Springtime in Paris

Fifteen years ago, this month, I quit my job and set off for Paris. On March 19, in fact.

It was everything I dreamed it would be. And more.

A lot led up to that trip. Like many who work in the health care field, I was Burnt. Out. I was angsting my way through a quarter(ish)-life crisis. I hated the idea of turning thirty and being in a situation that felt closer to hamster-on-a-wheel than to the bright future of a rewarding career and the balanced life that I’d envisioned in grad school.

In high school, I signed up for French as my second language but my mom refused to sign my electives form until I changed it. “You live in southern Arizona. You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. You need to learn Spanish.” So I did. And then I married a Frenchman. I like to remind her of this.

I’d long been fascinated with the French language and with France. Before I went to graduate school, I’d taken a month to backpack through Europe. France had been one of the best parts of my trip. Later, while living in San Diego, I met a bunch of French exchange students who I bonded with, and so I picked up a language CD and started trying to impress them. My French, then, was decidedly not impressive.

Mostly, I ached for adventure. Other than my month in Europe, I’d been living a nose-to-the-grindstone sort of life. My employer at the time considered a three-day weekend (where I clumped my work into four 10-hour days to get Friday off) a vacation that he had benevolently granted me, despite the hardship it entailed on his business. This was better than my first job where I was told a few weeks in that while they couldn’t authorize any vacation time as they were much too busy of a clinic, they would gladly consider allowing me to take an hour or two of my vacation time, as I earned it, if I needed to see a doctor or dentist.

It didn’t take long for me to realize something needed to change. I’d worked since my senior year of high school – all my summers and spring breaks were filled with jobs, and by the time I was a junior in college, I was working 20, sometimes as many as 30 hours a week while taking a full load of classes. Spring Break partying on the beach had never been on my calendar.

The French exchange students I met were having the time of their lives – traveling, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture, meeting friends from all over the world. Some were in college, some were older and learning English to help with their careers. I did some research and saw that I, too, could do something similar, in France. In Paris.

To get there, I threw myself into work: I spent more than a year working two jobs (plunging myself into even higher levels of burn out, exacerbating the very problem I was trying to escape), diligently saving, eating cheap, wearing worn-out clothes, and doing whatever I could to maximize my savings. I was determined to be doing something amazing for my upcoming thirtieth birthday.

The whole idea defied the puritan nature I’d been raised to have: work hard, and play, maybe, if you have time. When I told my parents my plan, they were… unimpressed. My Dad’s first comment: “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. How is this going to help your career?”  I answered, “It won’t. That’s not what this is about.” They were concerned, I get that. After all, I’d gone to grad school and had a good job that payed well and offered a promising career. I’d arrived. Right? My parents worried I was throwing that all away. As a physical therapist, I knew I wouldn’t struggle to find a job when I returned (I didn’t). I knew I’d be okay. I also knew that I wouldn’t be okay if I continued on as I was. I was exhausted. I needed more than the day to day grind. I needed an adventure. I needed to find some joie de vivre.

To complicate things, the dollar sank rapidly in value against the Euro during the first year after France adopted it, so my plan for a six month trip had to be pared down. I also had a new boyfriend – a French guy who by our third date I was pretty sure I was going to marry (he’s now my husband). Still, giving up this chance of a lifetime, this dream, wasn’t a consideration for me.

I quit my job. I sold most of my furniture and moved the rest of my stuff into storage (i.e. my sweet new boyfriend’s apartment). I left my car in the care of my parents. I consolidated my student loan bills and left a series of checks and payment stubs with my boyfriend who had kindly agreed to mail the checks I’d pre-written to pay all my bills while I was away. This was before online payments, Facebook, smartphones, and all sorts of other technology that makes this sort of stuff a breeze now. I didn’t even have a digital camera – I was still using film. And a dial-up modem. And a flip phone that had no chance of working in Europe.

Then; I did it. I went to Paris. I studied French. I traveled. And I had the time of my life.

I also kept a journal and wrote long emails home.

So, in honor of this 15th anniversary of that amazing time in Paris and beyond, I am doing a series on my trip, using excerpts from my journals and emails, as well as some photos – presuming the scans come out.

I’m looking forward to reliving this trip, and to sharing it with you!

 

 

 

Learning French With My Daughter

Despite research to the contrary, code-switching seems to be working for us.

While my daughter’s English is soaring, her French has been lagging. I mentioned in a previous post that I was making a commitment to speaking more French at home. My husband only has a few hours each day with our kids, and while he speaks to them in French, my daughter responds in English. He and I speak to each other mostly in English. So, I’ve started reading more French books, playing more French songs, and speaking more French to the kids and when we are all together. I’ve been practicing my pronunciation in the car with some CDs, and my daughter pipes in with me, her high-pitched toddler voice perfectly enunciating each vowel and rolling those “r”s. She is now speaking in full French sentences. She still veers toward English, but will repeat after me when I translate her words to French. My French has improved, too. Success!

Right now, French is fun for her. She likes to point out what language people are speaking, and she’s asked more than one of our friends if they speak French or English. She’s in a French preschool two days a week, so she’s hearing lots of French there, too. I worry what will happen if we no longer have the ability to send her to French immersion school. Will she hate French? Think of it as work, or something that makes her different and therefore something she rejects? I dream up all sorts of solutions: we’ll spend summers in France! I’ll create a curriculum and teach French in whatever preschool/elementary school she ends up in! We’ll find playgroups full of French speakers! I’m nothing if not determined. My favorite solution is undoubtedly summers in France. I’m thinking Provence….

Here’s an interesting new phenomenon: my daughter is well beyond babbling in English, but she’s been babbling nonsense words with French sounds. I wonder if this gibberish is because she’s trying out the French sounds she’s heard (my MD says they see this a lot in kids that are exposed to multiple languages) or if she’s trying to babble like her little brother, who’s getting a lot of attention for all the cool new sounds he’s making.

Her English is progressing well. She chatters away, using verb tenses mostly correctly and picking up vocabulary at an amazing rate. Those little preschooler minds are amazing things. She also makes mistakes but I can see the logic. My brother asked her the other day, as she ate a banana, if she was a monkey. She said, indignantly, “I amn’t!” instead of “I’m not.” The logic makes sense. After all, so many of our contractions are with the verb, not the subject.

Fascinating stuff, this language development. It makes me want to go back to school and study linguistics, as well as child development. Plus French history, French, English. Is there a job out there where I can just go to school all the time? That’s the job I want.

Merde

Often, when we learn a new language, the first words we learn are the swear words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of fantastic Spanish words. Perhaps he believed that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.

Oh, but we did.

With French, though, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”

A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I spent mornings before school watching Inside the Actors’ Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”

Thus, I learned the good stuff.

The funny thing, though, is it all sounds like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam” or “bloody” if you’re British. But actually it’s France’s equivalent of the “f” word.

Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law. But sometimes, when he talks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words, plus he mumbles, so I can hardly follow what he’s saying. And – he’s got a potty mouth.

I learned some new words from him on a trip to France a few years ago. A woman walked off the train with his suitcase when he came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend.  Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.”  When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!”  Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.”  No big deal, right?

Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with my brother-in-law about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had yelled at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of panic and cried, “C’est Carol? Ce n’est pas possible!” (“Was that Carol?  It couldn’t be!”)  I suddenly felt like I was a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “He taught it to me.” Turns out grosse conne is quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time around native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words and phrases so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.

Except for merde. I like that one.

[Full Disclosure: This was originally published on my author website in 2008]

More French, Please!

Our daughter comes home from preschool singing adorable French songs like these:

It’s clear that she understands everything said to her in French. She’s also a great translator:

“Mommy, where’s my shirt?”

“Here’s your shirt, sweetie. How do you say ‘shirt’ in French?”

“It’s ‘chemise,’ sweetie.”

(Yes, she calls me sweetie.)

In her mind, there is a clear distinction between the two languages. She’ll pull a book from the shelf and tell me, “This book is French.” She’ll tell me her teacher speaks French but so and so in class speaks English.

It amazes me that at such a young age, 29 months, such a clear line can be drawn. Even my 9 month old son will pause and stare at me when I speak French. He knows something different is coming out of my mouth. Recent research shows that babies as young as 7 months can differentiate between languages. Fascinating.

Right now, though, our daughter tends to speak mainly in English or occasionally Franglais. She knows she’s doing it; she seems to pick and choose the words she likes or the words she finds easier to say. Like the other day when trying to give my husband a bite of her cereal: “Papa, open your bouche!” Or this morning, when I was failing miserably at corralling her to get her dressed for school: “Mommy, I want to play cache-cache!” (hide and seek).

Parents in other bilingual households have advised us that when she responds to my husband with English to tell her, in French, “I don’t understand. Tell me in French.” We’ve been hesitant to go this route; the last thing we want to do is shut her down when she’s trying to express herself and we certainly don’t want her to hate French. So right now, when she says something to my husband in English, he translates the phrase into French and has her repeat it back. She seems to think this is great fun.

We’ve also started speaking French more at home. My husband has been in the U.S. long enough that speaking French feels unnatural to him. We both have to put forth a lot of effort to have a conversation in French. But I need the practice, and it’s great for the kids. Lately, our daughter will even tell me, “Mommy, I want to speak French with you.” (Despite THIS)

Going to a French school helps, I have no doubt. We are in that window of opportunity, where her mind and her palate can take in our two languages and form the sounds without the flaws and struggles that I must deal with as a later in life language learner. It’s fun to see her French taking off, and fun for me to work on it with her. Our mission: more French speaking in our house, and trying to keep it fun so the kiddos (and I) don’t rebel against it.

Please Forgive Me, I’m an Anglophone

How is this for an ego crusher: as I was reading a poem by Verlaine in preparation for my French class, my daughter said, “Stop Mommy! You’re hurting my ears!” then clapped her hands over her ears to emphasize her point.

Ouch.

I’m telling myself that she wanted a quiet breakfast rather than my French being so abominable that even a two-year-old couldn’t take it. But still.

From my first words, usually “bonjour”, I have an accent. My husband assures me it’s a cute accent, but I’m self conscious about it. My French class is causing me to second guess everything I thought I knew about how French words are pronounced. I’ve decided that’s a good thing – I’m tearing out my bad habits and rebuilding with better fundamentals.

In France, the locals know I’m foreign, but often they don’t recognize that I’m American because my accent is less obvious. One of my most memorable experiences happened when I was studying in Paris. I traveled to Strasbourg one weekend to visit some friends and we went to a huge party where I was hit on repeatedly by French men of varying levels of charm. It was the accent that seemed to draw them to me and I started to feel pretty sexy and charming myself right up until this encounter. A French guy approached me and said something that I didn’t understand, so I said, “Pardon?” My accent immediately made it clear that I was not-from-around-here.

So he switched to English. “Where are you from?”

This was 2004, the height of America-hating, and not 10 minutes before I’d had to endure a diatribe about why Americans suck (from a guy who was simultaneously doing everything he could to get into my pants), so I wasn’t too eager to reveal my origins. Instead, I said, “Paris.”

“No, really, where are you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“You look Irish. Are you Irish?”

I shook my head.

“British?”

“No.”

“Scottish?”

“No.”

“Welsh?”

I laughed and shook my head.

He tried a few more English-speaking countries, then finally, exasperated, said, “Well then, where are you from?”

“I’m American.”

“An American girl?” He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh!”

And he walked away from me. Classic.

I don’t know that I’ll ever pass for a local. That ability with a language is a rare gift. I always laugh at movies and TV shows where some spy or official is pretending to be a native, talking in the native tongue, supposedly fooling everyone. It just so rarely happens; our Anglophone tendencies will always creep into our language. It’s a rare and gifted person who can speak a foreign tongue without an accent. My French teacher at SDSU is one of those people, which gives me hope. There’s a fuzzy line between improper pronunciation and simply having an accent. I’m working on it. If only so that my kids don’t make fun of me.

Former Posts about learning French in my family:

Progress in My French Education

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French

Progress in My French Education

When I’m surrounded by French speakers, I equate the feeling to wearing a veil over my eyes. My comprehension (vision) is obscured; there is a distance between me and what is going on around me, a distance that I struggle to overcome. Initially, the veil was thick; I got hints of the big picture but I missed all the details. Gradually, that veil has become more transparent. I went from being able to only decipher a message from tone of voice and hand gestures (i.e., Wow! That guy’s really pissed about something…. Oops. It’s me. He’s pissed at me.) to picking up the gist of a conversation to where I am today: One-on-one, I understand 90 to 95% of what is said. In class, I don’t miss much. Sometimes I even feel like the veil is gone. But sit me down at a dinner table full of French people who all speak at the same time faster than a high speed TGV and I’m lost. I need the subtitles (in French is okay) turned on during a movie. Lyrics are tough. And my brother-in-law, with his mumbling and slang, is impossible.

There are so many subtleties in language – specific word choices aren’t just about vocabulary, behind them exists a history of usage and color developed through cultural evolution. Often pop culture influences our language; think, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” from Seinfeld, and how knowing what is underneath the simple meaning of those words deepens our understanding and appreciation for the expression. By the way, it took my husband years of living in the U.S. to finally understand the humor in Seinfeld. Emotion, body language, points of emphasis – it all can be culturally specific. I was treating a Romanian patient once (I’m a physical therapist) and every time I checked in with her to make sure I wasn’t hurting her: “Is that hurting?” she shook her head. After several minutes, her daughter stepped in to tell me that her mother was in a lot of pain. She (finally) explained to me that in Romania, a nod means no and a head shake means yes. I felt terrible, but how was I to have known?

Already I’ve taken some leaps forward with my French class this semester. The crazy thing is that it’s the seemingly tiny tips that help me the most. Here are a few I’ve learned:

  • T’s and D’s:

In English, we place the tip of our tongue on our hard palate for “t”s and “d”s. In French, they place the tip of the tongue on the back of the upper teeth. This makes a huge difference in pronunciation of the vowels following these consonants.

  • Syllable breaks:

In English, we break our words up by consonants, always searching for that next consonant (albeit subconsciously) when pronouncing a word. In French, syllable breaks occur at the vowels more often. Example:

gé  né  ra  li  té              (French)

gen  er  al  i  ty            (English)

So all these years I’ve been chewing on my consonants instead of opening up and letting those vowels sing!

  • Accentuation:  English has a complicated and nonsensical way of accenting certain syllables in certain words, and it plays a phonetic role. Imagine how complicated this is for the poor foreigners out there trying to learn our language! Look at the word defect, and notice how the meaning changes depending on which syllable we accent. In French, the accent is always on the last syllable, it’s really more a prolongation of the vowel than a true accent, and it doesn’t change the meaning of the word. Thank you, French, for finally making something less complicated!

Seriously loving this class I’m taking.

Former Posts about learning French in my family:

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French

Rue, Rit, Roue

Sunset on the Seine from Pont Neuf, near where I studied French in Paris

Sunset on the Seine from Pont Neuf, near where I studied French in Paris

In continuing with my quest to ensure my French is fluent enough that my husband and kids don’t end up with a secret language, I enrolled in another SDSU French class this semester. Phonetics and Oral Proficiency.

“That sounds horribly boring,” said one of my girlfriends. Really? I’m already loving it. I’m counting on this being the course that takes my French to the next level; shoves me out of my bad habits and gives me a sexy accent rather than an eardrum-rupturing American twang. Because really, it’s all about sounding sexy, right?

My instructor opened with a lesson on the subtle difference between vowel sounds using the words rue and roue. Little did she know the humiliating, hair-pulling relationship I have with these horrible little words.

It all goes back to the spring I studied French in Paris and a particularly nasty teacher named Catherine. She spoke to us in a condescending snail’s pace and had the stereotypical French teacher’s approach that relied on confrontation and humiliation. The class that day was focused on pronunciation, an excellent idea before she got her hands on it. She asked us to say, “rue, rit, roue.” (street, laugh, wheel). Dead silence followed her request (I wasn’t the only student who felt her teaching style discouraged participation), so after a few awkward moments I gave it a go.

Rue, rit, roue.”

The second the words left my mouth, Catherine and the entire class burst out laughing. I did, too; I sounded like a cat choking on a fur ball. Catherine asked me to try again. And again. And again. The class stopped laughing and instead looked on in horror at the train wreck that was my pronunciation crashing head-on into Catherine’s mocking. I kept trying, face flaming. No matter how many times I repeated the words, I just couldn’t get them right. Catherine, in a rare moment of kindness, told me that these subtle vowel differences were particularly difficult for Anglophones.

Then she asked me to repeat them again.

I tried. Failed. So I said, in French, “I just can’t do it.”

She said, “Carol, once more.”

“I’ve tried 15, 20 times. I can’t do it.” I wanted her to move on, allow my tongue to unravel and my face to return to its normal color.

She had other ideas. “Once more, Carol, for my amusement.”

Are you kidding me?

“No.”

She continued to insist. I continued to refuse. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at me. It got so awkward that I finally tried once more. She laughed.

She finally moved on, but throughout the class asked me to repeat the words, “for my pleasure,” or “for my amusement.”

Even when I started to say the words correctly, she couldn’t let it go. All day long, just when I’d think we were moving on, she’d come back to me. “Carol: rue, rit, roue! Répete!” Then she’d say something like, “It’s a fun class today, isn’t it, Carol?”

Comment dit-on, “heinous bitch” en Français ?

Even today, I can do a rolling French R and I can make the vowel sounds, but putting them together proves an impossible feat. I think I’m so traumatized by my experience that I have a mental block. But that’s just dumb pop psychology to the French. Luckily, my professor is American. She makes learning French, even in its hardest moments, fun. I’m inspired by her flawless French. I’m determined to conquer this ridiculous language and all its annoying nasal and hacking and gagging sounds.

Lookout, rue, rit, roue. I’m coming for you.