I savor the chocolate and begin to savor the language
There is a very good and virtuous reason for the (more or less) five pounds I've gained since I moved to Brussels last summer. This is a far better reason than the hundreds of great restaurants or the extensive expat social life that revolves around food.
That reason is my chocolate lady, who runs a handmade chocolate shop called l'Art de Praslin in my neighborhood. I have good reason to believe that her chocolates are superior to the well-known Belgian brands of Neuhaus, Galler, or Leonidas that one sees scattered throughout the city. So we've come to depend on her for gifts and to introduce our guests to "real Belgian chocolate."
But the other important reason I love frequenting l'Art de Praslin is that I get to practice my French in a supportive, albeit caloric, environment.
It didn't start that way.
The first time we stumbled into the little shop, tucked between a bar and a cigar shop on a busy shopping street, Madame Propriétaire seemed wary and unfriendly as she put together our assortment of chocolates.
We barely spoke French, we didn't know exactly what we wanted, and the store was packed with end-of-summer shoppers. Mainly, we pointed and mimed, the classic gestures of foreign tourists everywhere.
But the chocolate was good enough that we kept going back. Gradually, after a few more times, Madame seemed to recognize us. There were still no smiles until we attempted our baby French on her. "Je voudrais, um, le chocolat, s'il vous plait."
At that, she made the assumption that many French speakers seem to make: that we secretly knew all the French there was to know and were speaking English only out of stubbornness and chauvinism. Out came a rush of chatty conversational French. I smiled and nodded, and could catch a word or phrase here or there.
Meanwhile, I continued my French lessons in another supportive environment, a class that drew together a United Nations of foreigners wishing to better understand this beautiful language in which all the words seem to run together in one sensuous blur of sound.
Little by little we developed our own mélange of conversation, grammar, and Francophone culture. (One never really learns a language without getting a glimpse into the way a people see the world, appreciate life, and treat one another.)
The classes gave me confidence with my chocolate lady. Each time I entered the glass front doors and was met by a rush of cold air (to keep the chocolate fresh) and the heady smell of chocolate, I took another baby step in the French language.
In the first few months, Madame did most of the talking, while I nodded, interjecting the occasional "Oui" or "ça va" or "D'accord" if I understood enough. She would tell me about her "petit ami en Angleterre" (her little friend in England).
Slowly, I started telling her for whom these particular chocolates were meant, or where we were going that weekend. I introduced her to whichever houseguest might be standing alongside me, there to savor a Belgian chocolate experience ("Madame, je vous presente ma soeur ...").
All those months of chocolate/French research led up to today's big triumph: After nearly a full year in Belgium, I can finally announce that I had a complete, two-way, unrestricted conversation in French with Madame.
Here's what I told her: that I was going to visit Paris and stay in the apartment of a friend; that I hoped to get to the Musée d'Orsay; that my husband and I were going alone this time (seulement mon mari et moi), without all the guests we usually brought to Paris, and that it should be a great time.
This is what she told me: She thought the weather was supposed to be good in Paris this weekend, no rain, and not too hot; that one does a lot of walking in Paris; that when it's hot, the pollution can be terrible; and that she had just been to Paris last weekend to hear a concert. Then, finally, the great compliment: that my French had greatly improved and that I had made great progress.
Success! Granted, this isn't the level of philosophical inquiry that one might get from sitting next to Sartre in a Left Bank cafe, but it was no doubt the chitchat of ordinary people on an ordinary weekday morning talking about ordinary things.
I'm satisfied. And if the price of my conversational French is a few extra pounds, I can live with that.
After all, we're moving back to the States this summer. Having a chat in the drugstore as I buy a Hershey bar just won't have the same allure.