Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Flowers of January, the Snows of February

The flowers of January, after pressing

I began this blog entry ten days ago and I started it like this:

"I wish I could bottle this weather and send it to you. Winter seems to have forgotten about us this year."

Then I was going to describe the balmy air and the spring blossoms we'd been seeing, and how much I love the flower press my Mom-in-law gave me for Christmas. (Really, it's wonderful! For one thing, it gives you something to do with all the short-stemmed daisies your child brings you).

But as you can see, winter has remembered us after all. We woke on Sunday to our first snowfall. It took Maria a few seconds to figure out what the white stuff was. "It's nose," she said with enthusiasm. Then she opened her Christmas Wimmelbuch to the page showing the forest in winter and studied it for a good long time. Then she informed us she wanted to put on her snow pants.

It's a bit of a relief to have the cold weather here, though it does make it more difficult to get around. We've been grateful for the mild winter, but there was kind of a suspense building. During the warm days of January, I had two voices contending in my head, one saying "ahhh, Spring already! Look, the quince is blooming" the other saying "no, no, Winter is still on it's way. Those flowers will be blasted and brown 'ere long.". So, the voice of realism won, but now the optimist chimes in and says, "this will only be a French portion of winter--small and exquisite. Just enough bitterness to make Spring sweet." And on it goes.

Speaking of seasons, we have reached the sweet, Golden Age of Baby, when life regains its rhythm and things begin to feel functional. The last couple of nights Louisa has been waking only once to nurse (hurray!). She has also found her feet, and will amuse herself with them for ten minutes at a time, but only if I remember to free them from her sleeper (bare toes being many times more interesting than covered one). Most evenings, we have about an hour and a half when both children are in bed and we are not. I've been using the time to make an illustration for a Friend's nursery, and have been enjoying the project.

Maria has been going to the Haltegarderie three mornings a week. This schedule works better for us than having her gone for one six-hour day. I was rather lonely when she was gone for so long, and she was overtired and fragile from going without a nap. The thrice weekly arrangement provides more regular social interaction for her and more exercise for me.
The supervisor tells me that Maria has begun to speak French while there. We haven't noticed her speaking French at home, with the exception of the words "lapin" (rabbit) and "la bas" (over there), which she usually says before launching into a string of yelled gibberish.

Meanwhile, we continue breaking everything in our apartment--or rather, things keep breaking all on there own. This is not intentional on our part, but from the rate of breakage you would think it was. Since moving here, we've had table legs come off, a microwave die a fiery death, the legs on our bed bend and collapse, a new electric sweeper quit after half a dozen uses and that's just a partial list. Most recently, the seat of our office chair has taken to coming off the base, usually depositing one or more of us on the ground. It's rather frustrating that things keep breaking, but the comfort is that they're not our things. Of course we've become rather sheepish about reporting these breakages to our dear land lords, who are convinced that we (that is, Don or I) must have been jumping on the bed in order to the have the legs bend the way they did. I promise we weren't. It's a vast wing-nut conspiracy.

And now, for some laughs:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chesterton and the Ark

When Bruni and Dieter visited, they brought this gorgeous mobile for Louisa. It's been hanging on the wall of our living room, above the couch, as we haven't yet decided where its permanent home should be*. Louisa studies the mobile while she nurses. Maria loves prodding it, making the animals dance on their strings. She points to the Elephants and says "that Babar, that Celeste."

I think it's a lovely mobile with its bright colors and frolicking animals, and I'm excited to see it hung somewhere where it will be be free to rotate. But more than just being a colorful addition to our decor, the mobile has given me fodder for thought.

I've often been puzzled by the popularity and ubiquity of Noah's Ark themed toys. The Fisher Price Noah's Ark seems to turn up at every play date we attend. What surprises me is that adults deem it appropriate to the extent that it shows up in mainstream kids products. After all, the annihilation of most of the Earth's inhabitants is pretty dark stuff*.

The mobile is our first bit of Noah paraphernalia, and while contemplating where to hang it, I've been, in a roundabout way, contemplating the story of the Ark, especially as it relates to children. As it happens, I also recently finished reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy. The book is still resounding in my head, and it's only natural that Orthodoxy has made me think of Noah and his ship load of critters in a new light.

Chesterton begins Orthodoxy by describing some convictions that originated in his youth. From an early age, he believed that life was a "kind of eccentric privilege"--that we have all been saved from the cataclysmic possibility of never having existed. To make his point, he references another story of watery tribulation, Robinson Crusoe:

Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.

The poetry of creatures on the Ark is the poetry of Crusoe's list. The biblical story is not just a story about the rewards of piety, but the story of a narrow escape.

It seems to me that children, are more aware of this narrow escape. It is the source of their great wonder. Chesterston traces his conviction back to his boyhood. His writing dislodged a memory of my own. I remember being seven or eight and thinking, quite distinctly, "I'm so glad I'm me and not a stone. How amazing it is that I am I." And now I'm going to share a quote from John Saward’s Cradle of Redeeming Love, that I came by through a blog. (Haven't read the book, but this quote seemed most appropriate.)

His [the child’s] mind is receptive of the glorious reality of the world, and he is amazed that things are, even before he knows exactly what they are... The child in the garden knows that the grass is, but his wonder at this apparently ordinary thing seems to indicate that he is surprised that it should be at all.

So, yes, Noah's story is dark, and I hope it will be a long time before Maria thinks deeply about the Babars and Celestes that didn't make it on board. But the story's darkness makes it especially suited to a child's eye view of the world. The creatures and people who populate the world are not to be taken for granted. The mere fact that we are should galvanize everyday life and fill us with wonder.

And now, back to finding a place for the mobile...

*We don't have a hammer. Putting in a nail means borrowing one from our landlord (and contingently, getting his approval to make a hole in the the wall/ceiling). As a result we haven't actually hung anything in our apartment.

*This was brought home a while back when a friend showed me an illustrated version of the story that shows animals that were turned away from the ark being swallowed by the rising tide.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Things to Remember: Claws - Tooth

January 19, 2012
A list of things to remember:

Louisa shows increasing mastery over her own chubby little hands. She's beginning to grasp things with intention. What a grip! I find myself perpetually aware of her fingernails. They are so sharp, that it's natural think of them as "claws." But it's so sweet, to have her grabbing at our fingers, to see her glee at successfully getting them into her mouth.

Lately, Maria has been enthusiastic about hanging things up. (We predict she'll be the neatest one in the family.) The poor girl has no hooks at her height, so she hangs things on door knobs. After returning from an outing, she hangs her coat on the foyer door knob. I have to wait until she's out of sight before taking it down and putting it away in the closet.

After her morning at the Haltegarderie, I asked Maria if she'd had fun. "Yeah. I play with Pauline. Pauline make funny joke." Pauline is another two-year-old and Maria's best friend in France. I questioned her further and gathered that the joke had something to do with a bucket and a rocking horse. Later, Donnie, asked her about the funny joke, and she said something about a car. How intriguing and mysterious, the world of two-year-old humor!

We had little chocolate umbrellas on our Christmas tree. Maria loved playing them, and we often found them squirreled away in her coat pockets or doll diaper bag (sometimes with their tips bitten off). Several times, we found her holding a chocolate umbrella over her head saying "Tut, tut, looks [like] rain." (This is a reference to Winnie the Pooh.) Maybe next year we'll put a packet of cocktail umbrellas in her stocking. I think she'd be thrilled.

Maria's diction has come a long way, and she expresses some pretty complex ideas, such as, 'that elephant is playing tennis now, but when he gets tired, he'll put down his racket and ball and ride that tricycle." Of course it doesn't come out quickly or coherently, but, by and by, the idea emerges. She still has a few pronunciation quirks. One that I'm fond of is how she switches around the sounds in the "sn" dipthong. "Snowflake" becomes "noseflake" and "snowman" becomes "noseman."

In the last two days, Louisa has graduated from wet croons and gurgles into the happy, screeching, crows of what we affectionately call the pterodactyl phase. Last night, we watched some tv, and kept having to pause the programs because we couldn't hear the dialog over her noises. She quieted down once we paused the program, only to pipe up again as soon as we resumed the show. The imp!

Actually, Louisa's hands spend much of their time in her mouth, and her sleeves spend much of their time wet from drool. I predict Louisa will have a tooth out before by the end of February.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Christmas in Orsay

A few of the the Thirteen Desserts.

Our pink Buche de Noel.

Maria discovers a love of citrus.

The capon.

More food!
Stockings hung by the radiator with care.



We had a quiet, food-filled Christmas here in Orsay. Don took off the Friday before Christmas Eve so that we could prepare and do a market run together. It was by far the most fun trip to the market we've taken as a family. There were three reasons for this. First, Donnie's had improved to the point where he could confidently ask "how do you cook this thing?" and understand the reply. Second, we went with loosened purse-strings, ready to spend on the upcoming festal meals. Third, we had just received a replacement wheel for our big Phil & Ted double stroller, which meant we had a whole second seat to fill with purchases (no hanging bags on the handles of our little umbrella stroller).

With Maria in the front seat of the stroller and Lulu in the sling, we took off. Our first stop was the poultry counter. I'd seen beautifully trussed roasts on previous trips to the market and had resolved to buy one. Our tiny kitchen is not conducive to complex culinary adventures, so I though it best to pay some extra money and let someone else do the flaying, stuffing, and trussing. We picked a roast that was artfully decorated with raisins and parsley. The placard said something about it having a raisin and cognac filling. Wonderful. "Cook at 180 degrees for 90 minutes," the vendor said, and wrote the temperature and time on the back of the receipt. The roast was from a creature called a "chapon," which Donnie's phone translated to "capon." I had heard the word "capon" in a Shakespeare play at some point. That augured well. Judging from the less processed specimens on the meat counter, we concluded that a capon was something chickenish. When we got home and consulted Wikipedia, we discovered that a capon is indeed a chicken--a castrated, male chicken to be exact.

After the poultry counter, it was off to the fish counter to buy fillets for our Christmas Eve dinner, then to the dried fruits vendor for figs, almonds, and candied pineapple, then to the fruit seller for oranges, pears, apples, grapes and dates. Finally, Donnie stopped at the baker's table to buy something to appease Maria, who had grown grumpy with the delay of her breakfast. The loaf he brought back was wonderful--a sourdough with a dense, moist crumb, chock full of raisins and hazelnuts. We rounded out our visit by stopping at the playground near the center of town.

Christmas Eve morning began with the arrival of the Carrfour delivery man. It was the first time we've had groceries delivered. (We are eager to repeat this experience. There is something magical about a stranger showing up at your door with bottles of heavy cream and sweet potatoes. It really beats facing Carrfour in person.) Around 1pm, Muschi and Paschi arrived. Muschi and I began cooking. I should say, Muschi began cooking while I cleaned fruit for our spread of Thirteen desserts.

The Thirteen Desserts of Christmas are a Provencal tradition that I first learned about from Marcel Pagnol's book, My Father's Glory. (I really recommend the book and the movie.) The desserts represent Christ and the twelve apostles. Aside from the "four beggars" (raisins, figs, almonds, and walnuts) and dates, the exact desserts differ depending on where you are, and what's available. I didn't end up with the time to track down some of the more esoteric ones (quince jelly or candied melon), but we did have thirteen things in our desserts spread. To be honest, I lost count somewhere between washing grapes and nursing the baby. I'm sure there were at least thirteen.

Our Christmas Eve feast was a late lunch comprised of fish fried in butter, topped with parsley, garlicky cucumber salad, and Austrian potato salad. In Austrian tradition, Christmas Eve dinner is meant to be something of an austere meal--hence the fish. In reality this was the most complex meal prepared in our kitchen since our occupancy and it was very yummy. Thank you, Muschi!

After lunch, Maria had a nap. Her naps have gotten to be terribly late, often beginning after 2pm and lasting till after nightfall. On this day, her nap ended particularly late, around 6:30. It was something of a rush to get out the door in time to get a seat at the 8pm vigil Mass in Orsay. In the rush, Maria refused to wear her Christmas dress, and left the house wearing something nice, but more casual than I would have wanted. Alas, the best planned outfits go unworn.

The walk to the church was pleasantly warm--no ice to watch out for, no worries about the children freezing. We sang a few carols along the way. The Mass was lovely and homey, with French versions of "Silent Night" and "Go Tell it on the Mountain". For my part, most of Mass was spent wrangling one or the other child. Maria was in a particularly talky mood and Louisa was fussy because of the late hour and a cold. I'm grateful that there are blessings that come from attending Mass irrespective of whether you understand the readings or are able to absorb what's going on. Mass with a toddler can resemble a contact sport, but is nonetheless wonderful.

At the end, the priest invited all the little ones to view the creche, which was surrounded by cardboard models of buildings in Orsay. I went up with Maria. It was the first time she's gone up to join the priest, and I want to mark it down.

We returned the house and broke out the Buche de Noel that Paschi ordered from Muschi and Paschi's favorite baker in Barron-Marlotte. Now, when planning our feast, we had had visions of a traditional, chocolate frosted, Buche de Noel greeting us after Mass. It turns out that some French people have had enough of the traditional yule log, and want something more, ahem, exciting. My father had ordered the Grand-Manier flavored log, thinking they would just add Grand-Manier to the chocolate. Not so. What we got was a roll cake covered in bright pinky-orange frosting, with candied fruit inside. It was delicious and Maria loved it.

At last, after a reading of The Christmas Baby, Maria was put to bed. Maria had been primed for a visit by Pere Noel/Father Christmas by numerous readings of Babar et Pere Noel, and The Night Before Christmas. Muschi and Paschi made sure that she wouldn't be disappointed. They brought the tree and an astonishing number of gifts. Muschi had visited Tante Rosie and Edith in Vienna the week before and came back with some beautiful wooden ornaments, a stocking full of gifts and a large collection of chocolates specially wrapped to be hung on a Christmas tree. We brought in the tree, figured out how to stand it up, decorated it, laid out the gifts, hung the stockings, and cleaned up from the day's feasting. I drew an angel to to top the tree. These things things took until 2:30am.

Maria woke at 7:30 and Muschi valiantly got up with her. Maria was enchanted by the sudden appearance of the Christmas tree. Indeed, I think the Christmas tree alone would have kept her entertained for all 12 days of Christmas. After an hour of great patience on Maria's part, her parents dragged themselves out of bed, and the present opening commenced. There were loads of beautiful clothing for the girls, as well as two games, many books, bath toys, a zebra rattle (Louisa), and a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh (Maria) all from Pere Noel (aka Muschi & Paschi). Our contribution were additional trains and track pieces for Maria's Ikea wooden train set, along with a few odds and ends in her stockings. Maria didn't end up unpacking her stocking until many days later, she was so busy with her new books and Pooh doll. Indeed, the number of new and interesting things was a little overwhelming for Maria. I think in the future, we may look for ways to spread out the presents.

The day proceeded with much cooking, playing, eating, and general good cheer (with a bit of Computer Science thrown in). Louisa's gift to us was to roll from her tummy to back four times in a row, a feat we'd never seen her do before. We Skyped with the Sheehys. What a blessing technology can be!

Our Christmas menu had first course of cauliflower soup, followed by the capon roast with mashed sweet potatoes, cucumber salad, and white asparagus. It was all delicious. I think capon may be on the menu again next Christmas. To aid our digestion, we went on a nice walk through the neighborhood. We rounded out the evening with the rest of the Buche de Noel and plenty of delicious chocolates courtesy of Tante Rosie and Edith. Then it was time for an early bed.

It was a lovely, delicious little Christmas.