Tuesday, August 23, 2011

French Phrase Books: Slang? Colloquial?

Miss Bee, bless her darlin' heart, just spent an academic year -- or is that "academic" year? -- in France. I dare say her French got more fluent. She was a language assistant at a French lycée through the wonderful French Government program.

But as is the case with many young people who have fun carousing with their French peers, the language skills she acquired aren't necessarily 100% fit for polite company. The Berlitz-type phrase books didn't really give her a leg-up in conversing with other 20-somethings. On the other hand, the slang dictionaries didn't exactly help in terms of understanding the appropriateness of the language.

Her first adjunct phrase book, Dirty French, she purchased at Urban Outfitters. It is, she admits, "kind of raunchy," and doesn't give the reader any sense of the social context of when any of the phrases should be used. Witty and hip, perhaps, but "cool slang," "funny insults" and "raw swear words" were not exactly what an American in France needed for understanding colloquial French and, more particularly, for spouting them in la Belle France. (I remember a story told to me by a sweet American college student who, driving with her French beau and his parents to their weekend house, exclaimed, "Waouh, Christophe, t'a vraiment niquée, celle-la!" when he sped past a car on the narrow route nationale. His well-bred parents in the back seat were mortified at her foul mouth. She thought she was simply saying "Good job! You passed him!")

Recently, Miss Bee has acquired Merde! The Real French You Were Never Taught at School. This phrase book, she says, is imminently more practical and useful. It gives ratings as to appropriateness of all those phrases she learned and parroted back. Basically it gives you a rating scale of social context between being polite and bien élevé, a dweeb and having a gutter mouth: very important distinctions when conversing in France.

Good to know. Any other recommendations?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

12 hours at CDG Airport

Ah, the fates can be cruel.

I have an upcoming business trip to Europe which has me flying into Roissy -- aka CDG, Charles de Gaulle airport. And making a hasty connection to my final destination. (The good news is that I'm flying beloved Air France.)

That initial part I can deal with -- dashing from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2E in a window of 2 hours. God willin' and the crick don't rise, I'll make it.

But the return flight is what pains me. My flight arrives mid-evening into Roissy. The continuing leg to the U.S. departs the following morning, about 12 hours later.

That, to me, is sheer temptation. Sheer torture! How can I be in Paris and not be in Paris?? Could I navigate my way into Paris, arriving after the dinner hour, and (ignoring seeing friends, alas, which would give me no time in the city), stay in a little hotel and spend my evening walking around -- being my old flaneur self -- and get enough rest and time to rise, check out, find transport and reach the airport in time for the return flight by 11 a.m.?

I surveyed my friends -- their suggestions ranged from "stay at the SofitelCDG," to "stay in the 6e near the RER station," to "the Ibis CDG," to the myriad other hotels at Roissy.

First I opted for taking the Air France car to the Etoile, staying in a small 2-star hotel, and hitting the town. Then I got real. If I didn't arrive until 10 pm, lugged my luggage to the room and then went out wandering, it would be a rather stunted visit.

And forgive me, but I really despise traveling on the RER from CDG with luggage, so that option had already been nixed.

So, I have decided to do something I've never done before in my Paris excursion adventures: I'll stay at a chain hotel at CDG and explore the airport itself for, um, entertainment and edification.

Any recommendations? Where would you stay -- what would you do -- what would you like to know about -- with 12 hours to kill at Charles de Gaulle Airport? Dining, lodging, spa services, entertainment, budget ideas? I'll report back in a week or so.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Travel Stories

These days we all have our travel horror stories: baggage lost, flights canceled, endless lines upon endless lines. Security itself is worth tomes.

A friend's recent saga reminded me of a most unusual moment in my early traveling days.

By the time I was 10, my parents were divorced and living in different states. We kids became troupers in air travel, shuttling from Tennessee to Pennsylvania without batting an eye. In the 1960s there was a cheap stand-by fare for the under 21 crowd, and we became pros at mastering the take-offs and arrivals. Getting adoring attention from the stewardesses.

One summer in the late 1960s, though, my sister and I had a most remarkable air travel experience.

I was 13, she was 17. We were flying one evening from Nashville to Philadelphia with a connection at National Airport in Washington. En route to D.C., we were in the middle of the most horrific thunderstorm I've ever experienced in the air, before or since. Huge thunderbolts striking down on all sides, and our prop plane was bouncing like a superball from one air pocket to the next. After a terrifying descent, when we finally made it to terra firma, I was happy to be alive.

Then, we were told that our flight to Philadelphia was cancelled. Due to our "youth stand-by" status, the airline wasn't required to give us lodging or any other compensation. We spent our coins in the pay phone to call our mother, who couldn't really help us much.

Yikes. Two young teen girls alone for a night at Washington National? That was almost more spooky to me than the turbulent flight. We went to the airport hotel, the Air Wayte. They were booked, of course. We pleaded with the front desk clerk. Clearly, here were two nice girls in their Villager outfits properly dressed for travel; surely they couldn't leave us unchaperoned to walk the halls of the airport -- or sleep unprotected! -- for a night. (Remember, this was before airport security or cell phones...) The manager was summoned.

He was scratching his head, trying to figure out how to help the stranded waifs. Finally, he said, "Well, okay. I guess I could put you girls up in the Towah Room." I heard "Tower Room" and naively envisioned bunking down on the sofas of a cushy top-floor lounge. Sounded good to me! My big sister accepted, so off we went. To.... the third floor linen closet. The Towel Room.

He wearily told us to make ourselves comfortable in the 4X6 foot space, and shut the door on us. Pioneers to the hilt, we padded the floor with every towel from the shelves, spread out clean cotton sheets on top, settled in; and ah, did we fall asleep?

No, we didn't.

No, because it was also the supply closet, and we found an ample repository of Air Wayte Hotel postcards and a few ball point pens, and so spent much of the night scribbling notes to our friends. "Guess where I am? I'm spending the night in the linen closet of this hotel!"

All in all, it was a heavenly evening (except for a few scurrying cockroaches) where we felt both totally safe and totally outrageous.

We left with great gratitude and an unnecessarily large amount of miniature bars of individually wrapped hotel soap.

Thanks, Mr. Air Wayte, wherever you are!

Postcard image via La Dolce Vintage.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A table!

I just uncovered this quick ball-point sketch of me when I was about 13 or 14. It brings back such wonderful memories. I can't even remember the artist's name, yet he signed the sketch "I love you, Polly." What more could a teenager want?

Here is the scenario. I was the youngest of five children, and by the time I was a young teen, all of my siblings were off the social radar screen: Saturday night rolled around and they were away at boarding school or college or hanging out with the high school In-crowd in Philadelphia. Which left Polly and the parents. Social beings that they were, dinner parties were a frequent function. When those gatherings were chez nous, I was expected to join the adults at the table and be conversant, polite, and charming. I don't know how I measured up, but I know that it helped me learn to love dinner conversation, candlelight and starched damask napkins. The clink of silverware against china. Engaging in dialogue with adults, and having an opinion about current events.

I remember well the evening. My dinner partner -- a man my parents' age -- treated me as if I were a fascinating adult. I shared my naive views on politics and culture, and he responded with aplomb and appreciation. I blossomed. I was treated as a grown-up! Right there at the table, he asked, "May I sketch you?" And so we giggled conspiratorially and temporarily ignored the other guests for a few minutes while I found a Bic and some paper and he whipped up this sketch at the corner of the dinner table. Suddenly I no longer felt like the baby brat of the family, but a privileged participant in a grown-up world, even though I was wearing a cotton A-line skirt and a striped Skyr turtle-neck. I've kept the portrait to this day: an important reminder. I wish I could remember his name to thank him for the transformational moment.

So, what does this have to do with my love of France? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing. I know that when I first spent time in France a few years later, it felt so natural, so elemental, to be reveling in dinner conversation. It still does. I don't know to what extent my own children have learned this joy of inter-generational socializing. In France -- at least among my French friends -- this still is the norm. All ages gather at the table and get along (or not!) with verve.

A few years ago I was sitting with a friend in Paris who was feeding her toddler in his high chair. She said, lovingly, "Tiens-toi comme il faut," and made sure he sat up straight, before giving him the next spoonful. He giggled and clowned and wiggled, then sat up tall for his next bite. Then smiled and batted his eyes at us.

Early dinner party training?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Le Sportscope

1954. In the olden days, in order to see everything at a show -- whether the theater, opera, or a sporting event-- one needed to hold binoculars up to one's eyes. No more!

Give your wrists and elbows a rest. Just sport a dashing hands-free Sportscope (available at all the best Parisian opticians).

Contrary to what you might imagine, this advertisement wasn't on the back page of a Marvel comic book but in the uber-upscale magazine Plaisir de France.

Me want one.
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