Category Archives: Cultural identity

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.

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.

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.

Why didn’t you get my joke?

Humor. That’s a serious word. Especially when we’re talking about how it translates (or doesn’t) across cultures.

It has to do with so many “culturally wired” conceptions. It’s in our body language when we make the joke, or something as tiny as an inflection of the voice, or a look on your face.

And the subjects we use in our jokes. What makes a joke a joke in a certain culture? I’m still not completely clear after five years of living in France, immersed in the culture.

My husband says that when you make a joke in France, that it’s about something that’s too absurd to be taken seriously. But when I do the same thing, he often doesn’t understand that I’m joking. What’s the deal? Or more precisely, what’s the secret to humor – in any culture?

Sometimes I think people don’t get my jokes simply because they know I’m not French. It seems that there is a kind of instantaneous intellectual analysis on their part, as in “She’s not French. Is she making a joke?” I may be totally off, but I think this sometimes happens and they hesitate because they aren’t sure I intended to make a joke.

Another thing…I recently got into a cultural tangle (mental, not physical!) due to a misinterpretation of a phrase. And it made me as mad as an old, wet hen as my grandmother would say. A Frenchwoman, fairly good acquaintance of ours, made a remark (a joke?) in response to a comment I had just made about entering the French culture by way of French cuisine. Meaning, by learning about the different regions and their different types of cuisine.

Now, in French, “cuisine” can mean either “food” or “kitchen”. She said, “You surely didn’t enter France by the kitchen.” Now, I interpreted that as meaning “You surely didn’t enter France by the back door.” And I was very vexed. To say the least.

Later, my husband told me I had completely misunderstood what she meant, because in France the saying would be “You entered France by the back door” (vous êtes entré par la porte arrière) and NOT “You entered France by the kitchen (door)”. Sigh.

Probably, she was making a play on words which I didn’t catch. A misunderstanding, or a “malentendu” as we say in French. I’m trying to arrive at the place where I can give her the benefit of the doubt.

It’s those kinds of things that make me want to speak in English exclusively for at least 24 hours. But, luckily, tomorrow is another day in the world of my ongoing cultural adventure.

Until then, à bientôt – see you soon.

On the menu: Expression du jour…

French cartoon icons "Aterix and Obelix"

It started as a game to help me become bicultural. My husband and I invented the “expression du jour” during my first year in France.

Practically every morning after breakfast, we would write on the “menu” (a piece of paper attached with magnets to the side of the refrigerator), a typical French saying, with its English translation opposite. During the day, I would try to use it several times in conversation, sometimes winding up with strange variations.

Have you realized that there are hundreds of expressions in our own language that we use without thinking. They reside in our cultural memory bank and slide effortlessly out to the tip of our tongue (au bout de la langue!) with no conscious thought on our part.

But when speaking a language other than your native tongue, I’ve realized the importance of these “cultural word tools” – and that you can’t be without them. Because you need them to understand the sense of what someone is telling you, to catch the point of a joke, or to make a play on words.

Here are a few of my favorites just for fun. In English “When pigs fly”, translates into the French expression “When hens have teeth” (quand les poules auront des dents). I licked my fingers” translates to “I licked all five fingers and my thumb” (j’ai leche les cinq doigts et le pouce), and “That gets on my nerves” becomes “That breaks my feet” (cela me casse les pieds).

Well, I’ve made a gigantic cultural leap in speaking French! Oh yes, most of it is mastering the grammar and syntax. But understanding hundred of cultural references – from cartoon characters [recognize Asterix and Obelix above – iconic French cartoon figures] to political incidents to literature – and everyday expressions -is essential. Why?

It’s helped me to establish relationships with people. It lets me go beyond surface interactions and find some deeper ways to communicate, because I find that people are more likely to open up when they see that you know their culture, which includes their traditions and sayings.

It’s another major key to the cultural code…

Thanks to http://www.myfreewallpapers.net/cartoons/pages/asterix-and-obelix.shtml for the photo for the photo of Asterix and Obelix

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…