Thursday, July 14, 2011

France is cool, trying to speak French with a bunch of other foreigners is cooler

In May, I posted a blog about my upcoming trip to France, but I did something odd to it and it vanished. I loved that post, and since it is gone and I can't replace it, it has become in my mind the funniest, cleverest and most thought-provoking thing I've ever written. I won't even try to top it in this post. I will say that my 4-week stay in France was amazing. Not just because France is a beautiful country and Toulouse is warm and sunny, with warm, sunny people. I also went by myself. I stayed in a cute little apartment, slept late on occasion, and wrote a poem in the morning at my tiny desk by the window, rather than late at night while simultaneously folding 3-day old laundry. Best of all, I took French classes and had classmates from all over the world. Lovely people. Yukari was from Japan, but had recently moved to Toulouse with her French husband, Paulo was an adventurous student from Paraguay, Annick a Belgian woman who is sassy in several languages, and Jose was escaping the Spanish economy and looking for work in France. Nothing creates instant friendship like the inability to communicate well with anyone else. We were all foreigners, not fluent in French, and as nervous as we were excited. Individually, trying to get directions to the used bookstore or order a vegetarian meal we felt laughable and stupid. As a group we still felt laughable and stupid, but didn't care so much. We'd chat in broken French and figure out what the hell each of us was trying to say.
I was going to write about the joys and trials of leaving my family for a month, but lately, I find myself missing my classmates, wondering what adventures they are having and what godawful verb tense they are studying now. I left France happy for the experience, for the chance to fulfill a long-time dream, and so wildly grateful to have met people I never would have had the chance to meet before. I'm not sure if I'll ever see any of them again, but I'll keep them with me forever, their stories, their support and the way no one laughed (too much) when I accidentally ordered a giant plate of goose gizzard on lettuce instead of a green salad. Aah, les bons moments. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Neil Gaiman Scares Kids Good

I'm in love with Neil Gaiman. There I said it. I think I mostly love him because he is a fantastic writer. But I also adore the fact that he is not afraid to scare kids. I'm learning that even my quiet, shy 8-year old who must sleep with a night light likes to be scared a little. Both boys like books with ghosts or monsters or angry mythological gods. Giant snakes. They are freaks for giant snakes.

Gaiman is well known for adult horror-fantasy novels, so I was surprised to learn that "Coraline" was written for his 6-year old daughter. The book and the movie gave me the creeps, but in a good way. At one point while I was reading it, I thought something was crawling on me. Maybe it's because I'm a mom and the villain, who looks like Coraline's real mom eats spiders and has shiny black buttons for eyes, is so darn icky. Regardless,  I decided I would not read it to my boys. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a quick read with rich language, a super plucky heroine and all kinds of suspense. Gaiman deserves the praise that is heaped on him and I am definitely a fan.

Recently, my oldest came across “Odd and the Frost Giants” at the library. After reading the plot summary he absolutely had to have it. I saw Gaiman's name on the cover and tried to talk him out of it, but relented after skimming the book.

“Odd and the Frost Giants” is the story of a little Viking boy who is tragically unlucky. His father dies, a tree crushes his leg, and his mother remarries a neglectful man who favors his other children. Odd runs away from his village and quickly meets a talking eagle, bear and fox, who turn out to be the Norse gods Odin, Thor and Loki, all of whom have been turned into animals and thrown out of Asgard by a Frost Giant. If they can't find a way to reclaim their kingdom and regain their godly forms, Odd's world will face a never-ending winter and everyone will die. Odd sets out to help the Norse gods and ultimately save his village. It's a well-written, fun story with lots of Norse history and mythology thrown in. No snakes, though.

Some of Gaiman's children's books are definitely not suitable for younger kids, like the award-winning “The Graveyard Book,” which is incredibly beautiful and quite frightening. But he has written quite a few aimed at kids ages 6-10, including “The Dangerous Alphabet,” “The Day I swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish,” “Instructions,” and “Wolves in the Walls.”

Our “Odd & the Frost Giants” experience made me realize that my kids are tougher than I am when it comes to scary kids books. After all, they were fine with Roald Dahl's “The Witches,” and unfazed by Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Maybe I will let my oldest have a go at “Coraline” after all. Gaiman's books are strange and wonderful, and perfect for kids who like a little darkness at bedtime.

If you get a chance check out Neil Gaiman's blog. He does everything (that's why he looks sort of sleepy in the photo).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Missed manners

I often write book reviews. Many are on books for children or for parents.  Right now, I'm desperately looking for a book on etiquette for kids.  I thought I was modeling good table manners and generally showing good social etiquette (make eye contact with people, shake hands when introducing yourself, don't talk with your mouth full of gummy bears, etc.) but the other day  while my family was eating dinner something happened. We were having fish, salad and rice.  While my oldest son did use a fork for the rice, I had to remind him twice to use a fork for his fish and salad.  He smiled and used the fork a couple times. Then when his father and I were distracted he went back to picking up his buttery fish and ranch-coated salad with his fingers.   I looked at him and before I even said anything, he smirked and started to pick up the fork.  Since his hands were pretty gooey, I said, "wipe your hands first" and glanced at his napkin.  He said "oh yeah," and then wiped his hands on his ....  sigh....on his.... HAIR.  His hair. Who does that? Where did I go so wrong that my 8-year old son used his own head as a napkin?  I actually would have not been surprised if he had used his shirt sleeve or wiped his hands on his pants, but this one was new.  My husband and I could only stare slack-jawed at him as he then picked up his fork and merrily plowed into his dinner.

I'm thinking back to all the times Mark and I haven't used napkins or the time when Mark's frugal grandmother told the kids to make sure they licked all the food off their fingers (so as not to waste food) or maybe I never actually said "you must use a napkin, a fork, a plate." Maybe I've just been assuming that like E.T. or some other clever alien, my kids would just watch me and copy the fabulous way I eat. Then I remembered all the times I probably wasn't showing my best table manners either.  Telling them to eat their broccoli while I was still chewing mine, reaching across the table for the Tabasco because after a long day I just didn't want to talk to anyone.  So, I should brush up on my table etiquette, too.  Still, I'm getting old and soon no one will care how I eat, but the kids will need jobs one day, and maybe have to have a lunch interview.  If the boy does that hair thing in front of a prospective employer he is doomed.   So an etiquette book, a How-to-Eat-With-People type of book, would be just perfect.