Phonétiques

Phonétiques

‘There is only one rule for being a good talker- learn to listen’. (Christopher Morley).

When I returned to Paris in June this year I can remember feeling so thrilled to touch down as far away from the long Melbourne winter as possible, and straight into the height of summer and the warmth afforded to Paris in it’s summer months.

With my first hour spent in the within the four grey walls that form customs at Charles de Gaulle as I waited patiently to wave my new visa under the nose of the ever handsome but always unimpressed officers, I reeled with jet lag – dreaming of a cold face washer to wipe the sweat off my upper lip.
I eventually stepped out into the Parisian sunlight with two oversized bags following nothing but an less than enthusiastic ‘meh’ from customs, as they punched my passport with their giant stamp and waved me through.

Once in a taxi, I mumbled through my French instructions to a driver who complimented me on my mumbles, before shouting ‘Bienvenüe à Pareeeee,’ as he merged into the traffic and almost sideswiped a very small car driven by a nun in full habit, accompanied by her travel companion, also in full habit.

Silent interactions where few words are exchanged are rare, but they often form the foundations for the most special (and humorous) memories. My ramblings to the taxi driver were limited – we covered the weather, the beauty of Paris in summer (and autumn, and winter and spring) and following the basics, I listened intently as he told me stories of his Paris – a Paris that he loves and will be forever grateful to call home. Naturally (with talking being one of my few fortes), I would have loved to have made a more meaningful contribution to his banter, but I continued to simply nod, because words failed me and I was utterly exhausted. As with many conversations I have in Paris, I learnt a lot about that driver because I wasn’t in a position to talk over him while failing to listen – something that comes with speaking in your native tongue, and a trait that is often not hugely beneficial in the moment.

It is no secret that Love Actually is one of my favourite films, ever.  I’ve written about this before and I’m happy to write about it again. In particular, I enjoy the romance between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia, a beautiful Portuguese house keeper, who comes with Jamie’s rented country house in France which has a stunning view of a lake.

Each day he types his book, and each night he drives her home. They fall in love, he speaks no Portuguese and she, no English. During their car trips, they converse in their native tongues and share how much they have fallen in love with each other and just how much that particular part of the day means to them. My eyes fog up here every time- and there have been many, trust me. I watched it for the five millionth time about a month ago tucked up in bed with a cup of tea and high spirits, while being guarded by a pigeon who sat on the window sill perplexed as I said ‘yes, I love you Colin,’ to seemingly no one.

Once back in London, Jamie (Colin) spends hours and hours, day after day, week after week attending Portuguese lessons where he dons a headset and attempts to learn the language phonetically. He fails miserably but it is entertaining nonetheless.

This week, I have begun my own ‘cours de phonétique’ and, while Colin/Jamie isn’t sitting one down from me, I put on a headset at 8.30 each morning and speak to myself for an hour before the voice of our professor, Aude, comes through the speakers saying ‘à demain’ and with that, she smiles and clip clops out of the room in high heels that always match her dress.
Learning French is one thing, but speaking it is an entirely different ball game. I’ve never been much chop at ball games, and so many of the issues that I have with speaking French (not unlike ball games), relate to the fear of making a mistake- or multiple mistakes.

All of those consonants joining a vowel and the E’s that often lose their way when anywhere near an L, and don’t even get me started with the letter R. I still cant get my head around calling a street a loo (from the bottom of my throat with my neck sticking out) when my English speaking face wants to call it a roo.

This morning following an hour of phonetics, I felt newly confident and wholly inspired as I went to my daily two hour session of grammar and oral – complimenting my lecturer on her robe which I actually made sound more like lobe (if I were to say ‘lobe’ while being sick), as I walked in the door. The phonetics element, headset and all, is easily the saviour I have so needed in my seemingly never ending battle with this language.

As part of the course, we are expected to attend at least four, two hour lectures per week on everything from music, the arts, politics and the history of french language and today, I sat in a lecture hall and listened to a curious paring named Dominique and Matthieu speak ‘en rapide français’ about the history of music in Paris – covering everyone from Nerval, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Prevert, Queneau and Roubaud. There was a contemporary element as well, and this is where Matthieu really took charge with his thinning hair parted down the center, he giggled at his own jokes as he spoke of the importance of listening, regardless of what you may or may not understand.

When Matthieu arrived, he kissed Dominique on both cheeks before sitting at his microphone and turning on a song aptly named ‘Paris’. ‘J’aime Paris, j’aime Paris, j’aime Paris’ formed the chorus, and for the rest of the song I had to really listen. Listen with great intent I did, and throughout the following two hours Dominique and Matthieu delivered a beautiful history of multiple songs and as many musicians – and I don’t think I blinked, not even once.

Walking out into the daylight almost seven hours later I made a beeline for a sweet café on the way home where I have been enjoying a daily coffee served by a man with the charm of a cat. The more I ignore him, the more likely he is to edge up to the table in a fashion reserved for Rowen Atkinson (who also had a terrific role in Love Actually) and ask, ‘are you sad?’. The first time he questioned if ‘etes-vous triste?’ I blinked at him and answered with a very simple ‘non’.
Now, I always smile and ask if he is ok, as I think that is what he really wants. Today I shocked him when I ordered lunch, rather than coffee, and a bottle of tap water for the table. Throwing his head back and gargling like a walrus (or how I would imagine a walrus would gargle), he corrected my use of the ‘R’ in ‘caraf’ telling me it is ‘CAAAA-HALf D’oh’ before slinking back inside.

At 38 and 3/4, if there is one thing that this whole experience is teaching me, it is the importance of listening – whether it be in a pod wearing headphones and repeating myself to myself during phonetics, or in a lecture with a woman who looks more like a matron from school than a music buff, along with her thin haired and hugely knowledgable sidekick. Even Mr Bean has something to say.

I feel closer than ever to ‘getting there’ and never have I felt quite so rewarded to be able to contribute in a deft and organised, wholly unintentional but hugely beneficial, state of silence.

Pictured:  My new view for the next two weeks and just four blocks from home.  Change is indeed, as good as a holiday,

Places.

Places.

‘Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know.   And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.  You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there”. With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.  And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. It’s opener there, in the wide open air.  Out there things can happen and frequently do, to people as brainy and footsy as you. And then things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.’

(Excerpt from ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go,’ by Dr Seuss).

I’ve been to several million weddings in my life (ok, maybe halve that, halve it again and then minus a few and then divide it by seventy thousand), but you get the drift. There have been a few, and, apart from the endless champagne, catch ups with friends and the opportunity to see two people who I love relax, after the sheer torture that is organising a huge event, actually relax, this poem by Dr Seuss is another favourite part of wedding days if it presents itself on the order of service.

Not hugely religious, but interested in theology to a point, I find psalms a bit hard to translate into the current day (personally, they can be more challenging than French) – for me, this poem has sweet meaning.

‘Oh! The Places You Will Go!’ was stuck above my desk during my final year at school, when the threat of my laptop being flung out the window was real, and to this day I firmly believe that these words by Dr Seuss were the final saving grace for my 100 kilogram Toshiba.

Last week saw the completion of the first five days of classes at La Sorbonne where I took myself and the whole process very seriously and, where I felt positively punchy at the end of each day as I lobbed home with stars in my eyes and the words of Dr Seuss whirling around my head. The awkwardness of new classmates, finding ‘home room,’ working out where I’d go every other week for ‘phonétiques’ and wondering why on earth I’d signed up for the 8.30 am class, but then thanking myself that I did because imagine if I had enrolled in the 12.30 course? I simply wouldn’t make it because every second day we have oral and grammar from 12-2pm.

Etcetera, etcetera.

At the end of last week, a very exciting visitor blew into Paris after a week of meetings in London.

Charlotte Coote was on my doorstep in Adelaide five years ago- the day that I moved my life as I knew it into a new house, and new beginnings. Newly pregnant with her first child, she cheered me up- in a way unique only to her, as we wheezed with laughter over endless dinners, lunches and half glasses of wine (I was on a heartbreak health kick and she, see above).

Almost two years ago when I came to Paris for my first winter, Charlotte arrived here for a week of meetings with interior design houses and I shuffled around after her- it was then that I began to understand the full extent of my school friends talent-  well on her way to establishing a hugely sustainable and successful niche in the market in which her business exists.

Over dinner at Brasserie Lipp, I eyed the wine menu with great anticipation- there were now two children in her household and it felt like an eon since we’d last chinked glasses and toasted new beginnings. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she told me with a twinkle in her very blue eyes. I almost rolled off my chair (not from a croissant overdose, but in pure shock)- she’d only had her second child yesterday, or so it felt.

This time, two years since our last rendezvous in Paris and nearly four months since we said goodbye in Melbourne, she was back last week with a skip in her stride after a big week in London (and no news of any further additions to the family). With three beautiful little girls (the middle child being my sweet goddaughter) and a gorgeous husband at home, we had a mountain of catching up to do. We had a mission to accomplish.

Lou Lou is a fabulous restaurant positioned in the gardens of the Louvre, where diners sit at tables blanketed with white linen cloths and under twinkling stars, while enjoying the warmth of the night and the distant sounds unique to this beautiful city. I listened with intent as Charlotte took me through her week in London and updated me on all the goings on at home. We sipped on rosé and enjoyed the most delicious dinner – the waiter looked on as we spoke at rapid pace and in volumes that increased as the sun disappeared and was replaced by the moon.

‘How is the Sorbonne anyway?’ she asked.

Having had a week of taking myself very seriously and where I’d spent most of my time wincing, listening with great intent as we climbed over mountains of numbers in French and where we’d completed seemingly hours of grammar, I launched into my response ‘oh I absolutely love it, I’m in complete heaven and am SO happy to be doing this’. I went on to explain that just that day I’d given a presentation to my ‘home room’ about my life in Australia- where I took the class through a slide show of native animals, Canberra (le centre politique), feux de forêt (bushfires) and the much anticipated subject of le kangourou. I explained (still in a state of utter seriousness) that the class had nodded in sincere agreement that bushfires were a huge risk to people’s lives, as were les kangourous if you met them on the road travelling too fast in your ‘voiture’.

I don’t think the waiter knew where to look as we began to shudder over our glasses of rosé, as we became increasingly hysterical at the thought of me, aged 38 and in pink jeans giving a presentation in French that was more appropriate for a group of 7 year olds.

For me, nothing is more special than time spent with family and friends with last week being no exception. I was so happy to share my new found home with a friend who I’ve known for over 25 years and of whom I am so proud as she manages to grow an amazing business and a beautiful family. A friend who has an uncanny ability to introduce hysteria into the most serious of conversations, and when we weren’t wheezing with laughter, we spoke at a pace and in genuine excitement for each other as we pondered both of our futures – a topic which I relate to this final passage from Dr Seuss:

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.  You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.  So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact, and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.  Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.  And will you succeed?  Yes! You will, indeed!  (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.). KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!  So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea, You’re off the Great Places! Today is your day!  Your mountain is waiting.  So…get on your way!’

This post is for you Charlotte.  I will never recover from asking the man (who wasn’t actually a waiter at Monsieur Bleu), for the bill, but I am thrilled that we had the opportunity to enjoy two very funny dinners together in my new found home away from home, as we both head into exciting phases of our lives.

Pictured:  the most wonderful woman walking her dogs down my street in an enviable pair of Mary Janes.

OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!  (The full version)

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets.

Look ’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there”.

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down.

In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town.

It’s opener there, in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen and frequently do, to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And then things start to happen, don’t worry.

Don’t stew.

Just go right along.

You’ll start happening too.

You’ll be on your way up!

You’ll be seeing great sights!

You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.

You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.

Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.

Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so

but, sadly, it’s true

that Bang-ups

and Hang-ups

can happen to you.
You can get all hung up

in a prickle-ly perch.

And your gang will fly on.

You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch

with an unpleasant bump.

And the chances are, then,

that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump,

you’re not in for much fun.

Un-slumping yourself

is not easily done.
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.

A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!

Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?

How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…

or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?

Or go around back and sneak in from behind?

Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,

for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
You can get so confused

that you’ll start in to race

down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace

and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,

headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go

or a bus to come, or a plane to go

or the mail to come, or the rain to go

or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow

or the waiting around for a Yes or No

or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite

or waiting for the wind to fly a kite

or waiting around for Friday night

or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake

or a pot to boil, or a Better Break

or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants

or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting.
NO!

That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape

all that waiting and staying

You’ll find the bright places

where Boom Bands are playing.
With banner flip-flapping,

once more you’ll ride high!

Ready for anything under the sky.

Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!

There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

And the magical things you can do with that ball

will make you the winning-est winner of all.

Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be,

with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don’t

Because, sometimes they won’t.
I’m afraid that some times

you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win

’cause you’ll play against you.
All Alone!

Whether you like it or not,

Alone will be something

you’ll be quite a lot.
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go

though the weather be foul.

On you will go

though your enemies prowl.

On you will go

though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

Onward up many

a frightening creek,

though your arms may get sore

and your sneakers may leak.
On and on you will hike,

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up, of course,

as you already know.

You’ll get mixed up

with many strange birds as you go.

So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tact

and remember that Life’s

a Great Balancing Act.

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.

And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
So…

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray

or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,

You’re off the Great Places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So…get on your way!

Bonheur.

Bonheur.

‘I guess it goes to show that you just never know where life will take you. You search for answers. You wonder what it all means. You stumble, and you soar. And, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll make it to Paris for a while’. (Amy Thomas, Author of Paris My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light).

Being as ‘highbrow’ as I am, plenty of my spare time is spent ‘researching’ on the inter webs – with Instagram being a source of much of my inspiration. I found the above quote under a beautiful photo of  Jardins des Tuileries yesterday and it really struck a chord – particularly in my current state of ‘deep seated cliché’.

I have dreams of listening to Edith Piaf while plowing through endless novels in my dimly lit loft- where, in reality, I have seventeen novels (and counting) forming a leaning tower of literature beside my bed, and no idea where to start with any of them which ultimately, would help me start to determine the end of all of them. Each night I fall into my bed thoroughly exhausted and too tired to read a page, with blistered hooves and a constant loud ringing in my ears, after hours spent walking the streets attempting to dodge endless scaffolding as sirens blaze around me and jackhammers operate like woodpeckers in a forest of fir trees.

Peace is found in the many gardens and parks that pop up like little green Meccas in and around this city. Some days, I find myself lost momentarily beneath the arms of perfectly manicured trees, watching in admiration as my beloved pigeon friends puff their out their chests (we have a love hate relationship after one too many incidents involving their bowel movements). They stand proud in moments of heightened happiness and anticipation, before fluffing their feathers and shuddering through a feathery havoc and with that (as if the whole world has been lifted off their pigeony shoulders), they chase baguette crumbs across the ground and then repeat the whole exercise.

Bonheur is the French word for happiness. And, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sad pigeon in my whole time as unofficial ‘director of pigeon affairs’. They are so much fatter in Paris – who isn’t, with endless boulangeries to visit, croissants to devour and my new favourite, chaussons aux pommes, to munch on? (Parisienne’s, that’s who).

I’ve been known to shake myself in the street in a fashion not dissimilar to a pigeon as I remove evidence of ‘another’ sweet mistake which has made its way neatly onto the collar of my jacket or a crease in my neck that I never even knew existed. I find crumbs in the strangest places which can, from time to time, be a little bit embarrassing.

I will freely admit that there have been times in the more recent years of my life, where (unlike a Parisian pigeon) I haven’t been entirely happy. I’ve searched for answers, I’ve wondered what it all means, and I’ve nearly torn my hair out in moments of complete frustration. I’ve been unprofessional in the way in which I’ve dealt with situations at work- overwhelmed by it all and not really sure what the next corner will reveal. A healthy mindset is everything, but so often it is one of the hardest things to acquire.

I’ve had no real reason to be unhappy, and I can only suppose much of this confusion has been brought about by an unwillingness to change my situation and to allow the universe to work a little bit of its magic.
I’m a great believer that the unknown can often hold the answers to all of the questions we ask in our feather downed comfort zones, but with the unknown comes that question we so often ask ‘what if?’.

This recent change in my life has brought me one step closer to feeling as though I’m ‘soaring’ (ungracefully) rather than ‘stumbling’ (hopefully, half gracefully). Over the past few months I have muttered ‘what…and stuff’ under my breath (or words to that effect) and have experienced moments of great vulnerability where I’ve felt like a baby pigeon in a big humans body, trying to climb back into my nest after being tipped out, but for the first time in a very long time, I feel in control of the ‘what’ and not so afraid of the ‘if’.

Yesterday I emerged from the apartment just before sunrise and braved the cool air as I headed out for a long run along the Seine and into the Tuileries gardens. The smells of the morning can be putrid in Paris and, as long streams of light projected from street lamps lit the ripples in the river, I breathed in a cocktail of drying up booze and human excrements, a sad reality of the darker side of the city of light. A rat scampered out from under a tree as I negotiated the cobble stones on the rivers edge, before he executed a ‘rat Olympic’ worthy dive into the water. The sound of ‘mon ami rongeur’ making his splash, broke a silence unique to the early hours of the morning in this city that seemingly, never does actually sleep.

During the day and well into the night, the endless sounds of sirens wail, the ‘clip clop’ of heels sound on the street below, bike bells ring from nowhere and the chug of choking moto’s soar as they weave through traffic, competing with church bells that chime drunkenly at irregular hours and in competition with the neighbouring ‘église,’ and the jack hammering through the walls of the beautiful buildings that make this city such a joy to exist in, is endless. These sounds form a playlist that is a uniquely Parisian soundtrack, and moments of peace like those that I experience early in the morning as I attempt to run while clearing my head in preparation for the day, are as much of a joy as they are utterly beautiful.

Today marked the end of day two at La Sorbonne and, on both days I have walked out into the afternoon sunlight following a morning of classes, feeling as puffed up as the fattest of Parisian pigeons.  With a professor who is as thorough as she is intriguing, I walked home last night feeling a long sought sense of happiness and excitement for what is ahead.  Happy that I too, have been able to make it to Paris for a while.

The printed text on my new canvas book bag reads ‘la Reine de La Jungle’ (the Queen of the Jungle) – it was either that or  the other option ‘I love my basketball shoes’.  Decorated in green block printed palm fronds waving at the backside of a cheetah looking into the distance, I felt it a suitable purchase from my bearded friend at the hardware store on the weekend, in preparation for the semester ahead.

And, while you may not hear me roar as I focus not to stumble but rather, to soar-  just like the cheetah on my book bag, you might just (for a moment) hear me purr, in my new found bonheur.

Pictured:  the most beautiful clothing store downstairs from my apartment.  I stand in the window each night on my walk home and just admire the beauty of everything inside.

Theory.

Theory.

I have spent much of the past three years driving to work singing nursery rhymes in French out loud in my car and not stopping for anything bar red lights and stop signs (where I’ve continued to sing). I’ve been thrown only a few odd looks from my fellow commuters who are probably not singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star en Français, more likely listening to world affairs or cash bonanzas on commercial radio. Or even a podcast, for better measure.
Children’s songs and storybooks have been a savior in this mission that is learning a language with a (partially) developed brain.

I freeze when the phone rings in France, preferring to send a text message that I can check and check again, or an email (see what I said about sending a text). I nearly die every time I order duck on the menu in restaurants in fear that I will not pronounce Canard properly and will put an O and a heavily pronounced double N in place of the single A and single N, which then gives our simple feathered friend an entirely different meaning. Some days I whizz through French, others I just fail. Obviously, the faster it is spoken, the less likely I am to understand- with recorded messages being no exception.

On Friday afternoon, in the midst of an 8 hour text message battle with the driver from DHL, my phone ran out of credit which meant a quick dash downstairs to the Tabac where I noticed a new plastic curtain as I ran in, breathless and on a mission- after two earlier failed attempts at delivery, DHL were not going to get away with anything. Madame sold me a card to the value of twenty euros, affording me another month of calls and texts, before she swiftly handed me a receipt with the code to enter upon calling Bouygues Telecom (don’t even ask me ever, how to pronounce that word). Dialing 630 I waited for the prompts and listened with more intent than a cop for a confession. Thrilled with myself that I only had to listen to the instructions four times, I was doubly thrilled when I came to understand I needed to enter my ‘exclusive code’ followed by étoile.

It’s moments like this that I thank my lucky stars (or étoiles) that I’ve listened intently to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and We Can Count to Ten in French, ridiculous as that may sound. Nursery rhymes and singalong’s are my saving grace when it comes to administration en Français.

On Friday night I fell into a complete heap of self indulgent emotional misery, exhausted from a week of administrative tasks which can take me years to understand, and as a consequence of this, further years to complete. I’d had endless phone calls which I’d struggled to comprehend but just had to in order to get things done, followed by endless appointments which were met with endless queues. My head had begun to hurt and I’d started to scratch it in a perplexed state – ‘what on earth am I doing to myself’ I thought as I went to sleep. I woke on Saturday morning to a response to a text message that I’d written the night before which went a bit like this:

Me: I want to move to a deserted island where I can quietly hum and will never have to speak to anyone ever again.
Friend: That island is called Theory, in Theory, everything works.

So the weekend has been spent working on creating my own little place called ‘Theory’. Tomorrow morning I start at the Sorbonne (cause of much of my headache with their archaic enrollment system and endless queues), which is not only one of the most exciting corners on my self inflicted roadmap, but something that I know is going to make ‘Theory’ a much easier place to exist in. With endless hours of phonetics, grammar and conversation, not to mention lectures in classics, politics and French culture, this course will take me through to Christmas, and ‘back to school’ has never felt so exiting. Four hours a day, five days a week I will be working uniquely en Français and I have high hopes and little doubt that this will increase my confidence while obliterating the freeze that I so often experience in this language.

This piece is going to be shorter than usual, as I have a pencil case to fill and note books to label, but part of creating ‘Theory’ has been to put together a timetable of posts for the next three months which will allow me to keep on top of my studies and also continue to contribute regular pieces on pinningmywords.

I’m feeling organised and energized and focused on looking ahead.  I am also more inspired than ever to keep writing, keep learning and most of all, to keep enjoying this experience that can be trying at times, but ultimately, it is doing a very good job of teaching me resilience and the importance of being able to laugh at myself and not take it all too seriously.

And, I have every intention of sticking to my new plan stuck above my desk.

Because in Theory, everything works. Right?

Pictured:  the beautiful Cafe de Paris where I get regular French lessons from the waiter as I type on pinningmywords.

Le carte.

Le carte.

Well that was overwhelming.

On Monday night I started penning a piece which was, in part, quite personal, but the overall content was meant for everyone- we’re in this together. Not this blog, but the bigger thing. That big old thing called life.

The response to my last post has been overwhelming and incredibly inspiring and I thank you all from the very bottom of my heart for reading- I have thoroughly enjoyed your feedback and messages, and I will start by saying that I’d wanted to write that piece for a long time – but had been waiting for the right day, the right moment, the right words and most of all, I just wanted to feel ‘right’ about sharing my own trials and Toddulations.

Almost as soon as I’d pressed ‘publish’ on the post, Mum phoned.

‘Darling’ she said, ‘I’m just reading your blog, and I can’t believe the part about TODD!’. I went on to explain that ‘Todd’ is infact entirely fictional, and to all the Todds out there, I’m sorry, I used you to make a point and you have now become something of a talking point.

This morning, a dear friend who is familiar with my problematic tongue being jammed so firmly into my cheek (that I may one day need surgery), wrote and said that perhaps the only Todd I’ll ever sport, are the ones I wear on my feet. (I will also add that she is also a fellow size 42 in les pieds department, and we’ve bonded over this from time to time).

I smiled as I read her message while eyeing off my black patent leather dancing shoes (I think they’re actually mens) who sport the same name and gave them a little nod – ‘you’ll get out soon’ I said, before leaving the apartment and setting off for the day.

On Sunday night I looked through my visa file with a the eye of a hawk. The ‘summons’ part of it was all written entirely in French and PDF’d to the point of absolutely no return, so I had spent a large part of the day with my dictionary making certain that I’d completed everything to perfection.

Passport and a copy of my passport (straightforward), a spare passport photo with an ‘empty head’ (I assumed that meant I wasn’t to wear anything on my head, but I made sure it was also empty for good measure- not hard), a medical certificate from the Office of French Immigration and Integration (I’d left that in a supermarket with my passport only a week or so before following the medical summons, but thanks to a pigeon and its breakfast, the file turned up), and the final part, something about a stamp to cover taxes to the value of 250 Euros.
I had assumed that this stamp would be acquired from the OFII when I paid the aforementioned amount on the day of my appointment, so I’d paid very little notice to this part of the summons, continually tucking that particular page into the back of the file, ready to be stamped upon payment. Late on Sunday night when I re-read the fine print which said something about the Tabac, I entered into only a minor moment of frenzy.

The Tabac just around the corner from my apartment is run by a Chinese French couple who speak French with a Chinese accent. They are two of my favourite people in this city and are always at the ready with an espresso at the bar when I meander past, and they’ve been part of this particular picture since my first winter here. They’re kind, she is often only a little bit surly, and he almost shouts the house down when he greets each and every customer with a huge ‘BONJOUR’ as they walk in off the street.

I love the French Tabacs and they don’t just sell tabacco, they often make the best coffee, serve a cold beer, have licence to the lotto and endless un winnable tickets, they will top up the telephone plan when it runs out of credit, and on Sunday night, I learned that they also have the licence to sell a golden ticket – des timbres fiscaux. When I presented the letter from the visa office to my friend behind the counter, he propped his glasses further up his nose before reaching under the counter, pulling out a plastic folder full of stamps. I began to feel only the slightest bit nervous because I couldn’t work out why the French Government would want me to pay them in what looked like postage stamps, but I paid for 250 Euros worth, and watched in bemusement as he tucked them like golden nuggets into a novelty pouch with ‘Joyeux Noel’ and a reindeer on it.

On Monday morning I lined up diligently outside the OFII with my document pocket under my arm before my turn came to be probed by a wand and sent upstairs for my appointment. I was confident that I had all bases covered, and had only minor sweats about the novelty pouch full of stamps, unable to tame visions of being laughed all the way back to Australia for getting it so wrong.

The French do love a bit of red tape and administration, but one thing I will say, is this particular office always keeps to time and they are almightily efficient. On the dot of 10 am, a bosomy woman called my name and I approached her with as much confidence as you can when your French is limited to the very basics. A file with my name on it appeared from seemingly nowhere (filled with all of my paperwork from Sydney) and she scrolled through the computer muttering ‘hmm, Virginia Affleck’ to which I responded ‘oui’, wondering how on earth she had all my documentation which I’m sure I hadn’t given to her. Had I?
In French as rapid as a fresh flowing river after a monumental storm, she berated me for providing a letter written in English (which was kindly written by my dear friend Amy who owns the apartment, as part of my application in Sydney and I haven’t given it to anyone since), before reminding me that I’m in France now and English isn’t spoken here.
Tempted to say ‘yeah, no it actually is, you should hang out with me more often’ before giving her a big lecture about how much I detest being handed English menus and how it saddens me daily when people speak to me in English when all I want is to speak French, I chose instead (because that is a lecture I’m yet to learn), to nod and just mutter ‘pardon, oui, pardon’.

Madame then smiled and reassured me that this time it was going to be ok – but next time IN FRENCH, and do I have the stamps? I reached into my folder and found the pouch decorated with a reindeer singing Merry Christmas through a frosted speech bubble, looking as though he or she had dropped too many tabs of acid, and nervously handed her des timbres fiscaux.

They were counted, stuck into a file and with that, a little sticker appeared from her folder and she asked me to check it. I’m not sure if I was happier about the postage stamps being the real deal or the carte de séjour that I was about to proof (there are three i’s in Virginia), but either way, she could tell that I was nothing short of chuffed and relieved in that moment and wished me a happy time in France, before reminding me to visit the Police in February to renew my carte if I wished to stay for more than a year in France.

Who knows? Maybe I will, and when I walked past the Tabac this morning my friend leapt out from behind the counter. ‘Vous avez le carte Madame?!’ he shouted through the plastic curtain. I turned back and smiled ‘OUI, OUI, OUI- merci Monsieur,’ which was met with shouts of ‘C’EST TRÈS BON’ as I continued on my way. He knew what he was doing the entire time, its almost as if he’s done it before.

Thank you for reading and I hope you will keep reading. This week has seen amazing growth on pinningmywords and I am very thankful for my little village of readers- I hope to see it continue to grow.

Pictures:  a totally French celebratory lunch.

11/09

11/09

September 11th.

A day of complete terror and one we’ll never forget.

One of my dearest friends’ birthday.

Also the day five years ago that I had my heart broken – and if my memory serves me correctly, I haven’t been asked on a date since and to be fair, I haven’t asked anyone on a date either.

I’m not going to deny the fact that it can be annoying for a person (c’est moi) who makes every effort to look nice, who always wears a face of (minimal but considered) makeup, who refuses to leave the house in an un- ironed shirt, who makes (from time to time) interesting conversation (and every morning- the bed), who is learning a new language and who hasn’t got a criminal record – to be coming to the end of her glorious 30’s absolutely more single than a lamppost after Armageddon.

As I child, and in my early adult years, I held big dreams of being a mother- after all, if you go through basic biology books (usually dished up in middle school science), you will come to understand that men and women are capable of many things – making children being one of them. Therefore, it is equally as easy to understand why people go on to have children- it seems pretty natural and obvious really, and, amazingly- these days, men and men and women and women can also start a family and fulfil the maternal and paternal desires that the vast majority of us are born with, and there is nothing more wonderful than seeing people of all ages, stages, sexes and complexes, become parents.

I’m now 38, and I am so often told that I should create an online profile to meet someone ‘it’s not embarrassing, everyone is doing it,’ or, ‘someone is just around the corner’ (I’m giddy from racing around corners for a peek) and ‘you don’t even need a man – go it alone’ and the best, ‘but you’re SO young- you’ve got years ahead of you’.

The reality is, the ‘years ahead of me’ are my early forties which (if they are anything like my 30’s) will suddenly be another decade flattened by the power that is the speed of light, and statistically, if I do the mathematics on how many people have shown even the remotest romantic interest in me in my entire life, I will probably meet someone when I am aged between 60-80 years old, which kind of dashes all hopes of ever becoming a mother.

One thing I will say, is that I’m a realist. Not negative, not down on life, but 100% on the page with ‘today’ and what I know I am capable of achieving- ‘today’. The other thing I will say, is that I am not writing this as a sorrowful piece, and while the default response to this type of conversation is to reassure me that I am really young and I have years ahead of me, and ‘do I know that I can now have a baby alone?’. This is not the purpose of this piece- I know all of these things and I know in my mind, this advice comes from a caring place. I also completely respect any woman of any age who deals with her own life, be it single or otherwise, in the way in which she wishes to.

One of the measures that I have taken to dealing with the reality of being single in a group of friends who (as a majority) are not, and rather than making the long nights alone at home by myself with a glass of wine and a salad for one following a long day at work, an ordeal – has been to make baby steps (puns, love them) towards full proofing my late 30’s ‘just in case’ I didn’t fulfil that dream of being a mother and ‘just in case’ no one turned up on a stallion dressed in full armour (told you, I’m a realist).

That’s not to say a friend of mine didn’t (rather cheekily) set me up with an online profile a year or so ago, which lasted about 3 days and where I found men (often sans  underpants) called Todd (actually, I pulled that out of a hat but I think there might have been a Todd) suggesting that we ‘hook up’.

I’m not sure what these guys were thinking my response to a ‘hook up’ with a guy I’ve never met and with statistics showing that this could potentially end in a murder, not a white carriage shrouded in baby’s breath and roses, would actually be- and I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t take further steps to finding out. Having said that, a handful of some of my favourite women in the world have had success finding love online and, in the year 2017 it really doesn’t matter where you meet the love of your life- the days of the 1950’s ‘coming out debutant’ are well and truly over.

Realistically, I’m probably more likely to meet someone at a bar with mascara running down my face after too many ‘skinny bitches’ (as a curvy person, vodka soda is a dietary requirement), than I am as a guest at a wedding in the guise of a young woman who has it all together and desire for dresses and red lipstick. Simply put, I don’t have the patience to sift though online profiles of the ‘shocking’ asking for a ‘hook up’ from the ‘dreamy’ (wine? a long walk in the park anyone?) when I could be at a gallery, or a movie, or drinking wine with my friends, or babysitting my god children, or drinking wine with their mothers while pretending to babysit their children, or reading a book, or going to life drawing. All of the latter things are my favourite fallback activities, and they have formed a large part of my glorious 30’s.

I also had a go at meditation but spent the whole hour sitting in a room with people who hummed diligently as I sat with my eyes wide open, thinking about where I would put the furniture if I was to go home and rearrange the house.

Therefore, in search of some homework and a challenge to fill the hours between 5-10pm (I had 9-5 covered), at 35 and 3/4 I took up French lessons. I have always rather preferred Italian as a language and, while I’m at it with being honest, I actually prefer Italian food (and men if I’m going to be doubly honest), but as a student of the arts, I’d always been a bit curious about the French language. And, many of my artistic and literary heroes have (at some point) called Paris home throughout their lives.

I had enjoyed several trips to France (first as a 19 year old with no idea) and later, throughout my twenties and early thirties, and I’d completed one term of French in year seven at my country high school. Our teacher pronounced ‘la fenêtre’ LAUGHIN- ATCHYA (as in, laughing at you but I was actually giggling at her and I still giggle at windows in France) – my knowledge of French as a mature age student was ‘limited’. Oh, but I have been known to organise a rendezvous from time to time.

After a year of French classes at the Alliance Française in Melbourne, I decided to take all of my annual leave from work to spend the winter in Paris. Admittedly, as a romantic at heart, I had always had a bit of a soft spot for Paris, and that was about the extent of my Frenchness. The first winter spent in Paris was life changing for me, not only did it teach me a lot about being alone, but it also made me realise that I don’t actually have to ever be lonely. There were so many hoops to jump through in order to negotiate tiny things like photocopying and even ordering a coffee, that I had very little time to think about being alone, because for the first time in a very long time, I felt completely fulfilled.

Both mentally, surrounded by a beautiful language, and physically, through long morning runs in the freezing winter chill followed by endless, day long meanders around this magical city.

Addicted (and admittedly tragic to have ever left), I came back for a second winter a year later which paved the way to a realisation that this is a place that I could write and be inspired and realistically, I could make this home for now. I had a burning desire to write and explore a side of me that had otherwise been muted in an office job, while living a life where I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled –  for a whole manner of reasons.

Following months of paperwork, planning, selling everything from my car to my home, I arrived back in Paris in June with a suitcase and a full heart- knowing I was doing the right thing for me at this stage in my life. A life that is fuelled by good health, perfect eyesight and legs that work, and one that I am adamant that I will live to full capacity and not just exist in as I wait for things to happen that, quite frankly, may never happen.

Yesterday, as I emerged out of the metro station with my passport tucked into a plastic envelope full of documents to rival the guy who invented documents, I looked up at a full blue sky blanketing the beautiful Haussmann architecture and shed a little tear. Not because I was sad or confused- quite simply put, I ‘got it’ and I felt very, very privileged in that moment. That little blue skied window provided me with a much sought after sense of clarity- my purpose on this earth at this moment in time, is to write, to dream of being published, to aim for fluency in a language that I love and loath, to continue to draw (in recent weeks I’ve filled the apartment with flowers and pencils) and to contribute positively to this earth in any way that I can. And, at the risk of sounding completely trite, I read plenty of stories in the news suggesting that health and freedom are the two things that are hugely sought by women around the world, and sadly, not afforded to the people who need it the most.

In my document pocket was a newly acquired and much anticipated ‘carte de séjour’ – a privilege, and one that is stuck firmly into my passport after a morning at the visa office, stamped 11/09/2017. It’s not a birth certificate, but it’s a milestone and one that will see me through the next steps into the complete unknown.

This stage in my life has been half plotted and half accidental and I’m often told that I’m ‘lucky’ to be here in this social experiment of which I have no actual idea of the outcome. I believe that ‘lucky’ was the day we all went swimming towards the darkness of our mothers wombs and made it to the finish line. Because if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. I believe that happiness comes with plenty of planning, and just a little bit of luck – and I know that most people reading this also have the privilege to create their own happiness, in a world where many others don’t.

Who knows what might be around the corner? In Paris, it’s unlikely to be a man named Todd.

Pictured:  My walk home.

Mes amis.

Mes amis.

I started writing this hours ago as sun streamed in through the windows of the apartment after a morning of rain, and suddenly, it was well after 5pm.  The man at the bottle shop who sold me a bottle of pinot noir late this afternoon, greeted me with ‘bonsoir’ and when I raised my (out of control) eyebrows, he laughed, agreeing that yes – Saturday has certainly disappeared without a trace this week (thankfully, he didn’t ask if I’ve ever considered threading).

To be honest, the whole week has moved at a pace that feels ‘très rapide’ (very fast).  It seems like just yesterday that I sat in the laundromat with my earplugs in, making every possible effort not to fail the entrance exam to the Sorbonne (which I’d been strictly instructed to finish by Sunday night).  But that was Sunday last week- Sunday, my day of rest and when I spend far too much time in the laundromat drying sheets and making a general nuisance of myself.  On this particular Sunday I almost burnt the towels and fried the sheets, as I struggled with audio spoken so fast on a test that I think was designed to achieve a 100% failure rate.

Monday arrived and I enjoyed dinner with lovely French/Australian friends which was followed quickly by Tuesday and before I knew it, Wednesday was flinging her arms around me.  By mid week I’d made no effort whatsoever to publish a new blog post or even think of content that would feel even remotely interesting to put into writing.  I did make an emergency trip to the florist on Monday, after missing the man at the Sunday market (naughty homme was fermé once I’d finished panting through the meats, breads, soaps and endless honey stalls).

Located in Rue des Saints Pères, the aptly named ‘Flower Saints Pères’ is an absolute floral wonderland run by handsome men in aprons to rival even the finest butcher.  This is a place where hommes methodically perform surgery on the stems of the most beautiful fleurs, with the sharpest of knives in a room abundant with stone basins and bench tops which complete a studio so cool- in both climate and aesthetics.  Once my plump bunches of roses were cut, de-thorned, wrapped in soft pink tissue and bound by sage green ribbon, I was walked to the door and sent on my way.  A short time later I was at the hardware store, buying two new vases to adorn my bedside table, where the bearded mans wife commented that the flowers were ‘très magnifique’.  Nodding, I thanked her and as I walked home, old women also nodded in approval- they weren’t to know that this salopettes (dungaree) wearing femme was on a mission of pure self indulgence- of course they were from my non existent ‘homme français’.

On Wednesday I found my childhood friend Oli sipping un café allongé at a café not far from home. We were booked in to visit Thierry at 1pm, a wine and cheese connoisseur who runs private tastings out of his studio in Rue des Boulangers in the 5th arrondissement.  With five minutes to spare we chatted rapidly as we panted up the cobblestones which formed the pathway to Chez Thierry.  Oli is as hilarious as he is charming and the two hours that followed were filled with both Thierry’s immense knowledge- foppish hair fell about his face (and I couldn’t help but admire his watch wrapped around his wrist with a band in the ever familiar red, white and blue), and Ol’s good humour – his questions asked with a complete diligence and sincerity but always peppered with fun. These were two hours well spent, and I would not for a second hesitate recommending a visit to Thierry when in Paris (you can find all of his details in my page dedicated to Paris).

I first met Oli when I was probably 10 years old and he, about 4.  My sisters and I were brought up in the country and Mum always liked to dress us in matching outfits, or at least versions of clothes that were exactly the same but perhaps in varying colours.  The day that our ‘city friends’ the Wilkinson’s turned up with their younger children, I remember feeling a slight degree of relief that they too, were in matching outfits.  We weren’t so ‘Von Trapp’ after all.
Oli leapt out of the car in a white frilly shirt and a pair of red corduroys, making a bee line for the first puddle, before splashing in it to the point that his trousers turned brown and his lovely desert boots a sort of ‘pond scum green’.  That night, he regaled us at the dinner table with stories of kindergarten which had the adults in tears of laughter.  At school as a teenager, he was in the year below my sister Sophie, so fortunately we have remained friends and I have always adored nothing more than seeing Ol at parties, most recently, Soph’s wedding.

Throughout his twenties, Ol lived in Paris where he worked for Yves Saint Laurent – therefore his French is impeccable and his knowledge of this city, enviable.  On Thursday, we dined at an old favourite, Chez Robert et Louise, a wonderful little restaurant tucked up in the Marais on Rue Veille du Temple.  Robert et Louise has been around for seemingly ever and they prepare escargot with just enough garlic and butter to stir even the most dormant of cardiac arrests, and huge scotch filet are lovingly prepared on an open fire, before being served to perfection on wooden boards – accompanied with ample carafes of vin rouge.  A salad is rare, but it can be found, and pomme de terre comes (and goes) without saying.

Over lunch, we chatted at a pace so rapid that we could have almost entered the conversation Olympics and, as the afternoon drew to a close, we thought it would only be right that we continued on for another ‘petite carafe’.  I can’t for the life of me remember how we ever stopped talking, but it was a happy afternoon with a friend who is as talented as he is funny, assured as he is humble and with a sense of humour that is kind as it is nuanced.

This week, one of my oldest friends will see her life change forever –  my sister Edwina will have her first child.  I only ever knew life without her for 18 months (none of which I can even remotely remember).  And, while I won’t be there to support one of the most important people in my life through this enormous stage in her life, what I do know is that as I type these words, the Pogues have just filled the apartment with their excellent song, ‘and the bells are ringing out, for Christmas Day!’.  There is no denying that for the short amount of time that I have lived in Paris my family has seen exponential growth.

I love to live in the past (the worlds most hopeless meditator is ‘moi’), but in saying that, I do know that the only real guarantee is the future. And for me, the most exciting view of the future is one filled with great friendships, both old and new, and funnily enough living a million miles from home has brought me closer to ever realising this.

Absence really does make the heart grow fonder – this post is for my friends, the old and the new, and most importantly, my family.  Bonne chance pour ma belle sœur.

Pictured:  steaks cooking at Chez Robert et Louise.