Adventures in French

IMG_1871How do you feel about speaking a foreign language, even if it’s just a few words? Do you dive in and learn a few phrases? Or do you cross your fingers and hope that somebody will speak English? There are just too many languages that don’t resemble each other at all; it’s impossible to learn everything or even several, but a few phrases can engender a lot of goodwill.

Sometimes you have to get creative. When I first went to China, the country had two currencies, one for locals and one for foreigners. Well, actually, foreigners got “foreign exchange certificates,” which looked like money even if officially they weren’t. They had engravings of famous sights. So when I wanted to know whether I was going the right direction to the Temple of Heaven, I stopped someone on the street and showed them a note with the Temple of Heaven on it, pointing at the picture and then at the street, with eyebrows rising as a question. The guy was fascinated by the strange bank note, which he had never seen before. He was with a friend was so nervous he was practically wrenching the friend’s hand off his arm. Then he carefully and laboriously said: “Do. You. Speak. English?” Bingo! I had run into the one guy who could communicate with me, because in the 1980s, your average Chinese on the street didn’t speak other languages. I was jumping for joy–yes! I speak English! And he twisted and pulled his friend’s hand, took a deep breath and blurted out: “GO FORWARD!”

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I have no good photos for this post, so here are some new shots of our AirBnB in Carcassonne, called l’Ancienne Tannerie.

The facts have been lost in the fog of passing years, but I think my francophilia dates to reading Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans, about the audacious redhead and her adventures in Paris. I was simultaneously sad for her–boarding school! with nuns! and apendicitis!–and insanely jealous–PARIS!!!

I made do with posters of Paris on my walls until I finally got to go to the City of Light in person. I had four years of high school French, which I thought made me pretty darn good. Memories of my first trip to Paris also another thing mostly obscured by the fog of passing years, but I am sure of one thing, which is that I didn’t speak (or hear) as well as I thought.IMG_1897Years later, I took adult French classes at the New School in New York. One teacher was actually French and had us do the weirdest exercises–she would dictate a paragraph from a book, and we’d have to write it down, punctuation and all. You could end up with a negative score, once she marked off for spelling and accents, not to mention having misheard a completely wrong word (and she was insistent on grading us, even though it was a non-credit adult course). Only much later, when my own kid was in school in France, did I learn that this was a regular thing in French education: la dictée.IMG_1890She also tried mightily to improve our pronunciation. We used a book, Exercises in French Phonics, but I was still so focused on the difficult vowel combinations (euil!!! that one took forever to learn) and when final consonants or entire endings were silent (-ent on the end of third-person plural verbs in present tense: how do you not say THREE LETTERS???) and the whole nasal vowel thing that I didn’t pay much attention to the sounds I didn’t even register as different.IMG_1907Oliver Gee at the Earful Tower had a great podcast about fear of speaking French, and he confesses that he had only recently realized that tu and vous didn’t rhyme (tu is the singular form of you while vous is the plural form as well as the singular in formal situations). That was certainly my case back then. I went on a hiking trip in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières, in which I was the only non-French person. One of the other hikers said, “so for you it’s an adventure trip AND a language course.” In the evenings, we would play games, often cards. One day I suggested charades. They had no idea about charades, which surprised me, because I thought it was a French word. Anyway, I taught them how to play. When I did “sounds like,” they failed again and again to get my clue. Finally I explained the clue, and they hooted with laughter because it was that u/ou mistake–to them the clue didn’t sound like the desired word at all–the equivalent of thinking pool and pole sound alike. I could not get my mouth to produce u like the French, and I did not hear the difference.IMG_1896 2But that was the least of my humiliations. There was the time when I told a taxi driver to take me to the North Station for the train. His head whipped around so fast it was like in cartoons. And then I realized I had pronounced it guerre du Nord instead of Gare du Nord–I had asked to be taken to the Northern War. The driver very kindly didn’t rub my nose in the mistake.IMG_1893In fact, the French have a very charming way of correcting your mistakes. They won’t outright correct you–instead they will say what you should have said. If I stupidly say I want un livre de cerises–to ask for a pound of cherries (and people do say livre/pound for 500 grams), the vendor will sweetly say, “D’accord! Une livre de cerises.” Un livre–masculine–is a book. Une livre–feminine–is a pound. Or at the bakery, a request for a pain au chocolat will be met with “voilà, une chocolatine,” the name chocolate-filled croissants are called in the southern half of France.IMG_1886My other New School teachers were Americans and much more pragmatic. One gave us lists of phrases to memorize. When one of the students moans, she barked, “Only when these phrases roll off your tongue naturally can you even start to advance to conversations. I will not have dilletantes in my class!” (This was said to a class of mostly retirees who just wanted to brush up their French before going on vacation.)IMG_1880The other teacher offered hacks. The most common verb infinitive ends with -er; when speaking to an individual formally or to a group you use vous, and the conjugation of -er verbs with vous ends with -ez, which sounds just like -er: both sound like A. She encouraged us to be formal and address everybody as vous, and we wouldn’t have to sweat the verb conjugation. It was a good hack until I made friends and had to learn the conjugations with tu.IMG_1850My French is much, much better these days, although I still make mistakes, especially with the gender of nouns. And I cannot get rid of my accent. I think of my grandmother, who left Europe to move to the U.S. when she was about seven and whose accent was still perceptible nine decades years later. And then there are people like Jodie Foster–when watching one of her movies on TV I was struck that her dubbed voice sounded uncannily like her real voice–rare with dubbing. So I sat through the credits and saw that, yes, she dubbed herself. With a perfect accent.IMG_1860People judge when you have an accent. Some people think it’s amazing that you speak another language, and you get credit for being smart, often more credit than you deserve. An accent can sound exotic or seductive.IMG_1835Other people think you must be stupid. I got that, too. It’s one thing to communicate basic facts; it’s a long slog before you are able to crack a joke or express nuance in another language. I remember being at a meeting of the parent-teacher association and one of the other parents making a derisive remark about me as if I wouldn’t understand what he had said. It made me think of other people who are émigrés/immigrants, trying to fit into their new lives, being judged on criterion that don’t accurately measure who they are.  I have the benefit of looking like any other French woman walking down the street; it’s only when I open my mouth that people know I’m not from here. For others, that judgment happens before any interaction even begins, because their skin color or their dress sets them out as different. It must be exhausting. Living abroad gives me more compassion to those who are strangers in a strange land, just trying to live their lives. IMG_1863I think the negative reactions come from a fear of the unknown, of being left out. I always spoke to my kid in English, and my husband always spoke in French, with the result that our kid is bilingual without trying. My husband told me I should speak only in French to our kid in public places, but I thought it was silly to switch languages just so other people would be able to eavesdrop more easily, and to hear what? “Put on your coat”/”Quit dawdling”/”What’s for dinner?” Nobody should be deprived of such scintillating stuff. At the same time, other parents would ask me to teach their kids English; I doubt many Arabic-speaking parents were solicited for language lessons.IMG_1872I learn new things in French every day. It’s a great adventure. Each discovery is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits with other pieces, sometimes in surprising ways, and gives me a better picture of the people, the culture, the history. There is no shame in mistakes; the only people who don’t make mistakes are those who never try anything.

An Immigrant in France

two yellowWhat is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Time and expectations.

When I first moved to Europe, my employers told me that they would appreciate if I would stay at least two years to make it worth all the expense. I thought, “TWO YEARS? Can I do that?”

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I took these photos last November. They seemed so appropriate for this topic. Putting down roots.

I had lived for just over two years in Africa, without electricity or running water. I figured that Europe was a cakewalk by comparision. Surely I could make it two years.

I decided to cram in as much of the Continent as I could. I found an apartment that met all my criteria: Grand French doors, fireplaces, moldings, impossibly high ceilings, good location, cheap. It not only had moldings but also mold; it was a dump, really, with unreliable heat and scary wiring. I didn’t care. I worked 12 hours a day and then left every weekend. By not spending my pennies on rent, I was able to see a lot of Europe.

scattered yellowThis is where I thank the Schengen Treaty and its 26 members. There were just seven when I moved to Europe. The idea that I could run around even seven countries without border controls was amazing! If you don’t remember all this, watch the very funny “Rien à Declarer” (“Nothing to Declare”) with the utterly insane Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgian) and Dany Boon (French) about how well that went.

Feels like yesterday.

Anyway.

dividedI married a Belgian. Two years turned into six. But I always figured I would go back. And we did, for a year. Then we moved back to Europe, this time to France.

Thanks to Schengen, my husband has the right to live in France, the way a Californian can live in New York, almost. Because I’m married to him, I get to come, too. Our kid has dual nationality (but honestly is a citizen of the world).

What does it mean to adopt a new country? I think it means respecting the local laws, certainly, and also customs, though I don’t think one needs to jettison one’s origins. I make cupcakes and hamburgers and barbecued ribs and lots of Mexican food. I listen to NPR podcasts and read the New York Times. I speak English to my husband and kid; husband speaks to me in French; kid speaks to me in English and to papa in French, which makes for some interesting dinner conversations. (If I dare react to a comment our kid made in French, I will be told, in English, “I wasn’t talking to YOU.” Of course I am in awe and envious of this ability to snap effortlessly and mostly flawlessly from one language to another.)

cookies with warning note
How it rolls in our house.

That said, the looks I get when I speak to my kid in English in public are not the same as for mothers who speak other languages. Once in a while I get a frown, but most often, mothers I don’t even know will sidle up and ask whether I give English lessons (I don’t). Mothers speaking in Arabic get only the frowns.

Why is that? I suspect it’s an assumption of want vs. need. I am in France because I want to be, not because I have to be here. It’s a nice place, I’m a lifelong francophile, and so why not. It’s an expat mindset. This, compared with people who are in France not because they are in love with the country but because they are NOT in love with their own, for economic, political or whatever reasons.

While I pass for French until I open my mouth, others get judged from afar. I am ashamed to say, I’ve done it myself. There was one mother at after-school pickup who wore a headscarf. Being a feminist, I winced every time I saw her. On the one hand, I think we all should be able to wear whatever we want. No body-shaming. But headscarves aren’t about fashion; they are saying half the population is a threat or a nuisance that should be hidden.

from aboveHowever, some friends were interested in a house for sale which happened to be next door to the veiled woman’s house, and so I approached her to get information about it. She was lovely. Charming and smart, though she hadn’t been able to continue her studies. She worked. She basically took care of her mother, who though fairly young didn’t speak French and didn’t drive and needed her daughter to manage every aspect of her life. Her two kids were well-behaved. Her husband had a business.

I’ve been told a number of times, both in France and in Belgium, that I’m a “good” immigrant–legally documented, working, tax-paying, law-abiding. This woman and her family also were “good” immigrants in every one of those ways. Yet, she told me, I was the first person ever to speak to her in our village. I was ashamed that I had let her veil stop me from being friendly. I still see veils as means of oppression, but I make an effort to love the person–or at least smile in the case of strangers–while hating the veil.red amid yellowAt my gym class yesterday, one woman had voted for LePen in Sunday’s run-off; ironically she herself had lived all over the world, untroubled that she should maintain her French identity and customs in other countries but unhappy to be back in France and confronted with people doing the same.

The others all favored Macron, tepidly; their enthusiasm was limited to opposing Le Pen (sound familiar?). They talked about their conflicted feelings about France’s future, about absolutely wanting to preserve the social safety net while wondering whether it hadn’t gotten too generous. Where to draw the line? In a way, Sunday’s election was about 11 different choices of lines to be drawn. Though the challenges are far more complex than a simple line can resolve.

One woman, who works for a social-services agency, described a case she’s dealing with: an elderly couple who just arrived from Azerbaijan. They don’t speak a word of French and both need extensive medical care. That someone from Azerbaijan would prefer to have heart surgery in France isn’t surprising. What is shocking, however, is that they qualify as indigent and don’t have to pay a cent.

red with yellowObviously, that can’t go on. But will it swing as far as Le Pen wants? We’ll find out May 7.

Although this topic is inextricably and unavoidably part of life in France, especially right now, we will turn back toward lighter things on Friday.

 

Written in Stone

crossAfter living here for so long, I forget which things I found different about France. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a francophile since my first Madeline book.

The culture shock has been urban vs. rural rather than Anglo-Saxon vs. French. We arrived from New York City to a village of 700 next to Carcassonne, which itself is no metropolis at 45,000 (not counting the 2 million tourists each year).

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything After living in the city that never sleeps. The stores open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 8:30 and close at 8 p.m. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. In bigger cities, there are more options.

1663At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open, hardly anybody works late. They go home to their families.

Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms or wild asparagus in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions DO work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws’ house for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait. And what is eating but an occasion to share a pleasure with friends and family?

1662I would like to say all this shows the French aren’t into mindless consumerism, but they have succumbed as much as anybody else. There are solderies selling the same cheap, cheaply made junk you find in the aisles of big-box stores elsewhere. The only difference is that homes here are smaller than in the U.S., which generally puts a cap on how much stuff can fit.

While I consider myself a city person, I have to admit there are some lovely qualities about French village life. There’s a softness to the people here. A niceness. Yes, I said it: French people are nice. Also a slowness, because why stress? There’s plenty of time. It’s definitely life in the slow lane.

Maybe I settled easily into my adopted country because its values appeal to me. Family first. Good public schools. Good health care for everybody. Clean environment. The system works pretty well and things are in pretty good shape. Competence and professionalism are rampant. When frustrations arise, they usually stem not from ineptness on the part of a bureaucrat or shopkeeper or customer service representative but from that person’s unbudging adherence to some set of rules that might make sense some or even most of the time but that allow for no exceptions. This becomes less surprising when you look at how French verbs are conjugated: there are general rules, and then not so much exceptions but ever-more-specific subsets of rules. No one-offs. The rules are written in stone.

RF
RF = République Française

This Gallic certitude, this ability–even penchant–to say non, is inextricable from the French savoir vivre, knowing how to live well. Some rules of French life:

  1. Everything should be made as beautiful as possible. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but aesthetics count, whether it’s how you dress or how you serve dinner or turning down the lights in the evening and lighting a candle for ambience.
  2. Take your time. The French won’t be rushed (maybe behind the wheel, but that’s a different story). Stop for a drink at a café with friends. Linger at dinner. Do your beauty routine.
  3. Smell the roses, literally. Use your senses to pull pleasure from every opportunity. The French are particularly strong in the taste department, but not limited to that.

museumOf course these things can be done anywhere. If you want to feel French this weekend, then put together a good meal of honest food–it doesn’t have to be fancy but it shouldn’t be heavily processed–and share it with some people you care about. Set a pretty table. Take your time to enjoy it all. Voilà!