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Saturday, July 29, 2006

like a baby in the water

I'm back in Paris and officially no longer an au pair.

It's been a long haul and I'm happy to say I came out alive. Not only that, but I didn't kill the children, gain 50 pounds from all my croissant bingeing, or suffocate in my tiny apartment.

In fact, I came out stronger, with a firm grasp on the French culture and language, and a loving relationship with two tiny, difficult human beings.

There were many times I wanted to leave Paris. I felt that my mind and body belonged to the family I worked for, and was overwhelmed with the weight of my responsibilities.

But this isn't the kind of job I felt I could just walk out on. As an au pair you don't see those you work for sitting behind a desk in a suit all day, it's much more personal than that. You see them after work, and you sit down for dinner with them. You tuck their kids into bed at night. You see them tired and vulnerable, stressed out, at loose ends by the end of the day.

I wanted to do do everything I could to make their lives easier and to make their children happy. I wanted the kids to feel loved.

I pushed myself countless times this year. I pushed myself to be patient, understanding, adaptable. I pushed myself through long days after sleepless nights, when high energy was demanded of me.

It was a hard year and I'm happy to be done. I'm proud of myself for doing the best I could. I'm proud for staying. It's a small achievement in the scheme of things, but it's a good starting point. I now know just what I'm capable of, and the world sits before me with many more rivers to cross.

I won't forget the screaming, the fighting, the loneliness and the dark days of winter. But I also won't forget the little girl and I jumping in the waves, holding hands in the sea, or the young boy, whose eyes always held a certain adoration for me.

I initially took on this job so that I could see Paris. And I did see Paris, I admired it's sights and indulged in it's delicacies. But what I saw most clearly was an insight into life: into parenthood, earning a living, breaking into a new culture, and fighting to make it in this mad world.

I stand before an ending and new beginnings, and I've never felt so ready.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Count Down

Gill is counting the days. She will spend three more at the beach in Ambletuese and the following one, taking the children back to their parents in Paris. At around three Thursday afternoon, she will be free. (And next Sunday she will fly from Paris to Toulouse into my arms.) We shall celebrate.

I am so impressed with my daughter. Almost a year ago, she walked into a strange household in a much more formal culture than her own and happily took on responsibility for two spirited children and a number of household chores. I know it has not been easy. At one point, I told her that she did not have to finish: she could come home. But without missing a beat, she said no, she had signed on for a year and she would do it. And then again, as everyone knows who have been reading this blog, she has had some extraordinarily wonderful moments in Paris - my favourite city in all the world. Where will this young woman go next? She is not afraid of living her dreams: this is the second one she's actualized.

Gill and I in Bandol

This picture was taken in Bandol on the Mediterranean when Gill was around six years old. She loved serving Rob and I croissants from the little cart every morning. Little did she know that thirteen years later, she would be playing mother to a six and nine year old at another beach in France.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Letter from Gillian

I like the stillness here.

The only real movement in this town is in the heavy winds and the waves that curl up on the beach.

I am far removed from everything, on a traditional French vacation, caring for two small children at their grandparents' before my role as an au pair is officially finished.

I enjoy the grandparents' company. I enjoy the long meals the grandmother prepares for lunch and dinner, and that she warms up baguette every morning and puts out bowls for coffee. I like the grandfather, a serious man of few words, and the way he always refills my wine glass with a robust red.

They are old however, and I am here to be the energy for the children. I must keep them busy, clean and alive, in this funny little town with little to do. There have been many ventures to the rocky beach, to the park to play tennis, and to the garden to play soccer. They are difficult though, and nothing comes without dispute. I am constantly pulling my hair out trying to solve arguments, stop crying, and decipher what's right or wrong. To all the mothers of the world: I salute you.

The sun isn't always shining up North, but there are times it shines brightly enough that if I squint, I can pretend I'm on a real vacation. I love the water and I love the beach. I enjoy maintaining a messy beach look of toussled hair, flip flops, and a sandy bikini.

Unfortunately my love of French cuisine hasn't buttered me up enough for me to acquire hips, breasts, or a real bottom. ("Excuse me waiter, could I have a side of cleavage with my bikini?")

And so the adventure continues for this sandy little mongrel. Yes, I am lonely, and yes I have considered drowning myself and/or the children, but I will see this French adventure through to the end.

If nothing else, the sea air will see me through.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Invasion of the Black Bugs

Gill is walking down the street of a neighbouring coastal town. It is her day off and she feels free and easy, plans to have a picnic in some idyllic spot when, in an instant, she is swarmed, covered in black bugs. They're in her hair, on her face, down her arms and legs. I imagine her screaming. She escapes into a small cafe, sits flicking them off while she telephones me. She asks if I have ever seen or heard of such bugs. No... but then I remember a summer or two ago, when Marlene is in bed on the second floor, and met with a similar invasion in the middle of the night. By morning, they were gone.

Gill groans and tells me thousands of these bugs are now crawling on the cafe window. A mother at the next table is pickiing them off her baby. Nobody else seems concerned.

"Gross," Gill declares. "I am going to sit in this cafe until they all go. Do you think the owners will mind me eating my hard-boiled egg with the perrier ordered?"

"Go for it," I tell her. "They'll let you know if they don't like it." [In many cafes and bars in France, you can bring in a croissant or some Patisserie item, and eat it with your drink.]

I have yet to hear how long Gill sat at the table.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Molly Malone

Thursday morning, 8 a.m., Gill was down on the beach at low tide with father, girl, boy, with big buckets. While the family turned over rocks and gathered crabs, Gill - not wanting to touch these little sea creatures - danced and sang Molly Malone. "They don't get my sense of humour," Gill said. "Theirs is such a serious culture. Not a lot of time for fun and laughter.

After crabbing, the father became frantic about some work project and Gill took charge of the children. Lunch, back to the beach, tennis, military (a marching follow-the-leader from what I could grasp), back to the beach, dinner, and at nine at night, when the children were still screaming, Gill had had it. "When the boy and girl fight, I try to listen carefully to both. I take myself back to when I was a little girl fighting with my brothers and remember how hurt I was at times so I try to be fair, sympathize but these two exaggerate, embellish, twist all out of proportion..."

The next morning the mother arrived "funny and wonderful": she has just started a new and better job. [It's happy and sad but true that children bear the brunt of their parent's moods.] Friday was a national holiday, Bastille day, and Gill only realized half way through the day that this meant she was off-duty: "So difficult when you don't know the rules. But it was a good day. I felt I was on vacation, like one of the kids. The parents drove us to a large sandy beach, took us out for lunch, bought us ice-cream (I had my first tast of caramel) and then onto MacDonald's for dinner [ah yes, the culture that is supposed to have a refined palate has succumbed to American fast food.]

I have asked Gill to write a blog and put it in the mail - so difficult to fill this young woman's shoes - no, she has her own distinct voice - so I don't try to write in a similar style. One reader asked for photographs and alas without a computer and internet connection there isn't a way for Gill to transport her photos to me. I am sure there will be a deluge when she arrives down south at the end of the month. But here's one of Gill and me taken in 1991 at Newcastle that Gill says is similar to Ambleteuse.

Newcastle, 1991

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Respite

I spoke briefly to Gill last night who is enjoying the calm, though she will be happier when she is no longer a young mother. The morning was foggy and chilly and the children amused themselves by kicking a soccer ball around. They have caught France's fever and play amicably enough until some mishap happens and then start screaming and arguing about the rules of the game. Gill tells them to lighten up: it's only a game.

But how can you tell a French person, no matter his or her age, that it's only a game? France came so close - unexpectedly - to being the world's best and then their key player gets angry, head-butts an Italian, is disqualified, and misses the "tir au bout" where a younger player (poor fellow) misses the net and thus loses the World Cup for the country.

The afternoon brightened up and Gill took the children to the beach. It's rocky but there are sandy patches and so the children splashed and played, laughed and sang, their morning feud forgotten. Gill says the beach is a sought-after vacation spot and reminds her of Newcastle in Northern Ireland.

Although she loves cooking, she does not enjoy catering to the children's tastes and is glad that the grandmother has taken over the meals. Unlike her son and his wife, she is a traditionalist and serves a series of courses that include coffee and wine. Unfortunately, the grandparents leave on Thursday for a family wedding and the children's father arrives, which means, Gill fears, that she will once again be chief chef and cleaner-upper.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Ambleteuse, France

Gill has asked me, her mother, to host her blog while she is in Ambleteuse, a small fishing village, on the northern coast of France, six miles from Boulogne. Gill will call me every day or two and relate her adventures.

She and her two charges almost missed their train this morning and once aboard, the little girl, too excited about the adventure (I'd guess) wet herself and almost Gill, who said it was a major operation to change the six-year-old's clothes in the tiny train washroom. (Reminds me of a train trip Gill and I took when she was around the same age. We too almost missed our train and once aboard, Gill looked up at me - in those days, she did look up - and whispered, "I forgot my underwear." I told her to sit quietly legs together and then noticed I was in my slippers.)

They arrived safely and were met by the paternal grandparents who Gill reports are nice and nicer still the grandmother will do the cooking. Gill was given her choice of a room adjoining the children or one on a lower floor near the kitchen. She chose the lower room.

It's a tiny village, feels almost British, Gill says, and on clear day you can look across the water and see England. There isn't a lot to do - a tennis court and a big rocky beach - but the children are in good moods (hopefully this will continue) and Gill is looking forward to the days ahead. She says it is good to be out of the city, her beloved Paris, and will use the time to collect her thoughts. There's not much else to do. She says the town is small, similar in size to Castelnau, without an internet cafe, and most likely, a night life but knowing Gill, I am sure she will have an adventure or two.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

my best friend might be dead

It won't start.

The love of my life, my best friend through thick and thin, my dear little iBook, has shut down and won't restart.

The technicians at the Apple store aren't around on Saturdays, and the one at Fnac, well he says it might be dead.

And so dear readers, I rush to post in my last 4 minutes of precious internet cafe time.

I feel like sobbing.

I leave Monday morning for the North, and will do my best to get my hands on an internet cafe, but if all else fails I'll be back on the 27th with many stories to share.

Thank you all for your continuous support.

Wish me luck.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

you stand before beginnings

July 7- Last time I ever pick the kids up from school.
July 9- Leave for the North of France with two hyperactive kids. Suffer trying to calm them down on the train.
July 27- Return to Paris, either relaxed or exhausted, and in terrible need of internet access.
July 30- Leave Paris for good, cry a little a the sight of the Eiffel tower, and get on an easyjet plane to the South of France.
August 7- Leave South of France, stoned and tanned, and fly to London.
August 10- Leave London with a black eye for speaking in a mocking English accent the whole time, and fly to Vancouver.
August 15- Drink too much at cousin's wedding in Vancouver.
August 30- Fly to Toronto to begin my life as a second-year journalism student with two sassy roomates.


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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

fairies and footballers

Today, I'm proud to be heading out with the kids.

The little boy is dressed head to toe in France football gear, in the name of tonight's game, and the little girl is dolled up as a fairy for a birthday party. We're all smiling.

This week bad luck came to me in waves. It started with the painter working in our building again. He politely ignored me, but knowing he was there made me sick to my stomach. Then a finger infection, my period, my room so hot I couldn't sleep, no money in my bank account, no money on my phone, two extra kids to take care of, and my whole body and mind feeling ready to collapse.

But things have gone for the better. Running down the stairs I see that the painter has been replaced with two lovely black men. They flash me big smiles, and suddenly all feels well in the world.

Today everyone is smiling-other than a few minor tantrums-because tonight France plays Portugal in the world cup. In honor of the game I'm helping the father pull off a football party at the apartment tonight. Twelve kids and five adults will join us for a dessert buffet, hors d'oeuvres, a contest to guess who wins and champagne.

I didn't even mind pushing a monster of a grocery cart at 10 this morning-filled with ice cream, pop, candy, smoked salmon and other goods- about four blocks to the apartment, because I love parties. I love the preparation, the food, the people and the mood.

And as if things couldn't get any better, the girl is off at a birthday party, the boy is at a play date, and I have a moment to myself.

But now I better go practice chanting "Allez les bleus!" And clean up the apartment.

May the best team win. (Like I'll care, with champagne and a dessert buffet.)

vive la france!

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Monday, July 03, 2006

you just keep giving yourself to me











This is going to be one hard goodbye.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

a reason to celebrate

Recipe for the perfect Canada day in Paris:

2 Canadian girls
1 trip to the Bon Marche Epicerie
1 fabulous apartment with a beautiful view
2 summer salads
4 artichokes
6-8 “I kiss you” cocktails
1 huge victory for France in the World Cup
Millions of people going crazy in the streets


Recipe for Sweet Summer Salad:
2 peaches
6 strawberries
Plenty of marinated goat cheese

Olive oil
Balsamic Vinegar
Red berry mustard
Crushed raspberries


Recipe for “I Kiss You” Cocktails:
White rum
Mint leaves
Citrus sparkling water
4 drops of absinthe


To be served in hot hot weather on a beautiful July 1st evening.

the green fairy
dinner for two
the view