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My Cheesy Faux-Pas (and Other French Culture Stories)

September 30, 2018

So I thought I’d start this blog post with a couple of goofy, culture-related anecdotes!        

Just like in English, French has a number of slang words which don’t represent “proper” language.  I think it was the second day of orientation that we learned some slang words so that we could better understand the people we talked to.  (Surprisingly, French people don’t talk like textbooks!)  One such slang term is "chouette", meaning cool.  The French also say “cool” and its not uncommon to modify cool or chouette with a “hyper” or “super” to drive home the meaning.  So, being cool kids, me and my fellow students have been calling things chouette a lot!  Last Friday, we were baking a cake and, of course, it was hyper chouette.  Someone said that in French and one girl responded by saying “super owl”!  I was rather confused, but then it dawned on me.  Chouette in French literally means owl.  That means the cool kids on the streets are running around saying “Dude, that’s so owl!”  We do it in English too—when I say something is cool, I mean that it’s interesting, not that its temperature is somewhere between warm and chilly!  But I can’t help but laugh that “owl” has somehow become “cool” in French!

For my second story, I must confess that I have committed a cardinal sin of the French culinary experience!  France is really well known for three major foods: wine, bread, and cheese.  Likewise, each of these items commands a special place of decorum at the French dinner table.  Cheese, in the case of my story, is primarily served as its own course between a dinner’s main plate and dessert.  It’s also always served communally, with each person cutting pieces off of larger blocks of cheese sat atop a cutting board in the center of the table.  Traditionally, this is also done without any sort of packaging present on the board.  If your cheese comes in a bag or box, you would remove the wrapping, set it aside, and then place the cheese on the cutting board.  That is, of course, unless you’re an American student who’s exhausted after hours of living and learning in a different language!  If you happen to find yourself in that situation, you might absent-mindedly take the cheese out of its bag and then proceed to place it on your personal plate.  You might also notice that your host parents have stopped talking and are looking at you with a sense of honest shock, not malicious in any way, just genuinely surprised.  As you look down at what you’ve just done, they’ll probably burst out into laughter too!  This was my fate.  We laughed and joked about it, of course!  (Next, they were having me drink a whole bottle of wine and eating the entire pie which was that night’s dessert!)  But, I honestly think that if I had done that in some classy restaurant or at a more uptight family’s table, I might be thrown out for breaking the sacred ritual that is cheese!

There are a couple of attractions I’ve been to in the past month which not only strike me as very French, but also as the kind of thing that wouldn’t be nearly as popular in the U.S.  First off, there’s the Machines d’Ile, a collection of steampunk, Jules Verne-esque animals.  They have everything from a giant heron and giant spider that fly/climb using industrial cranes to delicate (but still certainly oversized) ants and hummingbirds.  The larger animals are controlled by puppeteers and I was shocked at how well the pilots could mimic the animals natural movements.  On the other end of the complex is a three-story carousel, representing the different layers of the ocean. At the top there are boats; however, being the Machines d’Ile, these mundane vehicles are accompanied by fish-drawn chariots, as well as a sea dragon!  The next two levels delve below the waves and feature more steampunk animals.  Each creature has at least one moving part controlled by the rider via crank, handle, or otherwise.  The larger animals, like an angler fish or a manta ray, have internal cockpits, reminiscent of submarines.  But the crowning achievement of the Machines is their five-story elephant which moves freely on a combination of massive wheels and legs!  The day we went to the Machines, the elephant was supposed to be “asleep,” but a few of us who were slower to leave witnessed the mammoth come to life.  It was incredible to see such a large thing move with a sense of fluidity and grace!  I strongly recommend checking out videos of the Machines online—words alone can’t capture their art!

While you’re at it, look up a video of the Puy du Fou!  It’s a theme park devoted to a fantastical and dramatized version of French history, but instead of having roller coasters, the Puy has theatrical performances!  Throughout the day, visitors move between theaters, and all I can say is that the production value is absolutely incredible.  For the Roman gladiator themed show, they’ve built a literal Coliseum, which holds thousands of spectators!  Their viking show has incredible water effects, including a ship rising from beneath the surface of a lake, manned by real actors who somehow hide below the surface in their full viking garb.  The bird show—my favorite—has guests seated in a forested arena while birds of all varieties fly just above overhead!  And for the finale, hundreds of birds fill the sky!  It’s an amazing place and again, I strongly recommend you look up videos because it is simply impossible to give you a good impression of this place with my words alone!

Thanks for reading!  I’m working hard on making sure that blog posts will come out more often and more regularly!  I certainly have more than enough stories to share—until next time!

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