Friday, March 28, 2014

The Day I Inadvertently Pissed Off a Frenchwoman

On the infrequent occasions in which I head outside of my 15,000 souls town of Sablé-sur-Sarthe, I often make a beeline towards the train station and grab a seat headed to the city of Le Mans.

(The former walled Plantagenet city of Le Mans, for those who are unaware, is most well-known for a motorcar race held in June known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in which drivers from all over the world race NASCAR-style for 24 hours straight. Lots of Brits descend on the city in groups and drunkenly buy rounds at the cafés.)

During a recent outing in Le Mans, I was minding my own business walking around the city's relatively calm streets when I came across something which caught my eye. In one of the parked cars, I saw a baby sleeping peacefully in the passenger's side front seat. All would have been right with this scenario had a responsible adult occupied either the driver's seat or if someone else had been sitting in the back.

Except the baby was alone.

My deeply-ingrained Floridian instinct to never leave live creatures trapped in hot vehicles for a prolonged period of time raised a red flag at the situation and, for some reason, I began to panic over this unknown baby. I don't know why I panicked because the child's full rosy cheeks and calm demeanor signaled that she seemed well-cared for and relatively healthy and, quite frankly, it really wasn't my problem if someone had abandoned their child in a car.

And yet, I worried. I couldn't believe that someone would simply leave their child in a car. Was the baby even a real child? It seems silly to think about it now, but in that moment, my brain recalled stories about people who actually went out with realistic baby dolls and cared for the dolls as if they were real children. Had I somehow encountered one of those fake babies resting in the car seat?

I observed the child more closely, paying attention for any vital signs of life: a chest that heaved delicately, a muscular twitch in the face or the hands. Her tiny fist wriggled for a few seconds, which clearly meant she wasn't a doll.

Unless it was a remote-controlled doll? Nah, I reasoned, that's just stupid.

I found myself rooted to the pavement next to the car. Questions arose in my mind. Where was her mother? When was the mother coming back? For how long had the kid been in the car alone? Should I let someone else know about the seemingly abandoned baby? Who could I even tell?

Luckily, my questions were answered after a couple of minutes. Across the street, I spotted a blond woman who dragged her young son by the arm and they walked in the car's direction. I smiled with relief.

"Oh, good. I was worried about the baby," I said to her.

Rather than reciprocating my smile, she stormed towards me, glaring. She yanked the keys from her purse and fumbled finding the one to open the car's doors. Within seconds, I had the privilege to listen to a frustrated mother's explosive tirade.

"I'm getting so sick and tired of this!" she exclaimed. "Every week, this happens to me! I have to come every Wednesday to that building--" she jabbed a raised index finger, keys jangling loudly, to the building adjacent to where we stood "--and this is the third time now that I've had to rush back to the car. My kid's asleep and it really made no sense to wake her up if I was only going to be gone for a few minutes."

She wasn't apologetic with her words. She was angry. At me.

"I'm a mother with three kids! And with no help at all! I can't do everything on my own!" she fumed. I looked at the son's blank face and wondered where the third child could have been and if the kids' father was out of the picture. My latent Fight-or-Flight response kicked in and I backed away from the mother and son. My intention wasn't at all to reprimand this woman. For reasons I can't understand, I just stuck around to make sure the baby was going to be all right. Upon the mother's return, the situation was now effectively out of my hands.

"Right. Well...have a good day, Ma'am," I responded awkwardly.

In a rather un-French fashion, she didn't return my civil reply of bidding someone good-bye, which in turn irrationally pissed me off.

Fine, lady. I thought to myself.  I won't care about your kid again. In fact, see if I ever care about another human being again! I'm going to become a cold, heartless, insensitive bitch and then I'll be able to watch those smarmy Sarah McLachlan ads about abused puppies and kitties and NOT feel a damn thing. I'll show you! I'LL SHOW YOU ALL!!!

In retrospect, I realize now how much of a creep I must have looked standing next to the car and gawking at the lone child. I also feel fortunate to be a woman because given the context, had I been a man, I probably would have been accused of being a perverted baby snatcher and been beaten over the head with a purse.

In all reality, I probably won't stop being an overly sensitive empathetic gal, but I do need to toughen up and not get involved in other people's business.

Especially French mothers who leave their kids alone in cars.

Barb the French Bean

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Joys of Jet Lag (And How to Get Back on Track)

As a frequent traveler who makes it a point to cross the Atlantic ocean at least twice a year, I'd like to think that I've become a pro at handling the extreme changes of adapting suddenly to a new time zone.

Granted, the six-hour change from French time to the American Eastern Standard Time isn't that drastic of an alteration, but it certainly provides enough inconvenience to perturb sleeping and eating patterns. On that note: I've found that even a minor one-hour change from France to the British Isles created some disgruntled moments as I debated whether or not to wait eating breakfasts, lunches, and dinners at a later time.

Here are some tips.


Did you leave at ten in the morning, take a ten hour flight, and suddenly found yourself at having lunch at two in the afternoon when your body was convinced that it was 8 p.m.? It may prove difficult, but forcing your body to remain alert is the quickest way to getting into your new time zone's groove. Generally wait until it is night time before catching some Zs. Supply extra shots of espresso when needed.

And, if anything, think yourself a time-traveler whose mission it was to go back six hours in the past to relay an important message. Remaining awake is vital to this operation!

2) Have enough time to adapt. 

I can only speak from my experience, but I generally have required two to four days of adjustment before obtaining a sense of normalcy, regardless on which side of the Atlantic I'm in.

3) Be busy.

Planning to visit some friends and family back home? Make an appointment for 10 a.m. sharp on the day after you arrive. Make dinner plans to be on the safe side.


I cannot stress how much you and caffeine will become BBFs in these crucial days. Oh, you don't like coffee? Fine. Get yourself some potent English tea or a nauseatingly-saccharine energy drink.

I've usually had no trouble adapting if I applied these tactics. However, I had not anticipated how much my body would be thrown off by the effort of flying to the United States, adapting within four days, only to then face the change in Daylight Saving time (thereby subtracting one hour), ONLY to then return to France within a period of ten days.

The weekend simply wasn't enough time for me to return to normal, which explained why I found myself cooking steak well past midnight (for my stomach said it was dinner time). My students also have the joy of having an escaped Zombie extra from The Walking Dead for a teacher. I am completely drained and plagued by a constant headache.

And sleep? Forget that! I mistakenly took a nap at six p.m. Now, I am perky and alert.

It is now 4:46 a.m. French time. No use in going back to sleep because I work within a few hours. Maybe I'll update this post with some cartoons later in the week.

*This post has been brought to you by jet lag.* 

Barb the French Bean

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


For the past five years, I've become a bit of a nomad, alternating between moving to France, then back to the place where I grew up, then back to France. As each day passes in my life in France, I am reminded of how much of a foreigner I truly am, language mishaps and differences aside.

However, with time, I've begun to slowly acclimate myself to the spoken and unspoken social cues the French have: always greeting store clerks and cashiers with a "Bonjour," acquiescing an agreement with a wispy, gasp-like "ouais" or a small "mhn" accompanied by a quick nod, always stopping to have the mid-morning "pause café," always respecting mealtimes and eating meals in small courses, hardly ever raising one's voice mid-conversation. The small things that used to trip me up and target me with some invisible bulls-eye have since become ingrained into my very being. I don't feel so out of place anymore.

Every once in a while, though, I find myself longing for a slightly more comfortable and familiar existence, one which makes a little more sense to me. I find myself missing "home."

Then arises the complex question that all expats face with discomfort: what is home, exactly? For those who have never traveled or lived elsewhere, that question is answered rather easily. It is not the case for someone like me.

(Should a French person or foreigner inquire about my origins, I answer that I come from Miami. It's a quicker response and leads to the inevitable awestruck observation of wonderment in which the person in question cannot understand why I ever left Miami.)

Is "home" the anchor of one's childhood and adolescence? It is the current mailing address where telephone bills and bank statements arrive? Is "home" the place where all of my stuff is located? Is "home" tangible, or is it a state of mind?

Thinking to my own mother, a Colombian who grew up in Cartagena, Colombia, "home" for her was Cartagena. Except she left "home" at the age of sixteen only to move to Venezuela, Puerto Rico and then the United States. Throughout her adult life, she had not gone "home" for over thirty-two years, and by the time she did, the Cartagena of her youth was replaced by a more modern Cartagena that felt at once familiar and foreign to her. Things were the same and at once...unspeakably different.

I decided that I needed to pay a visit to Miami to see for myself.

I got the window seat. As the 10-hour flight neared the end, gliding over the sparkling turquoise and teal waters of the Bahamian islands, the pilot announced that we would arrive in Miami International Airport in approximately twenty minutes. It was then that after a seven-month hiatus I caught my first aerial glimpse of the land where I was raised. Flat lands intermingled by a series of dark, murky canals and of complex gray highways snaking in every direction, its streams of rapid transit zooming in quick fashion, various tidy sections of housing developments and coral gabled houses with pristine swimming pools in the backyard and, way in the distance, the unconquered swamps and marshes of the Everglades. This was South Florida. This was my old home.

So what is "home" to me? Home is familiar. Home is where I can relax and breathe a little more easily. That can be in the comfort of my bedroom in Miami or in Sablé-sur-Sarthe.

Home can be the place where people still refer to me as "La Niña" (the girl) rather than Madame. Home can be the place where people refer to me as Madame rather than "La Niña.

Home is where I can have palitroques, pastelitos de queso and croquetas de jamón for breakfast. 

Palitroque: crunchy Cuban breadsticks
Pastelitos: Cuban pastries
Croquetas: Croquettes

(This is also as close as I am going to get to 'Instagramming' my food. Enjoy)

It can be the place where I have a café au lait with tartines or un croissant au beurre if I so choose. 

Home, for me, is both France and the United States. 

However, as my current physical location is in South Florida, I will elaborate on what "home" is like in the United States. 

Home is multi-colored Surinam cherries dangling off branches like early Christmas ornaments.

Home is bright, cloudless skies during "dry" season*.
*Should you choose to visit Florida during "wet" season (mid-April to mid-November), I highly advise that you bring an umbrella and a hair straightener.

Home is the large bougainvillea with magenta petals in the backyard. 

Home is where I find spiders relaxing among their gossamer threads.

Home is the canal where I would spend many an afternoon in my youth throwing pebbles to observe the expanding ripple effect on the water, gingerly tiptoeing on its edge and risking falling in just to peer at its length in the distance, and waiting, waiting ever so patiently for that one second to spot a fish breaking the tranquil surface to emancipate itself towards the sky.

Home is seeing a mother Muskovy duck leading her cheeping brood of fluffy ducklings and they make me remember fondly the Muskovy duckling that my family raised when I was ten years old.

But then, I start to notice things that are indeed different about home:

The mango tree's growth is considerably stunted, much smaller than I had anticipated. (Mom had had its branches trimmed to strengthen its growth).

The remnants of former trees are depicted by lone stumps.

The hole which was used as a shelter by brooding Muskovy ducks as their nesting ground has since been covered in dirt.

I find the people loud, boisterous. They cut each others' sentences to state their point. The driving is erratic. Repetitive chain stores dot the landscape.

Then, I realized amid my nostalgia that I was no longer even "home": the mundane details which escaped my daily existence and which I would have otherwise not even appreciated have been captured in photographs, as if I were another tourist visiting Florida.

Then, as further proof that things are indeed different, I took a good look at myself. How was I dressed? I had opted to go outside sporting not flip-flops (or, as I was accustomed to occasionally, barefoot) but rain boots because I couldn't bear the thought of having my feet being tickled by the blades of grass and its cold, morning dew.

Living in the muddy French countryside has instilled an aversion to having wet feet. 

My obtained paleness provided further evidence that something was off about myself in correlation to my surroundings. Even indoor-dwelling Floridians who make it a habit to remain living comfortably in the air conditioning have a darker complexion.

Bumbling about my first home, where I vaguely remember the locations of various items in the kitchen, makes me start to miss my second home (and the knowledge of having enough rosemary and black pepper).

But I know the drill now: by the time I do make it back to my second home and settle into my daily routines, I will start to miss the first one with nostalgic familiarity. As an expat, I am in a perpetual home limbo, which I have since resigned to accept.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Barb the French Bean