Thursday, January 23, 2014

Don't Bother Trying to Integrate

Are you eager for a giggle? So listen to my morning. 

I awake at 5.30am to get some work done. My inbox is filled with panicked emails from my team about some ridiculous consular issue in South Africa so as a result, I am frantically calling-pulling-favors before the sun has even risen. I managed to sort out the situation through a contact but I am now indebted to said contact. In fact, he has made it clear that a case of champagne will not suffice and that rather, he would prefer some lovin'.  I am still not fully certain if this was said in jest. Surely he was not flirting with me? Should I make my husband aware of this situation or should I relish the one-sided-flirtation-with-a-sexy-guy-who-seems-he-could-throw-a-lion-over-his-shoulder?

While on the telephone with my team, I cut up some fruits, tossed them with butter and cinnamon and put them to roast in the oven. The steel oats that I had soaked last night were put on the stovetop to cook at a low heat. I must admit that I felt quite  satisfied, even smug, with my ability to mult-task. I returned to the computer but about half an hour later Cedric awoke and crawled into my lap. He insisted that I stop typing and wanted  me to help him pee - a ridiculous request since he normally insists that I give him "pribacy" and that he is "comstable" peeing on his own. Emotional manipulation to get me off the computer, perhaps? The problem is that I was in the midst of writing to my boss in China who expected an immediate response. "Wait my love, I just have one more sentence to complete and I will be all yours." Flashing me a seemingly innocuous smile, my precarious 4 year old managed to delete my email. My email that was 97% complete. And of course, my some turn of fate, this email is neither in my sent box nor my trash box. 

Ok. Husband. Where. Are. You. Help. Now. But no, Andy was on a conference call dealing with a client the company had lost the night before. Not only did he not wish to be disturbed but he was hardly approachable. Do you recall a book of our youth - Where the Wild Things Are? Well, my lovely husband was comparable in both expression and activity - his face crunched up and anguished, his teeth gnawing at his already tortured fingernails and his hair being pulled out in clumps. It hardly seemed the moment to remind him that, in fact, he did not have a lot of hair to spare since the consequences of middle-age have been fairly unkind. 

Sniff. Sniff? What is that smell? Why are they clouds of smoke violently emerging from the kitchen. I run to the kitchen to find generously cooked (read: burnt) oatmeal topped with a medley of crunchy fruit (read: burnt to a crisp). What a pity. Cedric, perhaps some leftover pea soup for breakfast instead of steel oats? I then run towards shouts in the bathroom. There are three rolls of toilet paper that are barely-floating-and-rather-sinking-towards-their-demise. And a 4 year old who is fascinated by the process observes the consequences of his science experiment. 
Cedric and I depart for school after overcoming a bit of a drama associated with his wardrobe. He could note decide which superhero underpants he should wear today and I resolved the issue by sending him to school in three pairs of knickers. He was not pleased with this finality but well, mama decides if you cannot. He forgot all about his now sweaty-itchy bottom once I told him that I was one of the volunteers at school today. My job was to help the teacher prepare galletes (cakes with cream inside) for a parent-teacher breakfast tomorrow morning. There were four groups and one mother was assigned to each group of children. The children in Cedric's group know me by name at this point and find my English songs and chants amusing. Or are they laughing at me and not with me? Do the French already begin to mock-snuff-criticize foreigners at this early age?
Nevertheless, I began to follow the teacher's instructions and my team members were a delight in helping me mix, measure and fold. While mixing and singing, I suddenly realized that my filling was quite liquid. It was more like pancake batter than the stiff filling suitable for a cake. Surreptitiously, I peeked at how the other two mothers were managing their batter. One realized that I was peeking and in turn, very blatantly covered her bowl. Yes, she ensured that her breasts-hair-and-hips were dangling over her bowl. It became very clear that teamwork was not going to be the day's mantra but rather, we were embarking on a full-out war. Mama against mama. 

The teacher took a look at my filling but did not need to say anything  - her expression was clear and the message it implied was clear. I resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to be promoted to "cool-foreign-mom-who-has-adapted-to-the-French-way-of-doing-things." Forget about trying to integrate. I became dizzy, flush and scenes from that a recent Sarah Jessica Parker movie (you know the one, where she has lice and cannot cook for her kids bake sale) began to suffocate me. I did not hesitate. I mustered up my pride, determination and wallet and ran to the kids in my charge. Smiling, I told them "I am running to the store. Ella is the boss - whoever does not wiggle while I am gone will be the proud recipient of a pony. Anyone who does wiggle will have to kiss a frog." Weirdly, it worked but I am now nervous that their furious parents will email me.   

I ran to the Casino supermarket, about three blocks away, the wind whipping in my hair. Giddy-up Black Stallion. I raced to the shop and back to school. I had three things on my mind: Save your child's honor; save your gallete; and my god, my breasts hurt from all this running! The outing took approximately 5 minutes because I was driven by compulsive-competitive-no-compromise-obsession. I dodged cars, old ladies waving their cane at me, prissy children shouting "c'est interdit marche vite, a construction site where small flicks of debris landed in my hair, and a small dog who leapt towards my jugular. Sweating, panting, in tears yet laughing at the absurdity of the situation - I arrived at the school and ran through the gate. 

But I stopped to look at my reflection, fix my hair and reapply my lipstick. After all, we are in France. 

And this was only 9.25am. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Strippers and Hermes Bags

It is odd how a perfectly elegant cocktail party deteriorated. One minute we were delicately biting into petite canapés with one hand while balancing a glass of champagne in another, and chatting with friends, new and old. Quite suddenly, the atmosphere changed completely. It took only one ding-dong of a doorbell.

Voila. A man dressed as a fireman walked into the party. A room filled with sophisticated women, engaged with one another, turned silent. Aside from a few less than subtle gasps from women who anticipated the worst.

Lights are dimmed whereas the volume of the music is increased. The fireman begins to rip off one article of clothing after another, pulsating around the room somewhat awkwardly. He grabs at any unsuspecting person with whom he makes eye contact, veritably forcing them into a compromising situation. Some women were giggling nervously but most were a bit annoyed and to be truthful, bored. As soon as he ripped off his last piece of clothing, revealing a tiny pair of briefs toting an American flag on the bottom, I exited to the kitchen, in search of alcohol.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Everything is fine

Everything is fine. Really. I promise. Who doesn’t love Paris?

I find myself repeating the same words time and time again. For 4 months now I have been repeating these words, monotonously but with a gracious smile, as if someone were pulling a string from my wooden puppet back.
We found a beautiful apartment in the 16th as well as a private nursery school in the neighborhood. The area is lovely but a tad Upper-East-Side-Esque-meets-Stepford-wives. I suppose that, technically, people are polite but their excusez-moi is forced and rarely accompanied by a smile. Rather, they tend to say excusez-moi with pursed lips and an accompanying poof-boof-oh-la-la sort of shrug and a toss of perfectly coiffed hair that matches, of course, their purse and shoe ensemble that, of course, matches their cashmere and fur lined sweater set. And it is perfectly acceptable to bark orders to a stranger on the street. Next time someone barks at me I think I will just stand and stare, perhaps even smile. A strange, evil smile can be very intimidating, no?
The irony is that I do not look wildly different from the other women on the street aside from the fact that I opt for red rather than pink lips. According to a French friend, I am too friendly and set myself up for disappointment and attack. Like a vulture smells the vulnerability associated with gangrene?
What a cynical way to live though.
Safe away in my enclave, our apartment is all unpacked. I suppose that my compulsive-organizational-obsession-disorder was revealed to all and I managed (with my mother’s help) to organize our apartment. However, one problem remains: since the apartment is not modern, the cupboards are long and deep so they are totally impractical unless you are 7 foot tall with 5 feet long arms. As a result, I have needed to be very crafty and practical in organizing and so our linens are stored in the dining room closet, and my shoes are stored in the office cupboards next to Cedric’s wooden train set. As a side note, how did I accumulate so many pairs of shoes?
The mid-life crisis-puff-daddy-comparable-to-a-red-Porsche barbque has been relegated to the guest room until it can be sold. Note to guests: it is forbidden, even under the influence of alcohol-love-or-hunger, to use this monstrous machine for the preparation of meat-dessert or otherwise.
Organizing is one thing but maintenance is another. I am trying to rummage a bit of help at home. I have decided that I do not enjoy ironing, washing, loading and unloading, chopping, blending, folding, cleaning and vacuuming. Who enjoys this really? The pain associated with standing in front of the ironing board is diluted by Glenn Close in the season finale but the cost of paying someone 10Euro an hour to iron is more painful. Perhaps I can turn housework into a game and invest in a French maid costume? Perhaps I will only wear spandex going forward since it is a material that needs no ironing.
I have been feeling nostalgic for fieldwork in Africa as of late. Did I think about ironing or did I think about project deliverables? Did I worry compulsively about the dust mites under the bed or did I worry about the impact of financial planning on our projects? I feel a bit tired, as though I have lost my direction and think about the dreams and plans that used to inspire me. I never wanted to have a house with a white picket fence and I never wanted to have an office job.  

I turn off the computer and wander into a coffee shop. I glimpse at myself in the mirror and I am sad to find that I look gaunt, tired, and overall gray. But I am welcomed with a bit of kindness- despite my outwardly aged appearance the barman smiles broadly and greets me with an emphatic "Bonjour Mademoiselle." A friend once told me that if I want to drown my sorrows then the bathtub should be filled with cognac and not to forget my snorkel. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Playground Politics and the P Word

I know. Theoretically, I know that is it unacceptable for an adult to kick sand towards a toddler. Even if there is only a bit of sand, even if the other child was the aggressor, and even if nobody is looking. Forgive me for I have sinned while defending my son from a terrible-monstrous-no-good-bad-little person at the park today. 
I could not help myself - the playground is comparable to a lion pit. Imagine dozens of children running about in the park recklessly. Energized by their sugar-ridden afternoon snack, even their facial expressions are contorted and aggressive, like little demons of sorts. There are no rules and survival is determined by a combination of wit, strength and charm.
The social groups that have been created at school continue, in non-amorphous forms, at the playground. The naughty boy has been identified, the beautiful girl spotted, and the teachers pet branded. 
I am usually the only mom running, playing and laughing with her child. The majority of the caretakers there are nannies that also form their small clusters based on country of origin. For example, I see a group of women who all herald from the Philippines to my left. They cover their mouths when they giggle and wiggle around, unable to contain their simple joie de vivre. I float into the recesses of my memory and recall being a teenage girl chatting with my friends after school, wanting to simultaneously flirt with my companions and remain in my insecure shell. To the right of me are two separate clusters of African nannies. One cluster is composed of women who are conservatively dressed, with hair pinned back and faces bereft of makeup. They are shy and seem terribly unhappy. I try to listen in on their conversations but they normally stand together, almost like a herd protecting one another, but opt for silence as they stare into the park. I know that many of theses women originate from conflict zones and so their deep-rooted sadness and sense of loss is understandable. Near them stands another cluster of African nannies that are disinterested in the children but wildly animated as they engage socially. I ease myself onto the bench near them and, while pretending to be totally absorbed by my phone, listen to their conversations. Their hands rest on their hips and they assume as offensive stance, from their facial expression to their well-endowed hips jutted outwards. A large part of their salaries is clearly dedicated to their physical beautification rituals and I am in awe of the bright pinks, blues and reds that are used to paint their faces and color their hair extensions. Their jeans seems painted on their bodies and, despite the muddy environment, they wear stiletto heels. Smiling, I can easily seen them sashaying on the beaches in West Africa, flipping their panges about to the beat of the music they create within. Their movements and laughter are contagious and enviable but in Paris, in the 16th, their resentment for being taken away from their homeland seemed palpable. And in fact, to people unaccustomed to these vibrant peacocks, their profession could easily seem to be something other than that of child caretaker.
Other than running around the park with Cedric, I often find myself running behind trees in the park with Cedric. It is almost inevitable that as soon as we arrive to this pseudo great outdoors, Cedric needs the loo. And no, he is not doing the pee-pee dance.
As a side note, discussing what happens behind the closed doors of ones salle de bain is socially deplorable. It is almost as unacceptable to hear a friend discuss the ticklish yet pungent foot fungus that has begun to spread between her toes. Note however, that this social nicety holds true only until one becomes a parent. At this point - almost instantly - one develops a tick or an uncontrollable urge to share intimate details associated with both the digestive abilities and limitations of ones child. And yes, I refer to texture-color-size-and-frequency.
For some fortunate women, this tick already begins to metastasize during pregnancy when a woman finds herself discussing bloating-flatulence-constipations-and-itchiness. She discusses this with perfect strangers in highly inappropriate social settings. The handyman who is fixing her shower? The fruit vendor who is selling her apples? Or perhaps even people at a dinner party? If she is lucky she is seated next to people who can empathize with her dilemma. If she is not lucky she may be seated in between a gay man and a young-professional-perfectly-coiffed-single woman who both cringe at the mere mention of the world child.
Of course, despite the strikingly realistic description, this never happened to me.
I also never found myself in the park where my two-and-a-half year old triumphantly ran towards me shouting, poo-poo mama. The parks boast lovely manicured grounds, as well as well-constructed wooden trains that conform to European Union ecological standards but alas, they overlooked the fact that children - on occasion - need to use the toilet. Or are Parisian children simply trained to go on command? Please send me the manual! And what does a parent do when a bouncing and clearly desperate child is clamoring for a bathroom but the nearest café is a brisk ten-minute walk away?
One does what every rational – yet momentarily hysterical – parent would do. Hide behind a tree and, while scrambling at the bottom of your purse to find somewhat clean tissue paper, pray that nobody takes a photo of your son’s delightful bare bottom. And then, head held high, toss the used plastic baggie into the nearest wastebasket and giggle with your son who is extremely proud of his achievement.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Lice. Was he the carrier or was he the victim? Does my child really have lice or is this a bad joke? Did he start the epidemic or did some horrible brat rub his head on Cedric, maliciously spreading his vile and infectious bugs? Wildly contagious but also wildly psychological - ever since I found out that about the epidemic at school I also find myself scratching-twitching-shaking-and-suffering as I am convinced these creatures are scurrying behind my ears, down my neck, across my back and along my legs.
Private school. 16th arrondissement. Perfectly coiffed women and men float about the neighborhood with pursed lips and mighty pretensions. Yet - based on the impromptu survey I conducted this morning - children with lice in even the snootiest neighborhoods in Paris are as common as children boasting cashmere jumpers and suede loafers. I run into one mother of one of Cedric’s classmates in a café and she shrugs her shoulders while inhaling deeply on her cigarette. “Boof, hmm, Dominica, you no take notice of the advertising for lice treatments in the window display of every pharmacy,” she asks me? She wipes off some imaginary dust from her Birkin, placed ever so surreptitiously on the table, and pauses to say “Birthday present, lovely, no?” She waves her hand in the air dramatically and I wonder how her scrawny-nourished-on-reed-wine-cigarettes-and-chocolate arm can support the weight of so much bling. She then continues to explain that her maid sterilizes the home every few weeks since, god forbid she risks getting lice into her expensive hair extensions.
And I was just worried about an infestation ruining our Ikea sheets - silly me for having my priorities skewed. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Linguistic Confusion

Many people cringe at the constant changes in country, language, and culture that I welcome into my life. I have been asked - on more than one occasion - why I am unable to settle down in a small, gated suburban community where I could enjoy a golden Labrador, bed of tulips, comfortable shoes, and a lifetime Costco membership?
While these inevitable changes may seem tortuous for some, they have been positive for my family. In fact, I would argue that this pseudo-volatility has encouraged my toddler to become a flexible and open minded child who is developing a deep awareness and appreciation for the world and its delightful diversity.
Giggle. Giggle. Well, ahem, he is the prototypical child described above once in a while.
The rest of the time, my son is a typical toddler who unabashedly shares his thoughts - ones that are unfiltered, brutal and culturally insensitive. I wonder at what age his brains synaptic growth will introduce a mechanism that filters his thoughts before they are expelled violently? Andy and I were horrified last week in Sri Lanka. While walking through the Botanical Gardens a group of burka clad women passed us on a path. Cedric began to excitedly jump while shouting “Gorillas, look there are gorillas! Where are orangutans? I love gorilla monkeys!” Goodness. Andy and I exhaled a huge sigh of relief once realizing that nobody had made the connection between what he was saying and where he was looking.
These rabbit-hopping-ants-in-the-pants-lightning-paced changes in his life have also provoked a tad of linguistic confusion. Funnily enough, we welcome this confusion since it masks his blunt comments! The incident that best summarizes his linguistic goulash was when he barked ** “Bu yao, go domu” (which means “I do not want you here, go away)” to a temporary babysitter in China.
Perhaps-maybe-or-even-indeed a bit aggressive and rude, but the impact of his comment was diluted by the curls and contagious giggles of my precocious toddler coupled with my babysitter’s lack of comprehension. As a side note, we quickly learned that she lacked comprehension in most matters, irrespective of the language being used. As Cedric challenged her to respond to his puffed aggression, the babysitter tickled him and commented on his cherubic expression. ‘Brave lady’ I thought, shuffling uncomfortably and red-faced as I tried to stifle emerging giggles of my own. 
With time, one learns to expect such verbal outbursts and a few months later in New York I hardly flinched when trying to conceal one of Cedric’s blasé observations. While we were riding the subway, he was suddenly distracted by a woman who was horizontally challenged (at about 300 pounds) and asked ** “Why pani gruba? Bu jolie.” While I tried to discreetly place Cedric’s accusatory finger back on his lap, the woman’s eyes began to dart back and forth, questioning and defensive. As she started to huff, puff and protest I - overflowing with sweetness and smiles - informed her that she reminded Cedric of his very beautiful grandmother.  
My heroic overture was deflated by my son remarking - rather loudly and with newly honed impeccable pronunciation - “Mama, why you say she look like **Babcia, she no look like Babcia!” The conclusion is that, while I fear imposing my own cultural-linguistic-confusion on him, his potpourri of influences seems to make perfect sense in his mind. 
Despite the hiccups, or perhaps in spite of, we try to foster multilingualism at home. Cedric has his own opinion however, and prefers to chat almost exclusively in English, pushing to the side his Chinese-Polish-Swiss-German-and-French. Excepting for a few negations (I don’t want, I don’t like, I don’t do) his level of Mandarin is decreasing daily and his Polish is nearly nonexistent. We were a bit ambitious (read: naive) in assuming he would not forget the basics of these languages when moving to France and even hired a Chinese babysitter to maintain his Chinese level. At this point we either need to admit defeat, increase her hours or frequent the gourmet Chinese take-away shop on our road. In fact, the lady who works at this intimate shop adores Cedric and is thrilled when he asks for jaozi in Mandarin. Her face lights up when he confidently prances through the door and once can see her twitching in anxious delight for the moment she can scoop him into her arms. Despite her little dance that begs the question - do you have to pee - she always waits until her customers have trickled out of the shop before lunging towards him. Quite accustomed to being handled by oodles of strangers around the globe, Cedric tolerates her effusive and loud bouts of affection. I suspect that the candies and spring rolls that she - literally - shoves into his open and eager mouth contribute to his malleability. As she runs away to the back kitchen with Cedric en tow, I can hear her chattering to the kitchen staff in excited tones “Yes, yes he understands Chinese!” Smiling, I sit down and have a coffee and enjoy the 30 minutes of free babysitting.
In terms of his Polish, I spoke to Cedric exclusively in Polish for the first two years of his life. Since we moved to France five months ago I switched to English and now, when I speak in Polish, his response is “Mama, why you no speak English, I don’t understand your Chinese.” Enough said.
He has already mastered the French terms that are obvious-necessary-and-fundamental-for-the-survival-of-a-toddler. His favorites are c’est a moi, no, jolie pee-pee, vous pas partage, and of course, frommage. In just a few weeks he has also developed the tendency of saying ohh la la and throwing kisses to everyone. His English is also increasing by leaps and bounds and the logic of his sentence construction is often entertaining. For example, when leaving a friend’s home I asked him to thank her for her hospitality as well as dinner. Eyes wide, he looked at her earnestly and said “Thank you for having me, and thank you for eating me.”
Despite the mild linguistic confusion caused by a massive input of stimuli that swirls around in his tiny head, he remains fascinated by the world. His love of maps and planes is relentless (mildly-bordering-on-compulsive-obsessive) but isn’t this better than a love for Hello Kitty, Barbie or Transformers. He takes great pleasure in thoroughly examining maps and he has two favorites - the first was a map (in the form of a placemat) and the second is a vestige of mine from college. When looking at the placemat he explains that the “Eiffel Tower is in Paris next to man who sell ice cream. Cedric eat ice-cream every day.” He exaggerates, but I must admit that years of lactose deprivation in Africa and Asia have resulted in a cult-obsessive-fascination-and-adoration for the Indian man selling Italian gelato near the tower. And forgive me for I have sinned and I have fed excessive amounts of ice cream to my toddler.
When not fixated by the placemat during meals, he can often be found with his nose pressed to a large map that hangs in our home office. Despite the fact that it is wrinkled, bent and assumes an obnoxious amount of precious Parisian space, it had made its way into our shipment from Shanghai. Ooops. Staring at it intently, he scratches his head and says, “I’m thinking” before inquiring about every inch of this map. Every-single-mountain-range-river-country-border. And then repeats the same questions ten minutes later. With his finger and often accompanied by a miniature car or plane, he traces around different countries. “Mama walk from China to Babcia Babcia at New York, and Cedric take plane to Sri Lanka to wash elephants.” During college I also spent hours gazing at this map and writing down the names of the countries I wanted to visit; perhaps this is proof of our genetic compatibility.
And he embarks on lovely voyages through the power of imagination all day whether in the bath, walking to school, or at the park. At the park there is a large wooden train upon which he sits and his favorite voyage tends to repeat: after taking my payment of a few rocks, he lets me know that “We driving to Shanghai to see Amaia and say Hola.”

** Phrase 1 - Bu you, go domu / I don’t want you, you go home
Bu you (Chinese, I don’t want), Go (English, go), Domu (Polish, home)

Phrase 2 - Why pani gruba? Bu jolie. / Why lady fat? It is not beautiful.
Why (English, why), pani gruba (Polish, fat lady), bu (Chinese, not), jolie (French, beautiful)

Phrase 3 – Babcia (Polish, grandmother) ***