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Patriotism

The night before we left, everyone got together for a final group dinner.  Before long, as always happens at such functions, conversation wound around to our thoughts about leaving France.  Some of us avions hâte (“had haste”) to return to the States; others were more saddened that it had come to an end.  At one point, someone asked, “What will you miss most about France?”  Although I said nothing at the time, my answer was definitely “the people”.  As I have said before, I believe that learning a foreign language is all about learning to listen—decoding others’ ways of speaking, if you will.  This trip only confirmed my beliefs, as I listened to some incredibly interesting people during my time in the country.  Their stories amaze me and made me grateful for the professors over the years that have taught me how to listen to French.

One such story came from Madame D, whom we met at the Museum of Resistance and Deportation.  Mme D was not even a teenager when World War II broke out, but she became a Resistance fighter in Lyon.  She was raised speaking both French and German because her father believed that World War I wasn’t over, and if the Germans came back, he wanted his family to be prepared.  Whenever they complained that other families didn’t have to learn other languages, he replied, “Il faut parler la langue de l’ennemi” (“It’s imperative to speak the language of the enemy”).  But it wasn’t just at home that she learned how to fight the Germans:  at school she was taught that France was the most beautiful, most intelligent, most strategic country on the planet.  If she and her classmates stayed in school and then used their knowledge as employees of the State, they would make France a formidable opponent for Germany.

With such patriotic and idealistic talk swirling constantly around her head, it’s no surprise that Mme D began believing it.  When Hitler and Pétain signed the armistice on 22 June 1940, 12-year-old Mme D (at that time, Mademoiselle D) was already looking for a way to fight the Germans.  She didn’t have to look long before she was given a task:  Libération-Sud, a Resistance group in Lyon, gave her clandestine newspapers to distribute every evening.  Each morning, Mlle D went to school like every other 12-year-old girl in her country, innocent as a butterfly.  When school let out, she rode her bike to the secret headquarters of Libération-Sud to collect an armful of newspapers, which she distributed swiftly to other members of the Resistance group, a vital cog in the greater communication machine.  This 12-year-old girl was willing to put herself in risk of death every afternoon because she loved her country and believed in its potential for victory.

We U.Va. students were floored as we listened to Mme D’s tales of bravery.  She didn’t tell them in a proud way; she didn’t even seem emotionally affected by the words coming out of her mouth.  I found myself wondering, Would I have been willing to do what she did?  Would my students be willing to go to such great lengths for freedom and country?  Is this woman extraordinary for answering the call of duty, or would most of us do the same in her shoes?  I have to admit, I don’t really know the answers to any of those questions.  But I do know that people her age often have much more patriotism, regardless their native land, than those my age and younger.  Why is that?  Have we become spoiled in our less war-torn era?  Are we only willing to do that which increases our own social or economic statuses?  Have we simply become too angry about the decline of the global economy?  Is the crevasse between the political parties eroding our love of country?  Why don’t we put our hands over our hearts when we hear the anthem?  Why do we only think about our country during national elections, heated political discussions, or while watching Harrison Ford action thrillers?

Not that the situation in France is any better.  On Bastille Day, as I was enjoying a fireworks show at one of the grad students’ apartments, someone asked my theatre professor whether she was feeling especially patriotic.  She said, “Absolutely not.  Today everyone gets drunk, lights fireworks, and sings ‘La Marseillaise’ [the French national anthem].  That’s all.  And that’s such a violent, xenophobic song.  None of these things inspire patriotism in me.  Besides, the fireworks aren’t even good tonight.”  N, one of the grad students, said that he had heard several other French people answer his question similarly.  Somewhere between the Mme D generation and the Professor B generation (the two women are about 40 years different in age), the patriotism evaporated.

Of course, the fierce nationalism that brought on World War II is to be avoided at all costs.  No country is inherently better or more valuable than another, and that’s important to remember lest we start feeling too sure of ourselves.  And a more peaceful world is certainly a goal worth working toward.  However, what country can withstand national trials and hardships without a basic love of homeland?  Can we survive without patriotism?

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Adieu

French, like English, offers its speakers a number of ways to say goodbye, most of them dependent on when you expect to see each other again.  A tout à l’heure has one of the smallest lapses of time between departure and reunion:  it translates loosely to “within the hour,” although in conversational French it’s just used for “see you very soon.”  There is the weekday staple a demain!, which means “until tomorrow.”  From there, you have your generic goodbyes of indeterminate length but with certain reunions, expressions like salut for your friends and au revoir for your superiors.  Then, there’s the scary one.  It connotes a forever goodbye, quite literally translating “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”  This is a very certain goodbye, not one that had ever been said to me, not even mistakenly from a student, until today.

E and I were at the market for the last time this morning, picking up our final selections of bread, cheese, fruits, and vegetables.  On our way out, I stopped at the Bread Man’s stand because I just couldn’t pass up being his customer one last time.  Besides, he had my favorite bread, pépites au chocolat, which he hasn’t had since that first week.  It was a sign.

When we approached his display, he said, “Ah!  You were in Avignon, no?”  Surprised at his remarkable memory—he must see a few hundred people pass by every Sunday—we replied that indeed we were.  “You went to see the plays of the festival.  I remember.  I went there myself once, spent an enjoyable weekend there.  This is a good tradition of France.”  We agreed that we too had had a great time in southern France but that we were glad to be back in Lyon.  I ordered my pépites au chocolat loaf and then informed him that it was our last market visit before returning to the States.  “I had to come back once more for your bread!” I said with a smile.

He raised his eyebrows.  “Your last market?”  He shook his head.  “When do you return?  You are American, no?  Going back to America?”  We told him he was right and that our planes for America would leave on Saturday.  “What city will you go back to?”  For simplicity’s sake, E and I just gave him our home states.  “Well, I must take my breads to America then!  You have nothing like this in America.  All factory breads!”  We all chuckled as he handed me my box.  “Well, I guess this is adieu then,” he said with a regretful expression.  “Yes, adieu.”  I nodded, tearing up, and echoed his goodbye.

It’s amazing that someone I spoke to for only a few minutes each week could cause such emotion in me.  But this, this is why I chose language for my career.  You learn a language so that you can hear other people speak:  their stories, their joy, their pain, their fragility.  You learn a language so that you can appreciate the Godlikeness of other people.  You learn a language so that you can laugh with them, understand them, be welcomed by them and welcome them in return.  That’s why it’s so close to God’s heart.  He said at the dawn of mankind that it’s not good for us to be alone.

The Bread Man and I never spoke more than ten minutes at the time.  We don’t even know each other’s names.  But for four weekends, we looked forward to seeing each other and exchanging a few words of conversation in his native language.  He clearly enjoyed regaling E and I with brief stories of traveling to Avignon and America and with proud claims of the superiority of his bread to anything else at the market or across the ocean.  I enjoyed hearing it.  That, if you ask me, is a little bit of God showing up in everyday life.

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Livebox

You might have seen on FaceBook that E and I had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day yesterday.  An explanation is in order.  E and I are 21st-century Americans:  we want our Internet, and we want it fast.  We use it for communicating with people back home, for entertainment, and also for receiving messages regarding where we should be when because we are cell-phone-less here in France.  So on Friday at 1:15 p.m. when it stopped working, we panicked slightly.  Not on the level of Peyton-Manning-has-retired, but more along the lines of I-have-a-zit-two-days-before-prom.  So it didn’t work right before we left to read our World War II assignment in the park?  It surely would when we returned.

It didn’t.

Our panic level rose from yellow to orange, in the manner of the Homeland Security Advisory System.  It was now prom day, so to speak, and the zit had grown to hairy-mole size.  We played with it for a bit, but ultimately decided just to go to bed and assume it would kick itself back on in the middle of the night.  You can sleep off a headache; why not Internet malaise?

You can’t.  At least not in France.

By Saturday morning, we were on full alert.  Batten down the hatches, boys; it’s Internet or bust!  After becoming completely disgusted with both the troubleshooting manual and the piece-of-crap Internet box itself (called “Livebox”), we decided to visit McDonald’s to take advantage of their free Wi-Fi.  The priority was making sure our families knew that our silence and missed Skype dates came from an Internet malfunction, not abduction by angry French World Cup soccer players.  But wouldn’t you know it:  our computers simply would not hook up to McDonald’s Wi-Fi.  Our vexation mounted.

We went across the street to an Internet café.  At least we knew it would work there.  And it did.  From a computer attached to a French keyboard, which is laid out far differently from an English-language one. (For example, the placement of the letters compared to where they are on your keyboard is scrambled.  The punctuation marks are also in different locations.  Plus, the numerical keys include two additional symbols apiece. Yeah, that’s not easy to finagle.)

In the end, we spent 25 minutes and a euro each sending two emails per person of three to five sentences apiece, something that takes less than five minutes using our own computers.  After that, we were back to the issue at hand:  fixing the Internet in our apartment since we’d each paid 26 euro for it.  Remembering the exorbitant price and feeling the anger mount again, we tried to call our landlord.  Unfortunately, he lives in Avignon, which is nowhere near us.  We got a busy signal anyway.

We returned to the apartment and fumed, frowned, and spoke harshly to Livebox.  Nothing happened.  Livebox is a jerk.  E read the troubleshooting directions to herself.  Then out loud.  I did the same.  We restarted Livebox.  We restarted our computers.  We turned off everything.  We turned it back on.  We seethed.

Leaving the apartment, we headed toward Orange, the company that makes blasted Livebox.  They sent us to SFR, the primary Internet provider in Lyon.  They sent us to France Telecom, the centralized French telecommunications company.  They sent us to Orange.  We noticed a pattern.  We tried another Orange.  They sent us to France Telecom.  We tried a second France Telecom.  They sent us to…wait for it…Orange.  Our problem seemed to be no one’s but ours.  We returned to the Internet café and dialed up France Telecom.  There’s no toll-free number, but by that time, we didn’t care how much it cost to get the Internet running again.  That is, until the café owner told us we owed him fifteen euro for the phone call.  Then, admittedly, we cared quite a lot.

Raging anew, we lamented the fact that we’d spent money at McDonald’s, the Internet café (twice), and the landlord, and ended up with no Internet.  Discouraged and forlorn, we returned to Quai Claude Bernard, growling and murmuring all the way there.  Eventually, I said, “This may sound like the stupidest idea ever, but we could ask the guy at the café who speaks English to help us.”  (We live above a café.)  E said that she’d thought of that earlier, but was afraid to mention it since he was unlikely to be of any help.  But he was our last option, and no one else in France cared that we desperately wanted to talk to our families.

Upon returning to our apartment, we found English Speaker and breathlessly explained our troubles.  We handed him the troubleshooting manual, Livebox’s serial number, and several phone numbers.  Expecting him to do what, I don’t really know.  In the end, English Speaker was indeed able to help:  there was a particular username and password that had to be changed periodically, and it was time to do so.  It wouldn’t let us back in until we changed said information.  Showering English Speaker with a deluge of Merci!s, we hiked up the 10 flights to our apartment and tried the password-changing.  It worked!  For two minutes.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that we pushed every button on Livebox and our computers, and everything was finally functional again, after another hour or so of work.  We consider our connection to be pretty tenuous at this point, but at least it’s running again.  I’d make a comment about how dependent E and I are on the Internet, but the fact is, it’s actually our families we’re addicted to.  More than anything, E and I just wanted to be able to communicate with the people who are so special to us.  So this post is dedicated to you.  May we never have to be cut off from one another again.  Cheers!

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Groceries

My students always used to ask what sorts of things were different in France.  On the spur of the moment, it’s hard to come up with an answer like that.  Like when someone asks you, “What movies do you like?”  All of a sudden, you think, What do I like?  Well, a couple of days ago something happened that I can cite as a definitive difference between France and America.

E and I went grocery shopping twice last week:  once to the Sunday market for produce and fresh bread, and once to the store mid-week for everything else.  Unfortunately, I’d already run out of produce when we went to the store on Wednesday, so I picked up some apples, cherries, and tomatoes to hold me over until Sunday.  As is customary in France, for the surge of customers waiting to check out, there was one open cash register (and four closed ones [and a handful of unoccupied employees who weren’t about to get to work {which reminds me of a French comedian who said that Obama’s “Yes, we can!” slogan would never work in France.  They operate more along the lines of, “No, we can’t!”}]).  Anyway, when I finally got up to the front, I put everything on the little conveyor belt, just as one does in the States.  Everything went smoothly until we got to the produce.  “Il faut les peser,” the cashier informed me.  Because I was flustered, I couldn’t catch the words, so I asked her to repeat.  She did, and added, “Je vous attendrai.”  Great, so I had to go back to the display where I picked up my produce so that I could weigh it, all the while with her waiting for me at the front with the other six shoppers in line behind me.

I had no problems with the apples or tomatoes, but I simply could not find the button on the scale for cherries.  So that I wouldn’t hold anyone up any longer, I just pushed the “grapes” button and hoped for the best.  Close enough, right?  By the time I rushed back to the front where she was indeed waiting with the rest of my purchases, the line had increased by three more shoppers.  I was so embarrassed about holding these people up for so long that I wanted to crawl under that produce display and become a troll as a cautionary tale for other unsuspecting Americans.

The weird thing is that no one seemed especially put off by my unintentional antics—and it was the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday!  They looked at me as though I were a fish in an aquarium.  What is this species, one seemed to ask another in French eye language.  Why is its face turning red?  It appeared as though no one was really in a hurry.  Certainly the cashier was not:  she’d been talking to the customer before me about going south for vacation—the French get six weeks of paid vacation per year—long after she was done ringing up the woman’s purchases.  The other potential cashiers were not in a hurry; they were instead ambling around the grocery store without a care in the world.  Even the customers were more curious than frustrated.  In America I would’ve been raked over the coals.

When Jeff and I had our neighbor F over last month, this same thing came up.  I asked F what was the most surprising thing about America, after having grown up in Austria.  He said, “It surprises me how quickly everyone moves in the stores.  We move through the line fast, always.  What if you love your customer and you want to say, ‘Your barber did a good job this week’?  You cannot do it.  You must just move, move, move.”  Upon asking the same question to Professor B, a French professor from the region where we’re staying now, I was given the same response:  “Why are Americans always in a hurry in the stores?  If something takes awhile, we could just talk to each other in line, no problem.  And what if we want to talk to the person who works for the store?  But you cannot do it!  We are rushed all the time.”

It’s a surprising thought.

But would it work in America?

Call it greed, call it capitalism, call it “making an honest living”…but one thing we hold dear in America is making money.  I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.  We want to take vacations to get away from the stress of everyday life, we want our children to go to highly rated private schools, we want to shop at Whole Foods or Greenlife so we get the cleanest food possible.  Our lives require a lot of money.  If we were to slow down in stores or in restaurants, we’d accommodate fewer customers, thereby bringing in less money.  In France, for example, it’s common for a restaurant to fill up and then shut its doors for the night:  patrons will stay from seven o’clock until midnight, lignering over bread, wine, and cheerful conversation.  Would slowing down in this manner be worth the exchange we’d make?  We would make a smaller profit, but we would know people better and perhaps, for that reason, benefit from increased national solidarity.  Would racial anger begin to dissipate?  Would religious extremism attenuate?  Would we be physically healthier if we took things a little more slowly?  Or would it make a difference at all?  Perhaps we are too ingrained in our ways, too dependent on our money and independent of each other, for anything to change. After all, as a hardened introvert, I have trouble imagining myself talking to people for long periods of time at the grocery store or spending hours at the dinner table with others.  Perhaps those changes and others like them wouldn’t make a difference anyway.  And we would probably have to give up the private schools and find other sources for the organic food.

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Fête de la Musique

On travaille moins et on joue plus !  (We work less and we play more!)

That slogan was on ads citywide for Fête de la musique, the national French holiday for music.  Fête means “party,” “festival,” or “celebration,” and it is the word used to denote public holidays. I like the sentiment:  Fête de la musique translates to “music party/festival/celebration.”  The French counterpart of Independence Day is Fête nationale, which would translate as “national party/festival/celebration.”  In keeping with the idea of a party, red, white, and blue bulletins were printed out with the above slogan on the front and a schedule of all the registered concerts in and around Lyon on the inside.  However, some concerts are little more than a duet or trio with a boom box, and those were not included on the list.  Dancers also seem to gain rights to their land for the night by squatting, so you just have to amble around if you want to find them.  Anyway, contrary to how it might sound, the French do go to work on Fête de la musique, and most of them work a full day.  But at 5:00 p.m. sharp, the party begins.  Actually, it began a little before that outside my window on Monday afternoon:  by 4:00 p.m., my window and head were pounding a bass rhythm in time with the impromptu discothèque on Quai Claude Bernard.

It has long been known that the French are healthier than Americans—fewer heart attacks, strokes, alcohol-related deaths, and Type II diabetes diagnoses, to name a few.  We already know that they walk/bike more, eat less sugar, and enjoy smaller portions of food.  But surely there has to be another reason for their robust health.  As we walked the streets of Lyon in pursuit of good music and the perfect crêpe au chocolat, I wondered whether Fête de la musique might be the secret to French health…or at least indicative of the mindset that contributes to French health.  On 21 June each year, people gather for the simple pleasure of being together.  They dance in the streets, sing along with the bands, and eat ice cream and crêpes.  They chatter and laugh and walk around with cocktails.  They take pictures and breathe deeply and hold hands.  It’s the very picture of their expression joie de vivre (“joy of living”).  Who can stay sufficiently stressed out to have a heart attack when they’re having such a great time?

The fact is this isn’t just the picture of Fête de la musique.  Have dinner at any restaurant in France, and you’ll see the same thing:  people in groups, laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company.  Last night we had our “small group dinner” which means that eight of us students went out with one professor for the sole purpose of enjoying ourselves in the city with someone to make sure we spoke French the whole time.  L, one of the grad students, asked Professor B why the tables were all set for upwards of four people.  After all, in America, most tables are ready for two, three, or four.  Professor B replied, “Because that’s how many people have to sit at them!”  In France, she informed us, people don’t just go out for dinner.  If you’re at a restaurant, it’s because you’re celebrating something—which you would always do with friends.  You go to restaurants when friends come to see you, when someone graduates, when a couple gets engaged, when you get a promotion.  You don’t go just because you made it to 5:00 at work without keeling over.

Speaking of work, I think the French attitude toward it might also explain the decreased incidence of health problems.  While the Fête de la musique bulletins might have especially brought it to the forefront, “On travaille moins et on joue plus!” is the general sentiment in the French mind as it relates to work.  Professor B explained that the word “career” is used much less frequently in France than in America:  one has a “job,” not a “career.”  Work is simply not as meaningful or beneficial for the French as it is for Americans; the French punch in their time card, give their boss the next seven hours of their day, and then go home to enjoy an evening with their families.  Professor B said that French people “live for evenings, weekends, and holidays.”  Those are the times when living happens.  As a result, the French workweek is only 35 hours, and everyone gets six weeks of paid vacation a year.  And even more than that in some companies.  The “lunch hour” is actually two, so people generally walk home and eat lunch with their families.  Work is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  That has to help the health statistics.

While I embrace the French culture of joie de vivre, I do believe there should be a balance between responsibility and fun.  It seems to me that Americans in general lack the willingness and perhaps the know-how to lead truly sociable lives.  I suspect I am just such an American.  On the other hand, there is a value in working to better one’s environment, whether in the arena of business, education, medicine, law, parenting, or other such fields.  These might be missing some extra punch in France because of the longing for weekends and holidays.  Perhaps the French economy could be stronger if there was more interest and ambition on the part of the workforce.  Or I might be wrong about both nationalities.  What do you think?

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Professeur Douzou

You can’t turn off being a teacher.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or your last:  if you really love it, it’s just there all the time, coursing through your body.  Anything is fodder for the classroom, from merchandise you come across in hole-in-the-wall shops to the stories you live each day.  Anything might be an illustration, prop, or aid. This is admittedly my personal experience, but I suspect my World War II instructor is affected by the same condition.

~~~

The night before classes began, E and L and I, the grad students, looked over our schedule and saw that we were to show up at “IEP” at 1:30 for our World War II course.  What’s the IEP and where is it? we wondered.  The first two professors we asked also had no idea.  Finally, we were able to find someone who explained somewhat more concretely, but the idea was still vague in our minds.  All we knew is that “IEP” was the abbreviation for the name of an entire school.  So, the next day we struck out in plenty of time to master the situation.

Unfortunately, we got sufficiently confused early on and had to take out a map.  The directions we’d been given weren’t especially helpful anyway, and certainly not after several hours had passed.  When we finally found our destination, we entered, only to find that the buildings were comprised of only offices.  Slowly turning in circles in the middle of the courtyard, we tried desperately to find a building that looked full of classrooms.  Nothing.  Finally, L stopped a straggler and asked where all the classrooms were.  The woman pointed us in another direction, and we took up the search again.  Upon walking in, we became convinced that we’d found the right building, but still had no idea which room was ours.  We looked at room numbers, peeked in windows, and cocked our ears toward doors, all in hopes of receiving some helpful information.  Finally, E located what she thought was our room.  Sure enough, as we tentatively walked in, a professorial-looking man in his late fifties or early sixties greeted us.  We spoke briefly of our difficulties finding the room, and he seemed genuinely disappointed that no one had communicated with us any better than that.

When the others came in, he gave us all a more official greeting.  He introduced himself as Professor Douzou and wished us the “warmest and kindest of bienvenues (welcomes)” to his native country.  Then, the speech that followed was one I simply had to write down because I felt so calmed and welcomed, almost to the point of grateful tears.  It was like I was in the presence of a divinely beatific Santa Claus who understood my student self perfectly.

“There are two things you must know before we begin.  First of all, I know that it is so very difficult to speak a language not your own.  After years of practice, it is still difficult for me to speak English, and I am old!  And for you, I can’t imagine the bravery you have to speak French in this room with me, a native speaker.  It is hard, I know.  When I go to America and visit my American friends, they always laugh when I pronounce certain words.  It is very difficult to pronounce th and r your language.  And they laugh and say, ‘Oh, we love your accent; it’s so cute!’  That makes me feel foolish, makes me feel embarrassed.  That makes me feel not very smart because I cannot pronounce the words the way they do.  Let me say this to you:  I will never make fun of you, never.  I know this is hard, and I want you to try, and I promise that if you try, you will not be made fun of by me ever.  You understand?

“The second thing you must know is that to learn a language, you must speak it.  So speak French to me to learn it.  And if I say something you do not understand, you have the right to stop me.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  You have the right to stop me.  This is your class.  Sometimes when I start teaching, I get so excited, so enthusiastic, and I speak very fast.  My foreign students sometimes look at me with open mouths because they do not understand me any longer.  Yes, stop me when this happens.  I can talk about World War II forever and not stop for breath.”

Here was a man I’d never met who made me feel more confident in a French classroom than I had in most American ones.  And I was halfway across the world.  Immediately, I felt at ease.  He understood:  this second-language thing was difficult and tiring, but he would be patient with me.  Of course, I never expected a professor to ridicule my pronunciation; nonetheless, it so put me at ease to actually hear someone say it.  Here was a place where my floundering French was welcome and desired.

I’ve only had Professor Douzou’s class for two days (a collective seven hours), but those two days have been packed with radio clips, examples and illustrations from his life, and lots of quickly passing lecturing.  My notebook has about as many notes on his teaching style as it does the information itself; I feel like I’m constantly writing things down.  I consider it a blessing to be under the direction of Professor Douzou, even if it’s only for four weeks.  Here’s to the development of many more teachers worldwide just like him.

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The Bread Man

Last Sunday E and I woke up early (well, early for jet lagged Americans) to go to the open-air market just minutes by foot from our apartment.  We wanted to absorb everything, taking stock of all the available goods, before committing to any one particular vendor.  We noticed right away an especially delicious-looking display of small bread loaves in various flavors and promised each other we’d return.  We kept our word:  after purchasing conservative quantities of tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, cherries, and strawberries, we made our way back to the Bread Man.  E asked for a pain aux fraises (bread with strawberries and white chocolate), and I chose a pain aux pépites chocolats (bread with chocolate chips).

Upon hearing our French, the Bread Man brightened and asked, “Which nationality?”  We replied that we were Americans, and he was delighted.  “Americans, yes?” he clarified jovially.  “So Lyon is cold for you!”

Wasn’t that the truth!  The day E and I arrived in Lyon it was in the low fifties with rain, and the next morning was no warmer—less so, in fact.  “Here some years we ski on our national holiday!” he enthused.  “Can you ski on your national holiday?” he winked at us.  We all laughed.  “Impossible!” I said, while E too assured him there were no such opportunities in our native land.  Skiing in July!  If you’re not in very select locations or you don’t own a snow machine, you are likely unable to celebrate the Fourth of July with snowballs.

Quickly, as happens with many of his line of work, he turned to the quality of his craft.  “You have bread like mine in American stores, no?”  I replied that while we had bread—even bread meant specifically for breakfast and dessert—we definitely had nothing of the caliber he offered us, at least not in stores.  He nodded knowingly.  “Yes,” he agreed, “your bread is industrial.  Me, I make all my own bread.  All of this”—he waved a hand across the whole spread—“all made by my hands.  In America, you make things much more quickly than I do, but then you lose the love of your food.  I make everything with much care, yes.”

And how true is that.  I am not the sort of person who thinks everything in France is better and more interesting and more chic than everything in America.  Both countries should be celebrated. But I think the Bread Man is right: we are so separated from our food in America that many of us either hate it, anesthetize ourselves with it, or struggle between the two.  It’s a consumable like everything else, something to be mashed into our mouths while working, watching television, or driving hurriedly from one appointment to the next.  We don’t love our food because we expect it to fill voids for us or because we are so disillusioned that it hasn’t.  We tie it to what it does to us, for better or worse, rather than from its source.

The French are paradoxical as it relates to food.  On the one hand, everything they eat is loaded in fat—butter and cream, in particular.  Bread is served at each meal.  Lunch and dinner are both accompanied by wine, and sometimes by a few wines.  The French spend—quite literally—hours of their lives à table, lingering long after the last morsels are gone.  Our group had dinner at the high-class Brasserie du Nord on Sunday night.  Our reservations were at 7:00 p.m., we were seated immediately, and yet we didn’t leave until after around 10:30.  It took that long to eat our three-course meal.  Each course was eaten slowly with much laughter and conversation interspersed between bites and courses.  Both wine selection and food preparation are sciences at which native French people are expected to be proficient; serving at a restaurant requires the highest levels of such knowledge.  Servers, in fact, often have culinary degrees.  Yet with such importance placed on food, the French remain one of the healthiest, slimmest, and most robust nationalities on the planet.  How is this possible?

For one, the quantities are much smaller.  I haven’t left a table hungry yet, but much less is served to me than I would expect at even a Steak ‘n’ Shake in the U.S.  Also, the streets are teeming with walkers and bike-riders.  Rush hour is nothing to be worried about because if a person lives within four miles or so of his/her office, she/he walks.  Everyone is aware of how much they are eating because they eat so very slowly and deliberately.  Meals are accompanied by things other than food to look forward to, such as the entertaining and fulfilling company of others.

Of course, not all of these elements of the French meal could be adopted in the U.S.  We lead faster-paced lives, we frequently live a longer distance from our jobs, and we enjoy the peace and quiet of our fierce individualism (myself included).  But what if we did slow down, eat a little less of the delicious foods we love, and invite friends over often to share a meal with us?  What if we did prepare our food on a regular basis—and take pride in it as a craft that sustains life—rather than buying “industrial bread”?  I wonder how our health and our entire society would change, with or without the gym.

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