A French-American cultural exchange observed

Bear Lake, Utah

Near Bear Lake, Utah, two older Frenchmen sit at a table in front of a wall plastered with old license plates from around America. A TV hangs over their heads and a bear carved out of a tree trunk stares out from a nearby corner. The men have tidy beards and are wearing shorts and sandals over socks. Their wives, with tidy short hair and wearing capri pants with sandals over socks, are at the counter of a small hamburger and milkshake “drive-in” in Garden City (population: 562). They are just finalizing the details of their lunch order.

“What dressing do you want on your salads?” asks the sixteen-year-old clerk behind the counter.

The women consult each other in French and the English-speaking spokeswomen of the pair asks about the choices.

“Ranch, Thousand Island, French and Italian,” the clerk replies.

They consult in French again. It is clear that these salad dressing options have no meaning to them. The French spokeswoman asks, “Vinaigrette?”

“We don’t have that,” the clerk says.

A bystander offers that “I-talian” (pronounced with a hard “I” sound) is basically the same as vinaigrette. The French spokeswoman agrees to “Italian.”

The clerk asks what they would like to drink and the French spokeswoman says, “beer.”

“We don’t sell beer,” the clerk replies with raised eyebrows (this is exceedingly “dry,” teetotaling, Mormon Utah where it is certainly illegal to sell beer at a fast food joint). After consultation, the French spokeswomen says, “then water.”

She pays, is told her name will be called when her food is ready, and is directed with her four empty cups to a self-serve soda fountain.

She studies the soda fountain. She has no idea how to get water out of this array of soda pop brand names and black levers. Another bystander steps in and shows her the tiny button next to the “Minute Maid Lemonade” badge that says “water.” She fills the cups and the two women join their husbands to await lunch.

And so concludes another successful cultural exchange in this French quartet’s American odyssey.

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15 responses to “A French-American cultural exchange observed

  1. Having been through Utah (and Garden City, UT) many times and after living in Boise, ID for over 10 years, I am relieved that bystanders actually assisted this out-of-place group. Although, they could have been more helpful. And, I can relate, on several levels, to being in such a foreign place as a drive-in in Garden City after my time in Hong Kong and China. Great observation and post.

    • My husband was the bystander that helped them with the water. As a group, the French couples seemed rather delighted by the strange cultural experience it was for them.

      I only wish I spoke some French so that I could have chatted with them. And, as you said, I too can relate to feeling like a “fish out of water.”

      • Since reading your post today, I have been thinking of all the very “cultural” places I have travelled to in and around specifically; Utah, Nevada and Arizona, Between the amazing landscapes and the kitchy roadside stops it has a surreal quality to the experiencs. Add to it the summer heat!.

    • So true! Even though I “understand” rural Utah, I could completely relate to their confusion. My husband was the one that helped them figure out how to get water.

  2. You know what? It was good for them, that moment of oddness. French are among those people who sincerely believe that the rest of the world understands, admire and follow the French lifestyle (which is something that American do as well, from time to time:-). No vinaigrette in Utah? How surprising! And, on top of everythin, they get now a cool story to write a blogpost about: vinaigretteless and alcohol deprived in Garden City.

    • From the looks on their faces, I think they sincerely enjoyed the “oddness” of it all. I only wish I spoke some French so that I could understand what they were saying to each other about it!

  3. I guess the sandals over socks thing isn’t just a Pacific NW thing (wooly socks + Birkenstocks/Tevas?) Must be trendy since the Continental Europeans do it too! 🙂

    • I observed that they asked for more salt. And (unlike everyone else) they did not order milkshakes. They were well off of the standard European “tour of the American West.” Perhaps they were taking a “scenic” route to Yellowstone National Park?

  4. Loved the description of sandals and shorts…”over socks”. I’ve always associated socks (particularly black dress socks) with sandals to be particularly European, after seeing it decades ago in a museum in Taiwan. If you think YOU’RE out of place in Utah now, imagine how these folks feel!

    • Thankfully I’m now safely in Seattle where instead of being blindsided by red state issues, I’m being blindsided by the Macklemore phenomenon.

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