Feb 8, 2015

Unto Her a Son Is Born: Berger Plat


And, finally (finally!), my friend has her baby here in Paris. It feels like an eternity -- to her more than anyone. She ends up going to almost 42 weeks -- about 12 days overdue by American standards. She is induced two days after her French due date because, even to them, it seems like it has to be time already.

Besides the difference in due dates, there are other things I notice that are different about having a baby in France. The size of the hospital bill is the first give away: my friend's bill shows a few hundred euro for her anesthesiologist, 130 per day for room and board (three decent French meals and a private room). By contrast, when I gave birth to Gigi in San Francisco, the room and board charge for Gigi -- who slept in a plastic bin in my room and who nursed from the first second and never took a bottle -- was $800 per night. On top of the charge for my room and board, which was more than that. And that was 11 years ago.

Another give-away is the length of time: my friend stays in the hospital for four days, a minimum standard. French doctors like to give the babies time to fatten up a little and the mothers time to relax. At those prices, who needs to rush? The hospital generally don't release newborns and mothers till the babies have at least regained their birth weight. I got four days in San Francisco with Pippa, born by C-section (minimum one-week here in France), and we left when she was not only less than her birth-weight, she was less than 5 pounds (2.27kg)!

French nurses have a baby-bathing protocol. One might even call it a baby-bathing obsession: on the first day, the nurse gives the baby a bath while mother looks on. On the second day, the nurse guides the mother through giving the bath. On the third day, the mother bathes the baby with the nurse looking on. My friend, who has successfully raised two daughters to the ages of 7 and 9 so far, is advised she should continue at home to bathe her son every day -- every other day at least. This message is delivered sternly. Our Spanish friend who is part of this conversation laughs and tells us that if you cross the border into Spain, the instructions are that you are not allowed to bathe your baby until 2 weeks. You simply must not! Which, I think, just proves that nobody really knows anything about babies, not even the babies themselves.

While they're so careful on the bathing issue, compared to Americans at least, I'm surprised that the first time my friend is asked to bring her baby in for a check up with the physician is at one month, or even two months. In the US, I remember having my babies weighed and starting from the one week mark.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences is in the attitude toward breastfeeding. In terms of nursing babies, coming from San Francisco to Paris is, I imagine, like going from here to a public square in Saudi Arabia.

The nurses ask my friend if she plans to breastfeed. "Absolutely!" Did you breastfeed your two other children? "Yes -- about one year each."

"One year?!  Each?!" We're surprised the nurse doesn't faint. Her surprise is understandable, given that this is practically unheard of here in France. In fact, French women have one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, and I think in four years, I have not seen more than one or two babies nursing. As quoted in a fantastic article in the UK Guardian, the French attitude about breastfeeding is that it's "akin to drinking your own urine". Umm, I'm not sure if they understand how mammals work (and, for the record, the word for nipple in French is, not coincidentally, "mamelon").

In the survey, 41% of French women, many of whom would probably sunbathe on a beach topless, said that breastfeeding in public is embarrassing (figures for the US and UK 18%). The next largest group was China with 27%.

In the UK, 63% of respondents said that breastfeeding is "perfectly natural," and the number of Americans was 57%. The number for the French was 35%, second lowest only after the Chinese, of whom only 19% agreed that, as mammals, we should possibly nurse our young.

Only 15% of the French thought that nursing is "unavoidable" -- the lowest rate among the nations surveyed (UK 17% and US 22%). This may be because, in France, it is entirely avoidable. Most French women leave the hospital not nursing, having already committed to the bottle. After a month or two, that's nearly all French women.

And while only 2% of Americans and Brits in the survey thought that breastfeeding is flat out "wrong", the French were in the middle of the pack at 9%. Personally, I feel like the French should indeed be embarrassed -- not by breastfeeding, but by the fact that the only nations who felt breastfeeding is more "wrong" are Mexico and Hungary (12%) and Turkey (20%).

There are two different words for nursing (and I found this out the hard way during a mammogram): one for breastfeeding on the eating side ("téter", what the baby does) and another on the feeding side ("allaiter", what the mother does in providing the milk).

At the hospital, the nurses practically insist on taking the baby for at least one night, especially for the last night. They keep the baby all night, bringing him in to tète only if he wakes up to feed, and waking the mother up just long enough to allaite, then whisking baby out again. According to French philosophy, this is about the last time a mom is going to get a really full night sleep for a few months.

Sleeplessness is just one of the many problems with breastfeeding -- the worse ones, in the French opinion, being that your breasts will lose some perkiness, and that it will ruin both your sex life and your sense of style.

THE CHEESE: Berger Plat

Berger Plat is one of the many raw sheeps' milk cheeses made at the Berger des Dombes, which is a farm and also a restaurant on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month, with 48 hours advance reservation (in case you're in the neighborhood). Their hours are very French, and so is their cheese.

Despite the fact that it's a relatively new cheese (made by the Berger des Dombes which opened in 1988), it's a classic-tasting, medium-strength sheep cheese -- both crumbly and creamy. The milk comes from Lacaune breed sheep, which are the same sheep used to make Roquefort cheese. The taste is salty and buttery, with hints of greens and grasses, and a hint of the straw on which it's aged from 2-3 weeks. There's even the tiniest hint of blue tang to it, a result of the particular molds flying around where it ages, perhaps having something to do with the Lacaune sheep themselves.

La Dombes is a natural park region in the department of Ain in the Rhone-ALpes region, 20km north of Lyon, comprising a plateau of moraines, which is, evidently, an English word that I never knew until now. It describes the local landscape formed by glaciers, and dotted with both rocky areas and many ponds. Despite the name of the cheese, neither the region, nor the cheese itself, is exactly plat (flat).


Since he is due to be born around Christmas, I text my friend every once in a while to find out her status, which -- for the entire vacation -- remains "still pregnant." On Christmas day, I write, optimistically, "Unto you a son is born?" But no. Still pregnant. And so, while my friend's third child is neither a virgin birth nor the second coming, I still associate him with the baby Jesus and the Christmas story. Hence, the "berger" -- or shepherd -- in the cheese's name, Berger Plat.

Since the baby has just been born, the mom's stomach is not yet flat. And, since she's breastfeeding (oh, so American), neither are her breasts. Although, according to many Frenchwomen, if she's breastfeeding, then flat breasts are right around the corner. So, for the moment, nothing is flat here: not the stomach, the breasts, the landscape, or the cheese -- the Flat Shephard -- itself.


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