The Broccoli Beat-Down

by Jean Valjean

As many of you have experienced, learning a new language is a humbling process.  If it isn't enough that you make a fool of yourself most times you open your mouth, there is the added dimension of concurrent “existential chaos” (as Carlan puts it).  After experiencing highly productive professional roles as physicians and teachers, we are now bumbling language beginners desperately wanting to learn as fast as we can to alleviate the pain and suffering. 

Ah, but there are a few obstacles frustrating the resolution of my identity crisis.  The call of the progeny hits me like screeching nails, “I’m hungry, Can somebody wipe me?, I don’t want to go to school…”.  I find myself all alone.  It's Jess' study block.  She too is a full-time student which means we attempt to split the domestic responsibilities 50/50, and I try to keep my finger in the dike while she's gone.  Schizam, there goes ½ of my desperately needed study time.  God’s good blessings (my wonderful wife and kids) quickly begin to feel like obstacles between me and my deep desire to study more French.  Frustration and internal angst build.

With that as a back-drop, I tell you this story.  It was a gray, Friday afternoon post classes, and we found ourselves in desperate need of groceries.  Note, the shopping is now in my jurisdiction, and I typically haul the goods with a bicycle that I found in the apartment basement.  This basement (literally “la cave” in French) is full of stuff dating back to the mid-60’s that not even missionaries wanted to keep.

Providentially, "my" grocery getter is outfitted with a make-shift plastic tub strapped to the back which I can pile high with milk, diapers, canned goods, etc, in addition to the over-sized backpack I wear for the occasion (thanks Mom Birk).  At times, the shear weight can border on the edge of being untenable (it is crucial to padlock the front tire to a fixed object during loading and unloading).  Thus, it was with great joy on this particular day that I accepted an invitation to go grocery shopping with another student, Tom, using his car (the McCropders are going “sans voiture” in France).

I got right to work at the store so as not to keep Tom waiting.  Of particular interest, in France you have to weigh your own produce and then print a sticker for each item.  That is when it happened.  As I quickly weighed my fresh fruits and veggies, I remember glimpsing at the broccoli sticker and thinking, “Hmm, not bad, only 86 centimes ($1.07) for 2 heads.”  In a flash I was off to procure the rest of my shopping list.

Tom was already waiting by the car when I arrived at a long line at the cashier.  As I went to pay my bill, it seemed unusually high.  Then my credit card wouldn’t work.  After several failed attempts to fix the problem, the natives were getting restless behind me and the cashier gave-up and sent this American putz and his confangled visa card to the “help” desk to have them straighten me out.  The lady there got my card to work in an instant and I was out the door.  With all the hullabaloo, I never looked at my receipt. 

The next morning, as I’m eating my newly purchased granola, I suddenly remember the expensive grocery bill.  I get out the receipt and quickly hone in on the “CORNICHONES” costing 86€ (euros).   That's over $100.  I happen to know that "cornichone" means pickle from a silly French song we listened to in class.  Yikes!  Those were some expensive pickles.  But wait a minute, I didn’t even buy pickles.  After some careful investigation, I find "cornichones" on my broccoli sac at a cost of 99.99€/kilo!  

I sheepishly return to the store with my bag of broccoli.  At the "help" desk for idiots, I explain in my best French that I somehow made a mistake weighing my broccoli, and yes, I paid over $100 dollars for it without noticing.  The nice lady began laughing hilariously and announced to the row of cashiers sitting en face, "This American paid 86€ for broccoli!"  She merrily credited back my money and asked with a giggle if I would still like to buy the broccoli.  I said yes, but was then faced with having to re-negotiate the scales of humiliation.  I pressed the little button with the picture of broccoli, and with no problem at all it produced a sticker labelled "broccoli" for a total of 2€.  That's more like it. 

It was a week or so later that Jessica investigated the scene of the crime and had the insight to push the blank button next to the broccoli.  Out came "cornichones" for 99.99 €/kilo.  Doh.  At any rate, it was fantastic broccoli.

I continue to learn day after day just how much of my identity is still wrapped up in things like productivity, speaking intelligently and not paying $100 for broccoli.  Jesus continues to call me to find my identity in being God's child, not in my French or in my ability to use the scales of humiliation.  As I rest in Christ, I find that my internal angst fades, I'm able to love my family again and I'm set free to continue on the journey of learning French by making my prerequisite one million mistakes.  Thanks in particular to Jessica, the McCropder guys, Steve Telian and my mom as you've walked through these months of transition with me.


DrsMyhre said...

Priceless. (Inestimable).

Lisa Liou said...

Thanks, John, for the refreshing honesty about crossing cultures as well as managing dual calling to family and ministry.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it helps to be genetically predisposed to sticking fingers in dikes. :P Good times, good times!

Benjamin said...

Great stuff from beginning to end.

Sandy said...

Oh, your story made me laugh! What a memory!