Tag Archives: Texas

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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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.

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.