Thursday, November 12, 2009

Crepes in the Classroom

When I was in first grade, Than Buck's mother started a French club in our rural upstate New York elementary school. Than, whose name was short for Nathaniel, had previously struck me as an occasionally amusing, but somewhat useless little boy. Tiny and blonde and effete, he simply failed to register within the rabid, warlike games of tag-and-kissing on the playground. But he was liable to burst into torrents of complicated and precise vocabulary, reflecting in his wholly original way on the topics at hand in our under-evolved early-70’s classroom.

If I had been a more sophisticated person, I would have immediately seen his resemblance to the then-living Andy Warhol. Instead, he just looked bewildered.

But when Than and a few other kids and I started spending Monday afternoons singing “Alouette” and making mousse au chocolate, out of view of the rough and tumble boys who had previously owned my attentions, he suddenly became a whole lot cooler. Seeing this new side of him was like the moment early on in college when I discovered that the dorky guys were often incredibly sexy. It was the same at age 7 and age 17: instead of chasing the bad boys and trying to get them to want to kiss me, I learned that could stand aloof off on the edge of things and enjoy the company of someone smart and funny who thought I was the bee’s knees. (And yes, that is a picture of une abeille, on my genou.)

A strange grouping of kids had been signed up for French Club. Membership didn’t break down along the lines we knew: ethnicity (English, German, Polish, or Mongrel), religion (Catholic or Presbyterian), popularity (fun or irritating), or even brains (could read already, or couldn’t yet.) That ungainly group made no particular sense within our first grade logic.

But looking back, I can now see what we all had in common: we were the kids with parents who had attended four-year colleges, and who thus knew the cachet of all things French. The parents who signed their kids up for French Club did so at least in part because they knew French to be classy. Life is awfully darned unfair, and it starts early on in ways more subtle than we can understand as they are happening. While the rest of the kids hopped on the buses, back to watch TV in their trailers or in old cow-smelling farmhouses, a bunch of us began to reap the cultural advantages afforded to children with moms who could drive to school later in the afternoon to pick us up.

The French Club met after school in my own first grade classroom, where and when the grinding irritation of Mrs. Rice's tense and angry lessons was replaced by something much more obviously worth learning. Mrs. Buck’s lessons were sophisticated and challenging and quirky in a way that first grade just wasn’t. Mrs. Buck was little like a bird, but also self-assured and self-contained. She wore much more formal clothing than most other moms, and she seemed a lot older, her skin like beautifully smooth tanned leather. Unlike Annabelle Greenhill’s mother, who miraculously retained her British accent for decades, Mrs. Buck spoke English like an American. But she knew her business when it came French stuff. And for that we all thought she was amazing.

Presumably Mrs. Buck had a French parent or had lived there for some time, as she had a deep familiarity with French language, food, and rituals. Heaven knows what compelled her to share this secret knowledge with our benighted selves, but God bless her. Now that I’m really living here, actually speaking and eating and trying to figure out the rituals once again, I feel like I owe her a debt I can never repay. She launched me here, somehow, to arrive decades after first grade in a place of marvelous cheese and blue sky, surrounded by a musical but still somewhat inscrutable language.

When Mrs. Buck taught us French, she told us that the sweet little vowels and funny words could all be grouped, for no reason I could intuit then or now, into male and female. Apples were girls, but pens and pencils were boys. Flags were boys, and mouths were girls -- even if those mouths were on boys. We sang "Sur Le Pont D'Avignon," and “Au Clair de la Lune.” The moon was of course a girl, which made sense, because it was smaller but prettier than the big fat bossy boy of a sun.

But the other words seemed so bizarre as to be surreal. Why would a table be a girl? Or a wall a boy? How could “he” and “she” apply to things so obviously “it?” Mrs. Buck knew all these things, and even how to count to vingt and beyond, and she would teach us this secret code all afternoon long over grapes and baguettes.

Despite the stupidity of weird rules like chairs being girls and rugs being boys, French struck us all as particularly worth learning: even moreso than reading and telling time and speaking the correct words of the Pledge of Allegiance. When we were in French Club, it was clear that we were involved in something special and important, and Madame Buck was worthy of our greatest respect. It was different, both in kind and degree, from the specialness of Little League, even Travel Little League. It was even way better, we all agreed, than C.C.D., even though those lucky kids got out of school early every Wednesday afternoon. (What is it with Catholicism and Wednesdays? Did God decree that all Catholic seven-year-olds, until the end of time, would miss school on Wednesday afternoons while readying themselves for their First Communions?)

French Club lent us all its fancy and important air. I don’t know how the rarefication of France translated itself into one of the first grade classrooms of our small town, but somehow Mrs. Buck brought with her the chic of Paris, the soignée of Truffaut, the primal energy of Miro, and the whole fabulously snooty attitude of a culture absolutely certain of its own enduring superiority. This culture had been established in Lascaux, then reinforced with generations of olives and wine and mushrooms and scarves tied in just the right sorts of attitudes. And therefore it required careful study and our most serious faces.

Goofy kid stuff was clearly beneath Mrs. Buck, and thus beneath all of us in French Club. For that hour once a week, we would stop doing cootie shots when a boy touched us (even – or especially – if that boy were Than Buck.) We would stop making fart jokes and folded paper fortune tellers. We would ask nicely if we had to go to les toilettes.

When Mrs. Buck made crepes with us, it suddenly mattered how the butter melted and bubbled into froth in the pan on the hotplate. We were careful to say “S’il vous plait” and “Merci, Madame,” when she put them on our paper plates, steaming and smelling like heaven. She served them with confectioner’s sugar and confiture des fraises. Something in her attitude let us know that these were no ordinary pancakes smothered in strawberry jam. These were French, and “French” meant very, very, very good. Crepes were somehow better than we deserved, but there, nonetheless, for our taking and cutting up with little plastic knives.

As the year marched on into November, she told us all about a party we were going to have at her house. If our parents would just sign this permission slip, and bring us to her house one afternoon, we would all work together to cook a French Christmas dinner. There would be French decorations, and French meat, and French Desserts. (Cue here that John Cusack movie, Better Off Dead: “and French Fries, French Dressing, French Bread…”)

Part of me was excited for La Fete de Noel, but an even bigger part of me was nervous. If it was hard to stay obedient and well-behaved for sixty minutes of French Club, how could we all hold it together for a full afternoon of cooking and eating Christmas yummies at her actual house? Also, as we had learned from making those crepes, French food was nearly impossible to make properly – much more like a magic elixir made from sacred ingredients than the actual food we ate in our real American houses: roast beef and boiled potatoes and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner. How would we know how to treat the eggs for the mousse au chocolate? Could we follow a recipe that called the sugar a boy and the measuring cup a girl? How could we possibly behave well enough to continue to earn Mrs. Buck’s positive and French regard? Would we have to speak French, all in italics?

As you might guess, the party was part disaster, part triumph. We got spoken to a few times for losing our chic, soignée cool, and I think some of the boys got in a little tussel over Than’s G.I. Joe men. (The first Star Wars figures were still a year away from being created and sold; just a twinkle in the eye of some marketer in a galaxy far, far away.)

But I can still remember the dark beauty of her house: the candles that she lit for the dinner, the strings of cranberries that we made. The mousse au chocolat was rich and creamy, both light and heavy at the same time. The decorations were strange; somehow recognizably Christmas, but yet foreign and inscrutable. The French Santa was skinny, not fat; Pere Noel eats like a Parisian. At the end, Mrs. Buck brought out a massive Buche de Noel that we were to decorate. (While I know how to find the italics button to indicate when I am speaking to you in French, and I can make an é and a ç, I can still not figure out how to put the little hat on the u, and the umlaut on that e. Do forgive me, French-fluent readers, and Mrs. Buck, wherever you are.)

For some reason, which I am sure that Mrs. Buck explained to me over thirty years ago, French people celebrate Christmas with Buche de Noel, a cake that looks like a log. It is chocolate frosted in chocolate, which sounds all well and good, but then is also decorated with things, made of sugar, that look like mushrooms. If you’re going to make something Christmassy out of chocolate and sugar, I say, don’t make it look like a log. Logs are heavy, and fat, and wood. Chocolate should be melty and small and perhaps topped with a little salted caramel. Not a fake mushroom. No logs for Christmas.

But then again, the French never asked me how they should celebrate le Noel. (While the party, la fete, is a girl, Christmas itself is a boy.) They already know damn well how to celebrate Christmas, and they told Mrs. Buck, and Mrs. Buck was there to tell me. This culture has its act together, we were to learn, and we should only be so lucky to get a taste of crepes and a bite of chocolate log and to know which nouns were boys and which were girls.

For some reason – call it repression, call it forgetfulness, call it better things to do – I have not thought of Than or Mrs. Buck for probably thirty years. But here I am, decades upon decades later, actually living in France for no good reason, perhaps one of the luckiest filles on the planet.

Did she send me here somehow? If not, how did she and Than emerge back into my consciousness today? Perhaps I was reminded of her by the little chocolate pots de crème from which I peel the gold foil just after lunch. Maybe they remind me of our rich and creamy mousse au chocolate. Or perhaps it is the time of year: November, going on December. I can’t quite believe that I have not yet made or even purchased a single crepe since arriving here in August, as it is almost time for me to start making buches des Noels for my own little family.

Or perhaps I thought of her today because here I am with my own sweet Andy Warhol of a child, having with our visas joined the ultimate French Club. Rather than dip our kids’ toes into la culture française for an hour on Monday afternoons, we’ve actually brought them here, to soak and loll and potentially even drown in it. I am my own Mrs. Buck as I am suddenly and surprisingly homeschooling Grace – trying my hardest to teach her le from la as it applies to the sofa and her shoes and the big stone fireplace in the living room.

Who knows why we are really here, or what it is we are to learn. All things being equal, we could be just about anywhere. Perhaps if it had been Mrs. Rodriguez rather than Mrs. Buck who had been the generous and culturally minded parent in town to start a foreign language club, we’d be in some equally godforsaken rural place, but this time munching on Spanish paella rather than crusty baguettes in la belle France. Could Mrs. Sawitzki have had us in Poland eating Pierogi? Or Mrs. O'Brien magically inspiring us to eat lamb stew all year in Dublin?

Wherever Launa goes, there she is. And here we are. As it is, being here, I’m going to take a page from Than and Mrs. Buck and all those lucky kids in French Club so many years ago. Tomorrow morning, we're throwing off our anxiety about homeschooling and texts and where to buy the special notebooks to make the Academic Inspector see how serious we are about our French. Tomorrow morning, I have a plan. Before we start anything quite so scholarly as math and history and french grammar, our studies designed to impress the French authorities with our les and las and proper conjugations, I have something altogether else for us to do.

Because Grace and Abigail, Bill and me, we’re going to make ourselves some darn good crepes.


  1. So how did the crepes turn out??? Better than in French club, I hope. Be sure to upload more photos of your fabulous French food!

    PS. I am grateful to have rediscovered you here in the blogging world, Launa. Peace to you - and have a good weekend.

  2. 1. So let's take care of those accents. The circonflex is option-I and then whatever letter you want it on, and the tréma (umlaut in German--or is it ümlaut?) is option-U and then the letter that will wear it. Hope that helps!

    2. I am totally channeling Maggie Greif here (because, as you noticed, I am becoming her and her husband), but if you can find her, I bet Mrs. Buck would be so darn tickled to know that you're thinking of her and living in France and how she inspired you all those years ago. If you're not sure how to find her, the aforementioned Maggie Greif has a business called Sleuth that finds hard-to-find items, information, and services. I can give you her contact info. ;)