Friday, June 9, 2017

Est-ce Que Tu Parles Français?



I learned about the Franco Center from the local newspaper -- a wonderful article about the surprising but quite magical social gatherings that were filling a void in the lives of elderly people and refugees living in Lewiston, Maine. The groups that come together to chat informally in the beautiful old St. Mary's church

where the center is housed are likely to include people who grew up in the area speaking French but who have lost touch with other native speakers and also recent immigrants from countries in Africa where French was their native language.

The Franco Center also hosts formal language classes for children, for beginner adults, and classes held completely in French for the more advanced, what are called French reacquisition classes. People who sign up for the reacquisition class were once literate, but need a boost to recall what was once second nature. I am taking the adult beginners class, although I am not really a beginner; I had French in school from 7th grade through graduation, but I was never fluent. I have discovered that I still have a fairly decent vocabulary, but I can't carry on a meaningful extended conversation -- which I would dearly love to be able to do.


Our teacher, Vanessa, born of Belgian parents but raised in Quebec, is wonderful. She is a big-hearted person who encourages all of us, and never makes those who are struggling feel inadequate. Each attempt at communication, no matter how faltering or laden with English 'helper' words is celebrated with triumphant flourishes and great cheer. She has a quick and ready sense of humor -- ie, she laughs at my jokes -- and although she agreed to let me photograph her, became self-consciously giggly when she realized I was aiming my camera at her.


 The others in class include an assistant who is sitting in, to learn how Vanessa teaches. This woman is in her 30s, I am guessing, and wears what I understand as traditionally Muslim clothing. She is from North Africa but I do not know why she is in Lewiston. She seemed quite proper and almost scholarly in the first class, but now she has no hesitation to join us in our ongoing beginners-French silliness. One of the sources of amusement is that of the roughly seven or eight women in the class -- the number fluctuates from week to week -- four of us are named Susan. Vanessa calls on us with great merriment: "Donc, Suzanne numero deux, comment dit..."; "et... Suzanne numero quatre, combien d'enfants as-tu?"

Of the regulars who so far have shown up for almost every class and thus who I have learned a bit about, there is a young man named Zane; a young black woman who speaks Italian and English, but who travels a lot for her job and wants to learn French; three Susans in addition to me, two of whom worked together for 25 years; a man named Ray who has a really tough time remembering how to say anything; and a man about my age named George who speaks fluently and very fast, and in a very difficult-to-understand Franco-Canadian accent. George is not at all literate in French, but has decided that he wants to learn how to read it. He grew up in Lewiston, and as a kid all his family, all his neighbors, all his school-age friends spoke French. Now he has no one to speak French with except his wife, and they only used it when their children were young, when they wanted to say secret things to each other. Finally, there is Dan, who did a few tours in Afghanistan and now is a fireman. He has had a rough and tumble life I think, but he has a very soft spot for his grandpére, and wants to refine his command of French in order to honor Pépé's memory.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

I Digress

Planning for this trip to Paris, a trip unlike any I have ever taken before, has stimulated memories of my first trip to Europe, which of course included Paris.

I am not proud of some of the details of how I actually made it to Europe, but I was only 23, and although the emotional jury and judge may still be ruminating, I think it is likely that the potential for any other legal consequences has long since expired.

I got married when I was still in college, 21 years old. Believe me, the circumstances and sequellae of that decision are a whole 'nother blog; suffice to say that my new in-laws pledged to send us on a honeymoon of sorts, after graduation. To Europe.

What you need to know is this: we were very young; Danny had been to France many times -- his mother was a high school French teacher in Queens, NY, and every year his family went to France, toured around, ate in restaurants well beyond my imagination -- all normal routine for them. I, on the other hand, grew up in a small town, my parents never, ever took a vacation except to visit my wealthier aunt, uncle, and cousins, who rented a house each summer on Cape Cod. My mother never flew in an airplane her entire life; if my father did, it was during the war -- and even that I am not sure of. He may only have traveled by ship. I never dreamed of flying until I was a sophomore in college, and planned and carried out a clandestine overnight airplane-enabled trip to Philadelphia with my roommate, to see a James Brown concert. I never told my mother.


Danny and I had an on-again, off-again marriage, but when we finally graduated from college -- after a drop-out year -- I shamelessly lobbied to get that promised honeymoon. I knew it was my only shot. Danny's parents kept their word, and gave us the money for plane tickets -- even though we were no longer living together. My financial contribution to the actual trip was this: I had a low-level office worker job in Cambridge, in the Harvard Registrar's office. I can't remember what I did there, but I soon figured out that I could use my access to the registrar's office for personal gain. I had already convinced him to write me a note to the Graduate School of Education so that I could take courses for free as an employee, without putting in the required six months' waiting period for such perks.


At the time, if you were a legitimate student, air fares were wildly inexpensive. We were no longer students, unfortunately, but I was able to type up letters on the registrar's purloined stationery, stating that we in fact attended Harvard University. I sneaked into his office when he was out to lunch, and slipped out from the felt bag in his desk drawer the magnificent tool that laid an embossed circle with his signature on the official letterhead. I made one for me, one for Danny, and in time, a few others for friends. Under the influence of Mao-Tse-Tung (it was the 1970s...), I was not so crass nor capitalist that I charged for my services.

Danny went over to England first -- I forget why -- and I followed shortly, crossing the Atlantic all by myself in a state of phobic paralysis. I involuntarily clutched the arm of the elderly black man seated next to me during take-off until I left four, deep, white, finger-printed indentations on his wrist. I apologized profusely; he was very kind to me for the remainder of the trip.



After a few weeks in England, I left on the boat for France. Danny and I made vague plans to keep in touch, possibly connecting in Paris or somewhere later on. As the ferry neared the French coast, I went below deck to use the bathroom, and spoke my very first words of French to a French person. A little girl was washing her hands at the sink, her mother still in the toilet stall. I said, hesitantly, "Voila le savon, n'est-ce pas?" She looked at me as though I were crazy, but answered "Oui."


I was thrilled to death.


Monday, June 5, 2017

The Documentation

I am a nervous wreck getting the paperwork organized.

In order to stay in France for more than 90 days, we have to apply for what is termed a long-stay tourist visa, which will extend our legal stay to up to a year. A number of different situations will qualify in theory: student status, employment mandate, family affiliation. But we are applying on the basis of being retired and self-supporting; old and relatively solvent. The French don't want to have to take care of us, which seems reasonable. But we have to prove that we will not be a burden in the course of daily life, and if we become sick, we must have special health insurance -- our Medicare will only cover emergency treatment abroad. This coverage must also apply to situations I have no interest in, like becoming maimed or dead,

and if dead,


then we'll need insurance that covers the return of our body(s) home for burial.

It's not all croissants and poodles.

We must provide a criminal record. I skipped right over that item, until I explored some online forums, and found that we'll have to pay a fee to the Federal Government (USA) to supply documentation stating that we (a fee for me and a fee for James) do not in fact have a criminal record...

And photographs: two each, no glasses, no smiling.

Proof of accommodation: and how we got it is a good story, to come in a later post.  But I am worried the "proof" is not in the correct form, and our providers of said accommodation -- we're renting their apartment -- are currently on a remote island off the coast of Norway, with poor Internet reception...

We have an appointment at the French Consulate next week. In person, each of us on our own, with our clutch of duplicate paperwork. I prefer to do this kind of scary stuff in tandem with James, because he's good in surreal circumstances; he knows what normalcy is supposed to look like, and does a nice rendition. I tend to think we live in an absurd world and everyone sees it from the same prism of absurdity as I do. I have learned in our annual crossings back and forth into Canada for Thanksgiving in Montreal -- it's especially coming back to the US where trouble lurks -- to keep my bouche fermé.

It's not all twelve little girls in two straight lines.

[Merci beaucoup to the great to Ludwig Bemelmans.]

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Gather round friends, break out the tuna sandwiches, and I’ll tell you the story of the thirteen-year-old girl and what she declared about the woman she would become. She stood on a footbridge in her hometown, gazing out at the heartbreaking beauty of the tidal river that swept beneath her, draining to the sea, and said, I’m leaving here and I’m never coming back. I’m going to live in New York City. or Paris.
Well, she did go back to her hometown. And she did live in New York Cityfor 25 years, before moving to Maine. And now she’s getting ready to go live in Paris for awhile. This could be interesting, non? A few of my friends have suggested I get back on the blog chemin de fer. So, I’ll give it a whirl — and I’ll try not to be insufferable with the en français thing.