Over the holidays, I happened to see the ending of the movie Julie and Julia, with Meryl Streep portraying Julia Child. I was instantly captivated by Julia Child's story and so I plunged into her book, with Alex Prud'homme, My Life in France. It is a love story between Julia and Paul, her husband, between Julia and French cuisine, but also between Julia and a new country and its language.
As I was reading it, my mind wandered back to other people I had known who had fallen in love with a new culture and language. I thought of that French au pair in the US who was totally captivated by America, Americans and their language; the American professor visiting a French university for a year who then stayed on for several more years and who has gone back almost every year since; the student so enamored with the new language she was learning, Chinese, that she would get all her friends to learn the Mandarin tone system along with her; or even my own mesmerizing encounter with American Sign Language and the culture of the Deaf many years ago.
The reasons behind such coups de foudre are many, and different from person to person. It is worth following Julia Child's own story to uncover a few of them.
Julia arrived in France with her husband in 1948. Paul had been asked to fill a position at the United States Information Agency in Paris, a city he had lived in as an artist and poet in the 1920s. For Julia, on other hand, France was "a misty abstraction...., a land I had long imagined but had no real sense of". Paul spoke good French but Julia could neither speak nor understand the language.
They drove from Le Havre to Rouen and Julia was immediately impressed by the many differences with America (recall this was 1948): the horse and buggies, the boys in wooden shoes, the women dressed in black, the absence of billboards.... "Oh, la belle France", she writes, "without knowing it, I was already falling in love!".
To add to her first impressions, Paul, a connoisseur of fine cuisine, took her to La Couronne in Rouen for lunch. They had oysters, sole meunière in butter sauce, salade verte and cheese accompanied by a Pouilly-Fumé. Julia writes that it was absolute perfection and that it was the most exciting meal of her life.
They arrived in Paris and found an apartment in a beautiful area of the city. Even though life in Paris was enthralling, there were some difficult moments also, especially with the language. Like many people who are making progress speaking and understanding a new language, there comes a time when you feel you are no longer making any headway. Julia writes that she hated her American accent, her impoverished syntax, and her inability to communicate correctly.
But with Paul's help, with language lessons and, especially, with the conversations she had with people at the cooking school she attended, and the vendors at the market place, her language skills improved rapidly. After one year in Paris, she spoke French quite well and she came to the conclusion, with a smile, that she was probably French but that no one had ever told her! "I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life."
By the time the couple left for Marseille in 1952, Julia had started her own cooking school with her friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, her future coauthors of the bestseller, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Two years later, the Childs finally left France for Germany, much to their regret. A few years later, on their return to the United States, Julia Child published her book and became a household name for all those who enjoy fine French cuisine.
The Childs came back almost every year to the small house they had in Provence. On arrival in Nice, they invariably had a leisurely meal at the airport. It was a reminder that they should slow down and open their senses: "You are here in la belle France!", they would say to one another.
When Julia finally closed down their house in 1992, and said goodbye to her second country, she couldn't help but reflect that France had become a part of her, and she a part of it - ".... and so it has remained ever since", she observed.
Photo courtesy of Elsa Dorfman (Wikimedia Commons)
Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme (2006). My Life in France. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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