Cours de GPS

road signs, panneaux

The female voice that lives inside my GPS is called, improbably, Serena. Perhaps this female persona was the fantasy of the German engineers who designed my personal navigation app. Or maybe the marketing people thought the name would inspire a sense of serenity.

When I had to choose between Serena and Henry, her male flatmate, I went with dulcet-toned Serena. Of the two, she seemed slightly less commanding.

Did I mention I have issues with authority?

My first impression is that she sounds nothing like a Serena to me. Her snooty British accent makes her seem far too well-schooled to be doing this job. And, having taken a trip or two together, I fear she must agree.

Although we are in France, Serena speaks English. If I have the option, I always pick the language this is least likely to cause confusion, or misinterpretation, to my English ears. This is especially true when it comes to getting from point A to point B. I am, as confessed before, geographically and spatially challenged, a condition that only seems to get worse with age. But because we are in France, and French-speaking Switzerland, I do expect her to have a minimal grasp of the lingo.

The problem begins as soon as we hit the road.

“Prepare to bear right,” announces Serena imperiously. The road stretches ahead in a straight line.

“I think you mean go straight,” I suggest, trying to be polite.

“Beware!” says that lady.

“Beware of what?” I ask. There is no danger that I can see.

“At the roundabout, take first exit.”

“You mean turn right?” I ask, squinting at the screen propped on my dashboard. You are not technically allowed to use a GPS on your phone while driving in France. Just in case you might be cheating by texting or checking your Facebook status, they make any use of a phone in a car illegal.

Thankfully I no longer have to face the road conditions shown in the picture above, which used to be part of my daily commute. But getting around France can be confusing, so I take all the help I can get.

“In 200 metres, prepare to turn left.”

Okay, that much I get.

“Prepare to turn left in 100 metres, onto LARUEDELAMARTINIERE,” anounces Serena blithely.

Her French pronunciation is a curve ball that catches me unaware. It bears no connection to French as I know it. What street does she mean? I glare at my screen but cannot see any name resembling her French with an English accent.

The road curves and I miss the turn.

“Now turn right onto CHEMINDELACHARBONNIÈRE.”

“Chemin de la what? Where did you learn to speak French?”

“Now turn right.”

“Wrong! It says do not enter.”

“Beware!”

“Of what?”

There is silence. I glance at my screen and see a straight arrow. It seems that Serena has strategically repositioned.

“At the roundabout, take the third exit.”

“You mean go left?”

“Take the third exit and continue onto the D93.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Now prepare to bear right.”

“Oui Madame.”

“Now bear right.”

“My god you’re a nag.”

“Turn right on RUDE LACHAINE.”

“Rude is right!”

“In 300 metres, you will have reached your destination.”

“What? You are seriously confused!”

“You have reached La Rue de la Résistance.”

“Ray-sis-tance?” I say, mocking her accent. “Listen, lady, this is France. You need to work on your accent.”

“Beware!”

I look in my rear-view mirror and see a cop right behind me. Realizing he may be able to see me talking to my GPS, I put two hands on the wheel, activate the turn signal and proceed into the parking lot.

“Merci Serena!” I say, signing off. She says nothing, far too polite to say I told you so.

I have indeed reached my destination.

Navigon, the app I use. Not my destination!

Do you use a GPS?

 

Chère Académie française,

academiePlease accept my application to become one of ‘les immortels’.

I have always dreamed of being immortal. Imagine my surprise and delight upon discovering that such a job description exists, and that it can be found among your illustrious number on the Académie Française, protectors extraordinaire of the French language!

Why should you consider my humble application?

Firstly, let me assure you that I meet your sole qualification of being under the age of 75 at the time of application, and, as an aside, that jacket would look good on me. Secondly, although English is my first language, I have spent nearly half of my life in this fair land and have come to appreciate both its language and its denizens, along with the produce of its labours, namely the fine foods and wines of la belle France. At the same time, I have become intimately familiar with its weaknesses as perceived both from within and beyond its borders.

Let me put this simply: I think you need me. As someone who has long worked in the field of communications, who understands brand and is familiar with the blogosphere, I can bring you kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The Academy has a bit of an image problem, you see. The French perceive you as a bunch of decrepit old coots, completely disconnected from reality, falling asleep in your plush chairs – I among them, until it became clear that I had confused you with the elected members of our National Assembly.

My confusion can perhaps be forgiven. You, too, are elected by vote, although uniquely among yourselves, a far more civilized approach than asking the public to weigh in, n’est-ce pas? What, after all, does the average Joe (sorry, make that Jacques) know about the language of Molière?

I do realize, bien évidemment, that you will not be able to consider my candidacy until a chair has been duly vacated, that is, until one of your number has gone on to better things – oh, let’s just call a spade a spade: popped his clogs, kicked the can, croaked. As you can see, I have a fair grasp of the vernacular in my native tongue and une maîtrise certaine in French.

I will be an ardent defender of French. I will fight to the death against the dumbing down of this great and wonderful language and resist further indignities like that of the spelling reform which has recently brought your name into the news. I understand it took from 1990 until the present to implement the reform, based upon a decision not of the Académie Française but of the Superior Council of the French language.

In conclusion, I will do everything in my power to maintain the original orthography of our language, from the jaunty circumflex in ‘août’ to the inimitable ‘i’ in oignon.

Till death us do meet.

Madame Mel

It’s all Greek to me

Kitschy door to a public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete
Kitschy public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Ever since I arrived in France and found myself floundering in a sea of incomprehension. But something always seemed to get lost in translation. Until I figured out that it’s not Greek but Chinese that describes what the French find impossible to understand. ‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong.

Spending a week on the island of Crete is the perfect excuse to finally use the expression. We’re here catching a week of sun and making up for the summer that wasn’t in France. Also the vacation we didn’t find time to take. By ‘vacation’ I mean going away to a place with nothing more urgent to do than sit on a deck chair and watch the waves roll in. And decide what to order for lunch.

So here we are in boutique-hotel heaven on the western part of the island near Chania (pronounced ‘HAH-nea’), enjoying mostly sunny skies and warm but not sweltering temperatures. Where they serve delicious, heart-healthy Cretan diet food and excellent local wines – meaning you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight knowing that any weight you gain will be chock full of omega 3’s and antioxidants. Rest assured, I’m sporting the healthiest of belly rolls.

The crowd at our hotel is a mixed bag – Nordic, German, Swiss, French, Brits and the odd North American transplant like me. Everybody speaks an English of varying accents, including the staff, who are Greek and Turkish. I love the fact that English is the default language that enables people from such different cultures to communicate, even on such a mundane level as ‘Please pass the olive oil’, or ‘May I have an extra beach towel?’

And I find myself doing that thing I do. Where I become a sponge for other people’s verbal tics, speaking with an unfamiliar accent or an oddly European intonation. I’m convinced it’s a form of empathy that makes me do this. Either that or an odd desire to parrot.

I first noticed this when I began to speak French. It was as if the process of learning a foreign tongue made me temporarily lose my own. I found myself stuttering to get words out in my native language, or worse, employing French grammatical constructions in English: “She is the sister of my mother,” I explained to someone who asked about my aunt. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean your mother’s sister?”

Sometimes my English sounded like a bad translation: “I am desolate,” I would say by way of apology, literally translating ‘je suis désolée’ from French. It wasn’t intentional – it just came out that way. I remember feeling very silly after being introduced to someone and popping out ‘I’m enchanted.’ While ‘Je suis enchantée’ may be perfectly correct in French, it sounds more than a little dated in English.

Whatever the reason, being surrounded by foreign languages leaves me temporarily at a loss for words. Which is probably just as well. It is so incredibly beautiful here that words seem redundant. Even the Greek ones with all those strange characters that defy description. You just want to lay back and watch the waves roll in. Wriggle your toes in the sand. And forget about all the things you don’t understand.

Capisce?

IMG_2482

Crossing the border

We live in France, just across the border from Switzerland. Geneva is our closest big city and we’re as often on the Swiss side as we are in France. Work is in Switzerland. So is the airport, the bigger department stores and many of our favorite restaurants.

Crossing the border is no big deal. In fact, it has become largely a technicality, since the Schengen accords abolished the need to control the borders between 26 European countries.

La Haute Savoie
La Haute Savoie

In our corner of Lake Geneva, the border weaves a crooked line through hills and along rivers. When you’re driving around, you may change countries without even realizing it.

Recently we had visitors from Canada who wondered: how can you tell which side of the border you’re on?

It’s not all that obvious. Here in the Haute Savoie part of the French Rhône-Alpes region, we have a toe in Switzerland, a heel in Italy, and a long history of belonging to various sides. Like our sister region, the Savoie, our departmental flag is almost identical to the Swiss flag. Geneva was taken over by France during the revolution and at one point in history, the area where we now live was supposed to be part of French-speaking Switzerland.

« Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin
Sign from our sister department, La Savoie « Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

But Switzerland is another country. Other than the Swiss flag itself, which proudly flies at every border outpost, here’s what to watch – and listen – for when you cross the border into Switzerland:

  1. Prices in Swiss francs
    One of the first things you will notice is the prices in Swiss Francs. Even if you don’t notice it right away, you’ll soon feel the pinch. One Swiss franc (1 CHF) is worth about .80 EUR cents, but the cost of just about everything is much higher than the exchange rate seems to justify.

2. Bus stops and public transit
The Swiss are great believers in public transit. Even small villages on the outskirts of big towns are well served by buses and trains. Ferry boats run by the CGN (Swiss national navigation company) take commuters from France to the Swiss side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).

3. Better roads and cleaner streets
Everything is well maintained in Switzerland. Which may be one reason why prices are higher.

4. Recycling bins
Even in public places like train stations and on the street, you often see bins specifically for recyclables like plastic.

5. Accent
The French like to make fun of the Swiss Romand accent, a kind of lilt that makes the phrases go up at the end. But then again, the French make fun of accents from everywhere – even within their own country.

 6. English spoken
After so many years in France, it surprised me at first to hear so much English spoken just across the border. You will notice that many different languages are spoken in Switzerland, but most commonly: French, German, Italian and English.

Caninette  7. Dog poop
Along with cleaner, better maintained streets comes a certain mania for picking up. Stoop-and-scoop bags are available pretty well everywhere in Switzerland. And beware of fines if you don’t pick up after le chien!

8. License plates
The plates on Swiss cars begin with the two-letter abbreviation of the Canton: GE for Geneva, VD for Vaud or ZH for Zurich, for example.

9. Vignette
You can’t drive on the Swiss motorways without paying an annual highway tax. I love the efficiency of it – a small price to pay instead of all those annoying tolls in France. La vignette (which you must display on your windshield) costs 40 CHF (33 EUR) and the borders on the main roads (ie, Bardonnex in Geneva) are often patrolled to catch visitors who haven’t paid up.

10. Frontaliers
You will also notice a lot of French license plates on the Swiss side. That’s because jobs are more plentiful and better paid. Les frontaliers, those who live in one country and work in another, are an unpopular bunch: Disliked by the French, who assume there’s something illegal or immoral about earning more money or paying less tax; and tolerated but not really liked or trusted by the Swiss.

I should know. I’m one of them.

What about you? Ever been confused about which side of the border you were on?

 

The coolest word in the French language

Creative Commons, LaughingSquid.com
Creative Commons, LaughingSquid.com

It slips into phrases like an uninvited guest, crashing the party yet instantly finding its place.

A single letter long, it belongs to a very elite group indeed – one of the two shortest French words.

Have you guessed?

It’s ‘y’.

Or the Greek ‘i’ as it’s known in French – pronounced “ee-greque.”

It is both a vowel and a consonant. How cool is that? If it were human, surely it would be wearing Ray-Bans and sitting by the pool, sipping Bacardi on ice.

It’s so low profile a word that I had to check my dictionary to ensure that it really is a word, and not just an element of speech. An adverbial pronoun, it’s a word that acts like a sort of stand in – an understudy who occasionally replaces the starring role.

It has no real meaning of its own, other than that of designating a place. The closest English translation is ‘there.’ Are you going to the party? Oui, j’y vais.

It’s subtle, and elusive to English ears. Which is probably why I was hesitant to use it at first. It felt sort of daring the first time I pronounced it – moving things around in sentence order kind of goes against the natural order of things. But soon enough, expressions like these just rolled off my tongue:

Ça y est. (Sa-ee-ay) That’s it. Done!

Allons-y! (A-lon-zee) Let’s go!

When we moved to Lyon some years ago, I learned that its denizens, les Lyonnais, are known for their love of the ‘y’ – they use it far more than people elsewhere in France, adding it to phrases where normally it would not appear.

For example: Do you like it?  Tu y aimes?

Want to know ‘y’? A few links for fellow grammar geeks:

‘Y’ explained very nicely in English: http://www.slideshare.net/mrash/the-french-pronouns-y-and-en
http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/pron_adverbial.htm

More about the Lyonnais accent (in French):

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parler_lyonnais

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0DiCYpsJAc