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, yes...at 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.


Dad said...

Nice. I want to come right now and "hangout". But as days go I'm sitting in a hotel room in Charlotte NC enjoying your blog and your stories from life in Paris. However, I did have a good conversation with a worker in a running store right next to the local Trader Joe's as I was picking up my food for the week. I was told that a wonderful greenway was very nearby, and was handed a brochure with all the details. I'm thinking tomorrow evening may be just the right time. Keep telling us what's happening.

Mel Arroz said...

Yes, just hanging out has some very nice attributes, which we seem to miss quite frequently here in the US of A.

Always good to catch up on your observations & happenings, while enjoying a cup of coffee here in Idaho! Ah yes, "Famous Potatoes"!

God's grace, peace & strength on the Journey....