Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speaking French

French is a great language. Compare it with Dutch, say, or German. It sounds beautiful. Even compared with other languages around the Med, it lilts more, is more musical. It’s soft. But it’s hard to learn and to speak well. Speaking French gives you wrinkles all round your lips if you pronounce it clearly enough and speak it long enough. The grammar is complex. Enunciating subtle French sounds can be virtually impossible for the non-native speaker. And, for the anglo and the saxon, there are individual and structural oddities everywhere you look.

Possessive pronouns, for example, are a seriously missed trick in French. Surely every well-planned language understands the value and use of possessive pronouns? They indicate not just what belongs but to whom. So English has, for example, a nice rational system with his, her, their, my, your and so on ‘Tom was there with his wife and her mother’, you say. Clear enough. The wife was his. The mother was hers. You get into French and all of a sudden he was there with sa femme and sa mere. The wife must be Tom’s you think. But the mother is in question. She could belong to either one. And if you said he was there with sa mere et sa femme it’s possible that his mother has had a civil ceremony and Tom’s mother and stepmother are lesbians. You can’t be sure. You can’t just add ‘No not his mother, her mother’ to clear things up. That would only tell your listener ‘Non, pas sa mere, sa mere.’ Hopeless.It doesn’t work. To avoid confusion, you would need to say sa mere and add, in French, at her - ie. the mother at the wife not the mother at Tom. It would clearly make a lot more sense for the possessive pronoun to agree with the person possessing rather than the thing possessed but I’ve never met anyone French who agrees or even sees there is room for confusion.

Yet people go round all day saying things like: ‘This couple want the house in son name.’ and the reponse has to be ‘His? Or hers? Which?’

Adjectives are a bit less frustrating but like pronouns they suffer from the on-off switch of gender, again agreeing with the sex of the thing they describe. Its hard really to know where to start when talking about French and its assignment of gender to things. You’d think that the linguistic concepts of male and female would bear some relationship to the common concepts of, well, male and female.You might think for example that a female breast would be, well, female. Ditto a vagina. But they’re not of course, they’re both masculine. A penis, on the other hand (to use an inapproriate anatomical idiom) is, just as one would expect, masculine. So is a testicle. But so is a Tampax. There is no real logic to be found anywhere in the sexing of things in French. Your mobile phone is male. So is your laptop. But the bill for your calls is female and so is the toner for your printer. Glass fibres are female though glasses are male. Unless they’re reading glasses – then they’re female. And so it goes. It’s true there are rules about the endings of words and their ‘sex’ but frankly that’s illogical too. Convention has it that ‘ette’ endings are feminine. So what exactly? Can you see why an assiette (plate), a barquette (defined in my dictionary as a small boat-shaped tart) or a lavette (dishcloth &/or wimp) should be seen as exclusively feminine? They all seem pretty neutral and lacking in sexual characteristics of any sort. And why should crevettes – prawns and shrimps – all be female? Doesn’t it depend on the individual prawn or shrimp? I suppose that scientists studying them occasionally have to ask the lab assistant for a male as opposed to a female. What do they say? “Passe-moi une crevette masculine, s’il-te plait Antoine”? A bit like referring to a male princess or a male bitch. And notice too, just back there, that there is, inevitably, a female version of the word masculin (just as there is a male version of the word feminine.) Just add an e for those difficult female words that represent male things.

How do they teach children these things?

“The word crevette is feminine, Monsieur?”
“But the actual prawn is male?”
“So we can say it’s masculin?”
“But we add an e to make it feminine?”
“Even though it’s masculine?”

It’s difficult to picture the scene or imagine the conversations when the Académie française – the national language politbureau of France - meet to determine gender for new words. They’ve been meeting since 1635, with occasional turnover of members obviously, to produce dictionaries and award literary prizes, invent French words for new things like credit crunch (le credite crunch no doubt) and assign gender. There are 40 of them and what they find to do all day long when other languages manage themselves perfectly well without presiding officers is anyone’s guess. But when it comes to language gender, since masculine and feminine have almost nothing to do with conveying anything any of us would understand as masculine or feminine there doesn’t seem to be any real criteria for assigning either. I imagine the attendees must be becoming increasingly embarrassed as the years pass. ‘OK, on the agenda today we have new words credit crunch, iphone, blog and turkey twizzler. Who wants to start?’

Why exactly should a boui-boui (greasy spoon) or freluquet (whippersnapper) be designated as male?

You’d think it would have been, and still would be, a cause for celebration whenever they got an obvious choice – the worthy and grave-faced academicians could breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well, breast-pump – obviously…” and pass on to the next word on the list or go out for lunch. But no. Looking, for example, childbirth straight in the face (accouchement) they didn’t hesitate to make it male.

Aside from whole classes of word like pronouns and adjectives, and the interwoven theme of gender, which can all be frustrating, there are also hordes of individual words which trouble the new user.

Toujours is one that could do with changing. You probably know toujours. Toujours means still. Unless it means always. So if you want to say Martha is still in the toilet, you are also in effect saying Martha is always in the toilet. In my experience, conveying whether your meaning is that she is temporarily still in there and will soon be coming out or whether she is in fact permanently in the toilet is a matter of trying out various emphases, twirling your hands around a bit and making a facial expression that indicates, you know, just still, not always. It’s true that you can use encore for still but encore is compromised several ways frankly because it also means ‘let’s have some more of this’ or ‘let’s do that again’, which is not the same as still, and it also has a role to play at the end of concerts.

Someone should write t0 the Académie française and say: Can I suggest as a concerned user of the language that you (finally) come up with a way to distinguish between still and always? You don’t really want to be saying “Last night’s soup will always be good” when you mean “Last night’s soup is still good” (today). You could have toujours for ‘always’ and decree, or whatever it is you do up there at the Académie, that it always means ‘always’.

Hard to see how anyone would lose out.

Moving back to gender for a moment, lui could also be reviewed. I'd bet a weak pound to a strong euro that lui has direct common roots with Italian lui and Luigi and the French name Louis. Masculine, everyone would agree? And lui does indeed mean ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘to him’. Unless it means ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘to her’. There is a perfectly good word for ‘she’ and ‘her’ – elle – but as it is too difficult to say in amongst other words in contexts where you need to say ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘to her’ it has to be dropped and replaced by ‘him’ or ‘to him’ and your listener has to figure out that him, in this case, means her. Can you think of a single word in English - leaving aside words used in deliberately annoying combinations to make tongue-twisters of the celeste-thinks-thistles-will-sell-at-sisley variety – that has to be dropped in favour of a less functional word simply because it’s too difficult to pronounce it in the sequence required? I can't.

And the subject of pronunciation leads to dessus and dessous. Even thinking about these two words makes most learners frustrated. The function of words is to convey fairly precise meaning and differentiate one concept or object from another. If you say to young Peter ‘Catch the ball’ and he is up to speed with his English comprehension you can be pretty sure he’ll have a surprised look on his face if you throw a brick at him. Equally, if you serve your guests turnip at dinner and say ‘Isn’t the Beluga caviar delicious?’ you may as well expect sulky faces or at the least puzzled ones. The point is, humans invent words to convey meaning and convey it accurately. Dessus and dessous, as you may know, mean ‘on top of’ and ‘underneath’. However, conveniently, although having exactly opposite meanings, they both look and sound almost identical. I’ve used both many times and have never – never - succeeded in conveying my meaning without either resorting to stooping close to the ground, making a sweeping-underneath sort of motion with my hand or straining to stand up a bit taller than usual, lifting my arm above my head and pointing, you know, up there, on top. It’s frustrating. And the French clearly have a little bit of sensitivity about these two non-words because they often latch au in front of them (yep, both of them) in an effort to clarify what they’re talking about. It doesn’t help of course because if you use, say, ‘ont’ for above and ‘ontt’ for underneath then it doesn’t help much to add ‘oop’ in front of them both. It doesn’t solve the essential ont(t)-ness of the problem to say ‘oop ont’ or ‘oop ontt’. The listener is still going to say pretty much: ‘Did you say ont? Or ontt?’

I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of French history to see how many significant events have turned on misunderstandings created by dess(o)us. (“No, I just blew up the bridge. You meant I should blow up the boat? I thought you said: Put the bomb on top of the bridge. You said under?”)

I’ve been told by a Parisian friend that the difference in meaning is clear “if you send the word dessus up your nose”. I love French very much, but to my way of thinking, spoken language should be composed pretty much entirely of words that issue from the mouth. Otherwise they are not, technically, spoken. Words that come out of your nose are snorted. Or sneezed.

Plus is sneakier than dess(o)us. With plus, instead of two words that look almost the same but mean opposite things you have a single word with two diametrically opposed meanings. Which in my book makes plus that li-ttle bit more sophisticated than dess(o)us (but not as annoying). Some time around seven hunded years ago, give or take a hundred years I guess, the word ‘plus’ worked its way into English. We all know what it means. Two plus two equals four. Teenager plus credit card equals unmanageable debt. And so on. English assigned it a meaning and stuck with it. No equivocation, no room for confusion. In French it works differently. The French allow it individual expression, elasticity. Contradiction in fact. Plus can mean more or, with equal and shameless ease, it can mean no more. So if you speak of bread, as the French do often, and you say Plus de pain it means simply, as you would expect, ‘more bread’. But, if you ask whether there is more bread and get the answer Plus de pain it means, naturally to the French, ‘no, there’s no more bread’. Often you will simply get the answer ‘Plus’, (accompanied by a look of tremendous sympathy and helplessness.) And there it is – the word ‘more’ meaning exactly its opposite: no more. At which early elementary point I would guess many learners with native languages other than French are likely to give up and learn Chinese instead.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Food in Provence

Like the rest of France - but particularly sensual - Provence is overflowing with beautiful produce straight from the fields, fresh in the markets and selling at tiny prices. My local market reminds me of those old Russian novels where people eke out their existence spending a kopeck here and a kopeck there. (Technically, I believe, one hundredth of a rouble.) Individual producers turn up to the market every evening bar Sunday to sell their fruit and veg, herbs and wine, cheese and oil, bread and meat - a bloke here sits behind a trestle table bowing under the weight of hundreds of aubergines and courgettes neatly stacked in little rectangular barquettes, an ancient woman further up the line cuts pieces of cheese fresh from the goat so that you can compare flavours with the cheese made by the young couple two stalls along. Someone else is offering little tumblers of wine to persuade you to buy a bottle or two of his own vintage, and a young woman is doing a rapid trade in large free range eggs – slightly mucky, feathers attached - selling them two or four or six at a time. Coins change hands as frequently as greetings and news are swapped between clientele and stallholders. Everyone (outside the summer months) is local. Everyone knows everyone else.

There’s infinite variety in texture, colour and taste of the produce. Bushy green herbs, grey and yellow mushrooms, chalky-coloured goats’ cheese, fat jars of honey, punnets of figs, long plaits of garlic. It’s relaxed and sensual.


When I’m out doing my food shopping there are also a few spots which are troubling. Cheese stalls, fine. Fruit & veg, fine. It’s meat that bothers me. While at the butcher’s counter most local shoppers (men as often as women because food/recipes/cooking interests men as much as women here) peer into the shelves and display units with visible interest I’m standing there feeling a bit like crying. I’m not a vegetarian and enjoy what I suppose, hailing from unsophisticated Britain, I’d call ordinary meat. A steak. Beef bourguignon. Chicken breast. Lamb. But here in the butchers’ shops you’re confronted with scenes that call to mind casualty wards, car accidents or, well, slaughter houses. Yes I know it’s squeamish. If you eat meat, you might say, you can’t avoid its relationship with living creatures. I’m not sure about that. I want to run my bathwater down the plughole but that doesn’t mean I want to stick my head down the drain. Anyway, I’m constantly recoiling from the sights on display at meat counters. Lamb’s stomach, for example. And calf’s tongue. There seems something intrinsically weird, perverse, about the idea of cutting up cooked tongue or stomach and putting it in your own mouth and stomach. Added to which, lambs’ stomachs look distressingly cosy – like cardigans made from soft, creamy-coloured wool, thrown casually down in a steel tray spiked with a price tag. You can’t help wishing they’d stayed inside the lambs. And how can anyone bite a calf’s tongue? Put its tongue in your mouth next to, or frankly on, your own tongue, and bite it? Bite through it. Couldn’t do it myself. I feel the same way about pigs’ trotters. There’s a shop nearby where they tie tiny little trotters together in neat pairs and lie them out in rows like little socks. I can’t look at them without seeing those little shoes you see in shoe-shops for toddlers. Just about every fibre in my body cries out Don’t disconnect those little feet from those little piglets.

And don’t let’s start on rabbits.

Or the alouettes sans tetes. Errkk. Skylarks seem always to be sold and served trussed up in little bundles with what always seems like a bit of a proud note that their heads are missing. How appetising, really, is that?

It’s clearly cultural and what I was brought up on but it’s only since I’ve lived here that I’ve realised I can eat chunks of meat or slices of meat but I can’t enjoy cuts of animals which include other features. Eyes, hooves, ears, internal organs and body parts with hair or feathers on can all stay in their original setting as far as I’m concerned.

The French are good at organising

The French are good at organising. Very good. They have excellent roads and first class motorways which connect a zillion cities and towns and villages continually fit to burst with things going on. Which is to say, they’re good at organising physical stuff - infrastructure - and social stuff too – events of all types as long as they involve masses of people and lots of bonheur. And people in Provence are super-good at organising. In my local small town, for example, Isle-sur-Sorgue, the Sunday market is an affair of gargantuan, astonishing proportions filling every street and occupying every square metre of road, square and pavement. Starting in the early hours before the birds are up, stallholders set up tables, canopies, displays, acres of bread, cheese, olives, olive oil, ham, spices and just about everything else you can think of and heat pans of paella big enough to feed a city of giants and grill hundreds of chickens. There are clothes stalls with changing rooms thrown together in the backs of vans (floor-length mirrors on demand.) People selling knock-off makeup and jewellery or puppies and kittens and kids (junior goat variety.) There’s everything and more and miles of it.Wall-to-wall mostly small-producer commerce. And the most astonishing thing is the casual, total, lack of fuss about setting up and clearing away. At the start of proceedings the traders all appear from nowhere, park their cars and vans and mooch around smoking fags and drinking coffee. Like some sleight of hand, stalls seem to assemble themselves as people chat and poke each other genially in the chest and claim to make less money than everyone else. At the end of proceedings, the goods, the stalls, the changing rooms, animals, people and vehicles sort of fade quickly and quietly away, with a few packing and stowing motions, au revoirs and a la prochaines, leaving not a sign, not even a discarded paper cup, that they were ever there. In many countries, such a smooth-running event on such a scale would be a major achievement, probably staged in a large city, that could be managed - with subsidies and fanfare, a marketing department and legal team, committee meetings and sub-committee meetings, and everything going catastrohically over budget – perhaps once a year. Here, it happens every Sunday. In a small town. Even in winter.

If the French were to organise the Olympic games and I have no idea whether they ever have or not (having no interest whatever in the kind of games played at the Olympics – why they ever interest anyone is beyond me but I suppose it’s just the hype and context – after all if a friend said to you ‘Do you want to come over to my place on Sunday and watch Bill and Tom throw a chair up the garden to see who can throw it furthest, or sprint to the corner shop to see if one gets there a thirtieth of a second before the other, you would quite rightly decline, thinking you had better things to do with your time) but if the French did organise them, they would throw up the approach roads, stadiums, arenas, seating, changing rooms, ticket offices, car parks and restaurants over a weekend, with charm, efficiency and co-operation and none of the sulky point-scoring or infighting in the anglo-saxon countries and the prices would be reasonable and the food would be great.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Here in Provence

With the economic crisis set to str-etch out for years (some politicians and economists say ten or FIFTEEN) more people than ever in cold northern countries are wondering: Is it really worth putting up with grey skies, cold winds, endless rain and long-long-faces when there's not even any of the frickin' compensation there used to be in the way of secure jobs, decent incomes or sound investments? If you only have one life to live - and, pace Buddhists, that's probably true - do you really want to live it literally under a cloud? Aren't there places on this earth where the sun shines, the air is warm and life is a bit all-round-more-comfortable?
Well yes. There are.
If you've been swithering about going south or staying put, now could be the right time to make the break. Assuming you've got a basic income that's portable (we'll come back to that) you don't have to stick around in the frozen norh just because you happen to have lived there for a long time already or even because you have friends and family there. There are beautiful countries and beautiful regions where life centres on culture, local society and the countryside, where the built environment is stunning, society is designed for people rather than to maintain officious systems or bossy regulations and where you can live outside most of the year. Imagine that - not just holidaying outside once or twice a year - living outside. (With a house or a flat, obviously, that you can go into when you want to.) (We'll come back to that too.)
And with low-cost airlines winging around the place you're always in easy reach of the people you love but can't bring with you. In fact, once they've spent the third week of their summer holiday in your house you may be glad they spend most of the year elsewhere. ('nother thing to come back to.)
This site gives you a good close look at one of those regions - one of the most sensual: Provence.
Here you'll find masses of information about the south of France and answers to some of the questions you have about moving. Is it possible? (yes), is it easy? (maybe), is it as good as I think it'll be? (wait and see.)

Over the next few weeks, February-March 2009, the site will give you an idea of what it's like to live here and answer many of your questions about life in Provence.
This isn't a site about buying property or dealing with tax or shifting bunches of cash from some-place-to-some-other-place at the best exchange rate. There are loads of sites about all the boring stuff. This is about the beauty of Provence. The reasons for living here. The towns and villages, vineyards and markets, the coast and the countryside. You'll read about the rhythm of daily life and the pleasure of each season. And you can contact me any time with questions or comments. Just email me at cboylan7@gmail.com