Monday, 26 December 2016

It Doesn't Feel a Lot Like Christmas

It's December 26th. Traditionally, the day when, after the madness of Christmas, you eat leftovers, go for a healthy walk, possibly visit some relatives and, especially if you are a child, spend some quality time with your new presents.  Except that we're in France where, in UFM's family at least, the main celebration takes place on the evening of the 24th, so yesterday already felt like Boxing Day and today I feel as if I'm suffering from some kind of cultural jet-lag.

When I was a child, Christmas went something like this:

On Christmas Eve, after a build up of advent calendars, Christmas events at church and school, the buying of a Christmas tree (until my parents decided that we were too old for that - we weren't -) and the end of term, my favourite auntie would arrive, and that was like a sign that Christmas  had really started. My auntie took us to the pantomime every year, usually either on the 24th or the 26th.

On the evening of the 24th, there was the excitement of putting out stockings (which back in the olden days were actual socks) and we would go to bed with strict instructions not to wake up any grownups before 7am, with auntie being allowed an extra half an hour of sleep because she was a visitor. I would get up and take my stocking into my brothers' bedroom and we would open them together, a clever parenting trick which kept us reasonably quiet and entertained until the adults got up.

When we were little, we opened our main presents before church and you were allowed to take a present to church to show everyone. Stockings were from Santa, but we knew who had given us our other presents, which were either left under the tree or hidden around the house for us to find. Then we would come back for morning coffee and fancy biscuits and play until lunch time. We always had our Christmas dinner in the evening in our house, so after a normal lunch we were taken out for a walk, presumably to keep our energy levels under control. Then it was Christmas dinner, with crackers supplied by favourite auntie. I have memories of putting on a concert for the adults in the evening or singing carols around the Christmas tree, but I suspect we were packed off to bed fairly early to give the grown-ups time to recover.

This year, we arrived at my in-laws' a few days early. UFM's brother and his family got here on the 23rd and his sister, who lives locally, came round with her son on the evening of the 24th. SCB enjoyed lots of attention from everyone and ate mashed banana and yoghurt while we had our apéritif, but we stuck to her normal routine and put her to bed around 8pm. Because my nephew was only there for the evening, the other children were going to open their presents as soon as Santa had been. Santa brings all the presents in France and my two nephews still believe the story, so we had to work quite hard to keep up the pretence. This was going to happen at midnight, after the meal, but as the boys were getting over-excited and tired, he arrived a little early, so we did present opening between the main course and the cheese. The kids played with their new toys, we finished the meal and everyone went to bed a bit after midnight.

SCB "opened" her presents on the morning of the 25th (we tore off the paper and she tried to eat it). UFM's sister came round for a lunch of leftovers and in the afternoon we walked up to the church to see the nativity scene before his brother and family left to go and visit their other grandparents. We Skyped my parents, who were just about to start making their Christmas dinner and, with not much else to do, I logged on to Facebook and realised that most of my UK friends were still right in the middle of their festivities.

It wasn't a bad Christmas at all - we had a lovely time, SCB had a lovely time (and clearly didn't care that she didn't open her presents at the same time as everyone else as long as she got to chew on the packaging), and from UFM's point of view, the celebration was complete. But I think for me the fact that it was a) short and b) happened on a different timeline to my internal calendar made me more aware of what was "missing" from my idea of what the 25th of December should be like. This is the second year running that we haven't been in the UK for Christmas, so perhaps that made me more conscious of it too.

And this is the reality of living in a foreign land: things are generally not better or worse, just different, and sharing in the new traditions means not always keeping up with the old.

Next year, though, wherever we are, Santa will definitely be filling up my daughter's stocking!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Unlocking le franglais

Back in 2003, I returned from France to the UK and wanted to use the phone I had bought in France with my UK SIM card. I had to phone Orange to ask for the code de déverouillage and I remember how, after a few weeks of not speaking any French at all, having previously been almost completely immersed in it, my tongue twisted around the syllables and I wondered if it was one of the hardest phrases in the language for English speakers to say.*

Fast forward to 2016 and I discover that the French must have found it too complicated as well, becasue the word used on the SFR website for unblocking a phone is now désimlocker.

Don't you love a bit of franglais?

* It's not, by the way. In my book that honour is reserved for the line "tu n'es plus du tout du tout  dans le coup" in this song.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

An Everyday Day

A few weeks ago, I took the plunge and notified my employers that I will be returning to work in January. Given that it's now nearly the end of November, and that two weeks of December will be filled with festivities, it suddenly seems as if there's not an lot of "normal" time left of my parental leave. I want to remember what this period of our lives was like, so I've been trying for ages to write a post detailing what happens in an ordinary day. But each time either something happens which makes the day less "ordinary" or I end up running out of time to finish the post, then I forget what we actually did. So here I am trying again, and hoping that today will be the day that it actually gets published!

10am: SCB woke up at 8 this morning, which is much more civilised than the 6am starts she was imposing on us for a while. She's been waking a lot in the night recently, often 3 times between 7pm and 6am, due to teething, the cold or some other unidentified only-baby-knows-why reason, so a little lie in was a relief! I fed and changed her, then she played on her playmat while I ate breakfast, then sat outside the bathroom door on her bouncy chair while I had a shower. I dressed her, and by 9:15ish she was already starting to get a bit grumpy, so she had some more milk, then I put her in her cot for a nap. (I still find it weird that it's normal for babies to need a nap so soon after they get up in the morning, but SCB rarely lasts longer than 2 hours before the eye-rubbing and the grizzling starts.) Some days she settles happily with very little fuss but today she cried a fair bit and it took a couple of attempts before she settled.  I should be using this time to clean the kitchen and do some childcare related paperwork, but as usual I'm having an indulgent bit of internet time first. Often we have an activity planned (physiotherapy for me, baby group, shopping trip, meeting a friend in Paris for coffee), but there's nothing in the diary today, so I'll be making it up as I go along.

12:30pm: After blogging, I tried to fill in some paperwork for the CAF but couldn't finish it because I didn't have all the information I needed. (Unlike other several other administrative services, which have been made significantly more user-friendly over the past few years, the CAF is still stuck firmly in the byzantine era of French bureaucracy. The joys.) I washed some dishes and was just settling down to figuring out my Christmas shopping list when SCB woke up. We got as far as the changing table before a serious teething crisis kicked in, so the next hour was filled with trying to dress her and me and administer Doliprane while all the time she would only stop screaming if I held her in my arms and walked around. The medicine seems to have taken effect now though, and she's playing happily on her playmat while I cook up a chicken curry for lunch.

4pm: The Doliprane effect lasted for about an hour, then poor SCB was once again screaming in pain. Luckily, I was dressed by this point though, so was able to go for the standard emergency response of putting her in the sling and going out for a walk, and she fell asleep almost immediately. I started off with a trip to the toy shop, where I bought my nephew's Christmas present (which was always going to be the easiest one to find!). Then we went for a stroll around the park and sat on a bench to admire the view. It 's a gorgeous, cold, sunny day today, with nature on the cusp between autumn and winter, so we were able to enjoy being out for a couple of hours. The cold air seems to have finally cleared out my sinuses, so I'm celebrating the return of my sense of taste with a cup of coffee and some Christmas gingerbread biscuits from Lidl - completely justified given that it's now the start of December (and let's not talk about that fact that I'd actually already eaten half of them before the end of November!).

Christmassy-looking berries in the park

Mummy feet and baby feet in the park. I usually think festive-themed clothing is totally naff but I found these booties in a bag of second-hand stuff we were given and I think I might have to make an exception for baby clothes!

8pm: SCB had one last bout of teething pain at around 5pm which required lots of rocking and soothing and finally resulted in her falling asleep in my arms. I wasn't going to take the risk of moving her to her cot, so that turned in to an hour or so of one-handed internet surfing time for me :-) When she woke up, it was bath time and she suddenly cheered up. I always lie her on her changing mat on the floor while I run the bath, and tonight she entertained me greatly by moving herself off the top end of the mat (lying on her back, but head first) by pushing with her feet. Unfortunately she didn't quite manage to repeat the stunt when I rushed to get my phone and film her, but I did get some sweet videos of her doing gymnastic poses and sucking her own toes. After bath time, she had more milk and, to my surprise, given the long nap at 5 and the teething, fell asleep fairly quickly afterwards. Fingers crossed we're in for a good night!

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A Happy Story

Last week I went to the mairie to apply for SCB's French ID card. I had collected together all the documents on the list: my ID, proof of address and an official copy of her birth certificate dated less than three months ago. (Nothing makes you realise that time is flying by like your baby's birth certificate being out of date. And for British people, it's a bizarre concept anyway, because how could a birth have changed, but it's because in France, other life events, including death, would also be recorded on the birth certificate, so it does make sense here.) I had to fill in a form with SCB's details, including her height in cm, which will have changed in the time it takes to produce the card, she's growing so fast at the moment.We had also managed the amazing feat of getting approved style photos where SCB had her eyes open and her mouth closed - basically what a baby would look like if one were ever included in a prison line-up. The lady at the mairie actually complimented SCB on her poker face and we joked that she clearly already has the required skills for life in France.

When it came to the documents, however, she was not so sure. I had brought a justicatif from our energy company and not a bill, which is apparently not always acceptable, and she was almost certain that they would want to see UFM's ID, as he is the French parent. We live not far from the mairie, so I told her I could go and get the other documents to add to the file but she said they couldn't accept an incomplete file, so either I could hand it in and they would phone me if they needed more details or I could take everything away and come back to start from scratch. So far, so typical of l'administration française.

Being optimistic, lazy and not in a desperate hurry to receive the ID, I decided to take my chances. She gave me a receipt, told me it would normally take 3-4 weeks for the card to arrive and reiterated that they were likely to ask for the French parent's ID. So when I had a message on Monday from the mairie, I assumed that was going to be the reason ... but no, the card is sitting in their offices already and all I have to do is go and collect it! After our recent (and ongoing) experiences with the bank, all I can say is that I was in need of a pleasant bureaucratic surprise.

In other happy news, Nicholas Sarkozy has been knocked out in the primaries for the presidential elections next year. I can't say I'm a big fan of Fillon's ideas, but at least he isn't the man who was defeated last time by the guy who went on to become France's most unpopular president of all time. I was also pleased to see Jean-François Copé (he of the "droite décomplexée") come last with a paltry 0.3% of the vote. In the age of Brexit and Trump, it's good to know that the worst doesn't always happen.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Liberté, Egalité (Baby)

Yesterday afternoon at 16:34, women in France staged a walkout from work to highlight the fact that, due to the gender pay gap, for the rest of 2016, French women will effectively be working for free. And France is not the worst offender, with a pay gap which is actually below the EU average and significantly less than in the UK or Germany.

Equality between the sexes is a subject which has been on my mind a lot recently, particularly as I am currently taking parental leave and being paid precisely nothing at all.

"On paper" I really have nothing to complain about. Compared to many other countries, France offers a lot of options in terms of balancing career and family. I had 16 weeks of maternity leave on full pay, and Understanding Frenchman and I both have the right to take time off work or work part time right up until our daughter is three, when she will be starting school. And while the state handouts are not as generous as they used to be for parents taking time off, there is quite a lot of financial and structural support for childcare, making going back to work a relatively easy and financially viable decision. The liberté of choice is there.

On a personal level, I'm also happy to be spending time at home with our baby. It has its lonely and difficult moments, but generally I enjoy our days together and I appreciate having the flexibility to take things as they come. I would have found it very hard to leave her when she was 3 months old, but by the time I do go back to work, I think we'll both be ready for a bit more variety and stimulation. I don't even really mind doing the lion's share of the housework, given that I have the time (and also have to live with the consequences of not doing it all day every day). It seems only fair that when UFM comes home from a long day or week at work, he should spend time with the baby rather than mopping the kitchen floor.

So the problem is not that childcare is currently my full-time job. What frustrates me and gets my feminist hackles up is when looking after the baby turns in to my all-time job. And by that I mean the times when, even when both of us are there, UFM gets on with other things without a second thought and I am left, literally, holding the baby.

It's not that my husband is sexist. Pre-baby, we had a wonderfully balanced relationship where housework was mostly shared out according to who hated doing what the least and he was actually better at some typically "female" things, like remembering birthdays, than me. And since the baby was born, he's been a caring and involved dad who can do all aspects of childcare apart from breastfeeding just as well as I can.

So how did we get into this situation where looking after the baby is, by default, only my job?

Feeding is the most obvious practical element. SCB considers expressed milk in a bottle as the equivalent of serving vintage Moet in a plastic cup and reacts with fervent Gallic protest, meaning that if I do want to go out without her, I have to plan it into a three-hour window of freedom and/or hope that she doesn't wake up before she's expected to. And when you're keeping track of feeding, you tend to keep track of naps and nappy changes as well, which leads to also being the person who is keeping tabs on her exact position on the living room floor and whether she is about to suffocate on a cuddly blanket.

A long working hours culture is another one. UFM leaves the house at 8am every morning and returns at 8pm. This corresponds almost perfectly to SCB's waking hours, meaning that even just having bathtime with daddy is tricky on weeknights. As a result, he is less tuned in to her routine and the cues that certain things need to happen, meaning that he does sometimes depend on me to tell him what needs to be done.

With the move and all the work we've had to do on our flat, we've also been forced recently to adopt a largely divide and conquer approach to getting things done. And dividing according to stereotypical gender roles is often the most efficient approach, even if it isn't the most fair.

Finally, I am to some extent my own worst enemy, partly because I like looking after SCB and partly because I find it hard to relinquish control. I know that I don't need to be checking up on everything that UFM does as a dad, but if I hang around or offer suggestions, it definitely looks that way, and I'm so much in the habit of monitoring everything in my own head all week that it's difficult to stop at weekends!

What is the solution? In an ideal world, I think both of us would work part time and each have days in the week when we would be solely responsible for childcare. Unfortunately, while this is technically possible, society is not yet really in sync with the rules and, in my husband's job, it would not be easy to do. (This is partly a sexism thing, but even if he were female, I think he'd be expected to make use of some of that wonderfully available childcare rather than take long-term parental leave.)

Instead, we are trying to make weekend childcare his responsibility. It doesn't mean that he has to do everything, just that it is his job for planning what needs to be done. At the moment, that tends to work on Saturday mornings, while by Sunday afternoon we're more in a sharing situation, but it's a step in the right direction, and I definitely feel more positive about our division of labour by the end of the weekend than I usually do at the end of a long week!

What about everyone else? Any tips for correcting inequality, whether it's in childcare, in your relationships or at work? (And if you know how to get a baby to take an occasional bottle without giving up on breastfeeding, I'm all ears for advice on that too!)

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Recently we have mostly been ...

Charming grandparents (SCB): my parents came to visit last week, followed in close succession (as in, four hours to change the beds and do the hoovering) by my in-laws. SCB has been enjoying lots of attention and cuddles and I suspect is feeling quite disappointed now everybody is gone and she's stuck with me all day.

Administering Doliprane (Me): SCB has also been getting majorly into teething over the past week, although we have yet to see a tooth. Cue interrupted sleep and lots of crying. At one point, our upstairs neighbour knocked on the door because she'd heard all the screaming and wanted to check if I needed a hand, and I had explain that my parents were here but even with three supposedly competent adults, we couldn't calm the poor baby down. She reappeared an hour or so later with a plate of American desserts (they are from the US) to keep us going, so I need to invite her back at some point for cuddles with a hopefully calmer baby! It took a day or so for us to work out that the screaming was almost entirely teeth-related and give in to administering regular doses of the sticky pink syrup. I don't particularly like giving SCB lots of medicine but whoever coined the phrase "mother nature knows best" clearly wasn't thinking about how humans acquire their first teeth.

Bedroom hopping (but not in that sense) (all 3 of us): the reason UFM's parents came to visit was to help us decorate what will eventually be our bedroom, which when we moved in was entirely covered in old-lady wallpaper.

Yes, even the undersides of the shelves in the cupboard.

New paintwork
The new colour was supposed to be cream, but as the paint was bought by UFM and his dad, and my father-in-law is colour blind and UFM didn't realise that the colour would come out much stronger on 4 walls than on the sample sheet, it's actually pale grey, so what you can see in the second photo is my attempts to find a new colour scheme. The logistics of having various people sleeping the the right beds and working around the decorating meant that we ended up sleeping in all 3 of the bedrooms in the flat, including the one where chunks of paint have been falling off the ceiling ever since the flood, but we're back to normal now.

Admiring the autumn colours: all four grandparents needed to be introduced to the walks in our new area. There have been some lovely sunny days and the leaves this year have been beautiful, so it was nice being out and about.

Admin, admin, admin: between the baby, the move, the flood and our endlessly-incompetent bank, we seem to have endless paperwork to do, and now that all the visitors have gone, there's no excuse for not tackling it. Which is why I'm sitting here blogging, of course.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Sologne and Thanks for all the Fish*

*Actually, there are no fish in this blog post. Nor will you find the meaning of life, the universe and everything. But my friend made the joke and I thought it was funny.

La Sologne is the area of France south of Orléans where we went with some friends for our first ever weekend away with baby. It's covered with forest and lakes, which meant that it was beautiful in the autumn with the leaves just starting to change colour. It's almost completely flat, which made it an easy place to go for walks even with an increasingly heavy baby. It's filled with deer, wild boar, and the people who hunt them, which made for an exciting half hour or so when we took the wrong path in the forest and found ourselves in an area where people had clearly been shooting extremely recently!

The reason that the Sologne is so wild is that the ground is very wet and therefore presumably difficult to cultivate, so there isn't much agriculture. Lots of people had lovely big vegetable gardens and orchards though, so growing things on a small scale seemed to be easier. The villages were very pretty, with mainly timber and brick houses, while every so often in the forest we would pass an enormous château, usually with its own lake. (Passing the estate agent's window, we were tempted by a more reasonable few hectares of land complete with not one, but two lakes and a wooden cabin.) Sadly, although there were plenty of hiking trails, most of the lakes were fenced off in people's private property, but we were able to admire a few nonetheless.

Supercool Baby enjoyed her first hiking trip, doing lots of sleeping in the sling then waking up to admire the light dancing between the leaves when we stopped for lunch and laid her down in the grass. I think it did both me and Understanding Frenchman good too, to get away and do something we've always enjoyed, surrounded by good company, and just be able to bring the baby along. And after all the fresh air, she settled down quickly to sleep in the evenings and we could have fun cooking up a big meal and eating with our friends. Hopefully it's an experience we'll be able to repeat a few times before she gets too heavy to carry at all!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Recently I have mostly been ...

When I'm at work, I eat in the canteen, as does Understanding Frenchman. Being at home all day means I'm responsible for sorting out my own lunch, so I've been taking advantage of that to resurrect some old favourites that UFM doesn't really like and try out some new recipes. Last week I bought soy sauce and made stir-fry, which I used to eat about once a week but literally hadn't had for years. Then one day when we had run out of vegetables, I was inspired by the fruit bowl to fry a few slices of apple in salted butter to eat with pork chops. It was really good.We've had various visitors recently, so I've been using that as an excuse to test out our new oven for baking. I made banana cake, millionnaire shortbread and carrot cake, and the difference compared to when I used our old grill oven is amazing - success every time! Both the banana cake and the carrot cake went down really well with French friends who were already fans, which surprised me, as they're not the kind of baking that you see often here.

Obsessing about nap times
Super-cool Baby has been a great sleeper from birth, but I'm pretty sure we've hit the dreaded four-month sleep regression this week, because while nights are still OK, getting her to take naps has been, well, a nightmare. 45 minutes of rocking, singing and nursing may or may not result in a half-hour nap, and if it doesn't, she's guaranteed to be grumpy and clingy until she finally does get off to sleep. If she does, I then start stressing about the rocking, singing and nursing creating bad sleep habits that are soon going to disturb our nights as well. Out of all of the things you get to worry about with a baby, I think sleep is a particularly stressful one because there are so many different ideas on the subject, what you do now can have a major impact on what your baby will do later, and bad sleep can ruin your life for years. Scary stuff.

At the same time, I find the whole subject kind of boring and dislike the fact that I spend so much of my day thinking about it. So I'll stop writing this paragraph now.

Exercising my pelvic floor
Yes, I finally sorted my self out with a kiné, who I go and see twice a week to get all those important muscles back in shape. I accidentally ended up with a man because I called the number for a woman who I found in the annuarie santé but got through to the guy that she shares her clinic with instead. I thought it might be horrifically embarrassing but it's actually been absolutely fine. My stomach muscles are apparently pathetically weak, however, so I have to practise doing plank-type exercises for thirty seconds at a time. At the moment I can only hold the position for about ten seconds, so I have a long way to go!

Finally, as a change from all of those exciting activities, I also went on a night out with friends on Saturday evening. We went to a restaurant not too far away and I was already on my way home after a few hours of good chat and company when I got a text from UFM saying, "Help, she has woken up and is crying!", so that was definitely a success!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Areu, areu

"Areu" is one of the few words that I learned through doing crosswords in French. I've been attempting for years to learn to do mots fléchés, which are more or less the equivalent of a quick (non-cryptic) crossword, although I believe the most accurate translation is actually "arrow words". In that time I have progressed from Level 1 to almost being able to do Level 2. (I was delighted when I learned that there was also a Level 1-2 category because it made me feel that I had made more progress!) As it turns out, doing synonym crosswords is a fairly useless way of learning vocabulary because you encounter the words entirely out of context and, if you cheat by looking at the answers often enough, you can learn that two words are synonyms of each other without actually knowing what either of them means.

Anyway, it turns out that even learning the word areu from the crosswords was a bit pointless, because my daughter probably says it to me a few hundred times every day. The best English translation of it is probably "goo-goo, ga-ga", but that is nothing like as onomatopoeic as the French word for that cooing noise that babies make when they're happy.

Unless, I've been wondering, it's particularly French babies who make the sound in this way. Perhaps it's being surrounded by all those rolling rrrs that makes them exercise their vocal cords like this.

I suspect probably not, but I do like my theory and I haven't spent enough time with other babies of this age to have any evidence to the contrary. Any thoughts?

Monday, 26 September 2016

My Experiences of Breastfeeding

When I was still in the early stages of pregnancy, I remember having an intense conversation with Understanding Frenchman one night about the fact that I wanted to breastfeed our baby and how worried I was that in France that might be a difficult thing to do. Among my family and friends it in the UK it is very much the norm, and when I was still living there, it was, as it is now, very much promoted as the healthiest option for mother and baby. In France, on the other hand, I could not recall ever having seen a woman breastfeeding. In addition the internet had led me to believe that I was living in a nation of bottle-feeders where the top priority for women was getting back to work fast and keeping their assets in shape for their husbands (or lovers, or whoever). And we all know that the internet is always right. Right?

Well, not really.

As I mentioned before, I gave birth in a "hôpital ami des bébés", so I was, as expected, well-supported there. To be honest, though, one of the most important aspects of the support was the fact that I was still in hospital on the third night when my milk came in and feeding really hurt, as is the norm in France. I was able to buzz for a friendly nurse who assured me that the pain was to be expected and would pass. (This is one of the many medical situations when all the information you receive beforehand talks about "some discomfort" when what they actually mean is that it can be agony.) Had I been already at home, which in the UK I probably would have been, it would have been a long wait until the next day to get expert advice.

Like many new mothers, I was also nervous about feeding in public. In both the British and French media, you can find stories about women who have been told not to feed their babies somewhere and it's caused a huge furore. When I read forums with people's everyday experiences however, most of the French mothers only had positive experiences to share. An interesting difference, I thought, was that the British websites were more militant about promoting right to breastfeed openly and anywhere, the French forums were more likely to contain tips about how to be discreet if you wanted to. While I don't think the militants are wrong, I found it easier to think about feeding my baby as something personal that I could just get on with in the way I felt comfortable than to consider it as a political act. Anyway, in my actual experience over the past three months, once I got over the initial awkwardness, it has been absolutely fine and I've never registered any sort of judgement other than smiles.

My experiences among family and friends have also been different to what I expected. It turns out that many French women, including a lot of our friends, do breast feed their babies, just not for very long, as there is a culture of going back to work quite early here. As a result you're less likely to see nursing in action, but that doesn't mean it's not encouraged. In UFM's family, most of the children were bottle fed, so I initially felt quite shy around them and tried to find quite corners every time the baby got hungry. That didn't last very long, however, as we kept ending up at random people's houses at unpredictable moments, and a hungry screaming baby is definitely more difficult to deal with than hitching up a t-shirt, so in the end I just went for it and nobody batted an eyelid. (The one exception was UFM's little nephews, aged 5 and 6, who were both fascinated by the process and insisted on coming to watch!)

Sadly, I've also learned along the way that in the UK, despite the promotion of breastfeeding to the point where many women experience it as pressure, the support once the baby is born is not necessarily all that wonderful and, despite the fact that maternity leave tends to be longer than in France, many mothers give up early on despite wanting to continue, so my vision of how things would have been over there was also somewhat rose-tinted in the beginning. The grass is not necessarily greener, and all that. I've also realised that the choice between breast and bottle is not always as straightforward as it is often presented to be, and that people make their decisions for any number of (valid) reasons, so I hope that nobody reading this post feels there is any judgement implied.

As a result, I feel very grateful for the mostly positive experiences I've had so far, both practically and socially. And perhaps the one good thing to come out of the infamous burkini affair is that the prime minister himself has provided the perfect riposte for when anyone ever criticises mothers for getting their breasts out in public (even if his art history turned out to be incorrect). If Marianne can freely show her naked bosom to feed the people of La République, then so can we all!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Au revoir, Paris

It was early on Sunday afternoon. I had spent the morning planting window boxes for our balcony and Understanding Frenchman had been trying to repair a wardrobe and organising things in the cellar. At about half past one he reappeared and asked if he should go and buy bread for lunch.

"Is the bakery still open?" I replied. He looked at me with an expression of dawning realisation: we were not in Paris any more.

We moved almost two weeks ago and the bits of the flat we're actually living in (as opposed to the part that will need to be redecorated following the flood in July) are pretty much sorted now. Water damage aside, the flat is great and I think we're going to be very happy here. Nevertheless, despite all my moaning about Paris over the past three years, I couldn't help feeling a little pincement au coeur as we left.

I think what I'll miss is not so much the city as a whole, but our quartier. UFM and I lived together for the first time, got married and had a baby in our little corner of the 12th arondissement. We chatted to the baker, the greengrocer and the pharmacist, who all knew who we were and would ask how the baby was getting on. Our local boulangerie sold the best baguette I've ever tasted, and knew that we liked it bien cuite. When we wanted lots of fruit and vegetables, we walked down the Promenade Plantée to the Marché d'Aligre to buy them at one or two euros per kilo. My friends and I knew a selection of friendly bars where we could meet for an apéritif. We could go almost anywhere using public transport options that were practically on our doorstep. And when we wanted to escape from the city, the Bois de Vincennes was a pretty good retreat.

However, it turned out that even in the suburbs you can buy bread until 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, so we didn't go hungry. And there are compensations for becoming banlieusards. I still get a little burst of exhilaration when I step out onto the balcony in the morning and breathe in fresh air rather than exhaust fumes from the péripherique. (Did I mention  that we have a balcony? Actually, believe it or not, we have three - two little narrow ones and a bigger one where we can fit chairs and sit and watch the sunset. Yes, we are totally spoilt!) It's nice having a bit more space: we can now open our bedroom door fully and don't trip over a carrycot as soon as we step into the room. And no doubt we'll get to know people around here quickly too - nothing stimulates chit-chat with strangers quite as much as carrying a small baby!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Tough Times, Baby

Having written a post all about the wonders of having a newborn baby, in the interest of providing balanced coverage (not least to my future self), it seems like a good idea to take a look over the challenges too. So here goes:

- For the first couple of weeks, your body is a wreck. I was looking forward to wearing normal clothes again, but in fact spent the first couple of weeks in tracksuit bottoms (soft and stretchy where you need them to be), cheapo vest tops (sore breasts and milk leaking everywhere) and my most ancient knickers (I knew you bled after giving birth but nobody told me how long it went on for!). I was expecting to be sleep-deprived, but wasn't really prepared for the physical exhaustion which followed the birth itself. The first time I went out myself, I walked 5 minutes to the supermarket, picked up too many heavy things in the fruit and veg aisle and had to call UFM to send his parents (who luckily were staying with us at the time) to help me carry the bag back. I think it took around 3 weeks for me to start feeling ok again,but I'm definitely not back to my normal fitness even now.

- Every trip out is an expedition, and sometimes also an ordeal. In Paris, it's pretty difficult to go to many places with a buggy, so until we got sorted with using the sling my main trips out alone were walks around the block. Also, with tiny babies, you never know when they're going to wake up and be hungry, so you can find yourself with a crying infant in all sorts of awkward places. My worst experiences were definitely medical appointments (of which there are a lot). You have no choice about the timing and can't be late, and Super Cool Baby was more like Stressed-out Crying Baby through most of ours, making it very hard to listen to the doctors and take on information.

- The Witching Hour. This is a common phenomenon where the baby cries unconsolably, usually some time between 7 and 11pm (and often for more than an hour). You can theorise about whether it's caused by gas, colic or releasing the stress of the day, but whatever the reason, there's no magic solution. (There are techniques which can help, but none of them is fail-safe.) The witching hour started for us at around 4 weeks. Since about 8 weeks, it's been shorter, less dramatic and less frequent, and we're really hoping that SCB got the memo that it's supposed to stop around 3 months!

- Your hormones are all over the place. Apart from one occasion when I burst into tears over a political debate at dinner time, I felt emotionally normal through most of pregnancy. Since the baby was born, however, I've definitely been more up-and-down and have to engage my rational brain to avoid behaving like a moody teenager at times.

- It can feel lonely. When people talked about this before, I thought they meant being stuck at home all day and lacking company, but between visitors, Skype and social media, that hasn't really been a problem. The loneliness I've experienced comes from a deeper place, from the feelings of bonding I have with the baby, and the realisation that nobody in the world, not even my husband, has quite the same bond. This is in no way a criticism of him: we have a very equal partnership and he's a fantastic dad, but his relationship with the baby, although just as important, isn't the same. (If it were, it probably wouldn't be a good thing.) And of course, the other person involved (the baby herself) isn't exactly a reciprocal partner. This is without a doubt the hardest thing I've experienced about being a mother so far, so in the spirit of sharing experience, I thought I'd better put it out there.

Tempus Fugit, Baby

The summer months have been flying by and soon it will be time for us to leave the fresh air and mamie's cooking in Brittany and face up to returning to Paris. As September draws near, I'm also getting my head around the fact that in a couple of weeks' time we will no longer have a newborn baby, but a 3 month old one. And while there's lots to look forward to in the next phase, I'm allowing myself to indulge in a little nostalgia as well.

Having a newborn baby is definitely not easy. Your body goes through the massive ordeal that is giving birth, then instead of lying in bed for a week to recover, you have to look after this tiny little being who requires all of your time and attention. I think perhaps I'll write another post about the hard parts of the first three months (that way, apart from anything else, if we ever decide to have a second baby, I'll remember that it wasn't all a bed of roses!) but at the moment I'm going to focus on all the reasons why the newborn period is awesome:

- Newborns really are super cool. I was expecting my baby to be sweet and adorable. (She is.) I was expecting her to cry, loudly at times. (She does, and it can be heartbreaking.) What I wasn't expecting was the sheer force of such a tiny little human - the changing expressions in her face, the determination with which she roots and sucks for milk, the extent of the stretches as she wakes up and her tiny limbs go in all directions, and the force of her cries when she doesn't get what she needs.

- If you're on maternity leave, looking after the baby is your job. Being awake during the night is tough, but at least if the baby falls asleep during the day (admittedly that's a big if!), it's perfectly acceptable to have a little nap. And after three years of 6am starts and long commutes, I think I actually prefer waking up for the baby to the alarm clock.

- You get lots of lovely visitors who tell you how gorgeous the baby is. If you're lucky enough to have had a shower that morning, they'll probably congratulate you, and if you haven't, most people are polite enough to keep quiet about it. When you take your baby out in public, you'll hear people whispering, "Look, did you see the tiny baby!" and old ladies will chat to you at the traffic lights about how lovely this time is and how fast it goes.

Tiny baby with tiny baby hands
- Baby smiles. At first the baby sourit aux anges (smiles to the angels), then gradually starts to respond to faces and expressions. We're now getting the beginnings of little baby laughs, which are just magical.

- The theory of the Fourth Trimester. The idea of the fourth trimester is that, because human babies are born at an early stage in their development compared to other mammals, the first three months are essentially an extension of their time in the womb. All the reliable sources of advice recommend that during this time you sleep in the same room as the baby, feed on demand, provide lots of cuddles and skin-to-skin contact, and generally do exactly what the baby and your instincts are telling you to do. After three months, opinion starts to differ on whether you should continue in this way or start to impose a routine (particularly in relation to sleep) and you have to decide which parts of the very conflicting advice to follow. I'm not looking forward to the stress of making those choices!

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

From the Mouths of Babes

Last weekend we celebrated my father-in-law's 70th birthday by having lunch with extended family and friends in a restaurant. The children were being served their steak haché and the waitress announced that she had one which was bien cuit for UFM's six-year-old nephew.

From the other side of the room, we heard his seven-year-old cousin comment, "Il mange sa viande bien cuite - oh là là!"

Because in France not only are small children asked how they would like their meat cooked, they know that saignant is best and that asking for anything more than à point just isn't done.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Baby Names and Faire-parts naissance

"Born on the xth June, she weighed 3.78kg and was 51.5cm long"

"I don't like the past tense," I told Understanding Frenchman. I was reading over the text for our faire-part naissance and I couldn't help feeling that those verb forms at worst made it sound as if the baby was no longer with us and at best drew a bit too much attention to the fact that we were very late in sending out our birth announcement cards. (Baby now weighs nearly 6 kilos and is 61cm long!) We eventually settled on a less pointed "She was born on the xth June weighing 3.78kg for 61cm".

Faire-parts naissance are a nice tradition on France where you send out a little card with pictures of your baby, the name and the date of birth. However, in the era of MMS, email and social media, they are also somewhat obsolete and had been hanging around at the bottom of our to-do lists (behind things like "buy a flat", "contact insurers re flooding issue" and "keep the baby alive") for weeks and weeks. Unfortunately, while most people probably don't even notice if the card is a little late in coming, certain members of the older generation can become quite vocal if they don't materialise within a certain number of weeks - we had some older family friends on UFM's side declaring that there would be no cadeau de naissance until they had seen one!

If I'm truly honest, designing and ordering the faire-parts was actually on my personal to-do list, not his, but I was putting off doing them because I knew that my inner perfectionist would be frustrated by not being able to devote hours to the project before being called away to feed/change/soothe the main protagonist. So in the end it was UFM who sat down with the computer and created the whole thing in the space of about 45 minutes using the best of our not-totally-professional-looking photo selection, along with a fairly inoffensive design from the standard selection on the site. Now all we have to do is address the envelopes and actually get them posted.

Inspecting my husband's fine work after failing to complete the task myself reminded me of something I found funny when we sent out the 21st century SMS version of the birth announcement to all our friends. Super Cool Baby has a first name and a middle name (let's pretend they are Supercool and Baby), and to me it was natural to put them both in the message, particularly as both names have family connections. Apparently the French don't do this, though, as a whole lot of UFM's friends and family thought we would be using both on a day-to-day basis, despite the fact that he put a comma in between them  (which I also thought was weird). Surely if we'd wanted to use both she would have been Supercool-Baby and not Supercool Baby or Supercool, Baby? It makes me wonder why people here bother with middle names at all if they are so unimportant that you don't even mention them in the birth announcement!

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Holidays At the End of the Earth

I'm not really allowed to say that Finistère is my favourite part of Brittany - Understanding Frenchman is from the Morbihan, so obviously that's the best bit. But between you, me and the internet, the most westerly département is very beautiful and beautifully under-populated, even at the peak of the high tourist season, and that's exactly what's needed for a summer holiday antidote to Parisian living.

There are reasons for this, of course. Our gîte in the little village of Plournéour-Trez, on the north coast west of Roscoff, was a six hour drive from Paris. A six hour drive from Paris would also get you to the Alps, the Atlantic coast, the Dordogne and many other places which are a whole lot warmer than Finistère. The difference in temperature even with the Morbihan was noticeable; even on sunny days there was a fresh breeze that's had us wrapped up in fleece jumpers as we eat our dinner on the terrace.

But when you can swim in sea which looks like this:

hike along coastal trails with views like this:

lay out your towel on a beach as empty as this:

and appreciate that the rain waters gorgeous flowers like this:

a little shiver every so often doesn't seem to matter too much.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Life Update

Apart from all the flat-buying drama, life has been quiet around here recently. My Facebook feed is full of other people's holiday photos from across Europe, from Bulgaria to Iceland, and I've been trying hard not to become frustrated at still being in Paris while my friends are off having adventures. This mostly involves Super-Cool Baby and me going off for our own adventures, usually discovering new parks. Having walked the Promenade Plantée, strolled in the Bois de Vincennes, toured the Lac Daumesnil and picnicked in the Parc Montsouris, I scanned Google maps for evidence of other accessible green spaces and picked out the Parc Kellermann in the 13th. It's not a very big park, but it has a high part and a lower part with a waterfall in between, and I always thing a bit of geographical relief makes things a bit more interesting. (In fact, when you're there with a buggy it can almost as adventurous as hiking in Bulgaria or sailing in Iceland. Honestly ...)

When not strolling around parks, I've been spending a lot of time of the sofa surfing the web one-handed, which has consequently got me thinking about the value of the internet and how different life might be without it. I wrote a little while ago about how while there are things about looking after a new baby which are hard, we have yet to find anything surprisingly hard. A big part of this is that so far we've been very lucky to have a baby who eats well, sleeps well and is generally healthy, for which we are massively grateful, but I think it's also down to what our expectations of parenting were beforehand. When I change my clothes and the baby's for the second or third time in the day after a series of milk- or nappy-related incidents, I know that this is par for the course.  If we spend several hours pacing up and down the flat holding her in the latest (and inevitably awkward) anti-colic position, we know that others have been there too. And when I leave her to cry for a few extra minutes because I want to finish getting something done, I know that this is not being a bad mother, but a normal, realistic one.

I think that this is largely down to the internet. In real life, people will tell you that having kids is hard and especially that you'll never sleep again, but they don't often go into the details of how and why. On the internet, I feel that people talk more honestly about their experiences, their mistakes, and particularly their guilt, and it's also a great source of advice and suggestions, available at all hours of the day, including the wee small ones. It's very similar, in fact, to the way expat/immigrant/living abroad blogs can be a helpful source of information about the reality behind the dream while at the same time keeping us inspired by reminding us of what makes it all worthwhile.

So, to finish with, here are a few recommendations for those who might be interested of sites to surf one handed as you balance your baby in the Tiger in the Tree position and gently jiggle your knee at just the right frequency to keep those colicky screams at bay:

La Leche League , Kellymom and Breastfeeding Support all have far more detail about breastfeeding than you're likely to pick up at the maternity hospital.

The Infant Sleep Source has information about what is normal in terms of baby sleep and research on sleep-training methods.

This page has great tips for soothing a crying baby.

Mumsnet has loads of information and a discussion forum about all aspects of parenting. Most sections of the forum are full of good advice, but if you're just looking for entertainment, try the Am I Being Unreasonable? section to reassure yourself of how normal your really are.

Selfish Mother and The Motherload both combine useful information with healthy realism and a strong dose of humour.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Flat Update

We bought the flat.

In the last 24 hours before the signing date the bank managed to fit in one last act of idiocy when we were finally able to send back the last set of paperwork that would allow them to transfer the funds to the lawyer. They received it at 10 am that day and were supposed to send the payment immediately, but at the end of the afternoon Understanding Frenchman got a phone call from our adviser saying that he had omitted to sign one of the pages. Except that he had. The adviser sent him a scanned copy and there were our two signatures, clear as day on the page.

It turned out that what had happened was that, because my signature is basically just my name written in my normal handwriting and his is a bit more "signature"-like (although you can still see his last name clearly written if you look for more than about a second), someone had decided that I had written my name and then signed underneath and that he had forgotten to sign. (This despite the fact that both of our signatures also appeared on the front page of the document next to our typed names.) By the time they'd figured out the mistake, it was too late to send the payment.

However (with yet another reminder from both UFM and the lawyer the following morning) the bank did eventually transfer the money half an hour before we were due to sign. Paperwork dealt with and keys in hand, UFM went happily back to work while I returned home with the baby.

A few hours later there was another phonecall. This time it was the previous owners, to say that they had just been informed by the gardienne that water was coming through the ceiling from our flat into the flat below. Feeling like we were in some kind of sick reality TV show, UFM rushed off to the flat to see what had happened while I dashed to the insurance agency to confirm our policy starting that very day (Our super-cool baby was smart enough to stay asleep through all of this!). In the end it turned out that the flood was actually in the flat above and the water was running through our wall into the one below, so we ended up with more paperwork to sign and some extra repair work to do, but luckily no financial liability. Fingers crossed that our trials are now over and that in a few weeks we'll be enjoying our new abode!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Last Bastion of Bureaucratic Nightmares?

I first lived in France in 2002, then again in 2005. Since I came back in 2009, I've repeatedly been pleasantly surprised by how much easier many administrative procedures have become. I remember the galère me and my assistant friends went through to obtain a carte de séjour, open a phone line or access the healthcare system in 2002. By 2009 I had no problems obtaining either a landline or a mobile phone, and instead of sending off endless documents to the sécurité sociale for each medical appointment, in most cases you can now be reimbursed automatically by both la sécu and your mutuelle just by handing your carte vitale over to healthcare providers, and access and change your account details online at the click of a button.

Then Understanding Frenchman and I applied for a mortgage and I discovered that French bureaucracy can still be a total nightmare.

I won't go into the details here because it's really, really tedious, but here is an example of one of the many things which have gone wrong. To obtain a joint mortgage, we needed a joint bank account. UFM's bank branch not being open on a Saturday, we went together to mine. Unfortunately, when UFM told his advisor last suller that we had got married, the advisor neglected to update his customer profile, meaning that we couldn't open a married couple's account. And the ONLY person who could make this change (on a computer system accessible to all branch staff) was that one advisor in the other branch, who wasn't back at work until the middle of the following week.

In France, when you buy a property, you sign a compromis de vente (agreement to sell) with the sellers, then you have three months before the signature of the acte de vente, which is when the property actually changes hands. This is to allow time for the sellers to provide certain documents, for the mairie to make sure they don't want to exercise their right to buy the property for public purposes and for the buyers to get their mortgage agreement in place. Over the past three months we have been efficient with our mortgage application to the point that I was signing documents from my bed in the maternity hospital. The bank, meanwhile, have wasted days and days ate every step by taking a week to send documents through their internal mail (you could literally have walked and delivered the envelope by hand in less time than it took them to send a letter from Paris to Nanterre), then sending repeat copies of things we had already signed, requesting things they didn't actually need and leaving absolutely everything to the last minute. Last week it got to the point where our final date for signing the acte de vente was coming up and it didn't look as if the mortgage was going to be in place in time.

In theory, this meant that not only would the sellers be perfectly within their rights to sell the property to somebody else, but they would get to keep our deposit (10% of the price of the property, so a tidy sum) as well.

Luckily my husband is awesome, and after an hour on the phone one afternoon telling the bank in no uncertain terms exactly how useless they were, our case was being "discussed at the highest level" and our file "passed through as urgent", and (touch wood) it looks as if we will have the funds in time to stop the sellers heading off into the sunset with our hard earned savings and leaving us with nowhere to live.

But it has been unbelievably stressful. UFM has been taking charge of the whole thing because he has done this before and has insider knowledge of the system, and I have been somewhat preoccupied with a certain other matter over the past nine months, but even experiencing his stress second hand has been tough (and he is normally a very calm person). I haven't been able to give him any real advice or support, as if he can't make things go right, there is absolutely no chance that I will do better. That doesn't feel good either.

Because another nasty mark that this experience will leave on my mind is the awareness of how much worse it would have been if I had been doing this by myself. Not just because I'm not as knowledgeable, organised or efficient as Understanding Frenchman, but also because as a foreigner, it's so much harder to complain. If I had had to make that phone call, not only would I not have had the gumption to carry on insisting for a whole hour that they do something to sort out the mess (because we Brits feel embarrassed about these things), but they would have heard my petit accent and my words would automatically have carried less weight. After all, who am I to tell the French what is and is not normal in their own country?

I hope that none of you will have to go through what we have if you are ever buying property in France, and luckily our experience really isn't the norm. UFM had a previous mortgage with a different bank and the whole thing was processed within a month, while many friends and acquaintances (French and other) have had an easier time than we have. Just in case you ever do though, I leave you with what is apparently the worst insult that you can possibly hurl at a large international company that supposedly prides itself on customer service: "votre façon de travailler, c'est la sécurité sociale des années 80, quoi!"

It's particularly effective when that company likes to describe itself as la banque d'un monde qui change.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Why You Shouldn't Read Blogs Like This One

I read an article online about France the other day which annoyed me. This happens frequently - it's one of the dangers of the internet in general, and of reading "lifestyle" pieces about France in particular. On this occasion, the article was about pregnancy in France and about how medical professionals here encourage you not to gain too much weight. (I'm not going to link to the article, as this isn't intended to be a personal attack on the writer, and there are many similar ones out there, so if you want to read them, do a search!)

For those who are not expert in the subject, a "normal" weight gain in pregnancy is considered to be 10-12kg in France (according to the pregnancy bible J'attends un enfant), 10-12.5 kg in the UK and 25-35lbs in the US . (The writer of the article was American.) In other words, we all pretty much agree on what healthy looks like.

There are, however, differences in how this is monitored. My friends in the UK were never weighed during their pregnancies. My personal experience in France was that I was weighed at every midwife appointment, but as I was well within the limits, even before the sadistic diabetes diet, the only comment that was ever made was, "Vous n'avez pas pris trop de poids - c'est bien." A French friend told me that she had been enguelée ("told off") by her doctor for weight gain, but she admitted that she took advantage of being pregnant to eat all the unhealthy things she didn't normally allow herself (and unlike me, she was very slim to start with!) and had put on 25kg by the end, which she then regretted. The 10-12kg rule is often interpreted as 1kg per month, with a little bit more at the end, so French doctors will often tell you to be careful if you go over this monthly limit, and this is what happened to the woman in the article.

Don't get me wrong - I can understand why she was upset. I can well believe that a doctor might apply the one-kilo-per-month rule very strictly, not allowing for the fact that you might gain two or three one month and less the next, or appreciating that the difference between gaining 12kg and gaining 13 or 14 is not that great. French kids are brought up to accept this kind of criticism; Brits and Americans are not.

What annoyed me was the rest of the article, which was several paragraphs about how French (although I think she meant Parisian) women are all extremely thin, hardly eat anything and never serve themselves twice from the bread basket. It may have mentioned that it's all about fitting back into your designer clothes as quickly as possible. (If this particular article didn't, I'm sure there is one out there which did.) Not once did it mention that excessive weight gain is associated with serious complications in pregnancy, such as (ahem) gestational diabetes or the potentially life-threatening pre-eclampsia. She didn't say, perhaps because she didn't know, that the traditional idea of "eating for two" exists in France as well, and that many women, like my friend above, "take advantage" of their pregnancy to eat unhealthy diets and need to be reminded not to. Nor did the writer appear to accept that it is actually quite nice not to have to worry about losing loads of excess weight after the baby is born, when you probably won't have time to spend cooking up carefully balanced, calorie counted meals and when your body is in too much of a mess to contemplate most forms of exercise.

The reason I'm writing about this is not that I think weight gain in pregnancy is a fascinating topic, nor, as I said before, to have a go at this particular writer. Once I got over my annoyance, I realised that the article I read was the perfect illustration of a kind of double-whammy culture clash that causes so many of us grief when we move to a foreign country. The first is the interpretation of words and actions according to our own cultural norms: in France, the doctor was giving the woman sound advice which was for her own good, even if it was difficult to hear; according to American norms he was practically fat-shaming her. The second was that, in trying to interpret her experience, she fell back on stereotypes ("all French women are obsessed with being thin and incredibly stylish"), rather than examining the deeper reasons for her doctor's advice.

The first "whammy" is hard to avoid. You don't realise how deeply ingrained your own cultural norms are until you experience violation of them on a daily basis. It's part of adapting to a new country and it's hard, but the long-term gains are worth it.

The second, however, I feel, can be more easily avoided. While it's interesting and fun to read the kinds of blogs and books where this kind of writing appears, it's also dangerous. If you learn about your adopted country largely by reading the experiences and interpretations of people from your own culture, you'll never adapt your perspective to truly understand where the natives are coming from. In fact, you can even start to see stereotypes (which, although they often contain an element of truth, are rarely the whole picture) that you wouldn't have created for yourself. It's harder, but much better, to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Those are my words of wisdom for the day, but if you want to live dangerously, try Googling what Brits and Americans in France think of la reéduation périnéale. It's obviously all to do with getting back in shape for your husband (and maybe also your lover) and nothing whatsoever with being able to sneeze without fear in middle age ...

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Another Week Gone By

One thing they say about babies which is definitely true is that they make time go both fast and slowly at the same time. I was talking the other day about something which happened towards the end of my pregnancy and I couldn't believe that only a few weeks before we had yet to meet our little bundle of joy, yet there are times (mainly when I'm waiting for her to go to sleep) where I actually watch the clock because one minute feels like at least five or ten.

My parents came to visit last week, and while their main mission was obviously to spend time with their granddaughter, we tried to get out and about a bit more than I usually manage, including taking advantage of having extra pairs of hands to carry the buggy up and down the steps on the metro. We made it all the way to the Ile Saint Louis and sat on a bench in the sun eating ice cream from Berthillon. (Tip: there is always a huge queue at the actual shop in summer, but there is a little kiosk nearby where Mr Berthillon's sister sells the same ice cream.)

The weather has been so weird this spring and summer that it took us until last Sunday to have our first picnic in the park of the year, but now that the sun has come out (sort of - it rained today) we've got another two lined up for the 14 juillet long weekend.

One unfortunate development is that our super cool baby has been suffering from colic and instead of being chilled out 24 hours a day now has a couple of hours in the evening where she screams and screams and screams. I think this has something to do with the way my milk comes out when I'm feeding her, so I've been spending a fair bit of time online googling solutions (the science of lactation is an amazing thing) and the rest of the time wondering if it's better to just accept that babies cry (two hours a day is apparently very normal) and just keep giving her cuddles to help her through it.

Nonetheless, we still feel very lucky to have a healthy baby who otherwise eats well and sleeps enough for us both to get a reasonable amount of shut-eye (and for me to have time to scour the internet for colic remedies...), so as a way of showing my gratitude to the universe, I decided I wanted to donate milk to the Lactarium de l'Ile de France. The lactarium collects milk from donors and gives it to premature and ill babies who for one reason or another cannot have their own mothers' milk. After I sent an email asking for information, a very nice lady phoned me back and explained the whole procedure. We were about to arrange to have the equipment and paperwork delivered to my flat when she asked me if I was English, as she thought she recognised my accent. Sadly, she wasn't just making small talk: as with blood donation, people who were in the UK when mad cow disease was a problem are not allowed to donate milk in France, as there is a very tiny risk of spreading Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. I was really disappointed, as it seemed like such a great thing to do. I guess I'll just have to hope that some non-UK breastfeeding mother in Paris with enough milk, time and inclination will stumble across this and be in a position to take inspiration from my post!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

My New Parisian Life

When you don't have kids (and especially when you're pregnant), people who do love to tell you how you cannot possibly ever be prepared for how much your life is going to change. They also use the word "overwhelming" a lot in relation to how you will feel both when you hold your newborn for the first time and when you're confronted with yet another explosive nappy change at 4am when you haven't had any sleep.

So I'm a little surprised to be reporting that I haven't found my experience of parenting to be particularly overwhelming or astonishing so far. (The exception to this might have been this morning on a crowded bus, when a rather large woman with a shopping trolley decided she had to push past me to grab a seat that was about to become free, meaning that I had to step off the bus to let other people get out, leaving the baby in the buggy on the bus without me. It took about a minute and the baby was almost a WHOLE METRE away from me with STRANGERS in between us. The tiger-mother fear and rage I felt was totally justified, obviously, and might be described as overwhelming.)

This is not to say that my baby daughter is not the most precious thing in the world to me, or that cleaning poo off the curtains in the wee small hours is easy*. It's just that, maybe thanks to all the warnings, being a parent does feel pretty much like what we signed up for.

And life has definitely changed. Gorgeous baby cuddles aside, one of the nicest things has been enjoying life in our little quartier of Paris. When it takes several hours to be ready to leave the house, and public transport is either inaccessible or carries the risk of incidents like the one above, it's just so much easier to stay local. And so, after 3 years of living here, I have finally got to chatting with the baker and the greengrocer and the pharmacist. (Especially the pharmacist. Having a baby in France involves lots of trips to the pharmacy.) An afternoon's outing might be a visit to the PMI (Protection maternelle et infantile), where the nice ladies offer you glasses of water and supply you with cushions while you feed your baby, or a walk around the park. We've even been to see an osteopath, which also felt terribly French, as it was basically an extra checkup to find out if anything might be wrong with the baby which would probably be deemed unnecessary in the UK but was actually incredibly helpful, as she gave me lots of tips about how to get her to sleep and feed better. All in all, I am enjoying the sense of integration, as well as my expanding baby-related French vocabulary!

I find it funny, too, how some aspects of life are so much more stressful, but often balanced out by how nice people are. This afternoon, for example. After the bus rage incident in the morning, I met a very old friend who was passing through Paris for coffee, then took another bus back home. By this point it was 3 hours since the baby had been fed and there was every risk that she was going to start screaming before we got back. It looked as if we were going to make it until the bus driver announced that the next stop would be the last one, when we weren't even nearly home. It turned out there was yet another manif and the streets were blocked, leaving me with pretty much no choice but to walk the 45 minutes back. And of course, five minutes later, the baby woke up, leaving me desperately looking for a park bench to stop and feed her on. Even after some milk, she was still cross (changing her nappy on a park bench was a step too far, and she was also suffering from indigestion.) But as I sat there desperately trying to strike a balance between soothing her and getting her home, the slightly threatening-looking young man with a very large dog on the next bench struck up a conversation on the causes of infant crying, asked her name and complimented us on how pretty it was. And somehow that made the world seem a better place again. 

*In a small Parisian flat, keeping the changing mat away from soft furnishings can be somewhat tricky.

Friday, 24 June 2016

On Brexit

I woke up this morning (having followed the referendum count on and off through the night) to the news that the UK has voted to leave the European Union.

I am devastated.

It's a strong word, but it is an accurate description of how I feel. Not because the majority of British voters have made a decision that I strongly disagree with, but because they made it for so entirely the wrong reasons.

Had there been a clean, factual, balanced campaign with respectable leaders on either side of the debate encouraging UK citizens to make an informed choice about whether the best way to work with our international neighbours was through the mechanisms of the EU or by some other (specified) means, I would have been worried and annoyed. But what has actually happened is so much worse than that.

We have been treated to the spectacle of some of the most privileged people in the country preying on the basest fears of ordinary people to convince them their troubles are caused by foreigners (whether they be politicians in Brussels or Romanian builders) and not the consequences of a global financial crisis or the government that they chose to elect. They have been aided and abetted in all of this by the British media at its absolute worst: nearly all the tabloids have been stirring up a "them and us" mentality based on half-truths and downright lies for decades. Nobody embodies this more than Boris Johnson, Eton and Oxford-educated (although ironically born abroad and a former pupil of the European School of Brussels), who had a previous career as a journalist spreading lies about Europe via the Daily Telegraph before moving into politics and who, having been one of the leading representatives of the Leave campaign, is apparently odds-on to be Britain's next prime minister.

I'm not upset and frightened because of what this means for me. I'm upset and frightened because these people have won and because it appears that my country is a place where the worst kind of politics can thrive.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Having a Baby in France: My Experience à la Maternité

  • Maternity care in France, like most of the health service, is excellent. When you give birth you will have access to excellent doctors, stay in a comfortable private room for at least 4 days, and even the hospital food is will be delicious. 

  • Childbirth in France is over-medicalised. Your baby will probably be whipped out of you by C-section before being whisked away from you to spend the night in a nursery being bottle fed before you can weakly cry "Breast is Best!" from your sickbed.

Out there on the big scary internet, giving birth in France is often presented from one or other of these points of view. Based on my own feelings on the subject, eight years of living here and perhaps a pinch of optimism, I was more inclined to believe the first version, but aspects of the second did play on my mind a bit. I didn't have very specific ideas about what I wanted the birth to be like (and was glad I didn't have to spend any ante-natal classes "visualising my birth nest", which is apparently a thing in some circles), but I was keen to avoid unnecessary interventions, have as much contact with the baby as possible after the birth, and at least give breastfeeding a serious try.

And I was lucky, because things worked out perfectly, more or less by accident. When I discovered that I should have registered for a maternity hospital earlier than I did, I sent applications to three hospitals that my GP recommended on our side of Paris, and the only one which could offer me a place was the Maternité des Bluets in the 12th. Les Bluets is a not-for-profit private hospital where the charges are the same as those refunded by social security. It's a "hôpital ami des bébés", which is a label accorded by the WHO and UNICEF largely for the promotion of breastfeeding, and there is a focus on giving birth as naturally as possible. At the same time, it is an actual hospital, with doctors and anaesthetists on hand, an operating theatre and a connecting door to the Hôpital Trousseau, which has a Level 3 neonatal intensive care unit.

I actually went into hospital the day I gave birth with an appointment to be induced, as the baby was measuring large and there was a risk that, because I had diabetes, she would be huge, risking extra complications during the birth. To my great surprise, however, when the midwives did their exams and hooked me up to the monitoring system, it turned out that I was already in labour. I had an epidural, which I had said I wanted because induced births tend to be much more painful than natural ones, but there was a point when I almost regretted it a) because it made me feel really sick and b) because everything was going so easily without. In the end, though, it was just as well I did, as in the last hour my calm, gentle birth turned into a bit of a medical drama when the baby's heartbeat dropped and they couldn't get her out quickly enough. A doctor was called, and as I pushed desperately, with two midwives shoving on my stomach, he used every instrument in the box (which looks like a set of medieval torture instruments) to try to pull the baby out. And then she was there, and she was fine, and I was mostly fine, apart from feeling incredibly weak and almost passing out any time I tried to get upright.

Luckily, the post-natal care was as good as promised. Understanding Frenchman had a pullout bed in my room and was able to take care of the baby as I lay weakly watching him, and we had regular visits from midwives and nurses to check that everything was OK. As well as giving all the appropriate medical treatments, they recommended lovely things like having as much skin-to-skin contact to help the baby get over her scary experience of being born. One night at 2am I was really struggling to feed her and she was screaming her head off, and all I had to do was buzz for a nurse who came to show me what to do and reassure me that everything was working OK. (If that situation had arisen at home, I don't know what I would have done!)

So in the end, my experience was quite medicalised, but certainly not over-medicalised, and we got all the "natural" things that I wanted to.

Also, the hospital food was indeed very tasty.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

And Now We Are Three

Our baby daughter was born last Friday and she is awesome. She likes bath time, sleeping in funny positions and wriggling her tiny little feet, and she has so far been kind enough to sleep really quite a lot (although not always at night). Her birth wasn't easy but she has coped with everything that her first week in the world has thrown at her with remarkable calm (this is not just proud-mummy prejudice - the hospital staff said it too), so until I find a better name to use for her on this blog I think she will be referred to as SCB for Super-Cool Baby.

While giving birth was never going to be pleasant, we had a fantastic experience at the maternity hospital (more on that another time) and are now very happy to be home in our little family of 3.

Life is good.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

That's More Like It!

The sun has finally come out over the past two days and we seem to have jumped from winter to summer in the space of about 24 hours. Today I made the most of feeling quite energetic to wash the windows and clean the fridge (which sounds like classic "nesting" behaviour, but I don't think there was any hormonal impulse there; they were just really dirty and certainly won't get washed after the baby is born!) then took myself out for a walk around the Lac Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes.

This part of the park is home to tons of bird life (natural and less natural - I'm pretty sure the peacocks wouldn't be there without human intervention) and pretty much every species seemed to have a cluster of babies trailing in its wake:

Another good thing was that I had another midwife appointment at the beginning of the week and she told me that I am not supposed to be hungry all the time. Admittedly the solution was to eat even more natural yoghurt (when this baby comes out, I am never touching the stuff again) but she also said fruit was ok as long as my blood sugar results were reasonable, so I bought some nice strawberries and peaches and have been feeling much less grumpy!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A Strange Sunday in Paris

Watching the news at the moment, you might have the impression that France has been hit by the apocalypse. After the burning cars, clouds of tear gas and empty petrol stations of the previous few weeks, we now have endless footage of reporters sent out in waders to stand on the high streets of the villages of the Seine-et-Marne waist deep in water and of homeowners returning in tears to evaluate the damage the floods have wreaked.

So it's been strange to supposedly be living in the middle of all of it and to have life going on exactly as normal. Admittedly, more of my reality than usual has been filtered through the TV screen to the safety of the couch, but I have been out and about every day, and Understanding Frenchman, who crosses the city on public transport to get to work has had no problems either. My German friend came to visit last week and managed to fly in from Berlin, travel to and from the airport twice, visit friends in the north of the Ile-de-France and take a train to Aix-en-Provence and back without encountering any more trouble than having to stand on a crowded RER B train from Charles de Gaulle once. Obviously the flooding is devastating for those who are actually involved, and I certainly don't want to belittle that, but the impression given by the media that the whole country is just one big disaster area is a bit of an exaggeration.

Nevertheless, we were tempted out this afternoon to have a look at the state of the world. We started at the Champs-Elysées, which was closed to traffic, so you could stroll comfortably down the middle of the road and there was plenty of space for what would otherwise have been all the crowds. I took advantage of the situation to take a straight-on photo of the Arc-de-Triomphe, which can normally only be done by risking your life standing on the very edge of a traffic island as the cars whizz past. (Unfortunately my camera isn't working as well as it should, so pictures are even greyer and hazier than the current weather actually is.)

After that we walked down towards the Seine to admire la crue. As you can see from the marker, the water isn't anywhere near the famous 1910 level, when MPs apparently used boats to get in and out of the Assemblée Nationale, but it was still an impressive sight. The bridges and banks were lined with people like us watching and taking photos, but the atmosphere was strangely subdued, as if everyone had been silenced by the majestic force of nature. There was less traffic than usual, and on the water, the only boats were the pompiers going up and down, leaving the mighty brown river largely in peace to flow along its broadened course under a sombre grey sky.

For one last strange experience, we walked in front of the Louvre, where the artist JR has made the famous pyramid disappear into thin air:

Then it was back home on the metro to watch more footage of the French apocalypse on the evening news.