The Long Goodbye

“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!

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Dirty Old Men Give Love Too

So, I am at the grocery store down the street from our apartment, being sulky.  I’m having one of those days when I hate living in France.  I’m feeling frustrated by language barriers and sick of being a stranger in a stranger land.  As I am standing in line a new register opens and the clerk that I know well waves me over.
“Yes,” he says.  “You can come and see me!”  He is grinning.

I know this clerk well, a slightly older gentleman, he is always very friendly and always eager to chat in English and encourage me to speak in French.  I never get away from this store without him chatting with me.  I groan inwardly, and smile outwardly as I make my way over to his lane; I am so not in the mood for this today.  As he is ringing things up, he asks if I want a sack for my items and I say “no thank you”.  I have my purse and can fit most of the stuff in there.  “Okay,” he says.  He then pulls a bunch of bananas from under the counter and hands them to me.

“You would like some bananas,” he asks.

I smile weakly.  “No, thanks so much,” I say.  I like bananas but I’m feeling too pouty to be cheered up.

“You don’t need a sack, you don’t want bananas.  This is no good,” he says with a mischievous look on his face.

Again, I smile.  I don’t really know what is going on.

He then whips out a bag, puts the bananas in it and begins to pack the rest of my belongings.

“See?  See what I have to do?  I am powerless against you,” he says with dramatic flair.  “I love you, I can’t resist you!  You must take my gift!”

This is said loudly.  The middle-aged woman in line behind me snickers.  I burst out laughing.  What other reaction could there possibly be to such absurdity?

The clerk hands me the sack with profound satisfaction.  He is so proud of himself.

I couldn’t help but smile the whole way home.

This is not the only time I’ve had something like this happen in France.  I’ve been bestowed with free oranges, “for the beautiful young lady; to see her has been a gift to me so I must give a gift to her” and been handed tomatoes with suggestive winks.  There is a certain type of French male that seems to adore this type of ridiculous flirting.

At a recent market stop, the farmer engaged me in conversation.

“Ah, you are American,” he says.  “I was once in love with an American.”

He smiles at his friends.

“And you are so charming, you must take a gift,” he says this as he puts a courgette in my bag.  “Ah, you must be breaking hearts throughout France.”

I smile.  “No, I am engaged,” I say.

“Ah, but in France this does not matter,” he says in return with a wicked grin before kissing my hand and sending me on my way.

As an American, I love this type of over-the-top flirtation and it never ceases to make me giggle.  It perfectly fulfills my Captain Renault, Pepe LePew stereotype of the French Lothario but without making me feel creeped out.  Growing up, the words “French men” (or really just European men) would induce a general female “tsk tsk”.  I would listen to them talk about trips to Europe and was ingrained with a sense of: BEWARE, SEXUAL PREDATORS, NO YOUNG AMERICAN GIRL IS SAFE!

“Those European men will just follow you down the street and shout all sorts of things.”

“Oh, and the FRENCH, well, they just never will give up, will they?  So persistent.”

“You just have to be so careful with European men.”

And I don’t know, I guess some of this is still true for a young innocent girl going to Europe for the first time (assuming there are any young innocent girls left).  But I am in my 30’s, I am engaged; the young men don’t so much make runs at me.  Instead, I get the old-timers.  I get the men who are reclaiming a bit of their youth for a few minutes by making a girl blush and their friends laugh.  They are re-enacting a play and I am more than happy to participate.

At the end of the day, what can I say?  I’m a sucker for flowery language, hand-kissing, and dramatic proclamations of love from dirty old men.  It makes me laugh, it makes me feel irreverent, and it can cure even the worst of moods.

Capitaine France!

The French make a lot of sounds.  I’m not talking about pronunciation of their language, such as the elusive “r” sound or little things they say like “voila” and “oh la la”.  I mean, we all know about those because how else would we be able to make fun of a stereotypical French accent when we want to (and let’s face it, at some point in everyone’s life you will want to)?  No, I’m talking about noises; sounds that the French make constantly that are not based on any particular word.  There are three examples that come to mind:

“pffffff”  to make this sound exhale out of a barely opened mouth that is relaxed.  This is primarily used when one finds something irritating.  The level of irritation is irrelevant.  I will provide the following two examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                   “The boss just called a meeting for tomorrow morning.”                                                               “C’est vrai?  Pfffff”.

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                     “The doctor says that we will have to amputate.”                                                                           “Merde.  C’est vrai?”                                                                                                                            “Oui.”                                                                                                                                                  “Pfffff”.

“uuuP” to make this sound basically just say “upsy daisy” without the “sy” or the “daisy”.  It’s like pronouncing “up” as though the word were going to continue past the “p”.  This is most commonly used at the completion of a task or perhaps mid-task.  Examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                 MB is whining about not having any cheese, I go and retrieve it and as I hand it to him I say  “uuuP”.

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                             A waiter reaches across me to remove a plate, as he picks it up he says “uuuP”.

“pbt” to make this sound, blow air out of a stiff mouth that is just open in the middle, your tongue should go from the bottom of your mouth to the top, this should be done quickly (yes, I am sitting here making these sounds over and over again trying to figure out a way to describe them).*  This sound is used sort of like a punctuation, usually of a definitive statement.  Examples:

Ex1:                                                                                                                                                “I’m going to take this parking spot even though it is illegal. Pbt.”

Ex2:                                                                                                                                                 “Do you think that we should save the rest of the foie gras?”                                                “No, I will keep eating it until I am sick. Pbt.”

After a year in France, these sounds have even started creeping into my vernacular and it amuses me every time I let one slip.  I mean, Americans don’t have little noises that they make; unless you count general whoopin’ and hollerin’ (I go Southern with certain words) which is hardly as charming as “uuuP” or as coolly blasé as “pfffff”.  These sounds in French lend a cartoon-like essence to the language, and really, to the French themselves.  Sort of like an old Batman comic but instead of the sound bubbles saying things like “kapow!” or “zap!” they would say “uuuP!” and “pfffff.”.

My version would go something like this:

Capitaine France Strikes Again! 

By day he is just another disgruntled, chain-smoking Parisian; but by night he is Capitaine France!  Protecting the Parisian streets from vulgar tourists and chain restaurants!

A couple in tennis shoes walks by talking loudly in American accents.

“Well June, I don’t know where we should eat.  I don’t see anything I recognize.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake Carl, there’s a TGI Friday’s in the ninth-E-M, we can just go there.”

After stubbing out his cigarette, in swoops Capitaine France flying overhead.  He throws a stinky cheese bomb down at the couple.

 It makes a loud sound as it hits the ground,uuuP!””.

Suddenly a gaseous odor enters the air.  The couple both starts hacking and coughing.  After a minute, they both become high from the smell being emitted from the cheese; they walk off like zombies towards a cute French bistro.  Satisfied, Capitaine France begins to fly off but not before a sleazy promoter steps in front of the couple.

“Don’t go to this place, instead you should go to Café Americain, they serve burgers.  Here is a brochure.”

For a moment, the couple is snapped out of their trance.  Horrified, Capitaine France turns back and throws his lethal baguettes at the sleazy promoter.

He lets out a “pfffff”” as he throws them. 

The lethal baguettes do their job and the couple continues into the cute French bistro.  Capitaine France finally lands in front of the restaurant.

“Mon travail est fini,” he proclaims as he pour a glass of red wine.

“pbt” 

*In the movie French Kiss, Kevin Kline tries to pull of this sound multiple times; there is an example in the last few seconds of this trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF9xsk3tmoA. Sadly, I can’t find a proper French example. 

You Speakin’ in English?

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.

Jamais Deux Sans Trois

The French translation of the ‘rule of three’ is somewhat different than in English but the outcome is the same.

I am so organized, I thought to myself this morning as I reviewed my baggage for the 5th time before leaving for the train station.  MB has been in the Philippines for two weeks with work and I was leaving today to meet him there for my birthday.  My birthdays tend to be…well…unlucky.  Break-ups, revoked visas, lost jobs, etc., are par for the course.  So I hadn’t been surprised when my bus ticket confirmation didn’t come through on the internet.

“You know what this means?  I’m going to have to go to the station and in some other language try to figure out how to explain that I have paid for my ticket but never received it.  I don’t even know the word for received.”

“It will be fine,” responds MB via Skype.  “It will not be a problem, don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say,” I reply.  “You know it’s almost birthday time.”

“Enough with the birthday thing; this is in your head!” 

“Is it, MB?  Is it?

He rolled his eyes.   

So yesterday, I trudged down to the bus station to try to sort out my ticket.  After 20 minutes of confused Franglish with two different staff members, we were finally able to figure out a solution.  It was a hassle but not major; and I felt good about the fact that I was able to accomplish it in another language.  Instead of patting myself on the back, however, I should have recognized it for what it was: #1. 

Fast forward to this morning as I am smugly looking over my already packed bags with time to spare.  I decide that I will go on and leave for the bus since there is no harm in being early (a mistake I will never make again).  I check my passport, bus ticket, airline ticket (our city is an hour from the international airport) one more time and then I’m off. 

Phew…it is a million degrees as I trudge through the street, dragging my two bags along with me.  The sweat is rolling down my back and I can feel my make-up melting off; why did I blow-dry my hair?  As soon as I arrive at the train station, I whip out my super nifty travel document case and begin fanning myself with my boarding pass print out.  10 minutes later, the bus arrives and I throw my bags on and pull out the novel I’m reading.  The journey is pleasant, the sky is blue, and the towns are charming; I’m on my way.  An hour later, as we are pulling into the airport, I unzip my bag to replace my novel when…what tha-where is my super nifty travel document case?!  For a few moments, I search, panicked, when all of a suddenly an image comes into my mind: an image of me, sitting on the bench at the bus station and setting my super nifty travel document case down next to me and not in my bags.  A wave of horror sweeps over me.  My flight is in 2 hours.

“Excusez-moi, Monsieur?”  The tremor is hardly hidden in my voice as the driver turns to look at me.

“Oui?”

Okay French class, now is your time to shine.

“J’ai oublie mon passeport a la gare,” sadly, I am too freaked out to even be proud of myself for remembering how to say that I forgot my passport at the station.  (apologies for lack of accent marks; I am on an American computer)

“Ah, c’est vrai?!” 

“Oui.  C’est vrai.”  Yes, it is true, yes, I am that person. 

He points me to the bus service kiosk and I scurry over with my bags (still sweating).  The lady behind the desk is kind and concerned and immediately phones the bus station.  A look of triumph passes her face, “Oui, they have it!”  She then asks me when my flight is and immediately her face changes.  The only bus that could have gotten it to me in time had already left. 

So, I am an hour away from home without a passport and an impending flight in an hour and a half.  I run to the airline service desk.  There are no more flights today; there is a flight tomorrow but it will cost 350 euro to change.  The tears well up in my eyes as I desperately try to hold it together.  After running to the internet kiosk to email MB and get his advice, I then run back (still sweating, by the way, I mean, why should France air-condition their airports?) and book the obscenely expensive ticket change.  Somehow, I am still not comprehending what is at work here.  This has been #2. 

Convinced that I have finally slain the disastrous beast that has been this day, I walk (sweating) with my bags to the hotel airport to get a room.  At least I can check-in and do some work and then tomorrow just wander back to the airport.    

Damn you, rule of 3!  Both of the airport hotels are booked solid.  I cry a little bit more (hey, why not?  I mean, I had already started) and then head back inside, dragging my suitcases behind me…sweating. 

I return to the lady at the bus kiosk.  “Ah oui!” She says. “Your passport, it comes soon.”  She points up at the clock. 

“Oui,” I say with a lopsided smile.  “I know, but I can’t get a flight until tomorrow and the hotels are booked so I need to buy a ticket back home.”  (this is all in my bad French)

Her look changes and I can tell she is sorry for me.  “But you know,” she says.  “You are very lucky!  What if they did not have your passport?!” 

She is so earnest and she is so right. 

I smile and laugh, “YES!  The silver lining, you are right, it could be much, much worse!”

She rings up my return ticket and hands it to me with a smile.  “Bonne chance, Mademoiselle!”  (good luck)

Luck is a funny thing; it is forever a two-sided coin.  On the one hand, there are the bad things, the annoying, irritating, horrible things in life that just sometimes happen.  But, on the other side, there are the great things, perfect weather when you need it, chance encounters with nice people, making it to your flight terminal just before they close the gate.  This morning, I felt like I had been given a three course meal of lemons.  The rule of 3 got me good and my birthday superstition proved its metal; but with a little help I managed to see the luck on the other side of the coin.  Nothing had happened that couldn’t be fixed; and in today’s world, that’s not a bad gift.  So this year for my birthday, instead of more gifts, I think I will settle for a nice, cool glass of lemonade.

Holiday Savagery: Would Ralph have survived bad traffic?

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.

Will you be my friend? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

 “What are you doing?”  I bury my face in my hands.  “Oh my god, you are so embarrassing!”

“Quoi?” replies my boyfriend (his typical response to everything).  He is standing on the edge of a group of people at a bar, looking at them but saying nothing.

“You are practically stalking them, stop!  Seriously, come back to the table.”  I am whispering in that loud, half-scream whisper, my eyes widened for impact. 

 “What is your problem?  I was trying to see what they were saying.  They seem cool.”  He says, once he has reluctantly returned to our table. 

“I know they seem cool but you can’t force it!  You have to let them come to us, ya know?”  I say this just as someone from the group looks our way.  I flash the supposed “cool kid” an overly friendly smile and get nothing in return.  “Ugh.  This place is stupid; we’re not going to meet anyone.”

 “Hey, what about that guy we met last weekend, let’s text him,” my boyfriend suggests.

“I don’t know; do you think it’s too soon?  I don’t want to scare him off.”

“Yeah, maybe…” 

We take a sip of wine and ponder this momentarily.

“No, I mean, he seemed to like us, right?  I think we can text.” 

Ahhh…the human ability to rationalize.  

I have found that making friends in a new city is very much like trying to date.  You go to the bars that you think the desired people will be, and then sit close to them in hopes of there being some incident that will allow you to start a conversation; you smile too easily and too often at too many people.  You force yourself to go out even when you are tired because you might meet someone, and you think hard about when and under what pretext you should contact a new person so that you don’t seem too needy.

My boyfriend and I are currently in the midst of this struggle, constantly trying to think of ways that we can meet more people.  But, the reality is that we just have to be patient and go with the flow.  The general consensus seems to be that it takes about 3-6 months to make friends when you move to a new city (a period of time that you magically forget ever existed after you have made friends) and you never know how it is going to happen.  I’ve met friends at apartment visits, while getting pedicures, even a walk around the block has turned into an impromptu dinner with strangers.  You can’t predict the “when” or the “how” but it is always when you least expect it. 

So, we will continue to endure and await the unexpected, but until then, stay alert and watch out, we might be stalking at a bar near you.