The Wrap Up – reflections on learning French in France

I’ve already been home almost six weeks now.  I’ve barely had a chance to catch my breath since I plunged immediately into classes upon my return, but now I have a few minutes to reflect on the experience and wrap it all up.

When I think about what I learned from this, the main thing that comes to mind is so obvious that no one would likely ever debate it, yet its something you don’t really KNOW until you experience it.  And that is this:  A language cannot be divorced from its culture.  It doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  A language isn’t just a set of words you string together to make a sentence in a grammatically correct way.  If you only learn a language by cold hard words and grammar, then its nothing more than a mathematical formula:  Subject + Verb + (adj) Object = Complete Sentence.  And few people in any language are going to confine their communication to  sentences like “I saw the big dog”.

I hear people say that they love the French language, but the French people not so much.  Well I’ll argue that one doesn’t exist without the other.  If you love this language, then you are signing on with the people who speak it.  They can be maddening, intractable, even arrogant people who are VERY proud of their language and don’t graciously excuse any corruption of it.  (Americans, on the other hand, are much more blasé about whether non-native speakers can speak English perfectly.  As long as we can understand what they’re trying to say, we’re pretty cool with that.  Mostly we’re just relieved that they can speak to us in our language because we don’t speak fluent French, Spanish, German, Chinese, what-have-you.)

Yes, the French can be maddening when they seem to be deliberately obtuse.  More than once I found myself repeating a simple word or phrase multiple times while une Française (it was almost always a woman) pretended not to understand me.

Nous voudrions deux vins chauds, s’il vous plaît” I told a server.  This particular specialty of the house was printed on a chalkboard not four feet from where we sat.

Comment?

Deux vins chauds“.

Desolée, je comprends pas,”  she said, regretfully shaking her head. (Seriously?)

Deux. Vins. Chauds.”   For illustration I pantomimed drinking a glass of wine after holding up two fingers.

“Vous voulez deux vins chauds?”

OUI ! ”  (isn’t that what I said???)

On the other hand if you do get it right, they will tell you that too, evidently surprised that you have actually managed speak a few semi-intelligible words in their language.  After completing my transaction, a ticket seller at the Musée D’Orsay station in Paris asked me if I was an American and when I answered in the affirmative he expressed admiration that I could understand him and speak a little French.   “Vous parlez bien le français” he said approvingly.  That was pretty much the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, as far as I was concerned.

In learning this language, you are learning who the people are (in this case, referring to the French, in particular, among La Francophonie.)   There are words and phrases that I now understand which wouldn’t make any sense without having heard them in their native context.  No textbook can convey the exact meaning, the expression – the Gallic shrug – that accompanies these colloquialisms.  Seriously, you just have to be there.

There are still things I don’t understand – cultural subtleties I can’t quite grasp.  I don’t really understand vouvoiement and tutoiement, for example, and even several months in France didn’t completely clear up that mystery for me.  Yes, I know what the textbooks say, but no, its not intuitive to a foreigner.  (Its not nearly as clear-cut as the textbooks make out, since I can come up with about a dozen “what-ifs?” right off the top of my head.)

But the bottom line is that going abroad is a must if you want to have a basic command of a language.  Several months, at least in my case, isn’t enough to become fluent, but it is enough to take you from a textbook or classroom level of comprehension to an actual working level.  There is no substitute for hearing it day in and day out: having classes in French with no English whatsoever; sitting on the bus listening to people talk; being asked questions on the street and having to answer on the fly (no time to think about how to make it grammatically correct – just open your mouth and speak!); conducting transactions in stores, banks, train stations, hotels; and even speaking on the phone (difficult, but I managed to pull it off a few times.)

And that’s about it.  I already miss France because there was still so much to see and not enough time to explore all of it.  But it was a great four months and a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone who really wants to learn the language.

Recap of my Adventure – PART II

I’ll continue my recap with a few more superlatives beginning with…

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

Believe it or not, the food.  Yes, in France!  Hear me out…

First of all, restaurant meals in France are prohibitively expensive.  Something as simple as a sandwich – with the ubiquitous pile of frites – can cost the equivalent of $12-$15.   And honestly, most of the everyday, affordable type meals I found were no better than so-so.. Admittedly I didn’t do “fine dining” so I never really sampled the best France has to offer.

Croque monsieur

This was a typical everyday restaurant meal and face it, a Croque Monsieur is just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  And although I never thought I’d get sick of french fries, I got to the point where I couldn’t even look at them after a while.  They are served with everything.  An omelet…with frites.  A crêpe…with frites.  A chicken leg…with frites.  Well anyway, that is the general idea.

I would have been happy if I could have just found some decent popcorn.  The French insist on putting sugar on it for reasons I’ll never understand.  We were in a movie theater where the freshly popped popcorn smelled so good and I could see little crystals gleaming on top which I thought was salt.  I took a big bite and YUCK!  It was SUGAR!  What are they thinking???  Even the few varieties of microwave popcorn that are available (and you have to search for it) is goût sucré.  For a culture that loves their butter on everything else, I’m not sure I understand why they don’t put it on popcorn with salt.

The meals I ate in the Resto U were dreary and dull.  Think Junior High cafeteria – it wasn’t even as good as that.  It was heavy on the starches – piles of instant mashed potatoes or plain macaroni – with an institutional tasting piece of meat and canned vegetables.  My other meals were mostly what I could prepare in my dorm in a microwave such as frozen entrees.  By the last few weeks I had almost totally lost my appetite – nothing sounded good to me at all.  Sadly, one of the best meals I had in France was actually at a Thai restaurant.

Well, moving onto…

THE BIGGEST SURPRISE:

Everyone in France is not thin as a rail, I don’t care what they tell you.  This is just one example, and not unusual.

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I’m not trying to be unkind, but I want to dispel that myth right here and now.  Obviously all those frites and baguettes are going somewhere!

I started with the negatives, but of course its not all negative!  I’ll turn to some positives now and talk about…

The most beautiful sights in France:

Which to me were the cathedrals, specifically the Gothic cathedrals.   I won’t put all the photos here – there are great pictures of all of them just a google away.  But I saw cathedrals and basilicas in Paris, Amiens, Reims, Metz, Laon, Albert, Rennes and I don’t remember where all else.

I guess the thing that makes them so beautiful to me is the fact that we simply don’t have them in the U.S. while there is a Gothic cathedral in practically every town and village in France.  Besides being beautiful buildings, they are – to me – places of peace and tranquility.  There is an air of solemnity and spirituality that truly transcends the ages.   If you can put aside your prejudices about “idolatry”, you can see them for what they were meant to be:  A monument to the heavens.  A way to make sense out of a cold, dark, dangerous world in the Middle Ages.  A place to make a spiritual pilgrimage.  A way of illustrating the stories of the Scriptures for people who couldn’t read.  (And yes, a place in which to increase the riches of the Church, I know.)  They were, above all, the very best that man could offer as a temple in which to worship his Creator.  Anyway, I found the peaceful moments of contemplation in the cathedrals to be a true respite from the horrors of the news stories about extremism and terrorism.

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(Not to mention that these are feats of engineering marvel!)

The next part will be the most valuable things I learned while on Study Abroad…to be continued…

A Recap of my Adventure – PART I

So now that I’m home, I’m ready to recap my adventure.  Here is PART I of my list of superlatives from my experience in France:

BEST MOMENT (S):

It is hard to pin down a single best moment and the best I could do is come up with a tie.  First of all is a moonlight cruise along the Seine.  It obviously has all the elements of a best anything.  You have moonlight shimmering on the water.  You have a river running through the heart of the most beautiful city on Earth.  You have a leisurely – if cold! – cruise that floats you past all the best sights in the City of Light.  Pretty fine moment here (if not such a fine photo – sorry!)

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The moment that ties with that one is much simpler, but it was just so perfect I had to include it:

518Yes, this is a bowl of whipped cream… or rather it is crème Chantilly.  The bowl of cream here was simply the finishing touch to the perfect day I spent in Chantilly wandering through the fabulous Château.  This was one of those days I spent alone – but not lonely.  It was an adventure because I got on a train from Amiens and headed to Chantilly with no clear idea of where I was going. But I found the Château which houses not only one of the finest art collections in France, but has a collection of rare illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages.  1024px-Château_Chantilly_1

I also saw examples of the famous Chantilly Lace:

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But the best part of the day was at the end of the tour.  There was a restaurant where I tucked into a Croque Monsieur (I hadn’t eaten all day!) and when they offered dessert I went for the bowl of the famous Chantilly cream.  I was sitting at a table by the window with a view of the sunset.  I still had a long trip home by taxi, train and bus, and I’d get home after dark, but none of that mattered.  I decided to just live in the moment and savor every mouthful of the luscious cream.  Whipped cream was “invented” here, and this was probably the ultimate bowl of whipped cream I’d ever eat.  (I couldn’t finish it though!)  There was just something about that moment – it was perfect.

WORST MOMENT:

There were a few of those, but this one was definitely the worst.  Heading to Metz with my family, we hauled our NINE pieces of luggage (I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not) up a flight of stairs, across the platforms, down a flight of stairs and onto the train.  Got all the luggage stowed then collapsed into our seats.  It was the evening of a LONG day of traveling.  We had gotten a wrong connection at our last stop and had to spend a bouncy (nauseating!) hour on a bus going from the station in one town to another town to catch our train to Metz.  Now we were finally on the last leg of our journey after a day spent hauling these bags on and off trains and buses.  As we settled in our seats were heard the following announcement:  “Attention, passengers, the train for Metz has been changed to Platform 2”.  WHAAAT????

luggage

Yes, this was a “worst moment” because we had to get up, collect our NINE bags, haul them back up the stairs, across the platform, down the stairs and onto another train.  We were three very unhappy campers at that point.

Happily, this was followed by a  runner up “best moment” when we saw the view from our hotel room in Metz, overlooking the train station.  Totally worth the trip.

Metz

Les Résultats

The results of my final exams in Language and Civilization were 15,1/20 and 15,6/20.  If those sound like bad results percentage-wise, the good news is that by the French grading system those grades should be equivalent to A’s in the U.S.   (At least I hope my professors at KSU will see it that way!)

So here’s the interesting part:  My prof took me aside to tell me how well I write.  He told me (all in French, of course, but I’ll just say it in English) that “You write very well.  You understood the texts (that we analyzed) and you express yourself very well in writing, better than most of the other students.  In fact you write much better in French than you speak, but with most students it is the other way around.  How can you explain that?”

WELL…. I guess that would be because I pretty much learned French in books.  I have spent much more time reading it and studying grammar in workbooks than I have actually speaking it.   That is why on the placement tests that we took at the beginning of the semester I placed at the Advancé level even though I can barely carry on a simple conversation – because the test was written rather than oral.  I suppose that also explains why many of the other students in my classes speak French more easily than I do.  (They don’t necessarily speak more correctly, because I hear their mistakes, but they speak more fluently and with more confidence even though we all were all placed at the same level.)  Their speaking skills surpass their writing skills and I am the opposite.

There remains another class in which I haven’t yet gotten a grade which was based on a group presentation in which each of us had to speak for 10 minutes.  Our speaking abilities in that class ranged from native speakers to those who can barely construct a sentence in French – I am somewhere in the lower half of that spectrum.  So we’ll see…

Le Marché de Noël d’Amiens – Sunday afternoon in town.

012Like I talked about in a previous post, the French don’t go to malls on Christmas, they have their Marchés de Noël instead.  The one in Amiens, if I have heard correctly, is one of the largest in Northern France.  This weekend there was a pretty good crowd in spite of the cold.  Several of the local merchants posted their ouvertures exceptionelles for Sunday when everything is generally closed.  In other words they *gasp* opened part of the day on Sunday for Christmas shopping!   (Of course I’m speaking as an American who is used to Wal Mart being opened 24/7 in the weeks before Christmas) So a few of the sights, beginning with one of the few “Santas” I saw.  And notice (wink,wink) that the French “Santa”, aka Père Noël, is skinny.  As can be seen in these random photos, there are fat people in France just like in the U.S., but nevertheless the French harbor a deep and abiding fear of obesity (more on this later). 006 I had to hide a smile when a woman stopped with her grandchild to coo “Oooh, Père Noël ! Père Noël !” as if it was an amazing thing to see.  She then admonished the hacking child to, “Regardes où on tousse!” which like anything else sounds cool in French if rather mudane in English.   (Actually it is rather amusing for me to hear mothers speak to their children here.  For example a child reaching for a pacifier and the mother saying, “Qu’est-ce qu’on dit?  Dis s’il te plaît“.  I don’t know why I get a kick out of  that, but I do.  I’m weird.) Okay, well anyway, moving on to a few more pictures showing some of the regional specialities 005 004 This one is very interesting, the tartiflette.  Now here is where I am ready to do some myth-busting. 002The French will tell you – will insist – that they are all thin because they eat “small portions”.  This is a matter of some national pride, so it is at my own risk that I dare step up and challenge the myth.   I just know this:  I have been served HUGE portions of food everywhere I go.  I often have trouble finishing what I am served and since taking food home in a doggy bag is not acceptable here I either have to finish it or leave it – paid for and uneaten.   If you order a sandwich, it is on a baguette that is about 14″ long.  That is pretty big and a lot of bread for one meal. Which brings me to the tartiflette.  This is a kind of casserole that includes potatoes, a creamy cheese sauce, onions and lardons.   They were cooking it up by the vat in this kiosk and les Français were inhaling great quantities of it.  They offered a 1/2 portion, a full portion and a double portion.  Silly me, I went for the “full” portion or the moyenne barquette.  I got about two POUNDS of steaming potato casserole.  I ate and ate and ate and could not finish it.  Meanwhile, I watched while people all around me easily scarfed down the whole thing. (Couples would get the grande barquette with two forks and share it.)  And not only this, but – if you can believe it – you could also get a sandwich which was a full baguette with about a pound of tartiflette stuffed inside.  YES, bread stuffed with potatoes and cheese!  YES, a big, huge, gut-busting portion!  I have to laugh, really, thinking of the serious faces of the French people who have earnestly assured me that, “We don’t eat big portions like Americans do.  We take very small portions.”   Well, I’m not calling anybody a liar, but yeah, right….  😉 003This is my container which I threw away unfinished, nestled among scads of containers picked clean.  Just saying…     Oh, and it is delicious, BTW! But here’s the ones that’s really funny.  While Americans line up for footlong hotdogs the French line up for Crêpes au Mètre, which more or less means “Crêpes by the Yard”.  (This was a very popular kiosk.)  For some reason this struck me as absolutely hilarious.  It is the French version of funnel cakes at the State Fair.  LOL 013And just a few last pictures. Hot chestnuts are everywhere 007 How about this ride?  Whirling ornaments on a Christmas Tree!  Cool! 011 These are little animated mannequins skating around that look so real its almost creepy! 008

Breathtakingly beautiful, la Cathédrale d’Amiens

I’ve lived a long time and seen a lot of sights, and this – so far – is the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life.  Nothing else compares – it is transcendently beautiful and when it is lit against the starry night it literally takes your breath away.  When the lights come on, there is an audible gasp among the crowd of several hundred people gathered in the winter evening chill to witness it.  Once the cathedral is lit, you completely forget how cold you are.

The problem is no picture can do it justice.  You simply cannot get the idea of the height of this magificent cathedral – how it seems to soar to the heavens – unless you are standing in front of it.   Imagine … if it can inspire such awe in people from the 21st century – people who have seen skyscrapers and jumbo jets and Disneyland  – what did this look like to people 500 years ago?  It must have truly seemed like the portals to heaven.  It even looks like that today and we are much harder to impress.

019To get some idea of the scale, it would take the height of two people just to reach the feet of the first row of figures under this portico.  (You can see this in the photo below)

023025The light show (which they call the polychromie sur la Cathédrale d’Amiens) is supposedly based on the actual colors that these figures were originally painted.  The paint had worn off over the centuries, but apparently enough traces remained for it to be reconstructed by this light show.

022It is utterly splendid.  It would be a shame for anyone to come to France and not make a trip to Amiens to see this.

Christmas in France

Is very different and not what I expected.

First are the Christmas markets.   Those are a big deal here, and I already showed the Ferris Wheels in Paris, Lille and Amiens that accompany the Christmas markets – aka les Marchés de Noël.  001In Amiens, these are rows and rows of these little red kiosks all throughout the centre-ville selling goodies, handmade items, regional specalities, various little knick-knacks and jewelry but almost no “Christmas” themed items.  There are rides for the kids and even a tiny ice skating rink.  There is a very small Nativity near l’hôtel de ville.

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But here’s what you don’t really see:  Santa Claus and Christmas trees.  Yes there are a few Santas here and there but they aren’t prominent  (“Oh look!  There’s one!”)  And there are a few Christmas trees, but you don’t see many of those either and when you do they are kind of lame.  Although I love France, I have to admit I got a lump in my throat when I saw this display of “Christmas trees”  (Sapins de Noël) for sale:

565In the U.S. these would be the Charlie Brown trees (They are about 5 feet high), but here these are the best they have.  This isn’t what’s left over the day before Christmas, these were the first ones to hit the store in mid- November.   As far as I’ve seen, the full, lush 8 foot trees we put in our homes n’existent pas in France.  (I guess they don’t have the tree farms here like we have back home.)

And here is the aisle of Christmas decorations in the same store (this is a store like Wal Mart):

003THIS IS IT!  THIS IS ALL THEY HAVE!  Can any American relate to this?  This would be the clearance aisle of the Dollar Store the week after Christmas back home!

Here’s what else you don’t see here:  houses lit and decorated for Christmas.  I have seen one – exactly ONE – lit and decorated house with Santa and his reindeer out front and I’m willing to bet my entire monthly stipend (which wouldn’t be much to lose) that an American ex-pat lives there.  I have yet to see the first wreath on a door, either.

There are also no cars with wreaths or reindeer antlers.  Even though I have always found this kind of tacky, it just doesn’t really feel like Christmas without it.   Its funny how as Americans we scoff at the crass commercialism of Christmas and then we miss it when its not there.

One very surprising thing I hear, though, is American Christmas carols EVERYWHERE.  Strolling through the marché the other day I heard Elvis singing Blue Christmas.  And Bing Crosby is dreaming of a White Christmas everywhere you go.  A few weeks ago I walked down the Champs-Elysées listening to Bing and his American cronies sing about White Christmases and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but I never heard the first carol sung in French.

Last night I went to the home of the family whose daughters I am tutoring in English.  They are a well to do family with a very nice home, but they had nothing decorated for Christmas – not one thing.   (As far as I can tell it isn’t because they are Jewish or Muslim, but seeing the slim pickings in the store I guess I can understand why.)

There may be something to say for a culture that doesn’t put a big, worldy emphasis on Christmas.  Let’s just put it this way: with only about four or five rolls of wrapping paper offered for sale in a store the size of Wal Mart, you can guess about how many gifts these people give each other.  Those of us who complain every year about how Christmas is way out of hand might find something to emulate here.  On the other hand, I’d be curious to see the reaction of French people in the U.S. at this time of year.  They would probably be stunned at our excessive displays and plethora of gifts – not to mention our credit card balances in January.

Coming up soon… the spectacular Polychromie sur la Cathédral d’Amiens.  This is one thing you will never see in the U.S. and it is worth all the trees that ever towered over Rockefeller Center.