france


Today we ran into an old friend while we were out and about, a guy we haven’t seen in several years. We chatted for a few minutes and then he asked, “What’s it like to be back?”

That is a really, really hard question to answer. When you live in a different culture you are constantly aware of how much you don’t fit. Don’t get me wrong – there are/were many aspects of French culture that I identified with, that felt natural to me. I love the way they respect privacy. I love the way they take friendship seriously. I love the way they linger over meals and conversations. I love the way they spend they whole day in the park, doing nothing, just enjoying life. I love the way that, as far as I can tell, very few French women ever fix their hair. (Seriously! There are a ton of people there with uber-curly hair and they sort of just let it fro out, huge and poofy. Our French teacher looked very, very similar to Professor Trelawney.) I love that there are so many stores devoted entirely to bread and pastries. I love they way they’re unhurried, un-busy, not over-scheduled. But even among all those things that just felt right, I was always an outsider. And I thought when I came “home” that everything would be fixed.

At first I thought it was. I told Jake that coming back was like coming home from work and changing from your business casual into your favorite jeans. But after a little time passed I realized that wasn’t the case. It was more like trying on some jeans and thinking, “Hey! These make my butt look good” and buying them only to realize later that you can’t sit down in them. “Home” doesn’t feel like it fits anymore, either. The familiar is nice but at the same time it’s not really comforting…and sometimes, it isn’t even nice at all. Maybe that is the sentence you serve for living cross-culturally – you can never truly fit anywhere again.

It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Since I’ve been a bit glum around here lately, I thought I’d post something other than a little raincloud over my head:

PostSecret: My friends Chris & Sabrina have a book on their coffee table called PostSecret, and I love looking at it when we’re at their house. It has some thought-provoking things (a Baptist minister’s wife who doesn’t believe in God), some really sad things, and also some that are really funny. Like the person who switched parking tickets with the car next to them, or the babysitter who poked holes in condoms to assure herself future work. There is a website, too. Which led me to…

Passive-Aggressive Notes. Just great. On the right-hand side are links to Most Popular and Greatest Hits; there are some real treasures there.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: I found this in a used (English) bookstore when we were in France and remembered one of my friends had listed it as one of his favorites on Facebook. Having been pleased with previous book recommendations by this friend, I purchased the book and am so, so glad I did. Unbeknownst to me, the second half of the book is about Sedaris’s experiences living in France. The first half of the book was funny but once I made it to the parts about France…I lost it. Like falling-out-of-my-chair-laughing-so-hard-I-couldn’t-breathe lost it. I really want to read it again but it’s in our storage unit…somewhere.

Dominion: I had never heard of this game until my brother and sister gave it to Jake for his birthday. We pretty much instantly fell in love with it; we have been playing it quite frequently with Jeremy and Sarah (our gracious hosts during Our Time of Need). It’s really fun! (Seth – when y’all are back in the States you should pick one up to take to game night!)

Brown Mountain Cake – my favorite cake. My birthday may have been over 2 months ago but my birthday cake didn’t put in an appearance until very recently. I THINK this is the recipe my mom uses but I’m not sure.It is SO GOOD.

The other thing brightening my days is a little boy with whom I have an awful lot of fun. He has a brilliant smile and is learning to do so many cool things. Sometimes I look at him and my heart does that thing like the Grinch.

We got back from France 6 months ago. And pretty much nothing about the past 6 months has gone down the way I expected. A lot of it has been pretty crappy and some of it has been awesome. One of the hugely crappy parts has been friendships.

See, when you leave for 2 years, it alters your friendships. It has to. If you are going to maintain relationships while abroad, you have a lot of tools to do so – email, Skype, Facebook – but none of those is the same as meeting someone at Panera and just…talking. There is just something about that physical presence that is important. Out of the 5 girls I would consider my best friends here, I missed 3 first pregnancies/children, a wedding, and a really hard time in life. And they missed a hard time in my life and also my first pregnancy/child. Those are things you can’t ever get back.

I was really looking forward to re-joining our small group at church. They were really supportive of us while we were overseas, even the ones who joined in our absence. This will be a great place to just recuperate, I thought to myself. The only problem is, our small group dissolved shortly after our return. Plus people are busy, which makes it really hard to do that great face-to-face thing at Panera. And now that we’re back in the States, the emails and Skyping have slowed…which leaves us basically community-less. And un-recuperated.

Could we join a new small group? Sure…in theory. Even if we find one that fits our schedule, which is the schedule of our child – who is ready for bed by 7pm – that would entail MEETING NEW PEOPLE. Which is not one of my strong suits when I’m at my best. I just don’t do small talk/getting-to-know-you stuff well in general, and I definitely don’t do it well right now. It is just awkward. Getting-to-know-you questions would necessarily bring up our recent stint in France, which I frankly do not want to talk about. There were some really beautiful things about our time there, but a lot of it was awful and it is really difficult to skirt around that. Not because I think it’s something to hide, but because you don’t drag out all your crap for the getting-to-know-you part.

Then, after the France thing gets out in the open, suddenly everything changes. I have lived in an exotic place, so I must be interesting! Um…no and no. Southern France IS exotic…Marseille is not. (We have some friends – from our now defunct small group – who just moved to Thailand, I think, and the video they sent of their neighborhood seriously looks just like ours in Marseille.) And I am not that interesting. I am just a normal, mildly boring person who usually loves Jesus. I am not good at telling stories or jokes or other really any sort of entertaining thing. Also people suddenly expect me to be super-spiritual. I just cannot live up to that right now. Like I said, I usually love Jesus…Or, people seem to think they have to be super-spiritual around me. You don’t have to pray if it’s unnatural to you, just because I’m there. I am totally fine with eating unblessed food. In fact, when I eat alone I don’t pray at all.

So, it’s basically just easier to stay home. But I know I need community, even if I don’t feel like it and even if I don’t want it.

Even if it sucks.

By which I mean, I have not vanished into thin air. I have, however, made some major changes in my geographical location and have now been on the blessed soil of the United States of America – specifically, the hallowed state of Texas – for one whole month. I now have the mommy badge of making an international flight with an infant and also the badge of coping with baby jet lag.

So, we are currently staying in a guest house through Thanksgiving…we have a car (and insurance!)…and are busy putting things from France in storage, and getting things out of storage we will need for our extended Indiana visit, and rearranging it all to go back into storage. Oh, and introducing the most wonderful little boy to all of our friends and family here, and going to showers and getting cute stuff for him. I have happily eaten Chick-fil-A a few times (and have to admit, I am sadly disappointed in their decision to use canola oil for the fries…much less tasty and probably not really helpful to people with severe nut allergies) and love clipping coupons (and using them!) again. I also got free jeans at the Gap, which is awesome since all I had were maternity jeans. So, things are going pretty well so far. I mean of course there are “issues” as with any culture change but in a lot of ways it feels like coming home and taking off your business casual stuff to put on your comfy sweats. I don’t like how loud people are, I don’t like how overbearing sales associates can be, I don’t like how busy everyone is, and I don’t like talking about personal stuff with people I don’t really know…but I didn’t like any of that stuff before we left. It’s just magnified now.

So, basically…I’m back. Back in the States, and hopefully back online. Just been working through how the me I am now fits in (or not) with what I had before France.

A long time ago (10 years, to be exact), in a galaxy far, far away, my now-husband asked me to go out with him. I declined. He asked me out again, exactly one year later, to keep the “tradition.” To keep the “tradition,” I declined. But yet another year later, my resolve had been worn down and we went on our first date.

The intervening years were all celebrated with special dates (by which I mean, “going out,” not the “specific days” sort) until our engagement in September 2005. And every year since, we have continued to mark September 14 as an important day in our relationship. This year a night out would also require a babysitter, and as there were no babysitters to be had we celebrated at home. Jake made homemade refried beans with some pintos brought to us and the stock of bacon grease we have been saving, and they were PHENOMENAL. Soooo delicious. He is on his way to rivaling Ms. Mary’s beans. We made nachos with the refried beans and real cheddar, which is practically a delicacy ’round here these days, and I took him up on his offer to watch Pride & Prejudice – the long one. Of course we didn’t make it very far into the movie because I was exhausted (hmm, wonder why?) but that wasn’t the point.

The point is, our life looks wildly different now that I ever imagined it would – 10 or 8 or 5 years ago. And it is still our life, and we still enjoy each other’s company (though admittedly that has taken work), and while it might have been nice to visit my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world, it was perfectly delightful to eat nachos on the couch with my pal in honor of our years together.

Customer service – as it is known in America – is virtually nonexistent here. You can go to a store and say “I just bought this and when I opened the box it was broken” and they will just stare at you, like “Why are you telling me this?” And then they basically tell you that is your problem, not theirs. Obviously this does not sit well with Americans habituated to being, as customers, always right. I have always appreciated good customer service, but living overseas has magnified this appreciation so I would like to take a few moments to sing the praises of some American companies that have recently made me very happy.

Altec Lansing: This is the maker of my speaker set. I purchased it (got a great deal too!) because it had good reviews and could handle both American and European voltage, traveled well, had a great sound, etc. I was really happy with this purchase, as I mentioned here. In August or September I noticed that the display was a bit wonky so I sent them an email, as it was still under warranty. After reviewing the pictures I attached they determined that the unit would need to be replaced, so they asked for my address and I have to say things went awry at this point due to my overseas address. The issue was supposed to be handled by their international department but that didn’t really work out. Anyway in April I sent a new email to their customer service department recapping the situation and expressing my disappointment with the way the situation had been handled. I was promptly answered by a lovely lady who apologized and explained they had, in the midst of all this, changed the company who was handling their international affairs (no wonder) and they would be happy to send me a new speaker set. She added that my model had been discontinued so they would be sending the replacement/upgrade model. I received it about a week later, and didn’t even have to send back the defective one either, which was the original arrangement. So, they kinda dropped the ball in the beginning but I am really happy with the way things turned out.

Maui Jim: my sunglasses. I already talked about all the reasons I love them here. I noticed a few tiny spots where it looked like the coating might be coming off so I contacted their repair department (still under warranty). I am the sort of person, in case you can’t tell, who will request the tiniest little thing to be repaired if something is under warranty; otherwise these spots weren’t bothering me (and the display on my speakers wasn’t bothering me either). I contacted the US repair department, since that’s where I purchased them, and they had their French repair center contact me immediately (in English! because they’re still American, just in France). And then – you’ll never believe this – last week I packed up my sunglasses on Tuesday, because the post office was closed on Monday, and on FRIDAY my repaired glasses were delivered back to me. Four days total. I would be amazed with that turnaround in the States but to get that kind of speed in France is utterly stunning. And I’m really glad, because this is an awfully bright city to be sunglassless in.

Charles Schwab: we have been banking at Schwab since before we came here, because they offer free ATM use – even internationally. Which makes it really easy to access our money. We each have a Visa debit card to our account. Now Visa – not Schwab – has had a really difficult time understanding that we are in France and we have had a few instances of them raising a fraud alert for legitimate purchases, but every time I call to explain to them that we LIVE here they say that Schwab wants to handle any problems with our account so they put me through to the actual bank. Whatever, that’s fine, the Schwab people are super nice and always act like you hung the moon. Today I got an email from a risk analyst at Schwab – not Visa – about some abnormal activity with my card and asking me to call or email about it. I logged into our account to check first and was astounded to see a $450 charge in Mexico City. So I called this lovely lady, who said she had reviewed the notes on our account and saw that we were overseas but was concerned as we were purportedly in France, not Mexico, and I confirmed that that charge was fraudulent. And 2 others as well that hadn’t posted to the account yet. Besides this quick phone call, all I had to do was send a letter with my signature requesting them to send my replacement card to my address here. And that was it. The whole thing, including signing the letter and turning it into a PDF, took about 30 minutes. Someone stealing your debit card number can seriously ruin your life but thanks to the vigilance of Schwab I am only out 30 minutes of my time and a piece of paper.

So, I may be far from home but these places are still taking care of me! Now THAT is what I call customer service.

I showed up for the first doctor’s appointment early, ready to fill out a mound of paperwork. Let the record show that Jake was with me, and has gone with me to every appointment except one when he was covering my English club for me. The receptionist told me they were running behind and I could leave for an hour and come back, but I decided to stay rather than risk missing my slot. Plus, the paperwork will take up a lot of time! She handed me a single sheet of paper with a few blanks on it: name, address, date of birth, phone number, and a question which is typical of an OB/GYN and which I will not elaborate on for delicacy’s sake. I sat down in the waiting room and began working on the form. It took approximately 2 minutes to complete. I took the form back to the receptionist and she instructed me to sit down. Then she proceeded to “interview” me: going over the information on the form and asking a few additional questions, which she marked down in some sort of folder-form. I was a bit nervous, as all this was in French and really concentrating to make sure I “understood” everything (I use the quotation marks to represent the HUGE amount of guessing and assuming that goes into my comprehension).

Then she asked me a question; I stared blankly at her. I understood all the words but had NO IDEA what she was asking. I said, “I don’t understand” and she repeated the question a bit slower. I continued staring blankly. Then I pointed at the blank on the form which I will not elaborate on for delicacy’s sake. She repeated the question, this time with obvious frustration. Met with my continued blank stare, she switched to English and bellowed, “WHO TOLD YOU YOU’RE PREGNANT??”

In hindsight this may have been the place to inform her that I did, in fact, take a home pregnancy test. The “who” part threw me off. She did specifically ask if I had had a blood test or ultrasound to confirm pregnancy, which I had not. She acted irritated at this. I still am not sure how you are supposed to acquire a blood test or ultrasound BEFORE YOU GO TO THE DOCTOR, since they both require a prescription. Or why you have to register to acquire a bed at the hospital BEFORE YOU GO TO THE DOCTOR.

I finished the interview and proceeded to wait for 2 hours before we made it into the doctor’s office. She was delighted to practice her English, which was refreshing, and asked me to tell her about myself.
“Um, I’m 27…”
“And this is your first pregnancy?”
“As far as I know.”
“And you want to continue the pregnancy?”
Once again I was caught off guard. In America this is not something a doctor would typically ask if you are sitting in front of them, beaming, next to your equally beaming husband. I mean of course there are some doctors with terrible bedside manner but in general if a couple comes in together and they both look relatively happy, despite sitting in the waiting room for 2 hours, you can assume they are not there to schedule an abortion. However this is a typical, routine question in France. I assured her that I had every intention of continuing the pregnancy and she asked me some more questions, then did an exam.

Let me explain that in France the doctor’s office is literally an office. They sit at a desk with books and files around and talk to you, and their exam space is in the same room. So they talk to you, and then tell you to take off your pants and put them on a chair or something and hop up on the exam table. There is no leaving of the room for a few minutes for privacy, no flimsy paper blanket to give you the illusion of dignity. She apparently did not listen to some of what I said during the “talk time” (I will refrain from elaboration for delicacy’s sake) because she was concerned that I was “measuring small.” She told me to get dressed and told me I needed to go have an ultrasound immediately to date the pregnancy. She called an ultrasound buddy of hers (doctors here do not have that stuff in office, you have to go to a separate ultrasound doctor) and asked her to stay late a few minutes to squeeze us in for an emergency ultrasound. So she scribbled prescriptions for bloodwork and the ultrasound; we paid and started booking it across town to get to the ultrasound doctor. I should note that due to the information I conveyed to the doctor and which she did not pay attention to, I was unconcerned about being a bit smaller than she wanted but did recognize this as an opportunity to see my baby a few weeks earlier than we normally would.

We made it to the ultrasound doctor, handed her the paper from the first doctor, and she told me to take off my pants and sit on the exam table. You just have to get used to this stuff if you are having a baby here. And then we got to see our baby, a little bean with arms and legs waving around and a heart, and we heard the heartbeat, and one of us cried but I won’t say who. I was never so happy to have a doctor not listen to me. And thus concludes the first appointment.

Things the doctor DID NOT talk about, which she probably should have:

  • prenatal vitamins
  • that I need to wash fruits/vegetables REALLY well because of toxoplasmosis in the soil

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