When we left the United States in the early hours of 2012, we began to witness the world changing around us, hardly recognizable from the one we left behind at the Mexican border. At first the changes came hard and fast, but after a while we started to forget how things were back home. By the time we reached Europe it had been nearly a year and a half since we’d visited America, or any Western civilization for that matter, and some of those old memories came flooding back. One deeply disturbing difference between “The West” and the rest of the world showed up like a lurking character in a nightmare.
The moment we left US soil, strollers became almost nonexistent. With the exception of a few sinister nonconformists here and there, parents around the world carry their children on their backs in a sheet, which is secured by a knot in front of the parent’s chest. The baby then spends the day pressed up against the parent while they sell goods at the market, walk around, eat, harvest rice, or zip through traffic on their motor scooter.
But when we arrived in Europe, we were suddenly confronted by hordes of parents pushing around these gigantic monstrosities of mechanical engineering, these road-worthy and crash-tested behemoths with locking wheels, bump-neutralizing four-wheel independent suspension, retractable awnings, cup holders, toy storage bins, and cushioned hand grips.
Inside of these ridiculous rigs the babies writhed in their padded seats crying, trying to escape, wondering where on Earth their parents had gone and why in hell they’d been strapped into an overbuilt plastic capsule with a five point safety harness. Meanwhile the rest of the world goes about its business with babies comfortably conforming to their parents’ curves inside of their cocoon-like sheets, never crying, and silently chuckling at their silly Western baby counterparts. I just assumed that everyone who had seen “the other way” would share my distaste for strollers, and this included our Parisian friends.
We first met Benoit, Aude, and their children on a misty jungle mountaintop in Laos. On our way to Luang Prabang we noticed an RV parked at a lookout point high up in the mountains. Guessing that they were fellow farangs on account of their vehicle, we stopped by to say hello. As it turned out the family of six was on a six month tour of Southeast Asia. That evening as the light dwindled and we prepared to settle down for dinner, their daughter Jeanne bopped around the parking lot pushing a little luggage rack that resembled a stroller. It was probably the only stroller-type apparatus in Laos, and if I had remembered it, then I might have opted not to go into my anti-stroller rant over dinner at Benoit and Aude’s house in a suburb of Paris a full year after our first meeting. Perhaps it was the wine, but in any case I launched into my rant, frequently seeking reassurance from our hosts that we agreed about the frivolity of strollers, to which they nodded and shook their heads at those poor pitiful people with their silly over-engineered baby cars.
“In France we call them pushchairs,” Benoit said, sipping his wine and lightly shaking his head in disgust.
Benoit and Aude live in Asnieres, a neighborhood in the northwest quarter of Paris, along with their wonderful children Alexandre, Emma, Blanche, and Jeanne (self-proclaimed “Jeanne la Plus Forte“), whom we had grown quite fond of during the week that we spent together in Laos. Back in Asia they had invited us to stay with them when we got to France, and so we set aside a week to reacquaint ourselves with Paris and spend time with our friends. Alexandre, the oldest, led us up the stairs to his room, which he had graciously donated to us for the duration of our stay—a true gentleman, may I say—and he temporarily adopted the attic as his living quarters. He was the kind of young gentleman whose character could only be the result of a childhood not tainted by time spent strapped into a solitary confinement chamber on wheels.
In the mornings, Emma and Alexandre would walk or bike to school, Aude would zip off to work in the car, and Benoit would load Blanche and Jeanne onto the back panniers of his bicycle and they would disappear down the street, a flurry of backpacks, swinging legs, and pigtails in the slipstream of Benoit’s business casual attire. On those days during the week, Sheena and I were on our own to explore.
We walked through Asnieres, and we acquainted ourselves with the Metro. In Montmartre we climbed the hill to the Sacre Coeur past grassy parks filled with people lounging about, and rested on the steps under the cathedral while we watched a performer hang from a street lamp. The street corners in the iconic neighborhood were dotted with pubs and chic restaurants while nearby shops sold quirky trinkets. In the shade of a giant tree a group of Spanish men sang traditional songs with their guitars.
In between home-prepared meals of foie gras, traditional French cheese plates, and Benoit’s throwback preparation of Thai curry, which he had perfected while traversing Thailand in the RV, we found time to dine at the Côté Bac, a new chic neighborhood restaurant owned by a friend, on its second day of operation. Over the course of one amazing meal, I made four observations about France.
After studying the four available dinner options for the night (they would change based on seasonally available meats and vegetables) three of us ordered the lamb, while Aude ordered a tomato salad. We sat back and talked, and quickly noticed that everyone in the packed restaurant knew everyone else. Each time a new couple came in the door they cheerfully said hello to everyone, walked to our table and gave Aude and Benoit a bise on the cheek, chatted for a moment, and then sat down.
Observation #1: France is like that bar in the 1980’s television show Cheers, except they dress nicer and don’t have the ugly hair. It must be nice to live in a place where everyone knows your name.
When our dinner arrived I noticed that Aude’s plate didn’t seem to have much food on it. Poor Aude, I thought. As we dug in, a man walked in the door and let out a boisterous yell in the direction of the owner, clearly his friend. My first thought was, I feel right at home! This is the way Americans are! We’re not so different after all! All of the diners stopped eating and looked at the man. He walked through the restaurant, continuing to speak at an elevated pitch, and gave the owner a hug before sitting down. The chatter resumed.
“This is a kind of joke,” Benoit said, smiling. “This man is the neighborhood butcher, and every time the restaurant owner comes into the butcher shop he disrupts his business by yelling. It is very funny. Now that the butcher has come to the restaurant, he is doing the same thing to disrupt the business by yelling.”
Observation #2: We Americans really are loud, and the French are probably annoyed by the fact that we’re not joking.
The arrival of the butcher shifted our conversation toward butchers and butchery in general.
“This man,” Benoit said, pointing his chin at the butcher, “he is something of a world famous butcher. He is well known all over France, and people come from abroad to apprentice with him. A few months ago he did an exchange with a popular butcher shop in New York City. The idea was that the New York butchers would come to Asnieres to see how we do it, and then the Asnieres butchers would go to New York.” He thought for a minute, laughed, and then continued. “When my friend went to New York, he said that the butchers would grab the pieces of the cow and very quickly throw them on the table, and then cut them up with an electric saw. An electric saw! The French butchers showed them how to butcher a cow with nothing more than a very sharp knife—you know, here our butchers cut around each muscle very carefully—it’s like an art.”
Observation #3: While we may make fun of the French for being soft-handed and fashion-aware, they really are much cooler than we are.
As the meal wound down and evening turned to night, we sipped wine and talked. It was after ten at night by now, and the place was still packed with diners. Seeing that we were nearly ready to leave, the owner came back to the table to see how everything was. Being that the restaurant had just opened, and that they were all friends, he was looking for honest feedback.
“We really liked the menus. The weight of the paper was perfect, and your font is very attractive.” The owner thanked them and waited for more. Benoit continued. “One critique that we can make is regarding the portion sizes.” Aude knowingly nodded her head, and I looked on, proud that I had made the same observation. Poor Aude with her little tomatoes. “The dish that Aude ordered, the tomato dish, was perfect, but the lamb portions were too big. You should reduce the amount of meat, it was just too much.”
Observation #4: Heavy butcher paper makes a fantastic backing for a menu. Now if we could just figure out how these French people stay so svelte and healthy.
The weekend rolled in under blue skies and we packed a picnic lunch to accompany us on our “Rediscovering Paris Walking Tour,” which would involve all eight of us navigating the Metro to the Seine, and then meandering around the streets of downtown Paris. I was upstairs getting ready while Sheena helped with lunch preparations downstairs with Benoit and Aude.
“Shall we bring the pushchair for Jeanne?,” Aude asked Benoit.
“Shhh! No way, you saw how much Brad hates pushchairs!,” Benoit said in a hushed voice, recalling my earlier tirade against strollers, which I may at some point have referred to as “a catalyst to the imminent downfall of western civilization.” Aude sighed and placed an apple in the picnic bag.
The ride on the Metro went off without a hitch, despite our group’s size and the fact that it contained an energetic four-year-old not constrained by leash or harness. The feeling of emerging from the underground into a sunny Parisian morning along the river Seine can be described as nothing less than heavenly. We meandered from street to street, past the Notre Dame, peering into ancient courtyards and stopping to rest at tastefully artistic fountains and parks. Sheena and I observed Aude and Benoit’s parenting style and the maturity and independence of their children with a great sense of admiration, much as we had all week.
From time to time we would see a parent with a stroller, and we would all pretend to ignore it. When we would reach a park with very few strollers, Benoit would regard, “There are very few pushchairs here, no?”
While we walked, Benoit and Aude acted as our tour guides while Alexandre pointed out things of interest and Emma roamed around taking pictures with our camera. Jeanne, meanwhile, zipped around between streets and alleys and into any and all shops containing shiny things or pretty dresses. At one point she stopped to watch a street sweeper, following him down the length of an entire block, entranced by the translation of debris along the gutter. Whenever she strayed more than a block or two from us, nine-year-old Blanche would corral her through the crowded streets back to the group in her ballerina tutu before the cycle repeated itself. Benoit and Aude bore no discernible concern of child abduction or disappearance of little Jeanne, a fact that only strengthened my distaste for strollers and the wussification of children who are forced to sit in them.
Bonus Observation #5: Hanging out with French parents and children is dangerous for non-French parents-in-training because they make you forget just how monstrous and difficult non-French children can be.
We sat down against a rock wall next to a walking path along the Seine and spread out our picnic lunch. Across the way the drooping boughs of old trees and ornate domes and towers decorated the skyline. Boats floated by and we were warm and comfortable in the sun. Emma, Blanche, and Jeanne danced together and played games while the rest of us gazed across the river at the Notre Dame cathedral.
After lunch Jeanne zipped through the crowded sidewalks for another few minutes before running out of steam, finally, and fell asleep atop Benoit’s head for the remainder of the day.
When we arrived home in the evening and I was upstairs dropping my things in Alexandre’s room, Sheena listened in on Benoit and Aude chatting in the kitchen.
“That was fun, wasn’t it? The kids did very well for such a long day,” Benoit said.
“Yes, it went quite well,” she said.
“So, what did you think about not taking the pushchair?,” Benoit said hopefully, having somewhat bought into my point of view regarding these asinine eyesores.
Aude looked deep into Benoit’s eyes and uttered two words: “No comment.”