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.






Halloween: It’s Not Very French

Pumpkin carving kit: $10

Three medium sized pumpkins: $24

Bottle of Wine: $15

A torrent of criticism and advice on how best to carve a jack-o-lantern from my French in-laws who have NEVER IN THEIR LIVES carved a jack-o-lantern: Freaking priceless.

So, my mother-in-law and father-in-law are in town. The French don’t really do Halloween, so this is their first experience with a real one. They are both perplexed and fascinated by the whole thing. When I explained that our 2-year-old would be Thing 1 and our 5-month-old Thing 2, I was met with blank looks from them. Dr. Seuss doesn’t really translate, so they’d never heard of him. My husband is dressing up as the Cat in the Hat, and he brillantly suggested I dress up as the red box the two Things came out of. Pretty sure my in-laws now think that both I and this holiday are just plain bizarre.

We thought it would be fun to carve our pumpkins with them. So after the kids were in bed, we set the pumpkins and knives on the back patio. Before my husband and I could get out there with the wine, they’d already lopped the bottom off one of the pumpkins.

“C’est comme ça, non?”

Umm, no. That’s not quite how it works.

We tried to tell them and show them how to carve a pumpkin, but were met with a deluge of, “But, why?” and “No, it would be better this way” and, from my always-on-the-edge-of-full-blown-panic mother-in-law: “Oh! Careful! Oh! You’ll cut off your finger! You’ll stab yourself! Oh! Mon Dieu! Oh lo lo!  This is a dangerous holiday!” (all in French, of course.)

In the end, they had to admit that the American of the group (moi) might know a thing or two about fashioning a jack-o-lantern. My father-in-law suggested that the test to become a U.S. citizen should include a demonstration in carving pumpkins. Not a bad idea. Perhaps more practical, considering the number of U.S. citizens who wouldn’t pass the Naturalization Test.

When I was in Paris in a French language immersion program, an entire three days’ worth of lessons were devoted to “giving an opinion.” Because the French do it All. The. Time. Regardless of whether or not the opinion was wanted or asked for. There are about a million different ways to begin a sentence that will end with some sort of proclamation of opinion. Sure, we have some ways in English, too: “In my opinion…”, “I believe that…”, “I agree/disagree that….” But the French are notorious for spouting off their thoughts, and they have plenty of options for how to do it. My American friends, here in southern California anyway, tend to not be quite so vocal with every single one of their opinions. It’s a mixed bag, I guess. Sometimes it’s good to say what’s on your mind, and other times, not so much.

We ended up with three pretty decent jack-o-lanterns. My in-laws will be over tonight to experience Trick or Treating. They asked what they could bring for dinner, and we said pumpkin pie. My mother-in-law wondered where to get it, if she’d need to go to a specialty store, and then worried that no one in the store would know what one was if she asked. “Has anyone out there heard of this kind of pie? Really, people eat that?” She practiced saying it over and over: “Pump-kin Pie! Pump-kin Pie!” in her thick as concrete French accent. It’ll be interesting to see what they end up bringing over tonight.

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.