Monday, June 29, 2009

Why this blog post is like my lunch

Out of I'm-leaving-the-country-forever-tomorrow necessity, for lunch I threw together some pasta with whatever scraps were hanging out in the fridge: some bacon, two tomatoes, and a spoonful of pesto sauce. I'm taking the same approach with this blog post, which I hereby entitle, The Leftover Bits.

So, remember when we talked about the subtle (or not so subtle) sexism that exists in restaurants in France? Well it appears that not only is sexism alive and well in the restaurant industry, but it is also running rampant in that other great French cultural institution, the outdoor market. While browsing the stalls with Hervé on Sunday, picking up the this and thats required to cobble together a picnic, we happened across a table selling homemade pâtés and foie gras. "I probably should bring my family back a little present," I said, and so I selected a duck pâté and a wee jar of fig confit. "Excellent choice," said the man running the table. "And you know these are all homemade on my farm. It's a family operation." I smiled my approval. "That comes to 6.50, monsieur," he said, looking at Hervé. I giggled a little and shrugged my shoulders at Hervé, and reached in my wallet for the money. The man accepted the money from me while simultaneously handing Hervé the bag. "Merci, monsieur," he said, looking at Hervé all the while. "Have a good day, monsieur." I very maturely refrained from throwing the can of pâté back in his face.

And speaking of gifts, I had been puzzling for the last two weeks over what kind of present one gives to one's French boyfriend before returning to the United States forever. I wanted something that would say, "Hey, it's been real, thanks for the last three months, and now enjoy the rest of your life. Kisses!" After trying and failing to think of something appropriate, I finally stumbled across the perfect idea: I cleaned his refrigerator and his kitchen cabinet. I sorted, I organized, I threw out, I lathered and scrubbed, and then I put it all back together again. I played Guess the Expiration Date on This Thing, a game which Hervé positively adored, all while he was trying to concentrate on grading copies of the BAC. (The uber-important exam students have to pass to graduate high school). Ok, so maybe he did not derive nearly as much pleasure from this game as I did, hopping up and down saying, "No, no, really, you'll never guess!" And, "Yes, ok, but which year?" In his tiny, dorm-sized fridge were no less than three opened packages of butter. One of them had expired back in...wait for it...March! No, really! I poured juice down the sink that had congealed into a moldy, gelatinous plug. I did the same for his cabinet, throwing away expired rice (did you know that rice can expire?) and protein powder and tea. (Yes, apparently even tea can expire!) When I finally finished hours later I took a step back and admired my work, sighing contentedly. I even took pictures of the finished product, and then kicked myself for not having taken pictures before, too. But honestly I think the before pictures would have been just too embarassing. In any case, check out my handiwork!

The picture of the fridge was taken after it was re-stocked for the get-together he was having that night; after I had finished cleaning there was hardly anything left. Also, in the cabinet you will see five boxes of tea. They are actually stacked on top of six more boxes of tea. Also I would like to point out there are four cans of green beans and six boxes of rice. Just in case anyone has a tea, green bean, or rice emergency. You can never be too careful. So anyway, then I patted myself on the back right before kicking myself hard for having done all this mere days before I was leaving the country (and thus his apartment) forever, when I had been living with that filth for months. I basked in the clean for as long as I could, and then I said goodbye to his apartment this morning for the last time.

I stopped by the boulangerie in Hervé's neighborhood last night to pick up a baguette for dinner. The boulanger smiled when he saw me, used to seeing me with Hervé. It was just before closing time, and he didn't have change for the ten euro bill I offered with an apologetic smile. "Take it," he waved. "You can pay me later." Yes, later, I thought to myself wistfully, as I scrounged through my wallet for change. I gave him a handful of coins, coming up ten cents short. "You can just give it to me tomorrow," he said cheerfully, waving goodbye. I thanked him and left. "I owe the boulanger ten centimes," I told Hervé as I came in the door. "So the next time you see him, can you just...?"

I wonder what the boulanger will think when he never sees me again. I wonder what the grocer will think, the one who always greets Hervé with a hearty, "Le patron!" and who has taken to calling me "la patronne." I wonder if they will ask, or if they will keep quiet out of politeness. I wonder what Hervé will say.

I think about a vendor at the market, calling out, advertising his wares. "The two lovebirds!" he yelled to us. "Hand in hand, aw, that's beautiful!" We smiled at each other and kept walking.

Over dinner I talked to Hervé about my job dilemna. Out of all the resumés I sent out, I only got one interview. And I got the job, but it is only a part-time position with no benefits, and the pay is for shit, and the school is in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as upstate New York. Hervé is mostly for it, although he can't understand the fact that it doesn't offer health insurance. "But that's normal," I told him. "It's a part-time job, that's the way it is."

"Well, yes," he said, "I know it's normal for you, but I still can't understand it." And then we started talking about the health industry in America, and what a travesty it is, and I told him that he has to watch Michael Moore's Sicko. "And what if," he said slowly, "an American marries a French man. Would she be able to have health benefits in France then?" Well, yes, I said. "Well, then, that's what we should do," he said shyly, embarassed, joking or perhaps not.

I paused for a minute and then I responded in kind, smiling and saying lightly, "Well, if I ever get sick I'll give you a call." Then we smiled ruefully at each other and buried our noses in our wine glasses, drinking the pinot blanc down to the very last drop.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why home is where the crazy is

So I'm going home in six days. I'm really excited about it! Ok, that's a lie. But it's hard when my sister keeps sending me e-mails like this, telling me what I have to look forward to:

not to be a downer but ur gonna hate it here. lol. mom is a crazy cat lady and she repeats herself a lot and is rather naggy. so i need u to try to be patient and not yell at her all the time. i just dont want to be around yelling. also i swear u will think im crazy but the ant problem extends to your room. i can feel them crawling on me in your bed. aaaa!! im trying to remedy this situation. and... no big surprise but they are ridiculous and keep everything and its psychotic. so there about twice as much stuff as should be in this house, and i admit im contributing but im trying to minimalize and plus all my stuff is shoved in one room. im sneaking things out to goodwill and the trash can and hoping they dont catch me. i just want to throw it all out!!


Wow, there's a lot of information there. Nothing I haven't heard before, though, except maybe about the ants. Ants! The smuggling out of trash is definitely nothing new; I've been doing it for years, every time I come home. But somehow every time I come back there's even more stuff than before. It's like all the junk I get rid of comes back and has little junk babies. I can't tell you the number of times I've taken something out to the trash, double- or triple-bagged it and smushed it down really good under other stuff, only to have it "mysteriously" reappear the next day. Once Iast summer I took a giant box containing ten years worth of old magazines out to be recycled. A box of magazines that I had asked and been granted full permission to dispose of. So I lugged that giant heavy damn box of magazines down to the end of the driveway and left it there next to the recycling bin. But the next day, it was back! Bwah! Because...it might rain? And the recycling might get wet? And that would like, ruin it? I tried to use reason, explaining that, much like it doesn't matter what food touches what food on your plate because it all gets mixed together in your stomach anyway, when you recycle paper, it gets wet! It's all one mushy sopping paper paste! But anyway, my mother said, they don't like it when you put out that much recycling at once.

I don't know what my sister has against yelling, anyway. It can be very cathartic.


this cat stinks. im sitting down here and i hear her scratching in her litter box for about ten minutes and im like, jeez, what is she doing? then the smell comes. and boy does it smell. it almost drove me away. so im thinking, that cat is so smelly. and now i cant get the 'smelly cat' song from friends out of my head. lol. according to the song, its not her fault, and i wonder what they're feeding her. the worst part is, my nose isnt adjusting. thats how u know a smell is bad right, when u keep getting disgusted breath after breath? so mom comes home and i tell her, and shes like, i dont smell anything i think the cat covered it up good. im like u dont smell that? she walks right in the bathroom and is like no, its fine. im telling u, it wreaks. so anyway, im going to try to get the house in somewhat order for when u return. its not gonna be easy or perfect but i hope to get some sort of organization going. i cant do anything about the basement, which is almost creepy now. it looks like where computers and music supplies come to die. also, the shower is still super crappy and ive just been taking baths, which also takes forever to fill up. so be forewarned. hows life?

Ah, yes, the cat that my mother loves more than life itself, that she mentions in every e-mail and phone conversation and who is so talented and smart and pweshus that her shit doesn't even stink. First of all, I never had a cat when I was a kid, and it was all I wanted in the world. Once when I was eight or nine I wrote a heart-felt letter to my dad on my best lavender stationery, detailing all the reasons I wanted a kitten and I would be so responsible and take care of it and love it and play with it and the neighbor down the street's cat had kittens and please please please dad please. I left it where he would find it and waited. He didn't mention it, and so I asked him if he had read it and he said yes he did and no I couldn't have a cat. My mom was on my side though, and so when a friend of hers' cat had kittens she let this friend bring over this adorable little ball of fluff, along with a litter box and food and all its accessories and dropped it off at our house where we hoped to nonchalantly pretend it had been all along. I named it and everything. Her name was Lacey. My dad came home and boy was he not pleased. He thought it was sneaky and underhanded and my mom's friend had to drive all thirty minutes back to our house the very same night to pick up her cat and all its accessories. I cried. Anyway, my sister must have some magic charm when it comes to animals and my parents, or maybe they just can't say no to her, but when she got a dog a few years back they warned that they would not be taking care of any dog when she got tired of it, no sir. Then she went away to Guam to work for one summer and took the dog to my parents' house because she had nowhere else to go. My parents took her in grudgingly, threatening all the while that they were going to find a new home for her, or take her to the pound. Three years later and that dog is still at my parents' house, and my dad loves her to pieces and plays his harmonica and she sticks her nose in the air and howls and he swears she's "singing." Also there's the cat and like I said, either my sister is a miracle worker or my parents have gone soft in their old age. And it's great that they have pets and all now, because they need them, but I'm still a little bitter.

dad is now taking junk to his dads house because theres no room here and i guess thats his new junk pile. it makes me feel like an inconvenience but also just makes me feel like they are ridiculous. i have to smuggle trash out again. seriously. i was just like, hey mom, what are these pointless clear plastic balls with broken tops? can i throw them out? and of course, shes all, oh nooooo i was going to use those im going to make somethingggggg.... aaaaa. and thats pretty much the story behind the entire room im trying to clean out. i figured u would understand. but ur room is in order. u have more clothes than me. i had to be creative moving your winter stuff back in. good luck fitting all ur crap from france in here. haha. we can have a swap meet if u like. ok bye

Well of course she's going to make something, Becca. Duh. I just read an article on wikiHow this morning called How To Make Something With Pointless Clear Plastic Balls With Broken Tops. She's also probably bookmarked the article on How To Make Something With Three Million Plastic Bags And Also That Luggage Set From The Eighties With The Broken Zippers. It all has a purpose, Becca! Sheesh.

Anyway, I can't wait to see you! Just clear out a path from the front door to my room for me, ok? Love ya lots!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why I'm starting to see why Martha Stewart is single

"Do you realize you have five open boxes of mint tea?" I ask, putting breakfast items away in the small cupboard Hervé uses for this purpose.

"No," he says, "they're all different kinds, aren't they?"

"Five open boxes of mint tea," I repeat.

"No, look," he says. "This one is mint verbena, this one is mint licorice, this one is mint verbena licorice, this one is green tea mint, and this one is just mint." He seems pleased with himself.

I look at the boxes jumbled in confusion in the tiny cupboard. "And then there's orange cinnamon, Earl Grey, Russian Earl Grey, chamomile, and some kind of Christmas blend." I sigh. "And there's this...powder all over. This white powder, it's everywhere." I soon spot the culprit - an open bag of protein powder, and then I see two more smaller bags of the powder, also open. I sigh again and reach for a sponge.

"Rachel, leave it, I'll clean it later."

"Well I know that won't happen," I say, determined to set some small order in this tiny, jumbled up apartment.

"Rachel, come on, just leave it, I'll take care of it."

I don't answer, and continue to clean out the cupboard. There's no stopping me once there's a sponge in my hands. I can see what's happening here, me playing the nagging girlfriend bit, and though they may jokingly play along for a little while, I know guys hate it. I also know it's probably too soon to play this card, to criticize his apartment, the way he lives, but at the same time I don't care. I only have two weeks left here, and he needs to hear it from someone, after all. "Do you really need three open bags of protein powder, anyway?" I ask skeptically.

"Yes, they're all different flavors," he responds.

"So, wait, you eat protein powder for the taste?"

"Well, no. But sometimes you want a change. Sometimes I might want chocolate, sometimes I might want coconut."

Though he is a brilliant man, at times I just don't understand his logic. Every so often I will pull something out of the fridge, only to have him take it out of my hands and say, "Well that's probably not good anymore," only to place it back into the tiny, crowded, dorm-sized fridge, as I look on in baffled amazement. When I first started coming to his apartment, I cast a quiet eye at the collection of bottles and recyclables surrounding his kitchen trash can. Instead of dwindling with time, the collection only grew, and after one evening when he had had some friends over, his apartment began to take on the appearance of that of a reclusive alcoholic. I finally started insisting that we take bottles out every time we left the apartment, bit by bit. At first he protested, "I'll do it later," though when I insisted that I, at least, would take down a few things, he rolled his eyes and grabbed a bottle, too. Gradually we started chipping away at the collection, until one day, a few weeks later, there was finally nothing left. The cupboard, the recycling, these are things that I can fix, but they are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the rest of which I have no control over. The stacks and stacks of folders and papers, one of the hazards of being a teacher, taking over every corner of his apartment. His desk space taken up by a clunky and redundant (now that he has his laptop) desktop computer and a non-working printer. The space under his tiny single bed crammed to capacity with comic books, dvd cases (mostly empty, the disks having gone who knows where), discarded condom wrappers and other trash. A surreptitious peek into his closet showed a chest-high pile of miscellany, including a) a vacuum cleaner and b) a weight bench, but not, however, a single stitch of clothing. There was not even a bar installed for hanging clothes, which I had previously and perhaps mistakenly thought was the whole point of a closet. Instead every article of clothing he has, from t-shirts to collared button-downs, is wadded in a ball and shoved tight into one of three narrow shelves in a small, built-in cabinet. (And I thought I had storage problems.)

But back to the kitchen.

"Do you have a...thing?" I ask, gesturing with my hands. "For cleaning up...stuff?" Foiled by the French language again.

"A dustpan?" he says. "No."

Though I had been pretty sure of the answer already, after having scoured his apartment looking for one after he had left for work the day before, I am still no less shocked by his response. "But how do you...clean?" I ask, mystified.

"I usually just use the vacuum, or a sponge," he says.

Other things his apartment is noticeably lacking: a spatula, wooden spoon, or cooking utensil of any kind. A microwave. An oven. "But how do you...cook?" I had asked the first time I had visited his apartment.

"I use the stove," he said, gesturing toward two burners in the countertop. Suffice it to say that when he cooks for me, it's pasta, nine times out of ten. In the morning he heats water in a pot on the stove, which we pour into instant powder to make our coffee.

He is 31 years old, and has lived in this apartment almost two years. Before that he shared an apartment with his brother just down the road for eight years. I don't understand this concept of "making do". I can't understand living your life like it's some never-ending camping trip. And while I know that for so many other reasons Hervé and I are not meant to be, part of me wonders how much of it is due to the fact that I cannot picture myself ever fitting into his messy, disordered, makeshift life.

Take note of this, men: If she doesn't feel at home in your apartment, she won't feel at home with you.

He needs a woman, I find myself thinking, in spite of myself. But it won't be me. I love a good project, but there's only so much I can do. And so for the next two weeks I will wash dishes and throw away expired dairy products and take bottles out to the recycling bin, because these are things I can do. And at the end of two weeks I will return to the house where I grew up, and I will unpack my clothes, fold them into drawers, and hang them in a closet. I will go to sleep in my big, soft bed, with extra pillows and crisp sheets, and I will turn to face the empty spot beside me, and I will wonder, Is this really better? And in response I will only be met with a long, undisturbed silence.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why it's hard to be practical in Paris, but someone's got to do it

The results are in on my last post, the commenters have spoken, and who knew that my readers are such wide-eyed romantics? So impulsive, so care-free, so, so...wildly impractical and unrealistic?

Stay! Stay, you say. Oh! Well, if only I had thought of that! But seriously, please believe me when I say that I've explored this one from all angles, and while it's not without a little bit of heartache, going back to the States is the only option that really makes sense. I mean, living here illegally while working part-time for an under-the-table ten euros an hour and no health insurance is all well and good for a few months, but I really (really, really) don't want to baby-sit for the rest of my life. Or even for the rest of the month, ideally, but I made a promise to stick it out through the month of June and that's what I'm going to do. And let me just cut you off here before you start suggesting I find a "real" job here: if you've never before explored the possibility of working in a foreign country then I can't really go into all the ins and outs of it right now other than to say that it is a difficult bordering on impossible endeavor. Apparently mastery of two languages and a can-do attitude aren't enough to get by here. Apparently you have to also have things like "working papers," a "visa," and "EU citizenship." (So I can't even hope to get a job as an English teacher here, while an English person can get any job they please. So. Not. Fair.)

Not that things on the home front are looking any better. Over the last few weeks I have sent out, at last count, fourteen resume/cover letter combos. So far I have heard back from...no one. Ok, that's not strictly true. I did receive two responses. The first one said:

Thank you for the interest you have expressed in employment opportunities at [Unnamed International Translations Company That Apparently I Am Not Qualified For and Have No Business Applying To]. Your qualifications have been carefully reviewed. However, at the present time no position is available that would utilize your skills and experience. Please be assured that your records will be retained, and you will be contacted in the event our employment needs change.

The second response said:

Thank you for your interest in [Unnamed Private Academy Offering Only a Part-Time Job With No Benefits]. We have received a very strong response to our advertising efforts, therefore, it is taking longer than expected to carefully review and consider qualified candidates. Due to the volume, you will only hear from us again if we are interested in speaking with you regarding your relevant experience.


Yes, this sounds promising. I definitely expect to hear back from Unnamed Private Academy Offering Only a Part-Time Job With No Benefits soon. Any day now...

And keep in mind that this overwhelming response to my unique "skills and experience" is in the U.S., which may I remind you is the only country where I am legally allowed to work. Imagine then trying to find a job in France, where I am not. But seriously, you would think a bilingual girl with teaching experience and a Master's degree in French literature would be more in demand, wouldn't you? I mean, wouldn't you?

*crickets*

Sigh.

But yes, I am speaking of practicalities again, and who wants to hear about practicalities when there is a French boyfriend on the line? Yes, I get it. You guys are suckers for a love story, particularly of the Parisian variety. Stay! you say. Long-distance relationship! others of you say, which is very romantic of you, but otherwise a terrible idea all-around. To put it bluntly, at this point, with all the impossibilities of getting a job I've already mentioned, were I to somehow find a way to stay, I would be doing it only for him, which I just cannot allow myself to do. And whether that's due more to some hard-won and long overdue I am a strong woman and I am the most important person in my life attitude, or the fact that he is just not someone I can see myself staying for, I don't know, but it's most likely some hybrid of the two. Not that he has even asked me to stay, mind you, which he hasn't ever once, and wouldn't, and will not ever do. The necessity of my leaving is pretty much a mutual understanding, at this point, which doesn't make it any less heartachey, but there it is. We'll kiss, we'll be sad, and we'll move on. Maybe it sounds callous, or maybe it's that after going through the most painful (although necessary) break-up imaginable, with a man I was still very much (and maybe still am?) in love with, in comparison everything else just seems...not that bad.

Moving back into my parents' house, however? Now that is something to cry about. Seriously, people, I might not make it. You know how little kids threaten to run away, and pack their suitcase and roll off into the sunset and then come home a couple hours later when they get hungry? Yeah, that's going to be me. A twenty-nine year-old pretend runaway with nowhere else to go. Sigh. Hey, I wonder if I can get internet in a tent out in the backyard? I'm going to start stocking up on bug spray and flashlight batteries, just in case. Next up on Diary of Why: Why I've reverted to spooky stories, shadow puppets, and MASH- in which I gossip about boys, eat too much candy and get really hyper, and stay up way past my bedtime. Take that, parents!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Why parting is such sweet sorrow

My time in France is rapidly coming to a close, and there's not a thing I can do about it. Up until this point, my leaving felt like some vague, faraway day that would never actually arrive, and so I hadn't spent much time thinking about it. Before, I had more than a month left, and honestly, with more than a month left, what can you not do? A month is endless. But now I have less than a month, three weeks, to be exact, and that is a whole different story. Less than a month is a rapidly escalating countdown, a slow, relentless death march accelerating quickly into a scrabbling slip-slide to the edge of a cliff, digging in your fingernails and holding on for dear life. Three weeks left with Hervé, a fact we spend most of our time pretending to ignore. Once and only once, he whispered, "You're abandoning me?" and pulled me tight. I fight the urge to start and end sentences with "after I'm gone." After I'm gone, who will kiss your neck and search out all your ticklish spots?" "Here, I want you to have these books. You can read them after I'm gone." It's starting to feel like one of us is dying. It's starting to feel like it's me.

The summer light here is a miracle of sorts, and the last lingering traces of daylight remain until almost 10:30. "And the days will keep getting longer until June 21," Hervé mentioned, ever the optimist.

"Yes, but then after that it's sad," I said, in my glass-half-empty way, meaning to
explain how after the solstice I just can't enjoy summer in the same way, knowing that from that point it's just a long, slow slide into winter. But before I had a chance to explain, Hervé let out a sigh and pulled me close, and I realized his thoughts had automatically jumped not to what I had thought was the logical conclusion to my sentence, but instead to my soon and forever departure. I squeezed his hand and left the rest of my thought unfinished. It didn't seem to matter anymore.

I try to imagine leaving, I try to imagine saying goodbye to someone I will probably never see again. Instead I picture my toothbrush in his bathroom, him having to get rid of it after I'm gone, and the thought nearly brings me to tears. How many days would he leave it there before dumping it unceremoniously in the trash bin? I make a mental note to take my toothbrush with me when I leave, or to quietly dispose of it before I go. Or would that be worse? To be gone without a trace? I think of the last time I said a forever goodbye, how the toothbrush, deodorant, clothes remained after everything else had gone. It turns out that at the end of a relationship built upon brainwaves, neurochemicals, and millions of jumbled up words, the only things that last are the objects you leave behind. And even now we discover ancient societies from their pottery shards, their trash, the bits they threw away. A million years from now someone will find a Tampax next to a half-used stick of Old Spice, and think, Here a man and a woman lived together. But that will be all they can know, because for all their permanence, objects are strangely untelling. I left his clothes, his hair gel, his tootbrush untouched for a full two weeks, because their absence felt stranger than their presence. I cannot think of similarly inflicting Hervé with the presence of my objects in the absence of myself, and so, yes, I will take my toothbrush, my deodorant, and my moisturizer with me when I go, I decide, these few scattered toiletries the only physical trace I have left there. But, yes, I will give him my books to keep, after all. He can read them after I'm gone.

And so it is that I can only think in terms of the practical, the tangible, and not of the fact that soon we will whisper together in the middle of the night for the last time. That there will be a last kiss, a last touch, a last lingering gaze. And for all my talk about him not being my "soul mate" or "the one," he is dear, and quite possibly the most genuinely nice guy I have ever met, and I will miss him terribly. In the midst of the mess of brainwaves, neurochemicals, and jumbled up words, comes this thought: All things must end. But I don't want this to. Not yet. I have three weeks left. I have to make them last.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why it only takes one false step to fall into the cultural divide

The other night Hervé and I had just finished up dinner at an adorable little restaurant close to Notre Dame, and were preparing to meet my old roommate, Fred, and some of his friends for drinks on rue Mouffetard. We sat around idly for a while, as you do in French restaurants after finishing dinner, wine bottle drained, water pitcher emptied, the last crumbs long scraped from plates. For those of you who haven't yet experienced a meal out in France, it is a fundamentally different affair than a dinner out in the U.S., or many other parts of the world, I would venture to guess. In the event that this information may one day prove useful to someone, somewhere, here are some things it is important to know regarding Your French Dining Experience:

1. Your waiter will never greet you jovially or say "Hi, my name is Pierre and I'll be your server tonight!"
2. Your will never receive your main course until everyone at the table has finished their appetizer and their plates have been cleared.
3. No one will ever take your plate before you have finished eating or hover over you asking "So are you finished with that?" while you are mid-bite.
4. There are no free refills. Even asking for more water is touch and go. You can generally ask the waiter to refill the carafe once, but any more than that and you will get The Eye.
5. Coffee is only drunk after dinner, never before or during, and it is espresso.
6. Soda doesn't come with ice. It's also expensive. Best order wine instead.
7. The waiter will never, ever bring the check until you ask for it. Even after the last plate has been cleared and he asks, "So, do you need anything else?" and you say no, assuming that that means he will now bring the check. He will not. He will never even suggest the existence of a check. You can wait for hours but he will not bring the check until the words "Check please," with or without accompanying universal-invisible-pencil-scribbly-hand gesture, have crossed your lips.

So now that that's out of the way... As I was saying, I had just finished dinner with Hervé, and we were at number 7 on the list, otherwise known as sighing, looking bored, and scanning the room for the waiter who is never to be found. The French, I have found, are understandably more laid back about this process than I am. As I am American, however, and a bit type A at that, I want things to be quick and efficient and yes I want to relax and enjoy this meal but let's be a little bit logical about it, too. Now, I have no problem with any other step of the process, and I am fine with the wait between courses and lingering over wine and coffee and dessert, but once the meal is actually over and crumbs have been scraped and contented sighs uttered, I want to get the show on the road. I mean, seriously. What are we supposed to do now? Talk? Check, please. The French are not particularly take-charge, or even that concerned in this situation, perhaps thinking to offhandedly mention the check if the waiter happens to pass directly next to the table and if he happens to pause long enough to listen. On the night in question it was starting to look like this particular combination of events might never happen, and as we had plans to meet people afterward, when I saw the waiter approach I decided to take matters in hand. I caught his eye, and when he asked if there was something I wanted, I said, "Yes, the check, please."

"Ah!" he exclaimed in surprise, as he looked back and forth between Hervé and me. "Ca c'est quelque chose!" ("Well, isn't that something!") (Said with his head cocked back and that extra little bit of attitude only a gay man can give.) He walked away to get the check while I made wide eyes, not sure exactly what I had done, but deducing that I had commited a faux pas (literally "false step") of some sort. After a few seconds of baffled reflection, I determined that apparently when a man and a woman are dining together in France, it is considered unseemly or perhaps emasculating for the woman to ask for the check. Even if seconds later the check in question will be split tidily down the middle by both parties, in accordance with the modern times in which we live, apparently the man must still ask for the check, lest a homosexual waiter then subtley undermine his masculinity. Ok, noted.

This most recent of no-nos joins a litany of other practices in which a woman may not engage in a restaurant in France while in the presence of a male dining companion, some others of which I have found through experience to include:

1. A woman may not order the wine.
2. A woman may not serve herself wine.

Number one has never bothered me, as I am more than happy to let someone with more oenological knowledge than myself bear the responsibility of the wine selection. I am also not entirely bothered by number two, which is an unspoken rule that I picked up on fairly quickly while living with my host family in Grenoble years ago. When dining out I don't particularly want to exert any more effort than raising my fork to my mouth, and so I am perfectly content to hand over wine glass replenishment duties. Now, with this unspoken rule come certain unspoken responsibilities for the man, which are that he is supposed to serve the woman or women he is accompanying before himself, and he is supposed to be attentive to the state of affairs of the empty glasses around him. I say supposed to, and the downside to this rule is if you have a particularly talkative or distractible companion you may end up staring forlornly into your empty glass for quite a while. And while this rule may not be particularly convenient, and while it may not do anything to advance the women's rights movement, at least I understand this rule.

But this latest cultural misunderstanding really threw me for a loop. I mean, really. We had places to be, the waiter approached Hervé from behind so I was the only one who could see him coming, and it's not like he was paying for me anyway. Why wouldn't I ask for the check? I tried to imagine this situation occurring in an American restaurant and couldn't. It would never happen. (An indignant "This would never happen in America!" being one of my preferred catch phrases/war cries here. Sometimes I am a delight to be around.) In America you could eat your entire meal with your elbows and then burp the alphabet afterwards and your waiter would still smile and tell you to have a nice day. In a tip-based culture judgements by the wait staff are carefully concealed and "The customer is always right" is a mantra (most commonly touted by the customers themselves, and almost always when they are most certainly not right). So I am fairly certain the woman half of a couple asking for the check in an American restaurant wouldn't provoke so much as the bat of an eyelash. But here is my question, which goes out to anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant industry: Granted, you wouldn't comment out loud about a woman asking for the check, but would you still think it was odd?

Am I going crazy here? When did France turn into 1950s America? Or is this a universal faux pas that I have been committing unknowingly for the entirety of my adult life? And most importantly, does anyone know if Miss Manners has texting capability??? (I bet she probably only accepts letters written out longhand on monogrammed stationery and delivered via carrier pigeon, no?) Internet, I need your opinion.