France Vicariously

Yes, I realize that I’m not the one going to France; it’s my daughter who’s going to be the exchange student. But I can’t help myself. I’m going to take this opportunity to learn as much about France as I have time for.

If I was starting up a whole new blog I suppose I would call it Vive la France du fait d’autrui. Or maybe just France Vicariously, since I would know for sure then that the words were in the correct order.

No, I do not parlez-vous français. My daughter is in French III class, but no, she does not speak French either.

It was right before Christmas when we learned she’d be spending her junior year in France. I wanted to put something under the tree to get our great learning adventure underway, so I started with these three little dictionaries that I found in our local Barnes & Noble.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We got a few good laughs from these literal meanings:

J’ai un coup de pompe. I’m feeling tired. Literally, I’ve been hit by a pump.

Il y a du monde au balcon. She has big boobs. Literally, the balcony is crowded.

Tu me gonfles. You’re getting on my nerves. Literally, you make me swell.

Je lui ai roulé un patin. I French-kissed him. Literally, I rolled a skate to him.

I’d say, from these examples, that this dictionary is definitely written for teenagers.

In addition to the confusion that such literal phrases will create, we also learned that French hipsters from the suburbs of Paris started “verlan” – a form of French slang created to confuse the uncool. Verlan works by rearranging the order of letters or syllables of a word. A sort of French Pig Latin, it sounds like.

And, of course, there are the French abbreviations, symbols, and acronyms used when texting.

:—) Je t’m +. C ni is the equivalent of Tu es un menteur. Je ne t’aime plus. C’est fini. You’re a liar. I don’t love you anymore. It’s over.

The smiley face emoticon with the long nose means liar. Bonjour Pinocchio.

How about this one? Cpa5p means C’est pas sympa. That’s not nice. Yes, the fourth character is a five.

That really isn’t nice. They’ve got their basic French, crazy literal phrases, verlan, and Frexting. (This is why I’m perfectly happy to be doing the French experience vicariously.)

After Christmas, we ordered several books, the one that grabbed my attention the most being Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French.Figuring Out the French During the Rotary Youth Exchange selection process, we learned that France is one of the most difficult countries to go to for an exchange. But why? Surely, we cannot just say that the French loathe Americans. There has to be more to it than that.

Mort Rosenblum, in Mission to Civilize: The French Way talks about how surface familiarity can be deceptive. “Outsiders go wrong by looking at France through their own optics. It is always a jolt for veteran travelers to find that culture shock in France is more severe than in Saudia Arabia or Bolivia. Elsewhere, things look and sound different, so you expect them to be different. France looks like home, or at least like familiar old postcards and paintings. Surprise.”

The authors of Au Contraire! say that the surface similarities and hidden differences can lead to situations that are uncomfortable, confusing, comic, or catastrophic. One example is this. When Starbucks launched its French business in 2003 they imported their friendly U.S.-style customer service. Patrons were initially shocked and appalled when the baristas asked for their first name after placing an order.

Calling someone by their first name? It is clear that my daughter will be guilty of many a faux pas during her time in France. I hope to learn what I can ahead of time and share them with her and here on my blog as well. She, in the meantime, will be busy learning the basics of the language.

For now, c’est fini.