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Frenchitude Lesson #24: Parenting is Not A Competitive Sport

Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is easy. Yesterday, it had me in tears.

I guess I should back up a little.

Charlotte and Camille are home from school on vacation this week. I had promised them I would do Shrinky-Dink jewellery crafts that I (short-sightedly) brought home for them from Paris. I entertained a halcyon image of the four of us spending a nice, crafty, female bonding day together. I was a great mother; it was going to be perfect.

First wrinkle in the plan – Clem woke up yesterday morning piercing two molars. From the moment she entered consciousness, she expressed her rage at the universe by opening every cupboard in the house and emptying its contents on the floor. Repeatedly. She did this while screaming like a banshee. Whenever she felt that my attention was being diverted from her existential angst, she would storm over to where I was trying to cut out coloured Shrinky-Dinks and take a big chomp out of my leg.

As the morning wore on, and I struggled to thread little Shrinky-Dinks onto stretchy elastic cords while Clem took chunks out of my kneecaps, I began to mentally beat myself up.

Why can’t you ever seem to get a handle on this parenting thing? A nasty voice in my head demanded. Why is a day with my three girls making me feel woozy with anxiety and dread? Why does the idea of getting lunch on the table feel as exhausting and impossible as running a marathon? Why is everyone better at this than me?

And then came the kicker: What is wrong with me that I can’s get this right?

One of my closest friends here has a baby of the same age as Clem, and just like me she has days where she feels like she is going off the deep end. However, on such days she doesn’t seem to have to contend with feeling like a “failure”, unlike yours truly.

I know this, because I’ve straight out asked her.

“I just don’t see parenting that way,” she said. “There are days when you are exhausted and horrible and everything seems to be out of control and it’s really, really hard, but that’s just normal.”

“But doesn’t that make you feel like a failure?” I ask.

“It makes me feel tired and frustrated and annoyed, but non, not like a failure.”

“Why?”

“Because parenting isn’t a competition.”

Huh. Tell that to the voice in my head.

Just as I put Clem down for her nap (needed by Her Grumpiness, but MUCH more needed by me) and sat down with my beloved cup of after-lunch coffee, Franck got home from Beaune.

He had been working on the cellar so needed to clean his tools. This involved turning on and off the outside faucet which, unbeknown to him, made huge clunking sounds in the nether regions of the house. Clem woke up screaming, and I, I am not proud to say, went absolutely ballistic on my husband.

Even as I was freaking out on Franck, my internal monologue became a two-part harmony. Not only did I accuse myself of being a failure as a mother, but also a failure as a wife.

Why was just getting through a day so hard? Something was clearly wrong with me. Everyone else was a more successful parent / spouse / person than me. And this was not my first child, but my third child – I couldn’t get away with the “novice” excuse anymore.

Clem never did go back to sleep, but I eventually calmed down into silent misery and martyrdom once again. Franck tried to take on the brave task of asking me what the real problem was.

“I just feel like I’m doing it all wrong!” I yelled.

“Doing what wrong?”

“Parenting.”

“There’s no right way to do parenting,” Franck said, exasperated. “For God’s Sake, we all just do what we can.”

“Doing what I can obviously isn’t good enough.”

“Laura,” he said. “Parenting is not a performance activity.”

Thank God for that. If it was I don’t think I would have even earned a “Participation” ribbon yesterday.

The evening culminated in an exhausted me giving Clem a bath. After changing her into her pyjamas – a contact sport these days, as she’s really not into clothes – I was holding her in the hallway, yelling something at Franck as I simultaneously slammed the girls’ bedroom door shut (I spend about 2 hours every day simply shutting doors so that Clem doesn’t find things to choke on / cut herself / destroy in the bedrooms and bathroom).

There was a a sickening crunch, followed by an unearthly wail. My stomach heaved.

Without me noticing Clem had stuck one of her little fingers into the door jam, and I had slammed the door shut on it.

Clem screamed in agony. I burst into tears.

Franck had to whisk her off to emergency in Beaune to have X-rays and make sure the little finger wasn’t broken.

I served the two big girls soup, ignoring their complaints as every thought in my head was pretty much drowned out by the mocking chorus of failure.

God knows where I picked up the bizarre notion that one can succeed or fail at parenting, especially at parenting babies and toddlers. However, I happen to know that I am not the only Canadian woman to have internalized, and then to have been beaten down by, the concept. I wonder if the question of how we perform in all aspects of our lives has permeated our psyches to such a degree that we just assume it applies to parenting.

One thing I concluded for certain yesterday was that judging parenting in terms of performance DOES NOT HELP ONE BIT. In fact, I’m quite certain it could drive a person insane.

Unfortunately those little voices are tenacious buggers, and hard to silence. However, by the time Franck finally got home from the hospital with Clem I had at least resolved to begin working on a more French, non-performance approach to parenting.

Clem was smiling happily, after having been stuffed with “ah-toes” and chocolate in the ER waiting room by Franck, and proudly waved around her heavily bandaged finger.

I had survived the day. From a French parenting perspective, that was just about all I could ask of days such as yesterday. Temporarily free of my internal judge, I felt instantly better about my kids and myself.

Clem was so cute that I went to get the camera to take a photo of her and her bandage. It was a good thing I had adopted Frenchitude by then, because by the time I found it and came back to take the picture, the bandage had disappeared.

Clem had eaten it.

Frenchitude Lesson #18: When Someone Asks How You Are Doing, Consider Telling The Truth

One of the biggest differences I have found between French people and North Americans is their response to the ubiquitous question, “how are you doing?”

In North America, the huge majority of people answer with a cheery “great!”. It is just understood in our society that even if your husband just left you and your house was burgled and your dog has taken to eating the wallpaper, it really isn’t polite to burden other people with your misery.

In France, when you ask the equivalent question, “ca va?” my advice is to brace yourself.

In France, the standard answer is not “great” or even anything remotely like that. In France, people answer with the truth. This can be shocking, to say the least.

Once I absent-mindedly asked a friend of mine ca va? after arriving at her apartment. She informed me that non, actually ca n’allait pas du tout. Her husband was an egotistical macho and she was thinking of demanding a divorce. On the off chance that I had missed the subtext of her answer, she tore off her wedding ring and hurled it across the parquet floor. I hadn’t been living in France long at that point, and it took me several minutes to recover from such a raw dose of the truth.

More recently, we were at a village event in Villers-la-Faye and I asked a fellow villager how he and his wife were doing. I had learned by then to brace myself.

“We’re trying to have a baby but we’re not having any luck,” the villager answered in a booming voice. “Apparently _______’s womb is so acidic that all my sperm get killed off before they can swim to her egg. It’s like she’s got Round-Up in there or something.”

See what I mean?

Once I got used to the vitriol and angst that comes pouring out when I ask French people how things are going, I began to find the honest answers rather refreshing.

Because frankly, although there are times in life when things truly are “great”, there are also many times when they are not.

Take this week, for example; the weather is cold and grey and winter seems to stretch endlessly in front of me, after buying Christmas and Birthday presents and paying pony club dues we have about 50 euros to live on for the next two weeks, I am submerged in work and still feel like I can’t catch up after the holidays, and to top it all off, in a fit of possessiveness Clémentine has hidden the TV clicker in some secret spot, and she has also decided to give up afternoon naps.

I know I have many things to be grateful for, and I am (albeit in an abstract way at the moment), but this week these petty annoyances mean that I am in the depths of a January mental funk.

When I am feeling as I do at the moment – not even in the vicinity of “great” – and everyone around me attests to feeling “great”, I frankly start to feel like a freak.

Whereas in France, I just feel like everybody else.

Frenchitude Lesson #17: Consider "Fighting French"

Sorry the posts have been a little thin on the ground this week. After the holidays there is a LOT of catching-up to do but things should be back to normal by next week.

However, I do have a Frenchitude topic that has been just itching to be written, so here it is;


Frenchitude Lesson #17: Consider Fighting Like the French

When I moved back to France five years ago one of the first things that hit me was how many French adults seemed emotionally suspended in childhood. Unlike the North American adults I knew (including myself) the French didn’t even make an effort to do what adults are supposed to do; suppress or hide their emotions.

When the French are sad, they weep openly, when they are happy, they laugh hysterically and grab each other around the necks, and when they are mad…they yell.

At first, this was deeply disconcerting. I was brought up in a society that taught me there was only one proper way for adult couples to “fight”. They, being adults, should have the self-control to discuss the “disagreement” rationally and fairly without raising their voices or throwing objects against the wall. A little bit of pouting was allowed, as long as it was done in such a passive – aggressive manner that when your partner asked you what was wrong you could stiffly respond “nothing’ as you make the bed with unwarranted viciousness.

But the French are utterly comfortable with conflict. French people have no problem yelling and screaming at each other, or hugging each other five minutes later. Such open conflict and quicksilver emotions made my head feel like it was going to explode.

But time passed, and without realizing it, I too began to fight in a more French way.

I know that many couples say they never fight. While living in Canada I often felt very bad that Franck and I were not one of these couples.

Franck and I get along beautifully for 95% of the time, but then there is that other 5%…that percentage is even higher during the first year after a baby is born, though I must say it really helped to know that going in this time around.

Before coming to France our fighting styles were very unmatched. Franck would raise his voice and let all his griefs come gushing out while I would sit there on the couch trying to be fair and rational and above all, adult. As a result, all of my rage was directed inwards instead of outwards, where I now believe it belongs.

Since adolescence I have had an irksome tendency towards panic attacks, at times very debilitating ones. After years of grappling with this issue I have come to accept that my panic attacks are largely the result of a glitch in my cerebral make-up which I am proud to share with many riveting characters, most notably (albeit fictionally) Tony Soprano.

While I don’t think panic attacks will ever be so kind as to leave me altogether, my new habit of letting out my emotions certainly seems to have reduced them dramatically. I now wonder if my anxiety issues were not exacerbated by trying to shoehorn what is essentially an emotional, tenacious (Franck would say stubborn), strong-willed nature into the accepted North American mould of a restrained, pliable, and, god forbid, “sweet” female.

Fighting “Canadian” may work for some people, but it sure as hell wasn’t working for me.

Now when Franck and I fight, I yell, I holler, I shake my finger, and I slam doors. I (mostly) restrain myself from throwing things. I meet Franck’s anger head on with my own, and let me tell you; I have discovered that my anger is a strangely beautiful and awesome thing to behold.

It feels so GOOD to get all of that OUT of me rather than having it roil away inside, eating away at me in the name of rationality and self-control.

The French view conflict as a natural and integral part of being human and, as a consequence, of any human relationship. A lack of conflict is seen as far more menacing than raised voices, because it symbolizes that death knell of marriages; indifference.

Franck and I are not completely juvenile about our fighting. We try to hustle the children out of earshot, we don’t hit each other, and we try not to say anything too damaging (though we don’t consider “YOU’RE ACTING LIKE A TOTAL GOBSHITE!” damaging in the least).

If our kids do question the noises of warfare emanating from the living room I try to be honest with them.

I tell them that most couples fight, that it is normal for most couples to fight, and that it just so happens that their parents both have very strong personalities which means that, while their love is very strong, their clashes can be equally as strong. I reassure them that we are not getting divorced, that we love each other, and reiterate that conflict is a normal part of life.

Many people may disagree, but I am convinced that seething and unspoken resentment can be far more frightening for children than open, honest conflict.

And I find one of the best things about fighting French (besides reducing panic attacks far more effectively than Prozac) is that the fights are remarkably short-lived. You get it all out, you make up, then you move on.

And once the storm clouds have cleared, I feel light inside, and notice that the sky has never looked so blue.

**Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in the Okanagan or Oregon.

Frenchitude Lesson #11: Cherish Real Food

Frenchitude Lesson #11: Cherish Real Food
I was planning on writing about a completely different topic this week for Frenchitude Friday, but this morning I received a series of emails from my two sisters that made me swivel in my tracks.

***RANT ALERT***

The first email was from older sister Suzanne who, on volunteering to bake for a elementary school bake sale back home in Victoria, BC, was informed that the Canadian government has recently legislated that all food at school bake sales has to be “healthy”, meaning containing almost no fat, salt, or sugar.

She was even passed on a government-issued document about how to replace white flour with whole wheat flour, sugar with honey, chocolate with carob, and (dare we even utter the name, rather like “Voldemort” in Harry Potter) butter with margarine.

Here is Suzanne’s reaction,

“Jesus H Christ. Now the bake sale at the school dance has to consist of “healthy” snacks. This just tempts me to bake the chipits recipe for choc. cookies and to insist to all and sundry that it is made with “just applesauce and a tablespoon of honey!!!” Chocolate chips are really just baked potato hunks and crusty boogers! Lots of protein! No Butter! Just fake goo made of chemicals!

When will the idiots get it through their skulls that maybe the children should only eat ONE cookie, but for God’s sake make it a good one. Let’s just make sure all North American children lose the power to think for themselves. As if they will never come across a real cookie out there in the real world.”

My younger sister Jayne responded;

“Perhaps the problems with the obesity in North America is that no one here ever eats anything that HAS ANY FLAVOUR. So they must eat obscene amounts of food to actually get any satisfaction.

I should lend you the “In Defense of Food” book – it’s pretty enjoyable and a quick read – the author basically blames most of the obesity epidemic on the fact that eating has become a scientific act rather than a cultural one (subsequently losing much enjoyment and becoming increasingly associated with “health” and “guilt”)… tres interesting.

One particularly interesting statistic had to do with what words came to mind when people were shown an image of a certain food. When French people are shown a picture of chocolate cake they associate it with “celebration”, while North Americans associate it with “guilt”. Lovely. So, yes, let’s teach the children not to eat lovely foods in moderation but rather to deprive themselves with nasty turd cookies full of chemicals and dairy substitutes so that they gorge when presented with real food later in life. Also, let’s teach them that food is only about nutrition and percentage fat, carb, whatever, rather than a chance to sit down and share something pleasant with friends and family (?!). ”

Sadly due to the nine hour time difference I was sleeping throughout this riveting exchange, but BOY did it ever get my ire up when I got to the computer this morning. I cannot agree more with my brilliants sisters’ eloquent statements.

I cannot believe that the Canadian government is legislating that sugar needs to be replaced with honey and butter with the-devil’s-work-that-is-margarine at school bake sales.

First of all, short of preventing anyone from slipping marijuana into the Brownies, I think governments should stay out of the bake sale arena altogether. Secondly, if they really are serious about teaching the younger generation good eating habits, STOP THE INSANITY!!! THEY ARE GOING ABOUT IT COMPLETELY WRONG!!!

As Jayne’s email mentions in France, children are taught to enjoy a variety of real food as early as possible.

The baby food here in not only safe and healthy, it also tastes delicious. This is a radical departure from the tasteless, gelatinous, no salt-added gloop they serve up to poor North American babies. Clem’s baby food is so damn good that Franck and I can often be found polishing off what is left at the bottom of the jar.

Clem as a French baby (for the moment) is being introduced to the pleasure of good food and the passionate world of flavours in dishes as diverse as “CousCous” and “Pot-auFeu.” French parents are far more obsessed with transmitting their passion of food to their babies than teaching them about low fat substitutes.

When I first arrived in France it took me a few weeks to realize that the French will not put a morsel of anything into their mouth, healthy or not, that is not delicious. This completely altered my world view. I had never felt so satisfied, I had never before eaten such a wide diversity of fresh and wonderful food, I had never before been able to eat what my body desired without feeling guilty. It was heaven on earth, and of course without even realizing it I was beginning to undo the damage of a lifetime of atrocious eating habits. I was eating more healthily than I ever had before in my life.

Leaning on the eminently sane and pleasurable way of eating I have learned in France, these are the habits that I try to gently instill in my girls (more by example than by lecturing);

Lesson #1: It is important to try new things, because if you don’t you may be missing out on a food that you in fact love.

Lesson #2: Eat SOME of everything (and I mean EVERYTHING, including fruit and vegetables) but NOT TOO MUCH of anything. This is a concept that seems to have disappeared in North American teachings – it’s called moderation.

Lesson #3: Food is, and should always be, a source of pleasure. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel guilty for nourishing your body and your soul. If you feel like a piece of delicious cake, enjoy a piece of delicious cake and don’t let anybody try to turn this into a “guilty pleasure”. It is a pleasure, period. Guilt has never been an enjoyable or instructive guest at the table, so don’t invite him.

Lesson #4: Pleasure is enhanced by eating at the table and with friends and / or family wherever possible. Take time to talk, savour, and relax. This time is sacred, treat it as such.

Lesson#5: If you think you don’t like something, try it every once in a while and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Lesson #6: Getting outside and walking, biking, playing, etc. is also one of life’s important pleasures that you should not deny yourself.

I happen to believe that unless you are dealing with an underlying medical condition, “real” food is always better than what I consider fake food. I have never ate a 0% fat yogurt and actually felt satisfied afterward. Don’t even get me started on all the calves hooves and other chemical junk that are in there to give it that gelatinous texture without fat.

Let’s face it – our bodies always find a way to get their satisfaction. Real food, including butter, sugar, cream, cheese, and wine, by its high satisfaction ratio leads us to another key in healthy eating -moderation! I would feel far more satisfied with a tiny sliver of my French Chocolate Cake than with a dozen bran, honey, and margarine turd cookies that will be undoubtedly be sold at Suzanne’s children’s bake sale.

I have never seen a society that is so adept at vilifying real food (i.e. bread, butter, wine, oil, chocolate, etc.) as North Amercia. The damaging and unhealthy attitude towards food is an aspect of moving back to Canada that frankly strikes terror in my heart.

Why don’t the seriously misguided Food Police in North America adopt a bit of Frenchtitude and work on replacing a food culture centred on fear and denial with one centred on enjoyment?

For starters, instead of interfering in school bake sales they could fund a country wide program which could allow students to sit down at a proper table with proper cutlery and enjoy delicious, healthy, diverse, and freshly cooked meals at lunchtime while chatting with their friends and learning the crucial social aspect of eating like here in France. Wouldn’t this be a real improvement over scoffing back a peanut butter sandwich at their desk?

The Food Police have to be made to realize that enjoyment absolutely can go hand in hand with health and excellent nutrition.

Real Food is not our enemy, it is our best friend.

And I agree with Jayne that Suzanne should bake my French chocolate cake and take it to the bake sale. When asked by the Food Police how it can possibly taste so good, or how such a little portion can be SO satisfying, she should just blink innocently and answer, “Can you believe it? I managed to reduce the flour in it to only one tablespoon!”

This is a photo of my friend Isabelle’s famous caramelized pear-chocolate tarte, one of the delicious and REAL FOOD recipes I will be posting over the next few weeks, and adding to my Favorite Recipes category on this very blog.

I swear to you here and now, you will never find a butter substitute anywhere near The Grape Journal.

**Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in Florida or Florence.

Frenchitude Lesson #4: Stop Watching Other People’s Weight

Frenchitude Lesson #4: Stop Watching Other People’s Weight

Of the many things that gave me culture shock when I was back in Canada this summer, the most striking was the obsession that North Americans seem to have with watching and commenting on each other’s weight.

At least six times during my stay in Canada, I would be having a conversation with a friend or acquaintance when the subject of somebody we both knew would come up.

“She’s looking great these days,” my fellow conversationalist would say with forced enthusiasm.

And then I would wait one second, and then another…waiting for it…

And then it came. “She’s really lost some weight.”

In Canada, EVERY SINGLE time a person’s attractiveness was evoked, so was their weight, or rather their weight loss.

Worse still was the reverent tone used when evoking the weight loss winner, as though the accomplishment of losing ten pounds was right up there with winning the Nobel Peace Prize. A tad worthier, perhaps.

I was discussing this phenomenon with a Canadian friend of mine, and she told me of a harrowing afternoon she had recently spent at a Victoria beach with a friend who spent the entire time critiquing the bodies of the other women frolicking in the sand. My friend finally had to inform her beach companion that she didn’t want to waste a gloriously sunny afternoon picking apart other women’s figures.

In France weight, like money and reasonable behaviour , is generally considered to be a boring topic of conversation. Moreover, in France, as Yoda would put it, the Perfect Body Mass Index does not an attractive person make.

Rather, attractiveness is seen here as a unique alchemy of style, charm, intellect, and being comfortable within yourself and your life. In France, many people who have far from the “perfect” body are considered extremely attractive. Just take a moment to ponder Gérard Depardieu’s status as a sex symbol for goodness sake.

The goal for both men and women is to feel “bien dans sa peau” or to feel “good in your skin”. Health goes hand and hand with pleasure, and there is little of the self-flagellation that is the by-product of this North American obsession – and no I don’t think that’s too strong a word – with weight loss.

When you think about it, even a substantial weight loss is not going to change the huge majority of us into someone we are not – i.e. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The French wouldn’t be able to understand this North American thirst for self-transformation. Why would anyone want to look like somebody else rather than being authentically themselves? It’s pointless. Besides, attractiveness isn’t a matter of competition, but of individual expression.

So then why do so many North Americans, in contrast, constantly monitor each other’s weight?

My hunch is that weight loss is held up as such a holy grail in North American society – the key to immortality and everlasting nirvana if you were to believe North American TV and magazines – that most people either feel bad because they don’t measure up to the unrealistic ideal, or annoyingly self-satisfied because they do.

As for the self-satisfied group, their status is by definition short-lived. Just as there is always someone richer, there is always someone with a “better” body. The media make people feel as though they never look the “right” way, and what do people in a competitive society do when they feel insecure? They measure themselves constantly against others, seeking reassurance (but never finding it) that they are doing OK.

The upshot is that the weight loss madness only serves to make everyone unhappy.

And the most tragic aspect of the whole thing is that North Americans are blessed with an exuberant energy and imagination that I find is lacking in Old World countries such as France.

It’s tragic that instead of harnessing this energy to find a cure for cancer or develop an environmentally friendly fuel, it is being squandered obsessing about the fact that a colleague at the next desk has lost five pounds.

So go ahead and adopt Frenchitude in regards to weight loss; don’t allow it to occupy a disproportionate amount of space in that wonderful brain of yours.

Life is short, and there are so many good books and good meals and good conversations to be had instead.

* Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for how to inject a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in Montreal or Mombasa.

The Latest From Culture Shock Central – Meals

I’ve been back in Canada almost two weeks now. There’s something about living abroad that allows you to come back home and see things with new eyes. Sometimes it’s reassuring, sometimes it’s unpleasant, but one thing is for sure; it’s always interesting.

At the risk of offending some – scratch that and replace with “many” – people, I am going to report on the various things that have given me that good ‘ole culture shock feeling when I come back to North America.

Let me just preface this by saying that I loathe the word “should”. The below should not be read to mean that I have found a better way of doing things that everyone else should immediately adopt. I simply find these cultural differences fascinating, and I personally use my own brain and personal knowledge of myself and my children to pick and choose what I feel works best from both cultures. Feel free to do the same. Or not.

*****

Today’s Topic is Meals.

Last week my children went to a pottery class for three days between 1:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon. On the first day I wondered for about a millisecond whether I needed to pack a snack, and then I thought to myself That’s ridiculous. They’re only there for three hours and they will have just had lunch.

But I was wrong. Oh so ever wrong. My girls came back accusing me that they were the ONLY ones without a snack, and basically made me feel like a child abuser for being so negligent. My excuse was that as far as meals go, I now try to do things the French way no matter where I am.

In France, there are four meals a day. These are as follows;

Breakfast
Lunch – usually hot and almost always eaten while sitting down at a table
Light Snack – around 4:00pm
Dinner – around 7:00pm

It’s simple. Four meals a day. Pretty much all of France is eating these very same four meals at the same time, which admittedly can be a bit of a problem if you go into a French restaurant at 3:00pm and ask for lunch.

Likewise, the goal of any New Mom in France is to get her baby eating four meals a day in sync with the rest of la nation. Granted, this is definitely easier for bottle-fed babies, and in France’s fundamentally non-judgemental atmosphere towards mothering this is recognized and respected. We all do the best we can.

With the exception of the occasional wonky day due to bad sleep or new teeth or any of the myriad of little things that can niggle babies, Clementine is now on four meals a day, and has been since she was about four months old. Let me just say, OH MY GOD, it is SO much easier than feeding on demand.

This is what all French children adhere to, and this is what the huge majority of French adults adhere to as well, with the exception of the inclusion or exclusion of the afternoon snack depending on each individual’s appetite and also what time they generally eat dinner. It simply wouldn’t occur to a French child or adult to eat anything outside of these times.

The three main meals are generally quite hardy and tend to include at least one member of each food group (i.e. starch, fruit, veg, protein, dairy product). With the exception of the 4:00 snack, or “gouter” as it’s known in France, these meals are eaten at a table with other members of the family. TV is not invited to the family meal, but good conversation is always welcome. All in all I have found it to be a recipe for fairly sensible nutrition, a basis for good eating habits and social graces, and just a moment of pure satisfaction and pleasure.

When I come back I’m always struck by the differences I observe here in North America. With the exception of perhaps Dinner, people often graze all day long. Children generally don’t eat very much at meals, nor are they expected to, and then they demand a snack often less than half an hour after leaving the table.

The reaction of a French parent would be thus, “Are you kidding me!? Non! Now go and play while I drink my café.”

When we lived here with toddlers before moving to France, Franck could never get his head around the need for North American parents, including his dear wife, to constantly pack around little Ziplocs of Cheerios and fluorescent orange fish for their offspring.

Do they think their children are going to vanish into thin air if they are not fed immediately?” he wondered out loud. “Do they actually think they’re going to expire on the spot from hunger?”

I sometimes wonder if the North American snacking phenomenon doesn’t stem from our immigrant ancestors who in most cases were only a few instances of bad luck away from starvation. While carving a civilization out of the wilderness, I can’t imagine they missed many opportunities to eat if there was something available to be eaten. Besides, hewing tree stumps can give one quite an appetite…

But the civilization has now by in large been carved, and the snacking continues unabated. The nutritional problems stemming from these eating habits is self-evident, but I am no dietary expert nor do I pretend to be. Besides, I truly do respect the fact that each person has their own way of doing things. However, nutritional issues aside, I have a major problem with this constant snacking, particularly when it comes to my own children. It is this; I am an adult with my own needs and desires, and you seem to have mistaken me for a short-order cook.

In France, it is the parents who dictate when and what their children are going to eat, not the reverse. This, I believe, goes a little way in explaining why French parents don’t seem quite so exhausted all the time.

Children are adored in France, but their needs and desires are not permitted to trample the needs and desires (i.e. I need to sit down and read a book right now rather than preparing you food all day long) of adults, and more specifically their parents. And this is one aspect of French culture that I for one have adopted.

Living with Vulcans

I just went to get a drink of water from the kitchen and saw Franck reading to Clem.

Looking at them both from the side I realized I am not only living with an adult male Vulcan at the moment, but a mini female Vulcan as well.

“Live long and prosper,” I tell them.

Vulcans are not easily distracted, however, and they don’t even deign to look up from their book. Must be some sort of extra-terrestrial mind-meld thing. Those Vulcans sure can concentrate.

Live Long and Prosper

In an effort to reign in our household budget and because he likes his hair cut short during the summer months, Franck took it upon himself to invest in a hair clipper.

He proudly brought it home and asked me if I felt up to the task of cutting his hair.

Bien sûr,” I said. “Especially as I won’t be the one who has to live with the results afterwards.”

The clippers stayed in their box for over a week after that. However, when I waltzed home yesterday afternoon after paying almost 100 Euros for a cut and highlights in Beaune Franck must have been goaded by my wanton spending. He broke out the clippers and insisted that I come and do my wifely duty of shaving his noggin just as I was also simultaneously bathing the two big girls, jiggling a crying Clem, unloading the dishwasher, and getting dinner ready. I know us women are supposed to be hard-wired for multi-tasking, but there are limits.

I had no problem whipping the clipper through the bulk of his hair, shearing it off in a very satisfying manner. Things got a bit dicey around the ear area, however.

By the time I attempted to clip over the left ear my attention had wandered to contemplating whether my pot of pasta was boiling over in the kitchen, and what exactly Charlotte and Camille had done to Clémentine to make her suddenly stop shrieking. The result was a very strange looking bald spot. Hmmmm.

“It doesn’t look so bad,” I pre-empted.

Franck examined himself in the bathroom mirror. “Laura!” He yelled after me as I scooted out of the bathroom. “What have you done to my head!?”

I busied myself with draining the pasta while trying to stuff down hysterical laughter. He kept calling after me to “get back here” in an enraged voice but I knew I couldn’t yet face his dismay without totally cracking up.

Franck’s roars died down eventually and were replaced with a few minutes of silence in the bathroom. When I had managed to collect myself I went back into the makeshift salon de coiffure to get the girls out of the tub. I was surprised to find Franck staring in the mirror at the other side of his head (the one I hadn’t decimated). I drew in for a closer inspection.

“Oh my God.” I gasped. “You screwed it up even worse than I did.”

Indeed, Franck had cut the hair over his right ear very high up and in a strangely straight line instead of a curve.

“Take me to your leader,” I said.

He sent me a black look. “Quoi?”

“You look like Spock from Star Trek.”

He was about to protest, then we both looked back at his reflection again and cracked up. Several minutes later, after we had wiped our eyes, I tried to salvage what I could with a pair of huge kitchen scissors (all we could find) but truth be told the whole ear vicinity still looks like something out of a bad science fiction movie.

“I guess it can’t be perfect the first time,” Franck admitted with admirable equanimity.

“And you don’t look like a Vulcan from the front,” I added.

However, every once in a while when we meet up in the hallway I can’t resist flashing him the Vulcan “V” sign of greeting.

“Live long and prosper, husband.”

The "Faire-Part" Photo-Shoot from Hell

I will post more photos of our antique purchases tomorrow, but there happens to be a more pressing post at hand.

I have discovered that here in France people distribute birth announcements of their newly born children (calledfaire-parts“) days after they are born. I find this deeply disturbing.

How can they possibly have their act together enough to decide on a layout, write up the text, place and order with the printers, etc. etc. with a really new newborn at home?

This is one of those things that makes me feel like everyone has colluded to leave me out of some important secret society that holds the key to prompt birth announcements. An alternative explanation could be that I am an inferior mother. I decide to go with the former.

I can’t even blame my tardiness on having other kids at home. My friend Charlotte’s daughter Mahault is her fourth child and she had her husband handing out birth announcements at school before she was even out of the hospital. Also, the embarrassing truth is that from the photos on them I would estimate that for my big girls’ birth announcements Charlotte was about three months old and Camille closer to five months by the time I handed them out.

So in a nod to my adopted French culture (not to mention to set a personal record for speediness) I made a herculean effort yesterday morning to take a decent photo of my three girls for Clémentines’s birth announcement, in hopes of distributing it before she hits the two month mark.

In retrospect, I now know why my subconscious had been procrastinating.

Imagine this: get all three girls bathed and dressed in pretty clothes, nix the ballet outfit for Camille but capitulate over strange purple cone-like Merlin’s hat to go with her fairy outfit, find crown for Charlotte, jiggle Clem because she has started to cry, twist big crown into smaller one to fit Clem’s tiny head, find camera, find camera card buried under piles of flotsam on Franck’s desk, find suitable spot on couch with decent light, jiggle Clem because she is crying harder now, sit down two big girls and then plop Clem between them…

CAMILLE FOR GOD’S SAKE LOOK UP AT ME! AND WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THAT PINK RIBBON YOU HAVE ATTACHED TO YOUR HAT!?

Merde. Clémentine crying really hard now. Pick her up and jiggle her in one arm while trying to frame perfect shot with camera in other hand. Really start to sweat now. Belatedly realize that fleece dressing gown is not the ideal outfit for such an ambitious endeavour. Find soother. Pop in Clem’s mouth (will worry about orthodontic issues later). She calms down again. Plop her between big girls. Focus camera with one hand and very gently take soother out of Clem’s mouth with the other.

Crap. Didn’t press the shutter fast enough. Realize with sense of impending doom that I will have about a millisecond between time I extract soother and time Clem starts screaming. Really sweating now. Wish I had worn light linen shift in style of Annie Leibowitz or perhaps no clothes at all. Feel impending hyperventilation event coming on. Remind self to breathe. Breathe. Try again.

CHARLOTTE AND CAMILLE! LOOK AT THE CAMERA! AT THE CAMERA! NOT THE FLOOR!!! Am shouting like a special forces’ Drill Sergeant. Consider possibility that maybe girls will not have particularly fond memories of this special mother-daughter bonding activity. Oh well. Will pony up money for psychotherapist for the three of them once this #$!&*! birth announcement is completed. Maybe should look into group rate.


AND GET YOUR FINGERS AWAY FROM HER FACE!!!

Ahhhhhh. Finally. Clem’s crown is a bit whiff-skew and I’ve cut off the top of Camille’s pointy Merlin hat, making it look like she’s wearing a velour purple toque, but it will have to do. I need to take a shower too badly.

I emailed the photo shoot tale of woe to my sister Suzanne yesterday and attached a few photos. She wrote me back this morning.

“Don’t tell anyone else you were sweating because they look like the girls just drifted out of bed, glowing, sweeping and singing while doing light housework, on their way to the couch, where perfect crowns fell from the sky onto their little heads, and the sun broke out to cover their sparkles in sunbeams, while bluebirds burst into song outside! No one need ever know that effort was involved in any way.”

Whoops. Too late.

Our Lady Charlotte of the Holy Pink Rosary

I will continue my “Name Game” Post on Monday but seeing as we are approaching Sunday here in France, I thought I’d take up a religious topic.

I have long thought that the Catholic church has a serious public relations problem. Its antiquated attitude towards thinks like birth control, Heaven and Hell, and punishing (or rather NOT punishing) pedophile priests has not exactly inspired new recruits to hustle off to Sunday Mass.

However, they at least have found one extremely effective strategy in the demographic category of girls aged 7-10; doling out cheap plastic pink jewellery.

At lunchtime at the girls’ school Saint-Coeur (translation “Sacred Heart” – you guessed it, it is not a Muslim institution) the students from Grade 1 (CP) onwards are invited to the Chapel after lunch where they are taught how to do useful things like say their Hail Maries and avoid the Diable.

Charlotte goes because they hand out plastic rosaries which she thinks are necklaces. Before the vacation she received a white one, but as she lost that in the constant flow of flotsam and jetsam that is their bedroom she was given a NEW one this week, and better yet it was PINK!!!!!!!!!!!

After getting an eyeful of Charlotte’s new accoutrement you can bet that Camille will be hurrying her little self to the Chapel next year as soon as she is able to get her pink plastic rosary.

But in the meantime Charlotte gave Camille her old one once she found it (a very Christian act, natch), has not taken off her pink one since she was bequeathed it, and is constantly murmuring Hail Maries and Ava Marias under her breath. The Catholic church finally got something right.