Bretagne, Je t’aime

I love Bretagne (Brittany, for the anglophones). Where Paris is measured, even severe, Bretagne is untamed, free, running wild. It’s a land of legends and history: Megaliths, Fairies, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Bretagne first gave us crepes, galettes (savory crepes, made with buckwheat), and French apple cider. What’s not to love?

My husband’s family has a summer home in a small Breton village at the opening of the Golfe du Morbihan. When we visit them during the summer, we tend to escape to their home here rather than swelter in Paris. The last several trips we’ve enjoyed mostly sunny days, which last from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. We spend our days riding bikes through overgrown pastures and past flower covered rock walls that are hundreds of years old, dipping our toes into the Atlantic, and eating fresh oysters that the neighbor harvests. And, of course, crepes, galettes, and cider. Every time I suggest staying there and never returning to our “real” lives, my husband warns me that I’m not experiencing the “real” Brittany.

“There’s a reason everything here is so green and overgrown, Carol,” he tells me.

I tell him he can’t burst my bubble.

Here are a few photos:

Ile Aux Moines

My favorite spot on Ile Aux Moines, in the Golfe du Morbihan

Golfe du Morbihan

Golfe du Morbihan

Traditional home, looks straight out of a fairy tale to me

Traditional home, straight out of a fairy tale

Winner! Best French Mullet

Winner! Best French Mullet

Port de St. Goustan

Port de St. Goustan

My hubby and me, making crepes

My hubby and me, making crepes

Carnac

Carnac

Breton humor

Breton humor

On our bike ride

On our bike ride

A dolmen and a menhir (megaliths)

A dolmen and a menhir (megaliths)

Merde

Often, when we learn a new language, the first words we learn are the swear words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of fantastic Spanish words. Perhaps he believed that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.

Oh, but we did.

With French, though, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”

A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I spent mornings before school watching Inside the Actors’ Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”

Thus, I learned the good stuff.

The funny thing, though, is it all sounds like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam” or “bloody” if you’re British. But actually it’s France’s equivalent of the “f” word.

Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law. But sometimes, when he talks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words, plus he mumbles, so I can hardly follow what he’s saying. And – he’s got a potty mouth.

I learned some new words from him on a trip to France a few years ago. A woman walked off the train with his suitcase when he came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend.  Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.”  When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!”  Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.”  No big deal, right?

Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with my brother-in-law about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had yelled at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of panic and cried, “C’est Carol? Ce n’est pas possible!” (“Was that Carol?  It couldn’t be!”)  I suddenly felt like I was a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “He taught it to me.” Turns out grosse conne is quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time around native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words and phrases so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.

Except for merde. I like that one.

[Full Disclosure: This was originally published on my author website in 2008]

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.

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.

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.