Thursday, February 12, 2015

Of diplomats and sex parties

In case you haven't been following the wild goings-on at the pimping trial in Lille of one Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), the man who not long ago was expected to be the next president of France, you've missed:
  • Topless women protesting outside the courthouse
  • DSK telling the press this his orgies were no big deal because "it was only four a year" 
  • The unique defense “I dare you to distinguish between a prostitute and a naked socialite.”
That last statement is really the crux of the issue, for not only are orgies legal in France (as in the U.S.), but the French have a classy word for it (this from the language that doesn't have a dedicated word for "wife"!): libertinage, whose tradition goes back to the 16th century, when the best ones took place in the Bois de Boulogne on the northern outskirts of Paris, and the participants wore masks (in case you missed that movie).

The only problem is that in DSK's case, these weren't naked socialites cavorting around with 70-year--old men, but prostitutes with names like Jade, and securing a prostitute is illegal in France - it's called "pimping."

This is, of course, the same DSK who was accused of raping a maid at a hotel in New York a few years back and who might be in a New York prison right now if the accuser hadn't had her own shady background, forcing the DA to drop the case. I happened to be in France, at an immersion language school, at the time, and here's a brief excerpt from "Flirting with French" in which I describe the French reaction:

The French are furious with the American judicial system for holding DSK “hostage.” He’s a prominent figure, not a flight risk, and shouldn’t be treated this way. Emboldened after four days of classes, I decide to give a rebuttal in defense of my country. I rehearse it in my head several times, then speak up.

 “I’ve a proposition. You give us Roman Polanski and we’ll give you DSK.” My French is decent enough that the room erupts in laughter.
That, by the way, is about the all thing I've ever said correctly in French. I'll keep you posted on Monsieur DSK.

Friday, February 6, 2015

French movies to get you through l'hiver

Here in New York's Hudson Valley, as in much of the Northeast, it's been a snowy, cold winter (l'hiver), Fortunately for we francophiles, Netflix has a nice collection of streaming French movies to get you to le printemps.

Le Chef  Not to be confused with the Jon Favreau movie "Chef," this one stars the wonderful  French actor Jean Reno playing, not a tough cop (or assassin) for a change, but a tough chef trying to hang on his Michelin stars. You'll need to suspend disbelief at times, but it's a lot of fun  to watch Jean play against type and to watch the French skewer Spanish-inspired molecular cuisine

Bicycling with Moliere  Life imitates art imitates life in this fascinating psychological study which will, if nothing else, make you feel totally culturally inferior to the French. Which, by the way, you are.


The French Minister  A young man navigates the perilous corridors of power in France. A nice little French comedy if you need a diversion.

On My Way  Catherine Deneuve, still beautiful at 70, gives an acting seminar in this beguiling movie, which costars a pack of cigarettes.

Venus in Fur  Roman Polanski brings the Broadway play to the screen. I loved the play, and the movie almost as much.

Aliyah   A secular Jewish, low-level drug dealer thinks about escaping to the Promised Land. I love films that make you root for a drug dealer.

Blue is the Warmest Color - If  nothing else, this movie should warm you up. But some terrific performances make it much more than the soft porn it was peddled as.

Only 42 days till spring! Bon courage!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Deep Yogurt

If you've been to France, you might have noticed a couple of things about yogurt: 1) Their Dannon yogurt (called "Danone") is so much better than our Dannon yogurt; and 2) French yogurt in general is less expensive than in the US. A LOT LESS. Recently, French Morning, a publication for French expats living in the US, did some investigative reporting to find out why, for the price of one single-serving container here, you can buy a pack of a dozen ("oui -- douze" they say, incredulously) in France The article is in French, but the gist of the piece is:

  • The French eat a lot more of the stuff, so there are economics in the supply chain
  • Milk is cheaper in France
  • Americans tend to favor the high-protein Greek-style varieties
  • No surprise here, but our single-serve container are American-sized -- larger than in France, sometimes quite a bit.
One final thought on French yogurt: When I was staying at a hotel in France a decade ago, containers of plain yogurt were put out at breakfast. Yuch. How do they eat this stuff? I wondered. Then I saw that the people at the next table were sweetening it with some jam that had been put on the table. That's the only way I've even yogurt ever since. It's SO much better than flavored yogurt, which is full of of sugar.

On my most recent trip to France, I had to search for plain yogurt at breakfast spreads. Which means, I've become more French than the French? (At least when it comes to yogurt.) That should every Frenchman cause for concern!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Contest: Be a beta tester for Fluent U iPhone version

A year ago 10 lucky readers of this blog got access to Fluent U's unique language-learning software, which features often-hilarious French videos. Now they're back with an iPhone version, and I'm offering 10 of my readers the opportunity to be beta testers (Note that you need to have ios8 installed on the your iPhone.)

To be eligible to win, all you have to do is send an email to with short note about one of the following:
  • Your favorite part, or line, or moment of my book, "Flirting with French"
  • Describe a humbling language experience of your own
  • Explain in one sentence why, in France, the Big Mac is "le Big Mac" but the Quarter Pounder with Cheese is not "le quarter pounder avec fromage." (extra points if you can cite the movie which explained this)
  • Spot the French error in this posting
Bon chance! (And remember you need an iPhone with ios 8)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Croaked monsieur

That's how I feel, anyway -- croaked -- as the deep of winter settles into the Hudson Valley, the mercury hovering around zero each morning. So it's time to whip up some comfort food, French style.. My go-to meal when the going gets rough is a croque monsieur, the French version of a grilled cheese with ham. Yes, it's a bit more work than an American-style grilled cheese, but SO worth it. These are sold in France everywhere, but usually are reheated and dry. You can make one better than anything you'll get in Paris, so follow along:

Croque Monsieur
(serves 2)

4 slices good, firm white bread such as Arnold Brick Oven or Pepperidge Farm
1/4 pound good ham (if you can get French ham, great; if not, black forest will do), sliced
6 ounces French or Swiss gruyere cheese , coarsely grated on a box grater
1-1/2 TBL butter
1-1/2 TBL flour
1/2 cup of milk (low fat or whole, it doesn't matter)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Make the béchamel sauce (don't worry, it's easy, and almost foolproof): 
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat until foaming subsides. Add the flour and stir for about a minute.
Dump in all the milk and start whisking. Continue whisking more or less continuously for several minutes until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken. Reduce heat and cook, whisking for five minutes. If mixture doesn't thicken, turn heat up and cook some more. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool a bit.

Arrange 4 slices of bread on a a baking sheet covered with foil or parchment.
Spread béchamel over each slice, going right to the edge.
Top only 2 of the slices with ham
Distribute cheese over all 4 slices
Finally, place the two slices that don't have ham on top of the slices that do, cheese side up (that is, don't flip).
Bake until cheese is bubbling and just beginning to brown, about 10-15 minutes
Serve with French cornichons.

Bon appétit!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Rough Week in France

Well, France has certainly had a rough week. A couple of thoughts on this whole mess, and in my next posting I'll return to French language and culture issues.

Firstly, whatever their twisted goals, the Brothers Kouachi have done more harm to the Arab cause in France in 48 hours than Marie Le Pen and her (far) right-wing National Front party could've dreamed of doing in a decade. France was already getting wary of not just about Arab militancy but of the growing Arab population, and there's much talk recently of retaining the "French" identity. This horrific act will only convince many Frenchmen on the fence that, yes, something has to be done about these "non-French" French.  Only a few days before the massacre the New York Times ran a piece on the resentment on the part of many French that kabob shops were replacing cafes in many cities and towns (and it an apparent retaliation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre one was bombed last week).

France's large Arab population is the result of years of French colonization in North Africa (Algeria was a French possession into the 1950s!), and many poor Algerians and Moroccans have migrated to the cities of France looking for work and a better life. Travel just a few miles north from the center of Paris and you see what they ended up with: disenfranchised Arabs living in poor neighborhoods, without jobs or prospects.

It's  a pressure cooker, and we've seen the first release. Let's hope the French figure out how to deal with this, and with a watchlist of no less than 5,000 angry young men, some who may have been inspired by last week's events. The French tend to retrench rather than seek conciliation when pressed hard, and that could make for an interesting time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pas de ketchup?

Readers of my books and this blog know that I love France and all things French (including French mustard, which I go through a lot of), but even I have my limits.

And those limits have been tested with the new Maille mustard bar that just opened in New York. Modeled on the nearly-as-silly olive oil tasting bars, they have some 20 varieties of Maille mustard on tap. You can taste as many varieties as you can stand, guided by, yes, a mustard sommelier to give your tasting notes, and then have a ceramic crock filled up with the condiment of your choice, which will set you back a whopping 25 bucks for a mere 4.4 ounces!

Meanwhile, an 8-oz. jar of Maille in your grocery store costs about $5. But of course, you can't get the blue cheese or cognac flavor there.

Only explanation I can come up: this is revenge for us sending the French the hot dog.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Does language affect how we think?

Nice op-ed in today's New York Times that is on the larger issue of "why save a dying language" touches on the question of whether language affects how we think.

In Flirting with French I discuss this topic in much more depth, especially as it applies to gender. Gender is often said to be arbitrary, and with good reason, given that in French a beard is feminine a vagina is masculine. But in a research project, when subjects were told they were selecting a cartoon voice for a inanimate objects (the objects chosen had different genders in French and Spanish), the test subjects nearly always choose the voice the matched the gender of the object in their language. Thus French speakers wanted a woman to be the voice of a fork -- la forchette -- while Spanish speakers wanted a male to be un tenador.

The one exception was a peanut, which, despite being feminine in French, was assigned a masculine voice by the majority of subjects. I'm no scientist, but I think I detect some investigational interference -- in the guise of that international figure, Mr. Peanut.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cyber Monday language program deals

Just because so-called Cyber Monday is ridiculous doesn't mean you shouldn't take advantage of it to get a good deal on language-learning software - but which one to choose. Click here to see my full, unbiased reviews of the leading products, but here's a quick summary of some of the sales you'll find today:
  • Rosetta Stone is selling their full, 5-unit software for just $189 today. That's the lowest I've ever seen it. I pains me to say that I paid $600(on sale)  just a few years ago. You choose between the traditional desktop version and the 3-year tablet subscription (the same price). The CDs you have forever; the subscription works beautifully on a tablet, and you probably won't be using it 3 years from now anyway. [Full review]
  • Fluenz is selling their 5-unit software today for $268. A hundred bucks more than Rosetta? Hmm. Two major differences between Rosetta and Fluenz: 1) Rosetta Stone has speech recognition software, which Fluenz does not, meaning that you do a lot of typing in Fluenz. 2) Fluenz has explanations, where Rosetta is supposedly intuitive. Supposedly. [Full review]
  • Rocket Languages is the dark horse in this race and worth a look and selling for $179 today. Less organized their either of the others, Rocket is a good deal when Rosetta is full price and may be attractive to those who tire of the Rosetta's sameness and Sonia Gill's (of Fluenz) vanity. [Full review]
Whatever you choose, bonne chance  (and bon courage!)