Whoa, America is Different

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France, Uncategorized

Life abroad is difficult. Not difficult in a “I live on the Gaza Strip,” kind of way, but rather more like, “They don’t have my favorite fabric softener here!”.  There will inevitably come a time during every expat assignment when you have the opportunity to return back home an extended stay. Each expat hears a different calling. Amy heard work calling, the opportunity to return to her colleagues at headquarters instead of the Parisian office, abandoned by Les Vacances. My calling? Nacho cheese. Unsurprisingly, they don’t do canned cheese well in France.

So, we are in the United States for 3+ weeks. Amy will be working. Malcolm will be goofing off with his friends. I will be nachoing. (It’s a verb. It’s totally a verb!)

Having been back a few days, I am quite mindful of the differences. Here is what I’ve noticed:

Everything here is larger. The portions at restaurants are insane! Our Parisian washing machine can actually fit in the washing machine we have here. American toilet paper rolls are enormous, and this must be directly related to the size of American butts. You can make the argument that bigger isn’t necessarily better, but, unless you like doing extra loads of laundry or staring at boring, flat European butts, you’d be wrong.

Ok, the size of everything here is most of the difference. Owing mostly to a distinct lack of originality, here are some more size jokes:

An American menu and a French menu were sitting at the bar. The French menu took one look at its American counterpart and said, “You’re a fat piece of shit.” Seriously! We have seen menus in our short time here that are six pages long, pictures included. Hospital admission forms in France are not six pages long.

Our freezer in Paris is sufficiently small that we cannot fit a bottle of Vodka in it. You have the space to actually distill vodka in our American freezer.

So things are indeed different there. This is how Luke Skywalker would stand if he were looking for power converters in Paris. Pretty sure he would be striking a different pose in Oakland.

So things are indeed different there. This is how Luke Skywalker would stand if he were looking for power converters in Paris. Pretty sure he would be striking a different pose in Oakland.

There is more space in the cereal aisle in a grocery store here than in our entire market in Paris. I walked into a Safeway here and was struck by how much larger it was than the Louvre. The Louvre is one of the largest art collections in the world. Safeway has a million kinds of chips.

The average French car could sit in the back seat of an average American car.

Malcolm ordered a deli sandwich yesterday. It had ten times as much meat as a French sandwich. You should not ever eat anything that has ten times the meat of something else you eat.

The Champs-Élysées is the grandest street in Paris, large and opulent. It is the host of nearly every important celebration in France, and one of the most recognizable sights in one of the most heavily touristed cities on the planet. It would be the fourth largest street in Oakland.

They have soda machines here that dispense shockingly large amounts of soda to customers. The cups here are the size of most French suitcases, and contain enough ice and soda to make your pancreas groan. At most places you can order soda in Paris, they will bring you a shot glass size bottle of soda and a glass with one ice cube, (if you ask!) I love soda, but seeing the soda machines here spewing out buckets of the stuff is pretty startling. I fantasize about putting my mouth directly under the spout and guzzling some Dr. Pepper straight from the source. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is the realization that if I did, I would have ten times the meat of my former self. Unacceptable.

We are enjoying being home, visiting our friends, noticing the differences and taking a respite from living in a challenging and wonderful and frustrating and different place. Being here is nice. We’ll have to see what it is like to leave again. I bring some fabric softener though.

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.