Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

I started thinking about culture shock even before we left for Mexico.

Our little family had just breached the departure doors at O'Hare Monday morning a week ago to find a solid mass of travelers standing in indecipherable lines that snaked through the lobby. No signs or borders. Baggage check in? Security? I wouldn't interrupt the chattering teenagers who made up most of the crowd massed in front us to ask a question -- high schoolers lose half their IQ points waiting in groups.

A lone besieged airline worker offered information in the middle of a scrum of travelers. My dear husband Randy, too polite by half, waited patiently to cross the line of spring-breakers and began with "Good morning...."

I barged forward, barking, "International baggage check in!" I got a pointed direction and the reply, "Six."

It may not have been my best moment, but our flight was scheduled before 9 a.m. and I'd had four hours of nervous sleep. Hey, this is Chicago. We get the job done. We just elected Rahm Emanuel with 56 goddamn percent of the fucking vote, baby. Deal with it.

Still, an episode from Elizabeth Bard's charming memoir Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes rang in my head, chiding me as we found our way to check-in kiosk #6.

Bard falls in love nearly simultaneously with her French boyfriend and the cuisine of his native land. After months of soaking up and in Paris culture, she visits a cookwear shop with her mother, who has not yet learned the ways of the true Parisienne. Bard's mother approaches a salesman with a piece of pottery and announces, "I want to buy this." Wincing, Bard escorts her mother out of the store and conducts the transaction herself in the properly French way, polite and correct.

"What?" asks her mother on the sidewalk.

Where to begin? "You didn't say 'Good morning,'" replies Bard, who writes of feeling like she has "centuries of catching up to do."

The scene, like so many tales of culture clash in this memoir and in most travelers' memories, is about much more than a simple misunderstanding. Entering a foreign world means occasionally facing a volatile mix of cultural pride, personal desire, and the needs of the group versus those of the individual.

I was feeling what Bard calls "a cultural jet lag" as I drove the desert highway that leads into our destination town of Todos Santos later that day. Some portions of the road are dinky single lane with steep gullies on either side and occasional chunks missing from the white line on the edge. Some stretches are recently refinished blacktop, eight lanes wide, but with no markings, no yellow or white lines, and little guidance when your lane suddenly disappears and you hope the cars coming the opposite direction stay to the right.

Our host laughs at this and tells us a story of a town in the Netherlands that took away all their stop signs and streetlights. Car accidents became rare from the subsequent eye contact and caution.

Courtesy and care - it's not a bad way to move through the world, especially where you don't yet know the rules, but you already feel yourself falling in love. The trick is knowing how to execute that courtesy.

Brent tells another story of when he first arrived in the little town, keeping his head down as he passed people on their porches, until he learned, quickly, the abundant response his hellos would receive.

My little Nora calls a chirpy, "Hola! Hola!" to strangers out the car window. I wince, like Bard.

Two little old ladies in knee length dresses and black pantyhose walk slowly arm in arm up the hill in the neighborhood of Los Pinos. "I've learned to say, 'Buenos dios, Senoras,'" Brent explains, as he demonstrates a slow turn to face their precious and terrible dignity with a deep nod. Some early mornings on holy days, he and Serena can hear them singing, fifteen or so ladies, in a procession to the orange stucco chapel down the road.

The publisher of Lunch in Paris sent me a copy of the book with no obligation. You can read more posts about the memoir at From Left to Write.

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