Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Search of a Dora Free Vacation

My childhood memories of beach vacations are somehow detached from time. The rhythm of the tides –very powerful in the Southwest of France- paced the day. Watches became obsolete and even an annoyance. They were soon left and forgotten in the drawer of a bedside table. Regular routines softened, faded and then disappeared all together. Technology, styles and modernity seemed far away; an oddity. Book-shelves were hosts to the same old-fashioned volumes year after year. The quaint, although patriarchal Babar, the antique looking Minouche, generations of Belgian comic books and when I got older the exotic adventures of Loti, Monfreid and Kessel. The plains of Afghanistan, Persia and Siberia were calling. Tintin was ready to go to the moon -when the tides permitted it. The television set was quickly forgotten on the shelf, hidden behind a perfectly shaped piece of rounded plywood.
Early adulthood took me away from those vacations but as my daughter grew from a toddler to a preschooler, this yearly beach retreat was reinstated along with the near absence of television, the poor cell phone reception and … the rhythm of the tides. These times felt as if they were stolen from society, from commerce, and were a welcome relief from consumerism. No more 6 o’clock news, no more NY Times, no more Dora the Explorer. I am not saying it was easy to remove myself and my little family from the world. I do enjoy well-scripted TV shows, a good play, a tasty restaurant meal, thought-provoking indie movies, concerts of all types, and the occasional art opening. My usual day to day activities were turned upside down. My social network was in question. I was even thinking, “What are my Facebook friends going to think? This is all so sudden!” You see, I hadn’t changed my status in over a week. But after a few jittery days, I settled into a slower pace. It felt as if my heart too was beating slower, like the sea mammal I was becoming.
A couple of weeks ago, as I got out of the car and headed for the white and blue house, I was ready to retreat, already wiping out of my mind the Michael Jackson songs I had just heard. “Sure –I thought to myself- an important figure of 20th Century music has just died, but I never really cared for him and besides, I need to jump in the water before the tide goes down. “ The evening went as expected with its bathing, sightseeing, drinking aperitif, then dinner and a long jet-lagged night.
Fast forward to the next day, as my Brooklyn-born daughter, my French parents and I are heading to the closest supermarket, a couple of miles away. My little girl is in sitting in the cart, looking around, pointing, and questioning. I pass the gigantic pâté aisle; grab a couple of “Lou Gascoun au piment d’Espelette”, the quintessential baguette of course, and cross the store pushing the cart, aiming for the promising local seafood display. And that’s when it happens, at the top of her lungs, my daughter screams “Dora! Regarde Maman, Dora!” My mouth drops in disbelief, but there she is, Dora herself: bob cut, flat face, eyes round like marbles. On the kids’ chairs, umbrellas and bags, on the beach towels, on the buckets and shovels, everywhere.
I have to explain that in preparation for the trip and to avoid the culture chock she was about to face, I had prepared Juliette for her new life during this vacation. No cheerios in sight, but the croissants are to die for. And who needs sprinklers when the ocean is right there? Salads come after the main course. It is rude to leave your hands under the table during meals. Nearly everyone will speak French, and few will be those who will bother trying to speak English… and no Dora! Instead, T’choupi, Trotro the donkey, and Petit Ours brun, but no Dora. Once passed the chock of the absence of Cheerios (which I find incomprehensible myself), she was game for the rest. But then the unforeseeable happens. Maman was wrong, Dora is here.
Despite the obvious fact that I have no personal affinity with the show Dora the Explorer (I think its content is dumbed down, its graphics are terribly stiff and boring, as if Dora herself was on Botox) but that I am not avoiding it at all costs either. I know Juliette watched it occasionally, and I was ok with that. But encountering the character’s inexpressive face on almost every single piece of little girl clothing, on every notebook, pencil case, lunch box or even diaper in the last couple of years made me develop an aversion to the mass marketing world of Dora. This is, in fact, Dora’s world, we are just living in it. Leaving for this vacation, I was looking forward to taking a break from Dora, amongst other things. And I was secretly looking forward to my daughter taking a break from her as well. I wanted her to experience the timely tides, the old fashioned comic books, the brioche and the grenadine syrup all without the disruptive appearance of a face from her past, soon to be forgotten, Dora the Explorer. A face that in her mind must be tied to the daily weekday routines, school, American stores, and television. A face that may prevent her from experiencing the full feeling of a timeless retreat I experienced at her age.
Tomorrow, the low tide is at 11am. I will take her fishing for mussels, oysters, shrimp and crabs. I guess we will have to catch enough for lunch, because I don’t feel like stopping by the supermarket.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Anti-Semitism on Sesame Street

“Anti-Semite?” The derogative word sounds very different when you hear it coming out of your precious 4 year old girl’s mouth. “What is an anti-Semite?” she insists. I am one for telling the truth to children and helping them make sense of their surroundings. I don’t avoid hard topics, and always try to provide accurate answers in an understandable way. To this morning “Why is this crab dead?” I must have answered something to the liking of “It was the end of his life. Something must have happened and he died. Maybe he was very very old… Why do you think he died?” “Maybe he was sick, or maybe he got cooked”, she suggested. “Maybe so.” I replied. End of the questioning, the answer satisfied her and she went on to the next question… This can go on for hours when you spend time with a young child, and it is intellectually exhausting but I get a sense of accomplishment and pride as it happens. The world unlocks its secrets to my child. She is attentive to her surroundings, attuned to her desire to discover, and as mesmerized by nature as I am. “What is an anti-Semite”, though, caught me by surprise and I felt stuck in an uncomfortable place. Although I am not naïve enough to think that she will never encounter anti-Semitic remarks –for one thing, our last name sounds as if it could be Jewish-, I didn’t expect to hear this question so early.

Now, I have to back up and explain that the word came up as my husband Matthew was telling me at the dinner table that a business contact of his made an anti-Semitic comment in front of him. As Matthew pointed out to the gentleman in question (if he deserves being called a gentleman) that he was shocked by the remark, the other replied “I thought we were both mid-westerners; you have some growing up to do!” insinuating that Midwesterners are expected to be anti-Semitic in private amongst themselves, and that if they do not know that yet, it must be because they are too green. As I am praising Matthew for standing up against prejudices, I hear the dreaded word enunciated clearly by Juliette’s little voice and quiver. “Anti-Semite? What does it mean?” I take a deep breath and starts putting together an answer in my head “It is when a person dislikes another person just because they are Jewish…” but the words don’t come out of my mouth and it hits me: I don’t want her to know the truth. Surely one day, but not just yet. As of now, her only understanding of prejudice comes from many out-loud readings of “Red or Blue I like you.” In that story, as it happens, Elmo –who is red as we all know- befriends a blue monster named Angela in the doctor’s waiting room and their parents agree to have them over at each other’s house. In Angela’s neighborhood, strangely reminiscent of the Italian area of Besonhurst in Brooklyn, everyone is blue and eats spaghetti. But when Angela goes over to Sesame Street, strangely reminiscent of the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Prospect Heights Brooklyn, she is amazed to see monsters of all colors who eat fried chicken and fruit salads. Sesame street even houses grouches and snuffalufaguses, if you can imagine! Now, this would be “just a bedtime story” except for the fact that until a couple of weeks ago, we LIVED on Sesame Street. We encountered and befriended “monsters” of all colors and got to love fried chicken and fruit salads. No grouches and snuffalufagusses obviously, but pit-bulls, poodles and chiwawas. When I recently showed some out-of-town friends a snapshot of Juliette and her best friends taken on the sidewalk after school, she laughed and said “Are you going to submit it to a casting for United Colors of Benetton?” I didn’t occur to me until then, but I realized at that moment that I could have. Of course, as many of us do, I always wanted to raise a “colour-blind” child, but until I moved to New York City and especially to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, I didn’t realize it was actually possible and easy. A Yemenite-owned deli and an African-American Puerto Rican lesbian-owned restaurant were the closest businesses to us and we felt at home in both establishments. Steps away was the local playground where Juliette asked me one day, “It’s pretty, can my hair do that?” pointing at a little girl’s Afro-do. There she was, my little Goldilocks-looking child, and I had to dry her tears after breaking the news to her that, in fact, her hair “could not do that”.

But I digress, and here I am, far away from Prospect Heights-AKA Sesame Street, I hear her ask me what “Anti-Semite” means and I have to make a decision on whether I want to teach my child that prejudice exists or “soften the truth”. Well, I guess, it is called “lying” but in this case, I am building up my own denial and call it “softening the truth”. So for the first time –of many perhaps- I lie by omission. I say “It is when someone doesn’t like someone else just because of who they are…. Do you want a yogurt for desert?” “Yeah!!!” is the resounding answer.

Two hours later, she is now sound asleep, still color-blind and unaware that anyone else thinks any differently. And I am –albeit proudly- a big fat liar.