Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stop the world- I want to get off!

I guess I've always been a worrier.  But I thought I was getting better lately.  It seemed I was stressing less for the little things and taking stuff in stride more.  Maybe even hitting my stride and not obsessing over things at work, and being able to say, I can do this, I've done it before.  And though that's still true to an extent, somehow lately I'm questioning everything. 

In talking with other folks who are 40 and around that age, I see it's pretty common to start re-evaluating things at this age.  It's just a number, but it does symbolize a bit of a turning point.  Sort of a halfway mark at which we feel we must readjust things that have gone off course.  And so I find myself constantly questioning myself about my career, my family life, Juliette's education, every little thing. 

I've never been one to make decisions lightly, but now it seems to weigh on me more.  Deciding on the course of my life elicits a sort of tidal pool in my stomach.  It is truly a physical sensation and not a particularly pleasant one.  And that's where I feel like crying out, stop, stop, I need a moment!

That's when I try to keep things in perspective.  I remind myself that the little decisions I make in my life will not have that much of an impact on the world.  But they would impact my happiness and that of those around me.  In the end, does it matter so much if I do a job that is quite different from the one I set out to do?  Or that I am not a perfect homemaker with a gleaming house?  Or that I live in a rented apartment and really haven't got it all figured out yet?  What exactly is "having it all figured out" anyway? 

Yes, my friends, these are thorny rhetorical questions.  But they sometimes keep me up at night (not the one about a clean house, mind you).  And I'm desperately trying to breathe in and breathe out and relax.  Coping strategies welcome!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Seedless or seedful

agriculture,closeups,close-ups,farming,food,Fotolia,fresh,fruits,gardens,grapes,grapevines,growing,grows,harvest,nature,organic,Photographs,plants,vegetation,vineyardsThe main difference between France and America can be summed up with one tiny example, no bigger than the top part of your thumb.  So small and yet so significant: the seedless grape.  You can find seedless grapes in France, but they are not the norm.  In fact, most supermarkets don’t even carry them.  But in the US you are hard pressed to find grapes with seeds. 

Why?  My two cents worth: in France they like for things to be difficult.  The harder the better.   Passing your high school exam in France is a rite of passage because it involves about a week’s worth of tests, including oral ones.  Learning to drive is nothing short of an ordeal, with a tricky written test called “le code” and a 35 minute driving test that potentially involves parallel parking.  Not to mention that getting an exam date can take months!  

It sometimes seems that life in France is a series of hurdles and tests to be passed at nearly every turn. Maybe people like to suffer or at least whine about it afterwards.  Don’t even get me started on anything involving the government administration.  I spent my time in the civil servant equivalent of hell each time I had to get my foreign visa renewed before I actually got married here.  

Meanwhile, back in the US of A, we seem to pride ourselves on the exact opposite.  Convenience is our motto.  That’s why we invented convenience stores.  And Lunchables and pharmacies that are actually open on Sundays.  And drive-through doughnut shops!  And, oh, yeah, we sell seedless grapes!  Because why would you want to spend all that time spitting out seeds (or like some French people do, actually swallowing them), when you can just enjoy the sweetness more simply.  For Americans, this just seems to be a given.  And it makes feeding kids a heck of a lot simpler.  
To be honest, I will admit the taste of the grapes here is different, heartier, richer.  Perhaps the breeding to get seedless grapes has indeed made the flavor more standardized in the US.  But as I said, it really does epitomize for me how radically different these two cultures can be.  The French system isn’t all bad.  The idea of slow food (actually an Italian concept) vs. fast food and taking your time to enjoy and savor is a worthy one.  But sometimes I wish the French would lighten up a bit.  Life doesn’t have to be so hard and tortured.  Strangely enough there is a French expression about having a problem, in which the word for a pit or seed is used to signify a problem: on a eu un p├ępin.  Literally, we had a seed.  

Maybe it’s all part of a “toughen up” approach the French favor.  Suffering to build character?  When Juliette got her booster shot last month, I expected the doctor to pull out stuffed animals and reward her with a cute band-aid.  Instead he told her to wrap her arms in a certain way and that I was to hold her still.  He instructed her not to look but she did anyway, and he said neutrally but firmly, well, too bad for you.  There she was looking so fragile with her blonde curls over her bare shoulders, and suddenly big fat tears were dropping down her red cheeks.  The doctor, who is actually a really nice man, said she cried because she had looked.  Then he put a bit of cotton and a non-descript piece of medical tape on the spot.  And that was that.  

I guess I like a bit more sugar-coating in my seedless life.  I expect sympathetic smiles and reassuring words from health care workers and waiters who are happy to see me in their seating zone.  I’m American like that.  And no matter how long I live in this seedful country, I will always be a little surprised and very nostalgic for my more convenient and comfortable homeland.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Let kids be kids

It's been a month now and we're all getting back to the school rhythm.  I say "we" because it has been a transition for Remi and me as well.  Our bubbly first grader comes home with three little notebooks on average, one of which has her homework assignment glued inside each day. 

They've recently been saying on French tv that it is actually forbidden to give written homework to young children.  That doesn't stop her teacher or the thousands of others in this country from doing it though.  Granted, for Juliette's age they are short exercises like writing the word "chat" two times.  In cursive, mind you!  But for a playful kid that age, sitting still long enough to do it properly is a real feat.

Last year when I learned they'd be learning to write in cursive in kindergarten (totally skipping lowercase letters, it seems), I started preparing my virtual soapbox to stand on.  It just seemed ridiculous that they insisted on teaching kids to do loops and connecting letters when they are still struggling to hold a pencil properly.  But when I asked other French people, they saw no probem with it.  It's important for reading, they all insisted.  Never mind that most books are written in print, not cursive, but whatever.

So far, so good though.  After some shaky first weeks when she rushed through her work, we seem to be instilling a bit of patience in her for the writing and we've been helping her to sound the syllables out.  As her teacher said, each child will get there, but at his or her own pace.

It is still strange to find myself in the role of taskmaster for homework.  I remember when I arrived in France and lived with a host family where there was an 11-year old boy.  The father seemed so stern and sometimes downright mean about the homework.  Maybe it was the French attitude, or just this father.  But these last few weeks I found myself getting frustrated with Juliette when she wouldn't settle down to look over her words with me.  Maybe my own perfectionist school tendencies were taking over.  Or, like Remi, I feared the school system might not be effective enough.

But I'm trying to take the advice in the title of this post.  Let kids be kids.  Big homework and more important assignments will come later.  Now is still play-time and about having fun.  She still loves swinging in the park and with our Indian summer, we're trying to get in some playground time after school.  Besides, with a headstrong girl like mine, the more I push, the more she'll push back.  So we're all learning to walk that tightrope of firmness and flexibility.

Whoever said it got easier when they started school?  Not me!