Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Big Bread Theory

My friend recently reminded me about a conversation her husband had with my husband, Fred, when her family was visiting us in Paris. Her husband asked Fred what the French thought about Americans. Fred said that French think Americans have big bread. With all the history between the two countries and the stereotypes flung about by their people, I found his answer original (as did my friends, hence the subject's reprise).

Perhaps Fred was serious, or being funny, or searching for something neutral to say as not to come across as “the arrogant Frenchman”. I could ask him, but the idea that he could have been serious makes me laugh so hard that I prefer ignorant bliss. The truth is the French do seem to have bread envy, although I’m not sure why given the shape of a baguette.

Even Fred likes to use big ol' American bread for his sandwich making. That's Mount Rushmore on the bag. The problem is the bread won’t fit into the French sandwich bags, nor do the king-sized slices fit into my French toaster. I have to rotate the bread mid-way through to make sure the half-inch towering out gets grilled.

In fact, everything large in France is "American" - the American refrigerator, the American washing machine, etc. – and French people love them. So the next time you hear a French person say that Americans are big, you should consider that they aren't being rude or making an insulting generalization, they're delivering a compliment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I’ve used TurboTax to file my taxes every year since moving to France. And every year I run into the same problem: after spending hours entering my information online, I’m barred from finalizing the transaction because its system will not accept an American credit card associated with a foreign address. In the end, I pay with my mom’s card which is fine -- despite us not having the same name or address or proof that she’s agreed. Every year my complaint is met with the promise that the glitch will be resolved by next tax season and, in return, I vow to never again use their services.

As I sit here today, preparing to file my 2009 taxes via TurboTax and checking the hour to make sure my mom will be awake when it comes time to pay, I recalled a conversation I had with one of their representatives a year ago while sitting on the phone begging her to take my money. Here is what she told me:

I’m Mexican and American Indian. Well, my grandfather was Irish. My parents divorced when I was a baby. I lived with my Mexican father in Florida. Later my mother came to get me and brought me to Georgia. I didn’t talk until I was 4. Now I can understand Spanish, but I can’t speak it. I have some Italian friends. Sometimes their friends talk about me in Italian and I just listen. I know they’re talking about me, but I don’t tell them. Well sometimes I do.

I’ve been dating online. I’ve gotten some “flirts” and “winks” but that’s all for now.

I saw the "Lake House". I wasn’t going to watch it because I hate love stories. I prefer horror movies. But then I saw Sandra Bullock was in it and I love her so I decided to watch it.
This conversation reminded me of something I often hear here about Americans. It is perceived that we will share details about our lives within the first 5 minutes of meeting someone. In general, I agree. And, in general, I don’t mind. I’d prefer that people be warm and open from the get-go, opposed to cold clams that require a sharp knife and gloves to pry open. I’ve attempted friendship with a few Françaises and in most cases it’s been difficult to get past their lukewarm receptions. By the time they finally decide to open up, I’m bitter from having had to work so hard and usually don't follow through. I'm sure they don't care, or even notice.

But as with many things French and American, somewhere in between would be nice. I acknowledge there are limits. For example, it wouldn't be wise to divulge too much personal information to a disgruntled customer who might be crazy enough to open a account as a strapping University of Florida graduate with a degree in Spanish, who has a soft spot for slow learners and southern belles, who wants to name his first born Rob "Red Cloud at Sunset" Zombie and describes his ideal mate as Sandra Bullock.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Dirty Dozen

There are certain moments in life you’ll never forget. For example, I remember exactly where I was when I discovered what was in a hot dog. It was revealed to me in the midst of a Trivial Pursuit game while I was sitting at a marble table in my grandma’s parlor. Up until that time corn dogs were a part of my regular diet. They were sold in my high school cafeteria along side the deep fried burritos. I ate one or the other nearly every day for lunch, washed down with a mint It’s-It or a box of Hot Tamales. After that game, however, I didn’t touch one for years. It took the San Francisco Giants, peer pressure, lots of onions and mustard, and several pints of strong microbrew before I could finally eat another one.

Knowledge has tried to ruin my appetite once again. While on an oyster eating trip in Cancale, I read a plaque that described the oyster farming process, as well as the anatomy of an oyster. That's how I learned that oysters have anuses and I had just eaten 12 of them.

There are some things we just don’t need to know or see. It reminds me of dining experience I once had at a restaurant near le Jardin du Luxembourg called La Ferrandaise, which is named after a type of cow from France’s Auvergne region. I chose the restaurant because it prides itself on its beef - so much so that it has adorned its walls with photos of cows with their big, brown eyes. When the waiter came, Fred ordered a nice rare steak. I had the fish.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An oral exam worse than a trip to the dentist

The oral portion of my French exam was odder than anticipated. Instead of sitting alone with my professor, the scenario unfolded in front of the entire class. I haven’t felt group humiliation on this level since showering after my 7th grade P.E. class - and just like then, the only person who seemed to enjoy it was the teacher. After all of us had spoken, some better than others, the graded written exams were distributed. The professor started with those who had failed. Arriving in front of their desks, she handed over their heavily marked exams and explained what they had done wrong. In most cases it was uncomfortable, but delicate - like an eyebrow wax. But then, from the front of the class, the professor told one student a few rows back that she would never advance to the next level because it was clear from the essay portion she suffered from dyslexia.

Just in case there were any doubts that the French are frank - and that medical advice is free here.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I'm too old for this!

Being with Fred for the past 8 years, I figured my days of doing the Walk of Shame were long over. But to my chagrin, it seems the Gods of Humiliation aren’t quite finished with me yet. So tomorrow morning, I’ll slip on the very clothes I’m wearing right now (and I really mean that because I haven’t done laundry this week, and this is France so I can), fold-up a square of toilet paper and wipe the flaking mascara from beneath my eyes and head out into the cold morning air. Embarrassed and tired, I’ll dodge upstanding citizens walking down the sidewalk on their way to work. Except this time, instead of walking from a regrettable experience, I'll be returning to the scene of one: Le Lycée Municipal d'Adultes de la Ville de Paris (The City of Paris High School for Adults). And, yes, “lycée” really does mean “high school” – would it kill them to leave me with a shred of dignity?

It was on the foregoing premises, in Room 10 at 10:30 this morning, where I took a 2 hour written French exam. After every other post high school exam, I've received the results via mail or posted on the wall next to an anonymous student I.D. number. But not here. And not tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I'll sit for the oral portion of the exam. More precisely, I'll be sitting face to face with the very professor who administered and corrected today's written exam. I can only imagine how awkward it's going to be as I look her in the eyes, searching for my words, trying to pretend that all that I did and all that I said the day before never happened.

And when it's all over, she'll grade my performance. To my face.