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 Swan—the 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 killed—my 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 another—just 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.
"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.
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.
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."
simply forwarded every message to Oscár because that seemed the best way. I hope I didn't overwhelm your
mailbox, I wrote.
sign or notice
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 York—and
in New York, well, ask anyone.
everyone, I mean. Ask me and I'll say
that New York is what I found
written on an envelope on Robert's
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.
ACCUEIL, /akœjir, akœj/
to welcome, reception
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.
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.
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.
I can say is that some are more difficult than others:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
of authority runs deep in France.
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.
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.
slang for pistol
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.
who are we being protected from?
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.
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
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
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.
marble or marbre
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.
pebble or how to
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
sticker or how to conjure a dog
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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
to scratch or to itch
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
crumbly or technically friable
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.
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.
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
REMORQUE /r(ə)mɔrk(ə)/ trailer or barge
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.
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.
TREMBLEMENT DE TERRE
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.
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.
boats have a home?
they did, would it be New York?
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.
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.
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.