One Last Kiss

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

As some of you may know, we returned last summer from a short stint living in Paris. By far, the most interesting thing about living overseas, especially in France, was the “little differences” that popped up every now and again. These differences were both good and bad; sometimes they lead you to a fantastic experience that you would never have expected, while other situations made you want to pull your hair out and hide under a blanket. Examples? We have many.

When Amy and I went in for our permanent visa cards, we left each other in the waiting room and then ran into each other in the hallway before our medical examination. Neither one of us had a shirt on. It was the least satisfying topless scene I have ever known. (Explanation: they do a chest x-ray to confirm that you don’t have TB.)

In order to get an apartment, you have to have a bank account. In order to get a bank account, you have to have an apartment. Getting either set up makes you look like a dog chasing its tail around and around and around. We were fortunate enough to get help from Amy’s work. Otherwise, we’d have been forced to live in Bois de Boulogne with the scary prostitutes and swamp rats.

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This is what it feels like when your head is spinning in Paris.

In Parisian restaurants, you can’t normally eat before 8pm, they won’t serve you steak cooked more than medium rare and leaving a huge tip is just about as gauche as wearing a fanny pack. True, if you are successfully able to navigate the dining scene in Paris you will be eating some of the best food of you will ever have, but make one mistake and the waiter’s eyes will roll and you will be ignored for the duration of your meal.

On the flip side, I took Malcolm to the doctor’s office once and the doctor answered the phone when I called, the doctor met us when we walked in her door and her first question to us wasn’t, “Have you filled out all these forms?” It was “What seems to be the problem?”

Also, their cheese is ridiculously awesome.

Having returned to the US, I thought I was done with all these charming nuances of French life. I was wrong. Herein lies the tale of me closing our bank account. For dramatic effect, I am replacing the seemingly endless strings of emails back and forth with a made up conversation between me and the bank officer. All of the hoops they made me jump through are real, though. Enjoy!

Me: Hi there. I would like to transfer the money in my French bank account to my good ole American account.

Them: Oui, monsieur. If you could be so good as to fill out ziss transfer form.

Me: Great! Here is the form.

Them: Ah, ziss is a problem. To transfer all of the zee money from zee account, you must first close the account. Please be so kind as to fill out zee following form.

Me: OK. Here is this form.

Them: Merci. Unfortunately, we are unable to close your account until you have destroyed your banking cards and your remaining checks. Please let us know when ziss is complete.

Me: OK, I have done it. Not really sure that was necessary since A) I have no idea how to fill out French checks and B) IF THE ACCOUNT IS CLOSED THE CHECKS AND FUCKING CREDIT CARDS WON’T WORK! Whatever it’s done.

Them: Ah, monsieur, very nice. We must have verification that the cards have been destroyed. Please send them to us.

Me: Huh? You want me to send you credit card scraps? What kind of perversion is this? You are actually demanding that I send you garbage through the international mailing system? Absurd! Whatever, I will play your little game. Here is the refuse you require.

Them: Monsieur, I am pleased to inform you that we have received your financial debris and will process your account closure.

Me: Finally! Please send me the money soon, as March Madness is coming and I need money to bet on basketball with.

Them: [Eye roll.]

Me: (after some more time has passed) Hello? Anyone there?

Them: Ah yes, Monsieur Schwartz. Vee need to verify your account closure request. Please give us your phone number so zat we may call you to confirm that everything is in order.

Me: Makes sense. All the shit that you just put me through isn’t really a good enough indication that I want my account closed. You should really verify that this is what I want to do. Ya, give me a call.

Them: Monsieur, unfortunately we need verification zat zee phone number you have given us is really your phone number. Please verify the verification number by sending us a phone bill with your name on it.

Me: What the fuck is wrong with you? You know what, just keep the money. I’m tired of your shenanigans.

{scene}

I still don’t have the money. I can’t believe I am saying this, but I kind of miss you France. You’re like a big stupid dog. I can’t get you do anything I want you to do, but you enjoy life and make things interesting. Plus, that cheese!

Growing Pains

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

We moved! As hard as it is to believe, we are no longer residents of France. It seems like just yesterday, I was breaking my ankle, turning 40, and moving to Paris to begin a unique chapter in our lives. Now that chapter is over. How could that possibly be?

When we left, it seemed like we were going to be gone for forever. Yet, here we are back in our same house, in our same city, watching the same TV on our same old couch. Needless to say, moving overseas, especially to a city as immensely entertaining as Paris, turns to make your old life seem a bit boring. Since most people ask how we are handling the transition back to our old lives, I thought I would share some thoughts.

First, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Stores here, especially grocery stores are insanely large. We have a back yard, even though it is a small one. Our refrigerator and freezer are cavernous. Malcolm can stomp around on the floor without threat of the grumpy woman downstairs coming up to complain. The cheese here is shit, we can’t find a decent bottle of wine for $4 and no matter what day of the week, we can eat dinner at 5 o’clock if we wanted to. You might have been able to guess all these.

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I wonder what major thing happened between May and August that would cause so much inactivity?

To me, the most notable change in lifestyle between Paris and Oakland is the need for a car. I loved walking Paris as a tourist and never really grew out of it while living there. I would routinely walk to destinations even though they were a mile or two away. Throw on some headphones, chart a course through some cool neighborhoods and off I would go. Here, you drive everywhere and this is definitely a crappy habit to return to. I just looked up the distance to and from our normal grocery store here, and, oddly, it is almost exactly the same distance as the walk to our grocer in Paris. Even so, in Oakland, walking to and from the store with a rolling shopping cart seems about as normal as a thinking Jared from Subway WASN’T a pedophile. (Of course he is, why do you think he was always holding up those giant pants? Kids love giant pants: fact!) Anyways, I never even considered walking to the grocery store here, even though I never considered taking the metro or driving to the store in Paris. I blame the stupid car.

Americans eat weird food. This we all know. What strikes me upon return is how many of the events we attend are now just excuses to cram shitty food down our collective pie holes. It’s not a ballgame, it’s a chance to eat cha cha bowls and garlic fries. It’s not a mall, it’s an invitation to Cinnabon. They sell fucking mozzarella sticks at movie theaters! (I’m sorry, but if Italians knew that we are taking their beloved, hand pulled buffalo milk delicacy and are chopping it up and deep frying it so that we can enjoy watching Arnold Schwartzenegger movies in 3D, they would dig up Mussolini and give him another shot.) Social life here seems like it has become way too centered on unnatural food. The county fair shouldn’t be about deep fried Coca-Cola or butter. (It should be about protecting your children from carnies!) Instead of the thing, we are enjoying the shitty food at the thing. To me, “food” like this is best enjoyed in a place which makes you realize that you are engaging in aberrant behavior. If I am going to pound down a a bucket of KFC, I do it in a dark closet, cloaked in a veil of shame, and not, as some do, on an airplane.

Oddly, laundry is also quite different here. Here is how you do laundry in Paris:

1. Load the washing machine. The appliances there are impossibly small, so you can really only wash two or three shirts at a time.

2. Turn on washing machine and hit start or “depart” or whatever the hell button makes the washing machine go. I think I pushed every single button on the front of our washer the first time we used it. It broke shortly after.

3. Wait. Appliances in Europe are very energy efficient. That is really just code for “things don’t work very well and whatever they do takes an inordinate amount of time.” Expect each load about to take about three hours to wash.

4. Put clothes in dryer.

5. Wait.

6. Haha, just kidding. Your clothes will never get dry in France, no matter how long you wait. It’s like waiting for a Republican in the Senate to embrace science. It just won’t happen! Evidently, the EU banned dryer technology some years back, so the only thing that dryers can do for you is make your clothes hot and damp. When you need to leave the house, you put on your hot, damp clothes and head off into the Parisian world. Remember, the appliances are really small there, so you are ALWAYS doing laundry. This means you are ALWAYS wearing hot, damp clothes. Existentialism can trace it’s roots back to dissatisfaction with the laundry in Paris. In the US, a load of laundry takes two hours total and I can wash every piece of clothing owned by every person on our block if I wanted to. My clothes are only damp when I spill wine on myself. It is glorious.

Everything in Paris is closed on Sunday. Well, not everything, but if it is Sunday and it isn’t sold at the Gap on the Champs-Élysées, you better buy it on Saturday. Here, Sunday is almost like every other day. We bought a cell phone, changed cell phone plans, signed up for satellite TV, filled a prescription and had a nice dinner on our first sunday here, and it was so strange! I am happy about every change in our lives which makes things easier/require less planning. The sunday thing is a big one.

Lastly, I became a little more chatty while in Paris. When you live in a foreign country, you spend a lot of time not knowing what the hell is going on. You walk around in a bubble, undecipherable noise happening all around you. In the bubble, your mother tongue becomes golden. For me, every conversation in English was a lifeline, a way to feel “not-stupid.” There were days when I would have given anything for some easy chit chat, when I could have appreciated the desk clerk at the clinic telling me I had herpes, as long as she did it in English. There, whenever I could speak to someone, I would. This has followed me here. I am much more likely to chat up people than before I left, drawing me into conversations with neighbors, store clerks and movie theater employees (who seem pretty ignorant as to just how mozzarella sticks became cinema food.) My head is no longer down and I am learning a lot about the people around me.

Time will tell whether these things still seem strange after a while and how we will adapt to our new life. Maybe I’ll try walking to more places. Maybe I won’t.

If anyone needs me, I will be in a dark closet, enjoying a bucket of KFC (which I just bought in a drive thru.)

Big Daddy Paul’s Guide to Shopping In Paris

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I am not what you would consider a fashionable person. During the course of a typical year, I am supplied with new clothes twice a year: on my birthday and at Christmas. These clothes arrive by way of my lovely wife, whose fashion sensibilities run a little more sophisticated than “hoodie and flipflops.” Occasionally, at a nice dinner out, I will look presentable, but most of the time when you see me on the street I look like a character out of an Adam Sandler movie.

Every once in a while I feel compelled to augment my array of ill fitting polo shirts and awkward length shorts, causing me to head out looking for the holy grail of men’s fashion: girth obscuring apparel. Yes, my entire approach to fashion is the same as Kirstie Alley when she was pregnant on Cheers that one year. In the United States, I can navigate stores like Ross Dress for Less and Marshalls to satisfactory results. Shopping in Paris is quite a different beast, though. If you ever find yourself similarly situated, I created this handy, dandy guide to surviving the Parisian shopping scene. Enjoy!

Ground Rules:

I find it helpful to have a set of well established principles to guide me when out looking for clothes. With all the potential prats and pitfalls that go along with any shopping trip, if you have no foundation for your search, you might just drown in details. Here are mine:

1. Nothing white. The only people who should wear white clothes are chemists and orthodox Christians on their way to church. The rest of us have life to deal with: coffee stains, kids with grubby fingers, toothpaste mishaps and such. White clothes will usually only be used once or twice before they become a walking announcement of how much you suck at life.

2. Absolutely no denim above the waist. Really, the last time it was acceptable to wear jean-like clothing was the two weeks following the first time you saw, “The Outsiders.” Now, if you wear a denim, you look like a 1940’s mechanic.

3. No used clothes. Many people consider vintage clothing a great way to find unique clothes that are often a fraction the cost of their new counterparts. I don’t. When considering wearing someone else’s clothes, all I can think is, “These are the clothes that someone else wore when they went to the bathroom.” Pass.

Those are my rules. Make your own and then stick to them when you head out.

The first thing you need to do here when buying clothes here is knowing where to shop.  You might think that there a lot of options to choose from in Paris, but really the clothes are pretty much the same at every store here. Really, the only decision you need to make is “What size store do I want to shop at?” For me, the critical consideration is how much I want people to laugh at me. The smaller the store, the more they will laugh. Bitchy shop clerks at large stores have to spread their condescension over a large customer base. At a big enough store, they may never even see you! At a small store, you are often alone, meaning the small gaggle of employees focus their entire attention on you. Try on something ridiculous enough, and the snickers will emulate a pack of hyenas. I generally stick to the larger stores, but when feeling particularly masochistic I will head to a small boutique for a lesson in humility.

Having selected the right store to fit your needs, you will head in and start looking at clothes. Upon entering, clerks greet you and ask if you are looking for anything special. They will turn on you, I promise. All of them. Just preemptively sneer at them and tell them you are looking for clothes for your dog. Anything else will give them the upper hand.

If you are lucky, you won’t find anything that you like and and you will be free to leave to go have lunch. Occasionally, however, something may catch your eye. This is really a shame, because this means you will have to try something on. Find the “Cabine” and select your size for the stuff you want to look at. It’s really hard to find your size here, so with any luck you won’t find anything. For men, the most common size for pants is 28 W x 36 L. WTF? These dimensions suggest that the men of France are as tall as Shaquille O’Neal and have the same waist size as one of his legs. Occasionally I will read the pant sizes backwards and only realize my mistake when I am unable to pull the pants up above my knees. For god sakes, definitely don’t ask a clerk for helping finding a size. You would be better off just bringing in a cricket paddle and asking them to whap you upside the head with it. Find the size yourself or move on.

One of the many cringeworthy moments I have had shopping.

I don’t remember the name of the brand, but if I had to guess, it would be called, “Cringeworthy.”

Even when you think you find things in your size, you really haven’t. This is because fashion designers here lie about sizes. I try on clothes here in the same size that I have been for 20 years and find that I look like Doctor Banner about 3/4 of the way to his transformation to The Hulk. Not good. In the US, I wear clothes size “L.” I have clothes here that say “XXL.” I AM NOT A FUCKING XXL! The sizing here are a pack of lies. To figure out your European size, use the same formula used to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit and then rip the tags off to hide your shame.

If, when trying on clothes, the clerk asks if you are OK tell them that you are just shredding up the clothes to rework them into something worth wearing. Do not, leave your cabine and ask how it looks. If you do, the following will occur:

Clerk: Is everything OK in there?

You: Yes.

Clerk: Can be of any assistance?

You: How does this look?

Clerk: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. It looks like a marshmallow man bound in saran wrap!

Having made many, many mistakes while shopping, I found a store where I can happily find clothes that fit. The store is called “C & A,” short for a name that translates to “Short and Fat.” It is the French equivalent of a store somewhere between Target and Home Depot. It is chronically understaffed, making the cabines wonderfully hyenae-free. I can’t say I look particularly good with the clothes I buy there, but my clothes are not white, not denim and have not been previously used by anyone who has gone to the bathroom. For this stay at home dad, this is just fine. Good luck shopping in Paris. Unless you are one of Shaquille O’Neal’s legs, you are going to need it.

I Hate Paris in Winter

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I rather dislike Paris in Winter. There, I said it. Oh, sure, the food is top class, the museums are amazing and Paris fashion week brings out some of the more “interesting” looking creatures in our species. Still, it’s just not enough.

What’s wrong with Paris in Winter, you ask? Just five things. Five big things.

It’s dark. The sun comes out late, leaves early, and, to make it worse, even when it’s “out” it’s not really out. It hides behind clouds all the time so the light is quite filtered. On the “out” scale from Liberace to Aldus Dumbledore, Parisian winter sun is definitely more Dumbledore on the scale. Everything is dim and shadowy and depressing, and I hate it. It’s like everything here is lit the same way as the basement of the New York Public Library.

It’s wet. Parisian winters are damp. We are in the midst of a pretty dry season here, and even so everything is usually just moist enough to be annoying. Imagine a kitten following you and sneezing in your face every minute or so to get a sense of what I am talking about. Sure, it will also rain properly, and once in a while even snow, but mostly the Parisian winter bombards you with tiny, irritating droplets just large enough to be un-ignorable. Generally, people walk around with an agitated look on their face. Wouldn’t you if you were constantly being bombarded by kitten mucus?

Well, at least it's shepherd's pie weather...

Well, at least it’s shepherd’s pie weather…

It’s cold. I am cold in Paris. I wear a hat, gloves and a scarf to leave the house here, and this is quite difficult for a person who doesn’t want to even wear pants when he leaves the house. Are there colder places in the world? Yes. Why anyone would want to live there is beyond me. In terms of preferred climate, I am sticking to places that are pants: optional.

It’s full of vampires. Not to get too young adult fiction on you, but there are a ton of good looking vampires that live in Paris over the winter. Annoyingly, all the vampires here act like they want to have sex with you, but when you get close, they wonder if they are really ready after all. Then, these other vampires get all jealous and think that they should have sex with you first, and then fights break out. In the end, there’s a lot of male grappling, no sex and a lot of longing glances. It’s pretty shitty. Come to think of it, that may explain all of the people who are here for Paris Fashion Week.

There’s terrorism. In case you didn’t know, Paris was the site for a recent terrorist attack. There was quite an unsettling week when we didn’t really know what was going on. At one point, Malcolm’s school was closed due what was termed a “direct threat,” and I thought, “Great. I have to wear pants and now this?” The threat to the school was deemed not credible, and life here is slowly returning to normal. Terrorism is a fact of life in the world we now live in, but reminders are always very scary. Like the smell of a skunk that lingers even after you’ve given your dog a tomato sauce bath, the terrorist-related ugliness persists in spite of the passage of time and the posting of armed guards at your kid’s school. Besides, it’s not as if life back in Oakland, California, USA is free of gun violence. The world is a pretty shitty place when you think of it. Doubly so in winter.

So there. Paris in winter is less good. Maybe that’s why you never see marketing along the lines of “Come to Paris. It’s dark and wet and cold, and if the terrorists don’t get you, the vampires sure will!”

 

Reflections On A Year in Paris

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

In October, we celebrated our one year anniversary in Paris. Whoa. That went blindingly quick. You know how sometimes, at the end of a party, you are unintelligible, your pants are nowhere to be found and you can’t remember the name of the Germans you are in a hot tub with? That’s the way I feel now. (As you can see, a year here has done nothing to improve my metaphors.)

Leaving our USA lives was quite difficult, mostly because it was such a llllllooooooonnnnnnnngggggggg period of time. Or it was supposed to be a long period of time. The year has flown by, a series of whooshing memories, highlighted by painful quasi-French interactions, travel memories and some really good wine. I feel the need to take stock of things, and will do so now:

I guess I should have translated the word "Bijoux." This picture is less cool if it turns out to mean, "Disposable Chopsticks."

I guess I should have translated the word “Bijoux” before including here. This picture is less cool if it turns out to mean, “Disposable Chopsticks.”

When we first got here, we were understandably interested in “French” things. We wanted to learn all the little differences and soak them up. We delighted in the fact that salad comes after dinner here and that you don’t need to refrigerate your milk or eggs. The French have a slew of official and unofficial holidays with unique ways of celebrating them. We loved the differences! Then, slowly, Paris started to lose its shine. I noticed that Asian rug stores had going-out-of-business sales every month. Episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (nee, Buffy Contre Les Vampires) are always on. When low voter turnout lead to right wing political gains in the last French elections, I had to ask myself, “Is it really all that different here?”

There are also amazing scenes all over this city. I will never tire of just heading out with a camera and capturing some magic.

There are also amazing scenes all over this city. I will never tire of just heading out with a camera and capturing some magic.

Perhaps out of the realization that life in Paris isn’t too dissimilar from life back home, we are starting to revisit things we thought we had to give up while here. I have been reunited with hot sauce (and it feels so good!) We golf. Movie night is a perfectly respectable way to spend an evening, and I spent much of October waking up in the middle of the night to listen to my San Francisco Giants win the World Series. Old habits die hard and we have stopped fighting. If the French can at Burger King, is it wrong that I wear tennis shoes every once in a while? I think not.

The museum scene here is staggering, still. Malcolm is really into World War II right now, having begun reading the Henderson’s Boys books by Robert Muchamore. On our way to the World War II exhibit at the Musee de l’Armee, we detoured. Malcolm wanted to show us stuff he had seen on a field trip to the Musee d’Orsay and we happily obliged. We ended up with a relatively uncrowded viewing of Whistler’s Mother, Von Gogh’s Starry Night, sculptures by Rodin and numerous other masterpieces. Back home, we might detour to stop at the mall or grab something at Starbucks. Here, the unplanned activities involve seeing some of the most famous pieces of art in the history of the world. Like I said, staggering. This is quite the unique opportunity.

The Eiffel Tower is like a dead whale being eaten by a pack of sharks. You wouldn't want to get close (tourists, pickpockets, etc.) but afar: pretty cool.

The Eiffel Tower is like a dead whale being eaten by a pack of sharks. You wouldn’t want to get close (tourists, pickpockets, etc.) but from afar: pretty cool.

The food scene in Paris is radically different than we would have guessed upon arrival. The charming open air markets that dot the landscape here sell factory farmed fruits and vegetables from decidedly un-French places like North Africa and South America. Hamburgers are a hot commodity on menus here. 70-90% of Parisian restaurants are reheating frozen food. Mind you, the onion soup made in centralized kitchens is pretty good, but then again, so is an Awesome Blossom. If you want to find fresh food prepared by real chefs at a restaurant, you have to work much harder than you think. The processed food industry has hit the French food scene and hit it hard.

So, there you have it, the state of our state of mind, if you will. To be sure, France has changed us, but not as much as I might have thought. We have a little over seven months left in our adventure, and nobody knows what we have in store. Actually, now that I come to think of it, the Germans in the hot tub said something about knowing our future. If only I could remember…

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.

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.

Six Months And Counting!

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I noticed a few weeks ago that we had passed an important milestone. We have been in Paris for six months now, a fact that impresses and horrifies me at the same time. It’s good to take stock in where you are and where you come from every now and again, so I am taking this opportunity to do just that. Here, without further ado, is what we look like six months into our gig.

Language

I have come to the sad realization that I will never, ever be able to speak French. Well, a more apt description is that I will never, ever be able to understand French. I regularly impress myself with the things that I am able to cobble together (finally got that jock itch cleared up!), but everything breaks down when the French reply. Most of the time, I end up staring back at the speaker like a dumb cow while my mind races to figure out just what he or she said. Perhaps they speak too fast. Perhaps my hearing sucks. Perhaps I am just too old and will never get it. Whatever it is, I am glad that most everyone here speaks English.

French Bureaucracy

The French are renowned for complicated bureaucracy that is often impossible to navigate. Some things have lived up to the reputation (getting our apartment manager to do anything, getting our immigration papers in order) but there have been some pleasant surprises, too. When you go to a doctor here, you don’t really fill out any paperwork. They don’t demand insurance and make you jump through a ton of hoops to see a doctor. Usually, you go to the doctor’s office and the first question is, “What’s wrong?” It’s almost worth the strep throat I got earlier in the year, just to watch to system in action.

I also had an interesting experience signing Malcolm up for a day camp last week. I emailed the camp director who secured Malcolm’s spot; no application, no deposit, and THEY DIDN’T EVEN ASK FOR A CONTACT NUMBER IN CASE ANYTHING HAPPENED! Dreamy. I dropped Malcolm off in the morning and knew that, no matter what, I wasn’t going to have to retrieve him until late in the afternoon. Can anyone say, “Happy hour?”

Cooking

My culinary skills are on the upswing! I have reveled in the gratuitous use of cream and butter that I could have only dreamed of eight months ago. I made Pommes De Terre Dauphine that rocked the house, and while it took two and a half hours to make potato puffs, it was well worth my time. I have found some great cheeses, made strides toward a perfect vinaigrette, and even started poaching chicken. Poached fucking chicken, get more French than that, I dare you. We have been enjoying the $5-10 wine here, wondering why anyone would spend more, until we open a more expensive bottle and understand completely.

Clothing

While I have found Paris slightly less formal than I originally thought, I have started dressing more like a man and less like a boy. Gone are my signature flip flops, hoodie and baseball cap. They have been replaced by (albeit comfortable) European shoes, smart sweaters, a scarf and combed hair, the later the result of semi-regular bathing. Am I the dapperest dan in the joint? Certainly not, but when you remember where I have come from, you have to be impressed. The real test will come this summer, when I will have to trade in my board shorts for French style man-kini.

Malcolm

Malcolm continues his own unique brand of being exasperating and inspirational. He lost two pairs of pants at school. I have no idea how one loses one’s pants at school, let alone doing it a second time, only to exclaim, “Oh, no, not again…” Like the prospect of wearing a speedo, I prefer to just not dwell on it. His current roster of friends includes an Australian boy, two Indian boys, a pair of British twins and a Japanese girl. His school is every bit the international experience we hoped it would be. I can’t really tell if he is learning anything at school, since most of the communications with his teacher revolve around his inability to hang onto stuff. He is enjoying the sporting life, playing basketball and soccer on his school’s team and baseball with a French team. He has undertaken a serious study of the European football scene, and can recite the lineups of the most of the decent teams here. Even with all that, he spends a lot of his time talking to me about food. When I don’t want to throttle him, I want to put him on my shoulders and be his best friend.

Travel

Roma!

Roma!

We have done a pretty good job of seeing Europe while we are here. We have been to Amsterdam, the Alps, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Italy, with plans to go to Provence, London and Helsinki in the immediate future. Phew! Some weeks, it seems like I spend most of my time travel planning. Europe is at our doorsteps here and we feel lucky to be able to do so much so easily.

The “French” Experience

It would be easy to beat myself up over our lack of integration into the French scene. Sure, it would be nice to have a ton of French friends and be more acquainted with what’s really going on here. This takes a lot of work, however. I drink wine on the couch with my wife instead of going to conversation exchanges with native French speakers. We have enjoyed the friendly confines of our expat friends (some of whom are from the bay area!) over the slightly heavier lifting involved with cultivating French relationships.  We are living a somewhat French-lite life here, and while it has its ups and downs, it suits us just fine. Life is to be enjoyed, and we are enjoying it. Isn’t that what life in France is supposed to be like?

OK, that was a little too serious. I should make a fart joke. I won’t, but I should. Happy six months to us!

A Tale of Two Softball Teams

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

Actually, that was the name of the Dickens classic, until someone gently reminded him that his target audience would have no clue what softball was. So, he changed it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ba dum dum dum…

A most curious thing happened the other day. (Dickens aint got shit on me, eh?) Malcolm is starting with a new baseball team, and on our way to his first practice, I was propositioned. I had fully intended to help coach Malcolm’s team, but one of the existing coaches looked at me after we arrived and nodded off into the distance, “Those people over there are on our softball team, would you like to join them?” Evidently, in France, teams field entries in every age division, so for every U9, U12 team, etc., there is a corresponding U-Past-Your-Prime team. I was stunned. I thought I was lucky to find a team that was closer, both in geography and skill set match for Malcolm, but the new team had so much more to offer. The grown up team practices alongside the youngins, meaning we were BOTH going to be able to play on a team. How cool is that? I dumped my coaching duties in favor of playing duties faster than you can say, “What broken ankle?”

After a grand total of the one practice, I am ready to summarize the differences between softball teams in the two countries. Here they are:

I want to put something bad ass here, but it is hard when the sport is, you know, softball.

I want to put something bad ass here, but it is hard when the sport is, you know, softball.

1. The softball team in France has a coach. He doesn’t play on the team, he just organizes warm ups, practice and teaches the game for those who need help. He hauls the gear out from the shed and sets everything up. Whoa. We had a coach in the US. His name was, “Noodles,” and got the job because he had the worst hair on the team. He tried to collect the league fees from everyone and sent out an email each week telling us when and where the game was. If he ever tried to “help” anyone on the team, we would all died laughing because no one will take softball advice from someone who plays in biker shorts.

2. The softball team in France practices, every week. We work on drills, take batting practice and get into some game-like situations. Pretty routine stuff. A guy suggested we practice on my team in the United States and I bashed in his skull with a batting helmet in front of the others to make the point that softball is an old, fat man’s game that is never to be rehearsed. We haven’t practiced since. Actually, there are probably teams in the US that practice but we were not one of them. My team habitually ended the year in second to last place, and I guess we figured that practice wouldn’t change anything.

3. In France, they warm up. We jogged around the outside of the field a few times, did several kinds of sprints, made the little circles with our arms, and then threw for about ten minutes. We warmed up for around 40 minutes total, the players talking amicably with one another, before getting to the drills. In the US, we went to a bar and drank beer until five minutes before the game began. Then, we’d race to the field, throw the ball back and forth five or six times, and spend the rest of the pregame time looking for a bush to go to the bathroom in. Funny, writing this all down now, I can totally tell why we were never very good.

4. In the US, the game was a completely social affair. The core team has played together for many years and we use it mostly as an opportunity to get out and hang with one another. It is one of the things I miss most about being away from home, Noodles included. Only time will tell whether my new team will be the social outlet that my old team was. For now, I am content to have a team to call my own, an unexpected delight in a land filled with many of them.

French Superlatives

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

We went to the shittiest parade ever. I’ve been to some real doozies, too, (the Marlin Luther King Junior parade in Carson City, Nevada consisted entirely of the sole black family in town riding around on their bikes throwing Tootsie Pops to people who kept asking, “Who’s Dr. King, is that our pediatrician?”) This one, last weekend, was quite bad. It was advertised as “Armistice Day,” and described as a special day to commemorate the end of World War I. Instead, upset French citizens whistled at politicians while throngs of police officers in riot gear looked on menacingly. After, a car bearing the flag of each participating country drove down the Champs-Elysées while no one watched. It was like the Daytona 500 except without any rednecks or car crashes. If the combatants of WWI witnessed the sad “commemoration” of the cease fire they would have decided to just keep fighting. We commemorated the day by getting Malkie a well deserved pair of mittens. (It’s getting cold here!)

There are so many things right about this piece of bread.

There are so many things right about this piece of bread.

I have been eating ridiculously large amounts of bread. I assure you it’s been sufficiently large to require an internet search for any link between baguettes and big butts. (If you are ever tempted to recreate the results for such a search, and I cannot be more clear about this next part: never, ever looking at the image results. Seriously, you’ve been warned.) After moving into our apartment, I tried the nearby bakeries to see how good the baguettes and croissants were. Turns out the bakeries nearby don’t have the good stuff. Unwilling to “settle” in the City of Bread, I started expanding the search area and found a couple places that, while farther away, serve baguettes so good they make you crazy enough to post pictures of yourself on the internet doing unnatural things with loaves  of bread. One day, I ate half a baguette in my “sandwich” and spent the rest of the afternoon trying not to think about the remaining portion of the loaf hanging out all by itself in the kitchen. I have become a painophile. (Don’t google that one, either.) At some point I am going to write a whole post on the qualities of a good baguette. I just need to do some more research first, like maybe 50 or so loaves. I should be done by next week.

I think the morning Metro ride may be the quietest public transportation experience in the world. Getting on a cramped subway car, you’d expect that the interior of the car would be bustling with the sounds of life. Not so here. This is true even during rush hour, when the cars are completely full and every part of your body fits snugly into the body parts of those standing around you, like we are all just human-sized Lego blocks. Want to try something weird? Go stand next to someone on the street, placing your nose in their ear and don’t make a sound. It’s unsettling. I’d apologize for all the unintended bumping and grinding I have been doing, but I get the sense that verbalizing at all on the subway here would be an even bigger transgression. I would never have guessed it, but I miss the drunk homeless people on BART who mumble constantly about the impending attack of the alien vegetables.

Malcolm and I took the weirdest path ever to a baseball practice last weekend. I think we found a team for Malcolm to play on, but things got off to quite a rocky start. We took a (very quiet) metro to a commuter train, which after driving for 40 picturesque minutes through the French countryside, dropped us off in a village. Neither Google maps nor my innate sense of direction were able to get us to the field easily. So, there we were wandering through a village in rural France, looking for, of all things, a baseball field. Plus, it was around 38 degrees. Not your average Sunday morning in the Ile de France! Things got really bad when the road we were on promptly ended. One simply cannot give up when difficulties arise, however, so we continued on down a muddy path leading through a pasture. Certainly, there were times when I thought, “We are in a fucking meadow! This isn’t going to end up like we want it to.” I kept my game face on, though, and reminded Malcolm that the tastiest chickens are often the hardest to catch. Our perseverance paid off when the muddy path in the meadow eventually gave way to a dirt baseball field! I hadn’t told the coach we were going to attend the practice, I can’t imagine what he must have thought when we appeared out of the wilderness with a backpack loaded full of Malcolm’s baseball gear. We must have looked like aliens falling from the sky. Malcolm likes the team and I think it will be a good fit.

I just licked my screen uploading the picture.

I just licked my screen uploading the picture.

We live across the street from some of the best desserts in France. Turns out that, while the bakery around the corner from us doesn’t make memorable baguettes, it does crank out desserts that could end World Wars. We started with a chocolate cake whose name escapes me because when the clerk was explaining what is was, I was lost in its impossibly shiny chocolate exterior. We had the cassis tarte this weekend and it wasn’t so much a dessert as it was a love letter from the Michelin starred owner’s brain to your tongue. They even serve their desserts at a neighborhood restaurant and we had raspberry religieuse that was so beautiful we hated to eat it. (Every luscious bite!) The desserts are almost perfect. They look stunning. The taste is perfectly balanced, not too sweet, not too rich and not too far that we can’t run over there after dinner and quickly grab a perfect last bite to end our day, good or bad. And with the days that we have sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.