Mercy

Learning French

Obama Grill, Boracay Island, Philippines

“Mercy,” proclaims the Filipino sales clerk. 

“Mare-see,” repeats MB.

“What?  How do you say it?  Say it again?”  A young girl in an apron is standing behind the sales clerk, “mercy?”

“Mare-see,” MB says with a smile. 

“How do you spell it,” asks the girl.

“M-e-r-c-i,” MB says.

She looks confused and then says, “AH, ah yes…mercy!”

MB just smiles.   I laugh to myself as I realize this conversation is eerily familiar.  We are in Boracay Island, Philippines and have stopped to buy a bottle of water at a Starbucks (can’t get away from it, apparently).  It is the friendliest Starbucks on earth.  Upon entering, the eager staff asks where we are from; I respond U.S. and they are cordial, “oh yes, very good, your first trip to Boracay?”  But when MB says France, they are all a-twitter with excitement. 

“What’s going on?”  A third attendant appears. 

“He’s from France!”  The sales clerk responds, pointing at MB as though he is some sort of exotic bird who has just wandered into the store. 

“Ooooooooh,” says the attendant who has just entered the conversation.  “I love French!  Mercy! A-voir!  Oh, it sounds so nice!  Say something else!”

Dance, pretty bird, dance!  MB looks bemused and happily accommodates the curious staffers who have now surrounded us. 

In some ways, being French overseas is sort of like being a celebrity.  There is still so much mystique and romance that surrounds the idea of the French.  Being American is somewhat different.  In Boracay Island, we ate at Obama Grill, not Sarkozy Grill.  People all over the world…from Romania to Boracay Island…watch American television shows and films, wear American clothes labels, listen to American music, have opinions about American politics.  American culture is everywhere and so there isn’t much novelty left in it.  No one outside of the U.S. seems excited that I am American…unless they hate Americans (then they are typically over-enthusiastic). 

It must be nice to be able to generate that kind of reaction simply by proclaiming your nationality; an effect that I don’t think I will ever have.  Instead, I will have to satisfy myself with being cool by proxy; and take comfort in the fact that perhaps the mystique lies not just in being French, but also in the fact that no one but them can properly pronounce their language.

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Jamais Deux Sans Trois

Travel in France

The French translation of the ‘rule of three’ is somewhat different than in English but the outcome is the same.

I am so organized, I thought to myself this morning as I reviewed my baggage for the 5th time before leaving for the train station.  MB has been in the Philippines for two weeks with work and I was leaving today to meet him there for my birthday.  My birthdays tend to be…well…unlucky.  Break-ups, revoked visas, lost jobs, etc., are par for the course.  So I hadn’t been surprised when my bus ticket confirmation didn’t come through on the internet.

“You know what this means?  I’m going to have to go to the station and in some other language try to figure out how to explain that I have paid for my ticket but never received it.  I don’t even know the word for received.”

“It will be fine,” responds MB via Skype.  “It will not be a problem, don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say,” I reply.  “You know it’s almost birthday time.”

“Enough with the birthday thing; this is in your head!” 

“Is it, MB?  Is it?

He rolled his eyes.   

So yesterday, I trudged down to the bus station to try to sort out my ticket.  After 20 minutes of confused Franglish with two different staff members, we were finally able to figure out a solution.  It was a hassle but not major; and I felt good about the fact that I was able to accomplish it in another language.  Instead of patting myself on the back, however, I should have recognized it for what it was: #1. 

Fast forward to this morning as I am smugly looking over my already packed bags with time to spare.  I decide that I will go on and leave for the bus since there is no harm in being early (a mistake I will never make again).  I check my passport, bus ticket, airline ticket (our city is an hour from the international airport) one more time and then I’m off. 

Phew…it is a million degrees as I trudge through the street, dragging my two bags along with me.  The sweat is rolling down my back and I can feel my make-up melting off; why did I blow-dry my hair?  As soon as I arrive at the train station, I whip out my super nifty travel document case and begin fanning myself with my boarding pass print out.  10 minutes later, the bus arrives and I throw my bags on and pull out the novel I’m reading.  The journey is pleasant, the sky is blue, and the towns are charming; I’m on my way.  An hour later, as we are pulling into the airport, I unzip my bag to replace my novel when…what tha-where is my super nifty travel document case?!  For a few moments, I search, panicked, when all of a suddenly an image comes into my mind: an image of me, sitting on the bench at the bus station and setting my super nifty travel document case down next to me and not in my bags.  A wave of horror sweeps over me.  My flight is in 2 hours.

“Excusez-moi, Monsieur?”  The tremor is hardly hidden in my voice as the driver turns to look at me.

“Oui?”

Okay French class, now is your time to shine.

“J’ai oublie mon passeport a la gare,” sadly, I am too freaked out to even be proud of myself for remembering how to say that I forgot my passport at the station.  (apologies for lack of accent marks; I am on an American computer)

“Ah, c’est vrai?!” 

“Oui.  C’est vrai.”  Yes, it is true, yes, I am that person. 

He points me to the bus service kiosk and I scurry over with my bags (still sweating).  The lady behind the desk is kind and concerned and immediately phones the bus station.  A look of triumph passes her face, “Oui, they have it!”  She then asks me when my flight is and immediately her face changes.  The only bus that could have gotten it to me in time had already left. 

So, I am an hour away from home without a passport and an impending flight in an hour and a half.  I run to the airline service desk.  There are no more flights today; there is a flight tomorrow but it will cost 350 euro to change.  The tears well up in my eyes as I desperately try to hold it together.  After running to the internet kiosk to email MB and get his advice, I then run back (still sweating, by the way, I mean, why should France air-condition their airports?) and book the obscenely expensive ticket change.  Somehow, I am still not comprehending what is at work here.  This has been #2. 

Convinced that I have finally slain the disastrous beast that has been this day, I walk (sweating) with my bags to the hotel airport to get a room.  At least I can check-in and do some work and then tomorrow just wander back to the airport.    

Damn you, rule of 3!  Both of the airport hotels are booked solid.  I cry a little bit more (hey, why not?  I mean, I had already started) and then head back inside, dragging my suitcases behind me…sweating. 

I return to the lady at the bus kiosk.  “Ah oui!” She says. “Your passport, it comes soon.”  She points up at the clock. 

“Oui,” I say with a lopsided smile.  “I know, but I can’t get a flight until tomorrow and the hotels are booked so I need to buy a ticket back home.”  (this is all in my bad French)

Her look changes and I can tell she is sorry for me.  “But you know,” she says.  “You are very lucky!  What if they did not have your passport?!” 

She is so earnest and she is so right. 

I smile and laugh, “YES!  The silver lining, you are right, it could be much, much worse!”

She rings up my return ticket and hands it to me with a smile.  “Bonne chance, Mademoiselle!”  (good luck)

Luck is a funny thing; it is forever a two-sided coin.  On the one hand, there are the bad things, the annoying, irritating, horrible things in life that just sometimes happen.  But, on the other side, there are the great things, perfect weather when you need it, chance encounters with nice people, making it to your flight terminal just before they close the gate.  This morning, I felt like I had been given a three course meal of lemons.  The rule of 3 got me good and my birthday superstition proved its metal; but with a little help I managed to see the luck on the other side of the coin.  Nothing had happened that couldn’t be fixed; and in today’s world, that’s not a bad gift.  So this year for my birthday, instead of more gifts, I think I will settle for a nice, cool glass of lemonade.

Perfection and the Art of Junk Food

Cultural Differences, French Food

MB looked down at the bowl I presented him with apprehension. 

“Just try it,” I say.  “If you don’t like it, no big deal; it’s a weird American thing.  Trust me; I’ll finish it if you don’t want it.”

He smiles wanly, but gamely picks up his spoon and has a bite.  He looks up in thought, as though considering the best way to describe it.

“It is strange (MB pronunciation: strenge),” he says. 

He may be the first French person to ever bring themselves to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or at least to admit it).

The French like to pretend that they only consume high quality cuisine and that an American diet consists only of fast food, flavorless food, fried food, and fatty food.  More than once I have been told “ketchup cuisine” in reference to American cooking.  It seems that regardless of what chefs or restaurants we produce, the stigma stays. 

When I first arrived in France, these methods of intimidation had worked; I believed that the French would never deign to eat something processed (!!) and only consumed quality, fresh, or homemade foods.  Then, one dark and stormy night (okay, so on a normal Wednesday evening), MB came home with something…unexpected, frightening…something that would change my French life forever.

The thunder cracked as he threw the grocery bag down on the counter. 

“I went shopping,” he said, full of innocence. 

I turned from the stove to look at him.  The light from the storm cast malevolent shadows across his face as he smiled. 

“Oh?” I questioned, quickly returning to my sauté pan.  The oil (okay, fine, it was butter alright? BUTTER) was getting hot and I jumped as an angry bubble burst and snapped at my forearm.  The air was tense. 

MB went to the double doors in the kitchen and threw them open; the thick, humidity entered the room like a presence.  Chills ran up my spine.

“So, check it out,” he grinned, as he slowly reached into the grocery bag. 

I looked up, and just as the product emerged, lightening lit up the room.  I gasped and stumbled back a step.  He held the hot pink metallic rectangle up in the air like some sort of ominous beacon.

“What is it?”  I said, tremulously.

“Just try one…” he replied, as he pulled a red cube from its sheath.

The thunder rumbled in the distance, perhaps as a warning.  Tentatively, I plucked it from his hand and began to unwrap.  He watched me, anxiously, as I brought it to my mouth. 

“Blech!  What tha-what is this?!?”

He flipped the light on.  “Quoi?”

“I don’t understand what this is.  It’s like ham flavored processed cheese.”

“No, it’s delicious!”  He popped one in his mouth and began unwrapping a second.  “There’s ham, tomato, goat cheese-”

“Goat cheese,” I interrupted.    “Goat cheese flavored cheese?  Why not just get actual goat cheese?”   

“Ouais,” MB said nonchalantly, as though that somehow answered the question.

I had just been introduced to Apericubes (here is just one example, there is a wide variety: http://bernartze.unblog.fr/files/2010/09/apericubetourdumonde.jpg ) , processed cheese cubes flavored to taste like vegetables, meats, other cheeses; life would never be the same. 

After that fateful, evening I started noticing things that had theretofore gone unseen.  Suddenly, processed cheese was everywhere and there seemed to be an unusual amount of fast food places.  I noticed 6 brands of crabsticks (you know the fish shaped to look like crab legs) in the grocery store and a plethora of frozen, yet fully constructed (bun and all), cheeseburgers in the frozen food section.  The cereal aisle was full of sugary cereals; muesli filled to the brim with chunks of chocolate.  Even the French eat junk food!  (!!!!!!!!)    

Once at a neighborhood wine store, the clerk asked me where I was from and I told him I was American.  “Ah well, nobody’s perfect,” he responded with a laugh. 

Clearly, the French have one of the best cuisines in the entire world, one that they should be (and are) justifiably proud of; no one is arguing that.  But to all those “ketchup cuisine” snobs who look disdainfully at American cuisine, I would like to offer an Apericube and remind them that “oui, nobody’s perfect.”

Holiday Savagery: Would Ralph have survived bad traffic?

Holidays in France, Travel in France

In the United States, holiday traffic can be frustrating and extremely unpleasant; in France, it is epic and terrifying. I know it seems unusual to apply the idea of ‘fear’ to traffic but let me assure you that it is accurate, even the traffic radio station (which primarily plays horrible French songs and only updates about every 20 minutes) seems frightened by it; in one update I heard, the announcer finished with, “to all you drivers, I wish you good luck!” It had the same somber tone as a general sending troops into combat and knowing that they weren’t coming back. Once, when I lived in New Orleans, I had to evacuate for a hurricane; the whole city emptied onto the highway at the same time. This weekend was worse.

France is smaller than Texas but has almost 3 times the population. So imagine if you put 62 million people in Texas and then put them all on holiday, oh, and add 8 thousand toll stations; the result is a 4 lane highway gridlocked for anywhere from 200 to 600km.

After four hours of sitting in traffic, MB and I decided that we would beat the system by going onto the smaller national highway…apparently the rest of France had the same idea.

“I hope this wasn’t a mistake.” I look at the row of red break lights in front of us.

“No, I think this will be better. I mean, look at the highway?” MB responds, ever the optimist.

I look back at the highway behind us and see the interminable line of cars that are not moving. “Yes, okay, this is definitely better.”

20 minutes later we are still inching our way along the same off-ramp and have realized that just beyond the ramp is yet another toll station, putting the traffic to an almost complete standstill.

“What is up with the toll stations? It is ridiculous! I mean, the second traffic starts moving there is a toll station to screw it all up again!” My blood pressure is starting to rise and like any good girlfriend I take MB along with me for the journey.

“Oui, I know! It is ridiculous (in MB phonetics: reed-deek-cue-los)! Why do they think this makes sense? There should be a pass so you can drive through; it is like the middle (meedle) ages!”

40 minutes later.

“Hey!” I scream this. “Is that guy serious? Um…no way, no way! Do NOT let him in!” We have finally inched our way within about 10 cars from the pay stop and now rogue drivers keep coming from the side and skipping the line.

“Pffff…are you joking? No way! These people (eye roll), we sit for one hour and they think they can just-”

“MOTHER F*CKER! Are you f*cking kidding me?!” The car in front of us lets the interloper in. MB falls on the horn, I flip the bird. It’s like Lord of the Flies, one person has disrupted the order of civilization by skipping the line and we both revert to being savages. I can practically see the smoke coming out of MB’s ears and I keep grabbing handfuls of my hair.

After about an hour and a half of torture, relief finally came in the form of a two lane (sometimes one lane) route that we found, past both the highway and the national highway. It is the scenic route that passes through Provence and the Rhone. Normal tones of voices returned and curse words dissipated as we got farther away from the crowds. We found a small café and had a cup of coffee; there were no other cars and the only other patrons were a group of older gentlemen drinking pastis and playing cards. The next 3 hours were spent driving by Roman ruins, vineyards, and through mountain passes; we chatted cheerily and continually congratulated ourselves on what a good decision we had made.

Strange that it took an escape from civilization to return us to behaving in a civilized fashion.