14 June 2009

The Francophile I: France in the Dreams of My Youth

Looking back on my childhood, I cannot pinpoint when I first became a Francophile – a lover of France and the French. Peut-etre, I was born with it in my soul.
Some of my earliest memories, however, are of my completely American father teaching us French phrases, and rolling his r’s in a way that I only learned years later, was definitely not your high-brow 16th arrondissement pronunciation! Speaking French captured my fancy, even before I could speak English with much grace. My dad also had a love affair with all things French, which may have come from his own father having been stationed there during the WWI, and from learning the French language over the years at school. Spoken French is so beautiful, I don’t know how anyone could not be wooed by it.
Granddaddy, my dad’s father, taught me some French songs when I was no bigger than a grasshopper, and which I found out years later, were rather inappropriate for a delicately nurtured young lady! Now the truth is, the old gentleman was just that, a conservative, upright gentleman, who also taught me how to curtsy, and expected excellent manners at all times. I can only guess that it was a bit of harmless comedy to see me, a totally clueless little American girl, repeating songs that were written by soldiers in the red-light district of Paris in the swinging days following the turn of the last century. I admit that at age four, I could sing Hinkey Dinkey Parlez-vous. So great was my delight in this song, that I can still remember snippets of it today, nearly 50 years later.
Another influence was my French alphabet book, which held so much of an aura of magic for me, that still today, when I leaf through it, I feel there is some mystery in its pages. I can almost smell and taste my childhood interest in things French.

As it turns out, the book, entitled A FRENCH ABC, is a wonderful period piece, published just after WWII, with references and drawings evoking that era. (Notice on V for Victory, that the red poster is in German, with swastikas.)

My favorite page was P, with the artist at his easel.
Grandma, my mom’s mother, was French Canadian and had grown up speaking French – now that was cool! For years I was under the mistaken impression that Grandma’s father had been a fur trader, going back and forth between Canada and the United States although my Mom has confirmed that he was actually a farmer. In fact, I still imagine this ancestor with a raccoon hat on his head, striped tail trailing down his neck, a pelt of some other animal draped over his shoulders. (Oui, je suis depuis toujours tres romantique!)
In fifth grade, at a girls’ school known for excellent departments in both French and Latin, I began my true academic study of the French language. Over the years, our wonderful teacher, Madame Reynolds, along with her Mauger textbooks, would be a great influence on me. She imparted her love, not just of the language, but of French customs as well.

I cannot to this day, think of any meal, without picturing the diagram in one early Mauger depicting the correct order in which the French would eat their meals: always soupe before poisson before viande, (and white meat before red meat), salade after the main meal, followed by fromage, etc. There were numerous courses. In fact, if anyone besides Gargantua has ever eaten such quantities as I imagined the French did – at every meal, mind you – they wouldn’t have been able to move from the table. And yet, I still admire this imagined virtuosity, which in my mind, allowed the French to consume huge volumes of food, and to simultaneously relish every bite. (There is some real truth in this; just not to the extent I used to believe! And while the French do eat numerous courses, they have sensible portions for each one.)
One of my earliest tastes of “French cuisine” was a party we had in French class one day, to which Madame Reynolds brought little silver wrapped cubes of La Vache Qui Rit cheese, accompanied by the closest thing you could find to French bread in Minnesota in the 1960’s (same shape as a baguette, but there most of the similarities ended) and – in lieu of champagne – Catawba juice. We girls were in what we imagined to be French heaven!

A few years later, Madame Reynolds would lead a group of us – by then giggly and gawky teenage girls – to Paris, where we had our first real French food. We were blown away by everything we tasted, from a crepe suzette at a sidewalk vendor, to a grand dinner at Lasserre, where the gorgeous painted ceiling rolled open to reveal the star-spangled night sky.
Most memorable of those first French meals, though, was upstairs at a small and cozy restaurant in the 5th, called La Petite Hostellerie. I can still taste in my memory the French onion soup topped with thick, melted cheese, with its surprise slice of French bread floating in the soup beneath the cheese. At this meal, I also tasted my first Peche Melba. This trip was more than 36 years ago – what a lasting impression these meals created to have stayed so vividly with me after all this time!

That trip filled me with a sense of magic, which I know is felt by a lot of visitors to France. Soon after checking into our hotel, on the rue des Carmes in the Latin quarter, a few us decided to venture out and see a bit of the neighborhood. We were so naïve that when we first laid eyes on Notre Dame cathedral, we all asked each other several times if we thought that this could possibly be the REAL Notre Dame! Every time I have returned to Paris in the intervening years, the same magic returns to me.

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