Dec 14, 2014

Hands-on Teaching: Le Malvault


The first time my friend Mei, another American gym mom, and I see a coach with his hands on our daughters' inner thighs, pushing open their legs for the middle splits, we pause for a moment. We are, after all, American, and we're pretty sure this scene would be t*b00 in 100 different ways in the US. But then, after a few seconds, we remember we live in France: so we shrug, remark "That'll stretch 'em out," and walk away, nonplussed. The coaches are very hands-on, literally.

I'm not going to tell you what French laws or regulations are, because I don't think people in France care much about that, until the point where a child is actually molested, or abused, of course; they are not animals. They just don't have the same hyper-fear, and, therefore, hyper-regulation, about adult-child contact that we have in the US. And for that, I am extremely grateful. I love that my children's teachers can be affectionate with them -- when it's appropriate, why not?

Teachers will put children on their laps, especially in the young elementary school grades. In the "maternelle" grades (ages 3-6, Petite Section, Moyenne Section, and Grande Section, or what we would call Kindergarten), it's practically de rigueur. Children are hugged, kissed, cuddled, and tickled, and happily so. You know that children this age love the physical contact.

I bet, if you're American, that you're even having a hard time reading this without the devil's advocate voice in your head saying, "But, what if....." I'm not trying to deny that there are adults with bad intentions here as well as anywhere else. But somehow the assumption is that the vast majority have good intentions and aren't going to make the children uncomfortable or do anything inappropriate. So why stifle all of them in the name of a few bad eggs? It's certainly quite true in the US, too, that the vast majority are well-intentioned. But the culture in the States is so much more fearful, litigious, and regulated, that it's just general policy in schools -- even very young preschools -- to limit physical contact. God forbid an American teacher should be in a room with a child alone. It makes me very, very sad, frankly.

The French teachers and coaches aren't apprehensive about getting physical. There just isn't that assumption or fear hanging over their heads, and therefore it's not written as part of their codes of conduct. Gymnastics is a sport where there's lots of touching: not just coaches spotting, but also helping to stretch or to position body parts in order to make the tricks better, prettier, and safer for the children.

It also makes it more fun for them. They girls idolize their coaches and regularly jump all over them. The coaches don't even miss a beat. The coaches walk around with girls straddling their waists; they tickle and tease. Personally, I think it's a healthy way for the girls to interact with coaches whom they adore -- whether they have tiny crushes on them or just love them like big brothers (or sisters: frankly, they idolize and jump on the female coaches almost as much).

Many of our girls' coaches are men, and especially as the girls get older and bigger, the male coaches are specifically called in to spot some of the harder tricks. On the vault, for example, Pippa is learning a Tsukahara (where they spring off their hands on the vault and do a back tuck before landing), and the men get their hands in whenever -- and wherever -- necessary to help the rotation and keep her safe. And I'm grateful for that, especially since vault is the event Pippa most fears, having once given herself actual whiplash on a missed vault.


At yesterday's competition, Pippa has just come off of 2 solid days of fever and vomiting. She's finally eaten a tiny bowl of oatmeal on the day of the meet, having not eaten or kept down more than a couple pieces of toast and a few spoonfuls of apple sauce in over 48 hours. She missed the last training and practice session and is on a combination of decongestants and pain killers to get through the competition. It is, unsurprisingly, not her best performance: She starts off with the dreaded vault and hurts herself a little scraping down the vault and cries in fear for a good five minutes while her teammates take their turns. By the time she falls in an ugly and spectacular fashion off the beam during a difficult roundoff-back layout dismount (which she's done so many times perfectly in practice. Sigh. How do parents of Olympic athletes even stand it?), I'm glad her coach gives her hugs. She needs them.

[In case you're wondering: she comes in 4th place in Paris among the elite gymnasts in her age group. On a good day, she should've been in 3rd place, but even on a great day, she shouldn't beat the #1 and #2 girls, unless they completely fall apart.]

Given that the girls are wearing tight, skimpy leotards and gym costumes, is there ever a chance that a coach's hand will accidentally graze high up on the inner thigh? Or the chest (still flat for Pippa, but not so for all the girls...)? Or even the crotch? Not only is there a chance, I'd say there's a certainty that in all this spotting and grabbing, it's inevitable that it will happen. And the girls and coaches will know it's an accident, and pass quickly through the momentarily embarrassing moment, and nobody will even remember or care two seconds later.

Gigi, reading this over my shoulder as I type, asks why it's so different in the US. When I explain that due to fear of misunderstandings, false accusations, and lawsuits, adults are generally forbidden from t0uching children (you see? to an American, even the phrase "t0uching children" sounds damning), her reply is, "That stinks." I agree, completely. So, as long as we live in France, we relish the human contact and the fact that the girls are being touched -- both figuratively and literally -- by great teachers and coaches.

THE CHEESE: Le Malvault

Le Malvault is a rough-hewn tiny puck of a cheese made from raw goats' milk. It's hand-ladeled and shaped, and it looks like it: bumpy, lumpy, gritty, and uneven. Malvault is also the name of the street on which is located the farm and fromagerie, La Fromagerie du Thouet, in Azay-sur-Thouet, in the department of Deux-Sèvres in the region of Poitou-Charentes at which it is made between the months of January to September. Poitou-Charentes is, in my mind (and I know something about it, by this point), the great goat cheese center of France and, therefore, of the world. And Le Malvault does not disappoint.

It's a small treasure of a cheese -- very firm "soft" cheese, sliceable, and closer to crumbly than creamy, even when warmed up. It's got a salty, medium-strength goat flavor, with not just hints of hay in the flavor, but actual strands of hay on the crust. This version is ashed, hence the blackened crust.

I particularly like the sticker on this one: the happy smiling goat does it for me. Knowing the cheese, the region, and the kind of farm this is (though not the specific farm itself), I believe the goats really are happy and smiling, and the cheese both looks and tastes like it to me.


All this hands-on teaching, gymnastics coaching in particular, is meant to prevent a "bad vault" ("a mal vault", to mix languages), like the one that puts Pippa in a neck brace for a week and the one that starts her off crying at last night's gymnastics meet (though in that case, "mal beam" might be more like it). It's all innocently meant, and so I feel no awkwardness about the touching, poking, prodding, hugging, holding, carrying, and general man-handling. In fact, whenever I see my baby get hurt, I wish there were more touching, prodding, carrying, and general man-handling.


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