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! 

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Wordy Actions

Life in General, Uncategorized

“Stop it,” I snap out testily.

“Quoi,” MB is trying to be innocent but is laughing so hard that he can barely get his one word response out.

“I see what you’re doing,” I say, waving my finger at him.  He mimics the gesture back at me with exaggeration, totally cracking himself up.

“What am I doing,” he asks, flailing his arms about wildly.

I press my lips together in a tight line and sigh loudly while looking plaintively at our friends.

“You see what I have to put up with,” I ask them, while outlining his form with my hands.  My life is very hard and wearisome.

“I’m just trying to learn your language,” he responds, grinning, while creating even more gestures.

I turn back to our friends and give a “voila!” type hand wave towards MB’s direction.

He just starts laughing even harder.

***

So yes, there is it, I will admit it, I am a hand-talker*.  It is virtually impossible for me to carry on a conversation without accompanying gestures to bring emphasis to what I am saying (in fact, I am gesturing in my mind right now as I type this…yes, that is so possible).  I just get so excited when I talk about things that the words themselves just don’t seem like enough.  Anyway, everyone loves a pantomime, right?  RIGHT?!

Well, Jerry Lewis does at any rate.

MB loves to tease me about this and makes jokes about how he needs to translate my language but here’s the deal, at the end of the day, he already knows it.

The importance of spoken language cannot be debated; it is crucial to basic communication and one’s ability to ask for what they want or to communicate complicated information.

For instance, years ago on a trip to China I watched a friend try to order a soft-serve ice-cream at a fast-food restaurant (yes, yes, FINE, we were at a KFC in China…it had been a long trip, we just wanted something that tasted like home.  Don’t worry, we were punished for being such philistines about an hour or so after the fated meal).  My friend did not speak or read any Chinese and walked up to the counter as the rest of us watched from our seats.  We had all taken the easy meal deal that was photographed so that we could just point to it but she was determined…soft-serve ice-cream happiness would be hers!

As she stood at the counter, we watched, both amused and horrified (mainly amused, we may not have been the nicest group ever), as she brought her fisted hand to her mouth and made several circular motions before making continued in and out movements.

I’m not sure if I’ve described this correctly but just think about it for a moment…

“Ehrmergerd!  She totally just made a super inappropriate sexual gesture…soft-serve ice-cream has never been so dirty!”

We were practically falling out of our chairs as the cashiers did their best to stifle their laughter and procure her pornographic ice-cream.  This was a situation where more of the spoken language, as opposed to gesturing, would have come in handy, I mean, no one wants to go Jenna Jameson in a KFC.

However, I have also noticed over the years that there are a variety of situations in which spoken language isn’t necessary.

It is possible to communicate emotions with nothing more than our facial features and commonness as human beings (um…except maybe like the Iceman).  Regardless of culture or language there are some things that are just funny or just sad.  We’ve all shared laughs with strangers over something that we both watched happen and I have often had an encouraging smile from someone across a room on a tough day.  How does that person know that I am sad?  I haven’t said anything, I haven’t spoken to them but they inherently understand something that I am communicating and, perhaps more incredibly, are able to communicate back to me in total silence.

Excitement can be shared without speaking as well.  I remember watching, amused as my Father and MB’s Uncle, neither of whom spoke the other’s language, shared an animated discussion about the wines they were drinking.  I mean, how is it possible to have an in-depth discussion about palette and wine quality while speaking in two completely different languages?  Somehow, it is.

As humans, we have been given a unique style of communication**, one that allows us to communicate and share the strongest and most important information…happiness, sadness, joy…whether we share a spoken language or not.  It is an inherent gift that we have been given so that, even in a strange land, we need never be truly alone.

***

“Oh please,” I say to MB.  “You do it too, we all do it!”

MB grabs his chest in protest, “I do not, I hardly use my hands at all when I speak.”

I give him a rather drole facial expression, scanning the use of his hand against his chest.  He drops it quickly before beginning to explain how he doesn’t really use his hands to express himself.

My friends and I exchange looks, a silent joke shared, regarding his hand movements as he speaks.

I guess actions truly can speak louder than words.

*It is a trait that I come by honestly, as my Mother is, perhaps, the most epic hand-gesturer ever to be born outside of Italy.  You could potentially create an entire dictionary from her gestures. 

** So unique, in fact, that dogs have actually evolved in order to understand it.  If you are a dog lover and haven’t seen this Nova documentary, check it out: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-decoded.html

*** P.S. Pop on over to Bread is Pain Food and check out the latest post…unless you don’t like fried mozzarella (read: hate joy).

For the Love of Food

Adjusting to France, Life in General, Uncategorized

“Look what I have!!!!!!!!!”  I come bouncing into the kitchen with my grocery sacks.

MB turns around to see what I have brought him, no doubt expecting cheese or a spreadable meat or, at the very least, some sort of internal organ like gesiers.  He looks very excited, anticipating whatever delightful thing I have found at the store.  We are food people – food makes us happy.

“BAM,” I say with satisfaction as I hold out the small white paper package.

MB deflates.

“What is this?” He takes the package from me and looks at it, confused and slightly disgusted.  “I don’t understand, is this fish flavored crackers?”  He makes a face.

I laugh…silly Frenchman.  “No, they are goldfish crackers.  They have different flavors, like cheese or pizza, or sometimes they can come as pretzel goldfish.”

He seems comforted to know they are not fish flavored but still confused.  “But then, why are they shaped like fish?”

“What?”

“Why they are shaped like fish if they don’t taste like fish?”

I ponder this for a moment.  “I don’t know, they just—UGH—I’m not sharing any!”  I snatch the package back from him in a huff…he has ruined my goldfish cracker moment by pointing out that it is totally bizarre that they even exist.

“No, I’m sorry,” he begins.  “I want to try them!”  He seems desperate now that he realizes he may be about to miss something incredible (like the Kraft Mac and Cheese experience…I will always regret letting him try it since now I always have to share).

“We’ll see,” I say with a smile, clutching them to my chest.  “This is the first time I’ve ever found them here!”

***

Okay, now let me be clear, I am not obsessed with goldfish crackers or anything.  I mean, I like them, they are a tasty treat but it’s not like my favorite cracker of all time (that would be Triscuits…obviously, is there even another option?), but there is something thrilling about finding a home product when you are overseas.  It’s like getting a high five from your native land.

“What’s up, USA – appreciate the shout-out!”

“Word,” responds USA, slapping my palm. 

(This is how USA and I talk.)

When you are expat, you will get excited even about home products that you aren’t really into.  For instance, I don’t like Dr. Pepper (or any soft drinks actually) but it still makes me happy when I see it and I will tell every American expat about where I found it. Another example is the friend of mine who left an exuberant post on Facebook about finding cottage cheese.  That’s right, you just read the word “exuberant” in reference to cottage cheese.  I was so stoked that I ran right out to the store she mentioned and then called her in a panic when I couldn’t find it.

“What does it look like,” I demand into the telephone.  “I’m standing with the cheeses.”

“It’s green,” she says, “It’s Jockey brand.  It is with the yogurts.”

“The YOGURTS,” dread creeps over me.  “I’ll never find it on the yogurt aisle!”  The yogurt aisle in France is epic (salty dogs chocolate frogs).

After a few minutes of her talking me through it I find the outrageously priced cottage cheese and feel a surge of energy course through me.  “Victory is mine!  Cottage Cheese for dinner tonight, muhahahahahaha!”

I have never before or since had quite such an emotional reaction to cottage cheese.

But I have had many emotional reactions to food before.   During our honeymoon in Italy, I remember sitting at a particularly fantastic meal and telling MB that the food made me feel even more in love with him…and it was the truth.  There was some portal of emotion inside of me that the meal opened up, just as tasting an old recipe of your Grandmother’s might bring a tear to your eye or how the first bite of something deliciously sinful can make you grin (or moan if you are that type…you know who you are, you sexy food-moaners).  And it doesn’t have to just be in the eating, I love cooking for people as well, taking the time and effort to put together a creative and delicious meal to share with friends around the table is one of the great joys in life.

I know there are the “fuel for the body” people but I will just never understand that.  In fact, I remember the first time someone told me that food was just fuel for the body…I never invited them to dinner again.  Why would I want to share a meal with someone who doesn’t appreciate the beauty, the majesty, and the soul’s connection with food?

Food, whether it is typical grocery store fare that allows you to time-travel to your childhood or a 5 star meal that makes your senses dance – is emotion.

***

And so, with that being said, starting next week I will be rolling out the Bread is Pain Food blog sharing some of my favorite recipes and dinner party ideas.  Everything from the simplest party dip to the menu for a 7 course dinners.  I hope you will come and check it out!

Here is a clip from the penultimate food movie: “Babette’s Feast” (in a close 2nd is “Like Water for Chocolate”). It is a long clip but perfectly elucidates the “fuel for the body” people vs. the “food is emotion” people. Enjoy!

A Month of Sundays: Encore Presentation

Uncategorized

*(Re-Post Warning:  So yes, I posted this a couple of years ago but in honor of the 1st day of August AKA “Month of Nothing” I thought I would put it up again.  Next week I will expound further on the France/August situation…until then I will be trying to be productive while nothing is open.

Enjoy!)*

This is a transcript of my most recent conversation with France.

Me:  Bonjour France!

France:  Oui, bonjour.   (France takes a sip of Pastis)

Me:  Guess what?!

France:  Quoi?

Me:  My semester ends the first week of August; I’m so excited.  I’m going to catch up on my workouts at the gym, read lots of books, work on my cooking; its going to be great!

France:  Ah oui?  Very…ambitious.  (France looks suspicious when it says this)

Me:  Yep, in fact, I think I’ll start by going to the gym right now!

France:  No.  I don’t think so.

Me:  Whaaa?  Why not?  MB is out of town for 3 weeks.  He’ll come back and I’ll be buff!

France:  It is so hot.  Do you really want to go?

Me:  Yes, I don’t care that the gym isn’t air-conditioned (actually I do, but that is for another post).

France:  Well, it is August; so I think that I will just close the gym.  (France says this nonchalantly but won’t look me in the eye)

Me:  You can’t do that!  I live here; I have a year membership!

France:  Pfff…not for the next 3 weeks, my little American friend.  (France pulls out a cigarette and lights it)

Me:  Fine, I will just hike in the mountains and take picnics.

France:  I will make it rain.

(I give France a face)

France:  C’est la vie.  (France says this matter-of-factly)

Me:  I don’t think you are using that phrase right, its meant to be a good thing, you know, ‘c’est la vie’!

France:  It is my phrase, huh?  I will use it as I want to use it.  Pfff…

Me:  Fine, I will sit inside with lots of good books from the library.

France:  (France takes a drag of its cigarette and exhales leisurely)  You think so?

Me:  Yes, I will get lots of cheesy romance novels about English speaking foreigners coming to France and falling in love…they will all have happy endings!

France:  (France rolls it’s eyes)  You think the library will be open?

Me:  YES.  I know they have vacation hours; I have checked.

France:  I hate to tell you, but I have closed the library too.

Me:  Seriously?

France:  Très sérieux.

Me:  So, I can’t go to the gym and I can’t go to the library…is the market open?

France:  Sometimes, but I will not disclose all the hours and days ahead of time.  I prefer for you to guess.

Me:  (I sigh loudly)  Well, maybe I will go to the sea!

France:  HA!  (France spits out a mouthful of Pastis)  Enjoy all the tourists!  Enjoy the backed up traffic from Paris to Cassis!  Are you CRE – ZEE (read: crazy)?!

Me:  So how am I supposed to fill up my month?

France:  Just relax, enjoy your life.

Me:  We’ve talked about this.  Remember Sundays?

France:  I know but you have to get over this need to be busy all the time.  (France motions to the waiter to bring another Pastis)

Me:  Okay, so what can I do?

France:  Its August, my friend, you can sit with me and have a drink.

Of Lipstick and Tennis Shoes

Uncategorized

“That is awesome!”  I am looking in the direction of an older gentleman (like octogenarian old) and his two similarly aged female companions.

“What about them,” asks MB, taking a bit of his andouillette; we are in Lyon for a day trip.

“Are you kidding,” I ask back.  “Look at his outfit.”

MB turns to look back at the man walking down the street in a Kelly green blazer and light green pants with a pink tie.

“He looks great,” I continue.  “I mean, don’t you just love how old folks always dress up?  Look at the women, both in heels, both in hose, hair done and it is just a weekday lunch!  I mean, if I had my way I would wear workout clothes all the time and just forget about make-up and I have way more energy than them.”  (I have no idea if I have more energy than them, they are looking pretty spritely)

“I like you like that,” MB says smiling at me, “natural.”

I mentally give another high-five to the universe for putting this man in my life then smile before continuing on my tangent.  “They just put in so much effort – I respect it, ya know?  Like these ladies got up this morning and said to themselves: “yep, we are stepping out” and really took time to put themselves together.  And the dude, I mean, honey, how can you not give props to a man pulling off a jacket that color.”

MB smiles at me indulgently, “ouais, they look good.”

BABE,” He is clearly not getting this.  “Her blouse is even sheer with a black bra underneath.  That sweet little octogenarian over there is both sexier and trendier than me.”

MB laughs and then changes the subject and we continue our lunch.  I know MB would be happy to spend the rest of his life in jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops, never donning a suit again.  We are just not a particularly “formal” generation.  We are Generation X of greasy hair and plaid shirt fame – the generation that went into an Urban Outfitters craze, snatching up $100 pairs of ripped up jeans (this was in the 90’s – $100 was a huge amount to spend on jeans), something that my Mother never understood.

“I am NOT paying that amount of money to buy you something that is going to make you look trashy.”

“MOM,” insert appropriate 14 year old screech.  “They are not trashy, GAWD, they are everywhere, everyone wears these now!!!!!”

“Not everyone.  I’m not wearing them; your Father isn’t wearing them.”

I give her a flat, emotionless expression.  I mean, she is kidding with this, right?

She gets my drift and continues.  “Look honey, it just isn’t going to happen.  If you want to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a half-way destroyed product, be my guest, but I’m not doing it.”

So, I did.  I saved my money and bought an on-sale pair of Urban Outfitters ripped up jeans for $76.  They were so hot, in fact, if I still had them I would happily wear them now…unfortunately they fell apart after about 3 months and became completely un-wearable.  I’m sure there is a lesson in there somewhere.

The point is, my Mother couldn’t understand why we would want to buy new products that were designed to look like old, thrown away products; which is crazy because it makes perfect sense (wait, what?).  She had been raised by a generation of people who put themselves together and made an effort when they left the house…heck, even when they stayed in the house.  A people who 60 years later, while surrounded by jean-wearing messy-haired young people still proudly sport their Kelly green blazer to a weekday lunch.

My Grandmother was a perfect example of this generation – even when she was in the nursing home she would remove her oxygen mask for photographs.  HER OXYGEN.

Several years back when I was home for a visit, she and I made plans to go to the movies together (pre-nursing home days).  The night before I went out and tied one on with some friends and was therefore pretty tired the next day.  I got up and put on some yoga pants and tennis shoes with a t-shirt and just threw my greasy hair into a pony-tail; I mean, come on, it’s just a midday movie with my Grandmother!  I went to pick her up and we went to the movies and everything went fine…or so I thought.  About a week later I called her to see if she wanted to have lunch.

“Well okay, sweetie, that would be wonderful but maybe you could make a little effort this time,” she croons into the phone.

“Huh,” I say back to her.

“Well, last time we went out you didn’t look very good and it was a little embarrassing; I’m glad I didn’t run into anyone I knew.”

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At this point, I just burst out laughing, “Well okay, I’ll make sure to tart it up for you next week!”

“Well, don’t go too far,” was her only response.

My Grandmother wasn’t raised with “exceptions” on how you presented yourself.  It wasn’t okay to “dress down” just because you were going to be sitting in a movie theater; she was raised (and therefore my Mother as well) that you didn’t so much as buy a gallon of milk without putting on lipstick.

Somewhere along the line we have lost this sense of pride in appearance, maybe in longer work hours and busier schedules, in homes with two working parents and children to take care of…maybe by the time you have finished a 14-hour day you just can’t be arsed to put yourself together for a casual dinner out or a drink with a friend.  I don’t know what the reasons but it kind of makes me sad.  We’ve lost some of the glamour and maybe a little bit of magic – that thing that made you want to dress up in your Grandmother’s old clothes and wear her costume jewelry or try sporting an old fedora that is still in the attic.

I’m standing on the tram on my way back from French class as I notice an elderly gentleman step into my car (I am always keeping an eagle eye out for the oldies to make sure they get a seat if they want one).  I smile to myself as I notice that he is wearing a full 3-piece suit, complete with hat but is also sporting his grocery bags with wheels.  This man suited up for the grocery store…the grocery store.  I look down at my tennis shoes and blue jeans feeling like the ultimate slacker.  Maybe I’ll put in more effort tomorrow; maybe I’ll actually fix my hair and put on proper make-up…wear shoes that don’t have rubber soles.  The tram lurches off, rattling down the line and I watch the old man straighten his tie and vest, flattening them down as he prepares to descend at the next stop.  I feel an unexpected, maybe even bizarre, twinge of affection for him.  “Thanks for keeping it classy,” I want to say to him.

Then the tram stops and he is gone, disappearing down the road as I strain to follow his form as long as possible.  I grab the rail as the tram jostles me forward unceremoniously and I sigh; I’ll probably wear tennis shoes again tomorrow…but maybe I’ll manage a bit of lipstick.

P.S. I realize this isn’t a strictly French post – I like to deviate every now and again.  I hope you don’t mind indulging me!

Of Hospitals and Cheese Courses

Cultural Differences, French Food, Uncategorized

Yes, I am being a slacker this week.  MB is having some health issues and afternoons at the hospital have proved to be uninspiring…except for the meals.

Now granted, I haven’t been in the hospital in the U.S. since the 80’s so my information isn’t at all up to date but what I remember of the food was pizza and jello (I was also 8 years old which might account for what stands out in my mind).  At the hospital here in Grenoble, however, MB’s meals are somewhat more sophisticated.  There is a potato soup, there is a tuna pasta, a freshly baked roll, fromage blanc.  These may show up all at the same time but this is basically a 3 course meal…in the hospital.  Yesterday he had saucisson…how is that a healthy choice?

Pfff…it is not healthy, it is good, you philistine; I am sick, not dead, eh?”   This is what I imagine France saying in this scenario.

Basically, what this means to me is that the French never surrender when it comes to food.

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

It is a charming quality that I love.  I’ll never forget MB telling me how their school lunches consisted of three parts: a salad of some sort, a main dish, and then a bit of cheese.

“You had cheese courses in elementary school,” I asked him, incredulous.

“Mais oui,” he says as though it is the most normal thing in the world.  “What did you eat?”

Hmmmm…deep fried burritos?  Butter cookies that had so much butter that they would soak through the wax paper.

“We didn’t have cheese courses,” is the only response I can muster.

He looks at me baffled.

So, with these thoughts in mind I invite you, fair reader, to give me your favorite food moment involving France (I say involving because I don’t think you need to be IN France to have had a French food moment).  Whether it be your first French cheese or trying calf brains or just your first time at a French restaurant – let’s take the day to think about France’s most charming quality…their love of food.

*If you would like updates on when I am going to post each week please join my facebook page – I usually post a few little notes throughout the week!  🙂

Bringing up Chien

Cultural Differences, Uncategorized

The French LOVE dogs (literal dogs not all my figurative dog-talk).  Dogs can go on the train, on the tram, in a restaurant…just about anywhere that doesn’t have a sign indicating

No dogs allowed!

No dogs allowed!

otherwise.  A dog being out and about in public is so prevalent that at my favorite restaurant they even have a “dog’s menu” underneath the children’s menu.

As a life-long dog lover I embrace this; I like realizing that there is a canine friend at the table next to me in a restaurant or having a large furry beast relaxing under my feet on the train, it’s charming and friendly.  In the U.S. we are dog-banners; I’ve seen a dog get kicked out a post office line before…I mean, the POST OFFICE for heaven’s sake…what is the dog going to do that could possibly be more unpleasant than what your postal worker will do?  (har har har – I slay me) 

Could this difference in policy actually be a difference in behavior?  While I have seen no evidence whatsoever to convince me that French children behave better than children of any other nationality (sorry, I’m sure I’ll get skewered for this since it is all the rage…but there it is…kids are kids the world over and I see just as many crying, screaming temper tantrums in public here as I have in any other country I have lived in) I WILL say that their dogs are appear to be more attune to social etiquette.

A friend was recently visiting from the U.S. and commented on the fact that the canines

Doggie public toilets

Doggie public toilets

about town seemed to be much better behaved.  They sit patiently if left outside a “magasin” without barking or putting up much of a fuss, while giving imploring looks they do not incessantly beg at restaurant tables, and they typically manage to “do their business” in the “espace chiens”* set up around town for this express purpose.

And so, the question is: Are these better behaved dogs or are they just French?  Let me explain by going into dog psyche for a moment.

A French dog is out and about in town with his owner.  This is the dog’s internal dialogue.

Pfff…look at that stoopeed bichon on a leash…so degrading.  I mean, you know, you should learn how to walk if you want to go out in public. 

“Hey Cotton Ball – yeah, you with the leash – it is not hard, you know, just walk with your human.  You are embarrassing us all!”

Well, it is hardly a wonder, huh?  The owner is wearing tennis shoes and MON DIEU picking up the poop off the sidewalk!  If my owner did this I would run away; I would rather live on ze street zen with a human who would disrespect themselves so.  It would be too shameful.  Picking up poop…it eez disgusting, non?  I don’t walk on leashes and I manage to get to a toilet when nature calls, huh?  I’m not a barbarian or an American…ha…Americans.

The owner stops in front of a bakery and leaves the dog waiting outside with another one.  Our narrator dog stops and looks around for a minute.

A la la la la…what is thees barking fool next to me? 

“You know, we are just waiting outside the “marche”; relax Kujo!”

More barking.

“Hey – Timmy hasn’t falled down a well, Lassie!  Have some dignity.”

Pfff…I would never behave in such a way.  I don’t need to bark all the time and act like I am having a heart attack of excitement each time my human returns.  …Rideeculous.  I have standards, you know?  I know how to comport myself in public.  I-

“OOOH!  My human, bonjour, bonjour, salut, salut, salut!!!!!!!!!!”

SCENE

Last week I was walking back home from the bakery with my baguette in hand.  As some bakeries prefer, the baguette wasn’t even fully enclosed in a wrapper but just had a wisp of paper for me to hold it around the middle.  As I was walking back to my house the baguette was down by my side…you know, about dog height…and a dog came walking by with his owner.  The dog didn’t so much as turn his nose in the direction of my baguette.

It made quite the impression on me that the dog didn’t even make an attempt; there was no tug of war with the owner pulling him back from trying to devour my baguette.  I thought to myself what a well-behaved canine he was but then again, the dog was French so maybe my baguette was just from the wrong bakery.

*The Espace Chiens are set up around the city and are little sandy or dirt pits (sort of like sandboxes) with some fencing around them for the dogs to do their business.  Yes, that is right, in France dogs have their own public toilets…gotta love it.  Furthermore, while these “espaces” are used regularly there is still a prodigious amount of poo on the sidewalks.  When you walk around France it is best to keep an eagle eye.

Wassailing

Holidays in France, Uncategorized

“Quoi?”  MB calls out from the kitchen.

“Quoi what?”  I say this before the redundancy of it computes in my mind.

He steps out of the kitchen and into the living room where I am dancing like a maniac and going through my Christmas songs on Itunes to sort out a playlist for our upcoming party.  I grab his hand and make him dance with me which gets a laugh…one of his classic laughs in which I can tell he is trying really hard not to but can’t help it.

He kisses me on the cheek which is my cue to stop.  “What is this wassailing?”

“Oh,” I respond, putting “Here We go a-Wassailing”* on mute.  “You know, it’s to… “wassail.”  This seems like a totally logical answer to me.

“You don’t know what it means, do you?”

YES, of course I do, I sang this song when I was a kid!  Gaw!”  I have no idea what it is to “wassail.”

“So, what is it?”  He puts a hand on his hip and stands over my computer.

“Hold on…” I say, as I google it quickly.  “Huh…it is: 1 : an early English toast to someone’s health
2 : wild drinking : REVELRY.”

“So it is a Christmas carol about getting wasted?”  He asks me this with amusement on his face.

“No way, it can’t be,” I look up “wassailing” as opposed to the noun form “wassail” hoping there is some translation change; it isn’t much better.  “”Wassailing,” I read, “To go on a wild drinking spree.”

MB bursts out laughing.

“It also means to drink to someone’s health!”  I will defend “wassailing” forever!

He pats me on the head and walks back to the kitchen.  My whole childhood has just morphed into an old English drinking song.

When I was little I was a Girl Scout.  We had meetings once a week and events like camping (okay so camping in cabins not in tents but get real…we have bears in Tennessee) and selling Girl Scout cookies throughout the year.  I remember learning how to light a match, how to sew a button (quit giving me that look, Mom, just because I don’t do it well doesn’t mean I don’t know how), and I can still pick out poison oak.  Somewhere in the attic there is a sash with badges on it and I still keep in touch with a few girls from my troop and one of them even came to my wedding this year.

Every Christmas my Mother (a “forever” Girl Scout) would get the girls together over at our house and take us caroling in the neighborhood.  My Mother an avid…dare I say “hardcore”, caroler loved the tradition and so did I.  It was awesome and SO much cooler than it sounds…I swear.  We would all meet at someone’s house and dress up in super warm clothes and drink hot chocolate and afterwards we would have a cookie party.  It was fun to go out into a cold wintery night with all your best friends and sing songs to strangers.  Carolers are often made fun of in movies or on sitcoms but let’s face it – in this day in age it is pretty amazing to have a bunch of strangers show up at your door and sing songs to you for no other reason than to spread some cheer.

I remember one year in particular back in the late 80’s.  After the adults made sure we were all warmly attired in our totally cool purple, green, and fuchsia winter wear (I’m just assuming…I did say late 80’s) we set out with our song books into the wily streets of High Point Terrace in Memphis (this will be funny to anyone from Memphis).  We went to house after house singing our songs and generally being “ooh’d” and “awe’d” over by all the folks in the neighborhood (perhaps another reason we all loved Christmas caroling…a nice little ego boost if I do say so).

Only a few doors down from my house we came and knocked on a door.  Now let me give a little lesson in caroling for you novices out there, it’s not like you ring the doorbell and wait to take requests; you ring or knock and then get going with your song – if the people living there don’t like it then they are scrooges, plain and simple.  At this house my Mother whispered to us to start singing “Silent Night.”  The porch stayed quiet as we began our song and we started to wonder if they were going to open the door; we could see people in there.  Suddenly the door swung wide and the whole family was standing there.  I remember having a very odd sensation of seeing so much light around them as we stood on the dark porch.  While we sang I noticed their arms going around each other and hugs being given, heads rested on shoulders, a couple of the people even cried.  We had never made such an impact.  Later my Mother explained to us that the man who had lived there had died a few days ago and that the family was there comforting each other.

It was a special moment in my life, maybe it was a special moment in theirs.  Maybe it is a story that they still tell in their family about the night that Grandpa died and little girls showed up at the door during the wake and sang “Silent Night.”  We didn’t understand while we were singing what had happened and we only sort of understood later but I understand now and it can still bring a tear to my eye thinking about it; thinking about the fact that the simplest acts that you commit in your life can bring a sense of peace, a sense of thankfulness, a sense of joy and love to a complete stranger…and sometimes when they need most to not feel alone in this world.  I understand that often God or the Universe or Mother Nature, or whatever you believe in will use you as a tool for good even when you aren’t trying.

When I asked my Mother about this story to make sure I was telling it right she was so pleased that I remembered caroling and had happy memories of it.  She told me that the reason she always hosted this party was because of a memory she had when she was a little girl.  “It was probably only once in my life – one year,” she wrote, “The cold, the holiday season, the thrill of singing with others, the smiles on the other side of the doorway.  I still recall the intense delight I felt.”  It’s funny, isn’t it?  That two women in different stages in their life still think about and remember fondly singing to strangers a few times when they were children.

My Mother said that when we would go caroling sometimes people would try to give us money.  They would want to know why we were caroling, they assumed we were doing it for something.  Well…we were.  Maybe it sounds cheesy and maybe it is too trite for some people but we were just doing it to spread cheer.

So, “Wassail” my friends!  Drink an extra glass of egg nogg or vin chaud, be unnecessarily cheerful, sing songs too loudly, and allow yourself to be used in the crafting of someone’s happy holiday memories.

*Note – there are two different “Wassailing” songs around the holidays and neither is for Christmas but for the New Year.  There is “Here we go a –wassailing” and there is also (my favorite) “Wassail, Wassail”. 

Happy Holidays Everyone!  I’ll be back in the New Year!!

Holiday Season Part II: Spreadable Meat and Hot Wine

Cultural Differences, French Food, Holidays in France, Uncategorized

Alright, so we already know my favorite USA Christmas things…now for France!

7) Animatronics.  Yeah, that’s right…animatronics, love ‘em.  A merry band of robotic, glassy-eyed zombie bears playing Christmas Carols = awesome!  (maybe I’ve been watching too much Walking Dead)    This is something that I discovered last year during the Christmas season in France and that I found very random/charming.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’ve never seen animatronics at home but I feel like there are more of them here in France during the holidays…which totally confuses me.  When I think of the French I think of them being uber-cool; I do not think of them as being animatronics people  (then again, Euro Disney has managed to survive) so it was quite a surprise when I started to notice Christmas animatronics all over town…at the marchés, at the magasins, at the malls, even at Carrefour.  Who would have ever suspected that the French would embrace something so…well, geeky?  Jerry Lewis probably would have guessed it.

6) The Chocolate Aisle ON STEROIDS.  In a previous post I wrote about the chocolate aisle at the grocery stores in France and all its glory (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/chocolate-frogs-and-salty-dogs/).  Well, imagine that aisle winning the Tour de France 7 times on ‘roids and you would have the Christmas chocolate aisle.  (woah…did she just make an inappropriate joke about Lance Armstrong?  NOT cool)  Actually, once the holiday season arrives it isn’t even an aisle anymore but an entireSECTION of the grocery store, a section filled with mountainous towers of Lindt Truffles, Kinder Surprise, and Lanvin l’escargot (why shouldn’t chocolates be shaped like snails, don’t judge).  What’s even more nefarious awesome is that these sections are usually right at the entrance of the store…that’s right, the same masterminds at Carrefour (cue thunderclap and eerie music) who will only have three registers open on a Saturday afternoon have managed to figure out that forcing you through this chocolate mini-nation will effectively force you to buy some.  There is no defense against it…and I embrace that; if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

5) CRAZY Christmas Lights (part II).  Okay, so we have established that in the U.S. people go a little over the top decorating their houses…in France it is not like that, in France they keep their decorum at home and instead go over the top decorating their towns.  All over the city centres there are lights running up and down the streets, maybe hanging over the streets, dangling down the sides of buildings, and hanging from every light pole.  And it isn’t just the main streets; you can find light displays on the smaller side streets as well.  You will never walk down an un-festive street and it really makes going into town more fun…especially when that special Grenoble “icnoain” (that would be ice/snow/rain) is pissing down out of the sky (no bitterness).  The only thing that could make this more fun and awesome would be if they would take the decorations down during the rest of the year instead of leaving them up which violently murders Christmas spirit…evil.*

4) Spreadable meat.  Now, I realize that spreadable meat in France is not just attached to the Christmas season but I’m using it as one of my favorite things anyway because much like the grocery store chocolate it is just MORE at the Christmas season.  For instance, MB and I might normally have a can or two of pate lying around for a party or some such occasion but just last week we bought over 40euros worth of pates and foie gras creations (because you can stuff everything with foie gras and shove it in a can…including magret canard which we discovered is amazing) from a vendor at the neighborhood market because…well, it was there.  Do you remember what happens if you get the Gremlins wet (if not, rent the Christmas classic Gremlins and enjoy 80s ridiculousness at its finest)?  Well, that is pretty much what happens to pate in France during the holidays.  Normally, there might be one stand at your neighborhood market and a shelf or two at the grocery store; but during Christmas time, it multiplies.  Suddenly, it’s like you can’t get away from spreadable meat options – they are everywhere, taunting you with their fatty goodness, duck, goose, wild boar, rabbit, all of them mixed together.  Whatever kind of spreadable meat situation you want, you can have in France during the holidays…just remember to take your Lipitor.

3) Vin Chaud.  Wine is already tremendous.  It is fruity, it is alcoholic, it comes in a wide variety of flavors, and (saints be praised) it is even good for you…in moderate amounts blah blah blah…fine print…blah blah.  So how could wine possibly become any more comforting and awesome?  Not possible, right? WRONG – heat that b-tch up and make it spicy.  In England they call it mulled wine, in France it is vin chaud (hot wine…which sounds funny so I like to say it) and is basically red wine with a variety of spices in it, heated up.  Again, it’s one of those few things that makes winter worth struggling through and definitely one of my favs about being in France during the holidays.

2) Easy Presents.   Okay, so this isn’t necessarily a French Christmas thing but it is a Christmas thing for me while living in France so I’m using it.  Living in a country that produces some of the yummiest food products in the world makes Christmas shopping ridiculously easy.  While other people back home are searching to find those perfect gifts for their loved ones, all I have to do is buy some cheese and spreadable meat and we’re all good.  And the best part is that everyone always loves it, in fact I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has received a gift box of French food and not been happy.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Roman provincial governors were sending back parcels of Gallic goodies home.

Two Roman sentinels are stationed in Gallic territory and standing outside the praetorium shooting the breeze.

Gaius:  So, what are you going to send Aurelia and the boys for Saturnalia?

Sextus:  I don’t know, you know, the boys want some swords but clearly that is better bought in Rome.

They kick a passing Gaul and laugh to each other.

Sextus:  I think Aurelia wants a new dress.  I’ll probably just get a gift certificate.

Gaius:  No way!  It’s not personal – Helena tells me it’s tacky so I’ve never gotten her one.

Sextus:  Well, alright tough guy, what are you sending?

Gaius:  Gallic Gift Baskets.

Sextus:  Huh?

Gaius:  You know food from the region, specialties.  I make my slave put it together – it’s awesome.  Always a hit!

Sextus:  Really?

Gaius:  Yeah, everyone loves Gallic food, come on.  It’s better than having everything taste like garum!

SCENE.

I’m pretty sure that is exactly how it all went down.  However, the point is that not only do I not have to fight holiday shopping crowds but I also have the assurance that the gift will be well-received.  High-five, France!

1) Marche de Noel.  In the U.S. we have Marchés de Noël…they are called malls.  In France (and all of Europe really) most towns have these ridiculously adorable Marchés de Noël that do not involve Forever 21 or Taco Bells**; these marches, on the other hand,  are like delightful little alpine villages that crop up in the middle of your city centres.  The marchés have little pathways that weave around small stands with vendors selling a variety of games, toys, etc (most of it is crap but you know…still cute), there might be some musicians (they may or may not be animatronic) and people selling Christmas carols, there will definitely be a large variety of artery-clogging, delicious food (did anyone say foie gras sandwich?), and there will undoubtedly be plenty of vin chaud.  Basically the Marché de Noël manages to combine almost everything I love about Christmas-time in Europe.  It is Christmas spirit and liveliness, cheerful people and music…and an unhealthy dose of booze and high-fat foods.

*I could go on about this subject for a very long time as it is something that has irritated me the entire time I have lived in France.  WHY oh WHY can they not take down the decorations in the off-season?  I mean, won’t that give people jobs…not to mention make it possible for me to see them without screeching in annoyed outrage?

**This is not a diss to Taco Bell.  I love Taco Bell with every fiber of my being, yes, I know what is in it and no, I don’t care whatsoever.  I would eat 5 burrito supremes right now if I could.

Bise! Boo!

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences, Uncategorized

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

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

*cue thunderclap and lightening*

A tradition so scary…so intimidating…

*teeth chattering in fear*

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

THE BISE!

*SCREAM*

MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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