Sep 22 2010

In Between

Listening to the French passengers waiting to board the airplane, I feel a kinship with them. They are leaving the land of large portions and loud talkers to return to the subtler world of degrees of humor and real cheese. It sounds like they’ve all had a pleasant holiday, but most of them look relieved to be returning to more familiar soil.

I love the lyrical sound of the banter between them. French is a language I can understand, but only if I am listening deliberately. If I choose to zone out, conversations can swirl around me without penetrating my consciousness. This is impossible in my mother tongue of American English; I am too easily distracted by peripheral conversations which, in French, are more like background music.

Each time I visit the United States, I am initially assaulted by this capacity to understand everything I hear. I become an unwilling eavesdropper. I don’t want to hear how much that guy had to drink last night or how much she spent on her Manolo Blahniks but I am obliged, not only because of the volume of these not-necessarily-nearby discussions but due to the fact that I understand them instantly: it’s all in my mother tongue.

Yet back in France, surrounded by the less optimistic language of French with its more subtle nuances and accompanying gestures of skepticism – the French shrug for one – I tire of never-quite-fully understanding everything, or on the other hand, the need of certain French speakers to explain things to me so thoroughly without noticing that I got the point a whole paragraph ago. In France, I feel other and yet sitting in this American airport lounge, waiting to board an overnight flight, I feel a solidarity. I’m one of them and we are going home.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo have their unique appreciation of the two languages. Passport carrying Americans they are, but they move between French and English with ease, just as they navigate the cultural nuances. Short-pants’ command of the language is correct, this becomes more apparent each year as her automatic capacity to align nouns with their feminine or masculine articles puts me to shame. She and I have reached an agreement: I am delighted for her corrections as long as they are gentle admonishments offered privately in the spirit of assistance rather than in public with embarrassed disdain. She’ll touch my arm softly and whisper, “Mama, you said un and it should be une.” I am honestly grateful for her assistance when offered in this fashion. I’m pretty sure Buddy-roo will not follow suit. My charming little mistakes will be the cause of eye-rolls and giggling behind cupped-hands with all of her French-speaking friends.

Our girls are native speakers, even with English as their mother tongue. Since it’s not the primary language spoken in our home, their French vocabulary is a bit behind that of their classmates, but their pronunciation is native. This assured by attending French schools since the tender-eared age of three. What a gift we give them. Even if we were to leave France next week to live somewhere else (a new adventure is always in our minds, but to where?) they will always be able to speak French like a local. Twenty years on it might require a small amount of study to recall the sentence structure and vocabulary, but the accent has been embedded. They will always sound French.

Beyond language, though, what nationality are they? Born on French soil, but of American blood, they ultimately get the right to be both, if they choose. I once asked Buddy-roo if she felt more American or French. “Française,” she said, turning on her toes and sauntering out of the room. (She seems to have mastered the French art of being a coquette.)

Having lived outside my own country for eighteen years, I find myself in the occasionally awkward stance of feeling in between cultures. I am an American. At the core of my beliefs is the idea that you can do whatever you dream if you set yourself to it, that one is not bound by class or caste to any destiny, that a little ingenuity and perseverance will get you where you need to go. Americans don’t own this mindset uniquely (nor is it a truth for everyone in our country), but perhaps we aspire to it more organically than other cultures. But I think I’ve become an American of another generation, that having left the county a week before Bill Clinton was elected President (though I did vote, absentee), I feel out of touch with a lot of what’s happening now in the United States. I don’t understand the vitriol of our political discourse. I can’t believe the problem with obesity or the number of drug stores per capita. I’m stunned by the absolute consumerism and dismayed by the circus that is television news. It’s not the America I pledged allegiance to every morning in school, when I was growing up, and I’m not entirely sure it’s the America I’d want the girls to call their home.

So I am in between. Often in transit.
I can take advantage of my American passport to enter my home country more swiftly than international tourists. But once beyond the customs agent, I do sometimes feel other. This is not an angst-ridden other; I enjoy visiting and I appreciate my home country as much as I’m perplexed by it. But it means I’m not entirely rooted anywhere, which is a bit liberating. I’m hoping our girls can absorb this, to see the benefits and drawbacks of both of their cultures – of any culture they hope to visit – and to study them as interesting rather than judging them as superior or inferior. This is the opportunity of living in between, the capacity to observe and appreciate everything: French, American, or other.


Sep 24 2009

The Words

Words count for a lot in our house; me being the aspiring writer, Short-pants, a voracious reader, De-facto, an enthusiastic speaker (goes to Toastmasters) and Buddy-roo, the consummate chatterbox. Not to mention that in our household we speak two languages, so we have double the number of words to navigate. Words matter.

Hang around with us and you’ll occasionally hear one of the adults suggesting calmly (and not to each other), “use your words.” Pointing and grunting are frowned upon. Our children have been indoctrinated to speak in full sentences and even the magic words are pretty well embedded. Not that an occasional reminder isn’t necessary, but frequently enough to impress me, the girls make good use of please and thank you – and do so with real feeling.

Every household has its “words,” part of the family folklore that is generated by the cute or clever mistakes made by children as they learn about life and language. Often these words relate to scatological subject matter; a topic which I deliberately avoid in this blog because a) I find it unattractive, b) nobody cares about my children’s potty habits, and 3) it would be a nightmare if a Google search on my name produced something so distasteful and yet memorable. But it’s a subject we all talk about – at least privately – and it is often the cornerstone of a family vocabulary. My brother and sister and I made a blood pact never to divulge the words to another living person, a vow we all have kept. Even De-facto doesn’t know the words from my childhood, and never will.
graffiti_word
Having said that, there is a word that De-facto and I introduced to our lil’ nuclear family that I will share – because my friends love it so much – the word we use for one’s “private parts.” It’s not that we have such a hang-up about the technical terms; we’ll get to them when the girls start posing probing questions about the birds and the bees. But honestly, I never wanted my 3-year old over-employing the word vagina in a loud voice at the supermarket, so we came up with a gender-neutral signifier instead: the business. Typical use at bath time: “Did you wash the business?” Another common usage: “If your business doesn’t hurt, why are you holding it?”

It’s a bit easier on the ear than the v-word or the p-word, and can be used discreetly in public, like a code. It only backfired on me once, when Buddy-roo, at the age of about 4, bounded into my office despite the closed-tight door, to announce something important. I shushed her in a panicked whisper: “Shhhh! Mama’s on a business call!”

Business?!” she shrieked as De-facto apologetically pulled her out of the office and shut the door behind them. I could hear her laughing in the hall, “Mama’s making a call from her business? Ha!”

Yes, well it seemed like a good word when we first came up with it.

Some of these invented family words come into common use because of an adorable mispronunciation or mal-interpretation that turns out to be quite astute. Buddy-roo is the originator of some of our best terminology. She of course utters the typical breafquist, an oft-mispronounced word. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute when every child says it, but it’s not that original. Part of Buddy-roo’s linguistic charm is her strange non-rhotic accent which amuses us to no end because even De-Facto, who hails from Boston, doesn’t share her aversion for the letter ‘R.’ But accent and odd pronunciation habits aside, Buddy-roo excels at inventing words. And they make more sense than you’d expect. A few examples:

Rainbrella: the round, collapsible device one uses as protection from the rain. This makes so much more sense to us than umbrella, which, um, has nothing to do with the element against which it’s designed to offer protection. (I guess it makes sense if you speak Latin, which we don’t.) She also suggested the word Sunbrella, similarly styled and found at the beach. No doubt Buddy-roo’s French has informed the invention of these two words, as parapluie and parasol are both used for the rain or the sun.

Unlistener. This is a person, initially a child in the first grade – but you can imagine this applying to any segment of the population – who, despite being within auditory range, prefers to remain in the state of “not having heard it.” An unlistener can be quite selective, but ultimately, this is someone that you can’t really count on to receive or re-transmit information of any importance. Common usage: “You can’t ask him anything, he’s the biggest unlistener in the class.”

Smashed potatoes. So much more descriptive than mashed ones, don’t you think?
three_dictionaries
Short-pants, on the other hand, takes very seriously the correct acquisition of new words for her vocabulary. Last week, she got the idea to sleep with her dictionaries, reasoning that the words might seep into her brain by osmosis, a word she then had to look up. It makes for an uncomfortable night’s rest, as she feels compelled to stack under her pillow three dictionaries – English, French and French/English – to accommodate her hunger for words. Hard to say if it’s working, but we must admire her commitment to learning.

Short-pants is a stickler for correctness, and this kicks in when she overhears me speaking French. My French is operable, but I don’t have the linguistic muscle that she’s acquired by starting it at such a young age. Since she feels compelled to correct my pronunciation and grammar, we’ve made a deal: I will receive her corrections enthusiastically, as long as she delivers them gently with the intention of helping rather than humiliating me. It’s a beautiful thing. She’ll wait until nobody is around and leaning toward me, in a conspiratorial tone, she’ll suggest something like, “Mama, you might want to say le instead of la with the word pain.”

Buddy-roo, I can already tell you, won’t treat me so kindly. Her corrections, when they start coming at me, will be marked with eye rolling and heavy sighs of disgust, which I will tolerate for only a short while before I tell her to mind her own business.