Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Drink and be Merry

I crossed a new cultural threshold the other day. I was at the annual end-of-the-year lunch for a select group of moms who hang out at the park next door with their kids. A bottle of 15-year old Morgon was set out on the table and after it was opened, the only person deemed qualified to taste it was…me. Out of the seven of us, four were French de souche, and here I was tasting the wine. How this could happen to someone who 10 years ago could barely distinguish between white and red is mystifying, to say the least.

When I first moved here in 2000, I was convinced that French people were genetically conditioned to understand the subtleties of wine. It seemed like there was some massive collective unconscious that was the source of this secret knowledge, and that no self-respecting French person ever hesitated for a nano-second when ordering a glass at a bar or café. When I asked people how they learned about wine, they would just shrug and mutter something about the grape-growing region where their family came from, which only reinforced my genetic hypothesis.

When I finally understood French well enough to understand muttering, I realized that what they were actually saying is that they didn’t know that much about it, but were familiar with the wines their parents grew up with, or that a friend recommended, or that they stumbled across. Wine is everywhere here (almost literally—just about every region of France has vineyards), so it’s not too difficult to absorb information if you have any interest at all. But while there are lots of people who know a lot about wine, there are even more who don’t, which is very reassuring to an outsider from a relatively wine-challenged country. I guess over the past 8 years I’ve absorbed a bit of The Knowledge, at least enough to be able to tell if a bottle has turned or not. But I would have never dared to think that I knew more than the moms from the park. Is it that wine-tasting is a male activity and they hadn’t ever needed to develop the skill? Or was it simply that they were bored with the whole wine thing, the way Italians might be about pasta, or the Dutch about tulips?

So there I was, a glass of the red stuff in my hand and 6 sets of eyes turned upon me. I summoned my courage, held up the glass, and swished it around a bit for show. I suppose I could have sniffed, but considering the fact that I have no sense of smell, that seemed a bit too theatrical. So I just sipped. As far as I could tell, it was divine.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Let's Hear it for Enthusiasm

I feel the need to clarify something in my last post. I know it is not particularly edifying to know that many French people seem to feel that the American tendency to smile a lot is a sign of their limited intellectual capacities, but try not to take it too personally. I mean, look at it this way: if you were visiting an isolated tribe in Borneo, and your guide told you that smiling a lot was considered a sign of lunacy, you wouldn’t be offended, you would just do your best to be culturally aware when visiting their village. And of course, this perception is not universal, there are plenty of French people out there who appreciate the American willingness to be upbeat, even when presented with strong evidence that the situation is anything but. Which brings me to a thought that has occurred to me recently.

It’s funny the things you miss about your home country when you’ve been living away from it for several years. There are some things I do not miss at all. I don’t, for example, at all miss the kind of enforced cheeriness that runs rampant in Southern California, e.g., the inanely jolly waitress who hovers over your table crooning “Hi, I’m Gloria, and how can I help you today?” Nor the phony exuberance of sales people and gym teachers. But I do miss something that I never really appreciated until I moved overseas and saw my country from a distance: the very American sense of curiosity, of wonder, and enthusiasm. Americans aren’t afraid to ask questions, and don’t feel constrained by appearances the way many French people are. If they are interested in something, they’ll try to find out about it, and if they like (or don’t like) what they find, they’ll show it. I hate to sound like a pom pom girl, but I truly believe that this quality is part of what makes the US great, in the best sense of the word. If this kind of enthusiasm results in some people on this side of the pond thinking we’re idiots, so be it. I, for one, get a kick out of being taken for an optimist, something that would have never occurred to me in my previous life.

I think it is possible to detect a hint of jealousy behind those who look down their noses at Americans and pronounce them hopelessly childish and ignorant. It’s very hard for French people to break through the cultural and social boundaries that keep them from aspiring to the same kind of crazy fantasies that Americans seem to. So let’s hear it for goofy grins and wild ideas. They certainly could use a good dose over here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Smile, You're in Paris

As I was listening to a song on the radio the other day whose refrain went “I don’t like going to sleep at night because I’m afraid I’ll wake up dead,” it occurred to me that one thing I like about living in France is that while in the US I’ve often been scolded for being too gloomy, here I am considered a cockeyed optimist. As a child living in southern California, I was regularly assaulted in the street by strangers who ordered me to smile. Looking pensive in Laguna Beach was a crime on a par with spitting on the flag or making fun of the high school pep squad. Things improved when I left town, but while my outlook on life has brightened considerably, I have never been accused of being intensely upbeat.

That is, until I moved to Paris. Here, the fact that I smile at all pegs me as happy-go-lucky and possibly missing a few synapses. The American tendency to grin from ear-to-ear when at a loss for something to say has long been interpreted here as an indication of mental deficiency—which in turn is used as an explanation for odd behavior and questionable foreign policy choices. While I can’t be sure of my neighbors’ assessment of my mental capacities, I can say that they seem to find me a little giddy and strangely cheerful. Even small children think I am unusually silly, which may be true, but I wonder if it isn’t because French parents pay a lot more attention to decorum when hanging out in the park with their kids. I would hazard to guess that I am one of the only parents on my block willing to play monster and chase my 6-year-old son and his friend back to school after lunch. This doesn’t seem like a very big deal to me, but my son’s friends seem to think its license to play me for a fool whenever the opportunity arises.

Have I turned into a goof-ball since I’ve moved to France, or have I just fallen into another cultural reality gap? Am I now rebelling against the norm by being stubbornly smiley in a place where outward expressions of joy and enthusiasm are usually reserved for weddings and soccer victories? I have to admit, I’m generally pretty happy about living here, which might be making me unduly jovial. I’ll bet that would make the Smile Nazis back in Laguna happy. Or would it?