The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What have you learned, grasshopper?

One year ago [from when I started writing this], on Thanksgiving Day 2005, I had my job interview here in Lyon. After the all-day series of interviews, I walked along the quais of the Rhone in front of the Hotel-Dieu (unknowingly, a block from my future apartment), smoked a cigar in a gentle falling snow and watched the lights of the Pont de L’Universite reflected in the dark river. What would happen?

Looking back, I could not have anticipated what has happened in the intervening year. Like my man Pat says (after taking a slug of Bushmills and poking at the fire with his boot), “Life keeps comin’ at ya.” Given how sharply my life has changed, how sharply has my life changed me? If living abroad is a learning experience, what have I learned? Let’s take a look.

French Language. Well, I have learned to speak passable French, and I can read French in only about twice as much time as it takes to read English. I still have trouble, though—I find it impossible to keep up in cocktail-party-type situations when more than one person may be talking at once, and V’s podiatrist doubtless thinks I’m a complete moron. Because of the breaking of the finger of the foot, one should not make the walking for not to make the bone sticky in not a line which is straight?

Wine. Oh yeah, I've learned about wine. I’ve toured vineyards from Chablis to the Beaujolais, tasted a hundred or more different wines since I’ve been here, and I even have a small “cellar” now (OK, it’s the bottom of the pantry closet). But you know what? My taste buds still suck. V will taste a glass and mention that it is well-structured and has notes of apples and honey. I’ll take a sip and say it tastes like…wine. Pearls before swine, I guess. But it is kinda cool to look at a wine label and say “Hey, I know where that is…up on the hillside north of town. Not far from the train station, and there’s a good restaurant on the way.”

Expanded gastronomic repertoire. Just like with wine, I’ve had much more exposure to fine food here (which should not in any way be interpreted as an insult toward Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen or Lexington Barbecue #1). I actually kind of like escargot, though I suppose that just about anything will become palatable if drenched in enough melted butter and garlic. Frog legs? Not terrible, but I don’t think I’ll ever go out of my way to order them. But know this: I will never again be intimidated by a fancy French restaurant in the US.

Exposure to foreign culture. You know, people actually pay money for those immersion programs in which they go and live in foreign countries for a while, just to experience different cultures and lifestyles and doing laundry and shopping at the market and so forth. They pay money for this. I remind V of that whenever she’s down on living in France, which is almost always.

Knowledge of the Rest of the World. They say Americans are too insular, too blind to what happens in the rest of the world. Know what? They’re right. The typical US news broadcast will tell you about a bus crash in Alabama, a fire at an apartment building, and (if you’re in California) a freeway chase. The comparable French broadcast will lead with a report from Kigali on the most recent Rwandan genocide allegations, and an analysis of the Ecuadorean elections. I’m not saying that one system is better than the other (in truth, the Ecuadorean elections affected my life equally as much as the Alabama bus crash; that is, not at all), just markedly different. So do I know more about the world than I used to? Well, maybe a little. It’s more that I’m more aware of how little I know.

Cancer. Thanks to my job, I know a lot more about cancer than I did a year ago. But only in very specific and entirely non-clinical areas, so y’all don’t come to me asking if you should get that mole checked out. I only know about which precursor genes and missense mutations are associated with squamous-cell sarcomas in Wistar-Hannover rats.

Empathy with US immigrants. Back in high school in Lexington, NC, I worked one summer at Kmart, in the Sporting Goods & Automotive department. From time to time, a group of 6 or 7 Latino guys would come in, mill around for a bit, nudge each other, and finally the one of them who spoke broken English would ask me where to find oil filter wrenches or dolly ramps or radiator stop-leak or whatever. Then he’d ask if I had valve stems for an ’86 F-150, and I’d have to explain that Kmart doesn’t carry anything that specific, and that he’d have to go to Advance Auto Parts for that. I’d always kind of roll my eyes at those guys—c’mon, you’re in America now, at least make an effort—but now I completely sympathize. Even after this much time in France, there are still a lot of situations in which I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I don’t have the vocabulary for anyone to explain it to me, and I’ve got my little immigrant clan looking to me for answers.

What else has changed? I’ve lost weight without exercising at all, because I walk everywhere. I sleep less than I used to, though I think that’s probably a result of having a new baby rather than a result of living in France. I have fledgling interests (and puddle-depth knowledge) in soccer and European history. Most importantly, I am now armed to bore the crap out of people with endless sentences that begin “When we were in France….”

[Unrelated pictures: Perouges, a mostly-rebuilt medieval town not far from Lyon. Pretty--Bill Clinton did visit there, though I can't verify that he scratched his name in the wall above--but perhaps over-restored and somewhat Disneyfied.]

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