Vive la France! It’s Bastille Day! Never mind that the site of the famed fortress that once imprisoned the likes of Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade is now an utterly mundane traffic circle that, speaking from personal experience, can be harder to escape than the original jail. It’s Bastille Day, France’s Fourth of July and Memorial Day rolled into one (but with tanks instead of Boy Scouts in the parades), and a day to celebrate France and all things French.
For me, at least, there is much to celebrate. Hemingway famously described Paris as a moveable feast, a place that stays with you forever, no matter where you live, and, indeed, having first visited as a young man, I’ve never shaken Paris, or France, though I’ve made my life on the rive gauche of the Hudson, not the Seine. The Hudson River is clean and blue, but the Seine…the Seine, murky and impenetrable, is more than a river; it is two thousand years of history and culture, its rapid current bisecting a city whose first settlement was, surprisingly, smack in the middle of it. I feel the draw of that current four thousand miles away in my Provence-in-New York kitchen while French café music accompanies the slicing of potatoes (on their way to becoming pommes Anna) on my French mandoline with its guillotine-sharp blade, an indulgence and a necessity, a keepsake of too many and not enough trips to France.
“What’s to like about France?” I’m often asked by the unenlightened – usually people who’ve not been there. My answer, surely inadequate, is a quilt of memories that unfold like the French countryside when traveling from the Mediterranean to Paris by train at 190 miles an hour, the window turned into a fast-motion scroll of medieval villages, farms, and pastures:
- The owner-chef of a small village inn who, having just prepared and served us pigeon, rabbit, and foie gras, comes outside to help us clear an unexpected frost from our rental car windshield with the only tool available, her credit card.
- The hush of dawn at a medieval monastery, for a magical ten minutes perhaps the most beautiful spot anywhere on earth, as the Norman mist vaporizes before my eyes, lifting its veil from rows of sunlit apple and pear trees, their ripe fruit awaiting the attention of a monk’s hands and a chef’s knife.
- A rainy afternoon with my wife at a Left Bank brasserie, watching the city scurry home, the drizzly streets an impressionist canvas come to life, Anne and I drunk on cold beer, on Paris, on love, happy as happy gets, neither of us speaking much, just enjoying the scene and realizing how lucky we are to love the same things, and Paris, and each other.
France does that to you. Yet much — no, most — of the culture I so want to be a part of remains closed to me because my French is limited to guidebook phrases, including the oft-spoken, “Sorry, I speak very little French.” I yearn to ask such things such as “What’s in the pâté?” and even “How much longer can you afford to have your workers retiring at 55?” To participate in a game of boules with pensioners in a hilltop village. To join the students having a heated political debate in the corner of dark café. To realize that dream, however, I will have to learn French. Yes, I will learn French. Why not? I’m a reasonably smart fellow and had a few years of it in high school. I will learn French. Really, how hard can it be?
Vive la France!
William Alexander, author of 52 Loaves and The $64 Tomato, appears often on NPR and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed pages. You can follow his I Learn French blog and find him on Twitter at @64dollarTomato. His upcoming book, Flirting with French, publishes in September.