Sunday, August 29, 2010

Accent Mark

Au carrefour de l’oral et de l’écrit, de l’usage et de la raison, de la mémoire et de l’oubli, l’accent circonflexe révèle l’ambiguïté de l’orthographe française. Il en illustre la passion. 
- Bernard Cerquiglini, from L’accent du souvenir

 At the intersection of the spoken and the written, of usage and reason, of memory and forgetting, the circumflex accent reveals the ambiguity of French orthography.  It illustrates the passion.
- Bernard Cerquiglini, from L’accent du souvenir

It is the third day of French class.  We have sung the alphabet, counted to ten, practiced our hellos and how are yous.  All so cordial, all enchantés to meet one another, inquiring politely and perpetually about each others’ well-being. 

At the beginning of each class, I ask them to have the one conversation they’ve all memorized with five new people.  It goes like this:

Bonjour !
Je m’appelle _____.
Enchanté !
Et vous ?  Comment vous appelez-vous ?
Je m’appelle _____.
Enchanté  !
 Comment allez-vous ?
Très bien !  Et vous ?
Bien !
 Au revoir !

They always laugh when the conversation’s cut short with an abrupt au revoir.  Afterall, mere seconds earlier the exchange seemed so promising, a new acquaintance they were pleased, no ENCHANTED to meet, someone who asked very earnestly how they were.  Then suddenly, they have nothing more to say to one another and find themselves ending the pleasantries without warning only to make their way through the script with someone else before dead-ending into au revoir, again. 

But, that is the way of language learning.  You say what you have the words to say, and then you say no more.

Shiny-eyed and eager, all of them, they know each others’ names, feel relieved that the alphabet is exactly the same, except sonically.  Take comfort in the fact that they were born to count to dix in Dixieland, named so because its inhabitants used “dix” for the said chiffre.

But this is day that French becomes foreign.  This is the day that I tell them about accent marks. 

There are five accent marks in the French language: aigu, grave, circonflexe, tréma, and cédille.  The most storied and for me the most fundamentally French, is the circonflexe.  It’s a linguistic example of the passé-présent or le passé qui ne passe pas (the past that doesn’t pass) so often evoked in France, perhaps most commonly in the signs and statues on each street, at each square, always reminding you of someone or something long gone but lingering. 

I cannot cross the Pont Saint-Michel, for example, without remembering the Algerians who drowned under it in the police repression of October 17, 1961, a story summarized in a sentence on a copper pont-side plaque.  

An equestrian statue of Joan of Arc, glittering and gold, on Rue de Rivoli reminds me that it was here, before the street sprung up and became a succession of vendors selling post cards, magnets, and pashminas to Louvre-bound tourists, that Joan tried to enter the city.

The other day, I passed a streetside plaque commemorating someone named Louis Baron, who “fell for the liberation of Paris in 1944.”  Someone had placed flowers in a hook attached to the plaque earlier that week.  In Paris, more than anywhere I’ve visited, the present is always rooted in the past.

The circonflexe hovers like a hat, wind-lifted for a brief moment before it blows away above certain vowels, indicating an “s” that once was but is no more.  It reminds you that forêt was formerly “forest” that hôtel in a past life went by “hostel” that before they became apôtres, the apostles were encumbered not only with a real back-stabber but also with an “s,” that an extra letter once appeared in paraît

The circonflexe serves no practical function except to whisper that words, like people, have ancestors, (or ancêtres,) that they’ve left their legacy, even if that legacy may at times elude us.  It reminds me of a beautiful poem by my friend Kim, in which she considers some of the daily signifiers of her Southernness, seeks her inheritance in her everyday surroundings.  She, too, has lived in places where an occasional drawl or y’all marked her as an out-of-towner.

This summer I was chatting with a professor at a conference in Paris and mentioned that I was in school in Louisiana.  Mais . . . she paused, studying me, Comment ça se fait que vous parlez comme 
ça ?  How is it that you speak like that?  Did you spend time in France when you were younger? 

I assumed she meant that I didn’t sound especially American, that nothing in my intonation or accent marked me.  I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I must have said something along the lines of It’s not always like this. This is a good day, and you are generous.

The linguist Eric Lenneberg argued say that there’s a critical period for language learning, the cut-off point of which is sometime around the beginning of puberty.  If you begin learning a language after that time, you can never really hope to attain native fluency.  I know of a few almost-exceptions, friends who can pass for French much longer than I can, but in the end, our accents always betray us.  A garbled vowel, a fumbled “r,” an “ou” where “u” should be.

It used to be a game.  How long can I go before someone asks me where I’m from? 

Sometimes, only a moment.  This was the case with the taxi driver on one of the first nights in Paris.  I wasn’t in the mood to tell him, to assume all of the connotations of américanitéEt vous ?  I’d asked, after he’d tried to guess, (Irlandaise ?  Allemande ?)  knowing he wasn’t French either.  Moi, je suis de la race humaine, he volunteered, matching my mystery. 

Why would I want to go undetected in the first place?  Because sometimes an accent is a weapon wielded against you.  At a champagne tasting in Épernay, I’d been chatting with the woman serving us and the husband of another customer at the tasting. 

-I do like this champagne, he lamented, but I don’t know if we can carry another case.
-Oh, but you don’t have to buy a whole case!  Just get a bottle or two!  
We both laughed until his wife snapped.
-Et vous, vous allez lui vendre du champagne avec votre petit accent.  Vous êtes quoi,
stagiare ? 
 -And you, you’re going to sell him some champagne with your little accent.  What are you, an intern ?

We all knew that American interns had certain connotations. 

Mon petit accent.  Other people had called it little, too, but in a different way.  In a way that wasn’t designed to make me feel small.  

I remember that a friend and fellow southerner I used to teach with said that when he’d visited California a girl at a bar had commented on his little accent, one that, because we grew up in the same place, I had never especially noticed.  “That accent,” she’d said, “It’s gonna get you laid.”

It amused me because I’d never really thought of a southern accent as an asset, had tried to shed mine even, and did, to some extent, as I taught English as a foreign language.  But, like the circonflexe, it was always vaguely hovering over me, reminding me of a past from which I felt a little detached but that was still a part of me. 

My boyfriend has once teased me when we were living in France.  When you talk to your mom on the phone, you sound so southern.  When he said “southern” he sounded so French.  He said it the intuitive way.  Not “suthern” but “south-ern.”

The other English teachers in the department marveled at the funny exoticism of my American accent, instructing the students to listen for the differences.  They had all studied in England and sounded like Julie Andrews, to me.  Not that I blamed them for preferring the British accent: it was a preference shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’d read that when he was living in Paris, he’d hired a British governess for his daughter, Scottie, in the hopes that she’d sound nothing like her parents.

Back to the circonflexe.  In the early nineties, a group of language reformers proposed a series of changes that would normalize the spelling of certain words, minimizing inconsistencies in spelling and grammar.  One of the suggested alterations was the elimination of a certain accent inutile.  Afterall, didn’t it just confuse people?  Wasn’t it just a leftover legacy from Latin, detached from the present just as it was detached from the letter over which it hovered? 

Eyebrows arched en circonflexe as its defenders grew combative.  As it turned out, no one really wanted to see the cironflexe effaced.  Some people would say it’s about elitism, about taking a certain pride in being the kind of person who always remembers the circonflexe, while others forget it, the way some English speakers take pride, for example, in knowing the distinction between “less” and “fewer,” in never making an apostrophe error.

As I speak to my students and they repeat after me, I can hear how they echo back the imperfections in my own accent, how with good faith, they imitate every note, even when it’s off-key, even when I sound more American than French.  I think they know, but they don’t mind.  I don’t mind either.  Like the circonflexe, I have come to accept my accent, even like it.

Why?  For the same reason I don’t think the argument was ever about elitism.  I think it’s about knowing where you’re from, remembering where you’ve been, and keeping the souvenir.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bubbles: Comme fanent les roses

Venez vite, je bois des étoiles !

Come quickly, I’m drinking stars!

-Dom Pérignon

Do you remember Miami Subs?

It’s 8 P.M. in Paris, which makes it 2 P.M. in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you changed the “P.M.” to an “A.M.” and rewound the clock ten years, we would all be twenty-one and in college at UNC. The bars would just be closing, and we might be hungry.

They do remember Miami Subs. Everyone who went to college in that town a decade ago does.

“They” are Addie and Burleigh, whom I have known since college, and Scott, whom I met a few months ago. Actually, Scott doesn’t remember it because he had his post-bar munchies in a college town in Michigan. We try to explain.

“The thing is," said Addie, “when you walked in, you actually felt like you were in Miami.”

Miami Subs was a pink and blue neon blaze of a fast-food joint that had more tacky charm than your typical late-night establishment. Rosy flamingoes and turquoise ocean waves beckoned you into a painted beach scene, a mural-mirage on the wall. Everything was fluorescent and flashing under a neon sun that didn’t set until 3 A.M.

Miami Subs served the usual five-dollar fast-food fare: bacon cheeseburgers, cokes, curly fries . . . but they also had pitas and key-lime pie, seafood platters, Philly cheese-steaks, a startling array of menu options for a clientele often too inebriated to sort through so many options.

There was one item on the menu that truly distinguished Miami Subs from every other franchise I’d frequented. Along with your cheese-steak or curly fries you could order, for the more sizable sum of 99 dollars, a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

I’d never seen anyone purchase any, but the temptation was there. The cool glass bottle beckoning through the glass refrigerator behind the cash register.

Last week, I took a day trip to Épernay, a quaint little town in the champagne region, famed for its caves. As you step out of the tourist office, you find yourself on the route de champagne, a yellow brick road of maisons de champagne which begin both literally and historically with Moët et Chandon, the first of the producers, founded in 1743. Moët et Chandon is where they make Dom Pérignon: there’s a statue of the legendary Benedictine monk out front.

I took the tour, which finished with a dégustation or tasting. I had decided to splurge and taste two vintage champagnes.

Sometime, our guide said at the end, you should try Dom Pérignon. Her face goes dreamy . . . C’est autre chose. It’s something else.

For a tasting, you have to make an appointment. They bring you into a private room for a lengthy lesson. Then, après l’effort, le réconfort. After the effort, the reward. All in all, it takes about an hour and a half and costs 70 euros.

À qui faut-il que je m’adresse ? Who do I need to talk to? . . . Maybe it was because it was before noon and I’d already had seven glasses of champagne that a 70-euro tasting seemed like a good idea. The man at the welcome desk rebuffed me.

Non. Aujourd’hui, c’est impossible.

“C’est impossible” is an expression that French people use fairly regularly. Most recently I’d heard it when I tried to move a chair around to the other side of the table at a café terrace. C’est impossible ! announced our waiter, swooping in and replacing the wicker chair to its original position. Il y a une loi.

A law? Really?

Oui. You couldn’t place chairs past a certain point on the sidewalk.

But the French also have another expression: Impossible n’est pas français. Impossible isn’t French. It isn’t American either. And as far as I was concerned, I was a little of both.

I ask the barman at the champagne café around the corner that also hosts tastings if he can hook me up. Non. He says they sell Dom Pérignon at a place down the street. He shakes his head and asks if I’ve ever tasted it. Of course not. He says it’s risky. Besides, there are very good champagnes for much less.

Je sais, je sais, c’est clair que c’est une histoire de marque, mais bon . . . il y a aussi une valeur symbolique. I shrug, gallically. Ça représente quelque chose pour moi.

Despite the fact that I’d make the statement so assertively, I wondered what I meant. What was the symbolic value? What exactly did it represent to me? The first answer that came to mind was “credit card debt.”

But the second answer was more like a line from a credit card commercial. Certain experiences, with certain people, at certain times, are priceless. You take opportunites when they’re presented, and you don’t ask a lot of questions or listen to the naysaying bartenders.

Fast-forward a few days from my visit to Épernay. My friends Addie, Burleigh, and Scott are sitting around a wooden table at my apartment before a spread of picnic pleasures.

Chorizo. Dark chocolate. Ripe cherries. Zucchini bread fait à la maison. A block of comté, the color of a daffodil. Fig-infused foie gras on pain d’épices. Cantelope wrapped in prosciutto. Smoked trout and baguette. Hazelnut brownies.

Do you remember Miami Subs? They do. We try to recreate Miami Subs for Scott.

Ten minutes later, Addie pauses . . . What made you bring this up?

I tell them the story of my day in Épernay, how I’d always wanted to taste Dom Pérignon, how I tried while I was there and they said no. And how it was a good thing that I’d been denied. Because if I had tasted it there, I wouldn’t have bought a bottle to share with them.

We abbreviate the lesson we would have received chez Moët et Chandon by reading the description in the booklet that came in the box.

Fresh, crystalline, and sharp, the first nose unveils an unusual dimension, an aquatic vegetal world with secret touches of white pepper and gardenia. The wine then reveals airy, gentle richness before exhaling peaty scents.

On the palette, the attack bursts forth, and matures into a sensual fullness that winds itself around, like a tendril of foliage. Notes of aniseed and dried ginger linger on the skin of the fruit (pear and mango), more textured than ripe. The finish gradually unfurls and then settles, smooth, mellow, all-encompassing.

We pour ourselves glasses, toast, and look pensive as we sip the first swallow.

Burleigh is the first to speak: “It tastes effervescent.”

We laugh, very hard. I imagine us sending the black and silver booklet back to Moët et Chandon with a suggested revision to Richard Geoffrey’s elaborate paragraph. I’d scratch through it with the silver Waterman pen Addie gave me earlier this summer and replace it with Burleigh’s single phrase: It tastes effervescent.

On me dit que nos vies ne valent pas grande chose

Elles passent en un instant, comme fanent les roses

They say our lives aren’t worth much

They pass in an instant, like roses wilt

It was a line from Carla Bruni’s song “Quelqu’un m’a dit,” that came out when she was just an heiress and supermodel, not yet first lady. A couple of years ago, when she passed up a glass of champagne at a state dinner, I had read that everyone immediately took it as a sign of pregnancy. Because, who, really, ever wanted to pass up champagne?

Life passes in an instant. So does champagne. What did it represent?

Dom Pérignon is aged ten years before it’s sold. You can save it for another ten, even longer in your home. But once you open it, you can sip and savor, but you can’t linger too long. You have to drink it before the fizz goes flat.

Venez vite, je bois des étoiles . . .

The first time I read his exclamation, I’d really only considered the second part . . . that image . . . champagne as a constellation, swirling and sparkling on the tongue.

But now I think of the beginning. Come quickly! I imagine the monk calling out to his 17th -century equivalents of Scott, Addie, and Burleigh.

He had wanted to share it, too.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Graveyard Rock Stars: Popularity, Père Lachaise and the Living Dead

. . . it's all about popular.
It's not about aptitude,
It's the way you're viewed
-from the song “Popular” in the musical Wicked

There have always been two kinds of popularity in my mind.

There’s the first kind, that I’ve dubbed “meritocracy popular.” People who are meritocracy popular have risen in the ranks because they’re genuinely good and deserving. They’re friendly and caring and you’ve never heard them say anything particularly unkind or seen them trample over others to get where they are. If they have lots of friends, it’s because they’ve been a good friend to many people.

Then there’s the other kind of popular, which I call “rock star popular.” People who are rock star popular exude cool. They’ve won affection from being beautiful or having gifts that others admire. Maybe they try, but they don’t seem to. And they don’t have to be a good friend to anyone to have people lining up to adore them.
Someone I used to know, who had traces of both kinds of popularity, once said:

-Children like me
-Because I’m tall.

I laughed. It seemed simple, silly. No real reason to like someone. He was, at 6’3, a head higher than most people, so to kindergarteners, he towered even taller, a man on stilts. I hadn’t entirely believed his assertion until one day when we were ice skating together in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.

He’d grown up in a place where winter sports existed and whizzed around the rink, looping and circling and crossing over, triple lutzing. I came back inside and pulled my skates off, tired by the unaccustomed cold, knowing my calves would ache. He ambled in afterwards, stood beside barefoot me in his skates, which added another six inches, and within seconds a crowd of French schoolchildren gathered.
Regardez l’homme très, très grand avec sa toute petite femme !

-Did you hear what they said?

I relayed it, but didn’t mention that they had married us in their minds because we were grown-ups.

C’est un homme GÉANT ! Avec une dame MINUSCULE !
It’s a GIANT man! With a MINISCULE lady!

Soon a clump of children gathered around us, laughing and pointing. Fingers accusatory. Mouths ajar. At first we laughed, too. Then, as the little blond garçon, the ringmaster of the freakshow we’d found ourselves featured in, kept calling out to his friends to see the big man and his little lady, their howling laughter began to feel cruel. Maybe we didn’t belong together. Maybe we didn’t fit.
But he was right. They did love his height.

At the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the biggest graveyard in Paris, there are two kinds of gravesites: those of the popular people (the living dead) and those of the forgotten. Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, Jim Morrison, and Balzac lie alongside the tombs of cemetery citizens unknown to the vast majority of visitors. At the entry, you can grab a map that indicates the resting places of the most sought-after deceased.

Putain. J’y comprend rien, quoi, RIEN ! exclaimed one twentyish woman with a male companion as they scrutinzed the map.

He shook his head. There’s a system of double numbering. Sections have a digit. Gravesites, another. Sometimes, people just head in the general direction and look for the crowds. Every once in a while, you can start off excitedly towards a grand group, convinced that you’ve struck graveyard gold given the number of groupies, then approach to realize the throng is not comprised of tourists but funeral-goers. They’re mourning the recent dead. Someone they actually knew.

As I walk, I come across one grave with fresh flowers and an 8 x 10 framed picture propped on it. 1993-2010. Just a kid. A few people start towards me thinking I’ve spotted another graveyard rock star then back away, embarrassed. They think I know him. Imagine they’ve interrupted.

I also give up on the map, which I’ve tried to reproduce in my notebook since they’ve run out at the front, just about the time I find two other Jim Morrison-seekers.

-He was a rock and roll guy who died young, says a fortyish man in khaki shorts.
-How young, Dad? How young?
-Oh I don’t know
-Twenty-seven, I supplied.

I could tell by the girl’s expression that she didn’t think that was especially young. It’s not, when you’re thirteen.

When I was thirteen, I’d had a rock star crush on Jim Morrison and read all of the books on him, even the trashy, conspiracy theory ones that insisted he was still alive. I had a big poster of him, his arms outstretched like Jesus, pasted to my closet door, above a black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe.

My friend Alison and I had stayed up late one night writing out the lyrics to all of the songs on the Doors’s first album. It felt like a deep and meaningful activity. And compared to most of our other eight grade occupations, it probably was. Funny . . . the boyfriend I’d had at thirteen grew up to be a rock star. But a nicer one than Jim Morrison.

Five to one, baby.
One in five.
No one here gets out alive.

What was that song about anyway? A starstruck scribe, I’d dutifully recorded the lyrics on notebook paper in my loopy lettering. One of the titles of the more sensational Morrison biographies borrowed the last phrase.

At the gravesite, people leave flowers and notes. Sometimes, they’re just phrases from the songs. Nearby trees and tombstones have suffered the effects of graffiti. There used to be a guard here because there were so many problems. I’d heard that they actually wanted to kick him out of the cemetery for his posthumous hellraising. People wanted to show up and smoke a joint or spray paint “JIM LIVES” on the surrounding tombstones.

Today, two teenagers sip a can of Stella, the local equivalent of Budweiser, and converse in German. A series of metal barriers prevent visitors from getting too close, like bodyguards at a concert. The graveside activity isn’t as much of an issue now. As one tourist notes, the fans are starting to die.
I move on, seek others.

-Vous avez vu Yves Montand ? inquires an older lady whose map I’ve borrowed.
-Yves Montand est là ? Je passerai lui dire bonjour alors !
-Have you seen Yves Montand?
-Yves Montand is here? I’ll drop in and say hello!

I realized my response made it sound like we were at a dinner party and I was surprised to bump into an acquaintance. But then again, we were only acquainted. Mainly because he’d slept with someone I knew better. Someone more popular than he was. Someone of my own nationality, who also died young.

Having greeted Yves, I returned to looking for Oscar Wilde, who also has enough rock star allure to attract graveyard groupies. Hundreds of lipstick kisses adorn his enormous white tomb despite an engraved plea to halt such “defacement.”

According to my guidebook, the tomb isn’t the only enormous thing. There’s a sphinx-like angel sculpted onto the marble front with missing genitals, the statue’s, supposedly huge. Now, according to legend, the missing member rests on a British ambassador’s desk. A penis paperweight.

The lipstick kisses seem like such a heteronormative expression of love for a writer whose most celebrated liason, whose muse, was a man, Lord Alfred Douglas, or as Wilde knew him, “Bosie.” In a way, you could say Oscar Wilde was lovelocked, adoring a man much younger than he, who never entirely returned his mentor’s affections.

In the end, Wilde went to prison for that love, accused of sodomy and locked away for gross indecency. But if he died alone, in a hovel of a hotel with tasteless wallpaper, he’s found hordes of posthumous admirers. Metro tickets and scraps of papers destined for the deadman collect on all sides of his tomb.
One person’s note reads: Dorian Gray made me love literature. Thx for that.

I wipe my eyes. It gets to the ex-English teacher in me, on two levels. The emotion behind it makes me misty-eyed because I also believe that a book can change a life. But the “Thx” makes me want to wield my lipstick like a red corrective pen and fill in the letters lacked. Out of my own respect for Oscar. The note reminds me that on the same closet door, I had also pasted quotations from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, having graduated from Doors lyrics by the tenth grade.

My dearest Oscar, a woman named Amy had written on the tomb, we are winning!

I first read “we” to mean gay people. Then again, maybe it also means unpopular people. Wilde was a rock star now, but he hadn’t always been loved for who he was.

His epitaph, pulled from his own poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, speaks of outcasts in a manner strangely prophetic:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity's long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

On the way out, casting about for conversation, I stop off to chat with the gardiens. There’s a funeral here today. Women in black dresses. Men in suits. A carful of flowers.

-People are still buried here often?
-Every day.

But death doesn’t get them down. They are playful, flirt a little, ask about Louisiana, if I speak French because I’m “cadjin,” make me promise to drop by again.

-À l’été prochain, alors ?
-Non! C’est trop long ! Revenez à Noël !

-See you next summer then?
-No! That’s too far off! Come back at Christmas!

Though I’ve never been sociable enough to maintain a large group of friends all at once, I leave feeling a little popular.