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Smile first. A pretty decent policy.

30 Jul

Pirate and I watched a documentary on Thailand the other day. What really stuck in my head after that was when the narrator was on this incredible train, smiling at people. He rode the night train to Bangcock – a “little fifteen hours of train” and as he boarded and searched for his seat he spoke about all the smiles. Smiles everywhere. From everyone. Other passengers, the conductor, old, young, and the women cooking and serving food in the dining car. The guy was filming as he was talking, walking down the aisle of the train car. An old lady smiled at him. He asked if he could sit with her, and asked her directly about the people in Thailand smiling. It was something like this:

“Why do the Thai people smile like that, what’s happening?”

“It’s a characteristic of Thai people…we talk and we have fun.  It’s our way of being..and firstly, why should we pout?”

“May I sit next to you?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“So I like this philosophy. We smile first, and we talk after, is that it?”


(it’s in French, and I think I’m pretty accurate in my translation, but here’s the link, you can start watching for this particular portion at 17:46).

Pretty nice, right? I thought so. The documentary is called ‘Des Trains pas Comme les Autres’ and is focused on different or original trains for travel. Five out of five ti-punch.

Sadly, what I thought at that moment was how sad it is that in Guadeloupe the smile policy seems to be exactly the opposite. Here I have the impression that people put up a big wall, and it’s really hard to break through that. This is one of the reasons I find the culture kind of difficult here. Most folks, and certainly in any service setting I find this to be true, simply don’t smile at me. I don’t know if they smile at other people. I know that they don’t smile at me. Am I smiling at them? I don’t know. Honestly, probably I just look confused.  Sometimes I smile or try to make small talk but I find I don’t get much in return. So mostly, I smile if I’m smiled at, and I hate that it’s like that. I’d like to feel inspired to smile much more often when I’m out running errands or talking to people in the stores…  Many times however I’ve been blessed to stumble upon really nice friendly people. They stand out big time. It makes my DAY. Cheesy as it sounds, it’s cheesy-true – a smile from someone who doesn’t really need to smile at you is just uplifting. And, I might note, free and easy to do.
I’ve been observing people and their (lack of)smiles for a few days now, with this idea of ‘smile now, we’ll see later’ in my mind, and I’m sorry to report that people are just not frickin’ smiling. Next step will have to be to smile at people – REALLY make sure I’m smiling at them, and see if that helps.  There’s probably a lot more to this. I’m sure someone could berate me for being thoughtless and inconsiderate and how could I not realize that xyz and I should just smile if I want to and not expect it or care if I don’t get it in return. Sure. So, here’s the question: what will I do now? This seemingly small idea that smiling makes a huge difference I believe I believe to be true. Do I continue to smile only when smiled at? Do I try to smile first and see if it makes any difference in my day to day exchanges? I think I’ll try. I can’t force a faux smile. I’m going to try to think of something funny or nice that makes me smile each time an use that as my secret weapon in cases of no-smile-inspiration. We’ll see how it goes.

Say Cheese!



Bad jokes

19 Jan

You know when someone makes a joke or some sort of comparison that’s just not funny or even relevant? Happens everywhere in any language I would assume. The discomfort as a speaker of French as a second language is that I can’t retort the way I would like to. Instead, I’m left stumped, saying nothing, or using words in a nonsensical order so that I sound like someone fumbling around for some way to ask for something. It’s too easy to make mistakes in your second language when you’re slightly shocked or riled up. It’s the not so fabulous destiny of a handful of conversations I’ve (tried to) had here.

So there I am with some people. We’re talking about culture, how I like it here, how they view the Americans, stuff like that. It’s all normal and good and anticipated. I can almost quote the conversation before it happens. Undoubtedly we will hit upon some comment about how I’m not like ‘the rest’ (because I’m here and I speak French. Mind you, I am the last of many of my friends to speak a second language)  Then something about the ‘speed’ in the States (can’t really deny that when I’m in the land of never rush a thing, but I’ve yet to argue it’s about efficiency), how the shopping is great over there, and then onto the inevitable discussion of food. I find myself defending the number of people in the US who want better food for less money, how there are a lot of people studying to become farmers now, how not everybody in fact eats McDonald’s every day, if even at all. How it’s a very big country and that one view of that country simply cannot suffice. How of course we have cheese that isn’t orange processed cheese food. Which, not for nothing, I grew up on, and I can attest to seeing a rainbow of options of that exact sort of cheese food in the supermarché here in Guadeloupe.

So the food thing usually lasts if we don’t get stuck on why we elected Bush, and I mean people really get stuck on how an entire country – or at least enough of it – decided on the Decider. Twice. So, food. We talk about quality and quantity. We talk about traditional American and French food. I say I find French food delicious if not heavy for my liking, not being huge on meat or deli or heavy cream, and they talk about how difficult it is to find a real espresso in the States, real cheese, decent wine, and a real, sit down, take your time attitude towards a meal. They sort of have me there, except for the wine and the cheese. Hello, California? Ever heard of that little state, gets quite a bit of tourism, and I might mention makes damn fine wine and cheese. Hmph. So my French vocabulary surrounding cheese and wine and food might be up to par. What I was not prepared for was the little tiny remark that was just coming around the corner.

As mentioned, we discuss quantity. Now, in general it is true that Americans have a different culture of eating. I would say that we stick to the three meals a day thing. I would say that the French do it slightly differently. Eggs, bacon, toast, coffee and juice at 7am is horrifying to most French I’ve met. They simply cannot imagine this as petit-dejeuner.  As for dinner, lunch, the meals are longer, more drawn out. (not including work lunches, that’s going the way of the Americans I’ve been told) There is a drink with snacks. There are appetizers, which are not the same as snacks. There are a few small plates, then the main dish (also small), and then something like cheese perhaps with fruit, bread, then something sweet, and of course, coffees. It’s quite elaborate. And the quantity overall is still perhaps less than a plate at the Cheesecake Factory. It’s true. In discussing this, one woman said to me, “I was with some American friends who asked me how I stayed this size, and I showed them their plates, I said, ‘I don’t eat like that. You have to eat less'” Then she said:

“I told them, you see the people in Aushwitz? There were no fat people in Aushwitz. Think about it. There’s a reason for that.”

Mmhmm. I’m just gonna let that one sink in. Theeereyago….let out your breath and let your eyebrows come back from the top of your head. I still haven’t found mine. I was stupefied.  Seriously? Did you really just make some ….sort of….comparison ….not being fat….concentration camp….if I were to be…so then….oooh right I totally see what you’re saying, ignoramus.   So here I was, in one of those moments where I just needed some clever concise (ok I’m nothing like concise but whatever I can work on it) whippersnapper of a sentence to roll off of my skinny tongue (and I wasn’t even there, imagine?) and you know, I just couldn’t even come up with anything in French that would have been cutting yet classy enough. I’m working on not just giving my standard middle finger stress response, you see. Perhaps I should have made an exception?

So, helpless when stressed, that’s me. At least in French. It’s motivated me to start working on my vocabulary. Perhaps I will simply prepare standard responses to all sorts of possible infringements. That could work. I’ll start on that today….

Things I miss and things I still don’t understand

7 Jan

Just ruminating today on some things I still don’t understand here in Guadeloupe. There are some services that don’t exist here (and also some that do, but let’s focus on the missing) where I believe they certainly should. I miss these things from home. Let’s examine them:

That person who runs to the checkout line to get the code/price for the item you are trying to buy which doesn’t have the price tag on it.

Yeah, I’ve mentioned it before. They don’t care here. Don’t have a code on the cheese you took half an hour to find? That’s your problem, and you need to fix it. While everyone stares at you from the line behind you making disappointed noises. Two thumbs down. I LOVE that person.  I miss that person. I think Guadeloupe needs to create jobs and this should be one of them, pronto.

The scale for the fruits and veggies at the checkout stand.

It’s DIY here. Battle the grey-haired pushers and get to the scale with your fruits and veggies, weigh them, stick the price sticker on them. Do not mistake one type of fruit for another, because if you are paying more, they’ll never tell you. If you are paying less, they might just ring that item up twice. I would really prefer that the store and the people who work there bear the burden of marking the items with the correct prices. Isn’t that why they work there and I’m the customer?

The bagger.

Nobody will ever put things into bags for you in the grocery stores in Guadeloupe. In other types of stores they might. It could go either way. At the clothing stores I find they do, and in the sporting goods store I find they ever so slowly place your items in a pile without even looking at where they’re placing them. They then pass you a plastic bag without looking at you. Bag it yourself, muchacho. I do miss someone putting things in bags for me. You know why? Because it’s nice. It’s helpful. And it kind of goes with the whole checkout thing ala “Thank you for spending money here, I’ll now burn minimal calories to place these things into a bag so that you can swiftly exit and I can help the person waiting behind you, have a nice day”. Why not?

The waitstaff hello.

While food may not be, food service is lost on Guadeloupe. Il n’existe pas. Waitstaff approach the table and say, “Oui?”  That’s it. Now, I will say while that the overall service in restaurants stateside is far superior, sometimes it is a bit over the top. I really thought the girl at Starbucks was going to propose to me before I even told her what I wanted. Five minutes of high pitched fast talking super bubbly greetings and offerings and suggestions later I had forgotten what I wanted. I was mesmerized or confused, not sure which. Overkill. But a nice hello good morning how may I help you would be nice. I do miss that. But you know, it’s hot here. Extra talking is just too sweaty a task.

Things being open on Sunday.

There are a few things. It’s not entirely lost. But it is extremely limited. I miss that option. I think for a lot of people, the weekend is the only time you can actually get out to do your shopping. So what, you have Saturday? So little choice. I miss that. It’s convenient.I mean, THE MALL is closed on Sunday. What the….?!

My girlfriends from home.

No matter how long you live Someplace Else, girlfriends who know you well, who understand your jokes, and whom you can understand entirely…they’re missed. New friends can become great friends, but I don’t know…there’s just something about friends from home.

Holiday Season afterthoughts

3 Jan

…No, I don’t count New Year’s Eve in the holiday season because we already celebrate two holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah. New Year’s Eve is in a league of its own. So for all you sticklers out there who grumble every year, “Why do I have to wish people happy holidays? It’s Christmas man, that’s it, Christmas!”, there you go, jerkface, Pirate and me and the kids, we celebrate two holidays, so kindly wish us Happy Holidays or take the time to send me a card for each one or better yet just shut your closed-minded yap. You don’t get a Hanukkah card from me every year on Christmas, do you? That’s right.  Have I mentioned that I added a new category on my blog? It’s called Bitter is better. Isn’t that adorable?! Ok…Holiday season afterthoughts….

Why don’t the dolls look like the people? This is the question I asked Pirate the first year I spent Christmas in Guadeloupe. I refer to Christmas because it’s what is celebrated here for the most part. There are a small handful of toy stores on the island, and maybe once I saw one single doll that didn’t have white skin. Perhaps it raises some eyebrows that I bring this up, but it’s an honest question. Guadeloupe is about 9% white. So I’m wondering, is it possible that the rest of the population, who are of other ethnicity and races, are not providing demand for dolls that have skin color and/or features similar to theirs? Now look, I’m definitely NOT saying people shouldn’t play with dolls which don’t resemble them. Of course they should. What I’m saying is that I’m really surprised that there seem to be almost NO dolls that aren’t white with blue eyes and blonde hair on an island where only 9% of the population resembles that look. Why? It raises the question, if there were an island with only 9% of the population being non-white, but all the dolls were non-white, do you think there would be a ruckus over that from the white population? Depends on where said island would be I guess…..

This year I did see some more dolls of color. If I remember correctly,they were from the Bratz™ collection, and maybe some no-name Barbie™ imitation type dolls. Perhaps one baby-doll of color among a sea of pink and white boxes housing white baby dolls. After I started writing about this, I looked around to see if anyone else was dwelling on this. I found this cool body image blog called Adios Barbie where, in this post, the author talks about what she sees as the lack of choice among Barbies for people of color. I guess I’m not alone.

In any case, I’m thrilled that the holiday season is no longer upon us. It’s not that I’m a scrooge, but I guess I become overwhelmed by the commercialism, the concentration of all that ‘giving’ in one little time period, the pushy shoppers, the overplayed theme music, and worrying that I’m not picking out the right gifts. I appreciate more sporadic gifts myself, any time it’s not marked on the calendar or advertised all over creation that you’re supposed to give me a gift would be a better time. Pirate knows.

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