Sunday, June 15, 2014

Studying French – in France

We had studied French for many years, off and on, at the local community college.  The class schedule at the college was changed to a time that was difficult for us, so we ended up dropping out.  It’s difficult to keep your interest in a language without some structure, so we were slowly losing what little proficiency we had.

One of the many email lists I had signed up for was one from French Affaires, a business run by a woman in Dallas.  She puts together some trips for clients, and leads tours.  She is definitely a Francophile, with a Ph.D. in French.  I saw an email from her last fall proposing a two-week trip to Provence, with language classes in the mornings. The classes would be at the IS in Aix – we found out later that IS stands for Institut Suedois, or Swedish Institute, as it was founded for Swedes who want to learn French.  (Don’t be fooled by the English home page.)  In the afternoons and on weekends the group from French Affaires would have some excursions planned, some group meals, etc. We were really interested in the classes. 

After discussing it with my wife, I contacted Elizabeth New Seitz, the lady who runs French Affaires, and asked if the tour still had seats.  It did, so we decided to go ahead.  We found out later that the trip was very popular and she had lots of people hoping someone would cancel.

One of the first things we were asked to do was to complete an exercise for the Institute.  There were questions in French, and we were to answer as best we could.  The exercise was supposed to be used to determine what level we were at, so we would be grouped with students with similar skills.  The institute has students from all over the world, with varying degrees of expertise.  So we did that, and emailed them off.  Never heard a word about it afterwards.

We had an hour or so meeting with Elizabeth, where all the people going on the trip got together.  It was at a building near SMU (may have been part of SMU).  She went over the basics of how we would get to class, what time the classes were, and other things relating to the trip.  While we were responsible for our own travel arrangements, Elizabeth was very proactive in recommending flights, and warning us of schedule changes.  She arranged transportation to/from the airport in France.  The school is in Aix-en-Provence, around 30 minutes drive from the Marseille airport, under normal conditions.

As it happened, we were dealing with some difficulties at home which could conceivably have caused us to have to cancel this trip.  I did purchase some trip insurance, looking for both a reimbursement on expenditures and also possibly having to leave in the middle for some reason, but none of that happened. 

So the day for the trip came quickly.  The day before, there were storms where we live, and our power went out.  We were able to report the outage via cell phone to Oncor, and were given an estimate of 10 AM the next day – the day we were leaving.  Fortunately, it was a cool day.  We went out to eat dinner (not that there was a choice) and while we were eating I got a text from Oncor saying they had fixed something and our power should be back.  When we got home it was fine. 

Our itinerary had us going from Dallas/Ft Worth (DFW) to London Heathrow (LRH) to Marseille (MRS).  The first flight was on an American Airlines 777.  They dragged their feet about boarding the plane, and the gate agent had a major attitude.  After a while they halted boarding, and in fact unboarded everyone who had boarded.  They needed to change a tire on the plane.  This took over an hour.  We had a very long layover in Heathrow, five hours or so, and we had no worries about missing a connection, but some of the passengers did.  We were on a newer model 777, with an extra seat in each row of coach.  It was pretty unpleasant.  The flight crew made one pass with the beverage cart, after the meal cart.  That was it for 9+ hours.  The seat belt sign remained illuminated for the entire flight, except for a few minutes.

We got to Heathrow only a little late.  We landed at Terminal 3, and our next flight was out of Terminal 1.  I had thought we could hang around in the Admiral’s Club for a while, but to get to it we would have to go through the check point, and our boarding pass was for T1, so I didn’t even try.  Given our long connection time, we probably could have done it.  Instead, we boarded a bus to go to Terminal 1, which drove around the bowels of the airport for quite some time.  Not the most attractive welcome to London. 

Since we were connecting to an onward flight to another country, we were not required to be admitted to the UK.  This was fortunate, because the lines at passport control were very long.

We got to T1, and had to go through security.  I failed to take out my iPad from my carry-on, and got a thorough inspection along with a tongue-lashing from a security agent.  We didn’t get along.  Afterwards, Jody and I found a restaurant that was serving breakfast, and had a good meal with some hot tea. 

We had to wait a long time in Terminal 1, and they don’t post the gate number until they are just about ready to board.  Our flight to Marseille was delayed, but there was no indication of that on the board – they just didn’t post the gate.  Eventually, the gate was posted, after our scheduled departure time, and off we went.  The flight from LRH to MRS was very nice, and they even provided a little snack.  They had something vegetarian available as well.  I always enjoy flying British Airways – they helped me out tremendously when I injured myself in Ireland back in 2000, and had to rely on their help in London to get around the connecting airport (then Gatwick).  When I have a choice I fly with them.

We got to Marseille and had two vans waiting to take us to Aix.  On our way to Aix, the vans were rerouted by the police and delayed because, we found out later, there had been a head-on collision on the road we were supposed to take, with three fatalities.  So we went to Aix by some back roads, and the drivers had to get their phones out and look at some maps because they had no idea where they were.

On arrival at our hotel, Elizabeth greeted us and we were assigned our rooms, or, more accurately, our apartments.  Ours was the first one off the lobby on the ground floor, but it was not noisy or anything.  We quickly dropped off our stuff and rejoined the group, who were heading out to dinner.  We had a long dinner with a fair amount of very good Cote de Provence rosé, and got to bed at around 10.  Very, very tired, but excited.  The room was nice, with a very comfortable bed, adequate storage, a well equipped kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, microwave, etc.  Internet was via an Ethernet cable.  The internet was not great, but it was usable.  It was interesting how many US websites don’t come up in France – I guess they don’t like a non-US IP address.

The one downside of the apartment was that they gave us one flimsy towel each, plus a hand towel.  We use better towels at home to clean up cat puke.  It was a constant source of amusement among our group.  Some went to Monoprix (think French Target) and bought some towels.

On Monday morning, after breakfast at the hotel, Elizabeth led us over to the school.  We were sent to different rooms, but most of us were in the same classroom, which included people who had no French at all.  I was disappointed.  They had us fill out some questionnaires, similar to what we had filled out earlier.  Nobody looked at them as far as I could tell.  Then we were called out one at a time to speak with one of the teachers.  I met with a woman named Felicia for a few minutes, and she asked me a variety of questions, in French, which I answered as well as I could, not having practiced French in a couple of years.  She said I was far from a debutante.  I could have told her that, but ‘debutante’ is one of those French words that have been adopted in English but have a different meaning.  She meant I was not a beginner.  Somehow she had been told that I was.

We came back after a break to find our class assignment.  They have groups from 1 to 9, with 1 being little to no French and 9 being the best.  I was level 5; Jody was in 3.  While I missed not having Jody sitting next to me in class, it was probably better for both of us not to have each other to lean on.

My class had 9 people.  We had three Americans, including me, one of whom was from the French Affaires group and one was from somewhere in California (she had a mumbling problem and I couldn’t understand her in French or English). We had two Swiss, one of whom was also an Italian citizen, and the other was from the part of Switzerland that speaks Romansch, a Latin-like language, and whose name was Pius, after Pope Pius XII, who died the day he was born.  (Pius is not a Catholic.) We had a Swede, Anders, who sat next to me, and we became fast friends.  He was very reserved, very formal, but had a very dry and very wicked sense of humor.  There were three young women, one from the Netherlands, one from Japan, and one from South Korea.  The Asian girls were really hard to understand, and the Korean girl disappeared after a while.  Among this group, the only common language was French.

The class was intense.  The teacher spoke only French, and it came out in a torrent.  At home, our French classes in the evenings were taught by an American, and while her French is excellent, she does not speak one tenth as fast as a native French speaker.  It was really, really difficult to force yourself to listen to the incredibly fast stream of words. 

As a beginning exercise, we each were asked to speak for a few moments about our hometown.  We were given a few minutes to prepare.  It’s very hard for me to speak extemporaneously, or nearly so, but to do it in French is ridiculously difficult.  I had to remind myself that I would never see any of these people again so it didn’t matter how badly I did. I found that my ability to form sentences in French was weak – I could handle the present tense pretty well, and the passé composé, but my vocabulary is very limited, and it was very frustrating.  I have memorized a lot of key phrases and sentences over the years, but having to come up with something from scratch was really, really difficult.

The other students were pretty much in the same boat, but some of the Europeans already spoke two or three or four languages so their adjustment was much quicker.  The two Asian girls had a hard time.  One dropped out pretty quickly.  The other I couldn’t understand at all.  She just didn’t do consonants.  While I find French difficult, someone whose native language is not an Indo-European language is going to have a very hard time learning French.

The classes had some exercises that were handed out, and we would take turns doing them.  This was not like our French in Action classes in Texas where the answers are in the back of the book.  I struggled with things I thought I should already know, but in a different context, it was very hard to recall things when I needed them.  I was not alone.

One interesting thing about the IS is that they assign two teachers for each class, and they alternate days.  This really worked well – they obviously were used to collaborating in this manner and never missed a beat, but the interesting thing was that you had a different voice speaking to you (in French, of course) each day.  It helped us to focus and made it easy not to tune out the speaker.  And these ladies were intense, and animated, and made eye contact with everyone, and made everyone participate no matter how reluctant they were to participate. 

There was no textbook but there were well thought out exercises.  There were some audio clips to listen to, and some video.  They would run them once and start asking questions, and got nothing but blank looks until they ran the clip a second or sometimes a third time.  That was difficult for all of us.

We also had homework!  This was a problem for the members of the French Affaires group, because Elizabeth had all these wonderful outings and activities planned for us during many of the afternoons and evenings, and we had paid for these activities, but it left us with minimal time to do homework.  We ended up doing our homework in between breakfast (which began at 7 AM at the hotel) and the start of class at 9 AM.

There is something wrong with being pressed for time to do homework when you are supposed to be on vacation.  We have to think this one over next time. 

The biggest challenge for most of the students was that we had to do a presentation, on any topic we chose.  Amazingly, Anders (the Swede) volunteered to do his right away, ex tempore.  He was really good.  I needed some time to prepare, and the first topic I tried to research didn’t pan out.  There has been lots of discussion in the media about how Americans don’t have passports and don’t travel internationally.  There are statistics available to back this up.  I wondered if other countries had anything close to this.  Does everyone on Switzerland have a passport?  How about Italy, or Japan?  I could not find any articles on the Internet about this topic except about the USA.  But the one point I could make was that having a passport was exceptional, for an American.

I then launched into the topic of how I got my second passport (Ireland), figuring that if you had one passport you were an exception, then having two made you and exception to the exception.  So I prepared as best I could some notes about how I got my Irish passport, what documents were needed, how I got them, how some could not be gotten due to the explosion and fire at the central records repository in Dublin during the civil war, and so forth.  I did a terrible job of saying all of this in French, but they didn’t kick me out. 

Some of the other presentations were much worse.

During the second week, the pace picked up.  We had to do another short presentation, on an article in a journal from our country, and we had lots and lots of exercises and lots of homework. The classrooms were set up seminar style, which promoted conversation and eye contact. 



I haven’t talked a lot about our non-class activities, which were extensive, because I wanted to talk about the experience of studying French in France in a true international setting.  I expected a lot, and it exceeded my expectations.  But I still can’t speak French worth a damn.  A little better than before, though. 

Once our classes were over, we had an early morning van ride to the Marseille airport.  I found out that one of our group really spoke French well, when the van driver started talking about how the American forces in WWII had been all over this area.  He spoke too quickly for me, but one lady in our group had a French mother, and she was all over it.

Our trip home was okay.  A shorter layover in Heathrow helped, as did access to the Admiral’s Club. One smart thing we did was to hire a car service for our ride to/from DFW airport, so we didn’t have to drive while totally exhausted. 












Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fear and Loathing - Montpelier - 7 (and final)


On my last day at the Vermont client, I was flying home from Burlington to Washington Reagan to DFW. There was a complication in that the first lady was visiting Burlington, and the local streets around BTV were subject to closure from mid afternoon on - my flight was at 5:10. The first lady was coming for a fund raiser – there was no need to campaign in the People’s Republic of Vermont.

I looked at my FlightCaster iPhone app (really good app) and saw that my BTV/DCA flight was described as 'probably delayed' due to late inbound aircraft, on account of an earlier mechanical. My connection time at DCA was not very long, but it is a compact airport and the distance between gates is not bad.  (They also have a Potbelly Sandwich Works, which I really like.) So, with a possibly compromised flight, and concern about not even being able to get to the airport, I bailed work and went to BTV early.

I checked with the US Airways ticket counter, and the young lady said my connection was right on the edge. She rebooked me BTV/PHL/DFW. The connection in PHL was an hour or so, but I would be arriving at the dreaded commuter terminal F, so no slacking around.

The Air Wisconsin RJ sat for a while awaiting sequencing, passed by Michelle Obama's plane (spiffy looking 757), and headed south. About halfway there I could feel it slowing. Then I saw the same golf course out the window a couple of times. The captain came on and said PHL was not accepting any aircraft for landing. Storms? Lots of clouds and haze but no storms in the forecast. They gave no explanation as to why Philadelphia was not accepting aircraft.

Eventually we resumed course.

When we landed we passed a B-747 with 'United States of America' on the side. Yes, Air Force One had PHL shut down completely for a while.

I barely made it to my connection, getting there just as they were boarding, not stopping to pick up something to eat.  I got stuck in the window bulkhead seat on an A-319 Scarebus, which is as claustrophobic as it gets.  The plan sat at the gate for 90 minutes as PHL tried to recover from the effects of the presidential closure. We had another delay because the tug that was pushing us back broke down.

But the drinks were free in coach.  I had a can of almonds for dinner.

(Know anyone else who flies from Washington to Philadelphia?)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fear and Loathing - Montpelier - 6


My worst travel day was fairly early on during my treks back and forth to Montpelier, Vermont.  One Thursday, getaway day, I had an email from US Airways about a flight cancellation.  To their credit, the email was postmarked 5:24 AM, which was nearly 12 hours prior to the time of the flight.  The cancelled flight was from Burlington to Washington Reagan (DCA).  The email said to call their 800 number.   As it happened, some executives from the Dallas office were in the guest house that week, and I alerted them to what was going on.  But I think they went on United through Chicago, because I didn't see them later.

What I learned was that US Airways had a mechanical cancellation, and did not have another aircraft available to fill in, and they knew it well ahead of time.  They rebooked me on another US Airways flight to Philadelphia, and from there I was booked on an Airbus to Dallas/Fort Worth.  Okay, fine.  The departure was a little earlier than what I had planned.  I had an hour to connect at Philadelphia.

I got on the flight to PHL, and it was a tiny plane, a CRJ, operated by Air Wisconsin.  I have had nothing but bad experiences with Air Wisconsin dating back to a couple of trips to Battle Creek back in the 80's, and this was no exception.  They boarded on time, and pushed back, but then parked over to the side somewhere awaiting sequencing into Philadelphia.  By the time the plane took off, nearly all of my hour was gone.  But, I figured, flight times are always less than what the timetable says, so I still have a chance.

The plane, unfortunately, went to the USAirways satellite terminal at PHL, the dreaded terminal F.  F as in ‘First Circle of Hell’, although other people choose a different word beginning with F.  From there you have to take a bus over to the regular terminal.  With my flight being late, and with crowding in the terminal itself, I arrived at my gate with only ten minutes to spare.

They had shut the door and were boarding no more passengers.  Technically, if you aren’t there fifteen minutes prior to departure, they can give away your seat, even if it’s their fault you were late.  They would do nothing for me.  I was stuck.

I called the 800 number I had called earlier, and they said I was booked on a flight the next morning.  It was only around 5 PM so I couldn’t believe they could not get me home, and I planned to work the next day.  I was just starting on this contract and wanted to show that I could work from home one day a week.

After some back and forth, US Airways pushed me over to a Delta flight that was going to Atlanta.  At Atlanta, I would have a 90 minute connection to a flight to DFW.  I felt pretty good about that.  I went to the gate, and they were boarding on time.  I have no status on Delta, and it was obvious my roller bag would need to be checked, so I checked it.  My seat on the B-737 was in the next to the last row, in the window.  I hate the window, but fine.

As the plane filled up, a man the size of Larry Allen took the middle seat, next to me.  He was supposed to be one row back, but that seat had been claimed by a child whose parent would otherwise have been separated.  My guy went along with it.  He was huge, and he was not fat, just very, very big.  I was being squeezed against the window as soon as he sat down.

The plane pushed back, went about a hundred yards from the gate, and sat there.  No announcement came from the crew.  The flight attendants paced around but had no information.  Finally, the captain came on and said they were having a problem with the computer.  They were trying to enter the fuel information, and the system was telling them they had to fill out some form and have it approved, and they didn’t have the form.  The irony was, according to the captain, Delta had been paperless for six months.  So we went back to the gate, and they took care of the paperwork.  By this time my back was in need of a transplant from the Larry Allen sized guy sitting next to me.  I am not small, but this guy was twice my size.

The plane left for Atlanta an hour and a half late.  Remember I had 90 minutes to connect. They lost some more time due to ATC in Atlanta, and I missed my second connection of the day.  Plus, I couldn’t stand up straight. 

The next task was to find a place to stay.  A bunch of us went to the Delta service counter, and they were taking the position that the delay was on account of ATC.  I was very happy that another guy got to set them straight.  He was forceful, but if it had been me, I probably would have ended up on the no-fly list for the rest of my life, or they would have reopened Andersonville.  At any rate, we got hotel vouchers.

Delta has a rebooking computer thing, and I got my new itinerary for the next day.  They were sending me on a tour of the old Northwest route system (Delta and Northwest merged a few years back).  They were sending me from Atlanta to La Guardia, then Detroit, then to Minneapolis, then to DFW.  I might have missed one.  It was a mileage runner’s dream.  I went to the service desk and basically said this is what the computer gave me.  The woman checked, just shook her head in amazement, and said all the nonstops the next day were open and I could have any of them.  I chose 8:30.

Off to the hotel.  We had a jam packed van, and I had to stand.  We got to the hotel, and had a very long wait in line while two clerks had a contest as to who could go slower.  Both won.  (All the customers were white men; the clerks were black women.)  I finally got to my room one-ish.

I set my travel alarm, and the alarm in the room, and asked for a wake-up call.  But I still slept poorly and woke up in the dark much too early.  I saw on my phone that they had wi-fi, and got out my laptop to play with it.  I looked up the hotel I was in (Comfort Inn North) and read up on it.  The hotel was given extremely bad ratings on account of bedbugs.

I saw no evidence of bedbugs, and I didn’t bring any home.

That morning I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight, and used my meal voucher for a nice breakfast.  Atlanta TSA were nice.  My flight was on an MD-80, and I got the two side to myself.  My wife was gracious enough to pick me up at around 9:30 AM Central.  Delta paged me, while I was waiting for my bag, because I had left my book in the seat pouch in front of me. 

I met some former co-workers for lunch that day.  The first guy that saw me asked if there was something wrong with my back.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fear and Loathing on the Way to Montpelier - 5


My luck traveling back and forth via Burlington was not very good.  I was able to get to Burlington pretty consistently, but the return was never routine.  Even on the outbound leg, there was always something going on about the drive over to Montpelier.  It might be precipitation – which was a problem in that it wasn’t usually rain.  After the weather got a little warmer, that snow started to melt, and late at night you would get pretty heavy fog.  Heavy fog, the dark, and roads you’re not familiar with make for a tough trip.  There was so little traffic on I-89 South that you couldn’t follow someone’s tail lights in the hope that they, at least, knew where they were going.  There were no other cars!

So I would often arrive at the guest house, at 10:30 or 11:00 at night, completely wired from the drive.  I didn’t want to take anything for sleep, because I usually feel like I’m in a daze the next day when I do that, so it would take forever to go to sleep.  Not an ideal situation for a consultant to show up for work totally exhausted.

I had toyed with the idea of traveling via Bradley International, aka Hartford.  I could get a non-stop on American, rent a car, and get to Montpelier in three hours.  I decided to try it once daylight savings time started, to give myself a chance to get there before it was totally dark.

My trip up on American was nice.  I had an aisle seat on a B-737.  I got some lunch at the Admiral’s Club at DFW, a chicken quesadilla.  It was Easter Sunday.  The plane got to Hartford on time, and I quickly (no checked bag) went to the Hertz off-airport location.  Bradley is a small airport and is easy to manage.  I got the car and followed the signs to the interstate.  I had hooked up my iPhone with an aux cable to the jack in the car, so I had some music to listen to. 

The drive was not all that enjoyable, but it was okay.  I stopped at a rest stop after crossing into Vermont, and it was just a rest stop.  Bathrooms and vending machines and some benches, nothing else.  I continued up I-91 and then I-89, but in Vermont it seemed that every bridge was being worked on.  The weather there beats up on the highways, and especially the bridges.  There are a lot of bridges because the state is mountainous and there are lots of little creeks and rivers you cross, and the interstate basically is in the valley carved out by the Connecticut River.  Nobody where I live has ever heard of it, but the Connecticut River is a big deal.  Every bridge was down to one lane, and sometimes the one lane was more like three fourths of a lane.  They can’t work on the roads in the winter, and they try to fix everything before the summer vacation season.

Traffic was very light, but most of it was trucks.  I wound into Montpelier just as it was getting dark.  On Easter everything was closed, except Shaw’s, the supermarket, and it was getting ready to close.  I ran in there and got some frozen something to cook in the guest house’s microwave.  And some wine.

So this night I got some decent sleep, and showed up for work in a better condition than other times.  I wasn’t sure this three hour drive thing would work, though.  I’m not a good long distance driver – whenever we go anywhere of any distance it seems my wife drives more than I do.  (Except in Ireland – that’s another story.)

At the end of the week, I left the office after lunch on Thursday.  My flight from BDL (Bradley International) left a little before 6 PM, and I felt I needed to allow an hour for rental car return and getting to the terminal, and then allow for security, and have a cushion.  Let me tell you – giving yourself extra time while traveling is the most important thing you can do for yourself.

I drove south on I-89, which is kind of a winding road for an interstate.  It follows the aforementioned Connecticut River, which is a winding river.  About half an hour south of Montpelier it was drizzling.  Up ahead, I saw a big bird in a field.  It was a wild turkey!  I had never seen one before.   It was a nice looking bird, but I was driving 65 miles per hour on a slightly wet road, so I couldn’t look at the bird.  The next thing I saw was this huge bird flying straight into the front of my rental.  One bad thing about cruise control – if I had my foot on the gas, I would have slammed on the brake and missed the bird, but I didn’t react fast enough.  The turkey crashed into the front of the car, and feathers flew everywhere.  He bounced off my car and hit in front of another car behind me – the one who might well have crashed into me had I slammed on the brake to miss the bird.

A short distance ahead there was a rest stop.  I pulled over to see what I could see.  What I saw was a hood with a dent big enough to rest a basketball in, but nothing leaking out. There were no warning lights and the car seemed to be running okay.  I called Hertz to report the accident.  They seemed to want me to take the car to the nearest Hertz facility, which was probably back in Burlington, where I wasn’t going.  They asked what was the closest major city.  I chose to define ‘major’ as ‘more than 50,000 people’, so I replied “Montreal, and I don’t have my passport.”  We decided I would continue to BDL.

As I crossed the border into Massachusetts, the sky opened up.  It was a torrential rain, an absolute frog drowner.  I was on the interstate with, for the most part, 18 wheelers, throwing up huge amounts of spray.  I could not stop, because I was trying to catch a flight home.  It was raining so hard that under any other circumstance I would have pulled over.  But I did have to reduce my speed considerably.

Finally, after about half an hour of storm, it eased off.  When I got to Hartford I found a gas station and filled up my poor damaged rental.  I drove to Hertz, and there were two ladies waiting for cars to come back and be checked in.  They just looked at me and didn’t say a word.  I said: “A wild turkey”.  One of them replied, “You’re the second one today”.  Oddly, that did make me feel a little better. 

I had declined the coverages, stupidly, because the client would have paid for them without question.  The damage ended up around $750, about half of which was paid by insurance, although they have raised my rates every six months ever since.

When I got to the airport, I did something I rarely do.  I went into the bar and had a Sam Adams.  When that was gone, I had another.  I bought a chicken sandwich on the plane.  I was fortunate to have my wife pick me up at DFW.

I did not book my flights through Hartford any more.

Throughout Vermont, they have signs on the road warning you about various kinds of wildlife.  Moose warnings, deer warnings, even bear warnings.  I never saw a turkey warning.

I needed to see one.