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?

SaveSave

embracing the absurd

img_4230

That long, skinny vegetable.

That colorful thing in the sea.

That thing that you close with a key.

These sound like lines from a fun board game, but are in fact desperate definitions I’ve uttered within the past week when the French term for leek or coral reef or lock escapes me.

I can speak quickly now, producing French at about the same speed as my native English, but that ability doesn’t always disguise knowledge gaps: simple nouns and verbs that I missed or forgot along the way. I compensate with long, looping definitions, often punctuated by you know.

“So we bought some…” My story grinds to a halt. “Tu sais, that long, skinny vegetable?” The listener squints. They don’t know.

“White and green, tu sais, makes a good soup?”

Over five years of dedicated language study and I’m liable to get tripped up on a leek. img_2368

Cooking with a friend really drives the point home. “Could you pass the board for cutting things? Where is the bowl with holes in it? I need the thing for scraping, made of plastic.” I sound weirdly literal, like an alien who has studied human life from afar. Either that or like someone who doesn’t get out much. How have I made it this far and missed colander?

Learning the French language has been a first-class study in the art of French absurdism. This school of thought, motivated by nationwide dejection in post-war France, claims that our very existence is absurd. Certainty is impossible. Does life have meaning? The answer is paradoxical: a definitive maybe. Existentialists sometimes bemoan this fact. Absurdists embrace it. It is by facing the void (and often, by laughing at it) that we can reconcile our absurd state. It is still possible, Absurdists maintain, to live bravely. To seek beauty.

I read playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve” senior year of college. This “anti play” employs language that does not result in communication. Thanks to the many missteps of my language-learning journey, this idea of language divorced from communication is an area in which I have lots of practice. img_7425

Set in a proper middle-class English interior, the play opens with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the midst of a strange conversation. They speak in clichés and then are suddenly cold and literal, as if narrating their own behavior. They make statements and then immediately contradict themselves with no change in expression. Stage directions include: bursts into laughter, then she bursts into tears. Then she smiles. 

Soon, dinner guests arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sit facing each other, without speaking. They smile timidly at each other. The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.

The dialogue which follows concerns how this married couple might know one another. Hmm, they wonder. Did we run into each other once, long ago? It seems we are both from Manchester. They deduce, finally, that they share a bedroom, and even a daughter! How curious it is, how strange! Finally, Mr. Martin announces in the same flat, monotonous voice, slightly singsong, that “dear lady, there can be no doubt about it, we have seen each other before and you are my own wife…Elizabeth, I have found you again!”

The play ends with the characters screaming out rhymes, sequences of letters, and one-syllable utterances, shrieking together as the light is extinguished.

But it has not yet ended. The stage lights come on again to show Mr. and Mrs. Martin, now seated as were the Smiths in the beginning. Thus the play begins again, with the Martins speaking the same lines as in the debut. The curtain falls.

I wasn’t expecting my French homework to send shivers down my spine. But this innocuous little play somewhere in the middle of my battered three-hundred page textbook did just that. I was early to class the next day to find out more. img_7390

Funny, creepy, and like nothing I have read before or since, I would certainly recommend it. Click here for the English text and here for French.

When you think about how much can go wrong, the delicate balance of semantics and pragmatics, it’s a wonder that we can even understand each other at all. La Cantatrice chauve takes this idea to an extreme, language’s every possible ambiguity exploited. The results are far from pretty.

Little did I know that I would be installing myself, post-grad, in the Smith’s living room. In France, effortless communication was a thing of the past, replaced by accidental non-sequiturs, wild hand gestures, and desperate expressions. It was only a matter of time, I felt, before I would resort to full-on absurdism, to screaming incoherently into the night.

It is difficult to exemplify the linguistic chaos that I have experienced, for I have tried to erase many of these gaffes from memory. I do have a few recent examples. You need only to imagine the complications that could result from mistaking cheville and chevreuil. These words, which sound fairly similar, mean “ankle” and “venison,” respectively.

Last week I asked for ankle pâté.

My first week in Cannes, thanks to a one-syllable mistake, I asked a woman in a boulangerie if she knew of a nearby store where I could go run a race.

It is moments like these when the absurd is felt fully. I look respectable, I speak confidently and fluently…and I produce a sentence so unintentionally strange that I have learned to recognize a distinctive expression on the faces of strangers. It is marked by a slight widening of the eyes, a furrow between the brows. There is perhaps a reevaluation of my mental state. Those few uncomfortable seconds are an eternity: the time it takes to cross the gulf between language and communication. My heartbeat seems to emanate from my eardrums.

These moments were once agonizing for me. I used to walk around thinking that everyone knew I was une étrangère: my non-native awkwardness surely as visceral as a bright bullseye painted on my back.

It’s not fun to be forced into a starring role in an absurdist play.

Until it is. I took a cue from the Absurdists and I learned to laugh. At myself, at ridiculous situations, at what we call communication.

In hindsight, I see that my seriousness and self-consciousness came from simple fear. There is, after all, something scary and absurd about starting over as an adult, struggling to communicate basic wants and needs. The disparity between my thoughts and the language I was able to produce frustrated me to no end.

Time, experience, and improved language skills eased the fear. But even more significant was learning to lighten up. It’s something I still work on, a skill like any other. But largely, I see my “failures” as funny. It’s not so life-or-death: and why, I wonder now, did I ever think that? There are no French grammar police hiding behind a tree waiting to fine me for incorrectly conjugating the subjunctive. img_7422

Sometimes, even now, a notable language mistake or inability to communicate will make me feel like a child. But maybe that’s not so bad. Babies have a big, beautiful world in front of them, full of unknowns, ripe for the exploring. So do we, the language learners, the close observers, the passionately curious; those of us who choose to implant ourselves into a mysterious new culture and start over: just for the thrill of it. Let’s embrace the absurdity of communication. We need not run screaming into the night.

 

 

To read more about my wrestling with France, try French People Tell Me What to Do: “In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.”

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

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.