Saturday, February 28, 2009

What is Normal?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

After living more than a quarter of my life in France (and one year in Japan), I've lost a rigid sense of normalcy. What is normal? What are my or one's expectations? of life I no longer expect to work a city job with a daily commute on Metro North, nor perhaps a gallery job with a daily commute by bicycle from an outlying neighborhood to the center of Seattle. In my daily existence I no longer think it normal to have a clothing dryer, and rarely touch my blender or Kitchen Aid. My childrens' toys have a decided lack of electronics which for the moment, they're willing to accept.

Taste, looks, education, music, food, weather -- almond trees in bloom early February, whirling wind storms throughout the year, four days of non-stop rain could mean my house flooding... or magnificent and non-fruit bearing Magnolia and Dogwoods? Beautiful to see, but not there to make a living for a local farmer. Granite rocks pounded by the waves of Long Island Sound. It is all are slightly askew in my head. I am no doubt not alone in sensing cultural dislocation when I go home.

The trees are so large in Westchester County NY! and the houses immense, not to mention the lawns. And how interesting that there are so few houses with shutters on the windows, and even fewer with bars on the windows of the first floor. Do I really want to buy those very very bright orange carrots that A&P offers? Ah, yet I can't help being tempted by blueberry poptarts and Ben&Jerry's Cherry Garcia... maybe even some Stoffers frozen corn soufflet? That's my childhood taste buds talking again. In the present, I miss the dark yellow yolked eggs I have in Provence, my black currant jam, my raw milk from the local farm, truly flavorful grocery store chickens (and the choice of 6 different kinds). And then when I fly back to France, I suffer from homesickness for my land of birth. I have a hard time getting my mouth and throat around the French language (which I've spoken fluently now for most of my life, but...). My conversation tends to make reference to an article I read in Newsweek or the NYTimes about something going on politically in the US, or... I've seen (and perhaps gotten hooked to?) episodes of a new TV series that I'll not see again till my next US visit. I miss hugs.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Neither here nor there, no longer a normal American (is there such a thing?) but not yet fully European.

A couple articles recently have sent my head spinning into ideas and comparisons. One was in the NY Times about the tele-reality show Who Loses the Most Wins (or something to this effect). An extreme show, showcasing individuals in an extreme situation, its the goal is to bring obscenely obese people together in a home, and with a team spirit, encourage them to lose weight. Most Americans are not grossly obese, but, many, oh too many worry about their weight, thus a national fascination at such a show. A comment that struck me in the article was uttered by a guest chef who was there to teach these people how to eat other than "salty, sweet, fatty and crunch" foods, other than cheap, pre-packaged, easy to find food in any supermarket or 24 hour gas stations, etc.,

More than anything, he stated his surprise and pity? that these people didn't know how to cook. Put them in a kitchen with kale and quinoa and they are completely lost and feel close to starving. How can anyone grow up without a basic sense of boiling water and cooking the simplest of dishes? Ok, we're not all gourmets who want to eat exotic grains and greens, but... the basics? scrambled eggs? boiled broccoli?

How could I live a life so completely at the opposite end of this spectrum? I love kale and quinoa, and have oodles of possibilities for turning these ingredients into a meal. I was graced with parents who cooked and encouraged my adventures in the kitchen. I then traveled to countries where cooking and feeding a family are of utmost importance. The Japanese take their lunches very very seriously! be they boxed or purchased! And France? Provence? need I say more? My adolescent tendencies towards cinnamon rolls and extra large chocolate chip cookies from the cookie stand in Grand Central Station were re-directed to complete, balanced and yummy meals.

Now I have many friends, family members, clients and colleagues in the US who are superb cooks and who nourish their loved ones marvelously -- but it can be so stressful to do so when work hours are long and weekends are filled with sports' events, music recitals, and more... We've built a society that renders these efforts exceptional, not normal. Why? Can we change it?

The second small epiphany came when I glanced through the and article on the web site EHarmony. I was startled to see the number of men who tout themselves as "physically fit" and their hobbies including "staying physically fit" and their passions even stressing "staying physically fit". This included men of educational accomplishments, middle aged, professionals of all sorts. I can't deny a rather visceral reaction "please, get a life! Healthclubs can be fun, but???"

I too enjoy being physically fit, and yes, I don't deny that I'm proud that at 42 I basically have a body quite similar to that I enjoyed at 22. And yes yoga and dance help particularly because I adore them, and adore moving my body whenever possible. But... it is just not that difficult to keep my figure when I eat what is normal food here (lots of salads, vegetables, lean meats, some pasta, my bread...) and when I'm walking everywhere, and doing all my own house and garden work. I'm mobile, I'm active, I live outside a small Provence town where you park the car outside the ramparts and then walk to all your errands, appointments, etc., I certainly use my car more than I'd like -- the kids' school is a drive away unfortunately.

I don't see this aspect of my physical self as needing touting. I'm happy to be healthy, and hope to continue being healthy for many many years to come. I'm happy to be able to keep up with my kids and go cycling, roller blading, hiking, etc., I'm happy not to be (too) winded after climbing many stairs. It's reassuring. I'm happy my hands aren't too tired when I make by sablé (shortbread) cookies by hand (I don't own a food processor).

So just musing on what used to be normal back in the US too. With time, a little tummy, sure, after kids and a sit-down job at the office. But, was it surprising that Katherine Hepburn kept her figure till her dying day? Or Paul Newman? Even Sinatra's excesses gave him simply a generous build.

But, the French too are getting bigger and using their cars more and more. They've long ago discovered the large supermarket and sweet frozen desserts. And in the US, there are many who've returned to walking, biking, public transportation, etc., May shorter work hours, and many local markets of locally grown produce follow! May the family meal be easier to manage, and may kids cook alongside their parents. And, let this be normal.

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