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.

it takes a city

acs_2435In “The Case for Raising Kids in the City,” published last fall, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias argues that while America’s major cities have developed a reputation as playgrounds for the young and unattached, they have plenty to offer families with children. 

I wanted to clap when I finished reading his persuasive list. We’re not in America, of course, and some of the economic factors and social ideals are a little different, but much of what Yglesias says transfers just fine to a vibrant European city like Lyon.

It’s all uncharted territory for me–the raising kids part and the city part–and it was inspiring to read that these two things might go together just fine. Yglesias writes:

Virtually anything you could say on behalf of city-living as a strategy for a fun-loving single 20-something also applies to life as a boring dad in his late thirties, as an excitable 4-year-old, or as a teenager. If you like walkable neighborhoods; “third spaces” that aren’t shopping malls; cultural amenities; short commutes; and non-chain restaurants, then America’s cities are where those things are found.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

I grew up among the flat expanses of the Midwest. As a teenager, I noticed the lack of third places in the community for people my age, though I didn’t know there was a term for it. My friends and I just complained there was nothing to do. Teenagers drove to the historic town square, sat on the tailgate of someone’s truck and presumably drank beer. That didn’t hold any appeal for me, nor did pacing the aisles of Wal-Mart, the other popular way to pass the time.

Third places are those social oases separate from the first main social environment, home, and the second, the workplace. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote that these places restore us, support us, make us happy. In France, tabacs and cafés function as a third place. In England, pubs often play this role. In small-town America, the third place could be the donut shop, bowling alley, barbershop, or the local Elks Club.

The youth, however, don’t have many choices. I craved somewhere I could go just hang out; make a private phone call away from my family. Somewhere I could talk if I wanted to or just read and write when I didn’t. A low-pressure environment to chat and get to know people in a way that whispering during a biology lecture didn’t allow for.

By the time I got to college, I was starving for third places and spent much of my time in them. One of my favorites was the hybrid of a café, bar, indie cinema, and record store. There were always grad students writing, professors having lunch, and people leaving the theater area to stop at the bar for a glass of wine. I’d meet with friends purposefully, or run into people I knew by chance. Either way, it felt like a home, and I was often more comfortable at places like this–alone but not–than at my actual home with roommates.

Third places seem like the kind of thing that will be important for parenting life, too. I don’t know what or where they’ll be, yet, but I like knowing that an abundance of these places exists here, and as Yglesias puts it, they’re not all shopping malls.

I’m interested in how my daughter’s experience with urbanity will differ from my own. The way she’ll play in a park instead of in a huge backyard with hay bales. The way we’ll walk and take public transit instead of driving the ubiquitous minivan around town. Even silly things, like the way elevators–which can hold a hint of glamor for the rural child–will be so totally commonplace.

Into my twenties, I found cities intimidating, intriguing, and somewhat unaccessible. I remember my first trip to a big city when I was old enough to appreciate it. Paris, when I was 16. The main disappointing takeaway was that my year of French didn’t come close to translating. I was irrevocably American.

At the same time, I couldn’t suppress the glee when I saw things as banal as taxis and pigeons. It was all so cinematic, so foreign, and not just because we were in France, where the voltage fried my hair straightener and the hotel breakfast included cute little packets of Nutella. No, more than the French-ness, it was the noise, the rush of people, the dizzying traffic, all so new. New, too, this strange feeling of anonymity.

It took me years to feel really at ease among the frenzied choreography of a city. Depending upon how long we stay and where we go next, this will be Clara’s normal: dodging Vespas, navigating the metro with ease, attending public culture events, hearing the music of multiple languages. I like this for her, that she’ll likely be braver than me. Maybe she won’t spend all her time wondering at “the real world” glimpsed in books and movies, because it will seem like she already lives there. She’ll be acquainted with people from many countries and backgrounds. Her library will include both Petit Ours Brun and Curious George. She’ll have two lexicons available when expressing herself. She might be one of those little kids who likes Camembert.

It fascinates me, how different our stories will be. I chose this cross-cultural life that she inherited. I wonder what kind of marks a place leaves on a person, if the rural-ness of my upbringing forever differentiates me in some way. I wonder if Clara, too, will crave to make a home somewhere far away, or if she’ll feel right at home where she is.