Friday, February 29, 2008

There's no place (like) home

Late night in Paris, and I am meditatively chewing on the the remnants of a marvelously grainy loaf that served as our daily bread. The apartments across the courtyard are unusually black for this hour, which I attribute to the ski mean "study week" that students (and teachers) all over France will enjoy this coming week. It's quite still.

All of this quiet has got me thinking again about home. What does it mean? One of our good friends decided this week to leave France and go home four months earlier than planned. In the same evening, another friend talks about never having connected with the backward ways of his hometown, and talks about finding a home in Paris. I can relate. Facebook asked for my "hometown", and in a fit of cuteness, I put "Paris". (That was five years ago.) I do a double-take every time the word flies out of my mouth and wonder. When we went to the cinema a couple of weeks ago to see the film Juno, we supposedly saw home. Is this really a place?

Another odd sentence I heard issuing from my over-eager mouth was that "home had recently come to visit". Of course, I was referring to Karl's mom and dad - Pam and Jerry - who spent a week with us exploring city in which we live. They brought affection, news, photos, greetings, a computer, face lotion, tortillas, ad generousitum* - a real slice of Minnesota. In grateful turn, we whispered to Paris to spread her faithful table of good food and beauty for our guests. A reverent s'il vous plait always helps in these matters. She responded favorably.

We wandered through the oldest quartier of Paris, the Marais, and ducked in and out of fancy specialty shops, a famous Jewish restaurant and deli called Marianne's, poked our heads into the courtyards of former mansions. Someone once called these places home. Victor Hugo, for example - Karl and Jerry are nonchalantly strolling past his former digs in the Place des Vosges.

We didn't always have to go too far afield, either, to experience new little wonders. Walking home from the Sunday market, we discovered a tea house right in the neighborhood. "L'oisive de the" means "the idle woman of tea", which sounded promising, given the sunny, lazy afternoon. We basked in the warm circle of sunlight, partook of excellent tea, and some top-notch goodies from the kitchen. The atmosphere was generous and homey.They actually served the tart with a little sorbet. (Is this breakfast or dessert - I've lost track...)

In Paris, the bateaux mouches cruise up and downstream day and night, giving tourists a unique perspective on the city. Residents tolerate them, sometimes politely, sometimes not (I once saw a French high school student moon an entire boatful). Karl and I had never ventured aboard, but we figured it was about time when his folks proposed it. The city layout comes into sharp focus, and we only wished we had gone earlier during our stay! We we were treated to the City of Lights by daylight and bridge light, since our tour straddled the sunset.

I've proposed this before, I think, but I'm starting to believe that home is not necessarily where your hat but rather where heart hangs. In that case, we've got quite a few home ports to pull into.

* Please do not take my Latin seriously.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hanging out

-I goed to the cinema with my friends.
-You went to the cinema?
-Yes, yes - went there.
-So, did you hang out afterwards?
-Did you hang out with your friends afterwards?
[blank stare]
-Did you spend time with them?
-Oh, a coffee.
-Oui, cafe.

Ah, colloquialisms. There never was a more surefire way to gauge an incoming class in terms of their level of English. By the time my students reach my college classroom, they have maneuvered their way through the French high school system and somehow emerged with their desire to learn still intact. Really, it's a miracle. Second-language classes at the secondary education level are notorious for focusing on what many believe to be...well, secondary skills. These pupils can rattle off all of the irregular verbs faster then you can say "outcome-based education", but they seem singularly incapable of creating a sentence which contains one such verb. They have learned conjugations in long lists by rote, but if I ask them what they did over the weekend, they say things like "I goed". They have never been asked to use their English OUT LOUD. Some come to college very proud of their past accomplishments (i.e. good memorizer = good grades), and are hurt and indignant when asked produce some of the language on the spot. More than once, I have had a chat with a crestfallen student who realizes that they still have a long, long way to go. But luckily for them, they have bright minds, second-language skills have a steep learning curve, and we're right as rain in a few weeks, talking about how we "hung out" with our friends at a "cafe". Maybe even "chilling".

Of course, when it comes down to it, we're talking about some classic French pastimes. On any given sunny afternoon, you can go to the Jardin de Luxembourg, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Jardin de N'importe Quoi, and find hundreds of Parisians doing...nothing. They stroll around nonchalantly, sit and smoke, sun themselves, read the paper, and just "hang" - like so many extras in a film. When it is time to shift the scene, they stand up, walk down the street to a cafe, and pick up right where they left off.

In my case, it was page 141 of the book I've been enjoying for the past few weeks. It's a rum sort of read, all about two lovers who live about a four-days' journey apart and yet pine and moon away, resigned to their separation as if they can't do anything about it. It's medieval and illogical and just I love it. Anyways, last Saturday, I had just gotten to the part where the lover explains that he's been praying to the God of Love for a woman for years and years (oh, woe!), when a shifty-eyed, scruffy gentleman approached my chair and started talking to me. His words were incessant, like a water from a faucet. Every once in a while, the steady stream would be reduced to a dribble, and I would suddenly realize that he had asked me a question. What was I reading. I showed him the cover. Oh, he liked medieval literature. (Uh-huh.) He didn't know it...was it "erotique"? (Oh great, here we go.) I was mentally calculating how to extract myself from this annoying situation with the least amount of fuss possible, when something extraordinary happened.

He turned his face melodramatically to the sky and began to lament. Oh, the pain. God had not seen it fit to send him a lady yet, despite many, tearful prayers. I watch the scene unfold with my mouth half-open, and suddenly realized that this shabby park rat had been transformed into the character in my story. Life met fiction and said "hello".

Of course, eventually he snapped out of his monologue and remembered the other part he was supposed to be playing. After he started bugging me about selling me something (not quite sure what...?) that he had in his backpack, I firmly wished him a "good day", and went on my way. I was put out about losing my sunny spot, but still marveled at the odd encounter. It seems as if Parisians are either way-too-friendly, or not friendly enough.

This is not only the point-of-view of foreigners, I am finding. This past week, I had an extremely enlightening conversation with the coffee roaster down the street where we buy beans. She is French, but lived in Montreal for her studies. When she returned home, she found the people in Paris to be utterly insufferable. You walk down the street, and you are completely dévisagé (literally, "un-faced" - though translated as "stared at"). Another woman heard our discussion, sidled up to the counter, and was soon citing Americans as being so much more welcoming than the glacial Parisians.

A funny reversal of cultural roles ensued, during which I defended the French, gently offering a number of examples in my daily life. There are the bakers that know our favorite loaf, the veg stand that always gives us an extra "cadeau" (ca-DOH, gift) or two, the fruit guys that gave us bananas "on credit" last week ("pay me next time"), Michel our faithful cheese guy whose friendship prompted Christmas cookies on our part, the gardienne in our apartment building who will dole out aspirin or coffee from her own cupboard when needed or help us puzzle over French tax documents, the wine guy who says hello when I see him in the street, and of course the amazing community of people that make up our church. It's quite a cast of characters in our Paris life - plenty of faces that don't "un-face".

Of course, the two women thought that was nice and all, but continued to rail on the French for a while. We concluded with the mutual agreement that well, at least there was a coffeeshop in the neighborhood where we could go and while away about forty minutes talking with the proprietor. You know, just hanging out.