Friday, February 27, 2015

French Lessons

I frankly have no idea if my French is improving while I am here. Carol assures me that it is, and I guess it's probably true, although I always suspect her of keeping my morale up. It just happens too slowly to tell, and I am forever mired in the endless mistakes I make. My confidence, or obliviousness or whatever it is, is certainly improving, and I think I can tell that my "ear", my ability to grab language as it zooms by, is improving as well. But damn it's hard to express myself! I keep having this funny feeling when I am speaking to someone in French. I think of something to say-- still basically in English-- and I think, hmm, am I going to be able to say that? Nowadays I force myself go try, but even as I start I don't know if I am going to be able to get to the end of the sentence. Sometimes I surprise myself and do just fine, but other times I head down a dead-end and slowly grind to a halt. The other day I was homesick for the first time since I have been here. I miss my kids, dog and friends (not necessarily in that order) all the time, but really homesick. Do you know the feeling? Out of rhythm, away from small familiar things. I felt like watching the TV news, or listening to NPR in my car, or eating at El Puerto, or making small talk in the men's room at work, cursing without worrying if I was getting it right.

And I was tired of speaking French. Tired of not being able to be quite myself because I couldn't think how to say things. In a cool way, being here and trying to speak French is a way of being a different person that I am at home, but unfortunately that person has an IQ of about 70. Not really me, not really anyone. A made-up person in a language textbook having boring conversations about nothing. J'ai perdu ma plume dans le jardin de ma tante.

 Anyway, one nice thing is that despite stereotypes French people have been very nice about inviting us to their homes. For one thing it is fun to be thought of as a little exotic. Carol was invited over (with me) by an older single woman she met at the hospital, an occupational therapist. Actually I think this happened on my homesick day, and at the end of a long day getting my grant out I really didn't feel like it. But she seems nice, I was assured, so why not. Like many activities here, the reason was: it's a good venue for speaking French. Madame was indeed nice, so excited to have us over for a little "dinertoire" which turns out to mean a mini-dinner, a bit to to eat. She lives out in a nice suburb, still within range of the metro, which like all Paris suburbs was still a little institutional looking. We settled in, and the first sign of trouble came when Carol asked if she knew her neighbors. Well yes, she explained, but she doesn't get along with them, and launched into a long story of the fight she had with the man next door about a parking space. Never mind, but they are no longer speaking. Dinner was cocktail nibbles around the big table, and she had a bottle of champagne which she asked me to open. I poured a round and she knocked hers right back, turning to me while she jingled the bottom of her wineglass on the table. Ah, mon cher petit ami Eric, encore un verre! I filled her up. As the evening went on she got drunker and drunker, and the angry stories got stranger and stranger. She turns out to be one of seven siblings. Oh, that's interesting, where do they live? Well, she explained, she doesn't like any of them, and starting with the oldest she explained why, one by one. Encore un verre mon petit ami Eric! I'm not sure how her relationship status came up, I guess by now I figured she was divorced, but it turned out to be better than that. She explained calmly that she had been a bonne femme, a mistress, to a married man for the last twenty-five years. (Actually none of our French friends know the term bonne femme, but that is definitely how she described it.) She went into great detail about she and her lover headed off to Qatar, of all places, for a couple of trysts, how they still get together a couple of days a month, how much she hates his wife. Oy. By the end of the evening we weren't sure how much of all this was that she turned out to be a pretty strange lady, and drunk, as opposed to the French being less embarrassed about this kind of thing, which I think is true as well. At least we practiced our French.

 A much nicer experience was going to see Anna Christie at la Theatre de l'Atelier, on a beautiful little square in Montmartre.
I'm having some trouble getting the size of that image right... there you go.  The good thing about Anna Christie is that I could download it and read it in English before I went, so I had the general idea pretty firmly in my head before we went.  I'd say I batted around.750.  And actually in some ways it was an improvement, because the original is written in pretty dated English, with a lot of it in old Swedish-American working class dialect which sounds dated and a little racist nowadays.  (Remember Greta Garbo in the 1930 movie, saying, get me a visky, ginger ale on ze side, and dun't be skeempy, fella.")  I have often thought that non-English speakers would have an advantage watching Shakespeare, because they wouldn't have to feel bad about translating it into comprehensible modern language.

One more.  Michele (from the Pyrenees) is here with her daughter Rachel, who stayed with us in Cville eight years ago when she was 15.  We had dinner with some friends of theirs, they chose a restaurant called Le Crabe Marteau, a Breton place specializing in crabs.  The name means crab hammer.

It was actually a lot like an American crab place.  Newspaper on the table.  One difference is that the crabs are bigger than blue crabs, so you just get one of them, or half of one and six oysters.  They are more like snow crabs, with think shells you really have to smash.  They come and put bibs on you just like home.  It comes with a couple of kinds of flavored mayonnaise and a big wooden bucket of steamed potatoes.  Kind of New England clambake, a concept I thought about trying to explain but gave up on.  (How do you say seaweed?  How do you explain about burying it in the fire on the beach? Skip it.)  

I am starting real French lessons at L'Alliance Francaise next week.....

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