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  • Awatef Zaoui

The Parisian way...

We just came back from our summer holidays. Being an expat, long holidays are exclusively for visiting family: grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins back home. And for us, family is based in Paris (France) and London (United Kingdom).

First stop: Paris. 4 Weeks.

After more than 18 months of virtual connection, I was excited to go to my home. To see my parents. To eat my mum’s meals. Strangely, each flight back home feels like a trip on a time machine to when I am fifteen again, carefree and surrounded by a nostalgic but happy feeling.

As much as Paris reminds me of my blissful childhood, it also rubs in that my own child rearing practices may not be perfect! I know comparing is not beneficial to anyone, but I cannot help it – it is almost like a reflex action. All it takes is a few subtle suggestions and questioning looks from my loved ones to put a chink in my maternal armour.

How do you explain that it is totally normal for a ‘Dubai kid’ to not know how to cross a road? Or that you don’t feel comfortable letting your child go to the bakery down the road?

Allow me to be a bit caricatural.

Here is a description of a typical French 6-year old. Kids that age are nearly independent. They are miniature adults who get dressed in under two minutes and can tie their shoe laces. They eat whatever their parents cook. They pack their own bags and homework is done on autopilot mode. No reminders needed. And the crème de la crème, they put themselves to bed. No fuss. No tears. Oh, I almost forgot – when kids sleep, parents talk. Normal voice.

In my case, it is roughly the same. Except that none of my kids eat what his/her sibling eats. Vegetables are apparently a torture technique. Bedtime takes an hour, or two. Some nights I fall asleep while putting them to bed. The autopilot mode is not an option in my house. Everything needs to be repeated 20 times. And I mean everything, even the simplest act of asking them to brush their teeth.

Oh, and once they sleep, if we are still awake, we whisper. Our home is boisterous, loud and chaotic. Rarely quiet.

To justify my chaos, I usually launch into a long monologue starting philosophically with, “we develop skills to match our environment”. In Dubai, the nearest grocery is 10km away and temperatures soar to above 45 degrees for most part of the year. So no, there is no way my kids can stroll out for occasional baguette trips. Their school is a 20-minute drive away. So, nope they can’t walk to the school either. And for the food issue….I concede the guilt of being a SAHM has made me do crazy things such as going to four different stores to complete my grocery list, waking up at 5am to cook healthy meals, buying exorbitantly priced lunch boxes to make sure the said healthy lunch is still warm for their break six hours later. The GUILT is such a burden!

I also remind everyone that I am doing my motherhood gig alone. They have a staunch support system made of their parents, sisters and extended family. The village is ready for them whenever they need. Whether they choose to use it or not, they subconsciously know that the people they trust the most are just a call away. I had my babies thousands of kilometres away and I had to create my own village amongst strangers. Sometimes with people I just met. Sometimes with people I paid to teach me some mothering skills. I went to classes, workshops, I read books, I had coaches, I posted on Facebook groups (by the way, a very helpful one: Real Mums UAE). My motherhood was rarely instinctive. It was a meticulous exercise in forging and nurturing trusting relationships while acquiring the skills best for my situation (this network building and synthesis of learning implies a rational selective methodology which finds reflection in my work). And believe me when I say that this is a huge responsibility because if the outcome sucks, it will be my fault alone. The guilt and fear is real.

Although my emotional yet rational argument does earn me some compassion from my French counterparts, it doesn’t prevent the uncomfortable truth from surfacing: in France, at least in my circle, adult lives are not built around children. Nothing extravagant is done to accommodate the kids. For instance, there are no kids’ meal; there are just meals. The kids eat what parents eat. They follow their parents plan. There are no extra efforts to accommodate the kids precious comfort. There is no need to organize playdates miles away. It is normal and considered healthy to be bored occasionally. Kids will play in the park with other kids. Nobody cares if they have similar interests. Kids play for the pleasure of playing. Not as an act of friendship.

Please, my dear French friends, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying your parenting is any less than mine. In fact, I admire you and sometimes I envy you. The fact that your kiddos can drink a bottle of cold broccoli soup while queuing in a supermarket is nothing short of a miracle to me. The fact that they can keep themselves busy for a couple of hours with three pencils and two pieces of paper is just astonishing. Your kids are street smart, independent, resilient, confident. So, my French friends, you are doing an amazing job.

Perhaps this level of efficiency that you have achieved is an outcome of your ability to keep everything uncomplicated for yourselves and by extension for your children.

As an interior designer, one of the first elements that illustrates this principle to me is the children’s bedroom.

In Paris, kids’ rooms are rooms where kids play and sleep. No extras. The rooms are neither cramped nor unnecessarily generous.

They have character.

They are practical.

The size of the room welcomes a bed, a desk and a 2-door cupboard. Most children have a minimal wardrobe consisting of three pairs of trousers, five t-shirts, two pairs of shoes and khalas! The purpose of the desk is to study. It is not a gaming – playing – sewing -crafting space. One desk. One purpose. The shelves are bookshelves, they have books. Only books. No cute beach bag, no candles, no seashells necklaces, no figurines. They do have (as one and only one) a toy chest. Containing toys. One chest, not a playroom. You get the idea, right?

It is simple. Clear. Straight to the point. Another important element in Parisian flats is that there is one toilet and one bathroom for the whole family. So you learn to wait, and you learn to be quick. Hey, it ticks a few boxes in efficiency!

Efficiency, simplicity and independence: it is these features of a Parisian childhood that tie into my interior design philosophy. I believe our environment is constantly shaping our minds. With kids too, their spaces do have an impact on their ability to be independent and self-aware. Ultimately, that’s what most of us - parents - want right? For the kids to grow up and be able to think by themselves. And as a first step, kids should be able to move into their space independently. To make their beds independently. To find their toys independently. To tidy up independently. To allow the learning of independence, perhaps it could be helpful to limit their choices. Eliminate decision fatigue. Less is more… Less clothes, less books on the shelf, less toys. Keep it simple.

I take this as the perfect opportunity to remind myself that despite the amazing and ever-increasing choices available to enhance our interiors; the ocean of beautiful knicks and knacks; the plethora of shiny new gadgets; I don’t want to be distracted. I want to offer you simplicity. Genuine interior design concepts that are easy to implement and always put your dearest one’s interest first while allying pragmatism with aesthetics.

Welcome back home my villagers,

Next time, we will speak about the Brits…

With love,

Awatef Zaoui


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