Friday, December 2, 2011

Mon Nouveau Monde

Here's another post that's been long delayed. I started writing it no more than a couple of weeks after arriving and have edited it bit by bit over the last two months, but always seemed to have something more pressing to post. So here, at last, are some observations about my day-to-day life in France.

I currently live in a place where wine is cheaper than Coke (yes, really), Nutella is cheaper than jam, baguettes and croissants alike can be had for less than a euro, and the tea selection at my small inner-city supermarket is as good as any I've seen elsewhere. Also, the ubiquitous ham sandwiches come with butter instead of mayonnaise, and the butchers' case at that same supermarket always has a stack of rabbits (I'm going to do it this year, I swear), and there's a whole section of shelves of hard cider to choose from (I intend to take a systematic approach and work my way through all of them). I buy soup not in cans, but in "bricks"—little waxed-cardboard cartons—and it tastes so much better. The biggest food-related drawbacks for me so far are the prevalence of mushrooms and seafood, the fact that the French do not seem to be as fond as I am of putting milk in their coffee (thank goodness I learned to drink it black this summer, if not to enjoy it quite so much), and an inexplicable preference for UHT milk over fresh—blergh. I suppose it's a little unfortunate that the amazing plethora of cheeses is mostly lost on me, but I am more than willing to sample the many pastries and saucissons.

There are more crepe restaurants than there are bakeries... and there are many, many bakeries.

I think I overestimated the extent of my food vocabulary, if I ever gave it much thought at all. That might even be the area in which I've made the biggest gains in improving my French in the time I've been here. When I first arrived to find that previous assistants had left behind some dry goods ("extra virgin", as in olive oil, is a literal translation, which I for some reason found kind of amusing), including an assortment of spices, it took me a while to go through them and figure out what everything was. My pocket dictionary was less than helpful for such a specific task, and I wound up identifying several bottles by taking off lids and smelling. Even that experience did not really prepare me for how overwhelming my first trip to a French supermarket was going to be. Now, I stand studying packages and reading labels without shame, but in those first days I was too awkward about being foreign and too horrified by how little I knew or understood not to feel like there was no way I'd ever learn to navigate the vast world of food in French.

I've got things mostly figured out now, but I still haven't quite worked up to buying, say, cuts of meat. I'm still working on sausages, which are a really big deal here and of which there are an astonishing number of varieties. I am proceeding cautiously in my experiments, however; one of the first things I bought here to actually cook myself was a pair of fat Andouille sausages that were the source of my first major disillusionment with France and nearly put me off trying to cook French food altogether. They looked and smelled and tasted like entrails (which they are, to be fair), and I totally couldn't handle it. I really tried and felt really guilty, but in the end I threw the first one away half-eaten and didn't even bother to cook the other. Black pudding any day, even if it makes me feel creepy, but no more organ meat ever again.

Anyway, other things I quickly discovered I didn't/don't have words for include kitchen gadgets/pots and pans, bedding, and toiletries. I assume that I will continue to cross those bridges as I come to them. Things I didn't/don't know how to find in French stores, regardless of having the correct vocabulary words, include greeting cards, computers, and yarn. It took me an inordinate amount of effort to find a birthday card for my father the week after I got here, and although I eventually found both a newsstand-type shop that sold some and an actual card store in one of the shopping centers, those remained for some time the only two places I know of. I've now seen them in some other newstands and have noticed that you can also buy them in grocery stores. As for computers, while I've found an Apple store and a couple of very small shops that sell and repair computers and accessories, I have yet to discover the French equivalent of say, Best Buy or Staples. Not that I need a computer at the moment, but it seems like it might be good knowledge to have, and seemed especially important earlier in my stay when I thought I might need to replace my laptop while I'm here. As for yarn, I've now discovered a few shops from which to buy it, but there don't seem to be any general craft stores here that cater to people with a variety of artsy hobbies. Not really a problem for me, exactly, but still very different from what I'm used to.

I have been a little astonished by the amount of English I've encountered—not just from people I meet who speak at least a little and are eager to practice and/or show off, but also on signs, in advertising slogans, in product names... it's everywhere. More on that later.

Breton is everywhere here, too. Not as much as I'd hoped, perhaps, but I knew once I was placed in a big city that I wasn't likely to hear it spoken. (French has been just as merciless as English, if not more so, in overpowering the other languages within its sphere of influence.) But many traffic signs and most informational signs are bilingual, and many businesses have Breton names or use Breton in their advertising. I understand very little of it, and forget pronunciation. One of the assistants from Britain told me his father speaks fluent Welsh and can often figure out what signs in Breton mean. That makes sense, because Breton and Welsh are in the same branch of the same language family and in theory are quite similar, but I was still impressed because when I first got here, none of it seemed familiar to me from my little exposure to Welsh. (Not that I remember much Welsh at this point, either, to be fair.) Now that I've had time to come to recognize more of it and to think more about it, I have started to see some similarities, but Breton seems to me to have a lot more Zs and Ks than Welsh, and a lot more vowels to go with its consonants. I still think I'd really like to take a Breton language class, or at least audit one at the university (although I've learned that the fee for auditing classes is pretty steep, so I'm still undecided). Imagine the linguistic havoc I could wreak armed with a Breton-French dictionary to pair with my French-English dictionary.

Meanwhile, it is blatantly untrue that there are no fat French people, no loud French people, that French people do not wear bright colors, and that French women do not bare their shoulders or shave the same places American women do. It is also untrue that they hate Americans (here, at least, it seems we're exciting) or speakers of bad French (most are very patient, and even those who might be somewhat annoyed are generally at least polite). Scarves are ubiquitous, for both men and women, but if you mention berets, the French will laugh just as hard as Americans would.

It is true that nearly everyone smokes, or so it seems. Men and women, young and old, native- and foreign-born. They smoke on the street and at the bus stop, in smoking rooms in bars and at the outdoor tables at cafes and in the doorways of their own shops and restaurants when business is slow. It also seems to be true that nearly everyone has a dog (or two or three). Not just fluffy little stereotypically French dogs, either, even here in the city where so many people must live in apartments or tiny little rowhouses, but dogs of all shapes and sizes. Some of the biggest dogs I've ever seen I've seen in the centre of Brest. I'm not sure I've ever seen so many dogs in one place consistently, day after day, before, and certainly not so many trotting along without leashes. I desperately need to find out if it's socially acceptable to ask to pet someone's dog, and how one would ask that in the first place. 

In the meantime, it unfortunately seems that cleaning up after one's dog is not a social mandate to the same degree that it is in the US. Poop everywhere.

It's also at least a little bit true that the French take themselves very seriously and aren't as willing to laugh at themselves as Americans or the Irish. (They'll joke about themselves sometimes; that's fine. And they'll joke about you. But if you try to joke with them about them, suddenly that's not funny at all.)

The greeting-by-kissing custom still confuses me. It varies regionally, for one thing. (I might have said this before, but I don't remember...) In Brittany, most people do one kiss, usually on the right cheek. It in other places, it might be two or three. All of the Spanish assistants (the ones from Spain, I mean) do two, one on each cheek, as does the occasional French person who's not originally from this region. This leads to many an awkward situation wherein I either go in for the second when the other person wasn't planning to, or pull away after the first while the other person is trying to do a second. I never seem to know what I'm supposed to do. Further complicating matters is the fact that many of the other teachers want to do the bises with me sometimes, but don't do it all the time, and the inconsistency means I'm constantly either being surprised by it or being poised to do it when we're not going to (I never, ever initiate it except very occasionally with other assistants or with French friends-of-friends my own age). I think at this point it's been long enough that I can say I don't like this particular custom, and it's not just because it's new to me. Despite the fact that I otherwise tend to be pretty reserved when it comes to physical contact, I much prefer hugging to bise-ing. And much like wanting milk in my coffee and wanting businesses to be open in the middle of the day, that's one of the ways in which I'm extremely aware of my American-ness and not really ashamed of it.*

On a partially related note, the French, or many of them, at least, have a very different idea from mine of what constitutes personal space. I think this is interesting given that they are also more reserved, in general, than I'm used to--although they are sometimes very open about topics that I think in America tend to be things you don't really discuss except with family or close friends, and certainly things you don't ask people about unless you know them quite well. Although generally polite, the French have a tendency to be incredibly blunt. The people of Brest are quick to call their own city ugly, and the teachers at my school did not mince words in informing me that the school across the river where one of the other English assistants works has a very bad reputation. Sometimes this level of honesty just makes me uncomfortable (as when I told my responsable, "You have a lovely house," and she replied, "Yes, it is quite nice." What do you say to that?). Other times it's great that everyone just gets right to the point. I saw a movie poster for the American movie "Friends With Benefits"; its French title is "Sex Between Friends." I had to venture into the shampoo aisle at the supermarket the other day, where I discovered that the word for conditioner is “apr├Ęs-shampooing”. So beautifully straightforward. When asked on my first day what I thought of the teacher's lounge, whether it was nice, I shrugged awkwardly and said "Oui," upon which the whole table started laughing and my responsable said, "She's polite. But then, it is nicer than her bedroom." On my introduction-to-new-classes days, when students won't speak up, I try to joke and ask them if I'm boring**, but their regular teachers have no qualms about telling them I'm going to think they're stupid if they just sit there and stare at me. Just this morning, in fact, when I was trying to explain a game to a group of fifteen year olds, one team seemed to understand, but the other was confused and all talking at once amongst themselves instead of asking me questions. The teacher's reaction was "What a stupid team, you don't listen to anything!"***

A cultural point that may or may not be related this straightforwardness: One of the first things of which I was informed by one of my fellow American girls, who studied abroad in France two years ago, is that if a woman smiles too much, she's assumed to be easy. Well, $#!&. I smile all the time, and if anything I'm inclined to smile more here—for me, it's an instinctive way of showing that I'm happy to be here and eager to try and to learn and to generally be agreeable. It's a way of trying to compensate for my poor language skills. ("I have no idea what you just said to me, but look, I'm cute and friendly and trying really hard!") As an American, it's ingrained in me that smiling at people, even strangers, is a gesture of goodwill and friendliness. Apparently, for French men it shows a little too much friendliness—and after the first unwanted advances I received from a French man seemed to have been a direct result of my forgetting the warning and smiling at a stranger as he walked by, I don't want to take a lot of chances with that particular cultural signal. For a long time, I tried really hard to cut back; mostly, I just avoided making eye contact with anyone outside the teacher's lounge that I wasn't not actually trying to talk to. Part of the problem, I think, is that I haven't really figured out what the rules are—is it just strange men I'm not allowed to smile at, specifically because it sends signals I'd rather not send? Or will old women at the bus stop and mothers of adorable small children in the park also think it's weird if I smile at them for no reason? Are there particular places or contexts in which it's okay? I'm sure that the old man who absolutely insisted that I go ahead of him in the supermarket check-out line deserved the big smile he got, as did the one who helped me with my train ticket when I couldn't get the stupid stamping machine thing to accept it. Maybe I'm overthinking this, but that's what the socially awkward do. We smile a lot, and we obsess over whether we're sending the right signals. So when smiling becomes not the right signal… #&@%. 

I'm not trying as hard not to smile anymore as I was at first. I've gotten less self-conscious about it, partly as a result of incidents like the aforementioned, partly as a result of my positive people experiences while hiking, and partly just because I've gotten less self-conscious in general. I'm going to stand out no matter what, and I'm going to do some things that seem weird to the French (and sometimes to anybody, for that matter), and that's just going to have to be how it is.

* Fun fact: There is no word for hugging in French. Also, as I'm sure you can imagine, the mixture of huggers and bise-rs among the language assistants leads to just as many awkward greetings as the confusion over how many kisses are necessary.
** In the first class where I did that, several of them smiled and said no(!), which made me really happy. But the next time I tried it, I got blank stares. Sigh.
*** Stay tuned for more on the joys of a French education.

1 comment:

  1. I actually really enjoy going to the supermarket and figuring out what everything is most of the time. Today, however, I made a large and costly error and bought actual shea butter, instead of lotion containing shea butter. It's really waxy and weird.