To brie, or not to brie? A viewpoint from across the pond

By Rebecca Phillips

September 2, 2004—SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC—While waiting at the gate to board American Airlines flight 44 from New York’s JFK Airport to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, I caught eyes with a woman across the row of waiting-area chairs. We smiled politely at each other. A short while later, she noticed my left knee bouncing madly and asked “Is this your first time going to Paris?” I smiled. “No,” I said, “but this will be my first time living there.” We made more small talk, and when she learned I was studying French and English literature at the University of Paris, she asked the inevitable question: “Ah, vous parlez français?” (Do you speak French?) To which I replied, as I always do, “Oui, j’espère.” (Yes, I hope.)

This has become my default answer because I’m never sure whether whatever it is I do with the French language can really qualify as confidently speaking it. My grammar is often awkward, I always forget the one simple word that I need to express myself correctly, and, unlike my English-speaking self, the French girl in me is so self-conscious and nervous that I am hesitant to speak in French to anyone other than my language teachers. In fact, I’m sure that I come across as timid, and possibly even a little slow.

But changing that answer from “I hope” to a definitive and confident “yes” is not what I predict to be my biggest challenge this year. Fluency is practically promised to the 14 students enrolled in the Paris Academic Year program, and while I know that at first it will be terrifying, eventually I will be able to remember how to say “eyebrows” or “fascinating” without thinking about it for 10 minutes. And before everything clicks into place, I’m hopeful that my teachers and new acquaintances will excuse my initial hesitation and clumsiness with the language. What troubles me most is that I have a problem less flexible than a language barrier—I’m lactose-intolerant.

I’m afraid that it will be less acceptable to be dairy-free in the land of wine and cheese than to be a clumsy American student in a classroom of French natives. While my mind and tongue can work on their language problems, my stomach seems unwilling to compromise. So that means no brie, no crème brulée, no café au lait, no butter…the list goes on and on. What’s really upsetting is not just that I have to say goodbye to my favorite food group (that would be cheese), but that I have only just developed my little milk malfunction.

It would be one thing if I had spent my whole life learning how to effectively avoid dairy without feeling deprived of the things I love the most, but it wasn’t until a week before I left for Paris that I realized how serious my body is about this lactose-intolerance thing. I’m told that most people are at least a little bit lactose-intolerant, and that while symptoms develop for different people at different ages, it often manifests itself in the late teens and early twenties, so at 20 I’m a perfect candidate.

When the in-flight “meal” came around, I looked down to see about 1/4 of a cup of chopped barbecued chicken, some green beans smothered in butter, and a hunk of potatoes with melted cheese on top of them. I felt like my dinner was mocking me. But I was hungry, so I ate it anyway, and dealt with the stomachache that soon followed.

As I stared at the thin, gorgeous, well-dressed Française across the aisle eating her salad with the creamy Parmesan dressing and her chocolate brownie with no fear of a gastric revolution, I began to think more generally about the idea of change. When you move to a new place, or turn over a new leaf, or begin any new chapter in your life, how much of whom you are is determined by where you are? How much of the self that is shaped by the past, how much will be changed by the future, and how much (if any) is that fundamental essential “self” that will remain unchanged by location or time?

In my own case, I know that no matter how long I live in Paris my hair will never be perfect or unaffected by humidity and sweat, I will never be effortlessly thin and chic, and I will always be likely to destroy my nicest heels. Though these things may never change, I know that the rest is up in the air. And so, armed with a box of Lactaid and a tube of my favorite heat-defying volumizing hair gel, I boldly go where I hope to discover who I will become, even if that person has to pass on the cheese course from time to time.