Chatty Chats

Adjusting to France, Learning French

Found: French dog*.

I am sitting on the metro, ready for my thirty minute ride on the way home from French class (ugh).  I always sit in the same seat on the second level with no neighbors**; I like to zone out on the tram and frankly I just don’t like being smushed up next questionable strangers, there, I said it.  About fifteen minutes into my ride an elderly gentleman sits down at the one-seater across from me.

He is all smiles and I can feel his eyes boring into me.  Keep looking out the window!  Don’t make eye contact!  I have the same feeling I have when I have just sat on the airplane with a book and I see an overly happy person walking towards the empty seat next to me.  My Southerness (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/have-a-bless-ed-day-and-others-things-dogs-say/) won’t allow me to ignore a potential conversation so I must concentrate hard on something else if I’m going to avoid talking.

The tram starts up again and I continue to ponder the window pane in fascination.  Then I slip and look at the time on my IPod.

He jumps, nay leaps, at the opportunity and immediately tells me my IPod looks like a wrist watch because of the case I have it in (that’s right, I still use my arm band workout case even when I’m not working out – what if I get the sudden urge to workout, one must always be prepared).  I smile nicely and laugh “tehehehehehehe”, yes, yes we are all polite, now I am going to go back to staring out the window because there are a lot of tram stops left and while I would normally embrace stranger conversations, I have just left four hours of French class and my head is swimming; there is no way I can sustain a chat in French right now.

A minute or so passes.

“Vous etes etranger?”  He is smiling at me expectantly.

Le sigh.  I surrender and take off my IPod completely.

“Oui, je suis Americaine,” I smile back encouraging him (damn you upbringing!).

“Ah!  Americaine!  Tres bien!”

He continues on, chatting amicably.  I tell him that I am learning French but am not very good, he tells me (in English) that he knows some English but is not very good.  We chat a bit about French class and the difficulties of learning other languages.  Finally he stands up to get off at his stop.

“Eet eez verwy nice to mit yew,” He says patting my hand as he descends.

“Enchante,” I say.  “Bonne journee, monsieur!”

“Arrivaderchi,” he laughs.  “Italian!”  He is so pleased with himself.

“Ciao,” I respond playing along.

He laughs again, “ciao ciao!”

Then he is gone, as the tram pulls out I get a last glimpse of him merrily running across the tram tracks to cross the street.  Spritely old fellow.

As my tram ride continues it occurs to me that I have just met a French dog.  I think back over the past month or so and realize that lately I have been meeting a lot of French dogs.  What has caused this change?  Has France read my blog and decide to be chattier?  Somehow I doubt it.  Instead, I think that it is because, due to my French class, I am now on the same schedule as the old-timers and old-timers don’t have the social hang ups of young people; if they want to chat, they are going to chat.  Maybe they aren’t dogs, but rather they are chatty “chats”!  (I slay me)

It reminds me of when I used to work reception at a government office and people would call to complain about various things; often after the complaint was made the old-timers would just want to talk and have a conversation.  Getting older can’t be easy; the world that you knew for most of your life is gone, society changes, rules change, people you know pass out of your life.  So whether you are a Cat or a Dog, don’t shut down when you run into a smiling elderly person on the tram or at the grocery store, give them a chat, a moment of your time; if you are lucky, someone will return the favor to you one day.

* Point of reference: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/the-truth-about-cats-and-dogs/

**That’s right; I’m that guy, the person who has my favorite tram seat.  Maybe when I am an old-timer instead of being nice and friendly I will freak out and rap my cane against the arm rest if someone else sits in it. 

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The Chicken Dance

Learning French

“Chicken happy can you monkey dance a cheese?”

“Quoi?”

“Chick-en happy can. You. Monkey. Dance. A cheese?”

“I am sorry; I do not understand what you are saying.”

I have decided that it would be hysterical to have my own English subtitles, you know, just a little screen in front of me to translate what I say in French into English.  Mind you, this would not be to help other people understand me, but so that I could see what it is that I am actually saying.

Lately, I have become more confident in my abilities to speak French (generally fueled by one of those extra-long aperitifs).  I speak rapidly and say multiple sentences at a time.  I do that whole “thoughtful pause” that foreigners always do that makes them look so casual and smart as they try to find the right word to use.  All in all, I look like the super-cool, multi-lingual expat…as long as you don’t speak French.

I remember going to Costa Rica with a friend of mine a few years ago.  Her family is Costa Rican but she was raised in the U.S.

“Wow,” I told her.  “Your Spanish is so good!”  To me she sounded like a local.

She laughed.  “That is only because you don’t know what I am saying.”

It is the same for me here in France.  If you don’t speak a lick of French and you hear me conversing you might think, “Wow, she has really got a handle on the language”; however, if you are French and you hear me speak French you will probably think “quoi?”

For example, I know the word for “good” and I know the word for “walk” but I didn’t know that when you put them together they don’t mean “good walk” but instead mean “cheap”.  These types of little confusions combined with my tragic pronunciation are why I often find myself staring into the baffled faces of French people.  They try to be nice and pretend they know what I am saying, but having been the foreigner for so long, I know what those smiling nods mean.

Maybe I should start asking trick questions to see if my sentences are coming out right:

“So, you love American food?”  I will ask in French.

“Oui, absolutement” they will reply, giving me an encouraging smile.

BUSTED!  Clearly no French person would ever say such a thing.*

Or maybe I could try…

(in French)

“While the French make some decent wine, Americans wines are much better, yes?”

“Ah oui, d’accord.”

DOUBLE BUSTED!  Come to think of it, this could become a rather entertaining little game.

But then again, is it such a bad thing for people to placate you?  Is it so horrible that they want to encourage instead of discourage?  It’s good to be given some motivation to keep trying, to have people pretending through the sentences they don’t understand so that they can piece together the ones that they do.  Of course, it would be nice to know whether I am asking if they enjoy the flavor of the fromage or if I am saying “happy chicken can you monkey dance a cheese”; but I guess I’ll just have to wait for the subtitles.

*Not only would a French person never say that they loved American food, they would be utterly confused as to what was meant by American food.  My repeated experience has been that most of them think that everyone in America eats cheeseburgers three times a day.

BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

French Food

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

 

 

 

 

 

Eclipse Totale Sur Mon Coeur

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences

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.

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

Cultural Differences

“So are all French as pretentious and snotty as they seem?”  My friend asks me this question as we walk down the street, heading to lunch.  I have returned to the U.S. for a weeklong visit while MB is in the Philippines once again. 

“No, its just a different culture,” I reply.  “They are more reserved than we are, and I think, we tend to perceive that as snobbery.”  During my visit home, I am peppered with questions on this topic.  “Are they all rude?”  “Has everyone been mean to you?”  “Do they hate Americans?” (“Do they really love Jerry Lewis?”)*  

While I am not so sure about my answer, my friend seems completely satisfied.  Of course she was; she is a dog.   A cat would never have asked the question in the first place. 

In the film “Up”, there is a scene where the travelers meet a dog who can talk.  One of the first things that he says is, “I’ve just met you and I love you already” while he jumps up and down excitedly.   

The dog is clearly an American. 

The French, on the other hand, are more nonchalant, more aloof, more likely to have the cat-like attitude.  “Ah, you feed me and what, I am supposed to be grateful?  Pfff…I will piss on your shoes.”    

The stereotypes about French rudeness and snobbery abound.  There have been countless books written by English-speaking travelers that approach the subject (A Year in the Merde, A Year in Provence, Almost French, etc).  The reality, however, is just that we are different.  While an American waiter will needlessly check on you, “are you okay?  Is everything just so great?  Can I get you anything, anything at all?  Perhaps a spare kidney, a goose that lays golden eggs?”  A French waiter will take your order and bring you your food and then leave you to enjoy it…maybe he will do this nicely, maybe with contempt.  Both methods have their values; its nice not to have to flag a waiter down and then have him roll his eyes at you just to get a water refill.  On the other hand, what is more annoying than an overly cheerful waiter interrupting your conversation every ten minutes?  “Hi, I’m Tammy, and we are going to have a great lunch today!”

When you walk into a party in France; it is not unlikely that no one will speak to you.  I went to one, in which, even the host didn’t bother to welcome me or offer me a drink.  But you can’t take it personally; these are cats, people!  Do you expect a cat to immediately jump in your lap and cuddle you…not often.  When a stranger walks into an American party; they are practically assaulted with friendliness, drinks and food shoved in their face, questions asked abundantly, speedy and informal introductions given immediately.  “Come on, play with us!  We are having so much fun!”  Dogs. 

So really, I don’t think its necessarily that the French are snobs; they are just cats.  They are more reserved and less likely to maul you with affability.  And while I will always be a dog person, cats are starting to grow on me. 

*Contrary to popular American belief, I have seen no evidence of an abiding love for Jerry Lewis in France (though I have noticed some links in the sense of humor)

Mercy

Learning French

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.

Perfection and the Art of Junk Food

Cultural Differences, French Food

MB looked down at the bowl I presented him with apprehension. 

“Just try it,” I say.  “If you don’t like it, no big deal; it’s a weird American thing.  Trust me; I’ll finish it if you don’t want it.”

He smiles wanly, but gamely picks up his spoon and has a bite.  He looks up in thought, as though considering the best way to describe it.

“It is strange (MB pronunciation: strenge),” he says. 

He may be the first French person to ever bring themselves to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or at least to admit it).

The French like to pretend that they only consume high quality cuisine and that an American diet consists only of fast food, flavorless food, fried food, and fatty food.  More than once I have been told “ketchup cuisine” in reference to American cooking.  It seems that regardless of what chefs or restaurants we produce, the stigma stays. 

When I first arrived in France, these methods of intimidation had worked; I believed that the French would never deign to eat something processed (!!) and only consumed quality, fresh, or homemade foods.  Then, one dark and stormy night (okay, so on a normal Wednesday evening), MB came home with something…unexpected, frightening…something that would change my French life forever.

The thunder cracked as he threw the grocery bag down on the counter. 

“I went shopping,” he said, full of innocence. 

I turned from the stove to look at him.  The light from the storm cast malevolent shadows across his face as he smiled. 

“Oh?” I questioned, quickly returning to my sauté pan.  The oil (okay, fine, it was butter alright? BUTTER) was getting hot and I jumped as an angry bubble burst and snapped at my forearm.  The air was tense. 

MB went to the double doors in the kitchen and threw them open; the thick, humidity entered the room like a presence.  Chills ran up my spine.

“So, check it out,” he grinned, as he slowly reached into the grocery bag. 

I looked up, and just as the product emerged, lightening lit up the room.  I gasped and stumbled back a step.  He held the hot pink metallic rectangle up in the air like some sort of ominous beacon.

“What is it?”  I said, tremulously.

“Just try one…” he replied, as he pulled a red cube from its sheath.

The thunder rumbled in the distance, perhaps as a warning.  Tentatively, I plucked it from his hand and began to unwrap.  He watched me, anxiously, as I brought it to my mouth. 

“Blech!  What tha-what is this?!?”

He flipped the light on.  “Quoi?”

“I don’t understand what this is.  It’s like ham flavored processed cheese.”

“No, it’s delicious!”  He popped one in his mouth and began unwrapping a second.  “There’s ham, tomato, goat cheese-”

“Goat cheese,” I interrupted.    “Goat cheese flavored cheese?  Why not just get actual goat cheese?”   

“Ouais,” MB said nonchalantly, as though that somehow answered the question.

I had just been introduced to Apericubes (here is just one example, there is a wide variety: http://bernartze.unblog.fr/files/2010/09/apericubetourdumonde.jpg ) , processed cheese cubes flavored to taste like vegetables, meats, other cheeses; life would never be the same. 

After that fateful, evening I started noticing things that had theretofore gone unseen.  Suddenly, processed cheese was everywhere and there seemed to be an unusual amount of fast food places.  I noticed 6 brands of crabsticks (you know the fish shaped to look like crab legs) in the grocery store and a plethora of frozen, yet fully constructed (bun and all), cheeseburgers in the frozen food section.  The cereal aisle was full of sugary cereals; muesli filled to the brim with chunks of chocolate.  Even the French eat junk food!  (!!!!!!!!)    

Once at a neighborhood wine store, the clerk asked me where I was from and I told him I was American.  “Ah well, nobody’s perfect,” he responded with a laugh. 

Clearly, the French have one of the best cuisines in the entire world, one that they should be (and are) justifiably proud of; no one is arguing that.  But to all those “ketchup cuisine” snobs who look disdainfully at American cuisine, I would like to offer an Apericube and remind them that “oui, nobody’s perfect.”

Le Fromage: Part 1, The Faith

French Food

(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.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences

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.