Wednesday, November 23, 2011



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While we, as parents, and our children grow up, we try to protect them from certain influences. In our own cultures, we usually have an idea when outside values may present themselves. However, living abroad amidst another culture can throw off our protective parenting radars.

At my age and my children's, we haven't yet reached the teenage "S, D, and RnR" years. And so, I never guessed that I would have to already be suspicious of kisses, wine, and nursery rhymes.

Kisses: The first time I went to France, just after high school graduation, I was delighted to have so many attractive French boys kissing me as soon I met them. Ok, they weren't really kissing in the sense Americans may think of it. But, for me, it was close enough. These little lip-flap cheek touches, known as bisous, were flattering nonetheless.

After subsequent trips to France and marrying into a French family, these bisous are now completely second nature. During school drop-off and pick-up, parents, children, and teachers exchange this salutation. I think my mother would be shocked to see me kissing so many married men. And, I hardly blink anymore when my husband has to greet a beautiful mother of one of our children's friends. (Although I do feel it odd how, for certain play dates, he is more willing to drive them).Walking through the grocery store, acquaintances greet and give a bisou. While a salesperson is speaking with a customer in a boutique and a colleague walks in, she will stop in mid-conversation to embrace him (more on customer service in a future post). I am so used to this custom that I sometimes catch myself trying to kiss my American friends when I go back to visit. It may look chic-chic, but I am just really saying hello.

A few summers ago when my daughters were about four and six years old, we spent several weeks at my mother's house. The girls enjoyed playing with the children of my childhood friends at the public pool. They were in swim classes together in the morning and we usually met back up after lunch to splash some more. We mothers enjoyed catching up on each others' lives in the sunshine. The days went quickly and it was soon our last morning poolside.

Swim certificates in hand, our sons and daughters were bouncing around on one last sugar-high from the candy their instructors handed out. I started packing up wet towels and goggles. I casually told my girls that we were flying back to Brussels in a couple of days and wouldn't see our friends again until next summer. “Go say goodbye, please.” That's all I said before it happened.

A heavy, plastic lounge chair fell back with a squeak and a clunk. Heads of instructors, parents and swimmers turned. The commotion caused an abrupt silence. My friend's eight-year-old son was just catching his balance, backwards no less, when his mother very matter-of-factly leaned towards me and said, “Yep, that would be his first kiss.”

As her little sister stepped back from his brother, my then 6 year-old stood still, eyes shocked open. She had never before had such an effect on the opposite sex. I wonder if this is how all young French women get their seductive reputations – just by being themselves while abroad.

Wine:On the topic of alcoholic beverages, I find that in general Europeans do not hold the same puritanical shame for wanting a drink once in awhile...and not that anyone should. But, having been raised in America, there are certain rules that seem to be ingrained. For example, no drinking while driving or during the work day, nor handing any such drink to a minor...let alone to a toddler.

While living on the European continent, I have seen tour bus drivers drinking just as much as the tourists they are chauffeuring while stopped for a meal. I have painfully watched the slow-progressing road workers in front of my house actually leaning on their shovels, chatting while each having a can of beer. (At which point I was ready to run out there and dig the hole myself).

I don't mean to say that everyone is walking around drunk...far from it. Beer is to Belgium what wine is to France. The abbey beers can be as refined as any Bordeaux. I suppose if such appreciation is taught young, people grow up with more of an understanding and respect for particular drinks. My children are certainly getting an exposure I hadn't expected.

A few years ago, a local grocery store hosted a coloring contest to win a present for Mother's Day. I didn't push my children to partake, but when the same contest ran for Father's Day, I took a couple picture sheets home. Loving to color, my children sat down with their crayons and markers to diligently stay within the lines. We returned to the store the Wednesday before Papa's big day.

My daughters walked shyly up to the cashier to present their pictures. The man congratulated them on their attention to detail and excused himself to the back room. I thought, “How nice. There's a little prize for everyone.” When he came back, my girls' eyes grew in excitement while mine widened in astonishment. He presented to my children, whose ages did not even add up to ten, each a bottle of red wine. Although I asked, my daughters insisted they could carry the bottles, without breaking, all the way to the car. While checking for traffic in the parking lot, I made a mental note – next year, we do the Mother's Day contest.

The spirit of Father's Day was only just beginning. Two days later, I walked my youngest daughter to her classroom. The teacher handed me a small package obviously wrapped by little hands. She told me I could already take it home, and hide it from Papa, because it's a bit fragile. Imagining some sort of clay creation, I took the gift straight home and hid it under my daughter's bed (...and hopefully not a sign of what I may find under her bed in future years).

The morning of Father's Day came. Sunshine was just cracking through the blinds when little feet pushed our bedroom door open. They climbed into our bed and shimmied in between us making room only children can. My youngest girl carefully handed her delicately wrapped-with-half-a-roll-of-tape gift to her father. He first pulled out a square coaster papier maché-d in red and white. Secondly, he found a matching red and white bottle opener. And finally, what was so breakable...a bottle of Belgian beer.

“You wouldn't have gotten that in America!” I exclaimed. Then, I remembered her other under-aged (4 year-old) classmates walking out of school with their wrapped up beer...nope, definitely wouldn't happen in America. When I phoned my own father that day and told him about the gifts, he questioned aloud how the teacher could keep her job.

Nursery rhymes: “J'ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière. J'ai du bon tabac; tu n'en auras pas.” What better way to teach children about personal health and well-being than singing about the good tobacco they have in their tobacco tins and how no one will get any of it. Ahhh, the life lessons to be had.

In all fairness, this classic tune now sings, “J'ai des bons bonbons dans ma bonbonnière. J'ai des bons bonbons; tu n'en auras pas.” As children have taken to bragging rather about what good candy they have in their candy tins, apparently sharing is still something to be desired.

Now, before the rebellious spirit of Elvis shaking his hips to Rock-n-roll, there was the character of Gugusse and his polka-playing violin. My eldest daughter, at the ripe age of five years old and to the dismay of her father, could not stop singing this song she learned in music class. Her little sister happily chimed along as well. In this rhyme, Gugusse comes to play his violin to make all the boys and girls start dancing. But the final stanza goes like this:

Mon papa ne veut pas que je danse, que je danse
Mon papa ne veut pas que je danse la polka.
Il dira ce qu'il voudra, moi je danse moi je danse
Il dira ce qu'il voudra, moi je danse la polka du roi.


My daddy doesn't want me to dance, to dance
My daddy doesn't want me to dance the polka.
He will say what he wants, I dance I dance
He will say what he wants, I dance the King's polka.

Voilà, another important life lesson, this time in disobeying authority.

In this Kisses, Wine and Nursery Rhymes phase of my expat life, I can only wonder what the teen years will present me. No matter where we may be living then, I am sure it will be quite a ride!

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