Pas Mal

We visited a French friend’s home recently for the first time, and when I walked into their La Jolla area abode, complete with floor to ceiling windows and a spectacular view, I exclaimed: “This is such a fabulous house! Wow!”

My friend answered, with an indifferent shrug, “C’est pas mal.”

I stared at him. “That’s such a French answer.”

“Oui. There are some that are better, some that are worse, so: pas mal.”

And there you have it: French culture and American, juxtaposed. We Americans tend to be enthusiastic, perhaps overly so, of even the most mundane of things. “Oh my god, there is nothing better than potato chips. These ROCK.” Everything is awesome, amazing, choose your superlative. The French, on the other hand, can’t seem to muster up excitement about anything.

There’s little difference, for example, in how they describe something that’s great versus how they describe something that sucks: “C’est pas mal.” It’s not bad. This describes anything from something good to something fabulous. Then there’s: “C’est pas terrible.” Literally: It’s not terrible. This describes something awful.

As an aside, the word “terrible” in French is almost always used in the negative, except when it’s not, like here: C’est un truc terrible. Translation: It’s awesome.

Then there’s the typical response to someone proposing a great idea. Here, we’ll say, “What an amazing idea!” or something equivalent. The French will more typically say, “C’est pas bête,” Translation: That’s not stupid.

It’s easy to assume from all of this that Americans are shallow, fake, insincere, and that the French are a bunch of negative duds. No wonder we have so much trouble understanding each other!

Our interpretations of others are colored by our own biases, opinions, experiences, and of course, our cultural understandings. It is easy to generalize something, as I have above, that in truth is much more complicated and nuanced.

It’s also true that my friend’s house is really freaking awesome.

 

Fourth of July

I love the Fourth of July. Moreso than Memorial Day, it marks the true arrival of summer. Grills fire up, parades march through the streets, smiling kids lick their ice cream cones and ride their bikes, the May Grays and June Glooms of San Diego usually let the sun have her turn to play. A year ago, we moved to a suburban neighborhood in our city. My biggest fear was that I would feel lost in the burbs. Our former neighborhood was mixed use; all sorts of shops, bars, and restaurants within walking distance and a park always filled with playing kids, impromptu soccer games, owners walking their dogs, picnics and birthday parties. Most of us didn’t have a garage, or if we did it was way too small and/or full of stuff to fit a car into, so we saw our neighbors often as we all came and went, visiting the park and the shops. We knew each other and even spent time together. Sometimes I think garages are one of the worst things for a neighborhood. That and not having front porches.

However, our little suburban ‘hood knows how to celebrate the Fourth. It’s even a big enough deal that the mayor of San Diego came, and the trolleys altered their routes in order to bring people in. At our neighborhood park, we had a pancake breakfast, a fun run, live music all day, a pet and bike parade, dance troupes – my favorite was the Polynesian one, I got a little escape to Tahiti for a moment there, all sorts of booths, and plenty of things for kids to see and do. For a day, I felt like I was part of small town USA. I loved every second of it.

Live Music at University City’s 25th Annual Forth of July Celebration. Oh Say Can U.C.

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People enjoying the pancake breakfast:

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Bike and Pet Parade:

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Presentation of the colors:

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Stuff for kids. Because no party is complete without a jumping castle. I was more excited about the rock climbing wall.

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We had friends over for a barbeque after. Planked salmon with a mustard slather and corn on the cob. Plus peach cobbler. My grandmother’s recipe. Yum.

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Chef’s helper. I wasn’t crazy about this beer, but the bottle is pretty.

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Another fabulous Fourth. Welcome, summer!

My French Hubby Meets My Cowboy Cousins

The old and the new at the ranch

The old and the new at the ranch

I come from cowboy stock. The real deal. Cattle ranchers, living in a beautiful bit of wilderness at the Arizona-New Mexico border. The ranch has been in my family since 1891. My grandmother was raised there; her mother rode a horse the 27 miles out of the canyon to get to a hospital for my grandmother’s birth, her first of five children. (They opted for home births after that trip!) To get to the ranch now, we ease our 4 wheel drive down the gravel switchbacks, cross the river a couple times if it’s low enough and if not, ditch the car and call my family to come get us in the tractor.

Today, my dad’s cousin runs the ranch. In his soft-spoken drawl, he tells us the ranch belongs to all of us, it’s just his watch. Though I’ve never lived there, there’s a part of me that is connected forever to WY Bar ranch on the Blue.

It took far too long to take my husband on the long trip to the Blue (the town – which consists of not much more than a one room schoolhouse – is Blue, named for the river/creek that runs through it, but we’ve always said, “the Blue” or “on the Blue”). Coming from Paris, he was fascinated at the thought of meeting real cowboys and seeing an honest-to-goodness cattle ranch. When we finally made the trek, he stared out the window in silence, murmuring from time to time, “Wow. This is beautiful.”

We sat up late into the night talking with my aunt and uncle (really my “uncle” is my dad’s cousin and my first cousin once removed, but we call him “Uncle”), eating meat and potatoes and drinking stiff Hot Toddys. The state cattle inspector came by to check on how things were going, make sure no cattle had been lost to wild animals or accidents, make sure all was well. He sat down to chat with us.

After three words from my husband’s mouth, his face contorted and he leaned forward, staring at my husband.

“Where you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“Huh?” He turned to me, perplexed. He couldn’t understand my husband’s accent, which isn’t really all that thick.

“Paris. France,” I said.

“Huh. What’s it like there?”

My husband hesitated, unsure how to answer. “Um, well, Paris is a big, really old city. The country is a lot of rolling hills, rivers, there’s lots of little villages, nothing like this here – ”

“You got cows there?”

“Yes. There are cows.”

The inspector nodded and seemed satisfied.

257 Bro's pics of Jim's memorialOne night we gathered around a campfire, listening to my cousins and their friends tell stories of their different cowboy adventures, drinking beer. It was 17 degrees out, so we pressed as close as we could to the fire. When we all turned to warm our freezing backs, one of the friends drawled:

“We’re all warmin’ our buns, but Stéphane there, he’s warmin’ his croy-sants.”

My husband said he felt like he’d stepped into a movie, into a world and lives he hadn’t known existed.

My uncle listens to my cousins and me tell tales of wandering the planet, of our adventures exploring various European cities, living abroad, trekking through South America, and he smiles and shakes his head, then says in his soft drawl, “It’s just so neat how y’all get out and see the world. Between y’all, you’ve been just ‘bout everywhere. Me, I just about never been on an airplane. I don’t much like being away from home.” It’s so different from the life I know, and I love him all the more for it. I know a little bit about a lot of different places and I pat myself on the back and feel so worldly. My uncle will laugh and call himself a hick, but to me, he’s classic America. He’s got his home on the range, he works hard from dawn to dusk and then some, he knows every craggy cliff, every stone, every stretch and bend of the Blue River. He loves his life, his home, his country. There’s poetry to that.

I envy him sometimes, to which I’m sure he’d scoff. I forever battle between searching out adventures, jumping into all the unknowns I can find, versus the desire to find a place I can set down some roots and truly feel I belong; to find that which eludes me: the feeling of yes, I am home. My cowboy cousins, they know where they want to be. They have generations of history behind them, rooted to Blue, AZ. They are Home, and they live it, breathe it, love it.

My wanderlust must come from my grandmother, the same one who was raised on the ranch. gmagpacalShe and my grandfather lived all over the world: Chile, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Kuwait, Denmark…. Her home was decorated with Persian rugs, African Tribal masks, blue and white Danish dishes. She introduced me to eating croissants for breakfast. She would have loved to meet my husband. I wish I could talk to her now – about her adventures both growing up on an isolated ranch and then as the worldly woman who smiled so broadly in those photos taken around the globe. From cowgirl to world traveler. What an adventure.

I look forward to taking my kids to the ranch and letting them wade in the river, run through the forest, meet my dear family. It’s as much a part of their heritage as is France.

Overlooking the ranch

Overlooking the ranch

Hey, France, Why So Glum?

Yet another article, this one from The Guardian, is highlighting the French tendency toward melancholy. In this study, people living in Iran and Afghanistan felt more optimistic about the upcoming year than the French. Stop and think about that for a moment.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about French tristesse. What gives, mes amis? You have a beautiful country, a rich history, great food, tons of vacation, free healthcare, free higher education….

Of course, many of my countrymen, particularly those of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-get-over-it variety, might say that all these entitlements, read socialism, inevitably lead to misery. I don’t buy it. Look at other European nations, some even more left leaning than France, and many of them report much higher levels of happiness. Besides, we in the “Land of the Free” fare none to well on happiness scales – often we are right up there (or down there, I suppose) with France in terms of feelings of well-being.

The article doesn’t delve into why the French are so gloomy. So I showed it to my husband and asked for his thoughts. His snarky response: “Because we know better. Life sucks and no one is fooling us.”

That’s in keeping with Olivier Magny’s Stuff Parisians Like. He writes in the chapter titled 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)

Well, they do say ignorance is bliss. Still, I would argue that the most enlightened among us are the ones who recognize how tough life is but still manage to be happy despite it all.

I’ve observed the French and their tendency toward melancholy and negativity for years now, and I enjoy playing amateur sociologist trying to decipher the causes. My own conclusions are biased, unscientific, and based on a small sample size, but I think there is something here, in this quote from the article:

“Senik claims that the “French paradox” – the fact that the country’s general prosperity does not appear to translate into the happiness of its citizens – can be explained by ‘mental attitudes that are acquired in school or other socialisation instances, especially during youth.’”

Happinesss, quality of life, perceptions of well-being – so many factors play in, and it is so much more complicated than it should be. Especially for the French, with their uncanny ability to turn even the most uncomplicated thing into something convoluted and impossible to decipher.

Thoughts? Why are the French (and why are we, here, in the U.S.) so glum?

Texans in Tahiti

085 Toatea lookout

I’ve been longing for French Polynesia. Palm trees, exotic fish, gentle breezes and sailing a catamaran while my fingertips trail in the clear blue seas…. We spent our honeymoon there, enjoying the warm waters and savoring the food and culture that was such a beautiful mix of Polynesian and French. One of many images stuck in my head: a local, decorated with tattoos and jagged scars (many locals sported these: rough encounters with the coral reefs and, sometimes, sharks), riding a scooter down a muddy back road with a half dozen baguettes jutting out from a sling on his back. Our vacation there was every bit as idyllic as every cliché about Tahiti professes it will be.

Tahitian bottle opener. Check out the scars on his arm!

Tahitian bottle opener. Check out the scars on his arm!

Except for the Texans.

I’ve been to Texas a few times and I’ve found the locals gregarious and welcoming. But for some reason, we kept running into the worst of their lot on our trip. It started with a group on a snorkeling trip in Moorea: two couples, both from Texas, were loudly comparing the cost of their tickets, and their hotel rooms, and how much they’d paid for their excursions, and then how much their homes cost in Texas. Meanwhile, the guide asked for a show of hands for who spoke French and who spoke English. The group was evenly divided, so he said he would explain everything first in French, then in English. As he began his first French explanation, the Texans broke from their money talk to stare at him, then one of them shouted: “ENGLISH! We speak ENGLISH!”

Later, on Bora Bora, our resort was hosting a large group from Texas and while we and every other honeymooning couple on the planet tried to enjoy our romantic tiki torch-lit dinners on the sand, the table of 15 from Texas shouted and guffawed and threw bread from one end of the table to the other, prompting the staff to ask them more than once to calm down.

the Blue Pineapple on Moorea, where we first tasted poisson cru

the Blue Pineapple on Moorea, where we first tasted poisson cru

Then this: We fell in love with poisson cru while we were there; it’s the local traditional dish and so simple yet delicious that I’ve made it several times since. I’m salivating just thinking about it. Our resort offered a class on how to make the dish, so my husband and I joined a few others, including a Texan couple, complete with teased hair and twangs, to learn of the long held tradition of poisson cru.

Conquering the coconut

Conquering the coconut

 

 

Our instructors were all locals. We began with the diced raw ahi, to which we added squeezes of lime juice, then onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Next, we cracked open a coconut (way harder than it looks) and squeezed milk from the meat of it over the dish. And voila! It’s that simple.

As we all savored a plate full of the dish, the woman from Texas smacked her lips together and proclaimed: “I bet this would be real tasty with a bit of May – o – naise!”

Poisson Cru

Poisson Cru

My husband tried not to choke laughing, and I, not always great at holding back, said, “Blasphemy!”

 

 

 

 

 

And now, more photos from our trip, lest you fear we greatly suffered:115 Sunset from deck

Bora Bora

227 what a life!

Please Forgive Me, I’m an Anglophone

How is this for an ego crusher: as I was reading a poem by Verlaine in preparation for my French class, my daughter said, “Stop Mommy! You’re hurting my ears!” then clapped her hands over her ears to emphasize her point.

Ouch.

I’m telling myself that she wanted a quiet breakfast rather than my French being so abominable that even a two-year-old couldn’t take it. But still.

From my first words, usually “bonjour”, I have an accent. My husband assures me it’s a cute accent, but I’m self conscious about it. My French class is causing me to second guess everything I thought I knew about how French words are pronounced. I’ve decided that’s a good thing – I’m tearing out my bad habits and rebuilding with better fundamentals.

In France, the locals know I’m foreign, but often they don’t recognize that I’m American because my accent is less obvious. One of my most memorable experiences happened when I was studying in Paris. I traveled to Strasbourg one weekend to visit some friends and we went to a huge party where I was hit on repeatedly by French men of varying levels of charm. It was the accent that seemed to draw them to me and I started to feel pretty sexy and charming myself right up until this encounter. A French guy approached me and said something that I didn’t understand, so I said, “Pardon?” My accent immediately made it clear that I was not-from-around-here.

So he switched to English. “Where are you from?”

This was 2004, the height of America-hating, and not 10 minutes before I’d had to endure a diatribe about why Americans suck (from a guy who was simultaneously doing everything he could to get into my pants), so I wasn’t too eager to reveal my origins. Instead, I said, “Paris.”

“No, really, where are you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“You look Irish. Are you Irish?”

I shook my head.

“British?”

“No.”

“Scottish?”

“No.”

“Welsh?”

I laughed and shook my head.

He tried a few more English-speaking countries, then finally, exasperated, said, “Well then, where are you from?”

“I’m American.”

“An American girl?” He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh!”

And he walked away from me. Classic.

I don’t know that I’ll ever pass for a local. That ability with a language is a rare gift. I always laugh at movies and TV shows where some spy or official is pretending to be a native, talking in the native tongue, supposedly fooling everyone. It just so rarely happens; our Anglophone tendencies will always creep into our language. It’s a rare and gifted person who can speak a foreign tongue without an accent. My French teacher at SDSU is one of those people, which gives me hope. There’s a fuzzy line between improper pronunciation and simply having an accent. I’m working on it. If only so that my kids don’t make fun of me.

Former Posts about learning French in my family:

Progress in My French Education

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French

Superbowl Sunday and Sports Chez Nous

 The French and sports don’t really mix. That’s not to say there’s no such thing as a French athlete – obviously this isn’t the case. But your typical Frenchman doesn’t have a lot of interest in sports, though some will watch soccer, remaining calm and perhaps puffing on a cigarette while throwing in a French Blow here and there, because getting worked up over a game is something only a complete “con” does. French girls don’t do anything that might result in sweating. Seriously. Girls in the gym? Haven’t seen it. Girls out for a jog? Ha! Yeah, yeah, yeah, French women don’t get fat. They don’t exactly get toned, let alone muscular, either. I used to run in a park in Paris when I was studying there. During my short jog down the street to the park, I was stared at, pointed at, ridiculed, and otherwise treated like the affront to civilized society the Parisians obviously considered me. Running shorts and running shoes on a woman in Paris, even while running, are not acceptable. My mother-in-law wrinkles her nose when she sees me wearing my running shoes and says, “They aren’t very feminine.”

Parc Monceau in Paris, where I ran.

Parc Monceau in Paris, where I ran.

Thus, Superbowl weekend doesn’t mean much in our house. This is a departure from my upbringing and college days where we’d get together with friends for a rowdy viewing of the game complete with chips, dips, and cheap beer.

I grew up in a family of athletes; myself included. I lived and breathed basketball; there was a time when I thought nothing else in life was worth getting excited about. My family was convinced I’d one day marry a basketball player who would kick back and watch the game (meaning – every game ever). They couldn’t quite believe my hubby hadn’t played sports and wasn’t interested/knew nothing about them. Sadly, the men in my life have trouble relating to each other because of this canyon that divides them. Kudos to my hubby for joining my dad and brother in front of the game and trying to understand. Props to him, also, for mastering the baseball lingo that is such an ingrained part of our everyday speech but impossible for most foreigners to grasp (e.g. “Hit it out of the park,” “Striking out”).

A laser, my favorite boat to sail.

A laser, my favorite boat to sail.

Interestingly, in France, high school is all about academics. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, clubs, even dances, aren’t offered. So perhaps it’s not just a question of interest, but also of opportunity. My husband grew up sailing, which is the perfect French sport. It’s intellectual: requiring analysis and specialized knowledge. It’s graceful and doesn’t require a lot of physical exertion (with a few exceptions, like laser sailing). It’s exotic, sophisticated, adventurous. Alas, to many Americans, sailing isn’t really a sport. After all, there’s very little blood or sweat.

I often find myself explaining football to my husband, which is ironic because I’m not a huge fan and truth be told, I don’t know a lot about it. It reminds me of a time I was explaining the game to a girlfriend. After about fifteen minutes of lessons on the absolute basics to her as we watched our college team play: how many players on the field per side, how a team could score, why the clock stopped sometimes and not others, that sort of thing, she turned to me and said something. What I heard was this:

“I’m trying to figure out their offense.”

“Wow, really? That’s a pretty advanced concept.”

Weird look directed at me.

“Wait, what did you just say?” I asked.

“I said I’m trying to figure out their outfits.”

Right.

At least my husband has never asked about their attire. I decided to introduce him to football via Superbowl XXXVIII the first year we were together. You know, the one with Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. I set us up with some artery-clogging but oh-so-good munchies and beer and did my best to explain the game to him during the first half. Then halftime came on and I told him there was usually a good show to watch. Minutes later, as I stared at the TV wondering – wait, did that just happen? He turned to me with a confused look and asked, “So, is this typical?”

basketballWe did watch the Superbowl this weekend. I keep freaking out, because every time football is on TV (usually when my dad or brother is over) my 8-month-old son stops everything to stare at the game. Uh-oh. The physical therapist in me hardly relishes the idea of watching my son get clobbered every week, nor the prospect of multiple head injuries and what that can do to a person over time. He can pick any other sport. Like basketball. I miss watching basketball with my family, going to games, hearing the ball smack into the hardwood floor, the shoes squeaking, the voices echoing as they call out plays. The first toy I bought my daughter was a mini basketball. I’d love to go to basketball games, soccer games, or whatever games, and cheer on my kids. I want my kids to explore athletics and I hope they will find a sport they can love. Sports taught me so much in life about discipline, teamwork, hard work, taking care of myself, and I want that for my kids, too. Really, I want them to be happy, even if that means sports are not a part of their, or our, lives. And I’m really hoping my son’s French side will take over and decide football is “Ab-so-LOO-te-ly REE-di-cu-LOOS.”