Ooooo, I’m going to French peoples’ house for dinner. People I didn’t know four months ago. People who speak French. And it’s Fete de moi. But I’m pretty sure they don’t know that. I may have mentioned my birthday weeks ago to Carole in one our French/English sessions when we were doing dates and birthdays and times. I have friends who don’t remember my birthday even if I tell them the day before (which I choose to interpret as an act of kindness rather than that they don’t give a damn). No way will she remember. That’s cool. I come from the ignore it and it will go away school of thinking.
I really like Carole. We have a great time during our French/English sessions. I don’t know Jerome as well, but he seems fun too. But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of having dinner with them. What if it’s three courses of uncomfortable silence? What if I make a faux pas and start an international incident? Or worse, make a faux pas and get kicked out of Auvers?
It’s not the fact that the conversation flows easily, even with the language barrier that relaxes me. Or even that Carole remembers it’s my birthday –there’s champagne, and they sing happy birthday to me in French and English when they bring out a home made birthday tart with candles (another interesting fact: the French often sing “happy birthday” in English, but they’re not sure why). What clinches it for me is Jerome announcing that the best thing about America besides rock and roll is “The Simpsons” and that he feels a great bond with Homer. This is when I know for sure we’ll be great friends.
But I’m not here to get smooshy about the neighbors. I’m here as an ambassador and to gather intelligence.
Jerome and Carole are both divorced (from other people) and have been seeing each other for five years. (interesting statistic: the divorce rate in the Ile de France area is 75% which I find oddly comforting) They’re in their mid-forties. They both have two kids from the previous marriages. He lives in St Ouen, just outside of Paris and she lives here. He works in software and she works in sales.
For the most part, they’re together on the weekends and live their lives sort of separately during the week. It seems to suit both of them. Carole seems quite independent and likes having her alone time.
Carole is from Auvers originally. Her mother still lives here. Her daughter just moved out and is living in an apartment here in Auvers. Her 11 year old son is spending August in Normany with his father. Jerome is also from the Il de France area. People here seem to stay closer to their roots than we do in America. Of course, we have more room to spread out.
Jerome has been to Dallas, San Francisco, Baltimore and Atlanta on business. Carole hasn’t been to the US and doesn’t deal with Americans in her work, which is why she needs help improving her English. Jerome has obviously spent time with Americans. His English is quite good and even uses expressions like “you guys.” He’s especially keen to pick up our more colloquial phrases like: “that’s crap!” which he can’t wait to use on his Dallas associates.
Their favorite phrase is “shit-faced”. They think it’s hilariously ugly. At first, it’s a totally foreign concept to them. They say French people don’t get “shit-faced”. Which may sound elitist, but I really have noticed that you don’t see as many drunken people stumbling (and driving) about here as one does in the US. Carole and Jerome think it’s because Europeans have been drinking since they were children, so they don’t get falling down drunk (don’t we call that having a “hollow leg” or something?). At any rate, every time Carole refills her glass, she says “I wish to experience this shit-faced”. I feel proud to have contributed to their knowledge of American culture.
We theorize about why so many Japanese tourists come to Auvers. Whenever I see a Japanse person or group at a train station, I know they’re on their way to Auvers and I’m always right. It’s almost like a pilgrimage site. Maybe the Japanese have some mysterious affinity to Van Gogh. He did do those fabulous copies of Japanese prints, did that have something to do with it? There was the Japanese industrialist who bought a portrait of Dr. Gachet and wanted to be buried with it. Everyone protested, the guy died and the painting is missing. Maybe the Japanese have some strange Van Gogh cult…Or maybe the Japanese industrialist and the painting are buried here and it’s some sort of secret Japanese treasure hunt. If we find a Japanese tourist who speaks either French or English (not good odds on that), we resolve to ask.
After a few drinks, I blurt out that I think that the French are more like Americans than any other nationality. Then I hold my breathe and prepare to run. I hasten to add that I mean it in a good way, explaining they are like “le quarante neuf pour cent qui n’ont vote pas pour Palin” (which is essentially French for “the people in the blue states”). Considering that they didn’t poison my food, I assume no grave offense was taken.
But while there are similarities, the French seem to be more in touch with…life, humanity. history, a world beyond theirs. They seem less caught in the machinery. They don’t have a lot of fast food because they don’t eat fast. They stroll.
We mostly converse in French (and pantomime, at which I’m becoming fluent). Carole corrects my grammar where necessary, kind of like my mother does in English and about as often. It’s surprising how many words I find hard to explain in English, let alone French.
Every now and then I astonish all of us by remembering a difficult word and using it correctly in a sentence. “ Enfante gate” (spoiled child), shocked the heck out Jerome. As did “grouiller” (swarming crowd). They cheer me, probably the same way they cheered their kids when they first said “maman” or “chat”. I obligingly puff up with childish pride.
On my way home (all four meters) I savor the moment. I made it! It was fun. I don’t think they hate me! I hit the French neighbor jackpot! I can’t believe how sweet it was for those rude, anti-American French people to do that for me. They sure aren’t doing much to further the French snob stereotype. I also note that this is the first time I’ve seen a drunk person staggering around Auvers. Sure, it’s me, but a statistic is a statistic.
More on my international relations: