I’m becoming my mother in the most unexpected way

baby swallows.jpg

It seems I’m in French withdrawal. 

My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.

Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.

I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”

Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently. 

I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities  these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.

I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.

So to that I say,

!כל הכבוד*

*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!

[Photo: Rithban]

Advertisements

things I’m looking forward to in NYC

nyc.jpg

I am moving back to New York on Thursday and I’m excited to (re)start there with a bang: a social gathering, a party, and a protest all within the first weekend. But beyond that, I can’t say I’m enthused about heading back. In fact, I was in the city overnight last weekend and though I was very happy to hang out with friends, New York itself did nothing for me. I did not feel even a slight thrill to be back amongst the skyscrapers and yellow cabs and sidewalks overflowing with people. Just a resigned, “Alright, fine, let’s do this.”

So… clearly I need an attitude adjustment and to remind myself of what I have to look forward to in the city. Off the top of my head:

  • Being close to my friends and family and being able to squeeze my niece and nephew, who live an hour away.
  • Picking out books at Albertine, the lovely French bookstore, and at my favorite used bookstore in Prospect Heights.
  • Having fewer language-based misunderstandings than in Senegal or France.
  • Visiting the next exhibit at the Met’s Costume Institute, which opens in May.
  • Storing my bike at my friend’s place in the Bronx so we can go on impromptu adventures together.
  • Having hundreds of movies to choose from in theaters, and not having to confirm that they’re not overdubbed in French.
  • Being eligible for the jobs I most want. (In Paris I did not even bother trying to break into the French documentary industry because I was too intimidated by my imperfect French.)
  • The ubiquity of clean and well-equipped public bathrooms – as well as private ones you can easily sneak into – so that you need never walk around with a full bladder or pay to pee.
  • The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, my soul mate institution.
  • Gluten-free pizza is relatively abundant.
  • There’s a volunteer oral history recording project I’m excited to get involved in.
  • I can become more deeply involved in the “Resistance,” as the expat Americans activist group I was part of in Paris calls it.
  • Weaving classes at Brooklyn Brainery (I decided I wanted to learn to weave while living two blocks from this studio and never went. Senegal re-inspired me, and I finally took a class last year in London and loved it.)
  • Driving my parents’ cars when I’m in the suburbs – it’s been way too long since I’ve been behind the wheel.
  • Picking back up where I left off with my Spanish learning and being able to practice with NYC residents.
  • Going back to New York as a French speaker and someone who, on a good day, can call myself bilingual.

I suppose that was somewhat refreshing…

I won’t bother listing what I’m not looking forward to – what’s the point of being negative about it?

baby steps + giant leaps = post-coma-level skills

me RN.jpgI once read about a man who woke up from a coma speaking fluently in a language he had barely been able to speak before. This phenomena has been documented on multiple occasions, and apart from the brain damage I’ve always been really jealous of those people. Well… as of two weeks ago I may have joined their ranks. Continue reading

looking on the bright side

potty mouth.jpg

I complain a lot about how tough it is to learn French later in life, but there are also benefits. The biggest one is that I don’t fall victim to bad habits I have in English, most notably: cursing and using filler words.

I had a phase where I tried to learn all the French gros mots and integrate them into my speech so that I could sound like a real French speaker. But then I realized it only made me sound like a real asshole (case in point) so I stopped, for the most part. I do find myself using the word “foutu” (fucked) too much – and usually incorrectly, because it rolls off my tongue more easily than the ubiquitous putain (which literally means “prostitute” but is used more like “shit” or “damn it”).

Another French tendency that I am really glad I have avoided thus far is the urge to fill even the most minute pause between words and phrases with a sound of some kind, so that a few sentences becomes more like one record-length German word. I find the worst offender of the fillers to be “euh,” wherein the h is extended until the speaker gathers and pronounces their next thought – even if that next thought takes forever to reveal itself. But there are a bunch of other words – like “bah,” “ben,” and “du coup”- whose meaning is so minimal as to be inconsequential. They are essentially the “um,” “uh,” and “so” of the French language.

Then there are words that do add some emphasis but are still pretty much throwaways, like “quoi,” which gets tacked on to the end of sentences as a sort of grasping “ya know.” I find it such a grating addition to an elegant French sentence, and yet such an unconscious pattern of native speech, that the one time it slipped out of my mouth I simultaneously horrified and impressed myself. 

It’s true that I have taken to leaning upon another oft-used filler, “bref,” which means “anyways” or “long story short,” but which could usually be cut from a sentence without losing anything. I can’t help myself when it comes to this one – it’s the perfect word for someone as long-winded as I am. If I tire myself out in the middle of a meandering story, I’ll stop short, say “bref” rather dramatically, and skip straight to the one-sentence conclusion.

In English I take forever to get to the point, but in French my desire to use the least amount of words to convey the most amount of information overwhelms my compulsion to make myself 100% understood. That economy of language is, I suppose, another reason why I haven’t succumbed to euh, bah, or hein yet… They do count as words even if they don’t actually say anything.

P.S. Non-native French-speaking bloggers Damon and Jo made me giggle with their imitation of the French predilection for filler words in the video below. (Also, possibly my favorite advice ever: “If you want to sound French you just gotta add all these noises.”) 😂

listening in

squirrel with ears perked

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]

chivalry is dead (but not in French)

aix barber shop.jpg

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.)

pussinboots.gif

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.

some French new wave for your Wednesday

indochine.jpg

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

felicitations à moi!

on peut le faire.jpg

Today I had my very first job interview in French. I stumbled in places, and trailed off in others, but it didn’t seem to matter. I think I did just fine overall.

Whether I get the job or not, making it through my first interview in a foreign language feels like an accomplishment in itself. When I talked to my dad a couple of years ago about his own experiences learning a second and third language, he revealed that he had gone on job interviews in English before he really knew how to speak it. I was in awe. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever being capable of putting myself on the line like that.

And yet, I just did. And now I’m really proud of myself, and I’m eating a big pot de crème to celebrate.*

* Though let’s be honest, I would have eaten it anyway.

on the sound of the French language

frenchie.jpg

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…

have a good weekend

belleville ocean sky.jpg

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!