A couper au couteau

So thick you can cut it with a knife.

That expression, the French version of which is ‘à couper au couteau’, is often used to describe an accent. A heavy one. Like one in which a typical French politician, ie not a slick new model like Emmanuel Macron, attempts to speak English.

In French, however, it is also used to describe heavy fog, a wine or even an atmosphere. I learned this from Bob, that wonderful online reference for French as it is actually spoken (not for learners as it’s all in French).

And when it comes to cutting with that knife, if you are in France it has to be with an Opinel knife. The Savoie company started making its trusty folding knife with the wooden handle back in 1890 and has been famous for it since. So it is that the Swiss have their army knives and we have our Opinels. If you go on a picnic in France, that slab of sausage or cheese or baguette just has to be sliced with a trusty wooden-handled knife that someone happens to have in their pocket, hopefully one in better condition than ours!

As you can see from my feature photo, we are not good examples of French culture. Our Opinel was moldering in the back of a drawer and is in terrible shape. The tip of the blackened blade appears to have been broken off, possibly from being used as a screwdriver instead of a knife, and the handle bears the logo of another company, so it was probably a giveaway. In fact, it probably belongs to my Beau-père, handyman extraordinaire, so it has been around the block a few times.

Whose English, by the way, sounds a lot like Sarkozy’s. There is no political message in that; Hollande’s anglais was just as bad.

But like the knife itself, though it may be thick at times and dull at others, it is sincere. And it gets the job done.

Do you have an accent? Or a trusty knife?

Speaking in tongues

Lord Ganesha

By Ranjitphotography93 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m spending the week at a yoga retreat near Angoulême in southwest France with a group of people from all different backgrounds: English, Irish, Welsh, Swedish, South African and American with a dose of French, German and Moroccan influence thrown into the pot for good measure. With limited access to the outside world, conversation has been our main form of entertainment in between the ‘oms’.

The stories and voices of my fellow yogis have been echoing so loudly in my mind that I found it difficult to write my planned blog post. I changed topics three times before finally deciding to write about being a sponge for other people’s voices.

I’ve always been fascinated by accents and different ways of saying things. When I was a child I decided it was much more interesting to speak with an English accent, so I contrived to speak that way. Needless to say I got teased relentlessly and dropped the act.

Now, when I feel a strong connection to someone, be it a colleague or a close friend, I will unconsciously imitate their way of speaking, even pick up on some of their preferred adjectives or verbal tics. “It’s so-o-o-o lovely,” I find myself saying in uncharacteristic accents to a Brit. “Whaddya reckon?” I’ll ask a friend from down under. Or continually add “Ya know?” at the end of my sentences. Worse, in conversation with someone whose English is halting, I’ll occasionally go to their level and begin to speak pidgin. It gets embarrassing.

When I was learning the mechanics of French grammar, I got my head so inside the French way of saying things that for some time it felt like I could no longer speak proper English. “You must go around before to cross the bridge,” I would say confusingly when asked how to get to the other side of the Seine in Paris. (Il faut faire le tour avant de traverser le pont.) Or, ridiculously:  “I envy a chocolate croissant.” (‘Avoir envie’ being to feel like having something). Temporarily losing my ability to put a sentence together in English was a growing pain of learning another language.

I suppose that internalizing other people’s voices is a form of empathy. It’s my way of actively listening in order to put myself in their shoes. But sometimes it feels like a handicap.

As a writer, you have to find to your own voice and remain true to it. I’ve felt unsure of that voice many times over the past months, convinced I was all over the map in this blog. But reading it back with a bit of distance, it does feel fairly consistent. So I need to let the voices quieten in my mind this week before I go back to my next planned post, or it may sound a little out of sync.

Yoga is stretching me in more ways than one. I may be stiff and sore for a few days from opening up to different ways of thinking and doing things but hopefully I’ll find my voice again soon. With perhaps just a hint of somewhere else.