29 November 2006

Kurt: Cultural Learnings of France for Make Benefit...

One of the great things about taking a language class in a foreign country is that you are in a class with a bunch of other foreigners. In my class, for example, there are people from Peru, Argentina, Canada, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Albania, as well as one girl who insists that she is from Yugoslavia. I'm not sure if she's just been out of the country since before 2003 or so and hasn't realized that "Yugoslavia" doesn't exist anymore, if she is ultra-nationalist and misses the old union, of if she thinks that "Yugoslavia" will ring more bells than Serbia or Montenegro. In any event, there are a bunch of countries represented and it can lead to some interesting circumstances when we socialize.

Take, for example, the party at the house of the Turkish guy from my phonetics lab. He and his wife, a French woman, are living in a nice little one bedroom on the south side of Paris and decided to have a little get-together Saturday night. It was really nice, the host took the time to hand draw a flag for each country that was represented (USA, Germany, Poland, South Korea, China, Japan, Columbia, Spain, etc...) With all of these countries represented there were some interesting cultural interactions to observe:

1) The deep hesitation of the German guy and girl when being served sushi prepared by the Japanese guy. "Est-ce que c'est cru?" they asked. "Is it raw?" Of course the answer was "Oui." and they politely took a bite and washed it down with French beer. Rather than asking what they thought of the sushi I thought it would be more interesting to ask what they thought of the French beer. I don't think that our novice levels of French were enough to convey what they were feeling, but reading their faces I'm pretty sure that I saw a good amount of disdain.

2) The wife of the host, I suppose that would make here the "hostess", brought around a bottle of liquor in a bag and had everyone taste a bit and guess what it was made of. It was not too strong, maybe 40 proof, and had a really mild, clean flavor. Guesses around the circle ranged from apple to pear to rice. It turned out that it was a rice liquor brought by the Chinese guy, but that didn't quite prepare us for the surprise when she pulled the bottle from the bag. It was curled up in the bottle, but I estimated that if you pulled it out and straightened it it would be about 8 inches long, with the tail. It was some sort of lizard, pickled in the rice liquor, and carefully eviscerated such that all of the flavor of its innards could properly merry with the alcohol. At the realization of what they had just drank, jaws hit the floor and eyes swelled to near saucer size. Needless to say, it added some serious excitement to the party.

3) At one point Esther was talking to a Polish guy and girl, I was sitting next to her and the German guy and girl were on the other side of the circle. Esther told the Poles that her grandparents had been from Poland. Now, it's important to know that Esther has a lingering antipathy toward Poland given the public's compliance with the Nazis in their efforts to round up all of Jews and the direct consequences that that had on her family. So, when Esther answered affirmatively to the question of if she had been to Poland and the girl's immediately following question was whether she had been to Auschwitz, as if it was a theme park, didn't set the conversation of on the right foot. The conversation continued and they learned that the girl was from the same area of Warsaw as Esther's grandmother. The Poles then asked Esther if she spoke any Polish, she said no and they asked why. When she responded that her grandfather had spoken only Yiddish there was a silent understanding and the Poles stopped the conversation.

So, that's life here in Paris. It's great to be able to live in a time of relative peace or, at least, in an area apart from the present conflicts of the world, where I can meet people from different cultures at a soirée rather on the battlefield. It certainly impressed upon me a certain graditude, for me, an American, to sit in a cirlce with Germans, Poles, a Japanese guy, a French Jew; the grandchildren of a catastrophic war sitting in peace, sipping lizard liquor.

Of course, cross-cultural interactions aren't always warm feelings about the present state of the world. I am reminded of an awkward moment when I came in late to a conversation among some other students in my phonetics lab. One was asking another what the weather was like in his home country this time of year. He said warm, around 20 degrees Celsius. I was curious, so I asked where he was from. When the answer came "Iraq," with a knowing smile, I was at a complete loss of what to say. It's not as if I can appropriately apologize for myself, my country, or its actions. I can't say, "I'm so sorry for what's happening, how is your family?" What do I do if the answer comes back, "Half dead." So, I mumbled "Bien." and turned away. Though we're more than sixty years past the last world war, we're still not completely in the light yet.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, this is King Aleksandar I of Yugoslavia, I just wanted to let you know that...well...this is hard...you could have let me down a little more gently asshole. Thanks...by the way, we miss you and talk about you a lot. And I finally started reading your blog!

    -King Alekizzle the fizzle (Chris)
    of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Gregory House)