Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Around The World in Fifty Flushes

When I was in elementary school, my sister in-law, Rhonda, wrote a college paper entitled, “How to Flush a Toilet in Europe.” I thought it was SO funny, mostly because she used the word, “toilet,” in the title, but also because I couldn’t imagine flushing a toilet any differently than the way I did at my parent’s house.

As I began to travel, I saw that she was right and that in different countries, there are different bathroom customs. In Bolivia, the toilet was a hole in the ground and when I was finished, I just kicked dirt in it. In India, some places didn’t use toilet paper and I had to fill a bucket up with water and balance myself while I poured it down my backside. And in France, the toilet is often in a different room from the bathtub or even the sink.

Recently here in Switzerland, I experienced something else new. It was in the bathroom of my favorite coffee shop, Bar Tabac. Right on the wall, next to the roll of toilet paper was a dispenser for, “Seat Cleaning Foam.”

Since I am a big advocate of the expression, “When in Rome,” I tried the stuff. The Swiss are known for being very clean, so it shouldn’t have surprised me to find seat cleaning foam. What did surprise me, however, was that the foam was peach scented.

I hadn’t wiped the seat well enough so when I sat down, it was a little wet. At first it felt weird, but I got used to it and felt a little bit at ease knowing that the seat was clean. It didn’t burn like I thought it would, but was a little sticky.

As I sat there, I imagined what it would be like if humans were like dogs and smelled each other’s backsides. I laughed a little when I thought of some stranger smelling me and then standing up and saying, “Wow! That smells great! What is that, peach?”

I only sat there for a few seconds because my sole purpose was to test the seat cleaning foam. When I felt I had enough information, I pulled my pants back up. I was about to head back to my apartment when I noticed that my shoes were untied and so I sat back down on the seat and tied them.

When I arrived at the apartment, Heather asked me, “What’s that on your pants?”

“I don’t know,” I answered as I turned around and saw wet marks on my chinos.

When I saw the marks, it occurred to me that when I had sat down on the toilet seat to tie my shoes, that the seat was still a little wet. I felt like a teenage boy who’d been caught smoking in the high school bathroom, but wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

“Oh,” I said. “I must have sat in something.”

“Did you put on some peach moisturizer or lotion?”

I took a whiff and sure enough, I smelled like the seat cleaning foam.

I didn’t know which was worse; telling her that I was trying out seat cleaning foam or that I used peach moisturizer. I improvised.

“Soap. There was some soap at the coffee shop and it must have been scented.”

Although it took a couple of washings to get the scent of peach out of the seat of my pants, I don’t regret my experiment. Now, whenever I enter a bathroom, I will look for all the things that make it different from the one I use at home. Hopefully one day, I will have enough information to write a part two to Rhonda’s paper, entitled, “Around the World in Fifty Flushes.”

Playground of Death

When I decided to take the job as nanny for my friend in Switzerland, I had no doubts if I could do the job or not. I had several nieces and nephews who I’d taken care of, knew how to change a dirty diaper and worked as a camp counselor. I had my Masters in Business, worked for some of the toughest bosses around and pulled a pirogue through my daddy’s crawfish ponds at the crack of dawn. None of this, I soon realized, prepared me to take care of Lea.

My first indication that this job was going to be more difficult than I’d expected was on the day of my arrival. I had met Lea twice before. Once, a few months after she’d been born and again, this past summer when she was still crawling. This time when I met her, she ran past me to her mom. She had a small bump on her head, which her mom, Heather, said had happened that morning at the playground, while Lea was riding a giant, wooden rooster. I wondered how Heather could have let that happen. I thought that if I had gone with her, I would have wrapped the rooster with a blanket. I learned about twenty minutes later that there is more to a play ground than wrapping things in blankets.

When we got the park that afternoon, I saw the rooster that Lea had bumped her head on. Because of its shape, I decided that if I were to wrap a blanket around it that I should probably use some gray tape just to ensure that it stayed on.

Lea didn’t ride the rooster on this visit. Instead she went straight to the slide, which Heather had said she’d gone down by herself earlier that morning. I stood at the bottom of the slide while her father, Seb, brought her to the top.

This was when I started to feel nervous for the first time about taking care of Lea. I felt like I was being interviewed for this nanny position and this was my test. I imagined her sliding through my hands onto the cement. I couldn’t let that happen, so I squatted down in a football position and rubbed my hands together. I was determined not to let her fall.

She started sliding down and I thought to myself, “I can do this. I can catch this little girl. I can be a nanny.”

But then, without any foreshadowing of any kind, her shoe stuck to the slide. Her body lifted up in the air and headed towards the side. She was only about mid-way, about five feet from the ground and the fall would have surely caused a badly skinned up face and maybe even a concussion. I stood there shocked and frozen. Surely they couldn’t blame this for me? I wasn’t the one that suggested it, and I specifically called the bottom of the slide. Had I failed the nanny test? Would I be back on a plane that night to New York, where I had no place to live? Where all I had was a packed storage unit I shared with a friend?

Before I could answer any of these questions, Heather came from out of nowhere and pushed Lea’s body back to the slide.

“Oh, oh,” she laughed. “You almost got away.”

My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it would come out of my chest. Was everything O.K? Was there judgment in her voice? How could she have just laughed and when did she become so lightning fast? Most importantly, how can they have such a dangerous piece of equipment on the playground for children to access?

When I caught my breath and realized that the child wasn’t going to smash against the pavement like a pumpkin, I asked,

“Do the people at 911 speak English?”

I was only joking to help ease the tension, but it in fact made it worse because I found out that not all of the people speak English and it’s not 911 here. It’s 144 for the hospital, 117 for the police, and 118 for the firemen. Three numbers just like 911 but different. How was I supposed to remember these new numbers while running around with a child with a split opened head and trying to translate in French, “She fell off the slide. I was watching her but her tennis shoe got caught. Nobody told me this was going to happen! How was I supposed to know!”

I of course knew basic things like to not let a child near a hot stove, not to let her near the top of a flight of stairs, not to give her a fork and tell her to play with an electrical outlet. However, what I did not know was that no matter how safe a situation looked, something can happen. I began to wonder if I was in over my head. Maybe taking care of a baby wasn’t going to be cake like I thought it would be. I had imagined my biggest headache would be trying to change her diaper without getting peed on, not saving her life from an unforeseen incident.

Later that night I talked to Heather about it. She confessed that she’d had many close calls with Lea herself. Even Seb, her father, had had a situation when Lea fell against a table and cut her head. He was six inches from her at the time.

“It’s gonna happen,” Heather told me. “You just have to be ready. And remember if anything happens to her, I’m gonna kill you.”

Our conversation did not put me at ease because I knew Heather and that she was capable of killing me. And I knew her well enough to know that she would do it slowly so it would be even more painful for me.

I’ve been with Lea for a week now and the worst thing that has happened was that I allowed her to stab herself with a cheese knife, (it didn’t break the skin) and I partially blame her mother because she’s the one that gave it to Lea. I realize that this job is harder than I initially thought, but I’ve also realized that so is life. So each night I go to bed thinking about what I’ve learned and how to use it the next day to protect Lea and myself. Tonight’s lesson, “A cheese knife is still a knife.”

Thursday, January 26, 2006

My Name is Jacques Couvillon

My name is Jacques Couvillon. My grandfather, who used to call me King Jackson, thought I was named after his brother Jack. My mom claims that I’m named after John F. Kennedy, who was popular at the time of my birth. Since I already have a brother named John, my mom named me Jacques. She said that people called our late President, Jack, but she didn’t really like that name. Since she wanted to please her father and honor our President, she went with Jacques, which she thought was French for Jack.

My mother made a common mistake in thinking that Jacques was French for Jack. It is French for John, and Jack is simply a nickname for John. I have gotten in several arguments with people about this. They claim that Jean is French for John which is not true. Jean is French for, well, Jean, which is pronounced and sometimes spelled Gene in English. When people disagree with me about my name, I refer them to the song, “Frere Jacques”, whose English translation, is entitled, “Brother John.”

This isn’t really about my name. Although those two paragraphs did give pretty good examples of people not really knowing what’s going on, even when they’re 100% sure about it. I’m not saying that I know everything that’s going on. I don’t, and that’s what this is about; me trying to figure out what’s going on in my head and the world that surrounds it.

So I guess I should start from the beginning and where I am now. I was born on a farm to the parents of Andrew and Julia Couvillon, a farmer and school teacher respectively. I am the youngest of eight children. Two sisters are school teachers, one brother a Sheriff, one a business man, another a bank Vice President, one a truck driver and the last owns an appliance store. And then there’s me; a thirty six year old boy from Cow Island, Louisiana with a Masters in Business, living in Switzerland and working as a carpenter and a nanny.

I have never had dreams of being a carpenter and a nanny. I have done everything from working as a marketing manager to delivering coffee to business executives to peddling socks and ties. So why this all of a sudden?

Because I don’t know what exactly I want to do, although I have a pretty good idea that I want to write. You see, all my life, stories have been piling up in my head like fifty pounds of crawfish in a thirty pound sack. I decided that although I am getting prettier, I am not getting any younger. And so when my friend Heather made me an offer to be a nanny for her one year old daughter, Lea, and work in her husband, Seb’s furniture design company I said, “Why not? Those executives will just have to get their own coffee. Will I have to change Lea’s diapers?”

It’s a new life for me. I’ve never lived in Switzerland or with a married couple. I’ve never been a nanny and I’ve rarely used a hammer except to hang up the occasional picture or to crack open walnuts. But here I am now with twenty dollars in my bank account in case of an emergency, and sleeping in a single bed like one of my childhood. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like watching that scene in a horror movie when the pretty homecoming queen hears a noise in the closet. You scream at her not to open the door. But deep down you want her to. If she just ran away, you’d never know what was in there and after paying $10 for a movie, you’d be pretty disappointed. I’m hoping that there’s not a masked man with a butcher knife here in Switzerland waiting to chop me up. I’m hoping there’s a publishable novel in that closet waiting for me. But if my head gets severed, at least I’ll know. And I have faith that my family and friends and especially my mother have the right kind of band aids and a big bottle of Bactine to help me heal.

So you’ve heard it from my lips. I’m going to take a deep breath and open that closet door because I really want to know what’s inside. Don’t you?