life lately: liminality & key lime pie

We celebrated my birthday this week, with steak and roquefort butter and key lime pie. It made me pensive, as milestones tend to do, and specifically I was remembering two years ago, when I turned 25 and was six and a half months pregnant. My growing belly broadcast a reality that I couldn’t fathom. I was someone’s mother.

Clara didn’t have a name. We’d made the choice not to learn the sex of our baby, for the surprise of it, which meant she was “the baby,” a big question mark. The birth loomed off in the unknowable future and I viewed it with dread and disbelief. Motherhood was great and beautiful in theory, and I loved kids and was a big supporter of having them.

In theory.

In reality, the liminal stage between post-grad and parent was painful. It looked like fear and regret, blood tests and vomiting, loneliness and scrolls through reddit pregnancy forums.

This birthday, 27, I am five months pregnant with a boy. We’ve named him Silas James. The future is uncertain as ever but the emotions surrounding this pregnancy (always a liminal stage in itself) couldn’t be more different. We don’t have to make the major leap from not parents to parents. We love this baby already, in a way that’s not merely theoretical or supposed. The familiarity of the process is comforting. What’s more, on good days or bad days or any day, there’s a funny, cuddly, almost-two-year-old to snuggle with.

At the bords du Saône in Villefranche
Clara looking for ducks and swans
Chilly and windy but I’m pretending it isn’t

In other news, the country continues to observe le confinement. Most shops and all restaurants are closed, and there is a 7pm curfew and 10km distance restriction (preventing us from going to Lyon, which is disappointing). But happily, it was announced last month that Villefranche is one of the most dynamique cities of its size despite the lockdowns and restrictions. Villefranche has retained 83% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic. In this brief reportage, people cite the convenience of having a kilometer-long main street and good relationships with businesses as some of the reasons why Villefranche has continued to thrive. We love living right on Rue Nationale; it’s one of the reasons we decided to take the leap and buy our apartment. Of course, now that stores have been closed again for several weeks at the time of this writing, the dynamism of the downtown has definitely taken a hit.

Street between home & the grocery

As always, I’m cooking a lot and appreciating the fact that we have neighbors with whom to share meals or a drink at a moment’s notice (both easily and legally). Last month we met Catriona, the latest addition to our English-speaking island. She’s an Irish college student living and teaching in Villefranche for the school year, and I admire her grit for sticking out her assignment, school closures and all. We joke that she’s Clara’s best friend because Clara was instantly at ease around her and lights up whenever she’s here.

I’ve been visiting the local market regularly and paying attention to seasonality. Perfect Gariguette strawberries are as sweet as candy and will cheer you on the gloomiest day. Last week I bought my first poulet fermier, a chicken straight from the farm. The butcher lopped off its head and feet with a cleaver and asked if I wanted to keep them or the organs. I declined. I need a French grandma to teach me what to do with them. I slathered the chicken with Caesar dressing and roasted it, then served with lettuce and fresh baguette croutons. Highly recommend.

A few other highlights over the past few months of cooking:

Paprika. This five-dollar app is life-changing. In one streamlined platform you can plan your meals, keep your grocery lists, and, my favorite part, save all your favorite recipes. The app pulls the recipes from the web in a matter of seconds, and you can update them with your own notes. I find it’s great for concentration to be able to cook from my phone without ads flashing and videos playing. I’ve also noticed that I’ve become a more streamlined, efficient cook and shopper thanks to the app. No more wasted trips to the store. I get all my groceries on foot, so I really appreciate this.

Instant Pot carnitas. The instant pot was a birthday present (thanks grandma!) and I’ve just proved I can use it without any explosions. Juicy and quick-cooking, these carnitas outdid my favorite recipe of three years.

Key lime pie. Especially when pregnant, I crave all things sour and citrusy, and have been dreaming about making this pie for the past month as a birthday treat. Alison Roman’s recipe from Dining In didn’t disappoint. It is supremely tangy, with a crunchy, salty crust made with coconut oil and graham crackers (I used McVitie’s, easier to find here). It was a timely pie to make as Victor had already planned to give me an electric citrus juicer and I was able to squeeze every drop from the limes. We start every morning now with orange/blood orange juice, so much cheaper than the jus d’orange pressé from the boulangerie and absolutely luscious.

Chorizo pasta takes just a handful of ingredients and has crazy flavor. I add several handfuls of greens like spinach or broccoli rabe to the sauce.

Alison Roman’s eggplant parmesan is worth doubling. I made this twice in one week.

Baked camembert. In 20 minutes you have a delightful treat that makes a random weekday lunch special. We like drizzling olive oil, honey, and thyme on top.

Clara is proving to be a delightful toddler. In the past few months we’ve taken her on picnics, hikes, to a farm, and on her first Easter egg hunt. Chick basket in hand, she toddled around the park collecting eggs that we’d grab out of her basket and hide again when she wasn’t looking.

We’ve seen Clara’s comprehension of words and routines grow greatly over the past few months. I’ve really enjoyed watching our family pidgin language develop. No one on the outside would understand it, but in our family, “two” means “more,” and to signal it, you hold up one finger.

Clara is eager to help us with whatever we’re doing, and I’ve read recently that it is precisely this tendency that you want to encourage in order to have a pleasant, easy-to-live-with child.

For decades, scientists have documented a surprising phenomenon: In many cultures around the world, parents don’t struggle to raise helpful, kind kids. From ages 2 to 18, kids want to help their families. They wake up in the morning and voluntarily do the dishes. They hop off their bikes to help their dad carry groceries into the house. And when somebody hands them a muffin, they share it with a younger sibling before taking a bite themselves.

You can find kids like this in a huge range of cultures, scientists have documented: from hunter-gatherers in the Arctic to farmers in the Andes, from pastoralists in Kenya’s savanna to fisherfolk in the Philippines.

I realized there are two key practices that parents all around the world use to teach children to be helpful and cooperative. And yet many American parents (including the one writing this essay) often do just the opposite.


Are We Raising Unhelpful, Bossy Kids? Here’s The Fix –Michaeleen Doucleff

When I happened upon this article, I realized that we were already doing what the author recommends, but there wasn’t anything particularly intentional about it. Reading this encouraged me to add more ‘subtasks’ into an average day and to encourage Clara’s efforts to help. She used to reach into the dishwasher and hand me a spoon to put away, and now, a month later, she helps me unload everything (after I quickly remove any knives). She can fetch her own bowl and bib, and get the cat a treat. She also helps me unpack the groceries, item by item, and in some fashion, she helps fold the laundry. She helps her dad “paint” and goes with him to the boulangerie, where she hands over the coin in exchange for a baguette. I’m thrilled that helping us is (at least right now) as fun for her as any toy.

Entertainment-wise, two things have stood out lately. I’m still thinking about psychological thriller “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” by far the most original and interesting film I’ve seen all year, from the director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It’s one of the most true-to-life portrayals of a person’s interior life that I can remember seeing.

I raced through the book “What She Ate” by Laura Shapiro, which looks at the lives of six famous/infamous women in history through the lens of their relationships with food. What did they like to eat? Who did they cook for? The book gives an insight into Eleanor Roosevelt’s frosty marriage and young Eva Braun’s relationship with Hitler, among many topics.

Last thing, for now. Another seemingly-endless liminal stage has come to a close: the renovations of our top floor. Four months of Victor’s blood, sweat, and tears went into this and we are celebrating! I am writing this from my new perch: a sunny window seat just long enough to stretch out in. Meanwhile, Clara pads across the pretty new parquet as fast as her feet can carry her. Thanks to yesterday’s installation of a baby gate up here, we are both tranquille.

call the sage-femme: notes from the life of a pregnant expat

You wouldn’t notice if you’re not looking for it.

It’s just a lively, sunny street like any other in Nice. A few blocks from the beach. There are busy cafés, antique shops, little kitschy stores full of ancient-looking sewing materials or dusty Lebanese groceries.

If you are looking, you’ll notice that this is a street full of pregnant women. You see them walking with friends or alone. You see them glamorous in sundresses and straw hats. You see them tired, clad in leggings and sneakers, struggling to transport all that weight. You might wonder where they are going.

blanket close up delicious diet
Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

As I happen to be in the know, I can tell you. A well-known midwife practices on this street. She works at what some consider the best maternity hospital in Nice.

On my once- or twice-weekly visits, I buzz in, walk through a courtyard behind a heavy wooden door, and then take an elevator up several stories. The space is small, cozy, with a rooftop view that’s a little bit Parisian (save for the glimpses of palm trees). Colorful blankets are thrown on the low couches where I sit and listen to the midwife and take notes like my life depends on it.

Sage-femme. Literally wise woman. I am in awe of this woman: her knowledge, expertise, and manner. She holds hour-long classes about different aspects of birth–how to recognize labor, how to care for a newborn. As women (and sometimes their husbands) come and go, she scans cartes vitales (French healthcare covers these services), hooks women up to an electronic fetal monitor, answers the phone, and sets up new mothers with post-birth exercises in another room. Sometimes she returns holding someone’s tiny baby, and she’ll soothe it effortlessly, while discussing how to time contractions or while demonstrating breathing methods on an exercise ball. Though there’s so much happening, the midwife exudes calm. She doesn’t lose her train of thought. She never seems the slightest bit flustered. And though there’s some waiting involved–six of us on pause as she greets a new arrival or prints out the movements of a baby in utero–the environment is so generally agréable that personally, I don’t mind at all.

There are nine sessions covered by la Sécurité Sociale. Every time there are new girls–because these classes don’t have a set order–but every time I recognize a few. I haven’t spent any of my pregnancy with other pregnant women, and this has gotten lonely. No one to compare notes with. We live close enough to Nice to attend appointments there, but not close enough to spend real time there, the kind of time you need to actually make friends. I recognize this–loneliness–is a common expat struggle, and I’m grateful for the numerous blogs and books that discuss what it’s like to be alone in the land of your second language. Once the thrill wears off, it’s tough. The thrill wears off quickly.

So now, with all these pregnant women together in a room, I feel a little less alone. There are a lot of other foreigners–an assumption based on accent or the presence of a translating husband–and, obviously, a lot of prominent bellies. It is both a comfort and a fascination to look at all these people who look like me. This new me. No longer just woman or Millennial or brunette or American but the brand-new label: pregnant woman. It has taken some time to get used to that, to answer the questions I am inevitably asked in checkout lines at the grocery store.

Not only do all of us sport enormous third-trimester bellies–highlighted or camouflaged by various fashions–but I spy other swollen feet, others who have difficulty getting up from the low couches, and the telltale navy blue cotton band that characterizes most maternity jeans. As I’ve watched myself change in the mirror over the past several months, I have felt shock, occasional admiration, occasional horror. We change all the time, but rarely–I think–so quickly, so obviously.

I have grown used to many changes and I call that progress. The learning curve, though, can be so frustrating. Just when I think I’ve caught up, learned enough, mastered the French medical vocabulary, gotten good test results, or learned to balance all this new weight, there’s something new. Some new little worry, some new symptom, a new specialist to see just because (I suspect) my doctor is overcautious.

On my first visit to the midwife’s, I was nervous, not at all sure to what degree my personal space would be compromised. Now I enjoy the visits, trusting as I do that knowledge is power. While my doctor has no time, the midwife seems to have nothing but, despite juggling ten tasks (and a baby) at once. 

That first visit, the midwife puts the fetal monitor on my belly. I have a lifetime history of malaise around blood, needles, medical interventions, and even stressful-sounding beeping noises. It’s a proper phobia. I’m a fainter. The fetal monitor seems, somehow, to interest my baby, like it wants to show off for the attention. Previously that morning, I’d noticed nothing. As soon as I’m attached to this machine, wild movements start. The baby kicks around so furiously that my stomach–and by extension, the monitor–moves too. The numbers on the screen fluctuate rapidly and the sound of my baby’s heart is amplified, deafening. buhBOOMbuhBOOMbuhBOOMbuhBOOM. 

We hear something else, too, a little popping noise. The baby has the hiccups, the midwife tells me. I smile weakly. The concept is sweet. Amazing. Human. But what I’m looking at is my stomach, and here’s what I think, just before I almost lose consciousness. I think it’s something out of Looney Tunes. It looks like two small animals trapped in a bag, fighting to get out. A fist here. Pow. A kick there. Bam. 

I think: alien. Everything looks far away and I’m sweating like I’ve just come in from a run. My heart rate plummets. I am in the tunnel I’ve known since childhood, where I feel a misery and dread and pain that is typically only soothed by losing consciousness. My blood pressure, the midwife finds when she measures, has dropped to a ridiculously low level. My baby’s vitals have changed too. Then, somehow, I manage to come back. No fainting.

It means everything that the midwife doesn’t treat me like I’m weak or silly. She doesn’t express doubt or an attitude like–ha, good luck actually giving birth. She doesn’t laugh or say, wow, there’s a sensitive one. Instead she tells me something that surprises me: she too dealt with the same problem until her early twenties. Until after the first year of her midwifery studies. She says practice and gradual exposure was the solution. She says we’ll try this again, and again, until I’m okay with it.

At the next visit, I manage the monitoring with almost no discomfort. Ditto for the third. Each time I leave, I ask her a few more questions. Frankly I am most scared of giving birth in a country not known for customer service. I’ve heard stories of patients’ preferences being expressly disregarded. Google reviews of this very maternité say, in English and in French: that was the worst day of my life. I’m terrified of being forced into an outdated or unnecessary medical procedure. I am also very aware that I will likely lack the strength to both give birth and also fight the Man.

The midwife answers all my questions. She even alerts me when a French practice or standard tends to differ from the American one. This, to me, lends her a great deal of credibility. Still I feel the niggling worry of all these what-ifs.

She looks straight at me. She holds my face, says ça va bien se passer. It will be fine. She makes it possible to believe that this could be true.