What a pumpkin pie (in France) can teach you about life abroad

It’s no secret that I’ve spent much of my life living in other countries.

While this sounds romantic, and can often be, most of the time it’s just life. I get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, exercise, read a book, eat dinner, and go to bed.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now, if you know me well, you’ve probably kindly let me vent to you about how others often imagine how romantic, and wonderful, and exotic my nomadic life is. People forget that real life in France (or Ukraine, or wherever you happen to be) is really quite habitual.

But this is not one of those posts.

This is a post about the exotic and bizarre and estrange of living outside your home country. Because despite the habitualness and banality of much of daily life, living in a country that is not your own does result in more than the occasional question mark, misunderstanding, and incertitude.

These miscomprehensions often come in the way of food. Food is something considered normal and totally comprehendible for each given culture. Food is just food. A certain dish is of course prepared in a certain way. How else would you eat it? People find their own food entirely self-explanatory.

Yet for a foreigner, this is not always so.

In Ukraine, a traditional, yet time consuming dish to make (meaning the serving of said dish is reserved for special occasions and special guests) is holodets. Ukrainian friends, I’m sorry but I’m going to be blunt: Americans find this dish weird and unappetizing. What can only be described as meat-jello, the eating of holodets is, well, one of those experiences when you think to yourself “Yeah, this expat life is an adventure.”

Aside: The phonetic similarity of the Ukrainian word holodets to the word “congratulations” or “good job” (molodets), led to the PCV expression that, “Those who brave the taste and sliminess of holodets (thereby giving due respect to their hosts) deserve a molodets.”

Now, this example is not meant to poke fun at Ukrainian food. I actually love most it: the abundance of cookies and good chocolate is beautiful (if dangerous!); I love varenyky (and on cold, wintery days I wish I could return to my host family’s house where Mama Natasha’s expert hands would quickly produce the best cabbage filled varynyky you’ve ever tasted!); and I really miss a good zelenyy borshch. No, holodets is simply an example of how life abroad can quickly change from normal, to WHAT-THE-F*#%-IS-GOING-ON in less than 60 seconds.

As a foreigner, I’ve ended up as an honored guest at many a dinner or party. People regard you as different (you are) and as interesting (you hope you are) and thus special and exciting (effortless popularity).

It’s kind and flattering to be thought of as special.  However, at dinners, I often wish people didn’t. I’m often presented with the serving utensils first, and am left scrambling to understand how much, or what part, or simply how to serve myself a portion of some strange dish. Food, something simple and taken for granted, often isn’t. How do you cut up that bowl of meat-jello? Am I supposed to eat this tart with my hands or my fork? How do I get the snail out of the shell? Is this the main dish; should I take a substantial portion? Or are there three more courses to go?

Dinner, normal in your own home, serves up a hearty course of questions when you’re someplace new.

People usually figure out along the way when I struggle, and kindly point out that yes, there are bones in that pickled fish. Or, no! Don’t put that raw pepper in your mouth…it’s going to burn your esophagus (too late). Sometimes the advice is a little belated (I really did eat a pepper once that literally caused tears to stream down my face for the next ten minutes), but sometimes that’s what makes the moment memorable.

This weekend, I spent time with my step-family. The cousins I’m closest with live an easy distance away, but the cost of the two-part train ride to get there doesn’t allow me to visit often. This was actually the first weekend I’d visited them (excluding Christmas) since being in Troyes.

It was great. I spent so much time growing up at that house, it always feels like going home.

This time, I decided to make dessert for them. I had a can of pumpkin puree left over in my cupboard from my mom’s recent visit from the States, and I thought it would be fun to share a little Americaness with the family who has instilled Frenchness in me over the past 20 years.

I’ll begin at the end: it was a hit. The pie was gone in less than 24 hours (there were only four of us at the house, and I only had one piece!).

But the making of it was less celebrated. I’m not saying the pie was burned or that I measured the wrong amount of salt. No, I mean the idea of pumpkin pie was as strange for them as holodets is to me.

“It’s made with pumpkin?” my family asked. “But it’s a dessert? Are you sure it will be sweet???” The idea that a member of the squash family could be turned into a dessert was a difficult concept. And as I reflect, it kind of is. I mean, can you imagine making a sweet dish out of a different vegetable. A broccoli cake? Spinach cookies? (Hmmmm interesting challenge. And really if you add enough sugar, anything can be a dessert. Case in point: zucchini bread).

Anyway, the point of this long-winded post is that in the collective 2.5-3 years that I’ve spent living in or visiting France, I’ve grown very accustomed to life here. Few things surprise me about France or French culture anymore. It has become a culture as much a part of me as any other.

Yet sometimes, life here will still astonish me. Sometimes France still gets the better of me. Maybe it’s a dish I’ve never tried; maybe it’s frustration over endless paperwork; maybe it’s a movie star everybody knows, but that I’ve never heard of.

And maybe it’s something that seems totally normal to me, but that my colleagues or friends or family here find totally bizarre.

This week, it took a pumpkin pie to show me that life here can still fill me with wonder. Life here, even amongst the daily habitudes, can still be different, and strange, and romantic.

***

Interested in making holodets? Or just finding out what it is? Take a look at this awesome post on how to make it (although prepare for a good 8-10 hours of cooking!).

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Shirley Newingham says:

    Pumpkin Pie – glad it was such a hit with your step-family! As I’ve mentioned before, I LOVE pumpkin pie also! Zucchini bread (that brought a smile to my face, as my Mom [your Grandma Ulrich] used to make LOTS of zucchini bread, as she had LOTS of zucchini from her gardens). HAPPY COOKING!!

    1. Alexandra says:

      I didn’t know that about grandma. I do, however, have a memory of making pumpkin pie with her one autumn when she and grandpa were staying with us.

  2. taplatt says:

    Sasha, this is another great and insightful post. So true that something as banal as eating can become so complex and strange in a different cultural context.

    1. Alexandra says:

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting, Tammela!

  3. Marianne says:

    Yes, Mom (Grandma) was well known for doing her best to make good use of the bushels of zuccinin in our back yard. Zuccini bread, pancakes, cookies, etc….

  4. judith robinson says:

    Alexandra, I really enjoyed reading about your pumpkin pie experience in France. It made me wonder what kinds of food you have enjoyed prepared by your French family–both for everyday meals and special occasions.

    1. Alexandra says:

      Thanks for reading! I’ve had all sorts of yummy foods in France. I had duck and rabbit for the first time while living in France. I think both are quite sumptuous. I’ve tried escargot of course, and foie gras. I consider both a necessary experiences of living in France, even if you only try them once. One of my favorite French dishes is actually something quite simple (French fast food if you will). It is called a Croque Madame: Toasted bread with a little Béchamel sauce, ham, cheese, and an egg. Yum!

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