Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Le Francais, Madame?!

The professor begins with a volley of words, all in French. What an introduction! I am pleased that I can understand everything he is saying. In minutes he has the students engaged, and responding. This is going to be a lively, fast-paced class; I am already having fun, even though I am older than most of these students' parents. The time flies by, and snippets of what I used to know are returning.

Deciding to take French at the College of St. Rose was a fairly spontaneous conclusion to a long thought process. Initial prompting came from travel. Bill and I have been fortunate to take a few trips to Europe. Each time, I am impressed with how adept Europeans are with language. In the countries we have visited people speak three, and often five, languages with ease. Since English is always one of them, we, as Americans, can get along fine without worrying about being understood.

While being able to default to English is easy, it makes us seem narrow. The U.S. is so large that we don't need to know other languages, and often, we expect anyone anywhere to be able to cater to our inability to meet others in their native tongue.

Since I could, at one time, speak French satisfactorily, a couple of years ago I thought I should see how much I remembered. I got a set of CDs out of the library entitled, "Learn French in Your Car," and played them on my many trips to Schenectady for orchestra rehearsals. I discovered that I still knew quite a bit, although I had forgotten a lot of vocabulary and was unsure of verb tenses. Still, alone in the car, I passed the time chatting away with the CDs.

This past September, Bill and I went to Belgium. I determined that I would at least attempt to converse in French when the opportunity arose in the French sections of Belgium.

The first time I tried, I asked a waitress for a breakfast table in the hotel diningroom, and she responded to me in English. I had spent ten minutes planning my approach and here I stood, deflated, as if she might have said, "Give it up. I'm better at this than you are."

The second time, we were in the town of Mons, famous as the place where the final shot of World War I was fired. Bill and I entered a tiny shop for a cone of fries. Belgian (and Dutch) frites are not to be passed up. A pleasant young man stood behind the counter and I easily asked for a petit cone of frites. I was pleased when he seemed to understand me, until he asked me what kind of sauce I wanted on them. Before this encounter, I had again spent considerable time forming my request in my mind, but now I needed a response! I stared blankly. Finally, seeing my quandary, he pointed to the toppings, saying their names. Of course, I said, "may-oh-naze." Mayonnaise is the traditional condiment.

Despite my low-level ability, I felt good about this exchange and was willing to try once more before we left the French section of Belgium. In a short-order restaurant, I managed to order a Pepsi for me, a Belgian beer for Bill, and to hand over the appropriate amount of money.

When I got home, my efforts seemed a little pathetic, and certainly unnecessary, since I could have spoken English in every case. At the same time, Bill began to suggest that I take advantage of one of the benefits he receives as an employee of the College of St. Rose. He encouraged me to audit a class, something I could do for free.

I have always said that I would enjoy being a lifetime student, but I never really thought seriously about courses available at St. Rose. Bill said, "you should." So I brought the Spring course listings up on the computer. I would take music history, I thought, but quickly discovered that music history classes really should be taken in order, from Fall to Spring. My cursor jumped to French.

At eleven years old, I had begun French in seventh grade and continued through twelfth grade, with a wonderful teacher for three of the years, Alan Remaley. He ran the class like a drill sergeant (claiming to have been one before becoming a teacher), but with a sideways smile of amusement under his thick black mustache. To his credit, in the years since high school, I have discovered that he was one of two teachers who most influenced me, the other being my orchestra teacher (of course!).

In college, I took French Conversation and loved it. At every class, the professor assigned a topic for the day's discussion and we chatted around a conference table. I remember being more intimidated by some of the topic choices than I was using the French language. The discussion etched in my mind forever was "Henry Kissinger's post-Vietnam activity" (it was 1976). When I finally came up with something to say from my limited knowledge of foreign policy, another student, a recent Vietnamese refugee, glared at me. Speaking in French was the easy part! Most of the time we were assigned light topics and we had a good time in class.

Reinforcing it all, were conversations with my housemate, Sandra. When alone in our house, we walked around chatting and singing in French, calling out phrases and tunes, flaws and all, but forging ahead in our second language.

It helped that Sandra was, and still is, a fearless conversationalist. It did not surprise me, when, shortly after college, she reported visiting Montreal and having a complete dialogue with French-speaking Canadians in the hotel pool. I would not have spoken, in a pool, English or French!

I'll say just a few words about one of my best friends of 35 years. Sandra is a high-energy, quick and intelligent woman, who approaches life with optimism and flair. Thin and stylish, she walks at high speed and does everything with a lively efficiency. These days, we get together about four times a year for lunch at BFS on Western Avenue.

When Sandra gets out of her car, she greets me with genuine sincerity. In one breath, she walks toward me, saying, "Virginia, how are you? Isn't this weather gorgeous? You know I love the hot weather. When we were up north this summer, we went in the water more than ever, but the river was very low. Did you and Meredith hike up north? I know you don't like the heat. It's so great to see you. How are you?" I do not break in. Instead, I laugh and take one question at a time to begin our visit, which usually lasts two or three hours.

This past September, just days after Bill and I had been to Belgium, Sandra and her husband headed off to the French Riviera. She and I had discussed my attempts at speaking French, so I was eager to hear how she made out trying her French in France. After all, she had rarely spoken the language in decades either.

"Oh, well," she said. "It went okay. I just walked into stores, would see a salesperson and start talking."

"What did you say?" I asked, remembering my attempts in restaurants.

"I walked right up to the person, and said 'Hello, how are you? I hope you are fine. It's a lovely day. Can you show me that very pretty blue sweater over there?' And then the salesperson would go along with me and we'd work out a conversation together. I did this everywhere I went."

Who could resist Sandra? I could picture her, always in spike heels and skinny jeans (from her vacation photos, I saw that she wore lime green shoes with pointed toes and heels, even on cobblestone), striding into the shop, all smiles and energy, speaking the language of the natives.

I knew that my self-consciousness impeded my ability. Maybe if I regained my previous skill, I could feel comfortable approaching people. In fact, although I hope to go to France someday, my interest in relearning French is not only about travel. It is also about being a more well-rounded American, and finding a part of myself that I have lost, much like adults who take piano lessons after decades of letting the instrument languish unused in their homes.

This week, I came back to the classroom.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2011! Bill and I continued an annual tradition (now five years for us) of going on a New Year's Eve snowshoe outing led by Herb Terns and his wife, Gillian Scott, of the Schenectady Adirondack Mountain Club. What a way to usher in the new year--a foot and a half of snow, unusually warm temperatures, hiking under a sky filled with millions of stars, and a summit ranger welcoming us with a heated cabin and refreshments!

As I look back, my first New Year's Eves were not so festive. Left home with Jean Ann, our babysitter, my sister and I would be bored. Jean Ann was no fun. To liven things up, we would sneak down the stairs to spy on her, but even that was dull. She sat on the couch, watched television, somehow seemed to always know we were there, and shooed us back to bed.

Morning on New Year's Day was much better. My parents would bring home intriguing party favors. Besides the usual roll-up blow horns, sometimes there were plastic cocktail monkeys and tiny paper umbrellas. We hung the monkeys on our juice glasses at breakfast and gave the umbrellas to our dolls. But we wondered, what did our parents do at those parties in their fancy clothes, my mother in a dress she had been sewing for weeks?

After playing with the favors, we looked forward to outdoor family time. My father worked six days a week managing the J.J. Newbery & Co. store in downtown Saratoga. Despite having been out into the wee hours partying, he was not about to squander a bonus day off. We usually went sledding at Kayaderos Park, ice skating on Lake George, or skiing at Willard Mountain.

Time passed, and Bill and I were just six months married when the calendar turned from 1979 to 1980. With equally newlywed friends who lived in Prattsville, just up the road from us in Acra, a hamlet of 400 in the Catskills, we rang in the new year in style. At our one bedroom apartment, we ate vegetarian soup and bread for dinner, and, in the morning, Bill's Tassajara pancakes fortified us for a New Year's Day hike up snowy Black Dome Mountain, a Catskill high peak. "The perfect way to ring in a new decade," we all agreed. The 80s were sure to bring good times, health, and happiness.

(photos: David Vos, Bill, Virginia, Rachel Vos; Black Dome on 1-1-80)

And they did. The 80s were busy with the arrival of Thomas and Meredith. We expected and desired little from New Year's Eve. For the next twenty years, we watched the festivities in Times Square on our little TV, the kids joining us when they were old enough. Staying up until midnight with crackers, cheese, and soda, made us all feel part of the celebration until we tumbled, exhausted, into bed.

But the kids grew up. They left us in the dust. Eventually they moved out, celebrating in New York City where they now lived. The first two years that they were really out of the house, Thomas called us at home just a minute or two after midnight to wish us a Happy New Year. Of course we were home to receive the call. Where else would we be?

Then Herb and Gillian rescued us from a future of New Year's Eves watching the ball drop with Dick Clark on Channel 13. Now we are not only not at home when the kids call (although we're thrilled that they still do remember us within the first hour after midnight), but we are not even in cell phone range. We're out on the trail, in the snow, ringing in the new year on top of Beebe Hill in Austerlitz, New York, in the foothills of the Berkshires.

(photo: Gillian Scott, Herb Terns)

With or without snow, in temperatures ranging from zero to forty degrees, we're out there. The size of the group fluctuates with the weather. Sixteen of us rang in 2011 last night, and Herb reported having to turn additional hopeful participants away. With about 16 inches of snow remaining from the 20 that arrived earlier in the week, we knew the hike would appear as a scene from an outdoor magazine.

To add to our pleasure this year and last, my favorite sister-in-law (okay, my only sister-in-law) and her family came along. Teenagers Sara and Carly chatted with the other participants, and Michael and I searched the sky for the Milky Way. Everyone stood in awe of the star-filled sky, and, when we listened closely, we could hear the sound of fireworks coming from a distant town.

(photo: Carly, Sara, Michael, and Mary Jo Bashant)

As we reached the summit of the small mountain, we smelled woodsmoke and followed ski tracks to the ranger cabin. The ranger had the woodstove puffing away, and fixings for sloppy joes, made from venison he had hunted, ready on the table for anyone who arrived hungry. He regaled us with stories of working in this area and also of his years at Lake Colden, deep in the Adirondack High Peaks.

True to tradition, Herb had carried a bottle of champagne to the summit. Gillian brought homemade brownies. With a countdown just after midnight (we missed midnight, caught up in our own revelry), Herb toasted the New Year and we held our plastic glasses up into the darkness. Finally, even on this warm night, we began to feel chilly standing outside in the snow. With our headlamps glowing, we turned back to the trail for the hike down.
By the time we got home it was 2:15 a.m.! Whew, what stay-outs we have become. A voicemail from Meredith and a text from Thomas, who were both celebrating with friends and loved ones at house parties in the city, greeted us.

And what will Bill and I do on this New Year's Day since we've already been out in the snow early this morning? We have chosen to head over to the Troy Music Hall and hear the Berkshire Bach Society play their New Year's Day Bach concert; and a simple dinner of sandwiches from the Christmas turkey will round out this holiday season.

Here's to a new year filled with friends, family, good food, outdoor fun, great health, and all the things anyone can think of to add to the list. Best New Year's wishes to my readers!