French At Almost 40…

Let me begin by acknowledging that learning a foreign language, once you have made it past that magical stage as a child when your brain greedily laps up languages like an illicit pre-dinner bowl of chocolate pudding, sucks.  Why? Because of the crappy “free gifts with purchase” of impatience, fatigue, and the paralysis inducing need to know “why,” that come with being an adult.  Kids don’t require a mind bending explanation of the subtleties of the subjunctive mood.  We do.

It doesn’t help that attempting to learn a language as an adult is often dismissed as a luxury or a fool’s errand.  If I had a Euro for every time someone incredulously asked, “why” or “is your office requiring that now,” after I inform them I’m taking French lessons,  I’d be the proud owner of my own pied `a terre in Paris. Despite this reality, there is nothing I hate more than having my goals scoffed at, particularly by those who probably never had the stones to even try to learn a language as an adult.

It is with that mindset that I began my odyssey to “apprendre le francais” in my 30s.  I started 7 years ago by signing up for a “Beginning French Conversation” class at the local junior college.  Going to a JC, after having completed my undergraduate education and law school, felt more like a wrong turn at a continuation high school than an institute of higher learning.  My class was a rag tag mix of adult Francophiles and those who either registered too late for the class they really wanted, or simply had to sign up for something as a condition of their probation.  Our professor, whom we simply called “Madame,” was exactly the kind hearted and patient soul that one would expect to find teaching death row inmates life skills.  Despite the fear that my class would at any time erupt into a violent mutiny, I hung on, and even enrolled in French 1, for the college bound. Sadly, I ended up dropping that class within a couple weeks, having realized I had just vigorously cross examined the guy sitting 2 desks away from me in a terrorist threats and assault with a deadly weapon case.  Gulp.

Here lies the body of a woman who dares to learn French in her 30s...

Here lies the body of a woman who dares to learn French at almost 40…

With a renewed commitment to my personal safety, I realized if I wanted to be serious about my French, I’d have to take more drastic measures.  That’s how I found myself at the  Alliance Francaise de San Francisco.  Charmed by the impressive class list, the certainty that the expense would weed out those “lacking in commitment,” the tres Parisien underground cafe, and the decidedly Euro feel, I enthusiastically said, “Oui.” In the 70 Saturdays that I spent at AFSF, my French improved by leaps and bounds.  Between the San Francisco city-chic and being surrounded by others who nerd out like me to most things French, I was in utter bliss.  But, with my heart leading me North, to The Ranch and My Beloved, I knew that my quest for French fluency would require me to be “plus debrouillarde.”

My need to be “more resourceful” immediately led me to the internet. During my search, I managed to reconnect with a former professor from the AFSF who now lives in Amsterdam.  Since 2012, we have had a weekly rendezvous via Skype that has kept my French “en forme.”  I can say with absolute certainty that the one on one attention I receive has pushed my French past the road blocks I found in group classes.  Now, I’m no longer wedged between students that either just don’t get it, or those whose French is so advanced that I feel like an idiot.  Mes lecons particulieres with Monsieur Zarhouni are my warm bowl of just right.

In addition to finding my private lessons sur Skype, I stumbled upon Conversation Exchange.  It’s a free, easy, and super cool way of meeting native French speakers from all over the world who also happen to want to learn English, with a California accent in my case.  All you have to do is create a user name and look for someone who looks cool and is at about your same level of skill.  I have found it to be very useful to learn real French and you can’t beat the price of “Free 99.”  I have to admit it feels weird at first to speak French with a complete stranger, but in some ways it’s perfect! They don’t know you, you don’t know them, if you sound like a fool, who cares?  If things get weird, simply say `A Dieu.

In the end, the most important chapter I had to study in apprendre le francais, was written by moi-meme. It’s titled, “Just Get Over Yourself.”  I found that once I let go of my fear of sounding ridiculous and tuned out negative self talk, my French advanced significantly.  I stopped cursing the fact that neither one of my parents are Francophones and just got off my ass and put in the work.  I’ve resisted the temptation to spend too much time on the “why” of those hideous grammar rules and just accept them, much as I would have if I was 7 again, instead of almost 40.

Don’t let a hate spiral of self doubt get in your way, just par-lay luh-frahn-say!  Bon Chance!

French Workbooks J’adore: Grammaire Progressive de Francais,The Ultimate French Verb Review and Practice, and anything by Annie Heminway in the Practice Makes Perfect Series.

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Wisdom in “The Perfect Cappuccino”

Anyone who has spent even a day in a European country knows that coffee and “the cafe” play a central role in European culture.  Having traveled extensively through France, Spain, Italy, and dipping a toe into Germany I know this to be true. One of the first things I do after I land in a European country and shower off the nearly 11 hours of funky flight scum, is get my hands on a respectable espresso drink and nuzzle into a seat at a cafe.

At home here in the States, I am not much of a coffee drinker. I limit my intake mostly to the occasional decaffeinated coffee or espresso (I can hear the boos, hisses, and cries that I am a poser already), as my system is very sensitive to caffeine. I will brave a full octane espresso only when I know that I will not have access to windows higher than the ground floor, for fear that I might jump out. Yes, it gets that bad, and no this is not a cry for help.   Caffeine also causes me to perspire, act like a cranker, and I swear I can feel my hair growing when I have it.  None of the listed side effects are particularly attractive, hence my desire to limit my descent into the imminent “crazy” to only those times when I know the espresso and the experience are worth it.

From the moment I first tasted coffee in a European cafe, I have asked myself, why doesn’t coffee taste like this at home?  In the States we have amazing access to coffee beans from all over the world, we have local producers of the finest quality organic dairy products, and of course we have American ingenuity, that has to count for something, so again why?  I am convinced that the answer to that question is culture.

Save places like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, we don’t really have a cafe culture. On a whole, we don’t place much emphasis on lingering and savoring an artfully crafted “cup of coffee.”  We are usually rushing around drinking coffee on the go, expecting it to serve only as a conduit of chemical fueled energy to get us through the day.  If you have any doubt about the validity of my position, just count the number of people in the drive through at Starbucks, or even the number of people rushing around with a to go cup of coffee in their hand–a guaranteed anomaly in Europe.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love my country dearly, but we can stand to learn a few things about taking the time to savor excellence in the craftsmanship of food and drink the way Europeans do.  There is an amazing world outside of our McDonaldized, fast, cheap, and easy tendencies.

Still think I am a traitor American with a tendency toward self-loathing?  Check out this really cool film by Amy Ferraris that I stumbled upon on Netflix last week called, “The Perfect Cappuccino.”  Stream it.  Ms. Ferraris presents her case for why Europeans, particularly Italians, have a leg up on us.  She captures the essence of why the European coffee experience sends any well travelled American into blissful reverie at the mention of it.  She also exposes some spooky moves by Starbucks to torment a gifted espresso craftsman in of all places Tulsa, Oklahoma!  The film isn’t about bashing the States, or corporate America, rather it is a call to action for us as Americans to take the time to savor things that are truly great, and to examine the product of our own rampant, mindless, consumerism.  Luckily, a few of the small operations leading the charge to whet American tastes to espresso excellence are here in the Bay Area, as she features Ritual Coffee Roasters and Blue Bottle Coffee in the film.  This is no work of typical leftist “commie” blather. It’s 89 minutes well spent.

On The Ranch, I am at least 90 minutes from any place where I can get a truly great cup of coffee, so I have learned to take a stab at it on my own, thanks to my Nespresso machine.  Luckily, when I feel like living dangerously and having a caffeinated espresso, I only have the second story window to worry about and there are tons of well placed objects in between to graciously break my fall.  And yes, I make a point to sit and savor.  I dare you to do the same.

Watch the film.  Tell me what you think.

My cappuccino is by no means "perfect," but I can guarantee it beats souless Starbucks

My cappuccino is by no means “perfect,” but I can guarantee it beats souless Starbucks

I love my Nespresso Pixie!

I love my Nespresso Pixie!

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