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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
19: Oui, je parle baguette

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

Just because you speak French doesn't mean you understand the French

Here's the secret to successful baguette-buying in France: When shopping at an unfamiliar boulangerie, always order the next step up from the basic baguette. It's sometimes called the Retrodor or the Petite Ghana, but most often called the Tradition, pronounced tradi-CION, with a Tevya-like flourish at the end; if you say 'tradi-SHUN' the vendeuse will shun you, feigning not to understand. (The French are like that; get one consonant wrong, and instead of just giggling, grimacing or correcting you, they'll screw up their faces and pretend they have no idea what you're talking about.) You can cheat by requesting a 'tradi.' It's usually chewy, the grain often has wheat in it, and it's always going to be better than a bad baguette. Yes, it is possible to get a bad baguette in France. The basic baguette at the bolungerie closest to our flat on the rue de Paradis was as long as a carbine and great for taking tourist photos with, but by the afternoon it was also as stiff as a rifle. The other reason to opt for the next step up baguette is that it'll cost at most 50 centimes more than the standard. Other variations are the Banette, which is wider, and, in the Dordogne, where I would eventually live for three years, the Samarataine, which has sesame seeds and two horns on either end. Don't be hoodwinked by the basic "pain," a larger loaf which can be just as bland as the bad baguette (nor the baguette de campagne, which is frequently just a normal baguette dusted with white flour, as you will be by the time you get home; on Sundays, when the choice is more limited, and because the walk took me by a fountain in a square presided over by a statuesque goddess and the boulangerie's proximity to the Folies Bergere gave me a whiff of another goddess, Josephine Baker, I often had to settle for the Campagne). If you have a few Euros more to spend, the 'luxe' of French breads is the round, slightly sourdough loaf made by Max Poilane, which helped revive the rustic country bread of a century ago and rescue French bread from its slump in the late 20th century. If you pick it up on a Sunday at the bakery Max Poilane across the street from the parc Georges Brassens in the 15eme arrondissement (named for the late troubadour, its entrance is presided over by two giant cows, a tribute to the many abattoirs that used to grace the neighborhood) you can also order a warm apple turnover, slathered with pungent cheese from the outdoor marché on the rue Convention (hit the market close to closing, and you can score a hefty platter of five cheeses for 10 Euros) and picnic on a hill near a Japanese-style waterfall (that may or may not have water) before descending to peruse the books at the old book market.

After falling for the rifle-length baguette of the boulangerie at the corner of Paradis, Papillon, and the rue Bleue (this boulangerie at least had the virtue of a typical Parisian sing-songy vendeuse, reminding me that I had woken up not just on the rue de Paradis, but for another day in Paradise), I eventually headed the other direction, down the rue de Paradis, which turns into the rue Fidelité, and then left on the rue Faubourg St.-Denis, where I found a neighborhood boulangerie that not only offered a perfect 'tradi' -- even more so if I timed it to arrive when they were fresh out of the oven; if I stuffed the loaf under my jacket and rushed home, it was still hot enough to melt butter -- but where even the basic baguette, also mixed with wheat, was decent. Here the vendeuse only gently and good-naturedly mocked me as I struggled for the 'cion' which inevitably came out 'shun.' "Un tradi-SHUN?" she'd repeat good-naturedly, suppressing a laugh as she turned to fetch a scalding example from the trays behind her.

So it was that after a year of enjoying French food without bothering to learn to speak a speck of French that was not related to food, plumbing, dating, ordering coffee (cheap cheat sheet: when the money's tight, sit at the counter and instead of a café créme, order a 'noisette,' a petite café topped off with [nominally hot] milk), finding a toilet, asking directions, or setting up Internet, I spotted a notice on the window of my preferred boulangerie announcing a French for Foreigners course at the Pari's de Faubourg up the street. It cost all of seven Euros -- the yearly adhesion fee for this association set up to help immigrants assimilate -- and I could also take other courses, such as marionettes. My fellow students were mostly refugees who had come to France not by choice but because they had no other choice. Thus it was that on the placement test, which also quizzed us on French culture, everyone crowded around me for help on the questions, with the exception of those related to sports, where a 40-year-old bearded man from the Sudan with a perpetual, mischevous smile was the whiz. "This is really not the correct level for you," the very proper, delicately pretty, medium-length blonde-haired testing instructor told me. "I know it seems like I'm not a beginner," I explained, "but that's just because I've been here a year. I've never taken a class, so there are many holes in my French."

The course, meeting two mornings per week, immediately became not only a social outlet but a place to meet women who weren't French, those encounters having so far proved mostly frustrating. Benedicte had liked me but I'd realized (after some hanky-panky) that I didn't like her, it was just need; I was still attached to Sylvie, but she didn't like me, at least not romantically. I was once again not speaking to Sabine, this time for an even more idiotic reason than her arguing that Judaism was not a culture; she'd been 30 minutes late for a date at my apartment (only because she'd stopped to get a good loaf of brown bread!), and I'd responded by tacking a note to my door and saying I'd already left for the movie, listening behind the door as she sighed in exasperation and retreated out of my life again. I'd missed her immediately and, whenever I passed by her building at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire had also lived) in the neighboring 9th arrondissement, I looked up regretfully at her fifth-floor apartment (my first Paris sublet).

In mining the seemingly fertile field of my French for foreigners class -- where, at least, the women, being new arrivals, would not already be settled into their cliques (French people, or at least Parisians, tend to hang out with the same friends they've been hanging out with since kindergarten) -- what I didn't realize was that where these women were looking for love, they were more likely to be looking for it with a Frenchman, which offered the added bonus of eventual citizenship. So I alighted on Flora, a 25-year-old refugee from the Sudan and Ethiopia whose coffee-creamy beauty reminded me of my first crush, Christine LaMar. She flirted, but whenever I'd ask her out, she'd respond vaguely with "I don't know," "Maybe," or "We'll see." Once again -- in retrospect -- I may have been blinded by superficial cuteness from not pursuing a much more substantial (and older) woman, also from the Sudan, who taught me an unlikely folk cure for a bad cough: Hot milk with garlic.

The only French person was the new teacher, Viriginie, and even she was a 'foreigner' of sorts, her people being from Guadeloupe; one morning she brought us delectable blood sausages made by her mother. (On the last day of the winter semester, Flora brought champagne.) She also took us on field trips, which I seized as an opportunity to show off my Paris knowledge; in Montmartre, I insisted we see the statue of the man going through the wall, explaining that it was a tribute to Montmartoise resident Marcel Aymé, the author of "The Man who passed through walls." Because I always need to be right -- and this was just not going to happen in French class, where the teacher did in fact know more than me -- I sometimes fought with Virginie, but at the end of the day, I was enraged when she was replaced for political reasons by an unimaginative instructor from Italy whose method consisted of having us do the written lessons in class, cutting down on oral practice. I dropped out of French class, but not the Pari's de Faubourgs. By this time I'd enrolled in marionettes.

Marionettes also took me back to French women. I brought flowers for the suave, hip blonde teacher, probably more intrigued by her profession than any intrinsic beauty. She remained aloof, at least as far as any romantic response. Much more engaged was a fellow student, Paulette -- yes, Paul and Paulette. Notwithstanding that Paulette was married, she was thrilled by my American exotic-ness, and that I worked in the arts, so we started hanging out: Strolls along the Canal Saint-Martin, aperitifs; when we lunched at Les Deux Moccassins (the two baby boars) on the rue Hauteville up the street from my flat, I profited from its being Valentine's Day to give Paulette a box of chocolates. She was shocked, and skeptical when I explained that in my country, friends gave friends presents on this holiday. Things fell apart -- both my adventure with marionettes and my friendship with Paulette -- when I returned from a week after having missed a class because I was sick to find that the instructor had made my puppet's costume for me. I turned as beet red as the paper maché and plaster of Paris head of the creature I'd created. I was there to learn; in my view she seemed more interested in making a professional production. When I complained about her to the center's director, Paulette, who was also friends with the teacher, got upset. "In France, to file a complaint is very serious!" I panicked about losing her friendship, but she assured me, "I have confidence in you!" After I responded to an appeal to reason from the teacher with a nasty rebuke, I panicked again about Paulette, who was not answering my e-mails. When I phoned her, she was stony and simply said "Au revoir" before abruptly hanging up.

Looking back at these exchanges, the fault I find is mostly with myself. But at least -- unlike so many Americans in Paris who are content to profit from the food but don't venture beyond their expatriate circle -- I was trying to integrate. I loved their culture and wanted to be part of it. I wanted them to love me and wanted to find a French woman to love. But transcending my own national character and particular psycho-history and penetrating theirs was proving difficult. Forging friendships with the French -- not to mention locating the femme de ma vie among them -- was a much more complex proposition than finding a good baguette.


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