Wednesday, January 28, 2009

These Things I Have Learned

Many, many things have I learned since I’ve been here. Things that I have learned, have been many. It’s almost as though I’ve learned a lot, and will continue to do as such. Learn, that is. The thing that I have mostly been entertaining myself with, as it is, and seems to be, and will likely remain as such, is as follows: learning.

Excuse me and my cheese-induced cleverness, I’m just incredibly full from the three hour meal I participated in this evening. Tonight, Patrick asked “When shall we start speaking in French in this house, eh?” My witty reply was “Maintenant.” French, for “Now.” An hour later I realized, after the completion of half a round of Camembert, two frightfully delicious glasses of wine, and a semi-lucid conversation, how much French I’ve learned in the past weeks.
And that, my friends, is what brings me to the subject of this particular entry: things I have thus far learned.

For one, the French are a clever folk. They do nothing that does not make sense. For example: the roundabout. Why stop at a stop sign when they aren’t any approaching vehicles? Just fly around a circle until you reach your destination street, and voila! No waiting involved. Sure, it can be substantially dangerous from time to time, say, if a driver doesn’t see that you’re coming and careens into your side, or toots angrily when you don’t give him ample room to swerve around the curve. Otherwise, it most certainly shaves time off your commute. Take, also, the stop light: it turns yellow, then green, to alert you that green is about to come, thus allowing enough warning to get your car in gear so you can zip off the second the green bulbs ignite. Brilliant.
The grocer has got it down, as well. Why wait for the cashier to weigh and price produce at check out, when the customers can do it for themselves. Simply place your produce on a scale, press the corresponding button (for example, “anana” or “pomme”), and out shoots a price tag. Voila!

As I live moments from the French-Swiss border, and am going through customs several times a day, I have learned a thing or two about the proceedings. If, say, my friends’ passports are at home, or I am transporting illegal immigrants, and I can’t afford to be stopped, I simply fly through the stop sign at the customs booth with an air of utmost arrogance. This gives the illusion that I am a pissy Frenchman with no time to spare; no questioning involved. The moment you slow down and hesitate at that stop sign, however, a little man in a cap comes out, and suspiciously peers into your car: questioning ensues! Or, a sexy Swissman will come out and nod you through with a smile; it varies. Sometimes, when well-prepared, I come all the way to a hault…

Fondue! Cliché? Who knows, but the French certainly do enjoy a good fondue party. There are strict rules to follow when partaking in a Fondue dinner. One: never let your bread slip into the cheese without fork firmly attached. My first morsel slipped deep into the pot, and I was immediately given the finger wag. Swiss cheese becomes hard rapidly and, like quicksand, sucks the bread right in; a simple twirl of the wrist should do the trick to avoid such situations. Two: only drink white wine when consuming fondue. I foolishly requested water instead, and once again received a scolding finger wave. “Non! Meeshell, you will become ill. Just have wine. Is good.” They’re paranoid that water will harden all that fondue in your stomach and will transform it back into a block of hole-filled Swiss cheese. Well, next thing I knew, the fondue pot contained a newly-formed brick of cheese, and the room contained several drunk Frenchmen and myself, hallucinating from the wine, and remembering that I was lactose intolerant.

Lastly, I learned that you should never walk down the hall in your underpants, because that will be the exact moment when Patrick comes home from watching the soccer game, and you will be forced to run down the hall in your slipper socks.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Medicate Me

I have worked with children for years; children with disabilities more saddening and debilitating than you would care to think about. And yet, none of them can quite compare to what it feels like to work for wealthy young children, whose language you do not speak. I say “wealthy”, because a child who has grown up with a nanny instead of a mommy treats people quite differently; they are not used to hearing the word “no” (or in my case, “non”), and react in quite the frightful manner when they do. And I say “for,” because I am their slave.

Up until a few days ago, “non” was about all I could say. Things have been interesting. Don’t get me wrong, the children are completely adorable and sweet, as long as they’re getting their cookies and watching tv. The moment the word “bath” or “homework” comes around, they turn on me like savages. Never in my life have I heard the word “no” thrown back at me with such hatred. Never in my life has a child begged so relentlessly for five more minutes with the telly, or whined so pitifully when asked to put some gloves on. Let me tell you right now: I do NOT put up with it, and do not care that their parents do.

Now, in normal circumstances, I would reason with them, allowing a chance or two to listen to me before the punishment comes. Yet, when all I know how to say is the equivalent of “Ok…child. Take…bath?” or “Go!” instead of “Ok, time to take a bath. Hey now, don’t give me that look, I’ve asked you three times. Go on!”…it gets interesting. I feel like such a fool when all I can retaliate their apparently rude remarks with is a simple “…non,” accompanying an angry look, or some sort of miming action. I’m sure they think I’m an idiot. The other day, Angele apparently called me a bitch, and I thought she’d said something sweet. It was a tad embarrassing when I innocently announced the incident at dinner later that night. Oh.

The best is when we’re in public, and they simply run away, and the only attempt I can make at calling them back is to helplessly shout their names in my obviously American accent, then shrug when onlookers offer me advice (or insults). The other day I was paying for my gas and glanced out the window to find them running around the gas station, throwing candy and screaming with glee. The look the clerk gave me suggested that I go die and to take the kids with me.

This morning, when I served cereal instead of white bread and Nutella (they greedily wolf down several pieces of the stuff on most mornings), crying and angry pouting broke out. Wow, Jesus. Sorry. I didn’t have the energy to argue with them this morning, as we were running out of time. I had woken up about a half hour late with a decent fever, and decided it was not my morning to win a battle. Fine, Nutella-drenched bread it is.

I swear Florence’s face lit up when I told her that I had a fever; I think she was excited at the opportunity to play nurse. She quickly broke out a little box containing several intriguing medicines of various forms: pills, powders, syringes (ah!), liquids, sprays. Now, I have had experience with the French health system before; they give you all sorts of stuff for the tiniest cold; who knows what any of it does. I watched as she poured out a little mound of off-white powder into a small, rounded dish. Is she going to make me sniff this stuff? She then mixed it with water so it formed a pasty sludge and instructed me to slurp it down. With hesitation (and a distant recollection of the clam incident), I swallowed the aspartame-tainted stuff.

“This will make you feel better.” When I asked her what it was (which I should have done before ingesting it), she simply said “It’s French.” Ha! Ok, well hopefully the French know what they’re doing. Well so far, I’m not high, so I suppose it checks out. Although the way these kids are wearing on me today……

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Road Less Salted

Sundays in France are a “day of rest,” which means that everything is calm and pleasant. And closed. Thus, my blessed new friend Kristen and I decided that it as the perfect day to get involved with nature. I left late that morning (after a late night of fondue the night before. Fondue parties in France…wild stuff) to pick her up at the house of the family that she works for as an au pair. Deciding that I should make a good impression, I parked on their winding, icy driveway and went inside to meet them. A pleasant introduction occurred, and we set off.

We settled into the little Nissan I had borrowed for the day, roared up the engine, and started out. Started out right into the fucking mailbox, that is. You see, in my “How to Drive in the Snow” lesson with Patrick, he had instructed that I give a little more gas in the snow, so that you don’t just make the wheels spin. Well, apparently this doesn’t apply to icy, curving driveways, because “giving it a little more gas” in this case sent me flying backwards into a big green mailbox.

I gasped and hopped out of the car to survey the wreckage. Kristen burst out laughing, as she counted how many letters were strewn across the snow. At that point, I almost laughed as well, until I realized that my bumper was hanging off the car, the left side sitting miserably in the snow. I believe several American profanities bounced off the French Alps, causing some shutters nearby to open, faces peering out. I hope the family didn’t see….no dice. I looked up to see two little faces in the window, along with several onlookers outside the neighboring houses.

“…Bonjour, Madame!” I figured I should at least send out the proper salutation to the elderly lady across the way. She shouted something back in French that neither of us understood, causing Kristen to reply “americainne!” which usually does the trick. Kristen’s family father rushed out, not so much to see that we were okay, but to check on his electrical box, which I had barely missed.

“Oh!” He rushed over to pick up his demolished mailbox and carefully picked up the damp letters. He then looked back at my car, and concluded that this was no big deal.

“FUCK.” Times like this, I really don’t mind being crass. “Goddamnit, I swear I’m not a bad driver. This is actually my first accident…” Okay, so I suppose it really wasn’t all so bad, but the fact that I’d been in this country for two weeks, and had already managed to rip off their little car’s bumper kind of gave an improperly bad impression of me. Not to mention that I had just met this family, and within minutes had destroyed some (apparently beloved) piece of property.

“Well, I can just send you the bill for the mailbox.” Mr. French Father said. Oh, the bill. Right. I felt a bit numb, thinking about how much the French would charge to repair a bumper. Thus, Kristen, myself, and Mr. French tried somewhat pathetically to push the bumper back on, wistfully thinking that it would hold without the bolts, that were at that point speckling the snow like little chocolate chips. Mr. French even suggested that we just rip the bumper off the rest of the way and get it over with. Considering how it was still half on, we thought ripping off the rest of the bolts wasn’t exactly the best solution.

So I’m standing there in the snow, black mascara, now mixed with grease, spread across my cheeks, trying to figure out what the hell to tell Patrick. I like how my first thought was Maybe I should just tell him later….Yet, responsible ol Kristen suggested that while I call, she could fetch some rope or somesuch, to make an attempt at holding the bumper on until I got home. Although at that point, I contemplated making a short drive to the airport, bumper flying in the wind, with a note left on the car: “Patrick Deconfin. Sorry” with a little sad face, and perhaps a picture of an airplane taking flight, so he’d get the idea.

The phone call actually went smoother than I had thought (tears tend to soften a man’s heart). I started out, for some reason, not with “Hello, bonjour,” but with “Um…I crushed, like I crashed your car a little and, I think it is ok.” Yea, that’ll do.

“What. So my car, is it okay?” All it took was that tiny fleck of irritation to bring back my pathetic, snotty tears.

“Yea, I’m really sorry. Its ok, we put it back on for now and it is like, it is just hanging off a little.” This was actually before we’d found a glorious role of duct tape in the family’s garage, of which we used about a dozen long pieces, to keep the bumper in rather firmly in place.

To make a somewhat long and tedious story shorter, we ended up in the (only) bar in the centre ville of Ferney-Voltaire, throwin back a couple of brewskies. Our odds of getting hit on were pretty high, as we were the only two females in a bar full of men betting on the horse races. In fact, one scruf gentlemen asked for the number to our hotel room in exchange for free pizza. As tempting as his offer was, we decided to take his friend’s offer instead: Pringles, no strings attached.

We spent the rest of the day roaming around a somewhat deserted Geneva, where we paid 12 Suisse Franc for crap sandwiches and espressos. At the end of the evening, as I backed out of a parking spot, Kristen shouts “Holy crap! Aahahahaha!” while she pointed to the most ridiculous moment of the day: The car was equipped with a high-tech video device, so that when put into reverse, a screen on the dash lights up with a monitor of everything behind you. Great for avoiding pedestrians, cars…mailboxes. The French think of everything.

Monday, January 5, 2009

I Ate a Live Creature

I swore upon entering this land of gustatory delights that I would never turn down a food that was offered to me. I did wonderfully on night one, when a steaming plate of fois gras was placed in front of me, and even better on night two, when a delightful arrangement of fig-stuffed duck and bacon-wrapped green beans was served (shall we say, that I am not much of a meat-eater, and am quite satisfied with a bowl of beans and rice). Nevertheless, I’ve managed to stay quite stuffed on most occasions. I must say, too, that when it comes to the cheese here, I can never say “non.”

Yesterday afternoon I returned from the Sunday morning market (with a great little pair of jeans that I hadn’t tried on, that miraculously fit me as well as the vendor had promised), ready to eat. The smell of home-made egg rolls wafted into my nose, and I happily took a seat next to les enfants at the table, ready to be served.

“The egg rolls are for the children, I think.” Patrick took the lid off of a large, deep platter. “Bon appetite!” Neatly arranged across the platter were three dozen fresh, oval-shaped oysters.

When I say fresh, I quite literally mean fresh. They squirmed a little when you poked them. “Ah yes, they are a leettle bit alive,” Patrick reported, as he poked at one with his 2-pronged fork. I shuddered, knowing, I think, what was coming. “You scrap it off with your fork, and then you drink it down. Do not chew it.” A quick demonstration was made, and the tiny shellfish slurped right down his throat. “You don’t have to, if you don’t like.”

For the moment, I decided on a crisp egg roll while I contemplated my choices. I suppose my biggest fear was gagging on the thing; I pictured it biting my epiglottis on its way down. The large dish of shells was quickly diminishing in size, so I decided that if I was going to make the move, I’d better do it. I smiled, picked up a crusty shell, and tore the little guy out of his bed with my fork.

“Don’t laugh,” I pleaded. All eyes on me, expectantly, I squeezed some lemon on the little bastard and sucked him down. I made a great gulp, like that of a camel stocking up for his journey. Sand crunched between my tongue and palate.

“Ooo.” The children let out little squeals, and Patrick gave a small clap.

“Very good?” Florence was gently stacking her own empty shells on a plate. I added my small offering to the pile and let out a light, ocean-fresh burp.

“Yea….oui. I don’t think I’ll have another.” Laughter and pitied looks broke out at the table. “The aftertaste is nice, I think.” They smiled and agreed that I had been brave, and that they were proud of my willingness. I felt like I’d been inaugurated into their club, and was glad I hadn’t missed out on the opportunity to eat a live creature.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

What a Bon Anee

In France, “one o’clock” usually means “two or four o’clock,” so you better not try to plan your day all too much. It’s charming, really, but at times-and days like today-it can make things somewhat disagreeable. My friend left me in Geneva around nine o’clock this morning, so I figured it was the perfect time to replace some of the belongings that Lufthansa had so graciously lost for me in transit from Munich to Divonne. I filled up on complementary yogurt and bread at the auberge, then hit the streets. It was quiet out, but I figured that shops just hadn’t started to open yet. Incorrect. New Year’s Day, idiot. Shit Fuck. Of course; the first of the year is the most idiotic day to visit a city, because everything is closed, other than the occasional Bar-Tabac.

Well, I’ll just call Patrick and get picked up. Incorrect. The family I was living with was on a New Year’s trip of their own, and wouldn’t be getting around to picking me up until “around one o’clock.” Perfect. So, wrapped in a long down coat and a wool cap, I started a slow, somewhat depressing stroll through the streets of Geneva. After slipping several times on the ice-covered streets, I found a dry little bench in the middle of the town square on which I could mull over the situation. Essentially, I had four to seven hours to tour a cold, empty city by foot, most of which I’d seen the day before. I’m sure I sound somewhat ungrateful for this God-given free time, but allow me to explain. Sleep deprivation, for one, is never the right way to start your city tour. Mix that with post-beer gas, extreme pessimism, and a rising feeling of homesickness, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a day.

Before I moved to France, I told myself that smoking (other than the occasional puff) would not be acceptable. Yet four days into my residency, I decided to fuck that plan and find a cigarette machine. Amongst the various brands were Marlbolo, Virginia Slims, Camel; I decided on a pack I’d never heard of. Luckily, the button was wired to a different brand, and out popped a little pack of Pall Malls. Cripes, we have this shit in the States. Whatever, they were smooth as silk, let me tell you. Nothing will soothe the nerves like some stanky American smokes to put some stinch into your borrowed jacket.

Let’s be honest: the first two hours were rather nice. I photographed the beautiful snow-covered mountains surrounding Geneva, people-watched like you wouldn’t believe, and played with a little dog named Fifi, who was undoubtedly French. As the third and fourth hour passed, however, I began to feel somewhat anxious. Luckily, my borrowed cell phone wasn’t charged, so who knew if they’d reach me before it died. It was a funny situation, really.

If I walked around, I was warm and occupied enough, but it proved somewhat exhausting after a few hours. Yet, if I sat down for more than ten minutes on a semi-frozen bench, I was sure to shiver out any energy I had. Thus, a cycle of sitting and walking began. I sat-walked my way down Le Rue de Brugues, a lovely street filled with little Fifis and folks in fur caps. At some point, I turned on a little side street and came upon an open café. Bon.

Coffee is one thing I can’t mess up ordering. The interaction is a rather simple one: “Bonjour Madame. Un café, sil vous pl’ait.” Voila, a steamy little espresso appears moments later, no embarrassment involved. Anytime further questioning is involved, however, I am sure to fumble. Such inquiries as “How has your day been thus far?” or “I love your cap. Where did you purchase it?” throw me into stupide americaine mode, and I blow my cover. Somehow, as soon as I attempt to respond, or God forbid ask if they’ll repeat themselves, they know where I’m really from. Clever, these French people.

I sat in that smoky café for over an hour, impressive seeing as how I didn’t have my journal or books with me, and an espresso takes but two minutes to drink. It was all somewhat of a blur. Well, a lesson well-learned: never leave the house without a book. Who knows how long you’ll be waiting in any particular location. Well, I was feeling that my welcome had been worn, and could not longer tolerate the clever old Frenchmen making eyes at me in the mirror, so I hit the streets once again.

As my dear friends are well aware, I’m quite the talker on most occasions; not having spoken more than twelve words in a day was quite the feat. So as not to break my new habit, I found a sunny staircase to sit on, planted myself in the middle of it, and went ahead and set the world record for zoning out. Holy mother God. It was now 14:30, which means two things: that I just sat-walked and no-talked for over five hours, and that the family was over an hour late. Bon.

At some point after having finished my longest sit yet, I decided to get up and find another café. Voila! Two blocks up I see a Starbucks, God bless it. Not that I was even in the mood for a coffee, but it sounded better than sitting around on a cold brick staircase. I angrily splurged and bought an Americano and a bagel, for the darling price of 10.70 Swiss Francs. That’s about ten bucks for shit coffee and an old, strangely moist bagel. So I sit down, literally took one bite of the damn-blasted bagel and my awaited phone call arrives. I had planned on killing at least 90 minutes in there, for the fee I’d paid. I threw half of that stupid coffee-water away, took the ol bagel to go, and headed for the le gare center to catch a train. From there, I somehow found my way back to Nyon Station, where Patrick picked me up and whisked me away to my little French room, where I hide away and fell into a long, guilty slumber until dinner.