the little Fr-engine that could

fr-engine says, "parle français à moi, bébé!"

Monday night, back at the French Meetup for the first time in quite awhile, I got into a conversation with a Parisian whose parents are from Côte d’Ivoire. It started with a discussion of the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of my embarrassment ‘vous‘ing strangers who are peers as opposed to elders or respected figures. Which led to a consideration of whether the United States or France has deeper ‘fractures sociales‘ between classes and races. Which led to him telling me the story of why and how his parents left Côte d’Ivoire for France. Which segued into a conversation about the weird rules of French colonialism. Which was followed by a summation (his) of the hundred-year social history running up to the Liberian civil war. Which brought us, in a roundabout way, to my Senegal dreams. And on and on…

When people ask me whether I speak French my answer is always no, because there’s so much French I don’t know, and so much I do know but muck up anyway. On nights like Monday, though, I marvel at all that I can say and understand, and I find myself thinking, “I do speak French.” No disclaimer or modifier necessary.

[Photo: Sputnick; terrible photoshopping: me]

back in the saddle

lego cowboy

I was out of town for two weeks and sick / working nonstop for another two upon my return, so I skipped a bunch of French conversation meetups. This Monday’s was the first one I went to in a month, but somehow, I found that the time away had solidified things instead of making me forgetful. Talking and understanding came easier than usual.

I had a different experience with running. Since I started two years ago, I haven’t gone more than two and a half weeks without at least a cursory jog just to keep myself in the game. I heard that two weeks is the amount of time you can go without exercise before you start to lose your ability to perform at the same level, so I didn’t expect much when I went for a run late last week. In fact, I practically had to drag myself out of the house because I really hadn’t missed running at all and had become okay with the idea of never doing it again. I was surprised to be able to go nearly as long and far as I usually do (which is not long or far at all), but my legs hurt like hell the next day, and I have now developed a mysterious gimpy knee after having no knee problems ever. And when I went out again a few days later I could barely go a mile.

Still, I was glad to be back in action after so long away and even though it’s going to be tougher to get back to running than it was to return to French, it’s my only form of exercise and (theoretically) makes me feel better, so I’m going to force myself to do it until my apathy and sluggishness wane and it comes naturally again.

Scientifically speaking, I wonder: when you leave something alone for awhile and then return to it, what goes on in your brain and your body? What happened physiologically to make French easier and running harder?

(Photo: Happy Kiddo 4Ever)

i forgot to give this post a title

angry white cat

Remember how Jordan described her language exchange experience as akin to online dating? Well…

I was cleaning out my email inbox, which is full of unread messages I’ve received from people who found me on, the site that connects people who want to learn the other’s language. I’ve been ignoring the message notifications for awhile now, since I’m happy with my current situation Skyping once a week with Philippe. I don’t have the time or inclination to do it more often than that, and we always have stuff to talk about, so there’s no point being in touch with other people.

I was curious, though, about who had contacted me. I didn’t want to delete the message notifications without first reading their actual messages, so I logged in to Conversation Exchange for the first time in months.

I worked my way backwards through my inbox, reading everyone’s message and then looking at their profile. I was happy to confirm that I wasn’t missing out on anything. When I got near the bottom I saw my initial emails with Philippe. I re-read them and looked at his profile, wondering whether the way he presented himself would align with my current impression of him. I was amused to see that his profile picture is of a very fat angry-looking cat that he has never once mentioned.

I was less amused to notice that his last log-in date was that very day. Despite acknowledging my own ridiculousness, I felt slightly wounded. Philippe is Skyping with other people? How does he find the time? What does he talk to them about? Are they better at French than me? Do they know about his pissed-off cat?

It had crossed my mind before then that Philippe might have more than one conversation partner since he speaks much better English than I speak French. He’s got to be practicing a whole lot more than me. But seeing such open evidence of his philandering took me aback.

Not being completely removed from reality, I quickly recovered and reasoned that if I’m not fully satisfying Philippe (linguistically!), it’s perfectly fine for him to look elsewhere to meet his needs. I’m OK with polyamory in this particular relationship. Especially because if we’re going to take the dating analogy to its logical extreme, I basically attend swingers orgies every Monday night.

(Photo of a cat that resembles but is definitely not Philippe’s actual cat: Craig / Tjflex2)

the meetup chronicles

Meetup attendees

First, as is my Meetup wont, I delayed and dilly dallied. The result of this procrastination was 1. a très chic little black dress from a boutique within a stone’s throw of the Meetup location, and 2. the sinking feeling that the only French I would be hearing all night would be the lovely refrains of “Bonnie and Clyde.” I spent so long biding my time in the shop that the CD looped and the song played twice.

When I finally arrived at the bar it was 2 hours into the Meetup and I figured if anyone were left they would surely be packing up by now. I tried to make myself feel less guilty by reasoning that LBDs are a very Parisian concept, so even if I hadn’t spoken the language that night, I had still practiced cultural immersion. That logic was not very sound, but I’m happy to report that since there was a small but still-going-strong group of people in the bar, I didn’t have to make excuses after all.

Among the crew were a few people I had met before – Dykeman, Anney and Igor (the Parisian-bred teacher from this post).Dykeman and Rohan at Meetup

Above: Dykeman and Rohan, a student from Beijing who was braving a Meetup after only a month of French study. Inspiring!

Anney at Meetup

Above: Anney’s got a lovely smile, n’est-ce pas?

Here are two fun facts that I learned in the course of our conversation:

  • En fer (of iron), en faire (do it), and enfer (hell) are all pronounced the same way. You have to tell the difference contextually. Also, enfer is almost always proceeded by “the,” as in l’enfer.
  • In English, you’d say, “kill two birds with one stone.” In French, you’d say, “d’une pierre, deux coups.” (Two blows from one stone.) It’s interesting how similar in concept and structure idiomatic phrases can be, while still quite different in language. When I noted the resemblance, Igor joked, “Yes, but the French, we don’t kill” – an inadvertent political commentary.

Igor at Meetup

That’s Igor, above.

Speaking of American gun violence… here’s Luna’s cover of “Bonnie and Clyde” for your evening singalong.

two weeks in a row, woot woot!

French meetup attendants

I made it to Meetup two weeks running, woohoo! Granted, I first wasted a half hour procrastinating across the street at Macy’s, which is pretty much the most hellish place in New York City aside from Times Square. This says bucketloads about how much I dread Meetups. Hopefully that feeling will subside once I make them more of a habit.

At this particular Meetup I spent most of my time talking to the two lovely folks above. One is the Chinese woman I had met very briefly last week. Her name is Anney and I found out she works in financial services. The other guy is from Mauritania and he told me he would sue me if I used his name on my blog. I think he was joking but better safe than sorry. 🙂

I was talking to him (let’s call him Pierre, because why not?) about our mutual love of West African music. Mine is a surface level love in that I only listen via a Youssou N’Dour Pandora station, and only once in a while – but I am transported when I do. Pierre recommended Baaba Maal, who I’ve just spent the last half hour bopping along to at my desk.

For your own listening pleasure, I leave you with this gem:

model UN meetup

French meetup June 30

On Monday I attended my second French meetup since starting this blog. I met: a German radiologist, an Iranian realtor, a Parisian teacher/vintage clothing seller, a Lyonnaise digital marketer, a Chinese woman whose occupation I did not catch, and an American artist/art history professor. Quite an eclectic gathering. The flag garlands hanging from the ceiling for the World Cup heightened the international effect. (Hazy, nondescript proof of attendance above.)

One interesting thing I learned at this Meetup, from the Parisian: In French, if you think someone paid far too much for something you’d say “C’est du vol.” This translates approximately to, “It’s a steal” – which is what you’d say in English for the exact opposite, when someone pays far less for something than its actual value. I suppose if you translated the French to, “It’s a rip-off,” instead of, “It’s a steal,” the usage would be the same as in English, but I don’t feel like doing that because then I would not have any fun facts to share.

In other news, in the week since I signed up for the language exchange sites, I’ve received 3 messages from people who want to chat. I have yet to open any of them. Baby steps…

well, at least I tried

tom shrugs

As I was walking to the French Meetup this evening I realized I hadn’t gotten an email reminder about the event. I wondered if the weekly meeting was not actually happening this week. By the time I reached the hotel bar, I allowed myself to fervently pray this would be the case. When I peeked in and saw the occasional couple here, threesome there, but no big group anywhere, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief… Followed immediately by guilt about how good I felt to be going home without saying a word of French.

Zut alors! I was supposed to get back in the groove with this Meetup. Now how am I going to motivate myself?

On that note, off to bed…

(Photo: Idiolector)

made it to Meetup!

entree a la clavier

So I finally got myself back to a French conversation Meetup for the first time in at least a year. After putting off thinking about it all day, then purposefully making myself late to leave work, feeling nothing but dread walking the six blocks over to the location, and using all my resolve to actually walk through the door, I prayed that the bar would be empty. But nope, a crowd of people were clustered together, chatting away.

Within a matters of seconds I broke into a conversation and everything was fine. The usual self-consciousness that paralyzes my French-speaking brain like a parasitic fungus calmed down after the first few words came out of my mouth, and I felt inexplicably at ease for the rest of the evening. I had thought I’d have to force myself to stay for a half hour, but by the time I left an hour and a half had breezed by without me realizing it.


First I spoke with Dalia, an Arabic teacher who is originally from Palestine but moved here 15 years ago and now lives in New Jersey. She was super impressive because she learned French when she was young, forgot it all, picked it back up and started teaching herself just one year ago – and she was speaking beautifully, like she was fluent. Two good online tools she told me about that I will definitely be checking out in the hopes they can do for me what they did for her: Shared Talk (a free service provided by Rosetta Stone for language chats) and Anki (flashcards for vocab building).


I also had a long conversation with Dykeman, a publisher of books about the South, from which he hails (Tennessee/North Carolina to be a little more exact). Normally I just shoot the shit in French and make banal small talk but we actually covered a lot of interesting ground that I would have been just as happy to chat about in English: he suggested I watch an Antonioni film set in Barcelona (the Passenger), we discussed our angst about contemporary media distribution models, and I was excited to meet someone who knew about the Lost State of Franklin.

All in all an excellent and encouraging evening. I think Duolingo is to thank for getting me out of my habit of translating and thinking through every word before I say it out loud. Sure, when I speak as quickly as I did tonight (which, sadly, is still quite sluggish), my sentences come out sloppy. But on the other hand when I can actually say something without turning bright red, halting and/or reversing course every five seconds, that’s got to be an improvement.

I’m looking forward to going back in a couple of weeks. Which makes it official: facing down fears is my new favorite thing. (Don’t tell that to any roaches.)

(Top photo: Frédéric Bisson. Middle and bottom photo: Me.)

(get over the) hump-day inspiration: louis c.k.

Louis C.K. GQ cover

(Photo: Peggy Sirota/GQ)

Words of wisdom from Louis C.K. in the new issue of GQ:

“You’ve got to embrace discomfort,” he said. “It’s the only way you can put yourself in situations where you can learn, and the only way you can keep your senses fresh once you’re there.”

This needs to be my mantra as I psych myself up to go back to French conversation Meetups for the first time in more than a year. I find them so awkward and deflating. My everyday self-consciousness balloons seven-fold at the prospect of not understanding anyone and/or butchering such a melodic language. And it’s exhaustingly hard work to catch every word the person speaking to you is saying and to formulate a response that both makes sense and talks around the words you don’t know. Without fail, I leave feeling like Sisyphus instead of patting myself on the back for taking the baby steps that will eventually add up to progress.

But! Meetups are the best, cheapest way available to me now to get over the listening and speaking hump and the more I do, the easier it’ll be when I go abroad for full-on immersion.

One of the reasons I started this blog, actually, was to force me to go to Meetups so I’d have something to write about.

I’m giving myself the month of May to dive back in. With this blog as my witness!

P.S. This week’s inspirational quote is pretty much a reframed version of last week’s quote. I’m a one-trick quote pony I guess.