july sunshine: celebrating one year of clara

dsc00770A first birthday is a powerful marker of time. When you have a baby, you have a new way to measure a year: in weight gain, in consonant sounds, in sleep patterns and in spoonfuls of purée. Each month takes on new color.

In August, Clara laughed. In January, she ate bananas and avocados. In May, out popped a gap-toothed smile. In July, she hugged me back. Constant surprises.

I filled an album with first-year photos and we flipped through it with great fascination. Most change is sneaky. This kind of change is bold and blatant, letting us in on the secret. Clara’s transformation over one year holds as much drama as a time-lapse of an exotic flower–from nothing seedling to gorgeous bloom in minutes, like magic.

Some friends (also multicultural couples with very young children) came over to celebrate on Bastille Day, the day before Clara’s actual birthday on the 15th. The plans were last-minute, made less than a week before when we were picnicking in the park under Lebanon cedars, the kids playing on blankets.

Keeping the birthday low-key, just Victor and I, suddenly seemed a shame. We needed to celebrate this wild year. It wasn’t just Clara who had changed. We had survived a year of thinking like parents, solving new problems, creating a family culture (which, for awhile, just meant we played rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to change an absolutely vile diaper). My friends were enthusiastic, understanding the significance of this day–especially, maybe, when living abroad–and so it was planned.

We had a little fiesta. I hung up the sunny decorations my mom had thriftily sent from the States in separate standard envelopes. Adriana, who’s Mexican and American, and who seems to have a natural talent for celebration, brought pico de gallo and guacamole and rosé. As soon as she arrived, she stood in my kitchen frying cheese quesadillas for a crowd. Victor made empanadas and prepared mangos and pineapple. I made tre leches cake with luscious whipped cream on top (made by shaking cold cream in a chilled jar like there’s no tomorrow–in the absence of a mixer, try this–it works!).

Seven adults and three people between the ages of one and two was about all our small apartment could handle. The three little ones played, crawling and stumbling over each other, flinging toys, eating fruit. The rest of us sat wherever there was room, sweating as the 4 pm July sun burned through the windows. We balanced plates just out of reach of six chubby fists. The cat, in shock, fled the scene.

When Clara was just about depleted, we hurried her to her highchair. We sang–first in English, then in French. Victor and I, the sweaty, joyful, proud parents, grinned for the camera while Clara sobbed, overwhelmed by so much noise and attention. Things were better when we cut her a fat square of tre leches cake. She gobbled down every crumb, whipped cream dotting her nose. We served seconds of cake before the babies brought the afternoon to a close by collectively deciding it was time for a nap.

It is a new skill, this learning how to follow a conversation with one eye always on a small, ornery person–or a couple of them. This anticipating danger or just the likelihood that someone will pitch a toy off the balcony if given the chance. As our guests stood to leave they surveyed the scene with some regret.

“I feel bad…your house was perfect when we got here and look at this!” We looked. It certainly made an impression, that was true. Victor said it perfectly when he responded, “Well, I think we’re just going to have to get used to this.”

Clara, in her first year, has accompanied me to the Louvre, to Abbot Kinney boulevard, to a blues festival, to a crowded Kansas City BBQ restaurant. When she turned one I saw the end of all that. Or at least the end of the ease of all that. There’s to be no more letting her sleep in a stroller as we linger over coffee or dinner. Her presence will be felt.

The past few weeks have seen her throwing food–motivated by a simple fascination with gravity. She’s been emptying any box or basket she can find of all its contents. Helping herself to a snack from the pantry. Pouring water on the ground and playing in it. Producing quite a terrifying troll-growl when she wants more grapes. She gets bored, now. She likes sitting in her stroller but it must be rolling, giving her new sights to see.

We’re going to have to get used to this.

Her new skills and capabilities bring new joys as well as new frustrations–for her, for us. But the other night while I am putting her to bed after a tiresome afternoon, I hold her close and think that it is like holding the future. She is pure possibility. She smells of her dinner–butter and parmesan on pasta. She looks up at me in the evening dim, bright round face glowing like the moon. She lays her cheek against my collarbone. The curls at her neck are damp from the sweat of summer. I think–savor this! I think–this, here, is the good life.

the joy of quarantine cooking

After a month and a half, our quarantined life feels totally normal–and not. It depends on how much news I’ve been reading that morning. I’m finding the familiar rhythm of mealtime a relief. No matter what’s happening in the news, you’ve gotta eat. Probably now more than ever, I am glad I know how to cook. 

I’m not alone in this. I see peers punching down their worries in the form of homemade bread. I see enthusiasm over the humblest bubbling stew. “Quarantine cooking” feels much more elemental than most trends. What’s cool right now? Self-sufficiency. Nourishment. Beans.

While I’ve always loved the results of time spent in the kitchen, in this slowed-down springtime I appreciate the process just as much. Cooking is an end in itself. I purposefully choose labor-intensive projects, recipes that require kneading and rising, two-hour simmers, long lists of spices. Cooking is tangible enough to wake me up from the stupor of an internet binge or a foggy morning. It’s my one cherished chore.

I like the messes. Turmeric-stained fingertips, focaccia dough bursting out of its bowl, clouds of flour, the firework crackling of potatoes in hot oil.

I don’t love cleaning them up. But that is a part of the lifecycle of this beloved routine: the discipline to empty the sink even when it doesn’t seem to matter. This is something I’ve learned: like getting dressed in the morning, like putting on mascara for another day spent indoors, doing the dishes is an act of hope. I have grown some truly spectacular mold in my time, and I know that a neglect of my surroundings typically belies inner distress.

These days, I leave the mold to the Roquefort. I cook good food, elaborate food, pretty food, even though it’s just the two of us. We use the nice plates–white ceramic platters my mom scoped out at Emmaus–like it’s a party and not just another evening on the balcony.

Food is how we celebrate. We can’t stop in at a trendy bar, linger on a terrace, walk along the rivers, spend the weekend in the countryside. Instead, we dream about menus. On the rainy morning of my birthday, we walk to the Turkish butcher down the street to pick out a giant steak for two. We eat it deeply seared, crackling crust, with roasted radishes and tarragon butter. We eat cross-legged on the floor, our movie on pause because this meal deserves our undivided attention.

For dessert: big slices of a vanilla-bean-speckled cake I had made the day before while chatting with my mom and grandma on Facetime. Separated by thousands of miles, we follow the same recipe, delight in the same alchemy of nutty browning butter. I hold the cake to the camera so they can see if it springs back up after the pressure of my index finger. They tell me it needs a few more minutes.

We had planned, just over a month before, to do this in person, but the compromise is sweet. We adapt. They eat a slice of birthday cake warm from the oven, an indulgent breakfast, while I put mine aside and start working on dinner.

All this extra time inside has given grocery shopping a certain allure. There are often long lines outside the big supermarkets, but smaller produce-heavy markets are mostly quiet. We learn from the news that producteurs are facing a serious demand problem. Shoppers have flocked to shelf-stable comfort foods, leaving delicate spring produce to wilt and flounder. Cameras pan over the brilliant leafy floor of a greenhouse filled with endives that no one wants, tiny strawberries that are delicate and perfect and unwanted.

Producers are also lacking the necessary manpower to realize seasonal harvests. Stone fruits are growing overripe on trees. The problem is so concerning that in March, the French government called on laid-off employees to find temporary work in the fields.

It seems like a good time to fill my bags with things I’ve never cooked with. Fruits and vegetables de saison are gorgeous, abundant, and affordable besides. I grab kohlrabi, tarragon, radishes, fresh peas, fava beans. I bring home potted herbs one at a time, starting a straggly table-garden of thyme, basil, and parsley.

Victor and I both enjoy “cooking” for Clara, blitzing part of our dinner to a thin purée. She likes almost everything, from hummus to the lone, shriveled zucchini forgotten at the back of the fridge. Steam it, blend it, jar it–she is my secret weapon to avoiding food waste. Last weekend we had a mezze meal featuring several small plates from a Persian cookbook. I blended the leftovers and put them in small bowls for a baby-mezze, introducing Clara’s palate to dill and mint and pomegranate molasses, dishes that tasted sour and sunny.

While I make most of our main meals, Victor cooks for me too. It’s enough to plant the img_0887idea in his head (“you know what sounds really good…?”). His signature dish: restaurant-quality mushroom risotto. He cooks on special occasions–like Saturdays–on which he sometimes wakes me up with a chattering baby and a warm blueberry muffin. When one of us is in a funk, the other might take out a cookbook from our growing collection, saying, “Make me something,” knowing that the basic tasks required–level flour, peel potatoes–are grounding, essential. That a carefully-made meal (and cleaning up afterwards, let’s not forget) is a small rebellion against apathy. 

In our home, we prove again (as has been proved in every culture, a lesson I never get tired of) that food is love.

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.

ACS_1956
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.

ACS_1950

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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

ACS_2014
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.

IMG_5735

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.

old soul: on the charm & melancholy of small towns

September 2018: Newly engaged, I am visiting Victor’s hometown for the first time, to meet his family and (let’s not forget) to complete wedding paperwork. La Ferté-Alais is where our wedding would take place two months later.

As a kid, I daydreamed about being able to walk to school or to the store. There was something romantic about going somewhere without wearing a seatbelt. It seemed to me, I think, like something out of a book. Independence! Excitement! My friends in town didn’t know how lucky they were. The closest it got for me was a walk to the gas station up the street, where I was occasionally allowed to choose a wrapped ice cream from the freezer. 

But my husband grew up in one of these places, navigable by foot or bike. The house where Victor grew up, where his parents live now, is just down the street from the town’s main drag. 

I found, on my first walk around the place, that La Ferté-Alais is a town that recalls a simpler time. The past is quite literally built into it, from the imposing steeple of the Catholic church Victor attended with his grandmother as a small boy, to the wide stone basin near the river, where generations of women gathered to scrub their laundry. The river stirs in the wind. It is crossed with delicate bridges, cheery flowers woven into their sides. Under bright sun and skies, this town of not-quite-four-thousand is beautiful, yet there is always something about a place like this that feels so melancholy to me. It’s too quiet, temporal, and I feel as if I’m seeing its hushed final years. 

Once upon a time, people could walk down the street to faire les courses, stopping at the boulanger for warm bread in the morning; the butcher and fromager for carefully weighed meat and cheese. They still do, but the population is clearly lopsided: dominated by petite mamies shuffling behind rolling grocery carts or pulling fussy little dogs. Lone cats strut on quiet paws, clearly comfortable as lords of the sidewalk. Overhead sit two to three stories of apartments, windows covered by sweet white lace curtains.

In this mysterious past that I have never seen, the same cobbled street addressed a whole host of needs: neighboring each other were a bank, librairie, fleuriste, record store, clothing shop, optician, and a papeterie for office and school supplies. The framework still stands, but today, every other storefront is dusty, with closed or up for rent signs in the windows. Did residents once mill in the streets like you see in movies about the past, where people are always marching past each other industriously and calling out greetings while they dodge a merry bunch of horses, dogs, and chickens? That’s an exaggeration, I know, but I wonder if visiting this same street ever felt like going to “town.” 

The morning market, with its whole fish on ice and lopsided fresh goat cheeses, still seems to attract a good crowd, but I wonder how long that will last. The younger people I know simply don’t seem to consider getting their groceries that way. It’s too easy to hop in the car, leave the town in a quick minute, and land at big boxy stores like Carrefour, where most everything you need waits beneath one massive roof. I get it. No one wants to oppose progress. Still, I’ve always ached for small towns, having grown up in one and regularly driven through towns of tiny unrounded numbers–46 or 103–numbers small and specific enough to make you wonder about the individuals they represent. Now and then I read something about an exodus to the country, a supposed renaissance of the small town, but I’ve yet to see such a transformation for myself.

La Ferté-Alais still seems somewhat self-contained, with its schools, church, city hall, retirement home, park, swimming pool, and hiking paths within easy walking distance. There are several tabacs, with the ubiquitous cloud of cigarette smoke and crowd of old friends drinking espresso around small outdoor tables. There is–perhaps most importantly for the town’s survival–a train station that provides a quick path into Paris.

Victor shows me the old gym where he learned judo, his elementary school, even the spot in the forest where he and friends once cut an electrical fence as a practical joke. Boyhood in a couple of acres. We visit his grandmother at the retirement home and he shows me her old house, the one he grew up visiting, just a couple of houses down.

When school lets out, Victor’s niece and nephew can run to grandma and grandpa’s for le goûter–the classic 4pm snack that usually involves some combination of bread and chocolate. They actually run there, that’s how close it is, backpacks flying behind them. For all my love of cities, there is something unspeakably touching about this simplicity, about the kind of place where your child could still ride their bike all around town and promise to be home for dinner. Maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to mourn these places; maybe they will evolve and survive. A town’s soul, after all, has more to do with its people than with places to buy artisan bread or local beef.

We follow behind the kids and I am soon shoeless, laughing, jumping on the trampoline, the three of us getting used to my new title: tata. Aunt.

sweet goodbyes

I stopped by my great-grandparents’ house yesterday to visit, and had the most meaningful conversation with my great-grandma that I’ve ever had.

My grandma is approaching 95, and she’s incredibly in-touch. She understands the after-college weirdness, and asked me about this challenging time of my life, post-grad, though she didn’t use that term. As she talked, full of stories and questions and concerns about great great grand-babies and my dad’s upcoming knee surgery and my brother’s job, it hit me how much her life is centered around her family, the ones she loves. She remembers details. We talked about past Thanksgivings, about how lovely it was to have time to talk with Jane, my dad’s mother, about how I would leave the dinner table to read books under it.

Why does our culture venerate a life lived selfishly? When time steals your youthful beauty, most of your energy, the meaning you may find from your work and possessions, what will you have left? My grandma, she has something left.

My grandma said: “it is my reward for living such a long life to see my grandchildren grow, to see the way the Lord is blessing them.” She talked about how lucky she is to still have her husband, how my grandpa helps her with so many of the daily challenges she faces, always thinking of her. That is love, she said. And that is love. Not shiny-new but tested and selfless and priceless.

She held my hands and told me I will have challenges. That I will need to give them to the Lord or I’ll fall apart, that that’s the only way she’s been able to get through some really hard times.

She told me she feels a certain degree of security about me leaving. She said I know right from wrong, that I am wise and sensible. I didn’t even know my grandparents had been thinking so much about my trip. It turns out they had just put a card in the mail, telling me I had their love and blessing for my year abroad.

I am so very blessed to be fourth in a line of women who love the Lord. My great-grandma, my grandma, my mom. Where would I be without your love, your prayers, your wisdom?

My grandma is 94, and tired. She told me she wasn’t sure if she’d be here when I return. She’s said such things before, but oh how tears sprung to my eyes this time.

We don’t like to think of it, talk about it, but life does end. Everyday we get closer to that end, a simple fact. There is not enough time to waste it. My grandma is a beautiful example of not wasting it.

She held my hands and told me to go, with love. And I will.