la culture populaire for the couch potato: lessons in french tv

I can’t stand advertisements. I don’t like being told what to tell my doctor. I roll my eyes at deus ex machina plot lines and groan at laugh tracks. I am a TV cynic.

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It’s nothing noble. It’s just that I would really really really rather read. I am grateful that my parents encouraged the habit. From the age of seven, when I stammered out in-gre-di-ent in a Clifford chapter book I read to my dad, reading has had the power to transport me: away from the stuffy reality of a public bus, the pain of a stomachache, the boredom of a long wait, the torment of a heartbreak. Reading begets pure contentment.

I could write volumes about the virtues of books, which is why (insert irony, that loveliest of literary devices), I decided to start watching a little more TV. Call it cultural research: is there a better way to learn about a country’s values without leaving your couch? Plus, TV is just a little more convivial. Reading at the dinner table can (unfortunately) be perceived as rude. But when everyone is parked together in front of the TV, that’s considered quality time. Apparently.

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After something like a five-year hiatus from any TV besides reruns of Twin Peaks or The Office, I am learning all kinds of things.

Les Reines du Shopping

The Queens of Shopping, my guilty pleasure. In this show, the cheery stylist and trusted fashion expert Cristina Córdula assigns a theme to a week of shopping. Five competitors, all everyday women from age 18 to 70, compete to create the best look. They have two and a half hours to shop a list of Parisian boutiques and twenty minutes to do their own hair and makeup before strutting down a mini-runway, where the competitors judge the success of their outfit and their ability to stay on thème. The women’s shopping is interspersed with comments from Cristina and the other women– do they like those pants? Do they think this dress looks good on Florence (age 43, from Lyon)? Then there’s the finishing touch: the male narrator–invisible–but always full of funny and wryly sarcastic comments to direct the show.

Cristina, who feels like a friend by now, is likable and funny with her trademark hoop earrings, dimples, and especially her penchant for crying oh la la ! and bringing her manicured hands to her mouth in horror when startled by a true fashion faux pas.

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She’s what you want in a French fashion expert (though she’s Brazilian à la base). She’s kind but trenchant, the fairy godmother who says when the look doesn’t work, pas du tout. You trust her. She might point out your flat-chestedness or spotty complexion, but it’s only for your good, to help you figure out how to mets en valeur your best features. I’ve had similar experiences shopping at Sephora or Sinéquanone. As the vendeuse cinches a belt around my waist or runs back with a berry lip color to go with my light green eyes, or even claps as I walk out of the changing room, I feel like I’m in good hands: a little like Cinderella mid-transformation. And it’s fun to see this same trust the expert culture on the screen.

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L’Amour est dans le Pré

The name of this show, Love is in the field, is an allusion to a 1995 French comedy, Le Bonheur est dans le Pré, or, happiness is in the field. In the film, a miserable married man falls in love with a charming foie gras producer in the rural Gers department, finding his happiness chez elle. L’Amour est dans le pré proceeds along the same lines, fostering connections between people from different worlds. It seeks to provide lonely rural people, mainly agriculteurs, with amorous connections elsewhere. It can be hard for a solitary dairy farmer, for example, to get a day off, much less spend time in a city looking for dating possibilities. L’amour est dans le pré seeks to remove some of these obstacles. The host, Karine Le Marchand, interviews the participants and shows viewers their story: how they got to where they are, what their daily life involves, what they’re looking for in love.

The camerawork is stunning. Often, participants live in rural areas like the Auvergne (where I spent last year) that are short on people but big on natural beauty. The film crew captures the region at its best, making it look dreamy: somewhere a tired city person might happily exchange their stilettos for farm boots. There are closeups of farm puppies and cute pigs, aerial views of proud pines or grand dormant volcanoes, screen-filling blue skies.

Interested viewers write the show, requesting to meet the person who caught their fancy on TV. These first meetings are filmed (awkward, much?), and then, the agriculteur chooses the three people who most interested him or her to come stay for a weekend at their place (often a big farm house with plenty of rooms). Unlike The Bachelor, a choice doesn’t have to be made. Often, though, there is a real connection, and the show has led to numerous marriages and new babies.

I’m intrigued by the concept: old-fashioned in that it hearkens back to mail-order farm brides, almost, the tradition of a hopeful farmer who writes for a wife. Yet it’s modern, too. The problem is a little bit new: loneliness and isolation present in modern society like never before. Western cultures are getting further and further away from our food and the people who produce it, and it seems that these people often get left behind. I think it’s pretty neat that this show is working to change that, in some small way.

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Nouveau Look pour une Nouvelle Vie

A New Look for a New Life is your classic extreme-makeover show, hosted by Cristina Córdula. Each episode starts with Cristina sitting on a couch and watching the plea for help of her latest client (or more commonly, their family or friends). Cristina, please help us, they implore. C’est pas possible. You see footage of the poor fashion victim, twirling in one of their favorite outfits, showing off their closet, all ignorance and bliss, while friends and coworkers and spouses discuss the person’s neglect, colorblindness, or poodle haircut. Aïe aïe aïe ! Cristina cries, hands flying to her mouth. Oh but that, ça n’est pas. Po-ssible. What are you thinking mon chéri ?! 

Over the course of the weeklong relooking, Cristina dramatically transforms the hopeless fashion victim into someone who stands up straight, who likes looking in the mirror. Looks certainly aren’t everything, but they can transform how we feel about ourselves. I think Nouveau look pour une nouvelle vie does a good job urging people to upgrade without mocking or humiliating them. This show has moved me to tears a few times.

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Un Souper Presque Parfait

Souper is an obscure, Québecois word that means “supper.” An almost-perfect supper is a reality show where five strangers are brought together to take turns entertaining the others. Who can throw the best dinner party? To that, I say: who cares? Still, I was amused to learn of the existence of this most-French of shows, which asks: did the host choose appropriate apéro snacks? Was the décor classy and on-theme? In the episode I watched, a woman made osso bucco and then had the guests entertain themselves with photobooth props while she prepared dessert. The final entertainment was to go outside and shoot Nerf guns. Between good friends, this could be fun. But five strangers on camera? It was painful to watch.

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I’ll keep suffering through grocery store cheese advertisements, all in the name of cultural research.

But I won’t give up books just yet.

Photos are from a trip to Paris and a Cy Twombly exhibit at the Pompidou. Read more about Paris: Shoebox in Paris. Gypsy Jazz

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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.

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.