Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flirting with French debuts - finalement!

Finally, a book about the experience of trying to learn French as an adult!  

Hope it's good --- because I wrote it.

Flirting with French hit the bookstores yesterday, 4 years after I tackled my lifelong goal of learning French. In addition to telling my story, I explore such topics as why it's so difficult for adults to learn a language; what's holding up the general availability of Captain Kirk's universal translator, and the puzzles of gender and when to use vous and tu.  

Excerpts from some early reviews:
"A charming memoir by a passionate Francophile" - Kirkus Reviews
"Highly readable...His quixotic resolve to transcend his inherent competence recalls the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, the lanky patrician whose unlikely stints in football and boxing lent nobility to failure.  - The Wall Street Journal
"A great book, and not just for Francophiles, but for anyone learning a new language." - The Novel World.
Flirting with French is available at your local bookstore, or click on this link to order from your favorite online retailer.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wall Street Journal raves about "Flirting with French"

Thanks for the Wall Street Journal and reviewer Danny Heitman for his remarkable review of Flirting with French! Some excerpts:
"Mr. Alexander is a bit of a Walter Mitty who's developed an expertise at playing the novice. His first book, "The $64 Tomato," chronicled his misadventures as an amateur gardener. Next, in "52 Loaves," he reported his experiences as a hobbyist baker, going so far as to grow his own wheat. Now, in "Flirting with French," he discovers that learning a language late in life is as difficult as an uphill climb on the Tour de France."
"This is the man, after all, who once attempted French in a Paris eatery and ended up saying, "I'll have the ham in newspaper, and my son will have my daughter." But despite these comic setbacks, Mr. Alexander's tone remains one of wonder rather than resignation: "The hush of dawn at a medieval monastery, for a magical ten minutes perhaps the most beautiful spot anywhere on earth, as the Norman mist vaporizes before my eyes, lifting its veil from rows of sunlit apple and pear trees, their ripe fruit awaiting the attention of a monk's hands and a chef's knife." If only he could render that as beautifully in French"
"His quixotic resolve to transcend his inherent competence recalls the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, the lanky patrician whose unlikely stints in football and boxing lent nobility to failure. Like Plimpton, Mr. Alexander presents himself as an apprentice, but the reader quickly discovers he is also a master teacher."

Read the full review.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bon (whatever!)

I received an e-mail yesterday from a Frenchwoman which ended with the salutation, Bon dimanche! And I thought, that's a first -- no one has ever wished me a "good Sunday." But once thing I've noticed (and like) about the French, they are always wishing you a bon something or other.
When you enter a shop you are greeted with bonjour; when you leave it, bonne journée. In the afternoon, you may be wished a bon après-midi or its more loquacious cousin, passez un bon après-midi. Late in the afternoon, come some magical time that only the French know, bonjour becomes bonsoir when you come and bonne soirée when you go. In between, at dinner, you may be wished bon appétit before you eat and bonne continuation during. At the end of the meal, the waiter might wish you a bonne fin de repas or even (and this one is a little too clinical for my taste) a bonne fin de digestion.

My favorite, though is bon courage!, sometimes shortened to just Courage! which, depending on the situation, can apparently mean anything from “have a nice day no matter what may come” to an ominous “good luck,” sometimes with a nuance of “good luck, pal — you’re going to need it!” I suspect in my case, particularly when I trying to speak French, it’s usually the last. And I do need it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Frenchman forces plane to land over legroom

Let's hear it (although hear what, I'm not sure) for the 60-year-old Frenchman whose last name is Alexandre for raising a fuss over leg room on a flight from Miami to Paris. It seems the woman in front of him reclined her seat into his lap, and refused to budge when he complained. After he let his French temper get the best of him, undercover air marshals subdued him, and the flight was diverted to Boston.

There have been several disputes over reclining seats on planes recently, and here's why: Not only are tempers short because flying has just become so flat-out horrible, but while the airlines have reduced the legroom -- the number of inches between you and the seat in front of you -- they have not reduced how much that seat in front of you can recline!

I think it's time for a dialog about reclining seats on planes in general. Are they really necessary? And when we're done there, let's discuss the putting rocking chairs in movies theaters. I mean, are they nuts? You even been behind someone who rocks his chair while you're trying to watch a movie?

In the meantime, be consider of the passenger (moviegoer) behind you. Especially if he's six-foot, four. And has bad back. And can't afford first-class.


Failing at French? Research says don't try so hard.

Well, this might explain a lot: A team of neuroscientists at MIT have published a study that suggests that trying harder to learn a foreign language can actually impede progress(!) That's right, the slacker in the baseball cap slouching in his seat in the back of the class of French class who's not even bothering to conceal his earbuds may be absorbing more then you, the diligent concentrator in the front row.

The researchers theorize that this is because (and I'm broadly paraphrasing here) our adult brains, in trying to take in too much, miss the big picture. But if you let yourself get a little distracted during lessons, you pick up more.

This "less is more" theory is not new, and in fact I discuss it with one of its proponents, Elissa Newport, in my new book Flirting with French as well as in a recent op-ed in the Times, but this is the first time that scientists have tested the theory (using an artificial language) in a controlled environment.

For more details, there's a nice summary in Science Daily.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

French Flix Fix from Netflix

Looks like much of the country is going to have a wet Labor Day - the perfect excuse to stay indoors and watch some good French films via Netflix streaming. By the way, why do the French not celebrate Labor Day? Perhaps because every day in France is a celebration of the laborer, what with the 35-hour work week, 6-week vacations, and retirement in your fifties.

Back to the films, Bicycling with Molière is clever and entertaining, one of these play-within-a-play things, except that in this case, the play in question, Molière's The Misanthrope, is playing out in real life while a celebrated TV actor tries to convince a real-life misanthrope to come out of retirement to play in the production of The Misanthrope that the TV actor is staging. Fabrice Lucini is terrific as the misanthrope.

Another film I saw recently is 2 Autumns, 3 Winters. More typically French, meaning there's not much of plot, and a little offbeat, I found myself drawn into this drama about a couple who meet by chance -- twice. A good rainy day movie. To stay abreast of other French films streaming on Netflix (or playing in a theatre near you), check out the website But check these two films out soon - Netflix can easily yanketh what they giveth.

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."