26 January 2014

Understood by a Book

Love in Paris, on Amazon
Today I felt understood by a book. That's right - understood by a book, not "I understood a book" (although that, too, I hope). I got the email from the library yesterday that the ebook copy of Lunch in Paris I had put a hold on was available, so I downloaded it and started reading. I'd already read the first couple of chapters, which were available as a sample - whet-your-appetite-while-you-wait, that sort of thing - and really enjoyed it.

But the further I got into the book, the more I realised that it's not what I thought it was from those first few chapters. The full title is Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, and that's exactly what the beginning of the book reads like. Romance, and food. It's the story of how the author, Elizabeth Bard, a New Yorker, goes to Europe, falls in love with a Frenchman, moves to Paris, learns to shop at the market and cook French food, and lives happily ever after (well, for a given value of "happily ever after"). I was expecting a regular romance story - I've read enough of those to know how they're supposed to go: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl overcome obstacles to their being together, boy marries girl. The end.

As I said, the first few chapters start up quite promising in that regard - Elizabeth meets the tall-dark-and-handsome Frenchman Gwendal (yes, that's a guy's name; Breton, apparently); he takes her home from the café where they've eaten amazing food and then, after an amorous interlude, feeds her more amazing food (recipes included in the chapter); she goes back to London, where she is working, comes back to Paris every weekend for more amorous interludes (not described in detail; this is a G-rated book) and more amazing food; and you expect the rest of the book to be about how they eat and love their way to a proposal and a wedding with lots more deliciousness of the amorous and culinary kind.

But actually, there's a lot more to this book than that. Oh, the loving and eating (including recipes) is all there. But the wedding takes place just half-way through the book. The romantic happily-ever-after is not the denouement, it is, in a sense, only the beginning. What this book is really about is an American girl finding a new home in France, with a Frenchman. And quite apart from the language barrier - at the beginning of the story, Elizabeth barely speaks French; Gwendal's parents don't know any English - this is about making a cross-cultural marriage work. About being transplanted into a culture different from your own, and learning to live and function in it. And boy, do I know what she is talking about.

"I had one foot on either side of the ocean," she says, "and my knees were beginning to wobble" (chapter 18). Yes. That's exactly how it is. And with that foot on either side of the ocean comes an awareness which, I believe, you can only get from this in-between position, this neither-fish-nor-fowl existence that is entailed in being a cross-cultural transplant. You see both cultures, your original and your adopted home, through a different lens.

The interesting thing is that even though my situation is, in a sense, the exact reverse from Elizabeth Bard's - I'm German, living in Canada, married to a Canadian, she is American, living in France, married to a Frenchman - the issues are the same. Some of the cultural difference she points out are precisely the ones I've struggled with - still struggle with, in fact, after twenty-five years in this country.

Take the issue of "making friends". Americans (i.e. North Americans - Canadians are included in this) can meet someone, find them sympathetic, invite them over for coffee, and bingo, friendship is established. Europeans, Bard explains, don't do that. "I found that, for whatever reason, people in Europe don't need more friends," she says. "They have their families, the people they grew up with, the people they went to university with, colleagues to talk to on a cigarette break. Their social world is made up of tiny circles, closed but overlapping like those Chinese ring toys you can never untangle from one another. […] An English acquaintance was once drunk enough to explain it to me. We would have to meet at at least three events, he said, before I could even consider suggesting that we see each other outside a group context" (chapter 16). Yes! That's exactly how it is. I need to meet you repeatedly in a group setting before I can be friends with you. I'm still profoundly uncomfortable "going for coffee" with someone I don't already know really well, or "inviting them for coffee", for that matter. And it's very difficult getting out of your cultural skin.

But also, if you've chosen to live somewhere other than your culture of origin, you find yourself in a position of having to translate for those "back home". And believe me, it can get tedious. Bard talks about her mother bringing out the phrase "Why can't you just…" - do the things you would do "back home", the things that are "normal" (chapter 15). Because they're not normal here, that's why. There is an implied criticism in that "Why can't you just…" - a criticism of your home of choice, of the culture you are now a part of, to the tune of "Why do you choose to live in a place where people do these weird things?" And then you find yourself defending your new culture, even if perhaps you don't like whatever it is they're criticising, either.

And then there is the amazingly insightful passage about the flip side of the American dream. "Implicit in the American dream is the idea of self-determination. The result of our just-do-it attitude is that anything you don't do is your fault. This ethic of personal responsibility informs American attitudes on everything from obesity to college admissions to welfare reform" (chapter 19). And with it, Bard says, comes a fear of failure - because the American attitude is "You can do anything you want to do!", if you fail to do it, if you're not a successful person, it's your own fault. The can-do attitude that is so pervasive, and so refreshing, in American culture has its backlash.

My prime personal example of that is homeschooling: what is illegal, or at least uncommon, in Europe, namely educating your kids yourself, is perfectly possible here, which is wonderful. But if your kids are less-than-perfect in their academic performance and social development, guess whose fault that is? Oh yes. Self-determination has massive guilt trips built right into its system. I love the sense of personal freedom inherent in American culture, but I have also absorbed the guilt that comes with not making perfect use of that freedom to become a highly successful person on all fronts. One foot on either side of the ocean, and my knees are wobbling.

I knew most of those things Elizabeth Bard says - knew them in the back of my mind, but to have them articulated in this way struck such a chord. I found myself in her book - I was understood.

However, Lunch in Paris is still first and foremost a love story, with recipes. One novel-length tale of people and good food. And unlike some other books I've read, it is not a homily on the superiority of French eating habits over everyone else's (American ones in particular), but simply a celebration of the pleasure of French food. And of love, of course. I've come away from reading this inspired in so many ways.

And you know, I think I'll have to get me a hardcopy of this book for keeps, even just for the recipes. The local bookstore has a copy in stock, and what do you know, I still haven't spent the gift card I got from my friend for my birthday. I was saving it for something special, and this will fit the bill admirably.

Life, the Universe, and a Book that Understands Me. Love and good food are part of the deal.

21 January 2014

Jane and Valancy

image from wikipedia.org
I'm re-reading L. M. Montgomery's Jane of Lantern Hill. Yes, I do that - read fiction for fun, I mean, even though I already spend all day sitting on my rear end and reading for school. Bedtime reading is something I have to do; I can't go to sleep without engaging with a good story for a while first. It's a form of putting on mental pyjamas. So it's got to be something soothing - something that holds my interest, but not too exciting, else I'll not be able to put it down and/or will be tossing and turning all night because my adrenalin is pumping too hard. Just a good story that allows me to leave behind my everyday reality, and live someone else's life for a while - and I want to know that it's going to be a good life, not something terribly painful and upsetting. You don't put on your pyjamas if you think there might be burrs in them, do you? Neither do I.

So a nice re-read of a favourite book is a good choice for a bedtime story. And Jane of Lantern Hill is my most favourite of L. M. Montgomery's - well, Jane, and The Blue Castle. Oh, I love Anne of Green Gables, of course - who doesn't? - and Emily of New Moon is great, and so is The Story Girl and Kilmeny of the Orchard and so on and so forth. Montgomery was just good, that's all there's to it. But Jane and Blue Castle top them all, for me.

And it occurred to me this morning that that might just be because, underneath it all, they're really the same story. Even though Jane is eleven, and Valancy twenty-nine, they're very much alike - particularly in their situation at the beginning of the book. Both of them are capable people who are utterly unappreciated by their bullying families (particularly the mother in Valancy's case, the grandmother in Jane's). Through a circumstance they are snapped out of their downtrodden existence, they leave their repressive home and find a new family where they are appreciated, and a man to love. And that's the thing that struck me so forcibly today: those men, they're just the same person, and they're the reason I love these stories so much. I'm talking about Jane's dad, Andrew Stuart, and Valancy's husband, Barney Snaith. Both are successful writers, both are slightly (or, in Barney's case, very) bohemian, and both have just the same way of talking, the same sense of humour.

My guess is that Montgomery wrote herself a dream man - kind, witty, sensitive, handsome, a good provider, in need of a loving capable woman to mend his socks and make him shave every morning - wrote him twice, in fact, and Jane and Valancy, who are so very easy to identify with, get to be that woman who loves him and cares for him and is loved and cared for in return. Of course, in Jane's case it's her dearly beloved mother who is dad's wife, but it's Jane who is the caretaker of the family. She is the one who rescues her childlike mummy from grandmother's clutches, and she gives her prince (aka dad) back his most precious treasure (his wife); at the end of the story Jane is left with the bliss of taking care of both her parents at once. Jane takes the decisions in her own hands, makes things happen for the people she loves. And so does Valancy. Also, the pattern of their relationships is similar: both of them love their man from afar while they're still in captivity - Valancy harbours a secret crush on Barney just from having seen him drive through town, and Jane cuts out dad's picture from his byline in the paper, not knowing he's her father, because she finds the face so attractive - and once they're sprung free, they let their love have full reign.

image from wikipedia.org
Jane and Valancy are both about agency, women's agency. It's easy to dismiss Montgomery's stories as Edwardian fluff, demonstrations of women stuck in a patriarchal society who unfortunately find all their fulfilment in housewifely activities, serving a man. But if you look closer and take off  your twenty-first-century blinkers, you'll see that the books are deeply feminist. The downtrodden, disenfranchised girl, once she is forced out of the rut of powerlessness in which she is stuck (Valancy through her diagnosis, Jane through being sent to PEI), takes action, makes choices, and brings about a happily ever after for herself and her loved ones. Valancy and Jane are empowered to be who they want to be, and in reading their stories, the reader is too. That's feminism. And that's why I love those stories - Jane and Valancy, triumphant; the princess, through her own agency, gets her prince (Hero's Journey, anyone?). And he's a prince worth having. Happily ever after, the end. Aaaah.

Life, the Universe, Jane and Valancy. Always worth re-reading.

17 January 2014

Thought for Food

Reading over yesterday's post and some of the comments I got on it in various places makes me realise that this calls for an addendum. Food for Thought, Take 2. Or Thought for Food?

See, what I need to tell you today is that when I was talking about German food culture yesterday, I was telling you what I grew up with, not what is happening in my own house with my own offspring. I wasn't trying to say that that is how I raised my own children, with every dinner a sit-down meal and eating every vegetable that's put on the table. I tried, I really did - but that's one of those instances where, as I said, I found out the hard way that you can't run a culture on your own. (The other major instance is that my kids don't speak German, for all intents and purposes. That's right. I tried teaching them, but in the absence of a German environment, it just didn't happen.)

So, just in case you took yesterday's post as a "Thou Shalt", stop it right now. Guilt trips are not a good place to go; trust me, I'm an experienced traveller on that road. I did not mean to say that the German way of doing things is how kids should be raised, and that if you don't, you're doing it WRONG. That's not it at all.

What is, then? It's exactly that, the getting rid of "Thou Shalt" and replacing it with a "You May". Where food is concerned, North American culture has deeply ingrained in it the old Puritan-inspired idea that Food Is Only There For Sustenance, and taking pleasure in it is somehow sinful and to be regarded with suspicion. If it's tasty, it must be "bad for you", and the root cause for many of the ills in our society are "bad foods". If you are a virtuous person, you will eat virtuous food (no, not virtual. Virtuous. Sheesh.); if you are a bad (self-indulgent, undisciplined, non-virtuous) person, you will eat bad food - or the other way around, eating virtuous food makes you a virtuous person, eating bad (vice-ous, vicious) food makes you a bad person. You don't believe me? Think about it - have you ever heard of a chocolate cake being "sinfully rich"? Or seen that commercial which equated eating cream cheese with being angels or devils? (I can't remember if the point of the commercial was that this brand of cream cheese was so delicious that it even tempted angels to commit the sin of eating it, or if it was so much artificially altered that it didn't count as sinful any longer and even the angels could eat it. I only remember that it was a really obnoxious ad.)

Food is equated with virtue or vice, being good or bad. And being healthy or sick is how we are rewarded or punished for our self-discipline or self-indulgence. Add to that the "every man for himself" ideal on which North America is built, put it in the pot, stir until combined, and you end up with a completely fragmented food culture.

What I'm saying is that it doesn't have to be that way. The Germans, the French, the Italians, for that matter the Greeks and Turks and Japanese and Chinese and Russians and Spanish and - well, you get the idea - they don't think that way of food. They love food. They enjoy food. And they SHARE food. I sometimes regret that I don't drink coffee (I never have, and for a no more virtuous reason than that I don't like the taste). I would love to be able to share in the conversation of this society's all-pervasive coffee culture, to be able to discuss whether a triple-mocha-venti-macchiado made with a Columbian roast is more tasty than an, umm, cinnamon-pumpkin-spice latté sourced from Costa Rican beans, but as you can tell, I don't even get the terminology right. My regret isn't big enough to cultivate a taste for the roasted bean, but you get my drift. There is pleasure in a shared food culture, and it's a good thing.

Life, the Universe, and the Pleasures of Food. Now that is virtue.

16 January 2014

Food for Thought

cake, pizza shells, English muffins, bread
I was having an email conversation (yup, I'm that old-fashioned) with some friends about food, and diets, and food culture, and ways to think about food, and this morning, this is what spilled off my keyboard. Seeing as it was pretty much a completed blog post right there, I figured I might as well use it. So, if you'll pardon my dropping you into the middle of a conversation, here goes:

The thing is, you'll find it quite difficult to ditch the "food as a virtue/vice" thinking, because it is all-pervasive in North American society. You've grown up steeped in that mode of thinking; you won't even notice it's there because it's "normal" to you - part of the North American discourse. The fish can't tell the colour of the water it swims in.

I notice it more because I didn't grow up with it, not to the same extent, anyway - none of the women in my environment, mother, grandmother, older sister, aunts etc., ever "dieted", it's not even part of their vocabulary; in fact, there isn't a verb for "to diet" in German, the only word they have is the equivalent of "losing weight" ("abnehmen", lit. "to take off"). "Diät essen" (eating according to a diet) means being on a special medical diet such as a diabetic one, and it's quite rare.

It would be unthinkable to Germans for families to eat separate meals, to have one person cook something different for themselves than for the rest of the family. And that starts right when kids are little. "Was auf den Tisch kommt, wird gegessen!" - "What's put on the table gets eaten!" is the standard stern admonishment to picky eaters; there none of that "I don't like the vegetables!" "Okay, darling, you can have a peanut butter sandwich." You eat what's there, and if you don't, you go hungry, tough luck to you. I've seen that going around the internet as child-rearing advice recently, usually under the heading of "Why French Kids Eat Their Vegetables" or something like that - I grew up with it. Meals are at a set table during set times, with a beginning and an end (in our family, both those involved prayers, "saying grace" - one to start, the other to end), and you show up at the table for the beginning and don't leave until the end. And that was for three meals a day - breakfast, dinner, supper. Breakfast and supper are just bread (with jam or cheese and meat) and tea/coffee/cocoa, but still, the table is set, you have a real meal. It annoyed me as a teen to always have to show up for each meal, even if I was in the middle of something, which is why we don't do it around here except for dinner - but the attitudes that go with it are in my blood.

That's what I mean by "food culture" - it's as much about how you eat as about what, and it's always, by definition, shared (you can't run a culture on your own, as I found out the hard way). Going on a "diet" of whatever description, voluntarily or not, separates you from shared food culture, and as far as I'm concerned, that's not a thing to be undertaken lightly.

If you want to dig into that whole mode of thinking, check out Mireille Guiliano (French Women Don't Get Fat), Will Clower (The French Don't Diet), maybe even Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love - the "Eat" portion of it), and any number of "joyful food" movies or books (Julie and Julia, Ratatouille, Kim Severson's Spoon Fed, Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris etc, and any of the TV chefs, my favourites being Jamie Oliver, Julia Child and The Two Fat Ladies). You might find yourself quite surprised at how they think of food.

Think of it this way: what if our culture declared that sex was only good for reproduction, and enjoying sex was somewhat disreputable? (Umm, puritanism? We've been there before... But never mind that for the moment.) And then we declared that the physical problems we have are because of how we do sex, so this week's sex du jour is the missionary position, all others are declared "unhealthy". If you still have sex other ways, and you've got a backache, well, hey, you've been warned. You've gone down the list, and you've got all the symptoms of wrong-sex-position intolerance; if you still persist in your perverse behaviour, you can hardly blame anyone else for your problems.

Sounds ludicrous, I know, but it's really not all that different. Because even in this, there's a kernel of truth to it: of course some people have back problems because of their conjugal calisthenics; of course some people have sick sex behaviour and need to change it; of course some people can do some things and not others. But it's not because some sex behaviour is inherently bad. For most people, the whole gamut of it is good, and right, and healthy, and a pleasure, and it's meant to be.

And so is food.

And thus endeth today's sermon. LOL.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and Food for Thought. May it be a tasty morsel.

edible art, aka a fruit salad

05 January 2014

Twelfth Night and Story Tropes

It's Twelfth Night today, the Twelfth Day of Christmas (twelve drummers drumming, in case you're wondering), and the eve of Epiphany. On Twelfth Night, Christmas time is really over. Wikipedia informs me that old English traditions have it that on that day, the Christmas decorations get taken down, and anything edible on them, such as fruit hung on the Christmas tree, becomes part of the Twelfth Night feast. One last bash before going back to work. Apparently those old English peasants got quite rowdy for Twelfth Night, and everyone partied rather strenuously.

Wikipedia also says that Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play, was written somewhere around 1601/02 specifically for one of those parties, hence the title. The play itself has, of course, nothing whatever to do with Twelfth Night, the feast, being one of Shakespeare's gender-identity-mixup stories, not a Christmas party one. It's one of my favourites of his, especially the 1996 film version directed by Trevor Nunn, with Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia and Ben Kingsley as Feste. One piece of sheer genius in this movie is the casting of Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as Viola and Sebastian - apart from the height difference between them, they look astonishingly alike, so they are actually believable as the boy-girl set of twins which are mistaken for one another when Viola puts on her brothers' clothes and becomes Cesario.

Steve unrecognisable in a cross-dressing disguise
That's one of Shakespeare's favourite tropes, the girl-dressed-up-as-boy who becomes instantly unrecognisable and extremely attractive to other girls who proceed to fall in love with him/her. Cross-dressing, in Shakespeare's day, seems to have been a most effective disguise - or, if not in his day, in his playwright's conventions, anyway. Elizabethan audiences apparently had no problem accepting that idea, which to us today seems rather silly. Put on a pair of trousers, and hey presto, your own mother won't know you! Uh, yeah, sure. How could the viewers be so gullible?

But then, we've got any number of silly story tropes today ourselves, and we're so used to accepting them as fact that we don't blink when yet another book or movie trots them out as a plot device. The "character with amnesia" is one example: how many stories have you read or watched where a character gets a thump on the head, forgets everything including their own name (which leads to all kinds of mix-ups and difficulties) and then gets another smack on the head which instantly unscrambles their brain and brings back all their memories? I know I've seen it done multiple times in fiction. But from what I understand, that's actually not at all the way real amnesia works (especially where the curative second thump is concerned). But writers can get away with using this plot device because we all accept it as "fact". In storytelling, it doesn't matter so much what's real, but what the audience is willing to believe, and that, after all, is what fiction is all about.

Life, the Universe, the Bard and Story Tropes. Happy Twelfth Night!

01 January 2014

The Best-Laid Plans

I had planned to spend New Year's Eve eating copious junk food and partying with friends. But my body begged to differ with that plan. No, it demanded to differ, the finicky so-and-so. An upset stomach and a headache does not for cheerful parties make. So I spent the evening on the couch, watching Harry Potter in company of the offspring and the cats, nibbling on chips and periodically having my toes nibbled on by Johnnie Tripod (for some reason, feet wiggling under a blanket seem to be irresistible to cats). And then I went to bed earlier than I would have otherwise, and feel better for it this morning. It was, all things considered, an enjoyable evening, even though my plans did not work out.

Plans. I don't usually go in for New Year's resolutions, planning on all the positive changes I'm going to make in my life, because I'm fully aware that I'm only setting myself up for failure if I do. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that sort of thing. This year I'm especially aware of that issue. I keep thinking of what it was like, a hundred years ago on New Year's 1914. What resolutions did people make then, what plans did they form, what expectations did they have for that year? And then, not seven months later, in Sarajevo a shot was fired on an Austrian archduke, and all hell broke loose. For the next four years the world was plunged into a bloody war that completely changed the face of life as it had been known so far.

What are we gearing up for this year? There is absolutely no knowing. And making resolutions about what we're going to do or not do is not going to make one smidgen of a difference. Perhaps the only thing worth resolving is to keep living our lives to the best of our abilities, love our loved ones, enjoy what we have while we have it, and make what changes are needed at the moment they are necessary (rather than on an arbitrary Wednesday in the middle of winter just because the calendar says 01.01. on that day). Carpe diem - die on the carpet? Ah, no, don't keep carping on dying, I think that's what it comes down to. Grab hold of the day, and live it.

And once again, I'm preaching to myself.

New Year's Greetings from the Tigers and Bears
Incidentally, Steve informs me that stuffed bears don't have an issue with any of this. They don't make plans. Bears, like cats, are content to simply Be. So Steve intends to keep doing what he always does, which is sitting on my bedside table, discussing poetry with Horatio - and if he has any other resolutions for this coming year, he isn't telling me. And that's just as well.

Life, the Universe, and Best-Laid Plans. May your New Year be a string of Todays.