Saturday, January 24, 2009

Culture disparities and the Art of Shmoozing

I've decided that from now on, I'm going to start my posts with one or two slang words/phrases of the week so you can get a bit of a sense of the kinds of vocabulary I've been learning and attempting to put into play. This week's words:

un moko OU un mickey = a booger
bourré = drunk (literally, stuffed/packed)

So I'm going to assume that those of you reading this know me well enough to know that I'm a very curious person and enjoy getting to know people through intimate conversation. I'll have you all know that in France, which is typically unreserved and even in-your-face about certain topics (think sex, drugs, and rock & roll), I'm actually apparently kind of an asshole because I ask too many questions. Why, you ask? Well, as it turns out, what's taboo here is very dif
ferent from what is considered taboo back in the States. The more time I spend here, the more I see the distinction between the private life and the public life, and I realize that personal matters are simply not discussed until you already know someone on an intimate level. I've so far been called "direct", "indiscreet", and even "intrusive", which makes me laugh pretty hard because I think that's the last thing someone would call me back in New York or Boston. When I mentioned this cultural difference to one of my professors, she reminded me that it's just a matter of the chronology of the topics and themes that one can address and prompted me to think about whether or not relationships have this sort of unwritten formality in the States. What do you think?

Aix is so picturesque (the photo doesn't even do it justice), and I have figured out why. I attribute it to the notion of size and space. Props to the French for not going around supersizing everything and realizing that bigger is actually not at all better. Houses cars, coffee shops, restaurants, streets, even small-scale things like plates, beds, and lamps -- it's all downsized. Just goes to show that the simplest things in life can beautiful without being flashy or immense in proportion.

Four days a week, the program arranges for me to eat dinner with a french family who I've come to love very much. The Daniels are sweet, charming, and inadvertently HILARIOUS. They are an adorable married couple in their late 50s/early 60s with a hyperactive little dog nicknamed VHF, which stands for "Very High Frequency" (comic genius). This is not a joke; the dog is perpetually on crack.

A professor commented the other day that discussion is a national sport in France, and I find that this is most prevalent at the dinner table, where common topics of conversation range from the portrayal of homosexuality in television to partying, alcohol, and marijuana (specifically how to "be careful when buying hashish because sometimes they put in other herbs to make it smell better so they can charge you more" -- direct quote from Monsieur Daniel). Generally speaking, politics and religion are to be avoided, and the muddling up of the two is simply unheard of. And as a sidenote/to articulate my personal sen
timent: the whole "In God we Trust", "church ≠ state but that's not actually true" thing we've got going on in the States is even more baffling and illogical to the French than it is to me.

Dinner table Dos include putting one's palms on the table so everyone knows where your hands are, sitting up straight, and reluctantly accepting another glass of wine. Don'ts include eating before everyone is served, putting cheese on your apple (apparently it's really rude), and turning down another glass of wine. Meals so far have been...pretty hit or miss. Hits include quiche, potato au gratin with a slice of bacon on top, croque monsieur (think ham and cheese sandwich, but classier), and cheese ravioli. Misses include hot dogs with the meat of a sheep and fish stew. Desserts are almost always hits (think chocolate mousse and Camembert), with a few exceptions (think creamed leaf -- as in the leaf of a tree).

Another thing I've picked up on is the difference in rhythms of daily life. Even in cosmopolitan Aix, life moves at a leisurely pace. People sit for hours outside at cafés, smoking, drinking wine, reading, writing, talking, or just watching people walk by. Meals are longer and more ceremonial, yet relaxed and undisturbed. People walk fast and with purpose, but when they arrive at their destination, they sit back and enjoy the moment for however long they wish. I find that this way of living is so vastly different from the States, not just in big cities like New York but also in suburban or rural areas like Newton. Take the following expression which is often uttered by a certain Rome-bound suitemate at Barnard: "let's shmooze". Arguably, by this a (college-aged) American would mean "let's lounge around and chat for a bit but then I've got to run and do X Y and Z". A French student, au contraire, would by this probably mean "let's lounge around and chat at my house for a bit, then go to someone else's house to lounge around and chat for a bit". The tranquility and ability to live in the moment is one part of Provincial culture that I am adapting to with ease and pleasure.

Now that I'm fully settled in here, I've been taking the time to read the blogs of my friends who are elsewhere: England, Greece, India, Italy. Comparing my experiences with theirs has been so interesting and has made me more aware of Aix and its aforementioned particularities. India is a world away, radically different from anything I have ever known. In Greece, history is everywhere, and in a (seemingly) much more unconcealed and omnipresent way than in France. Even Italy and Paris, which are both just a short train ride away, have their own cultural and societal norms, values, and overall conditions and ways of life. I apologize for the cliché, but it is truly remarkable.

In terms of my daily day-to-day life he
re, not much has changed. I get along fabulously with my roommate Talia. We're very compatible in the ways we view friendships and our opinions on the importance of laughter. Tribal dances for good luck and spontaneous outbursts of Disney music occur frequently, here at 3 rue Mejanes in Aix-en-Provence, France.

The other night all of us gathered
at Bellegarde to celebrate Matt and Marquise's 21st birthdays and say goodbye to a friend who had to leave the program. Every person/group was responsible for bringing both a plate and a bottle of something. Needless to say, it was awesome and my stomach thanked me.

Next weekend, a trip to London. Tomorrow, grocery shopping and class at 4:30. Sweeeet!

Gros Bisous,


  1. I mean you could have stayed here in NYC with me and look up the French word for Booger...but Thanks for Playing DANIELLE IS FAR FAR AWAY FROM ME LEARNING WORDS WE ALL SECRETLY WANTED HER TO TEACH US!

  2. hahaha em, i love you. did you get my email?

  3. thanks for the shout out my love :) i continue to adore reading about your experiences and i can't wait to see you in 3 short weeks!

  4. oh no! no cheese on apples! good thing you learned that early ;) haha. the part about the dog being on crack also made me laugh. your blogposts are just so funny!!!

    miss you danface.

    see you in a few weeks!!