Global Mom: Scooting Through Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Sitting In A Franco-American Political Hot Seat”)

**

 

Randall bought a Vespa.

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

 

Creamy lacquer paint job, classic lines, toffee colored leather seat deep enough to take a passenger on the back. With it, he could whip out to Versailles to pick up Parker late at night when weekly youth church activities were moved from Paris to our chapel in that ancient suburb. And the two also sliced through the common knots of Parisian traffic to visit and help young families and widows from our church congregation. At every opportunity, Randall was out scooting and scouting the roads, weaving through stalled traffic, sailing past the honking horns and fists flying out windows.

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l'Alma

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l’Alma

When he didn’t take the Vespa, he could easily walk to work, either over the Pont de l’Alma past the golden torch that stands as an unofficial memorial to the car accident that occurred there and took Princess Diana’s life, and up Avenue George V. . .

Monument known popularly known s Diana's Torch

Monument known popularly known s Diana’s Torch

Or around l’Étoile of the Arc de Triomphe and down Avenue Hoche. . .

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation.

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation. Inching. . .

View up the clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées

Clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées. Why Parisians love scooters

Or over the Pont Alexandre III, across the Champs Élysées, and then winding his way to the office. . .

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

These streets also became our morning jogging routes.

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We’d leave before morning traffic at 6:00 from our place near Pont de l’Alma and run along the Seine passing drunks stumbling out of the Metro but also centuries of architecture, political intrigue, artistic ingenuity, religious devotion and as much variety as one can get in an hour.

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We chugged past ancient citadel prisons and gothic chapels and the hidden apartments of international legends. . .

conciergerie

Past the Louvre at minute eleven. . .

louvre early morning

Past the Hôtel de Ville at minute nineteen. . .

hotel de ville

Over the Pont d’Austerlitz at minute twenty-nine. . .

austerlitz

And so on for another half hour past the Institut du Monde Arab. . .

monde arab

Notre Dame. . .

notre dame

Musee d’Orsay. . .

musee dorsay

Trotting at stop lights where guillotines once stood, where revolutions began and ended, over stones where American soldiers and German tanks and English carriages and Italian horses and white-coated monks and destitute writers and hailed composers and defected ballerinas and ermine-cloaked despots passed.

credit: 7eme aup

credit: 7eme aup

That’s some dense history to cut a 15k through.

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Blogueuse Relooking

reloooking 1

Which means, roughly, that I’m a female blogger (French: blogueuse), and I’m going to spruce things up (French: re-looking).

I thought it only fair to warn you.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll still recognize me.

relooking 2

Next time you visit here, you won’t find the lugubrious blue-gray background, the flashy hot yellow-to-vermillion-to-hot yellow strip along the top, the calendar and Goodreads list and other cluttery widgets. Maybe you won’t even find my come-hither grin on the left hand side of the screen, I’m still deliberating.  (Although please, I do sincerely want you to come hither. Or, uh, come here.)

relooking 5

What I hope you’ll find is a brighter, fresher page – so subtly tucked, so gently stretched, with a lift and a plump and still all the warmth and candor and depth and spirit I hope you have come to expect when you click for a visit.

Why all of a sudden this relooking? Age, quite frankly.  This blog is coming up on One Year Old.  In blog years, I think that’s over the hill.

relooking 3

But more salient than the age thing, I’m making a shift.  We have spent two solid months of posting exclusively on my book entitled Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward.  As you know, but as I should probably explain to newcomers, that volume is a manuscript born out of our family’s ongoing experience with catastrophic loss. I’ve written at length here at the blog and elsewhere about the realities of traumatic loss, acute grief and the droning underscore of absence that have been our family’s journey since July 2007.  That was when our eldest, Parker, then 18 years and 5 months old, lost his life while attempting at saving another’s.

While I think a lot and deeply about the experience of loss, (my own and others), and while I’ve researched and written extensively about what major and permanent loss means in our lives, (both intimate and communal), it was the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school that flipped a major switch in me.  I simply had to post on only this topic for a while. I’m certainly not done with it – neither with my own grief and burden of absence, nor with writing about it – but I find it necessary to shift this blog’s focus to other topics for a season.

But first, here is where I want to thank you, my readers.  Some of you have come here loyally without posting comments publicly. Instead, you have written to my private email address.  I need you to know that you have taught me life-altering things in your tender and stark messages.  You’ve confided sacred things in me.  You’ve sent, a few of you, pages of  straight-from-the-gut writing, and I have read them with respect. It is hard to know how to thank you enough.

Others of you have posted comments for all of us, mostly strangers to one another, to sift through. Not easy, especially when the topic singes nerve-endings and cuts right down to the marrow.  I honor your experiences and appreciate your trust in sharing such personal treasure in a public forum.

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As I re-look the blog to something slightly cheerier and hopefully easier on your eyes, I hope the content will follow suit. You know already that my book, Global Mom:A Memoir goes to press. . .GOES TO PRESS?. . .(goes to, gulp, press). . .tomorrow. . .and will be in your neighborhood bookstore (and on Amazon) as of June 1.  Between now and then, I want to return to posting from that manuscript. I will be picking up from where we left off ages ago (does it feel like ages ago to you, too?), in Versailles on our way to Croissy-sur-Seine, a village outside of Paris, where we lived for a while.

Then on to five other addresses/languages/cultures/homes.

Here’s what you can anticipate over the next few months:

-More frequent but shorter posts, mostly excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir. (I’ll try to post 3x a week)

-Lots of photos from my archives (which, of course, will not be included in the printed book. So you get the exclusive illustrated version!)

-Behind the scene peeks into the process of writing and editing this book; what it’s been like working with an exceptional publishing/design/editing team in a cutting-edge boutique publishing house; you’ll meet some of my online writing/cheerleader friends (so you might meet yourself); and you’ll get an inkling of how my family has been (stupendous!) through this all.

-Glimpses into what’s happening now in the real Global Mom’s world, namely: what does spring in Switzerland really look, smell, sound and taste like?

-And with all that, some extra fun travel in and around central Europe.  I envision a little Poland rather soon, some more Italy, probably some Austria, undoubtedly a whole lot of France. I’ll take plenty of pictures and even video footage.

-Speaking of video footage, I’ll be adding much more of it, and will link to You Tube.  I want you and others that you tell about this blog and the book, to get to know Global Mom on the road.

-And then, of course, anything else that happens to pop up on the journey.

This should be so much of fun! Thanks to each of you for being here and for making my world an abundant place worth living in.  With you, I want to dig into it with both hands,  my head on straight, and my heart wide open.

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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?”

And:

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

And:

“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.”

And:

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

And:

“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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com 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?”

“What?”

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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com 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: thedowns.malcol.org

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.

Photo credit: socialcouture.com

“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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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 Bureaucratie

Bureaucratie is a French word, of course, and France won’t let you forget it.  Getting Dalton into French school was not my first experience with French bureaucracy, though. As soon as we’d landed in Versailles (a Friday), unpacked our suitcases in a hotel (on Saturday), gone to church (a Sunday), and Randall had flown off on an extended trip to Karachi, Pakistan (Monday), all my days thereafter, it seemed, were filled with sorting through French forms.

New American family moves into Rue René Aubert. There goes the neighborhood.

Just a detail: I did not speak French.  I had not studied French law. I had no background in governmental negotiations, neither did I have any one to help me peel off those pesky official royal wax stamps without losing the whole middle paragraph in the process. I had three young children, no child care, twelve suitcases and, the week we finally moved into our home, I had a flooded basement that turned to mulch thirty-four cartons of precious, irreplaceable belongings. For that baptism by basement flood, I had a skinny Portuguese plumber with his Polish Sancho Panza. How the two ever understood each other, how I ever understood them, how they ever understood me enough to clean out the mess without being electrocuted by the live wires dangling above the soupy reservoir that just the day before I’d stocked with all my storage, remains to this day one of the weirder mysteries of my life.

I also had a deadline. There were two weeks before school start for me to get everything up and running. For those two weeks, Randall would be absent, establishing his first connections with his direct reports in the Middle East, an area which, along with Europe and all of Africa, comprised his new area of professional responsibility.  If I ever wondered how he was doing in Islamabad, Karachi, Cairo, Beirut and couldn’t reach him, I just turned on the news. As you know, interesting things were going on there. And as you can guess, this was not the Calm Pill a wife and mother needed.  Ah, but he had gone to that two-week-long personal security course at Langley, near Washington.  There, he’d learned how to effectively wield a kubaton, how to identify a sniper and roll for cover, and how to drive a get-away car at high speeds and from the floor of the passenger side with only one hand on the pedals.  And that was supposed to make us all feel much more secure.

All this on my mind, I’d find myself taking those forms in a big folder to an endless string of offices, dragging three restless bodies with me, essentially crawling through French legalese with the help of a frayed dictionary and flailing arms.  Mine and the children’s. One of these many offices, I was sure, held the mystical keys to unlock the entrance to this new world.  It seemed they didn’t want me there, these alarmingly uncharming French.  Well, unless I was willing to be their circus pooch and fling myself through the endless hoops to jump.  My three children, my stressed-out self, hopping through hoops, standing in offices, beseeching what felt like a whole pageant of unsmiling officials behind glass walls in cigarette smoke-filled bureau after bureau after bureau.

Today I wish I’d kept a tally to share with you how many times I arrived at some office, a sweaty wad of forms in hand, barking children at my ankles, ready to get the coveted stamp so I could proceed to the next stamp-dispensing venue, only to be told I was missing one signature, one blood sample or a birth certificate. (And this was just to install a clothes dryer.) The American in me who values convenience and accessibility, the German in me who prizes efficiency and order, and the Norwegian in me who extols simplicity and cooperation, balked in one groaning triad at the convolutions of our new host culture.

The children took the big tangle of inconvenience in stride, though, only because they were too young, probably, to realize what we were doing fingerprinting them every week.  Then Parker had his own run-in with bureaucracy when he discovered the basketball hoops in a sport center in Rue Remilly around the corner from our home in Rue René Aubert. Parker loved nothing as much as he loved basketball, and was going crazy not playing.  So I was almost ready to let him scale the fence to shoot some hoops there once in a while in the middle of the night.  But the fence was high and there’s an after midnight no-noise law for Versailles and I’m a rule-keeper, so we waited until we saw a live person inside the gymnasium one extremely hot August day.  Then we went straight in for shade and to plead our case.

Parker shooting hoops

“Bonjour, Monsieur,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster without donning combat gear.  The middle-aged gentleman in a small office at the entrance of Gymnase de Remilly looked up at me, nodded, released a puff of smoke, and flicked the ashes from the end of his cigarette.

“Bonjour Madame, jeune homme.”  It was Boris Karloff’s long lost French cousin, I swear it.

I’d brought Parker, my jeune homme, to help me plead and, if necessary, to impress the court keepers with a three pointer from the back court with his eyes closed. To convince a potential person in authority or stamp dispenser of just how much this boy really loved basketball and how, maybe, his engagement in their Versailles Club de Basket (I’d seen a sign advertising try-outs) would benefit them as much as it would him.

Grown Parker, playing the game

“Excuse me. I disturb you,” I start in, taking the same lines I’d first used on Britt at barnepark, only in French, not Norwegian, and with slight modification. “We are Americans.  We inhabit house not far. ” I say this pushing nine-year-old Parker in front of me. “We are hot.”

Which is not the right thing to say.  In French, it, meaning the weather, makes hot. But you are not hot. No decent Mormon mother of three, at least, is hot or announces that she is.  And not on a first encounter with Karloff’s cousin.

“And you have the air,” the man responds, his face as unmoved as the heavy heat wave that is making parts of me, like my brain, liquefy.

I have the air? Well, in fact, I don’t have the air.  I have none. Which is why I think I’m going to faint on the spot.  I don’t have enough air, that’s for sure, but this guy, the guy who’s smoking and therefore giving me less air, is accusing me of having it. Only weeks later do I learn he’d just been saying, “You sure look like it.” But right now and because I have to be a wee bit obsequious, I tell him what any hot, needy newcomer would; “I’m terribly, horribly desolated.”

Things in that moment aren’t going precisely as I’d hoped, and I begin aching for a woman with half a red jumpsuit and a coffee thermos to walk in from around some corner back there and sing, “Hurrah! Komm in!”

But there’s a door. And it has a plaque. And the plaque has a title.  And all this, I think, belongs to this cigarette-smoking man who’s clearly leaving me to my own devices.

“My son plays on the basket,” I bulldoze indelicately over my string of unwitting French faux pas, trying to recall the phrases I’d written on Post Its and studied on the walk here.  “Is it that you have perhaps a place for him, Monsieur?”

“S’il vous plait?” Parker peeps.

The man then lifts himself from the chair, tossing his cigarette into a trashcan, and stretching his shoulders. “Shwee pah coach,”he says with a shrug. Which means nothing at all to me for a full minute.

Then a light goes on, and it has to do with what I now see are the man’s janitor’s clothes and the broom he reaches for.  I now know. I’m not the coach, he’s told me.

The coach, when we did meet him on our next visit, was animated, even gregarious, and completely keyed about an American boy named Parker  like “Tony Parker!”  he shouted, who’d himself grown up playing basketball in Versailles. The coach shook the hand of the nine-year-old boy who’d just moved in around the corner, the one who had a Norwegian mom, (the coach thought this forever), the boy who loved more than anything, Le Basket.

But being France, there was a certain protocol. Only after several forms, mug shots, blood tests and fingerprinting, was Parker allowed to wander in there as he pleased and shoot away.  Some months later, he would become a full -fledged member of the Versailles CB (Club du Basket) where he played three times a week on a team of resolute French players who spoke no English except the essentials even I could understand: “dribble” (pronounced “dreeebl”) and “Parker,” pronounced “Par Coeur”, as in “by heart.”   The motivation to make that switch from Norwegian to French got some traction. And in no time, he improved his game while picking up loads of local basketball lingo.  Alright, so not quite French of the court of Versailles. But French of a court of Versailles.

Parker, grown again, teaching his brothers and sister how to play Le Basket

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 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.