A Trip to France and Ireland (from a few years back)

We’re temporarily grounded. I haven’t been to France since the summer of 2011 – the longest break from my beloved adopted country in a decade. The thought of traveling overseas with a 2-year-old and a baby is so daunting that we’re exploring closer to home these days. We’re gearing up for 2014; that will likely be the year of our big return to France. For now, I’m going to reminisce about some of our past adventures. With photos.

We brought my family to France and showed them around Paris, including the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens:

029 Luxembourg Palace

And Versailles, where we also visited the lesser known Hameau de la Reine, a small village and garden built for Marie Antoinette:

062 M.A. garden

We traveled through the Loire Valley; here is a photo of the rooftops of Ambroise. I love rooftops in French villages:

094 Ambroise from castle

Next we went to Bretagne (Brittany), western France. Gorgeous flowers abound:

136 Flowers

Here we are in Port de St. Goustan:

154 Port de St. Goustan

My husband and I then went on to Ireland. Here I am in Kinsale, one of our favorite towns…

189 Kinsale Harbor

…where we hung out in a pub with this sign. Will you buy me a drink if I tell you?

191 Will you buy me a  drink if I tell you

Ahhh, laptop traveling. It’s not quite the same. But it will do for now.

Opera

I went to my first Opera recently. We saw La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). Originally set during the Napoleonic Wars, it tells the story of a regiment of soldiers who adopt a young girl who then grows up among their ranks. The San Diego Opera moved the story to World War II, so the idea that a girl would spend so many years with a group of soldiers doesn’t really fly, but as the review in the paper said: don’t think about it too much. I didn’t. Honestly, what I was thinking through most of the opera was this: I’m so flipping bored. I wonder what time Ghirardelli Chocolate closes?

I know, I know, it’s terrible. Horribly disrespectful. I can appreciate, on a technical level, what the performers accomplished. But I don’t enjoy the music. Nor did I love the story. It’s not that I don’t love a good musical or a star-crossed lovers story. This one just didn’t work for me.

Plus, I felt like I’d stepped into an alternative universe. One where a man backs his Maserati up at full speed with his nose in the air, not even bothering to glance at you because he knows you’ll get out of his oh-so-important way. Where big-breasted but otherwise skeletal young women wear five figure gowns and wobble ever-so-delicately on their sparkly heels, clinging to the arms of their white-haired husbands. Where people go to see and be seen; to have their photos taken for the society page of the newspaper.

“Where are we? Who are these people?” I kept asking my husband.

He was trying to figure out what the performers were saying while I tried to not look at his watch to see how much time had passed since the last time I looked at his watch.

“I can’t understand anything they’re saying. Their French is killing me,” he mumbled.

Yeah. I don’t think we’ll become season ticket holders. I’ve always wanted to experience an opera. Now I have. Check.

Instead I think I’ll stick to the kind of opera I love: Opera Café and Patisserie. Where they serve their namesake dessert: Opera, a layered almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup and layered with ganache and buttercream then covered in chocolate.

The café is located in a strip mall in Sorrento Valley; not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a gem of a restaurant like this. It’s my favorite place to meet my husband for lunch. The preceding conversation usually goes something like this:

“Hey, babe, can I come up and meet you for lunch?”

“Sure. Do you want to try a different restaurant this time?”

“What? No! Why would you even say that?”

Gentle smile. “So are you coming to see me or are you coming because of Opera?”

Pause. “You, of course, honey.”

And this (because no blog is complete without food photos):

IMG_7112

That’s an Opera where I can happily cheer, “Encore!”

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.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

I’m hosting Christmas this year. For the first time ever. In my adult life, I’ve never spent Christmas in my own home. I’ve always either travelled to my parents’ home or to France. My husband and I imagined together the kind of Christmas we would have when the time came to host. We dreamed up menus and activities and of pajama-covered feet running to the tree to see what Santa left. I imagined steaming cups of hot chocolate on my own couch and snuggling in for a long winter’s nap in my own bed. This year, it’s time to stay home, to give our children the experience of Christmas in their, in our, house. My daughter has been talking about Santa (Père Noël) and looking up the chimney, wondering aloud how he will get her choo choo train to her.

Yet it is not without trepidation that I bring my ideas to life. My parents and brother will come here for this holiday; my in-laws will stay in France. I love to cook and entertain, and though I’m not one to shy away from a challenging recipe or unusual ingredients, I’m trying to keep it tame and not change the family traditions too much. After all, my definition of “normal” food is broader than much of my family’s. I figure I should ease them into new traditions rather than banging them over the head with them.

Living in Southern California, much of our dream menu is seafood. When I told my parents that rather than our typical Mexican tamale dinner for Christmas Eve, I wanted to do foie gras (contraband!) and Oysters Rockefeller for an appetizer followed by fish for a main course, I was met with an awkward silence followed by a “Hmm… interesting.” What I didn’t tell them was that I’d already tempered my initial thoughts of scallops and mussels over orzo.

I fear my mom will see the way I’m changing so many things and take it as a slap to the Christmases she’s hosted. But it’s not that at all. I have always loved Christmas at my parents’ home. Which is in part why it took so long for me to host one. On Christmas Eve, friends and family gather; we’ve had as many as forty loved ones all together, filling the house with laughter. I love the huge Mexican food feast we have. Truth be told, I’m sad to miss seeing those people this year and indulging in the chimichangas, queso dip, and generously spiked margaritas that my brother and I make. (Though the latter tradition stopped the year my octogenarian grandmother giggled and staggered through the kitchen while my grandfather commented, “Why, dear, I do believe you’re drunk!” Last thing we needed was Grandma in the hospital with a broken hip.) I’ll even miss that Christmas dinner potato casserole that is so delicious yet sits in my stomach for days afterward like a lead ball, blocking my colon.

Now we have our own kids and our own traditions to start. It’s a bittersweet transition. I hope to create, for my family, the kind of magic my parents created for us growing up. I hope to someday have 30, 40 loved ones gathering in my home on Christmas Eve to make merry. And I hope that one day my parents will be willing to try those scallops. Because Mom, Dad, they are fabulous.

French Customer Service

Before you scoff and say there’s no such thing, read on. It’s not the American brand of “the customer is always right,” it’s quite different, and it leaves you feeling tingly. If you’re a girl, that is. Pretty sure guys don’t get this one.

My first experience with it came when I was a fresh-out-of-college backpacker in Paris. I’d run out of clean clothes and had nothing left but a short pair of shorts to wear. As a naïve young thing from the deserts of Arizona, I had no idea that wearing shorts in Paris was an affront to civilized society. Especially during a pouring rainstorm. I walked down the streets, becoming more and more self-conscious of the stares I was receiving. I ducked into a pastry shop in search of my new favorite treat: a croissant. There, I was greeted by the incredulous stare of the shop’s owner.

“You are walking around like this in the rain?” he said in English; making the obvious assumption that I was Not-From-Around-Here. He pointed to my shorts.

I said, face flaming in embarrassment, “It’s not that cold out.”

He offered a smile and nodded. “Well, yes.  And I suppose with legs like that, you can get away with shorts like that anywhere. With legs like that, you should wear shorts.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I bought a couple of croissants, and a quiche. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just been subjected to (or bamboozled by) my first round of French customer service.

Years later, I was in France with my husband, spending Christmas and New Year’s with his family. I came down with a horrible cold – every orifice on my face was stopped up. We popped into a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees and I instructed my husband to let me do the talking as I needed to practice my French. He agreed and stood behind me while I approached the counter.

A young male pharmacist stepped forward and I described my symptoms and asked for his suggestions.

He glanced at my husband and smiled at me. “You are so sick, yet you still have a beautiful smile on your face.”

He pulled out some decongestants and fever reducers and advised me on dosage and what to expect. He also counseled me on nutrition, fluid intake, and to go to the doctor if my symptoms did not get better in a few days. (Side note: this is typical of a French pharmacist; they have a much greater degree of autonomy, and often usurp the need to go to a doctor for many of the more common ailments people encounter.)

All of this he delivered to me intersperced with a smile here, an arched eyebrow there, a compliment on my French and my accent, and another compliment on my smile. My husband, true to his word, allowed me to complete the transaction without interfering. As we left, he smirked at me.

“He was completely flirting with you!”

“Was he? That’s kind of funny.”

“I think he assumed I didn’t speak French, since you were talking and you’re obviously foreign. He thought he could get away with it.”

I smiled, feeling a little smug that I could still entice some flirting, even with a ring on my finger and a few crinkles around my eyes. On a recent trip to Trader Joes in the eternally youth-obsessed southern California that I call home, I watched as a young cashier joked and flirted with the two college girls in front of me. As I pushed my cart up for my turn, I smiled genially, expecting the same treatment. Instead, his face grew serious, and he said politely, “How you doing tonight, ma’am.”

Ma’am?

Ma’am!

I’m thirty-incoherent mumble, for crying out loud! And I’ve been relegated to ma’am status? But in France – I’ve hardly reached my prime.

On another trip to Paris, I decided I wanted to get flowers for my mother-in-law. I entered a flower shop behind a stooped older woman. The shopkeeper, dark hair flowing to his broad shoulders like a hero from the cover of some bodice-ripper novel, came out and pressed his palms together, looking back and forth between me and the older woman and said, “which of you beauties can I help first today?”

We both smiled, and I indicated that the older woman had arrived first. He turned to her and proceeded to compliment her lovely scarf and then the flowers she had selected. He took his time to wrap them in three layers of different colored but complimentary tissue paper, and then finished it off by tying ribbons around it with a flourish. He tossed her one more compliment and she left with a smile.

He turned to my husband and I, and then spoke to my husband. “If I had a woman like that, I would buy her flowers, too.” My husband rolled his eyes at me, and I smiled and told the shopkeeper that we were actually there to buy flowers for my mother-in-law. He clapped his hands together. “Oh, what a beautiful daughter-in-law you are! So nice. And a great accent. Where are you from?”  We chatted, or he chatted me up, while he put our arrangement together. While we spoke, a mother pushing a stroller entered the shop. He called to her that he would be with her in a moment, then returned his full attention to me and my flowers. He took his time with our arrangement, and when he was done he handed it to me with a wink and a smile.

As we left, I heard him say to the mother, “I saved you for last so I could be alone with you!” It was so over the top that this normally cringe-worthy comment came out sounding charming and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

Even though, at this point, I knew the flirting was all part of the game – all part of French customer service – as I left, I felt a little lighter on my feet, and my skin felt warm all over. I was a beautiful woman and a beautiful daughter-in-law. That shopkeeper made my day. And next time I need flowers in Paris, I’ll go straight to his shop. He’s found a customer for life. If that’s not the result of excellent customer service, then I don’t know what is.

The French Blow

The French have a trump card they can play in any conversation. I call it the French Blow.

For all of you who googled “blow” and ended up here, this is neither a sexual nor a drug reference. Sorry. See ya next time I shamelessly use key words to drive traffic to my site.

Here’s what it looks like: Tilt your head to one side and close your eyes or at least lower your eyelids to half-mast. Raise one eyebrow if you can, both if you must put that much effort forth. Part your lips and inhale through your teeth while making a lazy shrug, preferably with only the shoulder you’ve tilted your head toward. Now puff your cheeks and exhale forcefully. Drop your shoulder and gaze at some distant point with as bored a look as you can be bothered with. That’s your French Blow.

Here’s a video:

It’s the American “whatever” squared. It can be used in any situation:

“The French metro workers are striking!”

“You just ran over my daughter’s foot with your suitcase!”

“Your wife is cheating on you… with your brother!”

What can you say, once such disinterest has been conveyed? Such a complete lack of concern, nothing will get a reaction from the French person in question at this point. They. Absolutely. Don’t. Care. (Say this with a thick French accent). There you have it. Throw this into any conversation, and you’ll pass for French.

We Bought an SUV

We swore we would never do it. We were going to be hip, environmentally responsible, buck the trends, maintain our semi-European live-in-the-city ways. We didn’t need a big house in the suburbs. We wouldn’t turn into (gulp) my parents. And we certainly didn’t need a larger car.

Then we had kids. And the gear that comes with kids. I used to think I’d be a minimalist mom. I wouldn’t accumulate all those things they say you absolutely must have. I wouldn’t buy into the “rules” on changing your life when you have kids. Two rear-facing car seats, two in diapers, a duellie stroller, and two pack ‘n plays later, we realized we could either ride with our knees in the dashboard and one change of clothes each when travelling, or we could suck it up and go bigger.

A Honda Pilot seemed reasonable, and while I feel guilty every time I fill it up with gas, I love my SUV. I love that I can see over the other cars when I’m on the freeway. I love that I have ample room to throw whatever I could possibly need into the back. I love that I can keep both kiddos safely rear facing without sacrificing precious leg room in the front seat.

My French in-laws guffawed when we told them we’d traded my husband’s car for an SUV.

Brother-in-law: “Why not just get a tank?”

Mother-in-law: “Oh, my son! You’re becoming too American!” Pause, followed by a hopeful: “Does this mean you’ll be having more kids?” (The woman’s been on a mission to turn my womb into a baby factory ever since we got married.)

My parents complimented us on our choice of cars, as well as the residential neighborhood and larger house we relocated to. It made me miss our little bungalow in the heart of the city even more. What happened to us? We were cool! Not quite as cool as our hipster neighbors in the city, but almost!

The thing is, we live in southern California. If we lived in Paris, we’d be using public transportation. We would live in a small apartment because that would be all we could afford. We’d drive a SmartCar, because parking in Paris is nearly impossible which makes a SmartCar, well, smart. But when in Rome…. Or when in SoCal…. A SmartCar isn’t smart. Trying to force a Parisian lifestyle into a sprawling US city just doesn’t work. I loved the days I lived in Paris and walked everywhere. I loved living in the city here and not needing my car most weekends. But times change, and adapting to circumstances doesn’t equal giving up. The truth is, I love having a kitchen big enough to host large parties and make Christmas cookies with my daughter. And I’m thoroughly enjoying the luxury of having two (two!) bathrooms.

Still, that doesn’t mean we’re moving to the far-flung suburbs or turning into Republicans. (No offense, my dear family. Love you!)

Air Conditioning: The Root of All Evils

Stereotypical French women of a certain generation, among other things, possesses a deep mistrust of air conditioning. I know one of these quintessentially French women. According to her, air conditioning is responsible for every malady and most wars. You have a cold? It was the air conditioning. Your husband cheated on you? C’est à cause de l’air conditionné.

I grew up in the southern Arizona desert without air conditioning. We had evaporative cooling, an ineffective but cheap way to “cool” a home. One year, it leaked through the vent, creating a huge puddle on our tile floor. My mom slipped in it and sprained her ankle, costing us our summer vacation to Disneyland.

I’m a huge fan of air-conditioning. I also got my undergraduate degree in microbiology. But it didn’t take four years of hard sciences to learn that a cold is caused by a virus.

Recently, this French woman caught a cold. She explained to me that going from the warm weather outside into an air-conditioned room made her ill. My daughter got a cold because we put her to bed with wet hair. Name any old wives’ tale, and this woman believes it, and is preaching it to anyone within earshot.

Okay, okay, there are some experts who point out that the drying effect of air conditioning may possibly make our mucus membranes more susceptible to viral invasion. But that’s a far cry from believing that air conditioning somehow spews out germs.

I used to earnestly attempt to explain basic biology to her. I would tell her it was more likely that she picked something up on the airplane, where people are packed in and where the rule for cleaning surfaces seems to be: If you can’t see anything on it from the other side of the plane, it’s pristine. Or that my daughter probably picked up her cold in preschool. Or, the most obvious, that she probably got her cold from my daughter. I used to point out that air conditioning would save lives in France every summer. So would drinking water. Americans are unique in our efforts to keep ourselves hydrated. I’m amazed at how little water the French people I know drink, while my American friends’ water bottles are attached to them twenty-four hours a day. I know French people who go 5, 6, 7 hours without needing to use the facilities. This can’t be healthy.

But I digress. This is about air conditioning. I’ve given up on convincing my dear Frenchwoman that there’s this amazing thing called science. Now I just have a running bet with my husband about how long it will take for her to blame the air conditioning for something. Speaking of which, my week-long hiatus from blogging was unintended; I tweaked my neck and have been unable to sit at the computer for longer than a minute or two. I am sure it was the air conditioning that did me in.

Is My Hubby’s Accent Fading?

I fear it may be. He’s been here nearly 20 years. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s fading or if I’m just not hearing it any more out of familiarity. Occasionally, one of my American friends will look to me to “translate” for him and scoff at my concerns that his accent has flown back to France. But for every one of those moments, there’s another where a stranger won’t know that he’s French.

It’s a huge bummer. I love French accents. I find them sexy, charming. Say anything tossed with a French accent and the world is instantly tinged with excitement and adventure. Even if the speaker’s grammar is horrible and they are talking about something boring, like cars or lawn care, I still bask in the sound of it all.

When I tell people my husband is French, often they don’t realize I mean that he’s actually from France. “You mean French French? Like from France?” Yeah. The real kind. Not the way I’m “Irish” just because my hair is red and my skin gets pink after 20 seconds in the sun. Americans love to say they are “Italian” or “Irish” or “Mexican,” even though sometimes those roots are so far back that there’s nothing Italian, Irish, or Mexican about them. I get it. We’re all, on some level, searching for our identity. To ground us, connect us.

My husband is really from France. He came across the pond with only a basic grasp of our language. Now, he’s way too good at it. Seriously. The guy almost never trips over grammar issues or spelling, and he often corrects my mistakes. I knew I was marrying a smart man, but I didn’t think it meant that his accent would fade. Not cool.

Most of our French friends aren’t bicultural couples, so the language spoken in their homes is French. Meaning their English is good enough to get through the workday, but not something they’re using all the time. Thus, their accents remain thick and distinctly French. We speak mainly English in our home. My husband’s accent does get stronger when he’s around other French people and/or when he’s drinking. Keeping him drunk all the time isn’t an option, nor is spending every waking moment with the in-laws. So for now, when he asks me, “Am I saying this right?” I just smile and nod, and I don’t tell him the truth. Because that accent is so irresistible.