Fake it to Make it

I’m standing in the middle of my gynecologist’s office as she moves a chair to put it against the door.  I’m not quite sure who we are barricading it against but I’m glad to know that if the killer from one of the “Scream” movies decides to show up during my exam that we are all good.

“No one will come in – okay?”  She says this to me smiling.

“Great,” I reply…because um…what other response is there?  Are there women who like to share the Pap smear experience?

She says something else to me quickly in French and then turns to the “tools of discomfort” to prepare.

I began to undress, assuming that is what she told me to do, as she piddles around the room.  I feel a bit awkward just getting naked in the middle of a room but “hey” this ain’t my first rodeo; I am familiar with the gyno exams in France.  I plop my buck-naked* self down on the paper-covered bench and wait for her to turn around and begin the exam.

I chuckle a bit, thinking to myself how it still amuses me to be naked and hanging out with a stranger when suddenly another, chilling thought crosses my mind…

“Shit…I hope that I’m supposed to be naked right now.”

***

To fully explain all of this, I think I better go back to the very beginning.

When I first got to France I was willing to try everything on my own.  You need me to talk to the plumber?  Of course I can handle that.  I want to organize my French lessons with the University?  Dude…I got this.  Anything that came my way I was willing to go for, being the independent person I was.  I mean, hey, I had already moved to two different countries – I was used to figuring out new places; I even found it fun.  When you know almost nothing of the language then you don’t really have too much to lose (read: if people are making fun of you there is no way that you will understand it so you can’t possibly care).

Slowly, however, things started to change.  I started having problems – as my French improved and I understood more in some weird way I almost started understanding less.  I remember standing at the counter paying for a facial for 20 minutes while they tried to explain to me that I was supposed to take a device home and then return in two weeks for a follow up.  I looked at them, my sheepish smile plastered to my face, so unsure about what to do.  It seemed clear that I was meant to take the small device with me but if that was not what they were saying, how weird and awkward and (OMG) embarrassing would it be if I tried to walk out with it?  I was trapped, crippled by the desire to appear competent even though I was so obviously not.

“Prenez,” the lady said to me clearly.

“Tu prends,” said the young girl who had been staring into the abyss of my pores just moments earlier.

“Vous comprenez,” the lady asks me again if I understand.

I give a laugh and shake my head “no” because there is no international sign for “actually I think I get it but I’m not sure and don’t want to look like an ass.”  A man, seated behind me begins to speak with the lady and the young girl and I am stuck standing there as they have a 5 minute conversation of how to explain to me what to do.

I wanted to run out the door, escape entirely, this is not a challenge that I wanted to address.  I hadn’t learned the verb “prendre” yet and it wasn’t just going to magically make sense to me.  I knew in that moment that the situation was hopeless, yet manners forced me to stay there, humiliation raining down upon me.

Finally, the lady smiled at me and shrugged, the young girl rolled her eyes in irritation, snatched the device and walked to the back, and I paid and left.

I remember trying not to cry on the way home and I’m certain when MB arrived back from work that evening he was greeted with wails of “I hate it here, why did you make me come here, this is horrible!”

I felt so stupid and so embarrassed.

From this point on, things began to change.  I stopped going to do things on my own.  If someone needed to come by the apartment to work on something I made sure that MB was either there or available by phone.  When I wanted to make an appointment for my facials I would go in person instead of calling so that I could avoid any awkward phone conversation.  I had lost my gumption.

Scarlett O’Hara would have been so annoyed with me.

It took a while after that incident for me to own up to a few infallible truths:

  1. I ABHOR being embarrassed.
  2. Life is embarrassing.  (perhaps even more so when you are learning something new)
  3. Being embarrassed is funny if you are willing to laugh.

I mean, at the end of the day, what is more embarrassing anyway?  Having your husband translate the phrase, “please put your feet in the stirrups now” or premature nakedness because you pretended that you understood what was told to you?

***

My heart is beating in my chest as my gynecologist begins to turn around.  “Please let me be supposed to be naked, please let me be supposed to be naked!”

“Okay,” she says, snapping the rubber on her glove.  “We do theez now?”

Nailed it,” I think smugly.

***

Totally supposed to be naked.”

 

* For those of you not from familiar with the term “Buck Naked” (“naked” should be pronounced “nekkid”).  Please read this one because the example is just perfection:  http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/buck+naked  And is this isn’t enough for you there is a complete background on the term here:  http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20001005

Schizofrenchia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wry look returns to my Mother’s face.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

…Or something like that.

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

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

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

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

A Month of Sundays: Encore Presentation

*(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.

Free-Range Breasts

“Dang!”  I am standing in front of a full length mirror, examining myself in a new dress that I just bought.  “It is totally see-through,” I shout towards the other room.  “I think this might be a swimsuit cover up, come tell me how bad it is!”

After a minute or so MB ambles into the room nonchalantly.  “Quoi,” he looks me up and down, clearly seeing nothing wrong with the sheer black and white maxi dress.

I go spread eagle and ask again.

“I can see the outline of your legs but that is okay, non?”  He is looking at me quizzically.

“Yeah, I’m more worried about boob,” I spread the ruched fabric flat across my chest.  “See?  You can see them.”

MB laughs, “Only when you do that.  It is fine.”

I look back in the mirror, staring intently at my bosom.  Is it fine?  Is it?  The Southern girl in me says, “Absolutely not, white trash, put a bra on!”  While the French girl in me says “pfff…it is a breast, this is natural, non?”

My entire life I was raised that nice girls don’t leave the house without a bra on.  Seriously, it wouldn’t have even been a consideration, you wouldn’t wake up and ask yourself, “is this a bra kind of day” because EVERY day is a bra kind of day.  It doesn’t even matter if you are a card carrying member of the I.B.T.C* – I.B.T.C. girls need bras too.  In the U.S. (in general) we like those suckers to stay strapped down (or up, as it were), harnessed really.   I mean, come on you wouldn’t want a wild breast to get on the loose and stir up trouble in town, now would you?

The attitude in France is somewhat different; in France, bras are optional, heck, even swimsuit tops are optional; in France they believe in free-range breasts.  In fact, just this year they completed a study that says bras aren’t good for breasts anyway (http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/bra-bombshell-brassieres-breasts-saggier-article-1.1313974).

It is a normal thing to see breasts out and about.  The other day I noticed a woman with a paper-thin white t-shirt on and no bra walking through town.  I could clearly see “everything” and watched amazed as she walked through town with her shopping bags, totally unconcerned by the fact that she was flashing the “goods”.  It was one of those classic expat moments in France in which I look around thinking “is anyone else seeing this?!?!?!?”  But no, no one else seemed to notice anything at all…because here it is totally ordinary.  There are bare breasts on advertisements on the street, in TV shows, at every swimming situation – it just isn’t a big deal.

When I first arrived in France it really threw me off.  Going to get a chest x-ray for my visa and having a woman man-handle my bare breasts to get them into the right position on the machine felt a bit odd and later at my first female exam, having the doctor laugh about “silly Americans” and their gowns during medical exams.  Now, I am kind of used to it.  I mean, I’m not about to burn my bras or go topless at the beach (let’s be honest, that is really just a horrific sunburn waiting to happen) but it is kind of nice to know that I have the option of doing so without freaking people out.

I mean…it is natural – we all know they are there, shouldn’t we be able to handle it by now?

I look at myself one more time in the mirror and realize you really can’t see anything.  Then I walk over to my dresser and get out a strapless bra…I’ll get there eventually.

*I.B.T.C. – a torturous junior-high age taunt – Itty Bitty Titty Committee

Paris Tara

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

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

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

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

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

“PARIS…PARIS…paris…PARIS!”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“OHMAGOD, what did she just say?”

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

“I don’t even…I’m just…PARIS!”

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

*GASP OF HORROR*

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

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

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

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

 

 

He Was My Friend: A Memorial Day Tribute

I remember years ago when I was living in Washington D.C. waking up on a Memorial Day morning (okay, fine afternoon…it was the afternoon, judgers) and deciding to take a walk down the National Mall to all the memorials.  It was an odd decision for me to go by myself as I am a social creature by nature, but for some reason I bucked the trend this day and headed out the door solo.  I knew that it would be crowded but it was a beautiful day and it seemed like a nice gesture to go and pay my respects.

Now, I had been living in Washington for a while at this point and it certainly wasn’t my first time visiting the memorials but for anyone who has ever gone, you know, every time feels like the first.  Walking through those beautiful and haunting structures always makes my heart ache while, at the same time, instilling in me a profound, sometimes overwhelming, sense of gratitude.

This particular Memorial Day I found myself blinking back tears as I slowly made my way through the throngs of people at each memorial, veterans embracing each other, families laying down flowers, tourists giving silent “thank-yous”.

Slowly, I walked through the Vietnam Memorial, reading names and trying to think about each one of those men…boys…men?  Even at that time I was older than so many of them had been.  There were people everywhere, having hushed conversations, taking rubbings of names, holding each other’s hands.  It is funny the things you notice, how sometimes your brain seems to shine a light on something or someone in the midst of a crowd.  “Why them,” you wonder later, “why did I notice that particular thing?

To my right there was a man with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old.  The man was crouching down and asking the boy, “do you see that name, do you see it?”  The boy shook his head and his Father picked him up and placed his hand on the name etched into stone.  Small hands traced the letters, fingers fitting into the grooves.

“Who was he,” the boy asks his Father.

The Father takes a beat as he holds his child in his arms, both of them looking at this name.

“He was my friend,” he says.

 

The simplicity of that statement devastated me and even now, nearly a decade later, I can still remember it and feel the power of those words.

It has been an interesting feeling for me, living in France over the past 2+ years.  History is so alive here, stories, tragedies, wars, are all so much more tangible in daily life.  In every village there is a Memorial for WWI and often the newer names that were added such a short time later during WWII.  You can hardly turn a corner in Paris without seeing a plaque reminding you of what happened on said spot so long…yet not so long, ago.  In Grenoble, there are reminders of The Resistance everywhere and just down the street from my apartment is a memorial for twenty such men who were lined up and shot on its place just a few short months before the end.  I think about those men a lot.  Did they live in my neighborhood?  Were they from the mountains?  Were they from other countries?  I read their names and I think, “You were someone’s friend.”

I spent much of my life hearing stories of wars, of sacrifices people made, of horrors that people lived through.  One of my Grandfathers fought in the Pacific during WWII and was on the U.S.S. Franklin when a Japanese pilot dropped bombs that blew the ship in half.  What an odd sensation it must be, to live your life knowing that you just happened to be standing on the right half of a ship one day.  My next-door neighbor, a Jewish German lady, had stories as well but only told them to me in our last conversation before she died.  My Great-Grandfather had been in France during WWI and was here when the Armistice was called* and my other Grandfather was here during WWII, fighting with Patton in the final years of the war.  How many friends they all must have had!

I think about myself living in a country that two generations of my family fought for.  I think about the friends I have made here…did someone from my family, long ago, help yours?  Did someone from your family provide a meal or shelter to a young man whose arms I would later run into as a little girl?  I recently discovered that I have a dear friend here whose Grandfather also fought with Patton; he was in the French military in North Africa.  The chances that her Grandfather and mine ever met are slim to none; they were in different theaters…but still, still, there seems something so beautiful to me that these two men who did something so scary at the same time, fighting for the same thing, for the same commander should have grand-daughters who somehow stumbled across each other in this large and cumbersome world, grand-daughters who became friends in the very place that they and their many friends shed blood for.

I like to think of these two young men, to imagine it.  Maybe at a field hospital, maybe some point during leave, or if there is any likelihood at all, maybe in Paris after it was all over…

I can see it in my mind, streets crowded with loud-talking soldiers, jubilant French running and embracing one another, hands being shaken, backs being slapped, streets flowing with champagne and wine and sheer unbridled…finally, unbridled…joy.

A young French man sits alone in a café amidst all the insanity.  Somewhat awkwardly, an American soldier approaches him.

“Bonjour,” he says in a horrible accent.  “Sorry, that’s all I got.”  He is sheepish but friendly.

The French soldier gives him a smile.  “This is okay,” he responds.  “I have English.”

“Would it be alright if I join you,” the American asks him.  “My buddies are off god-knows-where and this place is packed and I don’t know a soul.  I just want to get a drink.”

“Bien sur,” says the Frenchman before correcting himself, “Of course.”  He holds his hand out as the young American falls like a sack of potatoes into the chair. 

The American holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes to the Frenchman who takes one with a smile.

The Parisian waiter comes over and asks what they would like.  After a discussion about what is available they decide on a beer and a glass of wine.

“Boy, I’ll tell ya,” the American says.  “I’d do just about anything for a Jack Daniels right about now!”

“Jack Daniels,” asks the Frenchman.

“Tennessee Whiskey. Tennessee, “continues the American, “That is where I’m from.”

The Frenchman nods.

“What about you,” asks the American.  “You from Paris?”

“No,” says the Frenchman, “South of here, near the mountains.”

The American nods silently, they are both thinking the same thing, wondering what he will find when he returns home.  The waiter comes and sets their drinks down.

“Ah,” the Frenchman says, smiling. “Nothing can be too bad when there is a drink in your hand, eh?”

The American laughs and slaps the table, “Ya got that right!”

The knock each other’s glasses.

“A toast?”  The Frenchman asks before continuing, “To old friends…”

“And to lost friends,” the American add solemnly.

“And to new friends,” the Frenchman says, giving the American a nod while signaling the waiter…clearly they would be getting another drink.   

I like to think that they talked the whole of the evening, sharing stories, swapping tales of home and happier times, that they shook hands when they parted, glad to have spent the night with a new pal, walking off into the darkness…never guessing that two generations later their blood kin would be doing the same thing one random evening on a side street in Grenoble.

That’s what I like to think.

***

This post is to all the friends – the lost, the found, and the loved.  May we be ever grateful.

 

* This is the post referencing WWI:  https://breadispain.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=167&action=edit

 

Cake or Death?

Some days, life can be over-whelming.  You know these days – the ones in which everything seems to go wrong, when you feel like you have the anti-Midas-touch (AMT).  A day when you wake up a little too late and jump in the shower to find that the shampoo bottle is empty, the milk for your cereal has gone sour, and your computer is frozen.  The days when you get stuck in a 45 minute traffic jam on your way to work only to arrive at the office and find out that your boss has been trying to find you for 20 minutes, the days when everyone on the street seems to be scowling at you and purposely walking in front of you in the middle of the sidewalk slowly (a personal pet peeve) so that you can’t get around them.

We all have these days, when it seems like the whole universe is conspiring to work against you and you are unable to fight it.

Earlier this week a friend told me about just such a day.

She is a public high school teacher (yeah, I know, but there is more if you can believe it) and this is exam week which means the students are all in the crazy itchy place where they are aching to get out of there.  Sunday evening she finds out that one of the other teachers is violently ill and that she is going to have to administer her own classes’ exams and help with the exams of this other teacher’s classes – good times, especially since the school decided to change their normal 6 periods to 7 in the past year meaning that the kids have 3 exams per day…and no study period, I mean, really, what do the kids need with a study period during their finals?  As if this wasn’t enough, she arrives that Monday morning to find over-flowing trashcans because the janitor just didn’t bother with her room and water leaking across the floor from her air-conditioning unit; it was turning out to be a seriously AMT day.

Throughout the day, things become progressively more irritating.  The technician who comes to check the air-con says that he would have to turn it off completely to be able to work out what needs to be fixed (which is not something you want to do in the deep South in late May), the substitute teacher for the other class can’t find all the exams and has to have the students help to actually get them together, and one of the classes that she has to help take-over is full of obnoxiously rude-pants teenagers (more than the normal amount of teenage rude-pants-ness) who mouth off to her during the entire period.

ANTI-MIDAS-TOUCH, people, anti-midas-touch.

Finally, her last period comes in and at this point, she is ready to pull her hair out.  The class is jam-packed with her last period students taking their exam but towards the end of the period extra students from an earlier class start trickling in because they still had to finish up their exams (she had allowed them a 30 minute study session since the school had taken away their study period…teachers are amazing).  As they are all coming in and settling in, she begins to explain to them about why there are extra students, about why there is over-flowing trash, about how she needs good behavior because an earlier class was really awful…etc.  In the midst of this, one of the students raises their hand and points to the floor, “the air-conditioning is leaking.”

The students later told her that she turned the same color as her pink skirt.

“I know,” she shouts.  “I KNOW!  I. Know.  But do you want air or a dry floor? Air? Or a Dry Floor?!  Because there is nothing I can do about it!  Nothing!”

I think this moment was the proverbial “straw.”

“And really you need to be quiet,” she keeps going. “Because I’ve got these kids finishing their exams in here, and they deserve quiet, and wouldn’t you want quiet?  It’s not all about you, you know!  Now, go get a mini-whiteboard or start communicating through interpretive dance because You. Can’t. Talk.”

Air or a dry floor?  Cake or death?  On the AMT days it can be really hard to see that “cake” is on offer.  Often, we just put our blinders on and zoom in our camera lens and only see the negative, frustrating things that are happening.

“What are you talking about?  There is no cake here!”

We feel like the universe is attacking us and our only choice is to put our heads down and muddle through.  To make matters worse, we often don’t realize that other people around us are having trouble locating the “cake” as well.

After my friend told me about her freak out in class, I asked her how the students reacted; I figured a group of teenagers, in the midst of final exam stress probably gave her grief.  This is what she wrote to me:

“And they’re shaking with laughter (and a small amount of alarm, I think, because there were some very wide eyes), but they got quiet, and I got the extra kids settled in chairs and working and start to get everything sorted, and after seven or so minutes I look over, because there has been movement, but no noise, in my peripheral vision, and…

…they are doing “The Wave”* around the room.  Without making a sound.

I laughed so hard, I had tears.”

Some days you can find “cake” in the unlikeliest of places and some days those around you will take the time to hand you some, you just have to choose to take it.

After all, it should be a simple choice, right?  Life is either cake or death.

Thank you to my friend for letting me steal her story and her words!

*For those of you unfamiliar with “The Wave” here is the wiki link and a YouTube video:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_%28audience%29

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NxLh-3DdaE