My pied-à-terre | Montpellier, France

Pied-à-terre – from French, literally, foot on the ground. The term is used in reference to a small living unit, usually located in a large city some distance away from an individual’s primary residence. The term implies usage as a temporary second residence, either for part of the year or part of the work week.

My own personal pied-à-terre in Montpellier has the most wonderful diversity of grounds:

First, you have to climb exactly 106 steps, before reaching the last floor and the entryway, covered in polished concrete.

When you first enter, you find yourself in the kitchen, with the cute little sky light above.

Next to it is the bathroom – a place for reading or just marveling at the stones on the ground.

Then comes the living room, its cool floor covered with beautifully worn large grey stones, typical of the old architecture in Montpellier’s center.

Next door is the bedroom, with its creaky hardwood floors.

The bathtub may or may not be in the bedroom itself.

And lastly –  “the balcony”! To get to it, you have to climb out of the bedroom window. Just beyond it is the roof of my favorite cinema that shows films with subtitles, rather than dubbed in French.

To all my dear friends: consider this a “teaser”. To see the rest, you’ll just have to come visit.

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Vowels: A, E, I, O, U

Just came across this exquisite video, which captures the beauty of the sound of language and combines it with the visual appeal of excellently selected moving images.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/32830670 w=640&h=360]

The video was made by filmmaker and illustrator Temujin Doran, who used archival sound recordings from the 1945 Linguaphone series English Pronunciation – A practical handbook for the foreign learner.

***This post is part of the alphabet series, which contains photos and stories about letters from various alphabets. For a more systematic and organized run-down of all the letters in the English alphabet, also check out the Woman of Letters page, which is updated continuously with new letters as I stumble upon them.***

The confusion of letters | Montpellier, France

Friends who are studying Bulgarian often complain about how confusing the alphabet can be. At first glance, unlike fundametally different scripts (such as Arabic, Japanese or Chinese), the Cyrillic alphabet is easy:

а б в г д е ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ь ю я

A lot of its letters look like their Latin counterparts; some of them even correspond across the two alphabets: ‘A’ is ‘A’, ‘K’ is ‘K’, ‘M’ is ‘M’, ‘O’ is ‘O’ and ‘T’ is ‘T’.

The confusion, though, sets in when the Bulgarian ‘B’ turns out to be the English ‘V’, the Cyrillic ‘H’ actually corresponds to the Latin ‘N’, the ‘P’ is an ‘R’, and the ‘C’ is in fact an ‘S’. [A common joke is that all eateries in Bulgaria carry the unappealingly sounding name PECTOPAHT (a phonetic transcription of the word ‘restaurant’ in Bulgarian).]

What renders matters even more confusing is that letters from the Cyrillic alphabet sometimes look like slightly modified versions of Latin letters but sound nothing like them: the best example is the mirror image of ‘R’- the Bulgarian “Я”, which contains not a trace of a throaty roar but is rather the sound made of combining ‘i’+’a’ (as in the endings of Sofia or Maria). Another case is the flipped ‘N’ – the Bulgarian ‘И’, pronounced like the ‘i’ in ‘hipster’. Or – as in the picture above, the English ‘V’, which – when turned upside down becomes (in certain fonts) the Bulgarian ‘Л’. [Although, in the interest of full disclosure, the signs pictured were in fact not letters but arrows indicating the direction of traffic on two parallel bike lanes.]

Against all odds, it might turn out that the easiest Cyrillic letters to learn are those that have no Latin counterparts or slightly modified twins. Some of them, in spite of their strange appearance, have direct phonetic equivalents in English: the angular Г (as in the ‘g’ in ‘golf’), the symmetricаlly attractive Ж (which sounds like the ‘g’ in ‘genre’) and Ф ( the ‘f’ in ‘February’). Others – to the delight of those learning Bulgarian as a foreign language, are single letters that unify more than one sound, on the same principle as the Latin ‘X’ (a combination of k+s): the rounded Ю (pronounced exactly like ‘you’); the siblinged Ш and Щ (pronounced ‘sh’ and ‘sht’, respectively); the choppy Ч (which would be the first letter if you transcribe the word ‘choppy’ in Bulgarian); and Ц (the first sound in the word ‘Zeitgeist’ if you pronounce it as Germans do).

But perhaps the strangest and most troubling of all is the letter Ъ (pronounced ‘uh’, or like the second sound in ‘Bulgarian’), which is tricky to use for both native and foreign speakers, stands at the beginning of just one single word in the Bulgarian language and yet, it is indispensable.

***This post is part of the alphabet series, which contains photos and stories about letters from various alphabets. For a more systematic and organized run-down of all the letters in the English alphabet, also check out the Woman of Letters page, which is updated continuously with new letters as I stumble upon them.***

Blog love: The Migrant Bookclub

I stumbled upon Petya’s blog several years ago and I’ve been a big fan of her writing ever since. Back then, it was called How to Marry a Bulgarian and it documented, in her own words, “the joys {and, sometimes, confusion} of bi-cultural marriage, pan-Slavic eccentricity, and the emotional struggles {and, liberation} of being away from *home* and *family*” – all issues that are particularly close to my heart. Recently, she changed both her blog’s name – to The Migrant Bookclub, as well as its focus, and now shares entertaining, personal and informative stories and images on the topics of literature – particularly by immigrant and Central and Eastern European authors; art; style; and fashion! What has stayed the same and kept me coming back for more is her ability to find exciting topics and continuously offer her own unique spin on them.

I may or may not be a little envious of Petya’s inspired productivity and ceaseless energy (besides The Migrant Bookclub, she’s also the woman behind the blog Openly Feminist [in Bulgarian]). To top it all off, sometimes she even publishes photos of her own feet as illustrations to her stories, which in and of itself is enough to make me love her blog.So, in case you’ve been living in the jungle with no Internet access for the past several years and you’re only hearing about The Migrant Bookclub now, check it out! I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

M is for Montpellier | Montpellier, France

Turns out I’m not only obsessed with words and sentences, but also with individual letters! So, with this post I’m launching the alphabet series category and in it, I’ll put old and new posts about letters from various alphabets – engraved, scribbled, stenciled, embossed or otherwise intentionally or accidentally inscribed on the ground beneath my feet. (For a more systematic and organized run-down of all the letters in the English alphabet, also check out the Woman of Letters page, which is updated continuously with new letters as I stumble upon them.)

Here the emblematic letter of Montpellier is carved into massive marble slabs, placed around the city’s central square, Place de la Comédie.

Blog love: Meanwhile on the 7th floor

I’ve been following Meanwhile on the 7th floor for a while now and just loving it. It documents the artistic, culinary, literary and travel adventures of an insanely cute and creative couple living on the seventh floor in Sofia, and manages the uneasy feat of being super romantic without being cheesy. Also, it is written in both English and Bulgarian!

I recently signed up to follow the blog and imagine my delight today when I found this little message to me (from snow-covered Sofia, no less) in their latest post:

Thank you, Sevda and Emil, and right back at you!

Leftist tendencies | Paris, France

The above image captures part of the a warning sign painted at many pedestrian crossings in Paris that in its entirety reads “Danger a gauche” (Danger to the left).

The word ‘gauche’ is another fascinating case of seemingly mundane words’ having multiple and unrelated meanings and undergoing a curious transformation as they are adopted in another language. (Similarly to the word pedestrian.)

In French, the most common usage of the word gauche is to mean left, as in the opposite of right. As an extension to that, the word can also be employed to mean bent, twisted, slanted, or skewed. Interestingly, it also holds several other meanings that have nothing to do with relative directions or egocentric coordinates. It is also a synonym for embarrassed, clumsy, awkward, incompetent, timid and constrained, and it is also used in old expressions, to indicate a certain “irregularity”, as in “mariage de la main gauche” (marriage of the left hand), used in references to royals who marry commoners or to a couple who lives together without being married.

In English, the straight-forward meaning of the word as an indicator of relative direction has been completely lost, and ‘gauche’ means lacking social grace, sensitivity, acuteness, or tact. It is synonymous with awkward, clumsy, ungainly, gawky, unhandy and… maladroit (another word borrowed from French, in whose roots stand the words mal (‘ill’) and droit (“right”), the relative direction opposite of left.

It is fascinating how these two words’ meanings have transformed, from the simple  names for the two most common relative directions – left and right, which presumably have the same value, to become injected with meanings that unquestionably make one better than and preferable to the other. In contrast to the gawky gauche, the word droit in French has an air of a definitive superiority, both physical and moral: it is used not only to mean straight (not bent or crooked) but is also at the root of all words related to law and justice (as opposed to criminal, illegal and unjust). The case is not so different in English, where labeling something as right means it is correct and not wrong.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that these positive (for the right) and negative (for the left) connotations stem from the long-standing assumption that right-handedness is superior to left-handedness. Just think of the words dextrous (= skillful) and sinister (= evil), whose meanings have largely shifted from their Latin origins but retain their positive and negative connotation: dexter in Latin means right-hand and skillful, while sinistra indicates ‘on the left hand or side, hence unfavorable, injurious’.

All this ties in rather well, though most likely accidentally, with the pedestrian crossing signs in Paris, which inadvertently confirm the notion of the sinister left (where danger lurks) and the benevolent, just and virtuous right. Curiously enough, while walking around Paris, I didn’t see any such signs warning pedestrians of dangers coming from the right. This is perplexing, considering the fact that in about 66% of the world, including France, traffic is on the right and thus, pedestrians would normally have the habit of looking for oncoming vehicles to the left as they cross. By contrast, the pedestrian crossing signs in London – where traffic moves on the left, thus confusing and endangering the billions of roaming tourists who come from those 66% of right-traffic countries, seem neutral. They never tire of telling people to look either left or right, having thus surely saved thousands, if not millions, of lives (including mine at least a dozen times).

These were some of the thoughts that filled my head as I walked the streets around the Latin Quarter in Paris’s Left Bank (Rive Gauche), the part of the city to the south of where the Seine flows. It could perhaps serve as a small consolation and redemption for the bad reputation of the word gauche to note that the term Rive Gauche stands not only for the geographical area just mentioned but also for three exciting and decidedly not awkward concepts:

1. “Rive Gauche” or “Left Bank” refers to the Paris of an earlier era; the city of artists, writers and philosophers, including Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and all the rest of the artistic community that lived, worked and hung out around Montparnasse around the 1920s and 1930s. The phrase implies a sense of bohemianism and creativity.

2. In cinema, the term Left Bank refers to a group of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the corresponding “right bank” group, which was made up of more famous and financially successful New Wave directors (Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard), the Left Bank directors (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Henri Colpi and Jacques Demy) had a “fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking”, as well as an identification with the political left, according to critic and curator Richard Roud.

3. Finally, Left Bank has also come to signify a particular look in fashion. This meaning was initiated by Yves Saint Laurent who in 1966 launched a ready-to-wear collection of that name, with which he reportedly sought to democratize fashion by taking clothes that had been, until then, worn exclusively by the lower classes, such as the leather jacket, and incorporating them into high fashion.

Hello, Eleventh Avenue | Lodève, France

On our way from Montpellier to Albi, where we headed for a few days of New Year’s Eve festivities, we made a short stopover at the small, sleepy, quaint – and very French, town of Lodève. As I came out of the car, parked on a street in the town’s center, I came face to face with a door: above it, inscribed with tiny tiles was the word onze (‘eleven’) and below, on the ground in front of it was written ‘ave’.

As in, you know, Eleventh Avenue! As in, you know, New York City! In this town that couldn’t be any less similar to the Big Apple. (I already wrote about the tendency to (often mistakenly) ascribe familiar meanings to that which is unknown, here).

Believe it or not, though, it turned out that there is no Eleventh Ave in Lodève. (The roads there, if you must know, have perfectly appropriate and very French-sounding names, like for example Avenue de la République, Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville and Chemin des Amoureux.) In this case, the onze was simply the number of the street where the building stood, whereas the ave before the threshold did not signify an abbreviation for avenue, but rather a greeting salutation, an old way of saying hello, or hail, if you will (same one as in Ave Maria). So, there you have it.

Strangely enough, at roughly the same time last year, I found myself standing on New York City’s streets on the outskirts of Sofia. I’m going to go ahead and assume this is a sign that I need to renew the tradition of spending New Year’s Eve in New York, which I did for much of the past decade.

Mad riddles | Madrid, Spain

Madrid’s streets surfaces were not just a visual feast for the eyes, but also an excellent way to brush up on my rusty Spanish vocabulary.

Even the most mundane of maintenance shaft covers were educational and beautiful to look at.

Firefighters!

Public lighting! (maintenance hole cover boasts Madrid’s coat of arms, featuring the city’s symbol – the bear with madroño tree)

Telephone systems! (Alright, I didn’t actually have to look this one up.)

Covers of canals, named after former Spanish monarchs!

And my all-time favorite design – natural gas!

Some other street markings were more ornamental than functional, like the gratitude plaques installed by the municipality in front of some businesses:

Here, the one in front of Casa Mira, a cake shop specializing in turrón (Spanish nougat) since 1855.

…. and the one at the Lhardy restaurant, established in 1839.

Others yet, perhaps most perplexingly, called for a quick gender self-identification: