Solidarité

Like so many, I am deeply saddened by the events in Paris. I could delve into my thoughts on the politics of the situations we as a changed, evolving world face today, the ideology of how to improve things, my own pessimism regarding our ability to ever bring peace to this kind of fight, or the grief that those who have lost must feel so acutely. Thankfully, none of our loved ones were hurt. To talk of my own grief for a country I love seems self-centered at a time when so many are so personally affected.

So instead, I’ll talk about why I love France. It’s in part the obvious: the beauty – both natural and man made, that exists throughout the country. The fabulous food. But it goes much beyond this. While listening to NPR today, I heard a guest comment that we (Americans) have certain things we admire about other countries. We admire the Germans for the machines they make – their cars. The Swiss for their watches. But when it comes to the French, we love the way they live. We idealize it, bien sûr. We also poke fun at it (another strike? Geez!). Yet it is the French way of life, the joie de vivre, the bon appetit, the je ne sais quoi that we so admire and wish to emulate. For the French celebrate life. Art. Family. Food. History. French culture is a celebration the things that make being human great. The essence of humanity.

So I continue to celebrate France. France, Paris, Je t’aime pour toujours.

 

Le Père Noël does what?

Like many Americans, I grew up with Santa Claus. As December progressed, the floor under our tree would fill with presents from and to all family members – parents, grandparents, kids, cousins, aunts, uncles. Then, on Christmas morning, we would wake early – usually at 5:00, unable to sleep, checking the clocks every minute, watching the minutes slowly tick by until the clock finally hit 7:00, when we were allowed to wake everyone in the house and get the day started. Christmas morning, our stockings would be stuffed and there would be new toys from Santa, waiting for us by the tree. We spent the morning opening gifts, from Santa and from each other.

Best year ever: Santa brought my brother the Millennium Falcon and a few Star Wars figurines. He brought me an enormous Strawberry Shortcake dollhouse. We were both in heaven. My parents remember that being the year that they were up most of the night putting those things together (I seem to recall some loud banging noises accompanied by the occasional muttered curse), and that there were a few hundred decal stickers between the two big gifts. But they remember it all with a smile and are happy to hear us reminisce about that year.

Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree

Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree

On one of my first Christmases with my husband, we shopped together for our niece and nephew, his brother’s kids who live in France. It was so exciting for me, because at the time they were the only children in our family. But when my husband slapped the tags on the gifts, inscribed with “de la part du Pére Noël,” he had a huge smile on his face and I got squinty-eyed.

“But, those are from us. Not Santa.”

“Yeah, but, I thought…” He looked confused.

It turns out that in my husband’s family, like many French families, all presents under the tree magically appear on Christmas morning. And they are all from Santa.

I reasoned that we so rarely see our niece and nephew and I wanted them to know the gifts were from us. I wanted them to know we were thinking of them. He reasoned that this is the way it’s done, chez lui.

I felt so weird about it. For one, I believe that receiving gifts from people other than Santa gives children a valuable lesson in being grateful and thanking those people. That learning to give gifts as a child is a valuable lesson as well. I also felt that we were stepping on my in-laws toes. After all, isn’t it the right of the parents to play Santa? I’ve looked forward to that since long before I had kids. I don’t want anyone else coming in and taking over Santa’s role in our home, and I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. My mom once pointed out that she believed the way the tree was filled with presents from and to everyone, not just Santa, made the transition into realizing that Santa wasn’t quite so real (part of me will always hold onto that magic) easier for us as kids.

For my husband, the magic of Christmas was, in part, the overnight filling of the tree. And the fun for adults is playing Santa to everyone.

A minor clash in the grand scheme of things, really. Today, we send the gifts from us, not Santa. The gifts that come from France are from the kids’ Aunt and Uncle, and from their Mimi and Papy – so perhaps traditions in France are changing? Many French people I know still label everything “from Santa.” I’m grateful that our family does not. Because, even though our kids don’t get much time with the French side of their family, they know that they are being thought of. As the kiddos rip through the paper wrapping, I make sure to grab it and say, “This is from….” So they know.

We’ve embraced many of each other’s Christmas traditions and are forging our way into creating traditions unique to our family. We continue to play with the menus for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Maybe we will forever. For years my parents, who live in southern Arizona, hosted a Christmas Eve mexican dinner with tamales, chimichangas, and margaritas for family and close friends. I miss those, but it’s time for us to start hosting. For my husband and me, a house full of loved ones, good food, twinkling lights on the tree, and lots of hugs make for a great day. Presents fill the space under our tree and tonight, Santa will come with a few more for everyone. Beyond that, we’re still winging it.

Merry Christmas and Joyeux Noël to all!

 

Beer and the Great American Beer Festival

My husband likes to joke that they kicked him out of France because he knows nothing about wine. This is not entirely true – he knows more about wine than the average male, but perhaps not the average French male. He enjoys a glass of wine and can comment intelligently on the parfum and the subtleties of the flavors.

Truthfully, though, he’s a beer guy. He loves beer. Especially IPAs – which makes sense because San Diego, where he developed his taste for beer, has made a name for itself in the world of brew in large part through IPAs. Me – I can’t stand them. Just thinking about hops results in bitter beer face for me. But give me a good Belgian Trippel and I’m in heaven.

My Frenchie hubby loves the freedom that beer is allowed. Wine making in France follows strict rules: for example, fields cannot be irrigated – they must rely on the weather, the wines that have a “good” reputation tend to come from a single grape, and the land the grape comes from is often more important than the grape itself – it’s all about the “terroir.”

But with beer, if someone feels like throwing in banana or coriander, it’s fair game. Beer is a place where creativity is admired, sought after.

We got lucky this year – we got to go to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. For those who don’t know, GABF is an annual, three day event that draws over 50,000 people from around the world to sample the thousands of beers offered. When tickets go on sale online, they are gone in about 30 minutes. It all started with Charlie Papazian, nuclear engineer, teacher, founder of the Brewers’ Association, writer of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, and overall awesome guy. With an equally awesome family who we’re lucky to be friends with.

Both San Diego and Colorado are meccas for beer, which works out well for us, as beer fans. I tasted the best beer I’ve ever had at GABF, and it was in the amateur section where home brewers pair with a brewery to develop their own home brew. This one was a Trippel, aged in a barrel that had hosted port wine and bourbon. Heaven.

So – here’s a few photos:

The line around the back of the convention center to get in

The line around the back of the convention center to get in

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So psyched to have tickets!

The crush to get in

The crush at the entrance

Going up the stairs ... so exciting...

Going up the stairs … so exciting…

We're in!

We’re in!

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Cheers!

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Random…

Next year we need pretzel necklaces, like this guy!

Next year we need pretzel necklaces, like this guy!

 

What American Parents Do Well

Is anyone besides me beyond annoyed by the whole “Americans suck as parents” trend? From Pamela Drukerman’s Bringing Up Bébé to Tiger Mom to British nannys reading us the riot act, we seem to have the whole world judging our parenting style as completely ineffective. Worse, we’re labeling ourselves as inept: we’re sure that somehow, some way, everyone else knows something we don’t, whether it be some variation of the “kids/parents these days/in my day” rant (which has gone on for generations) or the “French/Chinese/Tribal Africans/name any country do it so much better” trend.

It’s clear to anyone who actually lives in the U.S. that there is no one-size-fits-all parenting strategy here. Peruse the shelves of books on parenting in any bookstore and it’s apparent that we can’t agree on much of anything when it comes to how to best raise a child in this country. Beginning with how best to bring the child into the world: you’d think the way a child exits the mother’s womb is the single most important aspect of being a parent, the way some people rail on about it. The fact that we even have shelves of books on how to parent speaks volumes for our combined interest, opinions, and insecurities. Still, I think there are some approaches that while not completely universal (is anything?) are still identifiable as “American.”

Here’s where I think Americans are getting it right:

1. We’re affectionate and loving with our kids. We hug our kids, kiss them, rub their backs, let them drape themselves on us. We give them piggy back rides. We tickle them. We let them pretend they are tickling us. We often tell our kids we love them, we compliment them, we encourage them.

2. We pass on optimism, positive outlooks, and a you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to attitude. Americans: we’re a pretty sunny bunch. We smile freely. We’re chatty even if we don’t know you. And we tend to see the world as a place full of wonderful possibilities, especially if you work hard. We pass that attitude on to our kids.

3. We encourage sports and physical activity. We love our sports. We like to watch them, we like to play them, we like to talk about them. And while there’s no denying we have an issue with obesity in this country, we also have millions of citizens who make sports, staying in shape, and playing a part of their daily lives, for all their lives. This starts early: soccer programs for 2-year-olds leads to league sports for elementary aged kids, and sports associated with schools usually starting in junior high. Our kids learn valuable lessons about physical fitness, healthy lifestyles, and teamwork from the start.

4. We know school is important, but that it shouldn’t rule our kids’ every waking moment. We let them experience balance in life by giving them opportunities to pursue other interests: musical, athletic, social; we believe happiness in life comes not only from accomplishing, but also from relationships, balance, and exploration of the world. Still, we get involved in our kid’s education, too. We volunteer in the schools. We keep tabs on school board and curriculum decisions. We have relationships with our children’s teachers. We, like many other cultures, keep close tabs on how our kids are doing in school and what they are up to outside of school. Involvement in extracurriculars is often portrayed as a frantic attempt to make sure our child is good at everything. But for many of us, it’s an attempt to help our child find the things they love to do, and then keep doing them.

5. We get emotional. Our kids see a spectrum of human emotions in us. We don’t tend to hold our kids at arms’ length, or try to be something other than ourselves, our very human selves, around them. We keep it real. Our kids see that we aren’t perfect. Our kids see us say we’re sorry. Yes, we’re still in charge, but we don’t pretend we’re infallible.

6. We put our kids through college. One of my biggest gripes about my country is that higher education is ridiculously expensive, and therefore not accessible for far too many people. Faced with this reality, we try to rent or buy homes in the best school districts to give our kids the best chance at getting a good education and therefore being accepted into universities. Parents who are able start college savings accounts for their children early, sometimes when the kids are still in the womb. I’ve met parents who have extended their working years, took on extra hours or even a weekend job to ensure their kids have a college education. It’s no picnic for the parents in this country, but we want our kids to have a bright future, and we’re willing to sacrifice to make sure they have opportunities that some of us did not.

7. We appreciate our kids as individuals and we support their dreams. We try to get to know our kids and understand them as people, not as beings we can force into a mold of our choosing. We try to respect them as individuals, and we want to help them find the right path in life – the one that is best for them, not for us.

We cheer them on at their swim meets and soccer games. When they tell us they want to be a rock star, we hand them a plastic microphone and let them turn our garage into their studio. Sure, there’s the out-of-control soccer parent here and there whose kid is the most talented player in history and everyone around needs to recognize this as fact, or the cheerleader parent who enthusiastically applauds every scribble on paper and every awkward cartwheel, but these are exceptions rather than rules.

8. We play with our kids. We have a plethora of Mommy and Me Classes. Sometimes this is criticized as one more way we go overboard, but, for many of us, it’s an opportunity to have fun with our kids and to meet other parents. We dance like fools because it makes our little ones giggle. We play with them on the playground because we cherish that time with them. We watch cartoons because it’s fun to see them through our kids’ eyes. We “vroom vroom” toy cars around the room, honk when we pass through tunnels, and play Memory and Candy Land because we want to have fun relationships with our sons and daughters. Sure, there are “helicopter parents” who go overboard, but most of us genuinely enjoy our kids’ company and want to enjoy it while they still think we’re cool enough to hang out with.

9. We volunteer. We encourage empathy and kindness toward others. Growing up, my family and I helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity for people without the means to buy their own home. We made meals for the homeless. We played Santa Claus for low income families with children – gathering, buying, and wrapping gifts, as well as preparing a full Christmas dinner. The tradition of helping others happens in families, through churches, through schools. A local high school football team volunteers in community projects each year, doing things like helping flood victims or working at a local Children’s Home. Through involving our kids in volunteer work, we hope to help our kids learn to be kind to others and to help to make this world a better place.

10. Our kids are participating members of the family. Kids help with household duties and chores. They get to talk, share their ideas, their feelings, express their frustrations. We’re in it together, after all, and kids learn to contribute, to talk, to compromise, to bargain, coerce…. yeah, I’m not saying we’re perfect. But we view our kids as individuals that deserve a level of respect while we still attempt to teach them values, morals, and how to be good people. We take them places with us. Out to eat. On vacations. On adventures around the world. On errands. Camping. It makes it harder on us, sure. But for us, family means we’re a unit that does stuff together.

 

We are all products of our cultures, our socioeconomic circumstances, our own upbringings. Further – what works great in one situation may not be applicable under different circumstances. My own view is surely biased by my own experiences, the people I know, the areas of the country I’ve lived in. If there’s anything close to a universal in parenting, I’d say it’s that the vast majority of parents worldwide love their kids and want what’s best for them. As I said before in my Open Letter To Moms post, we could all take our foot off the judgement pedal and chill out a little, learn from each other, and focus on loving and enjoying this world’s next generation.

Parenting, as a verb, is new to our lexicon. We’re killing ourselves with anguish over it. We’re making it so complicated. Too often we approach it as a problem to be dealt with. Parents in the U.S. are too often stressed and unhappy. Mostly, we’re doing it to ourselves. Let’s stop the “we suck” train. Let’s recognize that while no one has it all figured out, we’re not train wrecks, either. We’re doing a lot of things just fine.

Addendum: This blog post was inspired by a question posed by Olga at European Mama on American parenting. She’s written a great post in support of American parents, and you can find it here.

The Culture of Taste

VegemiteMy first experience with Vegemite was when a friend offered me a spoonful.

“Want to try it?”

“What does it taste like?”

“Kind of chocolaty.” Smirk.

So I took the proffered spoon, chomped down, and promptly gagged, spit, then went on to do my own version of Tom Hank’s scraping off his tongue à la “Big.”

Vegemite does not taste anything like chocolate. Chocolate tastes, well, heavenly, and melts in your mouth, and makes you feel like you are floating on clouds. It elevates your psyche and instills lightness where darkness once existed, benevolence where once there was stress and anxiety. Chocolate could be the answer for world peace.

Vegemite is disgusting, foul, and doesn’t belong on any food shelf anywhere.

Yet the Brits and the Australians think it’s fantastic.

Clearly, there is a cultural component to our tastes in food. I wonder how much is nature vs. nurture. Why do American kids “have” to dip vegetables in ranch dressing (I’m holding out on this one – really hoping my son will eventually eat vegetables rather than scraping his tongue with his hand à la Tom Hanks any time I feed him veggies) yet no other culture seems to have this “need”? Why do we like the things we like?

Americans, in general, adore peanut butter. Yet ask your average French person how they feel about peanut butter and they will make the same face I made when I ingested Vegemite. Root beer – we Americans love a good root beer float, right? Yet the French find it disgusting – most will say it tastes like cough medicine.

On the flip side, anchovies. The vast majority of my American friends make a sour face and stick out their tongue at the mention of anchovies. But my French friends love to put it on pizza and Caesar salads. Anchovies rarely make the ingredient list for most pizza joints in the U.S., and when I tell my French friends that I’m not a fan, I’m greeted with a surprised, “Mais, porquoi pas ?”

Then there’s pastis. A French liquor, popular in the south of France as an aperitif, especially at the end of a hot summer day. It’s flavored with anise and tastes like black licorice to me – another thing many Americans don’t tolerate well. I sat at a restaurant table full of French people one summer evening, riddled with incredulous arguments as to the merits of pastis after I took a sip from my husband’s glass and declared as politely as I could that I’d prefer to order a cool glass of rosé, thank you very much.

That was not my biggest faux pas. We took a sailboat cruise in Greece one year, led by a ½ French, ½ Greek captain. He had an intense gaze, a fiery temper, and a fabulous sense of humor. I took notes on the trip determined to write him into one of my novels as the larger than life character he was. I was both fascinated by him and a little bit scared of him. One night, while we were docked in a charming small Greek coastal village with absolutely no nightlife, he popped open a bottle of Ouzo, Greece’s anise flavored liquor, and offered it to us. Not wanting to offend, I downed my glass full as quickly as possible. He offered another round. I drank. And again. Yet again, seriously straining my constitution. Then, thank God, the bottle was emptied, but wait, no! Let’s open another! There were seven of us on deck that night, I the lone female. My stomach started to get queasy, my head woozy, and I tried to refuse the next round, but my refusal was refused. I looked to my husband for help, but he was in ouzo bliss and reeled in by male bonding.

“Vas-y ! C’est bon !”

Me, with our boat, the Anatolie

Me, with our boat, the Anatolie

All in the name of politesse, I took my glass, closed my eyes, and downed it as quickly as I could, my seventh or eight or fifteenth glass, I’d lost count.

Another round came. I had plans for this one. When everyone tossed theirs back, I tossed mine, too. Right off the boat and into the water.

SPLASH!

“Qu-est que c’est?”

“What was what?” I tried to play innocent, but I’m a terrible liar. One of the other guys looked from me to my glass and back.

“Did you just dump your ouzo overboard?”

“What? Dump it? I… uh… yeah. I did. Sorry.”

The captain’s eyes flashed. “You dumped my ouzo overboard? My. Ouzo?”

“I’m really sorry. I, just, I couldn’t drink anymore.”

An incredulous reaming, half-serious, half-joking, ensued, and it was determined that I must go on trial. The captain grabbed the broken table leg and it became his gavel, my husband pleaded my case, and I was sentenced to singing. In front of everyone.

So, drunk and determined to give the offended captain a good show, I grabbed the gavel, turned it into my microphone, and gave the most rousing rendition of “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor” that boat had ever been privy to.

I definitely can’t stomach anything with anise now.

What other flavors have you found that are popular in one country but wouldn’t fly at all in your own? I didn’t even touch on “delicacies,” like snails, frog legs, bone marrow in France, guinea pigs in Peru, or No-Idea-What-Part-of-the-Cow that was in China (all of which I’ve eaten). I’d love to hear your stories!

The wonderful crew of the Anatolie

The wonderful crew of the Anatolie

Christmas Baking

DSC01405Among the things I swore I would never do if I became a mom:

1. Be a stay-at-home-mom.

Two kids in quick succession and I stepped away from my career – albeit temporarily – to (gasp) stay at home. Don’t tell anyone, but I kind of like it.

2. Feed my kids “kids food.”

“What is this ‘kid’s food’ nonsense? They’ll eat what we eat, the way we eat it!” the old me used to say. This was reinforced when I married a man from France, where “kid’s food” doesn’t exist. I stuck to my guns with Thing 1, then came Thing 2: the pickiest eater in history. My son will boycott entire meals, toss food disdainfully to the floor, or, my favorite: spit things out then scrape off his tongue with his fingers like his mouth has been violated. I haven’t given up entirely, but I admit I experience a small panic, even indignation, if we go to a restaurant and there’s no kid’s menu. Or dip of some kind. He’ll eat it if he can dip it. “Blueberries and ketchup? Whatever.” My new mantra.

3. Allow my child to kick the seat back in front of him on an airplane.

I was once the person on the airplane who avoided kids if at all possible. Whose flight experience could be ruined by a seat-kicking child. Now – hello karma – that kid is mine. I get it, poor lady who chose the seat in front of my son. I feel your pain, really I do. But when my son’s car seat is in place (No Way can we go without it, our little Houdini will wiggle his way out of any restraints other than a five-point harness) his knees are folded uncomfortably into his chest. He’s an active, exuberant toddler, constantly on the move. When nothing else can move, he kicks. My husband and I spend entire flights blocking his feet, trying to minimize the assault on the seat in front of him. I’m forever grateful to understanding fellow passengers, and I’ve found that the most gracious ones are those who have kids of their own. They’ve been there, too.

4. Emulate, in anyway, Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart.

After all, it’s so anti-feminist. Cliché. Expected, even. I had better things to do than be in the kitchen.

Thing is, though, I like to eat. When I eat, I want the food to be good. I don’t have the wallet nor the waistline to handle eating out all the time, so… I learned to cook. To play hostess. To make a room cozy and inviting. I get giddy, even, at the thought of the wide range of things that can come from flour, sugar, and eggs mixed together.

So. Freaking. Girly.

Yet, turns out I don’t mind.

I actually love cooking. I suspect more than one person in my life decided they wanted to be my friend because of something they ate at my house. I’m okay with that.

Christmastime, the oven spends more time on than off, my hands grow chapped, and the floors have a fine coat of flour as I bake an array of treats then box them up for gifts. I love every minute of it. I even pulled a baking (almost) all-nighter this year. So I’ve gone from studying all-nighters to partying all-nighters to up all night with babies to, now, Betty Crocker all-nighters.

Here are the sweets of my labors:

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Next up: Prime rib for Christmas Eve, and classic Swiss Fondue for Christmas Day.

I really love good food.

Pas Mal

We visited a French friend’s home recently for the first time, and when I walked into their La Jolla area abode, complete with floor to ceiling windows and a spectacular view, I exclaimed: “This is such a fabulous house! Wow!”

My friend answered, with an indifferent shrug, “C’est pas mal.”

I stared at him. “That’s such a French answer.”

“Oui. There are some that are better, some that are worse, so: pas mal.”

And there you have it: French culture and American, juxtaposed. We Americans tend to be enthusiastic, perhaps overly so, of even the most mundane of things. “Oh my god, there is nothing better than potato chips. These ROCK.” Everything is awesome, amazing, choose your superlative. The French, on the other hand, can’t seem to muster up excitement about anything.

There’s little difference, for example, in how they describe something that’s great versus how they describe something that sucks: “C’est pas mal.” It’s not bad. This describes anything from something good to something fabulous. Then there’s: “C’est pas terrible.” Literally: It’s not terrible. This describes something awful.

As an aside, the word “terrible” in French is almost always used in the negative, except when it’s not, like here: C’est un truc terrible. Translation: It’s awesome.

Then there’s the typical response to someone proposing a great idea. Here, we’ll say, “What an amazing idea!” or something equivalent. The French will more typically say, “C’est pas bête,” Translation: That’s not stupid.

It’s easy to assume from all of this that Americans are shallow, fake, insincere, and that the French are a bunch of negative duds. No wonder we have so much trouble understanding each other!

Our interpretations of others are colored by our own biases, opinions, experiences, and of course, our cultural understandings. It is easy to generalize something, as I have above, that in truth is much more complicated and nuanced.

It’s also true that my friend’s house is really freaking awesome.