Monthly Archives: December 2009

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”

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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!

Not Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood…Still, it’s a very nice one

Preparation of Ardèche caillettes

Today is Sunday and I went to the outdoor market in our village. I also paid a visit to some of the local shopkeepers. I’d like to introduce you to them, one by one. Hmmm, it seems this may turn out to be the subject for several posts. But do come along with me as I recreate my stroll through the village.

First of all, it’s one thousand steps from the courtyard entry door of our home. We live in what’s called a “hameau” or hamlet, made up of about four homes. Take a peek at the entry door in the photo located on my first post, “You’re not in Texas anymore”.

Anyway, it was a grayish day, no rain, but a little cool. I first stopped by the local charcutier (pork butcher) because I needed to buy a turkey filet (escalope) for our cat. It looked like Christmas outside their shop – two huge Christmas trees on either side of the door with big red, blue and green shiny ornaments in the form of Christmas presents attached to the branches.

Went inside, and chatted with the Monsieur and Madame C. for a couple of minutes. This feels really good, because 1) I am able to carry on a decent conversation in French, even making a few jokes, and 2) It’s nice to be a part of village life. People know you, you know them. That’s so important.

In fact, I told Monsieur that he was the only one in town who had his Christmas decorations out and asked him why the town’s decorations weren’t up yet. He told me he thought they’d be going up soon. Frankly, I’m getting a little anxious over this, as all of the other surrounding small towns are already decorated. As far as I know, the village treasury is still in the black.

Anyway, back to the visit. Actually, you wouldn’t believe how similar this experience is to going into a butcher’s shop in a small town in Texas. Same atmosphere, except that in Texas they’re selling Shiner (or Coors, or whatever) beer in the refrigerated section instead of wine from the local coop here. And you would be hearing Texas drawls instead of southern French drawls. Yep, they drawl here.

But, the important thing is, Monsieur and Madame C. have the best pork products – sausages (one variety is called a “jesus” – I’ll have to inquire sometime why they call it by that name), pork roasts, hams, sausage stuffing, and another local favorite called a “caillette”, pronounced “ki-yet”. These are made with pork and swiss chard, and other seasonings [see photo for authentic Ardèche caillettes]. They are somewhat of an acquired taste, but good.

And in addition to the pork products, they also sell chickens, eggs, all kinds of beef steak, turkey, etc. They have to have a little bit of everything since they’re the only butcher in town. But they’re so good that there’s always a line out the door on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

When I said Au revoir to Monsieur and Madame, I went on down to the baker’s to buy freshly-baked bread…well, that will be for tomorrow’s post. Oh, and I have to be sure and tell you about the “santons”, the southern French Christmas tradition of putting little carved figures into the Christmas nativity scenes.

So to finish up today, I really love it here in France – though I never could have imagined such a life in my wildest dreams. I like the people, and I feel at home here. Yes, even when I’m experiencing the cross-cultural challenges that do come up.

I hope you’ll come back to visit with me soon. Write me a comment. I’d love to hear some of your stories, too.