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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!

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.

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.

french zen

This afternoon I found myself stressing out because I forgot to pick up croissants at the market.   Just as I was considering the many reasons that this was the most devastating state of affairs that could possibly befall me, I snorted derisively and said to myself “eh, what the hell, it’s not like after today, there aren’t going to be any more croissants.”.

Then I went back to stressing about everything else.

the true meaning of fete de la cocagne

Today’s the big day. The last day of the Fete de la  Cocagne. Maybe today I’ll figure out what it is.

The main drag is closed and booths are set up for about a quarter of a mile. Booths selling stuff—yes, little make due shops! Joy to the world. I celebrate with a glace (ice cream cone) for breakfast.

There are Savoie cheese vendors, sausage and jambon vendors, vendors selling a variety of juices made in the region, arts and crafts booths, a booth selling beer made in the region, wine booths, a booth selling Auvers posters with Van Gogh paintings he painted while he was here, a bakery booth, and my personal favorite, a booth selling framed bugs and butterflies for a mere 10% of the price I’ve seen them sold elsewhere in the states or Paris.

An ooompapa band plays in the background as the tourists and natives wander the streets. Fortunately, only a few are in period costume so I don’t feel out of place or like a party poop.

I ask a few people qu’est ce que c’est cocagnes and most people shrug their shoulders. A few people answer, but I don’t understand a word they’re saying. Where is the French lesson booth when you need it?


My economic contribution is to buy two Auvers Van Gogh posters which I figure will be a nice memory of my time here and will look lovely on my refrigerator box wall when I return to the states. I also get a bottle of cherry/apple juice, a bottle of award winning Biere du Vexin (which is quite good, I must say), a delicious cheese and a small salami. There goes my grocery money for the week. But when I think about it, I’ve got all four food groups covered: dairy with the cheese, meat with the salami, fruit with the juice and grain with the beer. I’m set.

Everyone is jolly and friendly, although I don’t recognize any of them from Auvers.

All in all, it’s a lovely fete. And I think I’ve figured out what cocagne means: tourist trap.

fete de la cocagne — the mystery continues


Today is the first day of the Auvers”Fete de la Cocagne,” a two day event full of something in recognition of something.

I ask Carole et Jerome what this whole cocagnes thing is all about.   They bicker good-naturedly in French for a moment before admitting they’re not sure..   It’s just  a big nuisance as far as they’re concerned.   Kind of like a parade to a New Yorker, I guess.

According to my good friend, Google, Cocagne either has something to do with an ideal life of indulgence  or being cockney.     A commenter on my previous post (thanks, Sirius),  did some research and found that it has something to do with a life of pleasure.    Or climbing  a greased pole.  I’m going to go with ideal life of indulgent pleasure.

The festivities start with some sort of presentation on the stage in front of the Hotel de Ville.      Women with parasols, long dresses and Miss America type sashes that read “Cocagne”. The men on stage are wearing bow ties and hats, I assume from the same time period. They seem to be giving each other awards.  Perhaps for winning the greased pole climbing contest?

A series of rock bands perform–really bad ones that are only slightly better than Courtney Love.    Sausages, pommes frites and beer are sold in the parking lot and the construction site has become a lovely street bistro serving grilled meat, veggies, beer wine and ice cream. The carousel is moving and the children on it screech with excitement.

Knowing that the real fete doesn’t start until tomorrow, I go inside. But soon, I’m drawn back out by a band that’s actually quite good for a French band (no offense to the French, but they suck at Rock and Roll, and Jerome will back me up on this).  Oncle Oedipe, is the name, and I can only assume the reason I’ve never heard of them before is either because they’re French or because none of the members are particularly “hot” looking.

Young girls are dancing and screaming like groupies with clothes on,    I’m mesmerized by a little blond boy about four or five who is totally rocking out as his mother feeds him cotton candy like a Roman slave feeding a fidgety Roman Emperor grapes.    Seriously, this kid has moves.   Even the way he grabs at the cotton candy as his mother lowers it towards his mouth is completely in time with the music done done with a rhythmic flourish.   No doubt about it, the kid is  a rock star.

After Oncle Oedipe finishes their set, I take a stroll and discover that Van Gogh Park has been transformed into a petting zoo with rabbits, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys and two huge unpenned bulls standing by the far wall. Children make animal sounds (I assume they’re animal sounds, they bear no resemblance to the sound American livestock makes), trying to draw the smaller creatures out from their tiny pens.

The goats are petrified, the donkey is accommodating and the pig obliviously snuffles in the dirt for imaginary truffles.   The bulls recline like Odalisque in a shady corner.

Judging by the pamphlets, fliers and posters, the real action doesn’t start until tomorrow. Perhaps then I’ll figure out what this cocagnes thing is all about. I fall asleep with visions of glaces et boissons dancing in my head.

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my own personal masterpiece (in L’Oreal Excellence, cuive d’or 7.3)

It’s that time of month again — my other monthly curse. The problem of what to do about my roots rears its ugly head again. A really ugly head with two stripes of roots in shades of red, as well as brown and grey. My hair is starting to resemble an archeological dig in that the layers reveal a rich history.

We’ve already established that I’m not returning to the cute little hair salon nearby. The truth is, I’m hesitant to hand over such an important job to a stranger ever again. If someone is going to screw up my hair, I want it to be me. If that makes me a control freak, so be it.

The closest I’ve come to dying my hair by myself was when I was 16 and I got one of those highlighting kits at the drugstore. My mother spent an hour with a crochet hook, painfully pulling out strands of my hair from the holes in the shower cap thing before I freaked out, changed my mind and abandoned the project despite the pain I’d already endured.

But this time, there can be no turning back, I’ve got hideous roots to cover.

So the next logical step is to find the right hair color, which requires a trip to a big grocery/everything chain like monoprix, eclerc or casino. The drugstores here are tiny and don’t carry a great variety. Often they don’t even carry hair color. There are no Duane Reades, Walgreens or CVSs here.

I figure while I’m there, I can also pick up things like dental floss which is surprisingly hard to find.

I do a little research before I go. To see if any particular brand of hair color is hailed by makeupalley users. Turns out, the only one that gets a good rating is discontinued. This is not promising. I’m on my own here. And my course is fraught with dangers. Sure, there’s bad color, but there’s also the possibility of damaging or frying my hair. I find the thought of Armageddon far less frightening.

I face a daunting wall of hair color products. All sorts of shades that are just slightly different from the other. And while the differences between the colors may seem small, one wrong hue can ruin your life.

There are brands I’ve never heard of like Schwartzkopf which I decide against because the German accent scares me.

When you get right down to it, I’d rather trust my hair to a French company because they invented the word “salon”, forgodsakes. They must know what they’re doing.

Which leaves me with L’Oreal, Garnier and Posay A woman with bedraggled looking hair takes a box of Posay and it’s narrowed down to two. I finally decide on L’Oreal Crème Excellence because I don’t like the looks of the girls on the Garnier cartons—a little too hookerish for my tastes. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Choosing the shade is the true test of nerves. Every time I think I have the right color in my hands, I begin to tremble and start having second thoughts. Is hair color like perfume in that the same scent can comes out differently on different people? What if this lovely golden caramel color on the girl on the box turns out candy corn orange on me? Maybe I should go darker…it would be kind of a French thing to do. And maybe that would cover mistakes…or make them worse. No, lets not try anything drastic for a debut effort. I try matching my hair with the colors on the box, but it’s difficult getting my hair at a distance that I can actually see it. It also doesn’t help that the names of the colors are in French…I know d’ore is gold, but what the heck is cuivre? Isn’t that an eating utensil? I feel like I need to lie down. Ugh, I feel clammy and icky and sweaty. I hope I’m not having a stroke. Or is it a hotflash? Or just anxiety? And who can blame me? This is a life altering irrevocable decision. Well… for three weeks anyways.

By this time, I’m sure the cashiers think I’m either insane or a shoplifter. Feeling no more enlightened than I was two hours ago, I tell myself it’s just hair and grab number 143, blond d’ore, I don’t consider myself blond, but the color of the girl’s hair on the cover looks about right.

On my way to the cash register, I remember to get the dental floss. But when I see the options, I’m plunged into indecision again. The large roll, the medium roll the waxed or unwaxed, J&J or the cheaper generic kind…thank Dieu they don’t have flavored or I’d still be there. Generic waxed medium is the verdict..

I have to avert my eyes from the lip gloss aisle or I risk falling off the wagon. I’m a glossaholic…I can’t resist buying a new lip gloss whenever I see one. I’m always sure that the one I’m buying will be the answer to all my prayers with the perfect balance of color, emollient, shine and taste. Even when I think I’ve found it, I’m immediately on the lookout for the next one. I’m a total lipgloss whore. When they started coming out with lip plumping glosses, I knew I was going to have to leave the country. I’ve been clean since I’ve been here in France which is quite an accomplishment when you consider how many new, untried lip glosses there are for me to be tempted by here. It’s excrutiating. I remain strong.

I pay and send out a short prayer: I’m sorry I was pissed at you yesterday, but please let this be a decent color and please don’t let me screw it up. Do whatever you want to the Middle East, but please spare my hair.

Back at the house, I’ve got instructions, the various little bottles, the rubber gloves and the box spread out before me. Here’s something that hadn’t occurred to me…the directions are in French. I panic briefly until I realize that it’s French for idiots. And with the helpful little pictures, I can pretty much piece it together. It looks pretty cut and dry. Nevertheless, my hands are shaking, and consider this might be a good reason to put it off another day. I mean should one really dye hair with shaking hands? I tell myself to shut up. It’s not like I’m performing a circumcision here. And frankly, judging by my roots, I don’t have a moment to waste.

I hold my breath, put on the gloves and dive in, mixing and applying it to mes raciness. I try to remember how Brad’s assistant, Lexie used to run the nozzle over the parts in my hair and rub it in.   I try to imitate her. Then I wait.

I stand in front of the mirror the entire twenty minutes watching closely (my nose must be about two inches from the mirror) trying to figure out what the dye is doing. I’m unreasonably calm. The color of the dye is going from white to a kind of brown color. I don’t really know what’s going on underneath the dye, but I do know that looking at it doesn’t give me the sick feeling I was trying to stave off at the hair salon last month.

The big test is when I rinse it all out. When I do, it looks fine.

The really big test is when it dries. Which it does and it looks fine. No, come to think of it, it’s not fine, it’s FABULOUS (to quote Brad). I dyed my roots and they match the rest of my hair, my hair looks healthy, and shiny, the color is very nice and I did it all by myself. In France!

I feel powerful, deeply talented, courageous and strangely liberated. It’s hard to explain, it’s like all these years, I thought I’d be totally incapable of dying my hair and it turns out, I’m capable. I’m actually pretty good at it. Much better than those chicks who charged me 52. Euro.

It was Vincent Van Gogh who said “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” I should really take that to heart. Maybe there are other things I can do that I thought were impossible. I consider the implications. Imagine all I can accomplish! The new things I can try. The joy of potential future successes. Hey, maybe tomorrow I’ll get a highlighting kit.

***

For more hair care experiences in France:

fear of dying (grappling with getting my hair dyed in France)

back to my roots (getting my hair dyed in France, a horror story)

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