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.

the off-season

In Cannes, land of silver screens, someone has pressed pause. The town sleeps, stirring occasionally to prepare for things to come. Since November, the wind has carried visitors away.

The air holds a bitter chill. Even on sunny days, it lurks in shadows waiting to pounce.

The clink of cutlery and smell of frites at the beachside restaurants have been replaced by the violence of jackhammers. Dingy red carpets mark a safe pedestrian path through construction zones.

At the beach, bulldozers have scraped all that soft sand into small mountains. The beach chairs have disappeared. Scattered in their place are new bags of sand, tires, orange mesh fencing…detritus of a beach facelift.

Closed for congés annuels: the signs dot storefronts and windows. 

I hide out at a café I like, quiet and good for writing. Shelter from the wind. The barista, Jérémie, tells me that in a few months, the place will be packed. In January, I often have it to myself.

On days when the sun peeks through the clouds, shining like hope, I scurry to follow it, sitting outside in a patch of light at one of the cafes near the Hôtel de Ville and the port. These are the people-watching cafes, inhabited by groups of men smoking, travelers toting body-sized backpacks, and stately older women in sunglasses, sharing a glass of wine with no one.

I like the camaraderie, the shared newspaper, the way newcomers greet everyone around them. I like the smoke less, but that comes with the territory. 

Soon, the clouds close in again, impending doom. Shivering, I cross the street to wait for the daily hypnosis of the bus, stunning redundancy. There are people I’ve come to recognize from regular travel: the man with the hair. The woman with the perfume. The curly-haired little boy who busily eats his afternoon goûter, crumbs falling on his down jacket. His feet barely reach the edge of the seat.

We stare like zombies, the bus’s rocky turns and weak light a call to sleep. We are thinking, off in our individual worlds, or else not thinking at all, who can tell.

Soon the city blinks into darkness.

It is the off-season, no doubt about that. This is not the city that never sleeps, but one in hibernation.

It’s my off-season too. Winter does this to me, but I thought maybe I would escape it in the South of France. The listlessness, my mind like some caged animal. The cold fingers. Alas, winter has cast its frozen curse like always.

One day, late January, I am walking to school with the usual frozen toes and bleary eyes. I turn a corner and notice the mimosa trees have burst into bloom, the yellow blossoms a brilliant contrast against the cold blue sky. It’s not quite spring, but the sudden color is a cheerful preview: this season will pass

Not just winter, and the way it shall inevitably surrender to spring, but my own personal winter. This year has contained much joy…and many disappointments. I’m not where I wanted to be, and I don’t know where I’m going. I am not happy. Lonely, yes. Disillusioned. Sick with the constant dull ache of a sinus infection. Challenged by my financial situation. And the worst thought: did I make a mistake by coming here? Did I force something that wasn’t meant to be? Am I wasting my time? 

It’s easy for me to get lost here, staring out the bus window at gray clouds, eating canned soup alone and counting my problems. Forgetting that this, too, is a season.

I’m not happy. Not in the way I had come to count on, to expect, even.

But I am trying.

Working.

Thinking.

Reading.

Writing.

Teaching, to the best of my ability.

Learning, I think. I am just beginning to see that. One day, I expect, I will look back and count all this a victory. Much beauty comes from working through the off-season.

war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.