Are the French aliens?

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.

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Eclipse Totale Sur Mon Coeur

Recently, I was out at a bar with France…

Me:  Oooh!  I love this song!

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

Me:  You know this song – Bonnie Tyler?

France makes a blank face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

France:  People are starting to look at you.

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

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

I stick my tongue out at France.

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

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

France:  Oh la la, you are tres Americain.

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

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

Me:  That I’m super fun?

France rolls its eyes.

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

Me:  Oh.  Is that fun?

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

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

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

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

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

France:  You’re unnecessary.

Me:  No, you are.

France:  I hate you.

Me:  I hate you more.

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

I start to feel bad.

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

France sniffs and turns further away.

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

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

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

France is quiet for a minute.

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

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

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

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

I look at France suspiciously but with a smile.

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

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

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

France:  Oh, mon dieu.

Genetics and Aperitif

“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!

Fromage Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The French attitude towards cheese is sort of like the porn industry’s attitude towards sex…no matter how bizarre your tastes are; someone out there is making something for you.

“Oh dear god, this is ridiculous.  MB – please, seriously!”  I have just opened our refrigerator and the smell of cheese has become completely over-whelming.  I am assaulted, almost knocked backwards by the pungent odour.    

“Quoi?”  He replies, as he wanders into the kitchen, unbothered.

“Are you really going to tell me you can’t smell this?”  I say, one hand on the refrigerator door and the other on my hip. 

“Ouais!!!  It smells amazing!”  I can practically see his tongue start to salivate. 

“Okay, I know, honey, but there is cheese from four months ago in there.”

“Ah oui?  Which ones?  They are probably perfect now!”

I can see my point is not getting across. 

“Okay, sweetie”, I say in my nicest voice, the same voice I would use if I were trying to coax a rabid dog away from a bone.  “The cheese is taking up about two-thirds of the fridge.”

“Ouais…”  He replies, nervously.

“We don’t have room for other groceries.”

He remains unphased, apparently a diet consisting entirely of cheese would be completely acceptable for him.

“I really need you to go through all this stuff and figure out which ones we are going to keep and which ones we are going to get rid of…please!” 

He looks like he’s been shot, and suddenly I feel no better than the Nazi officer in Sophie’s Choice.       

He gives me a sullen look, and then slowly begins to pull the cheese out of the refrigerator (it ends up covering the entire counter).  Gingerly, he opens each paper to see what treasure lies within.  There is brie from the market, the over-powering goat cheese that we bought from the farm in the mountains, the St. Felician that is almost completely liquid, the hard, soft, sweet, and bitter blues. The variety of mold is stunning.  I remember a cheese he once gave me that apparently had tiny little maggots in the surface which made it appear as though it were moving, ever so slightly.  Silently, I pray that we haven’t let that remain in the fridge for two months. 

He pulls out one huge round of what was once cheese and is now primarily a science experiment.

“Ah, okay, maybe this one we can get rid of,” he says, looking up at me. 

I stand stock-still and say nothing, not wanting to frighten away this inclination.

“No, what?  Am I crezee (crazy)?”  He looks relieved, as though he has just missed an incredibly close call with death.  “We can use this to make something great!  Maybe tartiflette!”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartiflette)

I think about this for a minute.  I mean, I really do like tartiflette.  Maybe we should go on and keep this cheese but others definitely have to go.

He continues on to the next one.  The mold is so thick I can’t even see the cheese underneath. 

“Oh MB, seriously, this ones gotta go!”

He cuts off one thick side to reveal the clean part of the cheese, and holds it up to my nose.  I almost pass out from the intensity of the smell…at the same time; my mouth starts to water a bit.  Damn you, tastebuds, you traitors!

“Perhaps in a fondue?”  MB looks at me and smiles.  He can sense my weakening resolve.

As we move through the cheese on the counter, a scraping of mold here, and a little trimming there creates the appropriate excuses to keep all the cheese.  One by one, they all end up returning to the refrigerator, only better organized. 

Finally, we come to the last ones.   He finds two little rounds of hard goat cheese (MB’s favorite), they are stuck together, one on top of the other, glued by a layer of dense, black, gooey-looking fungus.     He pulls them apart, and removes the offending fungus, then attempts to plunge a knife into the middle of one of them.  The knife nearly breaks in the process.  He pulls out a sharper knife and through great struggles, finally penetrates the cheese.  He pops a piece into his mouth and I hear a ‘crack’.

“Woah!”  He sticks a finger in his mouth. 

“What?  Is everything okay?  Oh my god, did you chip your tooth?”

“No, ca va.  I thought for a minute, I had though!” 

“Okay, so this one we can get rid of then?”

“Mais no…it is perfect, you want a piece?”

I look at him like he is crazy.  This man wants me to eat something that he almost cracked a tooth on. 

“Well, maybe just a little one.”

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

“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)