Chatty Chats

Found: French dog*.

I am sitting on the metro, ready for my thirty minute ride on the way home from French class (ugh).  I always sit in the same seat on the second level with no neighbors**; I like to zone out on the tram and frankly I just don’t like being smushed up next questionable strangers, there, I said it.  About fifteen minutes into my ride an elderly gentleman sits down at the one-seater across from me.

He is all smiles and I can feel his eyes boring into me.  Keep looking out the window!  Don’t make eye contact!  I have the same feeling I have when I have just sat on the airplane with a book and I see an overly happy person walking towards the empty seat next to me.  My Southerness (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/have-a-bless-ed-day-and-others-things-dogs-say/) won’t allow me to ignore a potential conversation so I must concentrate hard on something else if I’m going to avoid talking.

The tram starts up again and I continue to ponder the window pane in fascination.  Then I slip and look at the time on my IPod.

He jumps, nay leaps, at the opportunity and immediately tells me my IPod looks like a wrist watch because of the case I have it in (that’s right, I still use my arm band workout case even when I’m not working out – what if I get the sudden urge to workout, one must always be prepared).  I smile nicely and laugh “tehehehehehehe”, yes, yes we are all polite, now I am going to go back to staring out the window because there are a lot of tram stops left and while I would normally embrace stranger conversations, I have just left four hours of French class and my head is swimming; there is no way I can sustain a chat in French right now.

A minute or so passes.

“Vous etes etranger?”  He is smiling at me expectantly.

Le sigh.  I surrender and take off my IPod completely.

“Oui, je suis Americaine,” I smile back encouraging him (damn you upbringing!).

“Ah!  Americaine!  Tres bien!”

He continues on, chatting amicably.  I tell him that I am learning French but am not very good, he tells me (in English) that he knows some English but is not very good.  We chat a bit about French class and the difficulties of learning other languages.  Finally he stands up to get off at his stop.

“Eet eez verwy nice to mit yew,” He says patting my hand as he descends.

“Enchante,” I say.  “Bonne journee, monsieur!”

“Arrivaderchi,” he laughs.  “Italian!”  He is so pleased with himself.

“Ciao,” I respond playing along.

He laughs again, “ciao ciao!”

Then he is gone, as the tram pulls out I get a last glimpse of him merrily running across the tram tracks to cross the street.  Spritely old fellow.

As my tram ride continues it occurs to me that I have just met a French dog.  I think back over the past month or so and realize that lately I have been meeting a lot of French dogs.  What has caused this change?  Has France read my blog and decide to be chattier?  Somehow I doubt it.  Instead, I think that it is because, due to my French class, I am now on the same schedule as the old-timers and old-timers don’t have the social hang ups of young people; if they want to chat, they are going to chat.  Maybe they aren’t dogs, but rather they are chatty “chats”!  (I slay me)

It reminds me of when I used to work reception at a government office and people would call to complain about various things; often after the complaint was made the old-timers would just want to talk and have a conversation.  Getting older can’t be easy; the world that you knew for most of your life is gone, society changes, rules change, people you know pass out of your life.  So whether you are a Cat or a Dog, don’t shut down when you run into a smiling elderly person on the tram or at the grocery store, give them a chat, a moment of your time; if you are lucky, someone will return the favor to you one day.

* Point of reference: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs/

**That’s right; I’m that guy, the person who has my favorite tram seat.  Maybe when I am an old-timer instead of being nice and friendly I will freak out and rap my cane against the arm rest if someone else sits in it. 

Freaking Out Frenchie

So the other night MB and I were sitting watching an episode of French Masterchef.  The contestants were in the middle of a challenge in which they had to create a thin hollow ball made of out sugar (not exactly like the BBQ challenges of US Masterchef).  In one part of the challenge it was necessary to roll out and work the hot sugar “dough” which is at a dangerously high temperature, they have to wear special gloves.  One contestant is working his dough and talking about how hot it is and how you must be very careful.  The contestant next to him then accidentally sticks her naked elbow into the dough and lets out a scream.

His response…without so much as an eyebrow flutter:  “Mais…voila.”  As the girl next to him clutches her burned flesh he shrugs and returns to his work.

It is hard to fluster a French person.

The French are not big reactors when unusual things occur but instead just take them as though they were the most normal thing in the world.  When walking home in last weekend’s bizarre snow storm we saw a man in a car that was stuck.  MB went to go and help him and within moments the next few people who walked by did the same.  There were no introductions or laughs or camaraderie…no one ever said “woah, what happened?”  They just calmly set down their grocery bags and walked over and did it before continuing on their way.

“Quoi?”

In the US it would have been a conversation, hands would have been shaken, huge thanks would have been given and later that night the guys who helped would have told their families.  It wouldn’t have been a big deal or anything but a mini-event, something interesting and noteworthy in an otherwise standard day.

The uber blasé-ness of the French is something that I have noticed for a while now and that I get no small amount of amusement from.  I mean, I love it when something bizarre happens on the street and no one reacts.  Am I the only one seeing this?  And not to give to many plugs to Masterchef but it provides another excellent example.  In the US or Australia version, when people find out that they have made it past auditions there is great excitement and enthusiasm – sometimes awkward and rambunctious hugs.  In the French version there will be a nice dignified smile and a “thank-you”, luke-warm excitement at best.  Wait?  Where is the lady who falls to her knees and praises Jesus?  NOT in France.

Recently, however, I have discovered the Achilles’ heel of the French blasé.

In French class last week, our professor was asking us questions about daily routine and life.  The question came up of what do you have for breakfast.  Two of the students answered that they didn’t have breakfast.  Instead of shrugging (“ouais”) and continuing on with the lesson, he stopped…horrified.

“Wait, you understand what I asked, yes?  What is it that you eat for your breakfast today?”

“I didn’t have breakfast today.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I never have breakfast.”

“Never?!?!?”

“No, don’t like it.”

“But…I…what?”

This conversation went on for about 15 minutes while the teacher continued to flip out about lack of breakfast eating.

Later that week, MB and I started discussing how different life will be if we ever decide to have children.  We were talking about an upcoming dinner party and considering how different entertaining would be with children in the house (different, terrifying…however you want to describe it).  I mentioned that instead of a long aperitif before dinner we would need to try to have the dinner more quickly and then have drinks afterwards so the kids could go off to play, sleep, what have you.

ME: Yeah, I mean, god, do you remember being like 4 or 5 years old and stuck at your parents parties?  Horror!

MB: Yes, but I mean you don’t need to get rid of aperitif.

ME:  Well, I don’t mean get rid of it but just you know…like a half hour instead of an hour or hour and half and then just hang for drinks after.  It would just be easier for little ones’ attention spans.

MB: You can’t just change your life for your child!

ME:  Um…dude, a child is going to change your life.

MB:  But you have to set some boundaries, no?

ME: Of course, but I’m talking about shortening aperitif not getting them ten puppies.

MB: I don’t think it would be necessary; the kids would be fine for an hour beforehand.

ME: SERIOUSLY?  Do you really not remember being a kid stuck with boring adult conversations, and oh my god, an HOUR?  Think about how long an hour is when you are 5…it is FOREVER!  (I can feel a panic attack washing over me as post-traumatic stress from childhood comes back)

MB:  But they need to learn.

ME:  Remember that they wouldn’t be having drinks during that hour.  It’s not even fair.

This gives him pause.

The conversation continued for about 10 minutes with increased vigor until we realized that we were talking about a completely made up situation involving non-existent children (yes, it took us 15 minutes to realize it was a pointless disagreement to be having).  But I was struck afterwards about how vehemently MB protected his aperitif…even against all reason and practicality.  He was…flustered.

“You may take my life but you will never take my aperitif!”

Just like my French professor he was irrationally unnerved by the idea of food/beverage/dining protocol being disrupted.  Park sideways on the middle of a sidewalk?  No one will bat an eyelash.  But dare to upset the “naturel” state of drinking and eating and you will definitely freak out a Frenchie.

Bise! Boo!

In honor of Halloween next week I thought I should write about the scariest thing in France…

Sometimes I actually know what is going on when I am in France…I mean, okay so it is probably not the majority of the time but I’m getting there; now when I nod at something someone says there is like a 50% chance that I know what they meant (45%…WHATEVER).  Point being, I am making progress.  There is one area, however, in which zero progress has been made.  I am basically just as lost as I was the first day I got here.  It is wily and ever-changing, a chameleon in the world of social niceties…

*cue thunderclap and lightening*

A tradition so scary…so intimidating…

*teeth chattering in fear*

…that even the creators themselves can’t seem to get a handle on their Frankenstein, it is…

THE BISE!

*SCREAM*

MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Alright…maybe that is a little dramatic but seriously, what is the deal?  Even some French are confused by what to do!

Exhibit A:  http://combiendebises.free.fr/

Exhibit B:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9m0OEpE0z8

Now, I know I’ve written about this before but last time I was writing about getting over the hump of allowing a stranger into my highly coveted personal space so that they can apply their lips to my face (I have accepted it fully, I swear); but this time I want to talk about the actual rules…or lack thereof.  As you can see in Exhibit B, the side you start on varies, the number of kisses varies, and the time in which you give them varies, as does the person you are giving them to vary.  Now the French have grown up with this tradition and seem to move on instinct…subtly noticing the direction a head is going to go before it has gone there but I have no such luck.  I do things like catch half of a person’s mouth and accidentally force them into a half-way make out because I thought their head was going in the other direction.  I mean, how does any normal touching –phobic Anglo recover from this?

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to just lick your mouth.”

Furthermore, I can’t seem to get a handle on the number of kisses that are going to be doled out to me.  I have often had the same person sometimes do two and then sometimes do three.  So, just when I think I’m down with the three and go in for another round, they stop at two and I feel like a jackass.  Why, French people, WHY?!  Don’t you know that I already feel super awkward about kissing strangers?! And don’t even get me started on entering large parties or what to do with children who don’t want to get near you…the confusion abounds.

So, while other people dress as ghosts and goblins this Halloween, I think I will dress as the scariest thing I know…the bise!

“Have a Bless-ed Day” and Others Things Dogs Say

“I’m sorry Momma, but I gotta stop and smell everything; I’m a beagle!”

Whaa…what is happening?  Where is that voice coming from?

It is my first day back in Memphis, Tennessee and I am at the park walking my parents’ dog, Gudie*, who is stopping every two inches to smell something new.

“That’s what they do, you know,” continues the voice.

I turn to see a large (one might say redneck-ish) man standing next to me with jeans shorts, no shirt (and an impressive belly overhang), sporting field glasses **.

“It’s just the beagle way, they gotta smell it all.  I’ve got a beagle/pincher mix, m’self.  How old is this one?  She’s still pretty little.”

Um…why is this weird dude talking to me?  For a moment I forget that I am not in France anymore, then the haze lifts and I remember with a refreshing breath that I am back in the Southern United States.  Why wouldn’t a complete stranger start a conversation with me?

“You know,” I begin, “we aren’t sure her origins, she’s just a little foundling but sweet as can be!”

As if on cue Gudie rolls onto her back in front of the stranger.  He laughs and leans down to rub her belly…clearly Gudie is a much more trained up Southerner than me.

“Well, she’s a gudd’un (good one),” he says giving her a rub behind her ears.

“Yes sir, we sure think so!”  Sir?  What the hell?  Where did that come from?  And what is that insane accent you are using?  Have I always talked like that?!  Why does it feel so good coming out of my mouth?!

“Alrighty, well I best git goin’!  Y’all have a bless-ed day!”

“You too!”  I wave as he wanders off down the path.

Have a bless-ed day…wow, I haven’t heard that in ages.  I love that. 

I pause a moment before breaking into a smile with a small chuckle.

“Y’all”.  He included the dog. 

The rest of my day was charmed.  The overweight country boy (sounds nicer than redneck) that wanted to check out my dog had reminded me of one of the most pleasurable things about being in the Southern United States, a little thing that I like to call “aggressive friendliness”.  We WILL make you be friends with us and you will like it (in the South we are the most Doggie of all dog-like Americans: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs/ ).

This situation would never have happened in France.  The French do not approach strangers with random pieces of information, nor do they provide personal details unless necessary.  The French are a more conservative and reserved people.  Sometimes this is construed as snobbish and I suppose that sometimes it is but mainly I think it is just a difference in social norms; it’s not that they don’t want to talk to you but they would feel super weird doing it (amirite? This is what I have decided to tell myself…ego, whatever).  Usually, when I speak to a stranger in France, the response is honest shock, like I just pinched them, rather than aloof distaste (unless you are in Paris and then your odds are somewhat worse).  So, I keep persevering, my Southern-ness or doggie-ness will have it no other way; I must keep fighting the good fight.  FRIENDS 4 EVA!  In fact, even though I lose some of my Southern intensity when I am in France, there is still enough to get the job done.

Just before my trip back home to Tennessee, MB and I were in Paris for four days.  After a meal one night, we moved to sit at the bar and have our digestifs.  Upon completion, MB excuses himself and goes to the restroom, leaving me sitting at a bar by myself, somewhat “in my cups” (doesn’t that sound nicer than “half-drunk”) after having just consumed a glass of what is, let’s face it Frenchies, gussied up moonshine.

So there I am, bored, swimming in cups, wondering what is taking MB so long.  I smile at the person sitting next to me and get no response, I then try again with the person sitting opposite me.  WHAT?!  There is no shame in this game!  But still…nothing.  *SIGH*

Suddenly, the bartender makes a strategic error.

“Madame?”  He walks over to me (we’ll discuss the “madame” issue later…I mean, is it too soon for botox?  No?).  “You both would like another drink?”

*This was all in French.*

“Oh yes,” I say, all doggie-charm and smiles.  “Thank you so much, MB will have a digestif but just wine for me.  More than one digestif is just too much!”

“Yes,” responds the bartender.  “I am the same.”

Muhahaha!  Conversation intiated, suckah. 

“Right?”  I am fully in the zone now.  “I don’t know how my fiancé does it.”

Then the bartender says something unintelligible for me.

“So sorry,” I say.  “I didn’t get that!  The Parisian accent is very quick for me!”

“Yes,” a girl from down the bar says with a thick Russian accent. “It is very rapid in Paris.  I have the seme (same) problem when I first came here.”

Oh, the game is so afoot.  Multi-person conversation achieved in Paris by myself.  I should win an award, nominations?  Anyone?

“Oh, where are you from,” I ask her.

…And it went from there.  Two hours later, MB and I finally left the restaurant after having been locked inside having drinks and cigarettes with the staff and their friends.  Later that night, MB told me that he was thrilled when he was in the bathroom and could hear me talking.

“Why?”

“Because, I knew you wouldn’t be able to help yourself and when I came out we would have new friends!”

And why not?  What is the worst possible thing that can happen?  Someone chooses to ignore you or make you feel stupid?  Pfff…it’s not high school, people; you won’t see them in homeroom tomorrow, who cares?  Being friendly makes the world a little smaller and a little more cheerful…and, dare I say it, a little more doggie-ish.  Embrace your inner dog or your inner Southern-ness because it is a great thing to be pleasant to everyone, to be happy easily, to be excited simply.

It reminds me of my last night in Memphis before coming back to France.  My Father and I had taken Gudie in the backyard to play.  We watched as she ran around with enthusiasm, stopping every once in a while to roll at our feet before continuing on her way.

“I love dogs,” I say to my Dad.  “They are just so happy all the time; it is fun to be around them!”

“I know,” he says watching her.  “Just imagine being able to get such joy from doing something so simple.”

Yes,” I think.  “Just imagine that.”

Y’all have a bless-ed day now.

*When “Rover” won’t do.  Gudie is short for Gudrun…as in Norse mythology.  She is so named because she was found wandering the streets in fairly poor condition and as she had clearly survived a harrowing journey it was decided she needed a strong name. Perhaps the only 25lb beagle mix in the world named for a Viking.  Welcome to my family.

**This is what I mean when I refer to field glasses: http://www.ebay.com/itm/UNISEX-SUNGLASSES-DRIVING-SHOOTING-HUNTING-YELLOW-LENS-/300546365177.  I am not referring to binoculars.   

Blame France

Narrator’s Voice is heard: 

“Does this ever happen to you?”

Queue photos of a woman carrying a grocery bag that breaks, a man having a car splash water on him, a couple having the doors to a theater shut in their face.

“Do you ever feel like you just want to throw in the towel, like the world just isn’t on your side?”

Show image of unattractive depressed person looking out a window on a rainy day.

“What if you could change all that?  What if I told you that there is a way that you could never have a bad day again and nothing will ever be your fault?”

The word “HOPE” flashes across the screen.

“Follow me through this infomercial as we tell you more about this exciting side of living overseas.  We’ll explain how everything that happens to you while in another country is actually just the result of that country and not your personal actions.

Do you remember that cold you got last winter?  That cold was your fault for drunkenly making out with a stranger in January (*The bottom of the screen scrolls “get checked for meningitis”).  But I guarantee that if you come with me on this journey, you will learn that any cold you get overseas is not the fault of your own stupidity, but instead, the fault of your host-country for having weird virus strains.  If your grocery bags breaks; it is because that country has crappy grocery bags and not because you overloaded it.  If a car splashes you with water, it is because the people in your host-country are jerks; it is never just an unfortunate accident.  Don’t stay trapped living in a world where bad luck and bad days just happen at random, instead, live in a world where you have something to blame.

Show sun peeking through clouds as people waving different flags dance together in a field. 

As you join us on this journey, please remember our motto:  There are no bad days, just bad countries!”

Scroll at bottom of screen:  DISCLAIMER: We are not responsible for any individuals assaulted, arrested, or kicked out of their host countries. 

And scene.

Every once in a while, I will go through a phase of blaming everything that is wrong in my life on France.  If I have had a bad day or if someone is mean to me it isn’t just random coincidence; it is the nefarious nature of France.  It’s a sort of expat trick that no one ever really talks about.  Basically, you can glamorize your home country and decide that all misfortunes that befall you are based directly on the culture, government, and personality of your host-country as opposed to just dumb luck or your own poor behavior and choices.  It’s fantastic; really…except for the fact that you are completely ignoring personal responsibility and setting up your home country to disappoint you hugely (no big deal, right?).

Luckily, I only go through these phases occasionally.  More often, I take it the other approach which is that it is all personal.

“WHATEVER!  I just want to go home.  I’m not having fun; I don’t like it here anymore.”

(No, this is not a child crying from home-sickness at summer camp; this is me.)

“What’s more,” I continue.  “I don’t think France likes me being here either.” I say this with the best “conspiracy theory” voice I can muster.  “It’s like it’s trying to kick me out.”

MB sighs.  “France is not trying to kick you out.”

“How would you know?!  You are not France, are you?  Heck, you lived overseas for the past six years; France probably doesn’t even talk to you about its plans anymore!”

This is the tack that I take when I have decided that missing the tram, getting yelled out by a professor, and burning dinner is actually a passive aggressive message from France telling me to get the hell out as opposed to just a series of randomly unfortunate events.  I mean, it must all mean something, right?  It isn’t just coincidence; France is plotting my demise.  …Right.  It’s personal not business.

It is one of the weird things about being an expat – that you can blame bad luck on your host country or that you can decide that your host country is trying to push you out instead of being forced to embrace problems head-on and realistically.  It’s really just an extension of the “grass is always greener” idea, the lie that the “other” is the better.  The reality is that bad days and bad luck can happen anywhere and it doesn’t matter whether it is in the place you were born, a place you’ve visited once, or a place that you have lived for a few years.  Bad luck isn’t a place’s fault at all; it is just coincidence and a consequence of existence in our Universe…so for now we have to deal with it.

Though, I have no doubt that once a new Universe is discovered and people move there they will blame that one for everything and think that this one is perfect.

The Audacity of Age

Standing in line at the Musée D’Orsay with my Mother who is visiting.  We are about thirty minutes back from the front of the queue.  An old lady has recently shoved past us in line and we are watching in disbelief as she speedily makes her way through the five or six rows of people in front of us.    

Mom:  This is too good to be true!

Me:  No way she is going to pull this off.

Mom:  I think she is.  Look at her go!

Me:  Wow – see how she stops every once in a while, all innocent-like, the whole thing is so premeditated!  Really, she’s quite impressive.

Mom:  I bet she makes it all the way to the front.

For a moment I wonder about the morality of betting on an old person as though they were a race horse.

Me:  I will totally take that bet!  Someone is definitely going to bust her; I mean, we can’t be the only ones seeing this!

She makes it to the front in mere minutes.  My Mother is ecstatic.

Mom:  I knew it!

This is said with serious conviction.

Mom:  I just knew she was one of those!

My Mother is referring to a particular breed of French old ladies who don’t believe that rules apply to them.  On her recent trip to France, she became fascinated with this species after an incident at a pay toll.

“You see that look that MB is making,” I ask my Mother.

“Yes, why does he seem so annoyed?”

We are sitting in the car while he is waiting to pay our parking fee.

“It is definitely to do with the old lady in front of him.”

“Why?”  My Mother is confused.

“Because she totally skipped him.”

“Really?  I didn’t notice it.”

“Yeah, when she saw him about to put his card in she moved at the speed of light.  Remarkable really, considering the cane.”

“Well, it’s nice to let her go first anyway.”

“Oh yeah, for sure, but it isn’t about letting her, old ladies skip people all the time in France.”

My Mother is intrigued.

“How does that work,” she asks.

“There’s no “working” about it; they just do it and no one ever says anything.”

“Reediculous!”  MB has just gotten back in the car.

“Did you see it,” he asks.  “Did you see it?  She moved so quickly to skip me!”

“Yeah, I know, it was great,” I respond.

MB gives me a look.

“All I’m saying is one minute you are walking with a cane and the next minute you are moving at the speed of an Olympic sprinter; I gotta give some respect, that was a woman determined to skip you.”

This is a cultural phenomenon that I have watched with much amusement during my time in France.  Often I find myself waiting patiently in line only to be unceremoniously skipped by an old lady who just steps right in front of me as though it were the most normal thing in the world.  No acknowledgement, no sweet old-lady smiles, just ruthless ambition.  Some people get annoyed by this (*cough cough*…MB) and often I will catch the glimpse of an irritated eye roll from another patron but most people just stand around like it is not awkward at all.  “Am I the only one seeing this,” I think as I look around to find another person who finds it is amusing.   To me, it is hysterical, I love that no one dares to ever say a word to them even though they are inwardly fuming, and frankly, I just love the sheer audacity of these women.

High five, girl!  No?  You’re French you don’t ‘high five’, oh and you are pretending I don’t exist anyway. Okay, well congratulations on your badassery! 

I mean really, what’s not to love?  They are the beatniks of the elderly world, cruising by you oh-so-coolly, never speaking but always daring “what are you gonna do about it?”  So, I applaud you French-old-lady-line-skippers, I applaud you and your chutzpah*.

*For my non-American or Yiddish-speaking readers:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chutzpah

Stylistically Cool

I’m not cool enough to pull off “French”.

Just last week, on Trying to be Conscious (a GREAT blog that you should check out), Cécile wrote about the elusive and ever-sexy French style.  She explains what she thinks are the essentials and how it can be achieved.  As I read over her post (http://tryingtobeconscious.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/how-to-look-french/), I found myself laughing because it was so spot-on.

The French have a seemingly effortless style that exudes “cool”.  The women aren’t over-done; the skirts aren’t too short and the tops aren’t too tight, typically, they are not smeared in make-up.  The men will look more put together than your typical American male and are probably a bit more interested in wearing what is currently trending (as opposed to the U.S. khaki pants and blue blazer ensemble).  However, they will not be too over the top either and they would never look like they have tried too hard.  And that, the whole “don’t-look-like-you’re-trying-thing”, is why I think this look can be so hard to achieve; with a casually draped scarf and hair thrown up in a messy bun they are able to exude the attitude of:

“Why would I dress up?  I don’t need to impress anyone because I am so cool as I am, obviously. ( I mean, I am French, no?)”

As an American I find this hard to pull off.

First of all, I do want to impress you, it is inherently part of my culture; I’m aching for you to like me…immediately (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs/).  I am desperately uncool because of this desire and have never been able to convincingly achieve blasé-ness (a quality that the French have, without a doubt, perfected).  So even, if I were to leave the house with a “casual cool” look I would then ask you if you thought it was okay.

“What do you think?  Is it too casual?  Can I pull this off?  Do I look stupid?”

I’m not even sure the French would understand the questions.

“Why do you want to know what I think?  I don’t understand.  Oh wait, is this what insecurity is?  I have never witnessed it before.  Interesting, I don’t like it, it is not attractive; this makes you seem desperate, no?” 

Yes, yes it does; and this desperation completely destroys any aspect of a “casual” or “cool” look that I attempt.

Second of all, I was raised in the southern United States (any Southerner reading this need not bother with the following explanation but for the rest of you…).  The southern U.S. is not a place that greatly values the natural look.  When my grandmother was on oxygen in a nursing home she still had her hair and nails done every other week.  In fact, the nursing home had a salon in-house for just such a purpose…every Southern lady goes to her grave with perfectly coiffed hair.  The clothes and the make-up are another thing.  I was taught from a very young age that a lady never leaves the house without make-up on, even if you are just popping out to the store; and I distinctly remember having to fight for faded jeans (let alone ripped) because they were “tacky”.  Basically, southern women do not do “casual” well; we are either looking fabulous or in workout clothes…with make-up on.  If I try to pull off a “relaxed” bed-head look I seriously just look like I rolled out of bed.  I cannot figure out how to give it that perfectly unfussy appearance the way the French women can.

So, I am destined to live in France surrounded by “casual cool”, a look that I will never quite manage.  In the meantime, I will happily forgo any further attempts at attractive messy hair, continue to wear workout clothes on the street, and over dress for parties.

The Long Goodbye

“Um, I think I’ll just wait in the car.”  I say this to my American friend who is in town visiting.  We are in Chateauneuf du Pape and she and MB are about to go inside and pay the nice family who owns the B&B we stayed at.

“Are you sure?”  My friend asks me.

“Oh yeah, I’m good here.  You two go ahead.”  I smile at her.

“Alrighty, we’ll be back in a minute!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” I think to myself.  “I seriously doubt that.”

French goodbyes are not what I am accustomed to.  I am American; there, we just get up, say thank you, and leave; if it involves friends or family then there could be hugging.  That’s about it; conversation happens in advance of the goodbye.  In France, they do things differently.  No one is worried about rushing off, so they take their time…sometimes, a very long time.

Often, when I do finally manage to extricate myself from these situations I am sweating slightly and have an increased heart rate, possibly the beginning stages of a panic attack.  These long, drawn out goodbyes make me crazy.  They test three inherent parts of my personality against one another:  1) my absolute abhorrence to being rude, 2) my complete and utter lack of patience, 3) my intense hatred of boredom.

A typical scenario might progress somewhat like this:

We get up to leave and our hosts follow us to the door.

“Boh…bah merci, huh?”  MB says to our hosts.  “It was so good to see you, we should get together more often, blah blah blah (insert: the stuff you always say when you leave your friends).”

They return the sentiment.

We kiss them and any other remaining guests goodbye, they kiss us goodbye.  We open the door.  We stand in the doorway.

NOW –This is the moment when an American would depart…but we are in France.

“I Hope it’s not raining outside,” says the host.

“Ugh, did you see that horrible April we’ve had,” says his partner, chiming in.

“I know,” says MB.   “March was great but April, what a nightmare!”

I am standing around waiting, wondering what is happening.  We’ve just finished a four hour evening of cocktails and dinner; couldn’t we have covered this earlier?  Finally, I walk through the door in order to give MB the signal to wrap it up (he is still discussing the weather).

“Alright, well bye then,” I offer once more, cheerfully.  “This was really wonderful; I loved everything!”  I throw in a little extra niceness so that I can assure myself I am being super polite.  I mean, I did have a good time; I am just ready for it to end now.

MB is still inside and is about to join me.  I can taste the freedom; suddenly, another guest from inside pipes up.

“By the way, how’s work?”  He is looking at MB.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! 

MB turns to him and begins, yet another, conversation.  I stand politely, listening.

“So, how have you been?”

ACK!  I’ve been attacked!

“You like France?”

“Are you joking,” I think to myself, looking at the party guest speaking to me.  “You haven’t spoken to me the entire evening, why now?  When I am literally half-way in the hallway!  I would have loved to chat with you earlier and make friends, you seem nice; but not at 2am, in a hallway, after a four-course extravaganza!”

… 20 minutes later.

MB and I have both completed our conversations and are once more heading towards the exit.

“Before leaving, you’re gonna take a bit of that chocolate cake with you, yes,” our host asks.

I start to wonder if we will ever get out of here.

“Nooo, no, no, it’s fine, really,” says MB.

“No, we insist! Jean! Cut a bit of chocolate cake and put it in a ziplock bag; what do you mean we don’t have ziplock bags anymore? Find something!”

… 10 minutes later.

We are both outside the door, cake in hand.

“Okay, so goodbye then,” call our hosts.

“Bye,” we say.

“Oh, and don’t forget to vote on Sunday!”

“Did you see this campaign,” MB returns.

What is happening

What do you think is going to happen there?”

Several voices pipe up, speaking in animated tones.

If I still had the energy I would give MB my santé death stare lasers eyes but it is too late.  I crumple to the floor and pass out from “goodbye fatigue” while the French people stand around continuing to talk.

*A big thanks to MB who provided many of the ideas for this post!

Dirty Old Men Give Love Too

So, I am at the grocery store down the street from our apartment, being sulky.  I’m having one of those days when I hate living in France.  I’m feeling frustrated by language barriers and sick of being a stranger in a stranger land.  As I am standing in line a new register opens and the clerk that I know well waves me over.
“Yes,” he says.  “You can come and see me!”  He is grinning.

I know this clerk well, a slightly older gentleman, he is always very friendly and always eager to chat in English and encourage me to speak in French.  I never get away from this store without him chatting with me.  I groan inwardly, and smile outwardly as I make my way over to his lane; I am so not in the mood for this today.  As he is ringing things up, he asks if I want a sack for my items and I say “no thank you”.  I have my purse and can fit most of the stuff in there.  “Okay,” he says.  He then pulls a bunch of bananas from under the counter and hands them to me.

“You would like some bananas,” he asks.

I smile weakly.  “No, thanks so much,” I say.  I like bananas but I’m feeling too pouty to be cheered up.

“You don’t need a sack, you don’t want bananas.  This is no good,” he says with a mischievous look on his face.

Again, I smile.  I don’t really know what is going on.

He then whips out a bag, puts the bananas in it and begins to pack the rest of my belongings.

“See?  See what I have to do?  I am powerless against you,” he says with dramatic flair.  “I love you, I can’t resist you!  You must take my gift!”

This is said loudly.  The middle-aged woman in line behind me snickers.  I burst out laughing.  What other reaction could there possibly be to such absurdity?

The clerk hands me the sack with profound satisfaction.  He is so proud of himself.

I couldn’t help but smile the whole way home.

This is not the only time I’ve had something like this happen in France.  I’ve been bestowed with free oranges, “for the beautiful young lady; to see her has been a gift to me so I must give a gift to her” and been handed tomatoes with suggestive winks.  There is a certain type of French male that seems to adore this type of ridiculous flirting.

At a recent market stop, the farmer engaged me in conversation.

“Ah, you are American,” he says.  “I was once in love with an American.”

He smiles at his friends.

“And you are so charming, you must take a gift,” he says this as he puts a courgette in my bag.  “Ah, you must be breaking hearts throughout France.”

I smile.  “No, I am engaged,” I say.

“Ah, but in France this does not matter,” he says in return with a wicked grin before kissing my hand and sending me on my way.

As an American, I love this type of over-the-top flirtation and it never ceases to make me giggle.  It perfectly fulfills my Captain Renault, Pepe LePew stereotype of the French Lothario but without making me feel creeped out.  Growing up, the words “French men” (or really just European men) would induce a general female “tsk tsk”.  I would listen to them talk about trips to Europe and was ingrained with a sense of: BEWARE, SEXUAL PREDATORS, NO YOUNG AMERICAN GIRL IS SAFE!

“Those European men will just follow you down the street and shout all sorts of things.”

“Oh, and the FRENCH, well, they just never will give up, will they?  So persistent.”

“You just have to be so careful with European men.”

And I don’t know, I guess some of this is still true for a young innocent girl going to Europe for the first time (assuming there are any young innocent girls left).  But I am in my 30’s, I am engaged; the young men don’t so much make runs at me.  Instead, I get the old-timers.  I get the men who are reclaiming a bit of their youth for a few minutes by making a girl blush and their friends laugh.  They are re-enacting a play and I am more than happy to participate.

At the end of the day, what can I say?  I’m a sucker for flowery language, hand-kissing, and dramatic proclamations of love from dirty old men.  It makes me laugh, it makes me feel irreverent, and it can cure even the worst of moods.

Capitaine France!

The French make a lot of sounds.  I’m not talking about pronunciation of their language, such as the elusive “r” sound or little things they say like “voila” and “oh la la”.  I mean, we all know about those because how else would we be able to make fun of a stereotypical French accent when we want to (and let’s face it, at some point in everyone’s life you will want to)?  No, I’m talking about noises; sounds that the French make constantly that are not based on any particular word.  There are three examples that come to mind:

“pffffff”  to make this sound exhale out of a barely opened mouth that is relaxed.  This is primarily used when one finds something irritating.  The level of irritation is irrelevant.  I will provide the following two examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                   “The boss just called a meeting for tomorrow morning.”                                                               “C’est vrai?  Pfffff”.

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                     “The doctor says that we will have to amputate.”                                                                           “Merde.  C’est vrai?”                                                                                                                            “Oui.”                                                                                                                                                  “Pfffff”.

“uuuP” to make this sound basically just say “upsy daisy” without the “sy” or the “daisy”.  It’s like pronouncing “up” as though the word were going to continue past the “p”.  This is most commonly used at the completion of a task or perhaps mid-task.  Examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                 MB is whining about not having any cheese, I go and retrieve it and as I hand it to him I say  “uuuP”.

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                             A waiter reaches across me to remove a plate, as he picks it up he says “uuuP”.

“pbt” to make this sound, blow air out of a stiff mouth that is just open in the middle, your tongue should go from the bottom of your mouth to the top, this should be done quickly (yes, I am sitting here making these sounds over and over again trying to figure out a way to describe them).*  This sound is used sort of like a punctuation, usually of a definitive statement.  Examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                “I’m going to take this parking spot even though it is illegal. Pbt.”

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                 “Do you think that we should save the rest of the foie gras?”                                                “No, I will keep eating it until I am sick. Pbt.”

After a year in France, these sounds have even started creeping into my vernacular and it amuses me every time I let one slip.  I mean, Americans don’t have little noises that they make; unless you count general whoopin’ and hollerin’ (I go Southern with certain words) which is hardly as charming as “uuuP” or as coolly blasé as “pfffff”.  These sounds in French lend a cartoon-like essence to the language, and really, to the French themselves.  Sort of like an old Batman comic but instead of the sound bubbles saying things like “kapow!” or “zap!” they would say “uuuP!” and “pfffff.”.

My version would go something like this:

Capitaine France Strikes Again! 

By day he is just another disgruntled, chain-smoking Parisian; but by night he is Capitaine France!  Protecting the Parisian streets from vulgar tourists and chain restaurants!

A couple in tennis shoes walks by talking loudly in American accents.

“Well June, I don’t know where we should eat.  I don’t see anything I recognize.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake Carl, there’s a TGI Friday’s in the ninth-E-M, we can just go there.”

After stubbing out his cigarette, in swoops Capitaine France flying overhead.  He throws a stinky cheese bomb down at the couple.

 It makes a loud sound as it hits the ground,uuuP!””.

Suddenly a gaseous odor enters the air.  The couple both starts hacking and coughing.  After a minute, they both become high from the smell being emitted from the cheese; they walk off like zombies towards a cute French bistro.  Satisfied, Capitaine France begins to fly off but not before a sleazy promoter steps in front of the couple.

“Don’t go to this place, instead you should go to Café Americain, they serve burgers.  Here is a brochure.”

For a moment, the couple is snapped out of their trance.  Horrified, Capitaine France turns back and throws his lethal baguettes at the sleazy promoter.

He lets out a “pfffff”” as he throws them. 

The lethal baguettes do their job and the couple continues into the cute French bistro.  Capitaine France finally lands in front of the restaurant.

“Mon travail est fini,” he proclaims as he pour a glass of red wine.

“pbt” 

*In the movie French Kiss, Kevin Kline tries to pull of this sound multiple times; there is an example in the last few seconds of this trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF9xsk3tmoA. Sadly, I can’t find a proper French example.