Some of my favorite moments in France–in life–are the ones that, unfortunately, can’t be photographed.
But then again, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but is it really? I’d almost always prefer the thousand words. Cameras are too good at misrepresenting.
Earlier this evening, my French host Dad taught me how to make a pissaladière Nicçoise: a sort-of savory tart that balances the sweetness of caramelized onions with the briny tang of anchovies and olives.
As I chopped small pearl onions into wedges, I realized that moments like this are what I really want to remember from my trip. Real. Authentic. Personal. And of course, French. They mean so much more than, say, a billion pictures of me in front of the Château de Versailles.
Fat raindrops began to fall outside as my host Dad pulled things out of cupboards.
He plopped a large container of herbes de Provence onto the counter.
It smelled delicious and I thought I recognized the scent from several meals we’d had. “Est-ce que tu…” I had to stop and think, as I often do. “Est-ce que tu, euh…utiliser ça pour…beaucoup de choses?” (do you use that for a lot of things?)
“Oui!” He said, gesturing wide. “Presque tout!” (almost everything!)
“When I cook,” he said, speaking a mixture of French and heavily-accented English, “these are– these are what I need, always.” He set each item in front of me as he spoke.
“The salt, of course; the pepper, the garlic, the onions…” He opened a spice cupboard. “Cumin, ginger…euh, curry.”
I made a mental note to ask for recipes, as everything I’ve tried has been delicious.
He added some sugar to the onions in the pan and I continued to chop.
We talked about the importance of travel and learning other languages, and he taught me the French term for “having an open mind.” I discussed my first day at Sciences-U; and we talked about how important it is to value family over money, all of it in the sort-of linguistic hodgepodge I’m starting to become comfortable with.
Jumping in and daring to speak only in my very imperfect French with my host family has led to misunderstandings, accidentally-embarrassing statements, and a lot of dictionary usage. But it’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s so worth it.
I’ve learned so much, both about how much I can connect with people without hardly speaking– like when I play catch and card games with my French sisters– as well as when I speak a lot of French and my family and I are able to trade information about, say, the American and the French legal systems and it’s so much cooler than searching “French law” on Wikipedia.
As it rained harder and thunder started to sound, L & M came inside from the pool. I talked with them a bit until one of us didn’t understand something– I forget– and we congregated around the table set with two translation dictionaries and my computer, open to a Google Translate window.
We found a pattern: one of us would think of an interesting word in our language and type it into the box, and we’d trade, practicing pronunciations.
I thought of all my favorite words, not the kind you bring out to impress a professor, but real favorite words, the silly or unnecessary ones you say just for the way they roll off your tongue.
Pink flamingo. “Pink…flamingo,” the girls would say carefully, as I tried its French equivalent. “Un flamant rose. Un flamant rose.”
I’m definitely more appreciative of English now. Oh, I love French, but I realize now I love English too, I really do. Not just writing and reading (that wouldn’t surprise anybody), but I love the language itself. The sound and the structure. The silliness and seriousness that have resulted in a huge lexicon able to tell endless stories through etymology alone.
French is like a brand-new boyfriend: exciting and heart-pounding, but not quite receiving of all my trust, not just yet. It’s new. Uncertain. I haven’t quite figured out what makes it tick, but I want to.
English, on the other hand, is like the old friend I’d trust my life with.
Weird spellings, difficult pronunciations, seemingly-nonsensical rules? I got you!
I never realized just how much language really is tied to identity, and to the way you see the world. So taking the time to learn another? I’m thrilled I have the chance. Really, I doubt many things are more valuable, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding, all at the same time.