October 28, 2005
C’est à Dire
We’ve returned from our two-week intensive at the French immersion school, Coeur de France, in the Loire Valley. My mind is a muddle of words, phrases and exclamation points. Although sporting a rather official looking certificate and having been speaking French at least 4 hours a day, I am not there yet. Another immersion or two may be required.
In fact, only an hour after arriving home I experienced the first big disappointment with my newfound fluency Upon dragging all the suitcases up to our apartment, along with our friend Leslie from the school (whose flight home to Texas was cancelled due to Hurricane Rita), we walked over to the Place de La Muette for lunch.
The good news was that the waiters at La Rotunde, our favorite brasserie, actually acted as if they recognized Catherine et moi; the not so good news was their comprehension of my French was still iffy.
Upon delivering a perfectly constructed request for une grande bouteille de Badoit, the waiter screwed up his face and asked me “Do you want a bottle of Badoit?” I felt like screaming (that’s a bit strong – maybe blushing while I asked) isn’t that what I juste said?, but refrained and politely nodded my head. It must be the Tours accent, I thought to myself. Our language school was in Sancerre, near Tours, and the Tours accent is considered the most pure in all of France. Sort of like speaking the King’s English I would say, or perhaps being from California. No drawl, no twang, no imperfections. Do you think someone from the Bronx, for example, or perhaps Mississippi has a hard time understanding Californians when they order a bottle of Perrier?
But to return to more pleasant things, Sancerre (pronounced gracefully and like a yawn,Saaaaannnncerrrrreeee) was charming and hilltopy. All cobblestones and panoramic vistas, ruined fortresses and medieval houses with blue and brown shutters, lace curtains and, of course, a healthy array of French speaking persons with whom to practice. (Attached is a beautiful photo taken by Leslie Christophe.)
It is a clean town, really pristine, and quite small, known for its white wine and Crottin de Chavignol, goat cheese. Of course, our quotient of warm goat cheese salads skyrocketed and we are now hopelessly addicted. ( I have attached a photo of one of the little darlings for your viewing pleasure.)
Our apartment on the top floor of the school looked out on the old market square where “witches” prepared and sold herbal remedies and magic potients in the 13th and 14th centuries. Very pagan.
The surrounding hills were filled with vineyards ready for the harvest, and fields of dying sunflowers. The weather whipped across the sky from cloudy to rainy, dramatic to soft. Catherine and I spent our off-time reading about new developments on the Web (Web 2.0) and thinking up, yet another, business plan for our return to Los Angeles.
Our French professor, Valerie, was perfect for us: very little homework, lots of chatting, a dash of grammar and a good sprinkling of pronouns. She taught us the song which every French girl and boy knows: Les Champs-élysées by Joe Dassin. I asked her about the “Joe” part, since it didn’t seem very French to me, but she wasn’t quite sure about it. (Jean Robert did know, but that’s another story!)
Turns out, Joe Dassin was an American-born singer who skyrocketed to the top of the French pop charts during the 60’s and 70’s with such blockbusters as Bip Bip, L’été indien and Les Dalton. Essentially an expat musician.
Aside from class and song singing, we had a few dinners with other students, which were painful as we were under strict orders not to speak English to them, and we had a cooking lesson with Marianne, the owner of the school.
Catherine and I took weekend excursions to see the grand chateaux of Chambord, considered the Kings’ chateau (shown at top) and Chenonceau, le chateau des Dames (shown at left, and kitchen photo on the right.) In addition, we toured about the French countryside and saw the towns of Bourges, Amboise, Tours and many smaller ones.
Chambord is a fantastic palace recognizable by its magical spires and roofs. It is centered around a huge, double-helix staircase which Leonardo da Vinci may have designed. Our afternoon there was moody and blustery. Perfect for striking photos.
On the other hand, Chenonceau was quite the fairy-tale castle with its huge gallery extending over the Cher river. Here, such luminaries as Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de’ Medici vied for power (what a story between those two!), organized huge fetes and stag hunts and mounted grand spectacles for the French courts over which they held sway.
We stopped on a Saturday morning in Aubigny for lunch and ran into their weekly market. Aubigny is a small village in the middle of the Loire which used to be called the City of the Stuarts due to its close connections with Scotland. Today it seems especially noteworthy for the quantity of banners hanging about. Everyone was out shopping. The corner café on the main street next to the market was filled to overflowing with people looking like they had just come off La Chasse (the hunt) with their hunting coats and felt hats, and their sporting dogs lounging under the tables and on the chairs and just everywhere: Spaniels, Hounds, Weimers and Labs. This is the land of big dogs.
Along the roads we saw all kinds of signs warning about deer and boar crossings and throughout our wanderings we found many sculptures and images of Diana, the huntress. When we asked Valerie about this hunting theme, assuming it was from times past, we found to our surprise that all her friends hunt and she even killed a boar accidentally with her car one night after a movie. Being a good French girl, she and her friend picked up the dead boar, put it in the car and delivered it to her friend’s father who made a flavorful stew from it. Yikes. Boar Ahead.
Now we are home, Paris-home that is. Just as there were moments in our immersion in which I forgot we were talking French, there are moments in my living in which I forget I am in Paris. Home simply is home. We chalked off another historic restaurant, Le Procope, with other students from the school who were in Paris, and we all cheated and talked English.
Now I must go. Mon caddie is waiting patiently by the front door to go on its regular rounds down on the Pompe.