Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quoi de neuf, docteur?

           For the last couple of months I've been spending Monday and Wednesday evenings at the Département d'Etudes de Français Langue Etrangère, (French for Foreigners) at the University of Bordeaux 3 in Pessac.  This past Wednesday was the final exam and the instructors hosted an after-final picque-nîcque (actual spelling) for everyone who made it to the end. So there I was, sharing wine with young (hell they were all young) Lan, a Vietnamese woman, Nigerian Efe, Brazilian Manuela, Turkish Melis, Sudanese Walid and Tibetan Karman - four women and two men, all around a third of my age, from all parts of the globe. The implications of this unlikely scene were not lost on me. I'm not sure how to explain how it felt, maybe it was the wine, but if you are trying to stop getting old, I can recommend studying music in your mid-50's then, at around 60, moving to a country where you have to learn the language.  You'll still get old but at least you're not giving up without a struggle.

            But feeling young is not the same as actually being young and the difficulty of learning a new language is exacerbated by age. At least I think that's what it is. In any case the necessity of learning how to speak and, even more important, understand French is pretty clear. As I think I've mentioned, the simplest task here can become an absolute ordeal when you don't have a good handle on the language. Last week I finally reached critical mass while trying to scan some groceries through the self-service line at Auchan. I had underestimated how much stuff I had, the line behind me was piling up and at a crucial moment, the scanner quit booping and a female voice came from inside the machine, demanding action. Or she could have telling me about a special in the fromage section but I was stuck, couldn't figure out why, couldn't think of how to ask for help and after 6 months of language isolation couldn't take it anymore. If we had been in the States, I would have asked the guy behind me for his Glock and Elvis-ed the shit out of Betty qui bitche. Finally, the attendant came over, yammered something, unfucked the scanner and I mustered the strength to gather my shit and beat it.      
            Despite setbacks like this, I'm gradually beginning to see daylight. I now have no idea what anyone is saying to me only 95% of the time. In the course of my studies, I've learned that thousands of words in English have their roots in French and in most cases actually mean the same thing. Why, did you know that do-si-do, promenade, allemande and other square dance terms that I'd have to look up come from France? It's true. Dos à dos means back to back, promenade means promenade and allemande means German woman. What German women have to do with it, I don't know but if this aspect of square dancing involves something Wagnerian, there's your answer.
            My language program has also been aided by a few movies on DVD that allow the language to be changed and that I've seen enough times to have the dialogue nearly memorized. I've watched Shane, Band of Brothers, The Great Escape, A Christmas Story ("Tu te crèveras un oeil, petit.”) and even It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in French. If you want to know what an Englishman sounds like in French, the Terry-Thomas character is it.
             Some American television shows are available here, although the only one I've ever been able to sit through was The Simpsons. From them I've learned that "Bart sucks" translates as "Bart est nul", "Hi, I'm Big Butt Skinner" is "Salut, je suis Skinner des grosses fesses" and "Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel" is simply "Cletus le plouc."
            Particularly instructive have been my extensive collection of Warner Brother's cartoons that in French star Charlie le coq (Foghorn Leghorn), Titi et Grosminet (Tweety and Sylvester) and Bip-Bip (The Road Runner). Bugs Bunny is the same, although pronounced slightly different but Pepé le Pew is Pépé le putois and has an Italian accent. This reinforces that some things don't really translate cross-culturally and now I know the stereotypical Frenchman, in France, comes from Italy. 
            Whether I'll ever be able to understand this language, well, it can't come fast enough. So let me reiterate, if you're considering retiring someplace where they don't speak English, start watching their version of Looney Tunes tomorrow. If you want to see what Bugs Bunny is like in French, click here. For now, "C-c-c-c-'est fini, les amis."
           See if you can find the French words.


  1. You've convinced me - I won't be moving any time soon. Love your blog - keep it up! We miss you.