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

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.

Avignon

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My love for Avignon was almost immediate and grew in leaps and bounds with every corner I turned. And unlike the other four towns and cities I visited in the South of France, my feelings went beyond mere admiration or appreciation. I felt a strong connection and chemistry with this place. I don’t really know why, but I think it has something to do with the way it embodied both my town and my countryside ideals: the perfect size (about 500,000 in the urban area), full of old beautiful buildings, full of history and culture, full of delicious things to eat, a mild and sunny climate that still has seasons, and a landscape of trees, hills and rivers.

I was being considered for a remote job at the time that I visited, and I strolled along the streets fantasizing about installing myself in Avignon and telecommuting from my corner bistro. It was an intoxicating idea, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t get the job, but at least my dream life wasn’t shattered until after I got back to Paris. And by then my weird change of heart had started to kick in and I didn’t mind sticking around up north after all.

Anyway, a few Avignon pix: Continue reading

some French new wave for your Wednesday

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A child of the 80s, I grew up with new wave music. I loved it then, and I love it even more now.

When I attended junior high in the early 90s, my first French teacher started every class by playing a few songs from one of her old records for us. Most of the stuff on heavy rotation was awful (I remember hearing this particularly terrible song about 8,000 times), except for Indochine. I loved them despite the fact that my hopelessly dorky teacher did, too.

A few years ago, I rediscovered Indochine on iTunes, and I found myself again adoring them.

Over the past year or so, a question repeatedly occurred to me: who are the other icons of French new wave? Surely Indochine must be just the tip of a vast and mighty iceberg. Yet the only other quasi-new wave French song I had heard apart from the Indochine catalogue is Ça Plane Pour Moi. I began a quest for the other gems that heretofore never made their way across the Atlantic to my American ears.

What I discovered is that, sadly, there are not many gems after all. Whereas the 80s were a time of utter magic for American and British music across several genres, the era did not seem to treat the French nearly as well, at least in terms of pop. I did copious digging to find French new wave and cold wave songs that stand the test of time and sound as great today as they did back then. Unfortunately, most of what I listened to was tepid at best; banal, outdated, and embarrassing at worst. (Though the videos – and dancing and fashion therein – were often pitch-perfect, highly enjoyable parodies of themselves. Case in point.)

But I did find five songs that I truly love, which I hereby present for your listening (and viewing) pleasure. Continue reading

Aix-en-Provence

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Aix-en-Provence is a gorgeous town that I will forever associate with Candyland, because within five minutes of my arrival I happened upon the most wondrous food festival – in celebration of the local confection, the calisson – in the plaza a few steps from my AirBnB.

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In addition to the star attraction in every color and flavor, there were wedges of nougat as big as wheels of cheese, macarons that looked like watercolors, marshmallows in soft pastels, every kind of jam and jelly, and a variety of cookies for good measure. Continue reading

il fait quand même beau

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I turn 38 in a little more than an hour, and I’m resenting France for getting me there six hours sooner than New York would have. Not looking forward to my new age, though 37 has not been a walk in the park either. The world went ass-backwards mere weeks after my birthday last year, and it has remained fairly challenging, let’s say, since then – both globally and personally.

But as I was sitting here staring sourly at my computer screen, wanting to write something nice about the weekend but not feeling a bit of real positivity, I decided to put Spotify on. I guess based on my prior activity, the app suggested I listen to a playlist called “New Music Friday France” and out of curiosity, I hit play. The first song was French rap, which 99% of the time I find super awkward. But then I listened to the words and, since I’m always looking for and finding meaning in the flimsiest of “signs,” I became convinced that this song – La Pluie by Orelsan – was sending a direct message to me:

Toujours autant de pluie chez moi
Mais il fait quand même beau, il fait beau.

(Translation: “Always so much rain where I’m from, but it’s nice out anyway, it’s nice out.”)

The thing is, the song really is speaking to me, in ways I don’t feel like going into here. Suffice it to say, there’s been a bunch of both literal and figurative rain in my life lately, but for the past month or two, it feels nice anyway.

The song continues (this is a word-for-word translation because I can’t be trusted to do a more interpretive one): 

“Where I’m from, there’s sun 40 days a year

You could spend most of the year waiting for it.

I used to look out the window, closed up in my room,

I used to pray for the end of the downpour and to go skate the ramp.

I knew the sound of the rain, the smell of wet concrete.

If I left, it was because I was afraid of rusting.

Soaked, I would have never thought,

That in the end I’d miss the bad weather.”

(The last line could also be interpreted as, “That in the end I’d miss the bad times,” since temps can mean weather or time. I’d guess it was an intentional play on words here.)

What started out as a slightly annoying song really grew on me, and now I think it’s incredible and I’ve listened to it like six times in a row. Here it is, if you’d like to give it a go yourself. 

And now I feel buoyed enough to face the cruel march of time. 

Have a good weekend! I hope that whether warm and sunny or rainy and cold chez vous, quand même il fait beau, so to speak. 

Marseille

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When I arrived in Marseille I headed straight to the Old Port, where my friend Gilles met back up with me and offered to take me on a moto tour of the city. The mistral winds were blowing something fierce, and I had never been on a scooter before. This did not seem like a winning combination, but I said “pourquoi pas” anyway and off we went.  Continue reading