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Bonding moments with the French

22 Feb

In the classroom

We are playing exquisite corpse, a group drawing game.

Sulky teenage student: What point does this serve for learning English?
Me: None. I thought you guys might want to not work for a change.
Student: (appreciating irony of statement, laughs uproariously)

We are writing and performing short dialogues between a waiter and a customer in an American pizza parlor.

Student (as waiter):  And would you desire a coffee after your pizza meal?

Student (as customer):  Yes.  Please make mine zucchini-less.

In and around Saint Jean

C:  We’re going to eat some cakes.  You like that?

P:  Paris—the most beautiful city in all the world, and maybe the most beautiful in all France.

C:  (in front of the perpetually broken copy machine in the staff room)  I just kick it hard when it’s not working.

On the train

Man sitting across from me:   My apartment in Bordeaux just burned down, but normally I fight bulls in the Basque country.

Woman with high-pitched, metronomic voice:  (at her mobile)  Hallo?…Hallo?…Hallo?…HaLLO?… (this just after realizing we were on the wrong train, headed far away from our intended destination)

SNCF woman*: Saintes. Ici, Saintes. (jingle cue:  dum Da duh DA dum)

SNCF woman: Arles.  Ici, Arles.

SNCF woman:  L’enfer.  Ici, votre enfer à vous.  Attention au débarquement.  (“Hell.  Here, your own personal hell.  Watch your step on descending.”)

*Her name is Simone Hérault.   She is interviewed, in French, on the SNCF site.  I was amazed to find that she is actually a real person who exists, and not a callous robot created to blithely announce that all departing trains are to be delayed for the next 5 years…merci pour votre comprehension.

Excuse my accent, my mouth is full

7 Jan

Speaking French sometimes feels like I’m trying to manuever my tongue around a mouth crammed full of dry beans.  There are these things in French called back-rounded vowels, and though I’m now much better at hearing the difference between these and the regular front-rounded vowels — and even getting better at saying them — they can still throw me for a loop.

Today, talking with my French copain and the guy who waits at the Moroccan restaurant down the street, I was able to follow mere bits and pieces of the conversation.  They were talking about rock salt for icy sidewalks (it snowed yesterday, and since no one in Charente Maritime owns a shovel, everything froze overnight into lumpy impassable ice sheets), then jumped to Elvis Presley, and finally ended up at the music awards festival in Cannes.   I think.  It must have been a logical progression, I’m sure.  It’s bewildering — I understand nearly all the words, but without a context in which to place them, it’s like just listening to a stream of French with no underlying meaning.  And it doesn’t help that I still think in English, the language in which I write and occasionally reason with myself. I have had dreams in French, but how useful is a huge bowl of shrimp cooing “Quelle heure est-il?” after waking up?

After over three months, it mystifies me:  there are some conversations I can follow perfectly, and others where it’s still like I just got off the plane, but even without having taken five years of French lessons beforehand.  The difference, I believe, is in the slang.  That’s right, French slang.  It’s like the language that the geezers who wrote French dictionaries forgot to include.  There are dozens of useful resources, in print and online, to help one acclimate to the particular argot tongue.  If you’re of a studious inclination, this is the route for you. But if you, like me, enjoy complicating your life, you could instead choose to stagger your way through each day in France as if in a half-conscious fog of the chatter going on around you.  “Décoller” means to unstick, but it’s used in the sense of “should we take off now?”  Or “ça mange pas de pain,” more of a traditional expression than slang, but still often heard to mean ” it can’t hurt.”  In other words, no one will eat any of your precious baguette if you just give it a try.

An edible Yuletide log in France is called a “bouche de noël.”  To say “bouche” requires saying the English vowel “e,” as in “evil,” but instead of stretching your lips back over your teeth, round them towards the front in an “O” shape, as if giving someone a hammed-up kiss.  My students couldn’t get enough of making me repeat this word over and over:  “une bouche de noël, madame.”  “Buche?”  “Non, madame, bouche.” “Boooche?”  “Non, non, c’est pas ça.”  Hahaha; and any meagre level of authority I might have managed to build up in the past hour is up and gone out the window.

But then again, why should I want to be an authority figure with these students?  They live in France; they already have plenty of authority figures in their lives.  This is one of my few new year’s resolutions:  to make class more fun and interactive for the students, because amazingly enough, it’s better for me too this way.

This week I played “loaded question” with one of my classes.  I wrote a series of  questions for the students, who were divided into teams, to draw from and write answers to.  They then tried to match up each of their classmates with their respective responses.  Some of the questions were easy, like, “What’s your favorite city in France?”  Most had a slight edge to them:  “What would you do if you met Nicolas Sarkozy?”  “If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be?”  “What would you eat for 200 euro?”  In response to a question about waking up with whatever superpower one wanted, one student said that she would choose to stop time, in order to savor each moment as wholly as possible.

I can definitely relate to that wish.  My time here is already potentially half-over, as I haven’t bought my plane ticket back and am even now having to face the fact that I probably will not have enough money to stay much longer beyond the end of my contract.   To address this inconvenient truth, I have started scrimping even more on daily expenses in order to save a bigger percentage of my paycheck.  I also have put up ads for English lessons around town and at the high school.  Sometimes I wish I had paid attention when I was young, and had learned to bake from my mom, or fix cars and build houses, kitchen cabinets and other necessities from my dad.  But I was always buried in a book or otherwise wasting time.  Now I’m paying the price, in the form of not having any single practical skill aside from knowing how to speak English.   It’s ridiculous that I feel some unseen clock, biological or otherwise, ticking away at such a tragically young age.  But that’s what living in a foreign country — apart, perhaps, from a tropical island paradise — will do for you.  I am now much more conscious of how time truly does just fly by, gorgeous, intimate and impersonal.

Saint Jean, la grosse horloge

This January I anticipate much dreaming and scheming, and cooking.  February vacation might see me staying in Saint Jean, experimenting more intensely in the kitchen with French recipes, primarily quiche and chocolate-related food,  and finger tracing fantasy road trips on the maps of Italy and Spain, courtesy of AAA, tacked on my living room wall.  The Pyrénées, le Cinque Terre, Firenze, Corsica, Bretagne, Provence…just to mention a few of the places that I’d love to sink into and then casually, with a flick of my tire-bouchon, stop time.  Not for forever, just for long enough.

Christmas lights river, Saint Jean centre

Electric pigeon

Place du Tivoli, Saint Jean