Monday, February 18, 2008

French Nuns

These glorious Benedictine nuns have recently had a bad fire that destroyed their chapel.

People frequently, and rather annoyingly, refuse to believe that I know no French. For some reason, when I say, "I don't speak or understand French" they somehow think I have said, "My French isn't all that good." or "I'd have trouble following a lecture in metaphysics or macroeconomics in French." People usually respond to my assertion with weird non-sequiturs like, "Yeah, I know what you mean. The last time I was in Bordeaux, I had a terrible time keeping up with the evening news."

No, what I said was what I mean. I don't understand why it is so hard to accept. My editor keeps sending me things to do in French. And when I send them back asking for the English version he says the same thing, "But do you mean you don't know any French?!" as if it is the first time he has ever heard the idea. Every time!

I had a very nice, very distinguished French diplomat once tell me that I ought to go to Europe and do work with the EU. I told him I didn't know any French, and he said, "Why do you keep saying you don't know French?" Well, because it's true?

I have never understood a word of Canadian French television. I can't make sense of the instructions on a soup can label.

When I lived in a Quebecois French-speaking community for three months, I was in a constant haze of misery, being totally shut out of every recreation, conversation, conference, instruction, written notice and the entire liturgy. It was the most isolating experience of my life. Horrible. And in the entire time, I never picked up a word.

What's so hard to get about "I don't know any French"?! Sheesh, it's perfectly plain English. What's so hard to understand? Why doesn't anyone ever believe me? Is it because I was raised in Canada? In the part of Canada I was raised in, there is more Cantonese spoken than French.

I recall my first French class in school, in the fifth grade. All the other kids had been through the whole system and had had French for four years. The French teacher asked me to conjugate a verb. I was horrified. She might as well have asked me to explain the General Theory of Relativity. I sat there in terror. She asked me again, and I managed to croak out "What does conjugate mean?" After the other monsters kids had finished laughing, she just shook her head in disgust and went on the the next kid. I spent the rest of my mandatory French instruction throughout my brief and interesting school career looking out the window and not handing in assignments.

(And no, I didn't learn what "conjugate" meant until I started studying Japanese in University and it seemed a perfectly straightforward concept. I never understood why that woman didn't just explain it to me and try to teach me something. This childhood trauma may be the reason I have generally disliked French people as long as I can remember...or it could have something to do with them being intolerably rude, don't know.)

When I hear French spoken, that early sense of panic starts to grip me by the throat and my heart starts pounding out my primitive flight response. But I fight it and my policy now is to try very hard to listen. I concentrate terribly hard and try to pick out individual words I might recognise. They are few. While I am concentrating on this mental word search, the entire lecture/homily/conversation is rushing past me like a box train full of chattering seagulls.

Anyway, this is why, when someone suggests to me that I might like to entertain the possibility of religious life in a French speaking community, I usually just give them a withering look and try not to cry.

They're pretty nice looking nuns though, don't you think?

I wonder what they are saying.


Anonymous said...

Actually, discussions about metaphysics would probably be fairly easy (linguistically speaking).

It's when people start talking about sport or the price of bread that they use slang, speed up, and generally become incomprehensible.

(I found only one person in France who would speak slowly to me. She was a volunteer at Lourdes.)

Anonymous said...

like a box train full of chattering seagulls.

this simile is very funny


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Thanks, I'm sort of pleased with it.

Anonymous said...

The dying language of a dying people.