Tag Archives: learning French

The pigeon gets what it deserves

21 Sep

D*mn pigeon Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerGuest Contributor:  American Richard Resnick is CEO of genomic software company GenomeQuest, a TED speaker and a regular business visitor to Paris.  The day before the incident below, one of Paris’s bountiful pigeon population emptied its guts on Richard’s suit and shirt while he was on his way to a meeting.

Work is over for the night, I’m having a couple of beers with my colleague JJ in the suburb of Rueil before heading back to Paris by train. It is about a 15 minute walk to the train station. It is the same walk I do every night, and I must say, I do believe I’m really quite good at it. You know, you put one foot in front of the other, etc., and so on, until you have arrive at your destination.

And indeed, like any other night, I execute this plan successfully, and arrive at the station. I put my ticket through the machine, ascend the stairs, and voila, there is a train, standing right there. No waiting. So, I board, no problem. I turn my headphones on. I close my eyes. And we’re off.

But it’s a slow ride. And, after about 5 minutes, we stop. I decide to open my eyes.

The train is empty.

I didn’t notice that before.

And we’re not in between stations. But we’re not really at a station either. We’re in a train yard. There are trains on either side of me. None is moving.

It’s suddenly becomes clear to me that every train, mine included, is parked for the evening, waiting for the morning rush hour. I’m alone in a stopped train, my French is marginal at best, and after two beers with JJ, I really need to pee.


The “RER” as it is known in Paris is a major set of train lines that run the length (or width) of Paris, from end to end, including the adjacent suburbs. It’s a bit nicer than a regular subway train – larger seats, larger cars, etc. And it has these doors that don’t automatically open; instead you have to either push a button – in the new ones – or turn a rusty crank counter-clockwise – in mine.

So I get up, move toward the door, and turn the crank, hoping it will open. It does. And suddenly I’m standing at the ledge of the train, and there is about a six-foot drop to the ground. No looking back, I jump.

The safety of the stopped train thoroughly behind me, I realize I am now walking on tracks with three rails. That third rail is the nasty one, but I really have no choice. I carefully maneuver across three different sets of tracks towards a very large fortress-like building on one side of the yard. There are fences with barbed wire, and signs saying things like “Caméras vous observant” (You are being watched) which I think could be the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I clearly need help.

But none of the gates open, no sirens wail, and all of the doors of the building – locked.

The urge to pee is overwhelming but I remember my mother telling me something about peeing near highly electrified metal.

“Ok,” I tell myself. “This isn’t that bad. I have my wallet.” (Frantically I drop my bag to find my wallet. I finger my passport while I am there, just for added comfort.)

“I have my phone.” Checking my phone, I am terrified to see the “Battery 20%” warning pop up. But the iPhone gives you no choice but to press OK, even though it really isn’t ok at all. (I make a mental note to Apple.)

I can do this.

I walk the length of the trains down to the other end. It’s a long train, and I have plenty of time to squint at the far end and panic about whether it is simply a closed pathway or whether there is a way out. When I arrive at the gate, it is locked. But there is a door into this fortress of a building on my right. I listen, and hear footsteps. Running through obvious things to ask in French, I turn the doorknob and go in.

I’m obviously in some kind of a Paris Metro control center, although it is totally deserted. Open boxes of pastries, fully consumed, a room full of uniforms and mops, and a stairwell, down. I take it and enter into a dingy, windowless kitchen occupied by a large table, a sink, a microwave, and a man.

Ou je suis?” Where am I? I ask, having practiced this one in my head on the way down the stairs.

The man, making his tea, looks up. Then looks down at his tea. Then shakes his head.

Parlez-vous anglais?” I pray.

Non,” he says bluntly.


Ok, here comes Richard’s broken French.

J’ai parti de la gare Ruiel Malmaison, et maintenant, je suis ici…” I left the train station at Rueil, and here I am …

Vous etes un anglophone?” he asks.

Oui, je suis.” Yes, I am.

De quel pays?” From which country?

Des Etats-Unis.” From the US.

Ahhh … d’accord …” Ahhh … now I see …

After this proper French verdict from the train driver, he goes back to steeping his tea. I watch. I wait. The urge to pee is horrendous. Finally, I try something new:

Je veux aller a Paris, il y a un taxi, ou quelque chose….” This roughly translates in broken French as, “I’d like to go to Paris, is there a taxi or something?

He looks up. It’s really the first time he actually uses his eyes to look at me. He takes me in. Up, down, up. Finally, he decides that he is going to have to help. I’m just not going to go away.

Vous voulez un taxi ou RER?” You want the taxi or the train?

Oui, l’RER serait le mieux….” The RER would be best…

D’accord. Suivez moi.”  Alright. Follow me.

He leaves his tea behind and walks up the stairs. I follow, running behind him. He weaves us through the train yard, over tracks, on paths, around gates, and pulls out a huge set of keys which he uses to unlock a mighty gate far too tall to climb.

Now, I’ve been listening to these French CDs called Pimsleur which give you a strong basis in basic conversational French. Thankfully, the very last CD I had listened to in America taught me directions, for instance:

lá-bas: over there

ici: here

tout droit: straight

et puis: and then

á gauche: left

á droite: right

So with a combination of his pointing and saying the above words in strange combinations with many additional French words thrown in, I am freed from the train yard and put out onto the street, no worse for wear, with only a 10 minute walk back to the train station where I had so recently been. The second train I board gets me safely home completely incident-free.

I do admit to peeing on a pigeon outside a Rueil hotel on the walk back to the station.

With a little help from my friends …

1 Jul

Basic French Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerIn response to my post last week To learn or not to learn, some friends on Facebook volunteered a few of their favourite French phrases. Please let me know your favourites in the list and suggest any you think I should add:

  • avoir besoin – to need
  • c’est la vie – such is life
  • pas trop cher – not too expensive
  • Pourquoi est-ce que votre singe mange mon dîner? – Why is your monkey eating my lunch?
  • jusqu’ici, tout va bien – so far so good
  • il est très beau aujourd’hui – it’s a great day
  • Il n’y a rien que je peux y faire. – There is nothing I can do about it.
  • comme il faut – as it should be  Comment that came with suggested phrase – “More often heard in the negative. Always thought it had a very hauteur/Anna Wintour air about it and then last year my 3 yr old niece used it meaning I was putting her shoes on wrong.”
  • Je suis espion. – I am a spy.
  • Il n’y a rien que je peux y faire. – There is nothing I can do about it.
  • Zut alors – Jings crivens help ma boab – sorry, no translation given :0)

My personal favourite and one I think I will use most often came from my Dad with this message:

“Dad’s favorite saying in French is ‘Je ne sais ce que vous dites’– I don’t understand you. This is after attempting 21 hours of French courses to get the 12 hours required to get my undergraduate degree! I hope you have some of my good points too!”

Special thanks to the following for submitting their faves: Sarah, Chris, Tom, Dave, Elizabeth, Niall, Eliott and my dear father, Robert, from whom I sadly inherited my foreign language skills.  All the translations and spellings are their own. :0)

To learn or not to learn

22 Jun

A little help from my friends Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSpeaking and learning French has not been a priority for me since I arrived.  At the start, I did a quick calculation between time-required and pain likely to be experienced learning the language versus having a nice time and not learning. It clearly showed that not learning and focusing on having fun was the way to go.

Everyone knows French people don’t like it when you get their language wrong. You try, they give you a nasty look and then reply in testy English.  So why go through the hassle?

I was not going to get far in 5 months with my pathetic language skills and enough people speak English for me to get by. I’ve communicated with sign language and a smile all over the world. I was sure I could connect even in notoriously grumpy France.  And really, how much French do you need to know to get a real bang out of seeing the Eiffel Tower, eating a macaroon or enjoying the pop of a champagne cork?

However, I am getting pressure from all sides to change my mind. First, everyone expects me to want to try.  Friends at home all seemed to think that learning the language was one of the top benefits of my trip. “What a great opportunity to learn French,” they said enthusiastically. In France, my landlady, expats I meet, the woman at the cheese counter, all think they are being encouraging when they ask, “How’s your French coming along?”

“It’s not,” I think to myself, as I point to the cheese I want behind the glass and say, “S’il vous plaît.”

The second pressure is me.  My default mode is to talk to anyone, about anything, at anytime. I am programmed to need to share. However, even small pleasantries with the woman at the bakery or the man at the fruit and vegetable store are denied to me. This is partly because I don’t know the words or phrases.  But the reality is that the biggest obstacle is my fear to get it wrong. I am terrified of the face that says, “You stupid American, when you speak it’s like you are spitting on my baguette.”

As a result, despite all genetic programming to the contrary, I’ve effectively taken a vow of silence.  A shop assistant will ask, “Can I help you find something?” and I stand there silent, like a deer caught in headlights, with a stupid look on my face.  Sometimes I can utter a weak, ‘I don’t understand French’ but most of the time I just shake my head, close my lips tightly and make for the door.

To make matters worse, people want to talk to me. Naturally being a talker, my ridiculous tendency to make eye contact and produce a cheesy smile screams that I am up for a chat. Little old ladies stop me on the street, mothers stop me in the grocery store and even children have come up to say something – what they want to share, I have no idea – and I’ve nothing to say to them.  I must look rude, stupid or both.

Finally, and the most compelling pressure to learn French is the fact that French people are actually really nice.  Yes, it’s true. At no point since I’ve been here has anyone been mean to me about not speaking French. At no point has anyone been mean to me or expressed displeasure at me attempting to speak French. In fact, the French people I’ve met have gone out of their way to make it easy for me and to make my stay in France better. Sure, people have been initially bemused by my “I don’t speak” routine.  However, they usually look at my shoes (the best test for country of origin), figure out the situation and try to help.

This week I started the language tapes. Everyone knows the best plans are flexible.

**You can help me and others learn French!  Please post your favorite French phrases.