Monthly Archives: October 2009

Home, Home on the Southeast of France kitchen range…

Well, learning to cook in a different language is a huge cultural code encounter in itself!

When I arrived in France, all I could cook were cakes, cookies, pasta and omelettes! I could count on one hand the number of times I had cooked meat – as in pot roast, a whole chicken, or turkey. I had spent my life as a career professional, single mother. My son and I ate frozen food dinners, ordered pizza on Friday nights, and lived for weekend meals at my grandmother’s house – an excellent Texas home “cookerwoman”, as my mother called her when she was a little girl.

In France, where food (better known as “cuisine” here!) is serious business, I was forced to rally to the challenge. In large part due to the expectant look on my French husband’s face, I admit.

Now, here is the deal. In America, I knew what the dish in question was supposed to look like, even if I didn’t know how to make it. But in France, it was a whole ‘nother story. I had a brand-new cookbook, the French sister to our classic Betty Crocker Cookbook called “Je sais cuisiner” (translation: “I know how to cook”). Optimistic title. This was a gift from my optimistic, and hopeful, new husband. But, the book had no photos of the finished dish.

So, I would dutifully follow the instructions and ask my husband if the dish looked and tasted like it “was supposed to”. He would look at me, mildly surprised, and then give me his opinion. Apparently, I had inherited my grandmother’s cooking gene, although it had remained asleep for some fifty-odd years before it was jump started into activity. The results were usually acceptable.

But, now, think about this. You are from another country and you arrive in America, and someone asks you to cook, say, candied yams. Where is your “cultural memory”? You don’t have one for this particular item, right? So you may feel a little insecure, at the least, or even a little panicky if you’ve having guests over. If you’re lucky, you may have met a neighbor or relative in your new country who can act as your guide. Otherwise, you’re on your own, as was my case.

Well, I won’t go on any longer about my personal experiences. Except to say, that after five years, I am very much at home “speaking” the vocabulary of French cooking here in the southeast of France. Not only do I thoroughly enjoy the experience of shopping in the open air markets, those visual feasts available in every small village in France, but I also feel that I’ve cracked another of the cultural codes in my adopted country.

One little footnote: one of my sisters had gifted me with Julia Child’s double volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking back in the ’80’s that I had never looked inside. Until the day I wanted to make crab bisque, and was horrified to find out that the crabs I had ordered were live! Julia to the rescue – well, sort of. She wanted me to cut them up while they were still alive after dipping them for 8 seconds in boiling water. No way. Feeling like an assassin, I was barely able to throw them into the boiling water. Believe me, they stayed in that boiling water for five minutes, until I was sure they had given up the ghost. And I haven’t made crab bisque since…

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Can you say “bonjour”?

When you go into a store or a small shop in France, remember to say Bonjour!

This is another important part of the cultural code in France that should be number one on your list – whether you are a tourist or a newly arrived resident from “other parts” as we say in Texas. Y’all don’t want to be considered rude, or worse, lacking in “savoir faire” (knowing what to say or do at the right time, or the right way to act in any given situation).

Believe me, they know you’re not French by your accent, but using this one word opens the way to a positive exchange with the vendor or salesperson.

Turn this around and look at it from your own view of the French cultural code. You walk into a shop, and don’t say anything. Then, when you try to buy something or ask a question, you get a sort of stonewall response. You think “I heard the French are rude, and I believe it.” What’s happened? They don’t understand why you haven’t been polite enough/cultured enough to say “Hello”. The Hello/Bonjour acknowledges them as an individual. Think about it.

By the way, if this sounds “teachy”, let me just say that I learned the above by making the mistake.

A kiss is just a kiss, A smile is just a smile…

Well, that’s what the song says. But…here in France I’ve learned that a smile is not such a simple thing.
Oh yes, everyone smiles when they’re happy – that’s universal. But, here in France, I’ve learned that the cultural code for smiling – that is, how it can be interpreted – is not so simple.

Example. As an American, we are “culturally programmed” to smile from birth. If you don’t smile, even when you don’t feel like it, people’s reaction tends to be “What’s the matter with him/her?” “Are they angry, not feeling well, or just plain unfriendly?”

But in France, people don’t trust the “American” smile – teeth showing. Why not? Because they think it’s not sincere, even fake.

Of course, it’s perfectly alright to smile pleasantly once in a while. But it is not a “tooth” smile, more an upward curve of the lips, and the smile is in the eyes. Even with friends or family, the French smile far less than Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. In fact, the French have a well-developed sense of humor. But, you start to pay attention to the eyes and the expression on people’s faces to understand what’s going on with them.

And you thought a smile was just a smile…