big food

Welcome Home; or, Back in the USSA

One of the great pleasures of being an expat is going “home”.

You get to be a tourist in the place you are from.

A big trip back is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family, eat all the foods you miss, and (re)introduce your kids to the things you love. My daughter was 4 when we left the states, so she thinks she remembers living in the midwest, but she probably just remembers the stories we’ve told her. It’s important to me that she keep contact with her American roots, so it’s wonderful to reconnect over summer break. It’s also a terrific opportunity for me to appreciate where we come from and see it with new eyes.

Fresh Off the Plane

It takes me three airplanes to get “home”. I put it in quotations, because when I land in Kentucky it’s nearly obvious that I’m not from around here. In the south of France, I may be the most bluegrass-y person around, but when I’m around these parts, I tend to stand out in my style of dress, of speech, and of attitudes. Plus, I just don’t know the local places anymore.

Nonetheless, one thing never fails to choke me up. (This, coming from the woman who doesn’t cry at movies or books or such.) What gets me is passport control. Truly. Entering the US in DC, they have a big line for passport control. First there are self-serve kiosks for checking in; you enter your info and have a photo taken and print out a slip. Then you continue in the queue to wait for the next officer, which takes forever because you can barely stand up after the long flights and time change and the kids are cranky. Finally, he looks through it all, asks a few questions, and then…as he hands back your passport…he says, “Welcome home!” Gets me every time. For some reason, this daily gesture of the passport control officer is deeply meaningful to me. Even just talking about it chokes me up.

Fresh Eyes

Out of the airport and on to the highway…It’s been three years since my last visit in the USA and the first thing that jumps out at me is the cars–they are BIG! In Provence, my Ford Fusion is too big for me. It sits too low and is too long and isn’t the right tool for the job. Here, that same model looks fairly average. Small, even. There are SUVs and Jeeps and great big pickup trucks and luxuriously large autos everywhere. And nearly each one of them is transporting just one person.

Big Big Big!

With all those big cars, the roads also need to be BIG! Long, straight, flat, endless. The lanes are wiiiiiide, with extra shoulders on both sides and maybe even a bike lane. And streets are well-marked, which is handy. In Provence, driving two hours can feel like a strenuous sport–it’s made up of exhausting twisty turny roads going up and down big hills with nary a street sign or guard rail. It takes all your attention. Here in the midwest, you nearly don’t have to think. Smoooooth.

And the parking spots are BIG! And the lanes in the parking lots are BIG! No wonder all those shiny large cars are not yet scratched up–there is plenty of room for everyone to maneuver. Even the little cars in France are generally dinged and scratched and scuffed. Not here. All shiny and new and, well, you guessed it–BIG!IMG_5197

Let’s Eat!

Besides the transportation differences, eating out is the other big area of differences that I am noticing this trip. It is quite a different experience from dining out in Provence.

First, you can walk in anywhere at anytime and eat anything. Almost literally. Where we are in France, there are limited hours of serving and usually only a limited selection of dishes on the menu each day. In the US, the menus are large and larger, and international flavors abound. Every town has a Chinese buffet, sushi bar, and Tex-Mex sit-down. Want breakfast at 3:30 in the afternoon? Then IHOP is for you. Or Bob Evans; even in this seemingly unusual request you have a choice.

Running Hot and Cold

It’s hard to say what you’ll notice as the next difference–the warm welcome or the cold atmosphere? There will be someone stationed at the front door whose sole purpose is to greet you and take your reservation and lead you to your table with menus in hand. Invariably, this greeter is a young lady with a smile and some kind of computer screen in front of her. In France, one is often left waiting about awkwardly, wondering if you should just grab a table or try to flag down the busy waiter. Hoping to not be shunned for not having a reservation. Or is that just me?

Either the big smile or the cold blast will hit you first. Yes, no one does climate control quite like the Americans. There may even be a pressure difference between indoor and outdoor that will make opening the door a Herculean feat. Then the arctic blast hits you. I didn’t pack nearly enough jackets and sweaters for a summer trip home. It takes the breath away. Breath you can see in the meat-locker like conditions.


Once seated and holding a multi-page menu that you are barely given enough time to read, you may notice feeling a bit overwhelmed. The music piping through the restaurant is loud. You kind of have to shout over it to converse at the table. That is, if you can get the attention of your table mates–they are more distracted by one of the fifteen television screens within immediate view, each with a different channel playing. And each one with the volume up.

The food comes quickly, there is that to be said for the American experience. You won’t go hungry and you won’t wait long for it. The dishes are BIG too, but not necessarily of the same quality one might expect in France. There are less than Michelin-starred restaurants in France, of course, but even that is above an average American quick-serve fast-casual restaurant. I recently had a tasty salad with buffalo chicken on top. Can’t get that in France–particularly when you consider that the lettuce was frozen. Crunchy ice frozen. Amazing. How is that even possible? Maybe it was sitting next to the air conditioner.

Here’s a Tip for You

Before you’ve finished eating, the bill is dropped off at the table. No long after-dinner conversation, no flagging down the server. And this leads to my final painful difference.

I have forgotten how to tip. I mean, I remember the function and that I’m supposed to, but the whole mechanism is rusty. They bring the check, I look at it. I put my card in the tray or pleather folder. Then they walk. Away. With my credit card. This didn’t used to be so strange. But now that I am used to the credit machine coming to the table side, it feels really weird. Where are you going with that? Shopping?!

They return with a plethora of paper slips. One is for you to keep, one is for the restaurant. I have signed the wrong one three times already. Now, time for some higher math. How much? 10%? 20%? 25%? In Europe, waitstaff get a living wage and healthcare and benefits and can actually survive on what they make. Not so in the US. I had to convince my Irish and French colleagues that the minimum wage for a waiter or waitress is actually $2.13, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It is a complete shame. No wonder that there are restaurants changing this model and they seem to be succeeding wildly.  Thus, in France we don’t tip as much. It isn’t as obligatory as it is in the US. And I am obviously out of practice at filling out the papers and doing the math.

Welcome home! What are your favorite and least favorite things about returning to your home country as an expat?


Worms in the Apple in the Garden of Eden

It’s Not All Lavender Fields

Really, life in Provence is generally fabulous. Mild winters (unless you ask Dana who is from Florida and freezing here), rather amazing food and wine, lots of fresh air and sunshine. But it’s not all lavender fields, rosé, and olive trees. There is a creepy-crawly side to Provence that you may not realize until you live here. Come! Let me give you an introduction to my little friends.

Processionary Caterpillars

We are now entering the height of caterpillar season.processionary caterpillars in provence This furry train can kill your dog if he eats them or at least make your small children break out in a rash. It’s a serious problem which can be mostly avoided with awareness and prevention.

They are a kind of tent caterpillar that nests in and eats pine trees; You can spot their messy webs as you walk through the woods. This time of year, they crawl down the trunk of the tree, making a poison parade in search of who knows what.

Each year, a few dogs die from ingesting these guys. Sure, we have ticks nearly year-round (due to these generally mild winters) and use the topical tick repellent almost every month according to our vets’ recommendations. But these are more than an irritant, these caterpillars have furry barbs loaded with histamines. A dog getting these in the mouth has a chance of suffocating from a swollen throat, or stop eating due to the wounds in the mouth. No fun. Watch out.


These will stop you in a heartbeat, unless you are more accustomed to them than I, such as my colleagues in Phoenix Arizona. The scorpions of Provence aren’t nearly as large and toxic as the ones in the southwest or the Sahara, but they are still quite imposing and aggressive looking.

Just ask my friend Jackie, who, upon hearing a bump in the night, got out of bed to see what it was. When she turned on the light, she was greeted by an equally startled scorpion in the middle of the hall. Yikes! She had nearly stepped on it in her bare feet. Who knows how he got to the second floor landing, but that sure woke her up quickly. She completely forgot about the noise.

You could also ask our friend Marijn, who captured this lovely lady and her new babies. What a proud mama!



These are commonly inside our house. At least they were, until I started using an ultrasonic repeller.

earwigChalk the presence of these guys up to the ubiquitous damp crawl spaces that run under most houses’ foundations. Locally, the crawlspace (vide sanitaire in French) is considered to be a great architectural feature–it helps keep the house cool in the summer, boosts airflow, and is great for storing your wine at cellar temperature (and root vegetables, which aren’t nearly as fun).

Once, we looked at a new house for sale that had an unfinished basement they were calling a vide sanitaire. “Unfinished” as in, the basement floor was made of stones on top of dirt. THAT level of unfinished. In the Midwest US, there were many companies that specialized in drying out and encapsulating / insulating your crawl space. That would cut down on earwigs and our other creepy-crawlies. I have yet to find a company that does this around here. (Free business idea, anyone?)


So, back to these aggressive-looking bugs. They’re dark, they’re shiny, they’re quick, they’re wriggly, they’ve got big pinchers. What’s not to love? In truth, they aren’t quite as bad as they look, I’ve read that they aren’t poisonous or harmful. I was once bold and used my thumbnail to squish one–the darned thing raised up its severed end and pinched my cuticle. It was a bit swollen and sensitive for a day or two, but I live to tell about it. Won’t do that again.

Mice and Other Rodents

loire in provenceSurrounded by farmland, there are lots of field mice in Provence. We also have loire (those rodents that gave their name to the Loire River and the Loire Valley), a somewhat large-ish dormouse that makes lots of scrambly noises in your attic during the middle of the night. See right. Cute, no? Non…

During the winter, these rodents like to come inside where it’s warm and cozy. It certainly isn’t my preference to play host to these rude and messy guests. But it seems that there are many people of a different mind–I am told that it is rather normal to just let nature do what it wants. Let the mice live in the garage or house walls when it’s cold outside, the poor things.

My desire to keep them out is so unusual, that the builder who was finishing our carport into a garage couldn’t find a material to close up the gap between the corrugated roofing and the wood beam. Oh, that stuff is certainly manufactured, and it was listed by his supplier, but he just couldn’t get it delivered. No one wants to buy it around here.

Snakes, Particularly Vipers

Yes, nearly everywhere has some kind of snake. As I would rather have snakes than mice, they do not really bother me that much. I keep to myself and expect the snake to do the same. But my husband comes from a place that only has two kinds of snakes and either of them will kill you–you can choose the asp or the cobra. So we are particularly aware when there’s a snake around. (Did you hear that man shrieking like a little girl? Yeah, that was him.)snake

At right is a lovely specimen from Marijn’s garden. Did I mention she has two boys? Lots of nature and science going on at Marijn’s house.

Provence also has vipers. Yeah, that kinda freaked me out. They have that wide viper head which makes my mind scream, “Danger!” Although they are vipers, they generally aren’t so venomous and prefer to keep to themselves, so that’s just fine by me. Although the pharmacies do sell snake bite kits, so that’s in the backpack, just in case.

Wolf Spiders

I saved the best for last. These aren’t particularly dangerous, but they do give folks around here a good scare.

Have you ever had an exceptionally large spider in your shower? Have you ever had him lunge at you? These guys are fearless! And huge. And hairy–which makes them look even bigger. And they have a habit of quietly appearing very close to you when you least expect it. And then dare to be difficult to kill. You have to ask Emily to tell her wolf spider story–much panic and chaos ensued.

So there you have it. Even with all the romance and flowers and sunshine of Provence, life–in all its forms–goes on.

I Miss You in French

Do I Miss You or Do You Miss Me in French?

Language and Philosophy are Tight

It’s a much-discussed field of study, the relationship between language and philosophy. Have you seen this research on language spoken and your perception of time? The same people, speaking a different language, perceive time in a different way. Fascinating stuff! Given long enough to pursue this interest, I fall into a wormhole of ticklish questions such as, “What is the nature of meaning? What does one mean by meaning? How do we know what we know or don’t know?” and other such rhetoricals.

It reminds me of that highly quotable scene in Kill Bill:

There are many studies comparing the meaning or sense of words coming from the speaker to the received and implied meaning in the listener. So often it happens there is a disconnect between speaker and listener. I find it fascinating that we are even able to communicate at all.

(Or am I the only one who feels this way because I’m married to a non-native English speaker?)

What Do You Mean by That?

Are you learning a second (or third, or fourth) language? Do you have a friend who didn’t grow up speaking the same language as you? If so, I bet that you have run across something that stuck in your head, something that was familiar, yet so different to the way you are used to thinking that you couldn’t let it go.

It’s one of the reasons I completely adore those lists of words that only exist in other languages. They are a reflection of what is important to the people of another culture. Important enough of a concept to create a working name for something which we as non-natives can understand as a human condition. But in our language, it does not have a name. For example, I absolutely adore the German word, “Kummerspeck,” which translates literally to “Grief Bacon” in English and refers to the weight you gain through emotional overeating.

In France, Do I Miss You?

So this is THE philosophical difference that really caught me in my French class. In addition, it’s an unusual sentence construction that is nearly always used in our language level tests at the end of the year. So let me help you cram for the test…

In English we say:

I miss you.

I am the one who is missing you. It’s my own darned fault. You may have left, but I am the one who needs to get over it. I am doing it, I am missing you.

In French, the reality of longing is viewed quite differently. Oppositely, even. The sentence for the same sentiment in French is:

Tu me manques.

Yes, it’s one of those reflexive verbs that we know and love so well. Literally translated, it looks like “You me miss.” But oh nononono! You would be sorely mistaken to think that. This is You making Me miss You. You are the active person, this is just something that is happening to me. You did it to me. It’s your fault that I feel this way. Even though the longing is within me, I am the passive participant.

So poetic, isn’t it? I am fascinated by this turn of the table.

It’s like my first big breakup in high school. I missed him and it was his darn fault for having dumped me. It was out of my control. It was his fault that I ate all the bacon.

Let’s sit down with a bottle of wine and really chew this one over together. Bordeaux goes with bacon nicely.

French Kissing 101: Give ‘Em the Bise

Mwah! Mwah! French Kissing

Everyone kisses everyone here in the south of France. Women kiss women, men kiss men, kids kiss adults, business associates kiss each other, none of it is the least bit strange. No, not kissing on the lips, we’re talking about la bise–two kisses, one on each cheek. You know, like The Real Housewives’ air kisses, only perhaps a little less dramatic.

La Bise is Simultaneously Cultured and Awkward

Oh my friends, so much can go wrong with all this kissing, particularly when you are not used to it. And it is quite expected of you. On Saturday morning, when I take my daughter to her soccer match (le match du foot), each and every parent and kid greets each other parent and kid with la bise. Let’s see, a team of eight kids, plus one or two parents each, plus one coach, for thirteen people that’s 78 combinations (didn’t get that quantitative analysis degree for nothin’!), meaning outside of 156 kisses. Long story short, it takes quite a while to drop off the kid at soccer. I usually try to send my husband.

No wonder everyone is getting sick these winter days! Anyone with germs passes them on like wildfire.

What If You Don’t Want to Kiss?

It’s all pretty weird, to a typically midwestern American. I’m not used to being that intimate with strangers. I mean, they can smell your breath and you have to be careful not to pick up–or give–an extra smudge of foundation or lipstick. There were those friends back home that I knew well enough to hug, and there are some days when I really miss hugging. I’m out of the practice of hugging now; even among other Americans we are more likely to bise.

So what happens if you don’t bise? It’s quite strange. When I offer a handshake, the faces are less bright and it’s obvious that I’m not from around here. It seems like I’ve imposed a distance between us–I’m acting like I’m different from everyone else, not part of the group. Not the best way to be accepted by the people in your social circle. So you gotta do it–kiss!

Since You Have to, Learn How to Correctly Do La Bise

Here is a nice instructional on how to do this most necessary of kissing in France:

Note that it’s best to start on the right–their right, not your right! See how easy it is to go wrong? In other words, offer your right cheek. If you start opposite, the other person may not know it and you may get actual lip contact. Ewww! That’s not what we’re going for here.

It’s also a bit difficult when two optically-challenged people bise. I’ve poked people with the corner of my glasses (this was pre-Lasik), even knocked other people’s glasses off. I’m really quite a klutz when it comes down to it. When you have glasses, tilt your chin at an angle a little more, so the end pieces are further from your victim friend.

Another fine point that can vary regionally and by relationship is how many kisses to give. Here’s a great instructional to understand this better:

It amazes me how different the peoples of France seem now that I live here. Before, they were all just “French”.

So, now you know. Get out there and get kissing! I can’t wait for my co-bloggers to share their “best of bise” stories–there are so many good ones. What is your favorite bise?

Passport Fiasco: Having Fun with Houseguests

Living in Provence Means Having Lots of Guests

We are more likely to have visitors now that we live in Provence, France. Back home in Cincinnati, Ohio, there weren’t that many people who “happen to be in the area on vacation” and wanted to stop by for a few days. Nope, the midwest really isn’t the perceived vacation paradise that the south of France is.

Not All Guests are Equal

So now that guests are coming through more often, and we’ve experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly, I like to think that I’ve learned to be a better hostess–as well as a better guest myself. Recognizing that there are a lot of different guesting and hosting styles, I prefer the kind of guests who have some idea of what they’d like to see and are willing to pitch in on meal prep and dishes. A bit self-directed, if you will. Seriously, there are so many different kinds of things to do around here, it’s a bit difficult if you tell me you want to do “whatever”. Are you outdoorsy? Want to stick to the cities? Maybe quaint villages are your thing? Gimme a clue, because I’d like to make your visit enjoyable for us all, and this isn’t one-size-fits-all. We are super lucky that there are so many things to do and see in the region.

The Good Guests

Some of my favorite guests were a couple that had been on the road for a while. They were here over Thanksgiving (late November, for you non-Yanks), so the weather was a bit grey and drizzly. They were road-weary. They had only brought a small backpack each. They were awesome as heck. They just wanted to hang out, have luxuriously in-depth conversations, catch up on their writing and photography, visit the local markets and cook good food together. It was so pleasant, I felt like I was on vacation too. Jessica and Matt–come back ANYtime!

Our Latest Houseguests Were…Hmmm…

This last round of company was on the other end of the spectrum. Don’t get me wrong–they were lovely people. I just didn’t get much chance to enjoy their visit. At all. Here’s how it went down: My friend from the US writes that her daughter and friend are travelling through Europe before starting a semester of university in London. Of course, I extend the invitation to stay. She puts us in touch, and I get a general sense of their plans. Arriving Saturday, leaving Monday or Tuesday, got it, I’m happy to pick you up at the airport. You’re coming from where? What flight?  Radio Silence. Umm…Hello? Still coming? Kinda hard to know when to come get you without that info. Silence. Ok, well, I’ll prepare the guest bed just in case.

Day of–their arrival info comes through email. Okay! We’re in business. Saturday evening, I head down to the Marseille airport. The plane is 10 minutes late. Perfect, I was running a bit late myself. Not perfect, it’s awkward, actually. You ever have this experience where you are waiting in a crowd for someone you’ve never met? Each young woman that walks past me, I must be giving them a funny look like a lost puppy or a desperate older woman looking for a friend. Maybe I should have brought a sign or something. I’m just not that Pinterest-y.

Half an hour later, still waiting. Text her US phone number and it doesn’t go through. Just me and the limousine guys, who did bring their signs. They are using the erasable boards that our kids use in class–so smart of them. Hour later, call her. Straight to voicemail. Hmm… I distract myself by petting the little dog with the woman next to me. He proceeds to make a mess on the linoleum floor.

Phone rings! Whee! It’s her! They are in “holding”. Huh? The friend (of my friend’s daughter) apparently isn’t a seasoned traveller and left her passport on the plane. Hoo boy. Okay, keep me posted. I’ll be sitting over by the Burger King. More waiting.

Jailbroken but Not Free

Two hours later, the young women are free to go. We are all relieved and hungry. They’ve been given an email address and phone number for lost and found. Because it was a British flight, the French airport staff and police were not allowed on the plane to get her passport. She was not allowed back on the plane, as she didn’t know it was missing until she got to passport control. And all the British staff had left for the evening. Truly a Catch-22.

The next day was Sunday. We had planned a big hike East of Gorges du Verdon with friends. It required us all getting up early and packing a picnic and it was worth every bit of lost sleep.

See? It looks like some kind of travel poster.

Throughout the day, the girls and their parents (back in the US) tried to get hold of the airline, to no avail. No one responded to the emails we sent. Calls were stuck in hold, unanswered, or answered by people who didn’t know anything and couldn’t help. Being 20-somethings, the girls lit up Twitter, and the representative there said they had to call to get assistance. Woof. Another Catch-22. So we got online and took the first American consulate appointment available on Tuesday morning. After our day out, we all had soup and wine and went to bed.

Sleep It Off

The next day was Monday. It was a beautifully cool and drizzly Fall day, if you like that kind of weather (like I do). I got up for the regular routine, hubby bought croissants for our breakfast, no peep from the guests. I take the car for oil change and dog for walk, still no peep. Maybe that was a toilet flushing off in the distance? The dog has disappeared now. Hmm…2:30 in the afternoon I hear stirrings. Apparently the dog had gone back to bed with them and they were all just getting up now. Wow. I’ve completely lost the ability to sleep like that. Jealous? Yes.

Too late to do much sightseeing, I drop them at the l’Occitane factory store. Still no word from the airline’s lost and found. A new email address for the airport lost and found is responded to right away. But since the passport was left on the plane, they’ve got nothing for us. Desolée!

Hurry Up!

To get to the consulate in Marseille, we need two hours. Especially in the morning during rush hour. So we need to leave at 7. At 7 on Tuesday morning, I’m ready, my daughter is ready and willing to be dropped off at school early, our houseguests have not yet been seen or heard. So I go into Mom Mode. “Time to go! Get your stuff in the car!” Needless to say, we head out a bit later than planned. And there are traffic accidents. Several traffic accidents. The highway might as well be filled with the farm tractors and bicyclists that are so common on the backroads at home. We are barely moving. I’m panicked, driving as fast as possible whenever I can, which isn’t often. This is not fun. The girls are very quiet in the backseat. I really can’t tell what’s going through their minds.

We arrive in front of the consulate with one minute to spare. I’m in disbelief that we made it. “See that ivy-covered wall on the left? Get out of the car and run toward that flag!” They fuss around with bags and papers while I’m blocking traffic and the dog is whining and antsy after the long ride. (It was too early to take him to the dog sitter’s house, so he got to come to the big city with us.) They finally get out and head off to the right. Sigh. I’ve done my best. Either she will make the appointment or she won’t.

It Worked!

She does! She makes it on time to the appointment! The consulate people are super kind and efficient. Halleluiah! Within an hour, she is out on the street with a shiny new passport in hand. Well, the old lost one was shiny new too, but this one is in hand! Our friend now proceeds to talk more in the next two hours than I’ve heard in the past two days. Turns out, she’s not a glum mopey millennial after all. She’s a much-relieved, intelligent and witty young lady. Who knew?

We have just enough time to walk around a bit and have lunch before getting back in the car and heading to the airport. Did I peel out after dropping them off at the Departures terminal? I hope not.