Archive for the ‘Christina in France’ Category

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Christina: My cultural icons

June 18, 2010

When I went to Rome, I didn’t visit the Sistine Chapel. Instead, I sat in St. Peter’s Square and I watched nuns and priests walk by in their black robes and I read six chapters from Nick Hornby’s “How to Be Good,” and I got a bad sunburn.

In Paris I went to the Louvre because it was free with my student visa, and I schlepped across the marbled halls for as long as I could stand the crowds of American and Japanese tourists wielding cameras like the paintings were about to burst into flames (what did one do with those photos? Create an endless album on Facebook? Take them to Kinko’s and print out life-size replicas of the originals? Or use them as digital tokens to prove that they’d “been” somewhere, that they’d “seen” something that proved they knew what culture really was? I’d never understand). An hour was all I could take. I left the museum, walked down the street and bought a slice of quiche lorraine, and I sat in the park and watched old people get on and off the city buses that stopped at the corner every five minutes. I never saw the Mona Lisa.

But what if I had? What could I say about the Mona Lisa, what could I add that would enrich the world’s understanding of the painting? Something like,

“Yeah, in Paris I saw the Mona Lisa. It was incredible.”

And no one would question me further; no one would ask me about the lighting, about the proportions, about how it felt to be in the shadow of greatness—because what more is there to talk about, really?

The first time I came to Paris, I fell in love with the metro system. There was something so mythic, so transcendental, and so equalizing about it—here we were, all of us, united in those few moments as we careened through dark and putrid spaces at the same speed. On my last night in the city, I had three hours to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. So I rode the metro endlessly, serenely, reverently. I took trains going any direction, some all the way the end of the line, some just a few stops, some back and forth. There were the rare instances when the underground train would suddenly burst into the open air and we would be above ground for a few stops, and then high and low were momentarily reconciled. I started to wonder if the best way to get to know any city was to ride its public transportation.

In the metro, there was the misplaced and nonsensical luxury of seeing a full string quartet playing Bach’s The Art of the Fugue while the air around them stank of decay. Above them were the beautiful things: Notre Dame bathed in golden, flossy light; the white stone steps of Sacré Cœur; the Arc de Triomphe as Napoleon would have wanted it: emblazoned in moonlight, a portal to the rest of the city. But here, the beautiful things were still alive, hadn’t yet been sanitized by notions of what’s “amazing” or “incredible,” hadn’t been photographed a million different ways into oblivion.

When you live your whole life seeing something as iconic as the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower reprinted and re-imagined a billion times, the reality is always a grayer, smaller, more disappointing version of the image in your head. The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I said,

“Oh. Is that it?”

Seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris was surreal. Didn’t it belong on a postcard? Or on a refrigerator magnet? Or on some movie set? Or shrunk down to miniature size as a tiny pendant on a silver necklace?

Maybe it’s a mark of my ingratitude and cultural ignorance, but if I never saw the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre or Sacré Cœur or the Champs Élysées again, I wouldn’t feel a loss. But the concerts and the operas and the open air markets and the croissants and the metro and the tiny espressos and the bise: I would weep if these were gone.

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Christina: the wine connoisseur

May 14, 2010

In the medieval village of St. Émilion, there is a wine connoisseur who allegedly had his first blind taste test at the age of four. He has spent most of his twenty-seven years in constant search of the best wines, and now he wears woolen scarves and Converse sneakers and works in a shop in the Bordeaux wine region.

The skies were insisting on a persistent springtime drizzle that day, but somehow, I felt that made our excursion to wine country even more appropriate. Walking up the steep stone roads, we found his store and asked for a dégustation. Our ignorance about wine was apparent from the moment we walked in, but with both humility and grace, he spent the next 45 minutes guiding us through the complexities of fine wines. Outside the cold rain was making the streets seem miserable and forgotten, but inside we were warm and well-looked after.

“This wine is still a teenager,” he told us apologetically, proffering a bottle of wine older than myself. “But try it anyway.”

Wine, it turns out, is a fickle thing. That an older wine is always better than a younger one is a myth I had long believed to be fact. The disappointing truth is that the bottles I buy with my student budget aren’t about to turn into 500 euro grand cru classés even if I let them sit around for the next 50 years. Wine follows the same pattern as any living thing, reaching its peak within an indeterminate amount of years, after which point its quality begins to diminish. But how to know when wine is ready to drink?

“You cannot know,” our expert explained with a wink, “without tasting it.”

Wine vendors must closely monitor their caches, searching out the ones that are ready to be sold. Those that aren’t at peak will be left alone to slumber within their wooden barrels. It was a nice to think of our Converse-wearing Frenchman wandering the murky cellars, gently rousing wines from their sleep, putting others back to bed, and tasting thousands of brands every year.

He poured us each a taste of white wine, rotating his wrist and raising the bottle ever so slightly to stop the flow of liquid and swishing each glass several times before presenting them to us. This was a sweet wine, often served as the sole dessert at French dinner parties. It was heavy and impossibly sweet, with strong undertones of honey and rose petal, fragrant and comforting. As we nodded our approval, he offered us a surprising recommendation: this French wine would perfectly compliment to the spicy flavors of Thai and Chinese food.

45 minutes later and in a happy haze, we each purchased a bottle of the sweet white wine. Before saying goodbye, our connoisseur told us a story about recently having the “the good fortune” to try a Bordeaux red from 1939. There had been a reverent silence, “like church,” as he and his friends drank those first sips of an elixir older than most of the people in the room.

And I think maybe this is one of the reasons I love wine: there is so much story within a bottle. The idea that something is worth preserving for years, the belief in the investment despite the risk that wines may not reach peak until after their original caretakers have died: well, that’s history, and diligence, and sacrifice all at once.

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Christina: Speaking French

April 30, 2010

My host mother Collette often invites her friends to dine with us at night. By now, they are men and women with whom I have shared many meals—warm and welcoming people who would sooner die than see my wine glass empty, who never fail to give me a blunt but well-meaning lecture, who claim to understand all there is to know about American culture without ever having seen the country. They are an affectionate, opinionated, and intimate group of friends who love to critique my speaking abilities with such a raw but poignant honesty and there is nothing I can do but like them despite it all.

A few weeks ago, in between hearty bites of Collette’s baked quiche and gulps of white wine, one of them began to tell a salacious and racy story about one of the friends who was absent that night. With all the chutzpah of a Hollywood gossip column, the story ended with a particularity sensational rumor about the woman. I couldn’t help but nearly choke on my quiche as I laughed aloud.

The room went quiet as every head in the room turned to look at me with wide eyes. The woman who had narrated the story set down her wine glass, her mouth gaping open. Collette cleared her throat and looked down at her plate. Finally, one of the men said with shocked joy, “Elle comprend! Elle comprend!

Wine glasses were refilled, a toast was made, and Collette’s friends clapped each other on the back, as if personally responsible for my spontaneous ability to speak French. It was like a classic Hellen Keller-at-the-water-fountain, Flowers for Algernon-post-surgery, Eliza Doolittle-at-midnight-with-Mr. Higgins, mute-girl-suddenly-speaks-moment.

Except it wasn’t.

What they didn’t know was that I could understand their conversations long before that day. What seemed like an epiphanic turning point had in reality been a slow and understated accumulation of knowledge. I never had that magical and profound moment that everyone talks about when learning a new language. I didn’t wake up one morning fluent in French, never had that picture-perfect and poetic moment of sudden discovery, never had a light bulb switch on in my head. Instead, it was if I had watched the sun rise in millions of subtle gradations until I could not remember what the sky had looked like in the early dawn hours.

These days, after I have a conversation in French, I am convinced that the language must have changed in the past three months. Surely the académie française passed a referendum calling for a simplification of the language and surreptitiously delivered the memo to every French citizen. It cannot possibly be that I have improved in French, because how could that sort of conversation ever have been difficult?

The day I arrived in France, I felt as if I had been lied to my entire life. The sounds that were coming out of the loudspeaker at Charles de Gaulle airport, the words I heard from the woman who sold me a ticket to Montpellier, the garbled noise on the train—this could not be the same French I had learned in the classroom. I’m still certain that Collette was speaking some language other than French on that day we met in January. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Christina: combien de bises?

April 9, 2010

“The Frenchman is never on time,” a friend once explained to me, “because he is always too busy kissing his other friends goodbye.”

And there it is: the bise, the quotidian ritual that supersedes all others in French culture. It’s the characteristic habit of a kiss on each cheek for both greetings and goodbyes.

If you ask any French person to explain the many nuances of the bise, he will always respond, “mais, c’est trop simple, la bise!” And then he will laugh at your charming American incompetence, all the while guarding that nebulous but important information about the bise.

Nothing in France has delighted or confused me more than the bise—not the illogical and haphazard assignments of gender to nouns, not the archaic and convoluted bureaucratic system, not even the spontaneous strikes. All these things I’ve learned to handle with a general attitude of indifference, like a true French person. But the bise? I’m convinced that is something which requires French DNA to execute with style.

All day long in Montpellier, men and women reconnect while riding the tram to school or work. Friends, lovers, mothers and sons, near-enemies and new acquaintances: they all faire la bise when they meet on the tram. It’s no wonder President Sarcozy’s feeble campaign to put a moratorium on the bise during the height of H1N1 hysteria was no match for such a deeply-rooted cultural practice.

A Frenchman will enter the tram at the end of the day, balancing a wobbly jumble of still-warm baguettes up to his chin. Seeing a friend on the tram, he will offer her a cheerful bonsoir and the bise. Cheeks, bread, hands—they all get mixed together in a flurry of activity no self-respecting French person would ever think of skipping. Moments later, the angsty teenage girl next to me will stop her rapid-fire texting long enough to faire la bise with an equally gloomy-looking girl. When the first girl turns her back, the other shoots her a look of disgust and rolls her eyes. But when one girl gets off the tram, you can be sure there will be a bise to say goodbye—that’s non-negotiable.

In true French fashion, this country is divided into somewhat arbitrary geographical boundaries based on the number of bises. The amount of kisses varies between one dainty kiss on the left cheek in Brittany to the marathon bise of four in Normandy. Paris boasts the symmetrical and elegant bisebise in Toulouse where two are the norm, or pulling away too soon in the north, where four kisses are more common. of one kiss on each cheek, while Montpellier is home to a more whimsical and lopsidedly friendly three kisses. I’ve learned to do my research before I travel, because nothing is more embarrassing than being left hanging for that third

The strangest aspect of the bise is that it even occurs between strangers. It never fails to shock me that I am expected to kiss someone I’ve just been introduced to. And then there are those moments when my new French acquaintance makes things even more complicated by speaking to me during the bise. Much to my dismay, the bise often goes like this when I meet someone new:

Bonjour, ça va? (first kiss on the right cheek) Je m’appel (second kiss on the left cheek) Mattieu, et toi? (third kiss on the right cheek)

Of course, whenever I manage to do it correctly, the bise is beautiful. It’s unfortunate something so wonderful and friendly doesn’t consistently exist within the United States, because the bise always makes me feel welcomed. It’s such a kind and gentle way of easing nervousness between new acquaintances, and it’s a poetic reminder of that symbolic bond between old friends.

Still, two and a half months of living here and it’s the one thing which never ceases to amaze me. If my host mother leaves for an hour or two to go shopping, should I faire la bise when she comes back? Do employees faire la bise between each other? What about young children, when do they start learning the bise? Where is the exact geographic boarder between two bises and three? And those erratic and complicated rules governing the bise between two men—how to explain those?

Nobody will ever know. At least, no American will ever know. For the French man or woman, “c’est vraiment naturelle.”

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Christina: Shopping in France

April 1, 2010

In any city, the French woman will walk with a shrewd sense of purpose until her eye happens to chance upon an enticing window display. Immediately, she will stop and all thoughts of arriving on time to her destination will dissolve. She will clasp her hands behind her back, her stilettoed feet will be perched together, and she will bend her back at a 90 degree angle, defying the stringent constraints of her woolen pencil skirt. Her nose will graze the glass as she leisurely moves her face from one end of the window to the other. The world might pass her by, but she’s engrossed in an activity that’s almost more valuable than the clothes themselves.

There are tenuous silk scarves that become translucent in warm spring sunlight, light cotton skirts that will sprout wings on a windy day, beautiful shoes with impractical heels, delicate broaches and earrings that whisper of elegance rather than trend. Life-size mannequins pose in the windows, wearing dresses that look like possibility: outfits that make the French woman believe anything could happen if she was wearing these clothes.

In French the term for “window shopping” is “lèche vitrine,” which literally translates to “window licking.” A casual stroll in the centre ville of any city reveals how well-suited the term is: shopping in France is an undertaking that requires nearly as much vigilance as a thoughtfully and tactfully executed five-course meal.

In Toulouse, a warm and friendly city two hours west of Montpellier by train, there is an impressive open-air market in the centre ville most days of the week. We arrived at the market on a balmy Saturday morning in March, and our first moments were spent in reverent silence as we took in the sights of all things strange and wonderful.

Before us was a bread stall stacked high with round, dusty loaves; oily croissants containing more butter than flour; and sticky sweet rolls still quivering with heat from the oven. The tired gray circles under the baker’s eyes were a tell-tale sign of authenticity: this bread had been baked in those indefinable hours that hover between night and morning, in a stone oven not far from where we now stood. I bought a baguette, knowing that what I held in my hands had only last night been the separate and seemingly unrelated entities of flour, salt, butter, and water.

My favorite food stalls in France are those that expose the most opulent of desserts without shame or apology. These are stalls that flaunt warm pastries rolled in spirals and dowsed in sugar; chocolate muffins that explode with Nutella after the third mouthful; thin, delicate pastry crusts topped with fresh strawberries, caramelized sugar, and shaved pistachios; croissants dripping with chocolate darker than obsidian; and petits macaroons that sting with the fragrant bite of molasses and ginger.

Inevitably, there will be a new dessert that I haven’t seen in France yet, so I will have to ask the vendor to describe it. In Toulouse, instead of an explanation I was offered a taste: “mademoiselle, goûtez…” One thing the French know well: words can only go so far in describing the intricate and varied pleasures of gastronomy. After I’d tasted everything, the vendor said with a wink, “mademoiselle, je vous écoute…” And like clockwork I walked away with a slice of gateau au chocolat, so dense I could feel the added weight of it in my purse.

Past the stand boasting quality wine from the backyards of Toulouse at five euros a bottle, we found a tiny stall run by two rotund ladies selling homemade jam. With a conspiratory grin, one of the women offered me a taste of her most curious jam: a mélange of sugar, water, and rose petals. Never in my life had I imagined something as frivolous or unnecessary as eating roses, but one whiff of the light, cheerful liquid, and I realized that the French had found a way to make even my humble breakfast of jam and bread feel romantic.

At three euros, the jam was a bargain, and after the jar was safely wrapped in plastic and tucked in my purse next to the weighty chocolate cake, the women continued to chat with us in their southern French accents, offering unsolicited advice about the best places to drink and eat in Toulouse.

And really, there is no better means for making new friends in France than over a shared discussion about the joys of food.

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Christina: Near city limits

March 27, 2010

Near Montpellier city limits, there is a white wall that looks out towards the sea. At night street punks ride their skateboards along the wall’s edge, hipster girls lean against the stone and flick delicate ash from their cigarettes, and college students congregate close by while singing American songs with heavy French accents. On the wall it is written in English:

“This is not art.”

Where the wall forms a corner is a man, a dog, and a brown cardboard sign. The man holds out a used paper cup, jingles the coins inside, and says to the people passing by: “Madame, monsieur, s’il vous plait…”

I always wonder how long he can shake that almost-empty cup, how long he can hold out his arm, turn his head to follow the people walking away, how long he can hear “no” before he stops asking. When I crawl into bed hours later I wonder: is he still there, next to that white wall, jingling that cup? It’s the wrong thing to wonder.

Near Montpellier’s train station, there is a garden where fathers and sons play soccer after school, where tired mothers soothe crying babies, where newly arrived travelers stop to take their first views of the city. In the garden, the gypsy boys hold out dirty hands and beg for money. The coins I have to offer aren’t enough, so I ask them about school, about their families, about where they live. It’s the wrong thing to ask, because even with my limited French, I understand more than I want to.

In Montpellier, there are old churches and antique bridges, crumbling avenues and steel monuments prone for worship. We forget the hands that laid the brick a thousand years ago, label this place sacred, and put it on a map. We guard the past while the present withers beneath our feet.

When I fall asleep at the end of the day, the man and his dog are still next to the white wall that is not art. Behind him are the ancient buildings that we will continue to call beautiful long after he stops asking for money.

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Christina: They call me mademoiselle

March 22, 2010

They call me mademoiselle here.

The first time, I had just arrived in France and was on the fast train from Paris to Montpellier. I was gazing out the window at the lonely countryside, my head was aching from blurry town merging synchronously with darkening sky and verdant hill, and the undulations of the train were starting to lull away my fears of being in a foreign country. If this was France, it certainly looked the part.

The train conductor arrived to check my ticket and said with delightful French spirit: “bonsoir mademoiselle!” It was a word I knew well, but the feeling was new. I had no idea that being called mademoiselle would feel so stunning.

Now, not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me for directions, always prefacing the request with “excusez-moi, mademoiselle…” Or, “mademoiselle, où se trouve…” I am not French, and I hardly know left from right in Montpellier, but no matter. He just called me mademoiselle!

I go to my favorite place in Montpellier, an underground café full of tiny pots of tea and books just dying to be read, and after I place my order, the shop keeper always asks, “et autres choses, mademoiselle?” It’s enough to make me want to buy everything on the menu just to hear him say it once more.

They greet me with the eternally confusing bise, they serve me grand French dinners, say good-bye with a cheerful au revoir. And they call me mademoiselle.

Yet, I don’t feel French.

Before I arrived, the question of French identity fascinated me. To become French, to find my French heart—what would I have to do? What a strange surprise to find that the people here are equally obsessed with the idea. The separation of church and state, the obstinate protection of ancient history, the académie française, and the controversial immigration laws: it’s all part of the national movement to define what it is to be “French,” something I’m no longer sure I’m comfortable with. The more I love France, the more I realize I’m not a part of it and that it will never really be mine.

But the way they call me mademoiselle: it’s an unfamiliar thing, and it’s a thing I adore. I have an inconvenient tendency of idealizing what I don’t understand, and it’s because of this that I will always love the ever-mysterious France.

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