Sunday, 19 January 2014

Mommy, what's ham?

Tartiflette - a famous dish in the French region of Upper Savoy, consisting of potatoes, reblochon cheese, and chunks of ham.  I ordered it for lunch during our ski vacation in the Alps, with a plate of ham and sausage varieties on the side. Kids would not touch any of it.
When we moved to Madagascar, we had to be careful about what we ate. Strawberries were a no-no (pig manure possibly containing worms could have been used as fertilizer - the worms can get inside the permeable skin of the strawberries and then you eat them and you could get a worm in your brain). I also stopped buying pork and ham for the family because of sanitation conditions in the local pork industry. This was a radical change from Italy, where prosciutto crudo (cured ham) was a family staple.

Fast forward two years later, and we had move to Kuwait. In Kuwait, just like back in Madagascar, we eat no pork products, not because of sanitation issues, but because we're in an Islamic state where the raising or importation of any and all pork products has been banned.

Last night, I read the Bambino the book Green Eggs Ham just before bedtime. At the end of the book, I asked the Bambino, in a teasing kind of way because he is such an incredibly picky eater, "Do YOU like green eggs and ham?"

"What's ham?", he replied.

This is what I get for not serving my children pork products for a period of five years straight.

To be honest, I did try to serve pork back in France last summer, but the kids didn't take to it. They weren't used to it. They picked the lardons out of the penne pasta with parmesan cheese that I had served them. They wouldn't have any of the organic pork sausage that I had bought at the farmer's market. They've never fancied sandwiches of any kind, so I don't bother preparing them. The Bambino was offered ham sandwiches at his day camp and while he did apparently eat the bread, he wouldn't touch the ham. Didn't know what it was. Didn't want to know.

I tell myself that in the long run, this is better. Pork and ham contain nitrates that have been added as a preservative. That stuff can't be good. And my vegetarian friends never cease to tell me that pigs are smarter than dogs, so we definitely should not be eating them. Still, it makes ordering food at the restaurant in the French countryside or the Alps all the more difficult. They don't eat much of any other meat there and vegetarian main courses are almost non-existent, unless you're in the Alps and you order cheese fondue.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Do your kids a favour: make sure they learn how to ski (well)

My parents didn't get to ski when they were young. They were too busy with the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then with moving to the New World. My siblings and I bore the direct consequences of their ski-free childhood by having our own almost-ski-free childhood. I say "almost" because at the age of nine, I did get to spend three days on a class ski-trip. The ski-trip didn't turn me into a slalom queen, but I managed to learn some basics of downhill skiing.

I was 19 years old the next time I got to go skiing, and 25 years old the third time I got to go. Since meeting the Frenchman 13 years ago, I've had to opportunity to downhill ski a few more times; yet even after six years of consistent practice, I'm a competent skier but I will never be a great one or even a very good one. 

Great skiers start when they're young. Small children seem to know intuitively how to ski from the second they stand up on their skis and you push them gently down the bunny hill. They bend their little legs, spread them wide apart and away they go. They're not afraid. They might not know how to stop (at least until they learn how to do a proper snow plough) but even then, they're not scared. And they're close to the ground so if they fall, they don't fall far.

The inchoate sense of balance and confidence on skis never leaves a small child who's been skiing a few times, and children who learn to ski early on become excellent skiers later on.

Well, better skiers than their mom, anyway.

Is skiing an essential skill? No. It's probably not as important to learn how to ski as it is to learn how to swim. Swimming is an important - maybe even an essential - life skill. 

Skiing on the other hand is what I call an "upward mobility skill". Why? Because skiing is expensive. You have to rent or buy skis and boots. You have to buy your lift passes. You have to take lessons if you haven't skied before. And if you don't live close enough to the mountains to go just for the day, you'll either need access to a ski chalet or a hotel. Skiing is for the upper middle class and the upwardly mobile. And one day, your child will be (you hope, anyway) upwardly mobile.

If you think your child might get a university degree one day, maybe even a masters or a doctorate or a professional degree, you should make sure she learns how to ski while she is still young.  

What's so special about skiing? When your globetrotter adolescent spends a year in Europe on a Rotary Exchange or for his Junior Year Abroad, what will happen when his host family invites him for a weekend of skiing in the Alps? One of two things: if he already knows how to ski he'll be glad and relieved that he does. At worst, he'll take this fact for granted. On the other hand, if he doesn't know how to ski and he finds himself on the bunny hill all weekend while the rest of the family (including their teenage kids) is enjoying the real pistes, he'll almost certainly be asking himself, "How come I never got to learn this when I was a kid? Why didn't we ever do this?"

When your daughter is in college in Colorado or Utah and her group of friends decides to go skiing for the weekend, you may be glad to see her home from the weekend, but she'll resent and regret the fact that she missed a ski trip with her friends. 

But it doesn't stop at superficial college outings.  That job that your son will land when he's 25 years old in that international accounting firm, or advertising company in London? Well, they'll be having an office ski trip in the south of France every year. And guess who'll be cursing you for not making sure he learned how to ski? 

When your daughter is on the partnership track in a law firm in Paris, and wants to network with the senior partner (who grew up in Upper Savoy and was on the national ski team for a while), it will really really help if she knows how to ski. 

Do your kids a favour. If you have the money and the vacation time, take them skiing. If you can't ski, do what my friends Cécile and Guy do (because they can't stand skiing but they realise that it will offer a certain social value to their kids): send your kids to ski camp for a week or two every winter.  

Those ten years of violin lessons my mother forced me to take? A complete waste. It was obvious from year three that I was hopeless.  Forget the music lessons unless your kid enjoys it or has an obvious talent for it, of course. Teach her how to ski. Her business and social network will care very little about how well she plays violin, unless she does it for a living. On the other hand, if your child attends university, the chances that there will be a ski outing at some point in your child's future professional or social life is fairly high.

And if you can't appreciate the idea that skiing will be a good skill for your kids to have in the long run, just enjoy the smile that you'll see on your kids' faces when they get their achievement medals at the end of the week. This year, it was a "flocon" (snowflake) badge for the Bambino and a bronze star (étoile bronze) for the Bambina.

Other upward mobility sports are golf and tennis. It's good to know how to play these, too. I can remember our office having a golf and tennis day. Guess who had never played a game of golf in her life? So I signed up for tennis instead (which I also had never played). Also a disaster.