A Gift from France

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Our family has expanded this week. We have welcomed 16-yr-old Joséphine, an AFS exchange student. She is from Dijon and has come to live in New Zealand for just two months. She’ll go to school here and hopefully get a taste of the Kiwi lifestyle.

She has fitted right in and it feels like she has been here for much longer than a few days. She is bright, funny, down-to-earth and yes, very stylish and beautiful. She gracefully and unself-consciously lives up to the French stereotype. Miss B (our 6-yr-old) thinks she is the best thing since sliced baguette and as I write they are both on the couch writing in their respective diaries – Jo in French, Miss B. in English.

When she arrived she gave us each a present. Turns out her sister works for Dior in Paris, so my gift was just a small trifle – two beautiful sets of Christian Dior make-up. OK, I thought. She can stay. (She brought around ten bottles of nail polish with her. Ten. All Dior. And lots of creams and lotions, all Dior. She’d scream if she saw my $10 supermarket cleanser and moisturiser.)

Jo’s English is quite good but occasionally we lapse into French. I lived in France for a couple of years and used to speak fluently, and I can feel it all coming back to me now – so much so that I have to catch myself and remember to talk in English when we are chatting away in the evenings.

I have always been fascinated with the mechanics of language, the meaning and origin of words and the way in which language shapes culture (and the other way around). The process of learning a language appeals to the exactness of my nature. I love the rules of grammar, for example. (As my friends and acquaintances read this they are groaning in recognition. I’m a tad anal when it comes to grammar, I admit.) I also love familiarising myself with the music of a new language; the distinctive way in which different nationalities weave letters and sounds together to create something unique. French is such a gorgeous language to speak – when you get it right. No wonder Parisian waiters are such grumpy bastards – they must despair of all the ignorant tourists proudly sporting “I heart Paris” peak caps, walk shorts and sandals who strangle their language: “Ooon coffee, seel voo play”.

As I observe Jo grappling with a new country, new family and new language, I am acutely reminded of my first few days in France when I was 24. I had gone there to teach English at a High School in Normandy. After flying from Auckland to Paris with only a two-hour stopover in Malaysia I must have looked like the walking dead as I boarded a train for the city of Caen. All I remember of the trip was sitting next to an old lady who gabbled away at me for two hours while I smiled, nodded and understood precisely three words out of every 100. With growing horror I started to comprehend that speaking a foreign language in the real world was so very, very different from learning it in a classroom or a lecture theatre. So much for my top university grades; they meant nothing when I tried to set up a French bank account (nightmare) or as I chatted (make that choked and stammered) to my fellow teachers in the staff room about the curriculum.

The foreigner is, by definition, always at a remove from the new world he or she inhabits. I felt like I was wandering round in a bubble or trapped behind a thick pane of glass. Every time I wanted to say something the words stuck in my throat as I realised I didn’t know the French for this, or that. Humour and quips and colloquialisms were out of my reach. All my old tools I used for connecting with others and finding my place in the world had become redundant, and I couldn’t even read the fecking instruction manual for the new ones.

Fortunately after about a year (just kidding; it took a few weeks) things started to make sense and I was able to join in and contribute and make myself heard. But for a long time I still felt as though I was experiencing things at a remove, and that I would never be able to fully express myself or be truly known by another.

Eventually I started writing poetry in French. It was total shite, of course, but full marks for trying. And then I started reading books in French, not to improve my language skills but purely because I wanted to read the stories. My first was “Entretien avec le vampire” (Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire”.) Talk about leaping in the deep end. I read magazines and the daily paper in French. I started dreaming in French. When I went on a school trip to England with my students it felt foreign to be speaking English again. But during my entire time in France, when I was tired or feeling a little low or vulnerable, opening an English Cleo or Elle magazine and reading with no effort felt like sinking into a warm bath.

Translating from one language to another is fraught with difficulty and fascination. It can give us a wonderful insight into a culture. For example, we say: “It’s raining cats and dogs”. The French say: “Il pleut comme une vache qui pisse” (It’s raining like a cow taking a piss). OK, that doesn’t gift us much insight into the French psyche but it is vaguely amusing.

Here’s a better example. We say “I miss her.” The French say: “Elle me manque”, which is nuanced slightly differently. It translates as “she is absent from me”, or “I feel the lack of her; she is the piece of me that is missing”. Beautiful.

What about this: We say candyfloss (or cotton candy in America); the French call it Barbe à Papa (Daddy’s beard.) Much more imaginative, don’t you think?

We say “as pretty as a picture”. They say “jolie comme un coeur” (as pretty as a heart).

We say “I’m a bit low/down. I’m feeling blue”. They say “J’ai le cafard” (cafard means cockroach. You could hardly choose a better word for a horrible feeling.)

It is not just the words that are different; it is the fundamental difference in perception. You can’t just think of a sentence in English and try to translate it word for word into French. Much of the time it will sound stilted and false. You have to start from the French perspective. You must, in a sense, commit yourself to learning not only new words but a new mindset. It’s damn hard and exhausting but so very rewarding.

Speaking another language has opened a new world to me and led me to people I would never have known otherwise. It has helped with my understanding of my own language. It has undoubtedly helped me in my writing; the world of words is so much richer and its multiple layers are more accessible to me. And best of all, it has brought me two new sets of Christian Dior make-up.

Oh, and Joséphine.

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