Archive for October, 2012

Adventures in learnng French

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Lying abed one Saturday morning scanning the travel section of the Globe and Mail, I spotted a story about people going to Paris to study French. That’s something I’d always wanted to do, and so I went on the web to see what I might find. Alliance Francaise looked like my best bet. Its offerings included a one-month “intensif” French course. Its seductive invitation: “Vous apprendez le francase a Paris.” How could I turn that down?

A little background. I’ve studied French on and off for years, but never with much discipline, nor with the opportunity to use what little I’d learned. Deborah speaks French from having worked there on leaving school, but there was no way I could keep up with her. The fact I want to write a book with a French setting – one I’ve been researching for years – gives me added motivation. So I made the decision to go to Paris. With Deb’s enthusiastic support, I’m delighted to add.

I signed up for the course and for the housing arrangement that Alliance Francaise offers. It’s a great deal – a month of classes five afternoons a week, plus breakfast and dinner with a French host. All for less than $100 a day Canadian. My hosts, in an interesting neighborhood on the right bank, are Michel, a security engineer, and Violette, un avocat.

Apprehensions? I had plenty. Would I be able to keep up with the bright young kids that I’d undoubtedly be thrown in with? Can an old guy like me learn something new? Did I have the energy to make it to school every day – plus enjoy at least a few of the delights Paris has to offer?

Now that I’m about to start my fourth and final week, I can answer “oui” to all of the above. My class is largely mid-30s to 40s adults, with just a few youngsters added in. Many are immigrants to France – from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and other European countries. Cleber, a Brazilian bar tender. Liliani, a pretty Cuban dancer. Tjouba, a Turkish book editor. Robert Blake, an American writer-illustrator whose wife has been posted to Paris by Nissan. He’s sold over four million of his children’s books. Our youngest student, an 18-year-old Australian girl. And a bright young Italian man who is studying science po, speaks pretty good English, wants to be a politician. At break, he grabs our professor’s computer and throws up You Tube videos of soccer games and Latin rock. That’s what set Liliani and Yolande to dancing, as you see here. We have fun, and we learn.

And our teacher? Mademoiselle la professeur, Sarah. Bright, vibrant, tres francaise! Also, pregnant, and wants the world to know it.

Of course, one of the delights of being in Paris is the food. And no more expensive than back home — sometimes less so. Amusing sight: Standing outside a restaurant at noon, waiting for it to open (along with a half dozen others) I saw a motorcyclist arrive, park on the sidewalk, and go to the door. Producing a key, he opened it, took off his helmet, and became the matrie ‘d! A gracious one, too, and host of un bon restaurant grec.

How’m I getting along? Conjugations, nouns masculine et feminine, verbes falling out of my Bescherelle, pluriel and singular, dance in my head all night long. I think I’m doing okay, better on written French than aural. That’s fine, as my main interest is in reading French for research. But it’s great to travel around Paris and be mistaken for a native!


A flaneur footloose in Paris

October 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Paris being one of the great walking cities of the world, it’s not surprising that it’s the metaphorical home of the Flaneur – the idler, the walkabout, the wanderer of the city’s streets. If I had more time, that’s what I’d become during my present visit!

I first became aware of the term from the work of Fred Herzog, the famed photographer of Vancouver street scenes. He entitled his shot of an untroubled gentleman staring at passers-by, The Flaneur. My English-French dictionary defines only the verb: flaner – to stroll.

I would like to think of myself as a flaneur, but I am not. I do, however, have a regular stroll that I enjoy very much. It begins (or ends) at the Edgar Quinet metro station one stop before Gare Montparnesse.  In the morning,  I go up rue Delambre to the corner of Monparnasse and boulevard Raspail (site of Le Dome and Le Rotonde, across the street from each other), and proceed up Raspail to Alliance Francaise. On that route, I see Paris in miniature: there is no shortage of boulangeries with their baguettes and croissants, la poissonnerie with Scottish salmon at E20 per k, small hotels that promise rooms “tout confort,”several sandwich shops, and numerous restaurants and bars. As well as une epicerie, un nettoyage, and the other necessities of everyday life.

According to Stephen Scobie of Edmonton, author of “The Measure of Paris,” there is no satisfactory English translation for flaneur. The character probably emerged in mid 19th century Paris, at a time when the streets had been cleaned up and sewer systems put in. Before that, Scobie observes, one would have hardly wished to walk the streets for pleasure: “narrow, unmapped and filthy, often with open sewers.”

Those who idly contemplated the true character of the flaneur have concluded that he (and only a man can be a true flaneur) must wander without a specific destination, being both present and detached from his surroundings, and without regard for urgent business that might require his presence elsewhere. “Unlike Hemingway hurrying to work,” Scobie says, “the flaneur has nowhere to go.” The reference is to Hemingway’s having written of choosing streets that would lead “back fastest to where you worked.”

Presence among, but detachment from the crowd is apparently the key to flaneur life. In 1863, Baudelaire wrote:

“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd … The observer (flaneur) is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.”

The problem is we all have somewhere to go. The masses of workers hurrying from the Metro in the morning suggest to me the work ethic lives on in France, despite what we may hear otherwise.


A walk in Paris

October 4, 2012 1 comment

The American writer Rebecca Solnitt, quoted by the Canadian, Stephen Scobie in The Measure of Paris, observed that “Parisian writers always gave the street address of their characters, as though all readers knew Paris so well that only a real location in the streets would breathe life into a character …”

Working on that principle, let me tell how I found 44 rue du Four, what that address is important for, and how I worked my way back to my hotel before taking a taxi to meet my new French friends, Michael and Violette Lefi.

On May 27, 1942, 44 rue du Four was the scene of a secret meeting called by Jean Moulin. It was to organize a unified resistance movement against the German occupation. Moulin had been the prefect of Chartres and had escaped to England after being arrested by the Nazis. While in Gestapo hands he had tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. He would rather have died than given away his comrades while under torture.

Moulin was sent back into France by General de Gaulle with instructions to unify the quarrelsome splinter resistance movements that were springing up. Out of that meeting at 44 rue du Four came the National Council of Resistance. Later, Moulin was betrayed (no one knows by whom). He died in German captivity.

I left the Hotel Voltaire and walked along the Seine in the Sunday morning sun as far as rue Bonaparte. There, I turned south toward Saint Germain-des-Pres. My walk took me to the famous old church and the landmark Café des deux Magots and onto rue des Rennes. In two short blocks I was at rue du Four, even at that hour jammed with parked cars.

Why so many cars? Because, as I discovered when I turned to go along rue de Grenelle, a busy flea market was catering to hundreds of customers. From there, I went back to rue des Rennes and returned to boulevard Saint Germain.  I followed Saint Germain east through the thickening crowd of strollers to rue des Saints Peres. That led back up to the Seine and my hotel. Rue des Saints Peres is a street that Ernest Hemingway wrote of taking in The Sun Also Rises: “We came out of theTuileries in the light and crossed the Seine and then turned up the rue des Saints Peres.”

You could walk the width of Paris in a day without too much trouble, so taxi rides never last very long. A 20-minute drive along the right bank carried me to the 12th arrondisement where at 5 rue du Colonel Oudet I at last found what awaits when you go through those large, dark doors you see on urban French dwellings. In this case a courtyard, and entrances to several buildings. The Lefis have a large and rather grand place that is akin to a Toronto loft. It fills the top two floors of a three story building plus a rooftop, a toit ouvret, which has much greenery, beautiful outdoor furniture, and a glassed in area with a  comfortable sofa and chairs in case of rain. That’s what we’re having today — nous avons une pluie fine.