Saturday, May 28, 2011

Geek's Corner 11 : Animal Expressions

  • poisson d'avril ! : April Fool!

  • malade comme un chien : sick as a dog

  • traiter qn comme un chien : to treat s.o. like a dog

  • mourir comme un chien : to die alone, with nobody to care for one

  • vivre comme chien et chat : to fight like cats and dogs

  • les moutons : white horses (foam on waves)

  • les moutons de Panurge : blind followers, sheeple (a reference to a character in Rabelais

  • le mouton à cinq pattes : the unattainable (the five-legged sheep)

  • revenons à nos moutons : let's get back to the subject at hand

  • jouer à saute-mouton : to play leapfrog

  • la brebis galeuse : the black (scabby) sheep

  • les pattes d'oie : crow's feet

  • ne pas valoir un pet de lapin : to be worthless (not worth a rabbit's fart)

  • un nid-de-poule : a pothole

  • avoir la bouche un cul-de-poule : to purse one's lips (have one's mouth like a hen's ass)

  • quand les poules auront des dents : when pigs fly (when hens have teeth)

  • c'est donner de la confiture à un cochon : it's throwing pearls before swine

  • faire un froid de canard : to be freezing

  • poser un lapin à quelqu'un : to stand someone up

  • sauter du coq à l'âne : to jump from one subject to another

  • tuer les mouches à quinze pas : to have bad breath or B.O. (to kill flies at 15 paces)

  • enculer (!) les mouches : to split hairs, to nitpick ("enculer" is too vulgar to translate on a family blog, but is related to "cul")

  • avoir un chat dans la gorge : to have a frog in one's throat

Friday, May 27, 2011


What do the following have in common?

  • la poire

  • la fraise

  • Jean Genet

  • la pêche

  • la groseille à maquereau

  • Marcel Proust

  • la pomme

Well. Do you give up? Do you give your tongue to the cat, as the French would say?

The plain people of Ireland: Hold yer whisht! Sure that's an easy one. We know!
Whipping Cats Management: Well, let's hear it then, if ye're so clever.
The plain people of Ireland: They are all French fruits!
Whipping Cats Management: Sometimes you do manage to amaze me with your primitive peasant cunning.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Geek's Corner (10) : Why are prepositional verbs so nasty?

The good news is that French grammar is not as ugly as that of Russian or German (not to mention Irish grammar, a matter of such hideous difficulty that the only way to get people to learn it is to force them to begin at age 5, when they are too small and powerless to offer effective resistance). The same kinds of things tend to be difficult in French as in Spanish. If I were to name the most evil aspects of each, the list would be essentially the same:

1. prepositional verbs
2. connecting phrases
3. order of pronouns
4. use of the subjunctive

The first of these, based on my experience with German, Spanish, French, and Russian, seems to be something that tops the difficulty chart in every language. In German, for instance, you can start with a perfectly straightforward verb like "nehmen" (to take), and, depending on the preposition that you add as a prefix, you can change the meaning to - and this is just a partial list - to gain weight, to lose weight, to take over, to do something, to try, to film, to record, to absorb, to incorporate, to exclude, to behave, to earn, to see, to infer, to gather, to assume, to accept, to send away a red-headed stepchild with a flea in his ear, to deprive a pregnant grandmother of her social security check, etc etc etc.

Russians have a slightly different focus where prepositional verbs are concerned. For some odd reason, most of the relevant grammatical ugliness is squarely localized in the domain of verbs of motion. But, let's be clear, this is an area where Russian breaks out the heavy artillery. You or I, in our innocent naivete, might simply "go" across the river to grandmother's house. To your average Russian, this straightforward declarative statement would be risible, for its lack of nuance and telling detail. Just how did you "go"? Were you alone? Were you on foot? Were you in some kind of vehicle? Was that vehicle propelled by an engine? A beast? A quadruped? An even-toed ungulate? Was this the first time you've been to grandmother's house? Did you cross a river, or other body of water? Were you wearing a hat? Had you just had a fight with your loved one? Did you go at dawn? Were the birch trees in bloom? What was your spiritual state of mind? How did your cat feel about the journey? You'd better have an answer to all these questions before you even think about opening your mouth. Otherwise you will attach the wrong prefix to your verb of motion, and expose yourself to the snickering and ridicule of native speakers, who apparently have nothing better to do with their time than to attach importance to such matters.

If you have suffered through the bewildering infinity of meanings that can attach themselves to Germanic prepositional verbs, and struggled with the metaphysical aspects of motion in the Slavic psyche, the relative simplicity of matters in the Romance languages may come as a welcome surprise.

But don't let down your guard. The trick in Spanish and French is to know the right preposition to go with the verb in question. Problem is, each language has a list the length of your arm and then some. And until you master each and every verb on that list, you will never feel at home in the language. What I'm suggesting here is that that list will be one of the very last things that you do end up mastering.

Prepositional verbs suck. They are hard in every language.

This post has gone on long enough. I will return to items 2-4 in subsequent entries, and will also provide some thoughts on difficulties that appear to me to be specific to French.

Prepositional verbs in Irish are too horrible even to contemplate. Start with the fact that any verb worth its salt takes a prepositional form (Irish people are not "hungry" - "a hunger is upon them"; they don't "like" things - "a liking is with them", they don't "have" things - "things are to them", and so on). Then add the hideous variation that any given preposition combines with each of the personal pronouns to give a bizarre set of so-called prepositional pronouns, each set of which has to be memorized, along with all the associated verbs. If you tried to instruct your cat about the byzantine complexities of the resulting satanic brew of grammatical atrocities, the SPCA would be knocking on your door within the hour. But Irish children as young as 5 are tormented thusly with no intervention from the authorities. All the time. It's a truly horrifying state of affairs.

Take a gander here to get some sense of the true hideosity of it all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mademoiselle Julie

Readers of the Thpanish blog will be familiar with my unconditional love for the amazing adventures of the lovable duo of Strindberg and Helium:

Strindberg and Helium at the Beach

This evening, I tried something far more risky. I attended a work in which only the depressive genius of Strindberg was represented, without the compensating comic relief of Helium to lighten the mix. Specifically, the Théâtre National de la Colline's production of "Miss Julie" (in French, with helpful surtitles in English). It had been recommended on the ACCORD school's website.

Paraphrasing the program notes:

Diving into Strindberg is a descent into Hell. The Hell of class struggle and the battle between the sexes. The Hell of paranoid delirium and complete breakdown... a long day's journey into night, into the heart of darkness ...

Indeed. Old August was one messed-up dude, with a singularly pessimistic view of human nature.

The production was excellent, and I feel that I certainly earned my culture points this evening (bonus points for hardly availing myself of the surtitles - yeah!).

Here is a link to what the Financial Times reviewer had to say about the production:

Clare Shine's review of "Mademoiselle Julie"

I wish I could say I found the evening uplifting. But, frankly, the whole thing left me feeling kind of fragile.

I miss my pussycats.

Monday, May 23, 2011

More French limericks

A young fille de joie down in Brest
Liked to wander ze boulevards half-drest
With a mesmerized air
Ze men used to stare
I think you can fill in the rest!

Book Review : "A Paradise Built in Hell" by Rebecca Solnit

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communites That Arise in DisasterA Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communites That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before reading this book I was not a fan of Rebecca Solnit. Upon the insistent recommendation of several friends who rarely steer me wrong, a few years ago I bought a copy of her earlier book about Eadweard Muybridge ("River of Shadows") and found it completely unreadable. I could sense that Solnit was smart, but it was as if she were speaking in tongues - wading through her prose was sheer torment. So I ditched it.

About a month ago I heard her speak about this latest book on a local radio program and she was so incredibly smart and passionate and articulate, and her thesis was so appealing, that I felt compelled to give her another chance. A Paradise Built in Hell was well worth it. It's an extraordinary book -- fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately persuasive in supporting Solnit's thesis. And although her style is still somewhat undisciplined, and the material could have been more tightly organized, I found these aspects less annoying than in the previous book, probably because they seemed to be primarily a manifestation of her infectious enthusiasm for the material.

Viewers of "The History Channel" will be familiar with its habit of broadcasting a regularly scheduled "Apocalypse Week", during which they attempt to goose the ratings by scaring the bejasus out of their viewing audience. A typical day's programming during Apocalypse Week takes one possible way in which the world might end (megavolcano explosion, meteor impact, nuclear holocaust, deadly plague, climatic catastrophe, the Rapture, Armageddon as prophesied in the Book of Revelations, insert your own favorite apocalyptic nightmare here ...) and develops it in depth. The cynicism and idiocy with which these scenarios are fleshed out cannot be overstated (e.g. alleged "experts" pontificate on whether emergency services are likely to be overextended, or whether planes will fall out of the skies, in the immediate aftermath of the Rapture; or the apocalypse is linked to the prophecies of Nostradamus, or the Mayan calendar; boundless idiocy runs rampant). Certain themes are common to all apocalyptic scenarios, however- in particular, a complete breakdown of the social order, with people reverting overnight to atavistic stereotypes, resorting to looting and hoarding as they fight tooth and claw for limited resources. This projected behavioral model is also popular with government and law enforcement agencies, e.g. to justify the aggressive intervention by armed law enforcement personnel with broad powers and orders to shoot to kill (think of the official response to Hurricane Katrina). It's based on a depressing and frightening view of human nature.

In A Paradise Built in Hell Solnit mounts a spirited argument that this pessimistic view of how people respond to catastrophe is fundamentally wrong. Instead, she argues, disasters are far more likely to bring out the best in people -- there is a natural desire to help one another, which is actually easier to put into action, given the relaxation of social barriers that often prevails in the

wake of a disaster. You might go for years just nodding at that neighbor across the street, but after the earthquake/fire/blackout the two of you may just end up having a real conversation.

Solnit grounds her argument in five specific case studies:

* the San Francisco earthquake of 1906

* the 1917 explosion of the munitions ship Mont Blanc in Halifax, Nova Scotia

* Mexico City's 1985 earthquake

* the World Trade Center attacks of 2001

* Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

There were instances where a bad situation was made worse when those in power, through fear or panic, resorted to extreme and unwarranted measures (General Funston's imposition of de facto martial law following the SF quake, where soldiers were given license to shoot to kill anyone who did not cooperate satisfactorily; FEMA's and law enforcement's response after Katrina, where citizens were treated as likely criminals rather than people who needed to be helped). The fear-mongering narrative of barely contained pandemonium often finds traction with the media, but is rarely accurate. By detailed examination of the five case studies, Solnit makes an extremely convincing argument that the "natural" response to disaster is increased cooperation, a sense of solidarity and future possibility, indeed a degree of exhilaration among most survivors.

All five examples are interesting, but her discussion of the WTC attacks and Hurricane Katrina stand out as exceptionally measured, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

This is an extraordinary, wonderful book, which I recommend to everyone.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Weekend in the Marais

Here are a few things I like about the Marais.

The "public poet" who sets up shop right by the Centre Pompidou.

The second-hand bookstore, "Archives de la Presse", on Rue des Archives, where one can pick up delightful history magazines from the 1950s, like those shown above, for only one Euro apiece, with the unassailable justification that one is doing so to improve one's French.

Farther down the rue des Archives, the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, evidemment!

The weekend market at the Bastille, including that delightful chocolatier's stall. (No, these are not for me; Operation Wise Food Choices is back in full force -- they are for the hardworking staff at the ACCORD School of Languages. If there should happen to be one or two left over, then tant mieux pour moi!)

The charming, though slightly puzzling, graffiti of the artist THTF.

The patisseries!

At the movies

I've watched three (well, two and a fraction) movies in the last four days, which is something of a record for me.

The first was a video I borrowed from school, "Le Diner de Cons" (Dinner of the Idiots, marketed in the U.S. as "The Dinner Game"), a French movie from around 1998, which was infinitely better than I had imagined it would be. Even better, I had no problem understanding it - I estimate I got around 95% of the dialog.

Yesterday night's movie, "Le Gamin au Velo" ("The Boy on the Bicycle"), which I went to see with Karin, a classmate, and some of her friends, was an entirely different matter. It was so treacly (treaclyly?) sentimental that I had to flee after only 30 minutes, for fear of falling into a diabetic coma.

Finally, this afternoon I decided to brave Woody Allen's latest effort, "Midnight in Paris". Despite an over-reliance on the picture-postcard beauty of Paris's most cliched sites, not to mention the groan-inducing "Brigadoon" device, it had its moments of charm. Though Carla Bruni was entirely forgettable in her brief cameo as a tour guide, it was fun to watch Adrien Brody hamming it up as Dali, Kathy Bates having a grand old time as Gertrude Stein, and assorted others vamping it up as part of the lost generation of Paris in the 20s. And at least we were spared the sight of Woody Allen himself slobbering over some attractive female one third his age, though Owen Wilson was severely lacking in the charisma department. All in all, not quite as awful as one might have expected.