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.

“make no little plans”: in chicago, the road trip begins

When Victor came to visit for two weeks in July, our travel plans were quite literally a rough sketch. The napkin on which I had scribbled ideas during a phone call became the backbone of our road trip.

As the day of Victor’s flight approached, we had little more than city names, a few reserved AirBnbs, and a lot of anticipation.

Trepidation, too. Victor, aviation enthusiast, happens to hate flying. Cold sweat, shaking hands, “I need a cigarette” kind of fear. This Boeing 747-8 would be the biggest plane he’d ever taken. It would be his longest flight to date and his first time in the United States.

I was anxious too–seeking job opportunities with no answers; hoping with all I had that our young relationship would translate from Facetime back into real time after a month apart.

We met in Chicago at the airport. I called him: I’m in your terminal, next to the McDonald’s. Welcome to the USA.

Despite his rumpled, post-flight appearance–expression equal parts fatigue and joy–Victor had that shimmering quality to be found in loved ones you haven’t seen for awhile. Be it friendship or romance, you can’t stop staring. A state of happy shock: it’s the one you love, no longer tinny-voiced, pixelated, stuffed into a screen. The heart rejoices, always with some degree of relief. They’re real. I knew it. The anxiety of absence dissipates instantly like they never left, or you never did.

We proceeded to the rental agency to pick up our noble white steed for the duration of the trip: a little Mustang convertible. Despite having just staggered off the plane, Victor drove us into the city. It was too hot to have the top down, but we did anyway, shouting over wind and music. Semi trucks and billboards didn’t make for the prettiest tableau, but something about it felt exotic to Victor. I just can’t believe I’m here, he kept saying. J’arrive pas à le croire. It’s just like a movie.

When the smoky skyline popped into view, I took a picture for him, which I would do for much of the trip as co-pilot. The green-and-white signs announcing nearby cities, signs warning to watch for Amish horse-and-buggies, a fleet of police officers on Harley Davidsons…all of it was fair game.

In Chicago I pointed out the Midwestern friendliness I find striking for such a big city. We were unabashed tourists–posing with the Bean, taking the riverboat architectural tour to learn what percentage of Chicago burned to the ground in 1871, riding a wheezing double-decker bus in a lurching path around the city.

We ate hotdogs with mustard and drank huge lemonades from the stands by the lake. In an attempt to show Victor American breakfast culture, I took him to a donut place where we ordered chocolate pastries the size of our heads. He gawked at the deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

It felt appropriate to introduce Victor to my country with such a city. A big one. With tall buildings and endless pizza and a lake you could mistake for a sea.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

-architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

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.