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bridging cultural chasms

The other day when I was watering the yard, the neighbors were coming home. We smiled said bonjour and I returned to my watering. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the husband said “I have a question.” I think this is the first complete sentence I’ve ever heard in Auvers, except for Henri and Alan when they were here. He invited me for drinks. I accepted and I have both looked forward to and dreaded this day arriving.

I don’t know why I’m so fearful of the language barrier thing. I’ve spent time with Japanese people who don’t speak English, dined with Italians who don’t speak English, had drinks with Dutch people who don’t speak English, Americans who don’t speak English, and always had a perfectly good time. Nonetheless, I’m nervous as I walk up there with a lovely, hand-picked, hand- arranged bouquet of flowers.

Okay, flowers and weeds. But in the weeds’ defense, they would have cost at least $6.00 in the US. Maybe they’ll think it refreshingly humble for an American to bring something personally crafted. Or that I’m a cheap bitch. It’s a huge responsibility going next door for drinks. I represent America. The Lubattis don’t count because they’re American, but also French. They speak French, they have roots here (not the kind of roots I have). They know how to behave.

So much to worry about. Will there be cheek kissing? If so, how many times does one kiss each cheek? And are you actually supposed to kiss the cheek or do an air kiss thing? Chhhhhhh. Merchk –ci. Je pouvais. Je pouvons. How long am I supposed to stay? I suppose I’ll have to drink something. What should I drink? Should I have brought wine? Will there be food? What the hell are their names?

Within minutes, Carole and I are planning to meet on Wednesdays so she can help me learn French and I can help her learn English. If this doesn’t improve my French, I’m afraid my one remaining hope is enrolling in French kindergarten and learning it the way children do.

There are important things I learn at this meeting that need to be shared in order to help bring about an understanding between our two cultures. For example, I learn that the women in the bakery don’t hate ME, they’re like that to everyone. The French don’t curse like we do. When we say “merde” as a curse, we don’t sound French. We sound like Americans trying to sound French. The French equivalent is of our “C” word is probably “putain” which sounds like it’s got a lot more syllables when pronounced correctly (kind of like (pchkwuuuueeeeetaeeeen. When Carole says it, it sounds really vile…like the worst thing in the world you can say. If someone called your mother that, you’d have to punch their lights out (or at least give them a good head butt in the solar plexis). When I say it it sounds like Porky Pig. The French often feel uncomfortable in America because there are signs everywhere telling people not to do things. I’m sure 75% of that is the no-smoking signs everywhere.

Jerome and Carole also float a theory as to why so many Americans are perceived as arrogant and narrow. Europeans are constantly exposed to different cultures because there are so many different little countries so close together. Americans, not so much. Americans is huge and homogenous for the most part. the limits of what we’re exposed to as a result of our size is what makes us come off how you say, xenophobic. I never really thought about it, but that makes sense. I also give them credit for giving more thought to justify our being assholes than we do. And nothing creates a warmer bond than a mutual hatred for German tourists. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

On a practical level, I learn that a Kir is quite refreshing and makes me feel much happier than a diet coke does.

After about two hours of pleasant conversation, I feel we have made vast inroads mending the French/American relationship. I also feel like I’m making friends with the neighbors. I thank them very much for having me. They thank me for coming and for the flowers, c’est tres jolie. And I say je vois vois en mercredi. She says haltingly “at six o clock.” I leave feeling really good about the whole thing. Like maybe I will learn French. And make French friends. And feel like I really live here (if only when I have to leave/shoot myself in a field.)

This is a critical step in breaking down walls and stereotypes and re-establishing that deep friendship between France and America that seems all but lost these day of ruthless political expediency. Maybe we can live side by side again as brothers and sisters. Maybe I’ll even have someone to feed my kitties when I go to Croatia! This is promising. But wait, I hear Carole say something to Jerome that’s too fast for me to make out and they laugh….Did that French snob just call me a “pchkwuuuueeeeetaeeeen?”


international political summit (in which Carole and I discuss global politics in the others’ language).  A comedy.

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