18 December 2012

Vrai ou faux?

As any English-speaking foreigner here knows, some of the most embarrassing language issues center on faux amis (false friends), those expressions in one language that seem like similar ones in another, but in fact, mean something entirely different.  They are like tricks, familiar enough to trip up the reader, and the more I try to learn French, the more it seems I stumble upon them.  For example, one of my friends (a real and true human one) was telling me a few weeks ago that she was going to Marseille to buying some baskets for her daughter for Christmas because she couldn't find the right ones in the right size in Aix.  I wondered just what kind of sweet little baskets she was looking for.  Well, it wasn't the wicker kind at all, but the kind pictured here, because baskets are not baskets in French, but high top sneakers.  (A basket is a panier or corbeille in French.)  Similarly, when we first arrived in Aix, I was asked by someone if my twins were vrai ou faux (true or false).  I managed to keep my indignation to myself when I realized that in fact, those two boys whom I carried for nearly 9 months and birthed as twins are not vrai jumeaux (true, or identical twins) in French, but faux (fraternal, or false) ones, however false it feels to call them that.  Much of French usage is context-based, and there are many of these faux 'faux amis' where a single word can actually mean two different things, depending on the context.  It's like this flocked-to-the-extreme red Christmas tree which I discovered this week on the street in Aix; it looks faux, but in fact is real!

Other language deceptions exist in the realm of pronunciation where there are an awful lot of superfluous letters in French which are not supposed to be pronounced, sometimes.  Those are false friends too in my view.  Young French kids learn French pronunciations and silent letters through memorization, aided by schoolbooks that cross out the silent letters.  I think that would be very helpful for adult learners.  For example, faux amis (silent 's', but do pronounce the 'x' as it carries over to the vowel in the next word: foe za mee) but vrai ou faux  (don't pronounce the x here, vray oo foe), and in those doubly fake friends, faux faux amis (the first x is silent, the second one is not, foe foe za mee).  See what I mean?

In fact, every language plays games with new language learners.  My first language, Finnish, offers nice pronunciation rules, in that every letter in a word is pronounced, so that sounding out words is relatively easy.  But learning what those words mean, and how to use them becomes very difficult when one realizes that long compound words are very common, and that there are over a dozen cases that must be learned; a word like vesi (water) becomes a very different word depending on whether you want to drink it, go in to it, moisten something with it, or are admiring it.  Dangerous deceptions lurk here too; years ago, when I was learning basic Estonian which is closely related to Finnish, I discovered plenty of faux amis, where a word in Finnish like halpa (inexpensive), used perhaps by Finnish tourists when marveling over cheap prices in Estonia, sounds very bad to Estonians because to them halb means bad, or poor quality.  Of course, English is difficult too, with the many homonyms (their, there, they're) and silent letters and difficult sounds: ch, sh, th.

The only consolation is that eventually after enough encounters with different kinds of faux amis, one learns from one's mistakes.  It's rare to meet a faux ami a second time.  Instead, over time, one is able to turn these false friendships into true ones where the once-tricky words or pronunciations actually become useful communication tools, for exchanging niceties, or asking questions, or even sharing confidences, say with neighbors, teachers, or friends.  At those times, the language used may still not come out correctly (it rarely does for me!), but at least there is enough there to create a true and real social connection.

03 December 2012

Le bonheur

While I am a somewhat lapsed knitter (but one who now lives a simpler, French life with more time for little pleasures like needlecrafts), I was initially puzzled by the dearth of handicraft shops in Aix.  Within our first month here, a friend introduced me to a lovely but pricey shop called Au bonheur de dames (ladies' true happiness), where I have spent plenty of  Euros on yarn for the same flouncy scarves I've seen on many women here (see me wearing one creation on Le temps, Nov. 30, 2011) and on some beautiful but expensive needlework kits (my photo shows a little needle case that I completed earlier this year).  Yet, when I went looking for more shopping options, I was surprised by how few there were and how limited.

It didn't take long for me to realize why Aix has so few textile crafts shops.  On EACH occasion that I have brought out my knitting or other needlework in public or among French friends, I have been teased for being an old woman knitting on the football or rugby sideline or in the living room armchair.  Le tricot, la broderie, la couture, ils ne sont pas à la mode!  (Knitting, embroidery, sewing, they are not 'in'!)   This is in direct contrast to my experience in the United States where knitting and other crafts continue to be very popular.  Yet, the young sisters of the French soccer players have been absolutely mesmerized by my projects, asking me questions about the embroidery tension rings and needles, admiring the changing colors on the variegated yarn on my fingerless glove project shown here, and checking on my crafting progress throughout the games.  Surely these pleasures are not reserved for just les vieilles dames (the old ladies)?

I've come to think that young girls in this society, and particularly in the south have limited leisure time opportunities, with Barbies, then shopping and cosmetics, and then experimenting with cigarettes among them.  Clearly, textile handcrafts are largely out, yet other options like physical activities continue to be fairly segregated by gender.  Girls swim, do gymnastics or dance, play tennis, or might ride horses if they have the money.  There are a few exceptions, and perhaps my eagle-eyed readers discovered two of them in my last post (the one with the masculine title Allez les gars, Nov. 26, 2012): in the accompanying photo of my son's football team, there are two girls who play soccer alongside the boys.  They have to, if they want to play soccer here.  While France has a national women's team, the infrastructure for a girls' youth league is not as well-developed as it is in the United States where young girls have many opportunities to play, and so they do.  I have yet to see an all-girls soccer team or league here in the football-crazy south, and it's probably right to say that France does not yet have a functioning equivalent of Title IX (the U.S. law that ensures equal funding for women's athletic and other programs in federally supported institutions).  That means that French girls have to be incredibly determined, tough, and focused, if they want to play le foot, just like the two girls at my son's club as well as the courageous girl I saw yesterday, at a match in Marseille.  She waited stoically with her parents for warm-ups to begin, standing just beyond her all-boy team that was horsing around (and excluding her).  I watched her maintain her poker-face and her rigid posture as she stepped onto the field at the start of both halves.  Clearly, le foot means a lot to her, yet she cannot comfortably express the joy and pleasure she has for the game while playing among and against adolescent boys.  (Blog update: I have discovered a New York Times essay about this same topic, Sciolino, Sept. 16, 2002. "Paris Journal; For French Girls, Soccer is a tough goal", suggesting that not much has changed in a decade.)

How do we find notre bonheur (that which makes us happy)?  As I continue to observe the gender inequality around me and look for evolutions towards a literally and figuratively more equalized playing field for French girls, (and wait for knitting to become hip among the younger French, male and female alike), I am hugely disappointed by France's former First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's comments in a recent interview with the Parisian Vogue.  She says that women of her generation ....“don’t need to be a feminist....There were pioneers who opened the breach....I’m not at all an active feminist. On the contrary I’m bourgeois, I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day.” (as transcribed in "Carla supports gay marriage." La Connexion, Nov. 26, 2012) Apparently, this privileged and 'bourgeois' mother (whose voice could make a difference) seems to believe that her young daughter and other French girls will have no problem at all in finding equal and full access to life's pleasures and opportunities.