Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Exuberance is Good

Mom sent me an email today after reading my last post. She wondered if French kids are just really super well behaved or have I ruined her grandchildren. This is because I've mentioned that they always seem to be getting looks from French strangers.

It's not that they're not good kids. They're just American kids. They are loud. Very loud. But then so am I if I'm honest. They're giggly, happy, spirited, free…and they sometimes whine, fight, and do other things that kids do. It's just that they don't have a problem doing all of that in public.

And I'm probably a bit paranoid about standing out. I cringe when they're shushed or tssked for touching cheeses or staring deep into dead fish eyes. On Saturday I left them here and went to the grocery store on my own. As I swanned up and down the aisles, enjoying my free time, (I know, sad right?) I heard a child running in the next aisle. My ears perked up. Could it be a French child making all that noise?

And then I heard his mother calling, 'Ben!' in a very British accent. I was torn because part of me wanted so badly for it to be a French child behaving badly. The other part was delighted to be in company with another 'anglophone'.

I met up with them on the cereal aisle and gave her a smile. She looked at me with eyes that said, 'Oh, help! Why is my child doing this to me?' I told her I'd be in the same boat but for the fact that mine were at home with their dad. 'Lucky you', said she.

Today it was me again at the store, kids in tow. Before we went in we had the talk. 'Ok, listen. No embarrassing Mommy in the store.' I took a few deep breaths and decided to relax. Enjoy it and just chill out. They are good kids and I shouldn't worry if I get looks from strangers. Who knows, maybe they're reminiscing, thinking how cute and energetic my little boy is, how adorable my daughter is giggling and teasing her brother, how lovely my chubby little baby is as he stuffs his face with bananas and finally how patient and loving I am as I serenely glide through the aisles.

And they were good. Happy and silly yes, but still good. Exuberant good. Kid good.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

French Lessons

One step forward, two steps back. That's how I feel nearly every day here in France. At times I am super confident and fancy myself to be learning something. Other times I feel like a bumbling idiot with a big letter A for AMERICAINE stamped on my forehead.

Last week I spent nine hours with my fantastic French tutor Michele. She always comes to the house and we talk. In French. For three hours. It is amazing, mind bending, and fun. She's a wonderful person as well as teacher and I love every halting, sputtering minute I spend with her. Since the weather is so nice all of our 'lessons' have been outside while the kids run around and play, eat, play. Michele and I sat on a blanket with our Perrier and notes and talked. On Thursday we went to the beach. French lessons on the beach. Kids jumping over the waves, rolling in sand, the baby eating sand and still more French.

Now with all this idyllic time spent absorbing the language you'd think I've learned something. Well, I guess I have but like Michele says, once you learn some you want to say more so you feel like you know nothing. Very French.

On Friday I went to buy my kitchen appliances and feeling rather chuffed from my 9 hours of talking, I was prepared to do it all en francais. And so I did. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't smooth. I've never been much of a public-talking-eloquently-to -strangers person anyway, but it wasn't awful. The guy understood me, smiled, chatted, and I walked away having bought un réfrigérateur, un four, and un lave-vaisselle. I was even able to arrange for delivery the following Friday morning! Ha!

Then today I needed to rent a moving van for all of our boxes and decided I could handle it. Da, da dum….over the phone. FYI, it is very difficult to have a conversation in another language over the phone. First of all if you get an automated answer with numbers to press for different areas it puts you right off your game. 'Un pour something, something, something. Deux pour blah, blah, blah, and trois pour I feel totally stupid and way over my head here.' On a whim I pressed four. More fast talk, less confidence. I tried to do it, I really did, but by the time I stumbled through what I had to say my brain was in no condition to comprehend the answers I was rapidly given. Without context, gestures and facial expressions I was lost. I got what little I could and decided to just pack it all up and go in there. 

We arrived during the lunch break, duh, and had to walk around the mini-mall and giant store (Hyper-U) while we waited for 2:30. When it was time, we walked up to the desk and I began again. This time was a bit better but we weren't in the right place. We had to walk outside and around the back of the store. We waited our turn while the baby screamed, big kids fought, and people stared. When it was my turn I launched into it again and something miraculous happened. I was okay again. He understood me and answered me in understandable French and we had a sort of conversation and he didn't look at me like I was some sort of imposter. He didn't even correct my horrible pronunciation. He just talked to me as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me to be sitting in the back warehouse of a Hyper-U in the South of France with my kids, arranging for the rental of a van.
Michele will be so proud.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Faux Pas

Last night P-Daddy and I were pinching ourselves, as we usually do, surprised and delighted to find ourselves living in France with all this sunshine. As we braced ourselves for the onslaught that is the evening news in French, he made a wonderful point. If we were in a country where they speak English it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

It is fun. And challenging, and frustrating, and amazing to learn a new language. And being here, where it is real every single day, makes it even more of all those things. 

I went through our new house with the landlords, their agent, and mine yesterday. It was one of those moments where I felt lost. As the four of them spoke in rapid fire French, usually all at the same time, I listened; my face scrunched up in concentration. I caught the gist of it based on context—le jardin, le chiminée. I also got some of the usual words peppered throughout the conversation—peut-être, donc, bien sûr. But as far as the whole of the thing, I was utterly en mer(de).

But something else happened too. Usually we're the ones worried about saying the wrong or inappropriate thing when speaking French. I don't want to say the 'wine' is blowing when I mean the 'wind' or my 'wife' instead of my 'husband'. 
Well. Yesterday, Madame did the same thing, only in English. She said that my little baby with all the white hair and chubby cheeks was, "as big as a house." He is a big kid, no doubt, and everyone comments on how grand he is but in this case the expression didn't match the context. 

Babies aren't as big as a house. We three English speakers cringed. I laughed and said, "Yes, he is a big boy." Just like anyone else would do. 

And just like I hope the French person I'm sure to unintentionally offend will do. 

Because you know it's going to happen.


Monday, April 19, 2010

The Bus

I have to give you an update on the Fisherman's bus. It was a beautiful weekend so of course the grill was going next door and his family and friends just kept coming. All to look at the bus I assumed.

We went shopping all day on Saturday and when we got back a transformation was taking place. The bus windows were papered over and taped, it had been primed with an undercoat of white paint, and the laughter and talk competed with the noise of the power sprayer as it covered the bottom half of the bus in a very Springy lime green.
It was a bus painting party!

It lasted all weekend and seemed so fun that I was tempted to try my nascent French and ask to join them. Instead, I checked for progress every once in a while, discreetly looking out my bathroom window.

This morning, just now, a mighty rumbling started. The caterpillar turned butterfly was leaving the premises. The Fisherman guided and directed the exit up the narrow, steep drive and off it flew. I wonder if he feels lonely now. Everyone gone and the bus along with them.

We're leaving here next week to move to our permanent house. Who knows what intriguing happenings I'm going to miss. And the lovely whistling too.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Snails by any other name are still….snails

I love food.
Baby corn is the only vegetable that I don't like. And I think that's mostly down to the 'baby' part.

I'm a terrific dinner guest because I will try anything. My pet peeve is picky eaters. It's food, someone made it for you, eat it. 

Of course there are things that I prefer and things I may pass over if presented with a variety of dishes, but I will always taste. 

I have one exception. Snails. I will eat oysters, octopus, squid--even the creepy squid body part—mushrooms of every variety, you name it. But I cannot stomach the idea of eating one of those slimy, antennae waving crawlers who leave a silver trail in their wake. UGH!

Of course it is only because I've seen millions of snails, have crushed them underfoot, plucked them off peony leaves, and even, if I'm brutally honest, poured salt on them.

The only reason I can throw back a dozen raw oysters doused with liberal amounts of horseradish and red sauce is because I don't live in the sea. My backyard isn't underwater. I don't have to pry their muscly selves off rock walls or witness their silver trails. 
That, and they're really good with cold, cold beer.

You know where this is going, right? 
Last night, I. Ate. Snails. 

Well, just half of one snail, but I did it. It was kind of awful. The shells looked beautiful; like a mother of pearl necklace arranged on the plate. The sauce was heady with garlic and herbs. But it was very, very chewy and strangely horrifyingly enough, it tasted 'green', like grass. Like all the plant leaves and grass the little bugger had been happily munching on until he was snatched up, silver suction broken, and placed in a hot oven with all that garlic, butter, and herbs. 

As you know, my Middlest is like his mother and will try just about anything. But even he was aghast when I told him that I tried a snail. 
Pig brains, no problem. Just fry those up and serve them with a side of mash. 

But snails, that's just not on.



Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fisherman

We have a neighbor. He has a horse, a half-full piscine teeming with this season's tadpoles, laundry hanging from trees and a small charcoal grill. He cooks on it when it's a pretty day; starting the fire early enough to fill the air with delicious smells come time for dejeuner. He whistles like a bird. I like him.

He wears the same hat every day and one of very few plaid shirts, the others hang from trees awaiting their turn in the rotation. A few weeks ago he and Mon Mari were leaving at the same time. I wish I'd been there to hear the conversation…Bonjour, ça va was the extent of Mon Mari's side of it. But l'homme told him much more. All smiles and nodding, Mon Mari said all he got from it was that his name was 'Fisherman'. Of course this can't be true but that's how he's known to us—the fisherman.

He honks and waves at the kids and tries to avoid looking when we see him from our bathroom window. This morning as I looked out of said window, I noticed something new in his garden…a huge bus painted like a milk cow, white with black spots. It made me think of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Now the fisherman is out there on a ladder, scrubbing and washing the cow bus. I don't know what to make of it so I'm offering no explanation here. It's just another interesting part of my life. Horses, roosters, frogs, strangely painted buses. C'est normal, no?


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

J'ai trois enfants

You know the saying, 'He's been promoted to his level of incompetence'? Well, some days I feel like that only it's more like I've procreated to my level of incompetence. I'm sure it's mostly down to the fact that we're here, all alone, no school, no babysitter, no close friends to help with a dig out when you feel buried by all your people.
This weekend I had one of those days.We went into Montpellier on the spur of the moment *warning bells*, spur of the moment doesn't really work with three kids. As we strolled down the lovely streets, the Baby ambled along in zigzags, giddy with freedom from the stroller. All seemed perfect. And then, hunger struck. Whining began. Perfection shattered.
We came upon a beautiful sunny square filled with cafe tables, all serving only drinks. Or too much in the sun. Or too much in the shade. Or not right in the most miniscule way.
As I looked around at all the young, free people, chatting away, so relaxed and sunning themselves while they drank coffee, white wine, cold beer, my heart sank. In that moment I wished for a time machine. If Mon Mari and I could only step inside it and be whisked away to 12 years ago, we could sit at one of those cafes, leisurely sipping cold white wine and talking; about our dreams, the world, how we are going to make our mark, fantastic ideas for the future. And then, after a few hours free from shouldering the heavy responsibility for the health, happiness and safety of three small people, we would happily return to now, 2010 and our funny, clever, beautiful children.
We made a quick escape from all that youth and longing and came home.
It was here, later that night as I hung out the laundry; pegging little t-shirts, pjs, and nightgowns that I felt it--the familiar feeling of joy, heart-swelling love and yes, responsibility that makes this the best life for me. I'm sure in 15 years time I'll be sitting in a sunny place, sipping du vin wishing for a time machine back to this. Right now. Wondering where childhood went and how it all blew by in such a hurry.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


The big kids have started French lessons. Officially. 
In truth the lessons started weeks ago. 

They've not been in proper school so we've done everything together. The grocery store is a classroom for all of us. We've learned the names of fruits and vegetables, oohed and aahed over more chocolate cereal than you've ever seen, and been fascinated by the different cuts of meat displayed in the butcher's case and strange seafood ensconced in taut plastic. 

The Middlest is the adventurous one. He loves smelly cheese. Blue is his favorite. He loves pâté and selects his choice for the week. This week he chose smooth mushroom with a jelly edge and took delight in grossing his sister out by spreading it, jelly and all, on his baguette. 

On Monday I made the mistake of pointing out what I took to be pig brains, plastic wrapped next to the pork chops. He put it in the trolley. I took it out. He held it in his hands like a gift begging, 'Please, please let's buy it. I want to think like a pig!' 

Oh, I should have bought it I guess, but I can't begin to imagine how to cook it much less how to stomach cooking it. 

So at the French lesson, the Baby happily played on the floor with cars. Lying on his side, watching the wheels go forward and back, forward and back the way boys do. 

I looked over at him just as he spotted the cat food sitting in a dish under a kitchen chair, tempting. 'Huh?!', he grunted in his baby voice. 
This translates as, 'What is this lovely delicacy? And to what do I owe this pleasure?'

I watched as he sized up the cat food and then took a taste. 
Thankfully, he wasn't thrilled by chat kibble and I made it over to him as he spluttered and spat. 
He would have gone in for a second taste though, I know it. He's just that kind of guy.

A palate has to be trained; enjoying delicacies can sometimes be hard work.