Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cute crushes

La liberté guidant le peuple, par Eugène Delacroix

Mother (that's M in the comments) has teased me about my love for classical music from the romantic era, so this post is a reply to her. ;-)

Yes, just for you, mom, here is an ancient tale of a cute teenage crush (that you might remember... do you?)

Back in the time I was a freshman in college, I became profoundly infatuated with my philosophy professor. Not my fault: not only was he cute, he was also knowledgeable and witty. What's an 18 year old girl to do?

One minor detail: he was 24 years older than me (precisely; I checked), and since he was so well-preserved, I had a little bit of a shock when I found out. But he was still younger than my own father (barely!), and his kids were much younger than me, so I figured it was still OK to fall for him.

As Nancy Huston explains it in her book "Âmes et corps : textes choisis", student crushes on a teacher are not necessarily pathetic; in fact, they can be a very powerful intellectual motivator. Especially when half of the attraction is of intellectual nature (and this was indeed the case with my philosophy professor). I was so motivated to do good in his class (probably from a remote and partly unconscious desire to impress him) that I studied and worked like I had never done before. And sure enough, it showed in my grades (I still remember that 98% term paper!) (and the smile on his face when he handed it to me!)

Before you go on to imagine things, let me be clear: nothing ever happened between us (other than fascinating discussions about philosophy). He never did or said anything that would have even bordered on inappropriateness. I remained silent on my attraction as well. The only thing I did was to insert subliminal messages in my essays. For an example of irrational decisions, I wrote "If a middle-aged man was to fall in love with a younger woman and decide to leave everything behind for her..."

(OMG. Makes me laugh so much now that I think about it!!!)

That teacher was also a recreational swimmer, and he often came for a little workout in the pool I was supervising. I never tired of admiring his body glide in the water (I swear I was watching every other swimmer with as much attention... albeit with much less pleasure, understandably). The first time he saw me in the lifeguard chair, he said hi, and then added "I'm glad you're the one watching the pool today. I know I'm in good hands". Which, on an enamoured 18-year old, had the effect you can imagine. I simply smiled, but I spent the next hour repeating in my mind "Please drown, oh, please drown, so that I can save you!"

I will never know if he knew. I will never know if he even noticed that the music I played at the pool was all the favourites he'd told us about in class. But I had a wonderful semester, a wonderful report card, and a renewed love for philosophy.

School of Athens, by Raphael

(For those of you fascinated, like me, by music and neuroscience, here is an astonishing video of Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the power of the pentatonic scale at the event Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus)

Monday, November 28, 2011

The joys of bilingualism, part II

As I was watching this beautiful French movie from the forties, Les enfants du paradis, I was once again confronted to the challenges of translation. The version I watched was French with English subtitles; hence I could hear the original version while reading the translation. What quickly became apparent is that the translator had not succeeded at capturing the beauty of Prévert's original lines (in some parts; some are not that bad). A lot of the marvellousness was lost somewhere between French and English, to my great dismay.

That being said, I am sure the movie's still worth a viewing by English monolinguals.

Reading and watching masterpieces is ideally done in the original language, of course... but learning a language is not a piece of cake! For having painfully gone through it myself, and from observing my students and acquaintances in their own struggle, I have come up with three conditions (not tested scientifically, but observed empirically!) where it is made possible. If one of those conditions is present long enough, the language will be acquired. If none of these conditions is there, well, it will take an awful amount of work... and I can't promise the results.

What are those conditions?

1) Exposing a very young brain (that's still highly malleable) to a new language. I am always amazed at how quickly young children can become functional bilinguals, without any sign of effort. This is a period parents should take advantage of: acquiring a language later in life is so much more work! In the bilingual environment we are lucky enough to live in, my children and many of my friends' children were (or will be) perfectly bilingual by the age of 6 (if not earlier).

2) Coercing someone to use a foreign language by putting them in a situation where they have no choice. One summer when I was a teenager, my parents sent me on a student exchange. The small town I landed in contained no French speaker. Not one. I was stuck there, and I had to survive. When the father of the girl I was paired with made it clear that if I wanted ice cream, I would have to order it myself, let me tell you that I managed to get some English out of me! Motivation is a powerful thing. Then of course I already had some notions of English. It was a little bit different when I visited China, last year. Yes, I did manage to eat... but I have no idea what.

3)  Which brings me to the next condition: falling in love with something/someone that we associate to the language. I've had students who wanted to visit Québec or France, and who were determined to learn the language first, in order to fully enjoy their trip. I know people who learned a language strictly by dating someone who spoke it. It works wonders. I personally decided to learn Italian because I desperately wanted to understand what Verdi's characters were getting so excited about (and what Puccini's ones were lamenting about). My love for Italian opera was the starting point of a fascinating journey with la bella lingua. Later on, when I visited Italy, it was wonderful to be able to communicate (albeit slowly) with the locals. It boosted my confidence so much that I went on to try and read Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) in Italian... but that turned out to be presumptuous on my part.

(Next step: learning German to understand Mozart's Die Zauberflöte!)

Ah! but learning a language is never truly over, and we keep eliciting startled looks and giggles.

My daughters keep telling me I don't pronounce things right. As much as I try, I haven't been able to say, for example, the name of that store: Mark's Work Wearhouse. I get jaw cramps.

A few years ago, in a first aid class, the trainer reminded us that we had to inform our "victim" of whatever we were about to do. That's when I unflinchingly informed my partner that I was about to engage in sexual fondling with her. From the look on her face, I immediately knew my wording was not quite right.

(As my kids would say... "Awkward!")

It also appears that my friend A (a woman) would have said, during a squash game: "I'm all right! I've got balls!"

(Yep, there's at least two different reasons why you need balls to play squash!)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Einstein and the violin

Albert Einstein once pronounced those wise words on happiness: "A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?"

Wouldn't it be nice if we indeed only needed about four things to be happy? But wait a minute... we do!

Yours might not be the same as Einstein's, but the right four things, if picked carefully, can do the job.

I would say computer (with Internet access), running shoes, chocolate ice cream, and a good bottle of wine.

(A comfy armchair and a fireplace could be nice too... oh, and my bathing suit. That's still only 7 items!)

What would you say? What are your happy objects?

To honor Einstein and his violin, I put together a list of pieces in which beautiful violin can be heard.

(Please bear in mind that this list is FAR from exhaustive - I might come back with more in another post - and that unfortunately, YouTube does not always offer the best acoustic quality... if you love a piece, go buy it!) (And sorry for the advertisements... nothing I can do I'm afraid.)

Listen to these and tell me why would anyone need drugs.

I mean.


Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (Can't you picture the sheep frolicking?)

Dvorak's Humoreske (Puts me in a good mood) (And... is it me or is Yo Yo Ma about to orgasm?!?) (I don't blame him, of course.)

Grieg's Peer Gynt (This part and so many more!)

Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (Intermezzo) (This is another one that makes me forget I am mortal... or makes me think I have already arrived in paradise: even the harp is there!)

Paganini's Caprice 24 (And most of Paganini)

Prokofiev's Montagues and Capulets (Tragic... as it should)

Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (Romanticism at its best!) 

Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the bumblebee (You can totally hear the bumblebee...)

Strauss II's Klipp Klapp Galop (... and see the horses)

Verdi's La Traviata's (Overture) (I had the chance to listen to this in person at the Montreal's Place des Arts... and I shivered in delightment. In this link's case, the sight of the conductor itself is worth it!)

Monday, November 21, 2011

What are you good at?

As a Girl Guide leader, I often have to look for guest speakers who will have a positive influence/who will inspire the little girls.

The last time I asked around to see if anybody had a hobby or a talent that they would want to share with the Sparks (5-6 year old branch of GG), I got the following answer from two different people: "Oh, but I don't have any special talent".

I was highly dubious.

A few weeks later, I was filled with skepticism again when my friend B wrote on her Facebook wall about her parents being so handy/crafty... whereas she herself has not talent at all.

I did not buy this for a second (and nor did the other friends who read her).

I truly believe that each and everyone of us has at least a few talents. Including children. As role models, we're not doing them any service by depreciating ourselves (and failing to notice what they are good at, whatever it is).

As it turned out, one of the ladies I had tried to get as a guest speaker is an origami expert. 

As for my friend B, as anyone who knows her would tell you, she has an indubitable talent for making people feel good, at ease, and happy.

So why were they denigrating themselves?

I think this follows the same logic as failing to receive compliments. Did you ever notice how quickly we minimize a compliment? We are told our clothes look good, and instead of proudly answering thank you, we insist they were on sale. Why can't we just gladly accept the compliment?

We need to shake this bad habit. What better way than to proudly list our unique talents? To make it easier, I thought we could start with talents that don't make us feel like we're bragging. I tried the exercise with a couple of friends.

They came up with interesting answers.

M said she's awesome at procrastinating.

L, not quite ready to declare she excelled at drawing in general, said "I'm good at drawing Medusa".

R said she has an unusual gift for banging into walls, tripping on stuff, and generally getting herself hurt.

S said she never fails at ruining recipes. (Hmm... that reminds me of someone...)

I got inspired too, and this is what I asserted. Here's a few things I am absolutely phenomenal at:

- Being cold. I don't think anybody masters the art of being cold quite as well as I do. It will be 21 degrees in the house and I will be walking around with a scarf on. I can be seen shivering at some point, day in, day out, and my teeth are no strangers to chattering, either.
- Eating chocolate and ice cream. I rock at that. There seems to be no limit to how much chocolate and ice cream (or, even better: chocolate ice cream) I can ingest. With ice cream, it's usually the shivering and teeth chattering that stops me.

- Falling asleep. I can fall asleep within 2 minutes of my head hitting the pillow. In fact, I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. I fall asleep in the car (when someone else is driving! Don't go panicking here!) I fall asleep in public transportation (eg. a 15 minute bus ride). I fall asleep in class. In libraries. In bookstores. At yoga. This falling asleep talent runs in the family; we always have someone snoring on the couch after big family meals. (And no, our gatherings are not THAT boring!) During my pregnancies, this talent was taken to new heights with me becoming more or less narcoleptic, and having to splash my face with cold water every 20 minutes in order to avoid dozing off on my desk. This tendency to fall asleep is made particularly interesting by the fact that I generally feel full of energy. I guess my on and off button is just very sensitive: give me a little bit of half-light, a slightly overheated room, or the constant repetitive rocking movement of transportation, and poof, I'm gone.

What are YOUR fabulous talents?

(Forgive me if I temporarily disappear while you compile your list... I suddenly feel a little bit drowsy...)

Friday, November 18, 2011

This post is about death

Why a post about death on a happiness blog, you might be wondering.

I have 3 words for you: Know Your Enemy.

Death (in all its forms: floating fear of death, incurable disease, grief) can be a threat to happiness. Which is why we should get ourselves educated. As we will see later, bringing our - often mostly unconscious - fear of death to the conscious level can actually be helpful.

Fall* is always a period of reflexion for me; a reflexion about death, among other things.

It all begins on September 11th, when the media is focusing on the 9-11 events. Then, on October 1st, I always have a thought for my deceased father, whose birthday it was. On October 24th, the date he passed away, I am still thinking about him. Then comes Halloween, All Saints' Day, and Remembrance Day. All this time, even mother nature is reminding us of death by preparing for a shut down. The tone is set: death is on my mind.

I do not dismiss this preoccupation. Thinking about death is OK as long as it doesn't prevent you from functioning, and as long as it doesn't make you depressed. (In which unfortunate case you should run like hell in the opposite direction; depression is such an insidious mess!)

As most young people, for the longest time I considered death as a faraway thing, blurry in the horizon. I could easily take it off my mind. But sooner or later, you are reminded that death is in fact part of life, and that no one - not even yourself - will be spared. For me, the first blow was my father's sudden death. I still feel the aftershock whenever an event reminds me of my father's absence: my wedding, my children's birth, important milestones, etc.

I first realized how closely birth and death are interconnected when my first daughter was born, 9 weeks early (and barely 3 pounds). All the time spent in the NICU, surrounded by tiny and/or extremely fragile babies connected to beeping machines, with the constant threat of cardiac arrest or damaging brain hemorrhage, kind of took the magic out of the early moments of life. Right from the moment one is born, death is around, a menacing shadow. You don't always realize it until your child, someone else you know, or even yourself, is clearly in danger.

Allégorie de la mort

It can start on somebody else's plate. Most of us will witness a loved one's death before our own. You might have known all along that death is there, waiting to take each and all of us... you don't really understand what it means until it happens for real. When you lose someone, the ceiling might as well have fallen on your head. You're in disbelief. You knew about death... but so close? And so early?

It's always too early to die.

In the midst of all these reflexions on death, I recently found, at my local video store, a documentary entitled Flight from Death. The Quest for Immortality (by Patrick Shen and Greg Benick). Contrary to what the title might convey, this is NOT a collage of esoteric approaches to death, but rather a very interesting presentation of what research has discovered about the way people deal with the knowledge that they will eventually die, along with mentions of the book which might have been a catalyst to a lot of this research: The Denial of Death (by Ernest Becker).

This documentary begins by showing children playing outside, and a voice saying this in the background:

"To have emerged from nothing. To have a name. Consciousness of self. Deep inner feelings. An excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression. Yet to die."

I am going to try and write down some of the important conclusions the authors came to (relying on extensive research in the field of social psychology). Of course, for a deeper understanding, it is best to watch the documentary in its entirety.

- Human beings are aware (consciously or not) of their own finiteness/mortality, and this in turn generates feelings and behaviors, among which anxiety. It is hard to live with the knowledge that you will eventually die. To soothe those unpleasant feelings, people try to forget, deny and overcome their fear of death.

- Culture is instrumental to this. Culture provides meaning and security even when unspoken. It leads us to believe that part of ourselves will live on, will transcend our individual death. Instead of trying to survive physically, we try to survive symbolically, through our culture. All kinds of customs serve the purpose of relieving our death anxiety. For example: remembrance of the dead, idea of eternal soul, beliefs of immortality (literal or symbolic), accounts of the origins of the universe, religion/spirituality in general, flags, monuments, laws, architecture, consumerism. Heroism would also originate from our fear of death: writing a book, creating a masterpiece, becoming a known athlete, politician, singer, actor... in brief, doing more or better than the average human being distances ourselves from the others, whom we consider merely mortal.

- Human beings rely so much on culture for helping them deal with the knowledge of their mortality that if their culture is threatened, it is a symbolic death, and they cannot tolerate it; it leads to depression or aggression.

- It has been shown that when reminded (even at the unconscious level) of their own death, human beings develop affection toward similar people and hostility toward dissimilar people. Not only do they feel more positive toward people who are similar and more negative toward people who are different, this also affects their actual behavior (eg: they will become more punitive with dissimilar people). This has huge implications, and we see them at play every day, all around the world.

Napoléon sur le champ de bataille d'Eylau, by Antoine-Jean Gros

- When people encounter other, different cultures, those can be a threat to their belief system and claims of immortality. People diffuse the threat by dismissing those cultures or by assimilating them. That feels validating. Sometimes, this annihilation is done by means of violence. The survival greed is such that in order to feel immortal, people need to conquer someone else. This can be done in a socially acceptable way (work promotions, competitive sports), but too often it is done through violence. For some sarcastic depiction of this, read Candide, by Voltaire.

- When you look at it closely, wars might have political and economical pretexts, but it all comes down to ideological reasons. We don't share the same death denying illusion, thus we fight.

- When the real aggressor is not accessible, human beings resort to scapegoating and generalization. They "torment, humiliate, hurt and destroy". They escape death by inflicting it on other people.

Not the most rejoicing findings, I know! But the authors and contributors of this documentary have more in store for us, including some hope and constructive advice:

- We need a way to soothe the reality of life and death, but we also need a way that does not use oppression or violence. Our actions and constructs have to include tolerance and kindness; "A good culture provides opportunities for people to feel good about themselves [...] without harming others".

- Instead of repressing our fear of death, we should bring it to consciousness, and use it to do something positive, to live more fully.

- Affirmations of life help transcend death. Integrity, belonging, growth, improvement, challenges, producing, reproducing, raising and nurturing children, creating (especially when the creation is enjoyed by others) make life meaningful.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci

The documentary ends with those words of wisdom:

"I didn't come here by my own will, and I won't leave here by my own will."

"You don't conquer the anxiety, then die. You meet it with courage."

I will come back with more on death, and specifically on grieving, in another post. But until then, we will focus on some lighter, funner discussions.

* I strongly recommend Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà's virtuoso rendition of Glazunov's Autumn, for some blissful listening.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A taste of the Maritimes

My family and I moved to the Maritimes four years ago. I knew I would be happy here. Mostly because I highly trust my ability to be happy anywhere. But the Maritimes have proved to be even more than what I expected. Today I want to pay tribute to them.

Here are the reasons why I love the Maritimes:

The people

People in the Maritimes are the nicest ever. Gossips say it's because Maritimers have nothing else to do (but to be nice). Whatever the reason. It's lovely. Pure strangers call you "honey", "sweetheart", "darling". And they really mean it. Salespeople are attentive and nice, and not because they want to sell you something. They are nice because they feel like it. Nova Scotia can actually boast its people in touristic advertising. This is miles away from the common saying I've heard about France, which "would be so wonderful... if it wasn't for the French people!"

People here in the Maritimes have so much trust in each other not only do they not lock their doors, they will also write you blank cheques in a heartbeat (Yes, that has happened to me!)

But my favourite thing about the Maritimes has to be the ocean.

The food

I love the Maritimes for the fresh (and inexpensive) seafood. We get lobster for 5-6$ a pound pretty much year round. It was explained to me that in some areas, lobster was actually the poor people' food. They were so tired of eating it every single day as kids, they tell me, they can barely stand it now. Duh? I grew up eating lobster once a year, at my birthday, because my mom knew it was my favourite (and such an expensive) dish. I would pretty much have killed for lobster. Now I have it delivered free, right to my door, by neighbors who know how much I love it, and somehow always buy one too many for their family. Other delicacies generously offered by my new local friends include some moose meat (that the friend hunted himself) and some clams (that the friend digged himself... and ended up cleaning and preparing for us). Told you how nice the people were!

I cannot go without thanking the ocean for this.

The scenery

I've spent a lot of time visiting Europe, always flabbergasted by all its beauties, wishing my own country had as much to offer. Then, after moving to Nova Scotia, I heard three different European people say that the most beautiful place they had ever visited was Cape Breton.

Cape Breton is indeed breathtaking. No words could describe the Cabot Trail, really. I'll let you see for yourself. Drop everything right now, and come to Cape Breton!

(This is where Tourism Nova Scotia hands me my commission. Technically.)

(For having tested it twice, Cape Breton has another awesome feature: there, you can drink anything in whatever quantity you wish... you'll never get a hangover. I am living proof!)

I hear it has something to do with the ocean breeze.

The weather

I have experienced, year after year, the scorching hot summers/biting cold winters of the Montreal area. I have lived in tropical sub-saharian Africa, extremely dry almost year-round, then drenched by constant rain in the summer. What I have to say about the Maritimes weather is that it is just like its people: nice and kind. Soft. Pleasant. Temperate.

Winters are mild. I have discussed this with neighbours who respectively come from Winnipeg, Ottawa and everywhere in Quebec, and we are unanimous: winters in Halifax are a breeze.

Summers are cool. Who needs air conditioning in the Maritimes? Simply keep your windows open when you go to bed... and you might even need to pull up the blankets in the middle of the night.

Falls can be windy at times, I will concede. But it makes for a good conversational piece, and strengthens neighbourly relationships (you help so and so cut the tree that's fallen on his truck; he, in return, lets you boil water using his generator). But seriously, falls are generally glorious and warm in the Maritimes.

Springs are...

(Errr... ah, let's leave Springs aside for now.)

It goes without saying that all this would be nothing without the ocean.

The music

(Note: this musical list is not exhaustive!)

Oh yeah, the music. Music is everywhere in the Maritimes. Mind you, it often involves a bagpipe, which has been described by some as a torture device. The Maritimes are nonetheless the birthplace of quite a few good tunes!

I was introduced to music from Nova Scotia (Cape Breton to be precise) while on a trip to Newfoundland, back in the early nineties, and the Rankin Family automatically found its way to my heart. When, fifteen years later, I learned I was gonna move to Halifax, the Rankins were the soundtrack that prepared me to this new life.

Of course, we can't go without listening to the big names of Nova Scotian music: Sarah McLachlan, April Wine, Ashley McIsaac, and so many more!

On a more modern note, we could mention Classified and The Trews, which both have some pretty darn good tunes! And what about Wintersleep?

Of course, one cannot live in the Maritimes without learning to like (ok, maybe tolerate) country music. I have gone as far as to appreciate - genuinely, I swear! - Blue Rodeo (not from the Maritimes per se, but still Canadian). Now don't tell me they're not truly a country group. I'm trying hard here! I need some acknowledgement!

While we're at it (country music), why don't you pay yourself a quick and free trip to happy land with this hilarious video by
Rodney Carrington... but make sure nobody's watching! (DO NOT watch at work!!!)

Oh, and before I forget... did I mention the ocean?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Kitchen accidents

Every year, when the December magazines are released, full of complicated recipes that everybody seems eager to try, it makes me realize how "not a cook" I am.

This year I decided to stop living with my shameful secret. I am finally ready to make a full coming out. Yes, I will admit it today: I don't enjoy cooking.

I'd rather mop the floors. Iron the shirts. Clean the toilets. Shovel the snow on a windy, minus fifteen morning.

Cooking is not my thing.

I so don't get it when I see women shopping for a new house (on TV) and getting all excited about what they call "my favourite room in the house". The kitchen? Your favourite room in the house? The one that always ends up messy, with piles of dirty dishes, crumbs all over the counters, sticky patches on the floor? Come on! Give me the living room, the master bedroom, the home office even, for a favourite room. Not the kitchen!

The irony is that I LOVE eating. I can even be a real gourmet at times. I genuinely appreciate high quality ingredients, fancy dishes that take hours to prepare. There's nothing like a sophisticated, never ending, six-course meal full of delicacies, served with the six thoughtfully paired wines. Yum. But don't ask me to prepare it.

(This might explain why, when I have friends over, it's usually for tea and biscuits, or wine and cheese, but rarely for a meal.)

(And thanks whoever for inventing fondue!)

Luckily, I grew up with a mom who cooked like a pro, and I went on to marry someone who's pretty competent in the kitchen. The few "in-between" years when I had to fend for myself, I was content with soups, sandwiches and "breakfast-like suppers".

It's not that I completely suck at cooking. It's just that I don't think it's fun. It takes way too long for the time it will last in the plate. There's too many opportunities to completely ruin what you're trying to make. Proportions have to be exact, timing has to be perfect... and don't even tell me about beautiful presentation. It's all gonna end mashed up in the belly in less than a minute!

In my teens, I once decided to impress my friends by inviting them over and making supper for them, all on my own. The salad was delicious: as long as it involves no cooking at all, I am pretty good at assembling ingredients in the right proportions. I even made the vinaigrette myself. Then I slid a pizza (frozen) in the oven. When what had been mouthwatering pizza smells turned into smoky exhalations, my good friend M asked me: "What time did you put that pizza in?" I had no idea. She gave me another chance: "What temperature did you put it at?" "Huh?" was my answer.

Another time, I had to babysit for a whole day, and upon my arrival, I was told I would have to make lunch for the children. "Not complicated", the mother said. I only had to put nuggets and fries in the oven, and cook broccoli on the stove. For the most part, I did good, but the broccoli was kind of undercooked, and my hand got kind of overcooked. Twenty years later, however, you can't really see the scar anymore.

Not only can't I pay attention in the kitchen, I never seem to be able to follow the recipes obediently. My rebel side always wants to modify part of the ingredients - usually to make it healthier. It generally ends up making it drier, harder and chunkier, for the most part.

Mind you, my kitchen clumsiness has led to a few successes over the course of the years.

My best spaghetti sauce happened when I dropped (by mistake) a huge amount of basil in it.

Another time, I mistakenly poured a mountain of turmeric in the banana-pineapple-bran muffins... and they turned out absolutely delicious (and absolutely orange).

I even managed to make fudge (sucre à la crème) one day... it was awesome, really. I never told anyone I had actually been trying to make icing for a cake.

I occasionally manage to put on the table a dish that will prompt enthusiastic exclamations from the guests; it never fails to make me feel like a kid who's just produced her first drawing that actually resembles something.

And I can start a campfire and roast marshmallows like it's a second nature.

All hope is not lost!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The joys of bilingualism

Of all the abilities I have developed in my life, I would put bilingualism in the top ten (if not the top three).

Communication skills in general are one of the most important assets one can have; be it oral or written, be it verbal or non-verbal, efficiently conveying your thoughts, understanding what others are telling you, "reading" people, even, serves you not only in the workplace but in every sphere of life.

Flirting, for example.

A few years ago, I fell upon the SIRC (Social Issues Research Center)'s Guide to Flirting, and discovered that basically, flirting/finding a mate boils down to communicating effectively. Being able to send the right signals. Being able to read the other person's signals. Most of them being - in a proportion of up to 93% - NON verbal. (This is good news for anyone who's been working - unsuccessfully - at developing pick up lines: apparently, you don't really need any. As long as you master the art of body language.)

Then again, if you master two languages, doesn't that mean you can flirt with approximately twice as many people?

Bilingualism is not solely the art of mastering (or trying to master!) two different languages... for no two languages are "equivalent", as any good translator will tell you. The perfect, 100% equivalent translation, does not exist. Most of the time, translation is, at best, an interpretation.

For more on that fascinating - if somewhat hermetic - topic, read Umberto Eco's Experiences in Translation. Another extraordinary author, Jorge Semprun, in his no less than mind-blowing book L'écriture ou la vie (Literature or life), that he wrote in French even though his first language was Spanish, also touches upon the topic of equivalencies between languages, notably wondering if Heidegger's philosophy would be conceivable in any language other than German.

With every language comes a unique set of historical foundations, cultural characteristics... some people go as far as to say you don't "think" the same way in different languages.

There would be dozens of examples to provide of words or phrases or grammar rules that don't have a perfect equivalent in another language, but I will keep that for later.

(As for those of you who have reservations about bilingualism in children, I strongly encourage you to read serious research on the topic.)

Once they master two languages, some individuals make the conscious choice of not using their first language in their creation. Canadian examples that come to mind are the writer Nancy Huston and the singer Jim Corcoran, both native English-speakers who nonetheless create in French.

Huston says that it was easier for her to find her writing voice in French. Corcoran, on the other hand, mentioned in some TV interview (I'm digging old memories here!) that his first french kiss (with a French girl, bien sûr!) convinced him of the value of the French language.

As for myself, I chose to write this blog in English mostly for modesty reasons: I feel naked when I write in  French. Writing in English, since it's not my first language, puts a slight distance between me and my writing. I don't feel like I'm putting my guts on the page. I don't feel as naked. I feel like I'm at least wearing a negligee.

(That's when D ruins it all by exclaiming "Well, it's still sexy!")

My only reservation about bilingualism is that you never fully master your second language the way you do your first language, which can lead to awkward situations such as the following:

A friend of mine, V, wrote the following status on her Facebook account:

"I am at the restaurant with my boss and getting it on by the waiter in front of everyone."

We were all in awe until it finally occurred to us that what she actually meant to say was "I am getting HIT on by the waiter".

The difference one poor letter can make!

Not much better myself, I recently loudly announced, upon arriving at a party (and trying to be helpful):

"I'm willing and able! Is there anyone I can do?"

(At least no one can reproach me a lack of straightforwardness!)