August 18, 2023
Dear Frenchly Readers,
Last week, I read this interesting Op-Ed in The New York Times by an Asian American writer, Euny Hong, who said she feels safer in Paris than in the U.S. The line that stuck out for me, and made me continue reading, was this one: “France is not free of racism. But Paris does afford a person like me, occasionally, the chance to feel maybe I’m free of it, in ways that my experience in America rarely does.”
Hong breaks down her feelings in such an interesting way, landing finally, on language and how her ability to speak the French language gives her a kind of passport. She writes, “Frankly, I feel more comfortable in French. English is a beautiful, haunted language, but to my ear, it is aggressive and hegemonic. French, by contrast, is soft, romantic; it articulates the seemingly contradictory forces of logic and emotions like no other language I know. It allows people to complain all day long (a stereotypical French pastime), and somehow manage to keep it within a civilized range. It is a language that connects me to my true and best self. It binds me to the people who in turn feel that the language binds me to them.”
When I read that, I understood what she meant; even more, I related. Back when I was very small, my mother spoke to me in Spanish, her second language. I used to speak it to myself, marveling at how those rrrs rolled around on my tongue. Later, when we went to Spain when I was 14, the language just came out of me, like it was hiding inside my chest all along.
But French was my own thing. It wasn’t a language anyone else in my family spoke well, and so it felt private, separate. I learned it first in high school, then went on an exchange to Paris, then moved to Paris after high school for a gap year. Then, after studying French literature in college, I started going back whenever I could. I loved that French was eventually a language, when I moved back home to Maine, that I could speak with some New Mainers who are refugees from places in Western and Central Africa, where French became the de facto tongue following French colonial rule. Maine’s government has had a long history of providing good benefits to asylum seekers and a mostly peaceful place to make a new life and home.
And when my kids started learning French, we had a secret handshake between us that was imbued with humor, softness, and history. Now, my family is interested in other dialects or languages that are spoken in and around French. Along those lines, we have an interesting piece, here on Frenchly, that Catherine wrote about the lost languages of France. And we have these pieces, too: French words you can’t pronounce; how to sign off an email in French; slang; how to order like a local in a Parisian café; and an accent marks primer.
When I read Hong’s essay, I was thinking about a recent trip home from New York City, when we were listening to this episode on This American Life about Americans in Paris. It features David Sedaris and his feelings about the French language and how the French do or don’t make him feel accepted. If you haven’t read, or, even better, listened to, his memoir about living in Paris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, I’ve heard excerpts and it’s hilarious. (See a note on this below). And there’s also a wonderful piece on that This Life show by a Black American woman. She talks about whether the inclusiveness that artists like Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright felt still holds true for Black Americans and how she often speaks French with an American accent so that people won’t think she’s West African and, perhaps, treat her differently.
All of these stories come back to language, accent, and how it’s important to at least try to speak the language of the country you are in.
À cuisiner, regarder et lire çe weekend:
Now this is a little bit of a divergence from language and France, but tomorrow, I am leaving with my sons for a road and camping trip across Nova Scotia and up to Prince Edward Island. Chances are we won’t speak a ton of French. But we might hear some in the campground. And we will be listening to Me Talk Pretty One Day, as I already have it downloaded and ready to go.
August is the month of s’mores, IMHO. I like to get some great French chocolate, like Valrhona, in both white and some kind of dark chocolate–even flavored with ginger, pepper or lavender is good–and get the marshmallow very hot and blistered and make what I call a “white and black.” My younger son and I are partial to those. My older son and husband prefer the darkest chocolate you can find. We use gluten-free graham crackers, but a nice French butter cookie, like the LU Petit Beurre, is also good.
I have not seen Oppenheimer or Barbie yet. I am still stuck in Marseille with Transatlantic and, also, Only Murders in the Building and Fleishman is in Trouble.
But I am packing Allegra Goodman’s new novel, Sam, to take to PEI. I had the chance to meet her this week at the Harvard Book Store, where I was reading. She is lovely, beautiful, brilliant and also the mother of four children. I am also packing my mother’s recent book, Notes on the Landscape of Home. I have had a lot of interesting conversations on my recent book tour for Pete and Alice in Maine about what home is and who gets to call a place home. I want to know what my mom thinks.
If you still haven’t stocked your French Bar, do so and enjoy it; it’s fun! Cat and I show you how, below.
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