French Lifestyle  Prologue of “Flirting with French” : La France, Mon Amour
30/09/201416:08 William Alexander

La France, Mon Amour
French, for me, is not just an accomplishment. It’s a need.  -ALICE KAPLAN, French Lessons, 1994

Last night I dreamt I was French.
This mainly involved sipping absinthe at the window of a dark, chilly café, wrapped in a long scarf that reached the floor, legs crossed, Camus in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other. I don’t remember speaking French in the dream, and just as well, for in real life I once grandly pronounced in a Parisian restaurant, “I’ll have the ham in newspaper, and my son will have my daughter.”
I love France.  I have from the first time I stepped onto its soil as a twenty-two-year-old with nothing more than a backpack and a Eurail pass, and subsequent visits over thirty-five years have only fueled my passion. What’s to love?

A summer day along the Seine, the riverbank alive with groups of young people talking, singing, dancing, and sunning. Outrageously and playfully, the Seine has been transformed by Paris’s popular socialist mayor into a city-long beach, complete with sprinklers and tons of sand.

Sitting at the counter of an astoundingly good restaurant alongside an elderly Frenchman and his white miniature poodle, for whom he has ordered a bifteck, rare. The server,  who speaks no English, is practically begging me to order an off-the menu special, which, as far as I can make out with my mostly forgotten high school French, is either young milk-fed pig or young pig marinated in milk or both. The server prevails, and it is, as he knew it would be, the best meal I have ever eaten.

Traveling fro the Mediterranean to Paris by train at 190miles 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 an 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  hole-in-the –wall Latin Quarter brasserie you won’t find in any guidebook, whose waiter, a dead ringer for Teller (of Penn and Teller), skids around the sawdust-covered floor like Charlie Chaplin, balancing platters of saumon à la crème with crispy pommes frites  (fifteen dollars, dessert included).

A rainy afternoon with my wife at a Left Bank brasserie, watching the city scurry  home, the drizzly street an impressionist canvas come to life, Anne and I drunk on cold beer, on Paris, on love, happy as pappy 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.
Some Americans want to visit France. Some want to live in France. I want to be French. I have such an inexplicable affinity for all things French that I wonder of I was French in a former life (I’d like to think Molière, but with my luck, more likely Robespierre, which explains that persistent crick in my neck). I love French music and movies. I yearn to play boules in a Provençal village square while discussing French politics. To retire to a little pied-à-terre in the city or a stone mas in the country. To get to know and understand the people who still worship Napoleon, who consider “philosopher” a job title, who can be both maddeningly rigid and movingly gracious, and who can send their children away at age fourteen to be apprentices.

Most of all, I yearn to bring sound-speak-to that quiet café of my dream. I can’t be French if I don’t speak French. It’s time to stop yearning and start learning. True, at fifty-seven I’m well into what is politely referred to as late middle age, and my goal of fluency in French won’t come easily. But the way I look at it, next year I’ll be fifty-eight, and it won’t be any easier then, C’est la vie.

William Alexander is the author of the forthcoming book, "Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Almost Broke My Heart" (September 16, 2014), which chronicles his attempt to learn French, while also delving into the science of language and the history of French. It has been called “A delightful and courageous tale and a romping good read” and “an MRI of the soul.” Alexander’s previous books include the best-selling memoirs "The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves: A Half-Baked Adventure". His writing has been praised by the New York Times, Newsweek, and many other major American newspapers and magazines, and his books translated into Korean and German. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and his Saveur magazine cover story on American Bread won an IACP award for food journalism. He lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley. Blogging about French at:

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