Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Les vaches qui parlent

I hiked with the ladies yesterday over in the Var. We had been promised ocean to mountain views, but the clouds rolled in first thing in the morning, so we could see nothing beyond the next hill. Still, it was pretty. Wild crocuses are beginning to sprout here and there, white with the faintest touch of violet, and shocking saffron stamens.

After our usual picnic lunch, I fell in walking with three of the Frenchwomen. They all spoke English, of course, to varying degrees, but were speaking French together when I joined them and tentatively joined in. They were patient and kind, and I persevered, and we hiked together the entire afternoon.

I could not have carried on that much conversation a few months ago--not that we talked about anything more abstract than G. and E.'s schooling, the French names of plants, and, oddly enough, Julia Child. I am still a ways from politics or philosophy. But carry on I did, and they were encouraging.

Tu parles vachement bien, Marguerite and Rosalinde told me.

It's one of my favorite French words: vachement. Literally: cow-ly. You speak cowly well. Our dictionary translates it as damned, as in, You speak damned well. But when people use that word, the context doesn't usually feel, to me, like a damned context. It feels like a really context, a wow context, dare I say it, an awesome context. As in, Wow, your French is really good! Except that a French person, carrying the weight of Vichy and the Dreyfus affair and the Terror and the Wars of Religion and on back and back, could never be so unguardedly enthusiastic...and so it comes out tinged with irony. You speak as well as a cow would. And this, in a culture in which, historically, cows were a pricey commodity.

Of course, here's the thing. I don't want Marguerite and Rosalinde to tell me that I speak cowly well. In my ideal French conversation, my French person would not mention how well I speak the language, just the same way that, when I speak English, it is the rare person who comments on my grasp of that. I want to speak French with Marguerite and Rosalinde, and speak well enough, enough like a really, really, vachement well-bred cow, that neither of them sees fit to comment on it. I want to speak couramment, which translates as both fluently and commonly. I want to speak French as a common thing.

I sometimes feel that the more I learn of the language the farther the horizon of fluency recedes into the distance: the more I learn, the more I find that I don't know. A friend suggested to me that the higher one goes on a hill, the farther one can see, and the farther away the horizon seems. I like that. I like that I am getting high enough up to see the cattle.

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