While sitting on the tarmac in Charlotte last Sunday, waiting for my return flight to France to take off, I was flipping through the pages of the duty-free magazine and I happened across an ad for Grey Goose. And I thought to myself, “Now there’s an interesting subject for my blog: the French vodka that French people don’t drink.”
You may know that Grey Goose is the second-best-selling imported vodka in the United States, and the number one super-premium vodka. But what explains Grey Goose’s success against other vodkas, including other super-premiums like the Polish Belvedere? Certainly it has to do with Grey Goose’s exceptionally smooth taste, but it also has to do with its exceptionally smooth marketing. Grey Goose has created a certain cachet that is based almost entirely on its French origins. In short …
A few days ago, I wrote about the second anniversary of my departure for France. I described how my life had changed as a result — about what I had left behind and what I had discovered here. Since then, I’ve been ruminating on the various lessons I’ve learned during the last two years as an expat in France. Here are my top ten:
1. When people say that French bureaucrats are paper shufflers extraordinaire, they aren’t exaggerating. In fact, they may be understating the case. I’ve never seen such a paper-centric modern society in my life: a form for this, another form that’s exactly the same (except for two questions) to accompany the first form you already filled out, mail it in or make an appointment to drop it off. By no means may you send it electronically. If you want to survive as an expatriate in France, here’s my advice:
Invest in a good ink-jet printer and several reams of paper. You’ll need two copies of everything, s’il vous plaît … plus an extra one for your files for that moment when you discover that they’ve misplaced the two copies you already gave them. (Take my word for it; this can happen.)
On the other hand, the French don’t just pasteurize their milk … they ultra-pasteurize it. (I won’t get all scientific on you, but there’s a difference of about 115º in the process.) That allows the French to package and store their super-clean milk in unrefrigerated bottles or cartons for months on end. Why? It apparently has something to do with limitations on refrigeration here … like not having enough room in the fridge for all your Camembert AND your milk at the same time. (See 7, below.)•
3. The Paris Métro is undeniably a marvel of public transportation, but it stinks … literally. Let’s just be brutally honest here for a minute. The Paris Métro has a certain charm with all those green and white 1960s-era trains rolling through its hundreds of art nouveau stations, but being authorized to eat and drink in the Métro does us no favors, folks …
4. Don’t be fooled by what looks like a toll-free number in France. Why, yes, they do have numbers here with prefixes that evoke the 1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866 family of truly free telephone numbers we have back in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that it always works that way here. The rule of thumb: never trust a number with a prefix any higher than 0809. The vast majority of 08 numbers in France are in fact toll numbers, and the amount you pay can range up to 0.75 euros ($1) a minute. The good thing is that the numbers belong to color-coded families, so always look for GREEN numbers … these numéros verts are always free. The unfortunate thing is that many (perhaps most) customer service numbers aren’t green, which leads us to the next lesson …
5. The French are experts at profanity. They are also, as we all know, the world champions of nonchalance. (That’s why we just use their word for it.) When these two character traits come together, you discover a marvelously nuanced array of how to say, as Rhett Butler so famously put it, “I don’t give a damn.” It takes a bit of practice, but dealing on a regular basis with French bureaucracy (or customer service calls you have to pay for) can put you well on your way to successfully distinguishing the appropriate audience and circumstances for such exclamations as:
Je m’en fiche!(literally, something like “I put myself out of that!”)
Je m’en fous!(literally, something like “I do myself out of that!”)
Je m’en tape!(literally, something like “I tap myself out of that!” … keeping in mind that “tap” can have the same slang meaning in French as it can in English)
Je m’en bats les … ! (literally, something like “I beat my … !” … well, I’ll just stop there and leave to the rest to your imagination.) You probably understand already that this is the last one in the arsenal.
And, simply adding “contre” right before the verb (“Je m’en contrefous!“) just reinforces how much you don’t give a damn! … !!!
You can always find rough equivalents between French and English swear words, too, including the euphemisms we’ve created to replace them in polite company. For instance, “merde” and “mince” are the French equivalents of “sh*t” and its polite cousin “shoot.” It might be an oversimplification, but from what I’ve seen and heard, French profanity is simply a little less profane than English profanity. (That might explain why I have no qualms about publishing “merde” but you don’t see the S-word spelled out.) What I mean is, saying “merde” doesn’t seem nearly as eyebrow-raising in French circles as the S-word is in ours. Another case in point is the word usually translated into English as the F-word: putain. Literally, it means “whore,” but it’s used as both an interjection and an adjective to express … well, almost anything depending on the context. Don’t just take my word for it — check this out:•
By the way, if you don’t want to sound too crass by blurting out “putain,” you can always trot out the polite-company equivalent: “punaise.” After all of that, I realize that I’m actually giving this topic short shrift. I see some real research and a full post on this in the future. Stay tuned …
6. As melodic and enchanting as the French language is (and as colorful, too, given number 5), the French are also experts at nonverbalcommunication. Despite the adage that there are no stupid questions, the truth is that there are, and if you ask one in France, you’re likely to get a look that very efficiently communicates that fact without so much as a sigh from your respondent. The French can also express an entire range of sentiment from sympathetic support to mild annoyance to overt hostility just by puffing air through their lips. It’s all a question of how forcefully it’s done. Take a look at this … (the whole video is great, but there’s a good example of what I’m talking about at about 0:55 – 1:05):
7. Air conditioning is one of the most brilliant inventions in human history. You recognize this undeniable truth when you no longer have it. Here in Paris, summer is usually fairly mild by the standards of the Deep South, but every now and then you wake up in a sweat to a forecast high of 101ºF. That’s when you start cursing France for being a third world country, and you hurry off to the nearest supermarket to hang out in the frozen food section. Let’s face it … that dormitory mini-fridge won’t ever cut it as a make-shift air conditioner.
• So, there you have it — my humorous look at the top ten …
… seven things I’ve learned while living in France.
(You have to cut me a break, guys. My laptop was starting to overheat,
and I didn’t have enough battery life to make it to
the ice cream case at Super U.)
I hope you enjoyed it. Come back soon!
Yesterday was my second Fourth of July here in France. Expatriates around the world know the feeling: you’re in a place that’s become your home, but on a day like the Fourth, the separation from your homeland feels wider and the differences seem more pronounced. You seek out a way to feel as “American” as you can, no matter how far from America you are. And we all have our ways of doing that …
For example →
Last year, I decided to seek out an historic American bar here in Paris and toast America’s birthday with the drink special of the day: The General Washington. Unfortunately, it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned, and it almost ruined my day. This year, Michel and I decided instead to celebrate by having a picnic on the banks of the Seine with a group of our friends. We asked everyone to bring something quintessentially American or, in the alternative, to come dressed as an “American.” Knowing this particular group of friends and their penchant for dramatic flare, I was sure to have material for my next blogpost. Continue reading As American as Apple Pie
Being an American in France has given me, rightly or wrongly, a certain mystique thanks to the preconceptions of my French family and friends. Some of their preconceptions, of course, are not ones I readily embrace, however true they might be. Others, I tend to play up, however true they might not be. One of those embraceable preconceptions is that I’m some sort of cowboy.
Part of the attraction of “America” for some French people, I think, is the image of the cowboy as an American stereotype. Now, I’m certainly no Marlboro Man and I’d say I’m prone to being booted out of most roadhouses, but I have been on a horse, I have country line danced, and I do walk with a certain thumb-in-pocket swagger, even on the cobblestones of Paris. Growing up in the Deep South — in the country — and speaking with a certain drawl about subjects like hunting, tractors, and country-western music give me a certain “cowboy credibility” here … even though I’m a vegetarian, I’ve only shot my father’s rifle a handful of times, and the most farm work I’ve ever done was picking beans in my parents’ garden. Nevertheless, if they want to see me as a cowboy, I’m more than happy to oblige.
Last week, when I was in South Carolina, my parents and I traveled down to Hilton Head to visit my aunt and uncle. Now, we all know that Hilton Head is not exactly the Okefenokee, but I knew there’d be alligators there and I was anxious to snap a few good shots to impress Michel, who was back in France. The evening after we arrived, my uncle and I went out searching for alligators in the neighborhood and just when we thought there were none to be found, we happened upon a big daddy gator sunning himself on the bank of a pond. Like an American Crocodile Dundee, I sprang into action … Continue reading Mike Bell: Cowboy, Alligator Wrestler
One of my favorite things about living in France is the bread. The French, as you know, have a knack for making great things in the kitchen, and their bread is undoubtedly one of their finest products. I often joke that the reason I’ve gained about 7 kilos (that would be 15 pounds) since the summer of 2009 is the fact that French bread is so readily available. In Paris, you can’t walk for more than 2 or 3 blocks without the scent of freshly baked baguettes enticing you into a boulangerie like some siren song for your waistline.
This is also why I’ve often said that I can’t really eat American bread anymore. My palate has become so snobbish about bread that I even turn my nose up at the creations of the very artisanal American bakeries that I formerly patronized and touted to the world, and I even claim that Le Pain Quotidien just tastes different in America than it does in France. I’ll never forget Michel‘s first visit to Washington back in December 2009, when I went searching for a baguette for dinner, hurrying home with a pain de campagne from my neighborhood bakery because they didn’t have any baguettes, only to blush with embarrassment upon realizing that it simply didn’t measure up to what Michel was used to eating—what I’m now used to eating. That’s why I chose a warm, fresh tradition for my last lunch in France before leaving for the U.S. last weekend. I had to get my fix before starting this two-week sojourn in the land of Merita and Sunbeam, you know. Continue reading Our Daily Bread
About a week ago, I stumbled upon Tremé, an HBO series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the story of several New Orleanians struggling to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe. On a grander scale, it paints a poignant picture of a unique culture determined to preserve itself against the odds. In a few days’ time, I had already watched the entire first season; I hadn’t felt such an immediate attraction to a television series in a very long time, and I simply couldn’t stop watching it. The music and the scenery brought back memories of my first and only visit to New Orleans a few years after the hurricane, and I decided that I needed to see it again one day and show its magic to Michel.
And, of course, all this happened in the days leading right up to Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday,” is a Christian holiday marking the end of the season of Epiphany and the beginning of the season of self-sacrifice called Lent (or Carême, in French). It’s the culmination of Carnival season, when you’re expected to indulge (notably in fatty foods—hence the name) in advance of the solemn season that follows. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans—whether at Carnival season or even in November—you know that no one does decadence quite like the Crescent City : think shrimp po’ boys and spicy gumbo, warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, and Hurricanes in go-cups.
But why does New Orleans indulge so well? Perhaps it’s because the city can trace its very origins—however tenuously—back to Mardi Gras :
This isn’t a blog post about the arguments over what constitutes a martini: gin versus vodka, shaken versus stirred … if something with Pucker in it can even lay claim to the name. Instead, this post is about a crucial difference between martinis in America and martinis in France. If you’re ever thinking about ordering one in this country, pay close attention. This is very important!
To illustrate this lesson, I’ll share an anecdote recounted by a friend over dinner Friday night:
A group of Americans walk into a restaurant in Paris and are seated for dinner. (I know this sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s not.) The waiter arrives and asks if anyone would like to start with a cocktail or an apéritif. One of the Americans orders a martini.
“Blanc ou rouge?” the waiter asks.
“Uh … rouge,” the American responds tentatively. “There must be a splash of cranberry or Chambord in there,” she thinks to herself, remembering that “rouge” means “red” in French.
“And for Monsieur?”
“I’ll have a blanc,” Monsieur replies. “That must be a ‘normal’ martini,” he thinks to himself, before starting to wonder why the waiter didn’t ask if they preferred gin or vodka.
February 2 might be Groundhog Day in the United States, but it’s also Candlemas on the Christian calendar. It’s the day when the Church celebrates Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of ritual purification and redemption of the firstborn. Despite the Catholic church’s official rejection of such theories, some believe that Candlemas was created to Christianize a pre-existing Roman holiday, Lupercalia, or perhaps a pre-existing Celtic holiday, Imbolc. Lupercalia was the feast of Lupercus, the god of fertility and herds. Imbolc was the feast of the goddess Brigit, and was marked by torchlit processions through the fields to invite purification and fertility for the coming spring. Whether he was motivated to co-opt these pagan holidays or not, it was Pope Gelasius I who instituted Candlemas in AD 492 and fixed its date on February 2. The blessing of candles and candlelit processions supplanted earlier pagan rites and gave rise to the name of the holiday.
These days in France, though, Candlemas (or Chandeleur, from chandelle, meaning “candle”) is known less for its candles and more for its …
Yes, I’ve spent three semesters learning French in a rigorous academic setting here in Paris, but there are still those moments when I just have to fake it … like hanging out last night in a bar with French college students, or sitting around the dinner table with my French family, or taking an oral exam. Truth be told, I understand what they’re saying to me SO much less than they think I do, but I put on a good act!
So, go pour a glass of red, grab that baguette, sit back, and enjoy this little gem a friend found on the Internet:
And don’t worry if you can’t quite make out what she’s saying about Americans in Step Four. You don’t really have to understand it—just shake your head and cuss a little!
Today was September 29: Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael. In America, we don’t generally make a big deal about the feast days of saints. There are exceptions, of course, the most well-known in America being Saint Patrick’s Day, when we wear green and get drunk, all while pretending to be Irish … and perhaps the Feast of Saint Francis, when you might take your pooch to church for a blessing even if you haven’t darkened the church door for a few months. It was not until I met my French husband, though, that I realized how feast days are still very current in the French consciousness, even if they have largely—if not entirely—lost their religious connotation. As soon I had a few French friends on Facebook, I started to see “bonne fête” popping up in my newsfeed—not thanking someone for a great party the night before, but sending good wishes on the feast day of the Saint that bears his or her name. It’s a nice tradition, and one that I’ve adopted with my French family and friends.