My Travel

Learning French and Going to France

When you’re learning French and traveling to France, you naturally feel like you should try speaking French once you arrive on French soil, right? Wait, try? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” You are not simply a tourist or a visitor anymore. You basically have an obligation.

Oui, Yoda certainly knew what he was talking about. I know the process of this particular trip to Paris and it automatically divides itself in to tasks in my head in reference to opportunities to parler français. With decisively German precision I follow my plan of producing short, but appropriate sentences.

I enter the plane and say “Bonjour, Madame”, “Bonjour, Monsieur” to the crew as I make my way to my seat, on the same volume level that I use in other languages, because, you know, je parle un petit peu français. I am rewarded with a “Bonjour, Madame” or sometimes still with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.” I like being called Mademoiselle. I don’t find it derogatory and it reminds me of when I started flying to France as a student, after first moving to Germany. The German Fräulein has said farewell and disappeared in to the mist of times past, but Mademoiselle isn’t quite ready to leave just yet.

Step two of my exciting journey en français is putting to the test our extensive lesson on ordering in a restaurant. Are you ready for it? Here goes. “Je voudrais un chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît.” The stewardess doesn’t politely ask me to repeat my request (parfait!) and gracefully hands me my little cup of hot chocolate, following the action with a sentence I can’t repeat, but I know she’s saying I should stir the liquid. She also asks, and I’m pretty sure I am typing this correctly (confidence is everything), “Vous desirez de l’eau avec votre chocolat chaud?” And because I’m an experienced traveler en France and prepared to invest my German powers of concentration in this drink before me, I answer elegantly, “Non, merci.”

I gratefully sip my hot chocolate, because I need to fortify myself for what comes next after these linguistic achievements. Step three of my interactions en français will be to put money on my Navigo pass so I can take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. I spend the remainder of the flight painstakingly composing various versions of what I want to say. “Bonjour, j’ai mon Navigo…non, bonjour, j’ai un Navigo…is it un or une Navigo? Wait, they don’t need to know it’s my Navigo, too much information, and I have it in my hand anyway, it’s not like I just picked it up off the floor, my picture is on it. OK, how about, bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours? Or is it de cinq jours? Or just cinq jours? Bonjour (smoothly slide Navigo towards SNCF employee behind the glass), je suis ici pour (maybe I can ask them, with that little laugh as if we’re sharing an inside joke, if pour is correct, haha, hmmm, oui, le français) cinq jours et je voudrais…what do I use for “to” or “until” when I’m talking about a stop? We recently had a few lessons where we repeated how to use en, au and aux, depending on whether you were talking about a country, city or region, and what gender they were. But we didn’t cover stops of the Parisian metro!

But my feverish race of thoughts is stopped quickly after I enter the SNCF ticket office in the airport. I only manage to get out “Bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours”, but something about it must have been convincing, because the lady at the counter released what sounded to my ears like a torrent of rapid French and the only word I understood was “dimanche”. I apologized in English and she reeled off the information I needed in the same language, but she clearly didn’t wish to pursue any longer interactions, so all my carefully constructed sentence parts will have to be saved for next time.

I redeemed myself the next morning by loudly and decisively telling a man blocking my path in the metro “Excusez-moi!”, only to see that he was a ticket controller.


Ballet Workout Number Six

I am a swan. My graceful movements are transporting me across the gym. I extend my long arms, one in front of me, one behind me, and I’m not a swan anymore. I’m Odette, y’all!

Imagination is a wonderful thing. In reality I’m sweating from my head down and my legs and arms feel slightly heavy. Our trainer (yet another different one today) is seriously nice. She explains and demonstrates the moves she wants us to make as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to do them, seemingly with complete faith that we will all be able to execute these lovely ballet components. I immediately like her for it. “Long arms, long arms, keep your arms long!” At 5’10, I hope I’ve got that one covered. OK, I know what she means.

I can’t really see what I’m doing, because I’m concentrating on not falling and not crashing in to the women jumping ahead of me. I therefore don’t really now if my moves are lovely, but I’m having a lovely time.

We are lining up in fours and prancing across the gym with varying degrees of…style. I watch, fascinated, as the first few participants seem to do exactly what we were instructed to do, and it looks amazing. We cover the gym in multiple directions – diagonally, straight on, back and forth. I never stop moving, and though it feels like Odette might have turned back in to a walrus instead of a swan, I decide that in my own little show she’s a happy walrus.

To my delight, standing up on tip-toes and balancing while extending my arms upwards and to the sides is working out better and better, as is following the familiar (yes, that’s just what I do now) choreography bits with tendu. We’ve spent most of the class doing exercizes standing up, so that was an interesting switch. I wonder which part of my body I’ll feel responding tomorrow.

A few tell-tale crunches once again pop around the gym once we bend our knees in our first plies. I lower myself extra carefully, not wanting to join the soundtrack, and watch our trainer position her knees turned outside, looking like an upside-down letter T.

I’ll just work on my long arms for now.


Ballet Workout Number Five

“Number 5 is alive!”

Yep, just say the number five to me and I will quote Short Circuit at you like nobody’s business. Who said ballet-inspired workouts and 80s comedy films can’t meet in a unique fandom crossover? That’s right, no one! Watch my attitude (see what I did there?).

As usual we work out way down from warm-ups for the upper body to exercises on our knees and then our side and then our backs and then I’m sometimes puffing like the Hogwarts Express. All that’s missing is the whistling.

My attitudes do feel like they’ve gotten better (ha), to me, but maybe that’s also because I’m focusing on how our wonderful instructor is doing things and her attitudes look flawless. I feel inspired, and that’s important, because I’ve got a lot on my plate here: listening to instructions, following instructions, watching myself in the mirror, making sure I breathe in and out when told to, paying attention to how my lower arms line up with my shoulders and that I don’t do left when everyone is doing right.

I love the full-length stretching for arms and legs, but there is still only so far my legs will go from lying down on my back. Our instructor’s legs flash like scissor blades through the air and then she doesn’t touch the floor with her heels when she lowers them. Oh dear. I feel the burn and I feel gravity. My own heels seem to have turned in to dumbells ready to drop.

I do my best. It’s no joke, keeping your legs in the air and switching between flex and changement. I actually have to set my legs down for a bit, and after covertly peeking around, I see that the woman in front of me is just lying on her back, waiting for us to finish. It’s also a little packed and I ended up brushing her hand with my ballet-slippered foot. Oops.

We stop with the flex and changement, but still keeping our legs straight in the air, we bend them apart, raise our upper bodies off our mats, stretch our arms out between our legs and swithc between tapping the air with our palms, then criss-crossing them. I’m glad my friend has her back to me, otherwise I would laugh. And it wouldn’t have been pretty from that position.

I feel proud of myself for staying up every time I wanted to drop back down, even if what currently passes for my abs is singing No by Meghan Trainor.

I do feel there is progress – a bit more stretching here and there, keeping in time with the count and better chroreography following at the end. Our instructor says “Sehr gut” several times, and when we all raise our arms above our heads, our left and right tendus practically in sync, it feels only natural to applaud her as the class ends.


Ballet Workout Number Four

I’m already on number four? Unbelievable!

I forgot my towel, but hey, this isn’t a sweaty workout, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s about stretching and poise, right?

Within 10 minutes I’m eating my words. The leg raising exercises seem more complicated this time around, especially when I’m on my knees, trying to maintain elegant positions of everything that’s not in the air while coordinating that which is. The angles to which our trainer can bend herself are mind-blowing. And she talks at the same time, while I try, again, to breathe in and out correctly, and not giggle from slight nerves.

“Other way,” she says suddenly. I would have jumped, being startled, but I can’t, because I’m on my back. One leg is bent at the knee, the other is stretched out behind me, and I’m supposed to reach around my side with one arm and try to touch the (almost) straight leg. “The other way,” our trainer repeats. I start awkwardly rearranging my legs, trying to look like I do this on a daily basis. “No, no, your legs are in the correct position, it’s your head, your head, look the other way!” OH.

Just the evening before, my friend and I had been talking about how nice it was that you could get used to things in the class without being watched or called out (I have no problem with instructions, I’m just attached to my own headspace for a while before I can process them properly). But since we are markedly fewer participants today, we are there to see and be seen.

And seen we are. Details emerge, like how to hold your elbows during the warm-up arm wavy arm movements I like to do so much. It’s easier to distinguish ourselves in the mirror and therefore we’re more in sync as Tchaikovsky plays in the background. We’re our own little ballet company.

My abs, or what currently passes for them, are groaning in protest, but I do my best, sweat trickling down my face, managing not to pant. This time my choreography bit in the end is not half bad and I feel nicely ironed out when class ends.


How to Talk to a Woman Reading

No Means No, It Doesn’t Matter How Women Say It by Amna Saleem was immediately familiar to me as soon as I read the article. As she described the persistent attention of a man who approached her  with offers of a drink, despite the fact that she was reading a book and repeatedly declined politely, I was nodding along. I remembered various situations both when I was younger and older, and reading about the mocking responses of the irritating would-be suitor, I also remembered those I had heard myself, among them such as “Don’t you ever smile?” and “So what’s your boyfriend’s name?”

But the article and the author’s mention of some of the nicer Tweets she got from readers got me thinking on another topic. How can a man talk to a woman reading in a public place without seeming like a persistent creep? Or how would the non-creeps do it? Here’s an opinion.

My heartfelt suggestion to men who really want to speak to a woman reading would be to follow this example of what to say to her:

Excuse me/ sorry, hi, sorry to bother you, but I just noticed you are reading * insert name of book here * and I’m thinking of getting it for my father/ mother/ sister/ brother/ cousin/ friend. Could you tell me if it’s good/ what you think of it so far?”

If she answers your question, but doesn’t offer anything else, thank her, wish her pleasant reading and BACK OFF.

If a conversation follows, participate, but don’t overdo it with attention or suggestions, drop a bookshop tip or two, or ask her.

A woman reading in a restaurant, cafe, on a park bench or anywhere else outside of the home that’s sufficiently lit is not looking for a way to mask that she is alone, nor is she self-conscious about sitting by herself. Even if she is, that’s her business. She isn’t begging for persistent, even aggressive attention. She might be waiting for someone, she might have had a long day and just needs an escape for a while. Or she just wants to read, dammit.

The point is, she chose this space, this time and this book by herself, for herself. This needs to be respected.

I love to read and I make a goal out of taking myself somewhere beyond my home to do this. I like to interact with the outside world just as much as I like to withdraw from it sometimes. I need to look up from my book after a while, I most certainly need to eat and drink. Like the author of the article, possibly, I also enjoy looking at something other than my phone to fill my time.

It’s not that a woman reading in a public place, or anyone, can’t be approached at all. But this is a specific situation that merits thinking about.

If she’s reading, she intends to concentrate. The only person who is allowed to break that concentration is the one she might be waiting for. Unless they are both meeting up to read together. The fact that she has a book with her means she’s occupied. She picked something to do.

Anyone being approached by someone deserves politeness and respect, as well as some amount of distance at the beginning of communication, especially when it’s about talking to strangers.

That’s it. And no really does mean no.