My New Year’s resolution this year is to improve my French. After repeated visits to France and Québec over the last decade or so, I pride myself that I can “get by” in restaurants and shops, and have conversations at a fairly basic level. I’m happy that no longer do waiters and tourist guides and store clerks immediately switch to English as soon as I say “Bonjour.” However, I have long been embarrassed that most French people speak English better than I speak French… and I come from a supposedly bilingual country, they don’t!
Of the most active members in our Slow Food Pelham group, at least half are francophone, either from Québec or France. Of course, they are all fluent in English, while the English speaking contingent are either unable or unwilling to participate in a French conversation. (There’s an old joke that there are three kinds of Canadians: tri-lingual Canadians, bi-lingual Canadians, and English Canadians.) When our group gets together for meetings or other events like our lamb roast or special meals, general conversation is in English so that everyone can take part. Even though it is necessary if we are going to enjoy each other’s company (and we do), it seems somehow unfair that half of the group is speaking a “second language” all the time.
Of course, the connection between the French and food is well established. In the western world, French cuisine is acknowledged as the choice of gourmets and the standard by which fine food is judged; the English language is riddled with French words that have to do with food. From crêpes Suzettes to foie gras, from béchamel to baguette, we use French terms for the finest food. A quick survey of the cook books that cram the shelves in our kitchen reveals that more than a third are dedicated to French cooking, whether Julia Childs’ thick tomes on the art of French cuisine, or one of Patricia Wells’ many books (Bistro Cooking is a favorite), or little specialty books like Sarah Leah Chase’s Pedaling Through Provence, they contain the most delicious recipes in our repertoire. (Which reminds me, for some reason, of George W. Bush’s famous overheard comment at a summit: “You know the problem with the French? They don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” But I digress).
So, I am going to tackle French with a renewed vigour in the new year, and not just my French cooking. When we spend two or three weeks in France or Québec, my French naturally improves, but over the intervening year, I lose much of what I gained. The challenge will be to make the time and effort to continue to improve, rather than lapse and have to start all over. Making the time and effort… that’s what New Year’s resolutions are for.
On our visits to the South of France, we always stop at a sandwich stand and enjoy Pan Bagnat, a delicious sandwich served in the area around Nice.
Cut a crusty bun in half lengthwise and rub each half with a cut garlic clove. Coat the bread with wine vinegar and olive oil, then stuff the sandwich with the following ingredients, finely sliced: lettuce, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, cucumbers, anchovies, peppers, radishes, green onions, basil leaves, and pitted black olives. Let the sandwich sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving to let the juices soak into the bread. Bon appétit!