Thursday, June 29, 2006

Le Regard de L'Autre

This is a complicated topic that I will not be able to fully explore in one post. I haven't finished my research on the topic yet anyway. We'll call it a work in progress.

Le regard de l'autre, literally, the look of another, plays an important role in French society. Homogeneity is highly valued here and the collective regard de l'autre keeps everyone in check.

As a foreigner, I am somewhat exempt from le regard. But today, perhaps for the first time ever, I felt the full weight of the regard.

The muffler fell halfway off my car today. I was across town from my house with groceries from the co-op and two kids in my car. It was too late to drive it to the mechanic's. It was way too far to walk home with kids and groceries. I drove home, muffler hanging and sparking, hazzards on. I cannot even describe the looks we got. Although from inside my hot, loud car, they looked like incomprehension from the women, wonderment from the kids, and pity from the men.

The boys, of course, thought the whole 'adventure' (their word) was fun.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Le Football

Never thought I would write a post about soccer. And yet, here I am.

I don't like soccer much. I just don't find it that interesting. A lot of running back and forth across the long field and not a lot of points being scored. Did you know that you can watch a whole game - that's 90 minutes, minimum - and not know who won? Oh right, because no one did. How lame is that? 90 minutes and no winner. In French, that kind of game is called un match nul. Which pretty much sums it up. A nothing match. Husband has tried to explain to me the merits of the sport and even the merits of the nothing match. I just kept saying, "Yeah, whatever, but come on, 90 minutes and no winner? If I were there, I would ask for a ticket refund." He shook his head in despair and gave up.

We've now entered into the part of the World Cup where there can no longer (thank you) be any nothing matches. Someone has to win.

Last night, Husband wisely went out with friends to watch the game. I watched a Sex and the City dvd, which Husband bought for me so I would have something to watch during the insanity that is the World Cup. Isn't that sweet?

Like I said, I didn't watch the game against Spain last night. But I may as well have.

It's hot here. Everyone has their windows open in the evening, including us, hoping for a cooling breeze. Well, last night, that breeze came accompanied. I knew when everyone of the four points was scored, and of course, according to the collective moans or cheers, by which team. I knew when it was half-time and I CERTAINLY knew when the game was over.

Husband was in a EXCELLENT mood this morning. Which is saying a lot because he's totally not a morning person.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Voices carry. But not that far.

This morning Boy2 and I went to the grocery store, as we do every thursday morning. When we got back home he wanted to go outside in the yard, to do something, he said. "You leave me alone Mama, ok?" Ok. I stayed in the kitchen and put away the groceries. I turned on some music and focused on my task. Fitting too much food into a ridiculously small refrigerator.

I heard someone yelling but didn't pay any attention.

I finished up in the kitchen. Someone was still yelling. I went outside to see what Boy2 was up to.

He was standing in front of the gate. It's very tall, much taller than us. No one on the street could see us. But they certainly could hear Boy2. He was yelling, I mean really yelling, "Uncle Daryl and Aunt Denise, come back!" Over and over and over.

I walked up and said, "They can't hear you baby, they're too far away." They live in Illinois.

"Ok, I yell louder."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

La Fête de la Musique

Today is Summer Soltice which is marked in France by a music festival. Every city, town, and many villages set up bandstands big and little (or sometimes just a reserved piece of the sidewalk) to let local artists play in the street while people mill about listening and liking or not and moving on to the next group. Stuff starts around 8:00 pm and ends very late. Last year, on the morning of the 22nd, I walked out onto our terrace in my - let's just call them sleeping clothes - thinking, at 6:30 am, that I could do so unobserved. (Our terrace is at the back of the house and overlooks a path leading to several driveways). There were 3 young men in the middle of the path discussing the merits of the bands they had seen while finishing those last 3 beers. They looked up when I walked out and said, "Well, hi! Is it morning already?" I replied it was indeed morning, could I offer them some coffee or a cellphone to call a taxi? No thanks, they said, they were going to go get some croissants and walk home.

I used to go to the music festival. But for the past several years I haven't had to. I live in downtown Laval. On a completely residential street a few blocks away from streets with cafés and restaurants and shops. Which means that tonight, for example, I can hear two bands at the same time. One crap and one ok but neither anything I would risk mosquito bites to listen to outside. Which also means that I will hear them until about 2 hours before I finally get up and greet the stragglers from my terrace tomorrow morning. This time I'll be wearing a bathrobe over my sleeping clothes.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I'm a hotty. Not.

I used to think I was a real hotty, especially in France. Really. Because guys (and some women too) were checking me out all the time. What an ego boost. Although I did notice that it was mostly when I was in my car, waiting at a stoplight. Hmm. I wondered why. Maybe the French guys were shy (yeah right) and felt less vulnerable gazing openly from the safety of their cars. Maybe knowing they only had a few minutes until the light changed made them feel reckless and daring. Maybe the plaid fabric of my seat brought out the green in my blue eyes.

Until the day I realized it was none of those things.

In the US, stoplights are high up. Either hanging over intersections or up on big posts on the corners. In France, they are also high up, on corners, and always lined up with the line (Yes, I know that sounds weird but I didn't know how else to say it.) designating where to wait.


There is also another smaller set of lights, nearly eye level with drivers, on either or both sides of an intersection. I never really paid attention to them, I was just used to looking up for the lights.

One day, I stopped a little too close to the line. And so decided to back up a little, for the comfort of the pedestrians. There was a fine young man in the car next to mine and his eyes had not left my face since we had stopped. He thought I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, I could tell. Imagine my surprise when his eyes did not follow as I backed my car up. I turned my head to see what the heck he was looking at. Duh. The low-level stoplight.

All those guys (and women) were just looking at the light, waiting for it to turn green.

When I told Husband about my mistake, he laughed non-stop for 15 minutes.

Monday, June 19, 2006

International Incident

Saturday evening Husband and I were invited to a house-warming party. The evening, which included a meal for 50, was to begin at 8:30. Due to babysitter issues, we arrived about 15 minutes late. At that point, the hosts were just setting out the fixings for apéritif. My crab dip (yes, I made crab dip for 50) - which was actually a shrimp dip because the hostess bought cans of shrimp instead of crab - crudités, puff pastry rounds filled with boudin noir (blood sausage - don't ask), and crostini with tapenade (beverage was punch). Apéritif lasted a long time. Seriously. When we sat down to eat it was 10:00. Dinner was roasted suckling pig, stewed beans from Vendée, and roasted tomatoes (beverage was a hearty red).

At 12:00, hour at which Husband and I had promised the babysitter we would be home, we were still eating the cheese course (beverage was another hearty red). At the rate things were going, dessert was going to be served at 1:00. We finished our cheese and decided we had to leave. Our kids wake up early, both of us had slept badly the night before, and the babysitter is only 15 and had a tennis match the next morning. However, leaving a dinner party early is a little delicate. We're often the first to leave (I'm so not a night-owl) and our hosts knew that but the other 46 people didn't. We were all seated at one huge L-shaped table outside on the L-shaped deck. I certainly wasn't going to kiss both cheeks of 48 people, so we just decided to kiss the hosts and wave goodbye to the other 46. Unfortunately, our hosts were not seated in the most accessible seats. As I made my way around the table, I realized I was going to have to lean in to faire la bise (the kiss on each cheek thing). As I leaned towards the hostess, one of my breasts bopped a guest on the head. Hmm. What to do in a situation like that. Well, you know, I'm a pretty straight-forward person. So I said, addressing said guest with the formal vous (I mean, I may have bopped him with my breast but we hadn't been introduced.), "I'm sorry, I believe I bopped the back of your head with my breast." Everyone at the table starts laughing and said guest turns around, smiles, and says (also using formal vous), "Not at all. The pleasure was all mine." Lots more laughter. We quickly exited stage left.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Les Fonctionnaires

On their recent trip home from Europe, my brother and sister-in-law encountered numerous mess-ups and hassles with Air France. EVERY French person employed in the private sector can say the same of at least one agency of the French government. Air France is no longer owned by the government but some things die slowly, particularly amongst former civil servants.

Both hated and envied, government employees are a strange lot in France. Hated because they have more job security and benefits and vacation days and God-only-know-what-else than any other group of people here. Envied for the same reasons. Hated also because they typcially have little notion of customer service or sense of urgency or general I-care-ness. Hated even more because they are generally the first to strike to have more of the above, despite the fact that they have more of the above than anyone else.

Civil servant horror stories are a dime a dozen amongst foreigners, as I would imagine they are for foreigners living in the US as well. And for some of us, obtaining the correct stamped piece of paper from the right office is nothing short of miraculous. The first academic year I spent here I was teaching at the University of Nantes. I left after 9 months. I was never able to obtain ANY of the necessary documents to obtain a TEMPORARY resident card from any of the agencies I had to deal with . When I returned to stay in 1997, I was a little more persistant. And having a soon-to-be-lawyer as a fiancé helped quite a bit also.

Although I knew I was in for serious trouble before I even left the US. I was required to have a medical exam certifying whatever. Imagine my surprise to discover that there was only ONE doctor in the entire state of Washington who was qualified to conduct said examination. SuperDoctor came in, listened to my heart, checked my eyes, and examined me for goiter. And surprisingly found me fit to go to France. Anyway, the French Consulate in San Francisco was 'handling' my visa and told me to send them the bill for the medical visit. Two years later (I'm not kidding) I got a collection notice on the bill from the hosptial. Never paid. I called the consulate. That conversation was too surreal to even discuss.

One year after my wedding, I obtained my 10-year renewable-if-I'm-a-good-girl resident card. Although I am required to inform the foreigners' service (not so much) office at the Préfecture within ten days if I move. Don't ask me what they do if it's more than 10 days. I don't even want to know.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

You know and you never know

I think I always knew, somewhere, somehow, that I would end up living in France.

When my oldest brother took a year of French in high school, I looked at that book whenever I could (I was about 8) and I tried to get him to teach me what he learned in class. A few years later, we got a book with a two page photo spread and description of every country in the world. My two favorites were France and Nepal. France for the descriptions of the food and wine and fashion and perfume and Nepal for the pictures of a woman on her wedding day with gold dust stencils on her skin. Gold dust. Wow.

In high school, I finally got to take French class myself, and I loved it. I think I irritated most of the people in the class because I was such an eager beaver about it.

My first year at university I continued studying it. And then. In August of that year, I sold my VW Bug and bought a one-way ticket to Paris. I was 17. I knew no one in Paris. But I went anyway, alone, except for my textbook grammar. My poor mother. Anyway, I went back home after 3 months when money and my tourist visa ran out. But I loved it and knew I would be back to stay.

10 years later, nearly to the day, I moved back for good. Which is funny, because at certain points during those 10 years, the possibility of ending up here seemed more and more remote. You just never know, do you?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

I'm sweaty

Husband and I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding or whatever that movie was called. Which I really like. For many reasons. I grew up near Chicago so it reminds me of home. When I first moved to Seattle, I lived in Montlake, right by a Greek Orthodox Church. So it reminds me of Seattle, one of my favorite places on earth. I also like it because it's a chick flick and I love chick flicks. Anyway.

Husband got irritated at the Greek papa. Of course he's totally ethnocentric and of course it's something to hear how superior he believes Greeks to be. Husband said, "People like that drive me crazy. If where they're from is so amazing and where they are now is so inferior, they should go back." Which is not so much a Husband comment as a French one. 'Integration' is a big word here, used often and highly valued. I think what they really mean is not integrated but homogenous, VERY highly valued here. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But that's another post.

Anyway, I told husband that it wasn't really about that for the Greek papa. And it isn't. As a foreigner raising children in a place that is not your home, the need, the desire to have them treasure and value and cherish and KNOW, really know, their other homeland is visceral and intense. And it sort of sweats out of you and seeps into conversations and attitudes. Greek papa is obviously an exaggeration, a caricature even. And yet. I find myself wanting my boys to be proud to be American, which means that I need to be proud to be American, which is hard to reconcile with the way I feel about my country and its leaders at times. But you take the good with the bad. And there is good. See, I'm sweating.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Everyone in France has a title. Wherever you go, you get called by your title. Bonjour Madame, when I walk into a bakery or shop. It used to be Bonjour Mademoiselle until I started walking in with kids. And crow's feet. So, women are mademoiselle or madame, men are monsieur. In many situations, it's considered impolite to just say bonjour. You've got to add the title.

Husband gets a bonus title because he's a lawyer. Maître, he is called, in formal situations where his profession is known. When we fight, if I'm feeling really bitchy, I'll say oui, Maître, using the Tone. Because it can mean title-used-for-lawyers or it can mean master. You can guess how I mean it.

I actually don't like titles. When people call me madame, I usually turn around to see if there isn't an elderly lady standing behind me. There never is. It took me months, but I actually got the Madame taken off of all my bank stuff. Before, without ever having asked for it, it was on my checks, my bank cards, and, of course, all the mail they ever sent me. I wasn't being difficult or picky, really, I just didn't feel like Madame. What does my marital status have to do with anything? Why should that information have to be acknowledged at the beginning of every greeting and conversation, however brief? I'm making a small deal out of nothing, it doesn't really mean that to them, it's just one of those linguistic chunks that is more ritual than meaningful. Anyway, as quickly as is politely possible, I switch to a first name basis, which eliminates all the madaming and monsieuring.

By the way, I got a job. Which is fine. Really. For a several hours a week, I will have to go by my official work title, Madame (fill in with my last name, not husband's -ha! that's a whole other post) and not my current (and very overused) title. MMMMAAAAAMMMMMAAAA!

Monday, June 12, 2006

What's your favorite cheese?

You're going to think that this is turning into a food blog. But it's not.

There are a lot of cheeses in France. I find most of them wonderful. A few of them I don't for a variety of reasons, too pungent, too moldy, too many spiders on the outside. (I'm not making that up.) But I'm open to trying all of them at least once. Some of my favorites are St. Félicien (cow's milk), Bleu des Basques (sheep's), corsican hard sheep cheese (almost like a pecorino but not), fresh goat cheese, beaufort (cow's), and I'll stop there just to keep the list short.

I know a few people who don't like cheese very much, or who don't like very many cheeses. That's ok, I feel the same way about brussel sprouts. But I know one person who doesn't like ANY cheese. Not a single one. In a country where there are roughly 375 varieties of cheese, I find it hard to accept that there is not a SINGLE cheese that could please said person. Said person will not try cheese and categorically refuses to eat anything with cheese in it. Having said that, said person once ate cheese at my house. Unknowingly. I admit it. I lied to said person. Crab dip was out, said person asked if there was cheese in it and I said no because, really, is cream cheese really cheese? It's more like really thick sour cream. And the number of appetizers said person 'could' eat was already minimal due to another dietary restriction so I was feeling a little panicked. What would said person eat if not the crab dip? Just plain old crudités? Said person trusted me and ate the crab dip and appreciated it. I felt very guilty.

In France, there is a solution for people who don't like cheese. Aside from not eating it and panicking the hostess. Saint Jean d'Aulp. It is a pilgrimage. For people who don't like cheese. And I'm not making that up either.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The bottles

I went to my favorite restaurant last week. Les Bouteilles. Ask me for the address if you're ever in Nantes.

I've had a few favorite restaurants in my life. Pizza Hut when I was a child. Hardy's when I was an adolescent. The Pilot House in Wilmington, NC when I was in college. Cyclops in Seattle (until it moved) and Café Septième in Seattle (until it moved). The first year I lived in Nantes it was La Mangeoire, a nice, small very Frenchy kind of place. When I moved back to stay, I discovered Le Café du Change, a medieval restaurant where I first tasted roasted camembert. I'm sad to say, this restaurant no longer exists. Though roasted camembert lives on at my house.

I don't think I could give one specific reason that makes Les Bouteilles so special, it's more of an ensemble kind of a thing. Originally a wine bar, the two guys who own it started serving food to go along with what they were pouring. Here's what a typical meal is like (last week, as a matter of fact).

You walk in and think, man this place is small. But just perfect. Simple, charming, totally unpretentious. There are enough tables to seat 20 and that's it. The walls are stone, the floor is wood, the bar is marble. Although both guys are sommelier by education and experience, one cooks and the other pours.

Once seated, a server came over and took the food order. The choices are limited. For apéritif, there are 4 choices (we got the corsican charcuterie platter and crostini with fresh anchovy and tomato spread). For dinner there are 5 (we got lemon-confit chicken with roasted potatoes and steak kebab with string fries). Then Antoine, the wine guy, came over and made suggestions for apéritif and for dinner. For apéritif we got glasses, muscat (Domaine des Bernardains - it was the best muscat I've ever tasted - like liquid gold and honeysuckle, but better and not poisonous ) for my brother and me, a cooked wine from Provence for my sister-in-law, and a red anjou for husband. With dinner we got a bottle of Bourgogne that was perfection in a bottle.

Dessert was a thin slice of chocolate cake with crème anglaise for three of us, and more muscat for one of us.

The food is not complicated and it's not even the best part of the restuarant . But it showcases the wine and I think that's what they want. If forced, I would have to say that the best part of the restaurant is the fact that those guys LOVE what they do. They are passionate about the wine they serve and when they talk about the farmers and butchers and cheesemakers they work with, you realize they're passionate about food too, (although not at all in a foody kind of way - if that makes any sense) and what excellent quality can bring to a meal and a wine-tasting experience.

After we ordered apéritif, Antoine brought glasses and the three bottles to the table. He poured for everyone except for me, as I had not yet decided what I wanted. He stood and watched as I had a sip from everyone's glass. Husband said, "Chérie, he's got a job to do, make up your mind." So I did, choosing the muscat. After he walked away, I said to husband, "I really don't think it bothered him to wait for me to choose." We all agreed. What he wanted most was for all of us to be happy, really happy, with what we were drinking. He's got the coolest job ever.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Get dirty

Appearance is important in France. Which means that plates of food, shop windows, and clothes (among other things) can be very, very beautiful here. However, it is possible, I believe, to take things too far. For example.

We were eating lunch at a nice brasserie along a river in a small city in Brittany. Boys had finished their lunch and had been served 2 scoops of ice cream. And they were eating them with much enthusiasm. Which translated into total silence and focus from Boy1 and relative silence, focus, and total messiness from Boy2. There was ice cream all over his face and a fair amount on his shirt. I hadn't brought a bib and the paper napkins were useless again his efforts to become a chocolate-covered Boy2.

There were four people seated at the table next to ours. A middle-aged couple and an elderly couple. They watched Boy2 eat his ice cream for a minute. The elderly woman smiled indulgently and said, "He sure is enjoying that ice cream." Her daughter clucked her tongue and said, "Yes, but he's getting it all over his shirt. It will be stained. "

"That's ok, " I said. "Kids are supposed to be dirty, it's proof they're having fun."

HER: "But he'll be stained and dirty all day unless you change his shirt."

ME: "Well, I won't change his shirt, I have enough laundry as it is and really, it's only chocolate ice cream. "

HER: "But people will look at him and see that his shirt is stained."

ME: "If it doesn't bother him or me, why should it bother anyone else?"

HER: "I suppose that's true. But appearance is important here."

ME: "I can appreciate that. But judging people based on appearance should not be."

HER: "That's true."

It sounds kind of snippy, but it really wasn't. The tone was very civilized and I think she was as baffled by my attitude as I was by hers. My position is in no way superior to hers, just different. For her, clean and neatly-dressed children are a result of good parenting. And for me, at the end of the day, grass stains, muddy hands, and chocolate stains are sure-fire signs that the day was a good one.

Monday, June 05, 2006

What's your wild card?

Last week was the best and the worst. The best because my big brother and his wife were here for a visit. We talked, drank lots of wine and played lots of canasta. It was great. The worst because Boy2 had the worst case of chicken pox EVER seen by the human eye. Really. And having the chicken pox did NOT bring out the best in Boy2. At all. It was horrible.

In canasta, jokers and 2s are wild cards. They can be whatever you need them to be.

In France, being an American is my wild card. I don't use it that often, and (as in canasta) a natural is worth more. But it does come in handy sometimes. For example.

Many French mothers breastfeed. Something like 60% of newborns are breastfed and then it drops off dramatically, first at 1 month and then again at 3 months, when maternity leave ends. A few stay-at-home moms persist, most stopping by 6 months. I breastfed both of my kids until they were 2 1/2 and I did so without discretion. I didn't walk around topless, but I didn't hide their heads or my breasts with tea towels or strange clothing either. You can go topless on beaches anywhere here, there are topless women in commercials selling everything from shower gel (I get it) to yogurt (huh?), so I really didn't see the point. Occasionally I got comments. Mostly along the lines of, "Wow, you're still breastfeeding?" Or another favorite, "Don't his teeth hurt?" In the beginning, I used to launch into a lengthy explanation about WHO recommendations and statistical evidence supporting longterm breastfeeding. But that got boring (mostly for them). Finally, I just played the wild card. "I'm American." "OOOOh." Somehow, that explained it all.