Sunday, December 6, 2009

Life is Like A Chicken Ladder

It took a while to puzzle out why living in France seemed so annoyingly familiar. One day it came to me. It’s the cultural resonance of the place. Its citizens are smugly self-satisfied about their way of life. None sees the necessity of speaking any language other than their own. And they have an offhanded, unabashed xenophobia. It’s like being in the United States with cheaper wine.

Lately, however, I’ve been worried that the culture that gave us the acidic Candide, The Misanthrope and wristslittingly dreary Being and Nothingness is getting all warm and fuzzy, that their vinagery disdain for things non-French is fading and they are starting to think like the American philosopher and Raccoon Lodge member, Ralph Kramden, who once observed, “We are all brothers under the pelt.”

This epiphany came at a dinner given by my friend, Hilde. A true cosmopolite, she was born in Germany, lived in Paris as a young woman and spent most of her adult life in Manhattan before resettling in a tidy little village in the middle of France. Louise and I were visiting her for the weekend and earlier in the day we had been helping her prepare for an evening gettogether. The table was set and the food ready. She looked at her watch. It was eight o’clock precisely and her doorbell was silent. Everyone would be fashionably late. She muttered something in German.

“What?” I asked.

“Something my mother used to say: ‘Here I am with my neck washed and the aunt’s not coming.’”

“Don’t know that one,” I said.

“But there’s an equivalent in English.”

“Can’t think of any,” I replied. “Maybe: ‘The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.’ No. Forget it. That means the opposite.”

“Who said that? Your mother?”

“Satchel Paige, I think. Or Lewis Carroll.”

“Surely you have something similar,” she pressed. “Everyone does.”

Not really, I said.

She was unconvinced. When the opportunity presented itself, she threw the topic out to her dinner guests, Europeans all. To my astonishment there was a consensus among everyone, even the French – especially the French – that there is a canon of everyday wisdom, a sort of international Poor Richard’s Almanac body of aphorisms and vocabulary we all share.


A Dutch woman suggested one reason was the Americanization of globalspeak:
Le weekend. Le sandwich. Happy Hour. Wi-fi. And so on. “All I hear the young people say is ZOO-pah this and ZOO-pah that,” she said.

“ZOO-pah?” I was lost.

“ZOO-pah.” She looked at me as though I were, as Robert Downey, Jr. so delicately put it in
Tropic Thunder, On Full Retard. She spelled: “S-U-P-E-R.”

She went on. “And the other day I asked my son what he was going to do after school and he said I’m just going to be
chillen. And he went into his room and spent hours on his computer with his friends. Chillen. What is that?”

“Chill-ING," I corrected. "It means to do nothing.”

“But he wasn’t not doing anything. He was on his computer.”

“Basically not working. To kick back.”

“Kick back?” her browed furrowed.

“Well you say window shopping,” interrupted a lively French woman at the other end of the table. “We say the same: ‘

She was correct, technically. But the French phrase is more graphic, unhygienic and, frankly, a little disgusting. It literally means to “lick the shop window,” a fairly accurate description of the avidity with which French people press their faces against the display windows of boutiques.

“And there’s
Chacun a son goût.” In case I didn’t get it, she turned to me and said in slow English: “To itch heez zone.”

“Yeah, yeah. Even I know that one,” I assured.


“It’s the same in German,” Hilde said and let fly a machine gun burst of German.

“Which means . . . ?” I said.

“’It's a matter of taste,' said the monkey as he bit into a bar of soap.”

WTF? That was a stretch, I thought, but I had to give her points for originality. I maintained it was naive to insist that we all drank from the same aphoristic well. Yes, I know there are
web sites where you can get expressions like “Don’t drink and drive.” translated into Polish or Arabic, but I bet some versions will come out like the soap eating monkey.

A few years ago the
BBC polled 1,000 linguists about the most untranslatable words and phrases from other languages. The winner was "ilunga" which comes from Tshiluba, a tongue spoken in the Republic of Congo. The word describes "a person who is ready to forgive an abuse for the first time, tolerate it a second time, but never a third."

Unfortunately I did not have this info at the tips of my
doigts, so the juggernaut of misguided good will and belief in common experience rolled on. The French woman, talking about something thrilling, declared, “I had chair de poule,” and rubbed her forearm to make her point. “Or as you would put it,” she turned to me, “the skin of a hen.”

It took me a moment. “You mean ‘goose bumps.’”

Gänsehaut,” threw in Hilde. “Goose skin.”

“Why do you call it goose bumps,” a younger Frenchwoman next to me asked.

“Because that’s what a goose’s skin looks like after its feathers were plucked.”

“And that’s because you eat a lot of geese in the United States?”

“Actually I think we eat more chicken.”

“So why don’t you call it chicken bumps like us?” she said.

“I don’t know. I don’t really know,” I sighed. “I guess language is complicated. Like life.”

Hilde nodded sagely. “As my mother used to say . . ,” (Oh god, now what, I wondered,) ‘Life is like a chicken ladder, always full of shit.”

To my delight, no one, absolutely no one, could match that, or for that matter understand what the hell she was talking about. But by that time the wine had kicked in and no one cared.

This alcohol enhanced camaraderie only intensified as the night went on and the evening finished with vows of newfound friendships and empty promises to see one another soon.

Just as I was despairing that the arrogant, cynical, parochial, Frenchman was no more, I heard the woman next to me mention to her husband she wanted to say good-bye to the hostess before leaving. “I don’t want to filer comme un Anglais [rush off like an Englishman].”

Fascinating French Fact: The American colloquial vocabulary is about 10,000 words larger than the colloquial French vocabulary.