Just before the end of last year, I wrote what was supposed to be “the last chapter” of je parle américain as you know it, because I planned to transform the blog into something entirely new. As it turns out, I haven’t made any progress with that, so je parle américain has been quiet of late, just “sitting on the shelf” collecting dust — to stay with the literary theme. Sometimes, though, events transpire that simply demand you pick up the pen again — or return to the keyboard as the case may be — and actually finish the story …
August 15, 2010 was the day I left the US with big dreams, 130 pounds of luggage, and a one-way ticket to Charles de Gaulle. The days leading up to the anniversary are always full of reflection and nostalgia for me. I spend a lot of time looking back at what I’ve accomplished — or failed to accomplish — but I also look ahead to what the new year might bring my way. It’s a bit like New Year’s in mid-summer.
Two years ago, on my first anniversary as an expat in France, I recounted the beautiful story of what led me to this country in the first place (“The Patience of a Butterfly“). Last year, as my second anniversary rolled around, I waxed rather philosophical about it all, writing about change as the very essence of life (“Every Beginning is Only a Sequel“). This year, I’m doing something quite a bit different. You see, I have a Facebook tradition every August 15: I start a new photo album into which I will post scores of photos of my life during the upcoming year. A few days ago, in preparation for “Ma vie à Paris: la quatrième année,” I was scrolling through last year’s album, and I was reminded of what a monumental year it’s been: chock full of the usual stresses of expat life, of course, but also charged with exciting developments that promise good things to come. This August 15, then, I’ve decided to share with you a little photographic montage of the last 525,600 minutes of my life as an expat — the mundane and the exciting, the frustrating and the promising, even the delicious and the inebriating … and the sentimental, of course. So … how do you measure a year in the life?Continue reading 525,600 minutes
So, I just spent half an hour at the post office in La Courneuve so that I could come right back home with my letter STILL in my hand.
As is usual for this particular location of La Poste, there were only two people working (very slowly) and the line seemed to be a kilometer long. But I was patient … sort of. I assumed the requisite mindset of beaten-down resignation. Sometimes that helps. When I finally arrived at the counter after — no exaggeration — twenty-five minutes in line, I placed my fat envelope on the counter and told the postal worker that I wanted to send it by registered mail. She handed me the form for that, but then sympathetically informed me:
“But you can’t do that here. You have to use a machine for that, and it only takes change or debit cards.”
“I can do this at a machine?” I sighed. “So, I didn’t have to wait in that line after all? Okay. Well, I can pay with my debit card. It’s that machine over there?” I pointed in the general direction whence I’d come.
“Yes, I’ll come with you.”
She kindly escorted me back over to the area of lobby with all the machines. On the way, she asked me if I hadn’t seen the “welcome desk” when I came in.
“Why, yes, I did see it. But no one was there half an hour ago when I came in.”
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!
Following on my blog post yesterday about my visit to the prefecture in Bobigny, I wanted to share a slideshow of photos taken during that visit by my husband, Michel. It captures the very human side of what I approached from a more humorous perspective in my post. The photos are poignantly evocative of the truth that we are all part of the same family, no matter where we were born. Michel quotes a well-known French song in his blog post, which I think beautifully encapsulates the story told by these images:
A friend recently posted an article on Facebook about former Manhattanites living in my former hometown of Washington, D.C. Manhattanites exiled to Washington search for fellow sufferers is a humorous piece in the Washington Post‘s lifestyle section reporting on the “stranger in a strange land” lamentations of the members of a group called the Fellowship of Unassimilated Manhattan Exiles. It’s pretty funny because these folks are self-styled “exiles,” as if they had been banished from Manhattan to the hinterlands. And it’s even more entertaining because the article is rife with the stereotypical over-inflated New York ego: Continue reading A Bitter-sweet Exile