Sunday, November 11, 2012

Creative Writing

Though I do a fair amount of writing at work, translating only leaves room for creativity within the confines of the source text. Sometimes I feel like writing for me, just to put pen to paper even if it doesn't yield much. Ideaphoria. But it's so easy to put off writing -there is always something else that could be done instead, like vacuuming or taking out the recycling or responding to email.

So I joined a creative writing group for English speakers in Toulouse for an opportunity to be held accountable on some level and to write with and learn from others. And what a great way to exchange with others experiencing some of the same joy, confusion and frustration that come with living in a foreign country and doing everyday things in a foreign language.

This is the piece I wrote last Wednesday as part of an exercise to include the words: fish, cat, pie and teaspoon all within one short story. A true story, might I add...

Is that canned tuna fish in his motorcycle helmet? Oh no, canned crab meat, aka "tourteau" which looks a lot like the word for turtle dove (tourterelle), though fortunately it's not for all involved. Bits of crab claw, wow -I bet that stuff's expensive. I wonder if it's any good? What on earth could he be doing with so much of it?

True confession: a guilty pleasure of mine involves spying on the contents of other people's purchases at the supermarket. What are they putting in their shopping carts? Do I recognize it? Would I ever buy it? 

My supermarket reconnaissance operation is interrupted:

Excusez-moi, could you hold my place in line?

Of course, I'd be glad to.

[before heading back to the aisles in search of one last item, he carefully attempts to balance the helmet filled with all that canned crab on the tile floor. It wobbles precariously.]

Would you like me to hold the helmet too?

No, no -it'll be fine, he says as he hurries off.

In my head I re-review the recipe. Are you sure you're not forgetting something? 1 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup melted butter, 3/4 cup pumpkin puree, cinnamon, nutmeg, 1 teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Got it. Not pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread. Time to prove to my coworkers that you can do more with pumpkin that just soup.

As the line moves forward I advance the helmet. Very carefully.

When he returns with the can of Redbull, he picks up the helmet and showers me with praise -"thanks, you're the best." This has me do a double take; the French tend to be fairly stingy with their compliments. I took 3 months' worth of tennis lessons one year and only heard a "pas mal"...

Looking down at the singular contents of his motorcycle helmet turned shopping basket, he laughs and says, "c'est pour mon chat."

Did I catch that right? It's for his cat. Wow, his cat sure lucked out...

The cashier's voice breaks my train of thought, 

That will be 78 euros and 46 cents.

Not paying much attention he swipes his card.

But when the cashier hands him the receipt, he looks down in disbelief.

Ummm, I'm sorry. I thought this was cat food. Can I get a refund?

I'm sorry sir, I can't process that here. You'll have to go downstairs to the main desk.

I offered a sympathetic "bon courage" after we said au revoir.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

K-I-S-S-I-N-G... at the office

Say what?
That's right. My coworkers kiss good morning at the office.

This has my sister very stressed. I'm pretty sure my brother-in-law is also concerned. My niece and nephew can't help but giggle in the background as they eavesdrop on our phone conversations on the topic.

It's common knowledge that the French do the two kisses, one on each cheek, in greeting (faire la bise). But sometimes it's a fine line at work. Can I get by with a handshake or do you people really expect me to go in for a kiss?

In a professional setting, meeting clients for the first time involves handshaking. However, female employees are expected to do the bise with both male and female coworkers. The guys can just shake hands. Apparently men only do the bise amongst themselves if they're very, very close friends or family, must be nice.

I work in a small office, which means I have about 6 people to greet every day. That still adds up to 12 kisses before 9 am, which is usually more than this little American can handle. I can actually hear smoochy noises coming from the break room between 8 and 9. I'm sure there's an algebraic equation to work this out, but I'm guessing we're looking at 42 kisses every morning for the entire office. That's a lot of bisous, folks!

So for those of you who are back to work after the Labor Day weekend, I hope you're reveling in a bise-free workplace!


Monday, December 20, 2010

La petite maison dans la prairie

Monsieur J and I have been playing what I've taken to calling "Little House on the Prairie." Why, you might ask? Because we've been sans hot water for 3 weeks. 21 days folks, 22 tomorrow.

To heck with sugarplums, I've been dreaming of a hot shower. Can you blame me?

But instead we've been reduced to boiling water in the kettle, pouring it into a bucket and "washing" in the shower. I use the term washing loosely, as I haven't felt especially clean lately.

The good news is, this is France. And somehow I still smell better than 90% of the other people on my bus. I tolerate other people's stinkiness on a daily basis, consider this my contribution...or better yet, my revenge.

With the exception of picking up a warm baguette, everything else takes longer in these parts.

Unfortunately this applies to things breaking in the rental apartment, which sets off a long chain of tedious tasks:

1. Call rental agency x however many times it takes them to realize there really is a problem

2. Rental agency realizes you are not making this up

3. Rental agency calls repair service

4. Wait several days for the repair service to call you

5. Schedule an appointment

6. Wait at least a week for said appointment to roll around

7. Arrange your schedule to be home for the appointment

8. Repair service investigates the problem and sends an estimate to rental agency

9. Agency contacts owner to see if he will agree to the repair

10. Continue waiting, as the owner avoids phone calls from the agency

11. Agency finally gets the owner's agreement and alerts repair service

12. Schedule a follow-up appointment with the repair service to actually fix the problem

13. Wait at least another week for said appointment

14. Arrange your schedule to be home for the 2 p.m. repair

15. Revel in your tenacity and take a hot shower.

We're at step 14 and if I'm not basking in a hot shower when I get home from work tomorrow night, then I'll be channeling George Costanza and his infamous line, "serentity now"!

Here's to returning to America for Christmas, cheers!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Salon des arts du feu

A couple of weeks ago, Monsieur J and I spent a weekend at the farm -oh to get out of the city! Dominique suggested we head into Martres Tolosane on Sunday for the 10th annual sculpture, ceramics and glass-blowing craft fair.

We looked, but we didn't touch.

There were bowls, platters, mugs and tea cups, not to mention a hearty dose of creativity and fantaisie.

We even got to watch a demonstration on making ceramic rope coil urns, the ones that people like to put in their jardins around here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why French women don't get fat.

I wish I could say I've read the book, but I haven't.

I wonder if there's a chapter devoted to strikes, la grève?

Thanks to the strikes these past few weeks, I have a better understanding of why French women don't run around on treadmills like hamsters.

Of course they don't. It costs money; it's certainly not dignified; but more importantly, when the angry mobs take to the streets, everyday life becomes a workout.

Take this past week, for example. The bus depot was blocked 4/5 mornings this week -thank goodness I can walk! Starting off your day with a 2.5 mile speed walk to work, now that will wake you up. Carpe diem.

My early morning walks have also helped me develop other skills such as: dog poo night vision, avoiding panicky French motorists who pull onto the sidewalk when they spy a service station with gasoline (a rarity these days) at the last minute, and keeping my distance from rebel high schoolers pushing trashcans to add to their barricades.

I wish I were joking, but I can't make this up.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Are you ever going to blog again?

The answer is yes.

I've been quiet for a while, friends.

Probably because I believed it was too good to be true.

I have a job!

As a translator.

And guess what?

I love it!

I keep pinching myself, but after 3 weeks I think it just may be real.

You see, there's

an office
a desk
a full agenda
a boss
different projects every day
a work email address
a lunch break
gel pens and highlighters galore
a computer

I would take pictures of it all, but then my French colleagues would REALLY think the American's weird. I'm doing my best to break them in gently...

No longer a lady of leisure, I now spend my days translating, re-reading, editing, doing quality controls, contacting clients, bouncing ideas around -it's FANTASTIC.

But since I have a history of landing jobs that don't work out thanks to crazy French bureaucracy, I only thought it appropriate to wait until payday so as not to jinx the whole affair. It's real.

Happy weekend to all!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Muti-function combinative torch mosquito swatter.

This probably qualifies as the most bizarre, creative and entertaining wedding present that Monsieur J and I have received thus far.

Sent with love from friends in Italy, I think we're pretty lucky that French customs agents didn't intercept it. Careful inspection of the packaging yields no information regarding the company and only some rudimentary explanations concerning correct product usage, such as:


1. Grip the handle, press the switch button to initiate power on the nets and light up the red indication lamp. Be sure to keep pressing the switch button while hitting bugs.

2. Never shall we get any shock or danger when we touch (not squeeze) the outer nets, so we can flap mosquito stopping on our skin with this safe swatter directly withou* shocks.

3. Once the mosquito get in touch with the swatter net, it certainly will not be able to escalpe*, it may be either drawn into the innernet or fastened by static force to the outer net, but when any part of its body approach* the inner net, it will eventually get shocks and zapped immediately.

*all misspellings are represented here as seen on the packaging


There are also a few warnings, most notably the one that reads, "this swatter is not a toy for children." Indeed, this is not intended for children, but it's a heck of a lot of fun for adults!

We've been having cool nights here in Toulouse, which means our windows have been open. However, we live in the land-of-no-screens, where this means one thing: bugs.

Mosquitoes that buzz in your ear, flies that hover in the kitchen, gnats that flitter aimlessly around the livingroom, enough is enough!

Before we would rudimentarily hunt the offender, perhaps armed with a newspaper or just a bare hand. Now, Monsieur J and I delight in swatting bugs with our racquets. Successful zapping is hard to miss. There's the loud "crack!" and the sparks, sometimes deep blue ones.

Romantic, right?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Shepherd dwellings.

Yesterday, Monsieur J and I set out for a hike in the Pyrénées. I'd picked this one out because of the orris -shepherds' dwellings used as early as the 1300s. Not only did we see the ruins, but cows and sheep galore -evidence that these mountain pastures are still alive and well.

We parked just above the lake at Soulcem and set out for the valley where we immediately saw not just one or two cabins, but several. A sign explained the complexity of the arrangements; the huts weren't used exclusively for shepherds, but for their flocks, milking, cheese production, etc...

We picnicked in the valley before climbing up to a little pond nestled in the mountains.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What do you miss?

What do you miss the most about home?

It's the question I invariably get when people in France learn I'm going home. And it's a good one, even if it's not so much the things I miss, but the people -especially my family.

Of course I miss things like readily available ice, corn on the cob, crabcakes and cold beer. But I really miss the people and the time we share.

baking cupcakes.

celebrating birthdays.

being silly.

enjoying vacation.

building sandcastles.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Baby sea turtles.

We had a great family beach trip -eleven people in one house!

One of the highlights was seeing three baby sea turtles emerge from the nest and make their way to sea. I'd seen a loggerhead lay her eggs when I was younger and I saw the lifecycle completed watching these little Kemp's Ridley (a rare find in NC) skibble into the Atlantic.

I went up the dune to check the nest around 9:30 that morning with my nieces Kate and Alice. We were about to turn around when I saw something that appeared to be moving in the sand. Under closer inspection, I realized it was a baby sea turtle!

The poor little guy was on his back, so I flipped him over while my mom called the phone number listed on the nest, aka Charlie the turtle man. There were about 8 of us watching as he crawled instictively toward the water -he knew exactly what to do!

By the time Charlie the turtle man arrived, our little friend had already made his way out to sea.

Charlie proceeded to dig up the rest of the nest, in case there were any stragglers. Judging from the tracks surrounding the nest, the other 102 turtles had hatched during the night.

He found two little turtles that were very sandy and slightly overwhelmed -by this point, around 25 people had gathered on the beach to watch their descent. But they made it!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Name change fail.

My father in law always says that the worst any country has to offer can be found in its administrative offices. Truer words have never been spoken. After three years of dealing with French bureaucracy, I got a taste of America's today and here's the verdict: it's no better.

My parents had warned me not to go to the Social Security office in the city. Per usual, they were right. I did heed their advice to take a book, so I passed the time reading Water for Elephants, a very appropriate choice given my circus-like surroundings. I did my best to concentrate and only paused once to eavesdrop. I couldn't resist.

The couple sitting next to me were having a very heated discussion about the months of the year, or more specifically which comes first: July or August. He was convinced that July follows August, while she adamantly maintained that "it goes June, July, August -you's stupid!" This went on for quite a while.

I could have attempted to settle the dispute with my planner, but since I purchased it in France I can only imagine the chaos that juin, juillet, août might have caused when added to this equation. I shudder just to think...

There were also technical difficulties with the number system, so the clerks would call out "C202" in their wimpy little voices and then the security guard would bellow, "C202, C202, where's my C202?" The whole thing was like being at an auction sans items up for bid.

If no one responded, he would check outside to see if any of the smokers' held the ticket in question. And if he still hadn't found that ticket holder he would then proceed to knock impatiently on the bathroom door, shouting "C202 -you in there, C202? Hold on a sec' we got C202 here in the restroom!"

I wish I were making this up, but I'm not that creative.

Since my French marriage documents confused the heck out of everyone, even the supervisor and led to questions like, "why ain't this in English?" [Ummm, because they speak French in France.] I guess I'll have to try this dog and pony show again at Christmas, perhaps in Henrico County instead.

Wish me luck!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Adventures in Toulouse is paused for...

Adventures in America!

I can't even begin to describe how wonderful it is to be home, to see friends and family and revel in all things American. Crunching on corn on the cob, hugging instead of kissing, enjoying the miracle that is air conditioning -does a body good!

Though I don't plan on blogging while I'm home, I will be taking pictures to share with all of you at some point. But now it's time to pack the car in preparation for the family beach trip. We may not all be arriving in the wood paneled Oldsmobile station wagon like we used to, but then again maybe that's for the best...

Happy Summer!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A splash of color.

In our neighborhood, heavy trash pickup is on Friday. This means that one man's junk can turn into another man's treasure on Thursday evening. Typically, what people deem garbage around here is exactly that, trash. But sometimes you get lucky.

So far I've scavenged a drying rack, an assortment of hanging baskets for the balcony and an end table. My mother in law told me that rummaging through the garbage like this is très américain. But I could tell she meant it as a compliment!

At any rate, the base of the table we found was in decent shape. The top had visible water damage, but Monsieur J was able to pry it off and replace it. What to do? Mosaic.

Armed with an assortment of plates from the flea market, some glue, cement and varnish, what was once a poor pathetic end table destined for the trash is now enjoying a new life in our living room. Pas mal!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

This just in.

You don't have to be Julia Child to be tempted by the idea of culinary school or maybe just a cooking class in France. The country is synonymous with gastronomie, wouldn't it be cool to take a cooking class on your next trip?

Unfortunately, the rates for these classes aren't always reasonable and of course space is limited. What's a girl to do? In Toulouse I've lucked out; l'Office offers fairly priced classes in proximity to the city center. I especially love the express midi option, where you cook for 45 minutes and enjoy your creation with classmates.

The 15 euro fee includes the lesson, main meal, dessert, coffee or tea and a 2 euro supplement will get you a glass of wine. For the price, you'd have a hard time paying for a restaurant meal of similar quality -and can you really put a price on savoir faire?

But when Americans come to France, they go to Paris and it's a well known fact that everything is more expensive in Paris. What if you could sign up to take a cooking class for FREE?

The city of Paris, in conjunction with the Fédération Française de Cuisine Amateur, have organized a series of free cooking classes on a rotating basis around the city's markets.

The schedule of classes for the remainder of 2010 is as follows:

– Marché Mouton-Duvernet – Paris 14ème : Friday September 17
– Marché Ordener – Paris 18ème : Saturday September 18
– Marché Monge – Paris 5ème : Sunday September 26
– Marché Anvers – Paris 9ème : Friday October 1
– Marché Maison Blanche – Paris 13ème : Sunday October 3
– Marché Point du Jour – Paris 16ème : Thursday October 7
– Marché Villette – Paris 19ème : Saturday October 16

All you have to do is pick a market and register for the class online on the FFCA website. Since there aren't any classes going on at the moment (read: it's vacation) there are currently no prompts to register for classes. However, this should change as September approaches.

All classes start at 10 a.m. and a different neighborhood chef is designated to teach each one. The chef will help you select the best produce from the market and prepare the meal. At the end of the class, everyone gets a chance to taste the fruits of their labor. What's not to like?

Planning a trip to Paris this fall? Looking to branch out and try something new? Not willing to break the bank to learn how to cook? This could be a fun option. Even if your French is médiocre, you can probably get by.

Pay close attention to what everyone else is doing, especially the chef. Look for cognates: carrottes, concombre, tomate -as one of my favorite professors used to say in her thick Parisian accent, "French eeez eazy!" Most importantly, don't forget to smile. You never know who might take pity on you and offer to speak a little English...

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Lately, the blogosphere has been abuzz with kouign amann, the famous breton butter cake. I can understand the excitement. It's sweet, salty, caramalized goodness in layers that are almost impossible to recreate at home. Brittany produces hardly any cheese to speak of, but they are master butter makers, which gives you all the more reason to indulge. Let's face it, Cookie Monster and common sense deem this dessert a "sometimes" food.

Kouignettes, are essentially little baby kouign amann that make perfect individual servings -they almost look like roses. I love the concept behind these little treats, but don't be fooled by all of the different flavors on display. Stick to plain or caramel, no need for extras like rasperries, chocolate or pistachios.

After admiring paintings by Sérusier and Gauguin at the museum in Pont Aven (don't miss it!), we walked around the quaint village and couldn't help but duck into some of the more tempting pastry shops. La maison Larnicol was the perfect stop for kouignettes. We also couldn't resist Pont Aven's chocolate shop for millefeuille and lots of drooling over the cases of petits gâteaux.

How we managed to resist all of this, I have yet to fully understand. And in case you were wondering, that's a lime tart with vanilla bean on the right. Why didn't I taste you?