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Another way that the French differ from the Americans is in how they celebrate Valentine’s Day. Americans may gripe about it, but they celebrate. Kids take mass-produced Valentine’s to school and eat cupcakes and heart-shaped sugar cookies decorated in pink and red; adults in a relationship are pretty much obligated either to do something to celebrate or to announce that they are not doing anything, and explain why, with “We don’t do Hallmark holidays” being the most common followed by “We couldn‘t get childcare.”

In France, there is Valentine’s Day of course, but it is pretty much for young lovers. A couple with 3 kids and 15 years of marriage under their belts probably won’t do much, except maybe buy flowers, but then they do that anyway.
But we’re American. We always celebrate, Donn and I, usually by going out to dinner. (I’ve been trying to introduce the concept of diamond earrings into the mix, but so far unsuccessfully)

The year we were in France, a family we were getting to know invited us over. I was really happy to accept. They had young kids also and lived out in the countryside, and invited us to spend the entire day. Then I realized it was Valentine’s Day, and we actually had free childcare in the form of a young single friend at language school. I called and asked if we could reschedule. The woman was very polite and formal on the phone, agreed we could reschedule, and pretty much didn’t talk to us after that. It was evident that we’d made a major faux pas, although it was too late to do anything about it.

So when the mother of a kid in Abel’s class called to invite us to lunch on Valentine’s Day, I agreed instantly. We can go out to dinner anytime; the kids no longer need childcare. And so on Valentine’s Day, the flowers were not for me.

We showed up at 2, left after 6, and were still full the following morning. It was a real feast, starting with salads and Moroccan samosas, continuing with roast beef and vegetables and fried fingerling potatoes, which Abel is still talking about, continuing on with cheese, then fruit, then chocolate-raspberry pastries, then coffee. It was all beautifully served and presented, and we had a wonderful time. But this was the first time in years that we’d had to speak French for that long a time, and afterwards we were both exhausted. Fortunately the dad speaks English quite well. It was nice; whenever we absolutely couldn’t think of how to phrase something in French, he could usually figure it out from our English.

He told us he’d lived in Iowa. Iowa??? We said in amazement. Most people we meet who’ve been to the US have either been to New York or Washington DC, with a small but solid majority having been to Disney World in Florida. Turns out he was an exchange student in Iowa City. “What did you think?” we asked, and he laughed. Not much at the time, he admitted. Years later, he worked in New York for a couple of years.

This week, we went out again, this time to the house of a girl in Ilsa’s class. This is my Italian friend that I mentioned before; she invited us for pizza. I don’t know about you, but when an Italian woman invites me for Italian food, I tend to accept with alacrity.

This time the invitation was for 7 p.m. We showed up with a boxful of cakes from the local bakery (which is directly opposite the kids’ school and single-handedly responsible for about two inches round my hips). I had actually spent the afternoon making chocolate chip cookies but they were all either undercooked or burned. I have avoided nattering on and on about how much I hate the oven in this house, which has only two temperatures–125 degrees and 500 degrees. Nothing in between. I know I often exaggerate for comic effect, but this is actually true, and there’s an oven thermometer to back me up. And yet I don’t give up, I keep baking.

We had a super evening. She was very welcoming and casual, inviting us into her kitchen to chat with her while she finished putting the pizzas in the oven. It felt very strange to us, because North Africans tend to be much more formal (not to mention they usually have household help), and we’re no longer used to sitting down in a warm, bright kitchen and watching our hostess, wearing an apron, bustle round preparing supper.

We enjoyed snacking on olives (she’d prepared them herself) and kefta (Moroccan meatballs) and watching her make vinaigrette from lemons from her tree and olive oil pressed by her husband. Again we had a great time. She said at one point, “I’m talking so much!” I felt a little sorry for her. Donn and I, verbose in English, are quieter in French (and I’m very close-lipped in Arabic). But we so appreciate those who are willing to spend an evening being patient with our language skills and getting to know us. And I can’t wait to return the favor, once I’m in a home of my own.

And it was an educational evening in more than just learning to understand an Italian woman speaking rapid French. Did you know that green, red and black olives all come from the same tree? Yes. The colour comes from how long they are ripened. Then they are soaked in brine with spices and garlic and other things that give them their wonderful flavour. (Unless you are thinking of the American ones in cans, which is not what I am talking about. Ew.)

February 2009

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