A French Hangover

I have a French hangover. Not the head-splitting, stomach-lurching variety I’d experience on a relatively frequent basis while living in France in the late 90s, preceded by happy, fun evenings spent eating, drinking and partying in Grenoble with friends and colleagues.

(Incidentally, the only time I ever pigged out on McDonald’s in France was the afternoon after a big night out when a Diet Coke and Big Mac were the best way to assuage the effects of a hangover. I’d slink over the McD’s, eyes kept down, desperate not to bump into any of the players from the night before until suitably revived.)

No, this time, my French hangover is less physical and more metaphysical. Four brief days spent in Paris and Grenoble last week have rekindled the spark that originally drew me to the country and enticed me to stay for three years. Four days of speaking French has reinvigorated parts of my grey matter that have laid dormant while living here in the US. And, like a wheel that keeps spinning even after the initial surge of energy, it is still in motion, presenting me with words and phrases first in French, before the usual English. Making me stumble. Making me yearn to carry on speaking in French and to feed that still hungry part of me.

I was left wanting more. Four days is simply not enough time to pig out on all the croissants and cheese that I really want to eat. This visit briefly skimmed the highlights of Paris and flirted with the enormity of the Grenoble mountains.

Reconnecting with my French friends, in spite of the years, was a joy. Time does not appear to have made an imprint on their faces or characters, though everyone’s lives have propelled forward – spouses, families, new jobs, new homes.

They say the grass is always greener on the other side. While I love my life in Boston, a big chunk of me will always be entwined in France, its culture, landscape, music and the French language.

Coffee or Wine?

Your dental hygienist knows a lot about you, I’ve discovered. During my first few years here in the US, when I was either single and partying, or dating my soon-to-be-fiance, or enjoying the life-before-kids times, my dental hygenist would often remark about the red wine stains on my teeth. “Hey, I’m young (ish) and having fun,” I’d retort. And yes, I’ll brush more thoroughly, I’d promise as she hacked away at the stains with her evil implements.

(On a side note, may I just say that dental hygiene here in the US has been a real revelation to me. Y’all are way more serious about having sparkly whites that we were/are back home in the UK. I now feel it a necessary part of my acceptance into American society to have remarkably white teeth. But I digress.)

Dental visits over the last eight years have painted a different story. In large part, because the red wine stains on my teeth have mostly been replaced with coffee stains. Strong, black coffee stains. My dental hygienist always points this out and then, with an almost nonchalant non-sequitur, asks “So, how old are the kids now?” She knows, she gets it.

The thing is, my relationship with red wine has changed. Flash back to 1997-2000, three glorious years living in France when the wine was abundant, cheap and good. I became more knowledgable about wine regions and my preferences but, quite frankly, if it was red and in my glass, I’d drink it. Lots of it. No matter how much it cost or where it came from. And then I went and married someone in the wine industry. My supply of good wine became perpetual! Hoorah! And I became better educated and much more picky and wines I like and wines I don’t.

And then I had kids.

Child birth will do strange things to your palette (among other things.) After kid #1 was born, I went off red wine altogether, much to the chagrin of the husband. Fortunately, after kid #2 “popped out” (hahahaha) my desire for wine slowly returned and, in the almost six consequential years, has remained. But with new terms and conditions, namely:

  • I only drink the wines I like
  • I can only drink when eating
  • No more than a glass and a half or I get heartburn and/or an upset stomach
  • There will be wine on Friday evenings when I crave it most—or else
  • Cheese = wine

On the flip side, my relationship with coffee has remained consistent. While red wine is a select pleasure, enhancing specific moments, coffee is my lifeline. I cannot start the day without coffee. It is the very first thing I think of the moment I awake. I cannot exist without a large steaming cup of strong black coffee within approx 10 mins of my neurones firing up.

I was pondering my absolute and profound need for coffee the other morning and comparing it to my relationship with red wine. If I had to, I wondered, which would I give up? The answer was quite simple. But, just to be sure, I thought I’d conduct a brief poll with a few of my Twitter and Facebook pals. So I lobbed the seemingly innocuous question out there. Within nanoseconds—maybe even less—I was met with a barrage of visceral reactions! Before I share them, here was the final count:

  • Votes to keep coffee: 5
  • Votes to keep wine: 7
  • Undecided: 4

But it was the comments that cracked me up the most, including:

Are you kidding?

Is nothing sacred?

What am I being threatened with?

If my world no longer included those things, it wouldn’t be much of a world ;)

I feel like this is a trick question somehow.

I don’t know this Samantha but I don’t trust her ;)

I plan on giving up both…shortly after I give up oxygen.

So, you, yes you over there sipping your Sunday morning coffee – which would you give up, if you had to: coffee or wine?

P.S. Get your teeth cleaned.

I Want To Dance With Somebody

(…. to quote the late, great Whitney Houston.)

If you’ve read my Twitter bio (@samanthamcgarry), you’ll see that it says “happiest when dancing,” And it’s true. When I am dancing to music that moves me, I’m at my most blithe. I can close my eyes and be carried away by rhythm, beat, movement and feeling. It’s thrilling.

Sadly, these days, I very rarely get the chance to dance, other than the odd silly and spontaneous dance-off when a track comes on the radio that pushes my buttons. I danced all through my childhood and teenage years, be it formal ballet, modern or tap classes or at disco birthday parties. As a young adult, dancing was either clubbing or performing in musical theatre. Once I was lucky enough to dance in the arms of a professional ballroom dancer who spun me around the room: for a brief few minutes, he was Fred and I was Ginger and it was heaven. Heaven.

During my years living in France, I was always impressed by and envious of the people there who just knew how to jive dance with a partner, as if it was part of their cultural DNA. When I moved to the US, one of the first things I did was register for swing dance classes. And I was hooked! In addition to taking classes where I learned first the basics and then advanced moves and choreography, I would take myself solo to swing dance parties where I’d be invited to dance and, even though still technically a newbie, I’d be spun around the room, light on my feet, jiving to the beat and high on life.

Now that I’m married, I’ve tried to persuade my husband to swing dance with me and he’s always been a great sport. He’s taken classes with me and taken me to a few dances but it’s just not his thing. He gives it his best effort, for which I am very grateful, but truthfully I think he’d rather be sticking pins in his eyes.

But I still want to dance. I need to dance. For my mental health, for my waist line. For my joie de vivre.

And so this is my plea for a dance partner, someone willing to either take classes with me or go out dancing every now and then. No funny business, mind you! Just someone who loves to dance and is a good partner. Ideally for swing dancing but I’ll happily do ballroom or Latin which I’d love to learn.

So, who’s game?

J’ai Envie

J’ai envie d’entendre les voix de mes ami(e)s francais(es)

J’ai envie de voir, promener dans, et respirer les montaignes

J’ai envie de cueillir et sentir l’aroma des chanterelles

J’ai envie de gouter les croissants, recemment cuits au four

J’ai envie de boire du bon vin rouge dans un bistro ou bien dehors

J’ai envie de manger que du Saint Marcellin avec une baguette pour le diner

J’ai envie de voir les champs pleins de tournesols ou lavendres

J’ai envie de promener les grandes avenues de Paris, ainsi que les petites vieilles rues de la Marais

J’ai envie de faire les achats au marche, le dimanche matin

J’en ai marre de rever en francais; je veux y etre.

My Pumpkin Obsession

I am obsessed with pumpkins. Not the whole orange ones that people here in New England decorate their porches with come October, but pretty much any food item that is made with pumpkin. This will not be a big surprise to my family and friends. In fact, to quote a friend:

There is probably not a Brit alive who likes pumpkin as much as you do!

Fall is the favo(u)rite season of many a folk and especially here in New England when the leaves turn incredible shades of orange and red, the sun glows a little stronger in the sky, and the temperature starts to dip as the air turns crisp. The humidity in which we’ve drowned all summer disappears and with it, the challenges of frizzy hair. I too appreciate these things but for me fall promises one thing – PUMPKIN! – and I am always ridiculously thrilled when this time of year comes around again.

It’s rather ironic that my first encounter with anything pumpkin happened half a lifetime ago in 1986 when I was an au pair in Paris. Now, France is not the typical place for anyone to find pumpkin pie, I know. But I was actually working for an American family at the time and they were celebrating Thanksgiving. And so began my pumpkin love affair.

Fast forward to 2000 and the opportunity that I had to move stateside with my job. There were positions for me either in San Francisco or Boston. I had already been to, and very much liked, San Francisco but Boston – and the whole East Coast thing – beckoned. There were many reasons why I decided on Boston – a shorter flight back to London, proximity to my brother’s family in Pennsylvania. Not to mention Ally McBeal, because she was the only real reference point I had for how life in Boston would truly be and look like. Reeses Peanut Butter Cups were another very persuasive reason for moving here. But what won out was the knowledge that, come November, there would be pumpkin pie. And pumpkin bread. And pumpkin muffins.

Yum.

Then one bright and sunny late September day about eight years later, while the hubby and I were enjoying a rare weekend away from the kids in Newport, Rhode Island, we treated ourselves to a scoop or two of some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Pumpkin cheesecake ice cream, to be precise. HOLY COW! Now, I’d always loved cheesecake. I’m ok with ice cream, not a huge fan. But, the trifecta of cheesecake, ice cream and pumpkin together and boy oh boy, sparks flew! Cupid had struck.

This experience kindled what has become a seasonal quest to taste as many different varieties of pumpkin ice cream in order to verify that Ben & Jerry’s flavo(u)r is, indeed, nirvana. I’ve tried several varieties that have come close, like Edy’s and a homegrown version which was totally delish from the Milky Way Farm somewhere in PA but alas too far away for regular consumption. Trade Joe’s brand disappointed, as did the pumpkin ice cream made by a local purveyor. I’ve yet to try Toscanini’s so have to take @eric_andersen‘s word that it’s good.

I also have to totally give kudos to Ben & Jerry’s social media responsiveness as I’ve been haranguing them regularly for updates as to when this season’s limited batch will be distributed and in stores. I may have to bulk purchase this year. Hey, if you can buy a case of wine, why not a case of ice cream?

Anyhoo, in the meantime, I’m making do with this.

And this.

Until I can get this!

7 British Products This Expat Can’t Live Without

You can take a Brit out of Britain but you can’t take the Britain out of the Brit.

Or something like that.

In any case, after twelve and half years in the US, there are still several items that I either stock up on when visiting the folks back home, or which I ask family, friends or colleagues to bring me when they travel from the UK to the US. And while I know that several of these items can be purchased here on the “international” aisles of local grocery stores or in speciality shops, it feels so much more authentic when you know they’ve come from Sainsbury, Tesco’s, Boots, or Marks and Spencer.

First and foremost is Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. Ensuring a plentiful supply is critical. For all my US friends who say they see it on the shelves at their local Stop & Shop, let me tell you this: US-manufactured Cadbury’s is not the same. And it’s definitely not as good. For ultimate satisfaction, it must be British-manufactured (in Birmingham, right?) Rips offs and knock offs do not come close, trust me and my highly-honed Fruit & Nut palette.

Next up: Marmite, a product few Americans have heard of or like. Largely because most Americans are weaned from the breast or bottle onto peanut butter and jelly or, lord help me, fluff. So it’s completely understandable that Marmite’s deeply concentrated salty taste and dark brown presentation would not appeal to those unfamiliar with it. More for me, say I! Freshly toasted bread, a smidge of butter and Marmite is heavenly for breakfast or a snack. And it’s supposed to be packed with vitamin B too (take that Fluffernutter!)

Think you are “man” enough for Coleman’s English Mustard? It puts the standard yellow mustard you find at diners and burger joints here to shame. The trick is to use just enough to add a fantastic kick to your ham and cheese sandwich, burger or steak. But too much, and your sinuses react like a rocket has exploded and your brain fries like a sparkler. Just for a few seconds then it passes. And you want another bite.

We move on from food to trusted health and beauty products from my motherland. Actually the first item is from French brand Garnier and I’ve never found it among the other Garnier products on the shelves in stores over here. It’s not some fancy schmancy product either, just their Gentle Eye Makeup Remover. I’ve tried other brands and nothing is quite as pleasant and effective for removing mascara and eye shadow.

When it comes to first aid and antibiotic creams, most Americans default to Neosporin or Bacitracin. But I grew up with Savlon cream and TCP liquid. Savlon will gently heal any cut or graze. And if harsher is your thing, TCP will zap any zit or nuke germs into oblivion.

Finally, no proud British gal wouldn’t be seen without her Marks & Spencer knickers. Wait, that came out all kinds of wrong! What I meant to say is Marks & Spencer’s underwear is like bread and butter to British bums. Wait, that doesn’t sound right either! OK, Marks & Spencer makes the best quality cotton underpants and we’ve always bought and worn them.

[Insert underpants humo(u)r here.]

Help: My Kids are Franglaises!

Guest post by Gillian Gover

“No – let’s play in French today. We played in English yesterday.”

“OK. But you speak to me in French and I’ll speak to you in English.”

This was my first inkling that perhaps our youngest daughter wasn’t quite the same animal as the others. As a British couple living in France, we’ve always spoken English at home. But our three (between us) daughters are more exposed to French – at daycare, school, with friends, shopping…. anywhere except at home really. The eldest refused to speak any English until age 4. The second, now 8, speaks exclusively in French if she thinks you’re too tired/lazy/distracted to call her on it.

So it was something of a surprise to find that after two native French speakers, we now have a native English speaker. We still have the same language problems – just the other way round.

So how do you bring up bilingual children?

Well, better folks than I can help you with concrete advice, data-driven conclusions and all that good stuff. But generally, I find it’s the same way you bring up other kids. Simply by muddling through….

  1. Set your house rules: To help you decide when and how to help/prod/correct/encourage/praise your kids, figure out just how bilingual you want them to be. Is the “80/20” rule good enough? Or do you want them to sound like native speakers in both languages? I have a tendency towards “Eats Shoots and Leaves” punctuation geekiness, so no guessing where I fall. But believe me, getting from “Please may I get down of the table” to “Please may I get down from the table” definitely requires 80% of the effort for 20% of the gain.
  2. Decide your exceptions to the rule: As any parent knows, rules are made to be broken. And, like the pirates’ code, they’re more “sort of guidelines anyway…” For example, halfway through discussions of math homework – which take place in what can only be described as a bastardized form of franglais with an accent that hovers somewhere between Calais and Dover – I usually wonder if I shouldn’t just do this bit in French. It would probably be fairer – and easier – on all.
  3. Make the effort, and keep on making it: If you only speak one language at home, don’t expect your children to pick up the other language naturally, as if by osmosis as it were. They won’t. Kids might be sponges but they can only soak up knowledge – and that includes languages – to which you expose them. You need to make the effort to use the second language with them – and be strict and consistent about it over time.

Having bilingual children is wonderfully rewarding and, quite frankly, has masses of pure entertainment value! And just occasionally – usually when I head back to the UK – I get a little smug about the fact that my kids speak two languages and how lucky we are. Fortunately, I’m usually brought down to earth pretty quickly by some of the other families we know, like the one whose children speak French, English, Spanish AND Portuguese! Pride and the corresponding fall would seem to be a rule without exceptions.

And what of our kids? Well, they seem to have agreed to play in English in one bedroom, and in French in the other ….

For those who are interested, here are some of those better folks:

Gillian is a Brit abroad, start-up marketeer and gadget girl. She also plays mum to three girls (through both merger or acquisition) and an ever-changing number of dogs and cats. Follow her on Twitter at @gilliancg 

What If?

What if I hadn’t been applied to a job posting for an au pair in Paris when I was 19?

What if my host family there didn’t have a friend from the USA who was visiting London?

What if I had never introduced that friend to my brother?

What if they hadn’t got along?

What if they didn’t move to the USA several years later with their kids?

What if I had stayed in France?

What if my brother hadn’t worked with someone who’s cousin lived in Boston?

What if I hadn’t bothered to contact him?

What if I’d hadn’t dared to meet him on a blind date?

What if I didn’t say yes to his marriage proposal?

What if we had decided to live somewhere other than our town?

What if it hadn’t been a struggle to have kids?

What if …….?

Life is so full of what ifs. They blow my mind, quite literally. If any of these questions had a different answer, I would be living a different life altogether. But I believe in serendipity as well as in creating your own destiny. Every decision we make shapes the next. We make things happen, they don’t happen to us. This is my credo. What ifs are about looking over to your shoulder and marveling at the path that has brought you to today. I march forward, savoring one moment at a time.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Pins

Like many of my fellow PR, social and Mom types, my latest addiction is Pinterest. Everyday I open up the app, eager with anticipation to take a spin through the newest colorful pins my fellow addicts have posted or repinned.

They say the demographic of Pinterest is mainly women. They also say that Pinterest is now the third most popular social network, driving large volumes of traffic to the sites and blogs marketing themselves through it.

They may be right …. but I say, for me, Pinterest is like a delicious distraction from reality to a land where I can look fantastic, have a the perfect home, whip up fabulous meals, be expertly crafty and travel to exotic places. Yes, to me, my daily (sometimes two or three times daily) dip into Pinterest  is like a concentrated dose of a good girlfriend catch-up combined with a speed read through the latest editions of Vogue, People, Parenting and Food & Wine magazines.

It turns out my boards are actually an intensely revealing portal to my life. Or the life I’ll get to one day when I’m not so busy being a working Mom, wife and blogger. Here’s a quick review of my favorite boards:

Recipes to try – my most populated and frequently refreshed board filled with images of recipes that are scrumptious, healthy, kid-approved, supposedly simple or otherwise, just plain mouth-watering. All of which I will make one of these days and which will never look like the beautiful images I pinned.

Style – If only I was taller, thinner, richer, less of a slob. This board exemplifies the wannabe in me with looks that I wish I could carry off. Plus a load of shoes I’d wear (if they didn’t hurt my back) and jewelry I’d like to own. If only ….

Cheese – it’s quite simple. I love cheese. Therefore I love pinning images of cheese so I can look at them and drool.

Men – hey, we’re allowed to look, right? So I created a board where several of my most “admired” guys can reside, so I can look at them and they can stare back at me …..

France – where I lived and had the time of my life. One day, I’ll be back, mes amis.

Inspiration – not the usual board of quotes that many people have, mine is filled with Dr Seuss-isms because, man, he just nails its.

As someone who works in social media, people often say to me, “I really must get on Twitter” to which I respond, “why?” Most of the time, they have no clue. My advice to them is not to bother, if they don’t have a specific goal. But with Pinterest, it’s very different. If you haven’t jumped in yet and you’re a woman (or man, I suppose) looking for inspiration, shoes, decor and craft ideas, or just something to make for dinner, c’mon in and join the rest of us in fantasy land!

Why America?

I don’t really like America. This may come as a shock to you as it’s been my home for 12 years. I’m the kind of person who lives in the moment and makes the most of what I have. I choose to embrace the world around me with an open mind and an open heart. So here I am, in America, 12 years after moving here with my job in February 2000. I could have gone back to France (which I still miss so viscerally,) could go back to my roots in England, could try somewhere entirely new.

I’ve felt at home everywhere that I’ve lived.

As I embarked upon this post, I was thinking of chronicling the major milestones during these 12 years. But two particular moments stand out, defining me and my future.

Flashback to August 5, 2001. Not to that lazy Sunday morning and the heart-stopping moment when this wonderful man I had fallen in love with asked me to be his wife. But later that night, as he slept beside me and my head and heart exploded with emotions and my eyes gushed with tears. Joy: I had finally found my soul mate. Amazement/gratitude: that someone could love me enough to want to marry me. Relief: now I could actually dare to see my future, having children could finally become a reality.

Fast-forward to April 2004. After a tough and mentally torturous journey, we discover I am pregnant. Yes, my body is about to perform this ridiculously clever process of growing a person. They say when you become a parent, you permanently wear your heart on your sleeve. For me, this started the day the little blue line appeared after peeing on the white stick. Life was profoundly altered from that moment. I was no longer one person. I still look at my son with amazement and say, “I made you! How nuts is that.”

Now we have two beautiful kids. This April, Devin and I celebrate 10 happy years of marriage. We have a lovely home, great jobs, good health, fantastic friends. I do not take any of this for granted. I wish my parents and siblings were closer, geographically, but we are closer precisely because of our physical distance.

They say home is where the heart is. Right now, it’s here. America.

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