Merry Christmas Part II: Wassailing (repost)

Holidays in France

Hi y’all – yes, another repost for Christmas.  I hope you will still enjoy it!  Thank you so much to all of you who helped support Bread is Pain in the Expat Blog Awards – we took home first prize for France which is pretty darn cool!  I hope you all have wonderful holidays – I will be back posting again at the end of January (a brief sabbatical).

Happy Holidays and have a wonderful New Year! 

***

“Quoi?”  MB calls out from the kitchen.

“Quoi what?”  I say this before the redundancy of it computes in my mind.

He steps out of the kitchen and into the living room where I am dancing like a maniac and going through my Christmas songs on Itunes to sort out a playlist for our upcoming party.  I grab his hand and make him dance with me which gets a laugh…one of his classic laughs in which I can tell he is trying really hard not to but can’t help it.

He kisses me on the cheek which is my cue to stop.  “What is this wassailing?”

“Oh,” I respond, putting “Here We go a-Wassailing”* on mute.  “You know, it’s to… “wassail.”  This seems like a totally logical answer to me.

“You don’t know what it means, do you?”

YES, of course I do, I sang this song when I was a kid!  Gaw!”  I have no idea what it is to “wassail.”

“So, what is it?”  He puts a hand on his hip and stands over my computer.

“Hold on…” I say, as I google it quickly.  “Huh…it is: 1 : an early English toast to someone’s health 2 : wild drinking : REVELRY.”

“So it is a Christmas carol about getting wasted?”  He asks me this with amusement on his face.

“No way, it can’t be,” I look up “wassailing” as opposed to the noun form “wassail” hoping there is some translation change; it isn’t much better.  “”Wassailing,” I read, “To go on a wild drinking spree.”

MB bursts out laughing.

“It also means to drink to someone’s health!”  I will defend “wassailing” forever!

He pats me on the head and walks back to the kitchen.  My whole childhood has just morphed into an old English drinking song.

When I was little I was a Girl Scout.  We had meetings once a week and events like camping (okay so camping in cabins not in tents but get real…we have bears in Tennessee) and selling Girl Scout cookies throughout the year.  I remember learning how to light a match, how to sew a button (quit giving me that look, Mom, just because I don’t do it well doesn’t mean I don’t know how), and I can still pick out poison oak.  Somewhere in the attic there is a sash with badges on it and I still keep in touch with a few girls from my troop and one of them even came to my wedding this year.

Every Christmas my Mother (a “forever” Girl Scout) would get the girls together over at our house and take us caroling in the neighborhood.  My Mother an avid…dare I say “hardcore”, caroler loved the tradition and so did I.  It was awesome and SO much cooler than it sounds…I swear.  We would all meet at someone’s house and dress up in super warm clothes and drink hot chocolate and afterwards we would have a cookie party.  It was fun to go out into a cold wintery night with all your best friends and sing songs to strangers.  Carolers are often made fun of in movies or on sitcoms but let’s face it – in this day in age it is pretty amazing to have a bunch of strangers show up at your door and sing songs to you for no other reason than to spread some cheer.

I remember one year in particular back in the late 80’s.  After the adults made sure we were all warmly attired in our totally cool purple, green, and fuchsia winter wear (I’m just assuming…I did say late 80’s) we set out with our song books into the wily streets of High Point Terrace in Memphis (this will be funny to anyone from Memphis).  We went to house after house singing our songs and generally being “ooh’d” and “awe’d” over by all the folks in the neighborhood (perhaps another reason we all loved Christmas caroling…a nice little ego boost if I do say so).

Only a few doors down from my house we came and knocked on a door.  Now let me give a little lesson in caroling for you novices out there, it’s not like you ring the doorbell and wait to take requests; you ring or knock and then get going with your song – if the people living there don’t like it then they are scrooges, plain and simple.  At this house my Mother whispered to us to start singing “Silent Night.”  The porch stayed quiet as we began our song and we started to wonder if they were going to open the door; we could see people in there.  Suddenly the door swung wide and the whole family was standing there.  I remember having a very odd sensation of seeing so much light around them as we stood on the dark porch.  While we sang I noticed their arms going around each other and hugs being given, heads rested on shoulders, a couple of the people even cried.  We had never made such an impact.  Later my Mother explained to us that the man who had lived there had died a few days ago and that the family was there comforting each other.

It was a special moment in my life, maybe it was a special moment in theirs.  Maybe it is a story that they still tell in their family about the night that Grandpa died and little girls showed up at the door during the wake and sang “Silent Night.”  We didn’t understand while we were singing what had happened and we only sort of understood later but I understand now and it can still bring a tear to my eye thinking about it; thinking about the fact that the simplest acts that you commit in your life can bring a sense of peace, a sense of thankfulness, a sense of joy and love to a complete stranger…and sometimes when they need most to not feel alone in this world.  I understand that often God or the Universe or Mother Nature, or whatever you believe in will use you as a tool for good even when you aren’t trying.

When I asked my Mother about this story to make sure I was telling it right she was so pleased that I remembered caroling and had happy memories of it.  She told me that the reason she always hosted this party was because of a memory she had when she was a little girl.  “It was probably only once in my life – one year,” she wrote, “The cold, the holiday season, the thrill of singing with others, the smiles on the other side of the doorway.  I still recall the intense delight I felt.”  It’s funny, isn’t it?  That two women in different stages in their life still think about and remember fondly singing to strangers a few times when they were children.

My Mother said that when we would go caroling sometimes people would try to give us money.  They would want to know why we were caroling, they assumed we were doing it for something.  Well…we were.  Maybe it sounds cheesy and maybe it is too trite for some people but we were just doing it to spread cheer.

So, “Wassail” my friends!  Drink an extra glass of egg nogg or vin chaud, be unnecessarily cheerful, sing songs too loudly, and allow yourself to be used in the crafting of someone’s happy holiday memories.

*Note – there are two different “Wassailing” songs around the holidays and neither is for Christmas but for the New Year.  There is “Here we go a –wassailing” and there is also (my favorite) “Wassail, Wassail”. 

Happy Holidays Everyone!  I’ll be back in the New Year!!

Advertisements

Holiday Season Part I: A Few of My Favorite Things

Cultural Differences, Holidays in France

I love Christmas…possibly to an annoying degree (definitely if you ask MB).  I love the music, I love the movies, I love the decorations, I love the food, I love the whole holiday spirit.  In fact, even winter (which I hate with every fiber of my being) becomes somewhat tolerable during the Christmas season because everything is just so darn cute!  So, with that in mind, this week kicks off Bread is Pain’s Christmas Season!

First off, I am going to share my favorite things about Christmas in USA.

7)  24 Hour Holiday Radio.  MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  This is the bane of so many people’s existence during the holiday season.

Oh, I think I’ll just flip on the radio….BWAH, Christmas Carols on the pop station, negative, let me try again…Mariah Carey Christmas album?  She isn’t even the right genre for this station; this is the hard rock station.  Maybe Jazz will save me, let me just tune the dia-Bing Crosby?!  COME ON!”

While others desperately try to avoid holiday tunes; I actively search them out.  Midnight on Thanksgiving is a happy happy time for me and those like me because I know at that point there will be at least three, if not more, radio stations that will play Christmas Music 24 hours a day until Christmas.  At no point during this time period do I have to run an errand “festivity-free”; I will always have Nat, Elvis, and Dolly keeping me company and excited about Christmas.  AND as an added extra bonus, I am able to gleefully torture those around me who hate it and what is more Christmasy than that?

6)  Chriskwanzaka.  This just makes me laugh.  It is so purely American.  If you need more info: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Chriskwanzaka

5) CRAZY Christmas Lights.  When I was little, one of my favorite things to do during the holidays was to drive around and see all the over-the-top lights people had put up on their houses and now is no different, I still enjoy seeing all the insane displays that people have taken the time to put together.  (“God, it’s not insane, it’s just being really into the holiday spirit and making things pretty for people’s enjoyment, why is she so rude?”)  For instance, there is a house in my hometown that coordinates their outdoor Christmas lights to one of the radio stations (“I take back what I just said that is nutso”).  That’s right, their lights are timed to flick on and off in rhythm to the Christmas music being played on a particular AM station that I guess they highjack every year for this express purpose (Manheim Steamroller if you are curious and yes it is totally freaking awesome).  Each year traffic will be backed up around their house because people stop their cars out front to watch – this is going crazy over Christmas lights but it is also unbelievably fun.

4) Christmas Movies.  When I am in the U.S. during the holiday season there is no end to the amount of Christmas movies that I will watch.  I mean, I love the classics: Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas*; but if I am going to be honest, I’m not that choosy.  I will watch a lifetime original Christmas movie:  She was in an abusive relationship, physically injured, mentally depressed, and emotionally cold…until one foggy Christmas Eve when Rudy became Santa’s only hope and everything changed.  I will also happily sit down and watch a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie:  Their daughter Tammy has leukemia, the bank is foreclosing, and the world’s most unrealistically nice and honest people, the Cratchit’,s are starting to lose hope.  Can a brand new angel trying to find his way in our wacky world save their Christmas Spirit?  Tune in Sunday and then subsequently every day this week to find out.  In the meantime watch this advertisement about a Mother tirelessly working during Christmas and thinking that her family hasn’t noticed only to find the nicest and most sentimental Christmas card in the history of the world left for her by her daughters…then cry for a while and call your Mom, you a-shole.

Point being, I’m not picky, I just want uplifting and possibly stupid Christmas stories all season long.

3) The Salvation Army Santas.  I love spontaneous charity.  If I happen to have a random opportunity to give to a good cause I do it which is one of the reasons that I love the Salvation Army during Christmas time.  There is not a grocery store or mall that you can go to during the holiday season where these hard working volunteers aren’t standing out in frigid temperatures ringing their bells.  This provides me with the opportunity to feel like an awesome and virtuous person every time I run out to buy wine and cigarettes  milk and cookies.  Now, as if feeling morally superior plus getting rid of all of that pesky pocket change (and actual bills if you need an extra dose of superiority…sometimes I do) isn’t enough of a treat our Salvation Army Peeps also don Santa hats and the more occasionally and therefore super exciting full Santa outfit…and let’s face it; it is always great to see Santa.  Which brings me to my next point…except when it’s not…

2) Mall Santas.  When I was growing up in the U.S. during the 80’s we heard a lot about “stranger danger”: “never go anywhere with a stranger, never tell a stranger your name, in fact, screw it, don’t even TALK to them, definitely don’t take candy from them, and if a stranger wants you to sit on their lap then you run**!” 

Enter Santa.

Is it any wonder that we all have photos of ourselves terrified, crying hysterically while possibly wetting our pants on random Santa’s laps?  I mean, while Nancy Reagan was on TV lecturing me about “pushers” and “just say no” at no point did she say, “Except at Christmas, taking candy from that random dude who wants you to sit in his lap it totally cool.”  And apparently, the 21st century is no different.  I would be lying (although a better person) if I said that I didn’t laugh a little bit every time my friends post a Facebook picture of their kid crying on Santa’s lap; I mean, it is crazy, why are we still doing this?  Are their kids that actually like it or is it just to entertain miscreants like me?  Either way, I’m a full supporter of mall Santas…I mean, what would a holiday be without a little creepy mixed in?

1) Egg Nogg.  Egg Nogg is awesome.  In fact, it is so awesome that during the Christmas of 1826, the cadets at West Point smuggled in booze so that they could make their Egg Nogg and subsequently started a riot**.  If you are unfamiliar with this potent and wildly unhealthy drink, let me briefly explain:  egg nogg is a drink consisting of rum or whiskey, heavy cream, a bunch of sugar, about one million egg yolks, and then some seasonings like cinnamon or cloves so that it tastes like Christmas.  It is delicious but is also dangerous for a variety of reasons:  A) It tastes like super good milk so you don’t realize how much booze you are drinking.  B) It has an insane amount of cholesterol, fat, and sugar so it may induce heart failure.  C) As evidenced, it has been known to cause riots.  But you know what?  It is so darn good, I don’t care.  I’ve always said there should be more cholesterol in alcohol.

So, there you have it, a few of the things that I miss about being back Stateside during the holidays.  Next week, I’ll give you a list of the things that I love about being in France for the holidays.

What are your favorite holiday things?

*Speaking of, did they change the Charlie Brown voices?  Someone told me they did and I am horrified.  It’s like when they tried to colorize Citizen Kane and Orson Welles said “Don’t touch my film with your crayolas!”  Don’t mess with Orson Welles and NEVER mess with Charles Schultz!

** I am not making this up:  http://www.army.mil/article/49823/The_Eggnog_Riot/  I am also not making this up: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/peopleevents/pande22.html  Americans don’t take kindly to people messing with their booze.

Fall-N-France

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences, French Food, Holidays in France

I am walking through the neighborhood market when I spot France picking through a basket of Girolles (Chanterelles).

ME:  What up, France?

I put my hand up for a high five but all I get back is an eye roll.

FRANCE:  Bonjour, Américaine.  Why is your hand up?  You are going to hit me or what?

ME:  Like you don’t know what I am doing.

FRANCE:  Knowledge is not the same as compliance.  Bise like a normal person.

ME:  Didn’t you read my last post about that?

FRANCE:  Quoi?  Of course I don’t read your blog.

France looks indignant before leaning in to look very closely at a mushroom.

FRANCE:  …as though I would care what you write about me…

ME:  What?  I couldn’t hear you.

FRANCE:  Of course you couldn’t!  I wasn’t speaking four decibels too high; I am sure your Américain ear can only hear sounds that shatter glass.

I sigh and start to walk off.

FRANCE:  Quoi?  I thought we were having a conversation and now you just walk away without a word.  You know, I don’t know why you call me rude… vraiment!

ME:  Incorrigible.

FRANCE:  What was that?

ME:  Nothing.  So what are you getting?  Going to have something special for dinner tonight?

FRANCE:  I haven’t decided yet.  You will have a cheeseburger, non?

ME:  Yeah, I eat cheeseburgers all day every day.

I am being sarcastic.

FRANCE:  I know you do.

I give France a look but France just shrugs and lights a cigarette.

FRANCE:  This is the month of your “Thanksgiving”, yes?

ME:  Yep, in two weeks, I’m surprised you remembered that.

FRANCE:  Yes, well it’s hard to forget about a holiday based on you massacring a people and then celebrating it year after year by overeating and giving yourselves diabetes.  Sort of sticks in the mind.

I roll my eyes.

ME:  You know it is actually a really nice holiday.  You have all your family around, maybe your friends as well and you take some time to contemplate the things you are grateful for in your life.

France puts out the cigarette and continues walking towards the cheese vendor.

FRANCE:  Why do you need a holiday for this?  Can’t you just be grateful all year long?

I sigh again.

FRANCE:  Do you have a breathing problem?  Today you sigh very much.

ME:  Maybe it’s all the cigarettes.

I smile sweetly.  France smirks and gives me a look of approval.

ME:  But yeah, of course you should be grateful all year long – Thanksgiving is just a reminder to really think about it and talk about and share it with those that you love.

FRANCE:  Sounds exhausting, you Américains always needing to talk about your feelings.

ME:  So you don’t want to tell me anything you are grateful for?

FRANCE:  Pfff…I’m grateful to be French, quoi, so I don’t have to go through this stoopeed ritual every year!

ME:  MB is French and he is excited for Thanksgiving.

FRANCE:  Ah, you mean this man who lived in Australia for 6 years and is now married to an Américaine.  Oui, of course he is excited.

ME:  We’re going to have a big party you know…

I look at France with my eyebrows raised in a question mark.  France ignores me and looks into the cheese display.

ME:  If memory serves you had a pretty good time at the 4th of July party.

FRANCE:  WHAT?!  I did not!  It was average at best, huh!  A good time, who do you think I am?  Brazil?!

ME:  All I’m saying is that you stayed pretty late and seemed to get along well with everyone.

FRANCE: pffff…

ME:  So….?

FRANCE:  Quoi?  So?  What?  You are so tiring, why you must drag everything out?

ME:  Maybe I like to watch your squirm?

France suppresses a laugh.

FRANCE:  Sometimes you don’t make me want to gag, Américaine.

I smile and give France a pat on the back.  France quickly shrugs me off and looks at me with disdain.

FRANCE:  Everything is so difficult with this relationship.  I have no idea what cheese to bring that will go with turkey!

ME:  Oh, but won’t you be thankful to find out?!

France gives me the first real smile of the day.

 FRANCE: Peut-être, Américaine…peut-être.

 

The Romance of a Sale

Holidays in France

I love sales.  Love them.  I will buy things that I don’t really find attractive or things that I absolutely do not need based solely on the fact that they are on sale.  As a dear friend of mine puts it “really, by not buying it you are losing money because it is such a good deal!”  (RIGHT?!)   This statement pretty much sums up my feelings when I see something marked down.  “Why look!  It’s a goose leash!  We don’t have a goose, I know, but one day we might and come on, honey, it’s 70% off!” 

This is why the time just after Christmas is particularly dangerous for me.  In fact, if Santa really had my best interest at heart, he would drop off the gifts and steal my credit card on his way up the chimney.  But alas, year after year, I buy ill-fitting sweaters and boots that I’ll only wear once because of ridiculous post-holiday prices.  I am used to it by now; I know it is coming and I prepare as best I can.  For instance, this year, I bought things that I genuinely think that I will wear…mostly.

I was in no way, however, prepared for returning to France and what their post-holiday sales had in store.

“Woah!  What is happening?”  I am looking around the Carrefour (France’s superstore, complete with grocery and everything else you could ever want).

Quoi?”  MB seems nonplussed as he pushes the cart, fascinated, instead by reading the previous owner’s grocery list.  “Look, I think they were going to make a punch of some sort, it sounds good, no?”

He shows me the list but I am too distracted.

“Honey, look, all the groceries, everything…it’s like the whole store is on sale!”  I wave my hand across the entire front section of the Carrefour which is covered with yellow signs that have 25%, 35%, 50% printed on them.

“Ah ouais!  The after Christmas sales, I forgot this!!”  MB seems excited too.  “Look, a vacuum on sale, we need a vacuum!”

“Only twenty-five euros?  Heck yeah, we need a vacuum!  Oooh honey, they have a hand-mixer for ten euros too.  I need a hand-mixer sometimes you know!”

MB looks at me with skeptical amusement.  “When?  When do you need a hand-mixer?”

“Um…hullo!  Don’t you remember the time we tried to beat egg whites…that was a disaster!”  This happened exactly one time and we have never needed a hand-mixer for anything else.

MB puts the hand-mixer in the cart.

I grab MB’s arm and jump up and down.  “This is so great, I love a sale!  You know I love a sale!  Woah – is that buy one, get one free?!?

I run to the smoked salmon display.

“What do you reckon?  You think we can eat two kilos of salmon?”  I am now playing a little game, pretending that I might not want to buy it.  I look at MB, waiting for the reasonable response, preparing my angle.

“I think we can,” he says resolutely.   “We can always freeze it, yes?  It is fourteen euros a kilo; we aren’t going to beat that.”

I stare at MB and realize, he is not going to be my steady voice of reason but instead my accomplice, my kindred spirit in sale-induced-insanity.   We lock eyes and share a look of mutual understanding and admiration that says “yes, we can eat two kilos of salmon in ten days for that price!”

Suddenly, my eyes are drawn towards the back of the section.

“Could that be…no, surely not…”

MB follows my gaze.  “Ouais…” he says slowly, with cautious optimism.

We advance towards the sign, clutching onto each other’s arms.

50% Reduction Foie Gras

There is front of us are two huge bins filled with all shapes and sizes of foie gras, reduced 50% in price.  I jump up and down, clapping my hands and MB and I embrace, in front of the foie gras bin, under fluorescent lights in Carrefour.  It is trés romantique!

A vacuum, a hand-mixer, two kilos of smoked salmon, two cans of gesiers, one side of beef, a whole chicken, a rabbit, and four packages of foie gras later we begin to make our way out of the grocery store, satisfied and triumphant in the knowledge of all the excellent bargains we got.

Once we arrive home, I start desperately trying to make room in the freezer and ponder the necessity of purchasing an entire rabbit seeing as how I have never cooked one before.  Squeezing the three foot long package of smoked salmon into a corner, I wonder if maybe the salmon and the rabbit are the equivalent of an ill-fitting sweater or an ugly pair of designer boots.  Has buyer’s remorse set in already?  Will we ever actually use this stuff?  Has this all been just a big waste?  Nah…

“Honey, I think we have to have a dinner party!”

MB looks up from where he is arranging cans of foie gras and gesiers in the cupboard, “I was just thinking the same thing.”

 

Joyeux Noel

Conversations with France, Holidays in France

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

France:  Hello!  American friend, hello!!

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

France:  Oui, for you, so silly!

France laughs gaily and waves me over.

Me:  Ah…bonsoir, France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

France pauses and gives me an exasperated look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

France says this with an eye roll.

 Me:  No, it’s just, you know…

France looks at me questioningly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France hands me my glass of vin chaud. 

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

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

 Christmas really is a magical time of year. 

Joyeux Noël and Happy Holidays to all!  I will return in the New Year!

The 7 Stages of an Awkward Dinner

Holidays in France

MB found the place online and it looked charming, a 15th century farmhouse in the country, excellent reviews on trip advisor, and only thirty minutes from town.  What could possibly go wrong?  So we packed our little overnight bags, hopped in the car, and made our way out of the city for a relaxing Saturday in the country. 

After a half hour and a couple of wrong turns we finally made our way to the gate of the B&B.  It was night time and we couldn’t see much but all seemed promising.  We were ushered in by the effusive and friendly hostess who quickly showed us to our rooms along with another couple.  The place was beautiful, there was stone work and exposed beams, murals on the wall, a gorgeous large wooden table–wait a minute!

Stage 1: DENIAL

MB shut the door to our room and turned to me.

“Oh la la la la…”  He put his hand to his head.

“What?!”  Everything had seemed alright to me.

“That table, you saw the table?”

“Yeah, so wha—oh crap.”

“Yeah.”

“You think?”  I asked, my voice ridden with panic.  “Surely not, no way, this place is so nice, that would be totally weird.” 

Stage 2: GUILT

A half hour later we descended with our plan to find out whether the dinner would be at the table or if there was another dining room.  After ordering a couple of glasses of wine from the hostess (which she seemed unaccustomed to…we were still in France, right?), MB casually asked if this was where we came for dinner. 

“Ah oui,” she trilled.  “At seven o’clock!”  

Our fate was sealed.

We returned upstairs, despondent in our grief. 

“This isn’t going to be relaxing at all!”  I cried.

“I know, this is terrible.  I am not in the mood for this, I don’t want to talk to strangers.”

“I can’t talk to strangers, oh my god, this is going to be horrible!”

“I never should have booked this place.  I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, how are you supposed to know that it was going to be like this?  It is my fault; I’m the one who wanted to get out of town.”

“We will just have to get through this together.”  MB holds me tightly.

Stage 3: BARGAINING

 “Maybe, maybe we can go down early and eat before everyone else?”  MB looks at me hopefully.

“You think?  What if we just have to sit at the table and wait…then it will just prolong it!”

“It is worth a try, yes?”

Suddenly, we hear the door down the hall open.

“NON!”  MB looks stricken.  “They have already left!”

“This sucks!  Why do we have to do this?  It is total bullsh-t!  I mean, don’t people come to these places to relax?  What is relaxing about this?”  I am becoming progressively defiant.

“I know, it is ridiculous, who are the people who want to do this?”

Stage 4: DEPRESSION

Finally, we arrive at the table downstairs.  It is set for the exact number of guests and has us all squeezed in, elbow to elbow.  The older couple down the hall from us is already seated. 

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

“Bonjour.”

Sigh.

We take our seats and look at each other across the table, MB is silently questioning me and I am questioning right back.  The hostess is nowhere to be found.

In French

“So, where are you from?”  MB asks the couple.

“Lyon,” responds the man.

“Ah.”  MB waits to see if there will be more.  “We are in from Grenoble.”

“Ah,” says the man. 

“So, what do you do?”  MB looks at the couple.

The woman responds first.  “I am a teacher.”

MB waits.  Nothing.

“What grade is it that you teach?”

“9-12”

“And you like it?”

“Yes.”

The couple looks at MB expectantly; he has now become proprietor of the conversation.  He looks at me desperately.  “I can’t help you,” I say with my eyes, “We are trapped, there is no way out.”

Stage 5: UPWARD TURN

Finally the hostess appears with a much appreciated bottle of wine, which we are put in the awkward position of splitting with our new found acquaintances.  Another woman descends from upstairs with her dog and sits at the far end of the table, as far away from everyone as possible, I stare at her enviously.  Then, suddenly, the doors open and a frosty chill enters the room…darkness falls upon the table as couple #2 sits down.

The woman, almost immediately, bursts into caustic laughter before proceeding on a tirade complaining about everything from the wine selection, to the food, to the fact that we all had to sit together.  She then goes on to spend the rest of the dinner making sour faces and alienating the entire table while her companion makes half-hearted attempts at salvaging the situation. 

All of a sudden, the first couple seems like long lost friends as we find ourselves all making eye contact across the table, communicating our disbelief at her behaviour (which seemed to only exacerbate it further).  We are now comrades, struggling through the war together.

Stage 6: RECONSTRUCTION

Finally…finally, the dessert course is brought out.  I look at MB longingly; I can already tell that I am stuck in one of those French “no one knows how to leave the table” situations.  “Get up,” I think.  “Get up, for the love of GOD, don’t ask another—“  Too late, MB was already off asking couple #1 another question that is answered with two words. 

Then it hits me, EUREKA!  Cigarette!

I look at MB and nod toward the outside patio.  I see the comprehension on his face.

“Ah, excuse us, we will go and have a cigarette now.”

We both get up from the table and walk to the adjoining patio. 

“Oh my god,” I breath.  “That was horrible.”

“After this, we just say goodnight, don’t sit back down.  We’re going to make a run for it.”  MB looks at me seriously. 

“Got it.”

As soon as MB stubs out his cigarette, we are back inside picking up our coats and heading upstairs, while desperate eyes follow us out.  The hostess has now joined the table and has them all trapped in forced merriment. 

Stage 7: ACCEPTANCE

“Pfff…I am so happy that is over.”  MB flops on the bed.

“Me too,” I turn to look at him.  “But, how are we going to do it again in the morning?”

“I think tomorrow we skip breakfast.”

A Month of Sundays

Conversations with France, Holidays in France

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?

Holidays in France, Travel in France

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?

Holidays in France, Travel in France

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.