Monday, January 30, 2006

Book Reports and French Bashing

My French stinks, okay? It’s worse than my Spanish, which is not good.

I spoke Spanish at an “advanced beginner” level when we left Argentina in 2001. Past tense was always dicey, the subjunctive was something I simply ignored, but I got things done. But 5+ years of only two weeks a year of practice has rendered me shamefully unable to produce the Spanish words for everyday things like postage stamps. (Tio Manuel, of the Casa Paco restaurant empire, tisked, sighed, and said, “Oh, Amanda,” when I asked him how to say stamps last August.)

So I am not the one to pass any sort of judgment on the French language. However, now that both daughters attend the French School of Bratislava, The Spouse and I have noticed some amusing things about the culture. I thought these were worth sharing.

We always knew that the French are a little delicate when it comes to the psychological constitution. We think this is because they are fatalist, aware of their mortality, which explains why their movies always seem to end with the worst possible outcomes. While the Hollywood version always has a happy ending, the dénouement of the (usually original) French version ends with everyone dying. Just as you think they are going to pull it out, they don’t. They just die and then “fin.” If you don’t believe me, check it out the next time. The fatalism might also explain why they let “kids be kids” and don’t seem to impose any limits on them, ever.

Youngest Daughter began attending the kindergarten in January. On Fridays they get sent home with a book, in French, that we are supposed to read with them over the weekend. This we have done, but we are noticing the same disturbing trends in the books that we had observed in respect to their cinema, their national child-rearing philosophy, and their glass psyches.

Book One had a title that translated to “Like the Sardines.” It was about three sardine sisters who get separated from their sardine school. They travel the depths of the ocean, asking various other sea creatures if they have seen the wayward sardine school. At the end of the book, all sardines are joyfully reunited. "Never again will they be alone,” exclaims the text. That is, until the next page, where a big fishing net scoops up all the sardines. Only the three sisters survive, they narrowly escape, and it turns out they WILL, in fact, be alone for the foreseeable future. That’s life in the big French sea. Fin.

Book Two was about a little ghost who, marching to the beat of his own little French drum, elects to stay and play in the house during the day, ignoring his parents' caution to scamper on home at dawn. This choice results in his being sucked into the vacuum cleaner, from which he ultimately escapes, but, because of the trauma, must take to his bed for a week to recover from the psychological stress of the situation. This story reinforced our stereotype that the French are all rather tightly-wrapped, emotionally-delicate creatures teetering on the brink of apocalyptic mental collapse at any given moment.

The latest volume, Book Three, concerns a crocodile who, to our way of thinking, over-dresses for a simple children’s party. At the party, the guests are completely unsupervised. Chaos reigns. The protagonist ruins her lovely sweater set while chasing a butterfly, but discovers that this fashion faux pas is okay, as all the other guests have ruined their clothing in the adult-free setting as well. This story seems typical of the French system of child rearing we have witnessed, although the French adults we know are perfectly polite and sociable, if tightly wrapped, and, quite probably, pre-destined for untimely death (oh well).

Le Spam
I follow this French bashing with an example of why we Americans are such suckers for the French, why we sigh at the thought of a French lover, and turn weak-kneed at the sight of French movie stars.

The following was a spam e-mail (le spam?) sent to me by French friends. Remembering my bad French, cut me some slack on my liberal translations. You’ll not only get the gist, but some remarkable insight into the culture and useful tips that might help you score on Valentine's Day.

Une fille demande à son mec s'il la trouve jolie.
A young woman asked her guy if he thought she was pretty.

Il répond non.
No, he said.

Elle lui demande s'il veut être avec elle pour toujours.
She asked him if he wanted to be with her always.

Il répond non.
No, he said.

Elle lui demande s'il pleurerait si elle partait.
She asked him if he would cry if she left.

Une fois de plus il répond non.
Again, he said, No.

Puis elle lui demande si il l'aime de tout son coeur.
A glutton for punishment, she then asked if he loved her with all his heart.

Il répond non!
No, he said.

Elle en avait entendu assez. Alors qu'elle s'en allait, des larmes coulant sur son visage, le garçon lui attrape le bras et dit :
Having totally messed with her mind and made her cry (perhaps an insight into the fragile mental state of the nation?), she makes to leave when he finally takes her in his arms and says :

Tu n'es pas jolie, tu es irrésistible.
(Okay, this is where it gets totally French.) You aren’t pretty, he says. You are irresistible. (Sigh.)

Je ne veux pas être avec toi pour toujours, j'ai besoin d'être avec toi pour toujours.
I don’t want to be with you always. I must be with you always. (Double sigh.)

Et je ne pleurerais pas si tu t'en vas, je mourrais.
And I wouldn’t cry if you left me. I’d die. (Here's where I would start taking off my clothes. It's that easy.)

Et je ne t'aime pas de tout mon coeur, tu es mon coeur.
Finally, I don’t love you with all my heart. You are my heart.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why all American women want a French lover. Even if he smells funny.

The Obvious Conclusion
Both daughters have men as teachers. We refer to them as Monsieur Valdemort (that’s right, from Harry Potter. His real name is unpronounceable and similar enough) and Croque Monsieur (as in the classic French sandwich).

We are delighted they have men as teachers because this is such a rare thing anymore, at least in the US. Further, both teachers are extremely professional, charming guys who are clearly well-trained for a profession about which they feel passionately. As a parent, I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, however, I have noticed a significant attractiveness in Younger Daughter’s teacher, said Croque Monsieur. I say “recently” because she has only been attending the school for about a month. The other day he opened the door to the classroom and, wearing a black t-shirt and perfectly broken-in jeans, shepherded his students towards their respective parents. He looked extremely good. For someone who is well south of 30. The dude's got biceps.

Once I stopped drooling and collected my child, it occurred to me that men in his profession probably get hit on by “moms” all the time. I had this sudden vision of myself, as a letchy Mrs. Robinson, wearing real stockings with real garters and high heeled shoes in the middle of the day, elbowing other well-dressed and lecherous mothers away from the classroom door in order to flirt with Croque Monsieur and get my five minutes of pitter-pat for the day.

Eew. I can hear it now: "Madame Robinson. Are you trying to seduce me?"

So I am in danger of becoming Mrs. Robinson. The Spouse, who could barely contain his (not unkind) laughter at my confession, remarked that he, too, has noticed on occasion, a profound look of horror and revulsion in younger people (in his case, most notably wait staff) when he, The Spouse, thinks he is just being witty. The deer-in-the-headlights expression on the unintentional victim’s face screams “Back off, Creepy Old Man!” It is a sobering moment in one's workday.

So he now avoids a certain coffee bar for fear of being perceived as a veritable Humbert Humbert. I am not so likely to be able to avoid all contact with the children’s school. I’m not sure if this is going to encourage or discourage my interest in speaking French, either. Zut alors.

This is your faithful correspondent, Mme. Robinson, signing off. Bon soir!


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