Wednesday, 15 December 2010

You know you live in a developing country when

1.  You pay top dollar for bottom of the barrel no-name imported brand canned and packaged food at the grocery store - when you can get them.

2.  Your tap water is so full of chlorine that the kids' bath has a light green tint to it.

3. Your kid speaks at least two languages, and sometimes three, depending on what country you're living in at the time.

4. You have grown an affection for scenery filled with dirt roads, gutters and rice paddies.

5. You never walk anywhere anymore and you're no longer used to driving in vehicles that are not 4x4.

6.  You expect to get a stomach bug about once every three to four months.

7. You buy meat the same day that the animal was killed and you age it in your refrigerator.

8. Your definition of a "really good restaurant" has evolved to being a restaurant whose food doesn't make you sick.

9. A chauffeur drives your kids to school every day.

10.  You count down the days to Christmas vacation months ahead of time and can't wait to experience cold and snow.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Things our kids have seen and done this year

Our kids have seen a lot this year.  

This summer, they looked down on this gorgeous view of the Dordogne river in the Périgord region of southwestern France.  Even on a cloudy day, the scenery was beautiful.

They saw the countryside of Madagascar, too, which is beautiful in its own way.

They saw the Eiffel Tower a few times, and took a boat ride along the Seine river in Paris.

 And scenes from a city in the developing world have been part of their daily life this year.
They saw their share of cameleons, tortoises and lemurs.                                                                                                                    
 They've gone for a ride on a taxi "pousse-pousse".

We haven't been able to continue the Bambina's swimming lessons here in Tananarive so instead, the she's been learning to ride a pony.  The Bambino likes to just sit on the pony once in a while.

And they did a fair bit of swimming in the Indian Ocean (the Bambina did snorkeling and diving as well).

Our end of year treat: skiing in the Alps!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Cozying Up to the Lemurs

Sometimes family travels take us to places that we never dreamed of.  These photos were taken during a weekend at the Vakôna Forest Lodge in Andasibe, Madagascar.  The lemurs were so used to having people around them that they regularly surprised us by leaping onto our shoulders, head and back and staying there for a bit.  The Bambina was so afraid when a lemur went to leap onto her shoulder that she stepped backward and put her foot directly in the swamp.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The International Family's Never-Ending Dilemma : Is my child in the right school?

The number one question of the international family: Where should we send our children to school?

The number two question of the international family: Have we put our children in the right school?

Basically, the question is always on our minds.

Here in Tananarive, Madagascar, the choices of schools is VERY limited.  You can send your child to the French school or you can send your child to the American school.

Pros of the American School, from our perspective:
- Great way to consolidate my children's English.
- It's close to home.
- It has small classes.
- It is more open to creativity and different learning styles than the French system.
- Thinking with an open and critical mind is just as important as coming up with the right answer.
- It has a great community feel to it.
- If offers lots of extra-curricular activities.

The American School has its disadvantages, too, though.  It's very expensive.  Their pre-K and kindergarten facilities are not great (in fact, they're downright shabby and small), some of the teachers are not native English speakers, and for an natural-mama type like me, their vaccine requirements are a little over the top. 

Pros of the French school:
- Teaching the Bambina to read and write in French is something that I can't do and that the Frenchman won't do.  This is close to being a deal-breaker point. 
- It has an excellent kindergarten programme.
- Truly excellent teachers in kindergarten, first and second grade.

But the French school is a 30 minute drive away in the morning.  And in the long run, French education may be rigourous but it also has the reputation for being narrow, closed-minded and not great for building confidence in children.

We chose the French school because at the time, the Bambina was only five years old when we arrive in Tana and the kindergarten at the French school was visibly better than the one at the American school.  Now that she's in first grade, I'm sure that the American school is just as good, if not better.  Neither school is perfect.  Either one would leave us questioning our choice.

For our next expatriation, my prayer is that not only will we not be in a francophone country, but that we will be in a country where there is no lycée français, at that we will have no choice but to put the Bambina in a reputable international school that offers French for native speakers.  Alternatively, sending her to a local school, should we be living in a developed, anglophone country (Australia, Scotland, the United States  or Canada, for example) would also be interesting.

A Montessori school for the Bambino would be a cherry on the cake.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

7 Globetrotter Family Travel Tips

1. Check everyone's passports once every six months.  You never know when you're going to be on the road and you don't want to discover one week before your ski trip in the Alps that your five year old's passport has expired!

2. Book appointments, dinners, babysitters, kids' clubs, lessons and playdates ahead of time.  This is especially true if you are going to be staying in a large city for any amount of time.  The time that you get to spend in the city is precious.  You don't want to waste hours sitting in an apartment or hotel room because you have no babysitter or because you would like the kids to do something but they've already been to the park today, the museum workshops are all full and your kids friends are in school.  You get the picture.  Plan as much as you can ahead of time.

3. Bring your own airplane food for the kiddies.  The Bambina won't touch airline food and I can't say I blame her.  Aside from having a stale, refrigeration-like taste, it's rarely food that I like and it's full of preservatives.

3. Bring entertainment for the luggage wait.  That Nintendo DS that you've been complaining about since last Christmas when your spouse insisted that your kid have one?  Well, thank your lucky stars it exists just for times like this!

4. Bring a car seat or book a weight- appropriate car seat from the car rental or taxi cab company.  Be sure to tell them that it must be already fully and correctly installed when the cab arrives to pick you up.  We have had the unfortunate incident of a taxi showing up with a brand new, weight-appropriate car seat - uninstalled - and with no manual to show how to install it.

5.  Think twice before you take an only child trekking in the mountains - or anything else that requires physical endurance.   Without the distraction of a playmate close in age to your little one, your child may start to complain that he or she is tired oh, about two minutes into the hike.  Hiking with another family has worked well for us.

The same goes for museums or art exhibits - unless you have a child who is particularly into cultural visits, he or she may quickly get bored and start to complain, thereby ruining the visit for everyone else .  Try to find another family with one or more children the same age for these kinds of visits.

6.  If you have an infant or toddler, bring a mei-tai baby carrier (Ergo, Kozy and Babyhawk are a few brands) on the trip with you, along with the stroller.  It's very handy during when boarding the plane, during a luggage wait and for walking in quaint towns with cobblestone roads that make pushing a stroller difficult.

I don't recommend carriers such as Baby Bjorn, as the baby's weight is on your shoulders rather than your hips, and they therefore only work for small babies (that and the fact that the baby is essentially being supported on its genitals...).

7. Pack a sweater for you and each child.  Always.  Even if it's a beach vacation in the Bahamas!

Bon voyage!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Bilingual babies are less easily confused

BBC news recently posted an article about a study showing that bilingual children are less likely to get mixed up when forced to multitask.

The original study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The abstract describes the study as follows:

7-month-old infants, raised with 2 languages from birth, display improved cognitive control abilities compared with matched monolinguals. Whereas both monolinguals and bilinguals learned to respond to a speech or visual cue to anticipate a reward on one side of a screen, only bilinguals succeeded in redirecting their anticipatory looks when the cue began signaling the reward on the opposite side. Bilingual infants rapidly suppressed their looks to the first location and learned the new response. These findings show that processing representations from 2 languages leads to a domain-general enhancement of the cognitive control system well before the onset of speech.
Of course, the study only dealt with bilingual children who were exposed to two languages from birth, in a one-parent, one language environment.  It would be interesting to study children who were exposed first to one language from zero to three years and then to a second language from age three, as a result of language immersion at school, for example.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Nestlé at it again

I have been meaning to post on this story for quite some time.   I have already written how Nestlé's Nido is harming African babies. Now I see that it's not just the Nido that's the problem.

A few months ago, I walked into a store that happens to be the official distributor for Nestlé products here in Tana.  I saw this display.

The idea was obviously to display ALL Nestlé products together.  The first thing that struck me was that the Nido had, once again, been placed in close proximity to the baby formula, Guigoz 1 and 2, but at least this time they were on different shelves.

Encircling the products was a yellow ribbon with a teddy bear decoration throughout and the following message:

 "Nestlé - pour une croissance saine".  

Translation: Nestlé: for healthy growth.   

Apart from Nido, Guigoz formula and baby cereal, the display contained Kit Kat, Choco Crunch cereal, and Quik chocolate powder.  All these products are supposed to be for "healthy growth".  Surely they must be joking.

Behind the cashiers was a posterboard clearly intended for employees of the store.  The posterboard had the Nestlé Nutrition logo on it and showed what employees are not allowed to do under the International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.  No promotions.  No point of sale advertising.  No special displays.  There were diagrams indicating all these prohibitions but the writing was all in English.  Have I mentioned that Madagascar is a francophone country?

I asked to speak to the manager of the store.  I was led to his office.  He was a pretty nice French guy.  I had a friendly conversation with him and then said "I see that you are making an effort to adhere to the International Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes."

I then explained that the display was in contravention of this Code.  He expressed surprise and said that he would contact Nestlé immediately, as it was they who put up the display.

I thanked the manager, went to purchase my things, and left.

The next week, lo and behold, I got a call from Nestlé Nutrition.

"We would be interested in knowing why you think the display contravenes the Code.  We are not marketing breastmilk substitutes.  We are marketing all Nestlé products together."

He wasn't joking.  This was his argument.

"Listen", I said.  "If you are going to follow Nestlé's own watered-down interpretation of the Code, you will, at a minimum, remove the Nestlé Guigoz first stage infant formula from the display. And if you are going to follow my interpretation of the Code, you will remove the first and second stage Guigoz from the display."

He still didn't understand what was wrong with keeping them in the display.

"It's advertising", I said.

"But it's not advertising the formula in particular", he replied.

"That doesn't matter", I countered.  "Putting baby formula in a display that says 'for healthy growth' is advertising the formula, whether or not you put a KitKat bar and breakfast cereal beside it."

He said he would like to meet me so that I could show him the relevant portions of the Code and he could explain to his superiors.   I agreed and we met up the following week.   By that time, the Nestlé Nutrition man had already faxed a photo of the display to his superiors in Kenya and Mauritius and asked for their opinion.

His superiors agreed with me and told him that either the milk had to be removed from the display or the ribbon had to be removed.  He removed the ribbon.

I told him that he should also put the Nido milk with the other powdered milk being sold in the store rather than in the same area as the infant formula.  He refused.  He said that he wanted to keep the Nestlé products all together.

"But you know", he said to me, when we were back in his office at Nestlé Nutrition, "we don't really focus on stores.  The stores are already informed and are generally compliant, with the odd exception now and then.  Our main job is to inform hospitals about the Code, when we deliver them our infant formula for newborns".

Now ain't that a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Which water bottle for your globetrotter kid?

We live in a developing country, which means that we don't drink water from the tap, which means that there is no potable water at the Bambina's school, which means that she has to bring a bottle of water with her every day to school.  

So the question is, which kind of water bottle should she use?

This question is also relevant for globetrotter families who are on the go and want to have one or more bottles of water on hand for the kids.

One obvious answer is your standard disposable plastic bottle of Evian or other bottled water.  But they get grody after a while and they are difficult to wash.  Plus have you ever looked at the water inside a bottle of Evian after your child has drunk from it?  There are food particles in it because kids backwash.

Another possibility is a hard plastic bottle like the kind you can buy in our local Jumbo grocery store here.  The Frenchman bought one of these for the Bambina last year and I nearly had a keniption.   Besides the fact that your water ends up tasting like plastic, the bottle itself was made in China, reeked of "new plastic" and was probably leaking polyvinyl chloride and/or Bisphenol A into the water.  That and the fact that it leaked all over and broke after about two weeks of use meant that we had to search for another bottle.

An alternative to plastic is a metal flask with a drinking spout.  There would seem to be two kinds on the market - those made of aluminium and those made of stainless steel.  Decathlon, the French sporting goods giant, sells an aluminium one (pictured above).  The Frenchman was very keen on buying these but I determined from the coding on the bottom of the flask that it was, indeed, made of aluminium and I had some reservations.  Aluminium in unlined water bottles leaches into the water, leaving a metal taste, not to mention possible concerns about alzheimers disease in the long run.  No link between aluminium and Alzheimers has been proven - yet - but it's just not something that I want to have to worry about.

Aluminium cans with a lining, such as a the famous Sigg line, come with concerns about what, exactly is in the lining.  Sigg swore that the lining in their water bottles contained no Bisphenol A - until they changed their minds and admitted that all bottles sold before August 2008 did have Bisphenol A "but only in tiny amounts".  Great.

Rather than worrying about what may be in the lining of an aluminium bottle, you can always get a stainless steel bottle instead.  Stainless steel is made of chromium, iron and nickel.  Stainless steel bottles don't generally have lining inside, as stainless steel doesn't leave a metal taste in your month and there is no danger in ingesting the molecules (iron is good for you!).   There are a few brands out their but we bought the Crocodile Creek brand at Le Bon Marché department store in Paris.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

When are the Europeans going to get with the program on baby shoes?

Just when the Bambino was starting to walk, we noticed that his right foot seemed stuck at two o'clock, while the left one was at twelve.  We found this to be a little disconcerting, and the Frenchman even starting talking about putting the Bambino in foot braces, eventual surgery, etc.

"But you need to get him in some real shoes!," our French friends all told us when we showed them the Bambino's pose.  This advice seemed so obvious to them that they were surprised that the Bambino, at thirteen months, was still in Robeez style slippers.  I had to explain that we Anglo-Saxons tend to view barefoot as best.

The "babies need shoes to learn to walk" theory holds tight in many European circles, despite that fact that orthopedists worldwide (including European ones) recommend barefoot or close to it.  In France, I'm convinced that holding true to the "they must wear shoes" view is a way of propping up the children's shoe industry.   And we're not just talking about any shoe.   Your typical French, Spanish or Italian shoes salesperson will recommend a shoe with a thick, stiff sole and a high ankle for your toddler, so as to "support" the foot, as if mother nature hadn't equipped small children adequately for learning to walk.

Even standard baby websites in the French language give this dated advice.  For example, Infobébés has a whole page on shoes, in which it advises to choose a shoe that is "high enough to support the ankle", that is laced rather than in velcro, and that is "not too stiff" (well, at least they got that part right).

Netenviesdebebes suggests soft-soled shoes for infants who haven't learned to walk yet but fails to consider the possibility of no shoes at all.  It goes on to say that once baby has learned how to walk,
on préférera alors des chaussures qui maintiennent le pied et la cheville : bottes, boots, bottines par exemple.
 Translation: we prefer shoes that maintain the foot and the ankle: boots or booties, for example.

Well, it took Europe about twenty years to get on the no-smoking-in-restaurants bandwagon, so I expect about the same amount of lag time for progressive thinking on baby shoes.

The ray of light: we took the Bambino to visit the chief pediatric orthopedist at Necker hospital in Paris, to have his crooked gait checked out.  The doctor said that we should just wait another year and the Bambino's foot will likely adjust to the right position all by itself.  He didn't have an opinion on any kind of particular shoe for the Bambino but he did say that barefoot was definitely best.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Asking the right question about vaccines

I've just read an excellent post on vaccines, by Ayla over at Primal Home.  When someone asks her, "Why don't you vaccinate?", she responds, "Why do you vaccinate?"

A long time ago, when I asked someone once why she didn't vaccinate, I got another very similar response.  It went something like this:

- Name the disease.
- Explain how one gets the disease.
- What's the prevalence of the disease where you live?
- What are the consequences of having the disease and what are the chances of having the most severe possible effects of the disease, assuming that a child is not malnourished and is living in fairly hygenic conditions?

- Name the vaccine for the disease.
- What other vaccines are in the same shot?
- What are the ingredients in the vaccine?
- What does the manufacturer's insert say about the side effects of the vaccine?
- What are the chances of a severe adverse reaction from the vaccine?

It was really only when I was able to answer these questions that I was able to answer the question of whether to vaccinate or not.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

6 Things Every Globetrotter Parent Should Know

A couple of years back, PhD in Parenting posted on 10 Things All New Parents Should Know.  I thought her advice was really helpful and I even sent the link to a newly pregnant friend just last week.

As I pondered PhD in Parenting's post, I thought of my own globetrotter version.  People tend to rely on their relatives, friends and doctors for advice on coping with parenting questions.  Not all the information they get is accurate and some of it is harmful.  So here is my top 6 list ('cause 10 would be way too long!) of what all parents trying to raise their children in a global culture should know:

6 Things Every Globetrotter Parent Should Know:

1.  Baby care norms differ radically from one continent and even country to the next one.

Moreover, what's considered the norm where YOU live is not necessarily the objectively right way.

My favourite example:  In Canada and the States, the health industry tells us not to share a bed with our infant, because it can lead to smothering, SIDS, baby falling off the bed, etc.

Yet, here in Madagascar, most moms sleep with their baby.  They don't do cribs here.  And I don't ever hear or read about any babies dying of SIDS or getting smothered here.  Funny that.

The point is, never assume that information from doctors and well-meaning friends where you live right or even mostly right.  Indeed, there are a lot of things not right about modern conventional western parenting ideas.  Babies have not always drunk cow's milk (whether or not adapted into formula), and still don't in many places in the world.  Newborns are not wired to sleep in little cages far away from their moms, and don't in many (most) places in the world.  Most baby boys in the world do not get the tips of their penises cut off.  The list goes on...

2.  Contrary to what many "granola" mamas seems to think, Europeans are not necessarily more into "natural family living" than North Americans.  If you've ever been on the discussion forums of, you'll know what I mean.  "I wish I lived in Europe.  The breastfeeding rate is much higher there.  And everyone gives birth with a midwife.  And you get one year's maternity leave!"

Allow me to set the record straight about Europe:

Europe is not a monolith.  When you hear granola moms going on about how much more enlightened Europeans are, they're usually talking about Scandinavians.   The Dutch and the Germans are nearly as "crunchy" but only in certain respects.  Maternity leave is only about 12 to 16 weeks long in Germany, for example.

As for the French, well, don't be surprised to see a French maman smoking and drinking during pregnancy, formula feeding by choice (40 percent do) and sending her baby to daycare at the age of three months without so much as wincing because "baby needs to learn to become autonomous".

The Italians have a higher neonatal breastfeeding rate but 90 percent have weaned by the time baby is four months old.  Italians typically start baby on solids consisting of pasta and parmesan cheese at the age of four months.

As for the midwives, they are a highly medicalized profession in Europe.  In France, they even have to attend medical school for a year.  Most European midwives will not allow you to birth in anything but the gynecological position, i.e., lying flat on your back with your legs in stirrups so that they can perform  a routine episiotomy.  You might as well have an OB.

And forget about home birth (except in the Netherlands, and the home birth rate is dropping there).  The home birth rates in European countries hover at around one percent.

3. Your child will not become confused or speech-delayed because you speak to him in another language.  I've already written about this but let me reiterate: there is no evidence whatsoever that bilingual children have a higher rate of speech/language delay or any other speech or language disorder than monolingual children.

4.  Bilingualism is not an automatic fact resulting from a parent who speaks another language.  It takes work.  Yep.  The fact that you speak English or Spanish or French does not automatically mean that your little one will grow up speaking it.  In fact, your child will need about 24 hours per week of exposure to your language in order to speak it like a native.

5.  There are NO required vaccines for international travel - other than yellow fever in some countries in central Africa.  Polio is not a required vaccine for travel in any part of the world, neither is the vaccine against typhoid, tuberculosis, or any other disease.

6.  A global child starts with the parents who have a global mindset.   Children learn from the attitudes of their parents.  Open-minded parents who are interested in learning about other cultures, who are willing to try speaking the foreign language that they're a little rusty in, and who like meeting and talking to people from other parts of the world are more likely to have children with a similar mindset.

On the other hand, it's hard to expect a child to be interested in learning French or Spanish when the parent won't even consider watching a foreign film.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

English as a foreign language

The Bambina had her first day of school last week.  She's in grade one, or I should say cours préparatoire, as it is called in the French system - CP for short.

She attends one of the French primary schools here in Tananarive.  The school is pretty much like any public school in France, with a few bells and whistles added to make it adapted to Madagascar, including one to two hours of Malagasy lessons per week at school.  That's something that the expat parents don't like at all.  They're only here for a short time and what use will the Malagasy language be to their child once they have left Madagascar?  Why can't the kids learn another language instead, say the expat parents. English for example.  And they would like the kids to start the foreign language ASAP, in CP (grade one).

So after much pressure from the parents' assocation, this year, for the first time, all the kids in CP will be getting English twice a weeks, 45 minutes each time.  The parents are thrilled.

Except me.

My daughter is already bilingual.  At best, English lessons at school will be a Complete Waste Of Time for her.  At worst, she will learn English as a foreigner would learn it - bad accent, bad grammar, and outdated vocabulary.  I was happy with her learning some Malagasy.  

Which brings me to another point.  I am pretty much convinced that introducing English lessons twice a week will not put a dent in the kids' English speaking abilities later on in life.  If you want your kid to speak good English, try immersion.  Or at least put the cartoons on in English at home.  45 minute lessons on colours and numbers won't do much.  They'll learn colours and numbers anyway when the serious lessons begin in at around age 11.

Proof of this point of view:  just look at the Dutch or the Scandinavians.  Dutch and Scandinavian people my age had no English in school until age eleven or twelve - yet they are almost all bilingual.  The difference is that their parents watched TV in English and read books in English - something that the French are reluctant to do.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Madagascar: It's less of a shock the second time around

We've just returned from our two-month vacation in paradise boring France to our home in the dirty, polluted, third-world city of Antananarivo on the paradise island of Madagascar.

Seriously though, last year, when we arrived here for the first time, it was a bit of shock for all of us (even, dare I say it, the Frenchman). This time around, I think we're all happy to be back "home" from vacation. Here are thirteen things I love about living in Madagascar:

13. The vast sky - kind of like in Montana or Saskatchewan. It was the first thing I noticed (after the shacks on the street, that is).

12. We may have the odd case of malaria on the coast but there's no yellow fever here.

11. There's no polio, either, and very little typhoid fever, I daresay.

10. There are some very good restaurants and it's been about eight months since I've felt sick from food I've eaten.

9. Cheap domestic help - we have a nanny, cook and chauffeur.

8. Horseback riding, complete with lessons (English saddle though, which kind of sucks).

7. Lots of neat stuff made out of wood, straw and/or pretty stones.

6. It's close to Mauritius and South Africa, among other great places to visit that are hard to get to from Europe and North America.

5. Did I mention that I have a cook? Who stays until 7PM to clean the kitchen while I get the kids ready for bed?

4. Beautiful, clean, white sand, EMPTY beaches.

3. We might not have parks or playgrounds here but we do have an enormous backyard, as do all our friends who host playgroups every week.

2. Real whales at Isle St. Marie (everything we've heard about it, at least - we're waiting for the Bambino to grow a little before we visit).

1. The size of our house - it's about three times the size of our apartment in Paris.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Vaccines again

Before we moved the Madagascar, under pressure from our pediatrician and the Frenchman, I allowed the Bambino to get the Hexavac shot.  This shot includes vaccines against diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, hiB and hepatitis B.  The Bambino was two and a half months old!

I immediately regretted the decision.

Two days later we moved to Madagascar.  Within the week, Joshua had a horrible upper and lower respiratory infection.  That's pretty unusual for a baby less than three months old who is not in daycare and who is normally still full of antibodies from mama's placenta.  It took him two weeks to recover.

I later read that the hexavac shot had been taken off the market in Europe in 2005, ostensibly owing to the ineffectiveness of the Hepatitis B component of the shot, but more likely because some infants in Germany died after getting the hexavac shot.

I also read this 2000 study, which found that the odds of having a history of asthma was twice as great among children vaccinated with the old diptheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine than among unvaccinated children and that the odds of having had any allergy-related respiratory symptom in the previous twelve months was 63% greater among vaccinated children than unvaccinated children.  

More recently, a study from Canada found that the risk of asthma was reduced to half in children whose first dose of DPT was delayed by more than 2 months

Both these studies involve the old whole cell pertussis vaccine rather than the newer acellular pertussis vaccine but is there really necessarily a difference?

The Bambino has had no shots since that hexavac shot at two and a half months.  He is now fifteen months old.  Notwithstanding the aforementioned studies, we are prepared to give him the vaccines that are mandatory in France - that is to say, a combined vaccine for diptheria, tetanus and polio  - because the Bambino will not be admitted to a French public school (be it in France or in one of the public French schools abroad) if he has not had been vaccinated against diptheria, tetanus and polio, or a note from the doctor saying he can't have it.

The problem is that the manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, took the DT Polio vaccine off the market in 2008 owing to "side effects". They never said what those side effects were.  I do know that the DT Polio vaccine was the only one on the market without no aluminium and no thimerosal.  We are left with the combined pentavac or hexavac shots but both contain more vaccines than the three obligatory ones.  The pentavac contains the vaccine for pertussis and hib and the hexavac has hepatitis B to boot.

So we are left in a situation where we are willing to give are son the obligatory vaccines in France but we have no way of doing this without also giving him vaccines that are not obligatory.  Keep in mind that should we choose to give our son the shots containing non-obligatory vaccines, we have no recourse against the French state should our son suffer any serious side effects from them.

Is this situation the result of joint conspiracy between the French state and drug manufacturers in order to force us to give  our children more vaccines than French law requires?  I don't know but our pediatrician has found a couple of imperfect ways around it.

One way is to have our pediatrician write a letter stating that the Bambino cannot have the DT Polio vaccination because it is no longer available on the market in France and all other shots contain vaccines that are not legally obligatory.  This would be put in the Bambino's health and eventually school records.

Alternatively, we could give the Bambino the adult booster DTP shot, called Revaxis.  This solution has the upside that, since it is a booster shot, the amount of virus in the shot is much lower than the one for children, ironically.  The downside is that the package insert stipulates not to give it to children younger than six years of age.  So if the Bambino received the Revaxis vaccine and then had a severe reaction to it, we would have no recourse against the manufacturer or the French state.

The other downside to the Revaxis shot is that it contains 350 micrograms of aluminium, about 50 micrograms more aluminium than the hexavac shot.

The Bambino is not yet in any kind of collectivity so we're holding off for now.

"But aren't you afraid he'll catch polio?" I hear you asking.  Having looked at the statistics (just check out the vaccine's package insert), I'm just as afraid of side effects from the vaccine.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Traveling with Cloth Diapers

I use cloth diapers whenever I can.  I'm even using them during our one-month vacation in Paris.  But here's the thing: I just don't think I can travel with cloth diapers - not exclusively anyway.   Jennifer Margulis has written a blog entry on traveling with cloth diapers and has described how to make it work but I'm not wholly convinced.  For one thing, I fear the diapers may take up too much space - they're much bulkier than disposable diapers. Margulis suggests bringing prefolds but 20 prefolds take up a lot of space in a suitcase and here's the thing: that number is not going down so you are not going to gain more space in your luggage as the days go by.  Then there's the fact that you have to carry around the smelly, dirty diapers, at least until you have access to laundry facilities.  Ick.  And then you have to use of an afternoon or more of your trip doing laundry.  Plus I don't use the dryer to dry my cloth diapers so I would also need a rack or line to hang the wet diapers out to dry and ideally some clothes pins, too.

On the other hand, having used cloth for more than a year now, I cringe at the sight of disposables.  I hate their feel and their smell.  And they are so NOT cute on baby (it's IMPORTANT!).

So I have been looking for a compromise.  As G-diapers contain Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP), I don't consider them a compromise.  I might as well buy Pampers as far as I'm concerned.   Same goes for Gro-Via - their eco-friendly disposable inserts contained SAP the last time I checked.

I have recently discovered the Hamac.  It's a French-made hybrid diaper.  On the outside is super thin, impermeable microfiber.  On the inside, you choose either (1) an absorbent hemp and cotton washable insert or (2) a disposable insert.  The disposable insert is made of paper - no plastic and NO SAP.  It's basically like a giant maxi-pad.  The bambino went through two of the disposable inserts on an outing today and they worked okay - no leaks and they seemed to fit well.  I need to use the Hamac more on the Bambino to see if it really will work for a two week vacation in the south of France, though.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Starbucks is Going Downhill

We're in Paris for the Northern hemisphere summer and enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of Europe once again.

Now, we love the cafés and fine cuisine in France but once in a while, we also love grabbing a sofa at the world's ultimate globetrotter coffeeshop: Starbucks.

I'm not a huge fan of Starbucks' filter coffee.   Actually, I'm not a huge fan of any filter coffee but the burnt taste of Starbucks' filter coffee is even worse.  However, I do (usually) love Starbucks' gourmet coffee drinks made with espresso coffee.  And I love their mugs.  And the wooden stir sticks.  And the Very Expensive chocolate chip cookies.  And the sofas.  And the Ella Fitzgerald playing in the background.  And that it's no smoking.  So yes, I generally really love Starbucks.

But not today.  In fact, I think the coffee shop for globetrotters is starting to fail us.  It started when I walked into the Starbucks on boulevard des Capucines in the 9th district in Paris this morning.  I joined the line, only for the cashier to let me know that they could not accept debit cards that morning.  Fine with me but the friend whom I was meeting was not there precisely because she had waited in line for ten minutes before they told her that she couldn't use her debit card and then she had to leave to go find a bank machine and get some cash.

Then I placed my order.  I asked for a tall decaf cappuccino with caramel syrop on top, "sur place" ("for here") and in a mug.

"We don't have any mugs, only the paper cups," the cashier said.

Now keep in mind that, as we were talking, I was looking at a big Starbucks poster just behind the cashier which said the following about the company's commitment to the environment:
C’est notre engagement à exercer notre activité de manière pérenne dans le respect de la planète et de ses habitants : De l’achat du café à l'investissement dans les communautés locales en passant par la réduction de notre empreinte sur l’environnement. C’est agir comme nous l’avons toujours fait, en nous efforçant de faire encore plus. C’est se servir de notre envergure de manière utile.
I pointed this irony out to the cashier, who shrugged his shoulders and said something to the effect of, "I know.  You're right.  But what do you want me to do?  I'm just a peon employee."

Then I headed to get a seat and while I was waiting for my friend to show up from the bank machine, I pulled out my iphone and tried to get wifi so that I could update my Facebook status.  Only I needed a login userid and password.  So I went to the cashier to ask for the user id and password.

"You have to pay for it," she says.  "And anyway, it's not working today."

This really took the cake for me.  Starbucks is a North American outfit.  They are supposed to know about customer comforts.  They are supposed to know about good service.  WIFI NOT WORKING?  WIFI THAT YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR????  WTF???

And then, just when I thought that things couldn't get worse, I took a sip of my cappuccino.  Only it wasn't really a cappuccino, as the barista had filled the mug (they finally found one) with milk to the very top.  So it was a latte.  With too much milk in it.  Sigh.  Screw it.  Tomorrow, I'm heading to the closest brasserie.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Circumcision: What Every Globetrotter Parent Should Know

I'm amazed at the number of sophisticated, educated, international (but almost always American or Canadian) parents that I come across overseas who choose to circumcise their son.  

All true globetrotter parents should be aware of the following facts about circumcision.   

  1. Most men in the world and the great majority of men in Europe, Central and South America and Asia are not circumcised.  Only 10 to 15 percent of men throughout the world are circumcised, the majority of whom are Muslim.
  2. Routine infant circumcision was introduced in the United States in the 1800s to prevent masturbation.  Victorian doctors knew that circumcision desensitized the penis.
  3. No medical association anywhere in the world supports non-therapeutic neonatal circumcision (male or female) on medical grounds or "hygenic" grounds.
  4. The claim that male circumcision protects against HIV is based on studies in Africa.  In Uganda, researchers began with a total of 4,996 men and randomly divided them into two groups, circumcising one group (2,474 men) and leaving the other group (2,522 men) intact. After 24 months, both groups were tested for HIV. Of the circumcised men, 22 tested positive (0.9 percent).  45  men in the uncircumcised group (1.8 percent) tested positive. Of all the participants, a total of 1.3 percent tested HIV positive; the other 98.7 percent remained HIV-negative.  Despite these tiny percentages, researchers derived a 55 percent risk-prevention figure from the difference in results between the two groups.
  5. Similarly, the Kenyan trials began with 2,784 men and randomly divided them, with 1,391 undergoing circumcision and 1,391 left intact. Two years later, testing showed 22 new infections among the circumcised men (1.6 percent) and 47 among those left intact (3.3 percent).
  6. Circumcision is by no means akin to a vaccine against HIV-AIDS. Claiming that circumcision prevents HIV-AIDS is irresponsible and gives rise to a false (and dangerous) sense of security.
  7. The United States has the highest rate of medically unnecessary, non-therapeutic infant circumcision in the world and yet the HIV infection rate in North America is twice the rate in Europe.
  8. Circumcision offers no protection at all to gay men.
And now, some biological facts that everyone should know:
  1. Every normal human being is born with a foreskin. In females, it protects the glans of the clitoris; in males, it protects the glans of the penis.
  2. Before the foreskin can be cut (or crushed) off, it has to be torn away from the glans. This act is akin to ripping your fingernails off your fingers.   
  3. Circumcision removes 50% of the skin of the penis.  Depending on the foreskin's length, cutting it off makes the penis as much as 25 percent shorter. Circumcision cuts off more than 3 feet of veins, arteries, and capillaries, 240 feet of nerves, and more than 20,000 nerve endings. The foreskin's muscles, glands, mucous membrane, and epithelial tissue are destroyed, as well.
  4. Circumcision removes the most sensitive part of the penis.
  5. Circumcision reduces sexual pleasure. The foreskin slides up and down on the shaft, stimulating the glans by alternately covering and exposing it.  No additional lubrication is needed. Without the foreskin, the glans skin, which is normally moist mucous membrane, becomes dry and thickens as a result of continual exposure, thus reducing its sensitivity.
  6. One of the most common myths about circumcision is that it makes the penis cleaner and easier to care for.  This is not true. The glans of the circumcised penis are subject to abrasion and exposed to dirt and bacteria, leaving the urinary tract vulnerable to infection.
Parents who are faced with the decision of whether or not to circumcise their son should have all the relevant information made available to them.  Yet the sad fact is many American and even Canadian parents, including those who live beyond North American borders, choose to circumcise purely out of a sense of tradition and so that baby "looks like his father", and doctors do little or nothing to educate them.

Please, if you're having a baby boy, inform yourself before you decide to circumcise.

Some sources:
The Case Against Circumcision
The Truth About Circumcision and HIV
Policy Statement of Doctors Opposing Circumcision

Monday, 21 June 2010

Language Etiquette

I come across a lot of two-language families.  For example, the mother is Italian and the father is American, or the mother is Australian and the father is German, or there is our case - I'm English-speaking Canadian and I have a French husband. 

The question always arises - which language should we speak to our children in?  For me, the answer was and is simple - English, English and English.  I speak to my children in English, read to them in English, sing to them in English, play with them in English, and listen to the radio and watch television with English!  Call me stubborn but they don't get much English exposure anywhere else - I'm basically IT - so I do everything with them in English.

So far (knock on wood), I've been lucky.  The Bambina speaks to me exclusively in English, this despite the fact that she has a French father and is in a French school. 

Some people are taken aback that I speak to my kids in English even when we are with other non-English speaking people.  I attend a playgroup twice a week, once with my daughter and once with my son.  Both playgroups are francophone.  No matter to me.  When I am speaking to my child, it's in English.  We often have people over here for lunch on the weekends and the conversation with them tends to be in French.  Any discourse with my children remains nevertheless in English. 

If the Bambina has a friend over, I still speak to her in English.  If I am talking to both of them, I say it in English and then in French.  (Actually, the parents of the child are inevitably thrilled that I am speaking English to their child so there is no objection from them there).

I may be in the minority on this one.  I've talked to other moms in two-language families and have discovered that they are reluctant to speak to their children in their own language when they are around other people.  One Italian mother told me that she simply refused to speak Italian to her children at (French) playgroup because it would exclude others from the conversation.  Um, you're talking to your son about his lego tower.  What makes you think we need to be included in this conversation??

Another (once again Italian!) mother told me that she thought it would be rude (gasp!) to talk to her children in Italian when they were with other people.

Well, you know what?  It might be rude but my answer is that my children's bilingual ability takes precedence over showing good manners.  Call me rude, I don't care.  In ALL the cases I have encountered where the parent in a two language family switches languages when around others, the child ends up speaking to the parent in the dominant language rather than in the parent's minority language.

Here is a typical discussion that takes place on this matter:

Other mom: I speak to him in Italian but he'll only answer me in French.
Me: But I just heard you speaking to him in French.
Other mom: Well, yeah but when we're with other people, I speak French.  Otherwise the other person won't understand what I'm saying.
Me: Hmmm. I don't think he'll speak to you in Italian unless you speak to him exclusively in the language.
Other mum: Well, he understands everything I say and I guess that's good enough.

Fair enough.  If bilingual comprehension is your goal, then that's all you need.  But if your goal is for your children to be bilingual and you are in a two-language family, you need to keep it exclusive in your language when you talk to your children - no matter where you are.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Getting Burned by Sunscreens

During our summer travels, I have come across many parents who simply cannot understand why my kids wear sunsuits rather than normal bathing suits at the beach and pool. 

"But doesn't it work just as well to slather them in cream?" they ask. 

Here are a few reasons why I avoid putting sunscreen on my kids.

- Most sunscreens protect primarily against UVB rays - the rays that cause your skin to burn.  They do not protect against UVA rays.  When you see a package that says SPF 50, they're talking about the protection against UVB rays.  The protection against UVA rays will be more like SPF 10, at best, but of course the packaging doesn't  say anything about that.   So basically, the sunscreen will protect your child against sunburn but not against melanoma cancer ten or twenty years down the road.

- Most sunscreens contain parabens and/phenoxethanol, preservatives that are believed to be carcinogenic.  Parabens is also a hormone disruptor.

- Many sunscreens contain a synthetic filter called oxybenzone.  Oxybenzone is a chemical that sinks through the epidermis to filter out the sun's rays.  Some of it ends up in your bloodstream and acts as a hormone disrupter, reducing male sperm reproduction in boys and causing early menarche in girls.  That's not something I'm keen to slather on my children. 

- You can't trust anything claimed on sunscreen packaging, so you can never be sure what to buy.  Here are some prime examples of products and players that typify what’s wrong with the sun protection business.

- I do put sunscreen on my kids' faces - the kind with no chemical filters and no parabens or phenoxethanol.  It wears off after an hour.  I can't imagine how burnt my kids would get if I put that stuff all over their bodies.

I just came across this article on sunscreens a few weeks ago.  It reiterates a few of the concerns that I have raised. 
Still not convinced that sunscreens don't do what they are supposed to do and can do more harm than good? Check out the Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide. Make sure you read about their 9 Surprising Truths. I was particular interested in what they said about European sunscreens:
Sunscreen makers and users in Europe have more options than in the United States. In Europe, sunscreen makers can select from among 27 chemicals for their formulations, compared to 17 in the U.S. Companies selling in Europe can add any of seven UVA filters to their products, but have a choice of only three when they market in the U.S. European sunscreens could earn FDA’s proposed four-star top rating for UVA protection, while the best U.S. products would earn only three stars. Sunscreen chemicals approved in Europe but not by the FDA provide up to five times more UVA protection; U.S. companies have been waiting five years for FDA approval to use the same compounds. Last but not least, Europeans will find many sunscreens with strong (mandatory) UVA protection if proposed regulations in Europe are finalized. Under FDA’s current proposal, Americans will not.

So, my kids get sunsuits as their principal sun protection.  Here is a photo of the Bambino in long-sleeved version of a sunsuit from Skin Savers.  If you order one for your toddler, make sure you get the long-sleeved kind.  You would not believe how easily their little arms burn, even with cream on them.

Here is a photo of the Bambina in her sunsuit from Konfidence swimwear.  It looks great on her and she loves the fact that she just zips it on rather than having to pull it over her head. 

The UV Hoodie made by Konfidence is a great option for when we are out on a boat and the sun's rays hit hard.  Both the Bambina and the Bambino wear one when they are not in the pool or sea and they are in direct sun.  They keep you cool and protect completely against UVA and UVB rays. All you need is sunscreen on the face.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Guest-posting on Infant Formula Marketing in Madagascar

Hey everybody, I'm guess posting on Blacktating this week on the subject of infant formula marketing in Madagascar - Nestlé and Blédina say they don't do it but they do!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

No, he won't take longer to learn to talk.

Raising bilingual children is sometimes believed to cause language delay, though evidence does not support this position.  Raising children bilingually neither increases nor reduces the chance of language disorder or delay.
I read this in this article on Multilingual Living today, an internet resource site for bilingual and multilingual families, and I couldn't help nodding in agreement.  For both my children, people would tell me that of course, my children would start talking later because they were being exposed to two languages (or in the case of the Bambino, THREE languages) simultaneously and it would take longer for them to absorb it all. 

This supposition is, in a fact, nothing more than a supposition.  It sounds logical but there is simply no evidence that supports this conclusion.  It certainly didn't hold true for my kids.  The Bambina was using around six to ten obvious words at 17 months (more, if you consider all those babytalk words that we might not understand) and was talking in complete sentences at age two years - well within the norm. 

The Bambino said mama at six months, papa (bahbah, in fact) at seven months, and now, at 13 months, says bah (ball), dide (outside) baba (baby) and some others.  In addition to mama, he says maman (French version) and mummy (anglo version).  The nanny says that he says some words in Malagasy as well (the nanny speaks Malagasy to the Bambino).  And to think that I know monolingual kids who started talking only at two or even three years of age!

The difference is that, while little monolingual Mikey might know 50 words in the one language he knows, Bilingual Beatrice will more likely know 25 words in each language.  She may seem like she's behind because you only recognize the words she says in your language, but in fact, she's not.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


We spent our 24 May long weekend in Madagascar's only Relais & Chateau hotel - Anjajavy - L'Hotel
The pluses:
- You eat breakfast while watching lemurs swing from tree to tree.  The kids watch the lemurs in amazement.
- The weather during the winter season is perfect: not too hot and not cold at all.  The ocean water is warm.
- You get to stay in a palisander bungalow with two floors, so the kids get their own room upstairs.
- The restaurant meals are 4-star quality and there is fresh fish every day.  Both Bambina and Bambino gobbled up their fish at each meal. 
- The beach is stunning and you can do pretty much any water activity you want (but you have to pay extra for water skiing).  The Bambina has turned into a real diver and spent most of the time with her mask on.

Some minuses:

- The mosquito net had holes in the top of it, and there was a captive mosquito inside our nets on each of the
three nights we were there.
- Resorts are a relatively new thing in Madagascar - too new for things like kids' clubs or even a fully developed spa.  And the political crisis in Madagascar means that hotel owners won't be making any big capital investments in their hotels anytime soon. 
- Like all Relais & Chateau hotels, Anjajavy is expensive.
- You need a private plane to get there.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Any TEFL teachers out there?

Since January, I've been teaching English in our home to French and Malagasy people. I've also been teaching English to a group of grade 10 students at the Lycée Français here in Tananarive.

This is the first time I've tried teaching since I obtained my Certificate for English Language Teaching to Adults from Cambridge University (CELTA) at International House in Rome, back in 2008 (I got pregnant after that and no one would hire me, and then I had the baby and we moved to Madagascar, so it took me a while to get back into teaching).

Some observations:

1. ) I try to use the communicative approach but students really resist this method. They want me to stand up in front of the class and just talk and explain to them. They don't want to try to speak the language themselves. I find it especially a challenge to use this approach when students share a common language (usually French, in my students' case) because as soon as you tell them to talk about something in pairs or to the class, they start off in their common language! Grrrr.  What's more, since they know that I speak French, they often will try to speak to me in French instead of trying to say it in English.  Grrr.

2.) The teenagers at the lycée have a decent to good speaking level.  In many cases, their English is better than their parents' English. Now, I am dealing with the more advanced students but nonetheless I am impressed when I think back to my level of French back in grade 10.  One of my students has read the Twilight series three times, in English. 

On the other hand, their written English is not so good. Their regular English teachers also use the communicative approach for teaching, so maybe the poor writing skills is evidence that this approach is good for learning to speak but not for learning to write.

3.) The present perfect tense is perhaps the hardest grammatical concept in English to learn.  Even my teenagers at the lycée don't seem to fully "get it" and I am becoming persuaded that unless you have grown up with English or have moved to an English-speaking country for good (see, I've just used it twice, no make that three times!), you will never fully "get it" as a non-native speaker (unless you're Spanish-speaking, 'cause apparently Spanish has the same thing).   

Actually, there is one thing harder than understanding the present perfect - undertanding when to use the present perfect tense (e.g. I've gone) and when to use the present perfect continuous (e.g., I've been going).  It might seem obvious to you as a native speaker but to a non-native speaker who hasn't been immersed in English and who is learning the concept as part of an English lesson, this is tedious and complicated stuff.

4. ) I'm not in the right market. I have been trained to teach adults. In fact, adults don't care too much about their level of English anymore. But they really really really care about their kids being able to speak English fluently. I've been asked again and again and again to start a class for kids but the thing is,

  • teaching children is not the same as teaching adults, and I haven't been trained to teach kids;
  • teaching children would mean that I would have to give lessons when those children, and therefore my children, are not in school, meaning when my own daughter was home and I had things to do with her; and
  • I honestly don't think that language lessons are that much use to a child under seven years of age. As small children have minds of sponges, they get much more from the immersion approach, not the lesson approach, and the immersion approach requires more than one or two hours per weeks with a "teacher" for the child to get anything out of it.  Proof: Dutch people my age speak pretty good English, yet they only started learning it formally when they were around eleven or twelve years of age.  Their advantage comes not from taking lessons when they were only five years old but rather from watching television shows and movies in their original language version (no dubbing!).
But I will be the first to admit that I could make much more money out of teaching English if I taught children!

Any other TEFL teachers out there?  I would love to hear what you think and how your experiences compare with mine.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Christmas in May

It's poinsetta season here in Madagascar.  This photo was taken at a birthday party yesterday in the backyard where the party was taking place.  These trees are blooming everywhere here, though.  The Malagasy are very surprised when I tell them that for us, the poinsetta is a Christmas plant.
The Bambina shows no amazement whatsoever at these kinds of plants.  I think she's become to used to it all. 

Monday, 3 May 2010

Organic, homeopathic products, dirt cheap?

Do you like to buy beauty products that don't contain parabens, phenoxethanol or other nasty stuff?  Do you find that these products can sometimes be expensive?  What if I told you that you could get all natural, organic beauty products for dirt cheap

I've recently discovered Homeopharma.  Homeopharma is a Malagasy company that specializes in homeopathic medicines as well as organic body care products.  And now they are exporting, at least to Europe.  I don't think their products have hit North American or Asian shores just yet.  I have just bought their children's shampoo (see photo at left).  The shampoo contains no preservatives.  The ingredients are mostly plants, although there is some sodium laureth sulfate in it.

I do have a couple of concerns with their products.  The labelling is not top.  Their website says that all their products have been certified as organic by Ecocert, yet the Ecocert label is absent from their beauty products' packaging.  The list of ingredients on the children's shampoo that I bought includes "parfum" (fragrance), with no indication that this fragrance is natural rather than a synthetic one containing phthalates, a harmful chemical known to disrupt the body's endoctrine system.  The label on the product does say "produit 100% naturel" (100% natural product), yet this cannot be true given that at least one of the ingredients is sodium laureth sulfate, a synthetic chemical.

Needless to say, this company needs a little more sophistication.  But it's an interesting start and their products are cheap!  The shampoo cost the equivalent of US$ 3.50.  The homeopathic medicines (a smattering of which you can see in the photo) cost about the equivalent of US$1 each.  That's here in Madagascar - the prices are probably a bit higher in Europe. 

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Colours where we live

Sunset over Tana

A store at the marché artisanal

This plant has red leaves - all year round.

The beach at Nosy Bé