04 February, 2010

Back-B-Log: UK20: Language Barriers Or Pollini's Revenge

[From the 2nd and final issue of the Tuesday Express/American Voyeur Paris/Cannes Issue! 1990
This is a blast even further into the past circa 1981, with it's implications on my time in Paris.]

The story always starts this way: we're talking about French, I start saying how bad my high-school french experience was.... Our text-books had the most irrelevant vocabulary. Every year the books would study a 'typical French family'. The first year the typical French family (the Dutour's) lived in Paris, the only thing remarkable about them was that they had a baby elephant in their courtyard (l'elephante bebe est dans la cour, l'elephante bebe l'aime du chocolat). The second year wasn't so bad, the typical French family lived in the Midi and grew tulips for a living (this puzzled the hell out of me - I thought that was a Dutch thing). The next year was the real problem: in the typical French family, the father was a... speleologist. This means he was a cave scientist (voulez-vous voir la grotte?). It gets worse. His son Paul wants to grow up to be a...speleologist. And their next door neighbour, M. Lamothe-Cassel was a speleologist who specialized in cave insects (l'entymologie de la grotte).

Needless to say I would have no trouble finding my way around the caves of Lascaux (ou est la grotte?), but I would not be able to articulate my desire for a bathroom.

However, my sophomoric response to this irrelevance was to formulate a brutal antagonism towards my French teacher, Madame Pollini. In 9th grade she was O.K. I was in the very back row in a crowded alphabetized room in which she called upon us in order; so I could easily doze off or spend my time contemplating the mathematical delights of Pam Stephen's rump which fate and the greco-roman tradition had placed before me. Trouble began in 10th grade - French was no longer required, class size dropped to a third of the original, and, no pun intended, I had no one to hide behind. Called on more frequently, no longer inconspicuous, agitated by a useless lexicon and bearing the shoulder-chip of suburban adolescence, I sought refuge in sarcasm.

Pollini, was not phased, worse she did not really notice, as my compatriots and I made fun to her face. She had done nothing to deserve our scorn, excepting that she did not see what was wrong with our curriculum and that she was so easily duped into letting us run away with any given lesson, as if she were a permanent substitute teacher. This was reinforced when she was supplanted for a brief stint by Madame Truite an Alsatian whose germanic control would brook no deviation from French grammar - she bred fear and respect, which we could barely bring ourselves to grant to relatively hapless Pollini.

One day I engaged Pollini in a mild argument after one of the more absurd installments of the educational film series 'Tout La Bande'. An American exchange student was portrayed thinking (voice-over) in French. This I pedantically claimed was a virtual impossibility. I think this is when Pollini began to take me personally.

Collectively we terrorized her, leaving issues of Paris Match open to all the most embarrassing pictures, suggesting field trips to racier French films, subverting every lesson with puns and innuendo. Probably worst of all we developed an in-name for her, Sweaty Betty, which we never used to her face.

All joined in, even the kindest of my friends drew some blood, but I was the worst offender. Not knowing where to stop, I was so horrifyingly obnoxious, I, without shame then (rarely now), am ashamed. Should I tell of how I flossed my teeth in class, purporting to be an example of good hygiene? Was this all possibly my self-destructiveness, seeing how far I could push things before getting squashed? Should I have heeded Mrs. Lamb's advice and read 'Appointment in Samarra'?

Granted, Mrs. Pollini did try fairly hard. I don't believe that we disliked her at all. She did attempt to liven up the fairly dead curriculum which the school had forced equally upon both us and her. We made the obligatory attempt at 'Le Petit Prince', a little too idiomatic for us beginners. Then she dug up some circa '50's French History text-books, the major failing of which was its distortion - in its slant Catherine DeMedici was painted as some kind of saint (for bringing the Renaissance to France) not as one of the ten most infamous people in History (as she was named by a panel of historians, perhaps for the small matter of the genocide of French Protestants etc.)

11th grade midterm - essay question, discuss your favourite character from French history, open book (a concession to us) using the history book.

I should note at this point that my failings as a language student did not end with the social graces. The mechanics of grammar came fairly easily, but my vocabulary, relevant or not, had a retention period roughly the length of an advert for Pop-In-Fresh Croissants.

For my favourite personage in French history I readily chose Joan of Arc. After all, Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht wrote plays about her. I saw her as a strong nationalist, and an effective early propagandist. Lacking a strong ending to the essay I peeked at the glossary in the back of the History book. There I found the words for 'executioner' and 'pastry chef. So... I said that Joan of Arc's executioner was a pastry chef.

This was probably the strongest, best written, most grammatically correct essay of my pitiful high-school French career. I received an 'F' on it.

I was shocked, outraged, astonished. But what hadn't occurred to me at all was that Pollini was Catholic. To her Joan of Arc was SAINT Joan. The voices she heard weren't clever propaganda but instructions from GOD. Given how I had goaded Pollini, and the particular bad taste of my culinary quip about Joan's demise, hardly anyone would believe that I had not meant it maliciously.

I hadn't. Tasteless, thoughtless, yes; malicious, not really. For once I had worked hard at something so as I could impress her, say, well I fool in class, but I still learn, I'm clever. Not even my friends in the faculty would come to my aid. Although I didn't mean it, I was getting what I deserved.

This is where I usually end the story, but.... The real problem was this - I had been tripped up by intellectual elitism, which will always dog my heels and those of many of my friends - faced with a harmless, slightly ditsy teacher my snobbery said, no thank you, how could I possibly learn from YOU. By assuming fool in her, I not played but made a fool in me.

The rest of 11th grade I was fairly subdued in French class. I had done well enough on the other sections of the midterm, so the overall result was not damaging. I attempted neither reconciliation nor revenge, too full of pride and guilt for either. I did not take French the next year. In college I chose Spanish over French because there was no proficiency exam to finish the language requirement for Spanish. After four semesters of Spanish I couldn't string together more than two and a half sentences in the language. I couldn't find my way out of a cave in Spain, I can barely get to Pepe's house.

Coming back to Paris after a weekend in London. Checking out women as we queue up for immigration, I spot a lovely young woman who has a large plastic shopping bag with two large film reel canisters inside. This simultaneously sends impulses to my obsession, sex, and serious movie buff glands. I manoeuvre to parallel her in the non-EEC line. I nervously manage to strike up a conversation about the film. Miraculously she boards the same bus to Paris that I must take. I politely ask to sit next to her. I ask her her name which is Miriam she has curly black hair wears eyeglasses which just enhance the vision, she sounds and looks perfectly lovely. I determine that a. she works for a video-clip (music video) company and after apologizing for my french b. she claims to have no English. I make some vague comments about film and weather, the conversation founders. She puts on her walkman. I stare out at Paris, absorbing Miriam's beauty painfully peripherally. I say good-bye and good night to her, and she smiles sweetly returning the courtesies.

O.K., so in some ways I did better than I do when there is a common language. But what worse torture can you imagine? My French improved greatly over the rest of my stay in France. Could I have done better? Would I have done better?

I kiddingly speak Franglais with Sylvie Binet my adorable, but knows it all too bloody well, co-worker. I try to explain the concept of 'Pigeon English' and I ask if there is a phrase for my bad French. She says 'tu parle comme une vache espagnol!' I repeat, I speak like a Spanish cow!

La vache (espagnol) qui rit... c'est la vie!

[Addendum: Those of you who are Eddie Izzard fans all this happened to me and was written down before the much more amusing Mr. Izzard stuck his "singe"....."sur l'arbre." I would have compared francophonic experiences with him when we met, but I was too busy trying to ask him to teach a Theatresports workshop, and attempting unsuccessfully not to be a stand-up hanger-on. I may recount that experience another time as one of the three times I inadvertently annoyed Ivor Dembina.

Looking back, although I was in the wrong in loads of ways with Mme Pollini, I should have tried to make some proper direct rapprochement, but also, I shouldn't have let that bad grade stand because of the guilt I felt for having been a prick. At the end of the day, she had no right to give me a bad grade for a well written paper just because it offended her. At least I didn't come up with her nickname.

Finally, to make matters worse, I did on one occasion find myself thinking in French, spanish cow that I am.]

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home