Tante Célibataire

August 30, 2007 at 7:40 pm | Posted in books | 2 Comments

I was wandering around Fnac today and came across this item, prominently displayed right next to the English version of the seventh Harry Potter book:

Harry Potter dictionary

The French translation of Deathly Hallows won’t be out for another couple of months, but loads of French adults and children are obsessed enough with the books to attempt to read it in the original. And that, apparently, is where this slim volume comes in.

I kind of laughed when I first noticed it, thinking it would be full of unwieldy French equivalents for words like “muggle” and “wizengamot,” but it turns out it’s so much more than that! Opening it up at random, I found French translations for words and phrases like “goatee,” “maiden aunt,” and “banana fritters.” It had never really occurred to me before, but with phrases like that, of course the Harry Potter books must seem positively inscrutable to someone who has learned all their English out of a textbook.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether the Harry Potter books have truly succeeded in creating a generation of committed readers, or whether all those kids who grew up with the books will return to video games and tv now that they’re done. But whether or not Harry has made a dent in British and American literacy, I’m pleased to see he’s striking a blow for bilingualism around the world.

France in Five

August 22, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Posted in backstory, fashion, food | 6 Comments

About a million years ago, Aralena tagged me for that “ten five things” meme that’s been making the rounds, and I’m just now getting around to it. Except, since I try to keep this blog focused on vaguely French topics, I will do ten things about me and my experiences here in France.

1. I starred in a high-fashion shoot in Paris when I was just a baby.
Not that there was anything fashionable about me — oh, no. I was just hanging out in a stroller when my parents walked me by a fashion shoot for an Italian magazine. It wasn’t Vogue, but it was something one tier down from that [my sister writes to tell me the magazine was called Lei]. Anyway, we (along with a big crowd of others) stopped to watch. And at some point, the director pointed at me and somehow indicated that he wanted me in the shot! So my dad pushed my stroller over to the model, and the director indicated that I was to gaze adoringly up at the pretty girl in the polka-dot dress, and I did as I was told.

Then they told my parents which issue it was going to be in, so they could buy a copy. And they did, and there I was! Amazingly, that magazine has now been lost, even though it was the only evidence of what was quite possibly the most exciting thing I have ever done.

2. I missed lunch at the Tour d’Argent because of food poisoning.
My parents have long had a tradition of taking their kids to the Tour d’Argent to celebrate getting into college. So when I visited them here in Paris on break from my freshman year, they made reservations. Unfortunately, two days before the big day, we went out to a little bistrot which had once been a favorite of mine, but had since changed ownership. I had a steak bernaise, and spent the next two days with my head in a toilet bowl. Not fun! I tried and tried to get better in time, but I was still green the day of the reservation, so my dad called and canceled.

Happy ending, though: I did make it to the Tour d’Argent a couple months later, and it was lovely.

3. I found a hair in my food at Lucas Carton.
I’ve been cooking long enough to know that, yeah, sometimes this sort of thing happens. It shouldn’t, but it does, and I wasn’t about to call the health department on them. I did, however, complain, and they very politely brought me a new dish… But I have to admit that it did kind of spoil my enjoyment of the meal, and I haven’t been back.

4. I worked in a slave-labor camp rebuilding a French chateau.
Okay, it wasn’t literally a slave-labor camp, but it certainly felt like one at times. The camp was run by an organization called Le Club du Vieux Manoirs, and the idea was to employ a bunch of teenagers to repair and rebuild the Château de Guise, which had been largely destroyed during World War I. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most efficient plan — none of us had any real training, so all they trusted us to do was mix mortar, sift through rubble for re-usable bricks, and lay the bricks into some semblance of a wall. As far as I can tell, the wall is still not complete, because we all did such a terrible job with it that it keeps falling down.

Moral: don’t hire an unskilled teenager to do anything that actually matters.

5. I flunked the only French class I ever took in college.
And no, it’s not because I secretly don’t know this language and have been faking it all these years. In fact, my big mistake was that I got nervous about my skills, and took an easier class than I should have. It was a literature class, taught entirely in French, with all French readings and all French papers… but it moved very slowly, because it wasn’t meant for people who had been speaking French since they were kids. And the professor repeated everything he said three times, which seemed really patronizing to me, but I’m sure my classmates were grateful.

Anyway, I got an A on the midterm paper, and basically stopped showing up to class after that. It all seemed a little pointless, as I knew I could write an adequate paper for the final without hearing the lectures. Unfortunately, there were only about ten people in the class, so my absence didn’t exactly go unnoticed. A week before the final paper was due, the professor called me into his office and told me I would fail his course, no matter how good my final was.

I cried and protested and made extravagant promises of extra-credit work (all in French, bien entendu), but he was firm — there was no way he was going to pass me. So I gave up, never bothered to write the final paper, and learned a valuable lesson about actually showing up to the classes in which I was enrolled.

A Bag of Chips, and All That

August 14, 2007 at 11:44 am | Posted in food | 8 Comments

Gather ’round, everyone! It’s time for another episode of Junk-Food Round-Up!

First up to bat: yet another flavor of potato chips. And as an aside, I have to say I’m becoming a bit concerned about the potato chip situation in this country. Much as I love to try new things, it seems like every time I go back to the hyper-marché in search of a favored flavor, it turns out that the object of my pursuit is no where to be found!

Just last week I developed a craving for those outstanding smoked ham-flavored potato chips I mentioned before… but nada! No sign of them. So instead I went home with these:


 Rather like cheese puffs, only they’re… bacon puffs.


Although, given that in America we would never use a pink log of meat to represent bacon, I’m given to wonder exactly what part of the pig we’re consuming here. But I suppose the answer is, no part! It’s all artificial flavoring. Anyway, these were pretty tasty, albeit with a slightly chemically aftertaste.

Moving on. I also managed to snag a bag of these, which I’m positive I never saw on any previous supermarket trip:

'Shroom chips

Wild mushroom potato chips! Oh, these were fantastic — I’ve always thought that mushrooms and potatoes go really well together, so this was pretty much a dream come true. Like the storied ham chips of yore, these would probably also go well with melted cheese.

Which brings us to our last contestant. But first, a riddle: what’s brown and sticky?

Giant Stick

Why, Giant Stick, of course. I’ve now spent a fair amount of time examining this package, and I’m still not sure whether this product name would fly in the US. Yes, it’s stupid, but you have to admit it has a sort of appealing transparency.

Giant Stick?

The biggest problem would probably be the truth in advertising laws. I know I haven’t included anything for scale in this picture, but take my word for it: there’s nothing giant about this snack. And I suppose “Stick!” just doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Moi, Doute

August 3, 2007 at 3:20 pm | Posted in backstory, vie quotidienne | 12 Comments

I have to bring your attention today to Aralena’s fascinating post on the pronunciation of the word août, meaning the month of August. Apparently, and totally unbeknownst to me, there has been centuries’ worth of debate on the pronunciation of this little word, even dragging such big names as Victor Hugo and Voltaire into the fray.

In fact, there are not merely two competing pronunciations for août, but actually four:

[ou] (the apparently “correct” version)

As for me, I’ve been saying [out], with an audible T, ever since I was a kid. I’m not sure why, I guess that’s how I must have heard it the first few times. But to think, all these years I have been straining my ears to hear how real French people really say things, so I can copy them and not look like an ass — only to find out that they’re just as clueless as I am!

And it’s not like this is a really rare word, that you might see in print from time to time, but rarely hear in conversation. It’s the freaking month of August! People say it all the time, and only just now are they reaching a consensus on the word?

As a foreigner in this country, every day I devote myself to listening and noticing how things are properly done. I suppose my hope was continually to improve, until one day I could speak the perfect, impeccable French of a native. How humbling, then, is it to find that French is a slippery, imperfect beast — perhaps not quite as untamed as English, but still negotiated and insecure.

Which brings us to another question — will I, after all these years of listening and copying, change my pronunciation because the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel says so? Eh bien… I think not. Maybe I’m set in my ways, or maybe I have issues with authority. Or maybe it makes me a little proud to think that, if I’m wrong, at least I’m only as wrong as real French people.

*Obviously, these pronunciation guides were written with French people in mind, not Anglos, so in this case “out” means “oot”, not the way we usually pronounce the word out. Rhymes with toot.

The Perils of Reading in Translation

August 2, 2007 at 1:02 pm | Posted in books | 9 Comments

From an essay in Esquire by author Benjamin Percy:

Sometimes I’m struck most by the authors who say the least. “Mother died today,” wrote Albert Camus in The Stranger. That one gets me every time. For a couple reasons. First of all, we’ve got a death, which means I’ve got a reason to pay attention. And then there’s that voice, so blunt and distanced, so stripped down. He doesn’t say Mom, he says Mother. He doesn’t say passed, he says died. Does this guy have a heart, I’m wondering?

Of course, as everyone knows who has read Camus in the original, the narrator of the story doesn’t say Mother at all — he says Maman, and that, for me, makes all the difference.

Maman is certainly closer to Mom than to Mother, but it might actually be closer to Mommy or Momma…  It’s a child’s word, sentimental and emotionally charged.  For a grown man to use this word, especially in contemplating her death, is anything but distanced or heartless.  Miss this point, you risk misreading the entire novel.

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