America

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So, France. A little more than a week I’ve been here now and I’m not waking up at 4am any longer but again I’m not waking up at any reasonable time, either. 11am, today. 11:30 by the time my head was off the pillow and 12:41 when I walked out the door in search of breakfast because by then I was puking air, literally, for not having eaten.

            Pregnant. This is my first symptom: I am allowed to eat a quantity of food that is equal to about the mass of one petite-woman-sized clenched fist before I feel like Thanksgiving has come and struck me blind. It is a physical force, the feeling, as if a second and very physical body is assaulting me for the crime of eating more than that, in the event that I do, or, in the event that I drink too much water, one sip even, one extra swipe of whipped cream off the top of a neighboring sundae because I know better than to order my own. There is only room for one swipe. And technically it is a separate and physical body assaulting me.

            The second symptom is that I’m not allowed to be hungry, not for a moment. If I let it get to that I will puke air in a wave of dramatics that are not my own as I explain between heaves that it is not me, it’s her—she is the one who couldn’t eat ten minutes ago and now must drop everything and find the nearest thing suitable and hurry the waiter under threat of certain newsworthy death, a double homicide, the first directed at a helpless waiter whose crime was only waiting in the wrong place at the wrong time and the second a mysteriously natural-looking death by starvation in an otherwise perfectly well-fed being.

            But the food must be right or it is no good. Sugar is not ideal. Small nibbles or a normal-sized bite of an exceptional thing, yes, but otherwise it is bad. It bangs on the veins and makes the heart race and spikes the energy high before dashing it against the rocks of my day, leaving me breathless, pissy. It is as if my body is pristine. As if I do not have decades of American eating under my belt. As if I’ve never bought a box of brownie mix for the sake of eating the batter, or never smothered peanut butter on a chocolate doughnut, or don’t know that the trick with a la mode anything is to order extra ice-cream so that bites can be taken with perfectly balanced ratios of ice-cream-to-dessert-item until the plate is clean. My tolerance is gone. My sensitivity is such that the world may as well have plucked me from my paleo diet and my fellow hunter-gatherers crouched around the fire in the family cave.

            But alas, I am in France, land of the people who believe that the proper balance to constant dessert is bread and melted cheese. A number of times already I have believed I might starve, food all around me, die in a way that is deeply ironic and true as the themes of ancient myth. This wasn’t true before October 9th but by the time we landed late into the 10th it had become a way to define myself—or her, us: We don’t like cheese.

            Or meat.

            The salt is too much. Bread is, something. Dry? Gluten-based? Possibly only too easy to come by and so reason for contention? We don’t love bread. This leaves, what? Plant-based things. Fruits and vegetables. But not nuts and not seeds. Nuts and seeds are… eh. They’re no reason to celebrate. And this was true on the 9th of October and on the tenth and is now and has been always because it is a sort of higher truth, it will outlast me and you and everyone: France hates fruit and vegetables. If it is fruit they will coat it in sugar and bake it, or puree it with sugar and bake it, or turn it into a sauce to be poured on top of baked sugary goods, but they will not leave it. They will not simply put it on a plate and set it down in front of you with a napkin and say, here. Here is fruit. And vegetables? Vegetables suffer worse fates. France’s first reaction to the common vegetable is to ignore it. Pretend it is not there. But if the vegetable becomes undeniable they will exterminate it. They will steam it or boil it to a formless mush and add cream or salt or some third-party substance and if it is still threatening they will puree it just to be safe. By then the threat is gone, and the nutrients, but the color is nice. They call it soup.

            I live on soup.

            In the past three days I have ordered these things in no particular order: Carrot soup, broccoli soup, pumpkin soup, Thai curry soup, tomato soup, onion soup (3x), and countless nameless blends of “vegetable soup” (the unnamed thing being the vegetables involved). They are each time one single consistent color and texture, the exception being the broccoli soup, which still had small heads of broccoli and cauliflower just barely holding their cruciferous nodules of form. This clue was how I discovered I was in a Portuguese restaurant. This restaurant became the first place I started asking questions. I looked at the man sitting across from me as he picked through a platter of French fried potatoes and dipped the cuts he took from his meat in the oil sitting on top of the remaining steak.

            I said, in the most PC way possible, “How are you people not fat.”

            He looked at me, pondering this. The question has obviously been raised before. There are books about it. Stabs at science. Theories. I read something about the satiation being easily reached with the way they take caloric overloads in small doses, and I read something about the lack of hormones, pesticides, radioactive material and the likes. Lack of phthalates, was it?

            He waved in my direction with his hand in a French way. He was holding bread in the hand. He said, “We don’t eat like you Americans.”

            He waved at a group of women at a table near us in his French way and said, “Besides, some of us get fat. Just not as fat as you guys.”

            They were the first fat people I’d seen. In a few more minutes our whole table would realize they were Americans.

            He said, “For example, I only eat at McDonald’s three, four times a week, tops. When I do I don’t go crazy like you guys. I only order something like a children’s happy meal, with an extra chicken burger, and maybe a regular burger. And that’s it.”

            That’s it. I did the math on what that caloric intake would be, if that were it. Each burger would be a little in excess of 500 calories, on average, as would be the happy meal, with the drink. More than 1500 calories in one meal, just a few times a week. Not more than four, because he is French. He is not like the Americans.

            He tried to further explain. He said, “The drink in the Happy Meal is apple juice. It is organic.”

            Nothing had been explained.

            He said, “Plus, we walk a lot.” He is a thin, well-toned man who lives in the suburbs and drives cars most places and mostly works from home. The only difference I can find between him as a representative French person and the average American is a clear issue of geo-positioning and a less clear issue of better skin. How is their skin so nice? Oh yeah, I can also find a gap between relative BMIs something in the vein of the Marianas Trench.

            We paused our conversation as he ordered dessert. And espresso.

            And that is the formula I’m watching with every meal. Appetizer, entrée, dessert, espresso. Although for breakfast they tend to speed it up. Espresso right away, dip the chocolate croissant in the hot chocolate, move it along. Portion-size or not, I’ve never seen a French person not finish his croissant and I’ve never seen a croissant clock in under 400 calories.

Factors one might think contribute to the difference that I am convinced through thin levels of research do not contribute at all:

  1. At-home cooking—the first week we stayed with his friends in a large house that backs up to woods. The kitchen is well-stocked and the wife is thin and beautiful with wonderful skin, and the husband is a triathlete, the kid an aspiring athlete himself. They glow with health and with a tan that would never give away the fact that it snows there in the winter. Fog rolls in towards the end of the day and there is frost on the windows three seasons out of the year. Already it feels like it could snow now. These were the mornings I woke up at 4am and foraged through the drawers and the cupboards and the refrigerator as I tried to ward off the air-puking. In the dry goods I found the following: box sets of Twix bars, Snickers, Kit-Kat, and the ever-culturally-relevant Kinder bar. Three types of cereal—Cookie Crunch, something akin to Cocoa Puffs, and Special K, with chocolate flakes. Nestle Quick. Cocoa powder. Raw sugar. Cane sugar. Calorie-free sugar. Cookies with chocolate layers on top. Chocolate cookies. Granola bars with chocolate. Macaroni noodles. Fettuccini noodles. Bowtie noodles. In the fridge there were more than a dozen varieties of cheese, various slices of cured and cooked pig plus two packs of uncooked bacon, eggs, mustard, ready-made pasta cream sauce and what may have been a cheese sauce. Drinkable yogurt. I drank the yogurt.
  2. Purity of food—American chains I have stumbled across repeatedly include Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dominoes, KFC, Pizza Hut. Food brands—every candy bar one might think of, General Mills, Nestle, Coke. Coke everywhere. Three Coke options at every restaurant—regular, light, and zero. And that’s it. No other soda. Just caloric variations of the most classic flavor known to man. These are not pure brands. They are not ear-marked for health. But they are different here, a Frenchman says. Different how? Organic. Everywhere the answer is organic. I let them down gently. I say, no. I ask if the countryside is convinced that a company that can patent a species—one that has wormed its way into the very culture of every farming community, a company that will send generations of Indian farmers running to their suicides and still press forward, one who in the same breath will churn out Agent Orange and then Round-up and its genetically compatible soy, corn, wheat—do you think a company such as Monsanto can comfortably venture into territory better reserved for the Christian god and his devilled counterpart but has somehow been beaten back off the uneven little borders of the great nation of France? Completely? They say steadfastly yes. Their McDonald’s, their KFC, their Twix bars, their crucified vegetables have not been touched by pesticides, not hormones, not a single instance of artificial ingredient. They are convinced theirs is healthier than ours.
  3. Portion size—are the McDonald’s hamburgers smaller here? Not that I can tell. At the restaurants I stare at stranger’s plates to see how much is finished. The answer is all of it. Last night a creperie that loaded any number of cheeses with potatoes and bacon, crème, melted it all together inside of a batter mixed up out of eggs, milk and flour and the occasional dash of liquor for flavor. If not crepes they offered bowls of the same—no batter. Bowls of melted cheese with potato accents. Or, a popular dish there, Raclette. Which is merely a cheese. A type of cheese melted over an ever-burning gas flame and what they do with it is they provide each diner with a prong and the prong is loaded with cuts of bread, salted meats, potatoes, and these foods are dipped into the cheese and consumed until the cheese is gone or the flame burns out or some other supply dries up. Full pans of cheese. Consumed. Everywhere I go the plate sizes are the same and they are filled in the same way and if they are not finished the waiter does the same as is done in America. She says, what’s wrong, wasn’t it good? And the diner is left to explain that it was wonderful but it was simply too much, and by then the diner is left alone with his thoughts, deserted by the wait staff entirely, singled out as weird; an exception. No, the portion sizes are not what they say. Maybe at one time. Maybe like the American dinner plate used to be smaller and then something changed. More had to fit. Maybe that happened here too. Whatever it was, it is not smaller now, the portion size. But the women are! And the men. And the children. I have not seen a single obese child since I stepped off the plane. Not even an American one.

Right now I am at the home of my personal Frenchman’s family. Chocolate madelaines are set out, and chocolate-covered store-bought boxed-and-plastic-sealed waffles, and chocolate chip cookies of the same origin were also set out, but they are gone now. There is also an empty liter of full-calorie Coca-Cola and a tin full of sugar packets. We are waiting for the pizza to arrive. On the TV a documentary is running on sugar and the general moral seems to be that it will last forever so long as it is kept away from humidity, and that there is plenty of it. Sugar of every kind. The general moral seems to be that this is comforting. It promises that life will continue as always.

I ask what kind of pizza they’ve ordered, starving and pregnant and hoping for soup. Cheese pizza, they say, and also one cheddar pizza.

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At the first doctor’s appointment our OB looked down into the gray flecks on the screen and jiggled her instrument and said what she and every other OB has surely said with 100% regularity since the dawn of ultrasound technology.

She said, “There’s your little peanut.”

There have been variations in the past of this concept, I know. Bean was a popular choice, but became less PC, as I understand it, as it was increasingly misappropriated to an increasingly sensitive and growing Hispanic population. The French word for Peanut is cacahuete, a man confirmed as he matched his first experience in a doctor’s office with his pregnant wife with our own. Either way we feel it is unique because it is unique to us. We talk to her and refer to her in the third person and each time she is Peanut.

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One Explanation that I’ve Since Dismissed but not Entirely Shaken Off:

Cigarettes here have not yet been limited to the realm of the weak-hearted and unforgivingly hip. Here they are still widespread, virulent things. In Bulgaria two years ago I first wondered whether cigarettes were a factor. Bulgaria was a meat-and-potatoes type place, a store-bought sealed-and-plastic-wrapped-carbs sort of place. To their credit, though, vegetables were still things. Rather than pureed to a mush it seemed Bulgarians preferred to take it in the other direction, preserving them, somehow managing to a produce a final product more crisp even than the food in its raw form. Vinegar, was it? I remember everything seemed pickled and served up with smaller and more colorful cuts of other pickled things and each time it was crunchy and it was good. Still, though. A meat and potatoes sort of place. A hearty place. And then those women stick thin and mouse-like parading around without asses or meat of their own but a cigarette dangling from every lip.

            Romania had been the same, except with ice-cream. Everywhere I went I remember the ice-cream options being broad and colorful and the Romanians liked to limit one variety to a scoop and pile the bowls three scoops, five scoops, seven scoops high. Always an odd number of brightly colored scoops and always with chocolate sauce dribbled along the top. I remember the word was the only word I learned because it was the only thing I had a mind to eat during that particular vegetarian phase. This coincided with a weight-gaining phase for me, but not the Romanian population at large. The word for ice-cream is inghetata.

            Meanwhile those Australians are gaining on us and their streets are clean, swept spotless as a theme-park of cigarette butts, trash in general, any evidence of bad-habit droppings. The air is clear and fresh as if nary a toxin has been exhaled on that sacred land. For the first time in their remembered history it seems the youth there is splitting at the seams. And what is there to say about its sisterland, New Zealand, land of the cleanest ecosystem in the world? Two things, as a matter of fact. First, that their per capita smoking rate is less than 1/3 that Bulgaria, and, second, that they are the seventh fattest country in the world, right behind Australia clocking in at number six, and of course nothing compared to the good ol’ USA at number 1.

The complaint is us: our export of American culture. It is not a terrible conclusion to jump to—finding America at fault. After all, we did it first. But what if we hadn’t? Is an obesity epidemic a thing that would never have struck another place if our culture hadn’t dreamed it up? I would argue it is maybe more a landmark on the road we’re all traveling towards. Nothing necessarily unique to a flag or a people. We just happen to be on the fast track.

            And as for the way I keep linking smoking and obesity, it just seems like there is a bit of an inverse relationship, is all. Not a perfect one, of course. The thing is I don’t see a perfect relationship between food consumption and obesity, either. America collectively seems to remember peaking around 1950 when hamburgers and French fries and milkshakes ruled the landscape. It was a skinnier time, for us. It was also a time when people smoked through their pregnancies and then the kids smoked to prove they weren’t kids. And we look at who is left now, skinny, in America: Hipsters pushing smoke tendrils through their discourse and nearly swimming in their skinny jeans.

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Fast forward some significant amount of time. I returned to my homeland starving and looking for answers. Peanut rejoiced. The soup phase was switched out for a sandwich phase and the sandwiches were good because they were made without butter spread between cheese spread between bread, baguettes, full length things treated like a serving size. Even so, they were hard things to finish, the sandwiches. The dog loved the phase with me. I went to the gym and I found a treadmill and ran it up to an incline of 15 percent and I walked and I thought. I missed sweating. In France I had asked about it. A Frenchman had turned to Manuel for translation and Manuel had turned to me. He’d said, “Gyms aren’t as common here as they are in America.”

            I’d reiterated my question.

            “How are you people so thin?”

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Another Explanation I’ve since Dismissed:

Maybe we just try to hard. Maybe the trick is not to think about it.

            —because the moment I found out I was pregnant I was kicked out of the Bikram yoga studios. The doctor said, “You’ll cook her.” I turned to spin class until I hated it and the bones of my ass turned blue from the bruising and then I went to the swimming pool until my waistline pushed out and was exactly in the middle of that awkward time when it’s not quite clear what’s going on—whether one has simply taken to beer or is maybe just passing through a second trimester or is maybe just, you know, made that way—and so strangers look but they don’t want to congratulate for fear of being wrong and causing some lasting sort of anguish and it was right then, at the height of this gray period, that a stranger watched me climb out of the water and reach for a towel right as he looked me once more up and down and asked, “Are you Kayden?”

            In the same week the pool was voluntarily forfeited, another doctor’s appointment yielded more distasteful news. She said, “No rollerblading.”

            And the next month she took me off the bike that actually goes places. The one with the softer seat and the scenery that was not the wide shot of other, more hardcore gym-goers asses. And then we flew to France. I’d decided on the plane that I had given up. I was done. The next three months would be filled with wanton eating and sedentary days and long sleep-heavy nights. It was only then that my appetite turned off completely. I lost weight. My legs began to tingle with disuse. And so treadmills at inclines. Walking in general. Movement was what I craved.

            I am convinced the weight I lost was the fault of atrophy. The fat content has been preserved. Either way, I gained those two pounds back the moment I stepped foot on American soil.

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“It’s the corn syrup,” someone texted me. I read somewhere that 25% of American grocery stores were somehow comprised of corn. The walls, even. The toothpaste. Corn in everything. A cheap crop. A staple. Subsidized. “The Coke is better in Mexico,” another person said. I started noticing.

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And now I’m seeing it. Corn syrup. It’s in everything. Places corn shouldn’t go. I tore the cupboards apart trying to root it out, to get to the bottom of this difference. It seems true. True enough. At the height of horror I found a bottle of maple syrup substitute. It was a clear plastic with one of those earthy organic looking labels that likely cost too many dollars a unit at a Whole Foods or some outdoor weekend market under a tent. It read, “Corn Syrup,” pure and unadulterated. It felt like the source of something. A truth. We pour corn on our corn. I want to call the Frenchman who is not like we Americans and ask him to tear apart his meal. To go to his local McDonald’s and pull the hamburger to pieces, and the kid’s hamburger, and the French fries, and the organic apple juice—all of fifteen hundred calories of it. I want him to report back on whether there are any remnants of corn.

            But it is Thanksgiving, and I am in America, and it is fitting that one of our most celebrated holidays is centered around setting aside a day only for eating in the spirit of remembering a good time from a long way back when a people showed us a kindness that kept us alive long enough on their soil to take root and take over. It is a food-coma day, a forget-the-bad kind of day, and there are things to do. Food must be prepared. Gravies and casseroles and breads and pies and potatoes candied and creamed and mashed and it will be good, good, mouthwatering, and the whole house smells of it already because the turkey is in the oven and it is fat, it is saturated with the weight of it’s own meat and normally I would forget too, just put it out of mind, but just as I’m about to there is a tugging. Something like a feeling that I’m close to something. The American export is maybe not corn syrup so much as a newsflash. A celebrity wore a wrong thing on the carpet. There is a new app. It makes noises like a circus and it flashes and it pops and Twitter. Twitter and corn syrup and something new. The tugging is the feeling of some person heavy set in middle age urging me to eat, eat. But then will come a kick. Peanut kicks and there is a clarity for a moment and the noise dies down and I know the rhetoric but it doesn’t hit me quite the same way when the door of the oven is pulled back with someone’s well meaning argument that nothing is as satiating as a turkey browning in the oven and weeping out the beads of it’s own fat because it, too, is corn-fed.

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