Stuff Parisians Like

Stuff Parisians LikeOlivier Magny, a native Parisian, writes with an insider’s knowledge yet the unique ability to pull back and see the irony and humor of his own culture from an outsider’s perspective. His book, originally released in French and based on Magny’s blog, is a series of short observation pieces with titles like, “Crossing the Street in a Bold Way,” and “Thinking That Not Wearing White Socks Makes You a Better Person.” Magny’s spot-on observations had my husband and I laughing until tears were spilling from our eyes. I read aloud while my husband would nod and smile, then say, “oh, if this guy knows his stuff, next he’ll be talking about X.” Sure enough, the next paragraph would talk about X.

Magny helps decipher the opinionated, sometimes exasperating, but never boring Parisian psyche in a way that made him an instant best seller in France and convinced my husband that he’s a cultural genius.

Here are a few gems:

From Winning Conversations: “A conversation in Paris is both a scene and a battle. Parisians win conversations. That’s what they do.” (pg. 115)

I admit I sometimes enjoy the discussions/debates I have with my French friends. Even when they agree, they’re likely to take the opposing viewpoint, just for fun. But there’s only so much I can take before I want to crack open the booze and play beer pong or maybe watch a Will Ferrell movie (neither of which my French friends seem to appreciate).

From Crossing the Street in a Bold Way: “The only Parisians crossing at pedestrian crossings are old folks. The rest of the crowd standing there is made up of banlieusards, provinciaux, and tourists… (Parisians) have no fear and they demonstrate it. By engaging the road with brutal authority. Tourists mistake authority for insanity. Foolish!… Refinement in this dance is to cross the street while keeping your walking pace absolutely unchanged from one side of the road to the other. As in an urban bullfight, the closer you cross to the running car and the faster the car is going, the more thrilling, the more beautiful the move. Parisians caress cars.”  (pg. 48)

Spot-on! I’ve seen this dance many times. I’ve even started to learn the steps.

From Not Exercising: “The only Parisians who occasionally exercise (usually though not to the point of breaking a sweat) are the ones who have at some point lived in America. There, they discovered a different reality where people can be both intelligent and in shape. So they run. Usually for twenty minutes a week. Maximum.” (pg. 129)

Yep. My Parisian friends repeatedly question me about why I work out daily, and assert that their 20 minutes a week of peddling a stationary bike is plenty. When I tell them about the importance of daily exercise and strength training and cardiovascular health (I’m a physical therapist), they shake their heads and argue that it’s just too much (See Winning Conversations). And that they walk, and that’s plenty. (Also an observation from Magny.)

From Complaining: “In Paris, enthusiasm is considered a mild form of retardation. If you are happy, you must be stupid. On the other hand, if you complain, you must be smart.” (pg. 135)

So that’s what’s going on!

Seriously, if you love the French but are perplexed about what makes them tick, or if you hate the French and want a great laugh, and definitely if you are somewhere between these sentiments, you will love this book.

Rue, Rit, Roue

Sunset on the Seine from Pont Neuf, near where I studied French in Paris

Sunset on the Seine from Pont Neuf, near where I studied French in Paris

In continuing with my quest to ensure my French is fluent enough that my husband and kids don’t end up with a secret language, I enrolled in another SDSU French class this semester. Phonetics and Oral Proficiency.

“That sounds horribly boring,” said one of my girlfriends. Really? I’m already loving it. I’m counting on this being the course that takes my French to the next level; shoves me out of my bad habits and gives me a sexy accent rather than an eardrum-rupturing American twang. Because really, it’s all about sounding sexy, right?

My instructor opened with a lesson on the subtle difference between vowel sounds using the words rue and roue. Little did she know the humiliating, hair-pulling relationship I have with these horrible little words.

It all goes back to the spring I studied French in Paris and a particularly nasty teacher named Catherine. She spoke to us in a condescending snail’s pace and had the stereotypical French teacher’s approach that relied on confrontation and humiliation. The class that day was focused on pronunciation, an excellent idea before she got her hands on it. She asked us to say, “rue, rit, roue.” (street, laugh, wheel). Dead silence followed her request (I wasn’t the only student who felt her teaching style discouraged participation), so after a few awkward moments I gave it a go.

Rue, rit, roue.”

The second the words left my mouth, Catherine and the entire class burst out laughing. I did, too; I sounded like a cat choking on a fur ball. Catherine asked me to try again. And again. And again. The class stopped laughing and instead looked on in horror at the train wreck that was my pronunciation crashing head-on into Catherine’s mocking. I kept trying, face flaming. No matter how many times I repeated the words, I just couldn’t get them right. Catherine, in a rare moment of kindness, told me that these subtle vowel differences were particularly difficult for Anglophones.

Then she asked me to repeat them again.

I tried. Failed. So I said, in French, “I just can’t do it.”

She said, “Carol, once more.”

“I’ve tried 15, 20 times. I can’t do it.” I wanted her to move on, allow my tongue to unravel and my face to return to its normal color.

She had other ideas. “Once more, Carol, for my amusement.”

Are you kidding me?

“No.”

She continued to insist. I continued to refuse. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at me. It got so awkward that I finally tried once more. She laughed.

She finally moved on, but throughout the class asked me to repeat the words, “for my pleasure,” or “for my amusement.”

Even when I started to say the words correctly, she couldn’t let it go. All day long, just when I’d think we were moving on, she’d come back to me. “Carol: rue, rit, roue! Répete!” Then she’d say something like, “It’s a fun class today, isn’t it, Carol?”

Comment dit-on, “heinous bitch” en Français ?

Even today, I can do a rolling French R and I can make the vowel sounds, but putting them together proves an impossible feat. I think I’m so traumatized by my experience that I have a mental block. But that’s just dumb pop psychology to the French. Luckily, my professor is American. She makes learning French, even in its hardest moments, fun. I’m inspired by her flawless French. I’m determined to conquer this ridiculous language and all its annoying nasal and hacking and gagging sounds.

Lookout, rue, rit, roue. I’m coming for you.

Rewriting Dreams

The stuff of my dreams

The stuff of my dreams

 

My husband and I have a New Year’s Eve tradition that I love. We stay in, make dinner (it used to be a fancy 4 or 5 courses, but this year we copped out and ordered take out sushi) and we… talk. Yep, we chat. We look back on the past year and discuss our favorite moments. We recount our struggles and what we learned from them. We set goals: personal and professional. We see how we did on the goals we set the prior year. We travel plan: dream up the trips we’d like to take in the coming year, pull out our calendars, and make it happen.

These past few years have differed from our first years together. We’re a family of four now; no longer DINKs who lose count of how many flights they take in a year and make milking the last available vacation hour into an art form. The most surprising thing about this all? I’m okay with it.

I was old enough when we had kids that I was both as realistic as one can be about how my life would change, and I’d already accomplished a ton of things I wanted to do. I’d earned a doctorate degree. I’d traveled to Europe, Canada, Mexico, Africa, Asia, South America, and all over the U.S. I sang with a choir. I took up sailing. I wrote two books (unpublished as of yet). I learned French. I quit my job and went on an extended European vacation. Three times. (Wow, I sound flakey). I laughed, cried, and partied with amazing friends. I ran a marathon. By the time I got pregnant, I was okay with slowing down and having it not be all about me anymore.

I was speaking with a writer friend not too long ago and I told her that while I had once dreamed of writing full-time, I was now okay with writing when I could fit it in. That I was so busy with my kids it was hard to find time for writing, and I couldn’t park myself in a coffee shop and write away the hours like I used to. She became sad for me, believing a dream had died. But that wasn’t it at all. It’s just that the dream no longer fit me.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal, written by Katy McLaughlin and entitled New Dreams, When the Old Ones Don’t Fit. That’s it, exactly. The dreams I had as a 15-year-old certainly didn’t fit the 20-year-old me. The 20-year-old dreamer had no freaking clue what 30-year-old me would be like. And pre-marriage, pre-child me had some really great dreams, but it would be silly to cling to those simply because I was once determined to make them happen. It’s not giving up, it’s evolving as life marches forward, without trying to manipulate and control that which cannot be manipulated and controlled. It’s realizing that maybe full time writing isn’t for me, and being okay with that. It’s realizing that while I’d love to be published someday, I can’t hang all my hopes on such external validation; I must keep writing simply because I love to write. It’s realizing that parking myself at a coffee shop every Friday to write isn’t fun with or fair to a toddler strapped in a stroller. Knowing that walking along the Seine at twilight may not happen this year, but it doesn’t mean I’ll never get to do that again. It’s being honest about the fact that while strapping on a backpack and trekking through South America on a shoestring budget once sounded like a romantic adventure, it now sounds like a really great way to end up with a permanent back ache and no retirement savings. It’s realizing that I absolutely will see the glaciers of New Zealand and the rain forests of Thailand, it’s just not going to happen today, and it may be harder than it would have been a few years ago because I’ll have two kids tugging on my jeans telling me they’re hungry and asking if we’re there yet. It’s finding a balance between still having hopes, dreams, and goals, being willing to let the wisdom of experience play its role, and adapting when it isn’t the right fit anymore.

I still have lots of dreams. Now, most of them involve small hands squeezing mine, ice cream (because everything is better with ice cream), and a slower pace where I see the wonder of the world through the eyes of my children. The important thing to remember is this: small hands in mine were once a dream. That’s the dream I get to live right now. That one came true.

A Tale From Christmas Past

My parents and my husband’s parents first met the Christmas before our wedding at my family’s home. The Parisians made the trek to Southern Arizona, oohing and ahhing over the desert that was so different from anything they’d seen before. Upon their arrival, my family welcomed them with enthusiasm, bumbled charmingly over the kiss on each cheek vs. the big American hug, showed them the best sights around my hometown, and left them a gift basket at their hotel.

Ah, yes, the gift basket. My mom put it together and it was such a sweet gesture. Bottled water, chapstick (never go without it where I’m from!), maps of southern Arizona, apples, crackers, and…

Yep. Cheese in a can, for my French soon-to-be-in-laws. French. As in lovers of fine cheeses; experts on the subject of all things cheese. We never told Mom the fate of that canned cheese. I suppose she’ll know now. My mother-in-law-to-be plucked it out of the basket and asked, “What’s this?” Cue horrified look from my husband, who then said, “It’s nothing, here, I’ll take it.” A power struggle ensued: “Non! Non! C’est pour nous! Qu’est ce que c’est?” “Maman, donne-le moi!” “Non!” “Oui!” (“No! it’s for us! What is it?” “Mom, just give it to me!” “No!” “Yes!”)

So my husband told her what it was.

“Du fromage? Comme ça? The Americans eat this? How bizarre! Disgusting! Is it good?” She insisted on trying some, as did my future father-in-law and future brother-in-law. Cue horrified looks and much gagging.

Then there was the wine at Christmas dinner. My parents are, for the most part, barring the occasional margarita, teetotalers. I, in contrast, am most definitely not. I like to take full advantage of what my husband calls my Irish liver. (I’m not really Irish. Though my liver might be.) So when my mom suggested I retrieve the bottle of wine my uncle had given us, I gladly pulled that bottle out of the pantry and brought it to the table. She told me it had been opened but that there was still plenty left. My husband poured a bit into his father’s glass and my father-in-law-to-be took a small sip. He swallowed hard and seemed to be hiding the urge to clench his teeth as he shook his head and said, “C’est pas possible.”

“It’s not possible.”

I assumed the bottle was one we’d opened the night before.

“Mom? When was this bottle opened?”

“Christmas Eve.”

“Last night?”

“No. Last year, Christmas Eve.”

“Mom! You can’t leave a bottle that long after it’s uncorked!”

“But I thought wine was supposed to improve with age?” said my mom, looking distraught and confused.

This was also the year that my brother and I decided there weren’t enough presents, so we wrapped a few of mom’s favorite things from around the house and used them to fill things out under the Christmas tree. It took two or three “gifts” of treasures she already owned for her to stop exclaiming her excitement and start realizing that they weren’t gifts, after all. It’s been years, but my family’s quirky sense of humor still doesn’t translate. Gag gifts, pranks, teasing each other, sarcasm… we crack each other up but my in-laws spend most of their time watching us with furrowed brows. Amazingly, my husband’s parents remained enthusiastic about our marriage. Though we haven’t spent many Christmases together since then….

 

Christmas Recap

Our first Christmas as hosts went well, I think. Best part? Playing Santa Claus and creating Christmas magic for our kids. My daughter helped me prep a plate of my Santa’s favorite cookies and some carrots for his reindeer, which we left near the fireplace. On Christmas morning, she ran around the house in circles giggling manically, so excited when she saw her choo choo train. We ate fresh baked scones, sipped coffee, and watched the kids play wearing big, happy grins on our faces.

Christmas Eve we ate Oysters Rockefeller, foie gras (a gift from my husband’s parents), and salmon with a balsamic and bacon sauce. Christmas day was prime rib with traditional sides of green beans and carrots, spruced up and fancified. Surprise of the holiday: my dad tried the oysters. Then said he liked them. Then took a second helping, so I actually believed him. My family stayed away from the foie gras. My daughter, true to her French roots, took several servings of that.

California banned foie gras in 2012. Huge bummer for the French and Francophiles here. I fell in love with it during a trip to France in 2003, before I knew what it was. I was at a fancy wedding outside of Paris and a French friend tried to explain to me what it was, pointing at his abdomen and telling me it was “from right here, from a really big bird.” “An ostrich?” I asked, saying the first really big bird that came to mind. Not considering the likelihood of a traditional French delicacy coming from an African bird. “Yes, yes, this bird.” I found out later, between guffaws of ridiculing French laughter, that is was not an ostrich but a goose, and it was fatty liver. I also discovered how it is produced. Force feeding a goose with a funnel and a tool to pack the grain tightly and allow for more to be ingested. Horrible, awful, I know. But I’d already fallen in love with the dish. It’s so embarrassingly So Cal of me: “What? This lovely little rectangle of protein delicately topped with a port reduction sauce was once part of a living breathing being? That’s terrible, why do people do such things! Oh, the humanity!” pronounced between savoring bites. Like that scene in The New Normal (LOVING this show) where Bryan and Shania go to a turkey farm to get their turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and when the farmer tells them to pick out their live turkey, Bryan says – no, no, I want one of those prepackaged ones in the back. You know, the one where I can’t tell it’s an animal.

Yes, I enjoy my meat with a dash of hypocrisy. I have so many vegetarian and vegan friends here in southern California that I’ve become self-conscious of my love for meat. One of the great things about having French dinner guests: I’ve never met a French vegetarian (though I hear they exist) and they are way less picky than my American friends. I have American friends with texture issues, color issues, vegetarian, vegan, on the caveman diet, on a fat free diet, avoiding anything white on weekdays, gluten intolerant (this one I empathize with: no pasta? No bread? Depressing)…. My French friends will eat most anything. Well, not crap like Cheetos or Twinkies. These horrify them. Me too, honestly.

Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas dinner turned out great, I think. Though I ended up spending way more time in the kitchen than I’d planned to. I love to cook, but I missed out on visiting with family and playing with the kids and their new toys (I like creating miniature villages for the choo choo train to pass through). It’s inevitable; the host will be in the kitchen when a meal must be served. I was trying new recipes so it was hard to figure out where people could help me. Plus, there’s, maybe, perhaps, the possibility that I’m a…  control freak in the kitchen. I like to think I’m closer to Martha Stewart organized and precise than kitchenzilla, but I don’t like to subject anyone to my brand of crazy, so when it’s a new recipe, I tend to go it alone. Next year I’m thinking a fancy Christmas Eve dinner, because I like fancy, then cheese fondue on Christmas. I picture a cold afternoon of sledding and hot chocolate, and then home for a hearty meal of bread, potatoes, and smoked meats smothered in Swiss cheeses. It’s an easy, quick, social meal. And really freaking delicious.

Snow, you ask? In Southern California?

That’s a question for another time.