Well, That Was Unexpected

Real life is stranger than fiction...depending on which authors you read, of course.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Baby French and the marche

I'm taking French lessons in Paris. I believe I speak at the level of a 2 year old. So, I was in the Franprix, my local market, shopping away, and I remembered that while my landlord had some extra detergent, I had no dryer sheets. So I head to the detergent section and, as happens virtually every time I enter the Franprix, I become paralyzed. I am staring at a huge wall of godknowswhat. I am like a child, picking things up...shaking them, possibly sniffing (in the dairy aisle)...hmm. The French can actually be very kind, especially if you are really apologetic and polite, so I ask this girl coming down the aisle if she can help me. And I now know just enough French to be ridiculous. So I say  "I am searching for a piece of paper to put in the dryer." In my defense, I think in the states this would be enough to culminate in dryer sheets. But she is flabbergasted and skeptical, like I might be a firestarter. I believe firmly in my request so I repeat my "paper for the dryer" plea. She starts picking up boxes...and shaking them. She finally settles on some sheets that help prevent color leakage in the washer. Which is...also helpful, but not dryer sheets. Defeated, I resort to English and say "you know, those sheets of paper you put in the dryer that make clothes not stick together." and she says "I have never heard of that." For good reason. The French (and possibly all of Europe) don't use dryer sheets. You can wash your clothes with liquid or powder or tablets or dissolving sheets or weird plastic pods, but when it comes to drying, well, you're on your own. In their defense this is probably because so many of them line dry their clothes, which is anathema to me. The ladies at the laundromat confirmed this lack of any type of destatifying product. They were passing the time helping me with my baby French homework. (I had a super fun time explaining to them, as to my classmates earlier in the day, why an American would find the French word for shower, "DOUCHE", so funny. They were like "on American movies we have heard this word "douchebag", and we know it is bad, but what is it, a bag for the shower? ah, mes amis, non. since I'm on the subject, on a continent famous for bidets, the concept of douching was met with resounding puzzlement and a little horror.)

This incident leads me into my next get-rich-sort-of-quick scheme. I am going to be the Europe's first importer of dryer sheets. I am going to corner the market. When I explained the concept of the dryer sheet to my classmates, particularly the Swedes, they thought it was a brilliant invention. and I was like "they cost almost nothing but magically your clothes have no static."et voila!

But back to Franprix. the dairy aisle at Franprix is usually what gets me in trouble. For instance, did you know the French don't really put cream in their coffee? Just whole milk. so the concept of half-and-half does not exist. what does exist, however, are a variety of creams with varying fat content....is 12% fat more like half-and-half or 30%? If asked on the spot, I wouldve gone with 50%, but that's because when it comes to all things domestic, I am like Nell, the female version of the Faulknerian manchild. (12% is even thicker than half-and-half, if you are interested or also domestically disabled.) So I was back to my picking things up and shaking them routine. And I resorted to...asking a nice French lady which cream I would put in my coffee if I were to put cream into my coffee like an American would. And she confidently directed me toward a container of creamer I had automatically dismissed because its picture was of someone *pouring cream over a huge piece of SALMON*. But she was absolutely correct. I've experimented with the others, and their texture isn't right. Salmon creamer for the win!

My most recent Franprix dairy aisle confusion came when I was looking for an approximation of Greek Yogurt. The only brand that actually said "greek yogurt" was way too creamy. But I believe that if the US can have 10 brands of Greek yogurt, then France (so much closer to Greece and so much more needing to prop up its economy by buying it's wares) should have like 50. But I see only the one. So I explored, looking for high protein but low fat content. and I found something called "fromage blanc." It's everywhere. 10 brands, 10 sizes. But is it cheese? it says "fromage" but is in the kilo container normally reserved for yogurt or costco sized sour cream. And it costs 1.5 euro for the store brand. So I ask at the checkout counter "is this like yogurt?" and they go "no, no it's...well, it's creamy and you can't eat it for dinner. It is meant to be eaten at breakfast with sugar" okay, and I say again "comme yaourt?" (like yogurt?) and they again say "no, no" I'm going to save you another 10 minutes of boring discussion and tell you that it tastes exactly like frickin plain yogurt. Leave it to the Europeans to be intensely precise about identifying dairy products.

The incident reminded me of when people in Taiwan would say "oh you have to try this snack at the night market near the university, it's some meat and vegetables wrapped in dough and then boiled or fried" and I would say "you mean like dumplings?" and they would emphatically say "no, they are definitely NOT like dumplings, they are very unique" and I would go and try them and they would be...like dumplings. but maybe  a centimeter smaller than a normal dumpling or rectangular and fried. In fact, in Taiwan there are probably 15 words for things that are dough wrapped around meat then boiled and or fried. But the size or shape of the wrapper...whether there is juice inside....like a whole new world. not like dumplings at all. Except for being exactly like dumplings.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Just a smiling, eye-contactual, bare-legged tramp

Now, there were many things I noticed upon first moving to Paris, things about which I could wax poetic as many before have done. Instead, I'm going to focus on a different observation: dude, these men are too aggressive.

Not being the type of beauty who was ever stopped in the street, or stopped anywhere, actually, due to my looks, I was floored in the first week when two men stopped dead on the sidewalk and said "excuse me" (and I thought they were asking for directions) and then said "can we have coffee. now?" I think this is the type of experience I am supposed to treasure, ah oui, romantic Paris. I, however, am not only an American, but an American who has seen way too many Law and Order SVU episodes. So I respond more like "stranger danger!" because I am highly suspicious of anyone who would stop, well, not just me but anyone, in the street and be like "let's get together." And this has now happened to me, oh at least 10 times in the past month, the last time being outside the laundromat tonight when a man who reminded me muchly of a younger version of the guy who plays professor Lupin in Harry Potter, spoke to me rapidly in French and all I understood was "beautiful, see you, neighborhood, come to my house, glass of wine". Earlier this month, I was starting to think that maybe I had hit my sweet spot. France: a whole population of men genetically designed to be enamored of moi... I had been sadly socialized as an American who was destined to be revolted by the men who would love me.

Being who I am, though, I couldn't really take it at face value. I had asked my classmates, who are younger and very lovely, whether this was happening to them as well and they responded "no" or "very rarely". Hmmm. So one of my classmates who has already lived in Paris for a year, says "do you smile at them?" and I said "I smile at everyone." and she says "you can't smile at them, they think you want to sleep with them...do you also make eye contact with them?" and I respond, again "Of course, I make eye contact with everyone." and she says "oh no, you have to stop that immediately." so, what I'm gathering is a perplexing paradox that in a country where everyone kisses all up in each other's space when they greet STRANGERS, the fact that I acknowledge people kindly on the street somehow is elevated to the level of a full pass for a full court press. This whole exchange, by the way, reminded me very vividly of when I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg with Jane and she told me that I needed to stop smiling because it gave me away as a foreigner. "When you smile too much in Russia they think you have a mental disability," she said. SO I tried, I did, but I couldn't help it, and basically gave us away as a foreign foursome to be cheated and maligned even more than everyone in Russia is cheated and maligned by virtue of its very being. 

Another inkling I had in the first week or two was that my legs were being looked at a lot. Now, friends, I have very white legs. But the French are fairly pale, I couldn't imagine my legs being so shocking as to deserve notice. But it was starting to remind me of the time when I was in Amritsar, wearing a midlength skirt (to try and be respectful) and tourists were taking pictures of my legs because those six inches of whiteness were so scandalous that even the Golden Temple itself was not as exciting and phenomenal as my bare, white calves (um, but all their stomachs are hanging out, explain that to me). I also noticed as I looked down, walking through the throngs of people, that...no...one...else..in Paris (even in skirts and shorts) had...bare...legs. But this is France, in one of the subway stations there is a full, vagina and all, picture up as an advertisement for a famous photographer's museum retrospective. well, a friend tells me at brunch the other day "oh, only whores don't wear tights. even in summer." someone else said that only in summer would there be bare legs. whatever. 

All this to say, it turns out that my bare-legged beskirtedness combined with my doltish inability to stop grinning and acknowledging people, has made me appear to be a complete, 24-hour-access tramp. 

Regarding the smiling, I'm at a loss. I may be beyond help. But I bought leggings.