An Abécédaire Fugitif
Neal Durando

My grammar has crossed the Atlantic four times since I began giving English lessons in western France three years ago. It is no translator's reference but Practical English Grammar by Michael Swanthe tool English teachers the world over use to help them explain the native structures of their own thought to confused students.  This is the book we often go to when we have to clearly describe, say, the workings of countable and uncountable nouns.

Usually I have already been teaching for a few shaky weeks without the benefit of Swan before I go down to collect it at the post office in front of the préfecture.   My explanations become more sure after I have it out of whatever heavy, humid box I packed in Chicago, New York, Boston, or Fort Worth. My resolve to fix my students' confusion with the simple present (for general facts and telling stories) and present continuous (for saying what you are doing right now) become all the more fixed. Though all this worry stops at my doorstep for my goal has been, since first arriving in France, to speak less English until it diminishes to what I put on the page. "Were are you from?" and "Why did you leave?" are the first two questions any students ask. "English" makes as much sense as any answer I might otherwise give. 

I suffer no address now aside from French. There comes a point when that address becomes fixed, when you know you have learned a word, that it will not be forgotten, misused, or misspent, when you know you are home free. One remembers, falsely, what it must have been like to be a child learning a language—I say falsely for, although every object in France seems touched with newness and mystery, I still cannot recall how it really was the afternoon I heard my mother utter burn or pneumonia in such a way that I understood that ointment or telephone might be the next words out of her mouth. What news did he have of Vietnam that evening in 1971 when I first heard her say borrow? Could the neighbor's transistor radio be heard through the paneling when my father said commercials? It is difficult to remember when hair or train, or even antiaircraft, passed into my spoken vocabulary, but fossil has been with me since it was written down for me in my second grade composition book. Whenever I go over my heavy-handed imitation of Ms. Larsen's script, see the bones of my rudimentary English crawling out onto the page to be killedmy teacher's usage fossilized into lexis, copied down hard by the ham-fisted brat's pencil, carbonized into the weighty mud of use. 

 It never occurred to me that one word belonged to one language or anotherjust that my Argentine father sometimes directed my attentions to the world with mira instead of "look." It's the emotion that goes with a word that makes it stick—mira foretold wonder, a new thing coming into my life, just as it reminded me that my father first learned English more than fifty years ago as a boy in Buenos Aires. When I began to study French at thirty-three I was reminded of how easily I got along in Spanish as a child, how easy it is to get along anywhere if you simply let everything be as new as the morning before it was named. 

 FOIS /fwa/ 

 "Cómo se dice 'vez?'" I asked my Spanish friend Oscár as we crossed the tramway tracks to eat lunch at café Les Facultés in between classes at the University of Nantes. There were no English speakers within earshot, so Spanish was how I learned about French. We were anxious about crossing the tracks as the tramway announces itself with only a slight sighing sound. "Fois" he answered without looking at me, as he had an eye out for the tram that could have put an end to us. Vez, fois, once upon a time pedestrians had to watch for streetcars everywhere in the United States, even in Chicago, the city where I was to shortly find myself.

BOULEVERSER /bulverse/ 
to overwhelm or shock
I flew back to
Chicago on the first of September, where I rode my bicycle down long straight streets, walked through empty apartments with a friend, and collected unemployment, all the while whistling French nonsense songs to myself. Tic-tac, tic tac. Ta Catie t'a quité, I sang while pedaling toward the Pick-Me-Up Café on Clark until the sounds became reliable, Tic-tac, tic tac.

Soon nothing made sense.

On the morning of the tenth of September, the chain on my bicycle snapped, leaving me housebound. There was no reason to go out. I put my ear to the floor and eavesdropped on my neighbor, also unemployed, fighting with his wife. That evening I walked to the Pick Me Up, and listened to a couple of Irish girls discussing whether it was adding cheese or sugar that made grapefruit edible.

Phones rang and nobody picked up.

I sold my bed and moved into my living room the day afterward. There was no reason to go out. I slept with the television on. I saw them dusting ash from the awnings of the bodega on Chambers Street where I bought flowers for my girlfriend in 1992. On television a woman ran in broken heels by our old front door on Church Street. Tout ça va? writes Oscár from his home in the Canary Islands. And I didn't turn the television off. (The sound of a woman running in broken heels down Churchstreet again, tic-toc, tic-toc.) And then all of English seems to become about how the United States is already rising up, although nobody I know has left their couches.I saw headlines whenever I shut my eyes. Robert was still searching hospitals over in New Jersey.

I ironed shirts. The remote rarely left my hand and yet I didn't turn the television off. Nobody I knew was any different: perhaps this was the unity that the President told us we were feeling. Our front door, my NewYork girlfriend's and mine, wasn't rebroadcast. (We would have been crazy to leave that apartment had we managed to stay together.) I somehow finished editing a children's history of the Nez Pierce Indians. "They used knife-like objects," someone was always saying on television. "I'm okay," wrote Asha's sister, "I have glass in my face." The mosque on my corner kept the shades drawn. A teepee marks the burial memorial of Old Chief Joseph in the beautiful Wallowa Valley. The government is grimly selling solidarity. The imam's daughters no longer play outdoors. You haven't written, writes Catie, I've been calling. I checked the spelling of "Wallowa" in the atlas. "You didn't live there," I kept saying to myself, the television, and everybody, "You don't live there." In 1877 the U.S. government told the Nez Pierce to move to the reservation at Lapwai, Idaho Territory. In the months before I moved back to France, I couldn't sleep unless the television was on.

Wrote Dan:

As my brother was making his way out of lower Manhattan, he passed through the Chase Manhattan Plaza and heard a stern voice coming over the PA system: "All staff, get back to your positions. You must get back to your positions."

I simply forwarded every message to Oscár because that seemed the best way. I hope I didn't overwhelm your mailbox, I wrote.

PANNEAU /pano/
or notice
Chicago put out more flags and drew another low, featureless winter over itself. I gave my bicycle away, helped my friend move into her new rooms, and said goodbye to nobody on the morning of the first true snowstorm that year. "Warm snow stuck on the street signs," I wrote on the corner of a roadmap, "Happy I know my way out by heart." I drove out of the snow in Indiana. I put away my map somewhere in Pennsylvania. When I got to the George Washington bridge I didn't have the money to cross into New York, so the toll-taker joked that I had to get out and paint it. The whole George Washington bridge, she said. She smiled and said that she wouldn't accept a check. She waved me through. Welcome home. I drove to New Yorkand in New York, well, ask anyone.

MEURTRE /mœrtr(ə)/

Ask everyone, I mean. Ask me and I'll say that New York is what I found written on an envelope on Robert's dinner table:

Ring size?
Blood from the family.

 Put it together: someone had called Robert and asked him to collect these things. He had found nothing in New Jersey. So Robert searched out a scrap from the dinner table and noted down a little note.

Later, we were walking up
SecondAvenue together. "Remember Cancun?" says one girl to another just before us, "My gawd."

I drank coffee with
Robert every morning. The same things kept getting said. Whenever I spoke French to Catie on the phone in Robert's kitchen, I already felt balanced across the Atlantic by the weight of having to speak English to everyone else.

ACCUEILLIR, ACCUEIL, /akœjir, akœj/
to welcome, reception
At first the word had meant a kiosk, a closed information desk at the University of Nantes that first summer in France. It was late July and last Spring's grades were stills stapled across every wall. It was here, at the abandoned accueil, where I first met Oscár who seemed as lost as I was. Knowing the word means "welcome" but my difficulty with its pronunciation only reinforces my habitual avoidance of information desks, which are a fixture of life in France. Knowing also it is very unlikely I will ever have to pronounce accueil in order to speak to the receptionist does nothing to encourage me.

Next, at the prefecture applying for my working papers that first time, the accueil is where I went in order to be sent somewhere else. Once past the accueil in the Nantes préfecture, one can look down on the small shantytown in the square across the street, erected by the Algerians who have, in some case, waited five years for the papers I was presently to receive.

When Catie and I walk together through the city, she is often surprised at the funny streets I choose. I have a foreigner's understanding of where I can walk unchallenged by the language or the people who speak it. One word, understood though difficult-to-pronounce, is enough to put me on to side streets. Where I go, I often find myself among Africans wearing broken shoes.

DÉMARCHE /demarʃ(ə)/
or solicitation
All I can say is that some are more difficult than others:

December 2001

Dear Robert,

I set out very early yesterday morning to go to the embassy and take the foreign service exam. On the way, I was already imagining not going. Turns out I was maybe five minutes late. The gendarmes before the embassy itself thought that the exam was more likely being given at the consulate. So did the American security guard. So I meandered around Place de Concorde. For some reason, perhaps rumor of another demonstration against Israel, perhaps the arrival of some important personage, all the streets were barred between St. Honoré and the Louvre. I walked around, trying to find my way to the consulate's door, but was imagining myself already crossing Concorde in defeat, finding my way to some stupid café to write some stupid and obvious letters underscoring the irony of it all—being literally barred from the offices of my own government by the French (who evidently know better than me that I am confused when I am not dismayed by the turn my country has taken), etc.—even as I was trying to find my way I was imagining giving up. 

What I've been telling everyone is that they wouldn't seat me for the exam, it being half past the hour, etc. Truth is I crossed Concorde in defeat, crossed the Seine on that pedestrian bridge other than Pont des Arts (whatever it's called), decided to forgo writing letters to anybody underscoring any sort of irony, and go back and wake C. up and go goof around the city. 

So where does she insist on going but right back to a place near Concorde, a salon de thé famous for its chocolate (Alexandria? Alexandrine?—whatever, I hadn't eaten anything yet) but going by way of Les Halles, which means walking through unbelievable tourist traffic for about a mile, etc. Why do we enjoy irony? It isn't, after all, very funny if it is real. Moreover, why do we bother to record irony? It's everywhere, common as painted sunsets, for chrissakes.

This was not the first overture I had made toward diplomatic service. In 1993, I went to Washington D.C. as a State Department foreign service officer candidate. I took a battery of tests, the most difficult of which was a role-playing exercise what they called a demarche. The object was rather unclear. I was briefed to lodge a complaint with an oil ministry official from a fictious Arab country concerning unfair trade practices on the part of France. I played hard, wanting in, pressing the hands of the proctors I had been introduced to that morning, calling them by the Arab names they were supposed to have assumed for the exercise. They played the roles of press liaison and oil ministry functionary with only late-afternoon conviction. Perhaps by that point I had already failed the day-long exam so, to test them, I called the functionary by the liaison's name. False Hussein answered for Fake Akim (which probably explains much about real-life diplomacy) and before we could finish the demarche, the fire alarm rang and we all filed out for thirty minutes.

While standing n the streets of Roslyn, Virginia, looking at all the government workers with I.D. badges hung around their necks, I lost the thread of my simulated conversation and perhaps my candidacy. The U.S. State Department ostensibly avoided commissioning someone distracted by fire alarms and sunlight. I wonder in hindsight why I didn't just walk away and let Fake Akim and False Hussein sort themselves out and mull the name of their fugitive examinee. Now when I hear "démarche" I can never make out its proper sense through the interference of my private understanding: an important meeting that would be best to avoid, an approach that makes one want to slink away.

TEXT /tekst
article ou texte
It is said that in a few years native speakers of English will be outnumbered by those who have learned it as a second or third language. Will this imbalance change the speech of the natives? In my case it already has. My high school English students persist in a certain misunderstanding such that sometimes, simply to be understood, I say "text" when I really mean "article" or "story" even though such a technical usage puts me in mind of every postmodernizing careerist in academia.

I wonder if Derrida, while ensconced at Irvine, ever winced in the same way should anyone have dared say "item," "article," or "comic book" in his seminar room when they ought to have been speaking of a text. Reading Kristeva in translation makes her sound like an earnest and scared lycéene already over prepared for her final. This is not an unpleasant way to imagine Kristeva. "...Text is...a productivity, and this means: first, that its relationship to the language in which it is situated is redistributive," she writes somewhere or other in her vast, intractable oeuvre. "We can see that in this text..." say my students every ten minutes. Once one of them utters this phrase, the fear that invades the room means any discipline problems are over.

from "fliquer" to police, from "flic," or cop 
In 2001, the French government pardoned Maurice Papon, who had been in prison for deporting 1,560 of his countrymen to Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. He has yet to answer for his tenure as prefect of police in Paris when, on October 17, 1961, at least two-hundred Algerian demonstrators in police custody were summarily executed. Papon had their bodies dumped into the Seine, not far from where the tourists board their bateaux mouches. 

Mistrust of authority runs deep in France.

The word fliquage is heard more often since the once Minister of Interior, Nicholas Sarkozy, began making good on a severe and largely unnecessary security policy to answer the wave of middle class (and anti-immigrant) fear Jacques Chirac stirred to win the presidency.As I walk the safest streets I have ever enjoyed (which look exactly the same as they did before the election) the activities of the police—from writing tickets to moving drunks along their way—is fliquage.

Catie's brother-in-law, a gendarme, is a quiet, watchful man. He politely refused the NYPD socks we bought him in New York. So I wear them instead. "Get a load of those," said Robert one morning a year later during a visit, "Durando—You got on cop socks." Violence goes on and on. So do words. If one stops, what happens to the other? Fliquage.

FLINGUE /flɛng/
slang for pistol or gat
On March 28, 2002, a few months before the presidential election, a man said to be frustrated by bureaucracy walked into the town hall at Nanterre near Paris and killed eight with his three registered handguns. In the aftermath, Chirac was vocal at all the right funerals, won votes mostly by taking the stand that gun violence is bad and, after all, not an aspect of French culture, but rather of American. On July 14 of that year, Chirac himself was the target of a right-wing extremist, a student member of the fascist Groupe Union Defence, who traded in his political ambitions for a dinky twenty-two rifle and a snapshot at the president's motorcade as it passed the Arc de Triomphe. On October 6, four months after the center-right's victory, a drive-by sniper in Dunkirk killed Mohamed Maghara and wounded three other French-Moroccans. On October 7, the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë was stabbed. His attacker, Azedine Berkane, simply professed to hate homosexuals. All of these assailants were said to be mentally unbalanced, not necessarily of a criminal bent.

So who are we being protected from? 

Last month, from the time of this writing, the film-maker Michael Moore became a hero for confirming everything the French already believe about the UnitedStates.

PEUR /pœr
I saw Bowling for Columbine at the same cinema I saw another movie about fear, Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste. "Peur?" asks Charles Aznavour timidly while lying in bed with his neighbor, "Moi?" I was living alone on Rue de 14 de Juillet, walking down the Boulevard Guist'hau to the Katorza. I lost fifteen francs in the vending machine. Although I was prepared to simply forget it, the woman came out of the ticket booth, unlocked the machine, handed me the ice cream I'd tried to buy. How a New Yorker would have been sympathetic but unhelpful. How in Chicago they would have rolled their eyes. But how the French detest injustice. I felt a little silly to be cared for in that way. Perhaps I identified with Aznavour's timid character more strongly than I might have for my embarrassment. Coming back up Boulevard Guist'hau I knew it wouldn't do to settle with my neighbor when I loved someone else.

LÉGÈRETÉ /leʒɛrte/

You will find the Bar Blau in Cadaqués soonest if you can pose questions in Catalán. Seemingly equal parts French and Spanish, I can understand it well enough, but it is impossible to speak. This means I can go where people tell me, but not necessarily where I want to go. But where I found myself was sometimes where I wanted to eat lunch, or take photos, or even live. But our friend Michel knew the way to the Bar Blau, so there was no need to ask anyone and no risk of ending up anywhere else. He led without a word.

We went there to see his boat paintings which hang behind the bar. "The only right I believe in," he said after we had talked about his boats, "is that we should all have a lightness in our lives." Such unbidden declarations of rights in the language of Rousseau come naturally, but the above sentence still seems funny to me written in English. We had also gone to that bar so Michel could speak a few words of German to the bartender. "I feel light here in Cadaqués," he says, "I feel like a foreigner here."

 The crowds of French people in the streets of Cadaqués pretending to understand Catalán make me wonder if the words with which Dalí first met the world might not be the natural language of surrealism. Speaking to a Catalán means that anything you say in Spanish or French will be understood but, should they answer in their language, the world they speak of is automatically familiar yet strange. The odd triangular decorations on the side of Dalí's museum in Figueres—which are either bread or shit or perhaps both—seem a natural byproduct of this. If every word that we can exchange without explanation weighs us more heavily into the country of our habits, then the lightest of people live in Catalunya, held to the earth only by the gravity of the words tourists use to order sandwiches.

MARMÓL /marmol/
or marbre
I thought I had forgotten the Spanish for "marble" until I put my foot on the single white stone laid into Carre Pianc while walking back up the hill from Bar Blau. It was if the word that was the same color and weight as the stone rolled through the sole of my slipper and struck its Spanish whiteness back into me like someone had in turn struck it into the street. I had worn my slippers to the bar chiefly because they don't look like slippers. Happy chance. Because I think the problem of language has less to do with memory and production than it does with shoes, of being able to still feel the world beneath however we happen to have dressed ourselves.

CAILLOU /kajo/ 
pebble or how to conjure diamonds
What the old Italian gem cutter who comes to the café at the same hour as I do on Wednesdays calls his diamonds. "Oh this morning was a horror—three hours with the pebbles." His tiny dog sits beside him on the banquette and he reads the local paper aloud to everyone in the place. Last Wednesday it was an early-morning pile-up on the way to Rennes, a deadly railcar fire that killed a whole family of Americans on their way to Munich, and an air crash in Luxembourg that killed at least as many German businessman, confirming everyone's opinion (summed up by the gem cutter) that it was better to live in such a way that you can walk wherever you need to go. Now when he complains of his pebbles, I imagine him on the quay beside the Erdre, making slow progress over the cobblestones, the tiny dog pulling its master along by a long elastic leash. 

AUTOCOLLANT /ɔ(ο)tɔkɔlã/
sticker or how to conjure a dog
I put this one together for myself, used it without hearing it used first. Coller being "to stick, to glue" meant this was the word for "sticker" (self-gluing) when I saw it on a box of corn flakes. 

Nadine's car, bought used, came with a large sticker of a Great Dane over the one of the back windows. Unfortunately, she peeled it off. I continue to imagine she has a dog whenever I see her car.

BRANCHER /brãʃe/ 
to connect
Same senses as in English. For a radio or someone who knows everybody. Our neighbor Patrick, who runs a public relations bureau is branché. The mayor awarded him with a trophy for turning the street that descends the Butte Sainte Anne above the shipyards into a ski slope last Christmas. You didn't need to be branché to ski that day, as P. got an equipment manufacturer to donate the snow blowers and everything else. 

But first, branché means we were in Nadine's car again, on the way to La Rochelle, Nadine, Catie, and I trying to figure out how to turn the radio on in the new, used Renault. Maybe the radio is not branchée, but no, it is only that Renault installs the volume buttons on the steering wheel.

FISTON /fistə/
Means "boy," but slangish. Something like "lad". I had read it somewhere. In whose room C. and I stayed at LaRochelle. At the end of the corridor. La chambre du fiston. Boyish smell. Rocket ships on the sheets, Tintin and a stamp collection on the shelves.

GRATTER /grate
to scratch or to itch 
How Texans I grew up around used them interchangeably, as in French. Perverse pleasure taken in the mild discomfort at the beach at Noirmoutier. Four days in a campground with our friend and her grandchild. I washed dishes in the afternoon after carrying them to the communal sink. Fig trees in full bloom above the faucets and their lowering mist trumped by the smell of dish soap. Go down and smell the figs. The sand fleas and the sweat and the child's own state of cleanliness. I recall the smell of his shit way over in the training potty in the trees. The less you say ça gratte, kid, the less it does. A truth learned over one summer of living outdoors in Texas. Smell on smell is what bothers the skin, not the seawater I let dry on me overnight. We walked amid glow worms in the bushes on the way to the showers in the early morning.

FRIABLE /frijabl(ə)/
crumbly or technically friable
Spat out this Latinate without hope of being understood after searching vainly for "asbestos" while driving past the housing projects south of Nantes, which stand as empty and menacing as those on the south side of Chicago. We were driving past this crumbling bit of civic planning because that was the best way to reach one of Corbusier's weird high rises—inhabited since its construction in 1955. Still inhabited perhaps because even in late spring it feels virtually uninsulated by asbestos or anything else.

But the word also goes back to home. My neighbor in North Texas once described the soil there as friable and the word has been with me since I left the place that seems to come apart with a good kick. Corbusier built Maison Radieuse with a revolutionary concrete the exact color of the scree out on the levee behind the house where I grew up. The fact that his revolutionary concrete floats and that levees keep back floods are forever joined in friable

NID /ni/
I went and drew this from the dictionary as I felt it was necessary to explain to Catie why there were so many ants in the bathroom was that they had built a nest under the wallpaper. It was odd how little urgency this news stirred. I was a long time in understanding that they were yellow ants and though they would bite, they left no mark. Nothing bites here. Even the mosquitoes are a flat joke. Here is not Texas. We killed the ants with mysterious green plastic disks placed here and there. And then, one day, the cat batted down a bird's nest from the apple tree. This is a nid also, but it seemed like something else. It was nothing insidious, only dry grass and blue eggshells. The ants, of course, cleaned up any of the yolk by the time we came across it behind the raspberry bush. Seems unjust that a bird's nest doesn't merit another word.

REMORQUE /r(ə)mɔrk(ə)/ trailer or barge
Cleaning out Catie's garden the first weekend after my return, I was lucky enough to know someone to lend us a truck and trailer. Three trips to the reprocessing plant under a light rain. Go see French people at the dump some time. See how they sort everything into the proper bins under the eyes of the garbage police.

Carrying out bits of metal unearthed from the tool closet that were not tools themselves, a pile of old clinkers for a furnace long-since removed from the basement. Pale spiders and skinned elbows. Carrying bags of dead iron that broke apart as you carried them down the alley to the remorque. And piling it as high as it was wide, which is, I think, the law in these parts.

The tiny earthquake this morning that opened the doors of our armoire. A quarter-to-nine and I'm still in bed, supposing that the furniture had trapped our nervous cat again. But it was only the earth. "Tremblement de terre," said Catie, before she rolled herself back into sleep. 

PASS /pæs
"Passer" means to take an exam in French, as in "I won't study English anymore after I pass my baccalaureate exam." (They mean to say take). The natural rejoinder, "So, I guess we'll be seeing a lot of each other next year," is only cruel and confusing. So I don't correct this error very often, as my students are so stressed to be talking about this exam that will play a major part in determining the rest of their professional lives. It is a simple mistake, a stupid one, and they are always disappointed in themselves when they realize they've made it. An obvious look of unworthiness crosses the faces of the better students—you can actually see them losing points on their score due to nervousness as they begin again. They are too young and in no position in any case to take pleasure in their mistakes.

REMORQUEUR /r(ə)mɔrke
Catie is obsessed with finding a copy of Le Petit remorqueur rouge, a book she had as a child. She woke one morning and told me she had dreamed she was walking by the quay and crossed a bridge she hadn't seen before. It led her into the storybook drawings she remembered by heart. She didn't tell me the rest of her dream but she told me the story of the tugboat who was washed out to sea and sailed around the world looking for its home until it arrived in NewYork.

Do boats have a home? 

If they did, would it be New York?

CINQ /sɛnk
Others chose checkers and I chose second-grade French and we counted away whole afternoons in the teachers' lounge. She must have been someone's wife stuck in St. Louis. A ship sank, she said, was how you said it. Always to me a tragic number preceding seece. The tragedy also owing to her air. A brunette who had perhaps had a difficult crossing involving lifeboats, was how I had it in my mind. A ship sank, after all, each time we said it. 

Some home crisis arose and, after our tutor stranded us with the checkers players, a twisted equivalence built up in me among cinq, ship, and seece that when I counted six I was still thinking of my teacher of two afternoons staying alive by catching rainwater in her delicate hands somewhere in the south Atlantic. I came to think of the number six as the western shores of France, where she would finally find safety. But I began to worry at one and, by four, I was clandestinely hysterical. 

I happily shook off numbers at the university. I live in western France near the water. I could only be happier if the hands that will turn these pages, checking my spelling before this goes to press had extra fingers.