Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cantine conundrum solved?

Thanks for the e-mails regarding Maylin's eating habits at school. Here's an elaborated version of what I wrote in my comments section in reply to one of my readers:

The cafeteria food in France is fantastic. It might be too gourmet for Maylin, who prefers chow mein, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and scrambled eggs. At school they have fish served in special sauces, rabbit with mustard, couscous, fruit, tomatoes, and various "green stuff." Maylin's told me that she did actually eat fish and couscous, but probably in such minute amounts that it didn't count according to the cooking staff. But Maylin also has a history of eating the exotic -- duck feet, chicken butt, lobster, and smoked salmon.

In the cantine, they serve at least four courses and that may be too much for Maylin to finish in one hour. That's 15 minutes per course. They toss each unfinished course into the trash before they go onto the next course. Yeah, it's too fast for her, even if she is hungry which she probably is by lunchtime because she doesn't have breakfast at home (she's never hungry when she gets up -- like I was when I was a kid). At home, I'll leave all her food out for as long as it takes for her to finish it. Now do I have to teach her to eat faster?

I remember eating, or not eating, in the school cafeteria in first grade. I remember tossing out lots of food, hardly eating anything unless it was roast turkey and mashed potato day. I think I felt a little guilty, but there wasn't anything I could do about it. My appetite was always poor in childhood, even at home, but I think it was worse at school when the food was hardly palatable. And don't even talk about the milk! I hated milk at home, but the milk at school (even in the grades when I was able to bring lunch from home) was really disgusting. Sometimes it was on the warm side, sometimes it was past its "best by" date, and sometimes it was just plain foul -- like the time in third grade when my milk came out of the carton in chunks or curds or whatever you wanted to call the sour, solid stuff.

I think Maylin's appetite is better than mine was. But maybe I'm also a little bit more accommodating to her taste. I cook a meal for her, often separate from John's and mine. I'll be lucky these days if she wants to eat some of my fried rice or stirfry. Too often the only thing she wants is mac 'n' cheese, which I make from scratch (I haven't seen any Kraft Cheese-n-Macaroni here nor Annie's Homegrown Shells with the cute bunny on the box).

A great many of my memories of childhood involve some food dispute. The night before my sixth birthday (my mom planned a big party for me), at around 10 p.m., I was still sitting at the kitchen counter-peninsula, trying with all my might to finish my dinner. I was really too excited to eat. I sat there obediently for hours since 7 or 8 p.m. until my parents finally gave in and let me go to bed without finishing. At the party the next day, I couldn't even finish my catered McDonald's cheeseburger and was left alone at the table while all my friends went off to play the party games. Another time, I took several hours to finish dinner because my parents didn't realize that for an hour I had been gnawing unsuccessfully on a grisly piece of meat. I wasn't allowed to spit out food so I stuck with it until it was a tasteless gray mass. And how many times did I forgo my dinner to cry myself to sleep? Too many -- all due to a lack of appetite. It became my cross to bear for my entire childhood.

I probably found my appetite around puberty. And then, during my freshman year in college I added the well-known "Freshman Fifteen" to my pre-college weight of a measly eighty-five pounds. Thanks to limitless servings of curly fries, pancakes, fried chicken, and chicken-fried steak, the entire freshman class grew as individuals, literally.

But I digress. Though I do think history will repeat itself. Maylin will have a below-average appetite until the pimples arrive, and then there will be no holding her back.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Maylin!

My little girl turned four on Friday. And she has certainly proven this week that she is becoming a big girl. Maylin is a girl who knows what she wants. She told me exactly how she wanted her birthday. No friends -- just Mommy and Daddy. Earlier, she said she didn't want any presents either, but on Friday, she eagerly received her Mulan DVD and drum with drumsticks.

And just this week, she made a leap into the world of lying. Her first lie, on Monday I believe, was motivated by a strong need for dessert. We usually have this deal going where if she eats a peanut butter sandwich, she's allowed a chocolate sandwich afterwards (Nutella, actually, which is basically a smooth chocolate-hazelnut sauce). Her peanut butter sandwich disappeared faster than usual, but I didn't suspect anything when she proudly said that she had finished the sandwich and was ready for the chocolate one. About ten minutes later, after she had finished her sweet treat, I found the remains of a peanut butter sandwich in the bathroom wastebasket.

I think I came across a little too strong initially -- demanding if she knew that what she did was wrong. I wasn't yelling, but she could certainly hear the urgency in my voice. I wanted to know if she knew she had done two bad things -- lying and wasting food. Maylin nodded in the affirmative and then burst into tears in shame and went into her room. Shortly afterward, she came out completely calm -- no more crying, just damp cheeks. She said oh so sweetly, "I'm sorry, Mommy. I didn't mean to." I just melted in her sweetness. I was relieved that she realized she had made a mistake. We had a little discussion about why telling the truth was important and why it was bad to throw out food (especially when Mommy or the dog Leo could have finished it). She seemed to understand the lesson, so I thought it was all resolved. She wasn't going to lie again, right?

Except on Wednesday, after making Maylin's requested alphabet letter soup (Monoprix sells pasta letters now -- great for preschoolers) and my own lunch, I returned to the dining table and discovered that her soup bowl was missing! She wouldn't tell me where she put it so I began searching the rooms. We came to a standoff in my bedroom -- Maylin's arms outstretched, blocking the path to John's side of the bed. I wasn't in the mood to argue so I just settled on the bed and started reading a novel. I told her I would wait for her to show me the location of her bowl. She started crying. Maylin stayed a bit and when she realized I wasn't going to be doing any comforting, she gave up and eventually went to her room to finish her bawling. I resumed my quest for the bowl. On the floor, behind an old computer monitor that John wants to sell on eBay, I recovered the missing pasta and soup -- fortunately, completely intact (no soup or pasta outside of the bowl on the floor). This time, Maylin was able to remove her unwanted meal without lying, and without throwing food away. So, did she really do anything bad? Or is this just a sign of brilliance?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Let them eat enough cake

Maylin's teacher asked me last week if I wanted to have them celebrate Maylin's birthday before or after the Toussaint vacation (still don't know what Toussaint is, but this vacation is a week and a half long starting the last week of October), and if I wanted to bring a cake or candy...but it's optional. I was planning on bringing a cake and said I would bring it on Monday of this week.

Sunday evening came along, I put Maylin to bed at 9 pm, and then realized I hadn't baked anything yet! I wanted to bake chocolate cake but was overcome with fear when I looked in my fridge and cupboard and saw just enough butter and chocolate for two 8-inch one-layer cakes. Was two cakes enough for 25 children and a teacher? It would have to do. Should I make one rectangular cake instead? I opted for the round cakes because I thought slices would look bigger than little squares even if they were actually the same mass.

The butter and chocolate were enough for the cakes, but instead of doubling one recipe, I was forced to add one recipe to another (otherwise, I would have been short on either the butter or the chocolate). I added the ingredients of the two recipes together and then added extra leavening. Somehow, it worked, and they turned out beautifully.

So earlier that day, I was supposed to buy more chocolate and butter. I was supposed to buy drinks, too, but it was too late -- all the grocery stores were closed (except just now I'm realizing that there is a little epicerie owned by an Arab that opens until 11 pm but charges double the going rate of most products -- kicking myself). Shoot, they wouldn't be able to use the cute Dora the Explorer cups I found at Auchan, the hypermarche (super-supermarket) at La Defense. At least, they could use the cute Dora the Explorer napkins. To make up for the possibility of cake shortage, I tossed into the feed bag two large packages of Chinese rice crackers (salty and sweet) and a portion of store-bought speculoos cookies (kind of like gingersnaps).

Monday morning came along and Maylin started crying when I woke her up for school. She didn't want to go to school -- she didn't want to celebrate her birthday because people would look at her. Have you noticed? She's super-shy. Somehow I got her dressed and took her to school. Actually, John carried her and I carried the food. I presumed I would be able to enter the school with Maylin to bring up the goodies, but it turns out I could only leave it with the gardienne to take in. (Makes me a little suspicious when we're only allowed to go up to their classrooms once a month.)

When I came to pick Maylin up after school, everything turned out better than expected (except for her still not eating in the cantine, as reported by the gardienne, and for her not eating hardly any birthday cake, as reported by her teacher). Maylin reported that everybody ate cake and liked it, that five kids didn't want to eat the Chinese rice crackers, and that the kids asked their teacher if there were any drinks (the teacher said Maylin's mommy forgot -- I felt bad, but Maylin said the moms never brought drinks when there were other birthdays, so then I didn't feel quite so bad). She also told me that she was asked to take a piece of cake to the other teacher down the hall on a Dora napkin and that she wasn't shy. She spoke to her! Great improvement.

Where did all this extra cake come from? 26 pieces? Incroyable! It almost felt like that New Testament parable about Jesus turning five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed four thousand people. It really was a miracle.

****

On Tuesday, Maylin was called into the principal's office to get her birthday present -- a tiny plastic pony (mimicking "My Little Pony") with mini hairbrush. It was cute and such a nice gesture. The principal, or "directrice," even said that Maylin spoke to her for the first time as she held my daughter's face lovingly. Aww, they do care. There's a strange dichotomy of personal/impersonal at school. The teachers and principal seem very nurturing with the children, and yet they tend to keep the parents at a distance. Parents are not allowed into the classroom area except for designated days once a month -- I think I've even been yelled at when I unknowingly broke the rule last year while trying to bring Maylin's "doudou" to her classroom (she had left her favorite stuffed animal at home and cried so hard she broke my heart).

Friday, October 20, 2006

Surprising Maylin news

Well, I talked to Maylin's teacher the other day and learned that Maylin never talks to her. She has glued herself onto one of her English-speaking classmates and communicates only with him, at least in class, in English. The teacher seemed a bit concerned about it, but otherwise, Maylin has been doing well at school.

The principal, or "directrice," summoned me over after school a few days ago and was very concerned about Maylin's eating habits at the school cafeteria -- or lack thereof. She told me Maylin eats nothing, day after day. Maylin does seem very hungry after school, but she doesn't look unhealthy at all or lack energy. Yesterday, I asked her if she ate chicken and potatoes, as posted on the school menu. She said she ate a little bit and then the "cooking lady threw it away." A friend proposed that perhaps Maylin's not eating fast enough. If anyone has any ideas or solutions, please let me know.

By the way, Maylin's teacher is warmer with me now. Eye contact and everything. Since we've talked a little bit, I think she's realized that I can communicate in French and am not going to bite her.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Grumpy old French men

The supermarket near Maylin's school is Champion. On Tuesdays, it opens at 8:30 am. I arrived early, just after dropping off Maylin. When the doors opened, three people out of nowhere somehow beat me to it. One of them was an older man, in his late 60's, who I recognized as a regular. Let's call him Monsieur X. He acted as if he deserved everyone's attention. M. X was running around like a chicken with his head cut off in his quest to find the right confiture, otherwise known as jam. He barged into the already very narrow aisle which was occupied by pallets of products needing to be stocked on the shelves immediately, an employee who was in the process of stocking, and myself. M. X stood right in front of the jams, oblivious to the poor Champion employee who was trying to juggle unwieldy packages of paper towels and cereal and get past him at the same time. Unfortunately, the staff member was stuck doing his balancing act while trying to advise a very flustered Monsieur X, who wanted help but didn't seem to want to listen to anyone either. Finally, Monsieur X grabbed what he thought was the right jar off of the shelf and bolted down the aisle. A minute later, he was back complaining that it was the wrong one. Another employee suggested, "Bonne Maman?" which is a very reputable company which makes delicious jams and cookies. Nope. Well, I didn't stay to see how his story panned out.

But, towards the end of my shopping trip, I ran into another crazed man, Monsieur Y. He was moving quickly up and down my aisle mumbling, "Ou est blah-blah-blah oiseaux?" Eventually, I realized he was looking for "des graines d'oiseaux," or birdseed. M. Y wasn't really talking to anyone and no one seemed to be paying him any attention, but I decided to help him out anyway. I took him over to the right shelf and brought down a box of birdseed for him. He looked at it blankly and walked off to ask an employee the location of the birdseed -- as if I didn't exist. (By the way, that's the worst insult you can give me.) "Next to that woman." Duh. I just pointed it out to him! I tried to be patient and offered him the box again. Gruffly, he said it wasn't the right one. It was supposed to be in a bag, not a box. No word of thanks. No smile. Monsieur Y just walked away as I stood there dumbly with birdseed in my hand. Fine. That's the last time I'm helping you again.

Last year, it was the year of grumpy old women. This year, grumpy old men are in season. C'est la vie.

Still here

I'm a busy, busy bee these days. I'm continuing to be a gym addict to the amusement of admiration of all my friends, doing lots of photography (check out my link "my photos"), and being very social. Just want to let you know we're all very healthy and happy. I will give you a real post soon, I hope, including some recipes for some yummy chocolate cakes I've made for some special people here. Wish I could make cake for all of you! -- all my love

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The real artist in the family

Lately, I've been encouraging Maylin to try learning a musical instrument or take a dance class, like I did as a young child. Little or no interest. She watched some kids practice martial arts, but she said she didn't want to do it herself. Maylin also sat quietly through my hour and fifteen minute yoga class but she had no desire to join us. What she does love is painting and drawing. She does seem to bring a lot more drawings home from school than the other children -- last year, too. One of her latest drawings even conjured up a bit of envy among some other moms.

I've always loved Maylin's artwork, but maybe it's more special than I realize. John adores her art, and never says anything about mine which makes me think, Geez, maybe Maylin IS a better artist than me. Yes, she is. I will take some photos of her work, and you can tell me what you think.

She definitely has some talent in the visual field. Have we already discovered her career path? Painter, illustrator, graphic designer, or architect? I say "architect" because she just built a really cool pirate ship with her Kapla blocks last night.

I definitely want to support Maylin in her main interest, but I would like to broaden her horizons, too. I typically ask for her input, but maybe I should just sign her up for a dance class, violin lessons, or karate. Or maybe I should just let her be for this year. She's still quite young. Not even four yet.

A passion rediscovered

In college, I didn't go to a lot of school dances because I was a bit of a nerd studying all the time, but I do remember that when I did go, I had an incredible time and couldn't stop dancing! I even won my dorm's dance contest one year. I have difficulty dancing to techno because it's too fast for me, but I love dancing to hip-hop (and maybe house and funk if I knew exactly what they were). My body just naturally moves well to hip-hop, which I find has a very sensual beat.

Anyways, I haven't gone clubbing since my summer experience in Taiwan ten years ago, and John doesn't seem to show much interest in dancing -- although once we had a fabulous time, just the two of us, dancing in our Berkeley courtyard under the moonlight. So today, ten years later, I took a BodyJam class at the gym which is supposed to be a melange of salsa, hip-hop, disco, funk, and techno. It was a marvelous time!

It was a small class, eight women, versus the twenty-plus faithful attendees of the BodyPump classes. The ladies were all very nice -- more smiley than most French women. These were women who were willing to step out of their comfort zone, have some fun, and burn a bunch of calories at the same time. Women willing to look a bit foolish if they messed up. We're not trying to look good -- just have a good time. I was fortunate enough to have a real dancer, probably another instructor, right in front of me. I don't know why she was participating in the class, but it was nice of her to show her support.

We did several short routines to different music, ranging from hip-hop to salsa to pop. Towards the end we were putting the routines together to make one long one, which challenged our brains. But I just really loved moving my body in a slightly familiar way. Nice to meet you again, body. I had forgotten you had all that in you.

I think I was doing pretty well in the class, keeping up and enjoying myself. I had an advantage over most of the other women because I've had some dance experience -- ballet and jazz. Classical and jazz dance is very different from popular dance, but what you carry over is good balance, an existing repertoire of movement, automatic synchronization between movement and music, and the mental ability to master a choreography. I certainly wasn't perfect, but I think I got more out of the class because I could complete the routines without much difficulty. It's like learning a musical instrument. Once you know all the notes, you can then begin to inject emotion and nuance which is where the real music-making begins.

I will surely take another BodyJam class in the near future, but now I'm thinking of even taking a real hip-hop class somewhere because I felt a real connection to the hip-hop as opposed to the other styles. I do still have a couple passes to the Centre de Danse du Marais and I'm sure they teach hip-hop over there, along with their ballet, modern, jazz, salsa, and yoga classes. Another adventure!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Fun with French, part I

Shortly after we arrived in Paris, back in 2004, John developed a serious sinus infection. In the States, John never got sick. But how Paris has affected our health is another story. Anyways, he went to see the doctor, armed with a limited French vocabulary and an even more limited knowledge of pronunciation. To the practitioner's amusement, John calmly told her that a little monkey (instead of a little bit of blood) was coming out of his nose. He had inadvertently said "un petit singe" instead of "un peu de sang."

The other night, a friend informed us of how another subtle difference in pronunciation can twist your meaning a hundred-eighty degrees. In a restaurant, when new expats (and veterans) aren't able to catch the specials of the day careening off the tongue of their French waiter, they ask him to repeat himself. “Répétez, s’il vous plait.” But if you say “repétez” instead of “répétez” (note the differences in accents), pronouncing the first syllable like “ruh” instead of “ray” will result in asking the waiter to release some gas from his rear, again.

The French like to borrow American words. The most obvious are the ones with an “ing” ending, such as “parking” and “marketing.” Those are used correctly, but what about “shampooing”? “Shampooing” is not the act of washing your hair but the actual cleaning product – the shampoo. Even less creative is “apres-shampooing” (literally “after shampoo”) which is conditioner.

Would anyone else like to share some interesting French lingual tidbits?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Bumped

It's not been my week. Now I've been bumped from the list of parents who will be accompanying their child's class to a farm next week -- the first field trip of the year. I followed the same procedure as last year. Wait to be notified of the excursion in Maylin's little school communications notebook where important notices to parents are pasted, instead of the rather messy American model of looseleaf 8.5x11s everywhere. Circle "I will be available to accompany the class." Sign. I did not anticipate the competition coming from overzealous parents who apparently reserved their spots weeks ago (but we've only been in school for a month!). I knew about the date, which the teacher probably wasn't supposed to blurt out during the back-to-school meeting. I should have spoken up about my availability that day.

I knew I was immediately a non-favorite with Maylin's teacher when she completely ignored me at the end of that meeting even though I was waiting to speak to her, standing in front of her face. I didn't even do anything. Maybe that's my problem. I should have baked her cookies or something. Or brought her flowers. Yeah, right. I'm no brownnoser, but someone who may lose out to the brownnosers this year.

The day after I signed my name in the little book, I received a little note on brown paper from Maylin's teacher thanking profusely for volunteering to accompany but that there were no more spots. Why couldn't she tell me to my face right after school? I see her everyday. Maybe it's this aversion she has towards me.

I'll write a little note to the teacher expressing my interest in accompanying the next class field trip. Let's see what happens.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Scammed

Okay, this is going to be embarrassing for me, but hopefully my story will alert to you the dangers that are out there. I never thought of myself as completely naive and gullible before, but now I may change my tune.

Perhaps the con artist I encountered sensed my vulnerability through the windshield of his car, even though I thought I was feeling pretty strong and on top of the world. I had really pushed myself at my BodyPump class in yesterday morning, knowing I would be skipping out on BodyBalance afterwards in order to have time to get groceries, have lunch with a friend, and accompany her to a Home Depot-type store called Castorama near Clichy, a walk down from Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, before picking up our kids from school. I was very proud of myself, lifting more weight than I ever have for squats and lunges (total of 17.6 pounds). I also lifted that same amount over my head for many repetitions, and even used a two-kilo weight on my shoulder for side crunches which was totally optional.

I went home, took a shower, and dressed. Dressing is a little upsetting because I still can't fit into my old jeans, but I was feeling a bit better because the jeans I bought in the States that fit me perfectly in August are now three to four inches too big around the waist! My other options were gray pants with elastic wasteband or black pants with elastic wasteband. Neither of those would suffice if I wanted to feel mildly attractive that day. So I decided to wear my too-big jeans anyways. But to make it somewhat work is with a belt. I have a stupid "ceinture" that isn't really a belt at all because it is made out of some synthetic cloth and has two rings instead of a normal buckle. (It was included with some cheap pants I bought last year at Etam in the girls' section, made of the same material.) I'm trying not to buy a belt because I'm hoping I'll fit into my old jeans before it's absolutely necessary to hit the shops. Anyways, the belt takes a lot of effort -- sometimes it takes three times to get it to work. And even after I get it to work, after ten minutes of walking, my jeans still begin to sag in the front. Well, there's at least ten minutes of feeling attractive in there.

I wanted to wear my new soft pink sweater, but it was still kind of tight around my slimming waist, so I ended up wearing my form-fitting watermelon pink sweater which ended where my low-rise jeans began. Perfect. I looked pretty good, especially with my new abs and arms.

I slid into my sexy, but inexpensive, Payless ShoeSource heeled black sandals, and set off with my this-is-not-your-Grandma's-rolling cart to Champion to return the lightbulbs that I bought by mistake ("baionnet" instead of the screw-in "grande vis" -- but I could have goofed, too, by purchasing the "petite vis"), buy milk for my friend, and get some conditioner, fruit, fish, and bottled water. I forgot that it was Monday, meaning that many of our neighborhood shops were closed, at least for the morning. I walked all the way to Champion and then stood at the street corner for a minute thinking about my next step. Go to little G20 where the produce wasn't good, head to discount Ed where the fish wasn't good, opt for our neighborhood Franprix which didn't have any fish, or go to Monoprix which had everything but was a little out of the way? I glanced at my watch and decided I had time for Monoprix. I found everything I needed, including some great fresh halibut, and even got some admiring glances from both men and women. Well, one woman. And she was mostly admiring my really cheap sandals.

I was walking back in the drizzle, to which Parisians are all too accustomed. Most umbrellas only come out for the real downpours. I didn't carry one with me this time, but I didn't have an extra hand anyways. I didn't care. I was still warm and fuzzy from the admiration...which probably made me especially vulnerable when I was approached.

Young man in car pulls over to the curb to ask for directions. Or so I thought. He had a map in hand and was pointing to it. People are always asking for directions so I didn't hesitate to stop and help out. I like to help people. My other vulnerability to scams like these.

In Italian, he asked, "Do you speak Italian?" No. In English, he asked, "Do you speak English?" Yes. He spoke his English with a pretty convincing Italian accent. Scam Artist said he was coming from a fashion show at the Palais de Congres and had to be in Nice (on the Cote d'Azur) for another show in the evening. In my head I was thinking, I have no idea how he'd get there from here and I didn't have my map on me. And he only had a ratty old free map, probably from Printemps or Galeries Lafayette. But instead of asking for directions, he started rattling off his designer brand which I didn't recognize (but I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to high fashion) along with some other names. I only recognized Gucci. I was getting excited anyway. Ooh, I'm talking to one of THOSE people. Neat. He showed me his business card which looked legitimate, but which I thought was a little strange because it looked like he only had one and it was laminated. Scam Artist told me he spotted me because I was a small size and he wanted to give me some samples from the show. SA knew they would fit me. He took out a black leather coat and a camel suede jacket, both very neatly folded and packaged in a plastic sheath that had some Italian words printed on it and 2007-2008 along the edges. They also had their tags still on. He also brought out a little book of photos of models in outerwear similar to what he just showed me. I should have been suspicious at this point because the book was not professionally done. Later I realized they could have just been magazine clippings. Somehow he convinced me. He pointed to two pictures -- each pretty much matching his "gifts" to me.

SA said he did not pay for these samples. His company did. The leather coat was worth 2000 some-odd euros and the suede jacket was 1700 euros.

I did feel somewhat flattered to be singled out because of my physique to receive these amazing gifts. I never thought there would be a catch. Stupid (and vain) me. He explained he was in a rush to get down to Nice, a thousand kilometers away, but he was out of gas. SA pointed to his dash as he spoke. I couldn't get a good look at it to see if this was really the case -- I just believed him. He was that good.

SA also did a good job playing the ignorant Italian visitor. He had stopped in an illegal parking area to talk to me and thought he was disrupting traffic when he saw some cars slow to a stop beside him. SA asked if this was an okay spot to park. I said, not really. So he parked his car in the delivery zone (which is a little better) just on the other side of this one-way street. I had to lug my heavy cart down the curb to cross the street. I approached the driver's side to continue the conversation but he motioned for me to go to the other side. I should have been more than a little suspicious at this point. Why wasn't I? He was probably trying to shield his gas gauge from view.

I left my cart by the curb and walked over to the passenger side. He popped the door open and wanted me to sit in his car. No, I wasn't going to let that happen. At least I know to never sit in a stranger's car. He might take off and then I'd never be seen again. SA did not push me and said that Italians were direct and explained his culture (?) in a very Italianate way with hand-gesturing. I said I was American and I couldn't trust strangers. But it seems, I trusted him enough to continue talking to him.

Did SA ever directly ask me for the gas money? Not really. He said he needed money for two tanks of gas and was willing to take me to the gas station to fill up. He never precisely said he had no money, but he said he could give me the coat and jacket as a gift. I didn't want to get in his car, and I was running late and didn't want to walk all the way to the gas station near Porte Maillot. But I still wanted to help this guy, maybe because I wanted to believe his exciting story?

There was a point when maybe I could have easily walked away. I asked about the size of the coats. He said they were one size only, 36-38 (European), which is kind of a small-medium in France. That sounded a little big for me. And especially big for models in a fashion show. I should have been suspicious. I asked if he could show me the shoulder-width because that's about 75% of a perfect fit. He assured me and reassured me that they would fit. Why didn't I insist that he take them out of their plastic sheaths? Did I think I was getting an incredible deal even if they didn't fit? How did he talk his way out of it so easily?

SA said he could have the company pay me back in a few days. I could give him my address. And he'd give me his business card. Or I could e-mail him my address. SA then tossed the laminated card into the brown, handled plastic bag in which he had neatly put away the coats. He even invited me to Milan to have spaghetti. But I was not to tell his wife, C---, and he showed me his ring. I should have been suspicious again because the ring looked like a prize out of bubble gum machine. His story made me so blind. No, I wasn't attracted to him at all -- just his story, his alleged connection with the fashion world which has, to me, been a magical mystery. Maybe if I actually had a subscription to a fashion mag I'd know more about it, but I only let myself read those things at the doctor's office.

I always thought I was a good judge of character. I always thought I could tell a good actor from a bad actor. I always thought I could tell if someone was lying. I always thought I knew what people were really thinking when they were saying something else -- through their eyes. Now my world is upside-down. Ever since I emptied my wallet and went to the ATM to get more...for this complete stranger. I've never even lent money to a friend before. Why? Why? WHY???

He got the money and I got the coats. SA looked apologetically at me when he saw that my groceries had gotten all wet sitting in the rain. He looked really sorry about it. I smiled and said it was all right. I think I might have even said "good luck."

We went our separate ways. He drove off with my money, and I went home with my "gifts." At home, I didn't even let myself inspect the coats or the business card. I was late, and I thought, "Geez, I may have been duped, but I don't want to deal with it now."

I met up with my friend, excitedly told her my story, and kept pestering her for a verdict. Scam or no scam? She was excited, too, because she's much more into fashion than I am and has a friend who used to keep a fashion blog. But I couldn't recall the name of the designer SA supposedly worked for, and I couldn't even remember his "name." I wouldn't know the truth until I got back home from our tasty Vietnamese lunch and our jaunt in a do-it-yourself "magasin."

Full of hope, I snapped open the bag and searched for the business card. It was nowhere to be found. Darn. I immediately knew I had been tricked. SA must have taken the card out when I was at the ATM. Now to look at the goods. Fake leather. Fake suede. They weren't even women's coats. They were both extra-large men's coats. Ouch.

To my surpise, I didn't get angry at myself. I lost a bit of money, but it was almost worth the adventure. I was paying for this odd form of entertainment. I got a little thrill for a moment. And I got a great story to blog.

I called my friend immediately and broke the news. She was sorry but couldn't wait to see the jackets.

For a minute, I debated whether or not to tell John. I was embarrassed. But no, I couldn't hide this from him. I told him at dinner and surprisingly, he wasn't mad. But then, he rarely gets mad. Actually, he didn't have much of a response at all, except for, "these things happen."

The sum of his speeding tickets through Brittany and Normandy in mid-August was about how much I gave to SA. We're kind of even in a weird sort of way.

I hope through my stupidity/ignorance/naivete none of you will make the same mistake. Be wary. Very wary. But let's give Scam Artist an Oscar.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Won't you be my neighbor?

During the summer, we got a new neighbor. I recall running into him in the foyer for the first time in June, I think, said the usual "bonjour" and he explained that he was a new resident. We chatted for a few more seconds -- which floor are you on, etc. -- and then I introduced myself. Big faux-pas. In France, you never give your name out to a stranger. Even if he lives in your building and might run into you everyday. (I don't know the names of most of the people who live in the building and they don't know who I am either.) So, there was a big uncomfortable pause after my introduction. Errr...uhhhh...he left me hanging. So I asked for his name just to balance things out and then we went our separate ways. Funny, I think I've only seen him once since our first strange meeting.

My other neighbors. There's an elderly couple on the fifth floor -- they're the ones who keep using the elevator and get trapped in there when it breaks down (at least 2-3 times a year?). There's a new family with an adorable baby. There's a family with two older children -- I see the girl all the time picking up baguettes for her family on Sunday morning. Her father I have only seen once. I don't think I've ever seen her mom. On the third floor you'll find our friends: French husband and Italian wife. Super-friendly. And on the second floor is a slender man with a boyish face and nice smile, often dressed in his slick grey suit. His current girlfriend is blond and super-thin. I run into her a lot in the stairwell and can always hear her comings and goings because she has a tiny jingle-bell on her keychain which used to make Leo think there was another dog in the "batiment." I spotted her in my BodyPump class this weekend and she was hardly lifting any weight. Everyone else had at least two kilos per side. I assume she doesn't want to add any muscle mass to that nearly stick figure of hers. Maybe she's a model.

Everyone says "bonjour" to one another, but I haven't witnessed a whole lot of conversation among neighbors. Our Italian friend, though, is so bubbly and is the only one I've seen carrying on a conversation with another resident.

Oh, I forgot about the dentist who lives across from me on the same floor. He is very formal and says, "Bonjour, Madame," with never a smile. Maybe his teeth are bad. :)

Stone face

In fifth grade, in my very first California school, I must have smiled a lot because my teacher always remarked about it. It was very nice, I should keep smiling, etc. Yes, I must have been happy at school, but you know, I had no other way of communicating since I was as shy as a snail.

I continued smiling, even as I grew out of my shyness finally in college. And later, I smiled at work, at my neighbors, anybody who crossed my path.

But in Paris, unfortunately, I've developed a locked jaw and stone face. It's not pretty, but it's just the right way to go. You fit in, you don't give anyone a wrong signal, and you don't look stupid (this last one I just learned about from an expat of seventeen years who has discussed the subject with her French friends).

I hope my smiling muscles will return when we go back to the States.

Freezer believer

When we first moved to Paris, I never used the freezer, except for making ice cubes and keeping frozen shrimp and Chinese dumplings ("raviolis" in French). I was lucky enough to have an American fridge/freezer, too, which meant I had twice the capacity of other Parisians, even though we brought over the smallest one we could find. I believed in fresh meat and produce, and wanted to give my family the healthiest and tastiest food possible. I'm a whole foods kind of cook. Few processed foods. I'll allow a can of diced tomatoes or a jar of pesto once in awhile and I won't feel guilty about it.

I think I started taking advantage of the freezer in June. Just for freezing fresh salmon because we were trying to eat less meat and more fish. And I was getting too lazy to go every other day to Champion, a supermarket on the outskirts of the neighborhood which has the best pre-packed fish in the area. And I wanted to avoid the markets where the male merchants can make you uncomfortable with their flirting or ogling. Maybe the French women are used to that, but I don't know if I'll ever get used to that.

I discovered frozen filets of halibut and sole, and found them to be quite good. Then I ventured into frozen vegetables which weren't bad either. I used to stress about meals because I often needed to run out for some forgotten ingredient. But now that my freezer is stocked up, I can whip up meals quickly and easily. They're not equal to fresh, unless you freeze your ingredients from their fresh state yourself.

Tonight, we had a simple, but yummy, meal of halibut steaks and peas. The halibut steaks found in the supermarket freezer are often found in individually sealed packets -- sliced into uniform pieces, approximately 3 x 4.5 x 0.75 inch. You don't even have to defrost them. Heat your pan well with some oil and butter, then add your fish, cooking them for about 3-4 minutes on each side. Half of the way through I added my sauce (which you could just as well add at the end) which was a reduction of butter, Dijon mustard, milk, onions (really lazy me used frozen slices this time), vermouth, salt, and freshly ground pepper. The fish browned beautifully in the butter. On the side we had frozen peas cooked on high in the microwave, covered, for three minutes. It was all delicious and required minimal effort (and zero prep time!). I don't think I would use frozen for dinner guests, but for us it was quite satisfactory.

And I'm just so happy I don't have to go to the store every other day anymore.

Goal met!

I did my ten classes this week but nearly killed myself yesterday doing it. BodyPump is already an intensive weight-training class, but if you follow that with BodyCombat, which I was trying for the first time, your body explodes. BodyCombat is kickboxing to music, with lots of bouncing around on your feet which I don't really like. I did like pushing myself though, but I felt a little weird playing the tough, combative persona, throwing my fists and elbows at imaginary enemies and performing Karate Kid-style jumpkicks. It's a choreographed routine with very little time for rest. A full cardio workout, it is nothing like the martial arts classes that go on beneath out floorboards. They're pretty quiet down there -- no loud music, quiet grappling -- rather church-like.

There were about 10 or 12 students in BodyCombat yesterday -- less than half of the BodyPump participants. In BodyPump, there are usually at least two or three men. In BodyCombat, there was just one guy and he happened to be behind me. Too bad he was a flabby, white-haired, halfway-bald, spectacled, middle-aged individual. Anyway, in the process of learning a part of the routine requiring some shuffling forward with a side stance, elbows against my body, fists up by my jawline, I developed a fear that he would run into me and pummel my back with a few punches while yelling, "Chaw, chaw, chaw!" I acquired that section pretty quickly.

My face was the color of ripe tomatoes and my heart was leaping out of my chest when the teacher announced that in the last five minutes of class we would be jumpkicking into a squat -- I simply could not fathom myself doing that for 32 repetitions. No thanks. I skipped out. I didn't feel like a wimp, though. No one else from the BodyPump stayed for this grueling course. No one's as crazy as me.

In the afternoon, when I desperately wanted to take a nap, I stupidly suggested to Maylin the idea of swimming. Of course, she was all for it. John was too busy setting up our new computer (can I recommend the latest iMac to you? its wonnnnderful!) so it was up to me to drag myself over to the public pool with her. Fortunately, the water did wake me up a bit, and we both had a wonderful time. I gave myself a two-hour limit and we left as scheduled, just as the deliciously warm water started losing its deliciousness.

That evening, when the three of us went to share an incredible dinner with friends at their apartment, I somehow ended up being the chirpiest of the bunch after having survived my most physically active day in the last ten years.

Wedding bells for Maylin?

Maylin told me a couple of weeks ago that she was married to one of her classmates (a favorite boy from last year who happened to be in her class again this year). I thought it was a cute idea then, but I never really inquired about it until today. I found out a great deal more than I expected.

She said her teacher had organized a mass wedding for her whole class at a church which had stairs and elevators leading up to big stained glass windows. All the girls wore white dresses with capes and the boys wore shirts with long pants. She had some difficulty recalling who got married to whom, but it seemed like a grand event with lots of food and dancing, with the dancing requiring a costume change into a blue dress.

I asked if there was any kissing involved -- nope, none whatsoever. Soon after, she got embarrassed by the whole thing and denied that it ever happened.