Friday, November 30, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: My First Astrological Study, Part 1

I realized not long after my arrival in Nantes that I had a wealth of astrological data to work with. We received a list of everyone’s birthdays at some point either before or early in our stay. I also had a “controlled population” and could see them interact. So I decided in my first few weeks in Nantes to do an astrological profile of the Fall 1991 class. 

Did anyone know I was doing this? Come on now…what sun sign is writing this blog? OK, so seriously, I don’t recall telling anyone about it at the time, and I played things fairly close to the vest in Nantes.

My first task was to sift through the list of birthdays. At the time, of course, I had no software and very few books to work with, so I forget how I handled any “cusp” people. I also had no computer so I wrote everything down by hand using my preferred writing tool: A mechanical pencil. How last century, right?

Once I had the birthdays, I constructed three different sets of information, all broken down by sex and sun sign. I was looking for patterns of the class as a whole, but I was also very interested in checking out the sun signs of men and women and seeing if there was a significant difference.

Women made up the vast majority of students in our class, but that is neither surprising or unusual, as females make up the world of modern languages almost entirely, especially in the academic fields. French is even more female-dominated than others; men have told me that French doesn’t “sound masculine” and so many boys chose a different language, usually Spanish.

Anyway, astrologically speaking, the number of women in each astrological element was about equal, with fire being slightly more than the others (air, earth, and water).  Many of them did show the qualities of their element. I found that fire sign ladies in this class seemed to be more outgoing and passionate; earth sign women tended to be hardworking and serious; air sign ladies seemed more brainy or thoughtful; and water sign women more sensitive or emotional.

The results aren’t surprising for anyone who studies astrology, but it really helped me to see “astrology in action” through observing others. I tell my students that study is essential, but watching people act and react is a vital component piece of it as well. Seeing what is typical or not for a given element, sun sign, moon sign, rising sign, etc., helps solidify what you read.

Two very typical fire sign ladies bear mention here. One Aries woman had a French boyfriend, which was very rare for our class; she was the only one I saw who dated someone in country. To date in a language that’s not your own takes some real courage; love is hard enough in your native language and culture, much less one that you’re still learning.

The other was a Sagittarius woman, and she exemplified her sign in a very positive way. I actually have a photo of her where I told her to “Give me a Sag pose!” She played along…I may have even told her to act like she was drawing a bow like the Archer, but at the very least I know that idea was something we had discussed. She had a fantastic sense of humor and always seemed to be having a great time. I never saw her melt down, which was also rare because we all had them in Nantes. She was probably the most spirited classmate I had. To top it all off, she was a redhead, so it was easy to see her hair and think “fire”!

Thanks for tuning in to part 1. Come back tomorrow for part 2, where I talk about my astrological results of the men of Nantes. 

PS--T-3 days to blastoff! :)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: Monsieur Bilingue

My French brother, Christian, was 16 during my year overseas, and was one of most colorful characters I met during my year in Nantes by far. My French mom, Marie-Claire, had been his foster mom since he was a baby; his father was serving a long prison sentence and his mother was declared an unfit parent. Luckily for him, he ended up in a great home, which was especially important for him as a sun sign Cancer.

This gangly teenager had a Mohawk and carried a huge knife, not unlike what Arnold carries in some of his earlier movies like “Commando”. He’d always have it on him, and spent hours sharpening it. Marie-Claire was a slight French woman of maybe 5’2”, and Christian had probably 9 inches and at least 40 pounds on her as well as his big knife. I once asked Marie-Claire if she was concerned about him having it, and her response was a very calm, “It keeps him quiet.”  That was one brave woman, but I guess she knew him well enough to figure he wouldn’t try to stab anyone with it, or at least not HER. I was not so confident.

When I arrived, he immediately started harassing me verbally. My French slang held me in good stead with him, and he found out pretty quickly I wasn’t going to allow him to intimidate me.  Soon thereafter, Christian declared that he could speak fluent English. When I tried speaking English to him, he shouted, “Yeah, I understand!” in French. 

It wasn’t until a few days later that I found out the full extend of his English vocabulary. He had an incredible command of three important statements: “Shut up!”, “Suck my dick!”, and “Fuck you!” It was the rest of the language that he struggled with, and that exchange earned him his nickname, his nom de guerre: “Monsieur Bilingue” [Mr. Bilingual].

Sadly, his lack of linguistic ability was not limited to English. France does overall a fantastic job of turning out literate, well-spoken children; ask one a question and they will often re-state it and give a three-point response, just like they’re taught to do at school. Christian did not get the full benefit of the system, which many liken to a machine. He had been such a behavior problem that he had been forced out of the French education system for a trade school. His “schooling” was his training to become a landscaper, and they did not assign any reading or written homework.

The sad truth of it was that my French was better than his, which shocked me and angered him. In fact, it pissed him off so much that he continually made reference to it. I tried to avoid the topic—assuming it was true, I didn’t want to rub it in his face—but eventually my French mom decided to settle the matter with a contest: A dictée with her doing the grading.

If you’ve ever had French, likely you’ve had one of these dictation exercises. A French text is read aloud and you have to write it down verbatim. It’s not a memory exercise, though; French has tons of words where many of the letters are unpronounced, so you show your skill at the language by making sure everything looks right on paper.   

Marie-Claire read us the text, and when it was over, she stopped correcting his after he had 25 mistakes on his paper.  I had a mere seven. I wanted to shout "U-S-A! U-S-A!" but somehow it didn't seem like the right time, you know?

[As an aside, the French love this exercise. They have an international dictée every year hosted by Bernard Pivot, and the best French speakers come to face off.  It is televised, and hordes of French-speaking families all over the world sit around the TV and do it together. When my family did it, I did it with them, and this time I didn’t win, of course. This dictée is a total bitch kitty, complete with obscure rules and complex grammatical exceptions. I was thrilled when my older French brothers looked at their papers, then at mine, and told me only 10 errors separated me from them, both college-educated French people. Can we cue Archie and Edith singing “Those Were the Days”, please?]

Unfortunately, this did not engender any respect in Christian. If anything, it had the opposite effect of increasing his bitterness toward me. He started calling me names; his favorite pet name for me was “Gros boudin!” [fat blood sausage]. But I had been called a lot worse.  I tried hanging out with him some and we played some games, but he would cheat and then accuse me of cheating, so the games never ended well.

I was downstairs doing my laundry one April morning. The laundry room was across from his bedroom, and he came over to talk to me. I told him he must be excited to be getting rid of me in a month. He responded by telling me me that he’d be getting rid of me sooner than that when he came up to my room with his big knife to “rub me out”. Considering that to be teenage bluster, I told him if he intended to try, he’d better bone up on his English because I’d kick his fucking ass all the way to the States. I said most of that in English to piss him off. His response, which was in French of course, was “That didn’t sound very nice at all.”

I suspect he left Marie-Claire's home once he turned 18, but only the Lord and Lady know what's happened to him. I haven't had any contact with him since; I didn't think he'd want to be pen pals so I didn't offer. 

I'm sure he would be thrilled to know that to this day, I think of him every time I see one of those big ass survival knives. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: Mon arrivée en famille

During my days in Nantes, I lived with a French family. I had breakfast at their house every day, and had at least two dinners a week with them. They spoke no English.

My French mom, Marie-Claire, was an Aries woman who was one of the most laid-back Aries women I have ever met. Many are aggressive—and not necessarily in a bad way—but she took everything in stride. She did her best to answer all my questions and teach me a lot without knowing she was doing so.

But Marie-Claire had a lot more to deal with than just me. She had three grown children, one of whom was still living with her by the time I left Nantes, but she also was a femme de foyer, or what we would call a foster mom. She had three foster children as well: Lény, 17, who lived away at cooking school and only came home for school vacations; as well as Christian, who was 16, and Jessica, who was 12. Marie-Claire’s husband, Gilbert, was a great guy, but he was studying in a German home; his company was paying for him to learn German, so at like 50 years old he was doing what I was doing at 20. So he wasn’t around much, but it was great when he was.

I remember that first day in Nantes. I traveled with one other student from the US, and as we got to the train station we picked up a few more people. Americans in France stick out, especially when they’re carrying luggage as big as they are. Once we got to Nantes, we went to the Institute where our families would come to pick us up. Of course, I was the last person picked up; Madame Rouchet, the dean of students, stayed late to wait for Marie-Claire.

My first evening with my French family was pretty fun. Christian thought he could give me a hard time but figured out really quick who he was dealing with. My extensive study of French slang served me well, and Marie-Claire was suitably impressed at how well I was able to dispatch Christian with not too much effort. It was two books, Merde! and Merde Encore!, that had formed a large part of my preparation. My linguistic “expertise” in this area served me well all year.

After dinner, Jessica gave me a short lecture on how to work my alarm clock. Luckily it wasn’t that hard; by that time I was so tired I was almost falling asleep. I promised that I would help her with English, which she was very happy about. After trying to watch a movie with Marck and Franck, two of Marie-Claire’s biological children, I collapsed into bed, my head still spinning.

The next morning, Marie-Claire drove me to the Institute, handed me the address of the house on a slip of paper, and said, “See you tonight. Find your way home!” I was nervous about finding my way back, but that was the easy part; public transit has always been a hobby of mine, so I managed it pretty easily.

Eventually, life at home settled into a routine. It took about three days to get used to having French all around me, and for the next four months I never left France except for four days in London in October. English was not a distant memory totally—I spoke some with my American friends outside the Institute—but it was most assuredly secondary.  You would be amazed at how much you would learn if you couldn’t speak English. Trust me on this one.

As I look back on it, each person in the house helped me learn different things. I never thought, for example, that I would learn how rugby is played, how to play or bet in roulette or poker, or how to tell someone I’d like to kill them in another language. But I did. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

Tune in tomorrow for more on Christian and his antics during my stay. A demain, chers lecteurs!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: My Silence of the Lamb

Remember that part about when I said that living abroad was like Mercury retrograde all the time? You knew where you wanted the conversation to go, and it usually got there, but perhaps not in the manner you would have chosen.

Part of that is ego, and the other part is high expectations. You want to be able to express yourself as well in your second language as you can in your native language. Let me tell you...that's not happening unless you are a very rare breed of person who is incredibly gifted for languages. While I have seen one or two, the rest of us have to get along with sometimes substituting less complex ideas, or for vocabulary we don't know, when trying to make ourselves understood. 

But then again, sometimes THAT doesn't work, either.

In one stunning example, one of my classmates from Nantes woke up after her first night in her new home and her French family asked her how she had slept. We're not talking about nuclear arms treaties, or convincing someone not to jump off a bridge, or even getting on the wrong train. Just "How did you sleep?" I had no idea how perilous that situation could be. But I found out.

My friend had to think for a moment. There had been a mosquito in her room, and she had been bitten several times. The problem was that she couldn't come up with the French word for "mosquito", which incidentally is
la moustique. So she racked her brain and thought, "Well, I'll just use the word for 'fly' and go from there." Excellent idea in theory, but impossible to execute; she couldn't remember the word for "fly" in French, either (la mouche). So she punted and said:

"Il y avait un mouton dans ma chambre." [There was a sheep in my room.]

On paper it makes a weird sort of sense. Both of the words she had been looking for began with mou- so likely it popped into her head and she just went with it.

At that point, her French family confirms, "Un mouton?" [A sheep?]

I've seen this a lot in dual-language situations. The listener confirms that they have correctly understood, and for the foreign language speaker it gives us the opportunity to see the body language, expression, etc., of the listener so we can re-consider what we've already said. [In one case, for me at was actually native speakers confirming that I was being as vulgar as I had hoped to be, while at the same time scolding me for speaking that way. But that was me; I was told on one occasion in Nantes that I had "a very varied vocabulary", which is the polite way of saying "You got a dirty mouth." But I digress.]

My classmate didn't realize her error and pressed on:

“Oui, et il m’a piqué trois fois!” [Yes, and it bit me three times!]

I can only imagine what her French family was thinking at this point. I don't know if they managed to stifle their laughter, but going for the teachable moment, they sat her down at a dry erase board while they drew and insect and marked it "la moustique", and drew a sheep and labeled it "le mouton". She finally got the point; I'll bet she never forgot those words again.

Of course, she swore me to silence on the story, but this one is too good not to share. I lost touch with her after Nantes, but if I was in touch with her today, I'd have to send her an email that said, "Well, [name], have the lambs stopped screaming?" :)

This story reminds me that even the most simple of linguistic interactions can be valuable, and as I start prepping in earnest for Nantes I'm going over some vocabulary in my head to make sure I'm going to the train station this time, and not off to a non-existent war. At least Mercury retrograde will be well and truly OVER by the time I get over there. I don't need his "assistance" in clouding my meaning.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Welcome to Sagittarius, The Ultimate Seeker

A joyous—but brief—birthday shout to all of the Sagittarian folks on their birthdays! Some of my good friends are Archers, and they definitely know how to have a good time. Hopefully you can keep up with them, because they are always on the move. You ever wonder why Sagittarius is represented as the centaur archer? They are quick, off like a shot and always aiming for truth.

Sagittarius rules astrology’s 9th house, which rules higher learning of all kinds-education, training, etc.—and anything that involves a long-term voyage of the mind or body. Perhaps like, oh, I don't know...someone going back to a city in France they haven't visited for 21 years. :)

Foreign languages and cultures, as well as spiritual journeys or pilgrimages, philosophy, belief systems, and ethics are also ruled by Sag. In the tarot, while the Fire (Wands, Rods, etc.) Court Cards can represent Sag people, Temperance also represents the sign of the Archer as well.

One of the most misunderstood tarot cards, Temperance represents the Sag personality perfectly. While “balance” often comes up in our readings when this card appears, one meaning is often overlooked is that of “combination”. Sagittarians know how to do many things well (my brother is a paramedic, computer expert, and liturgical vocalist!) and combine seemingly different approaches to be successful. While they might lack the persistence of Scorpio, they can be much more inventive and resourceful because of their more “moderate” natures. I’m sure you’re starting to see what I’m talking about now.

The Archers in our lives love to have fun, but they are also some of the most brutally honest people you’d ever meet. And while they don’t walk around typically dispensing the wisdom of the ages, they are aware that life is too short and it’s time to cut loose. And it makes perfect sense. We’ve just come out of Scorpio sun as we try to make sense of the constant evolution that our lives are taking, and while that process is important, it’s very SERIOUS business. Our Archer friends are good at saying, “Time enough for that later. Lighten up!”

I was very surprised by a conversation I had with my Sag brother, who, by his own admission, is not very good at returning phone calls. Out of the blue, he called me on my birthday last year. He said that he was sorry he didn’t call more often and realizes he’s got to remember what is truly important. I was surprised at this admission, but as I thought about it later, I reminded myself that Archers are always on a search--a search for truth.  

Feeling stuck in a rut? Take a page out of the Archer’s book and try looking at life from a different angle. Not having much fun in life right now? Lighten up a little and realize how short life is. At this time of year, when lots of people focus on their pain and suffering, ask yourself: What can I do to lighten my load and enjoy life just a little more? And how can I help others do that?

Also, please check out my review of "How to Believe in a Sagittarius", a book I highly recommend!

Please accept my warmest wishes for a safe, happy, and, above all, FUN holiday season, filled with wonder, peace and a little spiritual enlightenment. Blessed be!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: A Year of Mercury Retrograde

Unlike most Scorpios, I'm glad when people know that I am one. That way, they know who they're dealing with. I kind of wish we all wore sun sign name tags or something...not because every [insert sign here] is the same, but at least so that we'd have a place to start, you know?

When I lived in France, I was in full, intense Scorpio mode, culturally speaking. I was completely immersed in the language and how French people live, work, and play. I was still American, of course, but it was shoved aside; at the Institute and at home, I spoke French, and English made the occasional appearance with classmates, usually after hours. That was the point in being there, so Scorpio sun really helped me out, as did my Mercury in Scorpio (ruling communication matters).  

Nantes was my opportunity to make significant progress in French, even though I already spoke very well before I left the US. It worked; my writing got tons better that year, as did my ability to think on my feet and adapt in another language.French became automatic; I need to "get back in the bathtub", sure...but I know I'll never forget the language, even if it gets a little rusty, which mine has, to be sure. 

As much as I loved it, some days it felt like the whole world was in Mercury retrograde: You tried to get your ideas across and it worked for the most part, but often conversations or interactions would go in directions you didn't expect. Situations came up that you weren't linguistically prepared for and you had to punt, like when I found a burned-out light bulb. I didn't know the word for bulb so I had to say "This thing over here is burned out." At least I learned quickly. :)

Anyway, one night around Christmas, I was headed out the door when I passed my French mother, Marie-Claire. The conversation was in French, but I've put the English in brackets. 

Me: Je vais à la guerre. [I'm going off to war.]

MC: Non. [No.]

Me: Je vais à la guerre. [I'm going off to war.] (This second time I said it with more feeling.)

MC: (Slowly shaking head) Il n’y a pas de guerre à Nantes. [There is no war in Nantes.]

Me: Si si. Il y en a une ! [Yes, there is!]

I go on to describe where the war is in fulsome detail: How I'm going to take this bus line over to the number 12 line, how the war is near the Botanical Gardens, etc. I'm getting irritated because I've never had a problem communicating with this woman before now--I've been living in her home for two months--and I'm wondering why she insists there is no fucking war in Nantes. I'm thinking, "Look, lady, you must be out of your mind!" Of course, she still keeps gently insisting that there is no war, repeating it, like I've made some kind of mistake. 

Then the piano drops on my head.

MC: Peut-être tu veux gare? [Maybe you mean...the train station?]

A pause in the conversation occurs as I try to think my way out of this one. Of course "the train station" is what I've been saying all along...right?

Me: J’ai pas dit ça ? [I didn't say that?]

MC: Non. [Nope.]

Another pause. Fuck me sideways...I'm the idiot! Time for a hasty retreat from this war. 

Je m’en vais alors. [Allright, I'm outta here.]

At least this Scorpio can intensely fuck up a conversation. :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time]

Don't be put off by the title, folks. If you know anything about French literature--or if you're a fan of Monty Python's Flying Circus--you likely have heard of this book by French author Marcel Proust. 

If you haven't, here's a little tidbit of information that may interest you: At more than 3,200 pages, this is the longest novel in world literature. It contains more than 1.5 million words. Yeah, you read that right. Those of you doing National Novel Writing Month--and I'll admit here that I'm totally screwed this time and won't even come close--might think that 50K words is a lot. Proust's novel is in 7 volumes, and is considered a classic in France. 

Speaking personally, I've read the first part of volume one; some of Proust's sentences are so long you forget what has happened earlier in it if you're not careful. The other problem is that I had to read it with a dictionary, and as much as a staple of French literature as this book is, I put it in the same category as Victor Hugo: It's not reading for pleasure; it's reading to challenge you linguistically.

[By the way, the book was entitled "Remembrance of Times Past" in earlier translations, but this latest version from 1992 conveys the meaning much more clearly.]

At any rate, why in the world would I title one of my blogs "In Search of Lost Time" anyway? Well, I'm getting to that. One of the reasons that the book is so revered is its discussion of memory, and how outside stimuli--smells, tastes, sounds, etc.--can trigger involuntary memories in us. 

Think about it: The scent of an old girlfriend's perfume, or an old boyfriend's cologne. The song that was playing at a prom or another important dance, or one you loved growing up. These are just a few. If you've said "That brings me back!" when you hear, taste, smell, see, or feel something, then you're probably experiencing what Proust was talking about.

The reason for my title in this blog is because for the first time in 21 years, I am returning to Nantes. I left there in May 1992. I've talked about my study abroad in Nantes, France, before in my blog (refer to other blogs, like "F is for France"), and it truly was an important, formative period in my life for many reasons. Less than two weeks from now I'll be back in country.

Six weeks ago I never would have considered such a thing. But my beloved wife has been hearing me talk about wanting to go back to Nantes for a few years now. I had hoped to go back with her for my 20th anniversary of my departure, but the French have a saying: "Either you have the time or the money, but never both at the same time." Thanks to a friend who works for United, I'm getting a "buddy pass" to Paris--a space available ticket that only costs the taxes--so it became affordable, but only for one of us. As my wife put it, "You REALLY want to go back to Nantes, and I'd just slow you down and cost us more because I would want to eat at nice French restaurants. You'll grab bread and cheese and keep going. So go and have a great time!" That is advice I can't possibly ignore, so off I go. 

If you're asking where Nantes (pronounced NONT) is, find Paris on a map and move your finger left (west) toward the ocean along the Loire River. It's France's sixth largest city with 580K people; it was actually the seventh largest city when I left. 

Most Americans won't give Nantes a second look and the vast majority will never see it or hear of it. It's not a tourist hub like Paris is. The reason I chose it back in the day is exactly because it's NOT a hub; there are almost no Anglophones in the city, at least there were very few when I left there. It's a true "immersion experience". I heard the occasional English announcement at the train station, but otherwise I think I met maybe 5 other English speakers during my stay that weren't from my school, the Institute of European Studies. 

[As an aside, my close friend and I--they called us "Siskel and Ebert" back then because we were always together and he was taller and I was, well, more rotund--did meet a few Canadian students one day at the university cafeteria, and they asked us to join them. As I recall, Siskel gave them a hard time about the free trade agreement (NAFTA) and told them that Celine Dion and Roch Voisine did not make up a whole industry. They didn't seem to want to eat with us again after that, which we probably deserved for being assholes. At least our French was a lot better than theirs, and they came from a "French-speaking country". But I digress.]

A hell of a lot has changed since I left. I used to be a transit expert in the Nantes tram/bus system (TAN); Siskel used to call me "Mr. Tan" when we were there and would often say "On Y Va!" ["Let's Go!"], the motto of the system. Since 1992, TAN went and added two new tram lines (light rail), a dedicated "busway" line, and generally have made the whole system more robust. I especially like the addition of weekend night buses that actually run until 7:00am. That would have been very useful back in the day!

 The reason I know all this information about current-day Nantes is because of another large development since my departure from the city: The Internet. 

I wrote more than 350 letters by hand from Nantes; consequently, I spent a lot of my money on postage. (Anyone want to guess how many of them went to my beloved?) During my year over there, I also wrote all my papers by hand; if you've seen my "serial killer" handwriting, you know how much my professors suffered. No computers were around or available. If you're younger than 25, try writing a letter by hand and see how you do. 

Now I go online and "walk" around the city with Google Maps, make reservations at the hotel, check out train schedules, and even buy TAN tickets electronically for my iPad. It makes life so much easier.

Metaphysically, my interest in both tarot and astrology really peaked in Nantes. I started doing readings for friends in both languages--reading cards is a challenge in your native language, so imagine it with a few years of French under your belt--and I checked out the astrological profile of the students at my Institute on my own. I talked about both as often as I could. I remember I correctly guessed the sign of a classmate I had met less than an hour before on the train from Paris to Nantes.

If I say I'm excited, well...that's a serious understatement. "Totally elated" is a better term. I just can't wait. And I have to wonder what "involuntary memories" wait for me in Nantes. I have un emploi du temps très chargé [a very busy schedule] for my stay over there. I'll be in Nantes for five days, and then return to Paris to visit with a French friend I met in Nantes 21 years ago. He used to have a Tom and Jerry notebook to write down all of my English statements--many of which were rather colorful-- and asked me to help him translate them into French. I'll spend a day with him, and then my final day in France will be at Paris Disneyland, which, appropriately enough, opened while I was living in Nantes in 1992 but I never got there. 

[I remember my mom calling to tell me that there was a whole horde of protesters at the opening with signs that said, "Mickey Mouse est un rat!" I don't think I have to translate that one for you. :)]

I'm definitely a little nervous, too. I studied or worked in French for 25 years, and I'll never "forget" it, but I've been taking some time to re-integrate French into my daily life (French radio and video, etc.) to minimize culture shock, or as the French would say
pour me remettre dans le bain [to get back in the swing of things, literally "to get back in the bathtub"].

Wish me luck with the whole bathtub thing. I promise you that I will take TONS of pix, and I plan to hit some astrology/metaphysical shops over there as well. I'd love to get some French astrology and tarot books. 

I promise to take tons of pix and detail my adventures, likely when I return, but I won't rule out an entry or two during my stay.

For me, this is like a sacred pilgrimage. Of course, it's happening during Sagittarius, the sign that rules "seeking the truth" and long-distance or overseas travel. Couldn't have planned that one better if I had tried. :)

 I've also added below a link to the Monty Python sketch about Proust's masterwork, just for fun. Enjoy.