Candy and champagne
Almost every Saturday in our house begins the same way. Our four-year-old son Theo wakes at 6.30 a.m. and starts to cough ostentatiously. I lie in bed hoping either that my husband will wake up or that Theo will see his folly and go back to sleep. When neither of these things happen, I get up, put on a robe and begin a dyspeptic mumble that lasts through midday.
“You have to keep quiet until the sun rises,” I say, walking toward Theo’s room. “We have talked about this…”
When I open the door, I find him bouncing slightly on his bed and the room as bright as an operating theater.
“Oh good, mama,” he says in a pleased voice. “You’re awake. Do you know what it is today?”
I pause. What day is it? “I think there is a…”
“It’s a birthday party day,” he bursts, running for my legs. “A birthday party day!”
Had I known that almost every Saturday of a child’s young life would be spent going to birthday parties I might have pushed the baby-rearing years a bit. Even in France where childcare is likely less intense than in the U.S., it feels as though the birthday party has taken on unnatural dimensions. Where once people invited a handful of children, they now invite the whole class. Where once there were games, there is now a magician on a clown. The party can, in theory, ruin the entire weekend. Forget about going to visit grandma or spending the weekend eating crepes in Saint-Malo. Everyone stays in town for the birthday party.
Or at least we do. (In truth, I find Brittany depressing and my husband Florent’s parents are three hours away.) Theo also has an enthusiasm for these events that rivals even Christmas. Do you think I can play with Emma’s toys? he asks at breakfast. Do you think she’ll have a robot?
The enthusiasm stems, I think, from the sheer hedonism of these events. In a society, where children are told not to run, not to eat, not to get dirty and not to shout, la fete d’anniversaire is like a drug-induced rave. I have seen three-year-olds lying on the floor and necking red drop sweets. Boys throwing wooden swords like spears. Little girls spinning in circles until their princess dresses rip right off their bodies. At the last party we went to there was a disco at the end. The mother turned down the lights, lit up some DJ Quicksilver and the kids danced.
Part of the joy, the sheer damn-the-world bacchus of it, is that the children dress up. The girls are invariably princesses and boys some kind of armed bandit, so it isn’t progressive, but it is fun. The benefit of childhood in France is that you will likely grow up to live in a relatively egalitarian and weaponless society. If the children want to play murderous crusaders or bread-baking housewives, no one much objects.
“Can I bring my hatchet?” asks Theo, as he pulls out his favorite viking costume. “Sure can,” I say merrily. “Knock yourself out.”
When we arrive at the party there are the expected balloons and glasses of juice, but it is always the candy that amazes me. Bowels of Haribo, the popular German bonbon, smarties and marshmallow bears perch on every available surface. The children — on strict diets of carotte râpée and sauté de poulet during the week — can eat as much as they like, for as long as they like. They shrug off coats and begin stuffing pieces in their mouth until they can’t talk and can barely chew.
“One piece. One piece at a time,” I shriek as Theo holds two chocolate marshmallow bears in the air and dive bombs them into his mouth.
The mothers and fathers look on benignly at the crazy American mother.
“It ‘eeze ok,” says one mother, who looks like she hasn’t touched a bonbon in thirty years. “It is just a little party. Juste a special occasion.”
I hold my hands up in surrender and Theo and runs off. Then, quite unexpectedly, all the parents prepare to leave. They don coats and hats and talk of walking over to the FNAC on the Champs Élysées and starting in on the Christmas shopping.
“We’ll be back at 6.30,” one father shouts to the hostess. “Bonne chance!”
The only people who stay, more out of confusion than protectiveness, are an Australian mother and me. The hostess looks at us wearily. “Could I offer you some tea?” she says.
But soon the better stuff arrives. The parents come back after a few hours, laden with bags and rosy-cheeked from the cold. The host brings out bottles of champagne and wine. Then the hostess brings out the chocolate cake that she made from scratch and is, of course, decorated with candy. The children sing Happy birthday, first in English with no “h’s” (’appy burrrth-day too yoo.) Then in French for good measure.
Some champagne? asks the host. Ah yes, of course, say the parents. Everyone stands around and chats about the oncoming holiday rush and the Euro crisis. Finally around 7 PM we start to leave, more than a little tipsy. In the elevator, Theo holds out a bulging pink plastic bag.
“What have you got there?” I ask him.
“Candy,” he says, breathlessly.
Despite assertions that French children eat everything, my boy hates sauces, mashed potatoes and cheese. He likes vegetables though, in part because the vegetables in France are so good.
Monday: cucumber salad with lemon dressing, vegetable purée, roasted chicken, yogurt
Tuesday: shredded carrots with vinaigrette, spaghetti, sautéed turkey breast, fruit
Wednesday: no school lunch. He comes home at 12.30
Thursday: nems, Chinese noodles, sautéed pork in peanut sauce, fruit
Friday: mixed salad, beef stew in tomato sauce, macaroni shells, chocolate mousse
On offer at the birthday party
A homemade cake. For some reason parents feel guilty about buying patisserie for their children on their birthday. No matter how elaborate the fete, the cake is usually homemade.
Candy. Haribo, chocolate bears, cotton candy galore. The one item that is rare is soda. At one birthday party the hostess had put out Coca-cola for the adults and a little girl asked her mother if she could have some. No, that’s really, bad said the mother, as the girl poured raw sugar down her throat.
Party favors. The children seems to get a little bag, full of small plastic toys or candy. The weird thing is that when I tell Theo he can only have one piece of candy a day, he accepts that. Must be something he learns in school.
Techno music. Who says four year olds don’t like to dance…like it’s Ibiza. DJ Quicksilver.