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.

attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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elementary introductions

I’ve been here for three days, but it feels like a week! Yesterday I ventured into Montluçon for the first time to meet with Anne-Laure, my “contact person” who has helped me get settled. I had no problem finding the bus, the building. I left really early but there was no need, so I had time to spare. I couldn’t find a café nearby so I leaned against a nearby wall and read Dracula. When in doubt, get your Gothic novel out.

It turns out I’ll be working in three different elementary schools with ten or so classes, something like that. This really is a smaller area, and for each of these schools, I am the native English speaker. So instead of spending a lot of time with only one or two classes over the course of the school year, I will instead go to one of my schools and teach a short lesson, then on to the next class where I’ll teach a short lesson, et cetera, et cetera. Then it’s onto another school. It seems that only a few days out of the week will be quite so busy: on some days I think I finish by 1pm and I don’t work Fridays! Nevertheless, with so many different children in different rooms in different schools…organization will be paramount. Another thing that I wasn’t expecting and didn’t know until yesterday was that I’ll be working at schools that are in a zone d’éducation prioritaire (ZEP). (Actually, this just changed and is now called REP: réseaux d’établissements prioritaires). I don’t know much about it, but I believe that these are schools where a special effort is being made because a lot of the children have difficult family situations and such. It seems like discipline might be more of a problem at these schools, and, fittingly, there are more teachers than at other schools.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the meeting yesterday. I planned on visiting the school, meeting les profs briefly…I expected it to take maybe an hour. Wrong. It was definitely a lot more…interactive. We visited each classroom while classes were in session, accompanied by the directeur or directrice. After he or she got the children’s attention, I introduced myself in front of the class and professors in French. I’m not great at thinking on the spot like that with no warning, so it was pretty intimidating! I was uncomfortable, but I think it went okay. The kids seemed thrilled to see someone new. I said something like: Bonjour tout le monde, je m’appelle Jessica…and explained that I am from the US, the state of Missouri, and that I was excited to come and speak some English with them. Donc, hello! “‘Ello!” they cried, enthusiastic. In some of the classes, there were gasps and murmurs when I said je viens des États-Unis. Wow, an American!? It was really cute. In the first class, the kids had recess right after I arrived. As they trailed outside, some of the braver ones said “‘ow are you?” or “gooh-d bye!”

At one of the schools, I did introductions five or six times in the row, working my way down the hallway. As I did this I was thinking two things: the first was how hard this would’ve been for me in the past. I used to be an absolutely abysmal public speaker (in front of kids, in front of five people, it didn’t really matter). The anxiety was real. So I smiled to myself as I was led down the hall again, and again, and again…like I said, I was still uncomfortable, but I knew I had enough poise (and French ability) to not crash and burn. I was satisfied. First days are scary, being l’étranger is scary, moving to France by yourself is scary. But here I am.

The second thing I was thinking was how cool it is that the TAPIF program exists. I think of it as Bachelor’s Degree in French: Ultimate Challenge. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I miss homework, but I do always love having a project, and TAPIF allowed me that, throughout the summer and now. Has my degree prepared me to: fire off dozens of emails, arrange housing, solve all kinds of travel problems, ask directions, figure out transportation, meet people, all in a language I started learning as a teenager? So far, yes! It’s a great test, challenging and satisfying both. Suffering through La Chanson de Roland got me somewhere.

Next week is a sort of information session in Clermont-Ferrand (the académie that Montluçon is a part of), and then I have a day of observation at one of the schools. One cool thing I learned yesterday is that my role is somewhat of a language and culture representative. I am strongly encouraged to share what I can, not just of English, but of American English. Not just of the United States, but of Missouri. Make it personal, make it specific. The kids don’t speak a great deal of English (one class didn’t understand when I said: are you ready for some English?! or something dumb like that), so I may have to keep it simple. Or maybe I can explain some things in French…I don’t think a total immersion environment is going to be possible, unfortunately.

No matter what, I want to go beyond discussing Halloween and Thanksgiving and the bald eagle. If you’re reading this: any ideas?