champagne & cheeseburgers: in which Clara enters the world

Clara Jane Marquis was born on July 15, 2019. For five nights we stayed at a maternité in Vitrolles and learned to be a family of three. I hadn’t known quite what to expect after giving birth in France (or elsewhere, for that matter), but it wasn’t this.

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Mornings at the maternity clinic

The care was unbelievable. I, who have harbored a fear of hospitals as long as I can remember, had no emotion towards the clinic but relief and gratitude. Even though both mom and baby were healthy, we weren’t turned out after a day’s rest with a bonne chance, but had nearly a week to adjust to this momentous change–Clara to the world, Victor and I to Clara herself. I met with midwives, gynecologists, pediatricians, dietitians…and many more professionals I’m probably not remembering now. We learned about baby’s daily hygiene needs and I took advantage of the 24-hour on-call help for questions about breastfeeding, recovery, and whatever else came up.

My mom–the thrilled new grandma–stayed at a nearby hotel and came by every day bearing gifts: mostly fresh food from Grand Frais. All week I feasted on ambrosial French nectarines as big as grapefruits. Victor and mom left one afternoon on a multi-store run to grab some headbands and pink items which we lacked, having chosen not to find out baby’s gender beforehand (a choice I do not regret!). In between visitors (every hour, it seemed, someone new came by), we talked, relaxed, snacked, and–it must be admitted–took pictures of Clara.

The room was bright, clean, and relatively spacious, with room for both Victor and I to sleep, plus a changing table, generous cabinets, and a roomy sink for baby baths. We livened up the space with brightly-colored swaddles, photographs Victor had printed, a plant. It felt like a little home.

In contrast to my pregnancy–where I hadn’t seen eye-to-eye with my doctor or felt respected or listened to–here I felt I was treated with nothing but respect, patience, and kindness. All this led to taking Clara home at the end of the week and feeling capable, competent, and (somewhat) well-rested, which I imagine is not the norm in the United States, where generally you’re required to leave the hospital before you have time to process what’s just happened.

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Incredibly, this kind of care is not reserved for the elite. For us, the most expensive part of this process was the gas required to make multiple round trips to Vitrolles once I passed my due date! This rather made up for the struggle of the previous nine months.

It had been extremely difficult for me to adjust to such a new experience–growing a person–while so far from most of my family and friends. It was hard to write about because I was so scattered that I knew I needed some distance from the events in order to create anything worth reading (or maybe even legible) about them. The many doctor visits and blood tests were accompanied by a sense of dread and tedium. Finally, that long, emotionally-draining experience was over, as far away as if it had happened to someone else.

Every morning I woke up to the petit-dej sitting on the table in the corner. Croissant, yogurt, juice, jam, all of it delivered by tiptoeing attendants while we slept. I had an idea of the time based on the temperature of the coffee. Most mornings, it was barely warm, which I came to equate with 8 am. I sipped the coffee, wolfed down my croissant, and blinked in the cheerful morning light that gradually warmed the room. In the background played baby-friendly harp and violin music, which I barely turned off that entire week. (I will always treasure that Spotify playlist).

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I savored this moment of tranquility before the onslaught of visitors, this moment to stare at the sleeping baby in the transparent bassinet and contemplate that she was mine. She of the long Disney lashes and big gray-blue eyes. She of the startling lungs. It all seemed as improbable as if there had been some mythical stork involved, or some benevolent fairy godmother. The events of Sunday (and very early Monday morning) felt like a dream–albeit one in which no detail was lost to me.

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Clara Jane, 9lbs 1oz

I was induced at one week past my due date, at 9 am on Sunday the 14th. We barely missed Bastille Day: Clara arrived early on July 15th. She was born in water, delivered by a midwife. There was no doctor involved in the process from my first labor pains to Clara’s first breath. This couldn’t have been more different from the standard, old-school birth I was headed towards with my original doctor. He believed–as I learned at my 38-weeks appointment, most unfortunately–that natural birth was ridiculous. Unnecessary. Dangerous. And he all but refused to respect my choice to decline epidural anesthesia.

Luckily, as informed as I had become about birth over many months,  I wasn’t intimidated by his attitude. But I knew I had to change providers. Perhaps the most important thing I learned about birth, the essential thing, is that there are different philosophies, so that who you entrust with your care is an extremely important decision.  My suspicions about this doctor had been totally confirmed. Just hoping everything would be okay would be akin to negligence.

Against all odds, and thanks to Victor’s research and support, we managed to change clinics at the last possible minute. In the end, I gave birth naturally, as I had hoped to, with no pain medication and no interventions (save for the initial induction)–just hot water, moral support, and an environment of safety and autonomy.

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Clara Jane was born at 2:30 am and it wasn’t until I was holding her that I discovered for the first time that “it’s a girl!” making for the best surprise of my life. Recovery was pleasant–mostly I felt like I had just completed some large athletic feat and thus required rest, water, and lots of calories. We celebrated with champagne and cheeseburgers–perhaps the perfect meal when welcoming a petite Franco-American into the world.

a modest proposal

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Photo by French Grey Photography

When I told people I was getting married, the first question was usually the same. After squeals of delight or a delay of stunned silence (the most common reactions), friends asked, so how did he propose?!, setting me up to recount a juicy story.

But I didn’t have one. Victor hadn’t proposed, not officially. The reality of living thousands of miles apart from May to September meant that many important conversations had been conducted through screens, hindered by poor Wifi signals. “Will you marry me” was to be postponed for a time we could make actual eye contact, seal the deal with a ring.

Though there was nothing official about our engagement, I did possess a physical symbol of my commitment: the new wedding dress hanging from my closet door. Mom and I had found a boutique in Kansas City–her idea–and rushed out to see what we could find. I was grateful for the enthusiasm and support. I thought the news might be greeted with some hesitation, but as far as I could tell, Mom was nothing but thrilled.

“I’m so grateful you’re supportive,” I told her. “Some people would say it’s too soon; I didn’t know how you would feel.”

Mom said it kind of made sense. My relationship, though quick if judged by the calendar, lacked nothing in depth. It consisted of a lot of travel and a lot of long-distance communication, both highly-effective ways to get to know someone quickly.

“Anyway,” said Mom, “you met in, November, was it? That’s not unheard of.”

“Uh. April, actually. Mid-April.”

“Oh my… For some reason I had it in my head as the fall. Wow, that is quick.”

“Mom!” I laughed, hoping it was too late for her to change her mind.

She’s right, of course. About 7 months past the day we met, Victor and I will be standing at the city hall of his hometown (a village of about 4,000 outside Paris) proclaiming our commitment.

I can say that because we actually have a date! This wasn’t the case at the bridal boutique, where I sheepishly tossed out some idea of a wedding date and startled when the lovely owner referred to Victor as my fiancé. I have a fiancé? I felt like I was acting, like Mom and I were doing undercover research for an exposé on the bridal industry. We weren’t going to actually leave with one of these brilliant gowns…

And then I was zipped into some of the most beautiful creations I’ve ever seen, confections of silk and lace in every subtle shade between eggshell and cream. After just a few try-ons, I wiggled into the dress of my dreams, modern and sophisticated and undeniably romantic. Just like that, I was holding a glass of champagne and smiling for pictures.

I was the bride.

As the weeks passed, my dress hid in my closet like a secret, shrouded in its white zip-up bag. I let my family and friends in on the news slowly, one at a time. I still didn’t have anything resembling details.

I’m engaged, I’m not kidding, I’m returning to France, and this will happen…soon.

For such a big life change, it had really come out of the blue. It wasn’t until later that I remembered how this whole discussion of marriage had come about in the first place.

A job application.

Yep, a job application. Sent by my fiancé–an engineer who makes his living hiring other  engineers for an electronic systems company–to me.

I’d been floundering in the job search. Never my idea of a good time on the best of days, my current task was even more challenging than usual: find a good job in the South of France from my parents’ living room in Clinton, Missouri. What’s more, I needed to find a business willing to undergo the complicated and taxing process of hiring an étrangère. 

Yeah right.

As I’m not an in-demand tech guru or a genius engineer, my options were limited. I was cold-emailing schools before they let out for the summer. I even considered au-pairing, unsure if it would be a good way to find my way or a step backwards.

One afternoon–frustrated, tired, scheming–I opened my messages to discover there was a man in the South of France in want of a wife. Curiously, the right candidate needed to possess an amalgam of qualities that seemed to refer specifically to my personality, appearance, and experiences. Suspicious.

The job search continued (and was successful!). But the threat that I’d be compromising our young relationship if I couldn’t soon find something on the same continent did not.

 

I’m getting married!!!

gypsy jazz

A lazy Saturday afternoon, some gypsy jazz, and flowing champagne. Taylor and I stand in la Chope des Puces, a tiny, ancient jazz club in Saint-Ouen in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. We are crammed against the wooden bar, standing-room only. The bar isn’t packed but it’s tiny, and several families and couples have already claimed the tables and are enjoying late lunches or glasses of wine. On the walls, the guitars of jazz greats share space with black-and-white photographs of Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist with the Dalí mustache.

Following his tradition, two men play gypsy jazz guitar in a corner at the front. I lack the ability to speak deftly of arpeggios or ostinatos, to grasp the logic of this skillful improvisation. I know only that this music sounds like Paris, golden-age Paris, and that it is frenzied and joyful and fills up the space.

I shout our order to the bartender, a statuesque gray-haired woman who looks like she’s seen it all. She hands us our frosty glasses of white wine and sets down a cheese plate. The heavy wooden board is crowded with soft triple-cream cheeses, sharp semi-hard cheeses, and a hunk of knife-sharp Roquefort. Scattered handfuls of fruit and nuts fill in the gaps. There is jam and butter and a basket of bread.

As we eat, I look around some more. The club is long and skinny and gives the curious impression of being slightly tilted, like someone picked up a shoebox diorama and shook it, scattering posters and paintings, rippling the tiled floor.

I notice one man in his forties. It’s hard not to: he’s wearing dark sunglasses and a snazzy silk button-down, dancing and snapping his fingers and exchanging cheek kisses with everyone he sees. A loyal fan. He tips the musicians extravagantly between sets and keeps the wine coming, and he’s generous. I notice him holding up a dripping bottle of champagne, tipping it into the glasses of everyone nearby. I nudge my friend–”want some champagne? Hurry, finish your drink.”

I catch his eye (as much as is possible behind the dark sunglasses) and sure enough, he approaches. We shrug, laughing. Santé ! He orders another bottle for the room.

A few seats open up and we share a table with an older woman wearing a bright turban. She has her dancing shoes on and she twirls and shimmies in slow circles as the men play. When they take a break, she leans over the table, and tells me in French how this is her kind of exercise, this is what keeps her young. She has a constant contented smile and a look in her eyes like a Christmas character: “a twinkle in her eye” is the phrase that springs to mind.

Taylor, my friend from childhood, is visiting Paris for the first time. Though she’s new to the French language, she’s been ordering for herself in restaurants and bars and her accent is great. I rarely need to step in for simple interactions. She wonders if the musicians know a song that she likes, so I tell her to ask, pronouncing for her the conjugation of the verb “to know.” She does and they do.

We leave a big tip and say goodbye. I’m reluctant to go, but these melodies will dance in my head all day. We have a train to catch.