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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!

you say la tomate, I say le tomate


If I’m to believe Carole and the guy I buy fruit and vegetables from at the market, my French is improving. I definitely understand more. And I’ve been able to have deep discussions with the owner of the grocery store about which cookies ont meilleux et pourquoi.

I’m learning that if you put something French sounding at the end of every English word you don’t know the French word for, 75% of the time, you’ll be right. Examples: publicity=publicite (publeeceetay); geriatric=geriatrique (geriatreek); totally=totalement (totalmon). Every now and then there’s an exception to that rule, and instead you put something French sounding in front of it. Examples: weekend=le weekend; internet=le internet.

I’ve also become better at looking like I understand. People can go on for paragraphs before realizing I don’t understand what they’re saying. And by then, I can usually pick out a few words and piece it together. Of course, when I can’t piece it together and am forced,  after someone has rambled on for two paragraphs to say “je ne comprends pas”, they look at me like I’m crazy for not stopping them sooner. Some of them walk away grumbling under their breath, but fortunately, I usually can’t understand them.

I’ve also learned the French stall word. In the US, we have “like” or “uh”. Here, it’s “errrr”, which sounds much smarter than the US versions. Especially if you do it with that subtle roll at the back of your throat and let the rrrrrs roll into your next real word.

The conjugation thing is still a problem. I can only manage the simplest tenses (okay, my repertoire is still pretty much present tense, but that’s  true for me in English too). I’m sure I sound like some stupider version of I Dream of Jeannie to the French. Is it possible to sound stupider than I Dream of Jeannie?

But here’s the thing that really trips me up: every time I think I’ve got all the nouns and adjectives right and the verbs conjugated correctly, I un when I should une or le when I should la. What is with this focus on whether a noun is masculine or feminine? Yes, I’m suffering from acute gender confusion.

Back in the good old U S of A, nouns are just nouns. We don’t care if a pastry, domesticated animal, potato, or an illegal war based on lies is a boy or a girl, to us, it’s just pastry, domesticated animal, potato, or an illegal war based on lies. I firmly believe nouns should not be discriminated against. Well, that’s what I tell Carole when I screw up (“le…la…c’est sexiste!”)

But there’s something really dodgy about labeling all nouns either masculine or feminine.

When I ask how they know whether every word is masculine of feminine, they answer cryptically that they know it en couer (by heart). The implication is that it’s some sort of innate thing. Maybe masculinizing and feminizing things is in the human DNA, a part of the common consciousness.. Maybe the French are just more in touch with it. If I just tap into the part of me that’s plugged into the pulse of mankind maybe the right words will instinctively blurt from my mouth. The problem is I’m not sure if I can still speak when I’m that drunk.

There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s designated masculine or feminine. Baguette and saucisson are both feminine, but I think the French must be mistaken. Look at them—they’re totally masculine. And tampon is masculine. Go figure. I guess I could make a case for that one if I really thought about it, but I’d rather not.

I’m starting suspect that in real life, the French don’t really gender discriminate their words. They only do it when we’re around. It’s just a passive aggressive trick they established to retain a small sense of superiority after we saved their derrieres in WW2. When we say “le baguette”, they correct us and tell us it’s “la”. When we say la baguette, they tell us it’s le. We wind up confused, frustrated and totally helpless. Just the way they want us.

When Carole informs me that chat is masculine, unless le chat est une chatte comme Desdemona, I float my theory past her (in French, of course). She seems impressed that I am able to communicate a fairly complex thought in French. She thinks about it for a moment, smiles and corrects me.

It’s LA deuxieme guerre de LE monde.

Zut! Je ce rende!

***

Check out my latest on the Huffington Post.

 

the rock stars of auvers

vWhere I come from, people stand in line for celebrities and iPhones.

Here in Auvers, it appears the most wanted men are the butchers.   On Sunday mornings before they close for their weekend, the line stretches down the main drag.

J.Y. Gicquel Boucherie  comes highly recommended by the Ladoux family.   I’ve been a little hesitant to venture in there because it will require speaking French and I shudder to think what adorable forest creature I might wind up taking home for dinner.   I’m also not sure whether those numbers before the decimal point in their prices, are ones or sevens and whether we’re talking francs or euros and I’m afraid I can’t afford it if I have to ask.

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight and have decided that my lack of energy is due to a protein deficiency and I need a good piece of red meat.   Preferably something someone who’s lived on takeout for the past 20 years can cook.

butcher window

I’m a little nervous entering, the vibe here is a lot friendlier than the boulanger down the street, where I feel I must apologize when I enter, again when I order and one more time when I pay.   Sometimes I apologize when I leave for good measure.

It’s not like I’m a total stranger here.  I wave to them every time I walk by and they wave back.  There are usually two butchers; a younger one with a roundish face and receeding hairline and an older guy with salt and pepper hair and a nice northern european face.  They may be wearing bloody aprons, but here, they’re captains of industry.   A woman mans the prepared foods counter (quiche, Frenchy salads, things en croute and terrines with hardboiled eggs in them) and cash register.

A couple of people are ahead of me which gives me time to get my bearings and look at all the meats behind the counter and try to figure out what they are so I can point knowledgably.   There are about 7 different kinds of chicken shaped items in various sizes.  Lots of fillets of chicken colored objects of various sizes,  slabs of red unrecognizable red meats.   Lots of unrecognizable parts.   Sausage galore.   Chops.   Ribs.   Rabbits.   Geese.   I’m getting a little sad and consider fleeing or at least turning to the deli counter, but it’s my turn.Meat Question

Here are the french words for meats I know I’ll eat:   poulet (chicken), agneau (lamb), boeuf (beef), dinde (turkey), porc.   But then we get into cuts and I’m lost.   Is an onglet a steak or some organ I don’t want to know about?   And is it an onglet de boeuf, ou cheval?   And what the heck is french for goat?   Je ne voudrais pas goat.   Or lapin (rabbit).   I’m now in a cold sweat and probably look guilty.

The younger guy greets me in French.    I try to say something in French, but all I can do is look behind the the glass and point desperately at a kebab and ask ‘qu’est ce que c’est.’   He doesn’t understand me.   Shit (merde).   He’s one of those French people who doesn’t understand English OR really bad French.   This could be a problem.

I point again at the kebab and ask “c’est l’agneau?”

He looks at me blankly.   I repeat myself slowly.   Nothing.   By now everyone in the store has stopped and watches curiously.   I really want to flee now, but I might want to come back here sometime, so I blunder on.

I point at the kebab and “baaaaah” loudly like a lamb.   His face brightens and he nods vigorously.   I point to my leg.   He nods again.

I shout excitedly, ca!   Un de ca s’il vous plait.  He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but we’re on the same wavelength.

He wraps it up and I hold my hand out to take it.   He gives me a slip of paper and points to the cash register while babbling something in French.  And I totally get it.   They give me the meat after I pay.   I say merci beaucoup, he says something and the transaction is completed.    We’re both very pleased with ourselves.

Next stop, cash register.   Grand total about E4.92 which is about 9 dollars, so, pretty pricey.   It also presents the problem of whether I pay with the pocketful of coins in my pocket or just hand her the E10 bill I have and get even more coins.   If I pay in coins it could take hours for me to figure out the right amount.   But if I get my change in coins, I’ll just have to face the problem down the road.   I do the only logical thing and dump the contents of my pocket on the counter and let the very nice cashier pick out the coins she needs.

rock stars of AuversI leave the store with my package, calling out “merci, bon soir!” feeling very French.

I broil the kebab, which is all seasoned lamb cubes with a chunk of some sort of sausage at each end and make a salad.

All I can say is that kebab brought me more pleasure than Springstein, Jagger or an iPhone ever could.   Hours later, I’m still fantasizing the subtle seasoning and the tender juicy lamb cubes.   And the sausage!   OMG!  A veritable medley of spices in perfect pork harmony that I can’t get out of my head.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so I’m going to get in line first thing in the morning.   Maybe I should camp out front over night.   I’ll just die if they’re sold out when I get there.

Consult this meat translation guide before venturing into a boucherie.

fear of dying

coiffureI’ve been avoiding it for awhile. Pretending that if I ignored the problem, it would go away. But the truth is, it’s getting worse. And the only way people don’t notice is if their vision is worse than mine. If don’t deal with it now, I might as well give up and just let go forever. I’ll never be able to look myself in the mirror again. Worse, the whole world will see how much of my hair has gone grey (prematurely, of course). The world can probably handle it. I can’t.

It’s been 23 years since I’ve seen my actual haircolor and frankly, it’s not high on my list of things to do before I die. But it’s getting to the point where my hair color could best be described as “striped” and the ugly truth will have to be confronted.

I’ve been coloring my hair ever since Brad added a little red to my dirt brown hair and I never went back. Brad has been doing my color for the past 23 years (that’s 92 seasons in fashion years) in various but becoming shades of blond to strawberry blond to red to auburn. I figure I’ve paid for at least two of his nine or so plastic surgeries —his pecs, really belong to me.   Don’t think I’m complaining…when I think about the money I spent on shrinks versus the money I spent on Brad, I have no regrets about Brad.

During rough times, Brad would always do my color for free. He owns a part of my head, but don’t tell him in case he wants to sue me for it someday. He’s one of the reasons I stayed in New York as long as I did. Brad and my rent stabilized soon to be ex-apartment.

GM-426076-2TBefore I left, Brad tucked a little bottle of Wella brown rose number xxx (proprietary secret) in my hand and whispered, tell them to use this. I’ll fix it when you get back. I’ve been carrying that little bottle around since then, assuming when the time was right, I could figure out how to do it myself. Well, I just pulled it out and read the instructions. Are they crazy? This stuff seems like you need a professional to do it with all these high faluting hair dresser words like toner, filler and latex gloves.

I’ve noticed a couple of hair salons in Auvers. I don’t know if they’re any good or not. Or if it matters if you’re just giving them the bottle and saying please dye my roots this color for 30 minutes? S’il vous plait? One of the salons looks like it’s trying to be trendy. The other one is tucked away off the main street, which is the one that appeals to me.

front of coiffure

The price for colouer permanante is 19E50. Brad was $210.00. This is a plus.

On the minus side is the fact that my French still sucks. How do I say can you dye my hair the color in this bottle? Peut-tu morte mes chevaux le colouer dans …ici? Le boit…yeah, le boit. No, I don’t want them to kill my hair. Dye it color it. Coloeur mes chevaux? Come on…if I apply myself, I should be able to do this. Bonjour, mes chevaux et mal ici (point to roots). Aidez mois, s’l vous plait? Ma coiffeur dans new york me donne cette boit (hold up bottle of haircolor) et me dit, ici quoi j’ employe. Je suis ici dan auvers pour cinq mois. Aidez mois s’il vous plait?

If they understand and answer my brain will blank and I’ll stand dumbly clutching my bottle of haircolor like Bush clutched the my little goat book on 9/11. And I will go along with whatever they say and hope for the best. I guess that’s as close to willingly putting my life in the hands of a higher power as I’m ever going to get.

I really do trust that once I actually go into the hair salon and wave the bottle and speak really bad French, they’ll be nice and do it. I also trust it’ll be kind of fun, in a challenging, mildly threatening sort of a way. I also trust that my hair will look fine…much better than it does right now. And that ultimately, I’ll feel and look much better once I cross this huge hurdle.

Today I walk by the little salon. I look in the window like a child looking into a candy store. When the hairdresser threatens to make eye contact, I smile briefly before fleeing like a frightened hare.

I think I’ll put my life in the hands of a higher power some other day. Right now, I could go for some lunch.

Back to my roots (more on the continuing hair saga)

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