Everyone hates their grandmother
Our first day of French grammar class, our professor asked us, “Who here has a good relationship with grammar?” Two or three people tentatively raised their hands. “Ok, so those who have a good relationship with grammar, can you explain why?” A guy in my class replied, “Uh, well she gives me food…” Our professor, a Parisian who adores teaching us how to use beautiful French, burst out laughing and laughed and laughed as she explained she had said “grammar” not “grandmother.”
“What was he thinking,” Aura later asked me, “that the rest of the class is sitting there hating their grandmother?”
Yet, he is not alone in this crazy adventure that is French, in this life called Paris. I may have understood that she wanted to talk about grammar and not my grandmother, but I stumble and put my foot in my mouth just as much, and there are days when I think I cannot speak another word of this language. Sometimes, I feel like it has abandoned me completely; sometimes people speak to me, and I can only stare at their mouths and wonder what just came out.
Yet, there are also days when I wrap France around me and dance.
Kathryn, my housemate, and I have had many encounters in little shops across the fifteenth where middle-aged French men stand behind the counter and praise the long conversations we can carry. Once, we spoke to an eccentric man in an office supply store for twenty minutes about how the world is falling apart. He insisted that soon the government will be installing microchips in babies that will carry all the information about them. “That way,” he says furtively, “The police can just scan their necks and learn their entire criminal record. People won’t need to carry papers anymore.” Not only that, we talked about rabies, the swine flu, the wedding he recently went to, and the differences between Americans and the French. Another time, we stopped into a pharmacy, and somehow the conversation led to how the United States is doing badly but Kathryn and I are really great, and the man spun it into a generalization “all women think like that,” and we thoroughly enjoyed defending our gender and our personalities before we stepped back out into the dark Paris streets.
On my own, I find myself sliding into the culture with a smirk. When Americans stop me to ask for directions in English (they speak LOUD and SLOWLY and use two words at a time like “excuse me, INDIAN RESTAURANT?”), I like to reply and give them directions entirely in French just so I can watch the expressions on their faces and laugh to myself afterwards.
Yet, my greatest accomplishment so far occurred one night when I fell into a conversation with a French boy in the street. In the course of the conversation, he told me, “You speak with a tiny bit of an accent. I want to guess where you are from.” He had me repeat after him the sentence, “La seine est belle mais je préfère la tour Eiffel.” After I said the sentence, he threw his hand down like Eureka! He had the answer. “You’re from the western part of France, aren’t you?” he asked. “Non.” “The south?” “Non.” The game went on until I told him I was from Switzerland, and he didn’t believe me. But when we parted ways, I was smiling because the one place he never guessed was the United States.
“I express myself through carbs here”
The girls here have come to a common discovery, manifest in the apt phrase by Rachel one night as we left Chez Georges, “Oh my God, I express myself through carbs here!!”
French food is incredible. Our first week of orientation, they prepared a feast for us, complete with bottles of wine, to introduce us to the art of eating as the French do. I can tell you, I am the cuisine’s best student, and baguette has become my middle name. Sometimes I am in disbelief that I snack on pastries and wine.
“Excuse me, can I talk to you for a minute?”
French men. We need to have a discussion about this.
They’re favorite thing to do is stop you in the street and ask, “Excuse me, can I talk to you for a minute.” DON’T SAY YES. No matter what. Keep walking, say NO, say, “Je suis pressée.” Say anything but “Yes.” The first few times, I thought that maybe they needed directions or something. However, the next sentence out of their mouth was always “You are very beautiful, I would love to get to know you better.” Bad news, bears. If you haven’t escaped by then, that’s when you roll your eyes and say, “NON, MERCI,” and keep walking. Some men will be more persistent and follow you and ask you were you’re from. Others will try desperately to get your number. It’s worse than the MADD TV skit. Once, I was sitting doing homework by the Seine and a boy stopped on his bike and was like, “What’s your name?” and was like (to myself) “WTF.” Then I said, “Why??” And he was like, “I just want to talk.” I gave him a piece of my mind. You can’t be nice here or the men will never leave you alone. This city does help make you tough, though. My only downfall is that when they open their mouths, I hear French, and I am like, “You are speaking poetry to me, goddammit, STOP.” I have to keep reminding myself that no matter how beautiful the words sound when they come out of their mouths, the actual translation of the words themselves is creepy.
Where were you standing
In closing, I just want to say a word about my birthday weekend. Saturday I traveled alone to Auvers Sur Oise, a small town outside Paris where Van Gogh lived, painted, died, and is buried. It was incredible. You check my pictures on Facebook to see how great the trip was.
Saturday night/Sunday morning, I turned 21 with the Eiffel Tower exploding in light over my head.
We got there at ten to midnight with three bottles of champagne and as the clock turned to 12:00 A.M, we popped the champagne with delighted cheers and some rowdy Australians joined Andrea, Aura, and Rose in singing me happy birthday at the top of their lungs. As I stood watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle, my eyes were filled with the sight, and it felt surreal to be standing there, with new friends, in a new city, feeling so incredibly happy. All I can say is, I am so grateful to be here and promise this is just the beginning of the story.