I can’t say that I was ever fond of France, a fact that had much to do with my inability, in the past, to properly pronounce the language–and with the scorn of Parisians for my less than perfect efforts. I speak Spanish and Italian well enough for travel—and German too, though Germans won’t let you speak more than one or two words in their native tongue, before they insist on dazzling you with impeccable English. But the French are less likely to bail you out. There’s nothing like French linguistic disdain to keep you vacationing in Italy and Spain.
In 2013, of course, English is spoken just about everywhere one goes. But, despite this fact, I decided last spring to prepare for a cruise that would take us for four days along the French coast by enrolling in still another class in French—this one, through adult education. Perverse? Why not just go with English? Maybe I wanted to show the French a thing or two, or, maybe, as I told myself, I wanted to make up for my erstwhile neglect of France by giving myself “ a French experience.”
In further preparation for this trip, I downloaded seven French novels I’d been meaning to read or reread. They were in English translations, of course, because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to relearn that much French in a semester. I also booked excursions with French guides, and my husband and I sailed with Oceania, whose culinary director is Jacques Pepin. What kind of “French experience,” did I manage to secure in preparing for, and making, a four day visit to the coast of France?
The most rigorous part of my French experience lay in relearning the language. French is hard! Because the language is full of final consonants that you don’t pronounce, nothing sounds the way it looks. And what does it say about a people that they didn’t just drop those silent consonants, since they haven’t pronounced them in centuries? That the French are, perhaps, overly fond of tradition? That inhabitants of France believe sounding French should require a good deal of effort? That the French language is not for slackers?
I also learned that there are chic and unchic ways of saying the same thing. It’s vulgar to say you want “butter,” as if you meant to consume all the butter on hand. How gross! You only want “du burre,” “some butter.” You need to know more than verbs, nouns, pronouns, and quite a lot of adjectives. You need to know what’s fashionable as well. Speaking French is a clubby affair.
Having studied for three months, of course, I ended up using only a dozen of the words I’d learned. On a cruise and on guided excursions, there wasn’t really need for more. But I pronounced those words perfectly, and for one shining moment I was a member of le club français. Qu’est-ce (kess) qu’on (koh) dit (dee) (how does one say)” I’d arrived?”
I also read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s Swann’s Way. Now there was a French experience. Flaubert takes time to describe the sensuous texture of just about everything in the Bovary’s day to day world: “She remembered the summer evenings all full of sunshine. The colts neighed when any one passed by, and galloped, galloped. Under her window there was a beehive, and sometimes the bees wheeling round in the light struck against her window like rebounding balls of gold.”
Proust takes even more time describing the ordinary: “Asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world.”
Slow down, savor the day to day beauties of life. The books don’t actually say that. But you can’t read them, really read them, without doing so. And did I mention that, based on my readings, this sensuous apprehension of the world involves a good deal of interest in love and sex?
Another part of my “French experience,” lay in apprehending a certain French connection to the earth. During our excursions, for example, our guides described the produce of the areas we were traveling through in extraordinary detail. We were in the countryside, of course, so what else was there to talk about? But these guides were city dwellers who spoke of lettuce and carrots fields with undisguised fondness. They didn’t want to live in the country, mind you. (One guide said, of the country, “there’s nothing to do there,” and of country dwellers, “they’re barbarians. “) Yet French lettuce, French carrots, and French cows evoked pride and warmth.
A related part of my experience involved a pronounced French reverence for the artisanal—for skilled labor, non-industrial production, and for the traditional, even when tradition had been undeniably modernized. When we visited the Medoc on a wine tasting tour we were frequently assured that the brand new stainless steel containers and computers weren’t meant to replace tradition but to enhance it. Grapes were still handpicked. Stainless steel sorters just helped things along.
And , finally, there was a continuing consciousness of the past, particularly of what had been lost in war—not just in WW II but in the French Revolution! Guides made a point of telling us which churches had been stripped of statues, what sections of a city had been bombed. Except in New York, perhaps, Americans lack visual reminders of war and its ravages. When you’re conscious of what’s been lost, perhaps you do slow down and savor what you have.
Despite a port intensive cruise, which had undoubtedly been designed with work-addicted North Americans in mind—Tuesday: Le Havre; Wednesday: St. Malo–I did taste something of a French experience. And speaking of taste, there was also the food!
But, hey, slow down and savor. The food’s for another post.