Wednesday, February 02, 2011

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

...speaking of smiles and the French not doing so much of it, there is actually a rule about it.  That's right.

No smiles allowed least not in photos for things like identity cards (comparable to a US driver's license), medical cards, etc. 


Not one turned up mouth corner to be seen.  In fact, those shots look more like something one would see on the wall of a US post office - or TMZ when it covers bad actors and their DUIs...but I digress...(oh, don't try to tell me you don't occasionally click on that site to check in on the lastest LA gossip!  People mag?  InStyle?  We all have our little shadow vices when left with unsupervised moments, non? But really...I digress...)

This took some getting used to because, you see,  I smile.  It's a photo for gods sakes, of course I smile.  But when I went in for my medical card photo (yes, that's right, I'm now officially in the famous French medical system.  Yay me.  Yay France!), they insisted that it had to be sans sourire*, sans lunettes**, sans les cheveux*** in my face.  And they were oh so right. 

My first photo?  I had forgotten to take off my glasses.  Reject. 

The second try?  Ferociously ugly mug shot. Check.  Slap that puppy on a card with no expiration date and send it on out!

With this French cringe-worthy photo experience under my belt, my American passport needed to be renewed.  I went into a photo place a few weeks ago for my two required photos to be included with my application to the American consulate.  There, a polite fellow indicated that yes, they did provide passport photos and guided me to the little spinning stool in front of a white background.  He gestured for me to be seated. 

Former Girl Scout that I am, I took the printed version (from the US government website) of the regulations for American passport photos out of my purse and handed it to him...forgetting that he's French and doesn't necessarily appreciate being told how to do things.

"We can smile!" I said to him in a way-too-chirpy-to-be-considered-normal tone as I tried to compensate for the insult I had clearly committed with my printed regs.

"D'accooooord," he said, then switched to English, "but not a beeeeg smile, like zeeeeesssse," and with that he pulled the corners of his mouth up toward his ears in a Mad Joker-type of face.

"Uhhhh...Right," I said, all signs of chirp taking flight from my tone.   Oh, this can't be good.  A man who is pissed at me is going to take my picture.  A picture that I'm going to have to look at for the next ten (count 'em!) ten years.

I shook it off, lifted my countenance towards his flash aaaaand ... smiled.  I could feel it immediately - a sort of crooked half-smile that I haven't seen since my fourth grade class photos...which, by the way, was taken the day after I'd cut my own bangs. 


"Encore****," he said.

Look up.  Take a breath.  Let it out.  Aaaaaaannnnnd smile.


He was all business as he flashed the back of his camera in my direction to show me the two shots taken.  Neither of them looked that good but what was I going to do - add another insult? Ask for one more chance? Expect the customer to be right? Happy? Satisfied?  (Perhaps at the rent-a-car place, but not here.)

"Très bien*****," I heard myself say.  The nervous chirp was back.

"You cahn rrretournnnne zeeese afternoonnne to peeeck zem up.  Zay weeell be rrready after trree." he said, avoiding any eye contact.

When I returned that afternoon, I tried to be discreet as I walked in the door.  I just wanted to pick up my photos and get out of there.  I told the woman behind the counter my name but as she turned to open the drawer of waiting orders, Monsieur Grumpy Pants Photographer stopped her and told her my photos were in the back.  He would get them.  She left me to him.  La vache.******

He returned and slid the packet of photos across the counter in my direction saying, "Voilà! Madame Smile Face."


Was the bigger insult that he was giving me my first real nickname here or that he had photo-shopped me into some sort of bizarre helmet-headed creature?  I couldn't decide. 

This is what I get? Really?!  This is it after six years of trying to integrate as respectfully as I possibly can - I get this? For the request to be able to smile on my American passport photo?  Really?! 

I took my photos, slinked out the door and never looked at them again.  I went to another photo place, had another set taken and sent them in.  I don't really remember what they look like.  Trauma will do that to one's memory.

Then just  a couple of weeks ago, I stepped into my favorite little Italian market.  Owned by a couple about my age, they make the best pesto outside of my little French kitchen.  I've been known to make a weekly purchase of their lovely blend (a secret recipe) when I can't get basil in the market to make my own.  I'd fallen out of my rhythm since returning from spending summer in the US and hadn't been in for quite some time.  Thus it came as no surprise, after all these months, that the reception I received was a bit chilly.  What's more, there was not a peck of pesto in the place to be had.

"La semaine prochaine,∞" Madame Pesto Perfetto said as she focused on arranging the marinated octopus in a tub behind the glass - again with the no-eye-contact thing.  I thanked her politely (or was it profusely?  I can slip into suck-up mode if I sense I've offended someone) and told her I'd be back next week. 

As promised, I returned last Wednesday.  Madame and her husband were stocking shelves when I walked in.  I started with my usual  (and rather melodically delivered - think Julia Child-type melodic ) "Bonjour" as I entered the shop.  Then I pulled an empty glass jar from my basket.  As I handed it to her, I said, "Guess what I want?"

She smiled and said, "Pesto!" and we both laughed at how clever our little exchange had been.   Then from the corner, where he was stacking the newly arrived Italian specialties, I heard, "Madame Soleil est arrivée."  (Madame Sunshine has arrived.)

He was talking about me.

Madame Soleil.*******  Imagine that.

Single-handedly changing the French culture one smile at a time. 

Well...except for cranky passport photographers.  

Some cases are just tougher to crack than others.

This soup is my take on Dibby Dab Soup.  A deluxe version of a soul-soothing chicken soup.  Whip up a batch when you need a little comfort - like after a French identity photo session.   Or savor it along with a sweet compliment/gift/nickname that has landed when you least expected it.

It works for both situations. You can trust me on this.

La Fourchette's Chicken Soup for the Soul

1 onion, chopped
1 leek, halved, rinsed well and sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
herbs de provence
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 chicken breast, whole
1 15 oz. can chopped tomatoes
6 cups of good chicken stock
1 cup of canned chick peas
sea salt and pepper to taste
tortellini, (I used spinach and riccota)
(I often add a sausage - meat taken out of the casings - to the mix but my favorite butcher was closed for the winter holiday and I only get them from him.  Worth a try, though.)

Sauté onion, leek, garlic until soft. Toss in a tablespoon or so of crushed herbs de provence and add the carrot, zucchini, tomatoes and stock.  Bring to a boil, drop in the chicken breasts and chick peas and allow to simmer for 30 - 45 minutes.  (I add the sausage with the chicken when I include it.)  Remove the cooked chicken from the soup and allow to cool just enough to be able to shred it, then return it to the pot.  Bring it back to a soft boil and add the tortellini.  Cook to the package directions - depending on fresh or dried.  Test for seasonings and add sea salt and pepper to taste.

I sometimes put a handful of chopped spinach (or baby spinach leaves) in the bottom of each bowl and ladle the soup on top of this.  Top each bowl with a spoonful of pesto and serve immediately.

If I have veggies that need to be used, they'll sometimes end up in this which point, if it is loaded with fresh veggies, it becomes Brush Your Colon Soup.  But I only call it that with family and friends.  In fact, let's keep that just between us, shall we?

Bon appétit!

* without smiling
** without glasses
*** without hair in the face
**** again
***** very well
****** "the cow" - literal translation, but used in slang to express dismay, like 'damn'...only cuter because it's...well...a cow.
∞ next week
******* sun, sunshine

ps:  I know this looks like was soup in an earlier incarnation but I was tapping away on this post as it warmed for its photo shoot....and then I lost track of time and it got a to say?...stewy.  (Fortunately for the soup, this is not a passport photo that will follow them for TEN years!)


Deborah said...

Not, er, posting that picture then...?!

Goodness, that soup looks delicious! said...

Oh I enjoy your writing so much!!
thank you for sharing..have a lovely day xo Colette ~ Afrique du Sud

la fourchette said...

Deborah, err...non! That linked shot of Nick Nolte is as close as anyone is getting to the image that represents me on my carte vitale. 'Nuff said. Except that I will add that it took everything in me not to try to explain myself to my oh-so-handsome osteo when I handed over that very card the other day...but he has already diagnosed me with 'la tête farci*' - so I thought it better to keep my sorry little explanation stuffed in my tête.

Colette, oh thank you so much! Music to my ears - or eyes, as the case may be. Sending some of our lovely sunshine in your direction. Thanks again!


* stuffed head (not really a clinical diagnosis - I think he made this up just for me...for some reason. Go figure!)

ps: I'll be posting comments through the day from now on but will wait until the end of each day to respond to all that have been received by then. (Have I mentioned how much I love hearing from you?)

leslie said...

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy reading this blog? I think I have.
I got such a chuckle out of this post. Not just snow here, now we are covered in ice. I actually have everything for the soup except the chicken so I think I'll try a veggie version. Have a great day.

*Tasiaa said...

Qelle jolie histoire.

With *une grande sourire* in my face!


donna said...

love the story, as i giggle... i believe i would have the same fate if i moved to france : ) .... i LOVE the's sitting in the soup queue.... as i am a soup behind, plus i now need that aigo bouido, as i have caught a cold that is whispering "garlic....garlic" in my garlic soup it is today.....(sounds yummy)

Betty C. said...

Great post! I learned the hard way in my teaching job that over-smiling and being too gushily friendly was a passport for being considered an idiot.

I think times are changing, though. I have noticed much friendlier customer service in Paris the past few years, with eye contact and the occasional smile included! It may hit the South one of these days.

la fourchette said...

leslie, why, yes. Yes you have...and I'm blushing as I type. Thank you. Again. So glad you enjoyed this - and that you chuckled! Stay warm and enjoy the soup - this would easily convert to a veggie version when the larder is low. (And get busy with a few more of those lovely flower shots you're creating!)

*Tasiaa, merci beaucoup! Ça me plaît!

donna, thanks! (I actually had a giggle or two as I was putting it together.) You're going to really like this soup. I just know it. Feel better! Hope the aigo bouido does the trick.
{Anytime anything whispers 'garlic' in my ear, I follow. It's gotten me in trouble, but maybe that's just me. '}

Betty C., Thanks! Yes, another reader sent an email (thanks emily!) saying that she remembered being told by a French friend "that the French think that people who smile at strangers are akin to the "village idiot." Yeah. That just about sums it up. But I think you are right: it is creeping into the South. Occasionally, when I slip and smile, I'm often met with a lovely smile in response. Things are changing in the little rues. Now, if we could just get this little identity photo situation straightened out, we'll be cool!

Bonne nuit à tous - and thanks for reading!


Char said...

what a wonderful write today - i could feel myself in there with you. and yes, i love being tagged with a happy little nickname. madame sunshine would suit me well...

la fourchette said...

Char, thanks so much. Madame Sunshine works for me, too! I'll take it.


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