Thursday, October 31, 2013

Never to old to learn a language

I was heartened to read today that 71-year-old soon-to-be-ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, when asked what he planned to do in retirement, said he was determined to become fluent in Spanish. I worried that I was too old to learn French, when I started studying at age 57 -- a mere tyke by comparison. Of course, Bloomie's got a head start; he's already semi-decent in Spanish, although the press likes to poke fun at him.When I tackled French I was saying things to taxi drivers (I love to talk to French taxi drivers) like, "Do you think it will cry today or make sunshine?" (Hmm. Come to think of it, I still...never mind).

My book about learning French in middle-age will be coming out in September 2014. While you're waiting, learn a language. Or at least start. Read some of the articles on this site to see the techniques that I used. To get a note when the book is published (and absolutely nothing else from me, ever!) send an email to 

Au revoir/arrivederci/adiós.  (And go, Mike!)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesdays: Garçon! There's a fly in ma soupe

I was astounded to see that the little French phrase card that came with Fluenz French (and we'll dissect -- or eviscerate -- that little piece of learning software in a future post) gave the following translation for signaling a waiter: Garçon! Are you kidding me? No one's successfully gotten served by calling a waiter Garçon! since Edith Piaf. You might as well call LeBron James "boy," which happens to be, of course, the literal translation of garçon.

The custom of calling waiters "boy" dates from an earlier era, when France had more of a class system. And even then, you really weren't calling him "boy," you were using a shorthand notation for the French term for waiter, which is garçon de café. Nowadays it's considered rude, if not downright insulting, especially if your garçon is a fille or over the age of 12.

So what do you call a waiter. Monsieur? I've seen it done, but that's not quite right either, because it's putting you and the person serving you on the same social stratum (France still has a class system). The correct answer is, you signal the attention of a waiter in France more or less the same way you do in the States. If and when he wanders by, you raise your hand, smile, and plead, S’il vous plaît? 

If that fails, then try monsieur/mademoiselle/madame. If you're still being ignored, say in a loud voice for everyone to hear, Garçon!! That's sure to get his attention.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

France loves (and protects) its small bookstores

Trois cheers for the French, who have introduced a bill to protect their small, indie bookstores. The new law, which has already passed the lower house of parliament, would limit discounts -- including online (read: "Amazon") to 5%. Imagine if a bill like that were introduced in the US: there would be a hue and cry like you've never heard. Followed by a zillion lawsuits. Yet in countries like France and Italy, you still have the joy, which we've lost, of walking down any street and being able to wander into a small bookstore. In our quest for the lowest price on everything, we've not only given up American manufacturing, but joys like this. C'est dommage.

Full story at NPR.

Friday, October 25, 2013

French Food Fight Friday: Potatoes with loose morals and great body

Welcome to French Food Fight Friday (aka 4F), a weekly feature of alliteration and thoughts about food-related French and French-related food.

In this installment we explore the only food I know of that is named after... a prostitute! No fooling. According to the story,  this delectable dish was named after a delectable dish - a 19th century courtesan named Anna Deslions whose -- ahem -- office was located at the Café Anglais in Paris, one of the top restaurants in Paris. The chef, either out of his unrequited love for the beautiful Anna or in gratitude for the business she brought to his restaurant, created this recipe in her honor.

This is perhaps my favorite potato dish, the simplicity of it really bringing out the taste of the potatoes. It's crazy easy to make, yet, sadly, is rarely found in this country. When done properly the interior just melts in your mouth, while the outside potatoes remain crunchy and buttery. It's important to use Yukon potatoes to get that perfect texture and taste. And also not to count calories.

Before we get to the recipe, take a moment to savor the fact that the French word for potatoes is pommes de terre -- apples of the earth. Delightful, isn't it?

Pommes Anna 

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Clarify the butter: Melt it in really small saucepan until it foams. Remove from heat until foam subsides, then skim off and discard white solids that have floated to the top
  3. Slice 4 potatoes very thinly (use a mandolin or V-slicer if you can), about 1/8 inch
  4. Spray a nonstick 8- to 9-inch skillet with vegetable oil, then coat with a little of the clarified butter (the smaller the pan, the higher your stack of potatoes will be, and the higher the better)
  5. Cover bottom of skillet with overlapping layer of potatoes. Season well and drizzle a little of the butter over it
  6. Continue to add layers, drizzling each with butter, until you've used all the potatoes. Top with any remaining butter
  7. Cover pan tightly with foil and simmer over high heat for 90 seconds
  8. Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes, removing foil after 30.
  9. Put a plate or platter on top and flip, like an upside down cake. The top (formerly the bottom) should be golden brown and crispy. Allow to sit for several minutes before serving.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: Is that a cat in your throat, or are you just happy to see me?

Welcome to Wordsmith Wednesday (or mercredi manieur de mots), my new feature that, every Wednesday, takes a look at a strange, fun, or just plain weird aspect of the French language that your Rosetta Stone course might have (almost certainly has) omitted.

In today's feature we compare how a few French and English idioms for the same thing differ in one very feline way. For example:

  • While we say "tit for tat" 
    • The French say a bon chat, bon rat: -- to a good cat, a good rat
  • We have "a frog in the throat"
    • Your French friend avoir un chat dans la gorge -- has a cat in the throat
  • We "call a spade a spade"
    • The French appeler un chat un chat  -- call a cat a cat

Hmm. Is it just me, or is there a pattern here? What is it with the French and cats, anyway?  Oh, and by the way, while we're on the subject of cats, what we vulgarly call "pussy" the French call -- you guessed it -- "cat," although this time they make it a feminine cat -- chatte.

We'll explore the bizarre French gendering of animals in a future post --- stay tuned!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vous voulez egg roll avec ça?

Need to practice some French with native speakers and don't have a passport? Take a (long) drive up to Madawaska, Maine, which holds the distinction of  being the Frenchiest town in America, a place where, according to the 2000 US Census, 83 percent of its residents spoke French as their first language (!). These are the descendents of the Acadians, who came from the west coast of France in the 1600s, were chased out of Nova Scotia by the British  before the revolution, and scattered among the coastal US colonies (some ended up in Louisiana, where they became Cajuns), and finally returned after the war to the St John River valley.

I was recently up there, and the French they speak, I was told, is closer to the French of 400 years ago than Parisian French is today. It certainly is weird. I wasn't sure it was even French till I heard a "mais, oui!" But because of their proximity to Canada they also can speak "formal" French, so I had the unique experience of ordering dinner in French in a Chinese restaurant in Maine! (And the food wasn't bad.)