We had a fun day taking the kids to the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which included a children’s gallery with interactive exhibits and displays. It’s funny and sweet how much the boy idolizes his sister. He repeats everything she says and copies everything she does. He takes all his cues from her. If we ask him whether he wants to wear his hat, he cranes his head to see whether his sister is wearing her hat. He wants to be a fairy princess when he grows up (although occasionally he’ll have an independent thought, like when he says he wants to be a garbageman). At the museum, we told the kids they could each take a picture in front of any animal they chose, any at all. The girl chose the giraffes. What did the boy choose? Giraffes, of course.
One of the reasons why I wanted to have an extended stay in Paris was to be able to walk to the local market each day, browse the latest offerings, and pick what I wanted to eat for my next meal; essentially I wanted to live like a Parisian, or like how people in non-car-obsessed cultures live around the world. I love having an excuse to walk everyday, and preparing meals with the freshest ingredients available. Yesterday I stopped by one of several dozen groceries within walking distance of our apartment and noticed a package of fresh quail, which I had never seen sold in a Parisian grocery store before. I scooped it up and went home to prepare a marinade right away. When I opened the package, I was slightly grossed out to find the heads still attached, tucked under each carcass. In the U.S., quails are always sold decapitated, as well as thoroughly cleaned. It’s hard to find them fresh, though, so I usually have to buy them frozen.
The package I scooped up at the local market seemed pretty fresh because the birds retained some of their feathers and organs and looked like they were still bleeding. I dealt with more blood, guts, and feathers than I’m used to dealing with, and didn’t much enjoy having to behead each bird. The price of being a carnivore, I guess.
I marinated them overnight in tons of garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, pepper, and sugar. The next day I fried them and served them over a bed of watercress and mesclun. Not exactly a French preparation, but I don’t know how the French prepare quail and this is how I do it. The girl asked for a second helping of quail and the boy asked for a second helping of salad, so that made me happy. By the end of the meal, we all had small quail bones on our plates except for Tom, whose plate was disturbingly bone-free, despite multiple helpings. He enjoyed it a little too much.
Yesterday afternoon we shipped my mom to Germany for the second time. She went to visit friends for a week during our second week in Paris and now she’s going for another week to see another friend. Even though the plan had been for her to look after the kids while we lost ourselves in Paris, I hate to admit we tend to enjoy ourselves more when she’s gone. Maybe it’s because we’re living in such close quarters, but she can be hard to handle sometimes. It’s the same vicious cycle: her nagging, me snapping. Nag, snap, nag, snap. I feel instant regret almost every time I react to her and yet I can’t stop myself. The crazy thing is, I know she can’t help herself either. It’s got to be a compulsion that drives her to correct every single thing I do. Things that I’ve been doing for decades, things that anyone with half a brain can do.
She can’t deny that I’m more meticulous than her in the kitchen. When she washes vegetables, there’s a high likelihood that a rotten leaf or two or a few grains of dirt will end up in the finished product. That never happens when I wash vegetables. I’ve been doing it and other kitchen prep since I was prepubescent. And yet while I was trimming some leafy greens the other day, my mom insisted on hovering over my shoulder to check if I was doing it right and pointing out a leaf that she thought was slightly yellowing. I bit my tongue on that occasion, but I’m not always able to. Last week, she made rice porridge and gave me specific instructions on how to heat it up with a raw egg. If I was going to heat the egg with the porridge, I should set the microwave for 30 seconds. If I was going to heat the egg alone, I should set the microwave for 10 seconds, then add porridge, then heat for another 20 seconds. Even armed with instructions suitable for a five-year-old, I sensed that she still didn’t trust me to microwave porridge by myself. I waited for her to leave and then ladled some porridge into a bowl, cracked an egg into it and popped it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Almost instantly she leapt up from the dining table and ran into the kitchen — I’m not exaggerating when I say that she ran (she literally ran as if I dumped the entire pot of porridge on the floor, smashed a dozen eggs into it, and set the whole thing on fire) — went straight to the microwave and shut it off. She didn’t bother to look into the microwave because if she did, she would have seen that the bowl contained BOTH porridge AND egg, and I wasn’t microwaving just an egg, God forbid, by itself for 30 seconds because THAT WOULD BE THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD. She automatically assumed that I was doing it wrong, even though she gave me really fucking insulting instructions not five minutes before and even though she’s witnessed me flawlessly prepare Thanksgiving, Christmas, and miscellaneous holiday feasts for 20+ people year after year after year since I was 13. And deep in my heart of hearts, I knew that this was how she was going to react. When she shut off the microwave, I wanted to either slit my wrists or start screaming at the top of my lungs. So I flipped out. “Leave that alone!!! I know what I’m doing!!!!! Stop treating me like I’m stupid and don’t know anything! GO AWAY!!!!!!!!!!” She mumbled something about being afraid that I had microwaved only an egg and retreated.
The next time she questioned why I was doing something, I flipped out again.
“Why are you adding olive oil to that?”
“BECAUSE I’M MAKING SALAD DRESSING!!! LEAVE ME ALONE!!! GO AWAY!!!!!!!!!!”
“Why are you yelling at me?”
“BECAUSE YOU DRIVE ME CRAZY!!! YOU ALWAYS THINK I’M DOING EVERYTHING WRONG!!! I HATE IT WHEN YOU TREAT ME LIKE I’M STUPID! THIS IS WHY I CAN’T STAND BEING IN THE KITCHEN WITH YOU!!!”
“Okay, OKAY. I don’t think you’re stupid. I just worry that you’ll forget if I don’t remind you.”
Now that she’s gone I can evaluate my feelings and our relationship with a little more perspective. As much as I hate her second-guessing me, I know I do exactly the same thing to others, especially my husband. I’m almost as compulsive about it as she is, so how can I criticize? It’s hypocritical of me to get pissed off at her for not showing more restraint. I don’t mean any harm when I’m being anal-retentive, I never intend to offend with my OCD. I can’t help myself sometimes. So why can’t I just chalk up her nagging to an uncontrollable compulsion and learn to not take it personally? In theory it sounds so easy.
When she’s gone I’m able to see more clearly the ways she tries to make our lives better. I can appreciate that I have a mother with whom I can be honest, a mother who’s willing to hear constructive (and sometimes not-so-constructive) criticism, and who in her heart of hearts truly wants me to be happy. It’s much easier to see these things and appreciate her when she’s in another country.
I have lovely children. I don’t know how long they’re going to stay this way so I’m enjoying them as much as I can for as long as I can. A couple of days before Christmas, Tom and I walked to the local discount goods store to do our Christmas shopping for the kids. We agreed that we were going to buy them only one “real” present apiece because we didn’t want to lug a bunch of stuff back to the U.S. We ended up buying two toys, a small bag of candy and a $1 box of cookies for each of them, as well as a box of cereal to share. I think we spent a grand total of $40 on Christmas presents this year.
When the kids unwrapped their gifts, there wasn’t an ounce of disappointment or confusion, even though they’d received many more gifts in previous years. They were perfectly happy with what they got. They’re not greedy little monsters, at least not yet, and I love them for that.
In the evening we took them for a long walk around Champs-Élysées and then to see Christmas window displays. They walked, and sometimes ran and skipped, for hours without complaint. They’ve evolved so much from the whiny, unbearable children that we dragged (and often carried) around with us in Vietnam. I’m so proud of my little traveling companions, and I love every holiday that I get to spend with them.
I’m bitter because I suck at arts and crafts. I don’t understand, ever since I was placed in that special program for gifted and creative children in the fourth grade, I always considered myself above-average in the artistically talented category. I never nursed this putative talent or felt like I had time to exhibit it — it was always school, career, babies, blah, blah, blah. Those other moms who could create masterpieces out of baked goods or sew intricate Halloween costumes for their kids had to be stay-at-home moms who had way more time than I did. As for those working moms who still managed to write customized thank-you notes after every perfectly planned event hosted at their gorgeously decorated homes, well, screw those moms too. I told myself I could be like that if I really wanted to, if I tried.
Now that I’m on sabbatical and no longer have work as an excuse, I find that I need to come to terms with my ineptitude for anything requiring imagination or creative skill. Or hand-eye coordination. I can’t even follow a step-by-step YouTube tutorial on how to fold a simple origami Christmas ornament. (Even though I paused the video. Frequently.)
This year is the first year that we’ve ever had a real Christmas tree and I had romantic notions and illusions of grandeur about spending hour upon delightful hour making Christmas ornaments and decorations with my children. Our Parisian apartment has every kind of art supply you can imagine: paint, markers, crayons, colored pencils, tissue paper, construction paper, postcards (including Christmas-themed ones), doilies, multi-colored plastic strings, twine, glue, tape, etc., not to mention a mountain of popsicle sticks, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, and cardboard egg cartons that we’ve accumulated. I piled a stack of supplies and materials on our small dining table and imagined that they would soon be transformed into glorious homemade ornaments.
No matter how long I stared at the pile of art supplies, I could not for the life of me figure out what to do with them. I turned to Google in the hope of finding a cure for my creative mental block. All it did was taunt me with images of exquisite crafts devised by Pinterest goddesses whose artistry far exceeded mine. After a few unsuccessful origami tutorials, I had to resort to using brute force by cutting, butchering, and taping postcards into the shapes I wanted. Why make 18,000 intricate folds to achieve the shape of a box when you can just tape a bunch of squares together? It’s like, why bother making the effort to be sweet and polite to your husband when you can just yell at him to make him do what you want, amirite ladies?
Not only am I devoid of artistic ability, my coordination and fine motor skills are evidently sub-par, and my kids’ are worse than mine, so our family craft time didn’t exactly turn out the way I had envisioned. They would make a mess for a little while, get bored, and then leave me to my own devices. At one point I got so frustrated that I crumpled up the tissue paper I had been working with, rolled it into a ball and taped some string on it. It’s hanging on our tree, and it’s by no means the worst-looking ornament on there.
Things were unsettled for a little while (and it was unsettling to me to be so unsettled), but then it finally happened: I found our home in Paris.
I wanted so badly to get it right. We were no longer childless 20-somethings backpacking through Europe and willing to stay in a cheap hotel room above the noisy bars of the Latin Quarter. Even if I intended to spend my days roaming the streets of Paris, I had the comfort of my children and my mom, who is sometimes childish herself, to consider. And who am I kidding, I’m getting to be a crotchety curmudgeon in my old age. My wanderlust is nowhere near satiated, but it’s almost as vital to have a warm, safe, inviting place to come home to after your daily exploits. Paris simply would not be as enjoyable without a comfortable home base, so I had to get it right. After multiple email correspondences, rounds of phone tag, sleepless nights, negotiations, calculations, missed communications, miscommunications, another apartment falling through, and ultimately a leap of faith, we moved into another apartment exactly one week after our arrival to Paris. I have to admit I was crazy nervous when we entered our new apartment for the first time. What if it was worse than the apartment we just left? If it was halfway decent, why would it be available on such short notice? What if a trip to Paris in the wintertime with kids was a terrible, awful idea? What if I was wasting time and money for no good reason? What if my reality was never ever going to live up to my dreams and expectations and I was doomed to a life of misery? These were the thoughts running through my mind as we were unlocking the front door. Barely breathing, I stepped inside and looked around. At first I wasn’t sure what to think because the apartment didn’t look exactly like it did in the pictures. Those tricky French people and their cunning photography skills! But as we settled in and looked around some more, we realized that it was okay that it didn’t exactly match the website photos because it was beautiful and charming and perfect in its own way. It was meant to be our home for the next five weeks. It, too, was worn and shabby and furnished with old furniture, as well as lots of stuff from Ikea. But it was obvious that care and thought had gone into its decor because it was warm and inviting. It felt and looked like an apartment that was loved by its owner. By the end of the day I had fallen in love with it too. It’s EXACTLY what I wanted in a Parisian apartment. As an added bonus, we were thrilled to discover that the owner must have children right around our children’s ages because the shelves and closets were fully stocked with toys, games, books, art supplies, and crafts, even more than what our kids have at home! The kids were wild with glee, as were we. As we unpacked and explored our new surroundings, the day was peppered with exclamations like, “This apartment has soap AND paper towels, amazing!”; “We have a microwave now, yay!”; “There’s more than one pepper grinder with pepper in it!”; “Look at how many seasonings are in the cupboard!”; “OMIGOD I just found a bunch of chopsticks, Asian people were here!”; “The floors don’t squeak like they’re about to collapse!”; “The toilet is in the same room with the rest of the bathroom! And there are extra rolls of toilet paper!”; “WHOO HOO, there’s still hot water after 5 P.M.!!!”; “There are 18,000 books about Paris here that I want to read!”; “It’s so easy to get to any room without having to go outside!”; “Look how bright and sunny it is, our kids don’t have to play in the dark anymore!” And on and on.
Tom and I like to say that everything happens for a reason, probably because we’re always searching for meaning in life (at least I am). Sometimes you have to suck it up and just go with the flow and sometimes you have to put your foot down and figure out how to get what you want. It’s good to know when to do which, and I’m still learning that. For a few days we had considered just sticking it out at the old apartment and dealing with its sundry aggravations for the rest of our vacation because we were here to explore the city of Paris, right? What did it matter where we lived? So wrong. So so wrong. Getting out of there has made all the difference in our collective happiness. We agreed that we were meant to stay at the old apartment during our first week because that experience (more like an ordeal) exponentially enhanced our appreciation of this new apartment. Maybe we wouldn’t have fallen in love with it if not for the other apartment. Maybe we would have never have gotten to live in this apartment if all my planning months before had yielded different results. Maybe you have to experience deep unhappiness in order to be able to find true happiness.
Plus, we were lucky to get a feel for the 7th Arrondissement, to be steps away from Rue Cler’s cool shops and restaurants, and to be able to see the Eiffel Tower every day during our first week. But now we’re in a darling Parisian flat in the artsy, historical neighborhood of Montmartre, in the 18th Arrondissement, and it’s exactly where I want to be. I love that this is where I get to come home to.
I’m really trying to not be the high-maintenance, demanding, entitled American. I really am. The apartment’s freezing: okay, we’ll wear multiple layers. There aren’t any supplies: fine, we’ll go buy everything we need. The hot water runs out by evening: we’ll deal with it and do all of our bathing in the morning. But everyone has a limit to their patience and I’ve reached the end of mine. For the past two days we’ve been boiling tap water in the kettle for tea and drinking water, but it wasn’t until today that I noticed an odd film over my mug of hot water. I pried the lid off the kettle and peered inside for the first time, horrified to find rust, debris, and unidentifiable particles floating at the bottom. Scrubbing only causes more rust, debris, and particles to appear. My family and I, MY CHILDREN, have been drinking out of this kettle for two days!!! I’m freaking out, I can’t handle it anymore.
I send a very conciliatory email to our host explaining why we aren’t comfortable staying in this apartment, apologizing for any inconvenience, acknowledging that we’re not entitled to a refund if we cancel the rental agreement, but beseeching her to give us a refund anyway and let us find another apartment. To her credit, she graciously agrees to refund the remainder of the term. Which means I’m back to square one and hunting for an apartment that’s immediately available for the next five weeks, through Christmas and New Years. Am I on a fool’s errand? What if it only gets worse?