French Hell

 I live in France and am surrounded by wonderful things. Like being in love with a person living in a new place can be similar, when everything is brand new, you have a sense of wonderment, all is charming, your heart beats excitedly and then it happens, slowly. You are still in love but some things are less exciting. A trip to the grocery store used to be an adventure with all of those strange new packages and foods new to me. Now I go and stand in a long line waiting to check out with only one or two people working, if you don’t count the person blocking the aisles while he or she stacks the shelves and the checker irritates me handing out plastic bags like they are gold. Plus, they get to sit down. I never got to sit down when I was a checker in years past.

 Anyway, my French hell became going to those excrutiatingly long French meals with either some of Maurice’s French friends or relatives. At first I was in a totaly fog sitting there waiting for time to pass, the meal to end, so we could eventually leave. Then I got so I could understand some of what was being said although my brain had, and still has, a way of checking out and I find myself day dreaming until Maurice brings me back saying, “Right, Linda?” I can stay alert longer now although by the time I have put together a response in French the whole table has moved on to a new subject or they don’t even hear me when I say something. My French is not heard like one of those whistles for dogs that only they can hear.



 So, I have gotten to the point where I don’t dread being with French relatives for a long time although I know they all think I am just a very quiet person. I was getting a little comfortable when I was accused of poisoning some of Maurice’s relatives, a story I told a month or so ago. Now all of my insecurities are back, ones I didn’t even know I had until I cooked a bad lasagne for some people and I really felt judged in those thousand year old scales of French Food Tradition and, believe me, there are alot of ways in which to be judged.


 Last weekend we had Maurice’s two sisters and their husbands over for lunch the day after we returned from traveling. I was tired, unprepared and grumpy and on top of it, I was now worried that I was going to make someone sick along with serving a bad meal that would send Maurice’s relatives home shaking their heads in disbelief. When they arrived we served kir royale, another French tradition that is rarely broken and Maurice told them I was nervous but not why. He just said it was the French/American thing but I spoke up and said I was worried about making another relative sick. I asked the two women if 3 out of 8 people got sick at a meal I prepared, am I to blame? Was I responsible for food poisoning? Both of the sisters said, “Of course not. Eight, yes, three, no.” They assured me that I didn’t have to worry about the same thing happening. Then one of the sisters made me laugh. “Is there a hospital near by?” “Yes,” I said. “Then, no problem.”

 We had a good meal-I thought-and everyone left happy and there were no reports of anyone getting sick afterwards. Then I found out that they have decided it is time for a family reunion. It is going to be held this summer at our place in Provence and there will be about 30 people-all French. I will be the main cook of course, manning the bar-b-que, making salads, worrying about everything while everyone babbles around me in French. Could be fun, really, but I’m feeling a little tense already.


20 thoughts to “French Hell”

  1. The “Submit Comment” box gobbled up my words! I’ll have to try again…can I remember what I wrote??

    It’s funny how our perspectives change, isn’t it? My husband was just saying that things he used to find charming in France now feel more like hassles.

    But a meal for 30? That falls in the “BIG JOB” category no matter what your land of residence. Can’t you just serve it in your dining room? What? That last photo is not YOUR dining room? Well then, stick to the BBQ. I know it will be grand.

    And if you need encouragement and support…just let me know. I’ve got lots!!

    Meilleurs voeux!!

    (There…that’s close…)

  2. Great photos! Love all that red. How about some teenage help during the family reunion? Or, you could be called away unexpectedly??

  3. Linda, maybe it might be helpful to invite a few expat/American friends that are dear to you?…perhaps they can serve as a buffer of some sort?

    Also, they can help you man that barbecue and the salad. :0l

  4. Gosh, can I relate to want you wrote here. Word for word, no pun intended. The zoning out and not being heard. Everyone thinking i am the shy quiet one….URGH.

    Though my French family likes my cooking…so much that they want me to cook all the time. All the time. Silence is not golden!
    I think they like me in the kitchen out of the way, that is what I really think 🙂
    I think I might have to do a lasagna, but with some little germs inside! Thanks for the idea 😉

  5. Hi Linda,

    This is the first time that I have posted. Reading your post today made me think that you are the HOSTESS not their SLAVE! Ask for help and don’t acquiesce. Send out an email asking for signups for responsibilities for the FAMILY REUNION! After all… you are FAMILY too! You are letting them treat you like a pushover. Buck up! 🙂


  6. After I finished laughing out loud and relating to everything you said, I got indignant at the end! No, no, no – this is Maurice’s family, so he has to bbg and you need some other relatives to chip in…Just threaten them with lasagne ;-)))

  7. Oh dear, my comment was gobbled up too! Anyhoo, what I was SAYING in a nutshell . . .
    Get help, gf! Hire some help and show them French how Americans do it in style. This way, you too can enjoy the time (I think?). hehe. Who cares what they may say, they’re going to say something either way, no? (I have a French exchange student that hurt my feelings for years and not even know it. Just their way. (“My mother/grandmother would NEVER cook anything from a can or a box or frozen”. . . Well honey, you’re in Amurica now, so shut the *^($#(& up!) I now just let it roll off my back.

  8. Living abroad for years now I have realised it is hard to read people’s motives and fully understand how I am being “treated.” For example, what might seem an imposition [like being assigned as hostess of the family reunion] may be their way of offering a compliment; especially when others in the family have made a generous meal into an unpleasant issue. Perhaps they are viewing this as an apology for others, and hoping this restores trust.

    To my mind the main ally you have for smoothing your transition in this family situation is your husband. As he speaks both languages he is naturally the go-between and rightfully hands you a bit of the conversation at the table so that you can participate. He and you could plan in advance a few topics he may introduce during dinner — so that you have your responses already formulated, the vocabulary on the tip of your tongue, and people can once and for all stop thinking you are the silent partner. Perhaps his relatives will feel compelled to imitate his respect for you.

    I am also married to a European man and live on his “turf” and was told I should expect my life to alter accordingly because these men are different and think wives more subservient. It is true, Paul’s friends and family were surprised that I expect my husband to help cook and entertain. This agreement came at some negotiation with him, but he has grown to like it and feel more independent [even creative] in the kitchen. Besides which it gives me a little relief and a chance to be part of celebrations, not just the cook. This way I have time to enjoy with his family and know them better. And those who were at first feeling “sorry” for him to have such a wife perhaps now appreciate that this isn’t some shallow protest on my part, but that we are a couple and we share in all ways and both learn a great deal in the process.

    In multi-lingual situations we also promote each others interests in the conversation. An example — we lived in Spain for over a year. I am fluent in Spanish and my husband knows none. He speaks Italian, which is similar but has a hard time “hearing” Spanish at all because it is quite rapid. I translated back and forth where necessary to keep him in the “loop”, while others tried making comments where they could with some English or even Italian phrases. We managed. Periodically, and especially when meeting new friends or neighbors I said things like, “Of course I’ll explain to Paul. I don’t want to leave him out of the conversation.” And that encouraged others to consider him too. If both radiate love for their partner, others will soon take the point.

    Naturally, if we had been staying indefinitely in Spain this wouldn’t have worked. Thus, a final point: in my experience there is no way around learning the language well enough to converse comfortably at a relatively normal level. In my own case, until I can say, not only what I want to buy or eat, or what assistance I need; but also discuss my ideas and emotions and what I believe, it is impossible to feel included. It’s a contest with myself, really, to be able to say in some depth who I am and that I am far from “quiet” or without an opinion.

    We will move to France shortly, and my children and I are just now working on a language programme called “Rosetta Stone.” This programme is used by the United Nations and various ambassadorial offices. The authors promise that if you follow instructions you are guaranteed relative fluency in three months. They offer versions in many languages. It seems impossibly ambitious, but I’ll settle for even a reasonable facility at the beginning. If you’d like a report later on, I’ll let you know how we get on.

    Above all, don’t give up Linda for even a minute. It is so easy to feel alone and down when you’re far from home [especially when it’s not a vacation but permanent] however you are extraordinarily brave and talented and you will prevail!

  9. My comment was eaten, too!

    What I said was basically that cooking for the French is indeed horrifying, and I’ve personally survived doing it, too. Nothing on this earth could have prepared me for the month my French in-laws stayed with us, lovely though they are. Outside of the kitchen. I forever lost my vision of myself as a good cook, it wasn’t fun.

    This is just my opinion, but I distinctly feel that the French passion for seeing something done ‘correctly’ is what inspires them to offer objective criticism and advice on how to improve.

    And, forgive my difference of opinion, but although I’m good at speaking and understanding French now, my teacher at one time carefully charted for me that the ability to participate in a spirited ‘discussion’ with more than one person and participate in jokes was the zenith of proficiency and many people never accomplish it, and it can’t be learned from any course materials. So, you know, spacing out during those family meals sure doesn’t make me feel as bad anymore (although having someone call out my elbows on the table still does!).

    Also, my exacting culinary artist mother-in-law ordered a variety of thin-crust pizza from ‘the good pizzeria’ in her town for a large family buffet last summer, and cut them into little squares. The kids and Parisians all ate it happily, so you might put that idea in the file box!

    Because hey, there is nothing so personal as critcizing someones cooking, so let them have the local pizzeria to criticize if it is a point of pride to find something, right?

  10. Sorry about the comments problem. I have no idea what is going on. I so appreciate everyone’s comments and suggestions. I think I will do the pizza thing for one meal and use a caterer for veggies and salads when I am barbequing. I have plenty of confidence in that area as most French have no idea how to do it so are fascinated by what I do. I think it will be fun on the whole. I have told my husband that they are going to have to pitch in. They live too far away from Provence to bring food and will be staying in local gites so I’ll have to get creative here. I like everyone, really. Except for Maurice’s children, none of them speak English so that’s the hard part. Merci everyone. Linda

  11. Petite Capucine is right in that course materials don’t solve all and I don’t want to create a naive impression on that. There are various ways to learn. However, that is always the beginning point for me to feel I can step out there and try to perfect communication. Of course, once you’ve got a “method” of participating in conversation it takes a lot of personal risk and daily immersion, and still it comes in stages. I hope I didn’t give the idea that language can be internalised with a book.

    After studying Spanish at school for six years, living in the country on a semi-permanent basis was a real eye opener. “Please pass the butter” wasn’t anywhere near enough. But it took some months to joke around or explain asbtract ideas. Having moved away from Spain, now I have enduring friendships at a distance with several native speakers, [none of whom know a word of English] and we communicate regularly over the MSN Messenger, jokes, family problems, and all. It is more difficult because I don’t speak Spanish everyday now. But it encourages me to keep the wheels turning.

    My husband is an opera singer who studied opera in Geneva for three years. During that time, he became fluent in French by just listening. He can’t write French, only speak, having learned like a child learns. That is the premise of Rosetta Stone language programmes in some respects. Of course, because of his profession he is very open minded and unintimdated about language. And because of his personality, he wasn’t in the least reticent. So that method works for some.

    I have a friend in France who married into a huge French family that was rather overwhelming and immediately decided to let her husband translate for her [because she was sure she’d never learn] and then she receded to the background — not really her style. A year and a half later at a family reunion she was frustrated because he completely lost track of her and she was “on her own” for the first time. His family were obviously telling all sorts of family jokes, and many stories about him. And she missed it all. On the way home she insisted they would speak only French together until she was proficient. Et voila! In two years she has become his business partner and runs a bilingual office. You’d never know she was ever insecure in French and she is helping me to assimilate.

  12. Keep posting with your lively spirit
    I enjoy everything. I like to get a perspective of women all around the world.
    Love and smiles.

  13. Linda, Do BBQ, Texas style, right? My French is very limited. When I visited my penpal from teenage years in Ardennes, I cooked authentic Thai food for the family. They were always in awe of my cuisine. My husband does not understand French and they don\’t speak English. However, we only saw them 2-3 days each time and we always stayed at the hotel nearby. We are going back this September and for the first time my husband expressed interest in learning some French. I bought some materials for him to study. We\’ll see.

  14. You know, I studied French for years and years and thought I had reached a point where I was completely comfortable in almost all situations, but again this weekend I ran into some “delicate” situations, if I may express that in a franglais kind of way! As much as I understand, I still can get lost in family-story types of situations, where I feel a bit left out, and my character tends toward a bit of sensitivity — so I’m constantly accused of being over-sensitive, “susceptible”… I guess that’s true if you will, but maybe it’s part of the cultural differences too… My boyfriend’s father told me I didn’t really have much of a sense of humor, and that I should work on that, and I know he meant it in a “constructive” sort of sense, but it still kind of hurt… So I guess I really do need to loosen up a bit, particularly with my French! No matter how hard we try, we still remain the foreigner. But every family is different, really — they’re not all that strict and rigid. Overall my boyfriend’s family is pretty laid-back, and as his mom was German, they’re used to having mixed cultures around the table I think.

    And when it comes to table conversations, I tend to get lost in the shuffle, even after more than 5 years of living in the country! I can understand everything everyone is saying, but no matter how hard I try, they really don’t let me get a word in edgewise. So it can be pretty frustrating… Because I like to participate too! I guess I just have to shrug my shoulders a bit more and go “bah, tant pis!”

    But it’s so hard for me to attempt to learn another language now, after having spent so many years working on my French… I’ve already made a few timid attempts at German (vaguely) and recently have been exposed to some Japanese. But I think it would take me at least another 10 years before I could really and truly speak either one, at the rate I’m going!

    Good luck with the family reunion BBQ — I think the others’ suggestions sound good, as well as the idea of maybe having an English-speaking friend around to boost your morale!

  15. Hi Linda

    Just read your post re the company coming to Provence. Of course if Peg and I are there at the same time, we will be happy to pitch and help!

  16. Linda, out here in the French countryside the supermarket don’t give out bags at all any more, so consider yourself lucky in Paris! And I’m sure you don’t really begrudge the checkers their chairs.

    The language issues you have are long-term one and it will take you a while to become really fluent — that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. But you have to work on it, with a teacher (not Maurice), and spend your time watching French TV, listening to the radio, and reading. The family reunion is a short-term issue — you got some good advice here about hiring a caterer, having food delivered, etc. Don’t try to do it by yourself.

    I’ve lost comments several times when trying to post them on your blog. This one just disappeared when I tried to post it. I’ve learned to select and copy the comment before I click the Submit Comment button.

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