Thursday, August 21, 2014

Passé simple? I don't thing so...

I was recently asked in an interview if my French quest had allowed me to to read any of the French classics in the original. Actually, that was one of my goals in learning French, but when I tried, I came across an unexpected obstacle that no one had warned by about: the passé simple. This is the past tense that was once use exclusively in writing, with the more common passé composé reserved for spoken French.

That's right, French has two past tenses, equivalent in meaning: one for spoken French and one for written! Quelle langue!

When I first encountered the heretofore unknown passé simple in a Balzac story or something, I couldn't figure out what the heck it was. It looked a lot like the future tense, but I knew the conjugations for the verb in question, and it wasn't the future; it wasn't the imparfait; it was just bizarre looking, and I learned later, that is how to recognize the passé simple. If it's weird and doesn't match anything else, it's probably the simple.Which is, trust me, anything but simple!

By the way, the passé simple wasn't the only obstacle to reading French classics. It's often repeated that 90% of a language uses just 2,000 different words. Je pense que non! After a year of study, I couldn't make my way through Le Petit Prince.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rave review from Kirkus

The very first review of Flirting with French is in --whew!

Thanks, Kirkus Reviews, for your kind review, which begins with "A charming memoir by a passionate Francophile" and ends with "Alexander’s love affair with French, he concludes in this wry and warmhearted memoir, has reaped unexpected rewards."


So, not only is it nice, but even better, they got the book!  Five weeks till publication, but you can pre-order here for less than 15 bucks (cheap!).

Read the full review at Kirkus Reviews.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nous recevons des lettres

A letter writer in today's New York Times, who in criticizing my op-ed of last week, writes, "It's not surprising that William Alexander hasn't succeeded in learning French to the point where he can converse with a 3-year-old."

I couldn't agree more! And thanks, NYT, for a great sketch!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"The Decline of French Cuisine" - Sound Familiar?

Mark Bittman has a depressing column in today's New York Times about the sad decline of French food, and the attempt of the government to rectify the situation by coming up with with a fait maison (made in-house, or homemade) sticker logo to promote restaurants featuring homemade food. Unfortunately, the way the regulations are written, McDonalds (as popular in France as in the US) could nearly qualify for it.

A couple of thoughts: First of all, let's not scare off prospective tourists with the notion that all French food is precooked, reheated, and just plain lousy. To be sure, there's a lot of that around, but there is still outstanding food to be had. You just need to be a little discerning in your choice. One of the best meals I had in France was at a small inn in the countryside, when foie gras terrine, pigeon, and duck was prepared by the owner - nothing frozen or artificial there.

Secondly, this story sounds oddly familiar. We've already seen this happen with bread in France. After World War II, the prized French baguette was replaced with cheaply made, quickly-risen loaf that tasted like cotton -- if it had any taste at all. Yet in recent years, a new generation of bakers has brought back the old, artisianal loaf, which may in fact be better than the old loaf ever was, and lines once again form at Paris's best boulangeries.

So, there is hope, but it's the younger generation that's going to have to make it happen. And right now, you can find most of them lined up at "McDoo."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Read my Op-Ed in the NY Times

What a week - first, my Vous/Tu chart in the LA Times goes viral (although I am worried that Le Monde has picked it up -- lord, what have I done to Franco-American relations!), and today the NY Times has published by op-ed on the the benefits of failing at French.

You can read the Times piece here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

LA Times Op-Ed on 'Vous" and "Tu" Goes Almost-Infectious!

The good folks at the LA Times tell me that my Guide to Vous and Tu that they published on Sunday has gone, well, if not quite viral, at least infectious. Like a bad head cold. Enjoy the full chart here, while you still can.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I blog for Algonquin Books today

See my guest blog on the Algonquin Books blog, plus some never before seen photos of me. (I know...you can't wait.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wordsmith Wednesday: Since when?



It's been a while since I've done a new Wordsmith Wednesday feature. Now say that in French: for "since" do we use depuis or il y a? Both phrases denote passage of time, so it 's confusing -- so confusing that I spent a half hour on it in one-on-one immersion class in Provence, without benefit of English examples.

I did (sort of) learn it, however, and since we're under no such no-English-in-this-room-buster constrictions here, let me try to explain the difference, because this is apparently a big deal to the French, and the first question you're likely to be asked by a Frenchman is either "How long have you been here?"  or "How long have you not been (not) speaking French?"

Depuis means both "for" and "since," as in "I've been in France for ten days" - Je suis en France depuis dix jours and "I've been sick since Tuesday" - Je suis malade depuis mardi. 

However, if you want to say, "I arrived an hour ago," you use il y a. So it's Je suis arrivée il y a une heure, which gets confusing, because the English literal construction of that seems to be "It's been an hour since I arrived" and we just said that "since" translates to depuis.

What my French teacher told me -- and how she managed to do this all in French I can't recall, but it's quite a feat -- is that if the action is ongoing, you generally use depuis. If it's something in the past, use il y a. Doesn't always work, but close enough.

If you're determined to get this right (and your effort is probably better spent elsewhere), check out the fine page on this at french.about.com.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Quelle surprise -- la grève strikes again!

The only thing surprising about the latest train strike French train strike (la grève) now into its second week is that I missed it. I managed to time trips to France to coincide with the previous two. Here's how, in 52 Loaves, I describe the one that almost torpedoed my mission to restore the lost tradition of baking bread at a Norman abbey:

The scene at the train station reminded me of stories of the eve of the Occupation, when panicked Parisians packed rail stations and streets, desperate to escape ahead of the approaching Nazis. On this night, however, those of us who jammed Gare Saint-Lazare were merely trying to get out of town before the transit workers went on strike.

When I think about that night, coming after a long day of travel from Morocco, I see a scene, in black and white, of women in long skirts, heels, and nylons, carrying chic suitcases, scurrying toward their huge, steam-belching locomotives as the clock ticks down to the strike deadline. I see men in fedoras and pin-striped suits kissing their wives goodbye, not sure when or if they’ll ever see them again. And I see -- and this is the only even remotely accurate part -- I see an exhausted, sick American, sitting on the platform, slumped against a wall, nibbling on a piece of crust, quietly taking in the scene, waiting for his levain, the rest of his clothes, and his train.
 My next trip to France, a couple of years later, was cut short by another strike, which I barely evaded in a similar fashion, and now the train workers are on strike again. For what reason, you might ask? The right to retire at the age of -- wait, not 60, not even 58 -- but, for many, age 50, a benefit workers fear will be lost if the government succeeds with its overhaul of the antiquated structure. Don't get me wrong -- I love the French trains, which whisk you across the country at almost 200 miles per hour, but the train workers -- they'd last about 2 weeks at Amtrak.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

If you're reading this, you're too old to say "rouge"

I was feeling sorry for myself the other day over my inability to master the guttural French r that seems to originate from somewhere between the liver and the spleen, when I came across something that made be feeler both better -- and worse.

The real chance to master this sound seemed to have ended at about the age of 9 months. This is based on a study of Asian babies. We all know the difficulty that Asian speakers have pronouncing the English sounds l and r -- you know, the stuff of bad Chinese waiter jokes about "flied lice." Well, it turns out the the core problem isn't that they can't pronounce these sounds: Asians can't pronounce them because, aurally, they can't distinguish between them. To native Asians, the l and r sounds, which don't exist in their language, sound the same!

But not to native Asian babies, who can distinguish the two sounds. However, if not exposed to a Western language, they lose this ability not at the age of 6 years or even 2 years -- but at the age of 9 months!

So, two lessons here: 1) Let's be kind to Asian speakers struggling with English; and 2) stop laughing at me because I gurgle and choke when I try to say the French word rouge. I should've started studying French 59 years and 6 months earlier.