Every time I see this photo in my Picassa file I like it more, so today it makes its way to the blog, breaking my usual hard-and-fast rule that a photo must be taken the day it is posted. Joyce Heard’s husband Jean-Marie took it in Nice on April 2nd, just after we had arrived in France. This seems like a decade ago. The couple in the photo is now one week away from completing two months of French immersion at L’Institut de Français.
I have been working with my professor Jean on a French translation of a poem of mine that will appear in the fall edition of DIVIDE, the literary magazine of the University of Colorado at Boulder. I e-mailed the translation to the editor yesterday, and she replied that it looks “lovely” and that she is going to try to find a place for it alongside my original. She also requested a photo of Jean, which is going to be a challenge. Even though he is an animated, gifted teacher in the classroom, he is at heart a lone wolf who dreams of buying an island and living on it alone with his books and his writing. He does not enjoy having his photo taken. But I will give it a try on Monday. Ginger Knowlton, the editor, asked for a photo showing Jean and me together, which would be a great memento of my time at the Institut if Jean will suffer through shooting.
Darlene and I want to speak more French when we are away from school, so we made a plan yesterday of when we can speak English. Not for another hour and a half, I schedule. So I can’t ask her for news for the blog. I’ll say it’s been a challenging week for her but that she’s pressing ahead. She is still dogged by a cough and sore throat, my version of which seems less severe. But the sun has arrived on the Cote d’Azur, so today’s plan definitely includes a rendezvous at the beach this afternoon for some healing rays.
Friday, May 20, 2005
The Big Mistake
Yesterday my professor, Jean, prepared us for learning a small thing. He lowered his eyebrows and began speaking in a low, conspiratorial voice. He looked around the room, as if checking for hidden microphones.
He then said he had spent an evening recently with three French friends and a new acquaintance. Throughout the evening, the visitor spoke flawless French, and her companions were sure she was French. But toward the end of dinner, she made what I have come to call The Mistake. Jean said that even Jodi Foster, the American actress whose French is otherwise perfect, makes The Mistake. Even after Jean had explained how to correct The Mistake, it proved so tenacious that we continued to make it for the next 15 minutes of practice in class. So gather round, would-be French speakers. I will now reveal how to avoid The Mistake.
We will begin with the above photo, which I took yesterday between classes when I spotted the rarely seen sun bathing a spray of daisies, or “des marguerites” in French. If I asked, “What are these?” the answer in English would be “they are daisies.” An English-speaker’s natural translation into French would be “ils sont des marguerites” or “they are daisies.” Eh voilà: The Mistake!
The correct answer to the question is “Ce sont des marguerites.” “Ce” in my digital English-French dictionary is translated as “this” or “these.” So the correct phrasing is something like “These are daisies.” In English the difference between “these are daisies” and “they are daisies” would be small, and both phrases would be correct. Not so in French.
If you’ve read this far, you have shown yourself to be as obsessive about miniscule quirks of language as I am, so I will fearlessly press ahead. There is one situation when “ils sont something” would be correct. That is when the noun following the verb has no article or modifier. The most common example of this usage is stating someone’s profession or nationality, as in “they are writers” or “they are Americans.” Here, it is correct to say “ils sont écrivains” or “ils sont américains.” The same principle applies in the singular. “Il est américan” is correct, but to say “he is AN American,” you must say “c’est un américain.”
It is part of the genius of the Institut de Français method that so much attention is placed on such small matters. And it is part of the genius of a master teacher like Jean that he is able to instill memorable drama in the learning of these nuances.
The next time I see Jodi Foster, I will help her correct The Mistake. And then she will be as I have imagined her—truly flawless.
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Waiting for Fame
Such an intangible quality, fame.
You take the train from Villefranche-sur-Mer to Cannes on a crystal-clear Sunday in France, and you know there will be famous people there. Woody Allen and his wife Soon-Yi on Friday attended the opening of Woody’s new film, “Match Point.” Paris Hilton caused a camera-feeding frenzy on the Croisette yesterday. Kevin Bacon and Toni Morrison have been photographed, dressed to the nines. The train to Cannes unloads a rock-concert-sized crowd at the station, and everyone ambles toward the Croisette, the promenade along the sea. Huge white yachts look like bathtub toys beside Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, anchored just offshore. It’s the middle of the afternoon. You can just feel the presence of famous people.
Darlene and I had lunch at Plage le Goeland, a restaurant on the beach, then made our way toward the festival hall, where people were waiting to catch a glimpse of someone famous. One woman read a book standing on the base of a statue of former French president Georges Pompidou. HE was obviously famous; but, being dead, he didn’t cause much of a stir. We moved on.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
By the beach, we came to an area that was roped off and heavily protected by police. Very ordinary people were arriving, seemingly from shuttle boats from one of the big hotels. Perhaps because of the rope and the police, a crowd had gathered, and we joined it. I watched which direction the police were looking, and I tried to determine the fame of the people walking the carpeted walkway. Was that guy in the jeans carrying the expensive leather bag a key confident of Spielberg? Was the woman with five plastic ID cards hanging from her neck doing advance work for Scarlett Johansson? Our own straining for a better look and my taking a few photos with my Nikon no doubt helped attract others to the scene. It might have been natural to ask someone, “what’s going on here?” or “who are we waiting for?” but that seemed totally gauche. I instinctively took on the demeanor of someone very connected, who knew exactly who was coming, and when they would arrive. After about 15 minutes of this, during which time we made good progress toward the rope as others got tired of waiting, we finally left too. But not before someone famous enough to have a cameraman filming his walk down the walkway arrived. He had curly hair, dark glasses, and a cool white and red bag. If you recognize him, please leave a comment on the blog with his name.
Nearby, a crowd had gathered to stare at a long line of empty black limousines. Each had the lovely logo of the festival painted on it, along with a driver in dark clothes who looked as if he was probably armed. It seemed as if they were waiting for famous people to emerge from the festival hall for rides to the Carlton and other hotels. We got a spot right next to the rope for the limousines and enjoyed the unobstructed view for a while before moving on again.
In front of the festival hall, a large band was preparing to play, and the conductor seemed just about to raise his baton, perhaps for a practice fanfare. But no music was made, and it was getting late for our train back to Villefranche.
To remember all the famous people we didn’t see at the festival, we stopped by the official festival boutique and bought two handsome caps and t-shirts. We also brought home two copies of today’s free festival edition of VARIETY. One photo caption smirks at a line of “Looky-loos” lining the Croisette. But truly, without us looky-loos, it would be difficult to determine who has that intangible quality of fame and who doesn’t.