Euphemania in Any Language

One of the best things after the excitement of Christmas is to enjoy the gifts offered by family and friends.
Once more, my husband managed to give me great gifts. Okay, I tipped him for one of the books he offered me. Only because we both read quite a lot and lose track of what we buy at the bookstore, borrow from the library or order on Amazon.
I heard Ralph Keyes on NPR a few days before winter break as I was waiting in the school pick up lane. Since I’ve always enjoyed how my native French and the American languages use different words or expressions to say the same thing, I listened with interest to Mr. Keyes talk about his new book called Euphemania Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.
I knew I had to add the book to my Christmas wish list. I could only benefit from such a book. More than once, as I was a new comer, American euphemisms make me pédaler dans la choucroute or pedal through sauerkraut as we say in my native France when you are in deep —- how do we say already in American?
Asking for the restroom when we say the toilettes in French was bizarre years ago although I have now a hard time to not say salle de bains or bathroom when I return to my native country.
Of course everybody knows that the French don’t blush when they talk of their bodies and their diverse functions. But my American-born children refer to their stomachs for anything happening between their neck and their thighs. BM, PMS, UTI, IBS and many more abbreviated words belong to my American vocabulary but not to my French culture where a stomach is a stomach and intestines are either the small or the large.
Euphemisms not only evolve from epoch to epoch but vary from culture to culture. After so many years spent in the USA, I have forgotten a few French euphemisms. Am I already having a senior moment as we say in the USA or est-ce que je perds la boule (losing the ball, ball used in this case for head) as we say in France?

Twentieth Anniversary

On December 22, 1990 I landed in San Francisco via Boston, leaving my native France almost 9 000 miles behind me.
I entered the USA with my eleven-month-Parisian-born daughter, pregnant with my second one, our visa, a couple of suitcases and a stroller.
I became that day an alien with preexisting conditions.
Twenty years later, as an anniversary symbol, I offered a collection of true stories to my husband and our four children.
The 250 pages tell of the journey of an immigrant whose knowledge of English was comme ci comme ça.
They tell of my funny and less funny mistakes, of my loneliness and my search for home. They also tell of my falling in love with a country I only knew through songs, movies, books and my parents’ own memories of the only Americans they ever met until my move to the US: the soldiers who liberated their occupied France when they were young kids.
I wrote the stories especially for my children so they would know that their mother was once very similar to the women we meet here in California, when they have freshly landed from South America, Korea, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or any part of the world.
Like me twenty years ago, they tiptoe through a language that plays tricks on them, through a culture that is more foreign than the food.
Like me they hope to understand the rules and be part of the game.
Like me they fear to lose themselves and never be the same.
All of that, I want to tell them will sometimes break your heart and make you want to return to your homeland.
Twenty years later, although I am an American citizen, I am still discovering the American people. I suppose I’m not one of them yet. But the French manage to surprise me when I visit my native country. I suppose I’m not really one of them anymore. All that can be disturbing and uncomfortable.
But the beauty is that in the USA, someone at some point has been going through the same journey.
And somehow, I want to tell the newly arrived moms, it makes everything work out just fine.

War and Truce

While the headlines news focus on the wars or threats of war in so many areas of the world, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been preoccupied by my own war.
The Sierra foothills where I live are home to a diverse and prolific wildlife. Coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, deer, raccoons, skunks, lizards, snakes of all kinds, tarantulas, bats, hawks and dozens of other birds populate my backyard. Even a bear and its cubs occupied for a few days the campus of my kids’ elementary school a few years ago. A vulture missed its landing and flung himself into my daughter’s high school bus, putting our little town on the TV news.
Encounters between humans and animals are so frequent that only tourists ooh and aah when they spot a deer, a coyote or a fox. I’m not that blasé and I still gasp at the view of a fawn and follow with awe the flight of a hawk. And I will never fight against any of them. After all, we share the same territory and boundaries, although fragile, keep all of us safe and happy.
If it hadn’t been for the ground squirrels, life would have remained that way.
But they destroyed a rabbit over one summer. I’m talking of a brand new VW. A colony of ground squirrels built nests in the motor, gnawing and eating the electrical wires. In a month, the car was dead.
This fall, the same vicious strategy would have worked if I hadn’t brought my car for service. The mechanics noticed that some wires had been chewed on. That explained my issues with my lights.
At the same time, each and every of my potted plants was savagely attacked. The flowers and plants weren’t eaten, proof it wasn’t the work of a deer but gathered behind my potting table, pots, and in cozy corners. The spa area was a favorite. Small branches, pieces of bark and leaves had been dragged inside. They would, no doubt, make a comfy nest for the babies to come. Since ground squirrels have no access to birth control, a battle between them and us isn’t fair. They are so many that the damages are important, fast and constant. Their survival and maternal instincts are even fiercer than ours.
My husband, as most male characters, envisioned a short and victorious battle. His tools were simple yet he was sure 100% efficient. The traps he set up were made of squares with a sticky side where the animals would stupidly stick their paws. The ground squirrels are maybe not that intelligent but the last thing they want is to die.
After weeks of plotting strategies that didn’t work, my garden resembled to a cemetery. Poisoning the ground squirrels was the last of our military tactics but by now the enemy had occupied not only the inside of the spa but every nook and cranny of our porch.
It took me me seven years of careful planting to obtain what my kids call my forest. In our stretch of California, we struggle between months of extreme heat and drought and winter frost. And since I am Californian by adoption, I embrace our green choices. Most of my plants are native and drought resistant. It is heart breaking to lose them.
I am a non violent person who opposed the war in Iraq and voted for Obama when he promised he would devote all of his time to end that useless war. But that night, I suppose I felt like him, and despite my promise to share my home with the wildlife, I listened to my warrior husband. He convinced me that ground squirrels are no different than rats. “One way or another,” he said, “the rodents have to go.”
I woke up the following morning, well rested. I realized that the night had been eventless. I peeked through the French windows of my bedroom. They open onto the porch and the spa. I didn’t see the usual bark, leaves and branches dragged to the spa.
Instead, a bouquet of bright yellow flowers had been left at the entrance, five feet away from my bedroom. I knew they came from one of my last untouched pot. We hadn’t won the war yet.
But since flowers symbolize peace, was truce offered?
We have the rest of the winter to see if both sides will honor it.

My Friends and My Friends

I admit it. I’m old fashioned when it comes to the cyberspace world. It hasn’t been always that way. I got an e-mail address before most people had one. But only because my husband is a techie. Twenty years later, I still have the same address when most people have changed and have several.
When I read the French newspapers online, a statue of Liberty reminds me that I can wire money to France whenever I want. When did I tell them that I left Paris for the US? Amazon keeps track of the books I check on their website and suggests books I might like. It will come handy when my memory fails me. When I google for furniture, ads pop up offering me similar products within 30 miles from my home. So, in many ways, deliberately or not, I am part of the online world. I even have a blog so I’m not that passé after all.
But I don’t have a Facebook account. My four children and my husband have one. They are friends on Facebook. I’m not. Most people I know are on Facebook too and occasionally I’ve seen my face or a mention of my name although I’m not their friend. Actually I am but not with the dozens of other friends they have on Facebook.
Don’t pity me. I have friends. I just prefer meeting them in person rather than through Facebook.
However, this morning I received a Facebook invitation that I read with a pang of nostalgia. The invitation was addressed to my name, written in French and signed by someone I had known years ago. We lost track of each other after successive moves but had shared good moments together. I was touched that she had remembered me and wrote to me. I thought it was nice to receive this invitation during the holiday season, until I saw, beneath her invitation, the pictures of people who had at some point invited me on Facebook. Another list of people followed. Facebook said that maybe I knew them and would love to be friends with them.
These people were parents from schools my kids attended years ago, members of associations I had approached but never been a member of, people from my town who don’t know me and a woman who belonged to a common carpool years ago. I didn’t know she lived in South Korea now.
So picture after picture, naïve me got the big picture. Facebook was shuffling my e-mail contacts and I was dealt with a set of disappointing choices. Facebook had picked people I had absolutely no contact with. We had never been friends in the real world. Moreover, I had never entered any of them in my e-mail contact list. Still, they showed up at 8 o’clock on a Saturday, in my inbox, intrusive and uninteresting.
I read the invitation again. It had lost its genuine appeal. I hadn’t been invited intentionally. Facebook had also shuffled my “friend’s” e-mail and sent invitations on her behalf all over the world. I turned my computer off and slipped the hand-written cards I had prepared for my book club friends in my purse. We had coffee and a book to share at 9.
As I drove over, I realized that they have never asked me to be their friend on Facebook.

Facing Change

In 1929 artists were hired to take pictures or to paint the faces of the Great Depression.
Today the collective Facing Change: Documenting America is doing the same job. Click on http://www.FacingChange.org to see their work.
I favor words to pictures but the photojournalists have done a remarkable job at capturing a devastated America. Moving and sensitive.
Go and see for yourself.

Too Many Books

November is almost over.
I love November.
It welcomes, after months of warmth, rainy and crispy days over California.
My birthday is in November and this year I spent it in Moss Landing, one of the prettiest little towns in California.
It is also Thanksgiving month and who doesn’t love pie and sweet potatoes?
The Beaujolais Nouveau arrives in France and I look for the colorful bottles at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
And it is Nanowrimo month, a challenge I took twice.
But this year I’m not very proud of myself. I didn’t reach the finish line.
This isn’t entirely my fault. I had too many books on my nightstand.
A friend of mine told me to read The Help. I trust her judgment and opened the book just to see. Big mistake. I couldn’t put it down. And when I was finished, I couldn’t write anything. That’s how good this book is.
Then I read Palo Alto from James Franco. I’ve lived in Palo Alto for a few years so my husband thought it would interest me and bought it for me. My sixteen year old daughter stole the book to admire the black and white picture of the most handsome American young actors. She gave it back to me because she was studying for her finals. I don’t have her strength of character and finished the collection of short stories. Because of Palo Alto and the memories it brought back each time I read the name of a familiar street or park, I enjoyed reading the book.
My book club is meeting next week and I had to read Post Captain from Patrick O’Brian. I had a hard time to dive into the story because I received the latest Ayelet Waldman for my birthday. Who has been able to put Red Hook Road away?
So tonight I failed Nanowrimo. I should have stopped reading. I would have the draft of a new story by now instead of the embryo of a plot. But aren’t writers readers too?
Besides tomorrow is December 1st. I can always have my own Nanowrimo, right?
If I cancel my trip to the library tomorrow morning.

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