Friday, May 21, 2010

Stranger in a stange land

It's been two years since my last visit to the US, and four years since I've lived here. They say reverse culture-shock is the worst kind. I don't if it's the worst, but it's certainly very disconcerting to feel adrift in a place that you used to call home. I've experienced this strange feeling both when I lived in Mexico and now in France. I was feeling relieved and excited to visit the US after a long, grey, damp Parisian winter. Finally a place where I understand why people act the way they do, where I don't need to think about what I am going to say before I say it, and where the supermarket is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. But on arriving, I find that while it's great to see my family and introduce Santi to familiar sights, it just isn't the same. Or, it's probably more accurate to say, I'm not the same anymore.

I'm sure one of the biggest reasons is that I really am not the same. Not only am I two years older, done with school, and living in a(nother) foreign country now, but I'm a parent now. And that's a big adjustment in and of itself, let alone adding in the cultural differences that have shaped that process for me. In France I'm always mentally thinking that "this (whatever) would be SO much easier if we just lived in the US". But now that I'm here, I realize everything is much more complicated than that. I guess it's just expat momma neurosis.

I find myself trying to adjust to all the different attitudes about the right way to raise a child. When Santi was born, even though I hadn't set foot in the US during the entire pregnancy, I was reading parenting books by American pediatricians and religiously following American parenting forums online. I found that while there is a good bit of overlap, parenting styles between "Anglo-Saxon" and Latin American culture can also have very important differences. For example, in Mexico, people are very tolerant of children and caring for them is a group sport. Complete strangers may offer to hold and soothe your crying baby, something that I know would horrify many of the moms who posted on the forums I read. However, as a first-time mom far from family, it was actually a godsend for me to have other helping hands. Other things I didn't find so wonderful. Such as the Latin American obsession with keeping babies bundled up, even when it's hot degrees.Our housekeeper nagged me daily that dressing Santi in a onesie and wrapping him in a blanket while napped in our sunny apartment was going to give him pneumonia. She finally brought me her grandson (three weeks older than Santi) dressed in footed pajamas, a fleece cap, mittens, swaddled in a blanket, and then wrapped in another bulky fleece blanket to show me the proper technique (it was about 80 degrees that day). I've even see other mothers bundle their babies the same way, and then drape an additional blanket directly over the child's face. In literally 90 degree weather. I don't understand how those kids don't suffocate!

After moving to France, the rules changed once again. Gone was the Latin American tolerance and patience with babies. I was pressured to "cry it out", stop breast feeding at 3 months because it was "inconvenient" for others, and my mother-in-law was utterly horrified that we swaddled Santi to help him sleep. However, I was really pleased that we were lucky enough to get selected for the incredibly inexpensive and excellent quality municipal daycare center and that doctors are reluctant to medicate children if it's not necessary, particularly with antibiotics. I also found that food in France is just as good for babies as it is for adults. If I don't have time to whip up a home-cooked meal, there is a really wide range of healthy, prepared foods for toddlers that I haven't seen in either Mexico or the US. You can get dishes prepared with beef, veal, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, trout, couscous, pasta, and just about every kind of vegetable under the sun.

My two week sojourn in the US has thrown yet another curve ball to my momma skills. In a lot of ways, I've come full-circle. All of the advice on food

How does a first-time mom not get overwhelmed by her insecurities when everyone has a different opinion and is absolutely convinced he or she (mostly she) is right?

The biggest advantage to parenting in France, in my opinion, is (as you might have guessed already) the food. I always thought the moms on the US-based parenting forums were going overboard when they discussed all of the organic foods and supplements they searched out for their children. I do buy some products and produce in organic form in France, but not many and I don't sweat it if only the conventional version is available. I've noticed some really uncharacteristic, hyperactive behavior in Santi that started a few days a few days after arriving in California and that has gotten progressively worse. While it might be just normal toddler wiggles or the asthma meds he's had to start taking, I also wonder if it's not the additives in the food.  Food is pretty heavily regulated in Europe and I really don't see many additives or preservatives on the labels, particularly for baby food. In addition,  And that comes in very handy for a working mom who doesn't always have time to cook. In Mexico, there were only two kinds of beef dishes, two kinds of chicken, and one turkey. And I got lots of disapproving looks for feeding him those jarred foods. Even the crazy pediatrician chided me for not preparing him fresh, from scratch dishes. I would have loved to, but the crazy schedule we were on and the lack of a kitchen in our lodgings made that impossible. Here in the US there are lots of variation on chicken and beef for toddlers, but unfortunately Santi doesn't seem to like any of them. Some times he'll eat a couple of bites, sometimes he'll just eat the vegetables that come with them. The only things that he seems to like are adult canned soups that are really high in sodium. So I'm always searching for something he'll eat and also doing as much scratch cooking for him as possible.

Despite these complaints, there is a lot to like in the land of parenting milk and honey. For better or for worse, the US is a consumer's paradise and there is a great niche that has been prepared for parents who may be busy but still want to do everything to give their children the very best.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When health care systems clash...

So on to California! We've been here for 11 days now and a lot has been happening. For the good times, see Santi's blog. He's been having a great time enjoying all sorts of new sights and places with Grandma and Grandpa. I've been having a bit of momma culture shock. I realize that as a mom, I'm actually a lot more French than I am American. More on that later.

In bad news, Santi has had to be hospitalized for a severe asthma attack. It came on very suddenly a few days ago and we are still trying to get it under control. He started gasping for breath, panting, and screaming in the middle of the night and we had to bring him to the emergency room. He was hospitalized for a day and then released. He was still not doing very well (the doctor who released him should not have, according to the new pediatrician we immediately found), but is now on several new medication with his new doctor (who is awesome). He goes to follow-ups with her about every day and we're waiting to see when he will be able to fly home to France.

It was very scary having to rush him to the hospital. I felt even worse when he didn't respond to the breathing treatments and the doctor said he had to be admitted. He was placed in the observation wing, which is not a specifically pediatric ward. He looked so tiny in his adult sized hospital bed, hooked up to an oxygen monitor and mask. He did get a child-sized robe with lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). But I did start to feel less sorry for him as the day went by because he was actually very happy. And he had the nurses wrapped around his finger because every time they came in to check on him, he gave them his whole-face million dollar grin, waved, and blew them kisses. So, pretty soon those visits became more and more frequent (and were accompanied  by graham crackers, cheerios, apple juice, toys, etc.).

The real difficult part was that we were stupid and didn't buy traveler's insurance before we left France. We thought the worst that would happen is that he could get an ear infection and we might need a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. So we're paying out of pocket for the hospital (they haven't been able to calculate his bill yet, but it will be in the thousands). And I've had to be explaining all of this to Greg who was first in Mexico and now back in France. He has never lived in the United States and does not understand the health care system we have at all. He was shocked and worried to hear about Santi and then furious to hear that anyone would be expected to pay that much for a medical emergency ("Tell that doctor he's a thief and that he should stop exploiting the misery of others!" were his exact words. Well, there were actually some other words, but I won't repeat them here). I explained actually, that's not so expensive in comparison with other people I know who've been hospitalized without insurance, and also, it's the hospital's policy is to make money (with a lot of influence from the insurance companies to be able max out their billing, I'm sure). In France, this would have been covered by our health care, and even if we didn't have health care, it would have been covered somehow. I know I'm going to get an earful from the whole family about how screwed up the US is when we get back. And I tend to agree (but I also realize it was especially dumb for me to not have bought traveler's insurance, knowing what we're dealing with over here. Expensive lesson learned). While it's true that we pay more taxes in France, we get a lot back for them. And those social services our taxes fund allow us to live much better as a one income family of three even in an expensive city like Paris compared to what how we'd be doing in the US on that same income at a lower tax rate. To each his own, but I'll take what we have.

Ok, stepping down off the soap box. For now, I'm just hoping Santi gets better and we can get home to his affordable doctor and hospital (but let's hope he doesn't need it).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Finishing up the excavation

I can't believe we're already done with the season and that Santi and I have already been in California for over a week!

Lots has been going on. Where to start?

The dig ended well. It was hectic, but we got a lot done. We were even filmed for a television documentary on the archaeology of Mexico (it'll air on a French TV station next year). That was very funny because they only had one camera man, so to get all the angles they needed, we had to "recreate" (i.e., fake) a lot of the stuff we were doing. Like pretend to discover the same pot four times. Or spend all morning driving randomly around town with the camera man hanging out the tailgate of their station wagon in front of us, filming us supposedly leaving to go to the site. They were incredibly nice and friendly though, and we enjoyed having them around.

Being a parent changes your perspective on all sorts of things, I have found. We discovered a number of burials at the site, the last of which was incredibly well preserved. I have always had mixed feelings about excavating those who were laid to rest by their families. We learn a great deal about past civilizations in this way, but it is still exhuming a grave. And in this case, it was even more poignant. The burial was a child who had been carefully placed inside a large ceramic urn, with an offering of perfectly made miniature bowls and jars on his/her lap and some kind of organic cover. Then the opening to the urn was plugged with a bowl and sealed with a precise layer of mud. We found such child burials in every house we excavated (it seems to be a pattern that these people buried their children in their houses and adults outside in cemeteries), but these had all been disturbed at some point after the houses were abandoned and they were really just a mixture of badly eroded bone fragments and dirt, plant roots that had invaded the broken urns, etc. But this last burial was so well preserved we could see precisely how the child had been placed in a seated fetal position, with his little head resting against the side of the urn. He was probably Santi's age (between one and two years-old). I couldn't help but imagine the parents of this child preparing his little body and then tenderly arranging his pots for the next world on his lap before they sealed his small tomb. And I got a bit teary eyed thinking that this little boy or girl had spent the last probably 1,000 years all alone under the floor of that abandoned house. I hope that the physical anthropologists in charge of analyzing the burials take good care of him/her from here on out.

California deserves its own entry, both for the good and the bad. Be back soon!