In the Zone

Before moving to Paris, and right after coming back to the States, I used to seek out opportunities to speak French and attend French-related events. Now I’m at the point where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled in France; have done things in French from making friends to dating to taking Spanish classes; and know French events in New York and New Jersey to the extent that Francophiles ask me for recommendations. When I attend one of these gatherings, it’s likely I’ll know someone there.

I’ve made a little place in the French world for about ten years. I realized that I’ve accomplished what I pursued. Perhaps because I entered my third decade last year, I’ve been ruminating on what my next (metaphorical) move will be.

That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with French, nor was it my only passion as a young adult. As people do, I’ve always had varied interests. But French has been a big part of my life and touched all aspects of it. Just ask my close group of American college friends here how many Frenchies and Francophones I’ve tacked on to our get-togethers in the past couple of years… at this point they’re probably as used to hearing the French accent as often as I am. They’ve met my friends visiting from France and people I know from French language activities, and they’ve joined me to an outdoor Vianney concert, having no idea who he was.

Speaking French with strangers (or anybody) and doing everyday activities in French used to be outside of my comfort zone, and each push was a victory. I remember the first time I convinced a shopkeeper in Paris to give me a refund for a battery charger that I had opened but that didn’t work. The first time I had a job interview in French. The first time I gave condolences to a French friend whose father had died—I realized I didn’t have the preset vocabulary and so really thought and formulated my own phrases.

While I speak French regularly, I’m certainly not at a native-speaker’s level—just last week, I had a work meeting in French for the first time in a long time, and I felt a little self-conscious—it was almost a surprise to feel that way again. And improving my ease and fluidity in the language will be a lifelong journey. But somehow, with my consistent efforts, French has become part of my comfort zone, and I feel a yen to push myself again. I’m still exploring and figuring out in what direction that will be.

Bonne Année

Towards the end of December I sent out Christmas and holiday greetings to friends, family, and acquaintances, which included many Frenchies. Their responses reminded me of the differences between French and English greetings and how much I love noticing them:

– All the responses wishing me “de très belles fêtes de fin d’année” (very happy end-of-the-year holidays). Not that one can’t say “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays), but I think that the fact that the former is even used reveals the specificity of the French language. No wonder non-native English speakers don’t get why we use the word “get” for everything, from “get groceries” and “get ready” to “get up” and “get down.”

– A French friend who responded to my “Merry Christmas” on December 23rd with “Thanks! Although Christmas is in 2 days!” It reminded me of my first year in France, when a friend admonished me for wishing him “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before the end of the year, which I had done because we wouldn’t see each other until after the holidays.

– The “bizzz” at the end of some friends’ emails, not to indicate a bee buzzing, but rather a friendly way of signing off. Not to mention the bisous and je t’embrasse and so on depending on the sender’s personality and how they view our relationship.

I hope you enjoyed the holidays. Bonne Année!

A French colleague told me I can say that until January 20th.



Rough and Tumble

Last night I was at a dinner, and the (French) woman next to me asked me, “Vous allez regarder le match avec nous après?”

I was puzzled. “Le… match?”

She became flustered. “Je veux dire, le débat!”

I can understand her mistake.

Note if you don’t speak French: ‘Match’ usually refers to a sports game. She was asking if I was going to watch the game with them after dinner. Now, I am not a sports fan, so it is entirely conceivable that I wouldn’t have known about a big game last night. However, she was actually thinking of the presidental debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Arthur Avenue and Blossoms in the Bronx

Recently three new friends and I ventured up to the Bronx to check out Arthur Avenue, the “real” Little Italy in New York. Our day got off to a delayed start due to half the group confusing which subway line they were supposed to take. To their credit, it is confusing that the subway stop “125th Street” is in fact four different stops across the city that ten lines pass through. Both people are also not long-time residents of this region.

Having shown up early to our meeting place in the subway station, I acted as an unofficial informational point for tourists who wandered in and wondered which direction to go, as there were two platforms, one for trains going uptown and the other for downtown. The answer was always: head downtown. You want to go to Columbus Circle? Washington Square Park? Downtown. Do you realize how far up north you are? Most of the island is south from where you are right now.

I can only assume they were coming from attending a Gospel Baptist service in Harlem, as many non-American tourists to New York seem to be interested in doing. Most Americans I know, including myself, have never attended one unless they are part of the church or were invited to a service by a friend for a special event.

Almost an hour after our originally scheduled meeting time, our group of four was complete. We started by having lunch at an Italian restaurant (on the back patio! It is spring!!). Before digging into our meat and pasta dishes, we split a plate of arancini, a Sicilian dish of fried rice-stuffed meatballs. Everything was delicious. The restaurant, quiet when we had entered around 1:30, was full of long tables of families chatting and having their Sunday lunch when we left.


We stopped at an indoor market and a deli, purchasing cannoli, fresh mozzarella, truffle lemon zest, tiramisu, ham, and uncooked pasta. We watched an older man at a cigar stand hand roll cigars.

Toting our little plastic bags of goods, we walked to the New York Botanical Gardens for our very first visit. At least I think it was my first visit—sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve been somewhere when I was a kid. It was lovely. The cherry blossom and flowering crabapple trees were in full bloom. Slopes covered by innumerable daffodils celebrated the gardens’ 125th anniversary. Maples from all over the world lined walking paths.

Funnily enough, we spoke in French the whole day (to each other, not to all the Italian servers and sellers). Even though none of us was French, it seemed natural because we had met in a French setting in New York and I was the only one in the group whose native language was English, so it was not as if English would have made communication easier. I thought about how in France if I was in a group of French people, we of course spoke French, but if I was in a group of expats, we spoke English even though usually everyone knew French. I think this is because although many of the expats I knew whose native language was not English spoke French very well, they spoke English almost flawlessly, plus there were usually at least two native English speakers in the group, whether from the U.S. or United Kingdom.

When I initially moved to France, I thought I might meet some expats where our only common language would be French. As it turns out, although there are many monolingual people in the world, a non-French person who moves to France to study or work for a company often speaks English, whether they come from Asia, Africa, Europe, or South America. Many others don’t—I knew a Peruvian and a Russian in Paris who didn’t know any English—but a lot do.

How funny that what I imagined I would live in France—going out with a group of international people and speaking in our second language, French—instead happened in the States, in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, nonetheless.

French in New York


The storefront on the left would not have seemed like wordplay to me if not for the jeu de mots on the right. The consistency in color, geometry, and design between the two facades further made it seem like they were playing off each other.

“Vin sur vingt” is a play on “vingt sur vingt.” Vin, as you probably know even if you don’t speak French, means wine. Vingt means twenty. In France vingt sur vingt, or 20/20, is a perfect score, equivalent to 100% in the United States. So this wine bar’s name promotes it as top-notch.

As for “the little beet,” well, beet spelled with ‘ite’ instead of ‘eet’ is a male body part in French—you can probably guess which one. The pronunciation is the same.

Please tell me I’m not the only French-speaker who finds this pair of storefronts chuckle-inducing.

French Kissing

When I first started communicating with French friends in written form some years ago, I did not understand the subtleties among the possible closings of a message:

Gros bisous
Grosses bises
Je t’embrasse or Je vous embrasse

One easy possibility was to use whatever they had written in their email or letter. If they signed off with bises, I could do the same. But I felt awkward—it didn’t feel like me since I wasn’t used to doing it. I think I subconsciously also felt weird writing “kisses,” even though these sign-offs aren’t really kisses in the way that an English-speaker thinks of kisses. So I often just typed my name after the body of the letter. It floated there all alone.

The exception was when I wrote my former host mom, who always ends her emails to me with “Je t’embrasse.” I thus ended mine with “Je vous embrasse” (yes, I use the formal ‘vous’ with her, which she established with me when we first met).

With more time in France and more emails and texts with French friends, I eventually got used to writing “bises” or “bisous” before my name according to my relationship with the recipient.

I once asked a French friend how she perceived the differences among the variations and which she chose for whom. She said that she uses “bisous” with close girl friends and “bises” with all other friends and acquaintances. She would never use “bisous” with a male friend, only with her boyfriend. However, she cautioned me that she was conservative with her bisous, whereas some of her female officemates gave written bisous left and right to fellow colleagues.

Basically, one person’s bisou is another person’s bise.

Then, of course, there was the day that a friend signed off his text with “biz,” and I thought, “business?” No, biz is a shortened form of bises. The ultimate in casual kissing. I will admit that it still tickles me when I use it occasionally.

I knew I had adapted to life in France when I found myself analyzing a guy’s chosen sign-off and wondering whether it meant anything that he had switched from using one to another.

Now I so fully embrace (or embrasser, ha ha) the use of bisous and bises that I even write them at the end of messages to non-French friends who know French because it is just a nice way to close out a letter. I refrain from but instinctively want to use them with friends who only speak English too. There is no equivalent in English, which was a problem at the beginning in terms of comprehension, but now it is it the reverse: I want an equivalent in English so I can add it to my daily usage.

There is the solution of simply following what one of my French friends does: writing “kisses” at the end of his emails to me. He doesn’t actually know that you can’t translate “bisous” into “kisses.” I am certainly not going to be the one to tell him since I get a big kick out of reading it.

Grosses bises !

J’adore Québec City

The annual Québec Winter Carnival is going on right now in Quebec City. I have never attended, but hearing about it stirred up memories of my trip to the French Canadian city two summers ago. It’s below freezing there now, but in July the weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and warm without being sweltering. Most of the days that I was there, the sky was a nearly-cloudless blue.ImageWhen my two friends and I were deciding where to travel, we considered splitting our trip between Quebec City and Montreal, another city I would like to visit, but we decided to spend all four days in Quebec City. This ended up being a good decision, as we had time to really explore the city and become familiar with the main streets. It ended up becoming a joke because we started recognizing places and people, like the street performer we saw two or three times at different spots.  To our luck, we had also unknowingly booked our trip during the annual summer music festival, so we were able to fully take advantage of the outdoor concerts all over the city.

The Quebec region is special because it is in Canada, but its official language is French. In Quebec City, about 95% of residents speak French as their first language. Many people speak English, but I was surprised to realize that most do not speak it bilingually. Even if they’re fluent in English, you can tell that French comes more easily to them. It was incredible to me that Quebec has been able to preserve its French language tradition while remaining part of Canada. I had often thought of Canada as the United States’ rather similar neighbor to the north, at least culturally. I knew that Canada’s official languages were English and French, but I suppose I hadn’t grasped the day-to-day influence of French there, even outside of Quebec.

During family visits to relatives in Canada throughout my childhood, my cousins and aunts and uncles all spoke English, so my impressions of the country, which is huge and diverse, were formed by these pockets of experience rather than knowledge of actual demographics. When you look at a map of the country, Quebec’s longstanding unique culture becomes less surprising, because the Quebec region is actually very large.

Quebec City is the perfect place for an Anglophone to practice French because people you encounter will automatically speak French to you, but you can fall back on English if you need to or if you’re traveling with English-speakers. I also found that when I spoke in French, people didn’t respond in English even though I don’t speak French like a Quebec or French native. In Paris, francophone Anglophones are not infrequently spoken to in English once the shopkeeper or server hears the hint of an American or other accent. This can be annoying if you actually speak French, especially when the other person doesn’t even speak English well but insists on continuing. In Quebec City, in all but one encounter people responded to me in French without blinking an œil.

At one shop, an employee even asked us if we were from Ontario, which was surprising but delightful. I don’t even know why she thought we might come from there as opposed to elsewhere in Canada or the U.S.—the only thing I can think of is that it’s next to Quebec so maybe they get  lot of visitors from there—but we were a bit excited to get mistaken for Canadians. (For any non-North American who is wondering, I think it’s safe to say that an American or Canadian wouldn’t be able to tell whether someone is from the U.S. or Canada unless that person had a strong regional accent. Or you asked them to write the word ‘color.’)ImageImageImageAn interesting thing about Quebec City is that even though it was the middle of summer and a huge music festival, the city didn’t feel crowded. We had a number of “private tours” of historic sites. I say this in quotation marks because the only reason they were private is that no one else was on the tour. Although the city was lively with visitors, at times it felt like we were the only tourists.ImageImageOne of the highlights of our trip was seeing a free Cirque du Soleil show under a highway. What about that sentence is not extraordinary? First of all, Cirque du Soleil tickets are known to be expensive, but since Quebec is where the circus got their start, they perform free outdoor shows in the summer as a thank you. Secondly, it is under a highway! Seriously. The lights and speakers, not to mention the acrobats, are suspended from the underside of a highway.39.quebeccity.2014g39.quebeccity.2014hWriting about Quebec City hardly scratched the surface—I didn’t even recount the elk burgers, maple cookies, and bubble tea in a can. Or how the soundtrack to our tour of the Citadel of Quebec was Canadian singer Sarah MacLachlan (she was performing outdoors somewhere in the city, and her voice carried to the fort). Suffice it to say I would love to go back in the summer and bike along the vast St. Lawrence River again.39.quebeccity.2014i