S’entendre

Beautiful Madeline and Humphrey

‘Entendre’ is one of those French words that effortlessly brings together different concepts and blends them into one. It means both to hear and to understand. Employed in its reflexive verb version, s’entendre, it also means to agree and even to get along with someone.

There is no understanding without hearing. And if you do hear someone, and I mean really hear them, you are halfway to understanding. Which is the basis for every agreement.

Perhaps this wisdom is one reason why French became the language of diplomacy.

Diplomacy never having been a strong point, I struggle daily with this.

Several years ago I lost all of the hearing in my left ear. The diagnosis of the problem that led to this was a perfect example of one doctor who neither heard nor understood my complaint and another who did.

Thankfully, my right ear remains fully operational. The resulting lopsided hearing, however, can be painful. It means that my good side often gets an earful of unwanted sound such as music or conversation. This can make me miserable in restaurants, for example, where the next-door table is a bit loud. Conversely, it makes it impossible to hear anyone on the left side. Generally I avoid sitting with anyone on my left (other than husband, whom I know well enough to guess what he’s saying or can comfortably ignore). At parties or crowded events of any kind, I must constantly perform a strategic repositioning to catch important information, turning me into a sort of whirling dirvish.

It can be comical. I have no ability to pinpoint where sound is coming from, so will turn my head like a radar when someone calls me on the street. People who call themselves friends and even family have been known to have fun with this.

What I’ve gained in return for the hearing loss, however, is considerable. Selective hearing, the ability to tune out unwanted noise, is essential to understanding. It is a skill I’ve been forced to learn, one that I haven’t yet mastered, but is beginning to serve me well. Je m’entends.

I am literally learning to tune out unwanted noise to better understand my world.

And the magical, wonderful thing that happens when you do this is that you begin to read the subtext, the real message that lies beneath the surface.

Getting along with anyone, be it family, friends or work associates, is challenging. No matter how much you appreciate someone, there are times when you just can’t share their point of view. With family, at least with mine, there are times when you would cheerfully gag them to shut them up. But if hearing is the basis for understanding, then not hearing is also a strategy. At times like these, it helps to turn a deaf ear.

Do we understand each other?

S’endormir sur ses lauriers

Z Frenchman clowns aroundI am not the only one in our family to make bloopers and blunders in an adopted language. My husband, aka Z-Frenchman, is the first one to laugh at his own English. In fact, he’s the first one to laugh at most things. A fine sense of humour is one of his best qualities and at least part of the reason why our marriage has endured these thirty years.

From the time we first met in Toronto, we have always communicated in my native tongue, or a version of it. My French skills were non-existent back then so English was the only option. It is very difficult to change the language of a relationship. Even after living in France for nearly twenty-five years, speaking French together still feels unnatural.

We English speakers find the French ‘r’ challenging and I remember at first getting it stuck in the back of my throat and sounding like I was choking when trying to say ‘rouge’. ZF, on the other hand, found it near impossible to say ‘squirrel’. There are a lot of squirrels in Toronto and it came up a lot. His rendition of it came out sort of all squished together like ‘skweerl’.

English is all about emphasis. Hitting the right syllable remains challenging for ZF even now – he will still put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABle. I described his attempt to tell me about visiting one of our wonders of the world in this post about pronunciation.

While shopping at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, he was once heard to say: “I take a leek!” That got a few smiles – and at least one anxious look.

The French say ‘take’ a lot as it is a translation of ‘prendre’, the verb used in French to describe anything you buy or order. Breaking him of the ‘take’ habit has been one of my life-long missions.

Another time he advised me: “Do not fall asleep on your bay leaves.” It only took me a minute to figure that one out, along with the French translation: “Don’t rest upon your laurels.” (Ne pas s’endormir sur ses lauriers).

Raising kids in a bilingual family like ours meant that somebody always got something wrong. Howls of hilarity regularly ensued when Daddy made a boo-boo in English, or Maman got something bass-akwards en français.

For the record, Saudi Arabia in French is Arabie Saoudite, not Saudi Arabite.

Most French people have trouble pronouncing English sounds like ‘th’, turning it into ‘z’. The aspirated ‘h’ is also a problem. For some unknown reason, however, ZF often removes them from where they should be and adds them where they don’t belong. Leading to greetings like: “’Ow h-are you?”

Difficulty enunciating certain vowel sounds can still get him into trouble. Piece and piss, sheet and shit are very different concepts.

Plurals are another challenge.

As the ‘s’ is so often silent at the end of words in French, he rarely finds it necessary to add it to the English. He will ask: “Would you like some chip?” Leading one of us to add the punchline: Just the one. Like the elusive ‘h’ he will add s’s where they don’t belong: “We’re out of cereals.” Or imply a plural: “Your hair are looking nice.” I have learned to enjoy the compliment, and keep the correction to myself.

Despite our comical moments, one of which is captured in this photo from our first winter in Toronto, communicating across the language gap has not always been a walk in the park. It makes it easy to misunderstand each other, but perhaps also makes us work a little harder to try and understand the other person’s point of view.

Et toi? What’s your funniest experience of French in English?

Quand on aime, on ne compte pas

Flowers, floatingIt is said in French that in love one doesn’t count. The exact meaning of this phrase always eluded me. Does it mean that when in love we forget all rational notions of time and money and throw ourselves into unbridled passion? Or rather that in love one does not keep score about whose turn it is or who owes what to whom? Can it be applied not just to romantic love but also to the things we love?

The answer for the French is oui, oui and oui. But when it comes to me, it’s non, non, and non.

Maybe it’s my lack of Latin blood. Whether at work or at play, I simply don’t throw myself completely into things, much as I admire those who do. Like my husband, who hikes up mountains and keeps going until he reaches the top. I go a short distance, become dizzy and exhausted, and say bon, that’s enough. Husband rarely reads, but when he gets into a book he may disappear from social interactions for days at a time. And if there is something good to eat within reach, there will soon be none left.

Me, I meter out my passions in careful doses. Count my drinks and keep an eye on my calories. I don’t binge watch my favourite TV series or run marathons. I will eat just a few pieces of chocolate, then save the rest for tomorrow. Read for an hour. Sleep for seven. Moderation in all things. How boring is that?

Perhaps it’s innate to character, upbringing or genes. Whatever it is, I seem to be more at home with the English model. When Browning asks, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?” there is a calculation, a method to her madness. There is a list.

Which is not to say there isn’t love; it’s just that there is also counting. Somewhere, no matter how far back in my mind, there is always a list.

How about you? Do you keep count or live with unbridled passion?

Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you’

Ikea GuyI used to read a column in the newspaper called “Can this marriage be saved?” Both halves of a troubled couple would tell their side of the story, then the marriage counsellor would pronounce an opinion as to whether or not the relationship could survive, and what needed to be done. It was pop psychology at its poppest. Needless to say, I ate it up.

I have never felt the need for this kind of advice. I know my marriage can survive. I know it because we have survived the true test, the only one that matters. My husband and I have survived – you guessed it: Ikea.

Labor and childbirth, bringing up two kids, multiple cats and dogs, an international move, teaching me to drive a standard – all of this pales in comparison to the stress of the ultimate relationship test: Shopping for, loading and assembling furniture from the retailer whose ad campaign – ‘Swedish for common sense’ – I long ago transformed into: ‘Swedish for I’ll kill you.’

Not only have we survived Ikea, we have done it on two continents and in two different languages. No, make that three – we’ve also shopped Ikea in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

In our early days, we went there because we had no money. We urgently needed a fold-out bed that was cheap without breaking his mother’s back – Ikea was there. Then we needed a Billy bookcase because, well, we’re both readers – there were books. Whenever in the store we discovered we needed a whole bunch of bizarrely named items. Ektorp. Kvarnvik. Tidafors.

Then we needed a crib. Heavily pregnant, we schlepped through Ikea in Toronto. Biblical thoughts ran through my head: “She grew hungry in Kitchens, broke waters in Bathrooms, lay down in Bedrooms.”

Our different navigating styles became evident as I instinctively sought the shortcuts (long before they became official, going against the flow of packed humanity). He followed the official routes while moaning and complaining about the whole thing. Ikea for me was a challenge, for him it was plain old suffering.

Our different approaches became even more apparent when it came to loading the car. I wanted to strategize the trunk and figure out a plan, but before I could even think he had shoved it all in (what can I say, it’s a male thing!).

And our differences came to a head when it was time to assemble the f**ing things. While I methodically sorted the various parts, he had the main frame assembled and had thrown out boxes and instructions. Inevitably, there were tensions. We would be missing a screw (I always knew this to be true about myself) or some other essential widget. He would become furious about Ikea and its crap quality, swearing never to return. I would go back by myself the next day, swearing never to allow him access to a screwdriver again.

The crib got assembled. I did not give birth in Bedrooms. Miraculously, our furniture stood straight. Some of it has lasted as long as our marriage.

I have learned how to make the most of our differences. I let him do the heavy work while I hide the instructions and save them in a file. I shop by myself and just ask for his help in unloading the car. Solo, in my Micra, 5’2’’ of determination, I have managed to transport entire wardrobes. Where there’s a will, there’s a woman.

In the latest chapter of my love-hate Ikea relationship, the dog left his mark upon a footstool where the cat was lording it up. I felt love for the Swedes when I saw that the cover was removable and washable. Then I saw how (insert that word again) hard it was to remove the thing, ripping my cuticles in the process. Mostly husband is way more patient than me. And he has stronger hands. So when I washed the cover of the *unpronounceable name* he promised to put it back on for me when it was dry, then promptly forgot and left for the week. I waited three days and then decided to do it myself (did I mention patience is not my virtue?)

If he could do it, I could do it. First, I put on one corner. This did not work, as it would not stretch to fit the other corners. I tugged and I pulled and it started to rip. I cursed and I swore and examined my bloodied cuticles.

I reasoned the technique was just to get it over the entire frame more or less straight, then fix the seams. I did this, congratulating myself on the triumph of rational thinking. Then I tried to fix the velcro. It was upside down. I cursed and swore a bit more. Arv! Flört! Kortvarig!

Sometimes people ask: after so many years in France, which language do you curse in? Both, of course. And occasionally, in Ikea.

What’s your most memorable Ikea moment?