Friday, September 29, 2006

Learning English

Just when I thought I was making progress in French I discovered that there’s plenty of English left to learn. My American friend who lives in London introduced me to the word “chav” – an acronym for “council housing active vermin” or “council housing adolescent vermin”. Defined by wikipedia as:

. . . a slang term in wide use throughout the United Kingdom since 2004. It refers to a subcultural stereotype of people fixated on fashions such as flashy "bling" jewelery (generally fake gold), and genuine (rarely seen on chavs) or knock-off (more likely to be seen) designer clothing with the beige Burberry pattern (most famously the baseball cap which has since been discontinued by the company), and such brands as lonsdale, Berghaus, Burberry, Von Dutch, Louis Vuitton, Adidas, Nike, Lacoste and most well known Sergio Tacchini. . . .

Whatever the definition, my friend warned me that it’s a derogatory term and cautioned me against using it. That’s like telling a schizophrenic not to hear voices. However, before I was able to incorporate it into my vocabulary it dawned on me while walking home from Cacharel with what I thought was a nice purchase that I might be a bit of a chav myself.

Was Cacharel the French Burberry?

I consulted my beautiful and stylish French girlfriend Isabelle Francois (an obvious authority) for her opinion on the matter. Having experienced a perilous period in the late 80s and early 90s, Cacharel had since rebounded and saved itself. Pierre Cardin, she continued, had not been as fortunate. After a licensing rampage, his name was slapped on mass produced purses, belts, luggage, pens, watches, etc., eventually losing any air of exclusivity. (I was relieved to receive Isabelle’s opinion because the Cacharel item I had purchased was for my friend’s baby. It would be very cruel to mark an innocent child with a plaid “C” so early in life.)

Although Cacharel was in the clear, I wasn’t so sure about me. I distinctly remember purchasing Cacharel (and Givenchy) leather goods from Mervyn’s in Fullerton during the time frame in question - this sentence alone says it all. I was definitely a chav, the word just hadn’t been created yet. I was ahead of my time in at least one respect. But what about now? I consulted an expert who diagnosed me as follows:
Wannabe chav
You are 15 % chav
You clearly know you are not, nor will you ever be anything even closely resembling a bonafide chav but that doesn't stop you from jumping on the bling bandwagon every now and then. There's nothing wrong with a bit of pretending though you'll never be able to hold your own with the true Burberry brigade.

The Wall Street Journal recently covered this issue in the context of brand association and marketing. Here's an excerpt:

"No Kick From ‘Chavpagne’"

Young, Loutish British 'Chavs' Have a Taste for Champagne
An Image Problem for Makers?

By Jenny Clevstrom and Christina Passariello, The Wall Street Journal, 1219 words
Aug 18, 2006
Given their rowdy and generally unsavory reputation, being associated with chavs has posed problems for some high-end brands. When chavs adopted fashion house Burberry's signature beige, black and red tartan as their uniform a few years ago, U.K. sales of the brand dropped, and Britain became Burberry's weakest market by January 2005. Burberry PLC, which markets to young consumers in general, acknowledged that traditional customers were put off when chavs sported the brand. "It has not been helpful," finance director Stacey Cartwright told the press in January 2005. . . .

Full article available on WSJ's website

The article went on to discuss Prada and how the designer no longer distributes a certain style of black sneakers in England because of chavs' love for the shoe. Cristal was also mentioned in this article and it's association with chavs and hip-hop artists.

Fortunately, I’m no longer the label conscious girl from the late-80s. I learned after high school that all a pair of Chemin de Fers can do is get you a date for Sadie Hawkins and a ride in a Camaro. Not so important in 2006.

P.S. While we're on the subject of learning, I recently discovered:

(a) If you simply ask a butcher for "filet mignon" in Paris, he will give you pork by default, not beef. He explained that it may vary by region. I confirmed this with my Parisienne French teacher. Are they messing with me? I know it's a cut, but I thought it was beef. I'm going to have to check with my mother-in-law.
(b) Another American friend living in London informed me that the beer Stella Artois is often referred to as a "wife beater" due to its high alcohol content. Not politically correct, but funny nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Spidey v. Frenchie

As we descended onto the runway a voice over the speaker welcomed us to “the diverse areas of Orange County.” Interesting word choice. I’d never considered the birthplace of Richard Nixon, the home of John Wayne, and the site of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building as diverse, but perhaps things had changed since my last visit.

First stop: my dad and step-mom’s house. Fred and I went out to dinner alone with my dad because my step-mom had inadvertently agreed to host a meeting at their house for her Orange County Performing Arts Center charity group on the one night we were in town from Paris.

When the three of us returned from dinner, we entered a virtual lion’s den. And it was feeding time. There's something about women over 50 that love my husband. When they see him they gush "Oh, please have him say something! I want to hear his accent." I'm always hoping that he'll respond: "Enchanté dumbass, the pleasure is all mine" or quote a line from The Exorcist. But instead he smiles boyishly and asks: "What would you like me to say?" And that's probably why they find him so charming. [Side note: I’d like to point out that if they’d just speak to him like the human being that he is, he’d respond in kind and they’d hear his cute French accent without all the hoopla and the rolling of my eyes.] I’m considering bringing a top hat and hoops with me the next time we take our act on the road. In fact, maybe his fans at the Performing Arts Center could sponsor my play: Les Misérables en Le County Orange. It's about a poverty-stricken Frenchman trying to earn money in Orange County by performing a play in English with a very thick French accent. Poverty-stricken and French in the O.C. Now that's diversity!

More recently Fred’s role as a spokesmodel spilled over into print work. During the same trip to the U.S. we spent a weekend in Napa at our friends' wedding where the photographer took a fancy to Fred. She was overwhelmed by his uncanny resemblance to Toby McGuire (which left the rest of us straining our eyes). “Click, click, click, flash, flash, flash” followed Fred around for the better part of three days.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

On the final day, shortly after the ceremony, I was approached by the groom’s father who asked if they could borrow my husband because the photographer wanted to take a picture with him. As Fred patiently posed for wedding photos, I looked on with sympathy and sipped on a Rose Kennedy.

Less than an hour later while seated at our dinner table, I was approached again. This time by the photographer herself. She asked if she could take my picture. I assumed that she had recognized my Shannen Dohertyish (circa 1991) good looks and wanted a portrait for her portfolio. Finally my time had come. She told me that the sun was setting and the lighting was perfect. I must hurry if she was to get the shot! As she beckoned me towards the light, I heard the words: “And grab your husband!”

Monday, September 11, 2006

Day One: Making Friends

I returned from break to find Dmitry, a large Russian man bearing a strong resemblance to Shrek, sitting in my seat. Apparently it was his seat and he decided to repossess it while I was getting the coffee that I desperately needed to tame a terrible case of jet lag. Today was my first day of government-sponsored French classes. Actually my first day was last Monday, but I didn’t return from my trip back to the U.S. until yesterday.

It seems that there is assigned seating in my class of twelve, or at least Dimitry believes there to be. He arrived late today. Very late. He burst through the door just minutes before our 30-minute break and looked my way before plopping himself down in a chair near the door. Our teacher called recess moments later. When I returned to the room I found Dimitry in the seat previously occupied by me. (He spent so little time in the classroom today that I can only imagine he came to visit the chair that he obviously loves dearly.)

I don’t speak ogre or Russian and I got the sense that neither of us spoke enough français to have a conversation regarding French property rights, thus I shuffled myself and things to a chair that I knew had been empty the first half of class. A moment later, a different student kindly suggested that I move again because I had unwittingly chosen a seat that belonged to a student who was absent today. I was playing musical chairs by myself - with no music and no prizes. Further, every time I moved the class watched me. For no particular reason other than the social norms in their countries of origin evidently encourage uninhibited gawking at strangers in awkward situations.

Just as I was getting settled in my third chair, Dmitry realized that he may have made a mistake by ousting me. “Are you the professor?” he asked. (He’d been there long enough to stake claim to a chair, but couldn’t recognize our French teacher from before the break).

I said “no” too quickly. Had I thought about it for one moment I would have told him: “Yes, I am the professor. And in France, it’s customary to mark your territory with a ring of urine to ensure that self-centered Americans don’t waltz into class and assume that they can sit in any old empty chair. I know. Americans are stupid. They’ll assume anything, including that a room with chairs scattered about it like an AA meeting in a church basement would not have an assigned-seating chart. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you with the 'AA' reference. You can take your vodka back out. So anyway, go ahead and pee on your chair. Don’t mind us. Your classmates love to people-watch.”

[I began to think that there really was a seating chart until my French teacher teased Dmitry in the midst of her lesson when she realized that he had confiscated what he perceived to be his chair. After class she apologized to me and said that he is nice, but he seems to be a creature of habit. I told her it was no big deal. And I really meant it, until I got home and decided to write this entry instead of doing my homework.]