Why I French

I got into a fight with my boyfriend the other day. It was at one in the morning for me, and like many fights that I choose to engage in, it was about something stupid and trivial: something that shouldn’t have even been a fight. As I prepared my rebuttal for one of his articulate and convincing arguments, I thought I had a perfect point to make. But when I went to speak, nothing came out of my mouth except “I just can’t think of the right word!”

This was half-true. I had the right word, but I didn’t have the right language. I wanted to use a French word, one with a similar meaning in English when translated but that doesn’t carry the same connotation. I was frustrated. I felt stupid. And this happens more often than you’d think. And when it does, I always think back to an article I read during my junior year of high school.

The piece is written by an American who grew up speaking both English and Farsi. In it, the author is so eloquent about his experience speaking two languages and in describing how each language works to create its own world. Here’s one of my favorite passages, so you can get an idea of what he’s talking about:

Learning a second language is about perspective. Each language is a lens. If you were born wearing pink glasses and could never take them off or exchange them for another shade, you would assume the world is pink without even being aware of pinkness as a quality–pinkness as compared to what? In the same way, if you know only one language, it’s hard to be aware that you are looking through a lens: You think you are simply seeing the world as it is. Fluency in a second tongue gives you a chance to see through a different lens.

And, in my opinion, he’s 100% correct in saying this. I see this “two-lens” phenomena all the time while babysitting two French boys who are well-into the process of learning English. They often ask me the question, “How do you say ____ in French/English?” (Unfortunately the blank space is often an expletive). And sometimes, there just is no answer. I’ll usually look into space, rub my chin, say “hmmmm,” and finally say, “I just don’t think you can translate that.” This confuses them. When my high school students ask the question, I explain my non-answer by asking this question: have you ever used google translate before? Usually all of them nod, with sheepish and acknowledging smiles. I then say, “Have you ever typed in a sentence in English, and just received complete nonsense in return?” That answer, too, is usually yes. It’s the Google translate-effect: language learning is too often misconstrued to be the act of learning the literal translation of words. But often times, different languages use different words to express the same sentiments.

For example, one of my favorite expressions in French is “n’importe quoi.” Translated literally, it means “anything.” Translated more accurately it means “nonsense” (and in my opinion it can also mean “bullshit”) But in the French language, it’s a phrase you can use in a number of different scenarios. The kids I babysit yell it at each other all the time when they’re fighting. (Ie. “It’s your turn to take a shower first!” “N’importe quoi!”) My host mom might use it to express her frustration with a really long line in the grocery store. I use it when someone tells me an unbelievable/enraging story. In short, it’s for those moments in life when you not only disagree with something, but you also think it’s completely ridiculous that it even exists/happened in the first place. We just don’t have a word for it in English, which is why I’ll often throw it into my English conversations. To me, it doesn’t make sense to use any other word in that context.

I remember another time when my former host brother was explaining to me that he had taken a six-hour test that day. In English, it would be normal to say something like, “God, I’m so sorry.” So, in French I said, “Ohhh, I’m sorry.” He looked at me funny. “Why are you sorry?” he said. It was later I learned that in French, you don’t use the word sorry unless you are truly, deeply, sorry for something you have done. It made no sense for me to say it in the context of my host brother’s test-taking.

Aside from singular expressions and words, the idea that all nouns should have a gender still drives me insane. David Sedaris agrees with me on this one, and he’s far funnier than I am when he discusses it in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day: “Why refer to Lady Crack Pipe or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied?” One thing that personally irks me, and sorry to be a bit crass, is that the word vagina is masculine. How does this make sense? Why would someone point to something that is quite possibly the most feminine word as and say “eh, yeah, that’s masculine.” I just don’t get it.

I decided to prod my French speaking students about how having a female table changes their view of the table. “Bah, it’s a table!” they said. Ok, well, that was unhelpful. But still, I wonder how seeing a vagina as masculine and a table as feminine has shaped their worlds differently than my gender-neutral language has shaped mine.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes to have moments when your brain mixes up two languages, I have found that learning French has really opened up another world for me in several senses. Yes, I can now communicate with French people: I can order a latte at Starbucks, I can chat at dinner, I can give directions; you get the point. In this sense, I can access French culture on a very fundamental level. But, I think more importantly, speaking another language has opened my brain up to another way of thinking–and has made me realize that my world was so shaped by the English language in the first place.

Of course, I probably would have come to this realization had I learned Spanish, or Chinese, or Arabic–it’s not something that is exclusively reserved for French speakers. This is why it makes me so sad to see so many schools in the U.S. cutting back on their language programs. As cliche as it sounds, I feel as if learning a language is key to not only communication, but to fundamental human understanding.

So thank you, to anyone who has ever helped me out along the way, for helping me to achieve my French-speaking dreams and unlocking another world for me in the process.

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Nice is Nice.

I think my parents bought tickets to come and visit me before I even bought my ticket to move here for 7 months. Fortunately for all of us, their visit coincided with my February break. This of course means that I decided we were going to leave Paris for a few days to explore another part of France. We spent 3 sunny days in the city of Nice, the fifth-largest city in France, famous of course for its location on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

We took a five-hour train ride on Tuesday morning and arrived in the city just in time for lunch. Most of the first day was spent soaking in the beautiful sights, as well as the sun.

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I’m bad at selfies and unaccustomed to seeing sunlight.

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Place Masséna

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Hotel Negresco has been famous for its location on the Promenade des Anglais since it opened in 1913.

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The cheeriest architecture ever.

We were visiting the city during Carnaval, which is one of the biggest Carnival celebrations in the world (alongside Venice and Brazil). On Tuesday night, we witnessed the parade, which is a huge procession of both people and floats. This year’s Carnaval theme is “King of the Music,” so all 18 floats in the parade had something to do with music.

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I found the floats to be kind of creepy.

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And even creepier when processing towards you out of the darkness.

On Wednesday morning, my dad convinced my mom and I to go on the city’s ferris wheel. As soon as we got in it we all admitted to being afraid of ferris wheels, but the views it offered were absolutely incredible.

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There it is…

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On one side, you have the ocean

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And on the other side, the Alps.

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Place Masséna from above. You can also see the top of the bleachers they have set up for the parades.

My absolute favorite part of the trip though was the Bataille de Fleurs. It’s technically a parade, but unlike any parade I’ve ever attended. The route is probably about half a mile long, and goes in a circle on the road adjacent to the ocean. There are about ten floats in the parade, and the floats are entirely made of flowers. The first time they go around, the people (in amazingly elaborate costumes) distribute the same yellow flowers to people in the crowd. The second time, they disassemble the floats completely and throw those flowers at the crowd. At the end of the parade, many people walk away with beautiful bouquets of roses, lilies, gerber daisies, and more. Between the floats are singers and dancers and bands, most of them in beautiful costumes, and all of them looking enthusiastic the entire time (unlike me in every parade I’ve ever marched in).

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And of course, here’s the Facebook-famous photo of my parents after the parade.

IMG_0998On our final day in Nice, we took a tour in a tiny train of the city. It brought us around the old town, the new town (I don’t know if that’s an official term, but I’m using it), and then up to Castle Hill. Along the way, the lovely woman whose pre-recorded voice came from the headsets told us a lot about the city’s history, which dates back thousands of years. Because of its prime location on the Mediterranean, there was a lot of fighting done over who was going to be in charge of it. It has been a part of France since 1850, and is one of the most popular vacation destinations for its people.

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The view from Castle Hill was incredible.

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Looking unfazed, but really just a poor attempt at a smile without teeth.

Our train ride back to Paris was made slightly entertaining by the fact that whoever was in charge of getting our train to Paris thought we were going to Aix-en-Provence. Ha. But regardless of this mix up, I can safely say that Nice was one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. It has such an ancient feel to it, I half expected to see horses and buggies coming down the street. It’s a city that belongs to its past: longing for the olden days, resistant of time, and hopelessly romantic. I’m sure I’ll be back.

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Just when you thought you couldn’t love France any more…

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On living alone.

Before I moved to Paris, I was living with 5 boys (6 if you count the kid who was temporarily living in the closet). Before that, I had 3 wonderful female roommates, and before that another roommate. In other words, home has always been a place where I’m surrounded by people, and luckily for me, they’ve always been people I’ve liked.

I think one of the most challenging things about moving to Paris has been living by myself. It’s hard to come home in the evening to nothing but an empty room. I’m used to returning to other people, people who ask me about how my day went, who I can vent to when I have frustrations, who fill the house/apartment with delicious smelling food. Now, it’s just me and my frozen chicken sticks (although my place stays miraculously clean in the absence of others).

It has taken me a long time to get used to being by myself, but I’ve gotten to a place where I can be alone and not feel lonely. Despite the fact that I desperately miss the constant companionship that I’ve had throughout my life, I think this has been another important lesson for me (this blog is really becoming a laundry list of things I’ve learned in France, isn’t it?). When you’re by yourself, you’re challenged to become your own friend. You find out where your mind wanders when it’s left alone. It’s also an opportunity to step back from everything and ask the important questions, like, “What do I want?” The answer to that question can become very convoluted in a crowd.

All of that being said, I don’t think I would be who I am without the people who I love. And boy, do I miss those people. I can’t wait to come back to a place with noise, with people, with craziness and happiness: all of the things that make a home.

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La Saint Valentin

Since I’m 2,000 miles away from most of my life, I often have the opportunity to (unintentionally) gain a new perspective on my own culture. This happens most frequently while eating at restaurants, talking to French people, and celebrating holidays that are only popular in America because of Hallmark.

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays that most of the French choose to completely ignore. I thought that this wouldn’t be a big deal for me. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the holiday. However, I’m not someone who decries the day as an opportunity for flower and chocolate businesses to reach into your bank account, either. I always kind of remained neutral about the holiday and enjoyed the opportunity to eat heart-shaped chocolate.

It’s Facebook that has shown me just how big of a deal Valentine’s Day really is in America. I’ve seen declarations of love for significant others, declarations of hatred for the day, hilarious buzzfeed valentines, and pictures of flowers with just the right filter. As I sit here, in a country where Valentine’s Day traditions are few and far between, I can’t help but think about how nice the holiday actually is.

All complaints about commercialism aside, let’s think about the true meaning of the holiday: to show others that you love them. Not just significant others, either. There’s no reason that this holiday should be exclusively be reserved for romantic love. There’s nothing better in the world than knowing that you are loved, whether it’s by family or friends or boyfriends or girlfriends. And during such a dreary and cold and monotonous month, it’s nice to be warmed up with that feeling that you belong; that you are connected on a deep level with another human being.

Yes, America has made the holiday a goldmine. But forget about buying a crappy card. Just let the people you love know that you love them. You’ll probably make their day.

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As for me, the other half of my heart is 2,000 miles away today. Thank you for making me a better person, especially in the mornings.

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TAPIF Lessons

Oh TAPIF. I have so many things to say about my own experience, as well as about the program in general. I’ve compiled two lists: one that talks about things I’ve learned about teaching from my own experience, the second discusses the challenges I’ve faced with the program. Of course, everyone’s experience is unique, so let me put mine into context: I work at one high school and teach 12 one-hour classes each week. My classes are all in terminale (aka senior year without fun stuff like trips to Disney, prom, or graduation), and I see them about once every 2-3 weeks.

Things I’ve learned from my experience:

  1. Ask the students what they want. I’ve found that they actually do have an idea of what they’re interested in learning about (I spent an entire class once talking about the cliques in American high schools because they found it such a fascinating subject). My former French teacher had good advice for doing this: during the first class, give everyone an index card. Have them write their name, their interests, what their weaknesses are in English, and what they would like to improve. It gives some good insight into the class you’re working with, especially if you’re like me and don’t get to see them very often.
  2. Let the students know why they’re doing something: Explain the purpose of activities. “This is for practicing listening skills.” “This is for improving your ability to ask questions.” It lets students know that you’re not just doing stuff to pass the time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be disliked: I’ve found that it’s hard to work with high school students because you want them to like you so badly, but at the same time it’s hard to ignore them taking selfies in the back row. It’s also hard to say things like, “Do you really think I was born yesterday and don’t see you?” because they will probably understand about half of that phrase. But sometimes, it’s important to get over your fear of being disliked and just make them hand the iPhone over. I’ve also had to explain that the classroom is a classroom, not a cafe.
  4. Be mysterious: I love this advice. It comes from my high school French teacher as well, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met. Being mysterious makes you more interesting.
  5. Don’t tell them you’ve never taught before: They’ll take advantage of you.

Why TAPIF can be difficult:

  1. You’re young: I’m two years older than some of my students. It’s hard to be a figure of authority when other teachers question why you’re in the teacher’s lounge because they think you’re a student. Also, since I’m young, I have less (read: no) experience in the classroom. They know. They know.
  2. You have no clue what you’re doing: Despite the fact that the program knows that many of its participants have never taught before, they don’t do an adequate job preparing them to teach. It’s nothing short of scary to go into a classroom with no idea of how to plan a lesson, or discipline a misbehaving student, or how to engage students.
  3. No incentive to participate, or to behave, or to show up: At my school, I spend an hour every two to three weeks with a group of 6-12 students. They’re not graded. They don’t have tests. They don’t even really have to show up. It’s hard to have control over a class whose only incentive to come to class is to practice their English with a native speaker. Most of them aren’t genuinely interested in learning the language; they do it because they have to do it.
  4. You’re at the bottom of the teacher food-chain: I’ve had other teachers just take my students so they could have an extra hour of class. Sometimes I show up to school and no one had told me I wouldn’t be having class. Granted, the teacher I work with is pretty good about keeping me in the loop. But that doesn’t mean that I’m really prioritized by the school.
  5. It’s difficult to build relationships with students: Between school holidays, class cancellations, and the way the schedule works, I probably see students about once a month on average. It’s hard to build relationships with them when you see them for an hour per month.
  6. You’re alone: I guess this could be translated into something like, “You’re given the opportunity to be more independent than you’ve ever been in your life!” While I certainly don’t need someone to be holding my hand at all times, it would be nice to have someone to call with questions like, “Where can I get this form?” or “What doctor should I call?” or “What happens if OFII never sets up an appointment for me?” Navigating a different country on your own can be incredibly daunting. Granted, there is the TAPIF Facebook page where questions like those can be asked, but I feel like it would be more reassuring to have some experienced figure of authority around to answer them.
  7. You might not like teaching: This has been a struggle for me. Being a good teacher means being a good actor. You have to get up on stage every day in front of these kids and have something interesting to say. And oh dear lord do I dislike it. I get nervous, I act unnaturally, I feel like I’m going to vomit before class. And of course, I didn’t discover this until after I had signed up for the program. Twelve hours per week can feel like fifty hours if you don’t like the job.

All in all, I would say yes, TAPIF is great if you don’t want to put in a lot of hours and if you want to travel around Europe. However, I think they could do a better job emphasizing the teaching part of it, because at the end of the day you do spend a significant amount of time in the classroom. Furthermore, with all of the nightmare-ish stories I’ve heard from other assistants, I feel like the program doesn’t always accomplish its goal of fostering a love for France in young Americans. There is a lot of room for improvement. Have I learned from this experience? Yes. Will I be renewing my contract for next year? No. Do I have a laundry list of suggestions for the program? Yes. At the very least, it gives us a lot of stuff to talk about on the internet…

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Ca-va-sana

Well, we did it: we survived January! No matter where I am, I always find January to be this kind of cold and desolate month, especially following the holiday-cheeriness that defines December. However, I have to say that this January was not so bad at all. I’ve made a lot of changes over the past four weeks or so, and it’s made my experience here in France exponentially better. As a millennial who spends half of her time on the internet, I’m going to tell you about it à la Buzzfeed.

  1. Visiting friends: A couple of weeks ago I took the ouigo train to visit my friend Anna, a fellow teaching assistant and my former roommate, in Montpellier. Despite the short length of the visit, I had a great time exploring the city and enjoying more French cuisine. Getting out of Paris can be really refreshing, and seeing other parts of France is a reminder of how diverse and dynamic this country really is.

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    It’s like pinterest, but real life.

  2. Exercise: A little while back, an interviewer asked me about the most stressful time in my life, and how I was able to handle that stress. I rattled off this answer about my senior year in college, and how taking time for myself each week to go to the barn and ride was essential to my well-being. Afterwards, I started thinking to myself, “Well, Mary, why don’t you do something for yourself now then?” While riding may not currently be a feasible option in terms of accessibility and $$$, I did start doing two things: bikram yoga and running. I found a beautiful yoga studio that’s only 5 minutes from my apartment and signed up for a two-week trial period. Not only is it good for the body and mind and yada yada yada, but frequenting the studio has made me feel more like a resident of Paris, rather than just a visitor.
  3. Planning for the future: Not only is this necessary for me to do since I’ll need money to live when I return, but it’s a reminder that I get to choose when I’ll turn the page to start the next chapter of my life. And I get to choose how I want that chapter to look: the main characters, the setting, the plot line. Although I don’t really get to choose who hires me…
  4. Changing my attitude: I’ve realized that I came into this year with the wrong attitude. Because of my really positive study abroad experience, I had these ridiculously high expectations for my TAPIF experience. I’ve started to appreciate this experience for what it actually is (or at least appreciate it as much as possible). My best friends and my family still live thousands of miles away. I still don’t like teaching. I still can’t order Chipotle in English. But despite all of these things, it’s still Paris. There’s still room to have fun.
  5. Asking people to do stuff: I haven’t been rejected yet. And I’ve made some new friends and gotten closer to friends I’ve had since my arrival. And I’ve discovered some really cool new places.

Of course, just because these things worked for me doesn’t mean that they’ll work for everybody. All clichés aside, the most important thing is that you do what makes you happy, even if that means only having American friends or staying in and watching Netflix or even going home. Some people thrive in France, others don’t. Either way, it’s ok. The more I talk about TAPIF with people, the more I realize that it truly is a different experience for everyone. I mean, it took me over 4 months to finally adjust to being in Paris: more than half of my time here. As I’ve said, this has been an incredible learning experience. The lesson I’ve learned this time? It’s never too late to turn things around.

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Happy New Year!

Well, it’s back to an all-text post. Sorry to disappoint those of you who enjoyed the video. (I quite enjoyed making it, so perhaps there will be another one someday). I’m writing because I feel like it’s time for a life update, which benefits both of us: you get to hear what I’ve been up to and I get to put my thoughts somewhere outside of my head.

On Christmas Eve, I celebrated the holiday for the second time with my second family (and am now filled with regrets about not taking any pictures with them). When my host mom (technically former host mom, but not really) found out that I had no plans for the 24th, she invited me without hesitation to spend the evening with the family. How does Christmas Eve work for a French family, you ask? Well, first, an hour of mass. And then about 6 hours of food and drinks: oysters, foie gras, champagne, and wine, to name a few. The evening gets gradually louder and the people get gradually funnier/friendlier as the evening continues (maybe it has something to do with those drinks….). Gifts are exchanged, dessert is eaten around midnight, and then cigarette smoking starts among people of every age group (for the record I haven’t smoked once since I’ve arrived). And it’s always a blast. My host family always makes me feel welcome; there’s no other place in France where I feel so at home.

Having Scott here over the holidays was wonderful, and while his departure and my return to normal life were reminders of how challenging it is here/how much I miss him, they also opened my eyes to how much I’ve accomplished since my arrival. I live, for the first time ever, without any roommates. If I have a problem, I have to solve it by myself. If I feel sick, I have to figure out which doctor to call. I can’t call my mom for advice on what kind of cold medicine to get at the pharmacy, because Nyquil doesn’t exist here. I do a job everyday that I virtually had no preparation for. I have to deal with French bureaucracy–this sometimes means filling out the same paperwork multiple times. And all of this happens in a different language. And despite all of these obstacles, I’ve survived. It hasn’t always been fun, but it’s never been boring, and I can’t help but feel a little proud of myself.

In addition to developing hubris (that’s a joke, for the record), I’ve spent a good part of the last couple of weeks hemming and hawing over what my plan would be for the end of the school year. I’d been invited on some enticing and exciting trips in April by some of my favorite friends. At first, I was nothing but enthusiastic about exploring new places. But, the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that there were a couple of factors I just couldn’t ignore when making these decisions. The first was that I’ve been suffering from homesickness lately (ie. most of the time I’ve been here). I miss my family and I miss my friends and I want to see them as soon as possible. The other is a monetary problem, and while not as emotionally draining, just as significant in terms of traveling. Anyway, I realize it’s very unlike me to give up any sort of opportunity to travel. And trust me, I feel guilty about disappointing those friends. But at the end of the day, I just couldn’t ignore the way I’ve been feeling. It’s weird how that just happens sometimes. I didn’t want either of those trips to just feel like obstacles to my return rather than adventures. So I did it: I booked a flight to Boston for April 20.

Now that I have a flight home and an end date, I feel like I’ve also had this immense weight lifted off my shoulders in addition to a shift in my attitude. I don’t have that much time left in France, so I’m determined to take advantage of the last three months I do have here. I’ve been working on making a bucket list of things to do before I go. This includes biking in bois de Vincennes, day trips to Château de Chantilly and Park Asterix, a Ouigo trip, reaching out to local friends more, and restarting Bikram yoga. (Anyone who’s also in Paris feel free to give a shout-out if you’re interested in joining me in any one of the aforementioned activities). I also have the goal of obtaining some sort of happiness while I’m here. I’ve started to realize that it’s not likely I’ll find the same kind of happiness I’ve had before, but I want to at least uncover some version of it so I can really enjoy France like it was meant to be enjoyed (in a carefree manner with a side of bread and wine). 

Having these goals has made the rest of my time here seem less daunting and more exciting. I’ve made it this far, but I’m only halfway through this adventure. Until next time—-

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