I See France

The Talented Ms. Gymbo 

On the rare days I do my fair share of the parenting, the mood in Paris changes. This is true especially on the mornings I agree to escort Tallulah to her twice-weekly Gymboree class. In the few minutes between the morning feeding and my racing out the door, baby in arms, in a long and often futile search for a taxicab, a single unspoken sentence echoes off our kitchen walls. The sentence is: “Now you will get a taste of what my life is like.”

The truth is that parenting, in small doses, isn’t as bad as all that. At the Gymboree office, I am once again treated as a charming oddity: the wonderful father who has taken the morning off from work to spend it with his baby daughter. About a third of the other adults are nannies; the rest are actual mothers. All of them find the notion of a man free in the middle of the day amusingly lovable, which is what, of course, I strive to be. From this and other evidence, I deduce that the French male has cut an even harsher deal with his spouse than the American one has. The American deal—or at any rate the American deal currently fashionable in my socio-economic bracket—is that unless you can prove you are out making money, you had better at least pretend to be caring for your child. You might think that the French male, so conspicuous in his disdain for commerce, would be left holding the Gymboree bag more often. Alas, never, except on weekends, when he is unable to pretend that he is in his office.

A pleasant woman with a big smile has already plastered name tags onto the chests of the nine other babies in the class. All nine sit patiently on the floor, staring at each other’s name tags like salesmen at a conference. Tallulah wants no part of their act; when I put her down to sign us in, she hunches up into her peculiar crawling stance (straight-legged, knees off the ground, only palms of hands and bottoms of feet touching floor) and bolts for the room with the toys. By the time I catch up, she’s halfway up a rubber staircase with a purple Wiffle ball in her mouth. She is deterred from her ascent only by the familiar Gymboree call to arms: Bonjour, mes petits amis!

The woman in charge of Gymboree has the manner of a Chief Mouseketeer, and even looks a bit like Annette Funicello. She prances into the room carrying a giant rag doll named Gymbo (pronounced JEEM-BO) and greets the babies in her falsetto singsong. (“Bonjour, Tallulah!“) My great fear is that Tallulah will do her usual worst, and swat either Gymbo or Ms. Gymbo upside the head, thus wrecking the Gymboree atmosphere, which is thick with at least the pretense of goodwill. But today, for whatever reason, she behaves and even seems to enjoy the rituals that open the Gymboree games. At the start of each class, each mother and pseudo-mother is required to grab his child beneath its armpits and drag it, behind Gymbo, in a goose-stepping parade around the gym. At the parade’s conclusion, the parent is meant to squeal, “Wewewewewewewe” and hurl her baby into a pile with the other babies at the center of the room, at the feet of Ms. Gymbo.

Gymboree, I am told, is an American company. But it could not have found more fertile soil abroad in which to plant itself, importing, as it does, the love of order into a chaotic marketplace. Like Bébé L’Eau, it appears to be a carefully crafted, scientifically based Institute for Infant Development. Just beneath the science, however, is an infant rendition of Lord of the Flies. Today, for example, Ms. Gymbo has strung from the various ladders, slides, tunnels, barrels, and seesaws that fill the room (and that the babies fight with each other to control) brightly colored sacks stuffed with pungent spices. In French too rapid for me to follow, she explains how important it is for infants to associate odors with places. I want to ask why; but after a minute or two she’s lost me, and it takes all my mental energy to figure out what I’m supposed to do next with Tallulah. What I’m supposed to do next, apparently, is to lead her by the nose around the room and persuade her to take big whiffs of the various sacks. But Tallulah, who has yet to read Proust, has no interest in aural associations. Her eyes remain fixed on the purple Wiffle ball, which has rolled off, odorlessly, into a corner.

This creates the usual problem of disguising my child’s lack of interest in personal development. If Ms. Gymbo notices that Tallulah’s father is neglecting his duties, she will come over and speak to me sweetly in her rapid falsetto French, to the vast amusement of the French mothers. Thus Tallulah and I cut a deal: I allow her to race up ladders and down ramps after her purple Wiffle ball and ignore the spice bags until Ms. Gymbo turns her attention to us, whereupon I grab the nearest sack and thrust it against her nose, with the insistence of a bank robber chloroforming a security guard. However, Tallulah reneges on the deal, shrieks, and cries real tears. “Trés bien!” says Ms. Gymbo, and, to my relief, moves on. When she’s gone I stick my own nose into the offending sack. It smells, distinctly and pungently, of dog shit. What kind of experiment is this? I want to ask but of course don’t. Has Ms. Gymbo stuffed dog shit into one of the sacks, as perhaps, the control?

French Gymboree ends, as it began, with a slightly frightening group ritual. The babies are once again heaped together at the center of the room, where the bigger ones torture the smaller ones to tears. Then Ms. Gymbo blows bubbles over them. The babies all love this, and for a brief moment something like harmony reigns. But at precisely that moment, Ms. Gymbo puts away her bubbles and drags out her multi-colored parachute. Anyone looking for evidence that babies have minds of their own need only observe one Gymboree parachute ritual. When they are piled up on the parachute and dragged around the room by us mothers as we sing some incomprehensible French song, they become, as one, solemn. And when their mothers help Ms. Gymbo make a tent of the parachute, and make to drop it onto their heads, all hell breaks loose. You’ve never seen a baby crawl until you have seen it trying to escape a Gymboree parachute descending upon its little head. Within seconds babies are here, there, and everywhere except where they are meant to be. The chute hits nothing but bare ground, and the class ends, as always, in chaos.

The 20 minutes in the taxi home are spent in tears and recuperation. But by the time we arrive, we are able to smile and preserve the conceit that a father likes nothing better than to spend a morning with his child.