Sep 24 2011

Le Catch-22

Living in France, one is obliged to become expert at paperwork. There is no way to avoid it. At the start of every school year, I fill out no less than four pages of paper per child, each with the same basic parental and caregiver contact information. (I actually photocopied these sheets to use next year – even scanned it to my desktop – but I bet they change all the forms.) Every year, the same copies of the same vaccination pages from the cahiers de santé are required, stuffed and sealed in special envelopes. You’d think this would be a document that could live in a file cabinet – or a computer – in the nurse’s office. Mais non.

At every turn there is more paperwork. This could be said of any country but it seems particularly burdensome in France. Yet this is where we have chosen to raise our children. Both girls were born on French soil and both possess French birth certificates, a document with its own administrative quirks. After a baby is born, you have up to (and no longer than) three days to go to the local town hall, the mairie, to register the birth and obtain an acte de naissance. The hospitals dog you to attend to this detail in a timely fashion, one wonders if they are penalized if you fail to do so.

When you need to use this birth certificate, say, three years later, in order to enroll your child in the école maternelle, it’s no longer valid. You must return to the same mairie (in the arrondissement or town where the clinic or hospital was located) and take a number and wait to be called up to the desk where you make a request for a newly signed and dated version. This updated document can be used to procure whatever additional privileges you’re seeking, as long as you use it within three months, before it, too, is deemed invalid and another trip to the mairie is required.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo are both eligible for a special kind of made-in-France-resident-card, but De-facto and I haven’t gotten around to addressing the paperwork for it. The girls were born at the American Hospital of Paris, which is actually in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it’s a bit of a schlep to out there to get a new copy of their actes de naissance. A neighbor told me it was possible to avoid the trip by making the demand on-line, and so this week I finally I forged through the website and found the form for an acte de naissance and filled in fields and scanned my own papers and pushed the button. A big red exclamation point informed me my application could not be processed unless I could provide a copy of the original birth certificate. I was able to dig out previous outdated originals and scan and attach them to the application. But isn’t it all a bit ludicrous? The very document I wanted to obtain was unobtainable unless I had a copy of it.

Maybe it’s just me, fed up with calling around to arrange this and that, weary of the forms and protocol I must fill out and follow, tired of jumping through hoops. I want to be done with the school meetings and sign-ups and last-minute school-supply runs. I feel like I’ve become a PA to my children, and I’d like to get on with my life. Plus a last-minute trip to the states – my mother’s house has finally sold and we must empty the last of its belongings – puts a press on my agenda and makes me impatient with the inefficiencies that seem to be standard practice here.

The viola teacher from the conservatory called to remind me to get an attestation d’assurance, proof of insurance, in order for Short-pants to be given an instrument. I asked her if we could have same viola as last year; it was actually a very good instrument and more importantly I already had the attestation de valeur, so getting the insurance would be easier.

“Non,” she apologized. Short-pants had grown and needed a bigger instrument. I asked if she could provide me with the name of the fabricant of the new instrument. “Mais, non,” she said, unapologetically, she didn’t have it. She didn’t know the maker or the value.

I explained that my insurance company couldn’t insure the instrument unless they knew the value. And they couldn’t know the value if I didn’t have a certificate from the maker. I’d need the name of the luthier so I could obtain this document, in order to obtain another document, in order to get the viola.

“I’m not allowed to give you the instrument until I have the attestation d’assurance,” she said.

“But I cannot get insurance,” I said, “until I have the instrument, or until you tell me the make and the exact value.”

I mean, she’s been doling out these instruments to students for years now. Doesn’t she know this?

The good news is that my insurance agency is a cozy neighborhood bureau that I’ve been going using for more than ten years. The very reasonable woman who works there immediately appreciated my conundrum and agreed to write a very general attestation of insurance for an instrument of the same value as last year’s. Then, she told me, once I could give her the real details of the new instrument, she’d adjust my policy issue a more official attestation.

Within 48 hours her letter arrived in the post, so I sent Short-pants off to her lesson with the paperwork in hand and she was given her new viola. After the lesson, the teacher nabbed me and dragged me into the office. I’d wanted to avoid any administrators, hoping I could get the official certificate first. I was leaving the next day for the week-long trip to the states, so I was deep in departure-preparation panic and not so interested in the time I would lose attending to a bureaucratic detail like this, a detail that was not at all a priority on the day before a voyage.

The viola teacher deposited me at the office and conveniently slipped away, leaving me to fend for myself across the desk from the austere and humorless functionaire who’s job it is to handle the insurance certificates for probably hundreds of music students. This can’t be fun, it might be Sisyphean, which would explain her comportment. A close inspection of the letter revealed its lack of specificity and gave her reason to remove her glasses and set them down before informing me that she couldn’t let us take the instrument if I didn’t have a more detailed letter of insurance.

I explained, again, the predicament. I have no idea how to say Catch-22 in French, but if I knew, it’s the phrase I’d have used.

“The teacher should have given you this information.”

“I asked her, several times,” I said, “but she didn’t have the name, or the value.”

“But she must.”

“But she didn’t.”

“But why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said, giving her my best French shrug.

“Well I cannot leave the instrument with you, then.”

I stood up abruptly and pushed in my chair. Short-pants looked at me wide-eyed.

“What am I supposed to do?” I said, “The requirements are impossible and all my daughter wants to do is play her viola!”

I think standing up did the trick.

She scratched “attestation provisionelle” across the top of the page in big dramatic letters, insisting I get a detailed certificate to her as soon as possible.

We walked out of that dim conservatory, squinting into the afternoon sun. Short-pants held my hand while I fumed quietly. It’s all such a waste of time. Shouldn’t each instrument come with its own attestation? Shouldn’t the conservatory have gathered this information? Why is it the mother’s job to do this paperwork? Did my mother have to do all this crazy-making organization for me?

A few blocks later, I stopped and knelt down in front of Short-pants. “I’m sorry I lost my temper with the lady at the conservatory. I could tell it frightened you.”

“It’s okay mama.”

“I’m a little bit on edge today,” I said. “Do you know why?”

“Because you have a lot to do before you go away?”

This was surely part of it, but it’s not the real source. All week I’ve been a bit impatient and emotional.

“It’s because I’m going to clean out the furniture and the final things from Grammy’s house, and I’m sad and nervous about it.”

“I understand.” She leaned in and hugged me tight. “But look, I got my viola, right?” She stepped back, raised the instrument case up into the air and smiled, victoriously.

Mar 23 2010

The Shiner

We walked down the stairs to the metro platform, boarding the train while eating a gouter of peanut-butter and Nutella sandwiches. Two stops later, at Chatelet, we exited the train to make our way through the tunnels to the neighboring station of Les Halles and the entrance to the Conservatory. It’s not pleasant to be underground for so long, but it’s the most direct route and it avoids waiting at crosswalks and inclement weather.

Between the two stations there are two long tunnels, both with a moving walkway to assist commuters with what feels like an endless walk. The usual rules apply; stand to the right, walk to the left. The second walkway has a rather steep ramp just at the beginning, inspiring a game that has made the tunnel journeys a bit less boring. Singing a long steady note, we hold hands and jog down the ramp, making a funny noise that gives us a good giggle. It’s kind of silly, but we invent these things to distract our children – and ourselves – from the drudgery of such a commute.

This week De-facto has business out of town, so yesterday I had both girls in tow when I took Short-pants to her music theory class. Remarkably, both of them got out of school on time and at the same time, so our journey from the school to the conservatory was made, for a change, at a reasonable pace, contrasted with the usual press required to get there by 5:00.

As we approached the ramped moving walkway, Buddy-roo let go my hand and charged ahead. There were very few people on it, so I let her go. She ran down the ramp, gleefully singing. Short-pants and I followed, in harmony. Buddy-roo was speeding right along when I realized she might need help stopping. Usually I’d be holding her hand, but because she’d rushed ahead, I wasn’t there to steady her.

She grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion. Buddy-roo’s feet tried to stop, but her hand kept going, dragging her body with it and whipping her face against the metal siding. By the time she actually fell, I was there. But it was too late. Within seconds, the side of her face, just under her eye, was swelling. A black eye had been born.

Shrieking isn’t enough of a word to describe the noise coming from her. I pulled her over to the standing lane of the walkway, held her and let her wail – what else is there to do – and watched the small red bump under her eye protrude from her cheek and spread left and right. Short-pants made a college try at consoling Buddy-roo, except the things she was saying, like, “it’s getting very red,” or “your eye is hardly open now,” served only to upset Buddy-roo further, prompting me to ask Short-pants, as nicely as I could under the circumstances, if she could just be quiet, which I managed to do a bit too firmly, it seems, so that she, too, erupted into tears.

At the end of the walkway, I steered both girls off to the side of the corridor so we could calm down and have a better look at things. This is when Buddy-roo, by now in hysterical tears, managed to gasp, “and I’m still sad about Grammy.” Buddy-roo tends toward the dramatic, and lately, any time she gets hurt or reprimanded, she falls into tears and often invokes my mother’s death as a reason. De-facto says that sometimes when you get sad it makes you think of other sad things. That is true. Sotto voce: I’m just not sure if it’s always true for Buddy-roo.

What I told her: I miss Grammy, too. What I was thinking: If my mother could see me now, squatting like an idiot in the metro tunnel, with two bawling children and now I’m crying too and I feel lost and at a loss about what to do next. (This is a perfect occasion for missing your mother, whether she’s alive or not).

And then, it hit me: Get thee to a bar. That eye needs ice. Now.

I dragged my two crying children through the metro – you can’t imagine how many turnstiles and corridors and flapping doors and escalators there were before we could find sunlight – with people staring at us, all three of us in tears, one of us with a puffy eye. “No, I didn’t hit her,” I found myself muttering under my breath, wishing I could just undo that one tiny second. If only I hadn’t let her run down that ramp. Why do I always get it wrong? I end up scolding them when I should let them play, and here I was playing when I should have been prudent. It’s like I’ve been away so much the last few months, I’ve forgotten how to mother.

I managed to deliver Short-pants to the conservatory and then Buddy-roo and I limped over to a nearby café. The barman recognized me (this is why it’s good to have a local café in every arrondissement) and did his best to restrain his reaction to the swollen eye. We lay Buddy-roo down on one of the banquettes with a towel of ice against her face. I took a deep breath.

This morning the eye was swollen and purple. Buddy-roo slammed the toilet seat down and climbed up on it to examine herself in the mirror. The tears were unavoidable. It made me remember the day I got braces, the same day as the 7th grade dance, and how I stared at my reflection, horrified by my metallic smile. Nothing anyone could say made me feel better.

So I didn’t say a thing. I gave Buddy-roo the biggest hug I could and rocked her back and forth. Which is what my mother probably did for me, that day I got those ugly braces, knowing words offered no consolation. Which is what most mothers know to do, which is why when they’re not around to soothe us with that knowing, silent hug (which is all we really need anyway) we miss them that much more.

Jan 4 2010

To the (Blue) Moon

Every Monday (and Thursday) the same familiar faces gather, parental brows furrowed with the end-of-the-day rush; a crowd of tall, coated strangers stand uncomfortably in a room with too few chairs. At 6:15, precisely, the torrent of children pours into the lobby of the conservatory, a parade of little people laden with black instrument cases and swollen school backpacks. I always crane my neck to look for Short-pants; vigilant for that precious moment, the very first instant when her searching eyes find me in the pack of parents. Her expression shifts in a nanosecond, from awkward to assured, leaving the realm of the unclaimed and taking her rightful place at my side. I never get tired of that look, or the zealous greeting that follows immediately: “Mama!”

Yesterday, her music teacher walked behind her, his hand barely on her shoulder. I couldn’t tell if this was by chance, or if he was accompanying her out of the class. When she called out to me, he smiled and raised his eyebrows, a warning, I suppose, that he was escorting her for a reason. He is celebrity-handsome, by the way, a blonde kind of creature who, were he not teaching music theory at the public conservatory, could as easily be modeling Calvin Klein underwear.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he said, “about your daughter. She was very nervous today.”

She was a bit flustered when I picked her up from school to take her to the conservatory. The frigid temperatures didn’t make playing in the school courtyard very pleasant; she’d gotten a chill after lunch and couldn’t shake it all afternoon. I explained this.

“Yes, that’s what she told me,” he said, “but she is very often a bit nervous and dans la lune.” (I’m translating this exchange from French to English, except for these few words, dans la lune, which mean, literally “on the moon” and figuratively, “in the clouds.”)

“It would help if you could work with her, between classes,” he said, “to be a bit less dans la lune.”

I understood exactly what he meant. He was telling me that Short-pants is easily flustered and a bit spaced out. Though she can be totally focused; she wrote and illustrated a 22-page hand-made book on how to make a Mandala, and worked at it tirelessly, without any prompting from us. But it’s true that often she has her head in the clouds, leaving her eye-glasses who-knows-where, reading four books at the same time, bookmarking them by leaving them spread eagled in every room of the house. It’s a little bit of a miracle that she gets out the door with all her belongings in the morning.

“Yes,” I said to him, “except she has so few years left to be dans la lune. It’s a pity to cut that connection while it’s still so strong.”

Oui, c’est dommage,” he acknowledged my point while standing firm: “but eventually, you must.”

Short-pants and I walked home without talking. It was too cold for words.

The much-heralded New Year’s Eve blue moon is waning, but the last few nights the sky has been so clear that I could see the unfiltered moon through the skylight, beaming in the girls’ rooftop bedroom, proud of its auspicious ranking. Tonight I stole upstairs and searched for that moon again – just a half-moon or even a sliver would be reassuring – but the cloud-cover lays a dark amber blanket over the city, hiding the moon from view. My heart is heavy, though it shouldn’t be. Short-pants is a resilient one. She’ll go to the moon if she wants to.

Photo Credit: Jean Paul Roux via Space Fellowship

Oct 2 2009

Da Capo

It’s not that I want to be the back-stage mom, nor am I so certain that my girls have special musical talent. It’s not even that I’m trying to establish a strong extra-curricular record so that they can get into an Ivy League school (I get a head-ache thinking about that). It’s that I want the sound of music in my house. I want my girls to be introduced to the world of performing arts. Whether they pursue any of these arts with passion or professional intent, that’s up to them. I’m just trying to orchestrate a little artistic exposure. Easier said than done.

At least I’m getting practiced at the art of the inscription. Regular readers of this blog may recall the debacle of last June, where I showed up early – but not early enough – for the registration at the conservatoire de musique. Given a placement of #53 on the list, my low expectations were realized when, at the end of the summer, I went to check the posting on the window to find that Buddy-roo had not been assigned to any of the initiation classes. Not for the solfège. Not for dance. Rien.

This is not a show stopper; there are other such schools in Paris, and ultimately I have managed to enroll Buddy-roo in a dance class at a nearby studio, but that’s another story.
For an established student like Short-pants – she’s been in the conservatory system for two years so she’s guaranteed a place – the music track is a triad: theory, chorale + a musical instrument. The problem was her three classes were scheduled on three different days of the week, including a slot on Wednesday morning, which I’d indicated on all the forms I’d dutifully filled out that she had school and would not be available.

During the month of September, then, I made no less than four visits to the conservatory, each time to talk to someone in the bureau de scolarité about reorganizing the schedule. They weren’t terribly empathetic about why I wouldn’t want to schlep my daughter to the conservatoire on three separate occasions each week. I had to use my haute politesse to make a change putting two of the classes back-to-back on one day, easing our after-school travels. Once it was agreed upon, I still had to put it in writing, and then wait for the head administrator to phone me back to confirm the change.

The good news is I knew about the loophole that could get Buddy-roo started in the conservatory even if she wasn’t accepted for any of the traditional initiation classes. Last week, I had an aside with the chorale director who agreed to accept her, giving the registrar no choice but to enroll her. Once she’s in the system, it’s automatic to offer her a full-fledged space next year.

But yesterday the clincher: Short-pants’ first viola lesson. She’s chosen this lesser-known stringed instrument not because she’s so willing to play third fiddle, but because it happens to be what I played in my youth. I remember distinctly the day I asked her, very open-endedly, if she wanted to play an instrument. When she told me yes, the viola, I pressed her, “are you sure?” She beamed. So the viola it is.
The teacher produced two half-sized instruments for her to try. My eyes welled up, with mushy parental pride and, admittedly, some nostalgia, when Short-pants held the shiny wooden instrument beneath her chin, and started plucking away at the strings.

“Do you have the certificate of insurance?” the teacher asked me as we packed up Short-pants’ new viola at the end of her lesson. Up until now nobody had mentioned anything about insurance. I was directed to the office of the director, who told me that I needed only to procure an insurance rider for renting a musical instrument, and then they’d hand it over.

Here’s where carrying an iPhone really comes in handy: I stepped outside, used my index finger, and quickly found my insurance agent on the phone. Not a problem, she said, I needed only to supply the make and the value. With that information, she could even have it ready for me in ten minutes. I walked back in and asked to see the director, again.

“But I do not have this information,” he said, meeting me in the lobby, refusing to invite me back into his office. He was starting to get mildly hysterical. I’d interrupted him and this is not something he could easily provide, how these rental instruments are nothing fancy, the insurance company shouldn’t need this kind of specific information.

I should mention that while all this was going on, I could hear Buddy-roo wailing in the hallway, “I changed my mind, I don’t want to go to chorale.” De-facto, who was accompanying her to her first class, attempted to calm her. Short-pants’ soothing voice was audible, too, “Don’t worry, “I’ll be in there with you.”

I noticed one of the guys at reception desk smirking into his lap, and took this is a cue to give up on the director. I knew I could call the viola teacher later, she’d get me the details I needed. Or I knew of other luthiers I could call to rent a viola on my own. I politely extracted myself from the discourse. When I turned around, the lobby was full of parents, staring at me. Could they feel my pain? I nodded around the circle of chairs, and walked outside.

Just last week, I remember thinking – rather smugly – that I’d finally organized all the school and extra-curricular details. After all the parent-teacher meetings, the trips to the conservatory, the dance studio, the doctor (health certificates needed), the messages back and forth to the teachers about schedules, acquiring the necessary books and notebooks and leotards and ballet slippers, figuring out with De-facto who picks up who and takes them where – it’d been a lot of work, sure, but I’d finally nailed it. Well, apparently not.

Who knew that being a mother meant being a personal assistant to two busy and sometimes temperamental executives?

An hour later, after a bit of fresh air and a restorative bière a la pression at a nearby café, I returned to retrieve my singing cherubs. The two of them skipped into the lobby, hand-in-hand, humming the remnants of a song they must have been singing together in the chorale.

When she saw me, Buddy-roo rushed into my arms. “I loved it!” she said, jubilant, “Can I come back next week?”

“Where’s my viola?” asked Short-pants.

Yeah, I’m working on it.

Jun 24 2009

The Inscription

I should have arrived earlier. I know better. I’d filled out all the inscription forms to enroll Buddy-roo in the music conservatory weeks ago. I even remembered to phone her pediatrician and request a certificate medicale for
waiting_conservatorythe dance class. He left it posted by the door of his waiting room, her name at the top in doctor’s scrawl, with a perfunctory check in the box for “no apparent contra-indication to practice a sport.”

I meant to arrive at least an hour in advance, but other errands delayed me. It was 1:15 when I walked into a mob of parents in the main office of the conservatory, all waiting for the registration to start at 2:00. Someone mentioned a list, so I pressed forward to the front desk to put my name on it. I was given #53.

* * *

Two years ago when Short-pants was going into the first grade, the mother of one of her classmates – also a friend of mine – suggested we sign our girls up together for a class at the music conservatory in our arrondissement. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a local conservatory, let alone at what age you were supposed to start there. I’m really not sure what I’d do without these friends-in-the-know; I am often so often out-of-the-know when it comes to things mothering and things French.

On the opening day of registration, and we rode our bikes over together, arriving thirty minutes before the door was to open, joining a dozen other mothers who had already formed a queue. The process was relatively painless; we handed in our papers and left feeling confident that both girls would get in.

By the end of the summer, I hadn’t received the obligatory self-addressed envelope that I’d included in the application, and Short-pants’ name was missing from the roster posted on the conservatory window. I called to find out why. After much shuffling of paper and several long pauses on hold, I was informed – without much empathy, I might add – that Short-pants was not enrolled in the initiation music class.

“But I was one of the first in line on the first day,” I protested, repeating the date and how I’d arrived early. They had no record of it. She was not on the list. I wanted to scream, but I kept myself in check. This was not the time to need to be right.

“It’s unfortunate,” I conceded, “but how might I enroll her in a class now?”
Mais non,” I was told, with a fierce cluck of the tongue. “There is no more space in the initiation class. It’s full.”
“But certainly…”
“I am certain, madam.”

My friend – her daughter had fallen off the list, too, but she was quicker than me and got it sorted before it was too late – told me about a woman who’d been in this same situation the previous year and who managed to squeeze her son in by enrolling him in chorale, which did not have a prerequisite course. Once in the system, he was accepted for the initiation course the following year.

Listen, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if Short-pants wasn’t in music class at the conservatory. There are other places to learn music in Paris. Except it’s a really good program, with a reasonable fee, and if you don’t get in by a certain age, you can’t get in at all. I felt like it deserved at least a college try.

I went to the office in person. I explained my story – three times – to two different people at the main desk, who kept pulling up their computer records and telling me what I already knew, that there was no place for Short-pants. But I kept asking the same question: how could there be no place for her when I was one of the first mothers to arrive on the first day of inscription? (When in doubt, repeat yourself again and again, this I learned from Buddy-roo). Eventually I was referred to the bureau of scolarité.

The Director was apologetic enough, but insisted, as before, that there were no more places in the debutante program. I’d have to wait and enroll my daughter next year.

“Then perhaps you could give me some advice,” I said. “How might I ensure she gets accepted?’

“It’s very simple,” she smiled, “You just come on the first day of registration, and I suggest you come early.” I explained that this was exactly what I had done, but still my daughter hadn’t made the list. She gave me the quintessential French shrug and moved the file folders around her desk, a gesture that I believe was meant to indicate that it was time for me to leave. So I pulled out the wild card.

“I heard that it is possible to enroll in chorale, without the first year of solfège. Is that by any chance true?” (I felt like Columbo, teasing out the truth with a more-or-less innocent question.)

She raised her eyebrows. “Beh, oui, c’est vrai.” She nodded slowly, sizing me up. “En principe, c’est possible.” In principle? Who’s principle? Certainly not hers, since you might note that she didn’t volunteer this option, despite my earlier polite, desperate pleas. I had to ask for it.
She turned to her computer and typed at the keyboard. She studied the screen. “Alors, let me check.” She ran her finger along the screen, as if counting the students with her fingers, “It’s nearly full.” She typed a few more key strokes. “But there is an opening on Thursday afternoons,” she smiled like it had been her idea, “Would you like to enroll your daughter?”

That’s how Short-pants got in to the Conservatory. The following June an invitation to re-enroll arrived in the mail, and sure enough she had priority status and was instantly assigned to the debutante music class. So this year she took a basic theory as well as chorus. Next year, she’ll start an instrument. She’s thinking about the viola.

* * *

In an unusual breach of custom for French functionnaires, the administrator organizing parents-in-waiting this afternoon was exceptionally friendly, counting off out loud, calling our names and ushering us into the waiting room one at a time when it was our turn. There were three employees receiving us, as well, so it all operated rather efficiently: the examination of the application papers, checking to be sure we’d put postage on our self-addressed envelopes (while I was waiting, a previous mother was told her application would not be considered without an envelope), stamping the date with aplomb on our receipts.

I was given no indication if there will be space for Buddy-roo in either a music or a dance class next fall, just two small strips of paper with official date stamps. But at least this time I can prove I was in line, even though – in the 53rd place – I may not have made it in time.

It still floors me how taking care of these young girls is such a responsibility. It’s much more than loving and feeding; it’s also enrolling them in school, in music classes or theater or judo, keeping track of vaccinations, monitoring homework – even just getting them out the door in the morning and picking them up at the end of the day is a chore that requires concentration. There’s everything to remember to do, so much to be thinking and caring about – let alone just hanging out with them and listening to what they have to say.

I do hold those girls close when they come to me, knowing they won’t want to be close forever. At the same time I dream of the day when they won’t need me anymore. Then somebody always reminds me that by the time they don’t need me, I’ll wish they did. It’s such a paradox, this whole mothering thing. I had no idea, at the inscription, what I was in for.