Saturday, December 18, 2010

Three Months to Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lena & girls

aline and lena

the family business

Friday, December 17, 2010

PB & J Saves The Day

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

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

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

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

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

Raelyn's and Nola's Classmates

Madame Christine, teacher extraordinaire

Monday, December 13, 2010

Digging Deep

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

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

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

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

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

for lunch just to make the choice

dirty dish

a sweet dish


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Paris and Entertainment Go Hand in Hand(out)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 Video #3: The lonesome cowboy.

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

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