After three weeks in France, I finally purchased my first baguette. And a jar of Nescafé. I’m ashamed to admit it, but up until that point I’d been eating American sandwich bread and drinking Maxwell House instant coffee with my lunch.
My first trip to the grocery store was so intimidating that without even thinking about it, I selected the most familiar items on the shelf. I was asking myself, “What does one eat for lunch?” not “What does one eat for lunch in France?” I don’t even drink Maxwell House coffee in the U.S., but the familiarity of the brand name prompted me to choose that over the jars of Nescafé and its European off-brands.
Thankfully, I recovered from this jet lag-induced brain lapse and realized that I should avoid settling for the familiar while I’m in a foreign country. I need to intentionally seek out what is unfamiliar, to say “yes” to things that are new and different. Would you like honey on that crêpe? Yes. Would you care for an espresso? Yes. Do you want to sample this strange-looking casserole that appears to be a mixture of all recent leftovers baked beneath a crust that you can’t quite identify? Um… yes? (It was fantastic, by the way.)
So the next time I visited the grocery store I walked down the chocolate aisle and, from among the bags of Kit-Kat novelties and bars of fine chocolate with recognizable brand names, purposefully selected something I’d never seen in the States: Kinder Schoko-Bons (whatever those are). Kinder is like the Hershey’s of Europe, so while the brand is hard to find in the U.S., I figure it’s pretty representative of everyday European life, or at least of European childhood.
Along with my “daily life” purchases of Nescafé, baguettes and Kinder chocolate, I’ve also made efforts to sample actual French cuisine. In truth, I have yet to find it very different from the variety I’m accustomed to in my life in the states, apart from the country’s affinity for bread and this region’s deep love of crêpes. However, the two most common questions I receive from the French are: 1) have you ever seen Barack Obama? and 2) do you like French food?
They’re very proud of their country’s cuisine (and our country’s president, it seems) so perhaps it would be polite of me to rave about the food a bit more. At any rate, I did try something distinctly French last weekend. My host family’s grandparents came to stay for a few days and “Bonne-Mamon” made escargot as an appetizer (aperitif) for the Sunday meal. “Do you like escargot?” she asked me. I had to reply with, “I don’t know.” “You can try it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.”
My older host brother took a shell in hand and showed me what to do: first you slurp up the extra sauce on top, then you take a toothpick, stab it into the depths of the shell and pull out the thing inside. I slurped, stabbed, extracted and the thing on the end of my toothpick actually looked like a snail. It was round and grey and — were those two small antennae? I gave my host brother a look that said, “You actually eat this?” then, with a surge of resolve, popped it into my mouth.
It chewed easily and tasted like garlic — that’s all. Wanting to stretch myself a little farther, I tried one more but couldn’t bring myself to accept the third that was offered me. I mean, they’re snails. The idea of consuming the little things whole (antennae and all!) overrides the delight of butter and garlic. At least, however, I knew what I was getting myself into. Sometimes I say “yes” when I don’t even know what’s being offered.
Like this morning. The grandfather (Bon-Papa) is a very nice old man, but very difficult to understand; he mumbles and mutters in accentuated nasal tones, like the teacher from the Peanuts videos with more intonation, and he doesn’t know how to communicate with me. “Wah wah wah wah pain.” Okay, something about bread. Was that a question or a statement? “Comment?” I ask: what? “Pain,” he replies, then repeating the same nasal syllable at a higher volume: “Pain!”
He gestures with the loaf to indicate his subject. Yes, thank you, good sir, I know we’re talking about bread; it was, in fact, the only word in your sentence that I understood, so waving the loaf at me will not fill in the other gaps in my comprehension. Could you by any chance articulate better so that I could understand a few other words along with it — the verb, for example? It’s easier to imagine a sentence based on context clues rather than attempt to understand Bon-Papa, so “Oui”: in case that jumble of sounds was an offer of some bread to go with my dinner, then I accept.
This morning, then, I found myself beside Bon-Papa at the breakfast table with no host siblings around to translate his nasal garble into comprehensible French. “Wah wah wah heure wah.” Oh boy. That could have been “What time is it?” “What time do you leave?” “What time does your class start?” or none of the above. I stared blankly at him, so he threw up his hands and turned toward the counter, muttering to himself.
When later he seemed to be offering me something, I saved us both the trouble of attempted communication and simply replied: yes. He did say bread, didn’t he? That sounded like “pain.” Bon-Papa stood up and turned on the electric kettle. Apparently he’d said “thé.” Oh well. Bread, tea — they’re both good things to have with breakfast. I’ll just help myself to another slice of brioche and wait for the water to boil. At any rate, there will be a baguette and Nescafé waiting for me later.