(reverse) culture shocks, through beer

For an American in France, culture shock does not exist.

Culture shock refers to the jarring discomfort and isolation that can result from living in a culture that is different from one’s home culture. Now that I have spent multiple months in France on two separate occasions, I am prepared to state that French culture is not different enough from American culture for culture shock to set in. I acknowledge that there exist vast differences in language, history, and broad sensibilities between the cultures of America and France, but these differences tend not to surface unless one engages in a challenging philosophical debate.

My life here, even as a student, never involves much heavy intellectual lifting. All I really talk about with French people is snow, and about stupid things our students say, and about how the Spanish teacher just got a new couch and maybe I can have her old futon that turns into a bed. Our conversations never seem to wander to juicy subjects like existentialism, illegal immigration, or marital infidelity.

So coming to France hardly provides that admirable shock of a place that is truly strange. Maybe if I decided to live in Egypt for a year, or Malaysia, or India, I would see some novelty, some previously unimaginable truth, something to make me reflect, something to make me self conscious. I don’t even know what I would see. Maybe I would see an old man, with no arms, on a motorcycle, and his beard is long enough that he uses it to tow a cart full of exotic purple fruit. Can you imagine?

But here in France, the differences are few, mild, and often amusing. It can be hard to name them. French music and pop culture is often nothing more than adorable mimicry of American music and pop culture. French people don’t really understand pointless optimism the way Americans do. And the French are inexplicably obsessed with things like rugby, handball, and “chewing gum.”

When the little differences annoy me and the symptoms of culture shock become apparent, my remedy is the recitation of one truth: my time in France is very brief. It’s stupid to cry about missing American food. Why? Because just a few months from now, minutes after arriving at Oakland Airport, I’ll be sitting cross-legged on the floor at In-N-Out, violently consuming a 10×10 Hamburger and washing down a few orders of Animal-Style Fries with two or three Cosmopolitan Milkshakes. I am quite certain that one day I will make up for lost time.

Shake Shack: the last burger, until one day...

One of the main things I thought I would miss about America was the beer. Like many young Americans my age, I love beer. Beer, far from mere beverage, can be a bringer of comfort, pleasure, and reverie. The way it cools your mouth, warms your head, tickles your throat… feelings that are reliable delights, like dragging the palm of your hand across the warm fur of a good dog, or walking barefoot through grass.

In late September, I drank my last American beer: an Oktoberfest-style craft brew. Chris, John, and I were sitting in their tiny Manhattan apartment, playing Halo Reach. At the time, it felt normal, but now it sticks in my mind as a farewell to my American summer of cold beer, fresh hop acids, and chewy malt: the familiar tastes of privilege taken for granted.

Beer was braided into some of my best memories:

-Sharing Schneider’s Edel-Weisse, Damnation Golden, Old Speckled Hen, and Ayinger Celebrator with Dave and Luke. We played pool in Dave’s garage, listened to music, and raised our eyebrows at the sweetness.

Dave's sunset table

–Discovering Yankee Pier happy hour, happily drinking Stone IPA for a dollar on Mt. Diablo Blvd, Lafayette’s main artery.

-Coalescing with the Art and Wine Festival crowd into a miniature high school reunion, Prohibition Ale in hand. Miranda’s dad played the bass in a band and a man gave me three beer tickets.

-Lamenting the Ghana-US game over a Back In Black IPA at 21st Amendment in San Francisco.

-Shamelessly enjoying Hamm’s at the Round-Up Saloon while playing shuffleboard and listening to my brother’s karaoke.

-Sitting before the fire pit with an Alaskan Amber in Natalie’s backyard in Seattle.

-Finding Gordon and Kevin on the Pacific Crest trail near Shasta, I presented them with a growler each of Sierra Nevada Stout and Torpedo IPA: their reward for over a thousand miles hiked. When we found our campsite under an overpass, we chilled the IPA in the Sacramento River and drank it under a full moon.

After sleeping under the bridge, Kevin, Gordon, and I anticipate our Sierra Nevada Stout.

-Brewing a strong ale with my dad in June. He praised it, in his way, all summer long. I presented my brew to my good friends and never really knew or cared whether their admiration was genuine.

-Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the beer is terrible. Luke, Molly and I made a baseball team as unstoppable as the 1998 Braves, which was good, but better was watching Andy, Mickey, and Dave drink untold volumes of a strange mixture of Natural and Milwaukee’s Best Light.

(from left) Edgar Renteria, Brian Wilson, and Tim Lincecum

And finally, at my summer’s end, I descended to the bodega beneath Chris and John’s apartment and bought Magic Hat’s surprisingly delicious Oktoberfest offering. It was the first of the variety I had found in stores in 2010. Finally, there, as the humid city heat pressed into the apartment, as John yelled nonsensical commands to unknown Halo teammates, as Chris bobbed his head left and right to mimic his warrior avatar’s leftstick movements, I tasted a change in the seasons, the wind blowing in a different direction with a different play on the skin. A presentiment, I feared, of good-beer scarcity, that dreaded segment of my culture shock.

Then I came to France, and a fair amount of discomfort ensued.

On the afternoon of September 30, I fell asleep at the Gare de L’Est in Paris and missed my train to Verdun by two minutes. I could see it pulling away, unstoppable. When I finally arrived in Verdun, at 10:30 at night, I found myself utterly alone in the train station parking lot. Literally nobody in sight. Had to ask a security guard to find me a phonebook and a phone. Called my contact, who got out of bed and picked me up. She dropped me off at my apartment, and I slept poorly on the mattress of a stiff bed, using coats as a blanket and t-shirts as a pillow.

The next day, after observing a couple of classes at school, I found myself stumbling through E. LeClerc, a Wal-Mart-like store near the train station. I was looking for a mattress pad, sheets, and a pillow, all in hopes of making my second night more restful. I turned a corner and found myself face to face with the beer section.

Standing in the beer section at LeClerc felt like looking at stacks of mulch and dirt at Home Depot. The beer was sparsely scattered on plywood shelves fit into tall, forbidding metal frames. None of the beer was refrigerated, and none of it looked particularly appetizing. The cheap beer, all of which I had learned to avoid from my semester in Paris, was shrink-wrapped in 20- and 36 packs. The expensive beer was presented in dusty, individual 10-oz bottles, each of which cost at least two euros. Welcome to France.

I placed my bedding, pasta, and a bottle of Belgian beer on the ten-items-or-less counter and gave a fifty-euro note to the cashier. I was dimly aware, but not at all concerned, that my purchases transparently foretold my plans for the night. I’m just gonna eat this pasta, drink this beer, and pass out. Through to the discount land of sleep on my new drap housse, drap plat and oreiller moelleux.

The next day was Friday, and after school, I decided to learn exactly what Verdun had to offer me. There’s not much going on here: 30,000 people, a bunch of cows, a couple of good patisseries, several World War One battlefields… and one truly awesome beer bar: L’Estaminet.

Although I miss American beer, this void in my soul has been filled by L’Estaminet. A beer bar has saved me from culture shock.

On the afternoon of October 1, I got off the bus in central Verdun, carrying a book and nothing else under a warmish sun. I found L’Estaminet easily and sat down outside. I ordered an amber ale: l’ambrée. It was delicious. So I decided to come back later that night.

L’estaminet is Belgian French for “the bar.” Verdun’s L’Estaminet occupies a small space on a tiny street near the river, and its stained glass windows and signage (“Bierstube,” “Bitburger”) indicate that the establishment follows the Northern French/Belgian/German tradition. On one of the signs, there is a cartoon of the proprietor, Alain, holding a tray of beer. He is a bespectacled man with an enormous gray mustache.

Alain aka Le Loup Blanc

L’Estaminet’s interior is dim, and its stone walls are covered with vintage beer signs, murals, and pictures of cartoon pigs. Everywhere, cartoon pigs. Pigs drinking, pigs saying different things. There is even a moving clock behind the bar that depicts a male pig happily, perpetually humping a female pig. I asked Alain if he had a pig obsession; he told me the pig décor comes from the chansons cochonnes, which are old, dirty French drinking songs. One night a year they have a pig-song singing night. Jean-Jacques, the old man with the booming voice who came to our Thanksgiving celebration, once brought a pig on a leash to a pig-song night; the pig became Alain’s pet.

The famous pig clock.

Above the actual bar hang many, many witches (no idea why), and behind the bar can be found a wall stocked with beautiful glassware, and fine whiskeys and other liquors, most of which are unrecognizable to the young American college graduate.

All the beers on tap are amazing. They are Bitburger (light German lager), Chimay rouge, Lindeman’s Framboise (raspberry beer that I never order), Kwak (a beautifully colored honey-tasting beer), Duchesse de Bourgogne (sour Flemish red ale), Mc Chouffe, Guinness, and five “Estam” beers brewed by Alain in the back of the bar. The Estam beers are le curé (Belgian style), le froment (white style), la blonde, l’ambrée, and the Mac’Estam (black beer). Alain’s beers are all phenomenal. Really, really good. The rest of the menu is huge and amazing: you can order hundreds of different types of world-class beer, and bière flambée (you set it on fire), and that’s not to mention fine whiskeys and, of course, grog.

Sur pression

It’s not just about the beer, though: L’Estaminet is my chosen place of competitive greatness. Near the end of the bar hangs a dartboard. When I first saw this dartboard, I thought about how much I liked the bar, and about how much free time I would have over the seven following months. Then, I noticed a cherished element of the bar’s décor: an oar—hanging from the ceiling above the dartboard—signed by the French Olympic rowing team, who are apparently based in Verdun. Inspired by images of perseverance, mental fortitude, and extreme physical exertion, I decided to dedicate myself to the sport of darts. For the past few months I have maintained a rigorous training schedule, and although I have made no noticeable progress, my indefatigable commitment has earned the respect of my fellow L’Estaminet regulars.

What I dream about

Another important part of the bar’s atmosphere is the music. Alain loves blues. The soundtrack at L’Estaminet is reliably one of soulful voices, slow tempos, and guitars that snarl and weep. The blues always oozes from the speakers, lowers barriers to conversation, imbues one’s every action with a dose of cool. And one night a month, Alain invites a different band to set up next to the brew kettle and perform.

Lorenzo Sanchez, January 13

Enfin, bref. L’Estaminet. One of the many reasons I feel lucky to have been randomly assigned to Verdun. The beer culture shock I feared has been averted.

Alain surveys his "cathédrale"

But alas, I am sure this story will end on a blue note called reverse culture shock.

On the other side of the ocean awaits reverse culture shock, which is way worse than regular culture shock. The problem with reverse culture shock (RCS, if you’re into initialisms) is that it accompanies a relatively permanent change in cultures.

I suffered a pretty severe case of RCS in 2009, when I returned to California after a semester in Paris. After six months in France, I spent a sublime week watching SportsCenter, seeing friends and family, and eating untold quantities of burrito.

Then, all of a sudden, a certain well established network of neurons in my brain told me it was about time to eat a nice Nutella-banana crêpe. In Paris, this craving drove me to go to the crêpe stand across from the Luxembourg Gardens, where the silent, sneering man with bad teeth would sell me a Nutella-banana crêpe for 3.50 euros—an outrageously good deal. Then I would cross the avenue and sit in one of the wonderful chairs, frown at tourists and Parisians alike, watch children steer sailboats across a fountain, look at the Senate building, and eat my crêpe.

Back at home in California, I had limited access to such an experience. The satisfaction of my crêpe craving was postponed indefinitely. My foreign familiar, all of it, had been removed from my life, and it was now thousands of miles, thousands of dollars away. I missed my host family, my host family’s cat, my tiny room with a view over the rooftops of the seventeenth arrondissement, my daily bus rides past the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. I was suffering withdrawal from the beauty of the city and the language, the food and the history: my delights and needs were on the opposite side of the planet. But it was all so tantalizingly fresh in my memory, so easily accessible in loving photographs that nobody liked to look at as much as I did. Alone, I regarded my beautiful recent past across an unbreakable plane.

May 17, 2009, 12:00:01

Days after the crêpe incident, I went to Vancouver and enjoyed a good summer of non-culture-shock that screened me from the worst of my RCS symptoms. It was during this summer, though, that I decided to apply for a one-year post-graduation job in France. Like buying a puppy even though you know you will outlive it.

And what about the beer? What about my favorite beer at L’Estaminet? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the Mac’Estam. La Noire. The schwarzbier, the black lager. True to its genre, it is very dark. Its aroma is an exquisite blend of nuttiness and breadiness. Its taste is a symphony of burnt malts and bittersweet chocolate and light coffee, with hints of fig and banana, and a background of balancing hop spice. A studied taste of the Mac’Estam is a ten-second journey. Every twenty-five centiliters of the stuff is a wrinkled silk tapestry, a closed-eyed plunge into a rabbit hole, followed by an umbilical rebound past fleeting visions of justice and righteousness. If that makes any sense.

In every thread of life there is uncertainty about ends and beginnings. Who knows how long I will hold this job, know this person, own this sofa. The fall from a chapter of life is softened by the possibility of an epilogue or a belated sequel. But coming home from abroad is a firm end. Coming home is crossing a plane through which one can glimpse a would-be present but cannot continue it.

I look forward to my return to America, even though I know there will be some RCS. To speed me to a constructive recovery I will periodically review a few useful truths.
-America is my home.
-It is unrealistic to forecast a return to France for at least five years.
-Besides, it will be good to renounce the self-indulgent lightness of my French life for a while.
-I must never stop progressing.
-But it is OK to look at pictures from time to time.
-And I must always keep the taste of foreign beer in my mind.

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4 Responses to (reverse) culture shocks, through beer

  1. Lauren says:

    I’m glad I’ll have someone in the bay area to help me through the RCS this time!

    Best sentence: “a closed-eyed plunge into a rabbit hole, followed by an umbilical rebound past fleeting visions of justice and righteousness.” Craig would be proud. Also, the fact that you said “Enfin, bref,” which immediately made me think of this deezer pub 🙂

  2. Reuben Swindall says:

    This “RCS” phenomenon that you have so aptly identified has already begun to loom largely in my mind as well. I got a taste of it when I went to the American Airforce Base in Germany over the Holidays. Many of the simple things I had looked forward too were available to me. I could have eaten a cheeseburger, drank a massive fountain drink with a half gallon of ice in it and fleeting carbonation. I mean I spent a 20 dollar bill at Subway in a mall foodcourt. But those were empty gestures for me. I miss the freedom of my car, raging music on the CD player, a skyline formed by mountains instead of black/grey flatness. Enough of that, what concerns me most about the “great return” is that home is a construct and its already hard for me to think in terms of sweet home Virginia and sweet home Montana. Now France is creeping its way into my home construct, and it makes me feel both very blessed and very torn. I like your image of “looking across an unbreakable plane” into the homes we have had. Does our home construct grow clearer? Or more ambiguous? Keep writing.

  3. You are brilliant. You must have a smart mother.

  4. Peter says:

    Eh oui, les bons vieux temps…Having done this several times myself, I remember the RCS. In France, I missed American things, mostly grease. Back in US, the absence of plasticky, mass produced things. Vive la difference!

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