Tuesday, February 01, 2011

On Simmering Soup and Smiles in a French Life - Part One

Like the soup that is simmering on the back burner chez La Fourchette, blending subtle flavors into rich and satisfying texture and taste is a process, not an event.  The key is time.  Well, that and paying attention along the way.  Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?  But when the soup is a new life in another country, the time it takes to blend - or blend in - can progress like a hesitant escargot heading for a pan of garlic and butter.  En plus*,  cracking the code to determine exactly what gets added to the mix and what gets left out can be like trying to unlock the secret recipe of a Michelin-starred chef...errr....not all that easy if you get my drift.

Our soup for this week is still simmering and bowls full will be served tomorrow.  It'll be worth pulling a chair up to the table, so plan to come back when you hear the dinner bell.  But I thought I’d start with the back story on this soup.  Bear with me…you are about to feast on a slice of my little French life…it’ll make more sense tomorrow…I promise.

I am car-less in Aix en Provence.  For a California girl, this is both liberating and frustrating.  Living in a town in which I can walk to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (not to mention the cinema and various theaters for live performances and concerts) couldn’t be more perfect for someone who is happy to have taken an exit off the freeways of So. Cal.  The time to be factored in for these tasks is quite another adjustment.  But little by little, even that seems less of an issue these days.

There are countless re-calibrations like this – some more complicated than others.  One of them has to do with a particular California (perhaps it's just American) habit that arrived with me when I landed in France:  a smile. 

Wired with a natural optimism (my mother used to refer to my outbursts of unfettered - and often unreasonable  - optimism by calling me Pollyanna), I quickly learned that smiling was not such a good idea here in France.  Neither was eye contact.  This has to do with the whole public life/private life that the French so value.  People are out on the street to get from one place to another - that's pretty much it.  If they meet a friend along the way, tant mieux**, but meeting new people....errr...not really so interested in that, no.  In public, it's an all business – all the time attitude and demeanor.  Smiles to strangers are worthy of suspicion.  And in the case of men, worthy of an unintended and unwelcome approach.  I was a quick study on this and, as an introvert, came to appreciate that whole split between inner and outer life. 

But try as I might, that smile sneaks up on me and slips right out if I’m not paying attention.  As a result, things like this happen to me:

On Monday I was to pick up a car at the rental car agency (I needed it for today’s business meeting) and arrived with a beautifully wrapped box of chocolates.  You see, the last time I rented a car through this place (I’ve used them for years – they have the best internet deals and they're always really nice, but I digress…) I returned the car at an hour when the office was closed.  The complication being that I had to get to work and had no option but to leave the car at that particular moment to make the 30 minute walk back to my afternoon appointments.  

In a bit of a dither, I called the number listed on the contract.  Thankfully someone picked up (afterall, it was déjeuner***, a sacred hour in these parts).  She offered me the option of leaving the key in an agreed upon secret place to allow me to be on my way.  Nice, huh?  Thus, the box of chocolates - a petite merci.  (I've found that a simple thing like a box of sweets or a buttery bag of fresh madeleines from my favorite vendor in the marché works wonders to ease complexities of multi-cultural transactions that might otherwise be lost in translation.)

As I stepped up to the rental desk, Monica, the woman who usually handles the details when I need a car, was looking ever-so-much like the Cheshire cat.  She immediately got up and left saying she would be right back.  I set the chocolates on the counter and chatted with the fellow who was left at the desk. Monica returned with a box that looked like this:

…and it was filled with this:

“Just a petit rien**** because of your smile.  You always have a smile for us and that . is . rare!” she said, slowing the final three words for emphasis and adding a little "pffffft" and a dramatic roll of her eyes for flair.  (Of course, it’s rare – this is France! I thought.)

I was so blown away, I nearly forgot to explain why I had brought the chocolates.  When I finally got around to my appreciation for the special treatment last time (not to mention, that I was going to need that special treatment again today), she came around from behind the desk with arms open wide and a big smile.  She took hold of my shoulders and leaned in to faire les bises*****!  This is not a small thing, dear readers.  Then she gave me a cuter than cute Fiat to drive away and went out of her way to make sure all of my information in the system was correct and up to date.  

This kind of customer service is…well…let's just say it’s rare in these parts, people, and leave it at that.  Apparently, as rare as a smile!

To be continued… 

à demain,

* what's more
**  all the better
***  lunch
**** little nothing 
***** give kisses on each cheek 


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post on how our life experiences mirrors our inner being...gracious intentions deserve gracious gentures. Love your blog!

la fourchette said...

Anon, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you - for reading and for the kind words!

May I send out a resounding merci to you all. Comments are like the frosting on the cupcake, the chocolate in a pain chocolate, the glaze on a krispy kreme...or like a box filled with French delicacies! I received an email from a reader saying that the comment elves were slacking on the job (give 'em a break - they work for cookies) and comments were not being delivered. Sorry for any that were missed, because honestly, I love hearing from you. So thank you...for reading, for your thoughtful comments, for showing up at the table...for being out there. Thanks.


donna said...

being a native california girl...i know "that" smile....i do it....and it is like breathing for me.....i have lived in other places than california, and my smile is not always appreciated....but i smile on.....BECAUSE the zen side of me KNOWS that little zen miracles happen when we express our love out there in the world.....btw those comment elves CAN be mischievious!!!!

leslie said...

You are such an amazing writer. I enjoy reading your posts very much. I would love to know what kind of writing you do for a living? I hope I'm not asking for to much information.

la fourchette said...

donna, who would know better than another CA girl?! (That 'zen side' sounds very wise.) As to the comment elves: I've had a stern (well, as stern as one can get with elves) talk with them so here's hoping they're back up to the task.


*Tasiaa said...

I'm looking forward to the next story!

C'était très amusant!


la fourchette said...

*Tasiaa, merci beaucoup! (new profile photo? Nice!) Looking forward to seeing you at the table for soup...and the rest of this find fable tomorrow!

leslie, oh my! Thank you...un mille fois kind of thank you! I've got a big project in the works and am still trying to sell a couple of articles written on fascinating subjects about my little corner of the world. Although I've received a lovely personal response (okay, okay, it was a rejection - but one of the nicest and most encouraging I could hope to receive!) from the editor of the travel section at the New York Times (and others, to be fair), these little gems are still waiting for a home. I think I'll stick with La Fourchette for the now - the people here are all so lovely! Why go anyplace else?!


Colleen Osten said...

This was an absolutely delicious bowl of soup. I was disappointed it ended, I could have kept eating and eating! I know that smile of yours, and as always smile myself as I relate to the experiences we shared that you so deftly put into words. Brava!

la fourchette said...

Col! Thank you! Oh, I remember that soup...it was when your friend ooooh...is it Jill?!...your college roommate was visiting.

I miss your lovely American smile in town...and the laugh that goes with it! You sooo know what I'm talking about here!

Bodhi sends a woof and a...what's that he's doing? A hip-wiggle? ;} to his big sister, Biscuit...xoxo from Aix.

laura said...

Great story! And such a lovely exception to the norm of French costumer service being the worst thing ever!

la fourchette said...

laura, it *is* a great story, isn't it?! When people used to ask me what I missed about the US, I used to answer without missing a beat or taking a breath: "Customer service!"
Sounds like you're with me on this.


BonjourRomance said...

Bonjour Leslie,
Just found your fantastic blog, and have enjoyed reading through your posts. I'm an American expat in Paris - and yes the smile thing can do wonderful things here in France (once they get over the shock of it all). I think deep down they would love to smile a bit more themselves..well, some perhaps...
I will be following along from now on,

la fourchette said...


I just found your comment! Thank you for the lovely compliment...and welcome! I suspect you may be right about that deep down thing. I've seen some French faces light up on occasion when they forget the rules and just smile back.

Thanks for reading. Hope to see you soon.


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