Liebster Award

liebster awardThere’s nothing like an award nomination to boost morale and motivation! A fellow Francophile at Oh Sacré Bleu nominated me for the Liebster Award. Thank you, and Yay!

This award is a pat on the back for newish bloggers from fellow bloggers, meant to help spread the word about our favorite blogs out there in the blogosphere.

As part of the Liebster award, I must do the following:

  • Post the award on my blog
  • Thank the blogger presenting me with the award and provide a link back to their blog
  • Write 11 random facts about myself (uh-oh)
  • Pay it forward: find 11 other blogs with less than 200 followers that I enjoy reading and nominate them. (This is a tough one! Many blogs I follow have more than 200 followers, or have already been nominated, or I don’t know how many followers they have and couldn’t figure it out, but here are a bunch of really great ones that I’m happy to share. Sadly, I had to leave many of my discoveries off the list.) Okay, so, my dad was a math teacher, leaving me with a strong left brain, and I have to wonder… if every nominee faithfully nominates 11 blogs, after about 10 rounds, we’ve well exceeded human population … but I digress. It’s great to receive and spread blog love.
  • Answer the 11 questions the award presenter asked me, and ask my nominees 11 questions

Here we go:

Random Facts About Me

1. Many of my relatives are cowboys, the real deal (read about them here). I, however, am horribly allergic to horses.

2. I wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to work out.

3. I’m left handed.

4. I’ve sprained my ankles well over 20 times between the two of them. Ridiculous.

5. My mom wouldn’t let me take French in high school, despite me really wanting to. She said, “Carol, you live in Arizona. You’ll never have any occasion to use French. You’ll take Spanish.” Then I married a Frenchman. I like to remind her of this story.

6. I  need a social media detox on a regular basis. I have a crappy little phone with no internet access and I like it that way. I often leave it behind, as well as my laptop – life feels freer and simpler when I disconnect from all devices. I’ll take a paper map over GPS any day.

7. I’ve been to 5 continents. Missing Australia and Antarctica.

8. Even though the bottle says rinse then repeat, I don’t repeat. I’m rebellious like that.

9.I recently discovered that I’m dairy intolerant. It’s really pissing me off.

10.  I’m a redhead. I’ve always been one, and I’ve always liked being one.

11.  I have a doctorate degree in physical therapy.

Eleven Questions from Oh Sacré Bleu

1. Why do you blog? Because I love to write. And I think I found a good subject to blog about.

2. Are you in any way a ‘cultural failure’? i.e. You don’t do something that is typical of your nationality or culture (e.g. an Indian who doesn’t like spicy food, an Irishman who doesn’t drink alcohol etc) I think being a Francophile makes me a cultural failure, doesn’t it? It certainly did during the “freedom fries” craziness. I also don’t like apple pie, I can’t get excited about baseball, and I can’t bring myself to eat a corn dog. I just threw up in my mouth a little thinking about corn dogs.

3. Do you believe in ghosts? If I say no, will the ghosts find out and come to get me?

4. What’s a really bad song that you secretly like? See You Again by Miley Cyrus. Yeah, that’s right. She was in Hannah Montana mode when she rocked this one.

5. One country you can’t wait to visit? Only one? Ok. New Zealand.

6. Dogs or cats? Dogs. Big dogs.

7. Favourite city in the world that you’ve visited? I have to say Paris, right? I love Paris. Not to live, but to visit.

8. Do you collect anything? Randomly and unconsciously, I do. Buttons. The extra ones that come with new clothes. I don’t just collect them, I hoard them. Weirdo.

9. Favourite destination in your own country? Yosemite National Park

Happy happy me, in Yosemite Valley

Happy happy me, in Yosemite Valley

Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls

10. Worst thing about living in my country is…. Angry, hateful, bitter political climate.

11. Best thing about living in my country is….Diversity. People, cultures, food, terrain – you can find it all, here.

 

My Nominations:

C’est La Vie Cuisine Yummy recipes and a slice of life from a Frenchwoman living in the U.S.

Little Miss Frenchified An American teaching English to Strasbourg high school students.

Multilingual Parenting Advice and insight from a parent who has been there and done that.

Learn French With Jennifer A French teacher married to a Frenchman gives us a word a day. Great resource for French learners.

Stumbling Into Paradise Fun stories of adventures in learning French (complete with stereotypical hardass French teacher) and traveling.

The Head of the Heard Stephen shares his adventures of living in a foreign country and raising a multilingual child.

Au Lit! An Aussie married to a Frenchie living in France

The European Mama A Polish mom married to a German living in the Netherlands and raising three kiddos

Brian Goldsmith Photography For some fantastic armchair traveling

Meg Travels Beautiful photos and anecdotes from around the world

Traveling Frenchies Family of Frenchies, traveling the world

 

Okay, you guys are up: Eleven Questions for My Nominees

1.     If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

2.    What is the best book you’ve read recently?

3.    What is the nicest thing a random stranger has ever done for you?

4.    Your life will be made into a movie. Who do you want to play you?

5.    What was your favorite childhood toy?

6.    What is your guilty pleasure?

7.    Sweet or savory?

8.    If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?

9.    How many and which languages do you speak?

10. What was your favorite subject in school? Least favorite?

11.  If you could have any job other than your current one, what would you do?

Now what are you waiting for? Go check out these blogs! Go!

 

Kermesse

School’s out for summer!

kermesseSummer feels more real with kids. In San Diego, where the seasons blend and where we have two, maybe three weeks of vacation a year, summer never really meant much. Just a little warmer and crowds of tourists everywhere we want to go. But now, my daughter has finished her first year of preschool, and we kicked off summer in style: with an end of year show and Kermesse.

The preschool section of the school put on an hour-long show. Somehow, the teachers got those two, three, four, and five-year-olds to perform choreographed dances, sing, recite memorized lines, and even put on a play. Seriously – three and four year olds doing the tango, kindergartners performing Snow White, and two-year-olds dancing to a beat, each group waiting patiently while the others performed, and not one of them on stage crying for Maman? Amazing. These people are miracle workers.

Four year olds doing a choreographed dance on boogie boards to Surfin' USA

Four year olds doing a choreographed dance on boogie boards to Surfin’ USA

Two-year-old cowboys and cowgirls

Two-year-old cowboys and cowgirls

 

Then there was Kermesse, a carnival of sorts that in France is mainly put on my parochial schools. When my husband heard there would be a Kermesse at the French American School, he immediately decided to take a half-day off, citing fond memories of going to Kermesse with friends as a child. The school did not disappoint: lots of fantastic food, a few rides, good music, and all sorts of fun activities.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

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Homemade games with prizes

Homemade games with prizes

Dunk Tank

Dunk Tank

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Happy summer, everyone!

Staycation for the Summer

Me, with a serious frou frou drink on our honeymoon

Me, with a serious frou frou drink on our honeymoon

The following is a post for this month’s Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival hosted by All Done Monkey. This month’s theme is Multilingualism and Travel. Click here to read great posts from others. 

Once upon a time, it seems so long ago, summer meant packing our bags for an adventure, or two, or four. I prided myself on my ability to pack for two plus weeks in a carry-on. Over glasses of wine uninterrupted by children who needed to use the potty or who wanted to eat NOW, we vowed that we wouldn’t fall into the trap so many of our friends had, we would keep traveling, having adventures, and our kids would simply come along for the ride. I look back on those evenings and it’s like I’m watching a sit-com; I double over in laughter and point at the former me and say: “You think you are so savvy, so above it all, BWAH HA HA! Just you wait!”

Thing is, in my mind I skipped right over the toddler years and straight to kids that were able to talk, bathe themselves, and walk more than a quarter mile before needing to be carried. I didn’t think about the car seats, Pack ‘n Plays, nor the strollers that would need to come with us. Hotels equipped with cribs, restaurants with high chairs… not even on my radar. I definitely didn’t envision a full-blown tantrum in any of these scenarios.

We took our daughter to France when she was nine months old. She did great – there were almost no tears until the last leg of the flight there, at which point she’d reached her limit. She screamed – SCREAMED – for an entire hour, and nothing we did could comfort her.

Then there was the train ride from Brittany to Paris. We had our suitcases – three – plus a stroller, plus her car seat, plus a diaper bag and a backpack. The train station had one elevator. One. The elevator held about three people with one bag each. The group waiting to board the elevator was fifty deep. Each trip on the elevator took four and a half minutes. Seriously. I timed it. To make it even more complicated, the platform wasn’t announced until 10 minutes before the train was due to take off.

This was France, mind you, where a line is more of a group of people pushing and ducking and manipulating their way past all the others. There’s no polite and fair waiting your turn. It’s survival of the fittest, and they aren’t above shoving past a woman and her stroller, or even shoving that stroller. While I complained about it, Stéphane took the stroller and turned it into a battering ram. When in France…. We pushed our way to the front of the group, made it to the platforms, and sprinted – he dragging two bags and wearing the backpack, me pushing the stroller/car seat and dragging our third bag with the diaper bag slapping against me and knocking me off balance. We boarded and the train immediately began to move.

Then I realized I had a diaper to change. The train had one car – one – with a diaper changing table, but I couldn’t find it. I ended up sitting on a toilet seat, my feet braced against the wall and my legs a makeshift changing table with my daughter stretched across them, rocking precariously every time the train hit a curve.

Then

Then

So, other than a small weekend trip up the coast, we aren’t going anywhere this summer. I’m intimidated by the thought of traveling with a one-year-old and an almost three-year-old overseas. Next year, we hope to go to France and spend at least a few weeks there. It’s obviously important that our children know their French family and their French heritage. And that we eat crêpes. Lots and lots of crêpes. There are all sorts of opportunities for family language vacations throughout France, where the three of us could enroll in language courses and really immerse ourselves. Plus, with my husband’s French citizenship, there are options for sending the kids to summer school there. Soon, while they’re young, before they realize that school instead of lazy summer days equals Mean Mom.

But here’s the silver lining: We live in San Diego, a top vacation destination for so many. All it takes is a morning at the beach, my toes in the sand, watching the surfers, for me to feel like I’m on vacation.

Now

Now

My daughter’s preschool lets out this week. She’s made so much progress with her French over this past year, but soon she will be home with English-speaking me every day rather than at school with her native French-speaking teacher and French only classes. I’ve been so worried that she’ll lose all she’s gained. Then I realized –hey, my French is decent. It’s certainly better than nothing. So we’ll be tourists in our own city, but we’ll do it in French. San Diego Zoo day, where we learn the animal names in French and talk about what they are up to. We’ll learn what noises they make – in French! Sea World? Lego Land? Balboa Park? The Embarcadero? The beach? Oui oui! Ce n’est pas mal!

I mentioned my idea to another mom at the preschool, and she quickly said she wanted to join us with her kiddos. Then another mom. And another. So my little idea just became a big deal – most of these families are not French speaking, so I’ll be leading the charge with our efforts to keep the kids progressing in French.

I still vow to get back to traveling adventures. I haven’t given up the dream. It will just hopefully be without a diaper bag.

French Children’s Books

 A friend of mine sent me this link to an article published in the Guardian on Terrifying French Children’s Books.

I’m torn in choosing a favorite among La Visite de petite mort (Death visits a little girl. He kills her), Le Voleur de Lily (The Thief of Lily – Lily is kidnapped), or Le Jour où Papa a tué sa vielle tante (The Day Daddy killed His Old Aunt – true crime for 7-year-olds).

French children’s books, like French movies, aren’t big on the whole “and they lived happily ever after forever and nothing bad ever happened again and everyone was delighted for always” endings. Moral messages don’t seem to be present in many books, either.

We are amassing a collection of French children’s books in our home. There’s one collection of pop up books that particularly caught my eye for their great art and classic stories, so I ordered several of them from Amazon.fr. Then I read them. Starting with Le petit poucet. Petit Poucet (Little Thumb) is the youngest of seven children. His parents run out of food and decide to abandon their children in the forest. Petit Poucet leads his siblings back to their home, so their parents take them out and abandon them, again. Successfully, this time. The children are captured by ogres who plan to make a fine meal of them, but Petit Poucet tricks the ogre into eating his own children instead. Woo hoo! Happy ending!

That book is no longer in our house. I can just hear my daughter every time we go hiking: “Mommy! (sob, sob) Are you going to leave us here so the ogres can eat us?”

There’s the classic: Alouette, gentille alouette. How many people actually know what the words are, other than the chorus? It’s about plucking all the feathers from the bird, then dismembering it. Slowly. While singing an upbeat tune. But the pictures are so pretty:

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Il était un petit navire: There was a little boat. The sailors run out of food and draw straws to decide which crew member will be dinner.

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A little boy draws the short straw and as the men discuss how to cook him and what sauce to use, he prays to the Virgin Mary to save him.

We're coming for you, little boy, with our sharp shiny knives!

We’re coming for you, little boy, with our sharp shiny knives!

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Happy ending! She does. In our version, anyway. Not so much in the traditional tale.

This pop up picture causes my poor son to burst into tears, every time. Le chat botté (Puss in Boots) is pretty freaky here:

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Granted, plenty of our nursery rhymes, songs, (Ring Around the Rosie, anyone?) and old fairy tales aren’t exactly geared for the modern child. But so many have been Disneyfied that we’ve become accustomed to happy endings, justice being served, and a palatable moral message. Though I still have huge issues with the Little Mermaid. She gives up her home, family, fins, and voice for a man? Ugh. Yes, honey, but the prince is so handsome!

Many of our most familiar fairy tales were first penned by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who lived and wrote in the 17th century and who is known as the initiator of the literary fairy tale. Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, and my favorite: Le Petit Poucet… all come from Perrault. He called his collection: Tales of Mother Goose. Château de Breteuil, just outside of Paris, has plays and displays all featuring the tales of Charles Perrault, plus beautiful gardens to wander through.

Beauty and the Beast, or La Belle et La Bête, was written by frenchwoman Jeanne Marie LePrince de Beaumont (the version as we best know it).

We have found several books that we enjoy. I love this little book, especially the illustrations, that I found on our last visit to France: La Fourmi voyageuse: The adventurous ant. It’s about a hardworking ant who is persuaded by a snail to leave his work and explore the world – “there’s hundreds of you working. No one will notice if you are absent for a moment!” The ant decides to ditch work and explore and he has a wonderful adventure and makes new friends:

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When he returns home, he tells the other ants of his adventures. The queen decides to give each ant some free time so they can all explore the forest, too. Hmmm. Sewing the seeds of, oh dear, dare I say the icky word, socialism? Pretty soon those ants will be expecting eight weeks vacation and free health care.

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The Petit ours brun series and T’choupi, both of which are also cartoons that are easily found on You Tube, are favorites.

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Babar is also one of my daughter’s favorites, though Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter (much like Bambi). We skip over that part for now.

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Misbehaving Mini-Loup (little wolf) is always wreaking havoc:

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But he usually pays for it:

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Then there’s Bécassine, the French version of one of my English favorites growing up: Amelia Bedelia:

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I look forward to visiting bookstores next time we’re in France. Any suggestions out there for children’s books we should read?

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.

Beautiful Saturday at the Farmer’s Market in Little Italy

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Intimidated by trying to find parking, I’ve never visited this farmer’s market. But my daughter and I were in Little Italy this weekend so we checked it out. It’s huge, maybe even bigger than our usual one in Hillcrest. The views are fabulous:

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The music sophisticated:

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And they have crêpes. Authentic ones, from Fabrison’s French Crêperie Café, also located in Little Italy. This restaurant has great food, and their crêpes are the real deal: the savory ones are done with buckwheat flour. Hard to find outside of Bretagne, but this is the way a savory crêpe is meant to be. I split a Nutella crêpe with my daughter and chatted with Fabrice, owner of the café, about the challenges of raising kids in a bilingual household (his wife is American) and what we do to try to make sure our kids are learning French.

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Here are a couple more photos. Spring is blooming in San Diego!

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The Results Are In: My French Ain’t Half Bad!

Turns out my French is better than I give myself credit for, at least according to the Alliance Française and the test I took there!

The exam was two sections: the first on computer, which started with very basic French and quickly progressed to complicated phrases and vocabulary. In one of the sections I had to answer questions on women’s hairstyles depicted in basic drawings. I wouldn’t know what those styles were called in English, so I’m pretty sure I bombed the French part! Points were awarded for correct answers and removed for incorrect answers. Intimidating.

For the second section of the test, I spoke with two native speakers. In our first conversation, I had to pretend to be interested in buying a home in the southwest of France. Not so hard to pretend I wanted that house! In the second conversation, I had to convince one of them to give up using her cell phone for 24 hours.

Here are my results:

 

French Placement Test

Here’s how those levels are defined, according to the Wiki article on the CEFR (Common European Framework) for determining language levels:

B2 is Upper Intermediate:

·Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.

·Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

·Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of

various options.

C1 is Effective Operational Proficiency, or Advanced:

·Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.

·Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

·Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

·Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive        devices.

 While these results mean we can move forward with my nationality application, they also mean that I need to be less self-conscious in speaking French. I’m at a level where I’ve passed those first few huge hurdles of the learning curve, but I am very aware of the many things I haven’t yet mastered, so too often I tend to not speak rather than risk making mistakes. I want to be completely bilingual. To watch a movie without any need of subtitles. To understand song lyrics without help. To not make grammatical errors. To maybe, even, someday teach French. (I need a back up plan. Being a physical therapist is hard on your body!)

These results were just the encouragement I needed, as I’ve been doubting whether French is something I can ever hope to master. This reenergized me, and made me start dreaming again of spending a summer, or two, or three, in France, going to language classes, and of one day being so fluent that maybe I even fool a French person or two.

Texans in Tahiti

085 Toatea lookout

I’ve been longing for French Polynesia. Palm trees, exotic fish, gentle breezes and sailing a catamaran while my fingertips trail in the clear blue seas…. We spent our honeymoon there, enjoying the warm waters and savoring the food and culture that was such a beautiful mix of Polynesian and French. One of many images stuck in my head: a local, decorated with tattoos and jagged scars (many locals sported these: rough encounters with the coral reefs and, sometimes, sharks), riding a scooter down a muddy back road with a half dozen baguettes jutting out from a sling on his back. Our vacation there was every bit as idyllic as every cliché about Tahiti professes it will be.

Tahitian bottle opener. Check out the scars on his arm!

Tahitian bottle opener. Check out the scars on his arm!

Except for the Texans.

I’ve been to Texas a few times and I’ve found the locals gregarious and welcoming. But for some reason, we kept running into the worst of their lot on our trip. It started with a group on a snorkeling trip in Moorea: two couples, both from Texas, were loudly comparing the cost of their tickets, and their hotel rooms, and how much they’d paid for their excursions, and then how much their homes cost in Texas. Meanwhile, the guide asked for a show of hands for who spoke French and who spoke English. The group was evenly divided, so he said he would explain everything first in French, then in English. As he began his first French explanation, the Texans broke from their money talk to stare at him, then one of them shouted: “ENGLISH! We speak ENGLISH!”

Later, on Bora Bora, our resort was hosting a large group from Texas and while we and every other honeymooning couple on the planet tried to enjoy our romantic tiki torch-lit dinners on the sand, the table of 15 from Texas shouted and guffawed and threw bread from one end of the table to the other, prompting the staff to ask them more than once to calm down.

the Blue Pineapple on Moorea, where we first tasted poisson cru

the Blue Pineapple on Moorea, where we first tasted poisson cru

Then this: We fell in love with poisson cru while we were there; it’s the local traditional dish and so simple yet delicious that I’ve made it several times since. I’m salivating just thinking about it. Our resort offered a class on how to make the dish, so my husband and I joined a few others, including a Texan couple, complete with teased hair and twangs, to learn of the long held tradition of poisson cru.

Conquering the coconut

Conquering the coconut

 

 

Our instructors were all locals. We began with the diced raw ahi, to which we added squeezes of lime juice, then onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Next, we cracked open a coconut (way harder than it looks) and squeezed milk from the meat of it over the dish. And voila! It’s that simple.

As we all savored a plate full of the dish, the woman from Texas smacked her lips together and proclaimed: “I bet this would be real tasty with a bit of May – o – naise!”

Poisson Cru

Poisson Cru

My husband tried not to choke laughing, and I, not always great at holding back, said, “Blasphemy!”

 

 

 

 

 

And now, more photos from our trip, lest you fear we greatly suffered:115 Sunset from deck

Bora Bora

227 what a life!

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]

French Customer Service

Before you scoff and say there’s no such thing, read on. It’s not the American brand of “the customer is always right,” it’s quite different, and it leaves you feeling tingly. If you’re a girl, that is. Pretty sure guys don’t get this one.

My first experience with it came when I was a fresh-out-of-college backpacker in Paris. I’d run out of clean clothes and had nothing left but a short pair of shorts to wear. As a naïve young thing from the deserts of Arizona, I had no idea that wearing shorts in Paris was an affront to civilized society. Especially during a pouring rainstorm. I walked down the streets, becoming more and more self-conscious of the stares I was receiving. I ducked into a pastry shop in search of my new favorite treat: a croissant. There, I was greeted by the incredulous stare of the shop’s owner.

“You are walking around like this in the rain?” he said in English; making the obvious assumption that I was Not-From-Around-Here. He pointed to my shorts.

I said, face flaming in embarrassment, “It’s not that cold out.”

He offered a smile and nodded. “Well, yes.  And I suppose with legs like that, you can get away with shorts like that anywhere. With legs like that, you should wear shorts.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I bought a couple of croissants, and a quiche. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just been subjected to (or bamboozled by) my first round of French customer service.

Years later, I was in France with my husband, spending Christmas and New Year’s with his family. I came down with a horrible cold – every orifice on my face was stopped up. We popped into a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees and I instructed my husband to let me do the talking as I needed to practice my French. He agreed and stood behind me while I approached the counter.

A young male pharmacist stepped forward and I described my symptoms and asked for his suggestions.

He glanced at my husband and smiled at me. “You are so sick, yet you still have a beautiful smile on your face.”

He pulled out some decongestants and fever reducers and advised me on dosage and what to expect. He also counseled me on nutrition, fluid intake, and to go to the doctor if my symptoms did not get better in a few days. (Side note: this is typical of a French pharmacist; they have a much greater degree of autonomy, and often usurp the need to go to a doctor for many of the more common ailments people encounter.)

All of this he delivered to me intersperced with a smile here, an arched eyebrow there, a compliment on my French and my accent, and another compliment on my smile. My husband, true to his word, allowed me to complete the transaction without interfering. As we left, he smirked at me.

“He was completely flirting with you!”

“Was he? That’s kind of funny.”

“I think he assumed I didn’t speak French, since you were talking and you’re obviously foreign. He thought he could get away with it.”

I smiled, feeling a little smug that I could still entice some flirting, even with a ring on my finger and a few crinkles around my eyes. On a recent trip to Trader Joes in the eternally youth-obsessed southern California that I call home, I watched as a young cashier joked and flirted with the two college girls in front of me. As I pushed my cart up for my turn, I smiled genially, expecting the same treatment. Instead, his face grew serious, and he said politely, “How you doing tonight, ma’am.”

Ma’am?

Ma’am!

I’m thirty-incoherent mumble, for crying out loud! And I’ve been relegated to ma’am status? But in France – I’ve hardly reached my prime.

On another trip to Paris, I decided I wanted to get flowers for my mother-in-law. I entered a flower shop behind a stooped older woman. The shopkeeper, dark hair flowing to his broad shoulders like a hero from the cover of some bodice-ripper novel, came out and pressed his palms together, looking back and forth between me and the older woman and said, “which of you beauties can I help first today?”

We both smiled, and I indicated that the older woman had arrived first. He turned to her and proceeded to compliment her lovely scarf and then the flowers she had selected. He took his time to wrap them in three layers of different colored but complimentary tissue paper, and then finished it off by tying ribbons around it with a flourish. He tossed her one more compliment and she left with a smile.

He turned to my husband and I, and then spoke to my husband. “If I had a woman like that, I would buy her flowers, too.” My husband rolled his eyes at me, and I smiled and told the shopkeeper that we were actually there to buy flowers for my mother-in-law. He clapped his hands together. “Oh, what a beautiful daughter-in-law you are! So nice. And a great accent. Where are you from?”  We chatted, or he chatted me up, while he put our arrangement together. While we spoke, a mother pushing a stroller entered the shop. He called to her that he would be with her in a moment, then returned his full attention to me and my flowers. He took his time with our arrangement, and when he was done he handed it to me with a wink and a smile.

As we left, I heard him say to the mother, “I saved you for last so I could be alone with you!” It was so over the top that this normally cringe-worthy comment came out sounding charming and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

Even though, at this point, I knew the flirting was all part of the game – all part of French customer service – as I left, I felt a little lighter on my feet, and my skin felt warm all over. I was a beautiful woman and a beautiful daughter-in-law. That shopkeeper made my day. And next time I need flowers in Paris, I’ll go straight to his shop. He’s found a customer for life. If that’s not the result of excellent customer service, then I don’t know what is.