Superbowl Sunday and Sports Chez Nous

 The French and sports don’t really mix. That’s not to say there’s no such thing as a French athlete – obviously this isn’t the case. But your typical Frenchman doesn’t have a lot of interest in sports, though some will watch soccer, remaining calm and perhaps puffing on a cigarette while throwing in a French Blow here and there, because getting worked up over a game is something only a complete “con” does. French girls don’t do anything that might result in sweating. Seriously. Girls in the gym? Haven’t seen it. Girls out for a jog? Ha! Yeah, yeah, yeah, French women don’t get fat. They don’t exactly get toned, let alone muscular, either. I used to run in a park in Paris when I was studying there. During my short jog down the street to the park, I was stared at, pointed at, ridiculed, and otherwise treated like the affront to civilized society the Parisians obviously considered me. Running shorts and running shoes on a woman in Paris, even while running, are not acceptable. My mother-in-law wrinkles her nose when she sees me wearing my running shoes and says, “They aren’t very feminine.”

Parc Monceau in Paris, where I ran.

Parc Monceau in Paris, where I ran.

Thus, Superbowl weekend doesn’t mean much in our house. This is a departure from my upbringing and college days where we’d get together with friends for a rowdy viewing of the game complete with chips, dips, and cheap beer.

I grew up in a family of athletes; myself included. I lived and breathed basketball; there was a time when I thought nothing else in life was worth getting excited about. My family was convinced I’d one day marry a basketball player who would kick back and watch the game (meaning – every game ever). They couldn’t quite believe my hubby hadn’t played sports and wasn’t interested/knew nothing about them. Sadly, the men in my life have trouble relating to each other because of this canyon that divides them. Kudos to my hubby for joining my dad and brother in front of the game and trying to understand. Props to him, also, for mastering the baseball lingo that is such an ingrained part of our everyday speech but impossible for most foreigners to grasp (e.g. “Hit it out of the park,” “Striking out”).

A laser, my favorite boat to sail.

A laser, my favorite boat to sail.

Interestingly, in France, high school is all about academics. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, clubs, even dances, aren’t offered. So perhaps it’s not just a question of interest, but also of opportunity. My husband grew up sailing, which is the perfect French sport. It’s intellectual: requiring analysis and specialized knowledge. It’s graceful and doesn’t require a lot of physical exertion (with a few exceptions, like laser sailing). It’s exotic, sophisticated, adventurous. Alas, to many Americans, sailing isn’t really a sport. After all, there’s very little blood or sweat.

I often find myself explaining football to my husband, which is ironic because I’m not a huge fan and truth be told, I don’t know a lot about it. It reminds me of a time I was explaining the game to a girlfriend. After about fifteen minutes of lessons on the absolute basics to her as we watched our college team play: how many players on the field per side, how a team could score, why the clock stopped sometimes and not others, that sort of thing, she turned to me and said something. What I heard was this:

“I’m trying to figure out their offense.”

“Wow, really? That’s a pretty advanced concept.”

Weird look directed at me.

“Wait, what did you just say?” I asked.

“I said I’m trying to figure out their outfits.”

Right.

At least my husband has never asked about their attire. I decided to introduce him to football via Superbowl XXXVIII the first year we were together. You know, the one with Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. I set us up with some artery-clogging but oh-so-good munchies and beer and did my best to explain the game to him during the first half. Then halftime came on and I told him there was usually a good show to watch. Minutes later, as I stared at the TV wondering – wait, did that just happen? He turned to me with a confused look and asked, “So, is this typical?”

basketballWe did watch the Superbowl this weekend. I keep freaking out, because every time football is on TV (usually when my dad or brother is over) my 8-month-old son stops everything to stare at the game. Uh-oh. The physical therapist in me hardly relishes the idea of watching my son get clobbered every week, nor the prospect of multiple head injuries and what that can do to a person over time. He can pick any other sport. Like basketball. I miss watching basketball with my family, going to games, hearing the ball smack into the hardwood floor, the shoes squeaking, the voices echoing as they call out plays. The first toy I bought my daughter was a mini basketball. I’d love to go to basketball games, soccer games, or whatever games, and cheer on my kids. I want my kids to explore athletics and I hope they will find a sport they can love. Sports taught me so much in life about discipline, teamwork, hard work, taking care of myself, and I want that for my kids, too. Really, I want them to be happy, even if that means sports are not a part of their, or our, lives. And I’m really hoping my son’s French side will take over and decide football is “Ab-so-LOO-te-ly REE-di-cu-LOOS.”

Rewriting Dreams

The stuff of my dreams

The stuff of my dreams

 

My husband and I have a New Year’s Eve tradition that I love. We stay in, make dinner (it used to be a fancy 4 or 5 courses, but this year we copped out and ordered take out sushi) and we… talk. Yep, we chat. We look back on the past year and discuss our favorite moments. We recount our struggles and what we learned from them. We set goals: personal and professional. We see how we did on the goals we set the prior year. We travel plan: dream up the trips we’d like to take in the coming year, pull out our calendars, and make it happen.

These past few years have differed from our first years together. We’re a family of four now; no longer DINKs who lose count of how many flights they take in a year and make milking the last available vacation hour into an art form. The most surprising thing about this all? I’m okay with it.

I was old enough when we had kids that I was both as realistic as one can be about how my life would change, and I’d already accomplished a ton of things I wanted to do. I’d earned a doctorate degree. I’d traveled to Europe, Canada, Mexico, Africa, Asia, South America, and all over the U.S. I sang with a choir. I took up sailing. I wrote two books (unpublished as of yet). I learned French. I quit my job and went on an extended European vacation. Three times. (Wow, I sound flakey). I laughed, cried, and partied with amazing friends. I ran a marathon. By the time I got pregnant, I was okay with slowing down and having it not be all about me anymore.

I was speaking with a writer friend not too long ago and I told her that while I had once dreamed of writing full-time, I was now okay with writing when I could fit it in. That I was so busy with my kids it was hard to find time for writing, and I couldn’t park myself in a coffee shop and write away the hours like I used to. She became sad for me, believing a dream had died. But that wasn’t it at all. It’s just that the dream no longer fit me.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal, written by Katy McLaughlin and entitled New Dreams, When the Old Ones Don’t Fit. That’s it, exactly. The dreams I had as a 15-year-old certainly didn’t fit the 20-year-old me. The 20-year-old dreamer had no freaking clue what 30-year-old me would be like. And pre-marriage, pre-child me had some really great dreams, but it would be silly to cling to those simply because I was once determined to make them happen. It’s not giving up, it’s evolving as life marches forward, without trying to manipulate and control that which cannot be manipulated and controlled. It’s realizing that maybe full time writing isn’t for me, and being okay with that. It’s realizing that while I’d love to be published someday, I can’t hang all my hopes on such external validation; I must keep writing simply because I love to write. It’s realizing that parking myself at a coffee shop every Friday to write isn’t fun with or fair to a toddler strapped in a stroller. Knowing that walking along the Seine at twilight may not happen this year, but it doesn’t mean I’ll never get to do that again. It’s being honest about the fact that while strapping on a backpack and trekking through South America on a shoestring budget once sounded like a romantic adventure, it now sounds like a really great way to end up with a permanent back ache and no retirement savings. It’s realizing that I absolutely will see the glaciers of New Zealand and the rain forests of Thailand, it’s just not going to happen today, and it may be harder than it would have been a few years ago because I’ll have two kids tugging on my jeans telling me they’re hungry and asking if we’re there yet. It’s finding a balance between still having hopes, dreams, and goals, being willing to let the wisdom of experience play its role, and adapting when it isn’t the right fit anymore.

I still have lots of dreams. Now, most of them involve small hands squeezing mine, ice cream (because everything is better with ice cream), and a slower pace where I see the wonder of the world through the eyes of my children. The important thing to remember is this: small hands in mine were once a dream. That’s the dream I get to live right now. That one came true.

A Tale From Christmas Past

My parents and my husband’s parents first met the Christmas before our wedding at my family’s home. The Parisians made the trek to Southern Arizona, oohing and ahhing over the desert that was so different from anything they’d seen before. Upon their arrival, my family welcomed them with enthusiasm, bumbled charmingly over the kiss on each cheek vs. the big American hug, showed them the best sights around my hometown, and left them a gift basket at their hotel.

Ah, yes, the gift basket. My mom put it together and it was such a sweet gesture. Bottled water, chapstick (never go without it where I’m from!), maps of southern Arizona, apples, crackers, and…

Yep. Cheese in a can, for my French soon-to-be-in-laws. French. As in lovers of fine cheeses; experts on the subject of all things cheese. We never told Mom the fate of that canned cheese. I suppose she’ll know now. My mother-in-law-to-be plucked it out of the basket and asked, “What’s this?” Cue horrified look from my husband, who then said, “It’s nothing, here, I’ll take it.” A power struggle ensued: “Non! Non! C’est pour nous! Qu’est ce que c’est?” “Maman, donne-le moi!” “Non!” “Oui!” (“No! it’s for us! What is it?” “Mom, just give it to me!” “No!” “Yes!”)

So my husband told her what it was.

“Du fromage? Comme ça? The Americans eat this? How bizarre! Disgusting! Is it good?” She insisted on trying some, as did my future father-in-law and future brother-in-law. Cue horrified looks and much gagging.

Then there was the wine at Christmas dinner. My parents are, for the most part, barring the occasional margarita, teetotalers. I, in contrast, am most definitely not. I like to take full advantage of what my husband calls my Irish liver. (I’m not really Irish. Though my liver might be.) So when my mom suggested I retrieve the bottle of wine my uncle had given us, I gladly pulled that bottle out of the pantry and brought it to the table. She told me it had been opened but that there was still plenty left. My husband poured a bit into his father’s glass and my father-in-law-to-be took a small sip. He swallowed hard and seemed to be hiding the urge to clench his teeth as he shook his head and said, “C’est pas possible.”

“It’s not possible.”

I assumed the bottle was one we’d opened the night before.

“Mom? When was this bottle opened?”

“Christmas Eve.”

“Last night?”

“No. Last year, Christmas Eve.”

“Mom! You can’t leave a bottle that long after it’s uncorked!”

“But I thought wine was supposed to improve with age?” said my mom, looking distraught and confused.

This was also the year that my brother and I decided there weren’t enough presents, so we wrapped a few of mom’s favorite things from around the house and used them to fill things out under the Christmas tree. It took two or three “gifts” of treasures she already owned for her to stop exclaiming her excitement and start realizing that they weren’t gifts, after all. It’s been years, but my family’s quirky sense of humor still doesn’t translate. Gag gifts, pranks, teasing each other, sarcasm… we crack each other up but my in-laws spend most of their time watching us with furrowed brows. Amazingly, my husband’s parents remained enthusiastic about our marriage. Though we haven’t spent many Christmases together since then….

 

Christmas Recap

Our first Christmas as hosts went well, I think. Best part? Playing Santa Claus and creating Christmas magic for our kids. My daughter helped me prep a plate of my Santa’s favorite cookies and some carrots for his reindeer, which we left near the fireplace. On Christmas morning, she ran around the house in circles giggling manically, so excited when she saw her choo choo train. We ate fresh baked scones, sipped coffee, and watched the kids play wearing big, happy grins on our faces.

Christmas Eve we ate Oysters Rockefeller, foie gras (a gift from my husband’s parents), and salmon with a balsamic and bacon sauce. Christmas day was prime rib with traditional sides of green beans and carrots, spruced up and fancified. Surprise of the holiday: my dad tried the oysters. Then said he liked them. Then took a second helping, so I actually believed him. My family stayed away from the foie gras. My daughter, true to her French roots, took several servings of that.

California banned foie gras in 2012. Huge bummer for the French and Francophiles here. I fell in love with it during a trip to France in 2003, before I knew what it was. I was at a fancy wedding outside of Paris and a French friend tried to explain to me what it was, pointing at his abdomen and telling me it was “from right here, from a really big bird.” “An ostrich?” I asked, saying the first really big bird that came to mind. Not considering the likelihood of a traditional French delicacy coming from an African bird. “Yes, yes, this bird.” I found out later, between guffaws of ridiculing French laughter, that is was not an ostrich but a goose, and it was fatty liver. I also discovered how it is produced. Force feeding a goose with a funnel and a tool to pack the grain tightly and allow for more to be ingested. Horrible, awful, I know. But I’d already fallen in love with the dish. It’s so embarrassingly So Cal of me: “What? This lovely little rectangle of protein delicately topped with a port reduction sauce was once part of a living breathing being? That’s terrible, why do people do such things! Oh, the humanity!” pronounced between savoring bites. Like that scene in The New Normal (LOVING this show) where Bryan and Shania go to a turkey farm to get their turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and when the farmer tells them to pick out their live turkey, Bryan says – no, no, I want one of those prepackaged ones in the back. You know, the one where I can’t tell it’s an animal.

Yes, I enjoy my meat with a dash of hypocrisy. I have so many vegetarian and vegan friends here in southern California that I’ve become self-conscious of my love for meat. One of the great things about having French dinner guests: I’ve never met a French vegetarian (though I hear they exist) and they are way less picky than my American friends. I have American friends with texture issues, color issues, vegetarian, vegan, on the caveman diet, on a fat free diet, avoiding anything white on weekdays, gluten intolerant (this one I empathize with: no pasta? No bread? Depressing)…. My French friends will eat most anything. Well, not crap like Cheetos or Twinkies. These horrify them. Me too, honestly.

Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas dinner turned out great, I think. Though I ended up spending way more time in the kitchen than I’d planned to. I love to cook, but I missed out on visiting with family and playing with the kids and their new toys (I like creating miniature villages for the choo choo train to pass through). It’s inevitable; the host will be in the kitchen when a meal must be served. I was trying new recipes so it was hard to figure out where people could help me. Plus, there’s, maybe, perhaps, the possibility that I’m a…  control freak in the kitchen. I like to think I’m closer to Martha Stewart organized and precise than kitchenzilla, but I don’t like to subject anyone to my brand of crazy, so when it’s a new recipe, I tend to go it alone. Next year I’m thinking a fancy Christmas Eve dinner, because I like fancy, then cheese fondue on Christmas. I picture a cold afternoon of sledding and hot chocolate, and then home for a hearty meal of bread, potatoes, and smoked meats smothered in Swiss cheeses. It’s an easy, quick, social meal. And really freaking delicious.

Snow, you ask? In Southern California?

That’s a question for another time.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

I’m hosting Christmas this year. For the first time ever. In my adult life, I’ve never spent Christmas in my own home. I’ve always either travelled to my parents’ home or to France. My husband and I imagined together the kind of Christmas we would have when the time came to host. We dreamed up menus and activities and of pajama-covered feet running to the tree to see what Santa left. I imagined steaming cups of hot chocolate on my own couch and snuggling in for a long winter’s nap in my own bed. This year, it’s time to stay home, to give our children the experience of Christmas in their, in our, house. My daughter has been talking about Santa (Père Noël) and looking up the chimney, wondering aloud how he will get her choo choo train to her.

Yet it is not without trepidation that I bring my ideas to life. My parents and brother will come here for this holiday; my in-laws will stay in France. I love to cook and entertain, and though I’m not one to shy away from a challenging recipe or unusual ingredients, I’m trying to keep it tame and not change the family traditions too much. After all, my definition of “normal” food is broader than much of my family’s. I figure I should ease them into new traditions rather than banging them over the head with them.

Living in Southern California, much of our dream menu is seafood. When I told my parents that rather than our typical Mexican tamale dinner for Christmas Eve, I wanted to do foie gras (contraband!) and Oysters Rockefeller for an appetizer followed by fish for a main course, I was met with an awkward silence followed by a “Hmm… interesting.” What I didn’t tell them was that I’d already tempered my initial thoughts of scallops and mussels over orzo.

I fear my mom will see the way I’m changing so many things and take it as a slap to the Christmases she’s hosted. But it’s not that at all. I have always loved Christmas at my parents’ home. Which is in part why it took so long for me to host one. On Christmas Eve, friends and family gather; we’ve had as many as forty loved ones all together, filling the house with laughter. I love the huge Mexican food feast we have. Truth be told, I’m sad to miss seeing those people this year and indulging in the chimichangas, queso dip, and generously spiked margaritas that my brother and I make. (Though the latter tradition stopped the year my octogenarian grandmother giggled and staggered through the kitchen while my grandfather commented, “Why, dear, I do believe you’re drunk!” Last thing we needed was Grandma in the hospital with a broken hip.) I’ll even miss that Christmas dinner potato casserole that is so delicious yet sits in my stomach for days afterward like a lead ball, blocking my colon.

Now we have our own kids and our own traditions to start. It’s a bittersweet transition. I hope to create, for my family, the kind of magic my parents created for us growing up. I hope to someday have 30, 40 loved ones gathering in my home on Christmas Eve to make merry. And I hope that one day my parents will be willing to try those scallops. Because Mom, Dad, they are fabulous.

My Daughter Started Preschool

My daughter started preschool at a French American school recently. I’ve been so excited about this. It’s important to my husband and me that she be exposed to both of our languages and cultures. There, all classes are taught in French by native speakers.

Still, taking her to school that first day was gut wrenching. She’s been my constant companion since her birth, or technically, since her conception. I chose to set aside my career, temporarily, so I could stay home with her and her brother. Something I never thought I’d want to do, but life changes us all, often in big ways. I’ve had babysitters, but never had I taken her somewhere and left her there. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions as I turned away from her and walked out the classroom door, alone.

Sadness. Right away, I really, really missed her. Relief. I had a little more freedom for the day. Pride. My brave little girl was flustered when I left, but she hardly cried at all. Guilt. Was I doing the right thing? Was she too young for this? Would they be kind to her? She should be with people who love her, not strangers! Am I a horrible mother for feeling relieved right now? Excitement. She is going to learn so much and do so many cool things that I could never come up with for her. Curiosity. What will she experience today? Happiness. We are entering a stage where she’s becoming her own person and able to do so much more.

I’m so used to stooping just slightly so my hand can reach hers, accustomed to shortening my steps so she can keep up with me. Life suddenly felt too quiet without her little feet tap tap tapping along next to mine or her tiny voice chattering away. As I walked away, my arms swung loose, my back stretched and straightened, and I felt a piece of me returning,  the piece that is just simply Carol; not mom, not wife. I thought: This is a good thing. For both of us.

Then I started to cry.

We Bought an SUV

We swore we would never do it. We were going to be hip, environmentally responsible, buck the trends, maintain our semi-European live-in-the-city ways. We didn’t need a big house in the suburbs. We wouldn’t turn into (gulp) my parents. And we certainly didn’t need a larger car.

Then we had kids. And the gear that comes with kids. I used to think I’d be a minimalist mom. I wouldn’t accumulate all those things they say you absolutely must have. I wouldn’t buy into the “rules” on changing your life when you have kids. Two rear-facing car seats, two in diapers, a duellie stroller, and two pack ‘n plays later, we realized we could either ride with our knees in the dashboard and one change of clothes each when travelling, or we could suck it up and go bigger.

A Honda Pilot seemed reasonable, and while I feel guilty every time I fill it up with gas, I love my SUV. I love that I can see over the other cars when I’m on the freeway. I love that I have ample room to throw whatever I could possibly need into the back. I love that I can keep both kiddos safely rear facing without sacrificing precious leg room in the front seat.

My French in-laws guffawed when we told them we’d traded my husband’s car for an SUV.

Brother-in-law: “Why not just get a tank?”

Mother-in-law: “Oh, my son! You’re becoming too American!” Pause, followed by a hopeful: “Does this mean you’ll be having more kids?” (The woman’s been on a mission to turn my womb into a baby factory ever since we got married.)

My parents complimented us on our choice of cars, as well as the residential neighborhood and larger house we relocated to. It made me miss our little bungalow in the heart of the city even more. What happened to us? We were cool! Not quite as cool as our hipster neighbors in the city, but almost!

The thing is, we live in southern California. If we lived in Paris, we’d be using public transportation. We would live in a small apartment because that would be all we could afford. We’d drive a SmartCar, because parking in Paris is nearly impossible which makes a SmartCar, well, smart. But when in Rome…. Or when in SoCal…. A SmartCar isn’t smart. Trying to force a Parisian lifestyle into a sprawling US city just doesn’t work. I loved the days I lived in Paris and walked everywhere. I loved living in the city here and not needing my car most weekends. But times change, and adapting to circumstances doesn’t equal giving up. The truth is, I love having a kitchen big enough to host large parties and make Christmas cookies with my daughter. And I’m thoroughly enjoying the luxury of having two (two!) bathrooms.

Still, that doesn’t mean we’re moving to the far-flung suburbs or turning into Republicans. (No offense, my dear family. Love you!)