f is for…

le croissant et cafe au lait

Le Croissant et Café au Lait*

I felt so feminine in my fuchsia scarf as I read to a full audience from my new book about France.  The cover is pink, the pages are pristine and filled with beaucoup d’expressions Françaises.

This was my initial book launch. I read my story about baguettes, which presents two aproned boulangers eliciting perfect French before bestowing their treasures, and I roll out my foreign expertise: “une baguette, une croissant, un millefeulle,” I say, to their delight.  It was a thrill to read it straight from the book, the ink still freshly set.

As I stood atop my pedestal knowing I was making a flashy first impression, a flashback occurred:  During the final editing process, with my fledgling Français, I had frequently consulted my bible, my crutch, my linguistic sustenance, a dog-eared, yellow French dictionary, which had been my trusted companion for a decade, having rattled around in the baggage hold on Air France and jiggled in my clutches on the métro.  Vin rouge, Champagne, and café stains on its cover had lent it an art noveauesque appearance.  At home, as I frequently flailed about—seeking spelling, accents, and, that which most easily fled my mind, gender— it waited within arm’s reach of my computer.

The final fine-tuning of any story had always found me in a frenzied fear of failure, scratching through my beloved dictionary, which had so often restored my dignity after instructing me to change a le to a la, or a ma to a mon, or even an une to an un.  This time, with an entire book manuscript at stake, my forehead scrunched in terror, I moved the little book ever closer on my left side; it was à gauche so that I wouldn’t be thought of as gauche, always nearby to lend a helping hand (une – no, un!! coup de main).

Memories of a Junior High class paper with a bold, red “F” circled at the top swarmed my nerves.  I thought about a story in the book, “Cézanne’s Salon des Réfuses” (accents, plural, only one “s”), in which Paul Cézanne’s fear of Failure (capital “F”), instilled in him from an early age, drove him to extremes.  He never could get beyond it, thus his eyebrows snarled over a constant frown.

Now, speaking into the microphone as members of the audience tilted their heads and smiled, my confidence flew.  I loved all things French: the culture, the history, the language, and most of all, my parfait book.

The next day, the first text I received was from a close friend who traveled frequently to France and was often taking over the aproned ladies tutelage, patiently and sometimes humorously correcting my pronunciation of peu or pleur or hystérique, or (just as my yellow confidant did) informing me of gender  If she did it in writing, she’d enclose the correct phrase in quotation marks, just to set it apart.

In this text message, my friend asked, “Are you munching on “un croissant” this morning with your café au lait?”

Un croissant? It was une—I was positive I’d checked.  The only thing I hadn’t confirmed was the spelling of a main street in Paris that I’d been so sure I had correct, I hadn’t checked.  Indeed, as this very friend had pointed out then, I’d flubbed that one, but had caught it just in time to fix the manuscript before it went to print.  The more I thought about it, the more I remembered that I had been sure croissant was masculine, but had been informed in print that it was the reverse.

I rushed into my office and there it was, now languishing a full foot away from my keyboard, with its blue stripe lending the cover an authority that few would challenge.  First, I did a quick Google search to confirm that the buttery bitch was indeed masculine.

Pages fluffed; I stopped, my thumb highlighting croquant at the top of page 81.  It was there, near the bottom of the right column:

croiss/ance [krwa’sã:s] f  growth: ~ant [‘sã]

There it was, the f  I’d relied upon so fervently!  My face flushed with betrayal, my heart burst with a true cri de coeur, and I plummeted from my pedestal, sans confidence.  I hurled the dictionary across the room with a “f@#*!” and it flounced to the floor.

But when I picked it up I noticed the rest of the entry.  I rarely looked beyond the initial f or m in my quest for correction, but hidden in a birds nest of scratches and scrawls, italics and brackets and abbreviations was: su./m moon: crescent; cuis. croissant.

Hasty impressions can indeed be deceiving, as my faux pas proved.  But, when one thing is lost, another is gained, for as I realized that my own precious book, and by extension myself,  were far from perfect, along with femme, fi! and fou, I added to my repertoire of French words a new one, similar to the English, only seeming to come that much closer to the true meaning that it occurred to me it might be worth it to struggle with a foreign language: faillible.

I said it aloud and smiled.



*Photo credit: www.itineramundi.wordpress.com