Updated: Jan 9
Cheese was not a noticeable part of my family’s eating habits growing up in Iowa. I have only a few real cheese memories consisting of a big neon orange block of cheese called Velveeta, processed cheese slices that were individually wrapped in crinkly plastic, and cheese that sprayed uncontrollably from a can. My favorite of the three was Velveeta. When there was Velveeta in the house, that meant Mom was making turkey tetrazinni. I was a sucker for a casserole from a young age. I used to frequent my friend Heidi’s (yes, that is where my ‘Swiss name’ originated) house on Tuesdays because I knew her mom’s famous tuna casserole was on the menu.
Being that my cheese knowledge was not developed, I was quite nervous when we first moved to France and were served a cheese plate at a friend’s house. I had read in a French culture book that there are specific ways to cut cheese and very specific ways of messing up when cutting cheese. I still have a bit of cheese cutting anxiety when faced with a cheese plate!
I was quite worried about making a major French faux pas, so I knew I needed to educate myself to begin the assimilation process. And here began my second French experiment. You may have read earlier in my blog posts about my very first French experiment which originated in a bistro during our Parisian moving process. The success of this experiment whet my appetite for conducting experiments to learn more about French culture.
The Cheese Lady Experiment began not long after we moved into our apartment on the corner of rue du Vaugirard and rue du Convention in the 15th arrondissement. There seemed to be a small storefront for just about anything you could desire: light bulbs, vacuum accessories, nails and hats. I was most interested in the pungent smelling cheese store about 100 steps from our front door. It was almost like the scent was pulling me toward it. However, the scowl on the face of the cheesemonger pushed me away just as quickly. I was very nervous about entering the store because it seemed clear I was not welcome. At least that is what I thought at first.
After consulting my French tutor about how to properly order cheese, I set out on my first mission. I decided to order an easily pronounced cheese so as to not stress the ears of the cheesemonger. I cheerfully greeted the woman as I entered the store (never forget to greet the shopkeeper!) and walked directly to the small cheese case. She grunted her response to my greeting, stood behind the case with her arms crossed over her ample bosom and glared around the store. She avoided eye contact as much as I was searching for it.
As I had learned from my tutor, I held up my thumb and first finger spread to indicate the width of the wedge I wanted and asked for Brie. Her eyes quickly flicked up, met mine and regarded me as if I was from outer space. She grunted and pointed at the section of the cheese case which contained no fewer than 10 different kinds of Brie. This was not part of the plan. I had no idea which to choose and the woman was not willing to offer any assistance in making the choice. I quickly pointed to one and tried to pronounce the name. As she sliced off the prescribed wedge, through pursed lips, she groaned the proper pronunciation for Brie de Meaux.
Although I was beaten down by this exchange, I was determined to continue visiting the Cheese Lady each week. Slowly, her body language relaxed as she recognized my familiar face and regular patronage. She started offering cheese selections based on what was new and what I had ordered in the past. At one point, she asked if I was Canadian and I must admit to not correcting her. I didn’t want to undo all of the progress we had made!
After a good six months of visiting the Cheese Lady, I started to feel a bit more comfortable making polite conversation. My French had improved as quickly as her mood. During one visit, I mentioned that my parents were coming for a visit. The Cheese Lady’s eyes lit up and she explained that I should bring them to the store during their time in Paris. I agreed that it would be the perfect Parisian experience.
The visit with my parents brought out a whole new side to our shopping experience. Our exchange lasted at least three times longer than my typical visits and we were offered a wide variety of cheeses to sample. Because of her generous and attentive sales, and my fear of saying no, we went home with enough cheese to last at least a month for a family of 5.
Yet again, I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and generosity with which I was treated after a period of time patronizing the same store. Paris is a city of a little more than two million people, but each neighborhood feels like a small village.
I had moved on from Velveeta and I would never go back. Expanding my cheese horizons was a great side effect of becoming a part of our Parisian neighborhood. Not only did I learn what a cheese fanatic I really was, but I made progress toward integrating in the process. Little did I know how much that knowledge would come in handy as we packed our bags for Switzerland 12 years later.
April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com