In my last post I wrote about some of the perks of being pregnant in Paris. But it’s not all free snacks and red carpet treatment. And it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the (many) peeves that come along with being pregnant in Paris.
The first that comes to mind is the constant telling off. I’m sure that pregnant women all over the world have to put up with this: people – oftentimes perfect strangers – telling you what you can and cannot do / eat / drink, etc.
As many women have said before me, it’s as if when you’re pregnant your body somehow becomes public property, which people feel they are free to comment on without reservation. During my pregnancy I was told off for everything from eating a crêpe with whipped cream to lighting a scented candle, to give but two examples.
And I understand that a lot of this comes from a good, well-meaning place. But for some reason I expected the French to have a more laissez-faire attitude when it came to many of these things. I know I’m not the only woman who took comfort from the idea that French women spend their pregnancies swilling red wine and eating soft cheeses. (Indeed, a recent Google search of “pregnant in Paris” suggested that people also ask, in first place, “Do the French drink while pregnant?“)
But oh boy was I wrong.
It started at my first prenatal appointment at my maternité, Port Royal (not to be confused with the other PR in my life).
At this appointment a midwife asks you a series of questions about your health, medical history and lifestyle. We were breezing through the questions and the midwife was barely looking up from the questionnaire. Then she asked whether I drank any alcohol. At that point I said something like, “un petit peu de temps en temps” (although, in reality, I think at that point I had only had a half glass of champagne on Christmas day), thinking she would say that was perfectly OK. This is France! Land of Champagne, Bordeaux and eau de vie! That’s right – alcohol is the WATER OF LIFE here! Mais non. She immediately looked up at me and put down her pen.
“Vous savez que c’est zero alcool ?” She gave me a stern look and said, “You know that it’s zero alcohol?”
“Ah, OK,” I fumbled.
“Zero,” she repeated.
Just like that, all of my illusions of French women sipping champagne throughout their pregnancies were shattered.
And in the same instant, so began the great tradition of being told off by nurses, midwives and various other hospital staff, which would be one of the hallmarks of our Port Royal experience. Nobody can do a good telling off quite like a French fonctionnaire, particularly a female one of a certain age.
In addition, in France there is an obsession – entirely absent in Australia, as far as I can tell – with pregnant women becoming infected with toxoplasmosis. If you haven’t already been immunized against it (which I haven’t been) then you have to do a blood test every month to make sure you haven’t contracted it. And you need to be extra careful to avoid eating undercooked meat, handling cat litter, gardening and eating unwashed salad (or raw vegetables generally). Luckily I am not a steak tartare fan, nor do I have a cat. And my thumb could not be any less green (I once killed my housemate’s orchid when she went to Ile de Ré for two weeks in August and I even managed to kill a pot of never-say-die red geraniums in my early days in Paris).
And while I would love to reassure pregnant readers that it’s all overkill, unfortunately I know at least two women who have contracted toxo while they were pregnant here. In any event, this opens up yet another terrain for people to raise their eyebrows when you order a salad at a restaurant (see Google search suggestions above) or eat crudités during apéro (“Put down that carrot stick woman, are you MAD?!”).
In my particular case, I was exposed to a whole other level of scrutiny thanks to my diagnosis with gestational diabetes about halfway through my pregnancy. This meant that I had to monitor my blood sugar levels and was given a strict diet to follow, which basically involved no sugar but, in typically French fashion, a different (pasteurized) cheese every day of the week. Avid readers will know that I’m no cheese expert, hence my midwife’s advice to eat a portion of Chanteneige on a Thursday or Port Salut on a Friday was entirely lost on me.
(As shown above, the meal plan also suggested eating an oh-so easy to whip up civet de lapin – rabbit stew – on Saturdays. And the list of “occasional” treats included baguette with fromage (no surprises there), a pain au lait, a croissant or two madeleines. So very Frrrrench).
I was pretty good at following the diet, or so I thought. I transitioned to a savory breakfast, substituting my overpriced fruit and granola for overpriced avocado on toast. I weighed slices of bread before eating them. I once went to a dinner party and ate nothing but a pot of natural yogurt (and was thenceforth tagged as Paris’s least fun dinner party guest). Hell, I went to Italy for a long weekend and didn’t eat a single gelato the whole time!
But alas, I was still getting a few randomly high (or low) results. So off I went back to the maternité to show them my results and my little food diary, feeling distinctly like a mischievous child summoned to the principal’s office for being cheeky to the milkbar lady on my lunch order form (true story; just ask my mum).
“They’re going to tell me off,” I said to my husband as we waited (and waited) in a corridor to see the nurse, me sitting on a chair (the only one on offer); him leaning awkwardly up against the wall (welcome to Port Royal, people).
“But you’ve been so good!”
“Yeah, but I’m still going to get into trouble.”
And sure enough, as soon as I handed over my papers to one of the nurses I knew I was done for.
“Vous avez pris un oeuf avec le petit dej ce matin ?” She arched an eyebrow and asked me if I had an egg with breakfast that morning. Her tone was icy cold.
“Erm…oui ? ”
“Et c’est où dans le régime ça ?” She spun the meal plan around on the table and jabbed at it with her index finger.
Where was it in the meal plan? Well, it wasn’t there, I supposed. But I figured that if I forewent my daily dose of camembert I could treat myself to an egg.
I picked up the meal plan and scanned it, trying to buy some time.
“Ce n’est pas là.” It wasn’t there, I admitted.
“Et oui,” said the nurse, closing the food diary as if she were Detective Poirot and she had just cracked the case.
At that moment another nurse walked by and took an interest in my file.
“Besoin d’insulin ?” She asked the first nurse if I needed insulin (to regulate my blood sugar levels).
“Non,” she said, turning away. “Elle a fait des erreurs.” “She made mistakes,” she said to the other nurse, labouring over the R’s in erruers.
I looked at my husband despairingly. I felt like shouting, “I ate an EGG people!” It wasn’t like I was eating fairy floss or guzzling cans of coca-cola.
But instead I sat and nodded as she went through the meal plan again, holding my tongue as I had during so many other telling-offs from cantankerous bureaucrats, receptionists and indeed just about anyone with the moindre ounce of authority in French society (i.e. anyone from the guy reviewing your citizenship application at the Prefecture to the lady at the boulangerie).
Of course the great irony in all of this is that telling people off has become a favourite pastime of mine, especially since my pregnancy. I’ve made no secret of my penchant for telling off people riding on electric scooters on the footpath, in particular. Two particularly memorable incidents come to mind.
The first occurred when my husband and I were on a rare expedition to the Rive Gauche last Summer. We found ourselves on a very quiet street with a particularly narrow footpath; so narrow that we had to walk in single file (I was fairly pregnant by this stage and taking up most of the space). As I waddled down the street a young chap on a scooter came into view, scooting along the footpath towards me. I felt la rage rising.
“Il n’y a pas la place pour nous deux !” (“There’s no space for the both of us!”), I called out, gesturing towards my belly.
He slowed down, but kept rolling towards me, in a scene reminiscent of this one:
When we eventually met, he edged his scooter to one side of the footpath I shuffled over to the other side, making a show of how difficult it was to let him pass.
“Et voilà pourquoi il ne faut pas rouler sur les trottoirs,” (“And that is why you shouldn’t roll on the footpaths”), I said to him as he rolled past, in this tone.
At that point I turned around to vent to my husband, but he had fallen a few paces behind me and was carefully studying the brickwork of the building he was standing in front of.
Another time, I was heading out into the chantier (worksite) that is the footpath outside our building right now. I was running late for my rendez-vous because the babysitter had cancelled on us at the last minute (now there is a phrase that suddenly makes me feel very old). So la rage was already boiling away. I met my husband in the street and handed over the baby.
Then I sensed a presence gliding up behind us on the already super-narrow footpath (and because of the travaux, only one of the footpaths is open at any one time).
“Pas de trottinette sur le trottoir !” I said, turning around to face to the perpetrator (who turned out to be another sprightly-looking young chap, giving me another coup de vieux).
“Putain, les Parisiens,” he said, dismounting from the scooter.
I felt sorry for him for a minute; he had probably come up to Paris for a sojourn from some lovely little village in the South where the lady at the boulangerie knows your name and young folk freely scoot around on footpaths.
But let’s be honest. Deep down, a part of me felt secretly pleased I’d been accused of being a “Parisian” by a French person.
“Et oui,” I said, in the same tone the nurse had used on me at Port Royal. (I wish I could say it ended there, but then, awkwardly, we kept walking in the same direction, muttering about each other until we reached the Avenue de l’Opéra and finally parted ways.)
So although my pregnancy was not without its peeves, at least I can say that it helped me refine the French art of telling people off and, perhaps, made me that little bit more Parisian, for better or worse.