I See France

Changing Tallulah

Here is how we spend the first half-hour of every day in Paris:

Each morning between 7 and 7:30, Tallulah begins to sing. She’s only 8 months old, so she doesn’t know any words. Still, she sounds as if she is practicing her scales. I crawl out of bed and tumble downstairs to turn on the heat, rigged by the French handyman so that it cannot run for more than about 12 hours on end without busting. I then clean up the mess invariably left by Vegas on the kitchen floor–one of several evil new tricks she has picked up from the local dogs–and toss her out into the garden. For a minute or so I watch through the window to make sure she doesn’t get any ideas about the Camembert. Like French people, we now keep our smelly cheeses in planting pots outside. Imprisoned in the refrigerator, the Camembert still had the power to stink up the entire house. I’d open the door to grab a cold drink and be driven backwards by the odor; a minute later, whoever was on the third floor would shout in panicky tones, “Shut the fridge! Shut the fridge!” Relations with the cheese had reached the point where one of us had to go.

Once Vegas is past the Camembert, I turn and race upstairs to snatch Tallulah from her crib before she stops singing and becomes outraged. Coming up the stairs, I sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” On his farm he had a rooster, I assume. “Cock-a-doodle-do” is the signal for Tallulah to reach out with her arms and be lifted from her crib. Rising, she smiles and kicks her feet as if something really great is about to happen. I try not to disappoint. Together, we draw the curtains on the third-floor windows and peer up at the back of the crepuscular neighboring apartment building to see if any French people are doing anything particularly French. They are: sleeping. This is a nation of vampires; our streets are empty each morning until nearly 10:00. “Coo,” Tallulah says, after a minute of staring at the old building, then swivels and tosses her warm little arms around me in her version of a bear hug.

As we move to the changing table the mood shifts. The moment she is laid on her back, Tallulah loses her love for me and becomes as impatient as a race-car driver waiting for the tires to be changed. To keep her still enough to be unwrapped, cleaned, and then wrapped again, I must find ever more exotic ways to trick her into thinking something worth paying attention to is about to happen, right here, in her own bedroom. She never falls for the same trick twice. This morning, for instance, I danced the Parisian Trash Bag Dance–a performance she watched less with amusement than with a kind of morbid fascination. The Parisian Trash Bag Dance involves grabbing one of the giant blue trash bags they sell at the local market and swishing it back and forth over my head alluringly, while swaying my hips, like Salomé charming Herod. Once Tallulah is mesmerized, I am able to remove one hand from the bag and do the dirty work, dancing all the while. A moment’s pause in the entertainment and she’s flipping herself onto her stomach, in a suicidal attempt to vault sideways off the changing table.

The diaper changed, I grab Tallulah, put her under my arm like a football, duck beneath the low staircase ceiling, and plunge down the narrow, unbelievably steep stairs to our bedroom. There, mother sleeps. There, for Tallulah, is bliss. She raises her arms and cheers and kicks up such a delighted fuss that I am reminded all over again what a dull pleasure I am to my own child. I am the warm-up act. The featured attraction, inured to her own importance, reaches up from under her covers and drags Tallulah under the covers.

Sadly, there is hardly a moment to spare on self-pity. By now there is the most unbelievable ruckus coming from outside. The dog, somehow already possessed of a French dog’s sense of her rights, is busy breaking down the door with her head. Sometimes, for fun, I open it just as she is about to strike again and she goes flying across the kitchen floor like a vaudeville comedian in a skit, crashing into the opposite wall.