The Culture of Taste

VegemiteMy first experience with Vegemite was when a friend offered me a spoonful.

“Want to try it?”

“What does it taste like?”

“Kind of chocolaty.” Smirk.

So I took the proffered spoon, chomped down, and promptly gagged, spit, then went on to do my own version of Tom Hank’s scraping off his tongue à la “Big.”

Vegemite does not taste anything like chocolate. Chocolate tastes, well, heavenly, and melts in your mouth, and makes you feel like you are floating on clouds. It elevates your psyche and instills lightness where darkness once existed, benevolence where once there was stress and anxiety. Chocolate could be the answer for world peace.

Vegemite is disgusting, foul, and doesn’t belong on any food shelf anywhere.

Yet the Brits and the Australians think it’s fantastic.

Clearly, there is a cultural component to our tastes in food. I wonder how much is nature vs. nurture. Why do American kids “have” to dip vegetables in ranch dressing (I’m holding out on this one – really hoping my son will eventually eat vegetables rather than scraping his tongue with his hand à la Tom Hanks any time I feed him veggies) yet no other culture seems to have this “need”? Why do we like the things we like?

Americans, in general, adore peanut butter. Yet ask your average French person how they feel about peanut butter and they will make the same face I made when I ingested Vegemite. Root beer – we Americans love a good root beer float, right? Yet the French find it disgusting – most will say it tastes like cough medicine.

On the flip side, anchovies. The vast majority of my American friends make a sour face and stick out their tongue at the mention of anchovies. But my French friends love to put it on pizza and Caesar salads. Anchovies rarely make the ingredient list for most pizza joints in the U.S., and when I tell my French friends that I’m not a fan, I’m greeted with a surprised, “Mais, porquoi pas ?”

Then there’s pastis. A French liquor, popular in the south of France as an aperitif, especially at the end of a hot summer day. It’s flavored with anise and tastes like black licorice to me – another thing many Americans don’t tolerate well. I sat at a restaurant table full of French people one summer evening, riddled with incredulous arguments as to the merits of pastis after I took a sip from my husband’s glass and declared as politely as I could that I’d prefer to order a cool glass of rosé, thank you very much.

That was not my biggest faux pas. We took a sailboat cruise in Greece one year, led by a ½ French, ½ Greek captain. He had an intense gaze, a fiery temper, and a fabulous sense of humor. I took notes on the trip determined to write him into one of my novels as the larger than life character he was. I was both fascinated by him and a little bit scared of him. One night, while we were docked in a charming small Greek coastal village with absolutely no nightlife, he popped open a bottle of Ouzo, Greece’s anise flavored liquor, and offered it to us. Not wanting to offend, I downed my glass full as quickly as possible. He offered another round. I drank. And again. Yet again, seriously straining my constitution. Then, thank God, the bottle was emptied, but wait, no! Let’s open another! There were seven of us on deck that night, I the lone female. My stomach started to get queasy, my head woozy, and I tried to refuse the next round, but my refusal was refused. I looked to my husband for help, but he was in ouzo bliss and reeled in by male bonding.

“Vas-y ! C’est bon !”

Me, with our boat, the Anatolie

Me, with our boat, the Anatolie

All in the name of politesse, I took my glass, closed my eyes, and downed it as quickly as I could, my seventh or eight or fifteenth glass, I’d lost count.

Another round came. I had plans for this one. When everyone tossed theirs back, I tossed mine, too. Right off the boat and into the water.


“Qu-est que c’est?”

“What was what?” I tried to play innocent, but I’m a terrible liar. One of the other guys looked from me to my glass and back.

“Did you just dump your ouzo overboard?”

“What? Dump it? I… uh… yeah. I did. Sorry.”

The captain’s eyes flashed. “You dumped my ouzo overboard? My. Ouzo?”

“I’m really sorry. I, just, I couldn’t drink anymore.”

An incredulous reaming, half-serious, half-joking, ensued, and it was determined that I must go on trial. The captain grabbed the broken table leg and it became his gavel, my husband pleaded my case, and I was sentenced to singing. In front of everyone.

So, drunk and determined to give the offended captain a good show, I grabbed the gavel, turned it into my microphone, and gave the most rousing rendition of “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor” that boat had ever been privy to.

I definitely can’t stomach anything with anise now.

What other flavors have you found that are popular in one country but wouldn’t fly at all in your own? I didn’t even touch on “delicacies,” like snails, frog legs, bone marrow in France, guinea pigs in Peru, or No-Idea-What-Part-of-the-Cow that was in China (all of which I’ve eaten). I’d love to hear your stories!

The wonderful crew of the Anatolie

The wonderful crew of the Anatolie

An Interview of Moi with Judith at Little Bilingues!

Judith over at Little Bilingues has published an interview she did with me about my family, bilingualism, and how raising kids bilingually goes in our family. Check it out!

While you are there, be sure to look at the great materials she has for educating your kids in either French or English as a second language. Here’s a link directly to her site. She’s an artist and writer, as well as a polyglot, and the characters she has created are adorable!

Photo Day: Arles and Pont du Gard

Arles and Pont du Gard (the latter you may recognize, the first perhaps not) are both in the south of France, but enough off the beaten path that we, as American tourists, don’t always have the time to see them. Understandable, with the limited vacation time we get! When people ask me for advice on where to go in France, I usually ask them what they are interested in. Seeing the sites you are “supposed” to see? Nothing wrong with that. There’s a reason places like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, St. Tropez, and Nice are so famous. When time is limited, I hate to miss those major attractions. What if you never get back to Paris, and you didn’t grab your chance that one day to see the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa? But when people want to get away from the throngs of tourists, get a more “authentic” experience, I have tons of suggestions there, too. Arles is perhaps in the middle. It’s still a tourist destination, but less crowded than many others.



Entering the midieval portion of Arles

Entering the midieval portion of Arles

Here’s one of Arles’ main claims to fame: It’s where Van Gogh painted Cafe Park By Night:

453 Place where Van Gogh painted Cafe Park by night

While we were in Arles, we attended a bull fight. It wasn’t the fight to the death kind, I couldn’t stomach that. In this type of fight, the bull has a thick collection of yarn laced around his horns. A team of players tries to distract the bull, while one of them uses a special tool – a rigid (and aggressive looking) extension of his hand – to tear at the yarn. If all the yarn is torn before the timer goes off, the players win. Otherwise, the bull wins. The bull always lives to be tormented another day. The players display an impressive array of acrobatic skills as they run, dodge, then leap from the bull pen to cling for their lives to the surrounding barriers.

458 Look out!

461 Run!

Just on time!

Just on time!

467 going for the yarn

469 Mad bull

477 Yikes!

Awards Ceremony

Awards Ceremony

Here are some photos of Pont du Gard, a well preserved aqueduct from ancient Roman times:

498 Pont du Gard

The Rhone at the Pont du Gard

The Rhone at the Pont du Gard

502 Pont du Gard

Inside the Aqueduct - we were able to walk through from one side to the other

Inside the aqueduct – we were able to walk through from one side to the other

Masculine vs. Feminine

DSC01570 I started learning French when I was 29 years old. In my day, foreign language education began in high school and we only had to take two years. In college, my major (microbiology) had no foreign language requirement.

Funny story: I really wanted to take French in high school, but my mom said to me: “You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. We live in Arizona. You need to take Spanish.” So I did. Then I married a Frenchman. I love to remind her of this whole event sequence.

After finishing grad school, I met a few French people, fell in love with the language, and decided to take night classes at a small conversation-oriented school to learn how to say “Bonjour” and “Paris” so it would rhyme with “Whee!” A couple immersion programs in France, some private lessons, and a French husband later, and my French is, overall, decent.

Because my “formal” education in French has been minimal, I have holes in my knowledge. Sometimes they are big and gaping, like the issues I have with masculine vs. feminine. Already a difficult concept for the Anglophone, I spent a lot of years whatever-ing the whole thing until I had to admit it actually does matter.

I can’t be the only one who struggles with this in French. Why oh why can’t it be easy, obvious, like it is in Spanish?

Here are a few references I’ve found helpful:

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It's fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It’s fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

The best/worst advice I’ve (often) received: You just have to learn as you go.

Because there are so many rules and exceptions to rules, learning as you go, from the beginning, is the best route.

I tried to do note cards the other day, based on some of the patterns listed in the websites above. That lasted about 5 minutes before I threw all the note cards I’d worked so hard to create into the recycle bin. Does anyone ever really learn that way? For something other than a cram session for an exam where all the info will be forgotten in a week or two? I’m a complete grammar nerd, but I still recognize a futile attempt when I see it.

Part of my research into bilingualism and teaching languages has shown that our understanding of how best to acquire new languages has evolved greatly, and continues to evolve. It’s much more of an organic process than our typical teaching methods (i.e. rote memorization and recitation) allow for.

I'd rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I'm posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I’d rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I’m posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I need to build associations and habits, not stare at cards. I need to think and speak in French when I go to the grocery store so that I know it’s “la” banane and “le” brocoli. I need to look around my house, think about, talk about the objects I use every day. Le livre. La cuillère. Le four. La table. And so on.

I just want a simple rule or two to follow, but that’s not how French works. It’s going to be a long process before this whole gender thing comes naturally, and accurately, for me.

Yet here are couple that have stuck in my brain for years: problème is masculine and solution is feminine. Hmmm.


Chez Nous, On Parle Franglais


64Before kids, conversations between my husband and I were mostly English, sprinkled with some French here and there, or, after a trip to France, a healthy dose of French with a sprinkle of English. Sometimes we spoke more French deliberately – so I could practice, or so we could have “secret” conversations when out on a date (so scandalous of us, that randy young couple! In truth, we were more likely talking about something mundane like work, or gossiping about our waiter). Sometimes we’d do it so we could make fun of each country’s accents: I’d don a thick, affected French accent, complete with a nose in the air and a French shrug, and my husband would try to emulate a New Yorker or a Texan. Sometimes we bounced back and forth between languages without it consciously registering, until we noticed someone staring.

Now, as our kids (age 3 ½ and 19 months) progress in this bilingual environment, we see that in our house, we all speak Franglais.

My daughter, the oldest, had the opportunity to attend a French Immersion school last year, so her French comprehension is great, but she prefers to answer in English. We’re bribing her with her favorite foods to get her to respond to us in French: “You want another chip? Il faut parler en français !” (Another mommy fail – I once declared I’d never bribe my kids with food.)

If she doesn’t know a word in French, she’ll say the word in English with a thick French accent: for example, “soccer ball” becomes “sew-care bowl.” This, despite neither of us ever pronouncing English words in this way. I love it. Sometimes, she’ll babble nonsensical words, but the sounds are distinctly French, and she’ll tell me that she’s speaking in French when I ask her what language she’s using. The other day, she said the character in the book we were reading was “Rose-ing the lawn.” (The French word for “to water” is “arroser.”) She’s gotten used to hearing from her Papa, “Fait pas de bêtises,” (don’t goof around), so the other day she told me, with a mischievous grin, “Mommy, I’m bêtise-ing.”

In the summer, when mosquitoes abound, I tend to say, “I’m getting MANGED!” (Manger – “to eat” in French) instead of the more common, “I’m getting eaten alive,” or, “I’m getting attacked by mosquitoes.” I suppose this isn’t helping anyone in the house learn French.

Then there’s the word “doudou,” (sounds like “doo-doo”) which is the French word for “lovey,” or stuffed animal. It’s one of my son’s first French words, and one that my daughter uses commonly. As in, “Where is my doudou?” Or, “I love my doudou,” and, in response to Mall Santa’s question, “What do you want for Christmas?” “A Mickey doudou and a Minnie doudou.” That earned me a stern look from Santa, and required a lot of explaining to my confused, but ready-to-milk-it-for-all-it-was-worth, brother.

IMG_7206My son’s language is starting to take off, so I therefore poo-pah all the nay-sayers who claim bilingual kiddos will be behind in their language development during their first few years of life. Both of my kids understand French and English without difficulty, and are well beyond the “normal” expectations of spoken language ability for their ages. His first French words have been: “coucou” (hello, familiar), “doudou,” “l’eau” (water), and, my favorite, “Pi-pah-po” for “papillon” (butterfly).

My favorite misused word in English: “Happies.” When my daughter was first learning to speak, she had a set of pajamas that said, “Happy” across the chest. So, we would point and say, “Happy,” every time she wore them. Thus, pajamas became “Happies,” and we all put on our happies each night before bed. I can’t think of a better word to describe the most comfortable of clothes and the relaxation one feels when finally getting to slip into them at the end of a long day.

I don’t believe that my kids are confused. My daughter knows very well which words are French and which ones are English, despite sometimes using them in sentences together. I know, because I ask her – is that a French word or an English one you just said? As for my son, chances are he’s mélange-ing the two (see, there I go again) without realizing it. I have no fear that both kids will eventually sort the two languages out in their own brains; research shows that bilingual children eventually do. In the meantime, their prefrontal cortexes are getting an excellent workout.

I’m okay with a little Franglais. It’s one of my favorite languages, and one we’re all fluent in, chez nous.

BIENVENUE 2014 ! And Ten French Goals for the New Year.


I’m so ready for this change. New Year’s Eve, my husband and I enjoyed our yearly tradition of making a meal together, reminiscing the past year, setting goals and making plans for the year to come. I love this tradition of ours: the good food, the good company, and the way I wake up January 1 feeling recharged and ready for the great things we have planned. Often I find myself nostalgic as I watch the clock tick toward midnight on December 31; sometimes even sad to bid adieu to the year that has gone. This year, none of that – 2013 was a mixed bag for me, and I’m happy to move on. New year, fresh start, clean slate… bring it. (Do people still say that?)

Les Moules (Mussels)

Les Moules (Mussels)

Bon Appetit !

Bon Appetit ! Moules-frites: our New Year’s Eve feast.

This year, we set new personal goals and made some travel plans – smaller scale than some years past, but we have some great trips to look forward to.

Here on my blog, I’m posting my language/blogging goals:

1. Volunteer at my daughter’s school by offering a French lesson each week.
I’m scaring myself with this one. Talking in a foreign language to a bunch of 2, 3, and 4 year olds? How will I keep their attention? How do I go about making a lesson that’s captivating to preschoolers, let alone in a language none of them speak (yet)? Still, I have several ideas that I’m excited about and I’m feeling up to the challenge. I’ve discussed it with the head of the preschool, and now I’ve written about it on my blog. So, I’m officially committed. Holy… merde.

2. Read five books in French.
I’ve got a few picked out already. It’s always hard to begin a French book for me – reading is normally such a pleasure, yet reading in French is work. I remind myself that once I get into a book, I forget that I’m reading in French and I start to enjoy it rather than slug through it with my dictionary on constant alert.

3. Look into pursuing a Master’s in French.
University of Colorado at Boulder has a great program, as does Colorado State in nearby Fort Collins. While in San Diego, I took a few upper division French courses at SDSU and had a fabulous time. I’m toying with the idea of pursuing a master’s. Would it be simply fulfilling a personal goal of being completely bilingual, or could this be a career change – I don’t yet know. What I do know is that I love learning French and that improving my French benefits my entire family. I’m not quite ready to return to work full time as my kids are still so small. I have the luxury of choosing to stay home with them, yet I want/need something apart from being a mom. So, why not another degree? I can hear my friends now: Or you could chill out and address your overachiever issues.

4. Blog Entries 1-2X/weekly
Yes, continuing with my blog, posting about raising bilingual kiddos, what it’s like to be a bilingual family, and Franco-American cultural clashes is definitely on my list.

5. Continue my involvement with the multilingual blogging community.
I’ve plugged in to a great group of bloggers, all of whom are raising children in bi- or multicultural/lingual families. Several of their blogs are listed on my sidebar. Whenever I need inspiration, I just visit their blogs or our groups on Facebook.

6. French lessons for my kids twice weekly (at least).
Among the problems that many multilingual families face are: kids becoming passively bilingual – they understand the second language but don’t speak it (this seems to be developing in my home), or they speak it but reading and writing skills go undeveloped. My goal is for my kids to be fluent in speaking, understanding, reading, and writing both English and French. Whether it’s me or I hire a tutor, my kiddos need more exposure to all aspects of the French language.

7. Speak in French during two dinners/week with our family.
Currently, when we are all together, my husband speaks French to the kids but English with me. Again, the kids (and I) need more French.

8. Take advantage of the French activities in the area and try to connect with other French speakers.
I’ve found storytimes, playgroups, and group lessons so far. We’re going to participate in as much as we can.

9. French language summer school for the kids.
There are opportunities both here in the Boulder area and in San Diego for French language summer camps. Since we aren’t going to France this year, we can take advantage of local summer camps, as well as combine an extended vacation in our old stomping grounds – San Diego – with summer camps for the kids at the French American School. The beach, good Mexican food, old friends, and French? Yes, please.

10. Eat more crêpes at La Crêperie of Ft. Collins.
Because they really are good enough to merit a New Year’s Resolution.

Bonne Année !

Bonne Année !