The Girl in the Plastic Bubble

Learning French

“Foux da fa fa?”  Says one girl.*

“Feau de foux!  Foux da fa fa fa fa,” replies the boy she is talking to.

“Mais oui, a le feau de foux a fa fa.  Ceau le le le foux de fa fa fa.”

All of France has started to sound like a Flight of the Conchords song.

“Alors, foux da fa fa?”

“Baby?”  MB is looking at me questioningly.  I am bouncing my head slightly while singing internally.

“What?”  I look around startled and he nods his head toward the girl next to us.

“Oh!  Désolé,” I say to her, a bit embarrassed.  “Répéter s’il te plaît?”

“What is it that you do while you are in France?”  The girl replies to me in English.

I sigh.  I would have understood her question in French; I just wasn’t listening.

After six months in France, I have finally managed to perfect the ‘zone-out’.

Of course, when we first arrive to parties, there will be the obligatory conversations; just basic niceties that will last about ten minutes.  After the first half-hour of the party, however, fewer and fewer people are speaking to me so I just climb into my bubble.  It’s not a rude thing.  For them, it is frustrating to try to struggle through a slow conversation in basic French with the new girl (not exactly the recipe for a rockin’ time at a party).   And for me, it’s just as exhausting; all that concentration, trying to separate words only to understand the sentence thirty seconds too late and realize that the conversation has moved on.   In the past I would try to fake it, you know, nod when others nod or laugh when other laugh.  But eventually, that always ends up backfiring and you realize that you have just agreed that Stalin wasn’t all that bad and that actually the situation in Darfur is hilarious.  Talk about awkward.

Sometimes there will be children or teenagers at the party and that usually works out well.  They all speak perfect English and are usually pretty happy to practice with the ‘cool’ American (before the French hit adulthood, they still think we are cool).  They will sidle up to me at the table and give me that clear, quiet look of comprehension:  Yes, we understand; no one talks to us either. 

Therefore, until I perfect my French, I am relegated to my bubble or to the children’s table (not such a bad fate, the children’s table…beware, they pick up on everything).  So, if you speak to me and I seem to ignore you, don’t take it personally; I just don’t know what ‘foux da fa fa’ means!

*Credit where credit is due:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5hrUGFhsXo

Advertisements

Eclipse Totale Sur Mon Coeur

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences

Recently, I was out at a bar with France…

Me:  Oooh!  I love this song!

France:  What song?  (France looks around the bar casually, I suspect trying to find someone better to talk to)

Me:  You know this song – Bonnie Tyler?

France makes a blank face.

Me:  Every roller skating party for the entire 80s?

Nothing.  France simply pulls out a cigarette and lights it.

Me:  You know: ‘turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely and your never coming ’round!’ (I am singing passionately, complete with faux microphone)

France looks at me wide-eyed and chokes on a lungful of smoke.

France:  What air (are) you doing?  (France says this quietly, but in a panicked voice)

Me:  ‘turn around, every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears!’

France:  People are starting to look at you.

Me:  They can’t embarrass me!  (I continue singing)

France:  Pff…you embarrass yourself. (France pours a glass of wine, trying desperately to look relaxed)

I stick my tongue out at France.

France:  I hope you know that you look completely redeeculous (ridiculous).

Me:  Oh come on, just a little bar singing.  Live a little!

France:  Oh la la, you are tres Americain.

Me:  Word.  I know.  (I say this as I add some interpretive dance moves to my singing)

France:  What are all these people going to think of you?

Me:  That I’m super fun?

France rolls its eyes.

France:  What are all these people going to think of me?  This is not the kind of reputation I have.  I am very serious and cool.  When I go to bars I talk about world politics, global warming…Proust.

Me:  Oh.  Is that fun?

France:  What?  (France looks confused by the question)

France:  Fun is not the point; you Americans and your obsession with fun!  This is your problem!

France is getting irritated now and furiously stubs out one cigarette only to light another.

France:  Always singing and dancing…with your stoopeed (stupid) television shows and all your stoopeed hollywood movies...’oh, what do you think will happen?’  I think they will all have some implausibly happy ending that makes no sense and is not representative of the true reality of life!  Pfff…fun.

Me:  Oh puh-leeeeeeese!  At least if we make up implausible endings they are happy, instead of ridiculous French movies that make up ways to be depressing for no reason whatsoever – you saw the ending to Les Petits Mouchoirs!  I mean, they all gave eulogies, REALLY?  Unecessary, France!

France:  You’re unnecessary.

Me:  No, you are.

France:  I hate you.

Me:  I hate you more.

France is fuming (literally, cigarette in hand) and refuses to look at me.

I start to feel bad.

Me:  ‘Turn around, every now and then I know there’s no one in the universe as magical and wondrous as you.’

France sniffs and turns further away.

Me:  ‘Turn around, every now and then I know there’s nothing any better, there’s nothing that I just wouldn’t do…’  Oh come on, you can’t stay mad all night!

France:  Ah non?  (France takes a drag off the cigarette and blows it in my face)

Me:  Look, we’re different, it doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.

France is quiet for a minute.

France:  ‘your love is like a shadow on me all of the time’  (France sings this so softly that it is almost imperceptible)

Me:  You probably could have picked a nicer line of the song.

France:  Tres typique!  What do you want, uh?  You ask me to sing; I sing and now you complain.  Pff…maybe you are a bit French.

A momentary look of mischievousness flashes over France’s face before returning to looking bored and slightly peeved.

I look at France suspiciously but with a smile.

Me:  You know, (I say this with my best Humphrey Bogart voice)

Me:  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

France rolls its eyes again and puts its head in its hands.

France:  Oh, mon dieu.

Genetics and Aperitif

Adjusting to France

“What are you doing ?’  MB has walked into the kitchen to find me scarfing down a bowl of pasta.

“What do you mean?  I’m eating,” I say as I shove another forkful into my mouth.

“Ouais…” he looks at me oddly.  “We are about to go to a dinner party.”

“I know.”

“So, why you are eating?”  MB looks thoroughly confused.

“Because I’m not French.”

I have decided that the French have a special gene that the rest of us (well, maybe Italians) don’t have; something akin to a wooden leg, something that allows them to consume copious amounts of wine without the slightest effect on their behavior.  While my French companions can blithely drink three or four glasses of wine on an empty stomach with no effect; I find myself clutching the table for support and hoping desperately that I can pull it together before dinner. 

Now normally, at a restaurant per se, you would just have one aperitif (often champagne) before the meal; however, it has been my experience that at dinner parties this rule is somewhat…flexible.  It would not surprise me to go to someone’s house for dinner and perhaps have wine for two hours before actually sitting down to eat.  Oh, but don’t worry, it is usually accompanied by something really substantive…like olives.  At one of the first dinner parties we hosted, I learned the dangers of beginning the evening in France with an empty stomach.  I will sum it up by saying at the end of the night I may have fallen off a chair, I definitely started a country music dance party, and I picked a ridiculous fight with MB a la “overly emotional teenage girl at prom”; there was crying.  The following 24 hours was spent nursing both a hangover and my ego. 

So what is a girl to do?  I can’t go into a dinner party and shovel all the olives into my mouth.  I can just imagine it…

“THE AMERICAN IS HERE!  Everybody run!!!!!!!!!!”  Accompanied by screaming, terrified French people pulling their children out of my way.

Nor can I realistically decline the offer of an aperitif.  1) Because I really like wine. 2) It would be considered quite an odd thing to do.

“This girl, she does not want the wine.”

“Quoi!  C’est bizarre!”

“Ouais, mais elle est Americaine…”

So, I eat snacks.  It may not be the perfect solution but until I figure out how to change my genetic coding, it’s the only one I’ve got!

Fromage Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

French Food

The French attitude towards cheese is sort of like the porn industry’s attitude towards sex…no matter how bizarre your tastes are; someone out there is making something for you.

“Oh dear god, this is ridiculous.  MB – please, seriously!”  I have just opened our refrigerator and the smell of cheese has become completely over-whelming.  I am assaulted, almost knocked backwards by the pungent odour.    

“Quoi?”  He replies, as he wanders into the kitchen, unbothered.

“Are you really going to tell me you can’t smell this?”  I say, one hand on the refrigerator door and the other on my hip. 

“Ouais!!!  It smells amazing!”  I can practically see his tongue start to salivate. 

“Okay, I know, honey, but there is cheese from four months ago in there.”

“Ah oui?  Which ones?  They are probably perfect now!”

I can see my point is not getting across. 

“Okay, sweetie”, I say in my nicest voice, the same voice I would use if I were trying to coax a rabid dog away from a bone.  “The cheese is taking up about two-thirds of the fridge.”

“Ouais…”  He replies, nervously.

“We don’t have room for other groceries.”

He remains unphased, apparently a diet consisting entirely of cheese would be completely acceptable for him.

“I really need you to go through all this stuff and figure out which ones we are going to keep and which ones we are going to get rid of…please!” 

He looks like he’s been shot, and suddenly I feel no better than the Nazi officer in Sophie’s Choice.       

He gives me a sullen look, and then slowly begins to pull the cheese out of the refrigerator (it ends up covering the entire counter).  Gingerly, he opens each paper to see what treasure lies within.  There is brie from the market, the over-powering goat cheese that we bought from the farm in the mountains, the St. Felician that is almost completely liquid, the hard, soft, sweet, and bitter blues. The variety of mold is stunning.  I remember a cheese he once gave me that apparently had tiny little maggots in the surface which made it appear as though it were moving, ever so slightly.  Silently, I pray that we haven’t let that remain in the fridge for two months. 

He pulls out one huge round of what was once cheese and is now primarily a science experiment.

“Ah, okay, maybe this one we can get rid of,” he says, looking up at me. 

I stand stock-still and say nothing, not wanting to frighten away this inclination.

“No, what?  Am I crezee (crazy)?”  He looks relieved, as though he has just missed an incredibly close call with death.  “We can use this to make something great!  Maybe tartiflette!”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartiflette)

I think about this for a minute.  I mean, I really do like tartiflette.  Maybe we should go on and keep this cheese but others definitely have to go.

He continues on to the next one.  The mold is so thick I can’t even see the cheese underneath. 

“Oh MB, seriously, this ones gotta go!”

He cuts off one thick side to reveal the clean part of the cheese, and holds it up to my nose.  I almost pass out from the intensity of the smell…at the same time; my mouth starts to water a bit.  Damn you, tastebuds, you traitors!

“Perhaps in a fondue?”  MB looks at me and smiles.  He can sense my weakening resolve.

As we move through the cheese on the counter, a scraping of mold here, and a little trimming there creates the appropriate excuses to keep all the cheese.  One by one, they all end up returning to the refrigerator, only better organized. 

Finally, we come to the last ones.   He finds two little rounds of hard goat cheese (MB’s favorite), they are stuck together, one on top of the other, glued by a layer of dense, black, gooey-looking fungus.     He pulls them apart, and removes the offending fungus, then attempts to plunge a knife into the middle of one of them.  The knife nearly breaks in the process.  He pulls out a sharper knife and through great struggles, finally penetrates the cheese.  He pops a piece into his mouth and I hear a ‘crack’.

“Woah!”  He sticks a finger in his mouth. 

“What?  Is everything okay?  Oh my god, did you chip your tooth?”

“No, ca va.  I thought for a minute, I had though!” 

“Okay, so this one we can get rid of then?”

“Mais no…it is perfect, you want a piece?”

I look at him like he is crazy.  This man wants me to eat something that he almost cracked a tooth on. 

“Well, maybe just a little one.”

They eat horses, don’t they?

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences, French Food

Watch this clip from The Neverending Storyhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y688upqmRXo.

This is what went through my mind shortly after my first experience eating horse meat.  We had just bought if from the chevaline (horse butcher), and we came home and ate it as a tartare…and god forgive me, it was delicious.  Every bite was riddled with the flavor of forbidden fruit; I could hear the angels weeping as I gobbled it down, yet still, I couldn’t stop myself.  What would Atreyu have thought of me?  He never would have fished Artax out of the swamp of sadness only to eat him.  But then, The Neverending Story wasn’t a French film. 

I remember when I first found out that they eat horse meat in France.

“What, are you serious?”  I looked at MB incredulously.  We were still living in Australia…a country where this idea would be absurd (why would you eat a horse when there are kangaroos?).

“Ouais…c’est normal,” he responded nonchalantly, as we strolled through the grocery store. 

“No,” I said.  “No, it is not normal!  How is that even legal?  They are horses!”

He didn’t react.

Horses,” I repeated, as though perhaps this emphasis would make The Yearling all of a sudden flash into his mind. 

“Quoi?” 

This was the end of the conversation.

In France, Seabiscuit wouldn’t have been Horse of the Year; he would have been dinner.

Coming to terms with this was, at first, shocking to me.  In the United States, it is illegal to sell horse meat in most states; in the U.K. it is legal but basically no one sells it.  Eating horse had just never previously occurred to me.  Sure, I knew that in ancient times the Mongolians would throw horse meat under their saddle to tenderize it before eating it tartare style (which must have had an interesting raw-hide, sweaty essence to it); but that was in the olden days right?  Not so much.  Horses are eaten in lots of countries, all over the world; and really, how could one expect the French not to eat something that is edible?  They have practically made a national pastime of frightening Anglos with their various “delicacies”.  Why would horse be any different?  Why should horse be any different?  I mean, what is it that makes this animal less appetizing than a friendly cow or a cute little lamb? 

And so it began…the rationalization that allowed me, the girl who cried when Boxer was sent to the glue factory in Animal Farm, to commit my horsey betrayal.

I have now eaten horse on two occasions. 

I mean, it does make for the best tartare on earth, being both rich in flavor and essentially devoid of fat.  Anyway, I have nothing to be ashamed of; lots of people do it.  Stop judging me!  Whatever, I don’t care; I know its okay.  I’m fine with it; I don’t feel guilty…at all.  So what if I haven’t been able to look a horse in the eye since?  That doesn’t mean anything!