Saturday, March 8, 2014
Or at least, that's how it was supposed to go.
The Merry Table, a European-style restaurant in the Old Port, has started hosting special evenings where the only language allowed is French. The wait staff speaks nothing but French, and diners order from a menu written in French.
On the first Thursday of every month, students of French, transplants from France and other French-speaking countries, and Francophile wannabes like myself gather in the cozy restaurant to eat crepes, sip wine, listen to French music and practice the language.
When I told my colleagues I was going to ''French night,'' it elicited the usual jokes about Pepe LePew and a lot of exaggerated French accents. That didn't help my nerves, which were a bit rattled by the prospect of trying to have an actual conversation with someone with only three years of high school French to rely on.
I didn't have much time to prepare for French night, so I went to one of those online translators and got some help from a blonde avatar chick named Claire, who translated what I wanted to say into French and pronounced it for me.
I made up a cheat sheet that had phrases like ''Oui, je voudrais ordonner quelques crepes.'' That's ''Yes, I would like to order some crepes.'' (And it's pronounced crrrepes, by the way, not crapes. It's got an ''r'' that's as hard as a week-old croissant. You should sound like you're a cat coughing up something.)
When I walked in the door at the Merry Table, armed with my cheat sheet, out came: ''Mon nom est Mere-deet. Je suis duum, Portland Press Herald.''
Jean-Claude Vassalle, the chef-owner of the restaurant, came over to greet me and assured me that French is spoken here ''in a friendly way, of course.'' It's OK if you get your votres mixed up with your voulez-vous. All they want is for people to try.
SOME MORE FLUENT THAN OTHERS
Vassalle, who was born in Lyons, said the new French night is attracting people who are French, people who would like to learn French, and people who know some French and would like to practice more.
Turns out there are a lot of native French speakers in the Portland area. The night I was at the restaurant, patrons included people from Brittany, Bordeaux, Morocco and Guinea in West Africa. Vassalle said a lot of French Canadians visit in the summer.
''They have totally different expressions than ours,'' he said. ''Not all the time, but the way they phrase, sometimes it's very Americanized. They are really nice people, though.''
As we talked, Britta Pejic strummed her guitar and sang an upbeat song in French:
''Aux Champs-Élysées, aux Champs-Élysées
''Au soleil, sous la pluie, à midi ou à minuit
''Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Élysées.''
The music washed my nerves away, and I decided it was time to try some French. I joined James Houle, a Portland lawyer who was enjoying a shrimp cocktail and a glass of red wine. He said something to me in fluent French that I couldn't quite understand.
''Again?'' I said, asking him to repeat the sentence. ''Non, non,'' he politely corrected me. ''Encore.''
He tried again. It sounded something like ''It's a pleasure to see you here tonight,'' but I also heard ''pourquoi,'' which means ''why?'' I was distracted by the music. Pejic had been joined by Glenn Loper on the violin, Christian Stevens on the accordion and Hafid Laloi on the viola, and I was feeling awfully Frenchy.
Suddenly, Houle grinned and said, ''What'cha doin' here tonight?''
I tried to explain why my French is so bad: ''Je suis trois annees French a l'ecole.'' (There's an inflection at the end, like I'm asking a question.)
Houle responded by asking me what part of France. Huh?
When I explained I was trying to say ''in high school,'' he said, ''Oh. That's different from what you said in French. You said, 'I was in France for three years,' roughly.''
I managed to get one phrase right, the result of having some fun with the online translator: ''Les Yankees sous con'': ''Yankees suck.''
Houle laughed and said, ''Very good.''
Houle's father was French Canadian, and he has traveled to France several times. He started coming to the Merry Table because he likes the food. He has also enjoyed getting to know the native French patrons and listening to their stories.
Some young women at the bar started singing softly in French, and I suddenly felt as if I were in a real French cafe. The music is warm and happy. Houle says ambience is part of the French experience, the joie de vivre that transcends language.
But I can't help thinking this would be so much more fun if I knew more French.
''The more you drink, the more fluent you'll become,'' Houle said, laughing. ''Secondly, speaking French, especially in a casual setting like this as opposed to the classroom in high school, is sort of like being in church and getting in the flow of the spirit. You don't have to know the songs. You can kind of hum along, or belt them out if you want.
''Let's practice a sentence. When you leave and you thank Jean-Claude for being here, how would you say in French 'It was a pleasure to visit your restaurant?' ''
''Ummm, c'est plaisir? Isn't it plaisir?'' I asked.
''C'est is present,'' he corrects me. ''Past is c'était -- it was. C'était un plaisir de visiter votre restaurant.''
'PERFECT FRENCH BISTRO FOOD'
In the back room, I found Barbara and Burt Epstein finishing up their meal. Barbara Epstein speaks French fluently, taught high school French, has a travel business that focuses on France, and has ''been a lover of France all my life.'' She's been to France 27 times.
''It's perfect French bistro food,'' she said, explaining why she's here. ''I haven't had a kir this good since I left Paris, I swear to God.''
Epstein, who helps her husband along with his French, says these special nights at the Merry Table are a good way to learn practical phrases you'd need to know if you were traveling in France.
''The best part about French is when you can say something,'' she said. ''What's the good of writing it on an exam if you can't say 'I love you' or 'How are you' or 'I have a headache?' You've got to speak the language.''
I settled in at my own table and ordered my dinner in French. I started with the soupe à l'oignons gratinée (onion soup), followed by a chicken cordon bleu crepe. My server was Myriam Campbell, who came to the United States from Bordeaux in 1992 and just recently moved to Portland. She has been a French teacher for 14 years, and returns to France once a year to visit family.
Speaking French at the Merry Table is fun, Campbell said, because the native speakers ''get'' the French culture and nuances in the language that Americans usually don't. ''You laugh at the same word in a sentence,'' she said.
I also spent a little time with Marie-Gaelle Ford, a native of Brittany who has lived here for 18 years and just opened her own bilingual pre-school. She loves bringing her children here so they can practice their French and experience an authentic French bistro.
''It's like blinking the eyes and transporting yourself into the sort of places where you feel really comfortable and at home,'' she said. ''You can take a deep breath. It feels warm down to the heart, you know?''
At the end of the evening, I took a deep breath of my own and made a point of saying goodbye to Vassalle: ''C'était un plaisir de visiter votre restaurant.''
He smiled and replied, ''Très bien, très bien.''
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
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