Hollow in the Middle

Adjusting to France, French Wine, Life in General

We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”                                                                                                       -Eduardo Galeano

I’m still not exactly sure what possessed me to say yes.

I mean, a wine jury? Sure, I drink a lot of wine and I have some ideas about what varietals I like the most (White Burgundy – HOLLA!) but that is about as far as my expertise goes. What do I know about length and legs and subtleness (I feel like there’s a joke in here somewhere)? The being said, our regional district here in Grenoble asked me to join their yearly wine jury and it seemed like the type of thing that you just don’t say “no” to. Sort of like if a doctor’s office called to offer you a free colonoscopy, you would at least consider it, wouldn’t you? It was as a result of this type of thinking that I found myself walking into an old Abbey on the outskirts of town without a clue what I was supposed to do or what would be expected of me. I mean, I just show up and drink some wine, right…right???

This felt like the very-much-awake version of the naked-in-front-of-the-classroom dream; the atmosphere was akin to the first day of school and I was the new kid, maybe from a Ranch in West Texas, showing up at an inner city school in New York City…okay…maybe that is a stretch, let me simplify this: I did not fit in. Closed groups were chatting in various corners, clearly not interested in making friends or even welcoming a newcomer, and there wasn’t even a table for check-in, presumably because everyone else here already knew each other and what they were supposed to do. Me, on the other hand, not so much.

So, being the intrepid and confident person that I am, I went with my only option, to stand awkwardly in the middle of the room, fiddling with my purse and checking my phone, doing my best to give the pretense of being busy.

Um…I’m not sweating with nerves and anxiety, I swear…why did I wear grey? Worst sweat color ever.

“Bonjour, c’est vous?” Finally, a man approached me, holding up a list and pointing to a name.

“Oui,” I smiled at him with creepy desperation warmly while sending “talk to me” vibes.

“Bon. Merci.” He was looking back down at the list, apparently not picking up on my vibes. “This will be your table,” he said, pointing to the end of the room. “I will be sitting there to help you if you need it.” Then, to my monumental dismay, off he went to talk to the others.

UGH. They already have friends, talk to me! Damn silent pleas for help, not too effective, really.

I sighed. I mean, it was what it was. I had been nervous about agreeing to come to this thing when they first emailed me but my brain had been all: get outside of your comfort zone, this is a once in a lifetime experience to sit on a wine jury in France, don’t be afraid of adventure, you used to be fearless! Stupidly, I listened to it, thinking I should break out of my routine, challenge myself: to be comfortable is to be dead, I told myself…or some such nonsense like that. Clearly, I should pay more attention to those NPR articles I read about the brain not being fully developed until you’re like 35…dumb, immature brain…you know nothing!

Now, here I was, in a room full of unfriendly strangers, feeling foolish, and uncomfortable, and defeated. My attempts at eye contact ignored, and my usual conversational tricks useless…falling flat against the barricade of Frenchness and oneness.

I was “other.”

***

“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”                                                                                                                        -Aristophanes

“Son, does your wife know that you are out with these two foxy ladies?!”

The voice is booming, taking ownership of the room, as does the man accompanying it (who, incidentally, does own the room). Tall, large, with a white beard and a round belly, to my 5 year old self he is like some bizarre Southern Italian-American Santa Claus: bragging, brash, and utterly charming. My sister and I look at each other and smile as my Father steps fully into the restaurant entry hall to greet the man.

“I believe she’d be alright with it, Big John,” my Father says, grinning, one hand on each of our heads to keep us in place.

Big John then leans down in front of us, taking a moment to shake our hands, making us feel special and important…because Big John made everyone feel special and important.

“It’s strange,” he says, a glint of mischief in his eye. “I just – I, well,” he says, scratching his head. “I just thought I noticed something behind your ears, it seems weird. Do you clean behind your ears?”

“Yes sir,” we reply like little soldiers.

“Well, I just don’t know about that,” he says, reaching his two massive hands down behind our heads. “Because look what I found?”

Naturally, because it was always the same, he pulled out two pieces of bubble gum. BUBBLE GUM! This was a rare treat in our childhoods, my Mother favoring carob covered raisins for desserts, not so much candy (yeah, try making trades in the lunchroom with those*).

“What do you say, girls?”

“Thank you!” We trill, pleased as punch with our booty.

“Don’t thank me,” Big John says. “I just found them!”

Then his arm encircles my Father as he walks us to our table and the two of them discuss important matters…wine.

To say that Big John liked wine would be like saying that Albert Einstein enjoyed science…an understatement, at best. Big John was an enthusiast of grape nectar at a time when most Americans were still stuck on liquor and beer. Wine was a passion for him and he was an internationally heralded collector. Twice he broke the world record for buying the most expensive bottles of wine,** and the cellar at his restaurant boasted numbers in the thousands (not to mention a myriad of awards from across the globe). To a child, going into this subterranean world was like entering some other dimension, like something out of a creepy fairy tale, it was huge and cavernous, a little cold and a little dark, in every corner there were rows and rows of bottles, like eyes watching your every move…and perhaps they were, because who can deny the aliveness of wine?

Later, we would move back upstairs and sit at our table, my sister and I excited to have a big-girls night out with Daddy. I would eat my ravioli or spaghetti (really anything with their meat sauce…Memphis people you know of what I speak) and my Father would drink something fabulous…content with the world.

Ten years later, the world would lose Big John and everything would seem just a little bit dimmer, the way it does when a larger-than-life person exits your life. The restaurant would follow not long after. The menu from my Parents’ last dinner with him at the restaurant still hangs in my Father’s wine cellar…a talisman to ward off bad wine?

My Mother says that Big John was an “evangelist” for wine, that he “had found something that increased his joy in life and wanted to share it with others.”

He wanted to share wine.

He wanted to share joy.

Wine is joy, joy is wine.

***

“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.”                                                                                                                                                                   –Thomas Aquinas

The day progressed in the same vein with which it had started. I sat at my table, surrounded by lauded restauranteurs and experienced sommeliers, wondering how I had landed there, knowing that they must have been wondering the same thing. Why had I agreed to come?

Then, magically, the greatest thing happened.

There was a bad wine.

I mean, a really bad wine. The format of our jury was that we would all taste and take notes silently, then compare and discuss. I looked around, wild-eyed, when the leader pointed at me to go first.

Oh god, how on earth can I explain this? What if they all loved it and it just confirms that I have an imbecilic palate and am an imposter?

I took a breath and then shrugged, wrinkling my nose and giving a sheepish chuckle.

“I think it smells like cheese. Maybe I’m crazy, but…”

“OUI! Exactement, c’est fromage! C’est fromage!” The owner of, arguably, the best restaurant in Grenoble was agreeing with me…and laughing as well. Then, suddenly, the whole table was cracking up, smelling the wine…the horrible, disgusting, cheese wine.

A surge of gratefulness for this terrible bottle flowed through me, and I thanked the wine gods.

Then, for some reason, Big John popped into my mind.

Our table ended up awarding a Bronze medal to one of our wines that day, and it still feels pretty cool, knowing that there is a wine out there with a bronze medal on it that I helped to award. Still, I left early that day, just after the voting was done and before the lunch was served. The solidarity the wine had given us at the table seemed to dissipate once we stood up, and I, again, felt myself looking through the window, unable to push through.

“How was it?” MB asked through the cell phone as I walked to the bus stop.

“It was AWFUL,” I told him, feeling whiny and pitiful.

“Really?”

“Well, not entirely. It was just super awkward but I guess I’m glad I did it. If nothing else, it will make for a funny story later.”

Wine is joy, joy is wine.

I sat on the bus bench, going over the morning’s events, shaking my head, content to laugh a bit about it now. Then my mind returned to Big John. How funny that I had thought of him today, I probably hadn’t thought of him in years. Maybe there are some memories that are like little jewels that we keep locked away, only to look at when times are tough and we need to see something beautiful.

…Or maybe Big John is a wine god. I only wonder that the wine smelled of cheese and not bubble gum.

* Yes Mom, I’m super happy that you made me eat healthy, I’m very grateful for it now, just not when I wanted a Dorito and all I had was organic sea salt chips in exchange.

** Those two bottles he then auctioned off to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. To know more about the boundless generosity of this man, you can read his memorial here: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=79955000

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

Cultural Differences, Holidays in France, Life in General, Travel in France

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

Just last month, my husband (we’ll call him 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 minute 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.

Caveman Foodies

Adjusting to France, French Food

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.

 

A Bachelor Showdown

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences

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.

 

 

The Madonna Complex

Learning French, Living Abroad

“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.”

 

Broken by Breakfast

Cultural Differences, French Food

My French husband (we’ll call him 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.

 

Sweating in Jeans Town

Cultural Differences, Life in General

Oh.  Okay,” I think to myself as I wave at the friend I am meeting.  “So THAT is what we are wearing.”  I walk across the street, briskly, in my spandex pants, sports bra top, and tennis shoes.

After the obligatory kisses hello, we begin our stroll towards the Bastille.

“Are you going to be able to hike in those,” I ask her, looking at her feet.  She is wearing ballet flats, skinny jeans, a fashionable sweater, and a floral scarf whereas I look like I’m about to rip open a protein pack with my teeth while simultaneously checking my heart rate.

“Ouais….,” she responds with a shrug.  “I was out shopping so I just thought I would meet you from town.”

“Alright,” I say, totally unconvinced as I look up at the Napoleonic Fort we are about to attack.

To be clear, the Bastille is not a particularly long hike, only about 3.5 kilometers one-way but, in that 3.5 kilometers, there is a level difference of 300 meters.  You basically feel like spider man scaling a rocky cliff.*

Now, for me, that means wearing shoes made for athletic performance and sweating, probably within the first 5 minutes of the walk (yes, I am a super-sweater) but my European friends and the French seem un-phased by this (Alien alert).    I often meet friends to walk up the Bastille and never once have any of them had on tennis shoes…never.  Not only that, often, they like to stop along the way, take in the view, smoke a cigarette or two…I mean, WHAT?!  This is exercise, people, not a nature walk or Friday night at the bar – it is a serious business, we are here to sweat, to work, to realize how out of shape we are!

But in France, there seems to be a different idea about things.  Left to his own devices (read: my not nagging him to death), MB would go hiking in leather driving shoes or even flip-flops* while I won’t even go hiking in jeans (sweating in jeans is pretty much the worst thing of all time).  Now, obviously, it’s not as though you won’t see French people dressed in appropriate workout attire, of course, you will but they do not deign to wear it unless they are doing something pretty hardcore.

I remember making a remark to MB once regarding a group of women who we passed on the way up to the Bastille one weekday afternoon.

“I don’t get it,” I said to him.  “I mean, did you see what they were wearing?”

The women were in skirts, hose, and slip-on shoes. “How do you exercise in that?”

“Ouaaaaaaais,” he had responded, between panting breaths.  “But they aren’t really exercising, just taking a walk.”

I looked at him like he was crazy as I wiped sweat out of my eyes.  Weren’t we on the same “walk” as these chicks?  Why did we look like we were in the first stages of a stroke while they waltzed blithely by?  Is there some magical European trick in which you can decide whether or not you will exert yourself regardless of the terrain?

I pondered this as we continued the hike up the mountain, happy that I had on my sports bra and wasn’t sweating into the padding (yeah, it’s like that) of one of my nice Victoria’s Secret ones.   I mean, I can just imagine how this would go down in an American workplace:

Coworker: Hey Mike, where are you going for lunch?

Mike: Actually, I think I’m going to climb that mountain outside the office and have lunch up there.

Coworker: What?  Right now?

Mike shrugs. 

Mike:  Yeah.

Coworker:  But…I don’t…I mean, did you plan to do that?

Mike:  Nah, but it seems like a nice idea.

Coworker:  Mike, you can’t just decide to hike a mountain.

Mike:  Why not?  It’s there, it has a trail.

Coworker:  But…what are you going to wear?  You can’t wear your suit!

Mike:  Oh sure I can, do you want to join me?

Coworker:  No thanks…I’ve got a session at the gym with a personal trainer after work…(then under his breath)…like a normal person.

Mike: Suit yourself!

Mike waves and then leave the room.

Coworker:  Geez, I hope Mike isn’t having some sort of mental breakdown or spiritual crisis…maybe I should call his therapist.

SCENE.

In the meantime at a French office…

Colleague:  Bonjour Michel, you are going to the canteen for lunch today?  They are serving Tartiflette!

Michel: Non, merci, I’m actually on my way to meet a personal trainer for a session.

Colleague:  Ah ouais, pourquoi?  You have an injury or you are training for an event?

Michel:  No, no, just to exercise.

Colleague:  Mais, quoi?  Why is it you need to pay someone to exercise?

Michel:  I don’t know, it is nice and organized.  I have a definite start and finish time, I’ve got the showers and all the equipment, you know.

Colleague:  Bah non, I do not know.  To me, this sounds cree-zee.  You want to exercise, go outside like a normal person! (A French person would not bother saying this under their breath)  You know, Michel, there is a mountain right there!

The Colleague points out the window towards the Bastille and Michel just shrugs.

Michel:  Still, I am off to the gym.

Michel leaves the room.

Colleague:  And he doesn’t even stay for Tartiflette…pfff…incroyable.  He must secretly have a very bad injury and is trying to hide it.  I must discuss this with everyone over lunch in the canteen.

SCENE

***

I look back at my well-dressed friend and sigh, I suppose I will forever be the type to “miss the tartiflette,” ensuring that I am always prepared for any potential physical exertion; and I can’t help but worry that in doing so, perhaps I am losing out on the joys that come with having a spontaneous moment in nature.  I mean, is it really so awful if I sweat a bit in clothing that won’t automatically whisk it away from my skin?  Am I so precious that I can’t get a little grime on my feet or dirt under my bra straps? 

“MERDE!”  My friend shouts and I turn around to see what has happened.

Thick, wet mud is oozing out of her black flat and she is flailing about as the miniature swamp beneath her foot threatens to swallow the shoe entirely.

I answer my own questions: yes.

*In my original post I had a bit in here about rate of incline but I am too moronic at math and had it incorrect so I have removed it…and all references to numbers which is wise because they just confuse me. 

** I am not exaggerating.  I have seen him go on hikes wearing flip-flops.

6 Years and 6 Things

Life in General, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Recently, the folks over at HiFX contacted me about contributing to their expat tip page which is part of a new campaign they are working on to give expats some helpful and honest advice and it couldn’t have come at a better time since this week marks the 6 year anniversary of when I left the United States.

6 years.  That number still amazes me.

Since then it has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs (mostly ups) in which I have lived in 3 different countries, 2 different hemispheres, had 6 different jobs, met some of my best friends, and stumbled across a French man who became my husband.  As I think about everything that has happened over this time period, I consider all the things I wish someone had told me beforehand, the tips I would have liked to have had.

So, without further ado, here are 6 things (get it?  6 years, 6 things…très cute) that I would have liked to have known beforehand:

#6. Making plans is hilarious.

When I left Washington D.C. and my job and life and friends and family and country…and…(yeah, you get it) for Wellington, New Zealand I repeatedly kept telling everyone that I would be back in one year.  Conversations would go like this:

“Oh my god, I can’t believe you are leaving!  I’m never going to see you again,” said by wailing friend.

“Puh-leeeeese, it is a one year visa, it’s like I’m going on a vacation.  I’ll see you this time next year,” said by over-confident and foolish me who had no idea what I was talking about.

It was 3 years before I even so much as visited D.C. again.

Woody Allen is credited with saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” and I couldn’t agree more.  Over the past 6 years I have repeatedly announced things that were going to happen, like when I would return to the USA (…there have been multiple timelines for this – sorry Mom), how long I would stay in a particular country (just 1 year in France, right…), what type of work I would have (I will finish my Master’s Degree and get a job in HR…), etc.  Every time I would proclaim a particular plan something would happen to change it (I think the Universe has a perverse sense of humor), often, these changes weren’t bad they just weren’t in line with my original “plan.”

It would have been nice to have been aware of this little joke earlier as I would have been saved many awkward conversations in which I backtracked and had to announce changes to my “plans” (I can’t take the word seriously enough anymore to write it without quotes).  Now I just dodge questions as best I can and try to go with the flow and I suggest that any new expat does the same.  Don’t get too sure about what is going to happen or not going to happen, instead be open and prepared for all sorts of different eventualities.

#5. Be careful about your living situation.

Oh la la la la la la (this should be heard in French accent).  I cannot stress this enough and it applies whether you are 20 years old going for a year overseas or 35 years old and moving for an indeterminate period of time.  THINK before you sign a lease and get into an irreversible living situation.  Listen to your gut if something seems off, consider your finances beforehand, and know what your walking-away point is.

It can be really easy to get desperate about where you will live upon arrival in a new country, there is a need to be settled, and living in a hostel or temporary housing can be the pits.  But you know what is worse?  Living with crazy people people with whom you do not get along or moving into a house you can’t afford or a neighborhood that seemed fine at first but is actually super-inconvenient.  It is not always easy but try to be patient and wait for the right living situation, not merely the simplest…you won’t regret it.

#4. Take good opportunities!  

ARGH.  I still think about a job offer I had in Wellington, NZ – it was perfectly suited for my past experience and would work well to get me where I wanted to go professionally in the future.  It couldn’t have been more perfect…but when they offered it to me (and agreed to give me a visa – yes, I was this idiotic) they said they would need a 2 year commitment…well, I had only been in NZ for a couple of months at that point and I thought, “well, I’m not going to live overseas for 2 years” (see #6 about making plans) so I said I couldn’t do it.  ACK (read: epic stupidity)!

This was 5 ½ years ago and it still plagues me.  Don’t get hung up on timelines because nothing is set in stone.  I could have taken that job and still left after 1 year if I wanted, I mean, it wasn’t a blood oath (…or was it, things get crazy in New Zealand), or I could have ended up staying longer and building something really interesting.  It could have been amazing or it could have been a horrible experience, I will never know, the only thing I do know for certain is that I regret not finding out.

Now, I’m not saying jump at every little thing that comes your way but opportunities don’t come knocking all the time – when they do, take a beat and consider what your end goal is and then maybe say yes to something that seems a little scary.

#3. There will always be something to miss. 

“Being an expat is soooooo amazing, I never think about the past or the future I just live in the moment and I’m never going to be sad about things I don’t have anymore.”

EIH!  Wrong answer.

So being an expat is exciting and full of new things –TRUE – but you are also setting yourself up for some tough times…as my Mother constantly likes to remind me: “you’ve chosen a hard life” (Mom loves a truth gun) and she is right, per usual…so annoying.

You are going to have friends, sometimes best friends, scattered throughout the world and you are going to miss major events in their lives.  You are not going to be able to see your family as much as you might want to.  When you go back home you will miss things and people from your host country, if you stay overseas you will have a pang in your heart for your home and the things that you love there.  No place will ever have it all again and you will be doomed to be that obnoxious person who is constantly making mental comparisons in your head about which place is better (I say “in your head” because if you share these thoughts out loud people will find you super irritating).

This is one of the big tradeoffs that one makes when deciding to embrace the expat life and it is a hard one.

You will also miss certain junk foods.  KRAFT BLUE BOX 4 EVA!

#2. Oh my god, pay attention to your frequent flyer miles. 

There isn’t much to say on this other than the sad fact that MB and I are morons and didn’t rack up our FF miles the way we should have.  If we had been responsible, we could be super special card members with all sorts of lovely perks.  Consider yourself warned, I get irritated every time I think of it.  Le sigh.

#1. You are not ruining your life. 

When I left the USA there were a lot of people who thought I was nuts (don’t try to deny it – I saw your faces).

What people said:

“Ohhhhhhh muh-gawd, that is totes amazing, I sooooooo wish I was brave enough to do that.  You’re like, an inspiration.  It is going to be ree-diculous.  I can’t wait to hear all about it.

What people thought:

“Um right…brave my arse, she has lost her dang mind.  She is walking away from her job, her life, everything.  She is 27 years old not 19, when she comes back she will have to start from nothing.  This is an EPIC mistake.”

I get it, I was pretty freaked out about what I was doing as well.  Leaving a decent career (even if I wasn’t suited for it) and an established life was scary and there were a lot of nights before and even after the move that I was afraid I was destroying my future…but I didn’t.

It can be really easy to get sucked into societal pressures, parental pressures, and even pressure from friends about how you should be living your life and what timeline you should be on.  Don’t worry about it – if I had listened to everyone else (including my internal voice of reason) I wouldn’t be married to an amazing man, living in France and following my love of writing.

Be confident about your choices and chase them with intelligence and hard-work, don’t let the naysayers (internal or external) pull you from your path.  (Insert appropriate “Robert Frost, life is a journey, two roads, blah blah blah” quote here)

*While this post is directed at expats, I think that it applies to life in general no matter where you might find yourself living…especially the part about frequent flyer miles, keep up with that stuff, people! 

A Simple Dimple: My Ode to Cellulite

French Food

I am standing in the kitchen at a friend’s house watching as he prepares a huge pot of fondue.

“Ehermergerd,” I say, “It looks SO good.”

“Yeah,” my friend responds glumly.  “But not exactly fat free, huh?”

“Oauis,” I reply.  “I don’t even care anymore.  In fact, I think I’ve kind of grown to like my cellulite.”

“Quoi?!”  A female friend jumps in, having overheard our conversation.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “I guess I’ve started feeling attached to it.”

She is looking at me like I am crazy…which is fair enough.

“Like, years from now if I don’t live here anymore I can look at my thigh and think “ah yes, that is my French cellulite.”

She laughs but it is in the “you are being weird so I will humor you” way.  I shrug – what can I say?  I’ve become zen with my dimples.

***

I like to eat which works well in France since the French are a people who also like to eat (I know this is a lot of new information to handle at once).  I am always comfortable and welcomed (the French version of being welcomed so, you know…toned down) when I enter a party or arrive for dinner ready to try everything and “ooh” and “ahh” over the food.  It is my primary “in” with French society – they love anyone who is enthusiastic about their cuisine.  However, there are some drawbacks as I have discussed before.

These days, I have figured out how to manage my FFFC (French Fatty Food Consumption).  I’ve realized that “um, I live here and I don’t need to eat everything all at once and constantly” which has been great for the waistline; however, recently I have noticed that some damage just can’t be undone.  There are some things in the FFFC repertoire (foie gras, pate, cheese) that one’s body simply can’t ignore no matter how moderate the intake.  At first, these noticeable changes really bothered me:  “Cellulite, Quelle Horreur!”  But now, I have come to realize that really my cellulite is like a sexy badge of honor, I mean, I feel a little romantic about it.

“Heeeeey Cellulite, how you doin’?”

“Oh you know,” Cellulite says, coyly, flashing me a dimple.  “Just hanging around.”

“Why don’t you let me take you out?  We’ll go to the beach where I can show you off, guuurl!”

A note:  I have no idea why me talking to my cellulite sounds like an early 90’s white rapper.  Apparently the world and my fellow women should all be happy I wasn’t born a dude because my game is sounding pretty sad.

Okay – so it goes something like that.

Point being, I’ve just decided that my cellulite (and other various body issues…don’t even get me started on stretch marks) just isn’t that big of a deal.  I mean, did you know that somewhere between 80-90% of post-pubescent women have it?  (No, I don’t know who those 10% who don’t are, I pretty sure they are like Rainbow Unicorns…I’ve certainly never seen one)  That means that it should be like a rite of passage, proof that you have had a life, that you survived teenage years – I mean, my god, who on earth would trade in cellulite for having to been a teen?  Dimples are definitely the better end of that bargain (apologies to any teenage readers but don’t worry, you’ll get it in about 10 years).  Basically, it is the visible evidence that you have lived some life and are interesting (people who never indulge in yummy food are boring – BAM –truth gun).

So, today, I embrace my cellulite, it kind of makes me smile and remember all the great food that I’ve eaten with great friends during great moments in my life – it is a mark upon my body…but a mark doesn’t necessarily mean a blemish, does it?

So Cellulite, this one’s for you:

An Ode to Cellulite

Rippling waves of dimpled flesh can leave me feeling quite bereft,

Squeezing, pulling, squats galore and still, each day, I find some more.

Yet as I sit and contemplate this state…suddenly, my heart inflates.

Perhaps this unsightly mark against beauty should be embraced by any true foodie.

A swath of fat above my knees to remind me of a Burgundian cheese,

A Parisian dinner caressing my thigh and taking me back to a night gone by,

A plumped buttocks from cassoulet…the evening we met and talked the night away,

Foie gras with confit and magret canard, raclette in winter and pommes de terres in lard,

Memories of moments mapped out on my skin, why should I fight it, perhaps they should win?

It could be inner thighs that flop with vigor indeed present a nicer figure

Than those that stay in shapely place, never rubbing or losing face…

For never having known glorious taste.

***

Apologies for the extra-long sabbatical.  Bread is Pain should be back up and running with normal posts from now on.  I hope that all of you had a glorious New Year! Cheers!

 

 

Merry Christmas Part II: Wassailing (repost)

Holidays in France

Hi y’all – yes, another repost for Christmas.  I hope you will still enjoy it!  Thank you so much to all of you who helped support Bread is Pain in the Expat Blog Awards – we took home first prize for France which is pretty darn cool!  I hope you all have wonderful holidays – I will be back posting again at the end of January (a brief sabbatical).

Happy Holidays and have a wonderful New Year! 

***

“Quoi?”  MB calls out from the kitchen.

“Quoi what?”  I say this before the redundancy of it computes in my mind.

He steps out of the kitchen and into the living room where I am dancing like a maniac and going through my Christmas songs on Itunes to sort out a playlist for our upcoming party.  I grab his hand and make him dance with me which gets a laugh…one of his classic laughs in which I can tell he is trying really hard not to but can’t help it.

He kisses me on the cheek which is my cue to stop.  “What is this wassailing?”

“Oh,” I respond, putting “Here We go a-Wassailing”* on mute.  “You know, it’s to… “wassail.”  This seems like a totally logical answer to me.

“You don’t know what it means, do you?”

YES, of course I do, I sang this song when I was a kid!  Gaw!”  I have no idea what it is to “wassail.”

“So, what is it?”  He puts a hand on his hip and stands over my computer.

“Hold on…” I say, as I google it quickly.  “Huh…it is: 1 : an early English toast to someone’s health 2 : wild drinking : REVELRY.”

“So it is a Christmas carol about getting wasted?”  He asks me this with amusement on his face.

“No way, it can’t be,” I look up “wassailing” as opposed to the noun form “wassail” hoping there is some translation change; it isn’t much better.  “”Wassailing,” I read, “To go on a wild drinking spree.”

MB bursts out laughing.

“It also means to drink to someone’s health!”  I will defend “wassailing” forever!

He pats me on the head and walks back to the kitchen.  My whole childhood has just morphed into an old English drinking song.

When I was little I was a Girl Scout.  We had meetings once a week and events like camping (okay so camping in cabins not in tents but get real…we have bears in Tennessee) and selling Girl Scout cookies throughout the year.  I remember learning how to light a match, how to sew a button (quit giving me that look, Mom, just because I don’t do it well doesn’t mean I don’t know how), and I can still pick out poison oak.  Somewhere in the attic there is a sash with badges on it and I still keep in touch with a few girls from my troop and one of them even came to my wedding this year.

Every Christmas my Mother (a “forever” Girl Scout) would get the girls together over at our house and take us caroling in the neighborhood.  My Mother an avid…dare I say “hardcore”, caroler loved the tradition and so did I.  It was awesome and SO much cooler than it sounds…I swear.  We would all meet at someone’s house and dress up in super warm clothes and drink hot chocolate and afterwards we would have a cookie party.  It was fun to go out into a cold wintery night with all your best friends and sing songs to strangers.  Carolers are often made fun of in movies or on sitcoms but let’s face it – in this day in age it is pretty amazing to have a bunch of strangers show up at your door and sing songs to you for no other reason than to spread some cheer.

I remember one year in particular back in the late 80’s.  After the adults made sure we were all warmly attired in our totally cool purple, green, and fuchsia winter wear (I’m just assuming…I did say late 80’s) we set out with our song books into the wily streets of High Point Terrace in Memphis (this will be funny to anyone from Memphis).  We went to house after house singing our songs and generally being “ooh’d” and “awe’d” over by all the folks in the neighborhood (perhaps another reason we all loved Christmas caroling…a nice little ego boost if I do say so).

Only a few doors down from my house we came and knocked on a door.  Now let me give a little lesson in caroling for you novices out there, it’s not like you ring the doorbell and wait to take requests; you ring or knock and then get going with your song – if the people living there don’t like it then they are scrooges, plain and simple.  At this house my Mother whispered to us to start singing “Silent Night.”  The porch stayed quiet as we began our song and we started to wonder if they were going to open the door; we could see people in there.  Suddenly the door swung wide and the whole family was standing there.  I remember having a very odd sensation of seeing so much light around them as we stood on the dark porch.  While we sang I noticed their arms going around each other and hugs being given, heads rested on shoulders, a couple of the people even cried.  We had never made such an impact.  Later my Mother explained to us that the man who had lived there had died a few days ago and that the family was there comforting each other.

It was a special moment in my life, maybe it was a special moment in theirs.  Maybe it is a story that they still tell in their family about the night that Grandpa died and little girls showed up at the door during the wake and sang “Silent Night.”  We didn’t understand while we were singing what had happened and we only sort of understood later but I understand now and it can still bring a tear to my eye thinking about it; thinking about the fact that the simplest acts that you commit in your life can bring a sense of peace, a sense of thankfulness, a sense of joy and love to a complete stranger…and sometimes when they need most to not feel alone in this world.  I understand that often God or the Universe or Mother Nature, or whatever you believe in will use you as a tool for good even when you aren’t trying.

When I asked my Mother about this story to make sure I was telling it right she was so pleased that I remembered caroling and had happy memories of it.  She told me that the reason she always hosted this party was because of a memory she had when she was a little girl.  “It was probably only once in my life – one year,” she wrote, “The cold, the holiday season, the thrill of singing with others, the smiles on the other side of the doorway.  I still recall the intense delight I felt.”  It’s funny, isn’t it?  That two women in different stages in their life still think about and remember fondly singing to strangers a few times when they were children.

My Mother said that when we would go caroling sometimes people would try to give us money.  They would want to know why we were caroling, they assumed we were doing it for something.  Well…we were.  Maybe it sounds cheesy and maybe it is too trite for some people but we were just doing it to spread cheer.

So, “Wassail” my friends!  Drink an extra glass of egg nogg or vin chaud, be unnecessarily cheerful, sing songs too loudly, and allow yourself to be used in the crafting of someone’s happy holiday memories.

*Note – there are two different “Wassailing” songs around the holidays and neither is for Christmas but for the New Year.  There is “Here we go a –wassailing” and there is also (my favorite) “Wassail, Wassail”. 

Happy Holidays Everyone!  I’ll be back in the New Year!!