Battling the Blues with Transatlantic Laughter

Over the last few years, I’ve pretty much lived the idiom: “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Bouncing between Greater Boston, New York, and Paris, I can attest that fond-growing is by far my most consistent cardio workout. After some initial elation at returning to New York at the end of a long Parisian winter and crappy bout of melancholia, I find myself – surprise! – occasionally longing again for the highlights of the Hexagon.

Though I’m happy to be where I am, the symptoms of withdrawal are familiar — crossing my eyes when scrolling through web feeds so I can’t see photos of France posted by expat bloggers, fingering necklaces with delicate Eiffel Tower charms in trendy accessories boutiques, perking up my ears at the lilt of the French language, whether overheard in the subway or the streets of New York … All this adopted-homesickness, coupled with having to maintain a long distance relationship, isn’t exactly fun.

Ironically, though, fun is the antidote to this well-known stage of reverse culture shock. Putting myself out there, overcoming social inertia, and facing life with humor I’ve found is the best way to cope.

reindeer skype

Battling the blues with transatlantic laughter.

With that in mind, I’m taking some time today to just laugh at the French language. Since reading Mallarmé isn’t helping me to feel any better about the distance, I’ll rant about some ways French – commonly thought of as the language of love – is downright silly instead.

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1) French people sometimes speak like children in a conservative ’50s household.

If you took French in secondary school, you probably remember those textbooks with pictures of people in single-color sweaters, light wash jeans, and white sneakers. In reality, the French haven’t dressed this way for some twenty odd years, but the surprising thing is, they sometimes speak as if they were still living in this imaginary idyll.

Take the pseudo-expletive, “mince!” This is pretty much the equivalent of “darn” in American English (i.e. a very tame word), but it’s used with surprising frequency in everyday French. Besides its Leave it to Beaver propriety, what really makes it goofy is the fact that it also means “skinny,” “thin,” or “slim.” Thus, I always have to choke back a laugh whenever Z stubs his toe and cries out what sounds to me like “skinny!”

That same whiff of childishness surrounds another popular French exclamation: “nickel!” The name of this metal is uttered to mean “super!” “great!” or “awesome!” While I can clearly see the evolution of its meaning from the metal, to an adjective meaning “spotless” and “impeccable,” to a general expression of approval — by golly, gee whiz! I still can’t quite shake the idea that its usage would be better limited to those under the age of five.

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2) They clean with serpillières.

Speaking of ’50s households, one of the few times I tried to do a thorough cleaning of our apartment in Paris, Z and I got into a fight over this ridiculous word.

French maid with knife

I could never be a French maid — housework makes me want to commit violence.

As I despairingly looked upon a dirty kitchen floor, I asked Z for a mop.

“What’s a mop?” he asked.

“You know, to wipe the floor.”

He returned with an old rag. “Here you go.”

I gaped at the sad shred of cloth he had handed me and – blanching at the prospect of wiping the floor on my hands and knees – snapped like a true diva, “I asked for a mop!”

“That is a mop,” he insisted heatedly. “It’s a serpillière. Here, I’ll prove it to you. It’s in the dictionary!”

It turns out the source of our confusion was a sloppy translation. In fact, the French rarely use mops. The closest tool they have is a broom handle with a single rag attached to the bottom, and the word serpillière can refer either to this broom-handle-with-rag (an approximation of a “mop”), OR simply to the rag itself (no broom handle necessary). A bit of linguistic laziness can thus mean the difference between getting one’s hands dirty and my preferred method of cleaning: just prodding at stuff with a very long stick.

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3) They use Verlan, also known as French pig Latin.

I remember when, as a preteen, I first learned how to say things in pig Latin. My insufferability instantly shot up as I went around shouting, “ELLO-HAY! An-cay ou-yay understand-way e-may?!” Fortunately for all involved, I quickly tired of this little trick and reverted back to normal speech within a few hours.

Well, the French learned verlan, their version of pig Latin — and they just never reverted back. Verlan is so incorporated into the language now that no one bats an eye if you express gratitude with a “ci-mer” instead of “merci.” Even hardened criminals love this wordplay. You’ll find the phrase “f*ck les keufs” articulated in the graffiti of downtrodden neighborhoods, conveying disdainful threats to the police through a curious mishmash of English and verlan.

I love this bizarre transformation of the French language. I especially like to imagine the equivalent situation playing out in the US, perhaps on an episode of Cops. As burly police officers bear down on some hooligan, I like to picture the offender yelling out obscenities in pig Latin. “UCK-FAY OU-YAY!” he’d cry indignantly. “UUUUUCK-FAY OUUUUU-YAY!”

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 4) Atypique (“atypical”) is used as a euphemism for ugly.

I was able to add this sardonic gem to my vocabulary while following the French reality show La Belle et ses Princes Presque Charmants (literally “The Beauty and Her Prince Almost-Charmings”). The show rips off an old American series called Average Joe, which pitted a team of fratty hunks against a team of “average Joes” (guys whose looks were somewhat less breathtaking) for the attentions of a conventionally hot chick. In the French version, I kept hearing members of the team of hunks referring to their less comely opponents as having physiques atypiques or “atypical physiques.” Confused, I turned to Z: “Don’t they mean physiques typiques, since their opponents are supposed to be average looking?”

“No,” explained Z, “They’re making fun of them for their bodies.”

“But their bodies are just average,” I argued. “I thought that was the whole point of the show.”

“Yeah, but atypique here means they’re not good looking,” shrugged Z.

I groaned. Of course. No way the contemporary French population would have missed an opportunity to invert their words.

physique atypique

Nothing atypical here, besides maybe a higher-than-average tolerance for public humiliation.

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5)   There’s no translation for “rolling one’s eyes.”

Now that I’m putting together this list, I’m glad to be inside a country where I can express exasperation with a satisfying eyeroll. This tried and true outlet for my inner petulant child simply does not exist in France. It took me a while to pick up on this subtle difference; after all, the French are so great at complaining vehemently, the fact that I had never once seen nor read of someone rolling their eyes just didn’t enter my consciousness.

I finally wised up while reading some trashy, French internet forums. Unlike in American forums, when people got snarky with one another, there was no mention of eyerolling. Thinking I’d just missed something obvious, I casually asked Z how one would write “eyeroll” in French. When my query was met with radio silence, something clicked inside my mind.

“WAIT A MINUTE. YOU GUYS DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES!” I shouted accusingly.

“Well, we kinda do.”

Supposedly, there is an approximation of eyerolling in French, which is expressed through the phrase: lever les yeux au ciel (literally, “to raise one’s eyes to the sky”). While this gesture is closely related, it is most definitely not the same. For one, the French version contains an implicit appeal to a higher power, which is not necessarily true of the good ol’ eyeroll. Moreover – as I discovered after several minutes of rigorous, scientific personal experimentation – my American upbringing had made it almost impossible for me to simply raise my eyes, without giving them a quick tour of the backs of my eye sockets.

I guess that’s just how I roll.

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These are some of my annoyances with the French tongue. Feel free to share yours!

The Accidental Patriot

This July 4th found Z and I wandering around New York, passing street after street of houses and storefronts bearing American flags and proud displays of red, white, and blue. This festive atmosphere got me thinking: What did patriotism – defined as “the devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country” – mean in our respective nations?

July Fourth Brooklyn Greenpoint

I take patriotism very seriously.

Unlike admitting your gluten-intolerance or tendency to binge watch Game of Thrones, professing your patriotism won’t garner you any respect among twenty-somethings in coastal cities today. Nonetheless, it’s true: I take a lot of pride in my national identity. Though “patriotic” hasn’t always been an adjective I would use to describe myself, I’ve finally made peace with this sometimes loaded term. As is often the case, France is to thank for this development — France, with a little help from the Netherlands.

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Across the street from Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam is a convivial restaurant and pub. In May, as Z and I sat at one of the dark, wooden tables, Z pushed aside his mug of Heineken to glance at his watch.

“It’s almost 8 o’clock,” he remarked. “There’s supposed to be a couple minutes of silence soon.”

“Why?” I inquired from my happy tourist stupor, which had been steadily nursed by a glass of red wine.

“Today is Commemoration Day in the Netherlands for those who died in World War II. There’s a ceremony starting at Dam Square.”

I looked around. Waiters flew by with teetering plates while the jabber of customers blended into a single drone of contentment. “I don’t think we’ll see anything about that in here,” I shrugged.

It turned out I was wrong. As the clock approached eight, the waitstaff scurried back towards the bar; one employee flipped on the TV. When the hour struck, all chatter within the restaurant evaporated into silence, and every head turned to watch the televised procession of the King and Queen across Dam Square.

After one hundred and twenty seconds, a blare of trumpets over the speakers finally broke this reverent hush. Immediately, waiters resumed their perpetual bustle, and Dutch diners faced their table companions once again.

Dutch Coronation Bakery

Monarchy never looked so delicious. (Visible signs of patriotism were everywhere in Amsterdam.)

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This brief but intense interlude won Z’s admiration. “That was really impressive how everyone stopped to pay their respect,” he mused. “I wish we were more patriotic in France…”

Z’s rueful statement surprised me, but on second thought, I recalled that I’d never seen any noteworthy display of patriotism in France. Though I’ve previously written about “French exceptionalism” (the idea that the country is unique and perhaps even superior in a global context), it suddenly struck me that the French weren’t really an outwardly patriotic people.

This fact isn’t as glaringly obvious as one would think. After all, Paris in particular is so steeped in history, culture, and tourist traps that the very fact of its existence seems a testament to love of country.

Monet 14 Juillet

Monet’s depiction of Bastille Day in Paris is  misleading —  the only place you’ll see this many French flags is a European football stadium.

When I voiced that, actually, I had never seen a private residence fly the French flag, Z wondered aloud if only state buildings had the legal right to display them. After some quick Googling proved that suggestion wrong, he conceded, “Okay. I guess only the government displays them because no one else wants to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think displaying the flag means you support the Far Right.”

My thoughts rushed to the 2012 presidential election in the US and the controversy over which candidate wore a flag pin more often. Though a similar zeal for displaying the flag can be found among conservatives in the States, fortunately, the rest of us are still able to wield this powerful symbol without fear of being branded an unsavory extremist. After all, the flag was supposed to represent all Americans, not just a subset of the population.

I turned back to Z and insisted heatedly, “You should fly the flag! It’s your flag too — don’t let the Far Right take ownership of it. Aren’t you proud of being French?”

I went on to describe a few instances when I took part in flag-waving.

Z regarded me skeptically, finally interjecting, “Wow, they must’ve really brainwashed you over there.”

“They did not.” I was defensive. “I mean, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance when we were little and had to learn to sing the national anthem — but that was it.”

Z’s eyes widened with horror. “They made you recite a pledge to your country? And sing the national anthem? When you were children?”

“Yeah,” I affirmed, confused. “I mean, it’s not a big deal is it? Don’t they do that in every country?”

“No way.” Z shook his head. “We didn’t do that. That’s total brainwashing.”

“Oh.” I fell silent.

Admittedly, upon reflection, such practices could seem – well – creepybut apparently they had been rather effective. Not only do Americans not have compunctions about flying the flag, I also thought to myself that, under certain circumstances, Americans have an incredibly strong sense of national unity. (Hear me out.)

I recalled the nights after 9/11, when everyone in my neighborhood flooded outside to hold candlelight vigils. Even as a middle schooler, I’d felt touched by the sudden closeness of my diverse little suburb. I also thought back to the nights when President Obama was elected and when Bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I had barged into the streets with seemingly the rest of my town and watched people high-five strangers, whoop spontaneously, smile deliriously…

It was highly unlikely such reactions could have occurred on a national scale in France, I realized.

It was also in France – after learning of the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing – that I became aware of how sorely I missed that sense of American unity. There were no vigils, no acknowledgment from neighbors, riders on the metro, or most of my colleagues. Though this was completely understandable, it was also isolating.

And that’s how I grasped Z’s point. Brainwashing or no, I was patriotic.

~

Patriotism doesn’t mean I think the US is doing everything right. It doesn’t even mean I think it’s doing some of the basic things right.

But my protestations don’t disqualify me from patriotism. In fact, it’s crucial that they cannot disqualify me from patriotism.

On July 4th, as I led Z through the decked out streets of New York, I felt particularly grateful for this fact. The American flag had not yet been lost to any one group — as far as I could see.

American Flag Sunglasses

And thanks to these shades, I could see pretty far.

New York City: Weirdos Gone Wild

Once again west of the Atlantic and thousands of miles from Paris, I considered bringing this blog to a close. Then – while stranded for half an hour on a subway platform in Brooklyn, directly across a sign which proclaimed the name of the station to be “Bedford-Nostrand” – I realized that irony is universal and situations demanding cultural adaptation don’t just occur abroad.

Sure, the Paris metro system may be a leaner, cleaner, and relatively more punctual machine. But the grittiness and unpredictability of New York are just pesky side effects of its single greatest attribute–

An abundance of weirdos.

earrings on the eiffel tower

When it comes to cities, I’m polyamorous. Paris will always be in my heart … and under my earrings.

Previously, I’d grumbled about Parisian society being codified and uniform. While it pains me to reproach the City of Lights, I have to call’em like I see’em. In the short weeks I’ve been back in New York, I’ve had to re-acclimate myself to the mindblowing medley of people who rub shoulders here. I had forgotten the endless possibilities of pageantry, the euphoric accessorization of existence.

Exhibits A through Z: A girl with an electric blue bob in a lolita frock; a violinist with purple dreadlocks diffusing heartwrenching music in the subway; a lanky boy rocking tights patterned like dollar bills; a beautiful woman sporting a turban and denim jacket with a giant horse’s head printed on the back.

These, of course, are just sketches of a small but eye-catching sample.

Instead of worrying about sticking out because of my race or for wearing shorts, I’m now concerned that my hair isn’t asymmetrical enough and that I have no visible tattoos. To be fair, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, an area described by my new next door neighbor as “half Polish and half hipster.” While this wouldn’t be problematic in and of itself, it does mean housing has gotten ridiculously competitive. Still, I managed to score a little niche of my own down this rabbit hole — a niche, it turns out, on the same street as the apartment of Hannah Horvath, Girls‘ main character.

Girls, Lena Dunham and me

Best friends and roommates, obviously. (I’m a little embarrassed that I spent time doing this.)

But it wasn’t easy nabbing this undersized shoebox my landlord calls prime real estate. When I tried to put down an oversized deposit, the landlord shook his solemn head.

“Before I let you move in, I have to see your bank statements,” he huffed through a heavy Eastern European accent. “You don’t make a lot of money, and – I dunno – maybe you buy a lot of dresses or something.”

“I don’t buy that many dresses!” I yelped. “I’ve got enough dresses!”

“I don’t know you,” he retorted. “So give me three months of bank statements or forget about it.”

I skulked away for a week to collect French paperwork. I also bought a dress in secret to spite him.

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When moving day arrived, I considered myself lucky to have jumped through all the hoops. I was happy and eager even as I struggled up three flights of stairs with overstuffed suitcases. While my mom stood by to lend a hand, my landlord bragged relentlessly to both of us about the apartment’s fire safety. This was a fact which completely escaped my attention until I later googled my landlord during a fit of boredom.

Of course he had to have a dark and terrible secret. According to a news report, he had been the owner of another building on our street which had burned down due to arson. The fire, sped by liquid accelerant, had killed two tenants and put another in critical condition. The report implied that my landlord frequently had troubles with his tenants, and there could’ve been disgruntled former tenants who wanted to retaliate.

Upon this discovery, I immediately made a priority list of items in my apartment to rescue in case of fire. I also resolved to find out more about my neighbors.

fire and fleur de lys

I stoked this fire on Christmas Eve in France. No thoughts of arson crossed my mind.

I started my quest by knocking on the door of a guy with whom I shared a wall. A man in his mid-to-late forties with long white hair opened up. Looking behind him, I saw his space was plastered with Girls Gone Wild posters. Also, an empty black guitar case lay open on his mantelpiece, propping up Twilight books inside like some kind of shrine to teenage vampires.

“Hey … I’m new here,” I sputtered, trying to avert my eyes from the bizarreness of his lair. “Just wanted to say hi.”

After explaining who I was, I asked my neighbor about himself. That’s when I learned:

  • He was “YouTube before YouTube existed.” When I asked what that meant, he said he’d had a record label before rock music died.
  • He was currently writing his personal memoir full-time. He’d been doing it for ten years. Full-time.
  • He was a “real writer,” by which he meant he wrote by hand. He’d produced 300 handwritten pages which were currently sitting in storage because he was afraid our landlord would sneak into his apartment and read them.
  • He was convinced that our landlord was a sociopath who electronically bugged our closets.
  • He was convinced that everybody else in the building also hated our landlord, and that I would come to hate him too. “You’ll see,” he intoned ominously. “I hope not,” I replied.

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I’ve now given up trying to confirm the psychological stability of those around me. If someone wants to burn down the building, well, at least I know where the fire escape is. The truth is: the only way to live in New York is to make peace with weirdness. While I experienced a bit of “reverse culture shock” coming from Paris, I’ve realized that this is exactly where I want to be.

Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

New York — weird but wonderful.

(Though if we’re friends and you haven’t heard from me in a while, please do call to make sure I haven’t perished in a fireball.)