Sunday, bloody Sunday!

Cultural Differences

“Are you kidding me?”  I ask MB as I look up from my grocery list.  It is a beautiful Sunday morning; I didn’t have a drop of alcohol the night before and I’m ready to go out and run errands to get ready for the week.

“You know this already.”  He responds nonchalantly while putting away breakfast dishes.

“Even the grocery stores?”

“It has been 3 months.” He turns and looks at me, dish towel on his hip, “You know that the grocery stores aren’t open on Sundays.”

“Fine,” I retort.  “I know it, but I forget and every time I remember I get angry all over again.”  I let out an enormous sigh of irritation.  “So, what are we supposed to do?  We can’t go to the store or run any errands.”

“Just relax.” 

I look at him incredulously.  “You know I’m American, right?”

Forced relaxation.  This is what Sunday’s in France have come to mean to me.  The food markets will be open in the mornings but at 1pm the entire city will be shut down.  Forget about buying a shirt, going to the gym, or doing the grocery shopping; the movie theaters are open, most restaurants are open, but if you want to do anything at all productive, that option is not available.  This means that everyone has to do all their shopping on Saturdays.  As a result, I won’t even walk into a clothing store on a Saturday afternoon.  The grocery store, which can’t always be avoided, is like New Orleans during Mardi Gras…with less order. 

Business hours have been difficult for me to deal with in all the different countries that I have lived in.  In the United States, we love convenience, we love shopping, and we love competition.  This means that at any time, day or night, you can probably find a store somewhere that will be open and selling what you want (okay, maybe you won’t find a gardening shop open at 3 am but, really, you never know).  Now, I am living in France.  On business days (stupid Sunday), the shops tend to close from about 12-2pm and some might not even open again until 4pm.  This means you must shop strategically, often I have left the house to buy a baguette only to reach the bakery and find it closed for lunch.  Businesses like these could never survive in the United States; they would be wheedled out by the guy next door who would stay open through lunch (!!!!!!) and lower his prices.  In France, however, the business culture is different.  They do not share our obsession with work; they look at it as an addendum to life as opposed to the other way around, and Sunday, is a day to be spent on your life. 

So, mid-afternoon excursions are rarely worth it and the grocery shopping is always going to have to be done during the mad rush of Saturday but, on the other hand, Sunday’s can only be spent at the morning market, on a picnic, hiking through the mountains, or just sitting on  my balcony with a good book.  Maybe a little forced relaxation isn’t so bad after all.

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Congratulations! You’re having a cheese baby!

French Food

For most of my life I have basically fluctuated between the same ten pounds; I have either been at the low end or the high end since I was about 16.  In recent years, (years spent in outdoor adventure lands like Australia and New Zealand) I have stayed at the low-end.  However, after only 3 months in France I am 5 pounds up and creeping towards my highest weight.  I don’t often weigh myself; I think it is an overly-critical, typically inaccurate, and a cruel thing to do to oneself; rather, I judge weight by one pair of jeans.  If they fit perfectly then I am doing alright, if they are loose then I’m doing better than alright, and if they are tight then it is time to make the tough choices.

 For the last few weeks, I have been ignoring the ill-fit of my favorite pair of Sevens but when I arrived for my physical at the consulate a few days ago there was no hiding it; there were two extra kilos (4.4 lbs) that did not exist a few months back. 

“Don’t worry, you are normal, see,” said the nurse as she showed me a chart with my weight on it.  “Ca va?”  Not ‘ca va’.

Later, on the tram ride home, I grimaced as I re-adjusted my jeans to cover my newly acquired gut that I lovingly refer to as my cheese baby.   I know that I need to cut back and be more reasonable about what I am eating but I’m just not sure how to do it (I ponder this as I drop egg yolks into the blender to make homemade mayonnaise).  Is it really reasonable to ask any food-loving person to cut back on calories after arriving in France?  It would be like asking Keith Richards to hang out with a drug cartel for a year but stay clean.

When I arrived, I had no idea how much trouble I was going to be in.  I have felt like the awe-struck Julia Child in Julie&Julia when she arrives in Paris and after tasting an exquisite dish exclaims, “the French eat French food everyday!”   On my second day in town I was riding through city centre and I thought to myself, cool, there are so many good French restaurants!  Doh!  I have made myself so accustomed to looking for French restaurants in every town I’ve lived in that I literally didn’t think about the fact that I was in France (first red flag).  For the first few weeks, I regularly dined on lunches consisting of baguette, pate, and cheese (glorious cheese) followed by 3 course dinners out.  Hey, I was in Europe now, there’s no getting fat, right?  I’ve turned into a street dog, which is afraid at any moment; their food bowl will be taken away.  Eat it now, eat it all now!

Somehow, I am going to have to convince myself that France is not going to stop producing cheese and foie-gras, that they will continue to provide me with warm, crusty bread and cream laden sauces.  I need to remember that I actually live here and that this isn’t a vacation…I have over a year to try to eat France.

Of Notes and Neurosis

Learning French

One night out at a bar, I got up to use the restroom. I asked MB to point it out, and walked up to the door he indicated that said ‘toilettes’. Naturally, I assumed that either there would be two doors for men and women once you entered or that it was just a ‘one-sie’. I opened the door, walked in, and found myself staring at a man peeing in the urinal. Flustered, I clumsily backed out of the door, my face the color of ‘vin rouge’. Had I wandered into the wrong restroom? I looked around for another door…nothing, I walked to the back of the bar…nothing. Finally, I went and asked MB where the girl’s restroom was.

“Quoi? I take you to the restroom already. It’s right there,” he said while pointing towards the ‘door of impropriety’.

“There are penises in there.”

“Ouais (this is the French version of ‘yeah, no sh-t’ and is pronounced ‘whey’), you are in France, baby. We don’t care so much about these things. Do you want me to go with you?”

This is why, at the ripe age of 30, a chaperone had to accompany me to the bathroom.

MB has had to deal with lots of these moments since my arrival in France. While living in a foreign country can certainly make you feel independent and strong (most often when talking to other people about it), the reality is somewhat different. Learning what is ‘normal’ in a new culture and trying to navigate a foreign language basically reduces you to the status of child. MB has had to explain that I need not be offended by line skipping, and that strangers will probably think it is odd if I strike up conversations with them, that bathrooms may be unisex, and that a store isn’t closed all day just because it is closed for lunch. He has made doctor’s appointments for me and then accompanied me on them (what man wouldn’t enjoy translation duties with his girlfriend’s gynecologist?), he’s talked to aesthetiticians when I’ve gone to get a facial, and when repair men come and try to explain something to me, I generally am reduced to calling him for them to talk to.

Recently, I applied for French school (clearly necessary as evidenced by these blog posts); there was a mix-up with the paperwork and MB was going to be out of town on the first day of class. Even though I was not registered he told me to go anyway and tell them I wanted to be put in the class and that was that.

“What language do you propose I explain this in?” I asked, frustrated.

“Quoi? They don’t speak English?”

“When I went yesterday, there was nary an English speaker,” I said.* “And you do realize that I don’t speak French, right?”

My panic was starting to rise and my sarcasm with it. I didn’t want to show up at an office, by myself, and try to force my way into a class. It felt uncomfortable, awkward, and also like a scenario that would have a high probability of embarrassment.

“I will write you a note,” he said.

I felt like idiotic, like a child on the first day of school.

“I’m not showing up with a note!” I sneered, disdain dripping from every syllable. “I’m not a moron, you know.”

MB sighed, and later, after I had calmed down, he wrote me a note.

Through some miracle, when I arrived at the school, I found an English speaking staff member and was able to sort it out on my own, without the awkwardness of producing the note.

Sometimes it feels ridiculous that I can’t do simple tasks or make basic requests on my own, and other times it can just be downright frustrating. I want to go to the bathroom by myself, fearlessly! I want to sign myself up for school without assistance! There is a sense of autonomy that has been lost and the control-freak in me is having a bit of a nervous breakdown. I love my independence and my ability to do things on my own, but, on the other hand, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to learn how to ask for help. And aren’t I lucky to have someone so willing to give it? I’m finding out that it’s okay to let go a little bit and trust another to be able to handle some stuff for me. It is not always easy, and I still like to try to accomplish things myself but when all else fails, is it such a bad thing to have a note?

(NOTE: Yes, you read that correctly, when arriving at the FRENCH LANGUAGE SCHOOL, I could not find anyone who spoke a language other than French…perhaps not helpful seeing as how everyone attending the school would be trying to learn it.)

Le Fromage: Part 1, The Faith

French Food

(Part 1 because one can only assume that there will be further cheese posts as this is a blog about France)

This is how it goes: 

I’m having a nice, quiet evening at home, alone.  I have a glass of red wine and I’ve just finished a delightful and satisfying meal.  I’m not really hungry anymore; perhaps I just need a snack to top myself off.  I could just have a piece of chocolate…I could.  Instead, I reach for the baguette and rip off a hearty chunk. 

It begins. 

Lovingly, I design the plate; taking a slice of this and a wedge of that.  The smell that emanates is both menacing and enticing.  I look, expectantly, at the fat-laden ooze making its way, lethargically, across the plate.  Do I really need to have a cheese course when I am eating at home alone in front of the television?  No, but it is just so damn good.

Depending on what source you reference, the French have anywhere from 50-1000 different types of cheeses.   The official cheeses from the AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) run somewhere between 45-55.  When France decided to join the EU, one of the major concerns of the French people was that their cheese would suffer (this concern remains today).  So is it any wonder that I’ve fallen prey to the seduction of French cheese?  Le fromage is a religion in France and these are a devout people. 

I had thought that I knew cheese; I wasn’t a processed-cheese-eating, kraft-single American.  I went to the markets and Whole Foods and bought good, interesting cheeses.  I have now come to understand that I knew nothing.  It started back in Australia, when, on our second date, my boyfriend (from now on to be known as MB: ‘Monsieur Boyfriend’) offered me some of his cheese that had been shipped to him from France, the stench was over-whelming and wildly romantic.  We locked eyes and he waited with anticipation as I took my first bite.  The flavor was transcedental; something between passion and hatred.  The satiny, smooth, milky richness sat in my mouth for but a moment before transforming itself and pinching the sides of my tongue with tangy, bitterness.  My eyes rolled into the back of my head and when I came-to, I again found the gaze of MB; there was a new understanding between us, I had been brought into the fold.

So, I suppose now there is no going back; I have committed myself fully in my devotion to le fromage.  It is a relationship full of suprises and unexpected sensations but never, ever boring; and I suspect I will be a dedicated follower for life.

Will you be my friend? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Adjusting to France

 “What are you doing?”  I bury my face in my hands.  “Oh my god, you are so embarrassing!”

“Quoi?” replies my boyfriend (his typical response to everything).  He is standing on the edge of a group of people at a bar, looking at them but saying nothing.

“You are practically stalking them, stop!  Seriously, come back to the table.”  I am whispering in that loud, half-scream whisper, my eyes widened for impact. 

 “What is your problem?  I was trying to see what they were saying.  They seem cool.”  He says, once he has reluctantly returned to our table. 

“I know they seem cool but you can’t force it!  You have to let them come to us, ya know?”  I say this just as someone from the group looks our way.  I flash the supposed “cool kid” an overly friendly smile and get nothing in return.  “Ugh.  This place is stupid; we’re not going to meet anyone.”

 “Hey, what about that guy we met last weekend, let’s text him,” my boyfriend suggests.

“I don’t know; do you think it’s too soon?  I don’t want to scare him off.”

“Yeah, maybe…” 

We take a sip of wine and ponder this momentarily.

“No, I mean, he seemed to like us, right?  I think we can text.” 

Ahhh…the human ability to rationalize.  

I have found that making friends in a new city is very much like trying to date.  You go to the bars that you think the desired people will be, and then sit close to them in hopes of there being some incident that will allow you to start a conversation; you smile too easily and too often at too many people.  You force yourself to go out even when you are tired because you might meet someone, and you think hard about when and under what pretext you should contact a new person so that you don’t seem too needy.

My boyfriend and I are currently in the midst of this struggle, constantly trying to think of ways that we can meet more people.  But, the reality is that we just have to be patient and go with the flow.  The general consensus seems to be that it takes about 3-6 months to make friends when you move to a new city (a period of time that you magically forget ever existed after you have made friends) and you never know how it is going to happen.  I’ve met friends at apartment visits, while getting pedicures, even a walk around the block has turned into an impromptu dinner with strangers.  You can’t predict the “when” or the “how” but it is always when you least expect it. 

So, we will continue to endure and await the unexpected, but until then, stay alert and watch out, we might be stalking at a bar near you.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences

As a good ol’ Anglo-Saxon, the idea of kissing strangers is extremely uncomfortable to me.  Growing up in my household, it was considered perfectly adequate to give a firm handshake to family members, let alone strangers.  So, arriving in France and having every third person leaning in for the kill practically induced panic attacks.   In addition to the initial discomfort, I struggled with the rules of “when” and “where” to apply the kissing.  Which strangers do you kiss and which ones do you not kiss?  Do you kiss for every occasion?  It was confusing, nerve-racking, and sweat-inducing (sort of like junior high school).  Sometimes there would be the hesitant lean-in/lean-out to see who would come in first and sometimes there would be the “head dance” when both parties awkwardly went for the same side; often I would lean in with hesitance and then almost robotically shoot my arm forward for a handshake, wallowing in the relief of avoiding another invasion of personal space.  My boyfriend tried to help me as best he could but he is a man, and as such isn’t quite as in tune to the devastation of social faux pas as I am.

About a week after arriving in France and still ripe with jet-lag, my boyfriend and I were invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house.  I had met the couple hosting but would not know any of the other guests and was, understandably, nervous.  My abilities in French were dismal and my comprehension of social mores was elementary, at best.  Dread welled in my breast as we walked to the apartment; what would I get wrong? 

The arrival went smoothly, the hosts opened the door and initiated the kissing but I still felt uneasy; I took my glass of wine and stood in the corner, palms sweating, heart-racing, unable to relax until everyone had arrived.  The next couple walked confidently over and kissed me with no hesitation, and then I started to calm down, lured into a false sense of security.  This is going to be fine, I thought.  Finally, the last of the party arrived.  The woman approached me first; she was more timid and less-confident than the others.  Someone else made the introduction and then we just stood there and stared at each other.  It was like some terrible, awkward western film, both of our heads vibrating nervously, like hands at the sides of pistols.  I looked around for help; was I supposed to go in first or was that weird?  She continued to stare, wordlessly, motionlessly.  It was an inexorably long two minutes.  Finally, my boyfriend came over and said, “You are supposed to kiss her.”  He looked at me like I should have known better; everyone looked at me like I should have known better.  I’m not from here, I wanted to scream; no one has told me these things! 

I was so humiliated; I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when the bellman is waiting for a tip and she says, “What are you lookin’ at”, before realizing what she was meant to do.  Is this what my life has been reduced to, I thought.  Is being an American in France like being a hooker at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel?  Tears welled in my eyes and my lip acquired the slightest tremble, this time not from the fear of kissing, but from utter mortification.  I wanted to run out of the room and escape the eyes that I was so sure were full of judgment and disapproval.  But that was not an option and instead I did something that I have never managed to do too well; I laughed at my own foolish mistake, and then I laughed again, genuinely, at the absurdity of this woman and me staring at each other in the middle of the room.  Then everyone else started laughing and offering kind words.

“It is very hard at the beginning”

“Yes, I remember having to use handshakes and it was so odd!”

“You will learn, don’t worry!”

The rest of the night went by naturally and without event. 

In France, as in life, I will continue to make mistakes and wrong turns, but if I can manage to laugh when crying makes more sense then I think I will have made a success of it.  Even a hooker at the Wilshire can keep her sense of humor.

Dinner will be from 6pm-2am

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences, French Food

The French do not know how to leave a dinner table.  This may sound quite basic, and one might think, “yes, of course, we all know that they like a long dinner.”  This is not what I mean; I like a long dinner, too.  What I mean is that an hour after the meal has ended and the wine has gone dry and the conversation become dull, the French remain.  Everyone knows that the meal is over, everyone is dying to get up and go home and sleep off their cheese coma, but no one makes the move; we sit. 

 I have now spent several dinners like this screaming in my head and thinking ‘dear god, why?!’  Even at aperitif there seems to be confusion about how to shift into ‘fin’.  Our new neighbor came over for aperitif, and we all sat and chatted amiably for two hours.  Around 9 o’clock, I began to feel fidgety; I had offered him another drink which he declined and he had mentioned twice that we probably wanted to eat dinner, yet there they sat, he and my boyfriend both trying to figure out a graceful way to finish and leave.  Finally, out of sheer desperation I used the good old American “Well!” and slapped my hands down on the arms of my chair; they snapped-to but I felt hopelessly uncouth. 

 So how does one handle this situation?  What is the right course of action?  No-dose?  Perhaps pick up a speed habit?  Sometimes I look longingly at my boyfriend to try to pass him the hint that it is time to go, and sometimes I use the “golly, what time is it?” line; but usually I just sit back and try to relax (something, that as an American, I have trouble doing).  I try to remember that my hosts are kind and gracious and would gladly keep me overnight at the table if I were so inclined. 

 So, my advice?  Enjoy your meal (which you undoubtedly will in France), enjoy the company, and always accept coffee when it is proffered.

Small Victories

Adjusting to France, Learning French

“Immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a foreign language,” everyone says.  This may be true in the long run, but in the short term it’s madness.  You have to battle anxiety just to take a walk around the neighborhood for fear that someone might speak to you.  Clearly this opinion is espoused by people who either have an unhealthy amount of self-confidence, or have never done it.  Now yes, I listened to my CDs relentlessly before coming, and I thought that I knew enough to get around, but in real life no one speaks like they do on language CDs.  Hearing a woman repeat the word ‘l’appartement’ 50 times with perfect enunciation does nothing for me when I hear people use it in conversation.  Last week, we had a maid come to clean our ‘appartement’ and she and I had so much trouble understanding each other that I eventually went to google-translate and typed my question in and showed it to her.  “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

So when I arrived at my Boucher’s yesterday and he began peppering me with questions I was, understandably, unnerved.  I froze, my palms sweating, my mind racing.  Please God, don’t let me be the disappointing foreigner (insert: American) who hasn’t bothered to learn the language!  Desperately I searched my mind trying to pick up a word or two out of the sentences that I understood so that I could figure out what he was asking me (note: I would like to thank my Elementary School teachers for enforcing  the importance of context clues upon me).  Then, like the sun from behind the clouds, recognition dawned in my brain:  he wanted to know how long I had been here.  By some miracle, I answered…perfectly.  He understood me and continued with the questions until we had completed a civil and relatively informative conversation.  YES!

“Okay,” you might be thinking.  “You spoke to your butcher; that’s totally amazing.” (eye roll)

Well.  It is. 

This is one of the great things about traveling and moving overseas that no one ever tells you about and which I am finding even more true when there is a language barrier:  you get to become a child again (in the best sense, not in the ‘people telling you what to do all the time’ sense).  Managing to accomplish little tasks is a big deal and feels amazing!  When you have just moved to a new country and you are figuring things out, everything is a triumph.  When you figure out how to open your bank account or set up your cell phone; you feel impressed with yourself.  You may have lived in a large and complicated city back home, you may have street smarts, but the first time you navigate the subway or tram system in your new town you will give yourself a pat on the back.  When a stranger asks you for directions and you can give them you will feel oh-so-cool.  And yes, the first time you manage to understand what someone is saying and how to respond to them you will feel like skipping all the way home. 

It’s a beautiful reminder that travel gives you; the reminder to appreciate yourself and your ability to adapt and learn things.  The reminder to challenge yourself, come what may!  As a child we have these moments all the time; every new thing we learn fills us with a sense of pride and elation at our own ability to have accomplished something.  And why should that ever change? 

So, merci Monsieur Boucher, I appreciate the gentle reminder…oh and the caillettes were good too!

Bonjour!

Uncategorized

France. 

A country that is, by many, considered the most romantic place in the world.  A country hailed for their culinary tradition, a country that conjures up images of sunny vineyards sloping down into luscious green valleys, a country of castles and art, of literature and music.  A place where everyone is chic and people are effortlessly cool.     

It is also a country with a complicated and tumultuous history, a place with a reputation for sulky women, lecherous men, and a less-than-friendly population.  A country riddled with stereotypes about cleanliness, hygiene, and what sorts of bizarre things they happily consume. 

But what is the reality?  I come here as a foreigner but I live with a native.  I have one foot on the inside and one foot on the outside, an observer who must also be an adapt.  I’m not here as a tourist; this is my life. 

(An excerpt from an early conversation my boyfriend and I had while still living in Australia)

“So, I hear that bread is very important in France, yeah?” 

My boyfriend’s face takes on a look of complete seriousness.  “Ah, mais oui, baby.  So, you know how to say ‘bread’?”

“Bien sur!”  I’m so proud of my beginner’s French. 

(disclaimer: the following will be spelled phonetically)

“Do P-ah,” I say with flourish.

“Deu paihrn,” he corrects. 

“What?  That’s what I said, do P-ah.”

“No, no deu paaaaiiiiihhhhrrrnnnn.”   

Do Paaaaaaaaaaaah-un.”  I say with dramatic flair and not a little irritation. 

“Deu paihrn,” he says again, quickly, as though perhaps if he says it matter-of-factly I will simply be able to change the way my mouth has been trained to make shapes and get it immediately. 

“It’s not like you don’t know what I mean.  What does it matter as long as I can be understood?  Ugh.  How is it spelled?”

deh ouu-“

Ahhh, English alphabet, please,” I’m whiny now in my defeat at the hands of French pronunciation.

“I’m trying to help you learn.”

“I know!  So please spell it for me so that I can understand.”  I have fully reverted to a foot-stomping child.

“d-e for deu and p-a-i-n for bread.”

“Bread is pain?”

“What?”

“Bread is pain?  It is spelled like pain?”

“Oh yes, I never thought of it that way but yes, bread is pain.”

A metaphor for life in France?  We shall see.