Wine, Crepes, and Language; Oh My!
France. We arrived here four weeks ago; it was the last major country on the itinerary, and purportedly my Piece de Resistance. We arrived in Nice, haggard from our travels across eastern Europe at a pace that would have done General Patton's Third Army proud. And we had yet to reach our true objective: Sancerre. As I have mentioned before, we were tired, ill-prepared, and a little lack-luster in our tourism skills in Nice. We plodded along to the next city, Aix-en-Provence. While there, Jenni finally exclaimed that I seemed to be no more engaged with exploring France than with any other country. What was going on? She thought I loved France. Where was Jim the Francophile? She had cried to have her feet on Terra Italia--where my tears of joy? The only sniffle I'd produced was because of the poor weather; I was still consuming cappucino and gelato like an Italian.
I had to admit, she was right. It was simply tourism in a place where I had a better grip on the language. I felt a need to defend myself. Sure, I had studied the language, but that was 20 years ago. I had only been to France one time before, for two weeks, and pretty much as a tourist who had come to Paris and Normandy to see the big sites. She had been to Italy multiple times, had been shown the culture by locals, and had even enjoyed Italian culture imported to U.S. in the form of wine and the people who make it. Many of her friends are into Italy, as well. She knew when to have a cappucino and when not to. In France, I hadn't a clue about customs and traditions. In the U.S., I had lived in a French vacuum. My French language skills were as dull as a Dollar Store knife. We moved on to Lyon, and I still remained blase. People told me my French was pretty good, but when they switched to English, I figured it was because they couldn't stand to hear me mangle thier native tongue. (As it turns out, they think it is a great opportunity to practice thier second language.)
Finally, we arrived in Sancerre. My classes started, and I began to recall my French by the bucket-load. I relearned the rules of gammar, enabling me to remember why a certain phrase was correct and build from there. I recovered and learned French idioms that defy translation. I was able to have my questions answered by people who were there to help me get it right. And I was able to ask questions not just about the language, but about the French. My interest in France had been a seed, dormant for 20 years. I had finally returned to French soil, planted it, and watered it with scores of gaffs, blunders, misunderstandings, compliments, cafe and wine. My Francophilia flowered.
I haved learned not only the language, but social etiquette as well. There is no such thing as breakfast; the French wait until lunch and then take two hours to eat. In the French language, breakfast is the petit dejeuner--little lunch--and that is exacly how they treat it: a morning snack so you can make it until lunch. There is no place to eat a sit-down brekkie, and there are no stores open between noon and 2 pm; the French are at lunch, and you should be, too. Dinner is at 19:30 (that's 7:30 pm to you and me); don't bother arriving before then because they will not be ready for you. Cafe au lait is for drinking at home; if you are out you should order a creme cafe, or better yet, an espresso. Red wine is for cheese; sweet wine doesn't work. (OK, so nobody's perfect.) You can order a coffee with dessert, but the coffee will never arrive until after you have finished your dessert, because that is the way it is done. And if there is a holiday, most everything is truly closed, so plan accordingly.
Now that it is time to go, I wish I could stay. Three weeks in Sancerre have allowed us both to take a well needed rest, and yet remain immersed in French culture. I spoke the language daily, both with the help of my teachers, and will many friendly, impromptu corrections from the villagers of Sancerre. Coeur de France has been an excellent experience, and one I intend to repeat. Without a car, there was little chance to seek the Loire Valley in its entirety. But for the two weekends we had here, we were able to visit Bourges and Chavignol, see a gypsy jazz guitar concert with my professer in Saint-Satur, teach two yoga classes "en francais," and get a taste of Brittany via a local fair (Celtic France--a new "must go" destination for me). And speaking of tastes, let's not forget the wine and the cheese!
In the end, what is most important to me is to not lose all of the ground I have gained. I want to speak French at home, and to that end I intend to join Alliance Francaise in Chicago. I have made friends with people all over the world while at school here, and with any luck, not only can I keep in touch, I can do it in French. Coeur de France will also be offering classes via Skype soon, so I have a chance to learn more as well as keep in touch with the fabulous teachers I have had the pleasure of meeting here (special thanks to Marianne and Gwendoline, plus Laurie and Anne-Cecile!). Plus, there are so many reasons to come back to France: Brittany, Langdoc, Champagne, and further explorations of both Provence and the Loire Valley. I might not cry the next time I am in France, but I will certainly not lack for enthusiam.
As General MacArthur would say, "Je reviendrai!"