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!)

My Daughter Speaks French

 It’s strange, in a good way, to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. After surveying other bilingual families and doing a bit of research, we decided that the best approach would be one-parent-one-language. So my husband speaks to our munchkins in French and I speak to them in English. I do throw the occasional French song or French book in there from time to time.

Her first French word was “papillon,” which is butterfly. She said it with such a cute intonation that we went overboard pointing out every butterfly just so we could hear her say it. With her first words, her pronunciation was already better than mine. The French word for bear is ours (sounds like: oors), and while typically the “s” at the end of a French word is silent, it isn’t in this one. So when my daughter pronounced it, I looked to my husband and asked, “It’s ‘oor’ not ‘oors’, right?” He gave me a sympathetic smile. “No. She’s got it right. Not you.”

Well then.

When she was eighteen months old, I realized that her newbie brain had already begun to separate the two languages. She pointed to a toy car and said, “voiture.” I knew that she knew the word in English, so I said to her: “Yes, it’s ‘voiture’ in French. What is that called in English?” She answered, without hesitation, “car.” Thus began a fascinating game for me of pointing things out to her and asking for the French word and the English word. She does confuse things occasionally, like applying English grammar rules to French. It’s an amazing insight into how a young brain learns a language.

She quickly decided that only my husband could read French books to her, and only I could read English ones. She apparently doesn’t approve of either of our accents. But when she mistakenly handed my dad a French book, he went with it.

A few words on my dad and French. He doesn’t speak it. At all. But he pretends to, with great enthusiasm. Poor kid; as my dad crashed through the words with gusto, using a strange mixture of Spanish and Italian pronunciation complete with wild hand gestures, she first looked confused, then like she was about to cry, then she took the book from Pops and wailed, “Pops no read it! Mommy read it! In English!”

It’s both fascinating and humbling to watch my daughter becoming bilingual. She’ll be able to speak two languages fluently, with no accent. Wow. I can only dream of such a thing. I’m working on my French, now with greater determination, so that my husband and daughter don’t end up with a secret language.