Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Densest Object in the World

Today it is time for a cautionary tale about a little detail that might trip you up as you toggle between numbers in French and English.
Once upon a time, shortly after I moved to France for good to live with the man I would later marry, the postman delivered a little blue envelope to our house. It contained a blue, handwritten square of paper with the following information on it:
I arrived: March 31, 2005 at 11:30pm
I weigh: 3,650 kg
I measure: 52 cm
You may visit me on Sunday, April 9, between 9am and noon.
There was no signature. It was some kind of party invitation, but who would have a party on a Sunday morning?
And who would couch the invitation as a riddle?
I had never heard of anything that dense.
Was it an asteroid?
Surely I would have heard of an asteroid landing near our village. It would have made a big hole, too.
Besides, only quarks and stuff are dense like that. You can’t even see them.
This is ridiculous, I thought.
No one is going to come to their party.
I tossed the invitation on the table and forgot about it until my husband came home. “Any mail?” he asked.
“Just this stupid riddle,” I said, handing him the blue piece of paper. As I passed it to him, I noticed there was something on the back of it. It was a picture of a newborn baby, whose birth his parents and grandparents were very happy to announce.
“Ah, Fred had his baby,” Julien said, tossing the birth announcement back on the table. “I guess we should buy them a present. What do you mean, riddle?”
And that is why you should never forget that the French use commas where Americans use decimal points, and vice versa.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The world's most powerful word

My husband and I used to have an ongoing argument about the merits of French versus the merits of English. “Come on,” I would tell him. “English is so much more descriptive. The language of Shakespeare. There’s so much more you can say.”
“That’s because Shakespeare went around inventing words,” he’d scoff.
“But that’s exactly my point,” I’d counter. “Look how many more words English has than French.”
He pooh-poohed this. “Toothbrush, flatiron, hamstring, fairytale - it’s just because you count compound words. That’s cheating.”
“Serendipity, retch, doodle,” I parried. “Or how about silly? Your language doesn’t have a word for silly, for God’s sake.”
“But that doesn’t stop us from being silly. Or describing it. We’re simply more efficient. We do more with less. Eventually, we’ll have reduced the whole of French down to a single, extremely expressive syllable. Like bah.
My husband may actually be right about this, but he’s got the wrong syllable. If I had to bet on French boiling down to one syllable I’d bet on doux, which, might be the most versatile word I know.
This one little word can mean:
soft (in texture or in sound)
Imagine a language in which your baby’s hair, your lover’s gaze, the weather this afternoon, the pace at which you’re getting things done, the way you woke up, the breakfast you ate, the volume of the radio, your cat’s nap, and a million other things can all be described with a single word. Double it into two syllables – doudou – and it becomes your child’s security blanket, a nickname for your lover, a way to describe a cuddly person. Roll it over your tongue a few times and it fancies up into douillet, adding coziness and luxuriance to the mix.
Doux is so shy and unassuming, and yet so powerful. If the meek shall inherit the earth and language is slowly distilling itself down into a single super-syllable, let this be the one.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Never a dull moment

While looking around for a good translation for the French verb "deciller" (which, literally, means "to make someone regain his lucidity") I learned that "ciller" means "to sew shut the eyelids of a bird of prey for training purposes." (The little guy to your right does not approve.)

And there, again, is the tragedy of translation - no matter how I translate that word (which occurs in the context of a book about social dialogue in the EU), the connotation of a falcon with its eyes sewn shut will be lost forever.

My only comfort is that it's such a rare word in French that I think the nuance is lost on most French readers, too...

Monday, October 10, 2011

French vocabulary no. 1: La Recup'

Récuperer is the verb with which you regain possession, use, or enjoyment of something spent, lost, left, lent, or entrusted to someone else. Like its English colleague, recuperate, it comes from the Latin: re – back – and capere – take. It comes to the rescue, gives you time off to compensate for hours worked overtime, neutralizes potentially opposed ideas, and heals the sick and injured. Most of all, it gives new life to objects that would otherwise go in the trash. The French language has subjected this verb to its own treatment and made it into a noun to describe and categorize both the things you have recovered, reclaimed, or rescued: la récup’. La récup’ is a also a pastime, a calling, a matter of pride.
This makes Alba’s dump quite the hotspot. The village employs someone whose official job it is to make sure you toss your trash in the right place. Unofficially – but much more importantly in the eyes of the village – she keeps an eye out for anything that can be récupéré. If you are a real regular, you can place orders with her, and she will keep an eye out for the things you need. Going to the dump is an event in and of itself, and quite often you come back with as much stuff as you went to throw away.
Even businesses in Alba participate in la récup’. When I waitressed at La Petite Chaumière, La Roche’s only restaurant, people recuperated dry bread for their horses; we kept all our wine corks for someone who made cork insulation, and we saved all our bottle caps for reasons I have yet to understand. The butcher will set aside the plastic buckets he orders olives and mayonnaise in if you are looking for free containers, and Charlie, who raises goats and sells their cheese at the market, will save the whey to wash your face in if you ask him. I recently phoned Marco, our grocer, to ask if he had any fresh cilantro, and he exclaimed, “You should have called five minutes ago! I just threw it out. You want me to fish it out of the garbage for you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Si tu penses que je peux la récuperer – if you think I can rescue any of it.”
“It’s on the top,” he assured me.
“I’ll be right there.”
Transposed into English, an epicerie would be spicery - a place that sells spices. Epiceries have existed since the middle ages, when they actually sold only spices. They evolved into dry-goods stores in the 19th century, and now an epicerie is a small grocery store. In the city, an epicerie is like a bodega, a place you go when you forgot something at the real grocery store, but in a village, it’s all you’ve got. Alba has two of them. They both have actual titles, but everyone refers to them as the epicerie d’en bas and the epicerie d’en haut, the grocery store down there and the grocery store up there. The grocery store down there has a dull, oversanitized feel to it, and though the owners are nice, almost no one goes there unless the grocery store up there is closed. The grocery store up there is a tiny cavern crammed with just about everything you could possibly ever need, from cotton balls and kitty litter to organic hair conditioner, locally grown heirloom tomatoes, even fresh cilantro. It is cool, dimly lit, and twice as long as it is wide. The checkout counter is beside the door, and there is nearly always a traffic jam in front of it. To get in you have to jostle past tourists picking out postcards, children gazing longingly at the toy shelf, and grandmas at the register waiting for Marco or Béatrice, the owners, to loosen a jar lid for them or count out their change.
When I arrived Marco was issuing instructions to a customer on how to fry the tiny spring artichokes he had in from a farmer in the Vaucluse. The line was backed up all the way to the produce bins. I caught his eye and he handed me a bundle of damp paper towel. “I sorted it out for you and rinsed it off,” he said with a wink. “Good as new.”
When I got home I heard a jingling from our neighbor’s terrace, which forms a bridge over the street between her house and ours. “Yoo-hoo,” she called down. “You want a toy for your baby?” She shook a large yellow and red ball with a bell trapped inside of it, and it jingled again.
“Sure,” I said, and she tossed it down to me. I fingered a place where the plastic had broken in just the right shape for Estelle to put in her mouth and cut herself.
“It came with the cathouse,” she told me. “Wash it before you use it.”
By Alba standards, at least compared to some, I am not a real recuperator. I freely admit that I threw our neighbor’s broken cat toy out.
Our friend Silvann, on the other hand, is a pro. When Julien and I bought our house (you talk about something that needs recuperating), he took Julien to the dump to celebrate. They returned with two sinks for our house, one for the kitchen and one to recycle into a vessel sink for the bathroom. Silvann had collected an array of items, including some chairs for his garden, a wall-mounted sculpture of cherubim playing around a fountain, and a metal funerary urn.
“Who would throw out a funerary urn?” I wondered.
“Well, once you scatter the ashes, what are you going to do, keep it on top of your television?” Silvann pointed out.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“I’ll find a use for it,” he said, with a dreamy look.
That afternoon, we all went to the trou de Saint Jean to go swimming. A trou is a hole; in the Ardèche there is no need to specify it is a swimming hole. The path to the river was lined with blackberry cane spilling down the hillside in treacherous curtains and prickly tufts of dark purplish green, brimming with ripe fruit. On the way back from our swim we were all hungry, and straggled out along the path to eat the berries, the adults holding up the children so they could reach the fat and juicy ones higher up.
I don’t know whether it was too many blackberries, or the hot sun and the cold water, or way Françoise and Silvann’s van swayed and clattered on the mountain, but suddenly, out of the lazy August afternoon silence, Jaëlle, their seven-year-old daughter, called out that she was going to be sick. We all scrambled for a receptacle, or even a towel, and just like that, la récup came to the rescue, and Silvann found a use for his funerary urn.

Photos: this may look like a pile of rubble, but it is full of stones that we sorted out for Julien to use when he added height to the streetside facade. (Can you see where the new part of the wall begins?)