I haven’t had much to say here for awhile, because until a couple of weeks ago, I had all but abandoned my various language pursuits. My French has been withering on the vine for two years, since I left the full-time job that had me both speaking French frequently with West African colleagues and taking weeks-long trips to francophone countries every few months. My Hebrew reached its peak in Israel last year, only to fall off a steep cliff when I abandoned my practice of it promptly upon my return to the States. As for Spanish, I’ve pretty much spoken twenty minutes of it in the past half-decade. I spent a few days in Lima for work last year and attempted to communicate in Spanish at one point and one point only. It became quickly apparent that the language had curled up and hidden away somewhere in my brain. (At least that’s my belief about what happens to language skills upon disuse; I never think languages are lost, just burrowed far from consciousness.)Continue reading
Category Archives: French
it will be mine, oh yes, it will be mine. (one day)
It continually blows my mind that you can buy literal chateaux in France for under a million dollars, extremely stunning four hundred year-old apartments for under $200,000, and sun-drenched townhouses that haven’t been renovated in generations for under $50,000. [The baroque apartment above, in Nimes, is 350,000 Euros for God’s sake.] Sometimes I scroll through French property sites and take a little flight of fancy, pretending I might put in an offer on some gem of a place, or more likely some diamond-in-the-rough, in the South of France. It’s very enjoyable, except when I find a place that looks absolutely perfect for me — as in, “this is my home” — and realize it won’t actually be mine, and then it’s kind of painful.
Even restricting my search to properties under 350,000 Euros (which makes it feel more realistic, even though it is not at all realistic), I found the most wondrous places tonight. I’ll start with one of my favorites but leave the best for last:Continue reading
French as paramour
A few weeks ago, I re-watched a bunch of “Call My Agent,” a brilliant French television show about the hijinks of actors and their agents at a Paris talent agency. I was about to start season 4 (which unfortunately was nowhere near as wonderful as the previous seasons), and I wanted to remember where the show had left off.
The first time I binged the show, COVID-19 did not yet exist, and my focus was on the hilarity of every situation. This time around, it was on the outfits, the outings, and the city. Everyone looked so sleek in their high heels and spiffy blazers, hobnobbing at cafes and bars. Paris seemed so kinetic and lively. It filled me with longing. I reside in what is normally among the most energetic cities in the world and yet I haven’t felt any of that in a year.
The glamorous rooftop party scene from the season three finale hit me like a punch to the gut. Oh, to be in a crowd of interesting people! To be dressed up! To be among acquaintances and strangers! To be tipsy and flirty! To have no idea where the next conversation could take you, what kind of fascinating world someone could open the door to. That certain sense of possibility has been notably absent for almost twelve months, and it’s really, really starting to get to me. (And everyone else, I know.)
As I was watching the party scene I found myself fantasizing about being there. I noticed that I particularly enjoyed the thought of schmoozing in French, as though that would double the pleasure of the party. It took me a minute to recognize why.
Perhaps this analogy is the result of too many months of lockdown, but… is it not true that speaking a foreign language is sort of like cheating, except without the betrayal of another human being? When I momentarily abandon my tried and true English to spend time with its sexier, lesser known cousin, I get such a thrill from the unfamiliarity, the appealing awkwardness, the conquest that comes with mutual understanding, and the secrecy of speaking a language most of my compatriots don’t understand. It breathes fresh life into my bored bones.
At this point I’d get a thrill out of going to the laundromat, though, so I could be blowing this analogy way out of proportion. My perspective is pretty screwed up these days…
My French was all over the map
During my last work trip, I did a lot of bouncing around:
4 for the price of 2
I’ve been in Mozambique for work for the past two weeks (hence the silence here). One thing I quickly noticed, which I also remarked in Cuba a few years ago, is that once you know one Romance language and a little bit of another, you basically know them all. It’s magic!
I visited Cuba right after finishing a Spanish class that had gotten me through the basics: the most straightforward past, present, and future tenses, a lot of vocabulary, and simple syntax and grammar rules. That grounding got me about thisfar in conversations with Cubans, but that was good enough for me. Through my arduous journey to French proficiency, I’ve come to expect incremental language-learning progress, and I can now see and appreciate it more clearly.
While traveling in the Cuban countryside, I met a trio of Italians who took the same bus back to Havana with me. We had a nice conversation in English, and then they started speaking to each other in Italian. It felt like my intense week-long effort to concentrate on Spanish allowed me to open up my ears and let the Italian wash over me – and I heard the Romance in it, so to speak. I could understand the gist of what they were discussing – what to eat for lunch or something like that.
Here in Mozambique, I’ve had a similar experience with Portuguese. Funnily enough, I’ve been communicating mostly in French, since my two closest colleagues and collaborators do not speak the greatest English. French is our lingua franca. It’s been very good practice, and as in Cuba, it – and my rusty-but-still-in-there-somewhere knowledge of Spanish – has unlocked the Romance in Portuguese. I’ve learned to turn the sh sounds into s sounds, and with a few other auditory acrobatics, it’s basically Spanish. And when my Spanish isn’t strong enough to understand what someone is saying, my French fills in the gaps.
There’s been multiple moments when I haven’t needed my colleagues to translate for me because I’ve gotten a full enough sense of what someone is saying based solely on listening for the similarities between Portuguese, French, and Spanish. Now I understand what my Czech father meant when he said that he could understand Polish even though he never learned it and could not speak a word of it.
Language families are the best families! Just kidding. But they are pretty great.
Thoughts on Franco-American relations
Over the years, I’ve gathered a few highly subjective observations about what it’s like to be romantically involved with French men as an American woman. I’d been waiting to share them until enough time had gone by and enough men had been dated to ensure that none of the people in question would be able to identify themselves. I had also been waiting to hit some critical age and self-comfort level at which I would no longer care whether everyone on the Internet has access to my private life. I’m realizing I will never reach that age or comfort level – and yet I still want to write about certain things that have amused or perplexed me.
So I will. I will just be as vague and discrete as possible – which, I fear, is not very much. Anyway, on with it. Continue reading
When learning French improves your English
Whenever I come across French-English faux amis – words that sound or look alike but have two different meanings – I think about the relationship that the words do have with each other. Many times they share a Latin root, and each word’s definition adds an interesting nuance to the other’s – often to amusing effect.
Take for example the following French words versus their English false friends:
défunt (deceased) vs defunct (no longer existing or functioning)
préservatif (condom) vs preservative (a substance used to preserve foodstuffs and other materials against decay)
imprégner (to soak or permeate, as in these confusing matches) vs impregnate (most common definition: make a female pregnant; less common definition: soak or saturate with a substance)
corpulence (a person’s build) vs corpulence (obesity)
ignorer (most common definition: to not know; less common definitions: to have no experience of or to ignore) vs. ignore (refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally)
négligé (neglected, slovenly, scruffy) vs negligee (a women’s dressing gown, typically made of a light, filmy fabric)
I just find these pairings delightful, don’t you? Not as delightful: telling people – on more than one occasion – that there are way too many condoms in American food.
Which reminds me of one last, classic faux ami that embarrasses every French learner at some point or another: While “excité” can in certain circumstances refer to nearly the same thing as the English “excited,” it is more often used to refer to sexual arousement. So, don’t go around telling your French colleagues or in-laws, for example, that you are excité to see them.
If you’ve got other interesting faux amis to add, please let me know!
Also, a PS: Once, I was pleased to find a word (well, really a phrase) in French, “mal de terre,” for which I didn’t know the English equivalent. I had never heard the word “landsickness” before, and in fact I didn’t even know the concept of landsickness existed until it happened to me.
Recently, I came across the phrase “sea legs” used to describe “the illusion of motion felt on dry land after spending time at sea,” i.e. landsickness. I had always thought of “getting your sea legs” as adjusting to the motion of a boat on the water so that it ceases to be felt, but apparently it can refer to landsickness, too. I’m learning English right alongside French!
[Photo: Ruth Hartnup]
I tend to beat myself up about things: “Why did you say that?” “You shouldn’t have done that.” “What the hell was that about?”
I’ve made an effort to be more self-forgiving – to treat myself as I would a friend – but when I muddle things up in French, the compulsion to judge myself harshly is pretty strong.
Here are some counterarguments I’ve started making to shut down the self-flagellation. Continue reading
The French Effect
I’ve noticed that whenever I throw myself back into immersive French after a long stretch of barely using it, I experience something like the Tetris effect, which used to plague me for days at a time after playing too much of the game as a kid. Random word nuggets will pop into my head unbidden, apropos of nothing, and I’ll silently repeat them to myself – over and over and over again – until a new strange phrase appears from out of nowhere to take its place. Yesterday it was, “On ne sait jamais ce qu’il va faire” – You never know what he’s going to do. I have no idea who “he” is, yet this phrase colonized my brain-space for the better part of a day. This morning, meanwhile, I kept saying to myself, “Tu vas avoir un petit problème là” – “You’re going to have a bit of a problem with that.” What “that” is, again, I have no idea.
Does anyone else experience this?
[Photo: Wicker Paradise]
Orelsan in New York
About a year ago, on the very angsty eve of my 38th birthday, a song I had never heard before, but which was apparently a new French chart-topping hit, lifted me out of my malaise. It was called “La Pluie,” and Spotify fatefully served it up to me at the exact time when I needed it most. Buoyed by the words and the music, I listened to it about a hundred subsequent times while walking around Paris, which more often than not was fittingly rainy. By that point, I was just coming out of what had felt like a bottomless well of depression and anxiety. I was in the middle of battling a health issue that would require a hospital procedure to resolve. And I was staring down my persistent French underemployment, my dwindling bank account, and my lack of any clear direction. I was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of returning to the United States to become financially solvent and figure out what to do next.
“La Pluie” wasn’t responsible for my unexpected pivot from dread to beatific acceptance, but it was while listening to the song that I realized the change had already happened, and I felt a kind of aching serenity wash over me – sadness and hopefulness at the same time. Also silliness, because for French rap to inspire such profound feelings is ridiculous.
I went to see Orelsan at Irving Plaza in New York a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to revisit that absurdly intense period of my life and the emotions that – even though often highly unpleasant – had made me feel so alive.
I suppose I set myself up for disappointment. I should know by now it’s impossible to recapture the past, especially when you’re trying. Orelsan played “La Pluie” in the first half of the show, and it somehow didn’t hit the right notes, so the trip down memory lane I had wanted to take instead turned into five seconds of full-fledged emotion followed by another minute or two of trying unsuccessfully to force it to stick around.
The rest of the show I just took it all in without trying to make it something it was not. Yes, the place was filled with more French people than I have ever seen gathered in one place outside of France. But they did not make me feel the way I did in Paris. There, I felt like an outsider but in an intrepid and exhilarating way. At the show, I felt like an insider rendered an outsider by other outsiders who lost their caché outside of France. I don’t know how to adequately express it except to say that when Orelsan led the crowd in a call and response complete with a lot of ’90’s era hand waving, “Quand je dit Irveeng, vous dites Plahzah. Irveeng? Plahzah! Irveeng? Plahzuah!” I both smiled and flinched at the awkwardness of it all.
So it wasn’t a transcendent night, but it was still a lot of fun.