About Me

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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Excerpt From the Overlander Project - To Speak with Parisians

I remember well my first impulse to study French. I was 16, frowning at the formidable syllables of Les Miserables on the title page of the book propped on my bed, determined to say it aloud, but stopped dead by the possibilities. I tried them out one way, then another, and nothing sounded at all like the bits of French I had heard – all in an audial blur - in movies set in Paris. My mother claimed some fading expertise in French thanks to the long ago Miss Icks of Fresno, (pronounced, my mother insisted,  Meese Eeeks)  but her pronunciation sounded suspect to me, and this gorgeous long word just could not be ignored. 

And so, my junior year in Santa Monica High School, I signed up. French is not a particularly practical language in California. Spanish is the useful second language here, and indeed I plodded through five years of it. But German and French were still freely offered in those days, WWII being not so far behind us, and French just has that cachet. 

My teacher was a precise balding man of forty or so, a preening egotist where language was concerned – “Parisians tell me I speak completely without an accent!” he informed us at regular intervals. He was also a wistful homosexual who plainly fell in love with at least three of the better looking boys in our class over the course of the two years I was with him and only barely managed decorum in their presence, blushing like a girl if they stood too close.  I think, I hope, he was harmless on this score, for the boys seemed only to take it humorously, and the rest of us barely understood what was implied and found him only odd.  He was indeed a fine teacher though, beginning each lesson with a dialog to be memorized and laying out the entire corpus of grammar and basic vocabulary with authority. Even today, that first dialog plays in my head as reliably as a rock and roll song; 

  J’entre dans la salle de classe,  I enter the classroom
  Je regarde autour de moi, I look around me
  Je vois les eleves et le professeur, I see the students and the professor
  Je dis “bonjour” au professeur. I say good morning to the professor.
  Je prends ma place. I take my place. 

The one thing our teacher did not do, however, once we were in our places, was encourage us to speak to each other in French. Language pedagogy of the day held that real language study was a momentous affair of noun genders and pluperfect tenses and the correct placement of accent grave and accent elete. These I more or less mastered but, despite a last minute two week audit of a French conversation course at UCLA before I left for Europe at 23, I arrived in France almost completely without experience at actually using the language to communicate. Indeed, the first Frenchman to address me and my first attempt to answer made me blush to the roots of my hair. Surely this could not be real? It felt like pretending to actually speak with a stranger and have them answer in a foreign  language. That first day, it felt so close to farce, my face was rigid with the effort not to laugh out loud and offend anyone.  And I am sure my accent, in Paris or anywhere else, was far from perfect. 

This common American shortcoming, as everyone knows, does not sit well with the French. It became clear that I offended almost everyone I met, simply by opening my mouth. And they were never shy about letting me know it. I also found it impossible to understand incoming language spoken at normal speed, never mind the occasional bouts of apparent hysteria afflicting shop keepers and taxi cab drivers. When I was the one speaking I chose, of course, only words I knew. When French people spoke to me,  at post offices and train stations, in buses and in odd sandwich shops that required you to stand up hunched over a 4 foot high counter, they were less than considerate on this point. At least a third of their words zipped by me, unregistered, and sense foundered. I did at least manage to order lunch in cafes. There was one thing I knew how to order with confidence: sandwich de fromage s’il vous plait. (a cheese sandwich if you please). And the meaning of coca cola on the bottles lined on the shelves behind was wonderfully intelligible and they were always available.

Woman cannot live by cheese sandwich and coca cola alone however, and on the  third day I tried to enter a proper restaurant near my hotel, ready to splurge a little to sample what I had always heard was the best cuisine in the world. The restaurant was filled with happy diners. A seat and table sat invitingly empty. Shyly, I entered and started for it. Major mistake. When the maitre’d spotted me, she fluttered at me like a hen defending her nest from a fox. Oh non non madame. Nous ne sommes pas ouvrir.

Not open? The other diners watched me with unsympathetic eyes as she backed me out the door. The following day, when the same thing occurred again. I retreated to my hotel, tried to order a sandwich de fromage and a coca cola, but then gave up even that and went up to my room and wept instead, too perplexed and wounded not to ask What is wrong with  me? Clearly I was a person too deeply flawed to be allowed to eat French food. 

The next day, restored to grim calm,  I gave up on the French and went to the train station. I had a Eurail pass and no idea at all of where to go next. I turned in a complete circle, reading the information boards. I was determined to take the next train leaving France, no matter where it was going. Within minutes I found myself on my way to Amsterdam, and because of the people I met in Amsterdam and the events that followed, I was led at last to Israel, where I disembarked from a Turkish ferry in Haifa some months later. As I stood in the hot sun, listening to the first guttural muttering of Hebrew around me, I was completely relaxed. Clearly no one expected me to speak this exotic language. I was a tourist, and not even Jewish. And almost everyone I met obligingly struggled to communicate with me in English, some with the fluency of native speakers of it, which they often were since in 1971 Hebrew had only recently been retrieved from the dust bin of lost ancient languages.  Only sabras, native born Israelis,  had been raised with it. The majority of the country was not native born but had immigrated there after the war, so while Hebrew  was the official language of commerce and government, it was almost everyone’s second language. English was widespread.

All of this may have left you, dear reader, wondering how exactly this situation could have helped me onward in my ambitions to master French.  I will admit that was the last thing I expected to learn there when I arrived.  First I set out to explore this new country. I was moderately fearless in those days, and hitchhiked out of Haifa and up the Safat valley for openers, sleeping in an olive grove when it grew dark, I had begun to read The Source by Michener, and lying in my sleeping bag, looking up at the stars and reading by flashlight, I marveled that the characters in the book were actually traveling up the same valley at the beginning of the story. So I followed my characters to Safat itself, an ancient white walled city high on the side of the valley, which had remained Jewish even through the ages of the diaspora. I peeked into the central synagogue there as the sun splashed golden light down the lanes and the men within began to wail and rock, for, by good fortune,  it was the evening of Yom Kippur when I arrived. When full dark fell, I found the porch of an abandoned house and laid my sleeping bag there. Somewhere that evening - memory of the details fails me now – I had taken up with a bland young English boy, equally out of place, and equally in need of free lodging. So, strangers in a strange land, we began to travel together for convenience. 

I remember the rest of the great circle we made around the country only in snatches. I do recall I was not entirely pleased with my companion. From a small English town, with limited perspective and interests, his comments were often sweetly inane and his one interest in any place we went was to find and consume a popsicle. He was a helpful presence, however, as we went through the occupied territories. I remember the shock of being dropped off in Ramallah, still wearing shorts and a t-shirt – a standard garb for women in the Jewish areas -  and discovering that there were no women at all in sight on the streets and that every man at every outdoor café and through every shop window had turned to stare at me – with lust or stern disapproval. I darted into a restaurant bathroom and changed quickly into a long dress. And was indeed grateful to be traveling as one of an apparent couple. 

Another day, still in the occupied territories, we caught a ride with a craftsman heading toward the Dead Sea for supplies. David – my milk toast knight – was in the back seat next to me as the stocky, aggressive little man drove. He kept trying to catch my eye in the rear view mirror and abruptly, in the middle of nowhere, he stopped, and offered David the opportunity to drive. I tried to send hints to David that this might not be quite the offer it seemed and to please decline, but he missed them all, happily going to take over the driving. Lunging into his place in the back seat, the car’s owner at first leered and then took the liberty of grabbing the long necklace on my chest and pretending to examine it closely. When I snatched it out of his hands without ceremony he reacted in rage. Suddenly we were to stop again. This time, he ordered us both out and left us at the side of the road, next to an elderly man living in an abandoned rail car, and then turned the vehicle in a sharp rubber-burning u-turn, telling us to stay there. He would return. 

David blinked in mild surprise, but saw nothing untoward in this. Lacking a popsicle, he ambled over to where the old man was watching us, stone-faced, and begged a cigarette. I stared after him, thinking hard. To me it seemed a real possibility that the horny angry man who had offered us the ride had now gone back to bring reinforcements for a gang rape. David gazed at me in consternation as I explained this scenario, continuing to drag thoughtfully on his cigarette. “But what can we do?” he asked mildly. 

Sighing in exasperation, I went into the middle of the road and stood there. And the very next vehicle that came by, I forced to stop by refusing to move. Thankfully,  crowded as they were, they consented to give us a ride, and with relief I watched the dusty little arroyo with the strange expressionless old man fall behind. I later heard that a Canadian girl was raped and found murdered in that area. And I have wondered. 

Still no French in my story you have noted. I am digressing, I admit. But there is always that temptation to tell about life in the order it was lived, which almost never makes for the kind of coherent tale found in fiction. But I will summarize and hurry us back to the point. After further adventures, a ramble through Jerusalem, a warm desert night as the guest of an Israeli soldier in Beersheba who served us a cup of fresh mint tea so perfectly strong and pure I have never forgotten it, David and I hitchhiked our way back up the coast all the way to the kibbutz of Hanita on the northern border with Lebanon. 

And this is where my education in French resumed, for Hanita was founded by idealists wishing to bring together Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities in a social experiment. The Ashkenazis came from Switzerland. The Sephardics came from Algeria. They both spoke (ah you have guessed before I said it) French as their first language. Few spoke Hebrew with authority. 

There was a bit of Hebrew in my days there. Af Sakah! The overseer would yell in the orange grove when it was time for a break. And we would clamber down, peel a fresh ripe orange from out of the bag slung round our necks, and take our break. I learned to count to ten “Ah hat stein, shalosh…” and learned that the children were the yeladim. But for the rest, the instructions on making breakfast for 30 in half an hour, the daily schedule, the rules for we “volunteers’ who lived in a row of portable buildings at the rim of the kibbutz, all were conducted in French. 

So each day my French grew stronger.  I would listen for some word I lacked and seize it right out of context, like a herpetologist lassoing a passing butterfly, tucking it into memory. It was a matter of survival, for life moves fast and sometimes aggressively in Israel. In bus lines and cafeterias, you are expected to push back, answer strongly with a grin or a witticism, or people won’t like you. And there were fascinating conversations to be had as I rose up to it: a former Israeli general who was angrier at conservative religious Jews than he was at the Palestinians or Egyptians; a wonderful gentle artist, who had fallen in love with an American and wanted to know all about my country; a nearly silent old woman working in the dispensary who had lived through Germany’s horror and carried a black number on her wrist; a child who told me of his nightmares of falling bombs. Indeed there had been several that had fallen nearby in his short life, for we were so close to the border with Lebanon that I could have called out to the Lebanese shepherd on the hill on across from the kibbutz. Men from the settlement patrolled the perimeter each night, and jets from the nearby air base would race up the Haifa valley in the afternoons, so fast and so low, they could not be heard until they were almost directly above us, and several times almost startled me out of my orange tree. Approaching the low hills at the border they coiled upward in twin menacing arcs and raced back down again - roaring warning or reassurance and making all who heard them aware of their presence.  

It was 1971 and the vibration of wars behind and wars to come was everywhere and no one was allowed to forget this for long. There was talk of landmines planted in the dark, of katyusha rockets that might arc onto us at any time. Taking nature walks was discouraged. There were even spies found among my fellow volunteers. A Frenchman broke his leg in a trench creeping around after curfew one night and when his room was searched, notes and maps were found that he was preparing, they said, to give to the Palestinians. Two Irish girls, adorned with false eyelashes and full cake make up, were found to be a different kind of spy. They had come to learn about the Haganah’s successful stand against the British – for Hanita had a cave behind that had once been a favored hiding place – in order take the information home to help the cause of the IRA. 

But we were well treated for all that, and  each day I had opportunities to practice my French on every conceivable subject On the Sabbath, we were made as welcome as any kibbutz member. There were dances and feasts, one I remember especially was Moroccan style with everyone sitting cross-legged in two long lines rimmed in low tables and dancers and servers coming down the middle. The kibuttz even paid us $12 a month and drove us into town once a week to spend it. Here, I learned how to swear effectively when two men followed me down the beach in Najariya. They trudged after me five blocks in the sand in shiny pointy city shoes, and carefully perched on the other side of the breakwater I was seated on, hissing suggestively. This was an all too common, and to me completely offensive way of flirting with the opposite sex. Somehow, that lascivious hiss was the last straw on what had already been a much sexually harrassed day, I stood up, swore in my most ferocious French and drove them off, wide-eyed. I’m startled to remember that I was so mad, I continued to swear at every innocent inhabitant of Najariya  I passed, all the way back to the kibbutz shuttle.  No ambassador of goodwill I, not on that red day.  

But Christmas came at last, and with it a check with enough money to at last fly home. And I had the good sense to stop over for a week in Paris. You will be happy to learn, dear reader, that my position in French society had been transformed. Now I prattled confidently in every café and bookshop and art store and Parisians, amazed and friendly, prattled back. I went to French movies and understood them. I discovered the lunch time schedules of cafes (they close every afternoon) and had my first, and only, blissful taste of gourmet snails. 

Home again, I was reminded that there are few indeed who speak French in California. This confidence with the Gallic language began to pass, sadly, but it was a glorious week. And French words do still lurk in the dark somewhere in my brain, buried under the edifice of Spanish that was erected later in my career as an ESL teacher. It seems my brain, when asked to speak French, merely opens a “foreign language section” and rummages about for the closest word, and that is nearly always now Spanish first, and French much later. So, should I try to speak French today, the effort is sputtering and filled with gaps. Hand me a copy of Les Miserables, however,  and I will pronounce it for you, with elegance, even still.