Saturday, December 18, 2010

Three Months to Magic

Many times in the months and days preceding our big move to Paris people told us that after about three months of Raelyn's and Nola's attendance at school, they would be conversant in French. This was very exciting to think about, but hard for me to wrap my brain around fully. I had taken one semester of French at the age of 40 and could still barely manage to conjugate basic verbs let alone pronounce them properly. Why can't the adult human brain function in the same absorbent way like it does when we are children?

I was especially uncertain about equipping Raelyn and Nola with the means to speak to each other in my presence without me knowing what they are saying. 2 Kids + 1 "Secret Code" Language = 1 Annoyed Mama. But I was willing to overlook this and forge ahead with our plan for them to learn French.

Within the first month of school, the girls were picking up some vocabulary words and basic sentences. By the end of October, Raelyn had the confidence and courage to use what she knew in public: Ordering at restaurants, asking for directions, you know- basic tourist French. Waiters, shop owners, her teacher- they all complimented her lack of any accent. This reinforcement created a feedback loop such that Raelyn began to branch out even further and correct my botched pronunciation and verb tenses (with a bit of airs and attitude that tends to be quintessentially French).  In addition, she became bold enough, for example, to march up to a store clerk in BHV (one of Paris' huge multi-floored department stores) to ask him, "Où est l'élastique pour le saut si vous plait?"  Next thing we knew, he directed us to the display of Chinese jump ropes. Et voila! It was an amazing moment for me to behold, this daughter of mine taking charge to get her needs met.

By now, I realized, Nola was experiencing a bit of a disservice thanks to the arrangement Soren and I had fought so hard for back at the beginning of the school year. Placing Raelyn and Nola together at the same school and in the same language adaptation class offered them a great deal of comfort and offered me an ease with our daily schedule, but, very quickly, Nola's shy self became reliant on Big Sister for help in class. For example, if Nola had a question, she would whisper it to Raelyn, in English, rather than asking the teacher, in French, as the other students had to do. By the time we realized that this dynamic was at play, Raelyn and Nola were fairly entrenched with it and we had to coach them through a re-working of how to operate at school so that Nola would have to step out of her comfort zone a bit more.

The other hindrance with their absorption of French, particularly for Nola, is the fact that many of their French schoolmates speak enough English so as to converse this way in the cafeteria and on the playground. For a while, we were concerned that during their eight-hour school day they were perhaps speaking more English than French.

By November Raelyn had demonstrated to her French teacher enough knowledge of the language to be assimilated with her fellow French classmates into the Math class for her grade. This accomplished two things: First, Raelyn would be exposed to additional French terminology and introduced to a wider array of (and hopefully non-English speaking) students. Second, Raelyn's time spent away from the language adaptation class to attend Math class meant an extra hour every day that Nola had to rely upon herself.

Meanwhile, Nola had begun to be assimilated in with her fellow French classmates for Sports, Art, and Music. However, Nola's language proficiency needed to improve more before she could attend Math class. "Nola is very timid," her teacher would say to me. "She understands more than she speaks." This fact was demonstrated clearly to us when, during a Skype call with Soren's family, Soren's father was speaking French to the girls. Nola carried on her end of the conversation in English, responding to what was being said to her in French. Clearly, her brain was functioning like the sponge it is at her age and she was soaking up the language like her sister, but Nola's shyness had too firm a grasp on her confidence to speak anything other than English and the occasional polite French necessities (bonjour, si vous plait, etc.). Bribing her, shaming her, or criticizing her are clearly not going to be helpful so we simply adopted an "it is what it is" mentality while letting her know that we know she's getting it in her own way and time and that we look forward to the furture surprise she has in store for us.

Last Sunday Raelyn and Nola were invited to the home of Violaine's (she is Soren's French step-grandmother) parents' home for an afternoon of make-overs, holiday baking, and decorating with their granddaughter, Lena, and her two cousins. We had met Lena and her mother, Aline (Violaine's younger sister) last year when we came to Paris. The girls were excited to see their French cousin again and Raelyn was eager to speak some French with her this time. While the girls were playing at the house, I got to spend the day at Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, the most famous flea market in Paris offering an enormous selection of furniture, prints, paintings, mirrors, antique luggage, vintage clothing, hardware, and kitchen goods. What a treat! Aline's parents have been in the antiquing business for years and now she and her brother, Francoise, run the family's stall located in the high-end Marche Paul Bert. Last year, Aline opened her own stall across the alley where she sells her unique, fabulous lamps. This was my second visit to this market and both times my inner interior designer was in heaven, especially because there are a handful of dealers that specialize in what makes me drool: Bauhaus, Mid-Century Modern, and Post-Modern furniture. I need to remember to bring a bib next time I visit. And large quantities of cash. After my lovely day of gawking at the dealers' goods, visiting and lunching with Aline, and spending a day in the life of a dealer at Les Puces, it was time to fetch my daughters.

Aline's parents, who I had never met until arriving at their home to pick up the girls (they live just west of Paris, requiring a Metro ride and a taxi) are a friendly, gracious couple. I stayed for tea and le goûter (the French term for the mid-late afternoon snack that tides one over until the dinner hour at 8:30). Upon entering their home, my ears were treated to the delightful sounds of five girls playing Tag and Hide-n-Seek, in French. And this is when Nola's surprise greeted me, most unexpectedly. I don't think Nola was even fully conscious that she was speaking to her fellow playmates in French. She spoke simple phrases, but they flowed out of her effortlessly as she chased and hid. My two daughters, lost in the glee of play, were conversing in their, now official, second language. Nola, for example, when hiding, declared to her sister, "Allez! Je suis sous la table!" ("Go! I am under the table!") And Raelyn used her ever-increasing skills to stand her ground with Lena by stating firmly, "Non, je l'ai été la dernière fois. C'est votre tour maintenant." ("No, I was 'it' last time. It's your turn now.") It was a surreal moment for me, one that I will never forget and can be summed up with one simple word: MAGIC!

aline's innovative designs include vintage tripods, meter sticks, and horse jumping poles for floor lamps

lena & girls

aline and lena

the family business

Friday, December 17, 2010

PB & J Saves The Day

Last evening's soiree at Raelyn's and Nola's school was a complete success. I dug deep and resolved to be brave and with mini peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in hand, we attended what turned out to be a very fun and festive occasion. I was pleasantly surprised in that I did indeed manage to socialize. As luck would have it, the day prior to this party, a new American family moved to Paris and their nine-year-old daughter is now in the girls' class. Her mother and I were each other's comfort which worked out very well for us both.

The girls brainstormed American food ideas (the parameters were that it could not be a hot dish and it must be easy to transport via the Metro). We settled upon the sandwiches, breaking away from our normal standards of wheat bread with organic peanut butter and organic jam. We're representing America- we must not disappoint. That means white bread, Skippy's peanut butter, and, here in France, confiture Bonne Maman.

Earlier that day, while at school, Raelyn mentioned to a French classmate what we were bringing. The classmate replied, "Nobody ever brings sandwiches." Just one more reason for me to feel nervous. This girl's reply even made Raelyn feel unsure about our choice of buffet contribution. The girls and I created a sandwich-making assembly line on the kitchen table. Raelyn: peanut butter. Me: jam. Nola: cutting (that girl loves to use knives any chance she gets). We made 80 mini sandwiches in all.

The children had access to the buffet in the cafeteria while the parents socialized in the adjacent multi-purpose room with soup and vin chaud (hot wine). At separate times, Raelyn and Nola came to find me to report the status of our sandwich tray. "Mom," they said, "There's only like five left!", and, "Alessia says she loves them!" This, from the girl who earlier stated that nobody brings sandwiches. Guess we showed her eh? The mini PB&Js were all gobbled up. I even saw a Chinese mother with a few on her plate. I wonder how often a Chinese person in Paris eats PB&J? I'm so glad we were able to provide people with an American cultural experience of the highest standards. 

 I bought too many Skippy jars. Now I have to live with this 'poison' in my house.

Raelyn's and Nola's Classmates

Madame Christine, teacher extraordinaire

Monday, December 13, 2010

Digging Deep

The girls brought home a notice from school today announcing the school's annual holiday buffet. The form required a sign-up and signature. With Soren out of town, I had to rely on my friend, Google Translate, to understand what, exactly, I am signing up for. I have cut and pasted the English translation here just as it was presented to me:

Grand Buffet Christmas 2010 al 'Ecole de la Rue des Vertus

are celebrating the year 2010 in this all together around a large buffet which we all bring our contribution

A buffet will be reserved for children in the school canteen and open to all under the Pleasance (dishes from all regions and all countries are welcome)

thank you to all parent volunteers.
This ticket serves as a reservation

for lunch just to make the choice

dirty dish

a sweet dish


we will be ................... accompanying persons:

Child :...........

if you can not bring your child, he is welcome until 20h, under the responsibility of another adult.

you can then pick it up at 20h later, or someone drive by the adult to whom you will entrust the responsiblity

person coming to collect the child :........

Um, yea. Google Translate can't be relied upon fully as you can see. I am unclear-  is the food for the children only? Or do the children eat in the cafeteria and the parents eat somewhere else on school grounds? Is this a lunch meal or a dinner meal? A dinner meal at 6:30 p.m. is early for the French, but that time of day is also way too late for lunch. So what's with Google Translate calling this lunch?

Do I really get to bring a dirty dish if I want to? That's even easier than signing up for napkins or paper plates (my standard easy-way-out back home). At least I don't need to go to the store to purchase anything, I'll just wash one less dish that day and my contribution will be ready to go. Or, maybe I'll just bring cheese. Will a can of Cheese Whiz suffice? That's considered, by some at least, to be very Americana. I know right where to buy it too- our neighborhood has an American food store called 'Thanksgiving' and they sell that stuff along with Lucky Charms, Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, Pop Tarts, and Spam. Hey- maybe I'll bring a huge variety of all that stuff and really wow them with the gourmet offerings of America.

But first, I need to dig deep and gather up all the courage I can muster to attend this event. My wing man is absent, working long hours traversing the U.S.A this past week so he cannot be my safety net for this occasion. The one English speaking parent that I have met (who is American, but has lived in Europe for 20+ years and is fluent in French, on the PTA, and knows everyone) is very nice, but  I don't even know if she will be at this event. At the end of every school day, like back home, I stand in front of the school, waiting for the bell to ring and for Raelyn and Nola to emerge so that I can take them home. However, unlike back home, I stand alone, silent, and wondering what the other parents are conversing about as they wait for their children to emerge. It is a lonely part of my day, the part that makes me long for the friends, familiarities, conversations, and comforts of home.

So it is with trepidation that I consider this annual school buffet. I am doing my best to convince myself that role modeling courage is the least I owe my girls since we have asked them to move out of their comfort zone in so many ways these past several months now. I keep telling myself, "Self, what's the worst that can happen? You'll stand alone mostly, feeling uncomfortable for a couple hours, eating free food, while your daughters have a good time with their friends. That's what this is about- them, not you Self. Just deal!"

Maybe, as the notice states, I can find another adult to be responsible for the girls and I can bow out. Perhaps the homeless man on our street would like to go? It's a win-win for him- he'll receive a babysitting fee from me and have access to all sorts of food at the buffet. I can tell that I am really nervous about this event because this idea is sounding too good right now.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Paris and Entertainment Go Hand in Hand(out)

Living in Paris means that you have a wide array of entertainment options at your fingertips. For example, live concerts, the opera and ballet, live theater, jazz clubs, the cinemas, and, of course, the famous Moulin Rouge. This list would be incomplete if I did not also mention the abundance of daily entertainment one encounters by simply being a patron of the city's public transportation systems, primarily, the Metro.

Enter any Metro station and there you will find what appears to be all of the city's aspiring musicians and singers. Some of them are quite talented actually. Others make up for what they lack in talent by exuding a charm that is endearing. The rest are simply dreadful. These performers don't confine themselves to only the tunnels and hallways within the Metro system. They also perform for their captive audiences on the Metro trains. And that is the difference between Paris' Metro and San Francisco's BART: I have never seen anyone perform on an actual BART train with the intent of receiving a charitable contribution.

Another noticeable difference: my observations indicate that Parisians are much more charitable towards struggling musicians and singers than their U.S. counterparts. I have seen some performances that would make the worst of the worst American Idol auditions look like Grammy winners. The performances run the gamut: country, opera, rap, soul, Russian folk music, jazz- you name it, you'll eventually hear it- good, bad, and downright ghastly. And yet, for their effort, even these awful performers receive donations every time as they make their collection rounds on the train following their set. The sound of coins clinking at the bottom of a cup is almost as commonplace as the sound of the train doors opening and closing. Apparently, performing in the bowels of the public transportation system in a socialist country is not a bad way to earn a euro or two. People here take care of people in ways we just don't see back home.

The performers are very polite, as is the French custom. They greet the passengers verbally, "Bonjour Mesdames et Messieurs," before launching into their set which can range from one to a few songs. Sometimes, they work in tandem- one person performs, the other collects. Many are accompanied by a portable microphone, amplifier, and speaker unit on wheels. Sometimes, just a boom box. Upon conclusion of their set they take their cup, hat, or even tambourine and thrust it towards the passengers hoping (expecting?) a monetary contribution. I have found myself fantasizing about what would happen if I contributed something other than money? My used tissue, a chewing gum wrapper, maybe even the chewed gum? Tomorrow, I can make use of my transit time by cleaning out my purse and throwing away my discards when they approach me. Just kidding. My usual tactic is to avoid eye contact at all times with any performer. I actually have given a few handouts. Not because they were good performances or extra charming, but because they spied me videotaping them (I try to go incognito by pretending my Flip video camera is a cell phone). I don't feel obliged to give them money when I am held captive and forced to listen, but in these instances of filming, I have, at that point, crossed into official audience status and a handout feels necessary.

I think I know how I'm going to earn some extra euros. I will put Nola and Raelyn to work on the Metro and create a new niche of child labor in Paris. I will equip them with a boom box blasting Katy Perry songs that they can sing along with. Mama has found her meal ticket.

Here are some performance highlights. They are short, partial clips. Be sure to have your sound up and enjoy for free on me.

Video #1: Take note of the male passenger's mistake- he makes eye contact- Doh!

Video #2: This gal gets around. I've seen her perform a few times- always the same song. She's the one-hit wonder of the Metro.


 Video #3: The lonesome cowboy.

Video # 4: The holiday spirit got the best of me so these guys made some money off me.

Video #5: My all-time personal favorite is this enthusiastic rendition of Hava Nagila. Notice the female passenger in the foreground enjoying herself for a very brief moment. I felt compelled to tear a seat from its floor bolts and hoist the guy up for the Jewish chair dance, but I don't posses the strength.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gym Culture

Staying fit in Paris is a different beast than it is back home. First, as mentioned previously, I have had to overcome my self-consciousness about my morning commute outfit of workout wear with my hair in a ponytail and zero make-up on my face. I am literally the only person on the Metro that is not "dressed" for the day of work that lies ahead. Well, actually I am, but the other Metro passengers have no idea that I often come home from the gym and do my work- in the form of household chores- in my sweaty gym clothes.

And, speaking of gym clothes, I can honestly say that I believe Paris's reputation for being the fashion capitol of the world does not pertain to the fitness club. Fashion statements remain on the streets as I have yet to find any within the gym. Well, statements are made, that's for sure, but I cannot call them fashion.

Last week, I was working out on the elliptical and the young woman next to me was swooshing away on hers while wearing a black sweater, denim cutoff shorts, purple tights, and turquoise Keds tennis shoes. Every day, I see another woman who wears relatively normal workout pants and tops, but she accessorizes her look with sunglasses and costume jewelery around her neck. Oh, and a fanny pack too. And then yesterday, to my surprise, I saw her teaching a fitness class. With her shades on, of course. Go figure.

Most other women are wearing some form of baggy sweat pants and loose t-shirts. This comes as a relief for me actually since working out at Clubsport back home can often feel like a runway competition between the women who sport the latest and greatest Lulu Lemon ensembles along with their bodies that they have worked hard for (naturally or otherwise) to display in these fashion forward outfits. And speaking of naturally or otherwise, I have yet to see any cosmetically enhanced female inside or outside of the gym. This is quite refreshing. This is the real fashion statement in my opinion, honest to goodness real beauty. You just have to look past the gym clothes to see it.

As for the men exercising in our club, their fashion statements are no less interesting. First, there is Mr. Red Headband. Or, I could call him Mr. Knee High Socks. Or, Mr. Short-Shorts. He has so much going on with his outfit that is so Richard Simmons that I don't know where to begin. I don't mean to be critical and I hope to simply be making observations rather than judgments, but I think I am walking a fine line here. Here's an observation: His headband does do a nice job of taming his frizzy shoulder length hair. See? I can be objective about this. I saw a middle aged woman last week a la Olivia Newton-John's Let's Get Physical who was sporting shiny lycra tights and a similarly shiny high-cut leotard (ladies, remember those?), thankfully not the thong style (ladies, remember those? I'm sure you men do!). If she and Mr. 1980 were working out next to each other and I happened to walk into the facility I might think I've been transported back to that era. But experience has taught me that I'm simply in a Parisian gym.

Parisian gym etiquette for men appears to be this: Do as many "girlie" exercises as you can. What I mean by this is that the gentlemen in the club, even the few "buff" men- and that's an overstatement of monumental proportion by American standards- are completing many reps of butt and inner/outer thigh floor exercises. I have never seen a guy do any of these exercises- ever- at any of the gyms I have frequented back home. Remember (again, ladies?) the Jane Fonda workout videos where she's on her back, feet on the floor with her knees bent and she's repeatedly lifting her pelvis off the floor while squeezing her butt cheeks? Yep, that's a popular one with the dudes at our gym. It's really quite a sight too since most of them are wearing short-shorts.

Parisian gym etiquette also means that men greet each other with double cheek kisses. This is not gym-specific as it is the standard French greeting for someone you know whether in a home or out on the street, but again, I have never ever seen, nor will I ever see two men at the gym in the States put their faces anywhere near each other. I almost forget what the standard American 'dude' greeting of hands clasping, shoulder bumping, half hug slap-on-the-back, fist bump looks like by now. The kissing seems so much more simple (only two moves as  opposed to four) and surely involves less testosterone too.

I don't see the Parisians at our gym working too hard cardiovascularly. Maybe this is because upon entering the club, if you have pre-paid for the year anyway, you receive a towel. One. For your workout and shower. So, if you sweat up a storm and use your towel during your workout, you're out of luck for a clean shower towel. Unless you bring your own from home. But I don't see any women in the locker room with anything other than the gym-issued white towel which they've kept clean during their workouts by conserving their energy. It's nice though, I have to say, because working out next to someone else on the treadmill or elliptical makes me feel like I am sprinting at an Olympic speed. I am the only person I have ever seen using the spin bikes. Here I am, in the land of Tour de France, and I am the only gym member pulling a Lance Armstrong while the other 'bikers' are lounging away on their recumbent bikes letting their previous day's wine and cheese digest. Relaxing takes various forms in the Nautilus equipment room at the gym. Newspapers are read on these machines, long conversations are had while on these machines, sitting- lots of sitting- happens on these machines. Very few real exercises and reps seem to occur on these machines in the Parisian gym. I suppose the Jane Fonda exercises make up for this apparent lackadaisical attitude in the Nautilus room. Again, I don't mind as it makes me feel like Wonder Woman in there.

Maybe these folks don't feel the need to break a sweat on the equipment because the gym temperature is kept so darn hot they, like me, begin to sweat the moment they step foot inside the place. Seriously, it's like a sauna in there. That alone must account for at least some of the wine and cheese calories right? Let's see, The Parisians eat what they want, in moderation, and sweat out the rest in a really hot fitness club while relaxing on an exercise machine. I think they're on to something here. Now, if they would just do a little something about their gym clothes...

Thursday, November 25, 2010


In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought it would be helpful for me to acknowledge to myself all that I am thankful for. This exercise, I hope, will help nudge me out of a funk that I have been experiencing as of late, one that has me feeling overwhelmed, pissy, mopey, and hungry. How come when I'm in a bad mood food always sounds so good?


1. Delicious Parisian food. This past week, Soren and I discovered three new restaurants in our neighborhood. One serves delicious vegetarian salads, the second serves the tastiest galettes and crepes we've had as of yet, and the third serves yummy traditional fare with the most mouth watering moelleux au chocolat. Soren is still working on perfecting his pronounciation of 'moelleux'.

2. Family. It is terribly hard being away from my Soren's sister Teresa's family. We miss seeing our niece Alina during this time of rapid growth and development. And we miss Teresa's rapid growth and development too since she is pregnant with twin boys. I am grateful to know that we have two new nephews to come home to next summer. Oh what a meeting that will be! To the entire Kaplan clan back home, you are missed.
I must give a shout out to my parents who provide Soren with a place to sleep and yummy meals on his business trips back home and personalized shopping for Trader Joes and Whole Foods products we can't find here in Paris. Thanks mom and dad! To all of our relatives back home, you are in our hearts. And as for family here in Paris? I am happy to say that the Kaplans and Puiforcats on this side of the pond are pretty extraordinary. How fun it has been to gain a whole new set of relatives in a few months time.  And as for the family I chose and created, well, we could be living in a tin roofed shack or a cardboard box and my heart would be where ever that home happened to be, Paris or otherwise.

3. Friends. I don't get to connect with them back home as often as I would like to given the time zone difference and Soren hogging our phone in the evening due to work (I suppose I should let him off the hook- no pun intended- since he needs to pay for our year abroad). Without Skype and Facebook, I'd feel incredibly more isolated than I do. To my friends who read my blog, post comments, send me messages, call me, and even allow me to just pop into their minds every now and again, thank you. I miss you. And I think about you all the time wondering what you're up to at any given time of the day- dropping off your kids? cooking dinner, watching TV, doing a hobby? And to my new Paris friends, all two of you- I am happy to be getting to know you and I am tickled that our paths have crossed in this way.

3. My health. I'm 41 going on 28 (at least in my own mind). Physically, I don't look a day over 39 right? Somebody card me, please?!

4. My luck. I live a charmed life. At least it feels that way. Hard work, determination, mistakes, lapses in judgment, stupidity, rolling with the punches, planning, aiming, flailing, intentions- all of these attributes are part of the fabric of my existence but, nonetheless, I always have the sense that something outside of myself is guiding me- protective, watchful, helpful, letting me fall, but never too hard, and assisting my life to unfold in the most delightful ways possible with the most amazing people possible (friends, family, and even acquaintances- that's you!).

5. My husband. I am thankful to you not just because you brought me to Paris- although that's a pretty big reason to love you. Of course your dazzling charm and good looks help too. Mostly, I am grateful that you see the whole of me and still have the guts to come back for more day after day. Especially when I am in a funk- pissy, mopey, tired, and hungry and then even more pissy and mopey for being pissy and mopey when I am living in Paris for goodness sake! I can be my own worst enemy. Thank you Soren for helping me to put up my white flag of surrender.

6. Lists of reasons to be grateful. They work wonders for a sour mood.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

English Is A Foreign Language Too

So I had myself an epiphany today. I don't really speak English. True, honest to goodness English that is.  The English that I speak is watered down California Valley Girl English sprinkled with all the trimmings of likes, no ways!, totallies!, awesomes, for reals?, dudes, and way cools. I do refrain from grodie, tubular, and gnarly. And I am not rude enough to respond to others with any as ifs. And as for OMGs well, I consider myself too old for that one.

This realization that English is almost as foreign to me as French struck today when we had Soren's relatives, Olivier and Valentine, over for lunch. They speak English, very well actually. But regardless of this fact, it is still a mental exercise for their brains to work in English for a few hours straight. Occasionally, they reverted back to French, I think because Soren tries very hard to speak French when we are with them. My impression is that they believe we can understand more French than we actually do. Soren politely asked Valentine, "Lentement s'il vous plaît," (slowly, please). She obliged, and Soren was able to understand her.

This made me realize that I take their English skills for granted and that I should work harder to speak more slowly for their benefit too. Not a problem, it is fairly easy to speak more slowly. But then it hit me. The speed of my speech probably isn't so much an issue for them as my use of words. I need to speak true English. Not Valley Girl English.

My brain was not ready for this exercise in discipline. Imagine becoming one-hundred-percent conscious of every word that is being automatically generated in your brain and instantly formed in concert by your voicebox, tongue, and lips, ready to emerge as effortlessly and quickly as usual. I realized, not for the first time but, especially today, how silly these words actually sound.

These circa-1980's words are superfluous words, ones that have meaning to Olivier and Valentine, but in a completely different context than what the Valley Girl definitions imply. For example, if I were to tell  them that (true story) the other night, Soren and I were walking home late and we were approached from behind by a young woman walking alone. This woman inquired if we wouldn't mind accompanying her to her building so she did not have to walk alone in the dark on the city streets. Now, if I  told this story to a friend back home, I might describe it this way, "The woman was walking alone in this sketchy neighborhood and she was like, totally freaked out, she couldn't hang walking alone for a couple blocks. So we hung with her and she turned out to be way cool."

If I had told Olivier and Valentine the story in this manner, I imagine they would have understood that we were walking in an either artistic or incomplete neighborhood with a woman that was markedly unusual or irregular who wished to remain outside and that she could not suspend her walking for a pair of small wooden cubes and that we also suspended with her and that she was really cold. And who could blame them? Could you imagine if, when Valentine presented me with beautiful flowers today I had thanked her by saying, "Wow, these are totally killer flowers!" She would have probably felt obligated to explain that I was incorrect in thinking that these beautiful flowers are Oleanders when they are indeed non-poisonous Jonquils. 

So, it was with great effort today that I spoke true English with our guests. Because of my effort I noticed that my speech automatically slowed as I searched through my mental Rolodex to find suitable replacement words. I also noticed that I did not sound like me. I sounded older, like, for sure, and also a bit more educated. Since I already have a Master's, I'm going to say that I totally sounded like a PhD. It was pretty bitchin'.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Our Morning Commute

Tag along with us during our morning commute to school. View these short clips and you will see how well the girls have mastered this routine.

I am still working on getting over my insecurities about being the only metro passenger wearing the official California-mom-dropping-her-kids-off-at-school uniform. Sweats or workout clothes, hair in a ponytail, no make-up. It seems like I am the only one heading to the gym after drop-off. How very Bay Area of me.

First, we begin our commute right outside our building's entry door by heading into the Sully-Morland Metro station:

Two stops and five minutes later, we transfer at the Chatalet metro station which is a small city unto itself. It is always crowded here. And hot. And smelly. One of us usually gets stepped on or bumped into, but never on purpose. There are always a handful of performers and beggars here hoping to receive a handout (more on that in a future post). The girls are always eager to open the door by pushing the button that triggers the door to open. Oftentimes, they do this and then hop off while the train is still moving. Sounds dangerous, but it really is not:

The line we tranfer to at Chatalet is line 11. Chatalet is the starting point for this line so there is always a train waiting for us to board. Above the platform is a clock counting down the minutes until the train's departure. Ideally, we try to walk to the very front of the train as that puts us closest to the exit at our destination station. We don't always succeed, however, as  you'll see in this next clip. You'll  hear me say, "Get on," because I see that the clock is showing "00:00" which means that at any second, the doors will be closing. So we settle for mid-train today.

Three stops later, we arrive at the Arts et Metiers metro station. It is unlike any other station in that it reminds us of a submarine. I like the metallic burnt sienna colored walls. They hide the visible dirt and scum easily seen on the walls and ceilings at other stations.

Upon exiting this station, you will see Nola tossing her metro ticket into the trash can. She rides with a ticket as opposed to the pre-paid NaviGo card. This is because the NaviGo does not offer a child discount (9 and under) so it is cheaper for her to have the discounted tickets instead of the NaviGo. She is finally over her disappointment at not having a NaviGo like the rest of us. The reason that Nola throws her ticket away at our destination station is because we never know if, mid-route, we will run into Metro officials checking to make sure passengers have paid tickets or NaviGo cards. If caught without one, they fine you twenty euros. This happened to Soren two years ago after he had naively tossed his ticket after entering the station. Soren acted like the "dumb American" he was at the time and they let him off easy.

 The girls, fearing embarrassment,  made me promise that I would stop filming and put the camera away prior to reaching their school. In this next clip, you can see Nola's impatient look since we are one block away from school and I am still filming. But I just had to capture the crossing guards in action. Today, we happened upon them during a mellow moment. Usually, they are risking their lives for us and other pedestrians by stepping out into speeding oncoming traffic. The drivers do not slow down or stop until the last minute. And motorcycles, if they can squeeze by, will do so even if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. So, even with their protection, we still proceed with great caution. And, it is with gratitude that each and every day I say a heartfelt, "Merci!" to these guys for braving the onslaught of crazy French drivers.

Thanks for coming along to school with us today. Now, off to the gym I go.  I may be the only one in sweats, but at least after my workout my B.O. will fit in nicely on the Metro.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vintage Comedy

The Cinema Balzac is just off the Champs-Elysees and was the perfect place to be on a rainy Sunday. Especially because there was a treat in store- literally. When we entered the lobby, we were surprised that a man was bearing gifts for the children in the form of free Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Back home, an ice cream at the movies sets us back at least five bucks. No matter that it was only 11:00 in the morning and we had just finished a late breakfast. Anytime is ice cream time when you're a kid.

The real treat however were the feature films. Silent movies from the early 20th century accompanied by a live piano musician. I recall seeing a few of these films as a child, but I had forgotten how silly and gut-busting Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy can be. By the sounds of laughter coming from the audience, I was not alone in my love for this art form. Again, the French show us that culture is alive and well and aimed at children. Nicely done.

As we exited the theater, I found myself daydreaming about opening my own cinema in Walnut Creek dedicated to silent films accompanied by live piano music. Later, my Google search turned up what looks like a little gem in Fremont. So, if you want to (hopefully) experience the same delight as we did, check this out:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Recent Visitor Highlights

The month of October brought us our first visitors, and many of them too. We were lucky to have our friends, the Dineens, who currently reside in Switzerland, visit us in the beginning of the month to celebrate Renee's big 4-0. Following them were my French class friend Suzie and her husband John. And, coinciding with them were my aunt and uncle from Walnut Creek, Lynn and Butch. Finally, my parents, who enjoyed their first trip to Paris during Raelyn's and Nola's first two-week school vacation.

We took a road trip to the Loire Valley with my parents in a (delivery) van, searching for currently scarce diesel fuel (successfully thank goodness), and we saw some really old castles that various members of royalty over the years called home. Really old = 1000-ish years. Ancient in comparison to buildings in the U.S. Each castle, or château rather, was more stunning than the previous one. Seeing the ancient kitchens and rooms in these massive abodes, I couldn't help but wonder how the servants managed without running water nor a sink in the kitchen and, how did the queens, princesses, and mistresses manage without indoor plumbing and toilets? With their big gowns, that's a lot of fabric to keep out of the way of, well, you get the idea.

We concluded the road trip with a day at Futuroscope, a futuristic amusement park. Two things we noticed at Futuroscope that would never fly at U.S. amusement parks: The lack of junk food vendors and cultural 3-D films. We began our day at Futuroscope with a child-oriented 3-D film about the work and life of Vincent Van Gogh. It was a great film and illustrated how the country's cultural training starts very young. As we walked our way through the park, Raelyn and Nola did not even notice the absence of cotton candy, pretzels, ice cream bars, and churros. More cultural training in effect right there and, I have to say, we like it.

Check out the photos so you can see what fun we've been having and what has been filling my time and keeping me from blogging regularly:

Renee and I on Pont Sully.
Suzie and  I on our way to Ile de la Cite.

Grami and girls with their tortinettes (scooters).
Muséum national d'histoire naturelle. I wonder how creationists would rationalize this evolutionary display?
Jardin du Luxembourg. We failed to capture the abundance of beautiful flowers in this photo.
Musée du Louvre. We did manage to get up close eventually. She sure is a tiny little painting.
Enjoying the view from the Trocadéro.
This is what captures Nola's interest when she is behind the lens.
This is how we roll in France.

Château at Amboise
Château de Chenonceau 
An you thought Disneyland was clean and neat.
Château de Chambord
All smiles with Lynn and Butch at the Tour Eiffel.
Dinner party at the usual American time. It was a school night after all.
Who's having more fun?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Road Trip To Normandy

Last Tuesday, the girls had their fourth forced vacation day from school due to continued strikes.  We took advantage of the situation and took an actual vacation. Well, a mini one at least. Fortunately, Soren's work schedule allowed for this as he had no travel plans and no conference calls scheduled. Since the girls don't have school on Wednesdays an overnight trip to Normandy seemed like a good choice of destination.

On Monday night, we began to second guess our road trip decision. This is because the strikes were causing fuel shortages and we had been warned that beginning on Tuesday, the truckers were going to strike. This means that the truck drivers block the roads with their big rigs. We decided that we would leave as early as possible and hopefully make it out of town before any blockages occurred. We also figured that our rental car would have a full tank of gas and this might just be enough to last for the duration of our road trip. We had also been hearing about possible food shortages due to the fact that without fuel and without willing truck drivers, grocery store shelves would become bare. Planning ahead, Soren went to our local grocery to stock up on non-perishables so our cupboards would not be bare upon returning home from our trip. Lastly, we figured that if we experienced road blockages or difficulty finding fuel, it would just make for good blog material. So bring it!

Soren left our apartment early on Tuesday morning to pick up our rental car when the agency opened at 6:30 a.m. He then drove the short distance back to pick us up. The girls and I were waiting on the sidewalk when he pulled up in a little VW Golf. He was excited to drive a stick shift, it had been twenty years since the last time. Soren said it's like riding a bike, you never forget. I, however, have never driven a stick shift. On the one hand, I was relieved to not have any possible way to have to drive our rental car, yet I was also concerned that I had no possible way to drive our rental car if necessary.

We got out of Paris quickly and easily, thanks to Vivienne, our lovely French GPS guide. She efficiently recalculated our route when we failed to count all of the Arc de Triomphe roundabout exits and drove one exit too far. It was a lovely way to exit Paris and because of this, we did not mind our counting error.

One thing we did not anticipate were all of the toll booths that we encountered. The euro issues 2 and 5 euro coins which is very useful and came in handy since I fortunately had a lot of change in my wallet. Back home, a lot of change in my wallet means a bunch of almost useless pennies. Here, a lot of change in my wallet means we can pay our tolls on a road trip. Toll booths are numerous and they are not present only at bridges. They are scattered along the highways fairly frequently and the tolls range from 1.30 euros to 7.50 euros. That means we paid $1.85 to $10.35 U.S. for all tolls. Twice! They get ya on the way back too. All in all, we calculated that we spent approximately $40 on tolls for the trip. To their credit, the roads were very smooth and well-kept. We now possess a new frame of reference to take back home with us when the Bay Area raises their bridge tolls.

We stayed in the picturesque town of Honfleur which is a port town situated on an estuary of the Seine River.  We had our favorite breakfast yet at a cafe overlooking the harbor. Little surprise since the name of our breakfast platter was called, "Sucre". Sugar, that is. Our meal consisted of a huge platter overflowing with buttery croissants and baguettes. Alongside came a tray filled with jam, Nutella, butter, and sugar sticks. In addition to OJ, the girls were served steaming hot chocolate while Soren and I restrained ourselves with our pots of hot tea. Natural yogurt was the final touch which we customized by adding jam and a bit of sugar on top. This was enjoyed while eating outside and enjoying the cold, but sunny morning.

We drove to Caen, home to the Memorial de Caen, a war memorial museum commemorating WWII and specifically, the battle of Normandy and the events leading up to and after D-day. Given that it was a weekday and there were fewer travelers on the road than usual (probably because they are not keeping a blog and had no reason to risk the potential inconveniences of the strikes), we practically had the museum to ourselves. Our visit began with a film showing footage of the last-minute preparations for the D-day landing, the landing, and the subsequent battle. The amazing thing about this film was that there was no dialogue, it was only accompanied by music, and it was displayed in split-screen. The left side of the screen showed the U.S. military footage while the right side simultaneously showed the German military footage. It was eerie to watch the Germans preparing their bunkers for the invasion when we, the viewers, already know the gruesome outcome: Over 10,000 U.S. troops killed on those Normandy beaches in one day. One fact we learned from watching this film: The Canadian allies bombed a section of railway track and moments later, the train carrying German supplies for this battle (tanks, ammunitions, etc.) barreled off the destroyed track and crashed on the hillside below, delivering a devastating blow to the Germans and their ability to adequately fight off the U.S. and their allies in Normandy. The footage seemed surreal and I kept wanting to believe it was just a movie, not an actual battle that had occurred.

One of the aspects of the museum that we had anticipated and had to brief the girls upon prior to viewing was the Holocaust and, specifically, our connection to Judaism and their likely questions about our relatives and even ourselves due to this heritage. How does one adequately prepare oneself, let alone a child, for the horrific images and documentation of human genocide? How does a parent respond to, "Daddy, if we were living in France during WWII, would that have happened to us because we have a Jewish name?" "Would we have had to wear a yellow star on our clothing?" "Would we have hidden? Where?" And, of course, the inevitable question that does not restrict itself to children alone, "Why?" No historian, museum, philosopher, religion, book, or parent could ever adequately answer that question.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I have always been unclear as to the connection between Europe and WWII and Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor and their involvement in WWII. I must have been absent from school on that day, yeah, that's it! Anyway, I am happy to now have this knowledge thanks to this museum's audio headset that made up for my lack of applying myself in World History class. It never did occur to me to just Google it. If it had, I'd spend all my waking hours on Google trying to learn everything that I should have back in high school rather than writing this blog.

On Wednesday, we drove from Honfleur to Le Mont Saint Michel on the border of Normandy and Brittany. This rocky tidal island is out in the middle of nowhere and this feeling was heightened by the fact that we arrived during low tide which meant we were surrounded by surreal mudflats that looked like they belong in a Dali painting. The abbey here was built in the 8th century and it was used as a prison during the French Revolution.  We opted out of the guided tour in the interest of time and instead explored on our own. I do wish we could have also been there during high tide to compare and contrast the difference in look and feel. 

There were two factors that combined to make us feel a bit pressed for time while at Mont Saint Michel. First, due to most European hotel rooms being limited to two or three occupants due to size, a family of four must reserve two hotel rooms. The girls were a bit unsettled about being in a non-adjoining room by themselves so this meant that for our night in Honfleur, my bedmate was Raelyn and Soren's was Nola. This provided a great excuse for daughter cuddle-time. The next morning, none of us knew if the others had woken yet. Raelyn and I thought for sure that Soren and Nola would sleep later so upon waking, we spent our time reading. There was something wrong with the shower in our room so we decided to wait and use theirs. Next door, Soren and Nola were awake, showered, and reading, waiting for us. Finally, they knocked on our door and we discovered that we had all been awake for over an hour waiting for each other. We got a later start than anticipated since they had to then wait for me and Raelyn to shower and dress. We decided that next time we find ourselves in adjacent hotel rooms, we will knock on each others' walls. Two knocks = We're awake. Three knocks = We're asleep!

The second reason we felt pressed for time is that we knew we needed to find fuel for our trip back to Paris. We knew that even if we succeed in finding a gas station with fuel, we had seen on the news that the lines were extremely long. We also did not know what amount of traffic to expect heading back into Paris, or, if the truckers would still be blockading our route out of Normandy or back into Paris. We left Mont Saint Michel with these unknowns fearing the worst. Afterall, at the museum yesterday, we saw a woman reading a newspaper with an alarming headline. Nevertheless, we hoped for the best.

Western France Newspaper. Cover page translation: "How to Get Out?"

Good news. We found fuel! Long line, but we were relieved so we didn't care. What we did not understand initially is that you pump first, regardless of payment type, and pay last. Unfortunately, we were behind a driver who did not move his car after pumping and made us wait while he payed. The other drivers were more courteous and pulled up to the parking spaces outside of the minimart so as not to hold up the fueling lines. Oh, and this little piece of information should make you feel better about Bay Area gas prices: We payed over $8.00 per gallon!

One of our final highlights was viewing a beautiful full rainbow across the sky as we drove down the highway out of Normandy. It was incredibly moving and spiritual, well, at least as far as Soren was concerned.

For those of you who know Soren, well, he can be a bit of a nut. In this case, he was inspired by the following video that he had seen recently. He couldn't help but wonder if he too would wind up on Jimmy Kimmel Live like this guy did:
I don't think he'll find himself on a couch opposite a late night talk show host anytime soon, but we girls sure did appreciate the good laughs he provided for us in the car.  Now that he has set a new bar for road trip entertainment, we can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An Open Letter To Terrorists

Dear Terrorists,

As you know, in recent weeks (and even well before then), your threats and vague plans to do harm in key locations in Europe are splashed all over the news. Terror alert levels remain elevated, yet unchanged in the midst of continued threats and citizens are advised to be extra-vigilant. France, Germany, the UK, the U.S., Sweden, and most recently, Australia, have issued travel alert warnings to their citizens.

As a current resident of Paris, France, I can assure you that the tourists are still flocking here as evidenced by English and German being overheard on the streets and in the Metro. These tourists tend to talk so much louder than the French it's easy for me to identify them, but when I cannot overhear them their white tennis shoes and fanny packs give them away.

The Eiffel Tower and a Metro station have been evacuated more than once in recent days. Machine gun-toting soldiers are patrolling heavily populated areas. Along with the current strikes that are ramping up here in Paris, life is a bit crazy around us.

At least the French communicate when and where the strikes are taking place. It sure would be nice of you to let us know in advance what specific days and times the terror disruptions that you are going to cause will occur so that my family can make alternate plans. Mothers like to know what to expect and how to plan ahead. My husband went to the store just now to stock up on non-perishables due to the threatened trucker's strike that starts tomorrow. Food and fuel shortages? I'll take that kind of threat any day over your kind.

Officials from my government tell me not to let you win by staying home. But I am afraid of your people. I am a mother after all. I don't think you possibly care or understand anything about that unless you take a moment to remember the simple fact that you were born to one. Remember her? Where would you be without her? And, good Lord, what would she think of you now?

To be perfectly honest with you, I secretly felt some relief leaving my home near San Francisco for a year because I tend to think that this will increase my family's chances of avoiding The Big One. And, perhaps, also dodging another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. 

While we were living in the U.S., our country was the prime terrorist target. Coincidentally, we move to Paris, France - home to the government who decided last week to pass a ban on the wearing of full facial veils in public. French president Nicolas Sarkozy claims that this ban is aimed at protecting women's rights. I can understand his point of view, but I can also imagine yours. While France's new law makes no mention of Islam, it is Muslim women living here in France that don the burqa or niqab and to you, this law must feel like a direct insult to your distorted religious beliefs that the majority of Muslims decry. So France becomes an additional target of your hatred. Lucky us.

To be honest with you, I think that France should have banned the wearing of white tennis shoes and fanny packs instead. Yes, this might cause American, British, and German citizens to become further entrenched in their stereotypes of the French as being arrogant and hell-bent on preserving their high cultural standards, but I highly doubt that Interpol or the CIA would receive any intelligence regarding imminent terrorist threats as a result of banning these lowly fashion statements. This "signature style" of threats belongs to you and yours. In my humble opinion, it is the ultimate in bad taste.

These days, as we go about our daily lives here in Paris commuting, shopping, and visiting the sights, we are staying vigilant, keeping our eyes out for your supposed female suicide bomber that the intelligence agencies have made reference to. Will she be donning a burqa or niqab? Will it actually be a man posing as a woman in a burqa or niqab? Does this scenario give you some notion of how and why the French government felt it was prudent to create such a ban in the first place? It is difficult for me to fathom that it is possible for you to recruit, train, and coerce a woman to kill herself in the name of your God. But, I suppose, as long as you deny your girls equal access to education and your women equal access to employment, you remain in control.

I can't help but see the continuation of a universal pattern illustrated by the commonality the current French government and your radical version of Islam share: Men dictating what women are allowed or disallowed to do and men using their power to control those (women) whose power and influence they fear most. These, I believe, are two sides of the same coin. Your Islam doctrine dictating what your women must wear and France dictating what the women of Islam must not wear. 

I am currently reading a book, The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. In it, he claims that a man's greatest fear is of being humiliated by a woman, and that a woman's greatest fear is of being killed by a man. Just ask any woman living in a village in war-torn Africa who has experienced first-hand that rape is used as a weapon of war, or, ask any woman residing in Manhattan who would like to go for a jog in Central Park. We women are already quite used to this notion of vigilance, so, when authorities are directing us to be extra vigilant because of your vague terrorist threats, what does this mean exactly?

Your past terrorist attacks around the world in the name of "your" God, in my opinion, has helped to nudge France down this road of donning blinders to its past mistakes with French and European human rights standards: WWII's Vichy regime and, more recently, the expelling of Roma gypsies, and, now, the banning of full facial veils. With its blinders fully in place, I can only imagine that France's government will continue to find ways to piss you off. And I don't want my family to be caught in the crossfire.

So, tell me: Shall we keep our current plans over the Christmas holiday to travel to Strasbourg, Munich, and Prague? We know that you have been recruiting and training in Germany and that their country has also been highlighted as a hotbed for possible attacks by you. So what is a mother to do? This mother can't help but think about the scene in Munich: throngs of people, including us, attending the popular Christmas market on Christmas Eve. I know that I am supposed to go about my plans as normal and not let you affect my travel plans or decisions because I then let you win. But you and I both know that this is not a contest between you and lil’ ol’ me.

In the meantime, since I know my letter to you will fall on deaf ears, and you won't give me the answers that I am seeking, I need to remind myself that the intelligence agencies are at least letting you know that we know that you are up to something. Who knows? Maybe the strikes here in France and the resulting systemic havoc will thwart your current attempts at whatever you have planned. I know that even terrorists need food and fuel. (At least until the point at which they blow themselves up.)

In closing, as you continue to jockey for position as the biggest bully on the worldwide stage with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il, the Taliban, the Israeli government, Hamas, and yes, even my own country, no matter what mayhem, havoc, or death you wreak upon your fellow world neighbors, humanity and all that is glorious about it, always survives and better yet, ultimately wins. And besides, God is too big for just one religion. Now go hug your mothers and do something productive with your lives. Because LOVE WINS.


Holli Kaplan
Mama, Wife, & Student of Life

Protecting the crowds gathered at the Sacre Coeur