Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hard Knock Lessons: Be Careful To Whom You Wish "Happy Valentine's Day"

Let this post serve as a personal note about how you learn something new everyday.

This week has been a cultural mélange of Mardi Gras and La Saint Valentin for me, and considering that I am well into my sixth month of teaching English and Spanish in France, I simply could not pass up the opportunity to share with my students some cultural points about each holiday and how they are celebrated back home.

While researching the information for Fat Tuesday, I came upon the happy surprise that, in New Orleans, there exists a special traditional dessert called the King Cake. Now, this cake is eaten from the 6th of January up until "Carnaval," or Mardi Gras, and as an added bonus, each cake contains a tiny plastic baby. The tradition follows that the person who receives the plastic baby in his slice will have the responsibility of hosting the next King Cake party.

Now, when I discovered this new information, my Francophile synapses went into a full-blown "EUREKA!" mode. In France, there is a very similar tradition of the Galette des Rois, which is essentially a pastry filled with almond custard (la frangipane). However, unlike the King Cake that is decorated in purple, green and gold, the Galette des Rois features a small porcelain figurine called "la fève" instead of a plastic baby.

When I told my students about the plastic baby, their eyes bulged out of their heads. "Quoi?! Il y a un bébé?!"

"Yes. And unlike the Galette des Rois, the person who gets the baby doesn't get a crown."


"Nobody gets crowned as the King or Queen."

"Oh, c'est nul, ça." (Oh, that's lame.)

The kids also got a kick out of seeing me dressed up for Mardi Gras.

Yes, here are a couple of photos for your amusement:

I decided to paint the area behind the eye slots in black. It makes the eyes pop out more.

As you can see, it honestly doesn't take much for your make-up to go from looking like Batman...

...To the Joker. ("The plan is simple: I'll grade my students' tests.")

Things got interesting with the Valentine's Day lessons.

In France, Valentine's Day is strictly associated with couples who are in love. And I do mean strictly couples. Couples only. No singletons or friends allowed.

This, of course, is a complete 180 from all that I know about the traditions that I acquired growing up in the American educational system and having my mind pounded year after year of commercials hocking expensive jewelry. I had to explain to the kids the revolutionary idea that no, Valentine's Day isn't just a highly commercialized holiday for couples; it's also a chance to show off your friendship with other people. (Nevertheless, we 'Muricans can easily spend over $17,000,000,000 on flowers, jewelry and Bedazzled Darth Vaders from Target.)

I showed them pictures of Hello Kitty, Angry Birds, Batman and Spiderman Valentines. The students replied stating that they, as French, would rather save their money than give every kid in the class a card and a small candy.

I further went into detail that in case you have a crush on someone, you can use the day as an excuse to send that special someone an anonymous card or gift. They retorted saying that they would never do that because it's very embarrassing to give a present to someone you secretly like.

Things got even more eye-bulging when I started to discuss pet names with them.

"WHAT?! You call each other 'Honey,' 'Sugar' and 'Sweetie?' That's so weird!"

Well, in my defense, they like to refer their Sweethearts, Sweetiepies, Puddin'-Pops, and Honey-Bunnies as "mon petit lapin," "my little rabbit," "mon coeur," "my heart," "mon trésor," "my treasure" and "mon chou," "my cabbage."

Yes, cabbage. Now, that is weird.

For the record, I've never had a thing for vegetables. Or fruits, for that matter. I'll make half-human, half-chocolate babies any day, though.

Of course, following through with the American friendliness, I had absolutely no qualms wishing everyone I passed a Happy Valentine's Day. I said it to my students, my work colleagues, even the cashier at the LeClerc supermarket.

What I couldn't understand was why everyone gave me odd looks whenever I greeted them and bade them a Joyeux Saint Valentin. They reacted as if I had just uttered creepily that I knew what they like to do when no one is watching them. There was a missing puzzle piece.

 Fortunately, I found that piece in the midst of a special luncheon. My dear English-speaking colleague, the one who advised me adamantly to see a doctor when I became ill last year, became the link to further comprehending the minor differences that trip up a foreigner like me.

"In France," she explained, "you wish someone a 'Happy Valentine's Day' only when they are your partner or when you are interested in them romantically."


Well, I've probably wished a Happy Valentine's Day to over a hundred people today, so--

*brain finally takes in the weight of the situation*



I...suddenly feel quite dirty. And cheap.

At least that explains why my colleague, who laughed nervously, my students, who chortled uncomfortably, and the supermarket cashier, who did a double-take, thought that I was crazy.

Lesson Learned: When in France, be careful to whom you wish "Happy Valentine's Day." Unless you want to come off as mentally unstable.

Joyeux Saint Valentin from Barb the French Bean


  1. I like the look in the last picture. I highly encourage it. Do it more. MORE. Well anyway, that is mildly embarrassing yes. Not such a good thing to essentially tell 100 people (some of which are your students) that you quite like them. I've also never heard of "Cabbage" being used as a pet name. But every time I hear more about the French, the more I actually grow to like them.

  2. You look great, and now it seems you feel great wishing all them French a Happy Valentine's Day! ;)

    Happy Valentine's Day my heart friend!

    - Patty

  3. Barb, be who you are! Just find the right country to Valentine everyone!

  4. I MUST come to France and teach.I MUST.
    Those kids sound too cute for words.
    And go ahead and have fun the way you want.You're only promoting love,not guns or anything...arrows in Cupid's arrows.;)
    And however awful you feel now,one day you can look back and say,'Oh naive touristy 'Murican me' and laugh!
    A belated Happy Valentin to you mon chou!:)

  5. I wonder how the cabbage will feel knowing you wished happy Valentine's day to so many people. Poor cabbage.

  6. Odd, I wouldn't normally associate cabbage with a term of endearment? I usually associate it with sauerkraut, which is not very romantic at all. Perhaps I'll test the term on my wife and see how it goes over. looked rather mysterious in your mask. :)

  7. Why do teachers like grading tests? IT'S SO BORING! :(

  8. In Spain it's Gordito/a (Fattie) and Amor (Love) and Carino/a (Darling) and sometimes for girls, Ratita (Little Rat).

    Pet names are fucking weird.

  9. I love how something so innocent can go so wrong, so quickly.

    To cashier: "Happy Valentine's Day!"
    Cashier: "Uh... thanks?"

    Leaving, to second cashier: "Happy Valentine's Day to you too!"
    Cashier #2: "Uh... thank you?"
    Cashier #1: "YOU FILTHY WHORE!"

  10. You know, I never stopped to think about the meaning of "mon petit chou" until now... and I don't think I'll ever be able to hear it again without laughing my head off! Considering the number of my French-speaking friends who are in couples... I'm screwed! Thanks for that! :p

  11. Happy Valentine's Day! I will make a half-human, half-chocolate bebe with you en francais!

  12. I gave a nose chuckle, and smiled then nose laughed again. Very amusing.


Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb