Fromage & Toilettes

A note of explanation:  I arrived in Toulouse, France on July 1 for a year-long sabbatical stay.  I spent the first 5 weeks on my own, settling into my apartment and learning my way arround.  In the second week of August, the rest of my family arrived.  My wife, Betty, and youngest daughter, Rachel, will stay the year with me.  Betty is also in Psychology and an Associate Dean in the College; Rachel is in the fortunate position of just having graduated from high school, so we offered her an "off year" before college to learn some French and some French culture.  My oldest daughter is one year out of college and will visit 2 or 3 times this year, but will live in Lexington and keep my mind at ease because my 2 golden retrievers were left at home.  With that, this is the first of several blogs that I created for my family.

Fromage and Toilettes (14 Juillet, 2011)

I have now been in France for 2 full weeks.  Half the time in Toulouse and the other half in the area around Poitiers.  I spent approximately 4 days and nights with Julie’s (my colleague and sponsor) family in Ayron where the main activities included eating, drinking, talking (in my case, listening and watching), playing games, and swatting flies.  Lunch and dinner were extended affairs and, although the food was often simple, great attention was paid to every morsel.  Each meal followed the same basic pattern.  First, we drink.  I impressed by not only trying pastis, but by requesting a refill.  Then some sort of entrée – maybe prosciutto and melon, maybe some foies gras and bread. Wine with the entrée.  Then some sort of plat.  (You may have figured out that Americans blew it again – entrée is what we call “appetizer” and plat is what we call “entrée”.)  The plat might be soup at lunch.  Or oeufs brouilles avec pommes de terre.  Generally nothing complicated but full of flavor (never spare the huile d’olive).  Wine with the plats.  And bread.  And salad.  Then cheese for dessert.  With bread.  With wine.  Red wine only.  And then maybe a peach or nectarine.  After dinner drink anyone? 

I have learned how to eat cheese.  I didn’t really need the instruction, but I dutifully followed it.  Take a plate with 5 or more types of cheese and cut a slice of any that interest you.  (All of the cheeses are what American restaurants now label “artisanal”, but they are better than anything I have had in an American restaurant.)  Take some bread.  Take some red wine. Enjoy.  Repeat. 

Last night, Julie and Franck and Mina and I went to a party thrown by one of Franck’s and Julie’s colleagues.  Lots of people; few English speakers.  But it was interesting to sit back and watch the interactions.  I kissed a lot of women’s cheeks on introduction (that would be above the neck).  The adolescents are very much a part of the interactions.  Although some of the conventions differ, the whole scene reminded me of family parties from my childhood (e.g., Uncle Johnny and Aunt Jenny’s barn).  The French appear to have retained their ties to family and neighbor; they still have the concept of the family home.  By the time the cheese came out at the party, I decided that I didn’t need the calories.  But when a guy I met at the start of the party came over to instruct me in how to eat cheese, I got up and listened to the instruction.  You must have bread and red wine to accompany the cheese.  You might want to try this one and this one and this one and this one and this one, but not that one because it is too strong for an American.  “Oh, yeah? Sez who?  I’ll try some of that, too”.  Now, I have eaten enough stinky cheese in my life to handle a strong French cheese and this cheese was no problem.  I can imagine that someone might develop a fondness for whatever it was.  The sort of person who might be partial to the cheese would most likely be an old man who has lost all concern about having people around him.  The cheese was soft and very ripe.  I think that I identified the aging process: (1) Place in jock after the jock has been worn for 2-a-day football practices for a week.  (2) Hang in an unventilated room in the middle of a cow pasture for the months of June, July and August.  (3) Then scrape and mold into little rounds, and (4) serve to Americans with the warning “this is too strong for Americans” to make sure that they try it. 

The French may know food, but they don’t know kitchen design.  Or bathroom design.  Kitchens tend to be small and cramped, from my limited sampling.  I will leave kitchens for Betty to elaborate upon after she has spent some time here.  Bathroom design:  A closet with a toilet and a separate closet with sink and shower.  The separate rooms make good sense but nothing else does.  The way you use les toilettes is you enter the “room” and carefully move your body into a space between the toilet and wall so that there is room to swing the door shut.  Then you do your thing.  Careful not to bend forward too far because you’ll hit your head on the opposite wall.  Then position yourself out of the way while you open the door.  As for the salle de bain, ours has a lave linge for Lilliputians (the drum of the washing machine is approximately 1 foot in diameter – we’ll see whether it can accommodate 1 bedsheet).  Next to the washing machine is a pedestal sink with virtually no ledge on it to put things like a glass or soap.  But the highlight is the shower stall.  All of 72 cm square – yes, I measured it -- that’s about 28 inches for you Americans. I still haven’t figured out how to get my legs clean below my knees.  There’s nothing to hold onto to pull my leg up and bending over will propel me into the opposite wall.  As a friend observed: “With all of their perfumes, I guess the French never saw a need for adequate bathrooms.” (The context for this comment was a bit different than a discussion of bathrooms.)

It would be helpful to know the French language in this country.  No progress on that front and I haven’t figured out how to remedy the problem.  I can construct some baby-speak, but the delivery generally leaves people shaking their heads and then all of the courage it took to attempt some communication completely dissipates.  Worse is that if I do manage an intelligible (if not intelligent) sentence, I end up shaking my head in confusion when I receive a reply.  My confidence wasn’t high to begin with and it is going in the wrong direction.  I have spent several hours now in the company of people speaking French.  I haven’t noticed any progress in my parsing of speech.  I catch occasional words.  I’m best at “Bob.”  Very discouraging.

With that note, I need to go do some self-instruction in French.  I’ve been a week away from lessons because I’ve been on the road.  I think I’ll start by trying to decode the notice I received from the post office about some failed delivery and having 15 days to do something about it.  I hope I can figure out what…