How I Know I’m Not French But Then…

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 4:33 pm -

May 1st is the twenty-second anniversary of my moving to Paris. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here so long and how many things have changed—especially me.

I’ll never be French in spite of feeling very much part of the culture and loving so many aspects of life in France. The global insights that accompany relocating to a new country are both mystifying and enlightening.

No matter how long anyone remains in a new country, no one assimilates one hundred percent even if they’re totally comfortable in their adopted home. Scratch the surface, and invariably you’ll unearth a raw nerve.

For example, strikes are irritating and will always be. Even if they’re announced (as they’re legally supposed to be) and you plan accordingly, there are times when the best made schedules will crash and burn.

How well I recall the day I spent at the Gare de Lyon not going to Provence, even though the departure board showed my train would be pulling out of the station within the next 30 minutes. Sure. Had I been smarter, I would have returned to the apartment after a couple of hours. But that would have ensured the train would leave within minutes of my climbing on the bus heading to Boulevard du Montparnasse.

During strike season, working at home has its advantages albeit isolating. There are days when I stay put with my computer—even though I know it’s important not to become a hermit. I may become lazy (or absorbed) and sometimes have to force myself to get up and go.

I’m still irritated when I can’t accomplish things during the vacations and days off that are a part of French culture. One of the things about being an American in Paris is that French holidays aren’t necessarily holidays because I’m working with people in the U.S.

Ditto for American holidays. When all of the U.S. is observing Thanksgiving, I’m invariably working or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner to be served after 8:00 p.m., when friends are available. I’ve never heard of a multi-national corporation telling its American employees to take the day off even though some U.S. expats do return home to eat turkey and the fixings with their families.

More likely, Americans wait until the Christmas holidays to make a beeline to the States. It’s well known that not a whole lot gets accomplished during Christmas and New Years even if you don’t observe them.

But wait. I’ve done nothing but cite negatives. After all these years, more of me is French than American. For example, it’s hard to see into my closet because ninety percent of my clothes are black and it feels as if I continually buy the same ones.

The moment the sun appears during the dreary months of January and February, I make a mad dash outside to soak up a few rays. After all, if nothing else, we all need vitamin D, and if you’re someone who feels better after absorbing natural light (and who doesn’t?), you can rationalize the escape is precisely what the doctor ordered.

My French self is really evident in how and when I buy clothes and housewares. If something isn’t on sale, forget it. Retail has never been my thing (yes, I miss discount stores that are in practically every U.S. shopping center) but unless I’m desperate, I never buy anything unless it’s discounted.

Food has assumed more significance since I’ve moved here. Iceberg lettuce is no longer a staple. Don’t laugh: that was one of the few fresh vegetables you could always count on finding in a U.S. supermarket more than twenty years ago. Discovering French cheeses was a revelation. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—and will unless I eat substantially less of it because of my cholesterol count. Unlike the French who eat tiny portions, my innate reaction is (was) to pig out.

Wine is an affordable commodity. It’s easy to experiement with different ones and you don’t have to spend more than a few euros per bottle. It’s not a major budget item and I’ve developed an anti-snob attitude and rarely spend more than ten euros per bottle in the grocery store when I buy it. What’s dinner with a glass or two of red wine? It’s good for your heart and it’s my contribution to France’s wine economy.

Flowers are a must in where and how I live. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I used to buy inexpensive ones at sidewalk vendors in Washington, DC, but soon nicknamed them graveyard flowers since they always died within 24-36 hours. There are incredibly expensive florists (ergo, artists) in Paris where you can drop a bundle. But there are also chain stores where you can purchase flowers that don’t make you feel as if you’re robbing a bank. My most recent purchase was forty white roses that cost ten euros and gave me ten times the pleasure.

This may seem odd, but the French are incredible when it comes to packaging. It’s a sense of aesthetics that brings me such intense pleasure. If you purchase something and say it’s a cadeau, the vendor usually wraps it as if it’s worth a million dollars using tissue, cellophane paper, ribbons and imagination.

Yes, there are irritations when living in France and it’s not for everyone. But, it’s captured my heart and part of my soul.

(c) Karen Fawcett


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