The first thing you learn in American linguistics graduate schools is that you can make sure that there will never be a second date by commenting on some aspect of your companion’s speech. Although America has no official language and nothing remotely like the notion of an Académie-Française-sanctioned standard form of the language, we are nonetheless super-sensitive about having the way that we speak brought up in a conversation. Comment on the way that your date speaks, and it’s all over. In France, the situation is very different–anyone will talk about how anybody else speaks, anywhere, any time. I love that.
Sunday is market day in my little neighborhood in Paris. Vendors set up their booths under the metro tracks down the block (I live by one of the few “aérienne” (elevated) lines). Most things are pretty local–in France, meat and produce is usually sold with its area of origin marked, and the majority of foodstuffs for sale at the market come from no further away than Spain. (For my geography-challenged American concitoyens: that’s right next door.)
I have my little routine. The first place where I stop is the aligot booth, because if they were to sell out of that potato-butter-and-cheese equivalent of crack cocaine before I got there, my week would be ruined. On the last leg of my trek, I stop by the choucroute stand.
Choucroute is an Alsatian specialty consisting of sauerkraut, an occasional carrot or potato, and any of a wide variety of smoked and/or cured meats. Which raises a question: which meat do you want? My habitual choice: all of them.
When I got to the front of the line for the choucroute, the elderly gentleman next to me was having a detailed discussion with one of the ladies working the booth about the ham on offer, and exactly how close to the bone it had been sliced. The lady had set the pig leg on the counter, and was indicating various and sundry parts of the unfortunate animal’s anatomy with her knife. (How close to the bone you’ve been sliced turns out to have implications for how deeply the meat has been cooked, and therefore both the smell (apparently worse the closer you get to the bone) and the taste (apparently better the closer you get to the bone).) I looked at the variety of meats resting atop the bed of fermented cabbage and decided, as I usually do, that I wanted a bit of everything. (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.) May I have a mix of meats, please? A huge smile from the vendor: oh, what a beautiful French word! Did you hear what he just said? …she asked the gentleman examining the ham. He grunted and went back to discussing bone-closeness. Shit, I thought to myself–what did I just say??
Where are you from? America, really? Seriously, did you hear? He said “déclinaison de viandes.” This time the elderly gentleman didn’t even bother to grunt–nothing was going to distract him from his deepening relationship with that ham. What should I have said? …I asked. A “mélange,” I think…or an “assortiment.” But, don’t change–that’s delightful.
Lest you think that I’m bragging: this wasn’t the last time that I amused the nice choucroute lady yesterday morning. In particular, when she asked me if I wanted some alaille, I was baffled. She was happy to explain to me that this was saucisson à l’ail—garlic sausage. D’oh! On the down side, I still sound like a complete idiot when I try to speak French. On the plus side, I gave the nice choucroute lady a few good laughs, and that has to count as A Good Thing. I always love being in France–but, sometimes, I LOVE BEING IN FRANCE. Seriously.
atop: a preposition meaning on top of. This is a word that you might use in writing, but would rarely, if ever, use in the spoken language. How it was used in the post: I looked at the variety of meats resting atop the bed of fermented cabbage and decided, as I usually do, that I wanted a bit of everything.
trek: a long journey, usually done specifically by walking, and usually difficult. How it was used in the post: On the last leg of my trek, I stop by the choucroute stand. In this case it conveys the idea that my journey through the market is long, and that I’m walking, but in this context, it’s not meant to suggest difficulty.
la déclinaison: according to WordReference, a range or variation; I saw it used in this way on the ardoise (“slate”–the little blackboard, often an actual piece of slate, on which the specials of the day are posted in restaurants) of the cafe downstairs from my apartment, advertising a déclinaison de tomates–an assortment of tomatoes. Also according to WordReference, a declension, in the sense of a set of related words (sausage/sausages/sausage’s). I have loved this word from the moment that I learnt it–apparently the choucroute lady thinks it’s pretty cool, too.