Saturday, May 7, 2011

Woman Comes Out of Dental Surgery With Foreign Accent

Thanks to my friend Ellen G. for alerting me to this story:

Woman Comes Out Of Dental Surgery With Foreign Accent

I don't know whether I should be disheartened or encouraged by this news. I mean, here I've been torturing myself with the intricacies of French phonetics for the last 8 weeks, to little avail, when all I really needed to have done was go to the dentist before coming to Paris.

It's enough to make one weep. And vow to make a dental appointment immediately I get back to San Francisco.

La Maison de Balzac

Balzac's house is located in what was formerly the village of Passy, now the 15th arrondissement, a very upscale neighborhood just across the river from the Eiffel Tower.

The house and garden are beautiful:

To keep track of the 4,000 (?!) or so characters that populate the Human Comedy, the author fuelled himself with coffee, as he wrote for 12-16 hours a day. In the absence of a local Starbucks, he had his own favorite coffee pot:

It was a lovely afternoon. Here are Paddy and Karin, at the nearby Charles Dickens Square (many of the streets in the 15th are named after famous authors):

Where I Live and Study Now

David's Marais hideaway

I'm very pleased with the apartment, and my interactions with the owner have been fine. I can't say I'd particularly recommend the agency, "Paris-Attitude", the name says it all. I give them a barely passing grade. They seem honest enough (you don't have to look very far on the web to find posts denouncing them as scammers, and dishonest, but most of the posts in question seem a little hysterical, or to have been written by people with completely unrealistic expectations), but their level of service was lacklustre, at best. Whenever they needed something from me (usually a bank transfer), I would be inundated with e-mails, all demanding a response "within 24 hours", but if I needed something from them, my e-mails went unanswered for up to a week; the woman I was dealing with never answered her phone, or responded to voice messages, and seemed entirely focused on getting the (very hefty) agency fee paid, well upfront. Once I had signed the contract and made the bank transfer to the landlady, I never heard from the agency again, not even a followup note to check that I had arrived and settled in OK. Unfortunately, from what I've read and heard from others, this seems to be par for the course with Paris rental agencies. If I ever come back, I will try either to deal directly with the owner of this unit, or go through one of the sites where one arranges the rental directly with the owner.
Nonetheless, things did go relatively smoothly in the end, the apartment does live up to what was advertised, and the location is ideal.

Should anyone be interested, here is a link to the school:

Accord School Paris , which I recommend unreservedly. Friendly, professional, excellent teachers - I couldn't be happier.

But now my laundry is done, and it's time to join Paddy and Karin (a Swedish classmate) to go visit la maison de Balzac.

A bientot!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Arrivals and Departures

Paddy arrived safely this morning at around 9:30. Unfortunately, she and Brad did not get to hang out together, as he ended up taking the shuttle to the airport that she had arrived in (traffic between here and Charles de Gaulle was horrendous this morning, for mysterious, inexplicable, trafficky reasons). He should be in Newark by now, getting psyched for his joyous reunion with Thor; Paddy is comfortably ensconced in the very nice hotel around the corner. We spent a great afternoon wandering around the neighborhood, and are about to rendezvous to consider our dinner options. Life is good.

As I don't have time to write any more this evening, here are some photos for your amusement. The slightly outraged pussy cat at the bottom is in the Carnavalet Museum.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Briefly noted

Things are hectic this week - Brad leaves tomorrow morning, and Paddy arrives. We estimate they will overlap for about an hour. Champagne has been purchased to celebrate the arrival and departure. Brad is sad to leave, but very happy that he will soon be reunited with Thor, whom he has missed a lot. Perhaps not as excited about his imminent reunion with Boris. I regret to report that even in the most flattering photos that Uncle Jay sent, Boris's scowl can only be described as malevolent.

Brad has vowed to do his utmost to keep the redecorated apartment pristine until my return in late June. He will be helped in this quest by the following amazing machine

whose purchase I underwrote before he came to Paris. This is not just any vacuum cleaner. It is a Dyson. Furthermore, it is not just any Dyson. It is a top-of-the-line model, distinguished from lesser Dysons by its incorporation of the revolutionary animal ball technology. No, I have no idea what that means either, nor do I really want to know.

On a related note, about three weeks ago, they installed a Dyson hand-drier in the men's bathroom at school. The thing is so magnificent that I have seen people go in and wash their hands, without ever using the toilet, just so they can enjoy the experience of using it.

If you were expecting to read anything of substance in this post, I am afraid you are going to be seriously disappointed.

I am healthy again. School is terrific. Paddy arrives tomorrow, so things are likely to be fairly busy for a while. The frequency of posting to this blog may decrease for a while. Nothing to worry about. It just means I'm out and about living life, not hunched over a computer screen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Geek's Corner (6) : Dinosaur Sentences

Tuesday is my favorite day here in Paris because - you already know - it's the day of the afternoon grammar workshop. Today was particularly enjoyable, because the only other student was Fabian, who shares my enthusiasm for grammar, and the teacher, Bastien, was great.

Given half a chance I'd bore you all for days with a blow-by-blow of today's 3-hour workshop. But I realise not everyone finds grammar as fascinating as I do, so I will focus on one highlight. One of the topics we covered today was use of the conditional. This is generally considered to be one of the more difficult aspects of many languages, particularly when one is referring to the past conditional. I've never found it to be more than moderately difficult, as the sentence structure tends to follow the relevant rule fairly closely, so things are actually fairly regular, once you get the hang of it.

What the hell am I talking about? The kind of sentence I mentally label a "dinosaur sentence". Consider the famous picture above, by Gary Larson, the caption for which is "The real reason dinosaurs became extinct". This suggests the following sentence

If the dinosaurs hadn't smoked so much, then they would not have become extinct

whose defining characteristic is that it expresses an impossible condition in the past, with the associated consequence. (is this geeky enough for you?)

Once you get this particular model sentence down, then you have mastered the use of the past conditional. It's as simple as that.

Si los dinosaurios no hubieran fumado tanto, no se habrian extinguido.

Si les dinosaures n'avaient pas fumé autant, ils n'auraient pas disparu.

Wenn die Dinosaurier nicht so viel geraucht hätten, wären sie nicht ausgestorben.

Of course, one is entirely at liberty to substitute a different condition, depending on one's views about the true cause of dinosaur extinction. For instance

If the dinosaurs hadn't all gone to the beach in Mexico for spring break, they might have escaped the meteor impact and not gone extinct

etc., etc., etc.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What do lazy bloggers do?

They steal pictures from elsewhere on the internet, of course. Warning - may not be suitable for younger readers:

Geek's Corner (5)

I had planned to do a lot of indignant huffing and puffing in this post about the completely ridiculous state of French phonetics. But I'm still not completely recovered from last week's bronchitis, so I need to save my breath for more pressing activities, like climbing the stairs to the apartment. So the phonetic diatribe will have to wait.

Instead, I plan to stoop to one of every travel blogger's favorite devices, that of roundly mocking some aspect of one's host culture. Specifically, the ludicrously lax standards of the French standardized language tests. To provide some context, I note that the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, abbreviated as CEFR, was adopted in 2001 as the accepted standard for all countries and languages within the European Union. Thus, certification of attainment of, for instance, level C1, should mean the same, no matter what the language, and corresponds specifically to the following:

Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

Similar descriptions exist for each of the other five levels of proficiency, ranging from A1 to C2. The Spanish proficiency exams I took were at level B2 (intermediate) and C2 (complete mastery). Neither of those tests was a walk in the park - each had three sections: oral expression and comprehension, written expression and comprehension, and familiarity with grammar, syntax, and expressions specific to the language. To pass, one had not only to achieve a minimum overall score of 70%, the same minimum had to be attained in each of the three component parts.

What is demanded of one here en France, home of the 35-hour work-week, and fully pensioned retirement at the age of 60? Not a whole lot, apparently. The C1 exam (and that for C2 as well, as far as I can make out) consists of four parts, each worth 25 points. To pass the overall exam, one need attain a total score of only 50 points. Yes, there is also a minimum requirement for each individual component - one has to achieve at least 5 out of 25 points, that is, a score of 20%!

This seems frankly ludicrous to me. One could get a completely lame-assed score on one, possibly even two, part(s) of the whole exercise, and still scrape together an overall passing grade. In particular, it seems possible to pass with a knowledge of the language that is entirely passive, that is, based on only being able to understand the language, but without being able to speak or write adequately.

When one reads the evaluation criteria, one's horror only grows. Unlike the Spanish tests, which are graded centrally at the University of Salamanca, grading of the French exams is entrusted to the local center where the test was administered. So, if you happen to sit the exam at your local branch of the Alliance Francaise in San Francisco, your grading will be subject to the whim of the consul's wife, or whoever else they manage to round up to take part in the evaluation. Sure, there are written guidelines for the graders to follow, but these exhibit a disturbing obsession with word-counting (1 point deducted for being more than 10% away from the target word total, for quoting more than a specified percentage of words from the documents under discussion, that kind of thing).

The whole thing is a bit disappointing. And when you learn that the favorite pejorative designation among the French for their neighbors across the Pyrenees is "faineants" (literally "do-nothings"), you can only shake your head in disbelief at the arrogance of the French.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Week in review

I think today must mark the midpoint of my visit, because I've had seven weeks of class, with a few days before them, and I have seven weeks of class left, with a few days to wind down before I leave. It should be obvious that I am having a blast, in general. And even though this past week started out poorly, it did end on a high note.

The main problem this past week was that I was sick for much of it, miserably so from Monday to Wednesday. As last weekend was a 3-day weekend, Brad and I already needed a break from each other by Monday night, so when I was too sick to go into school on Tuesday, things got a little tense around the apartment for a while. Anyway, Tuesday night was so miserable that I went to the doctor on Wednesday, at which point things started to improve rapidly. I was able to go back to classes on Thursday morning (a good thing, as I was starting to go stir-crazy in the apartment); when I got home on Thursday evening, Brad had cooked a terrific pot of chicken soup, God bless his heart! Anyway, the decongestants have worked their magic (to disgusting effect) and I'm still popping antibiotics and the occasional paracetamol, but am definitely on the mend.

School was a little disappointing this week, but then I was only there for 2 days. Unfortunately, almost everyone in the "advanced" (C1) group left before Easter, leaving only two of us remaining. When I didn't show up to class on Tuesday, and there were no new advanced students (presumably because of the shortened week), they did the only sensible thing and recombined the C1 and B2 groups. So the material on Thursday and Friday was less challenging, and accordingly not as interesting. But tomorrow we change teachers anyway, and hopefully there will be enough new advanced students to support re-establishing the C1 class. I've had the feeling all week that I've been failing to make any progress, even possibly backsliding a little, because I've barely had the energy to pick up a book or a newspaper in French.

Nonetheless, I did go to the movies on Friday with some of my classmates, to see "La Fille du Puisatier" (The WellDigger's Daughter), a remake by Daniel Auteuil of an old French classic, based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol (who also wrote "Manon of the Springs")

We all must have learned something during the past month, because none of us was fazed by the strong Provencal accents. Objectively viewed, the film was a piece of sentimental schmaltz, but enjoyable nonetheless. Certainly better than the vile piece of dreck "Les yeux de sa mere" (His Mother's Eyes) that I saw last weekend, with Joyce and Juerg:

As Juerg pointed out afterwards, the photo was taken while we were still blissfully unaware of the horror that awaited us in the movie theater. American movies can be bad, Lord knows, but bad French movies manage to be so in a way that leaves you feeling violated afterwards.

Juerg is now back at work in the Swiss patent office in Berne*, Joyce is preparing for her wedding in Malta in a couple of weeks. Both are sorely missed at school.

Yesterday, Brad and I went to Versailles. The weather was truly spectacular, and once we escaped outdoors from the crowds in the chateau, we had a blast. This picture of Brad, rowing on the lake, pretty much sums it up:

We got back from Versailles early enough for me to make the Met's live broadcast of "Il Trovatore". But you already know that, from the previous post. After a shaky start, the week didn't turn out so badly after all. Oh yes, and somewhere along the way, I bought a new camera, which has been working out just fine.

I know that all my "Geek's Corner" readers must be thirsting for a new post, but I'm afraid this is all I can manage for tonight. Just hang in there, and your patience will be rewarded - I have a huge backlog of topics waiting in the wings. The complete craziness of French phonetics being near the top of the list. I swear to God, I don't know how anyone can speak the language continually without doing permanent damage to the vocal passages. But that's a topic for a future post.

From the halfway point of the great Spring 2011 Paris adventure, a good night to all my readers!

*: Yes, of course I asked. And yes, Einstein's desk is still preserved somewhere in the bowels of the Swiss patent office. On the truly interesting question, where the clock in Einstein's office had been situated, Juerg was, alas, unable to throw any light.