Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Le cadeau parfait pour Noël

Le cadeau parfait pour Noël? Fliring with French, bien sûr! Or one of my other books. If you don't happen to live near Shakespeare & Co. (see previous post) you can order from your reseller of choice on my website

Merci, and joyeux fetes, tout le monde!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hemingway must be rolling over in his grave

I just received the following note from a friend:

In September we spent a week in Paris with four friends. I was showing them the sights on the Left Bank, when we stopped in to Shakespeare & Company.  The first thing I saw upon entering, on a shelf to the right of the door was your book!!!
 I almost fell over!!! How very cool is that??!!- Shakespeare & Company....in Paris....itself!!!

 For those of you who don't know, Shakespeare & Co. is the famous bookstore in Paris, founded by Sylvia Beach, that was the epicenter of the ex-pat literary world of the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Joyce, Elliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein... not to mention, believe it or not, another former resident of my tiny town: Djuna Barnes. What are the odds....

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thanksgiving baguettes

What could be more traditional for Thanksgiving than, um, baguettes? Nevertheless, that will be my contribution to the table this year. Here's an easy recipe kneaded in a food processor if you want to follow my lead. Best part: all of the work is done ahead of time

460 g all-purpose flour
40 g corn flour*
345 g ice-cold water
1 teas. instant yeast
10 g salt

*Note: this is corn flour, not corn meal, and not masa harina. It's Easily obtainable from Bob’s Red Mill in a grocery store, and it adds a creaminess to the dough, but if you don’t have it on hand, increase flour to 500 g and decrease water to 340 g.
  1. The day before baking, thoroughly mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add water and mix until uniform. Transfer to a food processor and allow to rest, covered (a process called "autolyse") for about 15 minutes.
  2. Process for 45 seconds or longer, until a ball forms and starting flying around the processor bowl. Return the dough to the bowl you started with and cover tightly with oil-misted plastic wrap. The dough will seem a little wet – this is normal, and is what gives you those nice air holes.
  3. Place in refrigerate and allow to ferment overnight.  -- OR -- ferment at room temperature for about 2 ½ hours.

    Baking Day:
  4. Remove dough from fridge and allow to warm in container for about 2 hours.
  5. After 1 hour, place baking stone on middle shelf in oven. Place an old sheet pan or frying pan on bottom shelf. Preheat oven to its highest setting, usually 500-550 degrees F.
  6. After 2 hours, divide dough into 4 equal pieces on lightly floured countertop.
  7. Form each into a 3x5 inch rectangle, then fold into thirds, as folding a letter to go into an envelope. Fold once more, in half, and tightly seal the seam
  8. Roll out to baguettes, to a length of about 12 inches. Remember, they have to fit on your stone. Take a piece of parchment paper or wax paper and place the bread between folds to hold the loaf shapes. Support at both ends. Cover with plastic and allow to rise about 30 minutes
  9. Score loaves down the middle with a single-edged razor held at a 30-degree angle. Transfer loaves to a peel, and then to stone. Pour 1 cup water into the pan in the oven, taking care to protect your hand. If queasy about that, toss in the same amount of ice cubes instead
  10. Reduce heat to 480 and bake until center registers 210 F, about 20-25 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Monday, November 16, 2015

How does this end?

"How does this end?" I asked a friend, an Egyptian immigrant, over the weekend.

"Its been going on for hundreds of years," was his less-than-encouraging reply, "And it will continue to go on."

While the terrorist attacks have been largely seen as retaliation for France's military action in Syria, perhaps the larger long-term problem is that France has long kept the lid on a simmering pot of jobless, frustrated, angry young men from the former French North African colonial possessions Morocco and Algeria, men who live largely on the outskirts of France's cities and on the outskirts of French society. They used to feel powerless to express their anger. But now there is an organization with the motivation and means to give them the power, in the form of bullets and explosives. So, I come back to my original question. "How does this end?" Let's hope it doesn't take hundreds of years.

However long it takes, the solution will have to come both from military might and social reform. The French do have their hands full.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jeb apoligizes to French -- Mon Dieu!

Poor Jeb. He just can't get it right. First he gratuitously disses the French by making a crack in the last debate about Marco Rubio's Senate attendance: "I mean, literally, the Senate, what is it, like a French workweek? You get like three days where you have to show up?" Then when (quelle surprise!) the French, who actually have a longer work week than the Germans, take exception, he SEALS HIS FATE with the Republication Party by...apologizing!

Trust me, no candidate has ever gotten anywhere with the Republican electorate by apologizing to a foreign nation -- especially not the French, who for some reason remain the scorn of Republicans. So it's a three-man race now, and I'm putting my francs (ah, make that euros) on the young whippersnapper who never shows up for work.

Monday, September 14, 2015

10 Things Not to Do in Paris

As I pack for a trip to Europe (essentials: fanny pack, baggy shorts, oversized backpack), this good advice from Condé Nast Traveler on 10 things NOT to do in Paris resonated with me. And they also give you 10 things to do instead.  See you when I return.

 More (cough) advice on getting on in France in the NY Times bestseller, Flirting with French

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


I was browsing the French news this morning (definition of browsing: "understanding 5%") when I came across the delightful phrase -- only understandable to me because it was accompanied by a photograph of Venus Williams -- about Venus's pursuit of "le grand Chelem"

"Slam" in French is "chelem"? When did French start sounding like Yiddish? In fact, you ain't seen nothin' yet: An alternate spelling is schelem.

Better French students than I know that this is not the usual French word for "slam" (as in a door), which is more often claquement. Rather, chelem/schelem is a franglish mixup of the English "slam," mainly used in the context of sports and cards, and possibly was introduced by the American baseball term "grand slam." For good reason: grand claquement does doesn't quite have the same ring. (Although it does have some wonderful onomatopoeia going for it.)

Anyway, bonne chance, Venus! Chelem 'em!

More fun with French in NY Times bestseller, Flirting with French.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Cauchemar américain

Forgive me (or pity me): I just can't stay away from The Donald, even on a blog about (ostensibly) learning French.  Now, with France dealing with its own immigration nightmare that makes our southern border problem seem trivial, you might think that Trump's strong views on the subject might get him a sympathetic ear over there.

Perhaps from Marine Le Pen's National Front party it might (although it should be noted that the party recently expelled the founder -- Marine's father --- for his too-radical views on immigration), but here's the take on Trump from the newspaper Libération:

Le Cauchemar américain

I'll save you the trouble of running to Google Translate. The headline translates as "The American nightmare"

That's nothing: Thursday they called him "a nutcase." The French are nothing if not direct. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

A note to my fans in Europe and Asia

To those of you in France and other counties who've not been able to reach my website, http://williamalexander.com, I'm happy to say that the problem has been fixed. If you haven't visited, you'll find information on all my books, links to my New York Times and LA Times op-eds, reviews and interviews, as well as behind-the-scenes features, such as photographs of the other-wordly Abbaye St-Wandrille in Normandy, where as described in 52 Loaves, this American non-believer taught French monks to bake French bread (strange but true!) and jousted with God (stranger but true!).

Plus, for fans of The $64 Tomato, photos of my garden, recipes, and more.

Et maintenant, il marche de la France, aussi!

Friday, August 14, 2015

French to Trump English After All!

Vive la langue française ! Just when everyone thought French was going to be overshadowed by English (and possibly Chinese), crunching the numbers reveals that French may the world's most commonly spoken language by 2050, or the as French news site France 24 puts it, "the language of Molière will eclipse the language of Shakespeare."

How is this possible? you ask. Well, thanks to its history as a colonial power, French is still widely spoken in some of the fastest-growing counties in Africa:  Mali in the north, and Guinea, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo in the sub-Saharan region, not counting North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

The $64 Tomato -- I mean, question, is, does having the numbers mean having the influence? Je crois que non, because, to be quite honest, the language that children are speaking in a village in Chad doesn't much affect what they call "wi-fi" in France (it' "wi-fi," but adoringly pronounced "wee-fee."

So, the French may take some solace in their numbers, but they can only wistfully imagine a French-speaking world - which we'd in fact have had today if the French hadn't lost (yet another) war to the British -- this one in, yes, the New World, back in the 1700s.

Damn you, King George!

More fun and facts about French in my NY Times bestselling book, Flirting with French.

(And admit it, you read this piece because you thought I was writing about Donald Trump again!)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Is Trump more sexist than the French language?

Pity the Donald (or don't...), whose remarks about women are gaining him regular tongue-lashings by even the conservative press (and also...hmmm...headlines), but imagine the reception he'd get if he started referring to his wife as "my woman." As in, "Ask my woman Melania if I'm a sexist pig." Well, that is precisely how Frenchmen refer to their wives, because the French do not have a dedicated word for "wife": Femme means both "woman" and "wife."

Note that there is a dedicated word for husband -- mari.  But there is none for "wife." Same is true of son and daughter, by the way. Were he French (hello, France, he's yours if you want him!) Donald would use the same word for Ivanca Trump as he'd use for the girl who polishes his shoes six times a day: fille.

In Flirting with French I relate a conversation I had with a Frenchwoman about this very topic -- and the most amazing part is that she had never realized it until I mentioned it!  

Vive la France ! Vive la différence !

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Summer school: Vous/Tu flowchart

Without question, the most popular feature of Flirting with French is my Vous/Tu flowchart, designed to assist you in determining whether to use the formal or familiar form of "you" in French. The chart also appeared as an LA Times Bastille Day op-ed; however, it wasn't until the French newspaper Le Monde picked it up that it gained notoriety, garnering 35,000 Facebook links in the first day alone!

Since August is the perfect month for catching up, here is it again, for those of you who missed it  (and who haven't realized it's been sitting on this blog as a sidebar for a year). Click on the graphic below to view the LA Times version, or click here for a downloadable PDF. Bon courage!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Linkword review

Lately I've been discussing mnemonic techniques for memorizing vocabulary. It turns out there is software that uses this method, the Linkword Language Courses developed by Michael Gruneburg.

This screenshot gives you a pretty good idea of the premise behind Linkword (I tested the Spanish course, because I speak no Spanish at all).  There are hundreds of these screens in a Linkword course, divided up by skill level and then category (animals, clothes, food). You can choose to hear the foreign word spoken, or work in silent mode.
It works like this: When a screen like the one above pops up, you spend a moment visualizing the imagery suggested: in this case, a camel lying on your bed. Concentrate on the word and the image of the camel on your bed. If all goes according to plan, the next time you see the word cama you'll recall the image of the camel in your bed and remember that cama is Spanish for "bed."

Click "Next" and repeat. And repeat. After 10 of these you get quizzed, then see a review screen with all the words. Then you go to the next unit. Eventually you end up composing (meaning, typing; there's lots of typing in this course) simple sentences.

Your first impression may be that this software must have been created in Basic in 1978 on a Commodore PET, but the (extremely) bland interface and choice of yellow on black are said by Dr. Gruneburg, who invited me to review the course, to be intentional choices that contribute to focus and memorization. I'm not sure if I buy it, and I have to wonder if a lively illustration of a camel in repose on a bed might not have been helpful. Certainly it would've made it more interesting as you pass through screen after same, feeling like you're stuck in DOS land. (Sorry for all the nerdy computer references, but that's what I do in my day job.)

Some of the linkages are good, and helpful, but for me too many are a bit, well, tortured.

Consider the pig. Third O'? Really?  I would've had the pig eating Certs to kill the stink, and why on earth you'd link "fox" to zorro by using the word "sorrow" instead of putting a Zorro mask on the fox is mind-boggling. But that's the nature of a mnemonic technique -- it's very personal. Which raises the question: are you better off creating your own linkages, rather than using those suggested by another? Almost certainly, I'd say (Dr. Gruneburg, for the record, does not agree), but that takes more effort, and perhaps few students would be willing to spend the time to do that, as I did when learning the 1,000 French words in a children's dictionary in a week. And, of course, there wouldn't be a Linkword product to sell if the users were creating their own images.

More importantly, the other thing that I did to facilitate learning vocabulary, if you recall from an earlier post, was to put these objects into themed rooms. For me, it wasn't enough to connect jupe to "skirt" by having the girl in the skirt jumping rope. In order for this technique to work, I had to put her and her family (and all their clothes) into a room, a busy room with lots of activity and words (refer to Flirting with French for details) - that is, combining mnemonics with the memory palace. That also greatly relived the monotony of memorizing word after word. Of course, I used my own images. In fact, my editor called me out on (and edited out!) the image of the woman in a tank top sweating on the exercise bike. But, hey, I remembered her (and her associated word)!

Anyway, back to my review of Linkword and the crux of the matter. Is this product an effective way to learn vocabulary? I would say, having spent some time with both the PC-based and mobile versions, that it can be, for some, a useful adjunct to other study, although I found it more useful in going from French to English than in the other direction. And note that, while there are some screens in the advanced sections that deal with grammar and sentence structure, and it's marketed as a full-fledged language course, in my opinion this is really a dressed-up vocabulary-learning tool. The product website claims that "Level 4 will enable you to read and understand the average newspaper article, watch a foreign language film and converse with people in a very wide range of situations abroad." I didn't make it to level 4, so I shouldn't judge, but I'll confess to a little skepticism when it comes to that lofty goal.

 As a vocabulary-learning supplement, it might have some use. I prefer the mobile version, which is something that you can do for a few minutes while waiting at the doctor's office during your lunch break. Think of it as a little snack between your language-class meals, and keep your expectations limited.

As my grand-mère de Brooklyn used to say, "It couldn't hoit!"

The Linkword language courses are available at linkwordlanguages.com

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jumping rope in the rain in my liviing room

To summarize the last two posts on learning French vocabulary (my, where has the time gone!), I had only a little success with both the mnemonic keyword technique, where you associate a French word with an English image that will remind you of the word, and the memory palace method, which seemed more suited to remembering a shopping list than learning vocabulary.

Neither worked.

Until, in a moment of uncharacteristic brilliance, I combined them. I took my vivid images of complaining plantains and the like and assembled them into themed rooms. Thus to learn French clothing words, I put a British chap wearing a chapeau and a coat (manteau) up on the fireplace mantle in my living room. 

Any well-dressed British chap up on a mantel needs an umbrella, that wonderful French word parapluie, which can double as a parachute if he needs to jump off. His wife, an unfortunate, homeless bag lady, wears a diamond bague on her finger. This couple’s daughter is jumping rope in her skirt (jupe), impermeable to the rain that’s falling onto her yellow impermeable.

But what is this strange crew doing in my living room? Sadly, it’s a wake for the son, a ten-year-old kid, laid out in a casket wearing a baseball cap (casquette), and sneakers (baskets) under a basketball hoop. I run through the scene with this odd family, whom I’m starting to enjoy, a few times in my head, jot down some notes, and test myself an hour later. Still there. The next day, the next week, still there. Thus it seems that while the keyword method itself doesn’t work and the memory palace doesn’t even really apply (it’s usually employed to memorize mere lists of items), combining the two methods — assigning a keyword and placing that object in a palace — clicks!

Try it yourself! And, of course read the full story in my New York Times bestseller, Flirting with French.  In the next post I'll tell you about my experiences with a software product that uses one of these techniques.

Friday, June 26, 2015

French students can't "cope"

There's (yawn) another student protest in France with week - but wait, before you tune out, this one involves language! The students are protesting the appearance of the English word "cope" in the English proficiency section of baccalaureate exam (which requires students to be proficient in not just one, but two foreign languages!). To quote from the NY Times:

The students said they were baffled by a passage from the best-selling novel “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan, in which the word “cope” appeared. Then came two questions about a character named Turner: “What concerns him about the situation?” and “How is Turner coping with the situation?”

Twelve thousand students signed a petition claiming that the word "cope" is not easily translatable into French. Some say the very concept has no exact equivalent, although a letter to the Times refutes this as "utter nonsense," pointing out that there are two verbs, se débrouiller and s'en sortir, that mean precisely that.

I won't enter the fray, except to point out that this same week, French taxi drivers, unable to cope with competition from Uber, were staging disruptive, even violent strikes, prompting Courtney Love to tweet that Baghdad is safer than Paris. Ouille!

One final note: Only 4 days left to buy Flirting with French on Kindle, Nook, or Apple for the appropriately insane price of $1.99! At that price surely it's worth the e-ink it's written on!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Flirting with French still only $1.99 on Kindle

Ever wonder what the French call "French kissing"? Why they have the most advanced transportation system in the world but haven't yet discovered the shower curtain? Whether you can learn a language as a adult?

This is the week to find out, as the New York Times bestseller Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart is just $1.99 on Kindle and Apple. Raved about in the Wall Street Journal, praised in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Flirting is cheaper than a croissant -- but just till the end of the week, so dépêchez-vous! (hurry!)

He throws himself into learning to speak French with Gérard Depardieu-like gusto -- The New York Times Book Review

"One of America's funniest writers...has done it again" -- Counterpoint

Friday, June 19, 2015

Chewie, on est à la maison

Skip the usual drivel on my blog this week (it will still be there next week) and zip right over to FluentU for the  trailer of the new Star Wars movie -- in French!  Make sure you hang in to the very end for the line by our favorite pilot and his furry copain. You might even understand the line.

Que la force soit avec toi!

Friday, June 12, 2015

French is un pain in the pan

That's "pain" as in pain (pronounced roughly "pah"). In a previous post I started a discussion (okay a monologue) on using a memory technique known as the memory palace to remember French vocabulary. (Go ahead, read it now, we'll all wait....)

Frankly, I couldn't see how it was going to help me learn French, so I abandoned it, but not long afterwards, I came across another "trick" that has been around for at least 30 years called the keyword method. The way this one works is that you associate the foreign word with a common English word, and visualize that English word. So, for example, to remember that pain is "bread" you  visualize a pan. Now picture that pan coming out of the oven filled with bread, and concentrate on that image for a few seconds. Bake it into your brain. Now, the next time you see the French word pain, you should be able to conjure up this picture, and say, “aha, bread!” As with the memory palace, the advantage of this method is that it uses imagery, and the human brain is far better are retaining images than at retaining words

Does it work? I tried it with a children's French/English dictionary I'd been trying unsuccessfully to memorize  For se plaindre (to complain), I pictured a bunch of talking plantains complaining about me every time I walk by. Funny. One word that had evaded me for weeks was autoriser, a verb meaning “to give permission.” I closed my eyes and pictured myself in my mechanic’s garage asking him for permission to put my car on his lift — his auto riser. Bingo. Ten minutes later, I tested myself with a handful of new words, and passed. But as I added words, I started forgetting earlier words. So I dismissed the technique aside as yet another gimmick.

So, neither the memory palace nor the mnemonic keyword technique seemed to work for me.  But stay tuned: next week I'll tell you how 1+1=5, or what happened when I combined the techniques...and the email I received from a proponent of one of them. Très intéressant!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Cheap Flirting

For those of you who follow my blog, but haven't read my book, Flirting with French, here's your chance. For the month of June, you can get an e-book of Flirting (Kindle, Nook, Apple) for only $1.99!  If you have read it, surprise your Francophile friends with a gift. They'll never suspect how little you spent.

Buy the Kindle edition here

Buy the Nook version here

or visit the Apple Bookstore from your iOS device.

Act now, before they're all gone

Friday, June 5, 2015

Raining milk in the memory palace

I thought that maybe for at least a few posts that I might return to topics related to the reason I started this blog -- namely, the business of learning French, at which I've proven remarkably inept. Why this should be so is anybody's guess (Je suis idiot is mine), but I did have a little success, and did learn some techniques along the way, so let's dwell on the positive for moment.

One technique which I discovered during my quest to memorize French vocabulary is called the "memory palace." In Flirting with French I discuss the fascinating origin of the term (too lengthy to go into here), but the way it works is that you place the object or word in a room (or if you're a king, a palace) but represented by a vivid visual image that will remind you of that word. So if you have a list of objects for the grocery store -- bread, milk, chicken, and potatoes -- which is one more item than I can memorize, you place memorable images of those items in a room or rooms, which you picture yourself walking through. So, to memorize this list, I picture myself coming home from work, and as I pass the mailbox a chicken pokes his head out and clucks. As I approach the house it starts raining milk, so I dash inside, only to slip on the potatoes that are covering the kitchen floor, and as I lay there the oven door flies open and a loaf of bread pops out. (This is particularly vivid use of the technique -- all the action isn't the norm, but I find it helps.)

So that's my list, converted to a little tableau. When I get to the store I picture myself coming home from work, and the rest follows (we hope). Memory experts have used this technique to memorize hundreds of objects, or,say, the order of cards in a deck. It's effective because the mind is better at remembering images than at remembering words. But how can it help you with a language? To help you to remember, not to bring home the bread, but that "bread" is le pain? Ah, that's a topic for another day, but give it some thought -- you may come up with the answer yourself.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

An historic first for Académie Française

As I reported in my International New York Times op-ed a couple of months ago, France seems to be loosening up when it comes to defending its language. The latest historic moment is the naming of the first foreigner to l'Académie Française, that august defender of the French language since 1635.

In recent years a few Frenchmen born outside of France have been named to the this very private club, including perhaps most shockingly, an English-born poet, but Dany Laferrière, born in Haiti, and a Canadian citizen, is the first non-citizen of France awarded the post.

France's minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, signaled this openness in March 2015 speech in which she pointed out the there are more French speakers outside of France than in it, so it nice to see to substance put behind the talk.

Some interesting details about M. Laferrière's induction and life:
  • His traditional a black tailcoat embroidered with green olive branches took a Montreal embroiderer 500 hours to make
  • His sword, handmade by a Haitian sculptor, had references to Legba, the Voodoo deity of crossroads
  • Among his 20 novels are the autobiographical "How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired,"  which became a 1990 film
We wish M. Laferrière bonne chance in his new post. We don't have to wish him  bonne santé, because the 40 members of the academy as call les immortels.  Time will tell.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The French Blog makes the top - um - 100 (!)

When I first heard that this blog had been included in a list of the top 100 French learning websites, I have to confess, my first reaction was, "There are a hundred French language sites?"

Well, there are, and lots more, and actually I'm honored to be included in Love Frence, Learn French's list of free French-language learning sites, because I'm the only learner blog included -- the other 99 are websites and blogs from French teachers. And I can only hope that my presence makes them nuts.

Anyone, Love/Learn French's list is a terrific resource for any cheapskates trying to learn French -- I didn't know about most of the sites on the list, and the blog author, Ryan Harrison, has included nice little capsule descriptions of each. About this site Ryan writes, "He blogs about France and learning French but doesn’t give any lessons to learn the language. He is very interested in current affairs. The site has some reviews of paid online software you can read too."

But I'm in some good company, include resources maintained by legitimate enterprises like The College of William and Mary. So go learn some French! Or should we say, Apprendez-vous quelques française! Or something like that.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Kiss off, France!

In my book, Flirting with French, I try to figure out the French kissing business - by which I mean, the bise, "that cheek-to-cheek air kiss, where you touch cheeks and make a smacking sound with your lips as if you were actually kissing, which in most cases you are not, then repeat on the other cheek. And it doesn’t always end there. The French, it seems, are so fond of the kiss that they sometimes go for three or even four, depending on the region. In general they kiss twice in the north, and anywhere from three to a tongue down your throat in the south"

So imagine my delight to find, on a UK web page that is reviewing Flirting, to find a map -- yes, a map! -- that goes beyond my "general" guide and indicates how may times you kiss. My question is, is it tongue in, um, cheek? Read the full article at Culteratheque.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pénis Chien

Interesting article by - ahem - that other writer who writes about things French in the New York Times on our picky food habits. It seems that after living in France, Pamela Druckerman has gone from being a vegetarian to eating live animals. Vive la France!

(No, despite my catchy title, the live food in question is not dog penis- but you'll have to read the piece to see where that fits in.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Read my New York Times op-ed: The French Give in to the Hashtag!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote in this space about the remarkable fact that France seems to be giving up the fight against English. I've expanded this into a full op-ed that you can read online in the New York Times or in print in the International editions.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Buzzfeed's "42 reasons to never visit France"

"The landscapes are ugly and food sucks." Read the full piece, while keeping tongue firmly inserted in cheek.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Kids Cook French

To those of you who, like me, despair when you see a children's menu in a restaurant (denying kids child-sized portions of the delicious stuff the adults are eating), you have a friend in Claudine Pépin. Not one to pamper the children, Claudine's new cookbook, Kids Cook French, with illustrations by her father, the better-known Jacques Pépin, has kids cutting up a whole chicken, making a béchemal sauce, and just generally acting like grownups in the kitchen. In other words, there are no chicken fingers on this kids menu.

Although I suspect it is adults who will get the most out of this book, especially adults with a yearning for French, for the book is bilingual, with English recipes and text on one page, and the French version the facing page. Which is how I learned that cauliflower is chou-fleur (literally, "cabbage flower"). And unless you have very precocious kids, this may not be, with some exceptions, a cookbook you turn over to your 11-year-old and expect to find dinner and the table when you get home from work. Unless you trust your kids chopping up a whole chicken (with no instruction other than "cut the chicken into eighths") with your 10-inch chef's knife (to be fair, the recipe does say you can buy chicken parts instead) or spending the afternoon on a beef bourguignon. But the best part of kids cooking is cooking with them. And so, do these recipes a couple of times with your kids, and, who knows, you may just be surprised some evening to walk in the door to the smell of poulet à la crème.

That is not to say the recipes don't make concessions to youth - there are many, some of which my inner enfant welcomes. I'm looking forward to making a simple soufflé in which you don't separate the eggs (this recipe, like several others, is accompanied by a charming family story about its accidental origin); a croque monsieur that omits the béchemal (although, mysteriously, béchemal is included in a later recipe); and helpful tips for inexperienced cooks of all ages ("If you have the time to wash something you've used while you're cooking, do it!"). Most of the recipes are in fact accessible to a child who likes to be challenged a bit, and Claudine has done a wonderful job of coming up with a well-rounded, appetizing selection of real food, healthy food, and the kind of food our kids should be learning to eat -- and make -- at an early age.

The fact is, were it not for the title and the kind of thick cardboard cover you find on picture books, you'd never know you were reading a children's cookbook. And that's a good thing. If youth is wasted on the young, so are a lot of children's books. So you can safely buy this (ostensibly) for your kid, try some good, easy recipes with our without your child, and brush up on your French at the same time.

Parents against chicken fingers, unite!

Kids Cook French (Les enfants cuisinent à la française), by Claudine Pépin with illustrations by Jacques Pépin. Quarry Books, $21.99

Full disclosure: Jacques Pépin graciously provided a blurb for my book, 52 Loaves. I have no other connection with the Pépins.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

France surrenders to the hashtag

Didn't see this coming: France's Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin, last week declared that she (and thus France) are ready to end the stubborn resistance to the incursion of English words into French, declaring a unilateral truce in the decades-long war on English. “French is not in danger and my responsibility as minister is not to erect ineffective barriers against languages but to give all our citizens the means to make it live on,” Pellerin told an audience assembled for the opening of French Language and Francophonie Week, acknowledging with one sentence both the futility and misguidedness of the battle.

“French is not in danger” is a remarkable assertion from the chief language guardian of the country that once fined TWA for issuing boarding passes in English and that has been trying to keep the language pure since King Louis XIII.  Perhaps the final straw was the ridicule heaped onto France for trying to come up with a French word for "hashtag," settling on mot-dièse.

My only question for the Mlle Pellerin is,  did she run this past the elders (and some of them are quite elder) in the Académie français? Or is the merde about to hit the fan? Bon courage, ma fleur!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Les affairs

Is seems there is (fortunately for us bloggers) no shortage of salacious news from France these days. First we have the DSK trial with its bacchanal orgies; now the country is in an uproar over the widespread advertising of a website that helps married women find willing partners for affairs.

French feminists are protesting the double standard apparently in play here: French men having affairs is one thing, but if a woman tries to return the favor, sacre bleu!  Meanwhile the (male) moralists are retorting that men keep their affairs discreet, while this website, Gleeden (as a public service, I've provided the link) is being advertised on the back of buses and in Metro stations. Check out the ad below. The caption reads, by the way, "to be faithful to two men is to be twice as faithful." You have to admire the copy writing, if nothing else, non?

Yet the openness of it does seem a little outre, even for France, and some bus companies, in response to the public outcry, have pulled the ads. All of this is great publicity for the website, which has a million subscribers in France. That's right, boys. A million Frenchwomen are actively trolling for a discreet affair. This in a country of only 33 million women! Do the math.

Frenchman, you've got no ones to blame but yourselves!  Bon courage!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

DSK trial ends (bizarrely, bien sur!)

"Neither the investigation nor the trial justified the charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn. I call for him to be acquitted, pure and simple."  Thus was the closing argument of the prosecution in the pimping trial of former IMF head and almost French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Wait a second, that was from the prosecution??? Not the defense?

Mais oui! La France, je t'aime!

It seems that 4 of the 5 prostitutes that DSK is said to have hooked up with his sex parties withdrew their charges. This sounds more like New Jersey or Brooklyn (were les filles made an offer they couldn't refuse?) than France, but there you go, and DSK is set to walk yet again. Although, even with both the defense and and prosecution agreed that there are no grounds for prosecution (boy, that's hard to write), the case has gone to the judges, with a verdict to be rendered June 12, giving DSK time for a couple of more sex parties before the verdict (June? French courts make the US Supreme Court look like a body that rushes to judgement, by comparison)

So did someone "get" to the girls? The prosecutor blamed the press for putting the girls through an ordeal, and few in France are suggesting anything underhanded, but the trial was essentially completed when the girls suddenly quit en masse. C'est bizarre, non? DSK himself said that "perhaps the girls have revisited their memories."

Didn't Tony Soprano use that line?

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.