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my new french teacher is a bitch

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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.

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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.

“Non!”

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!

french vocabulary for the lame

les bequilles

les bequilles

Since my recent Strasbourg trip (in every sense of the word), I’ve learned some new French words and phrases that have come in handy.  This list should prove invaluable to anyone who plans to break a foot in a French-speaking country.

English:  I need a doctor.

French:   J’ai besoin d’une docteur.

 

English:  My foot hurts.

French:   Mon pied me fait mal. (or just point frantically at your foot and say:  “ce fait mal!”)

 

English:  I climbed to the top of the cathedral and when I came down, I fell.

French:  Je suis montais au les hauts de la cathedrale et quand j’ai descendu, j’ai tombe.

 

English:  X-ray

French:  Radio

 

English:  Plaster cast

French:  Platre

 

English:  My foot is broken.

French:  Mon pied est casse.

 

English:  I hate these crutches.

French:   Je deteste ces bequilles.

 

English:   Kill me now.

French:  Me tuez maintenant.  (this is when you’re addressing someone formally.   The familiar would be “me tues”)

 

English:   No!   Wait!  Don’t kill me!  I’m not serious.

French:   No!   Attendez!  Ne me tuez pas!   Je ne suis pas serieux.

 

English:  I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaning on you.

French:  J’espère que cela ne vous dérange pas que je me penche sur vous.

 

English:  Do you deliver?

French:   Livrez-vous?

 

English:   Great.   Please deliver me home.

French: Superbe. S’il vous plaît me livrer à domicile.

 

English:  Excuse me.   Can I borrow your wheel chair?

French:  Pardonnez moi. Pourrais-je emprunter votre fauteuil roulant?

 

English:   Do you have a strong back?

French:  Avez vous un dos forte?

 

English:  Please carry me.

French:  Me porter s’il vous plait.

 

English:  I’m sorry if I smell bad.   Bathing is difficult with this cast.

French: Je suis desolee si j’ai un odeur mauvais.   Baignade est tres difficile  avec cette platre.

 

English:  Are you blind?   Can’t you see I have a broken foot?

French:  Etes-vous aveugle? Tu ne vois pas que j’ai un pied cassé?

 

English:  I’m sorry.   I didn’t notice that you really are blind.

French:  Je suis désolé. Je n’ai pas remarqué que vous êtes vraiment aveugle.

 

English:  Help me!

French:  Taxi!

the best medicine

Today I called the dermatologist’s office to get the “resultats de la biopsie sur mon mauvais bouton”.  I’m not sure what I feared more:   the results, or having to speak in French and offending someone for mangling their language.

Naturally the doctor was busy, so I spoke to the receptionist, who tried to take a message.   “Tried” being the key word.

She tried valiantly to speak English and I tried to speak French.   We ended up laughing so hard I could hear her gasping for breath.  After about 20 minutes, we had to hang up, because we were unable to conduct a conversation without laughing hysterically.  Hell, we couldn’t get a word out without laughing hysterically.

I still don’t know the results, but I know the doctor will call me back later.   I also know that if laughter is the best medicine, both the receptionist and I are going to be fine.

*

Update:   The doctor called back and the results are in fact,  fine.   

a tale of two dermatologists

I’m fair skinned.  That means I have to go to the dermatologist a lot to make sure one of my 8 million freckles hasn’t become deadly.

After hearing about a few people dying of melanoma recently (thank you Facebook), I figure it’s time for a check up.

I have two choices, find an English-speaking doctor, who is probably in Cannes and costs a gazillion dollars, or find one in Antibes who probably doesn’t speak English and is a fraction of the cost.    Being lazy and cheap, I make a rendez-vous with a Dr.  Michelle Bagni, Docteur Dermatologue-Venereologue, about 5 minutes from my apartment.

There is no receptionist.   The walls are bare.   It’s basically a big unfurnished apartment with a lovely bay window and hardwood floors.   The waiting room has a few mismatched chairs, a coffee table with magazines and brochures on how to identify skin cancer.

Everyone in the waiting room is older than me, and none of the visitors seem to be here for cosmetic purposes and if they are, they’re either actually 120 years old and don’t look a day over 90, or my doctor is a really crappy cosmetic dermatologist.   Who knows, maybe that makes her better at the health-related stuff.

After a 15-minute wait, she comes out to get me.   She’s barefaced, and I dare say, all natural.   She’s probably in her 50’s.   Her office is like her, no-nonsense, no frills, but good bones.   There’s a desk, chairs, files, computer and an examination table in the adjoining room.

As I suspected, she only speaks French, but this is just a check up, I can get through that.

antibes dermatology

She thoroughly examines every inch of my skin and finds two boutons (isn’t the word “bouton” so much cuter than “grotesque growth”?) for biopsy.   One on my leg and the other on my arm.    She cuts them out, stitches me up and sends me on my way.   The bill is only 30Euro, which thrills me (I read some guy in Cannes charges 100 Euros for a consultation!)  For some reason, I don’t worry about it.

Until I go back to get my stitches taken out and get the biopsy results.

Dr.  Bagni finds my file and scans it.   A look of concern passes over her face.   My pulse shifts into high gear.

I’m relieved when she says “Ce n’est pas grave,…” but my relief slowly dissipates as she continues speaking and I don’t understand a word she’s saying.   Worse, she’s using hand gestures that indicate cutting and scooping a large chunk of my arm.  On the positive side, she doesn’t use amputation and death gestures

.From what I can gather the bouton on my leg is nothing and the one on my arm is in fact, mauvais.  She thinks I should go to a doctor with more medical equipment because  they have to go pretty deep to get it all out.   Or something like that.

She asks me whether I’d rather go to a doctor in Cannes or In La Fontonne.   I ask which is better and she says a bunch of stuff in French and I agree to whatever it is she said.   Turns out I’m going to Cannes.  Next week.

I rush home to translate the test results clutched in my hand.  It seems I have  squamous skin cancer on my arm and the borders need to be widened.   Which leads to a day of Googling squamous skin cancer (somewhere between Basal Cell which isn’t usually deadly and Melanoma which often is) and funeral homes in the South of France.

While it’s only a 10-minute train ride away, Cannes is a whole other world than Antibes.  Apparently, so are their dermatologists’ offices.

Dr. Mangiavillano’s “Centre Laser and Chirugie Dermatologique” has art everywhere in addition to obviously expensive carpets, drapes and furniture.   There’s a huge TV monitor in the waiting room/receptions area playing some demonstration of all the fabulous things you can have done to look better using awesome looking machines and lasers.   There’s a library of brochures for things like liftmassage, laser this and botulism toxine that.   A very friendly receptionist speak a bit of English.

The clientele here is younger than the one in Antibes (well, they look it anyway).   A good-looking man with a beard asks me in French if this is my first time.   I have no idea what he’s referring to, so I just nod, say “oui.   J’ai peur.”   He reassures me in French (at least I think he’s reassuring me, and God knows what he’s reassuring me about).   I wonder what scars his beard is hiding.

CannesThe doctor comes to get me.   I’m pretty sure he’s had some work done.

His office has lots of art, fancy furniture and a bunch of really cool looking technological gadgets that I’m sure could take years, maybe decades off my face.   But right now, I just want this damn thing off my arm.

He asks me in French why I’m here.   I tell him I have a mauvais bouton and hand him the envelope Dr. Bagni gave me with the results.  I nervously study his expression as he reads my file.   He looks pretty matter of fact, which I consider a good sign.   Of course, it could be because his face doesn’t move.   He tells me to take off my shoes and lie down in the cushy treatment lounger.

He asks me if I would prefer to speak in French or English.   Angels sing “hallelujah.”  Even though I came prepared by double checking how to say “you’re going to die” in French  (“vous allez mourir”, unless he addresses me in the familiar in which case it would be “tu vas mourir”)  I ask him to speak English.

He tells me that I have skin cancer, it’s not serious, he just needs to cut a wider border than the piece Dr. Bagni cut out for biopsy and then it will be gone.

He leaves the room for a moment and his assistant/nurse/whatever appears. She’s an an ageless woman (who has obviously had work done).   She holds my hand reassuringly while scrutinizing my face.   She tells me (in French) I have rougeurs and need something laser.   I’m sure I do.   I just wish she’d stop looking at me.  Now she’s saying more stuff that I don’t understand…probably telling me I need botox, a face lift and maybe some tasteful breast implants.    Now I’m really scared.     Dear God, is there an  anesthesiologist?

IMG_4803The doctor returns and they do their work, chatting to each other in French (probably talking about all the work I need done).   In all, it probably takes 30 minutes and I don’t feel or see a thing. I walk out with 12 stitches and a large gash across my arm that looks like a failed suicide attempt made by a very stupid drunk person.

I go to the receptionist to pay.   E300!   That’s 10 times the cost of the Antibes doctor!   Sure, more stitches, but jeez.   I do some quick math…that’s 25 Euro a stitch, compared to 6 Euro a stitch in Antibes.   This thread must be some rare tibetan silk woven by albino yaks.  I’m starting to feel a little sick so I sit down.  The assistant brings me a glass of water.

When I’m feeling better I head to the pharmacy to fill the prescription Doctor Mangiavilla gave me.   I drop E30 on the various bandages, gauze, disinfectant and healing unguents, plus another $70 on some miracle anti-rougeurs cream (it’s gotta be cheaper than lasers, oui?).

All in all, my dermatological excursion to Cannes cost E400.   All I can say is, when these stitches come off, my arm better look at least 10 years younger.

the most frightening woman in france

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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?

the soiree of terror

The day I’ve been dreading has finally arrived.    I received the above invitation a few weeks ago.

Every year at this time, French people try to get to know/reconnect with their neighbors in what is called “Fete de Voisins.”   The idea is to form bonds that will counteract the isolation of city living and build stronger communities.  So this little fete will include everyone in my small apartment building.   I’m pretty sure all the tenants here are French, except one family.   I’m also pretty sure their English is no better than my French.  In most cases worse (gasp!).   Naturally, I’m terrified.

I walk s-l-o-w-l-y down the three flights to the party.   On the way I bump into my only English-as-a-first-language speaking neighbor (Denise) and her four year old son (William).   Denise is very thoughtfully locking her door, and staring at it as if trying to remember something.  Turns out, she’s trying to remember a reason she can’t go to the party.   She’s as nervous as I am.  But she’s lived here for seven years, so she clearly has an advantage.   William, who is fairly fluent in both French and English and fearless because he’s 4 and there promises to be cake, he’s ready to partay.   At least now, I have a suitable escort.

We enter the apartment together, doing the whole introduction and kissing both cheeks thing.   Damn, these people talk fast!   I still don’t know what anyone’s name is because I can’t distinguish the words from the names.

The table overflows with food like some decadent still life.   I wish I brought my camera. There are about 11 guests ages ranging from 4-75.  The host and hostess are a 70-ish couple and live on the ground floor with an amazing garden with a small koi pond.   The husband speaks a petite peux of English (not as much as he thinks).

Representing the 1st floor a 60-ish couple ( think the man was a bit older).   They both only speak french, although the husband’s rapid-fire french is punctuated with seemingly random “OH MY GODs” (in English—maybe he’s trying to make me feel at home).

From the second floor we have Denise and William.   I’m the third floor.

From the top floor brings two female college students who are renting the apartment.   Also in attendance, the attractive 40-ish man who owns the apartment.  There’s also a woman I can’t place, but for some reason I think she has something to do with the top floor.

As much as Denise and I would prefer to sit in a corner and talk to each other in English, we know it would be cowardly and we must mingle.  I watch her dive bravely into the fray.   I’m intimidated by her ability to understand questions and answer them. I feel better when she tells one of the neighbors that her son, William is 40.

In the following three hours, I learn as much as I can about my neighbors and bond with them given my limited French skills.   Here’s what I managed to pick up:

The hostess quit smoking after 52 years and she said something about cocaine and morphine in the same sentence.   I’m assuming she said it was harder to quit cigarettes than cocaine or morphine.   Either that, or she used cocaine and morphine to kick nicotine.   Will have to delve deeper into that when my French improves.   In response, I tell her that she must have started smoking when she was two.   Well, I hope that’s what I told her.   She kind of clutched her hand to her heart, in what I hope was a gesture of gratitude or pleasure.

The man on the second floor feels very strongly (OH MY GOD!) that The painter Nicolas Stahl was very something.   So was Picasso.   He also said something about Collioures, which is a small fishermens village near the Spanish border where a lot of famous painters spent time.   I’ve always wanted to go there, so I nod enthusiastically.

First floor’s son got married in Santa Barbara.   He may also live there.   It’s very beautiful there.

The students on the fourth floor are studying at some school on Jules Grec Blvd .  I know where it is, so I nod enthusiastically.   They’re majoring in either agriculture, horticulture or quantum physics.  They are originally from somewhere in the north of France.  I know where the north of France is so I nod in knowingly.

The recipe for Gateau du thon (tuna cake, think meatloaf made with tuna instead of meat):   Tuna, lemon juice, capers, egg, salt pepper and a touch of mayo with Dijon mustard.   Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

The proprietor of “Le sex shop” (a few doors up the street) is very charming.

David and his wife, Nikki  (the couple who own the apartment I live in) are lovely, and Nikki is both smart, beautiful and a bunch of other stuff that is said in a very positive manner.   Great.   I will always be compared to her.   I bet her French is perfect, too.   Bitch.

The crowing I hear from the building next door at about 10AM every morning is actually a chicken (I figured it was a lazy rooster)   They used to have three but two of them died.   Not sure if they ate them.

William wants his bubbles (as in to blow bubbles).   Bubbles in French ar “bulles de savon”.   I initially thought they said bulles de savant (bubbles of knowledge).   It took about 15 minutes to clear this up.

The tarte is delicious.   The hostess didn’t make it, she bought it at the bakery on the Rue de Republique

The rest of the evening, I’m pretty sure they were just saying bad things about me.

I used the phrase “lentment s’il vous plait” approximately 14 times.

I guess some would say this is a pretty lame example of my French skills if this is all I got from three hours of continual conversation.

On the other hand, a year ago here’s the sum total of what I would have picked up:

Cocaine.   Morphine.   Cigarettes.  Picasso.  Collioures.   OH MY GOD!   Santa Barbara.  North of France.    Tuna cake.   Salt and pepper.   They like Nikki better than me.   Chicken.   Dead.  The Sex Shoppe.  Knowledge.   The tarte is delicious.

I’m making progress!

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.

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