We’ve been back from Paris for two-and-a-half weeks, and I think that’s adequate time to recall the things I like better about the United States versus Paris. It’s a rather short list. But in the interest of balanced reporting, I felt obliged to represent the opposing view to this post.
Toilet-seat covers. These handy, hygienic things are very helpful if you’re a woman who finds herself in need of a public toilet. When I went to Thailand and Ethiopia, I adjusted my expectations regarding public restrooms. But when I’m in France (or Canada, for that matter), I’d rather appreciate a little paper barrier between my bum and everyone who’s gone before me.
Large bathrooms. This time, I’m actually referring to the bathrooms that people have in their apartments in Paris. Or, at least, the apartments we looked to rent while visiting Paris. We looked at a ton, on Airbnb, New York Habitat and Paris Perfect, and the bathrooms were bitty. Showers fit for hobbits. Counter space to fit a toothbrush, and possibly your toothpaste. (I did like the electric towel dryers, though.)
Beds for tall people. I’m not sure how European couples manage to sleep an entire night together, but there’s no way in hell Steve and I could have managed a week in Paris in a double bed. We did that shit when we were dating, but when you’re 43 years old and an insomniac, you need at least a queen.
English. I crammed for Paris with Pimsleur’s Conversational French CDs, and while I was there, I actually got into the French-speaking groove. It’s just that when you ask a question of a French person in reasonably convincing French, they will answer you in French. Rapid-fire French.
My family lives in the U.S. My child was in Redmond with my parents while Steve and I were gallivanting in Paris, and though I am happy to have experienced the city without him, I did want to reunite with him eventually. And then there’s the rest of my family. They all reside here. Steve’s family too. We’d miss them. But, there are airplanes.
That’s because every summer, I delude myself that maybe, maybe our climate is changing. Warming. Like the rest of the planet. That maybe, maybe the gorgeous, lazy, long summer days we enjoy from July to September will … extend a little later. Or start before July 4.
You get sucked in, you see. For those precious, brief three months of summer, the entire region collectively develops amnesia. Everyone puts on shorts and grills outside every night and the ice cream shops do brisk business. When I worked full time, I remember e-mails that said: “Nice out. Taking off early to go for a bike ride.” Everyone understood. In summertime, all is forgiven.
Then, fall comes, like a giant, gray garage door closing. The nights get chillier, the leaves start turning yellow. And just when you’re starting to despair, you’ll get a week of incredible, mid-70s weather and it’s like, “Screw you, pumpkin spice lattes!” But it’s just the last gasp. It’s over.
The shorts get put back in their plastic tubs and stored in some distant closet. The kids go back to school (well, THAT part is good) and grilling gets replaced by roasting pans and goddamned root vegetables. The puffy coat comes out of hibernation. You flip on the light box. You gather every bit of solar strength you retained over the summer and hope it can hold you until July. If you can, you plan a trip to somewhere sunny — anywhere, San Diego is fine — around February.
I’m a California girl: Born in Los Angeles, brought up in sunny San Ramon, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Went to school at UC Davis, where the temps languish in the triple digits from May to September. The closest I’d come to gray skies, before moving to the Pacific Northwest 8 years ago, was a stint in the Sunset District of San Francisco. There, the fog would hang so heavy and thick in the summertime that Steve and I called it Fjordland. I thought Fjordland prepared me for the Puget Sound.
There’s not much I can say about Seattle-area weather that hasn’t already been said. I think the situation is best summed up by this Oatmeal comic, called “The 4 Seasons of Seattle.” Eight years ago, Steve and I flew up to house-hunt in August, when it was 78 degrees and gorgeous, and it stayed light until 10 p.m. “This place is paradise!” we marveled, and then we bought a house.
Two months later, when I drove up from the Bay Area with my brother, it started raining right after we crossed the California/Oregon border. My brother, also a sunshine child, turned to me and said, “Are you sure about this?”
But eight years later, I’m entrenched. I have a life here, and friends. My kid’s school is around the corner. My husband loves his job. And last year, we passed a same-sex marriage law at the ballot box — didn’t need to get the courts involved. Washingtonians have a Scandinavian, shrug-your-shoulders attitude about stuff like that. You want to marry another man? Okee doke. Want to smoke dope? The cops have some Doritos for your munchies. It’s too wet for lots of fiery rhetoric, I guess.
When I go back to California, I’m turned off by the brown hills (Golden State? It’s brown). The wall-to-wall traffic makes me claustrophobic. Yes, Seattle has lousy weather most of the time, but it’s green and lush. The mountains are amazing. So is the water. And when the sun’s out, it’s so very breathtaking. I can’t count all the beautiful days I spent inside when I was a Californian — I didn’t appreciate it at all. But here, if the sun’s out and it’s 55 degrees, the parks are teeming with kids and people put on shorts.
It’s late October. The leaves are swirling on the ground and I can see my breath when I go outside to do the walk-pool in the morning. It’s time for The Great Darkness. Maybe this year, the weather won’t bother me as much as it usually does. It’s possible, right?
I’m going to spare you the two-paragraph-long backpedal, where I assure you that I love my child. Of course I love my child. The first two nights in Paris, I cried myself to sleep. (True story.) But I got over it. Mostly because I realized quickly that Paris would have sucked if my kid had been with us.
This truth became glaringly obvious on our most recent adventure, to Vancouver B.C. Vancouver was Bini’s consolation prize for not coming to Paris with us. “You and Mommy go on trips sometimes and you don’t take me,” he complained to Steve.
Yes, my parents come up twice a year from California and shoo us off so Steve and I can reconnect and they can undo years of careful parenting and discipline. Usually, we do short jaunts: to Vancouver, Orcas Island, Leavenworth, and once, Las Vegas. Paris was obviously in a different class. It was for our 10th wedding anniversary. We’d been talking about it for years.
“Bini, we’re going to be going to lots of museums, and doing lots of walking,” Steve told him.
“Mommy’s going to be doing lots of shopping, too.” I added.
“I love all those things,” Bini protested. “I love walking and museums and shopping.”
None of this is true. Bini loves, in this order: 1) Star Wars; 2) superheroes; 3) riding his bike; 4) watching shows on the iPad and 5) dancing to Michael Jackson. He will hike if I bribe him. Once, when I was shopping for handbags at Nordstrom, he said, loudly, “Mommy, you DO NOT NEED another purse!”
The kid wasn’t coming to Paris. So we told him that we’d take him to Vancouver, a place we’d long wanted to go as a family, when we got back. It worked out perfectly — his school had a teacher work day and it made for a nice long weekend. We found a Hampton Inn in Yaletown with a separate sleep area for the kid and the trip was a go.
We set off around 1:00 and the drive went smoothly — until the border. Bini could not fathom why we were waiting in such a long car line. “Why aren’t we moving?” he asked every 3 minutes.
Finding a restaurant in Vancouver was a markedly different experience than Paris, too. “Hey, that place looks good,” said Steve, gesturing to a white tablecloth joint. “Except there’s no kids in there,” I pointed out. We ended up at a cavernous brew pub with dozens of shrieking children and lots of beer. Rather than talking quietly in an intimate bistro, Steve and I shouted “What?” to each other and Bini colored a pilgrim drawing.
Today, though, was when any lingering guilt we had about going to Paris sans kid completely evaporated. Today, we took the kid to the Vancouver Aquarium. Bini loves aquariums. And this one is the largest in Canada, with 50,000 animals.
About 30 minutes into our visit, Bini proclaimed that he was bored.
“Look at the jellies!” I said, enthusiastically. The Vancouver Aquarium has a new jellyfish exhibit, featuring 15 different species from all over the world. There’s big ones, tiny ones, orange ones. I could have looked at jellies all day. And the reefs! I had no idea that cold-water reefs could be so colorful. And did I mention the belugas? I was sitting, watching the belugas glide and turn, when Bini said, “Are we actually going to just sit here and watch belugas all day?”
We got on the bus and headed back to downtown. “I can’t walk anymore,” Bini whined, over and over. “My legs hurt.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t go to Paris with us, Bini,” Steve said. “This is all we did.”
That didn’t help. He harrumphed and grumped along, dragging his feet. We fed him, which helped a bit, but then decided to walk the 10 or so blocks back to the hotel.
“My legs are falling off,” Bini said, approximately every 45 seconds.
Now, we’re in the hotel and the flat-screen plasma in Bini’s sitting area does not have anything to interest him. He wants my laptop. Which I’m using. In Paris, I used my computer freely to write long, thought-out posts about the Roma in France. I read books. I talked to my husband, about lots of things. We strolled our neighborhood, and spent hours in museums. We slept, uninterrupted. We made breakfast for ourselves and were responsible solely for our own bathing and grooming. We drank wine at 4:00.
Tonight, we’re taking our son to a French bistro with some friends. The irony is not lost on us. I can only hope that he will eat beef short ribs and that the wine pours will be generous.
Let me preface this post by pointing out that this is an early release week. I’m still not sure if that’s supposed to be hyphenated. Is there a copy editor in the house?
Anyway, it’s conference week, so all the kids at the elementary school have gotten out at 11:30, except on Wednesday, when they got out at 1:30. Got it? And also, they have Friday off. It’s a shitty week for everyone but the kids.
I rolled my eyes when Bini came into our room this morning, complaining of a stomach ache. That’s such a hard one to verify. I used it myself when I was a kid trying to get out of school. Timmy’s dad told me that his kid complains of a fever every day. So no, I did not immediately rush out of bed and cradle him in my mothering arms. In short, I thought he was faking. I’m sure he’ll remember that someday when he’s deciding whether or not to tell me about his heroin experimentation.
He kept complaining of a stomach ache, though, and a headache. But did I express sympathy? No. I thought about how I’d agreed to watch two of my friends’ kids today, and that if Bini truly were sick, I was going to leave them in the lurch. Also, I wanted to go to the damned gym.
“Why don’t you try and go poop?” Steve suggested.
“I don’t have to go poop.” Bini whined.
“B, it’s a short day. You’ll be home in three hours,” I said. “And also, if you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to have play dates.”
He looked miserable. At the time I thought it was because I’d exposed his nefarious plan. He went over to sulk on the couch. Then threw up.
Oh jeez. Now I feel like an jackass. So, after I took him to the doctor (run-of-the-mill gastroenteritis), and filled his prescription for anti-nausea meds, I bought him a small Lego set, for us to build together. And a book. OK, OK — and a movie. (In my defense, we lost his entire movie collection on an airplane flight. So we’re replenishing. Honest.)
I’m losing control over my son. And I don’t like it.
It all started with the homework. I was incensed — incensed, I tell you! — that my kindergartner had a homework calendar, with assignments every night. No, they’re not being asked to calculate the diameter of a circle. It’s stuff like: Think of five things that start with the letter “M.” Draw those things. Then label them. The teacher has told us that it’s OK to skip these assignments, or for the parent to do part of it. But I was annoyed that it was even a thing. Homework! For kindergartners!
Then, the reading chart. Every month, we get a reading chart with 30 slots, where we are to write in the number of books we read to our child every month. At orientation, one annoying-ass mother raised her hand and said: “What if you read MORE than 30 books in a month?” Oh, I dunno, you pain in the ass. Maybe … attach another sheet? By the way, while we’re at it, let’s just suck all the joy out of reading by making it a chore. Here’s to learning! Hooray!
Then, parent-teacher conferences … on the sixth week of school. The conference, on Monday from 12 to 12:20, was fine. I had to sit in a tiny chair. Bini’s teacher is a terrific lady: gentle, firm, very experienced. She had five neatly organized folders regarding my son. First, she showed me the academic and social goals Bini had set for himself, and her goals for him.
Then, she showed me his assessment test results (assessment test results?) and how to interpret them. We discussed the things he does well, and the things he needs to work on. Apparently, Bini’s involved in some battle of wills with the P.E. teacher, but Bini’s teacher sort of waved that off. In class, he’s super engaged and he participates and he works really hard.
After we’d gone through the five folders, I stacked them up and said, “Well, I have to say I’m a little surprised at how … academic … kindergarten has gotten.” Kindergarten was a long time ago for me, but I’m damn sure we weren’t worrying about writing or phoneme segmentation. We were laying around on beanbags, singing and learning how to line up and not hit each other. We napped.
Bini’s teacher has been teaching for 20 years, and she agreed that kindergarten has gotten a good deal more academic. She didn’t give her opinion on it, but I understand: When the economy tanks, schools get more focused on homework and churning out math and science majors. Art classes are handled by parent volunteers. That’s the deal if you go to a public school, even if it’s a public school in an affluent area. You’re at the whims of whatever wind is blowing through public education at the time.
So, even though Bini is doing well, I trudged home feeling like I could do better for my son. That scene from “The Wall” kept playing through my head. You know the one where the kids are wearing scary masks and there’s a meat grinder and the schoolmaster’s yelling about pudding? Well, the scene is copyrighted, so I can’t post it. My mood was dark and my thoughts weren’t terribly rational.
All that day, I comforted myself with vague plans to pull my son out of his excellent public school and put him in an alternative private school where you forage for berries and learn how to chop wood. Like I said. Not terribly rational.
I’ve calmed down since. It helped that I talked to Steve, who said, “I don’t necessarily want to pull our son out of a school because it’s too academic.” Which is Steve-ese for: “Chill out, you psycho.” So, OK.
Today, it all crystallized. I walked the walk-pool to school; Nora told me about something to do with shoes, and I yelled out for Bini and Timmy to stop running. I ushered them through the big double doors out onto the playground, where they line up. But around the basketball court, Bini turned to me and said, “Mom, you can go now. You don’t need to wait with me.”
Ooof — shot to the solar plexus. “OK, just let me make sure all of you get into line.”
Bini shook his head. “Mom, we do this every day. We’re OK.” He tugged on my pants and I leaned down for a kiss. Then he ran off.
I didn’t leave. I ducked behind a pillar and watched until the bell rang. I couldn’t take my eyes off my son, who alternately joked with his buddies and stood quietly, taking it all in. When the bell rang, the kindergartners shrieked in unison. I fought the urge to wave to Bini as he trooped up the ramp, into his sunny, friendly kindergarten classroom.