We’re more than half way through Haitian Creole class. It’s a short, 2-month course, so we’re really only scratching the surface of the language. I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about Creole, and since this blog has been shifting focus from Nicaragua (our 1st post) to Haiti (our next assignment), I thought I’d share a short FAQ.
First off, Creole is the English spelling. Kreyol is the spelling in, well, kreyol. I’m going to stick with English for this blog since I’m writing in English.
So what’s Creole like?
It’s really cool. It’s a sort of a hybrid language (I guess all languages are) using mostly French cognates, spelled phonetically, but with a totally different grammatical structure. Also, Haitians love proverbs and apparently use them all the time in everyday speech. So in addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, we’re learning several Haitian proverbs a week.
Isn’t Creole just a version of French?
According to linguists, Haitian Creole is considered a language in it’s own right. But it helps a ton if you know French since many of its origins are based in French. The slaves who were brought over to Haiti all spoke different languages but needed a way to communicate. They developed Haitian Creole 200 years ago using many words from French, but the structure of the language is more in line with some African languages. In the last 50 or so years, the language has been more codified with official spellings, rules, etc. But it’s still very much an oral language.
Ok, so how exactly is French different from Creole?
Spring is finally here. In fact, it has been for a few weeks, but I don’t think I fully enjoyed it until this weekend. The reason – I passed my French test! Following in the footsteps of my husband who passed earlier. The Department of State is apparently of the opinion that we speak French.
I’m so relieved. Suddenly, the air is sweeter, the flowers are in bloom and the birds are singing. Ok, I’m being dramatic. But it is amazing how good it feels to have this weight off my shoulders.
Full time language training is such a bizarre thing to do for a job. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pretty nice gig to be paid to learn a language. But there is more pressure than I thought there would be to always be “on.” You could always be studying more, reviewing, reading, watching something, etc. I’m sure that most of the pressure is actually self-imposed. But nevertheless, it’s a huge relief to have passed the test, to be able to continue with the training, and to have our projected arrival date in Haiti still intact.
So what’s next: my husband and I will take several weeks of Haitian Creole and then some other training before we head to Haiti this summer and begin our next tour!
Speaking of spring – our tulips have arrived! These were planted last November:
- Before either of us knew the subjunctive tense.
- When we were still reading factual texts and not flowery editorials by rambling French editors-in-chief.
- Before we could really understand any of the jokes on Le Petit Journal (similar to the Daily Show in French).
And now look at them!
We took advantage of the long President’s Day weekend to meet up with our San Francisco-based friends in Portland. I had high expectations for our little getaway – mostly concerning food. And they were all met, even surpassed. Portland was like Brooklyn, but with nicer people and more rain. All the beards, bikes and small-batch local breweries you could want, except everyone was so friendly and the prices were incredibly cheap (at least in the eyes of DC and San Francisco dwellers).
It was a quick trip. We were there about 65 hours total. Here are some of the highlights:
The Ace Hotel
Staying at the Ace Hotel pretty much assured that we would have the Portlandia experience – everything down to the contents of the mini-bar was either handmade, locally sourced, organic, vintage, or a combination of those. The lobby was outfitted with repurposed furniture, airplant terrariums, a photo booth, free bikes to borrow for the day, and couches forming a “U” where guests read newspapers or art magazines, or flipped through their iphones.
Without planning it, we ended up visiting Portland during Zwickelmania, a statewide event that features tons of Oregon breweries providing free tours and shuttles. Over the weekend we visited three breweries. Each one of them had delicious, carefully crafted beer. We felt like we had stumbled on a well kept, gourmet secret; but I guess amazing beer is just run-of-the-mill in Oregon. The first two we visited are in Portland. Full Sail Brewing Co. is about 45 minutes outside the city, along the beautiful Columbia River.
On the way to visit the Full Sail brewery, we made a spectacular detour to see the Wahkeena Falls. We hiked up a moss-covered trail with several switchbacks to see the falls up close, and to get a great view of the Columbia River.
Whiskey Soda Lounge
Before heading to Portland, everyone I talked to mentioned that the Thai restaurant Pok Pok is a must. They don’t take reservations, so we knew there would be a wait to get in to this famous spot. We were prepared for a 1 or 1 ½ hour wait, but we were pretty deflated (and starving) when the wait time was 2 ½ hours. Fortunately, their sister restaurant across the street, Whiskey Soda Lounge, has several menu items that are the same as Pok Pok, including their famous chicken wings and drinking vinegars. We had an amazing meal, and still have an excuse to go back.
We made a point of visiting Powell’s Book Store, a massive book shop in downtown Portland. They have a bigger foreign language section than anything in DC. We picked up several books in French and several weekly French magazines. That assuaged some of the guilt we felt for not studying much French over the weekend!
And still more…
Not to mention the food trucks, of course. We also enjoyed Voodoo Doughnuts, Stumptown Coffee, The Original (amazing boozy shakes), and Isabel for breakfast. Yum, yum and yum. And the prices were SO cheap. We consistently would spend on the four of us, what each couple was used to paying for just two in DC or S.F. Also, the Portland Art Museum was worth the visit.
I’d love to visit again, ideally in the summer. I feel like we only scratched the surface. Portland, je t’aime.
Last Saturday I went to a cooking class to learn how to make crêpes - in French! It was a huge confidence booster to realize that I actually knew what the chef was saying, and could carry on conversations with the other participants. Although I also realized that I know more vocabulary in French related to immigration reform and the economy than I do about kitchen tools and techniques. I don’t think that crêpe-making will be on the final exam, but it’s much more delicious.
That said, I did learn something about French culture. The class was organized on February 2, which is the French Holiday of La Chandeleur, fête des chandelles (candles). It’s translated as Candlemass in English. For Catholics, the holiday marks the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 40 days after Christmas. In France, the holiday is celebrated with crêpes. The traditional drink to accompany the crêpes is hard apple cider, although the cooking class offered sparking cider instead.
Also, I learned that La Chandeleur has some traditions similar to our Groundhogs day. The French rhyme says: “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver par derrière; Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte!” Which roughly translates to: “If February 2nd is clear, no more winter to fear; if the Chandeleur is overcast, forty days of winter to last.” Unfortunately, it was a dreary day, on the verge of snowing. So I think winter is hanging around a bit longer.
The class was sponsored by a French Meetup group and held at Petits Plats, a French restaurant in Woodley Park. In a private room upstairs, the chef of Petits Plats, Frédéric Darricarrère, demonstrated how to make the crêpe batter, gave several tips, and then set up two stations for each participant to try to make a crêpe. Flipping the crêpe was tricky, and only about half of the crêpes survived in one piece. Thankfully we didn’t have to eat those. At the end of the class, the restaurant brought out several plates of fresh, steaming hot crêpes along with Nutella, sugar, and a hot Grand Marnier sauce. Très délicieux!
This weekend I tried to give the recipe a go, and thankfully it went pretty well. There are countless recipes for crêpes online, so I won’t add yet another one here. But I will share three of the most important tips I learned.
- Tip #1: Add some rum, or even beer to the batter. Apparently this is pretty common in France, and adds just a little punch to sweet crêpes.
- Tip #2: Pour your batter through a mesh strainer or food mill. This takes out any lumps and ensures that the batter is thin and consistent.
- Tip #3: Let your batter sit overnight. This is the most important tip. You MUST let the batter sit, preferably overnight or around 12 hours.
I also made a version of the Grand Marnier sauce, which I adapted from this site. Enjoy!
Grand Marnier sauce for Crêpes
- 5 TBS unsalted butter
- 3 TBS sugar
- Zest and juice of 2 oranges
- 3 TBS Grand Marnier
Gently heat the butter and sugar in a pan, stirring until the sugar begins to dissolve. Increase the heat and bubble for 4 minutes until the mixture starts to caramelize. Add the juice and zest, letting the mixture bubble for 3-4 minutes to thicken slightly. Add the Grand Marnier and heat for a few seconds, then lower the heat.
I learned a great phrase this week in French class: Il fait un froid de canard. Translation: It’s duck cold! Meaning: It’s freezing cold. One website I checked said the saying originated from duck hunting in the winter. Whether or not that’s true, I love the expression.
And believe me, this week was duck cold in Washington, DC. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house on Saturday. I did a lot of cleaning so I would feel like I had accomplished something. But finally, there was one thing that provided enough motivation to get bundled up and change out of my slippers: pho.
Yes, pho, the wonderful Vietnamese steaming beef and rice noodle dish. There is a place just a few blocks from our house that has amazing pho – Caphe Banh Mi. With pho, it’s all about the broth. And you can tell, this isn’t your store-bought beef broth. The broth is complex, with flavors that have clearly been coaxed over hours of simmering.
Other than the fact that pho is an obvious choice on a cold winter day, we had pho on our minds because the French newspaper Le Monde had an article about pho this week on their website. In the article, they talked about how pho is simple and classic Vietnamese at its best. It’s eaten by everyone, rich, poor, young, old. It is often considered more of a breakfast dish, but it can be eaten for any meal.
One of the chefs interviewed in the article believes there are some French influences in Vietnamese pho. He says that beef wasn’t a staple in Vietnamese diets before the French were involved in that part of the world, and their presence might have increased its incorporation into cuisine. Also, the word pho isn’t pronounced like “phone” but more like the French word for fire – “feu” (fuh). So maybe Vietnamese pho is related to the French dish pot-au-feu, a French beef stew. This is probably a bit blasphemous to some, who say that Vietnamese pho existed well before the French came to South East Asia. But I think that for anyone who has tried it, they would agree that pho is one of the best, most satisfying soups there is. And a sure way to beat un froid de canard.
The last two years I’ve begun a cold-weather hobby – making temari. I remember seeing a really cool embroidered ball in a Dwell magazine and wondered what it was. After some google research, I found out it was a Japanese temari ball, made from yarn and embroidery thread. I had been looking for something to make for Christmas gifts whilst watching HBO and Food Network marathons, and I was pretty sure that knitting was not for me.
Temari balls originated in China, but the practice was introduced to Japan around the 7th century. Original temari balls were made from the remnants of old kimonos and used for hand ball games. After kids started playing with rubber balls, the practice of making temari turned into an art form instead of a toy-making craft. Women would compete to make beautiful and intricate patterns.
Today, temari is still a craft practiced in Japan, but people all over the world have picked up the hobby. They are given as gifts of friendship or as a New Years gift from parent to child. On the last few temari that I’ve made, I added a loop so it can hang as an ornament or on a stand. I hope I haven’t offended any purists out there.
Making temari does require a bit of concentration. To create the ball (mari) you wrap either a styrofoam ball or another core with layers and layers of yarn, then several layers of thin serger thread. Now this is where you really have to concentrate – you treat the ball like a globe, carefully marking the equator and longitude lines with pins and thread. But after you get going on the pattern, you can stitch along on autopilot while watching a movie.
Interested in trying it? Here are the resources that I used to get started.
- The only book I’ve purchased on this topic, and highly recommend, is by Barbara Suess: Japanese Temari, A Colorful Spin on an Ancient Craft. Every temari that you see on this blog post, with the exception of the red ball with the mini green and white poinsettia-looking flowers on it, is based on a pattern in this book.
- Also, her website www.japanesetemari.com is a great resource for ideas, patterns and step by step instructions.
- Thread: Most of the temari that I’ve seen uses #5 perle cotton, which is thicker than embroidery floss. I buy mine from www.herrschners.com, but I’m sure your local craft store has thread (if there is such a thing as a local craft store where you live. I’m not holding my breath for one in Haiti…).
- Other tools: The TemariKai shop on etsy offers ready-made balls without a pattern on them. This speeds up the process so you can get right to the stitching, but it’s a lot cheaper (and you get more temari street cred) if you learn how to make the balls yourself. She also sells flexible little tape measures, which help with marking the guidelines.
What’s the longest book you’ve ever read? For me, it’s 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I finally finished it last weekend, and feel like I’ve accomplished a major feat. I wanted to finish it in 2012 and start 2013 with an open dance card. Though I’m embarrassed to say that I started the book in July! I’m a slow-ish reader, at least compared to the mach 1 reading pace of my husband. And I often get distracted by other smaller books and magazines that I pick up along the way: over Christmas I read a great Agatha Christie mystery and Vanity Fair’s comedy issue cover to cover.
1Q84 is classic Murakami: bizarre but engaging. It was originally published in three parts in Japanese, but the English translation is one massive 925-page book. I wouldn’t call it science fiction, but it’s definitely otherworldly. I was a bit frustrated that Murakami didn’t solve all of the mysteries by the end (and frankly, after 925 pages, I felt I deserved more resolution) but the important questions were answered, or at least the remaining questions were tolerable.
If an author doesn’t answer all of the questions in a book, I at least want to believe that they know the answers. They just didn’t feel the need to reveal them all. I hate to think that an author (or TV producer, ahem, LOST, I’m looking at you) created a world that doesn’t actually hang together with a central logic.
But at the other extreme, the Agatha Christie murder-mystery I read, And Then There Were None, was neatly wrapped up – the epilogue spells out in painstaking detail which holiday guest was the culprit and how he managed to pull off 10 murders on a secluded island (including his own). It was fun, but forgettable.
Maybe the most powerful stories are those that convince you that there is an underlying logic, but leave some questions open, ensuring you won’t soon stop thinking about the world that you’ve been drawn into. 1Q84 is that kind of book.