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 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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Le Plus Bleu Bleu

(le plus bleu bleu)

There was talk among the American kids to go to Lyon this past weekend, but as an ever-sandy child of the California coast, I pushed for Marseille. Saturday was forecasted to be the last sunny day that France would see for basically eternity. I managed to drag a couple of new buddies along: Alex, Zoe, and Darcy.

Zoe and Darcy!

Because I was asleep for the duration of the journey, the 6:38 am train from Grenoble to Marseille was quick and pain-free, and COULD have been money-free, since not one soul came by to check our train tickets.

We arrived in Marseille around noon, and scampered out of the station like grunions to the sea.

Alex scampers!

I maybe should have done some prior research about Marseille, beyond discovering its gastronomic specialties (Pastis! Bouillabaisse! Aioli!), because the beach was not actually across the street from the train station as I had imagined it to be. Zoe and Darcy were on a different train that arrived later, so Alex and I embarked on what ended up being a three-hour hunt for la plage. We began near the station, in the part of the city which looked a lot like Grenoble, and I guess a lot of other mid-sized European cities: a mélange of old cathedrals, hyper efficient Le Courbusier modernism, and typically French white-washed apartments with tall dark shutters and red-tiled roofs laced with iron moldings. All very charming, and appropriately smelling of fish!

The non-famous cathedral in Marseille.

After meeting up with the girls and another two hours of marching, we made it past the touristy Vieux Port and to the beaches. There, Marseille turned into this pseudo-Miami Beach-fantasyland with sleek resorts, topless babes, and enormous 18 Euro cocktails served at low-slung outdoor bars with purple-cushioned chairs with names like “Equinox” and “La Dolce Vita”. We passed these up in favor of a well-deserve collapse on a pebbled beach, although later that evening Alex and I set fire to potential retirement funds towards “La Planète Bleue”, a gin and citrus monstrosity with a blue raspberry-colored solid ball of ice upheld by pineapple slices positioned firmly on the rim of a glass that I can describe only as a chalice. All covered in silk flowers.

All of this Spring Break-ery was pretty unsettling contrasted with the amount homeless people I saw roaming the busy main drags, far more than I’ve seen in Grenoble. They were mostly Maghreb women, many with babies in their arms. Apparently, the unemployment rate in Marseille is considerably higher than the national average. And, since it is the largest port city on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille has historically attracted waves of immigrants from North Africa. For that same reason, it also remains a center for commercial freight and transport. AND for ultra-wealthy American and European vacationers.

Marseille seemed to be full of these uneasy contrasts. We could kind of feel it in the air. There was, however, a spectacular crimson sunset that night.

La Grande Roue

We had a slow start on Sunday afternoon, but managed to squeeze in a cheerful repas of the worst bouillabaisse in Marseille. I suppose bouillabaisse is the sort of thing you want to pay real money for, and not as part of an astonishingly inexpensive 15 euro fixed menu (which is what we did). Because, as we later learned, the Marseillain seafood delicacy originated as a fisherman’s stew, comprised of all the pele-mele parts of the catch in which discerning fish buyers were uninterested. Our soup lived up to its humble beginnings (although the chef did include an apparently decorative crab perched whimsically on a mussel shell. The crab later made a dramatic flight across the table when our waiter cleared the dishes. Highlight of brunch).

A Melancholy Meal

I keep telling people in emails that I “sailed” to the Chateau d’If later that day. So, I did not “sail” per se; I actually paid ten euros for a plastic seat aboard a fully motorized, 196-person capacity shuttle boat replete with other tourists. But “sail” does better justice to how glam and daring I felt aboard the Edmond Dantès as I leaned devil-may-care over the gigantic bow. Of course, I was wearing my uniform of filthy denim cutoffs and purple backpack, but with the wind whipping my hair and turquoise flecks of the French Mediterranean splashing up from our wake, I was jet-setting European nobility sailing on a private schooner. Then I felt a firm tap on my imagined golden euro-shoulder, and a petty officer on the Frioul-If Express asked me nicely to please get down from there.

Marseille, in the wake of my fantasies

He probably wasn’t a petty officer, because I don’t even know what that means. As you can see, riding around the French Riviera in a boat fills me with fanciful delusions of both worldliness and intelligence. On the boat-ride back to Marseille, I substituted the first daydream for another: I was the Indian rhinoceros who, in 1515, wisely jumped off a Portuguese ship bound for the Vatican City, where the Pope was intended to receive the rhino as a gift. The rhino, aka me, washed ashore at the Chateau d’If (which is a lot better known as the setting of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo). There, you can now purchase postcards bearing Albrecht Dürer’s famous/fantasy-inspiring woodcut of the very same odd-toed ungulate.

The very same odd-toed ungulate. True story, by the way

I am now wondering what these maritime fantasies reveal about my personality. I invite all theories.

So after something like four consecutive euro-sapping dinners eaten out, I had practically forgotten what Claudie (it was only yesterday that she corrected me – I have idiotically been calling her Claudine for two weeks) and the kids looked like. By which I mean, I couldn't remember if Celestine usually parts her luscious French locks to the left or to the right. I was glad to return to my Unforgettably Beautiful French Family and my homey garret/triangular tree house of a room.

My triangular tree house garret

Right now I am at the dining room table, working on an assignment for my French language class: 400 words in the various forms of the passé about a fond childhood memory. I am writing about the risks of raising baby chicks (they will only betray you later in life, as I experienced in a traumatic and bloody incident at a tragically young age. Naturally, it is a feminist allegory, though I suspect my professor doesn't really understand my subtle genius).

My French academic life is about to transition from funny baby haha school to Incredibly-Demanding-And-Still-In-A-Language-You-Don’t-Know-School. For example, I have a long and serious paper on Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or which is due this Friday. In French. Yes. So, for now, I am indulging myself in the joys of the good ol' passé compose and basic farming vocabulary. Which is, of course, what my chicken paper actually is.

Célestine is also at the table, working diligently on a (school-assigned?!) drawing of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni boarding an airplane. Claudie just put the kettle on the stove and Bob Marley on the stereo. Much of the music French people listen to is in English, and so, much of what French people sing to themselves while they chop zucchini or boil water is sung in really cute phonetic English. Claudie is singing along now as she dips a tea strainer full of Earl Grey into her mug: “Leht’s! Geht! Too gezzah and feeeel ahhhh rrrightt!”

It is the most absurdly perfect soundtrack to the first rainy afternoon of many. In fact, it is still awfully surreal that I am here at all. And I feel incredibly lucky that I am.

Amen to that

Friday, September 11, 2009

22 Euros of Disposable Camera Photos

American buddies on the Bastille
Sequoias in the Botanical Gardens.. lil piece o' home
French people in a park
One of a million Farmer's Markets on Saturday. This one was below the tram
Le Marche aux Pouces (sunday flea market)
View of Grenoble from the Bastille
....the quesadilla wasn't bad
Diggin' France

Sunday, September 6, 2009

La Première Semaine!

So, here I am: out in the big world, with not a single familiar soul at my side, getting lost in a new city and a new language, and eating unprecedented quantities of cheese.

As of exactly one week ago, I have embarked on the requisite American junior-year-of-college-abroad experience. Mine is in Grenoble, the cheery little city in the southeast of France, famous for its walnuts, the 1968 Winter Olympics it hosted, and for being the flattest city in Europe, in spite of its proximity to the French Alps.

I didn’t exactly prepare to come here. If little boys are made frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, my decision to come to France was made of something like caprice and irresponsibility. For example, I don’t exactly know how I am going to finish my bachelor’s degree, considering that I am a declared English major at Wesleyan University. Unsurprisingly, I am not going to be racking up credits in that department here. Also, I am cruising off my savings, given that I cannot legally take up employment while I am here. Plus, the obvious question remains: why wouldn’t I go to China and learn Mandarin or Mexico to learn Spanish or something practical, for god’s sake?

And beyond that, I had less than 48 hours at home in Los Angeles in between the end of my counseling gig at Idyllwild Arts and my flight's departure. There was no time to dwell on the events of a momentous summer, no time to listen to the Beach Boys and weep for the beloved California I left behind.

But gosh dang it, in spite of all the youthful whim and impracticality and disinterest in financial security, I went. I went to learn French, to get lost by myself in the world, to be completely uncomfortable, and to live in a beautiful place. To do things that you can probably only do when you're twenty. And somehow, so far, it's worked.

I spent one full day packing my suitcase with the aid of space-station-ready vacuum sacs (to the brink. 49 ½ pounds, adoring public! Laura Bliss incurs no extra airline fees), passed a 10-hour flight with a well-meaning Nigerian man with a penchant for chicken (brought his own on the plane, asked me for my number), spent a seven hour layover in Dublin enjoying the Red Bull and double vodka cocktails offered in the Ryanair terminal pubs (not really. But it might have been that drink menu that really informed me of my being in Europe), and, after approximately 36 hours of travel and a disconcerting 110 Euro cab into the city (“Grenoble,” sighed the taxi driver, after I told him I was spending the year here, “I don’t know, it is not really a good looking city,”), there I was.

For the past week, I have been taking six hours of French class per day at the Centre Universaire d’Études Françaises (CUEF) at the University of Grenoble, in preparation for the real classes (also in French), which start on Tuesday.

After five years of French, I wish I could say I was in France to learn the nuances of the language. But alas, tomorrow is the ominous Placement Exam, and I just spent my shower slowly mumbling the “past participle song” that the infamous Madame Burri taught us dense little ninth-graders in French I. Je suis arrivée, allée, venue, devenue, revenue, entrée, rentrée… Zut, alors. I have no idea what comes next.

Luckily, my little French brother and sister are more than happy to aid me with my French. I am living in Grenoble with a host family – Claudine, a young and beautiful Martiniquaine high school art teacher and her two young and beautiful children, Célestine, age 11, and Césare, age 8 (it is becoming kind of frustrating how beautiful the French are to look at. As a population, it’s hard to compete. Everyone is thin, freshly tanned from their summer vacations in Marseille and Malaga, and curiously enough, everyone speaks really good French, the ultimate instant beautifier. But I digress).

Césare prefers the tough-love method towards my linguistic improvement, and has not hesitated to grab my incorrigibly English-speaking mouth and shape my lips so as to produce the correct accent of the word “sûr”. Cute kid. Célestine is a lot more accepting of my stilted French, and kindly fed me the answers to an online practice quiz on the conditional tense that I took this afternoon. Claudine just speaks really slowly to me, usually with an expression of concern on her face; and rightly so, given how much/little I understand.

That is sort of how our (delicious: quiche, raviolis, couscous, seafood pasta) nightly dinners have gone: me just sort smiling and nodding, and speaking only when Claudine prompts me with a simple question pertaining to my day (repeated a few times), and Césare beating his shirtless little chest in fury when I inevitably mince my words and insert English where I don’t know the French. Célestine suppresses her giggles.

Learning French in this way is kind of like beating your ego with a Cat-o'-Nine-Tails. I have ever-increasing appreciation and respect for the people I have met trying to learn English in the US, where I think we are less patient with non-native speakers.

However, I know that I am improving slowly, and there have been little break-throughs. Like on my second or third day, when I was able to translate from English to French the instructions for a game on Facebook for Célestine. At least, I felt marginally capable for a second. Then Claudine asked me three times what time I planned to leave in the morning, and I responded, “School!”

So while I may not yet be incapable of carrying on a jaunty conversation at dinner (or anywhere), my French has served me just fine in daily interactions in town. I can get directions, ask about a dish, purchase a cell phone, and buy tickets (I even saw Inglorious Basterds, without the English subtitles in all the Frenchy scenes). Which is great for now, and definitely enough to manage the city. Grenoble is a college town, filled with young people from all sorts of places and nightlife and great food and a solid contemporary art collection. And, despite what my taxi driver told me, it is charming, and lush, and surrounded by the gorgeous and awesome backdrop of the Alps.

Plus, I am proud to say that I have gained a decent understanding of basic robot construction after a comprehensive tour (given in French, of course, by a lady in at least her seventies wielding a sparkly baton and a fierce bowl cut) yesterday at the Musée des Automates, which features a robotic duck with the ability to consume, digest, and defecate aluminum pellets, and also to blow out a flame. You know, all the necessary and normal functions of a real duck. Oh, France. Comment je l'adore.

(Jacques de Vaucanson's Famous Pooping Duck)

That, and the three hours that I spent today reading Philip Roth at the sunny botanical gardens (surrounded by beautiful French babies out for their Sunday stroll), was the highlight of my weekend.

Much, much more to come, and photos too -- I am going to develop my first roll of film tomorrow, which should be a hilarious trial of my vocabulary. Wish me luck..!