The Madonna Complex

Learning French, Living Abroad

“Ooooh la la, man,” my friend proclaims loudly at the bar.

I am with an expat friend from Central Europe and complaining about a horrific exchange I had with the administrator at a French language school

“Mais oauis,” I respond. “It is totally ridiculous. I mean, n’importe quoi!”

“Defo,” she says, raising her glass. “Na zdravi!”

“Cheers,” I respond, before turning towards MB and saying, “Santé!”

He smiles back, clinking glasses, “Chin,” he says.

In less than two minutes of conversation, we have managed to cover four different cultures and none of us even noticed…

This type of situation is the just the beginning of language confusion for me. Even within English, things can get complicated. I remember returning to USA and visiting friends after 3 years of living “down under.” I hadn’t realized that anything had changed but clearly, I was the only one.

“Give me a break,” one of my friends had said, laughing.

“What,” I was totally confused.

“Oh come on, “Madonna,’” she had continued (Madonna the pop-star, not Jesus’ Mum). “I know you are putting it on – “sweet as” and “suss it out,” what are these phrases you are using, and that accent is ridiculous. We get it, you have been overseas, no need for the theatricals.”

She then exchanged knowing, humorous looks with our other friends.

I stared, outraged. Now, I may be an enormous nerd (eh…”may”…”am”…semantics) but I draw the line at being accused of trying to subtlety create an accent in order to sound cool – I mean, let’s get serious, if I were going to do that, there is no way I would pull off subtlety OR coolness, they are not qualities that I would consider to be my forte. However, there I was, being called a Madonna-esque accent faker! I reacted as any normal person would: I bristled, then drank heavily, started a stupid fight, and went home feeling confused, stupid, and embarrassed.

“I’m not Madonna,” I told myself. “She’s a weird poser, I’m not like that, my accent just changed a bit because I’ve been living overseas…wait, what…oh man…dang it.”

That is the moment when I realized that, even though Madonna behaves absolutely bizarrely in so many ways, maybe we need to lay off her a bit on the accent thing…it may not be in her control, her brain has probably just thrown in the towel (I feel like there is a joke here but I’m going to leave it alone out of respect for the Immaculate Collection).

Language can undergo some weird transformations when you are constantly around different accents or tongues. Here are a few examples:

  1. You start using the vernacular of others around you, such as my Central European friend creating the phrase “oooh la la, man,” a combination of French and American, or my usage of “n’importe quoi” instead of “whatever.” Are these expressions that exist in our languages? Not even close, but after hearing certain words often, they sneak in and set up house in your brain…like little word parasites. Mwahahahahahaha! Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
  2. Your cadence of speech can also change, something that is so embarrassing for me. For example, I am physically incapable of talking to an Irish person without starting to sing-song every sentence, like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. It is horrifying and just as cringe-worthy as it sounds.
  3. Your sentence structure can take a beating as well.   After living in France for 3 years, instead of saying things like “are you going to the store,” I say, “you are going to the store, yes?” And MB, is often asked by other French people where he is from because while his accent is obviously French, he structures his sentences like an English speaker (incidentally, he loves this and has no fear of the Madonna complex, instead he looks sneakily happy and smug any time someone asks him).

Basically, the point is that your language, inside of your head, controlled by your brain, spoken by your mouth can go completely rogue without you even realizing it.

Cue screams of terror. A woman covers a child protectively while a young girl raises her hands to her cheeks and shrieks.

“We thought we understood,” the narrator says. “We thought it was all under our control but now…now…”

There are scenes of panic as people push each other down trying to run away.

IT has a mind of its own, nothing we say, nothing we do can keep it in check, it just keeps evolving and changing…like some sick, twisted MUTANT!”

Cue more screams, blah blah blah.

Mutant language on the move!

Now that I am living in a completely different linguistic environment, a whole new layer of weird has developed. Instead of carefully cataloguing and categorizing languages like it did when I was in school, my brain seemingly throws them all into a big box and lets me pick whatever I want. Forget worrying about funny little vernacular differences, now I have to battle it out in my head just to try to arrive at a word in the correct tongue. For instance, last time I was in Italy, Spanish kept coming out of my mouth; and in Munich a few months back, I kept saying things in French (as though my brain were thinking, “oh it is foreign, French is foreign, poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to). There have even been instances in which I have gotten confused with English, like when an American friend was visiting and I kept giving her the translations she was asking for back in French…huh? It didn’t even register to me that I wasn’t speaking to her in English until she told me.

Basically, once I left US soil, my brain decided that it can’t be bothered delineating between different Anglo accents or phrasery (yes, I made up that word, you don’t like it, blame my brain) or which foreign languages belong in what places, it has just gotten utterly lazy.

My Brain: *yawn* I can’t be responsible for keeping all of this straight, it’s just too much. I mean, I’m already spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out all the different Game of Thrones plotlines.

ME: But how am I supposed to know what to say?

My Brain: OH my god, you are so high maintenance. Just pick something, I’m sure everyone will figure it out. Here, I’ve put everything into this closet in your frontal lobe, voila!

ME: But it isn’t even organized, how will I ever find anything?

My Brain:Not my problem.

ME: What? Yes, it is. That is basically your entire job.

My Brain: Meh. Now, explain to me again which ones are Baratheons?

*Sigh*

So there it is, I suppose I am stuck with having the “Madonna Complex”…or maybe just “The Chandler.”

 

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6 Years and 6 Things

Life in General, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Recently, the folks over at HiFX contacted me about contributing to their expat tip page which is part of a new campaign they are working on to give expats some helpful and honest advice and it couldn’t have come at a better time since this week marks the 6 year anniversary of when I left the United States.

6 years.  That number still amazes me.

Since then it has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs (mostly ups) in which I have lived in 3 different countries, 2 different hemispheres, had 6 different jobs, met some of my best friends, and stumbled across a French man who became my husband.  As I think about everything that has happened over this time period, I consider all the things I wish someone had told me beforehand, the tips I would have liked to have had.

So, without further ado, here are 6 things (get it?  6 years, 6 things…très cute) that I would have liked to have known beforehand:

#6. Making plans is hilarious.

When I left Washington D.C. and my job and life and friends and family and country…and…(yeah, you get it) for Wellington, New Zealand I repeatedly kept telling everyone that I would be back in one year.  Conversations would go like this:

“Oh my god, I can’t believe you are leaving!  I’m never going to see you again,” said by wailing friend.

“Puh-leeeeese, it is a one year visa, it’s like I’m going on a vacation.  I’ll see you this time next year,” said by over-confident and foolish me who had no idea what I was talking about.

It was 3 years before I even so much as visited D.C. again.

Woody Allen is credited with saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” and I couldn’t agree more.  Over the past 6 years I have repeatedly announced things that were going to happen, like when I would return to the USA (…there have been multiple timelines for this – sorry Mom), how long I would stay in a particular country (just 1 year in France, right…), what type of work I would have (I will finish my Master’s Degree and get a job in HR…), etc.  Every time I would proclaim a particular plan something would happen to change it (I think the Universe has a perverse sense of humor), often, these changes weren’t bad they just weren’t in line with my original “plan.”

It would have been nice to have been aware of this little joke earlier as I would have been saved many awkward conversations in which I backtracked and had to announce changes to my “plans” (I can’t take the word seriously enough anymore to write it without quotes).  Now I just dodge questions as best I can and try to go with the flow and I suggest that any new expat does the same.  Don’t get too sure about what is going to happen or not going to happen, instead be open and prepared for all sorts of different eventualities.

#5. Be careful about your living situation.

Oh la la la la la la (this should be heard in French accent).  I cannot stress this enough and it applies whether you are 20 years old going for a year overseas or 35 years old and moving for an indeterminate period of time.  THINK before you sign a lease and get into an irreversible living situation.  Listen to your gut if something seems off, consider your finances beforehand, and know what your walking-away point is.

It can be really easy to get desperate about where you will live upon arrival in a new country, there is a need to be settled, and living in a hostel or temporary housing can be the pits.  But you know what is worse?  Living with crazy people people with whom you do not get along or moving into a house you can’t afford or a neighborhood that seemed fine at first but is actually super-inconvenient.  It is not always easy but try to be patient and wait for the right living situation, not merely the simplest…you won’t regret it.

#4. Take good opportunities!  

ARGH.  I still think about a job offer I had in Wellington, NZ – it was perfectly suited for my past experience and would work well to get me where I wanted to go professionally in the future.  It couldn’t have been more perfect…but when they offered it to me (and agreed to give me a visa – yes, I was this idiotic) they said they would need a 2 year commitment…well, I had only been in NZ for a couple of months at that point and I thought, “well, I’m not going to live overseas for 2 years” (see #6 about making plans) so I said I couldn’t do it.  ACK (read: epic stupidity)!

This was 5 ½ years ago and it still plagues me.  Don’t get hung up on timelines because nothing is set in stone.  I could have taken that job and still left after 1 year if I wanted, I mean, it wasn’t a blood oath (…or was it, things get crazy in New Zealand), or I could have ended up staying longer and building something really interesting.  It could have been amazing or it could have been a horrible experience, I will never know, the only thing I do know for certain is that I regret not finding out.

Now, I’m not saying jump at every little thing that comes your way but opportunities don’t come knocking all the time – when they do, take a beat and consider what your end goal is and then maybe say yes to something that seems a little scary.

#3. There will always be something to miss. 

“Being an expat is soooooo amazing, I never think about the past or the future I just live in the moment and I’m never going to be sad about things I don’t have anymore.”

EIH!  Wrong answer.

So being an expat is exciting and full of new things –TRUE – but you are also setting yourself up for some tough times…as my Mother constantly likes to remind me: “you’ve chosen a hard life” (Mom loves a truth gun) and she is right, per usual…so annoying.

You are going to have friends, sometimes best friends, scattered throughout the world and you are going to miss major events in their lives.  You are not going to be able to see your family as much as you might want to.  When you go back home you will miss things and people from your host country, if you stay overseas you will have a pang in your heart for your home and the things that you love there.  No place will ever have it all again and you will be doomed to be that obnoxious person who is constantly making mental comparisons in your head about which place is better (I say “in your head” because if you share these thoughts out loud people will find you super irritating).

This is one of the big tradeoffs that one makes when deciding to embrace the expat life and it is a hard one.

You will also miss certain junk foods.  KRAFT BLUE BOX 4 EVA!

#2. Oh my god, pay attention to your frequent flyer miles. 

There isn’t much to say on this other than the sad fact that MB and I are morons and didn’t rack up our FF miles the way we should have.  If we had been responsible, we could be super special card members with all sorts of lovely perks.  Consider yourself warned, I get irritated every time I think of it.  Le sigh.

#1. You are not ruining your life. 

When I left the USA there were a lot of people who thought I was nuts (don’t try to deny it – I saw your faces).

What people said:

“Ohhhhhhh muh-gawd, that is totes amazing, I sooooooo wish I was brave enough to do that.  You’re like, an inspiration.  It is going to be ree-diculous.  I can’t wait to hear all about it.

What people thought:

“Um right…brave my arse, she has lost her dang mind.  She is walking away from her job, her life, everything.  She is 27 years old not 19, when she comes back she will have to start from nothing.  This is an EPIC mistake.”

I get it, I was pretty freaked out about what I was doing as well.  Leaving a decent career (even if I wasn’t suited for it) and an established life was scary and there were a lot of nights before and even after the move that I was afraid I was destroying my future…but I didn’t.

It can be really easy to get sucked into societal pressures, parental pressures, and even pressure from friends about how you should be living your life and what timeline you should be on.  Don’t worry about it – if I had listened to everyone else (including my internal voice of reason) I wouldn’t be married to an amazing man, living in France and following my love of writing.

Be confident about your choices and chase them with intelligence and hard-work, don’t let the naysayers (internal or external) pull you from your path.  (Insert appropriate “Robert Frost, life is a journey, two roads, blah blah blah” quote here)

*While this post is directed at expats, I think that it applies to life in general no matter where you might find yourself living…especially the part about frequent flyer miles, keep up with that stuff, people! 

My Dirty Little Secret

Adjusting to France, Life in General, Living Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“I know, Mom,” I reply.  “I do!”

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

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

“Because…”

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

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

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

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

…Except when it isn’t.

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

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

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

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

 

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

When You Have Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was Paris.”

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

Nerding Out with Time Travel

Life in General, Living Abroad, Travel in France

 

 “Um…dude, this is awesome.  That is a wolf over there!  All of these buildings are so old

A typical campsite at the festival...

A typical campsite at the festival…

and I love all the campsites – is that chick making lace?!  Someone over there is spinning wool?!  WHAAAA?!!  Man, people are super into it.  I’m so glad, I didn’t want to feel like a geek in my outfit.  HA – like that is possible!  This outfit is so fly – yeah, that’s right, I used the word “fly.”  I feel very secure in all these layers and the whole lacing situation sort of makes me feel seat-belted in, you know?  Why don’t we dress like this now?  Whose bright idea was it to lose layers of skirts and lace up bodices in favor of skinny jeans and crop tops?  I mean, who can pull that off?  Other than creepy-thin people who make me want to force feed them, I’m looking at you Keira Knightly.  Ridiculous…but I digress.  Ooooh, there is a musical performance over there and some hypocras to drink.  I think I will just swish my skirts on over in that direction…tee hee…swish my skirts.  I’ll just reach into my 16th century fanny pack here to find the money for my medieval drink…rad.”

“Hey, where are you going?”

I am pulled out of my internal dialogue by MB.

“I was going to go and get some hypocras and watch the performance.”

“Okay,” he says, “but maybe we go home after, yes?  Aren’t you tired?”  We had been walking around for hours at this point and, if I am going to be honest, my bodice was starting to dig into my hips a bit…maybe I do get why clothing changed.  Instead of admitting this, I give him a look like he is nuts.

I was not lying...really, a sword.

I was not lying…really, a sword.

“Babe,” I say seriously.  “There is a sword on her head…A SWORD.”

He looks over at the group that is performing and the belly dancer who is dancing with a sword on her head and laughs.  “Okay, okay, we will stay for one more.”

“Heck yeah,” I say, skipping off merrily to fetch our drinks.  We stayed out for another two hours.

***

So…a couple of things.

1)      I am not cool which I’m sure comes as a huge surprise to you all, gentle readers, but there it is – I’m actually a huge nerd (“well duh, like we didn’t know that already, I mean, didn’t she just make a Miss Manners reference?”). 

2)      We don’t get to do stuff like this in the United States.

For MB, going to the Medieval Festival (actually it is really Renaissance time period…see?  nerd) in Le Puy en Velay is normal.  He has done it many times with his family and beyond that has spent his entire life surrounded with opportunities to go to various historical festivals in historical villages (ahem…Carcassonne).  For me, on the other hand, this was a totally wacky and new experience.  I’ve lived in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia; in all of these countries people get excited if something is 150 years old – Europe is on an entirely different historical plane.  Wandering around in an historical costume from 500 years ago has a different feel when you are in a town that was already well established at the time.

“There is the chapel of Saint Michel D Aiguilhe,” MB points up to one of the volcanic chimneys in the distance.

“Oh yeah,” I say, looking towards it.  I’ve been to Le Puy before but for some reason I feel like I am seeing it all through new eyes…clearly something to do with the bodice and blood flow to the brain.

“It was built in the 960’s,” he continues.

I stare, dumbfounded, as a thought occurs to me.

“So, we are impersonating people from the 16th century, right?”

“Ouais…” MB responds.

“So when they were alive, that chapel was already 600 years old!  Just think of that.”

He takes a beat before responding.  “Pfff…yeah,” and there is a touch of wonder in his voice, too.  “It’s crazy.”

There is something magical about taking a moment and realizing all the people and time and events that came before you, to really stop and think about it.  That those who seem so far removed from us had a history that we can barely even touch upon – and yet, we share with them blood, DNA, genetic code.  Maybe it is because of this that we have the desire, to reach out and touch them, to connect with them…to remember some old part of ourselves, long forgotten.

As a child I would imagine myself into the past often, I would head west as a pioneer (we’ll blame Oregon Trail game** for this) or run through the Tennessee hills as a young Cherokee girl, knowing ancient and powerful secrets. I was constantly thinking myself into history, so curious with wonder about those lives that preceded me, so fervent with the desire to fill the questioning void inside me.

These days I am less prone to frolicking around in my made-up lands, there are too many other things to worry about and, usually, I see the world just as it actually is, hushing the questions away.  Most of us don’t have time to stop and imagine for long stretches, to think about all that came before…but sometimes, sometimes, we get to stand on an 11th century bridge in France, wearing 16th century dress, and stare up at a chapel built in the 900’s…hypocras on our breath and medieval drums in the distance…and perhaps, in those moments, we are more truly whole than ever.

Lisa's pic

 

* In case you are unfamiliar with Oregon Trail – the best game of all time:  http://classicgaming.gamespy.com/View.php?view=GameMuseum.Detail&id=266

** Here is a video of the inside of the Chapel in the photo 

  (p.s. please note the woman at 2:28 with the bottle of wine…nice, France, nice.)

Paris Tara

Life in General, Living Abroad, Travel in France

I love Paris, I really do.  It is fabulous to visit – so many different neighborhoods to wander through, so much to do, amazing museums, exceptional restaurants, history and art at every corner.  Every time that we go for a weekend I discover some new part of town that I’ve never been to before; I will never tire of it…of visiting it.

But what do you mean, visit it?  Why wouldn’t you want to live there?”

“Yeah, I don’t get it, why don’t you live in Paris?”

“I mean, when you moved to France, how come you didn’t choose to live in Paris?”

“Where would you live beside Paris?  Wait a minute, are you saying that there are other cities in France besides PARIS?”

“PARIS…PARIS…paris…PARIS!”

The way non-Frenchies (meh…and sometimes Parisians…you know who you are) talk about Paris kind of reminds me of the final scene in “Gone with the Wind” – check out this clip at about the 1 minute mark:

(SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT: If you have never seen “Gone with the Wind” this completely gives away the ending…also, if you have never seen “Gone with the Wind”, slap yourself and go rent buy this film immediately.)

 

Foreigners are obsessed with Paris; I mean, how many books, films, articles are written about the glories of living the expat life in Paris?  It’s as though if a foreigner comes to France they must be doing so in order to find themselves (“Um…their true self”, she says while straightening her Lisa Loeb glasses and sipping an organic chai tea) in the quirky, intellectual, and artistic world of Paris.  I mean, come on, Hemingway and Fitzgerald (both super happy guys, right?) did it and then Woody Allen made a movie about it and how he desperately wanted to do it so there must be something to it, no?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bash on Paris or on the inspiration provided by that fair city.  I mean, hell, I buy it, man – Paris is dead sexy, wildly provocative, and classically romantic all at the same time…a combination which packs quite a punch.

I remember my first visit there; I went out by myself in the afternoon.  I dressed in skinny jeans and ballet flats with a loose tank top and a blazer thrown over my shoulder, I hardly wore any make-up and let my hair stayed tousled and messy.  As I stepped out of my hotel, I flipped my Ipod on and listened to Billie Holiday while walking along the Seine, I took myself to the Louvre, I got an ice-cream cone (Berthillon…obviously) and watched the boats float by while pontificating about life…it was all very Truffaut-esque.  Paris made me feel different; that is a power that Paris invariably has…especially for foreigners.

I’m just saying – there is more to France than Paris.

“OHMAGOD, what did she just say?”

“She does NOT know what she is talking about.”

“I don’t even…I’m just…PARIS!”

For instance, Paris: NOT the gastronomic center of France.

*GASP OF HORROR*

Paris is excellent for getting a taste of a lot of different types of French cuisine in one place and the classic French bistro is undoubtedly Parisian but Lyon is actually the major gastronomic city of France and areas like Burgundy, Normandy, Perigord, Provence, and the Southwest (just to name a few) all have their own regional cuisines.  Foie gras, escargot, brie, camembert?  None of these things are produced in Paris.  Boeuf bourginon, coq au vin, cassoulet?  Not Parisian dishes.  And don’t even get me started on wine.  Why buy the wine for 3 times as much at a restaurant in Paris without even tasting it when you can buy it for 3 times as much at the vineyard in Burgundy AFTER having a few sips?

The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Versailles are super cool (hall of mirrors – what what!) but so are the Chateau’s of Loire, the Roman ruins in Provence, and the various medieval castles you see from the highway during a road-trip.

I guess my point is that Paris is cool but France is even cooler.  It is a virtual wonderland of food, wine, and history and Paris is a part of that…not all of it.

So go to Paris, don your sunglasses and walk around, maybe get a coffee and smoke a cigarette…even if you don’t smoke.  Wear attractive shoes even though you know you will be walking all day, never hurry, and think serious and deep thoughts… let yourself be enveloped by the city, by its contradictory combination of sensuousness and utter coolness…then get out of there and go see France.

 

 

Chocolate Frogs and Salty Dogs

Cultural Differences, French Food, Living Abroad

“Wow,” I say to MB.  “You know, I don’t think that I’ve ever noticed this before.”

“Quoi?”

“A whole aisle, I mean, an entire aisle.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“I mean, look at it!  It’s marvelous, really.”

MB contemplates the grocery store aisle.

“C’est normal, non?”

“Dude.  No.”

You can figure out a lot about the flavor profiles of a country by visiting a grocery store.  Even though I have lived in France for over a year I am still noticing some of these little differences.  For instance, when I first moved here I was annoyed – neigh – horrified by how difficult it was to find a non-sweet cereal that wasn’t corn flakes (MB’s cereal of choice is basically a chopped up candy bar with a handful of granola thrown towards its general direction) but until about two weeks ago I hadn’t noticed the chocolate bars.   Over a year’s worth of going to the grocery store and staring dumb-founded at the endless varieties of chocolate filled, chocolate-covered, chocolate cluster cereals and never once had I noticed that there was an entire aisle devoted entirely to chocolate bars; not candy, not cookies, not any other variety of sweets; just an aisle of different brands and combinations of chocolate.  It is impressive…and it is awesome.

After I noticed this aisle of happiness I started thinking…I mean, come on, just how many combinations of chocolate bars can you need?  It’s over the top!  And then, I remember the cracker aisle in United States grocery stores.  While the French devote large portions of their grocery store to bulk chocolate and other sweet things (there is also an entire aisle just for yogurt) in the U.S. we tend to run more salty.  We have an entire aisle of crackers…how many variety of crackers does one need?  And don’t even get me started on the chip aisle.  There are other subtle differences as well: in U.S. there will be about 10 different varieties of peanut butter, in France you will be lucky to find one, but there will be a variety of Nutella-type spreads available.

Recently, we had some French friends over for dinner and I had made oreo cookie truffles (don’t judge me, they are amazing).  One of them took a bite and looked at me, pleasantly surprised; clearly he wasn’t expecting an American to be able to make a tasty truffle.

“This is very good, it is so interesting!  What is it?”  He said, holding the truffle aloft.

“Oh, just a little something I whipped up,” I said smiling.  WHAT?!  I didn’t need him to know that it was just Oreos and cream cheese; I was basking in the glow of French praise, it is rare thing, one must savor it!

“Well, it is very nice.  I remember this type of thing from all my visits to the U.S. – the combination of interesting flavors.  My first peanut butter and jam sandwich was amazing!”

“Jelly,” I say.

“Quoi?”

“Nothing.”

I never thought I would ever hear a French person discuss the complexity of American faire such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but when you think about it, it makes sense.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be a unique flavor profile in a country where they like their sweet to be sweet.  I mean, sure, don’t get me wrong, we all know Americans consume plenty of sugar (let’s check our diabetes rates, people) but we have a tendency to throw a little salt in there: chocolate covered pretzels, buckeyes (http://www.joyofbaking.com/candy/PeanutButterBalls.html), cheddar cheese on apple pie!  In France you get things that are sugar on sugar, like my favorite pastry, the Success (and what a success it is, har har har) which is some sort of magical combination of chocolate, coconut, and more chocolate.  No peanut butter or salt here!

So from my grocery store research I have concluded that we Americans are salty dogs and the French are chocolate frogs.  Now if only I could figure out a way to get a whole aisle of crackers AND a whole aisle of chocolate bars at the same grocery store!

A little summer homework:  What differences have you noticed at grocery stores in other countries?  Look forward to reading some fun answers!

Blame France

Adjusting to France, Living Abroad

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.

7 Tips to Make Friends…without being creepy.

Living Abroad, Uncategorized

A few weeks ago, Cécile, from the always fabulous Trying to be Conscious, passed on the “One Lovely Blog Award” to me (http://tryingtobeconscious.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/a-little-sugar-in-my-bowl/).  Thanks so much Cécile!!  If you haven’t already, you should all check out her blog, always funny and always spot on!

As with most awards, this one comes with a few rules.  First of all, I need to link back to the blog which awarded me, then pass on the award to up to 15 other blogs, and finally share 7 things about myself.   Per usual, I’m going to change it up slightly and instead of sharing 7 things about me, I’m going to share a bit of advice by listing what I believe to be the 7 best ways to make friends at bars.

Okay, so don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not talking about creepily trying to hit on people but rather tips on how to approach a group of people or start a conversation with someone who looks like they could be fun.  When you move to a new country, city, etc. it can be difficult to figure out how to meet people to hang out with.  I mean, sure if you are into kickball leagues and book clubs you will be just fine, but what about the slackers like me (and MB…sorry honey: truth gun)?  We don’t “do” organized activities.  We like to talk about them and say how great they sound and say “totally send us the info and we will join up” but yeah…we don’t do that.  Instead, we either sit on the couch and watch TV or we go to bars.  So, how do we find like-minded slackers?  Well, here ya go…

Top 7 ways to meet strangers out at bars:

  • Sit at the bar!  Really, I can’t stress this enough; it should be number 1 on this list.  You are never going to meet anyone sitting at a table; in fact, I would go so far as to say that nothing even remotely interesting is going to happen to you there.  It makes me crazy when I come into a bar and my friends all want to sit in some back corner.  Bar going is like a sport to me, a sport in which I try to see how many interesting people I can talk to in a night.  I feel as though this is the true spirit of the bar and thus cannot understand those who besmirch this spirit by being table dwellers.  It is such an easy way to start a conversation because you are naturally forced into periods of waiting with complete strangers.  You can turn to the person next to you and whine about how long the bartender is taking or talk about how awesome the bartender is or make fun of someone in the bar who has just done something ridiculous.  While in this unique waiting period it is completely acceptable to speak to anyone without it being creepy and it is a great way to make new friends.
  • Offer to take pictures.  First of all, it’s a nice thing to do, but second of all, another great ice-breaker.  You see a group of people who look like they are a lot of fun and have a camera out, just offer!  Once in Bologna, I did this for a table next to us and within about 15 minutes we had pulled our tables together, enjoyed a meal, and ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the evening.  With just a “click” we managed to form our own clique!  “That joke was so lame.  I can’t believe I’m even going to keep reading after that.  I mean, cameras don’t even “click” anymore.  Do you remember those “Le Clic”* cameras from the 80’s.  Those were awesome.” 
  • Talk loudly.  Okay, every American does this anyway so to my American readers you can skip this one; BUT for the rest of you, pay attention.  Granted, talking loudly can be really annoying so you have to gauge it just right, however, if you can figure out the correct balance it can be an excellent way to meet people…especially if you are funny or interesting (boring people should also skip this step).  For instance, basically every single time my best friend and I leave the house we end up having funny exchanges with strangers who have overheard our absurd (and yes, hilarious – high five, friend) chatter.

“Sorry,” says the sales lady to us.  “I’m just laughing because everything you are saying is so true!”

“Right?”  My friend responds.  “Fifity Shades of Grey is so weird and over-rated but it really does make you want to have sex.”

We talked with this sales lady for almost 40 minutes after already purchasing our clothes.

  • Be a smoker.  “Oh my god!  Did she just write that?  So SO inappropriate.”  Yeah, yeah, I know but I’m convinced that somewhere there must be a statistic about smokers making friends more easily than non-smokers.  I mean, let’s think about this for a second, we they are forced outside in small groups often without any music or bar, so no distractions, in which conversations with strangers can be easily induced.  I mean, good grief, all you have to do is ask for a lighter and BAM! CONVERSATION.  But okay, if you don’t want to risk your life and your health than you can always find the people who are left behind by their smoking friends and bond over the fact that they are all idiots.
  • Be polite.  You Mother was right, you will catch more bees with honey; and if you are interested in bee-catching or friend-making then be sweet!  Many times, I have started a conversation by using a simple “excuse me” or by picking up someone’s jacket or catching a purse that is falling off a chair.  People appreciate it and it can easily serve as your “in”.  Talk about how annoying it is that the backs of the chairs are round so things won’t stay on them or show them the hooks underneath the bar (I assume that of course you are AT THE BAR) where they can hang things.  Everyone likes a helping hand and it is a good way to make a great first impression.
  • Find the loners.  Often in my travels I have found myself sitting alone at a bar and I would have been thrilled to have a group of strangers come and ask me to join their party.  “What?  Doesn’t she know about stranger danger?  This is bad advice.”  If you are in the mood to make some new friends this can be a great way to do it.  Since you and your friends are obviously standing at the bar (and if the loner is smart then they are as well) then you can easily ask if this person feels like joining.  Maybe they will think you are crazy, maybe they will turn out to be crazy themselves, or maybe you will end up meeting someone really cool who ends up being a long-term friend…believe me, it happens.
  • Find something in common.  This is the most important of all of these little tips and is really the whole point of the exercise anyway, isn’t it?  To meet someone who you find interesting or shares an interest that you have.  Having something in common is what puts people at ease.  So use any one of these methods or a combination and maybe you will stumble across someone who just moved to your town, who is from a different country, who speaks a different native language, and who also thinks that Back to the Future III was completely under-rated and actually an amazing film.  Hey, it could happen!

Good hunting!  (sorry, just finished Battlestar Galactica)

Now for the fun part – getting to pass this award on!

* In case you have no idea what I am talking about: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Le-Clic-110-Point-and-Shoot-Camera-with-built-in-flash-/221050012094?pt=Film_Cameras&hash=item33779b81be  This is the exact model of the one I had; I am sure that shortly it will be sported by some 20-something hipster as opposed to a rockin’ 8 year old with leggings, a puff-paint t-shirt, and wicked big-bow headband.  That’s right, I was rad.

Expat Entertainment

Living Abroad, Uncategorized

In her most recent post, Chickster from Up, Up, and Awayz (http://www.upupandawayz.com/2012/05/its-awards-season.html)  awarded me with the Liebster Award.  Thanks so much, Chickster!

The Liebster Award is for blogs with under 200 followers and has no standing rules; but she has asked that I follow the guidelines from the Versatile Blogger Award and post 7 things about myself.  So, I’m going to post the 7 things that I find most entertaining about being an expat.

7.  Bon Voyage!  Over the last four years I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes and in airports.  While this certainly has its disadvantages (see #4) there are also certain benefits to being a constant international traveler.  For one thing, I do it really well, I know exactly what to expect on long flights and I am always prepared; my on board carry-on bag has been perfected, I know exactly what I will need to be wearing in order to be comfortable on a plane for 12+ hours (don’t wear jeans, NEVER wear jeans),  I am aware of what my entertainment options are on board…sometimes I plan it.  Okay, so I will watch Dirty Dancing and then Pretty Woman.  Second of all, I know airports.  For instance, I know that if I have a really long layover at the Amsterdam airport that they have spas that I can use (seriously, this is one of the best things ever, what better way to spend a five hour layover than getting a massage and facial).  I know that if I am flying internationally out of Los Angeles that I will want to eat ahead of time because the international terminal is tiny – there are like three places to buy food and last time I paid 12 (that’s right, 12) dollars for a turkey sandwich that was totally average.  This may sound silly, but seriously, knowing what lies ahead on long journeys can go a long way in making them more comfortable.

6.  The Timbuktu Clause.  Another thing that entertains me about being an expat is that a lot of your friends and family back home don’t really know where you live.  For instance, when I lived in New Zealand, if any natural disaster happened anywhere in the ring of fire, I would immediately get emails from people asking if I was okay.  There could be a typhoon in Fiji and people would want to make sure we still had electricity.  Here in France, everyone just assumes that I live in Paris.

“So, you live in Paris, that is so cool!”

“What? No, I just told you, I live in Grenoble.”

“So tell me about your life…in Paris.”

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I explain that I live in Grenoble, people still ask me about my fabulous life in Paris.

5.  This is not real.  You remember that night five years ago when you got completely wasted with all your friends and your boss and you decided to streak through the neighborhood?  Great if you do, but no one else will because they weren’t there.  One of the great things about being an expat is that embarrassing stories from your past don’t haunt you in your current life.  This also means that you can convince yourself that your new embarrassing stories won’t haunt you in your future life (this is particularly helpful if you do not know how long you will be staying in the country).  Did you embarrass yourself in front of someone you were interested in?  Did you mess up and get a horrible reprimand at work?  Did you split your pants open at a restaurant?  None of this matters because as an expat you can just shrug and tell yourself that it isn’t real life, this isn’t really where you live, right?  It is one of the most brilliant (and untrue) expat rationalizations.

4. Travel Traumas.  Now you may be wondering why I would find traumatic traveling situations entertaining, and while they are happening they are not.  However, afterwards, they usually make for hilarious stories and you get to wear your survival like a badge of honor.  When MB had to bribe a security officer to be allowed to leave Chad it was scary but afterwards it made for a great story and totally upped his street cred (that’s right, my fiancé how to bribe corrupt government officials, what can your fiancé do?).   When I left my passport on a bus bench and missed my flight to the Philippines it was decidedly un-funny, as crying at the airport usually is (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/jamais-deux-sans-trois/).  How does someone forget their passport on a bus bench, you ask?  A valid question.  I was using it to fan myself because it was hot outside and I didn’t want my makeup to melt off.  That’s right, I ended up losing the single most important travel document that any person in the world has for the sake of my vanity.  Proud moment?  Not really…but damn funny story later.

3.  Party favor.  Another great thing about living the expat life is that you always have plenty of interesting small talk.  An expat never has to have that awkward conversation at dinner parties when you get stuck talking to someone with whom you have nothing in common.

“So, you work in HR?  That’s cool.  I actually know someone who…um…also works in HR.”

“Oh really, what are the chances?”

“Right?”

“Right.”

“So um, how do you know Tom and Sally?”

“Tom works with me…you know, in HR.”

DEAR GOD.  We have all been there and it is awful.  As an expat, you never have to endure this.  If you are at a party overseas, people will be curious to know how your experience has been in their country and how you are liking it; and if you are back in your home country people will be curious to know what it was like living overseas.  Never again will you have to feign interest in a golfing story.

2.  Sweet Little Lies.  Because I am evil, I also think one of the funniest things about living the expat life is that you can make up all sorts of stuff and no one will ever be able to call you on it (unless they have lived in the country that you are spreading lies about – awkward).  For example, just last night two Scottish expats spent ten minutes trying to convince me that haggis was an animal with three legs.  Anyone from Scotland would think this was hilarious but there are probably a few foreigners out there who would totally believe it.  This is, without a doubt, one of the things that amuses me most about being an expat because…well, because it is fun to mess with people (there, I said it).  By the way, have I told you about Drop Bears? (http://australianmuseum.net.au/Drop-Bear)

1. Cool looking passport.  There is really not much else to say.  It is a vain, self-congratulatory sort of thing but it is true.  I LOVE having a full passport, I love flipping through it and seeing all the stamps of the places I’ve been to; it drums up a lot of great memories and stories but it also makes me feel unbelievably cool, I shamefacedly admit it.

And there you have it, the top 7 things that I find entertaining about being an expat!