listening in

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One nice thing about learning a second language in adulthood is that you are never distracted by conversations happening around you. If you don’t really focus on comprehending the words being spoken, they remain easily ignored white noise. In both Senegal and France, I have discovered that I am able to zone out completely in public spaces, no matter how many people are speaking French around me.

It’s easy to tune out because it takes a conscious decision to tune in, whereas in English I process language subconsciously.

For example, on the metro in Paris, the buzz of speakers doesn’t annoy me the way it does on the subway in New York, because here it is just that – a buzz, without substance. It’s only when I pick up fragments of English that I’m snapped out of whatever reverie I’m in.

And yet. A few weeks ago I went to dinner and the table next to me started talking about cafards. Specifically, they started talking about the hugest cockroaches they had ever encountered and the gross ways in which they had encountered them. For the first time in my life, I could not help but understand everything they were saying, despite trying my hardest not to concentrate on them. It was like reverse psychology – the more I didn’t want to hear, the more I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

The irony was, I know French well enough to have picked up all too much of this group’s conversation, but not well enough to have been able to lean over and confidently yet politely state: “While you may be done dining, I have only just begun, and you are telling cockroach horror stories within earshot. I would appreciate if you would change the subject.” I hadn’t learned how to use bien vouloir yet, after all.

So I gave them dirty looks instead. But much like I remain deaf to French conversations in the metro, they took no notice of my American glares.

[Photo: Paul Sullivan]

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Drinking Sancerre in Sancerre

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It makes sense that the first (and let’s be honest, probably the last) poem I ever wrote in French was inspired by drinking Sancerre in Sancerre:

C’est clair, si je vais boire un verre,
Mon vin préféré, c’est sancerre
Maintenant je suis sûre,
Que la joie est plus pure
Quand on boit le sancerre sur sa terre.

(I’ll leave the translation to you.)

My first taste of Sancerre was during the spring semester of my senior year at college.

I went for drinks with other soon-to-be-graduating friends at a French-style bistro just off campus. We sat around a small outdoor table in the fresh April air of a faux Parisian terrace, eked out of a Manhattan sidewalk. I had only recently crossed over the divide into legal drinking, and the freedom of choice was thrilling. When a friend of a friend who seemed to come from a glitzy background suggested we order a bottle of Sancerre – her absolute favorite, she said – I was incredulous she could remember the name of a wine, annoyed that a 21 year-old claimed to have a specific wine preference, and even more annoyed that it just happened to be the most expensive one on the menu. We were college students, not college professors.

Still, when the bottle of almost-white rosé arrived and I took my first sip, I had to admit there was something special about this wine. It was crisp and refreshing, with a hint of sparkling grapefruit, and for the first time, I truly enjoyed drinking a glass of wine. I am not sure whether it actually tasted sophisticated or whether I simply read sophistication into the experience, but from that moment on I linked Sancerre with both exceptional taste and understated elegance. In the more than 15 years since that spring evening, it’s the only wine whose taste my ridiculously forgetful palate can identity, the only one I get excited to see on a wine list, and the only one I’ve ever splashed out for at a wine shop.

So, when I realized that the town of Sancerre was less than three hours from Paris, an idea inevitably took shape. How amazing would it be, I daydreamed, to drink a glass of Sancerre in Sancerre?IMG_3526
The answer is: incredibly amazing, especially if it’s a perfectly bright and crisp autumn day, your friend Simona is in town, and your only ambition is to wander around the countryside sipping wine and eating cheese.
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Some more pictures, after the jump… Continue reading

Thanksgiving in Paris

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Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrated last week! Thursday and Friday were work days here, so I hosted a belated potluck dinner on Saturday, after spending a small fortune at the Thanksgiving store (actual name), where they have a corner on the market for cranberries and pumpkin pie filling, and at my local rotisserie, where I ordered a 7kg bird that they cooked on a spit. Continue reading

It’s five years since I wrote a five-year plan

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Today I am feeling like this meme; just replace 2016 with 2012.

I have another blog, which I’ve kept up for ten years now. At this point it functions more as a private journal than a public site. The other day, I was searching for something there, and I got caught up reading old posts that I had long ago forgotten. I stopped short at one that I wrote just over five years ago. It was my five year plan.  Continue reading

Seville

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So, Seville. It’s such a many-splendored city that my selects folder has 44 photos in it, even though I usually stick to a 15-image limit for any one post.

First of all, it’s a rich and therefore gilded city. Second of all, its aesthetic has been shaped by several very different cultures –  Moorish, Catholic Spanish, and Gothic European. Sometimes all three influences are visible in one structure, to fascinating effect. Third of all, the ornateness and scale of the town’s three or four big eye-poppers is such that they are impossible to do justice to in only a couple of images. But, I scrapped a bunch of photos nevertheless, in order to leave you with what I hope is a nice and concise impression of a very nice and very grandiose city. Continue reading

le week-end is back

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And I’m moderately excited about it. But right now I’m pretty tired after an eventful week so I’m going to set down my links of interest and then get into bed:

Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly explains why white people shouldn’t use the n word. (Watch the video.)

Just this week I mentioned on this blog that I’d like to explore highlife music in greater depth, and today Teju Cole posted a Spotify playlist featuring just that (among other things). I’m listening right now and it’s great.

How filler words like um, uh, and huh serve a useful purpose. 

French teachers have taken a stand against patriarchal language, and I think it’s awesome.

A German class united in its hatred of their classmate Richard Spencer.

“Paris is a good place to remind yourself that everything ends.”

Meet the people who listen to podcasts at super-fast speeds. 

Gaudí’s first completed house in Barcelona is now open to the public. (Alina + Simona: Go!)

Have a good weekend!

[PS The photo above is from a film shoot at my corner cafe this week.]

 

a food and sweets-filled stroll through Saint-Germaine and the Latin Quarter

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I had two places to be today, in very different parts of the city that are both far from my apartment. The latter appointment was anxiety-provoking, and I decided that instead of heading back to my house for a few hours of work in between meetings, I would take the day off and enjoy some exploration and indulgence.

My ultimate destination was the Pantheon, but I ended up adding so many interstitial stops to my route that by the time I got there, I didn’t have enough time to go inside. That’s okay, though – I’ll head back another time, and I did lots of fun stuff instead.  Continue reading

chivalry is dead (but not in French)

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One thing I notice again and again about French texts, emails, and signs is how overly polite and flowery the language is. When reading them, I sometimes imagine the writer doffing his hat and bowing ceremoniously like the two little guys on the right. (Meanwhile, my attempts to replicate French politesse come out more like the one on the left.)

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Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. I’ll follow each French phrase with the most literal English translation I can give while still making sense:

In a professional email:

Auriez-vous lamabilité de bien vouloir m’indiquer le nom de…

Would you have the kindness to really want to indicate to me the name of…

In a doctor’s office waiting room:

Je vous prie de bien vouloir éteindre votre téléphone cellulaire…

I ask you to really want to turn off your cell phone.

[It took me ages to figure out bien vouloir, because it’s such a roundabout and redundant way to say if you please. You can take it out of any sentence it’s in and that sentence will still make sense; it’ll just be far less fancy.]

An email I received from a customer service agent after I ordered an iPhone from her, which I then picked up at an Apple store: 

Je me permets de vous contacter pour m’assurer de la bonne réception de votre commande…

I permit myself to contact you to assure myself of the successful receipt of your order.

The response after I sent the customer service lady a one-line note to confirm that I had, in fact, received my order:

Je vous remercie infiniment pour votre mail…

I thank you infinitely for your email.

After most first dates I’ve been on, within 1-24 hours of saying goodbye I receive some variation of: 

Merci pour ce très bon moment passé en ta compagnie…

Thank you for the very nice time spent in your company.

And instead of simply saying “bonne nuit,” some men text:

Je te souhaite une bonne nuit…

I wish you a good night.

The gentility of it alternately charms and annoys me. I am reminded of the episode of “Sex in the City” in which Carrie is dating a Russian played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he keeps surprising her with overly romantic gestures. Finally, she fakes a faint and begs him, “It’s too much. I’m an American. You gotta take it down a notch.”

What’s surprising is that for all the poetic politeness of French people when speaking in their own language, they think nothing of using the most dirty English. Case in point, the barber shop pictured at the top of this post. I passed it on a beautiful street in Aix-en-Provence, a town at the height of French loveliness and respectability.

This was not a one-off. I see English curses used in French signage right and left in Paris. And last month, my mouth dropped open when I scrolled past an Instagram post by a very chic Parisian hotel called C.O.Q. Hotel, whose logo is a rooster, i.e. a coq. The post said, “Le Coq Hotel offre une bouteille de vin BIG COQ au 6000e follower Instagram.” “The Coq Hotel offers a bottle of BIG COQ wine to the 6,000th follower on Instagram.” I googled: the wine does exist, and it’s clearly tongue in cheek, but… It’s still too much.

I live in a glass house of French faux pas, so I will be the last to throw stones. But I would thank the French infinitely if they’d bien vouloir confirm that their English is appropriate / non-ridiculous before making it part of their public marketing. Until then all I can do is shake my head and laugh a little.

my Senegal playlist

Before I left Senegal I gathered all the West and Central African songs that I had either heard for the first time and loved, or learned to love better, while in Dakar and I put them onto an itunes playlist. I just transferred them into a Spotify playlist so that I can share them with you:

If you are eagle-eyed / eagle-eared you will notice that one of these things is not like the others… I heard “Prayer in C” for the first (and second, and third, and fourth) time during a twelve-hour stint in the Casablanca airport and it grew on me so much that I googled the lyrics to identify it. When I got back to Dakar I downloaded it on itunes and continued to play it repeatedly, so that it is now inextricably linked with my time in Senegal even though the song is French.

Following my foray into French new wave, my next digging project is to find the best of Nigerian and Ghanian highlife music. Any ideas about what’s good, let me know!

Madrid

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In mid-September I spent three days in Madrid, but I had work meetings in an office outside the city center for two of those days, so I didn’t get much of a chance to sightsee. Still, I packed a lot of wandering into my one day off, and I got a much better sense of the city than I did the first time I came here in 2000. That was also a short visit, of two days I think, but I may as well not have gone because I spent the whole trip ensconced in personal drama, walking around in a daze and absorbing nothing of Madrid’s essence. 17 years later, I got a second chance to see what I had missed the first time around… Continue reading