During my first year in Paris, the value of the dollar fell over 20% against the Euro. Thanks to some weird multiplier effect, this resulted in a savings depletion rate more than twice what I had anticipated, so by last spring I had to get serious about making some money.
Since then, I’ve been willing to take a crack at most things that have come my way. After all, this whole moving-to-Paris thing was supposed to be about having Interesting New Experiences.
So I’ve posed as a fashion writer. I’ve proofread for a Czech magazine that (I’m willing to bet) uses Google Translate to generate its English copy. I’ve taught “Practical English,” preparing lessons on phrasal verbs with useful examples like “make out” and “get off.”
I even applied for a job at a patisserie…and got a call back!
“Is this some kind of joke?” Monsieur Master Pastry Chef asked. Apparently they don’t get a lot of applications from people with PhDs. “Why would a grosse tête want to work in a patisserie?”
“Non! Non! C’est pas un blague!” I sputtered, caught off guard by his call. I explained that being surrounded by beautiful pastries all day was just the kind of Interesting New Experience I was looking for.
I never heard from him again.
Then one day, somebody asked if I’d be interested in teaching a cooking class—in English.
“Sure! Why not?”
I pictured myself as the American who came to Paris to teach French people how to cook…I’d import the flavors of the New World…I’d popularize our indigenous foods and regional specialties…I’d be Julia Child in reverse…
An email arrived a few days before the class with a chocolate muffin recipe and instructions to see the attachment for more details. I didn’t bother to look at it right away. Making muffins is a piece of cake—easier, even. And it wasn’t as if I’d have to do it in French.
The day before the class, I downloaded the attachment—all six, single-spaced pages of it—and had started to skim through it when my eye snagged on something buried in the second paragraph of Step 1:
“…write the name of the birthday child on the blackboard…”
This was not my fantasy. This was a children’s cooking class. Actually, it was a birthday party, and cooking was just one of the activities:
…decorate the cake…icing sugar and coloured pearls can be found on the shelf above the candles…prepare for teatime…plastic goblets are in the corner by the window…each child should have a little bag of sweets…
…place an apron on top of each stool…place a chef’s hat to the left of each bowl…flour and sugar are in the chest, as are the aluminium cake moulds…dried fruits and dessicated coconut are under the top oven…check you know how to use the ovens…
…presents should be left on the chest…coats and bags in the large basket on the floor…ask if anyone wants to go to the toilet…take a brown paper bag for each child…sellotape the recipe to the outside of each bag…whilst you are setting the table for tea, have children make a sculpture from sweets…fill the dishwasher…put dirty laundry in the washing machine…clean work surfaces, ovens, fridge…HAPPY COOKING!
There was no way I could do this. I don’t know anything about children. Everyone knows that, and they’ve known that about me since forever ago. I didn’t think I had to tell people that.
I called the woman who had gotten me into this.
“You said this was a cooking class, not a children’s birthday party.”
“It’s really not all that different.”
“I dunno,” I said. “Sharp knives, hot ovens, small children—this doesn’t seem like a good idea…”
They really needed somebody, so if I was going to through with this, I had to make some sort of disclaimer and confess my embarrassing ineptitude. “Actually, I don’t know a single thing about children.”
This revelation didn’t seem to trouble her at all, and she assured me that I would be assisted by a helper who knew something about children.
Maybe she just couldn’t imagine how little I knew: that I had never, in my entire life, spent any time alone with a child.
Well, OK, there was that one time. It was so long ago I had almost forgotten about it.
When I was about 12, Mr. and Mrs. K moved in next door with their 3-year old daughter Julie. Mrs. K must’ve thought she’d struck new-neighbor gold when she found a girl of babysitting age practically waiting on her doorstep. I don’t think she wasted any time before asking me if I could sit for Julie.
“You’re not ready yet,” my mother said. “Maybe when you’re older.”
As a veteran latchkey kid, I’d been amusing myself every afternoon without mishap since I was 8. I also pointed out that I was the same age as the babysitters they’d left me with a few years earlier for their Saturday nights out at The Anvil Club.
“That’s different,” she said. “You’ve never had younger brothers and sisters to take care of.”
“And whose fault is that?” I said.
I don’t remember how keen I was on the actual “baby” part of the babysitting, but I liked the “sitting” part, especially if I could do it in front of the TV until late at night and get paid for it, maybe even get some pop and a frozen pizza out of the deal. Besides, all my friends were doing it, so I was feeling left behind.
Mrs. K persisted, and my mother eventually agreed to let me babysit for a couple of hours one Saturday afternoon while Mrs. K went shopping. We wouldn’t have to worry about bedtime dramas or the sundry dangers of the night, so all I had to do was play with Julie. My mother would stick around in case I needed backup.
And so on the appointed Saturday, off I went. My mother was nervous. I was nervous.
“It’ll be fine,” Mrs. K said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Everything was fine until Julie suddenly had to go potty. She was, in theory, toilet trained, but something had given her a slight case of the runs.
I hustled her into the bathroom and onto the specially adapted toilet seat. “OK, I’ll wait outside,” I said, backing out of the bathroom and closing the door.
A moment of silence passed, and then she started to wail.
“What’s wrong?” I said through the door.
“Come heeeere!” she cried. “I need heeelp.”
I cracked the door open and peeked in. “What do you need?”
Her face was puckered into splotchy pink folds. “My mom helps me goooo!”
“Helps you?” I said, baffled. I couldn’t remember needing help with this. “You just go….”
She pointed to a box of pre-moistened towelettes. “She uses those.”
Aha…changing diapers, wiping up poop—this kind of thing was out of my league. I called my mother.
Two minutes later she was at the front door.
“I knew this wasn’t a good idea,” she said, brushing past me. I was in trouble.
She headed straight for the bathroom where Julie was in full meltdown and shut the door behind her.
After a lot of bumping around and flushing and running of the tap, my mother finally emerged carrying Julie who was now exhausted from the ordeal.
“What a mess,” she said, grimacing slightly. Julie had gotten poop on her hands, and every time my mother managed to get her bottom wiped, Julie had to go again.
My mother took her upstairs to change her clothes and put her down for a nap. I sank into the velour rec-room couch and waited for whatever was coming next.
“Do you see now why I didn’t want you to do this?” she asked when she came back.
“Just think, if you had problems with this, what would you have done in a real emergency?”
“I don’t know. Call you, I guess—”
“But that’s my point!” she said, exasperated. “That’s what growing up means—you can’t rely on us forever!”
She was right. I wasn’t very mature. My failure to grow up must have been very frustrating. Like waiting around for one of those pieces of fruit that never seems to ripen and just ends up going bad.
She was going to stay with me until Mrs. K got back, but I didn’t want her there, a testament to my failure. I told her I could handle it myself.
“I hope you’re right,” she said.
I hoped so, too. I didn’t want to have to call her again.
The class took place at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, which I’d always imagined was a place with cold frames for hardening tomato plants in the spring. Actually, it’s a large park-playground-indoor/outdoor activity center run by the city of Paris to acclimate children to something other than a light frost.
I asked the helper to deal with the birthday party elements—meaning, the children—so that I could focus on the cooking. As I prepared the work table for a dozen 8-year olds and assembled the ingredients, I realized that nowhere in this mind-numbing tome of instructions were any suggestions for how to actually teach the class. I’d been prepared to demonstrate the process to adults, but I was mystified about what to do with the twelve miniature mixing bowls. Spoon a little bit of each ingredient into them? That didn’t seem feasible. Get everything mixed and then distribute the batter so that they could do their own symbolic mixing? They’d see through that in a second.
Before I could figure it out, the birthday girl arrived with her parents, so we stopped to say hello. I hovered just behind the helper, smiling and nodding as if to echo her sentiments with a silent, “Yeah…what she said.”
The helper then disappeared down a long, lavender corridor to go look for something, and moments later, other kids started to arrive with their parents. One by one, the parents said hello, asked what time they should come back, and, with complete insouciance, turned their children over to me.
I started to panic. Why are they doing this? What happened to the disclaimer? Hadn’t it been passed on to the parents? The abandoned children were multiplying in front of me and the helper was still somewhere in the purple abyss…I racked my brain for the words to explain that I wasn’t the kid person, that she’d be right back…that this was all just a misunderstanding…that there was a disclaimer they should have received…
But the parents were only too happy to get out of there and have the afternoon to themselves. So calm and confident they were as they walked away. Their special parent radar had correctly determined that I was not an axe murderer or a pedophile, but why had it gone on the fritz when assessing whether I had any clue whatsoever what to do with their children?
“Oh, God,” I thought, suddenly sick to my stomach. “These people actually trust me.”
The helper finally returned, and we got the kids into their toques and aprons and put them on stools around three sides of the square table. I didn’t ask if anyone had to go to the bathroom—I figured it was better to just leave well enough alone.
I never really understood why we were giving a cooking lesson to children in a language they didn’t know, much less why a birthday party had to be an edifying experience. But I wanted to stick to the pedagogical mission as best I could, so I picked up each ingredient in turn and told them to repeat after me:
This killed a good two or three minutes. Then I busied a couple of them with measuring dry ingredients assuming that the others could watch, but I quickly realized that this wasn’t exactly riveting stuff, so I had to come up with something else.
“Who wants to beat an egg?”
Every hand shot up in the air—“Moi! Moi! Moi!”—but I only needed four eggs.
I cracked the first egg into the bowl of Girl Number 1, who started to beat it like there was no tomorrow.
The next girl wanted to crack her own egg, so I asked if she’d done it before. Oh, yes, she assured me. With your mother? I pressed. Oh, yes, she said. So I gave her the egg.
Girl Number 1 was still going to town on her egg, so I told her to give someone else a chance and got three more eggs going. They beat with astonishing diligence while I cleaned up Egg Number 2 and Girl Number 2. By the time I was finished, the eggs were the consistency and color of skim milk.
I was running out of ideas for how to involve a dozen children in activities like melting chocolate, so the mission eventually deteriorated into keeping enough of them engaged at any given moment to keep the chaos to a minimum.
With the muffins finally in the oven, the children were supposed to make “sculptures” out of gummi candies and bamboo skewers. As little as I knew about kids, I was pretty sure that plying them with sugar and giving them pointed sticks was a bad idea, but the helper didn’t have a better one, so we stuck to the instructions.
Predictably, this task absorbed the children’s attention for about ten minutes, at which point they started running around the table, jabbing each other with the sticks.
“No!….Stop!…One doesn’t do that!” I’d say, mustering my very limited French disciplinary vocabulary.
Before long, the only boy at the party had somehow gotten ahold of a paring knife and the birthday girl was in tears.
Mrs. K was pleased to find a peaceful house when she got home. “You got her to sleep? I’m impressed!”
I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. Like my mother, Mrs. K had to have known that I’d fail at this. I’d gone over in my head 100 times what I’d say to her and come to the conclusion that if I didn’t tell her what happened, my mother would, and that would have been even worse.
So I told her everything—the runny poop, Julie’s trauma, the call to my mother, my failure to cope—while Mrs. K listened and unpacked her groceries. And though I’d spent the previous hour in terrified anticipation of this conversation, once everything started to come out, it was surprisingly exhilarating. It was as if I had been in a greenhouse, forced to wear a heavy, wool overcoat, and now I could finally take it off. I felt light and cool.
“It’s OK,” Mrs. K said, taking three dollars out of her wallet and handing them to me. “It was your first time. Now you know what to do, and it’ll be better the next time.”
“I hope so,” I said, trying to smile.
I went home, triumphantly brandishing my three dollars. It was the first money I’d ever made. It was my redemption.
“She paid you?” my mother said. “Did you tell her what happened?”
“You can’t keep that!” she said. “Go over there right now and give it back to her—”
“But she said I could have it—”
“I don’t care,” my mother said, locking her eyes with mine. “You shouldn’t keep it if you didn’t really earn it, should you?”
Mrs. K opened the door, surprised to see me again. Before she could ask what I was doing there, I thrust the bills at her.
“My mom says I can’t have this.”
“She did all the work,” I said, averting my eyes.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Keep it!”
“No, I can’t,” I said, starting to cry. Why was she making this so hard? “I’ll get in trouble.”
“Look, why don’t you let me talk to her—”
“Oh, God, no, please don’t do that—”
“Then just keep it,” she said, lowering her voice. “I won’t tell her…it’ll be our secret—”
“Please,” I begged. “I’ll get in trouble if you don’t.”
She finally took the money.
Mrs. K never asked me to babysit again. In fact, we and the Ks sort of avoided each other after that, and, eventually, they moved away.
No one ever broached the idea of my babysitting again. If there had been any doubt that I didn’t know how to take care of children, that episode had erased it.
We got through the birthday party without anyone losing an eye or suffering a disfiguring burn. The kids were covered from head to toe in chocolate because the aprons were already in the wash when I remembered to make the frosting. The muffins were disgusting, but no one would know that until they got home. And only one child wanted to know why we weren’t using the miniature mixing bowls. I told her we were saving them for later.
Otherwise, the event had the verisimilitude of a successful birthday party. We sang “Happy Birthday.” The birthday girl blew out the candles and opened her presents. We ate cake and ice cream. Nobody had even the slightest inkling that this was all the result of freakishly good luck.
I was offered the opportunity to repeat the performance the following week with a group of 7-year old boys and no helper. I decided to pass—I didn’t want to press my luck.
Nearly a year has passed since that Interesting New Experience, and I’m still sorting out what I’ve learned.
I’ve certainly learned a few things about children. I now know that 8-year olds do not have the manual dexterity to crack eggs properly. Nor do they have the self-awareness to assess their own egg cracking skills. I’ve also learned that repetitive, energy-consuming tasks are best for keeping children occupied and that it is indeed possible to beat the color out of an egg.
I had assumed that trying new things would reveal previously unknown aptitudes, perhaps suggest life paths that weren’t evident before. In this case, it hasn’t. I’m still no Mary Poppins, and I never will be. But now I wonder…could I have been?
It’s a disturbing question, though not entirely because I’m approaching the age when I will no longer be able to have children. It’s more unsettling because it has made me doubt the one thing about which I thought I could be absolutely certain—that I’m not a kid person. Throughout two decades of adulthood and all its attendant self-examination, I’ve held the unswerving belief that I was just one of those people whose hard-wiring didn’t include a biological clock.
And if I can’t be certain about that, what else do I think I know about myself, but do not? What else might I be capable of doing that everyone has known since forever ago I cannot? I’d thought I’d had this stuff sorted out in my 20s, but when my 30s arrived, I realized there was more to go. And now my 40s are here—and still more sorting. Am I making any progress?
I guess the only way to find out is to keep having Interesting New Experiences.