Sunday, January 20, 2008


We were talking yesterday about family, and names, and what we call people: the names we give our relationships. We are lucky to have not only biological family as part of our lives but an extended family that is bound not by blood but by time and laughter and history. And explaining that extended family of friends in French is a puzzle.

Friends came to spend Christmas with us. In English, I could describe them this way: my second parents; college friends of my mother's; neighbors. In French, I cannot inflect those phrases with the nuances that I could find for them in English. So I chose, instead, to explain to people here that they were my godparents, mon parraine et ma marraine. C., I learned yesterday, had solved the linguistic puzzle by explaining that his aunt- and uncle-in-law were coming. Both solutions somehow came closer to truth than we could have come in English.

E. and G. were talking about the son of my dear friend, a child I refer to in French as my godson, mon filleul, even though I'm not officially his godmother in our ordinary American lives. E. refers to him as her godcousin: it comes closer to expressing the relationship than does "the son of her mother's friend." And G. has settled on just "cousin," for the same reason: that friend is somehow not close enough.

Living in a foreign country gives us the opportunity and also the task of explaining ourselves in a new way: in a new language, evidemment. But it's also a matter of new words. We do not have the facility with French to explain all the stories that have created these relationships, these friendships for which ami is not quite enough. So we use other French words, words that come closer to expressing the relationships we feel. Godparents: mon parraine et ma marraine. Godson: mon filleul. Aunt and uncle: ma tante et mon oncle. For once, this foreign language lets us express what we feel more accurately than our mother language does.

We are waiting, down here in the south of France, for a baby to be born up in Paris. He will be an American baby, born on French soil, and he will be a part of our family even though we are not related by blood. He will be my friend's son, my second filleul, E. and G.'s cousin, or godcousin. The words that we search for are words to express what is, maybe, in the end, beyond words in any language. How do you explain connection? How do you explain love? I don't know. But I am glad to have some French words with which to try.

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