Whether living abroad or at home, on a national or on a personal level, we all want to know what others think of us. Sure, people might say one thing or another out of politeness, but how do we really look through their eyes?
One answer came today in the mail, in the form of a pizza delivery menu.
No matter that pizza comes from Italy — when the French think of junk food, they can’t help thinking of America. It’s not necessarily a negative association; whatever you’ve read in the papers, the truth is that French people like junk food almost as much as we do. So when they market a pizza, they want to market it as the most flashy, dangerous, irredeemably unhealthy, perfectly American concoction they can think of.
But when it comes to pizza styles, what represents America to the world? Is it those large, lusciously greasy slices you buy on the street in New York? Is the the Chicago-style deep dish: loads of toppings on a thick, flaky crust? Is it something exotic, like the Hawaiian style pineapple and ham?
Here we have two classic American-style pizzas, the New York and the Indiana. There were many other slices of cheesy Americana available, but I chose these two because I am originally from New York, and the boy is originally from Indiana, which of course enhances the amusement value.
For those struggling with the French: the New York style pizza is topped with tomato sauce, cheese, barbecue sauce, onions, hamburger meat, and pickles. The Indiana, on the other hand, is topped with tomato sauce, cheese, curry sauce, thin-sliced chicken, and potatoes.
I… You know what, I don’t even know where to go with this. Can anyone actually eat these concoctions without vomiting? Are they in fact better than they look? And really, with representations like this — is it any wonder the French can’t take us seriously?
Just when you’re starting to feel a bit confident in this language, a tiny vocabulary hole comes along and takes over your whole day.
I headed out to market the other afternoon to pick up a few necessities — lettuce, onions, toothpaste, conditioner… Of course, I’d had a nice, nearly-full bottle of conditioner back in the States, but at the last minute I decided to leave it, rather than have it confiscated by terrorism-wary security guards or explode in my checked luggage (as my eye make-up remover did). So for the past week or so, I’ve been making do with a tiny hotel bottle of foul-smelling glop that has probably lived in this apartment since God knows when.
But having coaxed the last drop from that undersized vial, I thoughtlessly added the word “conditioner” to my shopping list and headed out the door. Only to realize, upon studying the toiletries aisle, that I had no idea what the French word for conditioner is.
Not a huge problem, you’d think. Obviously it will be in matching bottles, right next to the shampoo (called, adorably, “shampooing”), just like it is in America — and probably labeled something like “conditionneur“. Well, you’d be wrong.
Instead, you find things like “crème de bain hydratante”, “douche tonifiante”, “gel douche”, and “soin disciplinant boucles”. I can only put together the vaguest of meanings for these product terms (honestly, I’m not an expert on bath products even in America), but none of them seems quite right. In any case, I don’t have the confidence to just buy one, plop it on my hair, and find out.
So I go home empty handed, and do what any 21st century gal would do when faced with a transatlantic hair-care muddle: I check Google. Once again, not as simple as you might think. Enter the word “conditioner” into babelfish, and you get, predictably, “conditionneur”. But I already knew that wasn’t right. So then I try entering “conditioner french” into Google, but unfortunately am given loads of results for French Vanilla and French Lavender scented conditioners. No good.
Now I have to get craftier. I try “soins cheveux”, “soins cheveux douches” and any other combination I can imagine of French words relating to hair, shower, and care. Still, all I get are results for French shampoos and other assorted non-conditioning oddities. At one point I am given false hope when I find a “2 in 1” shampoo — surely, somewhere in the description it will explain what the 2 elements are, and one of them must be conditioner. But no, French labels turn out to be maddeningly vague, focusing on how happy and cared-for you’ll feel after using the product, rather than what it actually is or does.
Don’t worry, this story does have a happy ending. Inspiration struck, and I went to the Garnier website. I don’t recommend this experience — it’s an agonizingly complicated flash site and it takes a ton of complex surfing to even find the product page, which turns out not to be linkable. But I’ve used Garnier conditioner in America, so I know it exists. And I know Garnier is a French company — if I can just find the bottle that looks familiar, I’ll know what I need.
And the answer is… Après-Shampooing.
Oh, sure, now it seems obvious. But ever since being converted to the Curly Girl method, I don’t even use shampoo, so I don’t think of conditioner as being “after” anything. I had assumed that the few “Après-Shampooing” bottles I found contained weird “clarifying” creams or God knows what.
So finally, after all that searching, I was able to go down to the corner store and buy one over-priced bottle of hair conditioner.
And people asked me what I planned to do with my days.
Sorry, for some reason those luscious lardons make me think of tiny pigs in a way that bacon and ham never do. I made salade de lentilles last night.
Half package lentilles vertes
herbes de provence
vinaigrette (olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard)
lardons, fried until yummy.
Cover veggies with water. Add herbes, plus salt and pepper. Cook on medium for half an hour. Toss with vinaigrette and add lardons. You can substitute bacon, but oh my god it does make a difference.
In his collection of essays, Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik explains that there is nothing quite like that first meal in Paris after a long absence. Doesn’t really matter what it is — trout, green beans, steak frites — even the most ordinary of foods produce such extraordinary flavors in France that you can’t really help but swoon.
So what was my first meal after my being gone for so long? Eh — I’m afraid I kind of screwed it up. We got off the plane dizzy with jet-lag, went straight to the apartment, and slept twelve straight hours. When we woke up (with a jolt, at 1 am, as alert as if we’d been shot up with amphetamines), it was too late to go out for anything proper, so I boiled up some macaroni and plopped on a spoonful of tomato-basil sauce from a jar. It was quite nice, certainly better than any chef-boyardee concoction we might have gotten at home. But not exactly the kind of thing to send one into paroxysms of delight.
So what came next? A pita grecque in the quartier latin — delicious and filling, but once again, not really French. I was still missing my experience.
Then the next morning, finally shaking myself awake at a semi-reasonable hour, I walked to local supermarket (although by American standards, the super in this market might seem to have been intended ironically. It’s about the size of your average convenience store.) to pick up the makings of a simple lunch. Jambon de Paris, a little box of Camembert, and a package of butter… On the way home, I stopped into the boulangerie and bought a baguette, already fantasizing about the perfect little sandwiches I would assemble once I got back. Should I start with the sandwich jambon or the sandwich fromage? And what combination of mustard and mayonnaise should I employ?
All for nought. At home in my kitchen, I tore off a good section of the baguette, too impatient to hunt around for the bread knife. I split the bread open, began spreading on the butter, and… that was it. The minute I smelled the creamy sweetness of real French butter, I was done for. I folded the bread closed and sank my teeth in — perfection.
So, there you have it: my heavenly first Parisian meal was a tartine au beurre. I never even made it to the cheese.
In July of this past summer, I learned that I would be moving to Paris in the fall. Understandably excited, I ran right out and told everyone I knew. That was until I started getting the question.
Oh! How lovely! But what are you going to do there?
And no matter how many times I hear this question (and oh, it’s been a lot of times now), I never fail to be dumbfounded by it. It’s not because I naively thought my life would somehow end the minute I got to Paris — it’s just that I have no idea what kind of answer people are looking for.
All I can think is that they must want to hear about my job. But well, just because I’ve moved here doesn’t mean I’ve got permission to work. Besides, I’m generally lazy and lacking in any useful talent or skill, so regular jobs and I have never really gotten along. Perhaps I could be a student? Well, sure, but… enh. I survived 16 years of hewing to the arbitrary desires of teachers and professors — can’t I have a few years to hew to my own arbitrary desires?
No, I am neither gainfully employed nor am I a student. So what exactly do I intend to do with my days? A wee list:
I know I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’m a writer, in the sense that I type words onto a screen and then try to make them look pretty. Not, however, in the sense that I am being paid for this work.
Still, I would very much like to be paid for this work one day, which is why I have spent the last *not quite three years* of my life writing a novel. I’m currently in the process of trying to get people to A) read this novel, B) like this novel, and C) give me money in exchange for this novel. Sounds simple, but it’s actually rather challenging.
Over the course of this year, I’ll be sending out queries, fielding responses, and revising like mad until I’ve produced something that someone, somewhere (with some money) thinks is not too bad.
I’ll also, God willing, be writing some new stuff, too. I have a few ideas.
In my last few years of arduous writing, I haven’t had the time or inclination to read much. I hope to change that, as well as to take advantage of this year abroad to read French books, an activity which I find entirely draining when in America, and will hopefully be less so here.
I’m currently reading Madame Bovary in paperback, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses over here (join us!). Once finished, I hope to tackle the second volume of A La Recherche de Temps Perdu, and that will probably take me the rest of my life.
3) Look at art
Paris has a lot of art museums. It also has a lot of galleries. I have a digcam, which means you will see what I see. Hopefully I’ll think of some things to say about the art, too.
And cook. And shop for food. This has to happen no matter where you live, but in Paris, it’s a lot more entertaining. Expect pics.
Including, but not limited to, sleeping, breathing, walking, worrying moodily about my future, running into friends unexpectedly, drinking beer in cafes, surfing the web, sprinkling my French with faux-amis, screwing up metric/english conversions, and avoiding dog poo.
Another city, another blog.
By way of introduction: I was born and primarly raised in America — upstate New York and Southern New England, to be slightly more precise. Due to happy circumstances, however, I got to spend a fair portion of my childhood in Europe, particularly in France. Mostly I was just hanging around with my parents, but when I was eight years old I spent an entire year attending a suburban French public school.
Subsequently, I spent all my summers at French colonies de vacances, or summer camps. It was here that I acquired the nickname that titles this blog. (I’m not quite as petite as I was then, but yeah, the shoe still fits.)
It was also during this time that I acquired my familiarity with the French language, such as it is. Basically, I speak quite naturally, but with an eight year old’s grammar, vocabulary, and sensibility. I have no doubt that this odd fact is going to result in some highly embarrassing blog fodder at some point this year.
Anyway, for the past few years, I haven’t managed to spend any more than a week or two in Paris at a time, but all that has finally changed. I am returned at last — at least for a year.