Today is Bastille Day – the celebration of the storming of the Bastille prison in France. Much like our Independence Day in the United States, it is a national party that allows the French to celebrate their history in great form. For someone like me, however, it brings such different meaning.
Come with me on a journey that we’ll call Mon Affaire Avec La France. When I was very young, my aunt Daina went away. I don’t think I even knew her at that time. I simply knew of her as this lovely lady we spoke fondly of and who lived in PARIS! She flew home to the States and directly to my home town to visit my little sister who had very recently entered this world, and I thought she was fantastique. Surely, much of what I felt was an adoration of a woman who was not my mother (therefore, she was ultra cool), but there was something so exotic about where she had come from. And what I remembered most was that she had this ability to replace a word like “dog” with “chien” or “mother” with “mere.” This new vocabulary, this foreign place and her glorious Marilyn Monroe style hair made me instantly adore her, but it also made me begin a secret romance with France.
Over the years, I aimed to perfect ma mode francaise. A starting point was that I ate whatever my grandmother Walker put in front of me. She was a true gourmande, and her pantry was like going on a treasure hunt through Place Vendome. We would race to the couch where she was sitting (my siblings and I) and ask, “What’s this, Grandma?” “Those are white asparagus – marinated in truffles and salt,” she’d say. “Try them.” And we would. And they were scrumptious. My parents caught le bug francais – we’d eat pate and whenever we came into the city adored our opportunity to see the Impressionist exhibits at the Art Institute. I’ll never forget the way Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” beckoned me to picnic on the shores of the Seine, while my sister told all of us the exact history of pointalism. (Sidebar: To this day, I’m convinced 60% of why she enjoyed that discussion was to say the word “pointalism” – try saying out loud…it’s fun.)
As I entered high school, I never hesitated when I selected the language of my choice – French it would be. Even though Madame Behensky was less than erudite, I learned things like “C’est une feuille de papier.,” (this is a sheet of paper!) and I was hooked. Teacher after teacher, class after class – I knew French was in my blood.
At college, I had a rude awakening. Talking about sheets of paper and how big the orange is wasn’t that tough. Discussing existential philosophic novels in a francophone african dialict was more than challenging. But I persevered. I fought my way through the essays, the quizzes and the exams – and before you knew it, I had arrived in Aix-en-Provence.
There, I spent a luxurious six months and adored every minute of it. The experience of living abroad is worth a separate post (or ten), but let me tell you this: when I think of my time in France, every single sense is aroused. I think of diesel exhaust mixed with fragrant cigarette smoke mixed with tumeric and sea air. I think of mythic winds that knock you on your ass when you turn the corner in the dark of a damp, Mediterranean evening. I think of haggling with vendors for the price of a tablecloth and then toasting friends for our victorious (and still overpriced) purchase over a Syrop Fraise. I think of couscous royale, bouillibase, moules frites, ice cream cones in the shape of a rose bud, overpriced whiskey and budweiser, underpriced wine.
Every Bastille Day, I of course am thankful for the French having the ability to cheer on their country. But I’m so very grateful for the experience that country has given me since I was about 3 years old.
There are people out there who are down on France. I get it. They go to Paris and Nice and feel they’ve experienced the country. That’s the equivalent of visiting Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard. If you are ever interested in learning more about the country and getting off the beaten path, please let me know. I’d happily give you tips about where you can visit to experience la vie francaise. It’ll be worth it. I guarantee you this time next year you’ll be craving a crepe, longing for watercolors, dreaming of the Alps and considering a long-term investment in an olive grove.