the best of words, the worst of words: foi and impossible

Asking native French speakers to tell me, in French, their favorite and least favorite words and to explain their choices is a good way for me to practice conversational French and also possibly learn some new words. Thus, the best of words, the worst of words. A couple of weeks ago, I targeted my colleague, Serge, for this delightful-to-me/bemusing-to-him exercise.

Serge is a soccer-playing, West African record-spinning, ethnic cuisine-sampling Burkinabè who also spent time growing up in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. I find it inspiring and awesome that nearly every day he does the rounds, visiting cubicles on two floors of our section for friendly little tête à têtes – and it was during one of these that he told me his best and worst words.

He wanted to start with his least favorite word:

Serge's least favorite word: impossible

Impossible = well, impossible. Because, “Rien est impossible. C’est une histoire d’energie. Si tu penses que tu peux faire quelque chose, tu peux le faire, mais ça demande une certaine discipline, l’obligation, courage. Donc le mot ‘impossible,’ je ne l’utilise jamais.” [Nothing is impossible. It’s about your energy. If you think that you can do something, you can do it, but it takes some discipline, commitment, courage. So I never use the word ‘impossible.’] I asked Serge if there’s ever been anything he’s wanted to do but not been able to manage, and with a confident shake of his head he replied, “No.” (I wish I could say the same.)

Serge’s favorite word is the other side of the coin:

Serge's favorite word: foi

Foi = faith. Because: “Croire en soi, peu importe la situation, tout ira bien.” [If you believe in yourself, no matter what the situation, everything will be okay.] For Serge it’s a question of both religious faith and confidence in himself, though he added, “La confiance en moi vient de Lui.” [My self-confidence comes from God.]

So, it appears that Serge and I are polar opposites: he’s an optimistic man of faith, and I’m an agnostic ball of anxiety. But we are in agreement when it comes to our love of West African music. So I will take this opportunity to publicly remind Serge that he still owes me a mix tape. 🙂

my New York bucket list

Broadway Restaurant

I finally made it to Grant’s Tomb last week, crossing one more item off my NYC bucket list. It had been on my to-do list since college, when I lived less than ten blocks away but somehow failed for four years to muster the enthusiasm to visit.

I’m more motivated this summer than I have been during other times in my NYC residency, when the feeling of being here indefinitely made it easy to put them off for another day. Now that I have a sense that I’ll be leaving the city soon for an indeterminate length of time – which, in all honesty, could be as short as a month, who knows – I’m making more of an effort to see the city as a tourist would. Which is fun, even if I end up being a New Yorker for life.

Here are the other long-neglected items on my NYC (and environs) bucket list:

I’ve gotten it down to a reasonable size, I think. Here’s what I’ve crossed off the list in the past year or so:

[Photo of Broadway Restaurant, one of the many amazing old-school diners where I’ve eaten over the past few months]



I’ve been receiving daily emails with worldwide airfare deals for the past month or so, with the intention of choosing my next vacation destination based on the loose equation: farthest I can go for the cheapest amount. I passed up a $600 Seoul ticket I saw the very first day I looked, because I couldn’t get the dates to work out quite right, and I hadn’t seen anything else super great since then… until the $550 ticket to Hong Kong that appeared this week.

I asked my friend whose job sends her to Hong Kong every few years whether she’d be there any time soon. Luckily enough, she’s going for a conference over Thanksgiving. I promptly invited myself to share her hotel room, and when she said she was thinking about adding on a trip to the mainland this time I proposed that we visit the “rainbow mountains,” which look like just about the most beautiful place on earth:

Zhangye Danxia

She responded that she actually wanted to visit the “other” mountains, the ones in Avatar, which appear to be equally jaw-dropping, and which I also would love to visit:

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

Over the course of the night I went from thinking I’d maybe do a four-day jaunt in Hong Kong to planning an epic mountain range-hopping adventure. My Chinese colleague only added fuel to the fire the next day when she said that flights within China are super-cheap and I should be able to jump from place to place, no problem.

So I freaked out about this trip of a lifetime I was about to take. Except that when I looked into it further, there were plenty of problems. First and foremost, the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park where the rainbow mountains are is fairly impossible to get to without a 2-day journey of planes, trains and automobiles, all of which add up to quite a bit more than the $150 my colleague had promised. The Avatar mountains – Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – are only slightly more accessible – but only from Beijing, where roundtrip airfare from New York is definitely not on sale. So my epic adventure – which by the time I finished the research had grown in my mind to include a bullet train ride to various stops along the Silk Road as well as a foray into the Gobi Desert – was over before it began.

Back to square one. 😦

[Zhangye Danxia photo: Eric Pheterson; Zhangjiajie National Forest Park photo: Viktor Lövgren]

le week-end is here


… and I’m going to spend it doing, well, not much. On Saturday I may go for a run and on Sunday I’m going to sit on a boat during magic hour and eat lobster. Or maybe just watch other people eat lobster. I may also inspire myself to do some laundry. Maybe I’ll work on my little video project. Maybe, maybe not.

I hope your weekends are more ambitious than mine, if that’s what you’re going for. Me, I’m looking forward to letting myself off the hook for a couple of days. (That’s such a lie. I have been lazy all week.)

On that note, I leave you with some links that as always, I meant to post sooner, but that regardless, remain fresh and delightful and ripe for the viewing:

Watch two men arrange to meet at a cafe – through a Turkish whistle language (!!!)

American behaviors considered rude in other countries

Foreign language apps for traveling abroad

How to vacation like it’s 1999

Vacation planning tips and tricks 

I like these Parisian photos for voyeurs

Of course the hitchhiking robot met his demise in America

The full movie version of Antoine in America

Have a good weekend!

[Photo: Joe Penniston]

I shouldn’t have done it

rose-flavored ice cream

Tonight on my way to the subway, I passed Ladurée, the Parisian macaron shop. Even though I hold as objective truth than one should never step foot in foreign outposts of shops that are beloved institutions in their home countries, I did anyway. Blame my overactive bladder and preference to use the bathroom in a fancy French café over a McDonalds: once in the door, I couldn’t help but eye the offerings. And when I noticed rose glace on the menu, the battle was over before it began. I had been on the lookout for floral-flavored ice cream above all other food in France, because I remember like it was yesterday the moment I had my first taste of fleur glace from a street vendor in Paris two decades ago. One of the best things I have ever tasted. And yet, I could not for the life of me find flower-flavored ice cream in wintry Paris. No street vendors in sight, and the shops only had rose sorbet.

All this to say, I quickly abandoned my deeply-held convictions and ordered a scoop of Ladurée’s rose glace, from an excessively sweet waitress with a Staten Island accent. It tasted delicious in the way American ice cream can taste delicious, but it was not at all like the life-altering French ice cream I had in 1993. While eating, I eavesdropped on conversations transpiring in English. I paid with dollar bills.

And I felt the looming threat of tarnishing the memory of the Ladurée in Saint Germain, where I bought macarons made more heavenly by the knowledge they came into existence in their motherland, were sold in a luxe shop that would have been guillotined during the French Revolution, and were requested in halting French from snooty employees who couldn’t be bothered with silly American customs like politeness. Ladurée should never have crossed the Atlantic.

And I should never have followed that ice cream with chocolate… but that’s a story for a different blog.

phishing in French

weird baby doll head

I was honored recently to have received my first scam email in French. I like to tell myself that I ended up on the distribution list because the phishers have sophisticated hacking technology that determined my French proficiency to be high enough to warrant trying to rip me off in that language. (Why not?)

For your edification, I share the heartbreaking story and the dying last wishes of Baby Gagnon (aka Mr. Baby, a name I may steal for my nom de plume):

Bonsoir à vous,

Excusez moi de cette manière de vous contacter, je viens d’apercevoir votre profil qui après tant de jours de prières est le seul a retenir mon attention voilà pourquoi je vous fais part de ce qui m’arrive.

En effet, je me présente Gagnon Baby et je suis au États-Unis d’Amérique (Washington)pour mes soins, J’étais propriétaire d’une entreprise d’importation du Café et Cacao en Cote D’ivoire, et j’ai perdu mon épouse il y a de cela 3 ans, ce qui m’a beaucoup affecté et je n’ai pu me remarier jusqu’à ce qu’on me dise un jour que je souffre d’une maladie qui me condamne à une mort certaine,J’ai un cancer qui est en phase terminale, c’est un cancer de voie aéro-digestive supérieures qu’on appelle généralement cancer de la gorge ce qui se forme dans le larynx ou dans le pharynx. Ces 2 organes creux regroupent l’ensemble des organes de la déglutition, de la voie et de la respiration. Ils sont situés dans la zone qui commence derrière le nez et qui descend jusqu’au cou, mon médecin traitant vient de m’informer que mes jours sont comptés du fait de mon état de santé dégradé. Selon ce que le Docteur m’a justifié, une boule s’installe présentement dans ma cage cérébrale. Je me sens très mal et j’ai très peur, Je et je dispose d’une somme de 2.000.000 €uros dont je voudrais faire Don a une personne de confiance et honnête avant ma mort puisque mes jours sont comptés faute de cette maladie au quelle je n’ai eu de remède. J’aimerais donc que vous en fassiez un bon usage (Crée un orphelinat à mon nom afin de prendre soin des enfants démunis, Luttez contre les mauvaises maladies, aidez les familles pauvres etc.) voilà pourquoi je fais de cette somme un don,

Veuillez me contacter directement a mon adresse émail :

Sur ce je vous laisse donc et j’espère que vous m’aiderez tout en bénéficiant de ce don afin de réaliser mon vœux le plus cher au monde j’ai plus d’autres options.

Je reste dans l’espoir de vous lire

Mr Baby

[Photo: Andy McLemore]

soy un fan de estoy

butterfly emerges from chrysalis

The neatest thing about beginner’s Spanish: as the third of three related languages that I know in full or in part, learning it has allowed me to triangulate between them all. I’ve started to connect things about one or two of the languages through its/their relation to the third.

For example, because there is only one verb for to be in both English and French (être), and because the concept of being is exactly the same in both languages, I expected Spanish to follow suit. It was really surprising and confusing to learn that Spanish uses ser for one way of being and estar for another.

Ser =

when talking about: identity / description / the time / an event or occasion (unless asking where an event is happening, for which estar is used)

Estar =

when talking about: health / location / condition / sentiments

In class, I asked whether I could think of ser as referring to constants and estar as referring to temporals. My teacher poo-pooed me and told me to forget that nonsense and just memorize the rules above.

But I like the idea too much to abandon it, even if it’s not entirely accurate. I love that Spanish differentiates between being something firmly and concretely and being something transiently. I’m sick now, but I won’t always be sick. I’m in a hovel now, but soon I’ll be somewhere else. The tacos are terrible today, but tomorrow they could be wonderful. Okay, so I’m romanticizing, but to me estar seems nothing short of leaving room for hope.

[Photo: Vicki DeLoach]

placement test jitters


Before I can register for my next Spanish class, I have to take a placement test. It’s a one-shot deal, no do-overs. And I haven’t attempted to speak a word of Spanish since my last class ended in April.

This is like my recurrent anxiety dream – the one in which I find myself back in high school having skipped the entire semester and with my final exams happening that very day – come to life.

I can’t decide which will be worse in the event I get placed into a beginner’s Spanish class for the third time in my life – the injury to my pride, or the utter boredom.

[Photo: Xavi]