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Last week I had a George moment, which is rare for me.  Aside from the fact that I prefer to think of myself as more of an Elaine, I also tend to be more of a Friends girl than a Seinfeld one.  Though I watched both shows religiously, I must admit that no tears were shed when the cell door slammed shut on Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer.  In contrast, the night that Rachel ditched her flight to Paris and showed up at Ross’s door, in an absolutely perfect culmination of ten years of relationship angst, was a sob-fest at my house.  On a sorrow-scale of one to ten; one being sniffling over a Hallmark commercial (hey – it happens, the lonely old lady whose face lights up after reading a card from her neighbor kills me every time) and ten being the time I cried so hard while watching Finding Neverland that I vomited (in my defense I was about six months pregnant and teeming with crazy hormones and weird morning/all-day-long sickness), the Friends finale was a solid eight.  Even now, almost seven years later, I have one to two Friends flashbacks a week.  When I come down with a cold, the first thing I do is sing “Sticky Shoes” in my best sultry Phoebe voice, and I often end arguments by saying “It’s a moo point.  It’s a cow’s opinion.  It’s moo.”  (If there had been a debate team at my high school, I would not have been on it.)  Last week, while window shopping in Geneva I saw what looked a lot like an apothecary table from the days of yore, and every single time I move a large piece of furniture through a narrow stairwell/hallway I am consumed with the urge to scream “PIVOT!” at the top of my lungs, and nine times out of ten I succumb to the urge.  (This scenario played itself out recently when trying to haul our large Thule roof box up our teeny, tiny European staircase.)

Enough with the Friends memories, this is all about the George in me.  It happened on the way home from a well deserved night out with some friends.  We met in Geneva to forage for fondue in the big city, celebrate a belated birthday, and luxuriate in a meal without crayons, crackers, and be-wheeled toys careening across the table.  Mission accomplished.  We shared some delicious fondue, even more delicious wine, and lots of laughs.  The only wrinkle in the night came after we left the restaurant and located our car, which, due to insane amounts of traffic we had parked in the bowels of a hotel parking garage.  Apparently the very same night we were enjoying our simple ladies dinner, the Genevois Glitterati (including Gwyneth, hot off her SNL gig, who I was on the lookout for all night long) were out on the town for a ritzy watch convention.  First of all, I really think Gwynnie would have had a much better time kicking it mom’s night out style with a cheese laden fondue stick in one hand and wine glass in the other than hobnobbing with a bunch of snooty Swiss watchmakers, and second of all, I had no idea that watch conventions drew such large crowds.  The parking garage was packed to the gills, like a showroom crammed with shiny, high-priced automobiles.  We were thrilled to find a spot that was large enough to fit our car, and we didn’t think much of the fact that we had been forced to park so close to a concrete wall that my friend had to slide out the passenger side.  At least we weren’t in danger of dinging any Jaguars.

When we returned to the car after dinner, I thought it had to be a joke.  Some moron with a tiny, little Euro car had squeezed himself into the space (and I use that term loosely) next to ours.  I actually looked around for a hidden camera.  The cars were so close together that none of the doors would open.  We could get the driver’s door cracked just wide enough to slip our purses through.  No one, not even Gwynnie (who let’s face it, with those vegan tendencies would never join me in a cheese eating extravaganza) could have squeezed into the front seat of that car.  And the jerk who parked next to us?  There is no way that he was able to exit his auto in a dignified manner.  You can bet that he had to slink out of his tailgate.  Staring at our car sandwiched up against the diminutive hatchback, I could feel the warm, blissful glow that comes from spending time away from my children start to wither and die.  It was replaced by blind Costanza-like rage for the offensive driver who callously squished his car into a too-small space, much like the way I try to squeeze myself into my pre-pregnancy jeans.  Well, you know what dude?  I know better than to leave the house with my circa 2006 jeans on, and you should have known better than to park in two tired mamas who were just trying to enjoy a night out on the town.

In true George fashion (and fueled by a nice Swiss Chasselas) I stomped my feet, shook my fists, and whined at the unfairness of our situation.  What kind of person would park like this?  How were we ever going to get home?  Would we be stuck in the parking garage until the jerk who parked us in deigned to return to his car?  Luckily, my much calmer, Jerry-like friend, assessed the situation and noticed that we could wedge the door to the back seat open just wide enough for even a non-Gwynnie-sized person to squeeze through.  So lamenting the fact that I had taken those extra swipes of fondue, I made myself as flat as possible and shimmied my way into the car.  In all honesty, the path to freedom was not as tight as I thought it was going to be, but this did not quell my anger.  I demanded that we leave the imbecile a note.  I could not imagine exiting the garage without unleashing my fury in witty, piercing prose.  I procured a pen and an old receipt and readied myself to write the most cleverly insulting note in my literary history.  But, in that moment, with emotions running high, I pulled a George.  When faced with grave malfeasance and a chance to right a wrong, I choked.  Like George in the meeting room at Yankee Stadium, who when insulted by a colleague is struck dumb and unable to muster a comeback, I was left mute in the parking garage.

I finally mustered up a half-hearted note, the contents of which I cannot really remember, but definitely included the words “How rude!” (which is way more Stephanie Tanner than Costanza) and “Learn how to park!” and stuck it under the offending driver’s windshield wiper.  The note was a weak, awkward expression of my true feelings, and I shudder with embarrassment every time I think about it.  In  homage to George I should have at least written “The parking store called and they want their spot back,” which I admit makes no sense, but here I am, two weeks later, still searching for the perfect comeback.

 

The perfect comeback.

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So here I am, five days into 2011 and I think I am doing pretty well on my ever-expanding list of New Year’s resolutions.  I have washed my face morning and night with an age defying cleanser every day since the first of January, and I am on the lookout for a reasonably priced French, wrinkle-zapping, miracle night cream.  (This resolution was bred from the sickening feeling that took residence in my stomach each and every time a well-meaning European man mistook my mother and I for sisters this past week.  My adorable, and I must admit, extremely young-looking mother left our vacation glowing from the compliments, while I slunk away feeling wrinkle-ridden, sun-spotted, and panicked.)

I have gone on three runs and two walks, on the annoying advice of Bob Greene, Oprah’s fitness guru, who callously orders readers of O Magazine to exercise for SIX HOURS  a week.  Maybe that is possible if you get paid to work out, per Mr. Green, or if some hired hand literally drags you from your bed and pushes you out the door every morning, per Oprah, but for me this six-hour mandate is going to be quite a feat. Even with my five days of exercise (an impressive stat in itself) I still have yet to hit 200 minutes, which means I still have more than 2 hours of huffing and puffing ahead of me to fulfill my quota for the week, and I was counting on at least one day of total and complete inertia.   Bob Greene is now and forever my enemy.  In the future I plan to refrain from reading O Magazine, but for now (or for however long I can keep up this resolution ruse) Mr. Greene’s directive is seared into my brain.

In another resolution coup d’etat, I have successfully warded off the snacking bug during all five nap times in 2011.  As much as I cherish nap time, the blissful silence, the opportunity to use the restroom in solitude, the unfettered Facebook time, the clandestine Jersey Shore watching, it is also a time when I tend to graze through my cabinets in a manner not unlike our neighboring gluttonous French cows.  While skimming through pictures of other people’s vacations I unconsciously consume half a bag of pretzels, in the time it takes me to catch up on the trials and tribulations of Lindsey Lohan’s most recent rehab stint I impressively polish off half a wedge of brie and a baguette.  During nap time I eat because I am often too busy to eat lunch with the girls, but I eat without thinking, and I overeat because the stress of the morning has left me weak and haggard.  This year I have vowed to try eat my lunch with the girls, and to not eat anything but fruit and vegetables while they are napping.  For some reason gorging on carrot sticks is not nearly as tempting as polishing off that bag of popcorn in my cupboard.  This resolution just may be my Everest.  As I type this I am peevishly sipping on a cup of herbal tea and desperately trying to ignore that box of chocolates sitting on the counter.

That was it.  Those were my three big resolutions, and I was mildly impressed with the fact that I had faithfully held up the resolutions for five whole days.  Lurking way back in the corner of my mind, however, was a tiny voice, annoyingly reminding me about the blog that I had started with such enthusiasm when we first moved to France.  Remember that blog, Maura?  Remember how you wrote every, single day for weeks, and then every other day for a while, which turned to once a week, which quickly turned to once a month, until finally, not a word has been written since October.  Oh my poor neglected blog!  The guilt that has been steadily building from my blogging drought weighs heavily on my mind.  I read friends blogs and cringe with shame (all the while enjoying your witty prose, and beautiful pictures, I promise).  I read blogs by people who blog for a living, and marvel at their doggedness, their carefree writing style and super-hero like ability to tackle writer’s block, and wish that I could capture just a bit of that talent.  If I am really serious about this whole resolution business, I owe it to myself to dedicate at least a sliver of these efforts towards my blog.  I have been avoiding my blog like a certain beloved children’s storybook character eschews green eggs and ham.  But, today I bit the bullet, I looked that Sam-I-Am in the eye, grabbed my plate of green eggs and ham, and opened my WordPress page for the first time in months.

Remarkably, when I opened up my blog I was greeted with a call to arms; in the upper left hand corner of my page a gauntlet was thrown by the people at WordPress, a challenge to blog at least once a week for the next year.  For the more courageous at heart there was the option to blog every day for the year, but I chose the infinitely easier way out.  Apparently, thousands of others suffer from dysfunctional bloggers block and WordPress is daring them, daring me, to change.  Do I dare?  Yes, I do.  The truth is that I feel better when I blog.  It is almost like exercising.  There are so many days when the last thing I want to do is lace up my sneakers (and let’s be honest, many days I simply don’t, please don’t tell Bob) but once I do, I immediately feel invigorated and that feeling of energy and accomplishment carries me through my day.  When I blog I am also rewarded with a sense of a fulfillment.  When I write I feel like there is more to my life than the endless cycle of cook food, feed food, clean up food, with a little bit of laundry, child chauffeuring, and bottom wiping sprinkled in for fun.  My blog is also a way of giving back to my family.  It is a record of our amazing adventures in Europe, a history of the crazy things that happened and will happen to us while we live in France.  When I think about my blog in this positive light I am invigorated and eager to write more.  It is no longer an albatross around my neck, another chore, like cleaning the toilet, that I must slog my way through before I can relax.  I need to remember why I blog, for my own sense of self, my emotional and intellectual well-being, and for my family.

So, a fourth resolution has been added to my list; to blog at least once a week.  Any words of encouragement on this front are greatly appreciated.  And, if there is anyone who is willing to call me every night to make sure I washed my face, that would be very helpful as well.

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Too much sun, too little typing. Maggie and I lounging on a paddle boat on Lake Annecy, France.

Summer is in full swing and it has been harder and harder to find time to post.  Between company, trips to fabulous summertime destinations, crazy kids, and my insanely embarrassing trash television addiction, Pardon My French has been sorely neglected.  My vocabulary and writing skills have also been adversely affected by too many episodes of The Jersey Shore and the teen drama Pretty Little Liars (why my taste in television failed to mature past 9th grade, is beyond me).  I think I hit rock bottom when I quoted Snooki at a play date and somebody asked “What’s a Snooki?”  I got some strange looks from the normal moms who couldn’t comprehend why I knew so much about a three-foot, big-haired (okay maybe she’s 3 and half feet with the hair), overly tanned, permanently inebriated, loud mouth from Jersey.

That was yesterday, and I made a promise to myself that I would not, under any circumstances visit the casttv website (the gateway drug for bad t.v. watching overseas) during nap time today.  Instead I vowed to work on my blog and perhaps peruse CNN.com to enlighten myself on the goings on in the world, and to find something more relevant to discuss at the dinner table other than what disgusting thing Maggie touched at the park today (something unidentifiable dug out of a trash can) and the use of the word “grenade” as it pertains to the social dalliances of the boys on the Jersey Shore.  Of course, after a long morning at the park spent peeling whiny children off my legs and urging them to go play with their friends and leave Mommy alone for two seconds, and a car ride home where I played the game “who can be louder, crying children or Mommy’s radio?” (and lost, unfortunately), I collapsed on the couch where I immediately caved and watched an episode of Top Chef (but that is a Bravo program, infinitely more intelligent and classy than other reality shows, therefore justifiable).  It wasn’t until the episode wound to its conclusion that I felt able to tackle my first blog post in (gasp) 20 days.

So here I am, finally sitting down to the computer, with almost a months worth of outings, pictures, and memories to document, and I am completely exhausted from writing my first paragraphs.  I am obviously out of writing shape and will need to ease myself back into some sort of routine.  Lucky for me, unlike my dismal running program, I can blog with a glass of wine in my hand and a plate of chocolate by my side.  Getting back into top writing form should be easier than losing my baby belly.  Rest assured, Pardon My French fans (aka my mom), I have not been arrested by border patrol, I am back in writing mode and will be updating the blog soon with our adventures in Annecy, the South of France (ooh la la), and an insanely delicious authentic French meal that Jim and I enjoyed sans children (thank you Grandma Eileen).  But for now, I need to take a break, as it took me all day to write these few paragraphs, and there is an unusually charming serial killer beckoning me from Jim’s computer (because surely serial dramas on a premium cable channel do not count as trash t.v.).

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I grew up in Maine, very close to the New Hampshire border, where interstate travel was very common, almost a necessity seeing that the largest grocery store, nearest movie theater, and closest mall were all located in New Hampshire.  An added bonus being that there is no sales tax in New Hampshire so those Guess jeans with zippers AND bows on the ankles were a real steal.  (Who am I kidding, I don’t think I ever owned a pair of real Guess jeans, just some decent knock-offs, but, oh, how I longed for them.)  Now, many, many years later, I find myself living in another border town, but instead of crossing state lines, I frequently cross international borders.

We live in France, but Jim works just ten minutes away in Switzerland.  We pass through a usually empty border crossing a few times a day without so much as a pause, merely a dip in speed to navigate the barriers and bumps.  There are a handful of activities that we enjoy across the border such as  swimming at the Meyrin pool, visiting the library and using our illegally procured card to borrow English books.  We frolic in Swiss vineyards and sample their delicious wine, and our most recent (and possibly favorite) field trip is journey into Geneva to play in the fountains at the United Nations.  It was on a trip to the fountains that I had my inaugural scrape with the Douane (French/Swiss customs).  On the few times that I have seen uniformed Douane patrolling the border stations, I have slowed down, given them a meek look (hissed at my monsters in the back to stop arguing/crying/stuffing food in their faces and to look darling and adorable) and then smiled gratefully when they waved me through.  I am always gripped with fear when I see a Douane in uniform, as if at any moment he could yank me from my car and throw me into a grimy French/Swiss prison.  (I still cling to a vague Clinton-rescue fantasy.)  They never seem to give my car a second glance, however, even though we have expired Illinois license plates.  We are patiently waiting for our green Euro tags, but everything in France takes forever.  So, my interactions with uniformed Douane agents of either country have been stressful, but nothing more than smiling, nodding, and waving a heartfelt and grateful thank you.

On that fateful day as we journeyed to the fountains at the UN (of all places) my luck with the local Douane ran out.  Finally, some top-notch, overachieving guard eyed my Illinois plate, and, not liking the looks of my banana encrusted children, flagged me down and asked me to stop.  Terrified, I obediently pulled over, cursing myself for not taking the “fast lane,” or the lane to the right, through which I had followed my (infinitely more savvy and worldly) friend just the other week.  I panicked and did not take the easy lane seeing that I did not have the requisite “nothing to declare” sign.  Instead, I followed the rules and unwittingly pointed my car in the direction of a strict, unyielding, and exceedingly grumpy Swiss border patrolwoman.

I meekly pulled over, took the car out of gear, and rolled down my window, giving my best, most polite smile to the blond, shortly cropped guard.  She said something to me in French (as if she didn’t know I was American with my Illinois plates, baseball cap, and wide, terrified eyes) to which I replied my standard “Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.”  (A phrase I am becoming extremely adept at uttering, by the way.)  The guard smirked (or was it my imagination) and briskly said “Passports, please.”

My heart stopped.  My skin crawled.  I went numb.  (Ok, I am a bit dramatic, but I was really scared.)  I did not have our passports.  They were in a drawer back in our apartment.  Jim and I had discussed extensively the pros and cons of me carrying three passports during my daily dalliances.  The cons being that I would inevitably misplace the crucially important books, leave them at the checkout counter at Migros, the bathroom at the pool, or buried in the sand at one of the many playgrounds we frequent.  The pros, however, obviously being that I would avoid terrifying circumstances such as the one I was currently facing.

I took a deep breath, gave the guard my best confused, apologetic, angelic face and said, “I am sorry I do not have our passports with us at the moment.  But, we live just over there, in Thoiry, and we are going to meet our friends at the UN to play in the fountains.”  (Note the airy use of “at the moment” I am apparently becoming a bit of a Brit, but that is for another post.  Madonna would be proud.)

She demanded my driver’s license, which of course, was in the trunk of my car in my diaper bag.  So, I had to get out of my vehicle, and accompanied by two uniformed Douane, open my trunk, spilling sand toys, a pink princess ball, and a bag of pretzels onto the ground, and dig out my wallet.  Once I had located my wallet I was able to produce my driver’s license (from Colorado, a state I haven’t lived in since 2007, but still valid), my CERN picture ID, and my French residence permit and identification card.  I triumphantly handed all three impressive forms of identification to the disgruntled Douane and waited for her to bid me adieu.  To my surprise she flippantly discarded my precious documentation and said “We need to see passports.”

I was stunned.  I did not have our passports and was not sure what was going to happen next.  (Clinton?  Anybody have any Clinton connections?)  She indicated in broken English that we must return to Thoiry and get our passports.  I had never heard of this happening to anyone before, so I thought that she meant we could go to Geneva, and then from hereafter make a point of traveling with our passports.  So I said, “OK, we will go to the fountains, and then go home and get our passports?”

She scowled, and said, “NO.  Turn around, go home, bring back passports.”  At which point the tears began to well up in my eyes (a pretty impressive fact, that I waited this long to cry, considering that anything from Hallmark commercials to the death of Tommy Boy’s dad can render me a blubbering mess) and I said, “But the children are going to play in the fountains.”  But, this Douane was a Terminator-like automaton and immune to the big, woeful eyes of my children.  She watched me dejectedly get into my car and make a U-turn back towards France.

At this point, Emma, who had been surprisingly and blessedly silent during this whole mess, said “Mommy, that lady was mean!  Are you angry, Mommy?  Because you have angry eyebrows.  Can we still go play in the fountains?”

A few yards down the road I pulled over, because I couldn’t see through my tears, and desperately wanted to call Jim so that he could drop whatever gobbledygook data he was compiling on his computer and come down to the border and beat up the entire Swiss border patrol.  Instead, I freaked him out, as he assumed that I had been in some sort of accident because I was crying so hard on the phone.  Once I calmed down enough to set the story straight, he commiserated with me, and then in his practical way, suggested that I merely drive a few miles out of my way and enter Switzerland at a different, un-patrolled border station.  Which, I eventually did, but not before grumbling about the European borders, and complaining that no one I had ever met had had this problem, and who did that lady think she was, anyway?

A few hours later we were enjoying a fabulously sunny day, splashing in the fountains in front of the UN with the flags of over a hundred and ninety counties waving proudly in the background.  I had to pinch myself as I watched Emma and Maggie frolic in the water with their friends, surrounded by important looking men in suits, protesting Iraqi citizens, and camera toting tourists.  Even three months into our stay here, it is still hard for me to believe that we live in Europe, and that, for my girls, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland for a morning playdate is akin to my childhood trips to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (minus one crotchety Swiss Douane).

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Today we ventured over to the pool in the Swiss town of Meyrin.  After an almost two-week hiatus, summer has returned to the Geneva area.  The temperature was finally warm enough for a pool trip, so we grabbed our towels, loaded up the pool bag with necessary supplies (sunscreen, pink Disney princess cups, without which a pool trip would be disastrous, hats, safari sunglasses courtesy of James’ fourth birthday party, and lunch.  A moment of silence, please, for the cute, brown, J.Crew cover-up, still missing in action.)  The Meyrin pool is gigantic, with lovely green space for picnicking, play structures, and three different sized toddler pools.  Emma, normally the slowest walker on the planet, sprinted ahead of me into the pool area in a water-induced frenzy and promptly tripped and skinned her knee.  We made quite an entrance; frumpy mom, laden with three different overstuffed bags, wailing child clutching a slightly skinned knee, and a straggling toddler, wandering off to pillage the nearest open picnic basket.  As quick as a fish, I whipped off Emma’s pink terry-cloth beach dress, and shoved her into the ankle-deep water, muttering something about the healing powers of chlorine and telling her to soak her skinned knee.  It was all I could do to restrain Maggie and wrestle her into a swim diaper while she watched her sister frolic in the wading pool.  As evidenced by her screams, I am quite sure that until the moment I let her go, Maggie was convinced I was going to stick her in a trash bin and force her to watch our water merriment from behind grimy steel bars.  Of course, once her bottom was carefully swaddled in plastic I set her free and she barreled into the water to join Emma.

We are pool novices.  Last summer we spent the majority of the hot, sticky days at a magical place called a “spray-ground.”  The wonderful thing about a spray-ground is that it consists solely of sprinklers and there are no pools of water for clumsy children to fall head first into and flounder around in until their mothers yank them to safety.  Emma,  though she is three and tall enough to comfortably stand in the wading pools, managed to lose her footing and disappear under the water on three different occasions today.  Luckily, I was always within arm’s reach of my graceful daughter, and easily rescued her from the murky depths of the two foot pool.  I couldn’t help but marvel at her incredible non-swimming abilities, and in a fit of curiosity I googled “animals that cannot swim” in hopes of finding a nick-name for my un-amphibious child.  On straightdope.com I found an informative tidbit that shed light on her inability to stay afloat.  Tom Silva, the mammal curator from the Rio Grande Zoo in New Mexico claims that “most large primates such as gorillas and orangutans cannot swim, partly because their centers of gravity are in their necks and sternums. ‘They sink like stones,’ says Tom.”  Interesting.  Ever since she was an infant Emma has had impressive head measurements, topping the charts in the 98th percentile even though her height and weight hovered somewhere in the 30s and 40s.  My poor child cannot help her swimming deficiency, it is all in her head.

Big head aside, Emma was a trooper at the pool.  After her third dunking she declared a moratorium on “the deep water” (i.e. the only wading pool where the water came above her knees), but found plenty of ways to entertain herself in the shallower spots.  I really enjoy watching Emma and Maggie interact with French-speaking children.  It is remarkable how they manage to work out games (I pour water from the watering can, while you hold the bucket), take turns, and share, all without common language.  The children are usually yammering on in their native tongue, not caring or noticing that their playmates are not responding with understandable words.  There are no corrections, no attempts to teach appropriate pronunciation, or scolding for improper sentence structure.  They are able to relate to each other solely through shared play.  Remarkably, I found that less fighting broke out between playmates using differing languages.  There is the usual stealing of toys, but the squabbling that often accompanies the grabbing is absent.  It is almost as if they recognize that fighting is fruitless, so they solve their problems in other ways, like by trading for coveted toys, or moving on to another activity.  At least this is what I observed at the pool yesterday, but pools generally put children in very good moods so that may be the reason for the utopian-like interactions.

Another thing I noticed at the Meyrin pool was that I was one of the few women wearing a one-piece suit.  The French/Swiss sure are fond of teeny bikinis.  Again, how this is possible with their carb heavy, cheese rich diet is beyond me.  We also saw a few women who opted to forgo their tops altogether (prompting Emma to ask “Is that lady going to feed her baby?  Where is her baby, Mommy?”) which people had warned me we would see, but was shocking nonetheless as this was a public pool, not a sandy beach on the French Riviera.  In many ways the Meyrin pool felt like any other community pool in the United States with giggling, shrieking children splashing in the water, life guards patrolling the deck, issuing stern warnings to walk, not run, long lines for the twisty slide, serious swimmers dodging the crowds on their way to the lap pool.  But then out of the corner of my eye I would catch a glimpse of a topless, espresso drinking lady, puffing on a cigarette between sips and chatting with a Speedo clad man and I would remember that I am, indeed, not in the Midwest anymore.

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What is a birthday without cake?  It is like a baseball game without peanuts, a movie without popcorn, or (as I discovered when I moved to France) a day without cheese.  Jim’s birthday was yesterday, and I spent the better part of the day shopping for, worrying about, and sweating over his birthday cake.  Back at home, I have perfected my cake baking routine.  I have my favorite recipes, my insanely cute and wonderful red stand mixer, and all my supplies.  In France the playing field has changed drastically.  No red mixer to make me smile, inappropriate utensils (three slotted spoons, but no spatulas), recipes that are confusing and migraine inducing because they require intense mathematical conversions, and ingredients that are unfamiliar and down-right weird.  I don’t think people bake their own cakes here.  French women are too busy strutting around in fabulous shoes and skinny jeans while guzzling wine and munching carbs, making the rest of the world crazy jealous by staying magically thin.  (Consequently, it may be that NOT baking cakes contributes to their perplexing twig-like figures.  Because they do NOT bake cakes, they do NOT spend 2 hours traipsing around the grocery store looking for baking soda.  During which they do NOT have emotional breakdowns that cause them to find solace in consuming an entire bag of potato chips and half a baguette while they wander the aisles.)  Perhaps, though, the French understand that the art of cake baking is best left to professionals, and they simply buy their goodies at the local Patisserie, which is what I should have done.  But, old habits die hard, and I was determined to bake Jim a cake, just as I have for every birthday since we have been together, metric system be damned.

Here is what I discovered on my shopping odyssey yesterday.

#1  Cream cheese is surprisingly difficult to find in a country that boasts more kinds of cheese than there are vuvuzela tooting fans in South Africa.  I’ve been told that you can find Philadelphia brand cream cheese in Switzerland, but I didn’t have the energy to cross the border, so I settled for a French soft cheese called St. Moret.  I also threw in a few squares of a strange cheese called Kiri, that is marketed to children and has cartoon characters plastered all over the packaging.  It looked similar, and smelled similar, but it just wasn’t the same.  Perhaps it wasn’t processed enough.  The consistency of my cream cheese frosting was oddly runny and drippy, not ideal adjectives for carrot cake icing.  The end result was a frosting that was suspicious looking, but tasted enough like good-old American cream cheese frosting to garner a smile from the birthday boy.

#2  People in France rely heavily on the skills of their neighborhood Patisserie and truly do not do much baking at home.  Perhaps it is for this reason that baking soda is not sold in grocery stores.  It would have been nice to be privy to this bit of information before I spent the better part of a morning scouring the aisles for some “Bras & Marteau.”  I had an embarrassing conversation with a teenage grocery clerk concerning the whereabouts of “bicarbonate du soude.”  It consisted of me thrusting my google translated shopping list in her face and her leading me away from the baking aisle and toward the tooth brushes.  She then proceeded to point to her own teeth, which I assumed was a polite way of telling me I had potato chip or baguette slovenly crusted onto my mouth.  I blushed, and attempted to discreetly wipe the evidence of my stress-induced food binge off my mouth, but she continued to pantomime something involving her teeth.  I was at a loss, until she said “bicarbonate du soude, for teeth brushing.”  Uhhh?  “No,” I said, “for a cake.”  She gave me a confused look while I began a panicked rendition of “Happy Birthday” and pushed Emma forward because she was proudly holding the birthday candles.  So there we were (all three of us, because Maggie and Emma never miss an opportunity to wow the masses with their lusty warbling) in the toothpaste aisle, singing “Happy Birthday” to a French teenage grocery clerk.  I will never know if she got the gist of our charades-like conversation, but she understood enough to inform me that regardless of what we intended to do with it, we had to go next door to the Pharmacy if we wanted bicarbonate du soude.  So, the girls and I took our traveling circus to the Pharmacy next door and tried out our material on another clerk, who, thankfully, spoke English, and was able to show us to the treasured baking soda.

Once we conquered the grocery store the actual cake baking was not that difficult.  I would have been lost without the computer on hand to help me calculate how many grams of butter is equal to one and a half sticks and other mathematical cooking mysteries.  Although it was not my most aesthetically pleasing creation, the cake was edible, and actually pretty good.  Jim praised it (but he may have sensed that anything other than flattery and accolades would have resulted in tears) and both girls cleared their plates (but they do not have the most refined pallets, one would eat nothing but butter noodles and peanut butter toast and the other has been known to snack on rocks, paper, and other found objects).  My inaugural French baking experience was a success, but I think there may be something to the local sentiment that baking is best left up to the experts.

This is how I should have spent my Wednesday afternoon...

but this is how I actually spent it (all the metric conversions turned my hair gray).

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Settling In


This weekend marked the first Saturday where we didn’t act as though we were on a permanent European vacation.  No weekend excursions, no castles, no wine (well, that’s a lie, there is always wine, just no fancy wine tasting).  Perhaps it was because of the arrival of our stuff from the U.S., and the fact that in order to leave the house we had to dig ourselves out from under piles of boxes, and extricate the children from a maze of hangers.  With the delivery of our shipment came a feeling of permanence that was definitely missing in our first month in France.  Each box that is emptied and put away, and every picture that is hung on the wall makes our apartment feel a little less like a hotel and more like our home.

The girls are much more relaxed and peaceful in the apartment now that their beloved toys have arrived.  Our living room has morphed into a spectacular party space, complete with catering in the little red kitchen; tea, courtesy of our pink tin set; and a guest list boasting such celebrities as Curious George, Sock Monkey, the Disney Princesses (and their Little People entourage) and the much fought over Alessandro the Penguin.  Life has become a bit easier now that the girls have the tools necessary to entertain themselves.  There are still many moments where I find myself breaking up fights (again, mostly over Alessandro, that popular penguin), but at long last, there are enduring stretches of calm that overwhelm the chaos that has ruled the apartment for our first few weeks here.

As we slowly (and inefficiently) unload boxes, several irregularities in our packing style became apparent.  I am an unorganized person by nature, and logical packing practices are not in my wheelhouse.  As a result we have unpacked several carefully bagged puzzle pieces and have yet to find the matching puzzle boards, which I am pretty sure are languishing alone in storage.  Now I live in fear that Maggie will grow up with zero spacial-relations skills because I neglected to keep our puzzle sets together during this critical developmental stage.  Also, I am quite positive that there is a Portuguese mover somewhere, lounging decadently in my beloved brown J. Crew, bathing suit cover-up.  There is only one item of clothing purchased before my wedding that I can still confidently wear, and it was/is a brown J.Crew beach cover-up.  After two babies, three moves, and four years I can cut myself a bit of slack for still having trouble squeezing into my old clothes.  But the joy that this dress gave me was beyond anything money could buy.  On summer days when jamming on a bathing suit was the very last thing I wanted to do, my brown cover-up dress was there to ease my pain, shield my mummy-tummy, and bring a bit of glam into my oh-so-unglamorous life.  So as the pool days loomed on the calendar I did not break a sweat and actually looked forward to wowing the pool-goers with my sophistication and style.  To make a long story short, after ripping apart my closet, tearing through countless boxes, and shedding buckets of tears I came to the conclusion that the brown, J.Crew beach cover-up (size Medium, mind you, nothing else in my closet yet bears that coveted M) is gone.  It has vanished and is either a) packed inappropriately in a box somewhere in our crowded storage unit in Geneva, Illinois; b) sitting in the bottom of a trash heap because the movers stupidly left it at the base of a box and threw it away, or c) being worn in a Portuguese drag show by a very large and burly mover.  On Saturday I braved the pool sans cover-up and I had to work hard not to let it ruin my day.

With the arrival of our belongings also came the delivery of our Subaru.  My heart sank just a little when I saw the car emerging from the giant container truck.  Contrary to my dreams, it had not fallen off the ship, and plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic, forcing us to find solace in our spry, jaunty rental car.  I felt like a two-timing jerk as I watched the movers unload the unwieldy blue wagon and park it next to my tiny, shiny, sporty Renault.  Could I learn to love the blue beast again?  Would it hug the roundabouts, accelerate up the steep hills, and squeeze into parking spaces like my beloved Renault?  I had my doubts, but the girls were wildly excited to see our familiar station wagon.  (Even more so when they discovered their long-lost Raffi CDs in the car stereo.  Oh Raffi, why didn’t I have the foresight to leave you in Geneva, Illinois when I had the chance?)  I bade the rental car a tearful goodbye, reluctantly trading in my high-tech, futuristic key card for a boring, regular car key.  The Subaru felt incredibly sluggish, and I stalled a few times as I pulled out of the driveway.  But, as we cruised down our curvy French road, I couldn’t help but feel a new kind of excitement.  It was the thrill of driving a car with Illinois license plates on a country road in Europe.  The ecstasy of looking at the dashboard and reading the temperature in FAHRENHEIT and the speed in MPH.  (Suddenly the roads here don’t seem so dangerous.  Now that I know that 100 KPH is roughly 60 MPH, the rush of European driving has dissipated.  And, FINALLY I will know the temperature and be able to dress myself, and my children appropriately.)

The rental car is gone, our stuff has been shoved, squashed, and jammed into what little closet space we have, and we are finally settled.  In these past six weeks we have had many adventures, countless miscommunications, plenty of laughter, and a few tears.  We have also managed to meet the most wonderful people and forge friendships that already feel lasting and true.  We will still have plenty of vacation like outings, but I think we are ready to make France our home.  Emma has a school, Maggie has her Thomas trains, Jim has settled in at work, now if I could just find my darn brown beach cover-up we would be all set!

P.S. This is me and my brown beach cover-up in our glory days. We were cute once, weren't we?

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