Tuesday, June 8, 2010

knights of the beer pong table

When I come into the kitchen at 9am, there are four computer print-outs lying on the stainless steel countertop across from the sink (my sink, where I spend the morning washing breakfast dishes): the petit déjeuner list, where I keep track of which room has come to the table and which has not, the minibar checklists, morning and evening, and the rooming list, which lists that night’s coming clients, their assigned rooms, nationality, how much they are paying, and any special notes (generally this means allergies, extra pillow requests, or a special relation to Hugo Merliers). The rooming list is meant to notify the housekeeping staff of which rooms to make up that morning, but for me, it serves as a preview for the night’s events, particularly if it a weekend.

On last Friday’s rooming list, six of our ten rooms were to be single-person occupancy, reserved under the name of “Giraffe”. Their special commentary: Chapitre des Fleurs sur la Vigne, or the Chapter of the Flowering Vine. This seemed like an uncharacteristically poetic way for Madame Schmidt to describe what was going on with our surroundings (two clients arrived yesterday complaining that they hadn’t seen any vineyards on the drive. This is crazy, because the chateau is encompassed by vines, vines, vines as far as the eye can see, which are now indeed beginning to flower.). Maybe this was a group of wine journalists, or some sort of sex cult. You get all sorts in a 300 year old French chateau.

Inès shuffled into the kitchen as I was studying the rooming list.

“So who’s this special person coming today?” I asked. “This herd of giraffes? And why are you doing that?”

She was scraping bits of eggshell off of someone’s dirty breakfast plate into a plastic baggie. “It’s good for my roses,” she explained. “Mr. Giraffe, nice man.” She walked out of the kitchen.

“Okay.” I added eggshells to my mental list of all the items Inès saves from their dumpster-bound destinies: banana peels, coffee grounds, old slippers (for her dogs to chew on), bits of ham (for Teddy. But as she tells him in her best baby-doggie voice as she peels the fattiest strings off of the dish and drops them on a scrap of tin foil, it is Laura who will feed you later, not Inès, sorry, mama’s got things to do.).

I later ascertained from Joey that Mr. Giraffe was not a celebrity pseudonym as I’d assumed, but your run-of-the-mill British shipping insurance billionaire with a cartoon character’s surname. And it turned out that he and his five bachelor buddies were all members of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin: literally, the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Tasting Cup, whose internationally far-flung members are invited periodically throughout the year to meet at their “spiritual home”, the Chateau du Clos de l’Argot (another castle formerly owned by Cistercian monks, just a few kilometers from my own though much larger) for the invocation of knights-to-be and what is meant to be good spirited knightiness. These meetings are known as “Chapters”, and are given these half medievalish, half occult names, like the Chapter of the Flowering Vine, or better, the Chapitre of the Equinoxe in September and the Chapitre des Sarments et de l’Aventure (Vine Shoots and Adventure!) in July. Naturally, the official goings-on of the meetings are top secret, but what follows is always a Saturday night black-tie ball.

What is required of a person to receive invocation into the Knighthood? Well, as Thérèse responded, money, naturally, and an international reputation in wine making or wine buying or, it seems, wine drinking.

The Giraffe boys pulled up the Chateau in a mini bus in the early evening. Madame Schmidt pranced out to greet them. I stood by the front entrance as they all clambered out and began to unload their baggage.

I immediately recognized the Giraffe in the pack, for he was not only the one who had made the reservation, but unquestionably the alpha of the all-male group. While the others seemed to have only recently hit middle age, Mr. Giraffe appeared to be in his mid sixties, with long white hair and a steely knowing in his eyes. He assigned each man to one of six rooms, took the nicest for himself, and announced cocktails on the terrace at 6:30.

I was never entirely sure of the relationship between these men – some were American, some Canadian, one was Australian. I suppose the fast-wheeling wine world is a fairly elite fraternity. Surely, that must be why something as insane as the Knights of the Tasting Cup exists. But I began to imagine that the never-married Mr. Giraffe was seeking an heir to his vast fortune, and had selected these five candidates at a past Chapitre. Perhaps they had each received a wax-sealed envelope containing a plane ticket and few instructions. Dear Wine Enthusiast, Get to Dijon. Mini-bus and potential riches await you.

Cocktail hour turned out to be a magnum bottle of Grand Cru Champagne, which the men guzzled down in about 25 minutes. They then boarded the bus and were off by seven for dinner in Morey Saint Denis.

When turn-down time rolled around that night, Joey and I were pleased to find the six Giraffe rooms to be in virtually untouched condition: nary a pillow rumpled, nor one shower taken. Perhaps there was really something to this knighthood for lushes, I thought. These Chevaliers really are more respectful than the average hotel guest (if not necessarily hygienic).

I felt less sure of their chivalry the next morning, when I came upon the detritus of a bachelor party on the terrace: six enormous goblets tinted with a burgundy film, two empty magnums, three watery cocktail glasses, two ashtrays full of cigar cinders, and a candelabra shellacked in melted wax. This had to have taken place after I left work at 10pm, which surely meant that Joey had stayed well past his 3-11pm shift serving these fools. My heart ached for him and his newborn at home as I scooped a few of the glasses and headed to the kitchen.

So maybe these so-called knights weren’t in any kind of competition, other than some expensive variation of beer pong.

After most of them refused breakfast upon learning of its additional cost, the Giraffe boys set off early for a day of wine-tastings in Beaune. They returned that evening to prepare themselves for the ball, first with another round of magnum drinks, and then to zip into their tuxes, slick back their hair, and slip on their Tastevin medallions, which were literally gigantic sterling silver wine-tasting cups fixed to a ribbon. The badge of their knighthood. Downstairs, Madame Schmidt straightened their bowties and took pictures. The mini-bus purred in the driveway.

“How handsome they look!” Madame Schmidt cooed.

“Good evening, Laura,” Mr. Giraffe said, as he took my hand to kiss it. His breath reeked.

“This is just like prom!” another one of them remarked, without irony. Yes, it was. Except that they were already drunk.

The same knight then turned to me and asked if I wanted to be his prom date. “No, Cinderella can’t go the ball,” I said. “I have to stay and scrub the toilets.” Which was the truth, of course.

“Prince Charming will come and get you one day!” he called, staggering into the bus.

The sliding door slammed shut. I saluted these middle-aged men in tuxedos as they rolled off to their party.

The next morning found the same debris on the terrace, times two. Madame Schmidt told me they had returned with “outsiders” and kept her up until three in the morning. She mentioned something about a striptease.

And they had refused breakfast again. “We have enough croissants to feed a nation!” Inès grumbled in the kitchen. “What a waste!”

She proceeded to squirrel away the extra pastries in her handbag. Maybe not a waste after all.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Potential Employers Be Damned

The wine cellar at the Chateau closes around 6 or 6:30 pm, so that is usually when Madame Canneaux throttles through the door that adjoins the cave and the hotel office with a half-consumed 60-euro bottle of Grand Cru pinot noir.

“I have something very nice today!” she says to Joey and I, who are invariably sitting in the office around this time. “Who wants a little taste? Laura?”

Madame Canneaux is a sizeable lady, fond of fluorescent pantsuits, and is probably nearing 70. Dora-the-Explorer coloring-book pages filled in by her 5-year-old granddaughter adorn the walls in the wine cave reception. She has been the Chateau Hugo Merliers label representative for over three decades, proving the anti-oxident superpowers of red wine to be true.

Joey declines since he has to drive home, but I have a really hard time refusing her and her complementary offers of world-class red. Now Madame Canneaux has grown to count on me as solid aid in finishing off the day’s wine-tasting selection. It was only on the night that Thérèse was filling in for Joey that she reminded me that drinking on the job, even in Burgundy, even just a glass, is considered pretty awful form.

“So why does Madame Canneaux offer it?” I asked Thérèse, suddenly panicking about all the times Joey had rolled his eyes as I happily accepted a glass.

“She’s just a little bit… like that.”

I nodded. We stashed our 2008 Morey St. Denis behind the fax machine. When all the guests had left for dinner, Thérèse turned off all the lights and locked the door. We toasted.

So while I have to watch out for the Madame Schmidt and her morals/French workplace laws, Madame Canneaux relishes her role as temptress. I like it – a good witch-bad witch dynamic. One lives in a cheery reception filled with fresh tulip arrangements. The other lives in a cave dripping with booze.

But it was my benevolent boss, Madame Schmidt, who suggested yesterday that, to the end of furthering my Burgundian education, I tag along with some guests on a wine excursion led by a third-party private tour guide. No big deal that I was scheduled to wash dishes all morning. It was more important that I participate in what ended up being a three-part series of hour-long tastings at various domains all over the region.

“This is no factory, after all,” Madame Schmidt said as she waved me off around 9:30. “Have a nice time, dear.”

I skipped to the van. Oh, good-hearted Glinda! How could I even think for a moment that my allegiances lay with anyone else?

24 fine wines and one crème de cassis sampled, I returned late in the afternoon with red cheeks and a chatty disposition. I entered the office to thank Madame Schmidt, but found sitting in her place a smiley representative from the Dijon Tourism Board.

Amina and I quickly got to talking. Apparently she and the Madame were up to some kind of official business, but more importantly, I was American?! Amina loved Americans! How refreshing to hear, I said. We don’t have a very good reputation in the hotel industry. Oh, no! she insisted. Americans are my favorite clients in the tourism office! Amina, who was of Moroccan descent, had plenty of family in the States – all over the east coast, in fact. She loved it there, pointing out the American spirit of openness and our freedoms unknown to the rest of the world, such as Banana Republic.

As Amina was scribbling down her cell phone number and her family address in Marrakesh on the back of her card, Madame Schmidt walked in and gave me a squinty sort of look.

“For the next time I go to Morocco!” I said, holding up the card. I giggled.

I realized then to my horror that I was probably still feeling the effects of a six-hour wine excursion. I backed out of the office, promising Amina I would come to visit her in the tourism office soon, and escaped to the attic where I napped off my accidental AM binge until my 5 o’clock shift rolled around.

Then, as I was working away on the next day’s breakfast order from the bakery, Madame Canneaux busted in at 6:24. She had sold 120 bottles of wine to a group of Spaniards, and she wanted to celebrate.

“A little Echézaux 2007, Laura?” she said, in her sultry septagenarian way.

This time, I managed to just say no.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reborn on the Chateau

This morning I woke up in the blue box built into an attic that I am to inhabit for the next three months. Perhaps Madame Schmidt** deigned to paint it blue for the color’s soothing, mind-clearing properties, and out of the need for those properties in an isolated town of about 200 residents and no grocery store.

What I mean is that I feared I might go crazy here, and maybe other interns have, or maybe they haven’t, because their walls were painted blue.

It was really only yesterday that I realized that the next three months of my life are going to be defined by a routine so routine that I may have reason to fear the onset of insanity. I mean this in the best way possible, of course. I spent the last two months working in Paris, you see, and my new environment is about as far away from my old one as I could get. But since the way I stumbled upon this job was all rather fateful, I knew this new job would be a great (and very likely altering in ways I don't know yet) experience. And it will be, so long as I figure out ways to stay sane (I think this space is bound to be one).

But while I am still relatively lucid, let me recount my day yesterday as the new intern at the Chateau Hugo Merliers, a four-star hotel niched away off of one of the Burgundy wine trails, which exists in part to promote the very fine wine label of the same name. I arrived here from Paris almost one week ago.

It is around 7:30 that I wake up in my bitty blue room. The sun is up and shining through my singular, two-pane window, which is almost at floor level and dressed in curtains made of the lace that Madame Schmidt seems to prefer. Madame Schmidt, an ageless blonde originally from Germany with a predilection for doilies, is the director of the Chateau. It is her cavernous attic that she has partially walled off to create the two intern bedrooms (there is always an intern at the hotel and another working in the wine cave attached to the hotel), both painted the same pacific blue, adjoined by a small bathroom.

So when I exit my room, it is into the total darkness that you might expect in a gigantic attic space. I descend two flights of stairs ending in Madame Schmidt’s (and it is always Madame Schmidt, never Luise) foyer, go into and out of the garage, locking the massive door with a key attached to a tiny wooden wine bottle (this, like many things given to me by Madame Schmidt, is labeled with my name).

Standing on Rue St Denis, I am less than 25 seconds from my workplace. I turn the corner and walk about 30 meters to arrive at the Chateau’s regal wrought iron front gate. Even from the street, it is hard to distinguish Madame Schmidt’s house from the Chateau. And that’s appropriate, since she has told me time after time that she thinks of the place as her home.

“And that is why,” she says, “I like to see the edges aligned on my napkin stacks, and why and the salt and pepper shaker on the breakfast table must match. D’accord, ma grande?”

All right, big girl? There is always a playful little trill on these last few words.

And Madame is actually quite good-humored, even giggly, in her tiny German way. On the day I arrived, I left my toiletries in the trunk of Madame Canneaux’s (who runs the wine cave) car. The morning I was able to retrieve them, Madame Schmidt was thrilled.

“Oh how pretty you are now!” she said. “You found all of your things? Your hair brush too? It’s a good thing since I only like good-smelling people.”

But, anyways, my workday starts in the kitchen at 9 am, where the service of the petit dejeuner is in full procedure. Inès is the master of ceremonies in the kitchen realm, and has clearly been working miracles in that space for years uncountable. She is tiny (everyone is tiny), dark haired, and slightly hunch-backed. She likes to hack her throat when she’s irritated, which is fairly often, as it is she who takes the drink orders, she who cooks and serves the omelettes, she who loads the dishwasher and froths the milk and grinds the citrus and mops the floor.

Or at least she was all of those things until I arrived to help out a bit. Since I have not yet been deemed worthy of serving the clientele (this is a level of honor which takes at least one month in service to reach), my duties in the kitchen are basically limited to dishwashing, clearing the grand breakfast table of dirty dishes, and then more dishwashing. Although I have also insisted on making a few café au laits, and yesterday, Inès asked me to scramble a single egg for a small child. I think she likes me.

Freedom from the kitchen comes around 1 pm, which means lunchtime for the entire kitchen staff, and we all defrost our Tupperware from the staff refrigerator and sit down at the kitchen table (“we” includes Inès, Thérèse the receptionist, Sophie the 21 year old maid, and Monsieur Thibaut, who is a kind of rolling stone in his late 50s who moves around France from seasonal job to seasonal job. Last night he returned from his day off quite drunk and regaled me with his life philosophy [When a door is shut, don’t force it. When a door is open, enter. A wise Jew once told him this, he pointed out. And furthermore, everything you need to know is in your head, not in books]. He inhabits the other intern attic room since the wine intern commutes from her flat in Dijon). The staff is also entitled to whatever is leftover from breakfast, including the breads, cheeses, hams, fruits, juices, coffee, and so on – all of excellent quality (everything that is saveable is saved here, something I am really delighted about and proud of. We only throw away that which has been touched to somebody’s mouth, and even then sometimes Madame Schmidt will save scraps for her tiny dog Teddy).

I mostly sit and listen to everyone talk. People gossip and complain and laugh and talk about the infuriating washing machine and how long it takes them to smoke cigarettes (Monsieur Thibaut smokes his in less than one minute flat, otherwise he will get too relaxed and it will be impossible to return to work). One lunch I told them how that in Russia the cigarettes are made shorter and with more intense tobacco so that people can be outside in the freezing cold with their cigarettes for a shorter amount of time. Thérèse laughed at that. She seems to be Madame Schmidt ’s protégé, and it’s been hard to get a read on both of them. Almost everyone here speaks to me like a child, which is annoying, and endearing only in the case of Madame Schmidt . Probably because I am new and relatively very young and my French is very imperfect and some days it is even bad.

Yep, seven months in France, and some days I cannot manage to pronounce the word for doctor. Frustrating. But unless I am chatting up American guests or teaching swearwords to Joey, the 30-year-old night receptionist who is soon to be a dad, I speak virtually zero English here. This is by far the most immersive environment I have been in the past year, so I think these last three months in France are going to bring me as close to fluency as I could have hoped for anywhere.

I have several hours to kill between lunch and my PM shift, and I have been going for runs. On Wednesday, the sky was cloudy as it had rained that morning, and air was cold. The mountainside was saturated and exploding with wildflowers and new grass. I hiked up one side of the mountain valley and ran along the perimeter at the top. I came down the other side and, as I was running through a wide clearing in the mossy trees, I came upon a chapel. It was encrusted in the forest that surrounded it, covered in fungus and vines and other wet stuff. The door was made of aluminium and its edges were rusting. I looked inside through the punched-out window in the shape of a cross and saw names in marble, and fresh flowers.

As it was nearing 4 pm (I go back on the job around 5), it was time to return to the Chateau. I walked down the spiral steps leading up to the chapel and turned around and took a good look at the thing, with its tiled roof and rusting cross, slowly disappearing into the rain-soaked forest. It was then that I realized that I am probably the hapless heroine of some dark French fairy tale set in a 300-year-old chateau. This explains why Madame Schmidt seems to be immortal, how Inès is likely a kind-hearted witch, and why I live in an attic.

So maybe the inevitable craziness à la Jack Nicholson/The Shining is merely a part of the twisted plot, narrated by Teddy... or something. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I have my PM duties to attend to. Must go place chocolates on pillows and clean bathtubs and sit with my book in the wood-panelled office covered in photos of Mr. Merliers standing with Zsazsa Gabor and the Reagans and various Swiss officiaries. More to come then, and photos too.

**all names have been changed

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Peace Making

It just happened again. I am sitting aboard a high speed TGV bound for Paris, and my train has just passed another, both at pushing on at however many hundreds of miles per hour. When this happens you can feel the force of the other train whipping against your window, the glass vibrates, the entire cabin shakes with a violent doomsday rumble, and it seems certain that your train is about to lose this intra-track confrontation. I can’t help but a give a little gasp at this great crash of intangible forces.

Somehow, the SNCF engineers measured just the right track-width that is necessary for a scrape-free train ride. Still, every time, I am rather astonished to have survived.

I skipped class this morning. French class. I had too much to get done before my 1 pm departure for Paris with my group of Americans. When we all convened at the train station, my classmate Andrew told me that our language instructor Dominique had gotten “a little hot under the collar” today, when the pair of Swedish girls in our class had a side conversation a little too loudly in their native language. “He was like ‘Speak French!!’ Andrew said. “’You don’t speak French, you don’t do your work, you never show up on time, I am not sure how you ever expect to learn what you all came here to learn!’”

This made me feel kind of bad about cutting his class, and it is fair of Dominqiue to say. Language instruction at the Centre Universitaire des Études Françaises (CUEF, as we all fondly call it) may be one of the more unforgiving jobs a person could have, something akin to forcing middle schoolers to write resumés or climb poles or anything else that would only inspire resentment and unwillingness in their little souls.

I guess the CUEF kind of takes the opposite approach to teaching, but with the same result: extremely low level instruction as well as expectations of the students. So it was not entirely fair of Dominique to put all the blame on his students. In the CUEF, there is no incentive to do homework, since we go through it every single day step by step, and since we have never had an exam. In the CUEF, we are assigned one “devoir” every two weeks, a 500 to 600-word composition on any variety of subjects, such as “The History of the Sorbonne”, “Using all forms of the passé, write about a fond childhood memory”, “If the earth wasn’t already threatened by global warming, how else might all humans meet a collective/horrific end?” Also, “Write an appraisal of French higher education.” Eek. And, class is at 8:30 in the morning. You can’t help thinking to yourself that your morning would be better spent watching the puppet news channel and letting linguistic osmosis do its thing.

However, what keeps me going to the CUEF (at least most days) is the class themselves. The students consists of me and four other Americans, Melissa and Lena, two South American teenaged girls, aspiring translator Tomo from Japan, Dong and Shan from China, Inga and Louise from Sweden, posh red finger-nailed Fatima from Madrid, an older woman from Kazakhstan who is married to a French man and lives in Grenoble, and an El Salvadorian ex-pat kid who drops in every few weeks.

And when we are not reviewing the usage of “tout” as an adverb versus an adjective, Dominique often distributes photocopies of French op-eds columns clipped from Le Monde and Politique Internationale. We read the French perspective on all sorts of contemporary issues: global warming, genetic engineering, women’s reproductive rights, nuclear weapons, the role of the internet and its effects on culture, the rising cost of higher education.

And then we discuss these issues. Heatedly. Often as representatives of our native nation’s stance. Does global warming exist? Not if you are a governmentally-loyal Chinese citizen like Dong, according to whom, these 75 degree November days we are having here in the Alpine capital are but little teasers for the naturally-occurring coming climactic epoch. Some Americans think that the 2000 presidential elections were problematic. In Ecuador, according to Lena, governmental corruption is so widespread and accepted that the Constitution has been changed eleven times since its first publication. Most recently for the current president to extend his time in office. In Colombia there is only one news channel, the one approved by the government. Money talk: the class was appalled by us Americans and our horrific tales of college tuition (which, even at the public level, is frightening in comparison to the few hundred dollars (max!) the rest of the world pays per semester). We felt a little better when we heard from Tomo that Japanese medical students pay upwards of one million dollars to get through school. Until afterwards, when we did the math and realized it’s not much different in the US.

It can all feel sort of like a high school Model UN Club -- only way better, with real international people representing their countries.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a couple of French language professors from North Korea sitting in on our class, taking notes on the CUEF pedagogy. They wore their flag pinned to their lapels. One of them took diligent notes on a legal pad throughout the class. But as Dominique lectured about the subjunctive, I watched the other one as he struggled to keep his eyes open. He eventually succumbed to the drone of Dominique’s voice and fell asleep, his face cradled in his propped-up hand with the first two fingers slightly fanned out in order to veil his shut eyes. Brilliant. To Dominique, he might have appeared to be deep in subjunctive-related reflection.

Friends, what I just described is precisely my own classroom slumber technique. Sure, it was only a few days before that our class had discussed human rights issues concerning nuclear weapons. But what can I say. Skipping class may be a lot more conducive to my French language scholarship, but how else would I ever IN MY LIFE discover that I share something so fundamental (or anything at all) with a middle-aged, red-star sporting North Korean French professor?

So thank you, CUEF. You held my hand as I made one infinitesimal step towards world peace.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Doing Dishes

My host mom Claudie works as a middle school art teacher four days a week, has two kids to raise pretty much by herself, cooks dinner every single night without fail, does the laundry for herself and four others, cleans the house, pays the bills, and has never once asked for my help, other than to please put the sheets in the washing machine if I would like them washed.

I have done the dishes every night in this house since the first dinner I shared with my host family. The dishwasher was broken since the day I got here. So, giving the tableware a hearty manual scrub has been my way of saying a meager thanks, of removing one unappetizing obligation from Claudie’s stacked agenda, and above all, of staying on her good side.

Because it’s pretty easy to blunder about in this tiny house of five. Let’s see: I’ve leaked permanent ink onto my pretty pink bedspread, I flooded the bathroom the first time I showered with the detachable showerhead (apparently bewildering to me), I’ve left lights on, I’ve tracked rain and scum into the house, I’ve misplaced all sorts of household items, I’ve left my heater on with a cracked window (although to be fair I did not how to completely shut off the heater at the time).

Claudie leaves little notes for me every time I make these petits bêtises: a post-it note on my door, a message scrawled on the chalkboard in the kitchen, or non-written communications, like a closed window in my room that I did not shut, or my toothpaste placed quietly in the cup with the toothbrushes instead of on the windowsill. Duh. Or a vacuum, awaiting me in earnest at the top of the stairs.

I don’t think I am doing that badly as a guest in this house, though. I should make that clear. Like I say, it’s a small house, we are five people, and so there is simply not a lot of room for my silly gaffes. Thus, to maintain an even score with my host mom, I wash the dishes.

So what started as a polite gesture is now the household ritual. My Canadian brother dries. And, Claudie has said, we win points for being the first North Americans to do so.

Claudie has been talking about getting the dishwasher fixed since the first night I took up the task (note: just now, I forgot the dishwasher. I could only remember la vaisselle. It took at least ten seconds to summon the English word from the dusty files of my English linguistic storage. Linguistic regression is going smoothly I see). Or really more like threatening to get it fixed. Threatening to slash my enormous handicap in this game of household mini golf, or something, if I knew what a handicap was.

“One of these days I’ll get running again,” she’s always saying, as I hand off a sparkling salad bowl for her to put away inside some hidden dish stash. This makes me nervous. I laugh nervously. “Ha ha ha! But you have me! Ha ha ha!”

To which she always shakes her head and says, “But Laura, not forever.”

This dishwashing gig is how I know (or like to think) I am at least being tolerated in this household. My raw hands are how I counterbalance the ink-stains and the wet floors.

So when evil arrived at this house, it came dressed as the French version of the Maytag Man. Yes, I came home from class sometime last week to discover a strange mustachioed man in the kitchen, tinkering with the backside of a gleaming new dishwasher. Claudie hovered over him, with a brimming smile on her face, apparently overjoyed that the day had at last arrived. I shook the man’s hand. “Merci,” I said, but inside I cursed him and his craft. Now I would have to actually start being a respectful host student, rather than one desperate to please.

The machine ran beautifully, and I was out of a job. I would hurry to class in the mornings, distract myself in my studies from the sudden instability of my home life, and on the way home I would consider purchasing flowers on the way home, chocolate, tea, anything to delight the host mom.

Of course, I hadn’t done anything wrong. And it is not actually that often that I mess up. It’s just that I have ultimate respect for Claudie, and want to avoid as much as possible the chance of her thinking me lazy or inconsiderate or particularly reflective of any American stereotype. As the ninth or tenth host student to have lived with her family in the Treehouse garret, I would sure like to make a good impression. And then, I kind of do want to stay here forever, doing the dishes, eating chestnuts by the fire, discovering that Césare had been using my toothbrush for an unknown duration of time. All of which has happened. It’s idyllic (seriously).

Two days ago I came home to find that the brand-new dishwasher had stopped working. “I have some luck,” Claudie said. I made a sad face. “Mon retour!” I said. "Ha ha ha!" Internally I rejoiced, and also felt badly about the curse I’d laid upon the repairman’s head. I wish him the best in Grenoble households that actually need their appliances. But so long as I am here, he is not welcome in my Treehouse.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Secondary Language Acquisition

Here is my excuse for having neglected the blog one month: as my French slowly improves, my ability to speak English is falling apart.

For example. Due to a number of weird complications at Wesleyan, I am taking a literature class taught in English (my fifth class, in addition to the other four, all of which are taught in French). A major facet of French education is the exposé orale, a rigidly structured and tightly argued commentary on one or two pages of text, to be presented orally in class. In this literature class (a first-year graduate level Brit Lit seminar, entitled The Postmodern Novel), one student is assigned to present each week on some tiny piece of text, and because I thought the professor might take pity on me and my grade if I went first, I volunteered to expose the first two pages of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ feminist re-writing of Jane Eyre.

And while I am pretty sure that I sucked every drop of analyzable content out of five short paragraphs of text, I found myself stumbling through my presentation, constructing my sentences unnaturally, half in attempt to use simplified vocabulary (my classmates are all French, although actually most of them speak impeccable English, certainly better than I will speak it by the end of this year), actively thinking about the words I selected and inserting little meaningless academic phrases here and there, almost to stall for time to think.

I remind you that this presentation was in English. Maybe my non-eloquence, which was at once bumbling and robotic, can be attributed to my poor public speaking skills, but I actually wasn’t that nervous. Yes, I can only conclude that I’m forgetting how to speak English, little by little, the better and better I get at French. So excuse me if the quality of my writing in the blog similarly declines over the course of the year, in a kind of tragic Flowers for Algernon fashion.

But all is well that ends well, for after stumbling through twenty minutes of “Infamous Mother: The Tri-Fold Dispossession of Identity in Annette Cosway” (side note: I don’t really think they “do” academic titles here the they do in the States. An English teacher in high school once told me that every title to every paper must have three parts: the sexy part, a colon, and then the boring stuff. I’ve taken that to heart ever since, and no French standards are gonna stop me), two students approached me and invited me to go out with them that night.

These kids happened to be the two I had been secretly admiring from day one of class: Marilyn, eloquent and outspoken feminist, she with wrestling boots and four dazzling tiny piercings shooting out like a comet’s tail along her right brow, and Florian, the first true anglophile I have ever met, perfectly fluent, and with such a flawless accent that I had been surprised and a little relieved when he spoke on the first day of class, thinking that there was another American among the ranks.

Fortunately he’s not, because I have already many wonderful American friends in my life. Both Florian and Marilyn are native Grenoblois. I was blown away by how friendly they were to me, inarticulate American undergrad baby that I am. On the train ride home I stared, astonished and grateful, at the first French person’s phonebook entry in my cell phone. Because that’s what you dream of happening your whole life, from the first day of middle school onwards. You hope the cool kids will come say hi because you’re too shy to do it. Wow. Obviously I still can’t really believe my luck.

It turned out that Flo and his two roommates live blocks away from the Tree House, so I was at their apartment last night minutes after receiving a phone call from Flo. He said he had finished his chicken curry and was now on to a bottle of red wine from a vineyard of the same name as his own family. Being the perennial recipient of “Bliss”-related items (chocolate candies, limited edition Special K bars, Joseph Campbell paraphernalia, designer drugs, so on), I had a good feeling about this kid from the start.

[In fact, just in the past five minutes, Florian and Marilyn have invited me over for a movie (“in French”, he notes) and apple muffins contained “in a cute basket”. I will take muffins as confirmation that we all got along terrifically last night. A night worthy of muffins. Yes.]

I discovered that Florian had spent several years abroad in first Indiana and then in Ottowa, and his roommates had been abroad as well: Béné in Birmingham, England and Antoine in Galway, Ireland. It was too cute: the three native Grenoblois chattering away in English, one like an American, another like a Brit and the other like the Irish, but of all of them with French accents of various weights.

I’m sure I thoroughly embarrassed myself by how I beamed and smiled the whole night long, overjoyed and still astonished to be in their company. These kids are only a couple of years older than I, were bilingual at the least, and doing their masters in either English literature or linguistics. They are perfect, I thought, perfect subjects for my weird little linguistic theories and experiments. Ha, no, kidding. Perfect friends! After more than six weeks in France, there is at last the potential for befriending the natives. Praise The Postmodern Novel. Praise orale exposés. The five of us became thoroughly inebriated at a place where everybody knew their names, and all exchanged numbers and the names of their favorite British modernist authors.

Miracle upon miracle was yesterday night.

And difficult it has been (until now) to wrangle the French into being interested in me, a bumbling wide-eyed American girl, it’s been just as easy to lose contact with the outside world: my friends from home, from Wesleyan, from Idyllwild. Despite the existence of Facebook and Skype and Gmail, I have managed to have not spoken to my best friend, who is in Dublin for the year, beyond a couple of emails.

It can be a little scary how far away I feel from most of the people I know in my life; even if they happen to be on this continent, it is quite wholly consuming to be in a foreign land, to be virtually starting your life over in another language. I’ve got about 20 hours of class per week (at Wesleyan I think my max was 15), I am dancing two nights a week, plenty to read and do for school, a brand-new family and brand-new family rules and expectations to live with, French bureaucracy to assuage. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but it is quite enough to take your mind away from the Folks Back Home. The more intently I live my life here, the further the US floats off into the distance.

I hoped the world would feel a little bit smaller when I went to Yom Kippur services at the synagogue in Grenoble. In Hebrew School they always told us to visit the synagogue in whatever foreign countries we were sure to find ourselves later in life, because, they said, it is among Jews that you can always count on feeling at home in the world. But I didn’t really; Alex and I were thoroughly searched by security before we could enter, and I felt further marginalized as a female, all the way in the back of the segregated seating.

I guess the world does not feel small when you expect it to. It feels small whenever its potential for chance encounters exceeds all your expectations.

I saw Kyle Lafferty this past weekend in Paris, and that made the world feel small. Kyle, who I have known since elementary school, the kid who threw tantrums on the handball court and placed tacks beneath our classmate’s unsuspecting little bums. The kid who teased the underlings (me) on the bus… in high school. Now we’re both at East Coast schools, and he is spending the fall in Paris. And our gigantic worlds collided, by chance, at a bar in the Oberkampf. And everything felt suddenly a lot smaller. A ripple of melancholy passed through me sitting across from Kyle at the table, watching him chatter away in English about his sexual irresistibility to French women. Even in a city of two million faces unknown to me, I guess life really never stops being high school.

Kyle and I had actually taken French together, which started me thinking about Ms. Roy. Ms. Roy, my ninth grade (and first) French teacher, whose actual job it was to teach algebra, and probably other forms of mathematics I never bothered to discover.

Ms. Roy was the vision of an embattled pro-gardener, tragically misplaced above-ground in the only two-story building on campus. She wore plastic clogs with cleats on the bottom to class, usually kept her wizardly grey hair in a mass on top of her head, and was unusually ripped for a female high school teacher well into her forties. And Ms. Roy was bitter.

There was only one true French teacher on the Cleveland High School campus during my time. That was Madame Burri, who is likely still there, and to whose antics I was fortuitously subjugated for another two years. But I suppose there were just too many of us poor fools clamoring to take French I when I got to high school, so the powers-that-were selected/blackmailed Ms. Roy to teach the overflow from Burri’s class.

It is difficult to imagine that Ms. Roy was the second-best speaker of French among the Cleveland faculty. She was my teacher for my first year of language, but even to my virgin ears, I could tell then that Ms. Roy’s French accent was no more convincing than, say, Nicholas Cage’s in any film he’s ever been in, or Hillary Clinton’s in Alabama. But unlike them, Ms. Roy wasn’t even trying to speak (or really teach) a language that she ostensibly knew.

It is unfortunately true that a disproportionate amount of public high school teachers are disgruntled and apathetic (for a lot of reasons, including underfunding, political climate, etc etc), but Ms. Roy was a special case. Now that I am here in this country, thinking about my own trajectory with language and those of the other students I’ve met (some of whom talk about teaching later in life),and Kyle Lafferty, I wonder now how she ended up as the math teacher who teaches French, and so resentful of her lot that she would distribute copies of Madame Burri’s French I lesson plans as our test preparation.

I imagine Ms. Roy fresh out of college, propelled by two things inside her: a vague terror of the future, and the most urgent need for momentum, or the most momentous feeling of urgency, or something. She had to move, she had to see. I think that all of these feelings are endemic to people in their twenties. So maybe Ms. Roy ran off to Paris that summer to teach English and improve her French, and it was at the English language summer school that she met Astrid, broad-nosed dark-haired Astrid from Toulouse, who one day came in to the teacher’s lounge at the English language school with a handful of brochures advertising an expatriate support group because though she was French, it was her job to hand out these brochures, and Ms. Roy loved her immediately and said then and there that she was never coming back to the states.

And maybe for awhile she didn’t come back, but instead persuaded the English-language school to let her stay on as a receptionist and to pay her under the table, instead babysat the eight-year-old boy and his baby sister who lived on the floor below her and Astrid’s apartment in the Oberkamf, and was happy for a year and four months before some other crisis of urgency and momentum befell young Ms. Roy. Possessed by some new and alarming feeling of reality impinging upon her dream world of love and bread and tax evasion, she hopped a plane home-bound for Richmond and hastily picked up a teaching license, all too quickly to think about any and all of it. She’d majored in Math at UVA, but now she pretty much knew French, and also how to teach a language, so why not go for the double license?

After all, she thought to herself, math and language aren’t so different after all.

Yes indeed. Not so different at all. That’s why it is so difficult to learn a second language after age 12 or 14 or at whatever age it is when your brain suddenly transforms from an eager and smiley pile of clay into a self-destructive separatist drunk. You are sixteen, and vital brain cells are already suffocating in droves. This Head’s for English Only!, reads the sign stuck on the wilting front lawn of my twenty-year-old prefrontal cortex. Nothing New Comes This Way! Ever!

Goddamn French In Particular.

Uh, yes. What I mean to say is that I have found that forcing grammatical constructions and conjugational tables into your mind is like hearing the times-tables or any basic principle of arithmetic one million times and never, ever understanding. In fifth grade, Ms. Denon pulled me aside just as everyone left for recess and sat me down and said, “You don’t really understand long division, do you?” No, duh, I didn’t. Second languages are just like that: Without implicit meaning, and also replete with the potential for humiliation.

Without meaning. For example: I have been in France for almost six weeks (!!) and I have had six years of French. I don’t think that I am actively translating into English every word spoken in French that passes through my brain. It feels like I understand and register and respond to the French itself, in real time. But when I think back to a conversation, I without fail remember it as having happened in English. The simplest exchanges, too. When I think upon the memory of Claudie telling me to tell Sam he can eat dinner with the family on Thursday, the video playing in my brain seems to be dubbed in English. That is, I remember Claudie as having said those words in English, although of course she communicates to me in French.

So what does all of this mean? Well, I understand (a decent amount of) French words, but I don’t “know” them yet. I haven’t absorbed French to the extent that it has any isolated meaning; that is, isolated from English translation. Without any sort of permission from the management, my brain is storing these memories in the English section of the video store. I wish it would stop.

Is that what fluency is? When my subconscious stops with the translating? When I dream in French, as Alex has suggested? The two seem like they could be related. When I completely stop being able to produce a sentence in English?

Wherever it is, I am far away from the place called Fluency. If nothing else, that’s what my dubbed memories mean. Language is like math, and learning language is akin to sitting through the same algebra class for years and years and never really quite getting it. Both are infinite lists of formulas that the majority of the world is not inclined to understand beyond the stuff they were raised on. Just like I learned English by osmosis (and like how English words themselves seem to hold meaning without translation), I understand on an unconscious level that one orange and four apples make five pieces of fruit. But long division, not to mention quadratic polynomials, is more complicated. So is the concept of the future anterior.

Sam, my Canadian brother (from Toronto, passionate econ major at UW Madison, studying in Grenoble like me, and moved in with the Beautiful Family about a week after I did), gets excited about the prospect of perfect math. Little by little, he says, with every mathematical equation they discover, mathematicians and economists are uncovering the glittering truth of the world. And humanity. “Not many people get excited about this, I know,” he said the other night, as we stood waiting for the C train. “But when we discover the last equation, the final variable in the solution, the world will be a perfect machine. That’s my dream – in my lifetime, I want to see the perfect machine. Humans will be understood and humans will understand. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful.”

Maybe this explains people like Ms. Roy, those hybrid mathematician/language-lovers. Those people who see the connection between the two disciplines. Perhaps Ms. Roy was once a mathematic idealist like Sam, but when the veil never slipped and the letters from Astrid stopped coming she became disillusioned with numbers and words alike. Soon she resented teaching both, and the naïve idealism of her students. She took to gardening, because there is something true and real: you plant a seed and work the ground and you’ve made something to admire and hold in your hand and smell and even eat.

As I have said before, my decision to come here for a year was the result of a birthday panic, something like a quarter-life-crisis. So I know a little about the coldsweated crises endemic to people in their twenties, like the one I imagine Ms. Roy as having had. I have no idea if she really had one, or if there was an Astrid (Ms. Roy is mostly a fictionalization, names have been changed, so on and so forth. Blogging is weird). But now that I am here in this country, here as a product of the one million strange and mysterious and very fortunate circumstances that have yielded my life at this second, it seems to me that something will come, must come, of my here-ness later in life. The trajectory of Ms. Roy (who is no longer at Cleveland, actually, according to the school’s website) could be one direction out of this year. But there are infinite other routes, and that’s what makes it so exciting to be here, to have made this leap. To be invited for muffins across the street on a Wednesday night... in French.

Imaginary readers, please excuse my mental wanderings. It’s late and I’m having the time of my life. More and also sensible updates are on the way.


cesare and celestine go hand to footpup in the ochre. roussillon, provence
the man at the carillons. annecy
la basilique de la visitation, annecy

andrew on the lake, aix-les-bains

lavender fields in the morning. mas pantai provence
gaul wall. gordes, provence
young babe in the ochre, roussillon, provence


just, you know, a waterfall in the alps. on a hike with sam, the second half of which included me lost in the mountains, weeping in the rain, barely choking out desperate BONJOURRRRs for human aid. eventually i encountered a group of preschoolers and made it home with their help. thanks guys!!!
mhm. even though there are signs i managed to be lost for many hours.in the nude, in the glass. la sainte chappelle, paris
spencer and friend on the metro, paris. notice grotesque ad for english lessons
building dimensions circa 1148. abbaye de sénanque, provence!
sam takes a stretch at the ferme
mr. cheval on his mountain farm
so much beauty in this land
alex in the vineyard... provence