The Puzzle Of Language, Life And Me
Votre Gras de Noël est arrivé! (your Christmas fat(?) has arrived!)
I was at our usual Thursday open-air market, and the signs were everywhere. “Foire de Gras, Gras de Noël, Gras d’Ici”. Gras means “fat” and it’s a big thing here in the SW of France in December. If you didn’t know better you might be tempted to take it personally, especially after several months of lock-down baking & eating (I mean basically, they’re not wrong). But what the signs are actually referring to is Fois Gras, or or fatty duck (or goose) liver, which is very much an end-of-year eating tradition around here.
Of course me being me, I couldn’t resist the play on words….“gras”, “graisse”, the quarantine 15 and so forth.
So I turned to the guy next to me in line, pointed at my belly and said “Mon gras est arrivé bien en avance cette année” (my fat arrived early this year), after which I naturally burst out laughing, and subsequently elicited a sea of blank stares and crickets from everyone around me. My feeble attempts to follow-up the joke by gesturing between the sign and my stomach did little to improve the mood. Several of my bystanders shifted uncomfortably and looked away, developing a sudden interest in shoes and pavement.
Ah well….clearly I’m not there yet….
Further down the market at the pork lady, I decided nonetheless to have another go. I was buying a rôti de porc aux pruneaux (pork roast with prunes), a rather traditional SW French dish and she was explaining how to cook it. You see most French like to cook roasts fast and hard, a quick 20 mins at super-high temps for a crisp outer, and fully rare inner. Perfect for beef, but not at all right for pork. The pork lady was clearly worried for me, and for the pork roast, assuming I wouldn’t know what to do.
“Vous devez le faire cuire doucement”, she insisted very seriously “lentement” (cook it slowly, don’t ruin it).
“Ne vous inquietez pas”, I replied without missing a beat “Je suis Danoise, le porc est dans mon sang”. (don’t worry, I’m Danish, pork is in my blood)
Suddenly everyone laughed. Proper laughs too, not just the haha of polite go-alongs, and all of them together at once. It was my first true breakthrough at French market humor, and although I’m still not sure which exact part they laughed it, I reveled in the success all the way home.
Maybe one day I’ll actually manage to be consistently funny in French. I thought.
Languages are a strange and wonderful thing
Lorsque je lève les yeux, (when I raise my eyes)
Je rencontre le ciel (I see the sky)
Et je me dis : “Mon Dieu, (and I say to myself, My God)
Mais c’est sensationnel, (it’s sensational)
Tant de bleu.” (so much blue)
Edith Piaf/Charles Aznavour, 1951
Learning languages is a wonderful thing. Did you know that when you learn a new language you actually create new pathways in the brain? Studies show that you increase the volume and density of gray matter, the volume of white matter and brain connectivity, which improves your entire spectrum of cognition. In fact it’s been proven that people who speak more than one language perform better at intelligence tests and show less cognitive decline in old age. In other words, learning languages is a natural anti-brain-ageing tool. Cool, right?
But what I find even more interesting is how you exist as a person in another language.
You see language is solidly inter-woven with the culture and history of a place. Latin languages are so much more flowery and romantic than say, Germanic languages. And Chinese is so much more multi-dimensional (a single word can have different tones, different meanings, different interpretations) than English. So it’s not just how the language itself is spoken, but also how it is used.
For example, if I say to you “your eyes are so blue, so beautiful, so mesmerizing”, that would sound perfectly romantic & beautiful in French (in fact it’s pretty much what Edith Piaf sang about in her famous song), but it would probably sound a bit cringey (?) in English, and just plain wrong in Danish.
It’s a fascinating detail which in turn makes me wonder about myself. Am I naturally more romantic in French than I am in English? Am I funnier in English than I’ll ever be in French? And am I more pedantic and dry in Danish than all the rest?
Or in other words, am I a different person when I speak a different language??
A Different Person
We all change as we age. The person I was at 20 is certainly not the person I am now. Experiences have changed me, traveling has changed me, and simple age has changed me. But I believe languages have too, even just English itself.
For example, I was a much more subtle person (if you can believe it) when I lived in the UK than when I lived in the USA. West Coast American brashness and extrovertness developed those sides of me, letting them fly loose and free in ways I would never have imagined before. And the English I spoke reflected that difference too. I went from speaking a very reserved and proper “Queen’s English” to a direct American brawl, saying “hi, how you doing” to everyone I passed (stranger or not), and calling my boss by his first name rather than Mr. so and so.
That last one actually took some serious effort, and not just because it was such a massive change in culture. I think I actually spewed up my coffee the first time he told me to stop with all the Mr stuff.
“Stop being ridiculous”, he said quite bluntly “and just call me by my first name”
“So you want me to call you……errrm……Dick?
Different place, different language, different person.
I got used to it in the end, and now swap back and forth between my various “English-speaking” personalities without really thinking about it, whether I want to or not. And I do believe I am a slightly different person here than I was in the USA, or Asia, or England.
It’s the age-old debate of nurture versus nature. Some parts of me are deep and permanent, like my love of travel, my general geekiness, and my outgoing personality. But other parts of me have changed according to time and place.
My travels have added deeper layers too.
The West Coast of the US is totally different from the East Coast, and New Yorkers are totally different from their compatriots down South. In the UK, the Scottish, Irish and Welsh all have their own distinct cultures, jokes, language and accents. In France, Parisians are completely different from folks living in the countryside. Sometimes changes can be felt only miles away.
For nomads, these differences are all part of the fascination of travel. Learning them, absorbing them, maybe even bringing a few of them along for the ride. It’s all part of the big puzzle that is “me”, and I think it’s like that for everyone. We’re all made up of the pieces we’ve picked up along the way, whether we travel or not. And I do believe language is the layer on top, a pizzaz you can add to bring extra color and nuance to it all.
Interesting to think about, right?
A Different Place
So now we’re living in France and speaking French daily which I like to think makes me more romantic (yes, most definitely), still as out-going (a core thing there), but perhaps not as humorous (?), although I’m not giving up hope on the latter yet.
Things are certainly different here.
Fois Gras is the norm for December, and still very much a part of the local culture (no matter what you might think of it abroad). Christmas Markets are officially closed, but clandestine ones are still open everywhere (we went to another one today). A round belly is not remotely funny (it’s just a healthy constitution, non?), but pork-related jokes are apparently a sure hit. And my French, ever-evolving and still hopefully improving, is teaching me new things about my own personality everyday.
I wonder what the next piece of my puzzle will be….
So, my dear blog readers I decided to write something to take you away from it all this week…the news…the lockdowns…the lot. So tell me your thoughts. Have you always wanted to learn another language? Do you feel different when you try to speak another language? Or perhaps just when you visit a different place? Even the English language is different from place to place. DO share and comment below!