Monthly Archives: December 2011

me & j

J. Peterman and I go WAY back.  For those of you who have no idea who J. Peterman is, think back to the Seinfeld days……….  Remember the company Elaine worked for and her ridiculous boss?  That’s J. Peterman.

To give you a clear picture of myself during my formative years, I will let you in on a little secret.  I had a major pre-Seinfeld obsession with the J. Peterman Company and catalogue.  I loved the travel stories in the catalogue and I even loved the fact that you couldn’t really tell what you would get if you chose to order something, since all the images were sketches and not pictures.  It was almost as if you didn’t really need to know what it looked like, since it was assured to be cool just because it was in the catalogue.

I’m not going to lie, I spent hours of my life reading and rereading the stories presented in this catalogue over the years.  I also had a dream that someday I would be the person traveling around the world, finding these cool things and writing these stories.  I loved J. before he was a joke on Seinfeld.

But I guess you know, that my dream of life with J. Peterman (or at least a job with the J. Peterman Company) was not realized.

Fast forward to my present life.  Sadly, once J. Peterman hit the big time with Seinfeld we fell out of touch.  I didn’t wait with bated breath for his correspondence to me. I just gave up on him.  I moved on.

In the meantime, I went to college, got married, had kids and moved to France, without giving J. Peterman a thought.

While in France, I’ve accomplished many things including finding the best junk shop in all of France.  You may recognize it from some older posts – it’s called Emmaüs Brie.  This summer, while shopping at Emmaüs with a friend from the US (hiya Tami!), I spotted something that looked very interesting.  It seemed to be a miniature apple press used to make apple cider.  Although it was out of my cheap skate junk price range, it looked so interesting I had a hard time passing it by.

After we walked by it, I started thinking about the party potential of this mini apple press.  Imagine a party where I buy a bazillion apples and I set up this press and I get the kids to stand around and press cider all night to entertain themselves……….  Sounds like a good party to me.

When I mentioned my party idea offhandedly to Owen, he was hooked.  He’s the only person I know who loves a party more than me.  He wanted that press BADLY.  He even offered up some of his own hard-earned cash to get me to buy it.  And I’m a total sucker for random objects, so I did.

That day, we left Emmaus with the cutest little apple press you’ve ever seen.

A week or so later, I bought a bunch of apples and we gave our press a try.  To say that it was hard to press apples with this thing would be an understatement.  We spent a couple of hours in the blazing sun with it and ended up with a half cup of apple juice that we all had to share.  I had planned to write this great blog post about it, but since our pressing had a bitter end, I filed it away as a hopeless case.

Here we were, when our optimism was still in tact:

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So what does this have to do with J. Peterman?  I’ll tell you.  I recently started thinking about J. again and pondering why we’d lost touch so many years ago.  So I did what any jilted ex would do and I googled him and found out that he’s still in business, selling dreams with his sketched clothing.  And since I’m also a sucker for nostalgia, I asked to receive a catalogue in the mail to relive the old times.  Once I ordered the catalogue J. also asked me if I’d like to receive email updates from him and I replied, “Of course!”

When the first catalogue came, I was seriously transported back in time.  It was as if nothing had changed between us.  He’s still writing about exotic locations and selling expensive clothing and I’m still soaking it up like a school girl.  I read the catalog 3 time the first day it came and I even considered buying a long velvet dress worn by a Russian baroness that J. Peterman met in a smoky bar.  I wish I were joking.

But here is the proof that you can’t mess with destiny.  Just the other day as I was reading an email from J. Peterman,  imagine my surprise when I saw this pop up:

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And here is what I realized:

a) that thing is a grape press, not an apple press (not sure how I missed this, since we live in the country of wine)

and

b) my fate is clearly entwined with J’s after all.

After all these years, he might finally appreciate me for what I bring to our relationship.  Namely, my strength for finding good junk.

i have failed us, america

We really love the school our kids attend.  It’s a fairly small, private school with a high percentage of international students and really, really nice kids/parents.  The school was started over 20 years ago by a group of parents from Insead, an international business school located in our town.  Since the French school system, generally speaking, can be a bit severe and unwelcoming, this group of parents decided to create a school based on more of an American/UK model.  Although this style of education is very unusual for France, over time, the school has attracted not only lots of international families, but also many French families who weren’t thrilled with the French schooling options.  We’re happy to be a part of such an interesting mix of people and our kids love it there.

About a month ago we received a flyer telling us that there was a big school event in which all of the families from around the world could represent their country at the annual cultural fair.  Since there are very few American families at this school, our family got roped in to presenting the United States to the crowd.  As far as directions for this cultural day were concerned, we were each going to be given a table with very non-specific instructions to “represent your country in whatever way you would like.”  I didn’t spend too much time worrying about this project because: a) it’s a kids cultural fair; and b) I was spending lots of my emotional energy trying not to get eaten by the French kids in my ESL class.

Prior to the event I was chatting with my friend who is from the UK and when I told her that I needed to get some things for the table, she replied, “Oh the US table is so easy!  All you need to do is get some McDonald’s burger wrappers and crumple them up on the table.  Then get some empty Coke cans and lay them around.”

Ok, friends, I know that many people have a certain view of the US, but that one really hurt.

In an effort to prove that we are not only the land of McDonald’s and Coke, I decided that I would show these international citizens a better side of our great country.  The main problem was, where to start?  In a country as big and diverse as the US, there is no easy way to represent it.  I spent a bit of time considering my options, but we were a bit challenged because, since we’re here for only a short time, we didn’t bring all of our earthly American possessions so our tchotchke quantity is low.  Tim’s quick trip back to the US for work provided an opportunity for us to stock up on some stuff, but he didn’t have much room for the loads of Americana I was hoping for.  What he did manage to fit in his suitcase for the return flight was packs of Hershey’s Kisses, Tootsie Rolls, and Tootsie Pops, some small American flags (thanks, Erin!) and some flag stickers.

While planning for this event, I tried to think about times in the US when I’ve been to a similar cultural event and every time, there seemed to be a heavy emphasis on the food of the culture, so I thought I would dazzle the masses with some home-baked American treats – namely chocolate chip cookies and brownies.  The day of the event finally arrived and in addition to the baked goods, candy, flags and stickers, I threw in a bigger American flag, some children’s books from the US and a US map for good measure.  I also threw in a place mat of the American Presidents for some increased cultural perspective.

I tried to get the boys to gather some of their favorite books or movies or other things American, but they were worried that somehow their favorite things would get lost of disappear at this event and they convinced me that we had amassed plenty of stuff.  At the very last-minute and as my secret weapon, I threw in the original 45 record of the Village People singing YMCA that Eamon bought at my local all-star junk place, Emmaus.  If the Village People can’t win over a crowd, I don’t know what can……..

As soon as we walked in, I knew we were in trouble.  And I’m not talking about a little bit of trouble, I’m talking about MAJOR trouble.  I’m talking about the giant poster boards with cultural events, native musical instruments and traditional cultural costumes, kind of trouble.

Unfortunately for US, we were between Korea and DOM TOM, which are the overseas and offshore territories of France like Guadeloupe.  Apparently, these are two very overachieving places to live.

Here is the highlight reel for some of the other things I saw while I was having an existential crisis at the USA table:

  • Korea had native costumes, native instruments and local weavings
  • Denmark had a giant Lego display and they were doing intricate paper weaving with the kids
  • Switzerland had Heidi-style costumes (on the adults!) and huge scenic posters of the Alps
  • Brazil had a slide show of Copacabana beach and the Christ the Redeemer statue playing in a loop on their iPad
  • Australia had giant photo books of the indigenous cultures of their country
  • DOM TOM had fresh native fruits flown in for the event
  • Japan had paper crane mobiles and beautiful silk robes

The list goes on and on and it doesn’t get any easier to digest.  I should also mention here, that there was NO cultural food in sight.  I seriously wanted to HIDE under our table.  No amount of American flag propaganda could outdo these other countries.  The only good location for the USA table would have been next to the Ukraine table who didn’t bother to show up.

Let’s just say, that the next 4 (!) hours of standing behind the USA table was a blur of self-doubt mixed with mulled wine (a holiday staple in France, even at school events).  The most consistent question that I heard at our table was, “Where is the peanut butter?”  Even though I quickly pulled out our Village People record, even it could not save the USA table.  At one point a French friend of mine walked by our table and said, “Oh Tootsie Rolls!  I remember Tootsie Rolls from when I lived in the US! I never liked them, though.  The French hate Tootsie Rolls.”  I guess we were doomed from the start……….

In retrospect, I spent a little bit of time thinking about what I/we could have done better that day, but I keep coming back to the fact that the US is a complicated cultural place.  There is no one way to be.  There are no real cultural costumes, unless you count sweatpants, and there are no instruments that are universally agreed upon as uniquely American, unless you consider the kazoo.

In the end, I realized that although I felt like a complete American failure, it didn’t matter what I thought, because it was for the kids.  With bated breath, I asked Owen what he thought of our table and which table he liked the best, hoping that he wasn’t feeling my pain/shame.  He replied, “Are you kidding?  The USA table was the best!  We had the best food!  Everyone thought so.”  I’m so glad he didn’t seem to notice that we had the ONLY food.  Apparently, no amount of intricate paper weaving or native musical instruments can kill American pride.  And I’m pretty sure it’s more fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A. than spend 4 hours in a Heidi costume.

This was the painful view of the Korea table from the USA table.

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french driver’s license

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m running out of time to acquire a French driver’s license.  I’m also slightly bitter and angry.  I’m not so bitter and angry, that it can’t be temporarily remedied with a simple bakery treat, but the anger and bitterness reside somewhere inside me.  Deep down.

Both Tim & I have to get French driver’s licenses within one year of our arrival in France and guess what?  One year is almost here (can you believe it?).  Anyway, there are 15 US states which have reciprocal driving agreements with France.  Among them, Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, and nine more, but NOT Vermont.  If you live in one of the 15 reciprocal states, all you have to do is fill out reams of French paperwork and wait by the mailbox for your French license to be delivered.  In our case, we have to take a series of French driving instructional classes, take a written test, participate in 8 hours of driving instruction in a car and take an actual driving test.  Add in the French language factor, mix it all up and you have a recipe for a very unhappy Vermonter.

This unhappy Vermonter has been weighing all of the options and after considering flying back to the US and pretending to be a NH citizen (with the help of an anonymous individual whose name rhymes with Merry Feleen), I’ve given up.  At the end of the day, there is only so much whining that is tolerated from a person who gets to drink loads of good wine and eat very stinky cheese on a daily basis.  This means I’m getting prepared to suck it up and turn my frown around in a French driving class (yes, I actually wrote that).

There is some good news here, though.  Our friend and fellow Vermonter who is also living in Fonty (her husband works with Tim at IBM) has managed to score us some English language instructional classes.  I am thankful that there is a glimmer of light inside this bleak French license vortex.

Although I don’t really want to spend my time in driving classes, I have come to realize that there may be a benefit for me.  Especially when, after driving here for 10 months, my friend said to me, “Don’t worry, all you really need to know about driving in France is the priorité à droite rule.”  When I gave her a blank stare, she said, “You know, priorité à droite – when you’re driving on a straight road and a road intersects it on your right and even if there’s not a stop sign you have to stop for the car entering right?”  Again, a blank stare.

Hmmm.  I guess I do have something to learn.

To learn more about  priorité à droite, brush up on your French and click the link.  Or move to New Hampshire, get a French license automatically, and don’t worry about it.

au revior, mon amie

So sorry it’s been so long between posts – good thing I’m not doing this as a job, otherwise I would have been fired by now.  Speaking of fired, I am having to give us my esl job due to a work permit issue.  I guess it’s not really an issue with my work permit, it’s more like an issue that I don’t have a work permit and it turns out, I can’t get one.  Ooops.  I guess that was a minor detail that I should have researched more thoroughly before I took the job.

In the end, all I can really say about the job is “THANK GOD IT’S NEARLY OVER!!!!”  These French kids are killing me.  They’re so cute and so well dressed, but they have a distinct advantage over me which is that they can all speak whispery French to each other.  The class is a little bit Lord of the Flies at times and I happen to be playing the role of the kid who gets eaten.

For those of you who haven’t thanked a teacher in recent days, you may want to take this opportunity to reach out and give them a big holiday squeeze.  They have the hardest job on the planet.  I am not even remotely kidding.

Also, I deleted my Larry Bird rant post.  Sorry about that.  I just figured that it wasn’t in the spirit of the blog and I had to let my anger go (but I still love you Larry Bird).  I’ve decided to divert my anger into contemplation about what to do if the euro crashes.  Luckily for me, my friend Tami left us some old French francs when she was here this summer, so we may be able to keep ourselves stocked with wine and bread for a day or two while the important people are getting things sorted out.

Besides the impending economic crash, the other big news for us is that the kids’ tutor Dominique is leaving for greener pastures (as in the south of France). Coming here and finding Dominique was one of the luckiest things that has happened to us – she was a huge help with the boys’ French and my mental health.  Plus, every week, not only did she teach them French, she made every type of traditional French food with them.  That’s my kind of tutor.  I guess if we want homemade French macarons, we’re going to have to learn to make them ourselves. Or not.

It’s been hard to say good-bye to her, but we’re fully intending to visit her down there before we leave France for good.  It’s nice to have friends in warm French climates.  It’s even better to have friends in warm French climates who make incredible macarons.

Here is Owen’s card to Dominique:

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The good news is that the kids don’t really need Dominique as a tutor anymore.  It’s hard to believe, but they are speaking French without hesitation and they have moved on to the “Making Fun of Mommy’s French” phase of their language study.  It kind of hurts, but their French is much better than mine right now.  I know this is just one of the many times my kids will be better than me, but I was hoping to have a few more years of feeling superior before my credibility hit the fan.  According to my in-house French language critics, it turns out that not only am I saying the incorrect words in conversation on a regular basis, but the words that I do say correctly are slightly out of tune to discerning French ears.

Further evidence that their French is better than mine is that they were recently dismissed from their “Extra French” class at school.  Apparently they no longer need help with French and they can get through the school day without any fear, tears or drama.  Which is not exactly something I can always say for myself.  Going to the market and buying fruit still makes me sweat.  I’m not going to lie.