mercredi, octobre 08, 2014

Like You

When I first started talking about buying an apartment in my current little section of the 18th arrondissement, one of the many comments I heard, said with surprise mingled with a bit of distrust, "Oh, that's a colorful neighborhood."  Which of course meant that North Africans, Indians and Subharan Africans lived, worked and shopped here.  It's true that when I take the bus that stops right in front of my building, I rarely hear any French spoken, but I love being surrounded by so many different cultures.

One day I was walking by a shop I had never noticed and saw a gorgeous blue dress inside.  No one seemed to be in the shop, but the door was open, so I stepped inside.  Soon, a good looking African man appeared from the back room.  I inquired about the dress and he explained that it was a custom shop and that the dress was an order for a customer.  I asked if the shop had been there long and he said yes and then asked if I lived in the neighborhood.  I replied we'd moved there in 2008.  "Yeah," he said, "that's when a lot of white people started moving in."  I laughed and so did he, and we slapped each other's arms and shook hands at the joke.  It was an odd flashback to the neighborhood I had moved to in Atlanta  when my ex-husband and I bought our first house.  We were the only non-African Americans on the block.  We threw a housewarming party and invited friends and neighbors.  One guy from a few houses down cracked open a beer, sat down with a huff and pronounced, "Damn white people moving into my neighborhood raisin' my property taxes..."  That would make us laugh for a long time afterwards.

Right downstairs from our apartment is a miniscule shop run by Indians (or Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans, I really have no idea).  It's so small that if you come inside while someone is at the register and wanting to leave, you have to back out to let them pass.  It's stuffed to the ceiling with a mixture of Indian, African and Caribbean items.  You can get ghee, peanut butter (Africans use this to make a dish called Chicken Yassa, among others), manioc, hibiscus leaves, plantains, okra and sweet potatoes.  And scotch bonnet peppers, which are hard to find elsewhere because French people have an aversion to spicy food.  It's also why you have to choose really well when you want "ethnic food" in a restaurant.  The first time I went to the shop, the guy behind the counter - who knows me well by now - seemed very surprised when I bought okra, sweet potatoes, plantains and a pepper, but not as surprised as the African lady in her batik dress and head scarf who was just coming in.  I wanted to explain that Southern US cuisine is heavily influenced by African cuisine through slavery, but it seemed a bit much for someone who was just trying to buy a telephone card.

One day this summer I went shopping for the ingredients for a ceviche and guacamole - it was hot day back in August - and when I stopped by one of the new shops that just opened selling items from Turkey, North Africa, and the Balkans (they have unsweetened pomegranate juice! Real feta from Greece!  Pistachios from Iran that don't cost a fortune) and when I popped a lowly scotch bonnet pepper on the counter and nothing else, the lady asked, "So what are you going to make with it?  A sauce?"  She looked like she knew what she was talking about when it came to sauces.  I said, "No, a dish called ceviche.  Do you know it?" She shook her head no.  I described the ingredients and she asked if you had to let it marinate a long time and I said yes, at least two hours.  "And this pepper here will give it a nice kick, so it will be very refreshing with this heat!" I was on my way out the door when she called back, "Like you!"

Then I stopped at another corner store to pick up a few bags of our preferred brand of cat litter for the time we were going to be on vacation.   I went to reach for my wallet to pay when I saw some multi-colored leather flower shapes fall on the floor.  I realized they came from a decorative piece on my purse, and as I scooped them up and put them on the counter I said, "C'est pas souvent que je peux dire que je me jette des fleurs, mais là, oui!"   (This is untranslatable, but here's the idea : the expression "se jeter des fleurs", literally, "to throw flowers at oneself" means to say something flattering about yourself, to boast, really.  So basically this only works in French, but it was a good play on words, trust me.)  The old North African man behind the counter laughed, touched his hand to his heart and said, "Madame, women like you make a man's heart sing."

Man, I like my neighborhood.

And the fact that when I told him the story, Handsome agreed.

samedi, juillet 05, 2014

French Driving School - In Very Bad English

I finally bit the bullet.

After ten years of resistance, I have finally given in, submitted to the system, surrendered.

I finally enrolled in a French driving school.

I'll explain.  If your US state does not have a bi-lateral agreement with France for driver's license exchange, (as is the case with Geoooorgia, Geooooorrrrgia) you have to start from square one and enroll in a French driving school.  No matter if you have been driving since the age of 15.  You must go through a licensed school to pass the written and driving exam.  (Well, technically, you can go it alone and rent a car with specially equipped double rear-view mirrors for the driving training, and show up to the exam all by yourselfy-poo, but methinks the state inspector would be muuuuuch more inclined to fail your American system-flouting ass.  I'll pass.  Ha!  Get it?)

So why has it taken me 10 years to finally get my ass in gear?  (See what I did there?  I kill myself).

Because the absolute minimum of class hours for both the written and driving tests costs a whopping €1,500 (that's $2,046.37 using today's exchange rate).


So I had the money saved up (miraculously) and finally enrolled.  Thing is, most driving schools are a little perplexed at the idea that you would want less than 20 hours of driving practice, and I didn't want to face the unpleasant combination of incomprehension and bureaucracy.  So I found a school that specializes in helping foreigners pass the French tests.  In English.  I established beforehand that they had the materials in French and I could both take classes and the exam in French too.  But for the first time, it would be in English.

I went to my first lesson a few weeks ago.  At 8:15 in the morning on a Saturday.  In the suburbs.  I couldn't quite believe it myself.

After filling out numerous forms and writing 5 checks for an amount that broke my heart, the first class of the morning was ready to start.  I was warned not to be surprised if I got a lot of questions wrong at first, and that it would get easier with practice.

As the students filed in - Bangladeshis, Chinese, Thai, Senegalese, Sri Lankans and a smattering of Americans -I took a seat in the front row.  I asked my African neighbor how to use the remote control where you punched in your answers and got your score, which he was all too happy to show me.  The "teacher" then walked in.  Obviously the owner of the school, he could have been in his 60's and looked very bad for his age, or he could have been in his 70's and looked like all he wanted was a drink.  It was 9AM.  His boozy eyes swept over us with resignation and with a world-weary gait he made his way over to the orange plastic chair and sat down facing us.  He let out an audible sigh.

The projector was turned on, the DVD loaded, and the adventure began!  The slides on the screen were in French, which I thought would be an advantage for me, but oh Lord it was not.  The questions are phrased in a way to trip you up.  On purpose.  Each question has a photo with a situation from the driver's perspective.  I already knew that one of the tricks was to hope you wouldn't check out what was going on in the rearview mirror.  But I wasn't prepared for just how sneaky they would actually be.  Plus, matters were compounded by the absolutely appalling English of the instructor.  I have no idea how the others were following along.  I don't think I understood a word he said.

As an example, for the question (with its accompanying photo):

"La circulation devant moi est ralentie, je:
 - m'arrête
- laisse passer le véhicule gris
- passe"

His English "translation" was something akin to :

"Zee circulation in front ees slowing, I
-leave zee gray car to pass

Those poor Chinese/Thai/Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan people.

But you know what?  I, who understood both English and French, had the lowest score out of everybody.

On the official written exam, you can only get a maximum of 5 answers wrong.  The first test I took, I got 18 wrong.  Out of 40.  The next two, 16 wrong and the last 13.  At least there was progress.  After each test, the weary instructor would go over the answers.

That was the best part.

If you could get his attention, you might be able to get him to explain why your answer was wrong.  The African guy next to me held up his hand.

"Excuse me, can you go back to the last question?"  It was a picture of a car on a snowy road.  "I don't understand why the answer is not "B: I can use my back fog lights" and "A: I can use my high beams".

I winced.  I had a feeling I knew what was coming.

A slow and slightly malicious smile crept across the instructor's ruddy face.  He fixed his droopy eyes on my neighbor and said,

"I know zey do not have snow een Africa, but zee answer ees A."  He was thrilled with his joke.  It was the happiest I had seen him all morning.

A Chinese student raised his hand for the next question.  About passing a truck in front of you if you are in the middle lane and going faster than him, and some other situation I don't remember.  But let's just say there were several possibilities and it was really difficult to decide between all the answers.  The instructor smiled again.

"I know you Chinese people are very smart.  But don't be smart.  Zey don't care you are smart.  Just answer zee question.  Ni hao?"

At this point, I was no longer paying much attention to the class, I was riveted by the total character this guy was.  I quickly started imagining the skit I could write and who would play whom. When the awkward girl from Chicago with thick glasses raised her hand about a question having to do with making an emergency stop on the side of the road, I knew it would be the pièce de resistance.

"I got the question wrong because I was thinking, if my car broke down and I stopped at the side of the road, I know to put out the safety triangle and put on the reflector vest, but what if my emergency lights didn't work?  Maybe I'm thinking too much?"

He coughed and slowly stood up.  He looked around at his captive audience and said,

"You know what you do eef your car breaks down by zee side of zee road and your lights don't work?"

"No," she said, hesitantly.

Oh god,  I thought, here it comes.

He grinned.

"You get out of zee car, you take your skirt like zees," he mimed lifting it up to her mid thigh "and you wave it around and go, whoooo hooooo!!!!"  He swished his hips, patted his thinning hair and batted his eyelashes, then broke into a croupy cackle.

It will probably take me at least six months before I get my license.  (Nothing is fast here.  You have to wait a month between the written and the driving test.  There is a shortage of inspectors.  La France, quoi.)

It might be expensive, and it might be long, but at least it will be entertaining.

mercredi, mai 14, 2014

I Think I'll Keep Him

I have always hated the expression "a keeper", so it's a little strange that I am about to go there. When you are sick with strep throat and have spent an exhausting day at work, and during your metro ride home you keep thinking about how you are going to cook the veal tonight and how much time it will take and how tired you are, but when you get home to the table being set and a veal marengo ready on the stove? Keeper! When the next morning, you wake up to a glass bowl and some essential oils to make a vapor bath for your stuffed up face all set out for you on the table? Keeper! When, days later, you make a modified version of the veal marengo and he tells you yours is better with no bitterness (although you don't agree)? Keeper! Yes, definitely, I will keep my Handsome. (Not that there was ever a question. Pfff!)

dimanche, février 02, 2014

Ah Parisians!

Please forgive the radio silence. 

This is an old story and a photo of the holidays that are already a month behind us, but it's too good not to share.


Parisians have a bad reputation worldwide, but most especially with other Parisians.  So-called neighbors are often the worst offenders. Everyone has a horror story about a neighbor in the same building (including us!) but it can often extend to people in the neighbor - hood.

In order for this story to make sense, let me give you a brief explanation of how resident street parking works in Paris.  Residents may park their car in the street in a predefined section of the neighborhood where they live. It costs around 3€ a week, which is peanuts, and the fine for forgetting to feed the meter is around 15€. Of course if your car gets towed, it's a whopping 175€, which of course has happened to us on more than one occasion. (Of course.)  You are allowed to keep your car parked in the same spot for a month, but after that, you have to move spots, even if that means the one just in front or behind you. Not sure why that is or how they check up on that sort of thing, but whatever. So anyway, all of that to say, a parking space in your neighborhood does not "belong" to anyone in particular, but to anyone who parks there and pays the appropriate meter fee.

One night in December, I didn't feel like cooking a meal just for myself since Handsome was out of town on tour, so I headed to the local Japanese restaurant near our place, on the corner of the street where we had our car parked for the last two weeks. I went to check when we needed to feed the meter before going inside the restaurant to feed myself.  (Ha! See what I did there?)

On the windshield of our black Renault Clio was a piece of paper, and at first my heart skipped a beat because I thought it might be a fine for some obscure violation, but as I got closer I noticed there was handwriting on it.

I picked it up to read :

"Hello. I am the owner of the "espace" behind you. I would appreciate it if you would stop hedging me in, considering the amount of space left in front of you. It's been a week since I have had to squeeze into the space that you have left me and it is very annoying!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Now my first reaction was to feel properly reprimanded and like I had actually done something wrong, which quickly gave way to anger and who the hell does this person think they are by saying they are the owner of the space behind our car.  I threw the note away and headed inside the restaurant.

Once I had gathered my wits, I knew exactly how I wanted to respond.  I see your passive-aggressive note, and I raise you ... a love letter!  Of sorts.

Yes, basically I decided that the person who wrote that note must be seriously stressed out about many things and could use a good old dash of humor.

After a few drafts and changing of paragraphs, I came up with this.  (I am so, so proud of it.)

"Dear Sir, Madam,

What a lovely surprise to get your little missive!

It's true that nowadays people rarely take the time to really make contact with each other.  That makes me even more touched by your gesture.

I have a confession to make:  the choice was a difficult one.  Either I respected your ever so elegantly worded request - peppered with so many fetching exclamation points - by moving my car forward, (at the risk, I hasten to add, of "hedging in" the person in front of me and "annoying" him, as you put it), or I stayed exactly where I parked more than a week ago, in relation to the space both in front and behind of me at the time.  But there was an ever greater risk there, I concede, of giving you the impression that I had already gotten attached to receiving your little love notes that have warmed up this chilly evening.

Considering the person in front of me did not, as you have, take the time to write me, I decided to move my car forward a few inches.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  (you're right! It's such fun to go crazy with those...)

Have you ever thought of taking up meditation?

Best regards,

A Friendly Neighbor"

I had been tempted to make a reference to the person saying they were the owner of the "space" behind us, but decided at the last minute to let it go.  Days later, while wistfully remembering my little repartee, it occured to me.  The name of the kind of van behind us was a Renault Espace!!  Space!!  Since the person didn't capitalize the word in his note, I thought he meant he was the owner of the parking space, not his Renault Space.  That still makes me laugh.

And luckily, he didn't slash our tires in rebuttal, but I made sure to take down the license plate number just in case.  And everytime I pass by that van, I have to smile.

Thanks, neighbor!!