Last September, I realized that even though I was comfortable speaking French, I was very bad at writing it! I had been speaking French with Cyril for months but was still texting him in English- so I deciding to take the next step and text in French as often as possible. Even more opportunities to make mistakes!
I messaged Cyril, Your check deposit slips stopped by! (I wanted to say that they had come in the mail)
So he messed with me and messaged back, Did they say hi?
I wrote, Who?
He said, You know, the check deposit slips!
And then I realized my mistake!
The other day I texted Cyril to bring my leather jacket but ended up asking for my ‘vest to cook’ (veste à cuire vs vest en cuir).
I recently came across an interesting article that talked about how our morality can change in another language and why. Swear words and harsh words just don’t seem as bad in a second language because there isn’t an emotional history that goes with them. F*** seems super harsh but the French equivalent ‘putain’ seems chill to me.
Sometimes when I am joking around with friends in French I use words that are actually pretty harsh. Also, some words are way heavier in one language than their literal translations in the other.
Once, a friend was talking about how he beat the odds because he has a pretty good life even though he bumped his head a decent amount when he was a kid.
I said jokingly, ‘Well you are still pretty young, you could still turn out to be a failure, and you don’t know it yet.’ Everybody was like ‘OMG that is harsh!!!!’ ‘Wow, sucker punch!’ Apparently in French you don’t joke around with the word failure.
Once, Cyril and I were talking about Harry Potter. I used the word banette for wand (that is the word that I thought I had heard Cyril use just a few minutes before) and he laughed like crazy. (Banette is a type of bread.) He said, ‘No it is called a baguette!’ And I was like ‘Haha very funny, stop pulling my leg,’ and he insisted ‘I am being 100 percent serious…’
Banette, baguette, what’s the difference anyways? They are both types of bread.
Can we all just agree that it is hilarious that wizards in France fight with baguettes?!?!
Now I know that baguette wasn’t originally the name for a type of bread. The bread was named baguette because it was shaped like a baguette, aka a stick. **mind blown**
This is an anecdote that I remembered from the beginning of my time in France and have forgotten to share before. Once, I was hanging out with Cyril and a friend in a cafe and I was having trouble following the conversation. It seemed to me that they kept bringing up Jews into the conversation- I couldn’t understand why. I jumped into the conversation, ‘Why do you guys keep talking about Jews?’ ‘Jews? We aren’t talking about Jews?! We are talking about slapping each other!’ (Which is something French people like to joke about doing to people when they say stupid things.) (juifs vs. gifles-they don’t look alike on spelling but they have similar pronunciations)
Last year I joined a club volleyball team. When we played matches competitively, I would get into it and yell encouragement. Sometimes I yelled out the same phrases I would have used in English, translating them directly into French. Occasionally my teammates would look at me strangely and ask, ‘What are you even saying? That doesn’t make any sense…’
Once I asked a volleyball friend if she was going to sleep in the next day, using the expression ‘faire la grasse mat‘ except I said ‘faire la grosse mat.‘ (to do a fat morning vs to do a big morning) She laughed, ‘Wow that is the cutest thing I have ever heard, I think I might adopt your expression from now on!’
Last Thanksgiving I cooked a big turkey for an American feast for my friends. After they had dug into their meal, I asked them, ‘How do you guys like the bird?’ Apparently in French you cannot refer to a turkey as a bird.
They thought it was the funniest thing ever…
At a restaurant once I asked for a magret de connard… the waiter laughed and said, ‘There’s plenty around but we don’t serve them.’
Instead of duck breast, I had asked for breast of ***hole/ jerk (magret de canard vs magret de connard)
Last but not least, once I was showing a class a few slides about American breakfast that I had put together. I spoke in English and then translated what I said into French (the kids have a very basic level so I translated when I talked about culture).
I said, ‘In the US for breakfast we like to eat pancakes, waffles, or French toast with maple syrup.’ However, when I translated, the class gasped, and the teacher stepped in quickly. ‘MAPLE syrup children, she meant MAPLE syrup.’ I realized that instead of saying maple syrup, I had said Arabic syrup, literally syrup made of Arabs. 😱
After the teacher stepped in a kid in the front row, Arabic, relaxed visibly, ‘Whew, I was afraid there for a moment!’
This is the second time I have messed up the pronunciation of maple (érable) with Arab (arabe).
Once again I lay out some of my funniest French mistakes for your reading pleasure. Check out my first blog post about this for more anecdotes.
The ‘Franglais’ is getting out of control at our apartment! Cyril has trouble keeping English and French straight when he talks to me. When he speaks French he sometimes throws in random English words. When he does this I have to stop him to ask, ‘Can you really use that word in French??’ They do borrow a lot of our words, so I can’t dismiss every English word he uses as wrong.
And now French is creeping into his English. Recently Cyril said jokingly, ‘I’m never going to douche again!’ He meant shower. (se doucher=to shower)
So then I get confused and slip up too. One time I said, ‘On va être la bientôt-ish‘, a translation of ‘we are going to be there soon-ish’, but you can’t add ish to the end of a french word.
Smell and feel are the same verb in French. This provides ample opportunities for me to make a fool of myself. One time Cyril and I were talking about a hypothetical ethical situation and I said, ‘I would smell bad if I did that!‘, I meant, ‘I would feel bad if I did that!‘
7 months after I started living here I realized there is a difference between ‘province‘ the word that Parisians use to designate everywhere in France outside of the Paris region, and ‘Provence‘ a specific region in the south of France famous for growing lavender. Before I knew the difference I thought it was weird that Parisians thought cities like Strasbourg were in the Provence region- stupid Parisians! Even so, I find the fact that there is a word to designate everything outside of Paris very telling about the Parisian pysche…
For a long time I also didn’t realize there was a difference between ‘baignoire‘, the word for bathtub, and ‘bagnole‘, a slang word for car. I thought it was strange that everyone referred to their cars as tubs but I never really questioned it.
One day at Cyril’s aunt’s house I was confused by the bathroom set-up. I asked Cyril, ‘Am I supposed to shower in the car?‘ He was utterly confused.
Now I know the difference!
For my French lessons I once wrote a whole essay about why we shouldn’t do away with grades at school when the prompt was actually about whether or not we should ban brand clothes at school. *face palm* (Marques vs notes).
Once at Cyril’s mom’s house, I was helping his mom put away everything after a long meal. I took a bottle of rum and told her I would put it in the ‘cabinet‘. She laughed hard and explained that in France a cabinet is either a small bathroom or another word for an office, as in ‘cabinet medical‘ (doctor’s office). So basically I sounded like an alcoholic. (Let me just put the bottle of rum in the bathroom!!)
We were over at a friend’s new apartment and he was overly proud of his new kitchen organization gadgets. I made fun of him by saying, ‘il est trop domestique!’ A direct translation of ‘he is so domestic!’ Except in French ‘domestic’ is used to talk about animals that are house pets.
When Cyril and I were back in the US last month, we saw some French friends in St. Louis and visited the Missouri botanical gardens together, where I told them ‘It is too hot for Japanese Arabs here!‘
I meant Japanese maples… (Arabes vs érables)
Then two minutes later I was telling them about how my friend does ‘management‘ at the post office. (At least that is what I meant.) Our pregnant friend laughed and pointed to her belly, ‘I’m doing ‘gestation’, do you mean ‘gestion’?’
Sometimes my mistakes make me seem sassier than I am. Recently Cyril asked me where the iPhone charger was. I told him, ‘It’s somewhere on Earth!‘ I meant to say, ‘It’s somewhere on the floor!‘ (sur terre vs par terre) Those stupid prepositions get me every time!
And last but not least!
Once I tried a candy at a market and Cyril asked me if I liked it. ‘I don’t know, it kinda tastes like doctor!‘
I meant to say medicine of course:) Doctor=médecin Medicine=médicament
Last weekend I visited my brother Brett in Italy, where he is spending a few weeks working and traveling around. After taking 2 and a half years of Italian classes he finally gets to try out his skills!
I joined him in Alonte, a small town an hour west of Venice. He is staying with Chiara and Paolo and helping them with their vineyard, La Pria, and their horses. Here is the link to their website
I took two and a half years of Italian classes and even studied in Florence for a semester. But that was two years ago and I haven’t had much opportunity to practice since. Everybody I talked to in Alonte was patient with me and my Italian skills, even though a lot of what came out of my mouth the first day was French! The extent of my regression was clear, but I could also tell that if I were ever to spend an extended amount of time in Italy I would be able to get it back. By the end of the third night I was doing pretty good! Remembering a language is much easier than learning it for the first time.
I love French, but I have missed Italian. Even though they are both Romance languages, they are fundamentally different in character and intonation. French is sophisticated and sexy in a smooth way. Italian is passionate and animated to the point of being over the top. I also adore the way they use their hands when they speak. There is a joke that goes, ‘How do you make an Italian shut up?’ ‘You tie his hands behind his back!’
But I couldn’t choose between them, their cultures, or their food. I just love them both!
I think the rivalry between them is hilarious. Cyril is not fond of Italians. As I was leaving he jokingly asked me not to go. ‘Their wine isn’t even good!’
The Italians in Alonte told me things like, ‘But seriously, between us and France, it isn’t even a contest, we have the best food.’ or ‘France is beautiful, yes, but the people are not very friendly at all!’
One of my old Italian teachers explained the animosity like this, ‘It all boils down to the fact that they are competing to be the best at the same things: wine, food, and soccer, even the reputation for being the best lovers.’
Brett is thriving there. He has the right kind of temperament for language learning because he is super outgoing. Brett constantly jokes around with Paolo and the farm hands. He also has a notebook with pages and pages of new vocabulary that he has learned since he got there. It is an amusing mixture of normal vocabulary, farming terminology, regional slang, and swear words.
Brett and Paolo picked me up at the train station on Thursday and drove me to the pizzeria in town for an aperitivo with Samuele, the man who held the guinness world record for the longest pizza for a year (1595 meters, 5243 feet). Someone from Napoli broke it the day before I arrived in Italy. He is also very proud of his prize of second best pizza in the world. Unfortunately I never actually got to try it. A few days before I came, Brett was initiated into cult of Neapolitan pizza when he spent time in the pizzeria’s kitchen.
After the aperativo we went to a neighborhood restaurant for lunch with some of the farmhands. It was a classic Italian style meal, with a first course of pasta and second course of meat or fish. Brett is already famous here for how much he can eat, and like proper Italians they are basically force feeding him. ‘What do you mean you don’t want a second steak? Mania, mania, mania!’ (Eat eat eat! in the regional dialect) Brett is going to be a heavyweight by the time he leaves!
In the afternoon it rained, so we chilled in the farm house and talked to farmhands and whoever happened to pop in. Paolo and Chiara have a business boarding horses and giving horse riding lessons, so people are always dropping by. I got the impression that in this region western riding is very popular, along with the whole culture that comes with it: country line dancing, American and confederate flags, flashy belts, and cowboy boots. They all dream of the famous wide open spaces of the western United States. Some of these horse aficionados have taken trips to the southwest or Wyoming to tour ranches and ride horses.
It is a facet of Italian culture that I never encountered in Florence!
At night Brett and I ate dinner with Paolo and Chiara and their son Giulio. Again, there was too much food!
Friday I helped Brett and two farmhands, Giovanni and Denis, prune the vines. I figured I shouldn’t freeload on Chiara and Paolo’s hospitality. I have missed working with and being around plants since I have lived in Paris.
The landscape there is similar to Tuscany with its rolling hills and vineyards. At this time of the year poppies (Papaver rhoeas), common agricultural weeds, are in full bloom in fields and ditches.
Saturday Brett and I took the train into Venice to explore and get lost in the winding streets. I adore Venice; for me it is the most beautiful city in the world.
Brett wanted so badly to speak Italian to people, but it isn’t easy in a place as touristy as Venice. Most people hear the accent and switch right away to English which is frustrating. However, we did find some nice Italians to humor us in little shops.
That night back in Alonte, Chiara and Paolo hosted a huge steak grill out with their riding friends.
They took out wine from their cellar as well as homemade grappa and rosolio alcohols. Grappa is made from the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from the winemaking process, and rosolio is made from rose petals. It was the first time I had ever heard of or tried rosolio- it is so good!
We ate and drank and talked until one in the morning, a lovely end to my time in Italy.
Making a fool of yourself is a natural part of learning another language. Overall I am very happy with my progress in French but I have made my fair share of funny/embarrassing mistakes. After writing so much about my students’ mistakes I figured to be fair I should share some of my own with you guys!
Sometimes I misunderstand questions. I feel so stupid when that happens. Someone asks me a question and I start responding, then I can tell by their expression that I didn’t really understand…
Sometimes my accent gets in the way. I say a word just slightly wrong (at least to my ears), and people don’t understand me. One time I was speaking to someone about grammaire (grammar) and they thought I was saying grand-mère (grandmother). They asked me, ‘Whose grandmother? My grandmother? Your grandmother?‘ In my defense, they sound remarkably similar in French. Also, the difference between vingt (twenty) and vin (wine) gets me every time. Those nasal vowels are hard!
One time at the end of a meal I told Cyril’s parents ‘Je suis pleine,‘ a direct translation of our expression, ‘I am full’, but if you say it in French it means you are drunk.
One time, I was trying to explain to someone that most of my ancestors were Germans that immigrated to the US, but I mispronounced the French word for ancestors and instead kept saying the French word for incest.
At a party, I asked the host ‘Ou est la salle de bain?‘ (Where is the bathroom?). The host laughed and kindly explained to me that I should instead ask ‘Ou est la toilette?‘ (Where is the toilet?) because when you ask someone in France for the bathroom it sounds like you want to take a shower. Also, the toilet is sometimes in a little separate room apart from the bathroom anyway, so they might not direct to the right place if you ask for the bathroom.
I used to say ‘Est-ce que tu est fini?‘ (Are you finished?) Instead of ‘Est-ce que tu a fini?‘ (Have you finished?) Then Cyril explained to me that when I ask ‘Are you finished?‘, it sounds like I am asking if the person is done being made, like in the womb.
I make up words all the time. Sometimes I will take an English word, give it a French accent, and use it. This works for some words like immigration, weekend, bus, but not all the words I try to use it for. But I think a lot of people do that when learning another language. It is funny when my students try to guess what the English word is by pronouncing a French word in an English way.
One day in January, Cyril and I were walking somewhere and I remarked, ‘ Hmmm! Smells like firs!‘ In French, they call Christmas trees Christmas firs, and often just firs for short. Nearby there must have been a recycling drop off for the trees. Cyril was unnerved, ‘Well actually, you shouldn’t say that in French. It is an old expression that means someone is going to die soon. Coffins used to be made of fir wood. You actually really creeped me out when you said that…‘
One time I called a ‘crèche‘ a ‘crècherie‘. A crèche is a nursery, and adding erie to the end makes it sound like a place where they grow or make babies. A boulangerie is a bakery and a porcherie is where pigs are raised.
Cyril and I were planning our skiing trip with his aunt. She had offered to bring extra skiing gear from her stash at home for us to use during our trip. She asked me, ‘So what do you need?‘ I said, ‘First of all I need gloves and a hat.‘ I used the word chapeau for hat, but the french use a different word to say winter hat (bonnet). They thought it was hilarious because they imagined me going down the slopes in a fancy lady’s hat.
Even though I have forgotten most of my Spanish and Italian, sometimes random words will come out when I am trying to speak French. One time I asked Cyril’s aunt, ‘Can I please have a spoon?‘ Blank looks… ‘You want a what?‘ ‘Can I please have a spoon?…Oh wait, that is Italian, how do you say spoon again in French?’ I used cucchiaio instead of cuillère. There are certain words, like spoon, that I always use the Italian or Spanish word for. I don’t know why!
One time I asked Cyril ‘Est-ce que tu a mangé le reste de la pain (lapin)?‘ instead of ‘Le reste du pain‘. So it sounded like I asked if he had finished eating the rest of the rabbit instead of the rest of the bread just because I gave bread the wrong gender. Like other Romance languages, all nouns have a gender. They are mostly assigned at random (it seems to me anyway). Just another layer of things to memorize!
Cyril and I were biking in the countryside and we passed a sign that said Maçonnerie (masonry) and I didn’t see the ç and asked ‘what is a maconnerie?‘ Which sounds like ‘my stupidity’ (ma connerie).
A few months ago I had Cyril correct a cover letter that I wrote in French. French is tricky because a lot of words sound the same but are spelled differently. So spell check doesn’t catch my mistakes either. I wrote ‘alaise‘ when I meant ‘a l’aise‘. So instead of saying I was comfortable with speaking French I wrote about adult diapers.
I learn a lot of words by listening to and conversing with French people. Because of this sometimes I learn and use slang words that are inappropriate or too casual.
For example, during conversations with my vb friends, a lot of people I talked with used the word bosser. So I asked one of them, ‘What does that mean?‘ ‘Oh it is another word for work‘. Then I started using the word when I spoke, until Cyril heard me and explained to me, ‘Hmm, you shouldn’t use that word… that is slang, and with your accent it sounds like you are trying too hard to speak French like a local.‘ (Kind of like a guy with an Indian accent saying, ‘Yo, what’s up man?’)
One time I asked Cyril, ‘Can we go check out that exhibition?‘ He laughed and corrected me, ‘Exhibition is when someone is naked in public. Exposition is an art show.‘ And it is hard for me to remember the difference. To make it worse, Cyril ‘corrects’ me whenever I am using the right word because he thinks it is hilarious when I talk going to this or that ‘exhibition‘.
I will start off with some funny things adults have said in English, before I dive into the kids’ shenanigans.
A woman was talking to me in English about the US. She asked, ‘Do you know mes chaussettes?’ At least that is what I heard; it means ‘my socks’ in French. I was confused and asked, ‘Is that a company?’ ‘No, it is a state!’
I was talking to another lady, and somehow obesity and the US came up. I asked her, ‘Why do you think obesity is such a huge problem in the United States?’
She said in a mixture of disbelief and exasperation, like it was obvious,’It is because of the cheesecake!!!! And the BIIIG cookies!’
Someone was telling me about their sister’s ‘sausage’ dog. I said, ‘That is funny, because in English we call them ‘wiener’ dogs.’ And the guy raised up his fists into the air in a victorious manner and said emphatically in English, ‘Like, I’m a weeener?’ I died of laughter and subsequently felt terrible for doing it.
Back to the kids:
In my more advanced class, the ten year olds, I showed them cartoon characters like Dora the Explorer and Russell from Up and had the kids describe their appearance and personality for me. When I showed them Homer Simpson, one kid said, ‘He has got stupid!’
In one 7-year old class I handed the kids a worksheet about numbers and I was surprised to see how many kids made this mistake on the word search… Why make it easy when you can be creative?
I asked the kids to respond to the question, ‘How are you?’ on their personal white boards and then show them to me. Spelling mistakes were rampant… But this one made me smile. One girl wrote, ‘I’m fine, tank you!’
I have to speak French to the kids a lot because they are complete beginners, to explain activities and make the lesson clear and to keep order and discipline. I have improved tremendously since the beginning of the year but I know I make a lot of mistakes when I talk. Some of the 8 year olds are not afraid to correct me either. The other day, I was explaining that they were going to listen to a new song. A kid raised his hand and I called on him thinking he had a question, instead he said, ‘In French we say nouvelle chanson not nouveau chanson.‘ (I had used the wrong form of new because I messed up the gender of the word song) Normally I like being corrected but this was a bit forward.
We were learning commands, and I mined them for the students so that they could guess them. I put my finger to my lips for the command ‘be quiet’ ‘What is this in English?’ I asked, one kid did the action and said ‘Shhhhhhh!’
I used the book ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’ with a lot of my classes. In one class I handed out different sheets of paper with animals from the book to kids and had them line up in order in front of the class, and then we went through the book animal by animal. ‘Blue horse, blue horse, what do you see?’ Then we came to the end and I didn’t have a teacher drawing, so I had the teacher come up and I asked the kids, ‘After the gold fish, what’s next?’ One kid said excitedly, ‘ooo je sais, a black teacher!’
Like a typical French woman, she was wearing all black!
One day we were working on the alphabet in a class and it was hilarious! After working on the alphabet already for two weeks with songs and worksheets, the teacher wanted to make sure that the kids really knew their stuff. She chose names (French names that the kids would know) and spelled them out for the kids to guess. It is a split class with two grades, 6 and 8 year olds, so she let the 6 year olds write the letters down on the board so that it would be easier for them. The teacher said, ‘I!’ A little girl named Annie in the front wrote down the letter A. The teacher saw this and gave her a tap on the head with her yardstick. Annie said, ‘Aie!’ ‘Exactly, that’s it!‘ (Aie means ouch in French and is pronounced I)
Then we had kids choose a name and spell it out for the rest of the class to guess. We encouraged them to choose a name of someone who wasn’t in the class to make it harder, but a lot of the kids did anyway. One boy spelt out the name Annie. She was completely oblivious. ‘You didn’t recognize your name Annie!?‘ Annie smiled the most adorable, guilty smile.
When it was the turn of one little six year old named Constatin, he started by calling out ‘C!’ The teacher interrupted quickly, ‘but not your own name!‘ He gave a start, ‘oh!’ And then he changed his track.
Then we started playing hangman (with French words of course, they don’t know enough English ones yet for it to be a challenge).
One of the little kids made a request, ‘Est-ce que vous pouvez choisir un prénom d’un animal?’ ‘Can you choose a first name of an animal?‘ (first name???)
The teacher chose phoque which means seal (not an easy one to guess with letters). The kids were desperate to find the answer as they were about to lose. One kid asked the teacher, ‘Is it a name of an animal that we know?‘ She laughed and said sassily, ‘No it is the name of an animal that we haven’t discovered yet!‘ The another kid asked, ‘Does it live in the sea?!?!‘ She responded, ‘My lips are sealed!‘
The 6 year olds were not very strategic in their letter choosing. One little boy, Guilluame, the cute one from the dinosaur claw story, always chose W when he was called on. The 8 year olds would groan in frustration and anxiety as the teacher drew another body part on the hangman.
After the lesson, as the kids were leaving to go out for recess, the teacher stopped Guillaume. ‘What is in your mouth?!‘ He didn’t reply and stubbornly kept his mouth shut but it was obvious that there was something in there. He tried to keep his mouth still but he couldn’t help giving whatever it was a little chew. A little crowd of 8 year old girls gathered off to the side to watch. The teacher tried to shoo away the girls and ordered him to open his mouth and tell her what was in there. Finally he relented ashamedly, ‘A fingernail‘. The older girls eavesdropping yelled ‘Eww! Gross!‘ And in unison ran away to recess. The teacher and I laughed so hard. Kids are gross!
On a rainy, gloomy day I asked the kids, ‘How is the weather today?’
The kids raised their hands and responded,
‘It is cloudy.’
‘It is rainy.’
‘It is cold.’
‘It is sad!’
‘Yeah the weather is depressing to me too kid!’
I use head, shoulders, knees, and toes with some of my classes. They love it! But even though they can sing the song doesn’t necessarily mean that they have mastered the vocabulary.
I quizzed my 6 year olds after singing the song with them. I pointed to a picture of toes and a kid said, ‘andtoes’
Other kids had no idea what the vocab was when I pointed to a picture of knees, for example. I gave them a hint, ‘Think about the song guys, you know the song!‘ Still nothing from some kids. Then I would prompt them by softly singing the song. ‘Head, shoulders, …..’ And then they could add, ‘Knees?’
One time was teaching the kids about morning routine (wake up, brush your teeth, etc). When I got to’ wash your face’, one girl could not contain herself. ‘Wash your fesses?!?!?’ She just could not get over the fact that it sounded like the french word for butt (pronounced ‘fess’).
In a seven year old class, we sang a song about weather that had the lyrics ‘It’s rainy in the U.K.’ I explained that the UK stood for United Kingdom. Did they know what that meant? (It is Royaume Uni in French) I gave them hints, ‘It is an English-speaking country that is close to France.‘
They were not even close at the beginning. I should have known though, this is the class where a boy asked me if lived in France or still lived in the US. ‘China?’ ‘Nope that is far and they don’t speak English.’ ‘New York?’ ‘Also far, and a city…’ ‘Florida?’ ‘Nope… Guess again.’ ‘Paris?’ ‘Goodness…’
Eventually they got it right.
On April 4th one of the teachers announced to her six year olds, ‘I have some sad news, this is Erin’s second to last week teaching here. So, she will be here this week and next week only. And then we won’t see her anymore.‘ The kids went ‘Awwww!!’ but one of them spoke up to her table mates determinedly. She said in a know it all voice, ‘I know what this is, guys, it is a poisson d’avril (April’s fool’s joke)!’
The next week when I entered the classroom, the little boy nearest to the door said excitedly to me in a sing-song voice, ‘We have a surprise for you!!‘ The girl sitting next to him shot him a look and snapped, ‘But seriously, why would you tell her that?!‘ He shot back, ‘Well, I didn’t tell her what the surprise was…‘
So indiscreet! While the teacher and I were getting ready for the lesson in the front of the class, one of the kids yelled over to the teacher, ‘But I didn’t finish my gift!‘
She rolled her eyes at me and laughed and said in a stage whisper ‘Well do it quickly while hiding it, but hurry up!‘
Then the kids right in front of us started talking about their presents, and the teacher shushed them, ‘Remember, Erin understands what you are saying.‘
(I have been speaking French with them for months now)
One of the kids in front asked me, ‘Do you understand a lot? Or do you just understand a few words?‘
I smiled, ‘I understand a lot.‘
He puffed up with pride, ‘Well, me, I understand a few words of English!‘ And that is what I love about this job!
At the end of the class they all ran up to me and handed me drawings that they had made.
All in all, my last week at the schools went well. I received drawings from some of my classes and a purse from the teachers of one school, which was completely unexpected!
I brought in candy to give out to the kids, but I made them work for their treats by answering questions. And I varied the questions I asked too, which was even more difficult for the very young because I know that they are used to listening to what the other kids answer and responding in the same way. So when I asked kids, ‘What is your name?’ I got a lot of, ‘It is blue!’ 🙂
Tuesday and Wednesday I took a break from my regularly scheduled life and took a dive back into the world of horticulture. (I just graduated from the U of MN with a degree in Horticulture and ambitions to become a plant breeder.) After English classes in the morning, I hopped on an hour and a half train to Angers, France (pronounced Ahn-jay). Angers is a little gem of a city, complete with a castle and moat. The city center is very old, with narrow streets, sometimes cobbled, for only pedestrians or one car lanes. At the same time it is very modern with bustling cafes, fancy restaurants, small fashion boutiques, and fun, unexpected stores that specialize in comic books, Scottish whiskey, or oriental jewelry. And to top it off it is impeccably clean and though old, not dilapidated.
Angers is the hub for horticulture in France. It is located in the Anjou area which is nicknamed the Garden of France. The fertile river valley produces more apples, bulbs, and ornamental shrubs like hydrangeas than anywhere else in France. The best schools for horticulture and plant science call it home too. There is even a PLANT themed amusement park nearby called Terra Botanica. Seriously this place is horticulture heaven.
And why did I go in the middle of the work week? Because February 16-18 was the annual Salon du Végétal, the largest trade show for all things horticulture in France, and the third largest in Europe.
Tuesday afternoon I explored the city a bit by myself then met up with Corinne Liquiere, the plant breeder from Pépinières Minier for supper. I was put in contact with Corinne through my old boss from the Morton Arboretum, Joe Rothleutner, and she graciously offered to be my guide when I was in Angers and at the Salon du Vegetal. However this generosity didn’t surprise me very much because ornamental plant breeders are a small, tightly-knit group.
Corinne speaks English better than I do French but she humored me and spoke French with me and encouraged her colleges to do the same. For the two days in Angers I spoke mostly French, but horticulture vocabulary is pretty similar between the two languages so it was not as hard as usual. At times like these I am so thankful for our universal scientific nomenclature system! Sometimes it took me a moment or two to recognize the genus names she used. Even though we use the same names, everybody naturally applies their own language’s accent to the pronunciation.
It felt so good to be among people who speak the language of plants! I really missed it.
The next morning before going to the Salon, Corinne took me to see the private arboretum at the Pépinières Minier. They use it to collect and trial plants in a garden-setting. They also use it to show off the grown specimens to consumers because it is tough to know the quality of a tiny tree in a pot just by looking at it! In Angers they are zone 9a hardiness by USDA standards (An average annual low of 20 to 25F, -6.7 to -3.9C.) Normal early spring stuff like Magnolias starts blooming this time of February, because of the mild winter they started blooming already in January. This just blows my mind as a native Minnesotan, because it is so early in the year! In Minnesota we are still buried under 2 feet of snow over Valentine’s Day. That morning it froze and the combination of green leaves, flowers, and frost was stunning.
Off to the Salon!
The salon was organized into different areas in the exhibition hall: floriculture, innovation, production, landscaping, education and professional organizations, and equipment.There were over 600 exhibitors and 15,000 visitors: like I said, very impressively sized!
The innovation area was especially interesting. Exhibitors could enter novelties in one of three different categories to be judged: plant cultivars, equipment, and marketing strategies. Corinne was pleased because her nursery did well in the competition. Their flowering quince won the silver prize and their new brand, ‘Silence, ça pousse!’ (Quiet, it’s growing!) won gold the marketing competition.
Corinne is so proud of her new series of Hibiscus syriacus cultivars, the French Cabaret series. They are the first cultivars that has she developed from the very beginning, from choosing the parent plants and crossing them, all the way through trialing, marketing, and finally releasing onto the market. It took 13 years! That is a pretty standard time for the development of a ornamental shrub. Plant breeding is a slow process!
At trade shows I have been to in the states it is common for vendors to have a bowl of candy to offer visitors. French vendors take booth hospitality to a whole nother level. Everyone had hot drinks and real snack food like biscuits and dried fruit to offer visitors. The booths tended to be a little bigger, with little appetizer or coffee tables for people to gather around. At lunch time, hearty appetizers and wine made an appearance. The uncorking pop of champagne bottles was a common sound. Very French!
I remarked on the difference to Corinne. She explained to me, ‘Exhibitors don’t necessarily make a lot of sales during the Salon, it is more about taking care of relationships with customers and partners. And although it might seem like a lot of alcohol, there is a lot less alcohol than there used to be. They have toned it down in the last few years.‘
Of course there were demonstrations and presentations. I finished off a great day by watching a pretty intense florist competition. Visiting florists had 30 minutes to make flower arrangements using certain materials, like a fish bowl or a straw hat.
I had a great time among my fellow plant lovers and came back to Paris Wednesday night feeling rejuvenated.
Right now I am better at French than I was at Italian when I studied abroad in Italy. Today my capabilities in Italian are greatly reduced which is sad. Between the courses at the U of M and Florence, that was a three year period of my life! After I have mastered French, I hope to go back and try to pick Italian up again. It is such a lovely, expressive language; I would hate to let it go. But I know that the way life is, that realistically may never happen.
I have a good mind for memorizing verb conjugations and vocabulary, but my personality makes me a worse language learner than I could be. The people who are best at learning languages are the outgoing ones who don’t give a wit about what other people think. There was a girl on my study abroad program who made an astonishing amount of progress in Italian. Why? Because she was the kind of person who had so much to say that nothing was going to stand in her way of expressing herself to her host family, not even a foreign language. I am naturally a little bit shy and self conscious about making mistakes. That equates to less practice and opportunity to correct those mistakes, which is how one learns to speak fluently. Often times, I would rather say nothing at all than say it improperly. If I am going to struggle to communicate a thought I may decide that it isn’t worth it. I think, ‘It wasn’t super important, what I wanted to say anyway,’ and I will let it go. In group conversations, sometimes I am self-conscious about everyone stopping and listening to what I have to say, and I let the conversation pass over me. Other times I hesitate and don’t jump in fast enough. Then before I know it, the topic of conversation has changed dramatically and it is officially too late to go back.
A common question people ask Cyril and me is, ‘What language do you guys speak to each other?’ Before Christmas, we would reply, ‘Mostly English, but during meals we have a rule where we only speak French.‘ People always seemed a little disappointed. I know that I would have learned French faster if Cyril and I had made an effort to speak mostly French with each other from my start in France, but I wasn’t ready for it. It would have been incredibly exhausting and inconvenient, with headaches and misunderstandings and too much left unsaid.
In Italy I tried so hard to only speak Italian with my host family. Although it helped me progress faster than I would have, I lost the opportunity to have really interesting conversations with them and to get to know them on a deeper level, which I regret a little bit. Some days in Florence were downright lonely because I was trapped in a bubble of limited vocabulary and unmastered verb tenses.
However, I recently passed a threshold in French. At a party a few weeks ago, someone asked Cyril and me the typical question, ‘What language do you guys speak to one another?‘ and I thought, ‘wait, why don’t we speak more French to each other? I’m ready for this!’ It was a glorious revelation, like a light bulb. ‘I can do this!’
Anyone learning a language seriously knows that there are the ups and downs. Some days I am confident and elated with my progress and other days I despair that I haven’t learned anything since I got here. However, every day lately I feel more comfortable expressing myself. I am definitely not fluent yet, but it is within reach.