Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Shout Out to the Bristol Public Library

I love my library so much.

When we first visited Bristol for my husband's job interview nearly 22 years ago, I asked about the public library. To my concern, the doctor with whom my husband was interviewing and his wife exchanged concerned glances. "It's up the road," they said, not volunteering to take me there, and of course I became even more concerned. I didn't need to be. As soon as we got a free moment we found the library, because I can not live where there isn't a decent library, and it was fine. It was small, and antiquated, and the stacks were dark and cold, but it had quite a lively selection of books for a town of this size and was clearly making the best of limited space. The staff, too, were fantastic. Still are. (Though I wish they didn't all recognize me. "I loved TWTSML," one of them said as I was checking out, not long ago. "What are you working on now? Oh, and your fines are up to seventeen dollars and forty five cents.")

Several years ago the library totally outgrew that old building. A lively civic debate followed about where to move it to--it had to be on the Virginia side of town, because of better public funding there (there's a branch in Tennessee); it had to still be downtown, near the shelters, because so many homeless people use the services there. Finally the best solution was simply to tear down the old single-story building and build a new two-store one in its place.

I'm there all the time. The Appalachian Literacy Initiative, my nonprofit, holds its board meetings in the large conference room upstairs. (We used to meet in the small downstairs conference room, but we're loud, and we were annoying one of the regular patrons, who's autistic and often uses the computers near the downstairs room.) I get books by the bagful. I shop at the gift shop (where else can you get cheap romance novels for fifty cents?) I've fallen sound asleep in the comfy chairs in the reading area, and the parrot in the children's department, Citrus, recognizes me and rings her bell when she sees me so I'll give her a treat.

Yesterday I went to peruse the audio/visual department. I'm heading to France in April to do research on a book I just can't wait to write--it's been bubbling inside me for two years--and I'm determined not to show up at the chateau that will be my setting as a typical monoglot American asshat. I had 3 1/2 years of French, in high school, centuries ago, but by golly in April I will speak their language at least a little bit without sounding like a fool.

Years ago, prior to another trip, I'd bought myself a set of 6 "learn French" CDs to play in the car. They're not wholly useless, but they're limited. I never understand some of the decision making that goes into these things. In the unit on "What I like to do" the choices are jogging, (in French that's "jogging"), taking a walk, or wind-surfing. I guarantee you that never in my life will I need to ask the French where I can do a spot of wind-surfing. My wind-surfing days, if I ever had any, are gone.

But anyhow, the time I spend running errands can certainly be usefully employed listening to French, so off I popped to the library, where I found another set of 10 CDs, a different company. Very excellent. That's when I saw, tucked behind the a/v department, our library's new adult learning center. Which includes a 3-D printer and lots of craft supplies. Mmmm. It wasn't open yet (I mean, that morning, I was there early) but I can't wait to go explore. I really want to play with a 3-D printer.

But then, because I was checking out language tapes, the helpful front desk clerk handed me a brochure. Well, heckfire. Turns out there are online language-learning resources available to library patrons. Turns out there's one program available to Tennessee residents, and another to Virginia residents, and as a patron of the Bristol Public Library I count as both.

Oeeee, howdy, these things are the bomb. Both are multifacted--you hear, read, write, and speak. Turns out my work computer, the same machine I'm typing on now, has a built in microphone, and it turns out that some of my basic pronunciation is lousy. Turns out I don't know how to correctly pronounce vous. Which is the formal or plural form of the word you and one of the more basic words in the entire language. The Tennessee program keeps asking you to say the same word over and over until you get it right, so I've just spent half an hour saying, vous. Vous. vous vous vous VOUS Vous! 

Turns out you have to imagine that the s is there even though you don't pronounce it. Kind of like how in Hamilton, there's a line, "Have you read thish?" where you're pretty sure they threw an h onto the word this, you can't quite be sure, but it makes you think they're saying "this shit" even though they absolutely never say the word "shit."

It's a little weird. I mean, clearly the s is actually on the end of the word vous. But it's a silent s. But not entirely. You have to pretend to say it without actually saying it. In the same way, s'il vous plait, which means please, is pronounced almost as though the first l is actually there, but not quite. I'd been dropping it entirely, which makes my computer beep at me and tell me to try again.

I'm also realizing how spotty my vocabulary is. I've known the word for cabbage, chou, forever, but only yesterday encountered laitue, lettuce. I'm struggling over beurre de cacahuetes which means peanut butter.

My husband walked in while I was muttering beurre de cacahuetes to my screen. He asked what it meant (he's had more French than I have, and didn't know either). "Do the French eat peanut butter?" he asked.

"Not to my knowledge," I said. For sure I'm not eating peanut butter within the borders of France. But, by golly, I'll know how to say it when I'm there.