn’t doing something as coarse and crude as head-butting.

Non, Madame, non, non!” She then cleared her throat and straightened her skirt. “Il. . . crache!” said lovely Madame M., as she drew herself together to demonstrate what was meant with the words.

And with that she spat.

She spat left, right, and right at me, her eyes widening, nostrils flared, bottom lip glazed with spit. “Il “ (spit, spit, spit) “crache aux enfants!”

“Oh. Voilà,” I said, as a slight tide of nausea swept over my torso.

OK. So there might be a tendency toward exuberance, maybe. But. . .?

“When the children try to speak to him, he backs into a corner,” this kind pedagogue said, “And when he backs into the corner, the children try to coax him out. It is all meant in fun, I am sure.  But the closer they get, the more he refuses, and when they get close enough, Madame—“

I interrupted here by spitting, my brows drawn up, questioning if I got it right.

Dalton, my crach-ing son.

Dalton  testing the efficacy of the gates of the Château de Versailles. Generally, though, we kept him far from sharp objects.

What I needed to do, I decided, was expose my little boy to more French environments besides just his preschool. Take him out with me on errands, let him meet people who don’t corner him or poke colored pencils into his tummy when he can’t respond with the right verb conjugation. We were in Versailles, after all, which means every corner was a mini culture capsule manned by authentic locals with whom I could certainly try to speak my baby French.  And my baby would of course follow suit.  Ease in.  Quit the spit. I had a great plan.

So I started next day at the grocery store.

Il Crash

It was noontime on a day other than Monday, when Dalton otherwise would have stayed all day at maternelle to dine in the cafeteria, and so my husky three-year-old was with me at a mid-sized alimentation, helping me stock up on essentials, which now included a flotilla of bottled water, endives, fennel, radishes, only two cans of ravioli, eight types of cheese, and an artillery of yogurts in parfums that for some reason made me think of Christian Dior working a butter churn.

With my back turned on him for a split second, Dalton tried to scale the outside of the full cart, and it flipped over on him right in the middle of the frozen hors d’oeuvres aisle. The echoing crash drew a crowd of women, all in their sixties and seventies. They flocked near us, encircling the momentarily winded, saucer-eyed boy clobbered by an impressive heap of Evian and produce. Dalton lay motionless on the tiles. The Roquefort and Gruyère lay smushed quite definitively under his splayed arms.

Heads bobbing, the ladies discussed this évenément between themselves, then offered me their conseil.  Madame should not move il pauvre (the poor guy) because the blow might have damaged his spine. Madame should knock him a sound one on his derriere for having smashed such fine endives as Madame had selected. Madame should rescue her Roquefort from underneath the tins of petit pois and, by all means, get the dairy products home before they spoil. Madame should take a taxi to an emergency room because Madame cannot drive with the invalid in her arms and as it was noon, none of the eight doctors’ offices surrounding the market would be open for three more hours.  Ah, oui.  The inevitable and interminable lunch break.

. . .Domesticated him. . .

Mumbling whatever few French responses I could muster, I gathered the bruised bundle of child (not radishes) in my arms, and left my monument to la gastronomie in an indecent sprawl, the women shoppers gawking and pecking at it, at each other, at the mother and child genuflecting their way out the sliding glass doors.  My handbag shoulder strap creeping down my arm, and sweat dripping down my front, I headed straight for the closest hospital, Hôpital Mignot, Dalton’s human siren accompanying us all the way.

The doctors at the emergency room, after searching for internal injuries with an ultrasound, found none.  (Then I told them to check my son.) They discovered that the grocery avalanche had broken my boy’s foot.  My Viking, they told me, was finally going to get his armor: a knee-high cast. The kid was going to be cobbled.  And Madame la maman? She was instructed to keep her invalid completely sedentary. For the next month.

Could Monsieur le docteur write a prescription for traction? Tee-hee-hee?

Not even a smile.

After one week, Dalton was wielding that cast like a judo instructor, and by the end of the month-long chrysalis, we had it chiseled off with butter knives because it was so battered, it and his leg were decomposing. During that whole time, of course, he couldn’t attend maternelle since according to Madame M., his cast would give the other children even more reason to cajole, and Dalton more reason to crache.

The Bradfords, a visiting friend, and the cast

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: La Gastronomie

When Dalton stayed full Mondays at maternelle, it meant he was invited to dine with his entire class in the cafeteria. Dining meant just what it sounds like: four courses,  linen, silverware, straight backs.  No plastic utensils, trays or cups. No nuggets and ketchup, no canned corn. No sandwiches, certainly, since how can one eat a sandwich with utensils? Even les pommes frittes, or French fries, were to be eaten with a fork, we learned.

Photo credit:

The value in dining, explained Madame M. as she and I stood outside the cantine, peeking occasionally through the port-hole window in the door to watch how Dalton was doing, was to eléver le palais, a phrase that threw me at first. Was this some kind of telekinesis, lifting up palaces or something?  What it meant was to educate (or raise) the palate.

“A child,” Dalton’s cheery pedagogue explained, “must not be given food that will degrade the palate. If early in life he develops an appetite for bad food—fast food, cheap food, tasteless food —- how then will he distinguish later in life what is truly excellent?”

I peered at the preschool children sitting straight in a row, linen napkins across their knees, utensils held firmly in each hand. My Dalton, his back to me, was eating les épinards, or spinach, quiche and sliced fresh fruit with yogurt.  In a blue ceramic dish was a small salad with mustard vinaigrette, I was told.  He and his classmates would be offered a selection of cheeses after that course before the small square of chocolate to finish off the meal.  He drank water from a glass-glass. A woman in a white frock and orthopedic sandals touched him on the head and pointed to his napkin when he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He then used the napkin. And looked both ways as he pressed it flat across his lap.

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“This, Madame Bradford, is as important a part of la formation as is anything else your son will learn.  The French, you know, consider food to be about much more than just eating. La gastronomie is an art and a science and,”  (to this day I recall these words with the sound of a background gong) “the sign of an evolved culture, of an evolved human being.”

Whuh-o.  That one hit like an indictment, a personal kidney punch, though I’m sure gentle Madame M. didn’t mean it as such. But I cringed, and while cringing, felt my back instantly hunch over, hair cover my entire face and then my whole body, my knuckles start dragging on the ground.  All those barnepark brown bags of a single slice of bread and goat cheese? Eaten with bare hands? All those Norwegian birthday parties with a set menu of tepid hot dogs, chocolate cake and red punch? The Norwegian office buffet for Randall, which, over the years, never changed from sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, two sorts of cheese, bread and a platter of room- temperature canned herring? What about the one and only brand of milk — its carton said, simply Melk — that first year we lived in Norway? And the two types of cheese — goat (brown) and cow (yellow) –— compared with the 378+ types in France?

Golly.  We’d kind of liked that approach to food.  It left so much time for the important stuff.

Spice market, St. Rémy, Provence, France

Olive stand, open market, Aix-en-Provence, France

Going back even further, what about all those New Jersey vending machine hoagies eaten on the run? The Slurpees downed in an elevator? The Big Macs scarfed behind the wheel? I’d not only been eating the wrong food, I was now realizing, but I’d been eating all of it all the wrong way.  Mobiley.  As my Parisian neighbor Lauren would tell me some years later, eating while taking an elevator, while driving, while watching T.V., while doing anything but eating was, well, a sport for barbarians.

Now I understood better why, on the other days when I would arrive to pick up Dalton for lunch, the mothers and babysitters were all gathered around the school gates discussing lunch menus. You’re going to braise endives? And she’s going to sautée chicken livers? And she over there will whip up a souflée to go with the fennel salad with chunks of Parmesan and toasted walnuts? It seemed everyone wanted to know what was on everyone else’s menu for the 50-minute lunch break to which they would treat their three-year-old cherub.

I just held tight. It was somewhat destabilizing to listen to everyone’s fancy menus.  At this early stage in our life in France, I was feeling challenged enough merely figuring out what was in those shelves in the grocery store, or where to get things if I deduced that what I needed was not there, and who to task for help to find something as basic as salt, for starters. Because that whole food-on-the-table thing was, with everything else going on (floods, ants, no reliable heat, no closets in the entire house, finding a place to park, learning a new language) really all I could handle for the moment, I listened closely to the women’s talk primarily because it was an excellent source of language education, and only secondarily so that I’d feel culinarily inept by comparison. Never did I dare admit what my own son was going home to:  a vulgar, cheap bowl of microwaved canned ravioli.  In a Barney dish.

You can bet I swore him to silence.

At least he’s using a utensil

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: La Mode

Clotilde, Clémence, and Clara were not only as lovely as their names, but as fashionable.

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They also happened to conveniently be in Dalton’s preschool class at la Maternelle Richard Mique. So I enlisted them, without their knowledge, as my fashion coaches.  When they arrived in their flared skirts and lace stockings and with coiffed bobs and velvet hair bands in their little aubergine or ruby or emerald wool felt coats in late October, I wanted to line them up for a photo shoot.

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And I wanted to dig out all my own childhood photos, the ones where my hair’s greasy or tied with yellow yarn or both, and my clothing fits like a cheap barbeque grill cover and is about the same color. I wanted to hunt down all those school portraits taken always on a Friday after I’d gotten grimy playing dodge ball on the asphalt, those 20-second photo booth snap shots with their splotchy heavenly blue background. Wanted to find them and make a bonfire with them in my bathtub.

I did not always hold my shorts together with a clothes pin. This was an off day.

See? And we sisters even all matched. No clothes pins. No hair yarn. Nice anklets.

But you’re saying; it’s not the girls with the high style I.Q. but their parents, the crazed ones who were dressing their children up like puppets.  Not so.  I watched these girls greet each other every morning at the doorway with their four-year-old assessments of each others’ ensembles;  “Oh, your hair bow is just the right shade of red”, “A beautiful barret, so classic!”, “Ah, your boots and gloves, so pretty,” and,  “Why not a pop of neon with all that brown?”

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They also knew somehow instinctively, it seemed to me, what was not beautiful; “This box of tissues (this felt tipped pen, this silver glitter, this sheet of construction paper) is not beautiful at all.”  And all the little girls, pursing their lips, releasing a sigh, bobbing their bobbed heads with confidence, would concur: “No, it is not beautiful at all.”

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I trusted them.  And was back to crawling on all fours again like I’d done in Norway while figuring out how to dress children in ekte vintertøy, eavesdropping now on French conversations, not only to learn some slick colloquial turns, but to catch the latest fashion trend. And if you think it’s just the girls who dressed stylishly, think again.  The boys showed up in their pea coats and corduroy knickers, their pressed button-down shirts and cardigans, their hair cuts that showed no sign of Mom’s kitchen sheers fiasco.  They lived up to what their teachers called them as they shook hands one by one at their schoolroom door: les jeunes hommes.

Young men.

Photo credit: petit

Against this backdrop of pleats and Peter Pan collars, monogrammed shirtsleeves and wait, are those cufflinks? a boy in rubber purple overalls or even his fanciest bunad, was going to stand out.  I took a look at Dalton and decided he looked mildly dilapidated. He needed a wardrobe overhaul. On second thought, the whole family, I declared that night at dinner, needed a wardrobe overhaul.

So we began at the feet.  I learned from Rita and other Mique mothers that my son needed to be bien chaussé—well-shoed, literally, or well-heeled, as anglophones tend to say.  Being bien chaussé ruled out both the clunky functional rubber boots of barnepark as well as the self-lighting neon-soled tennies of New Jersey.

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Dalton and I arrived at a little local shoe store in Rue de la Paroisse, Versailles’ main shopping drag, ready to slip into whatever was on sale.  I thought of Synnøve at Sportshuset and wrestling my way into a killion kroner worth of ekte vintertøy, and was sure this was going to be much easier.  However, I learned in no time that shoeing my child, like parkdressing my child, was going to be a science.  Shoes were the very foundation of being bien formé. Shoes — like penmanship, like coloring apples, like buying baguettes — were serious.

The shoe saleswoman/erstwhile podiatrist/cum child psychologist instructed me while placing Dalton in front of a mirror, circling him while judging his form.

“He is assez costaud (fairly stocky), your son,” she declared in French, “and has slightly rolled arches.”

By French standards, this is a stocky boy. And these are rolled arches.

Dalton stood in the middle of the little shop, eyes darting, like a stiff troll with shocks of blonde hair. Stocking-feet and, yes, dense.  A bright Scandinavian delight.  Dimples you could lose a silver dollar in.

“This would mean that for his morphologie you might consider this shoe, this shoe, this shoe and. . . that one. You know? In order to equilibré his appearance,” she said, touching her eyeglasses which hung around her neck on a thin, golden chain.

Neatly on the floor was a line: one navy with red trim, one navy with white trim, one navy with green trim, and one navy with navy trim shoe.

“But I don’t like navy blue,” Dalton muttered in English while the woman laced tight the first (navy) shoe.

“What does he say, the young man?” She tilted up her head to me and slipped the eyeglasses up on her nose, as if to see the situation more clearly.

“He does not like navy blue,” I said. And raised my eyebrows in a searching smile.

“Ah, but bleu marine is a good color, a classic color, young man,” she said, patting his bottom and scooting him toward the mirror.

Dalton could understand just enough French at this point, but like a troll, he preferred grunting to strangers over speaking to them.

“I do not like bleu marine,” he whispered to me in English, his face as unemotive as a tepid crêpe.

“What do you say, young man?” The woman put her hand to her ear as if cupping it would amplify this young man’s voice.

“He says, Madame, he finds the other shoe the most handsome. This brown one.”

I picked up a solid-looking brown leather shoe with a high-top, its sturdy Vibrim sole and Velcro tabs great, I thought, for easy access.

“Very good, Madame,” her tone flattened. “Let us try the brown one.  Perhaps not as classic as the bleu marine.  And not such a beautiful cut.  But if the young man wants to consider it. . .”

I could see the effort she was making, unwrapping the tissue paper, lifting out the brown hulking bootlet, pulling open those Velcro tabs whose noisy scratch sound grated against the shop’s total silence and her nerves.  Not classic at all. Ragtime jazz, actually.

Dalton stood stalk still in his one brown shoe. “I want it,” his half-smile said, making  a dent in just one of his dimples.

I put my hand on Dalton’s shoulder.

“He wants it, Madame, “ I sang to her.

“Although it is not. . .not as classic as the bleu marine, young man? Although it is not cut to make his foot look. . . a bit more elegant, Madame?”

“Although it is not as classic, yes. Although it is not as elegant. Yes.”

“Yes, well, very well then,” the woman sighed, clearly disappointed.

I had obviously selected precisely the shoe that would not flatter my three-year-old’s morphologie, and would therefore mark him for life.

“One must decide, I suppose Madame,” the saleswoman said, putting her glasses back on her nose, ”if one wants to teach one’s child that mere comfort is more important than one’s classic, elegant appearance.”

She rang up the total with a briskness that meant this transaction was final-final, then, handing me the bag, added, “In the end, though, one never regrets an elegant appearance.”

One had to decide. What one will regret. And this one decided for comfort, Velcro and brown.

Dalton ended up being the only boy in his entire maternelle with brown high-top shoes with Velcro tab closures. His new little friends (all in lace-up or buckle shoes in a classic bleu marine),called his shoes les chaussures Américains.  Even if they were made in France.

And later, after some conditioning, Dalton also wore navy blue shoes. Uh-oh, he’s rolling an arch, I see.

But he always preferred brown. Dad putting on the final touches before Dalton heads off to school.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: La Boulangerie Bigot

You can hardly believe the beauty of the Grand Canal of the Versailles gardens just at dawn.

If you come right at gate opening to take a long jog, as I did this one Saturday morning in early September, you can jog right past the grazing sheep of Marie Antoinette’s faux Austrian village Universal Studios stage set on your right, past the turn where you could go right into Le Petit Trianon, the private mansion built for this Louis’ mistresses and later furnished by that Louis’ reclusive queen, and after a broad colonnade of trees, you can then hop off the cobblestones about where, on your left, the public toilets and bike rental place are set up.  Then you take a sharp right past La Flotille, the outdoor restaurant (still lifeless at this hour), and whooshk! You lose your breath at quite a sight indeed.

It’s the perfect symmetry and stillness that gets you, the great gray sheet of water like a liquid landing strip, with one swan here, a mallard there. Oh, and the enormous fountains back there since you can’t help but turn completely around and jog backwards with baby steps just to take in the panorama. The magnificent gardens lead up to the château itself, which comes into view, rising from the earth, as it was designed to appear to be doing, either ascending to or descending from heaven as its Sun King claimed he also had.  The biggest monument to vanity till Trump Tower.

Yet with much better jogging possibilities. And, if you ask for my opinion, much more beautiful.

Back to those paths, I make it all the way around the Grand Canal that spreads its arms in a crucifix and, passing back out the big golden garden gates, check my watch to make sure I’ll hit our neighborhood boulangerie as the pretty ladies there open its doors.  Hot baguettes.  Warm croissants.  Millefeuilles aux amandes. We’ve already got our list of favorites.

La boulangerie Jean Michel Bigot in the Rue du Maréchal Foch is soberly majestic.  It has golden doors, a deep purple interior, quietly attentive women behind the big glass counter, and, as I was to learn that day, a versaillaise clientele. There can’t be better tradi to be found, (the sourdough loaves made according to some “traditional” recipe, hence, their name), especially when found in that freshly- birthed state, crust perfectly dense and the sourdough insides a mass of spongy comfort you can’t keep your hands out of. Tradis became our daily staple and we became daily customers at what was an impeccable and addictive house of carbs.

Tradis, specifically, are all I’m after at the end of my jog, when I run right up to the door in the same get-up I wore just a few weeks previously to jog the loop around our island in Norway: my favorite Yankees baseball cap over an unwashed ponytail, its brim tugged down snugly over an unmade-up face; black Lycra leggings; a neon yellow long-sleeved T-shirt; an old blue nylon jacket tied around my waist. (I was so hot, I’d tugged the jacket off over my head and tied it tightly over my hips at about the third bend around the canal.)  My shoes are muddied because I’d not been able to resist the forest, (typical), but they were at least still tied with their fluorescent green laces and were holding up with my pace as I sprint to the shiny golden façade of Bigot.

I’m also listening to music. It’s happy and loud, an energizing program of Duke Ellington, The Style Council, Garth Brooks, and Placido Domingo doing Verdi arias.  I’ve timed my entrance well by sprinting full throttle the last block or so, and am panting as I tug out my earphones and shake out my legs in front of the polished glass doors.  You know how it is when you run and only start to really sweat like you mean in when you stop.  Well, this is where I start to sweat in earnest.  The doors are sweat sensitive, I gather, because it’s right then they slide open automatically, which I hadn’t quite wanted yet, since I was gasping and this was so early and so quiet and so French.  And I hadn’t yet silenced Placido (or was it Garth?) who was slung over my shoulder inside these earphones of mine, still making loud music like a drunk, hanging around my neck, wailing away.  Everyone within a given radius hears him.

And that is maybe why a lady, the last in line and dressed like a clear-cut Madame du Quelque Chose, turns slowly toward me.  I can feel her swift censure like I feel the swiftly closing glass boulangerie doors barely miss my head.  Swush. I scoot back, fumble to turn off my music, lick my lips for moisture, swallow, try to draw up a bit of spit. I reach in my jacket pocket for gum, pop in a piece, and chawnk on it like any good trucker, hoping for some juice, then, still chawnking, trot merrily into the shop.  I fais la queue behind not only one Madame du Quelque Chose, but four of them.

How four middle-aged women can look so meticulous, smell so fragrantly feminine, be so coiffed and have manicures, too, at an hour when I still have bed sheet road maps on the side of my face, is sobering. One is wearing pearls. Another, matching shoes and handbag. Another, patent leather heels.  In midnight violet.  She’s dressed to match the bread shop interior? And it’s with that thought and while standing right behind them, trailing crusts of mud from my raggy Nikes and wiping drips of sweat from my jaw line with the sleeve of my scratchy nylon jacket, that I then realize that without knowing it and certainly without wanting to do so, I have morphed into The Spectacle.

The sweaty, stinky, Spectacle.  The muddy, Lycra-y, Garth-y, Yankee, boulangerie Spectacle. The one who thinks she’s just going to crash this joint and be allowed to buy, like these four powdery Mesdames, a tradi or two.

Upon my bee-bopping entrance, these elegant early birds drop their quiet conversation mid-sentence like they’d all flown beak-first into a plate-glass window.   It is so quiet, and I am so loud (or at least I feel I am) and immodest, and foul-mouthed even with my wad of Wrigley’s Extra Ice, and they look mildly traumatized or entertained, I’m not sure which. But I am the newbie again, unaware, still, of all the codes. Just want my fresh French baked goods, s’il vous plait, if I might grab some. And run.

No! Walk.

So I shuffle, head down, to the gilded counter, grab my baguettes from a blonde woman with movie star beauty complete with a manicure that still looks wet –– just your average bakery gal! — do the required flourish turning to all sides, to anyone who would hear my muffles: “I am so sorry, Mesdames, please excuse me, please forgive me, I apologize, Thank you so kindly, Madame, yours are the best tradis in all Versailles. Have a lovely day. Everyone. Tout le monde. I am a beast.”

Actually, je suis bête was the phrase I used, which means, roughly, “I’m a ding dong.” But bête, besides meaning ding-dong, also means beast.  I knew this already because I’d ordered Disney’s La Belle et La Bête for language practice the day I found out we were moving to France.The fact that Disney’s beast was not a le and was a la, by the way, and therefore feminine, not masculine, caused some consternation for Claire, which we ironed out over time. But that whole tangent is beside the point here. What I’m telling you is that in that embarrassing culture clash moment, I did in fact feel 100% — no, 200% — bête.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.