To Be or Not to Be…Why Ask the Question?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  -Voltaire

Just last month, MB and I were in Paris during the train (SNCF) strikes. During this strike something like 2 out of every 3 trains was cancelled and we arrived at the Paris Gare de Lyon to find that our train back to Grenoble had been one of the unlucky ones. After talking to multiple SNCF staff, it was explained that they could not issue us new tickets as ours were not exchangeable but we could board the next train with our old tickets and we were “sure” to get a seat. My reaction was something like this:

Uh, I’m sorry, what? You are not going to issue another ticket? I’m just supposed to take a chance that what you are suggesting will work out and that we’ll manage to get two randomly free seats in the middle of 3 train’s worth of people trying to board?!?

!!!!!!!!

Oui, apparently that is exactly what we were supposed to do.

So we sat and we waited, having no idea whether or not we would manage to get on the following train that was leaving in 3 hours. As the minutes ticked by, my anxiety grew, I was practically bouncing around with nervous energy. What if we didn’t get on, what was the plan then? Would we stay in Paris for the night? Did I need to start calling friends to try and find a place to crash? Maybe we should just take the hit and purchase brand new tickets? The uncertainty was making me crazy but to my surprise, when I looked around the jam-packed train station, most people seemed pretty zen.

“It’s amazing,” I said. “How is everyone so calm and quiet when no one knows what is going on? In the U.S. people would be flipping out or commiserating with strangers or…flipping out*.”

MB looked around and thought for a second or two. “Maybe we are just more philosophical.”

***

I do not deal well with change.

Now, I don’t mean change as in: “if only women hadn’t gotten the vote” way, but rather: “what do you mean we’re going out to dinner tonight?” When I have organized or arranged something and it changes at the last minute, my brain slams into overdrive, regardless of whether this is a positive change or not.

It goes something like this:

Stage 1: Panic.                                                                                                                                               

OHMEGAWD, what is happening? I’m spinning in circles? Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway, there is no rhyme or reason to anything in the world. Apparently, things just happen…(this thought then creates further panic)

Stage 2: Doomsday.

Well, it’s all over. I might as well just sit down. I mean, why do I even try anymore? Nothing will ever work out the way it is supposed to…EVER. Life is just one ironical joke.

Stage 3: Recalibration.                                                                                  

Recalibrating…recalibrating…recalibrating.

Stage 4: Epiphany/denial.

Phew…well, lookie-there, the perfect solution just presented itself. In fact, this option is actually better than the original plan anyway. Things always just fall into place, it’s a good thing I handle situations like this so well. I really keep a cool head and just go with the flow.

All of these stages are wildly verbal and come with gobs of explanations to whomever might be with me when said change occurs (usually MB who is shell-shocked by my range in emotions…never a dull moment with me, right babe?). He, on the other hand, accepts change with calmness and perspective, he becomes quiet and considers things before reacting. While I’m having a melt-down like this:

 

He is more like this:

Maybe this behavior is based on my need for control (whaaaaaaat…yeah, I’m a little bit of a control freak) but could it also be a cultural difference? Could it be that my French husband handles change better than I do because of philosophical edification?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I took philosophy at University so I guess I sort of know the basics but not like a French Person. The French take philosophy to a whole new level. They have Descartes, Sartre, Camus…and that barely scratches the surface. For centuries they have been churning out one philosopher after another and, perhaps as a result, take the study more seriously.

Not long ago, during a visit from my Parents, MB happened to mention that when he was in high school Philosophy was a required class…required. My Mother (a teacher) erupted into surprised exclamations.

“PHILOSOPHY?!” She demanded.

Philosophy?!” She questioned.

“Philosophy…in high school?” She queried.

MB gave her a Gallic shrug. “Oauis…c’est normale, non?”

Non, my little cabbage, not across the pond.

My experience was that philosophy was encouraged only in higher education but not considered an integral part of one’s academic life**. So, I took my requisite course and was taught about questioning everything….blah blah blah. However, it didn’t really take, my general reaction to philosophy was a sort of mild disgust:

Why ask all these abstract questions? Can’t these people just make a decision already?  I mean, all this dithering around, it’s exhausting! Just CHOOSE something! Yes or no, right or wrong!”

It seemed the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake was lost on me. I didn’t want to pursue knowledge, I wanted to know.

Absolutes are where my happy place is, which is, perhaps, why change unnerves me so completely. I don’t want a world full of questions and unpredictability. I am the person who checks the weather obsessively, plans detailed trips 6 months in advance, who rarely makes last minutes plans or accepts last minute invitations. I like to know what is coming and to be prepared for it.

My philosophy: Why inquire when you can answer?

***

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

-Camus

When they finally called for our train, MB and I ran towards it and hopped into the car that was listed on our old tickets. However, since the train had changed, so had the seating and our old seats didn’t exist (cue more panicking)

“This looks good, non?” MB said, pointing at two seats.

I looked around, frantic, trying to think if there was some way to beat the system, to be organized about this but we were trapped. There were hoards of people getting on and it was only a matter of time before all the seats were gone anyway…so we sat. Every minute felt like an eternity, as one person after another was ejected from randomly found seats, such as ours, by rightful ticket-holders.

“We should have bought the new tickets, we should have just BOUGHT the new tickets.”

My blood-pressure was through the roof. Each new person who entered the train was a threat. Whilst I was internally losing it, MB was unpacking…seemingly certain that we would remain in our seats. How could this be? There was no way of knowing! We didn’t even know what we would do if we got booted off the train, we didn’t know where we would go or how we would get home.

So many questions and no way to have an answer.

I jumped when the doors to the train finally slammed shut, sweet relief flooding through me. It was unbelievable, we were sitting in the only two seats in our entire car that hadn’t been booked by someone else. We had made it…even though there hadn’t been a plan.

And what would have been the major drama if we hadn’t kept our seats? We would have sat in the aisles or by the bathrooms like all the other poor people packed on our train or we would have waited for the next one. As the denial/epiphany stage washed over me, I felt a great sense of calm. Perhaps in future, I should be more contemplative before having a melt-down, perhaps I should embrace the French philosophical perspective instead of going straight into panic-mode. I should start asking questions and searching for the meaning of life, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in cafés while reading Neitzsche…

Meh. Seems like a lot of trouble.

I may never bother in asking all the questions but perhaps I could manage to follow Camus’ advice and quit searching so hard for the answers. Afterall, there is one great American philosopher whose words I have always valued:

 

 

 

* There were, in fact, people flipping out at the Gare de Lyon but mainly just the ones who were trying to rush onto trains that were leaving, most of the others were pretty chill and calm.

** This was just my educational experience. I know there are people in the USA who study philosophy in high school or more intensively in college.

Posted in Cultural Differences, Holidays in France, Life in General, Travel in France | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Caveman Foodies

I remember going to a French restaurant once, back when I was living in D.C. This place was pretty fancy and all the staff was actually French, so when I ordered my steak “rare” the friends I was with spoke up.

“Oh, you don’t want to do that here,” they told me. “If you get it ‘rare’ here then it will be fully raw in the middle. You should ask for ‘medium’ and that will be like a normal ‘rare.’”

“What?” I asked. “No, I’m pretty sure I want it ‘rare.’”

The waiter smiled, silently waiting for confirmation from me. I nodded up towards him, “rare,” I said again. My friends went on to order their steaks, both “medium-well.”

“You know,” I say to them, after they ordered. “When you ask for it prepared like that, they give you the worst cut of meat in the kitchen.”

They rolled their eyes at me.

“Whatever, Vampira,” my friend had said. “Just, don’t complain to us when yours comes out bloody.”

I definitely did not. When that filet mignon (this is filet de boeuf for les Francais) came and I cut into it and the middle was blue and cold, I couldn’t have been happier. My friends looked at it and shook their heads, ready to give me the “I told you so speech” but it was too late, I had already taken a huge bite.

“OH my god,” they said. “You are so gross, it isn’t even cooked.”

“I know,” I said, delighted. “It’s perfect!”

For years, I had been struggling to fully explain that when I say “rare” I mean “rare” – as in, wave a flame towards its general direction and then bring that sucker to me. Unfortunately, no one in the U.S. seemed to believe me (even my Father will argue this point with me…”you don’t want it that ‘rare,’” he’ll tell me as I ask him to pull my steak off the grill after 15 seconds…yeah Dad, I TOTES do).

The thing is, that essentially, I think it is a pity to cook meat at all, really; my friend was right, I am a bit of a Vampira and like my meat to just about talk to me. Luckily, my raw meat fixation seems to be something that France and I agree on. There is a plethora of raw meat options here, ranging from tartars to saucisson…you can even double your raw pleasure by adding raw eggs.

In the United States, it seems like the raw meat trend has just started taking off in recent years, due to the (super-awesome-I’m-so-excited-about-it) Foodie Revolution. When I was growing up, and even when I was at University, people were just not ingesting much raw meat. In fact, the only time in my U.S. life when I regularly ate it was at home. My Mother would pinch off a piece of ground beef*, salt it lightly and then hand it to us to eat. This was something that her Mother had done when she was little and, to me, it seemed perfectly normal, once I got older I realized it definitely wasn’t.

“Oh my god,” my friends would shriek. “What did you just do? Did you just eat a piece of raw ground beef? You. Are. Going. To. Die.”

It was always said very matter-of-factly. Raw meat = death. I mean, OBVI.

However, after a few more times of me doing this and, well…not-dying, my friends started to become curious and soon started trying it themselves (in fact, there is one friend who got obsessed and became as bad as me…you know who you are).

I pretty much think this is how a lot of the food we eat came about. Some dude would look at an artichoke or walnut and think, “I’m gonna eat that thing” and then everyone else would wait around to see whether or not it killed him. I even imagine, Cavemen foodies…something like this:

Two Cavemen enter an already crowded cave.

Caveman 1: Oh my, must we stay? It is so crowded.

Caveman 2: That is because it is the best. They do an amazing “hunk o’ meat over fire.”

Caveman 1 sighs.

Caveman 1: I still like mine raw, that’s all I’m saying.

Caveman 2: Oh come off it! We’ve finally gotten fire, we might as well use it! Live a little, old sport.

They sit down in an obliging corner and wait for their server.

Caveman 1: My goodness, they’re very bold, aren’t they?

He is looking at a group squatting next to them, eating mixed berries just as the Server arrives.

Caveman Server: Ah yes, a discerning eye you have, that is our “mass of mixed berries” that is new on the menu tonight.

Caveman 1: Isn’t that a little risky? I mean, shouldn’t they all be “checked.”

Caveman Server: Sir, I assure you, that everything in our establishment passes “the death test.” However…

He leans down and lowers his voice.

Caveman Server: If something a bit more “exotic” interests you, we have come across some new items that we are trying out this evening…something called a “rutabaga?”

Caveman 2: Are you saying you can get me stuff that hasn’t passed the “death test” yet?

The Caveman Server winks surreptitiously.

Caveman 2: Pally, come on, we gotta do it, please!

Caveman 1: No way! I only jive with “death test” approved cuisine.

Caveman 2: Oh, how you bore me. You have no appreciation for food, it is utterly wasted on you.

Caveman 1: That is not what you said when I took down a Mammoth 3 days ago.

Caveman 2: And then ate it raw, like some philistine!

Caveman 1: What is a philistine?

Caveman 2: I don’t know, they don’t exist yet but it is, most certainly, what you are.

Caveman 2 sighs and turns towards the Server with a knowing look that says, “Some people, you can’t take anywhere.” The Server smiles back.

Caveman Server: And what will Sirs be having?

Caveman 1: I would like the hunk ‘o meat…raw, please.

Caveman Server: The Chef does recommend this particular cut “a feu,” if you will.

Caveman 1: Thank you, but no. I like my meat the old fashioned way, raw, the way we were meant to eat it.

Caveman 2 rolls his eyes and then orders before turning back to his friend.

Caveman 2: You know, when you order it prepared like that they give you the worst cut in the kitchen.

 

* I am not recommending this practice with bargain basement, meat on sale. If you are going to eat raw meat, you should either grind it yourself at home or watch the butcher freshly grind it.

 

Posted in Adjusting to France, French Food | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

He was my Friend: A Memorial Day Tribute

This is a repost from last year’s Memorial Day. 

I remember years ago when I was living in Washington D.C. waking up on a Memorial Day morning (okay, fine afternoon…it was the afternoon, judgers) and deciding to take a walk down the National Mall to all the memorials.  It was an odd decision for me to go by myself as I am a social creature by nature, but for some reason I bucked the trend this day and headed out the door solo.  I knew that it would be crowded but it was a beautiful day and it seemed like a nice gesture to go and pay my respects.

Now, I had been living in Washington for a while at this point and it certainly wasn’t my first time visiting the memorials but for anyone who has ever gone, you know, every time feels like the first.  Walking through those beautiful and haunting structures always makes my heart ache while, at the same time, instilling in me a profound, sometimes overwhelming, sense of gratitude.

This particular Memorial Day I found myself blinking back tears as I slowly made my way through the throngs of people at each memorial, veterans embracing each other, families laying down flowers, tourists giving silent “thank-yous”.

Slowly, I walked through the Vietnam Memorial, reading names and trying to think about each one of those men…boys…men?  Even at that time I was older than so many of them had been.  There were people everywhere, having hushed conversations, taking rubbings of names, holding each other’s hands.  It is funny the things you notice, how sometimes your brain seems to shine a light on something or someone in the midst of a crowd.  “Why them,” you wonder later, “why did I notice that particular thing?

To my right there was a man with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old.  The man was crouching down and asking the boy, “do you see that name, do you see it?”  The boy shook his head and his Father picked him up and placed his hand on the name etched into stone.  Small hands traced the letters, fingers fitting into the grooves.

“Who was he,” the boy asks his Father.

The Father takes a beat as he holds his child in his arms, both of them looking at this name.

“He was my friend,” he says.

 

The simplicity of that statement devastated me and even now, nearly a decade later, I can still remember it and feel the power of those words.

It has been an interesting feeling for me, living in France over the past 2+ years.  History is so alive here, stories, tragedies, wars, are all so much more tangible in daily life.  In every village there is a Memorial for WWI and often the newer names that were added such a short time later during WWII.  You can hardly turn a corner in Paris without seeing a plaque reminding you of what happened on said spot so long…yet not so long, ago.  In Grenoble, there are reminders of The Resistance everywhere and just down the street from my apartment is a memorial for twenty such men who were lined up and shot on its place just a few short months before the end.  I think about those men a lot.  Did they live in my neighborhood?  Were they from the mountains?  Were they from other countries?  I read their names and I think, “You were someone’s friend.”

I spent much of my life hearing stories of wars, of sacrifices people made, of horrors that people lived through.  One of my Grandfathers fought in the Pacific during WWII and was on the U.S.S. Franklin when a Japanese pilot dropped bombs that blew the ship in half.  What an odd sensation it must be, to live your life knowing that you just happened to be standing on the right half of a ship one day.  My next-door neighbor, a Jewish German lady, had stories as well but only told them to me in our last conversation before she died.  My Great-Grandfather had been in France during WWI and was here when the Armistice was called* and my other Grandfather was here during WWII, fighting with Patton in the final years of the war.  How many friends they all must have had!

I think about myself living in a country that two generations of my family fought for.  I think about the friends I have made here…did someone from my family, long ago, help yours?  Did someone from your family provide a meal or shelter to a young man whose arms I would later run into as a little girl?  I recently discovered that I have a dear friend here whose Grandfather also fought with Patton; he was in the French military in North Africa.  The chances that her Grandfather and mine ever met are slim to none; they were in different theaters…but still, still, there seems something so beautiful to me that these two men who did something so scary at the same time, fighting for the same thing, for the same commander should have grand-daughters who somehow stumbled across each other in this large and cumbersome world, grand-daughters who became friends in the very place that they and their many friends shed blood for.

I like to think of these two young men, to imagine it.  Maybe at a field hospital, maybe some point during leave, or if there is any likelihood at all, maybe in Paris after it was all over…

I can see it in my mind, streets crowded with loud-talking soldiers, jubilant French running and embracing one another, hands being shaken, backs being slapped, streets flowing with champagne and wine and sheer unbridled…finally, unbridled…joy.

A young French man sits alone in a café amidst all the insanity.  Somewhat awkwardly, an American soldier approaches him.

“Bonjour,” he says in a horrible accent.  “Sorry, that’s all I got.”  He is sheepish but friendly.

The French soldier gives him a smile.  “This is okay,” he responds.  “I have English.”

“Would it be alright if I join you,” the American asks him.  “My buddies are off god-knows-where and this place is packed and I don’t know a soul.  I just want to get a drink.”

“Bien sur,” says the Frenchman before correcting himself, “Of course.”  He holds his hand out as the young American falls like a sack of potatoes into the chair. 

The American holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes to the Frenchman who takes one with a smile.

The Parisian waiter comes over and asks what they would like.  After a discussion about what is available they decide on a beer and a glass of wine.

“Boy, I’ll tell ya,” the American says.  “I’d do just about anything for a Jack Daniels right about now!”

“Jack Daniels,” asks the Frenchman.

“Tennessee Whiskey. Tennessee, “continues the American, “That is where I’m from.”

The Frenchman nods.

“What about you,” asks the American.  “You from Paris?”

“No,” says the Frenchman, “South of here, near the mountains.”

The American nods silently, they are both thinking the same thing, wondering what he will find when he returns home.  The waiter comes and sets their drinks down.

“Ah,” the Frenchman says, smiling. “Nothing can be too bad when there is a drink in your hand, eh?”

The American laughs and slaps the table, “Ya got that right!”

The knock each other’s glasses.

“A toast?”  The Frenchman asks before continuing, “To old friends…”

“And to lost friends,” the American add solemnly.

“And to new friends,” the Frenchman says, giving the American a nod while signaling the waiter…clearly they would be getting another drink.   

I like to think that they talked the whole of the evening, sharing stories, swapping tales of home and happier times, that they shook hands when they parted, glad to have spent the night with a new pal, walking off into the darkness…never guessing that two generations later their blood kin would be doing the same thing one random evening on a side street in Grenoble.

That’s what I like to think.

***

This post is to all the friends – the lost, the found, and the loved.  May we be ever grateful.

 

* This is the post referencing WWI

 

Posted in In Remembrance | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Bachelor Showdown

Last week, the French version of “The Bachelor” (“Le Gentleman Celibataire”) concluded and France and I decided to meet for aperitif to discuss it.

France: Alors, what did you think? Much better than the American version, non?

I let out a sigh and take a big gulp of my kir.

Me: Why do you have to phrase everything like that? I mean, don’t tell me something is bad and then ask for my confirmation, it is so antagonistic.

Now France lets out a sigh.

France: Mon dieu! It is you who is being antagonistic right now, non?

I give France a flat look and decide that the irony is not going to be recognized.

Me: Yeah, it was good. MB and I enjoyed it, we watch the U.S. one as well. BACHELOR NATION, WOOP WOOP!

France is nonplussed by my display of enthusiasm.

Me: Anyway, it was cool to see all the funny cultural differences.

France: Like what?

France pulls out a cigarette and takes a sip of pastis.

Me: Hmm…well, like some of the basic behaviors of the women were really different.

France: Mais, bien sur, French women and American women are not the same.

Me: Well, we are all women…

France gives me a look as though that is questionable.

Me: BUT, we were raised in really different cultures, so guess that is part of it. Like, the French women were so much more reserved, hardly any tears during the whole season. I also couldn’t believe how some of them complained about the “Gentleman Celibataire” not being that good-looking! It cracked me up, you would never hear that on the American version. Our women are always so excited and eager.

France: Oui, this is true, you Americaines do not know the art of playing hard to get.

Me: Apparently not! I mean, I couldn’t believe the one girl who wouldn’t get out of the car to meet him, but instead sent him a note telling him to come and retrieve her from the vehicle. Blech! I was so surprised that he kept her around after that.

France: But of course he did! This was a very charming thing for her to do.

Me: Really? I don’t get it. In the U.S. that would be considered high-maintenance.

France: Soooo…??

Me: We don’t consider high-maintenance to be an attractive quality.

France: Ah bon? C’est bizarre. Americain societé is so confusing. Okay, so what else did you find different?

Me: Hmmm…well, it seemed that, overall, the women on the French version looked more natural than on our version – you know, less make-up, messy but nice hair, the girl who came out in overalls the first night…stuff like that.

France: Ouais, mais bien sur! You American women do not have subtlety. The art of being understated, this is what is truly sexy. In France, you do not need to have all this maquillage on your face and every single hair brushed into place. Americans always think that to be attractive you must have the tight, revealing dress but the French, we are not-

Me: Oh, let’s pump the brakes for a minute.

France: Quoi?

France is all innocence and takes a drag off the cigarette.

Me: I mean, I will agree on hair and make-up but you can’t claim that the “naked dress” was an example of French subtlety. That was like the least subtle dress I’ve ever seen in my life.

France: I don’t know what you are talking about, I’m sure it was very nice, you just don’t understand style.

I pull up a video on my phone and hold it up, France turns red before quickly looking away.

France: Okay, so there was one dress that was, perhaps…a bit much.

Me: And the rugby game in string bikinis? I mean, women wearing next to nothing running around a field and tackling each other? Was that subtle too?

France scoffs.

France: Oh la la la la…you make me so tired sometimes. You can’t even understand the subtlety of what I was trying to say, huh? And please, in U.S. you are constantly showing things much more vulgar than this.

Me: Alright, fair enough. I’m just saying that “people in glass houses…”

France: Shouldn’t walk around naked?

Me: Something like that.

France: So, what else was different? Because of course, I wouldn’t know, I have never watched it; I try not to watch American television.

I roll my eyes.

Me: I don’t know. I mean, obviously, I missed our host. He has been on the show since the beginning and is just part of the experience, I guess. In the French one, the host wasn’t really around too much.

France: But why should he be? He just needs to be there to move things along.

Me: Meh…I don’t know, I like having the host be more involved.

France: Pfff…it is too much…this Chreez ‘Arrison.

Me: I thought you never watched it? How do you know his name?

France looks away and takes a long drink of pastis.

France: Quoi? I don’t know, maybe I have seen one or two episodes.

Me: Ha! You love it, don’t you?

A look of irritation is thrown my way.

France: Anyway, this is not the point, the point is that it is much nicer without this American host always butting his nose in, huh?!

My hands ball into fists.

Me: You better watch it, France. Don’t nobody talk trash about Chris Harrison! You got that?!

France tries to shrug but I can tell that my message got across.

France: Well, there is no argument that the Bachelor himself was much better in the French one, huh?

Me: Why does there have to be a winner and a loser? Can’t we just compare the differences?

France blinks at me uncomprehending.

France: Je ne comprends pas.

Me: Why does every conversation have to be a competition?

France: Because, then what is the point?

I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a major part of the French psyche. But moving on…

Me: Okay, whatever. So yeah, I liked your Gentleman Celibataire. He was good-looking and he seemed pretty nice. Although, his clothes were a riot, eh? Like, the yellow pants? What was that about?

France looks at me like I am crazy.

Me: No, they were nice, just, you know, different.

France: Ah ouais, these stupid khak-eez that you all wear are so much better. Pfff…

Me: France, I was not trying to be ugly and you know it, I was just saying that he had a fun, colorful style, not that he-

France cuts me off.

France: Don’t worry, Americaine, EES OKAY!

I shriek in horror and clap my hand over my mouth.

Me: Is that a Juan Pablo reference?!

France shrugs but has a knowing smile.

Me: How dare you?! That was a dark time for Bachelor Nation…I can’t believe you would bring that up!

France: No, but really EES. O. Kay.

Me: Alright then, that is how it is going to be? At least Juan Pablo and Nikki are still together…your fabulous little Bachelor couldn’t even stick it out until the “Girls Tell All” episode, he had already broken up with her!

A flash of anger crosses Frances face.

France: He chose the wrong girl, huh? Everyone could see it. She was charming, of course, but there were no complications with her, she was no challenge, she was too enthusiastic and available. He should have recognized that this would become boring quickly.

Me: Oh, now you are just talking crazy. She was the nicest one on the show, in fact, she was my favorite from the beginning!

France: Oh la la, of course she was and doesn’t that just say it all?

Me: Awwww…France…don’t worry…ees okay.

 

 

Posted in Conversations with France, Cultural Differences | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Quickie: Advice for Americans

This is just a quick post with a link to an excellent video from the website Comme Une Francaise which can give Americans some advice on how to behave in France.  This would be helpful for those of you travelling for a vacay and certainly for business.   I wish I had watched this before I moved over!

A real post will be coming soon…but for the moment, enjoy!

 

Posted in Cultural Differences | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Madonna Complex

“Ooooh la la, man,” my friend proclaims loudly at the bar.

I am with an expat friend from Central Europe and complaining about a horrific exchange I had with the administrator at a French language school

“Mais oauis,” I respond. “It is totally ridiculous. I mean, n’importe quoi!”

“Defo,” she says, raising her glass. “Na zdravi!”

“Cheers,” I respond, before turning towards MB and saying, “Santé!”

He smiles back, clinking glasses, “Chin,” he says.

In less than two minutes of conversation, we have managed to cover four different cultures and none of us even noticed…

This type of situation is the just the beginning of language confusion for me. Even within English, things can get complicated. I remember returning to USA and visiting friends after 3 years of living “down under.” I hadn’t realized that anything had changed but clearly, I was the only one.

“Give me a break,” one of my friends had said, laughing.

“What,” I was totally confused.

“Oh come on, “Madonna,’” she had continued (Madonna the pop-star, not Jesus’ Mum). “I know you are putting it on – “sweet as” and “suss it out,” what are these phrases you are using, and that accent is ridiculous. We get it, you have been overseas, no need for the theatricals.”

She then exchanged knowing, humorous looks with our other friends.

I stared, outraged. Now, I may be an enormous nerd (eh…”may”…”am”…semantics) but I draw the line at being accused of trying to subtlety create an accent in order to sound cool – I mean, let’s get serious, if I were going to do that, there is no way I would pull off subtlety OR coolness, they are not qualities that I would consider to be my forte. However, there I was, being called a Madonna-esque accent faker! I reacted as any normal person would: I bristled, then drank heavily, started a stupid fight, and went home feeling confused, stupid, and embarrassed.

“I’m not Madonna,” I told myself. “She’s a weird poser, I’m not like that, my accent just changed a bit because I’ve been living overseas…wait, what…oh man…dang it.”

That is the moment when I realized that, even though Madonna behaves absolutely bizarrely in so many ways, maybe we need to lay off her a bit on the accent thing…it may not be in her control, her brain has probably just thrown in the towel (I feel like there is a joke here but I’m going to leave it alone out of respect for the Immaculate Collection).

Language can undergo some weird transformations when you are constantly around different accents or tongues. Here are a few examples:

  1. You start using the vernacular of others around you, such as my Central European friend creating the phrase “oooh la la, man,” a combination of French and American, or my usage of “n’importe quoi” instead of “whatever.” Are these expressions that exist in our languages? Not even close, but after hearing certain words often, they sneak in and set up house in your brain…like little word parasites. Mwahahahahahaha! Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
  2. Your cadence of speech can also change, something that is so embarrassing for me. For example, I am physically incapable of talking to an Irish person without starting to sing-song every sentence, like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. It is horrifying and just as cringe-worthy as it sounds.
  3. Your sentence structure can take a beating as well.   After living in France for 3 years, instead of saying things like “are you going to the store,” I say, “you are going to the store, yes?” And MB, is often asked by other French people where he is from because while his accent is obviously French, he structures his sentences like an English speaker (incidentally, he loves this and has no fear of the Madonna complex, instead he looks sneakily happy and smug any time someone asks him).

Basically, the point is that your language, inside of your head, controlled by your brain, spoken by your mouth can go completely rogue without you even realizing it.

Cue screams of terror. A woman covers a child protectively while a young girl raises her hands to her cheeks and shrieks.

“We thought we understood,” the narrator says. “We thought it was all under our control but now…now…”

There are scenes of panic as people push each other down trying to run away.

IT has a mind of its own, nothing we say, nothing we do can keep it in check, it just keeps evolving and changing…like some sick, twisted MUTANT!”

Cue more screams, blah blah blah.

Mutant language on the move!

Now that I am living in a completely different linguistic environment, a whole new layer of weird has developed. Instead of carefully cataloguing and categorizing languages like it did when I was in school, my brain seemingly throws them all into a big box and lets me pick whatever I want. Forget worrying about funny little vernacular differences, now I have to battle it out in my head just to try to arrive at a word in the correct tongue. For instance, last time I was in Italy, Spanish kept coming out of my mouth; and in Munich a few months back, I kept saying things in French (as though my brain were thinking, “oh it is foreign, French is foreign, poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to). There have even been instances in which I have gotten confused with English, like when an American friend was visiting and I kept giving her the translations she was asking for back in French…huh? It didn’t even register to me that I wasn’t speaking to her in English until she told me.

Basically, once I left US soil, my brain decided that it can’t be bothered delineating between different Anglo accents or phrasery (yes, I made up that word, you don’t like it, blame my brain) or which foreign languages belong in what places, it has just gotten utterly lazy.

My Brain: *yawn* I can’t be responsible for keeping all of this straight, it’s just too much. I mean, I’m already spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out all the different Game of Thrones plotlines.

ME: But how am I supposed to know what to say?

My Brain: OH my god, you are so high maintenance. Just pick something, I’m sure everyone will figure it out. Here, I’ve put everything into this closet in your frontal lobe, voila!

ME: But it isn’t even organized, how will I ever find anything?

My Brain:Not my problem.

ME: What? Yes, it is. That is basically your entire job.

My Brain: Meh. Now, explain to me again which ones are Baratheons?

*Sigh*

So there it is, I suppose I am stuck with having the “Madonna Complex”…or maybe just “The Chandler.”

 

Posted in Learning French, Living Abroad | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Broken by Breakfast

MB and I are staying at an adorable B&B in Burgundy. The rooms are trés charmant, decorated with seasonal accents, the beds are sublime, we have a back patio over-looking the vineyards, there is even the requisite sweet old dog who roams around and lets you pet her. It is the typical French B&B, delightful and sweet, oozing with charm; but like every B&B in France, for me, it has a tragic flaw, and yes, I mean “tragic” like, “Icharus that sun is gonna melt your wings, dude” tragic. A flaw that destroys the very essence of the B&B…

MB and I enter the breakfast room in the morning and seat ourselves at the table, surrounded by the host and other guests. We all smile and say good morning to each other and then I turn to MB and, silently, we have the following conversation through a series of facial expressions:

My look: One eye brow raised, chewing on one side of face.                                                                                                                                           Corresponding words: I told you so.

MB’s look: Flat, steely eyes, and weird plastic smile at the same time.                                                                                                                                                    Corresponding words: Don’t start.

My look: Both eyebrows raised in accusation while appraising the table followed by a slight shoulder shrug.                                                                                                               Corresponding words: But what am I supposed to do with this? (“this” referring to the food)

MB’s look: Broad smile while picking up a huge hunk of baguette slathered with butter and taking an enormous bite.                                                                                                         Corresponding words: Eat it, weirdo, this is ah-mah-zing.

My look: Curled upper lip while disdainfully picking up a container of yogurt.                                                                                                                              Corresponding words: Yogurt is the lamest!

MB’s look: Staring at me intently while licking the top of the yogurt lid.                                                                                                                                                 Corresponding words: Yogurt is dead sexy.

My look: Full-on eye-roll with a slight shake of the head before getting up and leaving the table.                                                                                                                                                      Corresponding words: You are so strange, this breakfast is SUPER disappointing,PEACE!

SCENE

Okay, so I’m pretty sure that people are going to flip out about this but after careful consideration I’ve decided to “out” myself. So…here it is, y’all:

I do not like French breakfasts.

Man, that feels good to say. Bacon and eggs, did you hear that? Finally, we are free!

Now, before you start coming after me with pitchforks, let me clarify; I love croissant and pain au chocolat (I mean flour, butter, and chocolate…what’s not to like) but that is something that I think should be served with breakfast, not as breakfast (I am not talking weekdays but rather weekend and vacation breakfasts). I am a believer in protein for breakfast, protein and some sort of a HSS (hot starch situation).

(What is she even talking about, a hot starch situation? What does that even mean? She is so weird.)

*AHEM*

I want eggs, bacon, sausage, even smoked salmon will do; I want hash browns, GRITS*, and if I am in the Commonwealth, baked beans; I even want some veggies – tomatoes, mushrooms, avocadoes (yes, yes, I know avos are technically a fruit). Basically, I want salt, fat, and heartiness.

However, this is not how breakfast goes down in France. In a French B&B, the breakfast that you pay for is going to be baguette, butter, jam (usually some fabulously delicious, homemade out of the garden variety served in adorable little jars…you know, if you like that sort of thing), yogurt or faisselle**, fruit, and maybe the aforementioned croissant or pain au chocolat. And ça sera tout – that will be all. There will be no eggs or HSS, no meat whatsoever, and while faisselle is technically cheese, it is rather sweet with the consistency of chunky yogurt and is a different experience altogether than typical French cheeses (think cottage cheese). The French simply like their breakfasts to be sweet, light, and room temperature (you will not find a toaster anywhere near a French breakfast).

Now, I realize for some, that this sounds lovely, particularly if you have had a huge, heavy French dinner the night before; but for my weekend breakfast experience to be complete I want something a little more substantial, maybe something that involves hollandaise sauce and multiple courses. Often, my French friends have marveled in surprise when I tell them about breakfast habits of my past:

French Friend: Mais non, ce ne pas possible! Champagne at breakfast?!

Me: Well yeah, when else would you drink a Mimosa? It’s a breakfast drink.”

French Friend: A breakfast drink?

Me: You know, an “eye opener.” In the U.S., we usually start our brunches with booze.

(This is usually when they blink at me, uncomprehending and I being to think, “Wait a minute…is it bad to have a drink first thing in the morning? Are we an entire country of borderline alcoholics? Could this be an unhealthy, worrisome tradition?”)

Me: No, but you don’t understand, it isn’t like a problem or anything, it’s just…um…festive! Yeah, that’s it, it’s festive!

(My French friend continues to look at me, unconvinced.)

Me: Don’t try to get in my head! There is nothing wrong with booze for breakfast! Anyway, you have to have something to get you through all the courses.

French Friend: Courses?

(Now there is intrigue written all over the French friend’s face. Mwahahahahahaha!)

Me: Yeah, for example, in New Orleans brunch is typically a three-course meal***.

French Friend: Mais quoi? C’est incroyable, 3 plates for breakfast.

(I feel an evil streak rising in me as I note the interest and decide to plunge the final nail into the coffin)

Me: Yep, 3 courses, a starter, main and dessert; and at some restaurants you can even have wine pairings.

(That statement usually does it.)

French Friend: But, this is wonderful, this idea. I would like to try this. Really.  Incroyable!

(I smile, basking in the smugness of that rarest of things…a French cultural compliment.)

French Friend: I can’t believe this is American.

(…and, there it is.)

French Friend: Although, you did say this was in Nouvelle Orleans, oui? So really, this is French.

I sigh and wonder if I should try to argue this point, to bring up the simple bread and butter breakfasts of France served with bowls of coffee and nary a menu or champagne cork in sight; or perhaps remind my friend that croissants, that most quintessential French breakfast food, are actually Austrian…but instead, I decide to relent and smile sweetly at my friend.

“Yes,” I say, “Of course. Sometime I’ll have to invite you over for brunch and you can try this Ameri-I mean, French breakfast and see what you think.”

…because after all, no one should be denied a 3-course breakfast and morning booze…particularly, not myself.

 

* Grits are the most magical of foods and I highly recommend them to everyone.

** Faisselle is actually a big favorite of mine and is often served for dessert at dinners in France or in place of the cheese course. When my Mother was in France a couple of years ago, we woke up to find her raving about the yogurt served for breakfast. “This is the best yogurt I have ever tasted in my life,” she said. We then looked down at the container and told her, “Well, yes, because it isn’t yogurt, it’s cheese!”

*** In case you don’t believe me: http://www.commanderspalace.com/_asset/gx7zq5/3-22-14web.pdf Just reading that menu makes my mouth water.

 

Posted in Cultural Differences, French Food | Tagged , , , , , | 33 Comments