By: Zsofia Valyi-Nagy
Une baguette magique, a magic wand, was my favorite French phrase prior to my arrival in Paris for my fall quarter abroad. I would chuckle whenever the word croissant appeared in an academic text. Are there no other words in the French language? I would ask myself, imagining a typical conversation between French men (or French wizards, rather) going something like this:
François: Bonjour! Baguette?
Pierre: Non, merci, j’ai déjà un grand croissant.
François: Un croissant croissant?
Pierre: Bahh oui, j'ai essayé un charme sur mon croissant, mais ma baguette magique s'est cassée, alors le croissant grandit d’une manière croissante!
I tried to speak Baguette-Croissant for the first few minutes of my stay, but it soon turned out that French has a lot more words. If I really wanted to make real French friends (and I wanted to so badly!), I needed to get out of my boulangerie dreamland and learn how actual Parisians talk.
Part of the “homework” for my study abroad program was to hang out with French students my age. Because I lucked out with a great “conversation assistant” (i.e. cool new Parisian friend named Mathilde), this was my favorite part of the whole experience. Still, what I found endlessly frustrating was the fact that no matter how much my French improved, my “French personality” remained hopelessly boring. I never realized how much I relied on metaphors, puns, and changing my voice to be funny until I didn’t have them anymore – my sense of humor just didn’t translate. I had to start looking at things in a new, French light.
Two of my Chicagoan friends and I were struggling to recount a funny story to Mathilde about a painting in the Louvre of a baby with six-pack abs. For some reason très musclé wasn’t hitting home; Mathilde just stared back at us patiently with a polite smile on her face. Eventually it registered. “Ohh, un tableau de chocolat!” she said, finally bursting into laughter that matched ours. Really, this French metaphor is genius. Why haven’t we thought to compare sculpted abdominals to a delicious bar of chocolate that you can break off into pieces to share with friends?
A few weeks later, I had a sad moment when I realized that the American word butterface (everything but-her-face) does not translate. But my disappointment vanished when I learned the French equivalent. A girl with a nice body but an ugly face is called a crevette, a shrimp, because you eat everything on a shrimp except for its (ugly) head. Similarly, they call an all-around ugly woman un boudin, a blood sausage. Maybe my initial attempt to speak Croissant hadn’t been the worst approach after all. Here it was, evidence that maybe French people do always talk about food.
These small linguistic discoveries made a big change in my Parisian experience. I had known that the French were big on food, but I thought fitting in would require knowing all about their cuisine. In reality, all I needed to do was to see everything in terms of food, to look at the world around me as if through a boulangerie window. That man looks like a potato, that boy has hair like Japanese noodles, and taking that exam last week was like frying a dozen eggs in my brain, burning seven of them, and having the smoke come out through my ears. People in the metro suddenly looked like the Arcimboldo portraits at the Louvre, and I felt like I was actually living Amélie Poulain, that scene where she ridicules the Parisian fruit vendor, “You’ll never be a vegetable, because even an artichoke has a heart!”
The French language does in fact have more words than baguette and croissant: they also say crêpe and oignon and pamplemousse. But really, food words are integral to the French language. If French culture is identified by the prominence of cuisine, it should be made known that the language works the same way. Look at which French words we have borrowed into the English language: à la carte, aperitif, bon appétit, hors d’oeuvres, soupe du jour. If you don’t speak French, chances are most of the words or phrases you know are food words. We say these words to sound fancy, to pretend we are cuisine experts just like the French, but by adopting these words, we further tie Francophones to their food.
I may have spent three and a half months honing my French in the classroom, but the most fulfilling parts of my experience were my daily lessons in Baguette-Croissant, a dialect of French spoken in some boulangeries of Paris, but mostly in my imagination.