5 things I admire about France

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    • Half of Macron’s cabinet are women.  I think that is awesome, even if other forms of diversity, along with much of his political agenda, are lacking.
    • France plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Ambitious environmental leadership at the national level – unfortunately now a foreign concept to me.
    • Starting in 2018, vaccination of children will be mandatory in France. This while the anti-vax movement and anti-science sentiment in the United States appears to be growing stronger.
    • Right around the time it was looking like Obamacare would be going down the tubes, I went to the doctor in Paris. I paid for the visit out of pocket, without any insurance, and the cost was around $35. If I had had French social security (which includes health insurance and a bunch of other benefits), it would have been no more than $12 or so. On the other hand, if I had gone to the doctor in New York without insurance… well, I wouldn’t have, because it would have cost me like $300. I knew theoretically that the French health care system puts the American one to shame, but experiencing its straightforward humanity in real life, at the same time as I was following the events in DC with ever-growing disgust, made me highly emotional.
    • And finally, on a “one of these things is not like the other” note: I recently found out that France has almost 250 distinct varieties of cheese. If I were more gutsy about the stinky ones, I might make it my mission to try one of each.

Also, an honorable mention. I couldn’t include it in my list since it’s not actually true, but oh how I wish it were:

I was sad to learn that Paris Plages – wherein the city creates beaches along the Seine – would be sand-free this year, since it looks like it was amazing in years past. But, when I heard a rumor that the cancellation of sand was because the construction company that provided it had put its hat in the ring to build Trump’s wall, I couldn’t have been prouder of my temporary city. The truth is a little more complicated. Apparently the decision was more to do with environmental considerations and / or the company’s having indirectly funded terrorism. Both of which are highly admirable reasons… It’s just that I really loved the idea of Paris giving up its summer fun to take a stand against the Trump agenda.

5 things I will never get about French

Because I respect my elders, I am willing to accept that thousands-of-years-old French has a rhyme and reason to it that my relatively infantile self fails to grasp. Still, you cannot blame me for getting frustrated with certain facets of the language that seem objectively insane if you’re a non-native speaker. To wit:

1. Numbers above 69

I have stated this before but it bears repeating:

It’s like they let the village idiot come up with the French numerical system at his daughter’s wedding. He did pretty well for himself up to 69 – echoing the Roman decimal system by counting in tens… but then he got shit-faced and started adding and multiplying random numbers together to come up with everything from 70 to 99. What else could account for soixante-dix (sixty-ten, i.e. 70), or quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four-twenty-ten-nine, i.e. 99… because, of course, four times twenty plus ten plus nine is 99)?

I have recently learned that Belgians, Swiss, and Congolese use a more logical numbering system in which seventy is septante, eighty is huitante or octante, and ninety is nonante, and I have further learned that the weird French way may be a Celtic leftover. I tend to think that when your leftovers have gotten rotten it’s time to throw them out, but who am I to argue with the Académie française?

2. Reflexive verbs that are not actually reflexive

Here is the definition for reflexive. Pretty simple, right? And yet, French reflexive verbs are not bounded at all by that definition. While I can acknowledge that French reflexive verbs consist of more than simply verbs in which the action is performed on oneself (when the subject is singular) or each other (when the subject is plural), I cannot intuitively grasp it because I see absolutely no logic in it. I completely understand why you would say, “Je me habille” or “Nous nous marions”- because you dress yourself and you marry each other. But why do people say, “Je me souviens?” as though they are remembering themselves and not the memory? And why is it, “Je me promene,” as though you are a dog walking yourself, but it’s also “Je marche” and not, “Je me marche,” when marcher and promener both mean “to walk”?

By the way, I’m asking these questions rhetorically here, but I do realize there are answers to them all… And that sometimes the answer is just, “Because.” Languages are funky ever-evolving things with a million exceptions to every rule, and I know that English is as funky as the rest of them.

Regardless, I will continue to vent. Moving on…

3. Gender

Setting aside for a moment the difference between gender and sex… Chairs have neither vaginas nor penises, so why assign them a gender? Especially when considering the following:

– Certain synonyms have different genders. For example, un vélo (masculine) and une bicyclette (feminine) are the same thing, a bicycle. A river can be une rivière (feminine) or un fleuve (masculine). How can the same object have a different gender depending on what you choose to call it?

– Then there’s the ridiculousness of a word like bébé (baby) being masculine whether the baby in question is a girl or a boy. So if you were referring to Baby Jane, you could say, “Elle est mignonne” if you wanted to say that she is cute, or you could technically say, “Le [not la] bébé est mignon” and be referencing the same damn baby. Actually, I am unsure whether you would agree the adjective, mignon, with the noun, bébé, or with the actual gender of the baby, female, in which case it would be “Le bébé est mignonne.” Anyone French care to tell me which is correct?

Regardless, the quagmire itself is as good an argument as any for the ridiculousness of gender both in language and as a biological construct. How about we all go genderqueer in life and language and just call everything and everyone ze from now on? (This would work in French as well as it does in English and would play right in to cute stereotypes about French accents to boot.)

Here’s a lengthy but interesting article on the subject of French genders (much of which makes a mockery of my silly complaints).

4. Swallowed letters

French must have more homophones (words that sound alike, but have different meanings and spellings) than any other language, because only like half their letters are actually pronounced, reducing the possible sound combinations significantly. This is especially true of end letters, which it seems like you are supposed to ignore about 70% of the time.

Take for instance: cent, sang, sens and sans. Thanks to the French distaste for sounding end letters out, these words are all pronounced the same (unless they come before a vowel that starts the next word, but let’s not even get into that).

Why bother adding all those extra letters to words when you’re not going to actually pronounce them? If sans and sang are pronounced the same why not just make them both “san”?

Then there’s the silent h, and the silent “ent” verb ending. As in, mangent is pronounced the same way as mange. Seriously, that is an entire syllable that’s just ignored. All I can do is shake my head (and be grateful that at least when I conjugate my verbs incorrectly, half the time no one knows because it’s all pronounced the same).

5. Possessive pronouns agree with the thing possessed and not with the possessor…

…So what is the point? Constructing sentences this way is often redundant, and it also eliminates the possibility to minimize confusion about who the possessor is.

For example, let’s say John and Mary are standing in a room. The only other thing in there is Mary’s chair. I walk into the room with my friend and, don’t ask me why, I feel the need to tell her:

It’s her chair.

In English, since Mary is female, the pronoun is feminine. Because the pronoun is feminine, my friend now knows that the chair is Mary’s and not John’s.

But in French:

Il est son fauteuil.

The chair is masculine, and that is indicated three separate ways: with “il”, with “son” and with the gendered noun itself. Yet my friend still has no idea whose chair it is, Mary’s or John’s.


And for good measure, a sixth, very specific thing:

The similarity in the meaning of almost every pouvoir conjugation is a total brain twister for me. To wit:

Passé composé: J’ai pu (I could)

Passe Imparfait: Je pouvais (I could)

Plus-que-parfait: J’avais pu (I could)

Futur simple: Je pourrai (I will be able to…. aka I could)

Futur antérieur: J’aurai pu (I could have)

Conditionnel Présent: Je pourrais (I could)

Conditionnel Passé: J’aurais pu (I could have)

Seven different French conjugations, but only two different English translations. Yes, I know that there are subtleties within the French that I could have better indicated in the English, and I also know that rules of common usage dictate when to use which conjugation even if there’s not a one-to-one French to English formula to follow, but… it still boggles my brain to think about the fact that there are seven possible ways to say what we only really say two different ways in English.

But… brain boggling seems to be the name of the game when it comes to learning a foreign language, so all is forgiven, and onward and upward! I’ll just keep telling myself: the more fried, the more French.

[Photo: Sarah Tarno]

5 intriguing things about Liberia

I’ve been meaning to write a post about certain things that struck me while I was in Liberia months ago. These “things” are all fairly nuanced and a certain amount of research is required to delve deeper into the whats and hows and whys in order to write intelligently about them. I started the research but never finished it, and at this point it doesn’t seem like I ever will. The problem is that I still want to write about the things that struck me.

So what I’m going to do is throw them all out there half-formed, like conversation starters as it were, and I’ll let you do further research yourself, should you be so inclined. I’ve even provided links for you! But I make no claims as to the veracity of the information within those links. So basically I’m not very helpful at all…

1. There is a dual currency system.

In Cuba there are two official forms of currency: one tied to the American dollar and used mostly by tourists (the CUC), and one subject to crazy inflation and used mostly by everyday Cubans (the CUP).

In Liberia, it goes one step further: the actual American dollar is one of the two forms of legal tender. For example, my ATM in Monrovia spit out my money in US dollars. I was able to use it throughout Monrovia, though it wasn’t widely accepted in the countryside. Also, the value of Liberian currency is tied to the value of the American dollar somehow. I find that fascinating, and yet meaningless because I never took an econ class in my life and have no idea of the implications.

More on this here.

2. Its origin as a colony for African Americans who were formerly enslaved in the United States is fascinating in itself, but the way in which that origin has impacted its history up until the present day, is also intriguing. (For example, ethnic tensions rooted in colonization at least partially influenced the Liberian Civil War that wracked the country for fourteen years from 1989 – 2003.)

I’m going to link to Wikipedia here and let you do further digging if you so choose.

3. It has an interesting (to use the most neutral term possible) relationship with several countries.

The United States: because of aforementioned history and close political ties.

China: because the Chinese are building roads and who knows what else across the country in exchange for… well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Lebanon, or rather the Lebanese: Because there is a huge Lebanese diaspora in Liberia (and throughout West Africa). In Senegal, the Lebanese, as former French subjects in a former French colony, did well for themselves. They are full-fledged Senegalese citizens who own a large proportion of the wealth and businesses here. But in Liberia, where citizenship requires you to be of black African origin (yet another fascinating subject), the Lebanese are barred from owning businesses, because there’s another law that says only citizens can do that. So the Lebanese apparently have shadow partnerships with Liberians, who officially own the businesses while the Lebanese manage them.

More on American-Liberian relations here.

More on the Chinese in Liberia here, and about Chinese investment in Africa here and here.

More on the Lebanese in West Africa here and here.

There’s also a fairly new book about the Lebanese in West Africa that I’d like to read.

4. Liberia has some exceptionally strong and politically powerful women, most notably the President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and the leader of a women’s group that was integral to ending the civil war, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee.

And yet, levels of sexual and domestic violence in the country are off the charts, and laws to protect women and punish perpetrators are fairly new (and often weak), or nonexistent. For example, spousal rape was only criminalized in 2006.

I find this contrast really thought-provoking.

5. This is a small thing, but I found it fascinating that almost every shop in Liberia was called a “business center.” I guess my larger fascination is with the evolution of Liberian English and with its particularities and distinctions from American and British English. For example, I loved that they don’t use the word “pregnant” there – they say that the woman “got big belly.” And diarrhea is known as “runny stomach.” (These are the things you notice when you’re working on a video about public health.)

More on distinctive Liberian vocabulary / speech here.

5 things foreigners should know before going anywhere in Dakar

1. Even if by some small miracle you have an exact address for your destination, it will be useless.

Technically, most streets in Dakar have official names and most houses have official numbers. But if there are no street signs on the actual roads and no numbers on the actual houses, they’re not going to do you much good. When Google Maps can’t even tell you where a specific address is (which I’ve found to be the case 9 times out of 10), don’t expect a man on the street to be able to. Except for the very biggest thoroughfares, people don’t know or use the proper names of roads. The “ancienne piste,” for example, has a real name but I have no idea what it is.

Which brings me to…

2. You must know the landmarks near where you’re going, or you will get lost. (You’ll get lost anyway, but it will be less painful if you know what else exists near your destination.)

That’s why instead of giving taxi drivers my cross-streets, I ask them to take me to Bourguiba (my neighborhood’s main road) between Saveur d’Asie, a restaurant, and Casino, a supermarket.

A few months ago, I went to someone’s house for the first time. Instead of providing me with any sort of address, he instructed me:

From the VDN [highway], go past the Citydia in Liberté 6 ext, take a right at the pharmacy across from the mosque, and call me from the empty lot on the left.

Spy movie or just another day in Dakar? You decide. (Incidentally, there are many Citydias, many pharmacies, many mosques, and many empty lots in Dakar. Once in the general vicinity of his apartment, I became woefully turned around and had to call back several times to play guessing games: “Pass by the Citydia while on the VDN or on the access road?” “Is it a green mosque or a white mosque?” “Are you talking about the pharmacy in the middle of the street or at the end of the street?”…)

3. You can’t trust addresses you find on the Internet.

I once painstakingly made my way to a faraway side street on which Google Maps had promised me there was a bakery. It turned out to be a random residence. When I needed to visit the Liberian Embassy for a visa, Google searches turned up three different locations for it. None of them were correct. I would suggest that you always call a place before visiting, to confirm that it is in the location you think it is, but good luck with that! If you can manage to find a phone number online, it’s often incorrect, or no one picks up.

4. You’re going to take taxis a lot; know the rules.

– You must negotiate the price before getting in the car, or you’ll get ripped off. Whatever they quote you at the outset is usually 25%-50% more than you should pay. It’s a buyer’s market, and I’ve found that if I step away from a taxi after offering them a fair price that they initially turn down, they’ll call me back and wave me into the car, which basically means, “Alright, you win.”

– You must know exactly where you’re going and how to get there, because your taxi driver often won’t (and may pretend he does and then drive around in circles while calling his friends to ask them where to go). In my experience, showing a taxi driver a map and pointing to your destination doesn’t work, because most of them don’t know how to read maps. By this point I know much of Dakar well enough to direct drivers street by street, and they are neither surprised nor insulted when I tell them, “Tournez à gauche là... tout droit… C’est par ici…” Think of Dakar as the exact opposite of London, where taxi drivers have to pass “the knowledge,” and do your homework before you get in the cab.

– Many taxi drivers don’t speak French, but they’ll fake it ’til you make it into their car, and then you’ll spend the entire ride trying to communicate in French while they answer in Wolof. Not worth it. Politely turn down the ride and wait for another one. (If you speak Wolof, good for you! I speak six words of it, most of them borrowed from French.)

– Though Dakar’s taxis may look universally run-down, there is a difference between run-down but running, and run-down to the point of breaking down en route. I’ve learned this the hard way. If a taxi approaches that looks unfit to ride in, wave it on. There will be plenty of others behind it.

And finally, the most important thing to know before attempting to get any place in Dakar:

5. The Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

When I feel like bashing my head against a wall because of how unnecessarily maddening it is to get to where I’m going, I take a deep breathe and remind myself that Dakar is a journey, not a destination.