Friday, April 1, 2016


Today, I helped a french lady navigate the machines at le gare en français, I spoke to a lady at the tram station who thought I was Spanish, and even the cashier at FNAC (pronounced fe-nack) thought I was English (as in from England).  Ladies and gentlemen, there is a bigger world out there.  They speak different languages and they have different cultural norms.  With the internet and the growth of global businesses, we can meet anyone and experience things on a global scale.

The problem is- how can we attempt to understand the human on the other end of the line?  There many societal and linguistic nuances that are easily misconstrued.  Think how easy it is to confuse the English language- just this week Camille had to do a project in her virtual English class on similar words with different meanings- coarse vs. course, compliment vs. complement, loose vs. lose.  When the language we were raised with poses problems, how can we assume that this global world will function without cultural understanding as well?

Last week before Kelly got here, Pete had an infection on his leg.  We weren't sure if it was a bug bite or something else.  For two days we cleaned it, soaked it, and elevated it hoping he would get better.  He didn't.  Within 48 hours, I was calling the English speaking doctor and Camille and I were looking for a pharmacy that was open on Sundays.  The result was a crazy (public transportation doesn't always work) bike ride up a mountain to the doctor, who wrote a 5 different prescriptions (one was for bandaids); a trip to the lab for tests (no one spoke English); and the pharmacy.  As a mother, I couldn't help but worry about what was getting lost in translation.  Did the doctor truly understand all the information?  Did the lab understand that I wanted it tested for MRSA? Did I really understand the prescription instructions?  The answers were yes- He was doing much better in a couple of days and was almost perfect by the time Kelly and Mallory got here.  The entire experience turned out great, and thank
goodness it happened with at least a month of French and navigating French systems under my belt.

After two weeks, I was getting along pretty well in France.  I had no problem ordering meals, making purchases in the market, or buying train tickets.  I learned that they EXPECT to be greeted- bonjour in the morning or bonsoir after 5pm before you start your business or ask your questions.  I have also learned that niceties like bon journèe (have a good day) go a long way in making you seem more polite.  Now, halfway through our adventure, I can have mediocre conversations with the bakers downstairs.  Yesterday it was over how much I liked their newly remodeled space and how angry I was about the graffiti "tags" on la porte de mon edifice (my apartment building door).   However, even after 6 weeks, the french phone call is still a source of fear and confusion.  I can only surmise that my accent is atrocious (hence the Parisian asking if I was Spanish), and many times, I say the correct word but they cannot understand me.  On the way to the yacht club for their first practice I reminded the children that it is up to them to speak French, not the French sailors to speak English.  If a French person came to Fairhope we would be nice to them and help them as much as possible, but I would not feel it my responsibility to learn French to help them.

I read an article last week in The New Yorker about a new school designed by Silicon Valley executives called the AltSchool.  Everything about the school sounds amazing- it offers a "highly tailored education that uses technology to target each student's 'needs and passions.'" But even the founder of the AltSchool thinks that we will all be walking around with personal translators in a few years, and the need to spend time and energy learning languages might be better spent on other subjects.  That may be true, but I still think the societal differences and real conversations come not
from just communicating but connecting.  An article on a website called InsideHigherEd shows that, statistically, foreign language studies are on the decline in US colleges and universities.  An associate professor and chair of the department of Spanish and Portuguese studies at the University of Florida, Gillian Lord, was quoted as saying that the decline in Spanish enrollments across the country was part of a trend away from the humanities.  "Our students are under increasing pressure to go to college so that they can get a high-paying job upon graduation, which of course is a worthy goal, but what used to be the underlying assumptions behind that goal--strength in liberal arts, broad disciplines, critical thinking, etc.--seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years."  I couldn't agree more.

One of the many opportunities this spring has given us is the chance to make connections, those critical thinking, strong liberal arts kind of connections.  We just discussed Pete's Medieval Civilizations Lab project and how the village we visited on Monday, Les Baux des Provence, was a feudal village with the Les Baux (descendants of Balthazar, the magi) family operating as Lords over the region of Provence.  Situated on top of a rocky outcrop, you could see all the olive groves and vineyards that would have been farmed by the serfs and freeholders.   We have had conversations about Roman engineering, bringing fresh water to villages not only for drinking and bathing but also for dyeing fabrics and other labor specific activities.  We have read translations of Roman writing-thank goodness someone chose to study Latin.  We have seen

buildings where, after the Roman letters were removed, archaeologists had to decipher what letters had been mounted on the building only using the holes where the letters had been as clues.  We have had conversations about the family in Limone, Italy whose blood has been the focus of 5 international scientific congresses.  The Pomaroli family, with about forty living members, all descended from a couple married in the 1600s.  Their blood contains an apoprotein making them immune to cardiac infarction and arteriosclerosis.  Scientists have been able to isolate that protein and reproduce it and the resulting medications are currently being tested.  The conversations resulting from that museum visit have ranged from fictional reasons, for the blessing of the family, to biological anthropology, and
what we have to learn from other cultural diets, lifestyles, and practices.

While English is most certainly becoming the common language of business, computers, and finance, we also hear it used as the common language for travelers.  A Japanese couple asked me for directions last week- I think it was because they spoke English, not French.  However, when we all have to go to our second language to communicate, how much is lost in translation?  This morning when Kelly and Mallory headed back to the airport, we were all sad.  We will miss them for sure, but we miss the conversation the most.  The ability to talk and share ideas in our language is priceless.  That is probably the one thing I struggle with the most.  I like people and I like making friends, and the challenge is to connect a little further than -how much? or       -where? or -when? While we work on it, we are thankful for our great friends, the Bullingtons, who we get to share this experience with, and for those who take the time and effort to come see us.

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