The Elements of Eloquence

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I chanced to pick up this book today from one of the shelves lining the narrow stairway at Shakespeare & Co. as people were crowding up behind me. I literally glanced at the cover, snatched it off the shelf and pushed my way on up the steps to the reading room, found a place on one of the ancient couches and opened it up to read:

“Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.”

With that opening gambit, I was hooked. The author, Mark Forsyth, goes on (skipping a bit) to say:

“Shakespeare got better and better and better, which was easy because he started badly, like most people starting a new job.”

An astonishing assertion, perhaps, but he makes a good case for his position (which I won’t trouble to quote here). At which point he declares:

“Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense anymore.”

Yes, yes, yes!

Forsyth then gets into the meat of his introduction, laying out his program for the book, which is to elucidate, chapter by chapter, the various “rhetorical figures” that form the basis of great writing. Not sure what the rhetorical figures are? You’re not alone. While Shakespeare learned (or learnt if you’re British) them in school, they don’t get taught much anymore. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter, that they don’t work, or that they’re somehow irrelevant.

“The one line from that song or film that you remember and don’t know why you remember is almost certainly down to one of the figures, one of the flowers of rhetoric growing wild.”

Again, yes.

Do you use words? Do you do any writing? Any writing at all? Then read this book. How wonderful it would be if facility with words wasn’t just the province of the chosen few, the so-called geniuses, but something ready to hand for all who wish to communicate. Read this book. At the very least you will be entertained, for Mr. Forsyth knows his craft. I’ve been by turns amused, enlightened, impressed and amused once again with each successive chapter (and did I mention that I just picked it up today?).

If you write, read this book.

(I’ll save you the web search: find it on Amazon here.)

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« Très bizarre »

Getting a prepaid SIM card is one of the more ridiculously cumbersome processes in France. It means going into a shop (usually with a long line), wading through French paperwork, presenting your passport to be photocopied, and finally getting your service activated. Going in for surgery in France is only slightly more difficult (and I would know).

It probably doesn’t help my outlook on things that a friend told me recently that when he was in the UK, he got a SIM card from a vending machine and was good to go. Well, this is France, not the island of the Queen.

Last week I stopped into a Tabac to purchase another month of service for the girls’ phones. You get a big long receipt printed out, but all that really matters is the fourteen digit code. Call the special number, wait for the automated French voice to stop talking (“wait for the end of… of… the speech,” the French salesman at the Tabac told me), press “2” and then enter the code.

The first time I did this I left the shop before trying to enter the code and went home, only to realize I couldn’t understand the French “speech” and didn’t know what selection to choose. Thankfully, the concierge’s daughter was able to help me (the concierge is kind of like a building manager who lives on the ground floor). The next time, I had the man at the Tabac do it for me and show me how to do it the next time.

So it’s the next time and I’m feeling confident. I’ve got two fourteen digit codes and I know what buttons to press. I get home and Carolyn’s phone accepts the code without any trouble. Time for Evelyn’s phone. I call the special number, but the announcement I get is definitely not the same. I can’t understand much of what’s being said, but it’s clear it’s not giving me any options. The Orange phone company jingle plays and then it hangs up on me. I check her text messages; sure enough, there’s one from Orange that says something to the effect that we need to go back to the shop (le magasin) and present identification to get the service reestablished.

Okay. So I make sure I have a book to read (Dracula, no less!) and go to the shop. Mercifully, the line is short and I’m able to get help in under fifteen minutes.

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The Orange shop near our apartment.

Aside–This is how it goes at Orange: someone greets you, finds out what you need, takes your name, and then tells you to wait. This person then spends the rest of their time tidying the shop (or just gazing around with a slight, Mona Lisa smile) but never actually helps any of the customers.

The representative who assists me calls up the account for Evelyn’s phone on his computer terminal. Turns out there’s no personal identification or passport information associated with it. The only thing I can think of is that when I first got the SIM cards for the girls’ phones, all the information was entered into Carolyn’s account but not Evelyn’s. No problem. He enters all the info, takes a picture of my passport with his phone and emails it off to whomever has the power to make Evelyn’s service active. He tells me it might take an hour or two for it to be ready to accept the recharge code I’ve purchased. Fine. I head off to meet a friend and later that night I try calling the recharge number with my code in hand. But no such luck; I get the same announcement as before with the bouncy Orange jingle. Could it be that things are just taking longer than the man at the shop expected? Let’s hope for that. But in the morning it’s the same thing. There’s nothing for it; I have to go back to le magasin.

As I’m waiting, the man who helped me the day before comes into work. And when my name is called he’s the one available to see me. And he remembers me. This is all quite fortuitous! I show him the phone and my receipt with the recharge number. He tries it and gets the same recording. He checks the account—sure enough, it’s locked pending my personal information getting validated. He gets on the phone and spends time navigating automated menus in order to get to the powers-that-be who can unlock the account. The call is dropped. He starts over. After some time he looks at me and asks if I just want a brand new SIM card. It means Evelyn will get a different phone number, but it will be no charge and it will work immediately.

Oui, let’s do that!

He hangs up and disappears to the backroom to get the new SIM card. When he returns, he pops it in the phone, but the phone refuses to recognize it. Is the phone unlocked? Oui, I say, it worked fine when I got the original SIM card. Hmm. He goes to the back room and reappears with another new SIM card. He pops it in. Same result—the phone won’t recognize it. He gives me a look. Surely there must be something wrong with the phone. Wonderful. Evelyn’s phone is my old iPhone; the battery doesn’t last as long as it used to and the physical on/off button is sticky. I’m starting to think that we’re going to have to get her a new phone when the man pops the second unrecognized SIM card into his own cell phone. His phone won’t recognize it either. He tries the first unrecognized SIM card in his phone; same result. Two brand new, non-working SIM cards! “Très bizarre!” he says.

Finally, the third time is a charm. He gets a third SIM card and it works, accepting the recharge code. He shakes his head and actually looks apologetic (a rare sight in this country where it’s a privilege for the customer to even enter the shop). “Désolé” (Sorry), he says. “Très bizarre.

I pack up all the new paperwork (along with Dracula) and head out of the store, hoping I won’t have to be back anytime soon. Evelyn’s phone is working again–at least for one more month…

Parlez-vous français?

This week I began French lessons, taught by a parent from the girls’ school. There are five of us in the class, all parents of students at ISP. Prior to arriving in Paris, I learned a bit using Rosetta Stone. I used the Duolingo app for a while. I picked up a Berlitz book, French in Thirty Days (which I’ve had far longer than thirty days, but haven’t gotten even half-way through). But after only two lessons I’m already appreciating the virtue of having an actual teacher to learn proper pronunciation and to help make sense of certain features of grammar and syntax and spelling that were otherwise mysterious to me in my self-guided attempts at learning.

French is hard. I suppose learning any language is, when it comes down to it. And yet I’m seeing progress, especially in reading. I can make sense of most of the ads in the Metro. At a church in Colmar I was able to read with at least 90% comprehension a display recounting the convoluted history of the church as it passed back and forth between Protestant and Catholic control. And even on the train I can understand far more of the conductor’s announcements than I could when we’ve visited in the past. I’m managing simple encounters at the grocery and the boulangerie pretty well. But then someone will say something to me and the only thing I’m sure of is that it’s French coming out of their mouths. Sometimes my brain will manage to untangle a bit of what they’ve said and identify actual words, but often by then the moment has passed and we’ve already resorted to nods and pointing.

Some of the Americans I’ve met are getting by on remarkably little French skill. One has been here more than five years, living in the “expat bubble.” One described her language ability to me as “caveman French.” One mom from my class has been here two years with small children and is only now managing to take lessons.

That said, I’m looking forward to be able to engage more actual conversions in French that get beyond, “Bonjour, Madame! Je voudrai une baguette, s’il vous plaît. C’est bon. Merci beaucoup! Bonne journée!”

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Laetitia, my French teacher, explaining yet more masculine and feminine forms for us to wrap our heads around.

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My French homework, or I suppose I should say, “mon devoir de français” (I think that’s right…!)

Paris Manga and Sci-Fi Show

After all the charm of the half-timbered buildings in Colmar, it was time for something completely different: some cosplay at the Paris Manga and Sci-Fi Show! Evelyn and Carolyn put together some fun outfits and we braved the hordes crammed into the expo center. Easily half the fun was seeing the costumes people came up with. We perused rows and rows of merchandise, saw people playing retro video games, got some photos, and enjoyed seeing John Rhys-Davies, of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fame. It was also the worst experience I’ve had yet with wafting b.o.! Maybe it was just that so many people were crammed in a relatively small space and many in elaborate costumes…

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Venturing into the show

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The girls enjoyed this as much as the great museums of Paris!

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Carolyn and a Malificent cosplayer

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Alice in Wonderland and Wolverine cosplayers

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Something for us old school types

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Who would win?

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Some blue box thing…

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Seeing John Rhys-Davies was the highlight for me. This woman asked him what it was like to act with Orlando Bloom (who played Legolas in the LOTR films). He took her hand and told her that “this very hand shook the hand of Orlando Bloom. You’ll never wash your hand again. I haven’t.”