Friday, January 27, 2012

Faux ami no. 3: Scotch and Scotch

If you look up “tape” in a bilingual dictionary it will tell you that the French say “ruban adhésif,” but if you ever find yourself in a situation like the one below, it’s good to know that’s not the word they use in real life.
The first time I ever stayed in my grandparents’ house in La Roche, my grandfather warned me to watch out for shady characters.
It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I was going to spend six weeks in La Roche with my friends Matt and Harry, and whoever else happened to wander through (Alba may be in the boonies, but you’d be surprised). The weeks went by and we didn’t see any shady characters, and I forgot all about my grandfather’s warning until one night Harry came into the kitchen and whispered to me that there were two people standing in the street with blackface on.
I was doing the dishes and wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “What did you say?” I shut off the water and turned to face him. “Why are you whispering?”
“There are two people standing in the street with blackface on,” he repeated.
He nodded. “Down below the window. They have on black robes, they’re holding spears, they’ve got bones tucked into their belts, and they’re wearing blackface.”
“Yes. Bones in their belts. Like some kind of tribal thing or something. Also knives. They’re stuck in the belts, too. They look like steak knives.”
Harry is a great raconteur, and I suspected him of pulling my leg, but steak knives seemed like the kind of detail you wouldn’t make up. “Are they druids?” I asked. I abandoned the dishes. “You’re making this up.”
“Why would I be making it up?” he asked. “People in the street with blackface? How would I even have thought of that?”
“How could you not be making it up?” I countered. “Blackface and robes and spears?”
“They asked me if I had any Scotch.”
“Any what?”
Du scotch.” He imitated their accent.
“Why would they want Scotch? Are they drunk? Is it for some kind of ritual?”
Harry shrugged. “Ask them yourself.”
I remembered my grandfather’s warning. “Do they seem dangerous?”

Harry shrugged again. “Not really.”

I crept out of the kitchen and up to the window in the front room and peeked out. There were, as Harry had promised, two men in blackface leaning against the rampart walls below the house. The green streetlight cast eerie shadows over their faces, and their pale, knobby knees peeped out from knee-length black tunics tied at the waist with a piece of rope, which gleamed a little when the men moved. The steak knives, tied to their rope belts with string, were smudged with red.
It took me a second to realize that tunics were made from large plastic trash bags. Along with the knife, each man had a cardboard cutout of a bone stuck in the front of his belt. They also each had cardboard-tipped spears, one of which had lost its tip. I gave up hiding and stuck my head out the window to get a better look.
The one with the broken spear saw me. He waved hello. “Excusez-moi, est-ce-que vous auriez du Scotch, par hazard ?
Matt had come over to the window, as well. “I don’t think we should give them any alcohol,” he whispered.
“For your spear?” I yelled down, and they nodded.
“Scotch like Scotch tape,” I said to Matt and Harry, in English. Someone went and found a roll of tape and we tossed it down to them.
The three of us stood at the window and watched them try and fix the cardboard point back onto the end of the spear handle. It wasn’t going very well. Even with several layers of scotch, the point flopped in a manner not really befitting a spear. It was a hot night, and their blackface was getting smeary from the exertion.
We got tired of being squished up at the window, and we went back out onto the terrace. “I want dessert,” Matt said. “Is there any more of that pudding?”
“Nope. Harry and I finished it yesterday.”
“We have Nutella,” I suggested. “And white wine.”
We agreed this would do in a pinch, and Harry went inside to fetch it. When he came back, he went and peered over the side of the terrace. He waved politely. “Ask them if they want some wine,” he said to me.
“Wine,” Matt said. “Wine –– why don’t you ask them what the hell they’re doing in our street at ten o’clock at night in blackface, for God’s sake.”

I sidled over to the terrace wall and looked down. They waved. “Want some wine?” I asked.

“Not with the kids,” said Droopy Spear.
“We’ve got to be in good shape for the kids,” Pointy Spear agreed.
I turned back to Matt and Harry. “They can’t drink because they’ve got to wait for the kids.”
“Are they going to do some human sacrifice?” Harry inquired.
I turned back to the guys in the street. “What kids?”
“At the summer camp in Aubignas,” Droopy Spear explained. “We always bring the kids over to Alba and do a scavenger hunt with them.”
I related this to Matt and Harry.

“Ask them when their Birth of a Nation reenactment is,” Matt said.

“A scavenger hunt in costume?” I asked, not sure how to broach the whole blackface issue.
“You know, an African princess gets kidnapped, and the kids have to go all over Alba and la Roche and ask questions, to find out who did it,” said Pointy Spear, as if he were going over the rules of Simon Says with a mental patient.
“We’re the king’s guards,” Droopy Spear added. “They can only ask us yes or no questions.”
We heard footsteps clattering down the street, and Droopy Spear hid the Scotch tape and snapped to attention. A group of kids and with a bored-looking counselor straggled to stop in front of the guards, and we ducked behind the wall of the terrace.
“Those aren’t real bones,” a kid said.
“QUIET!” Droopy Spear thundered. “WHO GOES THERE?”
The kids giggled. “Where’s the princess?”
“You may ask yes or no questions.”
“Why is there blood on your knife?”
“You may ask yes or no questions,” pointy spear repeated.
“Where is the king?”
“You may––”
“Remember, the king’s dead, we just found out,” the bored counselor reminded them.

“Ask them since when it’s okay to wear blackface,” said Matt.
“That’s not a yes or no question,” Harry pointed out.

“Is the princess with you?”
“Have you seen the princess today?”
Droopy spear cleared his throat.
It shall ever thus be told
what some bad men will do for gold.
The king is dead, the princess gone,
In this plot she is a pawn.
Before the young girl’s life’s cut short,
Look for her inside the fort.
Silence. "What is that supposed to mean?”
“The fort,” the counselor sighed. Silence. She pointed up the hill. “You know, like a castle,” she added.
The kids clattered off towards Alba’s castle. Before we had time to say anything else, Droopy Spear and Pointy Spear had packed up their arsenal, shouted goodbye, and disappeared into the shadows beyond the rampart walls.
I have lived in Alba on and off for many years now, and though I have encountered more than a few scorpions, I never saw those two young men again. So if ever you’re in the Ardèche and you run across someone in blackface, would you do me a favor and ask for my tape back? And please, for the sake of the kids, don’t give them anything to drink.

Friday, January 20, 2012

French vocabulary no. 4: the boonies

In English you’d say Alba was in the boonies.

In French you might say it was paumé. Paumé comes from the word for "palm"
and it took a while for it to mean what it does today:
in 1290 (around when our hamlet first appears on the historical record)
it meant laying your hand on the bible to swear to something;
by 1649 (which is probably around when the foundations of our house were laid)
I guess people were getting a little vehement about their swears
and paumé came to mean slapping.
Two centuries later and slapping had become grabbing -
in 1815 you could "palm" (catch) someone red-handed.
But in 1489, thanks to François Villon
(who was probably keenly aware
of how slippery swearing can be)
"paumé" also came to mean "lost."

Paumé is not the only way we have of saying we live in the boonies.

French has lots of words for little villages like ours, perhaps because there are so many of them.
Patelin, which makes a green and orange sound in the mouth, jolly and plump,
is the most affectionate.
Bled, which was brought back to France by colonial troops stationed in North Africa,
is usually paired with paumé to mean a place in the middle of nowhere,
though mon bled can also be a way of saying “back home.”
Perpète (from perpetuity) was once slang for a life sentence,
but it bled (sorry, no pun intended)
over into spatial infinity,
so when someone lives in perpète
you know it will take a while to get to their house.

And from there we come to whole collection of made-up places that sound far off when you roll them off your tongue: going to Perpète-les-Oies or Pétaouchnok means going to a place that is inconveniently far from everything.

Once, my husband and I stopped to buy a postcard in the tiny village of
Sospel (pictured bottom right), which sits perched on a mountainside
on a twisty, windy road
battered by wind and snow
in the middle, of, well, nowhere.
"Where do you come from?" asked the lady selling the postcards.
"Alba la Romaine," we told her.
"My god," she cried. "I've been there. How can you stand to live in such an isolated place?"

Which goes to show that like everything else,
boonies are in the eye of the beholder.

Friday, January 13, 2012

It's cold enough to crack a stone

That's what they say when it's very cold here (geler à pierre fendre).

It is cold,
but it's my husband,
not the cold,
been doing the rock cracking around here.
(In French, rock cracking
- casser des cailloux -
is an idiomatic expression for
working hard.)
To the right, you can see where he,
rock cracking all the way,
has exposed
the backbone of our back room,
the summit of the vaulted cellar upon which
this half of the house is built.

Someday soon, it will be the living room.

Since you can't get a car down our street,
once the rocks are cracked,
rock cracking all the way,
my husband hauls everything out in buckets.

Other good French expressions involving rocks are "sad as a stone" and "bald as a stone,"
but they,
thank goodness,
do not apply here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What do you see in 583?

The photo to the right shows you the colors that appear in my head when I think about the number 583.

Nabokov called it "colored hearing."
Most people nowadays call it synaesthesia,
which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the
"production, from a sense-impression of one kind,
of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind." Right.

This is how I would explain it:

When I hear a sound, I see a color.
When I do mental math, I add colors together to get other colors.
When I smell cinnamon sticks, I see swirls of peacock blue and violet. (If you are wondering, cinnamon powder is paler; it includes terra cotta, yellow, and peach tones.)
When I taste a rice cake, it is pale blue marbled with pink and gray.

My synaesthesia is particularly strong when it comes to words. To spell the word "house" I do not think "h-o-u-s-e," I see, "fir green-transparent-pale gray-yellow-pale orange," and write that down.
But I don't like the word "house" much, since that color combination isn't too attractive. Furthermore, since my synaesthesia includes scent and texture, the word "house" trails an unpleasant smell produced by the combination of the yellow "s" and the green "h" - a musty, slightly acidic tang, like a lunchbox you left in the trunk overnight. For look and smell I prefer the scent and color of the French "maison." But for texture, "house" is smoother and more pleasant than "maison," which is warm and sticky.

I therefore find certain words totally intolerable, and others irrationally pleasing. The word "chalumeau" (French for blowtorch) makes me quite giddy, the way you might react to tasting an ethereal bonbon (see illustration). The word "stagflation," on the other hand, evokes in me the same nausea you might feel when scraping something putrid off the bottom of your shoe (I will spare you an illustration). I can barely stand to look at it on the page.

I only realized synaesthesia was a "condition" after stumbling on an article about it in a magazine - before that I thought that everyone's brains worked that way. To be honest, I still have trouble believing that they don't. So you tell me: does your brain work like mine? What does the number 583 evoke to you?