Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tutoyer ou Vouvoyer?

We establish rituals in our everyday life. 
There were times I  used to pick up a coffee from Starbucks on my way to work just like how I used to pick up a kit kat from the newsagent after my law lectures.At times, these rituals seemed addictive and compulsive. At other times, certain rituals would provide me a structure in my otherwise directionless life.

When my children were in their growing years, my daily life was organized around rituals like school pick up times, groceries shopping, yoga and tennis. I read whenever I had a moment but the kind of books I read were more chick lit or books that I could easily pick up from the page where I last left in between errands, commitments and my work. I binge on written words wherever I am. I used to  read whatever that I could  get hold of while waiting for my children to get out from their tuitions and extra curricular activities . Now that my children are grown up, I have since established new rituals that involve more reading and writing and learning  French intermittently.

While I was in secondary school, I wrote a script for a mime and my classmates acted in it. At sixteen going onto seventeen, I was thinking about meaning of life: Are we supposed to live in pursuit of money, material comfort and success, fame, knowledge or academic success? I have since resolved that  it is entirely up to each of us to decide what to make of it. Once upon a time, I started learning French and the man I was dating then asked ‘ What is the purpose of you doing French?”  I could not answer the question and I quitted doing French . I so obviously lacked self-possession then.

You do not need a reason to do something. If it is something you want to do during your lifetime, you must go ahead and do it. More than two decades later when I was well into my middle age, I resumed learning French as a beginner and ten years later I am still learning the language. I do not like to acknowledge that age does matter when come to acquiring another language. I find it disheartening at times when I seem to take forever to learn the language. There were times when  I had to appear before a registrar in court, I found myself answering “Oui”  instead of “ Ya” in Bahasa, I was appalled. Perhaps it is a good sign that the French language is battling for a place in my brains.

In Flirting with Frenchman How a language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My HeartWilliam Alexander wrote about his journey in mastering the Art of French speaking and in his memoir, apart from sharing his frustrations and aspirations in learning French, he also shares his insights about learning French from linguistics to biology and brain science. The following facts are established in his memoir:

Firstly, age does matter when come to acquiring another language  as biology plays a role. Apparently babies are born with a head start on language. 
Secondly, declining testosterone also affects our rate of speech, word retrieval and fluency.
The author writes that language acquisition is ‘ directly affected by the levels of both dopamine and acetylcholine, neurotransmitters that play critical roles in the brain in everything from cognition to emotion and that , like testosterone, decline with age.’

William Alexander, at fifty–seven , an unrepentant Francophile, was well into ‘what politely referred to as late middle age’ and yet he persevered. His memoir is funny, insightful and informative about linguistics research, Noam Chomsky's grammar theories and the difficulties baby boomers  face in learning a new language, 

Here is how his memoir begins:
Last night I dreamt I was French.
This mainly involved sipping absinthe at the window of a dark, chilly cafĂ© , wrapped in a long scarf that reached the floor, legs crossed, Camus in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other. I don’t remember speaking French in the dream, and just as well, for in real life I once grandly pronounced in a Parisian restaurant, “ I’ll have the ham in newspaper, and my son will have my daughter.”’

William Alexander dropped French after his sophomore year and fell in love with France after spending several months backpacking throughout Europe at age twenty-two. When his love for France took root,  he decided to bury the ghost of Madam D--- , his French teacher in high school and started learning to speak the French language in his late middle age.

William Alexander wants to be French and he has such an inexplicable affinity for all things French that he wonders if he was French in a former life. But he also writes this: The world has changed greatly since France ruled during the Enlightenment, but one thing hasn’t changed : language follows economic power. Thus I may love French, but when I have grandchildren, and they’re ready to study a foreign language, I‘m going to advise them to learn Mandarin Chinese.

William Alexander agonized about the usage of vous and tu in French. When you first meet someone, you generally address each other as vous and you change it to tu when you have chatted and become well acquainted with the person.   In his memoir, he has  even drawn up a chart entitled ‘ A Short Guide to Using Vous and Tu’. There is also a recipe for Julia Child's croissants adapted by him for the 21st century home. When his wife, Anne a physician gets home, she asks if it was a lot of work making  croissants, he replies, "About as easy as learning French." 
She takes a bite. " Oh, God, these are good! Let's do this every Sunday!"

Reading Flirting with French motivates me to continue learning the language and the memoir is transcendental in reminding me that  baby boomers can still acquire a new language . Courage!!click

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Past is Read Only

The Rocks, Sydney
Before Samsung and Apple, I purchased a Hewlett Packard handheld PDA thinking that I could use it for my jottings. Sadly, that  has since become a white elephant lying somewhere amongst my possessions. Although I possess an iPhone that has an expansive storage space, I resort  to notepads or scrap papers  for  scribbling my thoughts and ideas. A notebook serves well as a writing pad for  fragments of my ideas, doodlings, bits and pieces of information about everything else and also titles of  books that I need to acquire or look up. There are times when I cannot quite make out my own notes as they are too sketchy and unintelligible and at other times when I revisit what I have written , it feels a little dreamlike.

The Black Notebook written by Patrick Modiano  has been translated into English from French by Mark Polizzotti. The story is  about Jean, a writer who discovers a set of notes that sets him on a journey through Paris in search of a lost past.  He tries to recall Dannie , his former girlfriend from years ago, a mysterious woman with  multiple pseudonyms and she seemed to hang out with gangsters who lived in the Hotel Unic in rue du Montparnasse. Dannie had lived under the name of Mireille Sampierry and she could be involved with a possible homicide. When she disappeared, Jean was summoned by a certain Langlais who was conducting the investigation about the possible homicide. Jean retraces the nocturnal footsteps he made decades earlier. As he remembers it, he always felt on his guard in that neighbourhood, could he possibly have left behind a double? He knows it wasn’t a dream. The proof is that he still has this black notebook that contains names, telephone numbers, appointments and short texts etc .

‘On one page of my black notebook I had written : “Country house, With Dannie.” Nothing more.
  “ Country house with Dannie.” I hadn’t recorded the name of the village. Leafing through the black notebook, I experience two contradictory feelings. If these pages are lacking in precise details, I tell myself it’s because nothing surprised me back then
Youthful unconcern? But I read certain phrases, certain names, certain indications, and it seems to me I was sending out coded signals to the future. Yes, it’s as if I wanted to leave clues, in black and white, that would help me clarify at some later date what I’d been living through at the time without really understanding it. Signals keyed blindly, in total confusion. And I’d have to wait years and years before I could decipher them.'

He and Dannie went to a country house at La Barberie and he had left his manuscript in the sitting room.

‘NOW AND THEN OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE THOUGHT about retrieving that manuscript, the way you recover a souvenir – one of those objects connected with a moment in your life, like a dried flower or four-leaf clover. But I no longer knew where the country house was. And I was overcome by lethargy and a vague apprehension when leafing through my old black notebook; moreover, it took me a long while to discover the name of the village and the phone number, written as they were in such tiny script.
Today , I’m no longer afraid of that notebook. It helps me to “scan my past”, and that expression makes me smile. It was the title of a novel, A Man Scans His Past, that I’d come across in the library of the house – several shelves of books, next to one of the windows in the sitting room. The past? No, it ‘s not about the past, but about episodes in a timeless, idealized life, which I wrest page by page from my drab current existence to give it some light and shadow. This afternoon, we are in the here and now, it’s raining, people and things are plunged in grey, and I’m impatiently waiting for night when everything will stand out more sharply, thanks to those same contrasts of shadow and light.
Arc de Tromphe
            The other night, driving through Paris, I was moved by those lights and shadows, by the different varieties of street lights and lamp posts, which I felt were sending me signals from the avenues or street corners. It was the same feeling you get from staring at a lit window: a feeling of both presence and absence. Behind the glass pane the room is empty, but someone left the light on. For me, there has never been a present or a past. Everything blends together, as in that empty room where , every night, a light shines. I often dream that I’ve found my manuscript, I walk into the sitting room with its black-and-white tiled floor and rummage through the drawers under the bookshelves.
                I am learning French and it has taken me forever. I certainly hope to read Patrick Modiano's novels in French one day.  Click

Jean's memory about Paris is akin to my memory about Sydney, a city where I used to spend my growing years in. Sydney is a young and modern city thus it does not have the grandeur and old charm that Paris has to offer but  it is a city that means  a lot  to me.

Harbour Bridge, Sydney
            For a decade or so, whenever I returned to Sydney, nostalgia hit me. As years go by, Sydney has changed its landscape so much so that the connection I have with the city is becoming increasingly distant. Nonetheless I recall possessing the melancholic feeling years ago when I was up in Collins Bookstore at Broadway (near Central Railway Sydney) looking down  at City Road,  the road that I walked plenty of times during my varsity years. During my  trip to Sydney in October 2015 , although nostalgia no longer hit me as much as it used to, like Jean in The Black Notebook, I tried to retrace my steps  around Circular Quay and locate the kiosk where I used to work part-time selling fresh bread and lamington cakes to early commuters. I also walked along Glebe Point Road where I used to catch films at Vahalla Cinema. It was another lifetime and it feels like a dream. But you know it is not a dream. How I used to take youth for granted.  
Sydney Opera House