22 December 2014

That time I was shady

Last summer while traveling around Europe with my family, I caused an incident that I, ashamed, have failed to recount. I am now prepared to mock myself.

In brief, I jammed my key into the wrong door and it got stuck. My family was not present to witness the fiasco that ensued, as I had decided to spend our first day in Rome on my own. (I had been quite moody from the lack of solitude, the constant presence of familial others, so all parties agreed this was the best course of action.)

I pulled and twisted the key in a desperate attempt to wrench it from the lock. Soon, recognizing defeat, I surrendered and rang the doorbell. A surprised-looking Italian man answered. Behind him in the kitchen doorway, two elderly women peered out at me warily, like I might be an armed robber  with the politeness to knock.

Reddening, I explained my situation to the man, who spoke enough English and French to understand me despite my lack of Italian language skills. Within a few minutes, he had called over the building manager, the two wary women, and one very curious neighbor. The five of them discussed the situation in noisy Italian, occasionally glancing in my direction.

The building manager retrieved a wrench and ripped the key from the lock. With a friendly smile, he handed me the key, hopelessly bent and damaged. I would have to wait for my family to finish their visit to let me into the apartment. The curious neighbor, a sociable lady, offered to host and feed me in her apartment, but I declined, embarrassed by the mere thought of that awkward social interaction.

I decided to take a walk down the street. When I was half a kilometer away from the apartment, I heard my name shouted from behind me. I turned to see my parents and my brother, hands full of plastic bags, staring at me in confusion.

Reluctantly, I approached them and asked, “What’s all this?”

“Groceries,” responded my father. “Where are you going?”

“Going?” I echoed. “Oh, uh, nowhere. To the apartment, I guess.”

“The apartment’s the other way,” my brother stated.

I blinked, frozen. “Yes. It is. Well, let’s go then.” I proceeded to walk back to the apartment, avoiding their distrustful gazes.

“You’re acting shady,” my father observed, to which my response was a nervously forced scoff.

“What is going on, Kristen?” asked my mother.

“Nothing,” I told her, my voice a pitch too high. I had never been a talented liar. “You guys are being paranoid. I just wanted to get some air.”

Her voice was stern now. “Kristen.”

Barreling ahead, I said dismissively, “What’s with the third degree? Can’t a girl go for a walk?”

The three of them exchanged apprehensive glances but asked no further questions. As we neared our building, I fell behind to let them open the door, so as not to arouse suspicion. On our floor, we found the curious neighbor in the hallway, apparently having been searching for me. When she saw that I was with my family, she smiled and said something in Italian.

“Everything is good,” I told her in English with a smile. “My family is here now.”

She nodded, pleased, and said goodnight. My parents and my brother turned to gawk at me, bewildered as to why I was acquainted with this elderly Italian woman.

“What the hell was that about? Do you know her?” demanded my dad.

I shrugged and hurried into the apartment. “Can’t people be neighborly anymore?”

Eventually I confessed what I’d done. I was not trusted with the keys again.

12 November 2014

How the French gradually brainwashed me

This morning in class, a professor explained how multiculturalism – the American model of social integration that embraces the institutional recognition of ethnic differences – actually contributes to the naturalization and hierarchization of cultures. Racism, in layman’s terms.

And this un-American idea struck me as being quite reasonable.

It occurred to me that over the course of the past four years, I have been subject to a slow but sure process of secondary socialization, i.e. brainwashing, at the hands of various French institutions. The most notable of these is the University of Bordeaux.

My core beliefs regarding societal organization have been called into question, fragilized, broken down, and swept aside. I’ll illustrate.

A hypocrite, I advocate the resistance of assimilation even as my American mentality evaporates. I judge others’ grammatical errors despite integrating French words and sentence structures into my English. I scoff at those who assume I’m French while praying my accent remains dormant. I mock the militantism that permeates every trifling aspect of French social life, but I participate in this culture of contestation.

In the ways in which it would be most useful to be francisée, my cultural handicap persists. Having grown up in sunny California, my scarf-tying skills are laughable. My regard for the importance of history is minimal. I refuse to speak French in social contexts unless wildly inebriated.

I’m a handicapped Frog, a mutilated Yankee.

26 October 2014

We all have our childhood traumas


If there's one thing I learned from my father, it's that at no moment am I safe from the possibility of falling victim to a prank. Because of him, my brother and I systematically adopt a posture of skepticism even with our closest friends. It's also why we merit suspicion ourselves.

My father had at least two recurrent pranks. To me, he would say, "Kristen, smell my shoes, they smell like strawberries!" I'd insist he was lying, but he'd swear it was true this time. Being a child inclined to trust her parent, I'd give in and have my nostrils polluted by the stench of his feet.

His second favorite prank would be directed at my little brother, to whom he would say enthusiastically, "Do you want some ice cream?" My brother would always respond excitedly, jumping up with a big smile. Then our dad would say calmly, "Oh, we don't have any of that."

One of the first jokes my father played on me occurred when I was a defenseless infant. He had somehow acquired two stuffed boxing glove keychains. One day, he looked pensively at the keychains, then glanced at baby me, and then back at the keychains. And he thought, "These'll fit her." He proceeded to remove the boxing gloves from the keychains and ripped out the stuffing. Then he crammed my tiny fingers into them, sending me into an angry crying fit.

Living in France, I'm mostly safe from his pranks. My brother, however, still lives at home and continues to suffer under his reign of terror. More recently, our dad told him he needed to make an appointment at the hospital to have an Ebola vaccination. This led my brother to panic over the possibility of infection by the imaginary vaccination itself.

It's a miracle that I've had any kind of a healthy relationship with a man, having my father for a primary male role model.


04 October 2014

The cracked metacarpal


I'm quite good at acquiring physical injuries. My gracelessness (social and physical) is deeply embedded in my genetic code. Last night, though, through no fault of my own, my hand was broken after being crushed by the door of the tram.

Once out of the tram, I cradle my wounded appendage in eye-watering agony. As soon as I get through the door of my apartment, I call one of my best friends, who immediately agrees to accompany me to the emergency room.

At the bus stop, my friend inspects my swollen hand. "They're going to put a cast on you," she says in dismay.

"That's ridiculous," I answer dismissively. "At worst, it's dislocated. They'll pop it right back into place and that'll be the end of it."

Silly notion.

Despite having chosen a lesser-known suburban hospital, we find a semi-full waiting room. Between a bag of frozen peas from my freezer, a hospital ice pack, 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, and my friend's soothing presence, the pain in my hand becomes less bothersome than watching the hours go by.

By 1:00 am, I'm finally called by a cute young intern, who painfully tests my fingers before passing me along to the radiologist. In the imaging room, he positions my hand carefully on the X-ray machine. I cringe every time he nudges one of my fingers, never having been one for stoicism.

I watch him go into the glass-paneled control room to take the picture. He looks at his computer screen, and after a few seconds, his face turns grim. My stomach sinks.

"It's not fractured," I say when he reemerges, a statement rather than a question.

"I'll let you know after the second image," he says, leaving me dissatisfied and anxious.

After the second X-ray, I say again, more insistently, "It's not fractured."

"Come look," he replies simply.

In the image, a curiously clean break runs diagonally across the middle of my third metacarpal. "Oh, that's nothing," I say firmly. "That'll take, what, a week to heal?"

Sensing the futility of arguing with me, he simply says, "The doctor will let you know."

He sends me back to the room to wait for the intern. As I wait, I examine a chart with photos of various braces and try to guess which one I might need.

When the cute intern returns, he looks at me quite seriously and says, "Your hand is fractured. I'm going to put a cast on it tonight, but you'll need to come back to find out if the surgeon thinks it's necessary to operate."

"Which one will I have?" I ask urgently, pointing to the chart of braces.

"Ah, no," he says. "You're not getting one of those. You need a cast. You'll have one in plaster until you get the resin cast next week."

Wordless, I stare at him in horror. He tells me to come back the next day at some point to see if I'll need surgery, and that no, in fact, it won't interfere with my working schedule, because I absolutely cannot work as a cashier with a broken hand.

My mouth goes dry. I think of my dwindling savings, my upcoming expenses, my multiple unpaid American student loan debts. I tell myself to breathe, but when I open my mouth to respond, I begin sobbing uncontrollably. When overwhelmed, I do not even try to speak French. Rather, I blubber in English.

So there we are in the emergency room at 3:00 am, a hysterical American girl crying and speaking rapid-fire English at this exhausted but perfectly composed French intern. He, to his eternal credit, remains calm, kind, and sympathetic in the face of my mental breakdown. He even tries to speak English in response to my sudden monolingualism.

He tells me, "This isn't the U.S. You work, you have social security. They'll give you money while you recuperate."

"But that's only after the first three days!"

The intern shakes his head. "You'll need more than three days. I'm giving you an arrêt de travail for three weeks. Minimum."

I feel I might have a panic attack as he begins preparing my arm for the cast. One cracked metacarpal and the whole forearm gets punished. I think resentfully of my friend, still in the waiting room. She'd be so smug when she saw it.

I can't resist pointing out that while this accident would have run thousands of dollars in the States, where I'm a citizen, none of it cost me a single centime in France. Point for the Froggies.


15 September 2014

Bad dates make funny stories

I went on a date a few days ago. With a boy, of all things.

Often I'm quite nervous before a date because, as would agree anyone who has ever met me, I make a terrible first impression. I'm awkward, I'm a bit mean, I mumble, I'm generally quite difficult to get along with. And as I've just come out of an X-chromosome-exclusive dating period, flirting with boys isn't exactly my forte.

This time, though, I felt pretty confident because, in comparison, I was the well-socialized party.

A few choice gems from this fellow:

"Yeah, I just got fired from my job yesterday. But I was asking for it. They just didn't understand my creative process."

"No, don't take out your wallet, I've got it. I mean, you work in a supermarket."

"Tu ne parles pas du tout français?"

"I know how to fix our political system. Bombs. No, I'm not joking."

"Hang on, you want to be a political advisor? Hahahahahahaha!"

I did let him pay. No use wasting money in addition to time.

24 August 2014

Sex tape scandals

Having lived apart for so long, my brother and I sometimes feel we don't know each other the way we used to. It's depressing until we realize how much easier mind games have become.

One night we're waiting at the tram stop with two of my friends after a game of laser tag, and I'm chatting with my chick-friend M. while my brother play-flirts with my guy-friend V. At one point, V. suddenly grins and asks him, "Have you seen your sister's sex tape?"

For a moment, I'm taken aback. My brother's jaw drops. Then I relax. "Oh, I didn't tell you about that?" I ask nonchalantly.

"You made a sex tape?" demands my brother, blanching. "With who?"

I shrug casually. "You know, that Swedish guy I was dating a while back. We wanted to experiment."

M. suddenly gets the gist of what's causing my brother to hyperventilate. "You made a sex tape?" she says with a smile. "That sounds fun! You never told me!"

I miss a beat as I realize that she doesn't know I'm joking. But if there's one thing my father taught me, it's not to let feelings ruin a perfectly good prank.

My brother stares down at his lap, shaking his head and seething. "What the fuck."

"It's what couples do in France," says V. "You should watch it. Your sister was amazing," he adds kindly (as I quickly inform M. in French that I do not, in fact, have a sex tape floating around).

"She's my sister!" shouts my brother, looking up at him in disgust. "We're American!"

At this point, the tram has arrived, so we make our way inside. My friends and I stand around my brother as he takes a seat, his prude knees apparently too weak to stand.

"It's a joke," says V., though his accent is too French for my brother's American ears to understand.

"What?" he says, having heard something along the lines of "jock."

"We're not serious," I tell him with a little nudge that causes him to recoil. "I don't have a sex tape."

My brother gapes up at the three of us. Then he looks away. "I hate you."

09 August 2014

The naked incident

I've been living roommate-free for three years. Thus, I have developed certain habits that aren't exactly roommate-friendly. One such habit is dressing with the bathroom door open.

So I'm standing in my underwear in the bathroom with the door only partly closed, and I've got the news playing from atop the wash machine. My brother hears part of a story involving a chicken and a penis and decides to come have a listen.

He stops before the partially-opened door. We see each other's reflections in the mirror, and I quickly pull my shirt up to my chest. His eyes widen in shock. He quickly flips away as I burst out laughing.

He stands in the hallway outside, pinching the bridge of his nose, traumatized. He sighs in relief upon realizing, after reflecting, that what he saw was indeed only a bra rather than his sister's bare breasts.

I spend the next five minutes in a fit of laughter as my brother avoids all eye contact, scarred for life. We'll be making some adjustments to our living arrangement.

28 July 2014

The fallen cream puff


This morning, my family and I decide to purchase pastries from a bakery in Rome. Once at our apartment door, I withdraw my brother's chocolate cream puff from the paper bag and present it to him.

Suddenly gravity kicks in, knocking the cream puff from my hand. I swing up my left hand to catch it and only succeed in smacking it to the side against my right hand before it tumbles to the floor.

My eyes widen as I stare down at the fallen cream puff, horrified. I look back up at my brother's impassive expression.

He kneels down calmly, retrieves his cream puff, and stuffs it into his sizable mouth. Then he turns and walks into the apartment, leaving me grimacing with a new kind of horror.

21 July 2014

Beautiful French moron

My younger brother is spending this summer chez moi in France. This trip being unforeseeable, he made the mistake of not taking French in high school. It has thus been my duty to teach him the basics.

My brother's specific inquiries into French expressions have been those that will facilitate his goal of scoring with a Française. So one night at dinner in Paris, he asks me, "How do you say 'you're beautiful'?"

Most of the time, my teaching skills are quite adequate. Other times, the bullshitter in me kicks in.

I suppress a smile. "Tu es débile," I tell him, carefully enunciating each syllable. "Débile," of course, is French for "moronic."

I listen patiently as he perfects his pronunciation, repeating over and over again, "You...are...moronic. You are...moronic. You are moronic."

Finally, when he feels he has it, he turns to our mother. He smiles sweetly and tells her, "Tu es débile."

It'll be an interesting summer.

29 May 2014

When Monopoly gets violent

The night of my arrival in California, my brother punished me for my long absence by insisting that the four of us play the dreaded Monopoly. It's a game that generally drives me to contemplate how to kill myself using game pieces (see pensive face pictured above). Apparently, it's also a game that sends my father on an emotional roller coaster.

On his numerous non-lucrative properties: "Do you know what it's like to be a slumlord and have no one living in your slums?"

On my purchase of his favorite property: "I'll have to kill her before she gives me Marvin Gardens! She'll give it to anyone but me! Hell will freeze over before she sells it to me!"

To his own son: "I passed Go and never got my two hundred dollars! I'll fucking kill you in your sleep!"

It'll be a while before he's psychologically ready to play again.

27 April 2014

Why I live in France, or the death of optimism

I can't decide whether or not I regret moving to France, or if I even like it. Doesn't matter. What's important is that it provides writing material.

Occidental foreigners, especially Americans, aren't numerous in Bordeaux, so I'm asked at least weekly why I'm here. My response tends to evolve/degrade in six-month periods with a pattern of negativity that is characteristic of, well, the French.

I have constructed a timeline of the evolution of my response to the question "Why do you live in France?"
It's all in the nuance.

19 January 2014

How to order absinthe from reluctant bartenders

I have a friend that's kind of an expert on all things related to drinking. Sometimes he imparts his hard-earned wisdom to this lightweight geek.

Even among bar staff in France and the States, there exists a common misconception that the sale and consumption of absinthe is illegal. There is, however, a bar downtown that serves absinthe diluted into a cocktail.

Getting the bartender to serve the absinthe in its pure form is a simple four-step process.
  1. Order one aforementioned red absinthe cocktail.
  2. State that you would like the cocktail without sugar.
    Important: Wait for an affirmative answer.
  3. Charmingly ask the bartender to also hold the water.
    "They'll hesitate," according to this seasoned drinker, "but now they've committed to the possibility of withholding ingredients."
  4. Finally, request that the drink be served in a shot glass.
Et voilà, you now have one ill-advised and coyly-manipulated beverage.

01 January 2014

Because of gravity


This New Year's Eve, one of my good friends came back to France from her semester abroad in India. While our other friends are at work, she is meant to be preparing dinner chez our hostess for the evening. In a moment of insanity, she swears that she has it under control and doesn't need my help.

So I'm pretty deep in simultaneously studying for exams and watching the entire first season of Girls when I get the call.

"Kris, I am so sorry to ask. I need your help."

And she proceeds to recount the most ridiculous baking accident I have ever heard.

"I was trying to make a cake for tonight, and I dropped all the eggs. Can you buy some at the store? And I need help cleaning up the mess... I cut my hand on an eggshell."

Of course I'm more intrigued by her embarrassing mishap than les théories de l'individu. I tell her I'll run to the store and be there in half an hour.

When I arrive, I find her relaxing with an herbal remedy for her cooking stress. She gestures vaguely towards the kitchen. "They fell behind there."

I peer into the kitchen and have a gander behind the wheeled cart that's jammed between the sink and overflowing shelves of tea and appliances. She's managed to drop the eggs in the most inaccessible spot possible.

As she squeezes in behind the cart, she says, "You can't tell anyone about this." (Sorry.) "It's not even my fault. It's because of gravity."

I mostly mock her and steer her head away from the water heater as she rapidly shoots up and down from the eggs on the floor. She grumbles about some god being racist and swears in French as she cringes at the gooey mess of raw eggs.

Suddenly she bursts out laughing. I stare at her, certain that this whole culinary affair has caused her to lose her mind.

"It fell on the heating pipe!" she exclaims delightedly, presenting the egg to me. The yolk has solidified from the heat. "I made an omelette!"

Other things that came out of this French girl's mouth during the pre-festivities:

"J'ai cuisiné aujourd'hui. Truc de malade."

"Nothing, nothing is wrong, everything is perfect!"

"Oh merde."