Living in Ottawa on the edge of Ontario and Quebec, you’re bound to pick up a bit of French. You hear the same sentences over and over again that you remember them (lately it has been “il fait froid!”- It’s cold). It’s one way to learn French, but you don’t learn sentence structures this way. So this means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to use the phrases, or be like my non-English speaking aunt who whenever any English gets thrown at her such as "are you enjoying your morning?" she replies with “no, thanks” and shakes her head profusely.
French is a difficult language for me. The verb conjugates go on forever as well it assigns stationary objects masculine or feminine entity. Last week I said to my colleague: “Je vais le maison” ("I'm going home") she corrected me that it’s “la maison”. In my head I reasoned it with it’s “la maison”, feminie, and “au restaurant”, masculine, because in France men are to pay at restaurants and women are to stay home apparently.
But what about kettles, chairs and computers? How does an object that doesn’t move or talk live up to its masculine and feminine title? Un couteau- but what if it’s a plastic pink glittery cake knife? Is that still "Mr.Knife"? Une chaise- to describe a black bulky leather Vikings chair that take up a third of your living room? How could it ever be "Mrs.Chair"?
When I got offered “Parisienne French – Chic Phrases, Slang and Style” I was intrigued. The book is pocket sized with chapters: daily life, culture, nightlife, love, friendship. Chapter "Friendship" starts off sweet, teaching you how to say “smart”, “nice”, “loyal”, “witty” complimenting your friends, in which after turning a page it moves to “dumb”, “bitch”, “whore”, “loser”. Then a few pages after it just falls apart and ends with “Clara’s been such a bitch lately, what’s up with her?” and “I don’t know, maybe she’s just PMS-sing”.
The chapter “Love” is more optimistic. One first learn to holler “Tiens, y a du monde sur le balcon!” (It’s suppose to mean “Hey, nice rack!” but directly translate to “look at the balcony!”) to “Laisse-moi tranquille!”(Leave me alone!) following a page of insults “completement faux cul” (full of shit), “connard” (asshole). But if your relationship can get past the insults and the hollering, it goes into intimacy “T’as une capote?” (do you have rubber?), “faster”, “deeper”, “harder”. Then the chapter ends. Just like that. Where’s the closure? Where’s the “I’ll call you a cab” or “I hope you didn’t give me a sexual transmitted disease”?
This reminded me my conversation with a friend in Taipei when I asked her how to say "have sex" in Mandarin:
“作愛” she replied. It directly translate to “make love”.
“no no no. I don’t want to make love. I want to just have sex.” I explained.
“oh, 上床” she said. It directly translate to “up to bed”.
“No! Sex. Like, get physically humped with no feelings.” I said, while thrusting my pelvis back and forth in the restaurant.
“…強姦?” she said.
“Uh, doesn't that mean rape?!” I said, a bit disturbed and dumb folded. Are there really no words to describe the activities between up to bed and rape?
After discussing it for a few more minutes, we realized that there is no word to describe “doing it” in Mandarin. How can Mandarin not have a simple word for intercourse, when the Chinese have been procreating for 2000 years? Have they all been just either making love or raping each other? This is why I love learning languages. There’s always something that awe you in between.