French Lessons: Bad Days

by Jackie D on February 17, 2017

Jackie DesForges Petit PalaisYou will have bad days where you can’t remember the right word for anything.

I’ve never had to tell myself something like this before. I’ve always been able to find a word — or, more likely, thirty words and several commas — for whatever it is I’m trying to express.

When you’re normally pretty great at words and you’re trying to learn a new language, the good days feel normal and the bad days feel BAD. The good days feel normal because you expect to be good at it — you go into class with confidence and maybe even (dare I say it?) excitement. Class! Homework! You are great at these!

But when you have a bad day, you’re almost indignant about it. You thought you knew that rule. You never mess up that type of conjugation. The rule must be wrong, not you. ALTERNATIVE FACTS!

I had a bad day last week. I’d been so proud of myself before I arrived at class that day because I’d been taking the initiative to do some exercises in my workbook BEYOND what had already been assigned, because I am forever the annoying kid in class who does things like that, and because I find the workbook exercises very soothing. I think maybe they are my version of sudoku.

But when I got to class, I couldn’t remember the word for anything. Every time I tried to guess the gender of a noun, I was wrong. Every time I was sure I had just said a sentence correctly, it turns out I’d used the completely wrong article after the verb, and these are errors that tourists commonly make, so I knew I sounded completely like a tourist. My pronunciation was off, I was forgetting conjugations I already knew. It was 90 minutes of straight mistakes.

I’m usually fairly gentle with myself when I’m trying to learn something new. This is because I’m not a fast learner — I was one of the last on my volleyball team to learn how to overhand serve after what seemed like countless hours of swatting volleyballs at the garage door night after night; I often pre-studied for study groups in high school and college because it takes longer for me to memorize dates or get the hang of certain concepts.

But language has always come so easily to me. I got straight A’s in Spanish in elementary school and straight A’s in French in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a bad grade in an English class because if I had, I might have thrown myself off a bridge — I’ve also always been quite adept at melodrama, which I guess is its own language in a way.

But now, on my bad days, a French toddler could better express to you my weekend plans than I could.

It’s humbling and frustrating at best; it’s reduced me to tears in the bathroom once, at worst. On my bad days, it feels like I’m never going to reach a point where I can call myself fluent in French. On my good days, it’s comforting to remind myself that I probably already know much more than I think I do.

And anyway, on my bad days, these feelings of frustration allow me to rage-eat these coconut cookies I recently found at the grocery store near my apartment, so at least there’s always that.

(Speaking of coconut and mistakes: once I tried to say coconut in French, which is noix de coco, but I accidentally said nuit de coco, which means night of coco, and so now if I ever become famous and make a terrible celebrity perfume, you’d better believe I’m calling it Night of Coco)

French Lessons: To Be (or not to be) Verbs

by Jackie D on February 10, 2017

This week, my teacher decided that we should brush up on my past-tense skills. In French you either form past tense by combining the verb to have (avoir) with a past-tense verb, or by combining the verb to be (etre) with a past-tense verb. How to decide whether to use avoir or etre?

There are 14 verbs that use etre, and they’re fairly easy to remember because 1.) they all have to do with physical action in some way, and 2.) all but one have opposites:

Entrer/Sortir (to enter/ to exit, go out)
Arriver/Partir (to arrive/ to leave)
Monter/Descender (to go up/ to go down – people use these words to describe going up or down stairs or in an elevator)
Venir/Aller (to come/ to go)
Naitre/Mourir (to be born/ to die — the ultimate to-be-or-not-to-be verbs)
Passer/Retourner (to pass/ to return)
Rester (to stay)
Tomber (to fall)

For some reason they’ve stuck in my head as to-be-or-not-to-be verbs — thanks Hamlet.*

Referring to them as “to-be” verbs makes sense because, literally, they use the verb “to be” in their past tense, but I think saying that they are”not-to-be” verbs also makes sense — these verbs are all opposites. To come and to go. To arrive and to leave. To be born and to die. Seven ways to express what is essentially the same single process. To be and not to be.

I’ve used books and literary references to learn how to do a lot of things (especially in that weird faraway time before YouTube tutorials), so it doesn’t surprise me that when I am trying to learn a different language, the French words make more sense to me if I put them in the context of something I’ve read before. I just wish that this time it was a true crime book rather than stupid Hamlet.

*I am generally quite enraged by Hamlet and I blame it for a lot of things that have happened in recent history. Long story.

Parts of America in Paris

by Jackie D on February 8, 2017

Untitled design (1)“I have two loves – my country and Paris.”  Josephine Baker

Believe it or not, there are a few things I miss about America already. Most of these things are California-specific, especially lately, but still: the US will always be home, for better or for worse.

Almost every weekend, I treat myself to a late breakfast at an American diner in an otherwise super French neighborhood. This diner has normal-sized coffee mugs, and they serve normal amounts of coffee (read: bottomless). No tiny espressos in sight. They also have orange juice. They have pancakes. They have bacon. They have ketchup for your breakfast potatoes. Old-fashioned silver toasters dot a few of the tables. The diner plays really cheesy classic rock music and the menu is in both English and French.

It’s the best. Breakfast is hard to come by in France — these are lunch people, not breakfast people — so it’s such a treat for me to be able to escape back to America for a quick, calorie-filled hour every Sunday morning. Who says you can’t have your pain au chocolat and eat your pancakes too?**

Aside from the diner, my other most important discovery: the library. There is an American Library of Paris, and I found it, and now I volunteer there a few times per month. The other volunteers are fellow Americans of all ages and backgrounds, everyone in Paris for their own simple yet complicated yet simple reasons, like I am. And during special events, there is wine — because we are, after all, in France. But everyone definitely partakes of more than just one or two glasses of said wine because we are, after all, still American.

And this means I still have a steady supply of books at my disposal, which at this point is almost a necessity for me. If I had to live somewhere without being able to stop by the library and wander through the quiet aisles after a long day at work  — guys, not to be melodramatic, but I would definitely die. I’m fairly certain my body has become convinced that library book smell is actually a vitamin it requires to function.

Other small victories: I found popcorn and peanut butter. I brought NyQuil back with me after Christmas and assigned it a place of honor in my cabinet (it is my prized possession). I asked my mom and sister to bring me Girl Scout Cookies when they visit next week, and I’ve already had dreams about them. The cookies, not my family.

The point is: I think it’s fully possible to embrace the best parts of French life without entirely giving up some of my favorite things about American life. But I do wish France would embrace NyQuil.

**doctors, probably.