Run, run, run

Throughout May I have been running six days a week. This is a considerable step up in frequency from my usual two to four sessions, and along with the increased fitness and bragging rights come good secondary effects: getting up earlier, drinking more water, more time to manufacture vitamin D, better mood. I plan to continue.

I’ve also been showing up for my running group, Let’s Run Paris (LRP), more regularly. Joining scores of like-minded sneakered, Lycra-ed pavement-pounders has been a reminder of the benefits of running with the pack. As attested by countless newspaper and fitness-magazine articles, group running is motivating, supportive, better for safety, community-building and provides accountability and “social facilitation”, the phenomenon where the mere presence of others results in better times and distances. Running in company makes the minutes pass faster if it’s one of those days when your legs weigh a tonne and energy is lacking. Plus it offers occasional French practice and a chance to meet new people.

Initially, though, I was skeptical. I’ve been a regular runner since my early 20s but always alone. I’ve long found enormous joy in the meditative nature of focusing on strides and breathing. It’s unassailable time to think, away from screens, phone and other demands for attention. I retreat to my interior world. I write stories and poetry in my head, dream up travel plans, organise my budget.

But, stuck in a solo-running rut about 18 months ago, I saw a notice on the Meetup website, with the rendez-vous point in my arrondissement. I decided to give the group thing a go, even though it seemed intimidating, rigid, and perhaps too fast or too challenging. I needn’t have worried. LRP – which was started by an expat American and draws an international crowd – is a friendly bunch, run by a dedicated core of volunteers. It doesn’t cost anything to join, and you just show up. (You can signal that you’re coming on the web page but it’s not essential.) Even if you hover silently about the edges, like I did the first time, there’s a good chance someone will notice a new face and introduce themselves.

The group, which by my rough estimate is usually about 40 people, spiking in spring, divides into three pace bands on Mondays (four on Saturdays, when LRP does longer routes from near Jardin du Luxembourg in the Latin Quarter). I stick to six minutes per kilometre (the middle band), which is now about the speed I run on my own. A group photo is mandatory at the beginning of each run, as is a rundown of the rules: stay behind your pacer (a group leader who sets the speed), stop at traffic lights, and tell someone if you stop early so the rest of the group doesn’t go looking for you. There is a pacer at the front and one at the back so no one gets left behind.

The spirit is welcoming and inclusive, and the runners have a range of ages and abilities, from newbies to hardcore marathoners sporting the T-shirt from their latest event. Some live in Paris, some are just passing through. The wonders of social media have created a global network whereby runners in town for a day can find company in a click.

If there are downsides to group running, they are mostly practical. It takes a while to learn to maintain the right distance from the person in front of you so you don’t clip their heels. It’s tricky not being able to see bollards and other footpath hazards until you’re on top of them. Generally, though, the pack looks after each other, signalling potholes or other trip traps. After 10 minutes or so a rhythm is established and on good nights, the group is like a single organism, feet drumming under a hum of good-natured chatter. It’s a good way to get training tips, find out about events, network, commiserate the difficulties of Paris life through the buzz of endorphins.

A few social graces (keep right, single file in narrow passages) are required so the group doesn’t monopolise the pavement. And we are often greeted with cheers (“Bon courage!”), sometimes jeers, as we pound past. It’s all part of the experience, part of blending into the landscape, streaming through the city.

The summer-night circuit is about 11 kilometres from Place de la Nation, to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured) – with steady inclines along Père Lachaise cemetery’s high wall and north to the park – then down past halal butchers, Chinese restaurants and budget boutiques to Goncourt. The park is the highest point, and the top path, on these steamy lengthening evenings, offers a dusky view across picnickers to grey rooftops and the high rises of the north-eastern suburbs. You barely notice the fatigue in your legs from the climb.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Speak easy

Why is the French word for vagina masculine? Why does “ça va aller” mean “it’s okay” and not “this is going to go”? Why are there so many words? The subjunctive, explain yourself. In short, why is learning a language so damn hard?

As a neophyte francophone, and English teacher, I’ve come to accept that “why” is a fool’s errand. You might as well ask why the sky is blue or why creatures on earth have an even number of limbs. It turns out that “what” and “how” are much more useful questions. What does this mean? How do you say this? How do you remember new vocabulary? In the ocean of words, grammar, culture and habit – where the possibilities in French extend from “Je t’aime” to Molière and beyond – how does the beginner begin? And, more difficult, how do you avoid drowning long enough to navigate the choppy intermediate stage to fluency?

Immersion is widely held as a good method. But that is surprisingly difficult to achieve when you teach your native language and many locals switch out of French the instant they hear an Anglophone accent. Ergo, immersion must be actively sought, and is not a passive result of simply being in Paris (a surprise when I arrived). Herewith a recent dip in the pool…

Firstly, it was the weekend, so I was not professionally required to speak English. In the morning, I listened to the news (dominated by the election primaries) on France Inter. Then, as I was leaving my apartment, I ran into my neighbour. She asked me if I was going for a run. I asked her to repeat the question, then said, “Non, je suis en train d’aller joindre un ami pour faire un échange français/anglais”, then we talked about the weather. Considering that my initial French goal was to have simple day-to-day exchanges, this conversation was an important milestone.

(One of the best tips in an excellent Guardian article from their 2014 language-learning challenge is to keep a record of progress. Others include choosing material that interests you – books, movies, cooking shows – and focus on communication rather than getting bogged down in practicalities.)

I caught the bus, saying the essential “bonjour” to the driver as I boarded. I spent the trip buried in my book. Admittedly, the novel I was reading at the time was in English (The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, since you ask) but I’ve recently finished the 600-plus page La Verité sur l’Affaire de Harry Quebert by Swiss writer Joel Dicker and am now on Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames). Regardless of my reading matter, public transport offers eavesdropping opportunities aplenty.

At Place d’Italie, I met C for two hours of conversation, first in English, then in French. His technique is to write down complete sentences with phonetic pronunciation; I tend to note individual words, useful expressions. We often use our text messages as a practice tool – correcting mistakes, suggesting more natural phrasing. Sometimes it’s frustrating – such as when he tried to explain du moment que (so long as) and I just couldn’t get what the hell he was on about – but generally it’s a fruitful way to spend Saturday morning.

However, that day, we agreed that after more than a year of regular meetings, we had both stagnated. His oral comprehension was not improving, and I still struggle to speak. This reflects the fact that he does the lion’s share of the talking in both languages. So his spoken vocabulary has expanded, and I understand most of what I hear (see, progress!). Our new strategy is to reverse that balance with more questions.

I asked him what he thought was the biggest barrier to mastering a new language (he also dabbles in Spanish and Mandarin). He said the small differences such as why some verbs go particularly with some nouns (“take the opportunity”, for example) and nuances between words that are superficially similar, such as speak, talk or discuss.

(A colleague, R, who has studied French for eight years up to second-year university level, singled out pronunciation, which you can’t get through reading alone or without correction. She also talked about the challenge of picking up colloquial expressions.)

On the way home, I stopped at the outdoor market near Nation, in an absent-minded stab at Christmas shopping. I talked to stallholders and enjoyed the crowded ambiance, smells of roast chicken, crêpes, the colourful flowers and precisely stacked produce. My brain was much more interested in choosing something to eat than deciphering subject-verb-object constructions.

In the afternoon I did a two-hour swing-dancing workshop, all in French. Dance classes add a practical necessity to understanding, plus all-important repetition. It was a big class, so I had mini-conversations with about 15 people. I have developed a burning desire for that singsong accent so many Parisiennes have.

After all the listening, speaking, embarrassing errors, misunderstandings, breakthroughs and unexpected connections, I’d say the most important qualities are confidence and curiosity. Plus a certain acceptance that understanding grammar will only get you so far. My students who do best are the ones who forge ahead and are comfortable enough to keep their eyes and minds open rather than close down for fear of making mistakes. Not such bad advice generally, as it turns out.

I’d love to have instant, dazzling results to show for my labours, but language is complex and improvement comes in waves. And, at the same time, I have been mastering other things: how to teach people stuff; to navigate the Métro; to walk on the right hand side of the pavement; to not smile at people in the street; to drape a scarf so it doesn’t fall off or strangle you.

Ça va aller.

Listening exercises

Like a football final, or the human brain, Paris is a city of two halves. It splits many times over, with yawning chasms appearing and closing the longer an interloper lives here, gape-mouthed and intent on prising apart the pieces to peer inside. Left bank, right bank. Parti Socialiste, Les Républicains. Working-class east, bourgeois west. CDI, everyone else. Car, Métro. Native Parisian, everyone else. Tourist, implant.

I returned recently to this last division, as deep and invisible as a puncture wound, as I was flicking through an Australian travel magazine, the beautiful images and text somewhat at odds with the city I live in. This is standard – no one sees their daily surrounds as a visitor does. The short-term stay is stuffed with cherry-picked pleasures and skimmed of the grind. Residents, on the other hand, balance the trials of overpopulation and insouciant competition with the luxury of time and repetition, the opportunity to sit in a bar or café, as I love to do, and watch the world pull up a chair, drink, sigh, and contribute to the landscape. It’s instructive to do this in different neighbourhoods, either by design (as at Les Pères Populaires, above) or hazard, to learn, as the French say, comme une petite souris. Here, then, are some recent observations.

Septime La Cave

The American holding court at the bar is complaining that a man he’d just met tried to kiss him on the lips. I have been listening to him spout foodie jargon for a glass and a half of Busser Printemps (100% malbec) – Michelin stars, five hundred euros, Barcelona, blah, blah, blah.

“He’s got a beard and shit, right? He’s a good guy.” “That’s rad.”

Septime La Cave is full to elegant sufficiency on this early evening. I have a stool, a second glass of wine and half my olives (the black ones – the green ones were so plump and unctuous I ate them immediately). I have my book (La Vérité sur l’Affaire de Harry Quebert by Joël Dicker), a loan from an astute colleague and thus far a compelling mix of Twin Peaks and Lolita.

Rue de Charonne is my terroir. J and I ended up here a few nights ago after finding the gloriously named Bears & Raccoons, around the corner, closed. I’m back because I had, on my way home tonight, a hankering for a good red.

The young women behind the bar, then and now, are attentive and discreet. They bring me a top up based on a raised eyebrow. They slice dried duck breast for bar snacks. They have long dark hair and just-red lips.

Everyone, or nearly, is speaking English. An older dude lingers outside. People leave the bar. They light cigarettes as they go.

I sit and listen. Talking, garden-variety reggae on the stereo, chairs scraping on the wood floor, fridge door closing, ring tones, clinking glassware, traffic, a thump of a handbag hitting the floor.

I’m warm – wine? Candles?

The patrons are well-groomed, beautiful. They swirl their glasses. The two girls near me are comparing text messages and finishing a bottle of Faugères, their glasses leaving glistening scarlet rings on the windowsill.

This feels like Twilight Zone Paris, partly fed by tourists, partly locals of a certain flavour.

The American is back to opining about the wine industry. “Less work, same money.” Maybe he’s somebody. I have no idea. I turn to put a face to the nasal twang. “We have micro-climate. Over the winter, I’m going to try to build a small greenhouse.” His companion is sitting up very straight, listening. She has glossy hair halfway down her back.

The bar is tiny, smaller than my apartment, with cabinets along two walls filled with wine, price tags hung on red thread around each neck. I notice later a bike helmet and umbrella on the coat rack. The furniture is stools, wine crates, an armchair.

“Forty covers a night, so there are some options.”

The song changes, the conversation pauses, then all begins again.

I think the girls next to me are on a date – folded arms, a hand on a hand, a quick kiss. I can’t follow their rapid-fire French mixed with laughter.

The American has gone. Suddenly, the space opens up. I dig into a final olive. The salt reminds me of my hunger. My glass is lined with a shadow of pink, my head has a shadow of alcohol, another twilight zone. I’ve reached page 269 in my book. It’s time to head home for dinner.

It’s definitely a date going on behind me.

Hoppy Corner

Because I am a beer-nerd-in-training, the second thing I notice on entering Hoppy Corner  – after realising none of my workmates are here – is that there are fifteen beers on tap, including a couple of familiar Frenchies.

Wrong day, wrong place, wrong time, whatever. My curiosity has been piqued by La Levalloise from Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris on the list, so I pull up the lone stool at the end of the bar.

“Accidental beer is the best kind,” says J in a text. She also says she can’t come down to keep me company. Tant pis. She’s right, though, I think with an eye on the mid-gold pale ale now placed in front of me. The atmosphere is more wine bar, Americana-style soundtrack not withstanding, than beer hall, and the beer is served in stemware.

Outside, people in Halloween costumes are headed towards the Montorgueil pedestrian area and perhaps to Beaubourg beyond. This Monday night has caught a little imported holiday spirit.

At Hoppy, you can taste before you buy to make sure the bitterness, weight and style of your chosen drop pleases your palate. The barman launches into the origins of India pale ale between pulling half pints for punters. I feel quietly superior that I already know this story. I study the foam on top of my demi and continue eavesdropping. I think of my sister-in-law who inadvertently opened the door to the beer universe when she offered me a sip of her Leffe, at a café just down the road.

This place has been open since April, the barman explains. They have a rotating selection of thirty beers by the bottle as well as those on tap. There is wine, too.

The noise level is rising. I’m enjoying the crisp, non-challenging bitterness of my choice.

Les Chaises

You’ve got to love a bar that plays Giorgio Moroder. I Feel Love is on, and about five people are sitting at the bar at Les Chaises, while the barman takes the occasional forkful of some kind of meatball dish. I look past him to the short blackboard menu and order a glass of Libac (4€). I take a table at the back, through the wide arch where the wall has clearly been knocked out to extend the space towards the kitchen. I’m meeting J in half an hour, and this place is local, plus it’s a recent recipient of a Time Out award for favourite neighbourhood bar (20th arrondissement).

Conversation is the dominant sound – about four tables are already filled and a couple more are ready for reservations. I discover this when I try to move to a spot away from the pass. Opposite me, a couple are sharing a planche of cheese and charcuterie beneath a tableau of Scrabble tiles on the wall. Its lines spell out names.

I have previously thought that, if you were trying to name a baby or a pet, that a visit to an art gallery might furnish many ideas – I was at the Louvre at the time and falling in love with David’s depiction of the Sabine women – but this artwork could also do the job. Magalie? Sébastien? Astrid? Cédric? In the centre, it says, “Merci à tous”, so these names are clearly attached to people, actual people, like the ones coming in now for their reservation and engaged in the critical ritual of kissing everyone, noisily, on both cheeks. (An aside, when I was waiting for my dance class to start the other night, the women doing the concurrent contemporary class arrived to change in the curtained-off corner at the bottom of the stairs where I was sitting, buried in The Line of Beauty. From behind the khaki drapes came a clicking puckering, the smacks of lip-cheek connections, like rain falling heavily on a pond or carp surfacing in a château moat.)

But I digress.

The tables at Les Chaises are mismatched. The chairs, too. The place is named for its seating but it’s standard-issue bric-a-brac here. Industrial lights. A corkboard for announcements made of corks. The walls are red and grey. There are fairy lights and plants.

I continue to watch the couple opposite. The man is eating from their planche with a knife and fork, but in between bites he lets his hand, still holding the fork, fall below the table. I think she likes him more than he does her. Her legs are stretched well into his side of the table. She is not eating.

Escape to Burgundy

The young men at the table next to ours seemed overdressed for Saturday coffee on the terrace in a tiny village. We had watched them file in, solo and in twos and threes, and now their large table was surrounded, long limbs and bare ankles stretched out underneath, seersucker suit jackets slung carefully over the backs of chairs. They ordered a raft of espressos, salade chèvre, a smattering of beers, and we waited for the waitress to lower the awning to protect us from midday sun.

Once our corner was in shade, I set to eavesdropping. (There can be no more satisfying use for nascent French skills than this.) It took fewer than three sentences before someone mentioned a wedding. The medieval church was just around the corner in the main square. My travelling companion, P, and I looked around, discreetly, to try to work out who, among those smooth faces, some adorned with tastefully groomed beards, was the groom. I couldn’t tell, but neither could I help being pulled into their orbit, into that early-twenties mixture of hope and uneasiness, feigning adulthood, learning the motions. Their energy was familiar and alien to my forty-something head. They were deep in agitated conversation, like sparrows around a birdbath.

Amid times and names and organisation, the details of which flew by too fast for my intermediate-level comprehension, I caught mention of Munich, nine dead, scores injured, and so real life intruded on southern Burgundy. The topic moved on, and the cobbled patio filled with more voices, glasses filled with local pinot, reflecting sunlight breaking through clouds. The market gardener out in the main street packed up his little stand, the thoroughfare emptied of cars.

P and I split a dozen snails, which arrived sizzling in golden butter, heavy with garlic and flecked with parsley, and two of those goat’s cheese salads, and watched the sun peak and dip into clear afternoon over Saint-Gengoux-le-National.

Much can be said of the virtues of beating a retreat from Paris in the company of an old friend, with a shiny hire car in which to explore vineyard-checked hills and crumbly hamlets. We started in Dijon, devoted a couple of hours to Beaune, then took the B roads south to digs in Saint Boil. That was Friday. This was the first full day of our long weekend and, on the advice of a laconic English neighbour (“it’s nice and there’s a shop”), found ourselves in this centuries-old village, wandering blindly. Isn’t that the best way to travel? On arriving, we asked a local to point us towards a lunch spot, and to highlight sights of interest on the map helpfully billboarded in the car park. After coffee, no dessert, we began at the church, with its twin spires (one religious, one secular) joined by a narrow wooden bridge high in the sky. We didn’t want to disturb the wedding, so we didn’t go inside.

CIMG2359

L’Eglise de Saint-Gengoux was first cited in the 10th century, according to Wikipedia (yes, I need to upgrade my research tools), under the growing influence of the abbey in nearby Cluny, but a new church was built in 1120, just a few decades before the village and its surrounds were ceded to King Louis VIII. (The town was then renamed Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal, becoming Jouvence after the Revolution, and reverting quietly to Saint-Gengoux-le-National in 1870.)

CIMG2363

Opposite the church, more or less, are the remains of a 13th-century castle and washhouse (pictured below), and all around the town centre snake immaculate narrow streets, with requisite geraniums, passageways and picturesque cats posing for next year’s Felines of France calendar. As P was snapping someone’s private garden, the owner appeared with a breezy “Bonjour!” and an offer to visit the wine cellar under her house. Chantelle introduced herself and explained that the house had once been used to produce wine, pointing to the hole in the cellar ceiling where the pressed juice would pour into barrels below to be turned into wine. These days, the constant temperature makes it ideal for the family’s pinot noir collection. We silently willed the invitation to include a tasting. No such luck. But a quick exchange about the perils of modern life and the necessity of living boldly regardless of threats and current events did offer a chance to practise French.

CIMG2358

The village is built on a hill that slopes gently to the Grosne river. We went in the opposite direction, up past the fountain, up to the remnants of defensive towers, up to a view over fields and forests. Up past rows of 19th century houses that care little for time. I stood on the picnic table to better frame my photographs.

CIMG2362

On the way back to the car, we met wedding guests, tottering in heels, chiffon dresses floating on the breeze. The bunting over the streets could have been strung for the occasion, rather than for the twice-monthly Tuesday markets. By this time, even the supermarket was shut and it was easy to re-imagine the streetscape as it might have been in its Middle Ages heyday.

War of words

French conversation group participants fall into two camps: visitors and residents. The former are bright-eyed and dreamy about their Paris adventure. The latter are like mature-age students in an undergraduate class – they’re hardened, goal-focused and hell bent on putting a damper on everyone’s fun. Or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. I’ve been going to the same group for about three years, meeting at cafés around the city for conversation overseen by G, our eternally cheerful and patient Francophone. The group is three to eight people, usually of intermediate level, in Paris for days, for months, for the foreseeable future. The topics range from basic introductions, to art exhibitions, pop culture and current affairs, to a smattering of grammar or idioms. For me, it’s been informative, frustrating, a regularity in my chaotic teaching schedule, a port in the storm when my life is falling apart, a place to make friends, and a barometer of how much my French has progressed.

At the outset, not only did I have an inflated idea of my French level (gleaned over years at school and university but left languishing for decades in the recesses of my brain), I also had no idea how long it would take to become fluent. I had weeks where I understood nothing. An expensive five weeks at Alliance Française, while fun, did little to ease my pain. Sadly, language is not acquired by osmosis, I discovered. But with effort, little by little, it filters in. I found myself developing an everyday vocabulary that had nothing to do with deciphering a Métro map, getting lost in Montmartre or finding dismissive customer service charming. Brutal necessity expanded my lexicon into endless acronyms – HLM, SDF, SNCF, EDF, CPAM – and the ubiquitous Ça depend. You can see how that this makes for a super-fun group conversation.

The truth is that learning a language is hard and constant. Every day brings new words, new structures, new realisations that I’ve been saying something wrong for months. Désolée. I’m deep into an addiction to language-learning website Duolingo, which is telling me I’m 55 per cent fluent, while at the same time being unable to say how long it will take to finish its course of modules – sometimes I have eight hours to go, other times it stretches to twenty, or beyond. Its short translation, pronunciation and oral-comprehension exercises are addictive – the dopamine rush of a green tick each time you tap in a correct answer is like a first sip of vin rouge on a Friday night. I’ve just reached the subjunctive and, excitingly, the outer edges of my understanding.

Language has become my life, much more than when I was a full-time journalist. I swing between pretending to be an expert (as an English teacher) and feeling like a total novice (in French). I read Facebook posts in both languages, listen to France Inter on the radio, plan English lessons, ramble about in my own head in a discordant, grammatically catastrophic stream of Franglais. I try to speak French as often as possible but collapse gratefully into English when exhaustion or embarrassment or sheer ignorance takes over.

It’s a by-the-glass proposition, this language-learning business. Sometimes the stemware is half empty, like when it takes an age to squeeze out a simple sentence or when you cheerfully tell the guy at the newspaper kiosk that “Je suis libre”, leaving him happy not that it’s the weekend and you are now free to do as you please but that you’re single and up for it. Sometimes it’s half full: vocabulary starts to stick, you respond spontaneously to the assistant at the boulangerie or eavesdrop effortlessly on the Métro.

On rare occasions, the champagne flute runneth over. You make a joke, you understand the jokes in a film, you find yourself reading Libération fluidly. You fall in love with French-language writers and breeze through a pithy Amélie Nothomb novella or revel in Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s insights . At these times, as with all slow, hard-won progress, it’s soothing to look back at how far I’ve come.

I often feel adrift, too. Words desert me, all of them, English also, leaving me floundering in the space that gapes between two worlds. Translation, that daily task of making sense of surroundings not couched in your native tongue, feels like a leap of faith, from one headspace to another. Some linguists have suggested that we have different personalities in different languages. I don’t speak French well enough to say whether I agree. I don’t think the stunted version of yourself that emerges when you are struggling to string a sentence together is what they mean. Paradoxically, though, French, and life in France, has freed me in unexpected ways and allowed me to connect more deeply with what I value most. The things that make me tick – cinema, dance and absolutely language in all its riches and roadblocks – are the things I’ve clung to most in trying to find my voice here.

I guess that’s the sticking point with conversation groups. They are essentially made up of strangers, so they can only skim the surface. It has to be that way. But as French takes hold of my psyche and begins to change my perception of this city, from the inside out, it’s no longer enough to simply speak in superficialities. I need to change the discussion. As it were.