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

Monday, October 11, 2010

School Days

Now that you have an overview of what it looks like for us to feel settled into our daily lives here I thought it would be nice to give you a status update regarding the girls settling into their daily routine of school. Actually, 'daily' is a little misleading. As mentioned previously, elementary school children do not attend school on Wednesdays. We have never anticipated Hump Day so eagerly as we do now.

A typical Hump Day looks like this: sleep in (Soren included since his typical work day does not begin until the afternoon), lounge around in pj's, make breakfast, lounge some more, do homework and homeschool (more on that in a moment), get dressed, and venture out to a park or museum (sans Soren if he is getting busy-work done), find a yummy bistro for lunch, head home, change into sweats, head to gymnastique and then hip hop. Or rather, "eep-op" as we now fondly mimic the way the French pronounce it. Not pronouncing their 'h' makes me "Olli" by the way. Maybe I'll change my name to Olli Eep Op. Kinda has a nice ring to it. But I'm digressing as I tend to do. Moving on...

Jealous? He's wax. As in, wax museum outing.

Ladies who lunch.

Now, as we are in the second month of school and tonight is the eve of yet another strike, 'daily' is somewhat of a misnomer for the school schedule. Tomorrow will mark the third day of forced vacations for Raelyn and Nola. Not that they mind. They have mixed feelings about school at the moment.

Raelyn has made friends with French classmates. Interestingly, Raelyn's status as the "new girl" elicited some mean-girl behavior from some French classmates during the second week of school. It seems as though feelings of jealousy were bubbling up for one or more of these classmates and they attempted to use Raelyn as a pawn to maintain, or regain, their status as 'queen bee'. Raelyn, being well-versed in dealing with mean-girl behavior after several years of learning how to cope with it back home, used one of her new English-speaking classmates as a translator to cut through the crap and call the girl, matter of factly, on her passive-aggressive B.S. Raelyn  finished her little speech with one simple question, "Friends?" That did the trick and the girls have been enjoying each others' company since. In fact, a few days later, one of the girls involved made Raelyn's day when she said, "Salut, Raelyn!", instead of the more cordial and distant 'bonjour' which she had been receiving. Raelyn was officially one of them now.

The name 'Raelyn' is very difficult for many of the French to pronounce. Heck, we know that it's difficult for folks back home to pronounce correctly. Long ago, we told Raelyn that she'll have to get used to folks pronouncing her name as if it was a 'Southern' name in which people pronounce Raelyn with a distinct pause between the 'Rae' and the 'lyn', so that it sounds like 'Rae-LYN' instead of what we intended which is, 'RAElyn". We're used to this by now and so is she, it's no biggie.

During the first week of school, Raelyn's French classmates called her, "Vin." I had kind of hoped this would stick as her French nickname, as I think it's quite cute, but that is not the case. It seems now as though the kids are making their best effort to get her name right. But, just as the letter 'h' has it's unique characteristic in the French alphabet, so does the letter 'r'. French adults pronounce Raelyn's name with their typical throaty 'r' and end it with "leen". This is due to the fact that their letter 'y' is pronounced as a long 'e' sound. Bless these little tweens at school. They hear Raelyn pronouncing her own name and, because they want to say it correctly, they refrain from the endearing throaty, "Rrraeleen" and instead emit a nasally, high-pitched, "Wraywin".

One boy became so absorbed with her name that for several days in a row he approached Raelyn and asked her to tell him her name. She did so each time and then he would mimic, "Wraywin," while laughing. Needless to say, my daughter did not find this amusing. After a week of this, Raelyn was irritated enough with this boy to use Google Translator and arm herself with a comeback. After rehearsing with me several times to get the pronunciation just right she was locked and loaded on Monday morning as I said my goodbye to her at the school gate. That afternoon, she was quite pleased with herself for having said to him when he asked her her name that day, "Mon dieu, tu devrais le savoir maintenant." Translation: "My god, you should know by now." She added an eye roll for extra effect. Raelyn reported that the boy's reaction was one of stunned silence before he turned around and walked away. That's my girl!

Nola, as is typically the case, has made friends with both boys and girls at school. Back home, she is used to playing hard at every recess, joining the boys in games of kickball, basketball, dodgeball, etc. Pretty much anything involving a ball and Nola's there. This school, however, does not provide any playground equipment. Not a ball, jump rope, or hoola hoop in sight. And forget about play structures. Those are for the park. All they get is a cement courtyard. With a lone basketball hoop. But no basketball. If you ask me that's like receiving your most-wanted toy for Christmas without batteries to operate the thing. Somehow, as kids do, they resiliently adapt and use their imaginations to create games and activities. But my girls do miss their playground equipment. Guess this is one of those lessons where you don't know what you have until it's gone.

Nola's first school friends, the Italian brothers, are not such favorites of hers (or Raelyn's) at the moment. They seem to be a wild pair, disrupting class time, especially the eldest brother. In addition, they have allegedly been stealing the marbles given to Raelyn and Nola by another classmate. Maybe it's not so bad that they are returning to Italy in December after all.

Woffa is an Algerian girl who joined the girls' adaptation class two weeks into the school year. She spent her first day in class with her head on her desk only to bolt out of the classroom in search of a bathroom due to a stomach, er, issue. She returned two days later only to become "fish drunk" as Raelyn described (fish was the main course during lunch) causing Woffa to bolt from the classroom yet again. The girls couldn't believe how much fish Woffa had consumed that day. Since then, the girls can't quite get images and sounds of Woffa's, er, stomach issues out of their heads.

For the last three Thursdays, the school was supposed to implement its swimming program whereby the different class levels take turns thoughout the day to walk to the local indoor "piscine" for their weekly swim. Three Thursdays ago, there was a strike. Two Thursdays ago the girls came home sick (not really, just tired from our late night with cousin Florence), and last Thursday, a kid had a stomach, er, issue in the pool and it was closed for cleaning just before Raelyn and Nola's class was to walk there. And no, it was not Woffa.

To comply with French swimming pool etiquette, we had to visit our local department store and purchase appropriate swim attire. This was quite an issue for Nola as she is used to her much-loved board shorts and rash guard top. She has been wearing an ensemble such as this for about five years now and it suits her just fine. Here in France, as many of you know, the appropriate swim attire for men and boys is a Speedo. Nola doesn't quite have the right equipment to fill one of those out. And wearing a rash guard top to an indoor Parisian swimming pool would be like wearing your bathrobe to dinner with the Queen of England (although Lady Gaga did set a new precedent with the Queen recently so anything is possible I guess). But we're in France, not England. And there are rules here. Many, many rules.

After explaining to Nola that the French have their rules about the way things are done and there is nothing we can do but comply in this situation, I talked up the coolness factor of a girls' one-piece Speedo like you wouldn't believe. Each day that would arrive with the possible opportunity to head to the store to buy the girls swimsuits, Nola would protest. Finally, I dragged her along and we purchased a one-piece Speedo and swim cap which is also mandatory. When we returned home, I had the girls try the suits on to make sure they fit. Two seconds after Nola pulled hers on, she saw me with my camera and dashed away, trying to hide from the lens. She was uncomfortable and embarrassed. I put the camera away and let her get acclimated. She took a long look in the mirror and exclaimed, "My butt will show and I'm skinny!"

Soon after, Soren came home and he was so enamored with her little body, which is usually masked by baggy boy clothes, that he wanted her to stand still so he could get a better look at her in her new suit. Thus began the chase around the apartment. Nola running from Soren, dashing from room to room (laughing all the while) and me, grabbing my camera again so I could capture the action. Nola wound up keeping her new suit on for a bit, Raelyn too, and I still could not get used to seeing my little Nola in a girl suit. I don't know if she'll ever get used to it either. (Side note: Last Wednesday was the day that there was confusion over Nola using the girls' bathroom. When we were discussing this over dinner that night she said, "Tomorrow's swim day. Everyone will know I'm a girl then and which bathroom I'm supposed to use.") Now we will have to wait until this Thursday for that level of clarity. Assuming there isn't a strike and no one pukes in the pool.

Nola, captured at last!

Last week, the girls had their first taste of assimilating into the regular school curriculum with their French classmates. They both have joined in the art and sports classes and Raelyn has begun to join in with the math class as well. Nola needs to progress a bit more with the French language first before that happens for her.

Today, Raelyn was in math class. The teacher called her up to the board to complete a multiplication problem in front of the class. From last week's class work and homework, Raelyn knew she knows how to do this type of problem, but the class' method for computing the problem differs from the way Raelyn was taught back home. Raelyn's language skills are preventing her from fully comprehending the French way of computing these multiplication problems. She felt conflicted upon arriving at the board in front of the class. If she computes it her way, she feared that it would appear to everyone that she does not know what she is doing. If she attempts to do it their way, it will most certainly look like she does not know what she is doing. But, as we have become accustomed to in our family, she took the 'when in Rome' road and went for it, their way. And bombed. That was bad enough for her little ego. But, as the French schooling system commonly does (from what we've read), they seize any opportunity to use a student's poor performance as an example of what not to do. And that's exactly what happened in this instance. Poor Raelyn, she reported that the teacher repeated, staccato style, "Vite, vite, vite!" when she was laboring at the board and when she wasn't "getting it" quickly enough, her teacher turned to the class with upturned hands, a shrug of his shoulders, and a roll of his eyes. Then the class laughed at her. She was mortified. Fortunately, we had forewarned the girls, at the beginning of the school year, that their days of the 'nurturing the whole child' mentality were over.

But, lucky for them, they have me! I have put on my homeschool teaching hat for the past few weeks and have been supplementing their school work. This is no easy task since I am clueless when it comes to math and Nola's fourth grade materials from home weigh more than I do. Fortunately, I can recall enough of my math facts to help Nola and the homeschool website from which I print Raelyn's math worksheets has anwer keys.

It's been a tricky thing, this balancing act between making sure they are not falling behind (especially Nola who has had no math, English, or science at her school) and yet not wanting to overload them. Their language homework from school isn't measly, they have a very long school day, and, it's so hard to work on Wednesdays and weekends when we have Paris at our doorstep. Maybe the French will keep striking and I can deem those 'homeschool' days. Nah. We don't want to miss out on the dance parties (a.k.a., protests) on the streets. This is the year of life being our teacher. And boy, is it ever!

Quiet please. Homeschool now in session.

Maths. Huh?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Officially Settled

We have been living in Paris for two months and this has been the week that has cemented, for me at least, that we are acclimated and in a groove.

I have read that the local neighborhood merchants will not warm up to you until you have patronized their shop many times and proven yourself to be a polite and loyal customer. Many authors have written books about living in Paris and, in particular, about their satisfaction when they received their first hard earned smile and recognition from a particular merchant. I am happy to report that I have now attained this. With the butcher, the baker, (I have yet to visit a candlestick maker) or the florist? Nope. That would be too mainstream.

I have earned the good graces of the sushi merchant. I buy a daily baguette, but have yet to earn any recognition for my efforts there. But Mr. Sushi, who hails from Istanbul, waves to me and gives me a big smile every time I pass by his shop. Which is almost daily. When I do venture inside his shop weekly, to make a purchase, I walk away with lots of freebies: Fruit salad, extra chicken skewers, miso soup, even dessert. And no, don't get any ideas, Soren gets freebies from him too. But Mr. Sushi's waves and smiles seem to be reserved especially for me. I don't even care that I am buying Turkish sushi. Or that I have been in Paris for two months and have yet to obtain waves and smiles of recognition from the baker or the florist. Mr. Sushi's good graces are just as valid as any of those other "Frenchie" merchants'. This is one time when I am going to ignore possible, and probable, cultural differences in favor of stroking my own ego.

One day, as I ordered my sushi take-out, in my not-so-perfect French, Mr. Sushi jovially spoke French to me. At the time, there was a woman in his shop purchasing sushi too and she politely corrected my usage of the feminine "une" when I should have used the masculine "un" instead. I said, "Merci," to her and she replied, "You're welcome." Clearly, there are several issues with my French that readily give me away as a native English speaker. So, I put this woman to work as my translator and asked her to tell me what Mr. Sushi was saying to me. She explained that he was giving me a compliment by telling me that I am very brave to live here with my daughters and that I am doing a good thing by trying to speak the language and fit in. Mr. Sushi went on to explain that when he and his family came to Paris from Istanbul years ago they too had to learn the language.

I have concluded that I can ignore the cultural differences in this instance because, even though Mr. Sushi and I do not speak the same language, anyone, even the French, I believe, speak the language of empathy.

Now, on to more examples from this week that let me know we have come into our French life:

1. Raelyn had her first dream. In French.
2. I received my first voice mail message. In French. (And I haven't a clue who it is or what she is saying!)
3. My children are correcting my French.
4. My children are now behaving like polite French children, by saying, "Bonjour/Au revoir Monsieur/Madame," upon entering/exiting a place of business.
5. My children love walking everywhere. 
6. Raelyn told some children who were confused about Nola's entry into the girls' bathroom, "Ma soeur est une fille."(My sister is a girl.)
7. Nola has chosen some new boots. They are girl boots. She says they are her favorite pair of shoes she has ever owned. Not sure if this is a calculated move due to the bathroom confusion or if she is just plain in love with them because they're killer Euro-style boots?
8. We have a social life. It's not the same as back home, and never a replacement for what we have back home, but it's nice to know people here.
9. I am not afraid to go anywhere by myself anymore (terrorists are crimping the 'go anywhere' part, however).
10. I now know all the best places to shop. For clothes, at least.
11. I know shortcuts in our neighborhood.
12. We now know to dress in layers.
13. And to bring umbrellas.
14. And that we will get sweaty riding the metro, even when it is cold outside.
15. We know that when it is time for the girls to go to bed, our upstairs neighbor will begin to play the piano  (it would be nice if they could play a lullaby).
16. We recognize the neighborhood homeless folks and the elderly folks, most of whom we see on a daily basis out and about.
17. I am now certain that we will not be getting a clothes dryer in the apartment. And yet, I am quite used to the routine of hanging everything on the drying rack. The resulting stiff denim? That, I will never get used to.
18. I can ask for the following. In French: a full meal, a bouquet wrapped with extra greenery, my and my childrens' shoe sizes, ice cream details (cup vs. cone, single scoop vs. double), if they have... (insert noun here), where is... (insert noun here), I have a problem with... (insert issue here). Bathroom rain demanded that I learn the "J'ai un problème avec...".
19. I will be reminded by the Metro agent to say, "Bonjour," if I forget my manners. This happened to both Soren and me. We both had the same metro ticket problem (at separate times) and, in our stress and haste (since the girls were already through the turnstyle waiting on the other side), we presented our problem to the agent without saying "bonjour" first. Big no-no. I am actually reluctant to show my face there again, but given that this occurred at the Metro station in front of our apartment building, I have to.
20. I possess two photo I.D. cards. In French. My Metro 'Navigo' card and my gym card. Even the French can't make an I.D. photo look flattering.
21. We have received our first gas bill and written our first check from our French bank account.
22. I actually wore shorts, with over-the-knee socks and tall boots the other day. Seriously! It's no longer true, what they say about 'the French don't wear shorts'. The women do. With tons of style, of course. Not exactly sure I pulled off the look, but I gave it my best shot. Mr. Sushi would be please to know that I am still trying to fit in.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Eek Une Souris!

As mentioned previously, Soren has many French relatives. Specifically, Parisian relatives. Take cousin Florence, for example. Soren's paternal great grandfather was the brother of Florence's great grandmother.

Before last week, we never knew of Florence's existence nor she ours. Soren's aunt Laurence, a resident of Berkeley, met Florence for the first time recently when both were visiting mutual Kaplan relatives in New York City. Laurence said she and Florence felt an instant connection, like they had known each other for years. Laurence was very excited for us to meet this "new" cousin.

Soren sent Florence an introductory e-mail and soon after, a dinner date at our house was arranged. This is how it went down: Soren to Florence, "Which of these days works for you to come to dinner..." Florence replied, "Tuesday, I'll be there at 8:00 p.m." Oops! For a moment, we forgot we were in France. Dinner is served late here and we didn't think in advance to suggest an earlier time for her arrival. And, we've learned enough to know that the French never arrive on-time for a dinner party. That is considered impolite. So, we were once again facing the dilemma of keeping Raelyn and Nola up way past their bedtime on a school night. We decided to rely on the "when in Rome" attitude and just go with the flow.

Although I was looking forward to meeting Florence, especially because Aunt Laurence raved about her to Soren, as the date approached, I was feeling quite nervous about hosting our first French guest for dinner. What does one serve for an apéritif? What is an apéritif anyway? What does one serve with an apéritif? And salad, that comes after the main course, but before the cheese plate right? Or, is it the other way around? What do I serve with the cheese plate? What if my homemade vinaigrette isn't good enough? What do I cook? What if she expects foie gras, escargot, and/or roasted duck? Do I dare bake homemade moelleux au chocolat or tarte tatin or purchase dessert from a local patisserie? What if the patisserie I choose is not good quality? Have we lived here long enough and patronized enough of our local shops to know, without a doubt, which boulangerie sells the tastiest baguette and which patisserie bakes the best desserts? I think not. We're still in taste-testing all over town mode. And what kind of baguette to serve anyway? Traditionnelle, moderne, or céréales? And don't get me started on the cheese selections. Chevre, Brie, and Comté? Or, Camembert, Roquefort, and Reblochon? Are three cheeses overkill? Maybe I should serve only two? And which Fromagerie should we go to for the cheese selection? What about wine and champagne? White, red, to kir or not to kir? And if we kir, do we make it a Royale? Oh, the pressure!

Thank goodness for all of the books on French life-style, food and wine, and of course, Google, to help me sort through this mess of self-imposed pressure. With Soren's help, we settled upon the following menu:

Apéritif: champagne or kir royale with rosemary breadsticks and peanuts

Entrée: roasted chicken with prunes, capers, olives in a white wine sauce

Salade: butter lettuce with tomato, avocado, and dijon vinaigrette

Fromages: chevre, camembert

Dessert: a selection of tartes from our local patisserie

Florence arrived at 8:20 p.m. She had taken a cab from her office across town at the Palais de Justice where she works as an attorney. We immediately sensed her personable warmth and fun-loving nature. She was easy to be around and the conversation was effortless. During the apéritif, I kirred, she did not.

The dinner meal was lovely, I didn't burn anything, and I managed to balance the ingredients in my vinaigrette just rightSoren was in charge of the cheese selection and had visited our local fromagerie. My favorite cheese: Chevre. Hers: Camembert. Split decision. Soren, with the deciding vote, made the Camembert the winner for the evening. The girls are attempting to develop a palate for French cheese. This may take awhile. In the meantime, more for us!

Dessert was underway and we were just starting to cast our votes for the best tarte when Nola and I spotted something scurrying around the corner and dashing underneath the armoire. Eek! A mouse! Or as Florence mimicked, "Eek, une souris!"  Then, in English, she explained, "This, I have never seen before. Are you sure there is a mouse in your house? I think this is only an American thing." She did not see the mouse and she still, despite our screams and standing upon the furniture, did not believe we actually  had a mouse in our house. She continued to state that never before has she seen a mouse in a house.

We lost track of the mouse momentarily until Soren spotted it darting across the room towards the cabinet under the t.v. By now, Soren was holding a shoe box, hoping to convince this mouse that it would be happier in this box instead of running around on our floor. In the commotion, Florence still did not see the mouse and while the girls and I were standing on the couch, Soren was opening the cabinet door under the t.v. There it was, une souris! It had crawled into the wire binding of a booklet and was staring at Soren. He picked up the booklet and was beginning to bring the booklet close to the box so he could place it into the box. Just then, Florence saw the mouse, and saw that Soren was holding the booklet with the mouse, and she shouted, "Be careful!" With that, Soren dropped the booklet, along with the mouse, and the mouse ran over to the area where we put our shoes upon entering the apartment. The girls were not happy that a mouse might be inside one of their shoes. Nor was I, for that matter. Soren banged the box on the floor beside every shoe hoping to scare the mouse out. No luck. Where did it go? We hoped it could find its way out of our apartment, and soon. I don't want to be cleaning up mouse droppings. Or mice droppings. Where there's one, there's  usually more and I didn't care to think about that. Florence was still incredulous. We weren't quite convinced that a mouse in a house was such a novel experience in Paris.

Raelyn and Nola created a mousetrap complete with Camembert cheese and a ball pit for the mouse's pleasure.  This is a French mouse we're talking about after all. Gourmet cheese for our little gourmet mouse. The ball pit? Well, that's American for sure. The girls were still keeping hope alive that they could have this mouse become their French pet.

Soren, who had been speaking in French to Florence throughout the evening said to her, in French, "How do you get rid of a mouse?" Except, what he actually said was, "Comment vous débarrasser d'un sourire?" Translation: "How do you get rid of a smile?" Mouse= souris, Smile = sourire. So close, yet so very far. You can imagine, I'm sure, the fits of laughter this verbal gaffe created. No getting rid of our smiles now. Nor the mouse for that matter.

Later, after Florence left at midnight, we put the girls to bed, then cleaned up in the kitchen. When Soren was loading the dishwasher he saw the mouse run down the hallway. Towards our bedroom.

That got rid of my smile.