November 28, 2014

Radio Week Part 2: Party Like it's 1621

Thanksgiving in France is more commonly referred to as "Thursday." No lining up at Wal-Mart, no turkey that hasn't defrosted, no hectic travel, no last-minute runs to the store for extra butter, no teeth-gnashing over the seating chart, no worrying about who was going to be drunkest.

For this Yankee, it seemed a good opportunity to bring a little Americana to the masses here in Burgundy, so I wrote to the local radio station offering to appear in studio to discuss this most American of holidays.

To my mild amazement, they accepted, and I found myself at ten of six in the evening in the colorful lobby of France Bleu Bourgogne in the center of Dijon. It was a beehive of activity as producers and on-air talent were gathered around a large table dotted with laptops, busily preparing the next half-hour's news update or the next day's morning show.

I was going to appear during a segment of the evening drive time called "La Bouffe Ensemble," translated roughly as "Food Together." The feed was piped into the lobby, and I could hear the hosts (a woman, Florence, and a man, Stéphane) teasing my appearance, talking about turkey and saying thanks.  

Florence came out to greet me and I realized I needn't have worried about the dress code. We were firmly in "radioworld," and casual attire ruled the roost. Stéphane, to my horror and repulsion, was rocking a New York Yankees hat, a t-shirt, and jeans. He talked faster than a hummingbird's wings. We did a super quick briefing (what questions they might ask, where I should sit, how do you pronounce your last name?, wave to the man behind the glass, you don't need headphones, talk into the mic, etc.), and bam! we were live on the air. After some pleasantries (and an extremely nice compliment from Florence on my French), I gave a quick rundown of the history of Thanksgiving: the first repast in Plymouth in 1621, Lincoln's Proclamation of 1863, and the 1941 law that established Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. I was done in two minutes. The hosts then called a French woman and asked her what she was having for dinner (she didn't know; her 23-year old son was preparing it for her; it would be a surprise), and then they played "Born in the USA" for the guest, a nice touch.

When the song ended, we were back live and I gave a rundown of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: turkey (46 million of 'em on tables across America), stuffing (when I said that some people liked to put oysters in their stuffing, Stéphane interjected, his face going white with disgust, and asked if he had understood me correctly. Clearly, his French palate was more that a little troubled by the idea of oysters inside stuffing inside turkey), cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, peas, green beans, sweet potatoes, and apple, pecan, or pumpkin pie. While I tried to concentrate (it is a wild experience being on live radio  in a foreign language), I couldn't help being a little distracted by my hosts. Their eyes were constantly darting to the clock, checking the time. Stéphane looked at his phone a lot. Both of them would sporadically raise a hand or point to the producer behind the glass, the cue for a sound effect or some other trick of the radio trade. The five minute segment went by in a flash, and, after nice handshakes, some assurances that it had been "super," an offer to be a local events reporter in Arnay le Duc for the station (on a volunteer basis, of course), and a free pen, I was out the door.

After I left the station, I realized that I had forgotten to do the one thing I had been preparing for the whole day. On the streets of Dijon, people were headed home after work, perhaps thinking ahead to their meal at home that evening (blanquette de veau? duck breast with potatoes au gratin? lentil soup studded with cubes of pork? cod filet on a bed of creamed spinach?), all oblivious to the American in their midst. 

It felt, for a minute, very far away from home. While it is true that Thanksgiving in France does not have any of the unpleasant aspects of the holiday, it also lacks football, stuffing, crisp skin, the Snoopy float, the thick smell of roasting flesh, laughter, and, most of all, family.

Contemplating the distance between Burgundy and the Vermont table where my family was congregating, I realized with shame that I had forgotten my most important line for my cross-Atlantic listeners during my radio appearance: "Hi, Mom and Dad. Happy Thanksgiving. I love you and I miss you."

November 26, 2014

Differences:Part 1 of a series

We were at our 4 year old son's friend's house for an apéritif when I commented that Luke was generally exhausted at 7:30 each night. "He spends his day in French preschool, living by French rules, and then he comes home to a completely different set of rules and customs at home."

My host looked at me quizzically and said, "Are there really such big differences between the two cultures?"

The question has stuck with me for several days now. It is an innocent enough question. We share many of the same commitments to freedom, the separation of church and state, a belief in equality. Over time, the French have absorbed so much of American culture into their lives (Coke, NCIS, Michael Jackson, George Clooney movies, menus translated into English, Sue Grafton books) that, seen through the French lens, I can buy that maybe they think that the cultures are similar.

Seen through the American lens, however, there are differences at every juncture, at seemingly every moment of every day. 

Want to have eggs for breakfast? You are a freak. 

You would like the pre-school teacher's email address? 50 euro fine just for asking. 

Thought maybe you would ask the neighbor -- who you see approximately 50 times a month -- what her name is after a year of living next to her? That is uncouth and just plain ridiculous. 

Looking for aspirin at the grocery store or Kleenex at the pharmacy? You should be publicly stoned.

What? You don't turn off your car engine when at a red light? Weird-o.

And much, much more...

November 25, 2014

Radio Week Part 1

This morning, I was a guest on a Radio Cultures Dijon. I was invited by an American woman who teaches English at the local university and a professor from an American college who shepherds his students through a term in Dijon. The show, which is taped entirely in French, before airing in a week or two, is dedicated to comparing and contrasting North American and French cultures and current events. I am not sure what segment of the population tunes in to hear Anglophones speaking French (safe to say not everyone), but I was nonetheless surprised to find my heart beating a little too fast when I slipped the headphones on and leaned into the mic for the first time. Things soon settled down, however, and we were discussing how my family and I moved to France, where we currently live, what I do to fill my days (other than being on the radio?), and the differences I note between French and American culture, how we raise our children, and, of course, the food of this region.

My hosts could not have been more lovely with this neophyte, and they assured me all had gone well, though I of course felt like I could use a mulligan on most of it. There were definitely a few highlights, however, including making the engineers laugh when I said that I was here to explore the gastronomy and wine of the region...and that there are worse places to do it.

All in all, it was a worthwhile experience and I hope my hosts follow through on the threat to invite me back for another show down the line. It was also excellent warm-up for Thursday, when I will appear live on the largest radio station in this part of Burgundy to talk food with two French co-hosts. We will be discussing American Thanksgiving food and traditions.