More kissing and other customs I don’t understand

Alright, so I am starting to get the hang of the kissing thing. However, there are still a few other things I don’t get.

1. Saying hello when you enter the room. In France, in the teacher’s lounge for example, when you enter, you must say hello. There is no “slipping in” here. When you enter a room, if you don’t say “bonjour”, you’ll feel your mistake in the awkward silence that follows. (They are all looking at you because you are rude. If you are like me in the waiting room at the doctor’s office you will be too oblivious to notice until the next person comes in and you look up to see that there are still people looking at you confused.) This is tough for me. I like slipping into rooms. I don’t like interrupting people in conversation. Most of all, it feels strange to announce your arrival in a room. It feels very self-important. Like, “HELLO! EVERYONE STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO NOTICE ME. Oh yes and you can shower me with kisses now.”
I guess what I’ve started doing is just mumbling “bonjour”, in probably an inaudible voice, and smiling (you saw my lips move right?). I’m sure it is wrong still, I mean just about everything I do seems to be at least slightly off, but I don’t get the awkward silent judgement anymore.
2. A French goodbye. So I think you are supposed to kiss everyone on the way out of a party, etc. (I always make sure to at least kiss the cute boys…just kidding.) I often just play the American card (at least in my head, or that’s what I tell myself) and announce my goodbye to the room and the people I’ve talked to an if they go in for the kiss, then so be it.
I’m still not exactly sure who you kiss and when (it seems that for women it is everyone, every time, everywhere), but ultimately it may not matter if I simply offend everyone at the get-go each time I walk in the room and fail to say “bonjour”.
3. Bon appetit. Apparently this is to be said any time you walk past a person eating. I often eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge and every time I do, many teachers walk by (making copies, preparing for classes, etc.) and each time they say “bon appetit”. Teachers I’ve never met, seen, but not talked to, without fail, “bon appetit”. I must admit that I kind of love that food is so sacred here that one must always wish someone “bon appetit” whether eating a 3-course meal or snacking on a cookie.

What does an American look like?

In the past, I have been told by people that I look Irish and Scandinavian. In France, neither of those have come up. Once I open my mouth, people seem to catch on pretty quickly that I’m not French, but the nationalities that people think I have has been interesting to see. So far, German and American are tied for first and Italian and English are tied for second.

I should also point out that I am frequently asked for directions in French and have had several people start conversations with me in French. When I respond (typically asking them to repeat what they said), they realize that I am a foreigner, but often with some surprise. So, in spite of my fears about walking around with “I’m American” tattooed on my forehead, I must be blending in fairly well. (Phew!)

To be fair, with the exception of Italy, I have ancestors from all of the countries that people have asked about (Germany, France and Britain). I just find it interesting that they don’t necessarily pick me out as American. It makes me wonder what an American “looks like” to them. Would I be picked out as an American if I acted differently? If they heard me speaking in English? If I wore different clothes? I don’t know.



The Little Things

Shopping, especially grocery shopping, is surprisingly comforting. Even though the supermarkets are different here, there is something wonderfully familiar with stepping into a grocery store.

One of my greatest simple joys so far was, you guessed it, finding that they sell my brand of deodorant here! With grocery shopping here, it can be very hit or miss. Most of the time, it is pretty straight forward. However, frequently, I’ve noticed that the things you often expect to find with ease can’t be found. Either they don’t sell it or they put it in an aisle that you would never guess to look in.

I was shocked at how happy I was to learn that they sold my brand of deodorant here. It probably sounds kind of stupid, but think about it. You find the products you like in the United States. You probably have bought them for years. Unless they have been out of it, this is probably not even something you think about when picking it up at the store. When I went to go buy deodorant, it dawned on me. I have no idea what the equivalent words would be for the different features, scents, etc. What if I bought a kind that did absolutely nothing or smelled terrible in itself? (Which sadly happened. I bought a deodorant that I think only masks body odor by giving off a worse odor.)

There is an element of adventure of trying new products for things that you use every day. However, I just want to buy shampoo that doesn’t change the color of my hair, makeup remover (and not nail polish remover), lotion (and not body wash) and contact solution that won’t blind me.

Today, I am thankful for the little things. The brief appearances of familiar brands in a sea of the unfamiliar to keep me grounded and let me focus on the adventures bigger than staring at labels of toiletries in the grocery store.

#allthebaguettes

This started as a joke. You know the French stereotype of a person donning a striped shirt and a beret riding on a bicycle with baguettes in the front basket?

While at a friend’s lakehouse this past summer, we talked about my time in France and how I would document my journey. I don’t have a lot of social media experience and we thought it would be funny to have an Instagram account devoted to just pictures of baguettes. I can’t explain why it was so funny, but it resulted in the creation of a Twitter account for baguettes and the joking use of #allthebaguettes every time we talked about France.
Honestly, I kind of thought that would be the end of it.
Little did I know that baguettes are kind of a big deal here.
When looking for an apartment, we toured one place and the first thing the person said was that there was a bakery nearby. We were kind of like, ‘yeah that’s great…what about a grocery store? I’m never going to go to a bakery because I’m too poor.’
Not in France.
I swear. I could have had a full Twitter/Instagram account with posts and pictures of everyone I’ve seen with baguettes. 5 PM is like baguette o’clock here. Husbands picking up baguettes for their wives on the way home from work. Children snacking on baguettes. A mother trying to appease a fussy child with a bite of baguette. Children chasing pigeons in the square with baguettes…You name a scene and there’s probably a baguette present.
What is the hold that baguettes have on the lovely people of Clermont-Ferrand? All I know so far is that they are cheap and delicious, but I will keep investigating.

Catcalling en français

With the recentish videos on the internet about catcalling, I wanted to add an observation from France. I was walking home the other day and all of a sudden I heard from the bus stop on the opposite side of the street:

“Madamoiselle! Bonjour! Madamoiselle…bonjour!”

It totally caught me off guard. My thought process went something like this:

Yay! I actually understood what they were saying (point Kristina!). Hey, I think they are talking to me. Wait, are they catcalling me? Okay, I’m creeped out. I’m going to walk a little faster. (Laughing to myself) Although, I must admit, it does sound a little less creepy in French then it does in English.

The power of the French language.

Russian Roulette Laundry

Laundry. Another one of those seemingly simple things that should be about the same no matter where you go, right?

Wrong.

We have this nice washing machine/dryer combo in our apartment (and we are very lucky to have access to laundry here in our apartment instead of having to go to a laundromat or “laverie” as they are called here). At the same time, I feel like every time I do laundry, I am playing a relatively high-stakes game of chance with my wardrobe.

There are 13 settings defined by pictures of plants, waving clothes, wind and sun. Then there are three dials. One has a thermometer, snowflake and numbers that must be temperatures in celsius, but they seem way too high to be a water temperature for clothes. One dial has a sun with a shirt flying out the door. I think this represents the drying function, but again, the temperatures seem astronomical unless you want to set your clothes on fire. The third dial has numbers corresponding to the 13 wash settings and then additional pictures.

So, I set the three knobs to based on the most sensible hieroglyphics (the all-seeing eye, the flying chocolate chip and the leaf) and set it to launch. No matter what I do, the same things seem to happen. The cycle takes multiple hours. The clothes come out either burning hot (and with shrunken arms) or damp (but still really hot).

I mean, I was hoping to downsize my wardrobe for the journey home in seven months, but I had hoped that my clothes would last until spring. On the plus side, at least this will give me another excuse to go shopping for clothes in France!

The French kiss.

The French kiss instead of shaking hands. (Oh, was that not what you thought I was going to say?) This has been very difficult to get used to. For years, the natural gesture of meeting someone and shaking their hands, or maybe hugging depending on the situation, has been ingrained in my head.

When I am introduced to someone new, I have had to become very diligent in remembering that the French do the chic, European kiss on both cheeks. Several times.

For non-French (at least the Americans and one British assistant I’ve talked to), it is very awkward. There are clearly wrong and right times to do that. It also depends on if you are a male or female (and who you are greeting). Sometimes people actually kiss you on the cheek. The number of times you kiss also depends on what region you are in. It is une danse très compliqué (a very complicated dance) with ever changing rules…I just cannot figure out the steps.

For example, in Clermont-Ferrand, people tend to kiss two times. In other places, they kiss three times. I was in one of those regions a couple of weeks ago and surprise! Extra kiss. Not that it was a bad thing. You just feel a little stupid when you pull away. (Kind of an “oops, we’re still kissing apparently” moment.)

So, if people couldn’t tell in the few words I would have said to them that I am American, they know when I put out my hand. They are very nice. They will shake my hand. Sometimes they will pull me in for a kiss anyway. Or they will make some joke about being American. Usually, it ends up okay.

When I was an intern in D.C., I worked for the Pan American Health and Education Foundation and we interacted with people from all over the world. So, I had been in business situations where the proper greeting with the air kiss. However, if I shook their hand, it was okay. We were in the US. There was no awkwardness.

Now, worst case scenario. Someone will come up to me and kind of lean in, but not really indicate that we’re going to air kiss and I miss the subtle signal. I only realize that I’ve missed my cue when they back away slightly, tilt their head slightly and give me a slightly confused look. (Even then it often takes me a couple of minutes to fully comprehend what has happened.) Then its like, great, now you think I’m rude, stupid or both and I don’t know the language well enough to explain what just happened and too much time has passed anyway to apologize and now I’m just trying to smile a lot to look friendly and hide my blushing face. This usually happens when I am in a more formal setting or when I see students outside of class and they stop me.

Those days, I just feel like a rude American. So that’s a new challenge for me: learn how not to be rude in France. Challenge accepted.

Baking soda is in the cleaning products aisle

You know that moment where you are abroad and you just want (insert American food here)? I’ve found that in going abroad you get sudden cravings for family favorites (that surely go beyond simply a food craving, but I digress). The only way to satisfy that craving (and cure the touch of homesickness) is to find that food and eat it. A few weeks ago, that was chocolate cookies for me.

I pulled out my mom’s chocolate chip cookie recipe, wrote down the ingredients and skipped off to the supermarket.

Oh, but did we really think it was going to be that easy? Silly me.

Baking aisle. Check.

Flour? Well, there are like 15 different kinds of flour. Do I pick the ones with the pizza on the package or the bread? Oh, who am I kidding, what’s the cheapest? Okay, got the flour.

Sugar? Again, there are at least 10 different kinds of sugar. I think “sucre en poudre” is what I need even though that would technically translate into powdered sugar and I need granulated sugar, but the picture on package looks like granulated sugar…well, it’s the cheapest anyway.

Brown sugar? … Brown sugar? … There’s brown, natural cane sugar, but that’s not brown sugar. Google translate: brown sugar… “sucre brun”…not helpful. Okay…

Molasses? (I’ll make my own brown sugar.) … Molasses? Not here either…

Google: substitutes for brown sugar…Ah, no service. Do these cookies really need brown sugar? What does it do anyway?

Baking soda?…Baking soda?…I just see flour, sugar and salt…How important is baking soda really?

Baking powder? Maybe I can substitute baking soda for baking powder. Hmm…it is not here either.

Butter? I mean I want Crisco, but there’s no way that I would find it even it was here. Okay, here we are in the dairy aisle. Interesting. They neither have cups or sticks. Naturally, the measurements are in the metric system. Oh, right, I’m going to have to cook in celsius! Do I think that I will need more than this brick of butter? Well, if I do, too bad. And should it be sweet, salted? Never mind, I’m just going to be happy that I found the butter.

Vanilla extract? Whatever this is, close enough. Check.

Chocolate chips? Interesting. Mini, dark chocolate ones. This bag is maybe a quarter of the size of the one at home…and I think we use most of the bag. Well, just going to buy one bag anyway.

So without baking soda and brown sugar, I leave the grocery store.

I went home and did some research. After consulting some blogs from other expats with similar baking woes (particular thanks to David Lebovitz and his website!), I made a new list with possible brown sugar substitutes and the correct translation for baking soda (bicarbonate de soude).

Going back to the store, I found my brown sugar substitutes pretty easily. I walked up and down the aisle multiple times…no baking soda (I did find what I think is baking powder). Finally, after trying to look lost and confused so someone would ask me if I needed help, I went in search of a store employee. I mustered up my confidence and asked, “Où est le bicarbonate de soudre?”. He looked at me funny and then said, “Le bicarbonate de soude?” Detecting the subtle difference and my mistake, I said, “oui”. He then took me to the aisle for cleaning products and I found the baking soda.

At that point, I was concerned. What was the baking soda doing in the cleaning products aisle? I remembered that the baking soda my mother had in her cabinet could be used for cleaning purposes, but I couldn’t tell if this was a special cleaning baking soda or multipurpose baking soda (especially since the word in French isn’t a direct translation of “baking soda”). I looked on the label and there was great mention of its wonderful cleaning properties, but absolutely no mention of cooking. I sat in the aisle for at least five minutes debating if this would be poisonous or not and if I wanted to waste my money finding out. Finally, I decided that 1) if I did this with every product I didn’t understand, that I would never make it out of the store and 2) I would do some research at home before I opened it and try to return it if it wasn’t correct (and not be upset with myself if they didn’t allow me to return it).

I left the store and went home to do more research. After 30 minutes or more of searching the company website, comparing active ingredients, searching other blogs for mention of this brand, etc. I opened the container to see if it resembled what I remembered. It didn’t smell ominous and it looked like what I remembered…so I just decided to see what would happen.

Luckily, it turned into a lovely batch of cookies and banana bread.

This event just reminded me how much of an adventure seemingly simple things can be when you are in a foreign country. When this happens, all you can do is laugh and just appreciate where you are.

Apartment Hunting, in the style of “House Hunters International” (Part 2)

Finally, I received a message from a landlord about a colocation (a place in need of a roommate) with two female college students. In arranging to view the apartment, I left the most incoherent message I have ever left in my life. At the end of it, I had to say, “I don’t know my phone number, so please just call me back on this one.” I decided that I had to call back and leave my number and pray that they wouldn’t think I was completely nuts. Later that afternoon, I got their cell phone numbers from the landlord and called one of the roommates to schedule a showing. (Hopefully that means my message just went into the void!) One of the girls showed me the place and it seemed nice enough, big enough for my stuff, had a full kitchen (meaning that it has an oven…something not very common here), was on my bus line and near the train station.

If only that had been the end of it.

I contacted the landlord to say that I was interested in signing a contract. He said that was great and to send him some paperwork via email. He sent me back an email confirming the time to meet him about the place. The thing is on the phone I thought he said Saturday. On Saturday morning, I looked at the email again and it said Friday.

Let’s just say I panicked a little. I called him twice and left one message (likely incoherent), sent him an email and reached out to the roommate that I met. She called me back, but didn’t know if I had missed him.

I waited (sweating bullets) for maybe an hour. At least that’s what it felt like. Then I received an email from him. He sent an email that said he’d written the incorrect day in the email and had planned to meet me on Saturday like we had discussed. We made the rest of the arrangements (with some help from his wife who spoke a little English) and it seemed to be all settled.

Then he called me again asking if I needed transportation to the apartment. Or maybe he called to see if I needed help with my bags. I just said “oui” a bunch of times, but I clearly wasn’t understanding something. So, he put his wife on the phone, who speaks English, and she explained that I should meet them at the apartment, we’d sign the papers and then he’d drive me back to the hostel and we’d pick up the bags.

Walking there, I was nervous. What if they didn’t like me? I mean I hadn’t dressed to impress, to say the least. I dressed to move. What if I couldn’t understand anything with the contracts, etc.? Basically, I was imagining all of the things that could happen to make this fall through at the last minute and leave me on the side of the road, homeless with my four horrible bags. Let’s be honest, I was slightly more afraid of having to drag my bags all over town and being homeless (between my contacts at the high school and other assistants, I knew I would figure something out for the night if need be, but those bags…).

To my delight, everything went very well. My landlord and his wife are the friendliest people. They walked me through all of the different documents switching between English and French. They were incredibly patient. It was just such a relief after the whole ordeal. After everything was signed, we went back to the hostel to pick my bags and moved everything in.

I intended to celebrate that night either by going out to some clubs with colleagues, a glass of wine and/or a nice meal (well, something more than a tv dinner or a boxed convenience store sandwich). Instead, I just put the sheets on my bed and went to sleep. I was exhausted.