Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘poor french’


In European Union, France on November 22, 2009 at 1:46 pm

A week tomorrow and we will set foot on U.S. soil again.

We’re excited to be returning. But, it’s just gotten to the point where we have even more understanding … well it feels like that. I’ve felt my French has been through two step changes. The first was when I got numbers. The second was when less stuff just started going wrong in conversation. The second took me a while to realise, but it’s started.

It’s compounded by a third change, which is that we’ve just started to develop people with whom we can have conversations. Our epicer is one. The other day we went into his shop to get some pain industriel and a bottle of wine (what more do you need for a meal when you have cheese and meat at home?). We paid the 8 euros, actually we paid the 8.04 euros but he only asked for 8 which was kind of him. And then I said that I didn’t like the little 1 euro cent coins.

So, in response he asked me “when is England going to join the Euro” which wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind for a conversation. I understood that was what he asked. Then I started thinking about all the things I would like to be able to say (this is a political conversation of course, but the French like to have political conversations… and why not, it does have the nice property that then politics gets discussed as opposed to being reduced and processed down to trite positions). But somehow, and together, we managed to keep the conversation going. We learnt that despite the inconvenience of the currency, our epicer liked London (and Sandwich and Cantebury), enjoyed the global diversity of restaurants, and didn’t find it as expensive as he’d be told it would be. He bought his daughter over to join in the conversation. Luckily she was shy, I still find it a little embarrassing when an 8 year old can very soon outstrip me in terms of my language skills.

Then a customer, we think, also joined in. He walked into the shop and helped himself to a coffee behind the counter. I’m not really sure what type of relationship our epicer has with that person, customer, store help, friend, probably all of those and some more that I don’t know. He too had been to England, and so it was a trip around the Isles all from the warmth of the epicerie.

In addition to the newly talkative epicer, I think it takes the French a while to warm up to etrangers, the two ladies in the post office are now getting more friendly… (and of course they know where our mail goes and that we’re not from these parts…). One loves to use English words (I won’t call it conversation, that she prefers to do with us in French), but she recently wished K “a very very good day” and told us that she would give us “beautiful” stamps (for England, unfortunately it was the usual Marianne for the U.S.). The other one, who I have had more interaction with smiles now when she sees me. This is because I am well trained to say bonjour to everyone and au revoir on the way out. Shopping is not an exchange, it’s a social activity. And not social in that “store greeter” manufactured way, it’s actually really social. Authentic social, before the chains drove civility out of business.

We have a few bar/restaurants that we like. One that takes courage is run by a man who is passionate about wine. He also offers just one plat du jour. The plat du jour is of course in French and frequently not written down, so you have to get it by comprehension. He also happens to like game birds, (when I learnt French meats in the UK curiously we did not focus on them, opting for the four-legged meats over the two winged ones). So, it’s an adventure every time we’re in there… but one that’s getting easier. A good thing since the menu is 9euros, very reasonable, and the man pours a generous serving of wine. I’d tell you what the name of the place was if I knew it, the sign just says Vins. Very reasonable indeed.

Then there’s Autour du Zinc. It’s a husband and wife operation if I had to guess, perhaps with the help of one of their parents in the kitchen. The lady knows we’re Engligh speaking… We went there for the nouveau Beaujolais tasting. I think we discovered that that is always accompanied by free plates of food… so she told us about the buffet, and then so did her husband, so she told him that she’d already told us and that we understood. I understood that. It’s nice to have people watching out for you.

Next door but one there’s another small place that serves wine by the glass and free snacks to customers. There’s a lady in there who has dealt with us a couple of times. I decided to order a Haut Cote du Nuit, which I wanted to try and pronounce properly. Unfortunately it’s either pronounce it in real-time badly or pronounce it better and take as much time as a table of 8 ordering a 4 course meal. I made another joke. I explained. I had two types of French. Fast and not good. And not fast and not good. She laughed, and not in that pained way when someone makes a joke. I think she genuinely thought it was funny. And I was glad. Sharing a joke, even if it is at your own expense, is part of what makes connections.

I will miss Metz. It’s not the buildings but the people. Good people, and very very generous. I can’t really think of a bad experience I have had people wise. A few embarrassing moments, but not anything intentional.

Woah, they’re not kidding, learn language young

In European Union on October 10, 2009 at 1:14 pm

I’ve not been to Germany for 25 years, but as a child I used to go yearly. And it was only when I was in Germany that I learnt the German I know. We did not speak German at home in the UK. But on the other hand, since both my parents are fluent, we did not speak English when I was in Germany. German was then three weeks of trial by fire. So, what I learnt, I learnt by listening, by learning to understand, and then to transform that into stuff I could actually say.

And it’s here I want to say that I do not speak German fluently, not at all. But, to my great surprise I speak considerably more than I realised.

I’ve been living in France for two months. And let me tell you about my French. Today I was in the pharmacy. I wanted to get Naproxen, so in a moment of genius, and realising that I did not know the word for pill, I told the pharmacist I was “mal a la tete” which thankfully is actually what the French call a headache, so there was no confusion about what being sick in the head meant. I thought, hoped, that that would induce a person to give me Naproxen in tablet form. But, actually what it did in the first pharmacy was to get the pharmacist to explain to me that they did not prescribe Naproxen, since it was an anti inflamatory for headaches, but for Rumatism. This sounds great doesnt it, but I had two problems. First, that was the rudiments of a conversation that took place as he gave me a tour of the pharmacy and the pills they have on sale, it took 5 minutes, so he definitely told me more than that, but I’ll be damned if I know what that was. Second, I couldn’t then explain that well actually I was using headache as a way of asking for tablets, not because that was what was actually wrong (painful foot). I eventually got the Naproxen, in pharmacy number 2, but, I can’t converse in French. I can, if I am lucky, and with practice, get what I want, but I can not converse, by which I mean to get into conversations with people about what they’re saying and based on what they are saying.

So we went to Trier for the day. My first visit to Germany in 25 years. I’ve lived most of those years in the United States where I have not thought to practice my German, because I didn’t think there was anything to practice.

It was in the wool shop that I purchased some gifts. That was pretty easy, and I asked the woman if we could get them in the bag we were also buying. No problem. But then another woman cut in and asked whether she could get some advice on how much yarn she needed for the pullover she wanted to knit. The shop assistant explained to her that she had to concentrate on my purchase because many of the items we’d bought were on sale and the computer wasnt ringing up the sale prices. The other lady would have to wait. The other lady left. But I understood it. I thanked the lady as we left.

We went to a bookshop. I was hoping they would have pens as well. They didn’t, so I went to the counter and asked where the nearest place that had pens was, and was given directions to the department store. We had lunch, and I thought I’d not be able to read the menu but I could, and I could talk about what we wanted to drink and eat. When they forgot to give me a fork I could ask for an extra. When it seemed that we were not able to leave I was able to get the bill and pay. This I can do in French, but it takes work, I have to marshal my words, and think through what will happen. In German I still summon words, but the sentences are so much easier for me. And I know that when things go off script I can cope.

But, perhaps the best example was when we sampled some wine at the town centre. They had a stand where you could purchase the latest Mosel’s for sale. I asked for two glasses of the dry wines they had. She gave those, and then very kindly offered us a sample of a third wine, which she explained to us was a white coloured wine made from red grapes. (which is actually the same as champagne). So, then she asked where we were from, and because she was representing wine sellers, I didn’t want to say the US (I wanted her to have an accurate model of where the customers for the wine come from). So, with some thinking in the moment, I started to explain that we were working in France for 4 months as Computer Science lecturers and that he was American, I was English and we lived in the United States. What shocked me was that I could just put this together, not in real-time, there were pauses, but fast enough to continue a conversation that had started about grapes and was now moving somewhere. The day ended in the supermarket, where I managed to make a joke with the cashier, and this was not a joke (as was the first I managed in French) where an exchange was set up for me and required a relatively simple quip, but one in which I was a feature of the joke, a mistake I’d made.

After 25 years of absence it turns out that I know enough German that I can get into a conversation. In French I can give instructions, make declarations… but apparently in German I seem to have a much greater ability to do real-time comprehension, and then enough diction to engage and respond. And I don’t even know where it comes from, it’s not as planned as what I go through daily with French where I’m thinking and looking at words. But I will say that I remember as a child thinking that I should practice thinking in German, and yesterday I caught myself doing that again. I should stress that my German is limited in many ways. But, what I learnt was the product of what could reasonably be said to be a few weeks, over the course of a few years, experience. There was no practice at home, there was no lessons in German, nothing. And it all took place prior to me becoming a teenager, and most shockingly to me, it survived 25 years of inactivity. Wow.

Dress Up: How to get Interviewed on French TV

In European Union, France on August 29, 2009 at 1:19 pm

So, Friday was one of those days where the cultural experience was a good one, (I’ve previously written about the more frustrating versions of it). The day started peacefully, and after some rain on Thursday it was now sunny, but with the crisp bite of the fall air. It’s good to know that summer is now done…

We worked at home and then set out into Metz. Some of it was a repeated journey, to see shops previously shut, now open. So small wrongs were righted. Then an adventure began as a new part of Metz was revealed to us. Place St. Louis for example, and the English language bookstore. A good evening. And then it all began.

Perhaps it began in Place St. Louis when the sax band started up, playing what K thought was a theme song from a 70s T.V. show in the U.S. Curious. But it could be explained as Friday night buskers. Right.

But, it got weirder in Place St. Jacques. The first time the float passed by, the only float, led by two policemen on bicycles, drawn by a tractor, nuns (male) and accompanied by St. Nicolas the patron saint of Christmas (probably not, but that’s how I like to see it). That was the first time, the next time they came back as sailors… and later, much later, we would see them as a combination float of nuns, sailors, and barbie in her box.

That’s when we remembered (shortly after the nuns), that the Mirabelle Festival was going on. The Mirabelle Festival celebrates the Mirabelle plum, yeah, a piece of fruit, and you know it’s a nice plum, but a whole festival, pretty impressive. Festival implies some things to me, largely shaped by my life in the United States. An opportunity to shop, for art, a well organized parade, often featuring floats that are sponsored by corporations. Of course there are exceptions but that’s the usual fare. We’ve not yet even encountered the parade, but already things are clearly going to be different.

One of the first things I noticed was the underwear hanging on large lines across the covered market. There appeared to be clothes stapled to the booths set up to dispense beer. There were small caravans selling “jeton”s, tokens that would allow you to buy beer and food. Well when I say you could get beer, yes, you could, but apparently it was difficult to dispense, we watched in amusement as the pony kegs seemed to dispense nothing but foam. Intriguing. It was, of course, an opportunity, for people to come together and talk a lot and wonder what was happening, while customers waited for a beer that they had already paid for…

Another sign that things had gotten strange (that was where I was going), when we saw couches lined up next to the cathedral. Yeah, couches and tables, and people sitting there and enjoying a libation. But, accompanied by each transported living room was a picture of Jesus or Mary. This was peculiar to say the least.

It turned out it was the ball night. The Queen of the Mirabelle had already been crowned, but it was an opportunity for the people to participate and nominate their own Queen of the Mirabelle. And that meant that it was an opportunity to dress up. For a mere 2euros there was a tent, full of the best of the worst garments that people could and were (at a frightening pace) trying on.

Good days inspire courage. So it was clearly time to plunge in. We weren’t really sure what was going on, or why, but for 2euros how far wrong could we go. And so it was that K&I transformed our normally urban-trendy selves into potential candidates for what I like to call “people’s choice mirabelle queen/king.” And we did well. Well enough that the French TV decided to interview us. Which would have been awesome if we’d understood what the interviewer was asking. Ho hum. A particular high for me was that I thought the interviewer asked me whether the Queen of England liked Mirabelles, and in the spirit of continued Anglo-French relations I said yes I thought the Queen would like them, like all of the English, but perhaps on retrospect what he had been asking was whether I thought I was Queen of the Mirabelles. Oh well, I am sure that I spoke well for the Queen.

It was a long and exhilarating evening. We plunged into the Mirabelle Festival, to what we would learn on Saturday was the ball. But it was fun, and fun in a way that you can’t have when you know what’s going on. The fun was made in the experience of working through an incomprehensible situation, and finding the pleasure in it, just because.

And of course, the clothes we wore make perfect souvenirs.

Frustration: A consequence of emigration

In European Union, France on August 18, 2009 at 11:49 am

Today was one of those days I remember well from about 18 years ago when I emigrated to the United States, days when the feeling of not completely knowing what is going on or why completely undermines your ability to get things done, and the day ends somewhat frustrating.

Where to begin. Well at the beginning with a headache. Not really France’s fault, but anyway.

We went out. We attempted to get pens, the pen shop was shut, until late August. Apparently, and this is a shop that is targetted towards offices (did I mention that I was on the hunt for Staetdler products?), and let me tell you that if you’re an office and you run out of office supplies in  August you are sh** out of luck. Of course no-ones in their office in France in August (it’s hot there’s no air conditioning) except for the Americans (mad dogs and Americans teach in the mid-day August sun?)… and perhaps that’s why, so that the office supplies shops can also go on holiday.

After a failed office supplies attempted we walked in the heat and the humidity to FNAC to get a cable that will allow us to watch the movies on our iPhones on the television. It was a long hot walk. It resulted in a choice of two cables with a difference of about 20Euros. So, at least we were going to save money, only we weren’t since the thing was actually mislabeled.

Off to get a drink. I decided to have a citron presse, when in France do as the French do. WHAT was I thinking. Someone gave me a glass of lemon juice. So I guess that’s what a citron presse is. You have to drink some of it down before you can dilute with water. It was something else. I just should remember the golden rule of being experimental, save it for the days when something has gone right.

and where the story ends, dinner. Tired, hot, and apparently hungry. Hungry in Metz, at 5:30pm (which is an hour before the official time that dinner starts in France). Even worse, on a Monday when some restaurants are shut. Even worse, on a Monday in August, when some are shut for their annual vacation. Fail. Walk home and eat there. (To discover the surprise 9:30am start on Tuesday and to sort of break my favourite necklace).

One reason to write this all up is that this is all staggeringly trivial stuff. I’ve winced about whether I should even post this. It sounds like a few silly things. And it is, but the world feels rawer. And I remember 18 years ago when I moved to the United States, going through all of this. There were days when I felt I ruled the world. These were days when I hadn’t made a complete ass (or arse) of myself, because even though the U.S. speaks English, it’s not actually the English I learnt and it doesn’t mean that the rules, the customs, the protocols, aren’t all different… they’re all different, they just lurk under a surface mask of linguistic similarity. Here, there’s no hiding from the fact that things are going to be different, the language tells me that every day, but somehow when things go wrong, well it just gets to me (perhaps it’s just me) more deeply than it would if it had happened at home.

Emigration, it’s all about these encounters, and it’s not easy. But it is rewarding. And frankly, I’ve got to say that if I’d had as much visa support as people seem to get here when I went to the U.S. I’d have wept with joy.

The ugly truth

In European Union, France on August 14, 2009 at 5:31 am

So, I know my last posts have been all positive (and probably too long), so you’re wondering, what’s really been going on. What’s the ugly realities of this week. So, here in no particular order.

  1. I’m not used to the apartment so if I wake up in the night I frequently walk into things which shouldn’t be there, like doors, I am covered in bruises. I bruise quite easily, like for example, I can bruise myself pressing hard, but I really have quite a quantity now.
  2. After almost 36 hours of being awake K and I drove in a French city. It could have been much worse, but we got to an intersection (of 5 roads, no roundabout) and I was so tired I couldn’t explain to K where to go, so we ended up going a different way and ultimately ended up at the same intersection again. Second time was in fact lucky.
  3. I encountered a French lady (as I would in France) when I sought to purchase a Croque Monsieur, who told me that she did not speak any English and that was a shame since she would have loved to talk to me. Unfortunately my French is so bad, I didn’t understand what she was saying.
  4. We have 86 channels of TV, of which two news stations are in English, and another does a combination of German and English. And dammit, I already miss TV.
  5. We have left a fairly useful cables in the United States. We are pondering whether to spend some money at FNAC or have it shipped. For some reason it feels to me as if once we start down the lets have it shipped path, we’ll be shipping much more than just a cable.
  6. Unable to completely process the one way system, not at all helped by the fact that most of Metz seems to be under construction, there’s a good possibility that I might have advised my parents to make an illegal turn at a particular intersection. Whoops. Luckily they are in a British car, the plate the position of the wheel all visible, so hopefully the French will just write it up to the uppity English.
  7. In less than a week here I already feel more politically militant than I have in a while. So, yes, I do love the NHS (I wouldn’t be here without it, nor one of my parents, or both my grandparents–the other two grandparents were served by a different socialized healthcare system that the US right wing hasn’t gotten around to criticising yet–perhaps this is a good and not ugly truth.
  8. I’m in Stabilo country, but I really want to be in Steadtler country, so I’ve written to them asking them where their retailers are… yes, it’s that serious an issue.
  9. My work office, 204, is very hot. So today I have the fan on, window open, and now it’s cooler but more humid. Have I become accustomed to highly regulated air systems, yes, I think so.
  10. Should I be doing something else, almost certainly, is this more fun, why yes.