Friday, 29 April 2016

missing mum

It was the second time in my life that I had taken the plane home to Malaysia, knowing that once again, home will never be the same again.  The first time this happened, I was a young woman working in Australia.  My father had suffered a heart attack and being his third, I feared it would be fatal.  When I received the call in the late evening, he had been rushed to the hospital.  This not yet being the days of internet and cell phones, I rushed to the airport and hoped to make it back to see my dad for the last time.  I didn’t make it.  I waited at the airport all night for the next flight, slumped and crushed at the phone box when I phoned home to say that I had my flight but was told instead that it was too late, that my dad had passed on.

This second time, I was not more ready nor less devastated than the first.  The evening she was admitted to the hospital I had a Skype video-call with my mum, though she could not speak at this stage.  I told her I loved her, she lifted her hand to me but I didn’t realise she was saying goodbye.  The next morning, I was on a flight home.  But home had changed.  Home was what my mum made it.  My home as I knew it, no longer existed.

The journey seemed to take forever.  I thought of nothing else but my mother.  I could see her face so clearly.  But it was an image of a younger her, when she wasn't so old and fragile.   I realised that in her ageing years, I had found it harder and harder to look at her.  I could not accept that she was becoming old.  She had cooked, washed and cleaned for a family of five children.  She was as adept with a kitchen knife as she was with a hammer.  She did not fuss over cutting the throat of a chicken, she quietly fixed my broken bed with nails and a hammer, she made time to sew dresses for my dolls, she trimmed her bougainvillea bushes with tenderness.  She took on two young children when we grew up, to make extra income.  She  cooked for and looked after her daughters-in-law during their confinement.  She swaddled her grandchildren and held them constantly in her arms in the first months of their lives.  She came to live with me and look after my children when I myself became a mother.   She did not protest when we told her we were moving back to France.

It was seven months ago since we buried her next to my father.  I think of my mum everyday.  I wonder whether she would have lived longer if I hadn’t left.  I wonder if I had done enough, if distance had somehow made me less responsible for her.  I wonder if it’s a question children who live abroad ask of themselves when they lose a parent.  I tell myself I should have called more often.  

In all this, my two daughters are growing everyday.  And everyday, I encourage them to be more independent, to spread their wings, and to new adventures.  Little by little, they stride out on their own, no longer needing me to walk them to school, or to pick them up from dance class.  They have gone away for school trips and sleepovers.  

One day they will pack their bags, and perhaps leave on a plane for distant places.  My heart will ache, I will yearn for them.  Perhaps they will start their own families in strange lands, and distance will keep us apart.  I will grow old, and my children will have children of their own.  I will want them to go where their hearts take them, to live happy fulfilling lives.  I will know that no matter where they go, I will always be their mother, that we have immense love in our hearts for each other, and that they will treasure the memories of our lives together.  So I know too, that my mother felt this way.  That when she raised her hand to say her silent goodbye, she was also saying she loved me, no matter how far away I was. 

Thursday, 6 February 2014

jeudi de paris

I had wanted to share this article for The Star that was published in December.  Things got hectic with Christmas, new year, birthdays…. and it got forgotten.  Here it is.  I am including some other autumn photos (okay, okay we are now in winter).  Click here for the story.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

jeudi de paris - column

I started writing a column for The Star.  I thought I might post these columns; this is a version of my first article which appeared on 18 November 2013.

Coming to live in France was something I was always prepared for.  Being married to a Frenchman, one has to be ready for that sort of thing.  After all, my husband had spent ten years in Malaysia and is very accustomed to eating roti canai and dhal for breakfast.  Now it’s my turn, and I don’t see any problems in eating buttery croissants for breakfast.  The problem will be fitting into my jeans.  Although, I confess I am a Penang girl at heart, and a good kuey teow thng is what I miss most some mornings.  But it was the first time I was going to live abroad as a parent, and I did have some panic moments. 

When you are single (and young), the unknown is an adventure and you have only yourself to think of.  With kids though, one tends to succumb less to spontaneity and try at least to have some things planned ahead.  You can’t crash on a friend’s sofa for a few weeks.  Registering for school is a little bit more complicated than opening a bank account or getting a membership at the local pool.   Not only did we have to have a residential address, we could only register the kids the moment the insurance for the home kicked in, which is the day we moved in. So if we thought we were being smart and had a lease prior to our arrival and could register the kids in advance, we were mistaken. 

I do speak French, and considerably well it seems, according to my husband and my French in-laws and friends.  Of course, could be they are just being polite.  The French language is full of subtleties, and the true meanings of certain words I have only started to fully understand now, more than ten years since I first learnt the language.  Perhaps I’m just slow.  And certain situations demand a precision in a language I fear I have not mastered.  The image of being in an emergency room (and how to get there) with my kids, stuck for words, strike me with fear.   I could go to the butcher with a picture of the cut of meat I want but googling for a picture of a urinary tract infection or for a translation in an emergency room seems like a not-so-funny episode of some old comedy on TV.  And I am still working on being able to come up with a smart retort to some obnoxious metro fellow passenger there and then, not five minutes later.

My girls are 9 and 7, and had been coming to France every summer.  They both speak French fluently and are easily adaptable.  When we announced to them that we were moving permanently to France, they were first of all excited.  Then they started to think that their lives were being ruined, with their friendships destroyed and their beloved grandmother left behind.  Their home, with their huge bedroom and a swimming pool would be an unknown luxury in Paris.  As we left our house for the last time, they were choked up and although we had spent months preparing them, wailed “Why do we have to leave?  This is our home!”

We did not expect a difficult integration.  There was no language barrier for them to overcome although they do seem to speak it with much more fluidity now and have certainly picked up some colloquial largo, or dialect.  The cultural affinity was already there.  After all, their father is French.  They had already been in a French education system.

Two weeks before school started, they were both highly strung.  Excited, at the same time anxious, they bickered.  They couldn’t wait to start school.  I couldn’t either.

In France, school is not compulsory but education is; although only a small 0.2% of the school- going population are homeschooled in France. Primary school officially starts when a child turns 6.  Equivalent to Standard one is CP, Cours Préparatoire. 

Kids in France are generally not pressured to learn to read before this age (they are only expected to be able to read their name), and the focus in preschool, or what is known as maternelle, is to acquire a good level of spoken French.  Being able to speak clearly is seen as paving the way to thinking clearly and therefore reasoning, counting, classifying, describing, all should follow suit. 

At the end of each term, my kids came home with enormous folders of drawings and paintings, often of lines, waves, semi circles, circles – they were learning how to hold a pencil correctly and the basics of handwriting: another important element focused at preschool.  They are encouraged to explore their senses, their feelings, and imagination. Most important at preschool is learning how to be an élève ie a student or a pupil, what school is about and being part of a social group.   Living with others requires rules of civility, cooperation and independence.  The child learns that the teacher is there not for her only, but for others in the group too.  She learns to be part of a group but also to understand the constraints of being part of a group.

When my younger daughter was in maternelle (this was in KL, but the school maintains a French spirit), the teacher in the report card praised her for her enthusiasm but remarked that she needed to “wait her turn and raise her hand to speak”.

One thing to get used to in France is the French workers’ proclivity to strike.  This does not exclude teachers.  Protesting against the proposed re-installation of Wednesdays (there was no school on Wednesdays in France but this changed with the new school year in September) as a school day, there had been two days where parents were expected to “be understanding” and keep their children home while the teachers were on strike.  And the French parents do understand.  Strikes and demonstrations are part and parcel of French life and everyone just deals with it.  

One evening over dinner, my younger one said to me “Mama, we’ve both made friends in school.  How about you?  Have you made any friends?”  I explained that for adults, it always took a little longer.  My considerate daughter, supportive and full of encouragement, said “Don’t worry, next week there is a parents and teacher meeting.  You will meet other parents there and I’m sure you will make some friends!”  How do I tell her that French mothers are not inclined to say hello to you and be your friend, just because your kids are friends.

So how are we adjusting a year later?  I just know that its all easy to plan but its never easy to know how you will adapt and what you will feel, until you are there sur place, facing the life it offers day after day.  Today I feel the panic going slowly but the craving for the kuey teow thng has started…

Thursday, 21 November 2013

jeudi de paris - tour of montmarte

Last week we went to spend Armistice Day with our friends who recently bought an apartment in the Montmarte area.  What has eased our transition in Paris is knowing that we have some friends around the corner, friends who had lived in Malaysia and who understand how its sometimes not so easy being new in a strange land.

We tend not to wander too far away from our quartier, thats why I haven't posted so many different photos of Paris.  Montmarte is an area we are likely to go to more often, bringing guests, or now, visiting our friends!

Au Lapin Agile or The Nimble Bunny is a famous Montmarte cabaret that has an interesting story behind its name.  It was originally known as Cabaret des Assassins because the story goes that a band of assassins broke into the cabaret and murdered the owner's son.  In 1875, the painter André Gill, painted a sign that came to suggest its new name.  The picture of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan started the neighbourhood referring to their local night club as Le lapin a Gill, meaning Gill's rabbit. Over time, the name evolved into what it is today Au Lapin Agile.  It was apparently a favourite hang out spot for struggling artists and writers of the early 20th century, like Picasso and Modigliani.  Picasso's oil painting of  'At the Lapin Agile' definitely helped to make it known abroad.  Steve Martin also wrote a play called 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile'; the plot centring on Picasso and Einstein meeting at this bar, and having a lengthy discussion about the value of genius and talent.  

I can't imagine it all to be genius and talent though.  No doubt this was the heart of artistic Paris, but there must have been quite a mix of people here, and some of very questionable character.  Montmarte is more 'gentrified' these days but some parts of the neighbourhood are still a bit rough, and there are shops whose window displays are not what you may be used to!  

Amongst the mix of bourgeoise, artists, struggling or up-and-coming artists, pimps and what nots, there was also a saint and a matyr in the history of Montmarte.  We go back a bit earlier though, to about the 3rd century.  Denis was a bishop of Paris.  Pagan priets, panicking at his rate of conversions, had him executed by beheading.  The legend goes that Denis picked his head up, continued to walk north for about ten kilometres, all the while continuing to preach his sermon.  He is one of the patron saints of Paris and there are many versions of this statue in the city.  Next time you are at the Notre Dame, see if you can spot him.

I was happy to stumble on more lively subjects after Saint Denis - a group of young men playing petangue, where players throw metal balls (hollow ones lah) as close as possible to a small wooden one.  

The Moulin de la Galette dates back to the 17th century.  It was known for much more than its milling. Another venue of distraction for Parisians then, it was also very popular amongst Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso.  These artists know how to have a good time, don't they?  It was probably most immortalised by Renoir's painting Bal du moulin de la galette.

What a view…In the distance is Les Invalides (museum and monument all relating to the military history of France - that warrants a separate post) .

You can't keep the artists from Montmarte...

We haven't even explored half of Montmarte yet, there is so much more to see.  We'll be back.  

Thursday, 14 November 2013

jeudi de paris - yes, its back!

I've been terribly uninspired lately.  After the hustle and bustle of summer, the arrival of the cold weather was inevitable, and my body seems to want to go into automatic hibernation mode.  I haven't gotten the full blown flu but the bug is certainly hovering around.

The girls were excited to go back to school, and with the school system 'reform', now have school on Wednesday mornings making it a 4 1/2  day week instead of their previous four.  Its taking a while getting used to this rhythm because Wednesdays off school was a good mid-week break which allowed for a play date on Tuesday afternoons or a movie at home and the Wednesday itself dedicated to a bit of lay-in and other less scholarly activities.

Thank goodness we had some exciting visitors to sweeten the start of the school year.

Téa, as you can see, was just over the moon to see her godpa and be able add to her collection of spoons (she gets a silver spoon a year from godpa).  

Peter took some great photos for his blog, and did a fun interview with our friends which he will soon post on his blog life is a song if you can't dance.  Which kind of reminded me of my empty promises to take photos of our now-not-so-new apartment for you.  My latest excuse?  My camera has broken down.  Well, my favourite 'its-all-in-the-camera' camera that is.  I made some efforts anyway, with this other little camera.  And now you can see, that actually, I am not so great with the camera after all.

So anyway, here is a picture-story of recent (ok, some not so recent) happenings, and what's in and around our home:

We've been up since four am in anticipation of the first day of school!

Wooden ceiling beams typical of old French apartments, like ours. 

Our living room wall stirs up an on-going debate; do we keep the green wall green?

Our 16th century building features hand-quarried stone and very thick walls.  A note to residents:  no horse carriage in the courtyard please.

Wallpaper in the girls' room.  A bit of nature, a bit of religion, a bit of music...

Our own personal chef.

What was waiting for me at the post office after the summer holidays.  Thanks Ivy!

Another beat-the-post-summer-blues care package in the mail.  Thanks Kathy!  Yum yum…

A "it's-not-Valentine's-Day, I-love-you-anyway" present from Monsieur.  He didn't read the marketing tagline "Pour les hommes, qui aiment les femmes, qui aiment les hommes, qui font la cuisine"
Translation:  For men, who love women, who love men, who love to cook.

The most prominent landmark nearest to us, The Panthéon (being refurbished).

The café and restaurant scene of our neighbourhood.

The trudge uphill to home, scooter style.

Our street.

Our street, from another angle.

The courtyard of the secondary school Anaïs will go to in a couple of years, 3 minutes' walk.

Monsieur himself went to the same school, Lycée Henri IV.

Me trying to be creative on the staircase of the school.

Picnic while the weather says we can.

No, no, its not a factory using child labour!  Just a metal art workshop.  

The kind of shoe I don't wear on the cobbled streets of Paris.

An autumn morning on our last visit to Sturget in October.

Elise:  Do you want to be scary or beautiful?
Anaïs:  Can I not be both?

Roasting chestnut and toasting marshmallows on Halloween night, a much warmer option to trick-or-treating out in the rain.

Bigger people get bigger fires.  Deal with it.  Save us some marshmallows grand-pére!

A recurrent conversation...
Girls:  Mama, can we have a horse?
Me:  No.
Girls:  Mama, can we have a dog?
Me:  No.
Girls:  Mama, can we just take the neighbour's cat home?

Mission: baguette from the village boulangerie.  
Mission accomplished, plus a detour to the tabac-presse for some magazines.
Always works with papa.  Mmm… any surprise?

Dahlias and a rose... at the Jardin des Plantes.

Keong visited with his mum and aunt.  Anaïs pictured in the background.  Can't help herself, dancing up the bank.

The reason why we live this charmed life, and why most of the above is possible.  Merci, Monsieur!