Sunday, October 03, 2004

Heir raising [11]

 As seen at OpenBrackets

Oh, I am sorry about the protracted silence.

I sometimes wonder whether there isn’t an end to what anyone has to say, despite the infinity of subjects at hand. Plus, there are times when your own mind bores even you, and you doubt the appeal of everything it produces (for instance that bit about how I discovered that pichiciego is another name for fairy armadillo.)

A few weeks ago, J. Robinson wrote to me about a new book called The genius of language. Edited by Wendy Lesser, it’s a book of 15 essays by multilingual authors about their relationship with their mother tongue.

I’m about halfway through, reading in disorder. Aside from a few unforgivable typos (tu est) in a book about language, I found some of the contributions a little bland – or probably just not quite what I’d expected. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov or Bianciotti, most all the contributors write in their native tongue, so they have not had to translate themselves for an adopted culture, and largely enjoy the influence of another language on their relationship to words and ideas. But it is a great subject, and sweet the common thread of a form of homesickness when speaking of their second language(s).

Of course all the authors pepper their essays with foreign words, and I kept wondering why some provided translations and others didn’t. I can’t help feel there’s a certain smugness (and a bit of a cheat) in keeping it to yourself.

Around our house, French is the language spoken most often, the language of jokes and reprimands and homework. And I’ve never quite known how to reconcile the fact that my children are growing up in a different culture from my own.

There is an odd gap that can only be bridged with boring explanations that begin, ‘when I was a girl’ – which invariably makes me feel like one of those stranded immigrant housewives who people Toronto’s “little” neighbourhoods, wiping my hands on my housecoat as I sigh and go misty with thoughts of the old country. ‘Oh, Francesco…’

They’ve never seen The Brady Bunch or I Love Lucy, so I’m unable to gauge their minds with familiar markers. And even though my son loves Bugs Bunny as much as I did, Mel Blanc is sorely absent, the jokes aren’t as good and, damn it, they’ve changed the names (as you’d expect, Pepe le Pew does not work in French).

So it’s just not the same show. And even though they like dumb and dirty jokes as much as I did (uh, do), most of my dusty repertoire falls flat in translation.

Attempts to provide them with equivalents of my favourite bedtime stories required research, and there was no nostalgia in my voice when I sang French lullabies. Plus I’ve had to brush up on my French kings and queens, and which river runs through what (please don’t quiz me).

Even more than language, I’ve failed them in social graces. I realized a little too late that I had not schooled my kids on the bise (the ritual cheek kissing hello and goodbye). I didn’t grow up with it, and still try to get away with only the hello part. Unless you’re awfully fond of them, kissing a roomful of people goodbye just seems like so much work.

Girls catch onto the ritual earlier than boys, and are already kissing each other bonjour and ciao by the time they’re 12. But my son still flinches when he sees an adult cheek lunging towards him, lips puckered. (The same boy who, at the age of 5, used to rub his hands over women’s buttocks, saying, ‘mmm, nice’ and would occasionally walk up to a stranger in the street and, for no apparent reason, punch him in the nuts.)

I also forgot to tell them about tu and vous. I suppose I figured they’d just catch on. During the early years, kids address everyone with the familiar tu but, by the age of 10, are expected to make the distinction. I had a sudden bout of panic, certain my kids were going around insulting their elders, and that I’d soon be hauled into the principal’s office to explain. Turns out, they’d caught on.

Despite my occasional glaring awareness of my foreignness, I suppose I can at least take comfort in knowing that my aversion to French rap and the idiocy of SMS is shared by native-born parents across the country.

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