don’t know how to tell you this, but sometimes an American or even a person (in case these are two different things) can be totally clueless in France. I don’t mean dancing with the languages and stepping on the toes of your partner. I mean just dumb. Living in a foreign country where you are trying to be smart and figure things out and of course be very cool, has its shadow side of like, what were you thinking.
THE SOUL OF REMODELING
Let me give you an example. For years, mind you, years, I thought that the blade you used to smooth plaster on a wall to fill in cracks was called, “l’ame d’enduit.” The soul of plaster, which is what the word l’âme means. I built a worldview on this notion, which those of you who are stuck remodeling will understand. Trying to fix up a house will bring out your worst tendencies. One of my shortcomings is world-view building. The blade is the soul of the operation, I reflected. I had a thing for plaster, as some of you know, and so, naturally, the blade would take pride of place.
Except for one small thing. There is no apostrophe! Lame d’enduit is blade for plaster. Technically, la lame. Blade. Not soul. You might say, well, these things happen. They don’t. Or do they?
PLUMBERS AND THEIR WOMEN
Here is an image certainly of a woman’s hair, or at least a wig, right? I saw this thing in the basement of the big house when M Ludovic, the contractor, had been down there fussing with the central heating, the first time the house experienced this marvel. What was M Ludovic up to in the shadows of the basement?
Well, it turns out that this hair is called oakum rope, and it is a plumber’s tool for, let me quote: “White oakum” is made from untarred material, and was chiefly used as packing between brick and masonry in pre-war home and building construction, as its breathability allows moisture to continue to wick and transfer.”
I remarked on discovering this strange item, which I called plumber’s hair, to the wife of the foundation’s treasurer. She was not a romantic, she announced crisply. A romantic? That’s what I was? At first, I was taken aback, but then I figured this label gave me something to hang onto when I genuinely did not know what was what.
FIFTH GRADE WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR
I have often said that living in France was like returning to fifth grade, permanently. You could learn to follow much of the conversation, and then there was that word or that reference that escaped you entirely. Often my contribution to a conversation was to repeat that last word as I heard it to confirm that I was indeed following. The other person must have thought I was being an exceptionally good listener. (And don’t forget the homophones. Recently I heard cette semaine—this week and what was said was sept semaines—seven weeks. You can repeat the sounds and still be wrong!)
THE ART OF ENJOYING FIFTH GRADE
The only way to make your way in a foreign country is this: you must learn to enjoy your permanent placement in the French (or other country’s) fifth grade, although you do need training in this art. It is called, Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. My high school English teacher introduced me to this book when I was 17 years old. (I did make it out of the fifth grade States side.) He had been a student of Suzuki Roshi, one of the renowned monks who brought the study of Zen to the west, particularly in California. And all those years in France I clung to the precepts which you will find hidden in plain sight in the title: beginner’s mind. All those attributes we ascribe to a beginner: openness, sense of humor, willingness to learn, no pressure to be an expert—these qualities will help you enjoy all the mistakes you will make in a foreign country.
Beckett’s play was also of good cheer in this regard, because for all my effort in the fifth grade of French life, where I would learn more vocabulary and start to read in French and say philosophical things, I would still find myself in the fifth grade. There is a lot to do in the fifth grade, apparently.
FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS
My daughter skipped this mythic fifth grade altogether at the age of 4. She came home for lunch and mentioned that she had learned the word for somersault, which is la galipette. Her dad looked up the word in our marvelous dictionary and found the more formal le saut périlleux, which literally means the perilous jump, (something of an over-reaction, it seemed to me.) “Galipette can’t be right,” said her dad. “It’s not in the dictionary.” Her father is a distinguished man of letters, having studied literature at Yale University. I looked at her. I looked at him. I thought, child with French teacher versus Yale graduate with dictionary. She answered, “the dictionary must be wrong, because galipette is what my teacher, Annie-Claude, said.” Child with French teacher it is.
Ah, the life of a bilingual!
For those of you who know the comedian Jim Gaffigan, I’d like to add this little clip of Canadians who are, at least in the Provence of Quebec, French and English speakers. Jim has a few remarks to make.
Next week, we can go back across the street to see how paradise is faring.