Thursday, February 16, 2017

Squishing Through French Class

I am now fluent in French.
Okay, not quite. One course does not a linguist make.
However, I now have confidence that I can become fluent - with steady effort over the coming weeks, months, years.
I've been in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and France for about three years, and I have picked up enough French along the way to be semi-functional. For example, I can order in a restaurant and buy things at la boulangerie, la charcuterie, and la fruitière. I won't starve. But the language always seemed to me rather random. I knew snippets but I had little idea how any of them fit together. I did not understand the structure of the language. Verb tenses. Prepositions. Gender. The construction of a sentence (which can sometimes seem backwards).
Despite being a writer, I think along logical lines. I like to understand how things work, the history of how it got that way. I realize, even with rules, there are exceptions in French. Hell, the English language is probably far worse for ignoring its own rules. (And when I'm writing, I like that - including options such as the Oxford comma.)
If I am to become a Swiss citizen, I must become fluent in one of the four national languages. So Donna-Lane encouraged me to enroll in an intensive two-week course at l'Université de Gèneve. They sent me a timed online test to determine at what level to place me, but I struggled with the questions, so I opted to take the A-1.1 beginner course, seeking a proper foundation.
D-L encouraged me with a drawing. I packed up my pain au chocolat, une banane, une bouteille de l'eau, et un livre des verbes, and flowed into the slow-moving morning rush traffic.

The 12-person class was truly international, befitting Gèneve as a United Nations-focused city. A young woman from Finland who has a 7-month-old baby, a soft-spoken 40-something man also from Finland, a woman in her late 60s from Serbia, a 21-year-old Pakistani woman whose French accent is quite good from the get-go, a quiet young man from New Zealand and a confident giant from Sweden (both of whom stopped showing up the 2nd week - perhaps they transferred to a more advanced course), Islam from Kosovo, Nicholas from Brazil whose mother is Japanese, a 25-year-old woman from Colorado by way of Oregon with tattoos and a lip ring, a 71-year-old gent from Missouri who spends part of each year in Thailand, and the wife of a Russian diplomat. The latter would be an answer to one of the questions I once had to answer for a Secret government clearance - "List all contacts with foreign nationals from Iron Curtain countries." By the way, most of these folks are already bilingual - their native language plus English - and some are trilingual.

The teacher was Swiss by way of Belgium, France, and born in Africa. Her pronunciation was excellent (as was my first semi-private teacher in Argèles sur Mer). One of Dominique's techniques is to assemble the group in a circle, where we would toss a large soft squishy ball (with googly eyes, Karrie). The person to whom the ball was tossed would have to use the next French word or sentence in sequence: un, deux, trois ... As the questions got progressively more difficult through the course, some of us came to regard it as the balle du terreur.
Some of the material I already knew, especially a fair bit of vocabulary. But when I'd get a little smug as some of the others struggled (most with far less exposure to French than me), it would come my turn, and I too would stumble to force my brain and mouth to work in sync.

At the end of the first week, the middle of the course, the eureka! moment struck, and I realized there is indeed a strong order to le français. For the first time, it was starting to make sense. I can do this.

I am fully aware I have a long, long way to go. I will need to be diligent in working at the language daily. Not easy, as so many of our social and work contacts are Anglophones, even in France. I will look into taking additional formal courses, whether in Gèneve or the south of France when we are in Argèles.D-L and I will begin to converse more often in French at home.

So I got the certificate. Step one. More important, I established a foundation for further learning.

À soixante-cinq ans, pas mal.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Day I Was Born (I Think)

There apparently ARE some bureaucrats with heart and common sense. At least I discovered one.

This may be one of the way-out weirder problems anyone has ever come across. Certainly in my life.

A couple years ago, I needed an official birth certificate, including an embossed seal. And it had to be dated within three months of the date I needed to use it. The Swiss often have such a requirement. As do the French. And probably many other countries.

It was kind of important. We needed it to get married.

I was born in New York State, where they have outsourced obtaining copies of vital records. So I sent a check to VitalChek. As they would only mail the birth certificate to a US address, I had it sent to Texas, where I was planning to visit my grandkiddos.

The certificate arrived, and I called Donna-Lane from Texas. "Got it. We're good," I told her. But a couple days later, as I was looking at the certificate, I noticed a typo. The birth date was wrong! And wait a minute, there was an asterisk by the date. Down below, the asterisk explained the date had been changed three months after my birth. What?

I started to think that maybe my parents had the record changed for some unknown reason. After all, when my own daughter was born on April 1st, ie April Fool's Day, in a private hospital in South Carolina, I tried to get the hospital personnel to change her official birth date to April 2nd so she wouldn't get teased all her life. (They wouldn't. She does.)

The best source of when I was born would be my mother, right? But I didn't want to upset her (she was 91 at the time) by blurting out my newly discovered problem. So I casually asked her, "When was I born?" Or something innocuous along those lines.

"Saturday, April 21st, 1951, at 10:45 pm," she immediately responded.

The official birth certificate from New York State said April 20.

She proceeded to describe to me how she and my Dad had been shopping at Sears for a tricycle for my brother Larry's birthday, which was four days away, when her water broke around Noon. I was born that night. Her memory was as sharp as ever. Not Friday, April 20, but Saturday, April 21st, because Saturday was the only day they could have shopped for the bike. My Dad worked M-F, the stores weren't generally open in the evenings, and they certainly weren't open on Sundays. I checked the calendar, and April 21st was indeed a Saturday.

I wrote to the NYS Department of Health, requesting an official correction. They sent me back a "sorry" response and attached a photocopy of a document from July 1951 which authorized the change. It was signed by a doctor who was not my mother's ob-gyn. Only problem is the doctor who made the change died in 1959. My mother's gynie died around 2000. Neither of their records are available any longer, and the hospital didn't keep the manual birth records which predated the digital age.

It seemed like I was stuck with an official birth record which had a different date from every other document in my life - Social Security, work records, bank accounts, my Swiss Permis B, US passport ... What kind of difficulties will that pose in the future - for example, when I apply for Swiss citizenship?

By the way, in the meantime, I contacted the clerk's office in the village where I was born. That's where my two previous birth certificates had come from, the most recent in 1978. Fortunately, they had no record of any change of date, so they were able to send me embossed certificates with the correct April 21 birthdate. I ordered 10 of them. Donna-Lane and I got married in Corsier.

I thought, at some point, I might need to take the issue to court to try to get a judge to correct the record back to my April 21 birthdate. But would a judge simply rely on the signature of a doctor who's been dead for nearly 60 years? Would I instead have to try to change all my official documents to April 20? I can imagine the questions that would raise!

Alors, I decided to make one more plea based on my mother's vivid recollection. We wrote out her detailed account of the day I was born, Sears, the tricycle, etc., and had it notarized. We also videotaped her describing this pivotal event in world history. I sent the letter, a cover letter, and a USB with the video to Albany. And, in case they were not allowed to open an unknown USB (for fear of viruses), I posted my mother's video on YouTube and provided them a link.

That was a couple months ago. Yesterday, a package arrived from New York via Texas. I didn't open it last night because I fully expected bad news (sorry, doctor's orders) and I didn't want to spoil a beautiful Valentine's Day with my bride. So I took the package with me to my French class this morning, where I am usually the first one to arrive, so could open it in solitude and rant to the four walls.

Incroyable! Two boxes were checked on the form letter. The first, "Items changed: DATE OF BIRTH," and the second, "We recorrected your birth certificate changing the date of birth back to April 21, 1951." Wow, not at all what I expected. Fantastic!

Of course, to obtain a certified copy of my "re-corrected" birth certificate, I need to send $30 and a copy of a photo ID. Some things about bureaucracy never change.

I need to call my mother.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Growing Old(er) Together

A friend of mine - I consider them a friend though I have never met them except through Facebook exchanges - and his/her partner are going through a very, very difficult time. The partner has health issues which certainly impact their quality of life and, though I don't know details, they may not have much time left together.

Though it may seem a bit awkward, to protect identities I will use h/h/their as shorthand for him/her. Actually, the gender of each or the nature of the partnership is not important. This is a situation that could be about a parent, a child, a spouse, a dear friend, a colleague. This is about them, and us, and maybe you.

Most of us, some more than others, have fears about illness and death, moreso as we grow older. Even when life is frustrating and painful, we kinda want to hang on to it. We usually hope, even expect, the present challenge will pass, and things will get more or less "normal" again (whatever normal is supposed to be).

It was only a year ago that Donna-Lane was going through surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy in her second battle with breast cancer. Most days it seems a rather distant memory, as she came through it and seems nearly 100% her active, look-to-the-future self. She's currently working on three different novels, writes blogs, carries on an effervescent social life in the two places we live, and we've been traveling again with at times too much frequency.

I did not experience the pain that she did. At times she was so weak she could not walk the 30 feet to the bathroom without assistance. But "her cancer" often felt very much like "our cancer" because she needed me both for physical and moral support. I did both our "shares" of the cooking and shopping and cleaning and laundry for several months, not because I'm any kind of a saint but simply because those are things she needed me to do so she could focus on regaining her health and strength. (I had not been in her life during her first bout with cancer, and I sometimes expressed that I wished I had, so she obliged me by going through it again.)

Any one who has cancer, I suspect, harbors the persistent fear that it will return. Even those of us who have never had cancer, or a heart problem or other major health issue, do our best to suppress such thoughts. I know D-L wonders almost every time she gets a twitch or feels nauseous, or even when she doesn't, that the cancer will return, maybe somewhere else in her body this time. The fear is both irrational and rational, but it's real to the person with the fear.

From time to time we talk about what might happen should one of us die. We both will, of course. We just don't know when. Or which one of us will go first. We talk about places we'd like our ashes to be scattered. About where we might live when the other is gone. About legal residence, which is more an issue for me than for her. About who and how to contact in the immediate aftermath. About carrying on about causes we care about. About meeting someone else after awhile. About life insurance and inheritances. Practical stuff. Functional discussions but without the emotion.

We don't talk much about the sheer emptiness that such an eventuality will bring to one of us. And to our loved ones. We don't talk about the mental anguish of someone slipping away from you and you can't do a damn thing about it. Worst, you can do precious little for their inner terror.

There were three times during D-L's cancer adventure when I thought I might well lose her. Each time she passed out, and as I frantically did whatever I could think of to try to revive her it flashed through my mind that this might be it. There was no time to dwell on such thoughts; the priority was bringing her back from the brink, getting the professionals to her as quickly as possible, focusing on the expectation that she would pull through again, doing whatever was necessary to help her do so.

One of these times she won't recover. Or it will be me in crisis. I think we both wish when the time comes it could be relatively quick and relatively painless. But then, for the other, it will be relatively frightening. And relatively numbing. For a long time. For forever.

I wish I could give my friend a hug. H/h partner too. There's nothing I can say or do that will change their circumstances. Or the outcome. Or the pain and frustration. It would probably make me feel better more than them. Maybe them a wee, wee bit.

We're already old, though Donna-Lane and I have only been together a few very full years. We want to grow older together. Much older. With as few health issues as possible. Doesn't everyone? Our friends are much too young to be experiencing such agony.

The partner who inspired this post is now with the angels.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Kamikaze Cyclists

I don't drive in city traffic much any more; in fact, in Argèles sur Mer, we hardly ever move the car from the bibliothèque parking lot.

But this week and next I'm in morning rush traffic in Genève, enroute to the uni for language classes.

You don't want to hear my language when it comes to the daredevil motorcyclists (and occasional reckless bicyclist) who weave around and in between the cars and trucks. I'm amazed more of them don't run into side mirrors and cars abruptly changing lanes to try to gain a few feet in the crawl. Or hit a bicyclist, or a pedestrian, while racing along the bike path.

If you leave even a couple of feet between you and the car ahead, especially stopped at a light, you can be sure a cyclist will come up the lane-dividing line and slide in front of you. Or they'll slide over into the oncoming lane, driving the wrong way, and loop around a long line of cars. I don't think I've ever seen a motorcyclist pulled over for traffic violations, not one.

Yesterday, though, there was a police chase of a motorcyclist. The cyclist was attempting to escape into France with about $20 million worth of jewels from a robbery. He happened to wipe out in the village where D-L used to live, only a couple kilometres from where we live now. The gems were scattered everywhere. They think they got them all. But I may just go over to the site and search, Just to make sure.

At least that was one reckless cyclist arrested.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Hatebook, or The End of Civil Discourse?

Post just about anything on social media these days, and you are likely to have returned a slew of vitriol. Doesn't matter what your original topic. Someone in your roster of friends, or in their connections of connections, and usually more than a few people, will use your post as a jumping-off point to spew their hatred for whatever is wrong in their view of the world.

If you post a photo of a meal or a fun time you're having, the chronically disillusioned will regard these as frivolous - how can you enjoy a hearty meal when others have none?; you should give your food to the homeless, or what right do you have to enjoy life when more righteous groups are protesting injustice in the cold rain?

Que Dieu vous aide if you should post anything blatantly political. The literary claws and fangs come out, frequently in the form of quite unimaginative vulgarity. A few seem about to spontaneously combust. Granted, many of the hate posts are from the extreme left or right ... but more and more, these seem to be the only ones remaining on line. The more reasonable, and reasoning, people in the vast middle are retreating because no one is paying any attention to reasoned voices anymore.

For the crime of questioning the source of a report or inviting supporting facts, I have been accused more than once of being a Trump supporter. I am not, as those who read even a few of my posts know. But I guess if I am not also spouting constant hatred for everything Trumpian, I must therefore be worse than a RacistNaziMysogonist. I have also been accused of being a Hillary/Dem flunky; not guilty there either. I think the only reason people don't realise how bad she would be as President is because she lost and didn't get a chance to rule. I am equally disgusted with the ruling politicos, current and past, and their wealthy elite puppet-masters at how they have thoroughly screwed up the world ... largely in the pursuit of greed.

I do what I can to make the world a better place, to improve it one day at a time within my spheres of influence. It starts with being hopeful ... and positive. Don't know about you, but when I seeth with anger I don't accomplish much until I put it behind me.

Some folks I know have chosen to unfriend or block those who troll their feeds. Others have bailed on social media altogether. We have minimised the amount of repetitive, droning TV news we watch. But for the moment, I will remain online, do what I can to contribute in a thoughtful, balanced way to the discourse, and ignore the foul-mouth ranters. Pour le moment.

Friday, January 27, 2017


This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's much better blog can be found at:

It has been raining on and off, mostly on, for most of this week.

I am really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really tired of the rain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Legend of the Needles

Little known is the Legend of the Christmas Pine Needles, or Légende des Aiguilles de Pin de Noël.

(This is a dueling blog: Donna-Lane's view can be found at

Many centuries ago in the Pyrenees Mountains in the south of France, Sancho - son of James II and Esclaramunda of Foix, the daughter of Roger IV of Foix (who persecuted the Cathars) - became King of Majorca, Count of Roussillon and Cerdanya and Lord of Montpellier.

Sancho was of ill health and so preferred to spend time in the mountains where the crisp air and scent of pine needles temporarily rejuvenated his constitution.

One day, as he was walking on a trail near the Correc d'en Benet, which is the headwaters of the river La Massane (or La Macana in Catalan), Sancho and his entourage encountered a Cathar elder. Immediately his soldiers set upon the heretic with the intent to kill him. The elder was not concerned, as he believed in reincarnation, and he thought it might be fun to come back as a bear or wild berry bush. But as the soldiers raised their swords, the elder asked Sancho if he would be interested in a cure for his chronic asthma.

Sancho halted the execution long enough to listen to the old man's remedy.

"You must never burn a Christmas tree," explained the elder. "Exactly one month after Christmas, you must gather up the needles of the tree and cast them into La Macana in the village of Argeles sur Mer. In this way, the tree will be returned to the earth and will grow into a great forest by the sea. The scent of the forest will be carried on the wind and fill your castles along the coast, healing your feeble body."

When the man had appeared to finish, Sancho, insulted at being called feeble, signaled to the soldiers.

"Wait, sir. There is one thing," said the Cathar. "A clause, if you will. You must use only one tree from the forest each year for Christmas. The remainder of the forest must be allowed to flourish."

"Or what?" Sancho asked, but before the answer came the soldiers sliced off the Cathar's head.

The King considered the old man's advice to be a ruse to save his life, but nonetheless, just in case there was some truth to it, on January 25 he followed the instructions and cast the pine needles from the castle Christmas tree into the raging waters of the river. In the spring, thousands of trees sprouted near the beach. So he continued the ritual in succeeding years until the coast was covered with pines.

Now in robust health, Sancho determined to build a fleet of ships to rival the navies of Genoa and Venice. He wanted to do some conquering. So he started to cut down the pine forest. And on the day he went to christen the first ship, he fell face first in the river and died.

He apparently did not believe in the Sancho Clause.

So that is why today in Argeles sur Mer, we celebrate Christmas with only one tree. And on January 25, we gather up the needles and cast them in the river, replenishing the pine forest by the sea.

Oh, by the way, the Cathar elder was reincarnated as a mimosa, the vibrant yellow flower that first heralds the coming spring. You just might see him as you walk in the mountains. 

Donna-Lane casts the pine needles into La Massane