Brasserie Le Surcout, Villefranche-sur-Mer

Darlene, a.k.a. Fifi, works on her homework this morning at a sidewalk cafe 10 minutes from our apartment.

While I was at the newsstand next door buying Le Monde and Liberation, she had a moment of hope. She saw a pretty blue bottle on a table next to her, and spontaneously asked the proprietor if she could have the bottle for her little flowers. He said yes, but he continued to clear the table and then took the bottle away. At this point, Darlene thought he was probably going to bring her a new bottle of water, or perhaps a steak. Instead, a few minutes later, after she had given up hope of being understood, he returned with the empty bottle, which he had apparently washed and brought back, complete with the cap. She was so surprised and delighted to have been understood, that she grabbed the surprised man’s arm and said, “Vous connaissez mon français?” He smiled and said yes, giving a thumbs-up sign and saying “Excellent!” At this point, I returned and found Darlene very excited about her encounter. She asked me to take a picture of the man, an official photo of the first person who had understood her French. But the café was very busy and he was waiting on all the tables and the bar himself, so it didn’t look as if he would be able to take time out for a photo, however historic.

Today was a brilliant, sunny, fresh explanation of why they call this the Côte d'Azur . The beach was packed, and we optimistically bought a beach towel, straw mat, and sun tan oil. The deep turquoise of the ocean exerts a trance-like attraction. Sometimes my mind is startled by the scene nearby, and I wonder how long I have been staring out at the water.Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 07, 2005

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Two Scenic Walks

Last weekend, a rare day of sunny weather made for good walking on the promenade along Villefranche harbor. Below, a scene from our daily hike home from the main shopping area of Villefranche. The jumbled arrangement of cars and buildings prompted me to haul out my Nikon and shoot photos most of the way home, as if I were in one of the "scenic" areas of the town. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 05, 2005

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Une Chose Importante

Jean and other professors at L’Institut de Français often urge us not to obsess about getting every single noun’s gender correct. Is it “la” table or “le” table? If you’ve got your verb conjugations right, and you haven’t completely botched the placement of the pronouns, and you are pronouncing words accurately enough to be understood, the French will be glad to overlook occasional lapses in “le” or “la” and “un” or “une.” But if you are giving a 30-minute exposé on blogs, and you consistently get the gender wrong on a word you say over and over, you will drive even a patient professor to strong measures.

That’s what happened to me today.

By some quirk of brain circuitry, I had it firmly in my head that “thing” is a masculine noun. And apparently I say “thing” a lot when I’m speaking French, which is understandable given that there are a lot of things for which I don’t know the words yet. But alas, it turns out that “chose” is feminine. In his otherwise encouraging critique of my exposé, Jean estimated that I had used “chose” as if it were masculine approximately 20 times. “For the rest of the month, you may say it incorrectly three more times,” he informed me, “and I am asking the rest of the class to listen to you, even in the garden, and to report back to me each time you say this word incorrectly.” When I asked him what would happen after the third infraction, he smiled a dark, wolfish smile and said something vague which I can’t remember. Well, okay, it was a good gag to make an important point. But the error rattled me enough that I immediately wrote “Une Chose” on my left hand, and I intend to re-ink the reminder for at least the next few days.

Jean also said that I have developed a valuable habit of correcting myself while I am speaking. “This is the key to progress,” he said, “and it shows you are listening to what you say. You can become your own professor.” He said I have a strong base in pronunciation and verb conjugation, thanks to Cécile’s strong teaching last month, but that I need to expand my repertoire beyond the indicative past, present, and future tenses. My speaking in French is essentially “just the facts, ma’m.” Jean encouraged me to learn and to risk using the subjunctive and conditional tenses to add point of view, opinion, imagination, and emotion to my speech. This is precisely what he intends to teach us this month in Avancé I.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005


I’ve always thought it was dumb when a blogger posts an item saying, “I’m working on final edits for my novel which will be published next month by Knopf, and I am testifying before Congress on the NEA budget this afternoon, so unfortunately I won’t be able to post my usual scintillating entry on the blog.” Gimme a break. If you don’t have the time to write something, don’t!

But here I am, in the final minutes before leaving for the Institute, feeling an addict’s craving to put new words on the blog. It’s as if some part of my life simply does not take place, or disappears into space if I don’t account for it in The Chronicles. Alors. Today I give my exposé to the Avancé I class. My subject is “Où Va Le Blog?” or “Where is the Blog Going?” I will speak for 30 minutes in French, and then answer questions for another 30 minutes.

The class is off to a fantastic start. Jean is a continuous cut-up at lunch, but in the classroom he is all business, conducting the 10 students like an orchestra, spotting small errors and using them to spin out elegant explanations of fine points in the language. My fellow students are from Japan (two), Oregon (a husband and wife, bravely risking their marriage by being in the same class together), Idaho, Florida, Germany, and Switzerland (two).

Darlene likes her new teacher, Patrize. Her class is off to a fast start. They covered in the first day what her class last month covered in the first week. She hopes she can keep up. Patrize had no problem with complicated Japanese and German names of students, but he seemed to block every time he came to Darlene’s name. This seems to be a common problem here; French people simply don't know how to say "Darlene." She has often been called "Charlene," by the kitchen servers and by another teacher, Sylvie. Eventually, she decided to help her new teacher out out by saying, “Patrize, je m’appelle Fifi.” The classed laughed, and Patrize immediately began calling her Fifi and seemed relieved that she now had a name he was familiar with and could easily remember. And so, monsieurs et madames, Léonard has the pleasure of presenting to you his new wife: Fifi!

Excuse me for not writing more, but I’ve got to give a lecture in French on blogging and….

Chez Léonard

Fireworks the other night in Villefranche,
as seen from our balcony.


Well, it’s been a quiet weekend in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Darlene has been resting a lot, still recovering from her throat infection.

I have been wrestling with a new internet connection via AOL after I found out that my attglobal connection left Françoise with a hefty phone bill when we houseswapped with her last September in Cannes. I wanted very much to reimburse her, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Our phone conversation yesterday in French proved to be a ticklish cultural encounter. In my American sensibility, it was a no-brainer that I should pay her the not-insignificant phone charges. But in her French sensibility, this was somehow out of the question, and she let me know that my pressing the issue was bringing her to the point of irritation. I agreed to accept her position on the condition that if, in the future, I unwittingly run up any charges at her house, that she will let me know as soon as she finds out.

At lunch Saturday with her cousins André and Jacqueline, Françoise launched a good-natured discussion of cultural differences between France and the U.S. She asked what bothers me about French customs, and she brought up an American custom which irritates her. When she’s invited to a dinner party in Denver, there seldom are assigned seats at the table. The guests mill around at random, seating themselves in an arrangement that, at a minimum, won’t have alternating men and women, and may also seat people next to each other who really would rather be somewhere else. I told Françoise that my mother, who lives in New England and has a wonderfully continental way, assigns seating at all her dinner parties, but I have to confess that the few times Darlene and I have hosted dinners, we usually let everyone sit where they like. I can see advantages both ways, actually. For me, assigned seating sometimes gives a meal too much of the feel of a command performance, a piece of theater, and so a sense of ease and informality is lost. But I can also see that a host who cares enough to think about seating arrangement is providing a gracious level of concern for his or her guests.

When my turn came, I said I sometimes yearn for the American West’s directness, as opposed to the more elaborate and indirect ways of approaching people here in France. In Colorado or Wyoming, when you want something, you ask for it. You avoid rudeness, but you don’t preface your request with phrases such as “Excusez-moi de vous déranger,” or “Excuse me for bothering you…” I was surprised to learn that my impression of French ways in this area was not shared by Françoise, who said she finds people in general more polite and courteous in Denver than she does in France, where strangers jostle her on the sidewalk as they rush past. I’m not sure André and Jacqueline, who lived in the Denver area years ago, shared her opinion, but they did not dispute it directly.

Jacqueline mimed a very funny version of how Americans eat at the dinner table. She dropped her left arm way down below the table, her shoulder nearly touching the table, while she ate with her right hand. André told the story of an American spy in World War II who spoke flawless German but was discovered when he dropped his left hand below the table at a meal. This lapse in manners cost him his life. Even before hearing this story, Darlene and I have tried to eat with both hands on the table. But I confess that I sometimes cheat, eating with my fork in my right hand as usual, and holding the knife in my left hand as if I am going to cut something, which of course I can’t, because I am right-handed. Now, whenever I am tempted to lapse into American table manners while in France, I will remember Jacqueline’s demonstration.

I just discovered one of the biggest differences in writing the blog in French: Darlene never was interested enough to read over my shoulder and offer suggestions. “You’ve already described how Jacqueline put her arm under the table; just say you will remember her demonstration.” And of course she’s right, soit’s good to have her back as an editor.

Tomorrow we begin the May course at the Institute. I found out from Frédéric, the office executive assistant, that I will be in Avancé I, with Jean as my teacher. “Il est très dur,” Frédéric told me, and I’ve also heard from past students that my new teacher is a demanding one. But I greatly enjoyed talking with Jean at the lunch table, and I am looking forward to working hard in his class. Darlene will have a new teacher and a new group of classmates in Debutante I. We are both jumpy, experiencing the night before the first day of school all over again.

[Update: Part of my jumpiness was dissatisfaction with the flippant tone of my original post, so I am up at 3:30 a.m. revising it, polishing my words in a way that, I realize now, fits more with a French sensibililty. And so I find myself being changed for the better by my time in France.]

When I visited the office this afternoon, I told Frédéric I would like to change my name for the May session, to Léonard. He joked that this would not be possible, because the teachers have already learned my name as Len. But I like how my formal name, the name of my mother’s father, sounds in French, and I’m hoping this little name change will help me dive deeper into the music of French language and culture. Darlene wishes she could change her name, which the French have a difficult time saying. But all we’ve been able to come up with is Fifi, and I don’t think the office would buy it.Posted by Hello

Monday, May 02, 2005

Darlene heads home to La Flora after a trip to Villefranche. Our apartment's front door is visible just ahead of her. The building's owner lives upstairs. Posted by Hello

Sunday, May 01, 2005

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