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Tag Archives: Culture Choc

Comparing French and American cultures, particularly, from a Southerner’s point-of-view

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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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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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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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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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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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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