Go brush your teeth, Go Brush Your Teeth, GO BRUSH YOUR TEETH, ARE YOU FLQ!@SDM! DEAF CHILD?!? GO BRUSH YOUR TEETH!!!!: On Parenting
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and Isabelle and I are in the kitchen leisurely hashing out our respective views on the various idiosyncrasies of her two children.
We’ve done this enough to know that this conversation is more or less useless, as neither of us will change our views or grant much alteration to the same things we’ve been saying to each other for the past five months. It’s a completely futile exercise, but we do it anyway every month or so, when I’ve arrived at my wit’s end or beyond and it all comes spilling out.
“You cannot be in opposition with them,” she is saying. “You cannot ask them to do something and expect them to just do it, you have to do it with them.”
“-But that’s ridiculous!” I blurt out, exasperated. “They are 6 and 8 years old, and I am not going to hold their hands while they brush their teeth. They should be able to do that without me and without my asking twenty times before something happens.” Teeth brushing and other acts of personal hygiene happen to be extremely hostile activities in this household.
Isabelle cuts me off, “But they only want to spend time with you. For example, I know they can dry themselves off after they shower, but when they ask for my help I do it because I know it’s just because they want to spend time together.”
“That’s not true!” I hear myself say before I can stop myself. This is forever a problem with myself in French. Knowing only how to say things simply without the suave twisting of vocabulary needed to turn unpleasant truths into tactful responses always leaves me coming across overly blunt and truthful, no matter how much I progress.
I try to tread lightly to make up for my quick turn of phrase – “I just feel that they like to be babied, and they are getting too old for that. If they just wanted to spend time with me, they would be nicer about my asking to do things, because they know I won’t play with them if they don’t do what I ask. I should not have to ask so many times for them to do something that should be automatic.”
Isabelle doesn’t seem to hear me. “They like to cuddle with you on the couch when you watch movies, are you going to tell them that they are too old to do that?”
I sigh. “Of course not, but that is not the same thing.”
And around and around we go. I am aware that there is a balance to be struck between what we are saying, and I am also aware that we haven’t found it and won’t find it before I board a plane in two weeks. It’s a difficult reality to accept, which is probably why an hour later I find myself spending my afternoon break sipping a coca lite and dangling my feet over the edge of Cap La Houssaye, breathing salty air and sunlight to prepare myself for a night of babysitting. Even fifteen minutes on the cliff puts me in a better mood, and I go most every day.
It was a rough morning. Mathilde hadn’t wanted to get up as usual; it’s winter here now, and while I can’t justly say that it’s actually cold in the morning, it’s what the french call frais – something like brisk or chilly – and she doesn’t like to get out of her warm bed and gives me a hell of a time trying to accomplish it. There are surf lessons on Saturday mornings, and eventually I was obliged to physically pull her out of bed kicking and screaming and grabbing a hold of furniture. In a few minutes she’s sitting on the couch braiding plastic string, perfectly calm as if I didn’t spend the previous 10 minutes wrestling her out of bed like a wild boar.
“Okay Mathilde, go get dressed and after you can play some more alright?”
The look of menace returns to her face. “Can you not see that I’m doing something right now?”
It’s her morning self talking, and I try to swallow some of my french frankness to keep from starting any more fits.
“Please don’t start. I would like us to have a good morning and this is not the way to do it.”
Mathilde looks up from her braiding. “Yeah, well it would be a great morning if you weren’t here.”
I look at it her silently as she goes back to her braiding, then turn on my heel and leave. It’s early and I don’t feel like playing super nanny just yet. I know she doesn’t mean it but it bothers me anyway, and all I asked her to do was put a swimsuit on so she can surf – surf! No one that lives here seems to understand me when I tell them it’s not possible to do such a thing in Texas, or anyplace in the U.S. really unless you trek out to California some place.
In the car it’s not much better.
“Why can’t I speak English yet, Danielle?” she asks out of the blue from the backseat. I glance at her in the rearview mirror.
“Because we always speak French,” I say. “And you don’t like when I speak English to you.”
Mathilde, not appearing to have heard anything, declares, “It’s because you only teach us words. We need to learn phrases. My teacher teaches us phrases. You’re just a bad teacher.”
I know I should ignore where this conversation is going but don’t. I know she’s getting this from her father, who has told me before that he felt I had progressed far more in French than his kids had in English. This is true, but only because it’s inevitable because we never speak English. I try again.
“Mathilde, I took French all day everyday for three months from great teachers before I got here and still couldn’t speak it because I never had to. I understood a little better and could say some things, but I couldn’t speak French. If you want to learn to speak better you’re going to have to try harder when I speak English, and not just get angry that you can’t understand.”
“No. You don’t teach me enough phrases, if you did, I could say them. I don’t know why we bother if you’re just going to teach us stupid words like fruits and animals.”
She continues on this way nearly all the way to the beach. It’s all complete nonsense and I know it is -for the past few months I’ve been giving more official lessons every Monday and Tuesday afternoon to her, Raphael and their friend Elodie. I felt like they were progressing well with vocabulary but struggling with putting full phrases together, so I tried to start teaching English in English like I was taught French in Dijon; something the kids all hate because it’s hard. I more than sympathize, remembering sitting in a lecture hall in early October completely lost and bewildered at the string of syllabus some old french dude in a gray beret was tossing out at everyone and expecting us to take notes. Sympathize, but in retrospect understand the necessity of it. Mathilde doesn’t seem to sense said sympathy and continues berating my teaching abilities.
I block it out and tune in to what’s coming out the stereo and laugh when I realize it’s Sam Robert’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” At least the stereo understands.
She continues to be moody and mopey all through lessons and says all kinds of irritating quips through lunch. She spills her drink on the table and starts wiping it with a napkin. I notice Raphael has coke dripping off his arm and ask Mathilde for the napkin.
“I’m cleaning the table right now” she says, not looking up.
“Yeah I see that,” I say. “But your brother is dripping coke all over himself now,” and I take the napkin from her anyway and start wiping down Raphael.
“You never listen to me!” she whines. “You never care if I want to do something!” My head is starting to hurt and my daily dose of patience is nearly dry and our food hasn’t even come out yet.
“What’s more important, the puddle on the table or the coke you spilled all over your brother?” I ask as patiently as I can muster.
“The table,” she says. “At least it doesn’t annoy me.”
I wish I could throw something, or run back down to the beach and bury my head in the sand for a few minutes, or at least find some way to embarass her into realizing how much she’s embarassing herself, but know none of these yearnings are possible. What amazes me most is that all this is coming from Mathilde, who has alway been prone to moodiness but not so much meanness. Really – it’s been Raphael and I who have shared rough times in the past, but now he just looks up at me wide-eyed, sipping his drink quietly and shrugs. He’s just as confused as I am, and can’t be altogether happy about losing out to a table.
For awhile I blamed whatever issues I was having with the kids at the time on my inability to communicate as smoothly as the other adult figures in their life. I tried to imagine being a kid and having someone who barely spoke my language boss me around like they knew what was up, and maybe that was the problem, for awhile. I was new to them, they to me, and with all my screwing up of words like “hair” (cheveux) and “horses” (chevaux) and other twisty language learning going on there were bound to be issues.
But now I’ve been here for awhile, and the language doesn’t beat me over the head like it used to. The kids know me and I know them, and we’ve had a lot of good times together on this incredible island, but we’ve arrived at a point where Mathilde turns into a complete pyscho for at least half the day everyday and when I ask them to do normal daily routines I might as well be speaking English to Lilou the dog, who responds only to French and only if that French word is diner or promenade.
No – it’s now occurred to me that we are beyond the complictions of language barriers and well into the realm of simple, straight-up parenthood – something I had no intention of learning so much about this early in life if ever, and certainly not with someone else’s kids in a place where I have little to zero power to discipline. When I do try to exert some kind if discipline, it is generally counteracted by some parent or other before it can really run its course or make any kind of impact. What does this young foreign girl know about raising kids, anyway?
Sitting on the edge of the cliff and looking out towards the ocean, my head clear and a bit more relaxed than a few hours earlier, I can honestly answer – nothing.
I’ve spent many an hour berating myself for not finding a way to stir a change in the behavior of the kids. I’ve always known that I’ve been lucky enough to have an exceptional family, closer than any I’ve ever known. My brother and sister and I have our arguments of course, but we never say anything really mean or hurtful, and I’ve never heard them say things even close to what Mathilde’s been firing at me every day for the past two weeks. There are days when I collapse in bed, swearing this job is the most effective birth control campaign I’ve ever seen, and try to understand why.
Is it because I don’t have enough patience? I know it’s low now, and everytime I hear a fit coming on I generally leave the room until they calm down. It’s following Isabelle’s philosophy of avoiding opposition, and it’s also saving me a very difficult self-control exercise – but it changes nothing in the kids, and we fight these battles day in and day out.
Is it the kids? I’ve worked a lot with kids, and it’s true I’ve never seen anything quite like the challenges these guys pull. But then, I’ve never really lived with any other kids besides my own siblings, and that can’t be the same thing.
So what is it? How are all these parents doing it? I want to know. All of these people I know who have kids or want them or are about to have them – how do they deal and for god sakes, why?
I’m thinking about this on the cliff when I hear someone behind me and turn. There’s three boys, maybe 14 or 15 years old, standing shyly and dripping on the rocks.
Pardon mademoiselle, one says. Knowing what they want to do I move away from the edge and back against the rocks to let them take my place.
The shortest one jumps almost immediately, plunging into the deep ocean below in his own personal manlihood demonstration. Seeing him re-surface, the second one jumps right after him, hitting the water with a smack and resurfaces, laughing.
The last boy is the tallest, but is rocking back and forth, dripping from swimming earlier and probably wishes he was still in the water and not staring at the huge gap of space between himself and the deep blue. His friends are looking up at him from the water below, jeering at him to jump. He looks at me waiting behind him.
Vous allez sauter ou pas? I ask, grinning.
He grins back and I hear him mutter – putain! – and before I can ask him who taught him such language, he jumps.
I always flinch when they jump, even though I encourage them to go ahead and do it. It doesn’t hurt and they’re always so macho about it afterward, I don’t want them to miss out if they’re into that kind of thing. I take my place back on the edge and watch them swim back to the rocks.
They have moms that would kill them if they were watching, I think. And then – and those moms probably want to pull their hair out listening to all their whining and antics too.
I watch them scramble back on the rocks and tease their other friends watching who didn’t take the leap. They’re all young French boys out to prove something, but it doesn’t matter that they’re French or that they live here or that they are using jumping a cliff as a means to feel grown up – the point is they’re just kids and they want to feel powerful, and try and have a decent time while they’re at it.
I’ve been slowly seeing how everyone has their own version of everything – of waking up and walking down the hallway, of saying hello and being berated and eating strawberries, of loving and feeling important and answering the phone, and yes – of raising kids and feeling okay about it.
The kids have reasons of their own for behaving like they do. I’ll probably never get it and I’ll probably keep dealing with it right until the day I climb back into that monster plane to go back to the northern hemisphere, but as far as parenting goes sometimes I can see why they do it, why they make the jump.
Later that day I go back to the house and start the babysitting routine. It’s not smooth, but it’s not like the morning either, and I’m feeling less trapped. Mathilde has gotten over whatever demons existed that morning, and we practice dancing Thriller. (“My friend at school has been showing me how to dance to the plastic man!” she says) and Raphael and I practice singing “Patty cake patty cake, baker’s man,” which he more or less gets until we get to the baker throwing the batter into the pan, where he completely loses all grasp of the actual words and just yells “patti-poopy-doo!” as loudly as possible and starts over again.
Then comes my least favorite task of the evening –
“Okay guys!”I say. “I’ll finish clearing the table if you’ll go brush your teeth!”
As usual, no one seems to hear me, and I start to get tired of listening to myself ask before I finally have to push both of them in the bathroom and watch them while they begrudingly slosh toothpaste around in their mouth until I say stop. After story time is over and their in bed, Mathilde yells for me.
I’m ready to collapse on the couch with my book but pull mysef over to her room anyway. “What is it?”
“I learned this phrase at school,” she says, holding out a piece of paper. “I want you to have it.”
I take it and put her back in bed. “Thanks Mathilde,” I say. “Goodnight.”
“Sleep tight!” she says, as always. I go back to the couch and fall into it, then hold up the paper.
It’s a torn out coloring page that Raphael colored for me a few nights ago when I was trying to keep him away from his Mom’s office while she was working. On the back I recognize Mathilde’s handwriting, “Y Love You.” It has been a long day, particularly with Mathilde, but I can’t help smiling. She can never sort out the difference between Y and I in English.
I put the paper in my room and go to the office to call my family while Paulo and Isabelle are out for the night. Before long the power cuts out and doesn’t come back on. I work my way back down the hall and crawl in bed, thankful that tomorrow is Sunday and I have the entire day off. Then I crawl back out and work my way back down the hall, trying not to laugh.
I almost forgot to brush my teeth.
There is a moment in every sunset when the whole world turns transparent – did you know?
Living here I begin to count the things I’ve never noticed – particularly when I am en train de faire autre chose, when my mind spends too much time sifting through daily nonsense, stops seeing the world for the painting that it is.
There are times that I don’t believe myself either, but it’s true – sitting on the rocky cliff of La Cap Houssaye, feet dangling over ocean stretching west (somewhere something smiles and sighs, home) and for a few minutes I put down my book to watch the sun.
It’s in that tipping moment, where people all over the world – stuck in traffic, stirring casseroles, looking at their watch, see the sunlight on their window panes and blink – the light turns red, the water begins to boil, the minute hand makes his move – and the light is gone. And all around this southern end of the world the tipping of the sun has spilled into the clocks of the human mind, the light is gone! And so the exit must be close, the meal is almost ready, the time has come – everyone misses it. But I try not to let my mind tug itself away, so I can tumble into this other world I forget that I live in.
The colors of the sunset have invaded half the sky now and after months of worshipping the sun on the island of dreams I know what is coming. Raphael is tugging at my hand, “Danielle! It’s getting late is it time to go home?”
“Almost,” I say, ” wait a few more minutes.” And he, caring less about the sky and what is or isn’t in it runs back to Mathilde to continue building restaurants of sand while I look back towards the ocean and watch the world turn pastel, light coming not from the sky but from within everything around it.
It doesn’t last long, but I’ve seen it enough now to know that it’s true – and here I am sitting against the high cliffs of Cap Houssaye, where the deepness of the ocean beats against the rocks and stretches out across the reef (and out, and out!) and there – sun gone, couples climbing out of their rocky perches to find dinner or a more comfortable rock formation (perhaps where the sun can’t invade even if it wanted) and the fishermen are packing up their things so soon they can pack the standing bars with their rough hands and fishy breath so here now, the world begins to glow.
The sky is translucent and through its pink shell you begin to see the deities of blue stars, the rocks I’m leaning against are humming with sun, heat of soft lead gray – and there – god the ocean! There are no sunbeams falling from the clouds but instead the light is coming from within the water itself, changing from the blue of Greek postcards to an incandescent pastel. Like a mirror, like a painting, like a diamond, and nobody is watching.
How many times have I lingered at the beach or the cliff on Sunday evenings, clawed my way outside of the headache of getting the kids and table ready for dinner and into the garden at night to marvel at this? How many times has Mathilde been granted ten more minutes of playtime on Thursday nights because on my way to pick her up from chez sa copine I pull over on the side of the road to catch the moment when the sun descends and the light reflects back through the water, the trees, the sand, the stars to bid it farewell? For one instant something flies open in your soul, pauses in surprise, and –
And then it’s over.
In the distance the mountains begin to turn on their lights, hands reaching for light switches and tired voices of mothers and fathers (and perhaps relieved young foreign girls trying to improve their french?) are saying “okay, time for bath!” (alors, qui va prends une douche en premier ce soir?) and everything, at last, turns dark and begins to cool.
One month from today I will be on a plane to another part of the world. I am more lucky than I could ever deserve I’m sure of this, but I can promise that I won’t forget it, I can’t forget it, and I’ll be watching even as the light of this life begins to fade; the world tipping again into my mind so the sun can rise somewhere else entirely, and as it sets on my life here, it will always be there, warm, present, humming.
Tonight, wherever you may be, watch. You’ll lose no time – in fact, you’ll gain time. It is faster than you think.
Ascending the Fiery Abyss (Try Not to Drown While You’re At It!) And Around the World In Half A Day: Honeymoon Times Part 2
I’m sorry this is so late! I will hopefully make up for it with lots of posts soon, but my laptop bit the dust and so I have been at the mercy and generosity of my employers as they let me use their computer for brief email and skype checks after everyone has gone to bed.
The only problem with this arrangement is that I can only use the computer at certain times and for a certain amount of time, and I also don’t have all of my notes or pictures at my disposal..and I am typing on a french keyboard, which after one has been typing furiously upon the familiar positioned keys of a the North American standard, typing on this contraption can be quite infuriating. But too bad! It’s been too long and before I know it will be time to leave, and two months of events will be lost.
So – I will try to do this by memory and with the pictures I still have. And I apologize, I will be sacrificing linguistic acrobatics for the sake of merely recording everything I can as quickly as possible before I have to get off the computer, so please bear with my more swift and direct commentary. Here we go!
When I left off we were about to embark on our journey up the Piton de la Fournaise, the active volcano on the southside of the island (Once, Zoe asked me how to spell it:
Me: de LA FournaisE. In French, the volcano is a girl
Zoe: Of course she is, that bitch!)
Needless to say, it was a long and difficult hike, and once again I found myself in a place above the clouds, where the air is thin and there is nothing to cover the blazing sun. It was steep and required somewhere around 5 hours of climbing over solidified lava, but, as always it was worth it!
We hiked it with Jean-Pierre, a 70-year-old something trooper who is the head of a hiking club he and Paulo created. You can thank him for these hot photos of us climbing the lava rubble.
Naturally, as soon as we reached the top we immediately walked to the edge to take a look inside the massive hole, then sat down to have some lunch. I think Zoe explains the events that followed most eloquently:
“I’m pretty sure you can see the ground cracking underneath us, just waiting to cave in and erupt.
Jean-Claude Van Dam: Est-ce que vous avez lu l’affiche???
Moi: J’ai vu une affiche mais je ne l’ai pas lu
(after we continued to eat out entire lunch in this spot…)
Moi: So what do you think that sign said?
Danielle: Let’s read it
Sign: DO NOT cross this line. DO NOT sit or stand at the edge of the crater, strong possibility of walls caving in.”
After volcano day we spent a lot of time trying to conquer as many beaches on the island as possible – and I’m not exaggerating when I say we hit up 22 of the 42 beaches on Reunion Island. This was in part because on one of the days, Zoe and I took the day off from the kids and armed with a burned CD, a book of beaches, a tank of gas and 50 bottles of water, we drove around the entire island in a day (if I didn’t feel isolated before, I do now!)
This was not a planned activity, but Zoe and I agree it was one of our favorite days. Look at all we saw!
One of the many beaches directed to us by the Beach Bible lead us to. Beautiful – but not a vraiment beach! Those waves were serious business.
Okay this place was awesome. We were cruisin along singing to Matt Mays when Zoe yelled STOP PULL OVER HERE! And thus found ourselves stumbling upon the hidden Reunion treasure of Les Puits des Anglais. That pool is full of water brought in by those huge waves.
Now, Zoe and I, wanting to experience the full delight of the natural pool sheltered from the raging current, decided to swim out to the edge of the pool to have a look by the rocks (where these really wormy creatures live who flop around all over the place..I think they are relatives to the leech, but luckily they just stayed on the rocks and didn’t jump in for a dip with us)
In any case, we turned our backs to the ocean for a second – a split second! – and in that moment a huge wave crashed over our heads and pushed us in the pool, sucking us downward, downward and for thirty seconds it was impossible to resurface. Three summers of lifeguarding and I’ve never been afraid of water!
Then suddenly we submerged, and everyone in the pool took deep breaths and starting laughing. I’m sputtering and yelling ZOE ZOE ZOEEE!!!! And I see her on the other side eyes wide and gasping. Holy hell!
And that’s how we almost drowned..and said au revoir to the rocks.
Please try to ignore my dumb chitchat and just look at all that water! It’s a bit long but at the end you can see a similar wave hit the pool and see it overflow! This took several attempts to catch on camera.
After that we continued our way around the south side of the island. The cool thing about driving the island was that you could quickly realize how diverse a place that is. Round one corner and there’s jungle, the next forest, the next ocean, always mountains..and then of course, volcano!
For lunch we stopped at Anse Des Cascades, some heavenly paradise where forestry and waterfalls meet the ocean.
We spent some time adventuring into the forestry…
And the waterfalls…
In case you are thinking that we spent the majority of our time hopping from place to place and rushing from here to there, fear not! We did more than our share of laying in the sand (black sand beaches included..not a recommended pasttime if you are not planning on spending the majority of your time in the ocean hiding from the scorching pigment of the sand).
We also fell into the habit of spending as many nights as possible stargazing at the beach in the company of good chocolate and cheap alcohol…and the ability to see the sky here, the sheer closeness of it, never ceases to take me by surprise. Needless to say, we were very blissed out.
Like all good vacations, the end of ours was no easy thing to accept..but especially because it’s not like we are trekking back home together to resume our normal lives. We layed sprawled out on the lawn in front of the airport marveling at how no one bothered us (can you imagine chilling out on a grassy knoll at DFW without being searched, questioned, detained, or at the very least run over by all kinds of transportation?) we waited her flight knowing full well she’d be flying back to Dijon to finish the semester, and I’d be staying on here solo until the end of my contract in July.
At the end of it all Zoe flies back to Canada. I will eventually tumble back into the familiar, blissful English-speaking arms of the United States. All is well and good and in a lot of ways we can’t wait but – when will be in the same country again? All I can say is we’re both a bit worn out by French and are feeling a peculiar but unmistakable Latin itch…
Until next time!
One Indian Easter, Ten Waterfalls (Four Arctic Swims), Two Near-Death Experiences, One Conquered Volcano, 3,0958 Mosquitos, 12 Nights of Stargazing, One Boat Excursion (Possible Third Near-Death Experience With a Kayak) One Day-Long Island Drive ..and 22 Visited Beaches: Two Weeks In Paradise With My Favorite Zed Oh E Part One
Before we begin this multi-part mess, I think it’s necessary to clarify exactly who Zoe is and why she’s important..which for me is more than self-explanatory, though perhaps can never be completely understood by anyone that isn’t me, or who hasn’t been forced to spend some time with us.
I met Zoe on my first full day in Dijon, where we were both on the same bus to the French comprehension exam (the late bus no less), and we were immediately united when I heard her talking to future buddy Jeremy.
Me: “Oh sweet jesus, you speak English?!”
Zoe: “Yeah, that’s pretty much all I speak.”
And we were more or less inseparable from that day forward. Most everything that I discovered in Europe I discovered with Zoe (the fact that we could only speak English in a country that only spoke French notwithstanding), and we have done our fair share of living (and surviving) together..but that it is another blog entirely.
In short, Zoe is in many ways my other half, and even though I was stoked out of my mind to be boarding a plane to a tropical paradise in January, I was also bawling my eyes out next to two poor old french people because I would be discovering something new without the ability to look over and say, “holy hell, can you believe we’re here?!?!” And Zoe being there to respond with something reassuring like, “Yeah I know..you don’t think that guy is wearing a speedo, do you?”
Just something missing.
THIS time though, everything was put in its right order and she pulled financial strings like we’re so good at doing and came to pay me a two week visit.
After retrieving her from the airport (and her declaring something like “I’m sweating my balls off already! wait a minute -” and pulling off her pants under her sundress in the middle of the road) we immediately headed to the beach!
The first beaches we hit up were my favorite postcard beaches: Saline-Les-Bains and L’Ermitage.
Zoe: “So how long is it going to take before I see my first topless sunbather?”
Me: “Probably about five minutes if you stop oggling the ocean.”
Guess what her first picture in Reunion was? (I’ll spare you the evidence).
After a day at the beach chatting (it had been so long since I’d sat and chatted with someone in English in person I’m pretty sure I just talked her ear off for the next four days), swimming, basking in the sun and otherwise beginning to acclimate Zoe to the rather chaud climate here, it was time for her to meet the kids and the family.
Zoe was not the only one staying with us. That day Isabelle and Paulo’s friends Daniele(2) (my hiking friend form the Grand Benard) and his wife Madeleine were staying with us for a few days as well before they moved back to Metropole France. This meant that our house was completely full, and Zoe got to literally camp out in the garden with a tent for a few days until they left and she could take the spare bedroom.
The problem with this arrangement was not that there were too many people in the house, or that the kids weren’t going to bed on time as a result (meaning mornings waking them up were even more enjoyable than usual), or even that Zoe kept waking up early because of the squawking, noisy geese that live a few houses down; the problem was this tidy secret: the French are kind of insane.
..And I mean that in the best way possible. But really, most every middle-aged and up French person I’ve met are more or less a little nuts. I’ve been living on my own with this family for awhile so I’m more used to their nutty tendencies than I realize, but with Zoe here I was able to recognize more how abnormal their conversations are. This was helped by their friend Madeleine, who was the most insane of them all.
At dinner, Zoe’s first night:
Madeleine: How do you call voile in English?
Me: Well it means sail or veil..but it can also mean sailboat
Madeleine: No no no, the boat that has white triangular sails
Zoe: Yeah we know…sailboat
Madeleine: NO. It’s not a sailboat it’s something else. It’s a small boat with white sails.
Zoe, looking at me: Is she correcting our English?
Me: …welcome to paradise, cherie
And so began our meeting with Madeleine. (Later episodes would include over-explaining most everything you could ever think to ask about (but mostly things you didn’t ask), dumping all of her jewelry on my bed and explaining each of their origins, asking a woman she didn’t know at dinner to please show her pictures of her children who had died, trying to tell Zoe she didn’t know how to work her own camera (and then not figuring it out herself), spending five minutes trying to take a picture of Zoe and I with a sunset, then declaring it couldn’t work because “one can’t look straight at the sun,” and developing a nasty habit of hitting Zoe on the arm every time she wanted to say something, which was far too often). ..Etc. Etc. Like I said, she was crazy.
I think the best way to portray our feelings about her are to watch this video, which is Zoe’s celebration dance after Madeleine finally left. Sorry it’s sideways! But I still think it’s pretty hilarious:
Needless to say, it made our nightly family dinners even more interesting than usual.
On Easter Sunday we headed to Saint Andre for “easter lunch” with Paulo’s family. This was interesting because no one in the family is religious, and Paulo’s family is Indian. To me this usually means lots of awesome food and cool people in cool clothes, but this time it meant something else too: no silverware!
After Zoe and I devoured half the samousas and Letchi/Banana Rum punch, huge platters of meat and sauce and rice came around for us to eat on banana leaves.
Me: Wait, where are the forks?
Isabelle: This is an Indian lunch, Danielle, we don’t use forks.
Me: But there’s sauce and..with my fingers?
Isabelle: Bah oui! Comme ca, regardes:
And then we ate. It was awesome!
The same day they took us to see some waterfalls in St. Andre. There are a lot of waterfalls here, but I hadn’t seen any yet because we just came out of the rainy season, meaning there was so much water it was dangerous to go visit them (they even close the roads that pass by the smallest waterfalls, making my commute to school in St. Denis two hours instead of forty-five minutes… I do not miss rainy season!)
This is Cascade Niagra (Cascade is the french word for waterfall..I think after all this I’ll be using the words interchangeably all my life).
All this cascading was very motivating, and we ended up hiking Les Aigrettes – a place with three cascades in St. Gilles les Hauts, about ten minutes from my house – twice. Once with the whole family (plus Madaleine..mercy) and once just Zoe and I. When we went with the whole family, we only saw one waterfall, and had Mathilde climbing all over us (well, me) in the water and then the sun went down. The first waterfall was so cool that Zoe and I went back to do the rest. It required meandering through the forest and climbing through rivers, but it was worth it!
This is the entrance to the “trail” that leads down into the waterfalls, which are located in a kind of crevice between two mountains.
Paulo: Excuse me, where is the entrance to Les Aigrettes?
Vender: Just through the barbed wire.
OH OF COURSE!
If you go swimming in a waterfall in the near future, here is something of note: IT’S FREEZING!! As in, if you think you can just ease your way into the water you would be wrong – you’ll just realize quickly how insane you are for trying to swim there and chicken out. The only way to do it is to dive in, be paralyzed with cold for about 10 seconds, and then your body goes numb and you realize what a cool place you’re in (no pun intended).
The water is incredibly fresh and clear, and there are tons of little fish swimming everywhere. Our goggles fogged up really quickly because of how cold the water was and how hot the air was (Zoe will gladly tell you all about her feelings on the tropical climate here if you ask), which is probably just as well because after we swam in all three waterfalls and were regaling the family with how wonderful it was, they asked us if we were aware that those pools are full of eels. EELS!! I’m so glad I didn’t know this when we were swimming all around completely unperturbed and carefree.
Above us there were these huge boulders, and some insane french punks decided to climb them and jump into the waterfall from the top…vraiment I was prepared to put my lifeguard skills to use.
For lunch, we climbed over some more boulders and picniqued on top of Les Aigrettes! One of the best views of the trip I think:
Kind of like my romantic fantasies about trains, there is a special place in my heart for boats, so I was extremely excited for Friday. We spent the morning at what we loving call “dream beach,” which is actually called Les Brisants, and is right next to Les Roches Noires (another favorite beach haunt), where our boat came to pick us up.
Called dream beach because look at that water! Look at that sand! The only problem is it’s hard to swim here because the current is so strong. We held an informal Sports Illustrated shoot here and the waves were particularly violent with our attempts at being irresistible..you can refer to facebook if those photos are of any interest to you (and contact me by email if you are an agent and want to contract us..but be patient, we have many requests).
We went with this boat because you could do pretty much everything on it – kayak, snorkel, see dolphins (saw three right under our feet!) and otherwise just lay around in the open sea sipping Dodos and eating samousas when the sun set at the end of the day. It was a dream boat if I ever saw one.
Me: How do I look?!
Zoe: ..Like you belong.
This is us completely failing to board a mini plastic kayak meant for one person. It took us at least 10 minutes to board this thing, and everyone on board stopped what they were doing to watch us make complete idiots of ourselves and laughed their heads off accordingly. One of the guys working on the boat even grabbed a beer, sat on the edge and just laughed the entire time. We showed them though!
Don’t worry we did some Titanic action for you while we were on an actual boat:
After all this we headed to the much anticipated The Mex to try what the menu described as….
Perfect end to an awesome day. By about 9:00 we were embarrassingly completely exhausted. (So much so that when we were paying out at the Mex, the following happened:
Bartender: Hey, would you ladies like some drinks?
Me: No thank you, we already had some
Bartender looks a little confused, shrugs his shoulders, and goes back to cleaning glasses as Zoe and I leave
Zoe: Wait..was he offering to buy us drinks?
Me: No I thought he was just…DANGIT!
Zoe: DANIELLE! Hot bartender just asked if he could by us drinks and you basically said, “Oh no thank you, we’re not thirsty”
It was just as well though, because the next day we had a 5AM wake-up call from Jean-Pierre, a friend of Isabelle and Paulo’s, who was coming to pick us up to hike La Piton de la Fournaise – the active volcano on the south side of the island!
To be Continued….
Bonjour, tout le monde!
I know it’s been awhile since I posted anything, and this is just to let you know I’m still alive and will attempt to write a post worthy of the wait in about a week or so. ZOE is here (!!!!) and we’ve been a bit busy since she arrived last week, but all is well and there will be plenty of pictures to come, so you and my internet connection can prepare yourselves for something truly monumental.
Gros bisous and more soon!
I feel like I say this a lot but it’s true – the French know how to take it easy.
When I was living in Dijon I would marvel at the businessman in his trench coat and cigar, legs crossed casually as he watched people walk through the park at 2:00 in the afternoon. My housemate would ask me, “don’t you think that’s strange? I mean, don’t they have jobs or something?” And I would insightfully respond, “Yeah..I think it’s awesome.”
While everyone in the U.S. is enjoying a week of Spring Break, here everyone has been enjoying two weeks of vacation because…well for no reason at all really. They have another one of these two week breaks in May because… they don’t want to go to school and work sometimes? It seems like a good, honest system to me.
In any case, because the kids are on break that means my daytime vacations have been brought to an abrupt halt, and instead I have been doing whatever it is Isabelle and Paulo need me to do with them, all day everyday.
The vacation had a kind of intense start when the kids got sick with some bizarre stomach infection that left them immobile and incapable of doing much of anything besides watching a string of movies and laying in the bathroom with their head on the toilet like a Bill Cosby skit.
Naturally, since the kids were sick it was only a matter of time before I was next, which allowed me to experience the joy of the French health care system for the first time.
..Of course, when I say experience what I mean is that it happened to me, and I remember a thing or two from that sweaty, feverish existence if I sit still long enough.
I remember Isabelle chattering away at the front desk explaining who I was and what I was doing in France and why they should care about it while I broke all kinds of innate social codes and laid down on a wooden bench and passed out on a seat cushion. Then at some point Isabelle woke me up and walked me to the back room, where there was more explaining who I was and why they should be bothered that I couldn’t stand up without someone to hold me up and the security blanket of a plastic bag.
“Do you speak French?” the doctor asks slowly.
I look at him dolefully until he comes into focus. “Not today,” I say, and put my head back down on the table until at some point someone walked me over to the examination table and jabbed me in side and asked if it hurt (why are doctors always doing this? Someday I am going to jab them and ask if they like it and what kind of disease that implicates).
I still don’t know exactly what it was I had, but it was more debilitating than what the kids had and it caused me to be put on four different medications and instructed to eat a diet of chocolate and carrot mush for three days. After I regained full consciousness I asked Isabelle: So what happened at the doctor’s office? Did they give you a hard time that I’m not a French citizen with French health insurance?
“No,” she said. “I just explained that you live with us and put you in under Paulo’s name since he wasn’t there with us, so we didn’t have to pay anything and you didn’t have to use your insurance.”
After that fun, things really picked up. On Monday they had a party with a bunch of their friends; this is another thing I’ve observed about the french people I’ve lived with – they love to entertain. I usually don’t mind all their parties because it usually just means Raphael and Mathilde go play with other kids in the pool and Isabelle, Paulo and friends sit around the table for hours chatting about parenting and the education system while I take a stack of magazines or a book and make sure the kids don’t do any serious damage.
This was one of those parties, though they were having it for a special reason – tongue. It’s actually spelled “tangue” but it sounds exactly like “tongue,” and when Paulo was explaining to me I at first thought maybe ‘tongue’ could be used in French as it is in English, and we were eating the tongue of something.
Me: “Wait so who’s tongue are we eating and why is it special?”
Paulo: “No, no, it’s not a body part it’s an ANIMAL”
Me: “There’s an animal called ‘tongue?'”
Paulo: “Yes it’s like….(fetches French-English dictionary)..ah..hedgehog.”
Yes, apparently there is a special kind of animal like but not exactly a hedgehog that just lives in Reunion and a few of the surrounding islands that you can only hunt for two months out of the year, and one of their friends caught one and so everyone was getting together to eat it.
Now, I feel like I have tried some interesting foods. In Dijon Mrs. Big cooked guinea pig and said it was Moroccan (bizarre I know, but honestly it tastes just like chicken), escargot (rubbery garlic), duck stomach and intestines (I didn’t know it was those particularly PARTS of the duck until after I ate it, but it was really good), and eel (this freaked me out when I saw it because it looked like a cut up serpent in the bowl..but it didn’t taste much different from fish, though it’s not my favorite).
Anyway, regardless of the fairly strange stuff I’ve eaten I was still a little apprehensive when we were all seated and the big bowl of chopped up hedgehog came around.
Kids: “Are you going to try it?”
Me: “Of course, why not?”
Kids: “Because it’s yuck.”
But Paulo served me a small piece and all the kids stopped eating and started clapping,
“EAT IT, EAT IT, EAT IT!!!”
They were right. It was yuck!
On another day we had a picnic dinner at the beach in St. Leu. This was nice because
A) It’s rainy season so with the constant downpour it’s been impossible to go to la plage for awhile, and
B) because of my work schedule, I’ve never been able to see the beach at sunset. So I was very excited for this outing.
When I think picnic, I think of the following: big scratchy blanket, insulated lunch boxes with elementary sandwiches, boxes of fruit juice, oreos, and too many bugs. But I think by law of nature Isabelle is always in possession of everything you could possibly need at any given time.
There was a portable folded table and chairs, bamboo place-mats and colorful plasticware, a cooler of fresh juice and water, an insulated box of an entire quiche she made earlier in the day, another insulated container of a fresh chocolate cake.
And that’s just what she brought – our friends that came with brought containers of sausage and rice and an assortment of sauces and cheese. What a glorious feast!
Before all of that commenced the kids were playing on the beach looking for crabs when Mathilde came running up to me yelling,
“Danielle! A zurit, come see! Come see!”
I turn to my friend Dhara, who has just finished interrogating me on if I ever plan on returning to the U.S. and staying there, “What’s a zurit?”
Dhara: “It’s Creole for octopus.”
So we all ran down into the surf where some french dude was talking to a big piece of coral rock, “Allez! Allez!”
If looked closely, you could see a pair of big, black googly eyes peering out beneath a bulbous head of blubbery octopus flesh.
Me: “Just leave him alone! If you keep yelling at him he’ll be scared and won’t come out of the rock.”
French Dude: “No I don’t want to lose him, he’s our dinner!”
Me: “Er, excuse me?”
And then french dude reached his hand in the rock and grabbed octi-boy’s slimy head and ripped him out of the rock. And you read about octopus ink but you can’t really grasp the reality of it until you see some guy gripping the head of a live one while its tentacles burst into maroon ink in defense before dude starts beating the octopus on a rock and kids on the beach are running everywhere screaming as ink and octi-parts fly in all directions.
After the octopus was dead, french dude rinsed off all the ink in the ocean, stuck it in a bag, and headed back up the beach to show his wife their fresh evening meal, leaving a pool of thick red lingering in the surf.
Me: “Is that normal?”
Dhara: “No, it’s illegal to kill octopus here, it’s a sanctuary..also, it looks pretty gross, non?”
And so began our evening picnic on the beach.
On Saturday we met with my hiking buddy Daniel(2) and his wife in St. Pierre for the morning outdoor market, which is about forty-five minutes south. I really love the outdoor markets here, they’re lively and there’s always something to see and try. Madeleine, Daniel(2)’s wife is very social, so she knew a lot of the vendors and took us around and explained (sometimes a bit much) about where things were from and how they’re made and oh have you tried this spice? It’s great with chicken.
Speaking of chicken..want some?
Yesterday was my favorite day. Isabelle and Paulo hosted another party for Paulo’s side of the family, and instead of leaving everyone to do their own socializing I was incorporated into the festivities. Isabelle sat everyone down on the porch outside (about 15 people in all, it was like our own personal Christmas) and said,
“I am very happy to introduce Danielle, our jeune fille au pair from the United States, and she – well what does she do, Raphael?”
Raphael looks up from his wine glass full of orange juice (only the French).
“She watches us and plays with us…and she walks around barefoot all the time and throws us in the pool..and she doesn’t like tomatoes and she sings loud and Mathilde doesn’t like it.”
This family knows me.
We had a really good afternoon (sans hedgehog) and spent the day chatting and playing in the pool and jumping on the trampoline. I got to try my hand at teaching one of the kids how to swim in french, which I thought went over pretty well considering when I started I realized I didn’t know how to say: kick your legs! (bats tes pieds!)
After, Dhara came and we headed out to Coco Beach for something we’ve been planning to do for awhile – salsa!
When we got there, it was completely packed. Coco Beach is a restaurant/bar/nightclub all outdoors on L’Hermitage Beach, and there were people everywhere drinking, eating and -on the dancefloor – seriously busting a move.
It was then I realized that this was going to be a night completely in a language that wasn’t my own doing something I had only the vaguest idea how to do.
Dhara: “You want to grab a drink first?”
Me: “I think that’s going to be necessary.”
So we each grabbed a beer and hung out on the outside of the dancefloor, Dhara pointing out things like “look out for him – he’s really good and no matter how well you follow it’s really hard!” and “oh watch out for him, he thinks he can dance really well but he actually just steps on you” and “oh look at that couple! they come here every time and dance together all night.”
I look over to see two people in their upper fifties, the woman wearing a short black and white dress and heels and the man wearing matching pants and white button down shirt, tearing up the merengue. This was my kind of place.
It wasn’t too long before some guys came up and asked us to dance, and after the first time you get asked other guys see you and ask too (no matter how unfamiliar you are with the moves!) and it was great fun. One guy decided to dance with me four songs in a row (about a half hour of solid salsa-ing) and at the end we were both soaked in sweat. (nice, right? Nobody seems to mind though, I think it’s just part of it. Sweetest cardiovascular activity there is!)
Salsa Dude Extraordinaire, grinning: “Want to take a break?”
I had time to down a diet coke with Dhara before this huge dude offered his hand across the table. Dhara smiled and said, “go!” and before long I was involved in the most violent dance of my life.
“Je suis une débutante,” I say. “I’m a beginner.”
Huge guy: “Ahh don’t worry, so am I!”
And with that ridiculous lie he decided to lead me as forcibly as possible, twirling my arm so fast I almost knocked over a table before he practically threw me across the floor in a cross-body lead.
Me: “AHHHH TOO MUCH!!”
But, not seeming to hear me or care he twirled me again so hard I felt my hair whip the face of some other couple dancing near us and I can hear the girls next to Dhara dying of laughter.
“He’s aggressive, eh?!?!” they say when I collapse in my chair. I’ll say!
There was a Chinese dude, Frederick (yes, imagine a Chinese dude named Frederick with a really heavy French accent and feel your day get better) who tried to teach me some bizarre new dance that just before Dhara was telling me she had no idea how to do (and I still have no idea how to do, aside from move to the right and left and hold on to your partner’s neck for dear life), and another guy who was lucky enough to dance with me to a song I could keep up with, so everytime I did a turn or dip correctly he would yell, “YEAAH! GET IT ESMERALDA!”
It was a fun night, and we’ll definitely be back (If for no other reason than to allow my alter-ego Esmeralda to dazzle french men with her clumsy charm).
At the end of the night, I am sitting alone in the kitchen munching on hot samosa, petting Lilou and looking out the glass walls. Everyone else has gone to bed early, tired from the day-long party with relatives, but my blood is still hot from three hours of the most fun french education I’ve had yet. People will tell you that french guys are romantic – I think they are just hilariously, ridiculously straightforward, (kind of like if you’re not familiar with the french language it sounds pretty and sexy, when really it’s also just hilarious in its own right). The music is loud and everyone is moving, sweating, laughing, and some guy you met five minutes before is pressing his hand against your back and whispering in your ear in Creole, even though you told him you’re American and can only understand well-articulated French and he needs to calm down.
But even in the misunderstanding and uncertainty and the not-really-knowing exactly what you’re doing (cozy french dude notwithstanding), there is a liveliness in it that I find intoxicating. To learn to be unafraid of what you don’t know, to allow the embarrassment and mistakes to fall where they may, it’s liberating.
Sometimes, no matter how nice the view is from the park bench, you have to step onto the floor amidst all the lights and sweating bodies and even in your fear of what might happen if you do, just move.
(And then take it easy afterward, but don’t refuse the hedgehog if it’s offered to you..you or your alter ego Esmeralda might like it).
Before I first moved here, people would ask me, ‘so what’s your plan for teaching these kids to speak English?’ I didn’t really bother sidestepping this question, instead opting to give the honest answer of, “I really have no idea..wing it?” And nearly two months into the process, I can tell you so far it’s been a good plan.
In any case, our lessons actually began by mistake – in my second or third day here, we were outside playing legos when for whatever reason, Raphael picked up a lego piece off the ground and stuck it in his mouth.
“Yuck!” I said on impulse.
Raphael stopped chewing on his dirty lego and Mathilde looked up. “What is ‘yuck?'” She asked.
I paused, thinking I’d never had to explain the meaning of yuck in English, let alone in French.
“It’s a word you use to describe something disgusting, or something you don’t want to eat.”
Mathilde then said, “Ohhh I get it!” And pointed at her mother and said, “Yuck!”
I think they basically get it.
Then we started as basic as I could think, beginning with how I started learning French.
“Hello, my name is Danielle. What’s your name?”
In class, Mathilde has an “English name” that she chose – Wendy Will. Imagine hearing that name in a 7 year old’s heavy french accent and you will understand why I often ask her what her name is.
Once we mastered that phrase, we continued with Mathilde finding every “American” or “English” name positively hilarious and impossible to pronounce correctly (Being only 5, Raphael isn’t too intrigued beyond anything beyond ‘yuck’ and ‘yum-‘ which are now his two new favorite words)
Mathilde, in robot mimicry of the phrase I taught her: “Danielle, what- is- your- father’s- name?”
Mathilde: Stebe. What-is-your-mother’s-name?
Mathilde: Sayndee. Your browther?
Mathilde: Billy. Your seester?
Mathilde (bewildered): WHAT?
Mathilde: CURT-NAY. What is CURT-NAY?
Me: My sister! And it’s Court-NEE not NAY
Mathilde tries several times to get this pronunciation right before throwing legos at me because I can’t stop laughing
Me: Okay okay fine, ask something else.
Mathilde: What is the name of your cat?
Me (pausing, knowing this is not the best transition question): Mister Norris
Mathilde: WHAT!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
This then prompted an entire afternoon of random outburts from Mathilde, where she would stop what she was doing, point at me wide-eyed and say, MEEESTER NORRIS!! HAHAHAHAHA!!!!
And so began our introduction to the English language.
After a few weeks of reviewing colors, numbers, and words like “car” and “egg” and “star” (you can thank Dr. Suess for the vocabulary list – their favorite book is “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” – or ,if I’m reading to Raphael, “Un Poisson, Deux Poisson, Poisson Rouge, Poisson Blue“), it occurred to me to ask Mathilde if she had learned any other phrases at school recently.
“Yes!” she said enthusiastically.
Me: “And what phrases did you learn?”
Mathilde, standing up as if about to give a broadway performance:
“Let’s go play football on the grass!”
And at this I start laughing hysterically. Could there be a more Americanized introduction to English?
Mathilde, motivated all the more by my amusement, continues:
“I learned another phrase too! It’s in a play.”
Extremely curious now, I ask, “What lines do you know from the play?
Mathilde: “My child! Not in the river! My child! Not in the flowers!”
And now I am nearly crying in laughter at the dinner table, while Isabelle, whom understands English pretty well is asking, “Is that really what you learned in school Mathilde?” knowing full well there’s no other way she could have learned it, but also not wanting to believe these are the introductory English phrases being taught to her child at their educational institution of choice.
Once I recover, I ask, “Do you know what those phrases mean, Mathilde?”
And after I translate for her she bursts out laughing: “That is NOT what it means!”
Me: “Yes it is! Why do you think I’m laughing so hard?”
And now Raphael is banging his fork on the table, yelling ”
Mon enfant! Pas dans la rivière! Mon enfant! Pas dans les fleurs! Hahahahaha!”
Education at it’s finest.
In another effort to generate interest in something non-french, I asked if they’d ever heard of Harry Potter.
“Arry Pottar?” Mathilde asks. “What is Arry Pottar?”
Appalled, I spill into a description of the greatest children’s book of all time, and it takes me a minute to realize both kids are laughing at me.
“Why are you laughing?” I ask
“DANIELLE IS IN LOVE!!!!!!” Raphael yells, and I realize that the only thing they’ve registered is that I’m very passionate about Harry Potter, and am thus in love with whomever Harry Potter is. So now there are always random times throughout the day where either of them will crawl in my lap and ask, “so what did you and Harry Potter do last night?” And burst out laughing. I thought maybe we should watch the movie together, but now I think that would just be counterproductive.
And so, my plan is still to have no plan, but to rather to teach little by little without neglecting the project nor overwhelming them to the point of disinterest, knowing that the more time moves on the more focused our lessons will become. I speak very little English here, but when I do I phrase carefully and slowly, so while they may not be able to produce the verbs and nouns in their correct order, they know when I am asking them to hang up their towel or put away their toys. And they like when I praise them for correctly pronouncing “white egg” or “very good!” and – yes – “yuck!”
What can I say? I think I am at least ahead of the game of whomever’s genius idea it was to instruct young french children to say, “my child! not in the river!”
And also avoid any mention of Harry Potter, lest it distract everyone from what we’re actually talking about (an interest in non-French culture) and lead to something entirely unrelated (my fabricated relationship with a fictional character in the United Kingdom who waves a magic “baguette” and sweeps me off on his broomstick every night while the kids are asleep).
Like I said – education at its finest (and not just for the kids).