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.

My 2013 To Do List

I envy people who are uber-organized. I’ve tried all manner of systems and apps but none ever sticks. Ultimately it’s my non-stop-brain-ticking that keeps me and my life somewhat organized without any formal prompts or processes other than random neurons sparking and daily holy crap moments that remind me to do stuff. As I’ve written before, I exist in “wing it” mode and, so far, it’s worked. Aided by random to do lists hastily scribbled and purposefully left in places where I hopefully cannot fail to find them (in the shower, on the kitchen counter, affixed to my computer screen, stuck to my iPhone) and actually cross off some of those items.

These last few days I’ve read blogs and tweets and FB posts galore about folks’ New Years resolutions—or the fact that they aren’t making any. If your resolutions are always the same (eat less, exercise more, blah, blah, blah) do they even count, I wonder? So I thought I’d try a different approach and make a 2013 to do list, right here on my blog. Yes, I know it’s a cop-out as I’m not truly resolving to do these things. But, to quote a colleague of mine, let’s consider them “directional”. Maybe with this approach, some will actually get done this year.

  • Get back to France
  • Host lots of dinner parties with varied friends—and make more lunch dates, too
  • Get out more (figuratively and literally and socially and exercisingly—yes I made that word up but I like it)
  • Listen to NPR less and my music more
  • Get my U.S. citizenship
  • Conquer insomnia
  • Book a personal stylist session at Nordstrom
  • Buy new bras (TMI? Sorry.)
  • Go to the theatre more than once
  • Dance (who’s with me?)

So there you have it.

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.

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 

A Bucket List of People I’d Like to Meet

I’ve never really met anyone famous. But, thanks to someone I briefly dated decades ago, my aunt and a neighbor, I am actually remarkably well-connected. (In fact, I am less than six degrees from Kevin Bacon – for real, just ask me.) Being connected is not however the same as actually meeting someone you admire or respect in-person. Someone whose voice, words or acts have made an indelible impression on your life.

These are the people whose hands I’d like to shake. Sit down with over a nice cup of tea and have a chat. Say thank you for their talent, vision, writing, actions. Or maybe just have my photo taken with them, for souvenir’s sake. In any case, I’ve kept this list to people who are actually real (i.e. not TV characters who I believe/wish were real, like Jack Bauer, Don Draper and CJ Cregg.) And I’ve excluded my list of hotties (after all, I have a Pinterest board for them!)

Without further ado, here’s my bucket list of people I’d love to meet, in no particular order:

  • Paulo Coelho (@paulocoelho) – a truly inspirational author. His books “The Alchemist” and “By the River Piedra, I Lay Down and Wept” meant the world to me.
  • Beata Klarsfeld - together with her husband Serge, they dedicated their lives to tracking down and bringing Nazis to justice, mostly notably Klaus Barbie. I had the good fortunate to listen to a presentation she gave several years ago and was humbled by her selflessness and determination.
  • Andy Carvin (@acarvin) – the Arab Spring changed history and, in the process, Andy’s role altered the landscape of journalism. He made social media reporting visceral and important, communicating in 140 characters the often-graphic reality of the revolutions in the streets as they unravelled, minute by minute, story by story.
  • Stevie Wonder – the man, the legend. His music is like the best-day-ever. Seeing him play live was one of the best nights of my life.
  • Barack Obama – Say what you will about the economy, liberalism, healthcare, taxes. I was riveted by his inauguration speech back in 2008 and, particularly, the line: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
  • Clint & Stacey of “What Not to Wear” – they have given me the rules and I shall abide. I’d love them to come shop with me for a day. Shut the front door.
  • Ellen Degeneres – Few people make me laugh like Ellen can. She’s generous, beautiful, human, real. And have you seen her read from Fifty Shades of Grey? Hilarious.
  • Elie Wiesel – Holocaust survivor, writer, activist. Nobel Peace Prize winner. My respect for him is profound.
  • Francis Cabrel – his music was the soundtrack of my three wonderful years living in France. I was and still am bewitched by his lyrics, melody and soulfulness. Seeing him play live was an honor that I shan’t forget.
  • Bill Bryson – a combination of laugh-out-loud funny, erudite and educational all wrapped into one man’s great writing. I’ve read and re-read his books about his travels through England, Europe, America, Australia over and over again, and never tire of them. Check out some of his best quotes here.

Who’s on your bucket list of people you admire and would like to meet?

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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Missing France

February 2012 marks 12 years since I moved to America from Grenoble, France, a picturesque town surrounded by three masterful mountain ranges. Three hours by train from Paris, one hour by car from Lyon, two hours by car from Geneva and just shy of four hours to the Cote d’Azure, Grenoble was the perfect town in which to live “la vie francaise” from 1997-2000.

Those were three of the best years of my life. I find it hard to believe that I have lived in America now four times longer than I lived in Grenoble. Those three years were packed full of emotion, experiences, adventure and ambition. It was a small town life but it was big with fun and friendship.

Frequently, as I go about my day-to-day life here in the U.S., I get pangs for France. It’s more than just longing for times gone by, my “misspent youth”, memories of good times. It’s visceral. When I’m missing France, I’m missing:

  • How my brain feels energized by speaking and thinking in French, my second language
  • Amazement and gratitude for the multi-cultural friendships created and sustained
  • Viewing the world through a European filter
  • The powerful seductive smell of cheese shops and patisseries
  • Discovering – and being completely swallowed up by – the voice, lyrics and harmonies of Francis Cabrel and Lara Fabian
  • The serendipity of being introduced to works of author Paulo Coelho
  • Experiencing the mountains, lakes and countryside in all their overwhelming raw beauty
  • The cobblestone streets, the ever-flowing wine, the boutiques,
  • Living within and among history and architecture
  • Hunting for chanterelles and then making omelets with them
  • The deep sleep that follows a day of skiing in the Alps and a cheese fondue
  • Did I mention the ever-flowing wine?

The urge to go back, not just to visit but to stay, is powerful. Life in Grenoble made an indelible mark on my soul.

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