Lessons from a Parisian Butcher

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

Remember when you used to fall off your bike, skin your knees and bruise your elbows? I still have two mangled knees to show for it. But it never stopped me from getting back on my bike and bombing around the neighborhood with all the other kids. Living abroad, and trying to do so gracefully, is just like falling off a bike. Every time I make a fool of myself trying to speak someone else’s language or be mindful of someone else’s customs, my ego may be bruised, but I always jump up and get back on my bike.

When we arrived in Paris, we moved into a beautiful apartment in a residential neighborhood on the south side of the city. My husband got to work right away (read: away from home for 12-14 hours a day) and I had the city at my fingertips. I had just finished my first two years of teaching special education in a suburban Milwaukee school where I learned so much about teaching, myself and how much I could cry on a weekly basis. In other words, the idea of eating bon bons and being a kept Parisian wife sounded wonderful. In reality, I was a 24-year-old woman with only a two week French honeymoon to help me with my French background knowledge. I was not an experienced international traveler and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to experience culture shock that would make me and break me.

Coming from a small town of 2000 people in the central US state of Iowa to one of the largest cities in the world was very exciting and scary. I knew that I was going to have to keep myself busy to stay happy. So, being a typical teacher, I set up a daily schedule for myself which would help me have things to look forward to throughout the days and weeks. I set out to visit all the non-touristy sites that we didn’t have a chance to see on our honeymoon. The Rodin Museum, Catacombs, and cooking classes at the Ritz (they were only $30 at the time. I can’t imagine the cost now that they’ve remodeled!) are examples of my liberal arts approach to seeing Paris. After a couple of weeks of this type of program, I realized that going to the Eiffel Tower or exploring Shakespeare and Co. was not going to be fulfilling enough to get me through the next two weeks. I also found myself scared to death that someone at the grocery store was going to speak to me or someone on the Metro was going to ask me for directions.

Thankfully, my husband’s expat package included 50 hours of French language lessons for each of us. My husband had completed his French Business Language Certification while in university, so he was clearly not in need of anymore French lessons. Lucky for me, the company agreed that I could utilize all 100 hours of classes. After just the first two weeks in Paris, I knew it was time for me to start learning practical French. Within a few days, my lessons were set up and I had a map of how to get to the location of the school (no smart phones in 2000!).

This first day of class, I was quite nervous. What if I don’t know how to learn French? What if I can’t memorize all the new vocabulary words? Thankfully, I found out that I would be working with a tutor that was a trained elementary teacher, just like me. I would come to learn that our teaching philosophies were very similar and she taught me how I would have taught someone in the same situation. Her first question made me think deeply about myself as a learner: “How do you learn best?”. I explained that I did not care to learn academic French. My goal was to be able to function in our neighborhood, not be laughed at on a daily basis, and be able to have a light conversation with someone in a bar.

The typical format of our two-hour lessons was for us to practice a functional speaking task in the classroom and then go out into the real world and practice. Celine was patient with my accent, kind with my mispronunciations, and best of all, humorous. One of my first requests was that I learn how to go to the butcher to order ground beef. The fall was rolling around and I desperately wanted to make chili. At that time, ground beef was nowhere to be found in a Parisian grocery store.

Celine and I practiced my lines through role play until I felt about as confident as I would feel for weeks. We set out for the butcher that was just around the corner from our apartment on rue du Convention. Celine was armed with her note book and pen to take notes as a passive observer.

I stepped into the butcher’s and made sure to announce my presence with the expected greeting to everyone in the store. I couldn’t quite tell where the end of the line snaked, so I decided to be spontaneous and ask where I could find the end of the line. Unfortunately for me, I mispronounced the word for line and accidentally asked where I could find the end of the ass! It was a great way to break the ice, elicit a few giggles and get my pale Norwegian skin to pinken up. I had finally reached the front of the line and requested the 500 grams of ground beef I had come for. I even threw in there that I was going to be making some delicious American chilli. The butcher looked deep into my eyes and said, “Non”. Under his piercing stare, I turned to look at Celine and she shrugged her shoulders and motioned back to the butcher. I wasn’t quite sure I understood what was happening, so I said it again, “Je voudrais commander 500 grammes de boeuf haché”. Again, the butcher exclaimed “Non” with a disgusted look on his face. He then added a few more sentences that I could not understand and turned me away with a flick of his hand.

I slinked out of the butcher with my tail between my legs and I looked at Celine incredulously. “What just happened?” I asked her. She started to laugh and explained that the butcher protested that he would not stoop so low as to ruin any of his beautiful French beef for an American soup!

It took me a couple of days to go back to that butcher. But, I knew I would need to persist to get what I wanted! Little did I know that I would be performing many similar psychological experiments during our stint in Paris. So, I jumped back on my proverbial 10-speed bike with my scraped up knees and bruised ego. I marched back into the butcher and made sure the same butcher was serving me before I asked for 500 grams of ground beef in my best French accent. This time, the butcher chuckled with an approving look in his eyes and asked me which cut he’d like me to grind.

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