Tag Archives: Cultural identity

Are cats bilingual?

My cat is French. By “birth” country. Of course, all cats belong to the Great Cat-dom, the invisible repository of their nature and habits. However, he understands French. And English.

Now, my husband is French. Also by birth country and culture. As do all men, he belongs to the universal human-dom, which is also the invisible repository of all human nature and habits. However, his language and culture are French. Though he is perfectly bilingual (French/English), and writes all of his professional papers in English.

There is a reason for this little correlation between cat and man as it relates to the microcosm of our home life. That is, I speak to both my husband and my cat in French – most of the time.

But my husband and I have found that there are some words in English that do not exist in the French language and vice versa. And, when speaking, he or I will automatically replace a word with the choice that best “fits” the situation or the idea being expressed.

One example is the word “challenge”. It doesn’t exist in French. Yet it is essential when describing the many difficult and demanding opportunities that are part of daily life. The word used in French is either “problème” (problem) or défi (defiance).

We find that this substitution of words between two languages enriches the conversation and results in a deeper understanding of the subject being discussed.

So, are we saying that we are both bilingual and bicultural?
What do you think?

By the way, I have found that my cat remains, quintessentially, a citizen of the Great Cat-dom. Although he understands perfectly well all that is being said to him in either language, he chooses his own time and his own way of communicating with us.

See you soon – A bientôt!

Sweeping snow off of strawberry tunnels

Last week, during the first week of March, we had one foot of snow. This was the first time it had snowed in and around our village for four years. This is not too important, in itself. I’m sure that the Ohioans and the Norwegians would yawn and roll their eyes after all of the snow they’ve seen this winter.

No, the really important thing was that our near neighbors, who are primarily winegrowers but who also have peach, cherry, and apple orchards also plant strawberry plants that they sell to market distributors. They plant the strawberries in December. A bit early, you say?

No, because the first seasonal fruits to reach the markets in France are called “primeurs” (“firsts”). This means that these fruits and vegetables command a premium price, so a grower is motivated to plant at the earliest possible moment. Which leads me to the subject of this post.

The plants were coming along fine, in rows, sheltered under low plastic tunnels that protect them from wind and cold weather. But – nobody counted on it snowing. So, the night it snowed – all night long – Monsieur, Madame, and their son who is in charge of the family business, took their brooms and continually swept the snow off of the tunnels to keep them from collapsing on the plants and, by extrapolation, ruining the strawberry plants and their chances of making a profit from the sale of these primeurs. And there were a lot of rows and a lot of tunnels.

We had invited our neighbors in for a visit (the apéritif in French) and they told us about it. You know, that event really made an impression on me. We are so very far removed from the actual act of growing the food that we buy and eat.

But I’m sure I’ll think about them sweeping snow off of their strawberry tunnels the next time I eat strawberries.

A bientôt – See you soon.

Why didn’t you get my joke?

Humor. That’s a serious word. Especially when we’re talking about how it translates (or doesn’t) across cultures.

It has to do with so many “culturally wired” conceptions. It’s in our body language when we make the joke, or something as tiny as an inflection of the voice, or a look on your face.

And the subjects we use in our jokes. What makes a joke a joke in a certain culture? I’m still not completely clear after five years of living in France, immersed in the culture.

My husband says that when you make a joke in France, that it’s about something that’s too absurd to be taken seriously. But when I do the same thing, he often doesn’t understand that I’m joking. What’s the deal? Or more precisely, what’s the secret to humor – in any culture?

Sometimes I think people don’t get my jokes simply because they know I’m not French. It seems that there is a kind of instantaneous intellectual analysis on their part, as in “She’s not French. Is she making a joke?” I may be totally off, but I think this sometimes happens and they hesitate because they aren’t sure I intended to make a joke.

Another thing…I recently got into a cultural tangle (mental, not physical!) due to a misinterpretation of a phrase. And it made me as mad as an old, wet hen as my grandmother would say. A Frenchwoman, fairly good acquaintance of ours, made a remark (a joke?) in response to a comment I had just made about entering the French culture by way of French cuisine. Meaning, by learning about the different regions and their different types of cuisine.

Now, in French, “cuisine” can mean either “food” or “kitchen”. She said, “You surely didn’t enter France by the kitchen.” Now, I interpreted that as meaning “You surely didn’t enter France by the back door.” And I was very vexed. To say the least.

Later, my husband told me I had completely misunderstood what she meant, because in France the saying would be “You entered France by the back door” (vous êtes entré par la porte arrière) and NOT “You entered France by the kitchen (door)”. Sigh.

Probably, she was making a play on words which I didn’t catch. A misunderstanding, or a “malentendu” as we say in French. I’m trying to arrive at the place where I can give her the benefit of the doubt.

It’s those kinds of things that make me want to speak in English exclusively for at least 24 hours. But, luckily, tomorrow is another day in the world of my ongoing cultural adventure.

Until then, à bientôt – see you soon.

A kiss is just a kiss, A smile is just a smile…

Well, that’s what the song says. But…here in France I’ve learned that a smile is not such a simple thing.
Oh yes, everyone smiles when they’re happy – that’s universal. But, here in France, I’ve learned that the cultural code for smiling – that is, how it can be interpreted – is not so simple.

Example. As an American, we are “culturally programmed” to smile from birth. If you don’t smile, even when you don’t feel like it, people’s reaction tends to be “What’s the matter with him/her?” “Are they angry, not feeling well, or just plain unfriendly?”

But in France, people don’t trust the “American” smile – teeth showing. Why not? Because they think it’s not sincere, even fake.

Of course, it’s perfectly alright to smile pleasantly once in a while. But it is not a “tooth” smile, more an upward curve of the lips, and the smile is in the eyes. Even with friends or family, the French smile far less than Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. In fact, the French have a well-developed sense of humor. But, you start to pay attention to the eyes and the expression on people’s faces to understand what’s going on with them.

And you thought a smile was just a smile…