Have I mentioned how much I love French? I have never before had this much fun learning a language. Not in high school when I was the most consistently tardy, unmotivated, yet energetic student in Mrs. Belanger’s Spanish class; not when I did a seven-week Spanish immersion course at the Foreign Service Institute, or when I had finally learned enough Spanish in Madrid to tell my beautiful friend how nice her butter looked (meant to say makeup). Okay, maybe when a group of DC girlfriends and I hired Manolo, a Spaniard, to come over once a week and we fed him elaborate meals as he attempted to teach us. But definitely not when I tried and failed to grasp how Arabic verbs work in Yemen and Jerusalem. French is different and I think I know why.
I had a boyfriend in college who was extremely cultured, particularly for my huge Midwest state school where he was studying violin on a scholarship. He loved classical music concerts, Anthony Bourdain, and all things French. He went to band camp every summer in Marseille. Liking all these things is considered fussy where I come from and 20-year-old uncultured Emily protested all these things too. Who would want to just sit and watch people play instruments? Isn’t there anyone dancing, or a screen to watch or something? Anthony Bourdain: Be more smug. France? Oooh lah lah, someone think they fancy.
Fifteen years on, oh how I love all these things! I enjoy the slow stirring of emotions that happens when I see a classical concert. And apologies to my husband who plays the flute, but when I hear the sonorous melody of a violin or cello, its richness and sadness makes my stomach flip. And Anthony Bourdain: I have never missed a celebrity so much. He’s my gold standard for telling thoughtful and entertaining travel stories. And France: Love it. Can’t get enough. Want to live there.
So I was perhaps primed to greatly enjoy learning French. But maybe even more than that is I just love the words. The sound of them, of course, although I do take issue with how few of the letters are actually pronounced. The eggs, or “les ouefs” is pronounced, I kid you not, “lay-zoo” and this fact infuriates me because the eggs part of that is just the sound “oo” which, let’s be frank, doesn’t clear the bar for being a word. But what I do love is that we use so many French words in everyday English. Dejá vu (literally “already seen”) Têt à Têt. Coup. I just asked my gardener (who’s fancy now?) to please clean the leaves off the upstairs patio and when I thought of how to say “upstairs,” I remembered an expression we use in the U.S. is “haut couture” or high fashion, so upstairs is en haut (because up is “haut.” Which is pronounced “ho” because of course you don’t say the last letter, like hardly ever.
But the most delightful of the “words I already know because we use them in America” are the cooking words. They are so adorable. Like the expression for bungee jumping is “sauté du elastique.” Elastique because of the elastic cord strapped to you, but “sauté” because that’s the verb for jump. As in, when you sauté something, you should get your pan so hot that when you add the food, it positively jumps out of the pan!
Éclair is the word for lightening, so every time it strikes I picture chocolate-doused creme-filled pastries shooting from the sky. Soufflé means breath, puff, or “windiness” which makes sense because your chocolate (or cheese) soufflé should be as whisper fluffy as all those things. Canapé, a word we use in English for fancy little appetizers (which we probably should just be calling hors d’oeuvres) actually means sofa in French, which I can only imagine is because one might just eat a canapé while sitting on a sofa. “Sous” means beneath, which I never forget because of “sous chef,” the chef who works under the head chef. “Chef,” in French, incidentally means any boss, not just a boss in the kitchen. Another thing you’d know if you watch cooking shows: The stuff that sticks to the bottom of a pan that you deglaze with wine or stock, that’s called “fond” which is French word that means bottom, background, or my fave, “inwardness.” Similarly, the verb for “to melt” is fondre, which of course I already knew because J’adore fondu.
There are also many cute French expressions involving food used to describe a person or a state of being. (We have these in English too: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; She has a bun in the oven; That shit is bananas ((ba-na-na-s))). In French, if a person likes to “Reconter des salades,” literally, tell the salads, it means they tells tall tales or lies. If a person has a couer d’artichaut, it means their heart is soft like that of an artichoke and they fall in love easy and frequently. If you hear a French speaker say they have the peach – “J’ai la pêche” – it means they’re feeling pretty, pretty good, or peachy.
I currently take several hours a week of French lessons with various teachers — one French, one Algerian, one Belgian — and I look forward to all of them. And not to forget the three weeks I studied at the lovely Langue Appart language school in Paris and then practiced my French afterwards in cafes. But just when I got decent at bantering with my neighborhood vegetable guy here in Algiers — “No spinach today? What a shame. When will you have it? See you next time!” — he shut it down by giving me the price in Arabic and telling me I have another six months to begin speaking to him in Arabic. Just when I was feeling like I had the pêche he went and took the soufflé out of my sails.