August 6th, 2009 13:34 EST
Adventures in Cheese Snob Land: French Drinking Games
St. Michel was every bit as beautifully mysterious as all the dramatic photographs and illustrations depict, so there`s no false advertising there. It is my favorite building I have ever visited in my whole life and, yet, to call it a mere building is to demean such a work of art. That`s like The Charterhouse of Parma`s just a book. St. Michel and the grandiose architecture that it represents makes me nostalgic for the Middle Ages. For as long as I can remember, I have adored medieval aesthetics, poetry, and social history ("Dragon Girl" was one of my high school nicknames for a reason), but this visit had made me a bona fide medievalist.
After eating the whole monastery with my very hungry and appreciative eyes, I strolled through the gift shops, of which there are plenty if you need a classy place to lose money. Better yet, they are exactly the kind of gift shops that appeal to me. They all carry their versions of fairies, castles, swords, and, yes, tacky tourist T-shirts. I made an effort not to purchase a tacky T-shirt, however. I avoided the gaudy ones (with rhinestones, glitter, too many cartoon animals all competing for limited chest space) and went for a fitted rib-tee instead. Though I am generally a bargain shopper, I have become slightly more lenient with my money here in France. I realize that I may never visit the country again, or at least not for several more years, so I want to take home whatever souvenirs I can, including T-shirts that violate my $10 rule. The T-shirt I bought at St. Michel is burgundy, my absolute favorite shade of red, with white print on it. The print reads "Mont St. Michel" and also features a simple contour drawing of the monastery and its accompanying island. A few gulls, shaped the way first-graders draw flying birds, hover in the sky.
I sat down for a while after buying my tourist gear and just people-watched. It`s one of my top activities, so I figured that I ought to do it in one of my favorite places. People are more interesting than they may believe or maybe I only think that because of my penchant for psycho and socio-analysis. It seemed like scores of English and Spanish were amongst the tourists, though I heard the occasional American accent so I didn`t feel completely alone. Most of the people spoke Frog.
I was sad to leave St. Michel but it had to happen eventually. My university group and I had to meet our host families in La Rochelle, the third most popular tourist destination in France. It`s a beach city with a long port history located on the Atlantic Coast. At the point that I boarded the charter bus from St. Michel to La Rochelle, that was about all I knew. I would have to wait about six hours before I discovered much more.
I spent the bus ride doing a lot of what I would normally do at home, so it was almost as if I were not in France at all. I edited a short story I had written, uploaded photos, drew, and read. Every now and then I looked out and, even more rarely, I shot video of the countryside. Whatever I did, I tried to avoid thinking about meeting my host family in a matter of hours. Like everyone else on the bus, I was a tad nervous about not being able to speak my native language for the next three weeks. I didn`t suffer as bad a case of the butterflies as a few of the students on board who freaked out to the point of not being able to remember basic phrases that they definitely knew. I realized that nerves would cramp my ability to speak properly for the first couple of days, but I`d eventually loosen up enough to avoid total idiocy. I hoped.
It was nice when the bus stopped. I needed, quite frankly, to "faire no. 2," which wasn`t allowed on the bus. Apparently, there`s a French law that requires bus drivers to stop after a certain number of hours, so our driver pulled over at a local gas station. Apart from the obvious language difference and the items listed on the fast food menu, the gas station was pretty similar to what I`m used to back in the ol` U.S. of A. Oh, wait, no, c`est ne pas vrai. One thing shocked me. I had not believed it when I heard one of my classmates describe her experience in Russia, so let me begin by saying this: French toilets are much more varied than America`s. This particular restroom housed two kinds, one rather similar to the ones Americans use (except they use press-pads instead of handles for flushers) and another that involved impressive thigh muscles. The latter demands that the, er, patron squats and places her feet on two ceramic hollows so she doesn`t lose her balance. She must then urinate in a hole. That`s right--just "aim and fire." I`m not ashamed to admit that I would probably fall over.
My group arrived in La Rochelle perhaps two and half hours after I scrunched up my nose at the gas station. The bus driver kindly lugged all of our duffle bags and suitcases out of the bus and we waited for our host families to scoop us off to wild European adventures. Well, that`s what my evening became, anyway.
My host mother almost snuck up behind me, then she very eagerly hugged me, kissed me, and welcomed me into her life. A new cluster of butterflies sprung up in my stomach, but I kissed and hugged her back. I immediately got into her car and we chatted as she drove me to her house. She thought it was hilarious that I don`t like raw tomatoes but that I eat them cooked.
The moment I walked into the house--which is full of gorgeous hardwood and boasts plenty of open space; it`s very "shabby chic" and warrants a full description in another essay--she gave me a tour. She moved fast enough to rival any startled cat I`ve ever seen. Obviously she was happy to have me and that helped me calm down. Soon after, she invited me to a friends` wedding anniversary party. She showered while I unpacked my things. Her husband came home and we left soon after. I didn`t even have time to check out the refrigerator.
This is what I learned at the party: French people love American dance music, especially really passÃ© songs; they think gnomes are real belly-busters; they like to speak English with Americans to try and prove that they`re bilingual (even if they`re not) and therefore superior to Americans (who they assume are monolingual); and even if their country allows a lower legal drinking age than the United States, their teenagers still sneak around with alcohol. It was a very amusing, yet long evening, especially considering that I`d been cooped up in a bus for most of the day.
I watched all of the adults dance to the likes of Michael Jackson and other distinctly American artists; they waved their arms around, jumped up and down, and made a bunch of noise. It was only when I realized that all of the party guests were neighbors that I stopped asking why someone hadn`t already called the cops to complain. I had fun just watching them move around with so much enthusiasm. One man probably had too much fun with my host mother, though, and tossed her into the outdoor pool. Keep in mind that she had on a stylish Parisian dress and even trendier shoes. Though she laughed, I doubt she was thrilled about what had happened. My host mother was the only one who "swam" the whole night. Apparently the pool was reserved for something more...unsual. Virtually all of the party guests gave the married couple gnomes in all sorts of forms as kitsch gifts. As the couple opened the gifts before the cheering crowd, they were to toss all "non-gnomes" into the pool. This included a ceramic duck. With the pool for a disposal pit, I couldn`t swim there. I took the time to rescue two fallen moths, but I didn`t even dip a toe in the water.
Ironically for a non-drinker, I spent a good portion of the night learning a couple of French drinking games because I inevitably got stuck with restless high school kids. I also learned the various names for pot and got to hear the kids make fun of the Spanish. We ate some tabouli, huddled around bags of McDonald`s hamburgers, and talked about who-knows-what, as well. I definitely asked them way too many questions but they seemed proud that I took so much interest in their country. None of them spoke English so it was a real exercise in my language skills. At least now I know what a Royale avec Cheese is.
Stupid French drinking game