Through my American Lens

Surrounded by so many people since my father’s stroke and death has been surreal. As my family is healing, we are trying to resume a normal pace of life. My maman is resilient, and I admire her strength and desire to go on with her life.

Yet all of us realize how hard it is on her so we have done our best to help out. We’ve cooked and eaten together in the same way I grew up and have tried – with mixed results – to raise my own children in the States.

For the first time since I left France, unlike my other trips, which have been a mix of family visits and tourist explorations, this sojourn has been fully spent in the company of my large extended French family and my parents’ friends and neighbors.

Full immersion in one’s former native land can be as challenging as starting from scratch in a foreign land. After two weeks in Normandy, I must admit that I have lost many of my French traits.

If I had been able to record and take pictures of every instant that triggers surprise, interest, curiosity, I would have been overwhelmed.

 

Over the last decade the French have added more and more English words to their vocabulary. Some of them make sense. Some make me smile. Many, if not all, have perfect French equivalent words. But for some strange reason, while the French love to bash Americans as often as possible, they just can’t live without using words such as: feeling, cool, people, hard, high, job…

They tweet, chat, e-mail, and text, although they add a little French touch, preferring mail to e-mail and texter to text.

The French love to create new French expressions based on English. Our American “Give me five” is now “Tape m’en cinq.” Until recently the French preferred the thumbs up.  But who can resist our enthusiastic American high-five?

In a country that based its reputation on fashion, it is amusing to see clothes not only mimicking the American fashion style but also sold as sweatshirts, twin-sets, T-shirts, jeans, leggings, jeggings, shorts…

 

Since we had to prepare food for larger groups of people I visited the local supermarkets.

Intermarché, Leclerc and Auchan have expanded so much that many are larger than American Safeway, Vons, and Save Mart. Some match the size of Wallmart.

But more than the size of the stores, the products are fascinating. In the food department the French excel at keeping tradition very much alive. The dairy aisles – note the plural – offer Petits Suisses packaged in the exact same way they were when I ate them with sugar and a drop of coffee in the 70s, Camembert is still wrapped in red and white checkered paper, Danette chocolate dessert comes in the same dark brown container, and La Laitiere plain yogurts are sold in identical small glass jars.

Patés made of pork, duck or goose, countless charcuterie, quiches and tomato tarts, shredded celery with mayonnaise, grated carrots, braised Belgian endives or baked with Gruyere, foie gras, and duck confits to name only a few of the traditional products abound in regular supermarkets throughout France.

Same brands of petits gateaux – cookies in English – still feed little French kids in the way they fed me after school.

Jams, honeys, and spreads such as Nutella, and chestnut purée are as delicious as when I lived there.

Water is a big deal for French people. They trust water to treat all kinds of ailment. Hépart for example is loaded with magnesium. Sparkling Badoit or Vichy helps digestion. At restaurants a carafe of water is always served for free unless you ask for mineral water. The water is fresh but not iced. Ice cubes in France are added to specific drinks such as Pastis – anise based alcohol – but never to water.

Bread remains what I miss the most in America. We do have great bread in the US, but the culture of bread has nothing to do with the French absolute love for their bakeries. When you eat out in France a breadbasket is immediately brought to your table. In the recent years, more varieties have joined the typical baguette such as bread baked with nuts or olives. Butter is also provided although not always. Few French spread it on their bread before a meal, and many parents forbid the use to their children. Mine never let me do so unless we ate radishes.

A visit to the butcher or the fishmonger exemplifies the tradition of artisan work. Young people are still learning through apprenticeship the art of slicing a beef filet or preparing a trout. Customer service is not always as friendly as it is in America, but in small shops perfection is expected and almost always met.

So, yes, France remains a traditional country with a unique relationship to food and the ritual of meals.

I forget between my trips of the importance of apéritif for example. It is not mandatory, but most French will take a small glass of a sweet wine or Champagne before ordering their appetizer when they eat out.

At home all French will offer an apéritif to their guests when they invite them over for lunch or dinner.

Although reluctant to change in almost every area, the French have embraced the organic revolution with enthusiasm.

They are in love with their Bio products, short for biologic – the French word for Organic – and entire sections of the most basic supermarket are filled with Bio cereals, yogurts, milk, cheese, but also laundry detergent and soaps.

The French have also fallen for muffins and cupcakes. Although their macaroons – yes, you can find them in regular supermarkets – beat our poppy seeds muffins and frosted cupcakes, there is something exotic to hear a French woman ordering cupcakes. Pepperidge Farms cookies and American chips elbow their way next to their French counterparts.

Now mugs sit next to their smaller French sisters ‘tasses’ in French kitchens and barbecues are all the rage throughout backyards.

Yet the French still favor short expressos to large cups of coffee and grilled beef filet to corn on the cob and chicken legs.

 

I’ve been a little uneasy to observe the French through my American lens, especially under sad circumstances, but it is perhaps the only honest way to understand one’s native land. This mix of love and dislike, of deep affection and annoyance is very much like family.

Impossible to live with. Impossible to live without.

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