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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!

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.   

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?

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.

a quick language lesson

The other day a group of kids from the neighborhood came running up to me and said “coucou!”

My first reaction was ‘oh my god, how do they know?   Who told them?”

But after a bit of research I discovered that “coucou” is the colloquial phrase for “hello.”

I’m glad I didn’t beat the merde out of them.

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.

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