To Be or Not to Be…Why Ask the Question?

Cultural Differences, Holidays in France, Life in General, Travel in France

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  -Voltaire

Just last month, my husband (we’ll call him MB) and I were in Paris during the train (SNCF) strikes. During this strike something like 2 out of every 3 trains was cancelled and we arrived at the Paris Gare de Lyon to find that our train back to Grenoble had been one of the unlucky ones. After talking to multiple SNCF staff, it was explained that they could not issue us new tickets as ours were not exchangeable but we could board the next train with our old tickets and we were “sure” to get a seat. My reaction was something like this:

Uh, I’m sorry, what? You are not going to issue another ticket? I’m just supposed to take a chance that what you are suggesting will work out and that we’ll manage to get two randomly free seats in the middle of 3 train’s worth of people trying to board?!?

!!!!!!!!

Oui, apparently that is exactly what we were supposed to do.

So we sat and we waited, having no idea whether or not we would manage to get on the following train that was leaving in 3 hours. As the minutes ticked by, my anxiety grew, I was practically bouncing around with nervous energy. What if we didn’t get on, what was the plan then? Would we stay in Paris for the night? Did I need to start calling friends to try and find a place to crash? Maybe we should just take the hit and purchase brand new tickets? The uncertainty was making me crazy but to my surprise, when I looked around the jam-packed train station, most people seemed pretty zen.

“It’s amazing,” I said. “How is everyone so calm and quiet when no one knows what is going on? In the U.S. people would be flipping out or commiserating with strangers or…flipping out*.”

MB looked around and thought for a second or two. “Maybe we are just more philosophical.”

***

I do not deal well with change.

Now, I don’t mean change as in: “if only women hadn’t gotten the vote” way, but rather: “what do you mean we’re going out to dinner tonight?” When I have organized or arranged something and it changes at the last minute, my brain slams into overdrive, regardless of whether this is a positive change or not.

It goes something like this:

Stage 1: Panic.                                                                                                                                               

OHMEGAWD, what is happening? I’m spinning in circles? Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway, there is no rhyme or reason to anything in the world. Apparently, things just happen…(this thought then creates further panic)

Stage 2: Doomsday.

Well, it’s all over. I might as well just sit down. I mean, why do I even try anymore? Nothing will ever work out the way it is supposed to…EVER. Life is just one ironical joke.

Stage 3: Recalibration.                                                                                  

Recalibrating…recalibrating…recalibrating.

Stage 4: Epiphany/denial.

Phew…well, lookie-there, the perfect solution just presented itself. In fact, this option is actually better than the original plan anyway. Things always just fall into place, it’s a good thing I handle situations like this so well. I really keep a cool head and just go with the flow.

All of these stages are wildly verbal and come with gobs of explanations to whomever might be with me when said change occurs (usually MB who is shell-shocked by my range in emotions…never a dull moment with me, right babe?). He, on the other hand, accepts change with calmness and perspective, he becomes quiet and considers things before reacting. While I’m having a melt-down like this:

He is more like this:

Maybe this behavior is based on my need for control (whaaaaaaat…yeah, I’m a little bit of a control freak) but could it also be a cultural difference? Could it be that my French husband handles change better than I do because of philosophical edification?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I took philosophy at University so I guess I sort of know the basics but not like a French person. The French take philosophy to a whole new level. They have Descartes, Sartre, Camus…and that barely scratches the surface. For centuries they have been churning out one philosopher after another and, perhaps as a result, take the study more seriously.

Not long ago, during a visit from my Parents, MB happened to mention that when he was in high school Philosophy was a required class…required. My Mother (a teacher) erupted into surprised exclamations.

“PHILOSOPHY?!” She demanded.

Philosophy?!” She questioned.

“Philosophy…in high school?” She queried.

MB gave her a Gallic shrug. “Oauis…c’est normale, non?”

Non, my little cabbage, not across the pond.

My experience was that philosophy was encouraged only in higher education but not considered an integral part of one’s academic life**. So, I took my requisite course and was taught about questioning everything….blah blah blah. However, it didn’t really take, my general reaction to philosophy was a sort of mild disgust:

Why ask all these abstract questions? Can’t these people just make a decision already?  I mean, all this dithering around, it’s exhausting! Just CHOOSE something! Yes or no, right or wrong!”

It seemed the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake was lost on me. I didn’t want to pursue knowledge, I wanted to know.

Absolutes are where my happy place is, which is, perhaps, why change unnerves me so completely. I don’t want a world full of questions and unpredictability. I am the person who checks the weather obsessively, plans detailed trips 6 months in advance, who rarely makes last minute plans or accepts last minute invitations. I like to know what is coming and to be prepared for it.

My philosophy: Why inquire when you can answer?

***

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

-Camus

When they finally called for our train, MB and I ran towards it and hopped into the car that was listed on our old tickets. However, since the train had changed, so had the seating, and our old seats didn’t exist (cue more panicking)

“This looks good, non?” MB said, pointing at two seats.

I looked around, frantic, trying to think if there was some way to beat the system, to be organized about this, but we were trapped. There were hoards of people getting on and it was only a matter of time before all the seats were gone anyway…so we sat. Every minute felt like an eternity, as one person after another was ejected from randomly found seats, such as ours, by rightful ticket-holders.

“We should have bought the new tickets, we should have just BOUGHT the new tickets.”

My blood-pressure was through the roof. Each new person who entered the train was a threat. Whilst I was internally losing it, MB was unpacking…seemingly certain that we would remain in our seats. How could this be? There was no way of knowing! We didn’t even know what we would do if we got booted off the train, we didn’t know where we would go or how we would get home.

So many questions and no way to have an answer.

I jumped when the doors to the train finally slammed shut, sweet relief flooding through me. It was unbelievable, we were sitting in the only two seats in our entire car that hadn’t been booked by someone else. We had made it…even though there hadn’t been a plan.

And what would have been the major drama if we hadn’t kept our seats? We would have sat in the aisles or by the bathrooms like all the other poor people packed on our train or we would have waited for the next one. As the denial/epiphany stage washed over me, I felt a great sense of calm. Perhaps in future, I should be more contemplative before having a melt-down, perhaps I should embrace the French philosophical perspective instead of going straight into panic-mode. I should start asking questions and searching for the meaning of life, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in cafés while reading Neitzsche…

Meh. Seems like a lot of trouble.

I may never bother in asking all the questions but perhaps I could manage to follow Camus’ advice and quit searching so hard for the answers. Afterall, there is one great American philosopher whose words I have always valued:

* There were, in fact, people flipping out at the Gare de Lyon but mainly just the ones who were trying to rush onto trains that were leaving, most of the others were pretty chill and calm.

** This was just my educational experience. I know there are people in the USA who study philosophy in high school or more intensively in college.

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A Bachelor Showdown

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences

Last week, the French version of “The Bachelor” (“Le Gentleman Celibataire”) concluded and France and I decided to meet for aperitif to discuss it.

France: Alors, what did you think? Much better than the American version, non?

I let out a sigh and take a big gulp of my kir.

Me: Why do you have to phrase everything like that? I mean, don’t tell me something is bad and then ask for my confirmation, it is so antagonistic.

Now France lets out a sigh.

France: Mon dieu! It is you who is being antagonistic right now, non?

I give France a flat look and decide that the irony is not going to be recognized.

Me: Yeah, it was good. MB and I enjoyed it, we watch the U.S. one as well. BACHELOR NATION, WOOP WOOP!

France is nonplussed by my display of enthusiasm.

Me: Anyway, it was cool to see all the funny cultural differences.

France: Like what?

France pulls out a cigarette and takes a sip of pastis.

Me: Hmm…well, like some of the basic behaviors of the women were really different.

France: Mais, bien sur, French women and American women are not the same.

Me: Well, we are all women…

France gives me a look as though that is questionable.

Me: BUT, we were raised in really different cultures, so guess that is part of it. Like, the French women were so much more reserved, hardly any tears during the whole season. I also couldn’t believe how some of them complained about the “Gentleman Celibataire” not being that good-looking! It cracked me up, you would never hear that on the American version. Our women are always so excited and eager.

France: Oui, this is true, you Americaines do not know the art of playing hard to get.

Me: Apparently not! I mean, I couldn’t believe the one girl who wouldn’t get out of the car to meet him, but instead sent him a note telling him to come and retrieve her from the vehicle. Blech! I was so surprised that he kept her around after that.

France: But of course he did! This was a very charming thing for her to do.

Me: Really? I don’t get it. In the U.S. that would be considered high-maintenance.

France: Soooo…??

Me: We don’t consider high-maintenance to be an attractive quality.

France: Ah bon? C’est bizarre. Americain societé is so confusing. Okay, so what else did you find different?

Me: Hmmm…well, it seemed that, overall, the women on the French version looked more natural than on our version – you know, less make-up, messy but nice hair, the girl who came out in overalls the first night…stuff like that.

France: Ouais, mais bien sur! You American women do not have subtlety. The art of being understated, this is what is truly sexy. In France, you do not need to have all this maquillage on your face and every single hair brushed into place. Americans always think that to be attractive you must have the tight, revealing dress but the French, we are not-

Me: Oh, let’s pump the brakes for a minute.

France: Quoi?

France is all innocence and takes a drag off the cigarette.

Me: I mean, I will agree on hair and make-up but you can’t claim that the “naked dress” was an example of French subtlety. That was like the least subtle dress I’ve ever seen in my life.

France: I don’t know what you are talking about, I’m sure it was very nice, you just don’t understand style.

I pull up a video on my phone and hold it up, France turns red before quickly looking away.

France: Okay, so there was one dress that was, perhaps…a bit much.

Me: And the rugby game in string bikinis? I mean, women wearing next to nothing running around a field and tackling each other? Was that subtle too?

France scoffs.

France: Oh la la la la…you make me so tired sometimes. You can’t even understand the subtlety of what I was trying to say, huh? And please, in U.S. you are constantly showing things much more vulgar than this.

Me: Alright, fair enough. I’m just saying that “people in glass houses…”

France: Shouldn’t walk around naked?

Me: Something like that.

France: So, what else was different? Because of course, I wouldn’t know, I have never watched it; I try not to watch American television.

I roll my eyes.

Me: I don’t know. I mean, obviously, I missed our host. He has been on the show since the beginning and is just part of the experience, I guess. In the French one, the host wasn’t really around too much.

France: But why should he be? He just needs to be there to move things along.

Me: Meh…I don’t know, I like having the host be more involved.

France: Pfff…it is too much…this Chreez ‘Arrison.

Me: I thought you never watched it? How do you know his name?

France looks away and takes a long drink of pastis.

France: Quoi? I don’t know, maybe I have seen one or two episodes.

Me: Ha! You love it, don’t you?

A look of irritation is thrown my way.

France: Anyway, this is not the point, the point is that it is much nicer without this American host always butting his nose in, huh?!

My hands ball into fists.

Me: You better watch it, France. Don’t nobody talk trash about Chris Harrison! You got that?!

France tries to shrug but I can tell that my message got across.

France: Well, there is no argument that the Bachelor himself was much better in the French one, huh?

Me: Why does there have to be a winner and a loser? Can’t we just compare the differences?

France blinks at me uncomprehending.

France: Je ne comprends pas.

Me: Why does every conversation have to be a competition?

France: Because, then what is the point?

I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a major part of the French psyche. But moving on…

Me: Okay, whatever. So yeah, I liked your Gentleman Celibataire. He was good-looking and he seemed pretty nice. Although, his clothes were a riot, eh? Like, the yellow pants? What was that about?

France looks at me like I am crazy.

Me: No, they were nice, just, you know, different.

France: Ah ouais, these stupid khak-eez that you all wear are so much better. Pfff…

Me: France, I was not trying to be ugly and you know it, I was just saying that he had a fun, colorful style, not that he-

France cuts me off.

France: Don’t worry, Americaine, EES OKAY!

I shriek in horror and clap my hand over my mouth.

Me: Is that a Juan Pablo reference?!

France shrugs but has a knowing smile.

Me: How dare you?! That was a dark time for Bachelor Nation…I can’t believe you would bring that up!

France: No, but really EES. O. Kay.

Me: Alright then, that is how it is going to be? At least Juan Pablo and Nikki are still together…your fabulous little Bachelor couldn’t even stick it out until the “Girls Tell All” episode, he had already broken up with her!

A flash of anger crosses Frances face.

France: He chose the wrong girl, huh? Everyone could see it. She was charming, of course, but there were no complications with her, she was no challenge, she was too enthusiastic and available. He should have recognized that this would become boring quickly.

Me: Oh, now you are just talking crazy. She was the nicest one on the show, in fact, she was my favorite from the beginning!

France: Oh la la, of course she was and doesn’t that just say it all?

Me: Awwww…France…don’t worry…ees okay.

 

 

Quickie: Advice for Americans

Cultural Differences

This is just a quick post with a link to an excellent video from the website Comme Une Francaise which can give Americans some advice on how to behave in France.  This would be helpful for those of you travelling for a vacay and certainly for business.   I wish I had watched this before I moved over!

A real post will be coming soon…but for the moment, enjoy!

 

Broken by Breakfast

Cultural Differences, French Food

My French husband (we’ll call him MB) and I are staying at an adorable B&B in Burgundy. The rooms are trés charmant, decorated with seasonal accents, the beds are sublime, we have a back patio over-looking the vineyards, there is even the requisite sweet old dog who roams around and lets you pet her. It is the typical French B&B, delightful and sweet, oozing with charm; but like every B&B in France, for me, it has a tragic flaw, and yes, I mean “tragic” like, “Icharus that sun is gonna melt your wings, dude” tragic. A flaw that destroys the very essence of the B&B…

MB and I enter the breakfast room in the morning and seat ourselves at the table, surrounded by the host and other guests. We all smile and say good morning to each other and then I turn to MB and, silently, we have the following conversation through a series of facial expressions:

My look: One eye brow raised, chewing on one side of face.                                                                                                                                           Corresponding words: I told you so.

MB’s look: Flat, steely eyes, and weird plastic smile at the same time.                                                                                                                                                    Corresponding words: Don’t start.

My look: Both eyebrows raised in accusation while appraising the table followed by a slight shoulder shrug.                                                                                                               Corresponding words: But what am I supposed to do with this? (“this” referring to the food)

MB’s look: Broad smile while picking up a huge hunk of baguette slathered with butter and taking an enormous bite.                                                                                                         Corresponding words: Eat it, weirdo, this is ah-mah-zing.

My look: Curled upper lip while disdainfully picking up a container of yogurt.                                                                                                                              Corresponding words: Yogurt is the lamest!

MB’s look: Staring at me intently while licking the top of the yogurt lid.                                                                                                                                                 Corresponding words: Yogurt is dead sexy.

My look: Full-on eye-roll with a slight shake of the head before getting up and leaving the table.                                                                                                                                                      Corresponding words: You are so strange, this breakfast is SUPER disappointing,PEACE!

SCENE

Okay, so I’m pretty sure that people are going to flip out about this but after careful consideration I’ve decided to “out” myself. So…here it is, y’all:

I do not like French breakfasts.

Man, that feels good to say. Bacon and eggs, did you hear that? Finally, we are free!

Now, before you start coming after me with pitchforks, let me clarify; I love croissant and pain au chocolat (I mean flour, butter, and chocolate…what’s not to like) but that is something that I think should be served with breakfast, not as breakfast (I am not talking weekdays but rather weekend and vacation breakfasts). I am a believer in protein for breakfast, protein and some sort of a HSS (hot starch situation).

(What is she even talking about, a hot starch situation? What does that even mean? She is so weird.)

*AHEM*

I want eggs, bacon, sausage, even smoked salmon will do; I want hash browns, GRITS*, and if I am in the Commonwealth, baked beans; I even want some veggies – tomatoes, mushrooms, avocadoes (yes, yes, I know avos are technically a fruit). Basically, I want salt, fat, and heartiness.

However, this is not how breakfast goes down in France. In a French B&B, the breakfast that you pay for is going to be baguette, butter, jam (usually some fabulously delicious, homemade out of the garden variety served in adorable little jars…you know, if you like that sort of thing), yogurt or faisselle**, fruit, and maybe the aforementioned croissant or pain au chocolat. And ça sera tout – that will be all. There will be no eggs or HSS, no meat whatsoever, and while faisselle is technically cheese, it is rather sweet with the consistency of chunky yogurt and is a different experience altogether than typical French cheeses (think cottage cheese). The French simply like their breakfasts to be sweet, light, and room temperature (you will not find a toaster anywhere near a French breakfast).

Now, I realize for some, that this sounds lovely, particularly if you have had a huge, heavy French dinner the night before; but for my weekend breakfast experience to be complete I want something a little more substantial, maybe something that involves hollandaise sauce and multiple courses. Often, my French friends have marveled in surprise when I tell them about breakfast habits of my past:

French Friend: Mais non, ce ne pas possible! Champagne at breakfast?!

Me: Well yeah, when else would you drink a Mimosa? It’s a breakfast drink.”

French Friend: A breakfast drink?

Me: You know, an “eye opener.” In the U.S., we usually start our brunches with booze.

(This is usually when they blink at me, uncomprehending and I being to think, “Wait a minute…is it bad to have a drink first thing in the morning? Are we an entire country of borderline alcoholics? Could this be an unhealthy, worrisome tradition?”)

Me: No, but you don’t understand, it isn’t like a problem or anything, it’s just…um…festive! Yeah, that’s it, it’s festive!

(My French friend continues to look at me, unconvinced.)

Me: Don’t try to get in my head! There is nothing wrong with booze for breakfast! Anyway, you have to have something to get you through all the courses.

French Friend: Courses?

(Now there is intrigue written all over the French friend’s face. Mwahahahahahaha!)

Me: Yeah, for example, in New Orleans brunch is typically a three-course meal***.

French Friend: Mais quoi? C’est incroyable, 3 plates for breakfast.

(I feel an evil streak rising in me as I note the interest and decide to plunge the final nail into the coffin)

Me: Yep, 3 courses, a starter, main and dessert; and at some restaurants you can even have wine pairings.

(That statement usually does it.)

French Friend: But, this is wonderful, this idea. I would like to try this. Really.  Incroyable!

(I smile, basking in the smugness of that rarest of things…a French cultural compliment.)

French Friend: I can’t believe this is American.

(…and, there it is.)

French Friend: Although, you did say this was in Nouvelle Orleans, oui? So really, this is French.

I sigh and wonder if I should try to argue this point, to bring up the simple bread and butter breakfasts of France served with bowls of coffee and nary a menu or champagne cork in sight; or perhaps remind my friend that croissants, that most quintessential French breakfast food, are actually Austrian…but instead, I decide to relent and smile sweetly at my friend.

“Yes,” I say, “Of course. Sometime I’ll have to invite you over for brunch and you can try this Ameri-I mean, French breakfast and see what you think.”

…because after all, no one should be denied a 3-course breakfast and morning booze…particularly, not myself.

* Grits are the most magical of foods and I highly recommend them to everyone.

** Faisselle is actually a big favorite of mine and is often served for dessert at dinners in France or in place of the cheese course. When my Mother was in France a couple of years ago, we woke up to find her raving about the yogurt served for breakfast. “This is the best yogurt I have ever tasted in my life,” she said. We then looked down at the container and told her, “Well, yes, because it isn’t yogurt, it’s cheese!”

*** In case you don’t believe me: http://www.commanderspalace.com/_asset/gx7zq5/3-22-14web.pdf Just reading that menu makes my mouth water.

 

Sweating in Jeans Town

Cultural Differences, Life in General

Oh.  Okay,” I think to myself as I wave at the friend I am meeting.  “So THAT is what we are wearing.”  I walk across the street, briskly, in my spandex pants, sports bra top, and tennis shoes.

After the obligatory kisses hello, we begin our stroll towards the Bastille.

“Are you going to be able to hike in those,” I ask her, looking at her feet.  She is wearing ballet flats, skinny jeans, a fashionable sweater, and a floral scarf whereas I look like I’m about to rip open a protein pack with my teeth while simultaneously checking my heart rate.

“Ouais….,” she responds with a shrug.  “I was out shopping so I just thought I would meet you from town.”

“Alright,” I say, totally unconvinced as I look up at the Napoleonic Fort we are about to attack.

To be clear, the Bastille is not a particularly long hike, only about 3.5 kilometers one-way but, in that 3.5 kilometers, there is a level difference of 300 meters.  You basically feel like spider man scaling a rocky cliff.*

Now, for me, that means wearing shoes made for athletic performance and sweating, probably within the first 5 minutes of the walk (yes, I am a super-sweater) but my European friends and the French seem un-phased by this (Alien alert).    I often meet friends to walk up the Bastille and never once have any of them had on tennis shoes…never.  Not only that, often, they like to stop along the way, take in the view, smoke a cigarette or two…I mean, WHAT?!  This is exercise, people, not a nature walk or Friday night at the bar – it is a serious business, we are here to sweat, to work, to realize how out of shape we are!

But in France, there seems to be a different idea about things.  Left to his own devices (read: my not nagging him to death), MB would go hiking in leather driving shoes or even flip-flops* while I won’t even go hiking in jeans (sweating in jeans is pretty much the worst thing of all time).  Now, obviously, it’s not as though you won’t see French people dressed in appropriate workout attire, of course, you will but they do not deign to wear it unless they are doing something pretty hardcore.

I remember making a remark to MB once regarding a group of women who we passed on the way up to the Bastille one weekday afternoon.

“I don’t get it,” I said to him.  “I mean, did you see what they were wearing?”

The women were in skirts, hose, and slip-on shoes. “How do you exercise in that?”

“Ouaaaaaaais,” he had responded, between panting breaths.  “But they aren’t really exercising, just taking a walk.”

I looked at him like he was crazy as I wiped sweat out of my eyes.  Weren’t we on the same “walk” as these chicks?  Why did we look like we were in the first stages of a stroke while they waltzed blithely by?  Is there some magical European trick in which you can decide whether or not you will exert yourself regardless of the terrain?

I pondered this as we continued the hike up the mountain, happy that I had on my sports bra and wasn’t sweating into the padding (yeah, it’s like that) of one of my nice Victoria’s Secret ones.   I mean, I can just imagine how this would go down in an American workplace:

Coworker: Hey Mike, where are you going for lunch?

Mike: Actually, I think I’m going to climb that mountain outside the office and have lunch up there.

Coworker: What?  Right now?

Mike shrugs. 

Mike:  Yeah.

Coworker:  But…I don’t…I mean, did you plan to do that?

Mike:  Nah, but it seems like a nice idea.

Coworker:  Mike, you can’t just decide to hike a mountain.

Mike:  Why not?  It’s there, it has a trail.

Coworker:  But…what are you going to wear?  You can’t wear your suit!

Mike:  Oh sure I can, do you want to join me?

Coworker:  No thanks…I’ve got a session at the gym with a personal trainer after work…(then under his breath)…like a normal person.

Mike: Suit yourself!

Mike waves and then leave the room.

Coworker:  Geez, I hope Mike isn’t having some sort of mental breakdown or spiritual crisis…maybe I should call his therapist.

SCENE.

In the meantime at a French office…

Colleague:  Bonjour Michel, you are going to the canteen for lunch today?  They are serving Tartiflette!

Michel: Non, merci, I’m actually on my way to meet a personal trainer for a session.

Colleague:  Ah ouais, pourquoi?  You have an injury or you are training for an event?

Michel:  No, no, just to exercise.

Colleague:  Mais, quoi?  Why is it you need to pay someone to exercise?

Michel:  I don’t know, it is nice and organized.  I have a definite start and finish time, I’ve got the showers and all the equipment, you know.

Colleague:  Bah non, I do not know.  To me, this sounds cree-zee.  You want to exercise, go outside like a normal person! (A French person would not bother saying this under their breath)  You know, Michel, there is a mountain right there!

The Colleague points out the window towards the Bastille and Michel just shrugs.

Michel:  Still, I am off to the gym.

Michel leaves the room.

Colleague:  And he doesn’t even stay for Tartiflette…pfff…incroyable.  He must secretly have a very bad injury and is trying to hide it.  I must discuss this with everyone over lunch in the canteen.

SCENE

***

I look back at my well-dressed friend and sigh, I suppose I will forever be the type to “miss the tartiflette,” ensuring that I am always prepared for any potential physical exertion; and I can’t help but worry that in doing so, perhaps I am losing out on the joys that come with having a spontaneous moment in nature.  I mean, is it really so awful if I sweat a bit in clothing that won’t automatically whisk it away from my skin?  Am I so precious that I can’t get a little grime on my feet or dirt under my bra straps? 

“MERDE!”  My friend shouts and I turn around to see what has happened.

Thick, wet mud is oozing out of her black flat and she is flailing about as the miniature swamp beneath her foot threatens to swallow the shoe entirely.

I answer my own questions: yes.

*In my original post I had a bit in here about rate of incline but I am too moronic at math and had it incorrect so I have removed it…and all references to numbers which is wise because they just confuse me. 

** I am not exaggerating.  I have seen him go on hikes wearing flip-flops.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Cultural Differences, French Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Non!”

“Oui!”

“Non!”

“OUI!”

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

The French are a people who have been heavily stereotyped.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

…Okay, so maybe just little a bit.

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

 

 

 

 

Schizofrenchia

Cultural Differences

From the corner of my eye I see my Mother watching me with a wry expression on her face.  I give her a look as if to say “quoi?!” and return to my conversation.  I am discussing, in French, the various differences between French culture and American culture with MB’s family; nothing out of the ordinary is being said so I am perplexed by my Mother’s seeming amusement.  Finally the conversation comes to an end and I stalk over to her in the corner.

“What was that, Mom?”  I ask, while mimicking the face she was giving me during the conversation.

“Oh, nothing,” she replies, fully delighting in her enigmatic-ness (it’s my blog and I’ll make up words if I want to).

“PUH-leeeeeeeeeese,” I say, giving her my lamest look of all time.  “Like I can’t tell when you have something to say.”  I lean towards the table and pour us each a glass of wine, handing one to her.  “So what gives?”

“It’s nothing, it’s just that your personality is really different in French.”

“Huh,” I ask (so provocative, clearly I’m not ever going to have a career in investigative journalism).

“I don’t know,” she continues.  “Your voice changes, you speak more high pitch but more softly, you make different gestures…you just seem more serious or something.”

“AHHHHHHHHH,” I grasp my chest in mock horror.  “Not serious!  How horrible, how upsetting – what will we do?  How will we fix this?!”

The wry look returns to my Mother’s face.

“Case in point,” she says and wanders towards MB and the other Frenchies to talk.

***

For some reason my personality does seem to morph when I speak in French.  I don’t know if it has to do with thinking so hard about what I am saying or if it is something in the nature of the French language* or if it is just that it gives me the feeling of playing a character.

I am not Americain, NON, I am FRANCAISE and must be-ave accordingly.  Do not geeve me deez look, Maman, I am being serious…(*dramatice pause*)…I am being French.”

(Note to parents: this is what happens when you send your child to too many acting classes.)

Ironically, this French “character” of mine is much more toned down than the American version, she is quieter, more pensive (read: trying to pretend she understands what is being said), and more hesitant to speak (read: trying to come up with how to put a sentence together)…in effect, she is a bit more boring.

Recently, I had this conversation with another North American expat** living here in the Grenoble area.  She (being a Canadian) grew up learning French in school and is almost 100% fluent but told me she encounters the same issues.

“I’m just not funny in French,” she lamented to me over a glass of wine (Oh my GAWD, again with the wine, I mean, how much wine does she drink?!?!?  A lot).  “I mean, every time I am with French friends I want to say, “I swear I’m funny in English.  But it just isn’t the same – the jokes are different and sometimes I’m freaked out to make jokes in French, like what if I awkwardly get it wrong.

This is yet another problem with trying to translate one’s personality to another language – humor.  Jokes are tricky, even in your own language, the last thing you want to do is use a wrong word or accidentally utilize a super offensive turn of phrase when you are trying to be jocular.  I mean, nothing falls flatter and more uncomfortably than that.

For example, you and a friend are talking and you accidentally say something in French that you think means one thing but in reality is anti-funny or worse yet, super offensive.  Your friend, knowing your language difficulty understands but someone else overhears and picks a fight.  You misunderstand what the fight-picker is saying and the fight gets worse!  Next thing you know, Tybalt has killed your best friend and to avenge him you then kill Tybalt and it all ends like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GDd83IQDxw

 

That’s right…in a creepy candle-lit room with poison and LOTS of kisses involving snot and possibly a necrophilia fetish.

…Or something like that.

I guess the point is that personalities don’t always make the complete leap over the language barrier.  A person might be hilarious in their own language and boring in a different language or vice-versa.  I mean, someone could just as easily be more out-going and hilarious in a foreign language than they would ever be in their native tongue; it’s like language schizophrenia.

So, I guess that is it.  There will be the American version on myself and the French version and I must learn to embrace my newly found personalities.

*For the record, there is also an Italian version of myself for the few times that I have made attempts at that language – in this version I am really loud and wave my arms a lot.  Truth.

** Also, my Canadian friend writes some pretty fun articles for Dogster.com – check her out!  http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/kristen-stewart-dog-photos-more-expressive

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

You’ve Got Some Gauls!

Cultural Differences

“Uh-oh, I really hope she doesn’t poo, I don’t have any little bags with me.”

I am walking in the park with a couple of expat friends, one of whom has his dog with him.

“I might have a bag,” my other friend says, digging through her purse.

“Wow,” I say. “So do y’all always pick up your dog’s poo?”

“Yeah,” says friend number one.  “I get a lot of weird looks from people when I do it, like ‘what on earth are you doing?’”

I laugh at this, thinking of the obstacle course of poo on the sidewalks throughout town (our nice little Espace Chiens aren’t in Centre Ville).

“Well,” friend number two chimes in. “My husband and I will stop and give people dirty looks when we see their dog go, you know, to see if they will pick it up.”

“Really?” I ask.  “Have you ever been able to shame anyone into doing it?”

Friend number one looks at me as though I have missed something really obvious.  “The French have no shame.”

This is a beautiful, hilarious, and sometimes annoying truth – there is no shame in the French game. They are an unflappable people when faced with societal judgment.  For instance, Americans are working to eradicate cigarette smoking through a vigorous shame-campaign:

What?  You want a cigarette?  We will need you to publicly whip yourself 3 times with this cat-o-nine-tails and then step into that designated smoking area – you see it, the space with the septic sewage oozing out from the ground.”

As you light your cigarette the town’s children surround you throwing rotten vegetables and pointing while yelling “Smoker! Smoker!”

Or something like that…perhaps that is a bit dramatic.  My point is that we are trying really hard to change the branding of smoking from being something cool and/or normal to something gross and trashy because the thought is that if society decides it is nasty then that will dissuade younger generations from smoking (aka: through shame).

This is why I am constantly amused/surprised by the references to cigarettes throughout my French courses.  In one of my grammar textbooks there is a chapter of exercises (a chapter is about 3 pages) which includes 4 different sentences on the subject of cigarettes, I’ve even had teachers use smoking as examples for sentence structure in class.  These are things that would be incomprehensible in the United States.  Smoking in a textbook?!  Tsk, tsk!

The French just take a different view on the matter – and no, it is not the view that nothing is wrong with smoking, but perhaps rather the idea that public shaming just isn’t going to be the most effective method in France.  In fact, it could even encourage the behavior it is trying to prevent:

“Pffff…you say smoking is disgusting and I should be ashamed, uh?  Challenge accepted, you bureaucratic oaf – I will now smoke on your baby and then casually dump my ashtray in the front seat of your car…and it will be dead sexy, uh?”

This is a society that doesn’t accept embarrassment and therefore can’t be controlled through threat of humiliation.  Line-skipping is another good example.  The French aren’t exactly keen on one-by-one straight queues for things but rather mass disorder and a collective gathering at point of payment or entry – it’s a dog eat dog kind of situation and one in which it is very easy to be skipped.  It is no rarity to have someone brazenly step in front of you while waiting on a line (especially little old ladies).  In the United States if this happened you might be able to make someone self-conscious enough to apologize or move by giving them dirty looks or talking loudly about their rudeness…not so in France.  In France it is more like this:

This is you:  “I can’t BELIEVE that chick just stepped right in front of me.  Give her laser eyes, make her feel super uncomfortable.  DEATH STARE – DEATH STARE!  HA – TAKE THAT!  This is going to be the most awkward wait of your life you LINE-SKIPPER!”

French Response #1:  “I think there is something wrong with the person behind me.  They look crazy – I am glad I got in front so that I will be out of here first.”

French Response #2:  “There is someone behind me?”

French Response #3:  *yawn*

The French just don’t have a desperate need for approval (like Americwhat?  Nothing, I didn’t say a thing).  They are content to dictate their own personal behaviors and no amount of societal humiliation is going to make them pick up their dog poo or queue in an orderly fashion if they don’t want to.  It just isn’t the French way and I suspect it probably never has been.

Let’s journey back to Gaius and Sextus, our Ancient Roman Sentinels stationed in formerly Gallic territory to better exemplify the point.

Gaius:  This place is driving me crazy!

Sextus:  Oh come on, at least it isn’t as crowded as Rome.

Gaius:  But that’s just it, Sextus, in Rome at least there is some order but these Gauls are killing me.  None of them ever line up straight, just the other day when I was off to get some bread, right as the baker opened his door they all just crowded up towards it.  You couldn’t tell who was first and who was last.  I told two of them that if they didn’t get out of my way I would have them beat and you know what they did?

Sextus:  Uh…got the heck out of your way?

Gaius looks at Sextus and shakes his head mournfully.

Gaius:  No, they didn’t.  They just acted like they couldn’t hear me.

Sextus:  Woah.  Bold move.

Gaius:  Right?!  I mean, don’t they realize that they have been enslaved, humiliated?  Where is their shame?

At this moment a Gaul approaches the two of them, heading towards the door to the Praetorium.

Sextus:  And just where do you think you’re going?

Gaul:  To the Praetorium…obviously.

Sextus:  HEY –

Sextus smacks the Gaul on the behind with the broad side of his sword.

Sextus:  Don’t get mouthy with me!

Gaius:  Yeah – you have to show us respect!  It is the law!

The Gaul gives them a pointed look.

Gaius:  Kneel, you Gallic trash!

Gaul:  Pfff…

Gaius and Sextus exchange a look with each other and Gaius whispers in Sextus’ ear.

Gauis:  This is exactly what I was talking about.

Sextus walks towards the Gaul and stands over him menacingly.

Sextus:  Look here, if you don’t kneel now you will be shunned from any and all decent society!  You will be mocked and people will turn their back on you in the street!

At this point our Gaul just shrugs and walks on through the gates.

The world would never be the same.

Cultured Insolence

Cultural Differences

“Wit is Cultured Insolence” – Aristotle

So last night while watching “The Walking Dead” there was a moment when our heroes drive by a frantic and lone hiker on the highway without picking him up.  It is heart-wrenching as the hiker runs after them screaming in stark desperation and eventually falls on his face as they silently drive on unwilling to stop and help.  Even now, just thinking about this scene makes me want to start crying.  Now, of course, I realize that this is a fictional television show about a zombie apocalypse (yes, even writing that out makes me roll my eyes at myself) but I’m telling you – it was a compelling moment, a moment that made my core of humanity shiver at the possibility of ever being so completely turned off.  Even in such a wildly fictional world it was painful to watch a cold and cruel moment.

MB, however, smirked.

“Oh my god,” I shriek.  “That is so depressing, what is wrong with you?  How can you find that funny?!

He’s laughing a bit when he turns to me, “mais non, I don’t think it’s funny, it is horrible.  I mean, it’s crazy!”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“Because it is not funny otherwise.”

“huh?”

He shrugs; this makes perfect sense to a Frenchman.

The French have a little bit of a “mean girl” sense of humor.  It is something I noticed when I first started dating MB and he showed me some classic French films.  I watched in horror while he and his friend (also French) held their stomachs laughing during “Dîner de Cons”, a film about a group of people who have a dinner party in which they are each required to bring a moron for the rest of them to make fun of.  I sat there in shock, confused as to how anyone could find such a cruel premise funny; and even though our leading “mean boy” finally receives his comeuppance I couldn’t reconcile the meanness of the jokes with the slap on the wrist at the end.  It is a type of humor that just doesn’t work for this happy-ending-loving American; where were my birds and squirrels sewing ball gowns, where were my “Bad News Bears?”  Probably being kicked in the head by “La Chevre” (another “make fun of well-meaning morons” French film) before being sent to 18th Century Versailles pour le “Ridicule” (this French film leaves out the moron for the more heavy hitting insults).

And it isn’t just in the films that this humor exists but in day to day life as well.  This week in my French class our teacher reviewed the vocabulary for qualities and faults.  In order to work on class participation, she opened a group discussion in which we all listed a few qualities about ourselves.  After I listed my qualities she turned to the class and said, “okay, now, what do you think that her faults are?  Who would like to take a guess at some of her faults?”

(Crickets)

I looked at the other foreign students in the class who all sat silently, looking at each other questioningly as if to say, “oh my god, do we actually say something?!”  I started laughing.  It was so absurd; none of us are from a culture where we could conceive of listing out a stranger’s supposed faults publicly and to their face (that last bit is put in for those of us who have no problem listing faults behind someone’s back…what?  I wrote “us?”  Well, I don’t mean me, obviously!).  The teacher shrugged and continued the lesson without forcing us to affront our new classmates…but I suspect she would have liked us all a lot more if we had made a go of it. 

This is not to say that the French are mean; they aren’t…but they do enjoy a well-played witticism (read: not-too-mean-insult).  Now that being said, they may dish it out but they can take it as well.  I have often sat bemused at dinner parties watching the hardcore “ribbing” that goes on at the table; they all think it is hilarious and are just as quick to laugh at themselves as at someone else.  It is like a formal fencing match – you don’t throw a fit when you opponent makes a hit but instead you respect and congratulate them.  It is a delight in wickedness rather than mean-spiritedness.

Here is a perfect example from the film “Ridicule” – I like to call this “aggressive word play”.

So prepare your thick skin before entering the French sphere and make sure that you have a sense of humor about yourself, for as they say in the film “Ridicule”, “wit opens any door” and you wouldn’t want to end up in a French zombie apocalypse with nothing clever to say.