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my new french teacher is a bitch


Professor Iota

Up until now, the only person I felt comfortable conversing entirely in French with was my cat.

I babble away endlessly and she never corrects me, never judges, always understands.   However, like me, her primary language is English, so it’s really not much of a challenge and I’m probably not learning much.


Romain, Iota, Vlad

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely, young French whippet.   Her name is Iota (pronounced e-yoh-ta, almost like “Yoda” with a “t” instead of “d”). She’s the daughter of my friends Romain and Vlad who are Belgian and French.   French is Iota’s mother tongue, so to speak, but being only seven months old, she’s still learning.

She impressed me immediately with her intelligence.   When Romain told her to assis, she sat.   And when he told her to debout, she stood up (and I learned a new word!).

Turns out, our French skills are very similar (okay, she’s a little better than I am).   We both know some words, but neither of us can conjugate or string together a sentence to save our lives.

While I’m still not good enough to confidently conduct an intelligent conversation in French with French humans, I think I’m ready to graduate from English speaking cat to French speaking dog.  The beauty of dogs is they totally live in the present, so I won’t have to deal with that pesky conjugation problem.

Today is our first session.  I’m taking her for a walk.

iota bisousI release her from her bedroom and she bursts out, happy to see me.   After the obligatory bisous are exchanged, I nervously speak.

“Bonjour Iota, Ca va?   Oui, tres bien!   Tres, tres bien!   Tres, tres, TRES bien!   Ou’est la…. Hmmm, quel est le mot pour “leash” en Francais?”

She’s too excited to answer, but she doesn’t roll her eyes or snigger at my accent. I consider that a minor victory.   I find her leash, attach it to her collar and she pulls me out the door.   This is going to be a piece of cake.

When we get to the sidewalk, I start to worry. Do I address Iota in the formal or familiar.? Do I tell her to viens, or venez? I don’t want to offend her right off the bat.   She’s pedigreed, so perhaps she demands formality.

As a rule, I always assume a certain level of familiarity with anyone who has already licked my face, so I opt for viens.  She seems okay with it.   On the other hand, she doesn’t viens, either. In fact, she kind of ignores me in favor of the much more interesting cigarette butt she finds on the grass. I chalk her reaction up to being French.

I speak to her sternly.


She looks at me and puts down the cigarette.   Ahhhhh, communication!

I pet her lavishly and shower her with compliments.

“C’est bien.   C’est tres, tres, tres bien.   Tu est une tres, tres bonne chien!”

She’s proud and very excited to be acknowledged.  I’m thrilled at the effortless exchange and meeting of the minds.

We walk along the beach, Iota occasionally pulling me towards bushes, picnics, cigarette butts and where ever the possibility of treasure lies.   When she does, I’m no longer afraid to speak my mind.

“Pas tirer!”

She slows down and walks with me.   Success!   I’m starting to feel like the dog whisperer…The FRENCH dog whisperer!

I’m not saying there isn’t the occasional language barrier. At one point, no amount of “NONs” and “pas tirers” can stop her from dragging me off towards a family picnic, forcing me to converse with actual French humans. But even this turns out to be a positive–it gives me the opportunity to try out a whole new French phrase: “Monsieur, je suis tres desole que ma chien a mange votre repas.”

After we say our au revoirs, I walk home alone along the ramparts. I’m feeling pretty good about my afternoon with Iota.   It was a lovely walk and I think it was tres beneficial.  Unlike my last French teacher, she doesn’t make me feel stupid.  I’m not living in dread of the next time I see her.   I’m looking forward to it.

I light a cigarette and look out over the bay at Nice and Cap Ferrat.   A child shrieks and shouts “NON” in the distance.   I reflexively drop my cigarette.

See?   I already learned something!

why I’m particularly glad to be in France today.

IMG_4507Here in France, there always seems to be one service or another that’s shutting down in protest of something.   The trains.   The buses.   The airlines.  And then every time you turn around everything is closed for some holiday you’ve never heard of, that usually has something to do with some holy person ascending to heaven.

You can say a lot of things about the French and their work ethic, their politics, their bureaucracy,  but I can honestly say, I’ve never seen their government shut down.

So let me get this straight, America…

The goddamn idiots in the House are shutting down the government over a small point in a puny bit of legislation that they spent countless hours whittling down to nothing?   On our dime?

If they were working for me, I’d fire their lazy, pompous, self-righteous, entitled asses.   Oh wait….they do work for me.   Supposedly.  Can I fire them?   At the very least, don’t Americans have the right to stop paying their goddamn salary?

I’m going to avoid blaming parties and just say that I’ve seen our elected officials on both sides of the aisle take the exact opposite positions they’re taking now, all depending on which party proposed what.   They both sicken me equally (okay, maybe right now I hate the Republicans a wee bit more).   I can’t look at any of them without getting a huge churning knot of rage in my stomach.

Today in France, stores are open, and services are running.  Medical care is about 1/10th the price it is in America.  I’m happy and relieved to be in a country where the news and politicians don’t make my blood boil. Of course, that could be because I don’t understand them.

the most frightening woman in france


That’s her, the one standing next to the white board.   I know she looks harmless enough, but she can crush you with a single glance.   She’s my French teacher, Christine.  She’s the stereotypical disdainful French person.  Oddly enough, the only French people I’ve ever met who fit that particular stereotype are French teachers.   I guess you’d be disdainful too if you had to teach a pack of dunderheads your native language.

IMG_9394Every Tuesday night along with 15 or so other people of various nationalities—Denmark, Lebanon, Russia, Spain, German, China, Phillipines, UK, Italy to name a few– I spend an hour and a half quaking in terror that this woman will turn her inquisitive gaze in my direction.  Well, some of that time, my shoulders are quaking from laughing so hard at somebody else who has the misfortune of being called on.

I started the class several months ago when I realized that I’d never get beyond kindergarten level French (probably closer to pre-school) without some help.   The classes are five minutes from my apartment and cost around 70 Euros for the term.

I’ve learned a lot so far.   For example, Christine taught me the word paresseux.   Well, she hissed it at me one night.  I went home, googled it and discovered it means “lazy”.   Je ne suis pas paresseux, j’ai peur, you BITCH!

I usually spend Tuesdays trying to think of excuses why I can’t go to class.    I’m coming down with something.   Everyone else is coming down with something.   I’m a little tired and I need to rest up for the Bastille day celebrations next July.   It might rain.   The cat puked on my homework.   I spent the whole day coming up with excuses why I can’t go, and now I can’t go because I need to do the stuff I neglected when working on excuses not to go.   My tongue feels weird.  At 4:50PM (16:50), I get dressed and go to class.

Tonight’s class pretty much goes like any other.

Christine:   Bonsoir.   Avez vous un bon weekend?

Class:   Oui.

The entire class (except the two goody-goodies, the German man and Asian woman) tries to avoid eye contact with her because they know what’s coming next.  I pretend I just remembered something and dig furiously through my purse.

She addresses, Taxi, who is the only other American in the class.   Taxi is an African American from Florida, 50-ish, with a bit of a drawl which is either Southern influence or because he’s under the influence.

Christine:   Taxi.   Avez-vous un bon weekend?

Taxi:   Ma weekend a …fair to middling.

Christine (correcting him sharply):   Mon weekend a été.

Taxi:  Mon weekend a ete fair to middling.

Christine looks confused.   I’m trying really hard not to laugh.   The cute Lebanese guy, Michel and I exchange glances, which sets us both off giggling.

Christine:   Pardon?

Taxi:   Ma weekend a f…

Christine (deep sigh): Mon weekend a été…

Taxi:   Mon weekend a ete fair to middling…

Chrstine looks questioningly at class.

Christine:   “qu’est-ce que c’est fair to middling?”

Everyone else in the class looks totally blank, which makes sense, since I’m the only one here who speaks American English and is old enough to know what fair to middling means.

I want to tell them that it’s a somewhat archaic colloquial phrase which roughly translates to “comme ci comme ca”, but I’m laughing and I can’t remember how to say “comme ci, comme ca”  which makes me laugh harder.   I’m finally able to gasp out the words:   Fair to middling est the meme chose a okay” and put my head down and  laugh convulsively while the conversation stumbles forward.

Taxi:   Mon weekend a ete okay.  Je travail sur mon bateau j’ai les clients

Christine (tired, giving up): J’ai travaille sur mon bateau parce que  je suis eu les clients…

Taxi:  Oui.   Et je played pool avec mes amis.

At this point Christine snorts with utter contempt and begins scanning the room for her next victim.   Once again, we all avoid making eye contact with her.

The British woman sitting next to me looks like the proverbial dear caught in the headlights.   She’s practically quivering with fear.   Her every muscle is tensed for flight.   Or perhaps she’s just using all her energy trying to become invisible.   Displaying that sort of fear only invites Christine’s attention and sure enough, the quivering British woman is called.   I giggle in relief.  I LOVE the British woman.   It’s as if all my fears are somehow projected onto her.

Christine:   Qu’avez vous fait le weekend dernier?

The British woman’s eyes get even wider, I can see the whites all the way around her pupils.   Her voice quavers and she answers  r e a l l l l l l y   s l o w w w w l y.   I’m afraid she might have a stroke.

British woman:    J            ai            trav….no….fai…je …je dormi.

Christine:   J’ai dormi.

British woman:  Oui….J’ai dormi …et….je ….je….lit!!!!  Lit?

Christine:   J’ai lit…

This goes on for 20 minutes until Christine finally changes the subject because the British woman still hasn’t finished the sentence and has become a tan colored puddle of sweat in her chair.

Once again, Christine addresses the class and we all look in different directions.

Christine:   Qu’est ce que c’est la difference entre passé compose and plus que parfait?

We all politely allow the Chinese girl to answer.  She reads from a handwritten page.   She sounds like she’s speaking perfect French but with a Chinese accent so it’s totally incomprehensible.

I’m fairly certain that Christine doesn’t understand a word the girl is saying, but assumes she’s correct (she’s Asian after all).   Christine nods and scrawls on the board.

While Christine teaches us the difference between the word “sain” (health) and “sein” (breast) she grabs her breast to illustrate “sein”. Taxi, who appeared to be elsewhere until this moment, comes alive and shouts out “YES!   Finallement un mot I can USE!”

We all laugh for the last15 minutes of class, and I manage to escape with my dignity unscathed and my face streaked with tears (fortunately, of laughter this time).

On my way home, I reflect on the class.   That wasn’t so bad.   Damn, that was hilarious.  And I learned something.   I’m really glad I went.   Now, how am I going to get out of it next week?

word of the day: vetuste

The plumber taught it to me.   Well, he used it in a sentence.   I had to look it up.   I was a little offended when I saw that it means  “old” and “decrepit.”  Then it occurred to me that he might have been referring to the plumbing, not me.

a sure sign of assimalation. or something.

Today,  I spent 15 minutes trying to remember the English word for “courgette.”

To me, this can only mean one of two things:   Either I’m finally starting to think in French or I have alzheimer’s.

up plitvice lakes without a paddle

I planned this little three generational Croatian adventure. Airlines, hotels, car rental, ferries, you name it. The only place I hadn’t nailed down at least a month in advance was Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. The three huge hotels in the actual national park are handled through the national tourist office and I was told by email, all booked. But “with my patience, they will give me some ideas for other accomadations.” What they didn’t tell me is that I’d have to be patient until the moment we get here.

Nobody I ever met has even heard of Plitvice Lakes. How can it be booked? It’s about four hours from Rovinj, south and inland to Plitvice National Park and World Heritage site. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, so the risk is high. It’s supposed to be spectacular. I’m not a woodsy type of person, but for some reason, I mus see Plitvice Lakes. Somehow it will all work out.

After four hours in the car I’m getting a little panicky. There sure are a lot of empty tour buses driving out. Does that mean nobody came or they’re all staying at one of our hotels? What if it’s another three hours to Plitvice the hotels are all booked and we have to find a place to sleep in the dark? What if we can’t find a place and have to sleep in the car? Someone please just throw me off this spectacularly gorgeous waterfall now! Hey, we’re in Plitvice.

They weren’t lying. The place is beautiful and the three huge ugly hotels with separate parking for tour buses really are booked.

Which leaves us two options: go to the tourist office and find lodging or drive through the valley haphazardly looking for houses advertising sobe, zimmers and kamere for the night.

Of course, we make the obvious choice and spend the next hour on the road, discussing the various merits of places with sobe zimmer and kamere signs as we drive past them.

Then we decide that this isn’t really furthering our cause and venture into a few of the nicer looking driveways. Only to be rebuffed. Sometimes they hold up a “No” sign. Sometimes they shake their head and glare. We even get chased down one driveway. We can’t help but take it personally, even though the places really do look full. My mother takes to muttering “yeah, well, screw you, too!’ as we beat our retreats.

This leaves us no choice. Somebody is going to have to get out of the car and talk to a Croatian.

I’m tired and blame not having reservations here on Croatia. And I blame mom and dad, of course, because this whole trip is their fault. If they weren’t paying for this trip, we wouldn’t be in this mess.   Let them deal with it. I’ve dealt with everything else. I’m too frazzled and frail and delicate to cope any more. Katherine stays in the car in solidarity with my frazzled, frail delicateness…or maybe just to stake out her spot in the car to sleep tonight.

When mom and dad emerge from the tourist office looking triumphant, my heart leaps in hope. “There’s a house with two sobes with bathrooms and everything. Right over there” (they wave vaguely in a direction). My heart sinks in despair.

Our lodging is supposed to be about 20 minutes outside the park, way up a winding road on cliffs we could easily fallen to our deaths from. I’m happy to say we don’t die and find the place relatively easily.

It’s almost disgustingly picturesque. A small farm with a vegetable patch, some chickens, ducks geese, pigs, turkeys, goats, kitties, dogs and a brand new litter of three rolling puffs of fur. It’s a veritable petting zoo. We’re overlooking a gorge or valley or some other natural formation I don’t know the name of. I’ll tell you one thing, no tour bus could get up here.

The rooms are fine. Probably 1/2 star.   There are some ants but we give them a good splashing of pure Croatian lavender oil and hope they’ll go away, The environment is a lot nicer than the groddy hotels that rejected us. And everyone knows that the scent of lavender is balancing and soothing.

The smiling proprietress gives us a short tour in Esperanto. She points to herself and says “Mama”. She points to my mother and says “Mama”. She points to the puppies’ mother and says “mama”. We now know everything we need to know and settle in for the night.

I take a deep breath of the lavender scented room.   As long as these aren’t flesh eating ants, I think we’ll be okay.


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