Monday, February 26, 2024

Peanut Butter and Jelly

 This might not be true, but way back when I was in elementary school it seemed that at least half of us ate PB&J sandwiches at lunch time. A few unfortunate kids might have a bologna sandwich in their lunch box, but remember the way the smell hit the kids around you and everyone cried “ewwww. (I loved bologna sandwiches).  Peanut butter and jelly was unoffensive, delicious, and quick and easy for someone to make before you ran out the door for the school bus.

Memories of school lunches came rushing back to me as I was thinking up what would be the quintessential American snack to share with a bunch of French teenagers. I have been meeting on Saturday mornings at the village library with a gang to play around with English. We sing silly songs, read baby books to each other, act out charades, and laugh at each others drawings for Pictionary. We play like we are in kindergarten. And just like kindergarten the most anticipated activity of the morning is snack time.

For our first snack time I whipped up several peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches. I cut them into fourths because that is how I like them and because there was a good chance that no one would eat them.

Before snack was passed out I pulled apart one of the little quarters —

“Whoah.The jelly is spread with the peanut butter?” 


These kids have already acquired a certain snobbishness and disdain for American junk food from media and family.

They reluctantly took their snack, looked at each other, kind of held their noses, and nibbled. The sound of yum went around the group. 

“That’s good.” 

They were surprised by how they liked this often heard of, never tasted, combination. Even the librarian couldn’t resist coming over and trying one.

As they gobbled up everything on the plate we talked about lunch time in an American elementary school. Lunch boxes, leaky thermoses, milk cartons, cafeteria lines, cafeteria food (if you wanted it), sitting with friends and recess.

You have to understand that no one brings their own lunch to school in France. Every day the students sit down to a hot meal. There is a starter (cabbage and tomato salad) They have a meat and a vegetable (veal marinated with mushrooms, broccoli). Followed by bread and cheese (camembert). Then there is a dessert (kiwi). The only thing to drink is water. Lunch is the main meal of the day for the students. When they get home they will have a little snack and then a light dinner. The thought of only having a sandwich for lunch is confusing. I have spoken with students that spent time in the States and they say the hardest part of their experience wasn’t the language, but getting used to quick, cold lunches. They always felt like they were starving - until dinner which left them too full to sleep.

After their big lunch French students do what all children want to do at school, they run out to recess to play.

So even though it’s a bit early on Saturday morning the teenagers and I have our snack and play around with the sound and feel of English. A childish song animates the room with action words and silliness.

It has been fun to see this group be willing to take risk in speaking a language of which they have little or no command. To risk looking foolish and realizing there is nothing wrong with foolish if it is helping you make progress. How the heck else would we have made it through kindergarten? Plus your friends liked it when you made them laugh. They still do.

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Gallic Rooster and Marianne

 I wrote this blog two months ago. It has been sitting on the shelf waiting for Tom to edit and for me to get going again. Last night watching the musical Les Miserable I got the kick in the pants that I needed. I’ve written a very short and hardly political story of the symbols of France and one of the social concerns of today. Victor Hugo’s story is much more rousing and moral. I recommend watching the movie. I’ve never tried to read the book.

Liberty Leads the People
Eugène Delacroix

Living in the land of duck and goose fat it would seem perfectly appropriate to say I was on a wild goose chase, but in fact I was on a wild rooster chase because I was chasing Emmanuel Macron, France’s president. Or, as the French would call him, le coq gaulois.

The French like their national symbols. The flag (blue white red), their national anthem La Marseillaise, the moto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Bastille Day, the Gallic Rooster and Marianne. 

Now you are asking who is Marianne? Marianne is the personification of France - she represents the values of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity and reason. Marianne was created for the French Republic after the French Revolution. She symbolizes opposition to monarchy and is the champion of freedom and democracy against all forms of oppression. Her idealized portrayal as the Goddess of Liberty is displayed in government places and appears on coins and postage stamps. The inspiration for Marianne came from a dramatic painting by Delacroix.  In it Marianne is heroically leading a charge over the barricades of Paris.  Bare-bossomed.  Go figure. 

Stamps are what set me off on this Gallic Rooster chase. Turns out that the only stamp factory in France is here in the suburbs of our closest city, Perigueux. A billion stamps are printed a year. There are four hundred employees, twelve of which are expert engravers.

Reading the Sunday paper I noticed a tiny article saying that President Macron would be in Perigueux on Tuesday. He was making this brief appearance to inaugurate a new stamp featuring Marianne. One is created every five year to correspond with the quinquennat (five year term) of French presidents. This is President Macron’s second Marianne. 

I remember when he was here back in 2018 to inaugurate his first Marianne. On that visit people lined the streets and Macron shook hands and and answered questions from the crowd. 

He was to arrive at 11:50 and leave at around 3:30. So off I went that Tuesday morning on a wild rooster chase trying to see Monsieur le president de la France, Emmanuel Macron. I knew I wouldn’t meet him, I knew I wouldn’t even get close to him, but then one just never knows.. It would be fun to join the crowd of onlookers and maybe see that warm smile of his. Feeling ridiculous and yet hopeful I headed off.

As I neared the neighborhood of the stamp factory there were police everywhere. I nervously rolled down my window to ask a machine-gun armed policeman if one could approach on foot. “Non madame, pas aujourd’hui.”  I drove around the entire industrial area looking to see if there were any other people. Not a person to be seen. Only national police on every corner.

I finally parked a couple of blocks away and braved walking past one corner of police - no one said anything. At the next corner I could just see the main entrance to the stamp factory. Five glaring policemen made it clear that I wasn’t to go any further. I wanted to ask what the plan was, but was afraid of being shooed away. 

Then walkie talkies started going off. I heard, “That’s the last one, no more cars allowed.” I heard, “The motorcade will be arriving in the next five minutes.” I heard, “Two minutes.” Then I heard, ”All clear he’s here. He came in the back.” And that was it. I hadn’t seen anything.

President Macron went in, met with the printers and engravers, was presented the original drawing by the artist, then headed off to have lunch with forty local politicos. Live internet coverage (who knew…) showed he left at 3:15. I could have stayed home and seen more of the event. But then there had been that tiny chance….

News stories continued the next day with a big announcement. The  Marianne presented to President Macron wasn’t wearing a French cockade on her bonnet! A French cockade ( a badge made up of colored ribbons, attached to a uniform to show which side you are on) is red on the outside, white in the middle and blue in the center.  The artist had accidentally used the colors the Royal British Air Force used on British Spitfires of 1940 (blue on the outside, white in the center and red as the center). The saving grace is that this Marianne of the Future with her long neck symbolizing momentum towards the future and a leafy background highlighting environmental themes will be printed in green and white to fit with her environmental theme.

I never even got a plume feather on my wild rooster chase, but the French postal system got my support when I bought a book of those green stamps. Turns out no one was rushing out to collect them - the woman at the counter had to go out back to get the stamps. No one had asked for the latest Marianne yet.

Oddly, it seems I could be the most patriotic person in France.