Archive for March 20th, 2006

A Man Without 21.90 Euro

Sometimes when I’m feeling louche I walk into bookshops and buy a book because I think I’ll feel bad if I walk out without one. Today I bought A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut, in hardback. It cost 21.90 Euro, and I had it finished, having sniggered once or twice, by the time I was getting off the train, just over an hour later. This is not because I am a fast reader, but because there is damn all to it. I think tomorrow I’ll go out and cop a line of coke after work and snort it off the top of a bog in Marks and Sparks at around half four (descending to pick up some of their exquisite wotsit-style corn snacks before leaving the store). It’ll be cheaper, and it’ll last longer, and at least it’ll look good on top of a coffee table (if it doesn’t get chopped out on the cistern). Oh, and my snigger will be far more annoying.

The International Language of Soup

One of the hardest things about speaking another language, in my experience, is being able to converse in a way that is in keeping with the form of the conversation.

To illustrate: in French I am more comfortable, and far more confident, when talking about ideas (freedom, nation, power) than when ordering a cup of coffee and a bun. I think that this may be because in the first instance most of the terms I might use are latinate, and therefore cognate with a certain register of English, whereas in the second instance I haven’t acquired any experience or practice at being able to say something like ‘the one with the chocolatey bits’.

As well as that, the abstract things are more likely to get talked about in the form of a very structured conversation, whereas asking for a bun can be quite free-form by comparison, unless you are happy to stick to the role-play vocabulary and way of speaking you learned when you were 12 or 13.

If your only concern is to acquire the bun and eat it, without being worried about being sociable or polite, then perhaps the role-play approach (Bonjour, je voudrais une brioche s’il vous plait) is your best bet. But if you have some interest in fluency (which is tied up with social acceptance), you will be conscious of a need to express yourself idiomatically and with the intonation appropriate to the circumstances.

An example in my native tongue: if I go into a Spar and ask for a bin token, my perception is that the woman behind the counter (if she is Irish) may think I am a robot if I say, without embellishment, “I would like a bin token please”. As such, I am more likely to say “how’s it going, can I have one of them there bin tokens please.”

The second instance, when written down, appears needlessly folksy, yet I feel more confident saying this, with the rhythm, intonation and pauses peculiar to the circumstances, than the first instance, which seems cold and unsociable. The first instance shows a lack of desire to engage in phatic communion, and while the woman behind the counter might not be too bothered one way of the other, it is clear that there is more at stake here than the simple purchase of a bin token.

Yesterday we went to a brasserie and we decided we would both have the soup. I can’t recall exactly what I said to the waitress, but she arrived 5 minutes later with one bowl of soup to share between the two of us. I questioned this, and she said that we had only asked for one bowl of soup. Either I had not expressed myself clearly enough, or she, in her desire to be helpful and in light of my rather un-idiomatic (albeit ponderously grammatical) expressions, had discerned a meaning to my words that I had not intended. Anyway, when she said that we had only ordered one bowl of soup, I was tongue tied. In English I might have said, ‘aw Jesus no I’m sorry, there must have been a misunderstanding’, I found myself staring blankly into the void, and then I stuttered, ‘Désolé, je voulais dire deux soupes’, feeling a bit of a fool, unable to fill out the silence that had descended.

Unfortunately, there is no easy remedy for avoiding this sort of thing. Embarrassing as such events may be (although plenty of people couldn’t give a toss), you only learn from making mistakes. You need to be in Rome quite a long time before you can start talking like the Romans.

In The The

You should have seen the amount of police on the Boulevard St-Germain in Paris on Saturday afternoon. There were about 500 metres of buses bumper-to-bumper parked either side of the street, each full of police in riot gear. The riot gear worn by the police reminded me of that worn by Judge Dredd. This was truly a vulgar display of power, as Pantera might have put it. The Sorbonne was heavily guarded. When we passed, at about 2pm, there was one protester there. I bought a copy of L’amour et L’Occident by Denis De Rougemont in a bookshop nearby, and we stopped a bit furher up and I had a dark hot chocolate infused with Grand Marnier, served with a flourish by a ginger chocolatier with a Dali-style moustache. It was the most intense chocolate experience of my life, and it must have nullified any ability I had to smell trouble.

Comme c’est avec l’irlandais

Beckett posters seem to be everywhere in Dublin at the minute. Beckett is Irish, you know.

“… he was not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State. As Anglo-Irish Big Houses were burnt by Republicans during the war of independence, many Protestants fled to the Home Counties. The paranoia, chronic insecurity and self-conscious marginality of Beckett’s work make a good deal more sense in this light. So does the stark, stripped quality of his writing, with its Protestant aversion to frippery and excess. If he abandoned Ireland soon enough for Paris, it was partly because one might as well be homeless abroad as at home. As with his friend James Joyce, another Irish literary nomad, internal exile turned quickly into literal emigration. The alienation of the Irish artist could be translated easily enough into European modernist angst.”

Terry Eagleton has a stab at locating Beckett’s writing in its historical context.

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March 2006