on the sound of the French language

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I was hoping that the more time I spent in France, the more I’d love it. That hasn’t been the case, unfortunately. I’m still pretty meh (or, I should say, bof) about a lot of this country and especially Paris. But the one thing that has really grown on me is the French language. I have gone from feeling rather neutral about it, to fairly drowning in its beauty and sexiness. In fact, today I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and a couple next to me was whispering together as they filled out their form. I knew that they had dropped their voices for the sake of privacy, but it still sounded like post-coital bedroom talk to me. That would never happen in English, obviously.

It reminded me of this video I recently watched of Marion Cotillard on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

The great personal irony is that no matter how proficient in French I become, I’ll never be able to reproduce its euphony. I will always sound terrible in a language that makes native speakers sound like angels. There is a consolation prize, however. The other day I mentioned the month of August (août), pronouncing it ah-oot. The guy I was talking to had no idea what I was saying, even in context. Eventually he realized I was talking about the month that is actually pronounced something like oot, and he blushed and giggled, “Oh, c’est trop mignon.” As in, “That’s so cute.” This has become something of a theme. The more I fail at French, the more I succeed with French men, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too unhappy about it.

P.S. I just got back from a half-work, half-pleasure trip to Spain, and a few weeks before that I finally checked out the south of France, which was just as beautiful as I anticipated it would be. I will get around to posting photos from those trips soon…

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drizzle be damned

IMG_1976I gotback from the beautiful, sunny, warm South of France to wet, gray Paris a couple of days ago. Not surprising, but still deflating.

Yesterday, I was wandering around running errands in a dour mood, but I kept noticing charming things despite myself. So I started taking pictures and making a list of them. I posted it on Instagram and am now pasting it here because I realize I have not been writing as often as I’d like.

So… an inventory of delights encountered during a walk in Montmartre:

1. Joyfully screaming kids behind walls shielding a school playground. (At a certain hour of the afternoon you hear this on nearly every block.) The fact you can only imagine what they are getting up to makes it even cuter.

2. Pretty tilework taken to the level of art.

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3. A cat hanging out in an antique store.IMG_1967

4. Hazelnuts in their full natural packaging. First time I’ve seen this and it’s beautiful.

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5. As are french fruit displays.IMG_1968

6. As is vintage french lettering.

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7. As is my tied-for-favorite cheese shop…

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8. …from which i bought the most gorgeous and delicious goat cheese.

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The end. / Fin.

Have a good weekend!

Giverny and a bit of Vernon

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At the end of July I took a day trip to Giverny and I got really lucky because the weather was beautiful. If it were still the 1880’s, no doubt the Impressionists would have been out in full force with palettes in hand.

My first stop was Monet’s house and gardensContinue reading

have a good weekend

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It’s often hard to appreciate the progress I’ve made in French. Instead of contemplating in wonder how far I’ve come, I usually focus on how much further I have to go. Perhaps this is because once you understand something, it’s really hard to imagine yourself ever not having understood it – or maybe it’s just because I’m really bad at positive thinking. But today I was having an in-depth conversation with someone and, as I tend to do (albeit less and less these days), I stepped back for a moment so that my mind could boggle at the fact that I was understanding everything being said to me and that I was in turn speaking coherently, smoothly, at a normal speed, and without struggling to express myself. After the conversation was over, I made a conscious effort to reframe my disbelief as awe and to muster up the appropriate pride.

I’m proud that I stuck with the study and practice of something that is incredibly humbling, endlessly frustrating, and often not even that rewarding or useful.  I’m proud that as a result I can have deeper connections with French-speaking people and culture. And I’m proud to say that I finally legitimately speak two languages. My lifelong desire to be bilingual was quite possibly misguided by ego, but actually being bilingual is nevertheless useful and, I believe, beautiful.

That said, I may be heading to Madrid for a work meeting in a few weeks, and I’m already berating myself for having forgotten all the Spanish I learned two years ago. Ah well, “there I go being me again.” That’s what my former psychologist friend told me she says to herself whenever she realizes she’s repeated one of her unproductive patterns. It’s a handy phrase for someone like me…

I leave you with some interesting things I read over the past couple of weeks:

Spanish thrives in the U.S. despite an English-only drive.

Macron isn’t effortlessly handsome after all. He is the latest of many French presidents to spend a ton on hair and makeup.

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision-making.

Exercise could help you learn a new language.

And this has nothing to do with the themes of my blog, but it is shiver-inducingly beautiful. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” without the (non-vocal) instruments.

Enjoy your weekends!

letter of recommendation: the macaron tower

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The New York Times’ letters of recommendation oversing the praises of silly or humble things that usually don’t get much love. My letter of recommendation oversings the praises of something fancy that is already amply adored but upon which I would like to heap more adulation.  Continue reading

the stuff of my dairy dreams

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I have written about my fruitless search for rose glace in Paris before. About three weeks ago I finally found it – nearly 25 years after the first time I tasted it – at an ice cream shop just a few blocks from my new place in Belleville. And I got doubly lucky, because they also had violet flavor. It tasted sort of soap-like but still wonderful.

I am triply lucky – or very, very unlucky, depending on how you look at it – that the most well-suited cheese shop for my particular palette is also located just a few blocks from my place.

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See that top row of round cheeses? It is made up entirely of goudas. The first time I came in I bought truffle gouda and 3-year aged gouda, along with a humongous ball of burrata. It cost the same amount as the rest of my groceries for that week. I have since returned for the aged gouda at least four more times. It is crystalline and sweet and tart and creamy and every other adjective you might use to describe the world’s most delicious cheese.

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My friend got wind of my cheese obsession and recommended that I try aged comté, which I also found at the local shop. It was heavenly, though aged gouda remains my best cheese friend. That’s the comté and some chevre, below.

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Just for good measure, I leave you with the vitrine of what may be the world’s most beautiful cheese shop, in my old neighborhood of Montmartre. (I’ve been jumping around the northeastern section of Paris and its outskirts a lot; between Barbès and Belleville I spent three weeks in Montmartre and two weeks in Montreuil.) It was in this shop that I bought the best goat cheese I’ve ever had. It ate like cake.

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assorted observations

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In no particular order…

In New York City, it always seems to take longer to get to my destination than Google Maps’ time estimate, but in Paris, I always seem to get places faster than what the map tells me. At first I thought maybe Google calculates walking time based on the average pedestrian speed in each city. New Yorkers practically run while Parisians saunter – and I walk at some pace between the two. Then I made another observation, which I now believe probably better accounts for the difference: Continue reading

5 things I admire about France

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    • Half of Macron’s cabinet are women.  I think that is awesome, even if other forms of diversity, along with much of his political agenda, are lacking.
    • France plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Ambitious environmental leadership at the national level – unfortunately now a foreign concept to me.
    • Starting in 2018, vaccination of children will be mandatory in France. This while the anti-vax movement and anti-science sentiment in the United States appears to be growing stronger.
    • Right around the time it was looking like Obamacare would be going down the tubes, I went to the doctor in Paris. I paid for the visit out of pocket, without any insurance, and the cost was around $35. If I had had French social security (which includes health insurance and a bunch of other benefits), it would have been no more than $12 or so. On the other hand, if I had gone to the doctor in New York without insurance… well, I wouldn’t have, because it would have cost me like $300. I knew theoretically that the French health care system puts the American one to shame, but experiencing its straightforward humanity in real life, at the same time as I was following the events in DC with ever-growing disgust, made me highly emotional.
    • And finally, on a “one of these things is not like the other” note: I recently found out that France has almost 250 distinct varieties of cheese. If I were more gutsy about the stinky ones, I might make it my mission to try one of each.

Also, an honorable mention. I couldn’t include it in my list since it’s not actually true, but oh how I wish it were:

I was sad to learn that Paris Plages – wherein the city creates beaches along the Seine – would be sand-free this year, since it looks like it was amazing in years past. But, when I heard a rumor that the cancellation of sand was because the construction company that provided it had put its hat in the ring to build Trump’s wall, I couldn’t have been prouder of my temporary city. The truth is a little more complicated. Apparently the decision was more to do with environmental considerations and / or the company’s having indirectly funded terrorism. Both of which are highly admirable reasons… It’s just that I really loved the idea of Paris giving up its summer fun to take a stand against the Trump agenda.

two perspectives

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Today I went to see a mental health professional who was very helpful, for the most part. But as our time was drawing to a close he said to me point blank, “You need to leave France. There is nothing for you here.” It was highly inappropriate, yet well-intentioned and perversely delightful in its utter Frenchness. He went on to say that there are no jobs here, that life is getting more difficult for everyone, and that I’m all alone, which is no good. Then he joked, “Everybody wants to leave France and you’re coming in. You’d have to be crazy to want to stay here.” Pretty fast and loose for a head doctor.

Anyway, that’s not the point.

Yesterday, I was doing a volunteer shift at the refugee / migrant center in the 18th arrondissement. I signed up with an interest in serving Syrian women and children, but it turns out the shelter only houses men, and most of them are from places in Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I go about once a week, and though it feels good, there’s also always at least one moment during which my heart hurts for these strangers in a strange land, who are penniless and without possessions, who are mostly traveling alone, and who may never see their families again.

When I do daytime shifts I work in the laundry and when I do evening shifts I work in the “restaurant.” Both are frequently hectic and understaffed, so while I serve clients directly, I don’t often get into long conversations with them. But last night, one young man, Ousman, stuck around past dinner to chat in very, very broken English with the staff member running the space. He was half-joking about how he was not going to budge from the shelter, even though he was on a very long list of people who were due to be transported the next day to more long-term facilities throughout France. He said he didn’t want to leave Paris and he looked like he was going to cry.

I started asking him questions since it was clear he wanted to share. Turns out this was a boy of 16 years old who left Pakistan when he was 11 to work in Turkey. After five years there, he moved on to Germany, where he stayed for half a year before coming to France. He had been living in the shelter for three months. In a soft voice he murmured, “I want to go back to Pakistan.” The staff member asked him why he didn’t, since that could be arranged. He said he had to stay in France for six years first, to get his papers. He had a lead to somewhere he could live in Paris, where rent would be 1000 Euro a month split between three unknown others. Whether it was a full apartment or just a room was not clear. By this point I had noticed that his face bore an uncanny resemblance to my nearly 3 year-old nephew’s, and I had to turn away to regain my composure.

Apparently Ousman’s nickname is Bambino. When I come back next week, he will no doubt be gone.

[Photo: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho]