February 26, 2009

Spam vs. Headcheese, Karaoke vs. Skype: Touch Choices Ahead

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This semester, I’ve learned all sorts of practical things — one notable example being that a two liter bottle of soda costs significantly less than its 20 oz. cousin. I’ve also learned that drinking straight from a two liter bottle in the metro either labels you: a) drunk; b) cheap; c) low-class. Often I’m only playing the part of two out of the three stereotypes, but anyway.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from my abroad experience thus far (God, I am so sick of calling my time abroad my “abroad experience”) is that an American like me has to start making substitutions for all sorts of consumer products and services that I have come to readily take for granted at home.
Take, for example, the education system. In America, you can expect that classes will begin when they are planned and will continue throughout the semester without interruption. Not so here. Welcome to France, and welcome to the strike (la grève). Since I’ve landed in Paris, I haven’t yet had a full week of normal classes — and I’m fine with that. Truth be told, most of the other students are fine with that, and Sarkozy, with his emphatic lack of strikebreaking, seems fine with that, too. The teachers, and the substitute/enseignant-chercheurs, aren’t so hunky-dory about it, but it’s only a matter of time until they realize that sloth — not protesting in the streets — is their true calling. I kid (kind of).
But seriously, let’s put focus back onto me: School is bat-ish crazy around here. From week to week, I don’t know if I have class until I show up, and even then the teacher may show, but up to an hour late. And showing up nearly an hour late severely disrupts my newfound epicurean lifestyle, the one in which I really can’t be bothered by the indecision of French teachers because I have my own self-interest to attend to.
As a result of this major disruption, I’ve started to accrue little, standard yet stable substitutions into my daily rituals.
For example, when I’m not in the tutoring sessions my program has implemented in place of lost class time, I spend some of my leisure time watching American TV. It’s comforting, simple and I can understand all of it without asking, “Comment?” Online TV is great, except that they cut me off after 90 minutes — right when I’m fiending for more drama, like Augustus Gloop lustin’ after his choco deelites.
So I’ve started finding quality substitutions for other things that last longer than 90 minutes and hold deeper value, like food products and staying in touch with my friends and family.
Not that I’ve really missed American canned meats, but let’s say that I did. My sub for SPAM would be the European delicacy, headcheese. Don’t know the back-story of either of these gustatory delights? You’re in for a wild ride. According to Wikipedia, “The labeled ingredients in the classic variety of Spam are: chopped pork shoulder meat with ham meat added, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite to help keep its color. Spam’s gelatinous glaze, or aspic, forms from the cooling of meat stock.”
Headcheese, on the other hand, “ … is in fact not a cheese, but meat pieces from the head of a calf or pig (sometimes a sheep or cow), in aspic, with onion, black pepper, allspice, bay leaf, salt and/or vinegar. It may also include meat from the feet, tongue and heart. It is usually eaten cold or at room temperature as a luncheon meat. It is sometimes also known as souse meat, particularly if pickled with vinegar.”
Mmm! As you might be guessing, yes, the allspice really gives it that little kick — that little “je ne sais quoi” — that sets this dish apart from the others. SPAM, I don’t miss you one bit, but it’s comforting above all to know that you have a ruder, cruder sister on this side of the pond.
Since I’ve now satiated my processed “meat” need while abroad, there remains a more important substitute to make: Skype, meet online karaoke.
You may be like me, and have become sick and tired of writing whole conversations using only Skype’s frighteningly realistic and accurate emoticons (i.e. “sorry i was so wasted last nite [insert projectile-vomiting Skype face], but i just want 2 hug u [insert Brown-Bear-reaching-to-give-a-big-hug emoticon]”). Instead of letting a 20×20 pixel picture let someone know that you’re digitally thinking of him or her, it’s really romantic to sing “I Miss You” by Blink-182 off-key and then post it to your profile. An extra plus! — a community of users can vote on how well you made the tune “your own,” and even your boo can comment on how well your sentimental ass butchered the song. Only in America-via-Japan would this fad catch on; it seems doubtful that the French would put their pride and pipes so foolhardily on the line. So it’s nice to know that I can access these sites at any hour of the day and laugh my ass off.
Singing online karaoke, (never) eating headcheese, watching online television: Sure, they may not be earth-shattering life skills, but the next time you’re in a pinch, it might be worth your while to try out these substitutes whenever you’re fixing for some pseudo-America.