Creeping at Christmastime

I took up for the upteenth time that pastime to which none of us would admit yet of which all are guilty: people watching. This month is dedicated to consumers who ironically purchase gifts which celebrate the birth of him that had no where to lay his head. But for once, I won’t preach on the meaning of Christmas, I’ll merely let my observations speak for the French traditions discovered by firsthand creeping and/or experience. In the spirit of the advent calendar (sans bonbons which, forcement, cannot be transmitted through cyberspace),  the cutenesses witnessed this winter season:

25 days before Christmas (B.C.)– The city hangs these bulky plastic bulbs within cages of lights strung beside rectangular plaques of lights in this hideous pink color. From one side of the street to the other, this arrangment repeats down the length of the busiest, commercial street which, as would be my luck, is en route to the Institute.

24 days B.C. — Unlike the other months out the year, December makes the French relax on their no-work-on-Sunday policy. Result: supermarkets and stores open for a narrow bit of time.

23 days B.C. — Permanently installed in the middle of the main street, Le Marché de Noël has every true and Chinese-fabricated French product that could trap any tourist. I caved and found some homemade goodies. And one vendor had vin chaud which I have been told is quite good… and is considered the equivalent to hot apple cider back at home. 

20 days B.C. — Christmas music only plays in the commerical districts of the city, not on the radio. I try to pretend it is Christmas by playing Glee remakes on Youtube. I end unconvinced.

17 days B.C. — Went to a nifty trumpet plus chorus concert at a local chapelle. It sounded like Bach had come back to life while I had died and gone to heaven.

15 days B.C. — Our adorable crèche (nativity scene) goes up with hand-painted santons from the South of France. My French brother and I wondered how the lady with a fruitstand, the cobbler, others in their 19th century duds traveled that far to see Jesus. Time and space. Time and space.

7 days B.C. — Real tree goes up with all the pretties. The streets of the city are packkkkedd to see the Christmas parade with bands. Alongside the street performers, venders peddle up and down the big street with balloons or other trinkets. I cannot breathe in the mall with so. many. shoppers.

6 days B.C. — My little Baptist church had their Christmas feast comprised of mostly North African dishes and loads of French dessert. Gâteaux au chocolat, anyone?!

***Well our calendar line breaks down because we celebrated Christmas this weekend. But I shall continue as if Christmas had happened on the intended day of it happening and hope that you happen to get a picture of French Christmas happenings.

1 day B.C. — This night you go to a mass late into the night by which you return near or after midnight to open all the presents. There is a very light meal involved with chocolat chaud and not too much else. To express a fraction of my appreciation, my little handmade crocheted this or sewed that were given away.

Christmas — Baby Jesus makes it to the crèche scene having been hidden all this time behind the barn. All rooms occupied at the inn. A big lunch with possibly foie gras and definately a bouche de noël (cake with lots of chestnut flavoring options) is served. To conclude the fête, we nestle up beside the fireplace sipping away at tea and café while playing with our new toys and all the while feeling like, even if but for a moment, time seems to have stopped.

Ma belle famille françcaise!

Nightlife Junkie

I have not been to bed before midnight in a good couple weeks. Scout’s honor. Ask anyone that knows me and they won’t have words for the abandonment of my militant sleep/running/class schedules. Though homework and repeat 200’s are still getting done, the French verb sortir has appeared more frequently in my dinner conversations. And, because “cultural immersion” is this semester’s tagline, I wondered exactly how does one go out in Tours, France?

Taking it from the top, the week before this past week began the process of sleep deprivation habituation. My night-owl behavior was a combination of weightlessness in a foreign country and a new friendship. On the nights that I wasn’t staying up aimlessly reading in my bed trying not to feel jittery, a Bible study was struck up between a Japanese friend and myself. Here, you might be thinking how lame! And I would say, you find an appartment half way across a French city in the shadowy fog to play the synonym game in English and French across cultural boundaries concerning Biblical implications for modern day issues over dinner. Why not throw in some French mouth? (FM, cousin to cotton mouth, occurs when successive attempts to speak French are hopelessly intelligible; whereby the poor fool is left to stutter until he regains sanity.)

If my brains were already there to begin with, my past couple weeks would have still been challenging. Not sleeping does wonders for my French vocabulary retention. It has also rained incessantly adding to the perpetual gray over le Pays de la Loire. Then my bank account read 19.31, in dollars unfortunately, right after the last of my food stipend disappeared. In the face of an upcoming oral production test and biology capstone thesis, I thought to invite a friend over to make a dinner for my French siblings. Somewhere between our vegetable flans and pear crumble, we hit it off… as well as every night thereafter. It only required a single hand, at most four fingers, to indicate the hour at which we returned home. No matter where life took us, gorgeous châteaux or en ville, the company is what made it worthwhile.

Here, again, you might be thinking how lame! And I might reply, you try taking God at his word and follow his will by submitting your every thought, action, conversation. What if he brings you away from the monopoly boards of Tayor University? What if he calls you to make friends in a formality-paralyzed, appearance-obsessed culture that loosens up over late night coffee? And so this past week, my French brothers being  home, my linguistic skills grew from informal lessons meeting this or that friend. Perfecting my accent, there was nothing like explaining the ridiculousness of prom to a French motorhead or debating loneliness with a Russian philosophy major at 3 A.M. I found that whatever they taught me in Sunday school is worthless if I can’t explain it and I can’t explain it if I haven’t internalized it. You learn better by doing. Hands down.

It would be just before I leave that I finally get it! You can choose to be a hermit or live on the edge by placing confidence in a God, who, if you let him lead, invite him into every thought and situation, and lean on him, can turn every moment into something that brings him glory. I will say that his Bible is a lifeline, pertinent to any and everything, more evident this semester than ever in my life. I will also add that this has been one of my best weeks ever. For whether in ‘lil Marion, Ohio, or talking politics in a French café, there’s something to this laissez-faire contentment and trust. There might even be something to sharing a little light in the cover of night.

P.S. Your thoughts are more than welcome. And I’ll add some cutesy pictures tomorrow.

TG Sans Turkey

Is that even possible? is the question I posed on the eve of a day slotted for merriment and gluttony. The morning of, 0715 brought me to wake then open my shutters like a good French girl. Traces of the words “H.TG.” were forbidden from my mouth lest all the associated memories spill over and wash what little sanity I had. Under the rare and sunny sky, this day would be and had to be fantastic, an answer to mine and mom’s and everyone else’s prayers for joy that overflowith like gravy over turkey. 

My apple tart rested between my little gloved hands during my 15 minute walk past the glass music hall, the train station, and post office. In passing, many stares were garnered and a man even condescended to say “bonjour” and see if I were sharing un gâteau that morning. The excitement over understanding a stranger for the first time without requiring a second listen nearly convinced me. But my name was already put to the desert column for the class luncheon. How could I forget all my new friends, three whose birthdays required une fête!? 

A snippet of us that attended the class partay.

 Around noon, everyone sat at down to a thick clump of desks and paper-plated Spanish and Texan appetizers. Our Vietnamien nun had outdown herself with shrimp pasta to compliment the Chinese and Tiawanese chicken dishes. Finshing the meal with cafés, we laughed over different food cultures. The shrimp, thankfully, were not traditionally presented–semi-alive. When most had left, a friend mumbled that he felt like dancing. So I poked and prodded until he offered a couple pointers! And making a fool of myself (to “Billy Jean” with a Japanese friend before a clapping, tapping audience of apple tart, prof, a handful of classmates and gawkers outside) ran clear up to the last class!

There remained a get-together at a restaurant that night, the very antithesis of all tradition. But my opinion changed once cozied next to familiar faces under rustic beams in the warmth of English conversation. Oh, the salad with whipped, honey-covered camembert was divine. The duck tender. La tarte tatin impeccable. With rosy wine cheeks, we split our sides over faux-pas in this foreign place and stories of past groups. While no one gave one whit to the time at dinner, I peaked at my watch before falling to sleep. 1230. AM. 

Let the loudness and Americaness echo from the rafters. Le Zinc. TG '11.

That was the same time seen the following night along with 0230, 0430, 0530 until I gave up to get ready for the early train to Paris. At the heart of the city, amidst the pyramids of the Louvre, two dear friends and myself clasped for the first time since May of track season. There are not words for gasping simultaneously at Rembrandts or oohing in chorus over animated Christmas windows. It just is. And somewhere between the Champs-Elysées Christmas markets and a pick-pocketed wallet, I felt like the me of back when… a bit more French, a touch less fanciful, but completely and totally loved all the same.

You only throw it up if you're feeling it. Evidement, a little TUTF in Paree.

Thank you to those you prayed and/or made this turkeyless Thanksgiving quite memorable.

La Clusaz

Whatever you’ve heard about lighter European meals is not true in the Alps. At all. Le pire is that the pounds sneak up like the Freshman, or rather in the gastronomical capital of the world, the French fifteen… ok, I’m fibbing. But really, the only way they maintain their paint-tight-skinny-jeans-sveltness is by skipping their breakfast and walking everywhere. One can tralala to the patisserie, bounce over to the fromagerie, then finish up at the boulangerie (not to be confused with the boucherie where the only pain you’ll find is stomaching the sight of freshly hung/dead rabbit and the like.)  After an eternity of hunting and gathering, the national sport, they walk a few blocks home sans breaking a sweat.

Prepped to play along? Are the eyes closed enough to imagine and read?

(Setting: Six hours from home base, you’re living with your host family and their friends with their 4 kids in a 250 year old chalet nestled on the top of a mountain.)

Before “à table” was called, you sip an apéro along with a snackie dish. As the token foreigner, you wait to be told where to sit and know it will be at the kids end. Next you dig into a warm dish of either un planchet randonneur, an assortment of melted cheeses and ham, or une tartiflette, this sausage-potato-cheese casserole gone haywire. Or if it was Saturday, les raclettes. You take your little pan, load with cheese, place on a hot plate then dump over potatoes with lots of Savoie sausage. Repeat. 

Since you're clearly not full enough, have a baby portion of salad and top it off with a tarte aux framboises or à la rhubarb or la glace faite maison, mon péché mignon, my Achilles’ heel.

 (Setting: You’re a speck on a mountain dotted with ski lifts overlooking the curves of a valley where you’ve discovered a little trail for sprinting.)

In endorphin euphoria, you laugh out loud having just realized the extreme blessing of your location. The fact that there is nothing to do but romp around under a brilliant sun makes you forget the cheese sticking interminably in your stomach. With the mountainous air burning your lungs, you fly over the hills. You almost get your heels nipped off by the dog of random hikers.

Blue skies for 3 whole days!

(Setting: Your heels live to see the next day.)

Descending towards a restaurant, you start down a diamond ski course up until a cow path. Alpines rise on your right and roads carve the hills to your left as you and the kids and a mom crunch, crunch, crunch over leaves. The swapping of childhood songs and prancing and laughter are all heightened by the unusually warm weather. You perform a show choir number in an attempt to avoid the crottes of cow, goat, and rabbit variety in the mountains.

Over a couple brooks, past gigantic roots, the lingering stench proves your jig was unsuccessful. To be amid two families, neither of which is your own, stinks as well. You thought that a rural trip would take care of the odorous aspects of France… But glance by glance at the surrounding magnificence, your nose is drawn up. You take in proof of a Creator who refreshes completely. And you know that no matter in which corner of the globe you find yourself, he will navigate you through the crottes of this life.

The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it... Ps. 24 quite true.

Maison + Malade =

 Homesick. OK. I give up trying to pretend like I can learn in 3 months what a French woman knows after 20 years. The idea struck me on the heels of an incapaciting stomach bug, exasperated by my endless to-do list. I had taken on so much that by the end of October, the time of our trip to Normandy, my body decided to shut down. I don’t blame it. If anyone, I point my finger at my parents and anyone else who encouraged my insanity to forsake family, familiarity, and the following:

1) Mon Kitchenaid me manque. Once by myself, once with my sister, chocolate chip cookies were made with this weird vanilla flavored baking soda powder stuff. Last week was a lovely apple tart from a recipe from Cooking Light which everyone still found a bit lourd (heavy.) Anyone that knows me can attest that I am neither Paula Dean nor a Farenheit to Celcius processor nor a cups to grams calculator.

2) Le système éducatif des États-Unis  me manque: Last weekend I stayed in the first arrondissement of Paris with my host family who helped me conquer Musee d’Orsay and a hilarious A Midsummer’s Night Dream (set in the 70s). That preceded Tuesday’s La Toussaint, the national holiday of strewing chrysanthemums about the cemeteries. To quote my grammar teacher, never give French families that flower and never faire le pont (skip that Monday of classes between the weekend and the Tuesday…) What happened to my lighter, American load of classes with logical breaks?

Ma soeur et moi devant l'Arc de Triomphe.

3) Le soleil me manque : It might be 60/65ish regularly here but I would appreciate seeing Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, Loches, or Chenenceau without the rain. The center of France in the middle of autumn is one big puddle.

Pinch me! (The visit to Chenenceau was surreal.)

4) TUTF me manque: I was beginning to wonder if French people run track at all when I finally discovered a little soccer field ringed with synthetic red tartan! A bus ride from my house, the entrance required jumping over this chain link fence (my spandex and therefore myself getting snagged mid-straddle a meter above a staircase. Fantastic). Reunited after two long months, the track and I passed a few moments of silence in the fading sun before my deathly 600s. Every sprint workout tears at each muscle down to my heart, alone without my TUTFers. (╙╠╣╜= I’m feeling it.)

After spending a night on the actual Mont St. Michel, I awoke early to run amid the blues and pinks of dawn.

5,6,7,8) Mom et Dad et Jon et Mitt me manquent. Nuff said.

Taytay: Found this WWII American troops' board which reminds me that I beat my French brother the other day. You've less than 2 months to try and get better ;P

Deserted Island

Every day of class is kindergarten déjà vu. The same fifteen faces and desks arc about a teacher who gladly receives our regurgitated phrases. Apparently this past week, she had had enough of our parroting and therefore requested we choose new careers. Girl-who-leads-people-through-forests has a convenient French counterpart: un guide dans la nature. With mid-life crises done, a traumatic scenario was presented for us defend our life-callings. We ( in real life, a friend on my left, a Spanish friend on my right, a handful of Asian compatriots, a nun, a Mexican, a quartet of Americans from the South) were hypothetically placed in a hot air balloon. Between the sun and the surf, loss of énergie, and descent into shark infested water, a hot argument would ensue.

If half removed their dead weight, the others could float safely to the deserted island. Turns out that liking animals is a guaranteed ticket to theoretical survival. Our class nun thought to be a nurse in a handicapped children’s hospital, which is also as indispensible as a carpenter, baker, and film-directress. The last would create some one hit wonder that would make us all gazillionaires. And then we could forget that we’d voted off the illustrator that wanted to draw us food to remove hunger pangs, the art restorationist, and the singer that attempted to steal my role of charming wild animals. We laughed so hard because he would not sing to save his life. But when he finally agreed, the teacher threatened to leave if the song wasn’t in French. And so, well, the half of the story ended there.

Eventually, I did make it to a forsaken state. My tummy copping a fit after a month precipitated an eerie reckoning of my NBN, or Non-Belonging-Ness. Bits of individuality and expressivity get lost in translation. If language is the base of culture, I am swimming upstream with paddles foreign from their very primordial goop. In English, we paint with our words. Our words paint us. Then you look at your heap of words and say—my heap of words looks different than yours, it is my heap. In French, everyone organizes their heaps in similar il/logical patterns but with different substances. To quote the most clarifying phrase of this week, from my professor’s mouth, “The charm of English is in its syntax,” (finger wag), “the charm of French is in its lexique.”

I.E. Memorize a new vocabulary or risk being eaten alive in French.

For my two remaining months, I am withdrawing from English land and her Facebook siren as some language cafés and a pretty sweet church are underworks. These developments struck me after devouring half a bag of Hershey’s chocolates, in France, don’t judge. I also discovered a jar of peanut butter happiness in my house. Maybe I am facing the same hurdle of foreigners back in my bubble. Why didn’t I go out of my way to meet a Korean girl whose eyes never leave the sidewalk? Or during high school,  greet the Hispanic guy in 7th period study hall? Because nothing is more humbling and rewarding than when my sister, after having cocked her head, raised her eyebrow and corrected my grammar, gives me a smile of comprehension. Because no one is an island unto themselves.

A rabbit in my room. More like the guest room of a friend in whose house we pulled a sleepover arranged by our parents because they're besties. I swear it's like I'm in third grade all over again. Expect more/better pictures after next weekend in Normandy!

Il y a : Villandry and So On

Il y a une certaine way of living in France. You keep your hands on the table during meals (no monkey business under the table, pour des petits et des grands)! You keep your showers short, your lights off just until it is so dark that your eyes hurt from squinting beside the window, and your conversations forever long. Waste not, want not.

Because, while my family didn’t calculate water and electricity costs, it turns out that gas costs a small fortune here. At that same moment, I was calculating how to escape the fourth level of French at my Institute. Maybe I have the vocabulary of a four year-old. Maybe I can pretend like I understand conversations flying at the same rate as the TGV. Maybe I can walk about the open-air market completely safe in Tours and get a few compliments about my accent or lack thereof (presque–almost).

But the subjunctif and every other formal grammaire point escape me. My plea for mercy was answered with: non, ne t’inqietes pas, Cassandra! Tu es dans le bon niveau! Well , easy for my prof to say, she is the one that makes my French essays bleed with corrections! This was truly insult to injury as my pride has taken blows at my new gym where I couldn’t express how to sign up (s’inscrire) or where to change (le vestiaire). Then there was my bout at the shoe store with my dear French sister… I liken these experiences to baby pandas born in captivity–no idea how messed up they are until exposed to mountain lions.

In my case, dinner. Each night at the table is one of gastronomic ecstasy and linguistic terror. We partake of such as delicious pork with peas and a tray of cheese and then topple over after desert. In recounting places like the gardens of Villandry and Chatonnière, I butcher my meat and mots and eventually resort to charades in between lots of ll y a’ s (there is), the forbidden phrase back at the Institute. But il y a lots of trees and il y a veggie gardens that put my front lawn to shame AND il y a ten more weeks to learn different ways of il y a-ing! (Then I sigh in a very French way and get back to my cake 🙂

Villandry (Regard-deh! Look!) In the back are the geometric veggie gardens!

Completely different at Chatonniere with her English garden, free flowing as seen in the back.

Eating right off the vine at Chatonniere (because the very classy nephew of the very wealthy proprietaire said we could.)