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People always think they know why I left the United States for France. "Why," French people will say to me, giving me a conspiratorial look, "I'll bet you didn't like your current President, Mr. George W. Bush. So you thought this would be a good time to leave America, eh? To come to France and learn about Europe?" Sometimes they add: "And to improve your French? And drink some wine? And try out the French cuisine, hmm?"

I tell them they're quite right. My motives are transparent; I'm a walking cliché. I also point out that this should have been a pretty easy guess. I'm not a big fan of the current administration, but neither are most of the young Americans you'll run into working or traveling in Europe these days. We form a kind of exodus, I say: an exodus of the dispossessed-feeling, or maybe just of the annoyed. The French nod sagely.

I did come to France to get away from George W. Bush. That is, he didn't directly cause my departure—that makes it sound as if the Secret Service is on my tail, and, alas, I can assure you that my life is nowhere near exciting enough for that. But the President certainly had something to do with it. When the opportunity to work abroad came up in late 2003, the U.S. had just gotten itself into a distinctly odd position regarding its relations with France. Do you remember what I'm talking about here? Stung by France's refusal to sign on to the American plan to invade Iraq, the U.S. media, led by the leaders of government, unleashed a response that had less to do with reasoned political argument than with the hoariest of stereotypes. Remember how conservative journalists, unearthing an old gag from The Simpsons, started actually referring to the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? Remember Fox News and CNN running footage of indignant Americans pouring champagne down their toilets? Remember Donald Rumsfeld's ambiguous consignment of France and Germany to "old Europe" and the dustbin of history? Remember—most unforgettable of all—when Representatives Robert W. Ney (Republican of Ohio) and Walter B. Jones (of North Carolina) officially ordered that the House of Representatives cafeteria menus be changed to refer to "freedom fries"?

Watching the news and reading the papers, I was . . . well, frankly, I was too embarrassed for words. At the time, I was still living in the U.S.—in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be exact—and I felt no special loyalty toward France. But there was something very discomfiting about all this. I think it had to do with the impression—which, given the news at the time, it was hard to avoid—that the government itself, the people who are supposed to be the wise heads of the country, were reacting to a setback with taunts and insults. You simply don't expect your elected statesmen, operating in full view of the world stage, to respond to a reasoned challenge with "nyah, nyah, nyah." Maybe I'm an idealist, but—well, you don't, do you? I mean, did you?

Of everything that seemed wrong here, two main points stood out. The first was the assumption of automatic rightness in the American response—the apparent unwillingness to consider that anyone else's opinion might be worth listening to, and, in consequence, the implicit claim that our country is always on the right side of a conflict, of Destiny, and, one assumes, of God. The second element—which, to be honest, loomed larger in my mind—was that we were being so horribly tacky. I mean, flushing champagne? Re-naming French fries? I couldn't escape the feeling that my country had decided the right approach to the current crisis in international relations was to imagine itself in someone else's shoes: to ask itself what an ill-bred 8-year-old would do, and then go right ahead and do that.

Or, to reverse the metaphor, I felt like a kid whose parent has just done something unspeakably embarrassing in front of all their friends, standing there in humiliation and wondering what everyone else is thinking. How did the international community view our behavior? I had my share of classroom humiliations as a kid, believe you me. And this feeling was weirdly similar. You can't bear to meet the gaze of anyone else, but at the same time you have this horrible, intense curiosity about what's going through their heads.

So that's how the French are right, and it's because of George W. Bush that I left the United States. That, along with other things—a sense of discomfort about our increasing isolationism, nervousness about the erosion of civil liberties at home, plus my total inability to find direction in life or a job. (I don't blame that last part on the President, at least not entirely.) But my eagerness to come to France certainly had something to do with the fact that this country, so long romanticized in the U.S., so long our ally, had become the subject of a bizarre demonization. I was curious: I wanted to find out what the French were really like. I felt apologetic: maybe I could offer my regrets about that wasted champagne? I was also conscious of a vaguely missionary impulse—I figured maybe I could show the French that not all Americans deal with the unfamiliar by falling back on hostility and stereotype. And, not least, there was that morbid, embarrassed adolescent curiosity: What do the French really think of Americans? Do they like us? Do they think we're cool? Immature? Were they even following what went on with that freedom fries debacle? How do we look, from all the way over there?

Besides these noble impulses, though, I have to admit to something else, something that had very little to do with contemporary politics. I was just plain curious. I wanted to go explore. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an explorer of the real, old-fashioned type, from back when the world was huge and there were vast tracts marked nothing but: "Unknown." I would have liked to go along with Marco Polo, caravanning through uncharted deserts among distant tribes. I read science fiction, too, of course. I would have liked to be an astronaut, seeing new sights, new people, new worlds. I mean, wouldn't we all?

I still want all that stuff. I'm grown up now, and I know I'm not sturdy or athletic or self-confident or resourceful enough to lead expeditions into the bush, or whatever, and we don't live yet in a world where there are a lot of opportunities for people to go be linguists and sociologists on distant planets. But, looking at it in perspective, it seemed to me this would be pretty close: a chance to go deep into a new place, to get messed up in culture shock, to find out about strangenesses I couldn't even imagine. Weirdness, inconvenience, and discomfort galore. Well, I had no job, I was mad at the President, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. "Glory be!" I said to myself. "This is perfect! Let's head off and explore Planet France."

And that's how I left the comfort of home and wandered off toward the unknown.


I came to France in the fall of 2004, as an assistant English teacher in a public school. The program that brought me here was part of an initiative sponsored by the French government, called "Assistants étrangers de langues vivantes": "foreign assistants for living languages." (I've always liked that specification, "living," as if to separate us out from the foreigners who come to France speaking Latin and Hittite and Old Church Slavonic.) I was generally referred to as "l'assistante étrangère," which sounded to me like "the assistant stranger," and that's pretty much how I felt all year. After a season of working under the government with middle- and high-school students, I found a job teaching English classes at a university, and that's where I am now. It's my second winter here in Lille, the capital city of the region known simply as the North of France, and to tell you the truth I still feel like I stick out like a sore thumb.

As an American in France, I've been faced from the start with the problem that everyone here knows more about me than I do about them. I don't mean that in a small-town way, like I strut down the street in a cowboy hat and everyone knows what I did last Saturday. What I mean is the media imbalance that seems to exist between the U.S. and nearly everywhere else in the world. International affairs are considered of secondary importance by most Americans, but U.S. doings are front-page news in Europe. And people here like to read the papers and talk politics; they often know what George Bush said in his latest speech before I do.

More profound than the news gap, though, is what I've come to think of as a viewpoint gap. Here's what I mean: American movies dominate box offices here, as they do in most parts of the world. American music is common on the radio, American television is wildly popular. Most adults I know here can chat knowledgeably about Hollywood directors. Young kids sing along to hip-hop songs (even if they don't understand the words; last year, my middle-school students pestered me endlessly to explain the meaning of "Drop it like it's hot.") The Christmas catalogs I've been getting all month tell the story when it comes to TV: deep discounts on boxed sets of popular series like The Simpsons and Futurama, Seinfeld and Friends, Dallas, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, Lost—even Jackass.

What's the effect? However warped or limited it may be, the average person here has some sort of grasp on how we Americans think about ourselves: how we look at our country, what kind of stories we tell ourselves when we're at home. They may not have the same kind of knowledge about China, or Poland, or Australia, but they do have it for the U.S. They have a sense of our culture, if you will. And that in turn gives some kind of sense of our outlook on the world—why we Americans, perhaps, do what we do.

In the U.S., as you may be aware, we don't tend to welcome other cultures into our entertainment mainstream. Outside the art-house cinemas, it's hard to find anything more exotic than the occasional English co-production. TV multinationalism is limited to cable channels or the BBC series that run on PBS, and when I listen to a French pop radio station, with its mix of French, British, American, Spanish, and Italian music, I feel keenly aware of the monolingualism I grew up with. I didn't major in French when I was in college, with the result that when I came over here I just didn't know that much about the place. Admittedly, that's partly my own fault. But everyone here is a specialist on my country, and in comparison I'm flying blind.


For better or for worse, I'm here now. I'm in France. I'm stuck into it, as the English say. I have to admit, it's not really what I expected: not in terms of manners, weather, fashion, or any of a great number of other preconceptions I'd had about this country. But I find life fascinating here, precisely because everything's different. Sometimes it's different in glaring ways, and sometimes it's different in tiny little ways, which is the sort of difference that's most likely to trip you up and make your life hell, until you manage to muddle your way through or get someone to explain it to you.

And being here—this is really the part I like best—being here, I do feel like Marco Polo, among the alien tribes, or like a sociologist on another planet. Stumbling and muddling through the little dramas of everyday life, you're forced to look closely at the tiniest details just to survive. What's stranger and maybe more powerful is that it also works in reverse. The people who live here define me in their own ways: they have their own ideas about what the United States is, and about what kind of creature is an American. From over here, the country I come from has a different shape. I'm not saying I always agree with them. But seeing my country from such an outside perspective, through different, sometimes hostile eyes, gives me a mild shock to the system every time. It changes my perspective on myself.

To illustrate this, let's use the popular topic of the U.S. itself, and consider the subject of language. Struggling with French makes me hyper-aware of language; listening to my students struggle with English—and to the common ways that the French of the street plays with, adapts and abuses it—makes me hyper-attentive toward my native tongue. Every day, the collisions of French and English conversation supply with a brand-new stock of word games and surprises. Take our President's name, for example. The French pronounce it as "Boosh," which usually makes me giggle, as if it wouldn't have already. In French, the word doesn't have the troubling pudendic connotation that it does in English. But it has another felicitous homonym—it sounds like bouche, the word for "mouth," which evokes the image of a giant yapping maw: the President, you could say, is all mouth.

The other great thing is how your personal referential metaphors get knocked off-kilter. French people, when speaking English, usually refer to my country as "America." When I first arrived here, this made me jump every time. I made a point of telling my students that, at home, we don't usually refer to our country that way. "We say 'the U.S.,' I told them, "or 'the United States.' But we hardly ever say 'America.'" My students looked at me in disbelief. "But you call yourselves Americans," they said.

Faced with this logic, I gave up the effort. My students were convinced that this was the right name for my country, and it was impossible to tell them otherwise. The thing is that this term evokes trans-continental distances for me. For months, when people asked me how we do things "in America," I would have unsettling conceptual flashes onto fifteenth-century maps and distant tribes and Amerigo Vespucci and the slave triangle. They might as well have asked me how we do things in the New World.

Now I've gotten so used to it that I use the word myself, without thinking. I suppose this suggests, in microcosm, both the advantages and the disadvantages of living in a foreign country. It's unsettling to hear people talking about your country in a way that strikes you as just slightly wrong. On the other hand, being unsettled forces you to think. One could quite reasonably argue, I believe, that it was healthy for me to spend six months flashing on the slave trade every time someone mentioned America.


Now that you know how I got here, I'd like to tell you a little bit about the exploring part.

When I was a kid, reading about explorers back in the old days, one thing I always dug was the lists of the wonders they'd come across in their travels. A wonder can be something big—like the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramid of Cheops—or it can be very small, like a tiger's eye. My favorite wonders are the small, strange, morbid ones: the kind that suggests there's something a little odd about anyone who'd want to collect it.

I was reminded of this last month, when I went to see a museum exhibit in Paris. It was called "Melancholy, Genius, and Madness in the West," and it was thronged with people—which tells you something about Paris. Anyway, the curators had devoted a whole room to recreating a sixteenth-century-style "cabinet of curiosities." This room was fascinating. It was full of geometers' tools, astrolabes, weirdly carved little ivories, gemstones, mandrake roots, narwhal horns, fetish statues, bezoars, calculus stones cut from animals' intestines, macabre dioramas made out of human skeletons—not really the sort of stuff you'd use to decorate the living room. But the idea behind these collections was that they demonstrated the strangeness, breadth, and wonder of the natural and human world. They were the sort of things a Renaissance collector might have assembled, both for his own pleasure and to show off to fellow travelers, scientists, and natural philosophers. They reveal the world, not in its splendor, but in its littleness and eccentricity.

Now, I'm a big fan of beauty, and also of monuments. In fact, I have spent as much time as any visitor to France should care to admit stomping around monumentally beautiful things with my camera—Notre-Dame Cathedral, Montmartre, Saint Denis' Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, Chartres. I have plans to see as much of France's monumental beauty as I can before I leave. But somehow, you know, the things that actually make me feel like an explorer in a foreign country are not the monuments. You can see those relatively quickly, and send home a postcard about it—someone else's picture, not yours—and although these things can be so lovely and meaningful that even a brief glimpse may change your life, I can't help thinking about those strange gentlemen collectors and wanting a curiosity cabinet of my own. That would be where you tuck the mental postcards of things that are small and weird; that are asymmetrical; that disappoint your expectations. The world in all its littleness.

Like a gentleman collector, then, I ask your indulgence for the smallness of the things I'm about to present, and without further ado I offer you the first few three items on my Cabinet of Curiosities About France.

1. Food.

I realize that, in France, food is supposed to be a wonderful experience. That's why the French so often ask me if I came here in order to eat. As it turns out, no, I didn't.

The thing is that I'm a vegetarian. For years I have lived in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, which happens to be one of those weird niches of the world where everyone knows what a vegetarian is. It's easy for vegans to eat in Cambridge—those conscientious people who consume neither fish nor flesh nor fowl, nor milk products, nor eggs. Cambridge supermarkets carry tofu blocks, Gardenburgers, and that soy crumble you can pretend is ground beef when you're making spaghetti. If you don't feel like cooking, you can always pick up some General Gau's tofu at the Chinese place down the block, or—and I admit I really miss this—pop down to the Indian take-out place, that's always blaring bhangra music and showing incomprehensible Bollywood DVDs, and get a hit of aloo gobi and some deliciously oily rice for under six bucks. In Cambridge, I had gotten complacent.

It turns out the North of France is not a good place for complacent vegetarians. It's not that people don't like to eat well here. On the contrary! They are very proud of their culinary traditions. As evidence, a short list of local classics:

  • Flammekuche: Actually a German dish from Alsace. It means "something cooked over a flame," and in fact it is hard to think of what else to say about the flammekuche. They may be tastier in the East, but as practiced in Lille, this is basically a piece of toasted bread and crème fraîche, usually accompanied by lardons (ham) and whatever other meaty fragments the cook can think of. You could compare it to a pizza, except that the flammekuche is neither crisp, nor crunchy, nor furnished with olive oil or tomatoes. I suppose it's fair to say that it resembles a pizza except that it tastes awful.

  • Moules frites: Moules means "mussels," and frites are what we in the U.S. like to call "French fries." Mussels are a great favorite here—that's what happens when you live an hour south of the North Sea. You can find moules cooked in any of a dozen or more ways in the traditional brasseries and restaurants of Lille, but the method of consumption is always the same. The waiter brings to your table a huge bucket of moules, a large, empty bowl, and a plate of hot fries with dipping sauce. The consumer—who may be anyone from a plump businessman to a tiny grandmother to a child of eight—starts throwing back the mussels at amazing speed, chucking the shells into the disposal bowl, and punctuating the whole thing with a vast quantity of fries, which the waiter replaces with fresh ones when the supply runs low. Every year, on the first weekend of September, Lille holds its annual braderie, or second-hand fair. The city's restaurants compete to see who can accumulate the largest pile of used-up, dumped-out mussel shells on the sidewalk outside, and the promotional material printed up by the Tourist Office for the coming year always shows a grinning proprietor standing next to a mountain of shells that reaches to his neck. I have managed to miss the Braderie the last two years running, so I can't give you a first-hand account of the smell this produces on the streets of Lille, but I assure you that I can't wait to find out.

  • Potjevlesch: A Dutch name this time, meaning "a little pot of meat." The "potjevlesch" contains three kinds of white meat: rabbit, pork, and veal. It's certainly creative, and yet what impresses me is the way this dish is precisely the opposite of anything I'd want to eat, even if its name didn't contain the word "flesh."

  • Lapin à la bière: Translated directly, this becomes "rabbit cooked in beer," which is exactly what it turns out to mean. I told the people who first described this to me that in the United States, the majority of people, I believe, consider rabbits too cute to eat. My lunch companions roared with laughter. Wacky Americans!

  • Carbonnade à la flamande: "Flemish-style charred meat." Are you getting the idea yet?

I don't mean to denigrate those who like this kind of diet. I'm sure northern French meat-preparation methods are very tasty. It's just that it's one more aspect of daily life that makes it easy for a East Coast, urban-acculturated vegetarian American to lapse into thinking, paranoiacally, that the whole country is going out of its way to make things hard for you.

Like when—here's one more example—you order French fries at a take-away friterie, and the French-fry guy carefully places a paper tub of mayonnaise in your left hand, a steaming bag of frites in your right, and then sticks a little plastic fork on top.

Honest to God, I've been in this country for fifteen months and I still haven't figured out how to eat.

2. Fashion.

It's well known that France is a world capital of fashion. I find this written in my guidebooks. Right here, for example, it says "France has long been considered the world capital of haute couture," and lists Thierry Mugler, Yves Saint-Laurent, Coco Chanel, and Jean-Paul Gaultier as evidence. It goes on to say that Paris for years was the fashion world's undisputed hub, and is now locked into an ongoing sparring match with Milan, London, Tokyo, and New York to reclaim this honor. It points out, as well, that everyone knows French women have an innate sense of style.

Well, it's true that people here dress differently from Americans. In my first months here in Lille, I has the acute discomfort of being stared at everywhere I went—in department stores, on the Métro—because people could tell I am American even though I hadn't opened my mouth. Desperate to learn how to cover my tracks, I studied my neighbors and eventually deduced some patterns. Clothes are worn closer to the body here—something to do with the way they're cut, and something to do with sizing. The comfortable American uniform of baggy T-shirt and loose jeans doesn't appear. Girls never seem to wear shapeless clothing here. Boys usually don't, either, which is one reason (I quickly realized) why my gaydar had been so seriously confused: around here, it's normal for a teenage boy to set off for high school in creased skinny jeans, a ribbed turtleneck sweater, and a white scarf thrown around his neck. And no self-respecting young person would ever forget the hair gel.

Once I'd figured out the key distinctions, I developed a reasonable cover—largely through visiting the winter sales at French department stores and getting myself a disguise. I had to figure out my hair, too, once I realized that it was giving me away. I generally have a very laissez-faire approach to my hair, and as it happens Cambridge, Massachusetts is full of women with naturally explosive corkscrew curls like mine, but on the Lille Métro my laissez-faire hair and I were attracting some attention. Women here never seem to go out without grooming their hair; you get the feeling it's a faux pas on the level of going out without shoes. (I get the similar feeling, actually, that wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants would be viewed as—not exactly like being naked, but sort of the way Americans would look at you if you went to the mall in a gunny sack.)

Anyway, now I've worked out a rough method of taming the curls, and I never leave home without a scarf. The disguise seems to work okay. It's true that I can't move as freely or comfortably in my French women's clothing as I can in my baggy jeans, but it's also true that my silhouette looks sleeker and, if I dare say it, more chic. (Which is still not very. And which is not to say that I have actually become French, in my heart. I thought I had, but then last winter I went out of France for a weekend trip to Aachen and Cologne and spent three days wandering around the cities, looking at the Germans, who suddenly seemed much larger and much frizzier and much more sloppily dressed than what I'd gotten used to, stomping around with their hair uncombed and laughing out loud, and felt inconsolably homesick.)

I have learned, however, that the French style sense is not infallible. Of course this is very subjective, so I'll brush but lightly on the elements of Lille style that have led me to this conclusion. The curious awkwardness of the local Goth subculture, for instance, whose teenage girls seem to have a hard time reconciling clunky boots and facial piercings with the laws of sleekness, tidiness, and minimalism that their mothers brought them up with—they try so hard to walk like ladies in their combat boots, and, when you come across them in groups, they'll be all glaring defiance one moment and then, in a sudden spasm of panic, whip out their mirrors and tidy their hair. I also try not to pass judgement on the popularity of dreadlocks. It's mostly boys who wear them, everyone from high-schoolers on sputtering scooters to my engineering students. Somehow I just can't get used to them, juxtaposed against the pink skin and blue eyes of these blond northerners, here in a Flemish city with a negligible black population and exactly one club called "l'Afrique."

But what that touches me most deeply, and personally, is the question of shoes. Now, I have never been the sort of person who can wear high heels—I have wide feet and no particular sense of grace, and any shoe that balances on a heel less than three inches around is as likely as not to leave me with a sprained ankle. But the women here all know how to wear high heels. They wear high heels all the time. They wear high heels attached to their boots, they wear high heels attached to their sneakers. The French word for "high heel" is talon, which always makes me think of a bird of prey, but I am afraid this is not the image that's conjured by watching the women of Lille totter through the streets like tightrope-walkers. And yet they do seem to have developed remarkable balancing skills, for I watch them, flinching with vicarious fright, as they carry their shopping home across the rain-slicked cobblestones of the old city, or bicycle over jolting flagstones in mist and fog, and never yet have I seen anyone fall.

3. Public transportation.

Public transit in Lille could easily provide four pages' worth of curiosities all by itself, but I'll confine myself here to mentioning the culture of strikes. Strikes are a very big thing in France, and they're as common on public transportation as in any other sector. It doesn't happen that often, but if you're planning to go anywhere it's wise to keep an eye on the news: the employees of the SNCF—the national train network—might always decide to go on half-strike in support of their next contracts, or the Lille tramway conductors could walk off from ten to four next Saturday. They are usually polite enough to announce it in the newspapers and post signs in the railway stations a week in advance, both as a courtesy and as a threat.

I was reminded about the great difference, in this respect, between French and American culture, when I was reading about the recent transit strike in New York City. At home, people aren't used to public-sector workers going on strike at all; there's something intolerably inconvenient about it—even downright un-American, wouldn't you say? And yet over here, teachers, postmen, even doctors, are ready and willing to strike in defense of their labor rights—and their right to do so is built into the fabric of law and culture. I don't mean to suggest that a transit strike of similar scale in France wouldn't be a big deal. When it happens in Paris, it paralyzes the city, and there are a well-known film and book (Zazie dans le Métro) that celebrate this chaos. But reading the coverage of the New York strike, which seemed to affect New Yorkers as if it had upended their world and changed the very face of the city, I thought of the way I've become used to strikes. I thought of my discovery last summer that on May 1st, the workers' holiday, Lille's trams, subway, and bus lines shut down completely and you're left to fend for yourself by car, bike or foot; and I remembered the resigned equanimity with which people accept it. The idea of a city in which you have no guarantees of public transportation, and people are forced to resort to curses and patience to handle it, seems almost normal to me now. It's enough to make me wonder if I'm becoming French.


That's all for now. More tilts and curiosities in the next installment. (Coming up: life in a hexagon; a world without shadows; visiting the Anglo-Saxons; eating at McDonald's in the company of giants, and further asymmetries from the North.)

May the winter treat you kindly, wherever you are. In Lille, we have just entered the darkest, wettest time, with snow that's crystalline in the sky but damp before it hits your nose, and light storms that flit charmingly between dropping rain, snow, and pellet-sized hail. Like all explorers, it's now the season for me to bundle up, don my reinforced headgear and strike out to explore the frozen wastes: the right time of year to carry maps. Wish me luck!




Susannah Mandel has lived for ten years in Boston, two years in France, and several months in Philadelphia. She hopes never to move back to the suburbs. Her favorite hobbies include stories, sunlight, looking at stuff, and going into detail. Please feel free to tell her interesting things.
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