Thursday, May 17, 2012

maïs, je t'aime

Which translates: "Corn, I love you." When I typed it, though, I realized that if you omitted the umlaut over the "i" in the initial word (hence altering its pronunciation slightly), you would have this sentence instead: "But, I love you." Ah, the knotty and fascinating problems of translation.

I've always studied French as my foreign language. This, I think, is a perfect example of the wide impractical streak that, à la Pepé Le Pew, runs the entire length of an otherwise fairly down-to-earth person. (Maybe it's my Pisces moon?) If I had really set out to navigate the actual linguistic terrain of the modern United States, I should have studied Chinese, and certainly way more Spanish than the bare-minimum, single semester of "Reading for Spanish Knowledge" required by my doctoral program. (We had to have "familiarity" with two foreign languages—i.e. just enough to be able to grasp the gist of an academic article or, more likely, just enough to get us into trouble abroad.)

Mais, j'ai aimé français. Toujours.

As a freshman in high school, I met the wise and wisecracking Madame Broom, who immediately christened me Bruyère (a direct translation of "heather," that unassuming evergreen plant with tiny pink flowers that grows in Scotland) because she thought it was bad luck to call us anything but the French version of our real names. Her class was rigorous but so effective that even after years of no practice, I can still follow French movie dialogue passably well without subtitles, if it's not too fast. Mme Broom taught us the famous landmarks of Paris so thoroughly (one of her tests was a blank map of the city on which we were to plot and label a dozen or so monuments and buildings) that I still remembered them fifteen years later when I visited for the first time with D. To this day I can sing all the words to the first verse of "Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle" and the entire chorus of "Vive le Vent!" After Rhea died, Mme Broom sent me a small prism to hang in my window. In the accompanying card, she wrote that its scattered rainbows always made her remember her own sister, whom she had also lost too early. When I Googled Madame's name this evening, I found out that after she retired from teaching public high school French ten years ago, she went back to college for another degree and began a second career as a vet technician. Je l'aime.

By contrast, Mme Britton, my college French teacher from Montreat, was a sweet but slightly ditzy woman who allowed me to take my second semester of first-year French as an independent study because I'd had an additional, third year of it in high school and thus proven that I was familiar enough with the language to work on my own. During the first semester, when I was in her class, she regularly emphasized the importance of correct pronunciation. This is particularly crucial, she insisted, when one is a visitor to the foreign country in question—not only because it aids in communication, but also, as her experience illustrates, because it can keep a gal from making a fool of herself in front of strangers. I don't even want to get into the inevitable confusion that accompanies learning French from a woman with a heavy Carolina accent. In any case, here is the story she told us about her trip to Paris some years earlier.

At one point during her stay in La Ville-Lumière, Mme Britton was lost on a street in the 10e Arrondissement and running late for her train out of town. Frantically, she stopped a Frenchman on the sidewalk and breathlessly blurted out, "Où est la guerre?" instead of "Où est la gare?"

It's a subtle nuance, the difference between saying "gair" and "gar." Yet it's also the difference between asking a Frenchman, "Where is the train station?" and demanding of him, "Where is the war?" The man jumped in alarm and stared at Mme Britton like she was crazy. Finally, when he realized what she was really asking, he pointed the way to the Gare du Nord, and then laughed all the way down the street.

A bad accent can be a nightmare. It can lead to a funny anecdote, as Madame Britton learned. Or it can actually become quite poignant. Recently, on a lazy Sunday evening, I watched the bewitching 2006 film, Paris, Je T'aime, for the first time. It is a collection of 18 miniature movies, each from a different director and each around six minutes in length, that tell stories set in different parts of the city. It has an enormous cast, as you might imagine, and it does contain a number of more or less stereotypically romantic French vignettes, along with some compelling insights into the experiences of the city's immigrant populations. However, my favorite one of them all was the final one. It and the "Bastille" short with Miranda Richardson were the only ones that made me cry. The good news is that all the little films are different, so even if you watch this one now, out of order, you'll still enjoy the whole thing—I promise. So, spoiler alert: here is the final film short, from the 14e Arrondissement:

I think this sequence is brilliant. At the beginning, I cringed (as I was meant to) at the stereotype of the American tourist: Carol's terrible student accent, her fanny pack, her stammering, her disappointment in "real French cuisine" summed up by a half-eaten hamburger and Diet Coke, and her mispronunciation of Simone de Beauvoir's name. But somewhere around the time she utters those lines about standing alone at the top of the Montparnasse tower, all my snooty disdain faded (after all, my accent isn't so hot, either) into something that transcends the rote mechanics of a French class recitation. To me, this is a story of existential loneliness. When Carol says that she falls in love with the city and she feels it fall in love with her, too, it offers a kind of reconciliation, a consolation for the relationships that didn't work out and the loved ones she's lost. It's an ultimately inadequate one, I guess, but isn't that the nature of our human condition? Regardless of whether or not we are connected romantically with someone, we seem to feel forever incomplete, as well as eternally incapable of expressing that lack through language.

Because it's tinged with French existentialism, Carol's particular story may seem fairly nationally specific, but I think it also resonates with what happens when many of us travel: we feel simultaneously xenophobic and xenophilic. It's an odd combination that, if we're lucky, disorients us and wakes us up.

During the years when we were still friends who corresponded only occasionally, D and I each had experiences similar to the fictional Carol's. We've compared notes since. For him, it also happened in Paris; for me, it was in Scotland. At the time, both of us were romantically involved—and traveling—with other people. Nevertheless, each of us experienced a profound loneliness. At the same time, we each felt intensely alive—oui, vivant—amazed by what we were seeing abroad, by how familiar, yet foreign it was. For him, it was the art and theatre of the city, juxtaposed against the plays in which he had performed and the paintings he had made back at the university where he had just graduated. For me, it was the wild and lovely gardens of northern Great Britain, set against the memory of the fragrant summer woods I had left behind the week before in Georgia.

I think of Cynthia Ozick's beautiful essay, "The Shock of Teapots," in which she argues that when we travel, rather than finding something wholly new, we often rediscover the power of the commonplace. Describing her first trip to Edinburgh, Ozick (a New Yorker) feels surprisingly unmoved when she sees the city's "fairy-book castle, dreamlike, Arthurian, secured in the long-ago." On the other hand, the red airport shuttle bus that conveys her into the city is profoundly shocking and unsettling to her. She attributes this to the strangeness of seeing familiar objects in foreign surroundings, which she likens to the habitual wonder of childhood:

Ozick says we go abroad to stun ourselves into seeing the strangeness of home: "This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of journey. Nothing shakes the heart so much as meeting—far, far away—what you last met at home."

I have mentioned Perri Klass's article "How to Invent a Family Recipe" in an earlier post, and here I'd like to quote from it, too. The family recipe she describes is khao soi, "a noodle soup from Northern Thailand, or possibly Myanmar." She is quick to divulge that while she and her husband have no genetic or ethnic ties to the dish—they are both of Eastern European descent—this doesn't stop them, or their son, from adoring noodles in coconut curry broth, or as she calls it, "one of the national dishes of that very small country, my immediate family." She recalls the Indian curries of her own childhood, saying of her father's anthropological field work overseas and her Jewish mother's homemade garam masala blend: "This was the flavor of the life they had chosen for themselves, which they brought back to the suburban New Jersey kitchen of my childhood." Similarly, Klass and her own family carried home from their trips to Chiang Mai a love for its preferred street food:

I comprehend her message, as someone who's posted my own translations of French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, and Low Country recipes here, though my ancestors came from none of the aforementioned places. So, much like Klass's khao soi and its unapologetically multicultural ingredients, in this recipe I offer you a weird little dish that doesn't know what nationality it is: American, Italian, Costa Rican, Japanese, or Greek? All right, it may not be authentic, but it is one of the national dishes of the United States of Heather, and I can verify that it is crazy delicious, like a bit of summer in a bowl.

Recipe notes: first, if you can snag a few ears of just-picked-that-morning local corn from a farmer's market or a CSA box, congratulate yourself on your imminent good fortune of getting to enjoy them in this salad. Second, while I've never tried leaving the corn completely raw in this recipe, I think it could work quite well, if it's a hot enough day that at you really don't feel like cranking up the stove, even for some boiling water. I can see it being delicious grilled or roasted, as well. Thirdly, I am on a rice vinegar kick lately, and I recommend it here for its mild flavor, so different from the sometimes harsh bite of the cider or red wine vinegar called for in some bolder recipes. I strongly suggest buying sodium-free, plain rice vinegar if you can find it—keep in mind, most brands have a lot of salt. Finally, I specify Campari tomatoes because I just discovered them and they are marvelous, but anything sweet and fresh (and ideally, local) works.

I feel very strongly about this recipe, both because it's my own creation and because I crave it fortnightly. I am not by nature a proselytizer, but I have to insist: you must try it, and soon, while the corn is in season. I think it tastes like home.

summer corn salad (+ corn broth for later)

4 ears of fresh white corn, shucked and rinsed
5 or so small (or 2 medium) Campari tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 or 3 tbsp. snipped fresh chives
2 or 3 small (or 1 large) bunches of basil, torn or roughly chopped
1 can hearts of palm, drained and chopped
2 oz. tomato-basil flavored feta cheese, crumbled
2 generous tbsp. rice vinegar
2 generous tbsp. good, fruity olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a large saucepan full of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop in the ears of corn. Boil them for about 3 or 4 minutes, and then remove them to a plate. When they are cool, cut the kernels off the cob into a large bowl. Here is a demonstration of how to do it.

corn broth = liquid gold
(While you're at this recipe, don't waste anything potentially good. Make some corn broth to freeze for later. Don't throw out the water you used to boil the ears of corn. Instead, once you've cut the kernels off the cobs, plop them back into the same water, bring it to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer the cobs for 15 to 20 minutes. Let the whole thing cool, and then, using a butter knife, scrape all the remaining corn kernels and pulp into the broth. Discard the cobs. Add a tablespoon of unsalted butter to the broth, bring it back to a boil, and simmer for an additional 10 or 15 minutes, just until it's reduced and concentrated enough to fit into a pint-sized plastic restaurant container. Let it cool, and then pour it into a container and freeze it. I still haven't figured out how I'm going to use my precious eau de maïs yet, but I'm thinking maybe as a broth base for a spicy corn and shrimp bisque, or maybe just a cold corn soup with a drizzle of chive oil, like I had once at Epiphany Cafe in Tuscaloosa? I'll keep you posted.)

Back to the corn salad. Add remaining ingredients to the bowl with the corn kernels, and toss them all together gently with a fork. If you like, you can add more salt, pepper, vinegar, oil, and/or feta until you like the way it tastes.

I've also been known to toss in a big handful of baby spinach or arugula leaves just before serving—a great idea if you want to stretch this further as a side dish and make it more like a proper salad.

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