What a Year It’s Been!

Happy Birthday to je parle américain!

It’s hard to believe that je parle américain is celebrating its first birthday today. It seems like just yesterday (to me, at least) that I posted the headline that read “Big change of focus underway … if Julie Powell can do it, so can I.” Two days later, I published my first ever blogpost: “So what’s this all about?” where I announced that what had been the website for my stalled “English language consultancy” would henceforth be the online diary of this American in Paris, where I would recount for your entertainment my experiences as an expatriate in the City of Light.

The French Bureaucratic Migraine

Well, since then, I’ve recounted a lot for you. I’ve complained quite a bit, of course; I’m pretty good at that. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have bothered you much (with one or two notable exceptions). In fact, it seems that I get my biggest spikes in readership when I complain about, oh, I don’t know … the perpetual headache of French bureaucracy … or getting mistreated by Parisian waitstaff on the Fourth of July … or how filthy my neighborhood is. I want you to know, dear readers, that I sincerely appreciate your support and commiseration. When the burden of expatriate life gets you down, there’s nothing like a pat on the back from compatriots back across the ocean to make you feel better, or from fellow expats here in France to make you feel less alone.

Continue reading What a Year It’s Been!

No Gondolas for Denise

© 2010 Les Caramels Fous, used courtesy of the company

Most of you know that I’m married to an amateur singer and dancer. Michel has been a member of a musical theater troupe here in Paris called Les Caramels Fous (“The Crazy Caramels”) for about four years. While they may not be a professional company, let me assure you that the musicals performed by this thirty-year-old all-male, all-gay troupe are anything but amateur. When I first met Michel in April 2009, he was getting ready for the premiere of the Caramels’ musical Madame Mouchabeurre (“Mrs. Butter-Fly”), a comic retelling of the opera Madama Butterfly set in Brittany in the 1950s and 1970s. Michel played several roles, including a Breton woman wearing an outfit from the ’50s, a Breton man in traditional costume, a French sailor, and an American paratrooper. Madame Mouchabeurre had three highly successful runs here in Paris in June 2009, October/November 2009, and June/July 2010, the Caramels playing three performances a week to packed houses for three- or four-week stints each time. Starting in November 2010, the Caramels took Madame Mouchabeurre on the road for several more performances all around France: Charleville-Mézières (Ardennes), Nantes, Fréjus, Merignac (Bordeaux), Blagnac (Toulouse), La Baule, and Nice, before returning to Paris for another performance at Puteaux last December. Continue reading No Gondolas for Denise

Chipotle: The Final Analysis

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Thursday, I wrote how ecstatic I was about the opening of a Chipotle Mexican Grill here in Paris because I could finally get my Mexican fast food fix. Obviously, like any great international city, Paris has an array of good Mexican restaurants, but every now and then, you just crave that mass-produced, no-surprise flavor you get from fast food. Before coming to live in Paris, I had become a big fan of Chipotle, so when I first heard that they’d opened a location here, I made plans to go there for the lunch the very next day.

Now, before I get to my review of Chipotle Paris, I should note for those of you who are not aware that American fast food often undergoes a slight transformation when it crosses borders and oceans. It makes sense, I guess, that fast food restaurateurs want to ensure, while staying true to the brand, that what they serve overseas will also appeal to the local palate. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered this as a high school student traveling to London in 1989. After just a few days of subsisting on the rather bland English fare served up at our hotel, a few of us set out on a foraging mission to find something quintessentially American. (After all, you can only eat roast beef and garden peas for so long.) We descended on the first Pizza Hut we could find, already salivating over the Super Supreme pan pizzas we were going to order. We weren’t at all prepared to find on the menu such “foreign” creations as prawn pizza or chicken and sweet corn pizza. The same is true in France, of course, where even KFC and McDonald’s offer several menu items that were clearly dreamed up by a kitchen team with absolutely no American members. Take for instance, the most recent addition to the French “McDo” (pronounced “mac-doe”) menu:

Continue reading Chipotle: The Final Analysis

French Carolina

Carolina was an English colony, of course, but did you know that the French actually beat the English in the race to get there? Of course, the Spanish beat them all in 1526. Quelle surprise. Their settlement, San Miguel de Gualdape, was actually the first European settlement in what is now the United States, possibly located near the site of present-day Georgetown, South Carolina. Unfortunately for the Spanish, though, San Miguel was abandoned after only 3 months when famine, disease, and unrest among their Native American neighbors forced the settlers to return to Santo Domingo. The French arrived in 1562, after Admiral Gaspard de Coligny organized an expedition to settle the region. The expedition, led by Norman navigator Jean Ribault, built Charlesfort on present-day Parris Island but, like the Spanish before them, they didn’t stick it out for very long. Ribault, having returned to Europe for supplies, was detained because of the French wars of religion, leaving his fledgling settlement to founder. After only one year, all but one of the 28 remaining settlers set off across the Atlantic in a makeshift vessel. You may have read about their fate: by the time they were rescued by a passing English ship, the unfortunate crew had already resorted to cannibalism to stay alive as they drifted aimlessly on the ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish sent an expedition from Cuba to destroy Charlesfort, and the French experiment in colonizing the area came to an end. It wasn’t the end of French settlement though …

Continue reading French Carolina

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

© Sura Nualpradid

Hey … remember me?

Yeah, it has been a while. I know that I told you I’d try to post something every now and then while slogging through my CELTA training course, but it really hasn’t been an option, guys. I promise.

Here’s a picture of what my average day has been like for the last three weeks:

I wake up around 5 a.m., practicing the day’s lesson plan in my head and obsessing over the gaps that I couldn’t recall during my anxiety-ridden dreams, I try to go back to sleep, and I succeed in dozing until around 7:15 a.m. (or 6:45 a.m. on days when I have teaching practice). Then it’s up and at ’em … I arrive at school some time between 8:15 a.m. and 8:45 a.m., where I print out lesson plans, exercises and materials, or written assignments.

Our instructional sessions start at 9:15 a.m. That’s where we learn about every conceivable facet of teaching methodology (and a bit of English grammar to boot). Then it’s “teaching practice consolidation” from about 12:30 p.m. until about 1:00 p.m., when we review our lesson plans with the other trainees who will be teaching during the same 2-hour class in the afternoon. (Since we have 40-minute lessons each on the days when we teach, there are always two other trainees with whom we have to coordinate our lessons to ensure that the afternoon is a cohesive and productive experience for the students.) Then comes lunch, but I don’t really eat much, because I’m usually spending that hour or so revising my lesson plan, making last-minute changes to the materials, and nervously anticipating my lesson. Then it’s show time—a two-hour lesson for a class of anywhere from four to ten EFL students!

Continue reading The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Can I sleep now?

Well, everyone, today marks the end of my first week of intensive training to become a teacher of English to speakers of other languages. That’s 5 days down and 21 to go. I don’t have much time to indulge in the leisurely activity of blogging at the moment, so I’ll just share an edited Facebook status I posted this evening when I first got home. I think it sums up the first week pretty nicely.

  • I’m exhausted! In the last two nights, I’ve slept a total of 9 hours. I don’t expect this to get much better any time soon, either. Methodology and language analysis sessions every morning + teaching practice or observation every afternoon + 4 or 5 hours of lesson planning or homework every night = a hard row to hoe.
  • Writing lesson plans is truly an art … and a time-consuming one at that. Thank all the good teachers in your life for putting the effort into making good plans for what they taught you. Most of us have no idea how much thought and work go into that. That’s probably because the best teachers just make it look so easy.
  • My first lesson to a group of real, live students was on Tuesday afternoon. It went really well even though I was nervous enough to feel like throwing up for two hours before it even started. My second lesson on Thursday was personally disappointing. I felt extremely stressed because of last-minute changes to the lesson plan. According to my evaluator, though, it went well. Today’s lesson, on the other hand, was nothing short of a disaster. I tried to accomplish too much, and my instructions weren’t clear enough or adequately reinforced. My evaluator didn’t argue with my self-assessment, but at least I didn’t get raked over the coals. Instead, she pointed out my strengths and was glad to see that I immediately recognized the areas where I overstretched. Maybe it’s a training rule not to crush your spirit at the outset? (By the way, “freer stage” lessons—for anyone who’s familiar with the concept—are not as easy as they seem.) Continue reading Can I sleep now?

Got a chimney? It’s French.

A while back, I posted about how much of the English language comes from French. Perhaps surprisingly, more English vocabulary comes from French than from any other language source, even Anglo-Saxon—some 30% in fact. Speaking English words of French origin doesn’t make us French speakers, of course, but stumbling across these cognates can be pretty useful if you’re in a French class … or even trying to decipher a French menu. Being an etymology nerd myself (and inspired by my blogger friend over at Le mot du (bon)jour), I decided to create a new “column” on je parle américain: the French English Word of the Week. Every week or so, I’ll write a short post about an ordinary English word that we inherited from French. Sometimes, the French and English words will have exactly the same meanings. Sometimes, though, they’ll be faux amis (“false friends”), because the words have evolved differently over time. Those can be the most interesting!

So, this week’s French English word? Given the record-breaking cold temps affecting many of my readers, I’ve decided to kick things off with:


Everybody knows what a chimney is, of course. In its primary sense, chimney means “a vertical structure incorporated into a building and enclosing a flue or flues that carry off smoke; especially : the part of such a structure extending above a roof.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

“Chimney” comes to us from the Anglo-Norman chiminee from the Old French cheminée from Late Latin caminata from Latin caminus from Greek kaminos, meaning “furnace.”

In American English, we use the word almost exclusively for the structures that carry off smoke from our homes. We generally call the industrial versions or the versions on steam locomotives and steamships “smokestacks.” In England, by contrast, such smokestacks are often called chimneys and, in some English dialects, chimney can also mean a “fireplace or hearth,” especially a large one, like those found in old castles.

Continue reading Got a chimney? It’s French.

First Class

Terminal 2 at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

One of the benefits of extensive foreign travel is a really FAT frequent flyer account, and since meeting my French husband, Michel, back in 2009, I’ve certainly racked up the miles. In 2009 alone, I flew back and forth between Washington and Paris four times on Air France, traveling almost 32,000 miles. I added 16,000 more miles to my travel log in February and April of the following year. That’s almost 50,000 miles traveled between Washington and Paris in just one year’s time! Aside from swelling my carbon footprint to shameful proportions, all that jetting back and forth got me a free one-way ticket to Paris in 2010 to begin my French expatriate adventure.

I should say up front that I prefer Air France to any American airline I’ve ever flown. I’m proud to be an American and all, but let’s face it: there’s something infinitely more charming about free-flowing champagne, wine, and cognac served up by French flight attendants wearing foulards than anything you normally get on an American flight … and I’m just talking about economy class, here. In fact, Air France doesn’t even call their upscale version “economy class” or “coach class”—it’s “voyageur.” Just read that out loud and you’ve already got a French accent!

Continue reading First Class

An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

Your Guide to Père Lachaise © 2011 Michel Pouradier, all rights reserved

Best known to most Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, Le Père Lachaise cemetery is the largest graveyard in the city of Paris, occupying 110 acres in the 20th arrondissement and having over 1 million interments. I can still remember my first visit to Père Lachaise back in April 2009—it was nothing like I had expected. There, in the center of a bustling multi-ethnic quarter, was a veritable city of the dead, with streets that actually bear names and divisions that function somewhat like little neighborhoods. It was even large enough to have a map with an alphabetized key for locating the grave sites of literally hundreds of its most famous occupants. I spent a few hours during that first visit, strolling along wide, tree-lined avenues and down narrow, winding cobblestone chemins in search of such luminaries of French literature, music and history as Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Georges Bizet, Jean de la Fontaine, Édith Piaf, Molière (who isn’t really there, but that’s another story), and even the legendary twelfth-century lovers Abelard and Héloïse (at least according to the 1817 marketing scheme to attract cemetery plot purchases).

Continue reading An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

“Give me your tired, your poor …

… Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

— Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

It was Saturday afternoon and I was racking my brain for an idea for my next blogpost. The pressure was mounting since I try to post at least twice a week and the last post was on Wednesday … and then I Skyped with my mom.

“Did you see the Statue of Liberty celebrations?”

“Um. No. What was that about?”

“Yesterday was her 125th birthday.”

Voilà ! Merci maman !

It’s hard to think of a more iconic symbol of the United States than the Statue of Liberty. From postage stamps to commemorative coins to old New York state license plates to television and films, it is an unmistakable image that evokes America. Almost everyone knows that the statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, but the details of the story are always more fuzzy once we leave grade school. And most Americans aren’t aware that, right here in Paris, we have our very own replica one fourth the size of the original in New York. It was made by the sculptor using one of his design moulds and was presented to the city of Paris in 1889 by the American community living here to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. Just this afternoon, I ventured out to the Île aux Cygnes, a narrow island in the Seine just downriver from the Eiffel Tower, to take a look at the replica for the very first time.

La Statue de la Liberté, Île aux Cygnes © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
La Statue de la Liberté, Île aux Cygnes © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Having been inspired by my little afternoon excursion, I came home to finish up this post, the backstory of Lady Liberty’s 21-year voyage from idea to icon.

Continue reading “Give me your tired, your poor …