Sunday, October 31, 2010


At your service

CNN International used to run a commercial showing why its European Edition was so different from its American version. The ad's premise was that because the audiences were different, CNN's broadcasts to them were different, too.

To make the point that Europeans have other standards, the ad contrasted  being served by an untrained waiter in an American restaurant with being served by a professional waiter in France. The first scene showed a relaxed and overbearingly chatty American waiter schmoozing his diners. The second showed a white-aproned waiter in France, doing what he's supposed to do--giving discreet but attentive and competent service. 

The ad rang with some truth. I was reminded of it when I took my Franco-American hybrid kids to northern California to see the giant Redwoods. Before trekking off to the Sequoia forests, we had lunch in a salad bar on the now fashionable Fourth Street in Berkeley. 

"Look, Maman, she's not using a tray," whispered my thirteen-year-old, agape. She nodded in the direction of a waitress crossing the room with a chilled bottle of white wine nestled snug in her bare armpit and goblets dangling from her fingers. 

No sooner had I given her a motherly hush in French, "Chut," than a second waitress appeared, this one balancing a huge round tray of glasses filled with Coca-Cola and ice. Having nothing better to do while waiting for our club sandwiches--a favorite short-order food for the French traveling in the States--we watched as she headed for a table where eight women decked out in their casual Berkeley best were eating.  When the waitress removed the first Coke to serve it, the tray's equilibrium changed and all of the glasses spilled, sopping the table and the women. Oh la-la.  A clumsy tragicomedy in two acts and a good reason for some to forego a tray, even if up to the armpits with work.

Why not take a hike?
 I've never heard so many different foreign languages being spoken in one natural setting as I did when we hiked five kilometers up a mountain to admire giant Sequoias. Even more astounding was that I hardly heard any English at all; it seemed we were the only Americans on the trail.

Text & photo ©2010 P.B.LECRON

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I felt indignant when the French street workers in our neighborhood stopped what they were doing and stared at us as we went by. So what if my two kids were decked out in swimsuits and carrying gaudy inflatable pool paraphernalia? 

It was a warm summer day (or what we would have liked to imagine was one, living in the chilly north of France as we were) and afterall, they were only children going to a friend's swimming pool two doors away.

After we passed the crew, I glanced back to see if they were still leaning on their shovels and then understood what had provoked their gawking. Walking in single file behind me were the children, our dog, our house cat and the family duck, Nini, pulling up the rear. I'll say parenthetically that sights like this one only gave locals one more reason to whisper as I went in and out of our small town's shops, "C'est l'americaine!" It's the American!

Whenever it begins to turn cold like it is now, the French pull out the "Il fait un froid de canard" expression. It literally means, "It's duck cold," or to the French mind and palette, "It's biting cold." The reference is to winter duck hunting season. Some say the term originated when empty-handed hunters coming home would make excuses for their missed shots. "It was so cold (un froid de canard) that we couldn't sit motionless any longer outside,  waiting for the ducks."

The French have another favorite expression in the form of a rhetorical question, "Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué?"  Why do something simply when you can do it complicatedly?" 

For years I've slapped together grilled cheese sandwiches the simple American way, but have taken to complicating the process by doing it the French way; by making a béchamel sauce first to spread on the inside of one slice of bread before adding the ham and either emmental or gruyère cheese. The béchamel is again spread on the outside of the top slice, before adding more cheese, then broiled. Un froid de canard comfort food called a Croque-Monsieur . . . served en guise de sandwich--or sort of.

©2010 P.B. Lecron