Like many Americans, I studied French in school, choosing it over the more practical Spanish because my parents used the language to talk secretly in front of us kids. I never discovered what my parents were saying about us, they must have stopped using French once I learned a little. But I did develop an appreciation for the language.
My wonderful seventh-grade French teacher deserves most of the credit for this. Fresh out of college, she made her classroom fun. She taught us drinking songs, like Chevalier de la Table Ronde, and pop songs, like L’Edition Spéciale by Francis Cabrel. Both these songs still rattle through my head twenty-five years later. Unfortunately, a truly terrible French teacher in high school brought my French acquisition to a precipitate close. I started spending French class in the park outside our school, coasting through exams by dubious measures (ahem).
Later, in college and then graduate school, I passed French competency exams on the basis of my ability to translate the written language. But my conversational skills remained stalled at the seventh-grade level. Unlike Edith Piaf, I cannot say je ne regrette rien. The truth is I regret a great deal, and I have been hoping that our year in France would finally teach me how to speak French.
Of course, I shouldn’t over-inflate my reading comprehension. I can’t make it through a paragraph of the French translation of the Hunger Games (Les Jeux de la Faim) without extensive help from my dictionary. Sometimes I skip a word, but ça ne fait rien. I’ve read the book before in English. I get it.
The same approach, however, does not always work in more practical matters. On our first afternoon in Paris, bleary-eyed from jet lag, the family stumbled into a corner brasserie to eat a late lunch. Located in a section of the 14th arrondissement well outside the normal tourist haunts, the restaurant had only a chalkboard scribbled in French to order from. Ce n’est pas grave, I could handle it. I saw andouillette sauce moutarde on the menu. Parfait! I figured this was some sort of little andouille sausage with mustard, perfect for my husband. I blithely placed our order, and sipped gratefully from the glass of vin blanc brought by the owner.
Mais non, an andouillette is not a little andouille. It is an entirely different sausage from its cajun namesake, made entirely from pig intestines, well-known for its strong distinctive odor. The intestines are coarsely chopped to roughly the size of calamari pieces, and folded together in a loose casing, which in this case had been drowned in grainy mustard.
I would love to end this story with a voila! thus began my husband’s love affair with a very traditional French dish and our metamorphosis into true Parisiens. But not quite. My hungry and polite husband ate his andouillette with resignation, asking me under his breath what in f— sake I had ordered for him. I thought it would be like andouille, but smaller, I explained. Well it’s not, he replied.
Oh well, live and learn. While we’re at it, I also learned that I cannot finish a Paris-sized portion of boeuf tartare (four times the size of anything I’ve seen in North America – basically a giant, minimally spiced, raw hamburger patty), and my kids don’t like steak hache (which in this restaurant’s interpretation was a barely warmed hamburger patty sans bun). Did I mention that the restaurant we stumbled into specialized in raw meats? Another thing I didn’t notice until later. Blame it on the jet-lag.
On the plus side: our first meal in Paris gave me the culture shock I had been dreaming of. I was worried that Paris would be too full of American tourists and Anglophones to feel strange at all. But not so much. Now how do I translate that phrase?