Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Anglophone Musings about Paris

We just saw "Midnight in Paris" again.  This makes the second time that we have seen it since we arrived in Paris six weeks ago.  Classic Woody Allen.  A charming and enjoyable film, and not so deep that it plumbs uncharted depths of philosophical complexity.  I can only take so much "Rashomon" anyway.  But this film did make me think some more about ideas that have been wandering around my head for a while.

The protagonist is a successful screenwriter who makes good money pumping out trash scripts.  He goes to Paris with his shallow fiancee and intended in-laws.  Here, in the City of Light, he connects with his muse, the author within escapes, and his artistic creativity begins to take wing.  At the stroke of each midnight, he is picked up not by a pumpkin coach, but by a gorgeous car from the 1920s.  He is transported to Jazz Age Paris, where he meets Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and all the other artistic, expatriate luminaries in Paris at that time.  He decides to chuck it all and stay in Paris.  In present-day Paris, not the 1920s city to which he traveled through a time warp.  If you haven't yet seen "Midnight in Paris," I haven't really spoiled anything for you.  Even I saw this one coming a mile away, and I am among the more clueless of film watchers.

Here's the thing:  The screenwriter speaks not a word of French.  Not one word.

I wonder what this writer's life would be like here.

I don't speak French either, but I do know a few words.  Most of them somehow relate to ordering things in restaurants.  Vin rouge, mousse au chocolat, pommes frites, croissants.  The true essentials!  And combining an expectation of what things are likely to say with cognates from Spanish and from English, I can decipher a fair number of written things.  I can shop in the Carrefour supermarket.  But beyond that, well, not so much.  It is a bit frustrating, in a way that I never felt during any of our short visits here over the years.

It is hard to engage beyond a certain point.  It is like trying to move a bigger wheel with small gear teeth, where I can't get the mesh that I would like.  Grinding my gears and spinning my wheels.  The tourist world here accommodates the non-French speaker.  In Spain and South America, I don't have this problem.  I get along reasonably well in Portuguese.  I can eavesdrop in Spanish as well as carry on conversations.  I have big Spanish gear teeth!

Many things here therefore remain beyond reach.  Around the corner from us here in Montmartre there is a small stage theater.  It just closed a run of Jean Cocteau's play, La Voix Humaine.  In that play, one person talks on the telephone.  That's the whole thing!  There is no way that we can understand that, so we didn't see it.

Don't get me wrong.  Penny and I are both enjoying our time in Paris.  But I don't think that I would want to live here long term unless I had a job that brought me here, or unless I first acquired some conversational proficiency upon which to build some good gear teeth to mesh with what goes on here.

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