Paris, Language, and Culture

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Juliette and Eleanor, who reminded me that you don’t always need language.

The first time I went to France I was a baby. I don’t remember it, but there are pictures of me as a chunky baby sitting on a cobblestone patio in the Pyrenees, and later there are pictures of me, still fat and very naked, as a toddler with a bad haircut in my mom’s arms in the Alps. Although my childhood memories of France are blurred and faded, they were formative and have influenced me throughout my life. Along with the smells and sounds that are so intimately linked to memory is the awareness of a language barrier, and the triumph in overcoming it, even for just a moment.

When I was eleven, I spent a week or so with my cousins who lived in Brittany. They promised my mom not to speak English with me, and only broke the promise when I got sick and needed English to explain that I had a sore throat. In the meantime, I played and swam and ate and lived in French. I never became fluent, but I began to understand what was happening around me, and I was all the more gratified when I successfully played a game or bought a piece of candy in French.

Spanish was different. I was older, and made a conscious effort to learn the language. I dedicated myself to Spanish classes in a way that I had never cared in school before. I looked up verb conjugations in tenses we hadn’t learned yet. I constantly asked my friend Lety how she, a native speaker, would express something in Spanish. I traveled and I tried and I lived with a host family in Costa Rica who spoke only Spanish with me, although my two host sisters were proficient in English. Lety’s parents, knowing how badly I wanted to learn, began to address me in Spanish (and, like their children, I often responded in English). I grew comfortable with Spanish; fluent if not bilingual. And I came to Spain this fall and continued feeling comfortable with the language; even when I didn’t know a specific word I was able to communicate.

Then last weekend I went to Paris again. It was my first time in France in four years, and I was right back to the elementary level of the language that I never moved past as a kid. The difference is that this time I had to navigate the metro, the airport, and a hotel without my family’s help. My hotel was near the Moulin Rouge, and walking to the metro I passed through the historic prostitution district. Neon lights advertising sex shops and lap dances glared down at me; this was a side of Paris I’d never seen.

It was a relief to get to my cousin Claire’s house the next day. She speaks English, and though I hadn’t seen her in ten years or more, she greeted me with tremendous warmth and generosity and I felt immediately at home. She was babysitting the grandchildren of her best friend–two sweet girls, four and seven years old. Even the four-year-old’s proficiency in French surpassed mine by far, but we shared crepes and held hands as we walked in the city, and it reminded me of the friendships I forged so easily as a kid with my cousins, despite our inability to communicate verbally.

This little trip both reminded me of how possible it is to overcome language barriers with no tool other than basic human warmth, and threw into sharp relief all the comfort and ease that speaking Spanish provides me here in Spain. Some things are universal, they don’t require language or a shared cultural context. But many things do. Last night I went to the movies and saw Bridget Jones’s Baby. I thought it would be in English with Spanish subtitles, but it was dubbed in Spanish instead. I focused at the beginning, honing in on what they were saying and trying not to get messed up when the actors’ mouths still moved to form English words. By the end of the movie I had forgotten it was in Spanish; I was just watching and laughing and unfortunately hoping that the wrong guy would end up being the baby daddy. I think though that this may have been easier for me to understand because although the words were in Spanish, everything else about the movie was made for and by English speakers in an English/American context.

Language gives you access: to culture, to countries, to friends and to conversations. Those in turn enrich your understanding of the world. But I believe that language does more than that. It gives you a basic framework for labeling the world around you and organizing your thoughts. Certain cultures have named and distinguished concepts that cannot be expressed with exactitude in others. The connotations differ to reflect the different meanings and values assigned to the same object in different languages. As an American student, my major is different structurally than a Spanish student’s carrera. Maybe you’ll let your husband be friends with anyone, but not with that cualquiera. 

I’ve often found that bilingual people (a group that I might belong to someday, but not yet) seem especially able to step back from the primary lens through which they view the world and accept that the same symbol does not always have the same meaning. The same rules don’t always apply. Lety and I have talked about this a lot, sometimes analytically but mostly anecdotally.  She recently told me that she could imagine other Mexicans in our hometown, upon learning that she’s living with her boyfriend, immediately thinking “Lety’s married!” She laughed and said “but I’m not! I’m just living with him!” We didn’t delve further into the different understandings of marriage, common law marriage, “living in sin” and the like that exist in the part of Mexico where her family is from, the Mexican-American community in rural WNC, the white American community in WNC, etc, etc, because we didn’t have to. We were both familiar with the variation in those constructs and with each other’s personal beliefs about them. While we were in Mexico together a few years ago, we saw both a traditional church wedding, and witnessed the beginning of a common law marriage that has since been sanctified in church. I say “common law marriage” here but Lety and I talked about the difference between “pedida” and “robada” (and living with your boyfriend in an American context is neither of the above). That conversation hinged not only on each of us understanding the same set of cultural rules and definitions, but upon each of us understanding two sets of cultural rules and definitions about the same thing–and how those rules interact. The rules are invisible and fluid, but pivotal to our understanding of so much.

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Throwback to Mexico, New Years 2014, where Lety and her extended family welcomed me and taught me so much, without even trying.

Because of those invisible and fluid rules, I am (and always have been) comfortable with a kiss on the cheek from a grown man I just met–so long as I’m in Europe. Here it’s a greeting, no more and no less. Do that to me back in North Carolina? No way, man.

Right now I’m in limbo here; some of my interactions are limited to the innate understanding of shared humanity. Whatever that is that allows children to play together without exchanging a word, before the explicit, implicit, systematic and setting-specific norms come in to play and tell us how to behave. Other things I do here have begun to fall into the Spanish context and understanding of life.  Maybe, on some level, we need more opportunities to exist for a moment without culture and all the roles and constructs it places upon us. A reminder that we’re the same. But I believe that it’s equally important to engage with culture and language; and to do so critically and to do so with languages and cultures that fall outside our primary lens. It’s funny-and also not-that in order to get to a place of understanding within another language/culture/world, we must often pass first through the child-like of ignorance, both of the words around us and of their larger schematic organization within a certain value system.

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