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Monthly Archives: July 2015

French 101

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IMG_3601 There is nothing like traveling to a country where English is not the native tongue to make one feel humble…and slightly terrified. My husband and I recently flew to Paris to reunite with our daughter at the end of her study abroad program. The plan was to head out to Normandy upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle, spend a few nights, then return to Paris for a long weekend. I spent many hours preparing for this adventure, which involved the driving  of a stick-shift vehicle down narrow cobblestone streets, around twisting roads with speed limits between 90 – 130 km, not to mention parking in the narrowest spaces you’ve ever attempted to negotiate. For weeks before our departure, I read everything Rick Steves ever wrote on the subject and even used one of his trip itineraries as our model for getting around the northwestern coast of France.  I booked all of our accommodations, and mapped out an interesting route from Monet’s gardens in Giverney, to the charming port of Honfleur, to the ancient tapestry in Bayeux, across the D-Day beaches, ending with a night on medieval Mont St. Michel. Travel day finally arrived and I stepped upon the Air France plane to the greeting of “Bonjour madame!” And from that point on, every notification and announcement was spoken in French. I froze. When the flight attendant approached me with the drink cart, I tried to ignore her despite my strong desire for a glass of wine. “Madame,” she asked, “Voulez vous quelque chose à boire?” I looked at her and uttered, “Huh?” To which she replied, “Oh. Would you like something to drink?” How embarrassing. Sipping my vin rouge, I returned to my buddy Rick’s guidebook to see what he had to say on the subject. Luckily, he gave several one-liners to help American travelers survive on a French vacation. I felt much better. When the plane landed, I confidently said “Merci” and “Au revoir” to all of the stewards, who smiled and answered “Goodbye.”

Happily, our flight landed right on time, our luggage arrived promptly, our daughter was waiting for us, we picked up our car, and took off across the French countryside. In the car I expressed my trepidation about speaking French to my daughter who assured me that everyone understands English, but they appreciate it when you attempt to communicate with them in French. I began to feel better; after all I’d taken two years of French at Cuero High School in the ’70’s. Honestly, all I remembered were a couple of phrases, “Ferme la bouche,”  which means, “Shut your mouth,” and was frequently uttered by my teacher, Madame McBride, and “Voulez-vous couche avec moi ce soir?” of Lady Marmalade fame.  I figured neither would be appropriate in polite French company.

The first night we stayed in a tiny town on the coast, Honfleur, and ate in a small restaurant overlooking the port. It was clear from the start that our waiter could not speak or understand English. My husband and I looked at our daughter in terror. She calmly guided us through the menu and politely ordered for us in French. She taught us to always ask for a “carafe d’eau,” meaning a pitcher of water, which is willingly provided but only if you ask. We learned that the French are very polite people who never assume that you want anything. You must ask first, even for the check, then it will be provided. “L’addition, s’il vous plait.” Memorize that. After a couple of days, my husband and I began to feel more confident, and appropriately uttered such phrases as bonjour, au revoir, merci, and in the evening, bonsoir. So, we were on a roll, although our daughter had a rather irritating habit of imitating our South Texas accents, saying,  “Bone Jur” and “Mercy.” Apparently, I also had a habit of singing my French phrases; I couldn’t help it. I’d just watched “Julie & Julia” before coming and all I could hear was Julia Child’s sing-song, confident use of the language, which I desperately tried to imitate.  One day when I felt especially relaxed, I took the bold step of offering to purchase our tickets at a museum, while my daughter and husband headed to the toilette. I approached the sales desk and confidently said to the ticket lady, “Tres” (pronouncing the s). She looked very confused, turned her head a little and seemed unsure of my purpose. “Tres.” I said louder. “Tres tickets,” I said emphatically, slightly annoyed. Then, realizing my mistake I said  “Tray” which of course was correct as one doesn’t pronounce the last consonant of a word when speaking French. Still no response. I then resorted to the international sign for three and held up three fingers. She smiled, nodded and handed me three tickets. I said, “Merci,” gratefully, to which she replied in English, “Would you like headphones to help explain the exhibit?” I said, “Oui!” She then asked if I’d prefer them in English or French. I laughed and said, “Oh, English, I guess. Our French isn’t quite that good yet!” She smiled politely and handed me three headphones, which I distributed to ma famille. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I reflected upon the incident and tried to determine what had been wrong with my accent. OH MY GOD, I said tres instead of “TROIS.” I asked for “very tickets,” as in tres bien! I was so embarrassed that I didn’t tell my daughter and husband until we were having drinks at a restaurant several days later. We all laughed uproariously. I then said to my husband, “Shall we ask for a cafe de l’eau?” “MOM, IT’S A CARAFE D’EAU.” Ooops!

I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere in the Twitter-verse beside the hashtag, #When Parents Speak French. Oh well. C’est la vie!

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I Wish I Was My Kid

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imagesI have heard this sentiment so often lately, “I wish I was my kid!” Why this unusual sentiment, you ask. It has to do with our college-aged children’s ability to travel around the world. Have you noticed that colleges pride themselves on all the students they can send on foreign exchange programs? If and when you accompany your child on a college visit, don’t be surprised that the most frequently asked question of parents and youngsters alike seems to be, “What kind of study abroad program do you have?” And the institution in question can’t wait to answer, “Oh, excellent! 99+% of our students spend part of their college years studying in a foreign country.” Then the parents and children in the room look at each other approvingly and nod. In the last few years, I’ve had friends whose children have studied in Barcelona, Madrid, Guanajuato, Amsterdam, Paris, Lyon, London, Vienna, Edinburgh, Sydney, and even Botswana. Awesome, considering the only place I studied was  Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy community just north of Austin, and about 90 miles from my hometown. When I was in college, I never heard of anyone studying abroad except for some hippies, maybe, who graduated then decided to “backpack through Europe.” We all suspected the real reason for their travel was the hope of delaying a job search. I was most impressed when, at Southwestern, I met my future sister-in-law and her best friend from Ft. Worth, who’d taken a year to travel across Europe between their senior year in high school and their first year of college. It seemed so exotic, yet legitimate, because one of their families lived and worked in Brussels and encouraged the girls to come over and travel. How cool was that, I thought, but way beyond my exploration capacity at that age.

When my middle child was in college at the University of Texas, she asked if she could go on a school-sponsored trip to France and study for 8 weeks in the summer. My husband and I were kind of surprised that she wanted to do this at age 19, but we agreed it would be an awesome experience. She did it, studying first in Paris, then moved on to Lyon where she lived with a family, attended a local university, and was truly immersed in French language and culture. She came home a fluent French speaker, a world traveler, empathetic with citizens of the world, and more appreciative of the comforts of her American home. She continued her studies, graduating with a minor in French.

A year or two after that, we were asked by the coach of our youngest daughter’s high school tennis team to host an exchange student from France in our home. “You never know when you might need a place to stay in France,” he enticed us. We agreed, thinking we should “pay it forward,” in exchange for the nice French family who had hosted our daughter. She was a darling girl, a tennis phenom, but completely uninterested in attending class or making good grades. Eventually, we learned she had deep, dark issues from which she was attempting to flee, and that a Rotary-sponsored trip to the U.S. seemed just the answer for her. My husband and I, and especially our daughter, found ourselves caught up in a whirling dervish of crazy messiness. I was astounded that while my college-aged daughter had been accountable to her university for her grades earned in France, this younger girl was just here to have fun. Her grades counted for nothing at her French high school, and, she made no secret of the fact that she had no desire to ever return home. After a few weeks with us, she was pulled from our home and our daughter’s school and placed with another family, although her behavior should have guaranteed her a first class ticket right back to France. We didn’t see her again, but heard from others that she reported we’d “kicked her to the curb.” Through social media she vowed to “destroy” our daughter. The Rotarian who removed her from our home told us later that he feared for his safety as she screamed, “If you try to take me to the airport, I’ll tell security I have a bomb strapped to my leg.” He slept that night with a chair propped against his bedroom door, and removed and hid all the steak knives from his kitchen.

Last year, during our youngest’s sophomore year in college, she informed us that “all” the juniors study abroad for a semester. But, because she had switched majors, she would need to choose a shorter program, which could be completed during 8 weeks of the summer. She’d been approved for a program in Paris; would we allow that as we had for her older sister? After some discussion, my husband and I decided it would be fine and off she went in late May. The difference this time was that she was on her own, not traveling with a group from her college. She had many travel delays en route and I was a nervous wreck. Eventually, though, she made it to Paris, and has had a wonderful time, making friends, living with a widow and her pet monkey, Lola, and earning six hours of advanced French credit. Last weekend, however, there was a terrorist scare. Isis, apparently, struck on three continents, including France where the loner beheaded his boss at an American factory. We received emails from her study abroad program advising us that she was safe but should remain alert. That took a few years off… Then, this week, she and her friends decided to see a bit more of Europe and travel to Venice, Italy. This morning her friends made it; she’s not there yet due to an unfortunate failure-to-put-passport-in-purse incident. Needless to say, I’ve been an uber-nervous Nelly, especially since my husband made me watch the movie “Taken” recently. But, as much as I’ve worried from afar and prayed for her safe travel, I can’t help but think that I wish I was my kid.