The Rose Colored Glasses Wiped Clean

 342 Stone garden

I wrote this five years ago after spending most of the summer in Antibes, France. That was the summer France lost some of its magic for me, but that isn’t a bad thing. It became a real place – one with flaws as well as astounding beauty – rather than the idealized fantasyland of my European dreams (which wasn’t such a bad thing either). France still holds magic for me, and when I gaze upon her lavender fields, explore her old castles, or walk her cobblestone streets, I live some of my happiest moments.

I’m back in San Diego after our summer stint in the south of France. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and have devoted much time and effort to mastering the unmasterable French language. This recent trip was a test for us.  Exam question: Do we want to move to France? Answer: The jury is still out.

France, for me, particularly the south, has long been an idyllic escape, a locale I long for when I’m away. After all the time I’ve spent there, I still idealize the place, even if it means subconsciously denying its imperfections.

There is such joy, and magic, in being in a foreign country – new sights, smells, sounds. But part of that comes from not knowing what exists in its dirty underbelly. In seeing only the glamorous parts meant for the tourist’s amazed eyes, and not having to deal with the day to day aspects of living there. Part of that magic also comes from not knowing what is being said around you.

One afternoon, after hitting the beach, I was absolutely overheated. On my walk home past the chic private beaches and touristy shops that spilled their postcards, film (people still buy film?), beach towels, and bikinis onto the sidewalk, I didn’t pass one of the many ice cream shops. Instead, I stopped for some of that devine delicacy, a gob of gastronomic goodness, a jolt of gelato, yes – bliss on a baked waffle cone.

As I walked away with my temporary treasure, it of course began to melt, so I stopped in front of a shop window to eat some of it and ensure that I didn’t arrive home covered in telling chocolate drips. An older man, short and stocky with a genial smile, walked by and said something to me. It took a minute to process what he had said, so enraptured was I in waffle cone wonderland. So, for a brief moment, I existed in that blissfully unaware state that always occurs when I’m traveling in a country where I don’t speak the language. I saw a sweet little old local, probably flirting with me judging by the way he was smiling, or perhaps recommending a pair of shoes from the window I was absently eyeing. He stopped to watch me, and then my brain finally processed what he’d said:

“You’ll get fat if you keep eating like that.”

Jackass. I liked you better when I had no clue what you were saying.

Snappy comebacks aren’t my forté – though they come to me later in numbers. When offended, I revert to a wordless, helpless little girl.

But perhaps my actions in that moment spoke louder than words. I shrugged and took another big lick. Did that translate, monsieur?

Villa Rothschild on  St. Jean Cap Ferrat, magic and beauty in the south of France

Villa Rothschild, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, magic and beauty in the south of France

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.

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.

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.

Francophile, Francophobe

I love the French.

I hate the French.

I married a Frenchman. I love him very much. Though sometimes he can be so… French. He’s also an engineer. Jury is still out on which of these characteristics makes life more difficult. Or more beautiful.

Now we have two kids, so that makes them half French and half American. I’m on a mission to make sure they get the best half of each.

We are a bicultural, bilingual household, journeying through life armed with a French-English dictionary, a healthy dose of humor, and knowledge of where to find the best bread wherever we go.

On the surface, our cultures seemed to have much in common. After all, we’re both of the modern, westernized world, right? Sure, the French get more vacation than we do and can’t comprehend our obsession with football, while we think stinky cheese is something that belongs in the garbage and roll our eyes when we hear about another strike in France.

Turns out the differences go much deeper than that.

I’m going to blog so that I don’t have to pay for therapy.