Post-thanksgiving Paris-centric links…

French turkey

…because even on the most American of days I still had Paris on my mind:

A secret apartment in the Eiffel Tower

A fake Paris built to protect the real Paris

I googled “Paris January weather,” sure that the results would discourage me. Instead, I’m totally sold.

Avoir un merveilleux week-end, mes amis!

I love it when a plan comes together

blurred stars in parisAfter I went to see one of my favorite bands play in Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago, I told Philippe he should see them when they come to Paris in January. He had recommended Agnes Obel to me, and I liked her music a lot, so I thought I’d return the favor.

Well, somehow or other I started joking about jetting off to Paris for the weekend just to see the Stars show. And then somehow or another I started seriously considering it… And then I looked up the price of flights, reality checked myself, and went back to figuring out how to put my real January plan to take a Spanish class into action. I had heard about a 5-week course offered by Instituto Cervantes that would have been perfect in many ways, except that the 6pm start time would butt up against my work hours. I was searching for better options but I hadn’t found any.

Then today I came home to two pieces of mail that serendipitously fit together like pieces of a puzzle: the NYU Continuing Education course catalog, and the same Delta miles credit card offer I get on a monthly basis. I noted that NYU has a February – April intensive beginner’s Spanish class that starts at 6:45, costs less per hour than Cervantes, covers two semesters of Spanish in one, and provides a reason to leave the house all winter. Perfect.

I read the terms of the credit card offer and realized that if I put the class on my new card I’d be halfway towards earning the 50,000 miles they promise you’ll get after spending $1,000 on it within the first three months. If I hope and pray and wait for a post-holiday fare sale and then put a $500 Paris flight on the card (do $500 NYC-Paris flights still exist?), I’d get a $50 credit and end up with almost 70,000 Delta miles to my name, enough to go almost anywhere in the world for free for my next trip. Which would be really convenient in April, after I finish the Spanish class and want to reward myself with a week of immersion somewhere like Mexico City, or Valparaiso, or Southern Spain. Two trips for the price of one. Mucho perfecto!

I signed up for the card and I’m already fantasy packing my suitcase…

And listening to the people who inspired it all, on repeat:

(Photo by Ilhan Gendron of “blurry stars in Paris” – an appropriate choice for this post about my blurry plan to see Stars in Paris.)


Albertine bookstoreI visited the new bookstore in the French Embassy because a. it looked like a beautiful space – cozy and snug and perfect for escaping the frigid temperatures last week, and b. because I want to read in French for 15 minutes a day as a way to review grammar and vocabulary without opening up a textbook.

I asked the bookseller for a beach read because I figured I need simple language and an easy but engaging plot to overcome the boredom I’ll inevitably feel at moments when I lose the thread of what’s going on. Somehow I ended up instead with a translation of a Patti Smith short story collection. I understand every third word. Good thing the stories are about three pages each, so that by the time I get exasperated enough to abandon one, I’m already on to the next.

Once I’m done “reading” this book, I’m excited to go back to Albertine. It’s such a gorgeous space, and I already have my next book picked out: a young adult novel called “Dentiste Diabolique” that I spotted on my way out. Promises to be a much easier read. 🙂

(Photo: Albertine interior)

Si se puede: Jan Fertig edition

Aba in the army

For the second installation of Si Se Puede, in which I interview later-in-life-language-learners about how they got over the proficiency hump, I talked to my dad. Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, he moved to Israel when he was nineteen and to the United States when he was 28. He arrived in both places speaking no more than a few words of the respective country’s language, and he managed to learn both Hebrew and English remarkably well despite his claim that he can no longer speak any language – even his native tongue – fluently. Hoping the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to language acquisition, I attempted to pick his brain about how to do it:

How much Hebrew did you know when you moved to Israel?

As kids we had a little book, it was for children, it had all the two-Hebrew-letter words: dag [fish], gag [roof], yad [hand], vav [hook], I still remember all their pictures. That was it.

So when you moved to Israel how did you feel about having to learn another language?

I didn’t have to learn that. Everyone speaks millions of other languages there. I came with one of my brothers and a bunch of Czech and Slovak kids together. We came in ’69… 100 kids went at summertime to work in a kibbutz [communal farm]. They [the Israeli immigration agency] sponsored the trip and they thought that all of us are eager to leave Czechoslovakia, that all of us will stay in Israel, and that was not a very big success. Many went back to Czechoslovakia or to other countries.

So you went, and at what point did you realize you weren’t going back?

When my father called from Vienna and said he left and he’s not going back. [He was on his way to Germany with the rest of the family; they would eventually resettle in Israel.] He said we could go back to Czechoslovakia if we want, but it will not be because of him, because of the parents, because they are not there. And he said that was his excuse to stay in Czechoslovakia when Hitler came, he had older parents and couldn’t take his parents with him. All his friends left to Israel, all kinds of places, and he stayed because of his parents.

So how did you feel when you knew you were staying?

Eh, I didn’t care.

So what was going through your mind when you realized you had to learn another language and another culture?


What do you mean, nothing?

We didn’t care.


I don’t know, why should we care? We were in a group of Czech kids.

At what point did it become difficult?

Who said it became difficult?

How did they assimilate you?

Who said they assimilated us?

Well, what did you do?

We enrolled in the university. Classes were in Hebrew. First year they put us in a mechina academait. That’s like an ulpan [an intensive immersion class]. So we learned Hebrew there. I think it was for a year, I don’t know.

Aba 2

my dad and his eldest brother

So by the end of the year you spoke Hebrew?


So what do you remember from the ulpan?

From the ulpan, one thing I remember. [My mom cuts in here: The teacher you liked.] Yeah, one teacher I fell in love with. Then another teacher, I got into big trouble. Huge trouble. One day she mentioned the word televisia (television) and then she looked at us, the Eastern Europeans, and said, “You know what televisia is?” and I said, “Lo, ma zeh?” [No, what is it?] And the rest of the day she was trying to explain what a televisia is. At the end she figured that I probably knew it all the time. Then I had to avoid her for several weeks.

So when you went into the wide world, was it frustrating that you couldn’t speak Hebrew?

No, everyone speaks Russian or something. [My dad learned Russian for years in school.]

Tell me about some faux pas you made at the beginning because you didn’t know the culture or the language.

My cousin told me that in Israel you have to bargain for everything; you cannot pay the price they ask you for. We understood that to mean everything. So we went to buy eggs, and so the seller said, “Each egg, 10 agorot,” and we said, “We’ll give you five.” He said, “No. For five I have these little eggs,” like D eggs or something. So that was the first experience, they wouldn’t let us bargain for eggs.

Another time, we were making schnitzels so we went to buy breadcrumbs. So we went to the store and we said, “Lechem,” [bread]. So they gave us big bread. So we said, ‘yoter katan’ [smaller]. So they gave us a roll. ‘Od yoter katan,’ [even smaller]. ‘Od yoter katan’… So it took us a while to get breadcrumbs.

When did you realize that you could speak Hebrew?

[Shrugs shoulders]

So when did you stop translating in your head?

I don’t remember.

The thing is with two brothers and a group of those Czechs that stayed there, we all went to the same school more or less, the same everything, and then we all went to Hebrew University. We were all in Jerusalem together so it didn’t really matter if you know the language, don’t know the language. We played bridge with a bunch of Polish guys and Polish and Czech is very close together… so we didn’t need any Hebrew.

Aba 1

hanging with the Czech kids

What about for your classes?

I was studying math; for math you don’t need to understand the language very much. My biggest problem in Israel was when I started computer science for master’s degree because the teacher was American, and he was giving lectures in English. I didn’t understand a word.

So what did you do?

I didn’t finish.

So when you met Ima [my mom, who is from Brooklyn, moved to Israel in her 20’s and also learned Hebrew as a second language], you were able to have full conversations with her in Hebrew?

Well I guess, yes. Whatever conversations we did.

So when Ima brought up the idea of going to America, what was your initial reaction?

We didn’t go permanently, we went to visit for a year or two.

So how did you feel when she brought that up?

Nothing. What? Why not?

But you didn’t speak English.


Weren’t you worried about how you’d find a job?

Uh, no.

Why not?

I didn’t worry about anything! When I was younger I was worry-free.

en route to America with my brother

en route to America with my brother

How did you feel about the prospect of learning English only a few years after you learned Hebrew? And starting over again?

Yeah, it was difficult. I did not think about it. I just did whatever was to be done. I did go to school to learn English in Brooklyn.

So you didn’t start learning English until you came here?

I knew seventeen words in English. One through seven, club, diamond, heart, spade, double, re-double, pass, no trump, I think that’s it.

Also I could read in English because I was reading bridge books but I didn’t have any clue how to pronounce any of these things because I never heard it pronounced. Like “species.” If you look at that it looks like some “spetzies.”

So I learned English by reading bridge books, more or less by context I figured what it means, but then even years after, I was still connecting the written word with the spoken word. You know, that it’s really the same thing, I never knew. So for me English is like two languages – the written language, which I knew from reading bridge books and math books, and then the spoken language. Many times I know the pronunciation of a word because I hear it over and over, and I know the word written, but I realize only now that, “Oh, that’s the same thing.”

So what was your experience learning English versus learning Hebrew?

In the mechina, I think it was a year, so I learned a lot of grammar, vocabulary. In English, I learned much less, it was a month or two, the classes I took. That was a quickie.

How did you learn English beyond the two months?

Just by talking. I went to job interviews and…

How did you feel on job interviews when you had to speak in English?

Yeah, it wasn’t easy. Some guy explained to me how to get dressed for an interview, and what to do and all that.

Aba 6

When did you start feeling comfortable in English?

I don’t know. Never? No, ten, fifteen years maybe.

So I have memories of you when you didn’t feel comfortable in English?

Yeah. I learned English together with you and Ronnie on Sesame Street.

Aba 8

Why did you speak English to us instead of Hebrew when you felt more comfortable in Hebrew?

I didn’t feel comfortable in Hebrew either.

So why didn’t you speak to us in Czech?

Because I already forgot Czech by that time. I’m telling you, I’m a mess, I don’t know any language. It’s all mixed up. When I am tired all the words are coming out in all kinds of languages and people look at me like, what am I talking about, I’m dropping in words from here, from there. When I have to speak in multiple languages at the same time, I get confused which language to use when.

When did you start thinking in English?

I don’t remember any more. Same thing in Hebrew, I remember there was one day when I started dreaming in Hebrew but I don’t know when was it. But I think that is the turning point, when you start dreaming in the other language, that’s it, you are over. But counting, I still count in Czech.

Which is the language you feel most comfortable in now?

Now, English.

Tell me how switching languages twice has changed your personality.

I think it makes you more introvert, because you don’t know how to say it, you don’t say it, you know? So you are more closed to yourself. By the time you start knowing the language and the people and all that, you start over again.

So how did you end up staying in America?

I don’t know. Never decided to go back.

And you’re ok with that even though your whole extended family is in Israel?

I’m ok with, you know, anything.

What’s your advice to me to learn French at such an advanced age?

The only way to learn it is to speak it. Go to France! School won’t do it. You can learn the basics but after that you have to speak.

Thank you to my father for an entertaining conversation that revealed a great truth, applicable far beyond the language learning sphere: things are a whole lot easier when you’re ok with, you know, anything. I need to start putting that wisdom into action.

stockpiled links

bathroom readers

Have been meaning to share these for awhile… Luckily none of them are time-sensitive and perhaps they even get better with age. 🙂

Awesome idioms from around the world (my favorite is the Polish one)

Andre in Argentina! (My personal motherlode – French practice & Argentine nostalgia)

Ways (beyond Duolingo) to learn Spanish on your phone

A new (beautiful) French bookstore has opened in NYC

How to be French

This book sounds right up my alley

So does this one about French food idioms

j’aime la nouvelle vague

Hiroshima Mon Amour poster

A belated blurb about “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” the Alain Resnais new wave classic that I caught last week at Film Forum (perfectly timed with my Tokyo afterglow):

The same poetic, overwrought melodrama that tarnishes the script’s beauty with a hefty dose of cheese has the exact opposite effect on the composition, which is the height of elegance and artistry. Every shot is so perfectly framed that, well, it could be framed. Look at these!:

Hiroshima Mon Amour film still Hiroshima Mon Amour film still Hiroshima Mon Amour film still Hiroshima Mon Amour film still

Jaw-droppingly gorgeous, no?

I spent the movie enraptured by the cinematography and appreciative that even though the screenplay didn’t speak to me in the traditional sense, it spoke to me in the literal sense. As in, it was sparse, repetitive and simple enough for me to understand 90% of it without subtitles.

French practice, eye candy, and a warm movie theatre on a cold night = perfection.

one night in Tokyo…

7pm sit down to eat in shibuya

…and the world’s your oyster. (Sung like this.)

On the way back from the Philippines my colleague, Tyler, and I had a 21-hour layover in Tokyo, which really amounted to 12 hours excluding all the time spent on the way to or from or in the airport. Even though I had a horrible head cold, sore throat and laryngitis and felt I could barely make it another 12 minutes without falling over, I knew there was no question I would stay up all night to take full advantage of those 12 hours.

So here you have it, my one amazing night in Tokyo, hour by hour:

2pm flying into Narita2pm flying into narita

3pm Narita Airport

3pm amazing toilet optionsFirst observation in Tokyo: their toiletry is awesome; their toiletry signage is even more awesome.

4pm Narita Express into Tokyo4pm on the narita express into tokyo

5pm freebies at Shibuya hotel check-in shibuya creston hotel checkinI took five face towels – their exfoliating powers were ridiculous. This after rather blindly wandering the streets, trying to match up the Japanese lettering on the map with the Japanese lettering on street signs (and finding not one person who spoke a lick of English).

6pm mad dash to Harajuku…

6pm fashion forward in harajuku

…where, as expected, everyone looked over the top amazing. The photo above is by far not the best outfit we saw (though I would like to point out that this person’s hair, hat, bag, bag charms, and sneakers all matched). But it’s the only photo I managed to take that is not completely out of focus because I’m trying so hard to not get caught taking photos.

7pm mad dash back to Shibuya in time to meet the in-laws for dinner

7pm dinner with inlaws

My brother’s wife’s parents were coincidentally in Tokyo at the same time as me for a conference, so we met up for dinner. The hotel recommended a place that seemed boring but on the way we passed a narrow, packed izakaya (sort of like a pub) that looked fairly amazing from the outside and was ridiculously incredible on the inside. The employees were all women who were utterly wacky and found every possible excuse to jump up and down, clap wildly, and put on googly eye glasses. The food was fantastic, our sign-language communication was hilarious, the atmosphere was giddyness-inducing, and I began to become unhinged with joie de vivre.

8pm We are presented with a specially decorated dessert plate

8pm the pleasure is ours

The extra m in “comming” took me right over the edge and made my heart do flip flops.

9pm walking through Shibuya Crossing

9pm Shibuya Crossing

Supposedly the busiest intersection in the world. On the green light, everyone crosses every which way at the same time.

10pm caffeine break near Shibuya Crossing

10pm caffeine break with masked woman

Note the masked woman in the upper right. About 1 out of every 20 people in Tokyo was wearing a face mask. Though hacking up a lung, I was not. This made me slightly self-conscious. (Although I couldn’t figure out if the masks were to keep sickness in or to keep sickness out.)

11pm pachinko in Shibuya11pm pachinko in shibuya Tyler and I said goodbye to Jim and Judy and headed back out to wander among the Saturday night crowds. We passed a pachinko place and thought we’d have a go, but we came in about five minutes before they closed and they would not let us play. 😦

12am back in Harajuku en route to Shinjuku

12pm directions to shinjuku

With all night to kill, we decided to head back to Harajuku to properly check it out. In any case it was on the way to Shinjuku, our destination for karaoke. We asked a group of 20-somethings how to walk to Shinjuku and the only one who spoke a few words of English answered, “Walk?! No! No!” and mimed driving. We insisted, “Yes, we want to walk, we have all night.” He then bugged his eyes out of his head and shouted, “Walk??! AMAZING!” as he leapt into the air like Gene Kelly. Then they all started dancing and jumping around. I was starting to notice a very appealing trend…

12:30am pit-stop in Yoyogi

12am tissue stop in Yoyogi

We stopped in to a 24-hour pharmacy so I could buy tissues (my nose was running like a faucet and my laryngitis had gotten so bad that I could barely whisper.) We ended up talking/whispering abut baseball and universities with the cashier, Kazu, who had been a high school exchange student in the Twin Cities and was now studying to be a CPA while working nights. He was the only person we met in Tokyo outside of the airport who spoke more than six words of English. (Which is not to complain – I speak about eight words of Japanese, four of which I learned while there.)  We had a lovely conversation that catapulted me to very dangerous levels of heart-swell.

1am Karaoke Kan / the best four minutes of my life

1am karaoke in shinjuku

Crashed a karaoke session with the plea, “We’re here from New York for one night, can we sing with you?” To which they all started jumping wildly up and down and clapping. (To which I started jumping wildly up and down and clapping.) They told me to pick the song so of course I chose my karaoke standard. And then a miracle happened. Much like the Hanukkah lamp burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one, my singing voice came out for four minutes even though my speaking voice had been MIA for two days. We sang as though we had known each other forever, and I was transported with joy.

There’s video. I love it so, so much.

2am Halloween in Shinjuku

3am halloween in shinjuku

It was only October 19 so it was strange to see so many people in Halloween costumes. An ex-pat from England explained to us, “They love Halloween but they don’t really know what day it’s on so they just celebrate for the whole month.” I LOVE THIS PLACE.

3am admiring the view from the top of the Shinjuku Park Hyatt

2am view from the shinjuku park hyatt

We walked in like we owned the place, took the elevator to the penthouse, and entered a cavernous, completely dark, completely silent, completely empty lounge with floor to ceiling windows commanding 270 degree views of Tokyo. Having the place all to ourselves to just stare out at the vast city was pretty great.

4am all-night automat in Yoyogi4am automat in Yoyogi

We started back to Shibuya. Halfway there, we stopped at a 24-hour ramen place with a Nighthawks feel. It was empty except for 3 middle-aged besuited men who at first glance I took to be businessmen but then realized were security guards on lunch break. Tyler chose something at random from the automat machine because there were no pictures or English translations on the buttons. He handed the receipt to the cook, who made what turned out to be a bowl of ramen with a big piece of tempura in it. I didn’t bother trying my luck because about 99.99999% of the food in Japan has soy sauce in it, which contains gluten, which makes it off limits for me. 😦

5am sushi and hibachi in Shibuya

5am sushi

Back in Shibuya we tried to find a place where I could eat something, anything, but I got turned away at three places where they had literally no food that didn’t have soy sauce in it. Even the side order of egg was boiled in soy sauce at one place. Even the corn somehow had soy sauce in it! I was about to give up when we saw a restaurant on the corner that looked so hopping I wouldn’t have minded just sitting in there sipping green tea. But lo and behold they had sushi and Japanese barbeque, so I went nuts. I think I ordered three entrees. And it was so good. So good. I managed to eat incredibly well in Tokyo despite not being able to consume their most common ingredient.

The restaurant was packed with people who had also stayed out all night. A guy in the group next to us asked in very broken English where we were from. Tyler said, “New York.” He grinned from ear to ear and shouted, “New York! Cool! Cool!”

6am selfie as the sun comes up 6am selfie as the sun comes up

I was very proud of myself for staying out all night. And very, very, very intoxicated with living.

7am back to Narita

7am portrait with maximask

I half-jokingly decided to buy a Japanese mask for myself because my hacking had gotten out of control since I used lung capacity I did not have for karaoke. I bought a pink one that looked and felt like a maxi-pad. It was surprisingly comforting except that every time I breathed or laughed, my glasses fogged up.

And then we were back in Narita, and then back on a plane, and then back in New York.

It’s so surreal to spend one brief night somewhere halfway around the world but have that night be so intense and many-splendored that it leaves a lifetime’s impression.

I hope to get back to Japan one day. It rocked my world.

folletos y signos


In the waiting room of the doctor’s office recently, I read the “patient’s bill of rights” in Spanish. Pamphlets are extremely easy relative to other reading materials, since they stick to simple language and sentence structure so that people at any reading level can comprehend. They are therefore an excellent way to convince yourself that you know more of a language than you actually do. What a pick-me-up!

On a related note, here’s a sign I once saw in the hospital:

es la ley sign in hospital

At first I thought dar a luz must mean something about giving out to the light, i.e. fainting, but then at the mention of del nino que aun no ha nacido (the baby that is not yet born) I realized I might be a wee bit off.

The English version confirmed my suspicion:

it's the law sign

Isn’t it cool that in Spanish, “to give birth” translates literally as “to give to light”? I love it!

(Top photo:Landahlauts)

back in the saddle

lego cowboy

I was out of town for two weeks and sick / working nonstop for another two upon my return, so I skipped a bunch of French conversation meetups. This Monday’s was the first one I went to in a month, but somehow, I found that the time away had solidified things instead of making me forgetful. Talking and understanding came easier than usual.

I had a different experience with running. Since I started two years ago, I haven’t gone more than two and a half weeks without at least a cursory jog just to keep myself in the game. I heard that two weeks is the amount of time you can go without exercise before you start to lose your ability to perform at the same level, so I didn’t expect much when I went for a run late last week. In fact, I practically had to drag myself out of the house because I really hadn’t missed running at all and had become okay with the idea of never doing it again. I was surprised to be able to go nearly as long and far as I usually do (which is not long or far at all), but my legs hurt like hell the next day, and I have now developed a mysterious gimpy knee after having no knee problems ever. And when I went out again a few days later I could barely go a mile.

Still, I was glad to be back in action after so long away and even though it’s going to be tougher to get back to running than it was to return to French, it’s my only form of exercise and (theoretically) makes me feel better, so I’m going to force myself to do it until my apathy and sluggishness wane and it comes naturally again.

Scientifically speaking, I wonder: when you leave something alone for awhile and then return to it, what goes on in your brain and your body? What happened physiologically to make French easier and running harder?

(Photo: Happy Kiddo 4Ever)