call the sage-femme: notes from the life of a pregnant expat

You wouldn’t notice if you’re not looking for it.

It’s just a lively, sunny street like any other in Nice. A few blocks from the beach. There are busy cafés, antique shops, little kitschy stores full of ancient-looking sewing materials or dusty Lebanese groceries.

If you are looking, you’ll notice that this is a street full of pregnant women. You see them walking with friends or alone. You see them glamorous in sundresses and straw hats. You see them tired, clad in leggings and sneakers, struggling to transport all that weight. You might wonder where they are going.

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Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

As I happen to be in the know, I can tell you. A well-known midwife practices on this street. She works at what some consider the best maternity hospital in Nice.

On my once- or twice-weekly visits, I buzz in, walk through a courtyard behind a heavy wooden door, and then take an elevator up several stories. The space is small, cozy, with a rooftop view that’s a little bit Parisian (save for the glimpses of palm trees). Colorful blankets are thrown on the low couches where I sit and listen to the midwife and take notes like my life depends on it.

Sage-femme. Literally wise woman. I am in awe of this woman: her knowledge, expertise, and manner. She holds hour-long classes about different aspects of birth–how to recognize labor, how to care for a newborn. As women (and sometimes their husbands) come and go, she scans cartes vitales (French healthcare covers these services), hooks women up to an electronic fetal monitor, answers the phone, and sets up new mothers with post-birth exercises in another room. Sometimes she returns holding someone’s tiny baby, and she’ll soothe it effortlessly, while discussing how to time contractions or while demonstrating breathing methods on an exercise ball. Though there’s so much happening, the midwife exudes calm. She doesn’t lose her train of thought. She never seems the slightest bit flustered. And though there’s some waiting involved–six of us on pause as she greets a new arrival or prints out the movements of a baby in utero–the environment is so generally agréable that personally, I don’t mind at all.

There are nine sessions covered by la Sécurité Sociale. Every time there are new girls–because these classes don’t have a set order–but every time I recognize a few. I haven’t spent any of my pregnancy with other pregnant women, and this has gotten lonely. No one to compare notes with. We live close enough to Nice to attend appointments there, but not close enough to spend real time there, the kind of time you need to actually make friends. I recognize this–loneliness–is a common expat struggle, and I’m grateful for the numerous blogs and books that discuss what it’s like to be alone in the land of your second language. Once the thrill wears off, it’s tough. The thrill wears off quickly.

So now, with all these pregnant women together in a room, I feel a little less alone. There are a lot of other foreigners–an assumption based on accent or the presence of a translating husband–and, obviously, a lot of prominent bellies. It is both a comfort and a fascination to look at all these people who look like me. This new me. No longer just woman or Millennial or brunette or American but the brand-new label: pregnant woman. It has taken some time to get used to that, to answer the questions I am inevitably asked in checkout lines at the grocery store.

Not only do all of us sport enormous third-trimester bellies–highlighted or camouflaged by various fashions–but I spy other swollen feet, others who have difficulty getting up from the low couches, and the telltale navy blue cotton band that characterizes most maternity jeans. As I’ve watched myself change in the mirror over the past several months, I have felt shock, occasional admiration, occasional horror. We change all the time, but rarely–I think–so quickly, so obviously.

I have grown used to many changes and I call that progress. The learning curve, though, can be so frustrating. Just when I think I’ve caught up, learned enough, mastered the French medical vocabulary, gotten good test results, or learned to balance all this new weight, there’s something new. Some new little worry, some new symptom, a new specialist to see just because (I suspect) my doctor is overcautious.

On my first visit to the midwife’s, I was nervous, not at all sure to what degree my personal space would be compromised. Now I enjoy the visits, trusting as I do that knowledge is power. While my doctor has no time, the midwife seems to have nothing but, despite juggling ten tasks (and a baby) at once. 

That first visit, the midwife puts the fetal monitor on my belly. I have a lifetime history of malaise around blood, needles, medical interventions, and even stressful-sounding beeping noises. It’s a proper phobia. I’m a fainter. The fetal monitor seems, somehow, to interest my baby, like it wants to show off for the attention. Previously that morning, I’d noticed nothing. As soon as I’m attached to this machine, wild movements start. The baby kicks around so furiously that my stomach–and by extension, the monitor–moves too. The numbers on the screen fluctuate rapidly and the sound of my baby’s heart is amplified, deafening. buhBOOMbuhBOOMbuhBOOMbuhBOOM. 

We hear something else, too, a little popping noise. The baby has the hiccups, the midwife tells me. I smile weakly. The concept is sweet. Amazing. Human. But what I’m looking at is my stomach, and here’s what I think, just before I almost lose consciousness. I think it’s something out of Looney Tunes. It looks like two small animals trapped in a bag, fighting to get out. A fist here. Pow. A kick there. Bam. 

I think: alien. Everything looks far away and I’m sweating like I’ve just come in from a run. My heart rate plummets. I am in the tunnel I’ve known since childhood, where I feel a misery and dread and pain that is typically only soothed by losing consciousness. My blood pressure, the midwife finds when she measures, has dropped to a ridiculously low level. My baby’s vitals have changed too. Then, somehow, I manage to come back. No fainting.

It means everything that the midwife doesn’t treat me like I’m weak or silly. She doesn’t express doubt or an attitude like–ha, good luck actually giving birth. She doesn’t laugh or say, wow, there’s a sensitive one. Instead she tells me something that surprises me: she too dealt with the same problem until her early twenties. Until after the first year of her midwifery studies. She says practice and gradual exposure was the solution. She says we’ll try this again, and again, until I’m okay with it.

At the next visit, I manage the monitoring with almost no discomfort. Ditto for the third. Each time I leave, I ask her a few more questions. Frankly I am most scared of giving birth in a country not known for customer service. I’ve heard stories of patients’ preferences being expressly disregarded. Google reviews of this very maternité say, in English and in French: that was the worst day of my life. I’m terrified of being forced into an outdated or unnecessary medical procedure. I am also very aware that I will likely lack the strength to both give birth and also fight the Man.

The midwife answers all my questions. She even alerts me when a French practice or standard tends to differ from the American one. This, to me, lends her a great deal of credibility. Still I feel the niggling worry of all these what-ifs.

She looks straight at me. She holds my face, says ça va bien se passer. It will be fine. She makes it possible to believe that this could be true.

out of this world: the freaky fun of Carnaval de Nice, 2018

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My parents came to visit for 10 days for my winter teaching vacances. For a home base, we picked Nice, as it’s close to my home of Cannes but considerably more lively. We were greeted with the perfect illustration of “rain on the parade,” as miserable weather threatened to cancel the last few days of the carnaval, the grand Niçois celebration intended to usher in spring and kiss winter goodbye.

Most days were gray and streaked with rain, or else wet snow that sailed upon the Mediterranean winds and hit us right in the face. Day travel was a study in perseverance, as was simply leaving the apartment.

I bought us tickets for the last night of the parade and crossed my fingers it wouldn’t be snowed out.

The Carnaval de Nice, sometimes called the King’s Carnival, is one of the oldest and most well-known carnival celebrations in the world. The fairly small city of Nice (only the 5th largest in France) receives about a million visitors annually to celebrate the carnaval.

Carnaval history can be traced back to 1294, when Charles of Anjou, the Count of Provence and King of Sicily, spoke of the ‘joyful days of the carnival.’ At this time, though, the carnaval was but a big, messy street party, a way to indulge before the stricter days of Lent, when meat, sugar, eggs, and dairy products wouldn’t grace citizens’ tables until Easter. The word carnaval itself is derived from the Latin “carnelevare”: to take out the meat. 

Today, the Carnaval is known for its parades, which feature 17-18 grand floats, or chariots, and up to a thousand dancers and performers. The Carnaval is a loud, pulsating confusion of flowers and confetti and silly string. This more modern incarnation of the Carnaval dates to around 1830, when Italian royalty visited Nice around carnival time. The city hosted a parade to mark the occasion. Carriages paraded past the palace balcony carrying elegant Niçois in costume. This first organized carnival was such a success it was revived annually, despite the absence of a king to oversee the festivities.

Instead, citizens constructed His Majesty “Triboulet,” a straw and rag puppet that functioned as a replacement for the king. The mock king came to symbolize the beginning of carnival festivities…a tradition that continues today. Nice has celebrated carnaval most years, save for interruptions by major wars, making the carnival we attended the 134th. This year’s festivities were presided over by the “Roi de l’Espace,” or King of Space. Each year, the carnival king embodies the year’s theme, which is also loosely adhered to by the floats, dancers, and crazy costumed creatures that run through the streets.

This year’s carnival king was a likeness of Thomas Pesquet, a European Space Agency astronaut and all-around badass.

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My parents and I had standing room tickets for the 9 pm carnival parade, the last of 2018. We stood on Place Massena’s black and white checkered floor as a spunky French announcer tried to pump up the crowd (which mainly involved versions of make some noiiiise! Un, deux, trois: ouaaais!) We stood facing a set of packed stands. Behind us were the Promenade du Paillon gardens and an enormous ferris wheel, impressive in the bright lights. The best part: it wasn’t raining, blizzarding, or otherwise destroying the spirit of the carnival.  

The carnaval launched in an explosion of noise and confetti. Outer space lent itself well as a theme, resulting in a delightful nightmarish party of rockets, robots, planets, Steam Punk flying machines, aliens, and Jedi.

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I loved seeing the floats up close. Designed by ‘Ymagiers’, the floats are recognizable by their signature style: colorful and grotesque. As in the world of political cartoons, well-known public figures morph into bloated caricatures with bulbous noses, gaping grins, and larger-than-life heads. They were strikingly detailed, fabulous and a little freaky.

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The political cartoon style of the floats was no coincidence: it wasn’t long before things got political.

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In the Planet of the Apes float, a grotesque Trump-ape beats his fists against his hairy chest, his teeth bared in a terrible grimace. Joining him are fellow ape-people Theresa May, Putin, and Erdoğan. Even better is the story of this float: it depicts a space explorer who lands in the middle of this strange new world where apes have the run of things.

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Soon after came French president Emmanuel Macron, apparently being spun in circles by his wife Brigitte (meaning she runs the show? I’m not up enough on my politics).

Another highlight was Trump and “Rocket Man” Kim Jong-Un.

acs_0195A bit more beautiful, though, and my favorite float aesthetically, was the Queen of Space. lrg_dsc01111

I’d only ever seen such festivities on TV. To be in the middle of it all, the dizzying sound and color, confetti landing in my hair, was a vastly different experience.

After two hours of joyful chaos, the crowd swelled towards the edge of Place Massena, tripping over streamers and feathers and tiny children dressed as clowns. There, we watched as the King of Space was destroyed in a ritual burning. Soon, nothing was left but a cloud of smoke rising from a metal frame.  acs_0204Any day now, spring.


To read about my carnival experience last year, in Montluçon in the rural Auvergne region, click here

trash or treasure? Liz Magor at the MAMAC de Nice

acs_0120 Last week, with snowflakes hitting me in the face, I set out for my first visit to MAMAC, the musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain de Nice. 

It’s hard to miss. The museum is housed in a neoclassical building that crosses over a busy street, flanked on each side by chunky white marble towers. The space comprises a library, theater, and a lot of locked doors. It took me a full ten minutes of crossing back and forth through slush puddles before I found the entrance.

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View from the MAMAC

Inside, I found a small but interesting collection ranging from Pop Art to modern surrealist acquisitions. I spent the most time strolling through the temporary exhibit: an entire floor devoted to recent works by Canadian artist Liz Magor.

Her work included lots of old objects. Open cardboard boxes, a stack of towels, a stack of paper, the “bloodied” head of a deer, all of it in lofty white rooms. Some of the objects were real, some were casts.

The work had the ability, if not to inspire, then certainly to provoke. I watched groups of people rolling their eyes and snickering as they walked through the rooms. When I later looked up reviews of the exhibit, many were scathing.

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Liz Magor, Whisper Glitter

I’m all for modern art, but this is too modern.

Some accused the artist, and by extension the museum, of le snobisme.

An insult to human intelligence. 

Several reviews were self-concious, noting they knew they’d be considered stupid or unsophisticated by others, but really, they had to say it, this was just dumb.

It was indeed one of those exhibits where you wonder if it’s all just a big trick–a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes exhibit, where you hope it’s not some prank being filmed for Jimmy Kimmel. Watch these mindless losers think they’re appreciating sophisticated art! Really, they’re staring at someone’s trash! 

I had a suspicious encounter with a broom that I think was just a left-behind cleaning tool, but there is a chance it was part of Magor’s collection. Even as I tiptoed around it I thought, this is what’s so fascinating about modern art. Put something in the sacred space of a museum and even if we hate it, or even if it produces no emotion at all, most people will agree to treat the object with respect, at least in practice.

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Liz Magor is something of a surrealist, and surrealists have always had the power to shock and awe…and incite fury. Some feel delighted upon seeing the playful, subversive reinterpretation of a urinal as a fountain…others are insulted.

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But art isn’t just about beauty. Beauty is subjective, after all, and there is beauty in ugliness.

It isn’t just about skill or time spent or effort, either. How do you assign value to ideas? Sometimes it’s the idea that makes meaning, rather than any work of the hand.

Sometimes, especially in surrealism, I think the artist dares you to say that sucks, dares you to think for yourself. Just like with Duchamp’s Fontaine, where his message was not ‘I am the all-important artist,’ but rather, ‘how far can I push the art world?’

And as far as the accusation of snobisme, I say just because you have to work to appreciate something doesn’t make it highbrow or a scam. Does it make you think? If a piece fails to inspire me on a conceptual level, I like to use it to think about the art world, about the business of art, or maybe about that age-old question “what is art.”

I like to ask questions like: how did this get here? Does anyone actually like it or is it just the artist who makes it “good?” Is it good? What is good? And just like that, you have a reason to stare at a cardboard box for a few minutes.

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Magor’s work made me think about a lot of things, such as the transformation of found objects into art. At what point can you assert authorship?

“I made this.”

Well, kind of, Liz. You mostly just found it in a thrift shop, but sure. 

But the more I read about Liz Magor’s ideas, the more I appreciated what she does.

Magor’s work is all about objects. Stuff. Rarely is there a human image in her work, but the displays suggest a human presence: someone has just left or will soon return.

She likes to find old, discarded things and revitalize them, perhaps putting a worn, stuffed puppy on a literal pedestal and sticking it on the wall, or draping dresses in garment bags over the backs of chairs, arranging them in various states of “repose.” Magor has said she works by taking an object and seeking to find what made it valuable to someone in the first place. Why did someone buy this?

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Our most practical relationships are perhaps with our things. Chairs and toothpicks and gloves and barrettes and notepads and forks and hairdryers, all the little objects that foster a Western lifestyle. The value is in the service these things provide. Magor, it seems to me, aims to restore some aesthetic value to these found, once-loved things. She lends interest, even dignity, to what might otherwise be trash.

She also works with the more insidious emotions of guilt and fear: hiding stacks of beer cans under folded towels, cigarettes under clothing, Cheetos under a mound of rocks, all facades that don’t quite manage to conceal the bad habit or addiction.

The secret life of stuff, you might call it. Or maybe: the secret stuff of life.