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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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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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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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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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Faux pas on aisle 4!

Thank you Google Images, I couldn’t agree more!

When thinking of shopping in Europe, one conjures images of sidewalk markets brimming with fresh fruits and veggies from the farmer’s garden. Those certainly exist and my husband and I enjoy them on Sunday afternoons. But just like in the US, there are chain stores where you get your non perishables as well. This is how I received a crash course in French grocery store etiquette.

First, please know that I’m not the kind of shopper who:

1) leaves a cart in the middle of the aisle

2) pays by check regularly and if I do, doesn’t fill in the check prior to checkout

3) invades your personal space in the checkout

4) abuses the express checkout by getting in the ‘10 items or less’ aisle with 11+ items

Admittedly, I do fancy myself as someone of at least average intellect, but the expat experience will sometimes make you think you are, as my father would say, ‘a few bricks shy of a load’ sometimes. So, I’m confessing now, that I did the unthinkable; yes, the almost unforgivable act of taking someone else’s shopping cart by accident. But before you judge me, please read on. And hopefully, just maybe, you can find it in your heart to forgive my egregious breach of shopping etiquette.

One of my favorite movies is Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton and I couldn’t help but laugh for thinking that kind of shopping disaster could never happen to me. Let me just say, be careful of what you find funny or ridiculous, because it could happen to you!

Granted, I didn’t knock fruit over or abandon a child in the cart, but the same awkwardness and cluelessness are spot on. As we do in the US and the UK, we take our carts (or trolleys for our UK friends) and mind our path while not blocking the aisles as best we can. So naturally, I did the same, keeping my path as close to the right as possible (or would it be the left in the UK?) and went about my shopping. I wouldn’t say I received dirty looks, but people curiously looked at the cart first, then at me. I didn’t understand that you don’t push your cart around all the time to each location, you instead park your cart in a general area and walk to get the other items you need, then return to your parked cart when finished. Well, didn’t get the memo, yet again. How can something as simple as pushing a cart, be so different in another country? It was when I realized my faux pas and began leaving my cart, that I unknowingly lost it! The one I returned to had the same stuff in it as I had and was in the same general area, so it must be mine. So I thought.

Getting in the checkout lane (or ‘till’ for our British counterparts), I noticed people stacking their groceries like mad onto the belt. It was at such a fast and furious pace, it looked like an actual race. Naturally, I followed suit and began to pile my items in anticipation of being next, as if I were to win an imaginary prize. If it weren’t for my husband telling me that you have to weigh and bag your own items, I would have been up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

When the clerk was ready, she began scanning my items at lighting speed, sliding them down the stainless steel chute, as I did my best to keep ahead of her by bagging at the other end, still with my eyes on the imaginary prize. Back in the US, I remember the young man who usually bagged my groceries would ask,  ‘paper or plastic, ma’am?’ In France, you bring your own bags or purchase them at the store. It’s not posted anywhere so if you don’t know,  ‘you’re just caught with your bags down.’ In the States, it would always amaze me how the baggers could quickly ascertain which items work best in the same bag and stacked them from heaviest to lightest on top and hand you your candy or gum in one fell swoop! Now, I was just cramming the stuff in the bags as fast as I could, in an effort not to hold up the line.

After the ordeal was over and it was time to return my cart, I thought; now, I can relax. Gingerly pushing the cart sideways up a slight, uphill grade (the carts have wheels that turn 360 degrees–see previous post for more irony) to its holder.  I began to take the coin out of the slot in the cart and it wouldn’t move. I pulled and pulled and still, nothing. I saw the chain and realized, ah, ha! There is a lock that clenches the coin and triggers the engaging or releasing of both the coin and chain. This [locking system] had escaped my notice upon getting the cart, as my hubby was kind enough to do it for me.

Feeling slightly empowered by my firm grasp of the obvious, I began to insert the chain into the wrong slot (the one holding the coin) for a good 30 seconds, which my friends, is a long time in ‘Cartworld’. Then, in a stroke of belated genius, I decided, maybe I should look at the other carts to see how they lock together (better late than never I suppose) and rejoiced at unlocking the mystery! The chain inserts in the back of the lock box verses where the coin is. After loading the car with my goodies (including a few surprises, like gaining some new items from the cart switch) I collapsed into the car from mental exhaustion thinking, and I’ve got to do this again next week?

Bonne courses, y’all (happy shopping)!

 
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Posted by on February 10, 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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