Le mur

The wall

There was a lot of talk about walls yesterday. The ‘anti-fascist protection’ one that came down in 1989, the year my son was born. The one that Trump has promised to build – and get the Mexicans to pay for. The one that Canada may need to hold back the tide of fleeing Americans. When Canada’s immigration site crashed sometime in the wee hours yesterday, well before the results were in, the writing was surely on the wall.

Sitting in France, working in Switzerland and with roots in Canada, I was surprised at how deeply affected we all were by the news that there would be a – gulp – President Trump.

We are not American, even though the US president is thought to lead the so-called ‘free’ world. My Canadian family and friends can rightly quake, living in the shadow of the giant and sometimes feeling a little like its 51st state. Culturally, we are distinct; economically, less so.

Switzerland is home to many expats, some of whom are my friends and colleagues. As much as I wanted the polls to be right, I had spoken to people – articulate, smart people – who admitted they would vote for Trump. I’d witnessed the hatred for Hillary, and the refusal of Trump supporters to take seriously any charges against him. What would it take, I wondered? Explicit evidence of child pornography? My gut told me the polls were a reflection of what the influencers wanted to see.

Here in France, as I listened to talk about the election results yesterday, I found myself thinking about the invisible wall that exists between us and the US. While there is a strong, longstanding friendship between the two countries, that barrier is real on so many levels – cultural, linguistic, political.

Watching a French TV panel that included Christine Ockrent, a respected journalist who is married to Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) founder Dr. Bernard Kouchner, discussing Trump alongside a young blonde American member of the Republicans in France, that wall could not have been more evident. Although the American woman spoke French very well, the wall came down on the French faces as quickly and as surely as if a door had shut. Was it her very-American accent, her direct way of saying things or simply her open-faced support of the man who is perceived as a monster here in France?

Alongside her sat another woman, who had formerly worked for Hillary Clinton. Although these two women sat on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I was struck by the fact that they appeared to have more in common than they did with any of the French panelists. No matter what, Americans will proudly defend their country’s democratic process as being the expression of its popular will. The French, for all that they resist until death, will allow themselves to be led by their elected elites.

The wall is cultural, and it is also political. The French openly dislike anything so crass and populist and commercial as Trump. And although many will vote for Marine LePen and the far-right Front National, two things hold her back from ever becoming President: the first is class. She doesn’t have it. Nor does Sarkozy, which goes a long way to explaining why he was not re-elected and is unlikely to make a comeback. The second is that the political elites in this country, supported by the French people, will not allow it. The post-war fear of fascism is just too strong. So opposing political parties will band together in order to block what is seen as dangerous.

As much as this country has its problems, and you know that I have no hesitation in calling them out, the particular horror of a Trump in power would not happen here. Nor, with all due respect to my British friends, would a Brexit. But the two movements are not dissimilar, and that is another reason why it is frightening. Both seem to believe they can and should shut their borders, live as islands sufficient unto themselves. While this is harder to imagine in the UK, the potential economic fall-out from US trade restrictions is huge.

But whether or not they build any more walls, le mur is already there.

Tout un fromage

Stinky cheeseThe French expression ‘en faire tout un fromage’ offers up one of those wonderful synchronicities of language. Translation: to raise a fuss about something or, more appropriately, to make a stink. Anyone who has ever experienced the smell of a ripe camembert will surely see the poetic justice in that. There is a reason the cheese stands alone.

Les fromages qui puent – the stinky cheeses – is how the French refer to themselves while poking fun at the Sylvester Stallone-inspired Americans on the political satire puppet program, Les Guignols de l’Info. They somehow make the mockery sound like a term of endearment.

No matter how you feel about raw-milk cheese, there is no denying its tendency to smell a bit strong. I remember being invited to my in-laws home for the first time, entering the kitchen and being assaulted by a waft of something that had died, or done its business. Upon seeing my alarmed expression, my fiancé was reassuring: “Don’t worry, it’s just the cheese.”

fromage-qui-pueWhen it came time to actually eat the stuff, I was surprised that the strong smell had mostly evaporated. Whether it was the wine we washed it down with – Bordeaux bien sûr – or the fact that our sense of smell had attenuated by then, I can’t say. What I will say, however, is that over the years I’ve eaten quite a few French cheeses and it’s not the ones that necessarily look or smell the worst that are the strongest tasting. Although I do point the finger at le camembert for being particularly putrid and prone to repeat. As a general rule, I avoid anything that wears an orange coat. Also I don’t eat the rind, no matter many times my husband and others will chide me by saying, “Mais c’est bon ça!”

As Charles de Gaulle himself once said: “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” In fact, le général rather underestimated his country’s cheese-making capacities – there are over 1,000. Some of my favorites are included in this list of 100 things to enjoy in France.

Suffice it to say that you need a strong stomach to live here. And you are well served by not having too delicate a sense of smell.

Here’s a video for French speakers (and worth watching even if you don’t speak the language of Molière) that answers the burning question: Which is the stinkiest cheese?

What’s your favorite cheese?

Pronunciation Tips

By USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Barn Owl) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Or how to avoid ‘la cata’

A friend of mine was moaning the other day about the fact that the French never understand her efforts to speak the lingo. An American who’s lived in French-speaking parts for several years, she’s done her darndest to learn the language. But try as she might, she finds herself frequently misunderstood en français.

You know immediately when that happens. The French facial expression goes from neutral to vaguely pained, then contorted, as if suffering a bout of indigestion. If no understanding dawns, in a few short seconds this will resolve into a blank of incomprehension, possibly accompanied by the Gallic shrug and what’s popularly called the face fart.

I can sympathize with my American friend, even though my own experience was a little different. I have a fair accent and initially had less trouble making myself understood (at least as far as the language went – meaning was something else…) But it also meant they assumed I understood them – for me the bigger problem. This unleashed a stream of garble that left me blushing and stammering to decipher.

Learning a language, it seems you always do one thing better than the other at first. Understand or be understood.

As far as speaking goes, sometimes it’s a small thing that makes the difference. A nuance of pronunciation can foil your best effort to go native. In my friend’s case, she has a problem with emphasis. I think this is probably a question of ear. I have a good ear for music as I used to sing, a great many moons ago. So I hear the music of the language. And am able to parrot sounds back.

Here are my top 3 pronunciation tips for fledgling French speakers:

1. Become a slave to the rhythm
Forget the words for a moment. Just listen to the music of spoken French – in a film, on the radio, in conversation on the street. Wrap your ear around it. People’s voices go up and down, although not in the same ways as they do in English. It will sound different in staccato Parisian than in sing-song Provençal accents, but if you get that basic beat of the language, you’re half way to speaking French like a native.

2. Move your vowels
Don’t worry about the consonants. No one will be confused if you don’t growl the French r-r-r right in the back of your throat. But get your vowels right. Especially ou vs u. Try practicing in front of a mirror. To do the French ‘oo’ you really need to shape your mouth like you imagine an owl hooting (I’m not sure they really do this!). Whereas you hardly open your lips at all to do the ‘u’ – just stick your tongue behind your teeth.

3. Don’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle.
When I first met my husband in Toronto, he tried to tell me about going to see one of our most famous landmarks. So famous that he couldn’t understand how I’d never heard of it.  But have you ever heard a French person try to pronounce Niagara Falls? (It came out sounding like some remote place in Africa.) But it’s a tricky one. Not only do you have to get the vowel sounds right, you have to hit the syllables: Ny-AG-ra.

The trick in French is that there’s almost always an emphasis on the last syllable. This is very different from English. Take the Eiffel Tower. We say: EYE-ful TOW-er. But in French, it’s Tour eh-FELL.

(On a recent trip back to Canada I was teased by my brother for pronouncing our former President’s name as Sarko-zee! It seems they were all saying Sar-Cozy, making him sound like a teddy bear.)

Hence, my friend’s attempts to say “C’est une cata” (a quirky short form for ‘It’s a catastrophe’ — something that happens a lot here) went over people’s heads. She was saying CAT-a instead of cat-AH!

Let me conclude with a plea to the French: the one thing, la seule petite chose, you can do to help a non-native speaker is to slow it down a tad. Try not to run the words together quite so much. Give us a moment for the hard drive to register the words, and perhaps a few seconds to capture the sense of the phrase.

Actually that plea probably applies to native speakers of any language.

How about you? What’s your favorite tale of being (mis)understood in another language?