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..!


  1. I love this. Please, PLEASE continue this throughout your trip because I'm terrible at keeping in touch even when we're in the same country..or state...I got Skype! It's JessicaOpos. Miss you so much already.
    Love you,

  2. aren't you allergic to cheese?

  3. S'il vous plaît nous montrer des photos de Claudie et les enfants!