New Culture, New Food, New Everything

jol poissons

Jol Poissons

I’ve been in France for one week and two days. Not long enough for a holiday; certainly not long enough to fully experience the country through the eyes of the native French.

But, I’ve come with the mindset of a resident, not a visitor, and the experience is already completely different from previous visits to this lovely country. Yes, I’ve tasted (literally and figuratively) many new things that would be equally accessible to the holiday voyager. I spent a Sunday afternoon on the beach at the Mediterranean wading barefoot in the sea and collecting coquillages (seashells). I ate Jol poissons–little fish that come from the sea–fried with eyes and tails intact. I had to close my eyes to pop them in my mouth, but they were surprisingly delicious. I watched flamingos on the marshes, fed bread to the Camarguese horses, and finally saw two foals of these chevaux unique to the Camargue region.

My first week in the country brought some unexpected challenges, which may seem obvious to others, but having visited many times, took me quite by surprise.

First there was the language challenge. My French is primitive, at best. And while my clumsy attempts to speak in the past brought me great satisfaction when someone could actually understand the idea I was trying to impart, they now made me self-conscious of my illiteracy. And the mental strain of translation began to wear on me after less than a week.

I was also surprised by my fatigue in general. At first I chalked it up to the six-hour adjustment in time; but that had never incapacitated me on previous visits. This time I nearly slept away an entire week. I came to the conclusion that the language challenge and trying to adjust to new foods, routine, environment, was wearing me out.

It’s different when you are visiting a place for a week or two. The new adventures are exciting. And while I still find this new life exciting, it’s more like moving to a new city and starting a new job in the States, with new friends, a new home, new co-workers, a new schedule; they all lose their romance for a while. Adapting becomes the body’s primary goal, rather than enjoyment.

For example, a trip to the supermarket (3 trips in the past week, so I can, with some expertise, comment on shopping in a foreign-speaking land) took me three times longer than it should have. Where do you find the garlic powder in a French grocery? The oregano wasn’t too difficult because it’s green, flaky and written origan feuilles in French. Curry is curry. Basil, basilic. But garlic translates ali, and my little Frenchman didn’t know garlic. And how much fat content is in this yogurt? Fortunately, I read French better than I speak it, and a few brands are the same, like the Greek yogurt I usually buy at WalMart. They actually had it here. But they didn’t have cream of mushroom soup for my potato soup recipe. I’ll have to improvise on that one. Many of these packaged foods and vegetables are unfamiliar to me. (We won’t even talk about the meats.) Even the images on the boxes are foreign to my U.S. born-and-bred eyes.

And so I’ve been surprised by the fatigue, the challenges, and at times the frustration, of trying to adapt to a new life in a new country. But then it’s only been a little over a week…

…and the sun streaming in through these open, enormous arch-shaped, old-world windows in my little French villa; hundreds of birds in this bird habitat singing their little French songs in the trees just on the other side of the balcony; the absolute tranquility of this morning as I drink a cup of French coffee and reminisce about the last week and listen to my Frenchman puttering around outside… this moment reminds me why I am here.

I’ll adapt.