use your words: confessions of a part-time parent

They turn their tiny noses up at most of what I eat.

I eat coconut chips and turmeric lattes, sautéed greens and tomatoes sprinkled with salt. I try to share. An experiment with some zucchini ends with the zucchini reappearing in the toddler’s mouth after an uncomfortable three seconds where she looks at me as if I have betrayed her. I fetch a napkin, wondering if there was a time I was so averse to anything green, anything strong, anything with…flavor.

My groceries reflect my time with the kids. After a day of serving macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, my bags don’t include dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks or flavored yogurt. If I shop after a day spent with them, invariably my cart includes black garlic hummus and punjabi eggplant and Gorgonzola piccante so sharp it nearly burns the tongue. I sneak up the stairs, “late,” 9 pm when everyone is sleeping, and I stir turmeric and ginger and honey into hot milk. I sprinkle bright goat cheese onto salads and whisk tahini with olive oil for a dressing. For a midnight snack I sometimes eat kimchi from the jar.

It’s a curious thing, to live in a house with the children that you care for. They depend on me: for a set number of hours each week. I experience moments of tenderness, gently rocking the toddler as she drifts into sleep, and moments of relief: they are not mine. I will now descend into my basement lair and leave the tears and tantrums to someone else.

Taking care of a five-year-old and a toddler, at times I feel impossibly old. No longer the child, I am charged with putting someone else’s needs first, all the time. Their problems are so easily solved, their worlds small. They don’t understand, not really, that I, too, am sometimes scared and confused. That I sometimes long for a hug from my mom. That popsicles and band-aids don’t fix everything.

It’s strange to realize that I am not quite a person for them, or not in the way that I have learned to see people. The complicated interior life. The hopes and dreams. They have seen me cry and their faces don’t change. I wonder what they’re thinking. Empathy, I guess, is something we teach, something we learn.

In some ways, spending time with children is like spending time with people from another culture who speak a language you haven’t quite mastered. They will not understand, or maybe care, about the specifics of your day or just exactly what you think about the book you’re reading. And you, despite trying, cannot express these things. You learn quickly that political debates are out. Quoting The Princess Bride is out. That great pun you thought of, you’ll have to keep to yourself.

So, here, language fails you.

It’s frustrating. It’s strange. If you are really language-oriented, like I am, you’ll wonder who you are without your words. You’ll feel like a paper doll.

And you’ll find that it’s kind of refreshing.

Maybe you kick a ball back and forth or splash in a pool or dance or help cut vegetables for a pizza or play a board game: all things I did with my host family before I attained fluency in French. What I thought about these activities didn’t matter so much. I just did them.

So many times I swallowed that witty comment and I missed the joke and I contributed nothing verbally. And robbed of my words, I found I still existed. I was still appreciated, and loved.

I suppose that it is similar with the children. They don’t know what I feel or think, not really, not usually. But in this case I am not a mute but I am a provider. Of love, of instruction, of fun. Of cheese sticks and open arms and coloring books. Of discipline and library visits and tiny tiny portions of zucchini.

I feel impossibly old sometimes. But I hand them over and head downstairs and I feel young again, the kind of young where I can still be selfish and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The change from my college years is that for the first time, I don’t take this for granted, my freedom.

I can spend an hour on my hair. I can buy new and extremely impractical shoes. I can take my hair and my shoes and a new book to a lounge at a high-rise hotel, and I can sit and watch the sun set, the city a backdrop to my cocktail. And I can do this on a Monday if I want to. I can make last-minute decisions and I can stay up all night. My friends can do the same.

Juxtaposed with the responsibility of caring for the children, though, this stage of life seems for the first time finite. And it’s all the sweeter for it.

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.