Invisible with Endless Ideas

Last Monday I meant to load this blog post when I could not find my website.  I was directed to Go Daddy and was instructed to call Host Gator since they host my domain. It’s taken this long for the content on my website to migrate. Obviously it wasn’t a priority for them.  And we’re not even in Mercury retrograde yet. Which reminds me; never let the calendar or anything else for that matter control your decisions into accepting a mishap as your fate! Anyway I’m pleased that everything is up and running.

A week ago on Friday I was at an event chatting with a man from Madagascar, when he switched to French I was somewhat stumped. And then on Saturday, over lunch when chatting about weather conditions I again turned to France and a few words spilled out.

When I was growing up and it came time to learn a third language, in my mind, I wasn’t going to stay in familiar surroundings and wherever life was taking me I was sure it would have something to do with Paris.

I gave myself my own private lessons in Berlin, through watching Canal+ on television and mimicking radio programs and going as often as I did to Paris, I said a few phrases which was enough to get by.

Many people would be terrified to live in a country where they can’t communicate but this never bothered me. I loved the intrigue at the time and still do, that wherever I traveled, I relied on non-verbal communication to read people as I do. Without adequate language skills you are forced out of your comfort zone and open yourself up to new experiences by putting yourself in unfamiliar situations to test your character on how to survive each day and make it the best it can be.

When I would arrive at my rental apartment in Paris, there was a stack of books on the fireplace mantel, faded from the sunlight streaming in the window on those gloriously quiet afternoons and dusty from the years. Sitting there, just the size of my palm, was an old french language handbook from the late 1960’s. I sat in the sunlight one October afternoon practicing the unchanged phrases of French culture and wondering as I felt the texture of the old thin paper between my fingers, what wary travelers had held this book in their hands and fumbled through the phrases as I had that day. I imagined them filled with hope that each line of expression would unlock another door in my journey through this land. Where did this book, stuffed into a back pocket, take them and who will possess it after me? What is it that brings us all here, to France, weaving an invisible thread between us?

I have for most of my life been a social person.  Some have called me a social butterfly. Living in a place with no one to talk to was a release of an invisible social responsibility I had given myself. I could do it in Europe. At first, there were no parties to go to, no friends to call upon to meet for a cup of coffee. And I savored the quietness. But here lies my contradiction; I also need and crave alone time.

With socializing off my agenda, there was an opening of a fair amount of time for myself to focus on other things- to do yoga, learn tennis, ride my bike to explore, contemplate about what I was reading, writing, painting and photography. It was in a sense a freedom from obligation and made me feel invisible. When you are invisible you are free from the definition you have created for yourself, or has been created for you, and can become a truer form of what you are destined to be.

As the days turned into a week, people began to recognize my face around the city. I kept a pretty set routine. I would go to the patisserie first thing each day for my baguette. Then to the café for my cafe créme. I bought cheese at the market from the same man and my eggs from an adorable older couple. Then this marvelous thing started to happen. They each started trying to teach me words. Always with an expression of amusement they said it slowly to me, and I would repeat it back to them.  My cheese monger taught me plus and minus, my vegetable grocer taught me the names of the herbs, the woman at the fromagerie taught me Bon Dimanche (Good Sunday), which is used around town starting Saturday afternoons.  Connecting with others through their kindness and patience of sharing has been one of the most generous gifts I’ve received.

I had the freedom from myself and the beauty of kindness in others wanting to help me learn in this shared life in the walk that we take together.

Have you had language travel experiences that you recall years later? Tell me about them.

She’s Got It

I’m looking at the last several blog posts and they’re loaded with book reviews. Last fall when I signed up for Goodreads I promised myself that in 2013 I’d read 20 books. I’m currently on my 20th. I could have posted about the places I went or the things I did but instead I concentrated on meeting my goal.

Other than writing, working and reading books, I’ve decided that one of my goals for 2014 will be to learn or re-learn French. Why? I think of the idea every Fall while in my kitchen preparing Julia’s Coq-au-Vin or baking her Queen of Sheba cake, Because for me, there is nothing more quintessentially French than speaking the language. ETIn high school, I think my French was okay. I have no idea whether I could speak it in any real conversational way, but the combination of wonderful teachers gave me a great accent and a functional French that worked as far as it went. We learned verbs. We drilled in conjugations. We practiced more tenses than anyone uses in a lifetime.

Could we use them in conversation? Of course not! That wasn’t part of the program. We barely spoke sentences. But, could we conjugate!

Then came my first trip to Paris. The memories are too dire for words for me to detail here, so let’s just say that whatever joy and sense of accomplishment there had been in speaking French went right out the window as a result of my (then) sensitivity to criticism.

Fast forward a decade later and I’m living in Berlin. I began each morning with a French morning talk-show and in the evenings listened to French songs while preparing dinner, partly to rebel against learning German! So, with due respect to Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf, one cannot learn a language through the songs— although I’ve entertained any number of people with my rendition of “Ella Elle L’a” (hear France Gall’s hit at the end of this post).

And there were shopping trips to Paris. I still could not have a conversation— at least not a normal one about things like the weather or politics or to elaborate on the meal. But, put me in front of a street vendor where I have to haggle and I became as fluent as anyone ever needs to be.

I’m sure I will be a wiz at French now. That’s because I finally learned to use the histrionics that are so key to a successful French conversation that I can now incorporate into speaking! Without the gestures and inflections and almost cartoon-like behaviors, you’re just not speaking French.

From a French person’s perspective, it isn’t French if it isn’t over the top with passion.

So, these many years later, what have I learned? It’s not about the verbs and their conjugations. The French may have all those tenses to choose from but even they’ll tell you that they operate in three and leave the rest to the grammar books.

The secret is this: skip the language-correctness, drop the sensitivity and focus on the accoutrements. Because the fact is, until you can do a decent shrug and pffft!, you’re just not speaking French.

Nanu Nanu

I was reading somewhere online about the vast majority of indigenous languages still spoken in the United States that are on the verge of extinction.

Taken aback, I thought other than perhaps the Native-American tribes who speaks anything other than English in this country? I think that Americans are afraid of languages and resist learning them.  Its part of not wanting to give up control.  The melting pot encourages a fusion of culture and speech when it’s far richer to expand and motivate your left brain function. Our whole consciousness is framed by language and the loss of it serves as a break from identity.

Linguist Elizabeth Little spent two years driving all over the country looking for the few remaining pockets where indigenous languages are still spoken — from the scores of Native American tongues, to the Creole of Louisiana. The resulting book is Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Lost Languages.

Speaking three — okay truth be told, maybe only two and a half but having a good ear whenever I even say the word “schmootzik” Yiddish for dirty to my Coco when we’re at the doggie park I get blank stares as if I’m from outer space.

For anyone who speaks more than one language, some words have more power and pizzazz in a foreign tongue. It brings to mind, when I was growing up name-calling was “verboten” in our household and grounds for punishment.  Telling my brother who was eleven months older, that he gave me “asco” Spanish for nauseate was the ultimate insult and would leave me feeling very satisfied.

If I were to embark on learning a language facing extinction, I would choose Yiddish and here’s why.

Before I met my husband I went on a blind-date with a man who spoke it fluently.  We were at an upscale restaurant breaking bread for the salad. I wasn’t the least bit impressed by his looks but I was about to find out what a wonderful conversationalist he was.  He told me that his father had said (in Yiddish) that he was so forgiving that a person could spit on his face and he would say it was raining.  I snorted my bread from laughter!

There is a depth of Yiddish that shows complexity and humor.  It’s loaded with a secret code of expressions, including terms of endearments, complaints and insults. And although it is fading fast since the Jewish European wipe-out, my wish is that it lives on. So I’ll end with a Yiddish proverb: If one man calls you a donkey, ignore him. If two men call you a donkey, think about it. If three men call you a donkey, buy a saddle.

Lost Translation

Language can be tough to master. Today I found a list of English words that Russian multilingual novelist Nabokov (the author of Lolita reportedly found difficult to pronounce. He used diacritical marks to help him remember which syllable to stress.

In high school, I learned French from a native speaker.  In college, I had two French professors; one spoke with a British accent, another was Belgian and tried to sound American.  I suppose it reflected where they had done their graduate studies. All this made for an entertaining mix of regional dialects with foreign accents. So when I moved to Europe, I was never entirely sure how to pronounce certain words, words I came across mostly by listening to Radio France International and Canal Plus. Then there were the baffling exceptions, words which didn’t sound at all the way they were pronounced. But eventually, my ear grew accustomed to the nasal sounds of Paris French. Then I arrived in New York and went to film screenings at the French Institute Alliance Française  After the movie a discussion would take place in French. And intoned by a native New Yorker they had such a hard edge to them. I dared not speak! I never compiled a list —but now know had I implemented the Nabokov method I would have comprehended more and been less lost.

What about you? Ever learned another language and been utterly confused?

A great feast of language

What happens when you familiarize yourself with a literature classic by watching a television  show? And what transpires when students are exposed to great works of literature by what they view versus what they read? Does this cultural literacy indicate that literary classics have become part of our pop culture and are they best viewed that way?

Certainly a producer can argue when defending a TV adaptation of a classic that students who would have never read a book would at least watch a TV series based on it and become acquainted with literature classics in this way. And that argument seems to be valid. But there are those who can also argue that contemporary TV adaptations of classical novels are often simplistic and add elements of modern day crudeness believing it will keep the viewer engaged when it pollutes the storyline.

So which is correct? Both may be correct to a certain degree. But they are missing one important point: literary classics have become part of pop culture and they should be viewed in that way; not as something authentic, whole or pure.

A good television or film adaptation provide pleasures of its own, but they are only pleasures available in that medium. A good film requires careful attention, just as a good novel does; but the kind of attention being paid is not the kind required by fiction.

Films provoke us into immersing ourselves into the scenes since the image moves and forces us to keep track of the information conveyed; it is ultimately the work of the eye and ear keeping pace with appearances. We have to look and listen. Fiction requires looking, but our visual registering of a word, phrase and sentence, and the way these elements arrange themselves in a style are distinctive to the author we’re reading.  It’s an internally-oriented mental process rather than an externally-oriented process of sorting sights and sounds.  Our imaginations have to finish the job the writer has started. We are required to mentally transform words, phrases, and sentences into actions, thoughts, and the emotions of the characters.

Seeing a film as a supplement to or as a replacement for reading classic works, doesn’t make sense to me. It’s based on the assumption that works of fiction are stories about characters and that, since a visual medium is able to tell stories about characters, if you faithfully tell the story and present all the characters you’ve adequately reproduced the book. While it’s true that some literary classics, especially those written in the 18th and 19th centuries, have intriguing characters, surely it isn’t the case that they are conveyed to us in the same way.  What gets lost in the adaptation is the narrative voice, fluctuations in point of view, subtleties in characterization, and shades of description. Most importantly, what gets lost is the encounter and richness of language.

Stand and Deliver and the legacy of Jaime Escalante


Today I read that Jaime Escalante, the High School mathematics teacher who inspired the film, Stand and Deliver, has died, he was 79. The article said, he virtually performed a miracle in a tough neighborhood. I disagree, he worked hard and persevered at his goal; inspiring students to succeed, against the odds. The only miracle was that he may have made it look easy.

The news took me back in time; to early summer 1988, at the Malibu home of Tom Musca, Producer of the film.

The occasion was the wrap party of Stand and Deliver. Unfortunately, I never met Jaime Escalante, he left before we arrived. At the time I was working at CBS and dated a Film Editor who worked on the television series Falcon Crest. The party included a number of distinguished guests from the Latinoamerican world. These were folks from various countries–drawing on Bolivia, Colombia, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela–and who had, as a result, come to Hollywood for their own particular reasons.

It was a delightful evening. What was most striking to me was the ambiance, the energy that moved around the table, the balcony, in front of the fireplace. Put a collection of leading actors, writers, industry professionals, artists–practically anybody, really–together in the Malibu hills and what you frequently wind up with is a bunch of egos. The conversation may be subtly boastful, and a kind of controlled or not-so-controlled narcissism that is so common in that we don’t even notice it, sort of like the air we breathe. These Latinos, by contrast, were gracious, suave, and low-key. They joked a lot, reflected on art, film and literature, and obviously enjoyed each other’s company. Their interactions were casual, I couldn’t help thinking that whereas so much ritual interaction that Americans have include a tacit agenda or subtext of promoting oneself, the interaction among this group was about respecting each other, making everybody feel valued. Dinner over, and with the party winding down, everyone shook hands and parted.

I walked out and onto the narrow street. As some of the guests strolled by, I noticed them. There was something very human about this; something real and then, a woman unexpectedly turned toward me, smiled and said, quite simply, “Buenas Noches.”