Thursday, 29 September 2011

3BT: banks, lessons and a thank you

1. The bank unblocks my card; I won't have to wait days for a new PIN after all. It might not be poetic, but it is a relief.

2. Equally unpoetic: the owner of the restaurant says I can use a corner of his place for my English conversation classes. I'm looking forward to planning lessons around articles in Time Magazine. Not that teaching grammar isn't fun too, in its own way.

3. I work some Twitter back channels and get a message to one of my very favourite famous people in the world. I get a "thank you" back. (If you knew me, you would understand.)

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

3BT: sunshine, verbs and an old friend

1. I know I've said it before, but this weather... Amazing. Hard to believe it's almost October when it feels like June.

2. My student, who claims he doesn't remember anything after a three-month break, nevertheless recites  almost all his verb conjugations perfectly, and remembers there is no liaison after "et". Seriously, it's the little things.

3. An old, old friend whom I have not seen for years gets in touch to say she's going to be in Brussels.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

3BT: a word, sunshine, and the floor

1. Somebody I have coffee with uses the word "lackadaisical" - one of my favourites, and I've only ever seen it in books.

2. I read my writing magazines in the sunshine.

3. I am tidying my flat, finding lots of Time Magazines I didn't know I had, and seeing the floor again.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, 26 September 2011

My book, a new(er) oboe, and learning

1. A twitter friend of mine reviews my book on his blog then spends all day tweeting that people should buy it.

2. I get to swap my old music school oboe for a newer one.

3. I start watching the History Channel DVDs I got for my birthday, and they're exactly what I wanted: fifteen minutes or so summing up the careers of each of the US Presidents.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, 24 September 2011

3BT: sun, food and Inevitable

1. The sun is shining and it feels like spring.

2. I feel well enough to eat proper food - instead of the plain pasta or bread I've been mostly surviving on for the last couple of weeks - and I eat both my meals in front of the West Wing, two of my favourite episodes.

3. I've been toying with the idea of adding some words to my novel, and I find as I type up some pages that I am still in love with m characters, and in particular with Brad.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 23 September 2011

3BT: cute toddler, good food and loo roll

1. I spend almost all day with my big sister and her adorable little boy, who smiles and laughs and points at things enthusiastically, and even lets me hold him for a little while. Seriously - he is such a cutie. This, by the way, is the same toddler nephew who is soothed in the middle of the night by West Wing episodes, possibly because he heard a lot of it from the womb, or possibly because he has very discerning taste. 

2. There is melon with ham at the wedding.

3. The cheap loo roll I buy from the local supermarket appears to have mathematical equations on it. Ones with Greek letters. Ah, Belgium. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Books by Belgians or Based In Brussels… Can you Help? |

Can anyone help out this bibliophile? And if not, you might find the comments on his post useful - there's a good list there!

Books by Belgians or Based In Brussels… Can you Help? |: Books by Belgians or Based In Brussels… Can you Help?
If all goes to plan I will be off to Brussels at the end of next week on a mini break (for work, so not so much of a break actually). That sounds more leisurely than it actually is as the itinerary will be quite full, but there is some travelling around and ‘time of my own’ to go and explore, wander the streets and find little cafes to sit and read in. And that’s where I wanted your help. What books by Belgians or based in Brussels could you recommend?

I’ve got the obligatory travel/city guides from the library…

…But I do like to have some fiction from the country with me too. Some crime might be good, so could some quirky literature, or indeed a classic. In fact any suggestions are welcome. I will be taking Daphne Du Maurier with me but have room for one more book. Can you advise?

'via Blog this'

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Oh to be in a foxhole...

The more observant of you, or at least those of you who have read the post I wrote in the middle of the night, will know that I have just started a wordpress blog for professional purposes. (Don't worry, this one is continuing, precisely so I can write the kind of thing I'm about to write.) Wordpress is great in lots of ways - and awful in others - but one of the things I love is its daily writing prompt. They don't call it that, but that's what it is.

I hadn't decided I was definitely going to do it, but today's question was too good not to respond to.

What person, real or fictional, living or dead, would you want to share a foxhole with if you were on a battlefield?

I know you all know who I'm going to say, so I'm not really sure there's a lot of point to this blogpost at all, except that I haven't spoken to anyone all day apart from the woman ahead of me in the queue at Delhaize, and this feels like contact with the outside world.

So, anyway. Yes, Josh Lyman. But then I thought, yes, but Josh Lyman tends to freak out a bit in these kinds of situations. Plus, you know, ideal opportunity for a romantic moment, which would be wrong, since Josh belongs to Donna. (People about to accuse me of a spoiler, please note I'm not saying he ends up with Donna. I'm just giving my opinion here.)

So, and maybe this is just because I have just watched Somebody's going to jail, or maybe it's because I've met him in person and know that he would make a pleasant visual distraction from the fighting, or maybe it's the writer thing, or the caring sensitive thing, but maybe I would go for Sam Seaborn instead. Also, I don't know - Donna is always looking after Josh. In that situation I'd want someone to look after me, not the other way round. So maybe Sam is a better bet. Especially given the whole potential for romance thing.

Stepping away from the world of fiction (or, er, not), I think we all know who I'd actually go for. Someone a lot like Josh Lyman, only not married to Donna. (Again, I'm not saying Josh and Donna get married. So we're clear.) Someone who looks a lot like Josh Lyman, whose interesting conversation (and dimples) would no doubt distract me from the whole foxhole situation. And since I've seen him handle a gun, I'd feel safe, too.

How about you? Whom would you pick?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

A new muse, peut-être?

... and just like that, Brad Pitt is suddenly in my life.

Now, don't get me wrong, he's very attractive and all, but I honestly hadn't given him any thought for oh, months? years? (Except, that is, for those few occasions when people in my writing group - from a young married guy to a elegant senior citizen who was once married to an Ambassador - have questioned my decision to give the name Brad to the hero of Inevitable. "I don't know," said Ann. "It just reminds of that film star, you know? It's not a name for a diplomat. He should at least be Bradley." They don't realise, of course, that he's named after an entirely different Brad - who, in fact, is a Bradley - and that his name is therefore immutable. Anyway, I digress.)

I've had the oddest of weeks. (Don't worry, I'm coming back to Brad Pitt). I've been ill in bed and yet unable - of course - to do anything sensible like sleep and read and listen to Martin Sheen's soothing voice on Desert Island Discs (well, actually, I did do that - did you know that Bill Clinton used to watch The West Wing on the plane? Anyway, focus, Claire, focus). I say "of course" because now that I have my iPad, I apparently lack the capability to be offline for more than about five minutes at a time.

I had an excuse, though. I needed to market Conquering Babel. And in so doing I came across a plethora, a multitude, a legion of expat magazines and expat blogs, and just like that, somehow, over a number of days, it came to me - the thing that should have come to me years ago, really, and kind of did, but I ignored it. The blogging thing. The blogging about languages thing.

It's not glamorous. It's not going to impress anyone at parties. It's not going to make me rich. But still, it's my thing. I've learned a lot over the last few years - a lot about languages, teaching them, learning them, and also a lot about writing and blogging and tweeting. And now all these things have come together in my shiny new blog,

And of course, I need content. But one thing I've also learned a lot about these last couple of years is Google Alert. And my shiny new alert arrived a couple of nights ago with the news that Brad Pitt was learning French. (Actually, if you Google "Brad Pitt learning French", he's apparently said quite a lot about it over the years. Who knew? And yes, okay, I Googled "Bradley Whitford learning French", just to compare, and you get this, which while it is perfectly pleasant, does not actually have anything to do with learning French.)

So I blogged about him. Brad Pitt. Name dropped, if you will. Today (the very day when I happened to watch the Friends episode where he guest-stars, the coincidence of which is frankly a little spooky), I finally got wordpress sort of vaguely figured out and so I reposted the quote on that blog: the inaugural post, in fact. I added a photo of him. It didn't show up. Oh well. Wordpress is too clever for me.

And then, when I couldn't sleep at roughly 2.30 am, I opened up my iPad again, and clicked to my Wordpress blog. And there he was, right on the front page of the iPad version of the site. As though he were the theme of my blog. And let me reassure you, he is not.

But then something clicked in my sleep-deprived brain and I realised that a picture of him and the word Babel seemed to go together. And they do. Because of course, the film Babel? (Which, no, I haven't seen, since it's neither an intelligent romantic comedy nor written by Aaron Sorkin.)

I don't know. That's a lot of coincidences. Maybe he should be my mascot? Maybe I should put him on the front of my Conquering Babel book? Dedicate it to him? Too much?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Misused phrase of the week: "by definition"

This, from one of my favourite political podcasts, the New York Times' Caucus.

"...these special elections where, by definition, very few people turn out to vote..."

Really? That's the definition of a special election? That very few people turn out to vote?

I thought the definition of a special election was an election to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections. (Well, in truth, I have just checked on Wikipedia in order not to make an idiot of myself, because, although my knowledge of American politics is significantly better than it was in my pre-West Wing days, it's still far from complete.)

Anyway, back to the point at hand. The definition of a special election is not one in which few people turn out to vote. Therefore, the phrase "by definition" is not correct here. It would work in a phrase like this one:

"... these special elections, which by definition are not held in November..."

or even "... these special elections, which by definition are usually unexpected..." That is stretching it somewhat, but we can surmise that if they are not "regularly scheduled" it's because something has happened out of the blue. It's shaky ground, but you could just about argue it still stems from definition.

But low turnout? Of course, that's part of the nature of special elections. (Or by-elections, as we Brits call them.) So the phrase they wanted was by their very nature, not by definition.

Why does this matter? I was going to say, it doesn't really, so you can all stop listening to me now. And you can, but it does: precision in language is important. For accurate communication. For mutual understanding. And also, most importantly of all, just because.

All the cool kids are doing it...

Brad Pitt, on learning French:

“All our kids are speaking French, so now we have that second language infused into our home. Everyone is learning another language. I’ve got the Rosetta Stone for French sitting right on the table in the bedroom, and it’s going to be loaded into my brain. I know there are certain synapses in my brain that just freeze dead at French, but I have to learn it because our kids are speaking it. Even the twins as babies were saying certain things in French.”


Thursday, 15 September 2011

Readable French books - yes, they really exist.

Are you learning French? Ready for the challenge of reading a whole book?

Stop! Don't pick just any book. You may be feeling it now, but three pages into the latest translated Sophie Kinsella, your dictionary will be soaked with tears of frustration. (You do have a dictionary, don't you?)

And let's take chick lit as an example. It feels easy to read in our language. But it's full of slang, in-fashion vocabulary, and the kind of words you probably aren't learning at your intensive EU course. It's hard. So you will feel stupid, and you feel doubly stupid because you will (wrongly) think that the thing you are finding difficult is in fact really easy.

Here are a few you can start with instead.

I grew up reading Le Petit Nicolas, and he is ace. His adventures in a classic old-fashioned French primary school will raise a smile.

Not only that, but it's written in the passé composé - ie, not in that odd tense we inexplicably call the passé simple, which makes it much easier to understand - and will painlessly reinforce all those past participles your French teacher has been trying to get you to learn.

Also, it's not a novel, but rather a series of stand-alone adventures: much more manageable to tell yourself you will read one story this week than, say, one novel in three months.

Another childhood classic is the adventure of this little boy who finds headlice in his hair, and befriends them. It's short, and funny, and full of word play (nothing too complicated, though), and the illustrations alone make it a worthwhile purchase.

Another oldie but goodie (okay, so I grew up in the 80s, and I'm not going to apologise for that) is Astérix. There is, of course, plenty of word play in this too, which makes it not the easiest of reads - though it also makes it fun once you work out what all the names are supposed to mean. My all-time, hands-down favourite is Astérix chez les Bretons, in which very British expressions are translated verbatim into French - so don't base your colloquial language on it, it's roughly as reliable as Google Translate - but it will make you smile. Plus, you'll discover some things about British history that I'll bet you never knew...

If you're more advanced, you might - might - want to try Bonjour Tristesse, by Francoise Sagan. It is as French as French gets - deeply philosophical musings on the inner life of a French teenager during her stifling hot summer in the South of France. It's also beautifully written and - again - short. Honestly, you cannot underestimate the feeling of achievement that comes with finishing a novel - and those feelings fuel further learning.

Have you discovered any good French reads?

The books mentioned here, and others like them, can be found here if you're in the UK or Belgium, and here if you're in the US.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

3BT: carrot soup, another review, and a new website

1. A lovely friend brings me home-made carrot soup and freshly squeezed oranges, and sympathy for my being ill at home.

2. I spend a few hours contacting expat magazines to see if they want to review Conquering Babel. The best-selling UK-based mag for Francophiles says yes. Potentially, this could mean a boost in sales, and it gives me confidence that I have a marketable product.

3. Having struggled with Wordpress, I've found a website designing and hosting service that does exactly what I wanted and is easy to use: weebly.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Language learning in Belgium: where to start

Are you an expat in Belgium? Wondering what your options are for learning French or Dutch?

Wonder no more - my piece in the Bulletin is here.

Monday, 12 September 2011

3BT: work, a review, and my favourite actor

1. I have not one but two emails from people enquiring about lessons. I can't remember the last time this happened.

2. A twitter friend of mine whose blog has a large following agrees to review my book, Conquering Babel.

3. I watch Bradley Whitford give an interview about his forthcoming event, fundraising for a cancer charity that sounds like it's doing fantastic work. It makes me smile when celebs I love use their fame for good.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, 11 September 2011

3BT: delayed trains, compassionate moments and community

1. The train is delayed, by just long enough for me to catch it. That is what's called grace: wholly undeserved favour.

2. I spend the afternoon remembering 9 11 with expat Americans. I am deeply moved by stories of heroism, of compassion, of selfless courage, like the firefighters in the documentary, but also like the two men who picked up a lady in a wheelchair on the 58th floor and carried her down.

3. I sign off from the weekly twitter #writechat and mention I have a cold. Strangers I will likely never meet wish me well. I am appreciating the writing community more and more.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Hooray for second babies!

Congratulations Janel Moloney!

Not only is she on Broadway this month (well, technically, off Broadway), she's pregnant again - and looking amazing.

As an only child with strong views on the desirability of siblings, I'm always doubly excited about second babies. Am I allowed to hope it's a girl, for thr matching set?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Women's Fiction: an insulting term?

I thought I was going to be irritated by the Women's Hour piece on women's fiction. I thought it was going to be one of those tired and tiresome discussions about how we don't use the term "men's fiction", and how women's fiction is what we would call literary fiction if it were written by men.

But I found myself agreeing.

For context: some customers complained to WHSmith about their shelving only fluffly, light, pink novels under "women's fiction", which seemed to imply that women only like that kind of writing. WHSmith responded by removing the label. Great customer service?


There is no doubt that a market for those novels exists, and those people, shopping in a hurry, want to be pointed to the kind of books they like. So removing the signpost is not particularly good customer service.

The thing is, though, that we have a label for the kind of book that the customers were referring t0: "chick lit". Some women like those books, some women don't.

"Women's fiction", however, is much broader than that. I think it's a useful term. Where would you put The Time Traveler's Wife if not there? I am a woman, and I like to read books like that. I have no problem with grouping them together so that I can find them.

But The Time Traveler's Wife doesn't belong in "chick lit". Nor, for that matter, does Inevitable, but since Authonomy don't have a "women's fiction" section, I had to use the "chick lit" label and couple it, slightly oddly, with "literary fiction". If it were marketed to be pink and fluffy and placed alongside Sophie Kinsella's novels, I would be mortified. Or at least as mortified as I could be if my book were actually being published.

My plea is this: call chick lit "chick lit", or "light romantic reads" if "chick lit" is going to offend some people, but please use "women's fiction" for something broader than that. The label is useful, but only if applied correctly.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language

Yes - it's out. It feels good to have my name come up on an Amazon search!

So far, I've sold eight copies - fame and fortune are still a way off, but now that my Authonomy ranking seems to have plateaued, it's fun to watch another little number go up.

My first comment on read as follows:
As a French person who had to learn English, I know first hand the challenge of learning another language! I love this book, it is easy to read, full of practical tips, highly motivating and also full of fun comments from the author. Definitely great for any beginners and also people who shy from difficult academic books. There are also a simple glossary that helps to understand grammar and some recommended websites. Get it! It is a bargain!

On, it was this:
Ever catch yourself in Ignorant status? Have you ever felt misunderstood or you don't understand? Do you want to raise the chances of avoiding alzheimers? Do you just want to look cool sometimes in front of colleagues and peers or impress that hot date?
If you said yes to any of those question above then you need to LEARN ANOTHER LANGUAGE
SILLY! I recommend this book, its inexpensive, it'll give you good praticals.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

On (probably) not meeting Janel Moloney

This morning, I woke up disorientated. My alarm clock was ringing and I wasn't sure why. Or what day of the week it was.

Then I remembered, and all was briefly well with the world, until I recalled that Janel is going to be on Broadway this month, and I didn't know about this until two days ago, and it's too late to do anything about it, even if I did have any money, which I don't.

You have to understand, I have been waiting two years for this. I have Google Alerts set up solely for this purpose. (They were useless, by the way, since the correct time to tell me about her appearance would have been roughly six months ago, not the day after Twitter had already informed me.) It worked for Stockard Channing a while back - and off I went to Dublin.

Which was disappointing. The play was great - The Importance of Being Earnest, one of my favourites - but, frankly, the other actors were stronger. She needed to work on her voice projection and her British accent. All of which I'd have overlooked if she'd been nice to me at Stage Door.

She wasn't. She made it clear she couldn't be bothered to be there and would much rather be inside with the other stars. She dutifully posed for a photo, though, and signed a couple of things. And it was my first West Wing actor sighting, so I still walked away excited and - yes, I'm slightly ashamed of this - shaking.

Then it turned out that not only Richard Schiff but also Elisabeth Moss were going to be in the UK earlier this year. Well, I wasn't going to miss out on that.

For Richard Schiff's play, Smash, we headed down a busy street to a theatre whose existence could easily pass unnoticed. It was old and smelled musty the way that a favourite book passed down the generations might.

We had astonishingly good seats - right in the front row - in a small, intimate theatre, for a play that sounded like - and was - my kind of thing: fun, not too emotionally intense, and featuring a young, slightly insecure writer. Richard Schiff was great - though I'll never get used to seeing him smiling - and so was the rest of the cast. After it was over, my friend abandoned me to my fate when I said I couldn't promise not to embarrass myself or her when I met him.

As it turned out, she would have been, not proud exactly, but not mortified, either. I couldn't think of a single intelligent thing to ask him and stood there looking slightly starstruck and wishing the other people hadn't asked him about the West Wing, because (being a true fan) I knew that was the last thing he wanted to talk about, and it had put him in a bad mood. But I did not say or do anything of which I am ashamed. But he, too, was dutiful - I have a great picture of the two of us and a signed something or other.

A few days later, we went to say Elisabeth Moss in The Children's Hour. The two experiences could not have been more different. We paid four times the price for a ticket right at the back of an enormous theatre. This play was emotionally intense, though I was very distracted by the fake and wobbly American accents. And then, afterwards, we waited.

There were barriers set up and all that stuff. Eventually, eventually, the actors all came out, including Keira Knightley, who was gracious and kind. Now, I know, in my head I know, that Elisabeth Moss doesn't owe me anything. That acting night after night must be exhausting. That maybe she was tired or ill or just needed to get home. That having to smile for cameras all the time must be irritating.

But she didn't come out at stage door, and let's face it, I was cross.

And the thing is, what happens if I fly to New York (which I wasn't going to bother with at all this year) and go to Broadway and wait for ages and Janel doesn't come out at stage door?

Or what if she comes out and I don't get to speak to her?

Or what if I get to speak to her and she is less than lovely?I have no reason to imagine she would be. But wouldn't it be devastating if she were?

What if she speaks to other people more and I get jealous as an only child is prone to - doesn't she know who I am, my addled brain will scream, and the extent of my loyalty?

Or what if she does know, and it freaks her out?

Or what if I do get to speak to her, and she is patient and gracious and kind, and all I can do is babble incoherently about the West Wing and how beautiful she is in real life and how much I want to be Donna Moss and what was it like to kiss Bradley Whitford and can I please have his phone number? And then kick myself afterwards for not being the sophisticated, intelligent writerly type I want to project?

So much potential for disaster. Maybe it's actually a blessing that I'm so far away from New York.