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You know that old daisy petal game? He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me… that’s how I felt about my French-speaking ability over the course of my month in Paris. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from my month of trying to speak seulement (only) en français. 

Oui! Je parle français! 

Someone asked me if I was French! They probably wouldn’t have if they’d waited for me to speak a few more sentences, but I don’t care — it was a triumphant moment.

Non, je ne parle pas français … 

I strike up a conversation with someone and things are going well for awhile, until they ask me something I can’t parse. I ask them to repeat it. They do. It still sounds like gibberish. (I feel a bit like Joey from Friends.) Eventually they switch to English and ask me where I’m from. Ugh. Why are there so many ways to ask that? And why isn’t the textbook << Où habitez-vous ? >> one of them? (<< Où viends-de ? >>, which means, ‘Where do you come from?’ is one of the more frequent ways that question was posed to me, but it pretty much stumped me in all its forms.)  

Oui, je parle français 🙂

I meet up with my friend’s French cousin, who asks if I want to speak in English or French. Although she studied English as part of her college major, Margaux indulges me and we speak almost entirely in French for over three hours. I’m sure her knowledge of English helps her understand what I’m trying to say, and I’m convinced that she’s deliberately using simple words for my benefit, but I’m grateful for Margaux and emboldened by my ability to participate in the conversation and understand the gist of what she’s saying. 

Non, je ne parle pas français 😦

If I had any delusions because of people telling me how well I spoke French or because of my ability to occasionally hold my own in a passing conversation, they were all shattered when I started dating Hadi. There is nothing quite like dating a native speaker to highlight the limitations of your linguistic abilities. While I may have worked out the vocabulary I needed for ordering in a restaurant or buying something at a store, dating threw me into a variety of new situations for which I had no vocabulary. 

To provide some relevant context, a quick primer on French grammar: 

  • Every verb needs to be conjugated according to the subject, of which there are six possibilities (you, me, us, he/she/it, they, and you in the plural sense), and the tense, of which there are nearly two dozen (!), if you count moods and voices. It’s like they appointed a statistician to design a language to optimize the number of possible permutations. We conjugate verbs in English as well (I sing, I sang, I was singing, I am singing, I will sing; she sings, etc.) but there aren’t nearly as many versions of each verb.
  • Every noun, including all inanimate objects, has a gender (male or female), and that gender impacts which version of the article, adjective, and in some cases even verb conjugation you need to use. So if you guess the wrong gender, you’ll make it painfully obvious in three or four different places (imagine being able to screw up “I came home to the blue house” by using the wrong version of “came,” “the,” and “blue,” because there are multiple versions of all of those words.) 

Compounded with the complicated grammar is the fact that no one actually speaks the way they teach you French in high school. And since they have to spend so much time teaching you conjugations and proper grammar, you never get around to idiomatic phrases or conversational French. 

Je parle français …

After our first date, I would have told you that between my French, Hadi’s English, and Google Translate, we were able to communicate pretty well. 

Hadi

Hadi

Je ne parle pas français … 

After a few more dates, it became clear who was doing all the heavy lifting communications-wise. Hadi studied English for about 14 years, and in addition to the extra decade of formal study he has over me foreign language-wise, he also watches a lot of American shows and films. 

Hadi is totally amazing, and definitely the best thing that’s ever happened to my conversational French. I wonder if he would be mortified or amused to know that whichever phrases he happened to use with me will be immortalized as the way I know how to say things like ‘Are you comfortable?’ << Tu es à l’aise ? >>, ‘Don’t worry,’ << T’inquiète pas >>, and ‘Let me know when you’re on your way,’ << Préviens-moi quand tu es sur le chemin >>.

Texting was painfully slow because I had to check all of my spellings (verb endings, nouns, accents…pretty much everything) in Google Translate before hitting send. Luckily Hadi’s side of the conversation was hampered by needing to send me (per my request) corrected versions of each of my text messages, which were inevitably wrong (because I missed a preposition — they use a lot more prepositions than we do, and different ones; or used the wrong article, when I was too lazy to check the gender of a noun; or had otherwise screwed up the grammar, or spelling, or…).

Parlez-vous anglais ?

Even when I wasn’t with Hadi when an interaction happened, it was helpful that after the fact I could ask him things like, “Hey, my friend asked if I wanted to sit inside or outside and I told her it didn’t matter, but given the look the waitress gave me, I think I said it wrong.” 

Hadi: “How did you say it?”

Me: “N’importe quoi.”

Hadi: “Oh, there are at least three ways to say what you wanted to say, but that wasn’t one of them.” 

Me: “Oh…”

(For the record, << peu importe >>, << c’est pareil à moi >>, and << comme tu veux >> all would have been appropriate. I chose the one that means ‘whatever’ in the exasperated, disapproving way; my response to ‘Do you want to sit inside or outside?’ was roughly equivalent to ‘That’s ridiculous!’)

Non, je parle pas francais … 

Hadi is incredibly patient, but every now and then he would say, “Try again – I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” His English and patience, formidable as they are, couldn’t always overcome my circumlocutions, incorrect conjugations, and flustered pronunciations (“Try pronouncing every part of the word,” Hadi unsarcastically suggested as I stumbled through a long word incorrectly several times over. Which would be more helpful advice for a language that didn’t insist on skipping the ends of most words and devising monophthongs like << eaux >> to be pronounced ‘Ō’…I mean, obviously…). 

At the end of my trip, I asked Hadi if I’d made it more than two minutes without making a mistake at any point in the month. “Yes,” he replied, as I brightened. “In English,” he clarified. 

Non, je ne parle pas francais.

Staying outside of the touristy part of town has made all the difference in terms of my experience of Paris. In prior trips to the City of Light, I’d already checked things off the bucket list like climb to the top of the Eiffel tower, tour Notre Dame, and spend hours at the Louvre… This time around, I wanted to experience how people actually live here.

La Société aux Boîtes Jaunes

My favorite neighborhood pâtisserie in Paris, La Société aux Boîtes Jaunes (85 Rue Raymond Losserand, 75014 Paris), in the 14e arrondissement

I found a cute Airbnb apartment in Montparnasse, in the 14th arrondissement, about half an hour south of the Louvre by metro. I spent my first few days here just wandering around my neighborhood. The scale of everything is smaller – the grocery store proudly advertises that they carry over 1,000 products (it’s slightly larger than a 7-Eleven), and there’s a separate magasin (shop) for everything – la pâtisserie filled with sweet temptations, la papeterie for office supplies, la pharmacie for medicine and prophylatics…

A week into my trip, I needed to do laundry. It seemed like such a drag to have to spend time babysitting laundry at the laundromat while the clock was ticking on my month in Paris, but I discovered that la laverie was a lovely place to meet my neighbors. I struck up a conversation with an older Algerian woman who’s spent her entire adult life in Paris, and we ended up discussing the politics of immigration to France. She even invited me to her apartment for tea to finish the conversation.

I was at le Jardin du Luxembourg at the end of my first week, and I met a 19-year-old conservatory student who said it had been two years since she’d been to the park. Two years! Being near the Luxembourg was my only requirement in terms of location, and I told her that if I lived in Paris, I would be there every single day. I recounted this conversation to a 28-year-old Parisian, emphasizing my disbelief, and he said it was the same for him, born and raised in Paris – it had taken him 28 years to make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and he’d only done it recently because a cousin who was visiting insisted.

Paris is, of course, the most cosmopolitan of cities. But it’s been absolutely amazing getting a taste of real life here as well.

La Coupole

The iconic La Coupole in Paris

My friend Brian calls this month in Paris my Hemingway vacation: a month-long sabbatical filled with long, delicious days to explore Paris and create art. So it seems appropriate that I’m writing this from the historic La Coupole, a favorite haunt of not just Ernest Hemingway but F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Henri Matisse, Jean-Paul Sautre, and so many others…

I am delighted to announce that I will be launching a photography business soon. If you’ve spent any time with me in the last decade, you know that the latest digital camera has been my constant companion. As photography has shifted from a hobby into a more serious pursuit, I often carry my professional DSLR camera along with my prosumer Canon S110 as a backup, with the backup-backup camera on my iPhone. I feel naked and lost if I don’t have a camera with me.

Last year I completed a 365 Project, a Photo-A-Day Challenge to motivate me to look for beauty every day. I’ve written about how the more I focused on beauty, the more beautiful my life became. I spent so much of 2014 immersed in photography—learning eveything I could about the craft, practicing every day, and reviewing every photo with a critical eye, determined to do it better the next time around—that I began to wonder if it could ever be more than a just a hobby.

I’ve been laying the foundation for my photography business for the better part of a year now. I’ve been building up my photography portfolio, soliciting advice from friends who have successfully made the leap, and learning everything I can. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the talented team at Moonsail North crafting my marketing, communications, and social media strategy. And I’ve been buoyed by the encouraging words of far-flung friends and acquaintances.

Capturing the beautiful moments of my life through photography is such a part of who I am that I can’t imagine life any other way. I’m so excited to begin formally capturing the beautiful moments of other people’s lives—the lives of friends I’ve loved forever, and the friends I have yet to make.

Thank you for being part of my beautiful life. I hope you’ll join me as I embark on this exciting new journey, camera in hand…

I was a bit worried about a month in a foreign city without Google Maps, but it’s actually been incredibly freeing. (Because an international data plan is ridiculously expensive, I shelled out $50 for 250MB of data that allows me to use my smartphone when necessary, but 95% of the time I only connect to the internet when there’s Wi-Fi.)

I look up directions before I leave my apartment and write them down (how novel!), but I try to get a general sense of where I’m headed so that I can see where the wind blows me. The first day I headed to the Luxembourg Garden, I veered off-course to walk through an art market and met an artist who hand-sews her own pouches and purses. These are the little unexpected discoveries that don’t happen when I’m driving from Point A to Point B in rush hour traffic in the Bay Area.

Instead of consulting a travel guide to figure out where to dine, I ask a local. When I’m in a cute shop looking at jewelry or crafts or whatnot, I’ll ask the shopkeeper if there’s a good restaurant nearby. I haven’t been steered wrong yet. Once I get to the restaurant, I ask the server what they recommend (“Que recommendez-vous comme le plat principal ? Quel vin conseillez-vous ?”). This is how I discovered aligot, a side dish that is equal parts melty cheese and mashed potatoes, at Le Plomb du Chantal (3 Rue de la Gaité, 75014 Paris); and le canard à la vanille, a vanilla duck dish, at Restaurant Île de La Réunion (96 rue Daguerre, 75014 Paris).

It also helps that there are maps all over the city, outside of all the metro stations and bus stops, where I can verify that I’m headed in the right direction. When one’s not available, I can usually tell who the locals are, and I’ve found them suprisingly nice in pointing me in the right direction. And when all else fails – when it’s late at night and the street is deserted, and the last thing I want to do is make it obvious that I’m not from around here – I can pull out my phone and ask Google Maps where the nearest metro station is. But I’ve experienced so much more of this city because staring at my phone isn’t my default process.

As one French guy told me, “Je cois que c’est Hemingway qui disait qu’il fallait savoir se perdre ici” – I believe it’s Hemingway who said it’s necessary to know how to get lost here [in Paris]. I hope that means I’m doing it right.

“A month in Paris! How exciting! Are you fluent in French?” That was the most common response to news that I would be spending September in Paris. “No,” I would explain – “I’m not fluent, but I speak enough French to get by. Usually they’ll switch to English but be very nice to me, and I feel like that’s the most I could hope for.”

So, while I hoped to immerse myself in All Thing French and improve my conversational French, my expectations were not terribly high.

From the Lonely Planet

From the Lonely Planet
“French Phrasebook & Dictionary”

Waiting for the Air France shuttle from Charles de Gaulle airport, I met a Frenchman who now lives and works in Canada. On the 75-minute ride to Gare Montparnasse, we conversed in French about our work (he taught me the word charité to describe Second Harvest Food Bank, qui donne les nourritures à les pauvres). He answered my questions about the tractors we were seeing in the city center (farmers from outside of Paris were striking because crops being sold at market were being marked up 4-5X, but the farmers weren’t seeing any of those profits), about social/economic disparities in his hometown of Marseille, and where Parisians get their news (Le Monde, bien sûr, le journal – newspaper – of record; but Libération for liberals and Le Figaro on the right). I left the shuttle feeling much more confident about my ability to follow the gist of a conversation in French.

Within a few days, I had worked out the questions I needed for daily interactions in French, and I was pleased to find that people were no longer asking clarifying questions to figure out what I was trying to ask – they were simply responding in French. Oh, the small wins of being in a foreign country!

By the end of the first week, pour les choses de la vie quotidienne – for the things of everyday life, comme commander au restaurant, ou acheter quelque chose au magasin – like ordering something at a restaurant or buying something at a store – communicating in French was feeling pretty comfortable. My grammar is far from perfect and my vocabulary is still woefully small, but I can make myself understood. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Several days in a row, a different French person told me that I spoke French really well. I’m well aware of the limitations of this compliment (I’ve never once told a native English speaker how good their English was; clearly I’m still speaking French with an accent), but the friend of a friend who’s been living in Paris for eight years told me to take the compliment: French people don’t say nice things just to be nice – they don’t have to. So if they’re complimenting your French, it’s real. It was great cultural context for a compliment I had been dismissing as a nicety.

So, the next time someone asks me if I speak French, I’ll tell them, Seulement un peu, mais j’ai tellement envie de parler français. – Only a little, but I really want to speak French 🙂

2014 was the perfect year of my life to take on a 365-Day Project. It was a year of endings and beginnings – the dissolution of my marriage, the second chance I never thought I’d get – and through all of life’s twists and turns, I wanted something that would force me to look for beauty. I decided to take a photo every day of the year.

I spent New Year’s Day with a friend from college, and after many delays, we finished the Land’s End trail and ended up at the Sutro Baths right at sunset:

A picture-perfect moment that made all the delays worthwhile. This is going to be so easy!  I thought. A gorgeous sunset, a little post-processing help with the color, and voilà! How much time could this project take?

Fast-forward six weeks. It’s winter. Not East Coast Winter Wonderland Winter, but We Only Have One And a Half Seasons in California and I’m at Work During all the Daylight Hours Anyway Winter. On day 40, my younger sister Sedora, who can always be relied on to give it to you straight, declared that I had reached my quota on parking lot photos. Fair enough. I took a picture of a weed instead:

It ended up being one of my favorite photos of the year. It reminds me of a quote from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata (which is, in my opinion, one of the best answers to ‘How should you live your life?’ ever penned): “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

The Photo-a-Day Challenge became my touchstone. On the day I filed for divorce, I left the courthouse and took this photo:

I was struck by how brilliant those leaves were in death – more vibrant than in life. It gave me hope for the beauty that could be found in an ending. I had an exchange about the photo with my dear friend Stephen, who was doing the challenge with me and who can always find the perfect turn of phrase to describe anything.

Stephen wrote: “There is beauty in everything. Astonishing beauty. It’s all in the seeing. This is really what the PoD is for me, you know – an exercise in looking for beauty no matter what, when or where. That’s the challenge. That’s the whole point of… Everything, no? To hear the music in life’s little songs, to see the complexities, to feel the motion of us and you and me and everything as we fling our way through life with everything else on this stupid brilliant incredible musical beautiful rock. And occasionally to take a picture of it.”

I was in search of beauty – or at least the possibility of it. I had no qualms about playing around with colors and saturation and filters; I wanted the photos to be evocative of emotions, and post-processing helped me do that.

This was the original photo of the wild grass:The post-processing, though, also reminded me of the admonition to stop comparing your behind-the-scenes life with everyone else’s highlight reel. Because many of the beautiful photographs were taken on days when I was incredibly sad and lonely and adrift, like this March day at Fort Mason:

But there was also, always, gratitude. For all the love and support in my life. For meaningful work. For creative outlets. For the beauty I was finding all around me.

And the interesting thing was, the more I focused on beauty, the more beautiful my life became. Two weeks on the East Coast, kicking off my new life with some of the best friends I will ever have. Cabo San Lucas with my sisters. Sedora’s wedding on Laguna Beach. Exploring the Pacific Northwest with my oldest friend in the world:

But even just the everyday…whereas, at the start of the year, the photos felt aspirational, by the summer, they felt like a reflection of the beauty that was my life.

It’s like watering a plant. What you pay attention to and nourish tends to grow.

This photo was taken in the middle of what Sean and I declared to be the best first date ever – the valley covered in a layer of fog, reflecting the light of the super moon in what felt like a scene from a fairytale.  According to Sean, you put up with all the BS in life for moments like this one.

The photos weren’t all epic, of course. Oh, the number of nights I walked out of work thinking, What am I going to do for my Photo-a-Day Challenge today??  A puddle in the parking lot at work:

Old guitar strings on my dining table:

The night my dinner consisted of brownies and whiskey, consumed unceremoniously in my bathtub: Hundreds of photos I wouldn’t have taken, or even noticed, otherwise.

More than anything, the Photo-a-Day Challenge was about spending a year training myself to find beauty and possibilities and miracles in my everyday life.

Like the super hot, I-didn’t-know-men-who-weren’t-models-had-bodies-like-that water polo player I had a hot fling with (thank you, Universe!):

(When you’re still friends with your ex on Facebook, you find creative ways to allude to what’s going on in your life. This was a bridge we met up at after my belly dancing class and before his basketball game.)

Or this one, taken almost a year to the day out from the single worst day of my life, under similar circumstances but with a different person, which transformed the entire experience for me:

Truly one of the most beautiful days of my entire year. ❤️❤️

Seek and you shall find.

You can find my 365 photos here.

Dan Pallotta gave a Ted Talk entitled “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong.” He argues that our social problems are massive in scale while the non-profit organizations trying to address these problems are tiny in comparison, and our belief system prevents them from achieving the scale they need to move the needle.

20140323-014712.jpg

To Dan, the fundamental problem is that we have two rulebooks – one for the nonprofit sector and one for the rest of the economic world. He views it as an apartheid system that discriminates against the nonprofit sector in five ways:

1. Compensation

In the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we have a visceral negative reaction to the idea that anyone would make a lot of money helping other people. “Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to people making a lot of money not helping other people,” he notes wryly. The median annual salary for a Stanford MBA is $400,000; for the CEO of a hunger charity, $84,000. Which would you choose?

2. Advertising and Marketing

We tell consumer brands they can advertise all the benefits of their products, but we tell charities they can’t advertise all of the good that they do, because we want our donations going to the needy, not to advertising – as if the money invested in advertising wouldn’t bring in dramatically greater sums of money to serve the needy.

3. Taking of risk in pursuit of new ideas for generating revenue

Disney can make a $200 million movie that flops and no one is up in arms, but “you do a little $1 million community fundraiser that doesn’t produce a 75% return for the cause in twelve months and your character is called into question.” As a result, non-profits are reluctant to try any brave, daring, giant scale fundraising endeavors for fear that if the thing fails, their reputations will be dragged trough the mud. When you prohibit failure you kill innovation. If you kill innovation in fundraising, you can’t raise more revenue and you can’t grow; if you can’t grow, you can’t solve large-scale social problems.

4. Time

Amazon went six years without returning any profit to investors. People had patience. If a nonprofit ever tried to go six years without money going to the needy, in order to invest in building scale, we would expect a crucifiction.

5. Profit to attract risk capital

You can’t pay profit in a non-profit, so the for-profit sector has a lock on the multi-trillion dollar capital market while the nonprofit market is starved for growth and risk and idea capital.

The net result:

You can’t use money to lure talent away from the for-profit sector; you can’t advertise on anywhere near the scale the for-profit sector does for new customers; you can’t take take the kinds of risk in pursuit of those customers that the for-profit sector takes; you don’t have the same amount of time to find them as the for-profit sector; you don’t have a stock market with which to fund any of this even if you could do it in the first place and you’ve just put the non-profit sector at an extreme disadvantage to the for-profit sector on every level.

This non-profit rulebook is policed by the question “How much of my donation is going towards the cause vs. overhead?” Dan calls out two problems with this question:

1. It makes us think “overhead” is not part of “the cause,” when it absolutely is – especially if it’s being used for growth.

2. It forces charities to forego what they need to grow in the interest of keeping overhead low.

We should be investing more money in fundraising because it’s the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of money available for the causes we care about so deeply. Looking at overhead tells you nothing about the size of the pie – who cares if a bake sale only has 5% overhead if it’s only raised $71, compared to a fundraising enterprise with 40% overhead if it’s raising $71 million?

Charitable giving has been stuck at 2% of GDP over the last 40 years. Only 20% of those charitable dollars (about $60 billion) are going towards health and human services, which is not nearly enough to tackle these problems nationally. If just 1% more of GDP could go towards the nonprofit sector, that would inject $150 billion into helping nonprofits scale for real change.

His advice? Stop asking about overhead. Instead, “Ask about the scale of their dreams. How they’re measuring progress towards those dreams. Who cares what the overhead is if these problems are actually getting solved?”