18 September 2015

I went to France in August! Part the Second

There was one area where I took the "don't go to France in August" advice very seriously: Paris. As we planned the trip to France with my parents, I kept assuring them--and myself, I suspect--that we could and in fact should skip Paris on this visit. "It won't be Parisian," I said. "Everything good will be closed, and everyone there will be American," I said. But we did want to go to Dijon on this trip, and the easiest way to do that as a day trip was to stay in Paris for a few days.

Checking out the "statues" in the Louvre
You know where this is going, right? Guys. You can totally go to Paris in August. It's true, not everything is open--my favorite special-occasion restaurant (and one of my favorite places to bring my souffle-loving pre-schooler) was closed for the season, which almost made me want to call the whole thing off.

But a lot of things are open! And some of the things that are open, are un-crowded, on account of all the people not coming to Paris (and all the Parisians being on holiday somewhere else). My husband and I took advantage of traveling with the grandparents and spent a kid-free evening at a bar I love, and it was the first time I've been there that I could sit wherever I wanted and not have to vacate in time for a reservation in an hour. (It was also not air-conditioned, which may have had something to do with that. But they made up for it in special icy cocktails.)

Which reminds me: it is hot. If you're used to Irish or English weather, it's seriously hot. I kept saying it was great to have another chance to wear all the summer outfits that don't really get much use at home, but even that wore a bit thin when we found ourselves walking the 45 minutes home from Notre Dame through 90-degree heat at the end of a long day. But the other times I've been, it's been cold and often rainy, so the heat was a nice change! And a good excuse to eat lots of ice cream.

Part II: Paris and Dijon

Josephine would have happily come back to the playground
in the Luxembourg Gardens every day of the trip.
Paris is a particularly great place to take a small child in August. We've taken a baby to Paris in April a couple of times, and while it's lovely, there just isn't as much happening, kid-wise. This was the first trip where we actually found the Luxembourg Gardens playground--not for lack of looking on our other trips. (It's the first playground I've ever paid admission to enter, and it was worth it--it was also the most comprehensive playground I've ever been to.)

I'll admit: I started to get a bit parent-judgy about how closely everyone seemed to be following their kids. I've only ever parented in Ireland, and the playground approach here is pretty hands-off once kids hit three or so. But even the little-kid area of the Luxembourg playground (appropriate for up to age seven) has a lot of opportunities for a kid to bite off more than she can chew, climbing-and-sliding-wise, or even to wander off and hide; and before I knew it I was following along right behind my perfectly-capable three-year-old, too.

"We got wet! Daddy got really wet."
At least in the city center, Paris really goes all-out for families in summer. The city had built a beach along the banks of the Seine, which we didn't visit, and installed a funfair in the Tuileries, which we visited twice (because the preschooler needed one last go at the trampolines before we left Paris). She rode the mini-rollercoaster with me ("Everybody screamed. Mommy made lots of noise!" she told anyone who asked) and the log flume with her dad ("It was really surreal to see the Place Concorde and the Eiffel Tower from the top of the log flume," my husband said--and here was me thinking the surreal bit was watching my tiny child in that giant car on a freaking log flume, which suddenly looked it went a lot higher up).

Another interesting discovery: the Louvre will let you skip the line if you have a child in a pushchair with you. We joined the queue snaking around the courtyard in full sun, and no sooner had we opened our mouths to discuss maybe finding something else to do with our Friday morning, than a helpful official-looking person with a walkie-talkie ran over and said, "your entrance is over there." There was no line, and there was a platform-style lift to take us down to the ticket area--where another nice official-looking person pointed us to the shortest ticket queue. After that, we really had no choice but to let our pushchair-rider decide that all we were going to do that morning was look at statues; it was clearly her museum trip. I haven't felt so pampered since visiting Versailles when I was seven months pregnant (and also not allowed to wait in any queues).

Des fraises, des tomates, du pain, des abricots, du fromage,
les saucisses, les prunes--et la champagne, bien sur!
We took our day trip to Dijon on the Saturday of our trip, taking advantage of the super-fast TGV service from Gare de Lyon. We met our friends for a wonderful lunch at DZ'Envies and let the small one ride the carousel a few times, after spending a couple hours wandering through the marché and picking up things that wouldn't spoil before we got them back to Paris. It wasn't exactly what I'd imagined, but we did have a wonderful market supper that night in our hotel room (thanks in no small part to the hotel staff being generous with plates, glasses, and cutlery).

I will cop to having often felt surrounded by tourists on this Paris trip. This led to the one disadvantage of visiting in August versus, say, January: everyone's thinking in English. In January people I meet are, on average, happy to let me stumble through my school-French for the length of our interaction; in August they just switch to English. Heck, a lot of the time they start out in English. If you're hoping to practice your French, maybe don't go to Paris in August.

Once she got the hang of it, the bungie-trampoline
combination was the hit of the fair.
On the other hand, if you don't have any French to practice, you don't lose your cool in the city heat, and you're looking for a nice place to entertain three generations, August is probably the perfect month for your visit.

26 August 2015

I went to France in August! Part the First

"Don't go to France in August," they said. "It's beastly hot, it's full of tourists, all the real French people are on holiday somewhere else, and half of Paris will be closed," they said.

After years of heeding this advice and going to France in almost any other month, this year August was the best time for us to go. So we went. And you know what? It was fine! It was fun, even. It was no less pleasant than visiting in November or January, and the people-watching was a lot more interesting.

Since we've lived abroad, my husband and I--and our daughter, now that she's joined us--have managed a France trip at least once a year. Paris, usually, but the last few years we've taken longer trips and visited other regions (as well as a few days in Paris at the beginning and the end). This year was my parents' 45th Wedding anniversary, and the 10th anniversary of the family trip where my husband and I got engaged, so we decided to celebrate by inviting my parents to join us for a week in France during their usual long summer visit to their grandchild.

Part I: Normandy

The Rouen Cathedral was lovely.
We did that thing I swore I'd never do again, after the last time: we flew into Paris, rented a car at the airport, and drove immediately to Normandy. When will I learn? Even if the traffic isn't completely appalling (and, honestly, this was the first trip where it wasn't--another point in August's favor), leaving Paris immediately means hours and hours of planes and cars, instead of a few hours' travel and then relaxing at your destination. We stopped at Rouen for dinner and a bit of sight-seeing, which was delightful but meant we didn't fetch up at Bayeux--where the beds and showers of the cozy Churchill Hotel were expecting us--until nearly 11 p.m.

And then, early the next morning, we got back in the car for the drive to Mont Saint-Michel. Because it was August, and the guidebooks all said we had to get there early to beat the crowds. (The three-year-old cried buckets when she saw the car waiting for her first thing after breakfast. I sympathized.)

Naptime outside the Abbey at Mont Saint-Michel
Here was yet another nail in the coffin of the "Don't go to France in August!" myth. Because Mont Saint-Michel, while indeed crowded, was also stunningly well-equipped to handle the crowds. The parking lot is clearly marked and well laid-out, and shuttles run constantly. There's a visitors' center right near the parking lot, which we didn't have time to check out because we were already getting on the bus. I even saw signs for a dog kennel, since dogs are not allowed on the island itself.

I had expected to get off the shuttle bus and find a long, long line of people waiting to buy tickets to get through the gates. And I was wrong on both counts. There's no ticket to enter the town, only to visit the museums--and, frankly, the queues for the museum we visited weren't extreme. Every time we stopped to eat at a restaurant, we were seated immediately and served promptly (though there were lots of people waiting patiently at the takeaway sandwich places, which is why we decided on restaurants). A crowded Mont Saint-Michel just meant that we were surrounded by lots of other happy, excited people on their holidays.

(And a couple of screaming, over-stimulated children. Not mine, fortunately. But considering how many kids of all ages were happily accompanying their parents up and down the steep staircases and through the narrow streets, that we only saw a few major kid-meltdowns near the Abbey almost makes one believe in miracles.)

Bringing water back up the beach for hole-filling purposes.
"Don't go to France in August!" they said, and they completely failed to mention that France--Normandy, anyway--has a coastline. And beaches. Such that going to France in August can afford you a lovely, hot, sunny morning for building sandcastles and jumping over waves near the memorial on Omaha Beach. You can even chat in French with the other families who are there doing the same thing, as it turns out that quite a few of the tourists in France in August are from other parts of France.

It was a bit weird to look around the site of the Allied invasion, with the giant memorial right there, and rub sunscreen on my kid's nose and send her down to the ocean with her bucket and spade. But I got over it. Right beside the memorial is a series of placards with the history of the beaches, and of course, being beautiful, they were a resort location long before they were occupied and then liberated. I'd hate to see a place with potential for so much happiness barred from it forever because some people were awful there for a few years three generations ago. If I were being flippant, I'd say that to close the beaches to beach-going in perpetuity would be to let the Nazis win.

A picnic-free bomb crater, with rubble.
We also saw an elaborate family picnic at Pointe du Hoc (an invasion site managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission). Right there in the bomb craters, which have been left as they were seventy years ago, to show the extent of the damage to the countryside. Our guide said that usually the staff at the memorial site will inform picnickers that they are at a solemn site, despite all the wild flowers and sunshine.

Gravestones are not for climbing.
We decided to take a tour to the Normandy invasion sights, rather than just going ourselves, because (a) TripAdvisor/Viator's marketing is effective even when it's creeping me out and (b) I was worried about things like parking at the sites, and deciding which of them to see. I ended up really glad we went that route, even though doing so with a three-year-old was a bit of a challenge (we ended up with an unscheduled break to eat frites and watch the waves next to the National Guard memorial, and later there was a bit of difficulty explaining to a pre-schooler the difference between "The Normandy American Cemetery" and "a park"). Our guide loved D-Day history and had all kinds of stories to tell (in fluent English), and we learned much more than we would have from just going to the sites and reading the placards. 

We also picked up another advantage to going to France in August: while the D-Day sites were as crowded as everything else, they were nothing, per our guide, to the lines that accrue in June, around the anniversary of the landing. Really, France in August just gets better and better.

The tour was in the afternoon, and that morning we took advantage of having Grammy and Granddaddy with us to let them explore the cathedral in Bayeux with their granddaughter (who has a thing for statues) while Gino and I saw the Bayeux Tapestry. (My parents had seen it the previous afternoon, while the rest of us napped.) Thank goodness for grandparents! There's no way the three-year-old would have let us actually listen to the audio tour, or take more than a cursory glance at the tapestry itself. Between the exploits of William the Conqueror in the morning and a tour of WWII sites in the afternoon, we had a very martial day for our last full day in Normandy.

A rope/plank bridge at William the
Conqueror's chateau
Since the young 'un had put up with a lot of grown-up sightseeing on Tuesday, we pretty much scheduled Wednesday around whatever sounded like fun for her. Wednesday was also the day we had to get ourselves from Bayeux to Paris, but we worked it out by stopping at William the Conqueror's castle in Caen on the way. Once we finally found the entrance, the chateau was pretty much all our little family needed: we spent most of the morning at the nice playground right near the entrance, took a quick spin through the Musee de Normandie's exhibit on neanderthals, and finished up with a much nicer-than-anticipated lunch at the Musee des Beaux-Arts, whose museum cafe turned out to be a fairly fancy restaurant. (Albeit with a ham, cheese, and mozzarella tartine on the menu, so even the little one ate well.)

Then we got back in the car, and--ta-da! How often does this happen?--she fell fast asleep, just as I'd planned, for most of the three-hour drive to our hotel in Paris.

Paris, of course, was a whole different adventure for a whole new blog post. But still worth visiting in August! Stay tuned.

20 March 2015

A Dinner in Dijon

Hi, Gang! Long time no blog. Greetings to all of you who check in now and again, and a big wave to those whose Google searches have turned up my Expat Survival Kit, or who've landed here from Expats Blog. Hope you're enjoying your adventures in your new home!

It occurs to me I should write about something besides the ins and outs of traveling with a small child. It's true, this is a topic that spends a lot of time at the front of my mind--we're never sure when we're going to lose our easy access to Europe, and we still have a lot of places we want to visit before that happens, so I'm almost always planning the next trip (sometimes, even while I'm on the last one). Right now, I'm two trips ahead: planning a trip to France with my parents, when they visit us at the end of the summer.

Early spring vinyard near Baune
We manage to visit France at least once a year, and while we're in France we try to hit Dijon--wine country; cheese country; many-different-fancy-stews country; millennia-of-human-history country--for at least a day. Gino spent a term there as a student and still talks about the apple tart the mother of his host family used to make, and about his daily before-school second breakfast of croissant and hot chocolate.

Twice now his host family has had us over for wonderful meals (including that apple tart!) during our visit. We're planning another trip at the end of this summer and this time it's our turn to treat them to a nice dinner.

French markets
are some of my favorite things.
My first preference would be to cook. I don't have enough opportunities to throw dinner parties, honestly--especially not French ones. And Dijon has an absolutely wonderful market, so planning a menu and making dinner could be a complete French Fantasy Come True: shopping in the morning, getting inspiration from the stalls rather than cookbooks; spending the afternoon in the kitchen; and then cracking the crément for pre-dinner drinks as our guests arrive.

Due to logistics, this plan is unlikely to fall into place, and I'll end up using a combination of Fodor's, Lonely Planet, and TripAdvisor to find a restaurant that can accommodate eight people of three generations and two languages. (Speaking of which: it's a good thing I'm comfortable reading French, because once you leave Paris a surprising number of restaurant websites don't offer website translation, and while Google Translate does its best, as soon as you use it all the links die on you. Adds an extra layer of suspense to calling for a reservation--which I'm probably going to make Gino or my dad, both of whom speak fluently, do anyway, because my French isn't quite good enough to handle the phone.) 

But let's dream, shall we? Let's take a deep breath, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves: waking up in a rented farmhouse in Burgundy, munching on butter-and-jam tartine, drinking coffee, and scrolling through a few French food blogs for inspiration before heading to the market...

These wouldn't take up too much room in a carry-on, right?
...and because it's August and everything is in season, I've managed to come home with the ingredients to a Franco-Italian feast I can make largely from recipes and techniques in my head (since my cookbooks will still be in Ireland).

We'll start with a goat's cheese, fig, and walnut tartine from Rachel Khoo's Little Paris Kitchen, a cookbook I fell in love with after her BBC cooking show shamed me out of complaining about the stove in my Large Dublin Kitchen. (It really is a little Paris kitchen. A teeny-tiny one. This woman makes a cooking show using basically a two-burner hot plate.)

We'll have the goat's cheese and fig tartine with cured meats and cheeses from the market, of course. If we haven't snacked our way through everything we brought home during the cooking process.

My Company Dinner is a roast chicken. This has gotten more true since Gino gave me a Le Creusset casserole for my birthday a few years ago. I had already learned, at cooking class, the trick of roasting the chicken with water or broth, and then pouring in a glass of white wine twenty minutes before you think it's done. That plus the high walls of the uncovered casserole (plus the onion, garlic, herbs, and lemon you've stuffed in and around the chicken, and the oil or butter you've rubbed over the bird itself) make for a flavorful, moist bird when you take it out of the oven. I'll add white burgundy instead of pinot grigio and slather it with butter instead of olive oil, and voila! My roast chicken becomes un poulet rotî.

An actual company dinner I cooked last year:
roast chicken, ratatouille tian, Provencal roast
vegetables, and chickpea-flour pancakes. It was good.
The recipes for everything but the chicken came from
The French Market Cookbook.
The vegetable/side depends on exactly how nuts I've gone at the market, and how nuts I'm now going about time now that the chicken's in the oven. Oh, and how many sous-chefs have I? If my mom is helping me cook, and the holiday house has decent knives, we can make Clothide Desoulier's ratatouille, a melange of vegetables (eggplant, tomato, and zucchini) and herbs which, in her own nice touch, she roasts in the oven. (Actually, if I was really smart, I've made this ahead--every ratatouille I've ever made has been better as leftovers than it was the day I made it.)

Or, if I'm at the point of making things easy for myself, I bring out a recipe I've been serving to company since college: fusilli pasta tossed with chopped tomatoes, parsley, basil, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. (This is the Italian part of the Franco-Italian feast.)

And once that's staying warm, my job's pretty much done. Of course, I could make a dessert. Of course I could make a dessert; what do you take me for? But then, why on earth would I make a dessert, when I've just been to the Dijon market (and nothing I'll make would stand up to that apple clafoutis Gino's host mother makes, anyway)? We'll have ice cream, fresh from the farm. Or tarte tatin. Or house-made chocolates. Or all of the above.

Where would you go, if you could have any dinner anywhere? What's your dream feast?

This post was suggested by web-translation service Smartling. They did not pay me for this! They asked if researching local food options in a foreign country was something I'd like to write about, and I decided it was. And it's been fun! So thanks to Smartling for suggesting the post idea.

16 January 2014

Learning from my Little One

It has come to my attention that, despite loads and loads of practice, I am not a very good flyer.

It's not that I'm afraid of flying. I used to be, right after September 11, when everything seemed so tenuous: I developed a strong conviction that if I didn't stay vigilant the whole time we were aloft, the laws of physics would cease to apply to the airplane and we would just drop out of the sky. I've gotten over that. I actually quite enjoy the "whee, we're up in the air and on our way!" part of flying.

I'm just absolutely sure that everything else is going to go wrong. Our flight will be delayed for hours, or will pull out from the gate and then sit on the runway for the length of a Peter Jackson movie. (This has happened to me before.) I will discover after the Fasten Seatbelt sign has been turned off that my seat, which in the "fully upright" position pushes me ever so slightly forward, cannot be reclined even into an actually upright position, and I'm just going to have to stay kind of doubled over for the entire seven hours to Boston. (Ditto.) The flight will go swimmingly and we will land on time, only to find chaos at our destination and watch as plane after plane takes off, while the one parked at the our gate remains stubbornly in place. (Yup, that too. Notice a theme here?) We will be two hours into a seven-hour flight and my kid will empty the contents of her stomach all over me. (This actually happened in a restaurant, where we could leave quickly and race home to the washing machine, but now I get to worry about it happening somewhere we can't escape easily.) We will deplane and get through immigration and watch all the other bags come off the carousel, only to discover that ours was somehow jettisoned over the Atlantic. (This has never happened to me - though they've lost our buggy a couple times, they've always found it again - but every time, man. Every time I'm convinced that this is the one flight our most-important bag just didn't make.)

My frequent flyer,
chillin' out with a snack and a soundless movie
My kid, on the other hand? My kid owns the air. She's been flying every couple of months since she was eight weeks old. However she feels about the rest of the world, which often seems to be begging her to run around in it, she knows planes, and she knows that she has to sit still sometimes and wait patiently sometimes and stay buckled pretty much all the time. It doesn't seem to occur to her that things won't go her way. She takes things in stride in general, and she loves rising to occasions, which gives her pretty much the perfect personality for long-haul travel. Flight attendants love her, and by the end of the flight, so do the people sitting around us, whose flights she hasn't made any more uncomfortable than they already were.

That doesn't mean there aren't things we do to make the whole experience easier on ourselves. When flying with a toddler, my certainty that everything is going to go horribly wrong pays off: I let all that dread spur me to action.

Inspired by a blog post I'd discovered on Pinterest and memories of many, many childhood road trips, I inaugurated my toddler into the long and honorable tradition of the Car Bag - or, in her case, the Plane Bag - full of new toys and books to keep her busy. (I went ahead and bought new toys and books, because there were things I had meant to get for her anyway but hadn't, and because, honestly, shopping for them was a good bit of fun. I have also heard the advice to hide some toys/books from the existing collection in the weeks before the trip, so that they're new and exciting again by the time the kid sees them on the plane.)

The Plane Bag
I really wish I'd taken a Before picture, because my approach to this bag was, if I do say so myself, a stroke of genius. Not only did I pack it full of a variety of activities - books! crayons! stickers! rubber stamps! - but - get this - I wrapped them. I wrapped each of those little pod-shaped rubber stamps. I wrapped the tiny bead coaster. I wrapped the "That's Not My Duck!" book and I wrapped the crayons, in sets of three. I wrapped each of the Peppa Pig Fairytale mini-books, which you can just barely see poking out from behind the backpack in the photo. (I didn't wrap the stickers, because let's not get crazy.) And voila! I added another 3-5 minutes of enjoyment to each activity. The toddler loved each new toy, and was (uncharacteristically) careful enough with them that I spent a lot less time than I'd expecting rescuing crayons and tiny rubber stamps from the floor of the airplane.

Let's be honest, there's another way we made this trip easy on ourselves: we didn't go out of our way to police screen time. The toddler made this easier on us by not seeming to care if she could actually listen to cartoons, as long as she could see them. So it didn't matter that they don't make headphones for one-year-olds; she was perfectly happy to watch the pictures of Ice Age 2 play for her while she listened to the hum of activity around us. That got us through mealtime and a few random cranky periods when she got bored with books and stickers.

As you can see in the picture, she also has her very own seat. Yeah, we could keep her in our arms for another six months, technically. Thank goodness for expat package travel allowances, because if we'd tried that this time I think we'd have spent the entire flight walking up and down the aisles. I could not find a CE or FAA-approved car seat for sale in Ireland, so we went with the CARES Harness, which is designed to work with the airplane seat belt. We notified Aer Lingus that we were bringing it, and the flight attendants were expecting us and very supportive of our newfangled contraption.

For our next long-haul flight, I'm going to try to emulate my 18-month-old daughter's approach to happy flying. There's no reason to assume everything's going to go pear-shaped, or that it'd be the end of the world if they did. I've lived through a ton of travel problems; it's not like I have to do some kind of hypothetical disaster plan to prepare myself for them. I already know to hit the newsstand for a huge bottle of water, the most powerful Nurofen available, and a couple bags of trailmix. I already know not to travel without change for the vending machine. I already know to stick a change of clothes in my carry-on - not just for the toddler, but for myself. Theoretically, I should be able to prepare for emergencies without getting caught up in thoughts of how awful it'll be if they happen.

Next time I fly, I'm going to trust the airline to get me where I'm going without undue trauma. If said trauma occurs, I'm going to trust myself to handle it. And if everything goes well - as it does about 80% of the time - I'm going to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride, toddler-style.

30 August 2013

Just Let Us Sleep: A plea/rant on behalf of redeye passengers

Well, this is... interesting.
(She didn't spend much time in the bassinet.)
Nearly four months until we go back to the States for Christmas, and the New York Times' Motherlode blog has me dreading the flights already.

The post itself is pretty mild; just a note that Singapore Air, Malaysia Airlines, and AirAsia have created child-free zones in their planes. (Some of the comments are brutal; I have to remind myself they're outnumbered.) It's just reminded me that I have to take the red-eye, and the way Aer Lingus runs the red-eye seems designed to make sure everyone on board gets the full jet-lag experience on their vacation or return to the Emerald Isle.

I don't know why it has to be this way.

First off, I should note that overall, we've had great experiences taking our baby daughter on Aer Lingus flights. They really do seem to do the best they can to make everyone comfortable: they group the parties with small children together (so at least everyone's sympathetic); they've given us extra seats on non-full flights; they're generous with bottle-warming and bottled water.

BUT. Butbutbutbutbut. They have no daytime flights from Boston to Dublin. No one has daytime flights from Boston to Dublin (and, no snark, the daytime flight from Boston to London is a consistently pleasant experience and I miss it terribly). Believe me, I would much rather not run the risk of my toddler having a sleep-deprived meltdown and ruining your chance at the airplane version of a good night's sleep. At least on a day flight, we all have the nighttime left to look forward to when it's over.

Unfortunately, Aer Lingus does not behave as though they think sleep on overnight flights is a priority to any of their passengers, not just the babies. They run their overnight flights to Dublin on exactly the same schedule as they run their daytime flights to Boston, so what was already going to be a short sleep - the whole flight's maybe seven hours, taxi to taxi - dwindles to a nap, if you're lucky. Whether you're travelling with a kid or not.

I don't know why it has to be this way.

I don't know why the red-eye isn't run as though it were happening, y'know, at night. When people sleep. I don't know why they keep the lights on for all but the middle two hours of the flight. I don't know why they give us a huge meal an hour into a short flight, when anyone with any knowledge of jet lag is fasting. I don't know why they run an active duty-free service after they've cleared dinner, keeping the hustle and bustle going for another hour. I don't know why they feel the need to make PA announcements throughout the flight. It's nighttime. In both time zones. I don't know why they're so committed to pretending otherwise.

It matters more to me because I have a kid to take care of - I used to just stick my earbuds in, maybe put on an eyemask, and get away from it all, and that's not an option these days. But I don't see any disadvantage to child-free passengers if the overnight flight is organised to promote sleep. They dim the overhead lights for take-off anyway; why don't they just leave them off? Anyone who needs light has a reading lamp above their seat. 

And while the flight we take does leave when people on the East Coast are starting to think about supper (I assume to accommodate the business travellers, for whom landing at 5:25 a.m. gives at least a chance of a shower before they report to work), that doesn't mean we need a full-on chicken-or-beef meal service. If anything, a high-protein meal will make it harder to sleep when the lights finally do go off. The airline currently gives us a full meal at the beginning and a snack at the end of the flight; would it be so hard to reverse that? Let people who need to eat when the flight takes off request a sandwich, and then serve more substantial fare before landing, when we're all looking forward to a full day of trying to keep ourselves awake.

Nowadays we buy her her own seat.
She still sleeps in our arms (or not at all), but
at least we can keep the diaper bag in arms' reach.
I understand that I'm only seeing one side of the picture here. I'm sure there are all kinds of regulations and behind-the-scenes issues that make it impractical or impossible to just leave the lights off and the environment calm and quiet from take-off to, if not landing, at least breakfast. But from my limited angle of vision, so much of what keeps the lights on and the aisles busy seems unnecessary. Dinner, if you must, but a separate drinks service before and coffee service after? Really? (I mean, coffee service? It's the middle of the night, for cryin' out loud.) A PA announcement about duty-free shopping, and one more cart going up and down the aisles, well after everyone's calmed down from dinner? Why, for the love of god, why?

On our last trip, flight attendants kept stopping by our row to marvel at our one-year-old's cheerfulness. "Wow, she's still awake!" they kept commenting, as the flight moved east and the hours pushed on towards morning. Well, yes, I wanted to answer. The lights are on full and you keep making loud announcements, walking back and forth, and stopping by to ask us things. Wouldn't that keep you up?

22 July 2013

July Book Reviews

Hi Gang! I had so much fun writing the book recommendations for my last post I decided to make it a regular feature. Here's what I've read since June 3, in no particular order:

The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud  A single woman falls in love with a family. I've been at a loss for what to say about this one. I read it because I loved Messud's The Emperor's Children, about young intelligentsia in New York around 2001 - it was so cool to read a period novel about a period I remembered vividly! - and this is quite different. I was definitely engrossed, mostly in a desperate longing for the narrator to listen, even briefly, to the people who loved her and didn't want her to get hurt.

Beauty Queens, Libba Bray  "A plane full of beauty queens crashes on a desert island. Go." I laughed. Then I cried a little. Then I laughed some more. I really didn't want it to be over and I want to buy a copy for every teen girl I know (and save one for my daughter, when she's a teenager). Perfect summer beach/poolside reading.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann  Interlinked stories surrounding Pierre Petit's walk between the Twin Towers in 1973. The first section takes place in my Dublin neighborhood! And the rest of the book captures New York so well I forgot I wasn't alive to be there in the early 70s.

Be Awesome, Hadley Freeman  Essays by my favourite Guardian columnist. Reads like a blog in book form, and that's not a bad thing. Perfect bedtime book: each essay is long enough to be interesting but not so long that you have to keep yourself awake to get to the end, and you won't find yourself accidentally finishing the whole book at 2:30 a.m. when you meant to just read a few pages.

Homeward Bound, Emily Matchar  The thesis: supported by blogs and articles promoting a self-sufficient lifestyle and pooh-poohing the possibility of work-life balance, families of my class and race are tending to turn inward, isolating themselves from the larger world (and from society-wide solutions to their problems). Made me angry, made me sad. Counter-productively, made me want to spend all day surfing homemaker blogs and Pinterest. (Further thoughts on these issues will be a longer blog post, later.)

The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin  Part memoir, part instruction manual, wherein a New York writer decides to figure out how to be happier (both in recognition of her privilege and because she believes being happy will make it easier to be the kind of good person she wants to be). The first few chapters were inspiring as hell. While I did not start my own Happiness Project per se, I did add several very important items to my to-do list. By the end of the book I felt she was really reaching in order to make the project last for a whole year, and I didn't finish the last chapter. But that was okay - I got what I needed out of it. Recommended for anyone feeling a bit stuck and not sure what to change to get un-stuck.

How about you - read anything good lately?

03 June 2013

My PeNoReMos, or: How I Learned to Read while Parenting a Baby

I owe NaNoWriMo an apology.

Two autumns ago, I wrote a thousand words or so poo-pooing the entire idea, mostly because a detailed perusal of nanowrimo.org failed to turn up any editing advice. It was all, "you go, writer! write that novel! let it be as bad as it needs to be!" without any "and then here's the year's worth of work you'll need to do to clean it up."

And then, last November, I signed up. I had a four-month-old daughter and a middle-grade novel I'd outlined in the two weeks between her due date and when she was actually born, and writing 1,600-odd words a day during naptime seemed like a good way to jump back into writing daily. (I was wrong, but more on that later.) To my surprise, long past November I kept getting NaNoWriMo e-mails full of support for next steps: revising; finding/creating a critique group; querying; self-publishing if you're up for that. So, I was totally wrong that NaNoWriMo treats writing a novel as though the first draft were all. It turns out they do provide resources for getting from first draft to finished book. Oops.

NaNoWriMo would have even been fun, if I'd actually managed to write--at all--during that month. Turns out just when you're trying to get your four-month-old to nap in her own cot is not the best time to plan on writing two-three hours a day. Who knew?

But all was not lost. Instead of National Novel Writing Month, I instituted a new goal just for myself: my Personal Novel Reading Month. Like many a new parent, I had gotten into a bad internet habit. Since I didn't have the willpower or discipline or energy to get back to writing just yet, I decided I could at least make sure I read something besides blog posts and facebook updates. And so I gave myself a strict limit on naptime web-surfing, and spent the rest of my free time reading books.

Clearly, we passed on the
reading gene.
It's a thing I did before I was a mom. Since we moved to Dublin when our daughter was six weeks old, I've been building a whole new life from scratch, rather than incorporating parenthood into the life I already had. At times it's felt like the Me I'd gotten to know and love over 38 years had been obliterated by the changes in my life since my daughter was born. I desperately wanted some way of reclaiming that old self, and felt as though the Irish Sea was between me and all of my options: I wanted to grab a drink with an old friend, but they were all in London or New York; I was ready to get back to my former volunteer work, at least in a limited way, but the school where I volunteered is in London; I would have loved to go to choir practice and sing the Bach St John Passion this spring, but I always did that with the St Paul Cathedral Chorus - in London.

In part because I had a new baby, finding new friends, work, and hobbies in my new home was a much bigger job than I had the energy for (see my previous post). It didn't help that, as I found out last week, I've been severely anaemic for pretty much all of 2013. Now that I'm taking iron supplements I feel like I can conquer the world, or at least stay awake past nine at night; but from January through May just getting to the end of the day felt like a Herculean accomplishment.

Reading, though. Reading I could do. Thanks to the iPhone, whatever book I was reading would fit in my pocket and could be pulled out and read as soon as the baby's eyes drifted closed, especially during that three-month stretch when she was almost always sick and could only sleep comfortably in someone's arms. My daughter's long-running head cold had me reading three, even four hours a day, and now that she's better I'm in the habit and still manage at least an hour over the course of the day.

The best part: for the first time in years, I feel like I'm reading purely for enjoyment. Not with enjoyment as a by-product of keeping up with what's current in my field, or picking books to assign, or analysing the writer's craft. I'm reading what I want to, because I want to, and those other things are the side benefits.

So, what have I been reading in my copious spare time? So glad you asked!

(The Best of the) Books I've Read in the last Six Months, In No Particular Order:

Narrative Nonfiction
Okay, so I'm not reading exclusively novels.

Fraud and Half Empty by David Rakoff. Man, I wish I'd known about this essayist before he died - the memorial episode on This American Life is a hell of a way to learn about work I should have been reading all along. Rakoff had an interesting life, in a low-key sort of way - he once played Freud in a department store Christmas window display - and makes it seem... not relatable, but as though it's beside the point whether you relate to it or not. He is going to write beautiful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and you're going to feel your neurons rearrange themselves as you read them. Don't take my word for it: go read "Isn't it Romantic?" from Half Empty, and see if you can ever again listen to the opening song from Rent without feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

A Parisian martini!
Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down by Rosencrans Baldwin. An expat memoir! I read this on vacation in France and it was a very effective inoculation against the "why can't we get posted here?" wistfulness I usually get on visits to Paris. Frankly, I want to read his wife's memoir. While Baldwin was working at a glamorous advertising agency on assignments that sent him to, say, villas in Bermuda to interview Sean Connery, his wife was writing away in an un-airconditioned apartment with construction on three, then four, then all six sides. And she couldn't get a job to get out of the house because of her dependent visa, and they couldn't afford to move because they were living on one income. At least Baldwin is sensitive enough to her predicament that this is the major detail I remember from the book.

Novels! For the Young (but old folks should read them, too)

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Oh, how I wish this book had been there for me when I was a teenager. Such a familiar problem (the challenge of being true to both your art and your life) in such a rarified world (not only can the family in the book fly the best piano teachers over from Russia and get them US citizenship, they also have a full-time private cook). I got so worried about the title character I had to put the book down at several points and take some deep breaths, and I practically cheered at the very-satisfying ending. Zarr also includes a playlist at the end of the book, and any day now I'm going to go through iTunes and re-create it.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I had to read this in small chunks. Not because the baby interrupted, but because I needed to absorb all the wonderfulness a bit at a time - and since I was pretty sure the ending wasn't going to be unambiguously happy, I didn't want to get there too fast. I wonder if I would have had the guts to be friends with Eleanor or Park if I had been in high school with them. I also wonder when Rowell's next book is coming out, and how extensive a back catalogue I have to enjoy until then.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson. A family goes back to their old lakeside vacation house for one last summer. Someday, you may read this book. You may find yourself maybe, say, 50 pages from finishing it as you are on your way to run errands, which will also involve having lunch out, by yourself. You may think to yourself, "I will bring this book with me and finish it over lunch." Do not do this. Unless you are comfortable with waiters seating people far away from you and giving you a wide berth while you hold your hand over your mouth and choke back sobs.

The Diviners by Libba Bray. This is so not my kind of book. Look at those other three: down-to-earth novels set in the real world, about teenagers facing heartbreaking choices. Not a whiff of the paranormal. I downloaded this one because it was Halloween and I needed to start my PeNoReMo somewhere, and for some reason I thought that meant I should read something scary. And oh, it is. Ouija Boards, and scholars of the supernatural! Would-be flappers! Demonic con men! Really gruesome murders! And a race against a heavily-portentous comet! All things I usually avoid in my reading; all things that Bray's writing, plotting and pacing made thoroughly enjoyable in this one. And now I can't wait for the next in the series.

Novels! For the Old (but young folks might enjoy; who knows? My favorite book when I was fifteen was The Prince of Tides.)

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. You thought I was going to recommend The Interestings, didn't you? Like everybody else? Fooled you! Actually, I started to, but then I realized I wouldn't tell you anything you haven't already read. Instead, I'm going to divert your attention to a 2008 novel by the same author, about a group of women trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that the kids they left the workforce to raise are turning ten. I was almost halfway through the book before I figured out what the actual plot (as opposed to the situation) was - and I didn't care. I'm a sucker for a beautiful, honest moment, especially a rueful one, and this novel is full of them. It is also, once I realized what was actually happening, really beautifully structured. I'm also a sucker for craft. (Be warned that if you have any musical ear at all, you will find yourself with the phrase "Rise, sorrow, 'neath the saffron sister tree" going through your head at odd moments.)

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I hadn't heard of this book - an epistolary novel about gossip and intrigue among the parents and administrators at an elite Seattle school - until it started showing up on Best of 2012 lists. Those lists were right. I didn't see a single element of this book coming, but they all made perfect sense once they showed up. Plus, the prose is snappy and crisp and the reading experience just flat-out enjoyable.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? What should I read next (I ask, as if my to-be-read pile wasn't in serious danger of swamping my nightstand)?