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.

Screen time

Paris is a cinephile’s paradise, and this week I got the keys to the city. With my Illimité card, I can see as many films as I like for 22€ a month. Just swipe the magic blue morsel of plastic in the machine at the entrance and, voilà, the world is at my feet.

It’s taken me a while – about four years – to sign up for this scheme but careful tracking of my movie-going this year has proved its worth beyond a shadow of a doubt. Casual cinema visits are expensive – up to 11€ a pop, although a multi-movie card brings the per-film cost down considerably – and I average four films a month, a habit that creeps up in times of stress, boredom or loneliness or during post-Cannes/pre-Oscar release peaks.

Now, my days of rationing and guilt at over-indulgence are over. The card is branded UGC, which is the second largest cinema operator in Europe, but it’s also accepted by the slightly less mainstream MK2 and many of the independents, including the art deco Rex and the mignon La Clef in the Latin Quarter. (Gaumont Pathé and other institutions offer similar subscription plans.) Therein, releases from around the world – from micro-budget festival favourites to franchised blockbusters, documentaries, experimental, opera direct, queer, silent, classics and animation – give an intense feeling of connection to a wider cultural world. I signed up online and celebrated my card’s arrival in the post three days later with a late session of La Fille Inconnue, the latest piece of social realism from the Belgian Dardenne brothers. (Maybe not the most uplifting choice.)

I’ve always loved movies. On the big screen I’ve found inspiration, comfort, information and joy since my parents first took me and my brother to see Lady and the Tramp at the drive-in in Perth in the late 1970s. Fairly soon after that, I had my first intimation of the transporting, transgressive power of cinema when a friend’s older sister, who was supposed to be babysitting, took us to see Eliza Fraser, a risqué Australian farce involving extramarital sex, bare bottoms and hiding people in wardrobes. I was hooked.

Living here, however, has taken my movie obsession to another level. Simple opportunity accounts for some of it – there are 376 cinema screens in Paris – but language learning has given me added motivation to lock myself in a darkened room once or twice a week. I worked out quickly that a subtitled film from, say, Kurdistan, such as the gorgeous My Sweet Pepper Land, was easier to understand than a French police drama with its lightning-fast dialogue and argot. But even at the outset, when my French comprehension level was A2 basic, I went anyway, settling in regularly for 90 minutes of dappled bewilderment, trying to understand this new society I had joined.

Thanks to the cinema, I’ve learnt that the Anglo and French senses humour are vastly different (I will never get Dany Boon), that Pierre Niney is inescapable and coincidence is everything when it comes to finding love. France also seems to provide more opportunities for female writers and directors, and thus more chances to see women-led stories. I love, too, that you don’t have to wait for festivals to see films from countries without a well-recognized cinema culture, such as Ethiopia (Lamb) or Anatolia (Winter Sleep), although such events exist. Regular cycles celebrate the work of individual filmmakers (for instance, the recent Gus Van Sant or “American elections” retrospectives at the Cinématèque Française) and preview screenings offer the chance to see directors and actors in the flesh.

About a thousand films are shot here each year, so life can often feel a bit meta, even without factoring in Amélie Poulain’s influence on the tourists flocking to Montmartre and Canal Saint Martin. On Saturday, for example, it was super cool to emerge from the François Ozon feature Frantz, which is partly set in 1919 Paris, into the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It felt like walking onto a soundstage, and drew out the usual back-to-real-life adjustment. I get a kick out of recognizing specific neighbourhoods, landmarks and streets, and matching up real-life shoots with their celluloid result – like when I walked down rue de Rivoli while Luc Besson was filming the car chase for Lucy or stroll past Hotel du Nord – although I haven’t yet signed up for the guided tour of famous movie sites.

It might seem counterintuitive, when there is so much beauty outside, to spend hours inside, but cinema-going is a very French activity. According to the Centre National du Cinéma, in the first five months of 2016, French cinemas recorded almost 95 million admissions, up six per cent from last year. Even during office hours midweek, it’s rare to find a deserted theatre. And unlike, say, surfing YouTube on the couch, seeing a film is a community experience. Being a regular makes me a local, handing over my card to the familiar ticket seller helps me feel I belong. Even in Paris, a big city like so many others, the cinema, along with the market, the métro, the café terrace, feels like a shared space. I’m beginning to understand that, one movie at a time.

Mythical city

Photo: Romantique & Rebel

Just as no one wants to meet their hero and discover a real human being, no one wants to move to a fantasy for fear of finding just another city.

Paris is not perfect, obviously. It’s not a postcard. It’s not even, really, a fair representation of its own mythology, for all the beauty of the Ile de la Cité and those Haussmann boulevards. (Catch the RER to the north-eastern suburbs, for example, and see how much égalité you find.)

So, in the spirit of killing idols, and conceding to a format that is drowning magazine journalism, here are four Paris clichés that are about as accurate as, well, those images of accordions, berets and daily croissant intake.

Myth 1. Parisians are fashion-forward.

In Paris, the uniform reigns supreme. This is true for the city’s immaculate firemen and gendarmes but also for the general population. Quirky is the stuff of movies or for les anglais. The out-there dressers you see photographed “on the street” during fashion week are usually bloggers from Tokyo or Brooklyn or London snapping selfies outside the Grand Palais or in the Haute-Marais. Parisians themselves are more about calibrated understatement. One trend per season is quite enough, merci beaucoup. Last winter, it was oversized, horse-blanket scarves that swamped the wearer from shoulders to nose. Often with just eyes and a tuft of perfectly tousled hair sticking out the top. This autumn, the cropped jacket persists, be it a leather perfecto (so 2015) or collarless brocade number. (Actually, collars seem to have been done away with altogether by the unspoken consensus that governs French wardrobe choices.) That said, a lack of slavery to trends should never be confused with a deficiency of style. Recently, I saw a fifty-something woman in full ladies-who-lunch finery, including strappy stilettos, cycling through the eighth arrondissement. Despite the narrow intersection, she conceded neither speed nor poise to the traffic and pedestrian chaos around her. Classe, as they say around here.

Myth 2. Parisians don’t snack.

Even the most perfunctory nose about a Carrefour or Monoprix supermarket shows this statement up as fallacy. Aisles and aisles of baked goods – from mini waffles to cheese straws – scream, “Eat me outside of mealtimes”, to say nothing of chocolate, chips and charcuterie offerings, in irresistible bite-size portions. Barely a baguette makes it home without the end being nibbled to oblivion. The biscuit brand Lu is this year celebrating 170 years of offering sweet sustenance for transport riding and street strolling. Every Metro station has its vending machines. The much-loved apèro is surely just a culturally sanctioned pre-dinner taster of pretzels, peanuts or popcorn. How is it, then, that France is ranked not first but 65th on the WHO’s list of national obesity rates? Well, a few possibilities spring to mind: portion control, walking and stair-climbing as facts of life, and smoking (the national rate is 28 per cent, compared to 16 in Australia). In this way, they have their venoisserie and eat it, too.

Myth 3. Parisians are rude.

Paris suffers from big-city indifference, crowding and time poverty. No one smiles in the street. I used to find this off-putting; now I consider it efficient use of facial muscles. But are Parisians rude? I have taught English to hundreds of people here, of all ages, from school students to retirees, from all walks of life, from the city and deepest provinces, and found the overwhelming majority to be polite and charming. However, the dismissive stereotype does have some foundation (see previous blog entry Politics of Polite) in that ignorance of French etiquette will often be greeted with cool disdain. The thaw begins with the introduction, be that a formal presentation in the workplace or a breezy bonjour as you enter a boutique. Personal connection is the social lubricant, and this means face-to-face exchange, not just an email. To add further nuance, as a friend explained, les Parigots are difficult to get to know – yes, they’re polite but not always especially warm, and unlikely to extend the hand of friendship easily.

Myth 4. All the bread is delicious.

The scent of Paris is neither Chanel No. 5 nor smoke from discarded Gauloises butts, it’s bread fresh from the oven. Sadly, though, not all baguettes are lovingly crafted with organic floor and natural cultures. Many are baked from frozen dough shipped from the back of beyond. Vigilance pays off, and it’s worth scoping out any neighbourhood in which you find yourself for more than a day for its best boulangerie. My newest discovery is Le Bricheton, an artisan addition to the 20th with Instagram-worthy miche, spelt and multigrain numbers, and enormous loaves weighing several kilos that you buy by weight. Crisp of crust and dense of crumb, their bread is everything you want it to be. It’s probably just as well (in the interest of maintaining Parisian portion control) that they’re only open in the late afternoon and they don’t bake baguettes. For those, there’s Philippe Bognor, near Gambetta. (The winner of this year’s best baguette competition was La Parisienne in Saint-Germain, by the way.) Food blogger David Lebovitz offers some tips for bread hunting: look for an “artisan boulanger” sign and the name of the baker on the awning, hand-made loaves will be irregular, and choose une baguette tradition because that’s where the love usually goes in making the bread.

Some things are true, of course. The city is beautiful in spring, many a local rocks a striped marinière T-shirt, and in mid-summer, vacated by its citizens (they’re all on holiday), Paris has a breezy nonchalance of vacation that is hard to resist.

 

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.