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How’s Bayou: Vive la France!

Christine Penault (left), Angela Bergeron (center) and Madewood staff from years gone by welcomed guests in fine French tradition with a red rose for Bastille Day.

I can say without reservation: The French people are wonderful.

Why? Mainly because they’re SO French. They worship the “smelly sheeses” that I love to consume with a good bottle of their wine; they won’t take no for an answer, especially when right (always); and they have no traffic with foolish questions. Their verb for “to ask,” after all, is demander.

I remember our first French groups from Voyages Kuoni in the 1970s. Every two weeks, a full house of Gallic visitors would arrive at Madewood for dinner and an overnight stay. What I loved most was that, almost to a person, they would exclaim, “Oh, la-la!” as they entered Madewood, just as French people are supposed to do. And they found the small, closet bathrooms in two of the rooms “Tres mignon!” (charming); not tiny, as English-speaking visitors sometimes do.

Of course, there were inevitable misunderstandings. At Madewood, we always select someone to be the “father” and sit at the head of the table during dinner. One evening, a great Balzac of a man was the obvious choice. Pointing to the gentleman, I announced to the assembled guests: Voila! Le pere de la maison.

A lovely French woman across the table corrected me: “Mais, il est la maire.”

“He’s the mother?” I thought, taken aback . . . and only gradually realizing that my ears had failed to distinguish the subtle aural distinction between mere — mother — and maire — as in mayor of their village.

My first brush with French insouciance came at the beginning of dinner at my favorite small chateau, Le Chateau d’Audrieu, midway between Caen and Bayeaux in Normandy. As I was the only guest that night, M. Livrey-Level, owner of the chateau, himself showed me into the dining room and proffered the evening’s menu, which featured a local fish.

“Tell me about the Poisson S. Pierre,” I enquired of my host.

“Zat is a fish what calls himself S. Pierre,” M. Livery-Level replied, certain that was all the information I needed to be lured to that menu choice.

In fact, the simply-prepared fish was quite good, though not once did he call himself S. Pierre while I was consuming him. I later discovered that the English call him John Dorey, yet another point of contention across the English Channel (or La Manche from their side.)

Our former manager at Madewood, Christine Pinault — who, were she still here, would be preparing fresh cherries, cooked down in pinot noir and pepper, to go over ice cream for our guests on Bastille Day — had a new take on her countrymen when she returned to France almost two years ago.

“The French,” she declared in an e-mail, “are so different.”

“What do you mean,” I demande-ed. “You’re French, aren’t you?”

“Of course, but the French take three hours for lunch. And their wedding receptions go on till 4 a.m.,” she lamented — apparently having had to deal with such events at the chateau in the South of France where she was working.

At Madewood, we always spoke Franglais, that absurd and delightful concatenation of French and English. One phrase was like the V-8 vegetable drinks ad where numbers in green appear on top of people’s heads as they swill down V-8 juice. In a similar vegetarian vein, we created new uses for haricot, the French word for green bean. Whenever I needed a haircut, par example, I always took time out to chercher un haricot.

Humorist David Sedaris, in his book, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” describes being ridiculed in a French class for foreigners when he moved to Paris. The teacher, and some students from former French colonies, mocked him when, in halting French, he attempted to describe the arrival of the Easter Rabbit with candy for everyone on Easter morning. This, he comments with amusement, from a people who believe that a large chocolate bell flies in to Paris from Rome on the same day. C’est la vie!

Not only have the French given the world Bastille Day; in some historians’ eyes, they were the people who first realized the true value of April Fool’s Day, known in the French-speaking world as Poisson d’Avril and celebrated, if at all possible, by presenting someone with a large fish. It seems that when France adopted the Gregorian calendar in the early 16th century, effectively moving the beginning of the year from April 1st to January 1st, some dim-witted villagers hadn’t gotten the word and still were celebrating New Year’s Day in spring. Wouldn’t you have given these fools a fish, too?

Accustomed to only the best, the French not only want to have their cake and eat it, too (viz. Marie Antoinette); they also want to mettre de beurre dans les espinards (have butter on their spinach).

And as loyal readers of How’s Bayou no doubt recall, my small canine companion, Mme. Clio, a real daddy’s girl, is fondly known as La Chouchoutte de Papa.

So far, she’s escaped Franglaisation and foreign-language puns. Though she’s long and slender, she’s never known as La Choucroute de Papa, or Daddy’s Little Sauerkraut.

But, just like me, she does demand butter on her spinach.


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