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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On the Road to Nowhere

Holidays in France, Travel in France

“Are you looking at the map, which way do we turn here?”  MB is talking to me while driving as I search both the map and the road for a sign.

“I’m looking,” I wail, “but I’m telling you I can’t even figure out what road we are on!”

MB sighs and pulls over and I can tell he is blaming this confusion solely on the fact that I have…meh…not a great sense of direction (seriously, it is a miracle I can make it out of walk-in closets).  

“Let me see,” he says, relieving me of the map and scanning the page.

I wait as he looks at the map, then looks up at the road, then down at the map, then up at the road, over and over again.

“You look like a bird eating bird seed,” I say.  I’m so helpful.

“Quoi,” he says with irritation in his voice.  I realize he has not heard my statement at all…he is “in the map.*”

He steps out of the car and walks toward the intersection, searching for a street sign, looking on sides of abandoned sheds.  Finally he spots something and I see him throw his hands up in frustration before returning to the car.

“(French expletive),” he says, shutting the car door. “I mean, this is ridiculous.”

I shrug and smile at him smugly serenely.  Mwahahahahaha!  Now who has no sense of direction, huh?!  (yeah, that would still be me.)

“I mean, how can both directions be correct,” he says angrily as he points to the only apparent sign.

I burst out laughing as I look at the signage: TOUTES DIRECTIONS = all directions.  Beneath these words are arrows, one pointing to the left and one pointing to the right.  It might as well say: make something up.

“ARGH!!!!”  MB gives a shout of irritation and I have to force away a smile.  (Sometimes it is really funny to me when MB gets angry because he is usually so calm.  Does this make me a bad person?  …possibly.)

After a few minutes of debating with himself and looking further down the map MB decides to just pick a direction and hope for the best…I mean, it’s not like it would be the first time.

***

You remember the movie Labyrinth?  If not, I would be happy to give you a one woman show BECAUSE IT IS AWESEOME (David FREAKIN Bowie).  Anyway, I digress…do you remember this scene – go to about the 2min mark:

That pretty much sums up what it is like to drive around on back roads through France (minus the hot androgynous fairy king).  On the highways it is no problem, even the smaller national highways are great and well-signed but once you get off the beaten path, you are on your own.  Street signs may or may not exist and the indicated directions often have an “all roads lead to Rome” style.  Even for MB it can be a struggle.

“OH please, she is just being silly, I mean, doesn’t she know everyone has GPS these days.” 

HA!  I scoff at your GPS…and so does France.  Do you remember that episode of “The Office” when Michael drives into a lake because the GPS tells him to?  Yeah, well, that scenario happened to us in Provence (incidentally, we chose not to drive into the large tree indicated).

“Yeah, but I’ll still have my IPhone, I can pull up maps or call someone.”

No you can’t, France will take away your cell phone reception too.  When you are traveling through the countryside, cell phone reception is spotty, to say the least.  Basically, consider back roads as a personal challenge issued to you from France.

FRANCE:  HA!  You want to go on a nice weekend road trip?  That is fine but don’t think it will come easy – you have to work for it!

ME:  But France, WHHHHHHY?!

FRANCE:  Don’t question me – I am France, I am full of enigmas!

That is pretty much how the challenge is issued.

So, when that moment arrives and your GPS tells you to drive into someone’s barn, dust off those wilderness skills (Girl Scouts 4 EVA), pull out one of those old-fashioned paper things with directions on it and figure out from the placement of the sun which way is North…

…or stop and ask for directions – the answer can’t be nearly as confusing as trying to figure it out yourself.

 

*In the Map!  Remember this from “Friends?”

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.

 

 

Anxiety on the Death Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences, Travel in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y’all”.  He included the dog. 

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, the bartender makes a strategic error.

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

*This was all in French.*

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

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

Muhahaha!  Conversation intiated, suckah. 

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

Then the bartender says something unintelligible for me.

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

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

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

“Oh, where are you from,” I ask her.

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Yes,” I think.  “Just imagine that.”

Y’all have a bless-ed day now.

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

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

The Audacity of Age

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences, Travel in France

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

Mom:  This is too good to be true!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom:  I knew it!

This is said with serious conviction.

Mom:  I just knew she was one of those!

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

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

“Yes, why does he seem so annoyed?”

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

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

“Why?”  My Mother is confused.

“Because she totally skipped him.”

“Really?  I didn’t notice it.”

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

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

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

My Mother is intrigued.

“How does that work,” she asks.

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

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

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

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

MB gives me a look.

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes they eat Vegetables in France

French Food, Travel in France

“Mais oui, there are vegetables in the dish; it is a fondue with mushrooms.”

Over the past weekend, MB, my parents and I journeyed through Provence.  A region full of stereotypes about how beautiful it is and how great the food is and what a relaxing atmosphere it has…they are all true.  Through the great efforts of MB, we were able to avoid the inevitable throng of English tourists that take over the south of France in July and August and find smaller, quieter areas.  We had a wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape (the only varietal that uses up to 13 different grapes), we drove through Orange and saw one of the best preserved Roman Theaters in the world, we swam in the Mediterranean, we played Petanque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9tanque) and drank rosé, we relaxed and enjoyed the unbelievable scenery.  But most importantly, we ate.

Now, most of my time in France has been spent in the Rhone-Alps in winter.  This is a region known for things like cheese fondue, raclette, and tartiflette.  When I order a salad, it is not unusual for it to come dressed with things like poached eggs, foie gras, gesiers (gizzards), magret de canard, and a variety of other fattening and delightful items.  Once, I had a salad in which the salad dressing was literally liquid cheese (it was fabulous).  So, while vegetables always make an appearance, my experience, in France, has been that they perform the back-up vocals for the stars: meat and cheese.  Not so in Provence; in Provence, it is just the opposite. 

On our first afternoon, we were startled to see plates coming out of a kitchen with plain fish, carrot, turnip, snails, and green beans…there was no cheese, there was no meat.  I began to think I had wandered into an alternate universe when, luckily, the huge bowl of aioli arrived at the table and I felt reassured that I was still in France.  But even with this, it was a revelation, the vegetables and the fish were the headliners and the aioli was the subtle accoutrement (okay, not so subtle – it was a spicy, intense, awesome, garlic endorphin rush).  Where was the butter and cream laden sauce?  Where was my meat, wrapped in meat, cooked in meat fat? 

Later that evening we went to a restaurant in Castellet* (http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/var/castellt/castellt.htm) for a 10:30 dinner…only in France can my parents stay up this late.  The waiter comes to the table as we are pouring over the menu and kindly offers some advice:

“You are in Provence; you get the vegetables.  Foie gras ?  No, this is for winter.”

I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly?  Did a Frenchman just tell me not to order the foie gras?  We adhered to his consul and enjoyed a variety of vegetable heavy dishes: vegetables stuffed with sausage, vegetable carpaccio, pesto soup with vegetables, etc.  Granted, afterwards, my parents and MB shared a huge entrecote (big hunk o’ beef), but again, it arrived unencumbered by rich sauces or salty cheeses and instead was presented by itself, beautifully cooked (my Mother salted it and I’m not sure my Father has forgiven her).

So, Provence has broadened my food horizons in France to include more than just meat and cheese.  Now, I will feel less guilty about serving vegetables as a main course at dinner; I will just tell people it is ‘Provencale’.  It is summer, afterall.  Perhaps, I will change my whole cooking style and for the rest of the year MB and I will focus on vegetable heavy meals with low-fat proteins like fish…I mean, except for tonight of course, our neighbor offered to make us a fondue, its not like you can say no, that would just be rude, right?  Anyway, I’m sure they’ll be mushrooms in it.    

*If anyone wants any further information about where we stayed or ate on this trip just let me know and I’ll be happy to provide details.

Which way do we go?

Holidays in France, Travel in France

My parents arrived in France yesterday afternoon.  MB is still in the Philippines so it is my duty to escort them around.  This may not sound like a daunting task but for the past 6 months I have been so dependent on MB that I may not have paid as much attention to things as I should have. 

After arriving at the airport, we had to go and find where the rental car was. 

Mom: So which bus do we take?

Me: I’m not sure, hold on…

I go to look at the differences between the two stops.

Dad: Well, they both say Hertz.

Me: Yeah, but this one has a key on it.  I think that key means that this is where the office is.

A bus pulls up.

Mom: I’m going to ask.

Me: Mom, it’s not that one; that one doesn’t have the key.

My Mother goes up to the French bus driver and asks in Franglish.  He looks thoroughly confused.

Me: It’s this one, I’m sure it’s this one!

I point desperately at the other bus stop.  Oh my god, parents are SO embarrassing!  I’ve become a pre-teen. 

Finally, we board the correct bus, though on the 2 minute drive we endlessly debate whether it is, in fact, the right one. 

Me:  I think this is just going to a parking lot.

Mom: I think so too.  We may have to go back.

Dad: I think we are fine.

Me:  Look, it is all just parking lo–

Dad: See?  There is the office.

He gives the two of us a smug look.  We unload the bags and wheel up to the front desk. 

Mom: Well, do you have the reservations?

Dad: No, I don’t know.  I don’t know what happened to them.

He says this matter-of-factly as though their fate is sealed. 

Mom: Oh my god!

Panic.

Dad: Well, if they don’t have them then we will just have to figure something out.  If we have to rent another car we will rent another car.

Me:  It’s not the 80’s; they will have you in the computer. 

The check-in clerk kindly attempts to smother her laughter during this conversation; she and I exchange a knowing look that says, ‘yes, all families are the same’.  We then get to the car and after spending about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to put the seats down we were on our way.  My parents ‘ooh’d’ and ‘ahh’d’ during the drive, looking at the fields of sunflowers and the mountains in the distance; enjoying the French countryside.  It was peaceful and beautiful…then we hit town.

Dad: So which way is it?

Me: I think you need to go down this street to the right…

Mom: Well, let’s see what the GPS says.

Me: You know I live here, right?

I’m so cool and knowledgeable.

Mom: I know, I just want to check.

Dad: I can’t turn down that street it is one way.

Me: Crap, really? 

Dad: So, what do I need to do?

Me: I don’t know!

Dad: Well, I need to do something!

Me: Turn right!

Dad: Okay, I hope this isn’t the wrong direction.

Me: Maybe you should check the GPS.

My Mother gives me an innocent look that speaks volumes as she picks up the GPS.  ‘Not as dumb as we look, are we?’

Twenty minutes later we are pulled over to the side of the road, attempting to decipher the GPS, the map from the hotel with no street names, and my directional skills (or lackthereof).  After way too much input and three different opinions, we attempt to move out. 

Dad: How do you get this thing in reverse?

Mom: Oh my god, you can’t get it in reverse? 

Me:  What?  You are kidding me.

I climb into the front seat and my Father and I examine the gear shift.

Me: Where is the car manual?

My Mother opens the glove compartment.

Mom: Oh my god, there is no manual.

Me: Good stars!  (my colloquialisms come out when I’m with my family)

My Father keeps attempting to get the car into reverse and the car keeps inching forward.  We are stuck, in an illegal parking space a block from the hotel which is in the opposite direction on a one way street.  If we go forward any more we will ram the car into a poll. 

Mom: I’ll bet that insurance option isn’t looking so bad now.  I’ll push, just put it in neutral.

My Mother, ever the girl scout, jumps out of the car and attempts to push the mini-van sized vehicle backwards with my father and I sitting in it.  Oddly, it doesn’t budge.  I jump out to help, bracing my strappy sandals on the asphalt while we both push.  French bicyclists ride by and look at us curiously; she and I are both laughing out loud.  I can almost hear their internal dialogue, “Americans…they are so ‘strenge’, laughing like ‘leun-a-tiques’ and ‘pooshing’ this car.  Why they do not just put it in reverse?” 

Finally, with no solution in sight, I suggest that someone walk to the hotel and ask for assistance.  My Father is dubious.  My Mother begins to walk towards the hotel; I move back to the gear shift.

Me: It’s so strange; usually you just push down to move it-AH!!!!!!!  Eureka! 

Mom: What?  What happened? 

My Mother jogs back to the car enthusiastically.

Dad: She got it!  See, there is this little ring that you have to push up…

We all get back into the car, euphoric at our triumph.  My Father pulls the car back into position, ready to move out of the parking space.

Dad: Okay…so which way do we need to go?