Le Fromage: Part 1, The Faith

(Part 1 because one can only assume that there will be further cheese posts as this is a blog about France)

This is how it goes: 

I’m having a nice, quiet evening at home, alone.  I have a glass of red wine and I’ve just finished a delightful and satisfying meal.  I’m not really hungry anymore; perhaps I just need a snack to top myself off.  I could just have a piece of chocolate…I could.  Instead, I reach for the baguette and rip off a hearty chunk. 

It begins. 

Lovingly, I design the plate; taking a slice of this and a wedge of that.  The smell that emanates is both menacing and enticing.  I look, expectantly, at the fat-laden ooze making its way, lethargically, across the plate.  Do I really need to have a cheese course when I am eating at home alone in front of the television?  No, but it is just so damn good.

Depending on what source you reference, the French have anywhere from 50-1000 different types of cheeses.   The official cheeses from the AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) run somewhere between 45-55.  When France decided to join the EU, one of the major concerns of the French people was that their cheese would suffer (this concern remains today).  So is it any wonder that I’ve fallen prey to the seduction of French cheese?  Le fromage is a religion in France and these are a devout people. 

I had thought that I knew cheese; I wasn’t a processed-cheese-eating, kraft-single American.  I went to the markets and Whole Foods and bought good, interesting cheeses.  I have now come to understand that I knew nothing.  It started back in Australia, when, on our second date, my boyfriend (from now on to be known as MB: ‘Monsieur Boyfriend’) offered me some of his cheese that had been shipped to him from France, the stench was over-whelming and wildly romantic.  We locked eyes and he waited with anticipation as I took my first bite.  The flavor was transcedental; something between passion and hatred.  The satiny, smooth, milky richness sat in my mouth for but a moment before transforming itself and pinching the sides of my tongue with tangy, bitterness.  My eyes rolled into the back of my head and when I came-to, I again found the gaze of MB; there was a new understanding between us, I had been brought into the fold.

So, I suppose now there is no going back; I have committed myself fully in my devotion to le fromage.  It is a relationship full of suprises and unexpected sensations but never, ever boring; and I suspect I will be a dedicated follower for life.

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Laugh to Keep from Crying

As a good ol’ Anglo-Saxon, the idea of kissing strangers is extremely uncomfortable to me.  Growing up in my household, it was considered perfectly adequate to give a firm handshake to family members, let alone strangers.  So, arriving in France and having every third person leaning in for the kill practically induced panic attacks.   In addition to the initial discomfort, I struggled with the rules of “when” and “where” to apply the kissing.  Which strangers do you kiss and which ones do you not kiss?  Do you kiss for every occasion?  It was confusing, nerve-racking, and sweat-inducing (sort of like junior high school).  Sometimes there would be the hesitant lean-in/lean-out to see who would come in first and sometimes there would be the “head dance” when both parties awkwardly went for the same side; often I would lean in with hesitance and then almost robotically shoot my arm forward for a handshake, wallowing in the relief of avoiding another invasion of personal space.  My boyfriend tried to help me as best he could but he is a man, and as such isn’t quite as in tune to the devastation of social faux pas as I am.

About a week after arriving in France and still ripe with jet-lag, my boyfriend and I were invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house.  I had met the couple hosting but would not know any of the other guests and was, understandably, nervous.  My abilities in French were dismal and my comprehension of social mores was elementary, at best.  Dread welled in my breast as we walked to the apartment; what would I get wrong? 

The arrival went smoothly, the hosts opened the door and initiated the kissing but I still felt uneasy; I took my glass of wine and stood in the corner, palms sweating, heart-racing, unable to relax until everyone had arrived.  The next couple walked confidently over and kissed me with no hesitation, and then I started to calm down, lured into a false sense of security.  This is going to be fine, I thought.  Finally, the last of the party arrived.  The woman approached me first; she was more timid and less-confident than the others.  Someone else made the introduction and then we just stood there and stared at each other.  It was like some terrible, awkward western film, both of our heads vibrating nervously, like hands at the sides of pistols.  I looked around for help; was I supposed to go in first or was that weird?  She continued to stare, wordlessly, motionlessly.  It was an inexorably long two minutes.  Finally, my boyfriend came over and said, “You are supposed to kiss her.”  He looked at me like I should have known better; everyone looked at me like I should have known better.  I’m not from here, I wanted to scream; no one has told me these things! 

I was so humiliated; I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when the bellman is waiting for a tip and she says, “What are you lookin’ at”, before realizing what she was meant to do.  Is this what my life has been reduced to, I thought.  Is being an American in France like being a hooker at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel?  Tears welled in my eyes and my lip acquired the slightest tremble, this time not from the fear of kissing, but from utter mortification.  I wanted to run out of the room and escape the eyes that I was so sure were full of judgment and disapproval.  But that was not an option and instead I did something that I have never managed to do too well; I laughed at my own foolish mistake, and then I laughed again, genuinely, at the absurdity of this woman and me staring at each other in the middle of the room.  Then everyone else started laughing and offering kind words.

“It is very hard at the beginning”

“Yes, I remember having to use handshakes and it was so odd!”

“You will learn, don’t worry!”

The rest of the night went by naturally and without event. 

In France, as in life, I will continue to make mistakes and wrong turns, but if I can manage to laugh when crying makes more sense then I think I will have made a success of it.  Even a hooker at the Wilshire can keep her sense of humor.

Dinner will be from 6pm-2am

The French do not know how to leave a dinner table.  This may sound quite basic, and one might think, “yes, of course, we all know that they like a long dinner.”  This is not what I mean; I like a long dinner, too.  What I mean is that an hour after the meal has ended and the wine has gone dry and the conversation become dull, the French remain.  Everyone knows that the meal is over, everyone is dying to get up and go home and sleep off their cheese coma, but no one makes the move; we sit. 

 I have now spent several dinners like this screaming in my head and thinking ‘dear god, why?!’  Even at aperitif there seems to be confusion about how to shift into ‘fin’.  Our new neighbor came over for aperitif, and we all sat and chatted amiably for two hours.  Around 9 o’clock, I began to feel fidgety; I had offered him another drink which he declined and he had mentioned twice that we probably wanted to eat dinner, yet there they sat, he and my boyfriend both trying to figure out a graceful way to finish and leave.  Finally, out of sheer desperation I used the good old American “Well!” and slapped my hands down on the arms of my chair; they snapped-to but I felt hopelessly uncouth. 

 So how does one handle this situation?  What is the right course of action?  No-dose?  Perhaps pick up a speed habit?  Sometimes I look longingly at my boyfriend to try to pass him the hint that it is time to go, and sometimes I use the “golly, what time is it?” line; but usually I just sit back and try to relax (something, that as an American, I have trouble doing).  I try to remember that my hosts are kind and gracious and would gladly keep me overnight at the table if I were so inclined. 

 So, my advice?  Enjoy your meal (which you undoubtedly will in France), enjoy the company, and always accept coffee when it is proffered.

Small Victories

“Immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a foreign language,” everyone says.  This may be true in the long run, but in the short term it’s madness.  You have to battle anxiety just to take a walk around the neighborhood for fear that someone might speak to you.  Clearly this opinion is espoused by people who either have an unhealthy amount of self-confidence, or have never done it.  Now yes, I listened to my CDs relentlessly before coming, and I thought that I knew enough to get around, but in real life no one speaks like they do on language CDs.  Hearing a woman repeat the word ‘l’appartement’ 50 times with perfect enunciation does nothing for me when I hear people use it in conversation.  Last week, we had a maid come to clean our ‘appartement’ and she and I had so much trouble understanding each other that I eventually went to google-translate and typed my question in and showed it to her.  “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

So when I arrived at my Boucher’s yesterday and he began peppering me with questions I was, understandably, unnerved.  I froze, my palms sweating, my mind racing.  Please God, don’t let me be the disappointing foreigner (insert: American) who hasn’t bothered to learn the language!  Desperately I searched my mind trying to pick up a word or two out of the sentences that I understood so that I could figure out what he was asking me (note: I would like to thank my Elementary School teachers for enforcing  the importance of context clues upon me).  Then, like the sun from behind the clouds, recognition dawned in my brain:  he wanted to know how long I had been here.  By some miracle, I answered…perfectly.  He understood me and continued with the questions until we had completed a civil and relatively informative conversation.  YES!

“Okay,” you might be thinking.  “You spoke to your butcher; that’s totally amazing.” (eye roll)

Well.  It is. 

This is one of the great things about traveling and moving overseas that no one ever tells you about and which I am finding even more true when there is a language barrier:  you get to become a child again (in the best sense, not in the ‘people telling you what to do all the time’ sense).  Managing to accomplish little tasks is a big deal and feels amazing!  When you have just moved to a new country and you are figuring things out, everything is a triumph.  When you figure out how to open your bank account or set up your cell phone; you feel impressed with yourself.  You may have lived in a large and complicated city back home, you may have street smarts, but the first time you navigate the subway or tram system in your new town you will give yourself a pat on the back.  When a stranger asks you for directions and you can give them you will feel oh-so-cool.  And yes, the first time you manage to understand what someone is saying and how to respond to them you will feel like skipping all the way home. 

It’s a beautiful reminder that travel gives you; the reminder to appreciate yourself and your ability to adapt and learn things.  The reminder to challenge yourself, come what may!  As a child we have these moments all the time; every new thing we learn fills us with a sense of pride and elation at our own ability to have accomplished something.  And why should that ever change? 

So, merci Monsieur Boucher, I appreciate the gentle reminder…oh and the caillettes were good too!