The stories we tell

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As the only female blood-relative my grandmother had, i inherited all over her extensive jewellery collection. This was something both she and i relished for years. We would pick over the contents of her boxes and cases talking about when and where pretty, sparkling things were procured and on what occasions they were worn. We rarely focused on the prices of items… so i realize now that i have no idea which of the pieces should be deposited in safety deposit boxes to be protected from my incessant mislocating of important items and which can be safely worn with only sentimental value on the line.

My mother was particularly interested in a hematite, turquoise and coral pendant which i promptly told her to keep. My grandfather gave it to my grandmother on one of their only trips off the continent – to Jamaica. My Grammy was particularly fond of this sort of arrangement and i demonstrated the point by showing my Mom the number of items my grandmother had given her over the years that resembled it in cut and setting.

Sitting on my mother’s bed pouring over her collection of both inexpensive and expensive accumulated pieces from different relatives and friends i realize the true value of items like jewellery… the stories they represent.

Only my inexpensive jewellery is still at my home in Blainville. That and the collection of earrings to which i only have one of the pair and that i am ever saying i will convert into pendants.

My New Year’s Resolution is to not be cheap this month and get these items appraised, rings re-sized and earrings converted so that i can wear these memories on my person in the same way i showcase the photographs of voyages and big events.

My favourite almost-forgotten story of the week revolves around a gold, enamel inlay timepiece my Grammy wore around her neck when i was a little girl. I would sit on her lap, before i could read an analog clock, and like any small child was fascinated with lockets, boxes and any items with hinges. i would ask over and over again what time it was… and the answer was always conferred to me after much pensive deliberation: “Half-past kissing time, time to kiss again!” amongst a flurry of kisses. My Mom says that her own grandmother (fifteen years the senior of mine) would do the same to her when she was a little girl.

Children’s Lit: Yet another way to avoid schoolwork

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Ah. Harry Potter, Peter Rabbit, Curious George, Doctor Seuss, the Berenstein Bears, Clifford, Olivia, the Babysitters’ Club, The Borrowers, Watership Down – how i love thee.

Veronica and i share a childish passion for literature aimed at people supposedly less intellectually developed than us. Ha. Yesterday hours, and yes i mean hours, were spent wandering around the children’s section of the local Chapters. We are amassing collections of the classics (sadly, only two books of the “classics” section have not been read by me: Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time. Veronica owns both) in consumer-frenzy and procrastination.

I bought and read Le Petit Prince last week. i had never read it before, if you can believe it. It was glorious. It was quaint. It was moralizing. It was sweet. It was pedantic and at times predictable. I couldn’t decide what it was about… ok, i am relatively sure that the flower is supposed to be a stand in for womankind, and that would be highly chauvinist, but i don’t give a damn. I love stories with pictures. I also love woodcuts (and, hence, Gustave Dore).

A Wrinkle in Time is my new “fallin’ asleep book.”

Are there any suggestions?

I hate me

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I’m having a bad week at school – reverting to those obnoxious, tangential asides that make me hate myself almost as much as the poor students sharing class time and space with me.

Just yesterday, i interjected an answer to a question directed at another student, went on a three minute rant about the Crusades that contributed nothing to the class discussion and… horribly… lectured about English compound tense formation in my undergraduate Italian class. I need to stop wasting my breathe and other people’s time. I need to self-censor.

Just once, i would like to NOT become a blabbering know-it-all when the different uses of the imperfect and perfect tenses comes up in a language class that is not Latin.

Years of French classes that failed to teach the concepts, piles of tests with failing grades and a chorus of condescending teachers expounding “it will come with practice” as an explanation cause my blood to reach the slow simmer that dissolves cartilage when making chicken stock.

My hand inevitably darts up and i feel the need to talk about gerunds, verbal nouns, compound tenses and active present participles. Why oh why do professors and teachers alike feel that a fruitful beginning to this discussion is a list of when you use one tense and when the other? What in God’s name does an “action completed in the past” mean? Are not all actions governed by the past tense completed? What is an uncompleted action? URGH!

Would it not be simpler to provide the INCREDIBLY SIMPLE direct correspondence between the imperfect tense and English constructions using “i used to…”, “i began to”, and “i was [verb ending in ‘ing’ here].”? Could someone please teach the French-as-a-second language teachers in the English school system in Quebec this rule? The last thing i needed was ANOTHER situation that instantly turns me into a raving lunatic.

Our Latin professor gave a revelatory lecture the other day on the evolution of tenses… i now have more ammunition with which to make everyone’s life a misery.

If i were another student in my Italian class, i would hate me too — and that is a HORRIBLE realization.

“Oh…Show me the way to go home…

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i had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head…”

My grandmother, the queen of abolition, used to sing this song to us as kids when it was late and, as she would so amusingly put it, we were holding our eyelids up with toothpicks.

Last night i went to visit an old friend from high-school in Ste. Anne de Bellevue which is a very considerable distance from my current home base. I had a beer for dinner. Only one, but the song still applies.

Trying to get home was a nightmare. There was a huge accident that prevented me from accessing the road that led to either of the two highways out of that little town and back to Montreal…so i drove ten minutes along the river in a 30 km/hr zone…to discover an on-ramp blocked off for construction. I turned around again and drove another fifteen minutes down the road to the next on-ramp…lo and behold it too was blocked off for construction…another fifteen minutes later i got on the 40 (the 20 was AGAIN blocked off at St. Charles’). I hate Quebec’s road construction.

It decided to start to pour while i was driving on a temporary road separated from oncoming traffic only by those flimsy orange pylons. It was pouring so hard i could no longer see more than ten feet in front of me, but there was nowhere to stop. A filthy, likely smog-based, grime had accumulated on the windshield preventing it from shedding water. I ALMOST said a prayer, but thought better of it.

What should have taken 40 minutes was extended to an hour and a half. LOVELY.

Is it worth it? French as a second-language

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I’ve been racking my brain for something insightful to share after my tour of non-Latin based language areas. Firstly, English is definitely the universal language in contemporary Europe. Only in St. Petersburg was it ever a question of whether, if need be, we would be able to communicate with the local inhabitants – and even there our one attempt was incredibly successful owing to our earnestness to be understood and our waiter’s smattering of English (proof that coffee is also universal – or, to make Veronica cringe, ubiquitous).

Oddly enough, most of the French speakers on the ship were not from France or Belgium, but from Quebec. Hearing their accents made me feel oddly at home after a week in France and the Netherlands. Now, a question you might be asking is: how useful is French as a second-language in the twenty-first century? It is only important for those of us in a bilingual province of Canada? Is Spanish of more social worth? I’ve been giving this a bit of thought.

French is a language of academic study in a way that Spanish is not. This is unfortunate – i am fully aware of the wonderful texts written in Spanish from Cervantes to Neruda and Garcia Marquez, but French literature has seriously trumped Spanish literature up to now for coverage in the English-speaking world. Perhaps this will change in the future, but for the moment, i find being able to read in French (and Italian) a skill i frequently draw on (and am asked to draw on by non-readers).

A second-language, any language, is of course essentially to learning all others. i am a very firm advocate of language instruction at the primary level (and think that the lack of English grammar in the school curriculum is deplorable – English is NOT simple; most people write poorly (myself included); and without a grasp of your own syntax you don’t have a hope in hell of understanding another). Why is French perhaps better than another Latin-based language as a second-language? Well, i point you to the Petit Prince and other treasure troves of literature which can easily encourage a child to love the new language (this ties in with my earlier point of course). Furthermore, English is more closely allied to French than any of the other Latin-based languages, so the vocabularly is a little easier to pick up (if anyone needs a brief history of the English language, look it up on wikipedia). Of course, the same could be said of German, but i don’t read German.

Now, i genuinely hope to acquire a high level of proficiency in at least one other European language before completing school and some understanding in another…so i can continue this line of thought in the future, but for now i deem myself lucky to have been born in one of the few places in the world where learning both English and French comes naturally and is common. When i think of the tears over French homework (particularly the imparfait vs. the passe compose – side rant: you STUPID teachers! It isn’t “intuitive” – there’s a rule!!! Grrr…), i wish i could have known just how blessed i would feel today.

Now, what sponsored this discussion? An article on the Francophonie and how it has little to do with actual French-speaking (sadly) that i was archiving yesterday. It is reproduced below should you be interested.

Lysiane Gagnon, “That ridiculous Francophonie,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Oct 9, 2006).

True, French has long ceased to be “the” international language. Still, it is a major language — the only one, apart from English, that is spoken as a second or third language on all continents.
This beautiful language deserves better than the absurd organization that pretends to represent French-speaking countries — the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie , which met last month for yet another “summit,” this time in Bucharest.
When it was set up in 1986, la Francophonie was supposed to be the French equivalent of the Commonwealth. It was a very good idea that quickly turned sour. While the Commonwealth groups countries that have a great deal in common (namely, the use of English and political institutions inherited from their past as colonies of Britain), la Francophonie is a mixed bag of countries, some of which are totalitarian regimes and most of which are not even really French-speaking.
Among the 68 members and observers are former French colonies such as Vietnam, where French is spoken only by elderly professionals, or countries such as Poland and Romania, where French ceased to be the lingua franca well before the First World War. Even in Romania, which has a Latin-based language, reporters covering the francophone summit heard much more English than French on the streets of Bucharest.
In the past few years, la Francophonie has taken an even weirder turn. The newest members include countries where French is a totally foreign language: Greece, Albania and Macedonia. Ghana, a former British colony, is an “associate” member, and Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, is an observer.
The candidacy of Thailand would have been accepted this year if it hadn’t been for the recent military coup. Sudan, another former British colony, whose official language is Arabic, would have been admitted if the massacres in Darfur hadn’t been going on.
There are many more incongruities. Why isn’t Algeria, where French remains widely used, a member of la Francophonie? Why are Egypt and Austria members? Why is Israel, a country where a quarter of the population are native French speakers (most come from France, Belgium and Morocco) excluded? The answers are easy to grasp. It’s politics, stupid. Algeria still nurtures a bone of contention with its former colonial master. And Israel’s entry is blocked by the Arab and Muslim countries, which form a large part of the group’s membership.
Over the years, Canada has earnestly tried to prevent la Francophonie from evolving into a club that has nothing to do with language. But France has the upper hand, since it is by far the major financial contributor to the organization (Canada is a distant second).
For the French, the ever-expanding Francophonie is an imitation of its lost empire. It has become a lucrative business instead of a cultural association: Third World countries knock on its door in hopes of benefiting from foreign aid, and rich countries benefit from privileged access to huge consumer markets and natural resources.
As a North-South forum, though, la Francophonie has its positive sides. The developed countries try to push for democratic reforms and human rights in the member states. It also can be argued that belonging to the club might encourage a non-francophone country to introduce French as a second or third language in the school curriculum.
In a difficult diplomatic context, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a remarkable performance in Bucharest. Speaking in French practically all the time, he was an active player at the summit, and almost single-handedly, with the help of the Swiss, blocked a resolution that recognized only Lebanese suffering in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. His sensible and fair stand led to a last-minute compromise that recognized the suffering of “all civilian populations.”
But back to la Francophonie’s agenda: In a welcome change, the group’s next meeting, scheduled for 2008 in Quebec City, will be held in a French-speaking city.

© Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Bogs in adolescence

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We were talking about bogs…and I had a flashback to a fall week-end afternoon behind the undeveloped lot between the local shopping centre (now a Home Depot) when climbing up the banks from the gutter, my shoe got caught in the mud. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry standing at the top of the mound, on the grass standing on one foot with my now brown-speckled sock. It’s a nice memory and it’s not the first time it’s revisited. I look forward to encountering it again.

One year ago…

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I was sad because i was missing his birthday to be on a cruise ship. I am trying not to think about it by marking papers. Marking papers makes me want to jump off a bridge even more. I will not recount the horrors of some students’ grammatical apparati, but if you want a laugh, call me and i will regale you with many humourous examples. i thought this blog was poorly written – comparatively i deserve a nobel prize (or at least the governor general’s award).