Tag Archives: weather

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

 

Joyeux Noël

23 Dec

France is in full Christmas swing — that is to say, everyone is on vacation or wishing they were.  I have to say, it’s great craic being a teaching assistant.  I work twelve hours a week, not including lesson planning, and get two weeks of paid vacation about every two months.  I wish this were my real life.

I am spending Christmas with my friend and her family in Gap, a smallish city in the Hautes-Alpes region of Provence.  The air is bracingly cold and dry, just like home.   After the cushy rolling hills and flatness of Poitou-Charentes, it is at once a relief and a nostalgic pinch to be in the mountains again.  There isn’t much snow, but we may try to go skiing or snowshoeing this week anyway.

To get here, I had to effectively traverse all of France from west to east.  If you can cross a country in a day, then I think you are justified in calling it a small one.  All the same, it’s an entire day of traveling.  I got a free ride most of the way from the high school’s proviseur-adjoint (vice-principal).  We left Saint Jean around 9 am, barreling south down the autoroute past Bordeaux and Toulouse, where the sun made a half-hearted but beautiful appearance.  We stopped to eat our sandwiches and imbibe un vin chaud (hot spiced wine) in Carcassonne, a small town known for its fortified center, complete with brooding gothic church and medieval castle.  One of those  postcard images that bubbles up when thinking of France from afar — my colleagues laughed at me, again, when I told them of how ardently I wished to see Carcassonne.  “All the Americans want to see Carcassonne.  Why?  Why?  We don’t understand.”  Reply:  Because it’s a castle and wicked awesome and there’s no possible way of seeing something like that in the States, unless you go to Disneyland.  That’s why.

We drove on through the pouring rain past Montpellier and Nimes to Avignon, where I was disposed of at the station to await my Gap-bound train.  It snowed about three fingers worth all over France this past week, and the event has brought the country to a crashing halt.  Since all railroads lead to Paris, trains are being delayed and cancelled all over like some cheesy apocalypse Christmas movie.  Luckily, Gap is on the regional train line — le TER, a slower and smaller version of le TGV, where most of the delays are happening— so I passed under the radar this time around.   I had an hour to wait in a small rainy village south of Valence, so had a pint in the bar of a hotel next to la gare (which was painted a cheery canary yellow).  I listened to French men talk about soccer, learned a new expression for cheers, “à la ventre,” and was earnestly beseeched to please come back if I was ever in town again, because “we’re here most every night.  There’s nowhere else to go.”  When it rains hard in France, there’s a delightful expression to describe the weather:  “C’est les vaches qui pissent.”  It’s the cows that piss.  I prefer this more colorful version to the English one about cats and dogs.

I will post photos as soon as I get back to Saint Jean, because I forgot my camera cord at home.  Same goes for the Christmas photos of Saint Jean and Gap both.  In typical Lindsay fashion, I managed to send only about a third of my Christmas postcards — the “I’m thinking of you…economically” option — on time.  So these are forthcoming as well.

Joyeux Noël and Bonne Année — Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.