mardi 20 octobre 2009

Rijstpap, Vanillesmaak

Nope, it's not the refrain of a Regina Spektor song. It's the Dutch food product of the day!

Earlier in the year, Josh and I decided we would learn Old English for something fun to do in the evenings. We found a great online tutorial. . . but we haven't had much time to devote to such luxuries lately.

However, we can always spare a minute over the dinner table to read our food product labels in Dutch. Many big-brand (or off-brand) foods here are labeled in Dutch (which the French call "Neerlandais") and French, I guess because they're marketed in Belgium. So Josh and I get our Germanic-language fix by reading the labels to each other and making the other person guess what the words mean. Want to play? Here you go:

What's in the box of apelsaap?

And what am I eating when I take a spoonful of rijstpap, vanillesmaak?

Answers to follow.

mardi 13 octobre 2009

I am once more addicted to caffeine, there is a van blocking the alley, and Philippe wants me to run away with him. It’s been an annoying 48 hours.

I am too tired to do my job, too tired to go to all my classes, too tired to schedule all the tests the doctor ordered to figure out why I am so tired. A major contributor is definitely all the extra brain work required to speak French all day. I had eight hours of class yesterday with a half hour break. I took notes, in languages I don’t speak, for eight hours. I think the caffeine addiction is self-evident.

What is NOT self-evident is why there is a van blocking our alley. There are four or five apartment buildings whose doors open onto our tiny impasse and one of the apartments in one of the buildings is being renovated. Normally the alley is barred off from the street by metal posts, but the artisans (the laudatory French term for what we would call tradesmen) have convinced the owner of the art gallery next door to lend them the key to the locks keeping these posts in place. Their pretext is that they need to unload materials, but it turns out they just don’t want to pay for parking somewhere else. So any time you want to leave the alley or come back, you have to shout until someone hears you and comes and moves the vehicle to let you through.

I came home from my 8 hours of class yesterday, and I was, to put it mildly, not in a good mood. And there was a van in my way. And I shouted and shouted and no one came. And then, to add insult to injury, two very skinny college-aged French boys also living in the impasse managed to squeeze between the van and the alley wall. I did not fit. I was not pleased.

I knew the owner of the art gallery was somehow implicated, but he wasn’t there. He’d left his number on the door so I called and left a message that I thought was both scalding but also appropriately formal, asking him to please do something about the situation with the van. Before he called me back, though, one of the skinny college boys who had managed to squeeze through the breach found me a workman, who moved the van so I could get in, and then put it right back again.

After Josh too had gotten someone to uncork the alley for him and come home, I got a call back from the gallery owner. He suggested I stop by and he could explain the whole thing to me. I felt a bit chagrined. I was safely home again, and my anger had subsided quite a bit once I’d had a chance to visit the bathroom and put down my backpack. But I’ve read too many Anne of Green Gables books, in which leaving a nasty message for an unknown neighbor is always the first step to a beautiful friendship. So I went around the corner (managing to squeeze past the van, which was an inch further away from the wall this time) and met Philippe.

I started by apologizing for yelling at his voice mail. No problem, he said. I like being yelled at by women. This did not bode well. I apologized for being a bad example of American pissed-offedness, and, insisting I sit down and offering me a coffee or a coke, he waltzed me off on a conversation about cultural stereotypes. After about five minutes, for some reason I used the word “we” to refer to Josh and I. Oh, he said, you have a roommate. I’m married, I told him. 79 percent of French women have affairs, he responded. Ah, I said. Did I mention I’m Amish?

It was one of those conversations you just can’t seem to end, even though it’s strewn with suggestions that you leave your husband and run away to the Luberon with a French man who was in a movie playing Burt Lancaster’s younger self before you were even born. This does not happen in Anne of Green Gables books. Finally Josh popped in to see what had happened to me. I’d say the conversation cleaned up from there, but Philippe diverted his energies into trying to sell us a work of art. Any work of art. He seemed to think we’d be most interested in a nude. He also played my message for Josh, and they both laughed at how bad my French was. I thought you were Chinese! Philippe exclaims. I laugh too, but only because I'm really, really embarrassed.

But the van, you say, what about the van? Well, Philippe agreed that they shouldn’t use our alley as their parking lot, but it’s not his key to withhold—he’d borrowed it from the Mairie (town hall). I have to lodge a complaint with them. Considering what happened the last time I lodged a complaint at the Mairie—that is to say, nothing—I think I’ll save my breath. I’m going to need it to yell for the workmen to move the van again.

samedi 10 octobre 2009


So, apparently France is in world-wide news over a McDonalds going into the food court at the Louvre. This makes me reflect on my own relationship with McDonalds in France (cue harp music and wavy-effect on screen as we go into a flashback). . .

It's the first week of January in 2004, and it's my first time in France (visiting Josh, incidentally, who was studying abroad there at the time and also had no plans to become my husband, which he would at a later date). Josh has sent me off on my own to accomplish something or other while he meets up with me later. I have to find the bathroom while in a shopping mall, and I seize upon a shop girl who speaks English to give me directions. Which are completely comprehensible, except the store she's telling me is next to the bathrooms: MAGdunnelle (emphasis on first syllable). I think she's telling me that the bathrooms are diagonal to something (that's the closest word I can think of to the sounds she's making). When I realized she was talking about my old friend Mickey-D's, where I attended many a birthday party before the age of 5, I experienced one of those "eureka" moments where you can almost see the lightbulb above your own head. This classic piece of Americanism didn't belong to me, an American. It is not an American consulate; it's a business, and by setting up shop in France, McD's now belongs just as much to the French as it does to me. And the French are free to come up with their own weird pronunciations and nicknames for it. The forces of globalization don't just mean my culture is imposed on someone else. They also mean that my culture is taken from me and altered in ways I can't control.

Incidentally, that very same shopping mall was the place where I stepped into the pudding aisle of a grocery store and began my still-passionate love affair with creamy French desserts. (I think coup de foudre--lightning bolt--is how you say "love at first sight" in French.)

But back to the McDonalds at the Louvre controversy. I recommend reading the article if you are interested in France and/or globalization. The article's main point was that the French aren't upset about the Louvre being "desecrated," it's the rest of the world that doesn't see how Ronald and French culture are compatible. Here in France, McD's has done their insidious marketing well. Even the food critic who inspired the "bad guy" in Ratatouille refused to be upset about McD's new home in the Louvre's food court. I can picture him being interviewed about it, smoking, wearing a scarf, and giving the classic French shrug of apathy . . . "Bof. Magdunnelle eez no worse zan ze 'orribul fast food already zere." And, you know, McDonalds does do a pretty good job of coming up with French-appropriate recipes. Alpine-style cheeseburger? Chestnut crumble ice cream sundae? Sounds good to me. If the French want Grimace and the Hamburgler and that red-headed clown, should the rest of us be upset about it? And if we are, will we have to give back fondue? Will the Belgians want their waffles back?

jeudi 1 octobre 2009

La rentrée

Josh and I get really excited about how great our health care is here. Just the other day, he showed me the part of Sicko in which Michael Moore interviews French people about their government-run medical system. He talked to American expats in Paris who had nothing but praise for their sécurité sociale, or "Secu" as we lovingly call it. I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty great. I can usually get an appointment with my doctor in a matter of hours. (I called a few mornings ago around 9:30 am to get a checkup appointment and they had me in at 2:15 that afternoon.) There’s almost no paperwork to fill out at the doctor’s, you get care first and deal with insurance afterward. Minimal paperwork. Pretty much everything is covered. I needed tests (for nothing serious) and they were done the next morning, with the results in that afternoon. A month’s supply of medicine cost me. . . 37 cents. I pay, per month, just a bit more than what I paid in the US for catastrophic insurance with a $1,000 deductible.

Now, the point of telling you this is NOT to cast light on the current debate in the US over government-run healthcare. It’s to cast light on how RIDICULOUSLY STUPID so many other things are in France. Seriously, if they can get it so right with healthcare, why did it take us three months to get internet when we moved here? And, once more, Josh is on the phone with the internet provider. He just got a USB key so he can access the internet from anywhere in town, good for someone who meets people in cafés for English tutoring and wants to use youtube. Of course, the USB key works with a password. Of course, SFR (the internet company) hasn’t sent that password. Of course, they’re not going to. About 20 minutes ago I heard him getting mad on the phone with SFR and asking to speak with a supervisor. He’s been on hold ever since.

It’s a good thing our health care is so good and we can buy wine for the same price as soda, because we’re going to have REALLY HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE in not too long.

My biggest worry right now, au niveau administratif, is la rentrée – back to school. Let me tell you what back-to-school is like at a French university. I’ll give you a timeline.

Sometime in August:

The official start date of the Fall semester is announced (Sept. 25) Course lists/schedules are not yet posted.

Sept. 18:

Course lists/schedules are not yet posted.

Sept. 24:

Course lists/schedules are not yet posted.

I go to my orientation. The woman speaks extremely rapidly and mumbles. I understand almost nothing. She hands out some of the schedule. We have to get the rest of the schedule from the department secretary, who is only in the office from 9-10 am and from 10:30-11 am.

Sept. 25:

I try to go get the schedule. There is beaucoup du monde (a ton of people) in the hallway. The secretary brings us into the office one at a time to hand us the schedule. One at a time. On the door there is a sign saying, “WE WILL NOT GIVE YOU YOUR SCHEDULE BEFORE ORIENTATION ON SEPT 24TH.” I wait my turn to go in. I have a question about my electives. A secretary tries to answer. The electives are not on the schedule. There is a master list of all electives in all departments. I have to go to another office. Then I have to write down the electives I might want, and go to the department offering each elective to get the schedule for each course. While she is explaining this to me, she and her colleague get in a screaming fight over who should answer the phone. “I’m helping this girl,” she says. “I’ll answer the phone when I’m done.” They are clearly stressed out.

Sept. 25th afternoon:

Josh has found me outside my department office, the second third of my schedule in hand. All I need is the electives, now. That final missing piece. The rest of the treasure map. There is an “electives fair” in the courtyard so we head outside. Each department has a spot at one of the folding tables set up around the perimeter of the courtyard. Students wait in line to get the schedules for all the different electives they want. This saves us from going around to all the offices, all of which are open during different hours, closing frequently for coffee breaks. I look at my degree requirements and decide to wait and take an elective next semester. I don’t pick up any schedules. I realize later that I actually DO need an elective this semester. I have to go to all the offices. Josh didn’t fare any better. He waited in line for the electives he wants to take, but the departments still don’t know what times those courses will be offered. Classes start on Monday.

Sept 28th morning:

I have made it through two hours of Spanish classes, 75% of which were conducted in French. When the professors speak Spanish, they’re very slow and deliberate and repeat themselves often, using synonyms. Now I know why French people have the reputation of being bad at foreign languages. I go to the office where you pick up the master list of electives, only it turns out. . . it hasn’t been published yet. Not for 3rd year students, just for 1st and 2nd years. I ask the woman working in the office how I’m supposed to not miss my classes if the schedule isn’t available yet. She tells me she doesn’t know. Josh goes to class. His professor doesn’t.

Sept. 30th:

My class today is taught by the woman from orientation. I can barely understand her French. She only speaks in Spanish about 5% of the time. Everyone takes furious notes except me. I try not to cry. Meanwhile, Josh’s department has re-done their schedule. Most of his classes now overlap by at least an hour.

Oct. 1st:

Today I miss classes to take an hour-long bus to Marseille to sign more papers for work. I’m going to be teaching English in an elementary school again. I get up early to get my papers ready—social security info, birth certificate, RIB (bank info sheet). I remember last year when my friend Julia got her RIB hostilely rejected because she had torn it off the sheet instead of cutting it with scissors. My last RIB has been torn off the sheet, too. Oh, well, by the time they open my file I’ll be an hour away by bus.

I get up early and walk through town as the farmers’ market is being set up and the streets are still glistening from an early-morning spray-down. I take the bus to Marseille and walk to the Inspection Academique. The secretary at the front desk ignores me, more intent on looking for a box of ink cartriges she’s stashed somewhere. I’m supposed to wait until she finishes her current task and then she’ll give me her full attention. I don’t care. I’m American. I interrupt and ask where the assistants are meeting. When I get there, they say, “Oh, wait, you already signed those papers. You can go home again, sorry.”

I was not at all surprised by this. It was exactly what I had expected would happen. I stick around to get a copy of a paystub from last year that never came. I’m directed to a woman who takes me up to her office, squeezing with me into a two-person elevator that already has an occupant. Her office is full of pictures of foreign places. She frantically ruffles through files and then searches through her computer. She looks at me with sad and frightened eyes and tells me that the woman at their office in charge of paperwork for Language Assistants--the same woman with the aversion to torn edges--retired without training anyone to do her job. I feel so sorry for this woman in front of me, drowning in the avalanche of French bureaucracy while I complain that my feet are cold.

On the bus ride home, I feel another tension headache coming on. This makes me think of my great health insurance. I remind myself that I’m going to get a free pair of glasses. Cute French ones, and my insurance will pay for them, with almost no paperwork to fill out. I feel better. Sortof.

Happy Thoughts

School has started, and with it, tension headaches. I'll complain later, but now it's time to dwell on the positive. SO:
Happy thoughts of the day:
Apple-Litchi soda from Monoprix.
A huge English-language section in our town library (and Salman Rushdie's new book was FINALLY there!).
The bank teller taking 10 minutes to teach me to make deposits at a French ATM.
Finding a bookstore/café with iced coffee (yes, ice cubes!) plus all the books of the twilight saga.
Flintstones gummy vitamins instead of the gross adult ones.
Josh being willing to walk (downhill) to school to pick up my bike for me when I didn't feel like riding it home (uphill).
Chocolate Brioche.
. . . Ok, I feel better now.