Merry Christmas Part 1: Joyeux Noel

Conversations with France, Holidays in France

*This is a repost of a Christmas post I wrote my first year in France.  I hope you will enjoy, more Christmas Posts coming soon. *

 

Before leaving for the United States, I saw France out at the Christmas Market in town.

France:  Hello!  American friend, hello!!

France is waving wildly and jumping up and down.  I turn behind me to see whose attention is being sought…surely not mine.

France:  Oui, for you, so silly!

France laughs gaily and waves me over.

Me:  Ah…bonsoir, France.

France:  Bonsoir, mon amie!  It has been a long time, yes?

Me:  Yes, I guess so, not since the “Total Eclipse of the Heart” situation.

France:  Ah yes, this was very funny.  We always have such a good time.

In my mind I think, “do we?”  France gives me a friendly slap on the back.

France:  And what will you drink?  A vin chaud?

Me:  Oui, yes, sounds good!  You are in a very good mood today.

France pauses and gives me an exasperated look.

 France:  Is this okay with you?  Pfff…always the same, never satisfied.  It is the Marché de Noël, eh?  Maybe you can try to not ruin a party for once, uh?  Pfff….

Me:  Sorry, sorry, it’s just so – are those animatronic bears?

France:  Mais oui, they are very nice, yes?  Luke (look) at them playing their instruments, I love eet (it)!

I look over at the four animatronic polar bears playing a string quartet with wonder.  This seems very un-French. 

 Me:  You know, I didn’t think the market would be so festive.  I mean, this is really hardcore.

France:  What do you expect, American?  Ronald McDonald with a Santa hat?

France says this with an eye roll.

 Me:  No, it’s just, you know…

France looks at me questioningly.

 Me:  Well, in the U.S. we really celebrate things intensely, lots of decorations, lots of costumes.  I mean, they don’t even have to be our own holidays – St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day even…we don’t discriminate.  So, in France it is a bit more subdued; I just didn’t expect the Christmas decorations to be so over the top!

France:  Over the top?  It is a few lights, a market, this is normal!

Me:  Yes, yes, it is all very normal but –

I am interrupted as an accordion player wanders through the crowd playing Christmas carols.  She passes out sheets of paper with the music on them and the whole crowd joins in to sing with her.  France joins in loudly.

 Me:  What is happening?  Strangers are breaking out into spontaneous musical numbers together…and they are FRENCH.  Is this a joke?

France:  Stop being so, ah what is this word…SCROOGE!  Oui, stop being so scrooge!

Me:  I’m not being a Scrooge, I am just very confu-

France hands me my glass of vin chaud. 

 France:  Now, I will go and get us some foie gras sandwiches.  Here, you can sing.

France thrusts the music into my hand and goes to the stand to get the sandwiches.  Once in line, France gives me a ‘thumbs up’ and waves at me and I must smile. 

 Christmas really is a magical time of year. 

Joyeux Noël and Happy Holidays to all!

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Top 7 Moments in France (and shameless self-promotion)

Adjusting to France

Hello all!

Just a quickie to ask for your help.  I’ve entered the Expat Blog Awards with a post entitled “Top 7 Moments in France.”  It is a new post that has never been published here and I would be thrilled if you would pop over to their site and check it out.  If you feel so inclined, leave a comment and that will go towards helping me win the contest (the post with the most comments wins).  Comments must be over 10 words to count towards the award (yeah…they won’t let me get away with “nice job”…cheeky) and they will ask you to verify email to make sure you aren’t a robot.

I would so appreciate any help and hope you will enjoy the post!

Cheers!!!

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?”

My Dirty Little Secret

Adjusting to France, Life in General, Living Abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“I know, Mom,” I reply.  “I do!”

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

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

“Because…”

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

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

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

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

…Except when it isn’t.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Cultural Differences, French Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Non!”

“Oui!”

“Non!”

“OUI!”

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

The French are a people who have been heavily stereotyped.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

…Okay, so maybe just little a bit.

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

 

 

 

 

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.)

The Roast Beef Betrayal

Conversations with France

After a weekend trip to London, I open my door to find France standing there.

ME:  Why bonjour, France!  I didn’t expect you to be dropping by today.

France shrugs and leans in to kiss me on both cheeks.

FRANCE:  I am out of butter.

ME:  Um…okay, so you came all the way over here for some butter?  It’s not like you live in the building.

FRANCE:  I am France, huh?  I am everywhere.  Mon dieu…toujours le meme.

ME:  Sorry, sorry, come on in.

France marches into my apartment and starts scanning the room.

FRANCE:  It looks like you have been on a trip, non?

ME: Quoi?!

I begin to feel a little uneasy.

FRANCE:  I see your baggage is out.  So you have been on a voyage, I believe.

France pulls a cigarette out and starts to light it.

FRANCE:  I can smoke in here, oui?

ME:  Actually-

France lights the cigarette and walks further into the kitchen.

FRANCE:  I think oui.  So, where is it that you visit on this voyage?

I walk over to the fridge as a trickle of sweat begins to roll down the center of my back.

ME:  Let’s get you that butter.

I curse myself for my shaking voice.

ME:  Nothing but good Breton butter in here…

France stares me down and takes a drag off the cigarette, blowing the smoke back in my face.

FRANCE:  Is that so?  Well, then I must see for myself.

ME:  No, I can get it, don’t bother, it’s nothing-

I’m too late, France is already standing at the door of the open refrigerator, staring in open hostility at one of the shelves.  The cigarette drops to the floor and I hurry to pick it up…France does not seem to even notice.

FRANCE:  AMERICAINE.

ME:  France, just calm down a minute, I can explain.

FRANCE:  I welcome you to my country and this is the thanks I get?!

ME:  Well…I think “welcome” is a strong word-

FRANCE: ҪA SUFFIT!

France leans into the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of ketchup.

FRANCE:  As if theez were not bad enough, theez monstrosity-

ME:  Oh come on, let’s pump the brakes here for a minute.  Americans use ketchup on burgers and fries, but I’ve watched you pour in onto a plate of spaghetti, I mean, you want to talk about gross.

France turns slightly red before getting angry again.

FRANCE:  It is not zee point and you know it!  Always, you are changing subjects.  Let’s talk about the “hippopa-tame-moose” in zee room!

ME:  elephant.

France glares at me and lights another cigarette.

FRANCE:  What do you have to say for yourself?

ME:  It was just a weekend.

FRANCE:  Pffff…I have heard this before.  You think I was born yesterday?  UH?!  For centuries, it is like a “rabb-eet” on my back.

ME:  monkey.

France gives me an irritated look before continuing.

FRANCE:  Once, it was even 100 years straight, do you even know what that is like?  Pfff…of course not, you Americaine.  You have a problem with another country and then you become best friends the next year.  So fickle…perhaps I should not be surprised.

ME:  Aren’t y’all like BFF’s with Germany right now?

FRANCE:  Arret!  You can never just listen, maybe it is true and you do all have this deficit of attention disorder.  We are discussing your betrayal, uh?

ME:  France, come on, I just wanted to check it out.  See what all the fuss was about.

FRANCE:  Just “check it out?”  Well, then what is theez?!

France reaches back into the fridge and throws a wax paper package of cheese at me.  I stammer in response, holding the guilt-ridden cheese.

FRANCE:  FROMAGE!  BRITISH FROMAGE!  You can explain that?!  I cannot explain it, it shouldn’t even exist!  I am so upset, look, you have made me raise my voice…disgusting.  I need a pastis.

France raps on the counter as if ordering a servant.

FRANCE:  Something French, toute suite!  That is, if you still keep French things in your house, TRAITRESSE!

I try to stop myself from rolling my eyes as I reach for the pastis. 

ME:  Don’t you think you are being a little bit dramatic?

FRANCE:  MOI?!  Dramatique?  Pfff…I am France, not LES ROSBIFS!

I can’t help but start laughing at the name the French use for the English.

FRANCE:  I see nothing amusing.

ME:  Roast-beefs?  It’s so funny, come on…you know it is.

France shrugs and takes a sip of pastis.

FRANCE:  Maybe you would like to be a rosbif, huh, yankee?  You two, with your “special” relationship.

ME:  It’s not like that, France.  You know how I feel about you, you read my blog.

France almost spits up a sip of pastis.

FRANCE:  I do not read your blog, you think I have time to read some little blog.  Pfff…

ME:  Then who keeps commenting as “FRANCE #1 4 EVA?”

France looks away and takes a drag off the cigarette.

FRANCE:  How I would know, huh?  Sounds like a name that many people would want to use.

France takes a sip of pastis.

FRANCE: So, what did you do in that horrible, rainy place…Londres?

France says the name with disdain and I bite my tongue as I consider the weather patterns of Paris.

ME:  A lot of touring about, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge, The Tower-

FRANCE:  Ah, ze Tower…now this is something that is okay.  You know who built it, oui?  Guillaume the Conqueror – a French man.  Very important, perhaps the most important King in English history, you know?  Really, he practically started the whole country.

ME:  Uh…yeah, sure.  But really it was quite impressive.

FRANCE:  Oui, mais bien sur!

I smile to myself, sensing that France has been mollified.

FRANCE:  Alors, theez cheese…what it is like?  Disgusting, non?

I look at the super delicious Welsh cheese that my husband and I bought in London and know that I can’t tell France that we loved it.

ME:  Nothing compared to French cheese.

FRANCE:  Hmph.

France picks it up and smells it, then opens the package and takes a look.

FRANCE:  Ouais.

France sounds nonplussed but I notice a slight uptick of one eyebrow.

FRANCE: Then, you won’t mind if I just take it.

ME:  What?  Why?

FRANCE:  I thought you didn’t like it, you are now attached to it?

ME:  No, it’s just that-

FRANCE:  I will take it to throw it away, of course.  Pfff…what else would I do with it?

France grabs the cheese and walks back towards the door.

FRANCE:  A bientot, Americaine.

I watch from our front window as France exits the apartment and places the cheese into a jacket pocket while walking past a trash can…and I smile. 

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!