Monday, November 17, 2014

Punishment for the Perpetually Late: The Red Light

I've got a confession to make: I have a problem with being on time. In previous posts, I have hinted at my tendency of never being prompt, but I have downplayed how chronic my condition is.

Ever since I was a child and well into my adulthood, this self-imposed burden has at times rendered me a pariah among my punctual acquaintances. While they often assure me that arriving a few minutes late is no big deal, I know that in my heart of hearts, as they stare at me with their critical eyes, they lie.

You would think the solutions to this tardiness would be simple. "Get a watch!" a member from the invisible audience suggests.

But I've already got one.

"Set the alarm for an earlier time than the actual designated time!" shouts another as a helpful proposal.

Nope. Doesn't work. On the contrary, it's worse! Knowing about the extra time will further perpetuate the lackadaisical response on taking my sweet time.

"Well, then," the frustrated audience member exclaims though gritted teeth, "why don't you simply stop being so lazy, get off your butt and just GO?"

You are asking me to demonstrate non-existent motivation. Fat chance.

At this point, the audience gives up on this hopeless situation of expecting me to arrive on time and instead decides to claim that I am simply "fashionably late."

But there is no reprieve for the perpetually late. Trying to fight against what comes naturally to us is futile.

Yet despite our stolid nature at habitually disrespecting opening and closing hours and respecting appointments, people can witness some rare occasions in which we make the effort to arrive on time by leaving our homes early.

When those infrequent moments happen, an unfortunate circumstance will occur that impedes our otherwise timely arrival. It discourages us from ever trying to be prompt again.

However, I do not believe that these circumstances are purely coincidental.

Call it what you want: atonement, comeuppance, karma, just desserts, sweet vengeance. These earthly punishments are manifested in a variety of forms.

Today, I shall cover the first form, which involves facing a delay while waiting for a pedestrian crosswalk light to change.

Inevitably, on the one day you find yourself speeding to an appointment as fast as your legs can carry you, heart pounding furiously in your chest and your lungs strained to their full capacity, there will be a red light that brings you to a halt.

To make matters worse, the nefarious soul who was in charge of programming the light has deemed that said light will display the crimson feature for an indefinite period.

An entire lifetime can pass before your eyes as you wait for the little strutting green man to flash into view.

By the time the light changes to green, you'll have aged to the point in which your hypothetical future grandkids will need to assist you in crossing the street.

Realistically, this situation would never happen in France for the French are avid jaywalkers.

Barb the French Bean

Monday, November 3, 2014

French-Time: A Guide to Dealing with the Subleties of the French Timetable

In the past, I have dedicated a post to discussing what "Cuban-time" entails. This cultural analysis was only a warm-up aimed at the task of deciphering the rhythm of French life.

While living in France has its undeniable advantages, it's not all fun and games for any new Expat flung into the throws of this sometimes confusing culture.

*BADUM-PSSH* (Seriously, though, wine is said to be reserved for lunch and dinner to complement the meal. Drinking wine outside of those hours makes you look like an alcoholic.)

The general unspoken rules involved in what I call French-time can have some rather elusive features. However, thanks to sheer cultural immersion, I have through my observations learned the slew of nuances involved in French-time.

Throughout this post, I will make use of several acronyms, because that is the French way.

Let's start off with the most obvious of them all: "Bonjour-Time."

1) Bonjour-Time* (BT): The small window between 00.001 and 2 seconds it takes for you to establish the vital greeting with a person from whom a particular service** is or may be expected (bus drivers, store clerks, cashiers, SNCF workers), acquaintances or friends**.

Failure to act within this brief time frame may result with the interacting French person to exhibit a silent, glacial glare or to state an ironic reprimand of how polite you are. 

2) Au Revoir-Time (ART): It must be enacted at all costs, preferably 3 seconds prior to leaving the premises. May be used, at a bare minimum, 00.001 second before exiting through the door.

The punishment for neglecting ART will result with you being shamed from ever showing your face again. For, lo, the French have a rather impressive talent for remembering every single person who has slighted them for not engaging in BT and ART.

3) New Year Greeting-Time (NYGT): the crucial moment in which you wish your friends, family, work colleagues, potential lover, boss and pet goldfish "Bonne année!" the first time you encounter or communicate with them within the new year. This window of greeting is understood to occur during the month of January yet may extend well into February.

The faux pas of failing to enact on this expected duty will result in ostracism, broken friendships and lots of finger pointing at the village idiot (you).

4) Apéro-Time (AT); The thirty to sixty minutes before dinner in which it is acceptable to have an alcoholic beverage and snack foods. Usually better if done in the company of friends and family at the end of DPT. Otherwise, it's just a little sad to be having a conversation about existentialism by yourself.

5) Dinner Party-Time (DPT): Guests are promptly expected to arrive a minimum of fifteen minutes after the designated time. Try to avoid arriving early or on time lest the dinner host happens to not be French. AT will take place shortly upon arrival.

6) Coffee Break-Time (CBT): occurs in two or three intervals throughout the day (10 a.m., after lunch and 4 p.m.). CBT may also finalize a wonderful session started by DPT.

7) SNCF-Time (SNCFT)***: The fifteen to twenty minutes it takes for the electronic boards to display the train's track number.

8) Strike Season (SS): The period between September 1st to July 31st in which French unionists become disgruntled with government/company policies and remind them who's in charge by disrupting or withholding crucial societal functions (transportation, education, distribution of pharmaceutical goods).

"Pharmacy on strike." I can't make this stuff up. 

9) Off-Strike Season (OSS), a.k.a. Les Vacances: The period between August 1st to August 31st in which no-one bothers to go on strike because the weather is too nice.

*The same standard applies to Bonsoir-Time (not to be confused with BT) should you need to greet the French person within the evening hours.

**As a general rule, you only need to use BT once throughout the day, especially with colleagues. Repetition of BT will garner a series of funny, wide-eyed looks in which your fellow Frenchies will wonder if you are being rude, if you are unfortunate to have short-term memory because you forget that you already saw them, or, at a push, are irreparably brain damaged. 

If, by some reason, there is a situation which requires you to return to see a particular person after you've applied ART, the phrase "Re-bonjour" may be used. 

***Delays or abrupt cancellations with SNCFT are to be expected as the majority of the train schedules coincide with SS. 

Learning this guideline by heart will make your way of navigating through the cultural minefield of faux pas a little bit easier. 

Barb the French Bean

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Last-Minute Costume Ideas

Need some costume ideas this Halloween? Are you in a panic to find a cheap, affordable, inexpensive, shoddy, half-assed, borderline offensive costume? Well, you've come to the right place!

1) Stereotypical Frenchie/Insert Nationality You Wish to Insult
Go to your local Forever 21/H&M/Marshalls/whatever cheap clothing store is nearby and buy a striped shirt and beret. Go to a bakery and buy a baguette. Carry the baguette as a prop.

If you are in France, merely recycle clothes from your closet and use the half-eaten bit of baguette that is still lingering from lunchtime.

(Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

Nota bene: this costume is probably not that good of an idea if you are in France, as it would merely look as if you are just walking home from the boulangerie sporting a simple marinière and, for some quirky reason, a beret.

For those of you with a bigger budget who want to poke fun at us Americans, you have two Stereotypical American options: the Country/Cowboy toting a (hopefully) fake gun, or the poorly-dressed "People of Wal-Mart"-esque American clutching for dear life to a greasy McDonald's bag (with Diet Coke) and riding an obesity scooter while holding a 'Murica #1 foam finger. The obesity scooter may be fashioned out of a bike and some painted cardboard boxes. Fat suit may or may not be required.

2) Mummy
Use white toilet paper to fashion a shirt and a pair of trousers for the mummy's bandages.

Warning: While white toilet paper is available, be careful using French toilet paper as it comes in shades of pink, blue, yellow, lavender and orange. These colors may prove inadequate to fabricate a mummy costume.

Be jealous of my pink toilet paper. (It was orange last week.)

On the other hand, you could potentially use the different colored toilet paper to be a gay-friendly Mummy.

3) Fumbling 20-Something Who Has No Idea What to Do with His/Her Life

Wait. That may not be an actual costume. Skip this option.


The clothing choices required are enough to scare anybody: wife-beater, '80s-style sneakers and an awkwardly-perched baseball cap with the not-removed shiny stickers are a must. Don't forget to accessorize with some fake tan, bling and those weird shutter sunglasses that probably only exist to impair your vision while giving your face the oddest tan lines ever.

This costume will prove to be highly-effective among your Hipster friends who know you are ironically donning the SWAG-YOLO Bro look for personal amusement.

5) Hipster

This costume will prove to be highly-effective among your SWAG-YOLO Bro friends who know you are ironically donning the Hipster look for personal amusement.

Get a haphazard variety of clothes from a local Goodwill/Salvation Army. Or, at a push, steal the clothes off a homeless man's/Hipster's back for a more authentic costume. Don't forget to accessorize with dyed hair (preferably an unnatural color), a handlebar mustache and pair of black, nerdy horn-rimmed glasses that you would have never, ever dreamt of wearing twenty years ago for the fear of oncoming ridicule by your peers.

6) Zombie

Stay up the night before getting absolutely blind drunk. Walk around the whole day plastered with a murderous hangover that renders you incapable of processing any cognitive thought and keeps you in a moribund, yet somehow still functioning, state. Accessorize with fake blood and a plastic severed limb.

I feel that I must stress the fake blood and the plastic severed limb part of the costume lest you want to actually kill someone simply for talking to you.

7) Nothing

For those of you who really can't be bothered to dress up at all but would still like to update the social media, upload a childhood photograph of yourself in a costume.

The more embarrassing, the better.

Here's a picture of Bibi (Yours Truly) wearing a pumpkin costume accessorized with a pumpkin treat bucket. This photograph documents the origins of my hatred for hermetically-sealed furniture. Thank God the trend to wrap sofas in plastic went the way of the crimped, high-volume hairdo. (New Jersey, circa late 1989)

Bonne chance with the costume preparation.

Happy Halloween,
Barb the French Bean

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Super Charo, Huecazo, and Esquipi

One of the greatest things about growing up with parents whose first language was different to the one spoken in my homeland is that there will inevitably be some misunderstandings when trying to communicate with each other, often due to pronunciation.

My dear Colombian mother's first language was Spanish, and while she has certainly adopted a working knowledge of basic to intermediate English in the thirty-plus years of living in the good ol' U.S. of A., there have been moments in which a slight change in pronunciation due to her accent have led to some lost in translation gaffes.

The following is a selection of some of the more memorable highlights.

Super Charo

My mother once needed to go to the airport to catch an early flight and no one at the time could provide her with the lengthy drive from our Miami home to Fort Lauderdale International Airport to catch a low-cost flight. To solve her transportation problem, she enlisted the help of a service she referred to as "Super Charo."

Her utterance evoked a mental image of the eccentric Spanish singer dressed in a Superman outfit.

Super Charo: the most flamboyant superhero of all

For days, I was left perplexed thinking what the heck "Super Charo" could possibly be. I began to seriously entertain the possibility whether or not a red-caped Charo would arrive to our doorstep belting show tunes.

(C'mon, sing it now! Ervry meng/Han ervry hoomang/Want the same thing)

On the morning of her flight, as my mother busied herself with last-minute verification that she had everything necessary for the trip, my grandmother exclaimed that the transport service had arrived. I eagerly rushed to the window to satisfy my curiosity over what "Super Charo" could be.

Lo and behold, I saw this pull up to the driveway:

Link to image

Cuchi-cuchi, indeed.

Huecazo (Large hole)

The Spanish word for "hole" is hueco. A huecazo denotes an impressively-sized hole, one large enough to swallow an entire village or, in the following case, a car tire.

Driving across the parking lot of a nearby supermarket, I spotted a large hole in the road. I felt it was important to make its presence known to my mother so she could avoid it.

"Mom, look out, there's a huecazo."


I thought it was odd to see her so enthusiastic about a hole and decided to shrug it off.

"It's right over there."

"Where? I don't see it."

"The huecazo is right there! You are about to drive past it. Watch out!"

"But I don't see the huecazo anywhere!"

"Don't worry, you just drove by it."

"Hold on, let me drive around again because I want to get some burgers!"

Huh? What? Burgers? What was she talking about?

"What do you mean 'burgers?' Do you want to go to McDonald's?"

"No! Not McDonald's! Didn't you say there's a huecazo around here? I can't believe they've brought them to Florida! I really miss their mini-burgers."

That's when it clicked.

Prior to moving to Florida, we originally lived in New Jersey, home of the famous White Castle burger chain (and their sliders made infamous by the film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle).

Coincidentally, there will be no French Bean Goes to White Castle. I'm not high enough to make the journey from France to the nearest White Castle location (which is apparently in New York). 

Apparently, the way I said "large hole" was similar to the way she pronounced "white castle" with her heavy accent, something around the lines of "why-kasso."

(Note: "huecazo" is not pronounced like "why-kasso.")

"No, Mom, not WHITE CASTLE, huecazo, as in a large hole?"

"Oh. So...there's no White Castle?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Dang it. I was hoping to eat some White Castle burgers..."

Huecazo has become a bit of an inside joke between us and to this day whenever Mom mentions having spotted a large hole, I ask her where the burgers are.

Esquipi (Eh-skee-pee)

In late 2009, I moved across the Atlantic Ocean to live in Dijon, France. Being the first time since I had left the proverbial nest, it was crucial for my mother and me to maintain contact. Moreover, in my absence, I worried over how my mother would cope with a general lack of knowledge over all things computer-related.

So imagine my surprise when she proposed a solution and announced:

"You should get Esquipi! You can use it on the computer!"

Esquipi? I thought. What the heck is that?

"Mom, what's Esquipi?"

"You don't know what Esquipi is?"

"Uh, no?"

"How can you not know what Esquipi is? EVERYBODY knows about it! Even I know what Esquipi is!"

In a rare moment of her one-upping my technological savvy, rather than letting her berate me further due to my ignorance of this damned Esquipi, I asked her to elucidate on what this unknown technology entailed.

"Well, essentially, So-and-So said--You remember So-and-So, right?"

"No, I don't."

"Yes, you know who So-and-So is! How can you not remember them?"

"Mom, I don't--"

 "Anyway, So-and-So told me that Esquipi is this thing that you find on the Internet (I don't know how that's done), that lets you call other people by telephone and have conversations with them. You can even see them on the camera."

Her explanation caused the wheels in my head to turn. Back in 2009, this thing that she had described was still a bit of a novelty, but I had certainly heard about it. Putting the pieces together, I had to ask one more question to be absolutely certain on what she was talking about.

"Mom," I started cautiously, "how do you spell 'Esquipi?'"

"Hold on, hold on, I have to find the paper where So-and-So wrote it down for me."

The phone clattered on a hard surface. I waited for her to retrieve the information. The silence from the phone ended with some rustling and her voice returned.

"Okay, I got."

"Great. So how is it spelled?"


My palm crashed against my forehead, leaving a red, five-fingered silhouette.

"Mom, that's pronounced SKYPE!"


"NO, Skype!"


"No, SKY-PUH!"

"Ah, well, you understood me."

Speaking can be a real hoot sometimes.

Barb the French Bean

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Death of a Duck

(In case the title wasn't already enough of a spoiler for you, here's the story.)

I grew up in a house that has a backyard adjacent to a canal. During the spring, it was a common occurrence for me to see entire broods of Muscovy duckling waddling to and fro and paddling their way across the canal, their little webbed feet working furiously under the water in an attempt to keep up with their mother. Over the course of a few days, it was not uncommon to see a well-populated brood dwindle to only a handful of ducklings awkwardly tumbling behind the mother duck.

Being exposed to not other wild animals besides the Muscovy ducks, I went through a period in my childhood in which I suddenly declared that ducks were my absolute favorite animals in the entire world, in particular the Pekin variety. And as it often is with children's desires, I wanted a pet duck.

Naturally, my parents refused, stating that I could pretend that all of the Muscovy ducks belonged to me. In my child's mind, Muscovy ducks, with warty, red growths encroaching across their bills, were no where near the same caliber of finesse as the Pekin duck, but I was still content to provide them with bits of bread to eat.

To further add insult to injury, my mother ordered me to never, EVER  go near my "pet" ducklings.

"Well, why not?" I huffed.

"Because the mother duck with very over-protective, and if she sees you trying to go for her babies, she will attack you."

I shuddered. Why would she attack the person feeding her bits of bread?

"Ducks don't understand loyalty, Barbara," Mom explained.

My curiosity had been provoked. "Then how would she attack if she's not loyal to her duckies?"

"Oh, no, she's loyal to them. Not to us. She'd bite."

"Do duck bites hurt, Mommy?"

"Yes, I tell you this from experience. Don't get close to them." The severity in her tone suggested that I should heed her warning. I always made sure that whenever I gave the ducks bread, I would stay several feet away. It was difficult to see a number of fluffy, peeping ducklings and not be able to caress one of them. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to touch a duckling someday.

That chance would come. Several years ago, Miami faced a period in which it rained for three days straight that led to floods. This continuous rain, oddly enough, was not related to a hurricane pattern. Still, this meteorological fluke ensured impromptu school closures and prohibited people from safely driving to work. It was great to be able to stay home with Mom and Dad and feel like I had somehow struck gold from not going to school.

The novelty waned by the second day. During the rainstorm, I lamented being cooped in my room and dreamed about going outside to walk around the canal's edge, its presence taunting me from the window. All of a sudden, amid a strong gust parting the water, I spotted a flash of yellow.

With the rain's relentless pounding in thick curtains of water, it was difficult at first to decipher what the yellow bundle could possibly be when I saw it move!

There was no mistaking the clumsy waddle. It was a lost duckling! I yelled for my parents to come look.

"Mom! Dad! There's a duckling outside! It's all alone. What should we do?"

Without hesitation, Dad slipped on his American school bus yellow raincoat and marched deftly into the pelting rain to save the duckling.

I was so happy! My family would finally have a real pet duckling to take care of! For the time-being, Mom contrived a little home for the duckling using a plastic crate, a towel and some old newspapers. I thought the accommodations were too spartan for him and asked my mother if I could place a duck plushie to make him feel even more at home.

"Absolutely not," Mom replied.

As the duckling cheeped and explored his relatively cozy confines, I hovered above the crate and watched his every move.

My mind raced with what I would name the duckling, deeming "Quackers" as being a suitable option. Yes, I had only known the duckling for a few hours, but by naming it, I demonstrated a deep sense of attachment. In fact, the way I glowered at it prompted my mother to tell me to go off and leave the duckling alone.

I didn't want to, of course.

"For how long should I leave him?"

"Oh...a few minutes. He needs his peace and quiet, too."

I went to my room and stared at the clock, waiting for "a few minutes" to pass. Twenty minutes to be sufficient time to have left Quackers on his own. Thinking that he was probably hungry, I ran to the kitchen and scrounged for a slice of bread, betting that Quackers would love to eat what he found in his natural habitat. The spongy slice in hand, I made a beeline for his crate. I stood on my tiptoes and looked down at him.

Quackers laid on his side, no longer peeping.

I bent my knees and gently nudged his little plump body with an index finger, seeing if he would react to my presence. Nothing.

His limp body rolled back and forth based on how poked him. Still nothing. He remained inert and silent.

I couldn't understand it. He was fine only a few minutes ago, and now he's not moving, I thought.

"Mommy? What's wrong with Quackers?"

Mom peered over the crate and gave a sharp intake of breath. What she said next was uttered in a soothing tone, the one mothers reserve for when they are faced with the difficult task of needing to comfort while presenting bad news.

"Oh...Barbara. I think he's died."

Until that fateful moment, death had been a foreign concept to me. Yes, I was aware that it happened to other people and animals, and that it was met with sadness. In fact, when I was even younger, I wasn't able to understand that Charlie the German Shepherd from All Dogs Go to Heaven was supposed to be dead and escaping death throughout the whole film. (Huh. Another title with a spoiler.)

This poignant moment marked the first true encounter that I had with the senseless loss of life. Not only had my hopes of finally having a pet duckling been dashed, Quackers wouldn't even have the chance for me to show him how much my family and I would love him in the comfort of a warm home.

My child self was distraught and reacted by the only means possible: crying.

But I didn't just simply cry. Oh, no. In that despair, it was if someone had opened the floodgates to my soul.

I sobbed until my eyes ached and were reduced to swollen, red globules. My anguish made me inconsolable to the extent that my parents' voice of reason and attempts to quell my tears were deflected. Life became a blur.

An hour later, my father coaxed me towards him to join him in watching a bout of television. Cuddling me closer to his side, he decided to embark on educating me about how life was not fair.

"I'b gobing to miss the bucky, Dabby," I snorted thickly, my voice muffled with a heavy coating of snot. "Why dib he hab to die?"

"Look, honey, I know it's not just to see something so small and innocent pass away, but death is another part of this life. And, yes, it is unfortunate, but you can't let it stop you from living. All you can do now is remember the good times you had with the ducky."

His words probably would have had a bigger impact had my allotted time with Quackers surpassed more than a mere three hours.

"But he dibbint deserb to die so soon," I bawled.

"Think about this: at least he died surrounded by people instead of being all alone in the wild, right?"


"We made sure he was comfortable in his final moments on this Earth. So, don't worry. He is going to be okay, as are you. Now, let's watch the T.V."

I don't recall which program we had sat down to watch. I gave a bleary glare at the dancing images bouncing off the screen. My raspy breathing slowed, the inhales steady, the exhales calm. The tears stopped.

"Yes, that's it. You see?"

A sniffle was my answer.

"Here, let's just keep watching the T.V., all right? It'll distract you."

"Okay, Daddy."

My poor father. Not even he could have predicted that the very first commercial to appear during the commercial break would be for a toilet cleaning product which has for a mascot... a small, quacking duck.

The following is a rough interpretation of how the commercial, with its unfortunate timing, sounded in my head.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you will find me not only using "Canard," the French version of said toilet cleaner, but also occasionally feasting on Magret de Canard without batting an eye.

As it was, Quackers wouldn't be the only pet duck in my life, and that one led a more successful and happier time with us.

But that's a story for another day.

Barb the French Bean

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wisdom Tooth: Part Deux

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to have my first dental appointment in France (with a Dutch dentist, no less). While my visit was certainly not wisdom tooth related, the appointment reminded me that I needed to finish the second part to the Wisdom Tooth story.

And for those of you who may have been wondering: I had my wisdom teeth extracted between the ages of 14 and 15.

Yes, really. I had one side of my mouth done when I was fourteen then allowed a month of healing before having the other side be done after I turned fifteen.

I was a fairly early bloomer not only in puberty but also in getting bothersome teeth, much to the surprise of my parents and my former dentist who has since retired from her profession.

Enough chit-chat. Here's "Wisdom Tooth: Part Deux."

Never underestimate a wisdom tooth.

Barb the French Bean