12 of 12 for March 2011

16 Mar


This 12th was a particularly lazy day. By the time I got out of bed, it was already lunch time. So I eschewed baguettes and croissants for a tasty ham and gouda panini made with our panini maker. With a side of Colbert.


This photo was taken at nearly 4 in the afternoon; my roommate and his girlfriend, a Spanish assistant from Colombia who also works in our académie, were still in their pajamas, working on spring vacation plans.


My somewhat cluttered room has been adorned with even more maps from my Italian voyage.


The reason we stayed inside most of the day was the unpleasant weather; for the past week we’ve had unseasonably chilly, rainy, and very windy weather. This is the backyard at our house under grey skies.


In the evening, we took a bus into town on our way to another assistant’s apartment for dinner and a get-together.


Assistants and the apéritif.


Tayson’s tasty fried rice with Chinese sausage. We gobbled this up pretty fast.


And a delicious tapioca pudding with banana for dessert.


Alice shows off her scarf.


Jorge reenacts an anecdote involving his French flatmate and a joke about white flags.


The beautiful fountain at Place de la Liberté (notice the similarity to the Statue of Liberty?) on our way to the bus stop.


Sam, one of the British assistants, lounges with natural class as we ride the night bus back home.


12 of 12 for February 2011

16 Feb


I began this Saturday the 12th with a walk to the bus stop, on my way to rendezvous with another assistant.


Our destination was Bandol, an upscale seaside town to the west of Toulon. When we arrived, the market was in full swing, including this enticing assortment of cheeses.


I captured this typically French scene at a café in Bandol’s pleasant Place de la Liberté.


Pastel Provençal colours abound on the side streets.


Another shot of the market as the sun started to come out.


On the western edge of town we stumbled upon the Plage de Rènecros, a circular beach with bright blue water.


Fellow assistant Alice payed homage to the scene by making some very nice watercolours.


I’m not exactly sure what these are, but I’m guessing some kind of jellyfish.


Another of Alice’s oeuvres.


Waiting for the train back to Toulon.


Later that evening, I met up with another assistant and her French friend to see The King’s Speech (poster on the far right) in version originale (non-dubbed). A very good film indeed.


After the movie, my friends and I headed across the street to Mezzo, a fast food pasta place that I’d never been to before. A bit more pricey than I’d expect, but a very tasty way to end the day.

Things French People Like: Saying Hello

31 Jan

Imagine that you enter a small shop you’ve never been to before. The cashier hears you come in, but is visibly busy attending to one thing or another. Do you:

A) Wait a bit for the cashier to finish, make eye contact with you and exchange greetings
B) Wait a short time and then politely say “Hello” to get the cashier’s attention
C) Immediately and loudly say “Hello!” as soon as you walk through the door

As an American, my intuitive response is A), unless I’m convinced the cashier is simply ignoring me, in which case I might opt for B). I think it is generally considered good manners in America to wait a bit and let the worker finish their task before interrupting them. However, I have found that waiting to make eye contact with the cashier before saying hello is simply not the norm in French culture; in fact, it can be considered quite rude.

The French almost always choose option C). According to the mysterious unwritten but universally accepted 876,324 rules of French propriety (rule #127,533 I think), it is customary to say “Bonjour” as soon as you enter a shop. Sometimes, “bonjour” doesn’t even cut it — rule #127,533 subsection 5b strongly advises that you add “madame” or “monsieur” to the end of your greeting, just in case there was any ambiguity about the sex of your interlocutor (although I have, on occasion, witnessed some embarrassing mix-ups).

When I first arrived in France, the following would happen on some occasions: I enter a shop. The cashier knows I’m there, but is hunched over the register, working diligently on something (rolling either a croissant or a cigarette, I’m not sure). I wait for the cashier to look up at me and say hello. I wait a little longer. Finally, the cashier lifts her head and, with a suspciously passive-agressive tone of exasperation, says, “Bonjour, monsieur.”

It’s easy to see how this kind of behaviour might seem rude to an American. But now I understand the cashier’s point of view. “Okay, this guy just walked into my store. Why hasn’t he said hello yet? What’s he waiting for? God, how rude. “Hello, sir.””

Granted, this particular situation doesn’t happen that often. Usually if the shopkeeper isn’t busy, she will say “bonjour, monsieur” as soon as you walk through the door.

Bonjour is important. And it’s not just for shopkeepers. One time while waiting in line at the small post office in my neighbourhood, a man walked in and collectively greeted the eight or so strangers in line with “Mesdames, messieurs, bonjour.” This would be like a man in America walking into a post office and saying “Ladies and gentlemen, good day.” Usually this kind of person is unshaven, smells like urine, and hears voices.

But “ladies and gentlemen, good day,” is a standard salutation in France.

Artist's rendering of an average Frenchman

The situation becomes more complex when you replace the shop or the post office with your place of work. I don’t know most of the teachers who work at my schools, mostly just the English teachers. But whenever a teacher walks into the teachers’ lounge, they are compelled by the laws of Frenchdom to say hello to everyone. My natural behaviour, of course, is to walk into the room, head towards my seat, and say hello to anyone I make eye contact with along the way, or to anyone I know personally. I feel awkward saying hello to everyone as soon as I walk through the door, but usually not doing so earns me a multitude of curious stares.

Then there’s the bise. Oh God, the bise. That’s the kisses you give people on the cheek to greet them. There are so many variables to take account of before you go in for the kiss. How do I know when to kiss someone? How many kisses do I give? Do I start with the right cheek or the left cheek? Do I have to kiss men too? There is no easy answer to any of these questions, as the answers all vary by region. These are covered by French code rules #701,668 to #702,109 and the corresponding geographic amendments.

In my region of France, you kiss friends (male and female) and newfound acquaintances (usually introduced to you by a friend) if they are a woman or a child (I’m not sure what the exact age cut-off is; I’ll check the manual again). Unless you’re a woman, in which case you pretty much have to kiss everyone.

The standard number of kisses in this area is 2. I think you’re supposed to start with the right cheek but so many people have gone for my left cheek first, resulting in some narrow escapes from catastrophic labial contact.

I have, on occasion, extended my hand to girls that were introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance. They were quite perplexed and a bit putt off by the idea that I was shaking their hand, almost as if I was treating them like they were men. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.

But wait. Wait! What if it’s past 5 PM? Ohhh, sheeeeeeiiiit. You just opened up a whole nother can of worms.

If you don’t speak French, I assure you that that was hilarious.

12 of 12 for January 2011

18 Jan


The 12th was a relatively uneventful and typical (half) workday. This was the view from one of the streets near my house in the morning, the mountainsides illuminated by the legendary lumière du Sud.


Since the bus schedule is a bit sporadic and the arrival times unreliable, I walked the first leg of my commute, about 20 minutes. This house further down the road with a big yard almost makes Toulon look like the countryside. The peak on the far right is Le Coudon, the name of my high school.


On Wednesday morning I work with two BTS classes, post-graduate students who take courses in a specialized area (for my students, it’s import/export). They had to listen to a recording of a news report about the effect of increased free trade in Southeast Asia, specifically China’s ability to outcompete other nations and draw their labour force away. It was a difficult assignment for them.


French high school students usually only have Wednesday classes in the morning, as the afternoon is reserved for sports or other extra-curricular activities. This means that I get to go home at lunchtime. I re-photographed the day’s first picture in a later light.


Since it was such a beautiful and warm day (after two months of subpar weather), I decided to walk to the beach and meet up with some other assistants. This is the view about 20 minutes on foot from my house.


Quelle belle couleur…


My roommate Adam and fellow assistant Alice joined me on the beach. Here they’re staring pensively towards the old fort.


In the evening, I went to my first tutoring gig, near this house in my neighbourhood (behind a couple of gates). I’m tutoring two teenage girls who have a fairly low level of English and who are extremely shy, not that I can blame them. I’m hoping that next time I’ll be able to engage them a bit more. At any rate, it’s extra money in my pocket.


I returned home for a relaxed dinner in the tiny kitchen / dining room / living room / laundry room. With the obligatory baguette.


Adam found some unused hot chocolate mix in the cupboard, which was rich and delicious.


In order to make my miniscule bedroom less resemble a prison cell, I’ve decorated the walls with maps I’ve collected since I arrived. Here you see Corsica, Ornans, Lille, Franche-Comté, Bruges, Dijon, and Lyon.


To prepare for the next day’s classes, I did some research on Australian English in order to quiz the students. My favourite was “shark biscuit” – someone new to surfing.

Best Film of 2010: Sausage?

8 Jan

Earlier this week with one of my middle school English classes, I asked the students to reflect on the year 2010. They apparently remembered very little in the way of world events, aside from a volcano somewhere (Ireland?) and Rhianna’s concert in Marseille, so I decided to steer them towards a more accessible subject. “What films do you remember from 2010?” I asked them.

One of the quieter girls raised her hand quite excitedly.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Saucisse !” she answered, smiling.

Saucisse is French for “sausage.” At first I thought this might have been some French kids’ movie that I’d never heard of (or simply a mean joke on the English assistant), but the rest of the students in the class were just as clueless as I was. “Saucisse?!” several of them asked incredulously, while the rest just burst out with laughter.

But the girl was confident in her answer. “Mais oui !” She repeated the title, this time more slowly and with a distinct pause between the two syllables: [so sis].

The class had a collective a-ha moment (and more laughter) as we realised she was talking about Saw VI (using the French pronunciation of six, [sis]).

Apparently the similarity between the film title and the French word for “sausage” hasn’t gone unnoticed by the general public. A quick Google search reveals a number of French fanmade posters for Saw VI exploiting the pun, e.g.:

I'm pretty sure there's some meat-grinding in the film anyway

Of course, the English pronunciation of “saw” involves a lower / more open vowel than the French [o], namely [ɔ]. French actually has the same vowel (or at least a phonetically similar one). Compare the following two French words:

sot [so] – “silly” (masculine)
sotte [sɔt] – “silly” (feminine)

The question, then, is: why do the French approximate the English [ɔ] vowel (as in “saw”) with a more closed [o] (as in “so”), when the French [ɔ] is phonetically more similar?

One of my linguistic idols, John Wells, addressed this question last year on his blog, referencing a conference paper by Nicolas Ballier. He refers specifically to the French habit of rendering “law” as [lo] (sounds more like “low”). The explanation:

The French vowels o and ɔ, too, are in complementary or near-complementary distribution, with the higher o again being preferred in open syllables and the lower ɔ in closed syllables. Although English law would sound much better with French ɔ than with French o, … nevertheless the syllable structure inhibits its use.

In other words, the French [ɔ] almost always occurs in syllables that end with a consonant (closed syllables), whereas the [o] vowel almost always occurs at the end of a syllable (open syllables). This was the contrast we saw with sot and sotte above, and the same pattern can be seen abundantly elsewhere in the French language:

beau [bo] – “beautiful”
bonne [bɔn] – “good” (f.)
peau [po] – “skin”
port [pɔʀ] – “port”
gros [gʀo] – “fat” (m.)
grosse [gʀɔs] – “fat” (f.)
faux [fo] – “false”
folle [fɔl] – “crazy” (f.)

As a result of this systematic pattern, the French will prefer [o] in English open syllables that are supposed to have [ɔ], like “saw,” “law,” “gnaw,” etc.

This seems to suggest that [o] and [ɔ] have become allophones of the same phoneme in French, although this was not always the case. Traditionally, there have been minimal pairs such as paume [pom] and pomme [pɔm], but presumably many French speakers now use the latter pronunciation for both words. I’ll have to do some surveying to confirm this, because my intuitions are muddled — personally, I still make the distinction.

12 of 12 for December 2010

16 Dec

On the weekend of the 12th, I was up in Lyon with a few other assistants to see the annual Fête des lumières, or Festival of Lights. Since we were out past midnight on the 11th, I took this shot of a colourful light installation around 1am on the 12th as we walked back to our host’s apartment.

After a very restful sleep, we woke up late in the morning. Our host (who is also an English assistant, in Lyon) had a really nice apartment, complete with a variety of artwork provided by the French subletter.

Fellow Toulon assistant Vanessa and I headed to Lyon’s Christmas market to experience the local holiday atmosphere. Being a chestnut fanatic, she couldn’t resist some hot wine with chestnut flavour.

The Christmas market was really bustling with people.

Since we hadn’t eaten dinner at a restaurant in France for a couple months, we agreed that we would look for a reasonably priced place to experience a Lyonnais meal that evening. We scoped out the picturesque Rue Mercière to find a suitable restaurant.

Seeking shelter from the cold, we went inside the Eglise Saint-Nizier and discovered this nice candle display on the altar. As per tradition during the festival, the Lyonnais light candles in recognition of the Virgin Mary, whose protection they prayed for during the plague of 1643.

Inside the church was also this “hands-on” display (pun intended) where visitors express their thanks to Mary and write prayers on their hand outlines.

Continually seeking shelter from the winter weather outside, we found refuge in a small, infinitely charming café where we got cheap hot drinks and shared a mouth-watering tartine with chèvre cheese and thyme.

We swiftly scuttled over to FNAC, a big entertainment / book store. We used the display iPads to check our e-mail until the store closed.

Although the festival officially ended on the 11th, a lot of the illuminations were still up on the 12th. I’m not sure if the Palais de la Bourse is always lit up like this or if it was just for the festival.

We finally rendez-voused with our host, Maggie, and headed off to a Lyonnais restaurant for a delicious dinner. Our table was at the very back of the restaurant, essentially inside the kitchen. Saucisson chaud in a beaujolais sauce was the main course, followed by a very tasty fondant au chocolat. Only the French know how to eat so well.

Since it’s very difficult to see major English-language films in Toulon without French dubbing, I promised myself before going to Lyon that I would take advantage of their version originale screenings. Maggie accompanied me to see the new Narnia movie, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (in 3-D). It wasn’t quite as solid as the first two films, but it restored some of the vibrancy and optimism of the first installment, and I quite liked the ending.

I took the above picture during one of the previews. My next 12 of 12 will be in – you guessed it – 2011.

Overseas Dilemma: How to Say Where I Come From

2 Dec

When traveling abroad, the first question you’re asked after you introduce yourself is almost always, “Where are you from?”

As an American, this question poses an interesting linguistic dilemma. Our country is blessed (or cursed?) with an exceptional number of different names, abbreviations, and nicknames. When you’re in your home country, you don’t think too much about this, because it’s not often that you actually have to specify the name of the nation that you’re in.

When a foreign acquaintance poses the aforementioned question at, say, a youth hostel, my brain usually experiences a delay of a few hundred milliseconds as I mentally scroll through the Rolodex of names for the United States of America, attempting to weigh the pros and cons of each one:

1. The United States. Given that “the United States of America” is definitely too wordy and would probably earn you some strange looks (although not as many as “the Republic of the United States of America”), “the United States” seems like a reasonable alternative. Except that like most Americans, I’m a fan of convenience and efficiency. “The United States” is still too clunky to fit in the drive-thru of my mouth, so sometimes it sounds awkward and unnecessarily verbose, as if my interlocutor had never even heard of this country before and needed a detailed explanation of how federalism works.

2. The US. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the liberally truncated form of “the United States.” It’s easier to say, but it risks not being understood, especially when your newly-met acquaintance is not a native English speaker. Acronyms are not universal (for example, NATO in France is OTAN and the UN is the ONU).  It could theoretically be misinterpreted as “University of Saskatchewan,” “unconditioned stimulus,” or “Ugandan Shilling,” all of which would make you sound crazy.

3. America. It has a dignified air to it, and it’s fairly current among Brits. However, it doesn’t translate so well with speakers of other languages. For the French, “Amérique” typically evokes not only the United States but also Canada, if not the entire North and South American continents (the French seem to be a few hundred years late on the memo that we’ve actually divided “the New World” into two parts). Even for Americans, the word has a bit of a bombastic quality, usually reserved for 19th century patriotic hymns or impassioned political rants about how Mexicans are ruining everything.

4. The States. Ooh, would you like a chai tea latte with that plate of pretentiousness? Even though “the States” is a convenient and common moniker in the rest of the English-speaking world, requiring the smallest number of syllables, no true red-blooded American can say it without feeling slightly treasonous. Dropping off the rest of the name around “States” almost feels sacrilegious, like the habits of a disillusioned ex-pat who’s trying to “act European.”

5. The USA. This one has certain advantages, namely that it seems to be recognized by speakers of many languages (unlike the “US” acronym). Probably because they’ve seen news clips of people chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Which is precisely why you’d rather not use it.

6. Say your state, not your country. If I want to avoid the name dilemma altogether, I can opt to tell people that I’m from New Hampshire instead. There’s one minor problem with this method: nobody knows where the hell New Hampshire is. It doesn’t fit into the average foreigner’s perception of the continguous United States:

A foreigner's view of America

Since “New Hampshire” is usually met with a blank stare or a face contorted in confusion, I have to qualify: “It’s near Boston.” If that fails, “near New York” will usually do the trick. Then they ask me if I’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty.

In practice, I most often use “the United States” with non-English speakers, despite its wordiness. With Brits, Aussies, etc., I usually assume they can already tell that I’m American because of my accent, so I typically say “New Hampshire,” followed by the clarifier “in the US,” “in the States,” or “in America,” depending on my mood.

It’s near Boston.