A cultural conundrum

Writer Kerry MacGregor worried that her family wasn’t French enough for daycare in the South of France, until she realized that French toddlers might not exist

cultural-conundrumIt was while sitting in the office of our son’s French daycare this fall, listening to the directrice (director) tell us about the elaborate haute toddler cuisine they’ll be serving, that I first wondered if my Canadianness was going to be a social detriment to my son.

“We have a nutritionist who comes in regularly, who makes sure the meals are balanced,” assured the petite blonde woman with a caramel tan, as she handed over a day-by-day menu of kid-size, three-course meals.

With one perfectly manicured finger, she drew our attention to Parisian rice salad, ground steak with shallots, cauliflower au gratin and sugared crêpes. “We make very good French meals.”

I’d heard that children in the South of France eat well at school, but this menu, I must say, was impressive: Grated organic carrots à la vinaigrette, pan-fried apples, minced chicken in a caramel sauce, fillet of white fish à la Provençale.

As my husband and I read, perched on the edge of our wicker chairs, the lightly perfumed directrice blinked back at our little family with an air of efficiency and style. Her: wearing a smart V-neck sweater-dress and stylish, black high heels. Me: struggling to find words that I recognized, wearing bright yellow sanitary socks over my shoes.

My husband is French and grew up on these kid-sized gourmet meals; I, on the other hand, was raised in Ottawa, on spill-all-over-the-floor Cheerios and powdered macaroni cheese—in front of the TV.

In the past few years, the idea that North American children could learn from the eating habits of French kids has been big news. According to authors Pamela Druckerman and Karen Le Billon, who are behind the successful books Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and French Kids Eat Everything, French children don’t throw food, sit calmly in restaurants through three-course meals, and eat everything that’s put in front of them.

North American children, by contrast, are temperamental, food-spewing cyclones.

Don’t get me wrong, I feed our kid well. But as the directrice spoke, I started to imagine a room of 20 French kids eating politely with forks and knives while my little guy let boeuf bourguignon dribble down his chest, sang at the table, and rolled his Brussels sprouts on the ground.

Up until that point, I’d taken it for granted that our son would be cool: My husband had taught him how to eat saucisson (dried French sausage), wade in the Mediterranean Sea, say, “Allo?” when he answered a smartphone, and give bisous (kisses).

I’d taught him how to skate with a stick in his hand (albeit on toddler roller skates, with a broken broom handle), sit calmly in the middle of a canoe, hum along with Raffi’s peanut butter sandwich song, and give high-fives.

So what do you do if your child’s cultural difference might accidentally be perceived as a behavioural problem? Or worse, a social one?

Knowing that this meeting was as much of an audition for us as it was for the crèche (the French word for daycare), I couldn’t help myself: I wanted my child’s future caregivers to know at least a little of the cultural conundrum they were getting into.

“I don’t eat a lot of these meats — I’m a little vegetarian,” I confessed in my slightly broken, accented French. “But I’ve learned many of their French names by the sounds of the animals.”

On my first meal out in France, with a group of my then boyfriend’s students, I’d had to ask for help with almost every item on the menu. I knew the word for cow in French, and horse —which, in France, is a good one to know — but I didn’t know the words for the more detailed breakdowns like calf and female goat.

“What’s this — lardons?” I asked the Brazilian student sitting next to me. The student shrugged and said the name in Portuguese, which then prompted his wife to make the sound of the animal. “Could that be a pig?” I guessed, squinting over the double language barrier. “Is that what pigs sound like in your country?”

I snorted a Canadian pig sound and the Frenchman across from me, who had a pony tail and a good knowledge of North American movies, translated: “C’est un cochon. Ihtz a pee-guh,” followed by the animal’s French sound.

It’s through this introductory game of Old MacDonald/telephone, that I learned French turkeys say glou glou, roosters say cocorico, and French cows, a seemingly unimpressed animal, stand around all day saying meuh and batting flies with their tails.

“Le menu, c’est bien,” my embarrassed husband told the directrice, giving an encouraging pat to our one-and-ahalf-year-old, who was seated (not for long) on a miniature wicker chair between us. Already in our interview, I’d copped to having breastfed much longer than French mothers, gone with cloth diapers, and often follow my kid onto play structures. Basically: I’M FOREIGN!

After that meeting, I’ll admit, I started cheat-sheeting my son with food.

In the days leading up to our son’s first day at la crèche, I went crazy on French cuisine — well, on one item in particular: I’d noticed that fresh cheese was on la crèche’s menu almost every day, at the end of each meal, so Normandy’s Petit Suisse became my go-to.

A Petit Suisse is a fresh cheese that comes in a small, cylindrical container, attached to other small containers like yogurt. You snap off one of the plastic cylinders, peel off the yogurt-style lid, flip the container upside down and then tap the bottom several times with the tips of your fingers. After a little shake, a mushy, white, unsalted cheese blobs out, hopefully onto a plate. Remove the wet paper cover, add a little jam and stir.

Toddlers, it seems, will flip a Petit Suisse into almost anything — margarine container, tub of markers, even onto other food. The ritual is addictive. It can also be messy, but I’m convinced that parents from any culture have to go through a little sloppy-makes-perfect at some point, whether you’re an Italian dad learning that one slurped-up piece of spaghetti can overflow a tiny mouth or a German mom trying to figure out which mashed potato recipe slides most easily off the wall.

The morning of my half-French kid’s first day at his all-French daycare, I laid out a buffet that could have fed both our countries. To my relief, he ate a little bit of everything. That’s what I told the animatrice (daycare worker) when she asked us our questions d’acceuil: What time did he wake up and what time did he eat?

By the time I’d listed everything, a few more late-drop-off parents had made their way in.

“He didn’t eat anything. He never wants to eat in the morning,” one dad was saying unapologetically as a little girl walked up and poked his son in the face until he cried.

D’accord (OK),” was the animatrice’s only reaction—to both the lack of appetite and this brief burst of toddler violence. Out on the terrasse, a French kid started to throw a temper tantrum and another one started talking about Halloween candy.

“Do you want to join us?” a second daycare worker called to my son from where several kids were sitting cross-legged on gym mats. “We’re doing sonores.”

I gently pushed my son toward the semi-circle. “Les sonores are when we match photos of animals with animal sounds,” the animatrice explained to us, motioning to small CD player behind her and then to the cue card she was holding, which pictured a short, plump duck.

I nodded and smiled to show I’d understood.

“We can do this,” I whispered aloud to my son, mimicking the self-assuredness I’d heard in the voice of the father whose kid had eaten nothing. Maybe that’s all there is to this French behavioural thing?

Qwaik, quaik,” my son confidently creaked, in his own animal language, as he stepped away from me.