Les Vacances

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

If there is one thing I have learned in our time in France is that if the French are intent on doing something, they to do it well. They have exacting protocols to ensure that wine, cheese, meat, bread, butter, and even lentils all are produced as advertised. (Trust me, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a Frenchman get upset over the quality, or lack thereof, of his legumes.) The French take their fashion very seriously, and spend hours on end discussing the role of the current government in ruining everything they hold dear. They also place a great importance on leisure, regulating everything about the workweek from the number of hours you can work (35) to the time of day when you can no longer send work-related emails, (6:00 pm). Also, and at the heart of the French attitude towards leisure, during the summer the French take, “Les Vacances.”

“Les Vacances” is the name given to that substantial portion of the summer whereby the French flee their homes and hit the road. Spending a good chunk of the summer on vacation is a fact of life for the French; it is a crucial means to use part of the six weeks of vacation time their employers are mandated to provide by law. (!) Typically, they head south or west, heading towards the water, but the “where” isn’t all that important. It is only important that they go somewhere, and the fact that they are all doing it together at the same time creates a sense of distinct national well-being.

Raise your hands if you like vacations!

Raise your hands if you like vacations!

Wanting to fit in, we planned an ambitious travel schedule ourselves. Last week, we hit the beach in Holland, spending some time in the impossible-to-pronounce-in-English seaside town of Scheveningen. (When enunciated correctly, the town sounds like an old, beat up car with a dead battery trying to will its way into starting.) We are now in Ireland for a few days. This weekend, we will travel to Bordeaux to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Next weekend, we travel back to the United States where I will reprise my role as village idiot of our hometown, Oakland.

Before you go congratulating us for joining the French leisure class, realize this: with the exception of our weekend in Bordeaux, Amy is working for all of these trips. She travels a lot and has found that she’d rather us join her on her trips and we can spend the evenings together than be without us, even if it means a bit of envy with our day being a little more fun than hers. Of course, as a stay at home parent, heading out on the road does not mean that I am free from my day-to-day duties as a parent. I still need to find places to stay, things to do, and put food on the table, even if I don’t cook it myself. This is the part of the post where you feel bad for me because my life is so difficult.

Bon voyage Malcolm! Those flight attendants have no idea what is in store for them...

Bon voyage Malcolm! Those flight attendants have no idea what is in store for them…

As of a few hours ago, however, I am truly on vacation. This morning, we dropped off Malcolm at the security checkpoint for his first ever solo flight. That’s right, little Malkie is flying by himself, and the skies will never be the same. Outwardly, he will be as cool as Don Draper, but I am sure the inside his mind will be as random as an episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I am not worried about him, the abundance of in-flight entertainment on airplanes nowadays ensures that he will be plugged into movies/shows/games until the plane has taxied to the gate in San Francisco.

Malcolm is flying home to spend some quality time with his grandparents. I am not sure whether he was more excited to get spoiled by his grandparents or have the exhilarating experience of flying alone. (He has already promised me he is going to ask the flight attendants for some bourbon on the flight.) He’ll be fine, and even if we are struggling a bit with the realization that our son is old enough to fly across the planet by himself. We will reunited with Malcolm in ten days, when we arrive in the United States. To be sure, it won’t be a proper vacances, but the village idiot rarely does anything the proper way.

Wine of the Week: Rosé

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Blank of the Blank

If you are like me, there are certain truths that are self-evident. Sure, all the crap in the Declaration of Independence is a place to start, but my list goes well beyond that. I believe the only acceptable condiment on a corn dog is mustard. Men should never wear white shoes and sandals are out of the question. People who mistake hemophilia with pedophilia should be barred from working in a children’s hospital. Until recently, I also believed that rosé came in a box and was only properly served on a houseboat.

Boy, was I wrong. The rosé here is strong. Real strong.

Looking and tasting nothing like the rosés I was used to, French Rosé is a basically a way to hug each of your senses. It is served chilled, and enjoying some rosé on a nice warm day is one of my favorite experiences here.

They make rosé in almost every wine region in France, but we have been paying special attention to the Côtes-de-provence region, in Southern France. Rosés vary in color from salmon-urine pink to I-need-to-get-my-liver-checked orange. To me, rosé is best when it loks like watermelon juice that has been left out in the sun for a few hours.

I am reusing this pic from an earlier post, but whatever. The sentiment is perfect.

I am reusing this pic from an earlier post, but whatever. The sentiment is perfect.

For the most part, rosés have a nice balance of dry and sweet. When a rosé hits the mark, (probably 80% of them do) every sip is like ensconcing your tongue in a cold velvet sock (one that’s been dipped in honey!) Oh, sure, you could drink wine like a connoisseur, searching for hints of berry or undertones of leathery hay, but I don’t. I drink rosé and think of friendship and sunshine.

The fact that rosé goes well with any food is not lost on me either. Rosé is the pork of wines, versatile and suitable for any mood. (Didn’t like that metaphor? How’s this one: rosé is the mullet of wines, business in the front and party in the back! You can rock your rosé anywhere you go.) We’ve had rosé with steak and blue cheese salad, salami, popcorn and pastries. You can pair a good rosé with almost anything and it makes that almost anything better. Right now, I can’t think of anything better than enjoying a perfectly balanced rosé at an outdoor restaurant with some friends, eating some duck breast and laughing about life. Luckily, we have some friends coming into town and we plan on doing a lot of that.

Words used to describe rosé: balanced, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69″

Words not used to describe rosé: fussy, one-dimensional, fully clothed.

Lean In, The Hard Way

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I know awkward. Some people can recite the teams in every Superbowl. Some knit sweaters for their pets. My specialty in life: getting myself into awkward situations. It’s a gift, really. I am like Don Draper except that I make people’s skin crawl instead of arousing them.

This is especially true here in France, where I do awkward like Monet did water lilies. Differences in language, culture, currency, politics, units of measure and hat-ware preferences all conspire against me to turn my life into a living hell.

Oddly, the thing that causes me the most anxiety here is the simple act of saying hello. In the United States, things are relatively straightforward. You greet new people with a handshake, you greet friends with a hug and if you are sweaty or haven’t showered in a few days, you just sort of wave at people and say, “Hi there!” All of these are accepted means of introduction, as are high fives, bro hugs and knuckle bumps.

Here, the rules are different. The standard greeting is called “la bise” and involves kissing one another on each cheek. You make lip-cheek contact, but don’t firmly plant. You can go twice on each cheek, supposedly, but the standard practice around here appears that you do each cheek once. You give bises to people you have just met, people you kinda know, people you know well and people you work with. This is true for woman-woman greetings, woman-man greetings and man-man greetings when the men are close. Importantly, kissing a hello is not sexy time, so don’t go grabbing any butt and, under no circumstances does that tongue come out of your mouth.

When we first got here, the French tried to help me through all this by leading me through the process like a nurse during a medical procedure. They’d lean in to me and tell me in a matter-of-fact voice, “I am going to give you bises now, that’s how we greet one another here,” and then we’d clunkily perform the ritual. It took some getting used to, but after a while, I finally got the memo.

Malcolm goes to an International school, though, and most of my time here is spent with people caught between cultures. Everyone seems to know the rule for engaging the French, but how do you deal with, say, a Greek living in France? Do you give them bises? Do you start with a handshake? Do you greet them the Greek way, with a hearty sniff to the groin? OK, that may not actually be true. Greeks don’t sniff groins. (If they did, theirs wouldn’t smell so bad!) When you are bi-cultural, you are often bi-curious as to what you should bi-do when you meet up with someone similarly situated.

So, most of my introductions are a swamp of unease. I’ve leaned into people who have lurched back and looked at me like I was “that uncle” at a Christmas party. Other times, people have leaned into me, only to run into a Walter Payton-esque stiff arm. (I don’t like touching cheeks with people when my face is sweaty, which, unfortunately for me, is around 90% of the time.) Mostly, my greetings involve two people who nervously stare at one another like a couple of gangly prepubescents in a closet at a junior high party, wondering, “What the hell should I do now?” I hate it.

Lean into this? Not likely.

Lean into this? Not likely.

Currently, I have two ways of coping. Sometimes, I just skip the salutation, figuring if I don’t say hello we don’t have to worry about it. Whereas most people greet one another with some sort of acknowledgement, I jump straight into conversation. You might say, “Hi, how are you doing?” I often open with things like, “I tasted whale last weekend.” There’s no room for kissing when things start with eating whale. Fact.

On the other extreme, I might start a conversation by just telling the other person, “Let’s be French!” and go in for the bises, all the while telling myself, “Don’t grab any butt!” This works well 10% of the time, with the remainder requiring an explanation as to why I just laminated their face with my sheen.

Neither of these approaches adequately quell my apprehension of beginning a conversation here. There are quite a few times when I just don’t make eye contact or find something terribly important on my phone that requires my undivided attention. Unsurprisingly, I am not very popular. Except for the Greeks. The Greeks, they love me.

There may come a time when introductions here become less stressful. Unfortunately for me, I think that time will only come when I have played “bises chicken” with everyone at least one time to determine what our standard greeting will be. Until then, lurchings, stiff arms, and awkward stares will continue to populate my already popular universe of awkward moments here in Paris.

Another Day In Paradise

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Paul is a Dork

So this happened (For simplicity sake, conversations in French are noted with italics):

I started my day with my post-Malcolm drop-off walk in the park. Last week, I saw Mary Joe Fernandez and Patrick McEnroe in the park, as the French Open is going on right now. Today, I only saw a cute old beagle. Or, maybe it was one of the German mixed doubles players. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Anyways, my walk was pretty aggressive. I stopped often to do pushups, squats, danced a little to the Beasties, and got several minutes of planking in. I was very sweaty and tired at the end, and the resulting mental fatigue was probably why I tried to make out with the beagle on my way out of the park.

My day continued with a trip to the golf store. We are going to Norway this weekend and, you know, no sane person goes to Norway without bringing their golf clubs, right? At the golf store, this conversation took place:

Golf man: Where are you going to play golf?

Paul: How?

GM: Where are you, err, Where are you going to go play golf?

P: Oh. Norway.

GM: Where?

P: Norway?

[Pause]

GM: Why?

GM: Unintelligible negative sentiment.

Luckily, they had golf club travel carriers in stock and soon on I was on my merry way home. The man asked if I wanted a bag, but being only a few blocks from our house, I declined.

As I approached our street, I felt like there was something wrong, like the feeling you get on a blind date when the person across the table asks if you enjoy having tea parties with cats. I quickly searched my pockets and discovered that my phone was missing. Evidently, awkwardly carrying the golf travel carriers (without a bag) had dislodged my phone out of my pocket, leaving me with absolutely no ability to play scrabble or stalk my friends on Facebook. What a disaster!

I briefly retraced my last few minutes, and seeing no evidence of my phone, did what any self respecting, sweaty Parisian would do, I went home, showered and put on pants. My next few moves were going to depend on the kindness of strangers, and navigating the complex world of cell phone cancellation while sweaty and dressed in workout gear wasn’t going to get me any favors. So, while someone was possibly out there running up my cellular bill, I bathed and put on some respectable clothes.

With a fresh wardrobe and outlook on life, I headed to the cell phone company store to suspend my account. The first person I spoke with had excellent command of the English language and I was easily able to explain what I needed to do. However, they soon handed me off to a second person who was less able. A portion of the conversation went as follows:

P#2- Did you lose your phone yesterday?

Me: Yes.

P#2: What time?

Me: 30 minutes ago.

P#2:Wait, did you lose it yesterday or today?

Me: Who? (My French “question” words suck, as you can tell)

P#2: (confused) Did you lose your phone today?

Me: Whoops. Yes, today.

P#2: Unintelligible negative sentiment.

I left the phone store, safe in the knowledge that I had either suspended my account or just purchased a new phone and extended my plan for 5 years.

On my way to the police station to fill out some paperwork about the phone, I stopped at the golf store to check to see whether the phone may have popped out before leaving. This conversation ensued:

Me: Hello there, I lost my motorcycle. (I have replayed this conversation in my head many, many times and for the life of me I cannot understand why the word for motorcycle came out of my mouth at this time.)

GM: Unintelligible negative sentiment.

Me: I lost my cell phone while out running errands. Did you find one here?

GM: A what?

Me: MY CELL PHONE.

At this point the man put a pretend phone to his ear and pantomimed making a call.

Me: Yes, yes A CELL PHONE.

GM: (Blank stare.)

Me: Is it possible that I left it here, did you find MY CELL PHONE.

GM: No.

Me: OK.

The man then pantomimed making a call again, and I realized he was asking whether I had tried calling my phone.

Me: Oh, I haven’t tried calling it. I guess I should try that.

The exceedingly nice golf man then handed me their store phone to make the call. He is quite nice to not just be done with me, and I began to appreciate his generosity. I called my number, and, lo and behold, a woman answered it. I was elated for exactly one second before becoming irritated that the cellular company hadn’t shut it down yet. This mental distraction was the reason the following conversation took place on the phone:

Nice Woman Who Found My Phone: I found your phone in the street!

Me: Good morning madam, I lost my phone. My name is Paul Schwartz! (It was 1 pm.)

NWWFMP: I found your phone, and I don’t [untranslatable words in French].

Me: Uh, do you speak English?

NWWFMP: A moment.

Nice Woman Who Found My Phone’s Friend: Hello, we found your phone in the street.

Me: Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I then made arrangements to pick up the phone and did so. Luckily for me, the NWWFMP found my phone near the gutter in the street, evidently after I had dislodged it while walking back to our apartment. I found all this out because her friend was from San Diego and could give me a full account. Boy, am I lucky! I then proceeded back to the cellular store and the golf store to show everyone I had retrieved my phone. I felt like I was a total winner and not a complete loser who had just lost a cell phone by causing it to fall out of his own pocket. Now I can play Scrabble again, but not without some serious pain inflicted.

After experiences like this, I like to do a little mental inventory and take down some lessons learned. Here is what I learned:

1. Don’t try and make out with anything at the park.

2. If the man at the golf store asks if you want a bag, say, “Yes!”

3. Learn the correct French word for cell phone.

Perhaps you already knew these things. I didn’t. Now, I do.

Malcolm wasn’t there for any of this, but if he was, he would have looked at me like this:

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