mardi 27 avril 2010

Café Therapy

Today while we were eating breakfast, a cockroach sauntered--sauntered! across the kitchen floor. He changed his tune when Josh started thwacking at him with a bottle but it was too late. My peace of mind was tuée.

But, nothing to calm a girl down like a nice cup of jasmine tea and some cheery music. After an afternoon of cockroach battling, I walked up the street to my favorite bar/coffee shop, which I can't help loving for it's great vibe even though the owner is really rude and mean.

I sat at a table in the shade of the horloge, the iconic Aixoise clock tower, and sipped my tea and did homework (and sudoku...). And then, a young guy with a guitar and an amp set himself up and played some fantastic late-teens/early-twenties style jazz. It was just what I would have picked if I were making a movie of myself sitting in a café feeling happy. So soon the music did its magic and I was smiling and wishing I could take a picture...and then I remembered the magic of my macbook and here you go:

It's really disorienting to look at it, since it's a mirror image! The building straight ahead is the library and post office, and the town hall is on the left.

jeudi 22 avril 2010

What we love (and what shocks us)

I LOVE hearing French people tell me about their vacations to the US. I spend so much time musing over the quirky things about French culture that I like to get the reverse viewpoint. So, back at school after spring break (two weeks!), one of the third graders came up to me in complete raptures to gush about his trip to New York. His highlights: eating a hotdog from a street vendor, and the Phantom of the Opera marquee. He didn’t see the show, but there was something about the image of the mask he found intriguing. His mom did take him to see Mary Poppins on Broadway (a smarter choice for an eight year old boy), and we had a good time discussing how cool the set was—it was funny to find myself reminiscing about New York with a French third grader. The American cultural quirk he found the most interesting? “Instead of asking for the toilet, we had to say something about a bathroom.” Yeah, just like the British, the French think we’re weird for using euphemisms to talk

On Tuesday, somehow the conversation in the teachers’ lounge turned to visits to the US, and the CP (Kindergarten) teacher had been to the states a few times to visit a cousin. “I liked Virginia,” she told me, “But the people there seemed a bit prude.” I figured she must be talking about that stereotype of wearing skirts to football games and going jogging in pearls. On further questioning, though, this was her culture shock: “Oh, well, you know, I was just eightteen, and my cousin told me we absolutely had to put clothes on in the morning. My sister and I couldn’t stay in our bras and underwear for breakfast. She said, ‘I’m sorry, but we get dressed here.'” I assured my co-worker that we tend to get dressed in the morning in other parts of the US, too, and that she had definitely played her part to contribute to American stereotypes about the French. I wonder what the conversation had been like between her cousin and her cousin’s new American husband before they put a stop to their visitors' morning...Frenchness.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people want to tell me all about their favorite US vacations when they find out I’m an americaine. Last Monday the guy sitting beside me in class had some questions about my life as a foreign student, since he wants to do the same thing, but reverse: it’s his dream to study in the US. He wanted to know if I go into Marseille much (it’s our nearest big city) and I said I would, but I don’t know what to do there, and did he have any suggestions? He looked a bit stumped. “Man,” he said, “I’m just a 20-year-old guy. I have no idea what to tell you to go do.” I’m not sure if the fact that he was a 20-year-old-guy meant he thought his experiences limited or just completely unlike anything that could possibly appeal to me. I flatter myself it was the former.

I asked him why he wanted to live aux États-Unis and he was once more unable to express his interest. “Is it the culture?” I asked him, “The people?” “Nooo.....” he answered thoughfully... “It’s that,, in France, we have McDonalds, and we have Quick,” (crappy McDonald’s knock-off) “and in the US, you have McDonalds, and right next to it, you have...what’s it called? Yeah, Wendy’s! And then Jack in the Box, and In and Out... It’s amazing.” I enjoyed basking in his effervescent bliss at the idea of la vie americaine, even if it isn’t the part of being from the US that I’m most proud of or most miss.

I guess I could figure out what that is by looking at what I brag about the most when talking about my patrie. And that would have to be our amazing return policies. The average amount of time you have to return something to a store here? Fifteen days. That is one day over two weeks, and about seventy five days under the three months you get at a place like the GAP... and a bazillion days under the limitless returns at Bed Bath and Beyond, who ALSO TAKE THEIR COMPETITORS COUPONS. Half the time here we can’t even get the in-store specials marked “reduction taken at register.”

But, no, I wanted to talk about French people’s perceptions of the US, not how much I miss American shopping. Actually, two French women I know who are my mom’s age told me about visits to the US made when they were teenagers and how shocked they were by “les grandes surfaces”—basically, our grocery stores, or department stores, or stores like Target. That didn’t exist here 30 years ago—people went from shop to shop to get their groceries, and Josh and I could do that now if we didn’t feel so much more comfortable going to Monoprix where we can get our milk, printer paper and cleaning products in one fell swoop (in fact, I need to finish this and go get milk before they close). One of the women said she was just completely overwhelmed by seeing so many things in one place, with loud music playing, and the other had a much funnier shock (she's the one who wasn’t thrilled with the whole “clothes” thing). She said she didn’t even bother going in while her cousin did her shopping, and instead, she and her sister had plunked themselves down on a bench for two hours and watched everyone coming in and out of the grocery store. Now it was my turn to be shocked...I didn’t think Americans were all that interesting. “We couldn’t get over it,” she said, “Our jaws were just hanging open. In France, if you’re going to go out to the store, you’re careful about what you wear. And there, there were adult women, out in public, wearing shorts...and tank tops.

Um... I guess when I get back from Monoprix I'm rotating the tank tops to the back of my closet. Or not. Sometimes I just can't let go of my identity as an American, and, you know, people seem to be OK with that--especially when part of that American-ness means bringing in a loaf of Josh's homemade banana bread. As they were passing it around the lunch table in the teachers lounge, someone turned to me and said, "you know, I know an americaine, and once she served a cake made with carrots." My new resolution: make them my mom's zucchini bread. This is gonna BLOW THEIR MINDS.

samedi 17 avril 2010

This Morning's Excitement

Josh spent the morning tutoring and I had plans to get a lot done chez nous. But when I dropped my pile of laundry in front of the washing machine to start sorting through it. . .a scorpion crawled out. And then after being whacked with a waterbottle, I think he was just as scared as I was and started running around in circles before hiding deep in the pile of laundry. So, I spent the rest of the morning perched on a chair keeping guard to make sure he didn't make a break for it and hide somewhere else in the house.

When Josh got home, it took him about 45 seconds to sort through the pile of laundry and find the little guy lurking in a pair of underwear. He scooped him up in some tupperware and then after lunch we walked around outside until we found a place that seemed like a suitable scorpion habitat. Hopefully he won't make his way back into our laundry basket any time soon.

vendredi 16 avril 2010

Sainte Victoire Study Break

We're on the last week-day of our last major vacation of the 2009/2010 school year--two weeks off simultaneously from work and school. We had fabulous plans--Avignon! Camping! The beach!--but the most exciting thing we'd done was relocate to a café for the afternoon and do homework in the sunshine. Well, that was the most exciting thing "travel-wise"--I had an interview (and got hired!) with a tutoring company -- entire process exclusively in French, and I felt like it went just as well as any interview I've ever had in the US. Maybe better, since I had to think a bit more before I could say anything. That was a bit exhilarating... but it certainly wasn't a weekend getaway to Avignon.

BUT, we have the good fortune of having some really awesome co-workers, and yesterday one of the English teachers at Josh's school invited us along on a picnic with his family. Three adorable little girls (speaking French, which majorly ups their cuteness quotient) + sparkling lemonade and Bonne Maman chocolate muffins (Entenmanns: these make you look like cardboard. sorry) plus some really pretty views of Mount Sainte-Victoire. It was a lovely afternoon.

The girls were very interested in using my camera: here's a portrait the three-year-old took of her five-year-old sister...
...who then surveyed the landscape very seriously when it was her turn to use the camera. She announced, "Je vais prendre une foto de . . . cette rocher" (that boulder).

I like the olive grove you can see in the background--little silvery tree-bushes.

And then the final excitement of the day: wild asparagus.

And now back to Jean Jacques Rousseau (for Josh) and Argentine cultural history (for me) before we run out of vacation and have to buckle down for exams.

vendredi 9 avril 2010

Tour de France: Stop Deux

So, we had no sooner announced our Tour de France when we just got too busy to worry about cheese. Seriously. There were weeks when the only thing in our fridge was the remainder of a bag of parmesan. (Well, the only cheese. I don't think we can go 24 hours without some kind of yogurt.) Too busy to eat cheese?!?!?! Yeah, it's sad.

But today we're back on track with this lovely, creamy fromage from Burgundy. For anyone just joining us, Josh and I have been doing some armchair traveling--or plutôt kitchen table traveling--by eating our way around the cheeses of France. Today's cheese is a brillat savarin, a sort of upscale version of brie.

I think I cheated by getting this brand, Reflets de France--it's a ginormous company that specializes in producing "authentic local products" from all over France. If you think to yourself, "hey, I'd like to get some __________, the typical dish of _________ region," chances are, you'll find some from Reflets de France, sold in your grocery store. Why do I feel like it's cheating? Well, there's just something not-so-local about a national chain. Plus, I feel like I should do a bit more of the research on my own to find out what the regional specialties are across France--walking into the grocery store and seeing them all catalogued in the same yellow labels is just too easy.

But back to this cheese.

It was really creamy--almost like a brie crossed with whipped cream. Apparently it can be hard to match a brie to red wine because the mushroomy flavor of the brie will bring out the tannins in the wine and make it taste sour. Lucky for us, instead of our standby bottle of two-euro-fifty bordeaux, we had popped open a bottle of hard cider made by Josh's brother--brewed with clementines and I think pomegranate (right, Ben?) and the PERFECT accompaniment for this cheese. Wikipedia, my go-to sommelier, also recommends champagne.

And now that we've discussed the cheese, time to talk about the region. All I knew about Burgundy before is that it's a color and the home of the Burgundians of Nibelungenlied fame. Not particularly useful bits of knowledge--oh, and beef bourguignon, brought to our fair shores by Julia Child.

And since today's Tour de France stop and subsequent internet research, I know. . . not much more. Sounds like Burgundy has had great wines and a really complicated and tangled history. SO, Burgundy: good wine. Also home to Dijon, where the mustard comes from. Probably has lots of chateaux, but I didn't find many pictures. All in all, I would say the informational aspect of today's Tour de France stop is sadly lacking. Fortunately, the cheese aspect is great.