January 14, 2008


After spending Christmas in Washington with all the Johnsons, Xavier and I flew back to Paris to spend New Year's and the week after with the Joly family and Marguerite, of course. Marguerite is a crack up. She is hyper-wordy and intensely mimi (cute, in french, and this is also how she says my name). She loves pronouncing all the things people say around her. But she is extremely polite with her words and body; she has immediately picked up the French tradition of saying 'pardon' each time she passes someone (or something, in her case). While zooming past her blocks on the floor with her wagon, she says 'pardon' directly to the blocks. She almost shouts "pee-pee" and "ca-ca" when someone steps toward the bathroom. And every meal is accompanied by her survey of the current amount of food – the final conclusion is consistently: “Y'a plu" (Il n'y a plus = there’s no more).

Christmas chez la famille Joly is full of new traditions for me. One of the most novel rituals was la galette des Rois (the big cookie of the kings - and that translation is direct from Xavier). The 6th of January, for the French, is the day of celebration for the three Kings who visited Christ after his birth (Gaspard, Balthazar and Melchior). They celebrate their stopover with a ritual that revolves around a cake made of pastry pie, filled with frangipane (almond and pastry crème). The ritual went something like this: Louise (8) hid under the table. Her mom, Marie, cut the cake into even slices and as she served each slice on a plate, she asked Louise whom the piece was for. Louise would call out a name and continued doing so until each person had a piece in front of her. La fève (literally the fava bean) was hidden in one of the pieces. (The server makes sure that la fève is in the piece of one the youngest members of the family). So, after Louise had crawled out from under the table and was eating her piece, she cried out in disgust, “there is something hard in my cake!” (All the while, I sat watching, not knowing what to expect). Since Louise found la fève in her piece, she got to choose her queen (or king). She chose me and placed the traditional paper crown on my head (the crown comes with la galette des Rois when you buy the cake in la patisserie).

This is the point where most French families stop. It is simply an honor to be the queen or the king for the day and to eat the scrumptious cake. However, the Joly family takes it one bizarre step further. Once the crown was on my head, everyone got out of his or her seat and Marie filled my glass of water to the top. All eight Joly’s surrounded me closely and Marie instructed me that no matter what happened I needed to keep drinking the water in my glass until it was gone. (A reassuring preamble for what was to come). The minute I touched the glass to my lips, all eight of them started screaming repeatedly, as loud as they could into my ears: “La Reine boit” (The Queen drinks!). The queen who is able to continue drinking her whole glass without interruption is supposedly a good, focused one. Having grown up in the Johnson house, I made a splendid queen.

I was also lucky enough to participate in a Joly family game of Trivial Pursuit – French version, of course. As in most games we play, I am considered a severe handicap for my team. The first time we went to Baugé (where their family home is), just after I arrived in June, Xavier recommended we play pictionary, reasoning that, it is, after all, a drawing game. How wrong he was. It is most definitely a word-based game. Since no one else wanted me on their team, given my historical aptitude for games in French, Xavier and his dad got stuck with me for Trivial Pursuit. And I most definitely proved to be a total wreck for their team. You see, I am past the point of patience in French – I no longer just shut up and listen to what is going on around me. Bored easily, I need to interject. However, I was up against this: Après le défaite de 1870, qui dirigea le gouvernment provisoire de la France? (After the defeat of 1870, who directed the provisional government of France?) and A quelle occasion le Comte de Lauzun devint-il Duc? (On what occasion did the Count of Lauzun become Duke?) and Qui était Fulgence Bienvenue? (Who was Fulgence Bienvenue?). These questions were well out of my range of knowledge (on a number of levels). But the French make everything their own. Rather than a "Sports" category, the French version of Trivial Pursuit included a "Leisure" category - including numerous questions about chefs, restaurants and the occasional Formula 1 driver; sports really are not their thing. A good example of a question from this category: Quel jouet est soporifique? (What game is sopoforic? [Yo-yo]).

Upon our return back to Paris after the holidays, I finally received my carte de séjour – well sort of (I mean I had obtained a ‘receipt’ for the visa, which allowed me to work, but had not yet obtained the actual card to stay). After a complicated and long process (I arrived last June, after all), we were finally sitting in front of the woman who would ordain me legal in France, legal to work and legal to stay. We carefully sorted the expansive folder of required documents and as she asked for them, I handed each over to her gingerly. She explained what was required for me to continue my stay in France: "You must renew annually for three years, at which point you can apply for citizenship." Hearing this, Xavier querried, "Is the renewal process any less complicated?" The woman squinted her eyes at him and tilted her head as she responded with a sincere sounding question, "Complicated?" - as if he'd just asked an absurd question.

It's getting better all the time. In the beginning of February I will begin teaching English at the “Wall Street Institute.” The institute is a large organization and pumps out a huge number of French students who can speak (as the institute claims) “Wall Street English.” I have no idea what that means, being a native speaker myself. I certainly hope that as an instructor I will not be required to employ a lexicon of stocks and bonds. They will be sorely disappointed if so. Most of my students will be business people, whose companies have sent them there to perk up their English skills.

More excitingly, I will be teaching for an American study abroad program here in Paris accredited through the University of New Haven, starting in June. I actually have to create the course I am teaching (which is quite cool). The course will be focusing on women expat writers here in Paris during the Belle Epoque and Interwar years: Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and some other such beauties.

I enjoy French more and more. Expressions that amuse me thoroughly:

- Xavier’s mother to her 8-year old granddaughter Louise: "Tu ne laves pas une casserole, tu brosses tes dents!" (You are not washing a pan, you are brusing your teeth!)

- In Le Monde after the Iowa Primary: La blogosphere est quasi unanime sur Hillary: quand on est annoncée incontournable et qu'on prend un gadin, ca sent le sapin. (The blogosphere is pretty much unanimous on Hillary: when someone is announced unstoppable and then they are defeated sharply, it smells like a pine tree. The reference is, of course, to coffins.)

And then cultural things every day that I just don’t decode in a ‘natural’ way: for example, how very specific childhood smells. Xavier approaches me and says, “close your eyes and smell this.” It smells sweet, it smells sickly sweet to me. It is Colle Parfumée (almond glue). That is his childhood in a smell. But it is certainly not Elmer's Glue.


Mary Elizabeth Liberty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Elizabeth Liberty said...

emilie, so exciting that you've started a blog! Can't wait to read about your life more frequently. I love the galette des rois tradition and we've done it here annually too. This year we are a little late and will do it sunday next. But you can read about our celebration of it last year on my blog:


It smells like a pine tree! Indeed.

My friend Ray Johnson (you might remember our initial correspondence) used to say : I am often killed.

Chow Main,


P.S. Check out my ABC BOOK here : http://lalandedigitalpress.blogspot.com/2007/12/mister-roses-abc-little-book-for-little.html

Anonymous said...

So excited to hear more from across the pond. Congrats on the carte de sejour and your job offers! I remember seeing signs all the time on the metro for the Wall Street Institute. Who knew you'd be working for them one day? The study abroad gig sounds like a great opportunity!
Take care and keep us updated!

Emilie said...

mary - i'm so glad you have a celebration of the kings yourself! it is the bomb and you even cook your own cake. and i'm so glad i found your blog too...

matthew - love the link, gracias

kim - email me and tell me your stories - i want to hear about life and your kids...

Anonymous said...

ah, french trivial pursuit, quel plaisir... part of my new year's eve this year was spent playing Trivial Pursuit: édition bretonne at a little house in the Morbihan. Which means every other answer was "Anne de Bretagne." It was super unfun.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, your article is very cool but what you say about 'au secours' is quite wrong, that is the most usual way to call for help.

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