Tuesday, November 22, 2011

All that glitters

When I was a child, I thought a "chester of doors" was a complex and wonderful construction that promised to open the way to a million new worlds. I can still feel that magical possibility when I write those words, even though it's been years since I figured out that a chest of drawers was merely where my socks and undershirts lived. And I still love the mysterious glamor of a word or phrase whose meaning is completely obscure to you, whether it is because you have misheard it, have no idea of the context, or simply don't know.

When your job is words, these moments become rarer and rarer, though technical terms do afford a certain pleasure: how lovely, the moments I spent imagining that "pléochroïque" was the era of rainbow-colored dinosaurs, rather than a crystallographic term. Charming, the few seconds I dreamed of "calandreuses," which in my mind ought to mean ladies who make calendars. (They're actually a kind of leather embossing press.)

That is why I am so grateful to the fashion world. Just one fashion event can give you enough of these mysterious phrases to last a lifetime. My favorite of them all, the one I carry with me happy in the knowledge that it will never be elucidated, is one I picked up at a Lanvin runway show I attended last year. I was working for an agency whose job it was to transcribe and translate post-show interviews, which are so esoteric they require an eyewitness to make any sense of them at all.

Seeing a runway show in real life is kind of like seeing the Tour de France in real life: an immense amount of hype and chaos for something that is over in a flash. After the show, it was my job to push through the crowd to listen to the press conference. As I was pushing I saw two men who looked like they'd been dressed by André 3000 from Outkast. For all I know, they may have been André 3000 from Outkast. In any case, as I pushed, I heard one of them say to the other,

"Yeah, I need to get some more, though. It's like all my diamonds are falling out."

I have turned this phrase over in my mind a million times, and it never looses its sheen. What must it feel like when all one's diamonds fall out? Sometimes I think it must be a chilly, shivery sensation, not entirely unpleasant. Other times I imagine it's painful, like those awful dreams where your teeth get wobbly and you can't keep them in your mouth. And what could you get more of that would keep them in place? How many diamonds do you need to have before you casually can say the words "all my diamonds"? Three? Seventeen? How big do they need to be? Oh, the possibilities are endless.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Rain has been a major preoccupation this week in Alba: we’ve had nearly a foot of it.
Il pleut: it’s come down hard – in buckets, you’d say in both English and French. It’s been pouring, as we say – or raining spouts, as they say. (Il pleut des trombes) The French find it amusing that we English speakers complain it’s raining cats and dogs; I hope you find it amusing that here in France it rains ropes (des cordes), and, if things get really bad, it comes down like a cow pisses (comme vache qui pisse).
Over the past week we’ve had it in ropes and buckets and cats and cows. In a village full of farmers and broken down old houses, you feel torn between happy for the crops and sad for all the cooped-up stonemasons, and of course irritated you left your laundry out on the line.
But then on Friday morning we woke up and began to feel nervous. We live right next to the River Escoutay, which, on most days is barely more than a cheerful trickle. But early Friday morning there was a lull in the rain, and we realized the roaring we heard was the Escoutay. It rose and rose. On Saturday night, my husband filled up sand bags for my mother-in-law, who lives on the ground floor and didn’t sleep much listening out for the river to stop roaring and begin to clank, which is how you know it has rolled all its rocks right up into to the back yard and is about to flood your kitchen.
Luckily, the river subsided, and the rain died back down to a drizzle (which the French describe in diminutives of il pleut, as if we were saying “it’s rain-ish-ing” – il pleuvine, il pleuviote, il pleuvasse).
Lying in bed with the sound of those drops falling and falling on our skylights has made me realize how much country living is full of listening for rain; it has made me nostalgic for a French expression that died away as we and our language have drained out of the countryside and flooded into cities, with their clothes dryers and indoor jobs.
The expression is ecoute-s’il-pleut (listen-if-it’s-raining). It was what people would call a river like the Escoutay that runs slow and lazy until it roars up into your back yard, or a mill that didn’t work too well in the dry seasons. By extension, it was used to describe the a kind of lazy person who sat around waiting for a stroke of luck, or who was too busy listening for the rain to get out and get anything done. Or someone like me, who’s waiting for the sun to come so she can get those wet clothes in off the line.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

French vocabulary nos. 2 and 3: faux ami and quid pro quo

Translated literally, faux ami means “false friend”:
it’s a word you ought to be able to snap like a Lego
out of English
and into French
(or vice versa)
but you can’t.
One false friend that still occasionally trips me up is “isolation,”
which means “insulation” and not “isolation.”
If, when describing Alba to a Frenchman, you mention the "isolation," he may start thinking about
fiberglass versus cellulose and thermal coefficients
as you try to conjure a solitary village perched on a hill, looking out over endless rows of grapevines.
Of course, insulation can be a confusing topic even when you’re not worried about translation –
or maybe I should say that translation can be a problem even within a language.
I’m thinking of what the French call a quid pro quo, which, as it happens, is another example of a faux ami.
In Latin, quid pro quo means “this for that.”
In English, it denotes a tit-for-tat exchange.
In French, it is what tends to occur when you bring together the two main populations of Alba,
the good ol’ boy set
and the organic-crunchy-yuppie set.
At a recent party, we overheard Rafael,
who is a builder,
with Daniel, who quit his office job to move to the country and build straw bale houses.
“Straw bales are the future,” Daniel enthused. “Have you read much about them?”
“Not sure exactly you’d need to read about them,” said Rafael.
“That’s how I feel,” Daniel exclaimed. “It’s what’s so great – they’re just intuitive.”
“I guess so,” said Rafael.
“The only thing you really need to know about straw bales,” Daniel observed, taking a gulp of his artisanal beer, “is that you have to be careful not to pack them too tightly.”
Rafael poured himself another pastis. “Uh-huh,” he said.
“Because if you pack them too tightly,” Daniel went on, “the straw gets crushed, and then you lose the hollow part in the stem that holds the air, and it’s not as effective.”
Rafael took a long, thoughtful sip of pastis. “Well I wouldn’t worry too much,” he said. “You know, you bale it, you roll it, you stack it, I don’t think your animals are gonna be that picky – if it’s straw, they’ll eat it.”