Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Streets Are Alive With The Sound Of Music

Last January, when Soren excitedly told me he found us a great apartment in an amazing area, he wasn't kidding. We have been enjoying the location of our apartment immensely. We have a Metro station right outside our front door which is ultra-convenient for getting to school, we live across the street from a park, and across from the park is the Seine river and across from the river is Ile St. Louis, we are meters away from La Place de Bastille, and the heart of le Marais district is just a few blocks away. Our centralized location makes it fast and easy to get virtually anywhere. In short, we love this location.

With all these amenities, who could ask for more? Well, we didn't ask, but we received more in the form of a protest rally at our doorstep last week and today, well, when we left our building to accomplish some errands, this is what we saw:
Riot police. On our sidewalk. Should we feel safe or alarmed?
And here, in this 360 degree video clip, you will see the scene surrounding our apartment building which is the building with the blue awning:

With our curiosity peaked, our individual personalities came to a forefront. Nola and I were eager to forge ahead into the massive crowd that we could see gathering on Pont Sully. Soren and Raelyn, being the cautious members of our family, wanted to go back inside and Google this event to find out more data before forging ahead into the massive, and obviously potential, unruly crowd. The riot police made them very nervous. Nola and I won. How could they waste precious time Googling something they know nothing about anyway? We've got things to see here people!

Off we trudged, through the chaotic, loud, and revved up crowd. Thousands of teens and 20-somethings were in our neighborhood, most of them carrying, and drinking, alcoholic beverages. It quickly became apparent to us that, unlike the U.S., an open-container law does not exist here. As we crossed over Ile St. Louis, we viewed several massive semi-trailer trucks lined up along the length of Boulevard St. Germain.  The energy surrounding us was electric. Something was about to happen, we could sense it. But what? We still had no idea what this massive gathering was all about. But the riot police knew, they were ready for action.

Suddenly, the first semi began rolling along the boulevard towards us. Music began blaring from the gigantic speakers on board. A deafening, deep, pulsating rhythm moved through the crowd, creating undulating dance movements from the masses in the streets. Groups of youngsters (I just totally aged myself!) were gathered on top of bus stops, public toilets, benches, garbage bins, and lamp posts. Anything and everything that provided a bird's eye view was occupied. It was surreal. I felt like I was on the set of F.A.M.E.

We soon learned that we were witnessing Paris's Festival Musique Electronique. Semi after semi rolled by, each one containing its own DJ, sound system, techno music, and on-board band of party people. In between each semi, in the streets, crowds followed while they danced along to the beats emanating from the gi-normous speakers rolling in front of them. The music was so loud that I considered running back to the apartment to get ear plugs for Raelyn and Nola. Bystanders, young and old, couldn't help but join in on the dancing. Even those who seemed to be heading home from a workout at the gym:

And, as you'll see in this next clip, wonders can be done with the composition of "Carmina Burana". I wonder if this will become the next "Macarena" craze? That would be some wedding reception!

So, as you can see, it's been quite a week here in our little neighborhood. The girls have now experienced their first protest rally, which felt more like a dance party, and now, they got to experience an actual dance party. I am glad, for their sake, they have had the opportunity to learn, first-hand, these cultural nuances. We are relishing in living in a locale where all the action happens. I'm afraid, however, that when we return to our life in Walnut Creek, things will seem quite boring and tame in comparison.

"DJ Jazzy Death", or so we named him.

La Grève

Last Thursday was the second strike, or la grève duex, this month. And, lucky us, we had front-row seats! The protest march occurred on the street right outside our building. Thousands of protesters gathered up the street at Place de la Bastille, this being the location of the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, and passed our building, then crossed over the Pont Sully bridge to Ile St. Louis before continuing onward down Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Protesters marching on Pont Sully towards Ile St. Louis.
Many French citizens are opposed to President Nicolas Sarkozy's referendum to raise the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two. Pension reform is clearly a hard-sell here. Since the first strike and protest did nothing to thwart the French government's goal of pushing the referendum through to passage in the Senate, the country's civil servants took to the streets again to make sure their desires are heard loud and clear. Woven into the French cultural fabric is the notion that the French government has provided for, and should continue to provide for, its hard-working citizens. Sarkozy says the change is needed because rising life expectancy increases the financial burden on the pension system and it is not sustainable. France currently has the lowest retirement age of any European country, and, if the referendum passes and becomes law, that will still hold true.

As is common during French strikes, life in Paris last Thursday was affected in these ways: Fewer than half the lines on the Paris Metro were working normally, many cancellations occurred at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, and public services such as schools and post offices were closed as state employees took to the streets. Thankfully, Soren's flight home from Frankfurt was one of the few flights that did not get canceled.

The first grève already occurred on the third day of school. Thursday's strike meant that we now have had our second forced vacation day from school. Not that we are complaining. We'll take a free play day anytime. At least the law mandates that schools and transportation systems must give the public forewarning of the date, time, and location of the strike so alternate plans can be prearranged. And anyway, Raelyn and Nola experienced a real-time civics lesson which looked like a protest march, but sounded like a dance party.

These "Sarkozy is a racist signs" are a result of France's recent expulsion of Roma gypsies from their Paris encampments. Apparently, they didn't spell-check before mass-producing the signs.

The media was everywhere. Filming from on top of bus stops. Standing next to us on our coveted high-up perch that was a sidewalk bench. I almost got clobbered in the head by their big video camera and microphone.
I suppose a good time to get sick or injured would be at a protest rally where all of Paris' doctors are present.

Officials have warned recently that the risk of a terrorist attack is at a record high but this protester's HazMat getup might be taking precautions a bit too far.
Commemorative t-shirts for sale. We realized quickly that many aspects of  la grève are similar to a rock concert.
Policeman or French model? I suppose that we won't be seeing this guy at our local doughnut shop.
I can see the trade unions' logic. I too, would want to move full-time to my country home at the young age of 60 with my hard-earned pension supporting me rather than wait until I'm an old, feeble 62 year-old. Sustainability for future generations- who cares?

Our reaction to it all: Same issue, different country. But the U.S. sure doesn't have as much fun getting riled up about Social Security reform. If it did, I would buy a commemorative t-shirt.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Baby Talk

Last Sunday, after sleeping until 11:00 a.m., post-U2, we were picked up by David in his little Renault again and driven to his home in Créteil where his wife, Nathalie, and their new baby son, Mathias (pronounced "Matisse") were waiting to have lunch with us. 

Like our first visit, we were toasting champagne and enjoying a beautiful sunny day overlooking the lake. Mathias slept almost the entire visit, but during his brief awake moment we were sure to capture photographs of Raelyn and Nola with their new little French cousin. We had to explain more than once to them how this baby is actually related to us. Soren's complicated family tree is always a challenge to wrap one's brain around.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we had to purchase insurance for the girls so that they may attend school here in France. We learned of this requirement last minute and dutifully rushed to the insurance office to make the necessary purchase, trusting that we would not be taken for a ride since this was clearly one situation where we could not avoid our status as dumb Americains. The insurance agent did not speak English and his attempt to explain the purpose of  l'assurance scolaire, though earnest, did nothing to help clarify the matter for us. We could not understand why, since the girls are French citizens and eligible for socialized medical care and we have additional international medical insurance, the public school system requires l'assurance scolaire.  

Since then, we have been keeping a mental checklist of all things confusing that we need to have clarified. We hoped that David, despite our mutual language barrier, could provide the answers we were looking for. I could write about the question and answer period that we had with David and Nathalie, but I think the video footage will speak for itself. In this first clip, where Soren asks David what l'assurance scolaire is for, you will no doubt notice Soren's dashingly debonair command of the French language, which, to the French ear, probably sounds a lot like baby talk. No offense to Soren,  of course.

David and Nathalie were eager to provide an answer, but they had their own struggle doing so, explaining that the concept of l'assurance scolaire is très compliqué. So, with David's masterful use of the apéritif dishes, he used his own form of baby talk for our benefit. Nola caught the moment on video with her own brand of cinematography.

Despite David's brilliant use of objects at hand, and Nathalie's use of her iPhone translater application, their baby talk was not dumbed down enough for us to fully comprehend. Or maybe we should give them and ourselves the benefit of the doubt and blame our lack of understanding on the très compliqué nature of l'assurance scolaire. What we gleaned from this massive effort to communicate about this subject is that all French school children, in the event of suffering an injury on school premises or while commuting to and from school, need l'assurance scolaire. Sounds simple enough, but we could tell that there are complex layers that are beyond our understanding. In the end, we decided to laugh it off and get on with our meal.

And finally, two more clips of our afternoon. The first, a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Mathias, Nathalie, Raelyn, et Nola who all have late August/early September birthdays. Instead of birthday cake, we celebrated with a delicious homemade tarte tatin. The second video displays David as the wonderful teacher that he is, gracing us with one of his many language lessons. As you can see, we had a delightful afternoon with our French cousins and we relished in the customary post-lunch walk around the lake to aid with la digestion as David explained. What I love most is that sharing a common language is not a prerequisite for enjoying each others' company.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

U2, Paris, Stade de France

As many of you know, I am a die-hard U2 fan. I try to see their show every time they come to town, and have been doing so since I was fourteen. Therefore, I have been to many U2 concerts. Never have I made it onstage though. I have tried. Got close once in my early 20's. Some security guard thought it was his duty to pull me off the stage just as I had reached my fingertips to it and was trying with all my might to hoist myself up. Audience members had just started to give me a boost from behind too, but Mr. Security put an end to that quick. I was defeated and Bono missed out on his golden opportunity. If he hadn't been so busy singing and preening for the audience, he could have given me a helping hand himself.  Now that I am 40, I probably need to delete this desire from my Bucket List. Nah.

I have my first ticket stub from 1985 when U2 played at the Cow Palace in San Francisco during their Unforgettable Fire Tour. Can you believe that the cost of a ticket was only $16.50 back then? I feel like an elderly person even mentioning that... "I remember when a loaf of bread cost a nickel. And I had to walk 5 miles to and from school everyday. In the snow!"  I'm not even going to mention what a U2 ticket goes for these days, but let's just say, it's a bit more than $16.50.

As a long-time fan club member, I have priority status for purchasing pre-sale concert tickets. That at least guarantees that I am paying face-value for the tickets. I recall a handful of years ago, I must have slept through the pre-sale announcement and purchasing window (the tickets always sell out within minutes) and later wound up buying two tickets off Craigslist  for an insane markup. They were great seats so that helped me justify the cost a little more easily. The only bummer was, we happened to be seated next to Young Mother of Three Babies. She partied a bit too much prior to taking her seat. She was happily slurring this data to us and ready to be our friend for the evening. So much so, that when we stood up to cheer for the band as they took to the stage, Soren exclaimed loudly into my ear, "She's holding my hand!" By the end of the first song, she was passed out in her seat, but leaning over into Soren's. I asked her husband to move her upper body over onto his seat instead. Better yet, I suggested, take her up to lie on a cot in the first aid station where she can let her body do what it will eventually need to do. He blew off my suggestion. I won't go into the gory details of what happened 20 minutes later, but let's just say that she disrupted the concert experience not only for us, but for the handful of folks seated in front of her too. Needless to say, we were very lucky to be sitting next to, and not in front of, YMTB. How's that for an acronym?

Last October, after years of successfully brainwashing our daughters to love U2, we surprised them with concert tickets for their birthdays. This was about the time that we decided, when feasible, we want to gift them experiences rather than things. They don't need more stuff. I was also pleased to be able to follow through on my promise that their first concert was going to be a real concert. Not a Hannah Montana or a Jonas Brothers puppet-mastered production. Raelyn and Nola seemed genuinely elated to be going to their first real concert. Another brainwashing success!

This time, however, U2 was not stopping in San Francisco or Oakland. Time to put Soren's many frequent flier miles to use and head to Las Vegas to catch their show. Kids in Vegas you ask? We did too. With some trepidation about the kinds of things our girls were going to be exposed to, we headed to "Disneyland for Adults" and spent our daytime hours in Circus Circus and other kid-friendly attractions. It was impossible for us to walk down the strip and avoid seeing the dozens of taxi cab ads and billboards on wheels displaying all things Vegas. It prompted questions from and discussions with the girls that helped put their confusion into the context that is gender bias and exploitation. We challenged them to find a billboard displaying men in the same way. They spotted one. Off the main strip, peeking out from behind the tippy top of the Circus Circus high-rise. Thunder From Down Under. Shirtless Australian men with the top button of their jeans undone. The girls quickly decided that the men were not quite as exposed as the women. Not fair! Soren was amused when we suggested that he could be a Thunder From Down Under man. But I digress.

As for the concert, at UNLV stadium, the first thing we noticed was how dressed up our fellow concert-goers were. Plunging cocktail dresses for ladies, shiny button up shirts and jeans that cost as much as an iPhone for guys. We were in our usual concert gear; jeans, comfortable shoes, and layers for unpredictable temperature changes. We clearly did not receive the memo about dress code for a Vegas concert. We also did not receive the memo about the 4-drink minimum either. And that was probably just the pre-show average for most of those in attendance. Take for example, the three 40-something women seated directly in front of us. They arrived, intoxicated, drinks in hand. They were having a great time. However, Ms. Middle (as she wound up, out of necessity, taking this position between her two friends) continued to booze it up, even after her friends attempted to take her umpteenth drink away from her. She would have none of that caretaking. As her wobbling increased throughout the show, she turned around several times and stumbled towards Raelyn, giving my poor girl a faceful of augmented breasts. Ms. Middle made up for this when she drunkenly purchased cotton candy from the passing vendor. It took her several minutes to muster up the manual dexterity to pull out the bills from her wallet, but after doing so and paying for her treat, she took one bite of the flourescent cloud-on-a-stick, turned around, lurched toward Raelyn and said, "Here ya go!" and Raelyn became the delighted owner of this cotton candy. 

Towards the end of the concert, Ms. Middle had grown tired of being held steady on either side by her friends so she took her seat, slumped forward, and passed out, occasionally lifting her head to cheer, "Woo hoo!" The girls wondered why she was so tired and how could she sleep with all this noise? We reminded them, "Remember what we told you about what happens to people when they have too many grown up drinks? It happened to her." They inquired further, "Is she going to get sick? Like the lady at your last U2 concert? Is this what happens at every concert?" Fortunately, Ms. Middle, or 'Boobs', as Raelyn decided to call her, refrained from getting sick at the show. Later, we capitalized on this real-life example by asking them, "What would happen if she tried to drive a car like that? Do you think she should drive her friends home from the concert? Why not?"  Thanks life, you're a great teacher!

Last Fall, when I received my e-mail announcement about European tour dates I, of course, checked to see if they were playing in Paris. Indeed they were and soon enough, I was the contented owner of four tickets to their only Paris show. Another experience to gift the girls. How nice of U2 to plan their tour dates near our daughters' birthdays.

Soren's plane from Chicago was due to land in Paris the day of the concert. I let him know that if his plane was late, we were going without him and he could meet us there. After ten days in Paris without him, I was feeling confident enough that I could manage to get ourselves to Stade de France via the Metro and the RER without much confusion.  Fortunately, he arrived on-time and we were able to squeeze in a nap in preparation for our late-night ahead.

Getting to the stadium was easy, although I almost lost my camera because I dropped it on the Metro platform and watched it bounce towards the edge and stop a few inches away from plunging to the tracks below. Raelyn and Nola were curious to know if I would have jumped down to retrieve it. Only if it had happened after the concert and my U2 photos were on that camera.

Outside Stade de France, there are lots of food vendors selling delicious-looking baguettes, North African cuisine, sandwiches, and beverages. I wish I had known to expect this. Suddenly, the picnic I had packed didn't seem so appealing. We felt like we were in the land of normal this time, as the concert-goers were dressed like, well, concert-goers.

The show was great, as usual.  U2 changed it up a bit from their North American tour, changing their stage entrance, introduction, and throwing in a couple of new songs (which, sadly, meant they had to cut a couple of their other songs I would have preferred to hear). Bono spoke some French so he must know about Google Translater too.

The girls, especially Raelyn, sang along and stood for the entire concert. Nola pooped out towards the end and was sleepy. When a woman from the audience got up onstage both girls said to me, "Mom, that should have been you!" Sadly, even my pre-sale status can't get me tickets that close to the stage. Raelyn and Nola decided that the only thing the Vegas show had over the Paris show was the opening band. They wished the Black Eyed Peas could have opened here in Paris too. But, overall, they think that Paris was the better show. Because of the songs played, the energy of the band, or the spirit of the audience? Nope. Because there were no drunk people.

My guess is that the French just hold their liquor better.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Our First Paris Playdate

Yesterday afternoon marked a milestone for us. We had a playdate. Although, Nola does not consider it a true playdate because it did not occur at someone's home. Instead, it occurred at the park near the girls' school. I am not sure if playdates (do Parisians even use this term?) occur in people's homes here since Parisians are apartment dwellers without the luxury of playrooms, backyards, play structures, pools, and Wii. Well, maybe Wii, but my guess is the living room furniture would have to be pushed against the walls to make space for playing.

The two Italian brothers that I mentioned in my previous post (Raelyn's 1st Day of School, Take 2), Frederico and Leonardo, have become good buddies with Nola, and now Raelyn too. I see their mom waiting to pick them up outside the school gates every afternoon. We wave to each other and smile.  She says, "Ciao," and I say, "Bonjour," as I have been conditioned to do here. Then I quickly remember that she does not speak French so I instinctively say, "Hello," then I remember that she does not speak English either, and I finally wise up and say, "Ciao," back. Then she speaks a lot of Italian to me with maybe a half of an English word thrown in, and she says 'Nola', that much I get, but nothing else computes. She seems so very nice and I so wish we could communicate successfully. Finally, the light-bulb moment occurs and I say, "E-mail?" And she replies, "Si, si!". I dig out one of Soren's business cards with my e-mail address written on it for just such an occasion. Then she says the first real phrase I understand, "Google Translator." I nod enthusiastically.

On the way home from school, Nola would like to know if we can set up a playdate. No, but Google Translator can! So began my correspondence with Palma, who I found out is a criminal attorney in Rome where she and her Columbian-born husband live. Luis Enrique is a fashion photographer on assignment here in Paris. They have been here for four months. Unfortunately, she must return to Rome for work this Sunday. Her husband and sons will return to Rome in December when his assignment concludes. Darn! We only get this nice family for such a short time. I have not shared this news with the girls just yet. Nola, especially, will be heartbroken.

Having been here for three months longer than we have, Palma has a bevy of helpful information to share that I'm sure I would have learned for myself as time went on, but it's really nice to know these things now. She Google Translated to me the location of the best library in our neighborhood and the scoop on where adults can take great French classes for free. The funny thing is, Google Translator is about as proficient in its language skills as any almost, but not quite, fluent individual. Which means, reading these not quite perfect translated messages is a crack-up. For instance, take this message, copied and pasted here, that I just received from Palma: perhaps already know, but I only discovered today that we can leave the kids at school until 18.00 and there are tasks. Federico and Leonardo, on Monday started doing this a long time again.  

Tasks? Like as in scholarly tasks, chores tasks, fun & games tasks? What does Google Translator mean by tasks exactly? My guess is, Palma typed the Italian word for 'activities' or a word with a similar meaning and 'tasks' was the best match that Google Translator could generate. And, if her sons have been staying until 18:00 only since Monday, why does Google Translator think this is a long time again? Who I am to judge though, Google Translator's Italian is way better than my French! 

The playdate afternoon arrives and waiting in front of the school gates is not only Palma, but her husband Luis Enrique too. It turns out, he does speak a tiny bit of English, but he rarely uses it so I can tell he is feeling a bit challenged at first. He tells me that his sons can help with translating during the playdate. He claims their English is better than his. I compliment him that if he can communicate all of that to me in English, he's way ahead of me in terms of my French. Sadly, I did not retain much of my high-school Spanish to enable me to converse with him in his native language.  

It is a sunny day in Paris which we need to relish in because the sun will rarely be seen here for five months pretty soon. It seems as if all the locals know this too because the park is crowded. Every bench is occupied. Young, old, individuals, families. Everyone is outside enjoying the gorgeous weather. The kids, who are starving, scarf down their snack and run off to play. Then real fun begins. Adult conversation-time. In other words, Charades, Password, and Pictionary. I felt as though it was game-night at the park. The three of us pantomimed a great deal.  Luis Enrique, translating in English, would often struggle for a word or two, giving me just enough of a clue as to what he was aiming to say, so that I would blurt out associated words hoping that I would guess the correct word that would further the conversation along, and  Frederico drew pictures in the sand when he and his dad didn't know the English words. His sand drawings of a mailbox and envelope were quite impressive. I am  fairly certain that they were trying to tell me that in order to register for the free French classes, I must include a self-addressed stamped envelope with my registration form. Beat that Pictionary experts!

As in Lake Tahoe, I find this to be true in Paris too: If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change. At least that is what my granny used to say. It began to rain. Thus, our playdate came to a conclusion. We were sad to part, especially because I know my time with Palma is ending before it really begins, but I am convinced, more than ever, that no matter where you go, delightful people are waiting to be found. 

Yikes! I don't know why the last half of my post is displaying a white background and a differnt font. Guess cutting and pasting from my e-mail messes things up. Where is my IT tech when I need him? 

Our Walnut Creek parks sure don't look like this...

... or this!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

You Don't Know Until You Try

When we moved here and visited le mairie de paris in our district we picked up brochures about the local extracurricular activities available to children. There are many activities to choose from: Escrime (fencing), gymnastique, many forms of danse, karate, théâtre, guitare, origami, cuisine (cooking), and more. 
We told the girls that they must choose at least one activity to pursue. Not surprisingly, Raelyn is interested in théâtre and Nola desires guitare lessons. It then occurred to me that signing them up for these classes presently would provide an entirely frustrating experience due to the language barrier. We instead guided them towards classes that involve movement that they could participate in well-enough by following others' movements despite not understanding the instructor. We explained that guitare et théâtre would have to wait, at least for a few months, until their French has progressed. Raelyn and Nola were a little disappointed, but they understood the logic.

The activity brochures did not include any information about how to register for classes nor dates of commencement. We went back to le mairie only to discover that on Saturday, September 11th there is a faire in the town square. At this faire, booths are set up and each organization is representing their activity with information and demonstrations. We were told this is when, where, and how we register the girls for their classes. Great! Except for one thing. Soren will be back in the U.S. on Saturday September 11th. Yikes! I have to do this process by myself? I could imagine the end-result: Due to my ineptitude, Raelyn is mistakenly enrolled in Karate and we show up for Fencing. Or, Nola is signed up for Hip Hop and we show up for Ballet and she is forced to wear a tutu for which she will never forgive me. 

Fortunately, we came up with a way to forestall any of these scenarios. We hired Sarah, our babysitter extraordinaire, to be my translator for this faire. Sarah is in her junior year at UCLA. She is from Orinda, has traveled extensively, speaks French, and is a former summer camp counselor. Coincidentally, she just happens to be spending the year studying in Paris. Lucky us! This will be her first gig for us here in Paris as she only arrived here ten days ago. We have only met her once, just days before our move, but the girls had such a great time with her, they could not wait to see her again.

Over lunch with Sarah, across the street from the faire, I had her review the brochures to make sure I understood everything printed in them. I also tried to pin the girls down on their choice(s) so that our time at the faire would hopefully be focused and goal-oriented. Also because I am paying Sarah by the hour so the cost of this undertaking was weighing on my mind too.  Raelyn was fairly certain that she wanted to try danse and gymnastique.  Nola wanted to play soccer (not offered) and/or anything that Raelyn was doing, but she was not interested in danse or gymnastique. Nola's not leaving me much to work with here and I'm feeling a bit frustrated as we leave the cafe and head across the street to the faire.

It was a beautiful day and the weather had grown quite warm. The morning had been cool so we were all overdressed and beginning to overheat. Nola had come down with a serious case of the grumpies because she was hot and tired. There was no way I could illicit any enthusiasm from her for any of the offered activities. 

Thanks to Sarah's ability to ask questions at the booths, we found out that next week is a free trial week for all classes. After the trial, if your child likes the class, then registration and payment take place. Enter my mantra for the day, "You Don't Know Until You Try." I told the girls that they should try anything and everything so they know what appeals to them. Danse, escrime, gymnastique, multi-sport (badminton, basketball, tennis de table). I suddenly had visions of Raelyn and Nola being like Marcia Brady in the episode where she tries to be popular and enthusiastically signs up for every school activity.

Interestingly, a woman working at one of the booths began speaking to me in French. Sarah and I both chimed in together with, "I/She doesn't speak French." The woman then spoke to Sarah. Sarah translated for me, "She says she recognizes you and knows you." What?! She must have mistaken me for somebody else. I just stood there and smiled at the woman while she looked at me expectantly to return the dialogue. I had no idea what to say. So there was an uncomfortable silence. This woman spoke to Sarah again. Sarah said to me, "She knows you from the restaurant nearby. You were there with your husband and children a few days ago." Oh. Yes, I think I know the restaurant. I have never seen this woman before and now I am hoping that we were all on our best behavior at this restaurant a few days ago because if she remembers me, clearly we made some kind of lasting impression. Hopefully, not the "ugly American" kind of impression. I uttered, "Oui, oui," and smiled, but I felt like a total dork in not being able to engage in any dialogue with her and how nice it would have been to be able to do so like a normal person. Drat this language barrier! Had I been on top of it, I would have put Sarah to work to be my translator so that I could communicate with this woman. But, as it was, I was preoccupied with the heat, with Nola's complaining, with trying to figure out how I was now going to follow through with my mantra of trying everything next week. Maybe after a month or two of French classes, I'll keep frequenting that restaurant and maybe I'll see her again, and this time, impress her with my language skills.

Fast forward to yesterday, Wednesday. The first day of trial classes for danse et gymnastique. We have two dance classes to try. The first dance class is called "Jazz Funk" and takes place near the girls' school. We arrive a few minutes early and see mothers and their daughters gathered in the lobby. There is a main reception desk and after apologizing for only speaking English, I say to the man, "Mes filles sont ici pour la cours de danse." Thanks google translator! I practiced this at home before heading out. I am instructed to wait in the lobby for le instructeur. She arrives shortly and begins a very long speech, none of which I understand. 

Meanwhile, I notice two girls whispering to each other and looking at Nola. I overhear a little of what they whisper and I don't even need to understand French well to know that they are wondering why a boy is here for this dance class. I get why they wonder, I really do, but as the mother of Nola, my protectiveness is now in full-force mode. But what to do? I'll do what I do at home which is to always, when in all-girl environments, make it a point to introduce, loudly enough so most, if not all can hear, my two daughters. And as much as we, who know Nola well, know that she loves her boyness, being mistaken for a boy makes her feel insecure and awkward. She has okayed this introducing that I do so as to minimize people's confusion about her gender. I had not thought to use Google Translator to practice telling people that my tomboy is indeed a girl. So, as le instructeur was droning on and on and, in my opinion, taking up valuable class time, I was rehearsing in my head, what I could say as well as working on the courage to say it. 

My opportunity presented itself when I understood le instructeur to say, "Any questions?" Oh boy. Here goes. I, with feigned confidence, raise my hand. "Oui, Madame?" as she and all other mothers turn their attention towards me. "Je suis désolé, je parle seulement anglais. Mes filles ici, parlent seulement anglais aussi. Mes filles ont onze et neuf ans. Est-ce un problème pour vous qu'ils ne parlent pas français?"  I said it almost like this, but very slowly and it probably sounded to them like, "Me have daugthers. We no speak French. They eleven and nine. You got a problem with that?" The instructor spewed a bunch of French to me. She asked me how old my children are. Wait, why is she saying children instead of daughters? Did I not succeed in making myself clear with the gender of my children? And, I already said how old they are. What gives? Must be my accent. Hopefully it was at least charming if not intelligible. However, I was satisfied that I had at least tried to make it clear to the instructor and the mothers and daughters that I, like them, am here with my daughters too. Not that there's anything wrong with boy dancers, it's just that this was clearly a venue for girl dancers. 

Raelyn and Nola hated the class. They said it was not jazz/funk like back home, that is was some weird movement class where they had to touch their bodies a lot. What the? Fortunately, my pre-class announcement about my lack of language skills saved the day when, a helpful French mother approached me several minutes after the end of class to tell me, in English, that I must go upstairs to fetch my children. This must have been one of many little details I failed to understand during the instructor's speech.  

Next stop, home. Snack, homework, and quickly dashing back out to the next activity: gymnastique. The location of this class is closer to home and provides the opportunity to walk through the quaint cobblestone, ancient, hip & trendy, busy little streets that make up most of le marais neighborhood. Each time we walk here I see another brasserie, boulangerie, boutique, or patisserie that I want to try. Last weekend, I saw a mediterranean quick-serve restaurant that had a line of about 30 people waiting for their falafel-filled pita so I know we must get there soon to have a try.

We arrive at the two-story gymnasium and it's bustling with people and activity. I notice that there is a registration table for escrime, but not for any other activity. On the gym floor, there are many different activities taking place. Where do we go? Who do I ask? There is no reception desk.  I approach the escrime table and state my usual disclaimer in French about being sorry that I only speak English. Like usual, I guess because I have already spoken in French in an oxymoronic way (how can I state that I only speak English when I am, at this very moment, telling that to you in French?), she responds to me in French. And she isn't making an effort to speak it slowly either, that I can tell. I explain to her that, "Mes filles sont ice pour le gymnastique." Escrime woman finally musters up some English and says, "Far away," and motions to the far side of the gymnasium. That works good enough for me!

Upon reaching the far side of the gym, we see girls ranging in age from 9-12 gathering around a twenty-something young woman in sweatpants. This must be le instructeur. I repeat the usual and introduce mes filles, loudly enough so that the other girls gathered around will be sure to know that Nola is a girl. The teacher is warm and welcoming, albeit in French. Another student, about the age of twelve, pipes up that she speaks English. Hooray! She helps translate a little and I am relieved that Raelyn and Nola, if necessary, can turn to this girl for help.

I am allowed to stay and watch this class. I am immediately in love with the teacher. She is likeable, playful yet professional, encouraging, and creative. I can tell the girls are enjoying her class. Afterwards, I ask her how the registration works. I had pre-practiced this in my head while watching the class. I succeeded in getting the correct forms and information. But, I am not going to take any chances in filling them out by myself so I told her that my husband, who speaks and understands a little French, will help me with the registration. "D'accord," she replied with a smile. Two classes down, one more to go today.

Dashing quickly back through le marais, we have little time to stop and pick up some groceries so that we can eat dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. Back home, I have 35 minutes to prepare dinner, eat, and finish helping the girls homework before heading back to the same gymnasium for Street Danse (a.k.a., Hip Hop). The girls wondered if they would be lucky enough to have the same instructor for this dance class as gymnastics. We had no choice but to inhale our dinner at warp speed. That is a pure feat for Nola.

Repeating our walk again (as I listen to the girls state how much they enjoy walking the neighborhood!), we arrive at the gymnasium and head upstairs to the dance studio. Actually, we first entered the escrime studio before finding the danse studio. No accidental stabbings occurred thankfully. As we approach the top of the second set of stairs, the girls look up and realize that their wish has come true, it is the same instructor!

I am allowed to stay and watch and as I scan the group of students I realize that Nola is in good company; there are two boys in this class. She will be comforted by this. This danse class, like gymnastique, is fun and energetic. This teacher clearly enjoys her work and her students. Better still, the English-speaking student is in both classes. I am happy that my mantra, "You Don't Know Until You Try," has proved to have a positive outcome. Both Raelyn and Nola have decided that gymnastique and Street Danse are the activities for them.

I am beyond proud of the girls today. They both were so brave to enter into classes not knowing how well they would be able to understand and follow along. And Nola, who initally reisited the idea of danse and gymnastique, was up for giving them a try, fairly enthusiastically too. It was such a busy day, non-stop from one thing to the next, barely enough time to eat, and certainly no time for relaxing. Not unlike the American life-style we were trying to get away from. But this is just today. Now that we know what future Wednesdays will entail, we know that our day is free to do as we please (explore Paris!) until 3:30 when gymnastique begins. Then, having already planned ahead and done my grocery shopping, we have a more leisurely break in between until danse at 6:30. This is turning out to be the Paris life-style that I had imagined escaping to afterall. C'est tout bon.

The view from the dance studio.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Google Translator Is My New Best Friend

Soren has been replaced. Who needs a live translator when I have Google Translator at my disposal? Without this helpful tool, I would have not been very successful in getting our needs met lately. Take the bathroom disaster, for example.

At 1:30 a.m., after cleaning up the wet mess (which I was still trying to believe was shower water only), I logged onto Google Translator and typed my English description of the problem and my plea for help. Thank goodness Soren gave me a printer tutorial before he left! The next morning (thank goodness we have a 2nd bathroom!), on our way to school, I slipped the note under the apartment manager's door. When I returned, Christine, the apartment manager, was waiting for me in the lobby with a look of horror on her face. She made sure to express that I can always wake her up in the middle of the night for something like rain in the bathroom. At first, I was relieved to know that this was an acceptable thing to do for future reference. Then, I felt the now-familiar feeling of lameness for having broken a rule since I did not wake her up in the middle of the night.

After Christine looked at our bathroom I proceeded to show her the video that I had captured during the rain storm. I didn't understand hardly anything she said, but I did catch that she wanted to know if we had renter's insurance. As a matter of fact, yes, and we even have insurance for our children to attend school too, yet we have no idea what the heck it's for! She immediately went upstairs to the neighbor's directly above us.

Meanwhile, Soren and I connected via Skype. It was the middle of the night for him in his Chicago hotel room. I was catching him up on the bathroom news and we were just beginning to realize that we might have to figure out how to file an insurance claim when Christine returned. I was relieved to have my human translator available. I guess he's not truly replaceable afterall and works just as well virtually. Christine greeted Soren and began speaking to him, or rather, his head. She told him, in French, with enough pantomiming that I could also understand, that the rain was due to the neighbor's toilet and that she used a wrench to turn off the water at the source. She will be calling a plumber and asked for my phone number. I dutifully gave it to her and she rushed off. I was left to wonder how, if she or the plumber call me, I would be able to hold up my end of the conversation? I also did not know, do I need to stay home all day and wait? Can I go on a run? Can I take a nap? I felt paralyzed. So, I stayed put in the apartment and busied myself while I waited.

About an hour later, Christine and the plumber arrive. The plumber speaks to me and Christine has to repeatedly remind him that I do not speak French. Finally, after the plumber has a look up into our ceiling and visits the upstairs neighbor he returns to speak more French to me. Christine gives him another reminder. So, the plumber summed it up for me simply, "C'est bon, madame, c'est bon." It's all good? He was not here nor upstairs for more than 10 minutes. Can I really trust that all is well and it will no longer rain toilet water in our bathroom? I'm still having a hard time with the fact that toilet water rained down on me and our stuff. My germophobia was already intense enough.

Our Paris apartment phone then rang. I love answering this phone because I get to fool the caller, momentarily, that I am French by uttering the standard phone greeting, "Allo?"  Then, I usually get a barrage of French from the caller before I have to say in my heavily accented French, "Je suis désolé... I am sorry but I have tricked you and I really do not have the skills to communicate with you, understand you, or take a message for the owners."  

It was Lucia, the owner of our apartment, calling. She had received Soren's message about the rain and had just spoken to Christine so Lucia was able to translate for me what Christine and the plumber could only communicate with,  "C'est bon." Apprarently, the bathroom above us is in great disrepair. The neighbor has agreed to refrain from using it at all and make due with their second bathroom. The water has been turned off so there is no chance of another rain storm. Lucia was very apologetic. I was waiting for her to mention something about renter's insurance, but thankfully, she did not. I was certainly not going to bring it up. The rest of my day was spent disinfecting the entire bathroom, all of our bottles and tubes of stuff, and doing laundry with the hottest water setting possible. So much for enjoying my second day of alone-time out and about on the town. Paris will have to wait for me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bathroom Weather Forecast: Rain

Last night, after getting the girls put to bed at midnight, I logged onto my computer to see if Soren was available for a Skype chat. He was. I was eager to tell him about the Kaplan dinner party. I told him I would skype him in a few minutes, I wanted to get ready for bed first. As I was brushing my teeth, I heard that it was raining outside. I quickly realized the impossibility of my logic; we live in a ground floor apartment. It is not possible for me to hear rain drops on my bathroom ceiling. Next, I heard drip-drops coming from inside Soren's side of the medicine cabinet. I moved the sliding mirrors over to my side of the vanity to reveal water pouring from the ceiling down onto his medicine cabinet shelves. I quickly grabbed a towel and tried to block the flow of water. The towel became drenched in seconds and I was in a precarious position as I had climbed up onto the countertop in my attempt to reach the ceiling. If I let go of the towel and got down, water would flow more freely. I, in the meantime, was beginning to get wet. This is because water was now dripping out of the ceiling's light sockets and drenching the entire bathroom vanity, floor, and all of our sundries and toiletries in the process. I ran to the kitchen to get bowls to try to capture the water and contain it. No luck. I then scrambled to remove all of the contents from the shelves, but where to put them? I tossed them into the only dry part of the bathroom, ironically, the bathtub. It was still raining and I did not know what kind of water this was. I opened my bedroom window with the hope that it really was raining outside so that I could convince myself that this was just rainwater leaking into our bathroom and not some other kind of water. Not a rain drop in sight outside. Not good. From noises that I have heard, I am pretty certain that the upstairs neighbor's bathroom is directly over ours. I am not at all happy to be thinking about what kind of water is dripping on our bathroom and now me. What to do? In a moment of clarity, I grabbed my digital camera and took a video (two actually, but I am only allowing you to see the first brief one because, in the second video, I captured myself in the mirror and I am saving you from seeing me in all my getting-ready-for-bed glory).  Truthfully, the video does not do justice to just how much water was actually flowing out of every possible hole and crevice. Next, I sent an IM to Soren who is in a hotel room in Chicago. Alarmed, he wanted to Skype right away so he could see for himself this downpour. So, with laptop in hand, I proceeded back to the bathroom to show him this mess. Except that my laptop was getting rained on, and so was I, so I did not give him a good long look. By now, I was also worried about the fact that water is coming into contact with the light fixtures. I did not want to stay in the bathroom. He instructed me to go wake up the apartment building manager. As much as I knew this was the logical thing to do under these circumstances, I resisted. I was panicked about waking her up because she does not speak any English, I do not know what her role here actually is, and since this is a country of so many rules, I did not want to break another one. I think that bathroom rain constitutes an emergency, but what if one of France's unwritten rules is, no waking up apartment managers in the middle of the night under any circumstance? As Soren was trying to convince me to dig deep and have the courage to do what must be done, I realized that it had stopped raining. Drip drops were still flowing, albeit more slowly, but the sound of rain on our ceiling had ceased. "Please let it be over!" I thought. It seems as though it was. My best guess is that the upstairs neighbor was taking a midnight shower and there is a leak in the pipe. As long as it's not eau de toilette I will be somewhat relieved. Yes, I looked at the color and I smelled it. I'm still sticking with the conclusion of shower water. Mainly so that I can sleep tonight, rather than that I am truly convinced of this conclusion. To be continued...

Beaucoup de Kaplans

Yesterday, Soren left on his first business trip since we arrived here in Paris. Basically, this means I am without my IT tech support, garbage man, smoothie chef, and translator for 10 days.

In anticipation of Soren's absence, I entered an intense French survival training regimen that included: Learning how to take out the garbage and sort it per the apartment building rules, understanding how to print documents from the apartment printer, learning how our blender works, practicing making phone calls from our Paris phone and my cell phone which I have yet to make use of, learning how to add funds to our Metro cards, knowing what number to call and where to go in case of a medical emergency, memorizing our apartment door code in case I forget my keys, printing a laminated card with all of my contact information on it that now resides in my wallet, obtaining the contact information of some local relatives in case I need help, and practicing with the translator programs loaded onto my iPod Touch. Just to name a few.

In addition, I had a crash-course in the Kaplan Family Tree in preparation for attending last night's dinner party. The girls and I met twenty-eight Kaplan relatives (on Soren's grandfather's side) that I never even knew we had. As is the French way, the party started at 8:30 p.m. On a school night! And, as custom dictates, you do not show up sooner than 9:00 p.m.  Soon after we were seated, I quickly realized that this was not just a dinner party for the sake of visiting with relatives. The male guests put on their yarmulkes and our host, Lazarre, began speaking in Hebrew. My crash course for this evening did not include a mention of any Jewish holiday. I was hoping nobody would realize that I was clueless as to what we were celebrating.  Since we share their same last name, I assumed that they assumed we were Jewish too.  I did overhear a guest say, "Happy New Year," so I guessed we were celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, when I returned home and googled the term, my hunch was confirmed.

During the meal, I sat between two male relatives who were, I could tell, very comical and nutty, even though I could not understand most of what they were saying. They did speak a little English to me and told me of their love for San Francisco (I love being able to tell the French we are from San Francisco, they always swoon). One of them thought my American accent was very charming so he proceeded to give me French words to say (especially words with the letter 'r' since he was amused by my inability to make the correct "errr" sound). Upon my repeating the words, my tablemates would laugh (with me, I hope, not at me). I tried to be as charming as possible, but I have no idea if I pulled it off. For all I know, they were saying to each other, "Get a load of this broad! Let's tell her to say  '!@%$#%', she won't know what it means! Ha ha ha ha..."

Surprisingly, soon after the help served dessert, guests were still eating while almost everyone began to get up and prepare to leave. The girls and I were still enjoying our dessert when our relative, Olivier, asked if he could drive us home. He already had put his coat on and his keys were in his hand. He and his wife had not even finished their desserts. It was as if everyone was going to turn into pumpkins if they did not get home by midnight. Which, by the time we got home and got into bed, it was. Overall, it was a very pleasant evening and both Raelyn and Nola were troopers what with the new people, new foods, bravely sitting at a different dining table than me, and not falling asleep.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Raelyn's First Day of School, Take Two

Organizing their new school supplies.
Monday is here and it's an extra-special day. Not only is it Nola's 9th birthday, it is Raelyn's first day of school with Nola at elementaire. Raelyn is hardly nervous at all since she has seen the school, classroom, students, and met her teacher. And, of course, there is the comfort of being in a new place with the familiarity of her sister. She is excited to be one of, if not the oldest student at school for once. She has always been one of the youngest in her class back home and this has been, for some unclear reason, a frequent complaint of Raelyn's.

The girls are now so familiar with the Metro system and how to get to the station near their school that they are already asking if they can go to and from by themselves. We're not quite ready to go there yet, if at all!  We did do something today that makes us feel more like residents than visitors. We purchased NaviGo cards for our Metro use. It's the size of a credit card with our photo ID on it and we prepay by the week or the month for our Metro usage. Instead of purchasing individual tickets that we have to fish out of our pockets or wallets each time, we put the NaviGo cards at the bottom of a purse or backpack and as we pass through the turnstyle, we simply hold our bag over the sensor to go through.

Raelyn and Nola said their goodbyes at the front gate and off they went. Soren and I were free! For and entire eight hours! We love our kids, but we've really been looking forward to this day for a month now. Time to get some of our adult life in order. First stop, the gym. Club Med is what it's called and it's got everything our gym at home has. Except the classes are at strange times, in my opinion: Very early in the morning, lunchtime, and then late afternoon and evening. Back home, I've been accustomed to my routine of dropping kids off at school and heading straight to the gym for a Boot Camp or Spin class. It occurred to me that the reason there are no morning classes here (past 7:00 a.m.) is because almost all French mothers are employed outside the home. Since childcare is subsidized by the government,  these mothers don't face the same quandary as American ones trying to figure out if working or staying home makes the best financial sense.

The rest of our day until pick-up time was spent with a couple whom we met last year during our trips to Paris. They were introduced to us by our mutual friend, Gabriela. This couple, Juan Carlos and his wife, Mariel, are originally from Guatemala but have been living in Paris for the past six years with their four children. They are delightful people and they have been a super resource for us for all kinds of know-how in living life in Paris. (Muchas gracias Gabriela!). We had a delicious lunch outdoors at a restaurant on Ile de la Cite. Wine and dessert were, of course, part of the experience.

When we picked the girls up from school we met the parents of the two Italian brothers in our kids' class. They speak Italian (obviously), Spanish, a teeny bit of French, but no English. So can you picture our conversation? We were pantomiming, gesturing, and pretending a great deal that we were understanding each other. At one point, we thought they were asking Soren if we walk to the school. He replied, "No, we take the Metro." They looked puzzled. They re-asked. Then it became clear; they wanted to know where Soren works. That is not an easy thing to explain, even in English, if you ask me. Our last gaffe with this sweet couple was when they asked either, (and we're still not sure which question was asked), "How long have you been here?" or, "How long will you be here?" We answered both questions to cover our bases. Except that as soon as the words, "One year," were out of my mouth, I realized I had broken our rule about not telling the folks we meet that we are leaving so soon. I quickly pretended that I had made a mistake and went back to replying, three times, for effect, "One month," and hoped that I was indeed assuming correctly that they were asking how long we had been here so far. In the end, I think we left them with the impression that Soren works for the Metro and that he has been in Paris for one year and that I have been in Paris for one month. Regardless, they are delightful and I look forward to getting to know them better and perfecting my pantomime skills. Their sons, by the way, brought a birthday gift to school for Nola (gourmet lollipops) and homemade cards for her too. The cards were adorable. Each boy drew themselves holding an Italian flag and they drew Nola holding an American flag. And they wrote "happy birthday" in French, English, and Italian on the cards.

Re-connecting with our adult selves.
Raelyn had a great day at her new school. She was happy to report that she and Vishnavi, the girl from the park a few weeks ago, reconnected. Vishnavi recognized Raelyn immediately. Raelyn also reported that at lunch, four girls approached her and began speaking to her in French. Raelyn, a pro now at her French response when faced with this situation, soon realized that these schoolmates do not speak English. No matter, they still proceeded to give Raelyn a tour of the school grounds, ate lunch with her, and played with her. Raelyn said the lunch entree was delicious and, when she had gobbled all but two bites, asked her new friend, "Boeuf or poulet?" in regard to this entree that she practically inhaled. The girl replied, "Boeuf. Boeuf tous les lundis." Raelyn, who has never cared for red meat, was aghast. Aghast at not only liking the red meat that now resided in her belly, but that it was going to be on a plate in front of her every Monday. She still has not decided if she is going to eat it because she liked it, or if she is going to stay firmly entrenched in the, "I don't eat read meat camp."  We'll see. Raelyn said that they soon found common interests: One girl said, "Lady Gaga?" and Raelyn nodded. Then the five girls together began singing "Telephone". Another girl, aiming for more diverse musical overlaps inquired, "Shakira?", and so it went.  I think it's safe to say that Raelyn enjoyed her first-day status as The New Girl.
Post-school photo. Can you tell who is embarrassed that mom is taking this photo?
Off we go to school!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Nola's 9th Birthday

Today is Nola's birthday, but because it is a school day, we celebrated yesterday. For her outing, she wanted to go to Double Fond, in our neighborhood, which is like a comedy club, but it's for magic. Only beverages are served. We read that the magicians make the drinks disappear. Nola's plan was to drink her beverage super fast so as not to miss out on one drop before this happens. She then wanted to eat at a cafe across the street from the outdoor market that we frequent in le Marais. Last week she scoped out the menus of competing corner cafes just to be sure she was choosing a winner. The day before her birthday outing, Double Fond called to say they had to cancel Sunday's magic show and we would need to reschedule. We wondered if, like the teachers here, the magicians were also going on strike? We awoke on Sunday morning and broke the news to Nola. She was disappointed, but happy to have the opportunity on such a fine day to celebrate with a bike ride in Bois de Boulogne, on the edge of the 16th arrondissement of Paris, one of the largest green areas in any city. We had rented bikes there 2 weeks ago and Nola enjoyed it so much that she has been pestering us, almost daily, to do it again. It is a gorgeous park with lakes and streams and lots of meadows. We ate lunch at the casual outdoor cafe near the lake. It was very crowded and while Soren was at the counter ordering our lunch I had to stake out our table and hover over other diners as they were finishing so as to nab their table. Then, in French, I had to protect our four chairs from being taken from other would-be sitters. Shadowing Soren all this time, I've learned how to say, "I need..." so I simply told those who tried to steal our chairs, "I need four." Simple. At the time, I could not recall the French word for chair, but oh well. They got the point. After fending off many yellow jackets during our meal, we pedaled off for more exploration of the park. One highlight for me, which I happened to catch on video, was when Nola and Raelyn were discussing school and Nola said, "I can't wait for you to come to school with me on Monday Rae-Rae. I love eating in the cafeteria!" For those of you who know Nola well, she has tended to be a picky eater, and a slow one too. Her finicky ways have been improving with age, but her languishing over her food has not. Having two hours for lunch and playtime must be heaven for her, she can take what must feel like all the time in the world to finish her last bite! By the way, we did not see any protesting magicians picketing the streets of Paris on Sunday so they must have canceled their magic show for some other reason.

Raelyn's First Day Of School

It's Friday September 3rd and it is the first day in exactly one month that Soren and I will not be in the presence of  Raelyn and Nola. Actually, we have left them with our current babysitter a few times, in other words, our laptop streaming Netflix movies, while we sneak out for a quick run. But worrying about your kids killing each other or burning the apartment down does not quite constitute the same kind of mental break that dropping your kids off at school does. Except that today is not the day for a true mental break since we are nervous about Raelyn's college experience. After dropping Nola off at school at 8:20 (she was excited to return and enjoy another French lunch) we had forty minutes to kill before Raelyn's school opened. We wandered around within a four block radius looking again for decent places to hang out during these soon-to-be daily interims. When we arrived at the entrance to Raelyn's school, families were waiting for the gate to open. Like Nola's school, we noticed diversity among the crowd. And again, we did not know what kind of welcome or orientation to expect, if any. We were thinking that Nola's school might be an anomaly so we were not exactly expecting a warm welcome to college. Clearly, we were still lending lots of credibility to those expat websites. When the school gate opened families began to walk inside and gather in the school's courtyard. Soon, staff members walked out and Madame Directeur began to speak in French. I did not understand anything she said and Soren only understood a small bit. Her affect was energetic, she smiled quite a bit, and she exuded the presence of a leader. Madame Directeur then introduced a woman who was in charge of roll call. There were about 100 students gathered and as each name was called the student replied, "Présent!" and walked over to their teacher and formed a line. When Raelyn's name was finally called she replied, "Présent!" and she left our sides and approached the staff, but she did not know where to stand. Who was her teacher? Roll Call directed her to a young woman wearing a red coat. There were five other students in Red Coat's line. All of them appeared to be considerably older than Raelyn. We noticed that Red Coat immediately smiled and spoke to Raelyn who smiled back as they exchanged a few words. This was somewhat reassuring for us. At least Raelyn's teacher appeared to be the welcoming sort. Next, the teachers and students walked into what appeared to be the school's multi-purpose room. Most parents began to follow. Raelyn's group remained in the courtyard. We were not sure what was happening or what we were supposed to do. We waited and watched. Raelyn's group then proceeded to head inside also. There was one staff member nearby so Soren approached and asked in French, "Should we follow the students inside?" The staff member asked who we are and where we are from, in French. Upon Soren's response, he introduced himself as the Assistant Directeur and said that he will speak English to us, but to please forgive him. Forgive him? We wanted to hug him! (We find it quite amusing when French people apologize for their poor English skills and then speak it almost perfectly). When he learned that Raelyn is enrolled here in the school's language adaptation program he frowned and apologized and told us, "Your daughter, she will have disappointment here. The other students that learn with her already speak French. They are in this group because they have problems with learning. But she will learn French with time and then can go with other students." Great, our très intelligent Raelyn is somehow lumped in with the learning disabled kids!? No offense to them, of course. Assistant Directeur then led us inside where the staff and all 100 families had gathered. It was standing room only and we could barely fit ourselves inside the door. We had to crouch on the floor in the front corner so as not to block the view of those standing against the wall behind us. Madame Directeur spoke again, for a very long time, and we still did not understand much. Soren caught some bits about the importance of completing homework and working hard. Other than that, nothing. Several leg cramps and pins and needles later, we were dismissed. We know Raelyn was somewhere in that multi-purpose room but, unfortunately, I did not catch a glimpse of her upon our exit. I had to reassure myself that she was in good, kind hands with Red Coat. I was so eager for 12:00 to arrive so that we could be with Raelyn again and hear about her morning. When we picked her up at the appointed time she was waiting out front. The first thing she said to us was, "Where were you? I've been waiting here for almost 30 minutes!" We tried to deduce how that mix up occurred. As Raelyn described her day, the best we could tell is that her group was dismissed 30 minutes earlier than the rest of the school. Nobody had told us about that. Raelyn, being the problem-solver that she is, explained that if we hadn't arrived in another five minutes she was going to walk down to the busy intersection, find a payphone, and call Grami. Never mind that it would be 3:00 a.m. in California, and that Grami is 6500 miles away, or that Raelyn only has euro bills and no change in her backpack, or that payphones are obsolete and nonexistent, or that along with supplying her with a handful of euro bills for emergencies, we also supplied her with a laminated card that has our Paris address and our Paris cell phone and home phone numbers. Grami was going to come to her rescue! I love that. As we walked down the street towards the Metro to head home for lunch, she said that Red Coat was not, after all, her teacher. Red Coat is a secretary. Instead, Raelyn's teacher, she described, is old ("About fifty."), frail, and shaky, and did not seem to know what to do with Raelyn. Raelyn stated that a few teachers and the Assistant Directeur came into her classroom that morning. Each time, Raelyn's teacher whispered to these staff members about Raelyn. She overheard her teacher say each time, "Américaine," and "Seulement anglais." Certainly seems like Old Frail teacher was trying to figure out what to do with her new pupil who didn't quite fit in. Raelyn was reluctant to give us her honest opinion, but we pressed and she finally admitted, "I don't like it there. They are all older than me and they all speak French and I feel like I don't belong." What to do? We immediately had a collective brainstorm at the entrance to the Metro. Raelyn was starving so our initial plan was to go home, eat, and then walk to the other college that is printed on the CASNAV placement letter. That college happens to be within walking distance from our apartment. If we walk there, maybe it will give us a sense of proximity for hopefully reducing the daily scheduling hassles since Raelyn could potentially go to and from that college by herself. And, perhaps this other college truly has the language adaptation program meant for Raelyn. If so, we can go to CASNAV afterwards and demand that Raelyn be switched. So we hopped on the Metro and it occurred to me that I do not want Raelyn at any college. I want her at elementaire with Nola. And Vishnavi. And Madame Christine. And nice Monsieur Directeur. I want warmth, I want nurturing, I want balance, and I want it to be a relaxed school year with the predominant focus being the learning of the French language. I spoke my truth to Raelyn and Soren. Raelyn gushed, "That's what I want too!" So we hopped off at the next station, crossed to the opposite platform, and caught a train headed for CASNAV. With our anxiety at a peak, we spent the next part of our afternoon plotting, over lunch at a cafe, our strategy for getting CASNAV to meet our demand. We decided that we had several problèmes that we can present to them to make them see the errors of their ways: The Assistant Directeur stated that the supposed language adaptation program is instead for the learning disabled, that those students are much older than Raelyn, that Raelyn's teacher was unclear about what to do with her, and that Raelyn is très unhappy. And, of course, we would reiterate that Monsieur Director at Nola's elementaire has room for Raelyn in his language adaptation program, and that Raelyn would be très happy there. Soren's anxiety was palpable during lunch since he needed to figure out how, in French, to say what was necessary while presenting himself as resolute, yet polite. He decided that he was going to request to speak to CASNAV in English. Upon arriving and explaining to the receptionist that we do not have a scheduled rendevouz with Madame Directeur, we had a brief wait in the waiting room. A red haired woman appeared and explained that Madame Directeur was not in the office today. Our hearts sank. Soren, speaking in French, briefly explained why we had come. He made sure to emphasize the word problèmes. She said she can try to help us. My first sigh of relief in what felt like years then occurred. I could sense this was a woman with some compassion, empathy, and the desire to help. As it turns out, she was actually in a hurry to be done with us because as we followed her up and down stairs at a very brisk pace she explained that she was in a rust to get across town within an hour and that she was on her way out when we arrived. Soren told her that we are very good at walking fast. At that moment, we would have said or done anything to keep her on our side. Soren requested to continue our story in English and he did an excellent job, in my opinion, of being firm yet polite with regard to Raelyn's situation. Red Hair's response to us was, "We complete new paperwork for you to say that family is requesting change, it will be a moment for you." Several minutes later, we left CASNAV with officical documents placing Raelyn at elementaire with Nola. Success! It felt too good to be true, but we had what we needed. We now had to go through the all-too-familiar hoops of le mairie to formally register Raelyn and sign her up for the lunch program. Piece of cake. We have that routine down by now: Go in office. Hand over paperwork. Receive confirmation document to give to school. Three more little steps and we'll be done. So, it was with pits in our stomaches at le mairie as we sat there listening to the three employees discuss amongst themselves their resistance to granting Raelyn's registration at elementaire. Because she is eleven. We pulled out all the stops. Or I should say Soren did the work, but I was the puppet master. "Tell them Monsieur Directeur approves of Raelyn's attendance there, tell them that her sister already attends there, tell tell them CASNAV said it's okay, tell them that she was put in a learning disabled group, tell them to call Monsieur Directeur, tell them we'll pay them a million bucks!" I was not going to let these people and their rules get in the way of what was rightfully ours now. We jumped through all their hoops, tried it their way, and I was now a mama that was not going to take 'no' for an answer. I know what's best for my kid, period. They actually did make a call to Monsieur Directeurr to verify that he approves of this plan. "Phew," we thought. Done deal. Except that it was clear from our end of the conversation that we could overhear, Monsieur Directeur had no recollection of this 'Raelyn Kaplan'. We scrambled to pull out Nola's paperwork so that the official could mention her name and hopefully jog Monsieur Director's memory. That did the trick. The call ended and the offical turned to us and said, "D' accord, c' est bon." One photocopy and signature later we had Raelyn's registration in-hand and noticed that we had not a minute to spare to dash the three block stretch and fetch Nola by 4:30. Upon our arrival, Monsieur Directeur greeted us at the gate with Madame Christine and welcomed Raelyn to their school. They inquired, "She will be happy?" We emphatically said, "Oui, Oui!" And they knowingly replied, "Then you will be happy too." How true!