Parlez-vous Français?

Suzanne has been very patient with me. Since our return from Switzerland, I have been walking down the hill to her house in the mornings, to try and grapple with passé compose, impératif, et futur.

The Road to Suzanne's. The biggest predator for the chickens is the occasional car

Because I did not have English grammar drilled into me at school, French has always been a nightmare. My great frustration is that I have no subtlety. No kindness. « Would you mind looking over my homework » becomes “Look at my homework”, which is abrasive of course. So we work on:« Est-ce que tu pourrais regarder mon devoirs ? » and I vow to try and remember (je me souviens) the verb pouvoir in its many forms. To find a kinder, gentler approach.

Suzanne has been giving me exercises from books for children. I know that her grandson Baptiste finds this hilarious. Baptiste is 7, with a lovely toothless grin. He tells me that he gets about 2 Euros for each tooth from la Petite Souris (the equivalent of the tooth fairy). On Monday he gave me a recipe for chocolate cookies. Not sure why, but perhaps he wanted me to improve upon the brownies I had made for the family (see « Une opération bilingue »). The recipe was from a children’s magazine, similar to “Highlight Magazine” in the US, with fun drawings of child chefs carrying mounds of chocolate, and smashing it with a hammer.

The gauntlet is thrown, and I decide to make a batch of cookies before heading over. This means I begin my day clattering around in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. Measurements for recipes in the UK and Europe are all in weights. Unfortunately, there is not a set of kitchen scales here, and, being used to volume measurements, my approximations are pretty wonky. As I start to melt the butter, I can’t believe how good it smells. It is local, of course, and fills the kitchen with an irresistible, sweet, warmth. And the eggs! The yolks are orange.

I chop up the hunks of chocolate (I’ve been told that no one here uses chocolate chips, and I can see why – chocolate chunks are so much better!) The recipe is dead simple and scrumptious. I’ve included an English translation for “Baptiste’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies”, but you’ll have to figure out the weight measurements if that is the way you cook. That’s a translation I can’t do.

The lesson with Suzanne goes well, perhaps because of the cookies which are much appreciated by Baptiste and his sister. We get into a conversation about school lunches and Suzanne tells me that schools in France have cafeterias so that children can have a proper, 3-course lunch. She bemoans the fact that lunch is only an hour long for the children. Not nearly a long enough lunch for a Frenchman! When I try to explain that Canadian children have about 25 minutes, sitting at their desks, to eat whatever they have brought from home, she is justifiably appalled. She tells me that when she was at school, they regularly had 5-course lunches. And that for holiday lunches she was given Crémant! (Champagne). Have I mentioned that this is a civilized country?

On my way back from Suzanne’s Claudette stops me to give me 4 lovely courgettes. Claudette always greets me with a smile that melts my heart. I tell her that the lettuce that she gave me the day before (she calls it “salade”) became a wonderful Nicoise salad, and she and Robert are excited that I am able to rhyme off the ingredients in French. Les olives, les haricots verts, le thon, les pommes de terre, les tomates. That, at least, is easy from years of reading bilingual labels in Canada.

We manage a conversation about gardens, and I try to explain how my garden has very little earth, mostly rock, but that I live in a beautiful wood. She has barbed wire around her garden to protect it from les vaches. I try to explain the problem of deer, for which I have no word, and she teaches me “le cerf” et “la biche”. She speaks beautifully, explains how hard the garden and farm work is, how large the house is with just the two of them in it now. But as we look over the fields beyond, and breathe in the deep quiet of the countryside, we both know that we are standing in a privileged place. She asks if I will be back again and all I can say is j’espère. I hope.

Robert, Claudette and Albertino (from Portugal, he helps on the farm)

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her new book, The Pact, (Red Deer Press) was released in the fall of 2016. It has been listed on the 2017 USBBY OUTSTANDING INTERNATIONAL BOOKS LIST; selected for the 2017 ILA YOUNG ADULTS’ READERS CHOICES LIST; Nominated for 2017 SNOW WILLOW AWARD; and listed in the CANADIAN CHILDREN’S BOOK CENTRE BEST BOOKS FOR KIDS & TEENS, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at http://www.amandawestlewis.com/

4 thoughts on “Parlez-vous Français?”

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