2020, You are Exhausting

I haven’t written for a long time. I’m working on entries about my language vacation, but I’m going to be honest – the state of affairs in my country has me beat down. A lot of my energy has been poured into activism and taking care of my family.

2020 sucks – I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it.

It especially sucks right now in ‘Murica.

It’s election season in the US, and in Trump’s America, that means we are being inundated with even more lies and propaganda than usual. It’s a scary time to be an American: an uncontrolled pandemic, deepening corrosion of our institutions, daily onslaughts of horrors from the White House, a leader who is showing more and clearer signs of veering towards a dictatorship, and a much-needed reckoning on the deep levels of racism and denial running through the veins of this country.

Like many of you, I have struggled for years over how to deal with the Trump supporters in my life.

This is not about politics.

That bears repeating: This is not about politics. This is not about the role of government, or taxes, or potholes and how to fix them. This is not about differing opinions.

This is about Human Decency. Morality. Ethics. Values. Character.

I’ve taken turns being furious, depressed, disgusted, hopeless, and occasionally hopeful that some of them will come around. At times, I’ve viewed them with empathy – as people who have been conned and brainwashed by Fox, Breitbart, and 45’s propaganda. Trump’s followers are rightly compared to a cult. Logic, reasoning, and an appeal to better the better angels of our nature don’t seem to reach them.

I’ve also felt resentful. Resentful that their careless, chest-beating votes have wreaked so much havoc. Resentful that so often the burden is put on those who would never vote for Trump to put in the work to understand why someone could vote for this horrible man. The number of articles that came out trying to help those of us on the political left to understand why people voted for Trump were numerous. I didn’t see the same avalanche of articles and appeals to Trump voters aimed at understanding the people who didn’t vote for him, or imploring them to reach out to us to mend fences. I just saw a whole lot of gloating over “liberal tears.”

I believe that having hard conversations is important: especially right now about systemic racism. If any of the Trump supporters I know actually wanted to have a good faith discussion about why so many of us could never, ever, ever support him, I’d have it. But that’s not what I’m seeing. Not once, in any of the people I know. People who still support Trump are rightly compared to a cult. They aren’t listening. They’ve surrounded themselves with an impenetrable wall of lies and hate and a sense of victimization.

There’s a statement that’s been circulating widely on many social media platforms, and I’ve seen it and it’s resonated differently with me at different moments. The idea behind it stuck with me and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what it meant to me in my life:

lose friends over morals

As I often do when I’m trying to understand something, I wrote about it. Here’s what I wrote:

I didn’t want to go here.

I have friends and family who don’t agree with me politically. I find that to be valuable: discussions and ideas that challenge our points of view can help us see things from a different perspective, help us figure out what we believe, and even change how we perceive things. It has always bothered me that discussions on issues and politics are so taboo in this country – we should all be talking to each other.  People are complex, and I’ve never wanted to reduce any person to a single moment, a single statement, a single vote, or a single characteristic. I haven’t wanted to contribute to the increasingly divisive nature of our national state of affairs.

I’ve stayed connected, mainly on social media, with some people who have said things I find deeply disturbing or offensive. I kept the connection because I thought I was honoring a relationship and not reducing it to the simplicity of what we see on social media. I also thought it would be good for me to see those different perspectives.

But here’s the thing: I’m not seeing different perspectives. I am seeing a huge difference in values, in morality, in empathy. I’m seeing hate and intolerance and racism and extremism masked as “I just see things differently.” I’m seeing lies and propaganda, parroting of the extreme right and of dubious news sources, including of course #45, masquerading as “research” and “the truth the MSM hides.” I’m seeing gleeful attacks on any ideas that don’t align with one narrow and increasingly extreme point of view. I’ve been told I should just leave the country – as if the vision and hope I and people like me hold for our country are less valid, less American, than those held by the people who believe Trump is doing great things for this country.

I am seeing the worst of the stereotypes reinforced with every post, and when I have real life conversations. I hate that this is the case – I have sincerely strived to understand why people I know and like could support a man as abhorrent as Trump, and support the increasingly extreme policies and politicians put forth by the GOP. I’m seeing ugliness in people I used to like, and I would rather remember those people fondly than to see what they say, and what they believe, today.

You know what else I’m not seeing? Reason. Kindness. Empathy. A sense of community, a belief that every person in this country, this world, is deserving of dignity. It’s often said that good people would never support Trump, and I’ve balked at that. Because people are complicated. Yet… people who choose to support a terrible human being like Trump, to place him in the highest and most influential office in the land, people who choose propaganda, lies, and conspiracy theories over reality, have revealed what is in their hearts. It pains me to see people I thought I knew enthusiastically support this, or excuse this, or rationalize and normalize this. It’s not about politics. It’s about values and basic decency.

I tend to search for, and find, the best in people. So it pains me to realize this truth: When you see what people choose to show of themselves, time and time again, it’s time to start believing that is who they are.

Are you still teaching your kids French?

I suppose the fact that I get asked this question is telling. The short answer is yes, we are. The longer answer is that, well, we’re trying, it’s a lot harder than we thought, but here’s an update:

A lot of the teaching falls on my husband, which is a heavy load to carry. He’s the fluent, native speaker of the house. He continues to speak to them mostly in French. But sometimes he slips. It’s hard for him, and as much as I jump on him when he resorts to English, I get it. He speaks English all day, he lives in English, so making the transition to French with them isn’t easy. The kids tend to answer him in English, and he’s not consistent about rephrasing what they’ve said in French for them to practice, which is a strategy we’ve found to be pretty effective. I get it – it stops the flow of the conversation, it feels like a battle. I’m on the sidelines either jumping in and doing the rephrasing for him which feels helicopter-y, or just letting the kids avoid French, which doesn’t feel good either.

When the kids were home with me more, I tended to do certain things in French: grocery shopping was a French activity. We tried to do some meals in French. I would often read French books or play games with them in French. But it’s gotten more complicated now that our daughter is in first grade – she’s gone 7 and 1/2 hours a day. That’s a long day for a 6-year-old. So when she comes home, she’s not exactly enthused by my, “Let’s play a game in French!” suggestions. Or, if I simply speak to her in French, she gives me a look that I know well – it’s my very own “are you kidding me right now?” look.

My son, the four-year-old, is even more resistant. My attempts with him are met with a wailing: “Awww, not in French!”

In homes where the stay-at-home parent, or the parent who spends more time with the children, speaks the minority language (the language not spoken in the community) the kids make better progress. I know this. But it’s a leap I haven’t made, and don’t necessarily want to. I’ve written before about how I feel like I am a different person in French, not 100% me, and with my kids being authentically and comfortably me is more important than perfection in French. Being a parent presents enough challenges without saddling myself with more. That said, I do still incorporate French when I can, and I still think it’s an important part of what I want to give to our kids.

What we are seeing is passive French speakers; they understand most everything, but their spoken French lags far behind.

However, all is not lost. When we traveled this summer to France, our kids had to speak in French. If they wanted to communicate with their cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandparents, they had to do it. And they did. Especially my 6-year-old, who had a year at a French preschool to help her knowledge and confidence. They came away having improved their French, and since then they’ve resisted less. They seem to be approaching an age where they get it – they see that French has a purpose rather than being one more thing Mommy and Papa make them do.

We were also able to enroll our daughter in a one week French summer camp here in Boulder, and it was fabulous. She LOVED her teacher and came home every day excited about speaking French, about what she had learned and even wanting to teach her brother:

 

I still teach French at my son’s preschool, and he’s finally getting into it. Up until this year, he chose to play outside rather than come to one of Mom’s French classes. But now he, along with a dozen or so regulars, come faithfully each week. These kids love it – it is so fun to see their enthusiasm! Every day when I pick up my son, a few little faces turn up to me, small hands grab my own, and they eagerly ask, “Are you doing French today?” Most of them can now say a few words in French, and some of them can sing entire songs.

While in France this last summer, my daughter found some of her cousin’s old comic books and fell in love. Her favorite: Picsou (Scrooge McDuck). While she can’t yet read them herself, we kept catching her “reading” to her little brother. So we brought one home, and her Mimi and Papy bought her a subscription for her birthday. She has gone from never wanting to read in French to wanting to read Picsou with Papa most nights.

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My son is enjoying teaching his classmates how to count and say “Bonjour” with the right accent. And just this weekend, we were with a group of kids that were asked if they spoke any languages other than English. My kids proudly shot up their hands and said they spoke French.

So while our progress isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t resemble my imagined utopian bilingual home where fluency is achieved in all areas of both languages and our kids are happy and compliant with it all (how delusional was I pre-kiddos!), we are still making progress. Objectives have changed. I now want them to enjoy French, to have enough of a base that they can continue to pursue it with a leg up from where they would have been if we were a monolingual household, and I want them to learn about and embrace their bicultural heritage. I’m going to call us successful thus far, and still working at it.

Wednesday Morning

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Wednesday morning, my four-year-old son drew me this picture and said, “Mama, in this picture, Hillary Clinton became president. So you don’t feel sad.”

Like many, I hardly slept after the election results came in. I was numb, disoriented. Living a nightmare. When my children woke up the next morning, I tried to put on a brave face.

“Everything will be ok. We will be ok.” I felt like I was lying. Nothing about this is okay.

The room where we watched the results come in feels tainted. As though a sinister fog lurks within, reminding me of the horror I felt Tuesday night, sucking my happiness away when I go near it. We’ve seen more than a few Harry Potter references this election. Here’s mine: Dementors are in my living room.

As I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, tears rolled down my face. She was so graceful, so dignified, and despite the deep pain she was feeling and she knew we were all feeling, she still spoke words of unification and optimism. I cried. Because she is the president I so desperately wanted. The president that, in fact, the majority of Americans wanted. For those who don’t know about the U.S. electoral college, it is an antiquated system whereby the popular vote is tallied by state, and then the winner takes all the electoral votes (the number of votes per state based on population) in that state. This college handed us Bush when Gore won the popular vote in 2000. It has now handed us Trump.

I took my son to Noodles for lunch. The African-American woman behind the counter gave me the usual welcome greeting. Our eyes met. We both began to cry.

An uneasiness lodged into my gut about a year ago and stayed put. At first, like many, I dismissed Trump as a joke. He tried to do this in 2000 and it went nowhere. No one wants to listen to this buffoon, I thought. But then… he started winning primaries. I saw the rising tide of immigrants vs. locals clashing in Europe. The rising fear of terrorism while attacks happened in Paris, Nice, Brussels. Trump kept winning. He kept up his vitriolic speech inciting fear, racism, and violence. My husband kept saying there was no way Trump could win. Black Lives Matter emerged and was immediately invalidated by so many white people. Then Brexit happened. Trump smugly predicted his own campaign would be a Brexit, and while I hated him for it, I feared he might be right. I began Tuesday morning feeling optimistic, donning my pantsuit, smiling broadly. My husband again assured me that everything was going to go the way it should. But that uneasiness was still there.

Trump appeals to the worst in America. The fear. The anger. He ran an incredibly divisive campaign, marginalizing and vilifying huge segments of the American population. People claim to like Trump because he “tells it like it is.” As far as I can see, that’s code for America has become too brown, too gay, too feminist, and not Christian enough. These voters are tired of being talked down to, tired of their homes being called “flyover states,” tired of feeling like the ruling elite are making all the decisions. They want their grandfather’s world where they can have the same job for a lifetime and retire in middle class comfort. But that America doesn’t exist any more. The world has become smaller with globalization, technology, the internet. The world has become more diverse. Going back is impossible.

I too see a broken system. A system where a group of Republicans decided that their platform would be obstructionism when a black Democrat became president. A system that crashed the housing market and led to the loss of our home. But I was not about to be bamboozled by the Great Orange Con Man, a man who has never cared about anyone but himself.

In the end, none of the things that should have mattered, mattered. Never mind that Hillary Clinton was the most highly qualified and prepared candidate we’ve ever seen. That she spoke of inclusiveness with her “stronger together.” That she is a brilliant, level-headed woman who has spent her life working for this country, who is well-respected globally and is known for being a unifier, for working across the aisle. She saw America as I see it: a pretty great place that we can make better still. She acknowledged that America is a place where racism is still a problem that needs to be addressed. A place where women deserve respect. Where diversity is celebrated. Where the vulnerable are helped. While I made phone calls, knocked on doors, and threw my heart into the campaign to elect her, I realize not everyone sees in her the hero I do. The decades long HRC smear campaign began when as first lady of Arkansas she had the audacity to keep her maiden name. Trump made sure to regurgitate the lies and vitriol, to continue the right-wing’s “media is biased” conspiracy crap, and while many saw through it, for too many others, she represented the status quo, the establishment. Facts didn’t matter in our post-factual era. America decided a thin-skinned, lying bully was a better choice. After all, he could shout louder.

And while I’m angry and disheartened, I also recognize that dismissing entire groups with phrases beginning with “Republicans think…” “Conservatives are…” “Christians believe…” is not only wrong, it is a divisive starting point. Not all of America is racist, or misogynistic, or angry, or hateful. Nor are all of Trump’s voters. The single-issue voters were there, too. The ones who Trump pandered to when he claimed to be anti-abortion and vowed to appoint conservative judges. There are many others who are just sick of business as usual. It’s important to remember that there is much more to all of us than who we cast our vote for. I have friends and family who are lovely people, who voted for Trump. Still, it remains that a large segment of the population was willing to accept his racism, his ignorance, his hateful rhetoric, his absolute disregard for women and all the evidence that points to him being a serial sexual assaulter, and his propensity for saying things that normally would be associated with a fascist dictator. That is really freaking horrifying.

One of the most poignant photos I saw was of an older woman, dressed as a suffragette, holding a sign that read, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” The fabric of America has been ripped open to expose our ugly innards, where racism, sexism, and xenophobia are alive and well. We are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided. While I will admit that fear of what is different is a natural reaction, the path we should be on is one where we try to understand each other, learn from each other. That is not the path that half of America chose. We are facing dark times right now. I’m scared. Many of us are. I haven’t even touched on foreign policy, the environment, or the economy.

 In both Clinton and Obama’s speeches Wednesday, they urged the American people to unify and support this next president, to ensure that we preserve our sacred tradition of peaceful transitions. I get it. Trump won the contest. I accept that he is our president. That is a reality I will have to learn to live with. I’ll get to a place where I can hope for the best. But I refuse to accept that Trump’s vision of America will be what defines our future. I refuse to accept the mainstreaming of misogyny, racism, ignorance, and violence. We’ve come too far as a country, and there is too much work yet to be done. We cannot, we will not, go backwards. I’m not sure how to unify with people who spout the same hateful rhetoric that has been given the green light by Trump. Honestly, I don’t want to. That shit needs to go away.

Many of us have joked about moving to Canada following this election. My husband and I had a couple serious conversations about our future and wanting what’s best for our children. Montreal and Sydney are looking pretty good. But here’s the thing. No reckless demagogue gets to take my country away from me.

I remember traveling during the Bush administration. How in Egypt, I was confronted by angry locals decrying Bush’s policies, American imperialism and racism. How in Europe, they sometimes wanted to argue with me about my country, even hurl insults and find in me someone to blame. Dear world: please don’t hate us. Because the majority of us voted for Clinton. I’ll say it again: THE MAJORITY OF US VOTED FOR CLINTON. Millions of others voted for third party candidates, not Trump. If only 18-25 year olds had voted, Clinton would have won by a landslide: 504 of 538 electoral college votes. So if you see one of us, cut us some slack. Ask questions if you want to. But don’t assume we are a reflection of Donald Trump. Because the America I know, the America I love is so much better than that. The America I know is diverse, welcoming, inclusive. The Americans I know are a compassionate and optimistic lot. So don’t hate us all. Please. Help us to overcome this. Because we need all the help we can get. We are hurting over here.

People are holding vigils. Protesting. Resisting. Hate crimes are rising. This is going to be ugly. But here’s where my hope lies. The darkest hour is just before dawn. Perhaps being laid raw by this horrible turn of events is what we needed in order to have the strength and fire to end it. I see it now, from my white-woman-living-in-a-blue-state-bubble, I see how bad it really is. The youth of America won’t stand for this. People of color, women, the LGBTQ community, won’t stand for this. And the majority of America is with us. Resistance has always played a role in progress in this country. The loudest voices won this battle. Now it is our turn to scream.

Wednesday, I grieved. Today I go back to work. I will do my part. Clinton’s Methodist roots give us this: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” This is my rallying cry.

Paris, je t’aime

Last summer, we bravely traveled with our 4-year-old and 3-year-old to Iceland and then France. Drumroll … it was fantastic. They proved to be amazing little travelers: movies and a steady stream of snacks, toys, and duct tape (okay, kidding on the last one) kept them, and us, happy on the plane, jet lag didn’t last long, and they met different beds, foods, and activities with enthusiasm for the most part!

Hundreds of articles with tips on how to travel with kids exist and are easy to find. We mostly follow the basics and it works great. The nice thing about visiting a place that you’ve visited before, like Paris for us, is that we didn’t have a huge list of things we had to do or see. We hit the streets with no agenda, really, other than to make sure our kids had a positive experience. We cut the list of what we would normally try to see in half, or more, plugged in a fair amount of downtime, and when the kids were interested in something, we stopped and let them check it out without rushing them. Too much.

Yet we still managed to show them many of the major must-see-on-your-first-visit-to-Paris sites.

Here’s one of my favorite pics:

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Captioned: Whoa.

Here’s us at Notre Dame (which is one of those names that I struggle to pronounce in both French and American English… growing up hearing about the Noder Dame – long a – fighting Irish has left a lasting imprint on my brain)

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HERE IS PARIS, BEFORE KIDS:

Us at Chez Lyon; not the Parisian cuisine one salivates for, but a fun tradition we started on our first visit to Paris together (make sure to appreciate my hubby’s sideburns):

600 and of course, moules et frites at Chez Lyon in Paris

PARIS, NOW:

When asked about their favorite parts of Paris, the kids site these posts and the metro:

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What you can’t hear are the whoops of pure joy.

My husband went to high school here. Seriously.

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Rose gardens at the Parc de Bagatelle:

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These two were doing everything they could to attract the attention of the female peacock between the two of them. Like a good French girl, she feigned indifference and sauntered away.

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We only spent a couple days in Paris… as much as I love Paris, with kids it isn’t the easiest place to be. Especially with Colorado kids, accustomed to large open spaces for free-ranging it, and especially for my two kids, who have two volumes: loud and louder. We spent most of our time in our beloved Bretagne …. more photos to come!

New Digs

It was never my intention to so thoroughly neglect my blog. It just happened: one week, then one month, then months…. I have felt guilty and the need/desire to blog has always been on my mind, but the longer I neglected it, the easier it was to not come back to it.

One of my excuses: We bought a house and did a huge remodel. Yep, we are sinking roots in Louisville, CO! Just outside Boulder, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a place with mild(ish) seasons, gorgeous hiking trails and camping places, fantastic schools, and lots of great friends, new and old.

No way I could resist this:

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Or this:

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Louisville is a slice of classic small town Americana charm with a dash of liberal “republic of Boulder” and a good layer of whatever-you-want frosting. Music? Art? Sports? Beer? Parades with dogs and cute kids? A fire station that gives your kids a tour if you pop in to say hi? Summer Street Faires that draw names like the Gin Blossoms and Los Lobos? Free horse and carriage rides around downtown? Fine Dining? Fantastic burger? It’s all right here, in my adopted home town.

I hope to never move again – this is it for me. No more packing, no more boxes, no more house shopping, done. I told my husband: we aren’t leaving here until we’re too old to get up the stairs. His response: “Then we’ll just get one of those electric carts to slide us up and down. We never have to leave!” We love, love, love our new house, and Louisville, and my husband is working for Google and, well, Google is GOOGLE. Best company to work for, hands down.

This, of course, was before we realized that Trump becoming president of the USA wasn’t an impossible joke, but a frighteningly real prospect. That could be such a disaster that a move to the EU would be a real consideration. Seriously, ‘Merica, WTF?

As for the remodel, I became an HGTV junkie and my daughter kept begging to come to the house when they were “breaking stuff” so she could see it. As it goes with remodels, things are never as easy as they initially seem they will be, but long story short: we are in and our house looks fabulous. We even have a guest room, a true guest room, for the first time ever! The theme (a room with a theme!) is, of course, Paris. Here’s a photo:

Paris room

My husband and I have a running joke about how in every American movie with even one scene in Paris, the Parisian apartment or hotel room always, always, always has a view of the Eiffel Tower. We watch for it and see who can be the first to call it out: VOILA, TOUR EIFFEL ! HA HA HA! So here it is: Our room with a view!

One of the pillows has this lovely Audrey Hepburn quote from Sabrina (where, ironically, she has a view not the Tour Eiffel but of Montmarte): “Paris is always a good idea.”

Agreed, Audrey, agreed.

New home, new desk, new year, new plans… more to come. I won’t promise to be fast with my next post, but I will say this: when I’m not writing about A French American Life, I’m living it, and that’s the point of it all anyway, right?

 

 

Best. Summer. Ever.

It has been a whirlwind summer for us. First a trip to Iceland, then France to visit family and celebrate a milestone birthday, then off to San Diego for a couple weeks of French Immersion camp (for the kids) and soaking up the sun at the beach (for me), then Disneyland, followed by stops through Arizona to visit family in southern Arizona and family on the ranch in eastern Arizona. We just capped it off with a week on Oahu to celebrate the wedding of two dear friends.

Wow, is this really my life?

I’ve seriously neglected my blog and you, my dear readers. Here are a few photos from Iceland, and more to come. Soon. I promise.

Evening in Reykjavik

Evening in Reykjavik

Hmmm. We did not partake, but I'm still curious about how Mexican food and Icelandic food would be combined...

Hmmm. We did not partake, but I’m still curious about how Mexican food and Icelandic food would be combined…

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Strokkur

Gullfoss Falls

Gullfoss Falls

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

We were there for the annual Viking Festival and popped in to check it out. It was actually quite fun, and the kids loved getting to try out a bow and arrow and play some traditional viking games.

We were there for the annual Viking Festival and popped in to check it out. It was actually quite fun, and the kids loved getting to try out a bow and arrow and play some traditional Viking games.

Iceland Air, you are awesome.

Iceland Air, you are awesome.

To Hug or to Kiss?

I certainly didn’t intend a two month hiatus – thank you all for sticking with me!

I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew in life, and these last few months were no different. I went back to work as a PT on a per diem basis, I continued to teach French to preschoolers, and I took three university level French courses. I look forward to blogging more about that soon…. Oh, yeah, I’m also taking care of two energetic preschoolers and ramping up my workouts for triathlon season. Life is busy. Life is good.

We are prepping for a French-filled summer! We will be traveling to Iceland and France and then spending a few weeks in San Diego where my kids (now ages 3 and 4 1/2) will be doing day camp at the San Diego French American School. I am so excited to see how their French progresses! We’ve fallen off the wagon a bit with teaching (pushing, coercing…) them to speak French, and I’m hoping these activities will get us back on track.

First up, a trip to France! The other night, as I was tucking my daughter into bed, I told her that in France, when we greet friends and family, we give them a kiss on each cheek rather than a hug. I’m a huge hugger – I love nothing more than to give people in my life a big enthusiastic squeeze. My kids, too, give the best hugs – big tight squeezes that I can’t get enough of. I learned the hard way that this does not always go over well with the French. I remember telling my husband once how awkward it felt to me to kiss everyone, pressing my cheek to theirs. His response: More awkward than pressing your whole body up to everyone and squeezing tight? I see his point… The two cheek kiss greeting no longer feels awkward to me, but my daughter was confused.

Among her questions:

“Why don’t we give hugs?”

“Why do we just make a kiss sound and push our cheeks together instead of really kissing them?”

“Why don’t we kiss them on their mouths?”

Excellent questions, all. Then, she melted my heart with this:

“So, when I see Mimi and Papy, I kiss them like this,” here she demonstrated kissing me on each cheek, “And then the kiss goes to their hearts?”

Exactly, my amazing child. Exactly.

Can’t wait to introduce these two to France. It’s fun to visit a place we know so well with very little agenda – we don’t have anything we absolutely must see, so we’re planning a vacation around activities like puppet shows, toy boats at the Luxembourg gardens, and then lots of beach time and crepes in Brittany. My daughter really wants to see the Eiffel Tower, but I have a feeling the most exciting thing we will do will be to ride the metro. At any rate, it will be a different kind of trip than we’ve ever had. Fingers crossed for good weather and good tempers (the latter being more about me than my kids, I’m sure!)

Are we bilinguals?

For a long time, I’ve held lofty goals for my kids and for myself. I wanted us to all be “completely bilingual,” which I defined as nothing short of 100% fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. I dreamt of accent-free French for my kids, and for me – maybe every tenth word or so would hint that I’m not French and give me a sexy, subtle accent that would earn exclamations like, “Oh, your French is so beautiful! Where’d you learn to speak it so well!” or “Don’t lose the last eensy-teensy accent you still have, it’s so adorable.”

That’s what you get when you’re type A. And have a husband who meets this “completely bilingual” criteria (albeit with a bit more of an accent. Ooh la la.).

My views have evolved. Matured? Grown more realistic? And while at one time I might have seen this as giving up, now I see it this way: we’re still pursuing something pretty awesome. I’m just more sane.

“Bilingual” means different things to different people. We’re certainly not monolingual, but we also haven’t attained my previous definition of bilingualism. So what does that make us?

All of us understand most of what is said to us in French. My kids spontaneously speak the language, sing songs, and watch cartoons in French. When thrown into a situation with people who speak only French, I don’t hesitate to use the language, and I’d say I’m pretty adept at expressing myself. My kids are at the point where they are able to use full sentences in French without needing prompting. Perhaps the most important thing: we are actively working on improving our language, every day, and have no plans to stop this work.

So I’ve decided to give credit where credit is due. Next time someone asks me if we are a bilingual family, I’m going to say, yes. Yes, we are.

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!

 

Lessons All Around

I’ve been unintentionally quiet this semester. I find it funny that I’ve gone back to thinking of the year in terms of semesters – but such is life when you are in school! That’s right, I’m back in school, because apparently a doctorate degree in physical therapy just isn’t enough. I’m enrolled in one class this semester at University of Colorado, Boulder, an upper division French literature class. As a person who both loves to read and loves to write, I thought literature classes would be right up my alley. Ha! It’s kicking my butt. Despite years of read and critique sessions with my writers’ groups, analyzing literature has not come naturally to me. I think it’s because so often, we try to find deep meaning in every word written, and I’ve listened to enough writers’ reactions to interpretations of their work to know that choices can often be quite arbitrary: “I used that word because I like it.” “The curtains weren’t blue because the main character is horribly depressed or longs to sink into the ocean or fly off to a place far, far away. They are blue because my grandmother’s curtains were blue.” “Really? That’s what you got out of it? Huh. Cool!”

That said, I have to admire my professor, because I find her persistent questions to be quite thought provoking and they’ve made me a better reader, a better analyzer, and a better speaker. She doesn’t let us get away with a pat explanation – we have to defend our opinions and answer a series of “whys” before she’s satisfied. So now, I feel like I can hang in there better when I get into a heady discussion in French. And I have concrete knowledge of Sartre, Molière, Hugo, and several other depressing French writers. Okay, not all of them are depressing, but I need a healthy dose of Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn after some of my homework assignments.

In addition to working on my French, I’ve started private lessons for my kiddos. We finally decided to try it, because while they understand everything said to them, they are becoming passive bilinguals – not using the language, and unfortunately, even resisting it. I felt they needed someone aside from Mom and Papa speaking French with them, giving them a gentle nudge toward speaking in French. At only 45 minutes a week, I’ve seen huge improvements. My son sang “Sur le pont, d’Avignon” the entire time we trick-or-treated (while wearing a Winnie the Pooh costume – too adorable). He’s been much more resistant to French than his big sister, so seeing him sing – even if it’s screaming at the top of his lungs “POMME DE REINETTE ET POMME D’API!” brings a huge grin to my face. Certain words have stuck themselves in his brain, and he now uses those French words rather than the English ones. Turns out my daughter has a really broad vocabulary – she’s spouting off words I don’t know, and ones that I didn’t know she knew. They are starting to respond to us in French more often when we speak French to them. But best of all, sometimes, when they are playing together, I hear them go into French.

My professor made this comment the other day: At our level, intermediate, progress is much harder than any other level. She advised increased exposure through reading and movies rather than studying grammar (which I tend to pound myself with, hoping those conjugation and “petit mot” mistakes I make will be beaten out of me). She pointed out that progress won’t be in leaps and bounds. The huge epiphanies I experienced as a beginner haven’t happened in a long time. It was a good reality check, because I’ve been frustrated with my slow progress and blaming it on any number of things: age, not working hard enough, maybe I’m not gifted in languages, perhaps the only answer is living in France for a while…. So, lessons all around, and small steps forward. The bilingual journey continues.