Category Archives: language

a wine trance

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When we were young, the kids in my family would wait impatiently for the Sears Catalog to arrive in the mail around the holiday season.  As soon as the catalog arrived, my mother would sit us down with pens and pads of paper to make our lists of all the things we would like for Christmas.

Isn’t that nice?

I know what you’re thinking right now…………you’re thinking, “Wow.  You must have had an incredibly generous Santa in your life.  You were SO lucky!”

Don’t be fooled by the first part of that story.  In fact, we spent hours, if not days (and maybe even weeks), writing down detailed descriptions of every toy we wanted.  We made columns.  We wrote prices.  We wrote code numbers.  And year after year, we were very optimistic.

And each Christmas morning, we would run downstairs with visions of mountains of toys from Santa/Sears piled underneath our tree.  And every year the big man let us down.  It wasn’t that we didn’t get fabulous things for Christmas, but we NEVER got a single thing that we had chosen from our hours of work with the Sears Catalogue.  Not once.

Now you know where I inherited the ability to subtly torture my children.

This fall in France, when I received a giant wine catalog in the mail, I was immediately transported back in time to my days with the Sears Catalog.  I quickly found myself circling things in the catalog and feeling hopeful.  Then I realized that at this point in life, I am my own Santa Claus.  So rather than sitting around hoping, I got in the car to attend the annual wine sale at our massive supermarket.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I have very simple wine selection criteria.  I have only two requirements:  1) it must be under 5€,  and 2) it should have some sort of award seal on the bottle.  I know there are people who are much smarter than I am, and clearly there are those who know much more about wine than I do, so I choose to leave the big decisions to them.  If the smart wine judges give a decently priced bottle of wine an award, I buy the wine.

When I arrived at the wine sale, it was like a wonderland with crates of wine all over the massive center of the store.  I was wandering around in a daze as wine buyers in fancy suits and pointed shoes walked purposefully with their cellphones pressed to their ears.  Who were they buying wine for?  I have absolutely no idea, but I did my best to represent the low standard crowd with my wrinkled skirt and rounded shoes.

When it comes to buying things in France that I don’t know much about, I have developed one main strategy.  I find someone who looks like she (or he) knows what she is doing and I follow her around (at a safe distance) to see what she buys.  I am almost like an ape in that way, except I apply this tactic to decidedly un-apelike things like buying skin care products.  If there is a woman with really nice skin in the moisturizer aisle, you can bet that I’m trailing her.

I pulled out the dog-eared catalogue I had stuffed in my bag and I browsed nonchalantly while I waited to find someone to follow who was not wearing a suit.  Once I had identified my secret buying mentor, I walked slowly behind him watching what he was choosing.  In a few short minutes my cart seemed to be sufficiently full, and I deflected my buying mentor’s suspicious glances at me, by looking at my catalog whenever he turned around to give me the hairy eyeball.

After I finished loading up on wine, I walked by the bra section and I saw a familiar sight – French women grabbing handfuls of lacy bra and undies sets and tossing them into their carts like they were buying croissants.  Do they try them on?  No.  Do they fret about fit or comfort?  Apparently not, since this is a scene I have witnessed nearly every time I walk by the bra section.  And since I was living the spirit of France that day with a cart full of wine, I decided to toss in a few bras to top it off.

As I wandered back across the store, I go sidetracked by the home goods section (happens every time) and left my cart sitting in the middle of the dishware aisle.  After I was finished looking there, I went back to my cart and started pushing it to the other end of the store toward the checkout.

It wasn’t until I was nearly at the checkout that I heard a woman yelling behind me and I turned to look.  An elderly woman was hobbling quickly toward me.  She was saying something that I couldn’t exactly understand and I figured that she was speaking to the wrong person and began to turn around again.  That’s when I happened to glance down and I noticed that my cart was not filled with wine and bras, but rather with vacuum bags and yogurt.

I had accidentally taken the other woman’s cart and left the poor woman with a cart full of loot that appeared to be the weekly shopping trip for the brothel.

“Je suis très, très désolé, Madame.”

Sometimes I don’t get the language right, but I always know how to say “I’m sorry” correctly in French.  In fact, those are the words I speak the most on a daily basis.

As you now know, Santa really delivered this year – from a catalogue even!

For your added entertainment value, I thought I’d throw this in.  When we’re not buying wine, this is what we do in France for fun:

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i feel the force

We had been avoiding going to the movies in France for a very, very long time.  Although I was interested in taking the kids, I was getting a lot of feedback from them about it because, well, we have a bit of a language barrier.  You see, despite the fact that many movies shown in France are created and distributed by American companies, they are usually dubbed into French before they hit the theaters here.

I used to be very disturbed by watching dubbed movies, since there is something slightly disconcerting about watching someone’s mouth move in a different way than you would imagine when you hear the sounds.  However, my view on this has changed, since as a non-Francophone, I often feel like my own mouth is moving in a different way than the sound coming out of it.  See how being a stranger in a strange land can really change your attitude toward many random things?  Now I can watch any version of CSI dubbed in French and not be even slightly disturbed.  That fact, in itself, is slightly disturbing.

I knew it would take an epic film to change my kids’ view on going to the movies.  Despite the reality that their French is now outstanding, they had little confidence in their ability to understand a full length movie.  And guess what just recently landed in the movie theaters in France?  Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3D!

I’m sure this was probably out in the theaters months ago in the US, but it seemed like news to me that it was even being made in 3D.  I am not even a Star Wars fanatic, but something about this series makes me very nostalgically happy.  You see, my first memory of seeing the original Star Wars was in the theater in my hometown, with my father as he smuggled a whole load of popcorn into the theater in his jacket.  He believed that the popcorn he made at home (since he was a Nebraska native), was better than what we could buy at the theater.  That, and he was a bit of a cheap skate.  I’m pretty sure he had a couple of can of Schlitz in his pockets too, but luckily we were more focused on seeing the movie than the fact that my Dad looked pregnant with the mass of popcorn.  After all, it was the 1970s and we were still on the rebound from the Age of Aquarius.

Since that day, I’ve had a deep love of the Star Wars movies and now, like many others in the youngest generation, so do my kids.  So when we heard that Star Wars was coming to the local theater, the kids suddenly changed their tune about movies in French.  Their reasoning, which follows logic, is that they’d seen the movie so many times in English that it wouldn’t matter if it were in French.  It didn’t dawn on them that they might actually UNDERSTAND the words in French.

I didn’t try to smuggle in any popcorn to recreate the good old days, but we did get some really sweet French 3D glasses.  Even the 3D glasses have some style here:

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Once we settled in to see Yoda on the big screen, all was right with the world.  There were only two things that would have made it even better:

1) a cold can of Schlitz
2) my Dad sitting next to me.

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My kids, by the way, understood nearly every word.

oef update

Not sure if you remember my plan called Operation Elderly Friend (OEF) but you may be glad to know I’m just a little bit closer to having an elderly and non-English speaking friend here.  For a while my search was on hiatus as backlash from slightly offending an elderly woman at our block party in the fall, but there is finally hope on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I happened to run in to my elderly neighbor one night as I was arriving home from the store.  She was standing outside her house and seemed slightly confused in the dark.  When I spoke to her she told me that she couldn’t get her door open and she had just spent the day walking around in Paris and was exhausted.  In an effort to help, I pulled out my trusty iPhone flashlight (is there nothing these phones can’t do?).  We finally managed to get her door open and that’s when I happened to mention something to her that would turn out to be a critical to the next stage of OEF:  le petit chat.  Two in fact.

We’ve known since we moved in to the neighborhood that our neighbor is crazy about cats.  Her cats walk along the walls of our property staring at us as if we’re trespassing on their turf and each night she goes outside to call them in to sleep in her cozy house.  Despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of cats (warning: I’m a die-hard dog person), it is refreshing to see a cat owner in France take such good care of her pets.  Frankly, most cats in France are left to live and die on their own.  If they’re lucky, they may get an occasional bowl of food left outside, but that’s pretty much it.  The dogs with hair bows on the other hand………….they are the royalty of the French pet world.

A few days prior to the interaction with my neighbor, we heard a noise outside of our house at night that seemed loud and close.  Since there are no squirrels here and the hedgehog who lives in our yard doesn’t like to come near the house, Tim went to investigate.  It turned out that we had two tiny kittens playing on our back stoop with some things we had left outside.  When Tim opened the door, the kittens ran away and although we were concerned about them, we figured that they would go back to wherever they came from.

A few days passed and that’s when I happened to help my neighbor open her door at night and when I mentioned that we had two petit chats in our backyard a couple of days before, she immediately came to life.  All tiredness from walking the streets of Paris disappeared and she told me that she had been looking for these two kittens because they were wild and she was trying to save them.  Not only was she planning to capture these wild cats, but she had already lined up someone to adopt them as house pets.

The next thing I knew I was making a plan for her to come over to capture the cats the next day.  She wasn’t really asking for help in capturing the cats so much as setting up a time to trespass in our yard to capture them herself.

Here’s what was going through my mind as I was having this conversation with her:

1 very elderly woman + 2 wild kittens = epic disaster

Not only was I not at all convinced that this woman could catch these cats, I was actually afraid she might hurt herself in the process.

When I offered up 9am as a good time to come over, she said that was WAY too early for her and then she counter offered with a time that I thought was 1pm.  In case you didn’t know this, the French sleep very late.  And in case you didn’t also know this, I’m number challenged in French.  As a result, I thought she said 1pm, but she actually said 3pm.

The next day when 1pm rolled around and the woman failed to show up, I started to get worried.  We ended up waiting until about 2:3o for her to show up and then I sent Tim over to make sure she was ok.  He came back to report that she was alive and well and still lingering about in her pjs while getting her cat cages ready for the big cat capture at 3pm.

I really needed to run out to the store and although I wasn’t actively trying to miss the cat capture, I really didn’t think there would be much to miss.  I was pretty sure that there could only be a bad outcome from a war of wills between the old lady and the wild cats.  When I returned, I fully expected to hear a sob story about the petit chats who got away, but instead I was greeted with shouts of joy from the boys that the old woman had accomplished the impossible.  She had wrangled those cats into a cage with the help of nothing more than a sheet over her hand.  She was a cat whisperer after all.

As a result of the petit chats and the success of the great cat capture, I’m a bit closer to succeeding at OEF.  The elderly neighbor wants to get together with me for coffee and I’ll let you know how things work out for us.  I certainly won’t mention that I don’t really like cats.

Here is a picture of one of the MANY dog beauty salons in our town for the pet royalty of France.

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french driver’s license

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m running out of time to acquire a French driver’s license.  I’m also slightly bitter and angry.  I’m not so bitter and angry, that it can’t be temporarily remedied with a simple bakery treat, but the anger and bitterness reside somewhere inside me.  Deep down.

Both Tim & I have to get French driver’s licenses within one year of our arrival in France and guess what?  One year is almost here (can you believe it?).  Anyway, there are 15 US states which have reciprocal driving agreements with France.  Among them, Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, and nine more, but NOT Vermont.  If you live in one of the 15 reciprocal states, all you have to do is fill out reams of French paperwork and wait by the mailbox for your French license to be delivered.  In our case, we have to take a series of French driving instructional classes, take a written test, participate in 8 hours of driving instruction in a car and take an actual driving test.  Add in the French language factor, mix it all up and you have a recipe for a very unhappy Vermonter.

This unhappy Vermonter has been weighing all of the options and after considering flying back to the US and pretending to be a NH citizen (with the help of an anonymous individual whose name rhymes with Merry Feleen), I’ve given up.  At the end of the day, there is only so much whining that is tolerated from a person who gets to drink loads of good wine and eat very stinky cheese on a daily basis.  This means I’m getting prepared to suck it up and turn my frown around in a French driving class (yes, I actually wrote that).

There is some good news here, though.  Our friend and fellow Vermonter who is also living in Fonty (her husband works with Tim at IBM) has managed to score us some English language instructional classes.  I am thankful that there is a glimmer of light inside this bleak French license vortex.

Although I don’t really want to spend my time in driving classes, I have come to realize that there may be a benefit for me.  Especially when, after driving here for 10 months, my friend said to me, “Don’t worry, all you really need to know about driving in France is the priorité à droite rule.”  When I gave her a blank stare, she said, “You know, priorité à droite – when you’re driving on a straight road and a road intersects it on your right and even if there’s not a stop sign you have to stop for the car entering right?”  Again, a blank stare.

Hmmm.  I guess I do have something to learn.

To learn more about  priorité à droite, brush up on your French and click the link.  Or move to New Hampshire, get a French license automatically, and don’t worry about it.

au revior, mon amie

So sorry it’s been so long between posts – good thing I’m not doing this as a job, otherwise I would have been fired by now.  Speaking of fired, I am having to give us my esl job due to a work permit issue.  I guess it’s not really an issue with my work permit, it’s more like an issue that I don’t have a work permit and it turns out, I can’t get one.  Ooops.  I guess that was a minor detail that I should have researched more thoroughly before I took the job.

In the end, all I can really say about the job is “THANK GOD IT’S NEARLY OVER!!!!”  These French kids are killing me.  They’re so cute and so well dressed, but they have a distinct advantage over me which is that they can all speak whispery French to each other.  The class is a little bit Lord of the Flies at times and I happen to be playing the role of the kid who gets eaten.

For those of you who haven’t thanked a teacher in recent days, you may want to take this opportunity to reach out and give them a big holiday squeeze.  They have the hardest job on the planet.  I am not even remotely kidding.

Also, I deleted my Larry Bird rant post.  Sorry about that.  I just figured that it wasn’t in the spirit of the blog and I had to let my anger go (but I still love you Larry Bird).  I’ve decided to divert my anger into contemplation about what to do if the euro crashes.  Luckily for me, my friend Tami left us some old French francs when she was here this summer, so we may be able to keep ourselves stocked with wine and bread for a day or two while the important people are getting things sorted out.

Besides the impending economic crash, the other big news for us is that the kids’ tutor Dominique is leaving for greener pastures (as in the south of France). Coming here and finding Dominique was one of the luckiest things that has happened to us – she was a huge help with the boys’ French and my mental health.  Plus, every week, not only did she teach them French, she made every type of traditional French food with them.  That’s my kind of tutor.  I guess if we want homemade French macarons, we’re going to have to learn to make them ourselves. Or not.

It’s been hard to say good-bye to her, but we’re fully intending to visit her down there before we leave France for good.  It’s nice to have friends in warm French climates.  It’s even better to have friends in warm French climates who make incredible macarons.

Here is Owen’s card to Dominique:

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The good news is that the kids don’t really need Dominique as a tutor anymore.  It’s hard to believe, but they are speaking French without hesitation and they have moved on to the “Making Fun of Mommy’s French” phase of their language study.  It kind of hurts, but their French is much better than mine right now.  I know this is just one of the many times my kids will be better than me, but I was hoping to have a few more years of feeling superior before my credibility hit the fan.  According to my in-house French language critics, it turns out that not only am I saying the incorrect words in conversation on a regular basis, but the words that I do say correctly are slightly out of tune to discerning French ears.

Further evidence that their French is better than mine is that they were recently dismissed from their “Extra French” class at school.  Apparently they no longer need help with French and they can get through the school day without any fear, tears or drama.  Which is not exactly something I can always say for myself.  Going to the market and buying fruit still makes me sweat.  I’m not going to lie.

short story for the longer stories to come

Here’s my predicament (as told in a run on sentence):  You know when a friend emails you and you have so much to say, but you don’t have that much time to write the meaningful note that you would like, so rather than write back a short little note to acknowledge that you received his/her note and are thinking of him/her, you don’t write back because you want to wait unit you have more time to write something better than, “I’m alive.  Thanks for asking,” and then days, weeks and months go by and you haven’t bothered to write back……….

Here’s my note to say I’m sorry to all of the people who I’ve been meaning to write to and I’ve been thinking about you all – in the downtime between wiping the French dog shit off my shoes (did you know that dog owners in France don’t really pick up their dog shit?  True fact.).  And I sincerely apologize to this blog because I’ve been very neglectful.

Here’s the short rundown of what’s happened since I last told you my story on the blog:

  • I got a job (kind of) and am now an illegal worker in France
  • It has been made clear that I am one of the few people in this country who knows how to carve a pumpkin
  • I flew to Ireland and attended a Literary Pub Crawl with my mother and her 3 college friends and drank too much beer, way too fast (sort of like college)
  • I stayed in a house in Brittany that was built in 1368
  • It has become evident that I don’t know a thing about tea
  • My mother visited us in France for 2 weeks where we simultaneously scared her, amazed her, and exhausted her (in between the time she was wiping the French dog shit off her shoe)
  • I’ve come to peace with the fact that I will likely never know anything substantial about French wines and still buy wines based on my own vetted criteria which is as follows (if I can answer “yes” to both questions, I buy it):
    • Does it cost under 5€?
    • Does it have some sort of gold or silver seal on the bottle?
I have also been asked by a friend (shout out to you, Susannah) to give her some French phrases to yell at her kids to boost their understanding of the language (in advance of their visit to France). Since I haven’t had time to compile the entire list, I’ll throw in one of my favorites:

What the hell are you doing?   =     Mais qu’est-ce que tu fous?

I’m working on the rest of the list and will post for all of you to see.

I promise that within the coming days I will give you the details of all of our adventures, but for now, I’ll leave you with this:

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Mont St. Michel is even more amazing than I imagined it would be.

witch doctor

 

iPhone/Instagram photo of the Villandry Gardens20110614-093845.jpgNot sure how many of you out there have an iPhone, but despite the expense of them (even more here than in the US), they are well worth every penny. They are especially helpful when you’re traveling (and learning French) since there are unlimited apps to help you with new words and also help you find your way home on a daily basis. Not that I would know about that…………………..

The only major downside to my iPhone is that there is some sort of voice activation feature that I don’t understand and periodically, when the big button is pressed (which sticks out because of the iPhone cover that I have), music from my iPod will start to play. It seems like the music that starts to play is often related to the noise in the background (I guess that’s why it’s called “voice activation”). This can also happen when my phone is in my bag and I put it down or it gets bumped against something hard. Like today. In the middle of French class. With a group of women I don’t know very well.

As luck (or unluck) would have it, the teacher was speaking when I accidentally bumped my phone. Since on of the most used sounds in French is the “WA” sound, my iPhone searching through all of my music that starts with “w”. Unfortunately for me, the only song on my phone is the song “Witch Doctor” by Sha Na Na that I downloaded a couple of years ago for my kids for Halloween (don’t act like you don’t know that song). Suddenly, the room was filled with Bowser singing:

I told the Witch Doctor I was in love with you…..

and the chorus singing:

Ooooh, eeeeee, ooh, ah, ah, bing-bang, walla-walla, bing-bang

Did I mention that I put a locking code on my iPhone just in case it gets lost or stolen? Do you know how long it takes to remember your code and punch it in to unlock your phone while listening to the Witch Doctor in front of a class of people learning French?

Answer: A really long time.