I almost never watch TV. I've never before followed a reality television show in either France or the US. Yet somehow over the last few weeks I've become hooked on Masterchef.
At first I thought it was somehow uniquely French, with contestants who dream not of becoming pop stars but of becoming famous chefs. Then I learned that it was invented somewhere else -- the UK, maybe? -- and France is only the third or fourth country to launch its own version. So much for the French cultural exception. Still, there's something strangely appealing about watching people from all corners and cultures of France compete to chop onions to the finest and most uniform dice, or to make the best quiche lorraine. I feel like I'm learning something. And I'm in desperate need of distraction these days.
Three judges, two of whom are Michelin-starred chefs and one a culinary journalist, arbitrate the winnowing down of the contestants. They seem to take their job quite seriously, too: their insults and belittling comments are generously distributed, both to individuals and to the group as a whole. These insults make me squirm. I'd rather see honest criticism and encouragement than self-satisfied disdain. I've been trying to decide if the harshness is part of the reality television format, or whether it is just because the show is filmed and aired in France.
As anyone who has worked in a French enterprise or gone through any part of the French school system knows, praise and criticism are seen a bit differently here. Rarely will a supervisor or a teacher explicitly mention one's strengths, but they do not hold off on "constructive" criticism. This stressed me for months when I first started working here. I kept waiting for some sort of reassurance from my boss which never came; I agonized about it until I finally asked my husband what could possibly be the problem. "But he's French," he explained. "He's not going to tell you you're doing a good job." Sure enough, he never did explicitly. Reassurance came as I was given more responsibilities, and ultimately hired full time. Now, aside from my annual review, I never hear anything directly positive from my boss and I never worry about it.
It isn't rare, however, that he tells me I'm wrong, or at least on the wrong track on something. I never (or rarely) take it personally.
School is the same way, I've heard, or worse. And driving school is the ultimate personally humiliating experience, I'm discovering. I keep repeating here (although I'm less and less certain of myself) that I know how I drive, or used to. I had a car and a license for years back in the US, many of them in Boston, which reputedly isn't the easiest place to drive in the lower 48. I never liked to drive, but I was comfortable enough behind the wheel. Now I have twenty mandatory hours with a French driving instructor to re-learn everything I've either forgotten or never knew. I've had two sessions so far, and it is grueling.
Session one: one hour, in which I learn that all along I've been braking incorrectly. I know how to drive a stick shift, thankfully, but I've always done something like this: approximately 50 feet before stopping, put in the clutch. Put the car in neutral. Brake gradually. Leave the car in neutral until starting again. I immediately learned that this made the instructor crazy. It was dangerous, WHAT THE HECK WAS I DOING? Leave the clutch alone! Brake! No, look behind you first! Stay in gear! Madame, s'il vous plaît !
I was already semi-terrified of driving in Paris, even when behind the wheel of a dual-control car, and trying to correct this bad habit on the fly was challenging. I quickly understood that since average French following distances are much, much shorter than in the US, it is important to be constantly vigilant about the rear-view mirror. Yet nothing came naturally, especially after seven years of no (none, zip, zero) time behind the wheel.
The first instructor was harsh, but not unduly so, and I left more confident than when I'd arrived. Then today I had driving session, and instructor, number two.
"You cannot brake like that, madame. Think of your baby!" (He'd asked me how many months pregant I was before we began.)
"You'll be rear-ended for sure."
"What exactly are you doing with the clutch? With the gears?"
"I told you not to brake like that. You say oui, oui, but you still brake like that."
"You didn't stop for the child at the crosswalk!" (Way to make me feel terrible. I did see the kid, who was standing patiently on the sidewalk, so I judged it OK to pass.)
"Why are you stopping for that pedestrian? You have a green light!" (Yes, but the woman looked to me to be about to step out anyway, and she was looking the other direction.)
"How many years of experience did you say you had?"
For two hours at the beginning of rush hour we turned around Levallois, Clichy, Saint Denis, and Villeneuve-la-Garenne, all densely urban outskirts of Paris. I did my best to navigate the construction zones, understand the confusing traffic circles and one-way streets, and anticipate the movements of the teeming pedestrians. I watched the minutes tick by slowly as the tension dried out my mouth and tied my shoulders in knots. Although I drove so slowly that cars swerved around me, I apparently stopped when I shouldn't have, didn't stop when I was supposed to, and basically screwed up.
At the end of the ordeal, the instructor accused me of being too confident. And of braking badly. And of not looking ahead far enough, or frequently enough in my rear-view mirror. But I'd still made some progress, he reluctantly added.
Confident? Me? I felt like an abject failure. And I realized, too, that at 33 years old (and as a mother, for whom every child on every sidewalk reminds me of my own), what I wanted more than anything was not my driver's license, but to honestly feel that I could drive capably and safely. I wasn't sure that this form of driving instruction was going to get me there.
My husband and mother-in-law both shrugged when I described my experience. It's their job to pull you apart, they said. Besides, I had hours more of driving practice to master what they were demanding.
As much as I think I know what to expect here in France, I'm a little bit jarred to be in yet another situation that I don't quite have the cultural reflexes to confront. How many more years will it take me? Probably as many as it will take for me to dare driving around Place de l'Etoile on my own. Which is to say, c'est pas encore gagné : it's not won yet.