Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Cultural Differences, French Food

“What tha…why is there a potato on that tombstone,” I turn, looking at MB questioningly.  We are on a tour of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

“Quoi,” he asks, looking towards the grave, apparently he doesn’t know why either.

“Ah,” our tour guide walks over and joins us, bringing the rest of the group.  “This is the grave of Parmentier, the man who introduced potatoes into French cuisine.”

As always, I am amazed at thinking about how much cuisine changed after the discovery of the Americas (I still have trouble handling the idea of Italian food without tomatoes).

“In Parmentier’s time,” he continues, “the late 18th century, it was thought in France that the potato was poisonous to humans and it was used solely for feeding livestock.  However, after a stint in a Prussian prison, Parmentier came to realize that it was not poisonous and became determined to bring the potato to French tables.”

“Was that difficult,” I am incredulous.  I mean, at this point in time, the Irish were eating them, the (P)Russians* (clearly) were eating them, the Americans were eating them…what was there to prove?  They obviously were not poisonous to human beings.

The tour guide looks at me like I understand nothing.  “Of course,” he says.

“But why,” I press on, “if so many people in other countries were already eating them?”

He chooses to ignore this question and instead turns to address the entire group.  “Actually, it is a very good story.  Apparently,” he says, walking over and placing his hand on the grave.  “He met with such opposition that he had to manufacture a trap to get people to change their minds.”

I look over at MB, “a trap,” I mouth the words to him as dramatically as possible.

“He set guards up at his storage facilities but allowed them to accept bribes for the potatoes, hefty bribes.  Then, at night, he would send the guards home so that people could steal them.”

I burst out laughing and the guide gives me a stern look, then turns and leads our tour towards another tomb.

***

This story, to me, is so quintessentially French, stubbornness mixed with the inherent desire to break rules.   I can just imagine the conversations of people over the potato:

“But non, it is disgusting, it will kill you. It is for the pigs, not for us,” one man says, looking at this friend.

“OH really,” his friend responds.  “I just had some the other night and they were delicious, a revelation, really.”  He shrugs and takes a sip of his wine nonchalantly as though it were no big deal.

“QUOI,” the first man exclaims.  “How is it that you tried them?  They are not for sale,” the health hazards are suddenly no longer the priority.

His friend leans in across the table, conspiratorially.  “I bribed a guard,” he sits back in his chair, satisfied, for no Frenchman can resist pulling one over on “the man.”

“Non!”

“Oui!”

“Non!”

“OUI!”

“Ben bah, we must do it again tonight – I must try these potatoes!”

The French are a people who have been heavily stereotyped.

There are books, articles, heaps of Mark Twain quotes (that dude did not like the French) which all discuss the subject.  One stereotype that is often brought up is their irritability towards change (…stubbornness, I was trying to make it sound nice).  And I suppose there is some truth to it, they do, indeed, like a lot of things to remain the same (Sundays) and are happy to protest change vehemently…especially when the weather is nice.  I mean, heck, even the French Bulldog (quite possibly one of the cutest dogs of all time) is considered by breeders to be a particularly stubborn breed – that’s right, even their dog is stubborn. But is it really an inherently French thing or is it just an inherently human thing?  Are they really any more stubborn or change-resistant than the rest of us?

I mean, what American over thirty doesn’t remember the “New Coke” debacle?  I’m pretty sure even Parmentier’s trick wouldn’t have changed our minds about that wretched marketing failure.  There are few of us that run screaming with excitement towards the unknown…towards big changes, the French are no exception but also, I’m not convinced they are the rule.  Just like everywhere else change is accepted slowly here, over time, as people become acquainted with it.

So, in reality, the French really aren’t any more stubborn than the rest of us.

***

MB and I hurry and catch up with our group.  As we approach the guide he is in a conversation with one of the French tourists.

“But Monsieur,” says the French man to our guide.  “Actually, the toxicity of the potato has been proved by multiple research and… well, so, in fact, the French were correct to ban it, the potato is poisonous!”

MB and I turn back to each other and exchange a look of bemusement.

***

…Okay, so maybe just little a bit.

* For those of you unfamiliar with Prussia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussia

 

 

 

 

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Repost: In Remembrance

In Remembrance

This is a repost of a previous Veteran’s Day blog.

I am three years old.  We are careening around a twisty, two-laned mountain highway in eastern Tennessee.  My Mother is white-knuckling the arm rest and looking at her two little girls in the backseat.  “Why did I let my grandfather drive, “she thinks to herself. 

It was an unusual family trip, just the girls up to visit Grampy in the mountains.  Daddy had stayed home to work and we were off on an adventure.  Every visit with Grampy was an adventure.

“What’s that mean?”  I ask, pointing at a sign on the side of the road.

My sister and Mother are still clinging to the car for dear life, I am having a great time.

“Oh, it’s a sad story,” says Grampy, as he takes a hair-pin turn at 45mph.

“What happened?”

“Well, there was a big, important Indian chief named White Eagle.  He was very famous and very brave and everyone respected him very much.”  He turned around to make sure I was listening.  “He had a son who was also a brave warrior and they were very happy.  One day, White Eagle and his son got into a big fight and his son ran away and has never come home.  But White Eagle will never give up looking so that is why he puts the signs up everywhere around the mountains so that we can all help him look for his son, Falling Rock.  Are you going to make sure you keep an eye out?”

“Yes sir!”

‘WATCH FOR FALLING ROCK’   We pass another yellow, triangular sign.

“There’s another one!”  I kept my eyes peeled for Falling Rock the rest of the journey.

My Great-Grandfather had been in France during WWI.  He had fought in the trenches and saw many warriors who were lost, never to be found again.

On this day in 1918, we can only imagine what must have been going through his mind as he woke up, packed, and began marching back to the trenches to relief the last group of men.  He must have felt a sense of dread or maybe just a feeling of acceptance, we’ll never know.  Somewhere along the way, somewhere in the road, they heard the news, the unimaginable had happened.  A cease-fire was called, it was over.  It was over.

It wasn’t even noon.

My Great-Grandfather lived a long and full life, full of hard-work and happiness.  He worked for Congress in Washington, DC and was at Arlington Cemetery for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  My Grandmother, only a little girl at the time, stood next to him and held his hand as they sang “My Buddy.”

It is easy to forget the men who sacrificed so much and managed to be brave in such a scary time.  Many of them came home.  But many of them are buried here in France, in unmarked patches of earth, tombs that we will never know are there.

So today, I would like to remind you all to continue to keep an eye out for Falling Rock and other lost warriors.  They are still missed and remembered.

 

When You Have Paris

Holidays in France, Life in General, Living Abroad, Travel in France

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There are some cities that work on you like a potion (I was going to say like drugs but potion sounds so much prettier – even Lewis Carroll knew that).  I find my energy and attitude changes depending on these types of towns.  In New York, my god, I can’t help it I just feel COOL.  All the time, the whole time, no matter how un-cool what I am doing is…like riding the elevator to the top of the Empire State building…the city just infuses me with a sense of coolness.  In New Orleans, I feel zany, almost child-like, always ready to have a party, someone who doesn’t just stop to smell the roses but stops, smells them and then buys them a drink (who knew roses were so boozy?).  Wellington, NZ makes me feel like a hip adventurer: “Go swimming in Orca infested waters that are near arctic temperatures, you say?   Pfff…that’s just a Tuesday.”  In Sydney, I feel sophisticated and laid-back all at once…and for some reason, more attractive – must be something to do with being surrounded by surfers.  The point is, all these cities have big personalities, the type of personalities that can impart themselves upon you when you visit and bring out some inner part of your being, they affect you when you are there walking the streets and taking in the views.  They can shift your perspective and, in turn, your sense of self.

There is something quite delicious and exciting about this shift that occurs when you travel and I think it is a reason that we gravitate towards, and love, certain cities – it isn’t necessarily for the cities themselves but, instead, what happens to us when we are in them.

I remember, very distinctly, the first time I was in Paris alone.

MB and I were there for a long weekend and he went in to work that morning.  I, a new resident of France and of speaking French, got myself up and put myself together…more carefully put together than usual because Paris can do that to you, make you feel as though you should dress for her.  I slowly made my way down the stairs of our hotel and out into the crisp autumn air, my map carefully concealed, for whoever wants to be a tourist?

I turned right and then left, unsure of which way was best to make my way down the Seine towards the Louvre.  Unwilling to consult the dreaded carte, I turned left and soon realized that it made scant difference which direction I went as I could always cross over at some ridiculously gorgeous bridge or other in order to turn around.  I pulled my iPod out of my purse and switched it on, strolling slowly as Billie Holiday crooned in my ear.  Occasionally, I would stop and look at the posters and books displayed on the green stalls lining the sidewalk, sometimes I paused to lean onto the concrete barrier and take in a view…blue sky mixed with some piece of a man’s soul that had been carved into a thing so beautiful that it made my heart hurt.  At one point, I popped into a café and had a tea, sitting in my chair facing the street…allowing myself a moment to be an observer, no longer a participant, of the world.

It all felt desperately romantic.  And I, more romantic for being there.  I found myself reminiscing about things I hadn’t thought about in years, happy things, sad things, sweet moments of my life that tend to remain forgotten and dormant under layers of practicality and daily doings.  I felt as though my soul was sighing contentedly…I wasn’t stopping to smell the roses, I was the roses.

Later that evening, I met with MB and we sat at a café and shared a bottle of wine.

“How was your day,” he asked.  “I hope it was okay on your own.”

I took a sip of wine, wondering how to explain what I had felt like that afternoon.  “It was fine,” I say, pausing, searching for more words.  I find that none will come so I say the only thing I can think of.

“It was Paris.”

I love this little movie; it fully realizes my Paris.  If you would like to see more of these lovely films check out: http://oliveus.tv/   They are all deliciously charming!