A Visit to the Doctor

It was just a small cultural exchange.

My gynecologist, Madame C.B., always prefaces her annual checkup by holding up her hands with a slight apologetic smile as she says “My hands are just as cold as always.” This time I told her, “Well, in English, we have a saying that goes “Cold hands, warm heart.” I asked her if there was an equivalent expression in French, and she said, “Oui, nous disons “Mains froides, coeur chaud”!  Then she asked me if I would repeat the saying in English so she could tell it to her young son, who is studying English at school, which I did.  It was a nice, friendly moment.


A visit from Monsieur G. or “SOS our heating system is smoking”

Last September, Monsieur G. made his annual visit to clean our furnace. The furnace is located “down below” in one of our seven basements (caves, in French). Before I explain why there are seven basements in our house, let’s get back to Monsieur G.

There was nothing remarkable about Monsieur G.’s visit. Although retired, he comes every year when my husband telephones him, as he has for 18 years. It’s important to know that he also installed the heating furnace, which is an old puffing red monster of a box. When you push the Start button, it growls into life, with a huge, dragon-ish rumble. I avoid going into the basement because I find it subtly threatening in some nebulous way.

Monsieur G. likes to come as long as it doesn’t conflict with his wild boar  – sanglier – hunting schedule.  After he finishes his work, he and my husband talk for a few minutes, then my husband asks “Monsieur G., how much do I owe you?” Monsieur G. names a negligible amount to show that he really doesn’t need the payment at all. Then my husband says, “Oh, well, it should probably be X euros”, which is always 20-25 percent more. Monsieur G. then says, “Well, okay if you want”, and both he and my husband are highly satisfied with the deal.  Afterwards, my husband tells me what Monsieur G. said his price was, and then what he paid him. Since the payment is always at least 50-75 percent less than what he would pay for the same work in Paris (if, of course, we had a furnace in Paris which we do not), he is very happy (trés content!).

However, last year, there was a potentially disastrous development in the furnace saga. Two days after Monsieur G.’s visit, I went down into our courtyard because I smelled smoke. As I walked down the stairs into our courtyard I heard a rumbling noise coming from the basement that houses our furnace-dragon. Convinced that it was on the verge of exploding (à la the engine room of the “Titanic”) I ran upstairs and told my husband.  As do all courageous knights, he immediately headed for the basement to confront the dragon. That is, he turned off the furnace with a flick of his finger on the button.

After an SOS phone call to Monsieur G. who quickly arrived (as this was not a scheduled hunting day), we awaited his verdict. He came out of the basement after about thirty minutes to announce sheepishly that he had forgotten to replace one of the nuts after his cleaning job. This had caused the furnace to vibrate, and unbalance the fuel mix, so it started smoking.

So the monster was subdued and our old stone house was warm for the winter.

A bientôt –


P.S. More on the seven basements in another post….

Are cats bilingual?

My cat is French. By “birth” country. Of course, all cats belong to the Great Cat-dom, the invisible repository of their nature and habits. However, he understands French. And English.

Now, my husband is French. Also by birth country and culture. As do all men, he belongs to the universal human-dom, which is also the invisible repository of all human nature and habits. However, his language and culture are French. Though he is perfectly bilingual (French/English), and writes all of his professional papers in English.

There is a reason for this little correlation between cat and man as it relates to the microcosm of our home life. That is, I speak to both my husband and my cat in French – most of the time.

But my husband and I have found that there are some words in English that do not exist in the French language and vice versa. And, when speaking, he or I will automatically replace a word with the choice that best “fits” the situation or the idea being expressed.

One example is the word “challenge”. It doesn’t exist in French. Yet it is essential when describing the many difficult and demanding opportunities that are part of daily life. The word used in French is either “problème” (problem) or défi (defiance).

We find that this substitution of words between two languages enriches the conversation and results in a deeper understanding of the subject being discussed.

So, are we saying that we are both bilingual and bicultural?
What do you think?

By the way, I have found that my cat remains, quintessentially, a citizen of the Great Cat-dom. Although he understands perfectly well all that is being said to him in either language, he chooses his own time and his own way of communicating with us.

See you soon – A bientôt!

Sweeping snow off of strawberry tunnels

Last week, during the first week of March, we had one foot of snow. This was the first time it had snowed in and around our village for four years. This is not too important, in itself. I’m sure that the Ohioans and the Norwegians would yawn and roll their eyes after all of the snow they’ve seen this winter.

No, the really important thing was that our near neighbors, who are primarily winegrowers but who also have peach, cherry, and apple orchards also plant strawberry plants that they sell to market distributors. They plant the strawberries in December. A bit early, you say?

No, because the first seasonal fruits to reach the markets in France are called “primeurs” (“firsts”). This means that these fruits and vegetables command a premium price, so a grower is motivated to plant at the earliest possible moment. Which leads me to the subject of this post.

The plants were coming along fine, in rows, sheltered under low plastic tunnels that protect them from wind and cold weather. But – nobody counted on it snowing. So, the night it snowed – all night long – Monsieur, Madame, and their son who is in charge of the family business, took their brooms and continually swept the snow off of the tunnels to keep them from collapsing on the plants and, by extrapolation, ruining the strawberry plants and their chances of making a profit from the sale of these primeurs. And there were a lot of rows and a lot of tunnels.

We had invited our neighbors in for a visit (the apéritif in French) and they told us about it. You know, that event really made an impression on me. We are so very far removed from the actual act of growing the food that we buy and eat.

But I’m sure I’ll think about them sweeping snow off of their strawberry tunnels the next time I eat strawberries.

A bientôt – See you soon.

You need to write that down!

First off, I’m going to go “off subject” to make a quick comment about writing a blog. And the comment is: It sometimes feels like I’m writing for a newspaper, with a deadline hanging over my head.

Of course this is entirely a self-manufactured feeling of pressure. Nobody is paying me a salary to deliver an article a day, or paying me by the word like they used to do with writers in the 19th century like Dickens and Balzac. Still, when I haven’t made an entry I have this nagging feeling, which translates to something like “You SHOULD write an article (sorry, blog post) at least once a week. Otherwise, people won’t visit your blog.

Not that people are visiting it in great numbers in any case. But, okay, if they were visiting regularly they would notice that I haven’t written anything since December. But hold on a second, I can explain! Yes, I really can. In fact I have a great reason for not writing anything in two and a half months. We were in the U.S. on a family visit with a side trip to Mexico. So, I was officially “off duty”. But I’m back now. So the posts will again start to flow, beginning tomorrow.

Whew, I feel better already.

A bientôt – see you soon!

Where is the bowl supposed to go?

You wouldn’t necessarily think that cooking utensils could be cultural stumbling blocks. But I have found pots and pans to be, well, potholes on the slippery path of cultural identity.

Let me clarify. We’re talking about the differences in nomenclature of various cooking utensils. (Hint: “nom” in French means name.) When I first arrived, these differences caused me moments of culinary confusion.

Example: A “casserole” in America usually refers to a specific dish of food, as in “I’m making a casserole for dinner.” In French, “la casserole” IS the cooking dish itself. To complicate matters, the French casserole is what we would call a “pan”, with or without a handle. Not the Panhandle, for you Texans.

I would say to my husband, “Where’s the casserole?” meaning Pyrex dish. He would say (in French of course) “Why are you looking in that cupboard, it’s in the one beside the stove.” Momentary pause in which I would give him a blank look. Then, after a minute, the “memory translation function” would kick in, and I would make the connection.

You might think this would be rather simple, but no, evidently some words and their meanings are deeply embedded in our memory bank. So it took me awhile, and a process of consciously focusing whenever the word casserole came into the conversation. Which was frequently as I do a lot of cooking.

One other thing that comes to mind is the way you set the table. Specifically for breakfast. In France, you place the bowl (for tea or coffee) directly to the right of the breakfast plate. In America, it is placed to the upper right.

So when I would come to breakfast and see this way of setting the dishes I would think “Why doesn’t he set the bowl in the “right” place?” And then I would adjust it to my “culturally programmed” right place. We never said anything about it until one day he casually mentioned that he always set the table the way they did it at home. Only then did I click to the realization that he was setting it – culturally right – for him.

Not life shattering, but just another example of those little cultural differences that make up the fabric of our cultural identity.

On another – unrelated to this post – note. If you’re interested in traveling to or living in France, I’ve found an interesting site. It’s Jeff Steiner’s “Americans in France” at
He calls it a “Resource for people that would like to live or travel in France”

Little French saints – the “santons de Provence”

Aren’t these little people wonderful? [Cllick on each picture to view a larger version]

Meet the little French saints “santons” – painted figures made of clay or sculpted in wood – that are found in nativity scenes in many French homes during the Christmas season, though mainly in Provence.

They are called the “santons de Provence” because they originated in Marseilles in the late 18th century.

Although all manger scenes (crèches) have the traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus and the three kings, the addition of the santons who participate in the birth of the Christ child are essential to the scenario.

There are hundreds of variations and types of santons. Traditionally, they are either 6″ or 10″ in height. Some examples of figures used are the woodcutter, the fisherman, the lavendar seller, the baker, the butcher, the pastry maker and the weaver. But there are hundreds more.

There are a few characters, though, that are considered traditional – as much as Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. Among these are: the blind man and his son, and an unusual figure called the “Ravi”. The ravi is a kind of village fool, someone we might call “touched in the head” in Texas.

When did this tradition of putting “village folk” with the traditional religious figures begin? In France, it started at the time of the French Revolution. The Catholic Church was banned by the new regime in France and the churches were closed. But the people of Marseille resisted the idea of losing their Christmas tradition, and they countered by staging live nativity scenes in various locations in the city.

In 1803, santon-making became a part of Marseille’s craft industry. The idea grew in popularity, and today the santons are a fixture in Provencal homes at Christmas time. Many manger scenes with their uniquely carved figures, have been passed down through families for several generations.

There are two things that interest me about this tradition. First, that the villagers wanted to participate in the nativity scene, itself. They first did this by reenacting the nativity scene with real people. But then they had the idea of putting representations of themselves in the form of these little saints. This was a way for them, I think, to connect more completely to the event of the Nativity.

Secondly, the work that is put into creating these figures is incredible. It is a point of pride with the various craftspeople to individualize each of their creations through their painted expressions – which in the best santons are very realistic – as well as in the costumes they create for them. There is a huge amount of work in these figures.

Well, we’ve already put up our Nativity Scene this year. Our thanks go to Madame Olive, the santon maker where we found our figures, who is located in St. Jean le Centenier, Ardeche. When you walk into her workshop and see the dozens of different santons she has for sale, it makes you want to put them all in your bag and take them home!