Thursday, September 24, 2009

Things Not to Say

Occasionally, there are things that I'm glad I don't know how to say in French, because it prevents me from saying things I later regret. Like: My god, you're a sexist pig. How does your wife put up with you?

For the past three weeks, I've been living with my host mother and another lodger, a middle-aged Algerian man, who, from time to time, drives me crazy.

He's incapable of cooking and only eats bread and Camembert cheese, sitting at the table and leaving breadcrumbs all over, which he then doesn't wipe up afterwards. He also makes coffee in the morning, which he drinks and then leaves the cup sitting in the sink, despite the fact that the dishwasher is less than a yard away. What drove me even crazier about this is that he does all of this with a cheerful admittance of his ignorance, insisting that in Algeria, his wife simply chases him out of the kitchen.

However, this isn't Algeria, and his wife isn't around. Too often, I'm the one who crumbs the table, puts the placemats away, rinses out his coffee cup and puts in the dishwasher, because I don't want my host mother to be burdened.

This is something I've been struggling with. Cultural tolerance is something we've been taught is a good thing. Everybody likes being different and we're supposed to celebrate our differences. But is there a point where "cultural differences" aren't an excuse anymore?

Obviously, this is a small example. Having to put someone else's dishes away is not a big deal. However, what about larger issues? In my Philosophy of Feminism class last year, we talked about female genital mutilation (FGM) and my professor, trying to spark a debate, brought up the issue of cultural differences. FGM is a rite of passage in some places. Can we still condemn it or is it another cultural difference?

This is a tricky subject to talk about, because as soon as you start to judge another culture, you risk sound Eurocentric, ethnocentric, or just plain biased, but I feel like it's a conversation we need to have. At what point does something become just plain "wrong"? (Also, to avoid sounding like I think American culture is always right, allow me to list a few phenomena in our culture that I don't particularly care for: binge drinking, the death penalty, political spin, and McDonald's. And yes, I know there's a huge difference in degree between FGM and McDonald's.)

I don't know where that line is, in the grand political scheme or in my host mother's host. If I lose my temper and tell the other lodger that he can put his own d*** dishes in the dishwasher because it's really not that hard, am I being an obnoxious American? Or I am simply standing up for myself and expecting him to do the right thing and bear his part of the housekeeping?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Facts about Toulouse

1. I am more likely to be killed by a vélo (bicycle) than by cars/muggers/Albanian mafia from Taken combined.

2. Apparently American-accented English is “cute.”

3. Occasionally, not knowing how to say things in French has prevented me from saying things I will later regret. Like “If I have to put your dishes away one more time, I’m going to break them over your head.” Or “For the love of God, would it kill you to put the seat down?”

4. The reason the French are “rude” is because they have perfected the art of the thousand-yard stare without eye contact. They do this because making eye contact invites the random men drunk on the street at 3 p.m. in the afternoon to start talking to you.

5. It is impossible to get lost in Centre-Ville. Based on the color of the original street signs and the street numbers, you can figure out cardinal directions. After that, all I have to do is go east towards the Canal du Midi.

6. After climbing Montsegur (the last Cathar stronghold), medieval warfare makes so much sense. Would you want to climb up this hill wearing sixty pounds of armor when you could just sit at the bottom and wait for them to starve instead?

Photo by Adam Baker, used under Creative Commons License.

7. When my host mother says "I know Americans like their meat well done, so I cooked it longer," that means that the meat is only bleeding on the inside.

8. There are cheap theatre tickets, tea salons and pastry shops everywhere. Plus Leonidas chocolate.
a.I may not come home.

9. I’m kidding about not coming home, Mom.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Certain people (not that I'm naming names or anything, Kim (; ) have told me that I am morally obliged to post pictures.

So, in fear of my mortal soul, I have supplied said pictures.

Also, some more numbers:

Meters climbed yesterday: 600, mostly at an obscenely sharp incline. The castles were worth it though. (Blog post and video to come.)

Times I have tripped over the storage ottoman so far: 10

Number of days until classes start at the university: 12

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Living Toulouse, Roman Toulouse

During almost any morning of the week, excluding Monday, there is a market somewhere in Toulouse. Whether its the enclosed market at Carmes, with its astonishing view if you climb to the roof of the parking garage above the market, or Victor Hugo, which I've been told has exceptional cheese vendors, or the open-air markets at St. Aubin or the Boulevard, Toulouse is teeming with commerce.

This last Sunday, September 6th, I went to the market at St. Aubin and now I understand why my host mother calls things "un bazaar" when they're disorganized. It was a giant, crowded, gleeful mess. I saw roast chicken and rabbit, pizza, confit du canard, paperback novels, ceramic dishware, toiletries, handbags and very fauvist artwork of a woman with a daisy growing out of her breasts. Slightly odd, but anyway.

My friend Christina and I bought a pizza, basil, goat cheese, and tomatoes to make dinner that night. I couldn't resist a carton of organic strawberries-- smaller than my thumbnail but incredibly sweet--- and Christina bought a bag to use when she's shopping. The Casino (no, Mom, I am not gambling) charges a few centimes for a plastic bag, so we prefer to bring our own.

After lugging our loot home (or consuming it within minutes after purchasing, in case of the strawberries), I went off to the Musee St. Raymond, right next to the Church of St. Sernin, to see some of the Roman relics discovered in Toulouse, including the Gallery of Emperors, France's most complete collection of busts of the Roman emperors and their families (below).

When I arrived there, I emerged into another mess. Apparently, there is a marché à la brocante (a second-hand goods market, specifically not selling food) every Saturday and Sunday morning around St. Sernin, which they were just breaking down. There were vans, trash and people packing up unsold merchandise everywhere, as well as a few scattered sanitation workers trying valiantly to cope with the mess. There weren't doing so well, but I had to dodge a oncoming street-cleaning van to get into the museum.

It was cool and quiet when I went up to the top floor to look at the artifacts. Every once in a while, I would look at the window at Place St. Sernin below, watching the sanitation workers and the market people scurry like frantic ants below me. It seemed like such a disparity. Cool marble and quiet inside, heat and frenzied activity outside.

But, now that I think about it, maybe it wasn't. The Romans had a forum in every city, a large open space where people gathered to socialize and do business. Maybe that was something like the brocante market being cleaned up below me, or the market I had gone to that morning. Maybe the rings I was looking at in the sterile glass case and been someone's great find on a Saturday morning. Maybe the toy sword had cost some Roman boy his pocket change.

I don't know. But I like to think so.

Friday, September 4, 2009


I am not particularly religious-- practically not at all. When people ask me what religion I am, I generally make a joke out of it. "Christian, in the sense that someone threw water in my face when I was a baby." Or "Does 'gleefully anti-clerical' count as a religion?"

I'm not religious and I don't even particularly like organized religions. However, I find there is something powerful in very old churches.

Which is why I found myself, this gorgeous late summer afternoon, apologizing to a building. This building.

St. Sernin, Toulouse, France

St. Sernin is one of the oldest churches in Toulouse. Built to accommodate the pilgrims who came to pray at the tomb of Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, the church was begun in the 11th century and completed in the 13th. It is almost a thousand years old.

Almost a thousand years of pilgrims traveling here from all over Europe, bringing their hopes, their prayers, their belief. Millions of people must have passed through here, prayed here. Maybe even billions.

Faith on that grand of a scale leaves a mark, I think, like a magnet left for a long time on a metal plate. The space itself becomes hallowed by the emotions of the people who have passed through it, whether or not you believe in the God that inspired it, in the same way that a magnet leaves its own residue, magnetizing the plate. You could still see the crosses pilgrims from hundreds of years ago had carved into the wall. It sent shivers down my spine.

And my tour group came into this place with flash cameras.

I can't believe how upset I was. This beautiful, sacred place-- a place that is still sacred, with people in it still praying, and members of my tour group are taking flash photographs, not silencing the beeping of those same cameras. Texting. Our tour guide took out a laser pointer and shone it on the altar to point out stuff to us.

It drove me crazy. I thought I'd never seen anything so disrespectful, so...sacrilegious.

So when our tour finished, I went back. I bought a candle and lit it in front of the statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Since Urbino, I've felt a kinship to Francis. One of his prayers is the most beautiful, and the most moving, I have ever heard, and I was able to visit his tomb, relics and birthplace in Assisi. I stood there for a long moment and closed my eyes.

Desolée, desolée, desolée.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

American Animal

Proof that I am an American animal.

I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a bottle of Orangina (one of the small glass bottles, just to let you know) and my host mother walks by and asks, "Tu n'utilise pas de verre?" (You're not using a glass?)

Crap. I turn red, try and figure out what to say. "Euh, euh...j'ai cru que, cette facon, il va etre moins des verres a laver." Which is, in very, very bad French, "Um, uh...I thought, this way, there would be less glasses to wash."

She gives me a small smile. "Tu es tres gentille. Mais prends une verre." (You're very nice. But take a glass.)

More proof that I am an American animal.

(a.k.a. when even boxed frozen food is more cultured than you are)

I have three dinners a week with my host mother, and my first dinner by myself was the other day. Rather than trying to find a recipe, buy the incredients I wanted, and cook something, I decided to buy something premade at the Casino. (For those of you who are slightly concerned at this point, Casino is a chain of French grocery store. I am not gambling, Mom, I swear!)

I bought this box of frozen quiche Lorraine for a couple euros, and took it home. I then discovered that this is the type of frozen food that you're not supposed to put in the microwave. French frozen food is more cultured then I am, point one.

(Actually, let's make that point two. The fact that it's frozen quiche Lorraine and not taquitos should be point one.)

While my quiche are cooking-- in the oven no less-- I take a look at the box, to discover that there are recommendations for a balanced meal on the back, with an apple, salad, yogurt, everything a good, multicourse meal would need. A multicourse meal made from frozen quiche Lorraine-- point three.

I, being an American college student with the habits of the aforementioned group, just cooked and ate the entire box.

Hey, at least I used a knife and fork?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Le géant toulousain

That’s to say, the Toulousain giant, which you can interpret one of two ways. (I’m an English major—double entendres is what I do.) It could refer to me—even at five foot six, which is pretty average in America, I tower over my host mother, my host mother’s daughter, and most other adult French women I see.

This is a generalization, of course, but it’s the weirdest feeling to be a full head taller than someone. I’m not even the tallest student here!

Or Toulouse itself could be the giant. Every once in awhile, when I actually let myself think about the fact that I’m going to be living here for a year, taking university courses in a language I only partially speak, not seeing my friends or family until December, (I’m planning on coming back during les vacances d’hiver) I start to panic.

I don’t know if I can do this. This is bigger than anything I’ve ever done before.

And I’ve never been good at giving pep talks to myself—I’m either too cynical or too pragmatic, depending on who you talk to—so I’m just trying not to think about it. I got here in one piece, met my house mother and got unpacked. Good. I’m starting to learn my way around Toulouse a little—I found my way home from a place I haven’t been before, and I’m buying the stuff that I need. Tonight, I’m cooking dinner for myself, which actually means microwaving frozen Quiche Lorraine that I bought from the grocery store on Avenue de la Gloire.

I’m not really going to think about it beyond that.


P.S. Because numbers are fun:
2- bottles of Orangina consumed so far
5- times I’ve tripped over the storage ottoman near my room
7- estimated hours I’ve spent walking places
20- days until classes start at ICT