Merry Christmas Part 1: Joyeux Noel

*This is a repost of a Christmas post I wrote my first year in France.  I hope you will enjoy, more Christmas Posts coming soon. *

 

Before leaving for the United States, I saw France out at the Christmas Market in town.

France:  Hello!  American friend, hello!!

France is waving wildly and jumping up and down.  I turn behind me to see whose attention is being sought…surely not mine.

France:  Oui, for you, so silly!

France laughs gaily and waves me over.

Me:  Ah…bonsoir, France.

France:  Bonsoir, mon amie!  It has been a long time, yes?

Me:  Yes, I guess so, not since the “Total Eclipse of the Heart” situation.

France:  Ah yes, this was very funny.  We always have such a good time.

In my mind I think, “do we?”  France gives me a friendly slap on the back.

France:  And what will you drink?  A vin chaud?

Me:  Oui, yes, sounds good!  You are in a very good mood today.

France pauses and gives me an exasperated look.

 France:  Is this okay with you?  Pfff…always the same, never satisfied.  It is the Marché de Noël, eh?  Maybe you can try to not ruin a party for once, uh?  Pfff….

Me:  Sorry, sorry, it’s just so – are those animatronic bears?

France:  Mais oui, they are very nice, yes?  Luke (look) at them playing their instruments, I love eet (it)!

I look over at the four animatronic polar bears playing a string quartet with wonder.  This seems very un-French. 

 Me:  You know, I didn’t think the market would be so festive.  I mean, this is really hardcore.

France:  What do you expect, American?  Ronald McDonald with a Santa hat?

France says this with an eye roll.

 Me:  No, it’s just, you know…

France looks at me questioningly.

 Me:  Well, in the U.S. we really celebrate things intensely, lots of decorations, lots of costumes.  I mean, they don’t even have to be our own holidays – St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day even…we don’t discriminate.  So, in France it is a bit more subdued; I just didn’t expect the Christmas decorations to be so over the top!

France:  Over the top?  It is a few lights, a market, this is normal!

Me:  Yes, yes, it is all very normal but –

I am interrupted as an accordion player wanders through the crowd playing Christmas carols.  She passes out sheets of paper with the music on them and the whole crowd joins in to sing with her.  France joins in loudly.

 Me:  What is happening?  Strangers are breaking out into spontaneous musical numbers together…and they are FRENCH.  Is this a joke?

France:  Stop being so, ah what is this word…SCROOGE!  Oui, stop being so scrooge!

Me:  I’m not being a Scrooge, I am just very confu-

France hands me my glass of vin chaud. 

 France:  Now, I will go and get us some foie gras sandwiches.  Here, you can sing.

France thrusts the music into my hand and goes to the stand to get the sandwiches.  Once in line, France gives me a ‘thumbs up’ and waves at me and I must smile. 

 Christmas really is a magical time of year. 

Joyeux Noël and Happy Holidays to all!

Posted in Conversations with France, Holidays in France | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Top 7 Moments in France (and shameless self-promotion)

Hello all!

Just a quickie to ask for your help.  I’ve entered the Expat Blog Awards with a post entitled “Top 7 Moments in France.”  It is a new post that has never been published here and I would be thrilled if you would pop over to their site and check it out.  If you feel so inclined, leave a comment and that will go towards helping me win the contest (the post with the most comments wins).  Comments must be over 10 words to count towards the award (yeah…they won’t let me get away with “nice job”…cheeky) and they will ask you to verify email to make sure you aren’t a robot.

I would so appreciate any help and hope you will enjoy the post!

Cheers!!!

Posted in Adjusting to France | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

On the Road to Nowhere

“Are you looking at the map, which way do we turn here?”  MB is talking to me while driving as I search both the map and the road for a sign.

“I’m looking,” I wail, “but I’m telling you I can’t even figure out what road we are on!”

MB sighs and pulls over and I can tell he is blaming this confusion solely on the fact that I have…meh…not a great sense of direction (seriously, it is a miracle I can make it out of walk-in closets).  

“Let me see,” he says, relieving me of the map and scanning the page.

I wait as he looks at the map, then looks up at the road, then down at the map, then up at the road, over and over again.

“You look like a bird eating bird seed,” I say.  I’m so helpful.

“Quoi,” he says with irritation in his voice.  I realize he has not heard my statement at all…he is “in the map.*”

He steps out of the car and walks toward the intersection, searching for a street sign, looking on sides of abandoned sheds.  Finally he spots something and I see him throw his hands up in frustration before returning to the car.

“(French expletive),” he says, shutting the car door. “I mean, this is ridiculous.”

I shrug and smile at him smugly serenely.  Mwahahahahaha!  Now who has no sense of direction, huh?!  (yeah, that would still be me.)

“I mean, how can both directions be correct,” he says angrily as he points to the only apparent sign.

I burst out laughing as I look at the signage: TOUTES DIRECTIONS = all directions.  Beneath these words are arrows, one pointing to the left and one pointing to the right.  It might as well say: make something up.

“ARGH!!!!”  MB gives a shout of irritation and I have to force away a smile.  (Sometimes it is really funny to me when MB gets angry because he is usually so calm.  Does this make me a bad person?  …possibly.)

After a few minutes of debating with himself and looking further down the map MB decides to just pick a direction and hope for the best…I mean, it’s not like it would be the first time.

***

You remember the movie Labyrinth?  If not, I would be happy to give you a one woman show BECAUSE IT IS AWESEOME (David FREAKIN Bowie).  Anyway, I digress…do you remember this scene – go to about the 2min mark:

That pretty much sums up what it is like to drive around on back roads through France (minus the hot androgynous fairy king).  On the highways it is no problem, even the smaller national highways are great and well-signed but once you get off the beaten path, you are on your own.  Street signs may or may not exist and the indicated directions often have an “all roads lead to Rome” style.  Even for MB it can be a struggle.

“OH please, she is just being silly, I mean, doesn’t she know everyone has GPS these days.” 

HA!  I scoff at your GPS…and so does France.  Do you remember that episode of “The Office” when Michael drives into a lake because the GPS tells him to?  Yeah, well, that scenario happened to us in Provence (incidentally, we chose not to drive into the large tree indicated).

“Yeah, but I’ll still have my IPhone, I can pull up maps or call someone.”

No you can’t, France will take away your cell phone reception too.  When you are traveling through the countryside, cell phone reception is spotty, to say the least.  Basically, consider back roads as a personal challenge issued to you from France.

FRANCE:  HA!  You want to go on a nice weekend road trip?  That is fine but don’t think it will come easy – you have to work for it!

ME:  But France, WHHHHHHY?!

FRANCE:  Don’t question me – I am France, I am full of enigmas!

That is pretty much how the challenge is issued.

So, when that moment arrives and your GPS tells you to drive into someone’s barn, dust off those wilderness skills (Girl Scouts 4 EVA), pull out one of those old-fashioned paper things with directions on it and figure out from the placement of the sun which way is North…

…or stop and ask for directions – the answer can’t be nearly as confusing as trying to figure it out yourself.

 

*In the Map!  Remember this from “Friends?”

Posted in Holidays in France, Travel in France | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

My Dirty Little Secret

“I HATE EVERYTHING – nothing is ever just easy,” I am stomping around the house in full tempter-tantrum – Scarlett-style.

MB looks at me silently with no reaction (he has learned to let me just wear myself out…much like one might do with a 3 year old).

He sighs as I continue to slam around being disagreeable.  Could I be enjoying this?!  NO!  Of course not…

“I went to Picard…NOTHING.  Then I tried the Petit Casino – you know, the one that always has them and they didn’t have anything either,” I wail.

“Well,” he says tentatively.  “Maybe at Carrefour?”

“NO,” I say loudly, for some reason feeling satisfied to crush his possible solution.  “I have never seen them there, they don’t carry them at all*!”

MB looks at me, “I could call the stores,” he suggests.

“I guess,” I say, sulkily.  “I don’t know what good it will do, even if we find them we will have to take a tram to go and get them.”  I’m not ready to be mollified yet.  “GAWD!  I just wanted to make crawfish etouffee – I bought all the other ingredients and stupidly took for granted that I would be able to find the crawfish at the stores.”  I’m ranting again and flailing about with drama.  “But NOOOOOOOOOO…I mean, why would a store stock the same merchandise every time?  That would be too easy and convenient for the customers and your country HATES easy and convenient!”

MB retreats into the bedroom with the telephone to call the stores and I am left feeling…meeeeeeeeeeeh…a little ashamed of myself.  I don’t mean to pull out the “country card” but it is certainly the quickest thing to revert to when I’m feeling frustrated.  These are not proud moments

***

“My, my,” My Mother says into the phone.  “You are really living the life, aren’t you?”

I have just finished telling her about our weekend jaunt over to Munich.  There was all-you-can-eat schnitzel and fairy castles, what more could a person ask for?

“I sure hope you are appreciating it,” she continues.

I smile and roll my eyes at the same time (this is the reaction to a special mixed emotion that only my Mother can summon forth – it is simultaneous irritation and amusement).

“I know, Mom,” I reply.  “I do!”

“Well,” she continues.  “I sure hope so…”

I’m waiting for it.  I know what is coming next.

“Because…”

Queue ominous and foreboding thunderclap. MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  Feeling scared yet?

She goes on, “Your life will not always be like this.”

I sigh into the telephone, unsure of exactly what my response should be.  Do I say, “thanks for letting me know” or “I appreciate the warning?”  Do I pretend that I am still fourteen years old and say, “GAH MOM, you’re such a downer!”  OR do I tell her the truth?

The expat life is great.  I am living in Europe for the first time and enjoying traveling around and seeing all the sights, I have an amazing French husband, and I get to write all day long (sometimes this is awesome and sometimes this feels like I have sentenced myself to a lifelong homework assignment).  I mean, it’s pretty much a Meg Ryan movie over here without all the neurosis (and bad plastic surgery…why Meg, why?).

…Except when it isn’t.

I regularly think about how much I am enjoying my time here and all the cool experiences I am getting to  eat have but sometimes…I hate it.  (EEEK!  I’ve done it now – I’m just waiting for the black helicopters to start circling.) 

Alright, alright, calm down – I don’t hate France, that isn’t it, it’s just that some days I hate being an expat and France gets caught in the crossfire, a convenient thing to blame for a bad day.  The only thing that people hear about is that I get to go to Munich or Italy for a weekend – it sounds so romantic and exciting to have all these European countries at one’s fingertips…and it is.  What they don’t know about is how when I need to get crawfish for a dish I want to make and can’t find it after spending two hours walking around to different stores that I have to wait for my husband to come home and call every supermarket chain in the city because I can’t just do it myself.  I mean, sure, I can speak French but try asking a complicated question over-the-phone with grocery store level customer service (read: no customer service) in a second language…I dare you.   Or how if I want to go and see a movie I have to search to try to find one that hasn’t been dubbed or how if I want to run a quick errand it is impossible because I either a) spend ages looking for parking or b) take public transportation as opposed to the glorious, glorious parking lots of my hometown.  OR how when I am sad or having a bad day I can’t just pick up the phone and call home because it is probably 3 o’clock in the morning.  It can be lonely and it can be alienating, everyday tasks and chores are more complicated and things that are normally really easy aren’t anymore.

Okay, okay so I can hear you rolling your eyes at me and I get it – I’m not this bratty all the time and I know it’s still a pretty sweet deal when you get to travel and learn about a new culture, I realize that my life isn’t hard; but bad days happen everywhere…even in the middle of a romance novel setting.  And while there are certainly some pretty sweet perks to being an expat, it isn’t all roses all the time…usually you will love every minute of it but some days you will have disgraceful temper tantrums about groceries and wish the time zones were the same so you could call your best friend (who, by best friend contract has to agree that you are being completely rational) and tell her about it.

So, the old adage rings true: I should listen to my Mother and remember that my life won’t always be like this.  Some days that idea makes me sad and other days…well, other days it seems alright with me.

 

*Carrefour does actually carry crawfish occasionally but it is in very small, expensive packages and not worth the effort.  Just wanted to clarify so that people didn’t think I was maligning the glorious Carrefour!!! 

Posted in Adjusting to France, Life in General, Living Abroad | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

“What tha…why is there a potato on that tombstone,” I turn, looking at MB questioningly.  We are on a tour of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

“Quoi,” he asks, looking towards the grave, apparently he doesn’t know why either.

“Ah,” our tour guide walks over and joins us, bringing the rest of the group.  “This is the grave of Parmentier, the man who introduced potatoes into French cuisine.”

As always, I am amazed at thinking about how much cuisine changed after the discovery of the Americas (I still have trouble handling the idea of Italian food without tomatoes).

“In Parmentier’s time,” he continues, “the late 18th century, it was thought in France that the potato was poisonous to humans and it was used solely for feeding livestock.  However, after a stint in a Prussian prison, Parmentier came to realize that it was not poisonous and became determined to bring the potato to French tables.”

“Was that difficult,” I am incredulous.  I mean, at this point in time, the Irish were eating them, the (P)Russians* (clearly) were eating them, the Americans were eating them…what was there to prove?  They obviously were not poisonous to human beings.

The tour guide looks at me like I understand nothing.  “Of course,” he says.

“But why,” I press on, “if so many people in other countries were already eating them?”

He chooses to ignore this question and instead turns to address the entire group.  “Actually, it is a very good story.  Apparently,” he says, walking over and placing his hand on the grave.  “He met with such opposition that he had to manufacture a trap to get people to change their minds.”

I look over at MB, “a trap,” I mouth the words to him as dramatically as possible.

“He set guards up at his storage facilities but allowed them to accept bribes for the potatoes, hefty bribes.  Then, at night, he would send the guards home so that people could steal them.”

I burst out laughing and the guide gives me a stern look, then turns and leads our tour towards another tomb.

***

This story, to me, is so quintessentially French, stubbornness mixed with the inherent desire to break rules.   I can just imagine the conversations of people over the potato:

“But non, it is disgusting, it will kill you. It is for the pigs, not for us,” one man says, looking at this friend.

“OH really,” his friend responds.  “I just had some the other night and they were delicious, a revelation, really.”  He shrugs and takes a sip of his wine nonchalantly as though it were no big deal.

“QUOI,” the first man exclaims.  “How is it that you tried them?  They are not for sale,” the health hazards are suddenly no longer the priority.

His friend leans in across the table, conspiratorially.  “I bribed a guard,” he sits back in his chair, satisfied, for no Frenchman can resist pulling one over on “the man.”

“Non!”

“Oui!”

“Non!”

“OUI!”

“Ben bah, we must do it again tonight – I must try these potatoes!”

The French are a people who have been heavily stereotyped.

There are books, articles, heaps of Mark Twain quotes (that dude did not like the French) which all discuss the subject.  One stereotype that is often brought up is their irritability towards change (…stubbornness, I was trying to make it sound nice).  And I suppose there is some truth to it, they do, indeed, like a lot of things to remain the same (Sundays) and are happy to protest change vehemently…especially when the weather is nice.  I mean, heck, even the French Bulldog (quite possibly one of the cutest dogs of all time) is considered by breeders to be a particularly stubborn breed – that’s right, even their dog is stubborn. But is it really an inherently French thing or is it just an inherently human thing?  Are they really any more stubborn or change-resistant than the rest of us?

I mean, what American over thirty doesn’t remember the “New Coke” debacle?  I’m pretty sure even Parmentier’s trick wouldn’t have changed our minds about that wretched marketing failure.  There are few of us that run screaming with excitement towards the unknown…towards big changes, the French are no exception but also, I’m not convinced they are the rule.  Just like everywhere else change is accepted slowly here, over time, as people become acquainted with it.

So, in reality, the French really aren’t any more stubborn than the rest of us.

***

MB and I hurry and catch up with our group.  As we approach the guide he is in a conversation with one of the French tourists.

“But Monsieur,” says the French man to our guide.  “Actually, the toxicity of the potato has been proved by multiple research and… well, so, in fact, the French were correct to ban it, the potato is poisonous!”

MB and I turn back to each other and exchange a look of bemusement.

***

…Okay, so maybe just little a bit.

* For those of you unfamiliar with Prussia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussia

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cultural Differences, French Food | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Repost: In Remembrance

This is a repost of a previous Veteran’s Day blog.

I am three years old.  We are careening around a twisty, two-laned mountain highway in eastern Tennessee.  My Mother is white-knuckling the arm rest and looking at her two little girls in the backseat.  “Why did I let my grandfather drive, “she thinks to herself. 

It was an unusual family trip, just the girls up to visit Grampy in the mountains.  Daddy had stayed home to work and we were off on an adventure.  Every visit with Grampy was an adventure.

“What’s that mean?”  I ask, pointing at a sign on the side of the road.

My sister and Mother are still clinging to the car for dear life, I am having a great time.

“Oh, it’s a sad story,” says Grampy, as he takes a hair-pin turn at 45mph.

“What happened?”

“Well, there was a big, important Indian chief named White Eagle.  He was very famous and very brave and everyone respected him very much.”  He turned around to make sure I was listening.  “He had a son who was also a brave warrior and they were very happy.  One day, White Eagle and his son got into a big fight and his son ran away and has never come home.  But White Eagle will never give up looking so that is why he puts the signs up everywhere around the mountains so that we can all help him look for his son, Falling Rock.  Are you going to make sure you keep an eye out?”

“Yes sir!”

‘WATCH FOR FALLING ROCK’   We pass another yellow, triangular sign.

“There’s another one!”  I kept my eyes peeled for Falling Rock the rest of the journey.

My Great-Grandfather had been in France during WWI.  He had fought in the trenches and saw many warriors who were lost, never to be found again.

On this day in 1918, we can only imagine what must have been going through his mind as he woke up, packed, and began marching back to the trenches to relief the last group of men.  He must have felt a sense of dread or maybe just a feeling of acceptance, we’ll never know.  Somewhere along the way, somewhere in the road, they heard the news, the unimaginable had happened.  A cease-fire was called, it was over.  It was over.

It wasn’t even noon.

My Great-Grandfather lived a long and full life, full of hard-work and happiness.  He worked for Congress in Washington, DC and was at Arlington Cemetery for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  My Grandmother, only a little girl at the time, stood next to him and held his hand as they sang “My Buddy.”

It is easy to forget the men who sacrificed so much and managed to be brave in such a scary time.  Many of them came home.  But many of them are buried here in France, in unmarked patches of earth, tombs that we will never know are there.

So today, I would like to remind you all to continue to keep an eye out for Falling Rock and other lost warriors.  They are still missed and remembered.

 

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

When You Have Paris

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There are some cities that work on you like a potion (I was going to say like drugs but potion sounds so much prettier – even Lewis Carroll knew that).  I find my energy and attitude changes depending on these types of towns.  In New York, my god, I can’t help it I just feel COOL.  All the time, the whole time, no matter how un-cool what I am doing is…like riding the elevator to the top of the Empire State building…the city just infuses me with a sense of coolness.  In New Orleans, I feel zany, almost child-like, always ready to have a party, someone who doesn’t just stop to smell the roses but stops, smells them and then buys them a drink (who knew roses were so boozy?).  Wellington, NZ makes me feel like a hip adventurer: “Go swimming in Orca infested waters that are near arctic temperatures, you say?   Pfff…that’s just a Tuesday.”  In Sydney, I feel sophisticated and laid-back all at once…and for some reason, more attractive – must be something to do with being surrounded by surfers.  The point is, all these cities have big personalities, the type of personalities that can impart themselves upon you when you visit and bring out some inner part of your being, they affect you when you are there walking the streets and taking in the views.  They can shift your perspective and, in turn, your sense of self.

There is something quite delicious and exciting about this shift that occurs when you travel and I think it is a reason that we gravitate towards, and love, certain cities – it isn’t necessarily for the cities themselves but, instead, what happens to us when we are in them.

I remember, very distinctly, the first time I was in Paris alone.

MB and I were there for a long weekend and he went in to work that morning.  I, a new resident of France and of speaking French, got myself up and put myself together…more carefully put together than usual because Paris can do that to you, make you feel as though you should dress for her.  I slowly made my way down the stairs of our hotel and out into the crisp autumn air, my map carefully concealed, for whoever wants to be a tourist?

I turned right and then left, unsure of which way was best to make my way down the Seine towards the Louvre.  Unwilling to consult the dreaded carte, I turned left and soon realized that it made scant difference which direction I went as I could always cross over at some ridiculously gorgeous bridge or other in order to turn around.  I pulled my iPod out of my purse and switched it on, strolling slowly as Billie Holiday crooned in my ear.  Occasionally, I would stop and look at the posters and books displayed on the green stalls lining the sidewalk, sometimes I paused to lean onto the concrete barrier and take in a view…blue sky mixed with some piece of a man’s soul that had been carved into a thing so beautiful that it made my heart hurt.  At one point, I popped into a café and had a tea, sitting in my chair facing the street…allowing myself a moment to be an observer, no longer a participant, of the world.

It all felt desperately romantic.  And I, more romantic for being there.  I found myself reminiscing about things I hadn’t thought about in years, happy things, sad things, sweet moments of my life that tend to remain forgotten and dormant under layers of practicality and daily doings.  I felt as though my soul was sighing contentedly…I wasn’t stopping to smell the roses, I was the roses.

Later that evening, I met with MB and we sat at a café and shared a bottle of wine.

“How was your day,” he asked.  “I hope it was okay on your own.”

I took a sip of wine, wondering how to explain what I had felt like that afternoon.  “It was fine,” I say, pausing, searching for more words.  I find that none will come so I say the only thing I can think of.

“It was Paris.”

I love this little movie; it fully realizes my Paris.  If you would like to see more of these lovely films check out: http://oliveus.tv/   They are all deliciously charming!

Posted in Holidays in France, Life in General, Living Abroad, Travel in France | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments