Saturday, July 07, 2007

French Lessons

I am not sure whose idea it was to offer French 1½ at my junior high, but I now see the concept as the great compromise between the parents who believed their high priced tuition would actually cause their children to learn the language and therefore be promoted after a year to French 2, and the reality that there was a group of us who would never cease the struggle between whether you should être or avoir for the past tense of a particular verb. My father in particular couldn’t see why we needed to learn the past tense; his great hope was that I could one day translate menus for him in front of the perpetually condescending waiter, that I would learn the great French lexicon of cooking temperatures, sauces, and animal parts, and I know it troubled him that the best I could do was to muster whether a dish came with fries or cheese.

I like to think my small band of French ignoramuses were good in other things besides the subjunctive. Several joined me from the upper math class as we made our journey down the hall to French 1½, a journey of shame only surpassed by the long walk across the gym to ask a girl to dance. It wasn’t that we were unaware of Pascal. It was just that we thought of that more as a computer language than as a philosopher.

The class couldn’t have been easy for the instructor either. She must have longed to be with the gifted ones in French Two, the students who basked in the wit of Molière, the insight of Voltaire, or the humanity of Hugo. Our class, on the other hand, had the speaking skills of Marcel Marceau. Our teacher did her best to come up with little activities to distract us from our lack of progress. We had a couple of field trips which were a great way to get past the ennui. The first was a trip to a French restaurant, and I told the kid next to me the joy of ordering something au gratin.

The second was a trip to see a French film. The good news she told us beforehand was that the film would have English subtitles, a tool that would have helped our homework in general. Having a sense that we might get to see a more authentic Peter Sellars, we were quite excited when we poured into the vans and drove to the local art house.

I think what we got wasn’t really what the teacher had expected. It was for a lack of a better word, explicit. The first part of the film was full of unbuttoned garments, sweat, and armpit hair; and at one point in time a swing was used. I kept hearing the cries of “Mon Dieu. Mon Dieu,” in the theater.

That turned out to be our teacher.

Needless to say at that point none of us were looking at the subtitles, and we felt quite relieved when the teacher said we didn’t have to write a report on what we saw. She added it was probably best that we didn’t discuss this trip with our parents.

The second part of the film was a long discussion about the ramifications of what happened with the first part. It was the opposite of American romantic films in which most of the journey is about the prelude; this French film was about the consequences. Years later when I had my first experience I was a little nervous that afterwards I would have to do a ninety minute discussion of socialism and the destruction of the modern artist. I was relived when this wasn’t the case, but it also came with the sad realization that a swing wasn’t probably ever going to be involved.

I am not sure if that field trip alone kept me motivated to learn French, but I did try. After three more years of it in high school when I got to college, I was placed once again back into French 1. I scraped by the first two terms to get to go abroad in my college’s remedial language program in the wonderful town of Blois in the Loire Valley.

Our instructors there, too, had to figure out how to help a motley bunch who had a hard time figuring that a tie must be feminine. We once again had field trips, but this time we harvested grapes, visited the local chateau, and took the chocolate factory tour. One teacher thought it would be a good idea if we had a touch of culture and knew of this one play called “Hair” that would be coming soon to town. It turns out the second thing the play is known for is the anthem “The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” that spoke to a generation of draft dodgers, lovers, and smokers, in the way that musical theater only can.

But perhaps the best thing the play was known for didn’t make its way across the Atlantic to our teacher’s attention. At the end of the first act as the entire cast sung about freedom and personal grooming, they disrobed entirely. My classmates and teachers’ jaws dropped at the fleshy display. But having come more experienced from French 1½, I could sit there confidently and say to myself, “Ah, yes. This is French.”

Monday, July 02, 2007

Fillmore Jazz

The Fillmore Street Jazz Festival is a séance to the older neighborhood that disappeared slowly one store at a time. The doughnut shop left a decade ago. Mi Burrito became Zao Noodles. The street became the place to buy luxury soap and curved furniture: the store Design within Reach defines reach at about 800 dollars for a chair. The crime left, but music disappeared as well having been evacuated into white ear buds and cell phones.

What makes the Fillmore festival different is the jazz. I think the same pottery vendors and rhinestone artists travel street by street in the summertime, but few places have keyboard jams drifting through the air in the same way that the smell from the garlic chicken wafts through the fair.

I watched Sira and the Afro Funk band put down a wicked baseline. The bass rift is the most stolen parts of a modern song. Higher Ground can sneak into Under Pressure and then get completely transferred over to Ice Baby Ice. There is a part of the bass that stirs the animal in us. If the summer in the city forty years ago was about love, then the bass that arrived thirty years ago in seventies funk was something far more sweatier. It is the difference between soft kisses and the wordless grind.

The crowd slithered in front of the stage. Women in tank tops gyrated as their boyfriends drank tall Budweiser’s. A homeless woman circled to pick up the empty cans with a coat hanger, and it seemed that we were back to that culture collision that happened long ago: the desperate and the decadent sharing the same place for a couple of sunny afternoons. There was the horror of the clashing lifestyles, that we are not too isolated from anyone. A homeless man came up to me and he carried a flask for something to anesthetize the differences. He called out to me and I recoiled out of the instinct that comes from too many days of just trying to walk down Market Street.

"Did you go to Dartmouth?" he asked, and I realized he could tell by green sweatshirt.

"I just got back from reunion." I replied. "Great place"

"I was the class of 64" he said as we drifted in different directions. It must have been a hard forty years since them for him.

I would like to say that I was compassionate, but I am not much better than most of the newcomers in this town who want their jazz disneyfied. It saddens me that I have lost such a charitable instinct. I felt wrong to have gone into a store and have the sales person pitch for ten minutes a cartridge system for an espresso machine instead of talking to that rather unbathed fellow alum. I realized then that Fillmore Street isn’t the only thing to have changed, and while I might occasionally get to listen to the music of the street I am still along way off from getting its soul.