Monday, May 5, 2008


We are in the middle of two long weekends: the first, for Mayday; the second, for Armistice Day. Both national holidays fall on Thursdays this year, so that means that everyone, or almost everyone, took Friday off, too. In French you don't take the long weekend; you faites le pont, you make the bridge. From the holiday on Thursday to the weekend beginning on Saturday, you build a bridge out of the day between, so that you can connect your days off. It is one of my favorite idioms, not least because it is one of the only idioms I feel confident enough to use.

As I was about to say, though, before language butted in, we are going to take a trip for the second long weekend, and drive over to Fontvieille. We've found a hotel that has what they bill as a chambre duplex pour famille, and we're going to stay there and then venture forth to see the rock outcroppings and ruins at Les Baux, the Roman Arena at Arles, and go horseback riding in the Camargue. A perfectly Provençal weekend.

I went into our local traiteur Saturday afternoon. Madame was busy when I came in--four people ahead of me--so I settled in to wait for a bit. Madame has a word for everyone, and lots of words for most. She and her mother do all the cooking for the shop--daube à la provençale, boulettes à l'agneau, legumes farcis, lasagnes--and she has a devoted clientele. By dint of many lasagnes purchased, I am one of her clientes, and we always talk when I go in. (In fact, the lasagnes themselves are sometimes incidental to my visits.) Saturday was no different. We talked about the LaChaix's visit this week, and about another cliente of Madame's who had just been introduced to them; we talked about the weather; we talked about the holidays. Madame is warm and gracious and ebullient and has one of the thickest local accents I know, so my conversations with her are a point of pride. For both of us, I think: for me, of course, because any time I can gossip in French I feel triumphant, and for her, I think, because she feels that she is contributing to my progress in the language and culture.

So when Madame asked me how we were passing the days off, I told her that we were headed west to Fontvieille.


It's a village, just a dot on the map, really, I explained. It's near Arles.

More puzzlement. Où?

Arles. The city with the Roman arena.

Ah. Nîmes. Comprehension and relief.

No. I could feel my confidence start to slip. The other Roman arena. Near Nîmes, between Nîmes and the Camargue. Where Van Gogh lived.

Ah! Arles! she said.

Yes, Arles.

I smiled. She smiled. Then she began trying to teach me to pronounce it correctly. We stood at the caisse and pronounced Arles back and forth to each other until the next customer came in. It seems that there is some throat action around the r sound, a tossing back of the tongue. Not quite guttural, but not exactly rolled, either.

Later that afternoon, C. and I were back chez Madame to pick up a bottle of wine. She told C. that she had heard about our planned trip, and, smiling over the counter at him, opening her mouth widely, said, Arles.

C, who was prepared, responded. Arles.

She smiled and shook her head. Arles.

I tried. Arles. C. tried again. Arles. She demonstrated, again. Arles.

There we stood, smiling and saying Arles at each other, until the door opened for the next clients.

Being corrected is part of our life here, and not a bad part. Our French friends do not correct us, as Olivier explains, pour se moquer, to make fun of us, but to help us. It's a difficult language, as we all know, and, C. and I, our minds are not as supple as they used to be, and neither are all the muscles we never even knew we used to pronounce words. The cheese man whom I see at the market most Mondays and Fridays encouraged me the other day, after a gentle correction: French people make mistakes with French all the time, and we understand when foreigners do it, too. It's charming, he said. The corrections are almost always good-natured, cheerful, and helpful. And they feel like an investment: Madame, and Olivier, and Monsieur le fromager, all correct me because they want my French to improve. To improve, because all intelligent, interesting people should be able to converse in their language, and to improve because, I can't help thinking, they like me. As the apostle wrote in his letter to the Hebrews, Whom the Frenchman loveth, he chasteneth.

No comments:

Post a Comment