the land of oz: adventures in digital friendship, pt i

On Va Sortir. When I moved to Cannes, the website was recommended to me several times. You’re new in town. Just try OVS! This site de rencontre, the title of which means let’s go out!, apparently had a lively presence in town. Cannes is flanked by mountains and the sea, so I pictured the city’s OVS page hosting a dynamic community of adventurous people meeting up to get drinks or hike.

And then I typed in the web address.

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Well, looks can be deceiving, I thought. Maybe the fact that they hadn’t updated the website since before the Y2K scare was just a nod to simpler times, a sort of cozy nostalgia.

On Va Sortir. The ‘S’ was stylized to look like a path that led up to a shadowed city, maybe Oz.

I created an account, ignoring my slight embarrassment. I scrolled. A widget on the screen’s edge informed me that today was the birthday of “Coco” and “Tropical Fleur” and “Flyman.” Bright pink or blue type represented the user’s gender.

A little box urged me to type in my current mood, as if the “107 members currently online” had the slightest inclination to care.

The front page hosted pictures of past “events,” which mainly featured people who were fiftyish and wearing feather boas and sequins and other evidence of a tipsy evening spent at a casino.

Mixed in with these photos was the occasional dating ad, targeting those seeking “fun, single, mature older women.”

So this was it. My social connection for the year.

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When I finally figured out how to navigate to the actual event-finding page, I saw there were sorties as simple as a pre-work coffee or a karaoke night (the horror). It works this way: you create an event, along with the number of people you would like to participate. Maybe 5 for an early morning run or 10 for apéro hour at a local bar. You set a time and date and then (you hope) people sign up. The majority are strangers, to you and to each other, and you know nothing besides their gender, age, and OVS name. It’s like a big, messy, hopeful, desperate, platonic blind date, and if it sounds a bit terrifying or like a breeding ground for awkward moments, I don’t think that’s too far off the mark.

The idea is that by connecting people with mutual interests, the site will engender natural friendships. But I wonder if they haven’t gotten a bit overzealous. In the “advanced” event search, I find I can select:

“Gothic.”

“Luxury.”

“I like aquatic life.”

“I enjoy beer.”

“I like Turkish food.”

Unsurprisingly, such searches return no results. Snorting, I can’t help but imagine the soiree that would combine all of the above.

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I pick through some events that sound kind of okay by title, but when I click to read the user’s message, I’m put off right away by the type. Some of these users have typed up event descriptions like manifestos, featuring a diatribe about how this will be a medium paced walk on the beach, and if you can’t keep up, you really should not bother coming.

Many of them are typed in Comic Sans (a font I had understood to be illegal) and boast proud titles straight out of the Word Art program I played around with in second-grade computer class.

I shudder. I am not like OVS people. I am not OVS people. Yet…here I am, reading about Bob’s soirée bowling tomorrow night, checking for an open spot.

sixteen-mile walk: marseille in a day

acs_0044It’s always a bit wild for me to confront the glaring misbeliefs I have carried around, innocent and ignorant and unsuspecting. Why did nobody tell me? I wonder. How was I getting along in this world?

I’m particularly prone to misunderstandings in the areas of pronunciation and geography.

I read like a fiend, which means that my written vocabulary grows much too quickly for my pronunciation knowledge to keep up. There just aren’t enough appropriate opportunities to test out “chimera” or “stygian” in my everyday life. When I do toss out a brave new word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t quite translate.

In the realm of geography, I like to blame my first-grade teacher for my obscene misinterpretation of the compass rose. Somehow I came to believe that “North” was whichever direction I happened to be facing at the time. The embarrassing part is how long I carried this idea around, far past the point of cuteness.

Just a few months ago I thought that Corsica, our island neighbor to the south, was a separate country, and one that I could effectively tour in a day. My AirBnb hosts had a good laugh before advising me to allow two weeks to see this area (definitely a region of France, by the way).

Another misconception: I thought I had seen Marseille. acs_0046

I spent less than a day there on a rushed study abroad weekend trip four years ago, and I checked it off my list. A mistake! Marseille is more than paella and the Palais Longchamp.

I had the chance to visit last Sunday when my friend Rémi invited me along to the Bordeaux-Marseille football match. We made a day of it, leaving early in the morning from Cannes. Judging by the map, the two cities seemed a considerable distance apart, but I had forgotten how smushed together are all the cities on the coast. It took us less than two hours until we were parking near the formidable Cathédrale de la Major, one of the largest cathedrals in France. Before we could get out and gaze at it, though, Rémi took special care to back his car into a corner in the parking garage, doing his best to obscure the huge “Girondins de Bordeaux” sticker on his back window. He was worried about vandalism–even a little paranoid, it seemed to me–but it’s true that things can get ugly, as the two teams have quite the rivalry. acs_0068

Plus, Marseille has a high crime rate and a bad reputation. As you’ll see if you google it, this is no Cannes or St. Tropez. And I was kind of glad about that. I’m not advocating crime, but the string of sweet little towns from St. Tropez to Menton is so sleepy that the most excitement I see on the street is two leashed poodles having a disagreement.

The oldest city in France feels alive, bright and vibrant even on a Sunday (of no small importance in a country that likes its weekends). Upon exciting the garage I saw a wall depicting King Kong terrorizing Marseille: recognizable by Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, largely considered the symbol of the city. The gorilla roared and clenched the Virgin Mary in his fist. img_7657

This was the first street art of the day, but I would see loads more: everything from mosaic trees to colorful fish to phallic symbols (but surprisingly artsy ones).

Rémi and I didn’t have a programme, but I had some tips on what to see from a blogging friend. It was sunny out and we were both wearing sneakers so we walked. And we walked. And we walked. We ate octopus and squid, climbed stairs, peered into dark crypts that smelled of candle wax, listened to the creak of boats in the port, and watched a purple sunset. By midnight (the time we collapsed in the car post-match), my phone pedometer read 15.9 miles. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following in our (often retraced) footsteps, but I had a great day. Marseille won a new fan, and not just in soccer.

Have you been to Marseille? What were your impressions?

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how to swallow a frog

Speaking Italian is like trying to swallow a frog.

Not in a bad way.

It’s just new. A formidable challenge for my English, French-ified brain. The unfamiliar rolled r’s and smooth vowels might leap from my mouth at any moment.

The nasal ‘u’ I’ve spent so long perfecting in French, the guttural ‘r’ I’m proud of– all of it has to go.

My Italian tutor has me read long pages of text about interior design, the hunting instincts of cats, and the inner workings of the brain. I stumble over sterilizzazione, momentaneamente, diffusissime and he reads the sentence back to me flawlessly, savoring the rolled r’s like a fine beverage. My r’s are subtle and the result of careful concentration. They expire in about a fourth of a second, no match for Gianluca with his breezy norrrrrmale and cacciatorrrrre.

The man luxuriates in the beauty of his language. I respect that, and firmly will my stolid Germanic tongue to participate.

My Italian tutor is a bespectacled, middle-aged Milanese who possesses a voice fit for radio and a symphony of hand gestures. He’s tall, I think…but I’ve only ever seen him seated at a desk. We talk over Skype twice a week for an hour, Sancha the cat occasionally sniffing at the camera.

I found Gianluca on Le bon coin, a French Craigslist. Among the baby clothes and tires was his annonce proposing ten lessons for a bizarrely low price.

Somehow it wasn’t too good to be true. And here I am three months later, a happy amateur with enough knowledge to get around (proven in Florence last month). A year with Gianluca, and I think I’ll really know my stuff.

There is such a thing as teacher-student chemistry when it comes to learning. Gianluca and I were a great match.

Success in language-learning is directly linked to how much of un clown you’re willing to be. It’s like dancing. If all you can think about is how silly you look, it shows. But if you’re thinking about how much fun you’re having–not thinking at all–that shows too.

I’m more than willing to look silly (whatever helps my brain build those neural pathways) and since I think speaking a foreign language is one of the most rewarding kinds of fun, I have plenty of motivation. Gianluca is always ready with some challenging activity to make me think on my feet.

From the first day, he had me reading paragraphs about the disputed origins of the pizza margarita. I didn’t even know what Italian was supposed to sound like, not beyond exaggerated caricatures–mamma mia! ciao beeella!

And he wanted me to read. Off I went, in an accent cobbled together from Mario, a few words my family has tossed around the dinner table, and Cher in Moonstruck. Pronunciation was a mystery. What sound does ‘e’ make in the wild? Which c’s sound like chh?

At first I hesitated. But he knew I didn’t know, and he was waiting. It was freedom to guess, to just try, sans consequences.

Sì,it was probably very ugly. But it was exhilarating. Already I was speaking Italian! Sentence by sentence, I felt things clicking into place, my mind sorting all the new information.

Language learning delights me with its disciplined magic. I love that committing the ‘to be’ conjugations to memory and repeating sentences like “the friends are going into town to eat a good pizza” will one day result in communication.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve been here with French, yelling “the grass is green! The grass is green!” as I wait for Rosetta Stone to register the phrase.

As an added bonus, my lessons have taught me about my own students. How does Gianluca expect me to remember that, I’ll think. We talked about it once! And then I’ll think, a little guiltily, about how I do that with my classes, and often. What I have sometimes taken for obstinance or indifference on their part might just have been information overload.

I have twenty years on them, but becoming the pupil again taught me empathy. Classes went better once the teacher had her own days of the week to memorize. Lunedì, martedì…

I gave them a lot more time and space to think and remember. I started defining success a different way, one that fit their abilities. I became genuinely excited when they met the little goals I used to take for granted.

Consider me humbled. And isn’t that what learning a foreign language is all about?

 

Photos are from a trip to Menton, France. Click to see the post.

sleeping with strangers

I have a new favorite patisserie. Cannoli. Good cannoli, I must specify, cannoli assembled in front of you: tangy ricotta spooned into a crispy, fried shell and dipped in tiny chocolate chips or chopped pistachios.  

Cannoli tastes even better accompanied by a view of the Duomo, a cup of espresso, and a light rain. To fully appreciate the warmth of the moment, I would recommend trying the cannoli after the worst sleep of your life. It worked for me.

It was early January and my friend and I had been in Florence for a week. Our simple breakfast was picture-perfect, while behind the camera we sat bleary-eyed and bewildered, numbly chewing. We looked like we’d gotten dressed in the dark–and we had.

Let me explain. We had slept in a hostel: booked last-minute and chosen because of money constraints. It would allow Travis and I to stay a few more days in Florence and celebrate the New Year in a city I’d come to love in just a week.

I didn’t have much experience with hostels. Once I’d stayed in a Parisian hostel. I’d had a bright, white room, a big bed I’d shared with no one, clean crisp sheets.

This time around, I wasn’t expecting glamour, but, I also wasn’t expecting this.

In the rain (only rain, that week), Travis and I located the hostel after a lot of searching. It was on a seedy street near Mercato Centrale. We lugged the bags up three flights and saw a handwritten sign with the name of the hostel. The manager, a tall man with dark hair who didn’t seem to speak much English or Italian, met us at the door after a lot of knocking. He looked uneasy, reluctantly beckoning us inside.

He led us to the room. “One sleep there…” he waved vaguely. “One there.” This was no chocolate-on-the-pillow establishment. No, this smelled like feet. Our sheets, nubby from prior use, lay in bundles on the beds.

A single bare lightbulb, the sole light-source, burned from one corner of the room, lending a distinctive basement vibe. The windows, shuttered in the middle of the day, did little to impede the streetnoise: even four stories up, it sounded as if we were standing in il mercato centrale

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We followed our host to the kitchen: a long, skinny room with some cabinets and a fridge to which several passive-aggressive messages were affixed. On the table stood an open box of cornflakes. Was this the “free breakfast” we’d been promised?

The man interrupted my thoughts with a brusque: “You pay tomorrow?” We wouldn’t be leaving until the day after. “Uh, sure,” I said.

“What time? Cash only. Cash only!” He wrote the total down on a napkin and handed it to me.

I walked back to the room and looked around, sufficiently disillusioned. So this was it, the space we’d be sharing with six strangers for the next several days.

The other guests’ portable lives were stashed next to their beds or hanging out of the wall of lockers. There were phone cords, sweaters, bookmarked novels, and pajama pants. I saw a half-eaten bag of cookies on a nightstand and briefly considered what would happen if I ate one.

What would stop any of us from doing anything? How strange, this concept of forced intimacy and trust.

After a look in the bathroom (better erased from memory), Travis and I got out of there in a hurry.

That night I lay on my thin mattress and tried to will myself to sleep. It wouldn’t be easy: a bedspring cut into my spine. If I just concentrated, breathed deeply– just when sleep was on the periphery, someone crashed into the room, flicking on the reddish lightbulb mere feet away from my top bunk.

The night passed in a cacophony of street noise, snoring, buzzing cell phones and squeaking bedsprings. Every time one of us moved, an ugly eeeech erupted from the respective bunkbed, rendering the particularly restless among us Public Enemy Number 1.

Individual halos of cellphone light shone out from some of the beds. Others took phone calls or rustled around in the lockers: a sound like the antics of a large, particularly irksome rat.

By morning, I had identified a few enemies. Of course, they were none the wiser– I hadn’t even seen these people by daylight.

I stumbled to the bathroom where I discovered all the lights had burned out. Travis shone a penlight while I brushed my teeth. We grabbed some clothes at random and stumbled like drunks to the cafe.

At breakfast, we grumbled and talked a big game.

I would have been better not sleeping at all.

I refuse to pay for this.

We are not staying another night.

Of course we did, though. It was New Year’s Eve and there were no other remotely affordable options.

Quickly exhausted because we hadn’t slept, we returned to the hostel in the afternoon. There I talked with some of the other travelers. There was Mohammed from Togo, whom I spoke to in French. We listened to some Stromae songs and had an impromptu dance party. We had the teaching thing in common: except he was in Italy teaching French, spending his vacation traveling around the country.

Damien, from England, was an experienced hostel-goer. He was taking some time off from “uni” to travel around and work on a novel, he told me. He picked Florence at random: thinking all the art might inspire him.

There were a few Spanish students who were living in Paris and studying French. Altogether we formed quite the blend of cultures, origins, and reasons for starting out the new year in this pit of a hostel.

Sitting on my bed, I hummed Darth Vader’s theme–”The Imperial March”–annoyed because it had been stuck in my head for days (I don’t even like Star Wars). Damien, clearly the entertainer of the group, rummaged around in his things and pulled out a recorder: the instrument everyone “learns” to play in elementary school. He started playing the somber Star Wars song, the reedy notes wheezing and whistling in the air. It was shockingly atonal, pathetically bad, and absolutely the perfect fit for our surroundings. The room erupted in laughter.

I had tears in my eyes. Why does he even have that?! Sitting on the squeaking bed, my legs swinging over the bunk, I surprised myself by thinking: this really isn’t so bad.

There was something special about my first taste of real hostel culture: not so much the revolting bathroom and the torturous nights of sleep, but the summer-camp-camaraderie of it all. The way we were united by thrift, desperation, and dreams.

True travel, by my definition, makes you a little bit uncomfortable. This was true travel ten times over. I have learned to check hostel reviews before I book. I have also learned I am craving more travel like this: gritty instead of carefully-edited. Just, maybe, with a decent bed and a working light in the bathroom.

 

the goldfish bowl

Just when I felt pretty comfortable with my role teaching English classes to French primary school children, life (or rather, the French Ministry of Education) handed me something new: a job at a maternelle in les banlieues of Cannes.

My new students range from barely three to six years old. The oldest are wonderfully curious, asking questions that inspire future lessons. The youngest struggle to hold pencils and blow their noses–quite the change from the fifth graders I taught last year. One thing I enjoy about this job is the simple preparation it requires: no more writing activities, no more neatly organized cahiers.

But it’s not an easy trade. With this age, we cover material at the pace of an escargot. The days bleed together like the watercolors in the art room.

Recently I wrote about how language-learning feels like a study of absurdism. Teaching, were it paralleled by a French art movement, would belong squarely to Surrealism. Time glitches like a stuck record. Repetition to make you doubt reality. I have lived this day before.

How many times have I explained that sequence of sounds, played that song, showed that same dumb picture of a rainbow? And they remember nothing? C’est pas vrai.

The little melodies in my head, purposefully catchy to increase language retention, become a soundtrack to the sameness. If I have to listen to the soul-killing “If You’re Happy” one more time…

A woman at the training day I attended in Nice called all this the goldfish bowl. I hadn’t made this analogy with teaching before, but she was right. Teaching this age often feels like swimming in circles with the same view: a monotony that is dizzying.

She had leaned forward, confiding. “I could never do it. I would go mad.”

I was relieved that someone understood. “Oh, I’m about to.”

They don’t learn they don’t learn they don’t learn. I am going to lose my mind, perhaps releasing a Munchian scream. “The Rainbow Colors Song” will sound like a death knell.

And then they do learn.

In little bits. Enough to motivate me, but just. It’s one child remembering a new vocabulary word or just gathering the courage to speak at all. It’s the way they run up to me in the halls and point at nearby objects, yelling out English colors they know. Jessica! Ça c’est blue, et ça c’est green, et mon tee-shirt c’est pink! 

It’s the delightful connections they make. Singing “Rain Rain Go Away,” a class of five and six-year-olds likened come on back another day to Camembert another day. (I did mention they’re French?) “It’s just un petit peu différent,” they told each other.

It’s a collection of little things: a lively conversation in the staff room, even my morning croissant amande– the boulangerie’s warm air and cheerful coin clatter providing calm before the storm of l’école.

It’s the sweet way the kids are still delighted and intrigued by my presence– and how a few of them think my name is English.

Regarde! It’s English! Where are you going, English? 

They are a bit confused about my age, too. Some ask if I’m married and have kids, while others ask if my mom’s coming to pick me up. Well, neither. And I’m confused too. Welcome to your twenties.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it to you,” I said to a group of six-year-olds last week, anticipating their shock, “but I’m still young, you know. I’m 23.”

Their wide eyes.“Vingt-trois !?” They didn’t know people could live that long.

One day this week I walked outside to spend one of the recess periods with them. They swarmed me, asking when they would get to come to English class again. Before long, a game commenced. One little girl sat on a bench and pretended to be la maîtresse d’anglais–me–while several other children, all from different classes, sat crossed-legged on the ground. “Hello, everyone,” she said in French, “it’s time for English. What should we sing today; who has an idea? No, raise your hand.” She led the group in a rousing round of “Hello, Hello, How are You?” complete with hand gestures.

That alone made my work worth it for that day (and probably for longer). I just need to remember those moments: my reason, for now, to keep swimming.