Grimentz and grumbles

IMG_3089After my one-woman tribute to the 80s on the ski slopes last winter, I swore that this year I would get new gear. If only to keep up with my husband who is fully outfitted in the latest high-tech layers, skis and boots, including a set of seal skins for going uphill. I didn’t make it to new skis but did manage to get a new pair of boots, the most challenging part of the whole operation.

Let’s just say I have a rather substantial calf. A pair of gams that call up images not of limbs so much as tree trunks, or, as one (obviously former) suitor once said: “Your leg looks like something that should be put on a spit and rotated.”

Getting a ski boot I can actually do up without cutting off all the circulation in my lower extremities is a challenge. After terrorizing two salespeople and trying on at least six different models, I finally thought we had a good fit in a Salomon. Last weekend it was time to put them to the test.

Now that the spring is upon us, the Alps offer my kind of fair-weather skiing. We decided to make a weekend of it on the Swiss side, more picturesque and less crowded than France. On Friday night we headed for Grimentz, a cute little village in the Valais region of Switzerland where I’d been once before for a work event.

The trouble began the next morning when I tried to do up the boots. Either my calves had expanded in the weeks since we left the store or the altitude was playing tricks with my brain. We somehow managed to do them up but I was feeling pins and needles by the time we got to the télécabine.

The view from the top
The view from the top

My husband instructed me to wait while he got the ski passes. He has this habit of taking charge whenever we get near a mountain. He then directed me to the gondola lift and up, up, up we went – a full twenty-minute ride to the top. What the–? I tried to catch my breath as we got off the lift but the air was a little thin. This was not what I’d had in mind. I studied the map of ski runs. Where were all the blues? And the restaurant? Hubby looked at the map and pointed out that we were on the other side of the resort, its highest point. Seemed there had been two possible ways up and we had taken the wrong one. A few choice words were exchanged but I’ll spare you having to pardon my French. I admired the view while he did a few red and black runs. We took the next cable car down.

By the time we got down to the nice blue slopes it was almost lunch time. We got in a few runs before heading for a sunny spot on a terrace where, a sausage and a large beer later, I began to enjoy myself.

The boots were still a bit tight but at least I could feel my feet. We skied several runs and enjoyed the afternoon.

IMG_3092The best part of the weekend was being in Grimentz. It is a picturesque mountain village built almost entirely out of wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire hydrant

Which probably explains why there’s a fire hydrant on every corner.

 

Unlike the French, who so often let their ski resorts turn into concrete monstrosities, this place is nothing but old wood and cobbled streets. Lots of good places to eat, too, and the Valaisans make great wine and cheese.

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more adventures next winter!

 

The dual dilemma

Dual DilemmaPeople sometimes ask me: “Where is home? Canada or France?” The answer is both. Toronto will always be where I’m from. But after living in France for so many years, it is my home. Je suis chez moi ici.

A funny thing happens when I go ‘home’ to Toronto now. Everything seems really familiar. People speak my language, in my accent. I know all the street names. I feel like I belong.

It doesn’t take long for that feeling to go AWOL.

“This is my country, eh? I’ll do the talking,” I say to my husband as we line up at Canadian customs and immigration in Montreal. For some reason known only to Air Canada, our direct flight to Toronto has us deplane and enter Canada in Montreal before continuing on to our destination. Baggage, duty free and all.

My husband and I cannot go anywhere without arguing. He considers himself a seasoned and erudite traveler, and takes pleasure in showing me where to line up and how to do basic operations at those automatic terminals that check you in and print your boarding pass. Most of the time, when he is not overly lording it up, I will listen to his wisdom. But not on my home turf. He may guide me in Europe, Canada is all mine.

The customs agent, a friendly young fellow with a strong Québecois accent, wants to know the purpose of our trip and our final destination. “Visiting family, in Toronto,” I reply in French. He studies our French passports and landing card with interest before stamping them and waving us through. But not before saying something absolutely incomprehensible. The French Canadian accent stretches my adopted tongue into an unrecognizable form of the lingo. I nod and smile as we leave, then turn to my husband for guidance. He may be foreign but his grasp of French will always be better than mine.

“What the hell did he say?” He gives me a look to say, I thought this was your country?

“He told you that he had ticked the box for returning Canadian citizens. I think he was hinting you should have a Canadian passport.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted. “I’m a French citizen now. Why should I bother keeping up two passports?”

“Because you can.” This is one of those silly arguments.

I repeat all the reasons I let my Canadian passport drop: it’s expensive, they have a special photo requirement, you need to have a guarantor. Besides, you don’t need a passport to be a Canadian citizen.

There are advantages to going through customs in the more licentious Québec rather than puritanical Ontario: no one questions our duty-free alcohol allowance. I had duly noted the allotted two bottles of wine on our landing card but neglected to declare a bottle of scotch and a magnum of champagne.

In Toronto, they often bring out sniffer dogs when you pick up your bags. I still remember how I trembled the last time we went through customs at Pearson aiport with two illegal raw-milk camemberts in a suitcase. It is strictly forbidden to bring in any plant or animal materials to Canada. I nearly fainted when a customs agent with a beagle wearing brightly colored Canadian maple leaf came right up to us before sniffing something more interesting in another passenger’s bag. “Relax, they’re only interested in drugs,” my husband whispered. Later, I almost fainted for a different reason when I unearthed those stinkers from our stuff. Never again, I swore.

Once we’ve arrived and settled in, I begin to notice that things are not quite as familiar as they first seem. We go shopping in downtown Toronto and I wonder where stores are that closed years ago. (“This is the Eaton Centre – but where’s Eatons?”). In the massive urban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area, I am no longer on familiar ground. Christmas Eve finds me doing last minute shopping in Ajax, a remote east-end suburb of the GTA where my parents live. It is big box store and shopping mall paradise. I exit the mall and cannot find the car. I stumble around in the freezing rain, cursing to myself until I realize: this is exactly the kind of thing that used to happen to me in France.

I want to go home, like Dorothy. I tap my heels together three times and find the car.

All of this reminds me of a song from my teenage years:

By the way, I’ve decided to renew my Canadian passport.

Happy New Year everybody!

Madeline and me

 

“In an old house in Paris
that was covered in vines,
Lived twelve little girls
in two straight lines…
The smallest one was Madeline.”

 

 

 

When I was planning my move to Paris many years ago, a friend in Toronto introduced me to the delightful series of children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans. I fell in love with the heroine, an intrepid little girl called Madeline.

 

Madeline

 

“And to the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said ‘pooh, pooh.’”

 

 

 

I was enamored with the illustrations that so artfully capture Paris of the 1930s. And with the silly rhymes that recount the adventures of feisty little Madeline, who lives in a boarding school along with the unflappable Miss Clavel and Geneviève, the little dog who saves the girl from drowning in the Seine.

Intimidated by la capitale and its denizens, I was inspired by Madeline’s fearlessness. As I floundered my way around, getting lost and attempting to ask directions, I would imagine those little girls in their two straight lines, walking sedately as French children do. I would picture the bravado of Madeline as she chased after Pepito, the Spanish ambassador’s son. If ever there was a heroine after my own heart, it was she.

When I married my own Pepito, a Frenchman some seven years my junior, and we stood in gilded chambers before the moustachioed mayor, I thought of Madeline and said ‘oui’ with gusto.

And I was further inspired by Bemelmans’ heroine some years later. My husband and I wanted to choose names for our children that would ring well in both languages.

Our first child was a boy and we called him Elliott.

But our second child, the smallest, was a girl. Madeline.

Our daughter grew up to be as fearless as her namesake. Here she is with the lions.

IMG_2080

 

 

“And that’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”

 

 

 

 

Pretentious, moi?

The biopic 'Saint Laurent' is is showing in competition at Cannes
The biopic ‘Saint Laurent’ is is showing in competition at Cannes

Last night was the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival.

I love Cannes. More than anything, I love watching the red-carpet moments of the festival, when French journalists decked out in penguin suits scramble to catch a sound bite from movie stars as the paparazzi flash away.

I especially love hearing them ask questions in heavily-accented English, and then watching the expressions on the faces of the American stars as they struggle to come up with an answer. (‘What was the question?’)

Okay, it’s mean. And it’s petty. But I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of French arrogance long enough, I figure they owe me a few moments of fun.

I also love the live edition of the Canal+ talk show, le Grand Journal, hosted every year from the Croisette, with its star-studded line-up of guests. And where you can expect some unexpected and embarrassing moments. Last night Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth were on the set when ‘les intermittents du spectacle’ (contract workers in the French entertainment business for which there is no equivalent in English), staged an unexpected appearance – interrupting the live broadcast with a political message.

What I love less about Cannes is the pomp and circumstance of the festival. They take their cinema pretty seriously over here. Quite frankly, I rarely watch the film that wins the coveted ‘Palme d’or’ or Golden Palm, the top prize at Cannes. Who can stay awake?

French-Irish actor Lambert Wilson, who hosted last night’s event, said in his opening remarks to the gathered international glitterati that the French were universally thought to be the most arrogant, pretentious and rude people in the world.

I’d love to be able to crush that stereotype. But you and I both know that’s not gonna happen.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of crossing the Channel to take a 3-day writing course in London: John Truby’s Anatomy of Story Master Class, primarily for screenwriters but incredibly useful for anyone who writes stories and wants help with structure. He really knows his stuff and he gave a great course.

The thing about Truby is that he is the Hollywood writing guru – a script doctor from LA who’s worked on major studio productions in film and television. He’s there to tell you what works in commercial terms, to teach the craft and give writers the tools to succeed. He is not there to provide an existential analysis of the art form or to explore the film-making techniques of Lars Von Trier.

Among our group of writers, actors and producers from all over Europe, there were two people who continually interrupted with questions that challenged the legitimacy of the approach. Who looked down their very long noses intellectually at what they apparently considered to be ‘formulaic’. Who clearly thought they knew better than the expert himself.

Guess where they were from?

There are times when I am embarrassed to be French. Even by adoption.

‘Nuff said.

So, are you a fan of Cannes? Is your eye on the red carpet or the silver screen? I hear that Grace of Monaco, which is showing at the festival but not in competition, is terrible. But there are some entries, like Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and Turner from Mike Leigh that I will be eager to see. How about you?

Pronunciation Tips

By USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Barn Owl) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Or how to avoid ‘la cata’

A friend of mine was moaning the other day about the fact that the French never understand her efforts to speak the lingo. An American who’s lived in French-speaking parts for several years, she’s done her darndest to learn the language. But try as she might, she finds herself frequently misunderstood en français.

You know immediately when that happens. The French facial expression goes from neutral to vaguely pained, then contorted, as if suffering a bout of indigestion. If no understanding dawns, in a few short seconds this will resolve into a blank of incomprehension, possibly accompanied by the Gallic shrug and what’s popularly called the face fart.

I can sympathize with my American friend, even though my own experience was a little different. I have a fair accent and initially had less trouble making myself understood (at least as far as the language went – meaning was something else…) But it also meant they assumed I understood them – for me the bigger problem. This unleashed a stream of garble that left me blushing and stammering to decipher.

Learning a language, it seems you always do one thing better than the other at first. Understand or be understood.

As far as speaking goes, sometimes it’s a small thing that makes the difference. A nuance of pronunciation can foil your best effort to go native. In my friend’s case, she has a problem with emphasis. I think this is probably a question of ear. I have a good ear for music as I used to sing, a great many moons ago. So I hear the music of the language. And am able to parrot sounds back.

Here are my top 3 pronunciation tips for fledgling French speakers:

1. Become a slave to the rhythm
Forget the words for a moment. Just listen to the music of spoken French – in a film, on the radio, in conversation on the street. Wrap your ear around it. People’s voices go up and down, although not in the same ways as they do in English. It will sound different in staccato Parisian than in sing-song Provençal accents, but if you get that basic beat of the language, you’re half way to speaking French like a native.

2. Move your vowels
Don’t worry about the consonants. No one will be confused if you don’t growl the French r-r-r right in the back of your throat. But get your vowels right. Especially ou vs u. Try practicing in front of a mirror. To do the French ‘oo’ you really need to shape your mouth like you imagine an owl hooting (I’m not sure they really do this!). Whereas you hardly open your lips at all to do the ‘u’ – just stick your tongue behind your teeth.

3. Don’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle.
When I first met my husband in Toronto, he tried to tell me about going to see one of our most famous landmarks. So famous that he couldn’t understand how I’d never heard of it.  But have you ever heard a French person try to pronounce Niagara Falls? (It came out sounding like some remote place in Africa.) But it’s a tricky one. Not only do you have to get the vowel sounds right, you have to hit the syllables: Ny-AG-ra.

The trick in French is that there’s almost always an emphasis on the last syllable. This is very different from English. Take the Eiffel Tower. We say: EYE-ful TOW-er. But in French, it’s Tour eh-FELL.

(On a recent trip back to Canada I was teased by my brother for pronouncing our former President’s name as Sarko-zee! It seems they were all saying Sar-Cozy, making him sound like a teddy bear.)

Hence, my friend’s attempts to say “C’est une cata” (a quirky short form for ‘It’s a catastrophe’ — something that happens a lot here) went over people’s heads. She was saying CAT-a instead of cat-AH!

Let me conclude with a plea to the French: the one thing, la seule petite chose, you can do to help a non-native speaker is to slow it down a tad. Try not to run the words together quite so much. Give us a moment for the hard drive to register the words, and perhaps a few seconds to capture the sense of the phrase.

Actually that plea probably applies to native speakers of any language.

How about you? What’s your favorite tale of being (mis)understood in another language?