Friday, March 31, 2006

Our big, happy announcement

We are pregnant! I am three months along which means the baby will be due in mid-October. I wanted to wait until my ultrasound was done today to make the announcement -- to be on the safe side this time. This morning while waiting for the radiologist with John by my side, I suddenly had the fear that something might be wrong, but fortunately, we got a wonderful hello from our beautiful little one. He (or she) was moving quite rigorously at the beginning of the session. It was so exciting to see all the rolling around, the punching, the thumb-sucking. To see the baby's facial profile was a true gift. I couldn't believe how gorgeous he is already. The radiologist was having a bit of a problem later trying to get the baby to move in a certain direction so she could get a good shot of the placenta and legs. He wanted to lay on his right side -- my side of preference, too, when falling asleep.

We are looking forward to having either a girl or a boy. Maylin wanted a baby brother long ago, more recently wanted a baby sister, and now she doesn't want either. Ah well. She is fully convinced that she has a baby of her own in her belly since hers protrudes just as much as mine does!

I will be delivering in a British hospital in Levallois, a close suburb of Paris. They are accepted under the French system, so fortunately, Social Security will be covering most of the delivery costs, but strangely enough, although it is a British hospital, I'd say less than a third of the staff speak English. The doctors often can speak English, but there is only one nurse who speaks fluently. So, by delivery time, my French better be up to snuff.

The last few months I've been feeling tired and nauseous, like before. So, I've been laying low, not being terribly active -- often taking afternoon naps. I still do a considerable amount of walking to get errands done, get groceries, pick up Maylin from school, and go to my voice lessons. I am going to try some prenatal yoga classes for the first time, and maybe do more swimming with Maylin.

I'm hoping I won't gain as much weight as I did with Maylin. I peaked at a 55 lb. weight gain. That was over 50% my body weight! I literally just blew up! I can barely recognize myself in photos -- my face, my neck, my appendages were all swollen. Not the loveliest picture. I'll try to stay active and eat more healthily this time around. Pregnancy really doesn't give you license to eat twice as much as before and to eat whatever you want. It does give you cravings which makes it more difficult to eat healthily -- like my fried food craving. One time, I just had to order a big serving of fries to munch on in the metro with Maylin. Before, I craved burgers along with the fries. I like to eat a lot of fruit, too. So with Maylin being a serious fruit-lover herself, we've been going through our fruit bowl like crazy. Oranges, bananas, apples, kiwis, strawberries, raspberries, grapes...yum! The pineapples are here so we'll get into those, too. I used to crave ice cream, so we've got a big stash in the freezer.

I've taken to baking goodies -- sweet things like cookies and chocolate cake. And every weekend, pancakes or French toast is a must.

John's very excited about the new baby. I'm so happy to see the joy in his eyes when he looks at me and my belly.

I am so excited to finally be able to share the news with everyone. I will try to send a mass e-mail soon, so I don't miss my non-blog-reading friends and family.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I saw them -- policewomen!

If you've been keeping up with my blog, in a previous post, I mentioned not seeing policewomen around. Last weekend, on the Champs-Elysees, we saw two female cops flanking a male cop. The three of them were petite and not very intimidating. I think they were just checking the area for any possible flare-ups relating to the riots.

More regularly, I have seen numerous female APS, the parking police. They have smart, navy blue tailored uniforms with matching hats, capes, and gloves. In teams of twos and threes, it's almost like they're going to a costume party, but they're just writing tickets and marking cars for immediate towing.

Leo's first play session with two French dogs

Wow -- it was unbelievable. We were just across the street from our apartment pretty much, in front of one of the children's playgrounds. I ran into a nice young woman who had a friendly two year-old female (part pitbull, I imagine), who was a little scared of Leo at first but soon developed the confidence to jump on his back several times, to Leo's dismay. Another young woman came around with a smaller, more typical French dog (cute and fluffy), and we all let our doggies say hello. This was a real first for me. Three friendly dog owners with three friendly dogs at one intersection. The odds are pretty slim. The first woman remarked that her dog has very few chances to interact with other dogs. Yeah, no kidding. This is Paris, where most dog owners would rather keep a safe distance from your dog either because they don't trust yours or they don't trust theirs.

These days, I do usually try to avoid any possible negative confrontations by crossing the street immediately if I see another dog coming towards us that might be of the hostile sort (or with a hostile owner). After crossing, I look back at the dog owner and get a huge smile! It's nice to get a thank-you from a perfect stranger like that, but poor Leo has to suffer from fewer doggies interactions.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Maylin's magic day at the pool

Last weekend, John convinced me in joining him and Maylin in a family outing to the public pool, knowing that Mommy would give Maylin some extra confidence. Last year, John took her to the pool about three times, to mixed reviews. The last visit, as I recall, ended in screams and tears. I can imagine. John put her into the pool when she wasn't mentally ready to go in. I saw him doing that before. It's terrible to see a kid in the pool against their own will. I told John I wouldn't go if he was going to continue forcing her in. That just doesn't work with some kids. Besides, I have had bad memories of public pools and swimming, in general, myself -- having feared every moment under water and having failed every swimming lesson I ever took. How many times did those instructors quickly strip away that teeny ounce of trust I had in them that took so long to develop by dunking me in the pool, despite their promises not to do so?

With the agreement set, we set off for the neighborhood public pool -- a 10-15 minute walk away. We paid 6 euros for the three of us, took off our shoes and socks like everyone else on the benches, and then entered the co-ed locker rooms. The free lockers were cool -- your choice of lime green or banana yellow pods, which automatically open and shut after you type in the locker number and your chosen code. We changed in lockable changing rooms, and of course, had access to private toilets, but public showers (everyone kept their bathing suits on, thank goodness). We also donned our required rubber bathing caps which you could purchase from a vending machine if you forgot to bring your own. Finally, it was time to enter the pool area. John opened the door and I thought, "This is great." It was quite a nice facility. An indoor pool with several dozens of meters of glass from floor to ceiling, allowing natural light to enter and providing for a more natural ambience with our connection to the world outside. I'm more accustomed to unending stretches of cinderblock walls. There was the a large lap pool for the adults and young adults, and the shallow kiddie pool for the families. It was crowded, but not uncomfortably crowded. I could usually move around without bumping into somebody.

We let Maylin set her own pace. She didn't want the swimming cap on. We didn't force her. She wanted to stay seated on the stairs at the shallowest end of the pool. We let her be. We sat next to her, played with the water together, showed her we could sit on a deeper step with no problems. Eventually, we were able to carry her into the pool and move to the deeper end and back. She enjoyed that and the piggy-back rides. One or two hours later, I stayed in the deep end with her -- we hugged each other and bounced up and down for the longest time. She loved that. After that session, she was ready for some solitary activity. We all went back to our "stations" at the stairs. Maylin quietly moved away from us, interacted with other children, found a boy to splash with, and then proceeded to "test the waters" on her own. She developed a rhythm where she would enter the pool from the stairs, and continue walking as far as she could while keeping in contact with the wall until she couldn't touch the pool bottom anymore. She would then, climb out, walk back to the stairs, and repeat the same thing over and over again. She eventually gained the confidence (or maybe she was forced to do it -- there were so many people on her end now) to leave the side of the pool, and venture into the unknown. We were amazed and proud. One time, she went a little too far, got a mouthful of water, and panicked -- reaching for the shoulder of the closest human being, a nice mother who brought her to John, who went in to get her. After that, she stayed near the wall, but I'm sure the next pool trip, she'll be able to regain her confidence and try to be daring again.

She didn't want to leave the pool. We were there for nearly four hours when I finally convinced her to get out -- the pool was closing!

I'm glad she had a positive experience. I had one, too. Glad John made me go. John and I got in some nice cuddle time, too. The pool can be a very romantic place, even with all the kids splashing you in the face.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Two years in Paris!

We left Berkeley two years ago on March 25, 2004, to move to Paris. For the first month and a half, we lived in a temporary furnished apartment offered by John's company. It was not the best of times for us because we didn't have heat for the first weekend (it was still winter-cold!) and had to sleep in our coats. 18-month-old Maylin had difficulty adjusting to the time change -- took a full two weeks of suffering to get past that. It was raining all the time -- and I had to get groceries everyday for our tiny fridge, with Maylin in her vinyl-protected stroller. Cooking was challenging with minimal kitchen tools and strange appliances to get used to. There was a stove, but the microwave and convection oven was a two-in-one affair -- pretty handy once you get the hang of it, but too small to bake a whole chicken. We had a washing machine to do laundry, but we had to hang our clothes all over the apartment to dry (as we learned how many dryer-less Parisians do).

I knew almost no French vocabulary, but since my pronunciation was pretty good (from singing classical French art songs) people expected more of me -- sometimes they looked at me like I was stupid. It was a hard time for my ego. Plus, we started out in a snobby neighborhood which didn't help. Most of Rue Faubourg-St. Honore, the street of our former residence, is lined with designer boutiques -- high-end everything. But the part we were on was very narrow and very noisy, with drunks yelling at night outside, and sirens going off frequently because our building was directly across from a police station.

Leo had a tough time finding ivy to do his business in, as was his habit in Berkeley. John discovered a beautiful garden hidden in the plaza of a large commercial building, a few doors down from the police station. He and I took Leo there several times until we couldn't handle the treatment we were getting. Security guards would run out and warn us that no one or no animal could trespass on the grass.

Poor Leo. He didn't even have any business to do for awhile because he wasn't eating. For at least a week. He was so traumatized by the move. He didn't know what was going to happen next after the big plane flight, living in a tiny apartment, not seeing any ivy, no other four-legged companions.

Towards the end of our stay there, waiting for the shipment of our belongings to arrive, I had an asthma attack for the first time and John had to call an S.O.S. doctor to come in the middle of the night to see me. I was fine when he arrived, but it was very scary for me beforehand. Normally, I don't have serious allergies, but since arriving in Paris, springtime can be miserable. We discovered that aside from the normal springtime allergy triggers, we also had mold and mildew growing in a corner of the apartment where there was a radiator leak we had overlooked. Plus, the very cheap carpet in our very cheap apartment was too good a receptacle for Leo hair. I'd vacuum and vacuum, but his hair would just get woven in deeper. I couldn't win.

It was not a good beginning, but I did get to start taking private French lessons at home through John's company, and we had some very helpful American expat friends who moved over a month earlier and already knew French. Who knows how many times they may have saved us from disaster. We are grateful to them!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Paris reflections

Guili, guili! (tickle, tickle!)

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but the French love children. They don't know your kid, but they're offering treats, stroking his/her cheek, patting his/her head, chatting with him/her in an adoring way. It can be alarming to American parents, but I'm getting used to it now (after 2 years) and am finding it quite nice actually. I've heard that the French love kids so much that they won't mind criticizing the parents on their parenting. For example, one of my friends took her boys outside and ran into an older woman who chastized her for not putting scarves on them in the cold.

Little old ladies own Paris

There are some older ladies, of the old bourgeouis set, in their heavy make-up and fancy shoes, who think they have more rights than anyone else, especially at the grocery store. These particular women, who are quite able-bodied, will cut in front of you in line without a word -- the nicer ones will ask first. Last year, one was shopping at a discount grocery store and found the one available check-out line so long that she decided to form another line at another counter, with a proud air, even though the cash register there wasn't staffed. She just stood there assuming someone was going to come help her. The rest of us in the store, waiting obediently in the real line, watched her in amusement. Now, along comes another cashier. Ah, relief! Another line is formed, but it's not at the older lady's counter. She is completely oblivious to the whole thing as some of us begin to file into the new line. I can't remember what happened afterwards, but I think everyone left the woman alone to let her figure it out herself.

The nation's finest, rolling around

A couple days ago, I saw a fine sight in the eighth arrondissement. Three police officers rolling towards me -- on rollerblades! Cool!

Tourists may not notice this, but the police travel in groups of three or more. Maybe because French men are so petite? Joking aside, the French police are always young men, they are always Caucasian, and they are always very fit. The same goes for the firefighters. It's evident that there's some sexual, racial, and age discrimination going on.

Last year, I saw a motorcyclist chased and finally pulled over by about three police cars. It was pretty frightening when all these policemen jumped out of their cars so quickly and brought their suspect to the ground. This would not have been achieved at this speed if they were the stereotypical doughnut-munching, out-of-shape American officers we're familiar with on TV.

Nudity in my mailbox

I think when we first moved here, I was pretty surprised to see so many billboards with completely or partially naked women advertising items like perfume, clothing, liquor, and soap. It always made me feel cold to see a woman in skimpy lingerie on a poster in the middle of winter. Now, I'm nearly desensitized. But when ads for cosmetic surgery show up in my mailbox with actually tasteful photos of amazing nude bodies, it's a little more shocking. It's more in my face than even those big billboards attached to the sides of buildings. I know I wouldn't get these unsolicited advertisements in the more litigious and puritanistic United States.

Shoe scrapers

I don't know what else to call them. On Boulevard Pereire, walking home from Place Pereire, I've seen these simple pieces of thin metal jutting out of some buildings right next to their private entrances. They're in the form of a semi-circle or a semi-rectangle. It's obvious what they're for considering all the dog doodoo on the street. It's amusing, but at the same time, darn useful! Why isn't there one in front of our apartment building?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

2006: Trying year for couples?

I can't keep track how many times John comes home to tell me some bad news about a couple we know. So-and-so and so-and-so have split up. It always stuns me for a second. Since the beginning of the year, at least five long-term couples (married and non) have dissolved. For some couples, it was clear that someone had to make a choice between career and partner, with that someone choosing career, and the other refusing or unable to make the sacrifices to keep the relationship going (probably still loving the former very deeply, but not willing to do a big relocation or give up his/her own successful career or lifestyle). For the other couples, I can only speculate. Two people can love each other and be committed to each other for a long time, but if one evolves in a certain direction and the other hasn't evolved also in a compatible way, a gulf can be created. Or the differences that attracted them to each other in the first place have grown so great that instead of feeling attraction, it's repulsion. There can be a million other possible reasons for a break-up. It's so complicated.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

J'ai les allergies!

My Paris allergies are already here and it doesn't even look like spring yet. But my runny and stuffy nose, itchy and watery eyes, and tickly throat tell me that "printemps" has arrived. My symptoms are so bad that it's making sleep difficult.

As a result, I've been especially tired lately. I hope to resume more regular blogging when this problem is conquered.

By the way, we are far from the violent riots, so don't worry about us! Also, Maylin's head lice problem is pretty much solved, although I did find three stray dead lice this morning in her hair.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

More adventurous in the kitchen

I've been cooking new or rediscovered recipes lately. I made Beef Stroganoff a few nights ago -- rich but yummy! Improvised off of an internet recipe. Last night, I stir-fried a spicy prawn dish with bell peppers, onions, peanuts, chili garlic sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup. Totally improvised and really good! Yesterday, I also made a simple French chocolate cake -- I'd say, the French version of a brownie. It was so delicious warmed up and served with ice cream. Maylin helped with the baking. Earlier in the week, Maylin and I baked peanut butter cookies -- something you'd never find in France since it's very difficult to come across good peanut butter. This recipe required vegetable shortening -- something else you can't find easily here. Butter is the fat of choice here, of course.

This morning, we're going to make sour cream pancakes with creme fraiche (a better, richer version of sour cream which you can find in the States if you look really hard).

Here's the recipe for the French chocolate cake, found on my Swiss baking chocolate wrapper. My oven was a little hot and overcooked the edges, so you might want to play around with the oven temperature or baking time.

Le Moeulleux au Chocolat

200 g or 7 oz. of best quality cooking/baking dark chocolate
150 g or a little over 1 1/3 stick of butter
3 eggs
65 g or 1/3 cup of sugar
4 tablespoons of almond powder (can you find this in the U.S.?)
7 tablespoons of flour
a pinch of salt

Preheat oven (375-400 degrees F). Cut chocolate into little pieces, place in bowl, put in the microwave for a minute or less to melt. Stir, make sure it's melted. Cut butter into small pieces and add to chocolate. Stir until well-incorporated. In another bowl, mix eggs and sugar with a whisk. Add this to chocolate/butter mixture. Add almond powder, flour, and salt -- stir well. Butter and flour your cake pan. Try baking 375-400 degrees F for 20 minutes.

Serve warm or warmed (in the microwave, 30 sec. maximum) with creme anglaise or good vanilla ice cream on the side.

Hope you're having a good weekend! We've got the sun this weekend!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Elle a les poux de tete

On Monday, very early in the morning, Maylin was scratching her head with much gusto in bed, while still asleep. I immediately got my antennae up -- another parent had just been talking to me the other day about washing her kids' hair and scalps like crazy in hopes of preventing the occurrence of head lice. (She told me this even though she was the one who also said that head lice prefer clean hair. I was a bit confused.)

When Maylin awoke, I immediately checked her head out. Wow. I saw two little light-colored flecks that could have easily been mistaken for dandruff or lint. But they were moving! Eeww! I called Maylin's school to inform them of the situation and that we might not be coming in that day and sent John out to the pharmacy to buy some head lice treatment.

The treatment that we used is a two-step process. The first involves massaging about a tablespoon of this clear solution (an insecticide basically) into the scalp and hair. It really stinks. Reminded me a lot of Leo's flea medication. The bad news was that we had to leave the nasty stuff in for about eight hours! No, I wasn't going to let Maylin go back to school that day to stink up her entire classroom. But since I had her with me for the day, I had to take her to my scheduled voice lesson in the eleventh arrondissement. No easy task with stroller and hardly any escalators. We made it and she slept for most of my lesson, in a hooded jacket which protected us from the smell.

Eight hours after the application of the medication, we used a special shampoo to wash out the dead lice, and used a fine-toothed comb after that to continue the removal process. I found a few more dead ones this morning. Hopefully, we won't have a reoccurence. You have to be sure you wash all bed linens, clothing, and stuffed animals that the lice might have come in contact with in very hot water -- about 60 degrees Celcius (which we don't have -- I'm counting on the dryer's heat) or put it all in an airtight bag for two weeks. I think I spotted this problem pretty early so we've got better chances of getting rid of the little guys quickly and preventing the rest of us from getting them, too. Highly contagious!

Palais de la Decouverte

On Sunday, we took a family outing to the Palais de la Decouverte -- a beautiful palace not far from Invalides (where Napolean's tomb is) which has been converted into a science discovery museum -- the hands-on type with interactive exhibits. They have experiments and lectures going on every day, a rat laboratory where they perform experiments for an audience about twice a day, a plantarium with an astronomy show, and some great interactive exhibits on physics and optical illusions. I also learned about how rabbits from different warrens (areas where rabbits breed) have different smells. I had to smell two different odors from two different warrens, then slide four rabbits along tracks to their respective warrens according to their odors. Pressing a button to validate my answer showed that I was right. My nose has always been pretty sensitive.

Unfortunately, we were not enthused by many of the other exhibits -- either because the explanations were in French, the interactive sections were broken, or they were too complicated to try to understand. (I don't have the most scientific of minds.) There was one winning exposition which is on for a limited time only -- Le Festin des Dinosaurs, an amazing display of animatronics. I should've looked up the definition of "festin," because even though Maylin adored the expo, she was a little put off by some of the more gory displays of dinosaurs "feasting" on the flesh of other dinosaurs. If I let her, Maylin would have remained in one spot for the entire museum trip -- in front of the "daddy dinosaur" with the baby dinosaurs hatching out of their eggs. She wanted to pet the "daddy, " which was probably a mommy, so badly. But a simple explanation put that idea out of her mind. That was the tamest display, even though the dinosaur parent was really trying to fend off these mean-looking, carniverous dinosaurs eyeing the eggs. The other slightly tamer display which Maylin enjoyed had two very large dinosaurs, one being a T-Rex, which was trying to gnaw on the other's tail. We stood on the side where the gnawing and the "blood" was less apparent.

The day after, she said she wanted to go back to see the dinosaurs. Why not? Next time, I'll bring a book and just let her stand and stare as long as she likes -- and as long as it's not the gory scenes.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The power of the word

Egads! Someone was sitting on their car horn outside for about a full minute. I will continue writing when I have regained my calm and composure...

I don't know if you read my comments sections after each blog entry, but after "Central Valley culture shock," you may find a shocking amount of emotion there, incited by probably my poor choice of words misinterpreted by a reader. So, I want to apologize to anyone else I may have offended by that entry, which should have been read in a lighthearted manner, knowing that my writing style can and may include sarcasm, exaggeration, gross generalizations, etc., for dramatic effect or just entertainment value. I didn't expect such a dramatic effect, but I've certainly learned my lesson. I will try to be more sensitive when I'm talking about groups of people. Actually, I don't like lumping people into groups, but it's too easy of a trap to fall into. I'll be more careful next time. I'll try to focus more on individuals and make fewer generalizations.

I could have deleted that entry and all its comments, but I thought we might all learn something from it. And maybe it'll show from that point on if I've been making any progress.

Your humble Paris correspondent,
Caroline

Thursday, March 09, 2006

I'm building her a castle

I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon than to use some air-hardening black clay to construct a castle for my little girl. We had an impromptu playdate yesterday with twin Australian boys who owned a cool, plastic toy castle with a catapult to launch huge rocks. Maylin loved it. After we went home, we took a nap, and as I was waking up, I thought, "Hey, I could make her a castle myself! I just bought some clay that would be perfect!" I woke up and asked Maylin if she wanted to help me make a castle. She gave me a groggy nod of the head.

I can often be overwhelmed, and then discouraged, by big projects so I decided to be smart and just aim for making a tower first. If I'm motivated later, I can keep making additions. I'm halfway done with it and I'm so excited! I've made little bricks and have been stacking them to make a cylindrical tower. Maylin was already playing with it! I've left a large opening on one side of the tower so she'll have no problem getting her toys in and out. For awhile I have been telling Maylin that I would build her a dollhouse for Christmas, but maybe she'll prefer a medieval fortress instead.

Maylin puts in a song request

My little girl used to stop me whenever I started singing -- "Mommy, no sing!" People told me it was because she wanted my attention and that if I was singing, I couldn't play with her and give her the kind of attention she wanted. Well, for two nights in a row, she has actually asked me to sing to her at bedtime. Her number one hit? It's "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which she simply calls, "Little Lamb." It's so nice. I feel like she's finally making a movement to include music in her life. For so long she has made me stop playing piano or violin, or singing, but now, she's singing more herself or playing piano with me!

I'm not sure if I'll be able to be her music teacher though since she often refuses to be instructed by me in anything. It might be impatience or her innate stubbornness to do things on her own. She's always been quite her own person. The best thing I can do for her is offer her a variety of different experiences or activities to participate in, and to be there with her, participating, too -- silently supporting.

I've noticed something lately. If I shower Maylin with too much praise for something she's done (e.g. a painting, using the toilet by herself), she rejects it and hides her face. Exuberant praise seems to embarrass her. I have to try to tone myself down and pretend to be less excited than I really am. Tough for a proud mom. I don't know where her unusual trait comes from. Neither John nor I are like that. Praise usually has a positive effect on people. Maylin's a special one.

The sweetest sound

Spring must be here. It's early in the morning and still dark. I hear the sweetest bird-singing ever. Perhaps it's a mating call, a song of love.

I usually don't hear birds singing around here. When I was back in the Central Valley, I heard them all the time. It was wonderful to feel closer to nature. How do birds usually communicate in big cities with all that big city noise drowning them out?

Scissor sharpener pays a neighborhood visit

I was coming back from the grocery store and found an interesting sight. There was a man sitting down on some sort of contraption in the street, just off the curb in front of my dry-cleaner/tailor's shop. He was pedaling to make a wheel move. I passed by too quickly to see exactly what he was doing with his hands but when I turned my head to look again, I saw his logo -- a pair of scissors. Of course! He was sharpening the tailor's scissors! Wow -- what a blast into the past. I went upstairs, put away the groceries, and heard a bell ringing outside. I ran to the window to look. As I suspected, it was the scissor sharpener, advertising his services while he rolled his contraption in front of him. It was charming to see that this ancient trade is still alive.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Gave my first talk

In January, my former choir director from my first high school invited me to give a talk to his students about music careers and life in Paris. Wow! What an honor! I had never been a guest speaker before. In the past, I had been asked to give speeches as a student, in high school and in college, but that's another story.

I had a good time. The three periods of choir kids were all great. Beautiful voices and very musical -- their director has trained them well, and probably many of them since junior high since he teaches there also. They were interested in what I had to say, even if most of them were not expecting to head towards a music career. They posed some good questions, but also some surprising ones regarding the French like, "are they hairy?" and "are they smelly?" I answered them honestly -- "no" to both, with an added comment that the smelliest person I had encountered was German.

I think most Germans are hygienic, but there are a few who don't seem to mind foregoing baths, washing their clothes, and using deodorant. I lived in Munich years ago during a cold January, and unfortunately, the low temperatures didn't seem to dampen the odor of this particularly stinky woman. I could smell her probably a good fifty yards away -- before I could even see her. I don't know if anyone was ever honest enough to tell her that they thought it might be a problem. One evening, I was invited to a group dinner and, low and behold, the only empty seat left was next to HER! I was very polite for maybe half an hour (amazing, isn't it?) and remained calm in my seat, but then had to switch with someone. Phew!

Anyways, back to the high school talk. I am not accustomed to talking at great length and since I'm not a music career counselor, I could not give the most effective presentation on careers in the industry and how to prepare for them, but I could tell them about my own personal experience. I looked out at my audience and thought, "Is what I'm saying helpful at all? Who's going to have an equivalent experience? Is anyone going to come close?"

After all that self-analysis, I don't think there's any musician like me. I'm really quite lucky that I can teach, sing, play piano and violin, and conduct a choir. The combination makes me quite employable. I didn't even have to take the conventional route of obtaining a music conservatory degree. I don't know if I'm good enough at any one thing to have merited me a spot in a conservatory anyway, which makes me a weird one. I'm good at many things, but not REALLY good at one.

It's taken me a long time to be content with that, but I'm happy being me now.

Monday, March 06, 2006

"I had a good sleep,"

Maylin said this morning when she awoke. She must not have remembered the many times she woke up Mommy with her cries of agony. She was having growing pains last night in her legs. Very painful. And it's tough for Mom because there's nothing I can do except try to calm her down and massage her legs. Maylin had a bad dream later on. It was only amusing because while sleeping, she said in a determined, yet muffled voice, "I don't WANT orange juice!"

Central Valley culture shock

It was so nice and comforting to return to the home I was raised in after age 10, and to share Maylin with my parents and brother.

But one day, early in our visit, Maylin and I were home alone, with my parents slaving away at the office and my brother not yet arrived from Oregon. I took Maylin for a walk to a neighborhood park. Immediately, I felt like a sore thumb. First, I was walking. No one walks to get from point A to point B. They'll walk for exercise, but not for travel. Everyone was driving SUVs or suburbans. Huge things! I don't know how people get by with their monster vehicles and the price of gas these days. I'm so used to seeing mini-Cooper-sized cars and Smart cars which are even smaller (two-seater with just enough room in the back for a briefcase) in Paris.

My clothes were out of place, too. My Paris black just didn't cut it. The moms at the park were wearing jogging suits and sneakers. I don't know if I can learn how to dress super-casual again. I'd feel naked. Or, I might as well go out in my pyjamas.

I met a nice woman at the park with her granddaughter. We chatted a bit, and I eventually revealed that we were visiting from Paris. We talked some more, and then the woman realized that Paris wasn't in the States! Nope, it's in Europe...in France to be precise.

Okay, there's Paris, Texas, and there's probably another Paris in the U.S., too, but from our conversation I thought she'd figure out pretty quickly that I was talking about France.

A young man I met at the local Walmart selling a newspaper subscription to my mom thought Paris was in Italy. Geez, I'm afraid these Central Valley people don't get out much.

And some of them are clearly very content to keep it that way. That's fine by me. The happier the better. It just surprises me that some people never want to leave this small town of Walmarts and fast food restaurants. No desire to see beautiful, coastal Monterey? No desire to enjoy the good food and culture of San Francisco? It's too bad, though. There's a much bigger, more interesting world available to explore.

Some people in town leave every moment they can to ski, visit Yosemite, see the Bay Area, etc. The Central Valley is very well situated, actually. 1.5 hours to the Bay Area, over an hour to the coast, about 3 hours to Yosemite. Many San Jose employees have even decided to live here and commute to work. Bay Area real estate is ridiculously expensive, so it's no wonder people make the sacrifice to get their 4-5 bedroom home.

And there are so many new housing developments. Each time I come back, there's more, and more. It's a bit frightening. The homes are HUGE, and the yards are tiny! The houses look like they're just a couple feet apart. That doesn't make any sense to me. In '85, the city population was around 12,000. It's tripled since then.

And still no decent bookstore. No fine arts auditorium. Very limited public library hours. According to some, the biggest thing that happened to the city was when they got a Starbucks. I wept in the late '80s and early '90s when the bowling alley got knocked down and the roller skating rink closed for good. What are kids supposed to do? At least the movie theaters are thriving. But 11 dollars a movie?

If you want a good Mexican meal, which I was craving, the Valley is good for it. I got my fix of refried beans, rice, tacos, and chile rellenos. Please don't come to Paris looking for authentic Mexican food. It doesn't exist.

Comment, please

It's quiet around here. Some of my expat friends have returned to the States, and more are due to return by the end of the year. Help keep me sane by e-mailing, or leaving a comment! Commenting is fun and easy again! Just click on the word "comments" on the bottom of an entry to say something to me. I won't be moderating anymore, so you'll see your comment immediately! Talk to me!

Memory of Taiwan #16: Rabchilla?

I'm going to start throwing out some random memories of mine for you to enjoy. Hope you don't mind.

When we were back in Taiwan last October with my parents, we were taking a stroll along a busy Taipei street when we came upon a pet store. I love pet stores, and so does Maylin. I convinced my parents to go in, and we admired the puppies and kittens...and then came across an odd-looking, white fluff-of-a-creature. It really looked like a cross between a chinchilla and a rabbit. The small, delicate body and fur of a chinchilla, with the tall ears of a rabbit. Don't know how that happened, but it was probably illegal from the look of the poor little guy. There was a small sign in Chinese posted to its plexiglass cage. I asked my dad to translate. "It's not for sale," he replied. Your mystery to solve is this: Why was this "rabchilla" being displayed in the store? Was it really a "rabchilla," or something else??

Report card summary

Oops! I had John turn in Maylin's signed report card this morning without having recorded all the details. I'll try to remember what it said.

The report cards, required by law from the first year of preschool (ecole maternelle, petite section), are given out twice a year. The single-fold cards are large -- 8x14, with one page of intro, two pages of line items for grading, and one page for written comments. Three types of "grades" are given. "T" for "toujours" (always), "AR" for "a renforcer" (to reinforce), and "PE" for "pas encore" (not yet). Let me first say that the grading does not seem to be very accurate, so I don't know how useful these reports are. I just think they're kind of fun, even if the other mothers I've talked to think they're ridiculous.

The first grading category has to do with her independence in school life. Maylin's knowledge of going to the toilet by herself and putting on her coat on her own need to be reinforced according to her teachers. Maylin has no problem going to the toilet on her own, but that was a very recent development, in February -- maybe before they filled out some portions of the report card. Maylin usually needs help putting on her coat, but they did teach her a snazzy way to get it on. She showed me a couple times. You lay the coat on the floor, with the collar towards your feet and the zipper facing up. Then you slide your arms into the holes and flip the coat over your head! It's like magic!

I'm sure the school encourages independence, but there's always so many "mesdames de service" in their light blue smocks to help take kids to the bathroom or put on/take off their coats, hats, and scarves. They also help with putting gym shoes on before they climb the 8-9 foot-high wooden structure.

The second grading category has to do with larger motor skills, but is literally called "l'aisance corporelle," or "body ease." Is Maylin comfortable in her movements? Always. Ability to run and jump needs to be reinforced. Huh? Can't all kids run and jump with no problem?

I might be missing a category, but the third one, I think, is communication in the classroom. Does she communicate with others? Always. Does she speak in small groups? Not yet. Does she speak in big groups? Not yet. Hmm...then when does she communicate with others? I assume when it's a one-on-one situation.

I don't remember the name of the next category, but she was graded "to reinforce" with regards to her holding pencils, paintbrushes, etc. I think she holds them just fine, but I do know that with scissors she prefers to cut with her thumb down instead of up. Very awkward, I know. I've tried to correct it, but she's so stubborn sometimes.

Another category was reading. Maylin was given an "always" for recognizing her first name. I'm not so sure. She can recognize her "m's" though. For showing an interest in books in the classroom and at the library, Maylin was given a resounding "always."

Math was the last category. The only item graded was sorting. Not sure exactly what they sort, but Maylin got a "not yet." I think Maylin's quite good at sorting shapes and colors, but she does need some help with counting sometimes and recognizing numbers.

The back page had some comments written by her teacher. I will paraphrase what I remember.

"Maylin communicates with the other children and is well-integrated in the class. She does not speak to adults yet (in French). She takes an interest in all proposed activities and that is encouraging."

No big surprises. When I was Maylin's age, and for a good deal afterwards, I was very shy -- yes, especially with adults. Donc, c'est normal! I also had the bilingual problem -- Chinese or English? I can't imagine what it might have been like for my Minnesota teachers to hear a little girl speak Chinese to them in a little, shy voice.

I'm not worried about Maylin at all. When I drop her off, she picks up her nametag (with some help) and puts it on the board next to her photo, sits down with some other children at a table to begin an activity, and waves goodbye to me. Big girl now.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

John's home at last!

John had to leave for Vancouver and the States a day and a half after Maylin and I got back from our trip. So sad we didn't get to see much of each other. The last (nearly) two weeks haven't been too bad without John's help. Maylin's such a big girl that she can almost take care of herself at home while Mommy's half-asleep on the couch or bed, and can hold Leo's leash while we take our walks in this cold Paris rain. Groceries have been a cinch since I started buying heavy staple items online for home delivery about once a month. Dog food, cases of sparkling water, milk, and juice -- I don't have to break my back anymore.

Way off tangent...

Death seems to be coming into my conversations with Maylin a lot lately. She asks a lot of questions about the movies we watch or stories we read. I'm kind of amazed how many instances of death she can encounter in a few days -- watching "Babe" (the little pig's parents are dead, a duck dies, a sheep dies,...), watching "Cinderella" (mom's dead), reading "Snow White" (mom dies)...I'm a little worried now that it's going to be bothering her. I had to reassure her that I wouldn't die (at least, not too soon), but she really scared me last night when she had a fever. She screamed repeatedly as if in pain and said, "I'm dying." Thank goodness she was fine today, and she hasn't spoken of the D-word since.

Yes, it's after 2 am, and I'm still up. That's what I get for semi-napping all day. Poor Maylin -- when I'm tired, I can be in such a foul mood. I yelled at her unnecessarily, she cried, and then I let her climb onto my chest and keep warm under the blanket with me. We smiled at each other and told each other, "I love you," several times. It was such a sweet, sweet moment. I told her that her lying on me reminded me of when she was a baby, lying on my chest. I asked if she remembered, and she said she did.

Trading in beads for paint

Right before leaving for the States, I lost my motivation for making jewelry. Don't know why. I'm sure I'll get the bug again, but at the moment, all I think about is painting -- and I still haven't done any of it since I've been back. I am a fan of Georg Hallensleben, who illustrates children's books that his wife, Anne Gutman, writes. I love his painting style -- it's simple, but charming and colorful -- almost impressionistic, but more minimal than that. My favorite pictures of his are of Paris, where he actually lives. He does them so well. How can he evoke just the right feeling of a place with just a few strokes and some flat, but layered, colors?

I'm going to start painting once I get over this constant fatigue -- I just want to sleep entire afternoons away!

Easy slow-cooker recipe for lamb lovers

Caroline's Lamb Stew

Ingredients:

lamb shoulder (I think mine was 3-4 lbs?)
3 carrots
large onion
3 round turnips (or potatoes, if you prefer)
1 green pepper
2-3 tomatoes
handful of fresh flatleaf Italian parsley
soy sauce
garlic powder
salt and freshly ground pepper
oil (preferably canola or corn)

This could easily work with cubed lamb stew meat or beef, too. Season entire surface well with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Brown all surfaces in a very hot pan with 1-2 tablespoons of oil (to brown, you need to let your meat sit for a few minutes -- don't move it too soon!). Put your browned meat in slow-cooker, and add all your veggies (cut into chunks) and parsley (roughly cut). Add about 2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce, and a good amount of salt and pepper. No need to mix. Cover and set your cooker on low heat. Let cook for a long time. I started at 9:30 am, and turned it off at 7:30 pm, but I'm sure it was cooked at eight hours. Don't take off the lid to check the progress too often. But after eight hours, you can check the meat to see how tender it is. At ten hours, mine was divine!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Recommended reading for a better marriage

Okay, this book I have read. My brother recommended it to me before. It's "The Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman. The title sounds hokey so it might turn you off. If you're not a religious person, the fact that he's writing with a Christian slant may bother you (but he's only got a few paragraphs that mention any Biblical characters -- you can skip those if you want without missing the main points of the book). Once you get past the cheesy cover and title, and the religious stuff, the rest can be extremely useful in creating a more fulfilling marriage for both partners.

Chapman believes that the key to a successful marriage is the ability for each partner to communicate love to the other in his/her primary love language. His five love languages (and my super-short summaries) are:

1. Words of Affirmation (compliments, praise, etc.)
2. Quality time (certain period of time devoted to focused, undivided attention towards each other)
3. Gifts
4. Acts of Service (doing chores that your partner hates to do, doing tasks that are expected or asked of you)
5. Physical Touch (holding hands, hugging, massaging, kissing, or beyond)

One of these, your primary language, makes you feel the most loved when you receive it. I knew exactly what mine was when I read one of Chapman's anecdotes -- he's collected many from his marriage therapy sessions. I started crying because the woman he was talking about could have been me! Not that I need marriage therapy, but this woman had exactly the same problem -- not enough quality time from her husband. It's difficult when you have a child who goes to bed late and a husband who doesn't feel like talking when he gets home from work. Now, we need to actually schedule in some regular quality time for my sake, and it'd be nice if he scheduled some special dates once in awhile (the romance is gone when he asks me to arrange them myself).

From reading all the anecdotes, you may discover your or your partner's primary love language immediately. Otherwise, there is a little quiz at the back of the book to help you figure it out.

I do think that if John communicates love to me in my primary love language all the time, instead of through means that he thinks translate into love better (gifts, flowers, etc.), I will feel more loved and be more happy and secure in our relationship. I would trade in a bouquet of flowers for 15 minutes of his undivided attention anytime.

I would like to go into more detail with the book, but I think I'll let you read it to figure out if it speaks to you, too.

For the totally lost, but not helpless or hopeless

In my previous post, I recommended Barbara Sher's latest book, but I realize that her others may be more pertinent to the majority of you who are not sure where to go from here with the rest of your life or who at least have an idea that you need a career change.

For those of you who have no clue where to start, try:

- I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was : How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It

If you only have time to read one self-improvement book, read this one:

- Live the Life You Love : In Ten Easy Step-By Step Lessons

You already know what you want -- so go get it!

- Wishcraft : How to Get What You Really Want

I have not read any of these books, but from the PBS broadcast of one of her "Live the Life You Love" sessions that I saw four or five years ago, the few lessons I picked up have already changed my life. So I'm confident her books will have even more useful information. At this point in my life, I'm quite content so I'm not into reading any self-improvement books, but these are the first ones I'll go to when I feel lost again. When I was in the States, I would feel lost about every summer, asking myself, "Am I really happy doing what I'm doing?" and "What would I rather be doing?" Right now, I'm pretty happy being a stay-at-home mom with lots of extracurricular activities.

New books for Renaissance people like me, finally!

I've always been a Renaissance person -- with multiple interests and gifts, but they always seemed to get in the way in a society that wants you to choose one major in college, one career once you get out, etc. The idea of specializing often made me sick. Well, we finally have some books out there that help address career problems for people like me. I don't know why 2006 became the year to recognize our special breed, but here they are!

The Renaissance Soul : Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One
by Margaret Lobenstine (January, 2006)

Refuse to Choose! : A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love
by Barbara Sher (early March, 2006)

Copy the titles into the amazon.com search engine to get more details.