Cheeseburgers in Paradise

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

MB rolls his eyes.

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

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

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

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

His grasp tightens.

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

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

“They are there,” I say, stunned.

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

That is open.

Past one pm.

On a Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give him a face but laugh anyway.

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

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

“I know you will, baby.”

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

“OUAIS!”  MB responds before crossing the street.

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

Genetics and Aperitif

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

“Because I’m not French.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quoi!  C’est bizarre!”

“Ouais, mais elle est Americaine…”

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

They eat horses, don’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t react.

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

“Quoi?” 

This was the end of the conversation.

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

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

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

I have now eaten horse on two occasions. 

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

Will you be my friend? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

 “What are you doing?”  I bury my face in my hands.  “Oh my god, you are so embarrassing!”

“Quoi?” replies my boyfriend (his typical response to everything).  He is standing on the edge of a group of people at a bar, looking at them but saying nothing.

“You are practically stalking them, stop!  Seriously, come back to the table.”  I am whispering in that loud, half-scream whisper, my eyes widened for impact. 

 “What is your problem?  I was trying to see what they were saying.  They seem cool.”  He says, once he has reluctantly returned to our table. 

“I know they seem cool but you can’t force it!  You have to let them come to us, ya know?”  I say this just as someone from the group looks our way.  I flash the supposed “cool kid” an overly friendly smile and get nothing in return.  “Ugh.  This place is stupid; we’re not going to meet anyone.”

 “Hey, what about that guy we met last weekend, let’s text him,” my boyfriend suggests.

“I don’t know; do you think it’s too soon?  I don’t want to scare him off.”

“Yeah, maybe…” 

We take a sip of wine and ponder this momentarily.

“No, I mean, he seemed to like us, right?  I think we can text.” 

Ahhh…the human ability to rationalize.  

I have found that making friends in a new city is very much like trying to date.  You go to the bars that you think the desired people will be, and then sit close to them in hopes of there being some incident that will allow you to start a conversation; you smile too easily and too often at too many people.  You force yourself to go out even when you are tired because you might meet someone, and you think hard about when and under what pretext you should contact a new person so that you don’t seem too needy.

My boyfriend and I are currently in the midst of this struggle, constantly trying to think of ways that we can meet more people.  But, the reality is that we just have to be patient and go with the flow.  The general consensus seems to be that it takes about 3-6 months to make friends when you move to a new city (a period of time that you magically forget ever existed after you have made friends) and you never know how it is going to happen.  I’ve met friends at apartment visits, while getting pedicures, even a walk around the block has turned into an impromptu dinner with strangers.  You can’t predict the “when” or the “how” but it is always when you least expect it. 

So, we will continue to endure and await the unexpected, but until then, stay alert and watch out, we might be stalking at a bar near you.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

As a good ol’ Anglo-Saxon, the idea of kissing strangers is extremely uncomfortable to me.  Growing up in my household, it was considered perfectly adequate to give a firm handshake to family members, let alone strangers.  So, arriving in France and having every third person leaning in for the kill practically induced panic attacks.   In addition to the initial discomfort, I struggled with the rules of “when” and “where” to apply the kissing.  Which strangers do you kiss and which ones do you not kiss?  Do you kiss for every occasion?  It was confusing, nerve-racking, and sweat-inducing (sort of like junior high school).  Sometimes there would be the hesitant lean-in/lean-out to see who would come in first and sometimes there would be the “head dance” when both parties awkwardly went for the same side; often I would lean in with hesitance and then almost robotically shoot my arm forward for a handshake, wallowing in the relief of avoiding another invasion of personal space.  My boyfriend tried to help me as best he could but he is a man, and as such isn’t quite as in tune to the devastation of social faux pas as I am.

About a week after arriving in France and still ripe with jet-lag, my boyfriend and I were invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house.  I had met the couple hosting but would not know any of the other guests and was, understandably, nervous.  My abilities in French were dismal and my comprehension of social mores was elementary, at best.  Dread welled in my breast as we walked to the apartment; what would I get wrong? 

The arrival went smoothly, the hosts opened the door and initiated the kissing but I still felt uneasy; I took my glass of wine and stood in the corner, palms sweating, heart-racing, unable to relax until everyone had arrived.  The next couple walked confidently over and kissed me with no hesitation, and then I started to calm down, lured into a false sense of security.  This is going to be fine, I thought.  Finally, the last of the party arrived.  The woman approached me first; she was more timid and less-confident than the others.  Someone else made the introduction and then we just stood there and stared at each other.  It was like some terrible, awkward western film, both of our heads vibrating nervously, like hands at the sides of pistols.  I looked around for help; was I supposed to go in first or was that weird?  She continued to stare, wordlessly, motionlessly.  It was an inexorably long two minutes.  Finally, my boyfriend came over and said, “You are supposed to kiss her.”  He looked at me like I should have known better; everyone looked at me like I should have known better.  I’m not from here, I wanted to scream; no one has told me these things! 

I was so humiliated; I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when the bellman is waiting for a tip and she says, “What are you lookin’ at”, before realizing what she was meant to do.  Is this what my life has been reduced to, I thought.  Is being an American in France like being a hooker at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel?  Tears welled in my eyes and my lip acquired the slightest tremble, this time not from the fear of kissing, but from utter mortification.  I wanted to run out of the room and escape the eyes that I was so sure were full of judgment and disapproval.  But that was not an option and instead I did something that I have never managed to do too well; I laughed at my own foolish mistake, and then I laughed again, genuinely, at the absurdity of this woman and me staring at each other in the middle of the room.  Then everyone else started laughing and offering kind words.

“It is very hard at the beginning”

“Yes, I remember having to use handshakes and it was so odd!”

“You will learn, don’t worry!”

The rest of the night went by naturally and without event. 

In France, as in life, I will continue to make mistakes and wrong turns, but if I can manage to laugh when crying makes more sense then I think I will have made a success of it.  Even a hooker at the Wilshire can keep her sense of humor.

Dinner will be from 6pm-2am

The French do not know how to leave a dinner table.  This may sound quite basic, and one might think, “yes, of course, we all know that they like a long dinner.”  This is not what I mean; I like a long dinner, too.  What I mean is that an hour after the meal has ended and the wine has gone dry and the conversation become dull, the French remain.  Everyone knows that the meal is over, everyone is dying to get up and go home and sleep off their cheese coma, but no one makes the move; we sit. 

 I have now spent several dinners like this screaming in my head and thinking ‘dear god, why?!’  Even at aperitif there seems to be confusion about how to shift into ‘fin’.  Our new neighbor came over for aperitif, and we all sat and chatted amiably for two hours.  Around 9 o’clock, I began to feel fidgety; I had offered him another drink which he declined and he had mentioned twice that we probably wanted to eat dinner, yet there they sat, he and my boyfriend both trying to figure out a graceful way to finish and leave.  Finally, out of sheer desperation I used the good old American “Well!” and slapped my hands down on the arms of my chair; they snapped-to but I felt hopelessly uncouth. 

 So how does one handle this situation?  What is the right course of action?  No-dose?  Perhaps pick up a speed habit?  Sometimes I look longingly at my boyfriend to try to pass him the hint that it is time to go, and sometimes I use the “golly, what time is it?” line; but usually I just sit back and try to relax (something, that as an American, I have trouble doing).  I try to remember that my hosts are kind and gracious and would gladly keep me overnight at the table if I were so inclined. 

 So, my advice?  Enjoy your meal (which you undoubtedly will in France), enjoy the company, and always accept coffee when it is proffered.

Small Victories

“Immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a foreign language,” everyone says.  This may be true in the long run, but in the short term it’s madness.  You have to battle anxiety just to take a walk around the neighborhood for fear that someone might speak to you.  Clearly this opinion is espoused by people who either have an unhealthy amount of self-confidence, or have never done it.  Now yes, I listened to my CDs relentlessly before coming, and I thought that I knew enough to get around, but in real life no one speaks like they do on language CDs.  Hearing a woman repeat the word ‘l’appartement’ 50 times with perfect enunciation does nothing for me when I hear people use it in conversation.  Last week, we had a maid come to clean our ‘appartement’ and she and I had so much trouble understanding each other that I eventually went to google-translate and typed my question in and showed it to her.  “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

So when I arrived at my Boucher’s yesterday and he began peppering me with questions I was, understandably, unnerved.  I froze, my palms sweating, my mind racing.  Please God, don’t let me be the disappointing foreigner (insert: American) who hasn’t bothered to learn the language!  Desperately I searched my mind trying to pick up a word or two out of the sentences that I understood so that I could figure out what he was asking me (note: I would like to thank my Elementary School teachers for enforcing  the importance of context clues upon me).  Then, like the sun from behind the clouds, recognition dawned in my brain:  he wanted to know how long I had been here.  By some miracle, I answered…perfectly.  He understood me and continued with the questions until we had completed a civil and relatively informative conversation.  YES!

“Okay,” you might be thinking.  “You spoke to your butcher; that’s totally amazing.” (eye roll)

Well.  It is. 

This is one of the great things about traveling and moving overseas that no one ever tells you about and which I am finding even more true when there is a language barrier:  you get to become a child again (in the best sense, not in the ‘people telling you what to do all the time’ sense).  Managing to accomplish little tasks is a big deal and feels amazing!  When you have just moved to a new country and you are figuring things out, everything is a triumph.  When you figure out how to open your bank account or set up your cell phone; you feel impressed with yourself.  You may have lived in a large and complicated city back home, you may have street smarts, but the first time you navigate the subway or tram system in your new town you will give yourself a pat on the back.  When a stranger asks you for directions and you can give them you will feel oh-so-cool.  And yes, the first time you manage to understand what someone is saying and how to respond to them you will feel like skipping all the way home. 

It’s a beautiful reminder that travel gives you; the reminder to appreciate yourself and your ability to adapt and learn things.  The reminder to challenge yourself, come what may!  As a child we have these moments all the time; every new thing we learn fills us with a sense of pride and elation at our own ability to have accomplished something.  And why should that ever change? 

So, merci Monsieur Boucher, I appreciate the gentle reminder…oh and the caillettes were good too!