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.

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)
[out]*
[a-ou]
[a-out]

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.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

February 13, 2007 at 12:59 pm | Posted in backstory, food | 20 Comments

Introducing the Most Expensive Donut I Have Ever Eaten:

donut?

Two euros. That’s about $2.60. Can you even imagine spending that on a single donut? Even the incredible donuts at Allie’s are only a buck each.

So why did I buy it? Well, those who’ve known me a while know I have a thing about donuts. You might even call me a connoisseuse. And this donut?

bad donut

Not a donut. They were so close, though, weren’t they? From the top, this really looked convincingly like a plain, old-fashioned chocolate-glazed donut. But what’s going on with the bottom? We’ve got a rock-hard protective chocolate casing here, as if they were afraid the tender donuty flesh might get damaged by the unforgiving display shelf.

And it doesn’t stop there:

donutesque

The interior here is much too dense, too pastry-like to make a convincing donut. This example makes even Dunkin’s dry, dense monstrosities seem light and airy.

How could they go so wrong? I have a theory. I’ve noticed in the past that the French have a tendency to get obsessed with certain typically American foodstuffs, and go crazy trying to reproduce them. But at each turn, it’s like they’ve only ever seen them on tv or in a magazine — they frequently produce a convincing facsimile of the outside, but totally miss the boat on innards, bottoms, taste, or texture.

The last time I noticed this was with chocolate-chip cookies. I was about eight years old when we first started seeing chocolate-chip cookies in French supermarkets. At first we avoided them — we didn’t come all the way to France to eat some Chips Ahoy knock off. But eventually we succumbed to curiosity: had the French really figured out the secrets to this most American of delicacies?

Answer: no. But what was truly odd was that they weren’t chocolate-chip cookies at all. They looked like chocolate-chip cookies, but when you bit into them, there was one solid chunk of chocolate hiding in the interior. Seriously, it was as if they had wrapped some cookie dough around a hunk of chocolate, then scraped away the dough in places to give the appearance of evenly distributed chips. Crazy!

Anyway, after the donut debacle, I went looking for these cookies, but happily they are no more: I guess someone finally tipped the French off as to the nature of a “chip”. But it’s not like the French are the only ones guilty of judging a pastry by its cover — I’ve noticed that Americans do the very same thing with chocolate éclairs. Americans do an excellent job reproducing the external appearance of éclairs, but for some reason they are always stuffed with white cream (or worse, whipped cream). Where did people get this idea? Because I have never encountered this in a French éclair.

In France, the outside of the éclair always tips you off to the inside: chocolate icing means chocolate cream, coffee icing means coffee cream, etc. The proof:

eclair innards

See? Chocolate. So I hereby call on the pastry-chefs of both nations: for the love of all that’s sweet, don’t try to reproduce a confection you’ve never tasted.

Remembrance of Cakes Past

January 25, 2007 at 12:43 pm | Posted in backstory, books, food, writing | 24 Comments

If you haven’t heard a lot from me lately, it’s because I’ve become a lock-in.

I suppose this happens to everyone in the final stages of a novel — I promised myself that the final edits would be done by the end of January, and as a result, I’ve hardly left my bed all month. My bed, you see, is where I write. And as I sit here in bed, propped up by innumerable pillows, staring out the window at winter’s interminable gray drizzle, my laptop cozily warming my knees, it occurs to me Marcel Proust occupied a very similar pose just about a hundred years ago. (Sans laptop, bien évidemment.)

Then I get hungry, and wander over to the kitchen in search of madeleines.

madeleine

I know I’m not the only person who makes the inevitable connection between Proust and madeleines, but for me, it’s a relatively new experience. When I was a kid, madeleines were just a fact of life, preferable to pain d’épice, but definitely not as desirable as an éclair. As I grew up, I heard from time to time about this Proust character and his abiding love for madeleines, and frankly, I always found it a bit puzzling.

Madeleines? They’re nothing special. Of course you can get fancy ones baked fresh from Paris’ most famous bakeries, but when I was a kid, our madeleines came from the grocery store, and were oh so inelegantly packaged in a clear plastic bag. The madeleines of my memory are dry and crumbly, modestly sweet, desirable mostly for their amusing shape, shelf-stability, and absorptive properties when dipped in tea or coffee.

madeleines

Proust, though, he must have had access to a better variety, right? How else could he wax lyrical for 1,300 words about the subject? That’s what I assumed, anyway.

Then, a couple of years ago, I actually read À Coté de Chez Swann. Turns out, the madeleine is not so special:

She sent someone out for these short and squat cakes called Petites Madeleines, which seem to have been molded in the fluted shell of a scallop. And soon, mechanically, worn out by a dull day and the promise of a sad tomorrow, I brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had dipped a piece of madeleine. But the moment the mouthful mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I trembled, aware that something extraordinary was happening within me. A delicious pleasure had overtaken me, isolated, with no notion of its cause.*

Ignore the stuff about the “delicious pleasure” and what do you have? Precisely the same dry, crumbly confection that inhabits my own memory. Of course, read a little further, and you find out this is the whole point:

… And all of a sudden, the memory came to me. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine that, Sunday mornings at Combray (in those days I never went out before Mass), when I went to tell her good-morning in her room, my Aunt Léonie offered to me after having dipped it in her tea or infusion.*

Proust (or rather, his narrator) isn’t in ecstasy over the madeleine, but rather this unexpected window into his childhood. He further explains: “It’s clear that the truth I’m looking for is not in it [the cake], but in me.”*

So, there you have it: if you’ve never had a madeleine, there’s not much point is eating one now. On the other hand, if you read French, and you haven’t yet read Proust, promise yourself to do it this year. You won’t regret it.

madeleine

____________________________
*I’m using my own translation here, because I just can’t stand the canonical Moncrieff version. But if you want to compare, here it is again in French and Moncrieff-English:

Continue Reading Remembrance of Cakes Past…

Le Bain Douche

January 11, 2007 at 2:16 pm | Posted in backstory, vie quotidienne | 13 Comments

In the realm of science and technology, there’s no question that the French have achieved many great things. Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac: all worked hard to demystify the world around us and improve the lot of humanity.

And yet, one scientific mystery still remains: what the hell is up with French showers? I’ve lived in many different French homes, stayed in many hotels, and wherever I am, the shower is always the same*: a pathetic little nozzle fixed on the end of a long, flexible tube and suspended from a hook on the wall. Exhibit A:

shower up

This is how a normal French shower looks. And I suppose French people will try to justify its design — they might note that the detachable shower head is the height of convenience, allowing you to point the nozzle directly where you want it. And sure, I’ll grant, that might occasionally be useful.

The problem is, I need both hands free to wash my hair. And that little hook that’s supposed to keep the nozzle pointed at my head? It’s not working! Half the designs I’ve seen send the nozzle clattering to the floor every time you turn on the water. And the one I’ve got now? It does this:

shower down

Not useful! In the past, when this has happened, I’ve taken my soggy self over to the tool cabinet to fetch a screwdriver, and within a couple minutes had the whole contraption right as rain (so to speak). But this morning? That tactic is fruitless. No longer happy with the occasional disruption of daily life (a shower manif, you might say), the shower head has staged a full-on revolt.

I guess the threads on the screw are worn out or something, but no amount of tightening will convince the head to remain upright for more than a few seconds. How do the French put up with this sort of thing?

The whole ordeal has got me thinking: how is it, in this age of globalization, that France and America can have such different approaches to a tool that each of us uses every day? Why is it that I can get a crappy cheeseburger in McDonalds all around this city, but I can’t wash my hair without getting banged in the head by my shower nozzle every morning?

__________________

*Except for my French summer camp, which had showers in what I affectionately call the “concentration camp” style. Basically, they herded all the kids into a room, told us to strip, and water shot down from near the ceiling in chilly, fifteen second bursts.

Book Review

December 12, 2006 at 7:46 pm | Posted in backstory, books | 7 Comments

stet

Stet by James Chapman. Available through Fugue State Press.

I really, really wanted to like this book, for several reasons. For one thing, I want to believe that people who work outside mainstream publishing can occasionally produce works of surpassing beauty. I’m also interested in books about Russia, particularly Soviet Russia — there are so many depths to plunder there, so much still unsaid about that strange, brutal world.

From the first paragraph, it seemed that Stet would say all those unsaid things — acerbic wit and sinister surrealism working together in defiance of fascism’s absurdities:

Opinions are unbeautiful, but we all speak them. Opinions, creeds, advice on how to live, these seep from our pores in this land, and no one is exempt from judgment. Perhaps your feelings have been hurt. If they have been hurt for year upon year, that is not unusual, you are probably an artist or some sort of idiot. But to hurt the feelings of millions, for whole lifetimes, this is Russian, it requires our own special language.

It was an auspicious beginning, one that made me grin. But the deeper I got into the book, the further that ideal of the New Russian Novel seemed to drift away.

Ultimately, reading Stet reminded me of when, as a kid, my mother took me wading in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. From a distance, it looked like an ordinary lake, shallow and inviting at the edges, mysterious and unfathomable in the middle. But it turned out that the edges were not so inviting: the shore prickled with unforgiving salt chunks that dug into the soles of my feet, making any progress a chore rather than a pleasure. More disappointing still, the lake had no depth at all — just endless shallow, as far as I could bring myself to wade.

Now, it’s a big lake, and I admit that I did not wade all the way across. I did, however, wade a good quarter mile in, and even after all that wading, the Great Salt Lake still reached no higher than my calves. So I don’t know: maybe, somewhere in the middle, the Great Salt Lake turns out to be great indeed, and deep, and mysterious. But I didn’t have the will to find out.

Please excuse this obnoxiously extended metaphor, but the same is true of Stet. I so wanted Stet to be profound and amusing, to fill me with dread and hope and fear and loveliness. But as far as I waded (and, no, I didn’t make it all the way through), I found only the same shallow, aphoristic phrases, which, although sometimes maddeningly evocative, held more promise than they could possibly deliver.

“[M]usic exists because there’s no such thing as silence.”
“When you die it is always your fault.”
“In a zone where every citizen despises himself and desires to disappear, the greatest value is placed on entertainment.”

Maybe, somewhere within this book, there is something deep and moving — some brilliant undercurrent that ties the disparate elements together and makes a complex statement about the search for beauty in the face of oppression. I didn’t find it.

Chocapic

November 10, 2006 at 12:41 pm | Posted in backstory, food | 13 Comments

On Monday night, I joined Robyn of The Girl Who Ate Everything for a long-anticipated tartare. Knowing how superior her photographic skills (not to mention her camera) are to mine, I decided to leave the digcam at home and let her worry over angle, lighting, and focus, while I contented myself with simply scarfing my food.

So, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys luscious photographs of steak tartare, canard aux pruneaux, mounds of french fries, oeuf a la neige, and a lovely poire belle helene, I heartily suggest you look here.

As for me… Well, it turns out that I am not 20 years old anymore, and my stomach lining is no longer made of steel. I enjoyed the meal very much, but it’s pretty rare that I eat dessert these days, much less two desserts (we shared). The upshot is, my body staged a full-on revolt, and I spent the next couple of days in bed, avoiding all rich and/or elaborate foodstuffs.

Which begs the question: what does a foodie eat when she is off her food?

At 3am on Tuesday morning, I vowed before God and man that I would never eat anything ever again. That resolution was short-lived, however, and by the following evening I had decided I could maybe manage a little cereal.

I’ve mentioned before that, due to the sour milk, the French are not too big on breakfast cereal. It does exist, however, and believe it or not, it actually tends more toward the sugary end of the spectrum than even American cereals.

As I lay in bed, trying to imagine what food my ravaged body might possibly be able to accept, I remembered something from childhood. Chocapic!

chocapic

This was the only cereal we were ever offered when I was in summer camp, and it was considered a special treat. Normally, we received a veritable feast of coffee and hot chocolate, crusty baguettes, creamy-sweet butter, honey, jam, apple sauce, and assorted other delicacies. But I still remember the pandemonium on the day the chef de cuisine came out with a box of Chocapic: squeals of delight filled the air, and fifty chairs were pushed back as one as children scrambled to be the first to fill their bowls.

All this for some cereal? It was a mystery to me, but it wasn’t long before I, too, discovered the rich, chocolaty glory of the Chocapic. And this week, as my body rejected all the subtle, complex flavors this country has on offer, it turned out that Chocapic was the only thing that would do.

Or well, almost Chocapic. The real thing is, like most cereal, ridiculously overpriced, so I went with the off-brand:

Wheat Choco

Wheat-choco? Only in France would anyone consider the word “wheat” appropriate for marketing a chocolaty children’s cereal. I guess that’s why the generic brand is cheaper — they cut corners on their “appropriating American words in an effort to sound hip and appealing” class.

No matter — the substance was just as I remembered it.

chocolate petals!


Take note: this is no light and airy chocolate puff, a la choco-kripies or coco-puffs. This is the real deal — thick, heavy shards of chocolate, designed to maximize the density of chocolate in the bowl.

with milk


Add milk.

soggify!


Stirring is necessary, or else the chocolate shards remain unpleasantly hard and unforgiving.

stragglers


And when you’re done: chocolate milk!

Of course, I should note that real French kids don’t eat this cereal with cold milk — they dump it into their hot chocolate. Talk about decadence!

Novelversary

November 3, 2006 at 2:04 pm | Posted in backstory, books, writing | 8 Comments

As some of you may know, I am currently slogging my way through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Last night I came upon this gem in the notes et variantes section, from a letter written by Flaubert on the 18th of April, 1854:

Next September, I will have been working on this book for three years. That’s a long time, three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (particularly a style which has about as much to do with my personality as with the emperor of China’s), living always with the same characters, in the same setting, constantly beating oneself up over the same illusion.*

As of November 1st, I have been at work on my novel, more or less consistently, for exactly three years. It seems a bit wrong to celebrate it as a birthday, since I don’t think the book’s been properly “born” yet — let’s just call it the third anniversary of its conception.

And I have to agree with Flaubert: it is an awfully long time to be living with these characters, these ideas, this stylistic voice which, although it may have more in common with my voice than with the erstwhile emperor of China’s, is nonetheless a sometimes awkward and imperfect fit. But it is nice to know that this titan of literature once experienced the same exhaustion and ennui that I am now encountering.

I haven’t done it much on this blog, but longtime readers of my livejournal know that I love to, well… bitch about my writing. I tear my hair out over an inelegant turn of phrase, I despair over the occasional cliché, and a minor plot hole can send me spiraling off into deepest depression. And don’t get me started on the irrational rage inspired by certain friends and acquaintances who innocently note how easy it all is for them.

In light of this character defect of mine, I’m sometimes asked why I bother: “If writing makes you so unhappy, why do you do it? Why waste your life on something that brings you no pleasure?”

I can only answer that pleasure is sometimes found via a circuitous path.

This may sound a bit weird (and irredeemably geeky), but I think it best compares to the pleasure of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Now, jigsaw puzzles aren’t for everyone — lots of people think they are dull and frustrating and completely pointless. Why would I put so much effort into building a picture that I could just buy as a poster, and probably cheaper?

Puzzle nerds, of course, can’t help but smile at this question. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are frustrating. There’s a moment, just after you’ve spilled all those tiny pieces all over your table or floor, when you can’t help but think, Jesus, why am I doing this? And there’s another point, about two-thirds through, when you’ve finished all the easy parts, and all that’s left is about a hundred indistinguishable grey pieces, and you think, That’s it, this puzzle is a dud. They gave me way more pieces than I need, and none of them fit together! Obviously there’s been a mistake at the factory.

And if you are a normal human being, you walk away and watch tv or something. But if you are a puzzle geek, you will persevere, because you know that just behind this despair, a quiet sense of triumph is waiting for you when you find that perfect piece that suddenly brings the whole picture into view.

For me, that’s what writing is like: a series of seemingly impossible puzzles that only make sense once I, through perseverance and dumb luck, stumble happily on their solutions. That plot hole can be fixed by changing the season from late spring to early fall! That ugly turn of phrase will work if only I replace those two clunky words with this lovely one! And look here: a fabulously original way to restate that sloppy old cliché!

And suddenly the whole thing starts to fit together quite beautifully, and you allow yourself to feel just a little bit proud of all the hard work you did to get there.

Right now, the puzzle I’m attacking is, How do I take a character who is meant to be campy and over-the-top, and make her accessible and sympathetic? And all without resorting to cliché? At the moment, this problem seems insurmountable. I lay in bed last night thinking, “That’s it, it’s just not possible. I’m going to have to throw the whole book away.”

But today, the sun is shining, my calendar is clear, and the ghost of Flaubert is looking over my shoulder. So, who knows? Maybe today is the day that it all falls into place.

__________________________

* “Il y aura en septembre prochain trois ans que je suis sur ce livre. Cela est long, trois ans passés sur la même idée, à écrire du même style (de ce style-là surtout, où ma personalité est aussi absente que celle de l’empereur de Chine), à vivre toujours avec les mêmes personnages, dans le même milieu, à se battre les flancs toujours pour la même illusion.” The translation is mine, please forgive any errors or stylistic oddities.

Merci, Madame!

October 25, 2006 at 4:24 pm | Posted in backstory, food, vie quotidienne | 8 Comments

I got a nice compliment at dinner last night: the waitress, upon learning that we are Americans, exclaimed that I had “pas du tout” an American accent, and even raved that I had the perfect “intonation française”.

Yes, when it comes to conversations lasting under a minute and half, I speak just like a native. After that, unfortunately, it gets a little dicey.

She brought up an interesting point, though, with her comment about French intonation. Although French is not considered a tonal language, I’ve always noticed that much is conveyed by stress, tone, and pitch. Have you ever noticed the way an adult French woman will practically sing, “Au revoir et à bientôt!” or “Bonne fin d’après-midi, Madame!”? It’s enough to make you feel like you’re trapped in Broadway musical.*

This talent appears to be learned rather than innate, though, because children and teenagers almost never talk like this. Even though they are younger, their statements seem to occupy a much lower register, and sound closer to animated grunts than the flights of whimsy you hear among adults.

And this is my problem: because I learned French when I was a kid, I’m stuck speaking kid French. With some great effort, I can force a tuneful “Bonjour, Madame!” And at the restaurant last night, I came up with, “Oh, oui, je crois bien…” But I’m much more comfortable with sullen, self-effacing teenspeak: “Eh, ben… Chai pas. Et alors?”

Which, although reasonably authentic, also comes across as unforgivably rude in the mouth of a full-grown woman. So… I’m working on that. But I’m afraid I might need singing lessons to really pull it off.

And since I’m hungry, here are some gratuitous pictures of what I ate last night:

steak tartare


Steak tartare.

Frites


Et ses frites.

Sorry about the bite, but I’ve been fantasizing about steak tartare since I got here, and I couldn’t stop myself from nibbling a bit before I got my camera out.

*On a related note, has anyone else noticed that a lot of French women seem to speak in falsetto? I can’t believe their voices are really that high.

Trois P’tits Chats

October 20, 2006 at 3:35 pm | Posted in backstory, books | 9 Comments

Living in France now for the first time in many years has made me a bit nostalgic for my childhood here.

When I was eight years old, my parents enrolled me in CE2 (the French equivalent of third grade) at our local elementary school, just south of Paris. It was here that I learned exactly how different French education is from the American version: at the hippy-dippy elementary school I had attended in upstate New York, the average school day consisted of sitting in circles, sharing our feelings, and maybe filling out the occasional math worksheet. French school, on the other hand, had apparently changed very little from the days remembered by François Truffaut.

truffaut

I swear to God, not only were we still using those ancient wooden desks, complete with holes for your ink pot, but the kids actually dressed like that. And when the teacher asked a question, instead of raising our hands and shouting out the answer, we all wrote our responses with chalk on slates, then held them up in the air for la Maîtresse to approve.* And for homework, we memorized poetry. When was the last time anyone in America was told to memorize a poem, let alone an eight year old?

Especially in the first few month, when my grasp of French was still shaky, I struggled hard with those poems. I hardly understood the strange, often archaic language, but I knew we would have to recite the verses in front of the class, and I was terrified of humiliating myself.

After all the effort I put in, I consoled myself with the thought that these poems had been etched on my soul forever — Even at eighty years old, I imagined, as I lay on my death bed, I would turn to my grand children with a wan smile and calmly recite Le Loup et La Cigogne.

And now? I’ve been searching my brain for the past three days, and I have discovered that, of the forty odd poems I memorized, all that remains is one, stupid couplet: Maitre Corbeau sur an arbre perche/Tenez dans son bec un fromage. That’s it! Everything else is gone, no matter how hard I stretch.

Everything? Well no, not quite everything. Although the state-sponsored poetry is long forgotten, a different kind of verse remains lodged in my brain, for better or for worse: Trois p’tits chats, trois p’tits chats, trois p’tis chats chats chats/Chapeau de paille, chapeau de paille, chapeau de paille paille paille…

Anyone who grew up in France, or has raised children here, is groaning right now, but for everyone else: Trois Petits Chats is a well-known school yard chant, usually accompanying a hand-clapping game (a la Miss Suzy and her Tugboat), composed mostly of nonsense terms and unconnected phrases. And for some reason, even though all the magnificent works of La Fontaine have slipped out my mind’s back door, this meaningless gobbledygook will apparently be with me forever.

Continue Reading Trois P’tits Chats…

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