Hollow in the Middle

Adjusting to France, French Wine, Life in General

We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”                                                                                                       -Eduardo Galeano

I’m still not exactly sure what possessed me to say yes.

I mean, a wine jury? Sure, I drink a lot of wine and I have some ideas about what varietals I like the most (White Burgundy – HOLLA!) but that is about as far as my expertise goes. What do I know about length and legs and subtleness (I feel like there’s a joke in here somewhere)? The being said, our regional district here in Grenoble asked me to join their yearly wine jury and it seemed like the type of thing that you just don’t say “no” to. Sort of like if a doctor’s office called to offer you a free colonoscopy, you would at least consider it, wouldn’t you? It was as a result of this type of thinking that I found myself walking into an old Abbey on the outskirts of town without a clue what I was supposed to do or what would be expected of me. I mean, I just show up and drink some wine, right…right???

This felt like the very-much-awake version of the naked-in-front-of-the-classroom dream; the atmosphere was akin to the first day of school and I was the new kid, maybe from a Ranch in West Texas, showing up at an inner city school in New York City…okay…maybe that is a stretch, let me simplify this: I did not fit in. Closed groups were chatting in various corners, clearly not interested in making friends or even welcoming a newcomer, and there wasn’t even a table for check-in, presumably because everyone else here already knew each other and what they were supposed to do. Me, on the other hand, not so much.

So, being the intrepid and confident person that I am, I went with my only option, to stand awkwardly in the middle of the room, fiddling with my purse and checking my phone, doing my best to give the pretense of being busy.

Um…I’m not sweating with nerves and anxiety, I swear…why did I wear grey? Worst sweat color ever.

“Bonjour, c’est vous?” Finally, a man approached me, holding up a list and pointing to a name.

“Oui,” I smiled at him with creepy desperation warmly while sending “talk to me” vibes.

“Bon. Merci.” He was looking back down at the list, apparently not picking up on my vibes. “This will be your table,” he said, pointing to the end of the room. “I will be sitting there to help you if you need it.” Then, to my monumental dismay, off he went to talk to the others.

UGH. They already have friends, talk to me! Damn silent pleas for help, not too effective, really.

I sighed. I mean, it was what it was. I had been nervous about agreeing to come to this thing when they first emailed me but my brain had been all: get outside of your comfort zone, this is a once in a lifetime experience to sit on a wine jury in France, don’t be afraid of adventure, you used to be fearless! Stupidly, I listened to it, thinking I should break out of my routine, challenge myself: to be comfortable is to be dead, I told myself…or some such nonsense like that. Clearly, I should pay more attention to those NPR articles I read about the brain not being fully developed until you’re like 35…dumb, immature brain…you know nothing!

Now, here I was, in a room full of unfriendly strangers, feeling foolish, and uncomfortable, and defeated. My attempts at eye contact ignored, and my usual conversational tricks useless…falling flat against the barricade of Frenchness and oneness.

I was “other.”

***

“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”                                                                                                                        -Aristophanes

“Son, does your wife know that you are out with these two foxy ladies?!”

The voice is booming, taking ownership of the room, as does the man accompanying it (who, incidentally, does own the room). Tall, large, with a white beard and a round belly, to my 5 year old self he is like some bizarre Southern Italian-American Santa Claus: bragging, brash, and utterly charming. My sister and I look at each other and smile as my Father steps fully into the restaurant entry hall to greet the man.

“I believe she’d be alright with it, Big John,” my Father says, grinning, one hand on each of our heads to keep us in place.

Big John then leans down in front of us, taking a moment to shake our hands, making us feel special and important…because Big John made everyone feel special and important.

“It’s strange,” he says, a glint of mischief in his eye. “I just – I, well,” he says, scratching his head. “I just thought I noticed something behind your ears, it seems weird. Do you clean behind your ears?”

“Yes sir,” we reply like little soldiers.

“Well, I just don’t know about that,” he says, reaching his two massive hands down behind our heads. “Because look what I found?”

Naturally, because it was always the same, he pulled out two pieces of bubble gum. BUBBLE GUM! This was a rare treat in our childhoods, my Mother favoring carob covered raisins for desserts, not so much candy (yeah, try making trades in the lunchroom with those*).

“What do you say, girls?”

“Thank you!” We trill, pleased as punch with our booty.

“Don’t thank me,” Big John says. “I just found them!”

Then his arm encircles my Father as he walks us to our table and the two of them discuss important matters…wine.

To say that Big John liked wine would be like saying that Albert Einstein enjoyed science…an understatement, at best. Big John was an enthusiast of grape nectar at a time when most Americans were still stuck on liquor and beer. Wine was a passion for him and he was an internationally heralded collector. Twice he broke the world record for buying the most expensive bottles of wine,** and the cellar at his restaurant boasted numbers in the thousands (not to mention a myriad of awards from across the globe). To a child, going into this subterranean world was like entering some other dimension, like something out of a creepy fairy tale, it was huge and cavernous, a little cold and a little dark, in every corner there were rows and rows of bottles, like eyes watching your every move…and perhaps they were, because who can deny the aliveness of wine?

Later, we would move back upstairs and sit at our table, my sister and I excited to have a big-girls night out with Daddy. I would eat my ravioli or spaghetti (really anything with their meat sauce…Memphis people you know of what I speak) and my Father would drink something fabulous…content with the world.

Ten years later, the world would lose Big John and everything would seem just a little bit dimmer, the way it does when a larger-than-life person exits your life. The restaurant would follow not long after. The menu from my Parents’ last dinner with him at the restaurant still hangs in my Father’s wine cellar…a talisman to ward off bad wine?

My Mother says that Big John was an “evangelist” for wine, that he “had found something that increased his joy in life and wanted to share it with others.”

He wanted to share wine.

He wanted to share joy.

Wine is joy, joy is wine.

***

“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.”                                                                                                                                                                   –Thomas Aquinas

The day progressed in the same vein with which it had started. I sat at my table, surrounded by lauded restauranteurs and experienced sommeliers, wondering how I had landed there, knowing that they must have been wondering the same thing. Why had I agreed to come?

Then, magically, the greatest thing happened.

There was a bad wine.

I mean, a really bad wine. The format of our jury was that we would all taste and take notes silently, then compare and discuss. I looked around, wild-eyed, when the leader pointed at me to go first.

Oh god, how on earth can I explain this? What if they all loved it and it just confirms that I have an imbecilic palate and am an imposter?

I took a breath and then shrugged, wrinkling my nose and giving a sheepish chuckle.

“I think it smells like cheese. Maybe I’m crazy, but…”

“OUI! Exactement, c’est fromage! C’est fromage!” The owner of, arguably, the best restaurant in Grenoble was agreeing with me…and laughing as well. Then, suddenly, the whole table was cracking up, smelling the wine…the horrible, disgusting, cheese wine.

A surge of gratefulness for this terrible bottle flowed through me, and I thanked the wine gods.

Then, for some reason, Big John popped into my mind.

Our table ended up awarding a Bronze medal to one of our wines that day, and it still feels pretty cool, knowing that there is a wine out there with a bronze medal on it that I helped to award. Still, I left early that day, just after the voting was done and before the lunch was served. The solidarity the wine had given us at the table seemed to dissipate once we stood up, and I, again, felt myself looking through the window, unable to push through.

“How was it?” MB asked through the cell phone as I walked to the bus stop.

“It was AWFUL,” I told him, feeling whiny and pitiful.

“Really?”

“Well, not entirely. It was just super awkward but I guess I’m glad I did it. If nothing else, it will make for a funny story later.”

Wine is joy, joy is wine.

I sat on the bus bench, going over the morning’s events, shaking my head, content to laugh a bit about it now. Then my mind returned to Big John. How funny that I had thought of him today, I probably hadn’t thought of him in years. Maybe there are some memories that are like little jewels that we keep locked away, only to look at when times are tough and we need to see something beautiful.

…Or maybe Big John is a wine god. I only wonder that the wine smelled of cheese and not bubble gum.

* Yes Mom, I’m super happy that you made me eat healthy, I’m very grateful for it now, just not when I wanted a Dorito and all I had was organic sea salt chips in exchange.

** Those two bottles he then auctioned off to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. To know more about the boundless generosity of this man, you can read his memorial here: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=79955000

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Caveman Foodies

Adjusting to France, French Food

I remember going to a French restaurant once, back when I was living in D.C. This place was pretty fancy and all the staff was actually French, so when I ordered my steak “rare” the friends I was with spoke up.

“Oh, you don’t want to do that here,” they told me. “If you get it ‘rare’ here then it will be fully raw in the middle. You should ask for ‘medium’ and that will be like a normal ‘rare.’”

“What?” I asked. “No, I’m pretty sure I want it ‘rare.’”

The waiter smiled, silently waiting for confirmation from me. I nodded up towards him, “rare,” I said again. My friends went on to order their steaks, both “medium-well.”

“You know,” I say to them, after they ordered. “When you ask for it prepared like that, they give you the worst cut of meat in the kitchen.”

They rolled their eyes at me.

“Whatever, Vampira,” my friend had said. “Just, don’t complain to us when yours comes out bloody.”

I definitely did not. When that filet mignon (this is filet de boeuf for les Francais) came and I cut into it and the middle was blue and cold, I couldn’t have been happier. My friends looked at it and shook their heads, ready to give me the “I told you so speech” but it was too late, I had already taken a huge bite.

“OH my god,” they said. “You are so gross, it isn’t even cooked.”

“I know,” I said, delighted. “It’s perfect!”

For years, I had been struggling to fully explain that when I say “rare” I mean “rare” – as in, wave a flame towards its general direction and then bring that sucker to me. Unfortunately, no one in the U.S. seemed to believe me (even my Father will argue this point with me…”you don’t want it that ‘rare,’” he’ll tell me as I ask him to pull my steak off the grill after 15 seconds…yeah Dad, I TOTES do).

The thing is, that essentially, I think it is a pity to cook meat at all, really; my friend was right, I am a bit of a Vampira and like my meat to just about talk to me. Luckily, my raw meat fixation seems to be something that France and I agree on. There is a plethora of raw meat options here, ranging from tartars to saucisson…you can even double your raw pleasure by adding raw eggs.

In the United States, it seems like the raw meat trend has just started taking off in recent years, due to the (super-awesome-I’m-so-excited-about-it) Foodie Revolution. When I was growing up, and even when I was at University, people were just not ingesting much raw meat. In fact, the only time in my U.S. life when I regularly ate it was at home. My Mother would pinch off a piece of ground beef*, salt it lightly and then hand it to us to eat. This was something that her Mother had done when she was little and, to me, it seemed perfectly normal, once I got older I realized it definitely wasn’t.

“Oh my god,” my friends would shriek. “What did you just do? Did you just eat a piece of raw ground beef? You. Are. Going. To. Die.”

It was always said very matter-of-factly. Raw meat = death. I mean, OBVI.

However, after a few more times of me doing this and, well…not-dying, my friends started to become curious and soon started trying it themselves (in fact, there is one friend who got obsessed and became as bad as me…you know who you are).

I pretty much think this is how a lot of the food we eat came about. Some dude would look at an artichoke or walnut and think, “I’m gonna eat that thing” and then everyone else would wait around to see whether or not it killed him. I even imagine, Cavemen foodies…something like this:

Two Cavemen enter an already crowded cave.

Caveman 1: Oh my, must we stay? It is so crowded.

Caveman 2: That is because it is the best. They do an amazing “hunk o’ meat over fire.”

Caveman 1 sighs.

Caveman 1: I still like mine raw, that’s all I’m saying.

Caveman 2: Oh come off it! We’ve finally gotten fire, we might as well use it! Live a little, old sport.

They sit down in an obliging corner and wait for their server.

Caveman 1: My goodness, they’re very bold, aren’t they?

He is looking at a group squatting next to them, eating mixed berries just as the Server arrives.

Caveman Server: Ah yes, a discerning eye you have, that is our “mass of mixed berries” that is new on the menu tonight.

Caveman 1: Isn’t that a little risky? I mean, shouldn’t they all be “checked.”

Caveman Server: Sir, I assure you, that everything in our establishment passes “the death test.” However…

He leans down and lowers his voice.

Caveman Server: If something a bit more “exotic” interests you, we have come across some new items that we are trying out this evening…something called a “rutabaga?”

Caveman 2: Are you saying you can get me stuff that hasn’t passed the “death test” yet?

The Caveman Server winks surreptitiously.

Caveman 2: Pally, come on, we gotta do it, please!

Caveman 1: No way! I only jive with “death test” approved cuisine.

Caveman 2: Oh, how you bore me. You have no appreciation for food, it is utterly wasted on you.

Caveman 1: That is not what you said when I took down a Mammoth 3 days ago.

Caveman 2: And then ate it raw, like some philistine!

Caveman 1: What is a philistine?

Caveman 2: I don’t know, they don’t exist yet but it is, most certainly, what you are.

Caveman 2 sighs and turns towards the Server with a knowing look that says, “Some people, you can’t take anywhere.” The Server smiles back.

Caveman Server: And what will Sirs be having?

Caveman 1: I would like the hunk ‘o meat…raw, please.

Caveman Server: The Chef does recommend this particular cut “a feu,” if you will.

Caveman 1: Thank you, but no. I like my meat the old fashioned way, raw, the way we were meant to eat it.

Caveman 2 rolls his eyes and then orders before turning back to his friend.

Caveman 2: You know, when you order it prepared like that they give you the worst cut in the kitchen.

 

* I am not recommending this practice with bargain basement, meat on sale. If you are going to eat raw meat, you should either grind it yourself at home or watch the butcher freshly grind it.

 

Top 7 Moments in France (and shameless self-promotion)

Adjusting to France

Hello all!

Just a quickie to ask for your help.  I’ve entered the Expat Blog Awards with a post entitled “Top 7 Moments in France.”  It is a new post that has never been published here and I would be thrilled if you would pop over to their site and check it out.  If you feel so inclined, leave a comment and that will go towards helping me win the contest (the post with the most comments wins).  Comments must be over 10 words to count towards the award (yeah…they won’t let me get away with “nice job”…cheeky) and they will ask you to verify email to make sure you aren’t a robot.

I would so appreciate any help and hope you will enjoy the post!

Cheers!!!

My Dirty Little Secret

Adjusting to France, Life in General, Living Abroad

“I HATE EVERYTHING – nothing is ever just easy,” I am stomping around the house in full tempter-tantrum – Scarlett-style.

MB looks at me silently with no reaction (he has learned to let me just wear myself out…much like one might do with a 3 year old).

He sighs as I continue to slam around being disagreeable.  Could I be enjoying this?!  NO!  Of course not…

“I went to Picard…NOTHING.  Then I tried the Petit Casino – you know, the one that always has them and they didn’t have anything either,” I wail.

“Well,” he says tentatively.  “Maybe at Carrefour?”

“NO,” I say loudly, for some reason feeling satisfied to crush his possible solution.  “I have never seen them there, they don’t carry them at all*!”

MB looks at me, “I could call the stores,” he suggests.

“I guess,” I say, sulkily.  “I don’t know what good it will do, even if we find them we will have to take a tram to go and get them.”  I’m not ready to be mollified yet.  “GAWD!  I just wanted to make crawfish etouffee – I bought all the other ingredients and stupidly took for granted that I would be able to find the crawfish at the stores.”  I’m ranting again and flailing about with drama.  “But NOOOOOOOOOO…I mean, why would a store stock the same merchandise every time?  That would be too easy and convenient for the customers and your country HATES easy and convenient!”

MB retreats into the bedroom with the telephone to call the stores and I am left feeling…meeeeeeeeeeeh…a little ashamed of myself.  I don’t mean to pull out the “country card” but it is certainly the quickest thing to revert to when I’m feeling frustrated.  These are not proud moments

***

“My, my,” My Mother says into the phone.  “You are really living the life, aren’t you?”

I have just finished telling her about our weekend jaunt over to Munich.  There was all-you-can-eat schnitzel and fairy castles, what more could a person ask for?

“I sure hope you are appreciating it,” she continues.

I smile and roll my eyes at the same time (this is the reaction to a special mixed emotion that only my Mother can summon forth – it is simultaneous irritation and amusement).

“I know, Mom,” I reply.  “I do!”

“Well,” she continues.  “I sure hope so…”

I’m waiting for it.  I know what is coming next.

“Because…”

Queue ominous and foreboding thunderclap. MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  Feeling scared yet?

She goes on, “Your life will not always be like this.”

I sigh into the telephone, unsure of exactly what my response should be.  Do I say, “thanks for letting me know” or “I appreciate the warning?”  Do I pretend that I am still fourteen years old and say, “GAH MOM, you’re such a downer!”  OR do I tell her the truth?

The expat life is great.  I am living in Europe for the first time and enjoying traveling around and seeing all the sights, I have an amazing French husband, and I get to write all day long (sometimes this is awesome and sometimes this feels like I have sentenced myself to a lifelong homework assignment).  I mean, it’s pretty much a Meg Ryan movie over here without all the neurosis (and bad plastic surgery…why Meg, why?).

…Except when it isn’t.

I regularly think about how much I am enjoying my time here and all the cool experiences I am getting to  eat have but sometimes…I hate it.  (EEEK!  I’ve done it now – I’m just waiting for the black helicopters to start circling.) 

Alright, alright, calm down – I don’t hate France, that isn’t it, it’s just that some days I hate being an expat and France gets caught in the crossfire, a convenient thing to blame for a bad day.  The only thing that people hear about is that I get to go to Munich or Italy for a weekend – it sounds so romantic and exciting to have all these European countries at one’s fingertips…and it is.  What they don’t know about is how when I need to get crawfish for a dish I want to make and can’t find it after spending two hours walking around to different stores that I have to wait for my husband to come home and call every supermarket chain in the city because I can’t just do it myself.  I mean, sure, I can speak French but try asking a complicated question over-the-phone with grocery store level customer service (read: no customer service) in a second language…I dare you.   Or how if I want to go and see a movie I have to search to try to find one that hasn’t been dubbed or how if I want to run a quick errand it is impossible because I either a) spend ages looking for parking or b) take public transportation as opposed to the glorious, glorious parking lots of my hometown.  OR how when I am sad or having a bad day I can’t just pick up the phone and call home because it is probably 3 o’clock in the morning.  It can be lonely and it can be alienating, everyday tasks and chores are more complicated and things that are normally really easy aren’t anymore.

Okay, okay so I can hear you rolling your eyes at me and I get it – I’m not this bratty all the time and I know it’s still a pretty sweet deal when you get to travel and learn about a new culture, I realize that my life isn’t hard; but bad days happen everywhere…even in the middle of a romance novel setting.  And while there are certainly some pretty sweet perks to being an expat, it isn’t all roses all the time…usually you will love every minute of it but some days you will have disgraceful temper tantrums about groceries and wish the time zones were the same so you could call your best friend (who, by best friend contract has to agree that you are being completely rational) and tell her about it.

So, the old adage rings true: I should listen to my Mother and remember that my life won’t always be like this.  Some days that idea makes me sad and other days…well, other days it seems alright with me.

 

*Carrefour does actually carry crawfish occasionally but it is in very small, expensive packages and not worth the effort.  Just wanted to clarify so that people didn’t think I was maligning the glorious Carrefour!!! 

For the Love of Food

Adjusting to France, Life in General, Uncategorized

“Look what I have!!!!!!!!!”  I come bouncing into the kitchen with my grocery sacks.

MB turns around to see what I have brought him, no doubt expecting cheese or a spreadable meat or, at the very least, some sort of internal organ like gesiers.  He looks very excited, anticipating whatever delightful thing I have found at the store.  We are food people – food makes us happy.

“BAM,” I say with satisfaction as I hold out the small white paper package.

MB deflates.

“What is this?” He takes the package from me and looks at it, confused and slightly disgusted.  “I don’t understand, is this fish flavored crackers?”  He makes a face.

I laugh…silly Frenchman.  “No, they are goldfish crackers.  They have different flavors, like cheese or pizza, or sometimes they can come as pretzel goldfish.”

He seems comforted to know they are not fish flavored but still confused.  “But then, why are they shaped like fish?”

“What?”

“Why they are shaped like fish if they don’t taste like fish?”

I ponder this for a moment.  “I don’t know, they just—UGH—I’m not sharing any!”  I snatch the package back from him in a huff…he has ruined my goldfish cracker moment by pointing out that it is totally bizarre that they even exist.

“No, I’m sorry,” he begins.  “I want to try them!”  He seems desperate now that he realizes he may be about to miss something incredible (like the Kraft Mac and Cheese experience…I will always regret letting him try it since now I always have to share).

“We’ll see,” I say with a smile, clutching them to my chest.  “This is the first time I’ve ever found them here!”

***

Okay, now let me be clear, I am not obsessed with goldfish crackers or anything.  I mean, I like them, they are a tasty treat but it’s not like my favorite cracker of all time (that would be Triscuits…obviously, is there even another option?), but there is something thrilling about finding a home product when you are overseas.  It’s like getting a high five from your native land.

“What’s up, USA – appreciate the shout-out!”

“Word,” responds USA, slapping my palm. 

(This is how USA and I talk.)

When you are expat, you will get excited even about home products that you aren’t really into.  For instance, I don’t like Dr. Pepper (or any soft drinks actually) but it still makes me happy when I see it and I will tell every American expat about where I found it. Another example is the friend of mine who left an exuberant post on Facebook about finding cottage cheese.  That’s right, you just read the word “exuberant” in reference to cottage cheese.  I was so stoked that I ran right out to the store she mentioned and then called her in a panic when I couldn’t find it.

“What does it look like,” I demand into the telephone.  “I’m standing with the cheeses.”

“It’s green,” she says, “It’s Jockey brand.  It is with the yogurts.”

“The YOGURTS,” dread creeps over me.  “I’ll never find it on the yogurt aisle!”  The yogurt aisle in France is epic (salty dogs chocolate frogs).

After a few minutes of her talking me through it I find the outrageously priced cottage cheese and feel a surge of energy course through me.  “Victory is mine!  Cottage Cheese for dinner tonight, muhahahahahaha!”

I have never before or since had quite such an emotional reaction to cottage cheese.

But I have had many emotional reactions to food before.   During our honeymoon in Italy, I remember sitting at a particularly fantastic meal and telling MB that the food made me feel even more in love with him…and it was the truth.  There was some portal of emotion inside of me that the meal opened up, just as tasting an old recipe of your Grandmother’s might bring a tear to your eye or how the first bite of something deliciously sinful can make you grin (or moan if you are that type…you know who you are, you sexy food-moaners).  And it doesn’t have to just be in the eating, I love cooking for people as well, taking the time and effort to put together a creative and delicious meal to share with friends around the table is one of the great joys in life.

I know there are the “fuel for the body” people but I will just never understand that.  In fact, I remember the first time someone told me that food was just fuel for the body…I never invited them to dinner again.  Why would I want to share a meal with someone who doesn’t appreciate the beauty, the majesty, and the soul’s connection with food?

Food, whether it is typical grocery store fare that allows you to time-travel to your childhood or a 5 star meal that makes your senses dance – is emotion.

***

And so, with that being said, starting next week I will be rolling out the Bread is Pain Food blog sharing some of my favorite recipes and dinner party ideas.  Everything from the simplest party dip to the menu for a 7 course dinners.  I hope you will come and check it out!

Here is a clip from the penultimate food movie: “Babette’s Feast” (in a close 2nd is “Like Water for Chocolate”). It is a long clip but perfectly elucidates the “fuel for the body” people vs. the “food is emotion” people. Enjoy!

Is It Running?

Adjusting to France

I love film.  I actually studied film…and no, not because it was an easy major (I can hear you silently judging me) but because I was seriously interested.  Even now, many some years later, I torture my friends trying to force them to watch old black and whites and whining about how script writing is a lost art.  So, naturally, last week when I came across a film project on one of the Grenoble Expat sites I was interested to check it out.

What I found is a charming half-hour documentary about three different student experiences here in Grenoble. The shooting style is quirky and fun, the material is poignant and thoughtful, and the result is a charming piece of film that allows the viewer to consider some different perspectives.

So, take a moment and watch – hope you will enjoy!

There are English subtitles. 

For more information you can email the filmmaker directly:

Laura Mollica:  (lauralinharesmollica@gmail.com)  or check out the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaTaRodandoDocumentario

Fake it to Make it

Adjusting to France, Learning French

I’m standing in the middle of my gynecologist’s office as she moves a chair to put it against the door.  I’m not quite sure who we are barricading it against but I’m glad to know that if the killer from one of the “Scream” movies decides to show up during my exam that we are all good.

“No one will come in – okay?”  She says this to me smiling.

“Great,” I reply…because um…what other response is there?  Are there women who like to share the Pap smear experience?

She says something else to me quickly in French and then turns to the “tools of discomfort” to prepare.

I began to undress, assuming that is what she told me to do, as she piddles around the room.  I feel a bit awkward just getting naked in the middle of a room but “hey” this ain’t my first rodeo; I am familiar with the gyno exams in France.  I plop my buck-naked* self down on the paper-covered bench and wait for her to turn around and begin the exam.

I chuckle a bit, thinking to myself how it still amuses me to be naked and hanging out with a stranger when suddenly another, chilling thought crosses my mind…

“Shit…I hope that I’m supposed to be naked right now.”

***

To fully explain all of this, I think I better go back to the very beginning.

When I first got to France I was willing to try everything on my own.  You need me to talk to the plumber?  Of course I can handle that.  I want to organize my French lessons with the University?  Dude…I got this.  Anything that came my way I was willing to go for, being the independent person I was.  I mean, hey, I had already moved to two different countries – I was used to figuring out new places; I even found it fun.  When you know almost nothing of the language then you don’t really have too much to lose (read: if people are making fun of you there is no way that you will understand it so you can’t possibly care).

Slowly, however, things started to change.  I started having problems – as my French improved and I understood more in some weird way I almost started understanding less.  I remember standing at the counter paying for a facial for 20 minutes while they tried to explain to me that I was supposed to take a device home and then return in two weeks for a follow up.  I looked at them, my sheepish smile plastered to my face, so unsure about what to do.  It seemed clear that I was meant to take the small device with me but if that was not what they were saying, how weird and awkward and (OMG) embarrassing would it be if I tried to walk out with it?  I was trapped, crippled by the desire to appear competent even though I was so obviously not.

“Prenez,” the lady said to me clearly.

“Tu prends,” said the young girl who had been staring into the abyss of my pores just moments earlier.

“Vous comprenez,” the lady asks me again if I understand.

I give a laugh and shake my head “no” because there is no international sign for “actually I think I get it but I’m not sure and don’t want to look like an ass.”  A man, seated behind me begins to speak with the lady and the young girl and I am stuck standing there as they have a 5 minute conversation of how to explain to me what to do.

I wanted to run out the door, escape entirely, this is not a challenge that I wanted to address.  I hadn’t learned the verb “prendre” yet and it wasn’t just going to magically make sense to me.  I knew in that moment that the situation was hopeless, yet manners forced me to stay there, humiliation raining down upon me.

Finally, the lady smiled at me and shrugged, the young girl rolled her eyes in irritation, snatched the device and walked to the back, and I paid and left.

I remember trying not to cry on the way home and I’m certain when MB arrived back from work that evening he was greeted with wails of “I hate it here, why did you make me come here, this is horrible!”

I felt so stupid and so embarrassed.

From this point on, things began to change.  I stopped going to do things on my own.  If someone needed to come by the apartment to work on something I made sure that MB was either there or available by phone.  When I wanted to make an appointment for my facials I would go in person instead of calling so that I could avoid any awkward phone conversation.  I had lost my gumption.

Scarlett O’Hara would have been so annoyed with me.

It took a while after that incident for me to own up to a few infallible truths:

  1. I ABHOR being embarrassed.
  2. Life is embarrassing.  (perhaps even more so when you are learning something new)
  3. Being embarrassed is funny if you are willing to laugh.

I mean, at the end of the day, what is more embarrassing anyway?  Having your husband translate the phrase, “please put your feet in the stirrups now” or premature nakedness because you pretended that you understood what was told to you?

***

My heart is beating in my chest as my gynecologist begins to turn around.  “Please let me be supposed to be naked, please let me be supposed to be naked!”

“Okay,” she says, snapping the rubber on her glove.  “We do theez now?”

Nailed it,” I think smugly.

***

Totally supposed to be naked.”

 

* For those of you not from familiar with the term “Buck Naked” (“naked” should be pronounced “nekkid”).  Please read this one because the example is just perfection:  http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/buck+naked  And is this isn’t enough for you there is a complete background on the term here:  http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20001005

Free-Range Breasts

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences

“Dang!”  I am standing in front of a full length mirror, examining myself in a new dress that I just bought.  “It is totally see-through,” I shout towards the other room.  “I think this might be a swimsuit cover up, come tell me how bad it is!”

After a minute or so MB ambles into the room nonchalantly.  “Quoi,” he looks me up and down, clearly seeing nothing wrong with the sheer black and white maxi dress.

I go spread eagle and ask again.

“I can see the outline of your legs but that is okay, non?”  He is looking at me quizzically.

“Yeah, I’m more worried about boob,” I spread the ruched fabric flat across my chest.  “See?  You can see them.”

MB laughs, “Only when you do that.  It is fine.”

I look back in the mirror, staring intently at my bosom.  Is it fine?  Is it?  The Southern girl in me says, “Absolutely not, white trash, put a bra on!”  While the French girl in me says “pfff…it is a breast, this is natural, non?”

My entire life I was raised that nice girls don’t leave the house without a bra on.  Seriously, it wouldn’t have even been a consideration, you wouldn’t wake up and ask yourself, “is this a bra kind of day” because EVERY day is a bra kind of day.  It doesn’t even matter if you are a card carrying member of the I.B.T.C* – I.B.T.C. girls need bras too.  In the U.S. (in general) we like those suckers to stay strapped down (or up, as it were), harnessed really.   I mean, come on you wouldn’t want a wild breast to get on the loose and stir up trouble in town, now would you?

The attitude in France is somewhat different; in France, bras are optional, heck, even swimsuit tops are optional; in France they believe in free-range breasts.  In fact, just this year they completed a study that says bras aren’t good for breasts anyway (http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/bra-bombshell-brassieres-breasts-saggier-article-1.1313974).

It is a normal thing to see breasts out and about.  The other day I noticed a woman with a paper-thin white t-shirt on and no bra walking through town.  I could clearly see “everything” and watched amazed as she walked through town with her shopping bags, totally unconcerned by the fact that she was flashing the “goods”.  It was one of those classic expat moments in France in which I look around thinking “is anyone else seeing this?!?!?!?”  But no, no one else seemed to notice anything at all…because here it is totally ordinary.  There are bare breasts on advertisements on the street, in TV shows, at every swimming situation – it just isn’t a big deal.

When I first arrived in France it really threw me off.  Going to get a chest x-ray for my visa and having a woman man-handle my bare breasts to get them into the right position on the machine felt a bit odd and later at my first female exam, having the doctor laugh about “silly Americans” and their gowns during medical exams.  Now, I am kind of used to it.  I mean, I’m not about to burn my bras or go topless at the beach (let’s be honest, that is really just a horrific sunburn waiting to happen) but it is kind of nice to know that I have the option of doing so without freaking people out.

I mean…it is natural – we all know they are there, shouldn’t we be able to handle it by now?

I look at myself one more time in the mirror and realize you really can’t see anything.  Then I walk over to my dresser and get out a strapless bra…I’ll get there eventually.

*I.B.T.C. – a torturous junior-high age taunt – Itty Bitty Titty Committee

The TV3 Interview…

Adjusting to France, Bread is Pain on TV!, Learning French

Okay, so I am being a slacker this week and instead of writing a post I am just going to post the link to the TV3 Interview that featured BreadisPain last November.  Please enjoy my television awkwardness and inability to pronounce “par” correctly (seriously, every time I hear it I cringe).

Now, that being said this was a really fun and cool experience to have and I hope it will give you a laugh!

I’ll be back next week with a legit post…but until then, enjoy the long weekend darlings!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P3JDgJwzXQ&noredirect=1

Anxiety on the Death Star

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences, Holidays in France, Travel in France

The airport these days can be a scary and intense place…almost anxiety-attack-inducing.

Is all metal off my body?  There is an underwire in my bra…I really hope they don’t try to take my bra, I mean, that’s just going to be uncomfortable.  Would I have to go back to my gate and check-in my bra?  Can an underwire be used as a weapon?  I doubt it but then they have also confiscated my nail scissors before…

Are all my liquids in the regulation size plastic bag?  What about my eye cream?  Is eye cream a liquid or a solid…what…oh my god, I have no idea.  Is eye cream a liquid or a solid, people?!  LIQUID OR SOLID?

Which line am I going to be in?  Is that the normal one or the scan your naked body one?  Wait, no, don’t wave me over there, I don’t want the naked body scan, it’s so awkward.  I act like I’m cool with it to the TSA people but guess what?  I’m NOT – it creeps me out.  Sh*t – I’m definitely in the naked line.

Alright, smiling at everyone, trying to hurry to get all my stuff in those bins as quickly as possible…don’t want to be that guy.  Wait, what?  I can’t put my coat in the same bin as my laptop…uh…okay TSA…I didn’t know that coats were impenetrable by X-ray machines.  Unzipping my boots, trying to not have my butt hang out the back of my pants while I bend over to do this, geez, there really is no graceful way to pull this off.  Okay – ready to go…oh my god…this is the worst…there is a hole in my sock.  I can’t BELIEVE I didn’t check my socks…I mean; this is the one time in your life when your socks get a lot of play-time, come on!

These are the thoughts that are generally running through my mind as I hurry to wipe away the water that has dribbled all over my face while I was chugging my water bottle that I forgot was in my purse. Thoughts that are the result of years of U.S.A. Homeland Security combined with years of New Zealand and Australia customs (see what happens if you try to enter New Zealand with a bit of mud on your boot…I dare ya)*.  So, on my recent trip to Munich you can imagine my nerve level trying to pack for JUST carry on.  I measured all my liquids and checked and re-checked the Lufthansa rules (while constantly considering how to properly pronounce “Lufthansa”).  The most difficult aspect was that I knew I wanted to bring my friends that I was visiting some treats from France.

“I don’t think I can take these carry-on,” I hold up the camembert and paté to MB that I had purchased to bring them.

“Quoi?”  He looks at me and blinks.  “Why not?”

“Well, on the website it says I can’t take food products more than 100ml.”  But for some reason I need a second opinion on that vague and ambiguous regulation.

“Ouaaaaais…but it’s not like it’s a bottle of wine, uh?  I’m sure it will be fine.”

“I don’t think the rules work that way,” I say to him.

He shrugs and I can almost hear his inner dialogue, “rules? Pffff….”

Now before I go any further perhaps I should explain that I am an obsessive rule follower…even jay-walking makes me itchy.  I would like to say that it is all because of my strict moral code but let’s face it – it is mostly my abhorrence to getting in trouble.  I HATE being called out for having done something wrong and I’m such a nervous rule-breaker that I ALWAYS get called out…always.  MB, on the other hand, is French.

The French seem to enjoy seeing what they can “get away with”.  I don’t even think that they are trying to “challenge” authority but rather that they all believe that authority doesn’t really apply to them (for further information read this previous post: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/duck-a-lorange-in-an-ashtray/).  So, I decide to try it out and see what I can get away with – into the bag goes the camembert and paté.

As I stand in the waiting line I watch in horror as the security video plays the directions and restrictions for getting through security – there on the screen are, no joke, a jar of paté and a wheel of camembert with big X’s on them.  At this point, my palms start to sweat, maybe I shouldn’t have been so cavalier.  I’m not a rule-breaker; I’m a dork!

My nerves are on high alert as I go through security, knowing that there is something contraband in my bag.  I waltz through the X-ray and wander out to the other side to wait for my bag.  Everything seems to be fine until suddenly I see the uniformed woman walking towards me with her hand on my bag.  I hear this in my head:

(“The Imperial March” for those of you too lazy to click on the link…and if you don’t know what “The Imperial March” is, I can’t help you, you are lost forever).    I can just imagine myself walking over to her, “please Lord Airport Official!”  Then, I begin choking as she says, “you have failed me for the last time, Admiral.”  …Or something like that.

Anyway…off the Death Star and back in France she pulls me over and motions for me to unzip my bag.  As soon as I do she pulls out my zip lock bag of camembert and paté with an “AH HA” – Sherlock Holmes-y kind of move.  At this point, I realize I have a decision to make: I can come clean and just go on my way or I can try to be a cool French person and try to get away with it.  I decide to channel my inner-Frenchness.

I shrug at her and try not to smile (a French person wouldn’t).

“Ouais…” I say, before continuing in French.  “I wasn’t sure about these but, you know.”

She looks at me with narrowed-eyes and I’m not sure if a) she believes that I really didn’t know or b) respects the fact that I am bold-faced lying.  Either way, she continues.

“It is the size,” she says, “They have to be less than 100ml for the carry-on.  Do you want to go back and register them?”

I shrug.  “Pfff…non, they are just gifts.  It is a pity for my friends but not for me so, you know, who cares?” I laugh wickedly at this.

I see her apprise me once again, “the force is strong with this one.”  She then laughs at my joke** before leaning in conspiratorially.

“You know,” she says speaking in a low voice.  “If this was duck, no problem…it’s just the pork.  You will know for next time, uh?”

I smile at her and start to put my bag back together.  Ah well, so I wasn’t able to keep my contraband…MB probably would have managed it but that is okay; I am what I am…a rule-following nerd.  Breaking the rules is uncomfortable on me.  And who knows?  Maybe France is becoming more stringent about these things, I mean; it is the airport after all.  If there is anywhere that regulations are followed it is here, right?

I zip up my bag and turn to walk towards my gate but not before noticing the Airport Official with my bag of food.  I see her turn to put it in the “discard” bin and then stop suddenly.  An inner war seems to be waging in her mind.  She looks down at the bag containing my unopened jar of paté and full wheel of camembert and then she sets it next to the bin as opposed to inside of it.  I laugh to myself, we are still in France – all is not lost.  Contraband paté and fromage will be served on the Death Star tonight.

*For the record, Australia took not one but two packages of grits on two separate occasions away from me because they were suspect.  It’s ground corn…that is all!

** The French have a little bit of a “mean girl” complex.  They like mean humor and jokes – it amuses them.  I will perhaps write on this topic soon.  If you need further explanation rent: Le Dîner de Cons.  That is the French film that “Dinner for Schmucks” destroyed.