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Posts tagged ‘language’

Seven for a secret never to be told ….

Oh heavens … the title of the Weekly Writing Challenge is ‘Pie’.  Maybe I’ll give it a miss this week.  But I started taking part in this for discipline.  And that was only last week.  I can’t opt out.  I am made of a sterner crust than that.

Pie.  I love pie actually – my preference is for a shortcrust top and bottom because it is the pastry as well as what it encases that I love.  It’s also possible that I find it less risky.  My dear French friend Isobelle pointed out recently I eat ‘comme un cochon’.  She was not being unkind just referring to the random scattering of crumbs circling the space where my plate had been as she tidied her table.  I can wear it and indeed I often do.  I am messy and, flaky or puff, whether rough or not,  is more likely to break free and land in my hair giving some comedy value but at odds with my quest for elegance and allure.   Honestly, I wish the hairnet would have a fashion revival … my hair is a monstrous liability and seems fatally attracted to food.  When making or baking I invariably cast at least one – my daughters long ago ceased to be alarmed and would point out to friends that it is simply a sign that mummy really did make it when a long black thread appeared in their soup or stew or indeed pie.

These days I am fond of Pi too.  I am wed to my Two Brained love and he has taught me to be unafraid of mathematics and that it can be rather lovely and quite useful too.  He has me convinced that there is a latent scientist lurking within … whether the world is ready for my ability to understand and explain theorem through domestic appliances is debatable, but I am pleased and I know my Nuclear Physicist late father is smiling down content that finally his daughter has been made to realise what he always asserted – that as far as maths and science go, she can if she will.

Living here in France has it’s challenges but food is almost never one of them.  However, when we are invited for a meal, and as is customary, take a plate of something with us, or when we entertain at home, we use the opportunity to educate our Gaelic friends that not everything the British produce to eat is inedible.  In fact the British are really rather brilliant at British cuisine.   We have had a few successes but none so great as the pasty.

Invited to the home of local friends in the summer we decided to make pasties.  Little tiny ones as nibbly bits rather than hobnailed booted mains.  Some meat and some vegetarian since the hostess does not partake of the flesh of fish, fowl or furry creatures.  Hold that thought.  Working as a team, we produced the prettiest little pasties ever.  I made the pastry and it was a triumph.  The fillings – one of beef, potatoes carrots, turnip (which is treated much more much respectfully in France than the UK), and a little thyme and the other of potatoes, leeks, carrots and some red pepper for sweetness, seasoned with parsley so as not to overwhelm.  They smelled divine and Two Brains (whose alternative career choice was to be a surgeon) made them so neatly into little crescents that they were almost too pretty to eat.

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Purists will say they are not crimped in the traditional rope style – I say why can’t we create a new tradition?!


We arrived, we sat in the garden and the plate of fragrant pastries was duly put out as an appetizer.  We explained the history – that these would normally have been made much larger and were the staple of Cornish tin miners often containing savoury meaty at one end and sweet probably appley at the other – the ultimate portable lunch.  Slowly each of our friends lifted their morcel, eyed it with the suspicion that a cow in the field eyes a dog walking past and took the tiniest nibble.  Then, satisfied that this was actually edible even by their own haute patisserie standards they bit a proper mouthfilling bite and munched away.  ‘What is the pastry?’ Christiane next to me demanded to know – ‘it is delicious and so short, tell me – what is your secret?’  Puffed with pride I told her that it is simply wheat flour, ice cold water and duck fat.  As the words left my lips and sailed across the table, the words ‘gras de canard’, I remembered the relevance of the warning ‘pride comes before a fall’.  I looked across at our hostess, tucking into her third safe vegetarian pie and swallowed hard.  Christiane gave me a conspiratorial wink, I reminded myself that our hostess has occassionally been known to sneak a little light charcuterie and I think I got away with it.  But I will wear the guilt like a hair shirt for many moons to come.

I said I like all pies and I do.  I like the birds too.  The magpies of the rhyme, and I am deeply supersticious of them – I salute, I wave, I say good morning and I tell them where I am going.  I draw the line at spitting but I think I have the bases covered.  Particularly if I only see one.  Before we moved here we were driving with the husband of the aforementioned pastry quizzer and with the most stilted French, I asked conversationally (he being an expert on the flora and fauna of the area) ‘So then, what will one call the bird of black and white feathers?’  ‘Le pee’ he replied.  ‘Ah then, this will be parallel to my English – we speak the pie’ I confidently retorted.  ‘Non.  Le pee’ he insisted.  My French was deplorable but he has absolutely no English …. the fact that the word is pronounced differently makes it a completely different word to him.  For a moment I felt quite bi-lingual.  Which I am not.  But I’m certainly pie-lingual.


You may be smart enough to spot that this is actually a Russian Crow – my lame defence is that I didn’t have a photo of a magpie to hand


PS:  It interests me that in a culture where food reigns supreme the French word for pastry is identical to that for pasta or any other dough.  Pate.  Not to be muddled with paté which would really make a mess of things. And further, if you were wondering why the title – it comes from an English nursery rhyme about Magpies and refers to the fact that according to myth the number of magpies you see are supposed to determine your luck for the day:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told


Sounds like a whisper ….

When I was at school I learned French. In fact I began learning at the age of 8 in Mrs Noble’s class. Mrs Noble liked me, having despised my older brother (the loathing was mutual). Given that I generally hated my brother (also mutual and absolutely compulsory at the ages we were), I loved Mrs Noble, which might have been why she liked me. Life is like that. We tend to like those that love us. Unless they are insane stalkers.  But that really is another story.


I adored the sounds of the words and I enjoyed learning. At secondary school I was, to be fair, generally mediocre at the grammar and indeed only actually began to make friends with conjugating after moving here in September last year. But I perfected my accent and frankly I was waiting for the call to star in the remake of 80s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo. I listened to Jane Birkin breathing her way through Je t’aime  and wanted to BE her.

Adulthood and a cheese business that took me back and forth to Paris to the gastronomic chaos that is Rungis Market.  Ad hoc travels to Provence, Normandy, The Auvergne in search of the perfect morceau to bear triumphantly back to Berkshire in the overstuffed boot of our car and present to our customers who would sigh in ecstasy and run home to devour their new best friend with gusto and self-congratulatory glee that they had found this ‘maaaarvlus little place’ which sold all things French-Cheese without their having to bother at all with la manche.


During all this time, I listened French. I loved the sound. Compare the way that airport is said in English – two clipped syllables uttered in a reasoned monotone – with the same word in French. L’aeroport. The aer has the lightness of a soufflé and that for me is French. That for me defines what I adore about the language. Of course regionally and even more microscopically the way words are pronounced, the way sentences are constructed, varies. Standard French, the same as BBC English is not the standard at all. My radio station of choice when out in my car and indeed in my home, now that I have discovered the joys of listening on-line to the wireless, is RBA 104.4 Bort les Orgues. The main reason for my slavish devotion is the woman I know as ‘Over Enunciating Announcer Lady’. She is bliss. When she does her petits annonces I am captivated by her emphasis. ‘PerDU, un beagLE tricoloooooR a Bort les OrgUH’ or even more deliciously the moment when behind the wheel shortly before Christmas I heard her utter ‘Soob Millie Mettre aRAY ….. a Champs sur TarentaiNUH’ and realized it was a shout out for The Husband with Two Brains’ presentation on trous noirs and his observatory in Hawaii. Her fabulous iteration gilds my days and she has unwittingly helped my French from stuttering to fluttering over the last six months.


That moment driving to Lyon in April when I realized the strange sensation I was experiencing was seeing Spring burst forth to greet me with its bumptious greens and yellows and pinks and whites and mauves in great swathes before my eyes is replicated in my sudden ability to assimilate and respond to a barrage of French with relative ease. But even in areas with harsher tones the words have elegance to me. Somehow Tortue sounds so much more evocative than Tortoise particularly if you can perfect that mysterious swallowed ‘r’ that the French absorb by osmosis in order to bewitch dull English girls like me later in life.


I have lived in Italy and speak decent Italian, I learned Russian for six years at school but for me French is candied grace and refinement. If it were a scent it would be captured in a bottle made of a glass so fragile that you would think it was a bubble. Even in Cantal where we live. THAT Cantal recently described as le trou (the hole) by a friend in Grenoble … repeat after me. – Non, il est pas le trou! It isn’t. Fact. But that is not what we are talking about here and despite being innately discursive I am determined to stay en piste for this moment. No. Say Grenoble. Gren. Oble. Now say it with a French accent (it is after all French). Can you hear the chicly swallowed G? The way the ble whispers away at the end? That’s French. I speak it comme une vache espagnole but I hear it fluently. And it is music in my ears.


PS: My title is taken from a song by the brilliant Tracy Chapman. She was Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – something else the French do rather well ….

It should be noted that this piece was originally written for a writing competition … it didn’t make the cut but I rather felt it worthy of a place here nonetheless …. you are free to agree or disagree or remain Swiss and neutral.  And the photographs of mountains?  For me learning the language is like walking in the mountains: sometimes the climbs seem endless and the struggle never ending, you feel you won’t ever reach the top, you feel the task impossible but when you turn the corner on the path and take stock of how far you have climbed and breath the air and survey that vista, the effort evaporates.  And  aside from that, I simply love them.

From Russia With Love ….. Part 2: When you get to 52

Is that the time?  I mean, is that REALLY the time?  Saturday we get up at 15:00.  I can give plenty of reasons for this disgraceful hour but frankly it’s better to move on – I’m not a fan of excuses.  Out of the hotel into the bright sunshine and another lesson learned …. I live in Southern France.  This is Russia.  It is April.  The sunshine is accompanied by a sharp chill and my bare legs instantly feel they need to move fast to stay warm.  We head up to Pushkin Square – this is one of the busiest junctions, not just in Moscow, but in the world.  The traffic whirls from all sides (6 lanes down Traveskaya which is basically an in-town motorway) and the only option for crossing the wide highways is the subway. The very efficient zebras which tell you how many seconds you have left before you are taking your life in your hands work on the narrower 3 laners.  But in fact despite the enormous volume of cars (as previously noted, status-large with darkened windows) there are no horns splitting the air and the drivers stop when you stand at a crossing.  They are curiously polite.  The other thing to note is how clean this place is.  I watch the orange road cleaning lorries go up and down spraying water, a tractor does the same on a pavement below Pushkinskaya and we have to dive into a bookshop to escape a dousing of the feet, there are men with long-handled dustpans and brooms sweeping up the butt-ends … this is a smoking city but the debris is cleared instantly.  Like the plates at tables.



Hungry we survey the elegant run of buildings housing eateries that look over the green opposite Alexander Pushkin – he has a lovely view beyond the relentless stream of cars.  We plump for the place we had noticed last night – an Armenian store and cafe (to note – a cafe in Moscow quite possibly is a cafe but can just as well be a 5 star restaurant so it is best to be sure of its aspiration before you sashay in).


Two hours later out we come having had one of the most delicious meals of my life.  Simple – soup (a borscht, naturally – this one light, vaguely sweet, laden not just with beets but tomatoes and lamb, spiced softly with cumin and garlic and an Armenian herb soup – salty, sodden with wild garlic, an earthy mouthful of tangled bitter herbs) salad (roasted veg – aubergine peeled and unctuous, peppers traffic-light bright and full of their own flavour – the green which I always eat first because its not my favourite, exceptional – in short these peppers taste of pepper, tomato tomatoey and with it a pile of pumpkin so delicate yet so full of flavour and lentil which add buttery taste and soft clay texture and not overseasoned but drizzelled with smatana and sprinkled with coriander that explodes in the mouth and leaves me wanting more and more and more), water (two different types which we tasted like the most fastidious sommeliers and plumped for my new obsession, Dilijan).

To finish excellent coffee and baklava – drier, less tooth-achingly sweet, more nutty and dense than I have tasted before.  The serveuse was so sweet and kind, the barman gentle and warm to telling us of the fruits and nuts that make his country famous.  Sergey has since told us that Armenians are famously lovely people.  I’m glad of that – I might have been a little distressed if these were a niceness oasis in an otherwise ArMEANia.



Afterwards we browsed the shop and I made a mental list the length of Tverskaya Street of things I want to bring home.  I also made a mental note to buy an Armenian cookery book that I can read … my brain is hurting from reading Russian after so long let alone attempting to work out Armenian script (they have their own unique alphabet which dates from the 6th Century).  It should be noted that according to Tom Lehrer, when you get to 52 food becomes more important than sex.   I’m 53 and I couldn’t possibly comment ….


PS:  When we venture out much later for supper we decide to go the other way – nothing looks appealing so we go a little off piste and discover three restaurants in the drag behind Tverskaya an Italian, a very very upmarket uber designer shod (more about shoes later in the week) place dripping with fur and genuine designer labels and another place.  Having forgotten my glasses and remembering that I don’t make excuses I will just have to own to blurring my B’s and V’s.  When we entered, the steins and leiderhosen gave it away.  Welcome to Bavaria, downtown Moscow.  Hey ho – the schnitzel was unexpected but really quite nice and Two Brains considered how fortunate he is that he has never had to wear an outfit like that ….as indeed am I (that he hasn’t).