My Pregnant French Summer (an excerpt)

This one’s for Kristen, the least paranoid pregnant mama I know.

The worst thing about Georgette, our otherwise dreamy house in the mountains of Western France, was the cats. There were at least two or three stray cats who apparently had been fed salmon steaks and caviar by the guests before us and were constantly lurking around and mewing for more. I’ve never been a cat lover and under normal circumstances would find them annoying, like hair in my dishwater, roll my eyes and step right over them to get on with the business of soaking in all that decadent peacefulness. The problem was a new little paranoia I’d adopted named Toxoplasmosis.

It all began a few months earlier when I was reading Adam Gopnik’s lovely and intelligent memoir about living in Paris, and had abandoned all fantasies of ever writing a sentence that didn’t sound like cave-dwelling drivel compared to the really smart writers out there. Just as I was considering funnelling my creative energies into finger knitting long yarn chains that could be wrapped into tea cozies, Gopnik handed me an even drearier fate to fear. His wife had become pregnant while in Paris and on her first visit to the doctor and been warned to never touch une salade, as though it was the French code word for cocaine. Apparently the French are highly concerned about Toxoplasmosis and therefore avoid all raw vegetables throughout their pregnancies. They pop brie cheese and red wine like prenatal vitamins, but vegetables are strictly forbidden. With the cultural taboos of every hemisphere accumulating in my tense little brain, my potential summer diet was dwindling to baguettes and Milka chocolate bars. (A friend of mine once told me that if you eat chocolate while pregnant, you’ll have a happy baby, and happiness is a very important quality in a baby so I try to do my part).

Before we left Kenya, I asked my obstetrician, Dr. Patel, about the French salad thing. He smiled and chuckled and said, “Sweetie, the French are very worried,” as though that ended the discussion. Mind you, this was in Nairobi where the World Health Organization supposedly imports milk from surrounding countries because the milk in the grocery store is so contaminated and void of nutrients it could cause more damage than help to undernourished children. Toxoplasmosis germs are probably always beaming up from my lettuce in thriving swarming colonies, but just haven’t made the media cut amidst all the other potential Kenyan pregnancy dangers, like say mass riots or malaria. “Just don’t spend time around any cats and you should be just fine, Sweetie.” In Dr. Patel’s dignified Indian Kenyan accent, it sounds like he’s calling me Sweet Tea. I realize in North America he’d likely get sued for sexist condescension or something, but it makes me feel safe, since no doctor would ever let anything bad happen to his precious Sweet Tea.

So I left for France, deciding I would stick to my familiar irrational fears and let the Toxo one slide. I wouldn’t be around any cats, after all, and would have enough to worry about with nitrates and Listeria outbreaks.

What Georgette’s enchanting online property description failed to mention, however, is that I would, in fact, be around cats. A whole colony of them. And like my friend reminded me ever so poetically,” It’s not just the litterbox you have to worry about. Cats put their butts everywhere.” You can’t argue with that kind of eloquence and sure enough, cats were running around putting their butts on everything they could see- the chairs outside, the lovely table on the terrace where we’d planned to eat all our meals, and so on. The nitrate count in all that delicious garlic sausage I had bought from the gentlemanly butcher didn’t even make the radar of my inner paranoia squadron. All my energy was devoted to shooing away those vicious stray cats. (One of the previous guests had written in the guest book that they’d named that “gorgeous marbled cat, Mimi” or something equally affectionate, but a mother’s fears can make Shirley Temple look like a demon if there’s a chance she might not invite your daughter to her birthday party, and there was definitely nothing gorgeous about those Kevorkian creatures). And so I shooed, and clapped, and made silly hissing noises while waving sticks and pouncing at the cats. The girls loved it. They’d never seen their mom quite so animated and flailing before. It made for quite the afternoon activity, after the joys of stickers and poking sticks into sheep poop had worn off. The girls loved to chase the cats and shout “Shoo cat, don’t bother me” down the winding lane.

I felt a little guilty about it all. I’d always taught the girls to love and respect every living thing. We’re the kind of people who put empty margarine containers over crickets in the house and slide them inch by inch toward the doorway, trying not to pinch their little legs while we scoot them to freedom. We tell spiders to “Go back to your home!’ as we sweep them outside with our shoes. Granted, some of the time the spiders are already squished and oozing by this point and have to be scraped off into their home, but we try not to let the girls see that part. I know a woman whose commitment to respecting all living things leads her to talking to the ants in her kitchen and requesting very sternly that they turn around and leave at once. This approach has never worked for me, but then again she’s not dealing with African safari ants. Or maybe the ants can sense which crazy women really respect them and which are just embarrassed but desperate.

My husband tried to balance my cat negativity by pointing out that sometimes cats are good to have around, all of Mom’s raging attacks showing evidence to the contrary. So one night as she sat on the toilet, having called for the bathroom for the third time after going to bed, M. asked me what the good things about cats were. I looked at her there, her fleecy zip-up pajamas puddled around her feet and her sleepy blue eyes squinting into mine, like Sleeping Beauty still trying to figure out who that funny face was in front of her, and all my impatience at another trek down those cold stairs melted to the floor. I crouched down in front of the toilet and leaned in so close our noses touched. “Well, they chase away mice sometimes.”

“Why do you want mice to go away?” Cinderella’s mice are, after all, the true heroines of the story. I realized my ethical stance on animals had some holes in it.

“Well, mice sometimes come inside and eat your food.”

She thought about this for a while. “And maybe cats shoo away the scary dogs.”

“Maybe, although dogs can be nice to have around too.”

“I’m all done, Mom. I’m ready for bed now.” We nuzzled noses one more time and zipped up her pajamas. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining the contradictions in my animal treatment, and she didn’t convince me to set out warm milk for Mimi on the front step. But I decided I could try to sound a little less hateful in my hissing, and occasionally try giving the cats a respectful and stern lecture to please go away at once.