French Lessons with a Prince

French Lessons with a Prince

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I dread the seven-flight climb up to my studio and put off the
strenuous exercise by popping into the corner bakery. “Une baguette,
s’il vous plaît,”- I begin nibbling on the crust before my feet hit the
pavement. Parisians do that–eat on the street. They refuse to eat in
the cafés and instead sit for hours sipping on their crèmes as the
hunger pains grow until it is absolutely necessary that they put
something in their stomachs. They pay the check, find the closest
baguette and it’s ravished before they’re three blocks from the bakery.
Coffee and bread–the Parisians must do wonderfully well in jail.

I have found that when I eat on my way home the walk is much
accelerated, or so it seems–and my stairs are considerably easier to
climb. The chewing acts as a distraction from the physical task before
me and my mind becomes focused on deeper thoughts.

My third week in Paris has been the result of much personal reflection.
After reviewing the previous two weeks–stalked on the métro, doctor
visits, locked out of my studio, all the while surviving on a diet of
baby food, due to the French proficiency test I failed with my online
grocery shopping expedition–I realize that I must learn French. My
complete and total ignorance of the French culture and language has
posed many challenges in my short time here and the only way to change
my fate is to give myself the most important survival skill for Paris:
the French language.
First step: Enroll in a French class.

My friend Laura, roommate from college, fluent in both English and
French, constantly making fun of my incompetence, suggested that I turn
to FUSAC, the free magazine that provides English-speaking resources
and contacts–for help. I grabbed a copy at the newsstand across from
my métro station and began flipping through it on my way home. (Reading
also works as a distraction from the stairs, though I am more prone to
tripping.)

I found several ads for French lessons. Some were very expensive,
making promises of fluency in just one month, while others were
less–these classes met fewer hours per week, but, I thought, might be
more conducive to my schedule. I flipped to the next page, “Theatre and
Arts.” Here I found several ads for acting classes in Paris. Naturally,
having just recently graduated from a conservatory in Los Angeles, this
section intrigued me. One ad in particular greatly impressed me–the
coach maintained studios in New York, Los Angeles and Paris. He holds a
very strong reputation in LA and is known for coaching many of
Hollywood’s well-acclaimed actors.
I took out my phone and dialed. The coach spoke English with me and had
only a slight French accent so I was able to understand him easily. He
explained that he was currently working on a film, so the class would
be meeting only once a week–Friday mornings from 10AM until 1PM. It
was Thursday afternoon and he told me that he would see me tomorrow
morning at 35 Rue St. Roch, Métro: Tuileries.

My First Lesson:
Friday morning I awake very early and give myself a good hour and
fifteen minutes for my commute–though the Tuileries are only a few
stops away, it is important to be punctual on my first day. Having
practiced with my “Plan de Paris” all week, I arrive at my
destination’s door 45 minutes early. I go in search of a café crème. I
find a Paul a few doors down, which is basically a gourmet chain where
you can get coffee to sit or to go and marvelous pastries.

I order my café crème to go, averting my eyes from the Viennoise
chocolates, and pay the woman in the black baseball cap behind the
counter. It is now a quarter to ten and time to stake my early-bird
position outside the red double doors. I start my walk back to the
acting studio but as I get closer I notice a young homeless man sitting
on the ground, hunched over and blocking the entrance. His hair is so
blond it’s almost white and he’s dressed in different rustic shades–he
reminds me of one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. I stop several feet
away from him and concentrate on sucking my café crème through the very
tiny hole in my Paul to-go cup. He looks up at me and smiles. He seems
sweet so I smile back, though this exchange makes me a little
uncomfortable, as many Parisians view a mutual smile as potential for
consensual sex.

Five minutes later, the lost boy and I have exchanged “Bonjours,” and
another man in jeans that are much too tight approaches the red doors.
He’s talking in French on a tiger-print cell phone as he flips his long
black hair that’s cut better than mine. He’s about 33 and should have
been Italian. His brown belt matches his brown shoes–gay? Or French?
The would-be Italian hangs up the phone and walks directly over to the
homeless man and shakes his hand. He then makes his way towards me,
“Are you Christine?”  English!

“Yes, I’m Kirsten.”

“I am Anthony. We spoke on the phone.”

I bite my tongue. Anthony, with the expensive haircut and the
tiger-print cell phone is the instructor and apparently the lost boy is
one of the students. The other three students arrive–there are now
five of us in total. All of the stereo-types are present: The girl with
the long untrimmed brown hair who wears only large black smocks, the
skinny guy who would look normal if he didn’t have a jungle of facial
hair growing from his chin, the retro-girl who dyes her hair jet-black
and can pull off all the latest trends, the homeless lost boy who
doesn’t comb his hair, and me, the clueless blonde from Los Angeles who
should have listened to her friend Laura and signed up for French class.

The instructor unlocks the front doors and we make our way up to the
third floor. Half way up the second flight the instructor turns back to
me and says, “I forgot to ask you…You speak French, right? I speak
both English and French but this acting class will be taught in French
and the scenes you act will be performed in French.”

I don’t speak French. I want to go home.

The studio has scratched hardwood floors and an unused blackboard.
There are several chairs scattered throughout the room and two windows
that look into the back alley of an elementary school where the
children are heard laughing. Class begins. The five of us spread out
around the room and begin our respective warm-ups.

The girl in the large black smock is on the floor resting in fetal
position, groaning. The skinny guy with the facial hair jumps up and
down waving his arms like a monkey, the retro girl with the black hair
stands perfectly still as she hums softly, and the lost boy stretches
his arms over his head and stares smilingly at me. I breathe in and out
slowly, pretending to concentrate on my breath release while continuing
to spy on everyone.
One hour later, we are all on the floor, screaming as the instructor
takes us through an imagination exercise–we are being attacked by
giant rats. I think he said rats–I have come to this conclusion
because the instructor keeps bringing his hands up to his mouth and
using his upper teeth to nibble on his bottom lip, he looks like a rat
when he does this. After the exercise we are supposed to give each
other hugs and discuss what we have just experienced. I smile and nod
as the others speak, pretending to comprehend.

Surprisingly, I find the instructor somewhat easy to understand even
when he speaks in French. This is because he uses his hands excessively
when he talks, illustrating the meaning of each and every word–is he
king of Charades, gay…or French? The instructor explains that we are
going to be practicing the Meisner acting technique.

Meisner. Repetition. I’m saved.

For the entire last hour I am positioned on a chair in front of the
class facing the retro girl, who is now my scene partner. We take turns
pointing out something that the other is wearing and then verbalizing
it. She says, “Tu portes noir,” I respond, “Je porte noir.” She
repeats, “Tu portes noir,” I repeat, “Je porte noir.”  This is the
Meisner acting technique of repletion–to repeat. “Ecoutez et Répétez!”
The idea is to get the actor out of himself and concentrating on the
other person.

Today in acting class, I learned my first French sentence: “I wear
black.” I even picked up a few verbs like sentir (to feel) and fermer
(to close), and as my instructor has a hyperactive-hand syndrome I am
sure to learn many more verbs in the classes to come.

When I was ten years old I played the role of Sleeping Beauty in my
fifth-grade French class’s production for Parent’s Open House Night. At
17, after I was admitted to the USC School of Theatre, my high-school
French teacher announced to the class that one day I would play
Esmeralda in the French musical Nôtre Dame. I laughed. Twenty-two now
and post graduation, I ride the métro home to my humble studio located
at the top of seven flights of stairs in the 16th arrondissement.
The whole way home on the train I was humming, “Un jour mon prince
viendra, un jour mon prince viendra….” Which turned into, “Brown belt
and brown shoes…and he talks with his hands, he’s a sensitive man,
knows all the words to Barbra Streisand…he’s soooo gay…” But
wait… Sleeping Beauty’s prince wore tights, right? Hmmm. Gay? Or
French?


Kirsten joins Bonjour Paris from Los Angeles, California where she
recently graduated from the University in Southern California with a
BFA in Acting. Last year she co-wrote the book and lyrics to a new pop
musical which expects to open in Los Angeles next spring. Two years
ago, while studying at a conservatory in London, Kirsten fell in love
with Paris and decided that she was destined to return for some time.
She’s thrilled to experience this dream come true.

 

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