Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Turn the Other Cheek

As a good, Midwestern girl, I’m not supposed to do anything too big, flashy or revealing. We Scandinavians are a quiet, subtle people— have you ever heard of “Minnesota nice” or Garrison Keillor? I like to think that my world is a bit bigger and perhaps a little more sophisticated than the stereotype suggests but, as the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.”

It is not by coincidence that the private, conservative Scandinavians live in the North whereas the more flashy, revealing Italians, for example, live in the South. The Scandinavians cover their skin because it is cold— the Italians do not because it is hot. It is survival of the fittest, not rocket science. The interesting part, though, is that it seems to be as tangible as it is psychological. The Scandinavians also cover up many other aspects of their lives whereas the Latin cultures seem to be much more comfortable revealing theirs.

As with most stereotypes, this one is most amusing at the extremes. It is 97 degrees in France today and the beach is packed.

Being the good Midwestern girl that I am, I dutifully put my bikini away at 25 and resolved myself to the standard black one piece. However, I knew very well that summertime in France was going to require something a little more... interesting, so I ventured out of my shell and bought a new 2-piece. As I stood in my room looking at my two swimsuits- the cool, conservative one-piece or the green string bikini, I had to make a decision. My instinct, of course, was to go for the 1 piece— this twice-pregnant body hadn’t seen a 2 piece in quite some time. Yet, I’ve been trying new things in France and, hey, if I didn’t do it now, when would I? I quickly put the bikini on before I could change my mind and made my way to the beach.

When I got there, I was happy with my decision. Less than 1 percent of the women had 1-piece swimsuits. In addition, nearly a quarter of the women were topless. I was far from flashy—in fact, I blended in (every Scandinavian’s dream!).

Looking back, it seems a bit ironic that I thought anyone would care. Was it egocentric to assume that someone would actually notice me? Probably. Did I think the French women would all look better than me? Of course I did. (Though I have to say not all the women were a "perfect," curveless size 2 and many of them actually had stretch marks themselves.) Besides, even if they did notice, I could just put on my best “Minnesota nice” smile and turn the other cheek— so to speak, of course.

PS- No, there will be no photo accompanying this article. Ever. I'm still Scandinavian, after all. :)

Monday, July 24, 2006


I spent this morning at an art fair in Montparnasse. More than 100 artists had their creativity on display- an incredible pool of personalities, colors and talent. There were painters , sculptors, jewelry designers and still others I could not begin to define, but they all had a passion for perfection that impressed me.

It occurred to me that while we can`t all be artists, there is something to be learned from their quest to perfect. The French as a whole seem to have learned it quite well, in fact. As the saying goes, what they do, they do well.

For example, anyone who has been to France will acknowledge that the French have nearly perfected the art of making bread. One of the most famous of the French bakeries is Poilane which first opened its doors in 1932. It is now the baker`s granddaughter who is CEO and even though she is only 19, she continues to perfect her family`s techniques, while staying true to the traditional recipes.

Then, of course, there are the pursuits of wine, chcolate, cheese and fashion (what a wonderful country it is!). The connossieurs of each of these trades should rightly be called artists for they have truly transformed their professions into an art.

And as the world well knows (thanks to the youth riots this past Spring) the French choose not only a profession, but a job for life. Perhaps it stands to reason, then, that if you know you will be doing the same thing for the next 30 years, your focus must be on perfecting it (whereas Americans, by comparison, seems more focused on mastering a job before moving on to the next).

There is, of course, no wrong or right, but I am profoundly grateful that both systems exist in this world. This way, I can continue in my American, multitasking ways while enjoying an absolutely perfect , warm chocolate croissant. To me, that really is perfection.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Just Say "Non"

The French are known for having a lovely language. When I took French in high school, I remember people asking me to say something just so they could listen to the beautiful sounds (and remember this is high school—my French was anything but beautiful). The French also have a wonderfully extensive, colorful vocabulary. In fact, I always find it rather ironic when the French/English movie translations bring an entire section of English text into just a few words of French since there are certainly more elegant, eloquent ways to translate the material. Translation, of course, should involve translating the meaning of each word but also, more importantly perhaps, the general meaning of the communicator. What does it say about us if Americans require so much verbosity to grasp a concept while the French can understand quite quickly? While it may say that we, too, enjoy using a colorful vocabulary, it certainly doesn't say much for efficiency!

Take, for example, an American flight. Anyone who has flown in the U.S. could most likely recite the FAA smoking regulations by heart, lengthy though they are:

We are pleased to offer you today a non-smoking flight. Smoking is not permitted in the cabin, aisles or lavatories. Interfering with, tampering with or disabling smoke detectors is a violation of Federal Law.

It sounds familiar, right? The question is whether anyone ever noticed how they then translate the extensive regulations for French-speaking passengers on transatlantic flights:

Ce vol est non fumeur. (Literally: This flight is non smoking).

That’s it- just 5 words and the French understand the policy whereas the Americans require 34 words and may even then spend a minute trying to find a loophole in the vernacular. I laugh out loud nearly every time I hear it.

Another illustration is how childre receive instruction. I tend to do a lot of explaining when I am talking to my children—partly to stave off the rebuttals, partly to help them discover there is logic and reason behind rules (at least in theory). When they want to run across the park barefoot, I try to explain there may be glass that could cut their foot. When they want to stand behind the swing set, I explain how quickly they would get knocked over. When they want to eat the pretty berries, I remind them about tummy aches.

French Moms seem to be much less descriptive. When a little boy recently tried to ride his bike in the sandbox, his Mom simply said “Non.” The child stopped – I was impressed. On another occasion, a little girl was “borrowing” someone’s bike. Her mother said “Non”, and she gave it back. It`s not that my own children refuse to obey if I don`t explain (well OK, maybe a little), but rather that I`m confused by this acceptance of policy by both French children and adults. If you don`t ever question the status quo, how can you improve upon it?

In addition, it occurred to me that economy with words was once considered a great attribute, so why have Americans turned verbosity into necessity and, more importantly, who is right? Does the babbling mother have a point or did Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign have a broader purpose? In other words, do you miss an opportunity to help your children think for themselves if you don’t offer explanations- or, are we raising a new generation of travelers who will need a 100-word airline safety speech?

As with most things, it seems that balance is best. Yes, I do want to help my children start to reason for themselves, but sometimes No is just No. Perhaps Nancy Reagan had it right after all.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A Little Imagination

One of my most beloved pastimes in this country is “people watching.” It is perhaps more enjoyable here because there is a certain ambiance associated with it—you sit at a café, sip an espresso and watch the world go by. From young to old, presidents to paupers and great aunt Mimi to Kate Moss, you see it all.

Since I’ve been here for awhile now, I’ve gotten to know a few of the local characters—there’s the angry old man that actually smiles around kids, the woman who walks around talking to no one in rather elegant French and then there’s Madame Rousseau.

Madame Rousseau is an 85 year old French woman. She is sweet and kind. She is revered by adults as the local sage and adored by kids for her unending candy supply. She has white hair, a ready smile and—if you catch her in just the right light—a bit of a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

I was on a walk with the kids recently when I saw her on the street. She was quick to hand out more than a daily allotment of cookies to which Kate said “thank you.” I told Kate she should say merci to Madame Rousseau since she speaks French, but Madame looked at me, indicated she understood and said “Thank you very much” in English!

I was astounded—I’d spent a fair amount of time talking with her and she hadn’t indicated that she knew English. I never would have guessed why this dear old woman knew those few words of English.

She proceeded to explain that after the war, she “hooked up” with an American G.I. who used to say “thank you very much” afterwards. Had this wise, proper Frenchwoman really said she slept with an American soldier in such an off-the-cuff way? Indeed she had. By the time I had translated what she had said, it was too late to react. I said au revoir and continued with my walk.

A couple weeks later, we had a party in the garden to which Madame Rousseau was invited. We had also invited a number of people who were instrumental in organizing our time here—people we wanted to impress and thank. One of those people was my husband’s boss.

After a round of drinks, I noticed a conversation developing between Madame Rousseau and Mr. Boss. Insanely curious, and a bit worried, I walked over to see what they were discussing. To my horror, Madame was recounting her story about the American G.I. Apparently a couple glasses of wine leads to an even more detailed description than I had received the first time.

Thankfully, instead of being shocked or embarrassed by the story (as I was), Mr. Boss simply said she should have married him—then she could have gone to live in the U.S. To this, my kind, sweet, 85 year old Madame just laughed “But I was already married!”

What more is there to say? Voila- la vie en rose. Perhaps I’ll go back to people watching at sidewalk cafés where a little something is still left to the imagination.