Book Club: A Year in the Merde, by Stephen Clarke

I read a lot of books about Paris and France before moving here and I’ve only recently realized I might do well to share them with you.  So, I’ll start with an old favorite.

It was the second week I was in Paris.  I had just gone to an Asterix exposition at the ugly BNF (Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand), with my friend Julien, who I had met in Adelaide, Australia, a year earlier (a story for another time).

“Stefan,” (this is how the French pronounce my name), “Stefan, do you know zis booke, ah, a year in dee Merde?”  I nodded that I had vaguely heard of it, but not much more.

He started laughing.  “Oh, you must read it!  It is soooo funny!  And it’s true!”  Julien is a great guy – a real anglophile to boot – though he insists that when we go on ski trips I only speak French – so I gave his recommendation its due importance and in time purchased and read the book.

It was, as he had warned me, absolutely hilarious.  One time I almost choked on my tongue while reading in the metro because I was laughing so hard.  Another time, while I was buying groceries at Franprix, I noticed that the checkout guy started to giggle quietly because he saw the book under my arm.  “C’est vrai?” I asked him, left eyebrow raised.  “Oui – tous!” he responded.

So, Stephen Clarke, the author, invented this fictional Paul West character who comes to Paris for a job and gets caught in the life of apartments, work, and love.  It’s told from an anglo perspective, and it’s particularly funny if you’ve lived in Paris for any period of time because the jokes hit on the realities of everyday life.  Some memorable lines from the book include:

Jean-Marie did the hugest shrug I’d ever seen, even outdoing the man in the electric shop.  His shoulders, arms, his whole rib cage, took off vertically in a gesture of infinite indifference.

and this

The Paris police are the best in the world at one thing – sitting in buses.”

and this

Red lights are like queues,” he said scornfully, “They are for people who have time to waste.”

It’s not a perfect book, by any means, but it’s very revealing in its takedown of the French.

Clarke was a bit taken aback, I’m sure, by his success, and has gone on to write at least two other books on this theme, which I have, unfortunately, also read.  I say unfortunately because these books go beyond the playful fictional satirical conceit of the first book and just linger in stereotype that is, over time, increasingly unfunny.

Yes, it was funny that first time – but if you want to keep going you’re going to have to go deeper.  In comedy, the analogue would be the first Austin Powers movie – the first one was funny in so many ways – the others were horrible.  Same with the sleeper Liam Neeson hit film Taken.  I love that movie.  Which is probably precisely why I hate the sequels so.

Perhaps we as moderns don’t understand that success can be solitary (witness Harper Lee being huckstered into releasing an inferior and revisionist novel in her dotage).  Success doesn’t mean having to repackage your great idea as something only slightly different.  Indeed, success is sometimes leaving well enough alone.

So, read this first one.  Skip the rest of Clarke’s catalogue.

Learn French in France? Not so fast….

I often tell people that I studied French prior to coming here but I truly learned French whenever, over the years, I was in an immersive French environment (as in during my teenage visits to Montreal).  For those who think simply being here will make you fluent in French, I need to warn you: it won’t.

Apart from what fluency really means, there is the issue that language studies take five ingredients to make strong and serious progress.  If any of these ingredients are missing, your progress will be slowed considerably.

The first ingredient is perhaps the most obvious: money.  Whether you choose the path of a private tutor (25-40€/hour) or a large class at a school like Alliance Francaise (11-20€/hour) you will need thousands of euros to progress to any level of satisfaction in this language.  You can go to all the free language meetups or do all the duolingo you please (I know, I’ve done both) but they are night and day from serious study of this language.

The second thing you need is time, and its handmaid, patience.  Just as Europe can’t really be seen in the madcap 30-countries-in-14-days dash that Americans are so infamous for putting themselves through when not better advised, French is not a language that can be “hacked.”  The pronunciation, exceptions, and nuances of the language demand more, even from English speakers who speak a tongue which is heavily influenced by French.

Finally, you will need practice and its champion, perseverance.  If you work in and speak English all day on a daily basis (as I do) you simply have less time to practice.  It also means you should do as much as you can in French – be it making your grocery list in the language, or speaking with your French friends in it, who will be anxious to speak to you in English and help you as you struggle (classic example – this weekend I was trying to deconstruct a very funny expression with my friends – the French equivalent to “when pigs fly” is “when chickens have teeth” but the verb used was in the subjunctive, which I still 6a00d83451bab869e200e54f4edd828833-800wihaven’t learned, so we were discussing the change in stem and the various endings).

I have run into people who have lived and worked in France for 3-5 years who have a low level of competence and a horrible accent in the language (think “merci” pronounced “mercy”).  I used to despise them but as time has gone on and as I’ve faced my own roadblocks in the last 16 months (I was low on money, I was impatient, I didn’t make time to practice) I’ve come to accept that language studies, when not required for a job, are not persevered in without an overwhelming passion for the language in question.  In the United States, Spanish is universally the “practical” language to study in school but only a small handful of my friends, even the AP Spanish ones, have pursued their studies more seriously than being able to get around Mexico or South America.  The common denominator?  They all genuinely enjoyed speaking Spanish and connecting to that marvelous world.

I told you in another piece that the visa process weeds out many who just consider France a romantic possibility but don’t have the bottle to get through the hard work.  The reality of studies beyond, “Comment t’apples-tu?” is a language rich in exceptions and irregular forms.  You’re going to have to love it.  Thankfully, j’adore le français.

* * *

One of the distinct advantages of being immersed in French is having pronunciation modeled for you 24/7.  All my friends tell me that my pronunciation now is night and day from this time last year.  But you also hear things in oral situations that you have to unpack later.  Three examples:

1.  “Voici.”  It is customary to say goodbye when leaving a cafe or store – be it an “au revoir” or “bon weekend” or “bon apres-midi,” etc.  People would occasionally call out what I heard as “voici” (pronounced vwas-ee) after me.  After some time  thinking on it I realized they meant “a vous aussi,” “to you as well.”  Parisian speech is traditionally fast, even among the French, and the French love to shorten things so no surprise that “a vous aussi” elided to something that sounds like “voici,” at least for some people.

2.  “Chef.”  I’ve encountered this before in varied situations, but usually from strangers around sporting events.  We don’t have an exact equivalent in English, but it is akin to someone young saying “sir” to someone else their age or younger, either as an artifact of their speech (as some 20-somethings are wont to drop putain into their syntax just as a placeholder) or because they want something from you and calling you “chief” is part of the “flatterie.”

3.  The disappearance of “ne” from negative statements.  In French you need to put a “ne” in front of the verb and a “pas” after it.  Since almost medieval times the French have been dropping letters from their text and speech and I happen to be living in an era when “ne” is disappearing in speech.  Since my tutor assigns me written homework my written French has to be “by the book” so this was a perfect example for me to learn by recognizing the difference.

Proper French: “je n’ai pas d’argent.” (“I don’t have any money.”)

Colloquial spoken French:  “j’ai pas d’argent.”  (“I don’t have any money.”)

As I queried my French friends about this they explained that it was similar to the English tendencies of using “gonna” as an elision of “going to” and “gimme” as an elision of “give me.”  It has that “slangy” sound to it when it’s used, but no one properly educated would think it would be correct to write using that format.

This tendency is a cause for alarm among the chattering classes that favor the (very reasonable) power of the Academie Francaise.  For the person in immersion, it’s reassuring proof that, more and more, you are “getting” the nuances of this lovely and storied tongue.

The myth of “fluency”

Americans abroad sometimes beat ourselves up – often on behalf of our fellow countryment – other times because of our own perceived shortcomings.  One of these is the famous lie: “Well everyone in Europe speaks at least 2-3 languages fluently.”  I’ve found this to be mostly a myth, for any number of reasons.

It is true that Europeans take up a 2nd and sometimes even a 3rd language outside of the language that they speak at home.  But Europeans are humans, like the rest of us, and fluency is like anything – once attained, it must be maintained.

On the ferry from Morocco back to Spain some years ago I struck up a conversation with a Danish family.  We talked about socialized health care (Obamacare was much in the news at the time) and came on to education.  “What is she learning as her third language?” I queried.  “German.”  I was surprised – I know they are geographically proximate but German is really only spoken in a couple countries.  I didn’t want to ask why so I simply asked how she was doing.  “Ask her,” the father smiled.

“How’s your German?” I asked the 11 year-old.  She answered haltingly in her 2nd tongue, English: “I…it’s okay.”  “Do you practice with your friends who are also learning German?”  “No,” she admitted honestly, making a face which betrayed only slight shame, almost as if to say that practicing a non-native tongue with friends learning that same non-native tongue would be unusual.

Fluency, strictly speaking, is the ability to converse quickly and at a high level, within a language.  Fluency comprehends a large vocabulary, appreciates and can deliver puns, and has fun with wordplay.  It also has the ability to engage in high level discussions – say about the existence of God or the start of the universe.  I would never call someone fluent in a language who kept asking me the word for “planet” or “cosmos” or “uncaused cause.”

I might call them conversational – those who can express themselves enough to order food, ask for directions, or talk about basics about themselves.  Sometimes this brings with it a semi-literacy – an ability to read signs and some announcements, but not enough to read an editorial in the local newspaper.

My most recent trip to Vienna left me with a few new friends, one of which was now a teacher in Vienna who confessed to me during our 30 km bike tour of the city that he had learned Italian and English in school but had lost them both.  I told him quite emphatically that his English was very impressive for his not being a regular speaker.

WordCloud_FRWhile a big part of my mission during my time in France has been to attain fluency in this language, I have over the years come to appreciate even knowing a few words in any language.  The doors to another culture can open themselves so widely in just a few words.  We talked about the fact that the ß (eszett) in German is not often used.  “Indeed,” he replied, “the Swiss use a double s in its place.”  This is true, the Swiss are quite practical.  They use septante and huitante and nonante to denote 70, 80, and 90, respectively.  What do the French use?  soixante-dis (60 and 10, literally), quatre-vingts (four twentys, seriously), and quatre-vingts-dis (yup, four 20s and a 10, like you’re counting out change).

What I mean to get at is if you cannot attain fluency in a second language (or a third, etc.), don’t beat yourself up.  Many claim fluency in a second language, but what they mean is that they are conversational.  Someone who can seamlessly transition from language to language, preserving an accent native to that language, is rare.  And they are probably in diplomatic work.  The rest of us make do with “comment dit-tons” until we can get there.  And hey – what’s the harm in working on fluency in your native tongue?  I daresay we’d see better grammar and spelling in our business and personal emails if we put that effort in! 🙂