My French Icebreaker & Other Bits

I’ve learned to use the same line when I give my name in France, whether for an interview or a IMG_2776restaurant, hotel or car reservation.

“Le nom est Lanson,” I say. “Comme le champagne (like the champagne).

This, it seems, never fails to draw an appreciative chuckle if not always access to an interview subject.  You see, Lanson really is a French champagne, and a pretty good one.  And well-educated French know their champagnes as well as they do their food and wines.

I used the line again yesterday with a woman at the other end of the phone at a company I’d called a half-dozen times over two days without getting so much as an answering machine at the other end.   I’m still waiting for the interview, but I hope my small French connection helped.

Now, between us, I never do add that I’m no relation to the champagne maker.  Nor that my father’s real name was Lichtenstein — until he arrived in New York in 1936.  I never did ask dad how he picked the name Lanson.  I’m sure, given the year of his arrival, that he neither wanted to sound German nor Jewish, both of which he was. Beyond that, who knows? But dad did like the French. He also liked food, liked wine and liked champagne.  So I’m going to guess that my name, after a French champagne, was no accident.


Market day keeps getting more and more enjoyable the longer we stay in Aix. As I’ve mentioned before, we now try to go at least once during the week, when the vendors have time to talk.  Yesterday, from the young guy in the straw hat at our vegetable stand, I learned the difference between un gosse d’ail, a single garlic clove, and une tete d’ail, a garlic bulb with multiple cloves.  I complimented him on all the English he’s picked up, which he said comes from the American students who study nearby.

Laurent, our favorite cheese, ham and sausage guy, went into an impassioned (and fast) riff about how machines ruin the specialty hams because they shred the meat’s fiber by cutting vertically, whereas he, by cutting the meat with the fibers horizontally on a spit, preserves its texture and taste.

Karine, half the Daniel and Karine duo from whom we buy what we consider the best eggs and rotisserized chicken in town, asked us whether we have brown eggs in the United States. She was surprised when we said yes. Turns out she had customers recently from Michigan who told her they thought all eggs were white before they saw her brown ones.

These are hardly profound conversations.  But they bring humanity, warmth and a bit of French language practice to our daily lives. Standing in the sunshine on a perfect spring day doesn’t hurt either.  I sense that the more comfortably (even if ungrammatically) we speak French, the more these kinds of casual, friendly exchanges become part of each day.


IMG_1467During our first five-month stay in Aix in 2007, we lived on a beautiful, narrow lane, Chemin du VallonIMG_1463 des Lauriers, Path of the Valley of the Laurels.  We were on the second floor of a carriage house, across from multi-million homes, mostly boarded up in the winter.  It was a peaceful, idyllic place where a bird I nicknamed Caruso woke us each morning.  But it was a good 45-minute walk from Aix, and so we were much more limited in the number of visits we made to the heart of the city.  Any nightlife required a 10-euro cab ride home.

We walked past our old place on a beautiful spring day awhile back.  I was struck again by the beauty of the area, but also reminded of how much we prefer being close enough to the city itself on this visit so we can walk in and out multiple times if we choose in a single day.

2 Replies to “My French Icebreaker & Other Bits

  1. We just read your interesting comments on the Resistance. My wife have been in Aix for two and a half months. The first museum we visited was Les Milles. It was freezing inside! If we had worn sweaters we would have stayed longer. We only lasted 3.5 hours. We have talked about going back, but it is such an emotional subject. We are due to go back to Canada in two weeks. There is so much to see here. The panic has set in!

    1. Hi Douglas, Thanks for the note. We understand the feeling. We leave at the end of May. We found Les Milles powerful. May go back next week when my brother visits. My wife, Kathy, and I have become really interested in that period in France. She is reading a terrific book right now called Villa Air-Bel by Rosemary Sullivan (a Canadian). It talks about Provence between 1933 and 1941 and spends a lot of time telling the story of Varian Fry, the American journalist mentioned at Camp des Milles who managed to help 2,000 people escape the Nazis. If you two would like to grab a beer or glass of wine Saturday or Sunday afternoon holler. My brother doesn’t arrive until Sunday night.

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