Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Month: February 2018

The Importance of Sign Language in France.

I can’t help thinking that some of those intercultural misunderstandings that exist between the French and English can be caused by those non-verbal elements which have such an important part to play in our relational communications. For in the face-to-face encounters of daily life, body gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal sounds, even silences are frequently used to accompany, reinforce, or even replace the spoken language.  And a pointed finger, a nod of the head, a frown, a pout or a grunt can send out a more powerful message than the spoken word in that these can be a more spontaneous, direct manifestation of the thoughts, emotions, reactions and intentions which words can frequently hide. And you’ve only got to observe two Gallics engaged in conversation to see that the French have a far more developed non-verbal system of communication than their English neighbours.

In addition, these codes can even take the form of a  sign language much of which is totally incomprehensible to those raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture. When I first came to France the Englishman in me was frequently puzzled by a relatively common gesture which consists in using the finger and thumb of one hand to pluck what appears to be an imaginary hair from the open palm of the other. It had to be explained to me that this was a gesticulatory reference to the expression ‘avoir un poil dans la main’, literally ‘to have a hair in your hand’, meaning ‘to be bone idle’: for someone who is work-shy will never use his hands enough to stop hairs from growing in their palms!

Similarly, I’d bet my bottom euro that the newly-arrived Anglo Saxon would have no idea what is meant when a Frenchman rubs his cheek with the back of his fingers as if using a razor to shave.  This particular sign language simply means that he finds something or someone ‘rasoir’, that’s to say, boring. The origins of the word, apparently, can be traced back to the metaphysical reasoning of the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, Guillaume d’Ockham, whose rule of simplicity maintained that ‘multiples must not be used unless necessary’. In other words, new hypotheses mustn’t be employed when those already stated suffice. The only drawback of this principle, called the ‘rasoir d’Ockham’, is that, once a statement has been shaved of all its unnecessary elements, it becomes boringly abstract.

And some of these body gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal sounds can betray spontaneous feelings which it might be considered impolite to show in less physically demonstrative, more reserved Anglo-Saxon cultures where it is considered more seemly to keep one’s emotions under strict control. Take, for example, the legendary Gallic shrug. Now in my youth the Anglo in me had a typically English love of the game of cricket. One day, during my student year in France, I heard that a cricket match had been organized between some English and Australian students, and that it was to take place on the university playing fields a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of  town. But when I arrived I couldn’t find the playing fields in question. And so, in my best French, I asked a local – an elderly monsieur wearing a shabby-looking béret – if he could tell us where ‘le match de cricket’ was being played. Without uttering a single word, he looked me incredulously in the eye before proceeding to project shoulders upwards and lower lip downwards in the previously mentioned ‘Gallic shrug’. Though my English part found his reaction typically French and, as such, quaintly amusing, the thought did cross my mind that the message he transmitted (which corresponded to little more than, ‘How on earth do you expect me to know where such a stupid foreign sport is being played?’) would have been barely acceptable, and could even have given offense in an English culture where a polite, friendly, helpful and even apologetic verbal response would have been the rule. Had a similar scenario taken place in an English setting (where a Frenchman had enquired as to the whereabouts of, say, a competition of pétanque), the reply would certainly have been something like, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got no idea. If I were you I’d ask in the shop over there. They’ll probably know.’

 

 

The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine

Jean de la Fontaine’s more than 240 fables were inspired by those of Aesop and were written between 1668 and 1694.  Most of them stage anthropomorphic characters and contain a self-avowed moral aim, many of which have become French household proverbs.  His fables are generally considered to occupy a deserved place among the masterpieces of French literature. One of the best-known of la Fontaine’s Fables and my own particular favourite is The Cicada and the Ant which praises those traditional, common-sense virtues of working hard and saving for a rainy day – and warns of the dire consequences of not doing so.  Here is my English translation:

 

 The Cicada having sung his song

All summer long

Found himself without a crumb

When the North Wind did come,

Not one small morsel could he find

Of fly or worm of any kind.

Starving, he went to see his ant neighbour

To tell him he was at death’s door

And begging him for a grain or two

So he might survive all winter through

Until the coming of the spring.

‘By August I’ll pay back everything,’

Said he, ‘interest and principal, both,

Upon my insect oath.’

Now the ant may have a fault or two

But lend is what he will not do.

‘What did you do last summer?’

Asked he of this would-be borrower.

‘Why, night and day, you surely won’t mind,

I sang to comers of all kind.’

‘You sang? I’m glad you had that chance:

Well now you can run off and dance!’

Parking By Ear

When it comes to parking at the roadside an Englishman might be forgiven for thinking that, in a country such as France where mathematical Cartesian logic is held in the highest esteem, a suitable parking space is considered to be one whose length exceeds that of one’s car. He would be hopelessly wrong. For that same desire to maintain the closest contact with fellow drivers on the highway can assume an even more intimate dimension when it comes to parking in town. For here the French driver shows a remarkable ability to defy the laws of elementary arithmetic by introducing himself into spaces which the length of his car should not normally allow. How does he do it? Apart from the fact that it’s a relatively common sight to see a car parked obliquely with one wheel reposing firmly on the pavement, drivers have developed a more drastic technique which, for the moment at least, would be unthinkable to the Anglo-Saxon mind. The method, that of parking by ear, consists in diving head first into the smallest space, and then with eyes tightly shut, proceeding to create enough room for vehicle by systematically shunting the one to the front and rear.

In England, on the other hand, when it comes to street parking that same respectful distance is scrupulously applied as between vehicles on the move. The English driver will, therefore, usually leave a minimum margin of at least six feet (three in front and three behind) so that the driver of the car parked in front or behind may extricate his vehicle without undue manoeuvring.

It must have been the Frenchman in me  who was driving that day when I parked in the street of a large English town. Having left a foot between our vehicle and the one in front, he switched off the engine, and was just extracting key from ignition when its driver happened to appear. After gazing dubitatively at the dozen or so inches he’d been granted he stormed up, rapped loudly on the driver’s window and, even before my  Frenchie had got it fully down, began castigating him in the strongest terms for parking ‘too bloody close,’ and ‘not giving a damn about other road users!’ It goes without saying that in France remonstrances of this nature would have been met with general stupefaction.

 

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