There’s a Cream for That

Vous auriez une peau sublime…” said the lab coat-wearing saleswoman, cradling the miracle-promising potions in her hand.

My skin, sublime? C’est impossible.

And yet, I contemplated it, awestruck and giddy with hundreds of bottles of serum and cream glistening on the shelves around me.

Sublime skin at my age? Clearly, I’m old enough to know better. After years of unabashed product junkie-ism, few potions have gone untried. By now I’ve learned (or should have learned) that no cream, scrub or organic algae masque can truly deliver that which heredity, two babies and years of dedicated sun worship have denied.

And yet, je suis optimiste!

So there I stood, on the brink of another purchase, ready to plunk down a hundred euros in pursuit of the as-yet-unattainable dream. Perhaps it was the confidence of the saleswoman, 50ish with a radiant, unlined complexion. Or maybe it was trust inspired by her white physician-esque coat and official-looking name tag, “Francoise” and below it, “Aestheticien.” That had to mean something, right? (Okay, so it means “beautician” but still.)

Two cellophane wrapped pots of cream in her hand (“Il faut avoir les deux, madame!“), she glanced back at me and pursed her glossy lips. “Le serum pour les yeux, aussi?” Clearly, I needed the eye cream as well.

At this point, I had all but surrendered. Sure! What’s another eye cream? After all, this might actually be the one. Plus, doesn’t everyone know that these products work better together?

Carte bleue proferred, items bagged and one hundred plus euros poorer. All in just eight minutes. What had begun as a quick trip for kid’s shampoo had turned into yet another pit stop on the quest for lasting beauty.

But of course, this is France. Everyone knows they have the best stuff. The internationally-known brands are legendary: Clarins, Avene, Caudalie, Decleor, La Roche-Posay, Biotherm…There are even a few that aren’t French at all
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   There are even a few that aren’t French at al (Creme de la Mer, anyone?) but seek to capitalize on the cache of sounding francais. If it comes from France, it must be good.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s ever-informative GOOP newsletter included her list of favorite beauty products found only in French pharmacies. From kiddie knee scrapes to crows feet, these are the products Gwynnie recommends.

In fact, here in Paris there seem to be precious few ailments or imperfections that cannot be remedied by the right creme. Cellulite? Pas de probleme. Slather on some Elancyl “Offensive Cellulite” cream and erase those unsightly dimples (like this woman!)

A few extra pounds? Try the Minceur 2011 Slimmer Plate (yes, it exists) or some targeted ultrasound treatment. No need to exercise (sweating is so not seductive). Just strap on a contraption (don’t forget la creme minceur), light a cig and relax. In a few hours, voila! Firmer buns, c’est chic.

Pale pallor? Ready your skin for le bronzage with Oenobial, carotene-laden pills to be consumed daily during the weeks prior to les vacances d’ete.

No matter what ails you (or your appearance, anyway) there’s a fabulous cream for it here in la Belle France.

As for the beautifying results of my pharmacy purchases? Only time will tell.


Birthday Parties, Paris Style

This is going to sound awful, but I have long felt that kids’ birthday parties are an especially acute form of torture.

Not our own kids’ parties, of course, but other peoples’ kids’ parties.

Exceptions to this rule include: 1) If the birthday boy or girl is a relative. 2) If the birthday kid’s parents are already your friends. 3) Actually, that’s it. Just two exceptions.

C’mon, admit it. You know I’m right.

The absolute worst are the “daycare friends” parties when the children are very young, like two, three and sometimes even four. They are too young to interact successfully and the parents (who are virtual strangers) spend the whole agonizing time trying to get the kids to “play together” and act like they have any idea what’s going on. Meanwhile, we’re left grasping for conversation, invariably falling back on scintillating questions like, “How old is he?” and “When are you due?”

These parties lead to helicopter parenting at its worst as we hover over our offspring for some conversational relief. We anxiously await the arrival of cake and secretly hope there will be enough for us to have a slice before we can leave and actually enjoy the what’s left of the weekend.

Why do these parties always require parents to stay for the duration? Don’t we trust one another to look after our child for an hour or two?

No? Didn’t think so.

In France, however — as with so many aspects of parenting — they do birthday parties differently. And on this one, they’ve got it figured out.

Here’s how to throw a birthday party for the under-six set, a la francaise.

Pas de parents: Parents are not expected to stay, nor are you invited to. You arrive at the designated hour — invariably at the child’s home — and drop off your little one. This is true whether you “know” the parents or not. You might exchange brief pleasantries with the parents whose names you may (or more likely may not) know. “La maman de Cole” or Luc or Pierre, usually suffices. (More on that later)

Number of guests = Number of years: A French parent would not dream of inviting a dozen three-year-olds to their child’s party. First of all, it would be too much to handle, resulting in a need to include parents (see rule above). I’ve been told that French parents often limit the number of guests to the number of birthdays. Not all parents stick to this but it’s a reasonable goal.

Hire an Entertainer! As a mother who has tried to “entertain” groups of preschool party-goers, (“Are these kids having any fun?” “Honey, where’s the camera?” “Why is Cole crying?” “Should I get out some more games??”), I have a particular fondness for this tradition. Why should we go nuts trying to entertain kids (and their parents) when you can hire a professional, costumed animateur to do it for you? For about 150 euro, a chevalier, princess or pirate will come to your home and guide your child and her pals through three hours of dancing, treasure hunting, face-painting, pinata whacking and gift opening. By the end, it’s actually the kids who are exhausted. Imagine!

Wear costumes: Costumes at French birthday parties are de rigeur. The child chooses his or her theme and guests arrive bedecked and ready to celebrate. It sets a festive tone and gets some extra mileage out of the duds in the dress-up bin. I once ferried Cole to a friend’s home for a pirate-theme party only to be greeted at the door by his slightly sauced maman sporting an eye patch and a hearty glass of chardonnay. (For this one, I ignored the rules and stayed awhile..)

Open les cadeaux: I’m not sure when this tradition went out in the States. Why don’t kids open gifts at parties anymore? Wasn’t group gift opening always a party highlight when you were a kid? And not just for the recipient but the gift-giver, too. Kids here always open gifts together, thank each other on the spot and guests go home with bon bon filled goodie bags.

Thank you notes? No, thank you: Of all the traditions that are different here in France, this shocked and delighted me the most. For some reason I have yet to understand, you will not receive a thank you note for a child’s birthday gift. The French are, in most ways, scrupulously attentive to rules of politesse (brusk waiters and civil servants notwithstanding) so this one just makes me happy. One less thing to do after a grueling fete with a dozen six year olds.

As the French say, “c’est top!”

You Say "Nounou," I Say "No, No…"

Most mothers have considered the question: Would I hire a “hot” nanny or babysitter to look after my kids?

Someone younger and more fit, with perkier you-know-what’s? Someone who gets a full night’s sleep and even if she doesn’t (because she’s out clubbing) she’s young enough to shake off the prior night’s abuses with a diet coke and Egg McMuffin (or here in Paris, un cafe and a pack of cigarettes). She’s breezy, carefree and more than happy to sit on the floor with your toddler for hours at a stretch with nary a complaint aimed at your man when he comes through the door.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion: No way.

Because really, who needs it? When we’re in the ballpark for a new sitter or nanny, we’re not likely to be at our very best. We’ve probably given birth recently, or are about to, or perhaps did so awhile back and are therefore perpetually tired, under-showered and overall less attractive. Or at least it feels that way.

So, the very last thing we need is a super attractive babysitter.

With this in mind, I interviewed a new sitter yesterday. Let’s call her Veronique. Veronique, a French “student” from the chic coastal town of Deauville, came highly recommended by another American mom in Paris. She raved: “Veronique is fabulous. She took care of my four children everyday after school…took them to activities..they loved her…10 euros an hour.” Sounded great.

We are actually looking for more than just an occasional sitter — a part-time nanny (“nounou” in French) for a year-long commitment. We recently lucked into renting a ridiculously cheap extra room in our building known as a chambre de bonne that we hoped to exchange for a handful of babysitting hours. Veronique wanted this exact arrangement. Parfait! No money would change hands; she’d stay in the room (entirely separate from our apartment) and Greg and I would get our long coveted two nights out per week. The room is tiny and lacks a private shower but hey, this is France. She’d manage.

Then yesterday, I met Veronique. Actually, we met Veronique. Greg was home slightly earlier than usual enabling him to participate in the bizarre ritual of sitter interviewing — a task which normally falls to me alone.

Not sure what struck me first about Veronique: the tussled blonde mane, the micro-mini, bare legs and high-heeled ankle boots? Or was it perhaps the sexy/nerdy glasses framing her heart shaped face? No, none of those. Perhaps it was the ridiculously low cut tank top worn sans bra? Ah, yes. That was it.

And if I hadn’t noticed, you can be absolutely certain who did.

Poor Greg. I actually felt kind of sorry for the guy. Not because of the young, French – and virtually topless – woman in our living room, but because I was right there to observe how he reacted to it all.

Suffice it to say, he handled it like a gentlemen. After asking some routine questions about her background and experience with kids, we sneaked off to the kitchen to let Veronique engage with the kids.

Greg looked at me with a half smile and shook his head. “I don’t think this is right. She seems like a party girl. And besides…where would she shower? Here?”

Hmm. Not the first concern that sprang to my mind, but clearly something Greg had been considering.

I agreed that Veronique didn’t feel like a fit for us. I had been told that she was bilingual — she had spent a year in Chicago as an au pair — but it seemed like her English was fairly limited with a particular fondness for the phrase, “It’s cool..

When I asked if she could read English, she responded, “You mean, like, Virginia Woolf?” Uh, no, more along the lines of Cat in the Hat, I said. She giggled. Hair toss.

In fact, there was altogether too much giggling and hair tossing; far too little interest in the kids. No sitting on the floor, no asking to see their room, no inquiries about their favorite toys. (minimum requirements for a babysitter to pass muster). So we parted amicably with me mumbling something about other babysitters to interview and being in touch.

As she sauntered out of our apartment and into the Paris evening, I tried to be level-headed. Was I overreacting because she was young and attractive? Overly put off by her lack of appropriate undergarments?

Well, maybe.

But I’m still not hiring her.