Thoughts on Franco-American relations

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Over the years, I’ve gathered a few highly subjective observations about what it’s like to be romantically involved with French men as an American woman. I’d been waiting to share them until enough time had gone by and enough men had been dated to ensure that none of the people in question would be able to identify themselves. I had also been waiting to hit some critical age and self-comfort level at which I would no longer care whether everyone on the Internet has access to my private life. I’m realizing I will never reach that age or comfort level – and yet I still want to write about certain things that have amused or perplexed me.

So I will. I will just be as vague and discrete as possible – which, I fear, is not very much. Anyway, on with it. Continue reading

When learning French improves your English

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Whenever I come across French-English faux amis – words that sound or look alike but have two different meanings – I think about the relationship that the words do have with each other. Many times they share a Latin root, and each word’s definition adds an interesting nuance to the other’s – often to amusing effect.

Take for example the following French words versus their English false friends:

défunt (deceased) vs defunct (no longer existing or functioning)

préservatif (condom) vs preservative (a substance used to preserve foodstuffs and other materials against decay)

imprégner (to soak or permeate, as in these confusing matches) vs impregnate (most common definition: make a female pregnant; less common definition: soak or saturate with a substance)

corpulence (a person’s build) vs corpulence (obesity)

ignorer (most common definition: to not know; less common definitions: to have no experience of or to ignore) vs. ignore (refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally)

négligé (neglected, slovenly, scruffy) vs negligee (a women’s dressing gown, typically made of a light, filmy fabric)

I just find these pairings delightful, don’t you? Not as delightful: telling people – on more than one occasion – that there are way too many condoms in American food.

Which reminds me of one last, classic faux ami that embarrasses every French learner at some point or another: While “excité” can in certain circumstances refer to nearly the same thing as the English “excited,” it is more often used to refer to sexual arousement. So, don’t go around telling your French colleagues or in-laws, for example, that you are excité to see them.

If you’ve got other interesting faux amis to add, please let me know!

Also, a PS: Once, I was pleased to find a word (well, really a phrase) in French, “mal de terre,” for which I didn’t know the English equivalent. I had never heard the word “landsickness” before, and in fact I didn’t even know the concept of landsickness existed until it happened to me.

Recently, I came across the phrase “sea legs” used to describe “the illusion of motion felt on dry land after spending time at sea,” i.e. landsickness. I had always thought of “getting your sea legs” as adjusting to the motion of a boat on the water so that it ceases to be felt, but apparently it can refer to landsickness, too. I’m learning English right alongside French!

[Photo: Ruth Hartnup]

Logical fallacies

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I tend to beat myself up about things: “Why did you say that?” “You shouldn’t have done that.” “What the hell was that about?”

I’ve made an effort to be more self-forgiving – to treat myself as I would a friend – but when I muddle things up in French, the compulsion to judge myself harshly is pretty strong.

Here are some counterarguments I’ve started making to shut down the self-flagellation. Continue reading

The French Effect

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I’ve noticed that whenever I throw myself back into immersive French after a long stretch of barely using it, I experience something like the Tetris effect, which used to plague me for days at a time after playing too much of the game as a kid. Random word nuggets will pop into my head unbidden, apropos of nothing, and I’ll silently repeat them to myself – over and over and over again – until a new strange phrase appears from out of nowhere to take its place. Yesterday it was, “On ne sait jamais ce qu’il va faire” – You never know what he’s going to do. I have no idea who “he” is, yet this phrase colonized my brain-space for the better part of a day. This morning, meanwhile, I kept saying to myself, “Tu vas avoir un petit problème là” – “You’re going to have a bit of a problem with that.” What “that” is, again, I have no idea.

Does anyone else experience this?

[Photo: Wicker Paradise]

I’m becoming my mother in the most unexpected way

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It seems I’m in French withdrawal. 

My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.

Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.

I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”

Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently. 

I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities  these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.

I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.

So to that I say,

!כל הכבוד*

*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!

[Photo: Rithban]

things I’m looking forward to in NYC

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I am moving back to New York on Thursday and I’m excited to (re)start there with a bang: a social gathering, a party, and a protest all within the first weekend. But beyond that, I can’t say I’m enthused about heading back. In fact, I was in the city overnight last weekend and though I was very happy to hang out with friends, New York itself did nothing for me. I did not feel even a slight thrill to be back amongst the skyscrapers and yellow cabs and sidewalks overflowing with people. Just a resigned, “Alright, fine, let’s do this.”

So… clearly I need an attitude adjustment and to remind myself of what I have to look forward to in the city. Off the top of my head:

  • Being close to my friends and family and being able to squeeze my niece and nephew, who live an hour away.
  • Picking out books at Albertine, the lovely French bookstore, and at my favorite used bookstore in Prospect Heights.
  • Having fewer language-based misunderstandings than in Senegal or France.
  • Visiting the next exhibit at the Met’s Costume Institute, which opens in May.
  • Storing my bike at my friend’s place in the Bronx so we can go on impromptu adventures together.
  • Having hundreds of movies to choose from in theaters, and not having to confirm that they’re not overdubbed in French.
  • Being eligible for the jobs I most want. (In Paris I did not even bother trying to break into the French documentary industry because I was too intimidated by my imperfect French.)
  • The ubiquity of clean and well-equipped public bathrooms – as well as private ones you can easily sneak into – so that you need never walk around with a full bladder or pay to pee.
  • The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, my soul mate institution.
  • Gluten-free pizza is relatively abundant.
  • There’s a volunteer oral history recording project I’m excited to get involved in.
  • I can become more deeply involved in the “Resistance,” as the expat Americans activist group I was part of in Paris calls it.
  • Weaving classes at Brooklyn Brainery (I decided I wanted to learn to weave while living two blocks from this studio and never went. Senegal re-inspired me, and I finally took a class last year in London and loved it.)
  • Driving my parents’ cars when I’m in the suburbs – it’s been way too long since I’ve been behind the wheel.
  • Picking back up where I left off with my Spanish learning and being able to practice with NYC residents.
  • Going back to New York as a French speaker and someone who, on a good day, can call myself bilingual.

I suppose that was somewhat refreshing…

I won’t bother listing what I’m not looking forward to – what’s the point of being negative about it?

baby steps + giant leaps = post-coma-level skills

me RN.jpgI once read about a man who woke up from a coma speaking fluently in a language he had barely been able to speak before. This phenomena has been documented on multiple occasions, and apart from the brain damage I’ve always been really jealous of those people. Well… as of two weeks ago I may have joined their ranks. Continue reading