October 11, 2007


Last weekend Xavier and I ran a race, from Paris (starting under the Eiffel Tower) to the Chateau de Versailles (which is 16 kilometers south-west of Paris). I’ve run in a few races in the past in the US of A, so I sort of have a sense of race/running culture. The mixture of French culture and race culture made for an amusing day. The smell of body odor was incredibly potent for the entire 16 kilometers. At the start, we were squashed together (21,000 people ran the race) under the Eiffel Tower and I think 20,900 of these people had refrained from bathing for the past few days. Pungent and sharp. Xavier’s comment: “Ca sent le poney ici.” (It smells like pony here!)

We got going and I comforted myself by thinking that within a few kilometers the pack would thin out. Unfortunately, there was a total lack of organization to begin with (which lasted and amplified itself at the end with a 30-minute wait time to cross the finish line…[these frenchies, they love lines – after running that hard, they had earned their right to stand in one!]).

To my consternation, the whole race proved to be a series of people pushing ahead, using their hands and saying ‘pardon,’ while wiping their sweaty hands, arms, and other random parts all over me. I kept feeling the impulse to say, “It’s not a race!” And then I kept reminding myself that it totally was.

There were neat things also – at the kilometer markers, there were a few stations with oranges, prunes, and sugar cubes. Yes. Prunes and sugar cubes. A nice French variation on the water stop. A strange and pleasing adaptation…but also whole water bottles, which, in a long race, is harebrained because people took two sips and then threw the bottle in the road. We were tripping over thousands of bottles, 3/4 full.

Xavier kept the whole thing comical though. There was a guy running next to us at some point who started repeatedly shouting ahead, “Allez Robert!” (Go Robert!) Then Xavier began exclaiming: “Allez Jacques!” “Allez Bruno!” “Allez Jean-Pierre!” Different names over and over again. His volume was the best part. He was roaring the names. The runners around us relished his little performance.

…So, otherwise, I’ve been reported by many to be homesick here in France. I’ve spent some time thinking about this and I’ve come up with a different explanation for my bouts of tenderness here: it comes down to a personality problem. I have a different (and, sometimes, at odds) personality to the national French one. Me: indecorous and strident (all the while smiling); the French: proper, measured, pursed-lips.

No, but seriously, I think it might have something to do with that little personality formula. It can look like this:

Me bum cheek clenching.

The women in the streets who look down their long noses at me as I eat part of a baguette while walking and say to me, ‘bon appetit’ in a snotty and reproachful tone. I giggle a little. It is funny to think that it offends them if I eat bread in public. Still, it makes me uncomfortable.

Or the lady at the Prefecture de Police (where I will eventually get my working visa at some point in the next 20 years) tells me after waiting in line for 3 hours, “No, it is not possible. I can do nothing for you.” She says this with glee on her face. Literally. She is elated to tell me no. Not just ‘no,’ but no with a certain ‘you’ve wasted a whole lot of time coming here’ ring. Just tickled.

Sometimes when I stand at my kitchen window, watering my lavender, I hear from the adjacent window, “Ooh la la! Non – ce n’est pas possible comme ca!” (Oh, no, no – this is not possible!) It is Josephine (yes, our lovely neighbor still plays her part in our lives). The water dripping from the base of my pots is far too much. Clenching begins. She commences with her long lecture (without any eye contact at all, mind you). Out her kitchen window, her bossy, blaring words travel through the air over to mine. I quietly pull the two halves of my window together and fasten the latch to curtail her tirade.

I go into a shop with a paper cup of tea in my hand. I’m browsing nicely – touching things here and there. A gentleman approaches me and says in English, “I will take your cup until you are finished.” No thanks – I’m fine, I reply in French. “No, no, it is not for you. I will take your cup until you are finished.” Right. There they go again - clenching.

But then there are the lovely ones and the lovely things that would never occur, for instance, in New York:

The funny policemen who take themselves very seriously and pull me over on my bike. “Why do you think I’ve stopped you, Miss? (Not waiting for a response) It was because that light was red.” “It was yellow,” I respond. “No, it was orange,” he retorts back (because lights here aren’t ‘yellow’, they are ‘orange’)…so I win – he’s agreed with me after all and then we have a good laugh and he tells me lightheartedly to have a nice day, almost patting the back of my bicycle as I ride away.

The lady in the chocolate shop who demands recognition. I walk in with an American friend in the middle of a conversation. We don’t stop talking to respond to her initial “bonjour.” It comes back again, louder, perforating our discussion. “Ahem, bonjour!” I turn to her and respond. Then she asks, in French, if we’d like a taste of chocolate (I guess assuming we wouldn’t know what she is saying). When I respond in French that I’d love a morcel, she says with surprise, “Ah, but you speak French!” Then she is just lovely and lets me try 3 little pieces of dark, rich ganache chocolate, her eyes brightening when I smile and tell her what a treat they are. She goes into a charming overview of the little chocolate company and tells us about their stores in Provence.

And truly, the best French people of all are Xavier’s family. His sister, Marie, encourages me with her eyes when I speak. His mother tells me to call her when I am sad (perhaps not realizing that self-expression is the source of my gloom). His dad, handsome guy, tries out all of his American expressions on me as he chortles. Jules and Louise – my niece and nephew in-law, love me unreservedly, language downright aside. Jules’ enthusiastic high-fives, just for me. Louise’s many cadeaux (gifts) – ceramic trinkets she’s created, pictures drawn, and ‘American’ hugs. And, of course, my little step-one, Miss Marguerite...my favorite little being in Paris. She is only smiles and delight with her little words, formed with her already french mouth, and the open way she laughs with me.

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