lundi, février 07, 2005

So you wanna be a boxer?

This isn't the first time I've learned to live in another language. Eleven years ago in an uncharacteristic fit of spontaneity I gave up my job (I hated it) and moved to Paris with my new boyfriend, whom I had known for all of six weeks. We're married now and we've got three little boys, so kids, be careful, what you do in the interest of being footloose and youthful, it can land you in half a lifetime of very early mornings before you say 'I do'.

Anyway after six months of living together in our beautiful 35 square metre studio in the Marais, said boyfriend carried out his threat to move to Israel. I wasn't interested, so I went back to London. It took me six months to face up to how much I missed him, at which point I packed my bag (some books, a double duvet and a change of clothes) and flew to the Holy Land, an accidental Zionist if ever there was one. I really didn't want to be there at first, but I worked hard at the language, accidentally landed myself a job I loved, got married, had a baby. And loved my life in Jerusalem.

After 3 years we moved back to London. Not only was I now married with a child, but I was also the proud owner of an old sofa, a futon, a kitchen table and lots of baby paraphernalia. That's what comes of taking your eye off the ball for all of five seconds. You become a grown up.

Now seven years after that move we're back in France, and I am relearning the art of being a foreigner. I am totally grown up now of course, but I find the experience of changing language oddly infantilising. Just as I see sometimes how perplexing the coded adult world can be for a child, so I am now confronted with a whole new code to hardwire into my brain. It's not just a question of language fluency, but of performance, of gesture, of modulation and tone, of metaphor and allusion. And the closer I get to it, the more I realise how far I have to go.

I always think of speaking another language as being akin to touching a sculpture with gloves on. When you first start it's like you're wearing a boxing glove - you can maybe, just, make out the form, but only in the crudest way, and you could never even guess at the material it's made of. The more you gain fluency, the finer your gloves get, so that you can increasingly feel the contours, and even, as you get more fluent, guess at the material - leather gloves give way to wool, which give way to silk. But you will never get to take off your gloves, and really know what wood, or bronze or stone feels like to the touch - however fluent you get, you will never really know the language you adopt as you know your mother tongue.

It's a fantastic thing, to speak another language. Fantastic, and exhausting, and sometimes, treacherous, for you never really know the person that you are in that other language, and sometimes I suspect you come across quite differently to how you think you do. At least, I suspect I do.
It takes only a short time here to realise that, aside from an obsession with good food and plotless films, the greatest passion of any Frenchman is going on strike. People from all walks of life will go on strike for any reason, not just money. Sometimes it's really a big deal, like when the government threatened to put up the price of petrol. That really got everybody's goat big time, and the whole lot of them, ambulance drivers, lorry drivers, people with company cars who haven't paid for their own petrol in two decades - all out on the street, demanding their right to burn up the last few drops of fossil fuel left at knock-down prices, just like they do in that god-forsaken warmongering imperialistic hedonistic anti-intellectual dump the United States of America. The government gave in of course, as it always does. Striking is definitely a way of life here, a kind of ritual. Just this week

1) Everyone (sort of) has is on strike to preserve the 35 hour working week.

2) There was a country-wide wildcat train strike after a conductor was attacked by a passenger

3) State-funded researchers have gone on strike for a pay-rise

4) the prostitutes in the Bois de Vincennes have gone on strike after the decision of the city council to forbid them to ply their trade in the Bois (I did not make this up).


jeudi, février 03, 2005

on dissing the French

I didn't really want to get into slagging off the French for being French on this blog. It seemed too easy, for one thing, also a bit impolite (though surely no more than they deserve for their tremendous ability to give one the finger in all sorts of metaphorical ways). Also it's potentially tricky to convey the kind of post-modern ironic-but-not-really way I feel about some of the big cultural chasms that stretch between us Anglos and them Frogs.

The issue that confronts me on a daily basis is of course the question of child rearing. Coming from a fairly laid-back parenting environment - where women commonly breastfeed their babies (and sometimes other people's, but that's a subject for another day, and anyway I did it once too and it really wasn't such a big deal) for well over a year, and sharing a bed with your newborn, your toddler, even a couple of kids, is considered (by some) to be perfectly normal, where worrying about keeping your children's clothes clean is considered to be stifling their creativity - France inevitably reminds one slightly of the stories that our mothers and grandmothers told us about their experiences of motherhood. After childbirth women here are encouraged to breastfeed for 6 weeks in order to help them regain their figure. The amount of parental control you see here is mindboggling. I've come across little girls of five or six whose mothers are already colouring their hair. I've seen kids slapped in restaurants for dropping a bit of food on their shirts. I've seen five year olds spoonfed in order to avoid them soiling their clothes. It's perfectly normal to see four or five year olds being pushed around in strollers with dummies in their mouths, or kept quiet with baby bottles filled with chocolate nesquik.

This afternoon I took the kids to the local toyshop to get a birthday present for their cousin Abel. That's three boys, 3, 5 and 7, perfectly presentable. The look on the shop assistant's face when we walked in should have sent me straight out the way we came, but I needed to buy a present, so pressed on. The kids were looking at stuff - this was a toy shop, remember - not touching, not doing anything risky, or naughty. The atmosphere was so tense that I thought for a moment that we would be asked to leave; a shop assistant had been deployed to follow them around the shop and tell them off. Then as I was paying I heard the door open and someone came in. I couldn't see who had just come in, but I could hear the woman who had been trailing my children and telling them off for doing nothing at all say ''Qu'est-ce qu'il est mignon!" and I caught myself feeling miffed that she hadn't said anything nice about my kids when we had come in. A moment later I realised why: the woman who had just come in was trailing not a child but a dog. A small dog in a tartan coat. "'Qu'est-ce qu'il est mignon," indeed.

I realised then what makes England a much nicer place (I was going to write to 'a much nicer place be a parent' but I realised that my conclusion is wider than that):
1) On the whole, dogs aren't allowed in shops. This has nothing to do with being a parent, and everything to do with not really liking dogs very much.
2) Dogs don't wear coats. This has nothing to do with not liking dogs very much, and everything to do with my innate sense that every living thing has a right to a basic level of dignity.
3) Children are welcome in toy shops. This obviously has nothing to do with the fact that dogs in France have nicer clothes than my children, and everything to do with the fact that a country that can't deal with children in toy shops is a country that can't deal with children.

I am now going to go and cook dinner with the delicious food that I bought in the market this morning. Which reminds me why France is a so much nicer place to live than England. Sometimes.