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.

1 comment:

  1. what a great post, i really enjoy your writing and the videos of the class are great!!!!!!