83: Language lagunas – A topic about which we never tire

When we learned we would move to Switzerland, Dave and I approached the impending language lapses in different ways.

I bought a “French for Dummies” book, logged onto a fabulous Youtube French language tutorial, pasted post-it notes of useful French words and phrases all over the house (such as “Why are you being so mean to me?” and “Your country is not as great as my country.”) and spent hours everyday expanding my French vocabulary and working toward mastering at least a four-year-old’s level of grammatical expertise.*

Dave, in the meantime, went out and bought a pocket Franklin language gadget.

While my process seems more laborious, it turns out it is much better than the gadget. I cannot speak French well at all, but arguably, I don’t speak English well either – nevertheless, I have an instantaneous grasp of what the French-speaking Swiss are saying to me as long as they stick to a preschooler patois. It’s a helpful skill that enables me to discern whether to stand in place or run like heck. While I am absorbing the message, Dave has not even whipped the pocket translator out of his pocket.

All of which shows that even though my French pronunciation is an offense to French-speakers everywhere, the hours of studying were not wasted. I highly recommend it because a fractured understanding of a language is better than a big black hole of incomprehension.

But we have no linguistic illusions. We cannot speak the language and that confines our social world along very tight borders, not to mention that the Swiss are a pretty reserved lot.

And yet, yesterday we seem to have passed a threshold.

Our neighbourhood has a “dog lady;” you know the type: A slightly batty dishevelled older woman who talks loudly to her dog, and then about her dog to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. I see this woman numerous times everyday, but she never gives me the slightest acknowledgement. That is okay. I have enough batty people in my life already. I’m full up.

But yesterday, as Dave and I were about to pass her, I pointed out to Dave how I am non-persona to this woman, whereupon she turned on us and delivered a truckload of French liberally spiced with the word “chien.” One could suppose she had not made her canine-convo-quota and decided to try to top up with us, but more likely it was because her poodle leapt up at Dave and demanded an ear scratch.

Have passed muster with Fifi, the woman turned exceedingly friendly and gave us the lowdown on her seven-year-old dog who is mostly deaf and prefers men to women, although in this instance the dog did seem to like me, but her owner could not figure out why, all of this in French that to my ear sounded quite garbled, but I’m not one to stand in judgement on this point.

All I could do was tell her what a charming, lovely dog she has, but as it turned out that was enough to earn a pat on the arm and a warm farewell. Now I’m afraid of our next impromptu meeting, and what I will say to her to move the conversation along, but maybe I am lucky in that as long as her dog likes me, whatever I say will be just fine.

In the meantime, our hotel’s wonderful cleaning staff have completely given up on schooling me in French, something they’ve done whenever we’ve passed in the hallway over the past 12 months. This week, they’ve switched over to Portuguese/Spanish, but already I am failing them. At least they will only be disappointed for 83 more days.

* I failed. My Gaulish grammatical grasp is somewhere in the 12-to-20-month-old range.

Blog Bits

As of this moment: 

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87: Dum dee dum dum dumb at the drugstore

Switzerland: Land where Nyquil & Melatonin users viewed with suspicion. Heroin-addicts and alcoholics are okay.

“Hola! Buenos dias! No! Er, hello. No, bonjour! Gruetzi! Dang! What country am I in?!”

This is what happens to me when I spend a protracted amount of time in a linguistic stew. I stumble over four languages in a nanosecond, which is what happened when I greeted the pharmacist at the local apotheke (pharmacy) yesterday.

“Why did you start in a language you can’t even speak,” my beloved asked. Why indeed. The pharmacist had Iberian skin tones and black hair, a visual cue that sprung the floodgates on the little reservoir of Spanish my brain has boxed up since our days in Madrid. The pharmacist’s responding look of incomprehension then caused the linguistic data to disperse at the synaptic cleft between my neurons, form into a ball and ping pong around my brain, hitting as many languages as possible. Given enough time, I might have recalled the Japanese that Mrs. Kirbyson tried to teach me in 1975.

I wonder if time-zone-trader Angelina Jolie has trouble sleeping.

It turns out the gentleman spoke English, but by then I had forgotten how to manage even that and so I persisted in my usual muddled melange. Dave just stood back and watched the show.

I am always in a slightly peeved mood when I go to a pharmacy in Europe, which is something like visiting a North American drug store in 1952 when everything was kept behind the counter and a conversation with the druggist was mandatory. I’m actually not sure about that being the case in 1952, but Hollywood tells me this is so and I’m too linguistically hungover to investigate further.

In Switzerland, something as mundane as NyQuil (called Medinait here, for those who need to know) can only be purchased after assuring a pharmacist that the buyer does not have asthma, glaucoma, a family history of glaucoma, neurofibromatosis, halitosis, a tendency to crack knuckles, arthritis, phlebitis, elephantitis or a cough that has lingered for over a week. Who would think a cold medication would come under such strict controls?

Costco's Melatonin: There's the good stuff.

But there’s more. Even the non-drug Metamucil (a non-medicinal soluble fibre product that does wonders for cholesterol counts, by the way) requires conversational counter-time with the drug-store staff.

Last week, I learned that melatonin* – a rather innocuous hormone that flits about in the pineal gland governing our sleep cycles – is only available in Switzerland by prescription. Melatonin has been an on-the-shelf product in the U.S. since the 1990s and in Canada it can be bought in comforting large containers at Costco stores, yet when I asked for it, the Swiss druggist gave me the studious stare associated with searching for signs of drug addiction – that is, my drug addiction. But then, considering how I opened our conversation in  a multiplicity of languages that I don’t actually speak, who can blame him?

I find this fascinating in a country where heroin and other narcotics are legal, and if I wanted such I could probably just drop in at the local injection clinic and load up my veins.

Alternatively, if I’m having trouble sleeping and can’t access my usual supply of melatonin, a cheap and ready source of alcohol of all sorts can be purchased at any food store. I looked down my nose at the men lining up at a nearby convenience store with their beer and booze during the supper hour, but now I realize they may just be fellow-insomniacs whose melatonin-prescriptions have run out.

Blogbits

On Hobonotes’ most recent daily report:

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  • Least hits come from the Russian Federation
  • Weirdest search term that landed a reader at this site was “Paris restaurant Winnipeg”
  • Readers from Japan did not even register in my country list. I cannot break into that readership. Dang. 

DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE FOR MEDICAL INFORMATION: To learn more about melatonin, go to legitimate medical websites, such as mayoclinic.com. 

96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

He was a big Frenchman in a wrinkled militia-styled jacket, shaved head and stubble-shadowed jaw. As we threaded through the medieval square’s cafe’s tables, he blocked David’s way, smiled and said something in French.

Dave tried to turn the rugged and somewhat aggressive panhandler away, but before things could get worse, and by worse I mean us not getting a table, I jumped in and told the man we prefer to sit in the sun.

Our French maitre'd did not look so scary once he took off his scrappy jacket and shed the shades, but he still has a bar-bouncer physique. We dared not leave any food on our plate, lest we insult him or his establishment's chefs.

This is the problem with not speaking the local language – all a person has to draw on are appearances and my beloved thought the man was about to demand his wallet, although in a very engaging and musical way because after all, this was France, the land that we cannot stop loving no matter how many times it offends our sensibilities.

The rough-cut maitre’d somehow blended coquettish charm with a bullish demeanor. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery. After delivering us to our table au soleil, we watched him marshall the area with a militaristic machismo. When a motorcyclist parked his bike in a spot deemed inappropriate, the maitre’d took on the appearance of a gendarme. It was impressive.

The funny thing in France is that they all seem to have a good understanding of English, but they refuse to speak it. And while they are famous for being snotty on this point, our experience is that they are quite gracious. In fact, the only place where the French have gotten uppity with me over language is in Canada, which is ironic given what an old-French pioneering family I come from.

But enough rambling. Our Swiss watchmaking town is only 100 km away from France, so given that by this time next year we will be 100 km away from Vancouver or Chemainus, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the French.

Mulhouse's Rothus Museum has some cool Neolithic skeletal stuff in it (some in orange ochre soil, excavated from local tombs). Small towns in France and Switzerland all seem to have their own tiny museums with really amazing collections, the likes of which would be unthinkable in comparably sized Canadian cities. How do the Europeans do it?

Mulhouse is famous for its many museums, some of which focus on specialties that would never occur to anyone else as collectible items of interest. There are museums for textiles, railroads, cars, electricity (yes, electricity), art, artifacts, history and that killer of all museums, a museum of wallpaper. It’s a pity that I loathe museums with such intensity that my entire objective in visiting Mulhouse was to avoid all of them.

It was not possible. We accidentally stumbled into one that appeared to be a tourist office-combination-hotel in Mulhouse’s central square. Once inside, the suave French smiled and charmed us into visiting their museum in the upper stories of the building, which happened to have the unbeatable attraction of free admission.

It turned out to be a lovely place to spend 30 minutes, which is the outside limit of my attention span. As we asked for directions out of the building, a burly French guide took us to another room where he opened the window and pointed the way to the Musee’ des Beaux Arts, extracting from us a promise to visit there next, but which we never did.

I feel bad about that, but if we did not make the promise, we ran the risk of insulting our French hosts, and yet, if we kept the promise, I might have dunked my head in a bucket of water just to avoid the prospect of more of my life lost to museum-trolling.

Tomorrow: More on Mulhouse and the wonders of France’s relationship with sugar, butter and chocolate

Dave reckons medieval key chains must have required a lot of muscle.

 

 

 

98: French fils et filles – c’est bon or non?

A French child playing quietly at an outdoor cafe' in France.

Yesterday’s one-day research project into the conduct of French children and the efficacy of French parenting was carried out over the cobblestoned medieval square at Mulhouse, a museum-laden town in France’s eastern Alsace region. Pity me, working so hard.

The task was triggered by American author Pamela Druckerman’s assertion in her hit book Bringing Up Bebe that the French know more about parenting than do Americans.

Joanna Goddard, Manhattan-based blogger at A Cup of Jo summarized Bringing Up Bebe in this way (this is a summary of her summary):

  1. You can have a grown-up life, even if you have kids.
  2. You can teach your child the act of learning to wait.
  3. Kids can spend time playing by themselves, and that’s a good thing.
  4. Believe it when you tell your child “No.”

This dog raised two boys, neither of whom turned to a life of crime.

It’s worth noting that these four tenets are nothing new. Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson wrote the same stuff back in the 1970s. Before then, my mother took #3 to an extreme level by pushing us out the door immediately after breakfast and not letting us back inside until supper.

I took the practice even further with my own children who spent their summers outdoors under the supervision of a yellow labrador retriever that I trained to deliver notes to them that read “Dinnertime!” and “Don’t let your brother play near the shore.” Come to think of it, I should have penned a book “Retriever-Raising Your Rascals.”

Outdoor cafes in town squares are lovely car-free zones to teach children about restaurant manners. They can sit quietly with the adults, or safely blow off steam by running around the square.

In our afternoon of observing the French, we saw many children dining quietly at street cafes, trundling contentedly along the pedestrian malls and frolicking in the cobblestoned squares. Recalling the wailing kids we had seen in North American Wal-Mart stores, it seemed that Druckerman might have a point.

Then Dave saw a fussing four-year-old girl whose mother delivered to her a solid whack on the bottom and a stern reprimand.  A little later, another siren-whine of  some random child cut through the crowds. Two whiners in one afternoon seemed on-par with North American over-bored and stuck-in-stores-too-long child stats as reported by the unscientific commission of me and my friends.

Here in Switzerland, the scene is very much the same, although overall the Swiss are a more restrained people than North Americans and it shows in their youngsters.

There is another constant at work in this. The popularity of Bringing Up Bebe shows that not only the French are concerned about how to raise children, but that as a society, North Americans are, too. Otherwise, Druckerman’s book would never have made it to the New York Times bestseller list.