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Is that a chip in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Actual pic of smuggled contraband

Actual pic of smuggled contraband

A dear friend came to visit from my hometown. It was wonderful to see her and to celebrate her first night with us, we decided to go to our local pub. Pubs (abbreviated version from ‘Public House‘) in England are much more beloved than in the US and serve more as a social network, versus just a place to have a drink. All that being said, when you go to your local pub in England, there is more of a community connection than you have in an average bar in the US.

So now, the table is set (tongue firmly planted in cheek) at this point. We arrived late for dinner in England, around 21:30 (9:30PM US time). The kitchen closed at  22:00, so we were pushing the courtesy barrier from the “git-go” (beginning) as we say in the Southern US. We are courteously escorted to our table, already thinking we need to have what we wanted to order in mind, given the time crunch. My friend, re-energized from the long trip over, was ready to settle in for a long night. She perused the menu, scanning repeatedly from page to page, still undecided with what she wanted. She began to ask us, “what’s really good here?”

“Everything, but especially the chips (french fries), they’re really great!” my husband and I chimed in, nodding to each other in agreement. So, after her final tour of the menu and asking us our recommendations, she settled on a steak with mixed vegetables. Funny how we often ask for opinions, but really, we end up getting what we think we want anyway. Only later, would her choice come back to haunt me.

By this time, it was about ten minutes before the kitchen was closing and we had not yet ordered. After the third time of the server coming by our table, we were finally able to place our order before the deadline and relax, knowing we’d not breached pub etiquette.

My friend was happy with her choice–until our burgers came out with a side of golden, thick and crispy chips! They were done the right way, the Belgian way (twice cooked). Did you know that chips/french fries are actually, Belgian? Glad to offer a side of chip trivia to you at no extra charge. Now, where was I? Right, so after our beautiful chips were placed before us, can you guess who wanted to have some? You guessed it, none other than Ms. Steak and Veg. Even before getting the first one in my mouth, I see her pinching her fingers together as she goes in to pinch one of the golden beauties we spoke so highly of. She took one bite and she was hooked.

One after another the chips began to disappear, not only from my plate but my husband’s as well. And like any junkie, she was wanting more. My friend even asked the server if she could order her own. The server, my husband and I all looked at each other, taken aback by her request. By now, it was 22:30 (10:30PM) so we all knew it was too late to order any more chips. The server made her way back to the kitchen, dreading asking if more chips could be cooked. After a just a few minutes, she returned and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but the  cook has just turned off the fryer.” My husband and I were again relieved that the chip fiasco was finally being put to bed and we could get our bill and leave still with our heads high.

Sadly, none of us could anticipate what happened next. My American friend then added, “Well, if he just turned off the fryer, it should still be hot enough to make my fries.” Here it comes, I thought. Now, our server will take the walk of shame back to the kitchen and make the chef delay his exit because of my french-fry-loving friend. Dutifully, she did just that and fifteen minutes later, returned with a heaping “choke on it, you selfish American &!#@$” plate of chips! My friend was of course happy as evidenced by the mini clapping of hands when they arrived, oblivious to the gleaming, golden English cynicism they represented. In a word, my husband and I were embarrassed. We understood fully, but my friend on vacation had no clue. Having worked in the restaurant business, I know what other naughty things people can do to your food (never me, of course!). Let’s just say, neither my husband or I had any.

After about three, maybe four chips, my friend had her fill. She had several previously from our plates, plus the small wait to get her own, her stomach had ample time to catch up to her hypothalamus (part of the brain that tells us we’re full), much to our chagrin. I asked, “Are you sure you can’t eat anymore? They went to a lot of trouble to get them…”

She replied, “No, I’m full…besides, I’ll give a good tip.” How do you explain (or even should you?) that a tip isn’t always the answer in some cultures? In her defense, as an American, I do understand that money talks and most of the time, splashing out a little more cash for the inconvenience, will get you out of most situations. But in this case, it was more about the fact that several people had to stay late for the barely touched plate of chips and the routine of closing the restaurant also had to be delayed because of it.

Knowing that it would add insult to injury to leave the almost full plate of chips, I began searching for a way to hide them. I thought of going to the bathroom to ditch them, but then, I thought, someone might see them in the waste basket. Then I though, I know, I’ll flush them…then, what if the toilet overflowed (that would only happen to me!) how would I explain that? Then, I knew…I would smuggle the deep-fried contraband in my purse. It was a cheap purse, so if it smelled like a chip shop, I could learn to live with it. So, in they went, swaddled in a serviette (napkin) to be taken to their final resting place.

My friend looked at me like I was insane and frankly, I guess I was to a degree. We got up to leave and made our way to the bar to pay. We were greeted by all of the kitchen staff and our server (they wanted to get a look at us, it was certain). My friend had given us a few pounds and said she would use the restroom before we left. While she was away, we tipped everyone, not just the server. We all looked at one another with the knowledge that all was understood.

When we got home, our nerves turned to laughter and we took the photo of my purse and the chips that became the inspiration for this article. I guess the moral of this deep-fried story of culture, is that I have become accustomed (albeit, in a bit too neurotic of a way) to being British. Although I don’t claim that Britons would start stuffing their pockets and purses with chips to prove a point, I do think that there is a common connection of courtesy that is not always bridged by the size of your wallet. I’ve gotten another purse since then and will try to keep it, ‘chip-free’ from now on!

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

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Got Milk? A Curdling Tale of Culture

Courtesy of Google images

As you may already know, I talk about culture…a lot. Matter of fact, it’s the basis of everything I blog about. Never a time did this become more ironic, as now.

We needed some ‘niggly’ (trivial) work done on our flat and called in a handyman to help. Seems benign enough,right? We got chatting (having a ‘natter’ as the English say) and our handyman asked where I was from and then began as most do, talking about their trips to the US and comparing notes. I asked him, ‘do you really think there is a big difference between the English and American cultures? He was very quick to say, ‘Oh yes, definitely.’ He said that he felt Americans are much more open when speaking about themselves, and their thoughts, both good and bad. During our natter, I asked if he’d like a coffee or a ‘cuppa’ (cup of tea). He gave a big grin and said, “A cuppa would be lovely, cheers.” The word, ‘cheers’ in England is used in many ways: such as a greeting, as a thank you and the same as we use it in the States, as a toast.

As an American, I find it a bit intimidating to serve tea to an English person. It’s like serving your best homemade meal to a chef. You feel certain it can never be as good as what they can do and they can only judge it in degrees of badness. As an US Southerner, we do pride ourselves on our sweet tea, but an English tea is a different matter.

So, I watched him with hopeful eyes, as he took his first sip, staring ahead in anticipation of my colonial attempt. He blew on it gently, displacing the bit of steam that slightly fogged his square glasses. I noticed an ever so slight flinch at his temples. He was gracious and I apologized quickly, as I knew it couldn’t be very good from his covered reaction. Only later, did I find that I had actually put curdled milk in this nice man’s tea. Nothing says welcome like a cuppa full of friendly bacteria with a side of, ” I’m so sorry I gave you curdled milk” biscuits. I felt like Bridget Jones with a southern drawl!

Given our previous conversation on the differences between English and American culture, the experience solidified one of the differences perfectly; in the English culture, it seems to be that mentioning that your tea has curdled milk in it is worse than actually having curdled milk in your tea to start. I think as a southern American, we may find an overly nice way to tell you that the milk is curdled, but the point being, we would say something and not grin and bear it, as my brave English friend did.

To bring this full circle, I guess to become ‘cultured’, you have to drink your share of curdled milk though the process of making mistakes and learning from them. Although curdled milk won’t kill you, I still wouldn’t recommend it with tea😉 Cheers!

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

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Is, “finish my sentences, SVP” carved on my forehead? (the sequel)

Courtesy of Google images (well, I did the carving bit)

Just when I thought that being corrected couldn’t become more unnerving, yet again, another piece of humble pie shows up on the menu. My last serving you may recall was (Is ‘correct my French’ carved on my forehead?) where I was castigated by an eight and ten-year old. OK, maybe that’s too harsh a description, but you get the point.

Last year, my husband’s family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Champagne region of France for the La Route du Champagne en Fête, where you get to sample the goods by walking from one producer to the next in a given region each year. This is a tradition in my husband’s family and so I wanted to assimilate the best I could and be part of what they already shared. Perhaps in my haste to ‘fit in’, I may have done myself more harm than good.

We were all excited, it was day one and we had purchased our ‘passports’ as they’re called, which is a book that has each producer’s information along with perforations on each page, that you tear off as tickets, in exchange for a tasting portion of Champagne. It’s a great system and one that anyone who doesn’t speak great french, can use. Or, so I thought. As we made our rounds, I realized that everyone was telling me which ticket to tear, as if I were challenged in this area. I thought I was doing fine, but evidently, this needed explaining, being unaware of any personal shortcomings. So, I shrugged it off, continued on with my champagne flute gently swinging from its handy lanyard with each step, in anticipation of the next sip.

Maybe the bubbles were going to my head and therefore my actions reflected that fact, but I continued to notice that the others were watching my every step by guiding me to other paths on the road or telling me that cars were behind me and so on, as if the sound of the cars were different from in the US or that paths were harder to navigate. Whatever the case, I began to feel like the others felt I was somehow, helpless.

The final straw came when we were sitting at a large table getting ready to have our aperitif when the proprietor of the hotel came to take our order. I think this may be the same ritual in any culture when the discussion is had on what everybody wants becomes a topic of conversation. We could easily think to ourselves what we want, then order it when we are asked by the server, but that’s not what happens. We like to discuss as a group what we are having and why. As a result of this bizarre yet common custom, I was in prime position to discuss what drink I wanted and why. I really wanted a Vodka martini but in Europe, martini’s are not the same as in the US. I was picturing my Sex And The City version, but in Europe, it’s something all together different.

Vintage Martini & Rossi Ad

If you order a ‘martini’ in Europe (not UK), you will get vermouth, just like the vintage posters. Knowing this, all eyes were on me, everyone ready to see what I had decided and how well I would do at ordering it. I tried to explain the drink by deconstructing it; naming its individual components. This left me grappling for words and then the carnage began. Everyone started guessing what it was that I was trying to order. I was doing fine, until I got to the elusive cranberry juice (le jus de canneberge). The scene became like a bad 70’s game show. Who would win the prize if they guessed the right ingredient? Finally, after saying no, to each person who gave it their all to guess the right one, I threw in the towel in defeat by ordering a sparkling water (eau pétillante) instead. I could hear the imaginary announcer in my head saying, ‘thank you for playing and we have some lovely parting gifts for you.’ I felt like a first class loser. Not only because I couldn’t explain myself properly, but because I got angry with how everyone was trying to finish my sentences; not giving me time to think. I was so busy saying, ‘no’ to the contestants, that I couldn’t find the right word.

Do I blame them? No, I don’t. Why? Because they were trying their best to help and the more they tried to guess, the more they were trying to help me. This I understand now, but in that moment, it became so frustrating that I couldn’t appreciate that the ‘game show’ was an act of love, not a display of disappointment or embarrassment of my failure. Innately, I knew they were trying to be helpful, but my artful combination of vulnerability and hubris yet again, clouded my understanding and judgement of the real intention. I did apologize for my behavior and they of course were gracious, which made me feel even worse.

We just returned from our last pilgrimage to the Route du Champagne en Fête, hence my memory of how much all has changed from last year. Of course, my French has improved some, but maybe we all have gotten a bit wiser. I never said why I got upset before, but I think they knew and understood my perspective better than I did. Now, that deserves a toast–santé (good health, cheers)!

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

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A Dickens of a Life

Let me begin with one of the best beginnings from one of the greatest novels of all time…Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. Although the past year for me pales by comparison to the travails of Dickens’ depiction of English life during the French Revolution, I can’t help but see the similarity in reflecting upon my past year as an expat in France and now, England. I think he said it best:

[It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…]

Innately, we know we cannot escape our circumstances and must face what life throws at us, but on some level, an expat by choice, wants some sort of escape. Maybe it is not a conscious choice (for some it is), but there is a desire to start over, to make anew for whatever reason(s) we each have. After the romance of living abroad settles, lies the dust of reality in the corners of our dream world, unable to be swept under the bed for another day, until we feel like facing our new reality.

In the past year, I feel I have equally and diametrically, touched the skies of Heaven and the flames of Hell. Upon our arrival to England, we had only been unpacked a week before our own, “French Revolution” began. My husband unexpectedly and tragically, lost his mother. ‘Maman’ (mother) was a, ‘femme formidable’ (remarkable woman). Even though she spoke no English and I no French when we first met, we bonded in a way that to this day, I admit I don’t fully understand how. We would play Scrabble together; she would play in French and I in English and when we both would get stuck, we would take a look at each others’ letters for inspiration in the opposite language–yes, we cheated for the greater good, as I like to think!

Maman was a mixture of great strength and sadness. During our brief but concentrated time together, I saw the strength, but also the sadness of a soldier who in the end, could not fight any longer. In knowing her, she underscored two important truths: first, we all are fighting something, whether our past, our fear of the future or… (fill in your own blank). Secondly, that place where our fear and insecurity meet, is where true character can be found. I think Maman visited that place more than any of us will know and ultimately, she became too tired to fight another day. She (for me) has set a standard of endurance not many can match, or would want to. She endured for her family, including me…and for that, she will always have my love and respect. Thus began the place were the dust settled in the corners of my new reality and I was forced to look. Still after a year, part of me feels she will be back, that she is just on an extended vacation, perhaps an expat like me. I do hear how ridiculous it sounds, but I can only surmise that I am still working on rationalizing her passing, until I can find a place to put the dust of that reality.

My husband and I returned to life as best we could and then, I began to feel unwell. I thought, all the same clichés, ‘well, I’m not getting any younger’ and ‘it must be the stress of moving’ and then…more dust. It wasn’t the change of life or stress, it was in fact, cancer. Life was getting dustier the more I tried to clean it. This could not be ignored until I was ready to accept it, it had to be dealt with now. So we did. I say, ‘we’ because anyone who loves you, has to deal with it too. And so, recently, I underwent six weeks of radiation and chemo. And yes, I believe I saw that place where fear and insecurity meet and I’m still afraid. I’m still working on building my character, still trying to figure out what I’ve gained. I do feel I’ve learned ‘something’, but it’s just that, something. It’s only a feeling of knowing: no instant wisdom, no revelation of understanding yet. I’m still waiting for it all to make sense. But for now, I still want to sweep the dust of the experience under the bed and deal with it later. My body feels like it wants to cry, but my mind won’t let it…yet another revolution (or beginnings of revelation?).

In France I lived the dream at its best: high times with travel, champagne, marriage and adventure: ‘the best of times.’ In England, it has been another matter altogether, until now. Why now? Honestly, I don’t know. I only know that it’s been long enough in ‘the worst of times’. My goal: to turn my internal revolution to evolution…

“Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumph.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

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Falling in love in Paris (revisited): Cliché becomes reality

Being that today is Valentines Day, it seemed appropriate to update the blooming romance to a full-scale love story. Two years later, I love him more than I ever imagined possible:

This [my] story sounds cliché, but falling in love in Paris really can happen! We’ve all heard that Paris is dubbed as ‘the city of lights’ and a lovers paradise, but I had no idea it could happen to me. I love the movie Casablanca too, but come on, does that really happen outside the movies or books? I can now tell you it does. My crusty, sarcastic coating regarding love, has been melted away by the man I now call, ‘mon mari’ (my husband).

How exactly did this happen? Well, back when I jokingly say that I had a ‘real job’, working for a global manufacturer, my job took me to our Belgian office on a month-long project. During that time, I met my ‘would-be’ hubby, a shy, handsome Belgian with boyish good looks and manly charm (see, I told you my story was a cliché before we started!). At least I didn’t say he was tall, dark and handsome!

OK, moving on. I worked with him side-by-side, we attended group functions and interacted as most coworkers do. During the course of these interactions, we both felt there was something between us, but with working 15 hour days amoung a group of people and no time off, we never spoke of our affinity for one another. As time went on, I began to think that I was being overly intuitive about his feelings for me and having that crusty coating at the time, I soon let logic and reason take over any notions of budding romance breaking through the shell. And eventually, it was time to go back home to the US and it became business as usual and sadly, we didn’t speak again for 12 years.

In checking one of my networking sites, I saw his name pop up as a suggested connection and wondered if he’d even remember me after all this time. I composed an awkward reintroduction saying, ‘hope you still remember me, I was one of the Americans who worked with you 12 years ago….’ I held my breath as I thought, what if he doesn’t remember me or doesn’t want to reconnect? How will this effect me? I then exhaled and clicked, ‘send invitation’ and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself or him too badly in the process. He responded by saying, ‘…of course I remember you Regina…’ and so, we reconnected as former employees do, right? Again, no bells, whistles, declarations or confessions, only the acknowledgment that he did remember me, a small yet important victory in my mind and unwittingly, a foreshadowing to the future.

In late September, a friend and I were planning to go to Paris for vacation. Since I knew my former Belgian coworker was living and working in France from his online profile, I asked if he was close to Paris to see if we could meet and get caught up on each others’ lives.  He said he’d love to see me again and would take the train to meet me in Paris to have dinner at Le Pied de Cochon, a Parisian institution for classic french cuisine. We met for a late dinner and already, I could sense my world was about to change.

Re-winding a bit to 12 years ago, we recognized the spark we had for one another, but never voiced our feelings, which only resulted in internal dialog about what could have been. The next morning, we met again for coffee with my travel buddy, so again, no time to explore our feelings from either of us on how we felt when we first met or in Paris, just great dialog between friends.

When he was leaving to take his train home, we hugged good-bye and it took all I had to not cry, which seemed ridiculous at the time, given that no outward expression of our feelings had ever taken place. Regardless, I hugged him and couldn’t even look back to see him disappear into the Metro, because I knew I would not be able to hold back my emotions.

Little did I know at the time, he was experiencing the same pain of leaving me and had all the same emotions he had then and now.  He told me later that he waited for me to look back and when I didn’t, he thought I didn’t share the love he had been carrying for me all this time. I was devastated that he was gone and that yet again, I didn’t have the courage to tell him how I felt.

As he disappeared into the Metro that day, he sent me an email at that time (which I never got until arriving home) that I had changed his life in just a moment, that he was starting to lose faith in love and happiness and that it all changed when he saw me again. He said he wasn’t willing to lose me again and wanted to find out if we were meant to be together. After returning home, I naturally got his message and I began to cry as I now finally knew the truth about how he felt and I could tell him I loved him too.

About a month after Paris, he came to visit for 10 days (his first trip to the US) and we actually got to talk and get to know one another without a constant audience. We found out that we do have a strong bond and connection that hasn’t waned over time or distance. And so it began, a romance that would take another year to come full circle, after 12 years in waiting.

“…See there’s this place in me where your fingerprints still rest, your kisses still linger, and your whispers softly echo. It’s the place where a part of you will forever be a part of me.”
–Gretchen Kemp

Happy Valentines Day everyone and keep on dreaming!

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Culture Choc, Daily life in France

 

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Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

Sometimes [I think] we forget that language is the basis of culture. It shapes our experiences and in how we relate to others. If living in another country is not adventurous enough, learning the language can seem like climbing Mount Everest! I can honestly say, I am about halfway up the mountain and on good footing. Have I slipped and almost fallen? Absolutely! Many of these moments, I have humbly chronicled here (in my blog) for your amusement, but more importantly, in hopes that you will be able to step outside of your own culture and laugh with me (OK, ‘at me’ is fine too). Before moving to France, I was in love with all things French, still am. I thought there is no more beautiful language in the world and it has always been a dream of mine, to speak French. Well, again, “be careful what you wish for..”, as the saying goes! I have made every language gaff imaginable, made people laugh, cry and even angry at times. A veritable plethora of human emotions, I have insighted in complete strangers, new friends and family. I guess there is a sense of freedom in knowing that you’ve screwed up so much, that whatever comes is nothing new and hence; nothing you can’t handle. French truly is a beautiful language and I stand by my conviction, but it is certainly not easy to learn, not even for the French. For instance, there are multiple uses for the same word such as ‘toilette‘ (besides the obvious) and different words for the same thing, such as: ‘armoire’ (free standing cabinet), ‘placard’ (built-in cabinet) and just plain old ‘cabinet’ (hanging cabinet, like the kitchen type).

The biggest difference between French and English, is the subtlety. In French, you have to learn the differences between the types of cabinets and other seemingly redundant words, that have very close to the same meaning. In English, not so. You may learn English quicker than French to start, but the subtleties of English come later. After the basics are mastered, the nuances can then be put in place. It seems bizarre to me that a French child could know the subtleties of cabinets and toilets, but somehow, they do!

My poor hubby is constantly bombarded with questions by me about language differences between French and English, and he takes it like a champ. It’s like having a kid ask, ‘but why?’ all the time I would imagine. Sometimes he looks at me like I was just possessed by a body-snatcher (as in, the ‘invasion of’) to “I’m so proud of you, sweetie”, which I must say, is the one I prefer most. But either way, he supports my learning, even after a long day at work. Again, I can only compare it [my situation] to how a parent must feel when they have worked all day, feeling exhausted and your child needs help with their homework. That is probably the most important thing for any expat to know and commit to heart, is that you cannot do it alone. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; we cannot succeed as expats without the support of those in-country, whether it be a supportive spouse or someone at the local market who is willing to work with you on your language skills.

In learning this [philosophy] early on, you will curb many feelings you will experience that are natural progressions of learning in an expat environment. The ‘imposter effect’ which is best explained as a chronic feeling of pretentiousness. You feel like the new kid on the playground, waiting for someone to pick you to play. At some point, your pronunciation exceeds your actual knowledge and this is the most difficult time. Why? Because you sound like you know what you’re saying, more so than what I call ‘tourist’ language.

When you learn enough to remove some of your native accent and construct simple sentences in present tense, people think you understand EVERYTHING they are saying. This is the imposter syndrome at its full-blown capacity! You feel like you have ‘faked’ your accent enough to trick them into thinking you know more than you know. And as a result, you feel awful that they have to repeat what they’ve said (especially when it’s very personal) which makes them feel more embarrassed than you. To combat this feeling, I would simply nod and smile and I got through most of it, but I still felt terrible that they walked away thinking I understood them, when really, I didn’t. There are just so many times you can ask someone to ‘parlez doucement’ (speak slowly) or repeat themselves, before it becomes awkward. In a nutshell, the expression, “fake it ’till you make it” is necessary to push past these insecurities. I now understand that in the end, most people are happy for you to just listen, nod and smile anyway. My takeaway from this? You can still claim to be a good listener even when it’s not your native tongue; you’re still paying attention to what they’re saying, even though you don’t understand everything. To listen to one another without judgement or interruption, transcends all understanding and never needs explaining.

 
 

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“To listen to this message in French, press 1″…go ahead, I dare you!

Courtesy of Google

We’re all familiar with the customer service prompts, “Press 1 to hear this message in English or presione 2 para escuchar este mensaje en español.” I never really thought much about it until recently, but after I read a post from a friend and consequently, saw all the “likes” for the Facebook group: “Press 1 to hear this message in English, press 2 to learn English,” I felt my blood begin to boil!

After reading the post and feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought, you know, I’m not going to dignify that with a response. Well, my good intentions were spoiled again, as I couldn’t keep quiet about a subject that was so near and dear to me as a visitor and now resident in France. It has taken me everyday, a minimum of 2 hours a day for the past year and a half to learn basic French. This is not to be fluent mind you, far from it! Only now, am I at the point where I understand the larger part of conversations when someone speaks to me and at least the gist of those I don’t. Passive understanding (comprehension without having to concentrate) is still (hopefully) yet in my future, but if I continue, by the end of the year (a mere 2 years later) I should be close to academic fluency. To become truly fluent (e.g. nuance, colloquial understanding), will take many more years. I am so grateful, that this opinion is not shared by my French neighbors, as they have been very understanding and helpful with my language mistakes and have tried to help me any way they could. They seem to inately understand how difficult it is to learn French and have complimented my efforts.

The point being, I’m not sure that those who are so insistent that we learn the language of the said, mono-linguist, truly understand the monumental task they have placed upon the heads of others (themselves, obviously excluded by default). I did in fact respond to the post and here is the excerpt;

POST: Happy Memorial Day!  Press 1 for English, Press 2 to learn English

me: Ouch, that’s a tough one on my end! My French has improved, so guess I pressed 2 to learn but am glad the French have been kind while I was learning. Maybe ‘Press 3’ for patience with those of us learning a new language?😉.

monophonic friend: When in France, speak French. When in USA, English baby! Enjoy France. Miss ya.

Well, I do miss him too, he’s a great guy, but I have to say, I was very stunned that someone who I thought to be intelligent, kind and considerate would still feel this way. Deep down, the devil in me one day hopes, that he will go on vacation or live in a place where he will have to learn a (at least some) foreign language to get by OR run into someone who speaks perfect English, who loves to correct him. I can dream, can’t I?

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle Scars: Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 2

The following is the true, unedited story of a living unknown soldier (LUS) who served as a marine in Vietnam. This post contains graphic language and imagery. Discretion is advised.

The ground was loamy and wet and smelled of metal. With every step, his feet would resist being released from its grasp. There was a technique to walking through a rice field, so that mamasan (mother) and papasan (father) couldn’t hear you coming. His boots became living sculptures and socks became more trouble than they were worth, but they don’t call it jungle rot for nothing, so protect your feet, was the mantra. The sandy soil got underneath his clothes and cut like glass, with every move. The tiny droplets of blood became scabs, which begat blisters and eventually, became callused. The calluses were welcomed, because it actually meant relief from where weapons and packs found there resting place on a two-week, unwashed body. LUS liked to walk ‘point’ (lead his unit), because it gave him a sense of control, when in actuality, he knew there was none. They approached the village stealthily, always from the right. Always going to the right meant good luck. Watching the hooch (hut) draw closer into view on its bamboo stilts, they could see mamasan and papasan carrying over-sized baskets of rice–too much for a small family, so he now knew, that they were feeding the Vietcong (his enemy). They had to be silenced.

“Killing was doing America good”, he was told. They were taught that gooks (Vietcong) were dirty, disgusting animals who hate Americans and the idea of freedom. These were the recordings that played in his mind whenever it was time to ‘take-out’ the area. As part of the Walking Dead 1/9, they would leave their calling card, the ace of spades, at the front and back of every village, to let all know that the Walking Dead had come calling.

LUS and the other soldiers continued to approach the hooch, until they were within striking distance. He prefered to sneak up on them and use the butt of his rifle as his weapon to crack-open their skulls. Being the demolition engineer, LUS took the C4 he carried and blew-up the hooch and over-sized rice baskets, to prevent the enemy from benefiting from what mamasan and papasan obviously wouldn’t be needing anymore.

Walking around a hut, he sees a little girl, under 5 years of age, crying out in agony and speaking her native tongue of which he could only feel the intent of her words, but not the meaning. She lay on her back, still alive, with a machete wound, that had cut her from underneath her right hip to her left shoulder. She looked at him with pleading, tearful eyes, as he shooed away the pig that had been feasting on her intestines. He knew that a Vietcong unit had just been through the area, but why would they butcher one of their own children? This was one of many inconsistencies LUS would face. Even being captive in the living nightmare of war 24/7, seeing a child suffer was not something from which he could walk away. So he shot her in the head in the hopes of giving her peace, even if at the cost of his own torment.

“That child still haunts my dreams; I can see her like it was yesterday, even though it was almost a lifetime ago.”  The guilt associated with having to kill, especially a child, no matter the reason, exacts its toll for 45 years and counting. “Several of my buddies have committed suicide and I still think about it…I just want the bees to stop in my head.” LUS revealed that there were MIA‘s that remained (willingly) in Vietnam, because they were too addicted to drugs (to suppress the memories) to come home and face their new reality. They instead, befriended the ‘friendlies’ (south Vietnamese mountain farmers) and taught them how to automate their farm equipment in exchange for drugs and anonymity.

Which begs the question, how do you come home from an experience that is life-altering and be expected to be the person you were before you left? How can you just flip the switch from having no rules (then, there were no rules like today), expected to integrate back into society, as if nothing had happened? Vietnam veterans are husbands, fathers and employees, that go about life, suppressing all the anger [of the war experience] that has now disguised itself into self-loathing, anxiety and depression because it has no place to call home in a civilian environment. It puts on a cloak of deception, fearing revelation in the mind of the soldier it infects. Are the bees in LUS’s head a summation of the guilt he carries or the displaced anger that has never had a chance to be neutralized? I don’t have the answers, I wish I did, but I do hope his bees are set free someday.

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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Is “correct my French, SVP” carved on my forehead?

SVP: is the abbreviated, formal French phrase for 'please' (s'il vous plaît), used often on public signage

Let’s face it, no one LIKES to be corrected; we just try to stay open to it because it’s for our own good, right? Well, for many years, I have been open to being corrected. It was a long hard road, but I can honestly say, I don’t mind (not to be confused with like) correction. No matter the subject, I seem to be one of those people whom others feel a need (or is compulsion a better description?) to correct. Is it because I am constantly screwing things up and they take pity on me? It’s possible. Is it because I seem open to correction, that people are free to dole out the “you mean…” and “you should have said…” comments? Or is it because my past is coming back to haunt me after all the times I’ve corrected others, oblivious to the damage I was inflicting? Now, there’s a stark realization! My father always said I had a ‘noggin (southernese for head)’ made of wood, but I never thought the expression would have such literal impact (gee, thanks dad!).

OK, I readily admit, I was a ‘chronic corrector.’ My parents did it to me, so by golly, I should pass it on! After all, it really is in their best interest in the end, I told myself. But was I correcting others to help them or was I correcting only to prove [impress upon them] how much I knew? Regardless of the reason, I’ve had to re-evaluate my stance on correction and being corrected. This flawed logic kept me from not only understanding how hurtful over-correcting can be, but also how it can significantly undermine your learning. When everything needs correction, we don’t have the confidence to open our mouths, not just in learning a language, but in other things as well. We begin to cultivate an attitude of giving up before we start. I certainly agree that correction is needed at times and if someone cares about you, they will and should correct you. But every time is not necessary and being selective and compassionate in how you do it, makes all the difference. Guess you’ve figured out, I have a story about this one? Well, of course, you’re right again.

My husband and I joined some of his family (we were not married then) in Provence for vacation and naturally, we had a wonderful time. I got to spend time with his nieces and we decided why not take them with us to our place in the French Alps before they went back home to Belgium? Sounded like a great idea (and truly, it was) at the time. The girls were about eight and ten years old, so we got to be silly and goofy together; laughing, dancing and singing. My French was minimal, as I was just learning then. We communicated with my basic vocabulary, supplemented heavily with a plethora of hand gestures and facial expressions. It seemed like a pretty good system we had going. Maybe, I should have stuck to it a bit longer…

As I began to get to know them better over the past week, I began to speak more in French, but every word was greeted with some sort of correction. At first, I was OK and rolled with it, but then, after a while, I began to get disheartened and then, just darn mad! Yes, they were just children, I kept reminding myself. And because of that fact, it made it even harder to be corrected and consequently, not get angry about it. I was stuck! How could I get angry at them? After all, being children, they didn’t have the understanding that I had, the compassion, the…wait!

And there it was…the realization that our nieces were responding in the same way I had for years. Oblivious to the hurt that it caused, they thought they were helping, and they were, just not on my time schedule. Amazing, how we continue in the same mistakes and selfishly, we don’t ‘get it’ until we are greeted with the same emotions, but from a different perspective. What goes around always does come around. At 44 years old, I finally have lived long enough to see it happen, not just in my life, but also in the lives of others.

With all that being said, yes…I do apparently have, “correct my French, SVP (please)” carved on my forehead. It was being forged many years ago and now it has been a sign well-weathered from the expat experience. I have visions of one of those carved wooden signs, that we’ve seen at many a crafts fair. I can still smell the faint brûler (French for burning) of the wood, as each helpful correction is forging its mark, to make me a better person. So, please do correct the ones you love, just beware of how you do it–because you may soon smell the burning wood from your forehead, when you least expect it.

 
 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle for Independence: The Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 1

This is not your typical, ‘hip-hip-hooray, it’s Independence Day,’ kind of post, but is still a tribute to not only our lost veterans, but also to the living ones. We will starkly look at the continuing cost of freedom for soldiers and how this battle is still raging in the minds of veterans wanting independence from their pasts. In this series, we will explore the causes and effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): coping with suicidal thoughts from reliving the past daily, loss of contact with family and friends and most of all, the lack of understanding (validation) by others who can never truly understand the non-refundable personal sacrifices made.

When most civilians think of Independence Day, we envision spending time with family and friends, barbecuing and setting off fireworks while celebrating a day off from work. We might say grace for the soldiers lost, but what about the one’s still living, still coping? On an intellectual level, sure, we know what Independence Day is, or do we? Do we truly understand the cost of our freedom?

The inspiration for this series comes from a man who has elected to stay anonymous for many valid and understandable reasons, but most of all, until he can make peace with himself. From candid interviews with our unknown living soldier, we will explore the psyche of a Vietnam veteran who is still trying to reconcile his past, still suffering from a war that many have forgotten and replaced with the ‘war of the week’ headline mentality. His account is a first-hand, in-depth perspective of a Marine who served nineteen months, from 1969-1971, deployed to Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam and operated from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) of Da Nang, Dong HaQuang Tri, Hue, Khe Sahn and Caviet.

Our unknown, yet living solider was part of the famous 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the so-called, “The Walking Dead.” This title was given to the one-nine (1/9) when Ho Chi Minh declared he would, “kill them all, so just consider themselves dead walking,” announcing over a loud-speaker (in English), just before the siege near Song Nu Yi River in 1966. After that infamous siege, “Di bo Chet” (the Walking Dead) name stuck. As foreshadowed, the Vietnam one-nine infantry battalion suffered the most casualties in marine corp history. Based on a typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 93.63% (747) were Killed In Action (KIA) and 0.25% (2) were Missing In Action (MIA).

Always Faithful –– ©1997 Doug Todd

Here are those who have borne the battle

Those, in the crucible of combat, tried.

Tempered and turned of the finest mettle,

These were The Sons of America’s Pride!

The First Battalion of The Ninth Marines,

Hammered and forged in the fires of Hell;

Built of their blood and their broken dreams,

A legend for scribes, unborn, to tell.

They fought like Warriors and they died like men

‘‘Till their page of history was stained blood-red;

And they earned from foe as well as from friend

That Honorable title, “The Walking Dead”!

These were the Sons who stepped forward bravely–

Courage and Strength and Faith un-tried;

To fight as the Valorous “Always Faithful”.

These are The Sons of America’s Pride!

The following video contains mature content:

Our soldier, who we will call, LUS (living unknown soldier) to protect his identity throughout this series, started out like many others, wanting to serve his country and protect his and his family’s rights–freedoms. Economic times were hard and the prospects for a seventeen year old then, were slim. The opportunity to help his family through the difficult times and to serve his country by ‘saving it’ from communism, seemed like a win-win. He saw the images of gallantry on TV, along with the ads and was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father: to make a difference for his family and country. Is there any more noble cause (to an American) than to fight for freedom? Freedom is a founding principle of our country and is a vein that runs very deep in the psyche of an American soldier and particularly, a Marine.

So at seventeen, LUS enlisted September 2, 1968 (his birthday) and headed for boot camp on November 5, 1968 at Camp Lejeune as a demolition engineer. Little did he realize the full impact of that decision, where it would take him or the cost of freedom for which he would be fighting. In the coming few months, we will tell you in detail about his personal journey and hopefully, you will have a better understanding of the impact of freedom on our lives that we now enjoy through a day off, eating BBQ, baked-beans and potato salad.

Please do enjoy a wonderful celebration and as you do, try to think not only of the ones lost in war, but also of those who are still fighting the living soldier’s battle. The battle for independence from personal guilt, the external pressure to justify their experience to those who never served and the understanding of the price veterans pay daily for our freedom. Happy Independence Day and deepest thanks to all soldiers: past, present and future for the freedom we enjoy today.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Franco-American gray matter(s)

Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Mignon, a very reserved and refined French gentleman in his early 70’s, who lives across from us. He is as quiet as a church mouse and most of the time, I don’t even know if he’s home. I do know that he enjoys his weekly Saturday morning visits to the boulangerie (bakery) between 8-10AM, to have a fresh pastry and read the paper in the same place each week without fail. He always sits with his back to the window in the next to last row of seats, I assume, to have full purview of all those coming in, without being up against the window. When passing by, I always look for the back of his head, as I recognize it as well as his face, and it makes me smile. Most Saturdays, I pass by without making my presence known, but just observe that he is there, enjoying his routine, undisturbed. And on other days, I walk around, just to by chance find his glance, give a simple wave and continue on my way. In retrospect, I ask myself, would I have done this before living in France? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Image courtesy of Google

Being a Southerner, we are taught from a tender age, to always acknowledge those you know and engage them in conversation to make them feel comfortable. This Southern mindset is all well and good (southernese for well-intended), but sometimes, don’t you just want to be left alone? Left to your thoughts–undisturbed, without having to explain why you are there, what you are thinking or finding something relevant to say, without being intrusive? This was always the internal debate that replayed itself whenever I ran into someone I knew. Be polite, make them feel at ease, as I was taught. I became trapped in a cultural box of congeniality. It’s not that I don’t want to be nice, quite the contrary, but at what point did it become obligatory for me? This had been a grey area for me: how to be myself (nice), but not at the expense of myself? Luckily, la France came to my rescue!

Part of my brain is still and I’m sure always will be, uniquely Southern. But the other side is becoming more  Franco-phillic to the  French mindset: not bound by rules, allowing people their privacy and without the social expectancy of minding your P’s and Q’s to the Nth degree (sorry, thought it would be fun to use as many letters as I could there.). This is not to say that the French are rude, far from it in fact, in my experience. I would even go as far to say that they are genuinely nicer than most Americans I’ve met. The candy coating is not there, but the feelings are–kind, considerate yet respectfully private. Particularly Americans from the south have this candy coating, because it has been ingrained in us. Please understand, my intention is not to say that Southerners are fake, it just means that we are programmed to respond respectfully, even before the respect may be earned, which to some can sound disingenuous, without understanding our culture.

For example, we say “yes/no, ma’am and yes/no, sir” to everyone, not just our parents as a sign of respect, not servitude. As mentioned, we are also taught to engage people and make them feel at ease. This is a wonderful thing and has been a key reason to my love for people and successful integration into the French culture. I made others feel comfortable even when I wasn’t. The difference is, I now understand balance when I didn’t before. Now, I realize that not every occasion warrants an hour discussion (are you listening mother?). Sometimes a head nod, smile or simple wave can let someone know you care and wish them a good day.

This may sound strange, but the French don’t expect you to put them first, but when you do, they are incredibly appreciative. Using dear Mr. Mignon as an example: when we had snow, I would shovel our community stairs and everyone’s ‘stoop’ (as my grandmother, Mimi, would call it) and thought my good deed had gone unnoticed. Not that I was looking for applause or even a “merci”, again, it was just how I was raised, to be ‘neighborly’ as it’s called. I never knew it, but Mr. Mignon must have seen me without my knowledge. Just like me, he left me to my thoughts, just as I did with him at the boulangerie. We finally did meet face-to-face at the boulangerie and he made the effort to thank me for all I did and tried to pay me for shoveling the snow (naturally, I didn’t take it). That’s what I mean when I say that the expectation is not there, but the heartfelt thanks is evident. I was already shoveling for myself, so it was easy just to spend ten more minutes to help everybody and consequently, it keeps the snow from being blown or tracked back on my stoop, simple logic really. But in the French mindset, it was evidently an act worthy of payment, because that is not the expectation.

The expectation in the US is just the opposite, people EXPECT you to be kind and when you aren’t, they get angry. There are those of us (I was one) in the US that may have been slightly upset if we were not thanked at the time or if someone didn’t bother to shovel our snow as well, because it would have only taken a few extra minutes. When this standard is set so high, how can anyone measure up all the time? I often didn’t live up to my standard many times, but it didn’t stop me from holding that measuring stick up to everyone else. When you expect too much, you are bound to be disappointed. I didn’t realize that my ‘standard’ had morphed into something not originally intended from my upbringing. One cannot impose these congenial standards at the expense of one’s self. You only end up getting hurt by expecting too much and the truth be told, it really is a selfish way to live, when you begin peeling back the onion of the unconscious mind.

All this being said, I prefer the French way. My dad has an expression, “don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed.” Which although true, has a bit of a negative spin. I think the French put a positive spin on my dad’s philosophy and would probably go something like this…”don’t expect anything, but appreciate it when it happens.”

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Balcony view of the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné cycling race

Balcony view of the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné cycling race

Critérium du Dauphiné had it’s 63rd finale ending yesterday. Running from Sunday Jun 5th to 12th 2011, this cycling race consists of 1 prologue and 7 stages (8 days total), which when completed, covers a distance of 1,065 kilometres (~662mi.), winding its path through the French Alps and luckily, right past my balcony. Sheepishly, I have to admit, I felt a bit guilty having my ‘quatre heure’ (4PM designated snack time in France) while watching the crews and then the racers work their guts out, while I was sipping an afternoon tea and partaking of a few cookies. Several vanilla cremes later, I did get over my guilt and took some pics of all the hubbub. Everybody was into the pre-race frenzy and/or relaxation: amateur and professional cyclists, parents and grandparents, kids and of course, the professional tour riders that we were all gathered to see. It was a spectacle for the eyes, with all the logos, sponsorships and trendy, energetic music. The announcer literally took 45 minutes to mention all the sponsors for the event. As my dad would say, “I wish I had a dollar for every…( logo I saw)”. As a former marketer, trust me, it was impressive!

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The Critérium du Dauphiné (formerly the Dauphiné Liberé) started in 1947 and several of its past winners have often gone on to win Le Tour De France (which begins July 2nd), making it an important precursor to show team leaders, who will be chosen for the aforementioned grand-père of cycling races. Have you ever wondered what the different colored jersey mean? Well, if so, mystery now solved along with this year’s winners of the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Winners (source for all professional images and stats: latour.fr)

YELLOW JERSEY–rewards the leader of the general classification, calculated by adding together, the times achieved on each stage. Also taken into account are any bonifications earned on the intermediate sprints or the finish.

GREEN JERSEY–identifies the leader of the classification on points. The points in question are awarded According to the passing order on the intermediate sprints and at the finish line.

RED POLKA DOT JERSEY— identifies the best climber. The points counting towards the mountain classification are awarded on the basis of the passing order at the top of the climbs and passes.

WHITE JERSEY–identifies the first young rider up to 25 years old in the overall standings.

Winners: COPPEL-WIGGINS-DUQUE-RODRIGUEZ OLIVER© ASO/B.Bade

It still seems like yesterday, when I would go on ten plus mile runs on weekends, three mile runs during the week and weight-train a minimum of 3 times a week and still have the energy to work a physical job. Sure, I looked like I just jumped off a box of Wheaties, but the time and effort it took me on a ‘hobby level’, was tremendous, not to mention the dietary constraints. These guys are machines, not only in the performance level of their bodies, but in their mental endurance.

My serious athletic days may be behind me, but the rememberance of my past sacrifices (that pale by comparison), only underscores how much I support and appreciate the level of hard work, skill and mental toughness it takes to maintain peek performance. Maybe a caveat to the expression, “don’t sit back and let the world pass you by…” is, UNLESS, you have a really great balcony from which to do it!

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Memphis is Cookin’: Come Hell or High Water

Memphis is Cookin’: Come Hell or High Water

This year the festival saluted my husband’s native country, Belgium, so we thought it would be an oportune time to bring more family along to celebrate their country in my hometown. There were six of us in total, two Belgian‘s and two French who now live in the UK. They all were surprised at how comfortable and friendly Memphis is in general. And I have to say, I agree after living abroad for over a year and a half now. Memphis is like your favorite pair of shoes. When you put them on, you instantly relax. You won’t win any beauty contests, but you’ll feel at home–that’s Memphis.

For two of my husband’s family, it was their first trip to the US, so I was paying close attention to their reactions as I remember (and still experience) how I felt when I was in their shoes…experiencing something completely new, different and indescribable until your brain has time to process it. At the moment, you can only feel, not take inventory of the experience, as if your senses are overloaded with just keeping up with basic functioning. I recognized this ‘look’ (amalgamation of emotion) in them. It may be something that Americans take for granted, I’m not sure, but there is an overwhelming buzz that takes place when you set foot on US soil. Maybe it’s the collective energy of the people, a hopefulness that anything is possible if you just try? It’s difficult to describe, but there is palpable difference, that just being on the land emanates somehow.

The same is true in Europe but in a much different way. There is a feeling of being part of history, something older and greater than you. I love this feeling too and is equally overwhelming, but the US has the exact opposite feel. It feels new, exciting and I dare say, hopeful. France in deeply rooted in tradition, despite its socialistic economy and neo-political views reflected in its government. Not to digress into a geo-cultural-political argument here, but the point being that I think on some level, we can tune into the emotional climate of a country or city, whether we are conscious of it or not. You know when you feel at home someplace or not. Or the fact there are some people you connect with immediately and others, maybe never. You feel it before you experience it more often than not.

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So what does all this rhetoric have to do with Memphis In May BBQFest or a hill of BBQ baked beans for that matter? Well, simply speaking, some places get inside you, become part of you, shape you into someone more interesting if you let it. I think any place you connect to is for a good reason. Whether through their regional cuisine, the kindness of the people or for reasons you may not even understand. For me, I connect with my hometown more now than I did before. Not that I want to move back, but only that I appreciate how truly unique Memphis is and how it is part of me.

After living in the Chartreuse region of France for the past year and a half, I also feel connected to my village in France. I realize that having lived in both places has changed me for the better. I guess what I’m trying to say, is savor every experience in a place that you’ve lived or visited, appreciate it’s uniqueness and accept it as part of you. I think the BBQFest epitomizes Memphis pretty well when they say, “Memphis is cookin’: come hell or high water.” A resilient people and city, who will make a way, no matter what comes! Vive Memphis and thankya, thankya very much!

To learn more about Memphis, visit Memphis Travel: http://www.memphistravel.com/

* Photos (daytime) provided by the Memphis Commercial Appeal and yours truly.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Dedicated to Memphis In May: The Best Dang BBQ Baked Beans in France (via Memphis)

BBQ Baked Beans and Chicken

As a native Memphian, we have BBQ sauce in our veins instead of blood (OK, a bit dramatic, but you get the point!). Living in France, I’ve now shared my BBQ fanaticism with everybody I’ve met. Ribs are a bit hard to come by here, but a great way to satisfy your BBQ fix is with the beans! My hubby and I have made these beans and have left our friends mouth’s open with shock and their assiettes (plates) empty.

This recipe is dedicated to all those working so hard in the Memphis In May competition and pays homage to their committment to BBQ, despite the horrible storms that are plaguing the South now. Keep on cookin’ and bon appetite, y’all!

Memphis-Style BBQ Baked Beans + Sauce

4-5 cans of white (pork & beans/canallini beans) drained and rinsed

24oz. (2 cartons) of tomato puree

1 can stewed tomato pieces

2-3 ripe tomatoes (if small, then 3) diced

1 can tomato paste or ½  tube tomato concentrate

2 large onions (or 3 smaller ones) diced or sub ½ jar dried onions

2-3 cloves garlic (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

1 large green bell pepper (or 2 small ones) diced

2 tsp. Tobasco® (or other vinegar-based hot sauce)

1 tsp. Worcester/HP sauce (I prefer the HP)

2 ½ tsp. smoky paprika

1 tsp. cumin

½  cup strawberry jam or preserves

½ cup dark brown sugar

2 tsp. Kosher/sea salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

½  cup + 2 tbs. olive oil

1 regular package of smoked bacon diced

1 tbs. Dijon mustard

½  cup apple cider vinegar

½ tsp liquid smoke

*Optional:  to make spicier, add more Tabasco® (hot sauce) or Harrisa®(chili paste) to taste.  Add browned sausages, chorizo, pulled pork, diced chicken or ground beef, if desired.

Preparation: (TIP: without beans and put through a sieve, you’ve got great BBQ sauce!)

1) Drain & rinse beans to remove excess liquid and set aside.

2) In a oven-save pot (cast iron or Le Creuset® if you have it) add bacon, onion & bell pepper to render and brown a bit. Add a dash of olive oil or butter if needed to help with the render.

3) Add tomato paste, tomato pieces & tomato concentrate to the rendered mixture & stir to get all the good bits off the bottom of the pan.

4) Add all other ingredients (in any order is fine) as desired.

5) Cook over stove top on low-medium heat for 2-3 hours.  You should see the mixture turn from an orange base colour to a glossy red-based colour (same as bolognese sauce).

6) Then, (*add any browned meats at this stage) place in the oven for an hour at 325F or 160C.

7) Let cool and pig out y’all!

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Voila, dude!

Merci Google Images

The longer I live in France, the more I see a melding of the American and French cultures. Even in the commercials, there is a lot of English used. I’m not sure if the French culture is aware to what degree, as they may think it is simply advertising speech or an unfamiliar French word that they have now learned. The same is happening in American culture as well with the French language. Some feel that this melding of cultures is dangerous while others think that it is a natural and welcomed evolution for both. Whatever your school of thought, things are changing. The world is becoming smaller and better connected through the amalgamation of movies, TV, streaming video/radio, social networking, podcasts, blogs, you name it. No surprises there, but it did get me thinking about language similarities between French and English.

For just one example, the French use the word voilà like Americans use the word, dude (It’s OK, I still say it too). It reminds me of the Rob Schneider skit where he compares the word ‘dude’ to ‘Aloha.’

When I first arrived in France, I heard people use voilà, as my dad would say, like it was ‘goin’ out of style’ (Southernese for ‘a lot’). People used it in so many ways, it took me a while to understand the differences. Voilà literally is a contraction of ‘voir’ (to see) and ‘la’ in this instance, meaning ‘there.’ In the US, it has more of a ‘presto’ connotation, which is also one of the French uses along with many others. Voilà can be used in the following ways as translated to English:

1) See there or it’s there.

2) That’s it!

3) There you go!

4) That’s obvious (should be obvious).

5) So be it (what can you do about it?) Somewhat futile situation, apathy.

6) You’re right.

7) You’ve got it! (the hang of it.)

8) A response to surprise or like presto

The word also comes equipped with a sound effect, similar to what we would call a ‘raspberry’ or dare I say, fake flatulence noise? Just for fun, try holding air in your mouth with your cheeks puffed out. Then, let the air out quickly to make the sound effect. To release the air quickly and to fine tune your sound effect, you can use your index finger and gently poke one of your air-filled cheeks to let just enough air out to sound authentic. My belle soeur (sister-in-law who is a French-speaking Belgian) is a pro at this and I credit her with the perfect technique. 

Literally, for the first 3 months, I simply learned the word used in all the appropriate scenarios and many French had no idea that I didn’t speak the language. It was the perfect answer when you have no answer! The word dude may be the closest thing to it, but I think it still may fall a bit short. Perhaps using a ‘what’s up’ as a compliment may get you closer to the meaning. So, Voilà (insert sound effect-ppbbtt) my friends, if you can understand the multiple usages of the word and master the technique of the sound effect afterward, you too can survive in France! As you can see, it really is an amazingly versatile word. Use it freely, just don’t forget the accent at the end, s’il vous plaît!

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Into Great Silence

It was a Monday, when I stood witness to the Carthusian monks of the Chartreuse coming down from the monastery, to take a break from making their famous and curiously strong green liqueur. They walked right past my balcony window in their sturdy, handmade white robs, heading for the bus stop to go back to the place they now call home (I wish I had caught a picture of them). I marveled at them speaking and enjoying a day in town like the rest of us. Even considering the size of their group, they still spoke to one another in hushed, yet joyful tones. In watching them pass, I pondered, what on earth (literally) could any of us have in common with these monks? They seem to live an impossible life: painful, monotonous, bizarre and probably most of all, lonely. I was fascinated by them but also in awe of them for the life they’ve chosen.

After seeing them go by that day, I went to the monastery, hoping to get another glimpse of them. I know it sounds strange, but seeing them was like seeing three dimensional ghosts, something of legend or a figment of the imagination. In those brief moments of observation, I felt as if I were reading a fascinating story, which had the last chapter ripped out. I longed to know more about them. I took pictures in an effort to peer into their mysterious lives, to get closer to them somehow. Even though I am not Catholic, to see them evoked a sense of peace that is difficult to describe and illusive to recapture.

What is their curiosity? Is it that they are the antithesis of modern society? That they sacrifice more than any of us can imagine and do so, willingly? Whatever the reason, they do seem to make a huge impact in this region of France. It’s hard to say, but somehow, here…in the Chartreuse, I think the mountains are even more special. Could it be the influence of the Chartreuse monks? I only know how they make me feel: relaxed, happy and hopeful that there is still good in the world despite the news and what modern society would have us believe.

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Although I still don’t have an answer as to what we have in common with the monks, I do think this is one reason why we travel: to experience life-changing moments that give us peace, regardless of the reason. These images help me reconnect to that peace that I would imagine, also enables them to endure a life of silence.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Elvis and Johnny, a tale of two rock and roll brothers

Johnny Hallyday, courtesy of Google images

My husband and I recently watched, “Le Show Johnny” on TFI, with Johnny Hallyday and it was a joy to watch. Not just to see a living legend at work, but also to see the faces of the people in the audience. In watching them, you could see they were being transported back in time when he sang. Possibly to a first kiss, dance or any happy place that his music became part of their lives. What was even more surprising, is that the audience was filled with all walks of life. Young, old, punk, hippie, you name it, they were there, cheering and chanting his name between songs.

Sadly, I’d never heard of Johnny Hallyday before my husband told me about him. We had visited Sun Studio and he pointed out a picture of him hanging on a wall. Since then, I’ve become a fan myself. At 67, to see Johnny perform like someone half his age was astounding, let alone to have the rich, resonating voice after over 50 years in the business. I was struck at the similarity between Johnny and Elvis, both as performers and by the reaction of their fans.

Being a former Memphian, Elvis was our hometown hero. Even my dad and Elvis where born in the same city, Tupelo, Mississippi, even though they never knew each other and my grandfather was his drummer, when they were touring locally, before Elvis hit the big time. I was only ten when Elvis died but I’ll never forget that day. Probably in the same way a generation before, remembered where they were when JFK was shot. I recalled what I was doing when the news broke, the reaction of the people when they heard the news and the emotional aftermath of the following months, as our city mourned. I was actually in a bowling tournament (it was actually hip then) when the news spread across every lane like a swarm. I can still see the mental image of white bowling pins standing at attention as the news blanketed each row, as if they were saluting the newly departed. I heard actual screams and crying, not from only women, but also the men, which surprised me as a 10-year-old girl in the south, where men just didn’t cry.

Click on Elvis's image, to see his first 1960 interview after serving 2 years in the Army. Pic courtesty of Google Images.

Elvis was like a distant cousin to Memphis folk; everybody had an Elvis story and I grew up hearing those stories. He was known for his extreme generosity publicly, but the truth is, he gave away money and cars often, which never made the headlines. He would read about people in our local paper at the time, the Memphis Press Semitar (now the Commercial Appeal) and would anonymously send money or cars to ease their suffering. Back then, Memphis was small enough, that word got around quickly, since there weren’t that many people who weren’t natives at the time. I know it sounds bizarre, but I never really understood Elvis’s impact on the world, fully; since he was talked about like a distant relative my whole life and born in the same place where my dad’s familiy still lives.

In fact, I was married two years to my ex-husband before learning that my then father-in-law, had been Elvis’s plumber for many years before he retired. My ex-husband’s family were also patients of the now infamous, Dr. George Nichopoulos (Dr. Nick), who was blamed for over prescribing medication to Elvis, leading to his untimely death. Not that I excuse Dr. Nick for his involvement, but I knew him to be a very compassionate doctor, who supported his patients in and out of the doctor’s office. He attended the funeral of my ex-husband’s aunt and I could see the toll that Elvis’s death had taken on him, personally and professionally. Even with all the scrutiny, he came to support my ex-husband’s family at the funeral.

Although I don’t know any personal history through the stories of others about Johnny, I’ve seen his impact. From living in France and in visiting Belgium often, I have heard my husband’s family and others talk about Johnny’s songs or even sing a few bars after a few ‘apero’s’ (aperitifs). I began thinking of Elvis and how similar their public personas are. Johnny is also known for his hip movements and outstretched arms to the crowd in addition to his powerful bass/baritone voice. I couldn’t help think that if ‘The King of Rock & Roll’ were alive today, they would be singing together.

Through Johnny, I was able to finally understand the impact of Elvis (and Memphis music) on the world and not just in my sleepy hometown. Johnny filled the eyes of his fans with joy, both of times past and knowing that they were witnessing a living legend. Part of me is sad, that Elvis never saw the eyes of his fans the way Johnny’s do, but how refreshing to know Johnny is a living, breathing, brother, of the King himself. And that, gives me something to sing about!

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Expat life is like a box of chocolates…

Forrest Gump courtesy of Google Images: Click on the image to see the original movie trailer

We’ve all seen the movie, Forrest Gump (screenplay by Eric Roth and directed by Robert Zemeckis) and unless you are “just plain ornery,” as my dad would say, you enjoyed it. The movie is now a modern classic (even though it varies greatly from the book, by Winston Groom) and I still love how it speaks to people in different ways and on different levels. Somehow, we can all see our lives a bit clearer through the simple eyes of Forrest and the wisdom of his determined mother.

Over the past year, I’ve come to appreciate the many similarities between my expat life and our lovable, even if not so bright, movie friend. Yes, life is like a box of chocolates, but if you’re anything like me, I still fight the urge to pinch the one I’ve chosen, to figure out what’s inside. I asked some friends for their favorite Forrest Gump quotes for inspiration and here are the most endeared ones and how they relate to my expat life:

“Run Forrest, run!” (Jaimmie H.)

The lure of starting over and making a fresh start certainly ‘holds water’ (makes sense), as a Southerner would say and sometimes the restlessness in your heart for worldly adventure just makes you feel like running. Whether running back to a place where you used to belong after a long absence or away from a place where you never felt you belonged or just letting go to see where life takes you. As expats, we seem to be either running  to find whatever is on the other side or perhaps running from ourselves in some way. Whatever our reason, standing still is just not an option.

“Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.” (Kelly S.)

Expat life is often very frustrating and this quote conjures feelings of frustration with myself; not with others. The generalized anxiety that you feel about the drastic change in your life and frustration (in my case) about not feeling like I was learning and assimilating fast enough, made me appreciate this expression which Kelly describes as, “…the most eloquent expression of frustration and anger.” Jenny’s desperate act of throwing rocks at her childhood home in an effort to soothe her pain, only broke her down in the end. I think we can’t help but collapse and fall (just like Jenny) when we realize throwing rocks doesn’t heal us.

“I’m not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

This would have to be my personal favorite. I’ve mentioned it many times, that you often feel obtuse and I’ve struggled with communicating my thoughts and feelings by not having a command of the language, but through my actions, I showed people I cared. Whether I was making them a homemade banana bread or trying to speak their language to the best of my ability, they knew I was showing them love on some level. This quote reaffirms that love is universal, true and essential to all of us.

“She taught me how to swing and I taught her how to dangle.” (Tim G.)

“Simple and innocent joy”, is how Tim describes this one. As an expat, you do learn to connect to the simple joys in life, perhaps because when you are not proficient in the language, you begin to see people differently–more based on their expressions and mannerisms, because you have to rely on them so heavily when verbal communication is hindered. Funny how not understanding a language or culture can lead to a different kind of humanistic understanding. I was able to see the beauty of a person more clearly, such as the kindness in their eyes or even the vulnerability in their smile and connect with them more on a child-like level. Trusting in their simple willingness to help me and them seeing the joy of learning in my face. Very much like the way children get excited when they get answers to their never-ending questions and make their parents proud.

 “Sorry I ruined your Black Panther Party.” (Tim G.)

This one strikes a funny, yet sad chord with me. In a previous article, I talked about the evolution of friendships, (as a native Memphian turned expat) and the toll it takes on friendships. Memphis is famous for BBQ, blues and Elvis, but it is also the city where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. For these reasons [friendship and racial hardships], this quote is a double entendre for me. By leaving, I did dampen the good times my friends and I shared and may have left a bad taste in the mouths of those who were upset at me leaving them. The other side of this quote is that the city of Memphis (and south) has certainly borne the burden of racial and cultural change and is still to a degree, trying to recover from its past wrongs. Initially, we laugh as Forrest is genuinely upset by disturbing the ‘party’, but he also couldn’t sit back to see someone he loved being hurt. Part of me is sad for leaving my family, friends and hometown and leaving them to deal with the hurt, but some things you just can’t continue to watch. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of what you left behind or your responsibility for it. Maybe forgiveness will come for both myself and my native city. That is my hope.

[At Jenny’s grave]

You died on a Saturday morning and I had you placed here under our tree. And I had that house of your father’s bulldozed to the ground. Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t. Little Forrest, he’s doing just fine. About to start school again soon. I make his breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I make sure he combs his hair and brushes his teeth every day. Teaching him how to play ping-pong. He’s really good. We fish a lot. And every night, we read a book. He’s so smart, Jenny. You’d be so proud of him. I am. He, uh, wrote a letter, and he says I can’t read it. I’m not supposed to, so I’ll just leave it here for you. Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you, Jenny. If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away. (Cary P.)

This probably captures my thoughts exactly, regarding my family and friends. Even though Forrest is in the world of the living and Jenny has ‘passed away’ (as we say in the south), he ends his soliloquy by pledging never to leave her. Even the ones who are upset with me by leaving, I pledge to never be far away. Even though the miles are vast, my heart is only a beat away. My friend Cary gave such a touching, raw and powerful description, I wanted to share it with you in its entirety:

We should all be so loved that anyone would be willing to care enough for us to utter and really mean those words. This reminds me I miss buddy hugs. The kind that are honest, forgiving. The kind that are “sideways” hugs. Never sexual, not family pats, but real, if you ever need me hugs. The kind that mean I don’t have any money, I can’t bail you out, but I would sell something to get to you.

I would be a liar to say that I don’t sometimes miss my old life: friends both old and new, family and all things familiar. I miss them but, just like little Forrest, I’m doing just fine…waiting for where destiny or the ‘accidental-like breeze’ will take my floating feather.

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” (Pierre S. & Steph D.)

Arguably one of the most iconic quotes in the past 17 years since the movie came out in 1994, this quote resonates with us all and encapsulates the movie of all our lives perfectly. I guess what makes this quote extra special, is that in the end, just like chocolate, it’s all good, only with a surprise in every bite.

Honorable mentions: Couldn’t relate these directly to expat life, but boy howdy, did they make me laugh. Hope you enjoy them too.

“I gotta pee.” (Mike B.)

“Oh, yes sir. Bit me right in the buttocks.” “Only Forrest would use the word ‘buttocks’. (Chris G.)

“His name is Forrest too?” (Jeff B.)

“You’re momma sure does care about your schoolin’ son, mmm, mmm, mmm.” (Pierre S. & Steph D.)

Please share your favorite Forrest Gump quote with us and why it’s your favorite!

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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CHEESE roasting on an open fire? Raclette rocks!

The heart and hearth at Nemoz Auberge, click on hearth to visit their website.

Forget about chestnuts roasting over an open fire, it’s all about the cheese! If you’re like me, you’d never even heard of raclette. When someone tried to explain to me what it was, I was far from thrilled to say the least. I was familiar with fondue, but that was only for special occasions and was very expensive for just, well, cheese. Raclette isn’t fondue where the cheese, white wine and garlic are melted in a heated bowl and your bread is dipped into the pool of cheesy yummy-ness. Actually, I have just finished my research on raclette just now, by having it for lunch. See what pain staking research I do for my readers? ;0). In all seriousness, raclette rocks! What is it? So glad you asked!

It is, well, cheese. Not just any cheese mind you, but a cheese that you melt in front of an open fire. There are mini ovens that do this too, but you can’t beat the real thing. I could imagine the people in the snow-covered mountains after a hard day of farming, would get their bellies and souls fed with this one. When the raclette is melted in the traditional way with the fire, you get the smoky, buttery, nutty flavor that permiates the cheese, begging to be put on a potato and enjoyed with a dry white wine of your choice. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that raclette cheese when heated is very much like the smell of dirty socks. But, if you can get past the initial smell (and you will) it is well worth it. I can’t really explain the feeling I get when I eat raclette other than, it just makes me happy. It is simple fare, but delicious.

How raclette is served

‘Racler’ is a verb in French, meaning to ‘scrape’, describes exactly how the process works. The cheese is melted in front of an open fire until it begins to melt. Then, the melted cheese is scraped off and served with boiled potatoes, cured meats and pickles. The process continues until you can hold, as my dad would say, “nary another bite.”

Raclette originally hails from the French part of Switzerland, hence the French roots. But is very much a part of France’s mountain culture as well, particularly in the regions of Auvergne, Savoie, Franche-Comté and Bretagne where the cow’s milk cheese is produced. Although it is certain that this dish is still enjoyed by its traditional set (farmers) now, we all have the joy of experiencing this dish. The only difference is that we would have it after a long day of hiking or skiing talking about how much fun we had versus how long and hard our day was just to survive.

How lucky are we? We owe so much to our ancestors, more than we can ever know. Maybe that is why raclette makes me happy. Maybe part of me is connected to them (our ancestry) in some way, as I enjoy the raclette. In any case, I appreciate their sacrifices, whether in the form of raclette, civil rights, immigration rights or other untold freedoms we now take for granted. Bon appétit, y’all.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Expat relations: where have my old friends gone?

Over coffee this morning, I told my husband about a weird dream about an old friend. Long story behind the crazy dream (they rarely make sense to the waking mind, do they?), but more importantly, I started thinking of my old friendships and how the expat experience not only changes you, but also how your old friends relate to you as well.

To give you a bit of background first, back in my hometown (Memphis), I was part of a small but tight group of friends that worked together and played together. We looked forward to our lunches and then to our weekends plans with one another. As time went by, our lives changed with the advent of children, job promotions and losses and other family circumstances. However, we were still able to survive all those life events for 15 years. Friends forever! We toasted to it and declared it on many occasions, that no matter what happens, we will always remain friends.

At the time, I know we all believed it and wished it to be true. But after moving to Charlotte, NC, I began to feel the distance when I would go back home to visit. They all had lots of laughs, private jokes and experiences that they shared, that now had to be explained to me. I felt myself swallow hard with the realization that time and distance were starting to take their toll. My ‘tier one friendship circle,’ as I call it, was starting to deteriorate. It reminded me of the Millennium episode of  Seinfeld  when Jerry fell from the top 10 on the speed dial.

It was a year later, that I moved to France. After living in France for almost another year, I returned home again for another visit. What little familiarity that existed two years ago was now completely gone. The once comfortable ramblings had been replaced with deliberate and calculated chatter that only takes place between friends of friends desperately trying to find common ground. The magical connection was gone; Camelot had ended. My friends were vanishing before my eyes between uncomfortable pauses. There were even some friends that were no-shows. I’m not sure which was worse, the trite conversations with the living ghosts of my past or the absence of the ideal friendship that no longer existed. Maybe it was both; maybe they are one in the same.

In speaking with another friend about my angst over the apparent transition with my tier one circle, he told of how the same thing happened in his and his wife’s lives. He told me that you are the one who changes, it’s your friends who have stayed the same. I protested and said, “But, I’m the same person I’ve always been. I don’t understand why…” and in that moment, he stopped me and said, “no, you’re not the same.” Looking even more bewildered than before, I asked him what he meant. He proceeded to tell me that once you’ve experienced certain life events, you change and often without you noticing. It is inherent and inevitable.

Courtesy of Google Images

Funny how you don’t feel it happening, but it’s like a bowl of candy that starts out half full. With each day and each experience that challenges you, stretches your mind and touches your soul, you add another piece of candy to the bowl. Before long, you realize how much sweeter your life has become and how much you want to share this bowl of candy with all you meet.

There are things that can steal candy from you bowl, such as becoming sour on friendships that change or disappear all together or having one foot into a new culture but not yet fitting in; but if you can push past these feelings and understand that it is part of the process, you can live the sweet life! I would be a liar if I said that letting go (of old friends) has been easy, but I now understand that I was the one who left them. I changed. Although we’ve not discussed it and may never have the chance after all that has happened, I know that they are probably mourning the death of our former friendship too.

We all know that the old dies to make way for the new, both literally and figuratively speaking, but it still hurts when we loose a loved one in any capacity. Sometimes they are still living when we lose them and that can be what hurts most, the seemingly unfinished business of it all in wondering, why? So as an expat, your relationships will inevitably change but in the process, try to enjoy the ride. Enjoy your friends and family while you can and stay open to the new friendships that will inevitably replace some of the old ones. The process will be painful but it’s still worth the ride. ‘Profite de la vie’ (enjoy your life) y’all!

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Pardonne moi, but your French tongue is in my American ear…

In case you may be thinking we are going to discuss something tawdry, sorry to disappoint (some of) you, but hope you’ll stick around for the explanation. In trying to interpret how an American ear interprets the French language, I got a chuckle from thinking about the circa 1980’s commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®.

Remember, “hey, you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter…” and vice versa? As a result of this fun, yet fattening (after satisfying my chocolate & peanut butter craving) promenade down memory lane, the metaphor of how the French language sounds to the American ear began to take shape. It can be a bizarre and awkward combination at first, but in the end, great for both and yes, can even be delicious!

In hearing how native French speakers speak English, it has really helped me get over the ‘literal hump’. By this I mean, I’ve actually learned more from French speakers who do not speak perfect English. They use French structured sentences as I use English structured ones, so in turn, I get to learn how to construct my phrases in the French way. Still confused? Ce n’est pas grave (no problem)! Let’s take some common French expressions and translate them into the literal English meaning:

Tout à fait ! (in French: “You’re right!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “All have done!”

Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (in French: “What is it?“)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “What is this that this is?

Ce n’est pas grave ! (in French: “No problem!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “This no is not serious” (Oh, contraire, I think it’s getting very serious!)

After learning some common and well used French vocabulary words, I thought, cool. I have the basics down, so when I hear those words spoken, I’ll immediately understand. Wow, isn’t French fun? I thought to myself. However; with the sentence structure being so different from English, I would often get stuck in the literal translation and become very frustrated to learn that I still could not make sense of the words when put into a standard French phrase. As my father would say, “I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it.” It sounded like a lot of random words, just thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

My ears would recognize someone say, ‘child….refrigerator…tonight’. But it was like playing connect the dots between French words. The words I recognized were either spoken so fast that I couldn’t understand them or they had not yet been added to my mental vocabulary bank. This resulted in multiple interpretations for the same phrase, such as “my child’s dinner is in the refrigerator for tonight” or “my child climbed in the refrigerator tonight,” I had no idea! It was a bizarre mix of clarity and confusion in one sentence (not sure which would represent clarity, the chocolate or the peanut butter–you decide).

There are also many words in French that have multiple meanings depending on how they are used in a sentence. Case in point: on my wedding day, my now mother-in-law (belle mèrereferred to my wedding outfit using the word, ‘toilette.’ Naturally, I thought she may have been asking me instead if I needed to go the toilet or perhaps did I want some’ eau de toilette‘ (perfume). So, I reflexively responded, “non, merci” (no, thank you) and then wondered, what if she really was comparing my outfit to the toilet in some way? Not the most comforting thought on your wedding day, but when I realized that “toilette” has the following meanings:

1) refers to your total outfit

2) to freshen up as in “faire la toilette”

3) “a cabinet de toilette” (dressing table) or “mettre sa toilette” the act of getting dressed

4) the bathroom

The veil of confusion finally lifted. My mother-in-law had actually complimented me on my outfit. Who could guess that it is possible to receive a compliment using the word, toilette in French? In the end, we all had a good laugh.

Putting all jokes and similes aside for a moment, learning French has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, and at 43, by golly, that’s saying something. Having learned Spanish in high school and college, I honestly thought learning French would be a breeze. Maybe it would have been if I was younger, I don’t know. Maybe age has nothing to do with it at all, but the fact remains, it has been much harder than I’d imagined. So I continue to press on (speaking French like a precocious 3rd grader now), knowing that the reward will far outweigh the frustration some day soon. Bonne toilette, y’all (and take that any way you like ;))!

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Driving in circles: earning the ‘360 degree honk’ in France

Textbook example of how to navigate a roundabout in a perfect world

In all my years of driving (once considered a good driver in my own land), I’ve never been more humbl…no, make that humiliated, than by getting what I call, the ‘360 degree honk’. This didn’t happen in one trip; rather, this self-appointed, renowned title was earned through many painstaking moments of confusing roundabouts, tiny mountain roads with minimal signage, wrong turns, blood, sweat and tears (mostly by those sharing the road with me) later.

Even if you don’t live in Europe, you know what a roundabout is. Roundabouts are becoming increasingly popular in the US, but for the most part, are still relegated to shopping centers and smaller neighborhoods for their aesthetic value. In France, there is definitely an etiquette to the roundabout which yet again, I learned the hard way. This [style of learning] seems to be a disturbing trend with me, but then again, there would be no blog, right? So where was I? Oh yes, driving in circles.

It was a nice day, the sun was shining, birds were singing, the whole nine yards. What could possibly go wrong? You know that expression, ‘you can’t get there from here?’ Well, now that logic makes sense to me! The roundabout, at first glance (see diagram, if you’re a visual person) looks pretty simple: goes one way, exits to the right (in France), seems straight forward enough, no problem I thought. Insert misconception and foolish optimism here. I won’t walk you through the diagram, that would just bore all of us (including me) but I will tell you my hard-earned short cut: stay in the inner lane until you are less than 180 degrees from turning (roughly 2 exits). If you are turning within 2 exits, stay in the outer lane. And as a true southerner would say, “believe you me,” that little tidbit alone is worth its weight in honks.

In trying to navigate roundabouts, I have have been honked at from every direction, but the ‘piece de resistence’, the act that completed the circle of shame, was when someone honked from ahead of me. Now, I don’t mean across in the opposite lane, I mean directly in front of me. Maybe I was following too closely, but that’s a  pretty common occurrence which generally goes unnoticed in France, so I was truly at a loss as to why that final ‘blow’ to my already fragile ego, was necessary in this particular woman’s mind. In fairness, I’m sure she was just as puzzled and angered by me, which truly does make me sad that neither of us understood what went wrong. But, in that moment, I decided to be triumphant instead of defeated! Why? I achieved what I suspect few people have, ‘the 360 degree honk.’

Instead of staying angry and embarrassed, I decided to just wave at my disgruntled road buddy. This had the opposite effect and resulted in angering her even more. I really only wanted to make light of the situation by my gesture, not insight her into a frenzy of French expletives! Sadly, I couldn’t have done a better job at making her angry if I had tried, ‘alors’ (oh well). Not a proud moment and I wish I could have written a different ending, but at some point, you have to put things in a new perspective or you just want to give up. So, waving became my coping mechanism in response to the 360 degree honk; I was liberated.

Bonne Route: Garonne-Danube vu par Clara

By basking in my pseudo-accomplishment, I was able to shrug off my driving ineptitude in order to keep trying. As expats, it’s inevitable; you will offend some people without even trying, so you have to find ways not to let it bother you and embrace the fact as, ‘c’est la vie’ (that’s life). Eventually, we all get over it [being offended] and ourselves in the process. My advise? Just keep following your own road, whether it leads in circles or not, learn from your mistakes and just keep on truckin’. Bonne route (happy travels) y’all!

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Ex-pattycakes: building bridges, one banana bread at a time

For the recipe, just click on the banana bread! (also, I add 1/2tsp. cinnamon, but you do what works best for you.) ~Image courtesy of Google

What a wonderful surprise I received last week, homemade ‘bugnes’ (pronounced: “bewnye”, a beignet-style french donut)! Our downstairs neighbor rang (who owns the village grocery store) and brought one of my favorite things, that’s right, the bugnes. I don’t think I’ve met a Southerner yet who didn’t have an overactive sugar gland. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she always craved donuts and sent my dad out on several sleepy-eyed mornings to curtail her cravings for the deep-fried dandies, so naturally, I blame her for nurturing my sugar addiction (mom, if your reading, you know I still love you).

You may be thinking, what do banana bread and bugnes have in common besides both being desserts? Nothing, except the story I’m about to tell you. If you’re from the US, you already know that banana bread is an American classic, but in my parents’ household, it boarders on iconic status! My dad would say, “Momma, I wish I had a dollar for every banana bread you’ve made and I’ve eaten.” Every time my mom asked my dad what he wanted for dessert, he would always say, yep, you’ve guessed it–banana bread. Truth is, I wasn’t much of a cook until just a few years ago, because when you grow up with a great Southern cook in the family, ‘you’ve got a hard row to hoe’ (‘Southern-ese’ for big shoes to fill). So instead, I became a stellar sous chef and dishwasher–voilà. I hear your wheels turning, do you know where this is heading? With so much change hitting you from all sides trying to adjust as an expat, we often default to our comfort zones. In my case, my default mechanism was the one thing that didn’t need translation, food.

If someone makes you something, they like and appreciate you or they wouldn’t have done it. The gift of food says it all. So I wondered, what can I do to show my appreciation for helping me feel welcome, tolerating my abuse of their language and meeting every question with a preemptive head nod and two second delay before responding in my best pigeon French? I know, I’ll bake them a banana bread! Curious how what makes us feel comfortable, becomes something you then want to share with others. In my case, when I was at my most vulnerable, I wanted to share a happy memory from my childhood in the form of banana bread.

So, never having made a banana bread in my life and after a few failed attempts (with tweaking the recipe from American measure to metric), I was finally ready to make deliveries! And with a big American smile and a good dollop of nervousness, off I went rounding the village like some ‘half-baked’ St. Nicolas! I gave everyone between La Poste (post office) and the boulanger (baker), a banana bread. And without having to say much, let them know I genuinely appreciated their help at a time when I needed it most. I told them that it was a special dessert from the US, particularly in my family. They were all so shocked and excited, that it was touching. I found myself having to say, “De rien” (you’re welcome) very quickly and scoot out before the unexpected welling of emotion became obvious. Believe it or not, I’m not a crier, but the expat experience will pull emotions that are buried inside you, by awakening your joys but also your hidden pains. I guess that day, the emotion of being away from home, family and all things familiar (even though I’m 43 years old), hearkens back to our childhoods to that place of comfort we could all run to, whether it was our parents (if you’re the lucky ones), our favorite stuffed animal or imaginary friend. We all need to feel comforted when facing the vast unknown, just as we did as children and that never changes no matter how old or wise, we think we’ve become.

In making each delivery, it felt great to see their eyes light up as some asked, “Pourquoi (why)?” I just simply responded, “pour votre patience avec moi (for your patience with me) and skirted away before the water works began. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, in receiving baked goods from my neighbor, I now know that on some level, they like and accept me, no matter how awkward I feel. Even though I am still very different from people in my village, France and Europe as a whole, in the end, what a comfort it is to know that some things are still universal. Food is a tie that binds us all and making something from the heart and sharing it, is the universal language of caring. Bon appétit, ya’ll.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Oh my, I said WHAT in French?

Created by New Orleans artist, Dr. Bob

As you can imagine, the language barrier is a biggie, so I would be remiss not to post (first of several) about this particular hairy monster that we must adapt and adjust to as best we can. To sum up the language ‘thing’, the motto is just, ‘be nice’. As a Southerner might say, “when you don’t know the language from a hill of beans, it’s best, just to be nice.” When I was fresh off the plane, I smiled so much, my cheeks hurt, but now I just have really strong cheek muscles and it has served me well. When I arrived, my french was relegated to just the basics–‘bonjour’, ‘merci’, ‘au revoir’ and of course those that all of us learned from Lady Marmalade in the 70’s (we all know the ones, let’s leave it at that!). Needless to say, a big portion of humble pie is always on the menu when you are learning a new language.

Let me tell you about one particular piece of humble pie I ate. I was already nervous, because I was to meet my husband’s family for the first time. I worked overtime before they arrived, cranking out the french lessons one after another using my language software, zipping through each one before the characteristic harp noise could signify that the right answer was chosen. Man, I was ready and thought I would be OK, as long as the topics stayed simple (insert misconception #1). But no one ever talked about dogs, cats, airplanes or boats, which is the useless dribble you learn first. I tried to insert the topics when I could, but frankly, I was even boring myself in doing so. Then, to add insult to injury, I mispronounced one of the simplest responses, ‘merci beaucoup’ (phonetically correct: mair sea/bow coow) instead, I pronounced ‘beaucoup’ incorrectly as, ‘bow cyu’.  In doing so, I essentially told my future brother-in-law, that he had a nice derriere. Not the lasting impression I had in mind, but boy, did I make one! He smiled and kindly corrected me, understanding what I meant to say while preserving both our dignities, thank goodness! Then I thought, oh my, to how many others had I said it incorrectly? I could only hope that they all understood too and knew that I tried my best, as evidenced by my good-hearted brother-in-law.

It really was and still is amazing, how accepting people are when you at least try to speak their language. I have been told by a few native French who have encountered more than a few other English speakers (namely Brits & Americans) who come and expect people to adapt to their way, with no intention of learning the language. This was shocking to me. Again, as a Southerner, my family would be aghast to know that I had been a guest in another country (similar to visiting someone’s home) and didn’t do my best to be a good one during my stay. I think learning just a few words of the language in whatever country you visit or live, is very much like visiting a friend’s home and bringing a small gift to show your gratitude. It is a gift to see the world and meet new people, so why wouldn’t we treat it as such?

Looking backward through the binoculars, it is difficult to humble one’s self in needing the help of others and becoming dependent on the kindness of strangers. So much rides on a first impression that to look foolish for not saying something properly, can be very disheartening and prevent you from dusting yourself off to try again. So, I can certainly understand why there are people who do not learn because of their fear of being humiliated or not being accepted. Sadly, the opposite is true from my experience. People want to help you when you make the effort. Just think of friends, coworkers or your own children who you knew were doing their best to learn and they smiled when you tried to teach them. The same philosophy works, be nice and try your best even if it’s only a few words, use them and you will be surprised how well and how far it will take you!

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Falling in love in Paris: Cliché becomes reality

This [my] story sounds cliché, but falling in love in Paris really can happen! We’ve all heard that Paris is dubbed as ‘the city of lights’ and a lovers paradise, but I had no idea it could happen to me. I love the movie Casablanca too, but come on, does that really happen outside the movies or books? I can now tell you it does. My crusty, sarcastic coating regarding love, has been melted away by the man I now call, ‘mon mari’ (my husband).

How exactly did this happen? Well, back when I jokingly say that I had a ‘real job’, working for a global manufacturer, my job took me to our Belgian office on a month-long project. During that time, I met my ‘would-be’ hubby, a shy, handsome Belgian with boyish good looks and manly charm (see, I told you my story was a cliché before we started!). At least I didn’t say he was tall, dark and handsome!

OK, moving on. I worked with him side-by-side, we attended group functions and interacted as most coworkers do. During the course of these interactions, we both felt there was something between us, but with working 15 hour days among a group of people and no time off, we never spoke of our affinity for one another. As time went on, I began to think that I was being overly intuitive about his feelings for me and having that crusty coating at the time, I soon let logic and reason take over any notions of budding romance breaking through the shell. And eventually, it was time to go back home to the US and it became business as usual and sadly, we didn’t speak again for 12 years.

In checking one of my networking sites, I saw his name pop up as a suggested connection and wondered if he’d even remember me after all this time. I composed an awkward reintroduction saying, ‘hope you still remember me, I was one of the Americans who worked with you 12 years ago….’ I held my breath as I thought, what if he doesn’t remember me or doesn’t want to reconnect? How will this effect me? I then exhaled and clicked, ‘send invitation’ and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself or him too badly in the process. He responded by saying, ‘…of course I remember you Regina…’ and so, we reconnected as former employees do, right? Again, no bells, whistles, declarations or confessions, only the acknowledgment that he did remember me, a small yet important victory in my mind and unwittingly, a foreshadowing to the future.

In late September, a friend and I were planning to go to Paris for vacation. Since I knew my former Belgian coworker was living and working in France from his online profile, I asked if he was close to Paris to see if we could meet and get caught up on each others’ lives.  He said he’d love to see me again and would take the train to meet me in Paris to have dinner at Le Pied de Cochon, a Parisian institution for classic french cuisine. We met for a late dinner and already, I could sense my world was about to change.

Re-winding a bit to 12 years ago, we recognized the spark we had for one another, but never voiced our feelings, which only resulted in internal dialog about what could have been. The next morning, we met again for coffee with my travel buddy, so again, no time to explore our feelings from either of us on how we felt when we first met or in Paris, just great dialog between friends.

When he was leaving to take his train home, we hugged good-bye and it took all I had to not cry, which seemed ridiculous at the time, given that no outward expression of our feelings had ever taken place. Regardless, I hugged him and couldn’t even look back to see him disappear into the Metro, because I knew I would not be able to hold back my emotions.

Little did I know at the time, he was experiencing the same pain of leaving me and had all the same emotions he had then and now.  He told me later that he waited for me to look back and when I didn’t, he thought I didn’t share the love he had been carrying for me all this time. I was devastated that he was gone and that yet again, I didn’t have the courage to tell him how I felt.

As he disappeared into the Metro that day, he sent me an email at that time (which I never got until arriving home) that I had changed his life in just a moment, that he was starting to lose faith in love and happiness and that it all changed when he saw me again. He said he wasn’t willing to lose me again and wanted to find out if we were meant to be together. After returning home, I naturally got his message and I began to cry as I now finally knew the truth about how he felt and I could tell him I loved him too.

About a month after Paris, he came to visit for 10 days (his first trip to the US) and we actually got to talk and get to know one another without a constant audience. We found out that we do have a strong bond and connection that hasn’t waned over time or distance. And so it began, a romance that would take another year to come full circle, after 12 years in waiting.

“…See there’s this place in me where your fingerprints still rest, your kisses still linger, and your whispers softly echo. It’s the place where a part of you will forever be a part of me.”
–Gretchen Kemp

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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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From vacation to expatriation…

Tulips on a cornerstone, growing on their own

Previously, we talked about how to spot in one’s psyche, the desire to expatriate, even for just a little while. We all do it to some degree with a vacation, getting away from the mundane to embrace a temporary sort of life that gives us the mental boost to soldier on, or as they say in my former neck of the woods, ‘cowboy-up’ to the responsibilities of life. So, we all have a need to expatriate for brief times over our lifetimes.

What makes a vacation turn into expatriation? Let’s start by saying what expatriation isn’t. It isn’t just running away from responsibility, because at some point, no matter where you live, life does require certain things from us as humans…you’re an adult, you understand. It also isn’t that I hate my country (although the politics can be upsetting) or my southern heritage, or that I am ashamed to be an American in any shape or form. Quite the opposite really, I am still a proud American and Southerner (yes, and in that order–surprised?). And barring any legal reasons for leaving your country of origin, I think most of us love our heritages and the countries from which we hail.

Yep, I can hear you thinking–so, if expats are proud of their country, then why do they leave? I can only answer for myself and each individual has their own reasons for wanting to plant new roots. For me, it was simply to experience something I couldn’t find at home: new cultures, norms, attitudes, sights, sounds and having more of a sense of the world, of which I was only a small part–this is the paradox of being an expat. By this I mean, the very thing that draws us into this experience is the very thing that can make it so joyful and paradoxically, so difficult and often painful. Frankly, I don’t care for the term, ‘expatriate’ or ‘expat’, because the term does seem to imply some degree of dissatisfaction or alienation from one’s country, but I guess we can thank SEO for propagating the term, yes, I’m being cheeky here.

Where did my vacation turn into expatriation? The short answer is well, over a man. A man from my past (13 years to be exact) that re-entered my life and boy howdy, did my life turn like a dog’s hind leg! Yes, I wanted to experience all that life had to offer, but just like every dreamer, sometimes it’s more comfortable to feed the dream versus live it. When push comes to shove, even dreamers can be afraid to look down into the cavern of change and jump. But at that moment of truth, (such as the night before the movers arrive and your whole life is either in a box or sold) you finally let go, both with tears and hopeful expectations.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2010 in Daily life in France

 

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Are expats born or made?

War monument beside the church in Le Sappey en Chartreuse, France

Well, the short answer is of course, who knows? But, admittedly, I’ve always wanted to learn French and live in France for a very long time now, for reasons still unknown to me.  Maybe you’ve seen similarities in your life such as, have you always gravitated toward European design or euro-inspired objects?  Or have you unwittingly surrounded yourself with things that hearken back to another era and have always had a deep-rooted desire to see more than just your backyard? Friends and acquaintances who traveled were always so exciting and a bit of a mystery to me. Somehow, they always seemed ‘different’ when they returned, but I could never put my finger on what it was at the time, that made them seem that way.

According to recent and ground-breaking cognitive research, the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument, is becoming more definitive on the roles of genetics and environment and the eternal tug of war that they play with our futures.  Leading experts in cognition are suggesting that 60 percent of who we are is genetic and the remaining 40 percent is environmentally determined (to find out more on this subject, reference: The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, Second Edition: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research by Pierce J. Howard, PhD).  Does this mean we only have a 10 percent margin of error to get it right (relax, only joking of course)?

Growing up, our family would go on water skiing trips with my aunt, uncle and cousins. Those times were indelible and I remember how much fun we had skiing until our legs were weak and could barely walk at the end of the day, have a great meal with family and then sleep like a rock, all to do it again the next day. The place were we camped wasn’t far (only about a 2 hour drive) but it felt like a world away to us! To this day, my parents are still camping (not water skiing anymore though) and seeing the US via their RV and loving it. In college, my friends and I would go hiking and camping in local national parks all within a day’s drive.  Just like in my childhood, it wasn’t too far away, but we felt like we were–and on a student’s budget, that was a good thing! What’s the point? Everyone enjoys a vacation, but most are ready to get back to their routine and life as they left it. For a future expat, something is always missing when you get home, you miss that ‘far away’ feeling.  You are still restless, still wanting more but not sure why or how to remedy it. This may be the first sign that you are starting to become, as I like to say, ‘a citizen of the world’.  If you’re looking for a cure, there isn’t one. Vacations may only be a short-term fix to your ongoing condition.

What is it that makes a seeker, seek?  A wanderer, wander?  In my case, it appears it was a bit of both (nature & nurture). The truth is, we don’t know why some of us have the urge to travel, to see the final frontier, to boldly go…OK, I’ll stop, you get the point.  What we do know, is that it [desire to see/know more] is part of what drives us and calls us to risk so much and gamble on the unknown.  I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, but we can underestimate the commitment, emotional toll and conversely, the complete joy the experience brings. Please do share your expat stories, other travel stories or questions with me and feel free to suggest future topics.

Happy travels (bon voyage)!

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2010 in Daily life in France

 

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