It’s worth repeating that when living in a foreign country, specifically one where the language is, well, foreign, even the smallest tasks become a big deal. Subtle differences are often hard to comprehend, until you try to do the most mundane things.
Take, for example, buying birthday cards. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking: Who buys cards anymore? I do. And clearly a lot of other people because they’re still printing them. That said, while I know where to go to find the best ones in New York (the K-Mart in Penn Station, this little stationary store on Hudson Street or Posman Bookstore in Chelsea Market), Paris is a whole other story. Not to mention there’s the deciphering-what-the-heck-they-mean quandary. But let’s start with the “where.”
See, in France, a bookstore is une librairie and a library is une bibliothéque. (I swear, the French aim to confound and confuse.) So off the bat I knew my best bet was to keep an eye out for bookstores. I happened upon a few when I first began looking back in December since a large number of my family and friends have birthdays between then and February (the rest are either all in June or August). Unfortunately, when I started my search, it was holiday time, so all I found were “Bonne Année!” or “Bonne Fete!” And then came Valentine’s Day. (Yes, it’s still observed here. No, I didn’t do anything special.)
Thankfully, some of the bookstores are now getting regular old b-day cards back in stock, but how does one say “belated” in French? At least after weeks of popping in and out of librairies with the hopes of finding something cute, clever and maybe even chic, I’ve come to realize that Monoprix (a chain supermarket) and the almighty Bazaar Hotel de Ville (BHV) department store are my best bets, the latter of which is a trek to get to, hence making buying birthday cards a bit of an adventure as opposed to a brief errand you can do on the way to another adventure. Also, not all Monoprix’s are created equal as in, they don’t all have a card selection.
Once I figured out where to go, though, I was faced with another predicament: choosing an actual card. Nevermind that I’m not known for my easy-breezy decision-making; that I have a habit of standing there in front of the rack, turning it round and round or eyeing it up and down for hours EVEN WHEN THE CARDS ARE IN ENGLISH, now I have to figure out what the heck each of them say. Because the ones I like always have some quote or saying. So out comes the translator and I become That Girl.
Of course, I could just get one that says, “Joyeux Anniversaire!” or “Bon Anniversaire!” which simply means what you think it means: Happy Birthday! But where’s the fun in that? I’d never be so (gasp!) plain in English. Then again, I suppose where’s the fun in trying to translate a birthday card, both for the giver and the receiver, who likely speaks less French than I do.
You know what else has proven difficult? Baking. We already know that I’m not much of a cook, but with baking you have to be exact. For some like myself, this makes things easier. Give me directions and I’ll follow them. Except to be exact you need to have a set of measuring spoons and cups, ideally ones that aren’t in grams and liters, requiring one to do math while standing over a bowl of batter.
Furthermore, when you realize you don’t have the dreaded baking power or baking soda to make whatever it is you want to bake—which, let’s face it, always happens—try going to the Monoprix and figuring out how the heck to say baking powder or baking soda in French. Of course, I knew to search in the baking goods aisle, but nothing looked remotely like the Arm & Hammer I know from home.
Google translate kinda did the trick for powder, directing me toward something called levure that comes in packets, but baking soda was proving more difficult.
As a result, when mixing all my ingredients for what I’d hoped would be a nice taste of home via my Mom’s classic banana bread recipe—What does one do when they have overripe bananas?! Make banana bread, bien sur!—I did what Google said to do when one doesn’t have baking soda: triple the amount of baking powder. Only this baking powder did not look like the white, actual powdery stuff I’ve used before. It was grainy and yellow. Like starch. Plus, I think I eyed the pinky-size teaspoon amount appropriately with the one regular spoon I have…
Well, while the bread did “bake,” it only half-rose. The center seemed a bit raw after its hour in what I hoped was 350 degrees (the temperature dial is in celsius), but yet the top got a little burnt. Let’s just say I’m glad my friend didn’t stay for dessert.
But the real piece de resistance had to be today’s artwork-framing task. To be fair, this activity isn’t all that enjoyable at home either because, yet again, measuring is involved and it’s often very costly. Now, add to that dealing in centimeters and the fact that their “generic” sizes are just slightly off. Forget 5×7 or 4×6 or 11×14. No, here we’re dealing with 60×60 or 30×40. Random, no rhyme or reason sizes that don’t at all work for any of the artwork you’ve now collected and want to cheaply make look nicer than they are in your new Parisian apartment. Furthermore, you’ve brought them all with you, rolled up in tubes, and are trying to explain your situation (in French, obviously) to the woman with the measuring tape working in the frames department.
It might’ve helped had to learn the word “frame” or “mat” beforehand. But I was verklempt, carrying two rolls of artwork and two pillows I needed to exchange. (That’s a whole other story. You’d think since there are stand-alone cashiers in every corner where you can pay for any ‘ole thing in your hands—no matter the department—that you could do the same for an exchange or return a week later. But oh no. You have to first take the items to their designated department, fill out a form and then bring the form back to the cashier who will then refund your money or make the exchange.)
After I’d managed to pick out three ready-made frames for three pieces that would still need trimming to fit, I decided to have custom mats made for the two other oddly-shaped pictures, which I’d then attempt to fame in a ready-made. Right. Try putting THAT puzzle together in French.
Thank goodness I’ve got the metro down. Trekking home—complete with a transfer and three stretched-beyond-belief plastic bags that were bursting with breakable frames—was a piece of underdone, burnt banana cake.