Besides our French lessons with our very well-qualified tutor, we have also been taking advantage of the Bordelais community as an extension of our studies. Today, for example, we reviewed the partitif, and then after saying good-bye to Isabelle, we went out to practice what she'd taught us at the cafe 'round the corner ( where I just may have had the best, possibly the second-best frites maison of my life. I told the patron exactly that and actually got a smile from him. These do not come readily. . . )
We find many of the locals are very willing to help us out with our language questions, as long as we choose our moment with consideration for their workload. The other day, for example, as we were paying a young server for our deux cafés crêmes, I asked her, en français, if I might ask her a question about la politesse. She stiffened a tiny bit, and I realized that she might think I was going to challenge her service, so I quickly explained: We have been told to use madame for women of early 20s and beyond, the idea being that using mademoiselle imparts less dignity to the one addressed, this being a carry-over from the notion that an unmarried woman, especially over a certain age, was less, was flawed and/orwanting
Despite knowing this rule, we often hesitate, because it seems to us that a woman might occasionally, these days, prefer to be perceived as young enough to be a mademoiselle. And many young women now are quite happy with their status, have no wish to be pushed into the supposed dignity of an honorific that implies one's lifetime goals have been met through matrimony.
And this is exactly what the young server replied, once she realized my question was simply a curiosity about, and a respect for, her language and culture. Yes, she conceded, the rules we had learned were correct, although she felt there was considerable variation with geography. But, she said, and this was exactly the "but" we had anticipated, she herself, and many of her girlfriends, would much prefer to be addressed as Mademoiselle.
Moral of the story? The classroom (in our case, the kitchen table here, chez nous, in Bordeaux) is fine for learning the fundamental rules, but field work is important. This afternoon, we took care to use the partitif correctly when ordering our verres de vin. . .After all, good students must do their homework!
The photos above we're taken earlier this week, in our neighbourhood. I suspect that this was the last occasion for wearing my denim jacket, as the temperatures have been far too high since. Nor does the weather show any sign of cooling down. . .
Not everyone is so friendly or helpful, however. On the weekend, anticipating a run of sunshine, I popped into the neighbourhood Pharmacie to pick up sunscreen. Pharmacies here are quite different from those at home, and they can be a bit intimidating, with a rather serious, clinical air. Generally, however, I've found their staff to be welcoming and helpful. So I stood patiently in the small, hushed space as the woman behind the counter, the pharmacist, attended to the customer ahead of me. The consultation took 4 or 5 minutes and involved some discussion of symptoms, some bringing out and putting back of various possible products, and finally both professional and client were satisfied and something was rung through the cash register.
By then, Pater had joined me after making the rounds at the grocery store and the bakery, we'd browsed the shelves quietly, and I'd picked up the specially packaged Summer Offer of Sun Spray and an accompanying shower oil. As I handed it to the pharmacist, I wondered what the French term for the product might be (before spotting the package in its display by the caisse, I'd mentally rehearsed ways to get around that gap in my vocabulary).
Her response was barely audible, although there was some shoulder shrugging, and that pursed-lip pfft the French do so well, but it seemed I wasn't the only one whose vocabulary didn't extend to a word for what the package called Sun Protection. Refusing to be discouraged, I soldiered on, commenting that the package indicated only the English term. I suppose I was hoping for a little chat about the incursions of English into packaging and retailing of various products, perhaps even a brief thought or two about the effects of mondialisation on language and culture. After all, products developed and marketed in the last few decades of rapid globalization often demand new words of a language, and the English ones seem to fill the gap, worldwide.
But realistically? I knew very well the Pharmacie was a place of business, and although the customer before me had captured several minutes of the Pharmacist's time, I would have settled for a quick phrase or two responding to my query with some hint of civility, if not friendliness. Instead, she pushed the sunscreen into a bag, handed me my card, and muttered, in rather hostile French, C'est dommage pour nous.
Well, okay then. I think it's a shame as well, but anglophone that I am, I'm still not personally responsible...
But later, when I recounted the incident to our friend/landlady, Deborah chuckled, rolled her eyes, and asked, just to clarify, "is that the very portly woman with the pasty skin?" Well, yes, franchement, that was an easily recognizable description, although I might have tried to be kinder. "Ah," said Deborah, she's been there for years and years. Every year, she gets a bit more portly and a bit grumpier. I think she gets grumpy because she's put on weight." Now that's sticky territory, but what reassured me was that the unfriendliness had nothing to do with me personally. That might be obvious to many of you, but I do find myself particularly vulnerable about how I'm being perceived when I'm representing myself in another language. An opportunity for a tiny glimpse into what life must be like for immigrants as well as for so many of my students. ...
Luckily, there have been many, many episodes that have balanced that vulnerability for me and made us feel welcomed by the community here. I promise to tell you more about those soon.