Category Archives: Travel

Fall Italian Food & Wine!

One thing we, as Americans, tend to think of  regarding Italy, is passion. Italians treasure , and indeed are passionate about, their rich culture and heritage which traditionally center around  food and wine.

Romance & passion in Italy

In Italy, the cuisine reflects regions as well as the seasons. In Fall, communities in northern Italy celebrate truffles and mushrooms, so much so that the internationally famous Alba truffle festival takes place over 7 weekends (7! Over 14 days of truffles! Now that is passion for truffles. What decadence!) White truffles are an exquisite and expensive ingredient found mainly near Alba, and in the piedmont region.

White truffles in Alba, Italy

In Italy’s southern regions, chestnuts are the celebrated ingredient of Fall. In the town Fagnano Castello, in the Cosenza region, the annual festival called the  “Sagra Della Castagne” celebrates the chestnut harvest, to nearly mythical proportions.

Sagra Della Castagne (Festival of Chestnuts)

The Italians use chestnuts and truffles in ways we would have never dreamed. Check out a few recipes we’ve selected:

RECIPES USING WHITE TRUFFLES/CHESTNUTS:

Taglierini Con Tartufi Bianchi / Taglierini With White Truffles:

Serves 4

1 clove garlic, halved lengthwise
8 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 large fresh sage leaves, torn into 4 pieces each
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3⁄4 lb. taglierini
2 oz. white truffles

1. Rub a small saucepan with garlic clove. Over low flame, melt 6 tbsp. of the butter. Add sage and salt and pepper, and cook gently for about 5 minutes, letting the butter bubble, but being careful not to let it toast.

2. In a large stockpot, bring ample water to a boil. Salt generously and add taglierini. Cook pasta until al dente, then drain thoroughly. Toss pasta with sage butter in a large, warm serving bowl. Cut remaining 2 tbsp. butter into pieces and add to taglierini, tossing again to bind pasta. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately. At the table, shave approximately 1⁄2 oz. white truffles over each serving.

(Credit: Christopher Baker)

Castagnaccio/Chestnut cake

Serves 8

3 T sultana (golden) raisins
1/2 lb chestnut flour
2 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra for oiling the pan and drizzling on top
pinch of salt
4 t sugar
2 to 2 1/2 c cold water
3 T pine nuts (pignoli)
a few sprigs of rosemary
1. Soak the raisins for a few minutes in a small bowl with warm water.
2. Mix the chestnut flour, oil, salt, sugar, and water (I used 2 c, but you can add a little more according to your taste and the consistency of the batter).
3. Drain the raisins and mix them into the batter, along with the pine nuts.
4. Pour the batter into a greased 9″ diameter pan, 2″ deep. The batter will not rise during baking, so if you have a slightly different size pan on hand, that is fine too.
5. Sprinkle the rosemary sprigs over the top of the batter and drizzle with a little bit of olive oil.
6. Bake at 400 F for 1 hour. You’ll know it is ready when the surface is covered with little cracks. Cool, turn out onto a plate, and enjoy!

(credit: http://www.epicurious.com user marzipan4)

Buon appetito!

Castagnaccio/Taglierini Con Tartufi Bianchi

For us Austinites, check out this authentic Italian restaurant:

Andiamo Ristorante:

Fall Special: “Pumpkin Ravioli in brown-sugar and sage sauce.” Also, check their menu for more fall dishes…delizioso!

2521 Rutland Drive Austin TX 78758

http://www.andiamoitaliano.com/About_Us.html

-And a few other Italian restaurants:

Vespaio:

1610 South Congress Ave. Austin, TX 78704

http://www.austinvespaio.com/vespaio/vespaio.html

La Traviata Italian Bistro:

314 Congress Ave. Austin, TX 78701
http://www.latraviata.net/

Carmelo’s: 

504 East 5th Street, Austin, TX 78701
http://carmelosrestaurant.com/

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Summer French Fashion

We had such fun “studying” french fashion during our summer travels. What we saw, once again, is the timelessness and the Je ne sais quoi (literally, I don’t know what) of French fashion: that indefinable, elusive quality that the French have. The secret seems to be in HOW they wear it.

Sexy is never trampy or vulgar (think Audrey Tautou in the film “Priceless”), they can show flirty insouciance without being detached or cold.  

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This summer we saw a lot of stripes and polka dots, which like many French statements can not be assigned a year or decade of fashion, instead they represent the quality of timelessness: practical yet chic, never stuffy or rigid;  simple yet not dull;  interesting never gauche. The stripes depict classic “maritime” France, not a year or decade, but a way of life. The polka dots say plein de verve; vivant, (full of zesty, fire, life!).

Shopping in France

Note the men’s fashion also works with prints, polka dots (see button down shirts in photo above), sweaters with collars:

Man walking in Jardin des Tuileries with his “sac”, he has no worries of being perceived as effeminate because he is comfortable with self. 

Another timeless French style is the military jacket, which was a way of life for centuries, and will always be in fashion. Popular French actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg is often seen wearing this popular look:

Charlotte Gainsbourg & Napoléon Bonaparte

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We saw classic French fashion everywhere, even on the 75 yr. old Bernadette, owner of a phenomenally successful B&B in Provence, sporting her striped tee, a “pull-over” casually draped over the shoulders, a classic bonnet (practical yet chic), just to drive to a neighboring village. Stopping along the roadside to eat cherries, we add our obvious American denim look, also practical, but more stereotypical. just not the same chic…!  Then at the table, she’s got a simple vest  in naturelle colors, common sense, but the layers say chic.

Timeless fashion

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As in the “Beauty of the Real” by Mick LaSalle, French actresses are the paradigm of self-assurance, of showing the “real you” through fashion: have conviction in who you are and what you wear, important to be yourself (not what magazines are saying is in…!!).

Vanessa Paradis for Chanel

Take Vanessa Paradis, who is classic Chanel, but mixes it up, timeless plus the addition of her own personality…Her Je ne sais quoi, self assurance is just sexy!!


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Summer Drinks Series: Tequila!

Bottles of Tequila for sale

For those of us in Texas, we’re all pretty familiar with tequila, or at least drinking it. Margaritas, frozen or on the rocks, salted or not, is one of the most popular cocktails in the United States, especially come summer time. We write songs about it (Margaritaville anyone?), create popular cocktails with it, and even cook with it. However, even though we might be pro’s at consuming tequila, and dealing with the morning after, not many of us are familiar with tequila’s production or history. So here’s a couple things you might not have known about your favorite drink.

Tequila was first exported to the US by Jose Cuervo, when in 1873 three barrels were shipped to El Paso, Texas, a number that rapidly increased throughout time. Similar to Champagne, Tequila has denomination of origin, meaning that under regulations and laws, tequila can only be produced in certain areas of Mexico. The most popular area being Jalisco. Mexico takes their tequila seriously, so it comes as no surprise that it is the country’s national drink. It is created from the blue agave plant, and unlike many liquors, is primarily aged within the plant, and not in casks. The plant takes around 8 to 12 years to mature before being harvested, and if the tequila is aged, anything beyond 4 years can lessen the quality of it.

Blue agave plant (left) Blue agave painting (right)

In Texas, one of the most popular tequila drinks is the Texan Martini (also known as the Mexican Martini). The cocktail was actually created here in Austin, at The Cedar Door Bar and Grill, some twenty years ago. Now, this strong drink can be found pretty much everywhere in Austin, with some of our favorites being at the Cedar Door, Trudy’s,  and Baby Acapulco. For those that want to make this drink at home, try this tasty recipe:

 Ingredients:

Servings: 1

2 fluid ounces tequila

1 fluid ounce Cointreau liqueur

1 -2 fluid ounce Sprite

1 fluid ounce orange juice

1/2 lime juice

Directions:
Shake all ingredients and strain into glass rimmed with salt; add stuffed olives, enjoy!

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Summer Drinks Series: French Rosé Wine In Texas

It might not yet be “officially” summer here in the U.S., but for those of us in Texas, we know that it definitely feels like summer. What better way to greet (or tolerate) the change in weather, than to kick off our “Summer Drinks Blog Series!”

In following our successful French wine tasting with The Austin Wine Merchant, we thought we’d kick off this series with the French classic summer wine choice, the Rosé.

Now, before we lose all of our American male readers, did you know that in France, the rosé is the most popular summer wine choice amongst both men and women? It has even surpassed white wine sales. Yes, the drink might be pretty and pink, making it look sweet to us Americans, but it’s flavor is crisp and fresh, and “et très français…” (and very French…)

Usually, a rosé is a type of wine that has the color of a red wine, but only enough to turn the wine pink. This is done through leaving the grape’s skin in contact with the juice for a short period of time. However, depending on the type of grapes or method used, a rosé’s color can range from pink, to light orange, to an almost deep purple hue. Typically in France, a rosé is light pink in color, with a fresh taste geared for summer drinking.

Bottle display of Rosé wine in France, Summer 2012

The rosé that we recommend is from the wine company “Domaine des Corbillieres”. This is a refreshing pale rosé, with a slight hint of spice: The perfect drink to hold up against the Texas heat. You can purchase this rose from The Austin Wine Merchant for under $12.

The Domaine des Corbillieres vineyard in the Sologne wine region, France. 

Cheers, Santé, Salud, Salute!

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Being a Third Culture Kid

For most, the question “where are you from?” requires about as much thought and explanation as answering “what’s your name?” Simple questions with simple answers. Like many, I used to be able to answer these questions without much thought, and it wasn’t until I moved to the US from Indonesia that it became more complicated. Growing up in Indonesia, surrounded by other expatriates, it was simple for me to say where I was from. Back then I would say that I was American and British, a good enough answer since most of my friends had also lived in places outside of their nationality. But when I moved to the US for university, I suddenly realized how little of a claim I had on being American. It was my feeling of being out of place in a culture I was inherently from that lead me to find out about the term Third Culture Kid (TCK). Officially a TCK  “is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” In my case, I’m a TCK because my father is from the US, my mother from the UK, but I was born in Singapore, and grew up in Indonesia. Even typing that seems long winded.

Of course, one of the first things people ask when meeting a new person, is where are they from. Since I couldn’t just say I was from “here” or the U.S, my answer always seemed to turn into my life story. At first I didn’t mind sharing, going through how I ended up in Indonesia, why I spoke with an American accent, and so on. But having to go through so many details did get old quickly. Oh, and guess what every professor asks their students to share “name, where you’re from…” yeah, I got pretty good at summing it up in a few sentences. Luckily, it was during this time that I stumbled upon the Facebook group “I’m a Third Culture Kid, don’t try and understand me.” I suddenly had a definition of how I felt, and a whole community of people like me. I even found a thread where TCK’s commented on the best and worst part of being a TCK, and almost everyone said  the worse part was having to explain where they’re from. It may not seem like a big deal, but for someone who doesn’t quite have a certain place to call “home” it was huge to see I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit lost.

Finding this “support group” made me realize how globalized our world is today, and just how many people have had the same upbringing as me. It also made me appreciate that, even though I may not have one place to call home, I’m lucky enough to have multiple homes. I’ve lived here in Austin, Texas for over 5 years now, and even though I miss Indonesia immensely, I’ve learned to adapt and can finally tell people that “Short version, I’m from Austin, longer version, you may want to sit down.”

With time, I also realized that one of the beneficial characteristics of being a TCK is my ability to adapt to where I am. Having grown up in such a drastically different culture, and being able to travel throughout my life, has allowed me to feel comfortable in different environments. These environments might be as different as walking through Bangkok at night, to joining a Zumba class in South Austin, where everyone, including the instructor, spoke Spanish. Instead of feeling out of place, I just danced along, trying to “mover el culo” or “shake your butt” in time with everyone else. Although I’m pretty sure I ended up looking like Jim Carrey in this picture:

-Written by Brooke Fay Bullard

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I was doing it way before Honda thought it clever!

About a million years ago I was a bartender for a certain chain restaurant on the Ice Rink level of the Galleria in Houston, Texas.  To be fair, I exaggerate a little, given that a million years ago Earth was knee-deep in the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic Era, but let’s not quibble over chronological accuracy.

As a bartender in the Galleria, the shopping mecca of America’s fourth-largest city, I waited on, and otherwise served, all types—bartenders from the competing chain restaurant on the opposite side of the ice, cantankerous cosmetics counter ladies from the anchor stores, Kid Rock, foreign visitors from all over.

My ability to speak French, always at the ready like the Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly , made for a great way to connect to traveling Francophones (also a great name for a band).   At various times I met the Belgian owner of a Belgian restaurant in town, French families in Houston because their work in the petroleum industry or at Air Liquide forced them there, even random Americans who had, like me, studied abroad in France.

My most favorite encounters, though, were the équipages from airlines like SAS, Air France, or even Swiss Air.  Sometimes they would come in for lunch, having just settled in the hotel after their arrival at IAH; other times they would come in at night, a last soirée before heading out the next afternoon.  Especially when it was the former, you could tell simply by the uniforms who they were and what they did.  As to the latter, only a clever mix of eavesdropping and patience would reveal their identities.  And that’s when I’d spring into ACTION!

by Laurent Masson / AF from AF website

by Virginie Valdois from AF site

Yes, like the proverbial caped polyglots we know all too well, I would at unexpected moments  pepper my otherwise witty and engaging bartender banter with some French.  It always caught them by surprise, and always made for an interesting, but bonne, continuation of the meal.  One memory seared into my brain involved a group of four Air France crewmembers, contentedly chatting away as they awaited their food.  Upon its arrival, I began handing it out, delicately, poetically, my every move a testament to the art of serving.  At the dink of each dish hitting the table, the over-sized hamburgers and ginormous servings of grilled chicken were met with gasps and concern.  The crescendo arrived as I served to the last plate-less man an order of the baby back ribs for which the chain had made itself, if not famous, at least recognizable through a catchy song in a big marketing ploy.  The ribs spilled over the side of the plate, a bone-in barbecue waterfall, and the insane amount of food for this one man became more than menu photo and clichéd jingle, it became reality.  “Oh là là, mon Dieu, c’est trop, c’est trop!” he said in French, the others nodding vigorously in agreement.  “Oh good God, it’s too much, it’s too much!”  I smiled, too, asked in English if anyone needed anything, then turned to walk away.  With perfect comic timing, and just the right effect, I turned back and said to the man with the ribs, “Bonne chance!” [Good luck!] With that I scurried away.

The rule for most restaurants is two minutes or two bites, that is, return to the table within two minutes or after two bites have been taken in order to make sure that each guest is happy with the meal.  If there’s a problem, it can be solved before someone finishes two-thirds of her plate.  I made the requisite return, and was met with a cascade of questions in French.  How did I know the language? Where did I learn it? Have I been to France? It was a lovely conversation, and it ended with the rib-eater telling me “I must say, your pronunciation of ‘Bonne chance!’ was perfect, just perfect.”  Head swimming in ego expansion, I couldn’t say merci enough.

Nowadays I get to spring my French onto people in other ways.  I can’t wait for my niece and sister to advance in their own French studies so that we can carry on conversations that will escape the understanding of those around us as we wait in line for movie tickets.  I look forward, maybe, one day, to a girlfriend or spouse who speaks French, so that out at dinner, we can talk and gossip about the other guests.  Or better yet, discuss a piece of art in a crowded gallery or a big purchase unbeknownst to eavesdroppers and cloying salesmen.

I say this of course, but as Honda has shown, even those secret conversations might not be so secret.  And I have to admit, though I’m really envious of the couple, I’d much rather be the salesman.

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Even at SXSW, caped polyglots can swoop in at a moment’s notice…

It appears that the city of Austin has survived yet another edition of the South by Southwest film and music festival.  For the residents of our fair city (apologies to Click and Clack), SXSW is usually tackled with either of two strategies:  one) you embrace one or both weeks of the schedule and avail yourself of the “We never stop serving” audio and visual buffet, gorging on as much as your ears and eyes can manage; or two) you resign yourself to a mini-hibernation, avoiding the clustering crowds, time-devouring traffic and cacophonous chaos, fleeing like Arthur and his noble, questing knights from the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, with your own rousing chorus of “Run away! Run away!”

An added bonus of Southby is the sheer amount of entertainment available to the polyglots of central Texas, to the residents and visitors from afar that call Austin home or pit stop.  Films from the world over, music from every corner of the globe (a strange expression to be sure, given the inherent roundness of said globe), and in enough languages to make Austin even more international than it already is.

Our adventure begins with two intrepid heroes–a Francophone whose obsession with music is probably only exceeded by his taste for wine and love of literature (played here by your humble servant, etc. etc), and a friend and Freestyle Spanish instructor, Jennifer, with her own penchant for the magical realism of literature (fancy a cup of Garcia Marquez?) and passion for the language of Cervantes that has taken her to Spain and Costa Rica.

Their experiences during this magical, yet real, festival couldn’t have been more different.

***

Jennifer fell into the second camp, the Monty Python-esque denizen of Austin who longed to avoid the “nasty, big, pointy teeth” of SXSW.  One night during the festivities, curled up with what I am led to understand was a mighty smooth bottle of Cacique and a some sort of crochet project in hand, she was, as she put it, “coerced out of hibernation.”  The means of coercion are no secret, and I remember her specifically saying “luckily coerced.”  Her roommate Jacob had met the performer in a bike marathon about a year ago, and had never seen her perform.  It only took a little bit of convincing (though I’m not sure if the carrot was financial, fun or a government mandate), and he convinced Jennifer to hop on a bike and pedal to the venue, in typical Austin fashion.  Apparently, participation in bike marathons gives you mad dope bike skills, so Jennifer’s pedaling was wind-like, a hustle to keep up. Jacob, next time give the girl a break!

Off she went to see a show.

As for myself, I usually pitch my tent in the KOA of festival embracing.  If I had the money, and could afford the time off, I would, every year, brave the riot-proportion crowds and obnoxious, steroid-enhanced Austin traffic to see as many films and concerts as my little brain and body could handle. (Yes, there would be bathroom and food breaks, but I’m given to understand one can live off food from a drive-through window or street cart for weeks before any real health risks kick in.  Most movie theatres and concert venues have restrooms, so that would be settled, and Axe commercials have convinced me of the efficacy of their products.  Women, commence flocking!) I had decided on one show in particular to see, weeks in advance.

***

Jennifer went, (coerced, wink wink nudge nudge) to see an artist new to her, Gina Chavez, a singer-songwriter based here in Austin, whose music shifts between English, Spanish and bilingual iterations.  As if that wasn’t enough internationalness (hooray for neologisms!), Ms. Chavez is also Austin’s music ambassador to its sister city in Japan, Oita.  To hear Jennifer describe her, “Her voice has that deep ethereal swagger that makes one want to sing along and is backed by Latin beats that make it impossible not to move.”  The venue was packed, with no room for the dancing often inspired by Gina’s jams, like “Embrujo,” so the crowd was relegated to clapping and grooving to the music on stage.  Lest you think the audience simply stayed a passive observer, Gina had everyone singing along to “El Sombrero Azul,” a cover song by Ali Primera, written for Salvadorans as a song of lucha [struggle] during the civil war.

As for my show, I went to see Baloji, an emcee originally from the Congo, now living in Belgium.  I’ve been listening to his music for several years now, and the concert did not disappoint.  The crowd was electric.  But the French take-away from the night sprouted from a much more benign incident.  My friend Jaclyn, during one of the sets, met a guy from Africa who had a band of his own.  Then, she told me about him and his group.  He sounded cool, so a quarter of an hour later, crossing him in a doorway, I introduced myself, invoking my friend as our one degree of separation.  After I asked him from where he comes in Africa (“The Ivory coast!”) he told me briefly about his group, Aciable. (From their site, aciable:  pronunciation: ah see ah blay  (language: Bahoulee, an ethnic group of Ivory Coast in  Africa.)  meaning 1. Joy and dance.  2. African-inspired dance band based in Austin, Texas.). I was intrigued, but the brief conversation stopped there.

***

Just a few (ten? fifteen?) minutes later, I found myself in the men’s room, dutifully staring down the wall from my strategic positioning in front of the urinal.  In the corner of my eye, the door opened, and in steps the Ivoirian–strange that I asked the name of his band, but not his.  As luck would have it, he sidled up to the urinal next to mine.  To heck with time-honored protocol in the men’s room, I will speak again to this man! In French! “La Côte d’Ivoire, hein?” [the Ivory Coast, huh?] The slightly higher pitch of surprise in his voice, “Vous parlez le français alors?” [So you speak French?] My response, as ever in these situations, is, “Bien sûr!” [Of course!]  The conversation continues as we exit les toilettes, and I learn that Aciable is, in fact, an Austin-based band, much like Gina Chavez.  I verify the name of the band (whose site I later find on the googlenets), hand him my card, and tell him I look forward to seeing him again.  In French, of course.  Jean-Claude, if you’re reading this, on se verra bientôt!

Jennifer, on the other hand, was fortunate enough, after the set, to eventually talk to Gina, the Spanish flying off her tongue like Mexican fruit bats taking flight. Their conversation lasted longer than mine, substantive, packed full of vowels and minerals, sprinkled with idioms.  Gina remembered Jacob from the bike marathon (ah the benefits of exercise!), yet Jacob seemed surprised that Gina remembered him and, as if starting a surprise loop,  she seemed surprised that he was surprised by that. And that’s not surprising.  She talked to Jennifer and Jacob about being the music ambassador and how it’s going to be a continual post, with the current ambassador taking the new one to Japan for introductions, passing the mic, so to speak, from one to the next. She was incredibly sweet and wanted a picture of Jacob and Jennifer with her. In a subsequent email after the encounter, Jennifer learned that Gina recently performed a benefit concert for her El Salvador college fund and plans a summer Boat Fiesta to continue to raise money for the cause. It seems that whatever the  Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch was that convinced Jennifer to come a’questing during SXSW led her to the Musical Grail that is Gina Chavez. She told me, “I feel fortunate to have met Gina, and it’s wonderful to know a talented artist with such a kind heart.”  She’s definitely a fan now, and she’s hoping to convert you, too.  Here, just see for yourself.  A tune by Gina Chavez via Jennifer’s introduction:

“If you’re just starting out learning Spanish or don’t speak a bit of it, try listening to “Miles de Millas,” a bilingual tune that will amaze you no matter what language you speak!”

***

Though Jennifer may have had the more glamorous night, I am no less excited about my toilet talk.  Whichever way it happened, it’s just further proof that anywhere, anytime, the super powers of multilingualism can swoop in to carry the day.

For more information on Gina Chavez, visit http://www.ginachavez.com/

For more information on Aciable, visit http://www.aciable.com/Home_Page.html

A Great deal of thanks and credit goes to Jennifer, without whose story I would not have been able to write this post! Merci mille fois! Muchas gracias!

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Excuse me, I noticed you from across the room, and I wondered if we could talk…

What makes for successfully learning a language? I often hear stories from  people who studied such-and-such at some distant (or not too distant) juncture in their life. They remember some basics, the s’il vous plaît, the gracias, the привет, the arrivederci.  The story usually contains details about how the learning wasn’t fun, or the language just didn’t speak to them or that they never used it then POOF! it was gone, much like the raccoons from your trash can as you open the door to see what all the ruckus is about.  The epilogue of their little tale often contains some lament about having lost the language, or never having learned another, or never really using it to begin with.

What I notice in these accounts is their lack. The narrators are a bit removed from their stories, as if they’ve no vested personal interest in it, but are merely reporting this little episode that they could have very easily seen on any edition of “The Bachelor,” where that overly handsome airline pilot tries to connect with date #13 as he bides his time to woo #14 and think about #12.  I worry that this disconnect is exactly why they let that language get away–they never felt it theirs, or theirs for the taking and having.

So how do you make that connection?  Well, you look that language right in the eye, that window to the soul, and you see whether she (or he, for that matter, your language perhaps being a burly and rugged German or English, rather than a spicy Spanish or a titillating Italian) connects with you.

It’s a first date.  And as on every first date, you ask yourself some very basic questions.

1.  What is your interest in him? Or better, is she interesting? Your friend who’s dating a lawyer may find all lawyers captivating, but if you don’t, taking one to dinner isn’t conducive to you getting swept off your feet.  You must have an attraction to your language. You must find her appealing.  That interest can, of course, be utilitarian–say, learning German because your firm has offices in Berlin and Munich. For some, utility is a great and sufficient motivator.  But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only one. What sparks your interest? What keeps you magnetized? On this very blog, a commenter  recently expressed a desire to learn some Mongolian because of  a pending voyage there. Travel is another good motivation–how better to experience a new place than being able to chat with the locals and read their menus rather than some awkward translation?  Perhaps you have a close friend fluent in Chinese. No better reason to learn Chinese than to speak  it with your friend. My own choices in learning have been driven by literature, that great seducer.  Voltaire’s Candide wooed me so much that I wanted to read it in the original, and thus was I compelled to learn French.  The come-hither vibes of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics had me coo-coo for Italian. Are you a fan of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Perhaps the carrot of  Män som hatar kvinnor is just the right treat to get you galloping to learn Swedish.

Reading "La cage aux folles" out loud

2.  How do I make a personal connection with my date?  This is always the tough question and the daunting task of starting a new relationship.  Like a new boyfriend with whom you want to spend every free minute, a new language  needs to be an integral part of your life.  Yes, there are sometimes textbooks involved, but once you close them you can’t leave the language there.  Take it with you, make it a part of your day-to-day life.  It’s not a dog, it’s your dog, tu perro. You’re not at the supermarket to buy groceries, you’re there to get du lait, des framboises, du riz, du boeuf.  And it’s not simply incorporating language into part of your life, it’s sharing interests and passions.  It’s your love of movies adding Lola rennt and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin to your Netflix queue or your music obsession keeping L’Ecole du micro d’argent in your CD player for days on end (or on repeat on your EyePod or EarCapsule or whatever digital music device you use).  Make the personal connection, because that’s what keeps LTRs (long-term relationships for those not into acronyms) headed on the right track. Making the personal connection makes the language yours, and you’ll always want to speak your language(s).

Mon chien et mon chat; mi perro y mi gatto

3.  Am I having fun with my date? Am I having fun learning about my date? This is the age-old query of any relationship–are we having fun yet? Or still? Or at all? Though it sometimes takes place in a classroom, learning a language doesn’t have to be soulless or boring. When you’re waiting in line with your lady-love at Starbucks, ready to share yet another romantic iced Venti White Chocolate Mocha with an extra shot–wait who am I kidding?  You’re both coffee purists, that’s why you connected, so no ice in that fancy drink for either of you!–you talk, you joke, you make the wait entertaining. And that’s the attitude you must adopt when learning a language.  Sometimes you have to wait in line, or consult a grammar book or do some exercises in a text, but those moments can be made all the better by having a little fun in the process.  Don’t limit yourself to learning from those texts–the world is your playground, and it’s filled with literary slides and swings, cinematic merry-go-rounds and musical monkey bars.  Sing a vibrant version of “La vie en rose” in the shower or give yourself a dramatic, loud-as-you-can reading of Elogio de la sombra as you sip iced tea on your back porch.  The more fun you make it, the less it seems like work, and the less it seems like work, the more fun it is to do, so you do it more, thus learn more and then the whole wicked and delicious cycle starts all over again!

Learning a language is a lot like starting a new relationship.  You have to be interested in the person to begin with, you have to make a personal connection and incorporate that person into your life, and you have to have fun–otherwise the break-up is inevitable, and you’ll wonder why you went out in the first place.  Take the time to pick a good date, make a choice that means something to you and go for it.

And don’t forget, every relationship starts with a simple, “Hello.”

Just take a listen:

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Language Learning is the Swiss Army Knife of Knowledge…

For when you don’t have a Galactic Hitchhiker from whom you may borrow a Babel Fish…

Han Solo understood Chewbacca’s Wookiee language and the speech of Greedo, a Rodian (Thank goodness or Han would’ve only had a bit part in A New Hope!).  Jabba the Hutt understood English (but still didn’t heed Luke’s warning!). And C-3PO, that loveable goldenrod, was fluent in over six million forms of communication!

Image Copyright Stanley Chow

John Malkovich and Johnny Depp know more than English.  Emma Thompson does, too.  Penelope Cruz has made a career in both Spanish- and English-language films.  Gérard Depardieu makes films in France and Hollywood.  Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian, and Milan Kundera, Czech, all wrote in French, their second language.  And Haruki Murakami wrote the first lines of his debut novel in English, then translated them back into his native Japanese, finding his voice along the way.

It’s what separates the Fleming Bond from the Hollywood Bond.  It’s what makes Jason Bourne way cooler than both.  What’s “it,” you say? Why, speaking more than one language. Being a polyglot.

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You know the old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three? Trilingual. One? American.

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Mandarin is spoken by over 1 billion people.

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According to CBS news, Barack Obama, at a town hall meeting in 2008, said, despite having spent part of his childhood overseas, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”  Days prior he was reported saying, “It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?”   When Mr. Obama championed the idea of Americans learning another language, his opponents jumped to criticize, deride and worse.  His response?  “You know, this is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is we should want children with more knowledge.”

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Skittles.

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G. Tucker Childs, in his 2003 An Introduction to African Languages, declares that there are more than 2100 languages spoken on the continent.

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Whenever I’ve told someone that I speak French, I’ve never been met with, “Holy Cow! Are you kidding!?  Why on earth would you want to speak another language?”  Very often there is the refrain of “Oh man, that is so cool!  I wish I spoke another language.”  Sometimes a rousing chorus of “Wow, I studied [insert language here] in high school but I don’t remember anything except [insert “hello” or “please” or random curse word from previous language].”  There is the occasional stunned silence, usually for people who aren’t sure how to respond, but they often follow up with a question about how I learned it, or where or why.  And then there are those who, despite having no background in learning another language, still try to relate:  “Wow, that’s great.  I have an uncle who had a step-daughter from his second, no third, marriage, who took French in junior high.  She really liked it.”

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Did you know that Spanish is the de jure or de facto language in some 23 countries around the world, on four continents? 

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There are a million reasons (I know because I’ve counted—#1, to communicate) to learn another language.  Gaining cultural competence and awareness, and improving one’s ability to think and reason notwithstanding, learning another language allows us to better know our mother tongue (Oh, how many students I’ve had who didn’t understand English grammar until we studied French grammar.).  It leaves us with the ability to travel far-off with the magical power to experience a more authentic Spain or France, a more personal Senegal or Columbia.  It bestows upon us even more ways to express ourselves and, better yet, know and understand ourselves.  For music fans, it is your gateway to an exponential number of new favorite bands that you won’t ever hear on the radio, so no  more listening to the same misses over and over and over.  For movie buffs, your DVD collection will grow, your bank account shrink, and Friday Film Nights will never, ever be the same.

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French is the official language (or one of several) of 30+ countries around the world, used unofficially in even more, spoken on five continents, and figures among the official languages of dozens of international organizations.

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Living in Austin, I find myself in the car quite often.  By which I really mean, all the time.  When I’m not listening to KUT, the local NPR affiliate, I have CDs constantly playing music.  You may not think this terribly unusual, save one detail.  Almost without fail, those discs are playing French music.  Or African Music.  Mostly likely hip hop.  In my mind, the soundtrack of Austin isn’t Sara Hickman, Alejandro Escovedo or Brownout (though I listen to them!), but IAM, Saïan Supa Crew, Magic System and Sexion d’Assaut.  And, full disclosure, listening to what surely seems out of place to everyone but me, I always do two things.  One: At stoplights, when the weather’s nice, I open the sunroof and the windows and turn up the music.  When people stare, I know I’m cool, and I secretly wait for them to ask me what I’m playing. Two: Every time I hear a Sonic ID on KUT, I automatically imagine it’s me on the radio, talking about how my soundtrack to Austin goes back and forth between Morning Edition, All Things Considered and French Hip Hop.  Other drivers will listen to this same Sonic ID and think, “That guy must be so cool.”  The ID ends with me singing along to something fun, like Magic System.

My therapists say my delusions completely lack grandeur.

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Learning languages is a Swiss Army Knife for knowledge.  It makes you smarter; it makes you cooler.  It opens the world to you in ways you haven’t even imagined.  It bridges cultures and continents; it links one human to another.  And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, that link turns romantic, then you woo someone in their language, and they you, in yours.  That’s probably worth the price of admission right there.

An Attempt at Internet Dating

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I’ve got Japanese and Arabic on my list. What language do you want to start learning today?

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Another Midnight in Paris, but not Woody Allen’s Paris

Paris. Winter. The numbers shining from my cell phone warn me that midnight is fast approaching. It was only days before that I’d returned to the city I’d previously called home, and which has felt like it for far longer. I’d just left a rendez-vous with a  dear friend, a night cap after attending a poetry reading together. Quitting her, the wine and the company inspired me to do something a little more cozy with my other dear friend, thus the solitary walk in the almost-quiet streets. “Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / Pas à pas je me dis, c’est pas vrai.” [“I had to take to the streets / Step by step I tell myself, it’s not true”]

Heading east, more or less, the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle turns into Boulevard St Denis turns into Boulevard St Martin as I stroll upstream, toward the Place de la République.  I long ago gave up learning all the names of the streets I wandered here, still wander, instead memorizing their beginnings and endings. This particular stretch of by-many-another-name boulevard starts in République and ends somewhere just beyond the Opéra Garnier, aptly adopting the appellation of the man who Haussmanisized all of these Grands Boulevards.”Si Paris va bien, Maître Gims pète la forme!”[“If Paris is doing well, Maître Gims is in great shape”]

It happens terribly often that these wanderings, in the dead of night or full life of day, present to me those intimate, those magical moments that keep me connected to this city.  No matter how long between visits, or how long each stay, something happens to remind me not just that I’m fully there, here,  but that I’m never absent from Paris.

Now where was I? Ah yes, Paris. Winter. Midnight. Boulevard St Martin depositing me in the Place de la République, eyes alert for the closest entrance to the métro, the subway, so that I might make it back to the apartment in some reasonable amount of time.  To my right, and about a block away, I spot said entrance, a few bodies entering and leaving, apace with my own rate of travel.  This wasn’t the hurry-and-get-there clip of the morning rush hour, or the I-can’t-get-home-soon-enough trot; those I see are climbing and descending the steps as if weighed down by second jobs, or second bottles of Chinon, or simply slowed by the extra seconds between arriving trains. The casual arrival on the quay complements the less frenetic rush to board.

As my body turns right, out of the corner of my left eye, something bright catches my attention, day-like and massive.  Stopping in my tracks, I turn to figure out what’s going on.  Some distance away, in the opposite direction of the yawning of the métro, I see a semi truck and flatbed trailer, parked next to the sidewalk, with what are clearly a film crew and a massive set of lights focused on the trailer bed.  My initial assumption is of course that yet another movie is taking place in Paris, and at this late hour they might be escaping the throngs of lookers-on, or perhaps simply looking to avoid the traffic common just a few hours earlier in the evening.  “J’vois pas Paname du même coté que les touristes … / Derrière le papier-peint pas d’assurer tout risque (Paname!) ” [“I don’t see Paris from the same view as the tourists…/Behind the wallpaper no insuring against all risks”]

I’m not in any rush so, cat-like, my curiosity shifts my weight and then movement towards the action.  A few steps closer, the truck is now some thirty or forty meters away. Perhaps I should say some thirty or forty yards away, it’s just that sometimes it’s not only language and demeanor that totters back and forth between arrivals, but perspective, too. Fully facing the truck now, I can start to make out more clearly what’s going on.  It’s not a crew working on a film, but rather a music group working on a video.  They’re rehearsing on the flatbed, moving (dancing?) in unison to a piece of music I can’t hear at all. From here I can see that they’re all wearing the same outfits, black and gray letter jackets and jeans, some with baseball caps, some without.  My first thought, my first instinct is that this is a hip hop or R&B group working on some new clip destined for MTV Base or M6 musique.  As I take a few more steps, it becomes easier to distinguish between the members–height, weight, stature, even faces become just a little more defined. The figures taking on their own forms, I start to recognize what I think are the people behind the voices of “L’école des points vitaux” and “Désolé.”  Is it?  Could it be? I think to myself, but that isn’t quite accurate because I hear the words come out under my breath.

“Is it? Could it be? Mais c’est pas possible!” [“It’s not possible!”] There’s no way that on this, of all nights, I would wander into Place de la République when they are filming a video.  Would I get that lucky?  I’ll know if I see him.  Look for the glasses, look for the aviators.  A few more steps, a better viewing angle and the director comes into view, previously hidden by the corner of the rig.  His hands are up, giving some directions to the guys, who nod in agreement or understanding.  A few more steps, and some movement based on the directions, then a few more and from behind one of the lights comes into view a head, hat cocked to the side, and the reflection of the set lights in a pair of sunglasses.

“C’est pas possible! Ce n’est pas possible!” I talk to myself a lot; like a sports announcer I often have running commentary in my head and in my mouth.  In France, it’s not unusual for me to do all of this code switching.  “It’s them, it’s really them!” Sexion d’Assaut tourne un clip right here in Place de la République, and I’m about twenty meters away.  I feel my pace quicken, so I force myself to slow down, lest I look too eager to become an on-looker, wide-eyed groupie, psycho fan.

So here I am, self-induced almost-crawl, not so slow as to appear creepy or stage five stalkerish, but certainly not the racing pace that would have given my pulse a good run for its money. I’m still eyes-wide, but if I can just keep a low profile, perhaps the others milling about won’t take too much note of my presence.  It is all I can do not to run up to the trailer.  Are they going to take a break?  Pourrai-je parler avec eux? If they  stop, I’m going to talk to them.  If they stop, I’m gonna talk to ’em.  Another five minutes of rehearsal; they seem to have the steps down, everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to.  Or at least I think they do, hell I don’t know what the director told them or whether they all did their thing.  At this point, I’m all If they take a break I’m gonna talk to ’em. If they take a break I’m gonna talk to ’em.  I feel the words generating in my throat.  “Qui a eu l’idée pour ‘Désolé’?  Qui sont vos poètes préférés? Je vous admire depuis la sortie de “Antitecktonik’!!!  Je suis américain, stupide mais je kiffe trop la musique!!” [“Who had the idea for ‘Désolé’? Who are your favorite poets? I’ve admired you guys since the release of ‘Antitecktonik’!! I’m just a stupid American but your music rocks!!!”] Who the hell is this white guy yelling at us?  In French? We’re trying to make a video here.

Thank goodness such an outburst never leaves the voice box; thank goodness the knees didn’t automatically kneel themselves near the tires.  I’m stuck right here, a good twenty feet (yes, twenty feet) away, and as the others loitering about seem to be over the chance sighting, I keep my focus on the trailer, on Sexion d’Assaut.

Another three or four minutes (oh how they stretched into what clearly felt like the end of an LP, spinning the scratchy silence, too lazy to lift the needle) and then a shout:  “Alright, we ready?” A rousing “Yeah!,” then someone climbs into the cab, puffs of black smoke indicating the diesel engine is up and running.  They take off, easing into traffic in a manner only possible after midnight.  They turn right onto Boulevard St Martin, heading towards Opéra.  Automatically, my legs turn, too.  Yep, we’re following the rig.  A determined mosey, surely the rig will get caught at a light.

Again, my body’s trying to do one thing–keep it cool, keep it cool, we’re just out to flâner un petit peu, take a little stroll tranquillement–but my mind is racing–what are we going to say to them? how do we start? when they stop do we run up, or just stroll by? what if we get drinks? am I going to get drunk with Maître Gims and Black M?

And so I keep following as the truck passes one green light then another green light (Who gets this lucky with intersections?).  Mutter-breath, “If they stop I’m gonna talk to ’em, if they stop I’m gonna talk to ’em.” Another green light. Their height decreases by half.  Another.  Half again. Another. My legs, no longer suitable for running anyway, cultivate the saunter in a perfect field test; I am not speeding up, but neither am I slowing down.  I am Baudelaire’s flâneur incarnate, his midwinter night’s hip hop flâneur chasing the metal carriage that rumbles past those dandy, agèd arcades.  Another. Brake lights become twinkles.  Is that a street light or the lights for the camera? Another. They must have a code or a cop for les feux.

Ten blocks. Or twenty. Or  four-twenties. My mind out of breath from its relentless racing; my legs, still in amble mode, ready for the next twenty, and the next.  But I’ll never catch up.  This is Paris, at night, in the winter.  Behind me, the Place de la République beckons, so I turn, then return.  This time, on the north side of Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle turning into Boulevard St Denis turning into Boulevard St Martin. Appropriately enough, even the switch to the opposite side of the street from earlier gives everything a completely new perspective.  “Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / pas à pas je me dis c’est pas vrai…”

Totally worth every moment I’ve ever spent learning French.

“Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / pas à pas je me dis c’est pas vrai…”

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