Paris at the Tip of my Fingers

My husband and my daughter are in Paris for a week. I couldn’t go with them so I am at home, in California. It is my home, isn’t it? After all I’ve been living in the Golden State, in and out, for about thirteen years.
So why do I keep checking the time and add nine hours as if I was the one in Paris now? I don’t need to close my eyes to imagine Paris. A brief phone call with my husband mentioning a museum or a café and I am in Paris.
The City of Lights has been part of me since the day I left Normandy for the capital. Paris, the dream of every country girl. The New York of the French.
I had never felt as free but also as solitary as when I moved to Paris. I was twenty-one years old and the city had tempted me forever. Each trip had convinced me that it was where I wanted to live. Yet, I got sick for a couple of weeks as I adjusted to Paris. The polluted air, the constant noise and the crowd overwhelmed me and I missed the coast of Normandy and the familiar open space I had enjoyed as a child and a teenager.
Then, I became a Parisian. A woman who couldn’t stay away from Paris more than a few weeks and never dreamed of living anywhere else. Paris had altered my DNA. I remained a Parisian for ten years before leaving for the USA.
A strange mix of happiness and sadness flavored the first months I spent in California. Raising a young baby under the cloudless sky was a dream when I thought of the rainy Parisian sidewalks and the short winter days. My baby grew into a funny toddler who welcomed each moment with enthusiasm and joy. I often wished I could share her upbeat disposition, but I had to admit that I missed Paris. More than my friends, my family and my job, I missed the city’s smells and noises. They came to me, unpredictable, passing a woman who wore a French perfume or a store where French coffee was roasted. During my first years in the USA, Paris kept returning to me in painful flashes. Anything could remind me of the cafés, of the sidewalks shiny under the rain and of the cigarettes smell. I was addicted to the French capital and craving to go back.
Years have passed and my trips to Paris are now a mix of familiar and unknown. Every immigrant shares this uncomfortable mix of emotions and it’s all right. An occasional article about Paris or a photo taken in Paris sting like a paper cut that heals quietly.
Until the phone rings and Paris fills the background. It is then as if life had stopped in its tracks after I left. Sounds become words that make sentences that turn into a musical composition, familiar and reassuring. My childhood and my youth rush to me. I belong to this language. Paris is after all still at the tip of my fingers.

Health Care the American Way

Change had been promised by President Obama and change has arrived. Thirteen months of wait for a bill that will transform the landscape of American health care. Nobody knows yet how far it will take us and how much will still be needed. Progressive citizens find it insufficient. Conservative citizens fear excess. If one thing is sure is that each major change in a society needs a first step and on Sunday night that first step was taken. With team work and disagreement, with hope and fear, and palpable passion, promised change during the electoral campaign has been delivered.
This bill upsets some Americans, who uncertain with its results, fear failure. Big changes are scary. My move to the USA has taken me far away from the big umbrella of the French health care system. My first experience with the American health care world opened my eyes onto the unknown. And unknown isn’t always bad.

I gave birth to my second child five months after my arrival in America. When we hunted for health insurance, I became an alien with a preexisting condition. I noticed how being pregnant in the United States doesn’t give you access to an automatic special status like it is in France. When I expected my first child in Paris, I entered the magic world of pregnant women. People would open the door for me and offer me their seat on the bus or subway. I could skip the line since French pregnant women receive a priority card allowing them special treatment. After my baby was born, I followed free postnatal exercise séances at a professional place.
In France I had read alarming articles about the high rate of C section in North America and although my French physician had been reassuring, he admitted that the chance to have a C section was much higher in America than France. It concerned me even though I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Being pregnant in the USA was a total different business than expecting a baby in France. At my first American prenatal checkup I had, à la française, fully undressed. A nurse handed me with a polite but embarrassed smile the strange paper gown she had left on the exam table before exiting the room. In France, nobody cares about your private parts yet I was weighed every single month during my pregnancy and ordered to keep my gain weight reasonable. In America, it didn’t seem to matter and being pregnant lost some of its drama.
However, on my way to the hospital, on a busy Saturday night in San Francisco, I wondered if delivering a baby in America would be as surprisingly different as the prenatal visits had been.
My little girl took only a few minutes to travel from the dark cocoon of my womb to the brightly lit American world. It was such a fast delivery that no physician made it in time to my room. I had delivered a year ago in Paris, surrounded by my OB, an anesthetist, the midwife who had taught me the tricks of the sans- douleur accouchement or the painless delivery, two nurses and another hospital staff or two.
In my San Francisco room, the word hospital took a different meaning. Only a nurse and a resident assisted me, giving to the event an intimate atmosphere I had missed in Paris. Yet, it would have been somehow reassuring to see a few white coats here and there. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and my stomach embarrassingly rumbled.
“Are you hungry?” The nurse asked as she wrapped blankets around me.
A mouthwatering vision of a tray loaded with food instantly came to my mind. A warm vegetable soup, then a fresh tomato and mozzarella salad. Some crusty baguette and a piece of creamy cheese and to end on a sweet note a mousse au chocolat. Yes, it would be perfect. I envisioned a sparkling Perrier with a zest of lemon to appease my thirst. After all, last year in France, the service had been close to a Relais Château.
The nurse read my mind. “The kitchens are closed,” she said. “Let me see what I can do.” She returned with a huge grin. “I found something for you!” she announced cheerfully, handing me a can of freezing cold coca-cola.
My husband politely declined his and we toasted our baby girl with one single can of coke. If it didn’t taste like the champagne we uncorked in Paris, it was however cold and sparkling and I polished the can with the ferocity of a marathon runner.
The nurse peeked at the baby. “She’s gorgeous and so healthy. You can go home,” she said.
“When?” my husband asked.
“Now.” The nurse looked surprised by his question.
“Now?” my husband repeated. I could see his Adam apple traveling along his throat and I knew he felt sorry for declining the coca cola. At least, he would be able to swallow the tight ball of anxiety stuck in his throat. “You’re kidding, right?”
The nurse smiled. “Your wife and baby are doing well. You can return to the comfort of your home,” she went on.
I was tempted. I had done my grocery shopping the day before and I easily pictured the loaded fridge and pantry.
“No way,” my husband said. Although I felt better now that the nurse had wrapped me as tightly as a mummy in thick blankets and the baby had already returned to sleep, my husband certainly didn’t seem ready for another ride on Highway 101.
So, I spent the rest of the night in the company of my satiated baby and my roaring stomach.
The morning tasteless cereal, whole milk and weak coffee were close to the French Relais Château after the forced diet I endured until breakfast. I slurped my soggy Raisin Bran in a few spoonfuls as I had savored my fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, granola yogurt, croissants and fancy tea across the Atlantic.
Nothing better than a nap after a meal but I wasn’t allowed this small luxury.
“You are good to go!” the doctor decided, cheerfully.
I was expecting some kind of checkup or stamp of approval but we only received our baby’s birth certificate. We held it with pride. She was the first American of the family.
Later that day, my mother called. “Why are you picking up the phone?” she said, obviously shocked. “What are you doing here?” She hadn’t expected to talk with me yet.
After all, I had stayed five days at the hospital for her first granddaughter. She almost fainted when I told her that I had returned home after being suggested to leave in the middle of the night, a couple of hours after the baby’s birth.
“I know that you like it over there,” she said. ‘Over there’ sounded like a bad word. “But do you think it’s safe to treat new mothers like that?”
I skipped the coca-cola episode; otherwise she would have called the French embassy to require an emergency rapatriement.
My mother-in-law was shocked too. “What are these Americans doctors thinking?”
She was born in Champagne, the capital of the French best known brands, so I didn’t mention the coca-cola toasting either.
I listened to both of them, sitting at my kitchen table as the fragrant scent of the eucalyptuses wafted through the open window. France seemed so far. How could I tell my family that I was now living in the USA where the cost of health is so high that you go for what you have to do and are sent back home ASAP?
How could I also tell without hurting them that if I had only stayed for a few hours at the hospital, everybody had been supportive and caring and that I had felt much more in charge of my body and baby than I had been in Paris where the medical staff had decided for me what was good or not?
How could they understand that I had come to a country where my destiny was not anymore in the hands of the government and that I was accepting to live without a safety net above my head and beneath my feet? The beloved French social security system was only a word to me anymore and neither my mother nor my mother-in-law had lived without this reassuring feeling of being taken care of.

Today, President Obama signed the health care reform bill into law. It upsets many Americans. And for a good reason. They have never been taken care of. Yet I have little doubt that what they fear the most won’t happen. Americans will keep their unique independent way of life including how and when they want to be taken care of. I have also little doubt that, in the end, their genuine generosity will open their minds and hearts. Such a great land can only do better with healthier people. It can be done with a little bit of willingness from each of us. The American way.

J’adore The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Many books have kept me up until sunrise when I was a child and a teenager. My parents knew of my habit to slip a book under my shirt at dinner time. My math teacher asked me more than once to put my book down and open my textbook instead.
I’ve not lost any of that passion when I start a new book but as I became a better reader I’m now reaching for the book that both delights and transforms me.
One did it last night. The Adoration of Jenna Fox holds the elements of a page turner and the material that bothers your mind long after the book is finished. The author Mary E. Pearson cleverly hints that the story takes place in the future: the last polar bear has died, the cars have a voice recognition ignition system, a major earthquake has stroked in California and viruses have killed thousands.
Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox is emerging from a year-long coma after a mysterious accident. Waking up in a house she doesn’t know is only the beginning of a thriller with a literary flair. What happened to her two best friends? Did they die too? And what is this accident anyway? Pearson’s writing is concise yet poetic. Her choice of active verbs gives life to her sentences. The characters are fully fleshed with a human balance of flaws and qualities. Jenna is seeking for the girl she once was. Bumping into her mother she used to call Claire and now refers to as Mother and her scientific dad she calls Father, Jenna peels layer after layer to find traces of her past life through tapes her grandmother Lily gave her to watch. Lily refuses this artificial new girl but isn’t the Jenna she loved still the same underneath the Bio Gel that keeps her alive?
Was Jenna her parents’ miracle? So precious they have done the impossible to remake her entire body from scratch? Or was she the one who had set the bar so high she could only be perfect?
The book unfolds page after page with questions and twists subtly foreshadowed. Ultimately The Adoration of Jenna Fox tells of the search of self for a young woman who has lost everything but 10% of her brain. What is the soul made of? Is it acceptable to recreate life from death? Can faith and science cohabit? This book should be on any school list as it approaches with honesty yet care the eternal question of humankind. What makes us humans?
The problem with The Adoration of Jenna Fox is that it sets the bar so high for writers that for a week after I finished it I wasn’t able to return to the revision of my dystopia novel. The good news is that I know that only great reading leads to good writing.
Early and bright tomorrow morning I will dare click on Microsoft Word and dive in my own work with honesty, and the hope that I’ve grown as I read Mary E. Pearson’s well-crafted and thought provoking novel.

You Are What You Eat

I crave France the most when I read about food. Both belong to each other and are made for each other. So when one member of my book club suggested The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine from Steven Rinella for our March meeting, my mouth watered.
Yet this memoir isn’t just about food. As it names implies it is an obsessive search for the ingredients to cook a forty-five-course meal. Each recipe being from Le Guide Culinaire from Auguste Escoffier, it eventually led Rinella to a hunt across the United States. Since the fish and game Escoffier use are native of France, Rinella has to look for the closest match. It definitely reminded me of my own struggles when I moved to the USA and couldn’t find the fish or piece of meat I used to cook back home.
An accomplished fisherman and hunter, Rinella is also a compelling storyteller and his memoir abounds with funny, corky and even moving anecdotes. His father is very ill and Rinella talks with subtle emotion of their father/son relationship. His girlfriend is a vegetarian and he wants to convert her to a carnivore. Eventually she’ll become a fish lover. The bunch of young men dragged into the scavenger hunt are truly good friends and in the end when all of them cook, including their girlfriends, I longed for the time of impromptu dinners in France when my friends would also jump into the kitchen to help me out. Except that Rinella’s feast isn’t an impromptu dinner at all.
Although I’m not a carnivore and no stranger to the pâtés, dindonneau, huîtres, fromage de tête, bouillabaisse and aspic de crevettes Rinella prepares for his banquet, these dishes don’t taste of my childhood.
Since I agree with Rinella when he says, “You are what you eat,” it made me homesick for the food that shaped me.
I am from vegetables and fruit picked from my parents’ garden in lush Normandy, meat grown locally in small farms, and fish bought fresh at the market.
I am from sole meunière, coquilles Saint Jacques, moules marinières, herring filets, dandelion salads, green beans, leek tart, crêpes and beignets.
I am from the apple pie, the fruit compote, the mousse au chocolat, the crème caramel, the strawberry charlotte and crème anglaise poured over pound cakes.
And I definitely missed Escoffier’s Pêche Melba when I turned the last page of The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine.

Sadly Accustomed

One policeman shot. One policeman injured.
The first one is dead. The second one is in critical condition.
The policeman who didn’t make it was American. He lived and worked in the quiet community of Reedley, CA.
The policeman who is severely hurt is French. He lived and worked in the town of Epernay, the internationally known capital of Champagne.
The two incidents happened a few days apart. In both cases the American and French policemen were doing their jobs and had the misfortune to meet dangerous men.
I’ve never been to Reedley although it is located less than two hours away from my home but I’m familiar with similar American small towns. When the policeman was shot in Reedley the community came together as Americans do instantly in times of sorrow.
I’ve been to Epernay several times since my husband’s roots are established in Champagne. His mother still lives there. In addition to Avenue de Champagne where the big houses of Champagne sit next to each other, Epernay is a lively town where boutiques of all kinds allow walking distance shopping. True wealth and old France brush against middle class residents but also immigrants and jobless young men who live on the outskirts of town. A foreigner can overlook the clashing mix but any French native can’t fail to notice the possibility of conflict.
After the French policeman was taken to the hospital, cars were burnt in the hills of Epernay in support of the men who threw stones at his face. None of them have been arrested yet.
French media covered the event. However, partly because of the French national disrespect for les flics or the policemen and partly because such incidents happen more and more often everywhere in France, the incident went quickly unnoticed.
In fact, neither my mother-in-law nor my parents and sister have mentioned it to me.
Were they fearful? Maybe. Ashamed? No doubt. Accustomed? Sadly, yes.

Wild Tapestry

Rain and sun shape California. When I lived in the Bay Area in the early 90s I didn’t know anything about the scarcity and expectation of rain. I had spent my entire life in France between Normandy and Paris where it rains so much that it is no longer a gift from the sky.
My first years in California were paradise to the Parisian I was. It barely rained during five years but I didn’t miss it at all. Rain then meant messy commutes and ruined weekends.
Then I moved to New England. The longing for rain on a hot summer day, the watching for the first changes of color in the leaves that only happens with the right amount of rain, the anticipation of snow that will feed rivers and the impatience for the first flowers that com with the last rains made me aware of the role of rain.
Yet it is only when I discovered Central California that rain became more than a word.
Between the constant farming water issues, the wild fires that devour everything on their paths after long periods of drought and the simple needs of the gardeners, rain took its real meaning.
Anytime from November to January, Central Californians wait for the first rain of the season. How much rain we will receive matters to so many more than the residents of this large section of the state that goals are targeted and estimates calculated. Rain has to be shared between cities and farming areas.
It has rained more this year than it has for the last two. The golden wild grass turned green before Thanksgiving and snow fell early. Soil is soaking wet. Seasonal streams and falls are running. Cattle are grazing on moist grass. Quails dig for seeds and birds for worms. And humans can’t get their eyes off one of the greatest natural shows on earth.
In the deep and large Central Valley wildflowers are taking over the dry land. Popcorn flowers, baby blue eyes, lupines, buttercups, poppies, bluebells explode and the fields transform themselves into a wild tapestry that comes in orange, white, purple, blue and red. The beauty of the annual native Californian flowers is their simplicity and their short life. No one can anticipate if the year will or not be a great wildflower year. However the proper amount of rain seems to play a key role and that’s why I still hope for a last shower before entering the endless rainless flowerless California summer.

Hungry and thirsty for books

I just read the essay written by Cathleen Schine in the latest New York Times Book Review.
Although she writes about her personal experience with what she calls her illiterate teenage years, the essay could only remind me of my own relationship with books. Among many other things, I agree with all my heart with the citation Ms. Schine picked from Italo Calvino: “A work read at a young age and forgotten leaves its seed in us.”
In the small French town where I grew up, the public library was housed in one aisle of a medieval castle. I can’t think of a better place to trigger thirst and hunger for stories. Shelves made out of French oak held more books that I could read in my life time. I was twelve years old when I figured that reading by alphabetical order would be a good way to start. That’s how I discovered Maupassant, Baudelaire, Camus, Zola, but also Kafka, Asimov, Bradbury, Steinbeck and even Dostoyevsky like Ms. Schine did among other writers. Of course I was overwhelmed. I bumped into words I didn’t understand, met extraordinary characters who lived fascinating lives which had nothing to do with my young life. I have forgotten details of the plots and even the names of some characters.
But the dream of a book has never left me since then. The expectation of delight when I turn the crisp first page of a new book is still as exalting as it was when I was twelve and reading works written for adults and not for children. I was too young to understand their meaning yet I have no doubt that’s what left me thirstier and hungrier for more.

The unique value of old newspapers

Although I read most of the daily news online, it seems that the pile of New York Time and other newspapers and magazines grows as fast as weeds in our family room. In addition we also purchase the occasional French newspaper and magazine. When the pile is so tall it looks like the Pisa Tower, I go through and each time is a dilemma. As I sort the magazines and newspapers, I set apart the ones that cover an important moment such as an election or even a disaster and anything related to a topic of interest. The pile might get smaller, I think I still keep too much.
Yet when my son started his history project about Ulysses Grant, Wikipedia, online research and library books weren’t enough.
His dad found two original copies of the Harpers’s Weekly from March 1862 with Ulysses Grant on the cover. The pages are yellowish, the print tiny, the full page illustrations and maps realistic and detailed. Is there a better way to make history more real than to turn the pages of an historic journal? My son has done most of his research online and will type his project on his computer but I have no doubt that his classmates will gather around the old copies of the Harper’s Weekly with curiosity and awe.
So now I look with fondness at my pile of newspapers and magazines and feel less eager to get rid (even recycled) of them. They collect dust and take space but also hold events of our lifetime. I imagine a child in one hundred fifty years researching for a history project and turning with care and wonder the pages of an old yellowish newspaper printed in 2010.

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