You’ve Got Some Gauls!

Cultural Differences

“Uh-oh, I really hope she doesn’t poo, I don’t have any little bags with me.”

I am walking in the park with a couple of expat friends, one of whom has his dog with him.

“I might have a bag,” my other friend says, digging through her purse.

“Wow,” I say. “So do y’all always pick up your dog’s poo?”

“Yeah,” says friend number one.  “I get a lot of weird looks from people when I do it, like ‘what on earth are you doing?’”

I laugh at this, thinking of the obstacle course of poo on the sidewalks throughout town (our nice little Espace Chiens aren’t in Centre Ville).

“Well,” friend number two chimes in. “My husband and I will stop and give people dirty looks when we see their dog go, you know, to see if they will pick it up.”

“Really?” I ask.  “Have you ever been able to shame anyone into doing it?”

Friend number one looks at me as though I have missed something really obvious.  “The French have no shame.”

This is a beautiful, hilarious, and sometimes annoying truth – there is no shame in the French game. They are an unflappable people when faced with societal judgment.  For instance, Americans are working to eradicate cigarette smoking through a vigorous shame-campaign:

What?  You want a cigarette?  We will need you to publicly whip yourself 3 times with this cat-o-nine-tails and then step into that designated smoking area – you see it, the space with the septic sewage oozing out from the ground.”

As you light your cigarette the town’s children surround you throwing rotten vegetables and pointing while yelling “Smoker! Smoker!”

Or something like that…perhaps that is a bit dramatic.  My point is that we are trying really hard to change the branding of smoking from being something cool and/or normal to something gross and trashy because the thought is that if society decides it is nasty then that will dissuade younger generations from smoking (aka: through shame).

This is why I am constantly amused/surprised by the references to cigarettes throughout my French courses.  In one of my grammar textbooks there is a chapter of exercises (a chapter is about 3 pages) which includes 4 different sentences on the subject of cigarettes, I’ve even had teachers use smoking as examples for sentence structure in class.  These are things that would be incomprehensible in the United States.  Smoking in a textbook?!  Tsk, tsk!

The French just take a different view on the matter – and no, it is not the view that nothing is wrong with smoking, but perhaps rather the idea that public shaming just isn’t going to be the most effective method in France.  In fact, it could even encourage the behavior it is trying to prevent:

“Pffff…you say smoking is disgusting and I should be ashamed, uh?  Challenge accepted, you bureaucratic oaf – I will now smoke on your baby and then casually dump my ashtray in the front seat of your car…and it will be dead sexy, uh?”

This is a society that doesn’t accept embarrassment and therefore can’t be controlled through threat of humiliation.  Line-skipping is another good example.  The French aren’t exactly keen on one-by-one straight queues for things but rather mass disorder and a collective gathering at point of payment or entry – it’s a dog eat dog kind of situation and one in which it is very easy to be skipped.  It is no rarity to have someone brazenly step in front of you while waiting on a line (especially little old ladies).  In the United States if this happened you might be able to make someone self-conscious enough to apologize or move by giving them dirty looks or talking loudly about their rudeness…not so in France.  In France it is more like this:

This is you:  “I can’t BELIEVE that chick just stepped right in front of me.  Give her laser eyes, make her feel super uncomfortable.  DEATH STARE – DEATH STARE!  HA – TAKE THAT!  This is going to be the most awkward wait of your life you LINE-SKIPPER!”

French Response #1:  “I think there is something wrong with the person behind me.  They look crazy – I am glad I got in front so that I will be out of here first.”

French Response #2:  “There is someone behind me?”

French Response #3:  *yawn*

The French just don’t have a desperate need for approval (like Americwhat?  Nothing, I didn’t say a thing).  They are content to dictate their own personal behaviors and no amount of societal humiliation is going to make them pick up their dog poo or queue in an orderly fashion if they don’t want to.  It just isn’t the French way and I suspect it probably never has been.

Let’s journey back to Gaius and Sextus, our Ancient Roman Sentinels stationed in formerly Gallic territory to better exemplify the point.

Gaius:  This place is driving me crazy!

Sextus:  Oh come on, at least it isn’t as crowded as Rome.

Gaius:  But that’s just it, Sextus, in Rome at least there is some order but these Gauls are killing me.  None of them ever line up straight, just the other day when I was off to get some bread, right as the baker opened his door they all just crowded up towards it.  You couldn’t tell who was first and who was last.  I told two of them that if they didn’t get out of my way I would have them beat and you know what they did?

Sextus:  Uh…got the heck out of your way?

Gaius looks at Sextus and shakes his head mournfully.

Gaius:  No, they didn’t.  They just acted like they couldn’t hear me.

Sextus:  Woah.  Bold move.

Gaius:  Right?!  I mean, don’t they realize that they have been enslaved, humiliated?  Where is their shame?

At this moment a Gaul approaches the two of them, heading towards the door to the Praetorium.

Sextus:  And just where do you think you’re going?

Gaul:  To the Praetorium…obviously.

Sextus:  HEY –

Sextus smacks the Gaul on the behind with the broad side of his sword.

Sextus:  Don’t get mouthy with me!

Gaius:  Yeah – you have to show us respect!  It is the law!

The Gaul gives them a pointed look.

Gaius:  Kneel, you Gallic trash!

Gaul:  Pfff…

Gaius and Sextus exchange a look with each other and Gaius whispers in Sextus’ ear.

Gauis:  This is exactly what I was talking about.

Sextus walks towards the Gaul and stands over him menacingly.

Sextus:  Look here, if you don’t kneel now you will be shunned from any and all decent society!  You will be mocked and people will turn their back on you in the street!

At this point our Gaul just shrugs and walks on through the gates.

The world would never be the same.

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Freaking Out Frenchie

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences

So the other night MB and I were sitting watching an episode of French Masterchef.  The contestants were in the middle of a challenge in which they had to create a thin hollow ball made of out sugar (not exactly like the BBQ challenges of US Masterchef).  In one part of the challenge it was necessary to roll out and work the hot sugar “dough” which is at a dangerously high temperature, they have to wear special gloves.  One contestant is working his dough and talking about how hot it is and how you must be very careful.  The contestant next to him then accidentally sticks her naked elbow into the dough and lets out a scream.

His response…without so much as an eyebrow flutter:  “Mais…voila.”  As the girl next to him clutches her burned flesh he shrugs and returns to his work.

It is hard to fluster a French person.

The French are not big reactors when unusual things occur but instead just take them as though they were the most normal thing in the world.  When walking home in last weekend’s bizarre snow storm we saw a man in a car that was stuck.  MB went to go and help him and within moments the next few people who walked by did the same.  There were no introductions or laughs or camaraderie…no one ever said “woah, what happened?”  They just calmly set down their grocery bags and walked over and did it before continuing on their way.

“Quoi?”

In the US it would have been a conversation, hands would have been shaken, huge thanks would have been given and later that night the guys who helped would have told their families.  It wouldn’t have been a big deal or anything but a mini-event, something interesting and noteworthy in an otherwise standard day.

The uber blasé-ness of the French is something that I have noticed for a while now and that I get no small amount of amusement from.  I mean, I love it when something bizarre happens on the street and no one reacts.  Am I the only one seeing this?  And not to give to many plugs to Masterchef but it provides another excellent example.  In the US or Australia version, when people find out that they have made it past auditions there is great excitement and enthusiasm – sometimes awkward and rambunctious hugs.  In the French version there will be a nice dignified smile and a “thank-you”, luke-warm excitement at best.  Wait?  Where is the lady who falls to her knees and praises Jesus?  NOT in France.

Recently, however, I have discovered the Achilles’ heel of the French blasé.

In French class last week, our professor was asking us questions about daily routine and life.  The question came up of what do you have for breakfast.  Two of the students answered that they didn’t have breakfast.  Instead of shrugging (“ouais”) and continuing on with the lesson, he stopped…horrified.

“Wait, you understand what I asked, yes?  What is it that you eat for your breakfast today?”

“I didn’t have breakfast today.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I never have breakfast.”

“Never?!?!?”

“No, don’t like it.”

“But…I…what?”

This conversation went on for about 15 minutes while the teacher continued to flip out about lack of breakfast eating.

Later that week, MB and I started discussing how different life will be if we ever decide to have children.  We were talking about an upcoming dinner party and considering how different entertaining would be with children in the house (different, terrifying…however you want to describe it).  I mentioned that instead of a long aperitif before dinner we would need to try to have the dinner more quickly and then have drinks afterwards so the kids could go off to play, sleep, what have you.

ME: Yeah, I mean, god, do you remember being like 4 or 5 years old and stuck at your parents parties?  Horror!

MB: Yes, but I mean you don’t need to get rid of aperitif.

ME:  Well, I don’t mean get rid of it but just you know…like a half hour instead of an hour or hour and half and then just hang for drinks after.  It would just be easier for little ones’ attention spans.

MB: You can’t just change your life for your child!

ME:  Um…dude, a child is going to change your life.

MB:  But you have to set some boundaries, no?

ME: Of course, but I’m talking about shortening aperitif not getting them ten puppies.

MB: I don’t think it would be necessary; the kids would be fine for an hour beforehand.

ME: SERIOUSLY?  Do you really not remember being a kid stuck with boring adult conversations, and oh my god, an HOUR?  Think about how long an hour is when you are 5…it is FOREVER!  (I can feel a panic attack washing over me as post-traumatic stress from childhood comes back)

MB:  But they need to learn.

ME:  Remember that they wouldn’t be having drinks during that hour.  It’s not even fair.

This gives him pause.

The conversation continued for about 10 minutes with increased vigor until we realized that we were talking about a completely made up situation involving non-existent children (yes, it took us 15 minutes to realize it was a pointless disagreement to be having).  But I was struck afterwards about how vehemently MB protected his aperitif…even against all reason and practicality.  He was…flustered.

“You may take my life but you will never take my aperitif!”

Just like my French professor he was irrationally unnerved by the idea of food/beverage/dining protocol being disrupted.  Park sideways on the middle of a sidewalk?  No one will bat an eyelash.  But dare to upset the “naturel” state of drinking and eating and you will definitely freak out a Frenchie.

The Long Goodbye

Adjusting to France

“Um, I think I’ll just wait in the car.”  I say this to my American friend who is in town visiting.  We are in Chateauneuf du Pape and she and MB are about to go inside and pay the nice family who owns the B&B we stayed at.

“Are you sure?”  My friend asks me.

“Oh yeah, I’m good here.  You two go ahead.”  I smile at her.

“Alrighty, we’ll be back in a minute!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” I think to myself.  “I seriously doubt that.”

French goodbyes are not what I am accustomed to.  I am American; there, we just get up, say thank you, and leave; if it involves friends or family then there could be hugging.  That’s about it; conversation happens in advance of the goodbye.  In France, they do things differently.  No one is worried about rushing off, so they take their time…sometimes, a very long time.

Often, when I do finally manage to extricate myself from these situations I am sweating slightly and have an increased heart rate, possibly the beginning stages of a panic attack.  These long, drawn out goodbyes make me crazy.  They test three inherent parts of my personality against one another:  1) my absolute abhorrence to being rude, 2) my complete and utter lack of patience, 3) my intense hatred of boredom.

A typical scenario might progress somewhat like this:

We get up to leave and our hosts follow us to the door.

“Boh…bah merci, huh?”  MB says to our hosts.  “It was so good to see you, we should get together more often, blah blah blah (insert: the stuff you always say when you leave your friends).”

They return the sentiment.

We kiss them and any other remaining guests goodbye, they kiss us goodbye.  We open the door.  We stand in the doorway.

NOW –This is the moment when an American would depart…but we are in France.

“I Hope it’s not raining outside,” says the host.

“Ugh, did you see that horrible April we’ve had,” says his partner, chiming in.

“I know,” says MB.   “March was great but April, what a nightmare!”

I am standing around waiting, wondering what is happening.  We’ve just finished a four hour evening of cocktails and dinner; couldn’t we have covered this earlier?  Finally, I walk through the door in order to give MB the signal to wrap it up (he is still discussing the weather).

“Alright, well bye then,” I offer once more, cheerfully.  “This was really wonderful; I loved everything!”  I throw in a little extra niceness so that I can assure myself I am being super polite.  I mean, I did have a good time; I am just ready for it to end now.

MB is still inside and is about to join me.  I can taste the freedom; suddenly, another guest from inside pipes up.

“By the way, how’s work?”  He is looking at MB.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! 

MB turns to him and begins, yet another, conversation.  I stand politely, listening.

“So, how have you been?”

ACK!  I’ve been attacked!

“You like France?”

“Are you joking,” I think to myself, looking at the party guest speaking to me.  “You haven’t spoken to me the entire evening, why now?  When I am literally half-way in the hallway!  I would have loved to chat with you earlier and make friends, you seem nice; but not at 2am, in a hallway, after a four-course extravaganza!”

… 20 minutes later.

MB and I have both completed our conversations and are once more heading towards the exit.

“Before leaving, you’re gonna take a bit of that chocolate cake with you, yes,” our host asks.

I start to wonder if we will ever get out of here.

“Nooo, no, no, it’s fine, really,” says MB.

“No, we insist! Jean! Cut a bit of chocolate cake and put it in a ziplock bag; what do you mean we don’t have ziplock bags anymore? Find something!”

… 10 minutes later.

We are both outside the door, cake in hand.

“Okay, so goodbye then,” call our hosts.

“Bye,” we say.

“Oh, and don’t forget to vote on Sunday!”

“Did you see this campaign,” MB returns.

What is happening

What do you think is going to happen there?”

Several voices pipe up, speaking in animated tones.

If I still had the energy I would give MB my santé death stare lasers eyes but it is too late.  I crumple to the floor and pass out from “goodbye fatigue” while the French people stand around continuing to talk.

*A big thanks to MB who provided many of the ideas for this post!

Fromage Part III: Satisfaction

French Food

“Oh, I’ve had fondue.  I don’t really like it that much…all that melted cheese, phew, sort of makes me sick.”

MB and our Savoyard neighbor (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Savoyard) look at me strangely.  They are not shocked or saddened by this statement…just thoroughly confused.   MB doesn’t comprehend anyone who doesn’t like to eat cheese…basically all the time, and for a Savoyard, fondue is essential to existence.  I can see their minds turning, “surely, she just doesn’t know what it is that she is saying!”  After a few awkward moments, our (rather shy) neighbor pipes up.

“You have not had it right.”

“I made it for her once,” says MB.

“Yes, but you are from Paris.”  Our neighbor says this matter-of-factly and with no quantifying statement; the facts speak for themselves.*

MB gives a laugh.  “This is true.  I think she just does not care for it though.”

“I don’t know,” I say.   “I mean, lots of melted cheese just isn’t my favorite thing.”  I shrug, innocently.  “What are ya gonna do?”  Obviously, my folksy charm will smooth all discomfort from the room.

“Next week, I will come over and make you a right one,” our neighbor says.

With this statement he gets up from his chair and says good night.  The sentence has been handed-down.

I look at MB, “it’s just melted cheese, how much different can it be?”

MB just smiles.

The following week, with frightening punctuality, our neighbor shows up at our door, equipment in hand.  He has brought three different cheeses, bread from the bakery, and his own fondue pot (apparently ours was not “right”).  I watch him setting up and think, “ah well, I’m sure it will be interesting”.  The next 45 minutes are spent sitting on the balcony with a glass of wine, cutting all the cheese into tiny little pieces.

“You want it to melt evenly and you can control better the amount of each cheese this way,” our neighbor explains to me.

Afterwards, he takes half a clove of garlic and rubs it along the inside of the fondue pot, before throwing it and another whole clove into the bottom.  Next he pours a moderate amount of wine into the bottom of the pan.

“Oh, so you do this differently.  When MB made it he used a lot more wine.”

The neighbor just smiles and gives himself a knowing nod.  I can sense him rolling his eyes and thinking “ah, silly Parisians!”

Finally, the cheese is added to the pot.  Creamy, oily, pungent…the slow mélange of tart, dry wine with rich, bold cheeses is awesome; it finds its way into my olfactory senses whispering the rumor of things to come.

As we sit at the table and I spear my first chunk of bread, a hush falls on our little group.  The neighbor watches nervously, not for the integrity of the dish but nervous as to whether he properly honored his regions most famous plate.  I roll my bread in the white velvet heat, slowly bringing it to my mouth.

It is a life changing moment.  The taste is indescribable in its beauty.  The serotonin rushes to my brain and I have the bizarre inclination to start laughing.

“I love it!”  I proclaim.  “It’s so…so…I don’t know.  I love it.  Wow.”  A fondue has made me speechless.

MB digs in and I go to spear my next piece of bread.  I look up and see the neighbor watching me, deep satisfaction on his face.

Once the fondue is almost completely gone we throw in a few pieces of bread and crack an egg which then forms the most delicious omelet I have ever had.  At the very end there are brown, crunchy, cooked lattices of cheese on the bottom of the pot which we scrape off and eat like spun sugar.  There is almost no clean up because we have consumed every single part of the dish.  It has been an evolution of cheese.

A love affair with food can be tempestuous.  Just as a good meal can make me elated and excited, a bad meal can bring feelings of depression and irritation.  When I cook for others, these feelings are compounded further; it is horrible to make something that you love and you know can be wonderful and not have it turn out the way you know it can.  I have spent nights awake in bed, analyzing small things that I did wrong or should have done differently when preparing a meal for others; just as I have had long peaceful nights of rest knowing that I had nourished body and soul.

As my neighbor leaves that evening he looks satisfied and happy; he has made a believer and I suspect that he will sleep very well.

 

* As a born and bred Southerner, from a particularly intense BBQ city, I fully comprehend this attitude.

To Err is Human

Learning French

“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL…, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…repeté s’il te plait!”

“ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL, EAIIIRRRRRASDKFLJSKDGLJKSRRRRRR”

“Non, non!  Attention!”  My French professor claps her hand and points to me.  “You! Watch my mouth, yes?  ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL, ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR…okay?”

I look at her helplessly and place my tongue on the top of my mouth.  “ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL,” then move the tongue to behind my front teeth, “EAIIIRRRRRASDKFLJSKDGLJKSRRRRRR…”

“I do not understand,” she looks at me with irritation.  “Why you cannot do this?  ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.”  She says it even more slowly as though somehow I was confused.  The letter “R” is written on my worksheet and on the board and coming out of her mouth…I get it…I just can’t pronounce it.

You might think that learning the French language is the hardest part, and it is difficult, but the accent presents a whole new challenge.  In attending French classes, I thought that we would be studying vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and we did; but I had no idea about the amount of time we would spend doing things like repeating, “ohhhhhh….ahhhhhh….ehhhhh” in order to retrain my American mouth to make the right shape.

In many countries, you wouldn’t bother to even try to perfect your accent.  It is considered “cute” to have an accent and makes you more attractive and appealing…but this isn’t many countries, this is France.  And while there are some French people who will tell you that your accent in French is adorable, more often than not they will spend copious amounts of time correcting each and every pronuncial (yes, I just made that word up) infraction that you make, no matter how great or small.

This isn’t done in a rude way or a mean way, just a very matter-of-fact way:

“Oui, mon copain aider (ah-day)—,” I might begin.

“Aider (eh-day).”  They will say this correction swiftly before you have even managed to finish your sentence.

“Ah oui, pardon, eh-day moi avec le lecon (less-on).”

“Lecon (loose-on).”

“Ah oui…avec le “loose-on” une (ahhh).”

“Une (ahn).”

“Quoi?”

“Tu dit une (ahhhhhhhhh) mais c’est une (ahn).  C’est obvious, non?”

No.

By the time this rigmarole is over you have either a) forgotten what it was you were trying to say or b) lost your motivation to try to speak.  While this can be an extremely exhausting practice, I continue to press on…bad pronunciation and all.  I know that I’ll never be able to make the ERR sound properly but that’s okay, because after all, “to err is human, to forgive, divine” and maybe someday the French will forgive me.

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!

Santé Death Stare

Cultural Differences

LASER EYES!

Muhahahahaha!  I will over-power you with my vision!   (queue evil laugh again)

In my mind, I see myself in a sort of Wonder-Woman-esque costume, hands on hips, with red lasers shooting out of my eyes.

“Why you do it like this?”  MB is rolling his eyes at me.

“Huh?  What?”  I am snapped out of my role as super-villain.

“Pfff, nothing…santé?”  MB looks at me patiently, glass in hand.

“Oh, right…santé!”  We raise our glasses to our lips as I continue to stare at him psychotically.

MB smirks.  “You are reedeeculous.”

“Hey,” I spark up in my own defense.  “I’m just following ze rules!”

You know that whole saying about breaking a mirror and having seven years bad luck?  Well, try this on for size…in France, if you “santé” incorrectly you get seven years of bad sex (leave it to the French).  So, it is no surprise that this was one of the first things that I learned about French culture.  While, getting a tutorial on the kissing thing* would have been infinitely helpful; instead, my first tutorial was on toasting.

I was in Australia with several of MB’s French friends (ex-pats tend to flock together).  We had all just poured wine and I did my usual American all-glasses-in-at-the-same-time “cheers”!

“What?  No, you cannot do eet like theez.”  His friend Pierre says to me.

“What, are the toasting police going to come and get me?”  I’m so funny.

“No, I do not think so.”  Pierre is not amused.

“So you are telling me there are rules for toasting?”

“They are not rules; it is just the way eet eez.”  Pierre says this matter-of-factly, like, “why weren’t you aware, American?”

“Okay, so what is the way eet eez?”  For some reason they are not charmed by my French accent.

“No crossing,” says Jean.  “This is not okay, if your glass goes in, it must go directly to a person.  Do not cross arms with someone else.  This is very bad.”

The other Frenchman nod emphatically and I start to wonder if I should be taking notes.

“Also, you do not start until everyone has their glass,” says Stephen.  “This is very rude, yes?”

He looks at me pointedly.  I think he could tell that I was about to pull the trigger on my wine glass during the tutorial.  I lower it with a disappointed sigh.

“But, the most ahmportant thing eez that you must look into the eyes of the person when you touch their glass, like theez…”

Pierre lifts his glass towards me and looks briefly into my eyes.  I widen my eyes and give him the laser stare.

“I think you are a beet dramatique but theez is better than nothing.”

And then, we toasted…one by one, with eye-contact, and no crossing!

Now you have been given the official tutorial.  So take notes, rehearse, and be ready for your next French apéro!

*I still get the kissing wrong sometimes…sometimes three kisses, for children sometimes just the one. What the heck?  How are you EVER to know?!

Are the French aliens?

Cultural Differences

I have now sweated through my totally rad, hot pink sweat band; and droplets of moisture are starting to roll down my forehead.  I grab on with one hand and reach for my towel, mopping my face.  My god, how long have I been running?  I look down at the LCD screen on the treadmill – 8 minutes.  I have been running for eight minutes; and already I am drenched.

Maybe if there was air-conditioning…like a normal gym. 

But then again, there are no normal gyms in my town.  Gyms, in general, seem to be a rather new trend in France; not like in the U.S. or Australia where four-level monoliths are on every other city block.  So when I decided to join one, my choices were limited.  There was the one that had no treadmills or free-weights (how can this even exist?) or the one without air-conditioning (again, how can this even exist?).  Foolishly, I thought treadmills were more important.

So now, I sweat, heartily, every time I go for a workout.  The disturbing thing, however, is that I seem to be the only one.  While half my body weight is being absorbed by my gym towel, everyone else is dabbing at dry brows (and looking at me judgmentally).  Is this some other freakish French trait, akin to their ability to consume an extremely high-fat diet without becoming obese?

For the girls, there is an easy explanation.  Most of them waltz in wearing trendy clothes, full make-up, and their hair down, flowing around their shoulders.  They climb onto an elliptical or a stationary bike next to one of their friends; and sullenly push at the pedals for a while (yes, French girls can be sullen even while working out).  This type of girl exists at every gym though; we all know them, the girls who just come to look attractive in a tight outfit and try to scam on the guys who could be Jersey Shore rejects.

It was the men that gave me pause.  How can you possibly run for over half an hour at level 10 or 11 with no air-conditioning and not break a sweat?

Maybe the French are aliens.  Think about it, really, this would explain so much.

Until that conclusion is reached, however, I will have to continue to be the gross, sweaty girl at the gym (who runs while listening to trashy romance novels), existing in a world without air-conditioning and with a people without sweat glands.

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.

Genetics and Aperitif

Adjusting to France

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

“Because I’m not French.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quoi!  C’est bizarre!”

“Ouais, mais elle est Americaine…”

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