Of Maïs and Men

May 24, 2012

Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Pickled Pear. From the Wikpedia Commons. Photo by Luigi Anzivino.

les souris
– mice
maïs – corn; pronounced “mah-eese”
24h sur 24 (spoken aloud as “vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre” or “vingt-quatre sur vingt-quatre“) – 24/7 
(in French, they say “twenty-four hours out of twenty-four”, instead of “twenty-four/seven”)
foie gras – foie gras is a traditional French delicacy made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened; literally translated, it means “fat liver”
gavage – force-feeding
bricolé(e) – thrown together, cobbled together, tinkered with (familiar); from the verb “bricoler”


The first time I met my friend Dave, he told me he’d been living in Paris for two years.

“Wow, your French must be really good by now,” I remarked enviously, still not feeling quite up to the task of speaking French 24h sur 24.

“Not really,” he replied. “Actually, you can get by quite well in Paris without speaking much French at all.”

His response took me by surprise. I couldn’t imagine wanting to live somewhere without being able to communicate in the local language. For me, half the interest of living in a foreign country is meeting the people who live there and learning about their culture. Speaking the native tongue goes a long way towards facilitating this kind of meaningful exchange – and besides, what better opportunity to learn a language than by total immersion? However, as I would discover after having lived in Paris for a while, there is a whole population of expats in the city who belong to a different school of thought. For some, like Dave, who was brought here by work, simply being located in Paris is plenty cool enough, and they have little interest in learning the language beyond the basic essentials required for daily living.

For the most part, Dave is right. You can get by quite well in Paris without speaking much French at all, even if I personally wouldn’t want to. I have a wide circle of expat friends living and thriving quite happily in the city who are testimony to this fact.

Then again, it can also lead to some interesting misunderstandings. Take, for example, Dave and the mice.

While riding in a van on our way to the beaches of Normandy last March, Dave announced to our small band of Canadians that he had discovered a horrifying new fact about how organic foie gras was made. Now, if you know anything about the process of producing foie gras in general, you know it’s not pretty. It’s kind of the same deal as with hot dogs – as my friend Flavie says, “Non, non, il ne faut pas le savoir !” (“No, no, it’s better not to know!”)

I must confess, I have a real fondness for the oh-so-tasty French delicacy, despite the nagging twinges of guilt that I feel when I think about the overstuffed geese from whom it comes. So when Dave declared that he had new intelligence, which was even worse than what we already knew, I decided I didn’t need to be privy to such information. Since I was in the front seat of the van, I just turned the radio up and tuned out the conversation, leaving Dave to recount his sordid discovery in hushed tones to our friend Brian in the back, gesturing animatedly from what I could see in the rearview mirror.

A few months later at my birthday dinner, however, the subject of foie gras came up again. This time, my curiosity got the better of me, and I let Dave tell his story.

“A friend of mine has a farm where they produce organic foie gras and he told me all about it,” he shared with us eagerly. “Apparently, in organic farming, they feed the geese mice!”

Mel and I, the two other Canadians at the table, stared at Dave in revulsion and horror.

“What? No!”

“Eww! Are you serious?”

Jean-François, a Frenchman, however, looked skeptical.

“I… don’t… think that’s true,” he frowned, choosing his words carefully. “I’ve never heard of that in my life.”

“No, really, it is!” Dave assured us eagerly. “My friend Stephane is the one who told me about it, and it’s his family that runs the farm.”

Jean-François still looked unconvinced.

“It does seem kind of unlikely,” I ventured hesitantly. “Do geese even eat meat?”

But Dave was adamant, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the veracity of this dirty little secret. He had, after all, been given the inside scoop from someone in the know. The wine, good food and convivial atmosphere had us all in far too good a mood to pursue a heated debate and we eventually deferred to his first-hand knowledge on the subject, moving on to other topics of conversation.

The next day, however, we all received a group e-mail from Dave.

“I followed up with Stephane this morning on what they feed the geese during the gavage.  Apparently they feed them maïs, not mice. :)”

Poor Dave. Needless to say, he was subject to some good-natured teasing in the days that followed, not the least of which was this little illustration, bricolée by Jean-François, which still makes me laugh.

The moral of the story? Getting by without speaking the local language in a city might very well be feasible… but then again, you might also one day find yourself confronted with a plateful of mice when what you were really craving was some corn. ;)

One Response to “Of Maïs and Men”

  1. Margaret Says:

    And this is why you want to speak the local language! But I suppose it does make for some amusing stories… ;)


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