BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

By many, it is considered impossible to impress the French; I have, however, found a loophole.

During my most recent trip to le boucherie with MB, the butcher started chatting to me about being American.  Apparently, he had been a butcher in San Francisco for a stint (I’d love to know what that visa was).  After discussing the prerequisite things: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc.; he moved on to every Frenchman’s favorite topic…

“In America, you eat this?”  He said as he held up the groin of a pig.

As if he didn’t know.

“Not so much,” I responded.  “We are a bit precious about what we are willing to eat.”

He looked at me sadly.  “Oui.”

I think there is nothing that depresses a French person so much as someone who doesn’t enjoy good food.

Quickly, MB stepped in, “She eats everything though; she is very good.”

I looked at him with an amused expression.  Apparently, this was a point of honor for him.

“Ah, mais c’est bon!”  The butcher says, smiling at me.  “Pour vous, mademoiselle…”  He says as he cuts a healthy slice of a gelatinous, multi-colored terrine.  “I want to present this to you.”

“Merci beaucoup,”   I say without flinching.

“You know what this is?”  There is a devilish smile on his face.

“Oui,” I return, pleased that I could get this one right.  “ Fromage de tete!  I have already tried it before and I like it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_cheese)

The butcher grins from ear to ear; a look of happy approval spread across his face.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Upon my arrival in Paris, I ordered not one but two steak tartares on the first day.  At the restaurant of the second steak tartare, the waiter tried to get me to order something different.

“Does she know what it is?”  He asked MB.

“Of course, it is her favorite!”  He told the waiter.  “She already had one for lunch!”

I smiled up at the smug waiter sweetly…waiting for it.  Slowly his smug look was replaced with one of surprised appreciation.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Everyone knows that the French love their food but not everyone knows quite how excited they get about it.  MB still tells people about the first time we met and how I told him that cassoulet was one of my favorite dishes; this is what piqued his interest in me…an American girl who loved food (BAM! Frenchman impressed).  I remember him looking at me dreamily from across the table as I described how good a hot bowl of cassoulet is on a cold, wintery evening.  To this day, I don’t know whether it was me or the thought of cassoulet that put stars in his eyes.

On my first weekend to meet and visit his parents I know they must have been worried; what would this American girl be like?  Would she turn her nose up at stinky cheese?  What if she is a vegetarian?! * At the first dinner, I could feel the tremor of apprehension in the air as food was set on the table…will she eat it?  Foie gras, homemade pate, pickles from the garden…

I almost passed out from excitement.

I pleased them immensely by devouring, fully, everything that was set before me and having no problem accepting the ‘seconds’ that were offered.  They were ecstatic.  (BAM!  Frenchmen impressed!)

The French connection with food is spiritual, in the truest sense of the word.  It is an integral part of every man, woman, and child; it is an integral part of being French.  Now, you might be thinking that all over the world people get excited about, and love to share, their food.  And to that, I say, the French are just like the rest of the world, only more so.**

Therefore, it is possible to impress the French; not just possible but utterly satisfying…on a variety of levels.    So, go for it!  Don’t order the hamburger or the steak frites; try the fromage de tete, order the tartare.  You might discover something that you love that you never knew existed and hey, even if you can’t stand it at least you have the satisfaction of surprising a society that has perfected the art of being blasé.

BAM!

*I’m not sure that the French government would allow foreign vegetarians into the country, as for the natural born vegetarians…they are tolerated.

**subtle Casablanca reference for those of you in the know

 

 

 

 

 

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The Girl in the Plastic Bubble

“Foux da fa fa?”  Says one girl.*

“Feau de foux!  Foux da fa fa fa fa,” replies the boy she is talking to.

“Mais oui, a le feau de foux a fa fa.  Ceau le le le foux de fa fa fa.”

All of France has started to sound like a Flight of the Conchords song.

“Alors, foux da fa fa?”

“Baby?”  MB is looking at me questioningly.  I am bouncing my head slightly while singing internally.

“What?”  I look around startled and he nods his head toward the girl next to us.

“Oh!  Désolé,” I say to her, a bit embarrassed.  “Répéter s’il te plaît?”

“What is it that you do while you are in France?”  The girl replies to me in English.

I sigh.  I would have understood her question in French; I just wasn’t listening.

After six months in France, I have finally managed to perfect the ‘zone-out’.

Of course, when we first arrive to parties, there will be the obligatory conversations; just basic niceties that will last about ten minutes.  After the first half-hour of the party, however, fewer and fewer people are speaking to me so I just climb into my bubble.  It’s not a rude thing.  For them, it is frustrating to try to struggle through a slow conversation in basic French with the new girl (not exactly the recipe for a rockin’ time at a party).   And for me, it’s just as exhausting; all that concentration, trying to separate words only to understand the sentence thirty seconds too late and realize that the conversation has moved on.   In the past I would try to fake it, you know, nod when others nod or laugh when other laugh.  But eventually, that always ends up backfiring and you realize that you have just agreed that Stalin wasn’t all that bad and that actually the situation in Darfur is hilarious.  Talk about awkward.

Sometimes there will be children or teenagers at the party and that usually works out well.  They all speak perfect English and are usually pretty happy to practice with the ‘cool’ American (before the French hit adulthood, they still think we are cool).  They will sidle up to me at the table and give me that clear, quiet look of comprehension:  Yes, we understand; no one talks to us either. 

Therefore, until I perfect my French, I am relegated to my bubble or to the children’s table (not such a bad fate, the children’s table…beware, they pick up on everything).  So, if you speak to me and I seem to ignore you, don’t take it personally; I just don’t know what ‘foux da fa fa’ means!

*Credit where credit is due:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5hrUGFhsXo

Eclipse Totale Sur Mon Coeur

Recently, I was out at a bar with France…

Me:  Oooh!  I love this song!

France:  What song?  (France looks around the bar casually, I suspect trying to find someone better to talk to)

Me:  You know this song – Bonnie Tyler?

France makes a blank face.

Me:  Every roller skating party for the entire 80s?

Nothing.  France simply pulls out a cigarette and lights it.

Me:  You know: ‘turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely and your never coming ’round!’ (I am singing passionately, complete with faux microphone)

France looks at me wide-eyed and chokes on a lungful of smoke.

France:  What air (are) you doing?  (France says this quietly, but in a panicked voice)

Me:  ‘turn around, every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears!’

France:  People are starting to look at you.

Me:  They can’t embarrass me!  (I continue singing)

France:  Pff…you embarrass yourself. (France pours a glass of wine, trying desperately to look relaxed)

I stick my tongue out at France.

France:  I hope you know that you look completely redeeculous (ridiculous).

Me:  Oh come on, just a little bar singing.  Live a little!

France:  Oh la la, you are tres Americain.

Me:  Word.  I know.  (I say this as I add some interpretive dance moves to my singing)

France:  What are all these people going to think of you?

Me:  That I’m super fun?

France rolls its eyes.

France:  What are all these people going to think of me?  This is not the kind of reputation I have.  I am very serious and cool.  When I go to bars I talk about world politics, global warming…Proust.

Me:  Oh.  Is that fun?

France:  What?  (France looks confused by the question)

France:  Fun is not the point; you Americans and your obsession with fun!  This is your problem!

France is getting irritated now and furiously stubs out one cigarette only to light another.

France:  Always singing and dancing…with your stoopeed (stupid) television shows and all your stoopeed hollywood movies...’oh, what do you think will happen?’  I think they will all have some implausibly happy ending that makes no sense and is not representative of the true reality of life!  Pfff…fun.

Me:  Oh puh-leeeeeeese!  At least if we make up implausible endings they are happy, instead of ridiculous French movies that make up ways to be depressing for no reason whatsoever – you saw the ending to Les Petits Mouchoirs!  I mean, they all gave eulogies, REALLY?  Unecessary, France!

France:  You’re unnecessary.

Me:  No, you are.

France:  I hate you.

Me:  I hate you more.

France is fuming (literally, cigarette in hand) and refuses to look at me.

I start to feel bad.

Me:  ‘Turn around, every now and then I know there’s no one in the universe as magical and wondrous as you.’

France sniffs and turns further away.

Me:  ‘Turn around, every now and then I know there’s nothing any better, there’s nothing that I just wouldn’t do…’  Oh come on, you can’t stay mad all night!

France:  Ah non?  (France takes a drag off the cigarette and blows it in my face)

Me:  Look, we’re different, it doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.

France is quiet for a minute.

France:  ‘your love is like a shadow on me all of the time’  (France sings this so softly that it is almost imperceptible)

Me:  You probably could have picked a nicer line of the song.

France:  Tres typique!  What do you want, uh?  You ask me to sing; I sing and now you complain.  Pff…maybe you are a bit French.

A momentary look of mischievousness flashes over France’s face before returning to looking bored and slightly peeved.

I look at France suspiciously but with a smile.

Me:  You know, (I say this with my best Humphrey Bogart voice)

Me:  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

France rolls its eyes again and puts its head in its hands.

France:  Oh, mon dieu.

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!

Mercy

Obama Grill, Boracay Island, Philippines

“Mercy,” proclaims the Filipino sales clerk. 

“Mare-see,” repeats MB.

“What?  How do you say it?  Say it again?”  A young girl in an apron is standing behind the sales clerk, “mercy?”

“Mare-see,” MB says with a smile. 

“How do you spell it,” asks the girl.

“M-e-r-c-i,” MB says.

She looks confused and then says, “AH, ah yes…mercy!”

MB just smiles.   I laugh to myself as I realize this conversation is eerily familiar.  We are in Boracay Island, Philippines and have stopped to buy a bottle of water at a Starbucks (can’t get away from it, apparently).  It is the friendliest Starbucks on earth.  Upon entering, the eager staff asks where we are from; I respond U.S. and they are cordial, “oh yes, very good, your first trip to Boracay?”  But when MB says France, they are all a-twitter with excitement. 

“What’s going on?”  A third attendant appears. 

“He’s from France!”  The sales clerk responds, pointing at MB as though he is some sort of exotic bird who has just wandered into the store. 

“Ooooooooh,” says the attendant who has just entered the conversation.  “I love French!  Mercy! A-voir!  Oh, it sounds so nice!  Say something else!”

Dance, pretty bird, dance!  MB looks bemused and happily accommodates the curious staffers who have now surrounded us. 

In some ways, being French overseas is sort of like being a celebrity.  There is still so much mystique and romance that surrounds the idea of the French.  Being American is somewhat different.  In Boracay Island, we ate at Obama Grill, not Sarkozy Grill.  People all over the world…from Romania to Boracay Island…watch American television shows and films, wear American clothes labels, listen to American music, have opinions about American politics.  American culture is everywhere and so there isn’t much novelty left in it.  No one outside of the U.S. seems excited that I am American…unless they hate Americans (then they are typically over-enthusiastic). 

It must be nice to be able to generate that kind of reaction simply by proclaiming your nationality; an effect that I don’t think I will ever have.  Instead, I will have to satisfy myself with being cool by proxy; and take comfort in the fact that perhaps the mystique lies not just in being French, but also in the fact that no one but them can properly pronounce their language.

Jamais Deux Sans Trois

The French translation of the ‘rule of three’ is somewhat different than in English but the outcome is the same.

I am so organized, I thought to myself this morning as I reviewed my baggage for the 5th time before leaving for the train station.  MB has been in the Philippines for two weeks with work and I was leaving today to meet him there for my birthday.  My birthdays tend to be…well…unlucky.  Break-ups, revoked visas, lost jobs, etc., are par for the course.  So I hadn’t been surprised when my bus ticket confirmation didn’t come through on the internet.

“You know what this means?  I’m going to have to go to the station and in some other language try to figure out how to explain that I have paid for my ticket but never received it.  I don’t even know the word for received.”

“It will be fine,” responds MB via Skype.  “It will not be a problem, don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say,” I reply.  “You know it’s almost birthday time.”

“Enough with the birthday thing; this is in your head!” 

“Is it, MB?  Is it?

He rolled his eyes.   

So yesterday, I trudged down to the bus station to try to sort out my ticket.  After 20 minutes of confused Franglish with two different staff members, we were finally able to figure out a solution.  It was a hassle but not major; and I felt good about the fact that I was able to accomplish it in another language.  Instead of patting myself on the back, however, I should have recognized it for what it was: #1. 

Fast forward to this morning as I am smugly looking over my already packed bags with time to spare.  I decide that I will go on and leave for the bus since there is no harm in being early (a mistake I will never make again).  I check my passport, bus ticket, airline ticket (our city is an hour from the international airport) one more time and then I’m off. 

Phew…it is a million degrees as I trudge through the street, dragging my two bags along with me.  The sweat is rolling down my back and I can feel my make-up melting off; why did I blow-dry my hair?  As soon as I arrive at the train station, I whip out my super nifty travel document case and begin fanning myself with my boarding pass print out.  10 minutes later, the bus arrives and I throw my bags on and pull out the novel I’m reading.  The journey is pleasant, the sky is blue, and the towns are charming; I’m on my way.  An hour later, as we are pulling into the airport, I unzip my bag to replace my novel when…what tha-where is my super nifty travel document case?!  For a few moments, I search, panicked, when all of a suddenly an image comes into my mind: an image of me, sitting on the bench at the bus station and setting my super nifty travel document case down next to me and not in my bags.  A wave of horror sweeps over me.  My flight is in 2 hours.

“Excusez-moi, Monsieur?”  The tremor is hardly hidden in my voice as the driver turns to look at me.

“Oui?”

Okay French class, now is your time to shine.

“J’ai oublie mon passeport a la gare,” sadly, I am too freaked out to even be proud of myself for remembering how to say that I forgot my passport at the station.  (apologies for lack of accent marks; I am on an American computer)

“Ah, c’est vrai?!” 

“Oui.  C’est vrai.”  Yes, it is true, yes, I am that person. 

He points me to the bus service kiosk and I scurry over with my bags (still sweating).  The lady behind the desk is kind and concerned and immediately phones the bus station.  A look of triumph passes her face, “Oui, they have it!”  She then asks me when my flight is and immediately her face changes.  The only bus that could have gotten it to me in time had already left. 

So, I am an hour away from home without a passport and an impending flight in an hour and a half.  I run to the airline service desk.  There are no more flights today; there is a flight tomorrow but it will cost 350 euro to change.  The tears well up in my eyes as I desperately try to hold it together.  After running to the internet kiosk to email MB and get his advice, I then run back (still sweating, by the way, I mean, why should France air-condition their airports?) and book the obscenely expensive ticket change.  Somehow, I am still not comprehending what is at work here.  This has been #2. 

Convinced that I have finally slain the disastrous beast that has been this day, I walk (sweating) with my bags to the hotel airport to get a room.  At least I can check-in and do some work and then tomorrow just wander back to the airport.    

Damn you, rule of 3!  Both of the airport hotels are booked solid.  I cry a little bit more (hey, why not?  I mean, I had already started) and then head back inside, dragging my suitcases behind me…sweating. 

I return to the lady at the bus kiosk.  “Ah oui!” She says. “Your passport, it comes soon.”  She points up at the clock. 

“Oui,” I say with a lopsided smile.  “I know, but I can’t get a flight until tomorrow and the hotels are booked so I need to buy a ticket back home.”  (this is all in my bad French)

Her look changes and I can tell she is sorry for me.  “But you know,” she says.  “You are very lucky!  What if they did not have your passport?!” 

She is so earnest and she is so right. 

I smile and laugh, “YES!  The silver lining, you are right, it could be much, much worse!”

She rings up my return ticket and hands it to me with a smile.  “Bonne chance, Mademoiselle!”  (good luck)

Luck is a funny thing; it is forever a two-sided coin.  On the one hand, there are the bad things, the annoying, irritating, horrible things in life that just sometimes happen.  But, on the other side, there are the great things, perfect weather when you need it, chance encounters with nice people, making it to your flight terminal just before they close the gate.  This morning, I felt like I had been given a three course meal of lemons.  The rule of 3 got me good and my birthday superstition proved its metal; but with a little help I managed to see the luck on the other side of the coin.  Nothing had happened that couldn’t be fixed; and in today’s world, that’s not a bad gift.  So this year for my birthday, instead of more gifts, I think I will settle for a nice, cool glass of lemonade.

Of Notes and Neurosis

One night out at a bar, I got up to use the restroom. I asked MB to point it out, and walked up to the door he indicated that said ‘toilettes’. Naturally, I assumed that either there would be two doors for men and women once you entered or that it was just a ‘one-sie’. I opened the door, walked in, and found myself staring at a man peeing in the urinal. Flustered, I clumsily backed out of the door, my face the color of ‘vin rouge’. Had I wandered into the wrong restroom? I looked around for another door…nothing, I walked to the back of the bar…nothing. Finally, I went and asked MB where the girl’s restroom was.

“Quoi? I take you to the restroom already. It’s right there,” he said while pointing towards the ‘door of impropriety’.

“There are penises in there.”

“Ouais (this is the French version of ‘yeah, no sh-t’ and is pronounced ‘whey’), you are in France, baby. We don’t care so much about these things. Do you want me to go with you?”

This is why, at the ripe age of 30, a chaperone had to accompany me to the bathroom.

MB has had to deal with lots of these moments since my arrival in France. While living in a foreign country can certainly make you feel independent and strong (most often when talking to other people about it), the reality is somewhat different. Learning what is ‘normal’ in a new culture and trying to navigate a foreign language basically reduces you to the status of child. MB has had to explain that I need not be offended by line skipping, and that strangers will probably think it is odd if I strike up conversations with them, that bathrooms may be unisex, and that a store isn’t closed all day just because it is closed for lunch. He has made doctor’s appointments for me and then accompanied me on them (what man wouldn’t enjoy translation duties with his girlfriend’s gynecologist?), he’s talked to aesthetiticians when I’ve gone to get a facial, and when repair men come and try to explain something to me, I generally am reduced to calling him for them to talk to.

Recently, I applied for French school (clearly necessary as evidenced by these blog posts); there was a mix-up with the paperwork and MB was going to be out of town on the first day of class. Even though I was not registered he told me to go anyway and tell them I wanted to be put in the class and that was that.

“What language do you propose I explain this in?” I asked, frustrated.

“Quoi? They don’t speak English?”

“When I went yesterday, there was nary an English speaker,” I said.* “And you do realize that I don’t speak French, right?”

My panic was starting to rise and my sarcasm with it. I didn’t want to show up at an office, by myself, and try to force my way into a class. It felt uncomfortable, awkward, and also like a scenario that would have a high probability of embarrassment.

“I will write you a note,” he said.

I felt like idiotic, like a child on the first day of school.

“I’m not showing up with a note!” I sneered, disdain dripping from every syllable. “I’m not a moron, you know.”

MB sighed, and later, after I had calmed down, he wrote me a note.

Through some miracle, when I arrived at the school, I found an English speaking staff member and was able to sort it out on my own, without the awkwardness of producing the note.

Sometimes it feels ridiculous that I can’t do simple tasks or make basic requests on my own, and other times it can just be downright frustrating. I want to go to the bathroom by myself, fearlessly! I want to sign myself up for school without assistance! There is a sense of autonomy that has been lost and the control-freak in me is having a bit of a nervous breakdown. I love my independence and my ability to do things on my own, but, on the other hand, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to learn how to ask for help. And aren’t I lucky to have someone so willing to give it? I’m finding out that it’s okay to let go a little bit and trust another to be able to handle some stuff for me. It is not always easy, and I still like to try to accomplish things myself but when all else fails, is it such a bad thing to have a note?

(NOTE: Yes, you read that correctly, when arriving at the FRENCH LANGUAGE SCHOOL, I could not find anyone who spoke a language other than French…perhaps not helpful seeing as how everyone attending the school would be trying to learn it.)