Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

“I’m still thinking about that pizza…”

July 19, 2011

“I’m still thinking about that pizza…”

These words were said in French, but that’s what they meant. A couple of weeks earlier a friend and I had split a margherita pizza at a small joint in Sete, France (known for its famous poet Paul Valery, pink cliffs and water jousting competitions).

Sete, France

The pizza, which we ate with a fork and a knife, was very good, but were it not for my friend, the thought of it would have vanished from my mind within 24 hours. What’s the point of remembering a pizza when its purpose has long been served?

So when my friend made the comment about remembering the pizza two weeks later, I was caught off guard. What a different way of looking at life, I thought. Not just drawing  quick pleasure from everything, and forgetting it, but actually making the pleasurable experience live on.

I liked that– it made me feel special to be in his presence (even if the American idea of “you’re special” is not really part of French culture). If he remembered a particular pizza with fondness weeks later, he’d surely keep me in his mind for a while, right? Yes, I was comparing myself with a pizza.

Another statement he would make that sort of changed my paradigm was “C’est normal,” which is “It’s normal” in English. He would do me a favor like bring me a bouquet of handpicked flowers, help me completely rearrange my messy bookshelves, or surprise me with some homemade oreillettes, and I would enthusiastically voice my appreciation. To this he’d say “C’est normal.”

This struck me as funny because no one says this in English in this context (at least no one I know). You use the word normal to describe a heartbeat, a person’s upbringing, and a person’s psychological state of mind, but not to justify a romantic act.

As different as I thought it was, the expression sort of grew on me¬† It’s like people are so used to doing kind things for the ones they love that they don’t think they’re doing anything special.

Small-town bars

March 5, 2011


When I was living in a country town in upstate New York, there were many of those bars where everyone knows your name. You walk into the establishment, and nearly everyone looks straight up and says “Hey Christine!” (or whatever your name may be).

You walk around, saying “hi” to everyone; hoping you’ll avoid that one guy who gives you a hard time each time you come in (you know, he tries to hug you when you don’t want a hug or asks why you don’t want to go hunting with him). You buy a drink for an incredibly cheap price (or someone buys it for you), and then shoot the breeze with the regulars.

In my upstate New York town, there were a couple of these establishments I’d frequent more than others. I remember going to the first one; being marked by the frequency with which country music was played. Single men in their 40s and 50s would be listening to a sad country tune about an unrequited love while practically crying into their Bud or Michelob lights.

I made the mistake of playing a techno song on the jukebox one evening. “What the H#@& is this?!?!?” several Carhartt-clad men shouted in unison. I looked up, realizing the error of my ways. This was NOT the place to get my techno music fix. We let the song play, however, as several regulars lined up to play their next sappy country ballad.

One night at this bar I had some especially great conversations. I don’t remember what was said exactly, but I do remember one boat salesman saying he had to play me a couple of his favorite songs. This first one will always remind me of my time in this insular yet charmingly simple country town.

I remember that whenever the chorus played, this guy would close his eyes, groove his head to the beat, and belt out the words. He’d passionately utter:

I wake up and tear drops
They fall down like rain
I put on that old song we danced to and then
I head off to my job
Guess not much has changed

Punch the clock
Head for home
Check the phone, just in case
Go to bed
Dream of you
That’s what I’m doing these days

The other song was a little gentler/more meaningful in my opinion. I’m unable to post the YouTube video to this page, so I’ll just link to it. I remember thinking it was nice that this rustic outdoorsman enjoyed such a sweet song (it’s about a love between a father and son).

At the other bar, you’d run into all sort of important people in town: police officers, lawyers, town board members, etc. Initially they knew you (well me and some of my friends at least) as the journalists who interviewed them from time to time. But then, after seeing them there a few times, you were more like a friend. Eventually you barely talked about what you did for a career. Instead, you’d join them in cheering for the Green Bay Packers, playing some darts, or discussing the upcoming dairy parade.

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/3841713630

What we can learn from the French

February 25, 2011

What we can learn from the French

It’s been seven years since I last lived in France, but I picked up on a lot while I was there. Plus, I’ve visited France a few times since 2004. I know you can’t clump everyone together and say they’re all one particular way. But you can point out things you noticed about many of the people you encountered.

  • The French know how to eat healthily.

This has been written about a lot (e.g. French Women Don’t Get Fat) so I’ll stick to what I observed personally. I noticed that French people (in general):

  • Don’t snack between meals (and when they snack they just have a cookie or a few pieces of chocolate)
  • Eat big lunches and relatively small dinners (That way, they have something to look forward to during the work day AND don’t go to bed on a full stomach.)
  • Have small breakfasts with coffee (Because they have big lunches, they don’t need a huge breakfast. And, coffee helps suppress your hunger).
  • Drink water with their meals (much healthier than soda, of course)
  • Eat lots of vegetables
  • Eat a wide variety of foods (For example, they don’t just eat chicken and beef. They eat chicken, beef, ham, pork, duck, rabbit, horse, fish, bull, boar, guinea fowl, oysters, mussels, shrimp, sea urchins, etc.).
  • Finish most meals with a dairy item (yogurt or cheese) and a piece of fruit
  • Take their time eating

I think all of these habits are good for you.

  • The French exercise less than we do.

But, because they eat healthily they don’t really need to exercise. I mean, their daily activities (walking, doing chores, etc.) are enough for them to get their daily dose of movement. Maybe we should follow their lead given this recent Wall Street Journal article.

  • The French take time to cook.

Obviously, this point relates to the first point I made. But I will expand on it a little here. Most of the French people I encountered just go out to eat for special occasions. The rest of the time they make their own meals. This allows them to control what goes into their bodies, save money, and go out to nicer places when they do go out. They also have a fair amount of dinner parties; those provide a great opportunity to see their friends and share their favorite recipes.

  • The French are polite.

OK, maybe this is a real stretch. And maybe their politeness often masks their true feelings. But frequently I observed French people saying (or doing) the right thing at the right time. Say your brother-in-law just died, for example. The next time they saw you they’d start off the interaction with a “Oh, I’m so sorry about your brother.” Or when they are invited to a dinner party they bring along a gift. While these might seem like obvious things to do, I’ve noticed this type of behavior isn’t always practiced here (and yes, I’m guilty of not being polite as well).

  • The French are experts in their fields.

In France, it’s really hard to get into a particular field when your degree is in something else. So, you’re forced to find a job in your area of expertise. While this certainly limits you choices, it helps ensure you’re good at your profession (or at least better at it than your average bear). Here, you might just get a sales job because you’re deemed friendly. But you don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of how to be an effective salesperson.

  • The French are into equality.

I’ll always remember this one particular experience I had while teaching English in France. I was in a fifth-grade classroom, quizzing the children on their knowledge of animal vocabulary. One of the students– Yoan (pronounced “Yo-on”)– was answering practically every question correctly. Each time I interrogated the pupils, his arm would shoot up in the air. Sometimes no one else would raise their hand, so I had to pick him. He’d get the answer right, and I’d congratulate him.

Well the class’s main teacher (a French woman) was not a fan of Yoan’s behavior. Whereas I viewed his ability and willingness to answer the questions as a positive thing, she viewed it as a horrible thing. She started screaming at him, saying it was not his place to answer so many questions. The others deserved a chance, she said, adding that he couldn’t participate any more. While most Americans would consider her reaction unfair or harsh (I think), it actually worked. Once he stopped raising his hand, the other students began participating in the exercise.

  • The French are fashionable.

They don’t necessarily have many clothes, but they know how to pick out items that fit them right. Sometimes this means spending more money on individual garments, but overall they might even spend less than your average American.

In a future post, I will write about what the French can learn from Americans.

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/kalleboo/2036413105

Some thoughts on how the Internet has shaped my life

February 15, 2011

It’s so weird to think that the Internet didn’t exist (at least on a mass scale) when my friends and I were born. With the onset of this technology, we’ve truly witnessed a revolution in how people get information and communicate. Facebook posts, Twitter updates, and Google searches have become second nature for many people. Today I was thinking about the excitement with which I first greeted the Internet. I remember in ninth grade my parents bought America Online for my sister and I to use.

America Online guy

I had heard about this novel World Wide Web idea, and even had some friends who used the Prodigy online service provider (including my sixth-grade crush who used it to communicate with another girl in our class…I was so jealous of this chica!). I installed the AOL CD-ROM, created my username (I can’t remember the first one but know that at one point it was “Amalthea66.” Amalthea after the “Last Unicorn” character, and 66 because my favorite number was 6.), filled out my profile, and started visiting chat rooms. To me, chat rooms were the coolest thing about the Internet.

I remember visiting some rooms that were game-based (e.g. users played anagrams together), others specifically for teenagers, and others promoting “general conversation.” Each time, I had a blast. I would ask people where they lived, what they did for fun, and whether they had siblings. Not only did I think it was awesome you could converse with multiple people simultaneously, and meet people from all over the country, but I also liked how the Internet made everyone equal. It didn’t matter what you looked like, what you had done in the past, or whether you were shy in real life. You started each conversation with a blank slate. (more…)

The country must be in trouble when the post office has just one counter employee the week before Christmas

December 17, 2010

I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the busiest letter-, card-, and package-mailing times of the year. Everyone’s trying to make sure his items arrive before Christmas Eve. So it really shocked me when I showed up at the Porter Square post office (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) yesterday to discover just one person was working the counter. It was about 4 p.m., and there must have been 20 people ahead of me in line.

I wouldn’t have minded the crowd so much if several of the transactions hadn’t taken five-plus minutes (the first one I witnessed surely lasted more than 10 minutes). I don’t necessarily blame the individual customers or the guy behind the counter, but I do blame the post office for not having had another employee working. But maybe it’s all due to Americans’ non-willingness to pay higher taxes. Maybe it’s partially my fault. Either way, it took nearly an hour for me to buy a couple books of stamps.

Another real pity is this particular post office no longer has stamp-dispensing machines. A couple of people in line besides myself just needed stamps as well, and publicly lamented there wasn’t this technology available. The guy behind the counter just responded: “We used to have it (the machine); now we don’t.” What more was he going to say anyway? It’d probably just make him angry explaining why they had to get rid of the machine. He was already experiencing a stressful enough day and didn’t need that added annoyance.

I was impressed with the man’s calmness when I arrived at the front of the line. The label-printing machine wasn’t working for a minute, but instead of getting upset he jokingly said “Wow, this is a great day for this to happen.” He kept his cool, adjusted the machine, and it started working again. He was quite polite, and I tried to be as nice as possible, too, knowing he has a difficult job (Did you know that the term “going postal” actually came about following a series of incidents involving postal workers shooting and killing fellow employees and others?).

Anyway, I’m saddened the federal government doesn’t have enough money to staff the counter of this post office with more than one employee on one of the busiest mailing days of the year (that is, if that was the reason for just one employee working), but am glad the one who was there was quite kind.

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/sushiesque/68524998

Pictures from the LaFayette Apple Festival

October 10, 2010

Yesterday was a gorgeous day for the LaFayette Apple Festival (a huge annual apple festival taking place south of Syracuse, New York). Here are a few pics I took at the event:

That's some beautiful fall foliage, huh?


People looking at crafts inside one of the many tents.

Unusual clocks for sale

Children's author Richard Mickelson signing books

Another shot of foliage

I thought this was funny.

Cute slippers for babies

I love this.

For dog lovers

This kind of freaked me out lol.

The line for the apple fritters

Apple guy

Isn't this a cool shot?

Don’t mess with me…

July 29, 2010

…or my eye will get you!

My coworker just got back from visiting family and friends in Turkey. Upon her return she gave me this bracelet:

The eye in the middle protects against the “evil eye,” or “Eye of Medusa.” In Turkey and other Mediterranean cultures the evil eye is a look that is believed to cause injury or bad luck to the person at whom it’s directed for reasons of envy or dislike.

In other words, if someone looks at you with ill will, you’ll be harmed.

But because I now have this bracelet, I am immune to their hostility. Yeah!