Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Henry Higgins splits his infinitives

This morning, after my flute lesson, I had my French literature class at Paris 8. I was scared to death that I was going to be late, since I always get out of flute lessons a good 10 to 20 minutes late, and today, I had to get to Saint Denis (40 minutes away from my flute teacher's house by subway, if I'm lucky) for the class in an hour. Well, I got there exactly on time, but the professor wasn't there. Everyone else was waiting, so after ten minutes, I asked someone if we were supposed to have one of the on-site visits today and if everyone had just forgotten, but she said she had seen him in the teacher's lounge chatting with another professor. So, I was just happy I wasn't late.

In class, we all told the professor what we wanted to do for our final assignments. I said I wanted to do a creative short story assignment that takes place on a bridge, and that I was thinking of Le Pont au Change because that was where Gringoire first saw Esmeralda in Notre-Dame de Paris and where Les Amis de l'ABC planned the rebellion in Les Mis, and he said that Le Pont au Change has been completely redone and looks nothing like the one Victor Hugo wrote about. So, I'm now between Pont Neuf (beautiful, famous bridge finished during the reign of Henri IV with a statue of him on it and a lot of tourists, right near the Louvre and Notre-Dame) and Pont de la Tournelle (a bridge onto l'Ile Saint Louis with a statue of Sainte Genevieve looking at the Institut du Monde Arabe with her back to Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower). I think either would make a good setting for a story. The idea of choosing a bridge just seemed very symbolic to me - aside from being a place of meeting, it's also a transitional area. Obviously, when you cross a bridge, you're "crossing" between two banks. It shouldn't be hard to write an eight page short story like that.

Then, we read some excerpts. The best was the excerpt from Les Mis where Gavroche dies. I was so excited that we were reading that because I basically studied that passage last summer. I was memorizing the French lyrics to Les Mis and Gavroche sings the last line of his little song from the book (which I didn't know then), and I basically understood none of the song. Literally translated, it meant: "I fell down. It's Voltaire's fault. The nose in the gutter is Rousseau's fault." Then, the verse after that had so much slang that I just couldn't make any sense of it at all. So, naturally, I emailed Justine and asked her to explain a 12 year old street urchin's song and she emailed back with basically a close analysis of it and mentioned that the first part came right from the book and that little French students have to memorize it for school. Then, she asked why I had never thought to memorize Victor Hugo's poems and what the English lyrics were since she didn't think it seemed like it could be translated exactly. Later on, I was reading Les Mis (in English - I'm not suicidal) and I got to Gavroche's death and finally got to read the entire scene. It is really unforgettable. Authors are never supposed to kill children in their books - it's really inexcusable. But, I suppose it's very memorable for that reason. The image of the little boy in front of the barricade, dodging bullets and singing a song is very myth-like. It's too bad he gets shot. Sorry to spoil it for anyone, by the way. It doesn't really matter - by the time you get there in the book, none of the misery surprises you anymore. Well, in the class, I got to explain what was going on in the scene and read it out loud. The professor said it was good we had an American in the class to explain Les Mis. It was pretty funny.

Other than that, I taught English, had dinner with Mme De La Taille (an omelet - very French!), then, we watched My Fair Lady in English with no subtitles. Basically, even though she said she's seen the movie a million times, she kept asking questions and what certain parts meant. I was constantly explaining and translating in French while trying to watch an English movie. Is this what being bilingual feels like? It stinks that there's not a progress bar for anything like on computers. I wish there would just be a notification pop-up that says: 90% complete. You're almost fluent. But, as with flute lessons, the more advanced you get, the parts you work on become smaller and smaller and you have to train yourself to correct even the tiniest mistakes. That's what perfection is, and I'm not even sure it's possible ever to be 100% fluent in a foreign language. But all in all, I think I've done a good job - I can carry on a conversation about anything, pretty much, and I don't worry really about making grammatical mistakes. I speak really quickly and no one seems to have a problem with my accent. My comprehension has improved and I pretty much understand everything I hear, no matter what language I happen to be thinking in when I hear it. Reading and writing don't take me as much time anymore either. I can write emails in French just about as quickly as I can in English, except it takes a little longer because I need to use the symbols function on Microsoft Word to put in accents. Anyway, back to My Fair Lady - it's great, but Henry Higgins splits several infinitives in the song, "I'm an Ordinary Man" including "I'd prefer a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition than TO EVER LET a woman in my life." Is that proper for an English teacher? I think not! Anyway, it must be really hard for a French person to watch that movie considering half the characters speak incorrectly and the other half talk too fast. I don't think Mme De La Taille caught the line: "The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly." If she had, I think she might have said something about it. At least it's not as insulting as: "There even are places where English completely disappears: in America they haven't used it for years!"

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