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Debra: Open here

French packages never have helpful instructions on them, like “open here.” I might be reading too much into this, but I just spent several minutes trying to decide where a package of frozen string beans should be opened in order to be able to close it afterwards, and I found myself reminiscing about the good old days, when I lived in the U.S. and I could count on my packaged food having a nice little dotted line and a picture of scissors. I don’t know whether the French people think it’s obvious, or whether they think that deciding where to cut open your bag of string beans is a question of free will. Me, well, sometimes I just want to be told what to do.

Sometimes I wonder how much creative energy goes into simply surviving life in a foreign country. I always thought I would live in a foreign country, and France is not exactly exotic. After all, we share the same cultural heritage, at least to some extent. Yet I am constantly surprised by little things I didn’t know — anyone who has lived in a foreign language knows the strange experience of learning a new word and wondering how it was you survived that long without knowing it. I had lived in France for over a year before I knew the word for “kitchen sink.” It had just never come up.

I realized recently that I have been in denial about the challenges of life in France for a long time — I read dozens of other people’s memoirs about life in France somewhat dismissively. I thought people were too obsessive about little things, like the French fixation on preserving their language or their bureaucratic ways. But hey, I’ve discovered surprising things in France too (for one thing, I’d never seen frozen string beans before). And adapting to surprises requires a lot of creativity. It’s a lot like raising a child, really — it’s an endless process, and you can never be an expert at it. You just have to keep learning, keep adapting, and keep wondering if you’re doing the right thing. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder just how much of my creative energy is being used up figuring out things like how to open packages, whether I need to weigh my vegetables before I get to the checkout line, or what waiting lists I need to be on for daycare.

The beauty of it, of course, is that in the end it doesn’t matter where you cut open the package. However you do it, you’ll still get the string beans, and maybe that’s all that matters.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Isn’t that the truth? When I was an exchange student, we had the mantra, “It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s different.” It’s hard to live in another culture and not make comparisons and not judge one lifestyle over the lifestyle you’re already accustumed to. But once you do, you break out of the paralyzing notion that there is only one way to do something.

    So I’m intrigued about the green bean business… What were you making with frozen whole green beans?

    January 15, 2009
  2. Thoroughly enjoyable read!

    January 15, 2009
  3. cathy #

    it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and a great reminder to remain open to possibilities. however, now i want to know the french word for kitchen sink so i can say ‘everything but la/le –‘ and sound fancy! 😉

    January 15, 2009
  4. qiubuo #

    ze kitchen seenk is not even a la/le, but a l’!

    l’évier…I guess it does sound kind of fancy…Hmm, suddenly it seems like a good idea to bottle tap water and label it “évier” to see how much I can sell it for in English-speaking countries!

    January 15, 2009
  5. cathy #

    lol! great idea! and thank you. now i can tell the boys to put their dishes dans l’evier, si vous plait! can’t wait to see their confused expressions.

    January 15, 2009
  6. I wonder — how does living life in a foreign country and a foreign language affect the lens of your creativity? I would think that the experience creates an extra layer of perspective — and based on your thoughts above — adds a contrast to daily activities that makes them easier to “see,” and perhaps to write about. Maybe the experience makes you more present in certain ways. Learning the word for sink, for example — you are more immersed in considering the present moment. Yes, any way you slice it you still get string beans, but in this instance you’re actually THINKING about the string beans. You are more tuned in to how people live their lives in small ways. I think this makes for excellent observation, the foundation of great writing (IMHO).

    January 15, 2009
  7. cathy #

    miranda, that’s deep. my sentiments exactly, but i must be sleeping even less that you are! lol! so glad you were able to express it where i was not.

    January 15, 2009

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