Genetics and Aperitif

“What are you doing ?’  MB has walked into the kitchen to find me scarfing down a bowl of pasta.

“What do you mean?  I’m eating,” I say as I shove another forkful into my mouth.

“Ouais…” he looks at me oddly.  “We are about to go to a dinner party.”

“I know.”

“So, why you are eating?”  MB looks thoroughly confused.

“Because I’m not French.”

I have decided that the French have a special gene that the rest of us (well, maybe Italians) don’t have; something akin to a wooden leg, something that allows them to consume copious amounts of wine without the slightest effect on their behavior.  While my French companions can blithely drink three or four glasses of wine on an empty stomach with no effect; I find myself clutching the table for support and hoping desperately that I can pull it together before dinner. 

Now normally, at a restaurant per se, you would just have one aperitif (often champagne) before the meal; however, it has been my experience that at dinner parties this rule is somewhat…flexible.  It would not surprise me to go to someone’s house for dinner and perhaps have wine for two hours before actually sitting down to eat.  Oh, but don’t worry, it is usually accompanied by something really substantive…like olives.  At one of the first dinner parties we hosted, I learned the dangers of beginning the evening in France with an empty stomach.  I will sum it up by saying at the end of the night I may have fallen off a chair, I definitely started a country music dance party, and I picked a ridiculous fight with MB a la “overly emotional teenage girl at prom”; there was crying.  The following 24 hours was spent nursing both a hangover and my ego. 

So what is a girl to do?  I can’t go into a dinner party and shovel all the olives into my mouth.  I can just imagine it…

“THE AMERICAN IS HERE!  Everybody run!!!!!!!!!!”  Accompanied by screaming, terrified French people pulling their children out of my way.

Nor can I realistically decline the offer of an aperitif.  1) Because I really like wine. 2) It would be considered quite an odd thing to do.

“This girl, she does not want the wine.”

“Quoi!  C’est bizarre!”

“Ouais, mais elle est Americaine…”

So, I eat snacks.  It may not be the perfect solution but until I figure out how to change my genetic coding, it’s the only one I’ve got!

Fromage Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The French attitude towards cheese is sort of like the porn industry’s attitude towards sex…no matter how bizarre your tastes are; someone out there is making something for you.

“Oh dear god, this is ridiculous.  MB – please, seriously!”  I have just opened our refrigerator and the smell of cheese has become completely over-whelming.  I am assaulted, almost knocked backwards by the pungent odour.    

“Quoi?”  He replies, as he wanders into the kitchen, unbothered.

“Are you really going to tell me you can’t smell this?”  I say, one hand on the refrigerator door and the other on my hip. 

“Ouais!!!  It smells amazing!”  I can practically see his tongue start to salivate. 

“Okay, I know, honey, but there is cheese from four months ago in there.”

“Ah oui?  Which ones?  They are probably perfect now!”

I can see my point is not getting across. 

“Okay, sweetie”, I say in my nicest voice, the same voice I would use if I were trying to coax a rabid dog away from a bone.  “The cheese is taking up about two-thirds of the fridge.”

“Ouais…”  He replies, nervously.

“We don’t have room for other groceries.”

He remains unphased, apparently a diet consisting entirely of cheese would be completely acceptable for him.

“I really need you to go through all this stuff and figure out which ones we are going to keep and which ones we are going to get rid of…please!” 

He looks like he’s been shot, and suddenly I feel no better than the Nazi officer in Sophie’s Choice.       

He gives me a sullen look, and then slowly begins to pull the cheese out of the refrigerator (it ends up covering the entire counter).  Gingerly, he opens each paper to see what treasure lies within.  There is brie from the market, the over-powering goat cheese that we bought from the farm in the mountains, the St. Felician that is almost completely liquid, the hard, soft, sweet, and bitter blues. The variety of mold is stunning.  I remember a cheese he once gave me that apparently had tiny little maggots in the surface which made it appear as though it were moving, ever so slightly.  Silently, I pray that we haven’t let that remain in the fridge for two months. 

He pulls out one huge round of what was once cheese and is now primarily a science experiment.

“Ah, okay, maybe this one we can get rid of,” he says, looking up at me. 

I stand stock-still and say nothing, not wanting to frighten away this inclination.

“No, what?  Am I crezee (crazy)?”  He looks relieved, as though he has just missed an incredibly close call with death.  “We can use this to make something great!  Maybe tartiflette!”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartiflette)

I think about this for a minute.  I mean, I really do like tartiflette.  Maybe we should go on and keep this cheese but others definitely have to go.

He continues on to the next one.  The mold is so thick I can’t even see the cheese underneath. 

“Oh MB, seriously, this ones gotta go!”

He cuts off one thick side to reveal the clean part of the cheese, and holds it up to my nose.  I almost pass out from the intensity of the smell…at the same time; my mouth starts to water a bit.  Damn you, tastebuds, you traitors!

“Perhaps in a fondue?”  MB looks at me and smiles.  He can sense my weakening resolve.

As we move through the cheese on the counter, a scraping of mold here, and a little trimming there creates the appropriate excuses to keep all the cheese.  One by one, they all end up returning to the refrigerator, only better organized. 

Finally, we come to the last ones.   He finds two little rounds of hard goat cheese (MB’s favorite), they are stuck together, one on top of the other, glued by a layer of dense, black, gooey-looking fungus.     He pulls them apart, and removes the offending fungus, then attempts to plunge a knife into the middle of one of them.  The knife nearly breaks in the process.  He pulls out a sharper knife and through great struggles, finally penetrates the cheese.  He pops a piece into his mouth and I hear a ‘crack’.

“Woah!”  He sticks a finger in his mouth. 

“What?  Is everything okay?  Oh my god, did you chip your tooth?”

“No, ca va.  I thought for a minute, I had though!” 

“Okay, so this one we can get rid of then?”

“Mais no…it is perfect, you want a piece?”

I look at him like he is crazy.  This man wants me to eat something that he almost cracked a tooth on. 

“Well, maybe just a little one.”

They eat horses, don’t they?

Watch this clip from The Neverending Storyhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y688upqmRXo.

This is what went through my mind shortly after my first experience eating horse meat.  We had just bought if from the chevaline (horse butcher), and we came home and ate it as a tartare…and god forgive me, it was delicious.  Every bite was riddled with the flavor of forbidden fruit; I could hear the angels weeping as I gobbled it down, yet still, I couldn’t stop myself.  What would Atreyu have thought of me?  He never would have fished Artax out of the swamp of sadness only to eat him.  But then, The Neverending Story wasn’t a French film. 

I remember when I first found out that they eat horse meat in France.

“What, are you serious?”  I looked at MB incredulously.  We were still living in Australia…a country where this idea would be absurd (why would you eat a horse when there are kangaroos?).

“Ouais…c’est normal,” he responded nonchalantly, as we strolled through the grocery store. 

“No,” I said.  “No, it is not normal!  How is that even legal?  They are horses!”

He didn’t react.

Horses,” I repeated, as though perhaps this emphasis would make The Yearling all of a sudden flash into his mind. 

“Quoi?” 

This was the end of the conversation.

In France, Seabiscuit wouldn’t have been Horse of the Year; he would have been dinner.

Coming to terms with this was, at first, shocking to me.  In the United States, it is illegal to sell horse meat in most states; in the U.K. it is legal but basically no one sells it.  Eating horse had just never previously occurred to me.  Sure, I knew that in ancient times the Mongolians would throw horse meat under their saddle to tenderize it before eating it tartare style (which must have had an interesting raw-hide, sweaty essence to it); but that was in the olden days right?  Not so much.  Horses are eaten in lots of countries, all over the world; and really, how could one expect the French not to eat something that is edible?  They have practically made a national pastime of frightening Anglos with their various “delicacies”.  Why would horse be any different?  Why should horse be any different?  I mean, what is it that makes this animal less appetizing than a friendly cow or a cute little lamb? 

And so it began…the rationalization that allowed me, the girl who cried when Boxer was sent to the glue factory in Animal Farm, to commit my horsey betrayal.

I have now eaten horse on two occasions. 

I mean, it does make for the best tartare on earth, being both rich in flavor and essentially devoid of fat.  Anyway, I have nothing to be ashamed of; lots of people do it.  Stop judging me!  Whatever, I don’t care; I know its okay.  I’m fine with it; I don’t feel guilty…at all.  So what if I haven’t been able to look a horse in the eye since?  That doesn’t mean anything!

French Modesty

A few months after I had started dating MB in Australia, one of his French friends (we’ll call him Pierre) came for a visit.  I had never met him before and was super nervous about meeting one of MB’s friends from home.  Would he like me?  Would he think I was too American?  Would he be snobby?  Would he be mean?  I had no idea what to expect and was full of anxiety about what kind of impression I would make.  I rehearsed my speech in French over and over again, trying to memorize exactly what I wanted to say and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t choke. 

Finally, the day arrived when Pierre got to town; I came to the house and was waiting with MB for Pierre to finish getting ready for dinner.  Stage fright was washing over me and I was terrified that I would forget all of my French the moment he opened the door.

Well…you know how they say that if you are nervous about public speaking that you should just picture your audience in their underwear?  I didn’t have to picture it. 

When Pierre opened the door to come in and say hello, he was clad in only a pair of tighty whities.  He walked over, nonchalantly kissed me on both cheeks and then proceeded to begin getting dressed.

 Um…am I the only person seeing this?  MB didn’t seem to notice that anything odd was happening; Pierre was chatting away merrily, completely unbothered.      

This is a scenario that would never occur in the United States.

The French have a somewhat more relaxed attitude towards modesty than Americans.  On my first trip to the gynecologist here, she laughed, talking about us, “ah oui, Americains – you are so seely (silly) with your sheet over the legs and only check the one breast at a time, pfff…”  I remember looking at her thinking, so in France you just get splayed out naked over the table?  I mean, what if it is cold?  When I had to get my chest X-ray for my visa, I remained topless for ten minutes in the middle of the room before getting smashed against the metal plate and having the woman unceremoniously re-arrange my breasts.  Welcome to France!

 Perhaps, we are a bit stuffy about our bodies in the United States (a Puritan leftover?).  While a nip-slip during the superbowl caused drama for weeks stateside; I imagine, if the same thing happened in France they would look at it and think, “ouais…is there a problem?”  Here, most of the beaches are topless and the general attitude towards nudity seems pretty casual.  In the U.S., we are incredibly sensitive to it; the doctor leaves the room for you to undress and some of our beaches don’t allow thongs, let alone, topless. 

So this will be a new challenge for me to get used to.  I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to go topless on the beach but maybe the next time I meet one of MB’s friends I’ll trot out in my underwear…no one’s ever considered what effect that might have on stage fright.

A Month of Sundays

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.

Which way do we go?

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

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

Mom: So which bus do we take?

Me: I’m not sure, hold on…

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

Dad: Well, they both say Hertz.

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

A bus pulls up.

Mom: I’m going to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad: I think we are fine.

Me:  Look, it is all just parking lo–

Dad: See?  There is the office.

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

Mom: Well, do you have the reservations?

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

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

Mom: Oh my god!

Panic.

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

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

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

Dad: So which way is it?

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

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

Me: You know I live here, right?

I’m so cool and knowledgeable.

Mom: I know, I just want to check.

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

Me: Crap, really? 

Dad: So, what do I need to do?

Me: I don’t know!

Dad: Well, I need to do something!

Me: Turn right!

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

Me: Maybe you should check the GPS.

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

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

Dad: How do you get this thing in reverse?

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

Me:  What?  You are kidding me.

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

Me: Where is the car manual?

My Mother opens the glove compartment.

Mom: Oh my god, there is no manual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom: What?  What happened? 

My Mother jogs back to the car enthusiastically.

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

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

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

Holiday Savagery: Would Ralph have survived bad traffic?

In the United States, holiday traffic can be frustrating and extremely unpleasant; in France, it is epic and terrifying. I know it seems unusual to apply the idea of ‘fear’ to traffic but let me assure you that it is accurate, even the traffic radio station (which primarily plays horrible French songs and only updates about every 20 minutes) seems frightened by it; in one update I heard, the announcer finished with, “to all you drivers, I wish you good luck!” It had the same somber tone as a general sending troops into combat and knowing that they weren’t coming back. Once, when I lived in New Orleans, I had to evacuate for a hurricane; the whole city emptied onto the highway at the same time. This weekend was worse.

France is smaller than Texas but has almost 3 times the population. So imagine if you put 62 million people in Texas and then put them all on holiday, oh, and add 8 thousand toll stations; the result is a 4 lane highway gridlocked for anywhere from 200 to 600km.

After four hours of sitting in traffic, MB and I decided that we would beat the system by going onto the smaller national highway…apparently the rest of France had the same idea.

“I hope this wasn’t a mistake.” I look at the row of red break lights in front of us.

“No, I think this will be better. I mean, look at the highway?” MB responds, ever the optimist.

I look back at the highway behind us and see the interminable line of cars that are not moving. “Yes, okay, this is definitely better.”

20 minutes later we are still inching our way along the same off-ramp and have realized that just beyond the ramp is yet another toll station, putting the traffic to an almost complete standstill.

“What is up with the toll stations? It is ridiculous! I mean, the second traffic starts moving there is a toll station to screw it all up again!” My blood pressure is starting to rise and like any good girlfriend I take MB along with me for the journey.

“Oui, I know! It is ridiculous (in MB phonetics: reed-deek-cue-los)! Why do they think this makes sense? There should be a pass so you can drive through; it is like the middle (meedle) ages!”

40 minutes later.

“Hey!” I scream this. “Is that guy serious? Um…no way, no way! Do NOT let him in!” We have finally inched our way within about 10 cars from the pay stop and now rogue drivers keep coming from the side and skipping the line.

“Pffff…are you joking? No way! These people (eye roll), we sit for one hour and they think they can just-”

“MOTHER F*CKER! Are you f*cking kidding me?!” The car in front of us lets the interloper in. MB falls on the horn, I flip the bird. It’s like Lord of the Flies, one person has disrupted the order of civilization by skipping the line and we both revert to being savages. I can practically see the smoke coming out of MB’s ears and I keep grabbing handfuls of my hair.

After about an hour and a half of torture, relief finally came in the form of a two lane (sometimes one lane) route that we found, past both the highway and the national highway. It is the scenic route that passes through Provence and the Rhone. Normal tones of voices returned and curse words dissipated as we got farther away from the crowds. We found a small café and had a cup of coffee; there were no other cars and the only other patrons were a group of older gentlemen drinking pastis and playing cards. The next 3 hours were spent driving by Roman ruins, vineyards, and through mountain passes; we chatted cheerily and continually congratulated ourselves on what a good decision we had made.

Strange that it took an escape from civilization to return us to behaving in a civilized fashion.