Category Archives: North American Culture

French Jack-o’-Lantern

By   October 28, 2008

Auchan was selling pumpkins this week, so I had to get one. I was surprised they even had them considering how small their Halloween costume section is. And their Halloween candy aisle is just non-existent. There was a huge section for chrysanthemums though, for la Toussaint* – which I stupidly didn’t get when I first walked into the store. (Hmm, why are there so many flowers normally reserved for decorating graves on sale this week? Probably the same reason why I have no work this week. Duh.)

My first French pumpkin (with my nosy cat).

Citrouille and potiron can be used interchangeably** to mean pumpkin in everyday French, but that’s not what Auchan decided to call it. Maybe they don’t know it’s not called a Jack-o’-lantern until you carve it?

This was David’s first time carving a pumpkin, but he refused to use his hand to get the pumpkin guts out.

So I pulled all the guts out with my hands, though I’m not really sure what I’m doing in this photo. Bowing to the pumpkin king? Looking for something I dropped inside?

David carving the face:

And voilà ! Our jack-o’-lantern is done!

*La Toussaint is All Saint’s Day, celebrated on November 1st. All Soul’s Day is technically November 2nd, but people commemorate the dead by placing flowers and candles on graves on the 1st anyway.

** La citrouille is more commonly grown in North America, while le potiron is more common in Europe. They are almost the same fruit, but it does seem like people use citrouille more when talking about Halloween and potiron more when talking about soup. They both belong to the class of fruits called courge (gourds).

Colin Powell’s Words of Wisdom

By   October 19, 2008

From the only Republican I like, Colin Powell, on Meet the Press, October 19, 2008:

…I watched Mr. Obama and I watched him during this seven-week period.  And he displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor.  I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well.  I also believe that on the Republican side over the last seven weeks, the approach of the Republican Party and Mr. McCain has become narrower and narrower.  Mr. Obama, at the same time, has given us a more inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations of our people. He’s crossing lines–ethnic lines, racial lines, generational lines.  He’s thinking about all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.

And I’ve also been disappointed, frankly, by some of the approaches that Senator McCain has taken recently, or his campaign ads, on issues that are not really central to the problems that the American people are worried about. This Bill Ayers situation that’s been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign.  But Mr. McCain says that he’s a washed-out terrorist.  Well, then, why do we keep talking about him?  And why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow, Mr. Obama is tainted.  What they’re trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings.  And I think that’s inappropriate.

Now, I understand what politics is all about.  I know how you can go after one another, and that’s good.  But I think this goes too far.  And I think it has made the McCain campaign look a little narrow.  It’s not what the American people are looking for.  And I look at these kinds of approaches to the campaign and they trouble me.  And the party has moved even further to the right, and Governor Palin has indicated a further rightward shift.  I would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, but that’s what we’d be looking at in a McCain administration.  I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian.  He’s always been a Christian.  But the really right answer is, what if he is?  Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.  Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?  Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine.  It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave.  And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone.  And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.  He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.  And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey.  He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.  Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way.  And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know.  But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

So, when I look at all of this and I think back to my Army career, we’ve got two individuals, either one of them could be a good president.  But which is the president that we need now?  Which is the individual that serves the needs of the nation for the next period of time?  And I come to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities–and we have to take that into account–as well as his substance–he has both style and substance–he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president.  I think he is a transformational figure.  He is a new generation coming into the world–onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I’ll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.

The full transcript of the interview can be found here.

I’m slighty proud to be an American again. Only 16 more days to go!!!

Apéro and Universités

By   October 19, 2008

Friday night at an apéro chez des amis, we somehow got on the subject of universities. David mentioned that his mom’s cousin teaches French in Boston, and at the end of each semester, she had to let her students fill out evaluation forms. Everyone but me was surprised and thought it was a bad idea. I said that was normal in American universities and I didn’t really understand why it wasn’t done in France. They were also stunned that websites for rating teachers and professors had been around for 10 years in the US, whereas the only site like that in France had been shut down last year by the courts.

Personally, I think teacher evaluations are a good thing because the students should have a say in the quality of their education – especially in the US where they pay a small fortune each semester for the privilege of going to college. If they have horrible professors that don’t really care about teaching, the students have a right to complain. Professors grade students, so why shouldn’t students grade the professors too?

But I guess the main difference here in France is that students only pay a few hundred euros a year to go to university so they don’t seem as motivated or invested in their education. If they fail a final exam, they can always retake it the next month. If they fail a class, they can always retake it the next year. So even if the professors are bad, it doesn’t really matter since the students get so many chances to “succeed” in the end.

However, I have a problem with the traditional “more money = better education” line of thinking. Just because France subsidizes university education doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Just because the students don’t pay much doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn. The opposite is true for American universities. Just because it’s expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And just because the students (or their parents) pay a lot doesn’t mean they actually want to be there and want to learn.

So why are the American and French ideas about universities and higher education different? Is it the role of the professor that differs so much? Or the role of the student?

Anyway, Corinne did such a good job preparing the apéro, I wanted to show off pictures of her hard work:

And something that I hadn’t come across before in France: an elevator that only stops on odd-numbered floors. Of course, the other elevator stops at the even-numbered floors, but there are no signs indicating this, so I guess you’re just supposed to know?

The Story of the Missing Ballot

By   October 12, 2008

Once upon a time, there was a young girl who had grown disillusioned with her country. It was too religious, too conservative, too intolerant. I’ll move to France, she thought, and maybe one day my country will get better so I will be less ashamed of it.

So off to France she went, and there she will stay, perhaps permanently. However, she is still an American citizen and still has the right to vote in elections. She dutifully requested her absentee ballots, but always found it odd that her mother and not the clerk’s office sent them to her.

With the 2008 election fast approaching and the seething rage she felt at the thought of another Republican president, she became increasingly worried that her ballot had been lost or would not arrive on time. Her mom called the clerk’s office to see if there was a problem and discovered that the ballots were always being returned by the post office. Luckily, the girl was from a small town where most people knew everyone else, so when the ballots were returned, someone in the office knew to forward them on to her mother’s house. And then, of course, her mother sent them to France.

Even though the clerk’s office knew the girl lived in France, they never once thought to put more postage on the ballots, even after the first one was returned. Apparently she is the only registered voter from that township who no longer lives in the US. So if it weren’t for that small town connection, she may never have received her absentee ballots.

Thanks to her mom, once again, she finally received her ballot for the November 4th election!

At least her clerk’s office was kind enough to include this cute little pen/paperclip. It may not be a sticker, but it sure is more functional!

And looking at the ballot, she can finally see the names of the other people who are running for president but that no one has heard of or even cares about, except Ralph Nader (because we’re still bitter about him causing Gore to lose in 2000.)

So the ballot is now safely in her hands, and she can vote for her Democratic friends, though she is fully aware that her ballot most likely won’t even be counted, as most absentee ballots aren’t. USA 2008!

The Not-So-United States of America

By   October 4, 2008

So the presidential elections (only one more month to go!!!) and having to explain the Electoral College and how voting works in the US to the French have stirred up some emotions about why I don’t like living there. The United States of America is just that – a collection of states, but states that are not all that united. All of them must follow federal laws, like driving at 16, voting at 18 and drinking alcohol at 21; but there are also a lot of laws that are decided on by state governments, which I find completely unfair. We are all American citizens, yet we don’t all have to live by the same laws just because we live in different states?

In Michigan this year, there are two proposed amendments to the state constitution on the ballot: legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and allowing embryonic stem-cell research. In some states these are already legal or illegal. In some states, they are voting on other amendments, like banning gay marriage or preventing animal cruelty.  How awful is it to tell people they can be married in one state but if they travel or move to another state within the same country, their marriage is no longer legal???

I believe the federal government should have more power over each state, so that the laws are the same everywhere you go in the US. Why do some states have better education systems than others? Why do some states provide more basic human rights than others? Why do some states have better health care options than others?  I don’t necessarily agree with France’s centralizing everything to Paris, but at least laws are the same in every région and département. And that is my biggest problem with voting in the US.

The Electoral College favors the Republicans by giving states with small populations a larger say in the overall vote… states that usually vote Republican. Technically, a candidate only has to win 11 states in order to win the presidency. So what’s the point of even campaigning in the other 39 states? It’s obvious that every year the candidates focus on the swing states that could change the outcome and ignore the rest. Why not just have a direct vote so that every American citizen has an equal say instead of each state having unequal say? The fact that the Electoral College was created to limit the impact of women’s and slaves’ votes says something about its true, undemocratic nature, doesn’t it? I’ve always felt insulted that the government believes states are more important than the people or that the people are not intelligent enough to vote for the president, although we do so for the Congress.

For those of us who don’t live where we are registered, why do some states require that you vote in person at your precint the very first time you vote? Isn’t that extremely unfair to those college students who can’t afford to return to their parents’ on a Tuesday during the semester? Or for those who are studying or moving abroad before they have the chance to vote for the first time? What are they supposed to do?

And why even bother to vote if you know your state will give its electors to the other candidate anyway? I’m glad Michigan votes democrat or else I would be very frustrated that my vote doesn’t count for anything. I would still vote, of course, just for the pleasure of voting against the republicans, but I wouldn’t feel that my vote could make a difference. And isn’t that why we vote?

I may be an American citizen, but most days, I don’t really know how to define what that really means. I’m an American who abides by Michigan laws (or used to when I lived there.) So am I really a Michigander first, and American second? I think that’s why I’ve always thought that I’m not really “American” – because there are 50 different types of Americans.

All Things American

By   September 20, 2008

Mom just sent a package of things that David & I have been missing lately. Now that it’s almost fall, I’m really getting nostalgic for America… and Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas. Apparently as soon as the temperature drops, I lump all of those holidays together. Luckily I should only have to work until noon on Thanksgiving this year and for once I have the day after off! We’re staying in France for Christmas, but David claims we’re going to have an American style dinner (turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie) in addition to the gross sea food. Though I’m still thinking about heading to Europa Park near Freiburg since Germans are as crazy about Christmas as Americans are.

Anyway, here’s what mom sent us:

Root Beer
(for the non-North Americans, this is actually pop, not beer)

Lemonade mix

Easy Cheese, because it’s REAL cheese (ha!)

Big Red gum
(Has anyone been able to find cinnamon-flavored gum in France?)

My kind of macaroni & cheese – and my kind of cooking!

Spiral notebook with LINED paper!

Guess who was the first one guzzling down the Root Beer and spraying Easy Cheese on crackers? (Hint: it wasn’t me.) I also got a 4GB flashdrive and real Chapstick. If only donuts could be sent this way… I did buy some donuts at Auchan last week, but they just weren’t the same. Nobody beats VG’s donuts.

I figured out that in order to send this same package to my parents from France, it would cost three times as much with La Poste. Mom spent $52.50 on 6-10 day shipping because it was 10 pounds, whereas I would have to spend about 110 € for the really slow économique shipping or 150 € for the regular, but yet still slow, shipping. In case you’re wondering why you may be getting feathers for Christmas, that’s why…

Note to mom: we’re running low on peanut butter now that someone likes to eat it with apples even though he originally thought that was disgusting. He’s so Americanized!

P.S. Happy Oktoberfest, Bavaria!

“We the people” not “We the favored few.”

By   August 28, 2008

I don’t usually talk about politics, and I hate how much the US presidential election is covered here in France… but after watching some of the speeches at the Democratic Convention this week, I’m feeling a little more hopeful about my country. It took me six long years to get out of the US after Bush started destroying it. I never thought I’d ever want to move back there. Yet now a tiny part of me does, if the Democrats can do what they say.

The main reason I choose France over the US is universal health care. It still blows my mind that the US government doesn’t take care of all of its citizens, but only the rich ones. Yes, we pay a lot for the amazing health care we have in France, but it is worth it. I know that if anything serious ever happened to me or David, we wouldn’t be in debt forever because of medical bills. I can go to the doctor without wasting $10 just to set foot in his/her office. I can get my teeth or eyes checked and be reimbursed for the entire bill. Even my contacts are free every year. I feel sorry for my friends and family in the US who have no health care, who haven’t been to the doctors in years, who can’t afford their prescriptions… That shouldn’t happen in the “world’s superpower.”

But there are other reasons why I don’t like the US right now. The cost of university is atrociously high. The minimum wage is ridiculously low. Foreign cultures, religions and languages are not tolerated in most areas. There is still too much racism, sexism, and especially homophobia. (Though one can argue this is true of every nation.)  The government wastes all of its money on fighting a war we shouldn’t be involved in, instead of helping its own citizens with access to education, employment and health care. Everyone is seen as a terrorist, even Americans themselves, and treated thus. The government denies that global warming even exists, while making the situation even worse. It declares the death penalty to be an acceptable form of punishment. It denies homosexuals the same benefits enjoyed by other human beings. It ignores women’s rights and the separation of church and state and the threat of HIV/AIDS as a global epidemic.

But for me, the greatest offense is favoring the rich over the poor. Classism is usually overlooked because it encompasses such a broad range of topics, but I see it everywhere. The poor cannot go to college because tuition is too expensive. Without an education, they can’t find a decent-paying job. So they’re stuck in poverty, and so are their children. The poor cannot go to the doctor because medical bills are too high. Without good health, they can’t work. Poverty leads to more poverty and no one ever seems to do anything about it.

The Democrats are going to have a very hard time fixing the mess that Bush made. It will take years to reverse the damage. The economy was obviously much better when Clinton was president in the 90’s. But even he couldn’t get Congress to approve his universal health care plan. He unfortunately approved the Defense of Marriage Act. And let’s not forget Somalia, and the two genocides that occurred while he was in office, in Rwanda and the Balkans. He was a great president, but he couldn’t do everything. I need to remember that when (yes, when) Obama becomes the next president. I know I shouldn’t have a lot of hope that he’ll be able to change everything, because it’s not entirely dependent on him.

But it is nice for once to have hope for the future of my country instead of being ashamed of it. It is nice for once to think that I may be able to return home if I want to.

Bonne Fête Nationale, USA !

By   July 4, 2008

This is the fourth year that I haven’t been in the USA on the Fourth of July, and it’s always a little weird. I’ve never been an overly patriotic person, but I do miss my country today. At least I’ll still get to watch fireworks in July (just on the 14th instead) and the flags will be the same colors (but with no stars and stripes)…

I hope all of my American friends have a good day!

The Convenience / La Commodité

By   June 10, 2008

Qu’est-ce qui te manque le plus ? When people ask me what I miss most about the United States, the first word that comes to mind is convenience. And then I have to explain what exactly that means to me: being able to do what I want when I want. I was never forced to comply to someone else’s schedule. There were plenty of stores and restaurants open 24 hours so I wasn’t as rushed to buy my groceries before 8pm. Banks and the post office did not close for 2 hour lunches. Not many places were closed on Sundays either.

But in France I feel as though I waste a lot of time waiting for places to open so I can get things done. Even my bank is closed on Mondays, which I never seem to remember because I don’t understand why they have to be closed on that particular day. And the idea of “un drive” anywhere but McDonald’s or Quick is practically unheard of. My local post office has this convenient drop-off box for letters, but it’s located about 10 feet from the road. You have to park your car and run down the stairs to drop your mail off. And it’s in an industrial area, so there are few sidewalks for those who want to walk there. I just don’t get it.

So imagine my surprise a little while ago when I discovered that my bank has a drive-up ATM in Annecy! I thought these just didn’t exist in France because David was always talking about how cool they were when we were in the US for Christmas. (He even took a picture of one when I stopped to get some cash. And the pharmacy drive-thrus just blew his mind!) But this bank is actually pretty far from where I live, and I avoid driving in downtown Annecy as much as possible, so I doubt I will ever use it. But still, it is there!

The second thing that comes to mind about the US is just the space. The US is much larger than France, and the population density is much lower, so I never felt as crowded as I do here. I’ve always been a country girl though, and had my parents’ back yard to escape to. I think that’s why I have a hard time living in an apartment in such a residential area in France. I will never get used to the people or the noise and not having my own private yard to relax in.

The third thing is donuts. Definitely donuts.

Super Duper Tuesday

By   February 5, 2008

I had my students vote in a fake primary today. The ballots were just as entertaining as the class. Can you understand the pictures next to the names? I think it’s hilarious.

Barack Obama and John McCain were the winners, although no one had heard of any of the Republican candidates and I did get two write-ins for Alan, the tall funny guy in the class who I’m pretty sure drew the above pictures.

*Le Barack Obama is supposed to be le baraque Obama – the Obama house. Baraque is a slang word for house, stand, shed, etc. The French fry next to McCain is for the McCain brand of frozen potato products. Another student wrote “Vive les frites!” under his vote for McCain. I’m guessing that was the only reason they voted for him…