Tuesday, October 26, 2010

French Kissing

Today was a banner day.  I had my 14th lesson in my new French class and I didn’t quit.  Yay, me!  If you remember back when I first moved here, I jumped right into a French school and I quit after my 13th lesson.  Well, now I’m going to this other school and I think some of it may be soaking in.  A little.  A very little.  But still!

It is making all the difference that there are other people in my class.  Last time, it was only me and I was petrified, PETRIFIED, I tell you, to speak, because everything I said was wrong and I felt stupid.  But, now that there are other people in class, it has become apparent that all of us SOUND STUPID!  We each have our moments of glory, mind you, however brief they may be, where we sound legitimate, but for the most part we sound stupid.  It is as if someone came up to you in America on the street and said, “Hello, ma’am”.  Then, with an incredibly awkward pause in between, finally said, “Could you me tell”, and then about 30 seconds later, finally spit out, “where is to the city center the bus appropriate?”.  You’d be like, um, what?  Could you say that again?  You see?  This is how speaking we are.  Like Yoda, but not as cute or famous.

I am amazed that my teacher does not spend the whole 3 hours just cracking up.  Really.  We are that bad.  We think we are good, but then we open our mouths and it goes something like this:

TEACHER:  Ma chere, je vous veux conjuguer le verbe “connaitre” dans le passé composer.

ME:  (Under my breath in forbidden English), OK, she wants me to conjugate the verb “to know” in the past tense.

TEACHER:  Oui.   (Because she heard everything I just whispered to myself in forbidden English).

ME:  Uh, …um, je, no, wait a minute, j’ai, uh…you said “connaitre”, right?  OK, OK, uh, j’ai connaitru, no, that’s not right, uh, it’s right here on the tip of my tongue, I swear, oh, maybe, j’ai connu?  YESSS!  J’ai connu!!  Final answer:  j’ai connu.

TEACHER:  Oui.  (And then, under her breath, in French, Oh, la, la.  When is lunch?)  Out loud, she says, Oui, et qu’est ce que les autres neuf pronoms et leur verbes?

ME:  (Whispering).  OK, she wants to know what the other nine forms of the verb are with their pronouns.  Oh, my God, when is lunch?

And on and on and on it goes.  It’s painful, I tell you.  PAINFUL.  I am nearing 50.  As a matter of fact, I may BE 50 by the time I conjugate this verb in the past tense.  But she is so cute, my new teacher, that I want to do well.  I want to make her like me.  It’s like Stockholm Syndrome!  I mean, I wish I spoke French just so I could be friends with her.  I’m sure she is really cool and Swiss and does grand things on the weekends like attend concerts and the theater and hobnob with fabulous people.  I’m sure she is a hit at all of the cocktail parties with her stories about her brain-dead students.  I, myself, have probably provided her with fodder to last throughout the upcoming holiday season.

But, today, my 14th lesson, was tres special.  Inadvertently, I made her tell us a swear word.  Let me just go on the record right now and tell you it was ALL HER FAULT.  Innocently enough, she asked me for a sentence containing the verb “to sleep” in the past tense.  So, my sentence was (in English here),” The princess slept until the prince came to kiss her.”  OK.  I was good until I got to “to kiss”.  I didn’t know the verb “to kiss” in French.  So I looked up at Teacher and said my favorite word in school, which is “uhhh?” as in, I don’t have a friggin’ clue.  And then, I guessed, and said “Bisou”?


It’s like in Alaskan Inuit.  You know how the Eskimos have 3 million words for the word “snow”?  Because their world revolves around frozen water?  The same thing goes here in the French language for the noun “kiss” and the verb “to kiss”.  So, here is cute little Teacher trying desperately not to blush as she explains “le crescendo” of kissing.  OK, right there, she earned her money today.  Did you know that, in French, the “crescendo” was the advancement of something going ever higher and higher?  Neither did I, but now I do.  It sounds much nicer to “va crescendo” than to “go up the ladder”, doesn’t it?

So en crescendo, here is how one kisses in French-speaking countries:

Un bec                                                  A tiny air kiss in the vicinity of the cheek

Gros becs                                            A few, slightly bigger pecks on either cheek, more sound than                                                                  contact, if you know what I mean

Bisou                                                     Actual contact with the cheek, among friends,
                                                               generic word for kiss

Bisous                                                   The act, in Europe, of giving multiple kisses on cheeks, upon
                                                               greeting, among friends

Gros bisous                                        Giving bisous to friends with gusto, may include actual         
                                                         lip-to-cheek contact and squeezing of shoulders or biceps

Je t’embrasse                                    An actual hug and kiss, perhaps even on the lips, heartfelt,
                                                          among good friends and close family

Gros/tendre baiser                         An intimate hug/kiss between lovers

BUT, BUT, BUT baiser (pronounced exactly the same way as the last one on the list above) is also a verb which means a very vulgar way to have sexual intercourse, as in the difference between saying “I want to make love to you” and “I’m going to **** you.”

Aaaaach!  Do you think Teacher was blushing by now?  Well, yes, she was.  I tried to reassure her.  I said, “Beloved Teacher, until I get much, much, much better in French, I will not come within 100 metres of the “baiser” word.  I will stick with “bisou”.

Do you think I will quit French now?  No, I will not.  At least not until I can conjugate baiser with all ten pronouns.

*****Hello, again.  I just have to tell you that in between the time I wrote this and the time I am sending this, I have learned that “baiser” is NOT the equivalent of F*** You.  It is only the equivalent of “screw you”, which is pretty benign.  So how cute is Teacher, who blushed and could not even bring herself to properly translate it?  Lawd knows what Miss Thang is going to do when I inadvertently stumble upon a REALLY bad word!

Since I have no pictures of any of the natives bisou-ing, I will post some pictures of downtown Lausanne and the surrounding canton de Vaud.  xoxoxo

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Weekend in Tuscany

I have no further updates on the chalet hunt. We are still researching exactly which little village we want to land in and so have not looked at any other specific houses. I am determined to at least lay eyeballs on each and every ski village in the French-speaking part of Switzerland as well as right over the border in France. I’ve been scoring each village on a scale of 1 to 10 for access to the slopes, price of housing, how many famous people live there, etc. So far, Gstaad wins in the famous residents category but do we really want to live near Roman Polanski? No, we do not. Grand One is nine and she will soon be right in Roman’s wheelhouse. No need to go inviting trouble, I say.

By the way, Avoriaz in France is the most horrible place I’ve ever seen. It’s one of those “site-built” ski resorts with no actual town. Just high rise after high rise after high rise, with ski rental shops and pizza joints on the street level. Oh, it was so bad, Mr. Big and I were in shock. We thought that that level of tackiness was confined only to the US. No, someone allowed it to sneak across the Atlantic and climb up an Alp. Don’t go there unless you are a twenty-something hard core snowboarder who is not in the least bit interested in ambience and only care what time the bars close. Hmmmm. Small Son would probably love it.

Since I can’t show you any houses, I will tell you about Tuscany. Y’all. I am so sorry, and I am probably going to start a war, but Tuscany cannot hold a candle to Provence. (OK, all of you Europeans are going to get a little chuckle out of this, but I need to explain to all of the Americans who read this blog and who have never been to Europe, that Tuscany is in Italy and Provence is in France.) Right. Move on. Let’s begin by explaining that the whole region of Tuscany is huge. You could fit 10 Provences inside of Tuscany. Not all of Tuscany is what Americans think of when they picture “Tuscany”.

There is only one part of Tuscany that contains the gentle, rolling hills covered with vines and olives that we have come to know as “Tuscany”.

Consequently, because the area is so large, you find yourself driving miles and miles and miles between the villages and the sights you want to see. It’s a lot of driving, I’m just warning you. I am going to begin by talking about things in Tuscany that you probably didn’t even know were in Tuscany.

1. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Allow yourself approximately 1.5 hours in the town of Pisa. This includes parking, walking to the tower, having your picture taken in front of the tower, sitting at a wine bar across the street from the tower and having a drink whilst staring at it and then leaving. That is all there is to do in Pisa. Really.

2. Carrera. This is the town near the coast where they mine carrera marble. We didn’t even get out of the car, but we did drive through and ogle the mountains looming over the town that look snow-covered. It is not snow. It is the blindingly white marble that they have been mining for over a hundred years from the tops of the mountains and selling to Americans to cover the walls of their bathrooms and their fireplace surrounds.

3. The city of Florence. We did not go there because we have friends coming to visit next summer and this city is on their itinerary so we didn’t want to spoil the surprise. I understand it is lovely and I am excited to visit.

Now, into the countryside that resembles what we think of as “the real Tuscany”. First, San Gimignano. Yes, it is really, really quaint. Yes, it is really, really crowded. Luckily, we arrived first thing in the morning, in the rain, so we were able to actually see the village. By the time we had walked all through the town and were on our way out, it had stopped raining.

People were, literally, POURING into the main arrival gate. It was crazy! Mr. Big and I were like, thank God we got here early! It was like Moses parting the Red Sea trying to fight our way out of the village but it was worth seeing. If you must stay in San Gimignano because you are the kind of person who wants to be right in the thick of things, stay in the hotel called Leon Bianco (White Lion) right in the city center. Great location and it looked very, very nice. Of course, you will probably have to bribe somebody to get a reservation at this place before 2015, but you can always live in hope.

We, however, did not stay in San Gimignano. The first night, on the way down the coast from Switzerland, we stayed in Rapallo, near Portofino. (This is not even in Tuscany, so I’m not going to talk about how fabulous it is in this blog entry. It is in the area directly north along the Mediterranean called Liguria.) The second night, after reaching Tuscany, we cruised into Castelfiorentino really late. As we usually do, we just started looking for a hotel that looked acceptable. We find one called Hotel Des Amis that had easy parking out front and Mr. Big makes me go inside to inquire about rooms. Does Mr. Big think that I know how to speak Italian? No. He knows that I do not speak Italian. But, as often happens in a long-term marriage, certain things become the domain of each partner. In our marriage, if the task involves interacting with actual live people, it is my job. If it involves the internet, it is Mr. Big’s job. You see how that works? If the task may possibly involve embarrassment and stumbling over language issues, it is my job. I do not know why this has become my job over the years. I just go ahead and do it. Sometimes, I think to myself, “Dude, why don’t I stay here in the car and YOU go make an ass of yourself?” But I have learned that it is not worth the argument and off I trudge.

OK. So, here I am in the Hotel Des Amis , which looks promising from the outside. Mr. Big is out in the car “saving” the primo-bitchin’ parking space that he has acquired. Once I stepped inside the foyer, I knew there may be some issues regarding this hotel. First, there was no one at the front desk, but that was not too weird, so I go searching for the desk clerk, or whomever. I haven’t even made into the room beyond the reception area when I am practically overrun by a dozen rugrats who are all about 7 years old. Well. This is unnerving because I am used to Swiss children who don’t make a peep, ever, even if being set on fire, and here were a dozen yelling, running, screaming Italian bambinis climbing in, on and over the reception desk, hanging from the draperies, you name it and they were attempting to scale it.

Apparently, the Hotel Des Amis was a family-run hotel and there was a birthday party of one of the children going on. Since the Mom and Dad of the Birthday Kid were busy corralling the ferrets, er, children, it was left to the Grandma and Grandpa to check us in, a service which they had not performed since the Second World War. BTW, if you are trying to Google this hotel, you will not find it on the internet. It does not exist in cyberspace. But, trust me, it is there. Anyway, via sign language and a little bit of Spanish (which is very close to Italian, thank God!), I tell Grandma that we need a room for one night. I point out to Grandpa Mr. Big’s strategic location across the plaza. Gramps insists on doddering out across the plaza to help Mr. Big with the luggage.

Meanwhile, Grandma is showing me up two flights of stairs to our room. WHOA! Lady, the 1940’s called and they want their room back! Y’all. There was a TV in this room from somebody’s garage sale. I took a picture of it. I haven’t seen one of these in forever. I asked about the internet and Grandma looked at me like I had 5 heads. Literally, I felt exactly like I was spending the night in my own Grandma’s house. If any of my Grandmas were still alive (which they aren’t), they would have felt right at home.

So, Mr. Big comes up the stairs with Grandpa and the luggage. I’m like, Mr. Big! Why are you letting Grandpa carry my bag up two flights of stairs? That nice little Italian man is going to need oxygen! Mr. Big gives me the look which means that I am really pushing my luck and his limits to their outer extremities. So, I shut up. I am not stupid.

Grandma pulls me aside, now that we are all one big happy family inside this bedroom!, into the bathroom. She tries to communicate to me in our Spanglish-Sign Language, that the plumbing is not so good. Don’t put anything in the toilet except those things which should normally go in a toilet. Got it, Granny. I will not try to flush Mr. Big’s head down there at any time during the ensuing evening. Finally, after Granny and Gramps depart, we, of course, crack up and fall back upon the bed in relief.

Ouch! Big mistake! The mattress, it would appear, had also not been replaced since 1946. It was so hard that we were getting bruised just laying on it. It was like reclining on a slab of concrete, except the concrete would have been just a hair more comfortable.

Next time I will tell you about our favorite village in Tuscany, Greve in Chianti. We did not stay there, either, but that is a story for another day.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chalet Shopping

 Alright, everyone is dying to know what is going on with the Chalet Hunt.  This will be just like an episode of House Hunters International!  I will show you pictures of our top three choices and you help me decide which one to pick!  Where is our narrator, Suzanne Whang?  We need Suzanne Whang!  “Mr. Big and Trailing Spouse, a charming American ex-pat couple from Lausanne, Switzerland, have decided to purchase a chalet in the Swiss Alps because Mr. Big hates being a renter and being forced into complete silence every night after 10:30.  With the help of THREE DIFFERENT realtors, due to some arcane realty law in Switzerland that I don’t understand, this lovely duo will attempt to find the perfect mountaintop get-away.  Stay tuned!  We’ll be right back after this short break from our sponsors.

OK, obviously, I watch way too much HGTV.  Sorry.  Back on track.  The first place we looked at was in Champex Lac which is a teensy weensy village near Verbier.  The draw in Champex, (pronounced Shahn-pey), in my opinion, is that it sits on a little lake which freezes like a rock every winter, but then provides fishing/swimming/boating in the summer months.  Or, should I say summer DAYS, or, possibly, summer HOURS.  The village sits at 1465 meters which is about a mile high.  This summer the lake thawed on August 18th between the hours of noon and two.  That was a crowded day in Champex, let me tell you what.   The paddle boats were nut to butt.

Seriously, the locals do swim in the lakes here in Switzerland.  They even swim in the rivers.  Those would be the rivers that are full of snow melt and glacier water.  These are hearty, hearty people.  I got in Lac Leman three times this summer up to my rib cage.  Each time, I just kept hoping that my body was turning Swiss and that all of a sudden I wouldn’t think it was cold anymore.  Um, no.  My body was like, “Lady!  What is it that you are not getting about 45 degrees, eh?  You are old and you are now blue!  A blue, old woman in a bikini is just wrong, wrong, wrong.  Get the heck outta this ice bath and put some clothes back on, for the love of God!”

The chalet we looked at in Champex showed promise from the outside.  Here is the link on the internet:  http://www.valimmobilier.ch/objets/show/94-champex-maison-villa-chalet-vente.  (As with all other websites in Switzerland, the “English” option in the upper right is just a teaser.  Nothing is in English.  You can click “English” all you want, but it is not going to make one whit of difference.  Just deal with it.)

This charming abode was right on the lake and it had the “look” of the typical chalet that I was going for.  You know, like Heidi could come skipping across the lawn any moment, holding a small wheel of cheese whilst leading a goat pack.  In addition to the listing agent, the owner of the home was also on hand to show us around her Grand-Pere’s home.  Yes, the chalet had only ever been in one family since Grand-Pere built it in 1935.  And, no her name was not Heidi.  Durn.  I might have bought it on the spot.  The Swiss never sell anything.  Boat slips, chalets, land, nothing.  Once they can finally afford to actually own something here, they hang onto it, baby.  99 year mortgages are the norm.  Not kidding.  99 years.  In America, we own houses about as long as they own a pair of socks.

So, nothing had been touched in this chalet since 1935.  They did put a new roof on in the 1970’s which the Owner Who Was Not Named Heidi kept referring to proudly as if it were put on yesterday.  I’m like, hey, Not Heidi, you might want to find another selling point besides your 40-year-old roof.  Whatever.

 I am going to attach a picture of the stove.  I’m sure it is worth some money.  Not to ME, but to some dealer in obscure wood-burning appliances, perhaps.  The doorways were tiny, the ceilings were only 8 ft. high.  It was a complete gut-and-redo.  I don’t mind renovation, but we were talking about serious, serious deconstruction and reconstruction as in turning a three-story Habitrail into a two-story house.

The Owner Who Was Not Named Heidi kept pointing out the paneling on all of the walls, floors, ceilings, etc.  She was quite proud of her paneling.  It was tres original, it was tout en bois, (all solid wood).  In my head, I’m thinking, it is tout en ugly and it will soon be firewood if I buy this place, You Who Are Not Heidi.

The views were awesome, though.  And the location was excellent.  I mean, it was right smack dab in the center of the village.  The ski bus from Verbier stopped right out front.  My drunken, skiing, partying twentysomething-year-old children would never have to drive anywhere, everything was available right in the village or in the larger resort of Verbier via the bus system.  Our family had already stayed in Champex one Christmas and skied for a week and our kids had had no problem making friends in just the short time that we were there with some other kids from Wales.  In short, the question became, will Mr. Big spring for three quarters of a mill for basically a plot of land and a cute village?

Well, we don’t know, do we, until we see the other two choices?  Ha.  I am evil, I know.