“Bonne fête!” mon mari sweetly exclaimed in a mid-morning call. Similarly, all the Frenchies I’ve crossed paths with today have been generous with their 4th of July wishes. But at the same time I dream of Cheddarwursts, first-degree firework singes and backyard barbecues.
I had a rendezvous in the 16eme this morning, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The most American thing I could do was point, reacquaint myself with her glory and take a proper phone pic. I assure you I wasn’t the only one.
This weekend, I was reacquainted with a long-lost Chicago hot dog under a Coca Cola umbrella canopy at Cinema Paradiso. The Grand Palais has been transformed into an unabashed temple of Americana, including a greasy spoon, a champagne roller rink and a drive-in cinema enjoyed from the comfort of your very own Fiat. Mon mari was taking photos so I was able to easily sneak in. I got my photo taken with Barbie. The beautiful people roller-bladed circles around me. And fried food fumes wafted to the heavens of the vaulted glass ceiling.
The recovering theatre major in me begged mon mari to rent a romantic Fiat for a screening of Grease. Yes, much like you I was in Grease in high school, too. Although a humble chorus girl, I had dedicated myself devotedly to every chang chang changity chang shoo bop. If I hadn’t already been chosen by the costume design deities, I should have known my calling when I had more historically accurate costumes for myself than the elusive Sandy. Seeing the roaring, hand clapping response to a random Celine Dion song at an apero, I can attest that the French are guilty of nostalgia too, the Grease soundtrack included. Learning from experience, mon mari takes precautions when his repressed drama queen wife approaches a potential site for a Grease Lightening reprise, a room full of Fiats.
Although we skipped out on Grease, it is alright. Mon maridistracted treated me to a Chicago hotdog, the first I’ve ever seen in Paris. All the elements were in place: the poppy seed bun, tomatoes, pickles, sport peppers, celery salt, onions, mustard, relish, and absolutely no ketchup. The over-sized hot dog drooped uncharacteristically out on both sides. Something as personal to me as a Chicago hotdog will probably be the next French food trend. Sure, it probably bought myself a few more months before going back to the States. Perhaps it is a sign of being a committed expat, but I can only take so much second-hand nostalgia for my own country. Cinema Paradiso was fun. But much like kitsch, a Chicago hotdog only sustains for so long. I carried the lingering smell of mustard and raw onions on my hands for the rest of the evening along with a longing to go back home.
Jumping on a one-way plane to Paris and submitting to a year of lingual humility was my way of learning French. Although I have mastered everything except for the French art of negotiation, my bilingual brain is continually at a loss for words, my speech peppered with long pauses and tortured hand gestures. With my brain tuned to Franglais, I have started translating from French to English, leaving me with a strangely proper speech pattern. Is this one of the proven benefits of bilingualism?
Nevertheless, here is an imagined conversation between two expats inspired by my bilingual bêtise:
A. How do you go?
B. I go well. I am enchanted to finally meet you!
A. Would you like to take a coffee?
B. Yes, it would make me pleasure.
A. I know a bar in the Marais which is quite agreeable. The prices are correct for the neighborhood. Although the music is strong, it is the most interesting option.
B. Yes, that has a sympathetic air.
A. What do you take to make pleasure?
B. I am feeling greedy. I will take a chocolate good and hot, if you please.
A. I must go. Embrace your boyfriend very strongly for me.
All paper trails lead to France. I have a highly-anticipated rendezvous to renew my visa tomorrow. I thought being married would alleviate my copious photocopying in preparation for the French Prefecture, but I have made a grand total of 212 photocopies for my appointment. I was photocopying at Monoprix so long, I memorized the playlist. It was the first time since 1996 I was able to relearn the words to “I Believe I Can Fly.” Forgive me, dear rainforest. Marianne made me do it.
I don’t know any songs about Paris in autumn. It’s been raining for a while now and I think I know why. There are no trees on my street so I cannot report if the leaves have transformed just yet. Woe is the city dweller. Nevertheless, there is something about the crisp autumn that makes me long for the monochromatic Midwestern falls I know so well.
But I did smile seeing an overflowing crate of pumpkins proudly displayed at the farmers market this morning. And they all had triangular eyes and zigzag frowns spray painted on. But now I just need to get my hands on a hayride, a scarecrow, a corn maze, and a long-lost caramel apple.
A few months back, I was at the wedding reception of mon mari’s best friend. Although i had a few fleeting conversations about New York and its amazing ‘energie’ with the other party guests, I was stuck in that buffer zone of not clinging to the people i had already used all of my Pringles jokes on and targeting who my next victim would be. So I did what any normal expat in search of inspiration would do, i propped myself up next to the cheese platter. Time went by. Champagne came and went. I was both invincible and completely invisible to the soiree. Victory was mine! Until the host of the evening, the ever sociable best friend of mon mari spotted me out. “You know, Jessie”, he whispered discretely in my ear. “If you want, I can happily introduce you to some people. Although I often think otherwise, you cannot make friends with a plateau de fromages.’ Before I could translate “Try me, bro” into French, I knew I was thoroughly busted.
Unlike America where everybody says “I love you!” and inclusion is a virtue, I am still teaching myself to be a bit more proactive in social situations in France. If not, it will be just me and the cheese.
Writing my blog and for other Paris sites, there is always so much pressure to find the best, newest, coolest, untapped hole-in-the-wall. I would love to continually be on the cutting edge of the latest tiki torch Brazilian jazz lounge. But being an expat and feeling like a stranger for so long, I’m more interested in becoming a local somewhere. I would like to have the power to be both recognized and left alone in a place that I love.
Every Wednesday, I have a little time to kill in the 6e. So whenever I can see the Tour Montparnasse, I know Le Select is not far away. As the other legendary brasseries have been scooped up by conglomerates, Le Select is one of the only family-owned brasseries left in the City of Lights. I love how every cup and saucer is stamped with an illustration of their facade, the little silver pitcher of hot water than accompanies their café allongé, and the dark chocolate sidekick to every cup of coffee. There is always a solid mix of local geezers with morning papers and a few loud Americans just ‘taking a look’. And a rare occurrence in any Parisian institution, a women at the door always cheerily welcomes guests upon arrival.
Since Le Select was certainly good enough for Hemingway, I could not resist using the occasion to be creative and test out my new Bamboo Stylus, my lost-lost pen to our new ipad. This is a pen that shan’t be lost!
Yes, Le Select is nothing new; it is almost 100 years old. But for one hour every week, I am a small part of it. Maybe it is just me, but I would much rather have that than a 15 euro mint julep mojito in the latest underground tiki torch Brazilian jazz lounge.
On a recent trip to the Prefecture, the dreaded bureaucratic destination of all expats living in France, I promptly took a number and a seat. “80 people ahead of you in line,” snarled the ticket. Along with almost one year of marriage under my belt, no celebrations are complete without the anticipation and trepidation of renewing my visa. Albeit the edible, instant perks of the living in France, there is a long paper trail to get something like a visa. Although I still cannot go to the Prefecture without getting butterflies in my stomach, I could not help but compile a few quick tips while counting down from 80 on my last trip. So be warned, fellow francophiles.
1.) Always address someone with ‘bonjour madame/monsieur’ first thing. This is common protocol for good reception in France. Whenever I get back to France from a trip back to the States, my father-in-law always gets a chuckle saying “Welcome back to civilization!” Although I did not think it was funny the first time, there is a lot of truth in this. France is still greatly indebted to politeness. In the States, good manners are read as stuffy and a bit outdated. But in France, the ultimate insult is to call someone mal élevé or not brought up well. Case in point, about once a week, I see two hot tempered people get in a scuffle on the metro if one person bumps into the other without a pardon or excusez-moi.
Although I am still awaiting customer service to arrive in France, taking an extra step to be polite might certainly pay off with better service later on. And do not forget to say hello, too. Americans, myself included, when arriving in France all sparkly eyed, tend to demand exactly what they want the moment they have someone’s attention. But like sitting down when I eat, acknowledging a person before addressing my own concerns is a French custom that I have adopted as my own. And at the end of the day, it is a bit more civilized.
2.) Never be too optimistic going to the Prefecture. Although I am an optimist at heart, I always tell myself on the way to the Prefecture, “ok, this will be a pain”. Bureaucracy in France is a continual wild goose chase. And although one thing is stated on the website, there might be one imaginary thing that you do not have when your number is finally called at the Prefecture. After our wedding, I had to fly all the way to the French Embassy in New York to apply for a visa to come back to France. I followed the website’s precise requirements. Although I had mon mari’s French passport in my hands, I was quick to learn it was not proof enough that he was French. So I had to scrounge up birth certificates from my in-laws at the last minute. Nevertheless, always ask as many questions when you do have someone to speak to because it has the potential of saving several trips in the future.
3.) Be prepared to wait. I trekked to the Prefecture at 8am that morning. And there was line wrapping halfway around the block. Much like DisneyLand, the queue continues in an unseen location after, too. Once the doors opened at 9, myself and my fellow bovines in the cattle call were given numbers and waited in a packed waiting room inside the building. Never schedule another rendezvous in the morning if expected to handle anything at the prefecture. Because it could take all day. And always bring a book.
4.) Be prepared to argue. The French are notorious arguers. It’s a continual battle between right and wrong. Children learn argument/counter-argument at an early age. The best thing to do is play it innocent. If you can convince the person helping you that their exceptional knowledge can be of exceptional service to you, then maybe you can get your way. But since everyone always wants to get the last word, the lines are particularly long.
5.) Over-prepare. And take the time to organize ahead of time. Buy a binder and organize everything carefully in plastic sleeves so it is easily visible and accessible. Make a photocopy or two of all originals beforehand. And don’t forget to bring a pocket of change in case you need to make last-minute, emergency photocopies. And for the coffee machine, if you can be so lucky.
Living anywhere has its tradeoffs. But like everything, preparation and a sense of humor can work wonders.
We’ve set a date! The renovations are wrapping up in our new place. And we are set to move in next week. But sweet nostalgia is sinking in. I’ll miss our untamed little garden out back. The warm tradition at our local boulangerie. The peeling paint. And the curtains of cobwebs. The assortment of wildlife that creep into our bathroom. The defunct washing machine which serves as our only counter space. The scars on my shoulders reminding me of our ongoing war against bedbugs. The upstairs neighbors and their Saturday morning smooth jazz sessions. Wait a minute, let’s blow this joint!
I apologize if it comes across that France is all daffodils and Laduree. In reality, like all great capital cities, a quarter of my time is spent on the Metro. Another quarter is a bureaucratic wild goose chase. And as a freelancer, another quarter is spent working and/or stressing about not working.
The weekends are welcome change of pace. The only excuses to leave the flat are buying bread and attending the ubiquitous aperitif, or French house party. The apero is quintessentially French, reminding me of what I am not. In short, it is nothing short of a bowl of mixed nuts, carrot sticks, a strict byob policy, and a smoky room of heated conversations. Unlike the All-American, all-inclusive parties I know, at an apero, one must fend for oneself. I try not to read up so much on all the The French Do the Darndest Things books that stack the shelves of all the anglophone bookstores in Paris, but I did find a particular a-ha moment thumbing through Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s take Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. Nadeau and Barlow compare conversation in English-speaking countries to badminton. Both parties must keep the conversation afloat by tossing it systematically back and forth. On the other hand, conversation in France is a proper duel. Wit, knowledge, and general fun facts of Haussmanian architecture are used to formulate an attack to outsmart the rival. And conversation is not something that everyone can engage in. It must first be engaged with guile.
I am an extroverted introvert, finally accepting the fact that I lean more towards the introverted side of the pendulum, feeling like I must be crass and crude for people to like me. So this leaves me in an uncomfortable place at aperos. I cling to mon mari for a while, but my smiles and head nodding can’t initiate me into the conversation. I usually just plant myself next to the buffet and desperately make eye contact. One bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wine mustache later, I am still immobile and impersonal, kicking myself for not throwing myself into the ring. I try spotting out someone I can use my impressive knowledge of American primetime sitcoms from the 1990s. But no one’s even looking at me! I make eye contact with a few guys. All they want to know is the origin of my accent and if I’ve heard of Bon Jovi.
Yes! I’ve finally reeled someone in! An acquaintance of mon mari, you know, that chick with the bangs. Someone finally feels my desperation and comes up for a little chat. “What are doing at this moment?” “Uh, nothing really. I’ve just discovered steak-flavored chips. And you?” “No, what are you working on at this moment?” “Oh”, I say, whipping up the roster of expos I’ve seen in the last six-months to keep me in the intellectual joust. Before belting out how how fabulous the Matisse was at the Pompidou, I’ve lost her to the kitchen. After several hourly trips to the toilet and a bottomless verre, the soiree is over. Phew!
So what’s a conversationally disenfranchised expat to do? Fortunately, alcohol is welcome in these settings. And thankfully, not all aperos are like this. But after a long week, sometimes I would rather spend an evening with company of Don Draper and the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Much like sussing up the illusive extroversion inside of me, it takes a little bit more courage just to take a deep breath and be myself in my new social climate. But all in all, it is much easier to do, especially if I can scope out someone who speak intelligently of the Cosby Show.