Friday, September 18, 2009

Indigestion and other French Conversation Starters

The French like to talk about their bodies. They unabashedly discuss, analyze and share their body's functions with the world. They are only too happy to report on the current state of their bowels, talk about their level of water retention that day or how well they slept last night.

If you have dark circles under your eyes or have gained a bit of weight, chances are someone is going to ask you about it. On the flip side, if you have just returned from vacation and you are looking tan and rested, I guarantee you someone will inquire about your bonne mine which translates to your physical glow. In most cases the person is neither criticizing nor complimenting you, they are simply trying to strike up conversation.

When you wake up in the morning in France one of the first things you will talk about is what kind of shape you are in that morning. As soon as you arrive at the breakfast table someone will ask you how you slept last night? At first I thought this was one of those hollow 'How are you? Good. And you?' type of questions but the answer I received when I asked, and you? was a full on report about how they woke up covered in sweat because of the weather or how they had a hard time falling asleep because of the spicy dinner they ate which had given them indigestion. This level of information often leaves me speechless, uncomfortable with the amount of information I have received I am both uninterested in posing follow up questions and uninterested in talking about how much or how little I sweat last night.

That fact that you are unwilling to offer unsolicited updates on a rash that is bothering you or the wart on your toe, does not discourage others from sharing this kind of information with you. During one of my first days at the design agency I greeted one of our account executives and asked how he was doing. His answer was, "Not great, I just ate Chinese food for lunch and am feeling really bloated and gassy. Don't you find greasy food like that impossible to digest? Always gives me the runs!". At this point I did not even know this person's name and I certainly did not need to know this level of detail as to how he was processing his lunch.

As the weeks progressed at work, I got used to hearing this kind of insider information on the physical conditions of my coworkers so I decided to try sharing a few details of my own. Last week I had diarrhea...see...evening typing this to you blog fans makes me feel I come in to work and when my coworker asks me how I am doing, I answer à la française and say, "Oh, I am not doing too well. My stomach is feeling a little unsettled." My colleague was disappointed with my vague terminology and genuinely interested in my condition. She replied, "Unsettled? Unsettled how? Did you throw up? Do you have gas? Is it diarrhea, and if so how many times have you pooped today? What do you think caused it?". Woah woah woah. I instantly wished I had never brought it up but since I initiated the conversation I had to finish it, "Yep, unsettled, must have been something I ate, anyway how are you?"

These conversations do not just come up between friends and colleagues. If you missed the story about how bluntly the immigration doctor commented on the gas that showed up on my x-ray be sure to skip back and read it. Turns out his comment is par for the course in France. Not long ago I had a gynecological visit. The doctor was a lovely sophisticated lady in her late 50's. She preformed a traditional ladies exam which in this office includes an ultrasound. She was looking around, showing me on the little screen what my ovaries look like, and then she scrolls over to my bladder and says, "Oh oh oh! Somebody has to go pee pee!". She was right and despite my gut reaction of surprise and horror I reminded myself she is just trying to be chatty so I replied trying to sound french and said something like, "Oh yeah. Isn't coffee the worst? Runs right through me".

At the UW I had a French Professor who presented a theory about this subtle but distinct cultural difference. He says it all comes back to religion. The French are a historically Catholic society while America is traditionally Protestant. When you enter a French Catholic church you see a large cross with a dead or dying Jesus on it. Jesus usually doesn't look that good (understandably so) his head it hanging, his body is limp and blood is dripping from his head, hands and from the slash on his side. When Catholics look to the cross they see a mangled body. Now, when you enter a American Protestant church the cross is usually bare and is often represented in a more abstract way, like a cross shaped window. Professor Collins argued that these two different crosses illustrate the two cultures different philosophies about the human body. Catholics are focused on the flesh in all its glory and sinfulness. Protestants prefer to ignore or suppress the body, hiding or ignoring it's sinful and dirty nature.

So while books like "Everybody Poops" may help the next generation to more openly and loudly discuss their gas and bodily functions, I guess I am just an old-school American Protestant kind of lady.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


The French rarely miss an opportunity to scold. They appear to relish in it and show no mercy to the young, the old or the foreign.

My dear American friend Michelle was strolling through the Champs de Mars with her sun-screen slathered child sitting in the stroller in front of her. It was a beautiful summer day so she pulled back the cover and let Jackson enjoy the light. A French mother came striding over tisk-tisking Michelle for exposing her child to such a dangerous amount of sun! Michelle starts to explain that Jackson is covered in sunscreen but the woman isn't having it and scolds Michelle unmercifully for being an inattentive mother.

I have identified several situations in my life which tend to provoke an unsolicited tongue lashing and I now avoid them like the plague.

In spite of my efforts, from time to time, I find myself on the wrong end of a wagging finger. This happened just the other day in the metro. Grégoire gave me a beautiful new wallet for Christmas. This pale soft leather portefeuille neatly closes with a hidden magnet to contain my cash, cards and metro tickets. The trouble is that this magnet demagnetizes my about half of my metro tickets every time I put a carnet (10 pack of tickets) in there. When you run a demagnetized ticket through the turnstile there is a loud meeeeeep as the bar locks in to place and a crash and sigh as the people behind you bump in to you not understanding why you have stopped up the system. You then have to make your way through the crowd to the ticket sales desk, explain your situation and hope that they replace your ticket.

I have had less than pleasant experiences with ticket sellers in the past so I stock up on demagnetized tickets and trade them all in at one time when I see a nice looking salesperson. I thought I found such a person last week, a young plump girl with an eyebrow ring. I really felt like we would connect and bond over these silly low tech tickets that are always demagnetizing themselves.

"Bonjour, I believe these tickets are demagnetized." I say as I smile and slide the tickets under the window. Silence. Eye roll. She looks suspiciously at my tickets and asks if I know how it is that my tickets have magically demagnetized themselves? I shrug, unwilling to admit that my wallet is surely the culprit. Admitting fault is a rookie mistake in these kinds of situations. More on that another day. She says, "It's not surprising madame that they are demagnetized given the sate they are in..."Oh God. I picked the wrong person. " know these little tickets have value! They should be stored is a specific and safe location." I nod, assuming her little scold was over and assuming that if I seem sorry then it would speed up the reissuing process.

But she continued, "And this one! I can see that you ran it through the machine!" She was in an indirect, yet very clear way, accusing me of laundering metro tickets. Of making false claims of demagnetization in order to get fresh tickets in exchange for my used ones. I suggest she run the ticket through the ticket reader which will tell her if it is used or if it is simply demagnetized. She scoffs at this suggestion and tells me that computers don't know everything and that she can see as plain as day that this ticket has been used. Mid-rant I pull out another demagnetized ticket out of my pocket that I forgot about and hand it to her, I figure I am already in trouble so I might as well get as many tickets traded in as I can. This sent her over the edge. She turns red and squawks at me through the holes in the glass, "Metro tickets must be respected! You can't just stuff them anywhere like kitchen rags!!". Silence. I nod. She hands me 3 fresh tickets and holds the 4th up to the glass, "I am keeping this one to teach you a lesson. Next!"

I walked away from the window 1.18€ poorer and laughing. When this kind of thing would happen when I first arrived I would have surely left in tears assuming I had done something wrong. Now I just shake my head and think what is wrong with these people? They are so crazy! I am looking forward to the next step which will surely be having the courage and the vocabulary of a native Parisian to scold her back for selling such flimsy and delicate tickets to me in the first place!