Pretty in Pink

One of the advantages of being a perpetual student is spring break. At my new school, we actually have two spring breaks: one this week and one at the end of April. Not a bad deal, huh? Unfortunately, because of Michel‘s schedule and our lack of disposable income at the moment, there are no exotic spring break excursions on our calendar this year. Two years ago this month, though, I took a weekend jaunt down to a beautiful spot in southwest France, which made me think, “If I can’t travel this time around, I can always remember … <sigh> …

Continue reading Pretty in Pink

Saint-Malo: Traveling Saints, French Pirates, and the Best Crêpes Around

Back when I started this blog, I imagined that I’d have an entire series of posts about my travels around France. As often happens with projects like this, I ended up going off in other directions and I never really returned to the theme of sharing my favorites places in France with my readers. Well, oversight rectified …

Welcome to Saint-Malo!

Continue reading Saint-Malo: Traveling Saints, French Pirates, and the Best Crêpes Around

Three Parisian Thanksgivings

My first Thanksgiving as an expat was in 2010.  It was the first time spending this quintessentially American holiday in France, so I really wanted to go all out and impress my French family with a traditional Thanksgiving experience. I even posted a little article from French Wikipedia on Facebook for them, explaining what Thanksgiving was — that it’s about more than just parades, football games, and oven-roasted turkey. Then I ran off to a little American épicerie in the Marais (incidentally called “Thanksgiving”) and loaded up on the traditional fixin’s. Here’s my Facebook status from November 24, 2010, pretty much summing up my grocery list: Continue reading Three Parisian Thanksgivings

The Hero of Two Worlds

It’s appropriate that I’m publishing today’s post from the United States, because September 6 is the birthday of one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution: the Marquis de Lafayette. It’s also appropriate that I’m publishing from South Carolina, because Lafayette not only was a Franco-American hero, but he had a special connection to my home state.

Joseph-Désiré Court’s portrait of Gilbert du Motier marquis de Lafayette, 1791

You should know by now that I’m a big history nerd. I’ve been one all my life, and the older I get, the more convinced I am that somewhere along the way I got sidetracked from my destiny to become a history professor. The people in my life closest to me can attest to that fact. Just Sunday night, at dinner with Michel and our friends Leigh and Dwight in Columbia, I was heard correcting a Frenchman’s account of the role of the French Revolution in the birth of French laicity. What can I say? It’s a passion. So it came as no surprise when, during my first semester of French classes at the Sorbonne, I chose to do my 15-minute oral report on the life of the Marquis de Lafayette. It also came as no surprise that my 15-minute report ended up lasting half an hour! I’m pretty sure that most of my classmates’ eyes start to glaze over after about 20 minutes because … well, not everyone can be as into Franco-American history as I am. In any case, je parle américain‘s homage to the Marquis on this, the 255th anniversary of his birth, is based on that long oral report … but today, at least, I’ll be telling it in English and not broken French. So, hopefully your eyes won’t glaze over before you get to the bottom of the page.

Ready? Here we go … Continue reading The Hero of Two Worlds

Who wants some smelly French cheese?

Photo: Ah, Camembert! © 2006 NJGJ

Well everyone, this is my first post from the American side of the Pond since arriving on Sunday afternoon, and have I got news for you! In fact, as far as I’m concerned, this is a “CNN Breaking News” kind of moment, so I can only apologize for not publishing it as soon as I got to a computer Sunday evening. But I had jetlag, you know, and it took me a couple of days to get back into the right rhythm … plus I had to find the right images online for the blogpost that wouldn’t end up infringing someone’s copyright and, then, WordPress started having formatting issues. Anyway, enough about the jetlag and the bloggers’ headaches, right? You just want to know what this juicy tidbit of information is. Well … <drumroll> …

Despite everything you may have heard or believed up to now,
you CAN bring smelly French cheese into the US! *

© 2010 Myrabella

* Make sure to read the disclaimer at the end of this article.

Okay, so you know how I joke all the time about how U.S. Customs thinks unpasteurized cheese is a chemical weapon? The last time I did that, in fact, was just 9 days ago. I was saying that if I ever wanted my parents to taste a real Camembert, I’d have to smuggle it into the country under the noses of those luggage-sniffing dogs they have. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong … completely and utterly wrong … and I owe my current status of “harbinger of good news for American expats in France and their friends and family back home” to an unexpected encounter with a Customs agent at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Sunday afternoon.

Continue reading Who wants some smelly French cheese?

Cinco de Mayo, or … Telling the French to Step Off

For better or for worse, Cinco de Mayo — like Saint Patrick’s Day — has become one of what NPR writer Linton Weeks calls America’s “Alcoholidays”: those holidays that have become “widely celebrated by people who have no ties to the traditions they spring from” through the festive adoption of national colors and costumes, and the excessive consumption of national alcoholic beverages.

Think about it. What would Saint Patrick’s Day in America be without the least Irish of us parading about in green while swilling Irish whiskey and chasing it with dyed beer? What would Cinco de Mayo in America be without the least Mexican of us shooting tequila while sporting a sombrero? Everyone has an opinion about whether the “mainstreaming” of such holidays is a good thing or bad thing, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day. Spending this Cinco de Mayo in France, the big question for me today (putting aside my “least Mexican”-ness) was whether I could — or should — be celebrating it here … in FRANCE.

I’d wager that most Americans who are off imbibing great quantities of José Cuervo today haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re commemorating. Contrary to popular misconception, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. That’s September 16, the day when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest in the town of Dolores, announced the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 (“El Grito de Dolores” or “El Grito de la Independencia“). On the other hand, Cinco de Mayo marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when the Mexican Army defeated a superior force of French soldiers.

Wait … the French? The French were in Mexico?

Why, yes. Indeed they were …

Continue reading Cinco de Mayo, or … Telling the French to Step Off

“Aux urnes, citoyens!” • “To the ballot boxes, citizens!”

Today, like some kind of United Nations election observer (or a self-appointed election journalist for the online media), I witnessed my first foreign election in progress. April 22, 2012 : It’s the first round of the French presidential elections, and I tagged along as Michel went to his polling place and exercised his franchise. It was a proud moment for him and for me. It was even memorialized on Facebook. Here’s the picture …

“Michel Denis Pouradier … a voté.” • “Michel Denis Pouradier … has voted.” © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

As an American — coming from a tradition that likes to view of itself as the father (even the guarantor) of democracy around the world — I found it very intriguing to watch the voting process here. As in America, the voting system differs from town to town, but here in La Courneuve, they still use paper ballots and ballot boxes (“urnes“). That struck me as both surprisingly outmoded and, somehow, so much more legitimate than pressing buttons on a touchscreen and watching your vote disappear into the ether. Watching Michel vote brought to mind images of elections in less developed countries that we Americans often see on our evening news, but also memories of my childhood, accompanying my parents to their polling place in rural South Carolina where, after having voted, they dropped their ballots in a little locked wooden box with a slot in the top. Nostalgia. Continue reading “Aux urnes, citoyens!” • “To the ballot boxes, citizens!”

Looking for work, or walking off the job?

Strikers at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle yesterday. Photo from Reuters

The News

Besides the record-breaking cold temperatures, the big news this week in France is the grève — the strike — at Air France. Essentially a “strike about the right to strike,” it was called by the unions representing Air France’s pilots, cabin crews, and ground crews to protest legislation that would impact their right to walk off the job. Now, you should know up front that workers’ rights are a big deal in France: the 35-hour workweek, generous unemployment benefits, and strong union representation are ingrained in the national consciousness here. As a matter of fact, the right to strike (“le droit de grève“) is actually enshrined in the French Constitution of 1946. Nevertheless, since 2008, railway and bus employees have been subject to a regulation to ensure “the continuity of public service” in ground transportation by requiring 48-hour notice of the intent to strike and the provision of “minimum service” during the strike. Last month, the Assemblée Nationale passed legislation expanding this regulation to include air travel as well, and the Senate is expected to take it up later this month. That, in a nutshell, is why the departures board at Charles-de-Gaulle was lit up in red today. Continue reading Looking for work, or walking off the job?

Groundhogs? Pancakes!

Presentation of Christ at the Temple, Hans Holbein the Elder

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 …


Continue reading Groundhogs? Pancakes!

Why Coke Tastes Better in France

Photo: “Celebrate 125 years of the legend.” A Coca-Cola anniversary giveaway at Place de la République, Paris, January 2012. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

So, while we’re on the subject of American cultural exports, let’s consider Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is certainly the most widely-recognized American export to the world: certainly more so than Ford, or Levis, or even McDonalds. Here in France, ordering “un Coca” is as commonplace as ordering “a Coke” back in the U.S., but there is a difference here—and I’m not just talking about slightly smaller cans and much higher prices—I’m talking about the taste.

To be upfront about this, I haven’t been a “regular” Coke drinker for quite some time. With my metabolism, I just can’t afford all those extra calories, so I almost always drink Coke Zero. Every now and then, though, when I want to splurge, I do have regular Coke (or “Coca normal” here). The first time I drank a Coca normal here in France, I was struck by how good it tasted! Was it that I hadn’t had one in a while? Or was it some special recipe for the French market? (I knew that in certain markets, the recipe is tweaked to appeal to local tastebuds.) Continue reading Why Coke Tastes Better in France