The Sounds of French Friday, Mar 25 2011 

To Anglo-Saxons, French people are well-known for their pride of place. They are very fiers (proud) of their country, its history and its culture. After all, France was the world’s trend setter in diplomacy, art, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, and more for centuries.

Many English speakers are also aware that the French hold their language in high esteem. Unfortunately, this awareness has not always come under the best of circumstances. It’s been widely noted that the French have not taken kindly to English-speaking travelers running about their country not knowing a lick of French. In fact, I would say that much of the legendary French rudeness has to do with the Anglo-Saxon unwillingness or inability to communicate in French.

But if you have been on the receiving end of a perceived French slight, it’s helpful to dig a little deeper and understand why speaking a little French when buying a baguette in a boulangerie (bakery) in France is a must. One of my favorite quotes about the French attitude towards their language comes from the book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (2003), a cultural study of France by Canadians Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow. They shed some further light on how the French feel about their native tongue:

“Language is a national complex in France. Anglo-Americans consider language a tool, but the French regard it as an accomplishment, even a work of art. They love and cherish their language in ways that are almost incomprehensible to English speakers. It’s their national monument.”

Before Americans get complexed about not speaking French in France as well as a French person, it is helpful to know that the internet and globalization have led to a much wider use of English in France. Nowadays, when your French taxi driver speaks English back to you, it’s not to show up your French—it’s to practice his English!

Still, when traveling in France, you need to know a little French, if only for good cultural relations. The trick is to focus on what will get you around the best—and also which part of the language the French care about most. There are three parts to this formula:

First, you need to put together a ‘French toolkit’ of key words and phrases. Second, you need to master the top cultural and etiquette rules to avoid those embarrassing “faux pas” (‘faux pas’ literally means ‘false step’ in French). And finally, you need to know which of the three components of their language the French care about the most—is it grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation? If you guessed pronunciation, vous avez raison (you are right).

I recently looked around my library from my French professor days, and as if to underscore this point, the number of titles having to do with French phonetics and pronunciation is considerable…

-       Exercices systématiques de prononciation française (Systematic exercises of French pronunication) 

-       Principes de phonétique française a l’usage des étudiants anglo-américains (Principles of French phonetics for Anglo-American Students) 

-       The Phonetics of French

-       Bien entendu! Introduction à la prononciation française (Introduction to French Pronunication) 

-       Les difficultés phonétiques du français (The Difficulties of French Phonetics) 

-       Outils: Le français par le dialogue (Tools: French By Dialogue)

-       A drillbook of French pronunication

-       Introduction à la phonétique corrective (Introduction to Corrective Phonetics)

-       D’Accord: La Prononciation du français international – acquisition et perfectionnement (The Pronunciation of International French)

-       Savoir dire – cours de phonétique et de prononication (To Know How to Say It in French: A Course in Phonetics and Pronunciation)

-       Outils: Façons de parler (Tools: Ways of Speaking French)

-       Exercises in French phonics

Despite the serious sounding works above, there are some specific–and fairly easy–ways for English speakers to put aside their American accent and quickly sound more French. Even if you were not a French major in college. And with a bit of time and attention to pronouncing the French language, you can pleasantly surprise many French people on your next visit to France.

So you are probably asking which French language book includes this (almost magic) three-part formula to getting around in French in France? I wish I could say that one exists—maybe I will have to put it together! But due to the numerous requests for this info that I have received over the years from American travelers, I did create a “Survival French” class which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. It’s practically a crash course in Beginning French with the key phrases, essential etiquette and pronunciation tips included. I’ll be teaching it starting next week at SMU in Dallas, and if you have a France trip coming up this spring or summer, you might want to come join us—your French savvy will help you have the trip of a lifetime.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

The French Affaires ‘Survival French’ course is offered this spring through SMU’s Continuing Education program:

Survival French:  Keys for a Successful Travel Experience in France - March 28-30 (Mon, Tues, Wed nights) from 7 to 9pm, SMU Dallas campus – $79

“Making an effort with the language in France goes a long way, even though almost everyone speaks English these days. Learn five keys of French language and culture that will pave the way for a great trip to Paris or any other destination in “la belle France.” Cover essential phrases, “La French etiquette,” indispensable pronunciation tips, and more. This course complements regular French courses; however, no previous French study is required.”  Our class text: “Larousse French Phrasebook” (approx $5.95), available at the SMU Bookstore, Mockingbird & Airline, 214-768-2435. To register for the Survival French course, please click here.

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Last year’s class at SMU really got into it–here is some feedback from participants Beth and Don M.:

“Our group from your class just got back last night from our trip to Europe, most of which was in France. We had a ball and owe a lot of our success to your class. The French were great. They just light up when you greet them and bounce a ‘Bonjour’ back. It’s really an ice breaker. And sure enough, we always had to ask for the check which you taught us…Thanks again for all the tips on visiting France. It really helped.”

Also at SMU beginning tonight is the SMU French Film Festival for Spring 2011. You can hear the sounds of French through several contemporary French films with subtitles. Click here to see the film line-up and schedule.

The French Love Affair With White Thursday, Mar 3 2011 

Celebrated French gourmand and food writer Curnonsky—also good friend of Julia Child—was the arbiter of French taste in the first part of the 20th century. He was a food journalist par excellence and wrote numerous books and articles on French cuisine. He had two favorite sayings:

« Et surtout, faites simple! » (And above all, keep it simple!)

« La cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont. » (Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.)

I love this last one as it is what makes French cuisine so interesting, so delicious and so perfect. Food needs to taste of its own essence—of course, it needs to be oh-so-fresh to really taste good which is the norm in France. It also needs to avoid being covered up with bizarre flavor combinations or distracted by wacky textures.

But I would say that is only part of what makes true French dining so satisfying. The French know too that things need to be seen for what they are. In other words, the French make a habit of serving food on simple white dinnerware so that the food speaks for itself visually.

Recently I went back into my photo archives for examples of how this adage plays out. And once you start to pay attention, it is astonishing how many dining experiences in France happen on white porcelain that has little to no decoration.

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Occasionally, the white porcelain has a touch of decoration such as the pale gray lines here. But the food is as inviting as ever, not hidden or overwhelmed by overwrought color or decoration…

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Personally, I have been collecting white French porcelain for many years now, namely Apilco and Pillivuyt. It looks as new today as the moment when I bought it, and it always makes the food placed on it look fresh and enticing. And you can create a variety of table settings with flowers, decorative objects and colored linens–although using white linens for the “white on white” effect is eternally elegant.

This past summer in the Médoc region of France, I had a fabulous French porcelain moment when I stumbled across what was an Apilco ‘factory outlet’ for all intents and purposes. I had gone to the large outdoor food market at Vendays-Montalivet located on the Atlantic coast north of Bordeaux. As I perused the various vendors’ offerings, I came upon a sign for a nearby boutique that read « Porcelaine Blanche » (white porcelain).

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Curious, I made a beeline for this white porcelain heaven and was not disappointed. Everywhere I looked were stacks of Apilco, Pillivuyt, Limoges, and more. Standard dining fare, interesting serving pieces, tea services,  soufflé dishes (see February’s posting on Apilco and soufflés!), oyster plates, and more. Everything you could want in dining ware was there. And at prices a serious fraction of what you’d find in Paris or in the U.S. As I perused the offerings, I quickly saw that some pieces were less than perfect–but I just made sure to pick items that were flawless.

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So the next time you set your table—dinner tonight?—think about the French love affair with white when it comes to dining. Use white dinnerware and serving pieces and see if the food doesn’t stand out more…and taste better somehow. And next time you are in France, notice how many restaurants, bistrots, brasseries and cafés let the food be the star of the show.

If you want to purchase white French porcelain in France, check out the housewares section of the large Paris department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps or Le Bon Marché. You can also find a nice selection at A.Simon kitchenware shop on the Right Bank. For the Apilco factory outlet, you’ll have to travel farther afield. But if you’re in the Bordeaux area and love white porcelain, it just might be worth the trip:

ESPACE PORCELAINE
46 avenue Brémontier
33930 Vendays-Montalivet, FRANCE
(Open April 1 to October 1 from 10am to 2pm and 4pm to 8pm, the rest of the year by appointment.)

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