Uniquely Louisiana French (and English!)

Uniquely Louisiana French, and Part Two of Louisiana English à la française!

In the exciting follow-up to my article from last year, I want to share some of the things that I have recently  learned are “uniquely Louisiana French” expressions.  As may already be evident by now, we speak a bit differently here, even in the way we use English.  However, some of our French expressions are also unique to this area and not used anywhere else in the French-speaking world, which by the way is big, involving over 40 countries!

Français à la Louisianaise

Café du Monde by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash

Last time, I mentioned our use of a 19th century word, banquette, which here is the sidewalk, and now the French of L’hexagone use differently (the meaning now refers to a small bench).  Yet another expression that we use, that no one outside of New Orleans uses, is vieux carré, meaning “old square”.  We call the old historical part of our city, the downtown area, this way, even though it is more like a rectangle really, a set of original streets laid out in a grid pattern, 14 by 8 blocks, a configuration which hasn’t changed since 1725.  It is a logical way to call the area, and yet we equate it with meaning “the old city” or “the historical district”.  That does not quite work the same way in Europe, where old, historical cities were built in a different way, with more winding roads and starbursts.  If we were to use this term with French speakers in Europe or elsewhere, they will likely wonder what we mean by it.  

Another (possibly) obvious New Orleaneanism is our motto: Laissez les bons temps rouler.  This is a likely translation, from English into French this time.  We say “let the good times roll” in English, but in fact this is not a sentence one would likely say in French.  For as my dear Philippe says, “good times don’t ‘roll’ in French”.  Refer back to Part One of this series, times “pass” in French.  We can “passer un bon temps”, but not roll it.  It had never occured to me after all these years in Louisiana that this would not be possible to say in French. Imagine my surprise!

English “New Orleans Style”

Moving on to more English expressions that are unique to New Orleans, and possibly with French roots, there is the very colorful way that we order our sandwiches.  Here in New Orleans, we order our sandwiches “dressed”, which means served with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.  I always wondered why non-locals looked perplexed at the question.  Does no one else out there order their sandwiches dressed?  (Please tell me in the comments section below!) If not, what do they say, then, when they want all the usual stuff on it?  After much research and discussion with French speakers, we came to the conclusion that there is a culinary equivalent, “habiller” (to dress), used when preparing poultry or other things, by removing innards, feathers, etc.  It would seem that the idea is to “dress it up”, in other words, “make it pretty”.  It sounds like a logical conclusion to me; although, I doubt that the French order their sandwiches “habillés”.  

A student of mine once asked me if there was some French correlation to the expression used locally for putting away the dishes, which here is “save the dishes”.  I think it is possible that it could have come either from the translation of  “garder” (to keep or save, for example “garder la  maison”, to take care of the house) or from “ménager” (“to keep, save, manage” as in “ménager son bien” manage or conserve one’s fortune”).  Le ménage is the household, and let us not forget that faire le ménage means to clean or sweep or tidy the household.  I can not say for sure where the Louisiana expression came from, but I hope some of my readers can shed some light on this for me.

When we want to say “over there”, in Louisiana we say “up the road” as in “my friend lives up the road a bit.”  It is more or less the same in French, en haut de la rue.  Additionally, when we want to say “that day or week in the past”, we say “that week there” just like in French, ce jour-là, cette semaine-là, (literally that day there, that week there).

There’s one that I cannot determine yet, but may add an update here if I can get some information from those of you who are locals out there.  In French to say the day of the week, it is either aujourd’hui c’est.. (today is..) and the name of the day of the week, or nous sommes… and the day.  This last one translates as “we are… “,  as in “We are Monday.”  Do any Louisiana locals say that?  I have a feeling that it is something that may be said here, but I cannot be sure. 

This last one was recently brought to my attention (Thanks, Faye!).  When we “pass by your house” here in Louisiana, we may also say that we are not “going to get down”. That is our way of saying that we are coming by to see you, but not getting out of the car.  That also comes directly from the French who use the verb descendre (literally: to descend, go down) to say “get out of (a car or bus)”.

I love the charming, colorful way that people speak here.  It is like its own foreign language in America, centered on this little tiny space in the deep South, on this tropical island, the northernmost city of the Caribbean.  French is so integrated into our daily lives here that we are not always even aware of it. When I have pointed out some of the similarities in the way we speak here to the French my students are learning, they are often amazed. It is in our blood, in our lifestyles, and it is a vital part of our identity. 

Vieux Carré street sign
by Naveen Venkatesan on Unsplash

If there is anything to add, please write to me in the comments.  If you have any questions about local Louisiana expressions that you think might be of French origin, also please write me here and I can look into it for you!

I Heard the Owl…

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, but Margaret Craven

This is a classic which I first read during my bachelor’s program in the spring of 1995.  I have since read it several times with some of my ESL students, and each time we did a very close read, discussing themes and topics along the way. With every new reading, I am reminded of how deeply philosophical it is, how it emphasizes the strength and importance of community, and how a village is really like an extended family.  I am moved every time by the reading. This is really the kind of book that a person might reflect upon from time to time for years to come, and a great book to enjoy at a time like this, so isolated and separated from our own communities.

Photo by Keith Lazarus on Unsplash

Based on a true story, it is the life of a priest, Mark, who unbeknownst to him is dying, of what exactly the reader never knows.  Due to this unfortunate news regarding the young vicar, the bishop decides to send him to his most difficult parish, the remote Native American village of Kingcome, in the Pacific Northwest.  The bishop knows that Mark has a lot yet to learn and wants to help him do so as quickly as possible because he does not have a lot of time left.  The post will be a challenging one for Mark, and even the trip to arrive there is arduous. He will have to go from one boat to an even smaller boat upriver, through mountains, not to mention the harsh climate he will have to endure, the isolation, and the task of understanding or getting to know the villagers.  However, Mark is wise and patient.  He knows the value of waiting and keeping silent, listening.  Over time he learns more about them, while never fully understanding them, as even he admits. He does in the end, however, end up being respected and even loved by the villagers who mourn his passing in the traditional ceremonial way.  

Here is a place of myth, of old legends, where the river is life itself, linking all the other villages, the only way in or out, where the boat he drives becomes an extension of himself.  From chapter one we learn the meaning of the title, which also is a legend in which the owl will call the name of the man about to die.  Here nature is One with man, and they are all connected, and even dependent on each other.  We learn of the slow and steady bond growing between him and another Indian named Jim, of how important that bond becomes, of how much he has influenced the villagers and how much they have influenced him.  In fact, their influence on him was so great, Mark could not imagine returning to his world.  He was a changed man.  He would never again belong to the modern world, and worried a lot about when the time would come that he would have to return there.  

This book reminds me of the importance of stillness, or the simpler way of life, of how isolated we have become, in our own worlds separated from society. In the village they suffered together through the rains and the harsh winters, helping each other, sharing food, but in this modern society we have built for ourselves, we suffer alone.  The villagers seek to preserve their traditions and rites through dances and stories, but we throw away the old and replace it with new and shiny.  The only other man in the village not a Native American was the teacher, who stayed apart from the others. At the death of Mark, he was unable to open the door to join the others, thinking that, “To join the others was to care, and to care was to live and to suffer.”  (158)  We shy away from death, hide it behind closed doors because the reality is scary.  We hide from life too often because being a part of it means risking loss, which is scary.  Yet, death is a part of life in the village, and everyone shares in it, takes part in the responsibility of it.  It is the cycle of life and a part of everyone and everything in the village.  

It is on the short list of books that have made me emotional.  I ended up absolutely loving the characters, especially Jim, Mrs. Hudson, Marta, and Keetah.  They are charming and caring and wise. This book is inspiring and philosophical, a truly memorable book to remind us of the essential things of life.  

***** This book is available for English Book Club**** See Courses for details.

Home, Sweet Home…

There’s no place like home.

While we are all sitting at home, confined inside our houses and apartments, it is a good time to think about the meaning of the word “home” and how it differs from “house”.  What does it really mean?  How many definitions are there and which, if any, is most accurate or correct?  Does every language have an equivalent, or even a different designation for house and home?  It was recently brought to my attention that in French this distinction can be made. For house, there is maison (which could also be home) or even domicile; otherwise there is foyer for home, but the usage is very specific and is a word that also refers to the hearth, or fireplace, words often used metaphorically for the warmth of the home.

Home is where the hearth is.
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Yet my question is really whether people think of the two words, house and home, differently or use them interchangeably without considering even a nuanced difference.  For me, a house is simply where you lay your head at night, but a home is something more abstract.  It is a feeling, or maybe even an ambiance.  For some people it may be where they were born, spent their formative years, where they had their first memories, where their family is now, or anywhere that their family currently is, or even any place that they are currently living.  They may go “home” for the holidays, to their childhood home, for example. However, if their parents moved somewhere, would they then have two homes? If not, would the new house be their new home, or would the old one forever be home and the new one just where their parents are now?  How do they choose? My family has moved 5 times since I was born, and my “home” is none of those places.  I do not have a single memory of the place where I was born, and the place where I spent my first 15 years in school is not special to me.   

How does a person feel when he is home? Does he have a different feeling when he is elsewhere?  If a person goes on vacation or goes to visit friends, does he have a different feeling in those places?  What can a person do to make the place where he lives feel “homey”?  For me, home is a place that I have chosen because it is a place where I have found myself to be most comfortable.  It is a place where I can be myself, where I am free to express myself, where everyone is so open about who they are that no one person stands out. It is a place welcome to all manners of lifestyle, and has been so throughout its entire history, so this welcoming attitude is really built into the fiber of the city, as if part of its “cultural genetics”.

This home of mine is a place that embraces three of the things I value most, food, community, and leisure. Food is celebration, as is evidenced by the fact that all of our festivals here involve, or even feature, food.  There are countless food festivals here, too many to mention, and we have nearly run out of weekends in the year for them.  We have a caring, warm, embracing community here. Neighbors speak to each other, look out for each other, smile sincerely and warmly as if they have known each other all their lives.  Shopkeepers remember their customers, remember their orders, say hi and even learn their names.  I have never felt so important as a customer anywhere else but here.  

As for leisure, it is a way of life, nay, it is an art form in this town.  We must move slowly here, being just too hot and soupy most of the year to bother being in a rush. It feels sometimes like walking through a pool of water thigh-high, my legs heavy and slow.  Yet, what is the rush? Our goal is to enjoy life, to the fullest, and our festivals are evidence of that, not many lasting less than an entire weekend.  Our meal times are an event.  I once spent 3.5 hours at a table in a restaurant.  We had long finished eating, but were too busy enjoying the conversation and finishing wine to realize the time that had passed.  That is the point.  The waiter never pressured us to finish our meal either.  

My porch with a book and coffee!

The pace of life is exceptionally slower here than other places I have been, like Tokyo or Paris, where I often felt pushed along with the current, adrift on a sea of people. The frenetic pace of cities like that was dizzying and left me feeling wind-blown.  Only after leaving Tokyo, 30 minutes into my train ride home and over two rivers, did I feel as if I could breathe again.  Where is everyone going in such a hurry?  For us here in the deep South, here in soulful New Orleans, porch-sitting is a local pastime.  I often sit on my porch, occasionally talk to neighbors walking by, watch the birds, breathe the banana-infused, Magnolia-soaked air, while reading a book with a nice hot cup of coffee next to me, letting the time slip by. I dreamt of that one day.  When I awoke, I smiled and said, “Yes, that is it. That is what I want.”  That is what home feels like to me.


I would love to hear your contributions!  Make a comment below and tell me what home means to you.

New Orleans, my love..

New Orleans Carrollton area

Andrei Codrescu is an essayist, novelist, poet and professor at Louisiana State University.  He is also a regular speaker on National Public Radio, and such a brilliant speaker! I first came to know him from an audio selection in the material used where I was teaching ESL in Houston.  I then discovered this book, New Orleans, Mon Amour, a collection of his essays, at the LSU bookstore. I completely fell in love with his style and his writing. His voice, his humor, his way of seeing things are all completely endearing.

He is Romanian by birth, but moved to America and eventually to New Orleans, his adopted city, around 1985, the year the essays in this collection start.  The essays are grouped by periods, chronologically, except for the first which is a kind of preface. In his essays he talks about everything from his being a newcomer and his amazement of the environment, his fascination with the cuisine, his observations of our festivals, the heat, the humidity, the spices.  He talks about his favorite spots, his corner bar, his first Mardi Gras, the first time he had crawfish. Over time he will even talk about the politics of the city and its corruption, elections, and crime. No stone is left unturned. For me, it is interesting to see my city from an newcomer’s point of view on the inside. 

What I love about his writing is his very poetic way of describing things.  He makes even the most mundane occurrence seem significant and often hilarious. When trying to choose a new book to work with one of my students, I picked this from the shelf for consideration.  I flipped open randomly to the page entitled: Alligators. I read a few lines and immediately began to laugh out loud!  He is languishing in the heat, lying in his hammock “with [his] mouth open, waiting for a ripe fig to fall off the tree into it.” All the while he is looking in the direction of a drainage ditch near LSU, when he observed an alligator, that apparently all the students know.   His description of the scene is absolutely perfect, and anyone who has been here can imagine it.  

New Orleans French Quarter
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

I realized very quickly that this book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand this city, its citizens, the culture and history of New Orleans and even for locals who want to enjoy an outsider’s view on the city.  It allowed me to observe things with fresh eyes, seeing things that I no longer noticed due to familiarity. It is also a perfect book to work with ESL students because it is divided into short essays making it manageable in an hour-long lesson.  Yet at the same time they are still fun to discuss and eloquently written. An English learner will learn culture and history while developing vocabulary and language skills beyond just academic essay style.

It is a wonderful text for any college-age or adult learner of English wishing to improve her reading and comprehension skills.  Even more than that, it is a brilliant book for the lover or New Orleans, anyone who has traveled here, lived here or who has dreamed of visiting one day.

**** Available as a ESL Book Club course**** See my Services page for details!!

Oh! A mystery of Mono no Aware

Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda

Another of the beautifully created books by Chin Music Press.  

Only very rarely have I ever purchased and read a book more than once. The first time I recall doing just that is with Phantom of the Opera.  The second, when my copy of Oh! was damaged in storage. I felt compelled to buy another because it was simply too beautiful a book to keep a damaged copy.  When my new copy arrived, I decided to read it again. It had been years since I had read it the first time. This is a deeply philosophical book involving the journey of a man seeking emotion in his life.  He feels as if he is simply going through the motions in life, in a boring job, in a loveless relationship, devoid of any meaning.  He feels numb, unable to sense strong emotion or to grasp feeling from the things he sees around him.  He drops everything to move to Japan in search of something but he knows not what.  

The narrator starts teaching in a language school but gets laid off because he did not have the proper visas for work.  It was there that he had met professor Imai, one of his students. He learns from the professor about mono no aware, a very complicated Japanese concept mostly applied to poetry and one that most younger Japanese do not understand anymore, involving an emotional response (usually sadness) to things around us.  A classic example of this is the Japanese cherry blossom, very beautiful flowers that bloom and fall in a very short period of time.  We have very little time to appreciate them before they are gone.  Mono no aware makes us respond with Oh!

Cherry blossoms in Japan

When professor Imai learns of the narrator’s search for feeling, he starts a series of tests for the narrator, sending him on little quests to check his responses to things.  This eventually leads the narrator down a very dangerous path where a curiosity of Aokigahara forest grows inside him, thrusting him deeper and deeper into the dark corners of Japan and leading him straight into the arms of Tokyo’s suicide clubs, wherein lies “the ultimate mono no aware experience at the moment before death”.  Little does the narrator know, the professor has some dark corners in his life too. They are both searching for answers and seeking to understand mono no aware.  I developed a real sympathy for the main character, and when I learned more about him, for the professor too.  They are both tragic characters who found each other at an important stage in their lives to help each other.  There is definitely something of a father-son relationship between them that I found touching.  The final chapters reach such an urgent climax that I found myself holding my breath or gasping in shock.  

It is a captivating book that is terribly hard to put down.  Each chapter flowed so smoothly into the next, or left me at such a cliffhanger that I never could quite find a place to put it down, leaving me reading late into the night.  Between chapters are “exhibits”, or explanations of complicated Japanese concepts on poetry and art and culture, mostly dealing with and expanding upon various definitions of mono no aware.  The ten or so pages in front and back have beautiful paper and art from the writer’s wife.  The book is art itself.  It is literature; it is a travel journal; it is philosophy.   It is a thought-provoking and emotional read that reminds us to stop and smell flowers, stop and look at the way the sun filters through the trees, stop to listen to the birds.  

Fabulous the first time, maybe better the second.  5 stars!!

**** Book available as an ESL Book Club course*** See my Services page for details !

Louisiana English à la française!

Here in New Orleans we have a very particular way of life, from our mannerisms, customs to even our way of talking. Some of our expressions may seem bizarre or even foreign to those outside of the city.  Because of my long experience studying French, I have slowly come to realize that the reason for this must be the French influence on the city. Some of these expressions seem to be a direct translation of the French, and the locals using these expressions may not even be aware of it. I have in fact pointed this out to some of my students who seem genuinely surprised that the expression in French is more or less exactly what we say here in English. This could possibly be explained by the fact that generations separate the native French speaking inhabitants from the citizens of Louisiana today. French was officially banned from public schools and government buildings in 1916. It took awhile for English to take over and during that time, many French speakers were probably translating.

Joan of Arc Maid of Orleans in the French Quarter, gift from France
Photo by Morgan Hjelm on Unsplash

In Louisiana, for example, a popular expression is “making groceries”.  It is what we do if we go grocery shopping, yet no one else in America will “make groceries” when going out shopping.  This is easily explained by the fact that faire les courses in French is “to do errands or go shopping” because faire in French is both “make or do”.  

However, there are many more examples than that, especially involving the verb passer, to pass or spend.  Here you will often hear people say they “pass a good time”, not the more common “have a good time”, most probably because the expression in French is almost exactly the same, passer un bon moment.  They might also say variations, like passer un bon week-end, passer une bonne soirée.  People here might also “pass by your house”, meaning to come see you.  This too is a literal translation of the expression passer te voir (come to see you).  In other uses for the verb passer, people in Louisiana will also “pass the vacuum” when cleaning the house, which seems to come directly from the expression in French passer l’aspirateur.

One final “frenchified” way of speaking that is common in Louisiana is the use of pronouns, especially repeated ones for emphasis.  It is very common to hear people say things like “Me, I like it me.” As in, “I like me some gumbo, me”, or even “Him and me, we go there often.”  I suspect that this is a hold-over from French which is a language that uses repeated words, not vocal stress, to emphasize words or to clarify who the subject is. Therefore, the French might say, “Moi, je l’aime bien.” (Me, I like it/him a lot.) Or “Lui et moi, nous y allons souvent.” (Literally “him and me”, in order to say “he and I, we go there often.”)

Finally, a very unique Louisiana term that we use here is banquette, which is used to refer to the sidewalks here, where the French would use the more modern term trottoir, meaning pavement.  This may seem like a uniquely Louisiana French term that the French outside of Louisiana do not use at all.  There are quite a few of those examples as well. However, this is a very different situation, as it is more a case of 19th century French still being used in New Orleans.  In my 1877 edition of a French-English dictionary from Cassell & Co., a banquette was a “footway of a road”.  That would actually make a lot of sense for its day, since sidewalks were not paved in New Orleans at the time. It was more likely a slightly raised side of the road alongside of the houses.  

There may be many more examples of this that I have not yet come across. I do believe that our French roots run deep here, and that while French was almost wiped out here one hundred years ago, it never really went away.  It went underground for a while and has reemerged stronger than ever. French words are a part of our daily lives, in the naming of streets, buildings, magazines, foods, shops, social organizations and so on. Additionally, much of that French-ness is also a part of the way we express ourselves, even while in English.  

This is a work in progress, so stay posted to receive updates to this article. If anyone has more expressions to share, I would love to read your comments below.

Vocabulary for Discussing Literature in French

Voici des mots clefs pour parler de la littérature.

Here are some key words for talking about literature.

During my thirty years of speaking French, any time that I had to speak about a topic or subject that was new to me, I would be frustrated to discover all the holes in my vocabulary.  For example, if you have ever had the experience of needing to talk about literature in French, you may have come to realize that you lacked a certain specific vocabulary.

For students wanting to participate in a book club or to study literature to improve their language skills, this list might be of interest to you.  I put together a list of words and expressions that were needed for the conversations I would have during courses in which we discussed books and short stories.  Below are some expressions that you may find handy or essential in order to more easily discuss what you read (or even films you see) in French.

If you are interested in a Book Club course, please see my page on courses offered for details.

Expressions:

Il s’agit de…  = It’s about…

Traiter de = Concerns, deal with, to be about

L’histoire a eu lieu… = The story took place…

Cela m’a fait penser à… = It made me think about..

Ce livre parle de…  = This book talks about..

Tu as raison/ tort… = You are right/ wrong..

Je ne m’y attendais pas… = I did not expect that…

Je me rends compte que… = I realize that…

À mon avis – In my opinion..

Je suis en train de lire… = I am in the middle of reading, I am reading…

Ce livre m’intéresse parce que… = This book interests me because…

Je suis intéressé(e) par ce livre parce que… = I am interested in this book because…

La langue de l’écrivain est (élégante, riche, poétique, …) = The language of the writer is (elegant, rich, poetic…)

Langage haut en couleur, langage imagé = Colorful language

Vocabulary:

Genre = The style, type (of literature)

Roman historique, roman noir, roman d’aventure, une autobiographie = Historical novel, mystery novel, adventure novel, autobiography

Un récit, une histoire = A story

Le personnage principale, le/la protagoniste, le héros du livre = The main character, the protagonist, the hero of the book

Le lecteur = The reader

La lecture = Reading

L’auteur(e), l’écrivain(e) = The author, writer

Le dénouement, la résolution, la révélation ou catastrophe, la conclusion = Falling action

Le conflit, l’apogée, le moment décisif = Climax

La présentation, l’introduction, l’entrée en jeux = Exposition, introduction

Le déroulement, l’enchaînement, la progression de l’action, le développement de l’action, l’évolution du conflit, le point culminant = Rising action

le noeud, la péripétie = The entanglement, twists and turns

Le narrateur, la narratrice (omniscient)= The narrator (omniscient)

L’antagoniste, l’adversaire = The antagonist, the adversary, the enemy

Les personnages secondaires = Supporting characters

Le décor, la scène = The setting, scenery, the scene

L’intrigue = The plot

Le complot = The conspiracy

Une oeuvre = One or several works by an author

Un oeuvre = Describing the ensemble of works for a writer

Un recueil (de nouvelles, de poésie) = A collection (of stories, of poetry)

Le thème =The theme

This New Year’s Resolution… Learn from Making Mistakes

One problem that I often encounter in the many places where I have taught is the fear students have of making mistakes.  I cannot stress to them enough that making mistakes is both inevitable and very helpful as a learning tool. There are many reasons why students should not fear it, but rather try to embrace it.

Fireworks over the river, 2018

First of all, the classroom is the best place for mistakes.  It should be your safe zone. All of the students present in a classroom are in the same proverbial boat.  They are all learning; therefore, no one should tease, criticize or ridicule one another for a simple error. It is your goal to learn, and there will be many things that you will struggle with along the way.  If making a mistake prevents you from speaking up, you will miss the opportunity to practice, and it is only by practicing that you will improve. No one would expect a piano student to learn to play without practicing.  It is unimaginable that simply by listening one could learn to play. In that same way, simply by listening to a language, one will never learn to speak.

Practicing, whether in the classroom or outside of it, is one of the best ways that a student can gain confidence in speaking.  Once a student realizes that he got the question right, was able to answer on his own, or correctly say something in his target language, he is able to build confidence in himself. This will inevitably lead to his feeling more and more comfortable in speaking. It takes making that first step to speaking and responding to questions to reach that point. If he never takes that step, he will hold himself back.  

It is outside the classroom where some students find the most fear of making a mistake when speaking. For some, it is a crippling fear, and it holds them back from even answering the simplest of questions. I will never forget my first experience speaking French with a Frenchman.  My high school teacher invited some of the students from the French 4 class to the Festival International of Lafayette. I was very lucky to get the chance to go, do something cultural with my teacher, but also to speak with someone in French. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment realizing that I could make myself understood after just a few years of studying.  I realized also how useful it was to speak another language. I was, amazingly so at that age, not at all worried about making mistakes, but rather amazed at being able to use something for which I had worked so hard.

There were of course times when my mistakes have caused great embarrassment.  This can happen to any of us, and sometimes make us want to stop trying. Don’t let it stop you! On at least two occasions that I can recall, my mistake caused a friend to quite nearly fall out his chair laughing. Regardless of how embarrassing, those mistakes were undeniably memorable.  In that way, I learned in one single instant the mistake that I made and remembered to never make it again. Fortunately, years later, I was able to laugh at myself and the mistake I made. I now can retell the story, and as a teacher, this has helped me to help my students. In telling my students about these experiences my students can see that everyone makes mistakes, that it is simply part of the learning process.  I can also steer them away from making certain mistakes that may cause serious misunderstandings as well.

The learning process does not end with the classroom door.  I might even say that the best learning happens outside of the classroom.  It is there where students will encounter a variety of accents and speaking styles.  It is a great opportunity to perfect their skills. Getting over their fear is only the first step.  Once they do, the benefits are endless. There is no perfection in language, there is only room for continued improvement.  So, go ahead, make mistakes!

Share your stories in the comments section!

The Alchemist

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

This is a book that has been recommended to me on multiple occasions by several good friends.  Flying home to visit my family a few years ago, I stopped in a magazine shop at the airport.  They had a really nice looking anniversary edition of this book for sale.  I picked it up and started to read the first pages and the inside cover with the synopsis.  I was absolutely intrigued; it did in fact sound like something that would have interested me.  It would take me a few more months to catch up on the other books that I was simultaneously reading, so that I could eventually get to this one.  Finally I could not resist any longer.  I read this book in record time!  I was completely absorbed in it, and was reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen.  

It is hard to categorize this book.  It is at the same time a travel book, a philosophy book, a self-help book and a novel all in one.  It is inspiring, thought provoking, and full of wisdom.  The language over-all is simple, but it speaks to me because I feel as if I did a lot of what the boy did and had some of the same experiences. The boy dreams of travel, of visiting places other than the small farming town he knows.  He becomes a shepherd, so that he can travel around and see more of the world.  One day he has a dream of hidden treasure to be found near the Egyptian Pyramids.  He visits a gypsy to find out the meaning of the dream because, as we learn from her, dreams are the language of God.  She tells him that he must go there to find his treasure.  

Then he meets a man who calls himself a king.  He tells the boy to give him 1/10th of his herd of sheep, and he will in exchange tell him how to find the treasure.  The boy thinks about it for a while and then decides to trust the king and gets very important advice about his Personal Legend, what he has always wanted to accomplish, about the Soul of the World, and he also learns that if he wants something badly enough, all the universe conspires in helping him achieve it.  The king told him all he had to do was follow the omens.  The king also advised against giving up on his dream. He will hear this advice on other occasions when he is at risk of giving it all up, and it is powerful advice which I think everyone needs to hear.  

To realize one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation,” the king said.  And so the boy is off on his adventure.  It was not an easy journey to the Pyramids, and it takes an exceptionally long time, and there is a lot of adventure along the way.  On several occasions he finds himself ready to give it all up, but something always pulls him back.  He goes through many trials and successes and finally ends up exactly where he is supposed to be. Along the way he meets a crystal merchant, whose life he changed forever, an Englishman, a beautiful woman with whom he falls immediately in love and for whom he once again wants to give it all up, and finally the Alchemist.  It is the Alchemist who will finally set him on the path to being able to find his treasure, convinces him that he cannot give up for risk of resentment and losing his treasure forever, and he repeatedly tests him to see if he’s ready.  

 

Some of the most important messages in this book which I could certainly apply to my life are, “People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want”, “when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward,”  and “people are afraid to pursue their most important dreams because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them.”  This of course is but a small sample of the wisdom in this book.  So much of it was noteworthy!  

What I realized is that despite the popular saying, you really can go home again!  He had to travel all the way to the Pyramids of Egypt only to find out that what he had been looking for all his life was right where he had started.  However, along the way he had had amazing experiences that he would never have known if he had not gone in search of something.  It is a lot like what I have done in my life, and now I know that I had been following the omens, and fulfilling my Personal Legend.  When I allowed myself to believe that sometimes taking the long way home is the only way home, I set off on an adventure to Japan to finally find my way home to New Orleans.  I had no idea what I was seeking there, or what I would find.  What I would in fact find was what I was really meant to do with my life.  Along the way, I saw and did amazing things that I would never have had the opportunity to do before, and may never again.

This is a book I could read over and over again.

**** This is an English Book Club selection. See Courses page for details.****

Albert Camus’ The Stranger

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I recently discovered the book Looking for the Stranger by Alice Kaplan and started reading it at the same time as rereading The Stranger in preparation for a discussion with a student. It was through this combination of books that I was really able to look more deeply at the themes of the book and the personality of the main character. The Stranger, read by so many students in school, has as Kaplan says become a sort of “rite of passage” (Kaplan, 2). It sparks debate on all sides and leaves us wondering why we sympathize with the main character, wondering why he does not fight for his life, or for that matter even defend himself?

The Stranger is a classic and in my opinion a novel that everyone must read. You can read it simply for face-value, as a book about a man who seems disconnected from his world, and as events unfold he is lead closer and closer to the murder of a man on the beach. However, I think questions will come up that will cause the reader to delve more deeply into why. Why do the events unfold in a way that lead him to kill a man on the beach, why in this moment is he prompted to do something so extreme, and yet with such coldness? Why is he so disconnected from everyone and everything, his mother, his job, his friends, even his girlfriend? Why does he not respond to the violence he sees around him, only to then shoot a man completely unprovoked?

Kaplan says something that I have often heard said by another favorite writer of mine, Dany Laferrière,  in a similar way. She says that “books have a life. They come to life as you read them, and they stay alive long after you’ve turned the last page.” Oh, how I know that is true! The Stranger will do just that to you. In fact, the more I read this book, the more I feel it with me every day. Camus’ philosophy, often mislabeled as Existentialist, is in fact Absurdist. He sees men as all being condemned to death, all in their own time, of course. He says that as humans we are somewhat meaningless in the world. Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, says that we cannot change our lives. That basically describes our main character’s attitude before his own life. He is indifferent to his own life, saying, for example, to his girlfriend that he supposes that he does not love her, and that it does not make any difference, that it is all the same to him, but that if she wanted him to marry her, he would. He refuses to give way to the expectations of society, has no ambition to better his job at work, basically refusing a promotion and never justifying himself.

Camus uses the first person singular to tell his story, thus putting the words and thoughts directly into the mouth of his narrator. This gives us a strange feeling of distance between us and the writer, all while creating a strange relationship between us and the character. In my opinion it might be why by the end, we have a kind of sympathy for him, even while we basically know exactly what happened on that beach. By the end of the book, I wanted him to fight for himself, to let his lawyer try to save him. But eventually Meursault more or less condemned himself by saying “the sun made me do it.”

The question remains, of what exactly was Meursault convicted, putting his mother in a nursing home, or killing a man on the beach? At the trial, the victim was never mentioned, and the majority of the questions to him were related to his mother’s placement in a home, his lack of showing sadness, his behavior before the casket (drinking coffee, smoking and sleeping) and the relationship he began with Marie soon after his mother’s burial. Additionally, throughout the days following the death of his mother, he repeats phrases like “it’s not my fault” or that he felt guilty. Guilt over what? Did he feel guilty for abandoning his mother, or did he feel as if her placement in a home was what prompted her death, which of course we know is not true since we know she had a fiancé while there.

If anyone here is dying, it is Meursault, whose life seems empty. We see his slow Sundays where he sits on his balcony watching Life roll by. We know he has no passion about his job, or even for his girlfriend. He has no pets, no hobbies except bathing either at a pool or a beach. He eats at the same restaurant, and when not there will cook something simple like boiled potatoes. There is no spice or joy in his life from what we can see. He is a stranger to his life. Interestingly enough, talking about strangers, most of Camus’ characters are strangers to us, too. We never know Meursault’s first name, nor the name of the Arab that he shoots, nor the name of his neighbor’s girlfriend, la Mauresque. We never even know his mother’s name.
By the time we finish the book, maybe we can come to fully understand Camus’ philosophy, just like Meursault does at the end.
A truly stunning read, thought-provoking and moving. It gets better with age, and with every subsequent read! 5 stars indeed.

**** This title also available as a Book Club selection.  See my Services page for details.****