The air is crisp, the sun is still warm, and leaves turning all shades of lovely; fall is officially here! PSLs for everyone! (PSL, you know, pumpkin spiced lattes.) With my vibrant fall spirit freshly awakened, I thought a fun American activity to introduce to my French teen-agers was to carve a pumpkin.
As usual for Wednesdays, I met them at our corner in the 11th, but before heading to their house I told them we were taking a bit of a detour. Already, they were skeptical and protested that we weren't going to the right way. I've learned now to ignore them when they tell me how things are done, and with a smile and an "Allez, guys" I led them down the street towards the florist.
The florist had a lovely display set up out on the sidewalk of autumn bouquets, cabbage flowers in violet, snowy whites, and pale greens, and one last pumpkin; so plump and so perfect, just begging to be purchased by my little American hands. The six of us walked into the empty shop looking for signs of the clerk, but there weren't any. Even after several "bonjours" and "y a quelqu'un?", we still hadn't made any progress.
Like a typical scene in any horror film, there was basement door and it was open with a dim light illuminating the spiral stairs, luring one of us to go "check it out".
Not wanting someone else to swoop in and grab my dream pumpkin, I went outside to pick it up with the intentions of coming back in to wait at the cash register. With my back was turned, reaching for the pumpkin, the kids who were still in the shop began screaming, howling in fact. For a moment there, I thought Leatherface himself had made an autumn trip to Paris and had bursted out of the creepy basement with his raging chainsaw, ready to attack. What was going on? I quickly turned around, with pumpkin in hand, and screamed, "What, what, what, quoi?"
"You can't just pick up the pumpkin like that!" they shouted in scattered cacophony.
"Because, you must wait for the owner of the shop to do it! Put it down at once!"
Relieved that they weren't about to be slaughtered (or was I?), I sighed, looked down at the pumpkin and was almost about to follow their wishes but decided better and questioned them.
"But wait, why not?" I asked.
"Because that's just not how it's done."
In a stand off, we faced each other. Little me holding the pumpkin and five French teen-agers who were beyond horrified that I would help myself in such a brazen manner. It hadn't even occurred to me, but they were right, that isn't how it's "done" here. Business, especially in small shops like this one, is conducted much more passively. Sometimes it's hard to break out of your customs especially around the holidays. Growing up, my family and I have always picked out our pumpkins and brought it to the cash register. Never would we ask the cashier at Red Apple (which is now Gristede's) on 7th Avenue to go out and select it for us. I almost heeded to their demands but thought this was a great opportunity to share the idea of different cultures and customs, which is the point of why I am even with them.
Before I could launch into what was surely going to be a boring lecture about cultural differences, the florist who was eating a roasted chicken at the take-out shop just next door came rushing over in reaction to the hysteria. I explained that we were interested in purchasing the pumpkin, which then was interrupted by an orchestra of the guys all "accusing" me of wanting to purchase it, and asked if it was okay to help myself and bring it to the register.
The florist, bless him, didn't see a problem with me holding the pumpkin and could see that my hands were full, literally an figuratively, made somewhat of a show to appreciate my help.
"Ca va les garçons, she is helping an old man like myself," he said, chuckling at their humorless dispositions. "Follow me and I'll ring you up, dear."
Beyond grateful that he didn't challenge me either because I would never have heard the end of it from these mutants, I gave him smile of relief. Merci, monsieur.
Their reaction did get me thinking though: if a French person in the States asked the cashier to go select their pumpkin (or whatever) from the stand, we would find it rude. And here, thinking we are helping by bringing our selections to the register in some shops would be considered obnoxious and pushy. It's interesting.
After a laborious English session that felt like pulling out impacted wisdom teeth, we carved the damn pumpkin. It took me about ten minutes to get one of them to help scoop out the gooey inside and another fifteen to explain that no, I cannot carve Harry Potter's face. (Also, I was already armed with props in my bag for my idea.)
Without further ado, here he is! The return of Jacques O' Lantern, the French pumpkin!
Up revealing the French pumpkin to my teens, they stood in silence, just glaring at poor Jacques. With their heads tilted fashioning expressions of pure distaste, they stared at him, then to each other before one turned to me and asked, "So what makes him French?"