Cheeseburgers in Paradise

Adjusting to France

“Oh my god, it is so annoying!”  I say this to MB as we walk down the street.  “I mean, how does anything even stay in business?  It’s ridiculous!”

MB rolls his eyes.

“You complain about this every Sunday,” he says.

“Because it annoys me every Sunday!  I mean, look at this, what if we wanted to make cheeseburgers?  Not possible, no store to buy buns, or lettuce, or cheese…I mean, cheese for heaven’s sake!  We are in France, right?  I mean shouldn’t there be like a 24-hour cheese shop or something?”

MB tunes me out as I continue on my tirade.  It is one he has heard many times before.  Suddenly, he stops walking and clutches my arm.  I am still rambling.

“I mean, can you imagine?  Going to the 24-hour cheese shop at 3am after a night of drinking; that would be a great way to gain wei—what’s wrong?”

His grasp tightens.

“Are you okay?”  I follow his eyes; they are fixated on a building across the street.

“Those people are there, yes?”  He looks at my shocked face.  We lock eyes.

“They are there,” I say, stunned.

We turn back to look at the building and suddenly the clouds part and a beam of light comes shining down upon our neighborhood Casino Grocery Store.

That is open.

Past one pm.

On a Sunday.

We approach slowly, as you would a cool, pool of water in a desert; convinced that at any moment it might evaporate.  But no, it is real and in that moment, the world changes.

I remember whinging to my Mother about everything being closed on Sundays.

“It’s horrible!  It makes everything so crowded on Saturdays; when are you supposed to do your grocery shopping?”

My Mother had sighed, wistfully.  “It reminds me of when I was a little girl.  Nothing was ever open on Sundays.  It was kind of nice.”

I remember thinking she was crazy.  “Try it as an adult,” I had thought to myself.

But now, staring at the Casino Grocery, for the briefest of moments, I feel regret…as though something has been lost.

MB laughs, and it snaps me out of my reverie.

“HA!  Now what will you complain about?”  He looks at me with a smirk.

I give him a face but laugh anyway.

“Don’t you worry, buddy, I’ll find something!”

He puts his arm around me and kisses me on my forehead.

“I know you will, baby.”

“So, cheeseburgers?”  I ask, knowing there is ever only one answer to this question.

“OUAIS!”  MB responds before crossing the street.

For a moment I hang back and look at the grocery store.  “The end of an era,” I think.  And then, I cross the street.

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The France Fifteen

French Food

Apologies for being a bit late with this one…

Fall has arrived in the Rhône- Alpes.  There is a chill in the air; the mountains are changing from lush green to oranges and yellows.  Coats and scarves are being brought out of closets; and heaters are being turned on for the first time.  Now is the time when dinner tables begin to be adorned with tartiflette, raclette, and fondue (MB did manage to eat fondue twice in July).  It is the time to revel in the rich, heavy, delicious cuisine of the Savoyard region.  It is the time for…

What the F?

That can’t possibly be right.

I look down at the scale again, willing the numbers to change.  Quickly I do the math from kilos to pounds…sweet jesus.

Now is the time to go on a ridiculous Hollywood-style cleanse?

This first year in France reminds me of the first year in college when girls are destined to gain the dreaded “freshman fifteen”.  Everyone tells you it is going to happen and you nod along; but secretly you think, “not to me.”  Then the next thing you know you are zipping your jeans up with pliers and scared to squat because they might rip open.  Just like this, the “French fifteen” is a very real thing.  And now, just when things are getting cold and all I want to do is munch on fat-laden food, I find a scale.

For months now I have been skating by…knowing that I have gained weight but pretending that it is not as bad as I think it is in my head.  At first it was funny; I would stare down in the shower and think, “wow, that belly was not there before; it’s kind of cute!”  But the days of laughing at cheese babies have long gone and I have realized that it is time to get serious.

But how does one engage in un régime (diet) in the Rhône-Alpes in winter ?

I can see it now.  MB will come home to find me licking the wallpaper.

“What are you doing?” He will say.

“It’s delicious; you should have some!”   I will say this with a slur, as my tongue will not leave the wallpaper completely.

“Baby?”

I will turn back to look at him wild-eyed.  “The fondue!  It’s melting down the walls; don’t waste it!”

And then I would have to spend the rest of my life in an insane asylum (although I’m guessing that, in France, even in insane asylums they have good food).

In the meantime (pre-cheese hallucinations), I’m going to have to buckle down.  The tartiflette will have to wait; and raclette will be something I enjoy in the new year while I desperately attempt to shed some of my “France fifteen”.  So if you happen to be wandering through our region in the next couple of months and see a girl crying outside a fromagerie, you can safely assume that it is me.

The Translation of Cool

Learning French

“He brushed his lips to hers, a teaching, then a sinking, sinking until it was drowning deep.  His hands were on her, reminding her what it had been, confusing her with what is was now.

Strong, hard –“ *

I hear a beep and click my Ipod off.  The treadmill starts the cool down phase as I look around warily, wondering if anyone has suspected that I am listening to sexy romance novels while at the gym.  It is one of my secret shames that I absolutely adore these types of books and I’m always terrified that someone will somehow know that I am out in public listening to stories about “throbbing members”.

After the gym, I stop in at the Franprix grocery store to pick up something for dinner.  The same cashier who is always there and always wants to talk is at the register.  While he is a very congenial fellow, he sort of gets on my nerves; so I try to look as unapproachable as possible, ear buds in.

Him:  Bonjour!!!!!!

Me:  Bonjour.  (accompanied by a quick no-nonsense smile)

This conversation was entirely in French.

Him:  So, you are very serious this morning.

Me:  Yes, it is necessary for the gym.

What does that even mean?

Him:  Ah yes, I understand.

I guess he gets it.

I notice the old lady behind me in line soaking up every word of our conversation.

Him:  So, what music are you listening to?

Me:  Ah no, I am listening to a book, not music.

Him:  What book?

Slight pause.  Think, you fool, think!

Me:  Nora Roberts.

Epic choke.

The old lady behind me starts laughing.  A wave of embarrassed heat crosses my face.

Me:  I know it is not great literature!

I am feeling a desperate need to explain myself – suddenly, I’m the husband saying he just bought Playboy for the articles.

Him:  It is okay.

He catches the eye of the old lady behind me and winks.  I am the laughing stalk of the Franprix.

It is very hard to be cool in a foreign language.  Normally, in such a situation, I would have been able to come up with something brilliant:

Him:  What are you listening to?

I raise a hand for silence as I switch off my Ipod…oozing cool.

Me:  What was that?  (I smile condescendingly)

Him:  I was wondering what you are listening to.

Me:   Tolstoy, War and Peace…so powerful.

Him:  (just silence and respect)

This is how these conversations usually go…when I’m not frantically trying to figure out how to formulate a sentence in French.  However, I have found that my ability for blarney (and I kissed that creepy stone http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blarney_Stone) has been diminished entirely by my non-ability in French.  My brain is so busy scrambling around, searching for vocabulary while simultaneously trying to concentrate on what is being said that it can’t possibly take the time to worry about being cool!

The ramifications of this are substantial.  Usually, upon first meeting someone, I can fool them into thinking I’m cool for at least a month or so before my inner dork makes its appearance and they realize they’ve been duped.  But now, the curtain has been drawn; I am exposed:

“I LOVE NORA ROBERTS – WHILE FOMULAIC AND PREDICTABLE, I FIND HER BOOKS HUGELY SATISFYING!”

Ahhh!  Shame spiral.

So, be forewarned. While you might think it sounds like the epitome of cool to move to a foreign country, the truth of the matter is that ‘cool’ is the hardest thing to translate.

* Excerpt from Nora Roberts ‘Black Hills’

BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

French Food

By many, it is considered impossible to impress the French; I have, however, found a loophole.

During my most recent trip to le boucherie with MB, the butcher started chatting to me about being American.  Apparently, he had been a butcher in San Francisco for a stint (I’d love to know what that visa was).  After discussing the prerequisite things: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc.; he moved on to every Frenchman’s favorite topic…

“In America, you eat this?”  He said as he held up the groin of a pig.

As if he didn’t know.

“Not so much,” I responded.  “We are a bit precious about what we are willing to eat.”

He looked at me sadly.  “Oui.”

I think there is nothing that depresses a French person so much as someone who doesn’t enjoy good food.

Quickly, MB stepped in, “She eats everything though; she is very good.”

I looked at him with an amused expression.  Apparently, this was a point of honor for him.

“Ah, mais c’est bon!”  The butcher says, smiling at me.  “Pour vous, mademoiselle…”  He says as he cuts a healthy slice of a gelatinous, multi-colored terrine.  “I want to present this to you.”

“Merci beaucoup,”   I say without flinching.

“You know what this is?”  There is a devilish smile on his face.

“Oui,” I return, pleased that I could get this one right.  “ Fromage de tete!  I have already tried it before and I like it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_cheese)

The butcher grins from ear to ear; a look of happy approval spread across his face.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Upon my arrival in Paris, I ordered not one but two steak tartares on the first day.  At the restaurant of the second steak tartare, the waiter tried to get me to order something different.

“Does she know what it is?”  He asked MB.

“Of course, it is her favorite!”  He told the waiter.  “She already had one for lunch!”

I smiled up at the smug waiter sweetly…waiting for it.  Slowly his smug look was replaced with one of surprised appreciation.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Everyone knows that the French love their food but not everyone knows quite how excited they get about it.  MB still tells people about the first time we met and how I told him that cassoulet was one of my favorite dishes; this is what piqued his interest in me…an American girl who loved food (BAM! Frenchman impressed).  I remember him looking at me dreamily from across the table as I described how good a hot bowl of cassoulet is on a cold, wintery evening.  To this day, I don’t know whether it was me or the thought of cassoulet that put stars in his eyes.

On my first weekend to meet and visit his parents I know they must have been worried; what would this American girl be like?  Would she turn her nose up at stinky cheese?  What if she is a vegetarian?! * At the first dinner, I could feel the tremor of apprehension in the air as food was set on the table…will she eat it?  Foie gras, homemade pate, pickles from the garden…

I almost passed out from excitement.

I pleased them immensely by devouring, fully, everything that was set before me and having no problem accepting the ‘seconds’ that were offered.  They were ecstatic.  (BAM!  Frenchmen impressed!)

The French connection with food is spiritual, in the truest sense of the word.  It is an integral part of every man, woman, and child; it is an integral part of being French.  Now, you might be thinking that all over the world people get excited about, and love to share, their food.  And to that, I say, the French are just like the rest of the world, only more so.**

Therefore, it is possible to impress the French; not just possible but utterly satisfying…on a variety of levels.    So, go for it!  Don’t order the hamburger or the steak frites; try the fromage de tete, order the tartare.  You might discover something that you love that you never knew existed and hey, even if you can’t stand it at least you have the satisfaction of surprising a society that has perfected the art of being blasé.

BAM!

*I’m not sure that the French government would allow foreign vegetarians into the country, as for the natural born vegetarians…they are tolerated.

**subtle Casablanca reference for those of you in the know