What’s your langtitude?

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Ah, learning a new language. Communicating with the locals is just a question of talking a bit louder in your own language, right? They’ll understand, eventually.

Well, not quite. If you want to live a fulfilled life in a foreign country, then you’d probably do well to pick up a few more words than just your favourite foods, and ‘two beers, please’. And especially in France, given that attempting to complete any kind of paperwork is a lesson in jumping through the smallest, weirdest-shaped hoops in the world, and ones that keep on moving or just plain disappearing to boot. And that’s just if you speak perfect French already. With language skills under your belt, life just gets that little bit easier. And just, well richer.

Now I’m not a master of French in any sense of the word (I’m intermediate at best), though I’m a very willing student, constantly looking for ways to make those foreign words stick in my head. Piles of cash and endless hours of free time would make the process easier, and I could pay for one of those intensive courses, or luxury of luxuries a month-long home stay with a French family in rural France where I’d be forced to speak nothing but the lingo as I bonded with my hosts as they taught me to make goat’s cheese.

But my pockets just aren’t that deep. I’m looking for the resources that don’t cost the world, hell, don’t cost even a solitary bean if preferable. And the good news is, there is plenty out there. Super! (That means ‘really great’ in French. See, learning already!)

1. Motivation

In the language game, you don’t get every far without this. Putting a copy of 1000 French Verbs under your pillow at night and expecting the words to magically leap into your head just isn’t going to happen. Regardless of whether you’re one of those sickening people who has a freakish aptitude for languages, learning French is hard. It will take work. And your accent will suck constantly. But so does mine, so we’re all in the same bateau. (See? Another one!)

2. TV or not TV…

Yes, yes, French television isn’t the greatest in the world, but it’s an important resource all the same. If you have a TV at home, work out how to put the subtitles on (in French is better), and get watching. Have a pen and paper handy and note down any new words that crop up, grab your dictionary (or the dictionary app if you’re a slave to your smartphone) and find out the meaning. If you’re a higher level, just watching programmes in French is a great way to get your ears dancing to the right linguistic rhythm. Bizarrely, the French seem to adore game shows, there’s heaps on the box, and programmes that play with words and ask questions are language learning gold in my book.

2b. Touch that dial

Plus most satellite boxes have radio channels too if you fancy going more old school. You can choose the talking ones if French pop music gives you the heebie jeebies.

3. Be a slave to the page

Or, even more than that, words in general. They’re everywhere – on billboards, menus, signs telling you not to do things, chock-full in those free papers you get on the metro… Read them all. Get to know what they mean. If you want to chance a full novel, you can pick them up at many a second hand bookshop for next to nothing (or even at Guerrisol, they normally have a few hanging around). Be random if you want, or better, choose something you’ve read before and enjoyed. Even if it’s ‘Arry Pott-air (as the French would say). Though the word for the spells will probably be the same.

4. Find a friend

Maybe you have a collection of French friends already, which is great. Talk to them in French. A no-brainer. If you don’t, find some. Interacting with the locals is a great way to boost your language skills. For those who already have more friends that they can count, head to craigslist or the FUSAC website and see if you can find a conversation exchange buddy. The idea is that you find a French speaker in need of some English practice, and you sit in a cafe (or a on a park bench if you so wish), and speak for an hour or so, half in English and half in French. Though it pays to be a bit cautious – some folks see this is a good way of getting a date. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. Be curious

TV’s not your thing. The background buzz of a radio annoys you like an errant fly. You’re allergic to making friends. It’s important to find something that you’re into, if not the whole thing becomes a chore and you’ll get nowhere. You like cooking? Then find recipes on the internet in French and boost your skills that way. You’re mad about the cinema? Then try a French film once in a while. Celebrity gossip your thing? Then do it in French and learn what horribly pointless things Miley Cyrus is doing these days, in French (so they’ll probably sound a great deal more exotic than they really are). Easy!

All that remains for me to say is, bonne chance! (Now you’ve learned four new words, you could practically write a French essay!*)

 

*If it was called ‘good luck really great boat’.

The sweetest road in Paris

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Now, I would class myself as an über-tourist. When I go to a new place, I like nothing more than tying up my most comfortable shoes, pounding the pavements and exploring every inch until my feet can take no more. This has led me to consecutive 15-mile day treks across New York, and some hairy times in three-lane road tunnels in Hong Kong – a high-level-living wonderland definitely not made for walking in – but those are tales for a different blog.

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Honestly, you could spend a small fortune in Paris shipping yourself from tourist sight to tourist sight, holing up in a typical Parisian bistro every evening, and have a super old time. But that’s not how I roll as a tourist, and most definitely not how I operate when I’m a local, filled with a desire to avoid the well-trodden path and get right down into the city’s unseen crevices to find the real heart and soul of the place (the grimy and mundane, as well as the good).

IMG_1354Strolling around near Gare de Lyon one fading summer evening in the 12th arrondisement, my curiousity was rewarded as I turned from one of Paris’ main transport arteries, lined with generic hotels, shops and hurrying pedestrians, into a small street so delightful, I almost instantaneously forgot I was in Paris. (It’s worth noting here that I don’t own a smart phone, and I tend to rely on an old paper pocket map, preferring the ‘pot luck’ method of city exploring. Seems to work). Had I not been meandering around as many streets as my feet could take that evening, chances are I would have missed it.

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It’s name is Rue Crémieux – which suggests it might mean ‘Creamy Road’, which would have been fitting, given how the bright and pastel colours of the charming houses lining the sides conjure images of fruity ice-creams and sorbets, making the mouth water. But in reality (and here goes to prove that there actually isn’t romance round every corner in Paris), the road is named after a lawyer and politician Alphonse Crémieux, a member of the Government of National Defence, who gave jews French nationality in Algeria. It’s almost like discovering candyfloss is actually named after an accounting technique.

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The road was opened in 1865 (though named after Crémieux in 1897), and it still bears the marks of the great flood of Paris in 1910. It’s lovely to have a walk down at any time, and is thankfully pedestrianised so you don’t have to dodge the brazen Parisian traffic. The best time to check it out though is in the balmy sunshine when the colours are at their best, and the unbelievably fortunate residents spill out onto the pavement in front of their dwellings to enjoy a glass a wine, a round of cards, or to watch the people go past that aren’t lucky enough to live in an actual house (for those non-Parisians, houses are extremely rare in Paris – central at least, where shoebox apartments are the norm). Once at the end, find the nearest tabac, but a lottery ticket, and maybe next year, it might just be you sitting there instead.

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(Free) love is in the air…

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Ok, when I say ‘free love’, I don’t mean in the partner swapping 60s flower power way. I mean that since Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching (this Friday), and Paris is billed as the most romantic city in the world, then the mood is right to profit from the spirit of amour that hangs thickly in the air, without the need to spend 300 euros on dinner in a packed brasserie with your chosen loved one.

Sure, you can fork out for flowers, expensive chocolates or the latest gadget if you’re feeling flush (what do people buy each other for Valentine’s Day these days??), and if you want to chance a swish Parisian restaurant, then good luck to you (if you haven’t booked by now though, you might be in a bit of a pickle…). I fully understand that Valentine’s Day is not the day to be trying to save a few bob if you want relations between you and your significant other to remain warm and toasty, but for the mere price of a padlock, you can experience one of Paris’ most romantic spots, whilst making your cherie’s heart go all warm and fuzzy.

Over the last 10 years or so, a strange phenomenon has been gradually creeping onto some of Paris’ loveliest bridges and providing couples the chance to cement their hearts together forever – the love lock. The idea of covering a bridge with padlocks is not some kind of elaborate plan to stop the bridge from escaping, but a way of proving that your love is solid, by locking two hearts together for all eternity (and this is true of friends and families too, not just starry-eyed lovers).

The idea became popular via an Italian book ‘Three Metres Above the Sky’, a story of two young lovers in Rome, though there is evidence of the same ritual in Serbia dating back to World War II. Love-filled hearts around Europe decided they liked the idea too, and over the last decade, padlock-loaded bridges have become a common sight in many popular cities, with many municipal authorities actually erecting structures specifically for the purpose.

In Paris, the most famous lock-laden bridge, and one of the prettiest, is the Pont de l’Archevêché near Notre Dame, though the trend actually began (and still continues) on the Pont des Arts. Other bridges have followed suit, and given the popularity of the ritual, it is difficult to find a free spot to attach your own personal love token, though the Pont de Solferino near the Musée D’Orsay offers plenty of space and some smashing views of the river and the Eiffel Tower.

So embrace the chilly weather (the warmth radiating from the padlock manufacturers’ hands rubbing in glee should help with that), take your sweetheart by the hand and pick a spot to perform your own romantic ritual this Valentine’s Day. Grab your hunk of metal, write your names on it, lock it to the bridge (you should probably kiss at this point) and throw the key into the water, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes contemplating your wonderful future together. If it’s early days and you’re not quite sure whether your future together has legs yet, then maybe a combination lock might be a better choice, giving you that all important back-out option…