The waiting game

I’m sitting in the business center of the airport Holiday Inn.  (Why are the Brits so stingy with the free wi-fi?)  I had grand plans to go to London for the day, but after arriving at the hotel after 1am and feeling very run down, I opted to sleep in.  So now I’m just running down the clock until my 7:30 pm flight.  It is currently 12:57 pm. Bit of a way to go, still, but I’m making forward progress.

I left Nice last night after a full day of visiting museums and wandering the streets, trying to take in every last bit of the city, and to absorb and savor every memory.  My thoughts about the past month are fragmented, and they’re coming to me in snapshots: the view from my classroom; finally understanding the pronouns “y” and “en”; too many bottles of rose; my comic attempts at stand-up paddle boarding; learning a few words of German; a long-promised and finally-delivered harmonic riff; using the séance practique techniques to get directions; a couple of great conversations with the Swiss/Italian owner of my Nice hotel; the 60-something, motorcycle-riding fellow who helped me at the ATM (poussez, pas tirez!).

When you have access to the language of a place, you realize that you also have the ability to peek a bit behind the curtain.  You can get a glimpse – imperfect and incomplete, of course – of a culture.  It’s not much, but it’s been enough to make me feel more connected, and more affectionate, and more curious about the French than I was at the start of this adventure. And for that I am nothing but grateful.

Friends, France: we will see each other again.  Of that I am certain.

Christophe, c’est pour toi.

Un ami (bonjour Christophe!) m’a demandé à écrire quelque chose en français.  C’est  un peu dificile parce que le program sur l’Institut se concentre sur la langue orale; on n’a pas écrit rien.

Mais, je vais essayer écrire quelque chose pour Christophe et les autres lecteurs francophones. Je suis désolé (en advance) pour les erreurs et je demande votre compassion.

Demain est la derniere jour de notre program. Il y aura un examen dans le matin; c’est le meme examen que nous avons passé la premiere jour de la program, avec les exercises écrivants, un examen orale, et aussi les activités de comprehension et une dictée. Aprés ça, nous allons dire notres “au revoirs”, et finir ce mois incroyable.

Pendant les quatre semains, j’ai appris beaucoup des choses de la langue français, mais aussi j’ai appris quelques choses de moi.  Ce mois a été un rappel de les choses que je connais, mais j’ai oublié.  J’éspere que quand je continue d’apprendre le français, je me souviendrai les leçons de France aussi. France peut nous apprendre sur le rythme de la vie, l’importance de plaisir, et la valeur de l’amitié.

Donc, c’est tout pour maintenant.  C’est trop tard, et, comme d’habitude, nous avons bu beaucoup de vin ce soir. Bon soirée à tous!

“There’s not a word yet, for old friends, who just met…”

I’ve never been a big fan of the Muppets.  The Sesame Street gang is fine, but the Muppet Show Muppets freak me out a bit. In college someone made me a mix tape (remember those?) with Gonzo’s song, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”.  A recent Muppets tribute album has a new recording of the song by Rachel Yamagata.

Eric and Jaclyn

Eric and Jaclyn

It’s a sad, lovely, sentimental song, and it’s been skipping through my head for the past several days, particularly the line above. In some strange ways this month has reminded me a bit of college, just condensed into a much shorter span of time.  We spent the first day or two tentatively sorting everyone out, figuring out our place, finding folks to pal around with.  We moved and ate in large groups, much like freshmen, until we settled into smaller bands of friends with common interests.  And now we’re saying our goodbyes, too soon, it seems.  I’m taking with me some crazy in-jokes and silly photos and wonderful memories and offers of places to stay if I ever find myself in Germany or Australia.

René, Laura, Wolf and Lee

René, Laura, Wolf and Lee

My journey home will begin tomorrow and take me through London, arriving home at long last on Sunday to see my husband and welcome some dear friends for a visit.  I’m sure the next few days of travel and transition will give me a chance to reflect and share more about what this time has meant.  But until then, I want to send mille mercis to the people who have made this month unforgettable.  In rough order of appearance: René, Laura, Jaclyn, Wolfgang, Karen, Sandy, Ian, Lee and Eric.  I don’t know if there’s a word in any language for the true affection I feel for these funny, creative, giving, and talented folks.

A plus!

See for yourself.

When I was planning this month in France, one place I really wanted to see was Marseille. It is the 2013 European Capital of Culture, and while I know it has a reputation as a rough-and-tumble city, I was curious. Plus, Rick Steves said not to miss it, and Rick never lets me down.

Notre Dame and the Old Port from Fort St. Jean.

I asked a few of the instructors at the Institut for their thoughts, since I was likely going to be traveling there alone. The responses were interesting.  Half told me it was dangerous and dirty, and the others told me it was wonderful.  For a few days I considered skipping it, but I knew I would regret missing the opportunity to make up my own mind.

The reaction of my professors proved to be representative of the general attitude towards Marseille.  Let’s just say, no one is lukewarm about Marseille.  Folks either love it or they hate it.

Me?  I fall squarely in the former camp.  Marseille blew me away.

The terrace roof at the new MuCem, designed by Rudy Ricciotti

The terrace roof at the new MuCem, designed by Rudy Ricciotti

Yes, I was there for all of 6 hours, and I stayed in the touristy areas.  And I’m not naïve enough to think that it is free of crime, or danger, or violence.  But what I saw was spectacular: a city that is vibrant, alive, diverse, and just humming with energy.  And the city, in turn, energized me.  I felt a charge just walking around, like I was the smallest part of something wonderful that was just on the verge of happening.

In the small plaza opposite City Hall, I found several garden plots, each bordered with quotes about Marseille.  “YES!”, I thought, when I saw (and photographed) my favorite of them.  I’ve shared it below, both in French and with my attempted  English translation.

“Allez à Marseille.  Marseille vous repondra.  Cette ville est un leçon.  Attentive, elle écoute la voix du vaste monde et, fort de son expérience, elle engage, en notre nom, la conversation avec la terre entière.”

Chateau d'If and the city from Notre Dame.

Chateau d’If and the city from Notre Dame.

“Go to Marseille.  Marseille will answer you.  This city is a lesson.  Carefully, she listens to the voice of the wide world and, with that experience, she engages, in our name, in conversation with the entire world.”

Given what I’d heard from others, I sort of expected to have a definitive reaction to Marseille.  The strength of my reaction surprised me a bit.  I think I’ve used the expression “vraiment formidable!” more in the past two days than is reasonable for a non-native French speaker.  And at least one of my pals at the Institut has rolled his eyes and said, “Vous parlez encore de Marseille??”.

What I’m really trying to talk about, though, is the importance of making up your own mind. I nearly lost the chance to do that because I was letting the experience, prejudices, and assumptions of others dictate what I was going to do. Obviously I’m not advocating recklessness; I was very aware and cautious while in the city. But some things and some places you need to see – and smell, and feel – for yourself, first-hand and unfiltered. Marseille reminded me of that.  At the same time, she reminded me of my competence, my common sense, and my sense of adventure.

Interior of Cathédral la Major.

Interior of Cathédral la Major.

In a strange way, I felt compelled to get Marseille this month, as if it was waiting for me.  A ridiculous notion, really, but one that was reinforced at every turn, as I stumbled on Arab markets, street-corner musicians, beautiful churches, helpful people, spectacular views, and quiet, intimate moments.  I feel richly rewarded for having made the journey.  And if I’ve become a bit of an evangelist for Marseille, well, it seems like the least I can do in return for what Marseille gave me.

Learning to read. Again.

I started reading at a very young age.  In elementary school, I would go to the library and pick out books that the librarian thought were too difficult for someone my age.  From time to time she would ask me to read the first few paragraphs to prove that I could actually read and comprehend the text.  I was a painfully shy child and being asked to read aloud, even just to the librarian, was difficult.

On at least one occasion, (although it may have happened more frequently) my sister was in the school library at the same time. I’ve never known if she just happened to be there or if she had been asked to go.  But I remember her coming over to me, just as I was about to cry with anger and embarrassment and frustration, and saying, “Katie, just read me a little bit, like you do at home.”  Reading to my big sister was something I could easily do, so I did, and proved to the librarian’s satisfaction that I could handle books meant for older kids.

I thought of this childhood experience yesterday as I stood in a bookstore in Nice, surrounded by French books.  A few of us had made the pilgrimage to FNAC, a sort of Best Buy-meets-Barnes and Noble-meets-Starbucks in the center of the city.  (Although, in the US at least, Barnes and Noble and Starbucks have already met…)  Some people had reading lists provided by one of the instructors, but I was just wandering around, picking up whatever looked interesting.  I spent most of my time in the Young Adult section, as I figured that about matched up with my ability.  Thankfully, no one asked me to read anything aloud, but I did test myself: if I could read the blurb on the back and the first few paragraphs, it was a keeper.

Last night I started reading one of the YA novels I bought.  Miracle of miracles, I could read it!  And I mean really read it, without having to first translate every word into English in my head.  I recognized some idiomatic expressions I had learned, and I could identify le gérondif, something I didn’t know existed as of a few days ago.

I don’t remember the experience of learning to read the first time; of how or when the shapes on the page resolved themselves into words, and those words took on meaning.  But sitting on my couch last night in this little apartment, it happened again.  And this time I was paying attention.  And will remember.


It’s been a busy week, especially for extra-curricular activities.  Tuesday night was the first meeting of the Film Club.  We watched the French romantic comedy Hors de Prix and I can confirm that rom-coms are as predictable in French as they are in English.  Tonight a small group of us gathered to talk about health, policy, and development issues in Africa.  (You can take the girl out of PIH…).

But last night was the highlight of the week – pétanque!  I have to admit we didn’t learn much about the history of the game, but we had a lot of fun.  One of our instructors, Julian, organized the event at a local pétanque club and gave us a quick lesson on the rules.

Can you guess which fellow is our instructor? If you picked the impossibly cool long-haired guy with the aviators, you're right.

Can you guess which one is Julian? If you picked the impossibly cool long-haired guy with the aviators, you’re right.

Julian is also the instructor who leads most of the “seance pratique” sessions at the Institut.  These are practical lessons in cultural norms, phone etiquette, and such.  Basically Julian is trying to prevent us from embarrassing ourselves in social situations.  He does this primarily by embarrassing us in the seance pratique.  I’m sure the instructors could write a book about all of the unintentionally hysterical and suggestive things that their students say. (Edited to add a recent example: When invited to someone else’s home, it’s customary to ask if you can bring something [apporter quelque chose]. Except we came up with: “Est-ce que je peux porter quelque chose?”, which is basically asking if you need to wear any clothes.)

Anyway, back to pétanque!  After a bit of practice, we formed teams of three and were assigned a country name, and then the tournament began.  Given the size of the group we played only to 5 points, instead of the usual 13 points.  I am proud to say that my team, Angleterre, was victorious!  We won the whole tournament, beating Vietnam in the finals, by a score of 7-0.  I’m considering hitting the pro circuit.  (At the very least, I may need to check out the Boston Pétanque Club…)

L'equipe Angleterre!  Me, Sandy (from Australia) and Karen (Canada)

L’equipe Angleterre! Me, Sandy (from Australia) and Karen (from Canada).

The best thing about the event was the opportunity to socialize with everyone in the program.  There are 8 classes in total, but most activities, like lunch, are done in groups of 4 classes.  Our meals, breaks, and practice sessions are with 3 other classes (in my case, Intermediate 3 and Advanced 1 and 2).  As a result, there’s a large number of students that I rarely see.  The pétanque tournament and the great meal that followed gave us all a chance to chat (en français, of course!) and share our experiences.  We were all a little slower-moving today, since the pétanque party went well into the evening.  And as we learned from our hosts, pétanque pairs beautifully with a nice rosé.

Les mystères de la France, Challenge #2

This one’s a doozy:


Acceptable responses include (but are not limited to):

  • Any historical information about this sculpture
  • Any thoughts about the sculpture’s aesthetic or artistic value
  • Reflections on exactly how narcissistic (or how rich) you need to be before you erect a statue of yourself riding a giant golden tortoise


Say something.

Today began our second week of classes.  The schedule remains the same, but I can already see changes in all of us.  The beginners, who were somewhat shell-shocked this time last week, are joining in conversations and showing off their new-found vocabulary.  The advanced students are still a bit intimidating, and some are friendlier and more helpful than others.  For the intermediate folks like me, we’re gaining confidence, and jumping into discussions where we may have stayed silent before.  We’re also organizing evening conversation groups around shared interests. (I’m trying not to think about work, but there are a lot of international and public health folks here…)

If there’s one thing I know I have improved it’s my verb conjugations.  I’m embarrassed to think back on my last trip to Haiti and the crazy mix of Creole and un-conjugated French I was throwing around.  It’s pretty hard to say anything intelligible in any language if you can’t use the past tense properly!

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my colleagues, a doctor, who is probably the bravest – and, by extension, the most effective – language learner I know.  I know she studies and works hard, but she also just goes for it, mistakes be damned.  She learns the basics and then she starts talking.  Crazy, I know.

The program at the Institut is focused on speaking with ease and correctness.  We do drills and role-plays all day and I think I’m never going to remember all of the information being thrown at me.  Then I stop at the grocery store and joke with the saleswoman about returning to the store because I bought cheese but forgot to buy bread (because this is France, and one does not eat cheese without a fresh baguette).

For anyone who is considering studying French in an immersion environment, I can’t stress enough the benefit of doing so in a small village or community.  I know that in Paris or in a larger city, very few people would be willing to deal with our fumbling attempts at French, and would instead switch immediately into English.  But the Institut is part of the life (and economy!) of this town, and the merchants and restaurant owners and residents welcome us and let us practice with them.  In return, they make it their responsibility to correct us.  It’s as if the whole town is colluding to ensure that we improve our French.   And it’s working.

Challenge #1 – mystery solved

Thanks to those who offered some guesses as to the purpose of the mysterious bottles.  “The Illuminati” was my favorite response.

Unfortunately no one came up with the right answer, but after further research I believe we have figured it out.  There was a guess that it was related to dogs…close, but no.  It’s to ward off CATS.  Apparently the bottled liquid distorts the cat’s reflection or perception in some way that frightens the cat, so the cat moves on and doesn’t do its business in your planter or on your doorstep.

Yet another valuable lesson we can learn from the French.

Challenge #2 is forthcoming…stay tuned.